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The Season of Cheer
The magnificent scent of coffee wafted to me from the kitchen, jolting me awake. I blew out a deep breath and clambered from the bed, dragging my feet as I followed the smell. Marnie—my long-term girlfriend—bustled about the kitchen, coffee cup in hand. Her long brown hair was trapped in a messy bun at the nape of her neck and long legs stretched out from under one of my shirts. She smiled when she saw me, hazel eyes shining brightly, and handed me the coffee cup, leaning in to give me a small peck on the cheek.
“Good morning.” She sighed happily as she poured a cup for herself.
“Morning.” I answered, taking a sip of the coffee, my shoulders instantly relaxing. I shuffled to the kitchen table and slumped down, my hair flopping into my face. Marnie rolled her eyes and sat down as well.
After a few minutes of silence and coffee, I sat up, reaching out to pick up the mail. Marnie leaned forward and handed me a small, nondescript envelope before I could reach any of the others.
Warily, I took it. Marnie bit her lip to keep from smiling, but the sound of her feet pounding against the floor betrayed her excitement. I flipped the letter over and felt despair drop in my stomach like a lead weight.
The envelope read—in the ugliest and girliest handwriting I’d ever seen—Duncan Wate and Marnie Fells. I hesitated before making any moves to open the letter. It didn’t look good.
“Well, are you going to open it or not?” Marnie interrupted my inner turmoil, placing her elbows on the table and leaning forward, no longer trying to hide her smile.
I looked up at her, trying to buy some time. “Have you opened it?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Just open it.” She reached a hand out and pushed the letter into my face.
I grimaced, but pulled the card out of the envelope that was, in fact, already opened. The front was a cheesy scene of frosty the snowman on the cover, surrounded by little kids. I rolled my eyes, ignored the writing, and opened it, bracing myself.
One whole side of the card was filled out with the same handwriting as the envelope. I read through it the best I could.
Dear Duncan and Marnie.
You are hereby cordially invited to our newly annual Christmas party! My sister and I would be so happy to see our big brother again and to finally meet the girl he’s been dating for so long. Mamma and Daddy want to meet her too, so I wouldn’t skip this, Dun! And anyway, Booboo misses you! We hope to see you at the party!
Love, Aishling, Amy, Angie, and Booboo
I groaned and dropped my head into my hands, that rock of despair becoming heavier.
“Hey, what’s wrong baby?” Marnie moved seats and sat beside me, one arm snaking around my shoulders.
I lifted my head a fraction of an inch to meet her eyes. “You read the letter. Do you know what this means?” I felt helpless. It was attack of the Family From Hell, here on known as the FFH.
Her eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. “I finally get to meet your family. It’s the next big step in our relationship.”
I shook my head before she was even finished. “No. This is going to be the end of our relationship.”
She leaned away, hurt flashing in her eyes. “Are you saying you don’t want to take this any further? I thought—”
“That is not what I meant.” I interrupted. “What I meant was, you do not want to meet my family. They are goddam loonies.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Duncan. They can’t be that bad. I mean, you’ve met my family and they’re pretty bad too.”
“Not like this.” I pleaded. “Please, let’s just stay home. We don’t have to go.”
“No.” She uncurled herself from the chair and pulled me up with her. “Go pack. We are going to your family’s Christmas party and that’s final.”
If there was a bright side to all of this, it was that my family no longer lived in Ireland so we didn’t have to waste more money on them. Of course, Marnie wasn’t too happy with me after I refused to buy them presents. She sat in stony silence next to me, arms crossed over her chest and the gifts she bought on her lap.
I hadn’t attempted any conversation so far and neither had she. I was content to sit in the silence just to get her mad for making me come.
I brought the car to a halt in front of the house, which looked surprisingly cheery for the vile darkness it contained. It was yellow, and not just any yellow, but bright yellow with little pink and green flowers drawn on. I could only think that one of my sisters had done the paint job. My dad certainly wouldn’t have picked out those colors.
I narrowed my eyes at it, as if I could make it disappear. I thought one more time about making a run for it, but Marnie took the decision away as she hopped out of the car lightly and started her way up to the house.
I almost started to cry. But I had to be a man, so I climbed out of the car after her and followed just behind.
Marnie stood aside and motioned for me to ring the doorbell. I shot her a look and she grumbled. “It’s your house and your family. They haven’t even met me yet, remember?”
As if I could forget.
I reached a hand out to ring the doorbell, hesitating as if the thing would electrocute me. Well, it didn’t, but something worse happened. The door opened.
“Dun!” Aishling yelled as she threw her arms around me, the scent of her fruity perfume overpowering.
“Hi.” I answered, desperately trying to hold back my coughs. But Aishling wouldn’t let go and I kept suffocating.
I must have really looked like I needed help because Marnie cleared her throat, moving my sister’s attention away from me. I mouthed thank you as Aishling leaned away, even though she kept an arm around me shoulders.
“Dun, is this the famous Marnie we’ve heard so much about?” Her smile appeared to be about to split her lips, but it just kept getting wider as she gazed at Marnie. When I nodded, Aishling flung herself away from me and entered a forced embrace with Marnie.
Marnie looked so startled she could have fallen off of the porch, but she got her cool back quickly and returned Aishling’s hug.
“It’s great to meet you too. I haven’t heard much about you, I’m afraid.” She gently removed Aishling from her body even though Aishling was sticking to her like super glue. I felt a small smile tug at my lips. She would definitely regret making me come here.
My smile vanished soon after.
“Dun!” My other two sisters, Amy and Angie, sprung on us just as Aishling had—with a crushing embrace, whether we wanted one or not. They all seemed to be wearing some variation of the same perfume and I swear that if I wear a weaker man, I would have died right then. I wondered if they did it because they were triplets or because they all had bad tastes.
Aishling flicked her strawberry blond hair over her shoulder, perfectly manicured nails glinting off the porch lights. “Mamma and Daddy are going to be so happy you’re here!” She squealed and clapped her hands together excitedly, nearly jumping up and down.
“Booboo too.” Amy added.
“Who’s Booboo?” Marnie asked, sidling closer to me.
I tried to hide my pain as I answered. “He is our dog.” I rubbed a hand across my face to hide my wince. I had never forgiven that dog for ripping off my teddy bear’s head. I’d cried for days afterward.
“And he is so sweet,” Angie cooed. “He’ll just sit by your feet all day and keep you company. The only time he ever did anything bad was when Duncan was around, of course.”
Marnie glanced at me and raised an eyebrow. I tried to telegraph the words we can still make it out but I don’t think she noticed—or she didn’t want to notice.
“Why don’t we go in?” Marnie gestured to the door and my sisters gasped like the thought had never occurred to them.
“Oh, we’ve been so rude. Yes go right in.” Aishling motioned for us to go through, an apologetic smile on her face.
Marnie shoved me in front of her as if I were a barrier. I snorted but went. She seemed to finally understand to be wary of my family. By the end of today, she would never want to come back—
I grunted and doubled over, my stomach roiling with the need to upchuck. The pain in my balls was so intense it could not be explained. I glared at the small face that smiled up at me, desperately trying to clear the tears from my eyes.
“Uncle Duncan!” Jerry, Amy’s son, screeched at me in a high pitch voice. It was so bad I thought he might never go through puberty. Or maybe he was gay. They were both good assessments.
Then I thought back on the violence that just occurred and decided that, no, if he were gay, he would have more respect for the man parts.
“You little s***.” I muttered breathlessly.
“Oh! Baby, are you okay?” Marnie put her arm around my waist to help me stand upright, her eyes large and pretty and worried.
“Yeah.” I choked out an octave too high. I sounded a little like Jerry.
“That’s Jerry.” Amy said, not even batting her eyelashes at my pain. “He’s my baby boy.” She smiled and pinched Jerry’s face, giving his a quick kiss on the mouth before grabbing his hand and walking into the house.
Marnie looked like she was about to say something but thought better of it. She kept her arm around my waist as we entered the house, looking afraid that I’d fall over. I was kind of afraid myself.
“Honey, you’re really pale.” Marnie whispered urgently to me.
“You ever been punched in the balls? ‘Cause it’s painful.” I answered, my voice back to normal.
I stopped walking when I heard the growl. Marnie and I watched as Booboo stalked forward, teeth bared. Slobber dripped from his mouth and soiled the floor below. My sisters walked past him like it was no big deal, though.
“Is that Booboo?” Marnie whispered, eyes never leaving him.
I nodded slowly. “Yep.”
“He’s the sweet little dog that your sister’s were talking about?” She swallowed hard.
“He’s not very little, and he’s not sweet either, trust me.” I narrowed my eyes on the dog. “He killed my teddy bear.”
“Is this what you meant about your family being horrible?”
“No.” I shook my head. “It get’s much worse.”
“Booboo!” Kevin, Levi, Mason, Jerry, and Craig, all of my nephews cried as they ran into the room, throwing their cubby arms around him.
I hoped when I got a niece, she would be better than them, but I figured if they were my sister’s spawn they were all going to be born crazy.
“What are you little shits doing?” My dad, Duncan senior, slurred as he stumbled into the room, smelling strongly of whiskey.
Marnie’s eyes nearly popped out of her head and she shot me a sideways look. I shrugged.
“Hey, Dad.” I sighed.
“Who are you?” He squinted at me. He shook his head and shoved Mason away with his foot as the boys wrestled with Booboo. “Gah, doesn’t matter. Just sit down at the table. Clary’s cooking.”
“Duncan, get in here!” My mother raced to the mouth of the kitchen doorway. “Duncan junior! I can’t believe you would say hello to your sisters before your own mother! Who raised you, wolves?”
“Nope, only you mother.” I answered.
Her cheeks blushed and she smiled. “Thank you son. Ooh, is this the girlfriend?” Mom stepped out of the kitchen, critically assessing Marnie. Marnie shifted from foot to foot, her discomfort visible for all to see.
“Mom,” I tried to get her attention. “Hey, Mom, the boys are killing the dog.” They kind of were, too. Booboo looked much older and frailer than the last time I’d seen him. It looked like the kids could break him in half.
“Don’t interrupt me, Duncan.” She didn’t take her eyes off of Marnie. Mom drifted closer and reached out a hand to touch Marnie on the shoulder. She jumped at the contact, then gave a small, self-conscious smile. Mom returned it and, quick as a viper, slapped Marnie’s ass.
Marnie let out a small squeak, like a mouse, and covered her butt with her hands. I hid my face behind my hands because I knew there was nothing I would be able to do.
“Mom, if you touch her breasts next, we’re leaving.” I said as a last resort.
If looks could have killed, I would be lying dead on the floor. “Fine, son.” She smoothed her apron and pivoted on her heel, heading back to the kitchen. “Go sit down with the family. Dinner will be ready in a minute.”
“Little shits!” Dad bellowed at my nephews. They all looked up at him, and scurried off to the dining room at his signal. Dad followed behind them, muttering curses under his breath.
I pulled Marnie close. “You okay?” I muttered to her softly. She nodded. “Good.” I said. “Because we have a lot more day left for them to torture us.”
She blew out a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and we walked to the kitchen.
There were nametags on the table and I was annoyed to see that Marnie had to sit next to my mother. She looked wary, too.
“Good luck.” She whispered to me as we separated.
“Back at you.” I glared at my own nametag, right next to the one marked ‘Jerry’.
His cubby little face smiled up at me as I took my seat. “Hi Uncle Duncan.” He giggled. “Can’t wait until present time.”
I said nothing even though I wanted to and settled on glaring at him.
“Alright.” My mother announced as she carried in a huge platter of food. “Food is ready.” She placed the platter down and the boys attacked it almost before she could move her hands away.
“I’ll be back with more food in a moment.” Mom called as she went back to the kitchen.
I waited until the boys were done before taking some of the scraps they left. Marnie met my eyes from across the table and she managed a smile.
I smiled back and reached for real food as my mom brought in the other platter of food.
We ate in silence for a while, everyone consumed by the food. I was glad for the chance to gather my thoughts and think about our next move. If I could pull it off, we would only have to stay for dinner and presents. If Marnie hadn’t insisted on buying the gifts, we wouldn’t have to stay that long, even. I wondered if she was regretting the decision.
“Hey!” Jerry yelled. “Carolers!”
He jumped out of his seat, nearly hitting me in the face. I was sure he meant to.
“Have fun, kid.” Dad grumbled, taking another swig of whiskey.
Jerry screeched and peeled off to the front door, opening it and letting small flurries into the house along with the ring of voices joined in song.
He scooped something up from the ground and flung it across the street where the carolers were. They stopped singing momentarily and he laughed like a maniac, preparing another snowball.
I clenched my jaw and took my anger out on my fork. At least that wouldn’t break. I wanted to break Jerry’s face.
Jerry scooped up a large piece of ice and slopped it into his newest snowball, throwing at the carolers viciously. I heard shrieks from the women and angry yells from the men, forcing Jerry to close the door before they could advance on him.
“Jerry, come sit down and finish your dinner.” Mom called. “You can go play outside after presents.”
Jerry raced back to the table and into his seat, his foot hitting mine solidly. “Sorry.” He smiled at me, as if that would make up for the blow.
Dinner passed without many incidents after that, though Marnie looked more anxious as every second passed. Her feet beat patterns out on the floor that would be too soft for anyone not attuned to her to hear.
“Why don’t we do gifts?” I asked as Marnie’s thumping reached a crescendo.
“Fine.” Mom shrugged and Marnie’s feet halted. “We go to the living room.” Mom threw her hands up and stalked through a doorway directly behind her. Jerry squealed again and ran after her, missing my foot this time.
Marnie waited for me before going in. “Is this everyday life?” She asked.
“Yep.” I answered, wrapping an arm around her waist. I leaned in close, closing my eyes and breathing in her beautiful, perfume-less scent. “After this we can leave. I don’t care if we have to catch a red-eye home, it’ll be better than staying here.”
“You sure they won’t make us stay?” She worried, putting her arms around me as well.
“If we just leave, all that will happen is some yelling. And maybe Jerry will throw an icy snowball at us. But it’s better than this.” I kissed her softly on the lips and she nodded.
“Hey, get in here!” Mom called. “It was your idea in the first place.”
I kept my arm around Marnie’s waist as we walked in. The Christmas tree was about three feet tall and lacking of any ornaments, though it was decked out in various types of lights. We didn’t even need to have the lights on in the room, they were so bright.
Marnie carried the bag of gifts in her hand and she placed it under the tree as we entered the room. There were no seat open, so we just sat on the floor together.
“Alright,” Mom started, picking up the first gift. “This is for Mason.”
Mason snatched it right away, ripping away the wrapping paper at the speed of light. He made a face when he pulled out a flashlight.
“That was from Duncan senior.” Mom said.
“Huh?” Dad startled awake. “Who are you?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Mom waved a hand at him and picked up the next gift. “Ooh, this one is for Duncan junior.” She smiled and handed it to me.
It was a small box, badly wrapped. It looked like one of the nephews had done it. Gingerly, I peeled the paper away, ignoring my family’s impatient sighs.
I opened the cardboard box and felt no surprise. In the center was a small glob of s***.
“Jerry,” I glared at the kid in question, “right?”
“How did you know?” Mom exclaimed, a smile lighting her face.
I shook my head, never looking away from Jerry’s smiling face. “Lucky f*ing guess.”
It was a miracle that there weren’t any more incidents while we were there. Marnie zipped out of the house even faster than I did. The goodbyes were terse on our part, no matter how long the family wanted us to stay.
We didn’t catch a red-eye. Instead, we got a room at a small, dirty motel room, but we both decided it was better than my family’s house. When we were curled up together in the bed, I finally voiced my biggest concern.
“Now that you’ve met my family,” I whispered against her neck, reveling in the feel of her warm body, “are you still willing to marry me?”
She stilled. I could practically see the gears turning in her head as she turned on her side to lock eyes with me.
“Well, I figure now that you’ve met my family, there are no more dirty little secrets hiding in my closet. If we were ever going to get hitched, I think now would be the right time to ask.” I shrugged.
She threw her head back and laughed at the ceiling. “Ever the romantic.” She bit her lips and searched my face, a smile breaking over her own at whatever she found there. “Do you have a ring?”
I shook my head. “I have better.”
I reached to the side table and pulled out a black sharpie. I grabbed her hand gently, giving it a light kiss before starting.
“Marnie Marie Fells,” I said, “will you marry me?”
She laughed again, pure joy shining on her face. “Yes!” She answered.
I smiled back and drew on our engagement ring and she stared at it like it was the biggest diamond she’d ever seen.
She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me.
“You are the best Christmas present ever.”
I couldn’t agree more.