Abby’s heels clapped politely against the frost-salted driveway as she approached the car. Her head refused to swivel back toward the house where the monsters she called family were still sitting around the dinner table, indignant as ever. Fuck ‘em, she thought as she continued onward in pursuit of Tony.
When Abby reached the passenger side door she paused for a deep breath. After composing herself, she pulled the handle and braced for another potential onslaught of profanity and rage. There was nothing. So far, so good she decided.
The frigid sheet metal rang like gunshot as the door slammed beside her. Silence laced the interior of the car, which felt cavernous and on the verge of collapse. It wasn’t easy for Abby to sit still in the tattered cloth seat as guilt pinched at the nape of her neck, but what other choice did she have?
Tony refused to acknowledge her presence despite being within arm’s reach. He remained lost behind the storm clouds flickering behind his eyes.
Twenty seconds spent on pins and needles felt more like an eternity. Abby needed to try something. She couldn’t handle the dead quiet any longer. “So is the plan to sit in here and freeze to death then?” she asked with an uncomfortable giggle. It wasn’t quite the icebreaker that she had hoped for, but it made her feel better to talk.
Tony continued to sit stiff—his muscles tight like a drawn bow, ready to snap.
“Okay. Well, if talking is out of the question, how about you either turn the heat on if you want me to stay or slam your head on the horn twice for ‘Get the fuck out.’”
Abby watched Tony as he tucked his lips into his teeth and tilted his head on its y-axis. She hoped it might be an attempt to conceal a smile, but—if nothing else—it proved he wasn’t catatonic. After holding his awkward pose for a moment of deliberation, Tony reached for the ignition. The car trilled for a bit before the engine turned.
“Thanks,” she told him.
“What do you want?” Tony asked with a sigh. Though his voiced lacked any encouragement, Abby found his detachment a vast improvement over his previous state.
“I don’t know. I guess to make sure you’re alright, and that you didn’t just forget to tear me a new one too on the way out.”
“I didn’t. I—” Tony stopped and considered his follow-up sentence, then advised himself against it. Abby couldn’t help but find Tony’s restraint a bit amusing, especially after his newfound ire had expanded his vocabulary in ways that would make some stand-up comedians blush.
“You make a compelling argument,” she conceded with a smile. Tony didn’t find Abby nearly as amusing as she did. He took a strong, slow drag of oxygen.
“They just see me as a fuck up in there,” he admitted
Abby scoffed. “No one said you were a fuck up.”
“They didn’t have to, but for once I just wish they would.”
It was true that passive aggression was a dominant gene in the Donovan family. That was the reason Abby had prepared for Thanksgiving the same way a defense attorney prepared for trial. “I know what you mean,” she said.
Tony seemed agitated by this response. “Do you, Ms. Perfect?”
Abby noticed a tense, warm spot forming in the middle of her forehead. Tony didn’t seem to think she was entitled to the same type of anguish that he was during the holidays. “You know, if you don’t want everyone else making assumptions about you, it might be a good idea to not jump to conclusions with me. You’re not the only one aware enough to be irritated,” she insisted.
Tony broke his trance from the window to scan Abby. Whatever he found in her body language or tone persuaded him to reconsider his scorn. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” she told him, even if it wasn’t. Tony had always assumed her life was easier than his, but now probably wasn’t the best time to have a pity competition.
The car was filling up with a burnt odor now, and silence once again. This time Tony broke the tension. “I don’t know. I know I’m far from perfect, but it isn’t like I’m hiding it like everyone else. It’s a low bar that’s been set in there, but when was the last time any of those bloodsuckers inside were ever decent to one another?”
“I’m not sure,” Abby admitted. “I think they’re more concerned with what’s in the bar than rising above it.” That finally got Tony to crack a smile, which created a satisfied tickle behind Abby’s molars.
“No kidding,” Tony approved.
Seeing their friendly rapport reestablished gave Abby the confidence she needed to investigate further. “So…” she started.
“So?” Tony questioned.
“So what was it exactly that made you scream ‘fuck off’ at Don when he asked you to pass the cranberry sauce? I mean, I understand that it’s good cranberry sauce, but I also know mom and dad taught you how to share.”
He laughed this time. “A. I think mom and dad take issue with how much I’ve actually listened to their wisdom over the years and B. I didn’t yell it, I assertively told him—in my own words—that I wouldn’t be passing any fucking cranberry sauce in his direction,” Tony answered.
Abby gave a chuckle back. “Okay, fine, but you could have picked your moment to release the kraken a little better I think. I’m pretty sure everyone inside thinks you have a cranberry fetish on top of anger management issues now.”
Tony’s mouth opened as he raised a finger upward to argue otherwise. Instead of doing so his body relaxed as guilt spread across his face. “Yeah…poor Nana,” he admitted.
“Let’s just hope she didn’t suddenly decide to turn her hearing aid on.”
Tony nodded. “Let’s hope.”
“So?” Abby urged. “Out with it then.”
“I don’t know,” Tony sighed. He started to look embarrassed.
Abby knew she would get the truth out of him if she kept chipping. “Okaaaay. I gather that Don had something to do with you coming out here.”
“Well, listen, before we cite one particular incident let’s not forget that it’s been a night full of snide remarks from assholes. I mean, what’s the point of getting together in the first place if we’re only pretending to enjoy each other’s company?”
“It’s a show we’re putting on, and Don and Judy are the worst in a cast of terrible actors. They’re sitting kitty-corner across the table arguing about who is more stressed at work. They go from responsibilities, to overtime, to pay. Congratulations, you both hate your lives. ‘Move on,’ I’m begging.”
“In your head?” Abby asked naively.
“In my head,” Tony confirmed. “After that they start comparing kids like they’re trophies. Judy: ‘Oh, well Tanya got inta Princeton, but she’s decided to stay closah ta home. We’ve always taught ha family is like the most impahtant thing in the warld.’ Don: ‘That’s swell. Well Davis got moved up ta vahsity quatahback a year ‘head of schedjul. The kid’s only a sophomore, but he could pass for one of dem college students he’s so filled out. Some big schools already comin’ by to see ‘im play. He’ll get offered a full-ride somewhere, I reckon.’ They’re not actually talking to each other, just taking turns playing a vicarious game of roulette.”
Abby had to cover her mouth to keep herself from laughing at Tony’s affectations. For some reason he had chosen a Chelsea accent for their aunt and a southern drawl for their uncle who both had lived in Minnesota their entire lives. “Okay, that’s grating to hear about even secondhand from you.”
“But none of it matters to me. Yes, it’s annoying as hell, but I’m doing my best to ignore it. So, after this, they declare no winners, and instead find a way to incorporate me in their unhappiness. Judy: ‘Well Tanya has a fair amount of scholahships too that should knock down the price of tuition. We’ll probably get ta take what we’ve saved and go on vacation or somethin’. We’re thinking about one of the cruises Alan and Veronica went on a few yeez ago.’ Don: ‘Yeah, well, they didn’t have to worry about tuition either, hayuck,’ he says while looking my direction.”
“Yeah, okay, I’d be pissed,” Abby offered.
“No you wouldn’t be, Ms. Goody Two-Shoes. And I’m not pissed. I made my own decision and I’m not upset about it. Not everyone has to be ‘a copy of a copy of a copy,’ right?” He paused to see if he had lost Abby. “Fight Club? Nevermind. Regardless, I know Don’s had a few so I decide to chew on a roll and pretend I don’t hear him, but he’s incessant. ‘So, Tony, you thinkin’ about heading to school ever, or are you satisfied with your career at the grocery store?’”
“And then you lost it?”
“No. I didn’t lose it, but it did occur to me then that I might feel better if I stopped holding it in—and don’t start giggling at that,” Tony demanded.
“I won’t,” Abby exclaimed as if she was offended at the notion. The two stared at each other, Tony’s eyes warning Abby to let his choice of words fall by the wayside, and Abby becoming more unruly as a result. “Fart!” she roared, giggling like she was eight again.
“God damn you.”
When Abby regained her composure she pleaded with Tony to continue.
“You’re hilarious,” he deemed. “So, I tell him that working at a grocery store is quite nice actually—a lot less stressful than whatever he’s complaining about. I’m making enough money to support myself while enjoying my job, and I get to keep working on my music. It’s the stock answer, but it’s also true. But Don proceeds to condescend, like he won’t drop it until he makes me cry or something. He tells me that it must be nice to have such a carefree lifestyle.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Abby offered
“You’re right, but, as I said, that drunk slob wanted to pick a fight. He goes: ‘It must be nice now, but I ‘magine if you ever want a girl to stick ‘round longer than the last one you might want to aspire to something a little grander. I hear them there baristers make good money.’ Then he does that smug, viscous chuckle of his.”
“At that point my teeth start pressing into my tongue and my fists are clenched. He’s still not done though. ‘But if you ask me, the one you brought in here last year wasn’t anything to be proud of anyway.’
“That’s when you—”
“That’s when I told Don that acting like a dick wouldn’t make his any bigger amongst other things that probably didn’t make me look very sane.”
“I see.” Abby was at a loss. “So now what?” she asked when she couldn’t think of any answers herself.
“Well, if you haven’t noticed I’m still here.”
“Holy shit, you’re right!”
“Funny, smartass. I guess I’m saying I don’t know either. I might have peeled out before you could sit down if I hadn’t forgotten my jacket. Kind of ruins the dramatic exit if you have to slink back inside because you’re afraid of catching a chill.”
“I can get it for you,” Abby offered.
“I’m not sure if that looks any better.”
“So you want to come back inside?”
“I don’t know. No. But I also don’t want to leave as the Grinch of Thanksgiving. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but it’s not like there’s anyone else chasing after me. I think mom and dad would sooner see me leave too. That’s why, and I’m sorry for this, but it bothers me that you’re so…”
“Beautiful? Amazing? Intelligent? All of the above?”
Abby gave Tony a firm punch in his right shoulder. They both laughed again. Abby thought it was ironic that she was having the most fun that she could remember during the holidays in her brother’s rusted car, away from all the traditions of loved ones.
When they both settled back down Tony’s face turned back into a soggy Jack-O-Lantern. He sighed, “I hate to be that guy, but it sucks not having anyone to share the holidays with.”
Abby thought loneliness still couldn’t be as bad as the alternative. She certainly didn’t want him to go back inside at this point. It was nice that someone had told Don off for a change. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had gotten in the last word over him. Probably never.
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
“Yeah, why not? There are plenty of people inside to keep each other nice and miserable. I’d rather accompany your misery.”
Tony looked taken aback. His eyes seemed glossier. “No,” he said, quickly sipping air. “No, you don’t have to do that.”
“I want to,” she asserted. “Who the hell wants dried out turkey on Thanksgiving anyway. Been there, done that. I bet you the Chinese place that Nana and PopPop used to take us to when we were younger is open. Let’s go.”
“Sure, but I’m going to go get your stupid jacket first.”
She cut him off while slamming the door. “BRB!”
Abby left the car with the same aplomb she’d marched to it with. Though she kept leaving minefields for new ones, it made her feel invincible, and that confidence was exactly what was going to get her past her new adversaries on the inside. Or so she thought.
When she entered the kitchen through the garage everyone was still hovering over their plates in the adjoined dining room. Her father raised an eyebrow in her direction as if to ask if everything was okay. Abby pretended not to notice his attempt at telepathy. He could have just as easily gone after Tony if he was so concerned.
“Well?” piped up Don. “Did you give the baby his bottle?”
“Donny,” scolded Abby’s mother. Don turned red pretending he was trying to hold in his laughter. Abby hoped he might be choking. “How’s your brother, dear?”
She was getting more annoyed. Such tame concerned was offensive and borderline criminal in Abby’s mind. “You know, if any of you give a damn you can ask him yourselves. It’s not that surprising that the black sheep was chased out of here, is it?”
“Abby, honey,” her father warned, “your brother makes his own decisions, no need for you to follow his example.”
“And that means what exactly?” Abby asked. “So you want me to sit back down, keep my mouth shut, and pretend that it’s just another Thanksgiving? Listen, I love…some of you, but you can also be some real insensitive assholes.”
“Abby,” he advised again.
“Geez Louise, Alan,” interrupted Don. “Having trouble teaching those animals of yours to heel?” Another self-satisfied chortle followed, like it somehow made his words less offensive.
“Seems to me like someone should put you on a leash, Uncle Don.” Abby’s remark at least seemed to amuse Aunt Gina.
Don paused to consider this. “Leave the insults to your brother, sweetie. He’s better at ‘em.”
“Keep talking, you drunk piece of garbage,” Abby begged. “Maybe someday you’ll say something smart.”
“Abby, just sit down,” her mother begged.
“Yeah, Abby, sit. There’s a nice spot across from me that’s still warm.” She couldn’t tell if her uncle was more insensitive, ignorant, or trashed, but regardless the elements had infused to form some sort of super bully. She’d had enough of it, even if everyone else had decided Don was easier to ignore.
Abby looked over to her grandmother who was calmly spooning mashed potatoes into her mouth during all of this. She was miles away without her hearing aid, which made the next bit a little easier. Abby walked over and planted a kiss on her cheek. She mouthed, “I love you, Nana,” with a tender grin that managed to disregard the entire evening. Her grandmother patted Abby on the shoulder and gave a brief squeeze to one of her arms before looking back down at her plate to continue to eat, blissfully unaware.
Abby then proceeded to stand up straight, smooth out her sweater, and raise two brazen middle fingers to the rest of the table. “This year I’m thankful I don’t feel obligated wasting another minute here with you terrible people—especially you,” she motioned to Don, “you sad, pathetic cow.”
Transgressed mutters emerged around the table. Before Abby could get caught in the maelstrom soon to follow, she stomped toward the bedroom. She had almost forgotten the reason she had come back inside to begin with. Tony was right, grand exits were ruined by practicality. She shuffled through the pile of jackets, eventually securing her objectives. Abby did her best impression of a collected person as she sped back through the hallway to her exit.
A commotion had broken out in the dining room by the time she had returned. Her father was trying to move around the table to stop Abby from leaving, but large bodies sitting snugly between the wall and the dinner table impeded his progress. Meanwhile, her mother held her head in her hands in dismay, while the rest of the crowd shared outrage and amusement with each other.
“Let her go for Christ’s sake,” Don argued. “If those brats of yours want to act like animals then they can eat outside.”
Almost on cue, the door opened and Tony emerged from the garage. The group fell silent. They weren’t as shocked as they were terrified.
“Well there’s the man of the hour,” said Don, unable to help himself. “Listen, little buddy, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, but I had no idea you were so sensitive. Unfortunately, you’re not welcome here anymore. Neither is your sister who, turns out, is almost as big of a bitch as you are.”
The comment resulted in an audible gasp around the table. Everyone finally seemed appalled by how out of control the evening had become.
Tony didn’t say a word, he just kept moving toward the table. Don’s face turned from smugly satisfied to fretful as Tony descended upon him. His bulbous stomach tucked under the table prevented him from quickly standing. Before he could wiggle himself out of his vulnerable position, Abby’s father and Aunt Gina struck up a telepathic agreement to hinder any backward movement by leveraging their weight against the wheels on Don’s chair. He was trapped.
“Move your feet,” Don demanded. “Move your feet dammit!”
In the allotted time, Tony was able to grab one of the pumpkin pies from the center of the table. He tipped the dish vertically, and before Don could realize what was happening his face was submerged in dark orange slush. As Don remained seated in his chair, helpless to do anything but push back on Tony’s arms, his nose drilled through the crust and emerged at the bottom of the glass pan for everyone to see. A ruckus of laughter broke out as that night’s monster was reduced to a hideous, smushed face drowning in pie.
Eventually Tony let go of the pan so Don could breathe again. “You could have killed me you lunatic,” he yelped, exasperated. This only incited more laughter from everyone, with the exception of Tony.
In his moment of triumph Tony leaned closer to his antagonizer. “Happy holidays, you bastard,” he said assertively.
Soon a hand was tapping Tony on his shoulder. He turned to see Abby offering him his jacket. “Ready?” she asked.
“You don’t want to stay and see how much more trouble we can get into tonight?” Tony replied.
Abby resisted the urge to turn to the rest of her family who were burning holes into the back of her head. “Fuck ’em,” she said, and continued onward with her brother.
Cody Hulbert Copyright, 2015