Christmas Night 2017
The carcass is splayed in the middle of the table. Carved, flesh torn away, eaten, ribs exposed. The turkey, brown and glistening when it was removed from the oven, is now just a pile of bones. Plates are smeared with gravy, wineglasses empty, stained red. A swath of maroon lipstick mars a white cloth napkin. The lights from the towering Christmas tree blink, manic.
The holiday, in all its glittering, wrapped promise, is over.
And there’s that moment, which Hannah remembers since childhood. After all the weeks of anticipation, the preparation, meals planned and served, gifts purchased, wrapped, torn open, surprises revealed and enjoyed, the inevitable time comes when it’s all done. There are no more presents to give or to get, just the mess to clean up, the dishes to do. When she was little, she always felt this moment, its quiet, its subtle sadness, keenly. Now that she was older, she knew it for what it was—the flow of life. The calm after the storm where you were meant to recalibrate, reset before the onset of the next event—good or bad.
“Too much,” says her mother, Sophia, pushing her plate away as if it were the culprit of this excess. “Too much food.”
Sophia is well and truly drunk. Not in a sloppy, word-slurring, falling down sort of way. No. Never that.
A sharpening of her tone. A hardening of her expression. How much has she had? When did she start drinking? Hard to say. She’s rambling now, sitting to the left of Hannah’s father, Leo, who resides at the head of the Christmas dinner table. Leo smiles indulgently as Sophia goes on.
“That’s the problem with this country, isn’t it? People don’t know when to stop—stop eating, stop buying.”
Hannah feels a slight tension creep into her shoulders. It’s only a matter of time now before Sophia puts out the first barb, or before a casual comment from someone, probably Leo, will ignite her mother’s temper.
Hannah decides to get up and start clearing the plates. Better to keep moving.
“Leave it, sweetie,” says her father as he draws a big hand though his still thick, snow-white hair. “Bruce and I will get it. You and Liza did all the work.”
Sophia tugs at her sky blue cashmere wrap with ringed fingers; the color matches her eyes. “I supervised,” chimes in her mom, still light.
Hannah’s mother hadn’t really wanted to host Christmas, mentioned multiple times in different, subtle ways how much work it would be. So Hannah and her sister-in-law, Liza, did all the shopping, all the early prep work, and all the cooking today to make it easier on Sophia. Now, the meal a success, her mother wants some of the credit.
“We couldn’t have done it without you, Mom.”
Hannah always knows what to say. She’s an expert on navigating this terrain. She earns an adoring smile from her mom, blue eyes slightly bloodshot, glistening.
“Your recipes, Mrs. M,” says Liza.
Actually, they’d used recipes from Dad’s side of the family. There was an old bound notebook, full of handwritten recipes for everything from lasagna to tripe, from white clam sauce to eggplant Parmesan, from mashed potatoes to the perfect roasted turkey, to standing rib roast. Recipes Dad said were collected from his Italian mother and his aunts, recipes from the old country and the new, expanded over time, splattered with decades-old stains, pages torn and creased. All of it tied together with a rubber band. It was a long-held family aspiration to enter everything into a document and create a self-published book. But this has never happened, everyone always too busy, and the project forgotten until the holidays rolled around, then forgotten again in the New Year.
“That book,” says Liza, still trying. “It’s a treasure.”
Hannah glances at her dad, who is relaxed at the head of the table, wearing his usual patient half smile, hands folded on his belly. Mom gives Liza a noncommittal hum. Liza clears her throat, casts a glance at Hannah. Her sister-in-law can’t win. She should know that.
Liza hasn’t been asked to call Hannah’s mother “mom,” or even to use her first name. Liza has been married to Hannah’s brother, Mako, for a year and has still not been welcomed by Sophia, not really. It’s all very cordial though. Polite. Until it isn’t. Why Sophia is like this, Hannah has no idea. Liza is lovely and kind, a good wife, a dutiful daughter-in-law. Hannah and her mother haven’t discussed it.
Hannah’s husband, Bruce, puts a comforting hand on her thigh. She glances over at him, his dark eyes, strong jaw, that smile. It calms her; he calms her. Together they peer at the video monitor on the table between them. Their nine-month-old daughter, Gigi, sleeps peacefully, a cherub f loating on a pink cloud.
“She’s a good sleeper,” says Hannah’s mom, leaning in for a look as she gets up to pour herself another glass of wine. Han- nah glances at her dad again, who still wears that pleased but somewhat blank expression. He’s a large man, standing over six feet tall. I have big bones, he likes to say. His doctor wants him to lose twenty pounds. That’s probably not going to happen.
Bruce calls Hannah’s father “The Space Cadet,” which al- ways annoys Hannah more than it should.
He’s not all there. Like, he checks out.
It’s true, even though Hannah doesn’t want it to be. Her dad is loving, present for her—always has been. But he does sort of blank out and drift away when things get hot; even when they don’t. He’s in his own world a lot of the time—on long walks, or zoned out in front of whatever game, the computer.
But you know, Bruce is quick to add, if I were married to your mom, I’d check out, too.
Mako, Hannah’s older brother, left the table after he’d finished eating and has noisily fallen asleep on the plush sectional beside the towering Christmas tree, visible in the huge open-plan space. An explosive snore draws all their eyes.
Hannah laughs; she’s always been close with her brother, closer than most siblings. They’re friends, confidants. They’ve had each other’s backs as long as she can remember. In fact, she can’t imagine who she’d be without him.
“He’s put on weight,” says Sophia.
Hannah glances at her brother. He looks bigger around the middle maybe, but still fit, virile. He doesn’t look unhealthy. He works too hard, driven by things Hannah doesn’t always understand. He barely sleeps. Eats way too much junk food.
Sophia’s comment is directed toward Liza, Mako’s wife. As if somehow it’s her fault. Liza, a part-time vegan, yoga influencer—whatever that means—is a size zero. Hannah is happy to have dieted and exercised herself to a size twelve after the baby. She’s been bigger. All the people on her father’s side of the family are bigger, as her mother rarely fails to point out. Sophia is so thin that her collarbone looks like a shelf.
Mako has consumed at least twice as much food as every- one else. While Liza has eaten precisely one paper-thin slice of turkey, a small helping of Brussels sprouts, no bread, no potatoes, and three glasses of water. Not a drop of alcohol. Not that Hannah was paying attention, or trying to mimic Liza’s choices and portion sizes. Even if she had, it really wouldn’t matter. Hannah would never be a size zero. Which was totally okay.
“He’s under a lot of stress,” says Liza, her shoulders going a little stiff. “He’s a stress eater.”
That was true. Hannah knew the feeling—anger, sadness, frustration, worry and all she wanted were carbs.
“The new game is about to launch and he’s working twenty-four-seven,” Liza continues, glancing over at her husband with a worried frown. “His personal assistant quit without notice. And this is his first day off in weeks.”
“Did she?” asks Hannah. This is news to Hannah. She wonders what happened there though she can probably guess. She looks down at her plate.
“Yes,” says Liza. “Anyway—good riddance. She had very bad energy.”
Hannah agrees. The young woman had always been snippy with her on the phone, a bit frowny when Hannah came into the office. She’d been tall and stunning—not beautiful exactly, but exuding a kind of raw sexual energy. Yeah, thinks Hannah, good riddance. Hannah is going to suggest that her brother hire a male assistant next time.
Mako has also had too much to drink. He’s had five bourbons. Five. Hannah, if she drank five bourbons, would need to be hospitalized. She decides to rise to clear the plates after all.
Her father seemed to have forgotten his offer, but Bruce and Liza rise as well to help.
“Maybe if he had a home-cooked meal every now and then, he wouldn’t eat so much junk,” says Sophia, an edge to her voice.
There it was. The opening shot. Hannah realized that she was literally holding her breath. She forced herself to release it. But Liza just offered a polite smile. She was, in many ways,
a lot like Hannah’s dad. Even. Slow to anger. Mako, and even Hannah on a bad night, might engage with Sophia, leading to an all-out battle. Which was exactly what Mom wanted; it was sadly the only way she knew how to be intimate. It had taken a couple of years of therapy for Hannah to come to that particular realization.
But Liza just deflected.
“Mako doesn’t like my cooking,” she says, casting an amused glance at Hannah. Hannah feels a rush of gratitude for her sister-in-law. “He likes Taco Bell. That’s his go-to.”
“And yours.” Hannah nudges Bruce. “You two eat like teenagers when you’re working like this.”
Sophia seems amused by the three of them and the moment of ignition passes. They all finish the kitchen while Mako snores on, then gather in the living room. Mako stirs to seated, rub- bing at his eyes like a kid. “What did I miss?”
“Only everything,” says Liza.
He drops an arm around her shoulders and she slides into him, looking up. Pure adoration, that’s what Hannah sees. Her brother always inspired that in women. It’s not his looks, though that’s part of it—a kind of boyish beauty, thick lashes, big, strong arms, wavy dark hair that he’s always worn longish. There’s something about her brother that makes girls want to take care of him. Liza loves Mako; Hannah sees that clearly.
“What’s this now?”
Hannah’s dad is behind the tree. This is an old Christmas trick of his. Hiding his presents until the end of the night, after everything else has been opened and you thought there was nothing left. Hannah loves this moment, when she thinks the holiday is over, but then there’s one more surprise.
Leo comes to the sectional with a stack of neatly wrapped boxes, starts looking at labels and handing them out.
“From you, Dad?” asks Hannah.
“No,” he says, glancing at the tag. “From Santa.”
She can’t tell if he’s kidding or not. She’d thought his surprise gift had been cash this year, a thick red envelope he’d handed to each of them with a warm embrace. You’re such a wonderful mother, he said to Hannah. I’m so proud of that and all you’ve done. Her dad was always proud of her, even though she hadn’t accomplished nearly what she thought she would have by this
point in her life. And now there was Gigi.
When they all have their boxes, Dad included, they rip at the red wrapping.
“Oh,” says Hannah, staring at the rainbow helix on the box, the foil-embossed lettering.
“Origins,” reads Bruce.
“What is this?” asks Sophia, looking at it with disapproval. “Huh,” says Mako. “It’s one of those DNA testing kits. Dad, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be into something like this. Too sci-fi.”
Dad shakes his head, offers a light chuckle. “Seriously, guys, this isn’t from me.”
“Then who?” asks Liza.
They all look around at each other, offering clueless shrugs. Hannah feels a little tingle of unease. Somebody is not being honest. Otherwise, where did these boxes come from?
“It has to be from Mickey,” says Mom, holding up her box and pointing it at Hannah’s brother. Something is going on between them; they’ve been glaring at each other like rival gang members all night. “Believe me. I know when my son is up to his tricks.”
“Mako, Mom,” says Mako, whose given name was, in fact, Michael. Mickey all his life until he went off to college, where he decided he needed to shed his childhood self.
Mako. Like the shark.
“Oh that’s right,” Sophia says. “The name I gave you wasn’t good enough. Like everything else. Never enough.”
She drops the box, bends over to pick it up. Hannah keeps her eyes on Mako. An angry flush is working its way up his neck. “So,” says Dad, interrupting Mako’s reaction again. “What
is this exactly?”
Hannah’s waiting for it but Mako doesn’t blow. Instead, he casts an annoyed look at Mom, then turns to their father.
“It’s a kit. There’ll be some kind of saliva collection vial. You register online, then send it in to this company. And it will give you any number of different reports about yourself—health, ancestry, genetic predispositions, etc. It might even connect you with long-lost relatives.”
“Huh,” says her dad, inspecting the box. He seems vaguely interested, but wary. Hannah’s guessing it did not come from him. “That is a little sci-fi.”
Sophia blazes a hard stare at Mako, her expression unreadable even to Hannah who knows all her mother’s many moods. “At this age, I assure you I know as much about my family as I care to. Thanks for the gift, Mickey. But I’m not interested.” She rises unsteadily. Hannah stands to keep her from toppling over.
“I’m fine,” Sophia snaps, grabbing her arm away.
Hannah sits and Bruce takes her hand, gives her an apologetic look. Your family. Wow. Were you switched at birth? That’s what he said the first time she brought him home.
“It’s not from me,” Mako says.
“Whatever you say, son,” says Sophia. “I’m turning in. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
“It’s not from me,” Mako says again, this time looking at Hannah. “Did you guys do this?”
“It’s not from us,” says Hannah, with a brisk shake of her head. Everyone looks at Liza, who raises her palms. “Not me. I would hesitate to share my personal data with a corporation like that. Who knows what they’ll use it for? And you guys should think twice about it, too. When did everybody just decide to
give their privacy away?”
“Okay,” says Mako impatiently. “Then who is it from? Where did these boxes come from?”
Hannah looks at the gift. The tag has been printed from a label maker, no handwriting to inspect.
To: Hannah. From: Santa.
No clue from the paper, a glossy red foil. She’d seen rolls and rolls of it at Target.
“Dad, did these come in the mail? Or did someone drop these off?”
Since his retirement, her dad was in charge of the mail—going to the mailbox, bringing in packages. He also did the grocery shopping now, took out the garbage, ran all errands. The hunter-gather.
He lifts his palms. “No, they were not delivered by mail. Someone brought them in and hid them behind the tree. They weren’t there yesterday.”
“Huh,” says Hannah. “Some Christmas intrigue.”
She was trying to keep it light. But it was odd wasn’t it? She didn’t think her brother was lying. She knew they hadn’t brought the gifts. So did someone else have access to the house? Had someone snuck in? That was silly. The only one who broke into your house and left gifts was Santa.
“Doesn’t anyone else find this strange?” asks Hannah.
“Someone’s having fun,” says Bruce, stacking his and Hannah’s together, putting it on their pile of presents.
Mako frowns another moment, then gets up and pours himself a sixth bourbon from the wet bar. If Liza is concerned about Mako’s drinking, it doesn’t show. She looks at her box.
“Sorry, I’m not sure who left this or why. And I don’t want to be rude. But this whole thing is a little creepy. Thanks, but I’m putting mine right in the trash,” she says.
Then she rises and does just that. Hannah hears the garbage open and close in the kitchen. Then Liza returns to the couch. Hannah tries to catch her eyes, but Liza is looking at Mako with a slight frown.
“Good idea,” says Hannah.
She searches for something more to say, a way to connect with Liza. But there’s nothing. They are friendly, but not friends—though Liza is always unfailingly polite and warm. There’s something between them, a barrier which Hannah can’t seem to break through. Hannah suspects that Liza keeps her guard up because of Sophia. Hannah vows to talk to her mom about being less brittle, more welcoming. Sophia has her issues, but she’s not always awful. Sometimes she’s warm and funny. Maybe she feels threatened by Liza, though Hannah can’t imagine why. Hannah scans the room again, feels that deflation, that current of sadness that always seems to undercut the holiday, that awareness that nothing that glitters can stay. Darkness must always come. She tries not to think about the gifts, who gave them, why. Someone in this room, of course. But why play this game?
She gives her brother another glance, but he is blank. Her gaze drifts to the locked front door, to the windows that only reveal darkness. Strange.
Hannah gets up to gather the remainder of the mess while Liza and Mako collect their things. Hannah and Bruce are staying. Liza and Mako never spend the night; which Hannah gets.
Mom doesn’t make it comfortable. Even Bruce would prefer not to stay. But they do. And Gigi is sound asleep in the bassinet in the spacious, beautifully appointed guest suite.
This is what they’ve got. Except for his mom, Bruce doesn’t have much family. Any family, really. So Hannah’s will be everything to Gigi. It’s not perfect.
What family is ever perfect?
In the driveway, Mako pulls Hannah into a big hug. “But did you bring those gifts?” she asks quietly. “Why would I do that?”
“Right,” she says. Why would he?
“Well, don’t let mom get to you,” Hannah whispers, holding on to him.
“You’re right. She is who she is.”
“That’s true of all of us, isn’t it? No one’s perfect.” He puts a hand on her cheek. “Except for you.”
She puts her hand to his. She’s lucky to have a brother like Mako.
“We still good for that long weekend this summer?” he says, moving away. “I booked the house already.”
Why he was so into this idea, she did not know. He’d brought it up multiple times—his birthday present to Hannah, a bonus to Bruce for all his hard work. He was like this, got an idea in his head and wouldn’t let it go. There was something else, too, some other reason. But Hannah didn’t know what.
When the time came, though, the chances of him canceling were high; or Bruce may or may not be able to get away. Grown-ups only, Mako had insisted. So Hannah and Bruce would have to make arrangements for Gigi—when they hadn’t even left her for an evening yet. She wasn’t sure she would be ready for that.
But her brother kept talking about a stunning house deep in the woods of Georgia, a kind of self-styled wellness retreat—hiking, yoga, massage. He had a way of painting a picture—an
idyllic weekend in nature, a fireplace, her and Bruce reconnecting with their couplehood, maybe an opportunity to grow closer to Liza. We’ll invite Cricket—Hannah’s best friend, who was more like part of the family.
Hannah had agreed and put the weekend in the calendar—six months from now. A lifetime. Anything could happen be- tween now and then. Truly, there was almost zero chance they’d pull it off.
“Sure,” she says, looking back at Bruce, who is looking at his phone, frowning. Hannah feels a familiar jingle of unease. “Of course.”
“Don’t let this guy talk you out of it,” he says, throwing a glance at Bruce, who looks up and shrugs amiably, frown dropping.
“We’re in,” he says, and Mako gives him a satisfied nod. “It’s isolated but there’s Wi-Fi,” Mako goes on. “We can
check in to work if we have to. You can keep your eye on that baby monitor.”
“I could bring Gigi,” she said.
“But then it’s not a vacation for you and Bruce, right?”
That was true. But his statement annoys her. Once you have a baby, you see it. The world is divided. There were people with kids. And then there were people without kids. Parents remembered what it was like before. But people before parenthood had no idea what it was like afterward. It was an abyss between Hannah and Mako, would be until he had kids of his own and maybe even then.
Hannah glances at Liza who stands by the car watching them impassively. Hannah can’t imagine the tiny woman pregnant, mothering. Which was a silly thing to think—judgmental and not nice. Hannah has more of Sophia in her sometimes than she cares to admit.
“Where did you hear about the house?” asks Hannah. He wasn’t normally a vacation rental type.
“I’ll send you the link. It’s—amazing.”
Of course it would be. He wouldn’t be gunning for some shack in the middle of nowhere. That wasn’t how Mako rolled. Go big or go home. That was all.
Obviously, Liza is driving. Hannah moves over to her and Liza offers a quick, bony hug,
“Thanks for everything today,” Liza says.
“I really couldn’t have done it without you,” Hannah says. And Liza smiles, sweet, warm. Hannah decides that she is going to work on getting closer to Liza this year.
Liza climbs into the driver’s seat of the new Tesla.
“Take care of yourself,” Hannah says to Mako, moving away from the car. “Don’t work too hard.”
He laughs, runs a hand through his hair, looks at Bruce who stands beside her. “I’ll try not to.”
Bruce has joined them at the car. Mako claps Bruce hard on the shoulder.
“Anyway, things are a lot less stressful now that Bruce has saved my ass.”
She’s not sure what that means. Some glitch in the game that Bruce found and fixed. But sometimes the two of them are speaking a language she can’t understand. She knows they’ll both be working around the clock until it launches. Such is the nature of tech.
As the car glides away, silent and smooth as a shark, Bruce stands behind her, and they wave until the car is out of sight. The air is cool but balmy, palm fronds whispering. Somewhere a halyard clangs, a neighbor’s boat rocking in one of the docks behind the houses. Christmas in Florida.
Bruce stares after the car a moment, something strange on his face.
“What?” Hannah asks.
He shakes his head, seems to snap back from his thoughts. “Nothing. All good.”
Later, her parents and Gigi sound asleep, Bruce in front of his laptop “ just checking in on a few things,” Hannah takes a moment to sit in front of the tree. Its lights glimmer and shine. She stares at the ornaments—some handmade by her and her brother from their childhood, collected from family vacations, tiny framed pictures of Gigi—gifts Hannah made for her parents this year. It’s peaceful. Now that she’s older, she gets it. The quiet space after the storm can be a blessing.
Hannah picks up the Origins box. It probably was Mako. Just like him to give a gift that causes trouble. He’s always been a mischief maker. And really—who else?
“Was it you?” she asks her husband who sits at the kitchen island, face glowing blue in the light of the screen. He glances over at her blankly.
She reaches for the box, holds it up to him. “Was it you?”
“Me? No, no, no. I say let sleeping dogs lie.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just—you know.” He lifts his shoulders, shoots her an innocent look. “Don’t go looking for trouble?”
There’s something funny about the way he says it. She’s about to press.
“Give me a minute okay? I’m almost done here.”
When she gets up to turn in, Bruce still working, she takes a final bit of wrapping to the garbage. She digs in, looking for the box Liza threw away. It’s a waste to toss it, right? It’s ex- pensive. Maybe if it was Mako’s gift, he can send it back. But she doesn’t find it.
The Origins box is gone.
She puzzles over this a moment, then she walks over to the front door. It’s locked. Bruce has set the alarm. She knows there’s a motion detector in the doorbell, that sets off a chime on her father’s phone when someone arrives there. There’s no way those gifts were delivered without his knowledge. There’s no way someone could get in now, while they were all sleeping. They are safe. She’d always been concerned about that. Captain Safety was her family nickname growing up. Since motherhood, that quality (f law?) has edged toward paranoia. She peers out onto the street and sees a black BMW parked there. There are other cars lining the street as well, people visiting for the holiday. The houses on the street are all decorated wildly for the holiday—blow-up Santas and lights in the palm trees, glittering reindeer on lawns. She watches for a moment. All is calm. All is bright.
Hannah moves over to her husband, and slips her arms around him, puts her lips to his neck. He shuts the laptop lid—a little too suddenly? She pretends not to notice. He spins around on the stool and she moves into him. He puts a hand to her cheek, leans to press his mouth to hers.
“Really?” he whispers, as her hands start to work at the buttons on his pants. “I thought you didn’t like to—you know—in your parents’ house.”
She doesn’t care tonight. Something about her brother, the Origins test, the wine she’s had, Liza, her mother, the tension of the holiday, of family. The sadness of a joyful moment passed. She wants to push that away. She wants to be with the person she chose in this life, her husband. She wants to show him what he means to her.
She drops to her knees.
“Hannah,” he says, voice just a moan. He glances uneasily in the direction of their bedroom. “Your parents.”
She gives him a wicked smile before she takes him in her mouth; he groans, grips the bar.
In her family, Hannah is always the good girl, the responsible one, the fixer, the mediator.
Sometimes, though, it feels so nice to be bad.
Discover the Book
What could be more restful than a weekend getaway with family and friends? An isolated luxury cabin in the woods, spectacular views, a hot tub and a personal chef. Hannah’s generous brother found the listing online. The reviews are stellar. It'll be three couples on this trip with good food, good company and lots of R & R.
But the dreamy weekend is about to turn into a nightmare.
A deadly storm is brewing. The rental host seems just a little too present. The personal chef reveals that their beautiful house has a spine-tingling history. And the friends have their own complicated past, with secrets that run blood deep.
How well does Hannah know her brother, her own husband? Can she trust her best friend? Meanwhile, someone is determined to ruin the weekend, looking to exact a payback for deeds long buried. Who is the stranger among them?
What to Read Next