By David-Jack Fletcher
Content Warnings: Unreality.
Neil’s text said to arrive at 6pm, so my shaky hands were on his door at 5:50. I had been invited to Neil’s family Christmas dinner. I couldn’t say I’d expected the invite, having only known him for a few months. We’d met through work. Exchanged several electric smiles and stomach-flipping handshakes. I was nervous about meeting Neil’s family and made it worse for myself by arriving empty-handed.
The front door opened, releasing the sounds and smells held captive inside. Neil let me in, apologising for the disarray, both of the house and his Kiss the Cook apron. The air was thick with classic Christmas aromas: an assortment of cold meats and red wine that had flavoured the air a little too long. Christian hymns flowed through the house, and despite my efforts, I began to hum along to Silent Night as I followed Neil. I stepped around streak marks on the tiled flooring as we travelled down the entry hallway into the dining room.
‘Everyone, this is Matt,’ Neil said. ‘Matt, this is my family.’
When someone invites you to dinner with their family, one might presume the family consists of human beings. Maybe a few dogs or some cats, but the key ingredient for me would be something living.
All six seats at the table were filled, save for two. The first chair housed an upside-down mop, its stringy head having been arranged as though it were hair. Nicely combed, sure, and arranged into a tidy bob, but what really stood out was the makeshift nose and mouth that I reckoned were supposed to form a face. The mop was dressed in a gorgeous purple gown, although it did hang terribly from where the shoulders should have been. The rest of the family were a similar design, although what I imagined was Neil’s father was an upturned yellow bucket with a face of permanent marker and a pair of reading glasses taped over the eyes. He wore a suit and tie, a strip of grey fabric looped around the back of his hair, completing the vague ‘dad with hair loss’ look. Murky water dripped from his bucket head. I wondered if he’d been used to clean the floors earlier.
I didn’t dare guess at the other characters Neil had created, though there did seem to be a family resemblance between them. Looking between Neil and his family, I calculated the time it would take to get back to the front door and out to my car. But the shine in Neil’s eyes carried an undertone of sadness, and I wondered if perhaps he needed the company more than I wanted to leave.
Neil leaned into me, his lips a hair away from my ear. ‘Don’t mind Mum,’ he whispered. ‘She doesn’t say much these days.’
He introduced me to his siblings, Emily and Michael. Twins. I could have guessed since the balloons, decorated as faces, were exactly the same. The detail was lacking, though, as both Michael and Emily had a droopy eye and a faded smile. I wondered how many permanent markers Neil kept lying around; I was sure he could brighten those smiles up. Although both wore orange-red horse-hair wigs, Emily’s was longer and plaited, like a balloon version of Pippy Longstocking. I could see the balloons had been taped to wooden hangers, connected under their clothes to the backs of their chairs. The twins wore matching dark green t-shirts, old and frayed.
A bit casual for Christmas, isn’t it? I thought, and then wondered at the depths of Neil’s loneliness.
He ushered me to a seat, and I accepted with a shy smile as he invited me to eat the food already on the table.
‘Dad, why don’t you tell Matt about that project at work?’ Then, to me, ‘Dad’s an architect.’
Neil pointed out the bathroom and waited for Father Bucket to talk about work. Then his attention was disturbed by the sound of boiling water bubbling on a hot plate. As he disappeared into the kitchen, I realised this was my chance to bail. I was just about to leave when I heard a gruff voice.
I searched the room for the voice, but I was alone. Part of me was terrified, the other part intrigued. Then I thought about those flirtatious encounters at work, and the sadness lying just behind Neil’s eyes, and took a seat opposite Mother Mop. My ears were more sensitive to sound in that moment than they’d ever been before. A fly coughed as it choked on some red wine, but the voice did not return.
Shaking it off as nerves, I looked at Mother Mop. Her smile was relentless and somewhat infectious, if I were honest. I poured myself some wine, swished it around the glass for a moment and raised it to Neil’s family.
As they ignored my gesture, I noticed Mother Mop’s hair was wet with that dirty greyish-brown colour you get before the mop is squeezed clean. I tried not to imagine Neil’s mother bobbing up and down in his father’s bucket.
Neil joined us a moment later, placing the uncarved turkey in front of Father Bucket.
‘Dad always carves the turkey,’ Neil said. I raised an eyebrow, hoping that didn’t mean I would go without. If Father Bucket had hands, I couldn’t see them.
‘Mum,’ Neil said as he sat next to me. ‘Do you want to say grace?’
Squeezing his mum’s shoulder, Neil thanked her and closed his eyes. He reached for my hand, and our fingers intertwined. My heart raced from the sensation of skin on skin, as well as the utter confusion of who was going to say grace – or if it had already been said. After an awkward silence, Neil whispered amen and released my hand.
‘The Haggertys are very traditional,’ he said and then whispered that his father’s arthritis was playing up. Holding the carving knife would be difficult this year. I nodded, picked up my glass of wine, and watched Neil carve the turkey.
It looked delicious.
As Neil served the dinner, I saw a glimmer in his eyes. Unadulterated joy. Surrounded by loved ones, good food and decent wine, who wouldn’t be happy? The fact that his family were made of household objects didn’t really matter. I guess we all have our coping mechanisms; this was Neil’s. I hoped that one day he might tell me what he was coping with and what had happened to his family. After all, he had trusted me enough to invite me tonight.
I found myself making small talk with Emily and Michael while Neil busied himself with the side dishes of salad and roast vegetables. The usual topics: university, work, hobbies. Like Neil’s mother, they didn’t have a lot to say.
‘More wine, anyone?’ I asked as I refilled my glass.
It was going to be a long night.
‘Mum loves her wine, eh, Mum?’ Neil giggled at some memory and gave me the nod of approval.
I filled her glass and gave a brief smirk in Mother Mop’s direction.
‘Water for Dad,’ Neil continued, making chugging motions behind Father Bucket’s back.
I waited for some kind of story about Mr Haggerty’s drinking days, followed by Mrs Haggerty’s reassuring hand on his shoulder, a proud smile, and a declaration of sobriety. None came.
The turkey was tender and flavoursome and came with homemade cranberry sauce. Whatever had been stuffed inside its backside was the nicest thing I had ever tasted. Spicy and fluffy, not dry like you sometimes get.
I was aware that nobody else was eating and hoped Neil wouldn’t be upset, so I cleared my throat and said, ‘Neil, thank you. This is delicious.’
He beamed and tucked some loose hair behind his ear. ‘I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Mum normally does the cooking.’
I looked at Mrs Haggerty. ‘Neil must get his cooking talent from you,’ I said to her and sipped my wine. Maybe it was the three glasses I’d swallowed, but her smile broadened.
Excusing myself, I made a beeline for the bathroom. Taking a few breaths to clear my double-vision, I wondered if the wine was going to my head a bit too quick. Through the bathroom door, I heard the crash of glass and rushed back to the dinner table. Mrs Haggerty’s wine was all over the table, shards of red-soaked glass glistening amongst her food.
‘Mum!’ Neil sighed. ‘It’s not even your second glass!’
I offered to help clean the mess, but Neil waved me away, even as he sliced open his thumb on a stray shard. I was sure I heard Mrs Haggerty whisper an apology and the twins snicker across the table. Staring into my own glass, I emptied it fast. Reached for a fresh bottle.
I was growing more aware that Emily and Michael were staring at me. They didn’t say much, and they hadn’t touched their food. I was tempted to say something but held my tongue as the guest. As I looked closer at the twins, I wondered which one was older and by how much. Michael’s head was a little more deflated than Emily’s. His droopy eye seemed closer to his mouth than his sister’s, and I heard the faint but persistent squeak of air escaping. I hoped it was from his head and not the other end. In contrast, Emily held her head high and proud, although a crease in the balloon appeared like a dull scar. I wondered what had happened to her.
The dinner continued as any other from that point. I had my wine; Neil had his family. We all had Christmas carols in the background. Neil and I exchanged a few secretive smiles. He made the occasional comment to Emily and Michael to speak up or stop staring.
So, it isn’t just me. I’d heard them giggling under their breath a few times and took a few gulps of wine to reclaim my sanity.
‘Teenagers.’ Mr Haggerty’s contribution.
I wobbled as I refilled my wine. I rubbed at my left ear, certain I was hearing things, though I saw Neil nodding in agreement and Mrs Haggerty’s hair swishing from side to side in a gesture of disapproval. Flecks of water landed in the food.
Another swig. Neil, attentive as always, topped me up.
Mr and Mrs Haggerty complimented the cooking as I took my final mouthful of roasted carrots, which had been drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan. A dash of salt and pepper. I relished the flavour, turned to Neil with a satisfied smile and thanked him.
Neil smiled and looked away as though the compliment made him uncomfortable. Then, to the twins, ‘Stop snickering! You’re embarrassing me in front of our guest!’
Not knowing how to respond, I swallowed another mouthful of wine and blinked until the room stopped spinning. Searching the table, I realised I had emptied three bottles and considered heading home. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, though. Instead, I collected the untouched plates and cutlery.
‘No, no,’ Neil interjected. ‘Emily and Michael can do that.’
I wasn’t surprised that neither twin budged. Typical teenagers.
Rather than waiting for them to help out, I winked at Neil and continued clearing. He mouthed thank you and rushed to help.
‘Can someone else get the coffee and pavlova ready?’ Neil asked as he placed the dishes in the kitchen sink and turned to me. ‘I have a gift for you.’
Worried that I hadn’t brought him anything, I assured him it was unnecessary. He took me to the front room, anyway, for some privacy, and presented me with an envelope. Inside were two front-row theatre tickets to The Book of Mormon.
‘We’ve been flirting for a while.’ Neil’s voice was shaky as he stepped towards me. ‘What if we went on a date?’
I squeezed him tight and kissed him on the cheek as my answer. With the wine swirling around my head and a growing fear of falling over, I thought better of going any further. Besides, Neil’s family was just in the other room. It would be indecent.
We returned with sheepish grins, hands clasped together, to find the Haggertys had moved to the living room. They sat around the television, watching the annual Christmas parade. I squeezed Neil’s hand, excited for our first date, and joined them. The pavlova was already served, and I heard the distinct sound of a kettle whistling in the kitchen.
David-Jack Fletcher is an Australian horror author, specialising in LGBTQI+ fiction. He dabbles in comedy-horror and dark fiction, but his true love is body horror. He currently has published a novella and a short story, along with appearing in several anthologies across the US and the UK. David-Jack has completed his latest novel, the love-child of The Island of Dr Moreau and Cabin in the Woods, and is currently looking for the right home. His new novel, Indentured, focuses on a pair of bloodthirsty cursed dentures.
He is also a qualified editor, operating a small online business, Chainsaw Editing, where he specialises in copyediting and developmental editing for horror/thriller, dark fiction, mystery/suspense, and the occasional historical romance. When not writing and editing, David-Jack can be found on the couch with a book, cuddling his dogs and his husband.
You can find David-Jack at Chainsaw Editing.