Home for the Holidays by Emily Huber

Fiction
Bridging hands

Bridging Hands by Amy McCartney, 2019

Alana heard frenzied scratching on the other side of the door as she turned the key in the lock. She barely had it open even an inch when Walrus Face forced his bulbous head into the gap, his eyes rolling in every direction and his tongue flapping wildly in his mouth. Alana nudged him back into the apartment with one foot.

“Jeez, Wally, calm down.”

She pulled the door closed behind her. The dog flipped around suddenly, throwing himself at the floor and bouncing up again and again. Alana rolled her eyes at him and threw her bag on the counter.

“You dork.”

She knew she shouldn’t be annoyed with him, and she wasn’t. Not with him anyway. She wasn’t sure what had irritated her, but that wasn’t unusual. These feelings often came out of nowhere. Still, that annoyance, the unsettledness got to her, it itched at her brain. What is it, Alana. Something must be wrong.

She’d felt fine when she went to work that morning. Well, maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe she’d been feeling this way all week. But again, it was hard for her to tell. Anyway, she’d felt seemingly fine today when she went to work. It was the last day before their brief holiday vacation, and that meant no one in the office was focused enough to get anything done. Everyone was preoccupied sharing holiday plans and traditions.

“I’m having an ugly sweater party tomorrow, if you want to come” Rebecca said. She was the girl who sat at the desk behind Alana’s, and she was the chattiest person at the office by far. It was Rebecca that’d started the whole conversation about the holiday vacation in the first place.

“I can’t,” the girl who sat across the aisleway from the two of them, Maya, said. “I’m leaving early today. I have a flight to Michigan at four.”

“Oh, that’s exciting! You must be excited to go home this year.”

“I am, but the airport is just going to be chaos today.”

“Yeah, that does kind of suck. What about you, what are your plans, Alana?”

“Oh, I’ll probably just stay home. Hang out with Wally.”

“Oh,” Rebecca said. “Well, if you’re not doing anything, you should come to my party tomorrow. I’d love to have you there.”

“Thanks. That sounds like fun.” Alana knew when she said it that she would not be going.

It wasn’t Rebecca’s pity for her Christmas plans that annoyed her. She didn’t care what the other girls thought. It was something in the air—wherever she went lately, she couldn’t get away from it.

There’s no place like home for the holidays . . .

It followed her as she left work at the end of the day. But on the drive home it was more of the same.

No matter how far away you roam . . .

It sank like stones in her stomach.

I’ll be home for Christmas . . . you can count on me . . .

Alana turned off the music. Her heartbeat echoed in her empty chest, and she made the decision to avoid the radio for the rest of the holiday.

Now that she was finally home in her apartment with Wally, Alana kicked off her shoes and felt the coolness of the hardwood floor through her socks. She shivered and made herself a cup of tea. She breathed in through her nose and counted the things in her kitchen that started with the letter “s,” and she willed her shoulders to release. She carried her tea carefully across the room to the couch, Walrus Face twirling around her ankles. She sat down gingerly, and Wally leapt up beside her and rolled onto his back so his bulging stomach rose above his flattened snout. Alana half-heartedly reached out to scratch his belly before she turned on the television.

Here, too, there was that feeling. On the television was a holiday commercial for a big box store, showing small children in their matching pajamas squealing with joy as they opened their presents. Their parents looked on with bright smiles as the melodic sound of bells rang in the background. Alana rubbed her head with one hand.

She remembered her own Christmas like that, in her matching PJs. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. She knelt on the living room floor, tucked half under the Christmas tree, looking up at her older sister, mother, and father who were sitting on the couch.

“Alright, Alana, hand out the next one,” her mother said.

Alana stretched out her arm. She grabbed a box that was heavy, and she could hear something grainy shifting inside as she pulled it out. “It’s for Mom.”

Her mother took it from her. It was clearly a gift from Alana’s father—neither Alana nor her sister were skilled enough to wrap their presents so neatly. Alana’s mother opened the box carefully, almost weakly, and her face remained neutral and still like a doll’s.

“A set of bath salts . . . and lotion . . .”

Alana’s father leaned back against the arm of the couch, his voice stern. “Vanilla. It’s your favorite.”

Alana’s mother’s face still didn’t change. “Thank you. Would you go preheat the oven for breakfast?”

Alana’s father got up without a word and went to the kitchen. Her mother tucked the gift under the couch and shook her head. “Anything but vanilla. I hate vanilla. Gives me a headache. Pull out the next one, dear.”

Alana reached back once more. This gift felt thin like paper, and it had her name on it. She tore it open. It was a monthly calendar with pictures of puppies on it.

“Merry Christmas,” Mariah said.

Alana didn’t say a word. She looked up at her sister, who laid against the back of the couch with her arms crossed. She appeared to be staring into space, tuning all of them out. Alana checked underneath the tree. There were no more presents for them to open.

“Do you want me to heat up the mashed potatoes?” her father called from the kitchen.

“Ew, I hate mashed potatoes,” Mariah sneered.

“Yes,” Alana’s mother called back. She turned and gave Mariah a light smack on the shoulder. “Would it kill you to not be so ungrateful? For god’s sake it’s Christmas.”

Mariah shrugged and rolled her eyes. Alana stood and went to the table for breakfast.

 

Alana changed the channel. The next channel was a news station, and a middle-aged reporter popped up on screen in front of an image of a crowded airport.

“Airport traffic is at an all-time high, and massive snowstorms are threatening to delay hundreds of flights across the country as travelers rush home to visit their loved ones . . .”

Alana muted the television. She watched the reporter’s mouth move in front of the image of the crowded airport. Beside her, Wally, still laying like a log on his back, had started snoring. Alana could still hear the tin sound of the music in her head.

I’ll be home for Christmas . . . you can count on me . . .

Massive snowstorms are threatening to delay hundreds of flights across the country as travelers rush home to visit their loved ones . . .

Alana reached for her computer on the coffee table. She went through the motions slowly, nervously. It was a lot of money, but still possible to get a round-trip flight on Tuesday. There was still a little time, if she wanted to. But she wasn’t sure. She felt sick to her stomach, and so weak she couldn’t stand, couldn’t do anything else until she’d thought about it from every angle.

She could picture it, almost. She could see herself sitting at the kitchen table, her skin crawling and unable to control her fidgeting fingers winding around her coffee mug. Her mother circled around the kitchen, moving cases of food from the fridge to the oven to the counter and back again, all while watching Alana without turning her head.

“So . . . do you like your therapist?” she set a timer on the stove. “I mean, she better be good. Too expensive not to be.”

“I don’t want to talk about therapy, Mom.”

“You know what I was reading? I saw online that there are these vitamins that you can get that are supposed to support your . . . emotions. Hormones, stuff like that. That seems good, yeah? Vitamins? Maybe you should give that a shot.”

Alana buried one hand in her hair and tried to remain composed. “I don’t need vitamins, Mom.”

“Well, I’ll send you the article about them anyway. Let me know what you think.” She glanced over at Alana with her lips pursed. “Couldn’t you at least act like you’re happy to see us? At least smile? It’s Christmas.”

“I’m just tired.”

Her mother shook her head. “You could at least try to be in the holiday spirit, Alana. This is your home, you know.”

Alana didn’t respond. She squeezed the mug in her hand and looked deep into her drink. Her eyes felt warm and lost. When it was clear her mother did not intend to say more, Alana got up and took her coffee into the dining room.

Her sister looked up from her phone when she entered. Mariah didn’t say anything, but Alana felt the urge to leave like the force of a wave rolling off of her. She was about to turn around and retreat to her old room when Mariah spoke.

“So.” The dreaded ‘so.’ It bit her like a thumbtack in her lip yet again, the twentieth time this trip. “Mom says you’re in therapy now. What happened?”

“Nothing happened,” Alana said. “I’m going to my room.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Mom says you have anxiety.” Mariah leaned back in her chair, her eyes back on her phone screen. “But I don’t see how you’re any different. You’ve always been antisocial.”

Alana’s head started to pound. She blew out a strained breath. “I need some air.”

“If you were just going to avoid us the whole time, why did you even come?”

Alana clenched her jaw and turned back the way she came. Hot and tight with anger she marched past the living room, where her father sat motionless in his recliner watching the football game.

On Christmas morning, Alana awoke and put on her fuzzy socks. She wrapped herself in a blanket and went into the kitchen, and Wally joined her, trotting in circles around her feet. She moved from cabinet to cabinet and pulled things out of the fridge for her breakfast. She listened to the bubbling of the pancake batter and the sizzle of bacon on the pan. She brewed up some coffee, took her medicine for the day, and piled her pancakes onto a plate. She dumped on syrup and covered them in whipped cream—ridiculous amounts of both, almost too sweet to eat. She took her plate to the couch and hummed to herself.

There’s no place like home for the holidays . . .

She sat down, and Wally hopped up beside her. She pulled a few bacon strips from her plate and set them on a napkin for Wally. He gobbled them up, slobbering a little on his front paws. Alana pulled her blanket around her shoulders and settled in.

THE END

 

About the author:

Emily Huber master’s student at New York University living in Brooklyn, and an editor on their literary journal Caustic Frolic. I have had fiction published in the literary journal The Foundationalist.