He rings the doorbell again, shivering a bit in the chilly air. He knows someone must be home — all the lights in the house are on.
The elderly woman he is holding by the arm is shaking much worse than him, though there’s no telling the difference between her shivering from the cold and the shakiness from her essential tremor. She has hair blue rinsed and curled into gunmetal coils, and her cheeks are rose red, more from the overapplication of rouge than from the cold. She has on a peacoat and an unseasonable combo of frumpy skirt and thin blouse she insisted on wearing. He rings the doorbell a third time before the door is finally opened.
“She can’t stay with me.”
“But Doug, I’ve already got eight drunken swordsmen reenacting Stalin’s Great Purge in my dining room.”
“But Carol, it’s Christmas Eve and — .”
“I am painfully aware of that.”
A champagne bottle comes flying end over end out of the doorway, narrowly missing Doug and dotting them all with little drops of sweet alcohol. “What,” he asks, “is going on in there?”
“I told you,” Carol says, “the Purge.”
Doug cranes his neck around his sister. Sees the goings-on. There are white feathers floating down the stairwell from some unknown source. Decimated pillows? He catches sight of two mustached men in battle. Swords clanking. Posed like cocks in battle. Birdlike movements of feet and head as they wield their weapons menacingly, but not murderously, at each other. “Um,” he inquires, “I got a C in history, still, I’m fairly sure swords did not play a large role in the Great Purge.”
“All right then. Here you go,” he says, pushing the woman into Carol’s arms. “She’s all yours.” He flees.
“Oh, no you don’t, Doug!” Carol screams, shuts the old woman inside, and she’s after him. No coat, but Carol’s warm enough with her blue sweater, a giant snowflake knitted in the middle. “Aunt Phyllis is yours this Christmas, mister.”
“Look,” he yells, circling around the maple tree, “I’ve got plans. You’ve got — ”
“Got what, Douglas?”
“I don’t know.” She tackles him. “Yeow!” he yelps.
“You aren’t palming her off on me.”
“Come on, Carol. You’ve got enough chaos in there. I don’t see how one more element of craziness is going to matter all that much.” He wheezes the last bit of this sentence out. She has him pinned down in the grass, knees digging into his back.
“I am past the point of panic. But this. . .it’s your turn, and you’re going to keep her.”
“But. I’ve. Got. A. Date. Get. Off. Will. Ya?”
“A date? A date? Oh, well, why didn’t you say so?” She seethes sarcasm.
A swordsman wanders out of the house, says, “Hey-ho! What’s up out here? Mrs. Lowry, you got some trouble? Don’t worry. He tries anything, I cut him.” The swordsman downs what’s left of his beer, tosses the can in the air, attempts to slice it and misses completely.
“Thanks, Elroy,” she says.
“Sorry. There’s just so so many of you. And one of me.”
“Stephen,” Doug pleads, “get her off me.”
“And you,” Stephen says, his voice turning all snakelike, “who are you? Some Christmas burglar? Or worse — a grinch?” He lifts Doug’s chin an inch with the tip of his sword. He says, suddenly developing a Western cowboy’s accent, “We got our own ways of dealing with grinches in these here parts, and I reckon you ain’t gonna like ‘em.”
“Carol,” Doug cries.
“Oh, hell,” she says. “Why I’m saving your ass I don’t know. Stephen, this is Doug. My brother.”
“Gotcha,” he says, suddenly switching back to a young Midwest man’s voice. “Sibling rivalry. Not sure I should step in between, you know. Maybe I’ll get Mikey.”
“You do that,” Doug manages to say.
Michael is filling the sink with ice from the freezer. “Get me those beers over there,” he says, seeing Stephen enter the kitchen.
“Sure. You know your Uncle Doug is out there?”
“Uncle Doug! No way. My mom and him can’t stand each other.”
“They look pretty close to me.”
“She’s got him tackled in the yard. I don’t think he’s breathing very well.”
“Oh shit. Not again.”
“Yeah, you should’ve seen them at Easter. A family picnic that got pretty Jerry Springer.” Images billow through Michael’s brain of flaming marshmallows being catapulted across the campground and hotdog skewers flashing in the sun, launched into the air like forked and devilish javelins. He remembers his mom’s Xena Warrior Princess battle cry and Doug’s herculean defense — lifting a half-burned log from the campfire, batting away at the projectiles. A young park ranger showed up, seemingly for the sole purpose of shaking in fear.
He instructs Stephen to place the beer on ice, and Stephen tells him to look for his mom and uncle in the front yard. Michael runs out the door. It’s as bad as he thought. No — it’s worse. Doug has somehow torn the Christmas lights off from around the garage door and, with them actually still plugged in, fashioned a kind of illuminated lasso. He’s swinging it around like a space cowboy. Michael’s mom has a giant plastic candy cane that had been staked in the ground, and she’s holding it stakeside out. Michael has a sudden sense of genuine surprise at the fact that they have survived each other this long.
Doug is threatening, “You just come on at me, Carol. Kill me and she’s yours every Christmas.”
“I’ll see you in Christmas Hell!” she screams back. Carol lunges. Michael gasps. Doug throws his lasso around Carol. And a swordsman falls from the window above, taking Doug down to the ground yet again. The two men are sprawled in the yard. Carol can’t stop her momentum (it doesn’t help she’s also being pulled forward by the glowing lasso around her), and she flies right over the two men, the candy cane weapon of death piercing a wooden barrel holding an illuminated North Pole sign. She’s tugging at her candy cane, trying to get it unstuck, bent on a stabbing rampage. Doug pushes the alive — but passed-out — swordsman off and starts hauling Carol toward him with his lasso.
“No,” she says, reaching for the candy cane, but with every tug Carol is moved farther from it. She begins to cry.
“Enough, you two,” Michael demands.
“Hey, Mike,” Doug says.
“What the hell, guys? It’s Christmas. Can’t — ”
“Technically it’s Christmas Eve,” Doug corrects.
“And,” Carol sobs, “you’re going to be getting a big old lump of fucking coal, Doug.”
“Jesus, Mom,” Michael says, “be rational. What’s the issue here?”
“I’ve got a date. A Christmas Eve date. They’re doing a midnight showing of Miracle on 34th Street and I cannot be babysitting Aunt Phyllis all night.”
“You are so selfish, Doug,” Carol says. She’s squirming now, trying to get out of the electric lasso.
“Hey, I’m single.”
“So am I!”
“But you’ve got a kid already. And a divorce. I’m trying to play catch-up.”
“What you are is full of shit.”
“You kind of are, Uncle Doug,” Michael agrees. “I mean, it is your turn.”
Carol breaks loose. She scrambles and grabs the sword from the unconscious kid on the ground. “I’ve got you now,” she declares.
Doug is running again. Michael is chasing after them both. Doug makes it into the house. Damn. She’s too close behind for him to shut and lock the door. Maybe if he can make it to the bathroom. Shit. There’s a line. Oh fuck. Carol swings. He ducks. A lamp loses its head. Doug dives into a pile of feathers. Throws them up. It’s a whiteout. She can’t see. But neither can he. Ouch. They hit each other head-on. Michael runs into his mom’s back. The sword is lost somewhere in the feather fall.
“Hey-ho,” Stephen says, grabbing Doug behind the arms. Michael is doing the same with his mom. They’re both struggling, but the young men are stronger.
“Hey! Who’re you? Get off me,” Doug demands.
“It’s me. Stephen. Come on, dude, quit moving. Calm down.”
“Who are these people anyway?” Doug demands.
Carol is apathetic again. Beyond the point of panic once more most likely. She says, “They’re Mike’s friends from the theater. He asked if he could bring a couple of friends back for the holidays. I was like yeah sure, and now look at the mess it’s become because of you, Doug.”
“I’ve caused? I’ve caused?” Doug is hysterical.
A champagne bottle flies by. It misses everyone, but there’s a sound of glass shattering when it hits whatever it hits in the next room.
“Okay. Maybe not all your fault,” Carol admits, “but you sure as shit ain’t helping.”
“How about we, I don’t know, maybe discuss this?” Stephen suggests. “Negotiate or something?”
“Sure,” Doug says. “Nazi,” he hisses.
“Asshole,” she growls.
“Wicked witch of the suburbs.”
“Balding middle-management lifer!”
“Ouch,” he says.
“Well, it’s true.”
“That’s why it hurts.” He’s laughing now. She’s laughing too.
Stephen and Michael let them go but stand at the ready, just in case. The siblings hug. “Okay,” Carol says, “you go on that date. I’ll watch senile Aunt Phyllis, but,” she adds with mirth, “I’ll fucking murder you if you don’t show in the morning to pick her up.”
“It’s a deal. And I’ll watch her next Christmas too.”
“Are you sure?” she asks. “It’s only overnight.”
Stephen whispers to Michael, “So Mikey, if you all live in the same city, why don’t you guys just do Christmas together and not worry about who has Aunt Phyllis?”
“Mostly so they don’t end up in prison. You see how they are together. Taking turns is best.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Stephen says.
Suddenly there’s singing from the other room. A Christmas song. The four walk into the kitchen, and there’s Aunt Phyllis standing on the table, skirt hiked up and a glass of champagne in her hand. She’s leading. Six swordsmen are doing backup vocals and dancing around the table counterclockwise. Stephen grabs beers from the sink. They join in the singing and dancing. And, although it is not a silent night, there is peace and goodwill for once. Call it a Christmas miracle or a necessity for all violence to come to rest but, whatever you call it, just remember that there are noise ordinances in place and the police are on their way, none too happy to be working the beat on Christmas Eve, and they’ve been sipping virgin eggnog — the worst kind — and it isn’t sitting well in their stomachs, so someone will have to pay, be it by stockings full of coal or fines or drawers stuffed with strange and angry memories with too few of love and togetherness mixed in to really make much of a difference down the line. Nevertheless, they have these few minutes, these few songs and, in this moment before the police arrive, they are having themselves quite the Christmastime.
About the author: Randal Eldon Greene is the author of one short novel and many even shorter stories. Greene holds a degree in English and Anthropology from the University of South Dakota. Originally from Nebraska, he now lives and writes in Iowa. His typos are tweeted @AuthorGreene and his website is found at AuthorGreene.com