Family Dinner Party

Submitted into Contest #125 in response to: All clocks suddenly stop. Write about what happens next.... view prompt

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American High School Fiction

The quaint post-card town was dotted with red brick manors, sprawling lawns, and evergreens. Near the town’s center, in a neighborhood where everyone who was anyone called home, lived the Andersons. To neighbors and friends, teachers and schoolmates, and just about everyone else, the Andersons were a picture-perfect family of four.

Inside the Anderson home, a sleek, dark-haired Joanna was busy in the kitchen. Standing by the stove, she carefully placed sprigs of rosemary over a pot roast, forming a capital J.

“Jaime, John Jr,” she called and waited for a reply.

None came.

It was nearly five o’clock, one hour before the official start of the Family Dinner Party, which occurred every Friday night, regardless of school or work commitments or neighborhood socials or high school get-togethers. To Joanna, Family Dinner Party was like Christmas –permanently etched into the calendar, never to be glossed over or skipped.

“Jaime. John Jr,” she said, louder this time.

Footsteps emanated from the hallway, getting louder as they neared the kitchen. Just as Joanna placed the pot roast inside the oven, Jaime burst through the kitchen door followed by a sulking John Jr.

“Dad’s not even home yet,” Jaime said. A raven-haired girl of seventeen with brown eyes that, depending on the occasion, either twinkled with happiness or burned with scorn. “His car is not in the driveway.”

Wind rattled the windows. Joanna, Jaime, and John Jr. snapped to attention.

“Wait here,” Joanna said. She wiped her hands with a towel and walked to the front of the house, where she pulled open the door. Outside, the sun had completely set, enveloping the homes across the street in an opaque shroud of black and grey. Just as she began to close the door, a pebble of ice landed on her cheek. Joanna looked to the sky and saw pellets tumbling down, pelting the windows and skylights of the Andersons’ home, creating a symphony of raps and taps.

Joanna slammed the door shut and hurried back to the kitchen where the welcoming notes of rosemary and garlic wafted through the air. She smiled when she saw Jaime and John Jr. by the island. Right where she’d left them.

“We’re headed for a snowstorm, I think,” Joanna said.

“I don’t see a weather advisory,” Jaime replied, her eyes firmly watching her phone.

“Smells nice, Mom” John Jr said. Two years younger than Jaime, John Jr was tall where Jaime was short and taciturn where Jaime was boisterous. He had his father’s hazel eyes and full lips that slanted to the side when he smirked.

She sat at the island next to John Jr and reached for a bottle of wine, pouring a glass. “I thought I’d make your favorite tonight – pot roast.”

He shrugged. “Not really,” he said but when he saw the smile on Joanna’s face falter, backtracked, “I do like it a lot, though.”

The lights in the kitchen flickered just as a large bay window across from them shuddered, prompting everyone to look up in alarm.

“Weird. There’s still no weather advisory,” Jaime said and slapped her phone on the counter.

Joanna frowned and shot her daughter a disapproving stare. “No phones, remember?”

“Dad’s not here. This stupid dinner hasn’t even started yet.”

“It’s not stupid,” Joanna replied her tone hard. “It’s the only night when we eat as a family.” She gulped a mouthful of wine.

Jaime narrowed her eyes. “Aren’t you worried about why Dad’s late?”

Another mouthful of wine. “Why would I be worried?”

“You’re so oblivious,” Jaime replied with a grunt.

John Jr sprang from his seat and looked down at his sister. “Shut up, Jaime,” he said.

But Jaime’s tone grew bolder. “Why are you defending her?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“John Jr!” Joanna shouted and raced to stand between her kids. “Give me that phone,” she said and ripped it out of Jaime’s hand. 

“What’s going on in here?” came a new voice. John’s. Mouth gaped open and eyes wide like dinner plates, he entered the kitchen, holding his coat in one hand and a briefcase in the other.

Before anyone could reply, the lights in the kitchen flickered once, then twice, before turning off completely as though the wind had snuffed them out.

Eerie darkness loomed over them. John and Joanna tried to exchange worried gazes but the most anyone could see was the hand in front of their faces.

“I’ll get some flashlights,” John said and left the room.

Joanna finished her glass of wine while John Jr fiddled with the stove. “It’s off.” He proceeded to the fridge, opened then promptly shut it. “This too.”

Jaime left the kitchen for a moment, then stomped back, letting out a long sigh. “Everything is off – the TV, Alexa, the internet.”

Joanna closed her eyes and leaned into the island, resting her head in her hands.  

“So much for your perfect evening,” Jaime said to her mother. “Can I have my phone back?”

“No, you can’t,” Joanna said. “The power might be off, but we can still be together.”

Returning, John placed four flashlights on the island, “Found each of you a flashlight. It’s not much but it’s better than total darkness.”

He was right. Even with each flashlight illuminated, darkness pooled over them obscuring every surface of the kitchen and filling the spaces between them with black holes as thick as molasses.

“At least we can see each other’s face,” Joanna said and attempted to pour another glass of wine. “Shi-shoot,” she said and rubbed her finger on her apron. “Who wants to order food?”

“I thought we can’t have our phones,” Jaime retorted.

“Just to order food. And just this once,” Joanna said and placed Jaime’s phone back in her daughter’s hand.

A moment later, Jaime set it on the counter. “I can’t even turn it on.”

Joanna raced to find her purse, digging through keys, notepads, pens, and lipsticks. “Mine is also off.”

John dug in his pocket. “That’s funny,” he said frowning down at his phone. “Mine was just on. Now it’s off,” John said. “John Jr?”

“Yup,” John Jr replied from somewhere in the hall. “Mine’s dead.”

“Fuuuuuuuuck.” Jaime raised her face to the ceiling as if it could save her.

“Jaime, watch your mouth!” Joanna said. With a shaky hand, she reached for her wine glass.

“I forgot big bad words make you clutch your pearls.”

“Enough, Jaime,” John said and went to stand next to Joanna. Jaime left her spot by the island and meandered to the dining table where she sat down with a flourish. “Can this night get any worse?”

“We have snacks,” Joanna said in the brightest tone she could muster. “Grab a seat at the table and I’ll go get them.”

A moment later, Joanna returned with bags of chips and crackers. Several moments after that she placed a board laden with cheese and grapes, jellies, and nuts. Brushing her hands together, Joanna smiled at her handiwork and sat down.

The family ate in an uncomfortable silence, which was scarcely improved by Joanna’s prodding questions.

She was practically pleading. “Come on, Jaime,” Joanna said. “You have to be excited. It’s Harvard.”

Jaime plopped a grape in her mouth. “So? It’s a place. Like any other.”

“John Jr," John said while slicing a chunk of cheese. “I spoke with Coach Riley. He said you never approached him to join the golf team this year.”

John Jr shrugged. “Been busy.”

John set down the cheese knife. “Doing what?”

“Stuff.”

“What stuff?” John asked and shot a pointed stare at his son.

Joanna took a large sip of wine. From her third glass of the night. “What do you mean it’s a place like any other? Jaime, answer me. Now.”

Jaime set down her fork. “Does it even matter what I think?”

Joanna balked at the question. “You’re going there in less than eight months. Aren’t you curious what life will be like?”

“Who says I’m going?”

Joanna swallowed. John and John Jr froze. “Excuse me?” Joanna said, her voice shaky.

Jaime shook her head. “I’m not going.”

John leaned forward, nostrils flaring. “What do you mean you’re not going?”

Jaime chewed another grape. “I never sent in my acceptance forms. I’m going to Columbia. I want to be a journalist.”

Joanna chugged the remainder of her wine and slammed the glass on the table. “When were you going to tell us?”

“Don’t look so disappointed, Mother. It’s still a good school.”

Joanna’s mouth hung open. “That’s not the point.”

“I won a photography contest at school,” John Jr interjected quietly.

“Jaime,” John said, his tone cold and steely. “Do you have any idea what your mother had to go through to get you there?”

“Ha!” Jaime responded. She sat back in her seat and rotated her gaze between her parents. “Why does she even care! She’s half-drunk all the time.”

Joanna jumped from her chair. Her feet wobbled so she pressed her palms on the table for balance. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Jaime laughed. “Mom, you can’t even stand up straight.”

John stood up and pointed at Jaime, the tip of his finger inches from her nose. “You’re out of line.”

“Am I?” Jaime yelled. “Why do you suddenly work late all the time, huh, Dad? Like, why were you late tonight?”

“It’s none of your business.”

John Jr glared at his sister. “Stop it, Jaime.”

“Why?” Jaime said and threw her hands in the air. “She drinks like it’s her job. He’s never around anymore. And don’t even get me started on all the times you were supposed to come to watch my tennis games,” she said and eyed both of her parents. “Both of you rarely showed. I can count the number of games you came on one hand.”

“I was working!” Joanna said.

“About that,” Jaime said. “How’s that book coming along?”

“She has a point, Mom.” John Jr said.

Joanna faced her son.

“You’re not around. You always have a new book to write.” In a mocking tone, he said, “You have PTA meetings, and lunches, and neighborhood parties.”

“I do those things for you,” Joanna said and bit her lip. “I get involved in these things to build connections for you.”

Something about what Joanna said caused John Jr to snap. “This dinner is stupid. It’s a façade, Mom. You need this dinner to feel good about yourself because you’re so busy promoting us as this perfect, happy family. You write about us in your stupid therapy books as if your advice can save the world. In reality, you don’t know the first thing about me. Us. All we do in this family is lie to each other.”

John Jr turned his attention to his father. “I hate golf!” He shouted. “I fucking hate golf. There’s nothing about that priss sport I like.”

“Well, this just got interesting,” Jaime said with a smirk.

“Fuck you, Jaime,” John Jr responded. “Everyone always pays attention to you. Jaime this. Jaime that. Jaime’s going to Harvard. Oh, perfect, never-can-put-a-foot-wrong, Jaime.”

“Not my fault I’m good at school.”

John Jr fisted his hands and slammed them on the table. “You’re an asshole. Everyone shits on you behind your back. All of your supposed friends. Everyone.”

“Liar,” Jaime sneered. “You’re just making that up because you can’t get anyone to sit with you at lunch.”

“Stop it, Jaime,” John said. “You’re out of line.”

For the first time that night, Jaime bit her lip and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes had glazed over.

“While you were busting all of your asses to get her into a university she couldn’t give a shit about, I won a photography contest. That’s right,” he yelled, I won at something. And, my pictures will be displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Not that any of you care about what I do.”

John reached across the table to touch John Jr’s hand but was rebuffed. “You’re just as bad as her,” he said and nodded at Joanna. “She’s off in her own la la land, and you lie about everything.”

John left his outstretched hand on the table and looked defeated. “How can you say that?”

“I see the texts, Dad. The calls.”

“And you always work late,” Jaime said.

“You’re a liar and a hypocrite,” John Jr said.

Joanna looked at John who looked at John Jr. “What are they talking about, John?” Joanna asked, her voice as small as the squeak of a mouse.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” John began but was cut off by a shriek from Joanna.

“Tell me what,” Joanna cried.

“Please calm down,” John said his tone conciliatory. “It’s not what you think.”

“That’s what they all say,” Jaime said.

“Jaime,” John and Joanna shouted in unison.

“I saw you, Dad,” Jaime said. “I saw you texting her while you were supposed to be finding flashlights.”

“She’s my shrink!” John shouted and threw his hands in the air. “I lost a big case. People lost their livelihoods to a lie. And I couldn’t put the guy who did it away.”

Joanna stood straighter. “Enough,” she said. “Everyone calm down and sit.” She placed her hand on John’s. Once everyone was seated, Joanna looked straight at Jaime. “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you.”

Jaime squinted. “What?”

“You’ll be packing your bags and out of here and living your big life in, in New York, now, I guess.” She shrugged. “I don’t know how to let you go.”

Jaime bit her lip. “I’m – I don’t understand. Is that why you’ve been drinking more lately?”

“Kinda,” Joanna said and wiped her eyes. "I'm bad with change. Especially this one."

Jamie crossed her arms, a smirk had started to form on her lips. “Not healthy, Mom. You should try, like, bungee jumping or something.”

“I know.” Joanna said, then stopped. "About the wine not about bungee jumping. “As for you, John Jr. I should be present in your life more than I am.” She smiled wide. “I’m so proud of you. I always knew you took beautiful pictures, I guess I just didn’t know how much you enjoyed photography.”

“I’m not going to be a photographer or anything,” he said with a shrug. “But it’s nice to win at something.”

“Can I get a signed picture?” John asked and reached for John Jr’s hand again. This time he was not rebuffed.

A buzzing began to sound and a moment later the lights flickered back to life. Joanna rushed for Jaime and enveloped her in a hug, cradling the back of her daughter’s head. Once she let go of Jaime, she reached for John Jr.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered but only garbled words came out as her mouth was buried in her son's shoulder.

Jaime stood off to the side of the table and watched her family with a smirk. The light above the table illuminated the twinkle in her eyes. “Same time next week?”

Joanna looked up at her son. “What’s your favorite meal?”

“Boeuf Bourguignon." He smiled widely.

John tapped his glass with a fork. “Guys. There’s still a ton of food on the table.”

“I’m still hungry,” John Jr said and resumed his seat. “Going for your phone, Jaime?”

“Nahhh,” she said and inhaled a mouthful of cheese. “What for? According to you, I have no friends.”

John Jr flushed. “About that,” he said.

“Don’t sweat it. I know I’m a bitch.”

A moment later a cacophony of clinking forks and raucous laughter overtook the kitchen, and all the while Joanna sat and smiled at her family.

December 24, 2021 00:13

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2 comments

Unknown User
02:00 Jan 01, 2022

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Melissa Manzone
13:29 Jan 02, 2022

Thank you!

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