It was Thanksgiving! God, I was so excited. Not really because of the holiday itself, although that was cool. Nah, I had a week off of school. A week that I didn’t have to deal with crazy teachers, annoying classmates, mountains of homework… the dream.
The only thing I wasn’t looking forward to was that stupid family reunion. My dad plans them every year, and invites over tons of relatives that I don’t know, nor do I really care about. He also brings a girl every year.
No, not the same girl. Different girls. He has a new one each Thanksgiving, and they usually last until sometime around Christmas. I know how it works. He brings some nice young lady to the reunion, hoping to look a bit less lonely to the rest of the family, and she’s giggling and being in love and all that. He seems to just ignore her for most of the night. Of course, it never lasts. Something happens, something always happens, usually between December and March. Then the girls are gone. It’s strange, because they just disappear. As if they never existed.
It doesn’t particularly bother me. They don’t pay the bills or anything, so who the hell cares if they stick around? Most of them seem to have the mental capacity of a waffle either way, with the way they twirl their hair around their fingers, and look at him all starry eyed. Don’t they know? Love is ephemeral. It won’t work, it never does.
Love is like a computer: you have it for a while, and everything is great. Then, it starts having technical issues, and malfunctions. So you scrap it, and look for something better, something more… permanent.
The light pattering of footsteps coming down the stairs were what eventually drew me out of my thoughts.
“Hey, Michael. You down here?”
I got up off the couch. “Yeah, Cliff. You need somethin’?” I said, looking over to where my older brother was standing at the bottom of the steps.
“Get up, the reunion starts in an hour. Dad needs ya in the kitchen, he’s trying to make potato salad again, and you know he’s gonna over salt or burn it or somethin’ if he’s left unattended.”
How do you burn potato salad? “Yeah, sure.”
He walked back up the stairs, muttering along the way, presumably about Dad’s cooking skills, or lack thereof. I headed into the kitchen, and at the sound of my footsteps, my dad turned around.
“Hey, kiddo! Did Cliff send ya in here? I can make potato salad fine by myself,” he said, tossing the spatula in the air and catching it.
I walked over to him, and looked into the big bowl that he was stirring the salad in. “Dad… you don’t put raisins into potato salad,” I sighed, exasperated.
“Whaddya mean? It’ll taste fine!” he said, taking a spoonful and putting it into his mouth. “See? Told ya it’s-” he stopped mid sentence, gagging. “Nevermind. You’re right. That's nasty.”
I crossed my arms, raising my eyebrows.
He dropped the spatula. “You know, I think you should take over cookin’ for the day. This little guy,” he pointed to the inside of the bowl, “is not going to taste very good if I make him.”
“He isn’t going to taste very good no matter what you do. Potato salad does not belong at Thanksgiving dinner, Dad.”
“Wait, what? So I went to all this effort… for nothing?” he said, wide-eyed.
“Nooooooooooo,” he whined, “fine. Me and my potato salad will leave, since we are clearly not appreciated,” he pouted.
“My potato salad and I,” I corrected.
“Respect your father, boy,” he said, mock offense written all over his face.
My younger brother came downstairs, and into the kitchen. My dad turned away. Cliff came into the kitchen, grabbing some water, and walked right past him. I felt bad for him, because no one really seemed to like him, or even pay attention to him, except for me.
“Hey Jax,” I said quietly.
“Hi, Mike,” he replied, the hurt in his voice apparent. I didn’t know why Cliff and Dad didn’t like him, he was a really sweet kid. I shook my head, and started fixing dinner.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
After I finished preparing the food, I sat on the couch, and snacked on chips, like the lazy teenager I am.
“Yo, Michael,” Cliff said, sitting on the couch beside me.
“Mph,” I answered, looking at him, mouth full of chips.
He turned to me, amused. “Pass some Doritos, will ya?”
I passed over the bag, and we made small talk until someone knocked on the door. My dad walked over, and opened it. Aunt Leena.
“Hey, Leena!” Dad greeted, hugging her.
“Hi, James,” she said, smiling. “We just wait around for a bit?”
My father nodded, grinning. “So how ya been?”
“It’s been great, my job promoted me! You see…” she answered, and started rambling on about her career. I laid back, and decided to nap for a bit.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Having just woken up, I looked around. Everyone was already here. Including dad’s girl for this year. I dubbed her 2020. Cliff looked over when moved my head to the side.
“Well look who just woke up! Welcome back to reality, Sleeping Beauty,” he teased, poking my arm.
I glared at him.
“Aw, now don’t be that way,” he whined.
I huffed, and sat up. Jax walked over to where I was sitting, and grinned, showing me a drawing he’d made. I smiled at him.
“That looks great, Jax! You’re gonna be an artist one day,” I said to him, glad he was in a better mood than earlier.
Everyone in the room looked at me strangely, and I sighed. Even extended family had always been weird when it came to Jax. I never understood why they looked at me like I was crazy whenever I spoke to him. He’s my brother, for God’s sake. What else am I supposed to do?
I ruffled his hair, and we chatted for a bit, until dad announced that dinner was ready.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I was sitting at the table, and really had to use the restroom. Of course, I couldn’t, because it was occupied. Jax had taken a bathroom break. I didn’t know what was taking him so long, he had been in there for 15 minutes. I was the only one who seemed concerned, though. Dad’s girl this year was also gone from the table. I decided to get up.
“I’m gonna use the toilet right quick,” I said, getting out of my chair.
Dad nodded, and smiled.
I walked down the hall, towards the bathroom, and opened the door. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. Dad’s girl, 2020, was standing over Jax, holding a knife. And I was too slow to do anything. Even as I heard the sickening squelch of metal penetrating skin, I couldn’t quite believe what I was witnessing. And then reality hit me. I could feel hot tears streaming down my face, but I didn't care. I ran back into the dining room.
“Dad! Dad! It’s Jax! I- He- He got stabbed! The girl you brought-” I sobbed.
Dad grabbed me by the shoulders, trying to calm me down. Cliff came over, and wrapped his arms around me. How could they be so calm about this?
“Hey, hey, Michael, it’s okay," Cliff said, turning away, a pained expression on his face, "we need to talk.”
“No! Jax!” I shouted, grabbing them both by the arms, and leading them to the bathroom. But there was no one there. Empty. The only sound that could be heard was our footsteps hitting the cold tile. Jax was gone, and so was the girl. As if they had never been there. No blood. Just clean, white tile, and the spot on the floor where I was sure Jax had been.
“Where is he?” I whispered.
“Michael, we need to talk. Please,” Dad said.
“I- okay…” I sighed, defeated.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dad had just gotten everyone out of the house. He, Cliff, and I were all sitting on the couch. I was sipping on a glass of water. Dad looked over at me.
“Look, Michael. I’m just gonna get straight to the point. Jax doesn’t exist.”
I coughed, choking on my water. “Wait... what?”
Cliff glared at Dad. “You didn’t have to be so blunt about it.”
“Well, sorry,” Dad muttered, “I just figured we’d best tell him at this point.”
“Wait, can you… uh, expound? On the fact that he isn’t real I mean,” I said softly.
Cliff put an arm around my shoulders. “Yeah, Dad, could you maybe, I dunno, explain before dumping a load of crap on the kid?”
“Watch your tone, Clifford,” Dad warned.
“Don’t call me that. I'm not a big red dog. And sorry. Now please, tell him.”
Dad sighed. “Well, Michael, when your mother passed away, you started talking about this… Jax character. I thought he was just a friend you had met at the park, or something. But then, you started talking to him. When we were here. But… he wasn’t… he was never there. And then, you started referring to him as your brother, and it was just… confusing as hell.”
Cliff hugged me. “I think it was some sort of coping mechanism, a way that made it easier to deal with mom being gone.”
I was trying to wrap my head around this realization. How could Jax not be real? I’ve talked to him, hugged him. I could feel my eyes welling with tears, and quickly wiped them away.
“But… how… what about the girl? The one I saw-” I began, my voice cracking.
“What girl?” Dad said.
“The ones you always bring to the family reunions. This year’s girl… 2020...”
“Michael… I haven’t brought anyone besides your mother to these gatherings… ever.”
“I… what?” I could feel a lump in my throat, and I swallowed it down. How many of the people I had seen, or even loved, were things I had imagined?
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” Cliff whispered, squeezing my shoulders.
And I believed him. That is, until I felt a tug at the hem of my jeans, and looked down, to see Jax. He was clutching his stomach, and I could see blood pooling on the carpet below him.
“Please, Mike, you gotta help me,” he whispered desperately, tears rolling down his cheeks. His white shirt was stained with blood.
And then I could feel Dad and Cliff hugging me, and I could hear them telling me he wasn't real, and that it would all be okay. The worst part was that I didn’t know who the hell to believe.