“I’m HOME!” Trish cried out to everyone and no one in particular, slamming the door to punctuate her arrival. Trish typically entered every room expecting applause. Late. Always late.
“You’re in the basement bedroom,” Kat muttered, half-heartedly helping Trish with her inordinate amount of luggage. “And mum’s not well, so dial it back—” Kat warned, laying down the ground rules as she’d always done since their childhood. She’d always use the same expression too, head tilted down, eyes raised, as if she were talking to an imbecile.
“I’m. Not. Sleeping. In. The. Basement,” Trish retorted, catching herself up short. “I’d rather sleep in my car.”
“Then do it,” Kat replied, calling her bluff. “And it wouldn’t be the first time,” she added, while perfunctory dropping Trish’s bags and walking back into the kitchen to attend to a dozen different details. Several of the cousins scurried after the dogs which were barking at all the strangers and commotion. Kat cursed at the dogs. The children scattered in her presence.
Dinner on Christmas Eve was always a raucous event.
“Oh, Trish,” Melanie appeared, ready to make things whole. Mel had always been there with a literal or figurative band aid, saying just the right things to make things right. “Don’t fret about Kat. She’s been working all day to make sure tonight is extra special. Mum isn’t feeling her best, so we need to all get on. Especially this year. You can take my room on the second floor. I like the basement.” Nobody liked the basement.
Trish sniffed. The choice: to take the better room festooned with mum’s decorative crosses or settle into the role of suffering martyr? That was usually Kat’s role, but it would be fun to try it out for a bit. But, no. The price was too high. Why should she sacrifice her own comfort?
“Done!” Trish pecked Mel lightly on the cheek and hefted her own bags up the stairs. Framed pictures on the wall of Bible verses and Jesus holding lambs led the way upstairs.
Mel lugged her belongings from the second floor to the basement, then headed back out to her car, remembering the pie she brought. She stopped at the smell of cigarette smoke as she rounded the side of the house.
“You’re smoking again?”
Kat turned at the sound of Mel’s voice, quickly wiping her eyes and giving her sister an annoyed look.
“Why?” Kat asked bitterly. “You gonna run and tell Mum? Trish?”
“What? No. What's going on, Kat?” Mel walked towards her, hoping to get Kat to open up. Something was bothering her, but Mel should have known better.
Kat stubbed out her cigarette on her boot, saying, “Forget it, Mel. You can't fix everything.” Then she walked back inside without a backwards glance.
Mel anxiously watched her sisters throughout dinner. They were both abnormally quiet, leaving Mel to carry the conversation with her elderly—and mostly deaf—relatives. She shot them mischievous glances as Uncle Earl and Aunt Betty responded to the questions they thought they heard. It should have been the height of hilarity, leading to all three of them exchanging wide-eyed, non-reaction glances and suppressed giggle-coughs, but neither of the sisters even made eye contact.
Her heart sank as she watched Kat and Trish poke sullenly at their salads, seemingly oblivious to everyone in the room. As the middle child, she normally couldn’t get a word in edgewise around these two. She longed to feel that frustration with them again.
Determined to return her sisters to the here and now, Mel began to ply them with drink as dinner progressed. She was ready with their favorites, feeling both guilty and relieved to see their tense postures relax with each refill. By the time she brought her pie to the table though, she realized getting her sisters drunk may have been a mistake.
Eventually, the relatives corralled nephews and nieces, gathered their elderly charges, thanked the sisters and left. Mel started to clear the plates and cutlery. Kat and Trish still sat with their gin and tonic and vodka collins, respectively.
“I’m going to take mum up a plate,” Mel said, hoping for any sign of conviviality from her normally vivacious sisters. “She wasn’t hungry earlier.”
“Yeah, go do that, Mel,” Kat spat nastily, upending her drink.
Mel became infuriated. “What is your problem, Kat? Is it with me specifically or just the whole goddamn world?”
Trish looked at Mel with a modicum of respect. It was rare for Mel to ever lose her temper, let alone blaspheme, according to mum.
“Don't start with me, Mel. No one's here to see your sanctimonious act,” Kat gestured around the empty dining room. “I know what you have been telling Mum,” Kat said as cool and clinical as possible.
“What exactly are you allegeding? What specifically am I supposed to have told Mum?” Mel demanded.
“All sorts of things,” Kat said. “Secrets that only sisters share.”
Trish looked from Kat to Mel and back again.
“Mel. What have you told Mum?” Trish demanded.
“Well, dear sister,” Kat slurred her words a bit. “Mel has been helping Mum with her finances. Medical directives. Her final wishes.”
“You mean her will? Mum already has a will,” Trish seemed confused. “It divides everything among the three of us.”
“Oh, that’s the old will,” Kat said. “Mel’s been working with mom on a so-called holographic will.”
“A hologram?” asked Trish, alcohol interfering with her cognition.
“No, not a hologram. Holographic. A handwritten will, perfectly valid in this state as long as it is dated and signed by Mum. But Mum may have been unduly influenced.”
“I have never lied to Mum,” Mel said defensively.
“I didn’t say you lied to her,” said Kat. “But you told her things about us that she didn’t ever need to know.”
“Like what?” Trish asked tentatively.
“Like your three abortions,” Kat said tonelessly. “You knew Mum would punish Trish for that.”
Mel hung her head. Trish bit her lip, eyes tearing up, slowly shaking her head.
“And like my girlfriend,” Kat said, looking at Mel with disdain.”You knew Mum would punish me for that, too.”
“It’s not like that, Kat—”
“No wonder Mum was too ill to join us tonight. How you poisoned her, making her hate her own daughters. I hope you enjoy this house, Mel. I hope you enjoy sleeping in the basement tonight with the rest of the rats.”