“This feels weird,” Stephanie mumbled, yanking her pudgy hand out of the mayonnaise jar.
Mom chuckled, the red recording light of her camera blinking off. She leaned back, watching the footage over and over.
Stephanie rolled her eyes and stretched the gooey arm as far away from her as possible. Mayonnaise sticks to everything. Nothing is sacred to that slimy white spread.
She waltzed over to the sink, standing on her tippy toes to throw the water on full blast. Mom glanced up, daggers in her gaze.
Stephanie quickly cleaned her arm and flicked the water off, slowly backing away, “Didn't mean to ruin your intimate moment.”
Mom went back to the video.
Stephanie shook her head, shaking her hand dry. Water droplets scattered across the run-down kitchen. Dust and grime dribbled down the wall, matching the other water trail stains coating the room.
“I’m going to work on this, you better get ready,” Mom muttered over the camera.
She clicked her tongue and Stephanie snapped her mouth shut. “I'll have to stream it to your aunt as she can't join us. We’ll leave early.” Mom glanced at her watch, “Out in 15.”
Stephanie’s mouth flapped like a fish but no words came out. Mom froze, her thumb hovering over the tiny screen.
“What exactly are you waiting for?”
That's her cue if there ever was one. Stephanie spun on her heel, booking it to her room. If she wasn't ready on time her mom would just drag her out anyway. It had happened with school before. Luckily she was at least wearing pajamas.
She stomped into her bedroom, yanking the drawers out. Clothes flew around her room, creating a rainbow of fabric barf. She turned away from her dresser and cringed at the masterpiece she had created. Or rather, the nightmare. Why did it have to be colors? A nice black never hurt anybody.
The shifting to find the perfect outfit began. She needed something young. Maybe a baby bonnet. No, too weird. Polka Dots? Ewwwwww. Her hand clasped a pastel pink dress with pockets. Good enough.
She tossed it over her head where it got stuck. Great.
“5 minutes,” Mom screamed.
Uh, she couldn't even see yet. Stephanie staggered to the bathroom, bumping into everything on the way there. A lamp crashed to the floor, her knife jumped off its shelf. Oh, her knife. She waddled back and retrieved the little dagger. This was sadly easier said than done as her arms were currently trapped in the sleeves of this horrible dress. At least, she hoped it was the sleeves. She bent in half, reaching for it but only managed to push it farther away. Perfect. She plopped onto the floor, grabbing it with her toes. That must have been magic cause the moment her chubby toes wrapped around the handle her dress flowed down without a care in the world.
She took a calming breath, ready to strangle the garment.
“Let’s go,” Mom said from right behind Stephanie.
She jumped, switching the blade from her feet to her palms. Her mom tracked the movement.
“Did you get my mask?”
Stephanie stood up, fixing her evil dress. “Not yet, I still have to do my hair.”
Mom nodded. “You can do it while we drive. Go ahead and grab my mask and two rubber bands. I'll warm up the car.”
Stephanie's legs moved so fast she could be a lightning bolt. Superhero name: The Super Speeder. Wait, that sounds more like a specialized drug dealer. Never mind. Naming should probably be left to the professionals.
She snatched two scrunchies and her mom's mask before sliding into the back seat of the van. For being warmed up the car sure was freezing.
A dial tone rang from the front seat and they took off. Mom passed the phone back to Stephanie.
A young woman with faint wrinkles and giant black curls popped onto the screen.
“Hi honey!” her aunt squealed.
Stephanie forced a smile and set the phone on her lap to do her hair.
“You look amazing.”
Her smile faded.
“Sorry I couldn't be there, with this pandemic and everything I-”
“It's okay Aunt Mar, I get it.”
The car engine hummed.
“Did you grab your moms mask?”
Stephanie nodded, tying off one pigtail and moving onto the next.
“And the video?”
Stephanie giggled, “Yep. my hand suffered through mayonnaise for you.”
“Oh I'm sure it wasn’t that-”
“Were here,” Mom cut in.
Aunt Mar vibrated in excitement and Stephanie finished her other pigtail.
Her aunt fell serious, “I know you turned nine this year but you need to act as young as possible. Aim for five. Your height should help you. Plus, those gorgeous giant green eyes of yours. Hand your mom her mask.”
Stephanie passed the ski mask up.
“Your mom will be right there once you're done. You have your knife right?”
She nodded, tapping the bulge in her pocket. She sighed, “Do I really have to do this though.”
“Its tradition. Plus, how else are we going to afford anything if we don't?”
Stephanie's heart sank but she nodded.
“Go get ‘em.”
She jumped out of the van, strolling into the grocery store. Only the most desperate shopped on a holiday, and they were always alone.
Stephanie walked past the aisles, checking every person. Whether they were clean, had old jewelry too small for their hand or new items, and were middle aged. One woman with a brand-new silver ring beside her wedding band fit the bill. Stephanie walked up to her, tears forming along her water line.
“Excuse me,” she sniffled.
The woman blinked, setting the spice she had been checking back on the shelf.
“I- I think I lost my mom. We walked out to the car together and I-” Big fat tears streamed
down her cheeks, “I wanted to put the cart away but I-”
Sobs broke off her words.
The woman knelt to the floor, “I can take you to the front where they can call for-”
“But she’s outside,” she wailed. “They won’t let me look for her if I go to the front and she won’t know I’m in here. I- I don't want to lose her.”
Stephanie’s face was swollen and bright red. She began mumbling over and over, “I can't lose her.”
The woman grabbed her small hand, worried eyes boring into her, “I’ll help you look, how about that?”
Stephanie rubbed her eye, nodding shyly.
The lady gave Stephanie's hand a small squeeze, standing up again. “Ok, show me which car you think is yours.”
Stephanie ran out of the aisle, booking it to the doors. The woman abandoned her cart and chased after her.
Stephanie stopped outside the van, tears streaming down her face. “I thought it was this one, but my mom isn't here.”
The lady’s panting echoed across the parking lot. She looked ready to fall over.
Stephanie kept choking on tears, but the lady couldn't seem to catch her breath. This was taking way too long.
The van door slid open and Mom in the ski mask crawled forward. The lady froze.
Stephanie stuck her knife in the woman's side, “Don’t even think about it.”
Mom reached out, grabbing the lady's arm and dragging her inside. Stephanie followed suit; knife still pressed between ribs.
“Oh, you’re lovely!” Aunt Mar squeaked.
Shock was an understatement for what this lady was going through. The car started up, pulling out and away from people who could save this woman.
Stephanie wiped her face with a sleeve, removing what she could of the tear stains, “I should take the video now.”
Mom tossed the camera into the backseat.
“Is the audio track all prepared on your phone?”
Her mom nodded.
Stephanie minimized her aunts face and opened the video. She pointed the camera at the terrified woman and pressed record.
The phone spoke in a deep voice, “You have two days to give us forty thousand dollars or you can wish her goodbye. I will give you a snippet of what I will do to her after that time.”
Stephanie threw the camera on the seat, effectively turning the screen black. She then poked her knife into the woman's side.
The lady screamed. A horrible bloody murder scream.
The woman finally stopped, realizing she wasn't about to die from a tiny scratch. Then the audio cut in. A gushing gooey sound. The perfect recording of flesh being sliced open and someone reaching their hand inside the person made with just some mayonnaise.
Stephanie cut off the recording, leaving the rest to the receiver’s imagination.
“Don't you just love holiday traditions?” Aunt Mar cooed.
Mom chuckled as she drove the woman to her doom, “They just get better and better.”