Contest #25 shortlist ⭐️

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Holiday Drama

She’s late but Christina remains in the Uber. Salim wishes her a happy New Year while he taps away on the phone for his next job. Christina asks if she can just stay a minute longer to hear the end of the song even though it’s the new Ed Sheeran song she can’t stand. She just needs another minute to compose herself.

“I’ll give you five stars and the maximum tip if you let me sit here til this song finishes,” she says.

Salim squints in frustration but, perhaps sensing her unease, replies, “No problem.”

Christina can see the silhouettes of Jess’s friends in her second-floor apartment. The muted pop of a champagne bottle is followed by enthusiastic cheers. Hugs and screeches of delight as Georgina, no doubt, shows off her engagement ring. A pang stabs Christina’s stomach, radiates across her chest, flushes her face. Her eyes sting and she is thankful she used her waterproof mascara.

“All okay, miss?” Salim asks, his dark eyes are kind in the rearview mirror.

“Fine, thank you,” Christina says and wishes him a happy New Year.

Her phone pings with a prompt to rate Salim. She gives him five stars as promised, though the car was cold and untidy. She forgoes the three dollar gratuity.

The evening is frigid and she wraps her arms tightly around herself, clutching the brown paper bag containing her offering. Patrón Xo Café—the coffee and tequila combination Marcus had always called liquid coke. She feels sick thinking about the hangover she’s going to have tomorrow. Especially as she’ll be doing all three shots of New Year’s Restitution.

Gaining the landing, the party’s soundtrack is tinny and garish in the small, hard-surfaced corridor of one-bedroom flats. Christina removes her coat in the knowledge Jess’s apartment will be suffocating.

She stands at the door, finger hovering over the doorbell.

Her preparation is disrupted by a drunk man she doesn’t recognise bursting through the door announcing over his shoulder that he’ll be back in five.

“Oh, shit!” he says, stumbling to avoid a collision with Christina. “Hi. Need anything down the street? We’re nearly out of bubbles.”

Christina unsheathes the Patrón and says, “I’m fine.”

“Oo, you’re trouble,” the man says theatrically and pats her on the shoulder. “Don’t start without me,” he calls back up the stairs as he prances out into the dark.

“Chrissy!” Jess is the first person to notice her standing in the doorway. Damp heat radiates from the door and Christina is back in the chalet in the Alps. With Marcus. She shakes him away.

The air is thick with perfumes and colognes and cigarette smoke. Jess’s forehead is shiny with sweat and her eyes wild.

“Happy new year,” Christina says, mustering a smile.

Jess’s embrace is as clammy as it is aggressive. She shouts in Christina’s ear, “I was worried you weren’t coming, babe.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Jess releases her, airflow and circulation returns. She leaves her hands on Christina’s shoulders and pouts a sympathetic bottom lip. “You’re right. Fuck men, hey?”

“Cheers to that,” Christina replies and presents her bottle to the host.

Jess’s glassy eyes light up to the point of mania and she swipes the bottle in one hand, dragging Christina through the crowd with the other.

Christina averts the gaze of the people crammed into the apartment, all as sweaty and shouty as Jess. They emerge in the kitchen where a hired barman is doing his best to service the party.

“Christina, this is Chase.” Jess says this as she drags her hand down his triceps. “As in, thrill of the.” She bats her eyelids at the young man with a good body but a ruddy face who offers a flirtatious smile to his boss for the night and tops up her champagne. “Are you trying to get me drunk, young man?”

“Yes, ma’am. Those were your orders.”

“Chrissy!” Georgina shrieks as she barges through to the kitchen, dragging a man behind her. The new fiancé, Michael, presumably.

“Chrissy,” she repeats. “I’d like you to finally meet Michael.”

“Pleased to meet you, Christa,” the man says. His handshake is flaccid, non-committal. Marcus would have hated him.

Christina estimates him to be about five years older than Georgina, mid-to-late forties. He is impossibly handsome; so symmetrical and well-built as to be a fabrication. Christina wonders if he might be one of those Japanese sex robots.

“Christina,” she corrects with a smile. “Nice to meet you.”

Michael ignores the correction and asks who she’s here with. She’s not here with anyone, of course, and considers responding that the apartment is already ten people above capacity and would violate every fire code in the country. It’s the kind of awkward chat, she laments, that explains why she ends up talking to the worst people at parties. She elects to say, “Just me.” 

“Alright,” Michael says, nodding in some parody of a nineties surfer. “I brought one of my single buddies. Well, single tonight anyways.” He laughs at his own joke and Georgina slaps his arm playfully before thrusting her encrusted finger in Christina’s face.

“Isn’t it divine?” Georgina says.

Christina is momentarily horrified at the enormous rock that could have been strung up as a disco ball, but the sparkle is impure; dull somehow. She glances at Michael’s shoes: brand new knock-off RM Williams, obviously purchased today. His suit is polyester, untailored. She relaxes, relieved in the knowledge the giant stone is glass. Costume jewellery. She wonders if Georgina knows this and wonders if Michael knows this is Georgina’s third engagement.

“Congratulations, George,” Christina says in what she hopes sounds like genuine happiness and gives her a tight squeeze. It’s been years since they were close but she thinks she’s happy for her. It’s always hard to see other people’s hearts full to overflowing when yours has so recently been ripped out.

Georgina releases herself, takes another satisfied gaze at her ring and asks, without taking her eyes off her ring, “How was France, babe?”

Christina flinches. Then sort of scoffs, not comprehending the question. 

“Um, not great, babe,” she replies.

“Why, what happened?” Now Georgina is attentive but only, Christina suspects, because she anticipates receiving gossip.

“Marcus?” Christina says, eyebrows raised in a high school ‘Like, Hellooo’.

“What?”

“You seriously don’t know?”

“Babe, I’m sorry, I’ve had so much on the last few weeks I haven’t spoken to anyone in God knows how long. Tell me everything.”

Christina takes a giant cleansing breath and is about to offload Marcus’s transgressions, when Georgina is interrupted by a woman who simply screeches, air-kisses her on both cheeks, screeches again and demands to see the ring. She immediately leads Georgina away leaving Christina with Michael.

Christina is about to ask him something but he digs out his phone and excuses himself.

Chase taps Christina’s elbow and hands her a champagne. She wants something stronger but the mood she’s in warns her to take it easy. “I think you just saved my life,” she says. 

She drains the glass in three gulps. It burns her throat and she feels the bubbles fizzle and die in her stomach before reincarnating in her veins. 

She passes the glass back to Chase who obliges. 

“This yours?” he asks, holding the Patrón.

“Yep.”

Chase uncorks the black liquid. “Jess asked me to pour three shots of everyone’s bottle into this decanter,” he says, unsure.

“New Year’s Restitution.”

“Ah, I think it’s ‘resolution’,” he says with the same condescending attitude her personal trainer uses when correcting her plank.

“Trust me on this one, sweetheart. Restitution.”  

As if on cue, Jess tinks her glass and the apartment’s boiling enthusiasm reduces to a simmer.

“Hello everyone and thank you for coming. I’m a woman of few words, so I think we should get right to it. Chase? Are we ready, darling?”

“Just adding the Patrón and that’s all of them.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.”

Chase dispenses three shots of Patron into a wide-based decanter and passes the brew to Jess. Speculative murmurs emerge from the throng.

Jess holds the foul-looking potion aloft and says, “For the debutantes, I will explain.” She composes herself as if executing a solemn and ancient duty, her voice heavy with responsibility. “Each year, we gather on New Year’s eve and conduct a ceremony of sorts. Each year we make three commitments in the presence of our peers. New Year resolutions. And each year we return to this hallowed ground and confess before those same peers as to the success, or inevitable failure, of those resolutions. It’s all a bit of fun, of course, but we do take our vows very seriously. For those of us who have fallen short of the mark, a penance is required.” She pauses, closes her eyes and bellows, “Restitution!”

A cheer from the regulars; sideways glances from the newbies.

Christina leans over to Chase who looks utterly perplexed and says, “Told you.”

“One shot per failed resolution,” Jess announces with judicial solemnity.

Georgina’s shrieking friend elicits her trademark squeal and says, “I am not drinking that!” to which a man responds, “You should be thankful Jess doesn’t use her whip anymore.” Generous laughter. Christina takes a slug of her champagne to drown the butterflies trying to escape her throat.

“Silence!” Jess demands. “The Court of New Year’s Restitution is now in session. Judge Jess presiding.”

Christina listens as each person confesses they didn’t go to the gym three times a week, haven’t picked up a single book, didn’t even last the week without drinking; the usual failures. And each time, their penalty is exacted upon them by Jess passing them a small decorative chalice filled to the brim with the noxious liquid.

The shots are taken, the faces of the accused grimace, the crowd cheers.

“Christina,” says Jess. “Step forth and be judged.”

Christina obeys and steps forward to face the crowd. There are so few familiar faces this year that it brings about the same sense of dread she had the first day at her new high school twenty-five years ago. She wishes she’d asked Salim to take her home, shitty music and all.

Jess says, “Please state your name for the record.”

Christina says, “Christina Hastings.”

“And your resolutions?”

Christina remembers the enthusiasm with which she had crowed her previous commitments and is sickened at how pathetic she feels. “Resolution one: drink only on the weekends.”

“Do you swear before this court you have upheld your solemn vow.”

“Really, Jess? After the year I’ve—”

“The defendant will answer the question.”

“No. I did not uphold my solemn vow.” Christina follows the script although her heart is far from being in it. It had been such fun last year. Now it all feels so juvenile.

“On the count of breaking your vow to drink only on the weekend, I sentence you to one shot of Restitution.”

Christina knows, unlike the newcomers, not to smell it. She just throws it back and prepares for the second and third doses to come.

“Your second resolution?” Jess demands.

“Resolution two: Do not speak ill of those not present to defend themselves.” That one had lasted all of twenty-four hours when she told her other group of friends Georgina had slept with two men in one night—one of them married. It had felt good having such a rapturous audience and her gossiping had in fact increased throughout the year to be on par with the worst of the tabloid press. She doesn’t even await her sentencing, she throws the shot down her gullet and the sickly burning sensation soothes her. She feels the rage building as she prepares for her third and ultimate failure. Angry is fine, she tells herself, parroting her therapist. Just don’t cry in front of everyone.

“And the third?” asks Jess. Christina thinks there might have been a hint of sympathy, as if Jess knows this one might be crossing the line. But she’s not so sympathetic as to just send her on her way and avoid the humiliation. Fuck you, Jess

Christina’s throat seizes and she swallows the mass down into the darkness to be revisited in the privacy of her apartment. “To get married,” she says with a psychotic grin. She feels her eyes sting and knows from unrivalled experience they’ve gone red and watery. The room falls silent.

Christina throws down the shot and grabs the decanter from Jess who appears to have been struck over the head, in shock, an unspeakable line has been crossed.

“Shit, babe,” she finally says. “I thought you said—oh, my god, I am so sorry.”

“No, no,” Christina says, brandishing the decanter and cup. “You have nothing to be sorry for.” She fills her cup.

“It’s cool, Chrissy. You don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Christina says and downs her fourth shot. Even her recently-acquired capacity for hard liquor is wavering under such an assault, and she feels very drunk all of a sudden. She sees Georgina with a pained look on her face. Patronising bitch.

“Who’s next?” Jess says, clearly uncomfortable.

“Last year,” Christina continues, “my fiancé and I committed to getting married this year. Right here in this room we got engaged. One of his other resolutions was to go overseas for the first time. So we went to France. To the snow—his other resolution. And while we were there, we stayed in this beautiful chalet in the Alps. Also staying at this beautiful French chalet was an equally-beautiful French woman.”

The crowd’s collective eyes now hang out of its collective head.

“And so my now ex-fiancé, Marcus, is still over there. And you know what? If he was here, he wouldn’t have to do one single shot of this fucking heinous shit because he didn’t break any of his resolutions. He’s travelled overseas. He’s gone to the snow. He’s gone and got fucking married.”

The crowd is now a sea of astonished eyes and gaped mouths.

“So, I’ll skip to the part where I lay out my new year’s resolutions. One: quality alcohol only. Life is too short for cheap booze. Two: Take up smoking. And three: more meaningless sex.”

Michael sends up a cheer he undoubtedly thought would have more support.

Christina hands Jess the decanter and cup, turns to the bar and says, “So I’ll see you later, Chase.”

It’s childish and the anxiety of regret is already festering in her chest but, after her outburst, Christina feels as some sense of being untethered from Marcus, however momentarily. Perhaps that was all she needed. To air her grievance to a group of strangers, rather than hope—unrealistically—that no one would have found out about the ignominious end to her engagement. Like what politicians do when a scandal is brewing; get out in front of the story.

As Jess resumes proceedings, it doesn’t take long for three men and a particularly broad-shouldered woman to sidle up to Christina with more champagne.

Georgina also finds her way over and says, “Babe, I’m so sorry. I did hear about you and Marcus, I just couldn’t get onto you. I can’t believe him! We have to go for a drink and you can tell me everything.”

Just one more shot, Christina estimates, and she’d have told Georgina her ring was trashy. “It’s fine, George,” she says. “Thank you,” though she doesn’t feel thankful. Georgina was only ever available between men and would almost certainly not commit to a one-on-one catchup to hear her depressing tale. 

Christina forces herself to brighten. “Anyway! Look at you,” she takes up Georgina’s hand and admires the gaudy jewel on her finger. Predictably, Georgina has forgotten Christina’s heartbreak and launches into the tacky proposal story though, in the small apartment combined with Georgina’s piercing voice, she’s heard it three times already.

The single men and lesbian listen intently while Christina mentally extricates herself from the conversation. She reassesses her resolutions for the coming year. She should have at least one commitment that’s not so self-destructive. Maybe she won’t take up smoking after all. Then, the drunken crowd’s ebb and flow conspires to part the mass for a fleeting moment. It is barely a second, but it is long enough. Michael, Georgina’s fiancé, squeezing the butt of another woman. The woman is not objecting.

Christina makes a resolution she knows she can keep without a shadow of a doubt: this will be the last time she comes to Jess’s New Year’s party.





January 23, 2020 23:43

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