Flickers of an Unfullfilling Life

Submitted into Contest #108 in response to: Start or end your story with a house going up in flames.... view prompt


Fiction Holiday Drama

The couch was comfortable. It was one of those expensive ones that they advertise on TV during reruns of Grey’s Anatomy on ABC. The ones they want you to think you can afford when actually it costs about a month’s rent and isn’t even that cozy. This one is, though. And knowing her sister, she probably got it on sale or won it in some kind of home furnishing Instagram contest. Nina hated the couch.

She hated the rest of the room, too. The exquisitely polished, wood-stained coffee table at her knees was a “fluke find at a garage sale” which is really code for “I sent Miles scouring the city for this exact table”. Nina’s glass of water sat sweating on the dark brown surface, while a stack of coasters was placed just within her reach. Oh well, she thought, happily sitting back in her seat.

The wall adjacent to the horrible couch and disgusting coffee table housed a massively grand grey stone fireplace that reached all the way to the ceiling with an honest-to-god wood burning fire underneath. The smell could be bottled and sold as the perfect winter scented candle, however obviously overpriced. Beth had sold us on coming to her’s for Christmas on this fireplace alone. 

“You guys will not believe how beautiful this piece is. Mom, you will die.” She had said on the phone to their mother after having just gotten their application approved to buy the house. Even the risk of death could not keep their mother and, in turn, the rest of the family, away.

Atop the mantel were frames and frames and candles and frames and more frames. Pictures of her sister, Beth and her sister's husband, Miles. Pictures of their parents. Pictures of Miles’s parents. One picture of Nina, Beth, and their youngest sister, Cory. Pictures of Miles and his brother, Adam. A lit candle stood perched on each edge of the mantel. Why anyone needed small, tiny fires right on top of an already massively large fire was beyond Nina. 

To the left of Nina and the atrocious couch and the right of the ostentatious fireplace stood a, couldn’t have been shorter than ten foot tall, Christmas tree. Decorated to perfection, of course, with white and gold tinsel draped delicately from top to bottom. Upon closer inspection, Nina could tell the branches looked a little dry at the tips. Nina smiled smugly. 

“I can’t believe this house has so many rooms!” Nina’s mother commented to Beth as they strolled back into the living room. Beth had just given her a tour while Nina and her father sat, silently, waiting for their return. 

“I know! We really lucked out.” Beth’s self-righteous voice pierced Nina’s ears. The way she said “we” like it didn’t crush Nina every time she thought about her sister being married to her ex-fiancé. 

Miles Andrew Jones, her high school sweetheart turned almost baby daddy turned cowardly lion. The news that she was pregnant at age eighteen had not been joyous for anyone, least of all Nina. But Miles had promised, albeit reluctantly, to stay by her side. He bought a ring, he put it on her finger and he swore up and down that he would be there for her, for their family. Until he realized that it would mean not being able to go across the country to Stanford University where he got a full ride to study English Literature. 

He took off like a bat out of hell and Nina watched the dust settle on the ground after him. She supposed, after penning four NYTimes bestsellers, he had no regrets about his decision to go; least of all coming back home to Boston after four years and falling in love with her older sister. Nina hadn’t even told him she lost the baby. He found out through Beth on their third date. 

“Oh, honey, you were all so young. You’re adults now, surely you should be over it.” If Nina had a penny for every time her mother had said some variation of that to her over the last seven years, she would be able to afford this couch. 

Plopping down on the cushion directly next to Nina, her mother gave a slight squeeze to the knee crossed on top of her other. Nina did not acknowledge the act. Instead, she looked with muted delight at the fat ring of water now forming in the space where her cup met the “absolutely adorable!” wooden coffee table. 

“Nanny, you just started your new job, right?” Beth asked as she took a seat in a decorative armchair across from the couch. Beth knew well and good that Nina’s new entry level position at some unknown advertising firm was nothing to brag about and Nina knew well and good that Beth’s new promotion from vet tech to veterinarian was something she would love to brag about. She also knew using Nina’s childhood nickname was not going to curry favor with anyone. 

Nina looked up from her glass to meet Beth’s eyes. Her face was stone, the steady expression she often kept for her sister when she tried to engage with her. Her mouth remained closed.

“Pearson Advertising won’t know what hit them!” Their mother overcompensated, as usual, for the awkward silences. She placed her hand again on Nina’s knee but kept it there this time. The action was annoyingly helpful at keeping Nina’s temper at bay. 

They sat in silence. The ice clinked against Nina’s water glass as it melted, drawing Beth’s attention to the lack of coaster. Barely moving from her seat, she reached forward and as skillfully as if she’s done it a thousand times, slid the coaster underneath Nina’s glass. Nina silently hoped the damage was already done.

“Disappointing that Cory couldn’t come.” Beth said to the room as she settled back into her chair. 

“Oh, you know. Young love and all that. Her and Sarah send their love from Michigan.” Mom said back to her. Beth knew neither Dad nor Nina would respond. It’s taken years at this point just to get them all in the same room. It’ll take a few more to have a civil conversation, Nina was sure. 

She would forever be grateful to their father who never wavered from her side through the most difficult time in her life, unlike the one other who had made promises to do the same. 

“Men are absolute pigs, bud.” He had said. And of course, he was right. 

“I just wish she was here. Miles and I have--” Her voice was cut off by the sound of a door swishing open. 

“I’m sorry! I didn’t realize the butcher would be so busy.” His gruff voice was heard before he turned the corner. After huffs and puffs and seconds of tight anticipation, he met the room, bags in hand, coat and scarf half off his shoulders. “Hi, everyone.” 

“Miles!” Mom jumped off the couch to greet her son-in-law. He was just able to place the bags on the floor before her hug would’ve toppled them all over. 

His smile was still startling to Nina. He was always the most beautiful person in the room, even in high school. When he laughed, locks of dirty blonde hair would fall in his face and he would let them, even though they blocked the view of his perfectly light brown eyes. 

Nina hadn’t seen Miles in person in years. His hair was now cut neatly and slicked back with a side part but the corners were peppered with grey. He had worry lines around his eyes and the carefree face he once lived in must’ve moved out long ago. He looked tired and wore-out. He looked troubled.  And Nina smiled when she noticed. 

“Take your coat off, honey. I can’t wait any longer!” Beth skittered his side, grabbing the sleeves of his coat to assist him. No one knew what she was so excited about but the pit forming in Nina’s stomach wasn’t a good sign. 

Nina watched Beth place his coat on the rack by the door, spin around, grab his hand and face the room. The way they were standing, it was as if they formed a barricade blocking anyone from exiting the house. The thought didn’t sit well with Nina. Miles took a very deep breath in.

“Guys.” Beth started. “Miles and I have some big news we really want to share.” Nina’s lunch threatened to return the way it went down. Her mother, still standing near the happy couple, stepped aside, exchanging a look with her father. 

“We’re pregnant.” Miles announced to the room. Mom gasped in delight, covering mouth. Dad sighed. Beth matched Mom’s glee with a squeal. Miles looked at Nina. Nina swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. 

Beth and Mom were in the throws of celebration, not noticing anything else in the room. Her father, without a glance in anyone’s direction, stood from his seat, took a cigarette out of his back pocket and walked directly out the front door. 

“We’ve known for three months and it’s been so hard to hold it in!” Nina heard Beth’s voice but she couldn’t look at her.  There was a ringing in her ears that made hearing momentarily difficult. Instead, she looked at the mantel. At the frames and frames and candles and frames and more frames. 

She heard the sounds of rustling, maybe the words “baby” and “garden shed” and “all pink”. She couldn’t be sure. She stood up and walked to the mantel. She placed her hand on the photograph of her sister and her sister’s husband. 

Behind her, the room fell silent. She finally looked around to see she was alone. Voices carried down the hall and out a door to the back garden. She looked back at the mantel, her fingertips grazing the frame. In her peripheral vision, a small, glowing flame flickered from the candle nearby. 

The photo was taken at their childhood home. Beth’s birthday party. Miles had come to celebrate. Nina picked up the candle.

They had made an announcement at that party, as well, Nina remembered. They had announced that they were in a relationship and they were happily, blissfully, inconceivably in love. Nina gripped the candle tightly in her left hand. 

Picking up the frame, she brought it close to her face to examine the background. There she sat, young, alone, miserable. Like she’s been for seven years. Like she’ll always be. She lengthened her arm, the candle inserting itself into the dry bristles of the flawlessly decorated Christmas tree. The flame caught immediately, fast and wild. Nina dropped the candle as the scalding flame pierced her skin. She also dropped the frame, letting Beth and Miles’s euphoric faces smack against the hardwood. Their smiles splintered in the broken glass. Their eyes danced against the reflection of the ever growing fire.

Nina sat back down on the couch. It was comfortable. She hated it.

August 23, 2021 14:12

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