Changing Nature (inspired by Dinosaurs)

Submitted into Contest #228 in response to: Include in your story a scene about a family's last meal before a significant change.... view prompt

1 comment

Drama Sad Horror

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

The oven gave a gentle roar, like a purring kitten. The fire crackled. Outside, an iIcicle snapped but made no noise as it punctured through a mound of snow. The rhythmic wagging of Sir Bently’s tail against the hardwood floor syncopated with the ticking clock. Though no one noticed, a man fell to his knees across the street. 

Lauren took a sip from her warm cider. It was taking forever.

Just when she thought it couldn’t be any longer, the timer went off. Mother opened the oven and pulled the roasted turkey out. She was wearing her Wizard of Oz mittens, the ones she only wore on special occasions. 

“Right here, Sarah, right here,” said Father. He’d cleared a space on the countertop. Presents, all deliciously wrapped and decorated, stacked nearly every available surface. 

“Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!” whispered Taylor, the youngest. She smacked her plastic fork and knife against her high chair. 

“Rude,” said Nicholas, attempting to wrestle the play-utensils from her. She wailed and giggled. 

Father began to carve the bird. Mother busied herself with the other dishes while the kids set the table. Well, except for Taylor, who triumphed in her victory over Nicholas, smacking her toys against her little table even harder. No one seemed to mind. 

Sir Bently bustled between the legs of the family, hoping to catch any food that fell. Some did. 

The clock ticked on, filling the silence as the family settled at the table. 

“Prayer?” asked Father, his hands outstretched. Nicholas high-fived the hand closest to him. Little Tay-Tay shook the other. 

“James, come on,” said Mother. 

Lauren couldn’t help noticing the sad look in her mom’s eyes. “What’s going on?” she asked finally. “What’s with all the presents?”

Father cleared his throat. “We’re in for some nasty weather. Just going to open our presents a little early is all.” 

Lauren nodded. “Okay… why?”

“So we can play with them early, obviously,” said Nicholas, his eyes wide. He looked longingly at the boxes. The ribbons dazzled and looped, suspended in time. The clock went on ticking. 

“Be sure to eat your mashed,” said Mother as she plopped some onto Tay’s table. Nicholas was digging into the turkey but motioned for Mother to pass the spoon and bowl. Father furrowed his brow at the boy. 

“What?” asked Nicholas, throwing a wad onto his plate. “Gonna need all the carbs I can eat. ‘Man of the house’, remember?” 

At this, James blinked. The inner corners of his eyes reddened. “Man of the house, right.”

Only Lauren seemed to notice. Taylor licked her mashed potato fork like a lollipop. Usually, Mother would scold her for that behavior. But for once, the parents were silent. Lauren pieced it together. One good meal. That was all her parents wanted for Christmas, just one good meal without yelling or an argument. She could sympathize with that. 

“How’s school going, dear?” asked Mother. 

Nicholas and Lauren glanced at each other. Which one of us? Nicholas decided to go first.

“Pretty boring,” he said. “I’ve managed to get a lot of work done.”

“They sent you home with schoolwork? Over Winter break?” asked Mother. 

“Yeah,” said Nicholas. 

“Me too,” said Lauren, her mouth stuffed with cranberry and gravy-covered turkey. 

“What’re you guys doing, then?” asked Father. 

“Math, mostly,” said Nicholas. “Everyone else is stuck with third grade math, but Mrs. Kelper said I can do fourth-grade fractions.”

“Impressive!” said Mother. 

“Very cool,” said Father, taking a solid bite of stuffing.

“How about you, La-La?” asked Mother. 

Lauren hated being called that. She opened her mouth to say something nasty but reconsidered. This was supposed to be a nice family dinner for once. She wasn’t about to jeopardize it. 

“We’re reading a lot of poetry. Especially about Winter.” 

“Any favorites?”

“More jello!” cried Taylor. 

Mother didn’t shush her. She closed her eyes and seemed to take in the sound of Tay’s voice like the lapping of waves against an ocean shore. “Of course, honey,” she said and plopped another spoonful onto Taylor’s plate. 

“Isn’t that a little much?” asked Lauren. 

Sarah made a sound like a sob. She covered her face with her napkin. 

“You okay?” asked Father.

“Yes! Yes, I’m fine,” said Mother. “Just sneezed is all.”

“Bless you,” said Nicholas. 

“Bless you!” said Taylor. 

“Bless you,” said Lauren. 

“Gesundheit,” said Father. The family gave him a half-hearted chuckle. Sir Bently waddled over to the fire and yawned. 

“What poetry did you say you were reading?” asked Mother, composing herself. 

Lauren quirked an eyebrow. Mighty sneeze, she guessed. “Uh… Robert Frost, mostly.”

James gave a grim laugh. “Fitting,” he mumbled. 

“Yeah, I guess,” said Lauren. 

“A guy named Frost during Winter,” chuckled Nicholas. “That’s like, an idiom or some stuff.” 

Lauren rolled her eyes, “Irony.” 

Nicholas sighed, “Yeah, that one.” 

“Can you remember the poem?” asked Mother.

“Actually, yeah. We had to memorize some of it for when we get back.”

There was a silence at the table. The clock ticked on, and the fire crackled. Sir Bently had gone still with sleep. 

“Give us a listen,” said Father. 

“I hope it’s cheerful,” said Mother. 

“Sing!” said Taylor, not knowing what a poem was, “Sing, La-La!”

“Uh, okay…” Lauren started, “Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice–”

“Nope!” said Sarah. “Not that one, don’t like that one!” Her voice was shrill, practically hysterical.

“Jesus Christ,” said James, clutching his forehead with his hand. “Damn school.” 

“I don’t have to finish it,” said Lauren. 

“Yeah, let’s not,” said Mother. “Nicholas, why don’t you tell us what you’ve been up to in your… video games!” 

Lauren had seen her parents act weird before. But this was a new tier entirely. Mom’s gotten medicated, finally, she thought. 

Nicholas went on about his games with glee. Lauren watched with fascination as both of her parents feigned interest. Taylor seemed incapable of listening to any more. Her head lolled. 

“Nap-time, sweet pea,” said Father. He scooted the chair back and helped Taylor free. She was crashing hard. 

“I think I’ll second that,” said Nicholas. He joined his father and baby sister on the couch. 

It was just Mother and Lauren now. 

“You’ve barely touched your mashed,” said Mother, quietly.

“Yeah,” said Lauren, looking over at Sir Bently, who had grown so still she wasn’t sure if he was sleeping anymore. “It tasted a lil’ funky.” 

“Rude,” scoffed Mother. 

“Sorry. I just didn’t like it.”

“That’s okay,” said Sarah, distantly. “The jello was enough.”

“Enough of what?” asked Lauren, her throat tightening. Her pulse seemed to flare. 

“Enough to fill you up,” said Mother. “Come on, let’s sit with the rest of the family. I’ll clean all this crap up later.”

Lauren watched as her mother drunkenly walked over to the couch. She plummeted down next to Father and Nicholas. Taylor was cradled in her father’s arms. 

Lauren made to stand but the room spun a little. Intense drowsiness washed over her.

One moment she was standing, the next, she was sitting by the fire, her hand absently petting Sir Bently. He wasn’t breathing. 

Her pulse beat faster, but only for a moment as it slowed, slowed, slowed.

She looked over at her family on the couch with sleepy terror in her eyes. 

“What did you do?” she asked her parents. 

Sarah said nothing. A faint snore escaped her lips but was growing ever fainter. 

“One last Christmas,” said James.

Lauren stared at her father. “What. Did you. Do?”

“It’s better than lasting the cold.” Her father rubbed his face, fighting the sleep washing over him. He began to recite the poem from school: 

“Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I've tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.” 

“Dad… what?” Lauren’s words were sinking into a darkness of sleep. “What did you do?”

“Our fires brought us ice. Ice eternal.” His eyes were nearly closed. He gasped and then opened wide again. “Company gave us notice. One final Christmas.” 

Lauren’s eyes wandered to the window. Outside, the darkness howled. The lamposts had gone dark and she could no longer see the neighbor’s houses. 

“How… how bad is this storm?” she asked finally. 

Her father’s head rested on her mother’s. “The worst.” 

Lauren’s body went numb. The warmth of the fire was fading. She huddled up next to it. 

“That’s what we get… for changing nature,” said Father. 

Together, the family slept. The fire crackled and the clock ticked on.

December 08, 2023 20:08

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1 comment

Mike Whitman
11:05 Dec 21, 2023

I liked the story, but I noticed that the pacing was a little quick, particularly in the transition from the warm family scene to the revelation of the impending disaster. While the overall atmosphere and tension were effectively built, slowing down the pacing at certain points could enhance the emotional impact. Here are some suggestions: The initial family scene was vividly portrayed, but there's an opportunity to further explore the dynamics between the family members. Adding more details about their interactions, expressions, and emotio...


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