Contest #226 shortlist ⭐️

16 comments

American Contemporary Drama

Thanksgiving dinner has ended in bloodshed the past two years running, so when my sister Claire requested that we wear red for the big family photo, I applauded her ingenuity. If someone bleeds, it’ll blend in and we can just power through as if nothing happened. How genius!  Although her career choice is not one I would choose for myself, I admire her determination. She is not going to let anything derail her holiday content this year, and heaven help anyone who gets in her way. 

I hope that since the last two Thanksgivings have been a disaster, this one will be better. What's that old saying–third time’s a charm? Or is it that bad things come in threes? Whatever it is, I am committed to laying low this year. I am excited to see my dad and my nephew Jaxon. The joy that I feel being with them is always enough to sustain me through whatever foolishness Claire or our mother have planned for the occasion. 

I smile when I see that Dad is sitting on the porch as I pull in the driveway, but my stomach drops when I get a closer look at him. His hair has grown back in, the first time he has had any in years. It is thin and wild in the breeze. Next to him is a shiny silver tank, and I can just make out some plastic looped over his ears. 

I lock the car and walk up the driveway with the green bean casserole in one arm, and a flask of Jack Daniels tucked under the other. He pulls me in tight for a hug. He smells like home. The sweater layered over his dress shirt is not thick enough to conceal his sharp shoulder blades and collarbone, but we won't speak of it. It’s not our way. Instead, he holds me in the embrace a bit longer than usual; an acknowledgement of thoughts we will not speak to life. 

“Hey Charlotte- how are ya?” he says instead, reaching for the flask and lifting it to his lips.

“Oh you know…” I shrug, glancing at the oxygen tank and the cane leaning against the wall. 

Dad swallows with a sigh of appreciation and inclines the flask back towards me.  I wave him off but she cocks an eyebrow. “I saw your sister unload a ring light and tripod from the car earlier.” 

He holds it out again and this time I accept. The burn rises up my neck and face and the front door opens just as I sputter a cough, revealing my mom and Claire behind it. Mom sees my flushed cheeks and frowns, and Claire does a brazen once over of my outfit. She is in stilettos and a fire engine red bodycon dress, so my red sweater, jeans and flats are frumpy in comparison. Judging by the approval I see in her eyes, I know I have hit the mark. I look good enough to be in the family pictures, but not good enough to steal the spotlight. I mentally pat myself on the back for getting it right this year. 

“Cutting it a little close to dinner, huh sis?” Claire says, waving Dad and I inside and patting each of us on the back.

“Mhmm.” I say, locking my jaw to keep from saying something sarcastic.  

“I’ll take that,” mom says, pulling the casserole dish from my hands. “And Jaxon is in the living room. He’s been waiting for you to watch the parade.”

The mention of my nephew gets me back on track, and I stride past them through the long foyer. My brother in law, Nathan, sits next to Jaxon on the dark leather sectional, not looking away from the football game to acknowledge my arrival. Conversely, when Jaxon spots me, he rips off his headphones and tosses his tablet aside before launching himself into my arms. 

“I missed you so much Aunt Charlotte!” He says, squeezing me tightly around the neck with his small arms. When I release him, he laces his fingers with mine and waves towards dad, leading the way down the hall.

Once inside the small guest bedroom, Jaxon jumps on the bed and lays down in the middle, and Dad and I take our spots on either side of him. We used to watch the parade all together as a family tradition, but over the years it has dwindled to just us three. We like it better this way. 

“How many big balloons do you think will be in the parade this year, Jax?” I ask, holding out my arm for him to cuddle at my side.

He pulls his brows together, and my dad and I exchange a smile at his look of deep concentration. After so many years, the parade is not particularly exciting to watch anymore, but experiencing it through Jaxon’s eyes gives it new life. 

“Last year there were twenty three, so I think twenty four this year.”

“Good guess, bud.” Dad says, handing him the notebook and pencil to keep tally. 

Too soon the parade is over and dinner is announced, so we trudge back out to the dining room to take our places at the elegantly decorated dining room table. Claire is closest to the camera, with Nathan and mom on either side of her. Dad, Jaxon and I are at the other end of the table, and I have never been so thankful to be considered the least photogenic of our family. 

“Looks like everyone is in frame...” Claire says, fiddling with her phone behind the tripod. I share a look with Dad as Mom uses her phone camera to check her teeth for lipstick. 

“We are just going around and saying what we are thankful for, ok? So stick to the script and this will be quick and painless.” She looks at everyone but me before taking her seat. 

“I’m sorry. Did you say stick to the script?” I ask, confused.

Claire sighs and briefly closes her eyes. “Yes, Charlotte. I knew you wouldn't take any suggestions, but I made it easy for everyone else and planned some dialogue for the video.” 

My stomach sours as I imagine what curated sentiments I am about to hear when she hits record. She is right, I would not have taken any of her suggestions, although I doubt that mentioning I am thankful for being Jaxon’s aunt would have been met with much resistance. But with Claire, you never really know. 

“Ready?” She asks, this time only looking in my direction. 

When I nod, she pushes a button and runs back to her seat, snapping her fingers to get Nathan’s attention. He pauses the football game playing loudly on his phone and sets the phone in his lap, just out of view of the camera. 

“I am thankful to have a job that allows me to be present with my family.” she says, smiling sweetly around the table. 

I quickly turn my head away from the camera so that the camera does not catch my gigantic eye roll. 

“I am thankful for my smoking hot wife!” Nathan adds. Claire throws her head back and laughs in a girlish way that gives Nathan the space to playfully bite her neck. She smacks him gently and beams for the camera. The move is so smooth that it reeks of a choreographed number. 

Jaxon is next. “I am thankful for all of this healthy food I am going to eat!” He waves his little arms over the table and then makes a cheeky grin to the camera. This time I am not successful at hiding my reaction. Even though the lie is harmless, I have to fight to control the anger that is rising in my chest. Sitting on the kitchen counter is a plate of freshly microwaved dino nuggets for Jaxon. He will not have a single bite of the food on the table. 

All eyes turn to me but I am still stunned. Why would she have him say that? There are so many other things he could have said that were true. Was it some weird flex that I didn’t know about to not let your kids eat dino nuggets on Thanksgiving? Who would even care? 

When it is clear that I am not going to speak, Claire’s plastered smile falls. 

“Ok, cut.” she huffs, pushing away from the table to stop the video. 

Jaxon turns to me, his face concerned. “Did you need help with what you are going to say, Aunt Charlotte?” 

“No Jax,” I say, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. “I was going to say that I am thankful to be your auntie. I just wasn't ready yet.” I say, sparing him from what I really think about this whole charade. 

“Ok let's try one more time. Ready?”

I nod, and in a near perfect reenactment, Claire and Nathan restate their lines, the bite, and the playful slap. Jaxon repeats his lie, and the table turns to me again.  I open my mouth to speak, then close it. 

Just say it, I think to myself.

I open my mouth again, but the words are stuck in my throat. I turn my gaze to Jaxon, hoping it will help the words come if I just focus on him. His eyes flash with panic as no sound leaves my mouth. 

Claire slams her fist on the table and everyone jumps. She shoots up, clattering the plates and silverware around her. “What the hell, Charlotte?” 

“I’m sorry…” I start, trying to diffuse the situation for Jaxon’s sake.

“Why are you so committed to making me miserable?” Claire accuses.

I scoff at the irony of that statement, and that only intensifies her rage. 

“Let me handle this Claire.” Mom says, her eyes apologetic as she turns her makeup caked face to me. “I know this is hard, sweetie. It's hard for me sometimes, too.”

I am not sure what I expected her to say, but commiserating was at the bottom of the list of possibilities. My shoulders drop in relief. “Yeah. Thank you mom, it really is…” 

“And it’s only natural to feel jealous of your sister…”

I recoil as if I have been slapped by the words. “Jealous?” I ask, incredulously. My blood is now boiling as I balk at the insinuation that any part of Claire’s life is something I would want for myself. Every single mean thought I’ve ever had about the two of them rises up, ready to be hurled at them at a seconds notice. I want so badly to put them in their place. I want to grab Jaxon and get far away from this. I want to hurt them the way that they have hurt me.

Dad reaches out and puts his hand on top of mine just as I open my mouth to start launching my insults. I turn to meet his eyes as my shoulders are heaving. I have to press my lips together as hard as I can to keep the vitriol that has built up over the years from spewing out. 

He shakes his head at me, his eyes saying what I already know. 

It won't make a difference. 

Nothing I say will change them. 

And most of all, Jaxon doesn't need to hear just how rotten his parents are when there is nothing I can do to save him from them. 

I let out a dejected sigh through my nose and turn back to Jaxon, giving him a tight kiss on the top of the head as I stand. “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Jax.” 

“Thank God.” I hear Charlotte say as I walk away. 

“Can we just film without her?” My mom suggests, but I am too far away to hear Claire’s response. 

I enter the guest room and close the door behind me, lying down to stare up at the ceiling and attempt to control my breathing. Frustration morphs into hot shame as I think about Jaxon. I should have done my part. If I had, I would be sitting out there with him now, exchanging a dino nugget for a bite of the marshmallow topping of the sweet potatoes. Why couldn’t I just say that I was thankful for being Jaxon’s aunt so that we could move have on with the night? He already has enough to deal with, and I always strived to be his safe place. I let him down. 

I wipe my eyes at the sound of a soft knock at the door, not wanting to let Claire or mom see my tears. Thankfully it is neither, and Dad shuffles in the room to sit down next to me. 

“I’m sorry, Dad. I should have just said that I was thankful for Jaxon and let it go. I didn't mean to ruin the night.” 

“I know,” he says, patting my leg. “But you don't owe me an apology. I came in here to apologize to you, actually.” 

“What?” I ask, my eyebrows pulling together in confusion. “Why would you need to apologize?” 

He takes a deep breath before speaking. I sit up straighter and turn towards him, wanting to hear everything he is about to say. I can tell by his expression that I will want to take in every word.

“As cliche as it sounds, one really does start to put things into perspective when they are at the end of their life.” he starts. I nod, knowing where this is going. “We put up with a lot for those that we love. And we find joy in the little moments amongst the more tedious ones.” 

He’s right, as usual. But it is a bitter pill to swallow. “So we just let them be awful all the time? I hate that they make Jaxon be part of the facade.”

“Well, I can promise you that nothing you do will ever change them, and that there's a good chance Jaxon will turn out just fine anyways.” 

“How do you know?” I say, wishing that I believed he was right. 

He puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes it. “Because look at how great you turned out.” 

I blink, taking in his words. Was my upbringing really that similar to Jaxon’s? 

The picture perfect holidays of my childhood flash behind my eyes, not unlike the one happening back in the dining room. Images of mom putting so much energy into the way the house looked and planning the perfect meal, but never slowing down to just be with us. The eventual division of mom and Claire versus dad and me, and finding the joy in the little moments, just like he said. All of my best memories as a child are with my dad, and I am a reflection of him just how Claire is a reflection of her. 

“We finished the silly video, so come back and eat with us. Let’s turn this around for Jaxon’s sake. The kid is like them, but he is also a lot like us, too.” 

I nod and follow him back to the dining room, unable to deny the ways that Jaxon takes after us, feeling renewed in the task of being a positive influence in his life.  Jaxon beams as I take my seat next to him, and I reach over to steal a dino nugget when I see that all of the marshmallow topping is scraped off of my sweet potato serving. The table is silent for just a moment, but when Jaxon starts to giggle the group takes a collective sigh. Even if we have different approaches, each of us want what is best for Jaxon. He deserves to have a holiday with his family, and if we can't agree on anything else, we can at least agree on that. 

1 year later 

Pulling up to my parents house just is the same as last year, with green bean casserole in one hand and a flask in the other. At the table, we say how thankful we are for the camera, we take the family photo, and Jaxon counts twenty six balloons in the parade rerun. Before my mom cuts the pie for dessert, I sneak out back with the flask and let a few tears fall, ones I have been holding back all night. 

Lifting the flask skyward, I make a quiet toast to my dad, wondering how I will be a light in Jaxon’s life when I have lost the light of my own. 

“Who are you talking to, aunt Charlotte?” I wipe the tears and tuck the flask into my back pocket as Jaxon approaches and laces his hand in mine. 

“I was talking to grandpa.” 

He frowns. “I miss him.”

I swallow. “Me too.”

“Is he listening?” he asks, looking up at the sky. 

“Of course,” I nod. “Do you want to say something to him?”

He thinks hard, pulling his brows together in contemplation. After a moment, he steps forward and says, “Grandpa, there were twenty six balloons this year. And don't worry, Auntie Charlotte and I are continuing all of our traditions forever and ever.” 

I nod, his statement perfectly complete without needing to add any more words of my own. I squeeze his hand and leads me back inside. 

December 02, 2023 04:57

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16 comments

Mary Bendickson
17:04 Dec 08, 2023

Well, welcome to Reedsy and here is your reward. 🥳 Congrats on the shortlist. It is a very shortlist so very well done.

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Nikki Blake
19:09 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks so much! I am honored to be shortlisted

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Sean McDonnell
19:34 Dec 08, 2023

I'm so happy to see this published! Wonderful story!

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Nikki Blake
03:30 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks Sean!

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David McCahan
15:41 Dec 07, 2023

This is a beautiful story. The sibling rivalry tension is palpable. Very well done.

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Nikki Blake
03:57 Dec 08, 2023

Thank you so much!

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David McCahan
19:37 Dec 08, 2023

Congratulations on the Shortlist! Well deserved!

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David Sweet
14:03 Dec 02, 2023

Fantastic story! Well-paced. The dialogue is very natural too. I really likes the undercurrent of tension without the ordeal getting too out-of-hand. I expected it to perhaps be a real altercation with real blood from the indications of your opening, but it unfolded beautifully. Welcome to Reedsy! Good luck in all of your writing endeavors.

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Nikki Blake
17:34 Dec 02, 2023

Thank you so much! Your comments made my day :)

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14:23 Dec 13, 2023

Welcome to Reedsy!! First story? What a great first! And congratulations on the shortlist! Look out everyone, we have yet another extremely talented writer in our midst! Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them - I reckon it's the first one :))

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Story Time
23:09 Dec 11, 2023

I thought you had a very interesting take on sibling dynamics. Great job, and looking forward to reading more.

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Philip Ebuluofor
07:43 Dec 11, 2023

I like the ending very well. It's informative too. I think I will start implementing some of the traditions here. Congrats.

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Hannah Lynn
23:47 Dec 08, 2023

I love your story! What a sweet ending with Jaxon :) Congratulations on the shortlist! Well done.

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Nikki Blake
03:30 Dec 10, 2023

Thanks so much! I am honored

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David Sweet
18:17 Dec 08, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist. I knew it was a great story when I read it.

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Nikki Blake
19:11 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks David!!! I am so thrilled :-D

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