Xander Meets the In-Laws

Submitted into Contest #170 in response to: Fly by the seat of your pants and write a story without a plan.... view prompt


American East Asian Fiction

TW: Brief mentions of violence.

Nothing is as terrifying as meeting your in-laws for the first time. I’ve met killers that didn’t give me the dry acidic taste that’s dancing on my tongue right now.

            I asked to hold Tina. Using my baby daughter as a human shield might seem cowardly. Probably because it is. I’ve never had a relationship serious enough to meet family.

            Perspiration in my armpits threatens to ruin my first impression with the stench of fear. Tina is making chattering noises, once she starts talking, I doubt she’ll ever stop. The red glossy paint on the front door shows the reflection of Tina’s smile.

            Having thirty-five monstrous personalities in my head was more painful but less stressful than this.

            Maybe they’re out. Did I dodge the bullet? Footsteps beyond wood and gleaming paint dash my hopes. I lick my lips. Tina giggles.

            The door seems to open in slow motion. Mr Watanabe’s navy-blue woollen vest and white long sleeve shirt are immaculate. Every crease in my attire burns with shame.

            “Xander? Wonderful to meet you. I’m Takeo.” He holds out a hand. Tina tries to eat it. “My beautiful granddaughter.” He smiles with teeth that must be dentures or veneers.

I take his hand in mine and try to match the vigour of his shake. Handshakes are a life skill I never developed. Being a full-time vigilante living out of your car doesn’t call for a lot of hand shaking. Working in a bakery isn’t heavy on hand shaking either.

            When our skin meets, I’m in his mind, watching his memories. I see Billie as a baby in his arms. Watching her run in the park. Stapling missing posters of her to trees in that same park.

            “It’s great to meet you, Mister Watanabe.” My tone says it with the same warmth a death row inmate might decline to make a parting statement.

            “Come in,” says Takeo. He steps aside, waving me in with a hand. I take off my shoes on the wooden floor and push them against the wall with my foot. The next door has a stained-glass image of a yellow leafed tree.

            “Hi, dad,” says Billie. “You dressed up.”

            We enter a hallway lined with photos of Billie and her brother Reggie. Family shots taken on a yearly basis have them all grinning in matching outfits with autumnal backgrounds. The thought of a happy family makes me kiss Tina’s head. I promise myself she’ll have that.

            I see that Billie’s photos end abruptly, possibly a year or two before she went missing. A few years before I met her.

            Takeo leads me down the thick carpet to the dining room. Set out on a huge table is enough food to feed the clone armies of the Galactic Republic.

Billie’s brother is drinking coke from a glass near the kitchen door. He makes an awkward smile which I empathise with entirely. He raises the bubbling liquid to me. “Hi, brother-in-law.”

            “Nice to meet you, brother-in-law.” I give him an equally uncomfortable smile and bow my head.

            “I hear you don’t like handshakes, Asperger’s?” Reggie asks it as if he’s asking my favourite colour.

            “I guess so. I’ve never been tested,” I say. Billie often tells me I have a lot of the traits.

            “We’re all on the spectrum, right? That’s why it’s called the spectrum.”

            I just give a half-assed smile. I don’t know what to say to that and I can’t quite be bothered trying to come up with something.

            Tina makes a fussy noise, saving me for a moment from what for others is an awkward silence. I let her gnaw on my finger until drool slides down towards my wrist.

Billie’s mother, Kaede, emerges from the kitchen with a platter of a thousand gyoza dumplings. My mouth begins to salivate with the enthusiasm of a dog that’s seen a bone.

            “Hello, Xander. You have beautiful blue eyes. I hear you like gyoza? I hope I made enough.”

            “Enough for the whole street, Mom,” says Reggie.

            “Please, sit down. Will Tina be okay on your lap? We have a baby seat now.” Kaede sits the tray down in the middle of the table.

            “She seems alright just now. She likes to watch everything. Especially food.” I look at Billie, who sits down and pats a chair next to her. I realise I’m at one end of the table as her father sits at the other. “The food looks amazing.”

            “Mom’s been cooking for hours, we’ll be eating the leftovers all week,” says Reggie with a hungry smile on his face.

            “You’ve never seen Xander attack gyoza before,” says Billie. She rests her hand on mine. I look into her brown eyes as she gives me a reassuring grin.

            “We don’t say grace here, but we always like to say what we’re thankful for before a meal,” says Kaede. Though she must be at least fifty the only signs of age are her neck and the way the bones show through in her hand. She’s wearing a gold chain with a diamond over her blue shirt. Pearl buttons adorn it, worth more than everything I’m wearing.

I rub Tina’s tiny foot for reassurance. She kicks.

            “I’m thankful that we’re all together today. I’m thankful for meeting my beautiful granddaughter and her handsome father.” Billie’s mother winks at me when I look up from the back of Tina’s head.

            “I’m thankful that Xander found Billie in her hour of need and that both of them have left those dark times behind.” Takeo looks at me with demand in his brown eyes. Wrinkled skin is starting to sag down from his eyelids at the edges.

            “I’m thankful that my new bro showed up so that mom made all of this awesome food. Thanks, Xander.” Reggie holds up his coke again.

            “I’m thankful for my parents, my brother, my husband and my daughter.” Billie smiles and looks at me with eyes that are brown glittering diamonds.

            “I’m thankful for the most beautiful baby in the world.” I try to think of a second thing since it seems to be the minimum. “And more gyoza than I could possibly eat.” They all laugh because they don’t know I avoided mentioning that I can’t be thankful for a father that killed my brother and a mother who hung herself from the tree above his buried body.

            “Well,” says Takeo, “let’s eat.” He grabs his plate, chopsticks and starts taking one of everything.

Reggie says something in Japanese. I know the words father and brother. I know that the growled response ‘urusai’ from Billie means shut up.

            “It’s alright,” I say. “If he wants to know, I can tell him.”

            “Billie already explained about your family, Xander.” Kaede glowers at her son. “We don’t need to talk about it.”

            “She didn’t tell me.” Reggie looks annoyed. “Is it bad?”

            “My dad beat my brother to death and buried him in our garden. My mum committed suicide to escape.” I tell the story as if it’s a shopping list. I’m numb to it. A faded photograph of a skyline sits above the fireplace. I guess it’s Tokyo, where the Watanabe’s come from. Billie is third generation.

            “Shit. Sorry, Xander.” Reggie bites his lip.

            “Idiot.” Billie throws her napkin at him and storms out of the room.

            “It’s okay. Easier if people know than tiptoeing about it,” I say. “I’ve had a long time to come to terms with it all.” I bite another gyoza dipped in soy mixed with vinegar. My fingers still struggle with the chopsticks that I know are called ‘hashi’ or ‘ohashi’ to be polite.

            “How do you get past something like that?” Reggie asks around a mouthful of shumai.

            “One day at a time. I made a lot of mistakes. They led me to Billie, so maybe I shouldn’t call them mistakes.” I have drops of sauce on my sleeve. I’ll blame Tina if anyone notices.

            “And that’s probably as much as anyone needs to know about any of that, Reggie.” Kaede looks as though she’s trying to kick her son under the table. “Xander left all of that behind him, he’s working as a baker now. Is that right?”

            “It’s a concept bakery.” It sounds lame every time I say it.

            “You bake concepts?” Takeo’s question is half joke.

            “All of the stuff we sell is brought in frozen. We finish it off in our ovens, but we don’t make any of it.” Three blank faces look at me as Tina wriggles in my arms.

            “Is that as boring as it sounds?” Reggie asks.

            “It is, but we’re so busy that the day flies by. I like working the early shift now, I’m done halfway through most people’s workday.” I rub Tina’s head. Soft hair brushes against my fingers.

            “What’s it like having a baby?” Reggie asks. “My girlfriend keeps dropping hints.”

            “Tina is the best thing to happen to me since meeting Billie.” I look at the hallway door. “Maybe I should go and find her.”

            “Can I hold Tina?” Kaede’s micro-wrinkles form a smile of pure hope. I picture blissful cultists raising their hands towards their beloved leader. I hand over my joy to my mother-in-law.

Billie is sitting on the stairs. Tears have streaked through her makeup. “I’m so sorry for that, Xander. I told him to shut up.”

            “I know you did. It’s alright. They’re family now. Not telling them would be weirder.”

            “Where’s Tina?” she asks with a hint of panic.

            “Your mother is holding her as if she’s made of pure gold.”

            “My brother?”

            “Still sipping coke like it’s cognac.”

            “I love him, but I hate him sometimes. I’m sorry about all of this.” She wipes tears away and I catch a flash of her red painted nails.

            “Kiss me,” I say. I lean down. She purses her lips then presses them to mine. I feel her anger towards her brother. I see them fighting as kids. I see him standing up for her at school when people make fun of their lunches. I see the tearful reunion. My worn hand wraps around hers, I pull her up. “Let’s go and enjoy our family. He didn’t mean it. Where is the toilet?”

            “Under the stairs.” She pecks me again, probably leaving lipstick on my cheek. I watch her walk back into the dining room, her silky black hair bounces around her shoulders. A photo of the family in kimonos for the shichi go san celebration watches me. Seven-year-old Billie smiles with her three-year-old brother. Takeo’s hands rest on his daughter’s shoulders. Kaede holds Reggie’s tiny hand.

            In the toilet I let out the tears that have been clamouring to get out since we arrived. Every smile between these people reminds me of the life I could have had. A father. A mother. A brother.

            I wipe the tears away and wash my face with cold water. Today isn’t about me. It’s Billie’s day to bring the two halves of her life together, to be whole again.

November 05, 2022 01:38

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Delbert Griffith
11:02 Nov 11, 2022

Nice! I really liked the first four paragraphs; the descriptions of fear and sweat were remarkably well done. The story really flowed well, despite the events that could have made it an awkward read. The one thing that stood out was: Having thirty-five monstrous personalities in my head was more painful but less stressful than this. Is Xander a psychopathic killer? I know he's a vigilante. If he is a psychopath, then you portrayed him well, especially if he has Asperger's Syndrome. Everything felt real and smooth in this story, Graham.


Graham Kinross
11:13 Nov 11, 2022

He's got a lot of baggage. He's not a killer but he is a serious vigilante. The stories have been moving away from a darker beginning. This was the start: https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/qt7692/


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AnneMarie Miles
17:25 Nov 08, 2022

Despite the tragic undertone, a smooth, easy, and relatable read. It is somehow comforting how you write about tragedy and trauma in a way that normalizes it without invalidating it (though I am not suggesting the degree of your MC characters trauma is at all normal). We see how your MC can talk about his family quite hollowly, but we also see how it affects him in the last paragraphs. Meeting the in-laws is our relatability aspect, the part that grounds us. I smiled at the Galactic Republic reference, as my daughter is only requesting Star...


Graham Kinross
05:29 Nov 09, 2022

Thank you. If kids get into something they know all sorts about it. I’m a big fan of Star Wars but don’t know as much as a friend who always says he prefers Star Trek. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


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Lily Finch
04:12 Nov 07, 2022

Graham, you do have a knack for flair. I found this humorous and violent. But nonetheless entertaining. Well done! LF6 Nope, it was good.


Graham Kinross
06:37 Nov 07, 2022

Hopefully not too awkward. It had to be a little hard to read because of what had happened to his family, but I tried to keep it light in other places.


Lily Finch
14:14 Nov 07, 2022

Secret to good entertainment Graham.


Graham Kinross
23:29 Nov 07, 2022

I’ll try to keep going like that then.


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Lily Finch
04:09 Nov 07, 2022

A profoundly moving story, Graham. LF6


Graham Kinross
06:36 Nov 07, 2022

Thank you.


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Mike Panasitti
00:06 Dec 12, 2022

Nice depiction of extended family life for Xander. I like the way the Watanabes mirror the immediate family the protagonist would've liked to have. I thinks that brings me up to date on your psychically empowered vigilante series. I'm off to check out your story for this week.


Graham Kinross
00:36 Dec 12, 2022

Thank you and thank you and thank you. This story is sort of how I feel knowing a few people with young kids who have been in and out of hospital for serious issues and they ask how my daughter is and even just saying she’s good feels like rubbing it in their faces. The Watanabe’s just being happy I think would be like salt in a wound for Xander because he didn’t have that. Thanks again for reading.


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Graham Kinross
02:52 Nov 29, 2022

Thanks for reading about Xander. If you want to read what he gets up to next then you can use the link below. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/tsprsr/


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Amanda Lieser
03:34 Jan 11, 2023

Hi Graham! Wow! I had to read and re read this one a bit. I think that one off line about a cult was the part that threw me. I loved the way you created a sense of family in this piece and that super power was crazy fascinating. I’d love a sequel or prequel to dive into this more. I remember the first time I met my in laws-it is indeed one of the scariest moments of a person’s life. I’ll leave you with me favorite line because it was such gorgeous imagery: The red glossy paint on the front door shows the reflection of Tina’s smile.


Graham Kinross
03:47 Jan 11, 2023

Thanks, Amanda. This is one of several stories in the series. This was the first. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/qt7692/


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