'What's he doing here?'
The look on Ruth Jenkins' face suggested she thought she had more time.
'Red, please. Now is not the time,' she said.
'What, you can't speak now, is that it?' Red asked, pointing, not at his wife but the figure in the corner.
'Merry Christmas, Dad. I –'
'I knew it was you,' Red interrupted. 'The minute I saw them, I knew it was you.'
'Saw what, Red? What did you see?' Ruth asked.
'Shoe prints! Dirty shoe prints on my hall floor and the blades of grass he dragged in with him,' Red said.
'You jumped the wall, Elliott? Why didn't you use the front gate?'
'Why do you think, Ruth?'
'Red, let the boy speak.'
'I'll tell you why shall I? Because he knows he's not welcome.'
Red Jenkins marched from the living room door and found the switch he was looking for behind the Christmas tree. A moment later, the Christmas lights were no longer dancing.
'Red, what in the name of God are you doing? It's Christmas Eve.'
Red pointed. 'Not for him, it ain't.'
'Mom, it's okay. I understand. Dad has every right to –'
'Cut the crap, you hear me? How much do you want this time?' Red asked.
Elliott Jenkins, a peculiar shade of yellow, and perhaps two-stone lighter his mother guessed, leaned back into the cushion and unintentionally yawned.
'I don't want your money,' he said.
'Elliott, your teeth? What happened to your teeth?'
Elliot went to what Ruth presumed was scratch his uneven beard, when instead, he closed his mouth and cleaned his teeth with his tongue. Again, Ruth grimaced. Only this time, it was at the dagger-like fingernails idling around Elliott's mouth.
'You must be hungry? Why don't I ...'
Ruth lifted her rear end and was mid-squat when she felt pressure on her shoulder to sit back down.
Ruth looked at Red, who pursed his lips and shook his head.
'No. Not this time.'
'But, Red. He's hungry. Look at him.'
'I am looking at him.'
'And?' Ruth asked.
'And, he's the closest thing to a walking corpse I've ever seen. You're an embarrassment. You know that?'
'Red, stop! Elliott, tell your father you're hungry, will you?'
'Something on your mind, son?' Red asked.
Before he spoke, Elliott covered his mouth in a way he thought wasn't obvious, but it was.
'No. Why?' he asked.
'It's just – every time your mother says your name, you make a face.'
'Yes, a face! What, you don't like the way your mother says your name?'
'No, of course not. It's – well, no one calls me Elliott. My friends call me …'
'I don't give a rats ass what your friends call you, you hear me?'
Ruth tried hard not to, but she began to cry.
'Now look what you did,' Red said, tightening his fist pressed against his thigh. 'It's Christmas Eve. I was in the shower while your mother poured us a couple of drinks. We were about to watch a movie!'
Elliott started to cough.
'Red, pass him the water,' Ruth said, patting her nose with a tissue she'd retrieved from under her cuff.
Red took a moment, looked at his wife, and then at the glass of water from supper, he never finished.
Elliott continued to cough, only now it appeared uncontrollable.
Ruth lunged from her seat and took the glass from the table in one fell swoop.
'Oh, for heaven's sake, let me.'
Elliott took two mouthfuls while Ruth gently clapped him on his back. Red continued to stare.
'Happy?' he asked.
'No, I am not happy,' Ruth said. 'Do you realize I haven't been this close to my son in three years?'
'And what? It's my fault he chooses to smoke, snort, and inject anything he can get his hands on.'
It wasn't possible, but Elliott somehow managed to sink further into the cushion behind him and smile. A moment later, he was laughing.
'What is it, Elliott? What so funny?' Ruth asked.
'You remember the last time you guys went up the coast, right?'
Red and Ruth locked eyes.
'Sure, what about it?' Ruth asked.
'Well, me and a few of the guys, we burnt a big-ass hole in this sofa right here. Only you guys never found out, did you?'
'Elliott, what on earth are you talking about? There's no hole in that sofa or any sofa for that matter.'
Elliott continued to laugh, and Red thought about leaving to get some air.
'Jesus H. Christ, he's high,' Red said.
Ruth stood, leaned into Elliott, and took his face in her palms. She turned to Red.
'Are you sure? I mean, he was fine a few minutes ago.'
'Are you ever going to wake up, or is this it?'
'What do you mean, is this it?'
'Look at him, Ruth. He's an addict.'
Ruth lifted her palms and covered Elliott's ears.
'Doctor Appleton said never refer to Elliot as an addict, remember? It's a label. And labels do more harm than good.'
'Here we go again,' he said. 'Why don't I just get every cent I have, put it in a suitcase and leave it in Doctor Appleton's front lawn?'
'Get a grip, Red, for crying out loud. This is our son we're talking about and not one of your employees that's not pulling his weight.'
After a moment, Elliot shook his head from his mother's grip and stretched his eyes. He began to speak; only the first few words stumbled over his tongue.
'Look,' Elliott whispered, waving his hands. 'I don't want you guys arguing on Christmas Eve over me.'
'Well, you should have thought of that before you turned up on my doorstep looking like a drowned rat. Your mother spent all of yesterday polishing that hall floor, you know? And for what? So, she wouldn't have to listen to T harp on about her overpriced bespoke floor and her new kitchen.'
'T?' Elliott asked, debating with himself if another mouthful of warm water would quell the bout of coughing that was about to follow.
Red rolled his eyes.
'Your aunt, Tessa, you idiot.'
'Watch him for me, will you?' Ruth asked.
'Why, where are you going?'
'To put fresh linen on his bed.'
Red caught Ruth at her elbow and stopped her from leaving.
'You've shed enough tears for him, you hear me?'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Enough of the bullshit, Ruth. Three years ago, he left this house and never looked back. Three years ago, he left, and you spent the entire Summer in bed with the curtains closed. Do you know what it took to put you back together?'
Ruth swallowed hard and began to cry again. Red didn't like the way the soft tissue under her eyes was beginning to swell.
'But he's our son, Red.'
'And you're my wife, Ruth. And I made a promise three years ago, how I'd never let him hurt you again.'
Ruth wiped her eyes with the heel of her right hand, alarmed at the way Elliott was smiling to himself, the way his eyelids flickered now and again.
'As bad as this is, I know you, Red. You won't toss him out. Not tonight.'
Red considered this.
'One night. He sleeps on the sofa, and he's gone first thing in the morning.'
'Christmas Day, Red? You want to kick him out on Christmas day.'
'Fine. He can go now.'
Red went to move when Ruth caught him by the arm.
'Okay, okay. I want to give him breakfast, though. I'm not letting him leave here tomorrow morning on an empty stomach.'
'I don't care what you do as long as he's gone by the time I leave this room tomorrow.'
'What, you're not coming to bed?'
'No, I'm not coming to bed. I want to be right here where I can keep an eye on him.'
Red pointed to the faded leather one-seater by the fire.
Five minutes after Red made himself comfortable on the one-seater, Ruth returned, holding two pillows and two blankets. He watched as Ruth stretched Elliott the length of the sofa, propped his head with a pillow, and covered him with a blanket.
Red closed his eyes and sighed, and Ruth pretended not to hear. It was easier that way. Well, for now.
A moment later, Red felt a kiss on his forehead, and when he opened his eyes, Ruth was gone.
For the two hours that followed, Red Jenkins contemplated the repercussions of choosing to sleep on the sofa. It was here, around the same time Cool Hand Luke was testing the waters, that Red decided he would rather spend the rest of the night in his bed as opposed to the one-seater that was already wreaking havoc on an old back injury. Red turned off the Television, opened the living room door, and then he heard it. Ruth was crying. More so wailing, he thought. Red made it halfway up the stairs, a lot further than he thought he would, and turned on his heel. A moment later, he was back in the living room, unsure of what to do next, when he noticed Elliott's blanket had slipped to the floor. He also noticed that although Elliott was wearing shoes, he was not wearing socks.
Red lifted the blanket, 'Why, Elliott? What did your mother do to deserve this?'
Elliot began to cough, a painful one that forced his body into the fetal position. It was here the pillow under his head slipped to the floor. Red dropped the blanket and reached for the pillow. He thought about where to put it when a gust of wind and the draft that followed popped the living room door open. Not a lot but enough to know Ruth was still crying.
'Why, Elliott? What did your mother and I do to deserve this?'
Without thinking, Red took the pillow and set it on Elliott's face. There it sat, loosely, until Red tightly gripped the edges and leaned on it as hard as he could. Elliot continued to cough; only now, the pillow muffled Elliott's pain.
'You did this. Do you hear me? You did this.'
As Red tightened his grip and pushed the pillow further into Elliot's face, he shed one tear - one tear that would eventually settle on his bottom lip and remind him of the taste of vinegar. For the few moments that followed, time stood still until Red stopped, peeled the pillow from Elliott's face and made himself tall as his hands began to shake. Red went to say something when the phone inside Elliott's jean pocket vibrated and illuminated through the fabric.
Red doesn't know why he did what he did next, but he reached into Elliott's pocket and retrieved the phone, an old Nokia no longer in production. It read – one message received – so Red pressed the button and held his breath on the cracked screen.
'Hey Red,' the message said. 'We found a place to crash for the next few days. Hit me up when you get this.'