Christmas in Primary Colors – Leigh Ann Gerlach
My sister and her second husband are screaming on the front lawn. She’s drunk, he’s drunk, and it’s Christmas—the season, not the day. The sky is its angry shade of Philadelphia wintertime gray and as the snow falls, it’s turning to rain.
Outside, lit up by green and red and yellow Christmas lights, Lizzie is shaking Jeff’s shoulders with all her small and furious might.
Those two have been fighting for weeks. He hasn’t been staying at the house but for some reason he still won’t go away. I’m 12 and I know he loves Peter more than Lola, and we all know it, because Peter’s the boy, and because Peter is technically his kid, so he loves him more than Lola, and probably Lizzie, too; after all, she’s not his flesh and blood like the baby is. He didn’t make her.
Festive lights on the other houses pop on, or don’t, like some people are waiting and other people don’t give two shits. Even the people who care don’t really; they just want to make sure your family is crazier than theirs. Now there’s a game where nobody wins.
I keep thinking I’m seeing headlights at the top of the hill, but it’s just the street light flickering. I don’t know if I want my mom and the kids to come home or stay gone. Having Child Services take the kids away would really be the worst; if that happened, Lizzie would really lose it.
Jeff is at top volume, but I still can’t make out what he says last. The lawn goes quiet before headlights flare and four hot tires squeal their way up the icy street. I slide each shifted blind back into place before rolling across the floor like a ninja to lock my bedroom door.
The front door slams. I jump into bed at the sound and pull my covers up to my chin. I even put an extra pillow over my face and hope I can pretend to sleep until morning. No such luck.
We live in a split-level; Jeff and Lizzie stay downstairs in the room that used to be a garage. Peter and Lola have a room upstairs, and then so do I and so does mom. It’s a good thing dad isn’t around because there’s no room for him anymore anyway.
There’s rustling in the living room and even though I know better, I leave my room to see what’s going on. Down the hall, kneeling on the rug, there’s Lizzie—half crying, pulling gifts from a big black plastic sack. Some of the presents are wrapped already, some aren’t. When she sees me, she says, “I’m wrapping presents. Santa’s almost here and he needs the help, you know.”
She’s speaking much too slowly and emphasizing all the wrong parts of her words.
“I know about Santa,” I say.
“Oh,” she says. “Of course you do.”
She’s manhandling the wrapped gifts, ripping thumb-holes and rubbing the ink of the fragile paper. I grab tape from the hutch where we keep the bills and sit down next to her to start taping up the holes. She looks at me with sad eyes and says, “Thank you,” and hands me a little clear sack of metallic sticky bows. Her breath smells like wine from an ash tray.
She pulls a bird doll—one of the tropical pirate kinds—out of the bag. He’s covered in red and green and blue furry feathers. His box announces his name is “Petey the Parrot! A best pal who learns from you!”
“Squawk!” Petey chirps, introducing himself. “Would you like to be best pals?”
Lizzie’s face is like the sky.
Lizzie presses the button again. “Squawk!” Petey chirps. “Who’s ready for adventure?”
Here’s what happens next: Lizzie looks at me and laughs an awful, mean, scary laugh and flings Petey clear across the room. He hits the wall with a “Crack!” and his little noggin snaps off, but stays attached, dangling from blue and green wires. I freeze like you’re supposed to if a dinosaur sees you.
She gets real weird and quiet and fixes her eyes on I have no idea what. Then she says, “If you ever really, really want to kill yourself, you can’t do it with pills. They’ll just wake you up with the worst headache of your life. You’ve got to slit your wrists up and down. Not across like people always do on TV.”
“It’s the only way you’ll bleed out,” she says like I didn’t understand.
Tears sting my eyes right away, so I look down at the floor, grab a shiny red bow from the bag and work on fixing it over a rip.
She looks at me, coming back to earth, and gives her head a little shake. Instead of saying something, she just goes and picks Petey up, walks into the kitchen and buries him in the trash.
Leigh Ann Gerlach is a low-residency MFA student with the University of New Orleans’ creative writing program. She lives in the Greater Philadelphia Area.