Rhonda downed the convenience store espresso and tossed the can in the backseat as the dashboard clock blinked over to 6:03pm. It clanged and rattled when it joined the others piled on the floor. She popped open the glove box, snatched a handful of yellow Wendy’s napkins and wiped the windshield, which was now covered with a thick nicotine film. The haze might be considered dangerous to most people. To Rhonda, it was an inconvenience. A chore. Another thing she had to do to maintain and upkeep.
Cleaning. Showering. Keeping toenails trimmed. Being alive was a lot of work and it never let up.
The clock flickered over to 6:06pm. Rhonda wondered if it officially became Christmas Eve once the sun had set, or now that the clock declared it evening.
She lit another cigarette, even though she didn’t want it. Her mother’s timid text invited her to come by “around 6-ish.” Rhonda decided it was still too close to 6:00 to qualify as 6-ish and that she should wait a bit longer.
Her knee bumped the overflowing ashtray as she adjusted in her seat, toppling the mound of butts and ashes on the passenger side of the floor. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” She brushed the ash off her jeans and cracked the window.
6:12. What the hell is 6-ish, anyway? And why did she agree to this stupid Christmas Eve bullshit? Sure, staying home in her little trailer might’ve been lonely, but it was hers. She tripped over the hole in the floor at least once a day but nailing a piece of plywood over it and covering it with a bathmat kept out the cold. The neighbor had a goose for some reason and Rhonda despised that stupid bird, but home was still her sanctuary and at least when she was there alone, no one said anything wrong. No hurtful words to echo and bounce around in her mind for the rest of her life. No new bruises or scars. She didn’t have to fight her way out of anything. Unless maybe she was careless enough to let herself be cornered by that goddamn goose.
All the required maintenance involved with being alive was enough of a hassle. Having another person around to pile shit on top of it was at least somewhat avoidable.
At 6:20, Rhonda took a deep breath and grabbed the plastic bag from the passenger seat. She almost opened the car door and carried everything up to her mother’s apartment in the bag, then glimpsed the dollar store logo emblazoned on the front. A bitter twinge of shame surged through her. The feelings of embarrassment irritated her. Why should she feel ashamed for being a thrifty shopper? Because it’s Christmas? Fuck that. She leaned forward in her seat, craning her neck to take in the view of where she was. A rotten old apartment building adorned with abandoned cars, a fragmented wooden fence, and what was most likely a colorful array of derelicts. Besides all that, did the people she was about to see deserve any better? Well, maybe not, but one of them did. One of them was innocent.
Rhonda went to check herself in the rearview mirror, then, remembering it had fallen off, she reached into the backseat and fished it out from among the books, clothes, and fast food bags filled with crumpled wrappers. She wiped the mirror with her coat sleeve, ruffled her bangs with her fingers to fluff them, then tossed the mirror over her shoulder.
“Fuck it.” She hoisted her sack of Christmas presents and exited the safety of her rolling garbage can.
Candy’s apartment was on the 4th and highest floor of the building. Rhonda trudged up the noisy wrought iron stairs. The elevator appeared to be in working order, though a bit sketchy, and taking the stairs would allow her a few more precious moments of procrastination. Before she reached the 3rd floor, she regretted her two-pack a day habit. She paused when she arrived at the top floor, gripping the iron railing, and considered rewarding herself with a smoke, but upon taking a deep breath to gauge the ache in her lungs, decided against it.
She knocked on the door, allowing herself one small hope: that no one would answer. She’d drive home, never receive a phone call, or have to deal with anyone asking her why she didn’t make it for Christmas Eve. They’d just forget each other, once and for all. No more screaming. No more warring, abuse followed by wary, awkward reconciliation. Just done with a whimper and no more bang.
But that could never happen because of the boy. He was here now, and his presence ensured that Rhonda would never be able to walk away and remain silent ever again.
The door swung open, assaulting Rhonda with an invisible maelstrom of too many stimuli at once. Christmas carols with a saccharine, pop music candy coating. A rainbow of flashing lights. A screaming baby. The comforting scents of hot cocoa and cinnamon intermingled with the toxic, cloying smell of chemical air freshener spray and a pungent odor reminiscent of a fishery. A video of a flickering fireplace illuminated the screen of the little TV in the corner, which rested atop a plywood cabinet. In the center of all this sensory mayhem stood her mother.
“Oh, good! You made it.” Candy’s face was flushed, her cheeks and chin a trio of shiny red apples. Rhonda’s chest tightened at the sight of it, hating that her own face did the same thing when she strained too much, or had a few too many drinks.
A few too many drinks. Maybe nothing had changed after all. Maybe her mother had been lying when she left those pathetic letters in Rhonda’s mailbox. The ones Candy wrote from inside her car while Rhonda watched surreptitiously from behind the curtain, then slipped into the mailbox because Rhonda wouldn’t open the door. Sad, syrupy letters about how much she regretted being a bad mother. How she stopped drinking. How she had another child, now. A baby boy who would be her chance to do it all again and get it right this time.
The do-over baby.
Rhonda had just been practice. A parenting crash test dummy.
Those alcoholic apple cheeks. Rhonda looked past her mother, at the playpen in the corner opposite the flickering videotape fireplace. Tiny, chubby fists and feet wrapped snug and warm in footie pajamas flailed as the baby shrieked. Rhonda turned to her mother. “‘Course I did. Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Well, come on in. Take your coat off.” Rhonda handed her ratty pea coat over to her mother and sat down on the sofa. One of those weird sofas from the early 70s upholstered in autumnal-colored velour with the rustic picture pattern of an old-timey water wheel mill held together in a wooden frame. The plastic dollar store bag crinkled as Rhonda sat down and only then did she notice how tightly she grasped the bag’s flimsy handles. She opened the bag, looking up once toward the apartment’s tiny kitchen before she did so. Shame flushed hot and red from her face to somewhere deep in her chest as she looked down into the mess of cheap toys, cookies, and festive nonsense she’d bought in flurry of hasty resentment earlier that day.
She reached into the bag, deciding she could scatter the objects under the tree in a strategic way to make them appear more cheerful and less pitiful. A clanging sound from the kitchen interrupted her plotting, reminding her of the time her mother bounced her head off the washing machine, demanding that Rhonda fight her, even though Rhonda was only seventeen and had no idea why Candy was pushing and slapping her, screaming at her to throw a punch.
Rhonda turned the bag upside down and emptied the contents on the couch next to her. A stuffed bunny stared up at her from the ugly velour print with big, stupid, adorable eyes.
“Hey.” A man’s voice behind her. Rhonda tore her gaze away from the bunny and looked up at the short, balding man standing on the other side of the coffee table. His blond hair curled out in all directions, except for the top of his head, where it looked as if his forehead was trying to make its way to the back of his neck. His belly, like his front teeth, protruded in a way that made Rhonda see them before fully taking in the man behind them. One thumb was hooked in the pocket of his jeans. The other, along with the index and middle fingers on the same hand, was missing. He stood before her, duck footed and clownish before coming to sit on the other end of the sofa.
“I’m Boyd.” He held out his five-fingered hand.
Rhonda shook it, grateful that he’d offered his complete hand. She’d never shaken a partial hand and wasn’t sure if you were supposed to ignore the missing digits or acknowledge it.
As they shook over the pile of festive dollar store merchandise, Rhonda said, “So, you’re the new guy.”
A hint of a smile twitched in the corner of Boyd’s mouth. “I am.”
“You a drinker?”
Boyd nodded, still smiling. “I was.” He turned to the playpen, where the baby was still screaming. “Well, that’s about enough of that.” He rose and picked up the infant, then lowered himself down to the sofa again.
“You haven’t officially met your baby brother, have you?”
Rhonda shook her head.
He leaned over and set the baby on her lap. “Here you go, Ronnie. Say ‘howdy’ to your big sister.”
Rhonda stiffened, then relaxed as her brand-new brother scrunched his face at her, as if to say, “Hey, it’s weird for me, too.” Then he smiled a fat-cheeked baby smile. Rhonda picked up the bunny and held it out to him. He squawked, then seized it with his unbearably tiny hands.
“I thought it was cute,” her mother now stood over them, holding a dishtowel in front of her. “Ronald. Rhonda. It’s cute, right?”
Rhonda wanted to point out the nearly thirty-year age difference between her and Ronnie, that nothing about a woman Candy’s age having a baby was cute. Instead, she nodded. “Yeah, I guess it’s kinda cute.”
Boyd turned back to the kitchen. “I’ll go keep an eye on the stew while you two catch up.”
A wave of anxiety rushed through Rhonda. She didn’t want to be left alone with her mother and this baby, even if this guy was a weird stranger who would likely be gone in a few months.
“We met at AA.”
“Oh.” Rhonda shifted the baby in her lap. “That’s cool.” Wanting to change the subject, she continued, “What’s that smell? Are you cooking fish or something?”
“Well, you know I’m not much of a cook.”
Rhonda reflected on a childhood filled with little more than bologna and ketchup, peanut butter and butter sandwiches, or tuna fish with peas, resulting in her being scrawny and underweight with brittle nails and hair and skin problems until her mid-20s.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“But I thought that since this is a special occasion, I’d make more of an effort. So, I went all out. We’ve got sandwiches, chili, oyster stew, cookies, pie, hot cocoa…”
“Wow,” Rhonda says, “You made a variety of stuff, didn’t you?”
Candy shrugged. “I wanted there to be choices. I thought if I gave everyone plenty of choice, I could only get it right.”
Rhonda stares at the fake fireplace crackling on the TV. Fuzzy lines distinct to a tired VHS tape stretched and blinked across the screen. Her stomach lurched at the strange mix of foods her mother listed. She didn’t feel like eating. She just wanted to go back to her broken trailer surrounded by goose shit where no one would expect any reactions or approval from her. But she gave a sign of feigned appreciation anyway. Attempting an impersonation of a cheerful, smiling daughter, she said, “Sounds good. I’m starving.”
They all sat together in the cramped living room, which was festooned with twinkle lights and sparkly garland. A plastic tree about 3-feet tall sat atop a little footstool in the corner next to the TV stand. Rhonda presented Boyd and her mother with the small bit of bric-a-brac she brought for them. Christmas ornaments. Cookies and a chrome picture frame. When they both accepted them graciously, as though they’d been hand delivered straight from the halls of Versailles, Rhonda wished even more that she could turn herself inside out and disappear. She placed the rest of the things she brought for Ronnie under the little tree, taking care not to disturb any of the wrapped gifts that were there. Then she noticed the analog clock on the wall next to the front door in the shape of a big, green duck. 7:14. Too soon to make an exit.
They ate cheese and crackers and drank juice while Boyd and her mother talked about AA. About how they met. About their new life. About all the hopes they were pinning on baby Ronnie.
He now rested in Boyd’s arms, slobbering on his dimpled baby fist. When Rhonda made eye contact, he smiled, and his pajama-clad feet kicked up and down. Soft blue and white light blinked on and off, reflecting in his eyes, illuminating them, and giving their twinkle a magical spark.
Rhonda feared for him.
And she envied him. His mother was his mother. Not a threat to defend against. Not an enemy to battle, or an angry memory to be reconciled. No resentment. Just a mother who held him and fed him and cooed to him to soothe him to sleep.
Boyd asked Rhonda about her job. Instead of explaining how she got fired for rolling in more than twenty minutes late too many times, she shrugged and said she was in manufacturing. In place of the truth, which was that she was terrible at her job, and spent most the time she was there searching for ways to entertain herself, she told Boyd it was going just fine, and she was happy working there, and yes, brought home a decent paycheck.
“Good for you.” He held up his two-fingered hand. “My days of working manufacturing didn’t go so well.” He laughed. “Looks like you still got all your bits and pieces, so it must be working out better for you.”
The more time she spent talking to Boyd, the more she liked him, despite her best efforts not to. Liking someone her mother had chosen wasn’t completely unheard of, but Rhonda learned long ago that it was always better if her mother shacked up with someone detestable. Sooner or later, they’d be gone, and it was easier to tolerate an asshole or an imbecile for a while, then celebrate their departure than it was to imagine them staying. To play with them, wish them to be a father. To start calling them “Dad.” To love them and watch them leave. She was too old and too detached from her mother’s life now to be concerned about emotional connection, but Ronnie had a whole world of broken plans in front of him.
Her mother made repeated attempts – gentle and without prying – to learn about Rhonda’s life. Her friends. Her love life. Rhonda offered little information, angry with herself once she realized she might be doing so not out of a concern over her privacy, but because she might actually care what these two old 12-stepping fuck-ups thought of her.
“Oh, remember that one kid you were dating when you were still in high school?” Her mother laughed and sipped on hot chocolate from a mug designed to look like a Santa Claus head. “That red-headed guy with the mullet. He was cute. He’d always be so shy and polite when he came to the door to pick you up for a date.”
Rhonda stiffened on the couch, stunned, wishing she could sink into the dusty old velour and implode into nothingness. Her mother’s delusions and twisted memories confused Rhonda and left her unsure about her own feelings. Rhonda wasn’t sure if she pitied Candy’s poor grasp of reality, or if she was enraged at how wrong she was about her own daughter’s life.
Mark. That kid with the red hair and the green van with the little porthole windows at the back. Yeah, Rhonda had it bad for Mark. So bad that she blew him in the back of that van and tried to boost his ego when he failed to perform or return the favor afterward. So bad that she cried and asked him not to break up with her the following week, even though he’d lied to everyone at school and spread it around that he’d fucked her in the ass.
“It’s just not worth it,” he’d said, leaning against that ugly van in the school parking lot. “I want to date someone who can go out. Every time I call your house, your mom goes off about whatever thing you’re in trouble for that day and won’t let me talk to you. When I come over, she’s all drunk and crazy. You’re always grounded and have to sneak out. I don’t wanna deal with all that shit.”
Back in the present, in the tiny apartment, her mother says, “Whatever happened to him? Did you keep in touch?”
Rhonda shifted on the sofa. “Plane crash. He’s dead. The other passengers ate him.”
Boyd let out an amused snort.
Her mother’s eyes grew wide. “What?”
Rhonda shook her head. “Nothing. Don’t listen to me. Did you say earlier there was chili or something?”
Candy’s face lit up. “Chili, and oyster stew. Are you hungry? I could make you a sandwich, too.”
She wasn’t hungry but was willing to eat all manner of questionable soups or stews to change the subject.
Somewhere between her first and second bowl of chili, the plastic duck on the wall read 8:21. Candy tried to talk Rhonda into spending the night, claiming it would mean a lot to Ronnie. Rhonda was convinced that babies had no strong opinions on sleepovers, or anything aside from eating, sleeping, and shitting, which she could get behind.
She made excuses, which were sincere. “I don’t have anything to sleep in,” and others, which were not so sincere. “I have plans with friends tomorrow morning. I really can’t break them.”
Her mother’s obvious disappointment had no effect on Rhonda but observing Candy trying to hide that disappointment was something else. Something Rhonda couldn’t identify, but that felt like a hammer of guilt breaking her own heart into lonely little shards. For a fleeting, panicked breath, Rhonda sensed the prickle of impending tears in her nose and eyes. But tears for what? For the mother she never had? The mother this woman was attempting to be? Or the fact that she couldn’t let herself make it okay for this woman to even try?
In a feeble attempt to mitigate any cruelty on her part, she found herself asking for more of the bland, watery chili.
Rhonda allowed her mother to reminisce some more about false or distorted memories and attempts at bonding until after the baby was down for the night and Boyd had gone off to bed.
Inside the apartment, the quiet began to swell. The video of the crackling fireplace came to an end. Now and then, Rhonda heard one of the other residents of the apartment complex shouting or slamming a door. After one particularly loud banging sound, her mother explained that there were some “real characters” living in the building, but that she and Boyd didn’t interact with any of them very much.
“They seem to have a lot of drama going on and we’re both a little burnt out on all that. Besides, we’re too busy with Ronnie and you know… other stuff.”
“Yeah,” Rhonda said. “Other stuff.”
Another heavy silence then. So heavy that for a moment, Rhonda felt certain that she could hear the blinking Christmas lights clicking off and on.
“I know I did everything wrong,” Candy said in a quick breath, as though in a hurry all of a sudden. “I know you had to grow up too much, too fast. And I know there’s no way to rewind and fix anything.”
Rhonda held up her hand in a stop gesture. “Is this one of your 12 steps? Are you doing some making amends shit, or something?”
“No. I’m not on that step right now, I just want to say it. I know I could’ve made things easier for you, but I didn’t. I did what was easy for me, even if in the end it wasn’t easy for anyone. I just hope that this time, with Ronnie, I can get it right.”
“It doesn’t work that way.” Rhonda stared hard at her mother.
“It doesn’t work that way. You don’t get a practice kid to fuck up, then say, ‘Oh, I didn’t get it quite right. Let me have a do-over.’ You just have the kids you have, and you never stop fucking up any of them and you never get to stop trying to make everything okay for both of them. My childhood wasn’t a dress rehearsal, and you won’t get everything right with Ronnie.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“No.” Rhonda shook her head, ran her hand through her choppy hair and leaned back on the couch. “I know you didn’t.”
The twinkle lights again, blinking as loud as a thunderclap. Her mother folded her arms across her stomach, then put a hand over her mouth, retching.
“Oh, jeez.” Rhonda jumped to her feet. “Damn, I didn’t mean— are you okay?”
She gagged again, harder this time, then suddenly reached out for the plastic Dollar Store bag Rhonda had left sitting on the arm of the couch.
Rhonda watched in helpless horror as her mother heaved and puked into the blue plastic shopping bag. The warm, sick odor of regurgitated oyster stew permeated the tiny apartment and Rhonda did her best to conceal her own gagging reflex from her barfing mother, who had begun to cry, her vomiting now interspersed with tiny sobs.
A few minutes later, when the green plastic duck read 10:32, a pale and sleepy-looking Boyd emerged from the bedroom. He started to say something about the oyster stew not agreeing with him, but his train of thought was evidently derailed at the sight of his significant other weeping and vomiting into a plastic bag.
As he went to her, Rhonda allowed herself a moment of pride at making the decision not to leave the bag with the rest of the trash in her car. Boyd wrapped his two remaining digits around the handle of the bag to dispose of it in the dumpster outside while Rhonda handed her mother one of the little snowman napkins from the coffee table.
“I had this stupid idea that I could make up for lost time if I could just get Christmas right. Our first Christmas together in I don’t know how long, your first Christmas with your new brother, and I go and make food that gets everyone sick.”
“You can’t make up for lost time, but… I’m not sick.”
“You didn’t eat the stew.”
“Nope. So, see? Everything else was okay. Take the good with the bad.” She rose from the couch, filled a glass with water and brought it to Candy. “Besides, this wasn’t as bad as that one year when you brought the homeless guy over on Christmas Eve and he fell ass-backwards into the tree.”
Her mother groaned.
“No, I mean it was funny. Well, not at the moment he was passing out in the tipped over tree and all the smashed ornaments, but… it’s funny now. This’ll be funny later.”
“Oh, yeah? How much later?”
Rhonda looked up at the duck clock, narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. “I’d say about an hour or so? Maybe a little longer if you get the shits before morning.”
Her mother took another sip of water. “An hour?”
“About that. Hour and a half, tops.” Then, before she could change her mind and talk herself out of it, she heard herself say, “Well, maybe I could spend the night. Help you and Boyd with Ronnie since you’re both gonna be feeling like hell in the morning.”
“But what about your plans with your friends?”
Rhonda glanced at the clock again, remembering a brief time long before she’d become this person. A time when watching the clock on the night before Christmas was due to an overwhelming anticipation and joy, a sense of wonder and hope for holiday magic. For a moment, she considered fessing up about her lie, then thought better of it. “I can cancel. They’ll understand. Plans change.”
It repeated in her head until she finally lost track of time, the faint echo of her own voice, becoming a subconscious mantra: plans change.
Rasmenia Massoud is the author of three short story collections and her novella Circuits End, published by Running Wild Press, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019. A second novella, Tied Within, was published by One More Hour Publishing in 2020. She lives and writes in the UK. You can visit her at: www.rasmenia.com