Mary-Ann Lewitt sat at the little table in the kitchen, reading her book. It was snowing outside, with big white flakes spiraling out of the blackness beyond and dashing themselves against the windowpane. Chatter flowed out from the living room, the occasional laugh interspersed with the conversation and the sound of the TV.
The kitchen itself was cozy, still warmed by the frenzied cooking of that afternoon. The smells of dinner still lingered in the air. Now that had been a meal, the kind where you didn’t plan on moving more than a few feet for the next day or so. When Big John Courtemanche, Rabbi Arnheim, and Rigatoni Carbonara IV shared a kitchen, there was no alternative.
Technically, it wasn’t a Christmas party. It was the “Completely Secular and Non-Denominational Winter Celebration of Fellowship and Goodwill towards Mankind (Please Check Your Attitude and Weapons at the Door)” party. Someone’s tongue had been planted firmly enough in their cheek that Mary-Ann guessed that some sort of surgery would be needed to remove it.
The bizarre thing was that it worked. There was not a single decoration of religious significance on display in the entire house. That would have pained Big John. The man was practically Santa Claus already: gigantic white beard, ruddy complexion, wide around the middle, and a habit of punching heretics.
“You’re being anti-social, Mary-Ann.”
She looked up to see Salah at the kitchen entry. He was holding a mug of hot chocolate, and wearing a horrifically tacky sweater: bright red with a goofy-looking snowman on the front.
“And I didn’t think you’d actually wear that.”
“I am a Pakistani-born British Muslim who is working alongside a motley array of Christians, Jews, and sundry other faiths to fight the horrific things that lurk in the dark corners of creation.” He took a sip from his mug, clearly using it as an excuse for dramatic timing. “I should think that by now I would have a fine-tuned sense of irony.”
“Or you just refuse to refuse a gift.”
“That too.” He sat down in the opposite chair, left ankle resting on right knee. Another sip. “There’s something on your mind. Talk to me.”
Mary-Ann sighed, putting on a smile for it. She placed the napkin she had been using as a bookmark back in its place.
“Yeah. Okay.” She set the book down on the table. “You got me. I guess it’s just that time of year is all.”
“Spending time with family doesn’t mean much when they never want to see your face again. Except maybe in a police report.”
“Ah. I know the feeling. If my father could see me now, he’d probably burst an artery out of sheer rage. But alas, he is dead.”
“I mean, it’s not as bad as it was last year. Last year my Christmas was a TV dinner I shared with my cat. I’m okay out here, Salah. Really, I’m okay.”
Salah nodded, taking another sip of cocoa. There was quiet for a bit. Maybe he was done, maybe he was just pausing. She didn’t feel like opening her book back up, because it felt like he was about to say something.
“Remember that spirit we exorcised from that restroom?” he said.
“I don’t think I’m going to forget the ghost that lived in a toilet and spent five hours telling me I had a nice butt. And also that it wanted to eat it.”
“And that was when you threatened it with a plunger.”
“That was when I exorcised it with a plunger.” Mary-Ann smiled for a moment. “Though that was just an awful day in general. Way too hot outside, no air conditioning in that building, job took like five hours. I mean, it’s funny now, but I know we were both ready to kill each other and quite a few civilians over it.”
“And, you know, I think it might have had some eyesight problems. Really, on a scale of “plywood” to “dayum”, my butt is maybe an “eh, okay”.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
There were shouts from the living room. Someone had scored a touchdown, apparently.
“You’re doing that thing, aren’t you?” Mary-Ann said.
“That thing where you start innocent conversations to make people comfortable. You’re trying to lure me into a sense of security so I’ll start talking about my feelings.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Well, it’s working. It’s definitely working…” her voice trailed off.
“It’s…I don’t know, I’m more comfortable out here. You know me, Salah; I don’t really have other friends. I mean, I know them, I talk to them, but I’m not really friends with them. Not really.”
“You know Di and Aaron, and I know you’ve spoken with Anas and Rasha before. Just come in and talk with them for a while.”
“I’m all right.”
“It’s…I’m just…I’m scared, Salah.”
“What are you afraid of?”
Mary-Ann twirled a lock of hair around her finger, her eyes focused on the base of the refrigerator, across the kitchen.
“A lot of things.”
There was a pause. In the living room, Di was energetically arguing literature with someone else.
“Hm. Have you seen the progress they’ve made on the Universal Texts? Almost fifty pages done, I hear," he said.
“Yeah. Pretty good for sticking a post-it note with ‘Abraham was a pretty rad dude’ on the wall.”
“So then, gentlemen, what progress have we made this week? Well sir, we have determined that Moses was also a pretty cool dude.”
A limp chuckle rose from that.
“You’re doing it again.”
Salah shrugged again.
“If it would make you feel better, I’m willing to speak first.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’d be better.”
“Very well then. My greatest fear is myself.”
Mary-Ann’s face was quizzical.
“Twenty years ago or so, I would have loved nothing less than to burn down this house. Smuggle a bomb in under my sweater, detonate it when everyone was gathered together, one final blaze of glory as I was whisked away into Paradise.”
On the list of things Mary-Ann considered plausible, that statement was very, very low on the list, somewhere between “Beatles reunion tour” and "actually getting around to reading Les Miserables".
“I was a very angry young man. Very angry with no easy outlet. No job, no family of my own, amid many others of the same state.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever even seen you anything more than mildly irritated.”
Salah waved a hand absently.
“That we can attest to development of character. Needless to say, I…” he paused mid-sentence. A skinny man with a colander on his head ran into the kitchen, grabbed a plate of cookies off of the counter, and ran back out. He nodded politely as he exited.
“That is possibly the most awkward man I have ever met.” Salah shook his head. “Anyway, needless to say, I did not end up splattering myself across the pavement and murdering innocents for the glory of God. That story is for another time. What is important here is that I am still afraid of that angry young man. You see, he never left. He’s locked up. In here.” He pointed to his head. “And in here.” He pointed to his chest.
“Then hasn’t he won, if you still fear him?”
“No. I fear him the way a zookeeper would fear a tiger. It would be idiotic to be without fear, and impossible to do his job with too much.” He drained what was left of his cocoa. “You need to find the proper amount.”
Mary-Ann let out a long breath, leaning forward in her chair. Another chuckle.
“Kinda hard to follow up on that one, Salah.”
“Don’t rush yourself.”
“Okay…yeah. I guess…guess I’m afraid of myself too. Afraid I’ll just get hurt again. I get close to people, and either I push them away and burn the bridge, or they die. It’s easier not to care. Hurts less.”
“But being alone hurts too, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. It does. I feel hollow. Just a shell with a hole that can’t be filled up.” She paused, staring out at some indeterminate point on the other side of the kitchen. “I don’t want to be alone anymore, but I can’t do it. I’ve tried, but it just hurts more.” A pause again. “It sounds pathetic, but it’s the truth.”
Salah pulled a napkin from the dispenser and handed it to Mary Ann. He said nothing. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes.
“Just take your time. You'll get through it. I know it.”
Mary-Ann balled up the napkin and tossed in in the garbage.
“Could I catch a ride home with you? I think I’m partied out.”
“Of course. I’ll grab my jacket.” Salah stood up, washed out his mug, and stepped out of the kitchen. Mary-Ann could feel a weight lift off of her spirit. Not all the way, but enough. Enough for now. She stood up, taking her book with her, and walked into the living room. Maybe she’d talk to them more next time.
Yeah, she could do that.
“Sorry to cut and run, but I’ve got to get home. Thanks for having me. See you all around later.”
The good-byes strung themselves together, hugs and handshakes and wishing well, and RCIV making everything awkward by exclaiming “Be blessed by the Noodly Appendage!” Mary-Ann had a smile throughout, a small one, but genuine. It was enough for tonight.
Salah was waiting for her in the kitchen. He was holding a small package wrapped in red tissue paper.
“One last thing.” He handed over the package. “A gift from me.”
Mary-Ann tore off the paper, revealing a set of CDs, held together with a rubber band.
"Yes, outdated, I know, but there's a proper feel to them."
"Thanks, Salah." Mary-Ann smiled. "It means a lot."
Salah’s car floated through the inky night, headlights piercing the black, fat flakes of snow swirling and dashing about. Mary-Ann sat back in her seat, eyes closed, letting the violins and the lilting voice wash over her.
In demon days, it's cold inside
You don't get nobody, people sigh
It's so bad, lasting far, but love yourself
Hiding in a hole in there
They drove on through the night.