Day three of "25 Christmas Eves" appears below. Every day between the 1st and 25th of December, I'm posting new genre fiction. Today's is a short piece entitled, "Mistletoe."
By: Erin L. Snyder
Wendel’s taken by surprise. A heavyset, balding man in his mid-thirties, he’s not used to this kind of attention, especially from someone like Patty, and he finds himself stuttering to follow-up with some clever response he never fully forms. A siren sounds out in the distance behind him, and Francine cracks a joke about it being some kiss. Patty almost falls back into Wendel’s arms cackling with laughter and manages to catch herself, though a generous portion of her eggnog makes it out of her mug, flying through the air to land square in the middle of Wendel’s green and red sweater.
“Oh. That’s fine. Don’t give a second thought,” Wendel says needlessly - the event never even merited an initial thought in Patty’s head: she never noticed.
Wendel takes a deep breath to give it a third go, but the fates aren’t on his side. Jake pulls him away to introduce him to Karen, who’s maybe more his type, anyway. Meanwhile, Jon’s ladling eggnog into another mug. He fills it to the brim and runs it over to Patty. He holds it out to her but pulls it back when she reaches.
“Mistletoe,” he reminds her, arching his eyebrows.
She wrinkles her nose and presses her finger into the center of his chest. “You got your kiss,” she reminds him.
“I know,” Jon replies. “But I don’t make the rules.” He steals a kiss while he hands over the drink, swapping it for Patty’s empty cup. When he draws back, Patty coughs. “Is my breath that bad?” he asks humorously.
“It’s not you,” Patty says. “It’s this air, you know? I’ve been feeling it all afternoon.” She takes a swig from the fresh mug.
“That should fix it,” Jon says, trying hard to not to sound too eager.
“How many of those has she had?” Beth asks Karen, who’s been regretting hosting the party ever since her husband, Barry, excused himself since he wasn’t feeling well. Karen shrugs, feeling less than protective of Patty since she unilaterally decided Barry wasn’t exempt from the law of the mistletoe.
Another car pulls up, and the doorbell rings. Patty pulls it open and is disappointed to see Julia standing in front of her. “Jon,” she says, grabbing his arm. “You’re up.”
Jon glances at Julia. “I don’t think Julia wants to--” he starts, expressing a reluctance he hadn’t shown for Francine or Melissa.
“It’s a rule,” Patty says, hitting him on the arm. “It’s... I was reading about it. It’s a pagan ritual. If you don’t do it, Christmas doesn’t come. You don’t want to ruin Christmas, do you?”
“Can I come in?” Julia asks, still in the doorway, right before Patty grabs her and practically bashes her head into Jon’s. Behind them, the flashing lights of a passing ambulance paints the snow the color of holiday lights.
Jon does his diligence, while Patty claps and Beth stares on in disbelief, already regretting locking lips with Jon when she arrived.
Julia pushes Jon away and rolls her eyes. Kyle shrugs innocently.
“It’s a rule,” Patty says again, when Julia glares at her.
“Mistletoe is poisonous,” Julia says, before pushing by to get herself something to drink. Karen meets her halfway.
“Jules! I’m glad you made it!” She throws her arms around her old friend. “I thought Irene was coming with you.”
“She wanted to, but they needed her at the hospital. With everything happening, they said--”
“What’s happening?” Wendel asks, interrupting the conversation. He’s not so much interested as bored.
“Oh, you know. Didn’t you read the paper? About the birds?”
“Hey!” Kyle yells from the other side of the room. “We should get out the games!”
“No,” Karen says, excusing herself from Wendel and Julia. “Kyle, we’re not... those are for later.” In Karen’s mind, “later” means “never,” since she’s hoping the party will die down within the hour. If someone pulls out Twister, she knows she’ll be lucky to get them out before two in the morning. “Oh, Beth. Beth, honey. Please turn off the TV.”
Beth mutes the sound but leaves it on. There’s some kind of news special cutting back and forth between pictures of dead crows and a hospital.
Patty coughs again, this time louder.
“Huh,” Wendel says, rubbing his throat. His gaze is locked on Patty, who’s still coughing. He’s about to come to her rescue, but Jon beats him to her, offering a green handkerchief from his pocket. People like Jon will always beat him, Wendel thinks.
“You okay, Babe?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” Patty says, embarrassed. “It’s just the air, you know?” She starts laughing, but it disintegrates into another coughing fit.
Come to think of it, Wendel’s feeling a little something, as well. Briefly, he wonders if he might be catching a cold. He looks around the room and decides it must be the weather: everyone looks a little uncomfortable, just like Patty said. He jumps when he hears something thump against the roof.
“What was that?” Kyle asks.
“Sleigh bells!” Melissa says, coughing once herself.
“Just rain,” Karen replies, sipping her drink and wondering how many of her guests are planning on crashing on her couch and whether she can find a polite way of preventing that from happening. The last thing she wants waking up to on Christmas morning is a handful of hungover guests who’ve outstayed their welcome.
Patty’s still coughing away. She gets a hold of herself after a minute. “Eww,” she says, drawing Jon’s handkerchief away from her face. It’s perfect for the holiday now, with a streak of red cutting through the green.
Everyone except Kyle stares silently. But Kyle makes his way to window. “It’s not rain,” he says. “It’s... it’s birds. There are birds falling out of the sky.” He’s speaking softly, too surprised to feel alarmed. “Is it because of the cold?”
Jon recoils from Patty when he sees the handkerchief, and something brushes through his hair as he steps back. He swipes at it, as if it was a bug, but it’s just the mistletoe, now swaying overhead. He opens his mouth to say something, but his throat feels dry, brittle, and cracked. He tries to clear it, but it just comes out as a cough. In the very back of his mouth, he can taste droplets of blood.
In the distance the sirens howl. The television, still on mute, shows men in masks rushing around a hospital already full. The word, “Pandemic” appears in bold black letters.
And the mistletoe keeps swaying back and forth, like the pendulum of a clock counting down the seconds to Christmas.