In other words, the time of the year my parents put their everything's-alright smiles on and Anabelle fills the toilet with puke so that she can pretend to be filling her stomach with food when all our relatives come over--the time of the year we all pretend to be normal.
It's also the anniversary of Runner's death. But, like they always do, my family has covered the events of December twenty-fifth, one year ago, the same way they did the cracks in our living room wall--in a layer of bright paint and wallflowers.
Like usual, my mom will make an excuse: when my beautiful Aunt May asks in that discreet way of hers why the space in the corner of the dining room beneath the three-pane window is empty, my mother will reply, "Oh, poor Runner contracted kidney disease. We decided to put him to sleep to spare him the pain." Sympathy will age Aunt May's gentle features, and my mom will be able to go on believing that this life is the one she'd always wanted for one moment longer.
My sister, Anabelle, will change the subject when Grandma Jane mentions Runner through half-chewed peach cobbler; she'll compliment Uncle Ted's partner on the dish and pretend to be interested in the recipe when all she's really thinking about is how she's going to get it out of her stomach when the vultures leave and Dad, the gatekeeper, is passed out on the couch.
As for my dad, he'll tell the truth, but in a way that makes him look like a hero. He'll break the expectant silence with a shallow sigh and a sad smile; he'll say the words everyone wants to hear: "Runner was an energetic dog. We never thought that something like this would happen to him. The kids were especially close to Runner. It was very tough on them when he died, but we've managed to pull through." He'll meet my mom's eyes and then Anabelle's, and they'll both look without really seeing. He won't look at mine, because I'm the only other person in the room who really saw what happened; who didn't paint over Runner's death like my mom and sister did; who saw everything.
The snow felt like cotton candy on the ground on Christmas of '08, but the weatherman cried blizzard. My mom was inside putting together the picture perfect dinner that would draw our guests' attention away from her beaten eyes and Anabelle's too-thin waist; the purple fingerprints on my neck and dad's white knuckles.
Me, I was laying on my side in a bed of snow, taking in every inch of this moment where everything was white--blank--because I might be forced to come back to it later. I heard a strangled cry come from the living room and didn't bother mustering any sympathy.
Outside of that, it was silent. I let the elegant sound fill my ears until everything was mute. I was on my way to sleep when this silence was broken by the familiar pattern of skidding tires and wailing metal that a car only produces when the driver is intoxicated. Welcome home, Dad. At least you made it back from the bar this time.
I didn't want to think. Thinking would poke holes in this snowy cocoon of mine. I squeezed my eyes shut tighter and let the discordance of metal and swear words that was my dad getting out of the car blend into white noise. I barely heard him approach me; could barely hear him talking as he told me I was worthless in five different ways. His fingers tightened around my arm, but I couldn't really tell--my muscles held on to the softness of the snow like a phantom layer of skin.
I let myself be led inside; let my mother's broken-hearted objections and the violence in my father's rebukes fall gently around me. I plopped myself down on the couch and let Runner lick my swollen fingers. I didn't even realize they were numb until then. Runner took a break from licking. He looked up at me with a lopsided smile and excited eyes.
"Glad at least someone's happy to see me," I murmured, tousling the silky hair around the golden retriever's neck. I let my winter wonderland fall away, because with Runner, I was happy--I didn't need an escape from that.
When dinner came around, I started by pretending things were normal, like the rest of my family were doing. I figured, since this would be the most normal my family would ever be, to cherish the few hours that were Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, my dad's slurring and vulgar attempts at making conversation made the image of normalcy impossible to conjure. I gave up and started playing "how much food can Erik fit on his plate" just as Anabelle, with all eyes now on Dad, began relaying what was on her plate to Runner. By the time I eat all of this food, this disaster will be over.
When the microwave clock blinked the neon number ten, the last of our relatives had gone, taking the feeling of normalcy with them. Anabelle retreated to the bathroom to do her routine stomach-cleansing, and I was trying my best not to puke up all I ate during dinner.
The clink of silverware rang softly from the kitchen where my mom was doing the dishes, and for a moment, I remembered how beautiful my mother used to be. I must've sat there for an hour listening to her craft a lullaby out of pots and pans.
The clock blinked 10:05 when it was quiet again. I almost jumped when my mom pulled a chair up beside me. She has a way of being invisible like that.
"At least he came home this year." I mustered a smile. My mom smiled weakly back.
We both froze as my dad walked into the room, eyes wayward and a bottle of vodka balanced between his fingers. He seemed to be unaware of my mom and I sitting by the table. I wanted to keep it that way; with my dad, it's best to blend into the background--to be a wallflower.
But, just as I was about to leave, my mom spoke up. She just had to speak then.
"I thought you said you wouldn't be drunk this year," my mom said, her voice delicate but accusing.
"Shut up, stupid woman," my dad grunted, paying my mother's wet eyes no regard.
"All I wanted was one day where everything could be normal," my mom whispered, "and I can't even have that." She blinked her tears away, listlessness shrouding her green eyes.
Anabelle walked into the room then, her lips tinted blue and Runner at her heels.
My father, slamming the now empty bottle of vodka on the table, let out a sardonic laugh. "I wanted my life to be normal, too," he glared confrontationally at my mom, "but that's impossible living with a bitch like you."
"Don't say that about her," I mumbled, without enough passion in my voice to do the words justice.
"Stay out of this, faggot."
"You ruined her life," I said, now with more conviction.
"I said shut up!" my father growled, the edges of his words made smooth by vodka. I could smell the heat of liquor on his breath as his hands caged my shoulders and shoved me jaw first into the dining room wall. I let myself fall limp onto the floor. From above, I saw Anabelle get up and walk out of the living room, drum beats radiating from her headphones.
And that's all I heard--and felt--before I closed my eyes and let white take over my vision. The cold of the wood floor on my cheek melted into snow; my father's blows lost their harshness--they were soft, like cotton candy. Mom's protests and Dad's cruel words--they were all static to me. It was only when Runner began to bark that I woke up from this dream. No, Runner, be quiet. He'll hurt you if you're too loud.
"Make that filthy dog shut up!" my father spat.
I was desperate to take his attention off Runner. I had to say something to get my dad mad--at me.
"Mom loved you, and you took advantage of that."
In an instant, my father's nails were digging into my side and his words ringing in my ears. "What do you know about love?" his face was right in front of mine. The alcohol on his tongue rained onto my lips as he spoke. "You got nobody. All you got is that stupid dog who follows you around like you're some saint."
"I love that dog a lot more than I'll ever love you." I felt a sliver of satisfaction as my father's face, for a split second, contorted with hurt. When that second was gone, my mother was weeping and my father was screaming once more, and I was thrown onto the ground for the umpteenth time.
"Don't--" I heard my mother cry.
But then, something sharp struck my chest and shoved all the thoughts out of my head. It struck again, and this time, the breath was literally knocked right out of me. My head began to ache with the sound of my heartbeat; my limbs shook without my consent. I opened my eyes in panic. My father's face loomed above me. His body leaked unusually tall beneath it. I remembered my dad being a large man, but not this tall. He was gigantic.
Runner's barks echoed in the air, distorted. In a few seconds, he loomed above me, too. My guardian beast.
I could tell my dad was talking, because Runner's barking had faded into a low hum.
"You love this dog more than me?" The words were full of venom, but they fell slowly, suspending in the air before finally entering my ears.
A few moments later, my mom's voice uttered a frantic "No". It echoed in the air for three times its normal length as my father's shadow disappeared, the syllable fermenting and becoming haunting.
I have so much time, I remember thinking to myself. Time's moving so slow. I have so much time. But I couldn't move. My body wouldn't listen to me. Runner's barks went back to their crescendo. The noise was making my head throb. I struggled to form the word "stop", but it wouldn't come out of my mouth.
Suddenly, there was this terrible, stark noise that stretched ominous and red through the air. I prayed for it to end--for my head to stop hurting, because there was nothing else I could do. When the noise dissipated, all that was left was the staccato of my breathing and the legato of my mother's sobs. Runner wasn't barking anymore.
No, no, no.
The thoughts were beginning to crawl back into my head. Don't think, but I had no strength left for building mirages. Everything was snapping back into place: pain, sharp and angular, ignited in my torso and burned to just above my chest; what I'd heard and seen were beginning to bend into reason. Before I knew it, I was sobbing, my breaths coming too fast and getting caught in my throat, the pain in my ribs making the edges of my vision black.
"Runner. Oh, Runner." I felt so little. I wanted someone to come and embrace me, but I knew no one would. So, I let myself cry harder and the aching where my ribs were grow until it was unbearable--until all I could see was black. Until I stopped thinking.
As usual, when the nurses raised their eyebrows at my broken ribs, my mom made an excuse, my sister changed the subject, and my dad told his own version of the truth.
The truth is, the world doesn't very much like the truth. People choose to see flowers when the cracks are right in front of their eyes. But no matter what you do, you can't make those cracks disappear. No matter how many times my family paints over the memory of Runner's death with tight smiles and magazine dinners, it will never disappear.
I turn to my uncle Ted, an almost-replica of my father, except there's no cruelty in his eyes and the expression he wears is true, not one that's been rehearsed.
"Runner was two. He didn't have kidney disease.
My dad's no hero."