The Gift

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

 

As I watched the blinking lights from a holiday display dance across my husband’s face, I imagined bashing his skull in with the Pyrex dish of lasagna I held.

Wes licked his lips and began whistling “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” the high notes cutting through the dark. His gray eyes remained fixed on our destination, Mrs. Potter’s house at the end of the street, where her annual Christmas party was in full swing.

After weeks of tamping down suspicions and navigating quiet, covert panic attacks, I’d finally broached the topic. And now, he was ignoring my question. Anger bubbled within me. He was pretending not to have heard me. Or he was stalling. I couldn’t decide which was worse. And though his evasion spoke volumes, I wanted to hear it from his lips. I had to get an answer before we got to the party—before we were swallowed in holiday music and spiked eggnog and the godawful white elephant gift exchange everyone in the neighborhood pretended to love because it brought Mrs. Potter so much joy. All that holiday cheer would eat me alive.

“Wes.” I stopped in the middle of the street.

He took another two steps before expelling a huge sigh and turning, the soles of his shoes scratching against the asphalt. “How am I supposed to know, Beth?” Wes’s voice was low and razor sharp. He shrugged his shoulders and pinned me with his eyes.

I instinctively wilted beneath his gaze, my shoulders rounding forward, but then I caught myself. Fuck, no. I’m not going to cave. I stood tall and pressed my shoulders back. I let venom taint my voice. “I thought perhaps she’d mentioned it to you, Wes.”

“And why would she do that?”

Because you two apparently talk about everything. I’ve watched you. Through the bay window in the kitchen, early in the morning when you think I’m still asleep. She pretends to trim her rosebushes. You drink your first cup of coffee of the day. You laugh and laugh.

A shock of pain flashed through my jaw. I was clenching my teeth. I let out a gust of breath, which fogged in the cold night air. I shook my head and stared down at my cranberry-colored boots. Why had I hoped for honesty? I should’ve known he’d deny, deny, deny.

“Fine. You want to know what Carrie made for the party?” Wes asked. “Chocolate chip cookies.”

My head snapped up and that desire to strike him again snaked through my arms, hot and ready. Wes stood there in the middle of the road, his chest puffed, his hands casually slung in the pockets of his woolen coat. His eyes were narrowed at me, his expression daring me to say something.

He cocked his head to the side and shifted his gaze to the stars. “Oh wait, or was it prosciutto-wrapped melon she’s bringing?” Sarcasm dripped like syrup from his lips. “Buckeyes? Maybe it was Mexican wedding cookies.”

I launched forward and shoved the Pyrex against his chest. The impact caused him to stumble back a couple of steps, and his hands flew from his pockets to receive the dish. “You’re an asshole,” I said.

I stomped toward Mrs. Potter’s beautifully lit home, the tears in my eyes rendering the decorations a kaleidoscope of red, green, and white.

***

The first five minutes in Mrs. Potter’s house felt like a bad dream. The whole place smelled of peppermint, a scent I generally loved but which had recently begun to turn my stomach. Everyone wore overstretched smiles that made it appear as if their faces were about to split right down the middle. And the constant cacophony of jovial conversation, plastic forks scratching against plastic plates, and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” made my brain muddy.

Wes and I had split up, of course. He was off somewhere—with Carrie, no doubt, doing God knows what—while I clutched a cup of hot apple cider and exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Potter. I smiled and nodded as she told me about how her morning glory vines had overtaken her backyard and how she really needed to hire someone to remove them. Hire someone to remove them. Yes, that seemed very logical. I imagined a landscaper cutting back Mrs. Potter’s morning glories with a gigantic set of shears and then crossing the street to snip Wes right out of my life.

If only it were that simple.

A soft warble brought me back to my conversation with Mrs. Potter. “Hmm?”

“Are you feeling alright, dear? You look flushed.”

And she was right. During the course of our conversation, a layer of sweat had wound its way across my arms and chest, trying to cool the hot skin that lay under my festive cardigan. I was feeling a bit insubstantial, like butter that had softened on the counter for too long.

“I am a little warm,” I said.

Mrs. Potter’s eyes flicked down, and when I realized what she was looking at, I removed my hand my belly and shoved it in my jeans pocket.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Mrs. Potter’s eyes met mine, and I was overwhelmed by the warmth and understanding I observed there. “If you need a break, you can use the bathroom in the back of the house, through my bedroom. It’s down the hall, last door on the right. No one will bother you there.”

I sniffed to keep my emotion in check. Mrs. Potter eased the cup of cider from my hand. The pressure of her palm on my lower back was comforting as she ushered me away from the Christmas cheer.

***

I’d been told time and time again that I couldn’t get pregnant. And yet, five separate at-home tests had told me otherwise earlier in the week. I’d crumpled to the bathroom floor and sobbed, half out of disbelief and half out of pure joy. I’d taken the tests on a lark. My period was only a few days late, but I thought perhaps this time would be different.

I’d done the calculations in my head, and I figured I was about a month and a half along. Blessedly, my symptoms were mild—a little nausea here and there, a touch of dizziness, small discomforts that were easy to attribute to cold and flu season.

I needed to tell Wes. I had a doctor’s appointment the following week, and I knew he’d be excited about the pregnancy. He craved fatherhood and wanted to gather a child up in his arms as much as I did—but I had to clear up my suspicions about him and his early morning chats with Carrie first. 

If Wes was cheating, I didn’t want a baby to be the glue that put us back together. I knew that bond would be fickle. It would erode over time.

No, this child would not be a Band-aid for our relationship.

I stared at my reflection in the glass, at my deep brown eyes, my coiffed hair, my cheery Christmas cardigan. I was beautiful and more than worthy, dammit. If Wes couldn’t see that, or if he’d been tempted by something new, well, I could do without him in my life. Fresh resolve bloomed within me. We’d hash this out tonight after the party. I’d be direct. Cool. Calm. And I knew what I would do if he’d been unfaithful.

After a few more deep breaths, I exited Mrs. Potter’s bathroom and returned to the party. The fete was easier to enjoy this time around. I ate sugar cookies dusted in red and green sugar. I chatted with the Browns, whose son was about to go off to college. Mariah Carey sang about all she wanted for Christmas.

When Mrs. Potter turned down the music and announced it was time for the white elephant gift exchange, I scanned the room. Wes still wasn’t there, and anxiety skittered through my veins.  

I told Mrs. Potter I’d round up any guests who were in the backyard, tell them it was time.

Cold air bit my skin when I stepped onto the patio. There were a few partygoers outside, bundled up, seated at a table, smoking and drinking. “Time for the white elephant gift exchange,” I said, gesturing behind me. The smokers stubbed out their cigarettes, gathered their drinks, and stepped inside.

I let my boots scape against the concrete as I moved back toward the house. I opened Mrs. Potter’s sliding glass door and then shut it so that it sounded as if I’d gone back inside. And then I listened. Was that a sigh I heard off in the corner of the yard? A whisper? The creak of wood?

As quietly as I could, I tiptoed off the patio and onto the grass. There, I paused and listened, hoping my movements hadn’t given me away. A bright giggle sliced through the night air, and my knees buckled. I bent over, my hands braced on my thighs, my lungs suddenly desperate for oxygen. The shaking started in my chest and spread down my arms, through my pelvis, and into my extremities. That giggle, with its high pitch and sing-song quality, was Carrie’s. I knew in my bones I was about to catch Wes in the act. Did I want this? Did I have the strength? What would I do when I caught them together?

Too bad I don’t have that lasagna dish.

Tears stung my eyes, but I squeezed them away. Now was not the time, for either humor or falling apart.

A shuffling sound drew my gaze to the rusted shed in the corner of the yard. It was a perfect metal square, about seven feet tall and seven feet wide. Just tall enough to hide a six-foot-two man. I crept across the grass and flattened myself against the front of the shed. I sidestepped to the corner and there it was, the sounds of clothing swishing, lips meeting, low moaning. They’d hidden in the alleyway between the side of the shed and Mrs. Potter’s wooden fence. Carrie was pressed against corrugated metal, her fingers threaded through Wes’s hair. He kissed her with a desire and urgency I didn’t know he was capable of feeling. His hands pulled her hips into him, causing her back to arch.

My whole body went cold. I watched as my husband desperately grabbed and caressed our neighbor. Something inside me cracked in two.

Wes broke away from Carrie’s lips and began kissing her neck, nipping her skin with his teeth.

“That feels so good, Wes,” Carrie said. “Keep doing that.”

Wes tugged at the neckline of Carrie’s sweater and promptly attacked her clavicle with his lips. Carried tossed her head back, presenting her skin to him, her eyes closed.

Okay, you’ve seen enough. Leave. Run back inside. Get the hell out of here. But I was frozen to the spot like a gargoyle, watching my husband ravage our neighbor. Carrie licked her lips as Wes continued his ministrations. And then she licked her lips again and again and again. By the fourth lick, I could’ve sworn her tongue had grown substantially in length, enough so that it reached past her lips and tickled the cleft in her chin. 

I closed my eyes and shook my head. It’s a Christmas light playing across her face. Or your imagination creating ridiculous visions. You’re in shock. Shock, shock, shock.

When I opened my eyes and took in the scene anew, I sank to my knees, gripping the edge of the shed as I fell, unable to believe what I was witnessing. Carrie’s tongue darted in and out of her mouth in quick succession. Each time it escaped her lips, the tongue lengthened and stretched into the night, its tip diverging into two parts, forking like a snake’s. Her hands clutched the back of Wes’s head, pressing his face against her skin. Her eyes now glowed in the dark, a piercing yellow color. I knew I should run. I knew I should seek help. At the very least, I should break up this party before something terrible happened.

Because something terrible was definitely about to happen. I could feel it in my marrow.

But there was a primal instinct within me that said, Stay. Watch. It was so powerful, this suggestion to linger, that I remained rooted there in the dark, observing the scene as an emotional cocktail of horror, fascination, and grief coursed through me.   

Carrie’s tongue continued to flick skyward, as if she were trying to catch stars with every pass. Each time, her tongue stretched and extended, shooting higher and higher into the night sky, until I could no longer see its forked anatomy in the dim.

“God, I want you,” Wes gasped against her flesh.

“I want you, too,” Carried whispered, and then she struck. She yanked Wes’s face from her chest, and her enormous tongue wound itself around his neck until all I could see was the color pink. Wes wheezed as the massive tongue cut off his air supply. His hands flew to his neck, and he scrabbled against Carrie’s hold. His eyes bulged, and I was afraid they might pop out of their sockets. The smell of urine spiked the air, and a dark spot bloomed and spread on Wes’s jeans. 

I clamped a hand to my mouth and bit back bile.

As Wes flailed and kicked, trying to escape Carrie’s grasp, she stood strong and steady, her yellow eyes observing her kill. It didn’t take long, less than a minute. Wes’s thrashing grew weaker and weaker until he hung limp from Carrie’s tongue, twitching. When he’d stilled, the tongue unwound from his neck, retracting into Carrie’s mouth. She stripped him, tossing his shoes, jeans, Christmas sweater, and underwear into a neat heap nearby. She lowered herself to the concrete, sitting on her knees, and bowed forward so her chin rested on the ground near Wes’s head. She opened her mouth wide, and I watched in horror as her jaw unhinged, allowing her maw to stretch wide. Too wide. Carrie’s forked tongue whipped out, looped around Wes’s neck, and pulled him into her awaiting mouth.

***

It wasn’t until Carrie had pulled half of Wes’s corpse into her mouth that I was able to tear my gaze from the scene. My ass hit the concrete and I leaned hard against the shed. What the fuck had I just witnessed? Had I watched as my husband’s lover strangled and then ate him? And what was Carrie? Clearly she wasn’t human. Or at least, not entirely human. She was part snake, right? A snake-woman.

The sound of footsteps kicked my thoughts to the wayside. Carrie had finished feeding, and now she was approaching.

“Beth?” Carrie’s voice was calm and sweet, a stark contrast to what I’d just witnessed. She peered down at me. Her eyes had returned to their regular blue color, thank God, and she looked incredible, not a hair out of place. No indication that she was…what, a monster?

I pressed my body hard against the shed, wishing I could melt into the metal and escape. Was I her next meal? The snake-woman held Wes’s clothes, neat folded, between her palms. She crouched, and I closed my eyes, turned my head away, and clutched my stomach. I waited. But nothing happened. When I reopened my eyes, Carrie was there, crouching, holding out Wes’s clothes to me. I looked at the garments, and repulsion shuddered through me. I shook my head. I didn’t want them.

Carrie licked her lips with a very human tongue. “I’m really sorry you saw that. I guess you know now.”

Was she referring to her and Wes’s affair? Or her ability to eat humans whole? I guess I knew about both, so I nodded. Carrie cocked her head to the side and frowned. “You’re pregnant.”

My eyes widened and I pulled my knees to my chest protectively. “How did you…?”

Carrie smiled. “I can smell it.”

 

I gulped down cold air. Were women who were expecting a child more delicious than others?

“It’s okay, Beth. I’d never hurt you.”

 

I searched her eyes for malice or deception, but I found only truth and compassion there. Which was weird, since she was a murderer and all. I narrowed my eyes and clenched my jaw. Somehow, I believed her.

 

“I only feed on those who hurt others. People with deception in their hearts. Humans who will do more damage than good. Do you understand?”

I nodded dumbly. What else could I do? She tucked Wes’s clothes under one armpit and held out her other hand to me. “Can I help you up?”

 

I stared at her hand, expecting to see scales, but only creamy skin caught the sparse light.

“I won’t hurt you, Beth.”

I grasped her hand, and she hoisted me up easily, an act that hinted at her preternatural strength. I recalled Wes’s face, bloated and pale, his air being squeezed from his lungs with Carrie’s giant tongue. I saw his naked body in my mind, disappearing inch by inch down Carrie’s throat, and I shuddered.

He was gone. Wes was gone forever.

And then I started to cry, not because I was disgusted or scared, but because relief poured through me.

The snake-woman wrapped me in her arms and held me.

***

Carrie and I were extremely late to the white elephant gift exchange, but Mrs. Potter waved us over and demanded we participate. I thought I’d be a wreck, unable to function, but the collective cheer in Mrs. Potter’s house combined with the fact that I had cried everything out on Carrie’s shoulder gave me a temporary boost of energy and spirit.

I wound up with a set of star-shaped cookie cutters and a pack of hot chocolate. Carrie received a holiday gift pack of various condiments, which I found particularly hilarious. As soon as the gift exchange wrapped up, I knew it was time to go home. I had a lot to process. A lot to plan.  

“Where’s that husband of yours?” Mrs. Potter asked as I shrugged on my coat. She handed me my lasagna dish, freshly washed.

“I told him the news, and he bolted.”

Mrs. Potter frowned, her lips puckered, and I swore I could see smoke streaming out of her ears.

I placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s better this way, honestly.” It was the truth, but it was still difficult to say aloud. Emotion swelled within me, and I gritted my teeth to keep it from pouring forth. I swiped fresh tears from my eyes and collected Mrs. Potter’s hand in my own. “But I may need some help.”

Mrs. Potter’s face brightened. She filled her lungs with air and smiled. “Anything you need.” She squeezed my hands, and warmth filled me. “In fact— ” She held up her pointer finger and puttered away into the kitchen.

As I waited, Carrie approached and collected her coat. Her movements were so smooth and fluid. Like a dance. How had I never noticed?

At Mrs. Potter’s door, she turned. “You’re going to be okay, Beth. I can tell.”

I gave her a nod, and she slipped into the night. I knew I would never see her again.

Mrs. Potter returned with a plate heaped with food from the party—a square of my own lasagna, lemon bars, a slice of cheesecake, meatballs, gingerbread cookies, and caprese salad. She winked as she passed me the dish.

***

At home, I put a slice of cheesecake on a plate and heated milk for hot chocolate. With only the glow of the Christmas tree to keep me company, I sat on the couch as I chewed and sipped in silence. The absence of Wes hung heavy in the house, a thick fog of what had come to pass and what could have been. But I knew the weight of his memory would lessen over time.

The lights on the tree twinkled and danced, and I thought of the new life growing inside me—small, strong, safe. Happiness washed over me, fresh as snow, and I knew that Carrie was right.

I was going to be okay.  

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