Matty swirled his cocoa with his finger, the marshmallows spinning and bobbing like the hippos from Fantasia. The smell of chocolate and peppermint induced a biting nostalgia that left him wanting more—it left him wanting to throw his dainty white mug with the reindeer on it against the wall.
It was infuriating to be held hostage in his own home. He had volunteered (at Joan’s insistence) to be a prisoner for an entire evening, trapped here at a table with people he didn’t like, and with so many tasks that he needed to accomplish, his chest tightened with worry. The hippos twirled.
He didn’t want to be the way he was, but with everything to be done, how could he afford to sit here drinking cocoa and talking small? He pined for those simple days when his mother’s cooking would bring on dusk, and the street lamps would ring the dinner bell. No real responsibility. No wasted time. If he could just reset and start anew, everything would be cocoa and pastels. He’d be living in a marshmallow world.
He looked around the table. Joan said it would be fun to have the neighbors over, and it probably was for her. But not for him. For Matty, it meant banal party talk, which he detested. It was just another exhausting task in a life chock-full of them.
Joan had placed a white reindeer mug filled with near-boiling hot milk at each seat of the table. Four cups, two couples. Her smile reflected off their neighbor Steven Brecket’s snowball eyes, wide with delight at the unexpected post-dinner ceremony.
She lived for this sort of thing. It filled Matty with a primal hatred to see her thriving when he was being pulled down into the nothingness. Like she didn’t feel the oppressive thumb of God on her cheeks, loosening the tight skin. Her face reminded him of an antique chrome ornament, the reflective metal now peeling, soon to be cracked on the floor of time like the rest of them. They would all be broken ornaments in the end. Pulled off the tree one by one.
He attempted to drag the marshmallows into his mouth with his upper lip, but they bounced back into the chocolate, back where they wanted to be. Then he tried to spoon one out, but it was like trying to cup a bug with one’s hands in the pool; it was in, then it wasn’t.
“Hot milk? I’ll be sleeping well tonight.” It might have been an OK joke if Steven had meant it as one, but his face told the story of a man born without a funny bone in his body. His bland face blended in with his vanilla words insomuch that they became like white clay, molded into some abstract statue, placed in a home where art goes to die.
“Matty, did I ever tell you I grew up on a farm?”
“Yes. And you had to milk the cows, and it was a treat to drink the warm milk from the pail.” How anyone could be married to a man with so little to say, Matty didn’t know. Even his teeth, when he smiled, looked unused. Too white and too perfectly rounded. Dull.
Emma Brecket, his wife, was equally bland, with docile eyes and poor posture, a match made in heaven. But then, the night before, Matty had spotted Emma leaving her home at 2 A.M. She kept her lights off until the car rounded the corner—a bland woman doing something compulsive.
“We have a special treat this evening,” said Joan, holding a gold box with a red bow atop. Perry Como crooned from the living room. “Our dear friend Emma has made each of us a personalized cocoa bomb!”
“How did you hide this from me?” said Steven to his wife. “What a fun idea. Did you do this while I was out playing pickleball?”
Emma smiled, her lips pressed thin.
Matty didn’t know what, but something was different about Emma. She was still plain and stifled, sure, but a brief spark flinted in her eyes, and though no flame erupted, he decided to try a little gasoline.
He wiped the chocolate from his lip with a napkin and smiled. “Emma, this is wonderful. What a thoughtful thing. Did I see you go out last night? I believe it was around two in the morning. Late night shopping for cocoa bomb ingredients?”
Steven looked at Emma inquisitively.
Ah, he didn’t know.
“Yes, that’s exactly right. You know how sometimes, and it’s always in the middle of the night, you remember something you need to accomplish? Well, I had forgotten one of the ingredients for my cocoa bombs. A very special ingredient. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I had it in the pantry and ready to go.” Emma stared into Steven’s eyes.
“Wow, sweetie, that’s commitment. But next time, wake me up. I would have gone to the store for you.” Steven brushed a strand of hair from her face.
“I know you would have, but I wanted to surprise you.”
Matty wanted to groan from the cloying display, then he noticed Emma’s hand gripping her napkin, white knuckles like rolling snowcapped hills. And in her eyes, where love ought to be swimming, he saw a still ocean.
Emma looked back at Matty. “What were you doing up at that ungodly hour?”
“Working. Always working—the milk isn’t free here.” He winked at Steven.
Matty’s cocoa was still warm despite him having drained half the cup. It was the only thing keeping him from leaving the room—there was a mountain of tasks for him to finish, and the minutes were being pulled off the clock by these intruders—the days were being dragged off the advent calendar of life. And on the final day, instead of a chocolate Santa or baby Jesus in the manger, it would be a casket.
Joan gave him the look. He knew what it meant, what she wanted of him, and even though he wanted to flip the table on its side, douse it in lighter fluid, and set it ablaze, he stood and began speaking.
“Joan and I are so happy that you’ve joined us here, in our little home, to ring in the holidays.” He looked into the eyes of their guests, eyes that were flat and glassy from the wine paid for by him, but when he looked into Emma’s eyes, typically placid, if not downright dull, he saw two wild moons—was it fear? Excitement? “Before we pass out these cocoa bombs that our dear friend Emma made for us—they’re delicious, by the way—I’d like to tell you a little story of the first Christmas Joan and—”
“Is that one of my cocoa bombs?” Emma was standing, peering over the top of Matty’s cup.
“Yes, I saw them sitting on the kitchen counter, and I—”
Emma was up, looking into the gold box with the red ribbon. She took the remaining three balls out, turning them so the writing, looping flourishes in white and gold, faced upwards.
“Each of these is personalized. Did you take the one with your name on it?”
“Well, no, I didn’t know that…is everything ok?”
She read the names aloud: “Emma, Joan,—Matty!”
“Whoops,” said Matty with a sheepish grin. “Sorry about that, Stevie.”
Steven laughed. “That’s alright. I’m sure the Matty bomb will be just as tasty.”
“These were personalized,” Emma said again, her voice barely audible.
“Well, this is a little awkward,” said Joan, distributing the remaining cocoa bombs. “Steven, like you said, you’ll be Matty this evening. Well, Matty with better manners.” Joan shot Matty a chiding glance. He shrugged.
He felt terrible about it. Sure. But how was he to know they were personalized, and besides the name, they all looked identical. He looked at Steven, whose blandness was so severe he wouldn’t have been surprised had he forgone the cocoa bomb, preferring the undoctored milk instead. He doesn’t care, so why is Emma being such a child about it?
“We’ll all drop our cocoa bombs into our mugs on my count. Everyone’s milk still hot?”
Steven put a pinky in and smiled. “Still hot.”
If they would just hurry up and get this over with, he could excuse himself. Try to dig himself out of the mountain of things that needed doing.
“5!” shouted Joan.
Matty swirled his marshmallows with his index finger. The shame and rage inside him bubbled. Boiling like milk for the cocoa.
He licked the chocolate from his knuckle. There was a part of him that was happy he’d taken Steven’s precious cocoa bomb. Emma probably took special care on this sweater-vest-of-a-human’s Christmas treat—an extra dash of love.
He lifted his cup to his lips and gulped down his last bit of cocoa, tapping on the bottom of the mug to dislodge the marshmallows at the bottom.
They slid into his mouth, slimy and sweet—with a hint of bitterness. Gelatinous peppermint heaven, dissolving as he chewed, sliding down his gullet.
These were personalized.
The cocoa bombs splashed into the milk, and within seconds, they were bursting open, marshmallows rising to the surface of Joan and Steven’s cup. They gasped with delight, but Emma sat silently staring at Matty, her cocoa bomb untouched.
Matty looked around the table and was shocked to feel an explosion of love within him. The desire to embrace them all was overwhelming. And could he smell his mother’s cooking coming from the kitchen?
Emma, wringing her napkin, looked from him to Joan and back again, with the sorrow of the world on her cheeks.
He wanted to embrace her—tell her everything was great. Better than great, really. The wars, the environmental disasters, the tasks and mountains of things and stuff, none of that mattered. Not now.
“Oh God, what have I done?” she said. “It wasn’t for him.” She ran out of the house, leaving the door wide open, snow dusting the threshold.
Matty couldn’t feel his hands, but he knew they were there because he saw them holding the mug. He saw them let go and the reindeer cup shattering at his feet. It was dusk in the room; porch lights shone from the corners like Christmas candles, and the winter chill touched his arms. Touched his throat. Home for the holidays played from somewhere, maybe a nearby house? He was swaying in the cold breeze now, side to side and then over and into a snowbank. He looked up to the sky and saw a winter’s moon, round and pregnant and striped like a candy cane; a decoration responsible for ocean tides and dinner parties—and there was Joan now, saying something…what was she saying?
A question from afar—“Matty, can you hear me? Are you ok?”
Yes, he was ok. It’s just that his lips were sticky from the marshmallows, and besides, the street lamps had come on, and it was time to go home.
Sean is a writer and musician from Danville, CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the owner and operator of Recorded Psychic Readings, a record label specializing in indie-pop and punk, he has released music both within the US and internationally. Over the last decade, he has written countless songs, using lyricism as an outlet to tell compelling stories. He is a proud member of the beautiful and diverse Walnut Creek Writers Guild. When not writing or playing music, Sean can be found among the dinosaurs and magic ponies with his two children, lost in play.