The table was set beautifully, as it always was for holiday dinners at her mother’s house. The flowered china was nearly as old as the Waterford crystal. Both had been handed down from her great-grandmother, to her grandmother, then her mother, and eventually, the ornate tableware would pass to her.
Her whole family was gathered today, for this once-a-year celebration. Her mother had been cooking for days in preparation for the influx of relatives. Thankfully, mother hadn’t required her to help. Being only fourteen had its privileges.
“Mereen,” her mother’s oldest brother called for her. “Come see your favorite uncle.”
He certainly was not her favorite. In fact, Uncle Avner was her least favorite relative. He felt slimy to her, like a slug covered in snot. Mereen tried to avoid the man as much as she could, which usually wasn’t difficult because he lived several states away. Avner was some sort of banker in Chicago.
Avner’s son, her cousin Alex, crept up behind her, steadily pushing her toward her uncle. Alex’s linebacker build dwarfed her tiny frame. She resisted as much as she could, but still she was moved.
Mereen was rescued, however unknowingly, by her true favorite uncle, her mother’s youngest brother, James. His comforting presence appeared as if by magic, from the open door of the dining room.
“Mere! You’ve grown since last year. Where’s my hug, little peach?” His husky voice carried a chuckle. James’ lanky arms wrapped around her small body in a tight hug. Just having him near brought a sense of peace to Mereen.
With her uncle James’ arm draped chummily over her shoulder, Mereen slipped away from her creepy cousin and his father. She chatted amicably with her favorite relative for a bit before she politely slipped away, returning to the familiar solitude of her dim bedroom.
She slid to the floor after she closed the door. The din and bustle of the holiday crowd was beginning to get to her. Mereen had never been a “people person” and even family was too much for her to handle, sometimes. The end of the year, all the holiday get-togethers, rubbed her raw.
Mereen’s timid mother knocked quietly on the bedroom door, summoning her to the table. It was time to eat. Mereen shuddered but obeyed her mother’s command.
Like always, she and her mother were the only women at the table. None of her uncles brought their wives or daughters to visit. In fact, Mereen had only met one of her aunts, and that was only last year, right after Uncle James had married the woman. Oh, she knew that her family was unusual in that respect, but that’s the way it had always been.
Mother usually did most of the serving, but since Mereen turned fourteen this year, more of the serving duties fell to her. She felt the men watching her, measuring her quality and worth. None of her uncles or cousins moved while she attended her service. Eating and conversation waited until both she and her mother sat, one on either end of the dining room table.
Mereen ate, quietly, barely paying attention to the clattering dishes or the jovial conversation of the men. Neither she nor her mother participated in the talking taking place around the dinner table. That wasn’t why they were there.
After dinner, she helped her mother clean up while the men retired to the living room. Mereen wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the evening, the after-dinner entertainment. It was something she’d been spared the last fourteen years. By the time she and her mother were finished with cleaning up, the men were anxious to get started. The candles were already burning brightly by the time the women returned from the kitchen.
Mereen’s eyes were slow to adjust to the dim room. She tried to concentrate on the flickering flames like her mother had instructed. The fire grew in her eyes, consuming everything else. She felt the heat, flushing her skin. It kept growing, burning brighter, hotter, starting to blister her flesh. Mereen screamed, watching the fire engulf her childhood home. Her unfortunate uncles and cousins were writhing and clawing, trying to flee. Mereen’s mother looked at her, through the flames, with eyes full of love. The heavy candle, its flame now quenched, dropped from her quaking hand.
“Poor girl,” the doctor said to his assistant. “She’s been reliving that night, every night, for the last ten years. At least her mother didn’t sell her before she was fourteen. You know, they never did identify all the bodies in that house of hell.” He shook his head, firmly gripping the syringe full of bliss. “Hold tight. She might see you as an ‘uncle’.”