There were a series of comets that passed through the sky while I was volunteering and my friends in the pantry were the first to notice it. “Look, Donna!” Nona had said. She yanked me over to the window. The sight of big, red embers brightened the night sky. They almost looked like actual balls of fire, rising in the sky and falling so suddenly. It was Thanksgiving day, and I was volunteering at the CARES food drive to cook for all those who couldn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner.
“Isn’t it a little curious that the comets are falling like that?” I’d said, “Don’t comets streak?”
Nona ignored me, smiling happily at the sight, “Back home, we’d wish on these every time they passed the sky. We’d get them pretty frequently.”
“Oh really?” I mused. Maybe Nona didn’t know that everyone wished on comets. Or maybe, she didn’t know how to say it. English wasn’t her first language after all. She could only have limited conversation. Another volunteer said she was from Brazil, because they’d heard her speak Spanish in the past.
We watched more of the comets rise and then fall as a flickering light pooled beneath them. The sound of sirens pounded in the background while Nona and I stared. Nona pointed outside the window and said, “You see, what we say is—” a pained scream outside interrupted her. We both looked to the entrance of the facility. The night guard, Boris, gave us a thumbs up and then we returned to the illuminate window. “Stella bella stella, desidero che…your wish…” I repeated after her as best I could, and I wished my life was more exciting. Who knows what Nona wished for; she’d said her wish in Spanish.
The window grew brighter outside, and I felt warm. Maybe the wish was really working. It felt like child’s play to think such a thing, but it was getting awfully hot near the window. Looking back at the clock, I realized my volunteer shift was over. As I waved Nona and Boris goodbye, I was interrupted by a few fire trucks and wailing ambulances. There was probably a fire nearby, but my parents would be still furious that I’d gotten home late especially on Thanksgiving night.
Part of me wanted to stay and see what was happening ven that’d I’d be in serious trouble with my parents anyway. I thought I could use some excitement, but then I looked behind the facility. I saw a massive fire, and I heard a man screaming in pain. Soon, a fiery mass of a man came sprawling around the building until he was hit with a giant cloak and tackled to the ground by a firefighter. A spray of water was unleashed from a fire hose on the pair, but the fighter holding the hose was thrown back by water pressure into Nona’s windshield.
Maybe excitement could wait until after the holiday…I walked to my car across from the madness.
Walking into my house, I could smell my aunt’s shrimp salad on the table. Shrimp wasn’t a very traditional Thanksgiving meal, but my family was pretty weird anyway. We were, to say the least, dysfunctional. I went into the kitchen to wash my hands. But as I passed the dining room, I noticed the seats was nearly empty. My grandfather was asleep in his chair at the table, but that was it. My parents were nowhere to be seen, my aunt wasn’t there although her food was, my grandmother was maybe in the bathroom, and Helene, my horrible sister, was missing too (although that was a relief). It was hard to believe it was Thanksgiving night…
I could hear the TV going in the living room, so I decided to make it seem like I’d gotten home some time ago just in case my parents were still out. I slid onto the sofa and watched my favorite Charlie Brown special, glancing occasionally at the door. Finally, I heard the door creak, so I sank a little more into my sofa seat to look extra engrossed in Snoopy’s antics. But it was Helene who walked in instead of my mom an dad. My sister was a paramedic in her early twenties. She still acted and looked like a teenager, so it was always weird seeing her in her super-serious uniform.
“Oh look, it’s the house puppy,” she said closing the door, “I’m glad you’re not sitting at the table. I’d hate to discipline such a cute dog.” Did I mention Helene was a comedian?
“Hi, Hell,” I responded warmly. It took two to play wiseass. But I swore my sister was an actual demon of some sort. Didn’t Helene mean hellfire, or something like that? Helene slow-motioned as she passed in front of the TV. But I pretended not to be irritated, even though I loved Charlie’s grateful speech and was angry to miss it. Helene saw the same joke that I saw in the dining room and popped her head back into the living space.
“Sweet God, Donna. Have you killed our entire family?”
“Oh, shut up.” I wasn’t in the mood for her, “I have no idea why they aren’t here. Why are you coming back so late from your shift?”
Typically, she was late because she was at her boyfriend’s, Tommy’s place—not that paramedics have consistent schedules anyway, but there was a reason she’d get home hours after her shift all the time. The thing was, Tommy had broken up with her a few weeks ago. They’d dated for a year and, apparently, he just got tired of her (like everyone did).
“There was another call I had to go on. A really bad fire.” I could hear clinking on the table. Helene was probably eating. Rude, “Then, I went over to a friend’s house.”
I was in bad enough a mood to ruin her day even further, so I pushed the envelope a little. “Still trying to get back with Tommy, eh?”
“We never broke up,” she shot back from the dining room. Nerves. Nerves. I’d a hit a nerve.
“It’s okay to admit it, sis,” I breathed from my sunken sofa seat. “Breaking up is a part of life. Relationships have to take their course,” I continued, “Sometimes it just loses its spark, and then you just stop listening to each other.” Helene was unusually unresponsive, so I went on. “And then, you start looking at other people, and you start realizing how great everyone else is…because you’re dating trash, and then you’re like wow I wish my girlfriend talked like that…”
I heard her mumble something, “He’s just mad I gained a little holiday weight.” Lies.
“…and then, their thighs start to spread like their low self-esteem, and you’re like wow…”
I heard the chewing in the other room die down.
“…those were the only things keeping us together.”
A hand was suddenly on my shoulder. I looked back. When did Helene get in here? I felt my back shove off the sofa and I went headfirst into the wooden coffee table in front of me.
“This will be your last supper, little sister.” Helene’s eyes were practically glowing with rage.
“Won’t you break the bread, since this will be the last time we see each other, Hell?” I’d had enough of my awful sister, so I couldn’t feel bad making fun of her.
“The last time? I’m glad,” she smirked. And then she delivered a huge fist to my jaw that sent me flying. When did she get so strong?
I smashed into the stone that lined our fire place, bruising a rib and smashing my check. “This is abuse!” I hollered from the floor. I rubbed my poor jaw and cradled my face in my arms. Helene only got physical on occasion. Usually, she just talked smack. Maybe I’d went too far with her that day.
“You can’t abuse what isn’t human,” Helene teased. That hurt my feelings a lot more than the punch did. I cocked my arm back to hit my sister as she neared. But Helene picked me up like a rag doll and threw me against the mantle in the dining room. “How dare you speak about Tommy and I’s relationship! You’re such a pain to deal with! Did you know that a fire broke out behind your building? You could’ve seen it and called it in! That’s why I’m late…I didn’t even have enough time to convince him to take me back!” She raised another fist that opened up into a system of long fingernails as she cornered me in the dining room.
Pop Pop stirred from his sleep and realized what was going on. “Helene, you stop hurting your sister!” he coughed. He rose from his seat and slammed his plate of—actually I couldn’t tell what is was, but it looked meaty—on the table to get his point across. “Helene, I will fight you if you don’t stop!”
My sister didn’t hesitate to take up his offer. She practically teleported to his side and pushed him to the ground. “Fight me, old man. Fight me!” She hit him with a rather large…???…sausage? I couldn’t tell. I didn’t remember our Thanksgiving dinners being so fleshy before. “What are you gonna do, Pop Pop? What can you do?” She slapped him with the greasy sausage again, smearing red on his cheek. “Oh, that’s right. You can’t do anything!”
Pop Pop ripped her sausage from her hands. He grimaced at her as she stared down at him. I got up from the fireplace to stop my sister from going too far, but she pushed me back when I grabbed her arm. Like an Olympian, she grabbed Pop Pop’s leg and began to pull. My grandfather planted a firm hand on the table and resisted any attempt Helene made to drag him. Helene always had a bad temper. She’d always been violent, but never to anyone other than me. What was making her do this? It couldn’t have just been me, right?
I heard unnatural straining and ripping sounds that immediately put me into panic mode. Realizing what was happening, I ran and tried to stop Helene. But it was too late. My grandfather’s leg had been torn from his hip like a drumstick from a Thanksgiving turkey. Helene, being the savage she always was, waved it about like a mad man, screaming profanities and swearing at the good Lord like some demon had possessed her. Her eyes were white as angel’s wings. “Ghbjdnksmck!” she’d cried. I had no idea what she was trying to say, but my heart went out to poor Pop Pop on the floor. The entire moment felt like a familiar horror film.
Pop Pop yelled back at Helene, his eyes white like hers now, and he fought her for his leg, snatching angrily at the air. Helene swatted him back with the leg, slapping his hand with his wrinkly, claw-like foot. More angry gibberish was spewed on Pop Pop’s part, and one of his jagged toenails scratched his finger in another swing. He was enraged. Both Pop Pop and Helene looked…undead.
Helene swung the leg away from Pop Pop once more. A tendon flew from the flesh like a butterfly and hit me in my eye. Blinded, I couldn’t even see my mother rush in from the kitchen on the horrid scene. I had no idea she was home; the house had seemed so empty. Was everyone coming late to dinner? Nonplussed, I began to weep.
Mom began to cry too at the sight and run towards Helene. “You stop now!” she screamed. “You’ve gone too far!” But she was knocked back by Pop Pop’s hard kneecap. Helene was swinging wildly now. I was afraid I’d get slapped with my grandfather’s thigh, so I hid myself beneath my chair to let my eye recover.
Gaining my field of view back, I suddenly leapt up and stopped weeping. I refused to be contained, to let this undead version of Helene bully my family and not just me. I ran for my mother who lay groaning next to Pop Pop, and I pulled her up as I searched for an escape route. I remembered and ran for the front door, and I elbowed it as hard as I could. It wouldn’t budge, and I could hear Helene and Pop Pop getting louder in the dining room. I continued to elbow the door frame with all my strength, picking up splinters from the cracking wood and bleeding on the WELCOME mat. Finally, the hole was large enough for my hand to fit through. I reached through it and twisted the knob outside to open our unlocked door.
Mom was still groaning next to me, as I slid her onto our front porch. Pine cones mixed with the smell of blood, and I could hear birds chirping in the yard—stupid birds, forgetting it was nighttime. Our only escape was our car, but it was entombed in the garage. Left with no other choices, I broke down and cried over my mom.
For a while, she lay on her back with her eyes closed and mouth slack. But then she spoke, “Donna.” “Donna,” she repeated again. Her eyes flashed open, and they were pure white. She grabbed my leg very suddenly and opened her mouth like she had a something important to say. I screamed loudly and flailed, distraught that my mother had been become one of them. Her grip tightened, and I tried to pull away without hurting her. But she pulled so tightly and I kicked away so violently, my leg came off with a slimy pop. My leg went flying like a baton and I screamed even louder watching it stick a landing in some mud. I gave up; I had nothing to live for. There was no point in fighting them back any longer. I watched my mother get closer between blurry sobs and felt something hard and thick knock my head with a thunk.
I stirred after what felt like a long sleep to the sounds of people talking and metal clinking.
“I think she has a condition, ma’am…look for a prescription…”
“Why is she like this…?”
“…genetic issues……so, so rare………the hand sanitizer is by the sink, love…”
“What can we give her…?”
“…Lethia is a popular drug …she’ll probably fare better at home…”
I faded back to sleep.
Then, I awoke to the din of 60’s cartoons and the smell of sweet potato fries. Those things were peculiar to one person: grandmother. I grunted a little; my head was sore.
“Are you there child?” It was grandmother’s voice alright. My eyes shot open, and I peeked around. Grandma sat perched on the chair like a plump owl with Pop Pop’s leg against the wall next to her, like some walking stick. I stared at it, ready to scream, before Grandma suddenly rose to her feet and waddled towards me. With a hearty slap, she planted a stick of gum in my mouth and stared very hard at me. “Now I think you’ve worked that voice enough, Donna Mae. You chew now when you feel in distress.” And with that said, she waddled right back to her chair where she sat like a proud penguin in her pink-and-white Hawaiian shirt-robe.
My eyes shifted back to my grandfather’s leg. “Hmm?” I managed as I’d started to chew. The gum she had given me was especially rubbery and odd. It felt familiar like I’d had a piece many times before, but something about it felt almost inappropriate. It felt like it could’ve ricocheted right off my teeth back into my throat.
Grandmother looked with me. The leg was bent inwards at the knee, with the top of the leg against the wall and the foot planted firmly on the ground. Helene had to be responsible for this. I began to sob. Helene is really really a demon. My sister has taken our whole family to hell. “Oh, this?” Grandma said, pointing at the leg. “Don’t you worry Donna. This will pop right back into your grandfather’s hip.” She laughed nervously and shifted in her seat. “Sadly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Helene is an aggressive young lady, isn’t she? Always fighting you and, now, everyone…”
Grandma watched me sob some more with a confused face, like she had no idea what I was crying about. But then her eyes lit up like matches. “Oh, I see. You need your meds. You’re memory isn’t quite back, is it?” Grandma took the remote from my bed and pressed the NURSE button. “You’ve forgotten who you are.” Her eyes seemed very white for a moment. “My poor grandbaby…”
“What?” I said in a muffled voice. “What?” I spat the gum from my mouth so I could speak. But a nurse walked in with a syringe, and Grandma held my wrist in a firm grip. “What are you doing? I don’t need to be here!” Grandma ignored me as the nurse sanitized her hands and reached for my restrained arm.
“Oh this young lady has perfect veins. I’ll go get the ICD to get her heart pumping the medicine…”
I was so confused, and when I leaned up, my head caused me more pain. “My heart is pumping! I am alive! It’s my family that’s dead. They’re zombies!”
Grandma patted my head and I felt like an ugly, plushy rock beneath her hands. “Everything will be better soon fuss-pot. I’m calling your parents now.”
“Hush now,” she said sternly. I looked her in the eyes to argue, but they were pure white just like Mom’s eyes, Helene’s, and even Pop Pop’s. “Have a piece of gum.” She pulled a piece from her purse. When she went to shove it between my lips, I spat it out.
“What the hell is this anyway??” I looked at the “gum” only to realize how flesh-like it looked. It looked like fat or—I honestly didn’t know. I opened my mouth to scream.
“Ugh, you’re right,” Grandma began under her breath. I don’t think she thought I could hear her. “I should’ve got you the cartilage kind.” She slapped her purse in frustration. “The tendon ones have such a high choking risk, and you’re always opening your mouth like a black hole, and oh, God…”
I was going to cry again. But I was starting to get a headache from the tears, so I swallowed them back. “Why are you one of them? Is anyone unchanged?”
She pressed the NURSE button again. “We need some sedative. She’s acting out again.”
I protested and protested but another syringe of fluid was injected in my arm. A huge machine with tons of electrical circuitry was brought next to my bed. “I’m so sorry, honey,” the white-eyed nurse said. She looked to my grandmother as I felt myself fade out. “I’m so sorry for your family. This is such a rare condition…great aunt had it…lost her memory right as she was biting into some steak………that was a doosy…”
“Hi, Donna.” It was Mom.
“Hi, Mom,” I whispered.
“Are you feeling better?”
“No, I almost feel alive,” I groaned. “My head hurts so bad.”
Mom laughed and patted my forehead. “It’s so good to have you back darling. Why don’t you open your eyes for your mother?”
I peeked a little. I could see Mom very close to my face and my father was behind her with his hands on his hips. Pop Pop was leaning on Dad’s shoulder with his leg re-attached by stitches. Grandma stood proudly next to them and she smiled sympathetically at my bandaged-head. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Helene—that little demon—with her back towards me but her head turned to me, like was she looking at some litter she’d stepped on with her shoes. I glowered back at her, and then quickly turned to my other angelic family members. Their eyes were white and their skin was a little holey, but they were the same shades of soft, leathery brown I’d remembered. This mess was Helene’s fault mostly, but I was also to blame.
“You forgot what you were, Donna. You see, you have this condition.” Mom paused to figure out her words. “It’s rare, but it’s well-known—”
“You thought you were a human,” Helene spat almost softly, turning her head away from me. The rest of the family seemed to ignore her, but Pop Pop side-eyed her with an intensity that only I could relate to.
“But don’t you worry, Donna. We’ve got a renewable prescription for some meds that will keep your memory from faltering like that.”
I was so embarrassed. I’d caused such an awful mess, especially on Thanksgiving! Mom touched my cheek and stroked my face. “Don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault.”
My father suddenly butted in, craning his neck from behind Mom. He raised a pointed finger and spoke very clearly. “Helene won’t be living with us anymore either, lovebug.” He looked satisfied to say it and returned his hand to his hip “So you don’t have to worry about anymore drama.”
Helene turned so quickly to Dad that her neck nearly snapped. “What!?” She was furious and she raised her arms But Dad must’ve had security ready beforehand because they ran in and escorted Helene out with a swiftness. She was kicking and screaming, something we’d all had enough of, as they led her out. And she swore she’d get back at Dad for abandoning her.
As Helene was led out, the nurse came in with human steaks and butt, my favorites, so I know Mom or Dad must’ve ordered. “Let’s eat here, honey,” Mom said.
“You’re aunt still wants to have Thanksgiving dinner, but she’s one of those animatarian types,” Dad reminded me.
I remembered the shrimp salad on the table and shuddered as I recalled all the times I’d nearly vomited eating it. “Bleh.”
Grandma agreed from her seat next to my bed as my father pulled out some takeout he’d bought before I’d woken up. “Bleh is right. I don’t know what went wrong with my little Sadie. Now she’s a human rights activist…It’s so embarrassing.”
Our whole family—excluding Helene the Satan particle of course—had a 3 A.M. dinner of finger sausages. While we ate, we watched some rounds of Family Feud on the hospital TV.
“Was your shift as the pantry nice?” Mom suddenly asked between a bite of finger.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “But there was some crazy fire behind the building that went off.”
“That’s horrible,” she replied, watching Neve Marley mock yet another contestant. How was she still a host?
“I know,” I half-laughed. “It happened right after I’d wished on some shooting stars.”
“What did you ask for?” Mom took her eyes from Neve who was dramatically pointing at the board.
Putting my food down, I considered if I wanted to tell her the truth. Neve cackled as the contestant got the third X for their family. “I wished my life was more interesting,” I admitted.
Mom smiled mischievously at me. “Be careful what you wish for.”
I really hate irony, so I didn’t laugh.