Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. I had never eaten turkey outside the end of November, but year after year I gulped it down by the pound for a day, then followed it up with epic portions of green bean casserole and mounds upon mounds of what amounted to sweet potatoes and a shitload of brown sugar and butter. And of course that was always followed up with at least a half-dozen different types of pie. It wasn’t just the food that did it, although there’s no denying that feasting like middle ages royalty has its charm.
Thanksgiving was always more than just a meal for me—there was a whole atmosphere to it. Waking up early (by my teenage standards) and making snarky comments about parade floats and balloons with my little brother Max. Leaves crunching under our feet as we tossed a football in the crisp autumn air when we inevitably got kicked out of the house for being in Mom’s way. Listening to Pop and Nana tell us the same stories they had the last year and the year before that and every year as far back as I could remember. But it didn’t matter. Those stories were part of the tradition, and we poked and prodded with questions to make sure we got them all if one of them managed to slip through the cracks.
Then Nana got sick last October. Pop followed suit almost immediately. We knew they had to be going downhill fast when Mom canceled Thanksgiving because she had to focus on them. She didn’t want us to see them on their way out. She wanted our last memories of them to be as their usual spry, witty selves rather than the helpless, flailing people they’d surely become. I’m guessing she didn’t want us to see her breaking, either, so Max and I ended up going to Aunt Dottie’s for Thanksgiving.
Mom hadn’t talked to Aunt Dottie in years. She wasn’t technically family—she had been married to my Mom’s brother before he died—but she was all Mom had besides us, Nana, and Pop. Desperate times, desperate measures, I guess. We hadn’t seen Aunt Dottie in ten years, since I was in kindergarten and Max was barely forming coherent sentences. We hadn’t even heard about her again until Nana and Pop got sick, but we still knew her mousy face and crooked smile the second we saw her waiting at the train station.
We rode back to her house, a nondescript mass of wood and brick in the middle of nowhere, in the most awkward, protracted silence ever. She didn’t want to hear about Mom or Nana or Pop, and she glared at me and Max when we tried to just talk to each other.
None of that mattered once we got to her house, though. The smell of sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie filled the air. A massive, golden turkey sat waiting for us. There was way more food than the three of us could ever hope to eat, even if I went for a personal record on turkey consumption (which I fully intended to). It was as close to perfect as this holiday could be without Mom, Nana, and Pop to share it with.
I reached for a roll to get started, but Aunt Dottie slapped my hand and pushed me away from the table. “Not without your cousin,” she said. “He’s downstairs.” I didn’t even know we had a cousin, but I wasn’t going to ask questions if doing whatever she said meant I could start gorging myself on that meal. I thought it was a little weird since there were only two places set at the table, but I figured maybe she’d forgotten about me and Max and needed to get the table set for us while we were getting our cousin.
The only light in the basement was coming from behind me and Max on the way down, through the door at the top of the stairs. I couldn’t even see the bottom of the stairs since the angle of the doorway created a sharp divide between light and dark halfway down. I found a light switch as I groped along the wall, but it didn’t do anything. The basement was pitch black, and it stayed that way no matter how many times I flicked the switch back and forth. I figured Aunt Dottie must have been mistaken. There was no way my cousin was down there. There was no way anything was down there. I started back up the stairs, dragging Max behind me, but Aunt Dottie was waiting at the top of the stairs with her foot tapping and her head shaking.
“Did you get your cousin?” she asked. I shook my head and she stared me down. Pointed toward the darkness below. I started to respond, but her glare told me to shut the hell up. So I did.
I could tell Max was scared as he followed me back downstairs. He didn’t say anything, not that he really ever did, but his breathing was unmistakably close to a whimper.
“Hello,” I called out. “Your Mom said we needed to bring you upstairs for dinner.” The door upstairs slammed shut, and the little bit of light we’d left behind us was gone. Max gave up on masking his fear, his sobs and sniffles echoing in the darkness.
“I’m scared,” he said. “Let’s go back upstairs.”
“It’s okay, Max,” I said. “We just need to find our cousin and we can go back upstairs and start eating.” The meal waiting for us was calling out to me, its aromas filling the air even in the dark basement.
“Hello,” Max called out, clearly as eager to get out of the basement as I was. Probably not for the same reasons, though.
“We have to play a game before dinner,” a voice said. It was strained and uncomfortable, like the person behind it wasn’t quite sure how to string words together.
“Let’s play upstairs,” I said.
“We have to play a game.” A pair of eyes came out of nowhere across the basement, dull yellow breaking through the darkness. Max jumped back with a startled yelp, and I can’t say for sure that I didn’t do the same.
“Are you our cousin?” I asked.
The eyes moved slowly up and down in what I assumed was a nod. Then they crept toward us, and I had to hold Max in place as the smells of Thanksgiving were replaced by a putrid odor so dense I nearly threw up on the spot.
“Are you ready to play?” he asked.
I nodded, still unable to see anything more than the yellow eyes. “What are we going to play?” I asked.
“Like what your Mom has upstairs?” I asked.
The eyes moved up and down again, and a guttural noise escaped from my cousin, somewhere between a hack and a laugh. Then he put his face right against mine, sniffing the air around me. I felt a cold hand press against my cheek. Force my head to the side. Then I felt what seemed like wet sandpaper scrape from my jaw to my cheek. His tongue. I tried to shove him away, but his grip was too tight for me to get away. So I just stood there, shaking and crying, my hand wrapped around Max’s.
My cousin backed away from me. Took a step to the side. Took a step toward Max.
“Leave him alone,” I said, the words coming out far closer to those of a scared child and the protective big brother I wanted to be. Max choked on his tears as the eyes moved toward him, as my cousin sniffed at the air around him and licked his cheek. I wanted to stop my cousin, to fight back, but I was too scared to move.
“This one,” my cousin said. Then Max was yanked from my grip, a quick scream silenced almost instantly with a thunderous thud on the concrete floor. I finally built up the nerve to lunge at my cousin, but I was on my back, my head spinning, before I could even process what I was going to do. Those yellow eyes looked down at me, unblinking. “This one,” he said again. Then he disappeared deeper into the basement, dragging Max behind him. I tried to reach for Max, I tried to call out to him, but I felt myself moving away from the darkness, moving toward the stairs.
“You found your cousin,” Aunt Dottie said as she dragged me out of the basement and into the dining room. She propped me in a chair in front of one of the two place settings on the table, an overflowing plate of turkey and sweet potato and cranberry sauce and so much more food waiting for me.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked. “Your mother said Thanksgiving was your favorite holiday and I went to a lot of trouble to put this together for you.”
I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t react. I was numb.
“He had his feast,” she said as she slipped a forkful of turkey toward my mouth. “Now you can have yours.”
And I did.