“This year’s party is going to be the best. Everyone will be so impressed,” June says as she wraps a strand of white lights around her palm, checking for knots and broken bulbs. It looks like a festive barbed wire, David thinks, as it twirls over and over. “We certainly are planning big,” David says, sorting through the boxes. He’s looking for the good stockings, the deep red ones with the white trim. June hums a Christmas tune as she continues her untangling process. Beads of sweat gather at her hairline, and he thinks she should take off her red sweater, but it puts her in the spirit, so he doesn’t suggest it. Their outdated A/C unit fights hard against the onslaught of electrical lights and cookies baking in the oven and the natural July heat, even though it’s almost two in the morning. They’ve been home for three hours, June’s birthday barely over; for the past five years they hurried home after her birthday dinner to take out the boxes and start decorating the house.
June’s motto was that all the best things should happen in the summer, Christmas included. It was a tradition that David indulged at first, finding it charming. But he found everything about June charming then; her brown pixie hair, her five foot frame.
They keep going until the tree is up and the boxes are empty and the first dozen cookies are cooled. They’re sweaty and aching but June is grinning. She peels off her clothes and climbs on top of him. It’s the only part David finds charming anymore.
They met at a party in college; David was drinking Heineken in the corner with his roommate, Paul, and watching June move around the room. She wore a dress that sat high on her waist and tapered out to a wide bell shape. All David could think about was what she looked like underneath.
“You’re cute,” he said in a mumble as June passed by him to get to the kitchen.
“What?” June stopped and looked at him. “Did you say something to me?”
David’s pulse jumped and he shook his head and sucked down the last of his beer, hoping the moment was over, but Paul came up then and threw an arm around her and sang, “Heyyyy June,” in a way that sounded nothing like Paul McCartney and she smiled, not at Paul but at David. He thought that maybe she’d heard what he mumbled so he stuck out his hand and said, “I’m David.”
“June?” David calls out as he walks down their hallway. His socked feet step silently over the wooden floor.
“In here,” she says, her voice lingering from the spare bedroom: the room that holds their decorations ten months out of the year. He hears the stitch of tape being stretched out, the sounds of paper being cut.
“What are you wrapping?” he asks, leaning against the doorframe.
“Your mom’s gift.”
June keeps her focus on the gift-wrapping. Her folds are flawless, masterful.
“What about Dad’s? Can we get that Saturday?”
She smoothes her hands over the box, her fingertips gliding over the evenness of her work.
David slips away from the door, back to their bedroom. He falls on the bed, lying motionless for as long as he can, listening to the sounds of slicing scissors and ripping tape.
The next night, David comes home, unbuttons his shirt, sheds his pants. He wants to sit in his boxers and watch TV with a beer. But June told him that morning that they were going to watch Miracle On 34th Street and drink cider. He puts on the red pajama pants that June likes, the ones with little elves all over them.
He drinks four cups of apple cider during Miracle On 34th Street after spiking it with some leftover rum in the cabinet. He’s pretty tipsy and June is curled against his side and the room is goddamn hot, too hot to breathe. The tree lights are set on a blinking pattern and they dart and glare across the screen. David tries not to care and keeps his hand on the small of June’s back, her skin hot and damp. He wishes they could take their clothes off right now, with the movie playing. He lets his hand snake around her back and slides it up her side, brushes his hand on the curve of her bra.
“Dave,” she breathes, easing his hand off. She refused the rum when he asked her. Instead she drinks her hot cider in her hot sweater in the hottest month of the year.
“Do you remember our first Christmas here?” She asks then, turning her position to face him. “We sat on the patio in the freezing cold and drank hot chocolate. Made a fire and talked for hours.”
“Yeah, of course I remember,” he says.
“I want it to feel like that all of the time. Like this.” She rests her head against his chest, her thick heat trapping them.
“Hey, you should take off your sweater, it’s getting pretty warm in here.”
“Feels nice, though,” she says and David drops his hands, succumbing, closing his eyes and letting the heat take him over.
June spends the next week planning the party, letting her preschoolers in summer class make these little red invites for their friends and family. June thinks they’re a nice touch because they look like letters to Santa. David thinks about how hot the house will be with all those bodies in it.
The afternoon of the party, June goes out to pick up last minute things and she leaves a to-do list for David. Light the candles, check that everyone has something small under the tree, wipe down the wine glasses. She leaves a Christmas mix on loop on the stereo but David mutes it after she leaves and turns on a TV show. He grips a beer as he moves around the house. He uses a long stem lighter for the candles that smell like evergreen, like cinnamon, like peppermint. June buys them in bulk in January, when they’re marked down after the holiday season. She complains that in July all they sell is coconut lime and tropical sunset. David told her she should have bought those air fresheners that mist the room, instead of something that produces more heat.
June calls when she’s on her way home and asks him to preheat the oven so she can warm the casseroles and pies. The house quickly becomes a sauna and David strips down to his boxers, flings his t-shirt across the room and stands on the back porch to finish his beer. He doesn’t want to think about the sweater waiting for him, the matching ones June found for them at a thrift store for two bucks. He daydreams about buying another six-pack for the night, about the cool A/C in the walk-in beer cooler at the corner gas station.
When he heads back in, the house feels even warmer, almost burning. It must be something stuck on the bottom of the oven, but then he turns into the living room and sees it.
The evergreen, the cinnamon, the peppermint flame, knocked on the floor next to his flung t-shirt, knocked onto the floor next to the impossibly green Christmas tree. The flames lick at the paper wrapping, at June’s smooth folds, and spread to the cloth sheet draped around the base of the tree. It’s almost comical how fast it all goes up, the branches and leaves popping.
David can’t do anything for a long moment, frozen and watching. And then he thinks a million things at once. He knows June will be home soon, that she will see this and yell and probably cry. Then he can’t help thinking about how he knew they shouldn’t have candles, how if only he didn’t fling his shirt like that, of how the heat consumed everything in this house. He chuckles a little because maybe he’s sort of tipsy but it is sort of funny. He should be getting a pot of water to throw on the tree to save what’s left. He shouldn’t be standing there laughing to himself and tipping back the rest of the beer and thinking about throwing the bottle onto the flames. He knows he has to stop it, eventually, but he can’t turn away from the tree being slowly taken over by the flames.
He’s about to move into the kitchen to get water when he hears June’s car pull into the driveway. He thinks of her walking in and seeing him standing in his boxers with an empty beer bottle and watching the tree burn. He laughs, a little louder this time, because he really can’t believe it. Nothing has made him genuinely laugh like this in a long time, and his sides ache and eyes tear up. He’s even wearing his reindeer boxers, oh god, and the whole thing gets funnier, and the smoke alarm is going off and the oven timer is beeping and the doorknob is turning and he laughs and laughs.
About the Author: Rachel Kolman recently received her MFA from the University of Central Florida, where she wrote stories about obsessions. Rachel herself is obsessed with finding good craft wheat beers, the Legend of Zelda, and Internet memes. You can find more of her online at rachelkolman.wordpress.com and @besthingaround.