“Just one more time, why are we in your parents’ house in secret making dinner for them?”
“It’s a nice surprise for christmas, isn’t it?”
“They think we’re two countries over snowboarding.”
“That’s why it’s called a surprise.”
“Why do I have to be here then?”
Charlotte waltzed towards her and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Cooking alone for five is boring.”
Merel cocked her brow, unconvinced.
“They know we’re together, sweetheart,” Charlotte reminded her. “It’s not like you broke in to rob their liquor cabinet. We’ve cooked enough food to sway them anyhow.”
“You’re paying tribute in meat so they won’t shoot me, that’s comforting.”
“It’s a joke, you donut, go set the table!”
With a sigh of resignation, Merel went into the dining room and searched the cupboards for the “good” china. five people were more than she had ever set a table for, but even through all the apprehension, the idea was pleasant. The idea of family gathered around a meal to celebrate nothing in particular beyond having each other.
Charlotte heard the clatter of broken glass. She hurried to the dining room to find Merel standing unsteadily above a puddle full of shards.
“I’m sorry, I… I heard a car in the driveway,” she stuttered.
“I’ll take care of the breakables,” Charlotte directed, “you don’t touch anything that’s not squishy.”
In moments, the mess was cleaned up, the dinner table was set, and Charlotte disappeared into the kitchen again.
Merel was close behind, wrenching her hands and worrying at her bottom lip.
“Charlie, this isn’t a good idea, they’re gonna hate me, and they’ll yell and everything will be a big-”
Before she knew it, Charlotte was holding her close and shushing her like a child. It wasn’t unpleasant.
“Everything’s going to be alright,” she said.
“You always say that,” Merel groaned, hiding her fearful expression in the red hair.
Charlotte tightened the embrace and hummed in her lover’s ear.
“I’ve been right so far, haven’t I?”
“Don’t worry. This is my family, and you’re going to be part of it.”
Merel unwound a little and nodded. Eventually, she let go.
Charlotte put on a pair of mitts and slowly, carefully withdrew the centerpiece of the feast-to-be from the oven. It was a thing of beauty: a roast ham studded with cloves, glazed with honey, baked for a century or so it had felt.
Her squeamishness wouldn’t allow her to handle a full carcass, and so they had foregone the customary goose or hare, but the old guard would surely understand. Merel had served as the reluctant taster - less and less reluctant the more she had sampled.
Fragrant steam filled the kitchen with heady smells of herbs and cooking juices. With great effort, the ham was laid in the largest dish they could find on a bed of roasted vegetables.
Just then, the bell rang.
“Come on, time to meet the gang.”
“Umm you - you go,” Merel stuttered. “I’ll be right out. In a minute…”
Perhaps it wasn’t the worst idea to give her a few moments to compose herself.
“I’ll go say hi, take your time and get ready for first contact, alright?”
Merel just leaned back against the worktop and listened closely as if for the sound of a gun cocking. It was all ridiculous, even for her scaredy cat self, and yet the visceral anguish that grabbed at her guts and twisted them into a knot was not going away.
The key turned in the lock, some cheerful greetings and pleasantries were exchanged on the other side of the wall and the surprise was taken well as far as she could tell.
Then, a stentorian voice shook every wall in the house.
“So where is this daughter in law of mine?”
Merel gulped, mechanically removed her stained apron, and walked out of the kitchen to meet her fate.
“How many strays?”
“Thirty-one, in one winter’s time!” Merel chirped “You just can’t leave them on the streets when it gets this cold, you know.”
Charlotte’s sister nodded attentively as she sampled the baked potatoes.
“See, mom,” she said, thoughtful, “that’s what we should do. There’s enough room in here for a whole flock of cats.”
Mrs. Wessels rolled her eyes.
“What is this thing with you young women herding every animal you can find?”
Charlotte chimed in with a solemn “It’s a gay thing, mom” between two draughts of beer.
“I’m not gay!” her sister protested.
“Right, you’re the one who paid attention at Sunday school. I doodled.”
Hanneke sipped at her wine.
“Mmm, red, round and fruity,” she mused, “just like my sister!”
Charlotte snorted, too pleasantly full of good fare and drink to pursue retaliation.
“The future of the family, over here! She’s going to make all those grandchildren you go on about, papa.”
“I wouldn’t dare discuss the matter surrounded by able-bodied women with knives in their hands.”
He did not, however, refrain from voicing his approval of the ham and various sides. It was so exquisite by her parents’ consideration Charlotte almost lamented that she couldn’t partake, but her vegan tart - mushrooms, chestnut and cranberries - had turned out lovely as well.
She reached across the table, clumsily looking for a frail hand with gnawed nails.
Merel looked up in disconcertment.
“I told you, didn’t I?”
An impish glint was in Charlotte’s narrow eyes.
Told me what? It came back to her soon enough. And she smiled when it did.
“You were right,” she said. “Again.”
A kiss seemed to be in order, but they refrained for the parents’ sake. Charlotte couldn’t trust her tipsy self to keep it modest.
They shared a tender look, patient and heavy with understanding.
A kiss could wait for a more private setting, and so could many other things.