On Christmas morning, Raina woke up on the wrong side of the bed. First of all, she’d gone to bed late. Gifts needed wrapping and pie crusts needed par-baking, and obviously no one else was going to do it. She’d laid her head on the pillow, finally, just before 1 am. It took her a good forty-five minutes to finally fall asleep, and then Cyrus woke her up twice with his incessant snoring. Now it was already seven, and if they didn’t get a move on, they would be late for Christmas lunch.
Raina got out of bed as loudly as possible to make sure that the noise would rouse Cyrus. She opened and closed drawers with a heavy hand as she gathered her undergarments. When she opened the closet, she let the door slam into the wall. Cyrus made a honking sound through his nose. He made another when Raina closed the door to the en suite bathroom. From the other side, she could hear his faint voice.
“Ray?” he said. “What time is it?”
He always asked her the time. It didn’t matter that he was wearing his watch or that there was a clock on the nightstand. She set her folded clothes carefully on the counter. First her pants, then her sweater, then her socks, bra, and underwear on top. Red underwear that she hoped wouldn’t give Cyrus any ideas. She had chosen them strictly in honor of the holiday. She turned on the water to let it warm, then opened the door and poked her head into the bedroom.
“Just after seven.”
“What time do we need to leave?” Cyrus said after a beat.
“8:30 at the latest. Get a move on.”
Cyrus, of course, had been sleeping for hours. He’d gone upstairs after dinner, ostensibly to get ready for Christmas. But really all he’d done was drink a beer and play tedious games on his phone. Raina knew that he knew he should help her with the pies, the presents, the everything else that he didn’t even know she prepared ahead of time for the three-hour trek to her parents’ house. He simply didn’t want to, and because she would handle it, he faced no consequences for his idleness.
When he heard the water turn off, Cyrus swung himself out of bed. Raina emerged from the bathroom a moment later, fully dressed and with a towel on her head like a turban.
“Oh good, you’re up,” Raina said.
“And a Merry Christmas to you, too.”
Raina rolled her eyes. She had yet to find a reason to be merry. But before there was time for her to come up with a scathing retort, they heard Marnie’s voice from the hallway.
“Get out, Dean!”
Cyrus, in just his boxers, opened the bedroom door.
“No arguing about the bathroom!” Cyrus said on autopilot.
“He doesn’t even want to shower,” Marnie whined. “He just wants to take a shit and stink up the bathroom. He could just go downstairs—”
“I should be able to shit wherever I want—” Dean interrupted.
“Shut up!” Cyrus said, though Raina repeatedly told him to stop saying that in front of the children. “Both of you. It’s Christmas, and you’re both going to act like you’re a fucking picture print by Currier and Ives. Got it?”
Both teenagers stood in the hallway side by side staring at him.
“Like the song?” Dean asked.
“What is wrong with you?” Marnie said.
Now united in parent-induced embarrassment, their argument disappeared like a snowflake melting on the windshield of a warm car. Dean stalked off down the hall toward the staircase to take care of business downstairs. Marnie stepped into the bathroom and slammed the door.
“And to all a good night,” Cyrus said.
“So, you’re just letting them swear now?” Raina asked as she pushed past him into the hall. She didn’t wait for a response.
In the kitchen, Raina made coffee and popped a baking dish of cinnamon buns she’d prepared the night before in the oven. They just needed to be warmed, then iced, and the family could have a Christmas-movie-worthy breakfast before they inevitably ran out the door at the last minute. She briefly questioned how Troy would fare in the car on that much sugar. She often wondered if he had ADHD or if it was just the bottomless energy of pre-teen boys.
By the time Cyrus came down, Raina was putting wrapped presents into bags for transport.
“Need help?” he asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Oh, why start now?” Raina asked.
“Hmm?” Cyrus pretended not to hear Raina over the sound of the liquid filling his mug.
Cyrus hadn’t wrapped a single present in years. The gifts Raina received with his name on them she bought for herself. When Cyrus had bought her gifts himself, it was always something terrible, like oven mitts or a hand-held vacuum. Now Raina treated herself to expensive perfumes, luxury handbags, stilettos with red soles that she would probably never wear. This year she had really splurged and got herself a diamond necklace. All Raina needed to do was make it through this morning, through the drive to her parents’ house, and through Christmas lunch. Then there would be a giant diamond hanging around her neck. Then she would be happy.
“Mom! Mom!” Troy’s voice cracked as he screamed.
Raina ran into the kitchen expecting to find his hand sliced clean through with a knife or bone protruding from broken skin. Instead, the boy stood in front of the dining room table, his shoulders shaking, crying.
“Troy? What’s wrong?”
Troy sniffed and wiped his nose dramatically with the back of his hand.
Raina followed the boy’s outstretched arm in the direction he was pointing. There was a jumble of Legos on the floor.
“My skyscraper!” Troy wailed.
Cyrus appeared beside them with his mug of coffee.
“What’s happening bud?”
“My skyscraper!!” Troy wailed again, then stomped across the room and up the staircase. They heard his bedroom door slam.
“That boy has not been showering enough,” Cyrus said.
“What’s his damage?” Marnie said. She typed furiously on her phone as she came down the stairs.
“Someone tried to move his Lego thing and it maybe, possibly, got a little damaged,” Cyrus said.
“Oh, so this is all your fault?” Raina said.
“I plead the fifth.”
“Go up there and apologize.”
Cyrus frowned. There was a moment where it was unclear if Raina was going to have to ask again. But then he put down his mug and trudged up the stairs.
“And while you’re at it, tell him he has to shower!” she called after him.
“I’m glad someone else is telling him he’s foul,” Marnie said without looking up from her phone. “Every time I tell him he calls me a cunt and then cries.”
“He calls you a what?” Raina asked.
“Hey, Mom?” Dean appeared at the top of the stairs. “Troy’s crying.”
“I know, honey. Your dad’s in there with him.”
“I hope he’s wearing a hazmat suit,” Dean said. “Do you know where my Christmas sweater is? The one that lights up?”
“It’s got to be in your closet.”
“I looked. I can’t find it.”
“Look again, Dean. And if you still can’t find it, pick something else. We don’t have time this morning.”
Suddenly, the fire alarm went off. Raina and Dean covered their ears. Marnie kept typing on her phone as if nothing was happening.
“The cinnamon buns!” Raina ran over to the oven, turned it off, and opened the door. Smoke billowed out.
“Open the windows!” she called to the kids.
Neither moved. Marnie continued to type on her phone and Dean returned to his room to look for his sweater. Raina waved a dish towel around in front of the smoke detector until it went silent.
“Is there a fire?” Cyrus asked. Raina hadn’t heard him come back downstairs over the alarm.
“No. But there is also no breakfast.”
“We can make a stop somewhere along the way,” he said to Raina. Then he turned back around toward the rest of the house. “Kids! We’re on our way in five! Anyone late will be left behind and forced to do chores!”
Raina took her sad, black buns out of the oven. She set the baking dish in the sink and left them there. It would be easier to clean up the mess with a diamond necklace nestled against her skin.
Fifteen minutes later, each member of the Magnusson family was buckled into their usual seats in the Toyota Sienna. The radio station played Christmas music as they drove through the snowfall toward Cornish, the town where Raina’s parents lived. As they approached the town, the snow fell harder and the visibility got worse with every mile. Cyrus was forced to drive under the speed limit.
“Mom, can you change the station?” Marnie said. It was the first time she’d spoken since they left the house. “I hate this song.”
“Me too,” Troy said.
Raina was shocked that they agreed on something, though she, too, hated Christmas Shoes, the worst Christmas song and possibly the worst song period. Raina switched the station. It was commercials, but she left it on. Anything was better than that horrible, depressing song.
“We’re almost there anyway,” Raina said. “Turn left right here, Cy. It’s the fifth driveway on the right, in case you can’t see it in the snow.”
“I can’t believe we drove all this way without being forced to play a car game,” Dean said.
“I spy with my little eye a person who needs to start wearing deodorant,” Marnie said.
“Stop picking on me!” Troy yelled. He started to cry.
“Marnie,” Cyrus said as if he was scolding her, but when he looked up and made eye contact with her in the rearview mirror, they both smiled.
“Watch out!” Raina yelled.
Cyrus’s eyes snapped back to the road as the van careened over a patch of black ice. He over compensated, turning too far right out of the slide, and the car headed straight toward the ditch. But instead of tumbling in, the car caught a little air over the snowbank and flew across the lawn, speeding directly toward the street-facing wall of Raina’s parents’ house. Through the picture window, Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza watched the car coming toward them. Behind them stood Raina’s only brother, Bartolomé.
The car came to halt with the front bumper of the Sienna kissing the perfect golden turkey Mrs. Mendoza had lovingly placed in the center of the dining room table.
When Raina opened her eyes, she was standing in the middle of an office. She had been bracing for impact, ready for the car to crash, for the metal to crumple around her, for her body to snap in two. But it never came. And now she was surrounded by tall wooden bookshelves covered with numbered volumes, titles in a golden font too small to read. A large wooden desk sat at the front of the room, a plush brown leather chair behind it. When Raina looked over her shoulder, she saw an overstuffed green sofa with a matching chair on either side of it, all angled around a wrought iron and glass coffee table. In front of the sitting area stood her family. Her husband and her three children, parents, and her brother, the latter three still wearing their house shoes.
“Where are we?” Marnie asked.
“You are in Hades,” a booming voice said. When Raina whipped her head around to face forward, a man was sitting in the leather chair she was sure had been vacant a moment before. “The Underworld. Pandemonium. El Infierno. This place has many names.”
Raina looked around the room. Where had the man come from? There were no windows in the room, no door that she could see. There was also no air conditioning. Raina was wearing slacks and a thin sweater, and she was already starting to feel sweat accumulating on her top lip. It had to be over a hundred degrees, which made it all the more bizarre that the man behind the desk was wearing a black wool coat with the collar up. Beneath it, she could see the collar of a white dress shirt and a crimson tie.
“You mean we are in hell?” Mrs. Mendoza asked.
“That’s right,” said the man.
A cacophony of voices filled the small room. Raina heard her father’s voice loudly accusing the man of being a mentiroso, Troy crying, Marnie complaining that there was no service. Much like Raina, Cyrus was speechless. He stood, baffled, scanning the room for any clue as to what was happening. Dean sat down on the emerald sofa, his expression highlighting just how much he looked like his father. This was obviously some kind of prank, although Raina couldn’t work out how anyone would have been able to carry it off. She didn’t like being made a fool of, and she could feel the anger rising within her. She could also feel the sweat that was gathering on her neck, dampening her dark hair.
“Let us out of here this instant you bastard!” Bart stalked toward the man. “You have no right to hold us—”
“Quiet, please,” the man said.
Immediately everyone was quiet. Bart stopped in his tracks and stood a few feet from the desk, swaying like a sapling in a hurricane. Raina tried to protest, but her words were forced back down her throat by her tongue, which now felt several sizes too big.
“Thank you,” the man rose from his chair. He walked slowly around the desk until he came face to face with Bart, then waved his hand, as if shooing him away. Bart marched dutifully to the couch and sat beside Dean. “If anyone else would like to take a seat, by all means. This part can get a little tedious.”
He waited. No one moved, though Raina wasn’t sure if that was their choice or his.
“Now, you might be wondering where you are and how you got here,” the man said. “My name is Minos—”
“Get on with it!” Bart squeaked as if being strangled.
“I said quiet.”
Bart tried to say something else, but no sound came out when his mouth moved.
“Thank you for your cooperation. I’m here to orient you to your new situation.”
Cyrus raised his hand.
“I’ll open the floor to questions at the end, sir. Now, as I said, you are in hell. You have died, you have been judged, and you have been sent here, specifically to quadrant 4,875, of which I am in charge. You will remain here for, potentially, eternity, although your experience will be personalized based on my recommendations, which in turn are based on the reports I get from my demonites. There are very few rules, except that you may not, outside of this room, know that you are in hell, so to prevent you from attempting to game the system. Now, any questions?”
“My cell phone isn’t working,” Marnie said. “Is there someone I can talk to?”
Minos sighed. “I’ll call IT at the end of our session.”
“I’m sorry. Did you say we were dead?” Cyrus said. His face was flushed, and beads of sweat ran down his forehead.
“As in, we are no longer alive?”
“All of us? Even my wife?”
Raina looked over at Cyrus. The heat was making her lightheaded. Cyrus was staring at her with wide eyes, tears gathered in the corners.
“Even your wife.”
“But she’s a saint!”
“She is clearly not, sir,” Minos said. “As she is here with us now.”
“What could she possibly have done?”
“I’m going to be honest with you, since you will not remember this conversation in the sense that you understand memory. There are very few human beings who escape damnation. Heaven, as you think of it, is largely populated by animals. And some humans who have resisted getting a Facebook account.”
“Even cats?” Dean asked.
“Finally an intelligent question!” Minos smiled a grimace of a smile that made Raina feel faint. “Not domestic ones, of course. The big, wild cats—lions, tigers, oh my. They’re in heaven.”
“Excuse me,” Raina said. “But you said ‘potentially eternity.’ Does that mean there is a chance we will end up somewhere else?”
Minos looked at Raina for a moment with surprise, and the glee. Instead of his horrible smile he winked at her.
“Thank you all for your questions. We will meet again soon. And in the meantime, if you need me, you know where to find me.”
“No, actually we don’t’—” Cyrus began.
But before he could finish, everything turned black, and then so blindingly white that Raine was forced to shut her eyes.
When she opened her them, she was standing in the dining room at her parents’ house.
“Mom?” Troy asked. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry, honey, what did you say?”
“You’re being weird today.”
“I think it’s the heat. It’s a little hot in here, no?”
“I will happily turn it down,” her father said. “Your mother, she makes me turn it up, up, up this morning. I tell her: all the bodies, we don’t need heat! She never believes.”
Raina looked around the room. The wall was completely intact. Through the picture window, she could see the snow falling, their van parked, uncrunched, in the driveway. Raina touched her face, her neck. She was warm, but she wasn’t sweating as hard as she felt. She remembered being uncomfortably hot, the sensation was fleeting like a dream you wake up from when the alarm goes off. It was probably just a hot flash.
“Will you take a glass of wine?” her mother asked. “I have red, I have pink?”
“Not yet,” Raina said. “I think I need coffee first.”
“What you need is to take a good hard look at yourself and ask how you could possibly dare?” Bart stumbled into the room with a glass of whisky in his hand.
“Not on Christmas, Bartolomé!” Mrs. Mendoza called from the kitchen. “You promised.”
“She told me—no, she promised me she would invest in my business idea, and then she fucking ghosted.”
“Bart, that’s not what happened,” Raina said.
“Yeah, I don’t think joining a pyramid scheme counts as a real business idea,” Cyrus said.
“That gum eliminated all my body odor! I never had to buy deodorant again!”
“Life changing for sure.”
Bart pushed his pointer finger into Cyrus’s chest. “You’d understand if you’d at least tried it.”
“You promised,” Mrs. Mendzoa said as she entered carrying a mug of coffee. “Not on Christmas.”
“If you just opened your eyes, and your mouth, you would see I’m right,” Bart muttered to himself as he slipped past his mother into the kitchen.
Raina accepted the cup of coffee her mother handed to her and took a sip. It tasted terrible, like fresh soil. She set the mug down on a side table and joined the rest of the family in the living room. In one corner, the Christmas tree glowed with colored lights. Presents were piled around the base, including the ones Raina had wrapped. She didn’t remember unloading them.
“Mom, the internet here is so slow.”
Ever since Marnie had announced she had been asked out by her first boyfriend, she’d been even more attached to her phone than before. They texted day and night.
“It’s Christmas. Doesn’t Brian have to spend time with his family?”
“He can spend time with his family and talk to me.”
“I’m sure the storm is affecting service. You’ll have to be patient.”
Marnie sighed. She got up off the couch and walked into the hallway holding her phone over her head. As she passed, she bumped into Troy, who was using the coffee table as a desk for his coloring book. The jostle caused him to draw a long, dark line with his red marker outside the lines of Santa’s hat.
“Mom! Look what Marnie made me do!” he whined.
“She didn’t mean it, Troy.”
“Yes she did! She’s always ruining my stuff! I know she ruined my skyscraper!”
Raina had forgotten about the skyscraper.
“She doesn’t mean it, bud,” Cyrus said. “And there’s no whining on Christmas.”
Troy looked like he was about to cry, but the room’s focus shifted to Dean when he came into the room.
“I can’t find any batteries for my sweater,” he announced.
“I think there is some in the refrigerator,” Mrs. Mendoza said. “Come with me.”
“How about I put on some Christmas music?” Cyrus asked. He got up before anyone could answer and opened the magnetized glass door that protected the stereo from dust. “What’s the Christmas station?”
But he didn’t need to ask. As soon as the tuner was on, Do They Know It’s Christmas blasted from the speakers. Satisfied, Cyrus sat down on the couch behind Troy, who was still trying to salvage his ruined picture. Marnie, disappointed that resetting the router didn’t improve the speed of the internet, sat beside him growing increasingly frustrated as her TikTok feed refused to refresh. Dean and Mrs. Mendoza returned without batteries. Bart shuffled into the room behind his father complaining that they were completely out of booze.
Raina pulled her sweater away from her chest quickly three times. “Dad, I thought you turned the heat down?”
“I did, but with all these bodies!”
“Mom, it’s stupid Christmas Shoes again,” Marnie said.
“Turn it off!” Dean yelled.
Cyrus got up and walked back over to the stereo. He turned the dial past several garbled stations. When he finally landed on something that was playing music, it was still Christmas Shoes.
“Dad, this is the same station.”
“It’s not, look at the dial.”
“Well, it’s the same shitty song.”
Cyrus turned the dial again, but every station was static. There was only one option.
“We’re just going to have to wait for it to end,” he said, giving up.
“How about we open presents while we wait for the turkey to be cooked?” Mrs. Mendoza said. “One for each. An appetizer.”
“Yes,” Raina said, eying the little green box with the gold bow. “I think that’s a great idea. Why doesn’t everyone pick one with their name on it.”
Troy opened his first. He ripped the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer wrapping paper off and tossed it aside. Dean crumpled the paper into a ball and Cyrus held open a garbage bag like a net. Dean shot the ball in an exaggerated seated layup and missed.
“So close,” Cyrus said.
“Socks?” Troy wailed. “I don’t even need these!”
Raina was confused. She did wrap socks for Troy, but they were in the Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper. This box was supposed to be a Spiderman Lego set.
Marnie opened hers next. Instead of wireless headphones, it contained a ten pack of white cotton Granny panties. Next Mr. Mendoza opened a gift bag that should have been a hand-carved chess set from the farmers market, but it was a tin of cheap dry-roasted peanuts.
“What is going on?” she said out loud to no one.
“Yeah, for real,” Dean said. “Christmas Shoes is playing again!”
“Whoever is at the station must not be paying attention.”
“Mom must not have been paying attention when she wrapped these presents,” Dean said, holding up her appetizer present. “What am I going to find in here? A burnt cinnamon roll from this morning?”
“The oven!” Mrs. Mendoza yelled, snapping to her feet and running toward the kitchen. “I forgot the turkey!”
Raina knew she should follow her mother and offer to help salvage the overcooked bird, but she was desperate to open her gift. Even though the temperature in the living room had risen considerably, the kids were cranky, and Bart was clearly wasted, she knew that everything would feel easier with her dream diamond in her hand.
“Me next,” she said as she removed the ribbon. She opened the paper carefully, without ripping it. When she saw the box, her worry fell away. The name of the jeweler was embossed on the side. She folded the paper, then slowly lifted the lid.
Inside was a single puka shell hanging from a leather strap. It looked like something a frosted-tip teen would wear in 2003. Raina held up the necklace, if you could even call it that, and tossed it to the floor. She pulled out the flimsy cardboard inside the box. The diamond had to be there. Maybe it was hidden underneath. But no. The box was empty.
“Where is it?” Raina said. “Where is it? Where is it?”
She looked at Cyrus. Maybe he had found the box and decided to play a trick on her, but he simply looked confused.
“Stop screaming, Jesus!” Bart slurred.
“Where is it?” Raina said again. She was sweating now. Her armpits were damp, and she could feel one drop trailing down her spine.
“Everyone relax. We’re all getting a little excited.” Cyrus got up and turned off the radio, which was playing Christmas Shoes for the fifth time. “Look outside, the snow is starting to let up. Why don’t we all go for a short walk. We can cool off, in all senses, and when we come back, we’ll be hungry for Christmas lunch.”
“Don’t get hungry for turkey,” Mrs. Mendoza said as she returned to the living room. “It’s ruined.”
“We’ll all be hungry specifically for Christmas lunch sides,” Cyrus said.
“Mom, do we—”
“Yes. We all have to go. We need to get out of this heat.”
“And some of us need to sober up,” Cyrus said under his breath to Raina, pointing his thumb at Bart.
“I heard that,” he growled.
“Do I have to wear my coat?” Troy asked.
“You’re going to want it outside, buddy,” Cyrus said. “Just carry it for now.”
The family gathered their cold weather gear and tucked their pants into their boots. When everyone was ready, Cyrus opened the door. Instead of a winter wonderland, they stood face to face with a the crackling, orange arms of the fire. There were no houses, no trees planted exactly ten feet apart, no overpriced family van sitting in the driveway as there had been when they went to sleep. There was just fire, reaching up into the sky, as far as they could see. The heat made the breath catch in their throats.
“Holy shit,” her father said. Then her son said it too, but she was too distracted to reprimand him.
“I don’t care what’s out here,” Bart slurred. “I can’t sit in this house with you lot for a moment longer.”
Bart flung off his coat and ran off the porch and into the fire. The rest of the family stood, stunned, as they watched him disappear into the flames.
Raina stood at the window beside her mother watching the snow. Everyone had returned to the house and taken off their cold-weather gear, as well as most of their clothes. The heat had only gotten worse. Dean, Marnie, and Troy were in the living room in their underwear, attempting to put together a puzzle that was clearly missing several pieces. Cyrus and Mr. Mendoza sat shirtless at the table.
“Can I pour you a glass of wine?” Cyrus asked Raina.
“Okay.” She took the glass he held out for her.
“We’re out of whisky,” Bart said as he stumbled into the dining room from the kitchen.
“Check in the garage,” Mrs. Mendoza said.
Something about Bart felt strange, as if he wasn’t supposed to be there, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Maybe it was just annoyance at how drunk he’d gotten. No one else seemed surprised to see him.
“Hi Raina,” Bart said. Then he winked at her.
It was something he had never done before, she was sure of that. And yet, it felt familiar. She took a sip of the wine, which was too warm and tasted terrible, like gravel and uncooked meat that had been left out on the counter for too long. Raina turned back to the window and watched the snow fall as Christmas Shoes played over and over again on the stereo, each flake making her itch at the back of her hands, desperate to uncover what lay beneath.