Faces crowd the long table, old, young and in-between, all gathered to give thanks for what we have and to feast in celebration of our togetherness. I stand at the head of the table, for the first time supplanting my father as Master of Ceremonies. He grins as he stands by my side, ready to step in with advice. I know he's trying to put me at ease, but I'm reminded of when he taught me to drive; sitting beside him in the family sedan I could think only of the mistakes I might make, wondering frantically what was going to trip me up under his watchful eye. To my other side Mother smiles reassuringly, and I warm at the thought that they're still here for me. Many do not have this luxury.
"Let us join hands and give thanks," I say, my voice steady, though it's a near thing. Mother's hand is small and soft in my own, Father's larger and work-callused. I lower my head.
"Lord, we humbly thank You for the food we are about to receive, and for the many things You have blessed us with this long year past. It was a difficult year, oh Lord, but we know You in Your wisdom do not give us tests we can not pass, and what You do, You do to allow those with strength of faith to grow even stronger in spirit. We thank You for that strength, and for Your love, oh Lord. Amen."
I raise my gaze to the eyes around the table, all on me, awaiting my signal. I shrug.
"I said 'Amen'. Dig in, folks, before it gets cold!"
Father beams as I sit, and I feel a weight lift from my shoulders as a rite of passage is left behind, defeated. I smile, but it doesn't feel right somehow. As I fork turkey onto a plate I look past everyone to the kid's table sitting just off the far end of the main table from me. The younger celebrants have their own separate area, though it's plenty close to keep an eye on them.
Their behavior appears exemplary, however, all of them showing gap-toothed expressions of pleasure. No one is fighting or teasing; even the twins, Gary and Gabrielle, who usually can't stand each other for five minutes running, seem to be getting along like the best of pals. I'm beginning to think this feast might go off without a hitch, but within me is an uneasiness, a feeling that something is wrong. Then it happens.
In the last seat before the children's table, aunt Peggy suddenly slumps, elbow sliding from the table-edge, and falls face-first into her plate. There is laughter, which is to be expected, especially from the children. I notice, however, that no one moves to help the poor woman, who continues to lie with her nose pressing the Mikasa.
"Peggy," I call, concerned. "Are you alright?"
She makes no response, and still no one moves to help. Conversations continue, unconcerned, as I step around Mother's chair. I look at those I pass as I make my way down the long table: family, friends, neighbors. It's the largest Thanksgiving gathering I've ever seen. Everyone grins, enjoying themselves, though each smiling face I pass my sense of unease grows. I feel winded, and a sound comes from deep within my head, a strange wailing I try to ignore. I need to handle this situation and get the celebration back on track.
I reach her chair and ask again, "Peggy? You alright?" My words sound loud, and I realize conversation around the room has died. I suspect if I were to look up I'd see everyone watching me, but I can't take my eyes off Peggy. She doesn't answer, doesn't move. I reach out to lift her head from the plate but my hands tremble, revulsion welling up within me ... I don't know why. The wail in my head grows, becoming a voice ... or maybe the memory of a voice? It doesn't matter, I have to do something. I shove aside the revulsion, ignore the wailing voice, gently grip the sides of Peggy's head and lift.
Her hair, her skin, her scalp, peels away in my hands like some sort of organic hood, and in the silence that has descended I hear the trickle of... fluids... leaking from her torn flesh, pooling on the plate beneath her. My stomach roils at the sight of that mess held in my hands, still attached to Peggy by the graying skin at the back of her neck. The silence seems total, with no reaction to what's happened, but it's hard to tell over the wailing voice in my head. I look up at the assembled family and friends.
Teeth bared, lips pulled back and rotted away; Staring eyes, round and lidless; Orbless sockets, shadowy and dark. Skin, green and gray with decay, sometimes sloughing off skeletal frames propped in chairs, most adult though some would stand no higher than my hip. The smell is a physical thing, choking off my scream.
The voice in my head suddenly bursts out in words, and it's my own voice--
-- Dead! They're all dead! All killed in the plague! Dead! You're alone! They're all--
-- and I close my eyes and begin my mantra.
"Thank You, Lord, for my health, it was a part of Your plan that I survive the plague. Thank You, Lord, for my health, it was... "
I chant for minutes that feel like hours. The voice fades. The smell dissipates. I chant until I hear the sounds of conversation around me once more, smell the turkey, feel the love.
I open my eyes, prop a weary Peggy up in her seat, then return to the head of the table.
"Like I said, folks," I say as I sit. "Dig in before it gets cold!"
My father smiles at me proudly as, buried deep within me, a tiny voice screams.