Before her family left for midnight mass, Alyssa ate a cinnamon roll. She scooped the gooey pastry out of the pan with her fingers, the frosting crusting to her skin as she yawned her mouth wide to cram the whole thing inside.
She emerged from the pantry with her cheeks puffed out, her jaw working hard against the sticky wad of dough. She lingered in the dark kitchen until she finished chewing, the grimy tile cold beneath her bare feet.
Her family sat together in the living room. Her mother and Aunt Rochelle occupied the couch while her twin brothers sprawled atop beanbags on the floor. They were watching “A Christmas Story” again, meaning her aunt had picked the channel. Her mom stared at her hands, and her brothers looked to be asleep, coiled like festive snails in their matching green corduroy pants and red flannel shirts.
Alyssa didn’t want anyone to catch her eating — she’d already had two cinnamon rolls with dinner. She lovingly peeled them apart layer by layer, saving the centers for last, pressing each strip to her tongue and sucking until the last bit of flavor had faded.
Sitting at the dinner table, Alyssa had barely noticed when Aunt Rochelle started pinching the skin on her shoulder.
“You’re lucky you can still eat whatever you want,” Rochelle said. “Wait until you hit 40. Then, let me tell you — then the fun stops.”
“She’s 13,” Alyssa’s mother said. “Let her enjoy her dessert.”
“No sense trying to shield her from reality, Barb. I wouldn’t, if she were my daughter.”
“Well, that’s just the problem isn’t it.”
Rochelle got quiet, clasping her hands in her lap and staring at Barb, her face sucking inward like she’d just eaten something sour, Alyssa thought.
Sometimes Alyssa couldn’t believe her mom and Rochelle were sisters. Where her mother was soft and round, her pale, freckled skin often dusted with baby powder like a lump of floured dough, Rochelle was thin and angular, her hair sleek and her lips painted the color her mom called “look-at-me red.” She didn’t have a family of her own.
When Rochelle entered a room, Alyssa recoiled as though snapped by a rubber band. Everything Rochelle said made Alyssa’s ears burn.
“Isn’t that dress a little tight?” she’d said that morning as Alyssa bounded downstairs in her green velvet Christmas dress, a plain white ribbon tied neatly around her waist.
“I wear it every year,” Alyssa said. She could feel the acid churning in the pit of her stomach.
“This is a kid’s dress. Your mother really ought to take you shopping.”
“I like this dress.”
Rochelle smiled, her makeup creasing at the corners of her mouth. “It’s too tight. Short, too. Someone needs to tell you these things, if your mother won’t.”
Standing in the kitchen, Alyssa swallowed the hard lump of cinnamon roll in her mouth and tugged at the hem of the dress, trying to inch it down below her knees. She was suddenly aware of the way the fabric clung to her round belly, her favorite dress becoming a velvet cocoon.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked, as Alyssa contorted her body, her knees bent sharply to the right, so the dress came down to her shins. She hadn’t heard her mother enter the room.
“Nothing,” Alyssa said. “I don’t feel well.”
“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. Suck it up.”
“I don’t wanna go.”
“You can’t skip midnight mass for anything less than vomiting or death. Now come on. Get your coat.”
Alyssa shuffled to the bedroom and began digging through the closet for her favorite pink peacoat, the one with heart-shaped plastic gems as buttons. She slid her arms through the sleeves, but the fabric tugged at her shoulders, straining against her back. Last year, she’d felt so pretty in that coat, but this year she couldn’t get it to button.
That’s when she noticed Rochelle staring at her from the doorway. Alyssa realized her aunt wasn’t looking at her the way she looked at her brothers anymore, with that bemused, distant stare, the way someone might look at a puppy.
Instead, Rochelle looked Alyssa in the eye, and they understood each other. Without a word, Rochelle grabbed Alyssa by the arm and ushered her into the bathroom.
“Your daughter just vomited, Barb,” Alyssa heard her say. “She needs to stay home.”
Seconds later, her mother knocked softly on the door. Alyssa sat on the edge of the bathtub, still wearing the coat that dug into her armpits and made her hands feel numb.
“You okay, Monkey?” her mother asked. “Do you want me to stay home with you?”
The childish nickname made Alyssa cringe. “Yes, Mom, god. I’m fine. Go to church, okay?”
When everyone had left and the house was quiet, Alyssa tiptoed through the kitchen. She had only been alone in the house a couple of times in her life, and she felt like making noise would somehow conjure her brothers screaming at each other in the other room, or her mom and dad fighting before their divorce.
Only when she stopped in front of the bowl of peanut M&Ms did she exhale. She could eat as many as she wanted. She shoved one into her mouth and began sucking, the candy coating dissolving onto her tongue.
As she started on her second piece of candy, a new sensation bloomed in her chest, making her throat feel tight. She hated the way she looked in that dress. As she wriggled out of the coat, leaving it in a crumpled pile on the floor, she realized everything was different now.