[THE FOLLOWING TAKES PLACE BETWEEN 6:00 PM AND 7:00 PM.]
They were drunk long before the party started, more than two hours before guests were even set to arrive. With a more-than-slight expression of disdain, Chloe O’Brien beheld the sight that lay ahead, just across the room from her. It didn’t bode well, she thought with a frown, and an ever-growing feeling in the pit of her stomach that resided somewhere between dread and flat-out irritation. At any rate, it wasn’t good, not at all. Especially not when it was only 6:30 PM, and Morris and Jack were already plastered--dancing like fools to everyone’s favorite holiday classic, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Which, to Chloe’s disdain, had been on repeat for the past hour and a half.
This, Chloe was sure, was what Christmas sounded like in the sixth circle of Hell. Or perhaps, she mused, it might be the seventh…
From what she could see from her place behind the kitchen bar, it appeared Jack was attempting some sort of dance that could only be likened to a train wreck in slow-motion--a daring cross between the Running Man and the Electric slide. Bold, Jack. Very bold. Wincing, she turned her attention back to the dark-haired man who sat on the other side of the bar, shifting quite uncomfortably on his stool. From what Chloe could tell, Hamri Al-Assad looked as if he might be in need of a stiff drink himself--though Chloe wasn’t sure whether it would be in good taste to offer. Hell, it wouldn’t be the first faux pas of the evening, she thought, as she made a conscious effort not to look at Morris, now trying to coax Jack to do the chicken polka.
Please, please, please. Just kill me now.
“Having fun yet?” Chloe offered a pleasant smile in Assad’s direction as she reached for the bottle of apple martini mix to her right. Struck by a question he wasn’t quite sure how to answer, Assad faltered a moment.
“I--yes.” He smiled apologetically. “Of course. Forgive me if I do seem a bit out of sorts, this being my first holiday in the States and all. I’m afraid I’m still adjusting, as you say.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” replied Chloe, as she dumped martini mix and vodka into a shaker in front of her. “I can imagine this must be quite a culture shock for you.”
“I’m sure this is awkward for you as well.” Assad shifted uneasily once more, forcing a smile that was almost painful for Chloe to watch. “I’m more than certain you don’t host many supposed dead terrorist leaders at your holiday parties.”
“You’d be surprised,” quipped Chloe. “But trust me, Hamri, you’re certainly not the most shocking thing in here tonight. I mean, just look at them.” She nodded, indicating Jack and Morris.
“I’d rather not,” muttered Assad.
“You know,” she continued, “I am curious as to how you survived that explosion.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime.”
“Speaking of interesting stories,” Chloe went on, leaning in over the bar. “How are you and Jack doing?” She was certain she saw a shade of scarlet flush across Assad’s face.
“Fine,” he said with another awkward little shift. “We’re doing just fine--dear God, that song is going to drive me insane.”
“Did somebody say insane?” The two looked up just in time to see Morris swagger into the kitchen, followed by Jack, who was carrying a bottle of champagne he’d commandeered from Chloe’s ice box. “Must be time for more booze.” He raised his glass and nodded at Chloe, nearly losing his balance in the process. “Chloe, darling, hit me with another eggnog. A little less egg, a little more nog this time, love.” Chloe promptly rolled her eyes.
“Shut up, Morris,” she responded dryly.
“Hey.” Presently, Jack draped himself around Assad from behind, nearly knocking them both over. “You’re cute. Hey, guys, guess what? I love this girl!” Assad’s eyes widened quite noticeably.
“Thank you, darling.” His brow furrowed. “I think.”
“Hey, come dance with us. Morris can teach you the chicken polka too.”
“I’d rather not, dear.” He laughed, a bit nervously. “You go ahead. I’ll watch.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” declared Morris, as he walked past Assad out of the kitchen, carrying two more bottles of champagne.
“Don’t flirt with my girlfriend, Chloe,” Jack warned sternly before following.
“If you guys drink all the champagne before the guests get here, I’m using your credit cards to buy more,” she yelled into the living room.
“Ha!” Jack called back, a smug hint to his voice. “Joke’s on you, Chloe. Hamri already took my keys.” Chloe just sighed, shaking her head.
“I worry about him sometimes,” she declared, then looked back to Assad who, if it were possible, looked more shaken than before. “Can I get you something? Martini? Cosmo? A bottle of champagne, as it seems to be the house special tonight?”
“No, thank you,” Assad said politely. “I’m afraid I don’t hold my liquor very well. I tried a wine spritzer at a restaurant with Jack last week and it made me dreadfully silly.” Chloe raised an eyebrow.
“Now there’s something I’d pay to see.”
“You know,” said Assad, as if it had just dawned on him, “I really feel I must apologize on Jack’s behalf. His behavior is quite unlike himself.”
“Well, I’d apologize for Morris, but he doesn’t behave at all.” Chloe scowled. “So it’d be a dead point--what the hell are they doing now?”
At that moment, there came a clamor from the living room--Jack was giggling. Loudly, at that. Assad arched an eyebrow and turned on his seat, and he and Chloe observed as Jack hopped up on an ottoman, haphazardly, a bottle of champagne still in hand.
“Guys. GUYS. This Christmas tree,” he proclaimed loudly, “is awesome.”
“Jack, mate,” Morris was practically in hysterics. “That’s a footstool.” Jack turned his gaze down to the ottoman. His eyes grew wide in amazement, as if he’d just made the most profound discovery in the history of man.
“Wow,” he said in wonder. “That would explain everything--whoa!”
And then came the crash, a sound that could only be described as such, as Jack lost his balance and toppled backward into the actual Christmas tree, sending the large fir, ornaments, garland and himself down to the floor.
“Man down! Send in the reinforcements!” hollered Morris, before falling to the floor himself, literally rolling with laughter.
“Oh, dammit.” Chloe’s face promptly sank into her hands. “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”
Assad took one look at the damage in the living room, pondered a moment, and then glanced back to Chloe.
“On second thought,” he said matter-of-factly, “I think I will be having that martini after all.”
From the living room, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” started over again, playing for the eight hundred ninety-eighth time at the least. Chloe looked at the clock, saw that only thirty minutes had since passed, and sighed heavily.
This was going to be one hell of a long night.