Hours before the guests were scheduled to arrive, the banquet staff vacuumed up olive pits and croutons smashed into the burgundy carpet of the executive ballroom. They flattened starchy white cloths over tables, assembled the chocolate fountain, and did a test run to make sure all eight tiers were properly attached. They distributed garland and potted poinsettias throughout the room, polished glassware, and folded napkins into stars. When the room was finally ready for service, they slipped outside and stood behind the dumpster, smoking cigarettes in the snow. The dumpster steamed with fresh garbage from the kitchen: coffee grounds and shrimp shells. They passed around a tube of wintergreen Life Savers and watched as the first guests pulled up to the valet station. The driver was wearing a stupid-looking oversized elf hat, and he tossed the contents of a red Solo cup into the snow before passing his keys to the valet.
The Raslowe & Associates employee Christmas party was in full swing by seven o’clock that evening. Open bar. It had been a good year.
Midway through the festivities, Scott Daly was named the winner of the big-ticket raffle, and he dragged his wife, Lisa, onstage with him to accept the award. She was several inches taller than him. He wore a navy blazer, expensive-looking jeans with artificial fading, and Italian loafers. His thick, wavy hair was skunk-like, mostly black with a dramatic white chunk shooting out right at the part; his face was jammed full of teeth. Lisa’s dyed red hair gleamed a bit oddly under the fluorescent lighting.
Scott had an arm around Lisa’s waist when he reached the stage to retrieve the envelope from the head of HR, who had announced all the raffle winners. Scott took the envelope, then raised and tipped his gin and tonic to the crowd. He was met with blank faces, bored, disapproving, disappointed faces, and some lifeless applause. “Whatever,” he murmured. Lisa’s pale face shimmered with sad exhilaration.
As the two of them made their way back to their table, the CEO of the company took over the mic to offer a robust little spiel about how well the company had performed that year.
At their table, Lisa didn’t hear a word of the speech. She was looking over the contents of the envelope her husband had just received. A small embossed card read: All Expenses Paid. Four days and nights at Fripp Island Resort. Redeemable through the next calendar year. A brochure accompanied the card and featured many photographs of the island, as well as a map. The island was situated just off the coast of South Carolina, midway between Charleston and Savannah. A golf course occupied a large portion of the island, which was six miles from end to end. Several bars and restaurants and crab shacks were advertised in the brochure. Photographs showed bright blue birds with yellow heads, palmettos, a fawn drinking from a fountain on the golf course, an expansive white beach, a footprint in sand.
Scott leaned toward Lisa. “Place looks neat, doesn’t it? Figured we’d invite the Ramones.”
Lisa’s upper lip curled, an involuntary flicker of objection.
Scott whispered, “I know you and Shirley aren’t close, but there’s nothing wrong with her. And JP’s always a great time, loves golf. And the kids actually get along.”
That was true. The Ramone kids shared interests with and were close in age to Scott and Lisa’s fourteen-year-old Rae and eleven-year-old Kimmy. And Scott was right, there was nothing so very wrong with Shirley, it was just . . . nothing was quite right about her either.
“Mm.” Lisa grunted querulously as she looked back at the brochure. She slowly emitted a soundless burp and adjusted her posture. She was no longer comfortable in her dress. Beside her, Scott resumed the joke he had been telling several minutes ago, just before his name was announced as the raffle winner. He waggled his head around to make sure he had the attention of everyone at the table before delivering the punch line. “Get it?” He snorted wetly, eyes circling the table for confirmation. “You get it?”
Lisa patted the top of Scott’s hand, a gesture intended to reassure him of the joke’s success and discourage him from telling any more. As she paged through the brochure for Fripp Island a second time, she felt a fresh wave of agitation that Scott had already decided who would accompany them on this vacation without consulting her. Furthermore, it occurred to her, she hadn’t a clue how many raffle tickets Scott had purchased for that drawing. For all Lisa knew, he might’ve spent more on raffle tickets than they would’ve put toward an actual vacation.