Christmas, with a bullet

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I’m currently counting the minutes until I can pack my car, press play on that Phil Spector Christmas album and head north for the holidays. My family will be spending the weekend at my sister’s house, which is four hours, three toll booths and at least two Sheetz stops from Winston-Salem, give or take a pretzel Shmelt.

My sister and I have spent every Christmas together, save for one, when our West Virginia hometown was decorated with 70 mph winds, ice storms and intermittent blackouts. Six years ago, that weather forecast kept her confined to her house which, at the time, was on one of Cleveland’s more photogenic sides. It was the first time we’d been separated for the holidays, the first time we wouldn’t wake up in our matching pajamas and immediately try to embarrass each other by exchanging the most squirm-worthy things you could possibly slide into a gift bag.

The year before, she was delighted when I untied a ribbon and peeled back the wrapping paper to discover a box of industrial-strength douches, the kind that could also be used to pressure-wash your vinyl siding. That off year, instead of getting the festive-looking pubic lice treatment kit I’d purchased for her, she was stuck in the state next door, getting text-by-text accounts of everything happening in our parents’ living room.

The morning got off to a perfect start, unfolding just as Norman Rockwell would’ve sketched it, assuming he would’ve ignored my hubcap-sized pores. The other details were pulled straight from a magazine spread, from the handmade stockings to the carefully arranged packages to the flickering evergreen-scented candles, the ones that helped us all pretend that the tree hadn’t spent the summer months in a cardboard box behind the weed killer and wood varnish.

(Confidential to my mother: The tree was beautiful. It’s always beautiful. I’m just being descriptive for the people who weren’t there on the sofa with us. Yes, I’m sure they’d take their shoes off before stepping on the rug).

I quickly tore through every package with my name on the “To” tag, leaving scraps of wrapping paper fluttering to the carpet and bits of tape clinging to my forearms. Christmas morning is always the most frenzied 30 seconds of my calendar year, not counting the two or three times I have sex. With another person.

I was already thumbing through my new running log and upending the last of the eggnog-flavored creamer into my coffee mug when my mother began pulling at the ribbons on her first gift. She peeled the paper from the small, rectangular box and gave an audible gasp.

“Bullets?” she asked, incredulous. “Bullets?!

She turned her head to my uncle, who was pulling presents out of a shopping bag at his feet. He grinned. She opened the carton and held it up for us to see, before quickly dropping the box on the coffee table. The bullet casings clinked against each other as they landed, Christmas quickly transitioning from Frank Capra to Full Metal Jacket.

Mom reached for a second identically papered package, and if you see where this is going, you terrify me. You may also be familiar with the finer points of restraining orders. She dug into the wrappings and found — yes — the gun that matched the ammo. She hesitantly opened its hard plastic case and immediately recoiled like she’d been given either an incinerated animal or one of my senior prom pictures.

She gathered herself, re-opening the box and pulling the gun out of the soft foam surrounding it. It was a .38 revolver, I later learned, and immediately texted a picture of it to my sister. She called me within seconds.

“Our mom is packing heat? What the f***!”

“No s***,” I said, both of us rubbing profanity all over the floor.

“This will not end well, she said, undoubtedly punctuating the sentence with a shake of her head. “She’s gonna be like ‘Give me my Ann Taylor discount or else!’”

“Shut up and point me toward the petite department!” I shouted back.

“Get on the floor and show me the casual knit separates!”

Our mother — still holding her new firearm — turned around and said, loud enough for my sister to hear through the earpiece, “I kept the receipts for all of your presents.”

“And she has a gun,” I added.

We hung up.

There’s something off-the-charts unsettling about seeing your mother with a handgun, even if she’s wearing an appliqued Christmas sweatshirt and calmly sipping from a coffee mug with the Cascade-faded logo from our elementary school. I stared at her, feeling like John Connor in Terminator 2 right after his mom started open firing. Then I wondered when she’d drop her biscotti and just start doing pullups.

“Open the next one,” my uncle encouraged. “It’s a purse holster.”

“Way to ruin the surprise,” I said, secretly hoping he hadn’t hidden some surface-to-air missiles or a well-sedated hostage somewhere deep in his shopping bag.

My uncle is an interesting guy, if you consider people who give handguns as gifts to be interesting. He’s a borderline survivalist, the kind of person you rarely see outside of Discovery Channel shows or Eddie Bauer ads. We’ve never quite established what he does for a living, since he goes off the radar for months at a time, most likely making a nest for himself in some rarely traveled national park, living on rhododendron leaves and his own fingernail clippings.

“You need to get started too,” he said, passing a present to my dad.

Dad did as he was told, running the fingers underneath the edges of the wrapping paper.

“Bullets,” he said. “Huh.”

He was reaching for another of my uncle’s carefully wrapped packages when I grabbed my new pajama pants and a stack of biscotti and quietly slipped out of the room.