You Are Cordially Invited to The Last Dinner Party

by Chelsea Pumpkins and Christopher O’Halloran

From CHM #44 February 2024

Across the street, the streetlights quiver over the mow-striped lawn, and through the bay window of 34 Wachusett Circle. With her back to that very window, Margaret grips the handle of her best Japanese paring knife in knuckles whiter than her perfect teeth. A shiver descends from the base of her skull, down through the edge of the knife and nicks the tip of her freshly manicured thumbnail.

“You have to be kidding me,” she snivels.

From behind the batwing doors of the kitchen: “What was that, Marge?”

“I wasn’t talking to you, Elliot.” She slams the knife down with a clatter and dabs her damp decolletage with the hem of her apron.

The Bennetts are already here, and the table isn’t even set. Kelly and Gerard had mistaken the formality of the dinner invitation—and its dire importance—for urgency, and now the two of them sit with barely-chilled champagne on a barely-dusted chesterfield across from him. Early wasn’t what she’d asked for. Early wasn’t planned.

Elliot’s heavy footfalls shake the heirloom chandelier in the dining room, and Margaret counts with the tap of her toe—five, four, three, two—until he bursts through the doors, a stack of plates in his arms. “These the ones?”

“We’re not hosting the cast of Jersey Shore for Christ’s sake. No, those aren’t the ones. I said fancy.” Margaret flexes her hands at her sides. “Tonight has to be perfect. Is that clear?”

“Crystal, darling.” Elliot pulls a long breath as he marches back into the hallway.

* * *

They’re plenty fancy, Elliot thinks as he makes yet another trip back to the cupboard where the extra plates live. It isn’t enough that Margaret demands specific ones, but those specific ones just happen to be buried in the back, tucked safely away lest they be accidentally used on lesser company.

Why? Why in the hell do they need so many plates of varying class designations? Work friends get the B tier, family gets the C.

Tonight’s guest of honor gets top of the line. The ones with the gold rim. And, of course, the heavy silverware.

“If she thinks we have time to polish every fleur de lis, she’s out of her goddamn mind.” With the cuff of his sleeve, he rubs at an oil smudge left behind by his damp fingers.

“What was that?”

Elliot squeals and nearly drops the plates. Over his shoulder, Gerard breathes coolly. He’s too damn stupid to grasp the severity of their situation.

“Nothing, Gerard.”

“Kelly says I should give you a hand with these.” Gerard holds strong hands toward the stack of dishes.

I should let him, Elliot thinks. Let them slip through his clumsy mitts and crash to the floor. Give Margaret something to really lose her cool over.

Her jabs and barbs are beyond old—the little attacks, pitiful irritants. He’d rather her throw one of these plates at his head than make another passive-aggressive remark about a spot he missed while washing them.

“I’m good,” Elliot says, reaffirming his grip on the heavy stack. “Should… should you really have left Kelly with the—” He stops. “With him?

Gerard’s face slackens. His mouth falls open, displaying rows of filled molars and overlapping canines that charm the ladies with their perfect imperfection.

Let this be our last dinner party. Elliot has this thought every time they host.

“I should go check—”

“Yes, you should,” Elliot says.

Gerard spins on his heels and darts toward the living room where who knows what his wife is facing.

Let this be the last dinner party.

“Where are those goddamn plates?”

* * *

“Shit,” Margaret spits as she catches her heel on the edge of the area rug, canapes teetering on the edge of the silver platter. Three pairs of doe eyes with matching pinched lips flash toward her. And, from the being on the loveseat, one relishing smirk.

“Well pardon your French,” Elliot says.

Margaret clears her throat, but when she does, the feculent smell wafting off their dinner guest chokes her. Her eyes flood, burning, as she represses a cough.

Kelly plays her part. “Oh, thank you, Margaret. You really shouldn’t have. These just look to die for.” She reaches for steak tartare on a mini toast and freezes under the weight of realization.

“I—I just mean these are lovely,” Kelly stammers. “And these embroidered silk napkins—divine!”

Margaret looks from guest to guest to Elliot, all three spread out on the sofa, begging through her affected grin for one of them to make room. There’s room for four if they scooch together.

“Have a seat, Margaret,” he says, voice dripping with the unseen shadows of the bottom of the sea.

Her eyes meet Elliot’s.

“Well,” he says, “don’t keep him waiting, Marge.”

Margaret stiffly sits next to him. Her insides clench as her hip grazes his velvet suitcoat. His slippery presence worms its way beneath her thighs and turns her cold. But the cold is okay—it keeps her still.

“Elliot, how’s that electric car treating you these days?” Gerard leans back and spreads his knees.

“Feel free to go look for yourself, Gerard. Elliot scrubbed it spotless for company tonight,” Margaret says through a pursed-lipped smile. “Even though dinner is, of course, served inside the house.”

Elliot rebukes her with a flick of a glance. Margaret catches it and, behind the couch where he’s sitting, she notices a finger of gray mold wriggling down the drapes towards Gerard’s hairy-bald head. Her heart flutters in alarm.

“Well, a man’s gotta keep his toys clean and his bills paid,” Gerard says. “Must be nice to save on gas now that the Saudis are milking us for all we’re worth. And that tax credit too, huh?”

“Yeah,” Elliot says, squinting in a question mark. “Yeah, uh, it’s fine. It’s good.”

“Ha, good. You can thank my Commander-in-Chief for that.”

“Gerard,” Kelly warns.

“What?” says Gerard. “If it weren’t for the deal we cut with the—”

Gerard.”

“It’s not politics, Kelly. These are just facts.”

Kelly shakes her head at him, eyes unblinking.

“It really is a fine car, Gerard,” Elliot says. “Thank you.”

The mold seeps into the cream linen and fades before Margaret’s eyes. The jingle of the oven timer interrupts her unease.

“I’ll get that,” Elliot says.

“Oh, no!” Margaret pops up as if she is the temperature pin in the poultry. “It’s no trouble, allow me.”

“I insist, Margaret. Lest sloth appear on my report card again.” Elliot fakes a laugh.

“Elliot, really.” Cold sweat beads on her flawlessly powdered forehead. “I don’t mind. Look, I’m already up.”

“Marge.” He’s stern now. “I’ve got it.”

Kelly pulls a loose thread from the napkin in her lap.

“Hey, have you all heard Marge pound the keys?” Elliot says as he pushes through the batwing doors. Never let her say he doesn’t compliment her.

Margaret blushes to her company. Hate when he calls me Marge.

“Relax, Marge.” He reaches for her elbow and pulls her back to the cushion. “You really are quite uptight.”

The percussion from his ancient larynx vibrates the bubbly in her flute, or maybe it’s her shaking grip. The pale drink ripples black, and Margaret feels a warning in her gut.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

* * *

Elliot is barely through the kitchen doors when he collapses, a keening noise climbing up his throat.

That thing. That fucking thing. He can’t take it. How can she sit there next to him and even breathe? He makes Elliot’s skin electric, his blood acid. Even from across the coffee table, a safe distance from him, his eyes burn and his brain screams like a boiling lobster.

Tears roll down his cheeks as Elliot tries to get his racing heart under control.

It’s okay. It’ll be okay.

They’ve hosted a million times. Margaret—for every little trick she uses to bring out the worst in him—is a fantastic host. She’s a master in the art of conversation, she knows how to hold back in Trivial Pursuit so others have the illusion of a chance, and she’s a great cook.

Not that Elliot would tell her that. Not when she takes every chance she gets to tear him down.

Speaking of cooking…

Elliot takes a deep breath, the claustrophobia dissipating. He’ll try to find a way to sit farther away from him. Margaret can bear his focus for a bit. Be the entertainment, just like she loves.

When he opens the stove, his heart sinks.

Smoke billows out, blasting him in the face with a sulfurous rush.

“Shit,” he mutters, fanning the plume toward the closed window. “Shit!” The red eye of the smoke alarm throbs from across the kitchen.

He thrusts the window open and blows air like it’s his birthday, but the cloud of smoke grows thicker on the ceiling, inching toward the alarm. Elliot grabs the kettle off the stove and bashes the alarm to the ground before it gets the chance to wail. Defeated, the smoke tiptoes over the plastic innards and slips out the window.

“Everything okay in there, Dear?”

“Shit.” He remembers. The cauliflower pizza he made last week. It had cracked in the middle, dripping cheese onto the bottom of the stove. He told Margaret he would clean it.

“What was that?” she calls from the living room.

“I wasn’t talking to you, Margaret,” he yells back. “Everything is fine.”

She couldn’t know. She’d never let him live it down. The way she had rolled her eyes when he bought the pizza and lost it over the mess…

Focus.

This wasn’t the time to get petty. He recalls the inky voice that bled into his mind two weeks ago. A perfect dinner party, or the end of all humanity.

Why them? Why does the fate of existence hang over their heads? He could have picked a happy couple. People who actually have their shit together.

He checks the baking dish. The damage isn’t so bad. The breasts on the edge are a little charred. Deep breaths. He’ll scrape off the burnt pieces, keep the worst one for himself.

Selfless. That’s what he is. Not that he’ll get any recognition for it.

* * *

Everything is fine, that’s what he said. Everything is fine.

But nothing feels fine. The air in here has an edge of smoke to it. That streak slithering down the curtains… And the crash—there was definitely a crash in the kitchen.

Where the fuck is Elliot? The champagne is empty. Gerard keeps smirking at me. The chicken should be done by now, and this fucking thing is combing his claws through my hair.

“Marge.” Elliot practically falls through the batwing doors. “Can you give me a hand here? Everyone, please have a seat in the dining room. Dinner’s ready.”

The smoke is heavier in the kitchen. Plastic shards litter the floor. Warm air floats in through the open window.

Margaret has a million questions, but she’s sure none of Elliot’s answers would satisfy.

She pulls the crystal serving bowl from the fridge and removes the foil. The arrangement of arugula and baby kale had blackened in the last hour.

“No,” she whispers, delicately peeling leaf from slimy leaf. The putrid smell gags her. “Elliot, the salad…”

He looks over her shoulder and suppresses a gag, too. “Can we douse it in vinaigrette?”

If looks could kill, Margaret would be charged with first degree.

“What about the pecans?” he adds. “Can we put these on the table as an accoutrement?” He uncovers the pinch bowl, and an intrusion of roaches spills over the lip and up his arm. “SHIT!” He flings the beetled bodies away from him, scattering them around the kitchen.

Margaret squeals and slaps her hand over her mouth.

Out the window over the sink, the evening sky turns bile yellow, and beneath the sill Margaret’s vases clink against one another.

The floor beneath them rumbles so hard it splits. A violent crack in the tile stretches between wife and husband. A disoriented pecan-with-legs tumbles over the edge, and they don’t hear it hit the ground.

Two more cracks split the tiles at the end of the chasm closest to the batwing doors. Together with the largest furrow, they create an arrow.

It points them out of the kitchen and into damnation.

“Forget the accoutrements,” Margaret says, voice low, eyes fixed on the fault line. “The asparagus and potatoes will be enough. Let’s get it out while it’s hot.”

He wants to play with them. He’s batting them around like a cat with a baby mouse.

Well, they can play. Margaret’s been playing all her life. Having to fight for everything. Having to bust her ass. She’s never had a choice.

Now, more than ever, they have no choice.

* * *

Elliot sits at the head of the table, Margaret seated to the right, and on his left, him. Trying to breathe through his grin, he looks to Kelly then Gerard and reaches for the serving fork.

“No blessing?” He is relaxed in his chair, tapping his long, curled, calcified fingernails against Margaret’s finest tablecloth. His obsidian eyes glow fiery red.

“Well,” Elliot stammers, “we really aren’t religious. I mean, my grandmother was a devout Jew, so we’d always go to her house for the holidays, but I barely remember—”

“Nonsense,” he says. The candles flicker around the centerpiece bouquet of freshly cut geraniums, which wither and fall before them in an instant. “Surely there is a higher power to whom you owe thanks.”

Elliot’s mind whirlpools around the annals of his religious upbringing, and the room spins in time. As cold sweat drops from his temples, the walls of the dining room weep from their seams; black mucus oozes quickly down the baroque wallpaper and pools onto the floor.

“I can do it,” Kelly says. “I can give the blessing.” With trembling lips, she begins.

“Thank you, lord, for this bountiful harvest—”

“Look in my eyes when you speak to me,” he growls.

Kelly shakes, eyes glued to her clasped hands before sliding them off and onto him.

Thank you for everything you’ve given us.” The blasphemy pains her. Looking into his nebulous eyes is agony.

Elliot doesn’t know how she’s doing it.

“Thank you for the peace. The living things. The dead.”

Her chin quivers. The tips of her fingers turn purple, hands squeezed so tight.

“The rotten and the decayed.” A tear creeps from her eye. “The endless torment and fleeting euphorias.”

She is fully crying by the time she reaches “amen.”

Elliot shivers. The temperature plummeted during Kelly’s tearful grace.

Palpable pleasure hangs in the air. He loves it.

Elliot reaches for the serving fork again.

He has no objections this time. He is waiting.

Elliot scans the Cordon Bleu. Looking for the best breast. Only the best for their powerful guest.

There’s pressure on his right foot. He looks over.

Margaret presses her sole over the laces of his shoes.

Elliot shakes his head and lifts his eyebrows in a way he hopes conveys, “what?”

“Hurry up,” she whispers, lips barely moving.

What does she think he’s doing? Does she think this is helping?

Elliot forces a smile.

“This is all your work, Marge,” says Elliot. “I think you should serve it.”

Margaret seals her lips and smiles fire at him. “Gladly.”

Let her do it her perfect way. He’d only fuck it up, find some way to do it wrong.

She hovers over a breast hugging the edge of the dish. Elliot knows what’s on the bottom of it. Charred meat.

“I’ll take that one,” Elliot blurts out.

The fork clatters against the serving platter. Fury bubbles beneath Margaret’s fragile surface.

Outside, something rumbles faintly. Like a semi-truck driving by, gently shaking the ground.

Kelly whimpers.

Gerard blows a calming breath through his lips, but his jittering leg betrays frayed nerves. The tough guy ain’t so tough now.

“Man of the house,” he says. “You deserve to be served first.”

Elliot freezes. Was that sarcasm? Guests should be served first, he knows this, but he couldn’t risk someone else getting the charred breast. This needs to be perfect.

Everything rides on this night being perfect.

Elliot needs to stop. He knows this. He knows the passive aggression isn’t helping, and he doesn’t need the nicotine-stained sky outside to tell him that. Why can’t he stop?

Margaret dishes out Elliot’s breast without a word.

“Thanks, Maggie.” He reaches a hand out and gently places it on her lower back. Nothing too forward, just a way of saying he’s got her. She can count on him. They didn’t have to keep taking shots at each other.

Margaret smiles at Elliot, and it’s like they’re twenty-six again. Back when this felt more like playing house and less like moving through the same mindless exercises pulling them inexorably toward a joint grave plot.

They’re doing this together. They’re saving the world. This is why they were chosen. Why she was chosen.

She lifts a large breast and places it gently on the plate closest to her: Gerard’s.

“Interesting,” says their guest of honor.

Margaret pays the comment no mind. She dishes out a breast to Kelly.

What’s interesting? The breast Margaret gave to Gerard?

Why would that be interesting? Elliot should shut his mouth. He should be a good host. He shouldn’t challenge this force of malevolence, this being he’s unable to focus on for too long.

“What’s interesting?”

Margaret freezes. Is she shaking her head? What is that twitch?

“The portion your wife gave Gerard.”

He leans forward in his seat.

Everything on the table crawls an inch toward him.

“It was large. A choice serving. Maybe the nicest.” He folds his hands before the empty plate in front of him. “One would think she’d save it for the guest of honor, but—”

“I think this one—” Margaret lifts a breast with the fork, “—is better.” She goes to place the breast on his plate, but it slips and bounces off the edge.

She gasps.

The carving knife pins her hand to the table, and Elliot’s grip is on its handle.

They all gasp.

“Pull it out,” Margaret says.

“Maggie, I’m sorry. I was trying to catch the—”

“Pull it out, Elliot. Now!”

The black pool on the floor spreads towards the table, befouling the room with its odious scent.

Elliot yanks the knife from Margaret’s hand, and with a blood-gushing spasm, she’s free.

Her face is porcelain and her hand is clutched tightly against her chest. Crimson petals bloom against her tailored cream dress.

“Please,” she tries to catch her breath. “Eat. While it’s hot. I insist.”

“Margaret, don’t be ridiculous. Let’s get you to a hospital,” Elliot says. A geyser of blood shoots from between her clenched fingers.

“We can’t leave, Elliot. What about dinner?”

“She’s right,” he purrs. “What about your guests?”

“Where are your first aid supplies?” Kelly asks. “Let’s get you bandaged up while the men dig in.” Her eyes dart between Margaret and Elliot, all their faces plaster-still.

“Good idea, hon’. Patch her up,” Gerard says.

He snickers.

“What’s he laughing at?” Elliot asks, as if he isn’t there at all. “What the fuck are you laughing at?”

“So much depends upon a perfect dinner party.” He laughs and laughs.

Kelly’s head swivels back and forth, between Gerard, Elliot, and Margaret.

“Oh, Margaret,” he continues, “stop torturing the feeble cuckold. You have lifetimes of torture ahead of you.”

Margaret shrieks. Her remaining good hand thrusts out over the table, against her will, and her fingers snap backwards, one by one. Kelly screams with her and reaches for her hand.

“Cuckold?” Elliot says. “Maggie, what’s he talking about?”

Her jaw clicks as she stares silently at her mutilated hands.

“Do something,” Kelly screams at her husband.

“Oh, c’mon,” Gerard says. “Let’s stop the charade now. Everyone here knows. A woman needs servicing every now and then, and when you let that go too long, well…”

“Excuse me?” Elliot answers. He picks the bloody knife back up. “What are you implying?”

Gerard shifts in his seat, puffs out his chest. “Elliot, let’s be men about this, yeah? No need for knives.”

Kelly’s face flushes. She pulls Margaret from her chair and ushers her upstairs by her shoulders.

“Men?” Elliot asks.

“It was just one time, she and I. Alright,” he chuckles, “Maybe a few times. Didn’t mean a damn thing though. We ended it months ago.”

“Months,” Elliot says. Not a question, not addressed to anyone in particular. His shoulders sag, but his grip grows fierce. A humming meets his ears, emanating from their dinner guest. It bounces about his skull and burrows behind his eyes, molten static.

“Get out,” Elliot mutters. The carving knife rises to meet Gerard’s sightline.

“Hey now, no need for hysterics,” he replies. “Lot at stake here tonight, Chief.”

Elliot saunters to Kelly’s empty seat, across from Gerard, knife erect.

“Kelly,” Gerard shouts. “You almost done up there?”

The acrid black magma drips burning from the dining room ceiling, and the polished walnut floor quakes in response. All of the glass and silver in the house tinkle. Elliot walks closer.

“If you don’t get out of my house in the next thirty seconds, Gerard, I’m going to cut your meager little chub clean off your balls, dunk it in this dijon creme sauce, and feed it to you on this miserable silver platter I polished for this perfect fucking dinner party.” Elliot’s wrist is below Gerard’s chin, the blade threatening his Adam’s apple.

Gerard’s face is cherry-red as he calls up again for Kelly. “We need to go, hon’. Right now.”

The house replies in a wave, the floor heaving and rolling. Windows shatter, lightbulbs burst, and with an enormous tear of ripping plaster, the heirloom chandelier above the dining table falls onto Gerard.

Elliot drops the knife and stumbles backward in shock-induced slow motion. Gerard’s blood drips from Elliot’s nose onto his loafers. “Gerard?” he whispers in vain. There’s no reply, of course—just a dead-eyed stare through crystal shrapnel, his friend reduced to pulp.

Kelly jogs down the stairs. “I think I’ve stopped the bleeding but she’s gonna need stitch—”

She sees her shredded beloved and, with a screeching howl, Kelly darts for the knife on the table and charges directly at him.

He allows her to get within arm’s length before snapping his fingers.

In mid-stride Kelly unravels like a hand-knit sweater. He draws her flesh and blood and miles of viscera into one long, connected strand, unspooling from her core and coiling into a gory pile on the carpet.

Elliot vomits instantly, the champagne churning his bile into sour foam. The inky pool oozes forward and slurps it up.

“What a show, Chap,” he says. “What a show!”

Elliot staggers into the living room without another word.

* * *

At the sight of Margaret descending the stairs, he grins. His teeth glow like hot embers. “I think I’m ready for the concerto Elliot promised earlier,” he says.

Margaret looks down at her bent and bandaged hands, her mouth hanging open in shock. Looking back up at him, she whispers, “What?”

He gestures at the baby grand piano in the corner of the living room, amidst the rubble of their failing dinner party. “Go on,” he says. “Let’s hear you pound those keys.”

Margaret peers at Elliot through glassy eyes, but he’s huddled into himself on the chesterfield, rocking to and fro, catatonic.

On unsteady feet, she walks to the piano. Her heels crunch crystal shards that line her affluent death march. She cries out as she lifts the lid of the pearlescent instrument. “I—I don’t think I can…”

“You will,” he says.

She stares at him, attempting to truly see this creator—this destroyer. What looks back at her is the ancient cosmos of time, a malevolent and unforgiving force amused by his playthings. And for all the power this entity possessed, here he sits in her living room, with two eyes, two arms, two legs, wearing a pressed suit and pocket square. Claws and horns too, but recognizable enough. Human enough. How did it come to this?

He winks at her, and in that gesture he gifts her knowledge—that it didn’t matter, never has.

She nods back.

Margaret turns to face the piano, flips back the keyboard lid, and opens the sheet music on the stand. Inside the cover, the pages are ash. They crumble under her touch.

She can’t help but chuckle at the hopelessness of it all. She leans her head back, maniacal, and her laughter turns to tears. They stream down her face as she flexes her hands through blood-soaked gauze.

She presses broken fingers to the keys and taps out the opening notes to their wedding song. The only song she can play by heart.

“Doo-doo-doo-doo,” she croaks.

The ceiling crumbles onto her from above, pelting her with plaster. The front walls of the house fall away from its skeleton.

Searing pain shoots up her wrists, but she presses on, finds her rhythm.

Shrieks ring out through the neighborhood, feet hitting the tree-lined pavement of Wachusett Circle. “It’s alright…”

This is it.

Margaret chokes back sobs as the raw nerves in her gashed hands send tremors through her body. There’s no point in crying now. No point in anything.

She hits a wrong key, winces, and the world tilts under her.

Margaret hangs her head over her frozen, twisted hands. Scalding heat radiates her back and she awaits the eternal damnation she failed to stave off.

“It’s alright.” The voice that sang those same words of comfort as she twirled nervously during their first dance. “Scooch over,” he whispers.

Elliot takes over on the keys, allowing Margaret to rest her head on his shoulder. He plays. She sings.

“Sun, sun, sun—”

An enormous crack of thunder shakes them. Margaret opens her eyes to see him clapping his hands.

They perform as the only world they’ve ever known falls into ruin.

And he applauds.

“Here it comes.”

End.

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CHELSEA PUMPKINS is a Massachusetts writer of strange, chilling, and sometimes sad fiction and a fan of all things macabre. She is a hiker, an animal lover, and considers herself a foodie but has absolutely no standards when it comes to mac and cheese. You can read her stories in various horror anthologies, in Shortwave Magazine, and upcoming in Cosmic Horror Monthly. She is the editor of AHH! That’s What I Call Horror: An Anthology of ‘90s Horror, and a co-host of The Cutthroat
Queens podcast. Learn more about her work at chelseapumpkins.com and follow her on social media @chelseapumpkins.

CHRISTOPHER O‘HALLORAN (he/him) is a milk-slinging, Canadian actor-turned-author with work published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, The Dread Machine, and others. He is president of the most active horror book club on the web, HOWL Society and editor of the anthology, Howls from the Wreckage. Follow him on Twitter @BurgleInfernal or visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.

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