“Gram! Come back so we can open presents!”
“Elijah,” said Dad. “Don’t boss your grandmother around like that.”
Gram came out from the kitchen carry three steaming mugs. “I’m just getting hot cocoa for everyone. And he’s not bossing me around. The boy’s just excited. But if he would give me a hand, I’d be ready to open presents quicker.”
Elijah huffed, but jumped up and bounded into the kitchen. Gram was right. Without help delivering hot cocoa to Derek, Dad, Mom, Marlon, Grandpa, Aunt Cynthia, Uncle Jay, Ashley, Taylor, Reggie, Uncle Matt, Aunt Karyn, Uncle Nick, and Khris, they would be there all afternoon before anything was unwrapped.
Everyone, besides Gram and Elijah, filled the living room. The adults were in chairs and on couches, except for Uncle Jay who, along with the kids, sprawled on the floor by the tree. Two of Grandpa’s most intimidating nutcrackers were engaged in battle, at the behest of Khris. The nutcrackers bounded over and around two blue reindeer covered presents taken from the mountain next to the tree. Uncle Matt and Ashley argued over the merits of playing as Kirby in Smash Brothers. Reggie and Uncle Jay argued over whether the Rockets were trash.
A knock on the door cut through the familial buzz. Grandpa, still grinning from seeing his family cozy and lazing about, got up and went to answer it.
Gram felt the blast of cold, outside air when she and Elijah came out of the kitchen with the next round of hot chocolate. “We got carolers?” she said. But there was no singing and Grandpa hadn’t called everyone else to come see.
Aunt Cynthia said, “Might be last minute package delivery. Any of you slackers still waiting on my new Macbook?”
“Marlon,” Grandpa had stepped back into the entryway. His face was tense and his eyes troubled. “There’s some men here to see you.”
After a bubble of confused noises, a worried silence settled over the family. Reggie instinctively lowered the volume on the game enough to eavesdrop, but not so low that he couldn’t claim to not be eavesdropping. Derek, Ashley, and Taylor stood up to get a better look before Grandpa herded them back to their places on the carpet. The adults showed more restraint and limited their gawking to peripheral vision. Gram felt no compunction to hide any curiosity. If someone knocked on her door, they should expect her to find out who they are.
“Who’s at the door, James?”
“Two men,” said Grandpa. “They look official. Suits on and everything. That reminds me. One of my presents better have a peacoat in it.”
“Is Marlon in trouble, Dad?” Elijah handed his dad a mug of cocoa.
For a moment Dad wondered if Marlon might be, but Grandpa told them there was nothing to worry about. The men in suits had assured him that it was nothing bad.
“A horse?” Marlon searched the faces of both men, their brows serious behind mirrored sunglasses. The one on the left pulled the corners of his mouth up in an attempted inviting smile. Marlon looked behind them to the end of the driveway where a brushed steel trailer glinted in the winter sun. “Who are you guys?”
“I’m Representative Grossdidier,” said the lanky, smiley one. “This is Representative Cabrera.”
“This is a joke,” Marlon said with a worried grin. “You aren’t serious.”
“I assure you Mr. Campbell,” said Cabrera, “We are for real. Congratulations.”
“Congratulations for what?”
“Your new horse,” said Grossdidier gesturing towards the trailer, encouraging grin in place.
Marlon asked what they were representatives of. Both men produced ID badges that, to Marlon, sure looked federally issued, though he briefly acknowledged to himself that he didn’t know on what he based that opinion. He had certainly never heard of the Idiom Perpetuation Bureau. He told them as much.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, sirs. But I never heard of an Idiom Per-” he squinted at Cabrera’s badge.
“Idiom Perpetuation Bureau. No, you wouldn’t have, Mr. Campbell.”
“Marlon. I’m Marlon.”
“You wouldn’t have,” continued Representative Cabrera, “Marlon. We operate on the periphery. The vast majority of people never have a reason to interact with us. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Grammar Police. They’re one of our sister agencies.”
“That ain’t a real thing.”
“It is. That most people believe it to be a falsehood demonstrates our commitment to remaining unobtrusive to everyday life.”
Marlon swayed from side to side to keep from shivering. Nothing that these men said to him explained the trailer parked at the end of his Gram and Grandpa’s driveway. His instinct was to tell them to go away and that they sounded like idiots, but his parents taught him to not be outwardly dismissive of anyone who was, or claimed to be, from the government. But he’d never had to deal with anyone this official and in a suit.
“How did you know I was here? This isn’t even my house.”
“Agencies such as ours keep detailed records of where people tend to spend their time.” Cabrera made no attempt at amiability, “We were aware that your grandparents’ home served as a familial base during the holiday season.”
“And why did you bring a horse?”
Representative Cabrera began to respond, but Grossdidier, knowing that explaining this part required some friendliness, cut him off. “The IPB is in the business of language. Sayings. Specifically sayings whose meanings cannot be deduced from those of their component words.”
Marlon did not know which man sounded crazier.
“In order for sayings like ‘giving someone the cold shoulder’ or ‘paint the town red’ to remain in use, the literal conditions they describe have to happen at least once a year. I would liken it to karmic balance. IPB set up a lottery to determine how the scenarios are meted out.”
“And I won the lottery?” Marlon said.
“Yes,” Grossdidier sounded genuinely excited. “You won. I would absolutely think of it as winning, since you’ve gotten one of the better idioms.”
“But why a horse?” Marlon looked back at the door hoping someone would come out and save him.
Cabrera answered this time. “It’s the gift horse.”
Grossdidier saw Marlon’s lack of recognition and jumped back in. “You know the phrase, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?’” Marlon made a sound of acknowledgment. “In order for that particular idiom to remain in usage, someone must receive a gift horse.”
“We find—” said Cabrera, “—that Christmas time is the right time. People are in a gift receiving mood and feeling open hearted. It lessens the shock.”
“You can’t give me a horse,” Marlon’s voice dominated the cold, still air of the cul de sac. “I live in the suburbs, man.”
Cabrera produced a small notepad from his breast pocket. “Our records show that you are nineteen years old. Is that correct?”
“Then you are eligible for idiom disbursement.”
The front door opened. All three turned their attention to see Gram stepping outside. She handed Marlon his coat.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen,” she said, “Is there a reason you are keeping my grandson out here?”
“Gram, they’re trying to give me a horse.”
Now, the front door opened wide. Derek, Taylor, and Ashley beamed as they repeated Gram’s cry of “horse,” but with a different emotion. Gram told them to get their behinds back in the house. Then she asked Grossdidier and Cabrera what they meant by interrupting her family’s Christmas. They perfunctorily produced their badges and explained the situation. A few incredulous laughs bubbled up from Gram, but when Cabrera indicated the trailer at the end of her driveway, a stunned weakness slid across her face. Then, she looked back at the two men in suits and regained some of herself.
“I’m not putting up with this foolishness,” Gram said in her best grandmother voice, which caused Grossdidier and Cabrera to waiver slightly. “And you are certainly not dumping an animal on my front lawn.”
“Unfortunately, ma’am—” said Grossdider while doing that wince people do which means they are going to ignore someone’s wishes, “—the nature of the gift horse does prevent Marlon from rejecting it, let alone criticizing it.”
Cabrera turned to the trailer and waved an arm. A man in bib overalls got out of the front cab, walked to the back, raised the gate revealing a sand colored horse.
“Why can’t I criticize you giving me a horse I don’t want?”
“Because that would be rude,” said Cabrera. “And we would think you were ungrateful.”
“I am ungrateful,” said Marlon.
“There is a bright side,” said Grossdidier sounding upbeat. “The gift horse really is one of the best idioms to receive.”
“That’s absurd,” said Gram.
“Last year,” said Cabrera looking away, “I had to deliver ‘Break a leg.’ That man would have loved a horse.”
“It’s true. ‘My ears are burning,’ ‘Put a bug in your ear,’ ‘Screwed the pooch.’ There are many unpleasant idioms that you could have drawn,” said Grossdidier.
Marlon finally noticed the clip clop of the horse being led up the driveway by the man who got out of the trailer. The front door opened again. The youngsters—Ashley, Derek, and Taylor—burst out, unable to contain their pony induced thrill. The rest of the family trickled out, but said little, beyond a few “what”s.
Grossdidier put his hand on Marlon’s shoulder and led the teenager to meet his new steed. “It really isn’t as bad as you imagine. They make YouTube videos that show you how to take care of horses. Normally we would stay a bit longer to provide some more support, mostly emotional, but also in finding resources. But it’s a busy day for us. We should be hitting the road.”
“That’s another one you don’t want,” said Cabrera coming up behind them.
“Good point. They make you do it bare knuckled.”
The man in bib overalls handed Marlon the reins, which Cabrera noted was another idiom completed. The three men from the Idiom Perpetuation Bureau got back in the trailer and left, quick exits being the best tactic.