Miranda preferred to think of their new Quail Ridge home as cute, despite her thirteen-year-old son’s persistent eyerolls. She supposed that, for a kid used to a hodgepodge of triple-deckers pressed close together around the university campus, this mid-century, raised-ranch subdivision came up lacking.
Four o’clock meant nearly full-dark this time of year, so the lights around the neighborhood were in their full glory. All save two.
That was how she should have given directions: just go to the first of the only two houses in all of Quail Ridge that weren’t lit up for the holidays and just happened to be next to one another at the end of the same street.
She pulled her car into the driveway behind Mike’s, wondering how long he’d been parked there, next to the still unpacked PODS. He was habitually early for everything, and considered you late if he had to wait. Elliot practically ejected himself from the back seat of her Camry.
Mike got out his car, irritation worn across his features like makeup.
“Dad!” Elliot dropped his backpack and launched himself into his father’s embrace. “Our robotics project got picked for the competition!’
Miranda sighed. She’d had to extract the robotics win from Elliot with pliers and forceps.
Mike’s expression softened as he hugged their kid, but he kept his eyes on her. “Is that why you were running late, kiddo? That’s great news.”
Yes, Michael, that’s why we were on time. Because I was getting information on the project from their coach. Jackass.
The subtleties of Mike’s ire floated over Elliot’s head as he released his father and headed for Mike’s brand new Lexus, swooping to snag his backpack from the cracked asphalt on his way by.
“Say goodbye to your mother, El,” Mike reminded him.
Elliot paused to slip his AirPods–a birthday gift from Mike’s girlfriend Sharli–into his ears before slouching in her direction long enough to let her hug his bony shoulders and pretend she could still smell his baby sweat in his unruly mop of hair.
“Bye, Baby. See you Sunday night.”
Elliot muttered something that sounded a little like, “Okay, sure,” before bounding back to the Lexus.
Miranda pretended to look at her phone while they drove down Bobwhite Lane and disappeared around the corner. When she looked up, it was across the driveway at a scruffy wildman in faded plaid flannel pajama bottoms and t-shirt that read, “So Say We All” in block letters.
She shivered just looking at him.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Miranda, you’ve clearly impulse bought the right house. Right next to the neighborhood madman.
She offered him a half-hearted wave; instead of returning the gesture–or in fact acknowledging her in any way, he continued to the end of his driveway to retrieve his trash cart, kicked it onto two wheels, and pushed it back into his open garage.
“Okay, then.” Miranda grabbed her purse from the center console and fished inside for the unfamiliar keys. It was hardly get-to-know-the-neighbors weather–temperatures hadn’t risen past 25º in three days–but she couldn’t help wishing the house next door was full of Gilmore Girls characters instead of The Walking Dead.
She opened the front door to utter chaos. The artificial Christmas tree she’d scored at a summer yard sale and frogmarched Elliot into assembling and lighting with her the previous evening was not only no longer standing, but dragged halfway across the room that occupied half the raised-ranch’s ground floor. A wretched tangle of led lights stretched out from the tree like menacing tendrils between moving boxes–one of which she thought might have the ornaments in it.
A fat, furry, marmalade-colored projectile streaked past her and out the open door.
If she hadn’t doubled back outside to catch the architect of the chaos, Elliot’s cantankerous cat, she might have missed the flyer wedged into an empty planter outside the door by the departing owners. According to the enthusiastic font, voting was open for the Quail Ridge Holiday Lights Festival competition on the neighborhood Facebook page.
Miranda groaned, crumpling the flyer in one hand while groping for the exterior light switch. Marvin loved the snow; coaxing him back inside was going to be a chore.