Miranda rang Michael’s doorbell with the same sick feeling she had evening Sunday night since he’d left his apartment near the university where he’d taught to live out here in the ‘burbs with Sharli. The only difference on this particular Sunday evening was that instead of returning to the cozy second and third floor condo they’d once shared, a block from both her ex-husband’s new digs and the campus, she would drive home to Quail Ridge.
Sharli answered the door. “Hi, Miranda. How’s Ariel?”
They did this dance every Sunday as well. Sharli desperately wanted to be part of her sister’s orbit. Ariel had influence; she influenced everything she touched, from the internet to the PTO, and Sharli’s custom scented candle business was only afloat because Michael kept it that way.
“She’s well. Busy. My brother’s in town. Can I come in? It’s freezing.”
“Of course.” Sharli swung the front door open and called over her shoulder. “E-dawg, your mom’s here.”
E-dawg? The image of her brother counting on his fingers popped into her head and she suppressed a laugh. Elliot bounded down the stairs, “Mom! Guess what? Dad and Sharli are getting a puppy!”
“Are they? That’s great.” She glanced briefly at Sharli who was hovering near the giant Christmas tree that occupied the great room. Michael appeared from the direction of the kitchen, wearing an apron over his khakis and button down.
“Michael.” She picked up Elliot’s backpack. “A puppy, huh?”
“A boy should have a dog.” Michael delivered the aphorism as he would a lecture in one of his classes.
“And Dad says they’re picking her up on Christmas Eve, so I can meet her Christmas Day!”
“We’re spending Christmas Day with Aunt Ari, and Uncle Adrian is going to be there, too,” Miranda reminded Elliot, while managing to pin Mike with a nasty look. “You’re supposed to be spending Christmas Eve here with Sharli and your Dad.”
Sharli looked deeply uncomfortable, her gaze bouncing between Miranda and Mike like the chair umpire on a tennis court. “But, Mike, we have to drive to Connecticut to get the dog on the twenty-fourth. I thought you said–“
“Elliot, can you double check your room and make sure you didn’t forget anything?” Miranda waited until Elliot and his ever-rolling eyeballs slouched away down the hall before addressing her ex’s girlfriend. “I’m sure he told you I’d be fine with switching days, because he assumes no one’s obligations are as important as his own, but we agreed on the holiday split in June, and my family made travel plans accordingly, including my parents, who are flying in to spend the holiday at my sister’s house.”
Mike interrupted. “Miranda, be reasonable. How often does a boy get a dog?”
“It happens every day, Michael. All over the world. And you know that.” She shouldered the bag. “If you can’t host your son for Christmas Eve the way you promised, he can come on Boxing Day.”
“No, I’m coming here on Christmas to meet the puppy.” Elliot reappeared in the hallway, his chin set stubbornly. Like his father’s, Miranda thought with dismay.
Michael put an arm around their son. “Don’t be unreasonable, Miranda.”
“I can see Uncle Adrian on the day after.” Elliot’s lip trembled, just a bit, like it had when he was little and trying not to cry. “A puppy, Mom.”
Miranda’s heart kicked over and sweat beaded along her hairline. She could feel the heaviness seeping into her extremities, and shadows moved into the corners of her vision. She drew a long breath in through her nose. Not now. Later. Not now. Later.
“Please, Miranda.” Sharli was desperately trying to diffuse the situation, which only made Miranda angrier.
Interestingly, the rage pushed back at the panic. “Fine. I’m leaving at eight on Christmas morning to go over to Ariel’s. You can pick him up before then.”
“So early?” Sharli said.
“YES!” Elliot shouted, hugging his dad. “Wait, eight? Mom! I’m gonna have to get up at like five to open presents.”
“We’ll discuss it in the car.” Miranda turned and opened the front door without a word, shoulders squared against inevitable collapse. At least she only had a ten minute drive before she could fall apart.
They didn’t discuss anything in the car. Elliot plugged into his twenty øne piløts playlist and studiously ignored her.
Miranda had double check the street sign when she turned down Bobwhite Lane, because she couldn’t find her house at first. Number thirteen was lit up like…Christmas.
“You decorated the house?” Elliot forgot to be crabby with her, pressing a hand to the glass as they turned into the driveway. Strands and strands of twinkling white lights illuminated the shrubs along the front walkway, the roofline was outlined in colors, a collection of vintage cutouts posed around the yard, and a huge, sparkly, red ornament the size of a small doghouse rested in the snow near the front door.
“No…” She stopped the car in the driveway and climbed out. “I didn’t do this.”
Elliot and his backpack headed toward the ornament, but Miranda followed the ends of the lights, not to the exterior outlets on her house, but into a pair of heavy duty extension cords running across the yard and into Justins’ outlets.
The shaking that threatened all the way between Mike’s house and home receded on a wave of gratitude.
“Mom, toss me the keys. Marvin’s hungry.”
“Right.” She was standing on the property line in the snow, grinning like a fool over twinkle lights. She dug into her coat pocket for the keys and was about to go rescue Marvin from his hunger, when Justin wandered out of the garage.