Sunday morning, Justin woke to a fifty-two degree bedroom, a dead thermostat, and no double-A batteries, which was how he found himself at the big-box home improvement store before breakfast.
If he hadn’t had a hankering for an omelet while navigating the aisles of the store, he might not have swung into the strip mall next door to grab a stool at Midge’s, and if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have seen the giant ornament in the window of the thrift shop.
He hoped he hadn’t been projecting when he saw disappointment on her face the day before, because it all fell together quite smoothly. He walked into the thrift store while his omelet was cooking, bought the giant ornament, ate his omelet, returned for his prize, and wrestled it onto the roof of his mid-sized urban assault vehicle to bring it back to Quail Ridge.
He’d run extension cords and untangled lights all morning, then arranged the lights and decorations, pausing now and again to dry his eyes–definitely the cold, not bittersweet memories of his mother’s love for the kitschy old wooden decorations–all afternoon.
By the time the early dark fell and he plugged it all into the outlets on the side of the house, he’d created a vintage seventies-style Christmas lights extravaganza on for Miranda to come home to.
He’d showered, called in a pizza order, and poured himself a beer when Miranda’s headlights cut across his lawn, and it took every ounce of self-control he had left not to throw open a window and holler, “Do you like it?”
Instead, he’d walked down to the garage from the kitchen and gone outside in boots and a jacket like an everyday human. That ruse lasted until he saw her standing in the snow between their houses looking back at her own yard like the woman in those Lexus ads when she sees the car in the driveway.
He opened his mouth to say something clever and witty. “Hey, neighbor.”
Hey, neighbor? Really?
What was it they’d said as kids? Smooth move, Ex-Lax.
She turned a beaming, shiny-eyed smile on him. “It’s beautiful.”
You’re beautiful. “I’m glad you like it. I had this crazy fear you’d be all, ‘Take it down!’ and my mother’s ghost would haunt your house and you’d move out…”
Miranda laughed and he realized that, in all the babbling, he’d cracked a joke about his mother’s ghost. A joke his mother would have appreciated, with her sly, gallows brand of humor. He could picture her, the way she’d looked when he was a kid, shoulder pads and feathered hair, smoking a Doral Gold and pouring a glass of the jug Muscatel his grandmother always brought when she visited to toast the lights.
“I don’t think we’re going anywhere.” Miranda reached for his hand. “Thank you.”
Her leather glove was cool against his palm, hear features shadowed by the glow of the lights. The sparkle in her eyes was unmistakable.
“You’re welcome. It was no problem, really.”
“It must have taken hours–“ She’d drifted close; they were nearly toe-to-toe.
“Mom.” Elliot stuck his head out the front door. “I can’t find Marvin’s bowl.”
Miranda dropped his hand and spun in the direction of her house. “Look under the china cabinet the movers left in the living room. He’s been playing hockey with it all weekend.” The door closed again with out a reply. She took a small step back as she turned back to Justin and said softly. “Goddamn Marvin.”
“He bats his bowl around?”
“Like Wayne Gretzky,” Miranda giggled.
Justin really liked the cat’s style. Because his whole day was straight out of the sitcom playbook, the pizza delivery car pulled up just then.
“You were about to have dinner,” Miranda said. “I’m sorry.”
“Just pizza. No big thing.”
“Still,” she said. “I should let you go inside. It’s cold. And I need to figure out something for Elliot and me.”
Halfway back to his own door, he remembered about Armageddon Impact. “Hey, did the gamer speak help?”
She blinked at him for a beat before realizing what he meant. Her face fell. “I didn’t even stand a chance, but who can compete with a puppy for Christmas?” She pushed her hands deep into her coat pockets. “Goodnight, Justin. And thank you again for the lights.”
He had the strangest feeling she was saying goodbye.