Miranda woke Saturday morning to the preternatural stillness of snowfall. Marvin was next to her, doing a reasonable impression of a bear-skin rug and purring as though his last life depended on it.
She scratched his ears and ran her hand along his fur. “Good morning, Marvin.”
He flicked his tail by way of response.
“‘Mom, can I please get a cat?’ he said. ‘I’ll do all the work, I swear,’ he said.’” She spoke aloud to cat as much as to the empty house. “Maybe I should drop your litter box off at Mike and Sharli’s place? See how he feels about that.”
Marvin continued to snooze, so Miranda got out of bed alone. While her coffee brewed, she followed the link Justin texted her the night before and paid for the game via the developer’s website. As a precaution, she printed out the game code and stashed it in her desk drawer. She could always wrap it up and put it under the tree for Elliot to open.
She and Marvin had stayed at Justin’s for a couple of hours. He showed her the nuts and bolts of the game, down to how to set the controls up to keep unwanted players out, and launched into a solo side-quest to give her an idea of the scope of the game.
She found herself in a wildly immersive third-person world that Justin navigated the way she navigated the hallways of the high school five days a week. She watched him take out a gang of golden-skinned hover-bike gangsters with some kind of vaporizing weapon he said was pretty standard issue for in-game kills.
She was gearing up to leave when someone from his crew pinged him on Discord––now she knew what that meant––so she’d stayed on to watch his squad in action, curled up in a papasan chair near his gaming table, cradling her wine, like an adult version of her teenaged self watching her boyfriend play guitar in the basement playroom, cradling a Sprite in a theme park glass.
When he’d offered to walk her the twenty feet home, she’d refused, but only because it was snowing. She’d looked back from her front door to see him standing inside his. He waved goodnight and disappeared into the blue-lit room where she now knew he’d be raiding some kind of fuel factory with his friends well into the night.
Outside, the sun was up, sparkling on four inches of fresh powder, but there was rain in the forecast, followed by overnight lows in the twenties, which would mean an inch of slick cement-like slush if she didn’t deal with it. Armed with a brand new snow shovel, Miranda opened the mud room door. As if summoned, Marvin sauntered in, yawned hugely, and hopped up on the washer to eye the door to the garage.
“No way, Buster. You’re grounded.” She picked up the cat, deposited him the in the den, and closed the door.
She’d cleared half her driveway when a silver SUV slowed at its end. The window glided down and Justin leaned across the front seat. “Morning.”
She stopped pushing snow and waved as he pulled into his driveway. He’d skipped shoveling, she noted, as his tires crunched over the previous set of tracks in otherwise unblemished snow. The garage door closed behind him, but a few minutes later, the other side rose.
Justin reemerged with a snow-blower. He left it idling and made his way across the yard to her. “I usually do all the sidewalks down to the corner of Coturnix. With the exception of us, the median age around here is about seventy. They’ve known me since I was a kid, and I know none of them should be out here in the cold clearing it themselves.” He blew on his hands, which were bare, despite the work gloves peeking out of his jacket pocket. “So, you don’t need to bother with your sidewalks, and I’m happy to do your driveway, too. I can do the rest now, and next time, don’t worry about it unless you need to be out before I get to it.”
“Justin, I couldn’t…”
“Why not? I’m literally out here anyway, and it’ll take me maybe five minutes to clear.”
It wasn’t as though she was going to get a better offer. Wasn’t that one of her problems, according to Mike, that she couldn’t be gracious about accepting help?
He beamed. Miranda finished shoveling the lane she was in, then retraced her steps back to the garage. For the first time since she’d moved in, she really considered her neighbors. Bobwhite Lane was a short cul-de-sac with seven houses. Hers and Justin’s were on the round end, at a slight angle to one another. She wondered how many of the residents had raised their children their, and if they’d all played in the cul-de-sac. She imagined pick-up games of street hockey or basketball, bike riding, probably sledding. There were definitely some hills in the neighboring state park.
If they were all her parents’ age, maybe there would be grandchildren to ride bikes, and sled, and play games in the street.
All the things she hoped Elliot would still have a shot at.