Miranda and Elliot both had school right up to the twenty-third, and between work, school, holiday baking, gift wrapping, and fielding text threads from Adrian in which he harassed her about bringing the cute neighbor, Miranda didn’t have a free moment to seek out said cute neighbor.
Every evening, when she got home from picking Elliot up at his robotics club meeting, the lights greeted her, but Justin’s house was dark. She’d never thought to ask what he did for work.
Christmas Eve was spent running a few last minute errands and packing gift baskets for friends. Elliot abandoned video games for online research about caring for his new puppy.
As if he sensed a rival, Marvin clung to Miranda like a burr, impersonating a small outboard motor and kneading her with his marmalade murder mittens whenever she slowed down.
Elliot chose sushi for their traditional Twas the Night Before Take-out, and Miranda was on her way back with their haul when she saw Justin’s SUV in the parking lot at the fire station. Remembering the stash of Starbucks gift cards in her glove compartment, she swung into the lot. Closer inspection revealed and went inside.
“Can I help you?” A young woman in a department uniform was manning the desk.
Could this woman help her? She felt like a fool, following a wild hunch on Christmas Eve, while her dinner waited in the car. “I just wanted to stop in an wish the department a merry Christmas.”
She was stammering. It felt like a lie. Until she pulled a couple of cards from her pocket and handed them across the desk. “These are for the crew.”
The firefighter smiled. “Thanks, ma’am. That’s a nice thing to do. Fingers crossed we don’t need ‘em tonight.”
“Right. Yes,” Miranda said, unsure of what else to say. Is Justin here? Is he firefighter, too?
“Inky, is that Mrs. Grayson? Cap’s on the horn with Station 5. He’ll be out in a–Miranda?” Justin came through the swinging door to the engine bay and stopped so fast the door banged into him from behind.
“Inky?”Miranda looked again at the young firefighter. “Emma Skewdosky?” She remembered Emma from the high school, not all that long ago. Somehow, over the generations, the pronunciation of the family’s name had become squid-OFF-ski. Her friends had called her Inky.
“Oh, my gosh, Mrs. McCall,” she said. “I love your hair!”
That’s right, I started coloring my gray just after her graduation. Right around the time Mike left. “Thanks, Emma.”
“It’s Ms. Brewer,” Justin said quietly.
She could get used to hearing him say her maiden name, though she’d never felt so far from being any kind of maiden. Emma was blushing scarlet. “It’s Miranda.”
Emma held up the gift cards. “I’m going to go put these in the truck stockings.”
“I’ve got the office,” Justin said to Emma’s retreating back. He leaned against a file cabinet, a shy smile teasing his mouth. “You just dropped in here to leave Christmas presents?”
“I–“ She didn’t have an excuse beyond I just wanted to see you. “I saw you car on my way by, and…”
He stood, pocketing his hands. “And?”
“And I wanted to see you.” She blurted it out. “I’ve been busy all week, but the lights have been so nice to come home to. Your house has been dark, and I wondered…”
He stopped her rambling. “I’m glad you came by.”
“Me, too, I–You are?” Her heart was thumping too slowly, great pounding beats that knocked against her ribs. Surely he could hear them.
“I’ve had night shifts this week. Covering for the crew who have families. I liked seeing the lights up on your house, too.”
He moved the neighbors snow and put up his own lights on her house. He covered for his colleagues so they wouldn’t miss pre-holiday magic. Swoon.
“Are you working tomorrow?” Miranda failed to keep the hope from her voice.
“Yeah, overnight tonight into the morning. Made sense, since I don’t have anyone waiting on me to open a stocking. Y’know?” His words were light, but Miranda heard the loneliness in them. It was a frequency she vibrated at, as well.
“Well, Merry Christmas. I have dinner in the car. I should–“
This time the alarm cut her off. Justin moved so quickly she wasn’t sure how he’d crossed the room. “Sorry. Gotta go. Merry Christmas, Miranda.”
She waited alone in the office until after the sirens and flashing lights were gone. She wondered if anyone was still at the station, but of course there would be someone left on duty. She fished her keys from her pocket and let herself out.
She was halfway to her car when she heard Emma’s voice from the doorway. “Merry Christmas and thanks for the coffees!”