KEEPSAKE

f-Snow Dunes Beach 1.22.2014_1940

Helen stood at the foot of the steep stairs that led to her attic, and reconsidered the risk of going up. There was a handrail she could grasp all the way to the top, relieving some of the strain on her wobbly knees.

But coming down . . .

She saw herself in the minutes ahead, both of her arms wrapped around the old cardboard box that she had to retrieve, which was awkwardly shaped and difficult to hold on to, setting her up for a hip-shattering tumble if she wasn’t very careful.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other; looked toward the window at the end of her second floor hallway. The light was fading. In an hour the darkness would descend completely, and if the box wasn’t down soon she’d have to wait until tomorrow, Christmas Eve.

She didn’t want to wait. She wanted all of her decorations up now; wanted a house full of colored lights to ward off the gloom.

She took the first step and then the second before she felt the stab of pain under her left kneecap. She cursed with a “damn it” that came out louder than she’d intended, reminding her of the house’s emptiness, the solitude of the night ahead. She grasped the rail, feeling angry that the box had been shoved up into the attic in the first place, as if it had intentionally been put out of her reach.

“Oh, damn him,” she said, putting the anger where it belonged; fortifying herself for the next step as the phone began to ring.

* * *

John sat next to the café’s large front window and looked out Lewes, Delaware’s Second Street. The main commercial avenue of the historic bayside town was decorated with wreaths and ornaments on every storefront, and the sidewalks were crowded with families and couples who made him self-conscious of being alone, a 26-year-old man with a potted poinsettia and a gift-wrapped box of lemon scones

Now or never, he thought, and dialed Helen Marvel.

The phone rang several times.

Should have called her before now, he thought. Set this up, thought it through –

“Hello!”

He felt a catch in his breath at the loudness of her voice, a tensing in his backbone as he sat up a little straighter.

“Helen?”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me, John.”

There were several seconds of silence.

“Oh . . . John. How are you?”

He exhaled, his shoulders loosening with her upbeat tone. “I’m good.”

“Are you well?”

“Yes,” he said, because physically it was true. He sat forward, at the edge of the cafe chair, which felt a bit too small for his weight and size.

“I’m here,” he said. “In Lewes.”

“For Christmas?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

There was a pause. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

He remembered how he had answered the same question two Christmases before.

“They’re in upstate New York. It was too far to go with just a couple of days off.”

“Oh,” she said, as if she didn’t quite believe him.

“I’d like to come over if I can,” he said. “I have some presents for you.”

“Oh I don’t need any . . . presents.”

He heard a quiver in her voice, a vulnerability that was completely out of the character he knew.

“Well I have them. Can I please come by?”

Of course you can, John,” she replied, as if he hadn’t had to ask.

* * *

Helen might have termed John Falzone’s surprise visit and his willingness to deal with her attic stairs as a divine intervention if she hadn’t given up any belief that there was some kind of Godly direction in her life. Still, it was nice seeing him trot up on his stocky young legs, knowing he wasn’t the least bit worried about falling down. Nice to see his handsome young face at her door even though she knew he had been fibbing when he said he was only visiting Lewes for the holidays because his family lived too far away.

He was twisting the facts a little last time too.

She heard the creak of his weight on the attic floorboards, felt a twinge around her heart.

Because he was in love.

She moved around the parlor with her electric candles. There were half a dozen of them, a gift from her grandson Tom, two Christmases before.

“From both of us.”

She heard Tom’s voice in her mind, a memory of that same visit with Tom and John, finally acknowledging they were more than college roommates even though she had known better for years. She relished the memory as she went to every corner of the room, concentrating on the precise placement of each candle.

“Mission accomplished,” John said from the top of the stairs, holding the box carefully in his nicely formed arms.

He made it halfway down before sneezing loudly.

“Bless you,” she said. “My house is a hundred years old. It gets dusty.”

He set the box down on the coffee table and sneezed again, then rubbed his nose with the back of his sleeve.

“You need a Kleenex?” she asked.

“Nah. I’m okay. It’s like you said – the dust.”

That’s as good an excuse as any, she thought. There was a fleck of insulation in his black hair and his blue eyes were bloodshot. Two minutes of rummaging through the junk in her attic had brought him to the edge of tears.

She glanced down at the floor to save him from embarrassment, then stepped toward her writing desk and pulled a pair of scissors from the drawer and gently pressed them along the seam at the top of the box.

“I taped it up tight last year but only expected to store it in the coat closet,” she said.

John cleared his throat. “How’d it end up in the attic?”

“That was Red’s brilliant idea. He put it up there and told me afterwards.”

“Red was here at Christmas?”

She looked at the console table next to the vestibule, which held at least a dozen framed family photos. There was only one shot of Tom’s father, Richard McCoy, nicknamed “Red” for the tint of his hair, alongside her daughter Cathy on their wedding day. She had removed all of the photos of Red with Tom and Cathy in later years.

“He showed up on Christmas day,” she said. “Suffering from the worst hangover of his life from the looks of it. He came back a week later to help me put everything away.”

“Oh. He didn’t tell me.”

For a moment she thought she heard him wrong. It was hard to even imagine Red McCoy and John Falzone in the same room.

“You’ve talked to Red?”

He nodded. She waited for him to elaborate but he avoided her eyes, and looked down at the box.

“Do you need help with that?”

She still held the scissors. The treasure in the box was fragile, and there was a mild tremor in her hand.

“Maybe I do,” she said. “It’s the most important decoration I have.”

He took the scissors and deftly sliced the masking-taped seam at the top, then carefully reached into the box and lifted the ceramic Christmas tree from the Styrofoam popcorn packing. The tree was made from a kit that Tom had bought as an eight-year-old at a crafts store. It had required a bit of skill and a lot of effort to assemble and paint. It was a significant undertaking for a little boy, but the quality of Tom’s work had not surprised her.

John carefully held the base of the tree with both hands, and set it down on the table. “I remember this from two years ago.”

“Then you know about the year he made it.”

He nodded.

“The year my daughter finally accepted what Red was really like.”

Her mind went back to the memory of Cathy, red-eyed and white knuckled as she gripped the steering wheel during what was supposed to be a pleasant mother-daughter drive through town to look at the Christmas decorations; Cathy’s voice halting and strained as she talked about Red’s infidelities and her decision to finally cut him loose.

Not really something you want to talk about on a holiday, she thought.

But in the next instant she was talking about it some more.

“Children don’t miss much. Tom knew something was wrong between his mom and dad that year. A lot of kids would have acted out in some way, but he just concentrated all his attention on building and painting this little tree, for his grandmother. At a time when he was most vulnerable, he chose to do something for someone else.”

John smiled. “He loved you like crazy Helen.”

“I know. Unfortunately for some reason he loved his dad too, even with all the mess he put Tom through.”

She carefully unwound the power cord at the base of the tree as she recounted some of her worst memories of her daughter’s ex-husband. The son of a farmer who sold out to real estate developers, leaving him a pile of money that he gambled away. A father who always seemed disappointed in Tom, punishing him for striking out in little league, ridiculing him in front of his friends on a hunting trip when Tom couldn’t bring himself to fire his gun, belittling his decision to study engineering instead of finance at the University of Delaware, despite Red’s assurances that his deep roots in real estate would have made it easy for Tom to become the millionaire Red had always wanted to be.

“And on top of that he was a bigot, and too damn foolish to keep his feelings to himself and too dense to even think of what it was doing to Tom – .”

God, Helen . . . “

John’s voice was quiet, a subdued interruption. He was sitting slightly forward on the couch, his eyes full of concern and a bit of admonishment, she thought, at how long she had rattled on.

Like a bitter old woman. At Christmastime, for God’s sake.

She felt a pang of guilt, because in truth there was more to Red McCoy than she was accustomed to admitting. Like herself, he was born and raised and forever rooted to Sussex County, where attitudes and old ways were slow to change.

“I’m sorry John – sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.” She tried to offer him a wry smile, but couldn’t quite make it work. “I admit he’s not all bad . . . not anymore. He calls me at least twice a week; pretends he has to check in on me because I’m an old lady. Although I know it’s just because he’s a sad man who wants someone to talk to.”

“Your prodigal son-in-law,” John said.

“Yes . . . that’s right . . . That man never could hold a poker face – I can always tell when he’s feeling shaky, trying to wear me down so I’ll forgive him. And of course I don’t have the heart to turn him away, since he’s trying so damn hard.”

John sat back slightly, with a deep, gentle laugh that surprised her.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, crankypants.”

He laughed again, and after a moment she was laughing with him, thinking about the nickname that she had coined for herself.

“Tom loved calling you that,” John said.

“Good thing he had my permission.” She made a shooing motion with her hand. “The little brat.”

“He said you earned it after hearing you complain so much about that blizzard back when he was a kid.”

She nodded, the moment of levity staying with her as she thought of the week Tom had spent with her as a 15-year-old when the Wilmington schools shut down due 30 inches of snow. It was shortly after Cathy had been taken by cancer, and once again young Tom’s emotions and energies had been directed away from the sorrow of losing his mother and toward helping others as he shoveled sidewalks from one end of the street to the other. There were four houses occupied by old widows like herself. The shoveling had saved them from being shut-in and they had celebrated with a potluck dinner in her kitchen; her grandson the star of the show.

“He loved coming here,” John said. “He called it his escape.”

“That’s the way I wanted it to be for him,” she said. “A place where he would always feel happy.”

“Well you succeeded.” John’s smile was relaxed, easy now. “I started thinking of him as the two Toms because he was a whole different person here. It was where he learned to surf – .”

“That was the summer he was here for two whole months. I taught him how to play Rummy, Hearts and Poker . . . and how to make my crab cakes.”

“Yeah he told me. Back fin and lump together, with Old Bay and Italian breadcrumbs.”

“It took both of us to do it right.”

“And an hour to clean up afterwards.” John laughed again. “Taking him out to the Yacht Club would have been easier.”

She made another shooing motion. “Fancy name for nothing more than a little restaurant with some boat slips – .”

“Fancy enough to make him feel special when you took him there that Easter when he was 10. In his little blue blazer and white shirt and red bow tie.”

The detailed description surprised her. “Is that what he told you?”

“Yep – plus you showed me the pictures the last time we played cards.”

She felt a tremor in her smile as she remembered the last night of cards between the three of them; a half hour of Texas Hold ‘Em, which offered a big advantage to herself and John because, unlike both Tom and his father, they actually could both keep a “poker face.” But then John had insisted they switch to three-hand Gin Rummy, a game that depended more on luck and calculation and less on hiding emotions – “better for just passing the time,” as John had put it.

Because he wanted to make the night better for Tom, she thought. To give him a better chance to win a few games.

It was a gesture that characterized the way they would have been for life. John with his perpetually pleasant calmness; a ballast that steadied Tom’s temperamental and impulsive nature. A perfect pair, even if they were both a bit too sensitive for their own good.

“He talked a lot about you, too,” she said.

There was a small twitch in his cheek. “Really?”

She nodded. “He told me you were crazy about dogs and old people, and that you made friends easily and were loyal to the end. He also told me how important it was for you to always tell the truth.”

He sat slightly forward, hanging on every word, she thought.

“You made him happy,” she said. “No doubt in my mind.”

There was a tensing in his shoulders, a surprising reaction to the words she had thought he would be thrilled to hear. She watched the drop of his Adams apple as he broke her gaze and looked down at the floor, and said:

“He had a plan.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He looked up. In a matter of seconds he had gone pale, as if he was about to tell her something terrible.

“What kind of plan, John? You can tell me. Please.”

* * *

And so he did, wondering all the while if he was truly living up to Helen Marvel’s expectation of complete truth as he described the rest of that Christmas holiday two years earlier. About Tom’s easy happiness after a three days of big meals and beach-walking and endless card games with his grandmother. About the long walk they took before the long drive back to the group house at school where they always slept in separate rooms. And about the moment they turned a corner and saw the For Sale sign on the bungalow on Savannah Road, vacant but with a Christmas tree at the front window.

“The realtor was Jack Simpson. He was just locking up after showing it to someone else,” he said. “He saw us on the sidewalk and waved. And then we went in.”

“Must have been the Burton’s house,” Helen said. “She and I came up together. They had to move because of the stairs. And I know Jack – he was a volunteer football coach when Red played at the high school. “

He nodded. Tom had told him more than once about her connections to virtually everyone in the small town, and her wariness of the realtors, like Jack Simpson, who were selling so many of its houses to “summer people who were taking over.”

He stared down at the braided rug on her pine floor, and continued.

“Something happened to Tom when we went in. He asked all kinds of questions about the history of the house. And then he made a crazy, surprise decision. He told Jack he wanted to buy it with the money his mom left him, and when we got back to the car he said he wanted to share it . . . with me.”

He heard the crack in his voice, but kept on.

“We planned the whole thing out on the way back to school – how we’d take down some inside walls to open it up, without losing any of the details, like the craftsman stairway. We knew we’d have to get the fireplace relined, and we wanted to refinish the pine floors ourselves. We talked about how we could go there off and on all year, whenever we wanted to get away, and how he ‘d surprise you with the news, as soon as the contract was signed, and about how being here would give him a chance to take better care of you – .”

“Oh my . . . word.” Helen raised her hand, halting him, then pressed it against the base of her neck and closed her eyes.

He watched the rise and fall of her chest, a deep breath to calm herself down, then leaned forward and touched her elbow. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, slowly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She met his eyes again. “So what happened?”

He thought of the underlying truth in what he had told her about the two Toms. In Lewes he was forever the gentle boy who spent his days smiling and unguarded, true to himself, as Helen might have put it.

But not in Newark, at the University of Delaware, where he was always his father’s son: the star goalie they called “the Terminator” for his absolute absence of fear. A frustrating enigma to the young women who openly pursued him and a guy who stayed at the pinnacle of popularity among his fraternity brothers despite a tendency to pick fights after drinking too much – a trait inherited directly from the great Red McCoy, star running back on the football team 30 years before.

“John?”

Her voice was steadier now. She sat very still, tense with expectation.

“The house was empty when we got back. All of the roommates were still gone for the break. Tom was still in a happy state of mind. We ate the turkey and pie you sent us home with and drank wine and talked about what it was going to be like to live here, at least some of the time. We were feeling so great – because we were completely alone. And when we finally went to bed we went to his room, which was one of two on the third floor.”

“What happened then?”

Her tone was hard, demanding.

“We’d had a lot to drink. We left the bedroom door open. Weren’t really thinking – because the house was empty. We went to sleep. He held me. Most of the night. But then . . .”

He paused, and shut his eyes.

“The lights came on.”

His mind went back to the sudden brightness that had filled the room, the memory of the other third floor roommate, arriving home drunk and stumbling in the hallway, his eyes wide at the sight of the two of them in bed.

And then the memory of Tom’s reaction – pushing him away as if he was suddenly radioactive, and the shock, and shame, on Tom’s face as the roommate stepped back into the hallway, still watching them as he couldn’t believe what he had seen.

“And then it was over.”

* * *

But it wasn’t really, Helen thought. More of a turning point, toward a bad direction.

She hadn’t known about Tom’s intention to use the money Cathy had left him to buy Elsie Burton’s house on Savannah Road. But she had known something had happened that Christmas. Something that led to the phone call a week later, when Tom had mentioned he had moved out of his house at school. And when she had asked “what about John?” he had simply said.

“He stayed.”

So much meaning in those two words, she thought now. Separation. An end.

John was sitting back on the couch, his arms at his sides. He looked sad, depleted, but at ease, as if he was relieved to have gotten the story out. She felt the urge to talk about Red again, to tell him more about how Tom had grown up, with constant reminders of his father’s old country-boy attitudes. A childhood of hearing again and again that his true nature made him unworthy.

She stopped herself, because by now John had to know most of everything else she might have told him about Red, who still lived in Newark and still went to every football game, like all of the other old-timers forever tethered to the school and its teams.

Too close to escape from once the news began to travel, she thought, understanding for the first time the terrible decision Tom made after that Christmas.

She looked at John again, and knew she needed to give him a break from all of the sad reminiscing. “It’s after five o’clock. Would you like a drink?”

“Sure,” he said, and started to get up. “I can help.”

“No, let the old lady do it.” She said, and placed her palm on the wall to steady herself as she stood up. “I have some wine, and beer – and that good bourbon we had last time you were here.”

He gave her a grateful smile. “Bourbon would be good.”

She flipped the wall switches in the dining room and pantry as she headed back toward the kitchen, then took two lead crystal tumblers from the glass-fronted cabinet. She filled them with ice and a long pour of Woodford Reserve and topped them with a splash of water.

John was back up and moving around as she stepped back into the parlor. The poinsettia he had brought her was now on the console, surrounded by the photos. The garland was wrapped around the balustrade. The cord to Tom’s ceramic tree was dangling off the side of the table between the sofa and her wing chair, probably because he hadn’t yet figured out where to plug it in, but John had placed the tree right where she liked it.

Like he automatically knows where everything’s supposed to be.

It was a comforting thought, a sense that he was taking care of her as Tom would have. She gave him his drink, and took a long sip of her own. The scent of the good bourbon filled her head; the taste taking her back to Tom’s last visit; the sight of him stepping out her front door.

She felt the floor tilting beneath her; a shakiness in her knees.

John gave her the same concerned look he had given her minutes before.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m all right.”

But she felt lightheaded as she sat down, and bothered by the depressing tone of the conversation so far. Make it happier, she thought. Ask him what he’s been up to for a change. What’s he been doing with his time these past few months?

“I’ll never forget the day he left,” John said.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. After a moment he met her eyes, and frowned.

“Oh yeah Helen.” His voice had a tinny sound, an echo. “He left me too. Because he wanted a change. Wanted to be different than he was.”

Wanted he had to redeem himself to Red, she thought. To prove he was a man.

“It’s still a mess over there,” he said.

Over there.

Afghanistan.

She looked toward the front door, the sight of her last goodbye, and felt a weight on her chest. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought of what Tom had done, his rash and terrible decision to leave college – to enlist – .

“You must be proud of him,” John said. “He was a hero.”

He was a hero here too, shoveling my walk, fixing the things in my house, always loving, my beautiful, beautiful boy.

“It wasn’t worth his life, John.”

Her words hung in the air. Hard and judging as she saw the flash at the corner of her vision; her worst imagining of the explosion of that roadside bomb that killed him, and felt the pressure of a fist, closing around her heart as the light dimmed. John’s eyes widened as he stood up and came toward her; asking “are you all right?” in a barely audible voice, looking at her and not at the cord for the tree that dangled from the table, under his foot –

The cord tensed and pulled the tree to the edge of the table. John saw it the instant she saw it and tried to catch it but the movement of his foot yanked it over the edge.

They watched it fall together in the wavy slowness of a dream as it hit the carpet that just barely muffled the crack of ceramic as it broke apart.

* * *

Later, she would remember the night through senses and images – the tightness in her chest; the electrical cord under John’s foot; and the touch of his fingertips at her collar as he rushed to loosen the buttons, and asked if she could breathe.

She nodded, and inhaled, knowing from the steady flow of air into her lungs that the episode wasn’t as bad as she had feared.

Not quite a heart attack, she thought. Not yet.

One more breath, and then she assured him, “I’m all right. Honestly. I’m fine.”

He watched her for a few more seconds before he looked down at the fallen tree, and then sat back down on the edge of the sofa and put his hands in front of his face, as if he couldn’t bear the sight of it.

She leaned forward, remembering the night Tom had presented it to her, gripping it so carefully around the base, his freckled face beaming with happiness over her gleeful reaction.

A hard lump came to her throat. She was an instant away from crying, but it looked like John was going to beat her to it.

Have to calm him down, she thought. Act like it doesn’t matter, at least not so much.

She gripped the armrests with both hands, girding herself as she told him:

“Oh John don’t worry it’s just . . . “

“The most important decoration you have. From Tom – .”

She felt her heart quickening again. “Why don’t you see if you can put it back on the table?”

He slowly squatted down, taking a moment to look a little closer at the damage before slipping his hands beneath the base of the tree and lifting it up. There were at least three shards that fell back to the carpet, but she could see that at least some of the tree remained intact.

You could call him “clumsypants,” she thought. Make him laugh.

The look on his face stopped her. His skin was still beet-red and his big hands were still shaky as he carefully set it down.

She gave it a gentle three-quarter turn, so the good side was at the front, and looked again at the decorations John had set out around the room. By any account it was going to be a terrible Christmas, being alone because she had told Red she hadn’t wanted company, and maybe even worse now that John had come by with his recollections, and with the mishap that would probably stick in her mind for the rest of her days.

Still, the sadness she would have expected to feel was somehow numbed, overwhelmed by the sense of John’s sorrow as he gazed at the broken tree.

Because he loved Tom as much as you did.

She felt oddly grateful for the realization; his reaction to the damage the most telling testament to the depth of his feelings as he took another long sip of bourbon, and held it in his mouth for several seconds before he swallowed, and met her eyes again.

“There’s something else I have to tell you,” he said. “About me. And Red.”

* * *

Through all the weeks of planning it was the uncertainty that had remained constant. Even now he wasn’t sure which way it would go. But he felt a slight pressure around his shoulders as he looked around the room, a feeling of being observed, and encouraged. It was the same feeling he had had in the early morning hours as he crossed the long bay bridge that led to the eastern shore, under a gray December sky, driving toward the uncertain reward that awaited him in the small coastal town. The start of a day he had been planning for months, every moment of it moving him toward this conversation.

“Red told me what happened the day before the service,” he said. “When he saw you at the funeral home, where you wouldn’t talk to him.”

She tilted her head with a frown. “When did he tell you that?”

“Not till a few weeks later. Red and I had known each other for the whole four years Tom and I were . . . together. But he always kept his distance. I’d pretended I didn’t care even though I did.

“But then I started seeing him, everywhere. By himself at school, pounding like a maniac at the boxing bag in the gym on the same days I worked out. Watching me from across the room at a fundraiser the soccer team held in Tom’s honor. And then – so randomly – on a Tuesday afternoon when I got the job offer in Washington, and then went out to the cemetery to visit Tom’s grave. He was standing next to my Jeep in the parking lot when I came out. Waiting for me.”

He paused, his throat tightening with the memory, sad but strangely happy now.

“He looked like he wanted to kick my ass.”

He laughed, but Helen shook her head, seeing no humor in it.

“I know that sounds ridiculous,” he said. “But you know what he’s like. So . . . gruff, with that hard knocks attitude of his. But there he was, making a point to shake my hand, telling me he needed to talk to me, and then asking – and sort of begging – if I’d come to his apartment for a drink.”

“I know about that apartment,” Helen said. “He lived with a woman there, for awhile.”

“Yeah well he lives there alone now.” He nodded toward the console, next to the door. “He’s got a table full of pictures too. They’re all of your family . . . lots of pictures of Cathy and Tom, and you.”

Her jaw slackened. She crossed her arms over her chest, still working to hold onto her anger.

“He wanted me to know he was sorry. For everything that had happened.”

She looked past him, toward the photos, and then down at the floor as he took a deep breath and told her:

“He and I made a plan too. That’s why I’m with you here, tonight.”

* * *

In the end it was the audacity of the bargain Red made with Jack Simpson that got to her; forcing her to acknowledge that years ago she had liked Red very much, before it was clear that he was going to hurt Cathy; before she came to the understanding, when Tom was just a little boy, of the way he would treat him as he became a man.

Because they had once been alike; Sussex County natives, children and cousins of farmers and fisherman and boat pilots. Good, simple people, she thought, as John told her the rest of the story about Red’s apology.

“The money your daughter left Tom was still in a savings account when he shipped out,” John said. “It went to Red when . . . Tom was killed. Red hadn’t known Tom wanted to buy the house here in Lewes. But he and Jack had talked about it after the funeral. Jack told him about the day Tom and I saw it, and about what Tom had wanted to do. And about how he knew we were together.”

She gave him a questioning look.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Jack’s a tough old bird, like Red. Cranky – .”

He smiled, but his eyes were glazed.

“But he’s smart, and kind. And the thing about a guy like that, an old timer who’s been selling houses here for 30 years, is that he knows where all of the other old ladies like your friend Peggy live, and when they decide to move.”

He paused, as the words sank in. She looked toward the tall windows that faced her front porch; counted back how many months it had been since Peggy Squires had moved from her pretty Victorian house at the end of Market Street, and remembered the Sold sign she had noticed that morning.

“It’s mine,” John said, as if he had read her mind. “Thanks to Red, who made the down payment, and to Jack, who made it happen.”

“I don’t . . . understand,” she said, even though she did as she looked toward the console and the photos and the poinsettia at the center, and thought of the photos that had been there in the past; thought of the maddening persistence of Red McCoy’s attention, never quite enough to earn her forgiveness.

Crankypants

She swallowed against the tightness at the top of her throat, felt another sensation in her heart, a thumping, steady beat as she looked back at John again. He tilted his head to the side, with a smile that said come-on-now, as if he felt her bitterness, fading away.

All right Red. You’ve finally done it.

Broken me down.

She looked at the tree again.

“John, do me a favor. Look behind the table. There’s an outlet there.”

He rose up, and then reached down. “I see it.”

“Why don’t you plug it in?”

He sighed, looking as if he couldn’t quite manage another disappointment.

“Go ahead. No reason not to try.”

She followed the motion of his arm as he grasped the cord, and then the plug, and pushed it into the outlet,

The bulbs on the tree flickered and cut off, then flickered on again before holding steady.

She clapped her hands. “Will you look at that?”

He stared at it for a long moment before the tension left his shoulders.

“My new house has a workshop in the basement,” he said. “I can use Epoxy to put it back together. And I can paint over the seam. It’ll never be perfect, but only the two of us will know that.”

Our secret, she thought. “That’s a lot of work John.”

“That’s okay,” He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You can add it to my list of projects. All the things you need done.”

She frowned. “John, you really don’t need – .”

“Part of the deal. Red wants me here as much as I want to be here. Watching over you. Oh and by the way Cranky – .”

“Oh stop it.” She rolled her eyes, now glazed with tears.

“Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you too, she thought.

“We should play some cards,” he said. “Hearts or Texas Hold ‘Em – your choice.”

There was a drawer in the table that held the tree. She opened it slowly and carefully, and pulled out the deck she kept handy for Solitaire on her days alone.

“Or a little Rummy,” she said. “Just to pass the time.”

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