Chapter Six

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After my shift on Tuesday, I drive back into Belden with every intention of going home and addressing Christmas cards with Mom. But when I pull into the driveway and shut off my car, I find Mom and Dad outside. Dad's balanced on the ladder, fixing lights to the edge of the roof of the porch, we we already decorated. Mom holds the ladder steady.

"Everything okay?" I ask, walking over to join them.

"Some of them fell," Mom says. "Just putting lights back in place."

"Oh."

I don't have the heart to tell Dad that the lights are a little uneven as he puts the last ones in place. Oh well. It'll add character.

"Are we still doing the cards today?"

Mom nods. "I'm almost done with my half, if you want to go ahead and start yours. The list is on the table."

"Can do."

I go inside and leave my purse and coat in my room, kick off my shoes, and go down to the kitchen. I pour a glass of orange juice before settling at the table with a green pen.

We don't send out very many cards. Usually just to people at church, family, and a few close friends. I grab my first card and add our names and a flourished Merry Christmas from the Wiltons! to the inside. I address the envelope to Merritt and Nash, seal the card inside, and add it to the stack of finished cards on the table.

I haven't spoken to them since Sunday night in the parking lot, so I need to make sure that tomorrow's plans are still okay. The only trees I've ever helped decorate aside from our own were my grandparents'. It seems kind of strange to have an invitation to help someone who is still mostly an acquaintance.

The front door squeaks open and Mom steps into the living room. "We're going to run out and grab something for supper. Need anything?"

"No, I'm good."

"Okay. We'll be back in a few minutes."

"Be careful."

The door squeaks again as it closes, followed by the sounds of the knob turning as she checks the lock.

In ten minutes, I've addressed nearly half of my cards. Some to Dad's family, some to Mom's. She usually handles the ones for church and work friends. The house is too quiet though, with just the sound of the pen scratching against paper.

I step into the living room and turn on the TV, then scroll through until I find a Christmas movie title that catches my eye.

Much better.

A silhouette moves just outside the living room window, blurred by the sheer gray curtains. Two seconds later, someone knocks on the door.

It's Nash.

"Hey! What are you doing here?"

"Hey, Lydia." I'm a step up from "toy store lady," I guess. "I brought you something."

"Where's Merritt?"

He glances in the direction of the curve. "He's at home. He said I could walk up here since he was outside and could see me."

"Oh. Okay."

He hands me a little square wrapped in printer paper, but covered in hand-drawn Christmas trees.

I unwrap it carefully. It's a foam photo frame with star stickers on the edges, with a drawing of a dog inside. "Thanks, Nash. Did you make this?"

He nods, smiling wide enough to show the gap where one of his lower front teeth is missing. "We were supposed to make something to take home at school today, so I made you an ornament since you gave me one. Do you like it?"

"I love it. Do you want to help me find a spot for it on the tree?"

He hesitates, scuffing the toe of one shoe against the porch floor.

"I'll ask Merritt if it's okay." A text later and Merritt responds that it is.

After we choose a spot in the middle of the tree, I snap a picture of Nash standing beside it. I send the wide-smiled snapshot to Merritt. Everyone needs a happy picture of their loves ones at Christmas, don't they?

"I'll walk home with you." I grab my coat and keys and double-check the locks. "Are you excited about tomorrow?"

"Merritt says we're getting a real tree this year."

"Cool."

It's not yet dark enough for the neighbors' outdoor lights to be on, so the shaped wire frames look like green and white skeletons in the yards—reindeer, elves, snowmen, trees. It's much more charming at night, but a little bit eerie sometimes in the daylight.

Merritt waves to us from inside the garage. A couple of cardboard boxes wait just outside the open door, held together by duct tape. Bold Sharpie letters indicate that one holds lights and another ornaments.

"Need some help?"

"Uh...I think I have it under control." He moves boxes on a metal shelf to better see the labeling on the sides. "Just looking for the last box."

He finally chooses one and sets it with the other two, and turns to close the garage door.

"So what time do you want me to come over tomorrow?"

Before Merritt can answer, Nash offers, "You could help us pick out the tree."

Not the reply I was looking for. "You should probably find out if it's okay with your brother first?"

He's quick to ask Merritt the question, which gets a shrug in reply. "If you want," he says to me. "You don't have to. I know it's time-consuming."

"I'm off work early tomorrow, so it shouldn't be a problem." I lean back against the front of the pickup and shove my hands into my coat pockets. "What time works for you?"

"I work until three tomorrow, so how about four?"

"Sounds good.

"But if you don't want to go, you don't have to."

"I'd love to go." I could even bring over some cookies or something to eat while we decorate, but before I can offer, Merritt's phone chimes. "I should be getting home. See you guys tomorrow."

"See you later," Merrit says, sliding his thumb across the screen.

Nash walks with me to the edge of the driveway. "See you tomorrow, Lydia."

"See you tomorrow, Nash."

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