The big blue boat of a car that Tam drove – some all-steel Detroit monster – was in the drive when Mike pulled in at the townhouse. Delta sighed before she could stop herself and Mike shot her a glance through the shadowed interior of the car as he put it in park.
Still rattled from dinner, she didn’t have the grace to keep quiet. “He’s here all the time. It’s Christmas, Mike. Doesn’t he have a family to spend it with?”
Mike sighed too, and in the silence that descended after he killed the engine, Delta felt the first traces of friction between them. All through dinner, he’d been completely supportive, but Tam, she realized, was going to be the tipping point. “You have a family,” he countered, “and you’re here.”
It shouldn’t have, but it stung. “You met them,” she said, lifting her chin, “do you blame me?”
His snort was humorless. “If you met his family, you wouldn’t blame him either.” He popped his door and stepped out, evidence that he was done with this line of conversation.
As he came around to let her out, Delta couldn’t help but be disappointed. She’d wanted it to be just the two of them, quiet and content with this new rhythm they were settling into together. A glass of wine and one of his borrowed t-shirts and her bare feet tucked between the couch cushions in front of White Christmas. Tam would ruin that.
Her door opened and Mike’s hand was held out for hers. She let him help her to her feet, not because she needed it, but because it was nice. “There’s a lotta stuff up for negotiation with me,” he said, stepping into her and pressing her back against the car, her hand still in his. He wasn’t smiling – his expression, lit by the streetlamp, was one of total seriousness – but his eyes were soft. “But not Tam, okay? The guy’s life is total shit and he doesn’t have anyone else.”
He has your sister. Had, at least, she thought as he reached to pull a lock of her hair between his fingers. But she didn’t say it. “Okay,” she nodded. She guessed, of all the things for him to ask, this wasn’t too large a sacrifice.
Inside, Tam was in front of the couch in black pants and a cheap, paper-thin oxford like he’d come from work, wherever that was. His shirttail was pulled out and he looked almost asleep the way he was propped up against the arm of the sofa. His head lifted, though, when they entered. Delta felt the touch of his blue eyes and watched him scowl.
Like she’d thought before: it was a shame he wasn’t still with Jo. They could have been nasty little shits together.
“Hey, man,” Mike greeted him. “How’s Melinda?”
“Sleeping,” Tam’s answer was wary, his eyes still wanting to watch her. Whoever Melinda was, he didn’t want to talk about her in front of Delta. “She’s alright.”
Delta slipped away into the kitchen to give them a minute. She found a new bottle of Chardonnay that had undoubtedly been bought for her, uncorked it and poured herself a glass and pulled a beer out of the fridge for Mike. When she returned, Mike was on the loveseat across the table and had his friend smiling about something. He should have smiled more – it was bright white and sharp and unlike his sulky frown, nice to look at.
“What are we watching?” she asked as she toed off her pumps and settled into the corner of space between the loveseat’s arm and Mike’s shoulder. She passed him his beer and hooked her legs over his knee, marveling inwardly at how casual she was with him.
“Predator,” Mike said happily. “This is the good part.” And apparently the good part was Schwarzenegger squaring off with some kind of alien who needed a serious makeover.
She didn’t complain, though, because it was Christmas and because, for that reason, she would cut Tam some slack and let them be boys and friends. She snuggled down deep into her corner, rested her head against the back of the sofa and closed her eyes. Just for a second, she told herself, but she set her wine on the end table just in case.
It was longer than a second, though, because suddenly there were hands sliding behind her knees and shoulders and she came awake to realize that Mike was picking her up.
“I can walk,” she protested, dashing a hand across the film of sleep in her eyes.
“I was gonna be all chivalrous and carry you,” he said, his voice caught somewhere between joking and serious.
Her cheek was against the soft, rumpled front of his shirt and he felt strong and solid around her, still smelling faintly of cologne. She’d called him a caveman before, and he was, but she was beginning to realize that wasn’t a bad thing. She liked that he was big and strong and wanted to carry her places – she’d never had that – but she didn’t want to become too dependent on it.
“I can walk,” she said, “my foot’s asleep,” which wasn’t a lie, “I need to walk it off.”
He let her legs slide down the front of his, and held an arm around her waist until she’d proved that she could in fact stand upright on her own. He was still being overprotective, and it was ridiculous, but comforting all the same.
Delta adjusted her dress and glanced around the living room, trying to figure out how long she’d been asleep. The TV was off and the night beyond the big picture window was black velvet studded with pinpricks of light from the Atlanta skyline. Tam was asleep on the couch, snoring softly. He was probably only Mike’s age, but even in sleep, the stress lines on his face were deep, those of a much older man. The red sneakers he’d toed off were at the base of the couch and Delta saw now that the soles were about to come peeling off of them. Mike had spread the decorative gray chenille throw over him, but he still looked awkward and cold.
“He’ll probably be gone in the morning,” Mike whispered right against her ear, his lips against her skin.
If that was supposed to relieve her mind, it didn’t. She felt a small tug of sadness; she believed people were the masters of their own misfortune, but every once in a while, she was forced to realize that sometimes, fate or God or something threw a wrench into things for some poor bastard. Maybe that was Tam. Maybe he didn’t want to be a miserable ass. Maybe Mike Walker was the best kind of friend.
“What time is it?” she asked in the quietest whisper.
“Just after midnight.”
But it felt like four in the morning. Underweight and more than a little bit hungry, she was exhausted. She didn’t protest when Mike led her upstairs, but wondered how adamant he was about the stupid “stuffing her stocking” joke he’d made earlier. She was feeling better than she had two nights ago, but she wasn’t feeling sex better, and she hated that because he’d more than earned some this week.
He dropped her hand after he’d closed them into the master bedroom and went over to his dresser. “Check this out.” He knelt to plug an extension cord into a wall socket. There was a twelve inch artificial Christmas tree on top of his dresser, and its colored lights came on with a sudden burst. As small as it was, he’d managed to hang strips of silver tinsel,candy canes, colored glass balls and balanced a silver star on top.
“I don’t have ornaments for a full-size tree,” he explained, and rubbed the back of his neck as he stepped away, like suddenly he was rethinking how impressive his little tree was. “And I just…I dunno. I thought we weren’t doing Christmas, but then…”
“It’s cute,” she said, smiling, and he shot her a glance like he didn’t think cute was a compliment. “Cute in a good way,” she assured. “I like it.”
He watched her a moment, almost smiling. “You’re cold?” he asked, and she realized her arms were wrapped around her middle.
He pulled out a drawer and dug out sweats. “You want something else to wear?”
“I would have brought a change of clothes if I’d known…” she let it hang, not wanting him to think she was unhappy he’d brought her to his house instead of hers.
“That’s cool.” He came and put a clean white t-shirt and a new, crisp, bright pair of red boxers into her hands.
“Thanks.” Delta curled her fingers in the fabric and stared up at him. She had an emotional knot in her chest all of a sudden and she wished she felt better because she really wanted to ease down the straps of her dress and reach for the buttons of his shirt. Instead, she clutched his clothes, took a deep, shaky breath and fought the pull of sleep. “You might not want to hear this,” she said, “because I think most guys don’t want to.” His eyebrows went curious. “But you are…sweet. And trust me that sweet is a rare and a good thing, Mike. I didn’t expect it.”
He cupped the side of her face in his big palm and leaned down to press a kiss to her lips that had no intentions of going any further. “You still don’t feel good,” he said when he pulled back, a half-smile curling one corner of his mouth. “It’s making you say crazy shit.”
Delta rolled her eyes. He could deny it if he wanted, but he proved her point as he watched her change into his t-shirt and shorts, and let her go to sleep tucked against him without pressing for more.
Tam had always watched Christmas steal over the world like he was watching it on TV, like he was a scientist observing strange native customs, always through a frosted pane of glass, on the outside in the cold, never inside where it was warm and everything was bright lights and unending joy. He didn’t hate others for loving it, didn’t want to strip away what they had, but eventually, his childhood yearnings and curiosities had given way to a familiar sort of melancholy. He’d made peace with the idea that Christmas was just another day, another opportunity for the world to show him how much he was missing in his own private world of doctor visits, IV drips, black eyes and penny pinching.
He’d had every intention of going back to the apartment to check on his mom, but had somehow fallen asleep on Mike’s couch instead. He woke with a start as first light touched his face, and his body reminded him that he’d slept at an awkward angle on a narrow sofa and that he was still in his clothes and was too cold and unrested. Mike had thrown a blanket over him like some sort of gigantic mother hen, and he flipped it off, forced himself upright while his head was still spinning.
He sat braced on his hands, staring at the gray dawn on the other side of the picture window through the fallen spikes of his hair. He felt guilty as all hell for not making it home. And he hated the idea of going there in a way so intense it made his teeth ache.
Slowly, he realized he smelled food. Something warm and sweet. He put his socked feet on the floor and swiveled his head toward the kitchen. Through the open top of the wall, he saw Mike’s picture-snooping, snotty bitch standing in front of the stove, wearing one of Mike’s shirts that swallowed her up. She’d never mentioned the pictures in front of him, nor had she told Mike, apparently, but he lived with a low-grade anxiety that she would.
As he watched, her gaze lifted and landed on him. Her expression was smooth and calm as glass, her pale skin and dark hair striking in a way that he didn’t find appealing. “I’m making breakfast. You hungry?”
His stomach doubled over on itself and growled. “Guess so.”
“Mike’s been stocking his fridge better, so I’m making cinnamon rolls and fried ham. Can you eat that?”
He wanted to ask how such a spoiled little rich girl knew anything about cooking, but said, “Yeah,” instead.
He started to get to his feet, but she was still looking at him, intently. “I met her,” she finally said. “’Joey 2003’. I met her at Thanksgiving.”
Tam blinked, throat suddenly tight. He kept his face neutral even as his pulse leapt to attention. “So?”
“So…Mike takes good care of you. I don’t think you should lie to him about his sister.”
He scowled. “’Takes care of me’? Look, you don’t know -,”
“No,” she cut him off without raising her voice, eyes dropping to the skillet as she draped a thick slice of ham inside it. “I don’t know. But I’m starting to think I know Mike pretty well. And he deserves for you to be honest with him.”
“You know what,” Tam got to his feet in a rush, not sure how he was going to get away with telling her off and keeping in Mike’s good graces. She didn’t give him a chance to figure it out.
“Oh, sit back down,” she snapped, frowning at the ham. “I’m trying to give you some advice, but apparently it was a waste. Sulk all you want, but at least eat. You’re too damn skinny.”
Tam stood, forming and rejecting at least two dozen retorts, until Mike came downstairs and into the kitchen. Then he did sit, and waited, and tried not to listen to whatever gooey shit they were saying to each other. And then breakfast was served.
He hated to draw the connection, but all he could think as Delta set a plate in front of him, was that it had been almost four years since he’d had a Christmas meal with the Walkers. He didn’t know if that knowledge left him nostalgic, or horrified that he was looking at the future Mrs. Walker.