“Okay, so let me get this straight. You went to Home Depot, bought the biggest tree they had and now you can’t get it down from your car.”
“In a nutshell, yes. That’s what happened.”
“And this is why you called me for? This is your situation.”
Michael certainly had never expected his phone to ring and the caller to be Olivia. At first, he’d debated between answering or just letting it go to voice mail. But whatever hope he still harbored about them had made him pick up. He knew he could’ve refused but as he’d told her, he had been genuinely intrigued that she’d turn to him for help. That and that he’d been looking for a way to bump into her again. Michael just couldn’t get Olivia out of his system that easily.
Yep, I have officially become a pathetic moron.
And could he be blamed for imagining everything except a tree on top of her car as the meaning of her situation? His mind had certainly produced some alternatives as to what Olivia could need him for. Even if it had taken him less than five minutes to get to her house. When needed, a guy’s brain could work at light speed.
“What do you mean? This is what I called you for. What? Where you thinking this was some sort of booty call or something?”
“Aha!” Emilia exclaimed. “See? I told you! You might as well start naming that tree Stella.”
Olivia refused to acknowledge Emilia’s remark and instead turned around to face Michael with an accusing expression.
“Ah, that’s more like it, the Olivia I know and love.”
It was just an expression but saying the word love made something tight like a fist twist in his gut. What was left of his self-preservation instinct was urging him to make up some excuse and leave. Only that his legs seemed to have a mind of their own. Michael moved over to stand next to the car. He spoke without turning to look back at Olivia.
“And no, I wasn’t thinking this was a booty call. You just surprised me, that’s all.”
It took them another twenty minutes before they were dragging the tree up the front steps and through her front door. They carried it into the living room and after dashing for the base her mother had given her the first Christmas she spent in the house – green with red wrought iron legs all around the base- Olivia and Michael lowered the tree. Olivia knelt under the bottom branches to secure the screws that would hold the entire tree up straight.
She’d chosen the spot right across from her living room window, between the sofa and couch. Michael let out a low whistle as he noticed all the boxes with hand decorated crystal balls, lights, ribbons, and all matter of decorations he was sure his mother would kill for.
At his reaction, Emilia said from her spot on the sofa.
“Yeah, and she was afraid there was something wrong with her because she can talk to a dead woman.”
At both their reactions, Olivia thrust her chin up high and said in a defensive manner.
“What, you too think I’m insane for being all Christmassy and such?”
“No, I was just realizing I think I’ve found someone in this town that has more decorations for the house and tree than my own mother, and that is saying something.”
“Yeah, I believe she’d beat you though, she went to get her tree last weekend.”
“I usually get mine right after Thanksgiving, but Tracy’s wedding came up……So, you do this at your own home, too?” She gestured with her hand at her cluttered living room.
Wow, I guess I do have a lot of stuff.
“No, really? It’s like freaking Santa’s workshop in here.” Emilia offered.
“Not as elaborate and creative as you, but Camie inherited the holiday spirit pretty strong. So I predict Jerry and I will be hanging Christmas lights no later than Sunday.”
“Yes, well, Camie did get all the good genes from your side of the family I guess.”
“Just not any from me?”
“No, from you, too. Aside from the eyes, you’re both kind people and I am pretty sure you’d rather do with a small plastic tree and a few lights here and there, but you’ll hang those lights because it makes her happy. And she would make do without them too, if she knew they really annoyed you.”
“They don’t annoy me. But you are right. I would downplay it a little bit. Hey, I think that’s the second or third nicest thing you’ve said to me, Olivia.”
“Sometimes I just can’t help it.”
“Be careful or I might get used to it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The same way she couldn’t help but notice the way both their eyes averted the infamous couch and how Michael was fidgeting on his spot. Definitely time for him to leave.
Only the words that came out of her mouth were not “a thank you, you can go now.” Recalling the way his look had softened at the mention of his mother’s own obsession with the holiday made her ask.
“You want to help me with the rest?”
It took him less than a second to answer.
“Sure, might give you some decorating tips.”
“Ah no, I’m a not an open to suggestions kind of girl, but I do need someone tall to put the star above and you are tall.”
“And hot, mouthwatering and what she means is we both would very much like to see you stretch that fine body of yours.” Emilia hovered next to Michael as he picked up the glittering silver star. “You might want to close your mouth, Olivia. You’re about to drown in your own pool of drool.” Her blue eyes landed on Olivia’s glazed brown stare, as it followed Michael’s lithe movements.
God, Olivia couldn’t stop her body from reacting to him. Since he’d pulled outside her house a while ago, she’d tried very hard not to give in to her knees wobbling beneath her or her heart rate causing her breath to come in short supply. Why did he have this effect on her?
And then there was everything else. His easy-going, beaming personality. When she forgot her unease around him, he made her laugh, he made her happy. She enjoyed sharing bits of her life with him, and right at this minute, it felt so right that he should be here stretching all the way to the top of the tree, putting the final touch to her Christmas tree as if he he’d been meant to, all along.
Maybe they could be friends? Before the whole couch debacle they’d been having a great time at Tracy’s wedding. Talking, laughing, just like two old friends. She just didn’t have to faint every time he directed his gaze at her, or long to feel his lips on hers again.
Clearly they had some similar interests, his outstanding performance during her mini quiz the other day at the museum proved it. It didn’t have to be the scenario Emilia was dead on making happen, but he could prove to be a very valuable and unexpected friend.
God knew she could use a male perspective to decipher Noah’s aversion to marriage. The physical stuff, well, Emilia did have a point. Michael was one hot male specimen and Olivia was sure she wasn’t the only woman taken aback by his looks and his everlasting dose of charm. As long as he kept his hands and those gorgeous lips away from her, they would be fine.
Only problem was: hadn’t she said that already?
They were halfway through putting away empty boxes in a closet down her basement, where they would await the end of the holidays, when Olivia remembered what Michael had said on the phone.
“Where were you headed? You know, before?”
“Walmart or any place with a huge assortment of frozen foods. Camie convinced her dad to take her to the movies and then dinner, despite the fact she is grounded for her part played in me coming here Saturday. But I swear all that girl has to do is bat her eyelashes, pout her mouth and Jerry is toast.”
“He and every other guy she’ll meet.”
“Yeah, not so sure I am ready for that to happen anytime soon. And I am not the father, imagine how Jerry feels.”
“Yeah, it sucks being the only girl in the house.”
“Your dad give you a hard time?”
“Not usually. Whenever I was about to get into trouble I mostly blamed it all on Tracy. But whenever I mentioned a certain boy’s name, dad would go all serious and warn me about the many mental illnesses men are known to suffer, the first one being stupidity. Although, I kind of had that one figured out way before.”
Michael laughed and its sound travelled all the way to her racing heart. It warmed her skin even more than the fire they’d started a few moments ago.
“Anyway, what do you say, as a token of my appreciation, I make you dinner. It is the least I can do, and I have lasagna on tonight’s menu. What do you say?”
Somme inner voice warned him this was definitely not a good idea. Only so far, they’d been getting along just fine. They’d developed an easygoing rhythm. They were both at ease in each other’s company and Michael wanted to take advantage of these moments alone with her. Besides, his original plan had been to get something to eat, get back home and spend the rest of the afternoon watching T.V. or getting ahead on some stuff from work. All of a sudden, the idea of an afternoon alone was the last thing he wanted right now.
“Sure, it beats the hell out of a chicken bake. But you wouldn’t mind if I got something stronger than hot chocolate? Part of my plan was to enjoy said frozen dinner with a beer and some action movie in the living room’s flat screen. The movie I can pass, the beer not so much.”
“There are beers in the fridge. Help yourself.”
Michael left the room and both women followed his exit with their gaze glued to a very attractive part of his anatomy. Again, he wasn’t all bulky in that area that it lost its appeal, but it was good enough to make any hot blooded woman stare.
Emilia confirmed it by sighing.
“God, he’s got such a nice ass.”
Yeah, he does.
Emilia was about to add something else when her whole body froze. She could now remember another thing she absolutely did love about this time of year, the snow. Maybe being dead had heightened her senses but even before she turned over to the window, she knew it would be snowing. It was coming down strong and enough of it had already made the front yard look like a smooth, undisturbed white blanket.
She made to grab Olivia’s hand but stopped before her fingers passed through the other woman’s wrist. Instead, she reached the door and before disappearing through it, the ghost directed her eyes at Olivia and urged her to follow.
“What?” She replied out loud. “Emilia?”
Baffled, Olivia stood still for about two seconds, before the sounds of female laughter reached her ears. Curious, she grabbed her jacket and opened the door. There was her ghost, spinning around in circles with her face facing the black sky, and what looked like a huge grin as she beamed at the snow falling down on them.
“You love your decorations, for me it was always this, the snow. I know people here get sick of it by January but I just…….there’s just no Christmas without it.”
Who knew, was all Olivia could come up with. Her ghost, the same ghost who’d made fun of her earlier was laughing and jumping up and down like a little girl. It made her throat tighten with sadness as she tried not to think that this was yet another thing Emilia would never enjoy, ever again.
She joined Emilia and soon both women were screaming and playing in the snow. Well, Emilia only instructed Olivia on how a snow angel was made. Even if she couldn’t feel it in her hands as the snowflakes falling passed through her open hands, the ghost felt exhilarated, happy.
Olivia was on her third angel. Her back on the snow, with her arms spread away from her body and moving up and down, while her legs opened and closed simultaneously.
“Sam never did this with me.”
Olivia abruptly stopped moving her arms and legs. The ghost rarely mentioned the man who used to be her boyfriend. Aside from sharing that they had the same marriage issues as Olivia and Noah, the history teacher knew next to nothing about Emilia’s relationship with Sam. There was longing as well as reproach accompanying her words.
“Why?” Olivia sat up and hugged her knees tight against her chest.
Emilia decided to join Olivia down on the snowed ground. She felt the memory of a shiver shake her lightly, as flashes of those times when she would beg Sam to take her skiing or when she would take long walks in the snow alone invaded her mind.
“He didn’t like it. Sam loved soccer, so for him the snow meant no more games until spring. He hated playing indoor soccer so this weather was just a nuisance, keeping him from his sport. Sam was kind of obsessed with soccer.”
“So once the World Cup began you became a soccer widow?”
“Pretty much. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him for that, too. And I know it made him happy. It’s just, at times I felt I was always second place, you know? Maybe why he really didn’t want to marry me in the first place.”
As soon as those words were out, Emilia regretted sharing them with Olivia. Especially because it was something she had just come to realize and not only did it hurt her but she felt vulnerable, more than she already felt as she’d wistfully witnessed Olivia leaving her mark on the snow. In a second, she was standing far away, rubbing her pale arms with her hands and avoiding Olivia’s caring gaze.
“Then he didn’t deserve you Emilia.”
Michael wondered who was Olivia talking to. He’d just come from grabbing a beer from the kitchen when he noticed the front door ajar. Pushing it gently with his hand, he saw Olivia sitting by herself on the snowed front lawn. The name Emilia traveled all the way to where he was standing. She said the name with such longing, Michael knew this person somehow made Olivia sad.
Instead of going to her like he wanted, he stayed where he was, until a few minutes later she noticed him as she stood up to dust off the snow from the bottom of her jeans.
“How long have you been standing there?” Olivia narrowed her eyes at him.
“Just got here. The door was half-open. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I just noticed the snow and thought I take advantage of it.” Michael followed her hand to the snow angels adorning her front lawn.
Almost as if she could see something he couldn’t, Olivia turned away from him to stare at a spot a few inches away from her. He didn’t realize what he was doing until he had a perfectly formed snowball in his hand. It took Michael a moment to make his move. Without applying too much force, he threw the ball at Olivia’s back and watched as her entire body tensed up.
Slowly, she turned around to face him. Bafflement, shock but also the glint of challenge met his unwavering stare.
“Did you just……”
Emilia’s nostalgic moment was long forgotten and she was doubled over with laughter at her friend’s astonished face. Being the woman that she was, Emilia was sure Olivia had never encountered a man like Michael. So unpredictable yet someone she could count on to make the blue mood around them or her, because he couldn’t see Emilia, dissipate with a simple snowball.
“I thought you said you were enjoying the snow.”
“I am. But that was a cheap shot. Anyway, we should head back inside.”
Just as Michael’s back was to her, Olivia bent down and made an even bigger snowball and with perfect aim, hit Michael right between the shoulder blades.
A look at his oh-you-don’t-know-what-you-got-yourself-into fulminating stare, and Olivia squealed and rushed down to duck behind a tree just as another snowball exploded on the tree’s bark.
Despite her being invisible, Emilia followed Olivia as she went from tree to tree while snowballs flew around them. Both women were screaming and chortling as in a way, this game was two against one.
Emilia had a way of predicting where Michael’s next attack was headed, so Olivia always had enough time to evade his white snow bullets.
They went at each other for over an hour before Michael declared defeat. With his hands held in front of his face in surrender, he watched as Olivia came to him and without even noticing it, hooked one arm around her shoulders as they entered the house. Emilia was the last to come inside, and headed straight for the basement.
Michael was freezing and so was Olivia. He thought about going back home to change and then come back to have dinner but the history teacher came up with a better plan. He followed her upstairs where she came out of the bathroom holding one big terry cloth robe and urged him to change into it, while she threw their clothes in the drier down in the basement.
There was a moment of awkwardness when she handed him the robe. They just stood there, avoiding eye contact, until finally Michael took the robe and headed for the bathroom to change. When he came out, Olivia was waiting for him outside, holding her wet clothes and wearing a pair of sweats, an oversized sweatshirt, with her feet bare. Her face was still flushed from the fight and some strands of rich chestnut brown hair caressed the side of her face.
“I’ll be right back. There’s still some hot chocolate in the kitchen or if you want to grab another beer.” The one he had been drinking had ended on the floor when one of Olivia’s snowballs caused him to drop it.
Then, she fled away from him.