“You’re starting to get fat again.”
Nico shoveled another bite of pumpkin pie into his mouth and looked out the window over his wife’s shoulder. The sky was streaks of red and purple and blue.
The sun would be gone in the next fifteen minutes.
“Uh-huh.” Nico shifted in his chair. It popped and groaned in protest.
“Are you even listening to me?” Jessica barked.
“Oh, sorry, dear.” Nico smiled and leveled his twinkling blue eyes at his wife. “I think you’re right. I just can’t resist you’re scrumptious cooking!”
He scarfed a spoonful of mashed potatoes and washed it down with a gulp of egg nog.
At the other end of the table, Jessica’s face softened, and the corners of her mouth twitched upward, just a notch. Nico had always been a silver-tongued devil, and he knew just how to tweak his wife’s heartstrings.
“Don’t blame me for your overindulgence,” she grumbled, but Nico could tell he’d hit home. Jessie loved for people to make over her cooking.
“Oh, honey,” Nico said, loading a fork with ham. “You know I’ll take it off in the new year. I always do.”
“Yes, it’s very peculiar. You chub up every December and then by February, you’re skinny as a rail. It’s not normal.”
Nico waved a thick hand, dismissing his wife’s concern. “Aw, it’s just the Christmas spirit. Have to drink it all in while we can!”
“Eat it all in is more like it,” Jessica said.
Nico peaked out the window again.
Off in the distance, a pale red light splashed over the snow-covered hills, and Nico’s heart stuttered. The team would be there any minute!
“Eat, drink … point is, Christmas comes just once a year, so why not enjoy all of it!” Nico cleared his throat. “And speaking of Christmas …”
Jessica followed his gaze and turned to look toward the window behind her, but Nico popped out of his chair and clasped her hand in his. She jumped and gasped, snapping her head back toward her husband.
“And speaking of Christmas,” he repeated, “it’s almost sundown. Don’t you think we’d better hit the hay? We have church service in the morning and then there’s the town parade in the afternoon.”
He glanced out the window again, and Jessica caught him in the act.
“Are you hiding something, Nico?” She squinted and studied his face.
“What? Me?” Nico felt his cheeks flush, and a bead of sweat popped to life on his forehead. “No, dear, of course not.” He could see movement from the corner of his eye.
Something flashed in front of the window.
And then another something.
The backyard was bathed in red now, and steam rolled past the window as shadows danced on the snow.
“I just want us to be, uh, well rested. for the festivities” Nico tugged at his collar, trying to cool down. Trying to breathe.
Jessica pursed her lips.
“You’ve been acting weird all fall, Nico,” she said. “Staying out ’til all hours of the night. Eating everything in sight. And you’re always fiddling with that darn cell phone!”
Nico stood and backed away from the table. He put his hands on his hips and leaned backward, darting his eyes to the window again as he stretched.
Jessica sighed. She had caught him again.
“Let me see your phone,” she said flatly.
“What?” Nico’s face was on fire now.
“I want to see your phone. Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? After all, you’re not hiding anything.” She cocked her head to the side. Raised her eyebrows. Held out her hand.
Nico hated cell phones. Life had been so much less complicated when everyone wasn’t so connected all the time. But the team and the boys in the shop — and his wife– all had phones, and it was really the only way to get in touch with them these days.
Nico answered Jessica with his own sigh and fished the cell phone from his left pants pocket. He handed it over.
“There’s nothing there.”
“We’ll see,” she said and started poking at the screen.
Sunlight was fading fast, and the red glow from the backyard was growing brighter by the second. Nico’s stomach roiled, and it wasn’t because of his latest feast.
He was going to be late, and that just wouldn’t do.
“Are you satisfied?” he asked Jessica.
She held up one finger and continued scrolling with another. “Just a minute,” she said.
The burner phone in Nico’s right pants pocket vibrated against his leg.
Rudy was getting impatient. No doubt the rest of the crew was, too. If Nico didn’t get things wrapped up with Jessica soon, they might leave without him.
“Uh, that battery might be running low, hon,” he said, wiggling sausage fingers toward his phone.
Jessica shook her head and dropped her shoulders. She puffed out her cheeks and looked at her husband with tired eyes.
“Here,” she said, pushing the phone across the table toward him. “I’m sorry, Nicky. I don’t know what got into me.”
“Christmas is stressful, that’s all,” Nico said as he retrieved his phone and dropped it back into his pocket.
The burner buzzed again in his other pocket.
Jessica stood up and yawned.
“I guess so.” She stretched. “And I am sorta tired.”
Nico nodded. “You go on up to bed. I’ll clear these dishes, and then I’ll be right up, too.”
Jessica smiled. “Well … thank you! I’ll take you up on that.” Then she wagged a teasing finger at her husband. “But don’t you dare keep eating, Nico! Just because you’re playing Santa in the parade tomorrow doesn’t mean you need to grow his waistline”
“I’m all done.” Nico patted his belly, blew out his cheeks, and popped his eyes open wide. “Couldn’t eat another bite!”
Jessica nodded and turned toward the stairs. Nico tiptoed toward the back door.
Just as Jessica stepped on the creaky board of the landing halfway up the stairs, a sharp rap popped against a windowpane.
“Hey,” Jessica called from up above, and Nico stopped in his tracks. Had she heard the knock?
“Yes?” he answered.
“I was just wondering — do you think the real Mrs. Claus knows what Santa is up to all the time?” She giggled a little. She hadn’t heard the knock, after all.
Nico thought about all those cartoons and ads showing Mrs. Claus as a happy, willing accomplice to Santa’s yearly escapades. Nico giggled a little, too.
Silly little stories.
Red light filled the kitchen now, and Nico could see antlers wagging back and forth outside the door, dancing with impatience.
“Of course she does, sweetie” Nico called to his wife. “I hear that reindeer can’t keep a secret to save their lives.”
Jessica’s giggles trailed off up the stairs.
Nico waited until he heard the soft whisper of bed springs, then busted out into the snowy night.
His belly growled, and he wondered what type of cookies would be first on the menu.