Author's Note: This is a sequel to "Second Billing,"
Stevie was watching, his nose almost pressed against the glass of the front window, trying to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus in the early darkness and blowing snow. In spite of myself, I smiled. He'd already had two false alarms--one from the lights of a passing airplane, the other from the red, blinking light on the top of a microwave tower that was up on the mountain every night, but tonight must be Rudolph, leading the way through the storm.
I sat back on the couch, cool beer in my hand, and tried to clear my head. It was the first Christmas Eve in many years that I wasn't freezing in a patrol car. I handed in my badge and gun this summer to join my brother-in-law Jack's security firm, growing in leaps and bounds after the World Trade Center attack. When he first suggested it, I didn't even consider it seriously. I was a cop. That's what I wanted to be from before I was even Stevie's age.
Jack is one of those hyperkinetic business types who doesn't take "no" for an answer. He kept at me for a good three months before I finally caved in. He was smart about it. Had he just talked about the money, I probably never would have come over. Instead, he talked about what I could do for Stevie with the money. One night, listening to the radio chatter about a stabbing at the high school that Stevie would have attended, I made the decision. It turned out to be surprisingly easy.
I don't mean to paint Jack too cynically. He loves Stevie. Violet's whole family does. In a very real way, he's all they have left of her. By extension, they've adopted me. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I'm actually grateful for snow on Christmas Eve. It gave me the perfect excuse to avoid going to his grandmother's house tomorrow.
In addition to hiring me, helping me find a house with a big yard in a good school district, and spoiling my son rotten, Jack has also taken it upon himself to get me married again. In the six months that I've lived here, I've gone on four dates. They were all set up by Jack. Had I wanted to go out with a different woman every weekend, I suspect Jack could have arranged it. He seemed to know an endless string of the sort of women I might want my sister's widower to date if I were in Jack's place. Sweet, serious, and empathetic, the four I had gone out with just didn't spur any romantic interest. It's not that I don't find those characteristics appealing or even necessary. Violet had them in spades. They were all very nice girls. That was part of the problem. For all of her sweet, serious, empathy, I knew better than to think of her as a nice girl.
I was lost in reminiscence, not really hearing the news on TV when Stevie piped up, "Daddy, there's a car outside." Before I could question whether he meant my car, headlights scanned past the window, searching across the back wall of the living room.
Figuring that it was probably Jack or one of Stevie's other relatives, I flipped on the porch light so that they could see their way up the path. The white BMW pulling into my driveway didn't belong to any of them as far as I knew. And, I didn't immediately recognize the woman getting out of it either.
Stevie recognized her before I did, "It's Noelle."
I started to shake my head. Noelle lived next door to my old house, ninety minutes away. Besides that, Noelle was seventeen. This woman was older, more poised.
I blinked and looked again. It was Noelle, impossible as that might seem. Striding up the path, stylish tan trench coat blowing out behind her, sunglasses pushed back onto her head, she'd lost most of her coltishness. If Stevie hadn't recognized her immediately, I don't know when I would have recognized her.
If the doorbell hadn't finally broke the spell, I might have spent a long time staring out of the picture window, trying to figure out why she was there and afraid that I already knew. As it was, I jumped up as if shocked, almost tripping over Stevie who had already run over and was leveraging the door out of its frame with all of his weight.
So, I was standing behind Stevie when he opened the door. Still standing half outside, she crouched down to accept his fervent hug. Unquestioning, Stevie called out her name and hugged her in that intense, un-self conscious way that only children can. Noelle rose, still in the clutch, and looked me in the eyes.
"Hi, Mike," she said. "I hope you don't mind me dropping in like this."
I was troubled and concerned by her dropping in like this, but standing in the doorway, letting the wind in, holding my son didn't put her in an ideal position to be argued with. So, I said, "No. It's good to see you." It was the truth anyway. "Please, come in."
She did, carrying Stevie back to the couch and depositing him there. Once he released his grip, she turned to me, arms open a little. Once I indicated willingness, she hugged me, clinging firmly to my chest as if emulating Stevie.
"Is everything all right?" I asked, hugging her back gently.
She nodded against me, "I just missed you two. I haven't seen you since summer."
"So, you drove all the way down here in a blizzard?" I asked, trying to show only a little bit of concern in my voice so as not to worry Stevie.
Noelle released me, "It's not really a blizzard yet. I took care while driving."
I looked past her out the window, "You'll never be able to make it back tonight."
Noelle nodded, making eye contact in a way that left little doubt as to what she was saying, "I know. I brought clothes."
So, there it was. She was staying the night, one way or another. I could see the determined set of her shoulders and jaw.
"Can I get you something to eat?" I asked. "Stevie's grandmother sent over enough food to feed about ten people for Christmas."
"Steven," announced Stevie.
"What?" I asked.
"My name is Steven. Stevie is a baby name." He looked defiant.
I'd never wanted to call him Stevie in the beginning. Violet had started it. Steven looked like he was angling for a fight, so I said, "Excuse me. Steven's grandmother sent over a ton of food. Would you like to look in the refrigerator for something to eat? I'm still a master of the microwave."
Noelle smoothed a strand of hair back behind her ear, laughter dancing in her eyes, "Thank you. I haven't eaten since breakfast. That would be great. Is there somewhere I can put my coat?"
I took Noelle's coat. Underneath, she wore an ankle-length black skirt and an off-white, v-neck sweater. It was the sort of outfit that would have looked right with pearls, but as the only sop to her youth, she wore a black ribbon choker with an antique cameo across the hollow of her throat.
"You look pretty," announced Steven.
"Why, thank you, Steven," said Noelle immediately. "You're quite the handsome young gentleman yourself this evening."
Steven looked down at himself, "These are my pajamas. My Uncle Jack got them for me."
Noelle nodded gravely, "Obviously, your Uncle Jack is a man of excellent taste. Can you show me where the kitchen is, Steven?"
I smiled to myself outside of their vision. Noelle was looking directly at the kitchen when she asked. While they rifled through the refrigerator and I hung Noelle's coat up, I let myself think about why Noelle was here. My urge was to discount the most immediate answer, but none of the others made any sense.
Two years ago, the night she had turned sixteen, Noelle had kissed me and told me that she loved me. I told her that she was too young for me and left it at that. Since then, I only brought up the subject once and got back the less-than-reassuring, "Don't worry, Mike. It was much too soon. I should have known better."
Noelle would turn eighteen tonight. She once told me that her mother deliberately held off on giving birth so that she would be a Christmas baby, born shortly after midnight.
Had she decided that her eighteenth birthday was late enough to try again, then driven ninety minutes in the snow to do so? I thought I knew Noelle well enough to see it as the sort of thing she was capable of. Most of the time, Noelle was quiet and agreeable, not at all like a teenager. In most things, she was easygoing. But, when she wanted something, she could probably give Jack a run for his money on tenacity.
Since that night, I hadn't really allowed myself to think about what I wanted out of the situation. The truth was that I had come dangerously close to taking Noelle up on her offer when she was sixteen. For a few long seconds, I had considered it. Since then, I have always been ashamed of that moment of weakness. No matter what I told myself, it all sounded like excuses.
True, Noelle never behaved like a child. From the first day that Violet spoke to her, when she was nine or ten years old, she'd had an unshakeable earnestness. At first, it was born of shyness. As Violet took Noelle under her wing, as a sort of protege, it became more a genuine matter of poise and grace.
Violet never treated Noelle like a child. As a result, neither did I. As time went by, I saw Noelle take on many of Violet's mannerisms. After the accident, she could take my breath away with a careless gesture.
Steven loved her, too. Best of all, it wasn't the way he loved his grandmother or Uncle Jack, who he could wrap around his little finger as soon as look at them. Noelle knew how to handle him, somehow making him look forward to doing all of the things that were a struggle with other babysitters. And, she loved Steven. As Violet had done with her, Noelle never talked down to Steven, but treated him as an equal.
.... There is more of this story ...