What really caught my eye, though, was what was sitting on top of the piano. It was much smaller, much less technically complex than ours, but it was a Flobie Santa Village nonetheless, framed with a little barrier of garland.
“You must know what these are,” Stuart said, coming down the stairs with a massive load of blankets and pillows, which he dumped on the sofa.
I did, of course. They had five pieces—the Merry Men Café, the gumdrop shop, Festive Frank’s Supply Store, the Elfateria, and the ice-cream parlor.
“I guess you guys have more of these than we do,” he said.
“We have fifty-six pieces.”
He whistled in appreciation, and reached over to switch on the power. Unlike us, they didn’t have a fancy system for switching all the houses on at once. He had to turn the dimmer dial on each one, clicking it to life.
“My mom thinks they’re worth something,” he said. “She treats them like they’re the precious.”
“They all think that,” I said sympathetically.
I looked the pieces over with an expert eye. I don’t usually advertise the fact, but I actually know a lot about the Flobie Santa Village, for obvious reasons. I could hold my own at any dealer’s show.
“Well,” I said, pointing at the Merry Men Café, “this one is kind of worth something. See how it’s brick, with green around the windows? This is a first-generation piece. In the second year, they made the windowsills black.”
I picked it up carefully and checked the bottom.
“It’s not a numbered piece,” I said, examining the base. “But still . . . any first-generation piece with a noticeable difference is good. And they retired the Merry Men Café five years ago, so that makes it worth a bit more. This would go for about four hundred dollars, except that it looks like your chimney was broken off and glued back on.”
“Oh, yeah. My sister did that.”
“You have a sister?”
“Rachel,” Stuart said. “She’s five. Don’t worry. You’ll meet her. And that was kind of amazing.”
“I don’t think amazing is the right word for that. Maybe sad.”
He switched all the houses back off.
“Who plays the piano?” I asked.
“Me. It’s my talent. I guess we all have one.”
Stuart made a kind of ridiculous face, which made me laugh.
“You shouldn’t dismiss it,” I said. “Schools love people who have musical skills.”
God, I sounded so . . . well, so like one of those people who do things only because they think it will make colleges like them. I was shocked when I realized that was a Noah quote. I had never thought of it as being so obnoxious before.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just tired.”
He waved this away, as if it required no explanation or apology.
“So do mothers,” he said. “And neighbors. I’m sort of the performing monkey of the subdivision. Luckily, I also like to play, so it works out. So . . . the sheets and pillows are for you, and . . . ”
“I’m fine,” I said. “This is great. It’s really nice of you to let me stay.”
“Like I said, it’s no problem.”
He turned to go but stopped halfway up the stairs.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry if I was kind of a dick earlier, when we were walking. It was just . . . ”
“Walking in the storm,” I said. “I know. It was cold; we were grouchy. Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry, too. And thanks.”
He looked like he was about to say something else but simply nodded and started back up the stairs. I heard him reach the top, then back down a few. He peered through the top rails.
“Merry Christmas,” he added, before disappearing.
This is when it really hit me. My eyes filled up. I missed my family. I missed Noah. I missed home. These people had done all they could, but they weren’t my family. Stuart wasn’t my boyfriend. I lay there for a long time, twisting on the sofa, listening to a dog snoring somewhere upstairs (I think it was the dog), watching two hours burn away on the very loud ticky-ticky clock.
I simply couldn’t stand it.
My phone was in my coat pocket, so I went searching for where my clothes had been stashed. I found them in the laundry room. The coat had been hung up over a heating vent. Apparently, my phone hadn’t liked being completely submerged in cold water. The screen was blank. No wonder I hadn’t heard from him.
There was a phone on the kitchen counter. I quietly crept out and took it from the cradle and dialed Noah’s number. It rang four times before he answered. He sounded very confused when he answered. His voice was tired and deep.
“It’s me,” I whispered.
“Lee?” he croaked. “What time is it?”
“Three in the morning,” I said. “You never called back.”
Assorted snuffling noises, as he tried to clear his thoughts.
“Sorry. It was busy all night. You know my mom and the Smorgasbord. Can we talk tomorrow? I’ll call you as soon as we finish opening gifts.”
I fell silent. I had braved the biggest storm of the year—many years—I had fallen into a frozen creek, and my parents were imprisoned . . . and he still couldn’t talk to me?
But . . . he had had a long night, and it seemed a waste to force my story on him when he was half asleep. People can’t really sympathize with you properly when you’ve woken them up, and I needed him at 100 percent for this.
“Sure,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
I climbed back into my cave of blankets and pillows. They had a strong, unfamiliar smell. Not bad—just a very strong detergent that I’d never smelled before.
Sometimes, I just didn’t get Noah. Sometimes I even felt like he dated me as part of his plan, like they were going to have a checklist on the application, and one of the things to tick off was going to be, “Do you have a reasonably intelligent girlfriend who shares your aspirations, and who is fully prepared to accept your limited availability? One who likes to listen to you talk about your own accomplishments for hours at a time?”
No. This was fear and cold talking. This was being in a strange place away from my family. This was stress over the fact that my parents had been arrested in a riot for ceramic houses. And if I just slept, my brain would go back to normal.
I closed my eyes and felt the world swirling with snow. I was dizzy for a moment, and slightly nauseous, and then I was fast, fast asleep, dreaming of waffle sandwiches and cheerleaders doing splits on the tables.