by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
The last thing Cai felt like doing after a six-day work week was going to a party, but he’d told Marc he would, and with everything that was going on with him he was trying hard to keep his promises. The bells hanging from the red velvet bow on the door chimed and rattled against the glass as he stepped into a seasonal sub-climate comprised of equal parts pine, beeswax candles, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and wet winter coats. Heads in the living room turned; Maryanne, perched on the arm of a couch, waved a half-eaten gingerbread cookie at him. He waved back and toed off his boots, and carried them down the hall into the spacious back kitchen. It was the size of the living room, and twice as crowded.
“Cai!” Syl’s embrace wrapped him in white lace and satin and fringe. “How have you been? How’s Marc?”
“Good, he’s good, we’re good.”
“Did he bring those coconut cherry things he made last year? Because people have been asking.”
“I don’t know. I came straight from work.” Cai inclined his chin at the diadem of white Christmas tree lights–lit and blinking–that crowned her salt-and-pepper curls. “White Witch?”
“Tch. Snow Queen. Impertinent boy.” She grinned. “No reason Halloween should have all the fun.”
“Speaking of which.” He lifted the LCBO bag in his hand.
“On the back deck. And you can put your coat in the front bedroom.”
Cai shouldered his way through the party dresses and the ugly Christmas sweaters–worn with varying evidence of irony–to the back door, and slid on his boots again. Outside on the deck, bags of ice were heaped in two plastic tubs; most people had chosen to leave their bottles in the just-at-freezing open air.
He deposited his six-pack–half Marc’s, half his–in a free spot and twisted the cap off a bottle of alcoholic ginger beer. He took a swallow and closed his eyes briefly against the pleasurable sting. He rarely drank, only this, only at parties, and if it made him look twee in front of the beer drinkers, well, he was the guy with the cashmere scarf and the skinny jeans and the Vampire Weekend patch on his canvas messenger bag; it wasn’t like they wouldn’t otherwise notice.
Careful of his footing, he crossed the snow-dusted deck to where a smoke-wreathed figure leaned forearms on the deck railing.
“Hey,” Roman said, cigarette dangling from curled fingers. “What’s up?”
“Not much. Work’s stupid busy.”
“He’s fine, we’re fine. I thought you quit.”
Roman took a long drag and looked at his cigarette as though it had disappointed him. “I did quit. I only smoke at parties, after getting laid, and when I’ve been dumped. Guess which two apply at the moment.”
“Aw, shit, you and Royce? I’m sorry.”
“Meh. It had run its course. It was a mutual thing. Nothing lasts forever. Insert boring cliché here.” Roman shifted. “Actually, I’m lying. Seven-year itch, right on fucking schedule.”
“Do you need a place to stay?”
“Thanks, but nah. I’m staying in the condo for now. I’ve got two months to figure out whether I can afford to buy him out on my own.” He stubbed the butt out in a planter; it hissed against the frozen soil and sent up a last furl of smoke. “It’s better than it was, at least.”
“You’re over the worst of it?”
“No, I meant the smoking. I used to go through half a pack a day. Now I usually throw the end of the pack away because it’s gotten stale. Before last week I did, anyway.” He blew out breath. “Now I’m going to go eat and drink things that are bad for me.”
He pushed himself off from the railing and over to the array of beer. Cai took a chill-hot mouthful of ginger beer, and went back inside.
A buffet had been set up in the dining room. He grabbed a napkin and some deep-fried things with frilly green cocktail toothpicks stuck in them–Syl’s standard code for vegetarians–and headed upstairs.
In the front bedroom, Syl and Ian’s king-size bed had become a slithery mountain of down and Gore-Tex. Cai took off his black peacoat, rolled and stuffed his scarf into one pocket and his gloves into the other, and tossed it on the pile. He dropped his messenger bag over by the closet with everyone else’s.
The room was lit by two tabletop lamps that created a cozy pool of light around the bed, leaving dimness in the corners. A car drove by outside, tires a dull hiss against wet asphalt. The bells on the front door jangled, far away. Cai felt abruptly cocooned, insulated, isolated, as though the room were a cone of silence with no door out. Although on the way over he’d been yearning for an evening of solitude instead, being alone in someone else’s shadowy bedroom now gave him a shiver of…loneliness, it occurred to him, which was ridiculous, and he picked his way through the obstacle course of bags and out into the hallway again.
Up on the third floor, Sufjan Stevens and his friends were singing about joy. Cai bit into a spring roll and mounted the stairs.
The third-floor loft was the kind of tiny, perfect, self-contained guest apartment that Cai had always coveted and never been able to afford in his single days. A quiet eddy of the party had come to rest on the comfortably battered couch and thick rugs. A foursome was playing Go Fish at the postage stamp of a kitchen table. Julie somebody–Cai remembered her vaguely from a summer waitstaff job mostly better forgotten–was crosslegged on the floor by the bookshelf, reading.
Gangly, shabby, large-handed Derek was sitting on the futon under the angle of the roof, knees drawn up, sketchbook on his thighs. Cai sat beside him, careful not to jar his work.
“Hey.” Derek did not look Cai’s way, but it was a given that sketching had at least fifty percent of Derek’s attention at any time.
On the couch, Maggie was in laughing conversation with a good-looking guy in a green cashmere sweater that was definitely not Christmas kitsch. His hair was just long enough to soften the edges of an expensive haircut, brushing the tops of his ears, downy at the nape of his neck. He smiled and nodded at something Maggie said, a dimple flashing in his left cheek, and a blond lock fell forward to dangle against his temple.
Cai’s hands twitched on his ginger beer bottle, and he took a long, distracting drink.
He’d seen enough of Derek’s art to know what the sketch would be: how the light would fall on Maggie’s face, the disorder of her curls, the crosshatching on her deep curves, how Derek could somehow reproduce in pencil strokes the glow of her skin and the sensuality in the turn of her wrist as she raised her wine glass. Cai had never felt the least sexual attraction to Maggie in the flesh, but looking at one of Derek’s portraits of her, he could see what had all the straight men in a room bending her way as though she were the only source of heat and light.
“Derek,” he said, “it is OK if I ask you a question? A personal question?”
Cai rucked up the edge of his bottle’s label with his thumbnail. “You and Maggie are, um, not monogamous, right?”
Cai took a breath. “Is that–I mean, how does it work for you?”
“Hmm.” Derek rubbed the edge of his pencil against the bottom of the page, refining the diminishing point. “I like Maggie, and I like what Maggie likes. So she goes with these guys, and then she tells me about it. So it’s like I have this, like, personal customized porn? And that is, like, awesome.”
The thought of Marc with someone else filled Cai with an uneasy heat, half lust and half primordial fury. “Don’t you get, you know, jealous?”
Derek shrugged. “Dude, look at me. Look at her. She’s hot. The guys she goes with are hot. And she comes home to me. And that is, like, hot.”
“Were you guys always like that?”
“Nah.” Derek smudged something on the page with his left ring finger. “It was her idea. I thought about it, and said okay.”
“What if you weren’t really sure?”
“I wasn’t sure. But it worked out okay.”
Cai looked at his shoes. “What if you really, really weren’t sure?”
“Could have been a problem,” said Derek.
Maggie turned and smiled at Derek. Cai could almost see the connection between them glowing in the air as if it had been drawn with a sparkler.
He raised his bottle again, but it was empty, and his buzz had fled. Cai excused himself, waved at Maggie, and went back downstairs.
On the dining room dessert table, among the poinsettia napkins and snowman-shaped candlesticks, among the gingerbread and shortbread and cookies virulent with red sugar sprinkles, was a plate of coconut squares, each topped with a glacé cherry.
Cai grabbed something from the nearest plate and plunged through the packed kitchen and out onto the deck. Rogue individual snowflakes drifted, here and there, down from the luminous clouds. It was getting colder; the air had a wintery, almost peppermint freshness.
Cai looked at what was in his hand and found that it was a slice of fruitcake. Since he was one of the apparently half-dozen people on the planet who liked fruitcake, he stuck it in his mouth and bent down to grab another bottle of ginger beer. One of the local beers, the name of which was so arcane he’d had to get Marc to write it down for him, was gone from the other half of the box.
He swallowed the fruitcake, cracked open his bottle and downed a third of it. Chill and heat hit him together, momentarily blinding him with sensation. He gasped and coughed.
“Hey, you okay?” asked a girl he didn’t know in tight red velvet, clopping across the deck in formidable heels.
“Fine, I’m fine,” Cai croaked, and took himself inside again.
The hallway was a press of perfume and chatter. He swerved into a pocket of space by the front door and saw Gil Rathnelly by the fireplace, talking to a guy with red hair. He looked down so as not to catch his eye, and pushed his way back to the stairs.
When he gained the second floor, Ian popped out of the master bedroom doorway.
“Caius Ramachandran McDougall,” Ian said, rolling the r’s and l’s of Cai’s name with relish. “You are just the thinner and undoubtedly more flexible person I need. Do come lend me a hand.”
Cai followed him into the bedroom. “What do you need me to do?”
Ian gestured to the short bookcase beside the bed. “Are you able to reach the plug behind there and pull it out?”
Cai knelt beside the bookcase and stretched his arm behind it. The space between the bookcase and the wall was scant millimetres smaller than his arm. His fingertips brushed the plug. There was no room to grab it properly, so he tried to pinch it between two fingers. His hand cramped, and he pulled it out hurriedly and shook it.
“Let me try again.” Cai pushed as close to the wall as he could and slid his arm back into the space. “What am I unplugging?”
“This.” Ian tapped the lamp on the top of the bookcase. “I’ve turned it off twice now, and people insist on turning it back on. The toaster oven keeps tripping the circuit breaker, which makes the dining room overhead fixture go out.”
Cai tightened two knuckles around the plug. “Your bedside lamp makes the toaster oven kill the lights in the dining room?”
“It is a little-known historical fact,” Ian said, and Cai was immediately thrown back into one of Ian’s 21st-Century Perspectives on Canadian History lectures, “that much of the wiring in these old houses was originally installed by teams of poorly trained and deeply unintelligent monkeys.”
Cai huffed a laugh and mashed his cheek against the side of the bookcase. His fingers tingled. He hoped it was just alcohol and effort and not, say, the proximity of 120 improperly installed volts.
“Never mind, I was lazily trying avoid the inevitable. The thought of moving all those books again–”
“No, no, I’ve got it,” Cai said, sweaty fingers slipping on plastic, and he thought, Goddamnit, and yanked. He yelped as his fingertips banged against the back of the bookcase, and the plug dropped to the carpet.
“Oh, well done,” Ian said.
Cai withdrew his arm and checked to see if he still had all his fingers.
“Thirty years of sleeping in the same place,” Ian said, “and when we painted the bedroom this summer Syl suggested we move the bed from against that wall to against this one. It was so astonishingly disorienting I knew I must be getting old.” He looked at the bookcase pensively.
“Thirty years?” Cai said involuntarily.
“Half a lifetime. So far.”
“That’s…a long time.”
“It is.” Ian clapped a thick hand onto Cai’s shoulder. “And how are you? And your young man? Marc, is it?”
“Fine,” Cai said. “Um, if you–how does it–did you–” He felt his face grow hot. “I mean. Thirty years.”
“It’s only thirty years in retrospect,” Ian said. “In practice, it’s, hmm, one day at a time. Sometimes, one second at a time.” He crossed his arms and drummed the fingers of one hand against the snowflake-appliquéd sleeve of his sweater. “I have a good life, for the most part. I love my wife dearly. But she is a part of my life, not an escape from it. And on occasion, I will admit–and I know she feels the same–on occasion, I have longed to brick her up alive in a corner of the cellar.”
Cai managed a strained smile. Could he tell? Did it show?
Ian lifted his hand, palm up, as if offering a solution. “And then it passes. And we go on. And paint the bedroom and throw Christmas parties. And I should go tell Syl that she may now heat up the samosas without trepidation. May I get you another drink?”
Cai shook his head and lifted his ginger beer bottle.
“Best wishes of the season to you and yours, then, my boy,” Ian said, and lumbered out of the room.
Cai wandered down the second-floor hallway. Another bedroom, bathroom, bedroom, and Ian’s dark study at the far end. Cai leaned against the doorframe, breathing in the dry must of aging books. Desk, chair, and filing cabinet partitioned the rectangle of silver light from the window.
“Hey, there you are,” Maryanne said. Cai turned, and she put her arm around his shoulders and squeezed. “Stranger. What is with you and work lately? Oh, and Marc was looking for you. How are you guys doing, anyway?”
“Oh, god,” said Cai, and let his forehead fall against her shoulder.
“Oh. That bad?”
Cai made a muffled noise.
“Hmm. Step into my office and let’s talk.” The study had only one chair; she settled herself on the floor, her back to a glass-fronted bookcase, and tugged Cai down beside her. The half-light leached the room of colour, limning edges with grey and turning all depths to inky black. There was a cold draft along the floorboards.
“So?” Maryanne asked.
Cai folded his arms. “It’s just…”
“I love him,” Cai argued.
“Just lately things have been…”
Cai put his bottle on the floor and pushed himself up on one knee. “It’s nothing.”
Maryanne wrapped her hand around his arm. “Cai. I’m pretty sure you don’t think it’s nothing. C’mon, you can talk to me.”
He sagged back to the floor. “It’s just that lately, he’s been…”
“Distant? Cold? Acting suspicious?”
Cai sighed. “He’s been really irritating.”
“…Okay,” said Maryanne.
Cai ran a hand through his hair. “He sings the same four bars over and over again in the shower, and I’m lying in bed clenching my jaw so tight I can hear it creak so I don’t scream at him to shut up. On the weekend he left an empty mayonnaise jar on the counter and I swear I nearly threw it through the window. He leans down to kiss me when he gets home and all I can think is, don’t you smile at me, asshole, you didn’t do the dishes last night like you said you would.” He buried his face in the crook of his elbow. “God, there is something wrong with me.”
“Aren’t you having sex anymore?” asked Maryanne.
“We have sex,” Cai said defensively. They had sex enough, in fact, that they had practically codified it, a set of steps they could each manage through a fog of exhaustion at the end of another day when the only things they’d had time to say to each other were See you tonight and Remember to pick up some milk.
“Well, do you want to have sex with somebody else?”
“I…don’t think so?”
“Oh, that’s conclusive.”
But how could he tell if he really wanted to or just thought he wanted to? Or whether it would burn down what Marc and he had, and whether it could possibly be worth that? Of course he looked–everybody looked–but if anyone knew the difference between romance-soaked fantasy and awkward, fumbling reality, it was him.
“Do you want to break up with him?”
Cai folded his arms against a gust of chill. “No.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“I can’t. What am I going to say? ‘You’re pissing me off, I don’t know why, cut it out?’”
He drained the rest of his ginger beer. It had gotten warm and flat, and he had a sudden queasy memory of being in second grade and home sick from school, drinking ginger ale in bed.
“Maybe you need to do more fun things together. You guys want to grab brunch with me and Sharry and Oliver tomorrow?”
“Can’t. The landlord’s coming to put more plumbing goo on the dripping pipe under the sink so he doesn’t have to call a plumber, and we want to talk to him about the stove.”
Maryanne grimaced audibly. “Your apartment sucks.”
“It does not suck.”
“It does too suck. The skylight leaks–”
“–you can’t close the bathroom door all the way–”
“I know, but–”
“–your kitchen is, like, the size of a gym locker–”
“–the carpet in the downstairs vestibule is crunchy.”
“Seriously, with two of you, I don’t know why you don’t move.”
Clumps of snowflakes tapped against the window. Cai held his empty bottle between finger and thumb and let it swing back and forth like a pendulum. “That’s what Marc says.”
“Now that we’re both working full-time. He says we should look for a nicer place. Maybe even think about buying a condo.”
Maryanne turned and gave him a look through the gloom, and sighed.
“What?” Cai said, unnerved.
She shook her head. “And you don’t think that has something to do with–okay, whatever, never mind. Marc wants a nicer apartment. What do you want?”
What did he want? Anxiety tightened in his chest. He wanted lots of things. It was just–he just–
“I just want it to be like it was,” he burst out.
As soon as he said it, nostalgia flooded him. Watching torrented movies together on Marc’s laptop when he should have been writing a paper. Making out with Marc on Marc’s horrific gold-brocade Goodwill couch. Meeting Marc for coffee between classes and knowing to order an extra shot of espresso in his. The first time Marc made him a playlist (titled ‘Good music Cai should listen to instead of his usual crap’). The time he’d spotted Marc unexpectedly across the grass of King’s College Circle, and lightness and joy had bubbled up in him as if gravity had released its hold.
Maryanne snorted. “Like it was? Like after Lee dumped you and you were convinced you’d be alone for the rest of your sorry life? Like when you had a massive crush on this hot guy in your English lit elective but couldn’t talk to him for, like, two months? Like when said hot guy transferred to Victoria and your world was crumbling around you?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Dude, you have a boyfriend who is at least as smart as and totally more together than you–”
“–is hotter than you–”
“–will eventually make way more money than you–”
“–and puts up with you. Cai, seriously, you have many fine qualities, but sometimes, you make the people on Downton Abbey look like rational human beings. Marc is great. You’re great together. You hit the jackpot. You lucked out. Will you just relax?”
Silence expanded in the room like something tangible.
“Right?” Maryanne said.
Cai sighed. “Right, right, you’re totally right.”
“Yes, I am.” She smacked him on the leg. “Seriously. Relax.”
“Fine, yes, I am relaxing right now,” he said testily.
Maryanne leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You guys have a good Christmas and we’ll get together for dinner sometime soon, okay?”
“Yeah.” He felt for her hand and squeezed it. “You too. Thanks.”
She squeezed back, got up, dusted her butt off, and walked off down the hallway.
Cai stretched out his legs and blew out breath. Of course she was right. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been telling himself the same thing for two months. He knew what he wanted to feel, and what he didn’t. He just couldn’t seem to make it stick.
He pushed himself off the floor. A burst of bass came down the stairwell from the third floor, someone turning the stereo up and then down again. The ceiling above him creaked, but the hallway was deserted.
New Year’s resolution,he thought. Be more relaxed. Be more patient. Be more grateful. Be–
An arm shot out from a doorway. A fist grabbed him and pulled him inside.
The door lock clicked behind him. Cai got a confused glimpse of red hair, blue-grey eyes, wickedly pointed eyebrows.
Then he was pressed against the back of the door by a tilt of the man’s hips, and kissed. Kissed thoroughly, as though they’d been doing this for fifteen minutes instead of ten seconds.
Cai’s hands came up to rest on firm arms, slid up to strong shoulders. The fabric of shirtsleeves changed to wool under his fingertips. A waistcoat? He adored it when Marc wore a waistcoat.
“Hi,” his captor said, pulling back. “My name’s Dan. What’s yours?”
Between surprise and reflexive lust, Cai’s mind immediately shorted out. “Uh. Um–Rodney?”
Dan raised one golden-red eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“Fine,” Cai snapped, “I’m Henry Charles Albert David Windsor.”
“Very well then, Your Royal Highness,” Dan purred, “how do you feel about getting fucked by a stranger in a bathroom at a party?”
Cai’s mouth went dry. “I’m…for it?”
“Oh, you’re for it, all right.” Dan leaned in again, and then, as Cai parted his lips, Dan brushed past his mouth and along his jawbone, barely touching it, his breath hot on Cai’s skin. Cai felt Dan’s hand on the front of his jeans, light, deft, tantalizing. A flare of need sparked through him. He canted his hips forward. Dan chuckled and pulled his hand away.
“Not yet,” he whispered in Cai’s ear. “Now get on your knees and make me hard.”
Since Cai’s knees wanted to give out in any case, it seemed like a reasonable plan. He slid down to the floor. He fumbled at the buttons of Dan’s soft, wash-faded jeans, pushed aside the tails of his maroon shirt, and eased down Dan’s boxer briefs. Dan was half-hard already. When Cai’s mouth touched him, Dan extended a hand against the door to steady himself, and groaned through clenched teeth. Cai closed his hands on Dan’s thighs, shivered, and took him deep.
Dan was breathing unsteadily by the time he tugged on Cai’s arm. “Up,” he ordered. When Cai was on his feet, Dan hooked a finger over the waistband of Cai’s jeans. “Get these down.” He watched while Cai did it. Cai was so turned on that his entire body felt scarlet with heat, and when Dan put a hand between his shoulder blades, he jumped at the contact.
Dan pushed him, slowly but firmly, down onto the vanity. “Stay there,” he said. Cai rested his cheek on a damp guest towel. His reflection in the sink faucet, level with his eyes, was a smear of colour. He noticed he was shaking, with need, with the novelty–this was not like Marc at all–and with the sheer unexpectedness of this. He heard something tearing behind him, and then slick fingers touched him. Dan had come prepared, he realized. The thought made his hips jerk as much as the practiced touch did.
When Dan withdrew his fingers and began to press into him, it wasn’t rough, but it was still sooner than he was used to, and for a long moment he lost awareness of anything but that stretch and burn. Then Dan was fully in him, and they both took a breath before Dan began, slowly and evenly, to move.
Too slowly, too evenly. It was like tickling an itch instead of scratching it. Cai made a desperate sound in the back of his throat. He let go of the towel he’d been clenching and reached down to–
Dan took hold of his wrist and pulled it it back up, pressed it firmly down onto the vanity, held it there. Mingled thrill and frustration vibrated through Cai, and he heard himself whimper.
Dan leaned over him, still moving, until Cai could feel Dan’s weight on his back.
“You can fantasize about anything you like, you know,” Dan said, his voice a little breathless but still conversational. “Anything. Anyone. I don’t mind.” His breath stirred the hair at the back of Cai’s neck. “Other guys, whole other lives, I truly don’t care.”
I’m not, Cai thought, but the ability to form words had abandoned him.
“It doesn’t change the fact that I’m the one doing this.”
Dan’s hand wrapped around Cai’s cock. Cai let out a moan.
“I’m the one here with you now. I’m the one fucking you. I’m the one having you.” He timed his movement to his words, his rhythm and hand in sync, his pace increasing, his hand tightening. “I’m the one who’s going to make you come good and hard while I’m inside you.”
“–god,” Cai gasped.
“Oh fuck yes,” Dan said, voice suddenly tight, “do it, come now–”
Orgasm went through Cai like a detonation, shock waves of release and pleasure pulsing through him. Above him, Dan groaned and shoved hard against him, once, twice, then collapsed, his lips against Cai’s shoulder. Cai shuddered as Dan’s hand slowed, stroked a last time, and released him.
They lay like that for a few moments, bent over together, panting.
Dan kissed Cai softly behind his ear and pulled out of him. Cai pushed himself away from the vanity and waited to see whether his legs would hold him. His heart was not yet back to its normal pace.
They cleaned up and dressed without speaking or meeting one another’s eyes.
Then Dan kissed Cai gently on the lips, once, and pulled him into his arms. Cai leaned his forehead against Dan’s grey wool shoulder. He felt wrung out and lightheaded and thoroughly exhausted.
“Okay?” Dan murmured.
“Want to get a taxi?”
Dan brushed Cai’s hair back from his temple. “Meet you downstairs in ten?”
Dan squeezed Cai’s shoulder and let himself out of the room.
Cai locked the door behind Dan. He ran the water, washed his hands again, splashed his face. His skin still felt too warm, but the heat was melting into lassitude, all of his muscles finally getting the message to relax. He yawned, and wished he were at home and in bed already.
He retrieved his coat from the stack on Syl and Ian’s bed, found his bag, and went downstairs to say goodbye to his hosts.
He found Syl in the dining room, a glass of fruit-laden sangria in one hand and a wedge of shortbread in the other. Standing talking to her, his coat over his arm, was Marc.
The collar of his maroon shirt was askew at the back. Cai reached up and tugged it down into place over the top edge of his grey flannel waistcoat. The shirt had fine pinstripes that matched Marc’s wash-faded jeans. Cai hadn’t noticed that earlier. In fact he didn’t recognize the shirt at all. Marc must have bought it recently, just for the party.
“Hey,” Marc said, turning, and smiled at him. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Cai said, and felt unreasoning contentment buoy up from out of nowhere.
“Thanks for coming.” Syl leaned forward and kissed Cai, one cheek and then the other, and then did the same to Marc. “Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.”
They waded out of the party and gained the front porch. The wind had died down; snow was descending in sticky clusters. They slid into their coats, and Marc fished his phone out of his pocket and called a taxi.
Cai bumped his shoulder lightly against Marc’s arm, just enough to feel resistance, not quite leaning on him. Marc didn’t look at him, but his gloved hand found Cai’s bare one. His little finger wrapped around Cai’s.
They waited that way without speaking until their ride arrived, watching the snow cloak all the harsh frozen edges of December, while the lights from the Christmas tree inside shone through the windows to flash on the whitening lawn: off, and on, and off, and on.