She’s so late. Good thing she’s not the matron of honor. She left that burdensome title all on Renee’s shoulders. Renee can handle it—mom of three, and all. Besides, Rita felt no ill-will toward Tash when she made the offer to Renee without considering her first. They both know how irresponsible Rita is– was.
But maid or matron, old Rita or work in progress, how tacky would it be for her to be late to he best friend’s wedding? Especially after the way she left last night. She’s sure everyone’s still worried. But they don’t need to be, not anymore, not when she tells Tash the news. Renee too. When they see her, they’ll understand, and she can’t wait.
Rita remembers, when she was growing up, how her mom used to warn her against making faces at people, said her face would freeze in that expression, and she would forever look like her own cruel, mocking joke. Now she glances up at her reflection in the review mirror. She hasn’t stopped smiling since leaving the church. Her cheekbones high and pronounced, a touch of natural blush on them. At the dress fitting, Tash mentioned she was glowing, now she actually sees it, her skin radiating like a light bulb is shinning from within.
“I hope it always feels like this,” Rita says, and as she speaks, a single flurry drifts across her windshield. She’s felt it all morning, in the brisk, chilly air, the sting in her cheeks, the overcast cloud cover—the Christmas snowfall she’s prayed for since childhood has finally come, not the foot she was after, just a few swirling specks in the wind that could easily be written off as dust in the eyes, but she’ll take it!
Rita turns into the Macy’s parking lot. It shocked her at first, when she heard on the radio that Macy’s would be open for Christmas. But then, the chain practically invented the holiday—Miracle on 34th Street, and all—at least the shopping part of it, and as she skips over the threshold, parting the sliding doors, she’s thankful that Macy’s is the only store open, because right in front of her, hanging off a men’s wear mannequin, is the only thing she came in to buy. Burgundy red, ridged fabric, crisp lapels. It’s almost identical to the one likely tossed in a landfill somewhere, still smelling of Skittles, stomach fluids, and beer.
She swipes a size large off the rack in front of the mannequin and rushes to the check-out counter. There’s not a soul in sight. Did they really think many people would be out shopping on Christmas Day? Or maybe they opened just for her. She lifts her head to the ceiling, mouths a “thank you.”
“Would you like this gift wrapped?” says the cashier, surprisingly chipper despite being at work on the one holiday most people have off to spend with family.
“Absolutely.” Rita matches her attitude, and with a smile adds, “Merry Christmas!”
Antonio is almost tempted to ask, “Who is this?” The voice too calm and rational to belong to Elise, even though that’s what his screen said when he picked up the phone to answer.
“I was thinking you can have Ryder for Christmas.”
Now he knows he’s talking to someone else, because Elise would never willingly give him Ryder, not even for a day, not without a fight.
“What do you want?”
He hears her lips smack, there’s a long pause, and then she says, “Look, do you want him or not? ‘Cause I can change my mind.”
It still feels too good to be true, but he fears if he says no, he’ll never get an opportunity like this again. There’s only one problem–
“I have a wedding today.”
“I know, dumbass. I’m going to the same wedding.”
And just like that, that calm feeling is gone. He hates to see it leave, that it was so short-lived. He almost enjoyed talking to Elise without her voice raising two decibels. It briefly reminded him how he first fell in love with her— what seems like ages ago—but nasally, filter-less, snarky bitch Elise is what he’s used to now. A nicer version of her is just too cynical, too unpredictable, scarier, even for Elise.
He’d rather not see her at the wedding. Sometimes he forgets that she was once part of his circle of friends—the perks of dating him for seven years. She and Natasha are still pretty close, even after their breakup, though not close enough for Natasha to invite her to be in the wedding. Then again, if he wasn’t one of Mitchell’s groomsmen, he wonders if that would have changed.
“I’m bringing Ryder with me. I packed him a bag. You can keep him for a couple days. That’s if you want to,” Elise continues.
He’s still waiting for a catch. He knows one is coming. Like she’s expecting some guy over, and she doesn’t want to be tied down with the baby. Or she wants Antonio to buy new shoes for the guy he’s still not convince is her brother, after he throw up on old ones. Or he’s not allowed to come to her house unannounced anymore. Or he has to stop drinking and show her proof that he’s taking AA sessions or she’ll file a restraining order so he can’t be 1,000 feet near her or Ryder again.
But she’s quiet on the phone, and something tells him that he should accept this unexpected gift. This is all he’s wanted since the day Ryder was born—the opportunity to be a dad, to be allowed to be a dad.
“We’ll talk at the reception,” he says, and hangs up before she can change her mind.
The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans