Charles almost refused to come over to Randy’s house, especially after learning “one of those Chandlers” was there.
Randy, frustrated by the stupidity of the feud, blurted, “So you’d the whole town go to hell than deal with a Chandler?”
That had gotten him a stony silence for so long he wondered if his father had hung up.
Not happy. But coming.
Randy hung up his iPhone and tossed it on the coffee table. Nikki started at the sound and glanced up at him with wooden eyes. She hadn’t moved from the sofa once. Molly hadn’t moved from her lap either.
“What does he have against Chandlers?” Nikki asked.
Randy sprawled out in the armchair, slouching down. Maybe he should have paid more attention to the masonry work of his family. But he’d wanted to stay out of all the petty bickering.
“I have no idea,” he said at last. “It was like what happened with your family when they just stopped coming to the house. One day, we were friends with the Chandlers, and then we weren’t.”
“They never tell us anything.” Nikki managed a smile that brightened up her face.
Randy laughed. It felt good, releasing some of the bleak tension. He fished out a dog treat from his secret stash in his jeans back pocket and extended it out to Molly. She poked at it with her nose, then took it delicately, crunching it down.
He rested his elbow on the arm of the chair, propping his chin his hand. “Tell me what you do remember about that last summer. Maybe there’s something kind of connection.”
“I don’t know. It was so long ago.”
“C’mon.” Randy gave her grin. “Let’s start with something easy. What did you always do here?”
Nikki lifted Molly up and set her on the sofa, then stood. Molly turned in a circle three times and curled up in the warm spot were Nikki had sat.
Randy watched Nikki pace. Actually he watched the way her hips moved. The jeans fit her very nicely, though that cat shirt—
Mind back on topic, mind back on topic.
“There was a playground we always went to.” Her voice warmed with the memory. “It had a giant rocket ship. I used to climb all the way to the top and pretend I was going into space.”
Randy knew what she was talking about. It had been in the days when playgrounds were just a little bit dangerous. Now everything was all plastic and too safe. Didn’t prepare you for anything.
“You do the slide?” he asked.
He laughed. “You live for danger, lady.”
He knew well how hot that metal slide got with the summer sun beating down on it.
“I’d come off the end of it and tumble into the sand,” Nikki said. “Get it all over my knees and on my palms.”
She stopped pacing and stared out the window that overlooked the yard.
“There was someone there that day, watching us,” she said.
Randy stilled. He wanted to dash out questions, fix this problem. And he knew it would be a bad idea. Memories could be fleeting.
“Did you know him?” he finally said.
“No. But my mother did. He was an older man. I remember him because I thought I was seeing Santa Claus in summer. White hair, white beard, rosy cheeks. He looked like a man who smiled all the time and enjoyed smiling. He came over and talked to her.”
“Did you hear anything?”
Nikki turned away from the window, arms folded across her chest. The cat eyes on the shirt watched Randy.
“No,” she said. “My mother looked upset though. Maybe angry. I wondered why she was mad at Santa Claus. I was afraid I wasn’t going to get any presents.”
Who was Santa Claus? Randy knew everyone in town, and there was no one that he could recall who fit that description. He would have been still on the sidelines of the family masonry business; the Southworths had still been a powerful voice in the town’s politics.
Yes, he would have known who this man was if he’d been from around from him.
Could he have traveled from the portal?