It was Christmas Eve and Gladys stood outside of her Omaha, Nebraska home. The sun had gone down long ago and the temperature would drop to ten degrees in the next few hours. She couldn’t bear to hold on to her shopping bags’ paper rope handles while her fingers quickly froze: she set the bags down on the sidewalk next to her when she stopped to marvel at her house. Her hands thawed in the pockets of her puffy blue polyester-blend winter coat. Her cell phone, which was at first cold and hostile to her touch, quickly warmed and expedited her fingers’ defrosting.
Gladys’s mom had called earlier when she was on her way home from the store to tell her what a good time the family was having in Boca Raton (“Oh it’s beautiful, Gladys dear. Golf every day for your father and I shop at the outlets and it’s just wonderful! We just have to make sure to look out for the locals, you know.”).
Gladys was annoyed that her mother had felt the need to rub it in even more that she wasn’t with the family — and by family, she meant her mother, her father, and her autistic younger brother Elliot — but it wasn’t Gladys’s fault that Phil’s salary had just been cut in half. The day that Phil came home with the news that he had been laid off from his corporate accounting job, Gladys was cooking a Quiche for dinner with strawberry shortcake for dessert. Phil had barged into the back door with a triumphant smile on his face. Gladys was soon to be let down by this misleading front of her husbands, as she had been expecting good news of a promotion or a raise. The Quiche burned that night, and the shortcake went uneaten, doomed to become a melted cream-soaked mass with a violent garbage disposal fate.
The day Phil was laid off from his “mainstream” job was the beginning of his soul-searching journey, otherwise known as SpeakUSurve, his internet startup that involved being paid to encode programs on clients’ computers so they could speak their messages into type on their computer. Phil was convinced that it was the next big technological hit. Gladys faithfully took her SpeakUSurve t-shirt and folded it neatly on the shelve at the end of their bed. This shelf, bought from their neighbors at a garage sale nine years ago, housed other relics to Phil’s manic phases: his yoga dvd, poetry books, and his Nikon D3000. She quietly made the switch from steaks to meatloaves over the next eight months.
Their clothes, food, and electronics became more modest as the year progressed. Phil didn’t notice of course; he was preoccupied developing “apps” for his programs; “You just don’t understand, Gladys, this is the age of the tablet computer!” He increasingly spent more and more time locked away in their study and Gladys, though frugal on every other front, scoured the town’s home decor stores year-round in search of discounted holiday decorations.
In February, when Christmas lights are marked down to nearly nothing, they are usually doomed to never light the homes of happy suburban families or the eyes of hopeful children on Christmas night. But Gladys was there this time to scoop the lights up and give them a welcoming home. She did not discriminate when she went on her lighting hunts: she got icicles, blinking lights, white lights, round lights, and multicolored lights. And she didn’t stop there. She bought an inflatable Frosty the Snowman figure to stick on the lawn and a projector to shine a nativity scene on the side of their house. She bought some foam Santa legs to stick on the side of her chimney to make it look like the old man was stuck on his way down, and she got red, green, and silver tinsel to string around her bushes. She must have spent a hundred dollars or more on the decorations, but each time she went to the store she would only spend about five dollars. She was a woman on the hunt. Something about the lights brought out her primal instinct and she wouldn’t stop until she had her taste of the perfect kill.
Gladys stood now, on Christmas Eve, staring at her prize kill. The lights could be seen seven blocks down the street; they were brighter than any other house in the neighborhood. They blinked and they ran and the Santa on the roof even waved at passing cars at all hours of the night. If she stood close to her home, she could even feel a little dome of heat surrounding the cave of lights she had created for herself. Good thing for the lights on a night like this, Gladys thought as she walked past the wall of heat and light, slipping a little on the ice on the sidewalk in front of her door.
Phil was inside, and he would be expecting a meatloaf.