“Gotta admit,” Bryce said, as he pulled a sweater from the rack, looked at it, shuddered, then put it back, “kinda glad they didn’t kill you.”

“Aww. You’re such a sweet talker!” Madison replied.

“So they claimed they are just holding supplies for the Red Cross?” he asked. “Do you believe them?”

“Not one bit. It makes no sense. Why would they need to do things illegally? Why would they need to stockpile guns? Why would they need to stockpile money?”

“Money?” Bryce asked.

“Yeah, remember, from that first meeting. They needed a giant safe to hold the guns and the gold,” she reminded him.

“Oh, right. Like they’re pirates,” he said. “I remember now. So do you like this color on me?”

“On you? I thought we were shopping for Jefferson,” she said.

“We are. But if I get him a sweater, I should definitely get him something I can borrow.”

“Oh. Well that color really brings out your egocentrism,” she said.

“That’s not such a good look, huh?” He put the sweater back. “Maybe a scarf?”

Madison followed Bryce over to the scarves. He tried on several, while he talked. “So they just let you waltz right in there and waltz right out?”

“He invited me to come back or call any time,” Madison said.

“Weird. I agree that the Red Cross sounds like a cover story, but if they’re being that casual about it, maybe it really isn’t anything serious.”

“I think it’s just a new tactic. They tried scaring me, and that didn’t work. So now they’re trying to placate me. If it actually wasn’t anything serious, they’d just tell me the truth,” she said.

“Agreed. So do you need to buy anything for your mom, or Phil, or Grampa?” he asked.

“We agreed to keep it super low-key this year, to save money for college. Just gift cards, probably,” she said.

“Ew. So no presents under the tree? That’s so… sad?”

“Yeah. I mean, it makes sense. We have no money, so why would we waste it on stuff we don’t need? But I see your point about a Christmas tree with nothing under it. That’s kind of lame. Maybe I’ll buy socks for people, so I have something to wrap. Stuff the gift cards inside them.”

“Good plan,” he said. “I like this one.” Bryce held out a scarf. “It’ll bring out the blue in his eyes. And the green in mine when I borrow it.”

“Your eyes are hazel,” Madison said.

“My eyes are green with brown highlights,” he argued.

“That’s called hazel,” Madison repeated.

“I take back what I said earlier about being glad they didn’t kill you.”

“Let’s go find some socks,” Madison replied.

The two headed over to the women’s section of the department store. “So what’s your next step with the olds?” Bryce asked.

“I need to poke some holes in that Red Cross story, so I can confront Mr. Black. I figure if I can prove I know he’s lying, he’ll open up about what’s really going on.”

“How will you poke those holes?” Bryce asked, tossing socks to Madison to inspect and catching them as she tossed them back.

“No idea. I need to talk to Mr. P. He used to be a reporter. He’ll know what I should do.”

“I guess that makes sense. What’s going on with biodad?”

“He messaged me on Insta. We are going to have lunch soon. He works nights, so it’s easy for him to find time. But obviously, I’m pretty slammed between holiday shifts at work and exams at school right now, so finding a free hour at lunch time is a little tricky.”

“Tis the season,” Bryce said. “What’s he like?”

Madison found a pair of socks she liked for her mother, and the two headed back toward the men’s section to find some for Phil. “He seems like a good guy, I guess. Like he’s really sorry about what happened, although at the same time, it’s like he doesn’t blame himself for what he did. Like the addiction made him do it, which lets him off the hook.”

Bryce pursed his lips. “I don’t know how I’d feel about that.”

“Yeah, me neither. I mean, I get it. It’s like a disease. If he had cancer, we wouldn’t blame him for that. But on the other hand, a lot of addicts don’t get sent to prison for stealing from perfectly nice people. Like I know a girl at school whose mom was addicted to benzos or something. And things got pretty fucked up, but she managed to hold it together and get help. She didn’t end up in freaking jail.”

“Everyone’s situation and ability to cope is different, I guess,” Bryce said. “But he’s clean now?”

“Says he is. Based on what my mom’s told me over the years, I think you kinda wait and see with him. Honesty was never his strong suit.”

“How about these for Phil?” Bryce asked.

“Sure. I guess. I don’t think Phil really gives a flying F what kind of socks he wears. Those will be fine.”

The two walked over to the register and made their purchases.

“Jefferson is going to love that scarf,” Madison said.

“Yeah, and he’s really going to miss it when I steal it from him,” Bryce replied.

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