"Hi, sweetie!" she called from the kitchen too quickly, before he had even shut the door, as though she was trying to catch him at something. "Hi!" he called back, just as cheerily. He wasn't going to let her think he'd been taken by surprise. He held the plastic bag in one hand and leaned against the wall as he undid his shoelaces and took off his shoes with the other. As soon as she noticed him standing like that, she asked what was in the plastic bag. "Oh, just a little something I picked up…" She stared at it, eyebrows raised. He enjoyed that for a moment. "At the grocery store. I got this sudden craving for pretzels." To prove his point, he pulled the box out and crumpled up the empty plastic bag with an easy air of nonchalance. That would teach her for pouncing on him like that. Her face fell. Well, of course she would be disappointed. Maybe if she'd gotten the mail yesterday instead of telling him to, she would have seen the package. Too bad. She'd have to wait. He took off his coat and hung it on the rack. "Just pretzels, huh?" she asked kindly. They went into the kitchen. "A subtle tactic," he replied. "But yes. Just pretzels." After he put the box into his side of the cabinet, he turned back to her. She was stirring a mug of coffee. "Well," he said, "you didn't really think I still had to get you your present, did you?" She took the mug and moved into the living room. Good; he had her on the defensive. "No, of course not," she said. "All right," he said. "Because I've got it, of course. And I know you're going to love it." She turned on the television but she was still listening to him. He could tell. She just wanted to throw out a distraction. "You're all set, ofâ€”?" "Of course I'm all set," she not-quite-snapped. She sat on the couch in front of the TV and sipped her coffee. "What did you get?" "Ah, no, you're not really giving in, are you? With only two more days until Christmas? Not interested in the surprise?" "We're well beyond surprising each other at this point." She started idly flipping channels. He let her carry on in silence for a few moments before continuing. "There's a book you said you were interested in." "I'm interested in a lot of books," she said meaninglessly, gesturing at the bookshelf beside the couch. "This one was special, though. Weren't you just telling me about your favorite â€˜20s author?" "When was that?" "A couple of weeks ago, I think. Anywayâ€”" "Well, I don't remember that," she said flatly, but he could see a gleam in her eye. "Anyway, I did some searching online. His name was something Ellard, right? You said you were always looking for his first novel, but it was out of print. Hotel, I think it was called." "That's right," she said, and now her smile had returned, although he still saw something carnivorous in her face. "I bought it in an online auction. It came in yesterday. When you told me to go get the mail," he couldn't resist adding. She was all smiles now. "How much did you wind up paying for it?" "Sixty." He had paid fifty. "No, really? That's such a high price to pay for one book!" "Well, it's an antique at this point," he said, allowing himself the faintest of gloats as he spoke. "The seller claims it's still in great condition, though. He's got good credentials." "That's nice," she said. She twirled her yellow hair idly. "Thank you, sweetie." "In that case," she said when the next commercial break came on, "I might as well tell you what I got you." "If you like," he said. "It's just a pair of new dress shoes," she said. "I think they cost… seventy dollars." He stared at her. "Seventy dollars?" "Yes, dear," she said. She was smiling sweetly, innocuously. "You don't think that's too much, do you?" "What's wrong with the dress shoes I have?" he asked steadily. "Oh men!" she said in a theatrical show of exasperation, getting up to take her mug back. "They think they can get through life with one pair of dress shoes, a pair of sneakers and a pair of boots." "What's wrong with the ones I have?" he asked again, following her. Seventy dollars? "They're just old, sweetie. You've had them for years. What's gotten into you? Aren't you grateful? When you see these shoesâ€”" But he was already out into the hallway and putting his other shoes, his one pair of dress shoes, back on. She followed him. "Where are you going?" "Out," he said. "Why?" "I have to get something else for you, don't I?" She paused, and he knew she was about to tell him he didn't have to, but he could also see that there was triumph on her face for that one instant. "No, of course you don't have to. Hotel isâ€”" "Hotel is a book. You get me a fancy pair of dress shoes for seventy dollars and I get you a book?" "We said this was going to be a low-key Christmas, didn't we? Didn't we say that?" "Which means seventy dollars isâ€”" "Do you want me to take them back? Is that what you're saying? Do you want me to return them?" "No." He began putting his coat back on. "I do not mean that, and you don't have to put words into my mouth — I mean that I need to get you something nicer." "There's no need," she said firmly. She was winning. "Maybe I'll go to Harper'sâ€”" "You do not need to get me jewelry!" she almost shouted. He stared at her. He kept his face straight, with difficulty. He had found her weak point. "So what do I need to get you?" "What you need to do isâ€”" (here she stumbled over her words) "â€”you need to stop trying to outperform me. What do you think this is, a contest?" She was clearly doing her best to sound disbelieving. Fair enough. He'd lead her on just a little more. "It's not right for the wife to spend more on the husband than he does on her," he said, laying a hand on the doorknob. "Oh spare me the chivalry," she said. She leaned against the closet door and crossed her arms. "You're just being macho," she added. "You don't want to lose to me. Is that it?" "But, clarify this for me," he said. "Clarify this. You say I don't want to lose. Okay, sure. But what exactly do you have against me winning? Here I am, about to buy you a — a diamond necklace or something at Harper's, and you're stopping me. Why? Look: If I lose, you get a book. If I win, you get a book and a diamond necklace. Why do you want me to lose?" There. He had her and she clearly knew it. Why would she want him to lose unless she wanted to win? Her eyes were wide. "So you're admitting that you think this is a competition!" He shrugged. "Yeah, I do. And you know what? I'm pretty sure you do, too. You want to be the winner. Otherwise you'd just let me buy you the damn necklace." "I'm not stopping you because I want to win — You — I'm stopping you because you can't just buy me off like this!" "Right, right. I can't buy the victory from you, huh?" "That's not what Iâ€”" All at once her face took on direction once again. She pushed past him and picked her boots up off the floor. "If this is the game you want to play, I'll do it." "Yes?" "Yeah. If you're upping the ante, so am I. Go on!" She sat on the staircase and pulled on the boots. "Go to Harper's. I'm going out, too. And I promise to bring you something really nice when I get back." Well. He had to admit, he'd seen that coming. "Mm-hmm? And what are you going to buy for me? Not jewelry, I hope." That stopped her short. It was one of his great advantages over her that he didn't talk as much about the things he wanted. In fact, he had been very careful these last few months not to express his material wishes, no matter how subtly. It was best not to give someone any leads in this situation. That was why all she had come up with to buy for him so far was a pair of shoes. And that was why she couldn't think of anything to buy for him now. He allowed himself to smile sweetly. He was very proud of himself. His wife, whatever strengths she had, possessed none of his reserve. She had let slip her desire for the book, Hotel, and now she was paying for it. "I'll go…" She trailed off uncertainly, but then started in again with renewed purpose. "I'll go to the electronics store. Get you some little handheld piece of junk. Something really expensive that you'll never use. That's the guy equivalent of jewelry, after all, isn't it?" She laughed sharply. "If I have no choice but to be grateful for your diamond necklace, you'll have no choice but to be grateful for that." "I doubt it," he said cheerily. "I suspect I'll just reject it like the ingrate I am. Tell you what — why don't you let it go? You can't still think you're going to win at this point." But she was standing up now with the carnivorous gleam back in her eye. "Give up?" she said. "No… I don't think so. Not while you're still going to Harper's. Take off your coat! You're not leaving if I'm not." "Fine," he said. She blinked at him. "Sure!" he laughed. He took off his coat, to prove it to her. "Sure. I'm not going to Harper's. Too bad, really. You could have had a diamond necklace…" "I don't want a diamond necklace!" she cried. "I know, I know. And you won't get one." He began to untie his shoes. "You're right. We shouldn't be competing to spend the most money." "You're damn right we shouldn't be! What got intoâ€”" "But I still think I got the better gift, baby, don't you? I mean, all you got me was a pair of shoes I don't even want, and I got you that book by Ellard that you've beenâ€”" "I hate Ellard!" He looked up from his shoelaces. She was standing over him. Her face was flushed. "I read one of his books. It's trash. I don't give a shit about Hotel. I just gave you that idea to throw you off — because I knew you'd do something like this! You shallow, selfishâ€”" She burst into tears. Without a moment's hesitation, he hugged her tightly and didn't let go. "Come on, now," he said softly under her sobs. "It's okay. You're right." "We're terrible people, aren't we?" she managed to say. "We're horrible." He kissed her on the cheek. "But you know what? I'm grateful for the shoes. I know you want me to look my best. I'm glad that you care so much. And they sound like they'll look fantastic." She smiled faintly. "I can't believe you went to all that trouble just to find a book I was talking about," she said. "Thank you for being so thoughtful. I didn't really mean what I said about hating him. Hotel is supposed to be a masterpiece. I'll love it." "So it seems like we're going to have a merry Christmas after all, huh?" "Seems like it." Now it was her turn to kiss him. Then she returned to the living room, and he went upstairs to the bedroom. He pulled off his sweater and found a T-shirt. She had lied to him. After all that, she had been lying to him about Hotel. He knew she'd just made up that masterpiece line to save face. She'd wanted the conflict to come to an end. She hated Ellard. Well, sure. All right. The conflict was over. No more arguing. He lay down on the bed and thought about Harper's. He wondered how early they opened in the morning. It was possible he'd have time to stop in and pick up a little something before work tomorrow. Or else he could swing by on the way home.