The car shuddered to a stop when she was still in the middle of primping her eyebrows, blending the pencilled lines with the finely woven hairs.

She damn near poked herself in the eye with her silvery nail.

"Are we there already?"

"We're there," he said, swinging open his door. Ice-cold air came in. She zipped her coat up over her bosom, meeting some resistance.

Age was catching up to Barb at last, necessitating more frequent highlights, more hairspray, more injections into her lips and forehead, extra sessions at the gym, occasional adjustments to the implants. Some things were outside her control. She couldn't do anything about the wrinkles in the tanned cleavage, the slight leathering of the fingers, the weary red capillaries in the corners of her eyes. Secretly, she was relieved that the twenty year age gap between her and Ken wasn't as striking as when they'd first got together. For too long, people had gossiped - even within earshot - about him "trading in" his ex for a "younger model". Nowadays, they'd kind of equalised. He'd lost weight after his heart attack and was keeping fit. His paunch was gone and he dressed well. They looked like a 40-ish/50-ish couple who'd grown older together.

And, of course, they'd had a kid, which gave the marriage a whole different status.

Mitzi was just adorable; everybody thought so. And sweet-natured. Not that Morris wasn't lovable too, despite the different mother and all. But there was no contest between a five year old girl and an eighteen year old boy in the cuteness stakes. Especially when the girl had Barb's nose and eyes.

"I got her an iPhone," said Ken, as they walked across the parking lot.

"She's only five," said Barb.

"She'll be showing us how to use the Apps by New Year," predicted Ken. It was December 19. They were behind with the Christmas shopping. Several of the key items were still unbought.

"I like the idea of her staying innocent for a while," said Barb.

"Dream on, babe." Ken extracted sunglasses from his jacket pocket and shielded his eyes from the mid-afternoon glare coming off the snow. He could barely see the crowded street beyond the car park's exit.

"She still believes in Santa Claus," said Barb, as they entered the stream of shoppers together.

"Fine with me," said Ken. "She can text the North Pole and thank the guy personally."

Barb smiled. The idea of Mitzi texting was encouraging. Their daughter was not doing so well at her pre-school. By contrast, Morris was really smart, although his grades had slipped lately. He would graduate this year, but by the skin of his teeth, not with the distinction they'd once expected. Bullying and girl trouble had set him back.

"A young man like him needs rights of passage," said Ken, quickening his step as they passed the Dunkin' Donuts.

"We maybe should have waited until he graduated before giving him a car."

"All his friends had cars at 16, 17."

"What friends?"

"The friends he had then." Ken was annoyed. Morris's current problems were a sore point with him.

They entered a Toys R Us store and selected some stuff for Mitzi. Stocking fillers for the tree, colouring books, felt tip pens, stickers, a snowman refrigerator magnet, dinky plastic princesses, crap like that.

"We need to get her something special," said Barb. "Something that no other little girl will get."

"They'll all get the same stuff," said Ken. Then, realising she'd unwittingly handed him a small victory, added: "Except not many of 'em will get an iPhone."

Scoring this point only cheered him up for a few seconds. Toy stores were not his preferred environment, and the holiday season generally put him in a bad mood.

They lugged the bags of Mitzi purchases next door into the Starbucks and had a coffee. Barb allowed herself a muffin, breaking small bits off and popping them into her mouth so that her lipstick wouldn't need fixing afterwards.

"We should have bought the turkey already," she said.

"No rush. Last year, we bought it on Christmas Eve," he said.

"That's right." In this banal exchange, their differences were perfectly encapsulated. In his view, he was reassuring her that a turkey could be bought anytime, and she was admitting that he was right. In her view, she was reminding him of the stress of hunting for a turkey at the last minute, the absurdity of standing in front of the microwave for a half hour when you had a million other things to do, turning the stupid damn bird onto every conceivable angle to speed its journey through the Defrost setting so you could put the damn thing in the oven without running the risk of poisoning your whole damn family.

"OK," said Ken, placing his empty coffee cup on the table. "Gun time."

The Freedom Firearms store was decorated in festive style. Some of the display tables were lined with Christmas wrapping paper. Younger staff members wore red elf caps. A poster of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was hung cheekily above the hunting rifles. The framed declaration about protecting the Constitution was garlanded with holly. The PA system piped Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" into the well-heated air. A large fake Christmas tree stood tall in one corner, wrapped all around with ammunition belts and imitation grenades instead of strings of tinsel and globes. The grenades were a joke, of course; Freedom Firearms did not sell grenades.

The manager of the shop, not wearing an elf cap, ambled over to Ken, who was peering at a Remington Model 870 Express Youth Shotgun.

"Looks pretty good," said Ken.

"Pretty good is about the size of it," said the manager. "If 350 bucks is your upper limit." The Express Youth was priced at $349.99.

"Looks solid," said Ken. "No-nonsense."

"Sure is. The 870 has been the standard for slide-action performance for nigh on 60 years. I mean, it ain't a Wingmaster, but it's more affordable." The manager fetched up the rifle, weighed it in his hands, gave it to Ken. "A workhorse. Ventilated rib, front bead sight, cross-bolt safety, modified choke tube. Silky-smooth twin action bars; no twisting with this fella. You'll always have the chance to get off a second shot."

"It's not for me," said Ken.

"I get that," said the manager. "It's youth-sized."

"What about that one there? With the camouflage pattern on it?"

The manager replaced the Express Youth and fetched a similar-looking shotgun that had a more military appearance. "The Escort Youth Semi-Auto Magnum," he said. "Perfect choice for the young hunter on a budget."

"Except it's more expensive," noted Ken. The price tag was $499.99.

"Yeah, well, it's semi-automatic. Fast. Fiber-optic sight. You can load shells into the magazine without changing your aim. Real easy to clean. A beauty."

"It looks cheap," said Barb.

"Cheap?" echoed Ken.

"Like we got it from a toy store," said Barb.

Ken nodded. He had a way of agreeing with her at unexpected moments. "What about that one there?"

The manager handed Ken a third rifle, this one with a photographic scope attached to the barrel. It was dark grey and sleek. "The Savage Model 11 Trophy Hunter XP Youth Centerfire."

"It's heavy," said Ken.

"Seven pounds. The others were six. Your boy not strong?"

"Sure he's strong."

"Comes with AccuTrigger and a Nikon 40mm scope with BDC reticule. He'll be able to hit a deer at two hundred yards, no problem."

"He'll be aiming closer than that," said Ken. "In fact, I think he might be better off with a handgun."

"Well, why didn'tcha say so?" grinned the manager. He wasn't annoyed at all; he was pleased. Handguns were evidently his passion, and he grabbed the nearest, a snub-nosed revolver in black and silver.

"Smith & Wesson 638-3 Airweight," he announced, tossing it up and down in his open palm like a tennis ball. "Less than a pound."

"My boy's not weak," said Ken.

"But he's over twenty-one?"

"He's eighteen," said Barb. "Almost eighteen." It was hot in the store, and she had unzipped her coat. Nobody seemed to be taking any notice of her feminine attributes. There was only one other female in the place, a thin, intense businesswoman who was holding a small pistol up against her black clutch purse to see if it would fit.

"Eighteen? Could be a problem," said the manager.

"He wants a gun real bad," said Barb.

"I'm gonna need some documentation," said the manager. "I'm gonna need proof. Proof that you're his parents."

Barb and Ken had come prepared for this. They produced various passports.

"Goodgoodgood," murmured the manager, perusing them like playing cards.

"Morris will be eighteen on December 28," said Barb. "Right after Christmas. The gun is a Christmas present. He won't use it until the new year."

"Doesn't matter, doesn't matter," said the manager. "He could be sixteen, fifteen, hell, any damn age, as long as he's got parental supervision." He pulled a much-thumbed document from his shirt's breast pocket and unfolded it. Squinting, he recited the legalese: "Exception - Subsection (a) shall not apply to a person under 18 years of age who is under the supervision of a parent, grandparent, legal guardian or an adult acting with the expressed consent of the minor's custodial parent or legal guardian and the minor is engaged in lawful activity, including safety training, lawful target shooting, engaging in an organized competition involving the use of a firearm or the firearm is unloaded and the minor is transporting it for a lawful purpose; or who is lawfully hunting or trapping in accordance with 34 Pa.C.S." He folded the paper again, repocketed it. "Just about covers everything."

Ken nodded, absorbing the info. "Let me get this straight," he said. "The bit about an adult acting with the consent of a minor's parent. An adult is eighteen, right?"

"That's right."

"So, if I give my consent, my eighteen year old son could take my five year old daughter shooting?"

The manager shrugged. "I guess. I wouldn't recommend it." He handed the revolver to Barb, and handed Ken a heavier semi-auto. "Every handgun has a kick. Give a little girl a shot, and the recoil's liable to dislocate her shoulder. And you know what they do for a dislocated shoulder? Sweet F.A. Just put the arm in a sling. Believe me, I've been there."

Barb was gripping the handle of the Airweight. Her silver nails matched the barrel. The black shaft felt nice. "Feels nice to hold," she said.

"Lot of folks think so," said the manager. "Most popular small personal defense revolver on the market. Comfortable enough for everyday use."

"I think Morris will only use it on special occasions," said Barb. "Like his graduation ceremony."

Ken lifted the gun he'd been given and squinted along the top of it, towards the snow-fogged world outside the window.

"This is a serious piece of equipment," he remarked admiringly, half to himself.

"Smith & Wesson M&P40 VTAC. On special today for $649.99. Best pistol you can buy for the money. Loads of safety features. Reinforced polymer chassis, superior ergonomics, improved trigger weight and feel. See that lovely grey finish? Zytel polymer treated with Melonite. Incredibly comfortable to shoot. Hardly any muzzle rise, so your boy can recover his aim if he's firing off a rapid succession of shots."

"I think he'll need that," said Barb. "There are about twenty other kids in his class, and some of them are real sporty. Fast runners."

"What about CWP?" asked Ken.

"Relax with Max," said the manager. "We're one of the enlightened states. Constitutional Carry. He'll be fine."

"Do you sell body armour?" said Barb.

"Not really."

"Not really?"

The manager shrugged. "We sell... tactical apparel. T-shirts and jackets that allow easy access to concealed firearms."

"But armour?" said Barb. "Some of those other kids may have guns too. They're bullies. Real nasty characters."

The manager's eyes were glazing over. The intricacies of his potential customers' son's social life were of no concern to him. "There's a good place on Venice Boulevard in L.A.," he said.

Ken took a deep breath. "What about around here?"

"Nothing in the local area," said the manager. "You could try eBay. It's cheaper, too. You could get a $500 vest for, like, $150."

"We don't have time," said Barb. "It's for Christmas."

"That's too bad," said the manager. Mariah Carey had finished singing her Yuletide song, and went right back to the beginning again. "Do you want to buy a firearm or not, ma'am?"

They bought both pistols - the revolver and the semi-automatic, just in case either of them would end up being wrong for Morris. He was touchy lately. You had to get things right the first time or he'd get angry. It was a phase he was going through. He was a sweet kid. Despite the different mother.

Back in the car, they tossed the bags onto the back seat.

"I was hoping we could get it all done today," sighed Ken. Shopping tired him out. His cheeks were pale, speckled with an unhealthy flush. The heart attack had almost killed him, and sometimes he looked frail and vulnerable.

Barb reached out her hand, laid it on his sleeve. Melted snowflakes made the fabric of his jacket damp and cold. He reached out his own hand and laid it over hers. They were both equally warm. Always had been.

"You're still warm," she said.

He smiled. "So are you, babe."

The moment of tenderness was over; he switched on the ignition and the vehicle vibrated into life. "We'll beat this Christmas thing," he vowed. "Just stay focused. Methodical. Tick things off the list."

She decided to push her luck. "Turkey?"

His eyes flashed for a second, and his body stiffened slightly at the provocation. Then, as if one of the many pills he took every day was suddenly taking effect, he relaxed. In fact, he laughed: a good old-fashioned chuckle, like in the old days when he still called her beautiful.

"Anything you say, babe," he conceded, as they pulled out of the car park in a snowglobe flurry of pure white, with plenty of time yet to go before the deadline.