A New Beginning

New YearsMaybelline always hated Christmas.  No matter how great it was, there was always a little bit of letdown.  This year was even worse for Maybelline.

After ten long years of dating, Maybelline was certain this was the year her boyfriend John would ask her to marry him.  She waited all through Christmas Eve for John to propose.  She sat on the edge of the green velvet stool, her hands clasped in anticipation, as she waited for the big moment to happen.  She could hardly contain her excitement when John handed her the gold and silver wrapped gift box.  It was ten times larger than a ring box, but Maybelline wasn’t worried a bit.  John always liked to be sneaky.  This was just another example, Maybelline thought. 

With shaking hands, Maybelline ripped open the box.  After diving through piles and piles of white tissue paper, Maybelline stared at the gift in disbelief.   A five carat diamond set in a platinum band was not staring back at her. 

She looked up at John.  “A gun?”

“A Taser gun,” John corrected.  “I thought you could use it so nothing bad happened to you.  You know,” he added.  “If you should decide to take up running.”

Maybelline was certain she hadn’t heard him correctly.  “Running?” she asked.

John nodded his head.  “You know . . . to get some exercise.”

Maybelline blinked in surprise.  Since when did John think she liked to run?  Or for that matter, needed exercise? 

“Well, gee, thanks for the advice and the gift,” she sniffed in irritation as she covered the gun with tissue paper.

John stopped her.  “Wait, there’s more inside . . .”

A burst of excitement rolled through Maybelline.  Of course! Maybelline thought.  Now she understood why he wanted her to run.  It was obvious.  He wanted her to get into shape for the wedding!

The thrill of anticipation was short lived as Maybelline dug through the tissue paper once again in search of the black velvet box that would surely hold her five carat diamond.  The only thing she found was a flat white envelope.  Maybelline didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that a five carat diamond wasn’t tucked inside. 

“What’s this?” she asked looking up at him.

He gave her an encouraging smile.  “It’s a gift card.  Open it . . .”

A gift card!  Maybelline was certain it was for a jeweler’s.  Maybe even Harry Winston.  John knew how particular she was.  Why, he probably wanted her to pick out her own ring.  Bursting with excitement, Maybelline ripped open the envelope.  It wasn’t the Harry Winston gift card as she had hoped but instead, one to the House of Salads.

“Do you like it?” John asked, eagerly.  “I thought you could use it.”

Maybelline thought she could use it too . . . when she shoved it down his throat. 

Once again, Christmas had proven to be a complete bust.  When she left his house, she tossed the Taser gun and the gift card on the front passenger seat of her car and drove home, disappointed and depressed.   

Maybelline fumed all through Christmas Day.  She was still angry the next day when she went to her best friend April’s house.

“That’s it.  John and I are finished!” Maybelline announced as she as burst into April’s kitchen. 

 “What happened?” April asked in surprise. 

“I’ll tell you what happened!” Maybelline shrieked as she tossed her purse and keys on the table.  “The stupid man got me a Taser gun and a gift card to the House of Salads!”

“Ouch.  That hurts,” April said.  She gave Maybelline a sympathetic look.  “So how did he take it?”

Maybelline plopped down in a chair and looked at April.  “Take what?”

“You breaking up with him,” April replied.

“Oh that.” Maybelline waved her hand in dismissal.  “I haven’t actually broken up with him yet.”

“Why not?”

Maybelline rolled her eyes.  “I can’t break up with him before New Year’s Eve.  I don’t want to be without a date on that day!  Besides, I want to stick it to that stupid Jenny Pickler that once again I have a man on New Year’s Eve and she doesn’t.”

April sat and tapped her fingers on the table in thought.  Suddenly her face lit up.  “Maybe he’s gonna ask you to marry him at the New Year’s Eve Festival in the Park.”

Maybelline looked at April.  “What?”

“Well think about it,” April said.  “You know how he likes to do things in spectacular ways and what’s more spectacular than proposing at the biggest event in Aberdeen?”

“That’s true.  He does,” Maybelline murmured lost in thought.  A slow smile began to cross her face.  “You know what?  I bet that stupid stun gun was just a rouse to throw me off.”

They decided to celebrate the news by going to the mall to pick out the perfect outfit for Maybelline to wear on New Year’s Eve.  She found it at a tiny boutique shop at the far end of the mall.   

“This is it!” Maybelline announced, holding up the outfit.

“Are you sure?” April asked hesitantly.  “Those are silver lamé leggings.”

“Exactly.  They’ll match the platinum engagement ring,” Maybelline replied.  “And I’ll really stand out.  That will show that stupid Jenny Pickler.”

“What shoes are you going to wear with it?” April wondered. 

“I’ve got some silver sequined peep toe platforms that will look perfect with it,” Maybelline replied. 

“You’re gonna wear peep toes shoes in January?” April exclaimed.

“Technically it’s December, and yes, I am,” Maybelline replied.

“There’s gonna be a foot of snow on the ground.  You’ll get frostbite on your toes”

Maybelline waved off April’s concern.  “I can’t be worried about my toes!  I have to look good when John proposes to me.”

“What you’re gonna, do is kill yourself,” April warned.

Maybelline rolled her eyes.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m an expert in platform shoes.”

April didn’t even bother to try to change Maybelline’s mind.  She knew Maybelline too well to know she’d be dissuaded by any arguments.  Instead April asked, “Are you going to try those pants on?”

Maybelline held up the silver pants and looked at them.  “Nah . . .there’s spandex in them, see . . .” she said as she pulled on them.   

Maybelline took her time getting ready on New Year’s Eve.  It was a good thing too because the silver lamé leggings she thought was her size, actually ended up being a size too small and didn’t have nearly the right amount of stretch in them that she needed.  She threw on an oversized white and silver sweater to cover up the lumps and bumps that seemed to stand out in the leggings.  She added large silver hoops in her ears and the four-inch peep toe platform stilettos on her feet.  When she was finished, she looked at herself in the mirror.   Maybelline thought she looked pretty darn good. 

She grabbed her car keys and cell phone and headed down to her car.  She tossed her cell phone on the car seat next to the forgotten taser gun.  There was no way she was going to add any more lumps or bumps to her outfit.  Besides, she wouldn’t need her cell phone when she was at the park.  She’d just have April take the pictures of John’s proposing to her. 

She spotted April was waiting outside of Jim’s Gym just like they had arranged.  Maybelline parked her car then climbed out.

“Where’s John?” April asked, looking around.

Maybelline shrugged.  “He said he was working,” she replied.  “But I don’t believe him.  I think it’s part of his surprise.  Come midnight he’ll be up on the stage waiting to propose to me.”

April sighed.  “This is all so romantic . . .”

Maybelline had to agree.  It was just like a Hallmark movie.  And just like any good movie, Maybelline wanted to have the perfect response to John’s proposal. 

“Hey, I’ve been thinking about my answer when John proposes,” Maybelline said.  “I figure he’ll want to do it on the stage so everyone in town can see it.  So, I’ll want my answer to be perfect.  What do you think of me saying, “I will?”

April considered Maybelline’s words.  “I don’t know . . .” April replied.  “Isn’t that what you say when you get married.”

Maybelline curled her lips in thought.  “Yeah, that’s true.”  She thought for a moment more then said, “Okay, then what about “Yes?”

“Every girl says yes,” April replied. 

That was true too.  Maybelline wanted her response to be original.  “How about “I’m all yours?”

April looked at her like she’d lost her mind.  “Really?” April laughed.  Her face suddenly lit up.  “Hey, how about “I accept?”

Maybelline shook her head.  “Nah.  Who says “I accept?”

“Well you better think of something soon,” April warned her.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll come up with the perfect response,” Maybelline replied as she stepped off the sidewalk. 

She was so lost in her dilemma that she wasn’t paying attention to her footing.  Her four-inch platform heel hit a sheet of ice.  Her platform clad feet flew out from under her and she landed with a thud on her backside.  She tried to stand up only she slipped once again and kept right on sliding down the center of the street.  She narrowly missed getting hit by Mr. Winders car.  Thinking quickly, Maybelline dug her heels into the ice like they were ice picks.   

“See?  I told you I can do anything in these shoes!” Maybelline announced as April helped her to stand.

The park was decorated for the New Year’s celebration.  Lights in a multitude of colors sparkled off the blanket of white snow that covered the ground.  The large, custom-made, crystal pinecone was perched at the top of City Hall, just waiting for the countdown to the New Year.  And where the town’s gazebo once sat, now was a stage where the New Year’s Eve band was playing.  Tall stands were stationed around the park and upon them were video cameras sending images of the partygoers to the big screen T.V. on the stage.      

Maybelline took one look at the large T.V. and turned April.  “I just bet, John and I will be on that T.V. tonight!”

She could just picture herself up on the stage, so proud and happy as John got down on one knee and said the words she’d been longing to hear. A soft sigh escaped her.  Why, she almost thought she could forgive John for the taser gun and for pretending to be working.

They spend a good part of the night searching for John.  They didn’t find him anywhere.  Maybelline’s confidence began to waver.

“Maybe he really is working,” April suggested.

Maybelline wondered the very same thing.  The excitement in the park began to build.   Everywhere they looked the hum and buzz of laughter and noisemakers sounded throughout the area.  When the band announced it was three minutes to the New Year, Maybelline knew there was a slight glitch in the plan.

Determined to find John and get her proposal, Maybelline said to April.  “That’s it.  I’m going to call him.  He’s probably lost track of time and doesn’t realize it’s almost midnight!” Maybelline turned to April.  “Where’s your phone?”

April shrugged.  “I left it at home.”

Maybelline glared at her.  “You were supposed to photograph John proposing to me!” Maybelline huffed.  “Fine.  Let’s go.  Mine is in the car.”

She hurried across the street, careful to avoid the ice patches.  She opened her car door and reached inside for her cell phone when April said, “Oh God, there’s John.”

Maybelline looked up.  There under the street light, not ten feet away was John.  His back was to her but Maybelline could tell he wasn’t working.  He was busy though . . . kissing Jenny Pickler.

Her cell phone was forgotten as Maybelline grabbed the first thing her hand touched.  She scrambled out of her car and raised her hand.  April let out a panicked cry when she saw the gun.  She threw herself at Maybelline, jarring her.  The sound of the gun discharging filled the air just a second before John dropped to his knees as fifty thousand volts shot through him.  When he finally stopped flopping around, Maybelline walked over to him.  A smile spread across her face as she looked down at him.

“Gee John, you were right.  That gun did keep something bad from happening to me.”

And with that announcement, Maybelline linked her arm in April’s and strolled back to the New Year’s Eve festival.

“I guess you were right,” April finally said.  “You and John are on the T.V.”

Maybelline looked up just in time to see the replay of her tasing John broadcast on the big screen.  A smile of pure joy lit Maybelline’s face.  She might not have gotten her beautiful ring, or the man she thought was perfect for her, but she did get something better than that.  She got a whole ton of satisfaction and oh, wasn’t that just wonderful?

Yes, this coming year was going to be absolutely perfect, Maybelline decided, as the town rung in the New Year. 

The Perfect Christmas


Claire vowed this was going to be a perfect Christmas.  She wouldn’t have the Charlie Brown Christmas tree with the one light that refused to shine nor the house with its anemic decorations, a sad comparison to the neighbors.  Her Christmas dinner wouldn’t have burnt rolls, lumpy mashed potatoes or overcooked beef.   And just once, for the love of God, she wanted to have a Christmas where she didn’t have to hear about Gracie Picklers’ perfectly wonderful holiday!

Claire could just imagine the Pickler’s Christmas.  The family would be dressed in their most expensive clothing, they’d receive the most expensive gifts and then they’d sit around the table and have the most wonderful dinner.

Why, it was enough to make Claire want to puke.

She had enough of Gracie’s perfect holiday.  It was high time Claire had one too!  She spent a whole week planning.  When she was done planning she set about making her perfect holiday happen.  The first thing she would need was a Christmas tree.  She knew just the place to get one too, Sam’s Lot of Pines.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to get a Christmas tree.”  The words were out of Claire’s mouth before she could stop them.

Kitty’s eyes lit up.  “Woo wee!  I love Christmas tree shopping.”  She slipped her feet into a pair of Burt’s rubber galoshes and snatched her coat off the rack.

Claire didn’t see how she could out of taking her elderly aunt without hurting her feelings.  With a sigh, Claire said, “Come on.  Let’s go.”

Picking out a tree should have been simple.  It probably would have been too if Kitty hadn’t been there.  No matter what tree Claire picked out, Kitty had an opinion about it.  The tree was either too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny.

“Kitty, it’s a Christmas tree, for God’s sake!  I’m not picking a husband to spend the rest of my life with.  I need the tree for one week,” Claire said in exasperation.

“It’s a good thing you’re not picking a husband, because you have terrible taste in men,” Kitty retorted

“What was wrong with Robert?” Claire demanded.

“He died at fifty, that’s what.  You need someone like my Burt,” Kitty told her.  “You watch, Burt’s gonna last another twenty years.”

“Burt’s ninety!” Claire exclaimed.

“That’s right.  His right in the prime of his life,” Kitty said.

Claire rolled her eyes.  “Does this mean you two will live with me for another twenty years?”

Kitty nodded her head happily.  “Yeah.  You’re a lucky gal.”

Claire kept her opinion to herself.  They finally settled on a tree.  As soon as they got it home, Claire called Ben to set it up for her.  It took him a good ten minutes to place the tree in the stand then another ten to straighten it.  Claire stood back and looked at it.  The living room looked like it was on a slant.

“Is it me or is my living room slanted?” Claire asked Ben.

“It’s the tree,” Ben replied dryly.  “It’s crooked.”

The muscle flexed in Claire’s cheek.  “You see?  This is what happens when you let Kitty pick out a tree!”  Claire sighed.  “And here I wanted a perfect Christmas.  You can’t have a perfect Christmas with a crooked tree.”

“Since when has any of our Christmas’ been perfect?” Ben drawled out.

Exactly never, Claire thought, but she wasn’t about to admit that.  After decorating the tree, Claire decorated her house.  She had just finished putting up her Victorian Christmas village when Kitty arrived.  She stood next to Claire and studied the village.

“Hey, where’s the casino I bought you?” Kitty finally asked.

The casino . . . the bane of Claire’s Christmas Village.  It was an ugly thing with flashing lights and a showgirl with plenty of feathers in her hair and little else on her body.  It certainly didn’t belong in a Victorian Christmas village.

“Oh, that one . . .” Claire said as she quickly popped the plastic lid back on the container before pushing it under the table.  “Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Claire lied.

A frown crossed Kitty’s face.  “Well now that’s just too bad.  You know that was miniature version of the casino where I had my affair with Frank Sinatra when I was a showgirl.”

Claire rolled her eyes.  She’d heard Kitty’s story about her supposed affair with Frank Sinatra so often she almost believed it herself.

“Yes.  Yes.  I remember,” Claire replied as she hurried into the kitchen to get away from the whole conversation.

After church on Sunday, Claire sat down at her kitchen table and began to prepare her grocery list for the dinner.  She had just started when Kitty dropped a fouling smelling plastic bag on the table.

“What the hell is that?” Claire asked.

“Lutefisk.  It’s my gift to the family for our Christmas dinner,” Kitty replied as she opened the bag.

Claire started to gag. It certainly didn’t smell like any gift she wanted.  Claire pushed the bag away.  “I think we’ll just stick with the Crown Rib Roast.”

“Now why would you want to do that?  Everyone does a rib roast.  There’s nothing special about that,” Kitty pointed out.  “Now lutefisk, that will make your dinner special.”

Claire didn’t think she wanted her dinner to be that special.  But there was a look of determination in Kitty’s eyes that Claire knew only too well.  It was the same look Claire’s mother once had.

“Fine.  I’ll make it,” Claire said, snatching the bag off the table and stuffing it in the fridge.

Claire intended to do her grocery shopping alone.  Kitty had other ideas.  As soon as Claire grabbed her coat, Kitty was up and out of her chair.

“I’ll come with you,” Kitty said.

“You don’t need too,” Claire told her.

“Nonsense,” Kitty replied.  “You can’t possibly do grocery shopping on your own.  There’s no telling what you’ll get.  You saw the tree you got, right?”

Claire started to reply then gave up.  There was no sense pointing out the obvious to Kitty.  Stop ‘n Shop was packed with last minute shoppers.  It took them forever to get the items on the list what with all the people in the store.  They were almost done and heading for the meat department when they spotted Gracie Pickler.  She was dressed in a deep purple wool coat that matched her bruised eye.

“Now don’t you cause any problems like the last time we went shopping!” Claire hissed, giving Kitty a look of warning.

“Just for the record, I wasn’t the one to cause problems.  That was all Gracie Pickler,” Kitty retorted in a tart voice.

“Why, Claire, isn’t this a happy coincidence,” Gracie said with a smug smile.

“I see you still have a black eye,” Claire couldn’t help saying.

Gracie fixed a furious gaze on Kitty.  “Oh this . . . why it’s almost gone,” Gracie said, dismissing Claire’s comment.

“I certainly hope so.  I wouldn’t want your Christmas pictures to be ruined,” Claire retorted.

“Oh don’t worry it will be gone.  I wouldn’t let something like this ruin my Christmas,” Gracie replied.  “I hope you have a wonderful Christmas . . .”

Both Claire and Kitty watched her walk away, her tinkling laughter mixing with the clicking of her Armani heels.

“I don’t believe her,” Claire hissed as they continued towards the meat counter.

“Yeah, I know.  I think that purple eye looks great,” Kitty said.  “It would really jazz up those Christmas pictures.”

Things took a decided turn for the worse when they reached the meat counter.  Roger, the butcher, shook his head, frowning.  “Sorry, Claire but Gracie Pickler got the last rib roast,” he told her.  “Maybe you’d like to have a ham instead?”

A Ham?  Claire didn’t want ham for her Christmas dinner.  She wanted an elegant dinner with fine linen tablecloth, china plates, polished silverware, and cut crystal wine glasses holding deep red Merlot.  There would be a beautiful floral arrangement in the center of the table and sitting proudly on the fine china platter Robert had bought would be the Crown Rib Roast!  Not some ugly old ham.

“Woo wee!  Looks like it’s lutefisk for everyone!” Kitty cried out with her fist raised upward.

Lutefisk for everyone?  Claire didn’t think so.  She turned back to Roger.  “We’ll take a ham.”

She spent the rest of the week baking.  She made cookies, her famous triple chocolate truffle cake and three different pies.  Burt came into the kitchen just as she was finishing icing the last batch of sugar cookies she’d made.  She sprinkled some green sugar on the cookie, keeping an eye on Burt as he opened one kitchen cupboard after another.

Finally, she asked, “What are you looking for, Burt?”

“The gingerbread cookies,” he said.

“Gingerbread cookies?  I didn’t make gingerbread cookies.”

“What?  You can’t have Christmas without gingerbread cookies!” Burt snapped.  “Everyone knows that!”

“Burt, I’m certain Christmas is going to come whether I make gingerbread cookies or not,” Claire told him.  “Besides, I made sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms and Italian anise cookies.”

“Anise cookies?  No one eats them!” Burt complained.

“As a matter of fact, Kitty does,” Claire pointed out.

“Oh sure, you make Kitty’s favorite cookie but not mine?”

Claire sighed.  There was no way she was going to get out of it and she knew it.  “Fine.  I’ll make some gingerbread cookies.”

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny.  Claire woke up exhausted.  She wanted to stay in bed and sleep.  She couldn’t though.  She had too much to do before her guests arrived.

“Woo wee, this is going to be fun!” Kitty exclaimed with her fist in the air as Claire stepped into the kitchen.  “Now tell me, do we have any good-looking men coming to dinner?”

Claire frowned as she looked at her aunt.  Kitty was eighty-eight years old.  Should she be even looking at men?

“Burt, Sam and Ben will be here,” Claire replied.  “Father Frank will be here, too,” Claire added.

“Frank . . .?  Why would you invite him?”

“Because it’s Christmas and he’s our priest.  You can’t leave him out.”

“I could,” Burt interjected.  “The man has an inordinate fondness for gossip.  He’s always listening to people’s conversations.”

“He does?” Claire asked in surprise.  She couldn’t imagine Father Frank listening to gossip.  Then again, if he did hear something, she couldn’t really fault him.  This town thrived on gossip.

“Sure,” Burt returned.  “He’s got that little room he sits in.  People go in and out all day telling him all sorts of who knows what!”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “That’s not gossip.  That’s confessional.”

Burt frowned.  “That doesn’t make it right . . .”

“Anyway . . .” Claire ground out with a frown in Burt’s direction.  “Dax will be here.”

“Now we’re talking,” Kitty said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.

“Whoa . . . whoa . . .whoa . . .” Burt said waving his hands in the air.  “What do you mean Dax will be here.  He’s not family and he’s not a priest.”

“He’s coming because he’s alone for the holiday and he’s Ben’s best friend,” Claire explained.  “Why, he’s almost like family.”

“Well now, you’ve gone and ruined my Christmas,” Kitty grumbled as she got up from the kitchen table and shuffled out of the kitchen.

Claire spent the rest of the morning preparing the food for dinner.  When she was finished, she collected Kitty, then drove to Blooms Galore to pick up the floral arrangement Mayme Wolfe had made for her.  Claire dug under the door mat, found the key Mayme hid and opened the door.

“Hey, do you think there’s a silent alarm that will bring the cops here?” Kitty asked hopefully.  “It’s been years since I’ve been arrested.”

Claire did a double take at Kitty.  “What?”

“It’s a long story.  Dean Martin and I . . .” Kitty began.  Claire gave Kitty an exasperated look.  “What?  It’s a true story!” Kitty insisted.

Claire didn’t believe that for a minute.  “Yeah, well you can tell me later.”

“Why do we need a floral arrangement for Christmas anyway?” Kitty asked.

“Because it looks nice and I want everything to be perfect.”

“That’s too bad because you’re stuck with the family you got,” Kitty replied as she followed Claire out the door of the floral shop.

When they got home, Claire started to put the floral arrangement on the table when she noticed the Christmas village.  There smack dab in the center, exactly where Claire had place the church, sat the casino complete with the flashing neon lights.

Claire glared at Kitty.  “What happened to Vicar Peabody’s church?”

“Why, I don’t know what happened to it,” Kitty replied innocently.

Clare gave up and set the floral arrangement right in the center of the table.  “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s blocking the casino,” Kitty said.

Claire was about to respond when Burt chimed in, “It’s too big.  I can’t see the person across from me.  How do you expect me to have a conversation with a bouquet like that?”

Claire sighed.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

It was only later that Claire realized she should have been more explicit with her direction.  She was just getting ready to bring out the dinner when she heard Burt say, “You want a piece of me?” Claire dropped what she was doing and rushed out of the kitchen.  She stood in disbelief as she watched her ninety-year old uncle wrestling with her sixty-year old bother over the seating arrangements.

“Now we’re talking!” Kitty exclaimed.  “Live entertainment!”

It was a good thing Ben was there to stop the wrestling.  He took control of the situation by sitting in the seat under discussion.  Seeing no other choice, Sam and Burt took seats in the opposite corners of the table.  Claire gave her son a look of relief as she hurried to the kitchen to bring out dinner.

“Hey, don’t forget the lutefisk,” Kitty called after her.

With more regret than Claire could imagine she carried out the gelatinous mess and was about to set it on the table when Kitty stopped her.

“Here, let me move this,” Kitty said as she grabbed the centerpiece off the table.

“What are you doing with that?” Claire asked.

“Moving it.  The lutefisk should be the centerpiece.”

Claire thought it should go in the trash.  She wasn’t the only one.  Everyone stared at the gooey mess with looks of disgust on their faces.  Everyone that is expect Burt and Kitty.  They were looking at the lutefisk like it was filet mignon.

Ellen was the first to break the silence.  “What is that smell?”

“Oh dear lord, I think I’m going to be sick!” Marney said as she jumped up from the table.  She didn’t make it to the bathroom in time.  Vomit spewed all over the presents before she reached the stairs.

“Hey!  You better not have ruined the present I bought for Ellen!  Expensive silk like that can’t be replaced,” Kitty announced.

Claire sucked in a breath of outrage.  “You didn’t buy that present!  I did.”

“No you didn’t,” Kitty said.  “You were too busy driving the get-away car.”

“You what?” Ben exclaimed.

Clearly this was something the police chief did not want to hear about his mother.  “It wasn’t a get-away car per se . . .” Claire began only to be interrupted by Kitty.

“I’m thinking of starting a new career,” she told the group.  “I think I’d be pretty good at shoplifting.”

Claire closed her eyes and prayed for patience.  The muscle in Ben’s cheeks flexed.  Ellen let out a soft groan and Frank said a quick prayer.  Only Dax thought Kitty’s comment was funny.

“Why, Kitty, I think you’d be an amazing shoplifter.”

“For the love of God,” Ben ground out.

“What?  It’s an honest profession!” Kitty said in defense.

“It’s a crime,” Claire snapped.  “Do you want to go to jail?”

“I don’t know,” Kitty mused.  She turned to Ben.  “Will the jail be co-ed?”

Claire looked up to the heavens and sighed.  “Why, for once, can I not have a perfect Christmas?”

“Who wants perfect?” Kitty asked Claire.  “One day, I won’t be here and you’ll be missing this!”

Claire realized Kitty was right.  One day Kitty and Burt would be gone and all this craziness would be replaced with the quiet, perfect Christmas the Picklers’ enjoyed.  Suddenly any anger and frustration Claire felt evaporated.  Claire sat back in her chair and smiled.  Gracie Pickler could have her perfect Christmas with her perfect family.  Claire wouldn’t trade a minute with her deranged family for Gracie’s perfectly boring one.

“You’re right Kitty.  I will miss this,” Claire said with a smile as picked up her wine to give a toast.

And without missing a beat, Kitty said, “Of course you’ve got a least another twenty years before that happens.”

Claire drank all the wine out of her glass at that announcement.

The Lesson

Frank couldn’t believe his eyes on Monday morning.  He trudged out to the nativity with snow up to his kneecaps and streams of breath puffing from his mouth and stood there in disbelief.  Someone had ransacked the nativity!  Everything was in disarray. 

Mary lay upon the manger as if she had been trying to protect her precious babe.  Joseph was leaning against the stable wall, as if he had been too drunk to stand and too sober to fall.  The three wise men had been knocked over like bowling pins and the carefully arranged animals were scattered about as if they were trying to escape the carnage.  Frank started to right Mary when he spotted something in the manger.

The righting of Mary was forgotten as Frank bent over to have a better look.  He let out a gasp of shock when he realized what exactly was draped on the babe.  “Dear God, a Red Sox blanket!” Frank whispered in horror.  Snatching the blanket off the babe, Frank hurried over to the one place he knew could help him.    

“What the hell, Frank!” Abe snapped when Frank burst through the police station doors.  “You scared the crap out of me.”

“Sorry, Abe,” Frank said as he rushed to the counter.  “But a crime has been committed.”

That announcement got just the reaction Frank was hoping for.  Abe dropped his book of word jumbles, ripped open his desk drawer and pulled out a gun.

“What the hell . . .er . . . I mean, what the heck are you doing, Abe?”

“You said a crime has been committed,” Abe replied in a reasonable voice.  He didn’t spare a glance in Frank’s direction.  He was too busying snapping a clip of bullets into his gun.   “As far as I know, there’s never been a crime committed that a gun hasn’t been needed.”

Ben, the police chief, hearing the commotion in the lobby, walked out of his office.  He took one look at Abe with the gun in his hand and let out a sigh.  “What’s going on?”

“A crime has been committed!” Abe informed him.

“That’s right!” Frank said swinging his attention to Ben.  “Someone came during the dead of night and covered baby Jesus in this!” Frank slapped the offending blanket on the counter.

Both Abe and Ben stared at the fluffy fleece blanket.  Abe was the first to break the silence.  “Good God, who hates Jesus!”

“Oh, for goodness sake, it’s just a blanket,” Ben said, exasperated.

“A blanket?  That’s not a blanket!” Abe snapped pointing to the offensive blanket.  “That’s a hate crime!  We need to find the felon and arrest him!”

“Now just calm down,” Ben said.  “It’s not a hate crime and it’s certainly not worthy of an arrest.  It’s just a blanket and nothing more.  Toss it out and be done with it.”

“Be done with it?” Abe cried out in disbelief.  “That’s a Red Sox’s blanket!  How can we be done with it?  Someone not only desecrated out Lord but has insulted the town to boot.  I don’t know about you, but I think we need to do something about this outrage!”

Ben let out a resigned sigh.  “And just what exactly should we to do?”

Abe had a ready answer.  “I say we create a stakeout, nab the perp, haul him into Judge Wingold’s chambers then send him to the fryer!”

“Are you planning to arrest a person or eat a chicken?” Ben asked.

Abe’s bushy grey brows snapped down.  “Oh sure.  Laugh all you want but this is serious!  We have all these out-of-towners coming here and they’re ruining this place!  Why just last week Elliot Nussbaum told me someone snuck into his yard in the middle of the night and snatched his inflatable snowman.  When it was finally found, the poor snowman had been caught on the muffler of Margie Wilson’s Cadillac and was dragged all the way to her house,” Abe huffed. 

“Now why would someone from out-of-town steal Elliot’s snowman?” Ben wondered.

“Don’t you get it?  They’re trying to ruin our Christmas,” Abe retorted. 

“They’re doing nothing of the sort,” Ben snapped.  “They’re here to enjoy the holidays just like the rest of us.”  He shot another glance at the blanket.  “They could have better taste though,” he said as he strode into his office.

Abe waited for Ben’s door to shut before he said, “If Ben think’s I’m going to let this go, he’s wrong.  We’re not a part of the ‘Red Sox’ nation.  We bleed blue here like true Yankee fans!”

“What are you doing?” Frank asked when Abe pulled a pad of paper from his desk drawer.

“Filing a complaint with the union,” Abe replied as he scribbled on his notepad.  “The way I see it, a crime has been committed and Ben’s doing nothing about it.  That’s dereliction of duties, if you ask me.”  When he was finished, he tucked the pad back into his desk drawer then stood up.  He grabbed his coat from the rack, put it on, saying, “Come on.  Let’s nab us a felon.”   

Abe and Frank walked back to the nativity scene.  They looked at the mess the vandals made.  Intermixed with the chaos was an empty bag of chips, a rotten banana peel, and something that looked suspiciously like the bones of a fish. 

“How are we ever going to find out who did this?” Frank asked.

“We’re gonna do exactly what I told Ben we should do,” Abe replied.  “We’re gonna do a stakeout.”

“A stakeout?” Frank asked worriedly.

“Yup.  That’s right,” Abe returned.  “We’re gonna stay in the car all night if we have to just to find the culprit who did this!”

Suddenly, Frank wished he hadn’t walked out to the nativity scene and he certainly wished he hadn’t gone to the police station.  There was nothing he could do about it now, though.  Abe was determined to find the person who committed such an atrocious act, which meant Frank had to be just as determined. 

Abe arrived just before sunset.  His car was loaded down with all sorts of things he deemed necessary for the stakeout.  Two heavy sleeping bags were rolled up in the back seat right next to a large paper bag and a black nylon duffle bag.

“What’s in the paper bag?” Frank asked as he slid into the front passenger seat.

“It’s for later tonight,” Abe replied as he reached into the backseat and grabbed the bag.  He pulled each item out of the bag, showing them to Frank.  “We’ve got some chips, Ho Ho’s and Ding Dong’s, two bags of cookies, a six pack of soda, a can of that cheese spray to go with the crackers, a dozen of Dainty’s Donuts, two thermoses of Betty’s coffee and . . .”

“That’s all junk food!” Frank said.  “Don’t you have anything healthy in there? You know, like fruits or vegetables?”

Frank held up a yellow bag.  “Of course, there are vegetables.  These are Funyuns!  Onion is right there in the name!” Frank exclaimed.  “And what about this?  This is spray cheese.  It’s protein!  Jeez, you’d think you’d know this stuff.”

Frank opened his mouth to reply then snapped it shut.  There was no point in stating the obvious.   “What’s in the duffle bag?  More ‘healthy food’?”

“No . . .” Abe said giving Frank a sharp look.  He returned the bag to the back seat then hauled the black nylon duffel bag to the front seat.  “Now in here, we’ve got all the things needed for a proper stake out.  There’s your professional grade stun gun, some night vision goggles, a couple pairs of handcuffs . . .”

Frank glanced in the back seat then let out a gasp.  “Is that a semi-automatic rifle?”

“It sure is,” Abe replied proudly as he grabbed the rifle and brought it to the front seat.  “We’re not letting these hooligans get away.”

“Shouldn’t we just use the handcuffs and take them to the police station?”

“Sure, but what if the troublemaker causes us problems?” Abe asked.  “We’ll need to have backup and this here,” Abe added with a pat to his rifle. “Is backup.”

Frank wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of shooting anyone over a Red Sox’s blanket but seeing as he had never dealt with criminals and Abe had, he decided he’d defer to the professional.  Instead, he opened his bible to read, only he couldn’t focus on the words.  It was just too darn hot in the car to do anything but sweat.

When he couldn’t take the heat any longer, Frank snapped his bible shut and said, “I think we should turn off the heater”

“No can do, Suzie Q,” Abe replied.  “The cold makes my bones hurt.”

“But I’m sweating!” Frank complained.

Abe frowned.  “Well, then open the window a crack.” Abe gave Frank a hard look as he added, “But just a crack.”

Frank wasn’t about to complain.  But he did open it a bit more than a crack.  Blessedly cool air blew into the car.  Frank let out a sigh of relief as he picked up his bible and began to read this week’s sermon again.  He had barely gotten through the first passage when Abe intruded into his thoughts.  

“What are you doing?” Abe asked.

Frank looked up from the bible.  “What was that?”

“I asked what you were doing,” Abe repeated.

“I’m preparing for Sunday’s sermon.”

“You know what?” Abe began.  “You should do your sermon about the whole eye for an eye thing.”

Frank’s attention snapped from the bible to Abe.  “We don’t preach about an eye for an eye.  We preach about forgiveness.”

A look of irritation crossed Abe’s face.  “What good is that?  Nobody learns from forgiveness.  You’ve got to do the whole eye for an eye thing . . .”

Frank ignored Abe’s suggestion and continued to read.  A few minutes later, Abe interrupted Frank’s thoughts once again.  “I’m hungry.”

“What?” Frank asked.

“I said, I’m hungry,” Abe repeated. 

“So, eat some of the snacks,” Frank replied without looking up. 

“Those are for later,” Abe replied.  “Let’s go to Papa’s for a slice of pizza.”

Frank’s stomach rumbled at Abe’s suggestion.  A slice of hot, cheesy pizza sounded good right now.  “What about the vandals?” Frank asked snapping the bible shut.    

Abe glanced at his watch.  It was barely eight o’clock.  “It’s too early.  There’s too many people out for anything to happen.  The perps probably won’t show up until after midnight.”

They were wrong.  They knew it the minute they stepped out of the pizza parlor and saw the destruction in front of the church. 

“I don’t believe this!” Abe said as he threw up his hands in outrage.  “How the hell did they get the snacks?”

It didn’t take them any time at all to figure out the answer to that question.  Abe swung his hot glare in Frank’s direction.  “You left the car window open!  Why did you do that?”

Sheepishly, Frank shrugged.  “I forgot.”

Abe wasn’t paying him any attention though.  He had spotted something yellow lying on in the mound of snow.   “Is that my bag of Funyuns?” Abe asked as he snatched the bag from the ground.  He tipped it over, frowning.  “They ate every damn one of them!”

They didn’t just eat the Funyuns.  They ripped open the box of Ho Ho’s and Ding Dong’s and ate every bit of them.  They finished off the bag of pretzels and the chips too.  But the worst offense, in Abe’s opinion, was the theft of the powdered donuts.

“Are you kidding me!” Abe burst out, waving the empty box in the air.  White powdered sugar flew about mingling with the snow.  “What are these guys?  Animals?”

“Maybe they’re homeless and this is all the food they have?” Frank suggested, an image of the needy family flashing through his thoughts.

Abe rolled his eyes.  “Now don’t get all Christian on me,” Abe grumbled.  “We’re not here to help the needy we’re here to protect that plastic baby Jesus!”  Abe snapped, pointing to the manger scene. 

Ben’s Jeep pulled up next to Abe’s car just then.  “Abe, what’s going on?”

Abe considered lying then immediately dismissed the idea.  This was his boss and the police chief, after all.  There’s no telling what would happen if he was caught lying.  Abe sighed.  “Well, if you must know, we’re doing a stakeout.”

Ben was certain he hadn’t heard Abe correctly.  “What?”

“A stakeout,” Abe repeated.  “For this.  Remember?” Abe snapped, waving the Red Sox’s blanket in the air as a reminder.

Ben had completely forgotten about the blanket.  “Abe, have you lost your mind?”

“I don’t think I have,” Abe shot back.  “I plan on catching these felons.”

A burst of laughter erupted from Ben as he scanned the trash-filled area.  “Doesn’t look like you’re doing a very good job of it.”

Abe’s brows snapped downward.  “Laugh all you want, funny man! But this here is serious business!”

Ben was about to comment when his gaze landed on the front seat of Abe’s car.  The muscle flexed in his cheek.  “Abe, what the hell are you going to do with an M4 rifle?”

“I’m doing what I was sworn to do,” Abe retorted.  “I’m upholding the law.”

“I don’t think your oath meant shooting someone over a Red Sox’s blanket,” Ben replied in a dry voice.

“Yeah, well, we have no idea what these thugs are up to,” Abe shot back.  “For all we know, they could be out to harm someone and I’m not going to stand around and let that happen.”

“The only person who’s gonna harm anyone, is you,” Ben retorted.  He held out his hand.  “Give it to me.”

“What?” Abe cried out.

“It’s police property to be used for police situations.” Ben’s gaze flicked to the nativity scene then back to Abe.  “And this is not a police situation.”

“I don’t see how I’m gonna teach these guys a lesson if I don’t have the gun,” Abe grumbled as he reached into the backseat. 

He was just about to hand over the gun when a noise sounded somewhere near the nativity scene.  Abe spun about to see what was happening.  Just then, a flurry of movement was spotted near the manger.  Abe burst into action.  He pointed the rifle at the stable. 

“I’ll teach you for putting a Red Sox’s blanket on baby Jesus!” Abe yelled as he cocked the rifle.  “Everyone knows Jesus is a Yankee’s fan!”

A loud blast and a flash of light erupted from the gun.  The sound of a bullet zipping through the air could be heard just a second before a loud explosion broke the silence of the night.  As the smoke cleared, everyone stared in disbelief as the vandal, unharmed, scurried away with a powdered donut in his mouth.  And there lying upon the ground, was Mary, the mother of God, a bullet shattering her in two.

A rumble of laughter sounded from Ben.  “Well, I’ve got to admit, Abe, you really taught that raccoon a lesson,” Ben said before turning to Frank.  “I think you’re gonna need to get another Mary, though.”


Holiday Lights

Maybelline had big plans. She was going to enter the Aberdeen Explosion of Lights contest this year. Not only was she going to enter but she was going to win!

She knew it wouldn’t be easy. After all, she’d entered the contest for six years straight and not once had she won. Why, she hadn’t even been named honorable mention.  But this year, that was all gonna change. By the time this contest was over, she, Maybelline Marlene Jordan, was going to be the talk of the town!

It took a full week to get her landlord, Mrs. Tindrow to agree to Maybelline’s plan.  She found a distributor in some tiny town from some tiny country she’d never heard of.  She placed her order then waited patiently for the decorations to arrive. She waited a full week and when her order still hadn’t come in, Maybelline’s patience was gone.

She called the distributor every day for a whole week.  By the end of the second week she was on a first name basis with him. She also had a restraining order placed on her. Why the man was so touchy about her calling him was beyond Maybelline. She supposed it probably had something to do with her threatening him. Clearly, he didn’t understand a bluff when he heard one. Like she could get the U.S. Government to bomb his country. When the FedEx truck pulled into Mrs. Tindrow’s driveway a scant week before the contest, Maybelline could barely contain her excitement. She grabbed her plans, ripped open the boxes and started to decorated.

Maybelline hadn’t planned on telling anyone about the contest. After all, she couldn’t take the chance of her ideas being stolen. However, when her best friend April stopped by, Maybelline had no choice. What possible excuse could she make when she was surrounded by a herd of mechanical reindeer, three angry polar bears and a ten foot tall faux fur covered abominable snowman.

“Don’t tell me you’re decorating for the Aberdeen Explosion of Lights contest?” April exclaimed in exasperation.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Maybelline scoffed.

“Don’t lie to me, Maybelline Jordan.” April pointed an accusing finger at Maybelline. “I’m not dumb you know! You’ve got boxes and boxes and boxes of decorations strewn about! And what about that Candyland house over there? Did you think I wouldn’t notice it?”

“It’s not a Candyland house,” Maybelline sniffed. “It’s a gingerbread house . . .for Mrs. Claus.”

“Whatever,” April replied. “The fact is, you’re decorating.”

Maybelline threw up her hands. “Okay fine! I am decorating for the Explosion of Lights! But I don’t want anyone to know.” She dropped the strands of lights she’d been trying to untangle as a thought came to her. “You wanna help me?”

April dusted off the snow from the edge of the porch then plopped down on the ice cold deck. “I don’t think so. I’ve got things to do today.”

“Oh really? Like what?” Maybelline asked.

“I’m going to go to Albany to find a dress for the Winter Festival Dance. I thought you’d like to join me.”

Maybelline frowned. She did need a dress for the dance. If only her decorations had arrived last week!

“I can’t. And now neither can you. You have to help me,” Maybelline said, picking up the lights once again and held them out to April.

“But I don’t want to help you!”

“You don’t have a choice,” Maybelline explained. “It’s like the whole military secret thing. I’m either going to have to kill you or you’re going to have to help me. Seeing as I’m not in the mood to kill you today, you’re going to help me.”

“I’d rather you just kill me,” April replied snatching the lights out of Maybelline’s hand. “What in that box over there?”

A big smile crossed Maybelline’s face as she looked at the wooden box. “Oh, that’s my coup de grace,” Maybelline announced proudly. “They’re enhanced sparklers.”

“You mean like fireworks?”

“Of course not. They’re illegal. These are just flashing lights but I really think they will put me over the top!”

“If they’re just flashing lights, how come the box has skulls and crossbones on it?”

Maybelline shrugged. “Oh, you know how these companies are, they’ll do anything to make something seem exciting.”

It took the women all weekend and every night during the week to get all the decorations up. By the day of the big contest Maybelline was exhausted. But the house, yard and a good portion of the front part of the street was completely decorated and if you asked her, the place looked spectacular.

She placed the herd of mechanical reindeer in the side yard. Polar bears withe glowing blue eyes sat in front of the house, and a red and white candy cane lane led to Mrs. Claus’ house. The abominable snowman with Yukon Cornelius next to him, stood near the sidewalk. Santa and his reindeer were perched atop of Mrs. Tindrow’s roof. It had been no easy feat putting the jolly old elf, his sleigh and reindeer up there. April had fallen off the ladder and nearly broke her ankle in the process and Maybelline had broken three fingernails. Miles and miles of ribbon, lights and garland hung from every conceivable limb, shrub, branch and tree in the yard. Maybelline had taken her time placing the enhanced sparklers around the place. She put two atop the roof, three around the sides of the house and the rest she sprinkled here and there for effects.

April hurried over to Maybelline’s house just before the start of the contest. Maybelline frowned when she saw her. “What the heck are you doing?” Maybelline demanded.

“What? I thought this was cute. It matches the theme!” April said as she looked down at her Mrs. Claus’ costume.

“No! It matches me!” Maybelline snapped. “I was going to be Mrs. Claus! We can’t have two Mrs. Claus’. We’ll look ridiculous.”

April threw her hands up in the air. “Fine. Do you want me to go home and change?”

Maybelline let out an exaggerated sigh. “No. I’ll change . . .” Maybelline grudgingly walked into her bedroom. When she came out a few minutes later, April burst out laughing. Maybelline’s brows snapped downward. “Just what do you think is so funny?” Maybelline demanded as she tugged on the far too small top.

“You look like an overstuffed green crayon!”

What did April expect? Of course she looked like a green crayon! She was dressed as an elf. And she wasn’t even close to a size two like April.

“I’ll have you know this was the costume I bought for you!” Maybelline grumbled as she marched out down the steps and to the front of the house. She came to an abrupt stop when she saw her decorations. “What the heck! The abominable snowman is grey!” She looked around at the dirty snow. “Jeez, you can’t keep anything white in this town!”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have put him so close to the street?” April offered. “Then he wouldn’t have been splashed by passing cars.”

“I had too,” Maybelline retorted. “When I put him next to the house, Mrs. Tindrow nearly had a heart attack. It’s not like she was expecting a ten foot, hairy white monster to be looking in her window at five in the morning.”

“So, when are we going to light this place up?” April asked.

Maybelline looked down the street. No one was approaching yet. “I’m waiting until the committee shows up. No one is going to see the extravaganza until then.”

And wait they did. For what seemed like forever, Maybelline and April paced the sidewalk waiting for the Aberdeen Explosion of Light committee to arrive. When Maybelline didn’t think she could take it any longer she saw a large black Buick park across the street, next to Mr. Olson’s house.

“They’re here!” Maybelline said as she clapped her green and white stripped gloved hands together.

“Is Mr. Winders on the committee?” April asked, surprised.

Maybelline nodded her head. “Yup. Him, Mrs. Maple, Owen Johnson, Horace Miller and Gordon Newcomb.”

April blinked in surprise. “You think you’re gonna win with that committee?”

“Sure. Why not?” Maybelline asked.

“Have you forgotten about the Newton Pumpkin Palooza in October?”

Maybelline blushed. “What about it?”

“You dented Mr. Winders’ Buick.”

“For one thing, I didn’t dent his car,” Maybelline announced defensively. “Maxwell Nelson did when he threw the pumpkin at me. I was just trying to protect myself.”

“By hiding behind Mr. Winders’ car? He’s not going to forget that too quickly.”

Maybelline waved off April’s concern. “It won’t matter. By the time this event is over he will have no choice but to crown me as the Queen of the Explosion of Lights Festival!”

It wasn’t just the committee who arrived but all the local newspapers, as well as the Albany Chronicle. A good portion of the town had also come to see the festive display.

“This is it. Now they’re going to see what an explosion of lights means!” she whispered proudly to April. “Go turn on the lights. I’ll let Mrs. Tindrow know.”

Maybelline had no sooner got to Mrs. Tindrow’s front door when a large eruption shook the house and nearly knocked Maybelline off the top step. The front door ripped open as Maybelline spun about to see what was going on.

“What the . . .” Mrs. Tindrow screeched from behind Maybelline’s back.

Mrs. Tindrow’s voice was drowned out by loud speakers Maybelline had arranged around the yard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the melodious sounds of holiday music blaring from the speakers but something that sounded more like an air raid siren. Hurrying down the steps, Maybelline rushed towards the sound system. She barely made it three feet before another loud booming sound erupted again and sparks of fire shot upward. Stunned, Maybelline covered her head and dove into the snowdrift. She wasn’t the only one who ducked for cover. Every person who’d come to see the display scattered like snowflakes in a blizzard.

Dazed, Maybelline looked up from where she’d landed and stared in horrified amazement. The holiday lights, all half million of them, she had so painstakingly hung upon every tree, shrub and building, began to shoot sparks up into the air. The sleigh and Santa, who had once sat so proudly upon the roof, decided to come crashing down. It narrowly missed Mrs. Tindrow’s head. Only by the grace of God and the arm of the abominable snowman was Mrs. Tindrow saved.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the enhanced sparklers which only seconds before had shot sparks into the air, suddenly decided to explode. One rocket shot off the top of the house and disappeared into the night sky. The three surrounding the house, skimmed the ground, melting snow as they blazed a trail across the yard. Screams drowned out the sounds of the air raid siren as people ran to and fro trying to avoid the zigzagging blasts of fire. Another rocket, on a path of destruction, annihilated the herd of reindeer, obliterated the gingerbread house and kept right on going.

“Watch out William . . .!” Horace Miller shouted as the remaining rocket atop the roof suddenly made a beeline straight for Mr. Winders.

Mr. Winders dove into a drift of snow, just missing getting torched by the rocket. His Buick wasn’t nearly as lucky. The rocket, in a shower of sparks and fire, landed right into the side of Mr. Winders’ Buick.

All eyes turned to Maybelline as April leaned in and whispered, “I don’t think this is what they meant by an explosion of lights . . .”