Hometown Player

Just signed my second contract with Wild Rose Press for the prequel to welcome to Aberdeen-Hometown Player. Now, the work begins…editing…ugh, I’m the worst at the job.

The Sky is Falling

end of world

Gladys Clapper woke up on Monday with a tightness in her stomach and her bones aching.  When she looked at the calendar and saw that Friday was not only the full moon but also the 13th, she knew her body wasn’t lying.   Something bad was about to happen.

She spotted Mabel Wilson, her neighbor, snow blowing her driveway.  Gladys grabbed her heavy winter coat, threw on her fur lined galoshes and darted out of the house, to share the dismal news with Mabel.

The frozen ground was covered with freshly fallen snow.  Gladys carefully maneuvered the ice crusted steps making certain she didn’t fall and break a leg.  She wasn’t so lucky racing across her yard.  One of her beloved gnomes, hidden beneath piles of snow, tripped her.

Mabel was just doing another sweep of her driveway when she saw Gladys sailing through the air, her arms flailing overhead.  She shut off the snow blower just as Gladys landed with a resounding thud upon the frozen ground.

It took a moment for Gladys to collect her wits.  When she finally opened her eyes, she let out a gasp of surprise to see Mabel, bundled up like an Eskimo in her faux fur parka and Elmer Fudd hat, staring down at her.

“I think something bad is going to happen on Friday . . .” Gladys croaked out.

Mabel looked at Gladys like she’d lost her mind.  “Are you okay?  Maybe I need to call an ambulance . . .”

“Don’t you understand what I’m saying?” Gladys persisted.  “Doomsday is coming this week!  I’m talking about death and destruction.  The end of the world!  Pestilence and plague!”

“The only plague we’re getting is more snow,” Mabel snapped.

“I’m serious,” Gladys insisted.  “My bones ache and my stomach is in knots!”

“Well of course your bones are aching.  You just flew ten feet in the air.  Don’t you realize you’re old?  Your bones are as brittle as icicles.  You’re lucky you didn’t break something!”

“Okay, but remember, Friday is not only the 13th but there’s a full moon as well!”

“Gladys Clapper, I’ve known you for nearly seventy years and never once did I realize you were so superstitious,” Mabel exclaimed.

“I’m not superstitious!” Gladys retorted.  “But I am worried.  I’m going to see Madam Volta. She’ll tell me if my feelings are right.”

Mabel’s curiosity was immediately piqued.  She’d been wanting to go to see the fortune teller who had just opened for business this past summer.  Now, seeing as Gladys was going, it seemed like a perfect time for Mabel to go.

“Can I come?” Mabel asked as she started to push her snow blower back into the garage.

“Really?  You want to come?” Gladys asked.

Mabel nodded her head.  “I need to find out if I’m going to make it through the summer.”

Gladys’ brows pinched together.  “Why wouldn’t you?”

Mabel shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I’m seventy-five.  I’m rolling the dice every day.”

Seeing as Gladys was a little nervous going by herself, she didn’t think it was a bad idea to have Mabel come along with her.  Gladys ran into the house, careful to avoid the gnomes this time, grabbed her money and keys off the hall table and was out the door in seconds.

They drove the short distance to Madam Volta’s shop.  When they stepped inside the building, they came to a dead stop.  The dark room was covered in red velvet and the smell of patchouli assaulted their senses.  Exotic music played on the stereo and candles were lit on every possible surface in the room.

“Would you look at all these candles,” Mabel whispered to Gladys.

“I think it has something to do with calling up the otherworld,” Gladys returned.

“You mean dead people?” Mabel exclaimed, as a shiver of dread rolled down her spine.  “Why would she do that?”

Gladys rolled her eyes.  “Well, how else would she see into the future?”

Mabel shrugged.  “I dunno.  I thought she’d use a crystal ball . . .”

That was an excellent point and one Gladys hadn’t thought of.  “Well, I suppose she could use one of them too . . .”

Their conversation halted when Madam Volta stepped out from behind the beaded curtain separating the main area from the dark hallway.  If they expected Madam Volta to be dressed in a satin turban and silk scarves, they were sadly disappointed.

She stood before them in a pair of torn jeans and an old sweatshirt that looked like it could use a good washing.  Her face was puffy, her eyes bloodshot and whoever had done her hair, really needed to find a new profession.  The black and red hair stood erect atop her head like a medieval flail.  She didn’t look like a lady who communicated with the spirits as much as she looked one who drank spirits.

“Welcome to Madam Volta Future Teller,” Madam Volta said in a voice that sounded like she’d just downed a pack of Pall Mall’s.

Mabel’s brows pinched downward.  “Don’t you mean fortune teller?”

Madam Volta shrugged.  “Is it not the same?”

Mabel was going to argue the point but she never got a chance.  “Don’t make her mad . . .,” Gladys hissed.  She turned to Madam Volta.  “I’m Gladys Clapper and I have some questions I need answering.”

“I have many spirits clamoring to talk to you,” Madam Volta told her.

Gladys’ eyes widened.  Many spirits?  That didn’t sound good.

“Are any of them named Jack Daniels or Jim Beam?” Mabel asked because she was positive the lady in front of her had to be drunk.

“No.  But one is named Morton.”

Gladys thought her knees were going to buckle.  What the hell would Morton want to talk to her about?  They’d been married for thirty-five years and the man had hardly spoken two dozen words to her in that whole time.  Now, he’s been dead for three years and he wanted to talk?   It was a little too late in Gladys opinion.

“Well go figure! Morton is here . . .” she exclaimed, looking around the room as if the man would appear at any moment.

“He said to get rid of the gnomes,” Madam Volta told Gladys.  “They scare people.”

Gladys’ eyes widened to the size of saucers.  “But they’re so cute!”

Mabel shook her head.  “Morton’s right.  They’re downright frightening.”

A frown creased Gladys brow as she turned back to Madam Volta.  “Is there anything else?”

Madam Volta nodded her head.  “You’re about to lose a lot of money.”

“I am?” Gladys exclaimed, clutching a hand to her heart.   She turned to Mabel.  “I knew I should have listened to my stockbroker.  He warned me to get rid of that stupid stock Morton bought.  I didn’t though . . .” Gladys grumbled.

Madam Volta shook her head.  “It’s not your stocks.  Your money is falling out of your pocket.”

Gladys looked down to see Madam Volta was right.  She shoved the money back into her pocket then sat down at the table Madam Volta had indicated.  Mabel quickly followed.

The table was covered in a white lacy cloth.  In the center was a large bubble covered in red velvet.  With a sweeping flourish, Madam Volta ripped the cloth off the mound to reveal a crystal ball.

Madam Volta chanted unintelligible words as she stared in fixated concentration at the crystal globe.  Finally, in her deep mysterious voice, said, “I see many unusual things.  Things no one could imagine.”

Both Mabel and Gladys eyes widened at her words.  “Doomsday kind of things . . .?” Gladys whispered in a fearful voice.

“Something unexpected will happen,” Madam Volta murmured as her hands hovered over the crystal ball. “What has always been will be no more.  What once was, will cease to exist.  Things will be new and different.”

“Different good or different bad?” Mabel asked, enthralled.

Madam Volta turned her dark eyes in the direction of the women.  A shiver of fear rolled over them.  It was palatable in the room.

“It is too soon to tell . . .” Madam Volta replied before she slumped down in her seat, a great whoosh of air escaping her.  The room went silent as the woman’s eyes closed.

Gladys and Mabel looked at each other.  Neither was certain whether the reading was over or not.

“Oh, dear Lord, what should we do?” Mabel wondered.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to let Ben know!” Gladys replied as she jumped out of her seat.  She tossed the money on the table and bolted out the door.

“Wait!  I didn’t get a chance to find out if I’m going toes up this spring!” Mabel cried out as she chased after Gladys.

“Well, of course, you are!” Gladys said as she darted out of the building.  “You heard her.  The world is coming to an end!”

Gladys and Mabel went directly to the Police Station.  Ben had just come out of his office when Gladys and Mabel burst into the station.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked when he saw the worried looks on the elderly ladies faces.

“The world is coming to an end . . .” Gladys rushed out.

Abe’s eyes widened.  “You don’t say?”

“It’s true!  I woke up today with a really bad feeling in my bones and my stomach was queasy,” Gladys told the men.

“Don’t forget to tell them how you flew through the air and landed on the hard ground,” Mabel interjected.

“That’s true.  I did fly through the air, but that’s not why my body hurt,” Gladys corrected.

“Well, it certainly didn’t help it,” Mabel pointed out.

“I’m sure that the world is not coming to an end,” Ben said trying to calm the two women down.  It didn’t help.  Neither women seemed interested in being calmed down.

“Oh yes, it is,” Gladys insisted.  “Madam Volta saw it in her crystal ball!”

“Well, to be fair, she didn’t say it was coming to an end.  She said that something unexpected was going to happen,” Mabel corrected.  She frowned at Ben and Abe.  “We left so quickly I didn’t get a chance to find out if I was going to make it through the spring . . .”

“Would you let that go?” Gladys retorted.  “Didn’t you hear me?  No one is going to make it through the week!”  She grabbed her keys and spun on her heels.  “Come on, Mabel we need to let the rest of the town know . . .”

And before Ben could stop them, both women were out the door.

“Well, what are you going to do about this?” Abe asked.

Ben looked at him like he’d lost his mind.  “Do?  I’m not going to do anything,” he told Abe.  “Because nothing is going to happen.”

Abe frowned at the casual tone he heard in Ben’s voice.  “Are you kidding me?  We’ve got terrorists coming and you’re not doing anything about it?”

“Terrorist?  They never said anything about terrorists,” Ben replied.

“Well of course it’s going to be terrorists,” Abe retorted.  “Don’t you remember that Red Sox blanket.”

It took Ben a moment to recall what Abe was talking about.  “You mean the blanket found at the nativity scene?”

Abe nodded his head.  “Yup.  Clearly there’s a terrorist bent on destroying our town,” Abe told him.  “I think they’re using it as a warning.”

Ben let out an exhausted sigh.  “As far as I know, terrorists don’t announce their intentions ahead of time.”

Abe wasn’t happy with Ben’s answer.  “You know, you really need to take things more seriously.”

“I’ll take things seriously when they are serious,” Ben retorted.

Ben had completely forgotten about Gladys’ ridiculous worry until the next day when he had gone to Mo’s Deli for lunch.  He was surprised to see the deli locked up tighter than Fort Knox and as dark as midnight inside.  He was forced to go to Burger, Burger, Burger instead.  He would have much preferred a triple meat grinder from Mo’s than the sloppy mess tucked inside the grease laden bag.

“Mo’s is closed,” Ben complained when he returned to the station.  He handed Abe a burger.

“I know.” Abe replied, looking up from the book he was reading.  He grabbed the burger Ben handed him.  “He had to get out of town pretty fast.”

Ben knew Mo’s daughter lived in Florida with her husband and children.  He hadn’t heard there was a problem.  But that didn’t mean anything either.

Handing Abe an order of fries, Ben asked, “Family emergency?”

With a napkin, Abe swiped at the burger grease that dribbled down his chin.  “I guess you could say that.  When your life is being threatened it’s pretty much an emergency.”

That news got Ben’s attention.  “What the hell happened?”

It didn’t take Abe long to regal Ben with the details.  Apparently, bets were being placed how the end of the world would arrive.  Mo made the grievous mistake of suggesting the Aberdeen Ice Men would lose the Frozen Cup, as the trophy was called, to Lake Placid Olympians.  It wasn’t exactly an outrageous prediction seeing as the Ice Men had lost the ice hockey championship to the Olympians the past four years.  The Ice Men took exception to the prediction, though.  There was no way they were going to let the stinking Olympians have another shot at the ‘cup’ once again.

Realizing his mistake, Mo apologized profusely then got the hell out of Aberdeen until, either the end of the world arrived or the fuss blew over.  The way Mo figured, it was better to let Armageddon come to Aberdeen while he was soaking up the sun on the beaches of Florida then being lynched by an angry, frozen mob in Aberdeen.

“The town has gone crazy,” Ben grumbled, only to notice the book sitting on Abe’s desk next to the crumpled burger wrapper.  “What the hell are you reading?”

“The bible,” Abe replied as if it was an everyday occurrence.

Ben looked at Abe in surprise.  “You’re reading the bible and not doing Word Jumbles?”

Abe’s bushy brows snapped downward.  “You don’t have to appear so shocked!  It’s not like I’ve never read the bible.”

“But you’ve given up on religion,” Ben pointed out.

“That’s not true,” Abe argued.  “I’m what I like to call, a distance believer.  Kind of like a distant learner.  I like to keep a nice buffer between me and the church.  However, I’m thinking about going back.  It’s never too late,” he added, then frowned.  “Well, unless Friday is the end of the world.  Then it might be a bit too late.”

“Don’t tell me you actually believe all this nonsense?”

Abe shrugged.  “I guess you could say I’m hedging my bets.”  He paused for a moment before asking, “I’m thinking about going to see Frank and having a confession.  Do you think I need to make an appointment for that?”

“Weren’t you once a Methodist?” Ben asked, confused.

“Yes,” Abe admitted.  “But the way I figure it, you can never have too many religions praying for you.  Besides, if those aliens come to take over our town tomorrow, I want to be prepared.”

“I thought you said it was going to be terrorists?”

“Flip a coin,” Abe replied.  “There’s a fifty-fifty chance it could go either way.”

Ben thought there was a fifty-fifty chance Abe had lost his mind.  “I don’t think we need to worry about either of them,” he told Abe.

“Now you see, that’s why we need to worry,” Abe retorted.  “We’re so unprepared it’s going to be easy for someone with nefarious intentions to wipe us out.”

Ben rolled his eyes.  “We’re not prepared because there’s nothing to prepare for.”

“Oh yeah?” Abe retorted.  “Well, then if I were you, I’d take this here bible and do a little more reading.  Your soul could probably use some saving.”

Ben let out an exasperated sigh.  “I’d rather do your Word Jumbles.”  And with that he walked into his office.

Abe wasn’t the only one who had gone crazy.  Like a ripple turning into a wave, it wasn’t long before the impending end of the world was on everyone’s lips.  Speculation ran rampant.  From Abe’s terrorist invading Aberdeen to swarms of locusts and pestilence.  Everything was on the table.

George Betts, a local lawyer in town, who once had more available appointments than he did customers suddenly found he didn’t have time to eat or sleep.  He was too busy writing wills for the locals.  Warren Henderson, from Henderson and Sons Mortuary, was so busy meeting with prospective clients that he completely forgot about the funeral for Jasper Martin.  He only remembered when an angry crowd of Martin’s began beating on the mortuary door.

Ben knew things had gotten completely out of control when a good many of the residents started to withdrew their money from the Aberdeen National Bank then they drove straight to the grocery store.  It wasn’t long before Stop ‘n Shop’s grocery shelves were mostly empty.  Only the stuff people didn’t like were left there, like vegetables and tofu.

Wyatt Westerman stopped Ben on Thursday morning.  “Where is the shelter in place?”

“What?” Ben asked in confusion.

“The shelter in place!” Wyatt roared.  “Where are you going to store us until this doomsday is over?”

“There’s not going to be a doomsday,” Ben burst out. “So, there’s no need for a shelter!”

Wyatt’s brows shot downward.  “Oh sure.  Isn’t that just like you to keep it a secret from us just to keep your family safe.”

“Trust me Wyatt, that’s not a concern for me . . .” Ben shot back as he stormed up the steps of the police station.

Father Frank, seeing an opportunity to draw in new parishioners, called for an all-night prayer session.  People flocked to the event, including Abe.  The session started promptly at six o’clock on Thursday morning and ran straight through the night.

When Friday morning arrived and the town was still standing, Ben thought the drama was over.

He was wrong.

He knew it the minute he spotted a popular Albany news station van rolling into town.  When he saw Rose Smith, from the Aberdeen Almanac and Henry Walkman, from the Aberdeen Times, two competing papers, meet with the reporter from Albany in the park, Ben knew he had to intercede.  He had just entered the park when Mack, the fire chief, came up to him.

“Looks like we’re getting our fifteen minutes of fame,” Mack said as they continued across the park.

Ben was about to reply when he heard loud noises overhead.  He looked up to see a fleet of helicopters hovering above.  It didn’t take him any time at all to determine who they were.  The Air National Guard had arrived and with them plenty of fire power.  Even now, Ben could see soldiers clinging to the edge of the landing skids, their rifles poised for defense, as they circled the town square.

The reporter, not wanting to miss the story, waved frantically to the cameraman to catch the action.  Swinging his camera around, the cameraman filmed the hysteria that was mounting when suddenly, the doors to the church opened and the bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived prayer warriors emerge.

It was then that a hush descended on the town as one of the prayer warriors spotted something off in the distance.  “Oh, my God!  It’s here!  It’s here!”

The warriors, realizing they might need to say a few more prayers, dropped down to their knees and clasped their hands together, right there on the steps of the church.  It was only as the object got closer that people began to realize their mistake.

Dressed in a tight neon green and orange sweat suit, was Maybelline, trudging past them, one laborious foot in front of the other.  Everyone swung their gazes to an embarrassed Gladys.

Throwing up her hands and shrugging, she said, “Well, Madam Volta did say something unexpected was going to happen . . .”

Ben couldn’t argue with that.  Maybelline running was definitely unexpected.

 

Repurposing Maybelline

starting lineMaybelline had just accepted a glass of champagne when someone grabbed her arm and spun her around.  She looked up to see her cousin Ben glaring down at her.  She should have known she’d get caught.  This was Aberdeen, after all.  Gossip traveled faster than the speed of light in this town.  She just didn’t expect to be caught this quickly.

“Hand it over,” Ben said in a deceptively mild voice.

Maybelline knew it was deceptive because there was a tick in Ben’s cheek and everyone knew that wasn’t a good sign.  Oh, he was mad alright.  But Maybelline didn’t care.  She was a woman slighted and that was far worse than any man’s puny anger.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about . . .”

The muscle flexed in Ben’s cheek.  “The gun, Maybelline.”

He looked mad enough to arrest her.  Maybelline didn’t think he would.  He was her cousin after all.  But she didn’t want to take any chances either.  Maybelline dropped her hands to her hips and glared at Ben.  “I don’t have a gun!”

Ben’s gaze swept downward to Maybelline’s hand.  Dammit.  She was incriminated by her own stupidity!  Why hadn’t she tossed the gun in the car.

“Okay fine.  You can have it!  But I’ve got to say, you were a lot more fun as a cousin when you weren’t the police chief!” she snapped, slapping the gun into his outstretched palm.  She gave him a disgruntled look.  “I don’t know why you won’t let me keep it, though.  I’m not going to go after John again.”

“I’m sure you won’t,” Ben replied, although he didn’t believe it.  “But you might go after Jenny.”

A slow smile crossed Maybelline’s face.  “You’re right.  There’s nothing I’d like better than to tase her.”

“Do you think you stay out of trouble for the rest of the night or do I need to get you a police escort?”

Maybelline gasped once again.  “I don’t need police escort!”  A look of doubt crossed Ben’s face.  Maybelline let out a sigh of disgust.   “Fine.  I’ll stay out of trouble.  But that stupid Jenny Pickler better stay out of my way, Ben.  I’m a woman on the edge . . .”

“I know, Maybelline,” Ben replied.  “That’s why I’m keeping your gun.”

That had been exactly three days, ten hours and forty-two minutes ago.  Since then, Maybelline had been left with a lot anger and a stupid salad gift card.  Maybelline stared at the card.  She hated salads!  If she had her gun right now she’d shoot the card.  Of course, it wouldn’t do anything to the card seeing it was only a taser, but it would give Maybelline plenty of satisfaction.

Maybelline picked up the distasteful card and tapped it on the table in thought.   Jenny Pickler probably ate salads every day.  It would explain why she looked slim in her turquoise turtleneck and black leggings on New Year’s Eve and why Maybelline had looked like a sausage wrapped in space age foil.  Maybelline didn’t want to look like a sausage.  She wanted to look slim and stylish like Jenny Pickler.

Getting up from the table, Maybelline walked into her bedroom and studied herself in the full length mirror.  The image that stared back left a lot to be desired.  Dark brown sweats and a mustard yellow top, Maybelline was as far from stylish as a person could get.  Something caught her eye on the hem of her shirt.  She grabbed it up to get a closer look.

“Catsup?  When did I eat catsup?” Maybelline wondered.

Everything fell into place in that moment for Maybelline.  Now she understood why John had purchased the gun and the gift card for Maybelline.  It wasn’t so she could get fit for their wedding.  It was because he didn’t like the way she looked.  She couldn’t blame him.  The image staring back at her wasn’t one she exactly liked either.

When had this happened?  When had she gone from slim and trim to . . .to . . .

Maybelline couldn’t say the word.  Disgusted, she was just about to change into her shirt when a knock sounded on the door.  She peered through the peephole.  It was April.  Maybelline ripped the door open, grabbed hold of April’s arm and yanked her inside the apartment.

“I’m fat!”

There she said it.  A breath of relief rushed out of Maybelline.  It was like being an alcoholic, she supposed.  The hardest step was admitting she had a problem.  Now it would get easier.  Maybelline was certain of it.

“What?” April asked.

Maybelline frowned.  Wasn’t it bad enough she had to admit it once.  Now she had to admit it twice?  Jeez!  This wasn’t as easy as she thought.  She gave April a good glare to let her know she didn’t appreciate her question.

“I said I’m fat!”

April stood back and looked at her.  “I wouldn’t say fat . . .” April mused as she walked around Maybelline.  “I’d call you ‘fluffy.’”

“Fluffy?  That’s not better!” Maybelline snapped as she stormed into her bedroom.  “Jenny’s not fat!  She’s not even fluffy.”

“Well sure.  But that’s Jenny,” April reasoned.  “She’s got at least five inches on you and let’s face it, she’s not as curvy.”

Maybelline considered April’s argument.  She had a point.  At five two, it was pretty hard to stay slim and trim.  And Maybelline did have a lot of curves.  They just weren’t necessarily in the areas she would have liked them to be.

“Yeah, well that’s not the only difference between us,” Maybelline huffed.  She threw her arms wide.  “Look at what I’m wearing.”

April shrugged.  “So, you’re wearing sweats.  What’s the big deal.  Everybody wears sweats now and then.”

“Oh really?  Does everybody where sweats with this stuck on it?” Maybelline asked thrusting the hem of her sweatshirt in April’s face.

April’s brow wrinkled as she studied the spot.  “Is that catsup?”

“Yes it’s catsup!” Maybelline snapped.  “And what about this?”

Maybelline threw open her closet door and exposed a whole rack of sweats, hung neatly on hangers as if they were the finest apparel in the world.    She started to rip out the clothing from her closet, itemizing them as she did so.

“Sweat pant, sweat shirt . . . another pair of sweat pants . . . more sweat shirts . . .”

She tossed each item on the bed.   When she was finished, there was a pile of sweat pants and shirts taller than her head.  She turned to April.  “Now do you think it’s not bad?”

April looked at the pile of clothing.  “Yeah . . . that’s bad.”

Maybelline flopped down on her bed in disgust.  The pile of sweats tumbled over, burying her in a mound of cotton comfort.

“Hey, what about this?” April asked.

Maybelline sat up abruptly to see April holding up a gold sequined dress.  Hope swelled inside Maybelline.  She jumped off the bed and grabbed the dress out of April’s hands.

“That’s the outfit I wore to Janet’s wedding,” Maybelline cried out.

“What are you doing?” April asked when Maybelline started to take her shirt off.

“I’m going to try it on.  If it fits, I’ll know I’m not fat.”

Maybelline put the dress over her head.  The dress made it to the upper half of her body then stopped.  With her arms stuck up in the air, Maybelline tried to wiggle the dress on down.  It didn’t budge.

“Help me get this dress on!” Maybelline cried out.

April tugged on the dress.  The dress inched down just far enough for Maybelline’s head to break free.  Encouraged, April got down on her knees and pulled harder.

“Don’t rip it!” Maybelline warned.

“I’m trying not to . . .” April ground out as sweat broke out on her forehead and her face turned bright red. “But . . .its. . . not . . .moving . . .”

Maybelline sucked in a deep breath and began to wiggle in an effort to help.  It was no use.  The dress wasn’t going any further south.

“What the hell . . .!” Maybelline burst out when her lungs were about to explode.

They spent what seemed like forever trying to yank the dress off the other way.  It wouldn’t budge.  It was like the dress had become a second skin.

“Oh my God!” Maybelline cried out.  “Am I going to be stuck in this dress forever?”

“Don’t worry.  We’ll get you out,” April said.

It took another five minutes after that and a pair of scissors before Maybelline was finally free.  She plopped down on the bed next to the ruined dress.  She refused to let the tears flow.

“I bet Jenny Pickler never gets stuck in a dress,” Maybelline mumbled, despondent.

“That’s not really a fair comparison,” April said.  “Jenny doesn’t have hips or breasts.”

That was true.  Maybelline had all sorts of landmines that she had to navigate to get dressed.  Still, there was no denying the fact that she let herself go and that’s all there was to it.

“That’s it!  It’s official.  I’m fat,” she said sitting up.  She grabbed her sweat pants and sweat shirt and started to dress when a thought came to her.  She looked up at April.  “You know what?  I think I’ll teach that stupid Jenny Pickler and John a lesson . . .”

“Really?  How are you going to do that?” April asked.

Maybelline walked back into the kitchen with April following her.   “With this . . .” She thrust out her hand and showed April her weapon of choice.

April looked at Maybelline in confusion.  “With a salad card?”

“Yup.  I’m turning a new leaf and not just a salad leaf,” Maybelline said as she fluffed her hair.  “It’s a new year after all.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.  You’re supposed to change and become better.”

“You mean like repurposing an ugly chair or a clunker car?”

Maybelline frowned.  “I don’t exactly appreciate the analogy but yes, something like that.”

“So, what are you going to do?  Eat salads every day?”

Maybelline nodded her head.  “Yup.  And that’s not all.  I’m going to put those sweats to good use too.”

April’s glance swept over Maybelline’s old, stained sweats she was currently wearing.  “Looks like you already have.”

“Not that way,” Maybelline replied.  “I mean using them for the very reason they were made.  I’m going to start exercising.”

That announcement certainly got the reaction Maybelline expected.  April’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.  “You are gonna exercise?  Wasn’t your New Year’s resolution last year to not exercise”

Maybelline dropped her hands to her overly cushioned hips and glared at April.  “That was last year!” Maybelline retorted.  “People change you know.  That’s the whole point of the new year.  Remember?  Repurposing.  Besides, it’s not like I haven’t talked about exercising before.”

“I’ve heard you scoff at people who exercised,” April pointed out.

Maybelline gasped.  “I have not!”

“Sure you have,” April argued.  “Don’t you remember every time we pass Jim’s Gym, you’re always commenting on the people who walk inside.  You call them weak, and egocentric, and full of themselves . . .”

Maybelline rolled her eyes.  “That’s not scoffing.  That’s just using positive encouragement,” Maybelline told her.  “Don’t you see?  I was trying to motivate myself by commenting on them.”

“Really?” April replied, narrowing her eyes at Maybelline.  “Then explain to me why you protest the high school’s track and field event every year?”

Maybelline lifted her chin in defiance.  “I just don’t think it’s right that they force the track and field event on the staff every year,” Maybelline argued.  “I’m just voicing my opinion.”

“But you’re not the ones who participate!  It’s the students,” April burst out.

“That’s not the point!” Maybelline snapped, dismissing April’s argument.  “The point is that this year I’m turning over a new leaf.”

Maybelline grabbed her sneakers from the closet, plopped down on the couch and started to put them on.  She looked up at April.  “And that’s not all.  I’m thinking of going to cosmetology school too.”

“What?”  April laughed.

“I’m serious,” Maybelline replied.  “I think I have a real talent for hair.”

April frowned in confusion as she glanced at Maybelline’s recent hairtastrophy.  Her once beautiful mahogany hair had a decidedly leopard look to it.  “Weren’t you the one who color your hair this last time?”

Maybelline looked up from tying her shoe.  “Yeah.  What’s your point?”

“Have you looked in the mirror?”

Maybelline rolled her eyes.  “Of course I have.  That’s what got me motivated.”

April breathed out a sigh of relief.  “Oh good.  I thought you didn’t realize your hair looked like a bad leopard print.”

Maybelline’s brows snapped downward.  “Hey!  It takes real talent to get these spots in your hair!”

April watched as Maybelline got up and wrapped her brown, blonde and black spotted hair into a pony tail.

“You know there’s a whole foot of new snow on the ground,” April cautioned.  “Maybe you should wait until the weather breaks.”

“We live in New York State,” Maybelline retorted.  “The weather never breaks.  Besides, isn’t there a saying there’s no time like now? Well, now is now.”

April rolled her eyes.  “I really don’t think you should rush into this.”

“And I think there’s no time like the present,” Maybelline replied as she opened the door and stepped out onto the stairs landing. “See another cliché that proves my point.”

Maybelline looked all the way down the whole flight of stairs.  April was right.  There was a foot of new snow on the ground.  There was also a decided bite in the air.  But the sun was shining and the sky was clear, and that had to be a good sign, Maybelline thought.

“I’m just saying, you don’t want to make too many changes at once . . .” April said following Maybelline down the stairs.

Maybelline turned to reply just as her foot landed on a slick of ice.  Her feet flew out from under her, catapulting her five feet in the air.  She landed with a thud on her back in the new snow.

It took a moment for Maybelline to catch her breath.  Every part of her body hurt.  The snow might look soft but it certainly didn’t feel soft when you landed on it, Maybelline decided.

She brushed the snow off her face as she looked up at April staring down at her.  “You might be right.  Maybe I should just start with the salad.”

The Perfect Christmas

ChristmasVillage

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.”

 

Welcome to Aberdeen

Every year, on the night before Thanksgiving, Aberdeen filled with people.  They came from far and wide to the quaint little town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains.  Excitement filled the air.  No one seemed to mind the freezing temperatures as they lined the sidewalks in breathless anticipation for the start of the Aberdeen Annual Glow in the Park Turkey Trot.

The evening was perfect.  Freshly fallen snow blanketed the landscape in pristine white.  Colorful Christmas lights sparkled from the trees surrounding the square.  The cozy smells of cocoa and sugar cookies teased the senses.  Santa, with his nose as red as his suit, was the guest of honor.  Lines snaked around the park as good little boys and girls waited patiently to give their requests.

And right there, smack dab in the middle of the square was the Christmas tree.  It took the town a good two weeks to find the perfect tree.  The town had exacting specifications.  The tree had to be taller than any other around.  It had to be wide at the bottom, narrow at the top and perfectly filled out in between.  They wanted something as strong and as proud as they were.

The tree now stood in the center of the town square, naked and unadorned.  That wouldn’t last long.  Even now, city workers stood upon ladders, waiting for the residents to craft an ornament to hang upon the tree.  Once the last runner crossed the finish line, the mayor would flick the switch, and just like that, the Christmas tree would be ablaze with millions of multicolored lights signaling the start of the holiday season.

The square buzzed with activity.  Local merchants sponsored tables to share their products with the visitors.  Dax Moore, a fireman with the Aberdeen Fire Department, stood behind the table serving hot cocoa and sugar cookies to the line of women vying to grab his attention.  Across the way Betty’s Café had a table, where Betty herself was serving steaming hot coffee and tea.  In another part of the park Papa’s Pizza was handing out hot, fresh slices of pizza.  Aberdeeni’s was handing out cannoli, and the world famous Candi Cakes were being shared by Candi’s Candies.

There were activities for young and old alike.  An ice skating rink had been built near the center of the park where even now it was filled with skaters, flying around it’s glasslike surface.  Crafters and merchants had tables displaying their products for sale.  Intricate snow castles were competing with snowmen of all shapes and sizes.  People milled about placing bets as to which would win the competition and reign king or queen of the holiday festival.  Children ran about, not bothered in the least by the flurries of snow that dropped from the night sky, while their parents chatted with their neighbors.

Ben Jordan, the young police chief from Aberdeen, stood next to Mike Landry, the mayor of Aberdeen.  Ben’s gaze swept through the crowds, taking in every detail, making certain everyone was safe.

“I’ve asked City Council to consider refurbishing the gazebo this spring,” Mike said drawing Ben’s attention away from the scene in the park.

The gazebo under question stood next to City Hall.  It was decked out in its finest holiday attire.  Red ribbon was wrapped around the posts and pine boughs were draped off the railing, sparkling with holiday cheer.  Carolers, dressed in rather dubious Victorian garb and singing a lusty holiday too, stood beneath its roof.  To say the gazebo needed to be refurbished was an understatement.  The wooden flooring was warped and worn in places.  The roof, reinforced nearly a dozen times in as many years, was barely hanging on.  Not that it mattered.  There were so many leaks in the roof any snow that landed on it was bound to fall through the holes peppering the surface.

“What they need to do is raze it and build a new one,” Ben replied as he watched Mrs. Jones talking with Gladys Clapper.  Barney, her dog, stood sentinel next to her, eyeing the passing people as if they were intent on doing her harm.

“The council will never agree to that,” Mike replied.  “They think it should be registered with the National Register of Historic Places.”

That bit of information got Ben’s attention.  He turned to Mike in disbelief.  “What?”

Mike Landry shrugged.  “They seem to think it’s historical.”

“It’s barely forty years old!” Ben replied.

Mike shrugged again.  “You know the council.  There’s no sense trying to be logical with them.  You’ll see,” Mike added with knowing glance in Ben’s direction.

Ben ignored Mike’s comment.  City Council had made no secret they wanted Ben to assume the role of mayor when Mike retired next fall.  Each time the council cornered Ben, he had listened patiently to their reasons, neither accepting nor rejecting their offer.  Mike had nearly a year left in his tenure.  Ben wasn’t about to usurp Mike’s authority by considering the council’s offer.

“I think you should know that I’ve arranged to have the guys in flak jackets for this,” Abe, one of Ben’s officers announced as he came to a stop in front of Ben.

The irritation of becoming mayor was quickly replaced by annoyance.  To call Abe ornery and difficult would have been a compliment.  The man had a complaint for everything.  He thought he had a solution too.  Year after year, Ben kept hoping Abe would finally bite the bullet and retire.  In the six years Ben had been police chief, Abe never once hinted at the possibility retirement was in his future.  Ben figured Abe stayed on to do his Word Jumbles, collect the local gossip and to make Ben’s life difficult.  So far, Abe was batting a thousand.

Mike whipped his attention to Ben.  “Do you think there’s gonna be trouble?”

Ben gave Abe an exasperated look as he replied, “Of course not.  We’ve done this for years.  There is never trouble.” At least not the kind of trouble that required flak jackets, Ben thought.

“That’s not true,” Abe corrected before he took a sip of the coffee he held in his gloved hand.  “Don’t you remember what happened in Newton during their Pumpkin Palooza?   There was nearly a riot!”

“There was nearly a riot because someone spiked the apple cider,” Ben replied dryly.

He’d heard the news from Sheriff Wincomb just a few weeks past.  Ben wasn’t surprised the apple cider had been spiked.  Things like that happened.  Ben, however, was not about to allow that to happen here.  He made that perfectly clear to his officers.

“Your men are ready though, right?” Mike asked, clearly concerned.  A riot was not the legacy he wished for.

The muscle flexed in Ben’s cheek.  “My men are always ready.”

“Yeah, thanks to me,” Abe replied.  He saw the dark look Ben shot at him.  “Hey, I’m just trying to be helpful.”

“If you want to be helpful, why don’t you go over there and direct traffic,” Ben retorted, pointing towards the parking area just off Main Street.

“I’m no traffic cop!” Abe protested.  This earned him another hot glare from Ben.  He threw up his hands in submission.  Coffee flew out of his cup and landed on Ben’s jacket.  Abe let out a disgruntled sigh.  “Fine.  I’ll direct traffic but I warn you, the union is not going to be happy about this!” he grumbled as he stormed away.

“What about Rufus?  You don’t think he will be here, do you?” Mike asked as Ben brushed the coffee off his coat.

Ben understood Mike’s concern.  Rufus Merriweather was the town’s streaker.  Sometime during the year, Rufus would strip down into the outfit God had given him and run through the streets of Aberdeen.  He’d been doing it for seventy years and Ben doubted he would stop until he took his last breath.  Rufus naked was not a sight Ben wished to see on a warm, sunny day.  He sure as certain didn’t want to see it when the wind was blowing and the temperature was nearing thirty.  Heck, Ben couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to see Rufus naked.

He scanned the surrounding area to see if Rufus was about.  He didn’t spot Rufus, but he did see his mother and she didn’t look the least bit happy as she marched towards him.  Neither did Kitty, who Claire towed behind her.  Minnie, Claire’s neighbor and friend, kept pace with Claire, chattering the whole way.   Kitty’s husband was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Burt?” Ben asked when Claire reached his side.

“He’s home.  Where she should be,” Claire snapped giving Kitty a pointed look.

Ben laughed.  Kitty certainly had a way of keeping his mother on her toes.  “What did Kitty do now?”

“Hey!” Kitty said, taking umbrage at Ben’s words.

“I’ll tell you what she did!” Claire shot out.  “She went and sat on Santa’s lap!”

“So?  What’s wrong with that?” Kitty demanded.  “That’s why he’s here!”

“No.  He’s here for the kids,” Claire corrected.  “You’re not a kid.  You’re an old lady.”

“Speak for yourself!” Kitty snapped.  “Besides, Santa didn’t mind that I sat on his lap.”

Claire rolled her eyes.  “Oh for God’s sake.  You’re eighty-nine years old!”

“So?” Kitty protested.  “I don’t know how much longer I have left.  I need to put my requests in when I have a chance.  I want to make certain I have a spot saved for me in heaven.”

“I think you’ve got Santa confused with the man upstairs,” Minnie said, cautiously pointing towards the cloud filled night sky.

“I don’t have them confused,” Kitty corrected.  “I’m hedging my bets.  The way I figure it, I need all the help I can get.  If Father Frank can’t get me into heaven, then maybe Santa can pull some strings for me.”

“Oh for goodness sake!” Claire groaned again, wondering exactly what she had done to deserve having to deal with her aunt for the holidays.

“Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve sat on a young man’s lap,” Kitty continued.

A low groan of irritation erupted from Claire.  Clearly, she did not appreciate Kitty’s opinion.  Ben tried to contain his laughter.  He took pity on his mother and decided to intervene on her behalf.

“What about Burt?”

Minnie gave Ben a look that suggested he’d lost his mind.  “I said young man.  There ain’t nothing young about Burt,” Kitty huffed.

“How do you know Santa is young?” Minnie asked.  “He looked old to me.”

“Naw,” Kitty said, dismissing Minnie’s comment, with a flick of her wrinkled hand.  “That’s just the wig and beard.  When I sat on his lap I noticed . . .”

Claire slapped her hand over Kitty’s mouth.  “Don’t you dare say it!”

“What?  I was just going to say that I noticed he didn’t have any wrinkles around his eyes.  What did you think I was going to say?” Kitty asked when Claire pulled her hand away.

A blush the color of Santa’s suit, ran up Claire’s cheeks.  Thankfully, she was saved from explaining what Jimmy Tanner, Mike’s deputy mayor arrived.

“It’s time,” Jimmy said to the group.  He turned to Mike and asked, “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I will be,” Mike said, holding up the flare gun.

Ben wished he was as confident.  Mike wasn’t known to be the most accurate shot with the flare gun.  One year Mike had shot the star off the top of the Christmas tree.  Another year, he had shot the window out of the Court House.  And yet another year, he had flatten the tire on George Winders Buick.  Last year Ben had asked Mike if he wouldn’t feel better using a starter gun as opposed to a flare gun.  Mike had immediately dismissed Ben’s notion like it was crazy.

“Now you know Ben,” Mike said in a voice that suggested Ben was either a child or ignorant.  “We’ve always used flare guns to start the Turkey Trot.  It’s a tradition and it’s what makes it festive.”

Ben didn’t think danger was festive at all.  He could have gone to city council and pushed his concern regarding the flare gun.  Lord knows he could cite plenty of examples.  But seeing as this was Mike’s last year as mayor, Ben decided he’d make a concession and allow the man to use the gun.  But that didn’t mean Ben wouldn’t keep an eye on him.

At least that was his intention.  Only before Ben knew what had happened, chaos erupted.  Just as Mike started to lift his arm to shoot the flare, a loud explosion sounded in the area.  Barney, Mrs. Jones’ beagle, panicked at the noise, breaking free from Mrs. Jones’ grip.  He charged directly towards Mike, like a heat seeking missile.  He clipped Mike in the knees causing him to fall backward just as he pulled the trigger.  The gun sounded and a flash of light erupted lighting the area.  The flare made a beeline, not towards Stop ‘n Shop parking lot as intended, but headed directly towards the gazebo.  Somehow, no one was hit.  The same couldn’t be said for the gazebo.  The flare sailed through the air, narrowly missing one of the caroler’s top hat as it landed smack dab in the middle of the gazebo.  The caroler’s reaction was instantaneous.   They scattered, leaping over the wooden railing as the worn floor erupted in flames.  Seeing the flames, the spectators panicked and began to run, screaming from the area.  Soon there was a confusion of runners and spectators all racing through the streets.  Ben watched in amazement and disbelief, wondering what more could possibly happen when Kitty suddenly let out a loud whoop.  Ben turned his attention to his great aunt.  All four-foot ten of her stared, mesmerized, straight ahead.

“Woo wee!  Now that’s a lap I wouldn’t mind sitting on,” Kitty announced as Rufus Merriweather ran past them, wearing nothing more than a pair of dayglo socks and sneakers.

Ben looked over to see Mike Landry’s reaction.  Mike lay sprawled on his back in the snowdrift.  Ben reached down to help the mayor up just as Mike said, “I guess we won’t have to refurbish the gazebo after all.”