Deck the Hallways
Eleven Shopping Days until Christmas
"Merry Christmas, Shannon!" my elderly neighbor shouted as I backed my truck into the street. Wearing a green-and-red-striped housecoat and a red wool hat with reindeer antlers, she stood in her yard watering her colorful flower beds.
We were two weeks into December and Mrs. Higgins's front yard was festooned with rows of dancing candy canes and shimmery swirling snowflakes. A glow-in-the-dark, six-foot-tall blow-up Santa Claus was surrounded by eight large plastic reindeer. On her wide front porch was a life-sized animatronic Snow White and her seven dwarves frolicking around a twinkling Christmas tree.
Overnight, bright holiday lights had been strung up and down across her roof and around each window and the front door. I suspected her sons-in-law had worked all night and I was touched by their kindness, knowing how much their mother-in-law loved the holiday. I also knew from experience that these lights would remain lit twenty-four hours a day into the New Year.
For the next few weeks, astronauts traveling in space would wonder and worry about a strange, radiant glow emanating from northern California, but we locals knew it was only Mrs. Higgins's holiday lights. The woman knew how to do Christmas right—and at the same time made all her neighbors, including me, look like Ebenezer in comparison.
My lights were always the last in the neighborhood to go up and, while I had many treasured ornaments from childhood, my collection of decorations were, comparatively speaking, sadly lacking. Still, I love Christmas and any day now I would spring into full holiday mode, but I wasn't quite feeling the spirit yet. Nevertheless, I smiled and rolled down my window. "Good morning, Mrs. Higgins. You're out early this morning."
"These roses aren't going to water themselves, little missy."
She had a point.
"You have a good day," I said, and she gave me an absent wave as I raised the window and drove off down the street. Mrs. Higgins grew dottier every year, but she was still a good neighbor despite her tendency toward garish holiday overkill.
Honestly I enjoyed Christmas as much as anyone and always looked forward to buying a tree and decorating my house for the season. But was it too much to ask for a few weeks of quiet calm after struggling through the frenzied overindulgence of Thanksgiving celebrations? Did we have to gear up for the next round of hectic merriment so soon?
"Oh, lighten up," I muttered. I was already sick of my grouchy, anti-holiday attitude and it was barely eight in the morning. The truth was, I hadn't slept well the night before and now I was late for work. It didn't help that my personal life was in shambles, but that was something I refused to dwell on. But if this cranky mood went unchecked, I was likely to turn into what my crew would call The Boss from, well, you know where. In other words, a really bad boss. And that just wasn't me.
With that thought in mind, I drove to my favorite coffee bar and bought the latte that would magically transform me into a reasonable human being.
By the time I arrived at the job site ten minutes later, I was surprised to hear myself humming along to a Christmas carol on the radio. Thanks to James Taylor's magically mellow version of "Deck the Halls," and the wonders of caffeine and steamed milk, I was feeling better. It was like a mini-Christmas miracle, I thought, as I pulled into the long driveway and parked my truck by the side of the six-car garage behind the old Forester mansion.
"Made it," I said aloud, and breathed a sigh of relief. My humor was still somewhat intact and I was ready to get started. I slid down from the cab, zipped up my quilted vest, reached for my knit cap and my latte, and locked the door.
I walked to the back of the truck and paused for a moment to gaze up at Forester House, officially the biggest Victorian home in Lighthouse Cove. That was saying a lot, because our town was known for its truly grand Victorian mansions. But this one was enormous. I felt a shiver skip down my arms, not from the cold—although it was close to freezing—but from gleeful anticipation. This job promised to be one of the most challenging I'd ever faced, but also one of the most fun. Either way, I was ready for it.
Forester House was a true original. One of the oldest homes in the area, it was built in 1867 in the classic Queen Anne style. But though it followed those traditional lines with its intricately detailed tower rising three stories at the northeast corner, its plethora of gables and mismatched window sizes and shapes, and its four tall chimneys, Forester House was anything but feminine and frilly. Instead, it had a dark, gothic vibe made even more intense by thick, sage green sandstone walls and wildly asymmetrical rooflines covered in dark, heavy tiles instead of the traditional lighter weight composite shingles. Enormous dormers with Tudor detailing rose to encompass three stories. A porte cochere on the east side of the house allowed visitors to be dropped off and step directly onto the veranda that wrapped around three sides of the home and was wide enough to be used as an outdoor room in good weather.
Originally the home had been built to accommodate Mr. Forester's wealthy summer guests who'd driven up from San Francisco and stayed for months at a time, so he had added balconies onto all six of the large bedrooms on the second floor. The attic, too, featured several smaller terraces tucked under the sturdy, tile-shingled eaves.
The stones used to build Forester House had not been cut smoothly but instead had been left rough and uneven. Those details did nothing to make the mansion unsightly; on the contrary, the place was a strapping fortress of a home that exuded raw power and strength. It was imposing and even a bit intimidating (although I would never utter that word out loud).
Any remaining Forester family members had long since died or moved away, and after years of neglect the house had gone into foreclosure. It was now owned by the Lighthouse Cove Bank and Trust, a respected and reliable local institution. Half the people in town had accounts at Lighthouse B&T, including me and my father and most of my friends so everyone was thrilled when the bank decided to donate the home to the town's favorite charity, Holiday Homebuilders, instead of tearing it down and selling off small parcels of the picturesque two-acre lot.
The Holiday Homebuilders charity had been created over twenty years ago to support an annual tradition in Lighthouse Cove. Every December, nearly everyone in town came together to help build a house for a family in need. We furnished it and then decorated it for the season, right down to the bowls of Christmas candy on the tables.
Jason Walsh, who ran the charity, used to work on my dad's construction crew so he knew something about building homes. He was truly excited about refurbishing Forester House, subdividing the huge mansion into apartments in order to provide housing for fifteen lucky families. It was an unprecedented donation and the news had caused everyone in town to buzz with delight.
And I was buzzing more than anyone else because the person in charge of the entire project was me!
In addition, twelve local contractors had volunteered their services. After many meetings and discussions, I had assigned each of them a section of the mansion to transform into a separate dwelling for either a small family or a single person. Except for the unfinished third-floor attic, most of the rooms would remain single large spaces with the addition of kitchenettes and closets where needed. Local carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and painters had also volunteered their time to the cause. Six local interior decorators would work with the contractors to furnish the spaces. Since many of the families would bring very little furniture with them, it was up to us to turn these places into comfortable homes. The decorators had been working for weeks, shopping for fine quality used furniture and interesting bargains. A local mattress store was donating brand new beds for each apartment and a nearby furniture store was filling in with everything that hadn't already been covered.
It was heartwarming to see such generosity flowing from my fellow townspeople this time of year. So with all that wonderfulness surrounding me, why hadn't I gotten into the spirit of the season yet? Why couldn't I suck up the joy and get with the program?
"There you are."
I whipped around and saw Wade Chambers, my head foreman, waving at me from the back veranda. He jogged down the steps and ran over to meet me. "Merry Christmas, Shannon."
"Hey, Wade. How's it going?" As I said the words, I scowled inwardly. What was wrong with me? I couldn't extend a happy holiday greeting to one of my oldest friends? Apparently not. I just wasn't ready. Fine. I slid my tool chest out of the truck and tried not to feel too guilty.
Wade didn't seem to notice as he rubbed his stomach. "We're on day ten of Thanksgiving leftovers. Last night was turkey pot pie."
"That sounds pretty good."
"It was, actually. I keep saying I won't have to eat for a week after eating what I did, but I continue to indulge. Ah, well." He glanced at me. "How about you?"
"About the same." I gazed up at the house. "Are you excited? Ready to finally knock this thing out of the park?"
"You bet I am." But he didn't move, just stared at me with a look of concern.
When he didn't look away, I set my tool chest down on the blacktop surface of the driveway. "You're staring and it's starting to freak me out. What's wrong?"
If anything, his concern deepened as his eyes narrowed in on me. "That was going to be my question. Is everything okay?"
I hedged a little. I guess I wasn't quite as good at hiding my odd mood as I thought I was if my own foreman could tell something was off. "Of course. Why not?"
"Come on, Shannon. First of all, you're never late for work. And second . . . I don't know. Something's going on with you." He picked up my tool chest with no effort and started to walk toward the back of the house.
Scowling, I rushed to keep up with him. "I just hate being late, that's all. I would've called but I was running around."
"Yeah? I tried to call you but there was no answer."
I pulled out my cell phone and noticed an unanswered call. "I didn't hear the phone ring."
He stopped. "Something going on I should know about? Why were you running around?"
"It's nothing." I sighed. I wasn't about to confess what was really going on with me. He wouldn't be able to keep it to himself and I would never live down the embarrassment of everyone in town knowing that my pitiful little heart was breaking. So I simply told him the truth about the morning's main activity. "Robbie ran out of the gate and took off for the beach."
Wade's eyes widened and he stopped and gripped my arm. "But you found him, right?"
"I did, thank goodness." My adorable West Highland terrier, Rob Roy, otherwise known as Robbie, had never wandered off before. I had spent fifteen distressing minutes hunting him down. Luckily all my neighbors knew who the little white dog belonged to and some of them helped me find him. The chase had set me back fifteen minutes, so that was why I was late. And why I was cranky earlier. Well, along with the aforementioned heartbreak silliness, but I was doing my best to ignore that.
"Thank God," he murmured. Wade and his kids were big Robbie fans.
"It's just not like him to run off and disappear like that," I said, moving forward toward the house. "I was terrified. I think Mrs. Higgins's decorations set him off. They blink and light up the sky all night long. Maybe the holidays are getting to him as much as they're getting to me."
He shot me a sideways glance. "But you've always loved the holidays. Especially Christmas."
I waved away his words. "I know, I know. I love Christmas, blah blah blah."
He laughed. "Yeah, you're really full of the old holiday spirit."
"Sorry." I shook my head and shoulders like a wet dog, hoping I could fling away this funky feeling. "Don't worry, I'll get into the swing of things." I hoped so, anyway. With a frown, I pressed my hand to my forehead. "Maybe I'm coming down with something."
"You'd better not be. This job's going to wind up being a twenty-four-seven gig, so we've all got to stay in top shape."
I grinned. "Yes, boss."
But then he stopped and pointed at me. "Right there."
"What?" I demanded.
"It's like I said." His eyes narrowed as if he were studying a strange life form. "There's something else going on with you."
"No there isn't." I kept walking, nipping that particular conversation thread in the bud.
We reached the house and climbed the steps up to the veranda. As I headed for the door, Wade grabbed my arm. "Shannon, wait. I'm sorry I was being nosy."
"You were being a friend." I smiled at him. "You never have to apologize for that."
"I appreciate it." His own smile faded. "I had a reason for calling you earlier. I wanted to tell you about Frank. He's not going to be here."
"Why not?" I stared up at him. "Is he okay? What happened?" Frank was one of my favorite contractors and a great guy.
Wade scowled. "His wife's company just transferred her to San Diego. Frank is thrilled. He's packing up their house and moving next week."
"Oh no! That's terrible." I winced. "I mean, that's great for them. But now we need another contractor."
He set down my tool chest and we both pulled our tablets out of our bags. I swept my finger across the screen. "Shoot. I had him in charge of overseeing all the work on the third floor attic. We'll have to re-organize the team leaders."
My shoulders slumped as I slid the tablet into its case. "He didn't even call to say good-bye."
"Probably couldn't bear to hear the disappointment in your voice."
I cracked a reluctant smile. "You mean he was too chicken to call."
"That's what I told him." He leaned against the wall. "Seriously, though, it's a real drag to lose him."
"I know. I'll give him a call later to wish him luck." The wind picked up and I shoved my hands into the pockets of my quilted vest. I had to consider the alternatives. Almost every contractor I trusted had already signed up to help out. "We'll all just have to stretch a little more."
Wade stared at his own tablet, then nodded. "We can do it."
"Of course we can." But I was still worried. All the work was being done on a volunteer basis, so I didn't want to overburden anyone.
"We might have to call on Carla earlier than we thought," Wade said.
Carla was my second foreman and I had put her in charge of our other work sites while Wade and I covered the Forester House job. But since she wanted to volunteer as well, the plan was for her and Wade to switch jobs after the first week.
"I'll save her as a last resort." I glanced up at Wade. "I hate to say it, but you know it'll be you and me picking up the slack."
He nudged my arm. "We can handle it, boss."
"Your wife is going to kill me," I muttered.
He grinned. "Sandy's one of our volunteers, so it'll work out just fine for us."
"No wonder you're taking the news so well."
He shrugged boyishly. "I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy."
Nodding, I said, "And you're going to pound that Christmas spirit into me until I grab it with both hands, aren't you?"
"I'm relentless that way."
"I know." I sighed as I pushed the door open and stepped through. "I'm sure I'll thank you for it in a week or so." For the moment though, I felt like a grumpy Grinch. And I really hated that feeling.
© Kate Carlisle
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