Chapter Seventeen

He waited as long as he could, though he had not a second to spare. Darkness would hit fast at five-thirty, and in the frenzy of the moment Luther had tucked away somewhere the crazy notion of hanging ole Frosty under the cover of darkness. It wouldn't work, and he knew it, but rational thought was hard to grasp and hold.

He spent a few moments planning the project. An attack from the rear of the house was mandatory-no way would he allow Walt Scheel or Vic Frohmeyer or anybody else to see him in action.

Luther wrestled Frosty out of the basement without injuring either one of them, but he was cursing vigorously by the time they made it to the patio. He hauled the ladder from the storage shed in the backyard. So far he had not been seen, or at least he didn't think so.

The roof was slightly wet with a patch of ice or two. And it was much colder up there. With a quarter-inch nylon rope tied around his waist, Luther crawled upward, catlike and terrified, over the asphalt shingles until he reached the summit. He peeked over the crown of the roof and peered below-the Scheels were directly in front of him, way down there.

He looped the rope around the chimney, then inched back down, backward, until he hit a patch of ice and slid for two feet. Catching himself, he paused and allowed his heart to start working again. He looked down in terror. If by some tragedy he fell, he'd free-fall for a very brief flight, then land among the metal patio furniture sitting on hard brick. Death would not be instant, no sir. He'd suffer, and if he didn't die he'd have a broken neck or maybe brain damage.

How utterly ridiculous. A Fifty-four-year-old man playing games like this.

The most horrifying trick of all was to remount the ladder from above, which he managed to do by digging his fingernails into the shingles while dangling one foot at a time over the gutter. Back on the ground, he took a deep breath and congratulated himself for surviving the first trip to the top and back.

There were four parts to Frosty-a wide, round base, then a snowball, then the trunk with one arm waving and one hand on hip, then the head with his smiling face, corncob pipe, and black top hat. Luther grumbled as he put the damned thing together, snapping one plastic section into another. He screwed the lightbulb into the midsection, plugged in the eighty-foot extension cord, hooked the nylon rope around Frosty's waist, and maneuvered him into position for the ride up.

It was a quarter to five. His daughter and her brand-new fiance would land in an hour and fifteen minutes. The drive to the airport took twenty minutes, plus more for parking, shuttling, walking, pushing, shoving.

Luther wanted to give up and start drinking.

But he pulled the rope tight around the chimney, and Frosty started up. Luther climbed with him, up the ladder, worked him over the gutter and onto the shingles. Luther would pull, Frosty would move a little. He was no more than forty pounds of hard plastic but soon felt much heavier. Slowly, they made their way up, side by side, Luther on all fours, Frosty inching along on his back.

Just a hint of darkness, but no real relief from the skies. Once the little team reached the crown, Luther would be exposed. He'd be forced to stand while he grappled with his snowman and attached him to the front of the chimney, and once in place, illuminated with the two-hundred-watt, old Frosty would join his forty-one companions and all of Hemlock would know that Luther had caved. So he paused for a moment, just below the summit, and tried to tell himself that he didn't care what his neighbors thought or said. He clutched the rope that held Frosty, rested on his back and looked at the clouds above him, and realized he was sweating and freezing. They would laugh, and snicker, and tell Luther's story for years to come, and he'd be the butt of the jokes, but what did it really matter?

Blair would be happy. Enrique would see a real American Christmas. Nora would hopefully be placated.

Then he thought of the Island Princess casting off tomorrow from Miami, minus two passengers, headed for the beaches and the islands Luther had been lusting for.

He felt like throwing up.

Walt Scheel had been in the kitchen, where Bev was finishing a pie, and, out of habit now, he walked to his front window to observe the Krank house. Nothing, at first, then he froze. Peeking over the roof, next to the chimney, was Luther, then slowly Walt saw Frosty's black hat, then his face. "Bev!" he yelled.

Luther dragged himself up, looked around quickly as if he were a burglar, braced himself on the chimney, then began tugging on Frosty.

"You must be kidding," Bev said, wiping her hands on a dish towel. Walt was laughing too hard to say anything. He grabbed the phone to call Frohmeyer and Becker.

When Frosty was in full view, Luther carefully swung him around to the front of the chimney, to the spot where he wanted him to stand. His plan was to somehow hold him there for a second, while he wrapped a two-inch-wide canvas band around his rather large midsection and secured it firmly around the chimney. Just like last year. It had worked fine then.

Vic Frohmeyer ran to his basement, where his children were watching a Christmas movie. "Mr. Krank's putting up his Frosty. You guys go watch, but stay on the sidewalk." The basement emptied.

There was a patch of ice on the front side of the roof, just inches from the chimney and virtually invisible to Luther. With Frosty in place but not attached, and while Luther was struggling to remove the nylon rope and pull tight the electrical cord and secure the canvas band around the chimney, and just as he was to make perhaps the most dangerous move of the entire operation, he heard voices below. And when he turned to see who was watching he inadvertently stepped on the patch of ice just below the crown, and everything fell at once.

Frosty tipped over and was gone, careening dawn the front of the roof with nothing to hold him back-no ropes, cords, bands, nothing. Luther was right behind him, but, fortunately, Luther had managed to entangle himself with everything. Sliding headfirst down the steep roof, and yelling loud enough for Walt and Bev to hear indoors, Luther sped like an avalanche toward certain death.

Later, he would recall, to himself of course, that he clearly remembered the fall. Evidently, there was more ice on the front of the roof than on the rear, and once he found it he felt like a hockey puck. He well remembered flying off the roof, headfirst, with the concrete driveway awaiting him. And he remembered hearing but not seeing Frosty crash somewhere nearby. Then the sharp pain as his fall was stopped-pain around the ankles as the rope and extension cord abruptly ran out of slack, jerking poor Luther like a bullwhip, but no doubt saving his life.

Watching Luther shoot down the roof on his stomach, seemingly in pursuit of his bouncing Frosty, was more than Walt Scheel could stand. He ached with laughter until he bent at the waist. Bev watched in horror.

"Shut up, Walt!" she yelled, then, "Do something!" as Luther was hanging and spinning well above the concrete, his feet not far from the gutter.

Luther swung and spun helplessly above his driveway. After a few turns the cord and rope were tightly braided together, and the spinning stopped. He felt sick and closed his eyes for a second. How do you vomit when you're upside down?

Wall punched 911. He reported that a man had been injured and might even be dying on Hemlock, so send the rescue people immediately. Then he ran out of his house and across the street where the Frohmeyer children were gathering under Luther. Vic Frohmeyer was running from two houses down, and the entire Becker clan from next door was spilling out of their house.

"Poor Frosty," Luther heard one of the children say. Poor Frosty, my ass, he wanted say.

The nylon rope was cutting into the flesh around his ankles. He was afraid to move because the rope seemed to give just a little. He was still eight feet above the ground, and a fall would be disastrous. Inverted, Luther tried to breathe and collect his wits. He heard Frohmeyer's big mouth. Would somebody please shoot me?

"Luther, you okay?" asked Frohmeyer.

"Swell, Vic, thanks, and you?" Luther began rotating again, slightly, turning very slowly in the wind. Soon, he pivoted back toward the street, and came face to face with his neighbors, the last people he wanted to see.

"Get a ladder," someone said.

"Is that an electrical cord around his feet?" asked someone else.

"Where is the rope attached?" asked another. All the voices were familiar, but Luther couldn't distinguish them.

"I called nine-one-one," he heard Walt Scheel say.

"Thanks, Walt," Luther said loudly, in the direction of the crowd. But he was revolving back toward the house.

"I think Frosty's dead," one teenager mumbled to another.

Hanging there, waiting for death, waiting for the rope to slip then give completely and send him crashing down, Luther hated Christmas with a renewed passion. Look what Christmas was doing to him.

All because of Christmas.

And he hated his neighbors too, all of them, young and old. They were gathering in his driveway by the dozens now, he could hear them coming, and as he rotated slowly he could glimpse them running down the street to see this sight.

The cord and the rope popped somewhere above him, then gave, and Luther fell another six inches before he was jerked to another stop. The crowd gasped; no doubt, some of them wanted to cheer.

Frohmeyer was barking orders as if he handled these situations every day. Two ladders arrived and one was placed on each side of Lather. Ned Becker yelled from the back patio that he'd found what was holding the electrical cord and the nylon rope, and, in his very experienced opinion, it wouldn't hold much longer.

"Did you plug in the extension cord?" Frohmeyer asked.

"No," answered Luther.

"We're gonna get you down, okay?"

"Yes, please."

Frohmeyer was climbing one ladder, Ned Becker the other. Luther was aware that Swade Kerr was down there, as were Ralph Brixley and John Galdy, and some of the older boys on the street.

My life is in their hands, Luther said to himself, and closed his eyes. He weighed one seventy-four, down eleven for the cruise, and he was quite concerned with how, exactly, they planned to untangle him, then lower him to the ground. His rescuers were middle-aged men who, if they broke a sweat, did so on the golf course. Certainly not power lifting. Swade Kerr was a frail vegetarian who could barely pick up his newspaper, and right then he was under Luther hoping to help lower him to the ground.

"What's the plan here, Vic?" Luther asked. It was difficult to talk with his feet straight above him. Gravity was pulling all the blood to his head, and it was pounding.

Vic hesitated. They really didn't have a plan.

What Luther couldn't see was that a group of men was standing directly under him, to break any fall.

What Luther could hear, though, were two things. First, someone said, "There's Nora!"

Then he heard sirens.