Chapter Thirteen

Luther slowly made his way to the kitchen, where his wife was sitting at the table, lists already under way. "Can we talk about this?" he pleaded.

"Talk about what, Luther?" she snapped.

"Let's tell her the truth."

"Another dumb idea."

"The truth is always better."

She stopped writing and glared at him. "Here's the truth, Luther. We have less than seven hours to get this place ready for Christmas."

"She should've called earlier."

"No, she assumed we'd be here with a tree and gifts and a party, same as always. Who would ever dream that two otherwise sensible adults would skip Christmas and go on a cruise?"

"Maybe we can still go."

"Another dumb idea, Luther. She's coming home with her fiance. Is this registering with you? I'm sure they'll be here for at least a week. I hope so anyway. Forget the cruise. You have bigger problems right now."

"I'm not doing Frosty."

"Yes you are. And I'll tell you something else. Blair will never know about the cruise, understand? She'd be crushed if she knew we'd planned it, and that she'd interfered. Do you understand me, Luther?"

"Yes ma'am."

She thrust a sheet of paper at him. "Here's the plan, bozo. You go buy a tree. I'll get down the lights and ornaments. While you're decorating it, I'll hit the stores and see if there's any food left for a party."

"Who's coming to the party?"

"I haven't got that far yet. Now move. And change clothes, you look ridiculous."

"Don't Peruvians have dark skin?" he asked. Nora froze for a second. They stared at each other, then both looked away. "I guess it doesn't matter now," she said.

"She's not really getting married, is she?" Luther said, in disbelief.

"We'll worry about the wedding if we survive Christmas."

Luther darted to his car, cranked it, backed down the drive quickly, and sped away. Leaving was easy. Returning would be painful.

Traffic got thick in a hurry, and as he sat still he stewed, and fumed, and cursed. A thousand thoughts raced through his overworked brain. An hour earlier he'd been enjoying a restful morning, sipping his third cup of coffee, etc., etc. Now look at him-just another loser lost in traffic while the clock ticked away.

The Boy Scouts sold trees in a Kroger parking lot. Luther skidded to a stop and jumped from his car. There was one Boy Scout, one scoutmaster, one tree. Business was winding down for the season.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Krank," said the scoutmaster, who looked vaguely familiar. "I'm Joe Scanlon, same guy who brought a tree to your house a few weeks ago."

Luther was listening but he was also staring at the last tree, a crooked spindly dwarf of a pine shrub that had been passed over for good reasons. I'll take it," he said, pointing.

"Really?"

"Sure, how much?"

A handmade sign leaning against a pickup truck listed various prices, beginning with $75 and falling all the way to $15 as the days had passed. All prices, including the $15, had been scratched through.

Scanlon hesitated, then said, "Seventy-five bucks."

"Why not fifteen?"

"Supply and demand."

"It's a rip-off."

"It's for the Boy Scouts."

"I'll give you fifty."

"Seventy -  five, take it or leave it."

Luther handed over the cash and the Boy Scout placed a flattened cardboard box on top of Luther's Lexus. They wrestled the tree up and onto the car, then secured it with rope. Luther watched them carefully, glancing at his watch every two minutes.

When the tree was in place, the hood and trunk were already accumulating dead pine needles, lots of them. "It needs water," said the Scout.

"I thought you weren't doing Christmas," Scanlon said.

"Merry Christmas," Luther said gruffly, getting in his car.

"I wouldn't drive too fast."

"Why not?"

"Those pine needles are awfully brittle."

Back in traffic, Luther sat low behind the wheel and stared straight ahead as he crept along. At a traffic light, a soft drink delivery truck eased next to him and stopped. He heard someone yell, looked up to his left, then cracked his window. A couple of rednecks were staring down, grinning.

"Hey buddy, that's the ugliest tree I've ever seen!" yelled one.

"It's Christmas, come on, spend some money!" yelled the other, and they roared with laughter.

"That tree's shedding faster than a dog with mange," yelled one of them, and Luther raised his window. Still, he could hear them laughing.

As he neared Hemlock, his pulse quickened. With a little luck, maybe he could make it home without being seen. Luck? How could he hope for good luck?

But it happened. He roared past his neighbors' homes, hit his driveway on two wheels, and came to a sliding stop in the garage, All this without seeing a soul. He jumped from the car and was pulling at the ropes when he stopped, and stared, in disbelief. The tree was completely bare-nothing but crooked limbs and branches, no greenery whatsoever. The brittle pine needles Scanlon had warned him about were still blowing in the wind between the Kroger and Hemlock Street.

The tree was a pitiful sight lying there on the flattened cardboard, dead as driftwood.

Luther looked around, scanned the street, then yanked the tree off the car and pulled it through the garage door and into the backyard where no one could see it. He toyed with the idea of lighting a match and putting it out of its misery, but there was no time for ceremonies.

Thankfully, Nora had already left. Luther stomped into the house and almost crashed into a wall of boxes she'd hauled from the attic-boxes carefully marked: new ornaments, old ornaments, garland, tree lights, outside lights. Nine boxes in all, and he'd been left with the chore of emptying their contents and decorating the tree. It would take days.

What tree!

On the wall by the phone she'd tacked a message with the names of four couples for him to call. All were very close friends, the kind you could confess to and say, "Look, we've screwed up. Blair's coming home. Please forgive us and come to our party."

He'd call them later. But the note said do it now. So he dialed the number for Gene and Annie Laird, perhaps their oldest friends in town. Gene answered the phone and had to yell because a riot was under way. "Grandkids!" he said. "All four of them. Got an extra spot on the cruise ship, old boy?"

Luther gritted his teeth and plowed through a quick narrative, then gave the invitation. "What a bummer!" Gene yelled. "She's coming home now?"

"Right."

"And bringing a Peruvian?"

"You got it. Quite a shock, really. Can you guys help us out?"

"Sorry, pal. We got family in from five states."

"Oh, they're invited too. We need a crowd."

"Let me check with Annie."

Luther slammed down the phone, looked at the nine large boxes, and was hit with an idea. Probably a bad idea, but at the moment good ones were scarce. He ran into the garage and gazed across the street at the Trogdon house. The van was packed with luggage and skis were strapped across the top of it. Wes Trogdon emerged from his garage with a backpack to throw on board, Luther stepped quickly across the Beckers' front lawn and yelled, "Hey, Wes!"

"Hello, Luther," he said hurriedly. "Merry Christmas."

"Yeah, Merry Christmas to you." They met behind Trogdon's van. Luther knew he had to be quick.

"Look, Wes, I'm in a bit of a jam."

"Luther, we're late. We should've been on the road two hours ago." A small Trogdon darted around the van, firing a space gun at an unseen target.

"Just take a minute," Luther said, trying to be cool but hating the fact that he was begging. "Blair called an hour ago. She'll be home tonight. I need a Christmas tree."

The hurried and stressed look on Wes's face relaxed, then a smile broke out. Then he laughed.

"I know, I know," Luther said, defeated.

"What're you going to do with that tan?" Wes asked between laughs.

"Okay, okay. Look, Wes, I need a tree. There are no more trees for sale. Can I borrow yours?"

Trish screamed from somewhere inside the garage, "Wes! Where are you?"

"Out here!" he yelled back. "You want my tree?"

"Yes, I'll return it before you get home. I swear."

"That's ridiculous."

"Yes, it is, but I have no choice. Everybody else'll be using their trees tonight, and tomorrow."

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Dead serious. Come on, Wes."

Wes pulled a key ring from his pocket and removed the ones to the garage door and the house. "Don't tell Trish," he said.

"I swear I won't."

"And if you break an ornament then we're both dead."

"Shell never know it, Wes, I promise."

"This is funny, you know."

"Why am I not laughing?"

They shook hands, and Luther hurried back to his house. He'd almost made it when Spike Frohmeyer wheeled into his driveway on his bike. "What was that all about?" he demanded.

"I beg your pardon," Luther said.

"You and Mr. Trogdon."

"Why don't you mind your own-"Luther caught himself, and saw opportunity. He needed allies at the moment, not enemies, and Spike was just the type.

"Hey, Spike buddy," he said warmly, "I need a little help."

"What's the deal?"

"The Trogdons are leaving home for a week, and I'm going to keep their tree for them."

"Why?"

"Trees catch on fire a lot, especially ones loaded with lights. Mr. Trogdon is worried about the tree getting too hot, so I'm going to move it over to my house for a few days."

"Just turn the lights off."

"Still got all those wires and stuff. It's pretty dangerous. Think you could give me a hand? I'll pay you forty bucks."

"Forty bucks! You gotta deal."

"We need a small wagon."

"I'll borrow Clem's."

"Hurry. And don't tell anybody."

"Why not?"

"It's part of the deal, okay?"

"Sure. Whatever."

Spike sped away, off on a mission. Luther took a deep breath and gazed up and down Hemlock. Eyes were watching him, he felt sure, the way they'd been peeking at him for weeks now. How did he become such a villain in his own neighborhood? Why was it so hard to dance to his own beat once in a great while? To do something no one had dared? Why all this resentment from people he'd known and liked for years?

Regardless of what happened in the next few hours, he vowed that he would not be reduced to begging his neighbors to come to the party. First, they wouldn't come because they were ticked off. Second, he wouldn't give them the satisfaction of saying no.

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