Chapter Twelve

Christmas Eve. Luther and Nora slept until almost 7 A.M., when the phone awakened them. "May I speak to Frosty?" came the voice of a teenager, and before Luther could shoot back a retort the line was dead. He managed to laugh though, and as he jumped out of bed he patted his rather firm stomach and said, "The islands are calling us, dear. Let's pack."

"Fetch my coffee," she said and slid deeper under the covers.

The morning was overcast and cold, the chance of a white Christmas fifty-fifty. Luther certainly didn't want one. Nora would lapse into a spell of nostalgia if snow fell on Christmas Eve. She'd grown up in Connecticut, where, according to her, every Christmas had been white.

Luther didn't want the weather meddling with their flight tomorrow.

He stood at the front window, exactly where the tree would've been, sipped his coffee, gazed upon his lawn to make sure it had not been vandalized by Spike Frohmeyer and his band of outlaws, and looked at the Scheel home across the street. In spite of all its lights and decorations, it was a gloomy place. Walt and Bev were in there, having their coffee, sleepwalking through the motions, both knowing but not saying that this could be their last Christmas together. For a moment Luther felt a twinge of regret about eliminating Christmas, but it didn't last long.

Next door, things were certainly different at the Trogdons'. They followed the odd custom of playing Santa Claus on the morning of Christmas Eve, twenty-four hours before the rest of the world, then loading their mini-van and racing off to a lodge for a week of skiing. Same lodge every year, and Trogdon had explained that they had Christmas dinner in a stone cabin before a roaring fireplace with thirty other Trogdons. Very cozy, great skiing, kids loved it, and the family got along.

Different strokes.

So the Trogdons were already up and unwrapping piles of gifts. Luther could see movement around their tree, and he knew that before long they'd be hauling boxes and bags to the van, then the yelling would start. The Trogdon kids would be whisked away before they were forced to explain, how, exactly, they got such a favorable deal from Santa Claus.

Otherwise, Hemlock was still and quiet, bracing itself for the festivities.

Luther took another sip and grinned smugly at the world. On the morning of a typical Christmas Eve, Nora would bounce out of bed at sunrise with two long lists, one for her, an even longer one for him. By seven, she'd have a turkey in the oven, the house spotless, the tables set for the party, and her thoroughly defeated husband out in the jungle trying to beat last-minute traffic with his list. They'd bark at each other, face to face and by cell phone. He'd forget something and be sent back into the streets. He'd break something and the world would come to an end.

Total chaos. Then, around six, when they were both exhausted and sick off the holidays, their guests would arrive. Their guests would also be dog-tired from the frenzied ordeal of Christmas, but they would push on and make the best of it.

The Krank Christmas party had begun years earlier with a dozen or so friends over for appetizers and drinks, Last year, they'd fed fifty.

His smug smile spread even wider across his face. He relished the solitude of his home and the prospect of a day with nothing to do but throw a few clothes in a suitcase and get ready for the beaches.

They enjoyed a late breakfast of tasteless bran cereal and yogurt. Conversation over the Gazette was soft and pleasant. Nora was trying gamely to ignore the memories of past Christmases. She worked hard at being excited about their trip.

"Do you think she's safe?" she finally asked.

"She's fine," Luther said without looking up.

They stood at the front window and talked about the Scheels, and they watched the Trogdons move about. Traffic picked up on Hemlock as folks ventured out for one last foray into the madness. A delivery truck stopped in front of their house. Butch the deliveryman bounded out of it with a box. He ran to the front door just as Luther was opening it.

"Merry Christmas," he said tersely, and practically threw the package at Luther. A week earlier, during a less-stressful delivery, Butch had lingered a bit, waiting for his annual gratuity. Luther had explained that they were not celebrating Christmas this year. See, we have no tree, Butch. No decorations. No gifts. No lights on the shrubs, no Frosty on the roof. Just dropping out this year, Butch. No calendars from the police, no fruitcakes from the firemen. Nothing, Butch. Butch left with nothing.

The box was from a mail-order outfit called Boca Beach. Luther'd found them on the Internet. He took the package to the bedroom, locked the door, and put on a matching shirt and shorts outfit that in print had looked just a little offbeat, but now, hanging on Luther, looked downright gaudy.

"What is it, Luther?" Nora said, banging on the door.

It was a yellow, aqua, and teal print of marine life-large fat fishes with bubbles floating up from their mouths. Whimsical, yes. Silly, yes.

And Luther decided right there on the spot that he would love it and wear it proudly around one of the pools on the Island Princess. He yanked open the door. Nora covered her mouth and was instantly hysterical. He paraded down the hall, wife behind him in stitches, his brown feet and toes a sharp contrast to the khaki carpet, and he marched into the living room where he stood proudly at the front window for all of Hemlock to see.

"You're not going to wear that!" Nora roared from behind him.

"I certainly am!"

"Then I'm not going!"

"Yes you are."

"It's hideous."

"You're just jealous because you don't have this outfit."

"I'm thrilled that I don't have it."

He grabbed her and they danced around the room, both laughing, Nora to the point of having tears in her eyes. Her husband, an uptight tax accountant with a stodgy outfit like Wiley Beck, trying his best to dress like a beach bum. And missing badly.

The phone rang.

As Luther would remember after, he and Nora stopped their dancing and laughing on the second ring, maybe the third, and for some reason paused and stared at the phone. It rang again, and he walked a few steps to get it. Things were deathly still and quiet; as he recalled later, everything seemed to be in slow motion.

"Hello," he said. For some reason, the receiver felt heavier.

"Daddy, it's me."

He was surprised, then he was not. Surprised to hear Blair's voice, but then not surprised at all that she had schemed some way to get to a phone to call her parents and wish them a Merry Christmas. They had phones in Peru, after all.

But her words were so crisp and clear. Luther had trouble picturing his beloved daughter on a stump in the jungle yelling into some portable satellite phone.

"Blair," he said. Nora bolted to his side.

The next word that registered with Luther was the word "Miami." There were words before it and some after, but that one stuck. Just seconds into the conversation Luther was treading water and about to sink. Things were swirling.

"How are you, dear?" he asked.

A few words, then that "Miami" word again.

"You're in Miami?" Luther said, his voice high and dry. Nora shuffled quickly so that her eyes, wild and harsh, were just inches from his.

Then he listened. Then he repeated, "You're in Miami, conning home for Christmas. How wonderful, Blair!" Nora's jaws unlocked, her mouth fell open as wide as Luther had ever seen it.

More listening, then "Who? Enrique?" Then at full volume, Luther said, "Your fiance! But what fiance?!"

Nora somehow managed to think, and she pushed the Speaker button on the phone. Blair's words poured forward and echoed around the living room; "He's a Peruvian doctor I met right after I got here, and he's just so wonderful. We fell in love at first sight and within a week decided to get married. He's never been to the States and he's so excited. I've told him all about Christmas there-the tree, the decorations, Frosty up on the roof, the Christmas party, everything. Is it snowing, Daddy? Enrique has never seen a white Christmas."

"No, honey, not yet. Here's your mother." Luther handed the receiver to Nora, who took it, though with the Speaker button down it wasn't needed.

"Blair, where are you, dear?" Nora asked, doing a good job of sounding enthused.

"In the Miami airport, Mom, and our flight gets home at six-oh-three. Mom, you're gonna love Enrique, he's the sweetest thing, and drop-dead gorgeous, too. We're crazy in love with each other. We'll talk about the wedding, probably do it next summer, don't you think?"

"Uh, well see."

Luther had fallen onto the sofa, apparently stricken with a life-threatening ailment.

Blair gushed on: "I've told him all about Christmas on Hemlock, the kids, the Frostys, the big party at our house. You're doing the party, aren't you, Mom?"

Luther, near death, groaned, and Nora made her first mistake. In the panic of the moment she could not be blamed for muddled thinking. What she should've said, what she wished she'd said, what Luther later, with perfect hindsight, claimed she should've said, was "Well, no, honey, we're not doing the party this year."

But nothing was clear right then, and Nora said, "Of course we are."

Luther groaned again. Nora looked at him, the fallen beach bum in his ridiculous costume, lying over there like he'd been shot. She'd certainly shoot him if given half a chance.

"Oh great! Enrique has always wanted to see Christmas in the States. I've told him all about it. Isn't this a wonderful surprise, Mom?"

"Oh, honey, I'm so thrilled," Nora managed to get out with just enough conviction. "We'll have a grand time."

"Mom, no gifts, okay. Please promise me no gifts. I wanted to surprise you by coming home, but I don't want you and Daddy running around right now buying a bunch of gifts. Promise?"

"I promise."

"Great. I can't wait to get home."

You've been gone only a month, Luther wanted to say.

"Are you sure this is okay, Mom?" As if Luther and Nora had a choice. As if they could say, "No, Blair, you can't come home for Christmas. Turn around, dear, and go back to the jungles of Peru."

"I gotta run. We fly from here to Atlanta, then home. Can you meet us?"

"Of course, dear," Nora said. "No problem. And you say he's a doctor?"

"Yes, Mother, and he's so wonderful."

Luther sat on the edge of the sofa with his face stuck in his palms and appeared to be crying. Nora stood with the phone clutched in her hand and her hands on her hips, staring at the man on the sofa and debating whether or not to hurl it at him.

Against her better judgment, she decided not to.

He opened his palms just wide enough to say, "What time is it?"

"It's eleven-fifteen, December twenty-fourth."

The room was frozen for a long time before Luther said, "Why did you tell her we were having the party?"

"Because we're having the party."

"Oh."

"I don't know who's coming or what they're going to eat when they get here, but we're having a party."

"I'm not sure-"

"Don't start, Luther. This was your stupid idea."

"You didn't think it was stupid yesterday."

"Yeah, well today you're an idiot. We're having the party, Mr. Beach Bum, and we're putting up a tree, with lights and decorations, and you're going to get your little brown butt up on the roof and do Frosty."

"No!"

"Yes?"

Another long pause and Luther could hear a clock ticking loudly somewhere in the kitchen. Or perhaps it was the steady pounding of his heart His shorts caught his attention. Just minutes earlier bed put them on in anticipation of a magical trip to paradise.

Nora put the phone down and went to the kitchen, where drawers were soon being slammed.

Luther continued staring at his colorful shorts. Now they made him ill. Gone were the cruise, the beaches, the islands, the warm waters, and the nonstop food.

How could one phone call change so much?

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