Release date: January 17, 2014
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 159
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Every year between the dates of December 1 and December 24, a strange and wonderful insanity hits my hometown of Ashton Falls. Most refer to this phenomenon as Christmas Spirit, but I’ve been around long enough to know that spirit usually translates to insanity, which brings on a phenomenon I like to refer to as Christmas Crazy.
For those of you I haven’t yet met, my name is Zoe Donovan. I am a third-generation Ashtonite (our unofficial name for the citizens of our little community). I often complain about the long hours required to pull off the biggest and best Christmas extravaganza this side of, well, anywhere, but truth be told, I love everything about this hectic but wonderful time of year.
My story began on a snowy Tuesday in early December. The agglomeration of Christmas hysteria was just beginning and most were still happily unaware of the frenzy that would soon engulf our little town. Charlie, my half Tibetan terrier/half mystery dog, and I had just left the high school, where we met with Principal Joe Lamé—pronounced La-mae with an exaggerated accent—and were on our way to the regular Tuesday morning breakfast meeting of the Ashton Falls Events Committee. Although it was only December 3, the entire town was decked out in holiday splendor reminiscent of an old-fashioned Christmas village.
I tried to let the magic of the season calm my restless thoughts as I drove through the festively decorated village, but the uncertainty of the request I planned to make at the committee meeting weighed heavily on my mind. I slowed my truck slightly as a group of seniors from the center crossed the street in front of the Rotary tree lot on their way to the town square. Every year Gabe Turner, the owner of a local lumber company, volunteers his services to cut the most inimitable tree he can find, and every year dozens of residents descend on the town square to string lights and hang ornaments, creating an extravagant hallmark worthy of a Lifetime original movie.
I waved at Hazel Hampton as she struggled with one of the giant wreaths being installed on every lamppost along Main Street. The lampposts had been donated by my mother’s family for the town’s fiftieth anniversary celebration. At first I thought the lights—white wrought iron with fancy lantern-shaped lights, three to a post—a bit ostentatious for our rugged little town, but as time has passed, the beacons have grown on me.
“Do you need any help?” I asked as I pulled my truck over to the side of the road.
“Actually, I could use a hand,” Hazel, our town librarian, replied. “Go ahead and park that monster of yours, then come back around. I’ll wait for you.”
I agreed to Hazel’s suggestion and pulled around to enter the parking area behind Rosie’s Cafe. I looked for a spot at the back of the lot, where I’d have plenty of room to maneuver. After I’d parked carefully, Charlie and I headed back around to the street to help Hazel as promised. As I looked up and down Main Street, I noticed that the decorating crew had managed to transform our little hamlet in just a few short hours. In addition to the giant evergreen wreaths with bright red bows that hung on every lamppost, volunteers from the fire department were stringing colored lights across the street at every intersection. Christmas carols blasted from storefronts along the main drag as local shop owners decorated their windows with tiny villages that told a story if you viewed the displays in order from west to east.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” I tried for a light tone as Charlie and I joined Hazel.
“I just love this time of year.” Hazel smiled. “And it’s so nice that Mother Nature provided us with snow for our decorating party. It really adds to the ambience.”
I looked at the flakes that danced and swayed as they floated gently to the ground. It had been snowing steadily since before Thanksgiving, but there’s something about Christmas snow that creates a cozy feeling that just cannot be duplicated by ordinary winter snow. Hazel held the ladder while I climbed up and attempted to hang the wreath.
Hazel is a feisty sixty-two-year-old with tidy brown hair, sharp chiseled features, and a tall, lanky frame who has never married or had children of her own but is wildly popular with the under-ten population of our little town. In addition to running the library, she serves on the community events committee, volunteers for the local children’s theater, and participates in the book club, which Charlie and I attend on Thursday nights.
“Are you coming in for the meeting?” I wondered. Every Tuesday morning the Ashton Falls Events Committee has a breakfast in the back room of Rosie’s Cafe, where we cook up plans for the myriad of celebrations we organize as part of our attempts to balance the town’s budget.
“Yeah. I just have two more wreaths and then I should be done. If you can lend a hand, it should only take a few minutes.”
I climbed to the top rung of the ladder and still couldn’t reach the destination intended for the wreath. Not one to give up, I stood on my tiptoes, reached as far as my arm would extend, and finally looped the wreath on one of the permanently installed hooks that worked equally well for Halloween pumpkins, spring flowers, or Fourth of July flags.
I climbed down the ladder and we moved on to the next lamppost. “Who was helping you before I came along?” Perhaps this particular job was better suited for someone with a bit more height.
“Your dad, but he got called over to help with the light-stringing committee.”
My dad, Hank Donovan, is a volunteer firefighter and local business owner. Like Hazel and me, he is a member of the planning committee. “Did he say whether he planned to come to the meeting?”
“I believe he does,” Hazel confirmed as we finished wreath number two—thank God someone had installed this hook a bit lower and I was able to hang the dang thing without risking my life—and moved on to wreath number three. Too bad my sort-of boyfriend, Zak, wasn’t around. At well over six foot tall, he’d have the wreaths hung in no time.
“I can’t believe how fantastic the town looks,” I said, admiring the wonderland that had been created along the main corridor from my vantage point high atop the ladder as I struggled to hang the wreath Hazel had handed me. “I feel like I live in a real live Santa’s village. Now all we need are a few elves and a herd of reindeer.”
“I imagine both will be making an appearance at some point during the month.”
“Any more wreaths?” I asked.
“No, I think that’s it. Let’s head inside,” Hazel suggested as she folded up the ladder. “I could really go for a nice hot cup of coffee and one of Rosie’s homemade pastries. I’m sure she has something special for the meeting.”
The thought of pastries made my mouth water, even though Charlie and I had already consumed a hearty breakfast at the boathouse we call home. I glanced at my dad as he waved at me from across the street. While many of the people I know look nothing like their parents, I’ve always felt that I was a unique combination of mine. In addition to my dad’s stick-thin physique, I also inherited his speckling of freckles, round face, and thick curly hair, a deep chestnut brown that most days is a wild mess that I just braid or pull back with a large clip. I’ve been told I have my mother’s eyes, sort of an intense yet unusual piercing blue with long, thick lashes, as well as her wide, full-lipped smile. Most days I am satisfied with the image looking back at me in the mirror, although I have to admit there are times I wish for a statuesque frame and straight, easy-to-manage hair.
After stashing the ladder, Hazel and I headed into Rosie’s, a quintessential small-town cafe. On any given day, during the hours between six a.m. and two p.m., locals and visitors alike gather to share a meal and catch up on the latest news. In deference to the holiday season, Rosie had decorated her window with a holiday scene, one of the many to be found along Main Street. Each scene tells part of a story, and Rosie’s part is a depiction of children in a schoolyard, playing on swings, slides, and other playground equipment. In the background there’s a forest scene, complete with local animals such as black bears, mule deer, coyotes, and raccoons. I knew that the story for this year was about a raccoon that followed a group of children onto the school bus and ended up in the middle of the city during Christmas. Rosie’s is located on the west end of town, near the beginning of the windows. If viewed from west to east, the window displays eventually changed from alpine themes to scenes of holiday shoppers in wonderfully decorated downtown settings. I think my favorite display this year is the one with the large ice-skating rink, made to resemble the one in New York City’s Rockefeller Center.
In addition to the window display, a tall but narrow tree near the cash register welcomed guests with colorful ornaments, and real fir wreaths fashioned from tree branches and pinecones were hung on the pine-paneled walls that made up the main dining area.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas played softly over the stereo system as I paused to consider the ruckus that was taking place at a table in the back of the room. Someone, who I later determined was none other than Earl Fielder, the town’s beloved Santa Claus, was causing a scene because he’d ordered his eggs over easy and apparently they’d arrived over medium. I frowned as the waitress stepped aside and Earl’s bearded face appeared. He’s about as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet, so it seemed totally out of character for him to be carrying on in such a public fashion. I considered approaching the table in order to run interference for the waitress, who was both young and new, but Gabe Turner arrived just as I was turning to approach and slid into the booth across from him. Deciding that Gabe had things under control, I continued on to the back of the restaurant.
I settled Charlie in the corner of the conference room where the meeting would be held. Due to health regulations, dogs normally aren’t allowed inside the dining area, but Charlie is well-known as a therapy dog, so he’s always been given a pass. I brushed the snow from my shoulder before hanging my red ski jacket on a hook in the corner of the room. I briefly admired the Christmas dish display Rosie had arranged on her grandmother’s antique hutch before sitting down next to my best friend, Levi Denton, who was talking to my other best friend, Ellie Davis.
Perhaps I should take a moment to catch you up, in case you’ve missed prior installments of what I’ve come to refer to as the Levi and Ellie quandary. Levi, Ellie, and I have been best friends since kindergarten, when everyone sat at round tables of three, alphabetically by last name. The three of us had bonded over clay figures and finger paints and have been friends ever since. During our years together, we have enjoyed a comfortable equilibrium as a coterie based on a best friend triad. If you ask me, this dynamic has served us well. The dilemma in our relationship first arose a couple of months ago, when I noticed that Ellie’s feelings toward Levi had evolved into something that included romantic undertones. The modification in the previously established group dynamic has created an underlying tension that none of us quite knows how to deal with.
“You made it.” Levi kissed me on the cheek.
“I was helping Hazel with the wreaths,” I explained.
“You look very Christmassy in your bright red sweater and jingle-bell earrings,” Levi admired.
“Thanks. I feel Christmassy.” I smiled at Levi, who always has a way of making me feel special. Prior to our current friendship dilemma, there had been a small part of me that wondered if perhaps Levi and I would eventually hook up. Not that I spent a lot of time dwelling on the possibility, but he’s sweet and considerate and, according to many, a total babe.
“Willa’s getting antsy to start.” Ellie leaned around Levi so that I could see her. “It seems like everyone is trickling in later than usual.”
“Decorating party,” I reminded her as I helped myself to one of Rosie’s Double Chocolate Apricot Cranberry Bars.
Willa Walton sat down across the table from us. She works for the town of Ashton Falls and acts as a mediator between the committee and the town council. I watched her nervously as she settled her pile of paperwork and smiled at me. I knew that if my crazy plan was going to work, I was going to need her support.
“I’m glad you made it,” Willa said. “We’ve missed you the past couple of weeks.”
“I know. I’m sorry I’ve been missing meetings, but I’m back now,” I assured her.
“I’m glad to hear it. We still have a few missing members. Do you know if Zak is going to show?”
“Zak is on the East Coast for a business meeting,” I informed Willa. “He won’t be back in town until later this week.”
Zak Zimmerman is a computer genius, multimillionaire, my new neighbor, and, as I mentioned, my sort-of boyfriend. Zak and I have had a complicated relationship dating back to the seventh grade. During recent months, I’ve reconciled my old resentment for the man and replaced it with feelings I find as terrifying as they are wonderful.
“Okay, then, let’s get started,” Willa announced. “Has everyone had a chance to read the minutes of the last meeting?”
The group as a whole nodded their assent as Willa called for a motion to approve.
“As you all know,” Willa continued, “the next few weeks are going to be very busy. It’s important that we all attend these meetings and stay on top of our assignments. Zoe, are you ready to give your report?”
I quickly gathered my notes. This year I was elected chairperson—against my will, I might add—of the Hometown Christmas celebration, a four-day event that’s held every year the weekend before Christmas. Hometown Christmas began as a fund-raising endeavor, but it has grown into a well-loved event. The shopkeepers along Main Street, as well as many other local citizens, dress up in old-fashioned attire and food and craft vendors, also in costume, are located at various venues around town. Transportation between events is provided by horse-drawn carriages because Main Street is closed to all vehicular traffic.
“Things are going well,” I began. “I plan to use the community center as the cornerstone of the event. We’ll set up many of the out-of-town vendors as well as the kiddie carnival inside. Not only is the venue located conveniently at the edge of town, but I found out that it will already be decorated; Santa’s Village opens the week prior to Hometown Christmas, which will save me hours of garlanding angst.”
“Will the food vendors be located in the center as well?” Hazel asked.
“Many of them,” I confirmed. “I plan to set up tables near the stage. We have several groups coming in to provide carols to entertain the diners. There will also be music and food vendors set up in a tent in the park.”
“What about the strolling carolers?” Willa asked. “They’re my favorite part of the event.”
“Weather permitting,” I confirmed. “We also plan to have a few street vendors selling hot drinks and snacks along the beach walk, as well as sleigh rides through town, a sledding hill behind the high school, and ice skating at Beaver Cove.”
“Do you think we should put so many of the vendors indoors?” Hazel asked. “It might take away from the festive feel along Main Street.”
“The main reason I decided to move the majority of the vendors inside this year is because of the iffy weather we’ve had in the past,” I explained. “That blizzard we had three years ago almost caused the whole event to be canceled.”
“It sounds like you have everything under control,” Willa complimented me.
“I do have one request,” I said nervously. “And it’s kind of a big one, so I really need all of you to consider my proposal before commenting.”
“What is it?” Willa asked.
Pretty much everyone at the table was looking at me in both fascination and confusion. I’d thought about pulling Levi, Ellie, and my dad aside and filling them in before the meeting, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself.
“I spoke to Erica Connors from the animal shelter in Bryton Lake this morning. It seems that in the weeks since our local shelter was closed, the number of animals scheduled for termination at the main shelter has increased dramatically. Erica has at least twenty dogs and cats slated for processing if they aren’t adopted before Christmas.”
“What happened?” Hazel asked. “Why the huge increase?”
“Jeremy and I were extremely successful in finding placements for our animals,” I said, referring to my former assistant, Jeremy Fisher. “We assisted the other shelters in the county in finding homes for their short-timers as well. I guess the number of adoptions in the county has decreased dramatically since we’ve been closed, and the number of animals placed in the shelter in Bryton Lake has tripled.”
“That’s because the animal-patrol guys from the valley are picking up dogs from the lake that never would have been picked up before,” Hazel said.
“I’ve heard that,” I agreed.
“So what can we do to help?” Willa asked.
“I’d like to use the high-school gym to hold a pet adoption during Hometown Christmas.”
“Won’t we need the gym for the Hometown Christmas events?”
“No. I’ve arranged it so that the gym is totally free.”
“Why don’t you just have the adoption at the Zoo?” Levi asked.
After the county closed the local animal shelter, Zak had bought the building and renamed it Zoe’s Zoo.
“The county won’t let us use the building to house animals for even a day until we’re fully permitted. I was hoping we’d be up and running in time for the adoption, but it isn’t looking good.”
“Wouldn’t use of the gym be up to the high school?” Hazel asked.
“I checked with them. The gym is reserved for use by the committee for the Christmas event. Initially, I thought about having the food court there, so I applied for the permit on behalf of the committee.” I took a deep breath. “I know this is a little out of the box. Not only will I need everyone’s support, but I’ll need everyone’s help as well. Hometown Christmas begins on the nineteenth. I plan to make the trip to Bryton Lake to pick up whatever animals remain on death row that morning. Assuming we don’t get all the animals adopted that first day, I’ll need community members willing to house unadopted animals until the next day.”
“I’ll help,” Levi assured me.
“Yeah, me, too,” Ellie joined in. “In fact, I can borrow a truck and come with you to pick up the animals, if you need help.”
“I have two dogs already, but I can take two more,” my dad added. “On a temporary basis,” he emphasized.
“I can take a few also.” Hazel jumped on the bandwagon.
“I admire what you’re trying to do,” Willa commented, “but it seems like you’ll already have your hands full with Hometown Christmas. I realize that saving these animals is important to you, but the money we earn during our fund-raisers pays for our volunteer fire department and free public library, among other things. Hometown Christmas is the biggest event of the year.”
“I can do both,” I promised.
“What does everyone think?” Willa asked.
“I’m for the idea as long as we don’t need the gym,” Hazel said. “I’d just like to emphasize that if a conflict arises, the needs of Hometown Christmas should come first.”
“Anyone disagree?” Willa asked.
No one spoke up.
“It looks like you have the committee’s support,” Willa decided. “As long as the gym isn’t needed for Hometown Christmas, you’re free to use it.”
“Okay, now let’s go over the master calendar and then move on to new business.”
I listened as Willa outlined plans for the community tree lighting on the sixth, the cookie exchange on the tenth, the opening of Santa’s Village on the twelfth, the local theater company’s performance of White Christmas on the thirteenth through the fifteenth, the last day of school before winter break and the opening of the kiddie carnival on the eighteenth, Hometown Christmas Spectacular on the nineteenth through twenty-second, the Holly Ball on the twenty-third, and the annual moonlight caroling and candlelight vigil on the twenty-fourth. Like I mentioned before, our little town tends to go just a little bit Christmas crazy.
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