"Tis the season to buy holly, tra-la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la...And end up bankrupt just being jolly, tra-la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la..."
Looking up from the elaborate bow she was tying, Noelle stopped singing as soon as she heard the tiny Christmas bells above the door of her shop herald the coming of a customer.
A customer. No visions of sugarplums danced in Noelle's head at the thought of a customer. Instead, visions of MasterCard, Visa or good, old-fashioned, green-backed dollars prancing happily into her cash register filled her mind for but a moment before she hopped off the stool in the crowded, little back room and strolled into the shop.
Noelle looked to the left toward the dozen fully decorated Christmas tree displays. No customer there agonizing over which exquisite, hand-made ornament to buy. She looked to her right toward the counters filled with stocking-stuffers, tiny little handmade gifts to delight any recipient. No customer merrily filling a basket to the brim with those goodies either.
Perhaps the wind was playing tricks with her front door again. Occasionally a gust of wind would howl down the street and push against the door, causing the bells to tinkle their sweet song. She really had to get someone to fix that door. Unfortunately, that was on the end of a rather lengthy list of things needing repair for which Noelle had no money to pay a repairman.
"Ahem..." a small voice called out.
Noelle looked down over the glass counter filled with edible Christmas goodies, behind which she stood, to see a small man. He couldn't stand taller than three feet.
"Three feet and a whisker," the little man laughed gently.
As the blush of embarrassment warmed her face, Noelle plucked nervously at the cascade of white lace around her throat.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know I was speaking out loud," she apologized weakly.
"You didn't," the man laughed. "It's just usually the thing that pops into people's minds when I meet them for the first time. I'll have you know I'm very proud of that whisker's worth of height. It makes me tower above my co-workers."
A workshop filled with tiny men also popped into Noelle's imagination, but she shook the vision away. Just because she lived and breathed Christmas 365 days a year often led her to associate the holiday with everyone she met, but not everyone was as consumed with the holiday as she was. That was something she tried hard to remember.
"How can I help you?" Noelle asked, smiling down at the man.
"First, let me introduce myself," he replied, reaching inside his fuzzy wool coat. He pulled out a card and offered it to Noelle. She accepted it, silently admiring the embossed poinsettia and holly leaves festooning the sides of the card. It read, "Melvin J. Kringle, General Solicitor, Bedford Heights Home."
"I see. Well, Mr. Kringle, just what is it that I can do for you today?"
"As you saw, I'm the general solicitor for the Bedford Heights Home. Are you familiar with the home?" Melvin pulled off his red, woolen gloves before pulling his green plaid scarf from around his neck.
"Yes, I've heard about the home...and the wonderful things it does for children."
Noelle knew very well indeed all about Bedford Heights Home. She'd had a particular interest in the home ever since locating in Bedford Heights. An orphan herself, Noelle was greatly enthusiastic about the programs offered for children at the home, programs she would have benefited from had they been available to her. Instead of an institutional setting where the children were treated more like inconveniences than growing young minds and bodies, Bedford Heights created a family environment. The live-in staff was carefully screened, mostly older husband-and-wife teams whose own children were either grown or who weren't blessed with children themselves.
Instead of dormitories and huge dining and recreation areas, Bedford Heights was more a series of family cottages. No more than five children resided with each couple in a cottage.
It was the kind of secure and stable environment Noelle had missed growing up in a series of homes of distant relatives and foster families. No matter how hard they tried to include Noelle as a member of the family, there was still a subtle distinction made that she was not quite one of them.
Still, it might have been far worse. She'd heard horror stories of other parentless children who ended up on the streets at a young age, ill-prepared for the harsh realities of life. Once again, she counted her blessings, happy that fate hadn't dealt her a more unkindly hand.
"Well, as you know Bedford Heights Home is a non-profit organization. In other words, my dear, we operate on a shoestring that's been broken and retied many times over," Melvin said, smiling at Noelle. "At this time of the year it's particularly difficult to make ends meet. Now, while the winter has been kind so far, snow is just around the corner and with snow and winter comes all sorts of added expenses."
Noelle shook her head. Her heart fell, as she knew the man was winding up a pitch for a contribution. Much as she'd love to give every spare penny she had to such a worthy cause, the simple truth of the matter was that she had no spare pennies. She'd sunk everything she had into her shop after carefully selecting Bedford Heights because of its popularity as a winter ski resort and a summer vacation destination.
Unfortunately, the snows that also brought the skiers to the community had so far failed to materialize. While she had attracted some local customers, it hadn't been enough to really call the business a success. Yet, she wasn't ready to call it quits. She'd only had "Christmas Year Round" open since the beginning of October. Two months wasn't long enough to admit defeat-not after struggling for so many years to save every penny to open it.
"I really wish I could help you," Noelle said, shaking her head. She gestured to the displays around her. "Don't let this splendor fool you. While it might look rich, without the tourists I'd hoped would come here, I don't really have enough to spare. But I can promise that once we get some snow and things improve, Bedford Heights Home will be first on my list."
The little man walked over to a small table Noelle had set up to entertain children while their parents shopped. It was covered with glitter, glue, paper and scissors for the children to make their own ornaments. He settled himself on a small chair, crossed his legs and unbuttoned his coat.
Hungry for a bit of company, Noelle turned from the counter, poured two cups of hot cider from an urn and joined Melvin at the table.
"What made you decide on this business, Noelle?" he asked, blowing steam from the top of the cup he'd accepted from her.
"Christmas was always the hardest time I had when I was growing up. See, I'm an orphan, too. My parents were killed in a car accident when I was four," Noelle responded, finding it easy to talk to this tiny man. "So, I grew up in more places than I can count. Most of the time it was okay. Christmas time was different. I wasn't really a part of any family. And even though the people I lived with tried to make me feel like part of the family, I just wasn't. It always sort of felt like I was on the outside looking in. Yet, I just loved this whole time of the year. I loved the blessings of the Holy family. I loved the idea of Santa fulfilling children's wishes-even though he never seemed to find me. I loved the sounds and the smells and the colors that only come at this time of the year.
"So, I would content myself that someday Christmas would be my life. I'd create my own place in it. Sounds silly, I know."
"Not as silly as you think," Melvin laughed. "Many of us feel the same way. We try to live that Christmas feeling all the year long."
"Yeah, that's it exactly. It's the kind of loving feeling that shouldn't be limited to a few weeks a year. So, after I worked my way through college, I worked a long time for other people learning retail sales...and saving every cent I could. And while I was doing that I was busy making many of the things you see here in the shop. Getting ready for my dream to come true."
"And has your dream really come true?" Melvin asked.
"It will. I just know it will. Sure, I may be scrimping by now, but the snow will come. And it will bring people here. And it's my most fervent prayer that they'll decide to take a little bit of Christmas home with them." Noelle set her cup on the table. "I just wish I could help you."
"No reason you can't..."
"I told you I have absolutely no spare money right now," Noelle interrupted. As much as she'd like to give him her last dollar, Noelle knew that she didn't dare.
"There are other ways to give than money, Noelle. You more than anyone else should know that," Melvin soothed. "Each of the family's will be putting up their own Christmas tree in their cottages. However, we plan to have a community celebration in the main hall. It's a fund-raiser. The children will sing and offer entertainments. Would it be possible for you to donate...lend perhaps...one of your beautiful trees for us to use as a centerpiece for the stage? We're a bit short of decorations and..."
"Absolutely!" Noelle's spirit raised at the thought that she could provide something for the home. "In fact, I can provide all sorts of decorations."
"Wonderful. And we'll be sure to give you a big plug in the program for your kind donation," Melvin said, standing up and offering her his hand. "Then, is it a deal?"
"It's definitely a deal," Noelle smiled broadly, shaking his hand in agreement.
Nick Claussner kicked the gas generator with the toe of his boot before staring up at the crystal blue sky. He raised an angry fist and shook it fiercely.
"Snow, damn it!" he cursed.
Unfortunately, Nick had about as much luck getting the weather to change as he did in getting the generator that ran his ski tow-rope to work.
Not that he really needed the generator. Without snow, there were no skiers waiting impatiently in line to be towed up the slope of Mount Bedford. Of course, that also meant that he had no one there to pay for tickets to use the lift or the slopes.
Maybe it was time to face facts. There was no repairing Betsy this time with spit, promises and wire. He needed a new generator, but without paying customers and with a dwindling bank account there was no way he could afford one. It was like going in circles: without a generator he couldn't tow skiers; without skiers he couldn't afford a new generator.
Maybe it was just time to give up. Yet, he'd sunk his whole life and soul into buying his piece of the mountain and trying to find the dream he'd held since before he'd lost them-his family. He didn't know whether he had the heart left to say good-bye one more time.
"Having problems, Nick?"
Nick turned around, ready to let loose a stream of epithets about his generator when he looked down and saw Melvin. Instead, he smiled.
"Yep...I think Betsy's given up the ghost this time. Can't get her to turn over no matter what I do," he said, hunkering down so that he could speak with his friend on an even level. "'Course, it doesn't matter much as long as this fine weather holds."
"Want me to take a look at it?" Melvin asked, pulling off his gloves and walking up to the generator.
"Be my guest, but I don't think it'll do much good. Should have replaced this thing a couple of years ago, but things sort of got in the way."
Melvin grabbed a screwdriver and waved it over the machine. Then, he bent over and carefully twisted the screw on the carburetor a scant turn.
"Try her now, Nick," Melvin said, laying the screwdriver down and stepping away from the machine.
Nick shook his head and laughed. No way would it start, even if Melvin thought he could solve every problem. Nick had adjusted the choke on the carburetor repeatedly to no avail. But, still, to please his friend, he obliged, grabbing the cord and pulling it out briskly.
Immediately, the generator roared to life, offering only a brief sputter or two of protest before settling down to a regular purr. Amazed, Nick looked over to see a look of self-satisfaction on Melvin's face.
"Once again you simply astound me, Melvin. You must have the magic touch."
"I guess you could call it that," Melvin agreed, pulling his gloves back on.
"Too bad you can't wave a magic screwdriver toward the sky and get us a couple of feet of nice, white powder."
"Don't worry about that, Nick. The snow's coming. It's just taking its time getting here. Before you know it, you'll be knee-deep in skiers and wondering when they'll finally all go home and leave you in peace," Melvin chuckled.
"I just hope it's not too late. You know the resorts over on the other side of the mountain don't have to worry about real snow. They've got those machines that make it. Which also means that the skiers are already getting used to going there to ski. Even if it starts snowing now, I'm not sure we'll be able to attract them back over here," Nick said, doubtfully.
"Don't be such a pessimist, Nick. Have a little faith. You know people would rather ski on real snow than that stuff made by those glorified ice-makers."
"Yeah, but even if it does snow and the skiers come, I can't run this place by myself. And, when I couldn't afford to hire on my usual help at the beginning of the season, they all got jobs at the other places. Maybe I should just call it quits while I'm behind-before I end up in the poor house."
"Nick, what's happened to you? You haven't always been this way. Heavens, I think I could hand you a perfect rainbow and all you'd say is 'yeah, but it won't last forever.' Where's your hope, man?"
Shrugging, Nick motioned for Melvin to follow him. "I don't know, Melvin. Just seems the harder I try, the behinder I get. Come on, I'll treat to a cup of mud and you can tell me about why you came out here. At least it's warm in the lodge. As long as I've got a good supply of wood anyway."
Though he liked and respected Melvin a great deal, Nick didn't just open up to anyone. Not since he'd lost Moira and the baby. Moira had been his life-mate, his soul mate and without her there just wasn't anyone Nick figured would understand. Nor anyone he felt would want to understand. Moira had been a once-in-a-lifetime thing. He'd never known anyone like her before meeting her or after.
Other men might lose a wife and a child and still go on with life-finding happiness with other people and in other ways, but Nick just never had that sort of luck. His parents, God rest their souls, had always said that if they looked up "bad luck" in the dictionary there'd just be a picture of Nick as the definition. He guessed they were pretty accurate in their thinking.
After Nick pulled off his coat and gloves, he poured two cups of thick coffee and carried them over to the easy chairs arranged around the freestanding, Scandinavian fireplace in the center of lodge. Melvin was already seated there, looking out of the glass wall at the panoramic view of the mountainside. It was hard for Nick to even look out upon his beloved mountain-bare and brown-when it should have already been covered with thick snow.
In the background, the radio Nick never turned off announced the latest forecast-continued cold with no prospect of snow in the five-day forecast.
"Wish you'd look into that crystal ball of yours, Melvin, and tell me just when you think it's going to snow," Nick said, handing his friend the cup of coffee.
"The snow will be here before you know it, Nick. Heavy and white and full of promise. Just you wait and see."
Nick grunted and lowered himself into a chair. He crossed one ankle over his other knee, leaned back and sipped from his mug. He grimaced at the heavy strength of the brew. Mud was a kind description for the kind of coffee he made, but he was used to it and just accepted his lack of talent.
"Know you didn't come all the way out here just to fix my generator and drink my mud, Melvin. What's on your mind?"
"Why, Nick...don't you think I can just drop by to visit a friend without having an ulterior motive?" Melvin asked, setting his cup on an end table and wriggling back further in his chair. He crossed his hands over his stomach and looked at Nick.
"Nope. Sure don't. Not at this time of the year. 'Sides, I've never known you in the past not to have something or other up your sleeve. Most likely it's going to cost me, so why don't you just spit it out and I'll get my checkbook."
Melvin chuckled. "Not here for a check, my friend. Though, if you're so moved, I wouldn't reject one either. But, you're right, I am here for a reason. Other than beating on unfortunate generators, it seems to me that you have a bit of time on your hands. So, I was wondering if we might prevail upon you for a bit of help over at the home."
"What sort of help?" Nick asked, suspiciously. He only hoped that it didn't have anything to do with the kids over there. He'd given himself wide berth of children, ever since... As hard as it was to turn Melvin down, he just wouldn't put himself in the vicinity of those kids-especially at this time of the year.
"We're in need of some carpentry skills. We want to build a little stage for the program we're going to be having. It's a little fund-raiser. The children are going to sing and act in some Christmas skits. And I've arranged for Miss Noelle Franson to lend some of her beautiful Christmas things to decorate the place-you know, garlands and a tree. So, I thought maybe if you had the time, you could lend a hand, help out a bit."
He'd heard of Noelle Franson, even caught a glimpse of her in her little store on Main Street. Poor fool. She's started a cockamamie store that was doomed to failure. Speculation in town was that she wouldn't last a year. Yet, he understood why Melvin wasted no time in contacting her. Fresh blood for donations for his cause.
Certainly he had enough time on his hands until it snowed to help out over at the home, but there was still the fact that he couldn't abide being too close to those kids. Nice as they probably were, it would bring too many memories of unfulfilled dreams to his mind. He had enough on his mind as it was, wondering if he was going to last another year, to feel the pain of being near those children.
Just as he began to shake his head, Melvin broke through his thoughts.
"I know it would be asking a lot, but it would have to be while the children are in school. During the day, Nick. Or in the evenings after they've gone back to their cottages for the night. I realize that's an imposition..."
"No, that would be perfect," Nick agreed quickly. It was almost as if Melvin could read his mind, knew his hesitation. "I...errrr...I wouldn't want the kids around my power tools anyway. Too dangerous."
"Wonderful. The lumberyard is donating some wood for the stage. Perhaps you can contact them about what you'll need. Oh, and you'll need to get together with Noelle, too. She has some wonderful ideas about creating some draping around the stage," replied Melvin. "Now, if it's not too much bother, can I go see the horses? I have a bag of apples in my car. I'm sure that Dancer has been wondering what's become of me."
Nick laughed and nodded his head, setting his mug aside. "Yeah, Dancer was asking just the other day when you'd be out to take her for a ride," he said, referring to one of the horses he kept for the tourists to ride during the summer tourist season.
"No time today for that, but I'll be out soon to give her a little exercise," Melvin chuckled, wriggling off the chair and grabbing his coat. "This seems to be my busiest time of the year."
Melvin waved good-bye to Nick and carefully backed his specially-equipped car around before driving the few blocks back into town. He'd stop and see Noelle again and warn her that Nick would be stopping by to see her. Then, he needed to check in with the boss and update him on the project. It was an even busier time for the boss, this time of the year. But Melvin knew he'd want to know every detail of his progress.