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Shakespeares Christmas

Charlaine Harris

  Chapter One

  My situation was as surreal as one of those slo-mo nightmares Hollywood uses to pad B movies.

  I was sitting in the bed of a moving Dodge Ram pickup. I was enthroned on a wobbly plastic lawn chair, thinly disguised by a red plush couch throw edged with fringe. A crowd lined both sides of the street, waving and yelling. From time to time, I dipped my hand into the white plastic bucket settled on my lap, coming up with a fistful of candy to pitch to the spectators.

  Though I was clothed, which I understand is not the case in many dreams, my clothes were hardly typical. I was wearing a red Santa hat with a big white ball on the end, bright new green sweats, and I had a disgusting artificial holly corsage pinned to my chest. I was trying to smile.

  Spotting a familiar face in the crowd, a face pasted with an unconcealed smirk, I pitched the next peppermint with deliberate accuracy. It smacked my neighbor, Carlton Cockroft, right in the middle of the chest, wiping off that smirk for at least a second.

  The pickup paused, continuing a familiar and irritating pattern that had begun minutes after the parade had started lurching down Main Street. One of the bands ahead of us had stopped to blare out a Christmas song, and I had to smile and wave at the same damn people over and over until the song was finished.

  My face hurt.

  At least in the green sweats, with a layer of thermal underwear underneath, I was fairly warm, which was more than I could say for the girls who had enthusiastically agreed to ride on the Body Time float directly ahead. They also were wearing Santa hats, but below the hats they wore only scanty exercise outfits, since at their age making an impact was more important than staying comfortable and healthy.

  "How you doing back there?" Raphael Roundtree called, leaning out of the pickup window to give me an inquiring glance.

  I glared back at him. Raphael was wearing a coat, scarf, and gloves, and the heat in the cab of the truck was turned on full blast. His round brown face looked plain old smug.

  "Just fine," I said ferociously.

  "Lily, Lily, Lily," he said, shaking his head. "Slap that smile back on, girl. You're gonna scare customers away, rather than pick some up. "

  I cast my gaze to heaven to indicate I was asking for patience. But instead of a clear gray sky, I found myself staring at tacky fake greenery strung across the street. Everywhere I looked, the trappings of the season had taken over. Shakespeare doesn't have a lot of money for Christmas decorations, so I'd seen the same ones every holiday in the four-plus years I'd spent in this little Arkansas town. Every alternate streetlight had a big candle suspended on a curved "candleholder. " The other streetlights sported bells.

  The town's seasonal centerpiece (since the manger scene had to be removed) was a huge Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn; the churches sponsored a big public party to decorate it. In consequence, it looked very homey rather than elegant - typical of Shakespeare, come to think of it. Once we passed the courthouse, the parade would be nearly over.

  There was a little tree in the pickup bed with me, but it was artificial. I'd decorated it with gold stiffened ribbon, gold ornaments, and gold and white artificial flowers. A discreet sign attached to it read, tree decorating done by appointment. Businesses and homes. This new service I was providing was definitely designed for people who'd opted for elegance.

  The banners on the sides of the pickup read, Shakespeare's cleaning and errands, followed by my phone number. Since Carlton, my accountant, had advised it so strongly, I had finally made myself a business. Carlton further advised me to begin to establish a public presence, very much against my own inclinations.

  So here I was in the damn Christmas parade.

  "Smile!" called Janet Shook, who was marching in place right behind the pickup. She made a face at me, then turned to the forty or so kids following her and said, "Okay, kids! Let's Shakespearecise!" The children, amazingly, did not throw up, maybe because none of them was over ten. They all attended the town-sponsored "Safe After School" program that employed Janet, and they seemed happy to obey her. They all began to do jumping jacks.

  I envied them. Despite my insulation, sitting still was taking its toll. Though Shakespeare has very mild winters as a rule, today was the coldest temperature for Christmas parade day in seven years, the local radio station had informed us.

  Janet's kids looked red-cheeked and sparkly eyed, and so did Janet. The jumping jacks had turned into a kind of dance. At least, I guessed it was. I am not exactly tuned in to popular culture.

  I was still stretching my lips up to smile at the surrounding faces, but it was a real strain. Relief overwhelmed me as the truck began moving again. I started tossing candy and waving.

  This was hell. But unlike hell, it was finite. Eventually, the candy bucket was empty and the parade had reached its endpoint, the parking lot of Superette Grocery. Raphael and his oldest son helped me take the tree back to the travel agent's office for whom I'd decorated it, and they carted the plastic chair back to their own backyard. I'd thanked Raphael and paid him for his gas and time, though he'd protested.

  "It was worth it just to see you smile that long. Your face is gonna be sore tomorrow," Raphael said gleefully.

  What became of the red plush throw I don't know and don't want to know.

  Jack was not exactly sympathetic when he called me from Little Rock that night. In fact, he laughed.

  "Did anyone film this parade?" he asked, gasping with the end convulsions of his mirth.

  "I hope not. "

  "Come on, Lily, loosen up," he said. I could still hear the humor in his voice. "What are you doing this holiday?"

  This seemed like a touchy question to me. Jack Leeds and I had been seeing each other for about seven weeks. We were too new to take it for granted that we'd be spending Christmas together, and too unsure to have had any frank discussion about making arrangements.

  "I have to go home," I said flatly. "To Bartley. "

  A long silence.

  "How do you feel about that?" Jack asked cautiously.

  I steeled myself to be honest. Frank. Open. "I have to go to my sister Varena's wedding. I'm a bridesmaid. "

  Now he didn't laugh.

  "How long has it been since you saw your folks?" he asked.

  It was strange that I didn't know the answer. "I guess maybe. . . six months? Eight? I met them in Little Rock one day . . . around Easter. It's years since I've seen Varena. "

  "And you don't want to go now?"

  "No," I said, relieved to be able to speak the truth. When I'd been arranging my week off work, after my employers got over the shock of my asking, they'd been almost universally delighted to hear that I was going to my sister's wedding. They couldn't tell me fast enough that it was fine for me to miss a week. They'd asked about my sister's age (twenty-eight, younger than me by three years), her fiancĂ© (a pharmacist, widowed, with a little daughter), and what I was going to wear in the wedding. (I didn't know. I'd sent Varena some money and my size when she said she'd settled on bridesmaids' dresses, but I hadn't seen her selection. )

  "So when can I see you?" Jack asked.

  I felt a warm trickle of relief. I was never sure what was going to happen next with us. It seemed possible to me that someday Jack wouldn't call at all.

  "I'll be in Bartley all the week before Christmas," I said. "I was planning on getting back to my house by Christmas Day. "

  "Miss having Christmas at home?" I could feel Jack's surprise echoing over the telephone line.

  "I will be home - here - for Christmas," I said
sharply. "What about you?"

  "I don't have any plans. My brother and his wife asked me, but they didn't sound real sincere, if you know what I mean. " Jack's parents had both died within the past four years.

  "You want to come here?" My face tensed with anxiety as I waited to hear his answer.

  "Sure," he said, and his voice was so gentle I knew he could tell how much it had cost me to ask. "Will you put up mistletoe? Everywhere?"

  "Maybe," I said, trying not to sound as relieved as I was, or as happy as I felt. I bit my lip, suppressing a lot of things. "Do you want have a real Christmas dinner?"

  "Turkey?" he said hopefully. "Cornbread dressing?"

  "I can do that. "

  "Cranberry sauce?"

  "I can do that. "

  "English peas?"

  "Spinach Madeleine," I countered.

  "Sounds good. What can I bring?"

  "Wine. " I seldom drank alcohol, but I thought with Jack around a drink or two might be all right.

  "OK. If you think of anything else, give me a call. I've got some work to finish up here within the next week, then I have a meeting about a job I might take on. So I may not get down there until Christmas. "

  "Actually, I have a lot to do right now, too. Everyone's trying to get extra cleaning done, giving Christmas parties, putting up trees in their offices. "

  It was just over three weeks until Christmas. That was a long time to spend without seeing Jack. Even though I knew I was going to be working hard the entire period, since I counted going home to the wedding as a sort of subcategory of work, I felt a sharp pang at the thought of three weeks' separation.

  "That seems like a long time," he said suddenly.

  "Yes. "

  Having admitted that, both of us backed hastily away.

  "Well, I'll be calling you," Jack said briskly.

  He'd be sprawled on the couch in his apartment in Little Rock as he talked on the phone. His thick dark hair would be pulled back in a ponytail. The cold weather would have made the scar on his face stand out, thin and white, a little puckered where it began at the hairline close to his right eye. If Jack had met with a client today, he'd be wearing nice slacks and a sports coat, wing tips, a dress shirt, and a tie. If he'd been working surveillance, or doing the computer work that increasingly formed the bulk of a private detective's routine, he'd be in jeans and a sweater.

  "What are you wearing?" I asked suddenly.

  "I thought I was supposed to ask you that. " He sounded amused, again.

  I kept a stubborn silence.

  "Oh, OK. I'm wearing - you want me to start with the bottom or the top? - Reeboks, white athletic socks, navy blue sweatpants, Jockeys, and a Marvel Gym T-shirt. I just got home from working out. "

  "Dress up at Christmas. "

  "A suit?"

  "Oh, maybe you don't have to go that far. But nice. "

  "OK," he said cautiously.

  Christmas this year was on a Friday. I had only two Saturday clients at the moment, and neither of them would be open the day after Christmas. Maybe I could get them done on Christmas morning, before Jack got here.

  "Bring clothes for two days," I said. "We can have Friday afternoon and Saturday and Sunday. " I suddenly realized I'd assumed, and I took a sharp breath. "That is, if you can stay that long. If you want to. "

  "Oh, yes," he said. His voice sounded rougher, darker. "Yes, I want to. "

  "Are you smiling?"

  "You could say so," he affirmed. "All over. "

  I smiled a little myself. "OK, see you then. "

  "Where'd you say your family was? Bartley, right? I was talking to a friend of mine about that a couple of nights ago. "

  It felt strange to know he had talked about me. "Yes, Bartley. It's in the Delta, a little north and a lot east of Little Rock. "

  "Hmmm. It'll be OK, seeing your family. You can tell me all about it. "

  "OK. " That did sound good, realizing I could talk about it afterward, that I wouldn't come home to silence and emptiness, drag through days and days rehashing the tensions in my family.

  Instead of saying this to Jack, I said, "Good-bye. "

  I heard him respond as I laid the receiver down. We always had a hard time ending conversations.

  There are two towns in Arkansas named Montrose. The next day, I drove to the one that had shopping.

  Since I no longer worked for the Winthrops, I had more free time on my hands than I could afford: That was the only reason I'd listened when Carlton had proposed the Christmas parade appearance. Until more people opted for my services, I had just about two free mornings a week. This free morning, I'd gone to Body Time for my workout (it was triceps day), come home to shower and dress, and stopped by the office of the little Shakespeare paper to place an ad in the classifieds ("Give your wife her secret Christmas wish - a maid").

  And now here I was, involuntarily listening - once again - to taped Christmas carols, surrounded by people who were shopping with some air of excitement and anticipation. I was about to do what I like least to do: spend money when I had little coming in, and spend that money on clothing.

  In what I thought of as my previous life, the life I'd led in Memphis as scheduler for a large cleaning service, I'd been quite a dresser. In that life, I'd had long brown hair, and lifting two twenty-pound dumbbells had made my arms tremble. I'd also been naive beyond belief. I had believed that all women were sisters under the skin, and that underneath all the crap, men were basically decent and honest.

  I made an involuntary sound of disgust at the memory, and the white-haired lady sitting on the bench a yard away said, "Yes, it is a little overwhelming after a month and more, isn't it?"

  I turned to look at her. Short and stout, she had chosen to wear a Christmas sweatshirt with reindeer on it and green slacks. Her shoes could have been advertised as "comfort-plus walkers. " She smiled at me. She was alone like I was, and she had more to say.