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  • Writer's pictureBarry KuKes

Chapter One- Christmas Eve

Chicago, IL

December 24th

5:45 p.m.

As the late December winds whistled through the city, a chill in the air embraced the pedestrians cluttering the streets as the temperature hovered slightly below freezing. Light snow began to fall as the skyline of the city cast towering shadows over the pavement.

The holiday ritual of last-minute shoppers as they scurried from store to store searching for the one final perfect gift they surely should have purchased weeks before was ever-present. Sounds of the season were in the air, and the magic of Christmas would arrive once again in a few short hours.

Many miles away from the city's bright lights and hectic activity, the Christmas spirit found its way to the aristocratic destination of Lake Forest, IL. A North Shore suburb known for its wealth and prosperity passed down through the years from generation to generation, this well-established and dignified sub-culture boasted mansion after mansion for miles. The homes were truly magnificent as most were of age, well into their 90s, yet maintained so perfectly. Distinctly landscaped, the majority of these estates were situated on lots well over an acre, populated with great elms and oaks that reached into the sky for what seemed to be forever.

Many of the properties were not decorated for the holidays. Lake Forest required only financial security and wealth; religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds that did not celebrate Christmas were no concern to this upper-crust society. However, one block of cobblestone pavement was the exception to the rule. As far as the eye could see, the twinkle of Christmas lights shined from every home lavishly adorned with every imaginable decoration.

Every home was decorated more spectacularly than the one before. The lights glistened off the snow on the ground that covered the now dormant manicured lawns and perfectly sculpted topiary. From flying reindeer to jolly Santas, the street proudly lived up to its name of Festive Lane. The scene was not quite Terry Redlin at his best, but it was picturesque nonetheless.

In the middle of this vast wonderland of holiday cheer stood a house that was surely out of its element. It is not from an overwhelming display of lights and mechanical figurines but the lack of decorations. Although still a large mansion by all ordinary standards, this home did not shine.

This house was an old Victorian-style home that featured many marvelous architectural designs and details. Unfortunately, the caretakers of this estate evidently neglected the property. The trim was blistered, and the paint was peeling from the eaves, exposing the raw wood to the elements and changing weather. The brickwork was in desperate need of tuckpointing from top to bottom. The chimney was missing bricks near the top of the stack as black smoke poured out, indicating that it had not been serviced for many years.

A single dilapidated, dingy yellow wreath hung on the house's front door. Dormant trees had died long before winter set in and cast gruesome shadows upon the home's facade. The holiday best celebrated at this home was Halloween, not Christmas.

The interior of the house was in no better condition. The formal dining room featured a scarred dining table that would have been worth thousands in an antique shop. It looked like it was built with the house nearly a hundred years ago. The large tabletop was lackluster dark mahogany that shined unevenly from a lifetime of inexpensive polish applications. The dining room chairs, also mahogany with green velvet cushions, were torn and tattered. A dark wood grandfather clock ticked away in the far corner of the room. It was not one of those imitation clocks of today. This clock looked as if it genuinely was owned by a grandfather. The tweed carpeting, a faded gray color, was extremely worn, especially in traffic areas. Uneven walls were covered in an awful-looking gold flower design damask material. Chair-rail woodwork that bordered the room appeared dark oak, also needing refinishing.

The living room displayed distinctively antique furnishings. Overstuffed horsehair chairs with brass grommets holding together textured dark fabrics seized the area. Soiled off-white doilies placed on arms and the headrests suggested a musty odor. Matching ottomans with springs protruding from the bottom were placed in front of each chair. The home's interior was desperately in need of renovation and a decorator’s touch.

In the kitchen, smoke tarnished yellow tiles covered the walls. The stainless steel table and four chairs had seen better days. A vast collection of salt and pepper shakers filled several shelves about the cabinetry. A potbelly stove stood ominously next to an icebox no more extensive than the elderly woman standing beside it.

Wearing a dark blue dress protected by a white apron, she opened the oven door with a tattered and burned oven mitt covering one hand. She removed a cookie sheet filled with freshly baked gingerbread men-shaped cookies and walked tediously to the nearby kitchen table.

In her late eighties, the woman was small in stature with a full head of grayish-silver hair. The white support hose she wore over her stout legs offered little opacity to cover the varicose veins bulging from her calves. She wore scuffed orthopedic shoes that only a grandmother would wear. Rose-colored cheeks enhanced her sunken brown eyes as loose-fitting ivory dentures filled her mouth. As she walked, her hips swayed out of time from arthritis, which had found its way to this frail body of mass and matter.

Back at the oven, the old woman removed yet another sheet of cookies and placed the sheet on top of the stovetop to cool. The kitchen table was covered entirely with numerous platters displaying various foods. Most of the foods were dessert and snack-type delicacies. Nowhere in sight was evidence of something more substantial such as a golden brown turkey or succulent ham.

She walked into the dining room and unfolded a white lace tablecloth onto the dining room table. As she pulled and tugged at the tablecloth to relax the wrinkles, she gazed at the grandfather clock that ticked away in the corner.

“I’m running behind,” she said as she shook her head in a disapproving fashion.

It was a few minutes before six o’clock. She hurried into the kitchen and placed trays of cookies and plates of cakes onto the table. She made several trips back and forth to the kitchen from the dining room, arranging plates and platters appropriately. It was evident that she would be hosting a well-attended holiday party.

As the table became a kaleidoscope of sweets and appetizers, she became more and more excited. She placed the last tray of cookies on the dining table and scurried over to a corner of the room opposite that of the grandfather clock. Before her stood what would have been commonly recognized as a console phonograph years ago. She opened the dark wooden cabinet lid and revealed a turntable with a gray cloth palette. Methodically, she opened a door under the console and retrieved a record album. The album's jacket had faded over the years and thus was unreadable. She removed the vinyl record from the browbeaten jacket and placed it on the spindle. As she turned on the phonograph, the record fell down the spindle onto the turntable and the toner arm set down onto the record's first selection. With the phonograph volume turned up quite loud, it was easy to hear the static pops that emanated from the speakers. As the music started, it disguised the worn LP's crackles, and the tune “Silver Bells,” as sung by Johnny Mathis, filled the house.

“Chime, chime, chime, chime, chime, chime.” Almost in unison with the chorus of “Silver Bells,” the grandfather clock's chimes complimented Johnny’s voice and brought the room alive. It was 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve

6:00 p.m.

148 Festive Lane

A faint tone lingered from the last chime and faded into the silence. The doorbell rang.

The old woman walked across the room to answer the front door. She removed her apron and brushed flour remnants off her dark blue dress featuring a proper white embroidered collar. She stopped in front of a full-length mirror in the foyer and primped her hair as she checked her makeup. Satisfied with her appearance, she proceeded to the door as a smile came to her face.

As the door slowly swung inward, the guests still outside on the front step yelled, “Merry Christmas, Martha!” As they entered the foyer, they hugged and kissed Martha as if they had not visited her for quite some time.

The guests included an attractive woman in her early forties, a tall gentleman in his mid-fifties, and a fourteen-year-old girl. They each carried a tray of cakes and cookies. The stunning woman took off her coat and handed it to Martha. As she walked toward the dining room table, she commented, “In all the years we have been coming here, this place hasn’t changed one bit, Martha.”

“Yes, I have tried to keep it up, but I’m not getting any younger,” Martha said as she collected the garments from the well-dressed man and the young girl.

The young girl ran into the dining room and shouted, “Well, I’m not getting any older, so there!”

They laughed as the girl snatched a cookie from the dining room table and ran off into the family room area.

“What a beautiful tree, Martha!” she shouted from the family room.

The doorbell rang again, and Martha hurried to answer it. Again, the guests who arrived shouted, “Merry Christmas, Martha!” as she opened the door and invited them inside.

As they hugged and kissed, the doorbell rang again- and again- and again; thirty, forty, fifty times over a brief thirty-minute period. With each guest that arrived came an additional tray of sweets. The selection of food on the dining room table was overwhelming. The variety of guests that now filled the house was vast as well. Older people, middle-aged, several young children- some people even brought their dogs. The room was abundant with joy and merriment. So much so that it was strange. It just wasn’t normal. It was as if a stage play was in full production, and all of the actors were told to laugh and smile on cue. Over 120 people filled the house, and everyone was smiling, laughing, or singing without exception.

After an hour or so, the guests finally stopped arriving, and the food and drink began to flow as the party was an apparent success. Having appropriately cared for her guests' needs, Martha took advantage of an opportunity for leisure. She joined the first family that arrived earlier this evening at the dining room table.

In his fifties, the distinguished gentleman was exceptionally well dressed in a black three-piece suit accented with a beautiful silk tie. Tied in a perfect Windsor knot around his starched white shirt collar, the silk reflected a light overhead. A mustache adorned his face, and a full beard was graying at his temples. A full head of wavy black hair also hinted at gray and added to the dignified gentleman's Clark Gable good looks.

His wife sitting by his side was beautiful. Her golden blonde hair was worn up in a bun, accentuating her pronounced cheekbones. Wearing a lovely black dress v-cut at the neck, she showed off her lean yet shapely figure. Her lips, painted cherry red, were complemented by a light beige cover-based makeup on her face.

Their daughter, who sat at the table next to Martha, was lovely. Dark hair like her father's was braided into locks and perfectly set. Her blue eyes and creamy white skin blended well with the beautiful bright yellow and white ruffled dress she wore.

The gentleman directed his attention to Martha.

“Martha… hosting this party year after year must be quite a chore for you, isn’t it?”

“Well, it does get harder every year, but I really don’t mind. It’s only once every 365 days. I only wish my hips were a few years younger,” Martha replied.

“Well, I have some good news for you,” the man said.

“Yes, Daddy, tell her- tell her!” The young girl chimed in.

“Now calm down, Rebecca... I am trying to,” he said.

“Yes, Martha, Stephen has something important to tell you,” his wife said as she smiled.

“Thank you, Mary. Well, Martha, this is the last time you will have to go through all of this work at Christmas time,” Stephen said.

“It is?” Martha asked.

“Yes, by this time next year, you will be staying with us,” he said.

“Really? When will this happen?” Martha asked.

“By May of next year, so you will have to sell this house quickly. And remember, you have to find the right buyer. Not just anyone can own this magnificent, old magical house,” he said.

“Oh, yes, I will find the right people to purchase the home. I promise you that, father,” Martha said as she looked at the man with tears in her eyes.

They embraced as several other guests from the party entered the dining room.

“Well, did you tell her, Stephen?” several asked.

“Yes, and she is happy. A bit apprehensive, but happy,” he replied.

It was now almost 10:00 p.m. on this Christmas Eve. The immediate area outside in front of the house was completely deserted. For as far as the eye could see, not a single car was in sight or even parked on the street. The desolate street and the large family celebration inside the Festive Lane house seemed peculiar and illogical.

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