JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: A couple years ago, I did a series of short-short stories set in my fictional town of Millers Kill, NY, at Christmastime. Last year, with a book just released and the usual round of present-wrapping and turkey-roasting, I didn't get a holiday story out. But this year, all I have to deal with is Christmas Dinner for 34, so I can present this story, which takes place between I SHALL NOT WANT and ONE WAS A SOLDIER. Light a fire in the fireplace, shake yourself up one of Susan Elia MacNeil's fabulous seasonal cocktails and enjoy my gift to you.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Russ pulled off his watch cap and hit it against his leg as he entered the Millers Kill Police station, leaving a trail of spattered snow melting on the floor. He strode up the hall to his office, nervous about the time even though he knew he had plenty to spare.
His boot-steps echoed against the walls, a sound that only occurred on those rare occasions when the station was entirely silent. Harlene's dispatch board was dark, and in the squad room beyond it, only a single lamp was proof against the early winter night. Everyone was either home with their families or out on patrol; their calls were routing through the Glens Falls dispatch.
He himself had been on duty since the morning. It had been slow, thankfully so, and Russ had had time to stop by his brother-in-law's farmhouse and say hello to all the family gathered there. Mom had packed him a dinner-to-go: prime rib and mashed potatoes and cranberry-orange relish. He had eaten off his lap, idling near the tricky intersection on Sacandaga Road, watching for drunks or visitors who didn't know how to drive in the northern New York weather.
He had logged off with Glens Falls at four and made his way back to the village, wending past glowing windows and shining trees and sagging old houses made beautiful with snow. St. Alban's church was dark and still, as if resting after the explosion of light and music late last night. Russ found himself singing a snatch of a carol beneath his breath, “How still we see thee lie...” For a moment, his hardscrabble shabby town was at peace. For a moment, everyone here was rich.
In his office, he snapped on the lights and centered his laptop on his desk, which he had cleared for the occasion. He flipped it open and turned it on. His oldest niece, Katherine, had loaded the program for him and shown him how to use it. He booted it up and logged on. No one was on the other end; he wasn't expecting her until five o'clock his time. He studied the large blank screen and the small inset that showed him what she would see on her computer. He squinted at himself. He looked tired; winter pale and undoubtedly with more gray in his hair than he had had when she left. His dark-brown uniform blouse, insulated for winter, was the opposite of festive. No help for it. He was what he was, and she had never asked him to be anything different.
The background, he realized, was dismal. A large-scale map of Washington County tacked up over a cheap wood credenza piled with the magazines and papers he had swept off his desk. An unkillable house plant was dying in the corner. Crap. He couldn't give her a crackling fireplace decorated with swags of cedar, but he could by-God do better than this.
In the squad room, he found the table-top-sized tree Harlene put up every year. He lugged it into his office, elbowing the heaps of paperwork onto the floor in order to rest it on the credenza. The tree — well, it didn't exactly twinkle, but the little balls soldered onto its branches were merry enough.
The wall map...something for the wall map. There was a small collection of holiday cards that had been sent to the station – mostly cheery greetings from vendors happy to continue doing business for another year in a tight economy. Lyle had strung 'em up on a length of twine over the white board they used for briefings. Russ pried the tacks out of the board's wooden frame and carried the display back to his office, arms stretched wide to keep the cards from falling off the line. He retacked the ends to his wall and adjusted the cards so they would show to advantage. He removed the Smith and Wesson guns-and-holly as inappropriate, but he rather liked the one that showed a cop car with a wreath hanging from the push bar. Festive.
He glanced at the wall clock. Five o'clock coming up fast. He went to the machine to grab a cup of coffee and at the last moment switched his selection to hot cocoa. He had seen somebody sucking on candy canes... a quick search of the desks revealed Noble Entwhistle's stash. Russ stripped off the plastic wrapper and stuck it in his mug. There. If he couldn't look seasonal, at least his drink--
His eyes fell on the rows of hooks in the squad room. A couple of department-issued parkas, something that looked like an apron – God knew what that was – and Hadley Knox's scarlet scarf, forgotten in her rush to get home last night and get her kids to the early service at St. Alban's. He tugged the scarf off its hook. It didn't look girly, did it? He looped it around his neck and studied his reflection in the black window. Nope. It was a straight up length of wool, the color of Santa's coat. It gave him a kind of jaunty air, he thought. Not that he would ever have said that aloud.
He picked up the mug and settled himself at his desk. The inset picture showed a much cheerier view than it had twenty minutes ago; busy and colorful, green and red and white and gold. The borrowed scarf gave his cheeks a flush of color – or maybe that was his heart rate, rising with excitement as the second hand swept toward five.
The screen brightened. A new name popped onto the sidebar: DoDIraqComCA.12. Then a brief flash of the Department of Defense shield and then, oh, then, there she was, tan and smiling and healthy and whole, beautiful even in dusty ACUs and lit by the florescent lights of the communications trailer.
“Oh, Russ.” Major Clare Fergusson's eyes were bright. She blinked hard and pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Oh, look at you. It looks just like Christmas. It looks just like Christmas at home.”