JETS OF steamy breath shot from Wade’s nostrils as he struggled to drag the enormous Christmas tree across the loose Michigan snow. The bells on Chris’s Santa hat jingled merrily as he hurried out to help his friend pull the tree up the final hillock to the barn.
“Here, let me give you a hand.” Stepping along the slowing tree, Chris wrapped a glove-covered hand around a branch and lent his strength to the effort.
Wade nodded and smiled. “Thanks, it’s a little much by myself.”
“No problem, happy to help. Looks like you got a beaut,” said Chris.
Wade pulled off his knit hat and wiped the perspiration from his head. “It’s a good one. I think I’ve covered your whole farm, several times, to find the perfect tree.”
They pulled the tree into the work area and hoisted it onto the sawbuck. “Want me to trim it up for you?”
“Sure. One less thing I’ll have to do.” Wade laid the handsaw he’d used on the table behind them, then tugged his thick cap on while Chris made a few quick cuts with the chainsaw to ready the tree for his stand. The roar of the saw faded, and Chris struggled for a few minutes as he tried to push the tree into the netting. As he began his second attempt, Wade woke from his stupor and grabbed the other side of the tree.
“Sorry, I’m a little spacey today,” said Wade.
With his help, Chris slid the tree into the tube of netting, getting it ready for Wade’s SUV. “No problem. It’s a huge tree. I hope Jeff will be around to help you unload.”
Wade folded his arms over his chest, a pained look on his face. “Jeff moved out. Last week. I thought makin’ our annual trip to your farm for a tree would keep me from thinkin’ about it.” Wade turned his head and let out a shuddering sigh. “I guess it’s not ‘our’ trip anymore.”
Chris gave Wade’s shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry to hear that. You guys always seemed happy together. Jeff was always cutting up and flirting with Mary.” I haven’t forgotten you attended her funeral.
“It happens. I guess we lasted longer than a lot of couples. Ten years isn’t bad.” Wade’s fingers ran over one of the fir boughs edging the barn windows. “It was good in the beginning, like newlyweds. Jeff loved our loft in Chicago. But ever since we moved to Traverse City, the relationship has slowly gone downhill. Our business downtown was an attempt to find something to keep Jeff happy.”
The pain in Wade’s eyes sparked a wave of bitter nostalgia for Chris. He missed Mary so desperately some days. She always was the caretaker of the family, even when they got the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer; she still took care of everyone else until it was impossible for her to keep doing it. He turned to the barn behind them, pulled off the Santa hat, and held it tight in his hands as the frigid air gusted through his short white hair.
The farm was always beautiful this time of year, the ground covered with crystalline flakes in a white carpet that extended to the steps of the house, which he kept carefully swept. He hadn’t changed anything since Mary died. It had been more difficult in the summer when the beds that hugged the foundation of their house were ablaze with flowers Mary had planted and nursed through the years. The winter covering had been a blessed relief, but his heart still ached at the lack of holiday decorations. Mary had loved the season, and given half a chance, she covered everything within striking distance with lights. Without her, the trimmings just hadn’t mattered.
He shook himself and focused on finishing with Wade’s tree. He tied the bottom of the netting and turned to Wade. “There you go. All bundled and ready to put in that great foyer you have.”
“Not so grand this year. It’s kind of tough to get into the spirit of the season.”
Chris gave Wade a sympathetic smile. “It could be worse….”
Realization hit Wade. “Oh my God! I can’t believe I’ve been such an ass. This is your first Christmas alone. I’m so sorry, Chris. I feel awful.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s been almost a year since her funeral. It’s ancient history to most people.” Although it seems like yesterday to me. I can still feel her soft hand in mine as we picnicked on one of Lake Michigan’s sugar sand beaches on our first date, playing in the chilly crystal clear water. Even then, she’d taken care of everything and had the perfect lunch basket packed.
“Yeah, but Mary always said Christmas was her favorite time of the year.”
“It was, and I haven’t felt like doing much. It’s a lot more work to take care of the farm alone too. But the income for the whole year happens in the next month or so. Doesn’t leave me with many choices.” Chris smiled at Wade. “Bad thing about a Christmas tree farm, firs just aren’t that tasty.”
Wade gave a nod, and then his eyes lit up. “Hey, what if I do it? I’ve helped Mary put up the decorations before. It’ll keep me busy, and Santa’s Tree Farm needs to look more festive than either of us feels.”
Chris couldn’t help but smile at the sudden enthusiasm. “If you’d like, that would be great. I just can’t face the stuff. Too many memories.”
“Southern boy to the rescue! I got this covered.” Wade clapped his hand on Chris’s bicep and squeezed it. Chris found a comfort from the contact that surprised him. Mary’s touch had always had that unique ability to soothe him. Some nights its absence had left him curled around her pillow with tears streaming down his face.
Chris fished a ring of keys from his pocket, flipped through them, and held one out for Wade. “This unlocks the storage padlock. Anything you want to do would be great. I have a few customers wandering around looking for trees. I better go check on them.”
Chris raced through the light snowfall while Wade started for the storage building.
WADE STRUGGLED with the cold lock for a moment before hearing it snap open. The wide doors popped and creaked as they swung free, light piercing the dim interior of the enormous shed.
Wow, Mary did have tons of lights!
Wade stepped in and carefully pulled decorations from one of the many plastic bins stored inside. His gloved hands struggled with the stiff totes as he looked through the trimmings. Last year, Mary’s health had been failing, so she and Chris had scaled back their holiday events to a minimum. I feel terrible. I complained about Jeff dumping me, and Chris is dealing with losing his wife. Wade considered the relationship he and Jeff had, and knew it had never been the deep connection Chris and Mary enjoyed.
He forced another box open with a dull pop, and chuckled at the tiny deer stacked inside. He’d always snickered at the animated decorations he’d seen at the big box stores. But these were charming. With great care, he lifted them out and lined them across the wooden floor, humor bubbling up at the sight.
It’s Santa’s reindeer, he realized as he looked at the set. Rummaging through more storage, he discovered the other ensemble members, including the little fat guy in his red suit. He gathered them in his arms and made his way to the barn. He selected the best spot on the lawn to put them, but realized the ground was already frozen solid under several inches of snow.
Searching for options, Wade had an epiphany. He arranged the figures across the snow, then headed into Chris’s workroom and started rifling through containers.
“What’re you looking for?”
Wade glanced back to see Chris’s broad shoulders fill the doorway, a warm flush going through him. “The U-shaped fence things.”
“Fence staples. Sure. They’re right here.” Chris pulled a container from under the bench and flipped back the lid to reveal multiple compartments, each with different hardware, including the staples Wade wanted.
“That what you’re after?” asked Chris.
“That’s it.” Wade grabbed a handful, shoved them into his coat pocket, and snagged a hammer from Chris’s well-organized workbench. His eyes searched the room.
Chris pointed to a poorly lit corner. “Over there. It’s one of the kind that fold up.”
“Cool!” Wade laced his arm through the rungs and trudged out of the shop.
He soon balanced on the ladder while securing the reindeer to the side of the barn. He had the lower ones finished and was working on the final pair when Chris appeared below him.
“Need some help? I’d hate for you to crack your skull hanging my Christmas decorations.”
Wade grinned, surprised at what a good time he was having. “Nope, I’m good. A couple more, and it’ll be done.”
“You know, Mary fell off the ladder one year and broke her ankle. I didn’t think any of us were going to survive.” Chris chuckled as he looked up at Wade.
“Oh, she hated for anyone to have to help her. She was pretty miserable to live with in the cast until one of the kids got her good.”
“Why? What did they do?”
“Katie asked her if she was so cranky ’cause it was her ‘mommy time.’” Chris’s face broke into a wide smile. “Katie was never one to mince words.”
Wade started with a soft chuckle, but the more he visualized the scene, the harder he laughed. After a few moments, he was clinging to the ladder and laughing uproariously. Chris held it and grinned while Wade began to get a grip on himself. Finally his laughter stopped with a hiccup, and he wiped the tears from his face. “Oh my God, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.”
“It was pretty funny. Even Mary laughed, after a few minutes.”
“Oh Lord, families.” Wade looked down at Chris with a ridiculous grin plastered on his face and motioned in the direction of the barn. “What do you think?”
“It’s looking great. Much better than it did before.”
“I always did the decorations for Jeff and I. Give me tinsel and lights, and I’m a happy guy.” Even if Jeff did give me crap about how much I liked to decorate our house.
Chris chuckled. “Well, the storage shed should be your wet dream, then.”
Wade grinned and began working again.
After a few minutes, he heard an excited squeal and stepped out of the storage building to see what was going on. Chris had walked over to help a harried mother deal with her mob of kids. He’d grabbed a handful of snow once he was close and formed a loose snowball. Wade could clearly see the grin on his face as he tossed it into the air, waiting until the kids stopped to look at him.
“Anyone up for a snowball fight?”
“Me! Me!” squealed the three youngest of the brood. Wade folded his arms over his chest to watch as Chris tried to engage the teenager of the group, who was working hard at being disinterested.
“You wanna show these kids how it’s done?” Chris taunted him.
“No, man. That’s little kid stuff. I don’t do that anymore.”
Chris lightly tossed the snowball into the air a few more times before spinning it loose. Wade wanted to cheer when it landed in the middle of the kid’s chest.
“Hey! Stop it!”
By now the younger three had targeted their older brother, and he was hit with a barrage of snowballs. With a few yelps of false protest, the adolescent started lobbing snow at his brothers, as well as Chris. When one hit Chris’s hat, the teenager ran past and snatched it from Chris’s head. “Ha, ha! I got Santa’s hat!”
Wade could just imagine the conversation when Chris huddled with the others. The flurry of hand motions and flailing arms quickly made it apparent they were planning an attack that would have impressed MacArthur. When Chris deployed his troops, they focused on the truant, who was skimming across the snow with Chris’s hat in hand.
“Come on, dude. Just try and catch me!”
Two of the younger kids barreled around the barn, trying for a tackle. The older brother twisted and turned with the grace of a NFL running back, but there was no out of bounds in this game. Wade could tell Chris’s actual plan, to exhaust the kids and give their poor mother a few minutes peace, was working perfectly. A handful of minutes passed, with the kids chasing each other before they collapsed on the snow, dead tired, and Chris retrieved his hat from the mischievously smiling instigator.
With their excess energy spent, Chris popped his hat back on his head and herded the kids inside to warm up with cups of hot cider. Wade was certain the twenty minutes Chris just spent playing had earned him several generations of customers. Wade could imagine Chris with his own grandkids. The smile that blessed Chris’s face was contagious, his deep-red lips splitting his short white beard, accentuating his handsome face. What a sweet guy. He deserves to find someone to love.
Wade returned to his work, and in a short time hammered the last staple over the final sturdy wire hoof. He descended the ladder and studied his creation, satisfied with the way it turned out. He chuckled at Rudolph, though. When Wade put it up, he’d discovered it was identical to the others, but someone had put a light bulb in the nose and meticulously coated it with red paint.
Finishing with the decorations just as night began to fall, the frigid breeze chilled Wade even through his layers of clothing. Perfect timing. Chris can get the full effect of the lights.
Wade attached the final decoration as Chris helped the last customer lash their carefully chosen tree to the roof of their SUV. After he waved good-bye, he turned and joined Wade.
“Your timin’ couldn’t be better. I was about to turn on the lights.”
“I can’t wait! I really appreciate the help.” Chris rubbed his gloved hands together and blew on them, the heat of his breath sending out a trail of white vapor.
Wade flipped the switch, and it seemed the stars had fallen to take residence on Chris’s barn. A few seconds later, they began to twinkle, and Wade surveyed his creation with satisfaction. He turned to get Chris’s opinion and froze in place.
Chris stood transfixed, a single tear making its way across his lightly creased cheek and into his whiskers. His face held an expression of joy, which Wade guessed had been absent from his life for far too long. Chris’s emotional response brought tears to Wade’s eyes, their shared grief forming a lump in his throat. Wade recalled intimate evenings cuddling with Jeff, or how excited Mary would get when she spotted a Sandhill Crane during an outing with their bird-watching group, and he thought how empty both houses were now. He was unprepared for the tremendous hug Chris ambushed him with.
His muscular arms wrapped around Wade’s slender body, Chris whispered, “It’s perfect. I can’t believe you did this.”
Wade trembled in Chris’s arms, trying to categorize the raw emotions of the moment. He inhaled to gain stability, but instead became lost in the scent of Chris’s musk, so different from Jeff’s. I could learn to like this. Arms taut from hard work tightened their hold until Wade had to tap Chris on the shoulder. “Hey, big guy. I love the hug, but I think you just realigned my spine.”
Chris chuckled as he released Wade, and they stood with their eyes locked on each other. “Sorry, I get a little mushy sometimes. Mary always said it was my girl bits showing.” His laughter boomed. “You did a great job. Santa’s sleigh especially. That’s perfect.”
The compliment gave Wade a needed sense of accomplishment. Jeff had become so critical in recent weeks that he second-guessed himself more than ever before in his life. As he surveyed his work, his brow furrowed when he noticed Rudolph’s nose hadn’t lit up. Pointing to the errant light, he grumbled, “I thought that worked when it was on the ground.”
“That figure’s possessed. I’ve put it up for years. It would never light for me, but Mary would mess with it, and presto, it would work.” He shook his head, a sweet smile on his lips. “Don’t sweat it. It looks fantastic.” Chris turned to Wade before he could say anything. “Let me take you to dinner. A thank-you for all the help.”
“It’s okay, Chris. I really enjoyed it.”
“No, come on. You’re freezing and hungry, and neither of us needs to be alone. It’ll be fun. There’s a great little place not far from here. Please.”
Wade paused for a moment, but the infectious happiness on Chris’s face proved to be too much. “Okay, I give. I’ll go with you. But I’ll pay for mine.” Wade chuckled. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think it was a date.”
Chris gave a broad smile. “There are worse things.”