Jen Heath hurried along the downtown Seattle sidewalk, hunched against a freezing rain, her holiday to-do list dogging her every step, breathing down her neck. The trees that lined the street twinkled with white lights, and store windows boasted displays of Santas, presents and happy elves. A steel drum band had set up in the Westlake Mall and was playing "Jingle Bells." Bah, humbug, she thought grumpily as she strode past them.
Anyone peering inside her head would think she hated the holidays. She didn't. She loved them. What she didn't love was being so darned busy.
How had she gotten stuck in charge of planning the office Christmas party? Oh, yeah, Patty Unger, her supervisor, had volunteered her. Thanks, Patty. Not that Jen minded planning a party. But having to plan one this year wasn't fun. It was just one more thing to add to a very long to-do list.
In addition to her full-time job as office slave at
Emerald City Promotions, she sold Soft Glow Candles on the party plan-all so she could whittle down what she owed on her credit cards, keep up her car payments and make the mortgage on her First Hill condo, which she could barely afford. The car she'd needed, but the condo? What had she been thinking when she bought it? Oh, yeah. She hadn't been thinking. She'd taken one look at the granite countertops, the hardwood floors and the view of the Seattle skyline, and condo lust had come over her like a fever. By the time the fever broke she was a homeowner. (Thanks to the bank and her parents.) And her credit cards were maxed out. (Because, of course, she had to furnish the new condo.) Now she was a stressed homeowner.
Who was never home. She had three candle parties booked this week and two more on the weekend. The following weekend she had another candle party on Saturday, and then on Sunday a cookie exchange at her sister's, followed by the church choir concert. Oh, she'd be home later that evening, right along with the eighteen other people she'd invited to her place for the postconcert party. (This was the symptom of yet another fever-new-owner pride. She'd been dying to show off the condo, and hosting a party had seemed like the perfect way.) The day before, she'd gone to see the gingerbread house display at the Sheraton Hotel with her mother, her sister and her niece, Jordan. She'd been pooped, but when she tried to wiggle out of going, Toni had reminded her that this was a tradition, and anyway, she needed to spend time with her family. Guilt, the gift that kept on giving. After that, she'd visited her grandma, who was complaining that she'd almost forgotten what her granddaughter looked like.
It seemed everyone in her family was giving guilt for Christmas this year.
Tonight she absolutely had to do laundry. But what she really wanted was to flop on the couch and watch It's a Wonderful Life. None of her friends understood what she saw in that old movie, but she'd been watching it with her family every Christmas since she was a kid. Well, except for the past couple of years. Between having her marriage fall apart and getting a divorce, she'd been too busy for a wonderful life.
Those days were over now. No more fights about money. No more fights about how she mismanaged her time or how impetuous and irresponsible she was. No more fights about. .well, you name it.
When they were first married, Serge had loved her spontaneity, her joie de vivre. After a year he developed a vision problem and saw only her flaws. They fought about everything from money to the amount of time she spent with her friends. "I don't know what we're doing together." Serge had finally stormed one night, throwing up his hands.
Neither did she. So Serge had moved out and moved on. She'd run into him at the Last Supper Club six months after the divorce was final, when she was trying to enjoy a night out with the girls. He'd been with a skinny tattoo queen sporting maroon hair and ear gauges. And he'd complained about how impulsive Jen was?
She'd wanted to hit him and his new woman, too. Instead, she'd buried herself in the crowd and danced until her feet and her heart were numb. Good riddance, she'd told herself, but later that night she'd cried herself to sleep.
Now it had been a year since the big D and she was so over him and so moving on.
Now she was in charge of her own destiny, her own life, and that was fine with her.
Except so far this new life wasn't exactly playing out as she'd envisioned. When a girl hardly had time to wash her bra, she was in trouble. When was she supposed to squeeze in things like dating? And if she didn't even have time to date, well, what was that going to do to her sex life?
She scowled. Many of her friends were now having babies and she'd love to have one of her own. She sure didn't see a bassinet on her horizon, though. At thirty-two, were her eggs giving up all hope of ever meeting a sperm?
Well, girls, I don't know what to tell you. You'll just have to hang in there because right now I don't have time to find a new man. There was a depressing thought.
Jen caught her bus on Marion Street. It was crowded as usual with tired workers, students, street people and shoppers carrying bags crammed with merchandise. Standing room only. That made her grumpier.
Oh, heck, everything made her grumpy these days. Maybe it was living in the city, crammed in with so many other people. What would it be like to have a cute little house in a small town or a cottage in a mountain meadow? What would it be like to hark back to a simpler time, a simpler lifestyle?
She thought of the book her sister had given her for her birthday the month before-Simplicity. She'd been trying to read a little of it every night before she went to bed, but she couldn't seem to get past page one. She'd wake up halfway through the night with the book on her face.
She'd managed to get through the blurb on the back of the book, though, and it sounded impressive. The author insisted that anyone, no matter how busy, could simplify her life. It was a matter of prioritizing and letting your days slow down and fall into a natural rhythm in sync with nature.
What would her life be like if she lived it at a slower pace? What if she took a few minutes to sit by her condo window and watch the snow fall (not that much snow ever fell in Seattle), instead of running around like a gerbil on a wheel, dashing from event to event, working at a feverish pace so she could live the good life? When it came right down to it, was her life that good? She was racing through it so fast, she had no time to savor any of it. It would be nice to learn how to bake bread, grow a garden, knit. Date! Heck, it would be nice to have time to breathe.
The bus lurched to a stop and a fortysomething woman got on, balancing a huge armful of purchases, shopping bags dangling from her fingers. She squeezed in between Jen and an older man in an overcoat that smelled of damp wool. The newcomer smelled like perfume overload and Jen sneezed.
"Bless you," said an older woman who was occupying a seat behind where Jen stood.
"Thank you," Jen murmured.
The newcomer grabbed for a hand rail and bumped Jen with one of her bags. That, plus the sudden forward motion of the bus, nearly sent Jen toppling into the lap of the older woman. "Sorry," she muttered.
Meanwhile, Suzy Shopper was still wrestling with her bags. One got away and landed on Jen's foot, nearly crushing her toes and making her yelp. What did she have in there, weights?
"Oh, I'm so sorry," the woman said, picking it up and whacking Jen with another bag in the process. "My daughter's Christmas present."
Jen's eyes were watering. Was her foot broken? She caught her breath and managed a polite smile. "Looks like you got a lot done." Which was more than she could say. She hadn't started her shopping yet.
"This is the last of it," the woman said. "I found these dumbbells on sale at Penney's."
"Dumbbells." Jen nodded. "You had weights in that bag."
The woman blushed. "Mmm-hmm."
May the next toes you drop them on be yours.
The bus driver called Jen's street and she hobbled toward the back exit, trying to make her way through the crowd. "S'cuse me, s'cuse me. Sorry."
One passenger was too engrossed in what was on her ereader to even know she was on a bus. She stood in the path of the exit like a boulder in a red coat. An inconsiderate boulder.
"Excuse me," Jen said, trying to slip past. The boulder didn't budge.
The bus doors heaved open.
Jen tried again. "Excuse me," she said a little louder. Still nothing. She said it a third time and gave the boulder a nudge. It was just a nudge, really.
The red boulder lost her balance and grabbed for the nearest source of stability-a tall, skinny woman in sweats and a Santa hat bearing a pink bakery box. The tall, skinny woman lost her hold on the box and down it went, spilling cupcakes with green frosting everywhere. She gasped and the woman next to her, who now had green frosting skidding down her sleeve, let out a groan.
A nearby man wearing a dirty peacoat and a scruffy beard picked up a cupcake that had landed on the floor, frosting side first, and began to eat it.
All three women glared at Jen. The skinny one with the Santa hat bent to pick up her ruined goods. "You should watch what you're doing."
"Sorry," Jen said. Willing the bus doors not to close, she fumbled in her purse and pulled out her wallet. "Let me pay you for those." The minute she opened her wallet and found nothing there she remembered that she'd impulsively put her last three dollars in a Salvation Army bucket the day before. "I guess I don't have any cash on me."
The skinny woman scowled at her.
"If you're gonna get off the bus, get off," the driver called. "We have other stops to make."
"I'm really sorry," Jen said again. "Um, merry Christmas," she added as she hobbled down the steps onto the curb.
Neither woman wished her a merry Christmas in return. In fact, the skinny one wished her something about as far from it as a girl could get. The doors shut and the bus lumbered off, shooting up a rooster tail of icy water and splashing her.
It was the first week of December, and at Stacy Thomas's house the stockings were hung by the chimney with care. They were lucky to find any place to hang because the mantel was already packed with greens and ribbons and candles, as well as brass letters spelling Peace.
And that was only the beginning of the holiday decorations. There was no room on the coffee table for coffee cups, due to the presence of Stacy's nativity set, and her lighted Victorian village took up every inch of space on the buffet in the dining room. She still had to unpack the box with all the other candles, the candy dishes and the gingerbread man cookie jar, as well as the one with her holiday centerpiece. Then there was the bag with the Christmas quilt, the tub with all the wall hangings and the box containing her collection of Santa figurines. And then there were the two storage boxes of ornaments waiting to go on the tree
"This is the last of it," her husband, Dean, said as he set down the long box containing their artificial tree. "Thank God." He wiped his damp brow and looked around him. "Do we really need all of this?"
"Of course we do!"
Stacy surveyed the pile of boxes in front of her. How was she going to get everything put up before her book club arrived? She wished they'd gotten the decorating done the day before. But the day before had been consumed with putting up all the outside lights and the yard art. It had been an exhausting team effort, and by the time she'd finished helping Dean she'd been too tired to even think about the inside of the house.
Tree trimming wasn't quite as much fun as it had been when the kids were living at home. In fact, none of the decorating was. And taking everything down after the holidays was really not fun. But Ethan and
Autumn would be back home in Icicle Falls for Christmas. They'd expect holiday razzle-dazzle.
"One of these days I'm going to keel over with a heart attack after lugging all this stuff around," Dean grumbled.
"Oh, you're much too strong for that," Stacy assured him as he started to unpack the fake fir. "Really, Deano, I don't know why you're complaining. All you have to do is help me trim the tree and set up the train around it."
"Don't forget hauling down all these boxes."
"The exercise is good for you," she informed him, looking pointedly at his growing belly.
He tried unsuccessfully to suck it in. "I'm not that fat."
That was exactly the same thing she told herself every time she looked in the mirror, but her hips had definitely spread. And at forty-six, those gray hairs were popping up among the blond ones like dandelions in a neglected yard. If not for Rory at Sleeping Lady Salon, she'd be in big trouble.
"We could both stand to lose a few pounds." She sighed. "We should go on a diet."
"Well, let's not start now," Dean said in horror. "It's Christmas cookie season. And speaking of food, I'm hungry. Were we planning to fit dinner in somewhere between now and your book club?"
Dinner. She'd been so busy decorating she'd forgotten about that minor detail. "Let's order a pizza from Italian Alps."
"Good idea," he said, pulling his cell phone out of his pants pocket.
"Make it quick, Deano. We need to get this tree done." The thought of how lovely it would be with the little electric train running around it and presents spilling everywhere made her smile.
He shook his head. "With all the ornaments you've collected, that should take a millennium. I'm married to the pack rat of Icicle Falls," he muttered as he searched for the number in his phone.
"Ha-ha," she said irritably.
He came and put an arm around her. "I'm sorry, hon, but really, look at all the stuff you've collected. And you keep adding more. Pretty soon there isn't going to be room in the house for us."
"I don't have that many Christmas decorations," she protested.
"You're kidding, right? And it's not just Christmas stuff. Have you seen the attic lately?"
"Some of the things up there belong to the kids. And you." Well, okay, most of them were things she'd acquired. She hurried on before he could point that out. "Anyway, when you've been married for twenty-five years you're bound to end up with a lot."
"Stace, you could load up a landfill with all the stuff you've got. My God, between the closet full of presents-"
"We have to have presents for the kids, and for Ethan's new girlfriend. Anyway, I bought everything on sale," Stacy said righteously.
"The material in Autumn's old room."
"I'm a quilter. I have to buy fabric."
"The dishes. How many sets do you need, anyway?"
"One for every day, good china for special occasions. And we use those Christmas dishes every year."