Aubrey reached down between the dried leaves, knocking aside a stick and a couple of bent shoots of grass that had sprouted right before the cold autumn weather froze them in place. There it was. Bright, shiny, red.
“What on Earth?” she murmured to herself. Straightening, she rushed along the sidewalk, then veered up the side of her house, using the walkway that connected the covered parking in the alley out back to the front yard.
There were large hedges lining the property line, blocking the neighbors on either side. She had to stand in the street, vacant of cars by city ordinance since it was along the official parade route, to see anything. Turning, Audrey staggered back as if a blow had knocked her sideways.
Lights, garlands, tinsel. Massive lawn figures of Frosty and Santa and eight tiny reindeer – except not so tiny as they were life-sized replicas – along with an open-sleigh.
And was that a new nativity? On the same section of lawn as the three-foot-tall elves climbing a ladder, pushing shiny packages in red and green and gold onto the balcony draped in huge swaths of velvety magenta and silver ribbon?
The little red bulb she had found out back couldn’t withstand the pressure any longer and burst in her gloved hand. It had been her only warning of the monstrosity next door.
“Evening, Aubrey,” Karen called. She bustled out of the wreath-clad doorway, stopping near the curb where Aubrey still gaped at her neighbor’s house. “Got an early start this year.”
Aubrey’s mouth fell open then closed, several times over, before she could formulate coherent words. “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
“I know! I’m so on it this year,” Karen gushed, totally missing the point. “I mean, who wants to spend days decorating on a holiday weekend? This way I can enjoy my meal and do some black Friday shopping.”
Aubrey hated herself when the first thought that popped into her head was how much sense that made. It didn’t matter! They had a schedule. They all agreed. And while she liked to think of herself as a reasonable person, the truth was she stuck to schedules and rules like glue. It upset her when people ignored them.
Besides, a later decoration date meant she didn’t have to see that tacky singing Santa swiveling his hips at a retreating Mrs. Claus any sooner than necessary.
“We agreed to do it on Saturday after Thanksgiving,” Aubrey pointed out. They had a meeting years ago to help tamp down on the excessive competitiveness in the neighborhood. October was a good planning month but bells and ornaments weren’t appropriate Halloween accoutrement.
“I’m visiting family this year,” Karen said, waggling her hand around, waving off Aubrey’s objections. Then she narrowed her eyes as she bundled her frizzy bottle-blond hair together and stuffed it under a knit cap she pulled out of her jacket pocket. “You worried about the contest or something?”
Oh, man. Seriously? Sure, the city was awarding a Best Holiday House prize for the first time ever. Lots of streets had one or two houses that tacked up a few strings of lights and maybe an inflatable snow globe, down from decades ago when Sweeton made the papers every year for their holiday spirit. The city council hoped to encourage people by offering a blue ribbon and cash. But Aubrey didn’t need or want recognition. Her efforts were about celebrating the season.
“No. I was just saying… This is too soon.”
Karen’s outraged gasp echoed against the nearby stack of baskets overflowing with flocked pinecones coated in glitter. “How dare you tell me what I can do with my own house? Who died and made you Christmas Queen? You’re turning into… Into…. Him!”
Karen’s hand shot out, pointing to the twelve-foot-tall inflatable Grinch stuffed between the hedges and the house as if he were trying to hide his nefarious intentions. A group of little Whoville figures were celebrating nearby, unaware they were about to have all their gifts stolen and then grow the green figure’s tiny stone heart through seasonal joy.
“Listen,” Aubrey said, reason and logic coating her tone of voice as she took steps to explain herself and diffuse the situation.
“No, you listen,” Karen demanded, cutting her off before she could say more. “I’ve been getting comments all day. The Anderson brothers yelled at me out their window as they drove by and where do they get off? You’ve seen their trash-hole yard. They don’t even pop a few ornaments on the live tree planted on their lot! It’s a disgrace! So you just go on and hush your lecture and take your dashed contest hopes and stuff it. Either put up or shut up!”
Aubrey stared at Karen’s retreating back, jumping when the door slammed behind her neighbor. When did she become the bad guy? They had all agreed. That’s all. Like every year, she had said nothing – nothing! – about the horrendous pile of Christmas reject garbage Katen used to decorate her yard.
It didn’t happen often, but it did that evening. Aubrey had one of her rare flashes of temper. She stalked up her walkway and into the house, then rushed to her bedroom, changing into jeans and a knit sweater covered in snowflakes, plaiting her black hair into a tight French braid to keep it out of her way. Last year a few strands got caught when she was hanging lights and she wasn’t in the mood to deal. The phone rang but she ignored it. She was on a mission.
It took hours, working into the night. At least it was Friday although she would have called in sick in the morning if it had been a work day. Some things just needed to be done.
Three a.m. flashed red on her digital clock and she had twisted her ankle, but she was finished. Aubrey used the white lights, going for a classic look – and they would shine right into Karen’s bedroom and den, which were still without blinds or window treatments.
Wreaths and bows and a few classy little bangles set off the yard, Christmas but not gauche.
She might not have piles of cheap, tacky decorations to outdo the yard nextdoor, but nobody could complete with 24/7 Christmas music coordinated with twinkling lights, played just below the city noise ordinance.
“Take that, Karen.”