Annie Steele's Christmas From Hell... 2009
"Where the hell are we?" Kate Kavanaugh. One of her best friends since well, forever leaned towards the windshield.
Ana pulled Ray's old station wagon into the nearly deserted parking lot and cut the engine. She turned to unbuckle her seat belt and give Kate an answer, but instead nearly collided with her other best friend's head that suddenly popped between them from the back.
"What is this place?" Jose' squinted through the drizzle,"I thought we were going to get a Christmas tree?"
"We are. It's a tree farm." Opening her door she hopped out. Her friend's joining her with a lot less enthusiasm.
"It looks like a one of those tourist traps teenagers in horror movies stop and visit right before they get hacked to pieces." Kate took in the shack that had once been a brightly painted cheerful Santa's workshop, and yes it now looked more like the dilapidated workhouse version, but still.
"It's not that bad. Ray and I have been getting trees here for years. They have the best."
"Big Bob's Christmas Wonderland and Tree Farm" Jose' read the sputtering neon sign, taking her arm and slipping one hand inside her coat pocket, "Well, that sounds promising..."
"Uh-huh." Kate came up on her other side, the heels of her boots striking the pavement, "If I see a man in a ski mask holding any kind of sharp object, I'm outta here."
Ana pushed the door open, the familiar smell tickling her nose. A combination of pine from the fresh wreaths hanging on the rough hewn plank walls, wood smoke from the old fashioned pot belly stove, and burnt coffee, courtesy of an ancient Mr Coffee brew pot.
Jose' immediately let go of her arm and put three feet of space between them. This was his standard move so no 'hot cuties with tight patooties' would mistake them for a couple. Jose' had high hopes for Big Bob. Kate ran past her straight to the stove, ripping off her gloves and warming her hands. Her desire for heat overriding her fear of machete wielding men in ski masks.
Ana went over to the only other person in the shack. A teenage girl huddled behind a very old, very large cash register. Looking no more than fourteen, she wore a faded red and green polk-a-dotted elf costume and full-out goth makeup, complete with black lipstick and a pierced nose. Barely looking up from her phone, she greeted them with a "Hey, we close in a half hour" and pop of her gum.
"I'll get a map and check out a flash-light. I forgot mine."
"What the hell do we need a map for?" Kate looked around the place from her vantage point in the middle of the store, the wrinkle in her nose told Ana she wasn't impressed.
"Where's Big Bob?" Jose' rubbed his gloveless hands together over the stove, his head swinging around, his eyes searching.
She ignored them both and went to sign out a mag-lite from the cashier, "The saws and rope are over there," Goth Girl put down her phone and flicked a chipped black nail at a long table strewn with run-off copies and flashlights. Over it hung a variety of saws on mismatched hooks screwed right into the wall. "The white pines are in the front on the left." The girl informed her in between gum pops, "On the right you have Frasier and Noble furs. White and Blue Spruces are in the back. No cedars this year."
"Thanks." Ana grabbed a map and tested three flashlights before she found one that worked, Stuffing the map in her coat pocket, "Kate you get the saw and Jose' can grab the rope."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Kate spared her barely a glance, "Saw what? Hey, do you think that coffee is drinkable."
Jose' leaned in close, with a whispered, "No." then nodding towards the cashier, "So does the fashion challenged elf take our order and call it into Big Bob?"
She felt her eyes hit the ceiling. Her friends were clueless, "Honestly, Kate we need the saw to cut down the tree, and Jose' we go get the tree."
"Huh?" Kate did a great dumb blond impersonation looking from her to the wall of saws and back again.
"We? We who?" Jose' craned his neck, still looking for Bob.
Ana took a deep breath and tried again, "Okay, both of you look at me and focus. We go and pick out a tree and cut it down. It's fun."
"Wait, hold on." Kate's pissed off face shoved 'dumb blond' out of her way and took over, "We 're paying money for a tree and they expect us to go tromping through the woods and hack it down? What the fuck kind of fucked place is this?"
Goth girl snickered.
"It's a Christmas tree farm and it's fun" Ana pointed her mag-light at her friend, "and don't you dare think of backing out."
"These boots are new and Gucci."
"So there's no Big Bob?" Jose' waved a hand at the window and the neon sign beyond, "Well, that's false advertising."
This turned goth girl's snicker to a howl.
Ana squared her shoulders. It was time to be a bad-ass, because dammit, it was Christmas! "Kate, need I remind you of our senior year and the hours I spent with you behind that stinky dumpster so we could sneak into the cafeteria and get you the scoop on the outdated mayo scandal?"
Kate puffed up, "There was outdated mayonnaise and people got sick."
"It was flu season. And Jose', who bailed you out of jail after that Sea-Hawk player had you arrested."
Jose' gave her one of his best haughty sniffs, "That was an unfortunate misunderstanding."
She shoved the rope at Jose', "Kate, get the saw."
Goth girl doubled over.
A few minutes later, she was thinking she should have left Kate and Jose' with the fashion challenged elf. That girl looked like she didn't take any crap and Ana was fast getting tired of the whining coming from her two bestest buds.
"I'm freezing." Jose' stuck his hand in her pocket.
"I told you to wear a heavier coat."
"You said we were getting a tree. I thought we were going to Target. Where there's heat."
"What was that noise?" Kate grabbed her other arm.
"Are there bears in these woods?" Jose' reached for the flashlight... again.
"For fuck's sake," She yanked the flashlight away, "This is not the woods. It's a tree farm."
"We are surrounded by trees and wild animals." Jose' returned his hand to her pocket. "That's the woods."
Oh honestly, she should left both of them in the hut and brought goth-girl, "You saw one sea-gull and we were still in the parking lot."
"That seagull was huge."
"What about this one?" Kate flung the saw at a random tree like she'd been doing every three feet since they got out of the sea-gull infested parking lot.
"No, we need a Blue Spruce. They're not far. Just up ahead and to the left."
"Shit..what was that?" Kate froze, slinging her trusty saw at a couple of cedar trees.
"What?" Jose' grabbed for the flashlight again.
"I saw something move."
"It's probably just a rat." Years later, when she sat by the fire pondering Christmas' past, she would admit to herself that that was the wrong thing to say.
Jose' screamed in her ear, grabbing her flashlight arm in a death grip, and swinging in wild arcs through the trees, so that Kate, who'd squealed and taken off running, made it about three feet before tripping and flying another three feet and slamming to the ground.
"Kate! Dammit Jose' let go!" Yanking her arm away, she ran to her friend. Kate though, was already moving. Catapulting herself up off the ground, she danced in circles, holding the saw out in front of her like a shield, and wailing, "Rats?!RATS!? RATS!?"
But Kate's screams were no match for Jose. He bounded up on them arms flailing and shrieking to the top of his immensely capable lungs, "THE PLAGUE! THE PLAGUE! Oh God they carry the plague!""
Jose' had been obsessed with the plague since the tenth grade humanities class.
Definitely the wrong thing to say.
"No, you didn't let me finish." Ana grabbed him before he could grab her. Since Kate was hopping around with a sharp object, she just let her hop. "It was a squirrel. You know Ray calls them rats with fluffy tails." She lied her ass off, crossed her fingers, and prayed for a Christmas miracle, "It was a joke. There are no rats out here. There's nothing for them to eat."
Jose stopped flailing, and went straight to pouting, "That was not funny, Annie Steele. Rats can kill you."
Oh, for fuck's sake.
"Oh, oh right. Okay..Yeah." Kate stopped hopping, flinging the saw out, "Here, this looks good."
Her eyes followed the slung-out saw, and she sent up a prayer of thanks, "Yes, yes it does. Good eye Kate. It's a Blue Spruce."
"Well, praise be," Jose' threw his hands up in a hallelujah wave, "It's a Christmas Miracle. God Bless us everyone."
The weekend after Thanksgiving 2013...
Christmas time is here...happiness and cheer...
"How's the hot chocolate, kitten?" Grey came up behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her. She was studying the immense Blue Spruce as if waiting for it to reveal its secrets. The tree had been delivered this morning. He'd had it in the stand when she woke. A compromise they had reached after a very long discussion. Ana insisting being pregnant did not mean she was an invalid. While he pointed out that she tired easily and this way she could spend her energy decorating as opposed to hiking in the cold. He won the debate when she yawned in the middle of it.
She leaned back into him cradling the mug in both hands, "Yummy, Mrs. Jones made it with mostly white chocolate and a little bittersweet, less caffeine."
"Good, that's good." His hands slipped down to her still flat belly. A child slept there. His child. He couldn't get over it. How could he be terrified and elated at the same time?
"Uh... so when are Jose' and John getting here?" Elliot was standing in the middle of the over two dozen boxes loaded with enough ornaments and lights for at least a dozen trees. Ray had delivered them last night with a pat on the back, a shake of his head, and a ' Good luck son, she's worth it.'
"Yeah, where the hell is Jose'? " Kate demanded, falling into a chair, "He's going to miss all the fun." She was on her second Vodka Stinger.
"He just called they're on their way up." Ana said, "They just got back last night."
"Oh, right he went to visit John's folks." Elliot grinned, "Wonder how that went."
"He said they had a wonderful time." His kitten bristled.
"The right wingers?" Kate snorted into her vodka, "I'll bet."
"They're Catholic, not right wingers, and they love Jose'. John said so..."
The chime in the foyer cut off the discussion.
"That's them now." He brushed his lips across her soft cheek, "I'll go let them in. Why don't you explain to Elliot what you were telling me last night about the lights."
"Oh, okay. Good idea."
He smirked at his brother's bemused face. He was about to get some payback.
As soon as he opened the door Jose popped his head in, craning his neck, "Is it safe."
Translation, was his kitten happily belting off-key with her Charlie Brown Christmas CD? He felt his lips twitch, "Ana is enjoying her hot chocolate."
"Oh, well, Merry Merry and a Happy Happy and here's to a Silent Night!" Jose' blasted into the penthouse, his usual enthusiasm bursting forth. He was followed by a more subdued John. At least Grey thought he was more subdued until he took in the sweater.
"Holy Shit, is that thing blinking."
John grimaced. It was Jose' that answered, "My honey-bun lost a bet, so he gets to wear my entry in his family's annual Tacky Christmas Sweater contest." Jose patted the other man's chest, "I won."
Grey looked away from the blinding swirl of color and blinking lights, "It's..ah..festive."
"Shut up, Grey" Though his words were harsh the man who regularly kicked his ass on the golf course grinned and took his hand, "And Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," He led the men inside, "You're just in time to help string the lights."
"What?" Jose' froze in place.
John swung a puzzled glance Jose's way, "I thought you said Ana decorated the weekend before Thanksgiving?"
Jose' wasn't listening. He was staring in horror at the twelve and a half foot tree dominating the room and the multitude of boxes that lined the entire wall of windows on either side of it, his hand pressed to his forehead, completely silent. And damn, that was a first.
Grey worked very hard to keep the laughter out of his voice, "Yes, I believe that's the way she's done it in the past, but she wanted to wait until you got back. She was worried your feelings would be hurt if you weren't included."
John didn't bother covering his chuckle, "That's..uh.. thoughtful."
"Elliot, if you get on one side with the step stool, Kate you get on this one here," His kitten adjusted the stools on either side of the tree, then moved past them to one of the giant cardboard boxes and flipped it open, "Now, we only have three thousand lights..."
"Three thousand.." Elliot froze half way up the ladder, every bit of color drained from his face.
"I know it doesn't seem like it'll be enough for both trees," His kitten went on pulling out small red boxes, adorably oblivious, "But the one we're putting on the balcony is only eight feet."
"Both?" Jose's horrified whisper pulled his eyes from Elliot's white face.
"Ana thought it would be festive to have another tree on the balcony."
"Oh dear God." Jose' swayed on his feet.
"If we're careful, we should have enough." Ana assured them, pulling out box after box.
"Uh-huh..." Elliot turned green. Kate took another sip of her vodka stinger and stared up at the tree like it was a blood enemy.
"Damn, I thought you were exaggerating." He heard John whisper in Jose's ear.
So had he, until last night when he'd spent two hours watching Ana happily organize the ornaments by color, style, and size. Only stopping when he'd picked her up and carried her to bed. She'd fallen asleep in seconds. She was tired all the time, normal for the first trimester Dr. Greene assured him. He'd gotten on the phone first thing this morning. While he wanted her to have fun, he wouldn't sit by while she wore herself out.
His phone vibrated in his pocket,"Taylor?"
"We're pulling in now, sir."
"Good." The Calvary had arrived.
"No, Elliot you have to loop the lights around each branch." Ana's vehemence pulled his eyes back across the room just in time to see her put her foot on the first step of the other ladder. He was across the room in a nanosecond. Scooping her off her feet, he carried her over to a chair by the hearth and sat right down with her on his lap.
"No climbing, kitten."
She blew a hair out of her face, "It's not even three feet off the ground. Besides Dr Green didn't say anything about not climbing step ladders."
"Well, yippee for Dr. Greene," Jose marched over and gave her a hard stare, "Now listen here Mrs. Annie Grey, I don't care what the doctor didn't say, you are pregnant and you are a klutz. No climbing, no running with scissors, and no pacing in front of the hearth in stilettos. In fact, as much as it pains me to say it, no heels over an inch until after you have given birth to my God-Daughter."
Big blue eyes rolled, "Jose', it might be a boy."
"Fa-la-la-la-la" Jose' covered his ears,"Not listening, not listening,"
"He's right, you know." John said, "It's not worth the risk."
Ana jerked back, "Nice sweater."
"Thank-you," He gave the sweater a small tug, his face serious his voice dead-pan dry, "I'm bringing tacky back."
Ana's resulting snort was cut off, by the commotion at the door, "Knock-knock, ready or not here we come."
Grey rose and placed Ana in the chair, "Stay put, kitten."
Her attention went to the Foyer and the crowd of people coming through the door. Steve and Trent in the lead, both carrying boxes.
"Merry Christmas! Santa's helpers have arrived."
"What's going on?"
"Now don't you get worked up little mamma." Steve patted her hand on his way to the tree, "We're just here to do the hard part. I'm a whiz at stringing lights and then we'll work on getting the rest of the place festive and you can take your time decorating the tree."
"Oh, uh... okay." Adonis had done it again. She should be mad, but she was too relieved. She was tired all the time.
"Hey Everybody, look what I found." A shock of pink and an abundance of blond hair filled her vision as Bree breezed in on the arm of a giant. The guy stood well over six feet. His broad shoulders and chest were covered by a thermal shirt with well-worn plaid flannel shirt over it. His jeans were old and faded, scuffed up timberlands were on his feet. He looked like a lumberjack. She cast a look at Adonis. He sent her a small innocent smile, before stepping forward to greet the giant.
"Thank-you for coming Robert. It's good to see you again." Adonis extended his hand to the large man, who took it in an enthusiastic grip.
"The tree looks great. I've got the eight footer in the truck. Least I can do. Pop's dream would have died, if not for you."
"That chemical plant was a bad idea. I just pointed out the facts."
Ana's eyes grew wide as the truth dawned. The chemical plant had been proposed to be built off I-5 just north of Portland. Near the tree farm...
"Oh...oh..oh, Oh my God," Jose's eyes went wide taking in the giant man and then shooting to her. Shock on his face she was sure reflected her own.
"Big Bob?" She squeaked.
"At your service ma'am." the big man smiled down at her, "Although technically, Big Bob's my Dad. I'm Bob Jr. "
"Big Bob? Tree Farm Big Bob?" Kate's voice. Uh-oh, Kate had vowed to do vicious and permanent harm to Bob's privates if she ever ran across him, and she was deep into her second vodka stinger. She stomped up to him, Stinger in hand, "You owe me a pair of Gucci's buster."
"Now Katie-Girl..." Elliot started off the ladder. No doubt, looking to protect Big Bob from the Jimmy Choos currently on Kate's feet.
"And you must be Kate," Big Bob proved he could handle himself, turning a smile on Kate that should be illegal, "Mr. Grey told me about your less than pleasant visit. I'm so sorry. Dad's health wasn't good that year, and I was still stationed in Iraq. Things got a little rough. If you give us another chance. I will personally take you through the farm and find you a perfect tree, cut it down, and deliver it for you." He winked at her, "I'll even hang around and put the lights on."
Big Bob was a veteran and a charming one at that.
"Uh..okay..." Kate's anger melted like snow in a hot august sun
"And just so you know," He leaned in and said in a conspiring whisper, "There are absolutely no rats on our farm. Just lots of squirrels, chipmunks, and possibly a Christmas mouse or two." He said the last with a sexy grin and a sexier wink. Wow, Bob Jr. had skills.
"We got a pre-lit tree from Home Depot." Elliot put his arm around Kate and pulled her close."
"Ah, okay," Bob kept grinning but took a step back, "I see."
"Well, we don't." Jose' spoke up, "Big Bob can bring his big tree to our place and decorate it anytime."
"Jose'!" Ana pinched him.
"What?" He shot her his wide-eyed innocent look, "I'm married, not dead."
"True that, baby" John whispered on her other side, his eyes taking in the large man head to toe, "True that."
One year later...
December 22nd 12:45 a.m.
"Ana?" Grey sat up alone in his bed, his eyes went to the clock, 12: 45. Too early for Teddy's feeding. Then his ears picked up voices, numerous female voices. Aah, they were early. With a mix of anticipation and trepidation he rolled out of bed and padded cautiously down the hall. The voices became clearer.
"Dammit, we should have left him at home."
"I couldn't get anyone to take him, Miss Maddie is still recovering from her stroke, and the last time we left him alone, the neighbors called the cops."
Oh shit, he really didn't want to go out there. He heard a baby coo. Damn, Teddy was awake.
"There's the little Teddy-bear. Come to Auntie Allie."
"He certainly is taken with you." Ana's voice
Grey almost chuckled at Lena's dry and accurate assessment.
"What the hell?" And there was Mckenna's voice, heavy with her usual frustrated resignation, "Well, shit. How the hell did he get up there?"
That "no cursing in front of the baby" wasn't taking at all.
"I think he's learned to unlock the cage." Christy's voice was somehow sheepish while still bursting with pride.
"Dammit, get him down from there..."
Grey couldn't believe what his ears were telling him.
"I thought his wings were clipped."
"They are clipped."
"Well, he sure as shit doesn't know that."
Peg-Leg Pete had come for Christmas.
"Um, we have a step ladder in the kitchen." Ana's voice, choked with laughter.
"What the hell don't let Jack out ….Oh shit!
"Lena grab that damn cat before he goes for the tree." Mckenna shouted instructions over the wailing bird, "Allie, block off the hallway."
"Oh, hell no." Lena's denial was instant and ferocious, "I'm not going near that evil thing."
Grey ran his hand through hair. He was with Lena on that one.
"I've got Teddy-bear." Allie's husky voice carried over the bird without needing to yell.
Over all of this he could hear his son squealing with delight. McGovern Madness was his favorite form of entertainment.
"I've got him." Christy said, "Jack just likes all the shiny ornaments."
"Dammit all Christy, put Jack back in his cage and get that idiot bird down before he wakes up grumpy-pants."
"Now Lena, that's not fair," Allie defended him.
"Need I remind you of his snippy attitude over the yak incident?"
Snippy? He was never snippy. Grumpy he'd give you, but snippy...
"Well yes, your daddy did get a little snippy, didn't he, didn't he Teddy-bear?" Allie cooed in baby speak. Her voice so smooth and sweet it took him a second to realize she'd called him snippy, too. Well, damn. Grey felt his smile crease his cheeks. It was little wonder Teddy was so taken with the beautiful blond, "But Buster is stinky, stinkeeee Pee-eeww" Tvelvet whisper floated down the hall, "And he ate daddy's shirt, didn't he..."
"Well, yeah but..." Lena tried to interrupt.
"...while daddy was still in it."
Damn if he hadn't. Grey'd had to rip himself right out of one of his best dress shirts and the damn Yak had never stopped chewing.
That had been a hell of a trip. They'd gone over in November to asses his new acquisition. The McGovern sisters were already there and met them at the airport. On the way to the Castle, Christy had spotted the yak, lying on the side of the road. Before he he knew it, he, Taylor and McIntyre were loading the half dead animal in the SUV. And Allie was right, that thing had stunk so badly he'd had to pay a guy to detail and shampoo the vehicle twice before the rental place would take it back.
Assuring himself that was whatever was going on around the corner in his living room couldn't be as bad as a half-dead yak eating his shirt, he turned the corner and... well that he wasn't prepared for.
The four McGovern sisters stood around the tree. Mckenna rubbing her temples, Lena still muttering about grumpy-pants, Allie gently loosening Teddy's hand from her hair, Christy holding Jack up to the tree so he could bat an ornament, and Ana in a t-shirt and sweat pants she'd obviously pulled on in a hurry, off to the side, leaning against the wall and shaking with silent laughter. And at the top of the twelve foot Blue Spruce crushing the gold bow Ana had meticulously made as a topper, sat the peg-legged savant Macaw.
"Grumpy-grumpy-grumpy..." Pete squawked then threw his wings out straight, his head dancing around on his neck.
"Oh shit, he's winding up..." Lena backed away and covered her ears.
"The birdie's going to make a big, big noise..." Allie cooed, and pressed Teddy's head to her chest covering his ears.
"Cover your ears..." Christy stuffed Jack back in his cage and squatted down next to him her hands over her ears.
"Dammit, where's the fucking Excedrin?" Mckenna grabbed that giant purse of hers, rummaging through it.
The bird threw his head back and...
"SHIT!" Grey covered his ears at the mind numbing screeching coming from the happy, head-bobbing, big-ass bird.
"Dammit, we never should have left him with Miss Maddie..."
"She's the only one who'll take him."
"Is that "Oh happy Day?" Ana had to yell over the screeching.
"Miss Maddie took him to choir rehearsal."
"Mr Grey? What's going..." Taylor came up behind him, took in the scene with what might have been an "Oh, shit." then turned right around and headed back the way he'd come. Grey didn't blame him. He thought longingly of the quiet unoccupied guest house, and a plan started to form. He took a step back, he'd go out the side door and call Ana on the house line. Allie could give Teddy his feeding. They'd have the rest of the night to themselves. He made it two more steps back, and was almost out of sight, when Lena looked in the mirror over the fireplace and met his eyes.
"Oh, hey there Hot-Stuff." Lena shouted over the bird as all four McGovern sisters turned towards him.
"Wave Merry Christmas to Daddy..." Allie raised Teddy's hand in a wave.
"Pete likes your tree." Christy smiled at him.
"Merry Christmas Grey." Mckenna looked up from her rummaging long enough to nod in his direction.
Ana snickered behind her hand. The big-ass bird sang about watching and praying.
"What in the blazing blue balls is making that hideous racket? Allie and I have a Nieman's spree planned for tomorrow and I need my beauty sleep ..." Jose' stumbled out of the guest wing in shocking green flannel sleep pants, took in the four women, "Oh, hi ladies, you're early. Allie those shoes are delicious."
"You don't think they're too much?" Allie bent her head over Teddy's and lifted one tiny feminine foot in a blisteringly high stiletto, gold with a hot pink geometric pattern, "I wasn't sure..."
"Honey, they were made for you." Jose' waved his hand, "As if Louboutin could ever be too much." He then walked over to the tree and snapped his fingers at the serenading bird, "Pete, that is enough. You get down here right this minute."
Pete stopped singing between happy and day, fluttered off the tree, settled on Jose's shoulder, squawked once, and went silent as a lamb.
"Holy Shit!" Lena's mouth dropped open.
"He's a fucking bird whisperer..." Mckenna's hand froze with her Excedrin halfway to her mouth.
"Oh happy day! Happy happy day!" Allie lifted Teddy, rubbing his nose with Eskimo kisses.
"That's so sweet." Christy smiled like a proud parent, "He really likes you."