To say this day was not going well would be an understatement. For starters, she was here. In Bluebell. In Alabama, for crying out loud. Not in New York. Not ice skating in front of the biggest Christmas tree in the world, not sipping Starbucks, not buying gifts on Fifth Avenue.
No, she was here. In Bluebell. Cleaning up her shirt after some kid puked all over her. His mother thought it was the flu. Maybe his mom and dad shouldn’t have let the kids dig into all the chocolate fudge in one sitting. That would have been a much better idea.
And now, interrupting the few moments of solitude she’d had all day, her favorite person in the world.
“Hello, Zoe,” Lemon said, in that sippity voice of hers that made Zoe want to tear her hair out. Or maybe Lemon’s hair instead. “I’m quite surprised to see you here, I must say.”
Zoe refrained from rolling her eyes. At least too much.
“I work here,” she said. “And why are you here? Your father isn’t in today. Didn’t you know that?”
Lemon smiled. “Oh, I know. I was just dropping off some homemade cookies for Addie as a holiday gift” — and now Zoe saw the basket of overflowing baked goods in Lemon’s hands. Of course Lemon was bringing by baked goods. At least Zoe had told Addie “Merry Christmas.” That was something. Right? Or had she forgotten. Zoe scrunched her nose, trying to remember.
Lemon continued. “I’d heard you were going back to New York for the holidays. I’m just surprised you’re still here is all.”
“Oh, yeah,” Zoe said. “My mother. She unexpectedly went out of town. So I’m here. Celebrating in Bluebell.” Zoe forced a smile. “Yay.”
“Yay,” Lemon echoed back. Her smile faded slightly. “You’re not going to the Firemen’s Truck Toss, are you, by any chance?”
What the heck was the Firemen’s Truck Toss? Zoe scrounged around in her brain to see if she could recall anything of that sort ever being mentioned. She could tell, though, by the look on Lemon’s face that she was desperately hoping she would say she wasn’t.
“Of course I’m going to the Truck Toss!” Zoe exclaimed, a bit too loudly for her own ears. “Why wouldn’t I be going?”
“Oh!” Lemon smiled a bit too brightly for any sane person. “How lovely. Then I will see you there.”
“Yes, see you there!” Zoe echoed, also a bit too brightly.
“What is the Firemen’s Truck Toss? And how do I go?” Zoe didn’t stop to take a breath as she seated herself at the kitchen table and stared expectantly at Wade and Lavon.
“Why?” Wade grinned. “What did you do?”
“What makes you think I did anything?”
“Yeah, what did you do?” Lavon chimed in. Zoe scowled at the smirks on their faces.
“Nothing,” she muttered. “At least not really.”
“At least not really how?” Wade said.
“Ugghh,” Zoe sighed, throwing her hands in the air. “I might have, just maybe, told Lemon that of course I was going to be there.”
“Because I could tell she didn’t want me to be!” she added as their grins spread even wider.
“And you just can’t let her win, huh?” teased Wade.
“I hate this town,” Zoe scowled.
“No, you don’t,” Lavon said cheerfully. “And you’re in luck. Because Wade and I were already planning to be there. As mayor, I do have to go, you know. So you can come too. No one will say anything.”
“Great!” Zoe said. “That’s great!” Then she frowned. “What exactly is the Firemen’s Truck Toss?”
Lavon laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s just the volunteer firemen and some townspeople giving free gifts out to the children. How bad can it be?”
“How bad can it be?” Zoe hissed. “How bad can it be? Did you forget to mention that I would be dressing as an elf?”
Wade laughed. She scowled.
“And why aren’t you dressed as an elf, anyway?”
Lavon grinned. “The mayor cannot be seen as an elf,” he said cheerfully. “And you said you wanted to help.”
“I didn’t want to help like this,” Zoe muttered.
“Ahh, but you did not say that. Now go on …” Lavon gestured over to the far corner of the volunteer fire station where the Christmas tree was set up. A fire truck laden down with presents was pulled up right next to it. “Santa Wade Clause is waiting for you!”
“I hate you,” Zoe muttered. But she marched off toward Santa anyway. Or at least she marched off in that direction. It figured she would be stopped in her tracks by the voice she least wanted to hear.
“Why, don’t you look just fetching?”
Zoe forced a smile on to her face and turned around. Lemon batted her eyes at her, looking perfectly perfect, as always, in her sweater and skirt and her hair perfectly in place.
Zoe silently cursed out Lavon.
“Why thank you Lemon. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Well, why don’t you do that then?” Lemon said cheerfully. Zoe would bet her New York designer clothes that Lemon was laughing at her behind that fake little smile of hers.
“I can never pass up the chance to spread joy to anyone,” Zoe lied sweetly. “So when the offer came up, how could I say no?”
“No, you sure couldn’t, could you?” Lemon said.
Zoe motioned behind her. “If you don’t mind …”
“No, no, not at all.”
Zoe continued on her way. Wade was already set up in the truck, waving at the kids lined up in front of vehicle, tossing down presents.
Zoe sighed, but pushed her way through the crowd of parents. Maybe Lavon was right. How bad could it be?
“Admit it. It wasn’t that bad,” Lavon said later that night. Zoe, Levon and Wade were gathered back in Lavon’s kitchen, a glass of Lavon’s famous eggnog, as he called it, held in their hands.
Zoe rolled her eyes, then held out her arms.
“Look,” she said, gesturing to a spot near her elbow. “Look at this bruise! Not to mention all the other bruises. And my arms ache like crazy. No one told me I needed to actually throw the presents.”
“Why do you think they call it a ‘Toss’” Wade said.
“Well, I don’t know. It’s not like you guys bothered to explain much at all.”
“You really didn’t ask,” Lavon said.
“True,” Wade said. “You didn’t.”
Zoe took a sip of her drink. “Polite people would tell someone these things before dressing them as an elf and unleashing hundreds of crazy kids on them. I think I might have lost a chunk of hair from that one kid,” she mused, massaging her scalp.
“Ahh, but there is no better way to learn about the traditions of Bluebell than to experience them firsthand,” Lavon said.
“And those two little boys did call you pretty,” Wade added.
Zoe smiled at that. “Yeah,” she said. “That is true. That was cute.”
She shrugged. “Okay, fine, it wasn’t that bad.”
“I knew it,” Lavon said.
“I knew it, too,” Wade said.
“So what are we doing for Christmas Day then?” Zoe asked them.
Lavon frowned. “What do you mean?”
Zoe frowned back. “What do you mean what do I mean? I mean what are we doing tomorrow for Christmas?”
Lavon laughed. “What do you think we’re doing? It’s the annual Bluebell re-enactment of ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
Zoe stared at them, trying to see if they were serious.
“Oh, hell no,” she said. “You have got to be kidding.”
They both just laughed.