It was finally here, Christmas Eve in West Burville. After a couple of days of coming up dry, the Counter Dwellers were facing a dilemma…
But she had said it. What was the woman thinking?
Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers could buy the fact that Linda Mae had a crush but marrying someone you’d known for about two weeks was just plain dangerous. Hooter realized they didn’t have much time to save Linda Mae from herself.
No one knew anything about Sander Klauss, except maybe for the Ford Fitch. Maybe he was one of those German ski instructors who blew into town every few ski seasons, romanced the local talent and then evaporated with the snow. But what if he was an escaped convict that liked blondes and Linda Mae was in danger.
Hooter was fresh out of bright ideas. Except for one. He and the rest of the Counter Dwellers would spend Christmas Eve shadowing Klauss on his next date with Linda Mae. If he made a move, they’d be there to rescue her and her honor. When the rest of the boys agreed it was a sound plan, Hooter handed out assignments. The real trick was going to be getting away from their families on Christmas Eve.
At nine o’clock Hooter and Old Mel joined Bunchy, Flock, Ludovico, Dayrel and Lambert in the parking lot of the West Burville Texaco. The Counter Dwellers were weighed down with rucksacks filled with thermoses of strong coffee and sandwiches. Lambert had swiped his wife’s holiday Five Pound Fruitcake and Flock had included a box of sticky ribbon candy he’d taken out of his grandmother’s gift pile. At least they’d eat. Dressed in insulated coveralls, heavy wool hunting socks and felt packs, the boys were ready for a long night of staking out Klauss and his intentions.
It was beginning to snow again. The boys were milling around stamping their feet when Lambert said it just might be a night for ol’ Rudolph to be guiding the sleigh. Old Mel and Ludovico chuckled until Hooter shot them a poisonous look that stifled the merriment.
Something wasn’t right. Old Mel was the first to say it when he whispered, “I got a weird feelin’ here and I can’t quite place it.” Everyone nodded.
“What now, Hooter?” Flock asked.
“We make for the Double Axle…and stay low,” Hooter replied. Everyone thought that was a good idea, except Old Mel, who argued that his lumbago was raising Hob with him and he wasn’t crawling around on his hands and knees for anyone. Ludovico suggested they leave him behind and a small scuffle ensued when Old Mel offered to clean Ludovico’s clock. Hooter shushed them both.
Hooter suggested they fan out and remember to stay out of the snowbanks. After a minute of getting sorted out and some pushing and shoving between Old Mel and Ludovico, they set off for the Double Axle.
Just before the parking lot at the Double Axle with the one flickering security mounted on a post, they stopped. Flock and Dayrel mentioned cold feet and frostbite in the same sentence and Lambert muttered that the kids would be wondering what had happened to Daddy. The others nodded in agreement. But no one made a move to turn back. What they all wanted was a gander at Linda Mae closing up the diner. But there was no activity behind the counter. Had she left without shutting out the lights? Or had something happened to her?
Behind the Double Axle there’s a field bordered by pines. Here and there scrubby trees, stunted by years of wind and cold, stand twisted and bent. Right in the middle of the scrubby underbrush is an open area no one visits. The field serves as the view for diners who might glance out the plate glass window. But mostly it’s just ignored.
As Hooter and the boys were slogging their way through the snowy parking lot around to the backside of the diner, they noticed hazy lights way out in the field. What was going on out there?
The boys stepped up the pace. Hunched down together they skirted the dark edges of the field. As they got further into the field they saw the battered Ford Fitch parked in the deepening snow, the beam from its headlights looked like gauze through the veil of heavily falling snow.
What they saw next made the Counter Dwellers leave the shadow of the trees and pick their way across the brush strangled field. Klauss and Linda Mae were standing in the snow waving their arms at the sky. No one could hear a word they were shouting but it looked pretty urgent. The boys picked up the pace.
Staying a distance from Klauss and Linda Mae, they tried to assess if she was coming to any harm. It didn’t seem that way but the Counter Dwellers piled into each other trying to get a closer look.
If Klauss and Linda Mae had turned they would have seen a tableau of the Counter Dwellers hunched behind a few stripped out pricker bushes. But their attention was diverted by a light that was headed their way and getting stronger by the minute.
“What the…?” muttered Hooter with his mouth hanging open. The Counter Dwellers got a little closer to each other.
“Is that one of them UFOs like they got over in the desert?” Bunchy whispered. “I’m for getting out of here.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Hooter growled. “What if that Klauss is an alien and he’s taking Linda Mae up in that UFO? We’ve got to save her. I knew there was something fishy about that guy,” he added.
The idea of saving Linda Mae prompted the Counter Dwellers to break cover and stalk toward Klauss and Linda Mae, still waving and hollering at the approaching light. Not for the first time Hooter asked himself what the hell was going on here.
“What if it’s a plane gonna crash into Linda Mae?” Bunchy said a little awestruck.
“Shut up, Bunchy. It ain’t no plane.”
The boys were rooted to the spot with their felt packs getting soaked. But no one was noticing their feet.
Out in the field things were so bright their eyes hurt. Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers couldn’t be sure but it looked like the Ford Fitch was shimmering.
“Is that Ford melting?” asked Dayrel.
“For chrissake, shut up, Dayrel,” said Lambert. “I think it’s, looks like a…what the hell is that?”
In the place of the giant ball of light that was once the rusty Ford Fitch stood an enormous white sleigh and eight of the prettiest reindeer all done up in red harnesses with little jingly bells.
“Santa? Is that Santa’s sleigh and…uh…eight tiny reindeer?” Bunchy exclaimed before Ludovico hit him one off the side of the head.
“Of course, it’s Santa, you jackass. I think,” Ludovico pondered.
Something else was happening that cut Ludovico off and made the boys creep closer. It was Linda Mae. Or was it?
Someone was standing in the field and she sure wasn’t dressed in a waitress uniform. A woman who looked regal and magical and dressed in a long white robe with gold trimmings and a wreath of holly around her blonde updo. Linda Mae? The boys held their breath. At her side was a familiar figure but it wasn’t Sander Klauss. In his place was a tall round figure dressed all in red with dark wavy hair. The white beard wasn’t there but the boys still has a pretty good idea who it was. So Sander Klauss was Santa Claus. Why hadn’t they guessed? And he was going to take Linda Mae off in that sleigh to God knows where.
They were going to lose Linda Mae to Santa Claus. It didn’t seem possible. Sander Klauss had come looking for a Mrs. Claus and had found her at the Double Axle Diner. At the same moment the Counter Dwellers were musing about how you just could never tell sometimes, Santa was helping the new Mrs. Claus into his sleigh.
The boys knew they were looking at Linda Mae for the last time. They abandoned any idea of trying to hide. But just before she sat down, Linda Mae turned and blew them a kiss that crossed the field and touched the lips of each and every man. They gave a collective sigh and Old Mel’s knees buckled. But that part might have been the lumbago.
As she settled herself next to Klauss, Linda Mae gave one last wink and a little wave toward the Counter Dwellers. Hooter and the boys heard a single shout and caught a whiff of warm reindeer as the sound of tinkling bells filled the clear cold night. With a flick of the reins, the reindeer bounded into the dark snowy sky.
From the middle of the field, the boys waved their mittened hands one last time at Linda Mae. No one spoke. They stared at the field and into the sky and at each other. Finally Hooter said, “I told you there was something fishy about that Klauss guy.”
Tromping back across the field on icy feet, hungry and miserable, the Counter Dwellers agreed that Linda Mae better not have been abducted by some fancy alien in a Santa suit. Old Mel wondered out loud who was going to keep the diner open and Flock said as long as the lights were on they might as well grab some pie before heading home.
Stumbling across the hillocky snow the Counter Dwellers tried the door at the diner. It swung open.
“Linda Mae must have forgotten to lock up,” Hooter said as he stepped inside.
“And she left the coffee on and fresh pie. For us?” Dayrel asked the other Counter Dwellers.
“Would seem so,” said Lambert. “Let’s dig in.”
As Hooter was digging around behind the counter looking for a knife to cut the lemon meringue, he spotted a letter beside the coffeepot addressed to the Counter Dwellers. “Hey, look at this. Linda Mae left us a letter,” Hooter said, coming out from behind the counter.
“Hurry up, open it up.”
Hooter ripped open the white envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper signed by Linda Mae.
Hooter read for a minute in silence. He lowered the paper and puckered his brow.
“Ready for this?”
“Boys, according to this here letter, Linda Mae, left us the Double Axle and all its accouterments, whatever they are. She spelled it all out right here and she spelled out our names too. “
The Counter Dwellers were dumbstruck.
“You mean we own the place?” said Bunchy.
“Looks that way,” Hooter replied. “Now what?”
Now what indeed…
Merry Christmas from everyone up at the Double Axle, West Burville, Vermont, population 683 give or take.