Editor's note: Everybody can use a break around the holidays. So, we bring you this fictional series every day from now through Dec. 24. We hope you enjoy "The Holly Wreath Man" - and your holidays.
The story will be updated with new chapters as they are published in The Patriot Ledger. So check back each day for more.
Chapter 1: Missing
Chapter 19: Shutdown
The front door of Swiggett's General Store banged open and Allie Henderson stormed in. "Where is he, Mabel?" she demanded. At the back of the store, a light flashed on behind the office one-way mirror. Allie pointed her finger at it. "Fred," she called up angrily. "I want to talk to you." The light went out.
Fred waited at the top of the stairs, arms outstretched, a nervous smile on his face. Allie asked, "Why, Fred?" "Why what, darlin'?" he said, backing into the office.
"You know, Fred," she said. "You called the Labor Department on Pop."
Squirming, Fred said, "Where'd you get a foolish notion like that?" "Jeff heard you, so don't give me any sweet talk. I want to know why."
Fred's eyes shifted as he weighed the benefits of telling the truth. He clasped her hands and launched into a desperate pitch.
"Be rational, Allie," he said. "Time's passed Pop by. Even here in Tennyson, everybody wants plastic wreaths. Pop needed somebody to give him a push."
Allie jerked her hands away and stared at him.
"I don't know what I could have been thinking, that you would be a good father to Jeff."
"Now wait a minute, Allie. The problem is that boy's dishonest."
"Misguided, yes. But that boy acted out of love. He deserves better than you. So do I."
Allie twisted off her engagement ring and dropped it on the desk.
"Allie, come on. What the heck do you think you're doing?" "Giving you a push," Allie said.
"Allie. Come back here. Right now. Allie."
Fred shouted after her, "I did it for the boy. And you. And Pop. For all of us." Through the window, he watched Allie walk down the aisle and out of his life.
** ** **
Early the next morning, Pop, Allie and Jeff stood on the platform outside the Holly Wreath Man's office, watching in silence as a freight train slowly rumbled by.
"I remember when it used to stop," Pop said.
"The Holly Wreath Express," Allie said wistfully, linking her arm with his. "Remember when Bobby and I took it up to New York to deliver the Radio City Wreath?" A gray sedan pulled up alongside their pickup. John Turner, grim-faced, got out and limped up the steps.
"Jeff, go sit in the truck," Allie said.
"What is it, Mom? Who is that guy?" "Mr. Turner. From the Labor Department. Pop and I have business with him. Wait in the truck."
"No way, Mom."
"Let the boy hear it, Allie," Pop said.
Turner held up a piece of paper. "I want you to know this isn't my idea," he told Allie. "I couldn't convince my boss that city rules shouldn't apply out here."
"Bit late for a change of heart, isn't it?" Allie said, skeptically.
"Allie, he's only doing his job," Pop said.
"Pop, don't be so darn reasonable. They've got no right."
"It's been over for a long time," Pop said. "I just didn't want to admit it."
Turner looked over at Jeff and shook his head sadly. "I know what I'm doing to you and all the people around here. It's like shutting Santa down on Christmas Eve." His voice broke. "I've got no choice. I'm sorry."
"It's OK, Turner. Just finish it," Pop said. Jeff walked over and took his grandfather's hand.
"Mr. Henderson," Turner said, struggling to keep his composure. "This is a cease-and-desist order. It bars you from further operations until you can establish that you're in compliance with the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act."
Turner walked up to the office door and posted the order. "This is wrong," he said.
"I'm sorry, Pop," Allie said.
"It's nobody's fault," Pop said, taking her hand. "It's progress." In the distance, the freight train whistle sounded. "And we got in the way."
Jeff walked to the platform's edge, hands in his pockets, scuffing his sneakers on the concrete.
"Jeff, what is it?" Allie asked.
"Nothing," he shrugged.
"Jeffrey?" "I guess we won't be going to Radio City this year, huh?" Allie looked at Pop. "They haven't cancelled, Pop."
Jeff brightened. "We could make it on our own, couldn't we?" He looked anxiously from Pop to Turner.
Turner smiled at Jeff. "No law against that," he said.
"Sure," Pop said. "Why not go out with a bang?"
"We'll make the biggest, prettiest wreath anybody's ever seen, Pop," Jeff cried. "We'll show 'em."
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