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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 2: Found and lost
Chapter 3: Homecoming
Chapter 4: Snowed in
Chapter 5: The show starts
Chapter 6: The thief
Chapter 7: Proposal
Chapter 8: Betrayal
Chapter 9: An honest man
Chapter 10: Last chance
Chapter 11: Dirt poor
Chapter 12: The country code
Chapter 13: Pop's secret
Chapter 14: Gotcha!
Chapter 15: Fallout
Chapter 16: Making the case
Chapter 17: Making amends
Chapter 18: A hot tip
Chapter 19: Shutdown
Chapter 20: Pop's gift
Chapter 21: Turner's gift
Chapter 22: Tennyson's gift
Chapter 23: Allie's choice
Chapter 24: A dream come true
Chapter 25: The Holly Wreath Man

Chapter 23: ALLIE'S CHOICE

"You stubborn old mule," said Dr. Quillen, a coat draped over his pajamas, as he listened to Pop Henderson's chest through a stethoscope. "What did I tell you about taking it easy?" Pop squirmed in his desk chair. "Taking it easy is for loafers like you," he snapped.

"I'm sorry, Doctor," Allie Henderson said remorsefully. "It's all my fault. I should have made him go home."

"Nonsense, I'm not an invalid," Pop said, struggling to his feet. "Now stand aside, Sawbones. I've got a wreath to deliver."

"You're not going anywhere except to bed," Dr. Quillen said, gently pushing Pop back down. "At home or in the hospital. Your choice."

"I've got to get to New York City," he insisted. "Allie and Jeff can't make the drive on their own."

Fred Swiggett stepped forward. "I'll take them, Pop." He smoothed back his hair and looked over at Allie. "It's the least I can do."

Allie hesitated. "That's kind of you Fred, but -" "Maybe Mr. Turner could drive," Jeff chimed in, looking hopefully at his mother.

Pop looked up at Turner. "You used to work in New York City, didn't you?" he said.

Turner nodded, glancing at Allie. "I'd be glad to help," he said. "But if you'd rather -" "That settles it then," Olivia Coffin announced. "Let's get that wreath in the truck, get you three on the road, and you," she said firmly to Pop, "into bed."

** ** **

Jeff slept most of the drive to New York City, giving Turner and Allie a chance to talk. She told him about Bobby, her high school sweetheart who went off to Korea and came home in a flag-draped casket.

"He was a lot like Pop," she said. "Headstrong and good-hearted." She glanced down at her son, sleeping between them. "He's a lot like his father."

Turner described his adventures as a Labor Department investigator, softpedaling the danger and loneliness, and told her about the woman he nearly married until she decided his work was too much competition.

They discovered they shared a favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," both admired President Kennedy and, for the life of them, couldn't understand the appeal of Elvis Presley. Talking like old friends, they barely noticed the miles and hours slipping by. At dusk, Turner steered the pickup onto Manhattan's Avenue of the Americas.

"Wake up, Jeff," Allie said. "We're here."

"Already?" Jeff said, rubbing his eyes and stretching. Through the windshield, he saw Radio City Music Hall for the first time and gasped. The marquee, a shimmering red-and-blue neon sign that seemed to go on forever, advertised his dream, "Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes."

** ** **

Jeff, Allie and Turner watched from the sidewalk as workers astride tall ladders hoisted Tennyson's holly wreath into the air. The three of them held their breath until the wreath was firmly secured to the blue neon bands running parallel along the bottom of the marquee.

"I wish Pop could see it," Jeff said.

Allie hugged him. "You can tell him all about it when we get home."

** ** **

As a favor to Pop, the stage manager put them in the front row for the Rockettes' 90-minute show. The lights dimmed, Christmas music from the giant Wurlitzer organ filled the cavernous theater, the curtain parted and there they were. A chorus line of 36 high-kicking goddesses in green velvet trimmed in white fur.

Jeff sat on the edge of his seat, gaping as the Rockettes transformed themselves over and over, into candy canes, wooden soldiers, dancing dolls. He glanced sideways and smiled. His mother and Turner were holding hands and - he couldn't believe it - were sound asleep in their seats. It must be a sign of old age, he decided. How could anyone doze off when the Rockettes were on stage? The organ music swelled. A menagerie of camels, llamas, horses and sheep filled the stage for the "Living Nativity" number. Jeff's eyelids drooped. He blinked furiously, shook his head, trying to fight an overwhelming urge to close his eyes.

Unable to resist, Jeff fell asleep.

But he could still see the Rockettes, dancing before him.

CHAPTER 22: TENNYSON'S GIFT | CHAPTER 24: A DREAM COME TRUE

 



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