“Deck the halls, fa-la-la, and all that stuff,” Dottie Swaggert bemoaned from the bottom of the ladder she was holding on to while I strung red garland along the top of the tiki hut as a child ran past us on his way back to his family’s camper.
“Dottie.” I grabbed the top rung when she wobbled down below.
She gave a quiet snort in the back of her throat as she deliberately shook the ladder.
“I don’t know why on earth you decided not to have peace on earth just like the Christmas season is supposed to be about,” she retorted. “That big ole heart of yours puts all of us in this predicament.”
“What predicament?” I carefully stapled the next piece of garland, making sure not to get my fingers in the way. “We are doing good. Lester had a great idea, and if it helps Betts to move on and feel good, we are going to do it.”
Betts Hager was one of us.
A Laundry Club Lady.
We were a group of five friends who had so much in common—gossip, mostly—but what better way to bring five nosy women together? Betts owned the local laundromat we used to get together and just talk about things.
Recently, her ex-husband—only ex because he’d been sent to prison and pardoned by the governor—had passed away. He’d left a notebook that was full of requests from his church congregation he’d not been able to fulfill or things he’d left undone after he’d gone to prison but was on borrowed time from the big man in the sky due to an illness he wasn’t going to get pardoned from.
“If hosting an event that gives children a wonderful Christmas is something we can do to help Betts cross that off the list, then we are going to do it.” I sucked in a deep breath.
The cold Kentucky weather skittered into my nose and pricked my lungs. Slightly, I turned to get a view of the Happy Trails Campground from this level and smiled.
“And it makes the campground really pretty.” I loved how the Christmas tree on the dock of the lake was shining from the multicolored Christmas lights.
Plus, there were all the mini trees on the cute floating platforms in the lake made by Henry Bryant, the campground handyman, and Beck Greer, the local teenager who worked with Henry for me.
They had cleverly strung solar lights around each little tree and mirror-ball ornaments so during the day, the balls reflected the sunlight as if the lights were on, and as soon as the sun started to descend behind the mountains in the Daniel Boone National Forest, the twinkly lights came on, giving a breathtaking and delightful addition to the decorations.
“Why on earth does Betts feel like she’s the Jesus in his redemption?” Dottie had long not been a big fan of Lester’s pardon. Though he was a man of the cloth before he went to prison, Lester wasn’t able to escape the sin that put him there.
“Everyone needs forgiving,” I reminded her, though she squirmed uncomfortably below. “How does that look?”
I decided to give up on trying to convince her the toy drive we were hosting was going to be a good thing for everyone in the community, not just to make Betts feel better.
Truth of the matter, Betts was doing the good deeds only because she felt like if Lester had those marked off, he’d be let into the great eternal as they’d preached to the masses at the Normal Baptist Church.
For some reason, she’d taken on the sins that stuck him in prison as her lot in life. At some point, we, the Laundry Club Ladies and I, were going to have to help her see that Lester’s shame wasn’t her cross to bear.
That would have to wait. We needed to get these Christmas decorations up and get the campground looking like the North Pole before the kids staying in Happy Trails Campground for the week and the kids in the community got here to give Santa their wish lists.
After all, Christmas was just a few weeks away, and Santa had to get those toys made.
“Have you seen Otis?” I asked once I got off the ladder to see how it looked myself even though Dottie had said it was fine.
“Fine,” to me, meant it could be better. Fine to Dottie meant it was amazing.
Otis Gullett had come to me after he’d heard we were looking for someone to play Santa for the Gifts and Glamping Christmas, the name of our event. He didn’t have any experience, but he sure did have the build, if you know what I mean.
“He was over yonder last time I saw him.” Dottie gestured to the recreational building, where we had some indoor games for the kids inside, and for the outside, we had gotten a few of the stand-up heaters to keep guests warm while Ty Randal and his brothers served the food they’d donated from the Normal Diner.
When I said the entire town came out in order to make Gifts and Glampnig Christmas a success, they went above and beyond.
Not only had Happy Trails Campground filled up fast after we promoted it during the Thanksgiving holiday, but all of the available rooms at the Old Train Station Motel, the Milkery’s bed-and-breakfast, and the campgrounds within twenty miles of us filled up as well.
“Well, if you see him, please tell him the costume is in bungalow three so he knows he can go in there and change,” I told Dottie since she’d decided to take a smoke break, which meant she wasn’t going to do any work until she thoroughly enjoyed the lit cigarette in her mouth.
“If he passes by here, I’ll tell him.” Dottie made herself comfortable inside the tiki hut on the chair we had there for Santa.
“And don’t forget to get your costume on.” My jaw tightened in anticipation of her response as I walked away, but surprisingly, she did not respond.
I hurried past the igloo Henry and Beck had made, nearly tripping over the three pigeons on ice skates. One by one, they fell like dominoes on the glass disguised as a little pond in one of the many displays they set up around the campground.
Dottie’s under-her-breath snicker didn’t go unnoticed.
I didn’t dare look back to see her facial expression or even hand gestures if she made any, since I knew she felt like me falling over my own feet was warranted because I was asking her to dress like an elf for a couple of hours before we switched off.
It was part of being an employee. We all pitched in where needed.
“Fifi,” I called out to my little poodle. She was adorable in her reindeer antlers on her head and sweater to match. Fifi loved all her sweaters and certainly didn’t mind the antlers as you’d think.
I really did believe she understood how cute she was and liked all the attention she got from everyone she decided to give time to.
“Let’s get in one more last walk.” I talked to her as if she were my human child, and the way she always responded made me think she understood every word I said.
We started right there at the tiki hut along the road and would make our way around the lake. It was the last time I’d be able to check on the guests of the campground who had pulled or driven in their own campers or the guests who came and rented one of my campers.
They might need more things like wood for their firepits or essentials for living that I kept in the office. Happy Trails Campground was a full-hookup campground that we kept open all seasons, which was rare in the middle of the forest since our weather turned downright freezing.
Most campgrounds around these parts shut down for the season right after Halloween.
Now that our bungalows at the far end of the campground had heat, those really went fast for families who didn’t want to rent a camper for their gatherings. Of course, the pitched-tent area of the campground, located off the side of the bungalows in a wooded patch, was closed due to the nature of that type of camping.
I didn’t need anyone to get frostbite and die.
That wouldn’t be good for business.
“I love your gingerbread cutouts!” I called to the first campsite we came to, where the couple had their fifth wheel all leveled, set up, and ready to go.
They had transformed the outside of their camper to look like a gingerbread house and used the icicle lights to appear like dripping icing.
“Let me know if you need anything.” I waved goodbye to them and noticed Henry and Beck had already restacked new wood for the firepits.
The campground looked like the North Pole was in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest instead of up near the Arctic Ocean.
The next lot was a vacant mini travel trailer we owned. It was so cute but only had enough room for one or a couple. It rarely was rented out during any sort of holiday. During the rest of the year, the little camper was booked, more times than not by someone who was looking to come for a little break from life, reconnect with their soul, and just get away.
We offered the perfect getaway here at Happy Trails Campground with all the gorgeous trails that wound through the Daniel Boone National Forest, where you couldn’t stop the soul growth even in you tried.
Plus, we offered many outdoor recreational sports like kayaking, canoeing, archery, hiking, and floating in the stream off the Red Fox Trail, as well as fishing and swimming in the lake right outside the campers.
I ran my hand along the plastic chain-link fence Henry had strung along the entire property of the campground. He’d brought me several photos he’d gotten online, showing he wanted to make the event into truly what kids would imagine the North Pole would look like, and he certainly had worked day and night since Thanksgiving to make it just so.
“It looks great.” I walked up to the front of our small camper to see the finishing touches on the Santa’s-office display that Henry had made in the vacant space.
“Thanks.” He handed the garland to Beck. They’d made the fun spread from the fallen leaves and old vines he’d gathered from the forest. “It was Beck’s idea after I showed him the photo.”
The fireplace was fake and used gas logs and a propane tank that was hidden in the back of the stone fireplace they’d erected. They’d made a huge chimney and decorated the front of it with a framed photo of Santa’s family, and that included the elves, reindeer, and Mrs. Claus.
There was a live Christmas tree next to the fireplace, all decorated and with wrapped presents below. Even Mrs. Claus had a rocking chair on the other side of the fireplace, where she had her balls of knitting yarn in a basket with a nice blanket draped over the back.
It was a perfect place to imagine her sitting there with the crackling fire while Santa sat behind the desk, where there was a nice list with big check marks next to names along with a big mug of coffee sitting next to it.
“It looks great, right?” Beck’s excitement made his young and ever-so-changing teenager’s voice go a pitch higher. “Wait until you see the fireworks.”
He reddened from embarrassment, but I acted like I’d not noticed.
“Honestly, I really do feel like I’ve just stepped into Santa’s office.” I was amazed at how Henry made his images in his head come to life. “Thank you two for your hard work.” I glanced around. “Where is the picnic table?” I wondered because those were stationary from the steel nails I’d had Henry drive into the concrete.
“Otis and I used his impact driver to take out the screws.” Henry kept on working.
“Well, at least he did something,” I moaned and pulled my phone out from my pocket and noticed we had under two hours until the charity event started.
“And the sleigh.” I pointed up to the tiki hut, where he’d gotten a real sleigh from Buck, the owner of the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop. I had to take my mind off Otis.
From what I understood, Henry told Buck what he wanted, and Buck found it and brought it here, where the donated toys were going to be placed during the event.
“It worked out perfect.” Henry snorted and grinned big. His large nose flattened along his face, and the smile grew and exposed his missing front two teeth, but the pride on his face showed how much his efforts had come to life.
“If we get snow, I bet we can get Ms. Ogden to bring a couple of her horses here to pull us.” Beck had the look of glee children get during the holidays, and it warmed my soul to be part of his new memories.
This was certainly going to be a Christmas to remember.
I knew it. I felt it deep in my bones.
“That would be something, if we got snow for that to happen.” I could picture Beck’s request and Coke Ogden, the owner of not only the Old Train Station Motel but a horseback riding experience she offered to tourists for trail rides and really putzing about.
“Have you seen Otis?” I asked Henry. “He really needs to start getting ready for his Santa debut.”
“Probably stumbled into the woods, drunk.” Beck snorted.
“Beck,” I gasped. “Why would you say such a thing?” Not that I was his mama, but he certainly didn’t act like the gossipy woman she was, even though I did hint around certain topics to Beck when I needed to know the answers to things because I knew his mama had her finger on the pulse of the gossip of various women’s circles in Normal I wasn’t privy to.
Beck pointed to Henry.
“I-ah… well… um,” Henry spat out. “He is the town drunk now.”
“Why would you say that?” I’d not heard this, but then again, I wasn’t around Otis Gullett much either.
“I heard the men talking about it over cards. He’s been hitting the bottle pretty good, and it’s showing.” Henry patted his gut, letting me know in his own way how Otis got the big belly that had reminded me of Santa when Otis asked if he could play the jolly guy. “I kept an eye on him today when he got here. I couldn’t help but notice he was nipping in his car.”
My brows pinched, and I glanced over my shoulder near the storage units located up front where I’d asked everyone to park so we could clear space for the locals’ cars.
I didn’t see Otis in his car, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t in there.
“If you see him, tell him to go to bungalow three to put his Santa outfit on.” I shook my head.
The sound of gravel spitting up against an oncoming car had gotten my attention.
“Who on earth is that?” I questioned, knowing Hank Sharp, my fiancé, was at the entrance of the campground and not letting anyone drive up early. “Come on, Fifi.”
I clicked my tongue, and when she rushed over, I picked her up.
I didn’t recognize the car and wasn’t sure if it was a guest of one of our campers, but nonetheless, I hurried around the perimeter of the campground, giving all the guests a quick glance to see if they needed anything before I put Fifi in our camper for a little rest before she made her big debut next to Santa as a helper.
As I came out of my camper, I realized the car had pulled up into my lot next to my little Ford.
“Ken, Magdalene,” I greeted the Heidelmans. I was a bit shocked since he’d not let me know they were coming, even though they didn’t really need to tell me since they rented a year-round spot in the campground near the back and next to the bungalows.
“Mae, we have to talk about this lawsuit.” Ken was my insurance man and had practically ruined my Thanksgiving after he gave me the news I was being sued by a camper who’d stayed here the first year I was open due to a spider bite they’d gotten.
“Ken,” I said flatly, “take a look around.”
I drew my arms out in front of me.
“We are in the middle of the Daniel Boone National Forest. There are bugs, spiders, snakes, and even bears here. Those people took the kayaking class with Alvin Deters. They stopped along the stream and hiked, ate, and just relaxed on the banks. They could’ve been bitten anywhere.”
“They have photos, Mae. They have photos of a spider in that camper.” He pointed across the lake to Santa’s office and the empty little travel trailer.
“I don’t have time for this. I’ve got to find my Santa.” I bent down and looked into the closed passenger’s-side window where Magdalene was sitting. “Hi, Magdalene. You’re going to love the food today! All campfire food.”
She rolled down the window.
“I hope you’ve got some spiked cider. Ken needs it. He’s been worried sick about this lawsuit, and I’ve told him everything you have.” Her lips pinched. “He’s driving me nuts.”
“We really need to talk, Mae.” Ken was right back on my heels.
“We will!” I called as I hurried toward the front of the campground, where I needed to see if Otis was in his car.
But Ken didn’t stop. He kept following me.
“Ken, you have to let me get through today, and we will sit down in the morning.” I laughed when I saw Magdalene crawl into the driver’s seat and throw their car into drive and proceed to drive herself down to their camper.
“For now, I have to find Otis. Or we won’t have a Santa.” I stalked over to Otis’s car, and sure enough, he was lying down in the seat with a silver flask resting on his chest.
I gave a few hard knocks on the window.
“Whaaaat?” Otis jerked up, his eyes closed.
“Otis Gullett! How on earth are you going to play Santa drunk?” My insides were as hot as the flaming firepits around the campground. My nose flared as it sucked the cold air in and condensation puffed out.
“Mae, can we now talk about the lawsuit?” Ken interrupted my anger at Otis and put the spotlight on himself.
“I’ll make you a deal.” I sighed with the thought. “I need a Santa, and you need my ear. The only way I can honestly get my head wrapped around the lawsuit today is to relax and de-stress so a wonderful event can take place so every child has a wonderful Christmas experience.”
“What are you saying?” He was taking the cookies just like Santa does at each house he visits while delivering his presents.
“I need a Santa. You need my ear.” I shrugged and watched Dottie walk up.
She leaned to look in the window at Otis. She lingered a while.
“You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” I told him in no uncertain terms that if he filled in for Otis as Santa, I’d give him all the time he needed to discuss the lawsuit.
“Fine.” He gave me a hard look.
“You’ll find the Santa outfit in bungalow three. Be ready in an hour.” I smiled as he stormed back down the campground toward his camper. “There. Now I don’t have to worry about Otis,” I said, expecting Dottie to say something.
“Dottie?” I turned my attention from Ken back to Dottie.
“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, still looking into Otis’s car window. “He’s as useless as a milk bucket under a bull.”
Little did I know, Dottie had hit the nail on the head about Otis, and soon, I was about to find out just how useless he was.