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The House On Christmas Street

Chapter 1 - Late August

Muriel Michaud was the neighborhood busybody and there were no two ways about it.  Ever since she retired from her teaching position of thirty-five years at Edmund S. Muskie Elementary School, nothing was more interesting to her than watching the comings and goings of the folks on Franklin Street. And right now something verrrry interrresting was going on, as that guy on Laugh-In used to say.

Muriel thought of Franklin Street as her street. She and her husband, Raymond, had bought their home, a Colonial, in 1960 when they’d only been married three years, and they’d raised three children here. It was a perfect middle-class neighborhood in a small Maine city, Kennebec City, which had been left alone by the changes of so-called “urban renewal.” Kennebec City was once a thriving town with the Scott Paper Company mill, the Hathaway shirt factory and the Wyandotte woolen mill, but it had struggled to survive once those plants were shuttered. The only thing keeping it going now was the University of Central Maine and a slowly growing retail base made up mostly of a new Wal-Mart and a number of dollar stores.

On Franklin Street the houses were all modest, but widely spaced with nice lawns and gardens and some even had front porches. When Muriel and Ray were young it had been a neighborhood of Sunday barbecues, and people washing their cars in the driveway on the first nice spring day. In recent years, however, things had changed. The folks who had lived here when Ray and Muriel bought the house had all died or moved away, and the new families who moved in didn’t have time for socializing. Mothers were working, and the kids were at daycare instead of playing in the yards after school.

She reached through the white lace curtains to crack open the window.

It was shaping up to be a hotter than usual Labor Day weekend in Maine, and Muriel could hear the cicadas buzzing their heads off. The slight breeze that sometimes came through the front bedroom window was warm and sticky instead of fresh and cool. Of course the heat was only made more disconcerting by the sound of those darned kids from over across the street.

Those boys sound like a pack of wild men from Borneo. I don’t know what that woman was thinking, getting pregnant when she’s already got twins.

Across the street she could see Andy and Emma Nadeau struggling to get a huge box out of the back of their minivan while their boys Mikey and Jimmy ran around the yard. The Nadeaus were the newest addition to the neighborhood, having moved an hour inland from the coast about two years ago so Andy could go back to college at the University. He was tall and thin, given to wearing baseball caps to hide his thinning brown hair. His wife, Emma, appeared to be only about five feet tall and quite round now that her due date was not far off. She was the type, Muriel thought, to put on a lot of weight when she was eating for two. She’d recently cropped her long brunette hair into a pixie. Muriel supposed she wouldn’t have much time to take care of her hair with three wild kids running around and her job managing the JoAnne Fabrics in Augusta.

“Well, it’s about time,” she said, as Ray strolled into the room. Still dressed in his pajamas, he began rummaging through the oak dresser.

“What’s that you said?” he said, distractedly, pulling out something brightly colored and heading for the closet. Although a man of seventy-seven, he stood up to his full five-foot-ten and moved with the grace of a much younger man. A sense of humor and an ability to chuckle at his dear wife’s antics had kept him young, along with a propensity for staying outside and working in the yard when her rants got a little too intense. As a result, the Michauds had a beautiful perennial garden, a shade garden, a small topiary, a backyard brick barbecue with patio, a man-made pond and a perfectly manicured lawn that rarely had an autumn leaf touch it for more than a day.

“I said it’s about time. The Nadeaus have finally brought a crib home and it looks like a pretty expensive one too. Says ‘Broyhill’ on the box. Those don’t come cheap. Do you suppose his parents bought it for them? God knows he probably couldn’t afford it.”

“Think I should go over and give ‘em a hand?” said Ray, now observing the scene from over her shoulder. He ambled over to the closet and pulled out a short-sleeved shirt.

“And throw your back out? I don’t think so. I don’t know why they had to get rid of those perfectly good cribs they had. Recalled ‘cause the kid might get its head caught in it. That’s what I heard. I never heard of such a thing.”

“Who told you that?” said Ray, flopping down on the green and pink floral comforter to pull on his socks.

“Oh, I have my sources,” Muriel replied. “She’s gonna hurt herself out there working in this heat. She should lie down and let that good-for-nothing husband take care of things.”

“Now just how do you know he’s good-for-nothing?”

”Just look at him! Almost thirty years old and still in school? What’s he need a PhD in Chemical Engineering for anyway? You did fine for over forty years at the mill without one. If you ask me, he should have a decent job by now ... especially with two little ones and another on the way,” Muriel huffed.

“How the heck do you know all this stuff? I don’t believe you’ve spoken one word to those people in the two years they’ve lived there,” said Ray.

“Like I said, I have my sources.”

“Well, your sources ought to mind their own beeswax,” said Ray, as he left the room and disappeared down the hall.

Muriel took in a breath, intending to yell after him, when suddenly Andy Nadeau looked straight up at her, smiled and waved, as if he’d known she’d been watching all along. She quickly pulled back out of sight, paused for a few seconds, and then cautiously peeked out again. Through the screen she could hear Andy, with his attention now on the wild boys, yell, “Mikey! Jimmy! Will one of you please get the front door?”

The twins ignored him and kept running around, screaming. Andy and Emma carefully lowered the carton by the porch steps, and Andy ran up to open the door himself.
“Spoiled little brats, if you ask me,” Muriel muttered, just as an unfamiliar dark blue compact car came slowly up the tree-lined street and stopped directly in front of the house across from hers.

Muriel was intrigued when she saw the magnetic sign on the driver’s side door. FLO, FLO the REAL ESTATE PRO it proclaimed, with a phone number and website under the bright red words. Then she saw Florence Hackett, star of countless TV commercials and Kennebec City’s number one realtor, step out of the car and begin to wave madly, flashing a bright white smile. She was dressed for success in one of her bright yellow power suits, impossible to miss even if she weren't gesturing like a fool towards the classic wood-paneled station wagon that was pulling up behind her car.

Forty Franklin Street was a white, three bedroom, Cape Cod-style house with a peaked roof and two dormer windows staring down on the neighborhood. Blue trim and window boxes and a selection of shrubs and flowers around the front porch gave it a cute and cozy appearance. Built in 1959, it had been expanded by its owners in 1980 with a one story addition on the side opposite the two car attached garage, which distinguished it from several other houses on the street that had been built around the same time. Muriel still thought of it as the Foster house, although those original owners had long since moved to Florida, then passed away, and it had changed hands twice since then. Ed and Lucy Foster had been like second parents to her when she and Ray had moved in with their little Nancy, barely a toddler, fifty-three years ago. Muriel’s own mother had died of breast cancer when Muriel was just seventeen, and she craved the help of an older woman in the matters of being a housewife and mother.

Now the house had been on the market for two months, empty since Brian Webster had been transferred to California by his company earlier this summer. The family had taken off just days after the end of the school year, driving off in their SUV or SVU or whatever the heck they called that thing with kids and dog and leaving the house empty and somehow sad. Muriel missed the Websters. They had a habit of rarely closing the blinds in their living room picture window, and she spent so many hours spying on them that she had practically felt like part of the family. Now she peeked through the curtains and watched this new family spill out of their car and onto the lawn.

The man looked like a regular enough fellow. He appeared to be about six feet tall, slightly pudgy, with the beginnings of a bald spot on the back of his head peeking through his wavy brown hair. His brown trousers were a bit saggy in the behind, but his blue-striped polo shirt appeared new and fit snugly over his belly. Muriel thought he looked to be in his mid-forties.

The woman that Muriel guessed was his wife strode right up to Florence, not waiting for her husband to catch up. She was a slim, attractive woman, average height with long auburn hair, wearing jeans and a pink short-sleeved polo shirt.

Must not have any kids. Not with a figure like that, Muriel thought.

Just then one of the back doors of the car popped open and out bounced a pretty teenage girl in short denim shorts and a pink tank top. She ran to catch up with her mother, her chestnut brown ponytail gleaming in the sun, and Florence ushered the two of them into the house. Instead of following them in, however, the man just stood on the lawn, staring at the house and its surroundings. Muriel could see his lips move as though he were talking to himself as he strolled around, looking at the eaves and inspecting the shrubbery. Then he walked across the lawn to the curb, turned and looked back at the house, framing it with his hands as he scanned the front, looking up at the roof-line and chimney, alternately smiling and frowning.

He made his way around the side and disappeared momentarily behind the house until he came around the other side and back to the front again. As he rounded the corner, the struggle next door caught his attention and, without hesitation, he strode briskly over to the Nadeau’s house. Mikey was now tugging on his mother’s skirt and Jimmy was chasing a squirrel with a stick. Andy was having difficulty heaving the unwieldy carton up onto the porch.

“I got the other end,” said the man as he reached for the carton.

Andy looked up.

“Thanks!” he said.

The two men easily lifted the crate and carried it inside the house, as Emma plopped down on the front steps and wiped the sweat from her brow, absentmindedly rubbing her huge tummy with the other hand. Mikey and Jimmy had both taken off to chase the terrified squirrel around the side of the house.

A few minutes later, the men came bursting through the screen door. The stranger’s face was noticeably red, and sweat was pouring down his forehead. His breathing sounded labored.

“Emma, this is Don Cassidy. He and his family are looking at the Webster’s house. They’re moving up from Florida,” said Andy.

“Nice to meet you!” Emma replied, and offered her hand.

“Same here,” said Don, who continued to breathe heavily as he shook her hand.

“Usually people move the other way,” she said. “It gets pretty cold here in the winter.”

“Oh, we thought it would be nice to have four seasons for a change. Besides, my wife’s originally from Portland so we’ve been looking to get up here for a while. I’ve never had a real white Christmas, ya know?”

“Oh, you’ll get plenty of white for your Christmas around here! Just remember…sometimes it’s white in March and April, too!” Emma laughed.

Just then, Mikey came running around the corner of the house, screaming, with Jimmy only a few steps behind.

“Mommy! Mommy! Jimmy slugged me!” he yelled.

“Did not!”

“Did too!”

Both boys clambered up the stairs to the porch, jostling Don as they pushed past him. Mikey hid behind his mother, clinging to her waist, using her as a shield.
“Well you started it!” said Jimmy.

Mikey, nearly in tears now, blubbered. “You started it!”

“Did not!”

“Did too!”


Emma and Andy simultaneously interrupted.
“STOP IT!” they yelled.

Miraculously, the boys both clammed up, Jimmy glaring at Mikey from behind the security of his mother.

Don took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the sweat off his forehead. “Well, I guess I’d better get back over there. Nice meeting you folks,” he said as he walked across the lawn.

“Hope we’ll be neighbors!” yelled Andy. “I owe ya!”

Then he turned to Emma and said, more quietly, “It would be nice to have some friendly neighbors around here for a change.” He glanced up toward Muriel’s window again.

“Oh, come on,” said Emma. “What about Angie? She’s nice.” Emma nodded once toward the house on the left, a brown bungalow with a cluttered front porch. “She’s just busy with her job, and taking care of Zack is a full-time job in itself.”

“Hey, speaking of Angie. What happened to that guy she was dating…the manager of the Rite Aid? I thought they were serious but I haven’t seen him around lately.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “She told me right after Valentine’s Day that he broke up with her ON Valentine’s Day, you bonehead! Where have you been? That was six months ago!”

“Oh. Wow. What happened?” said Andy.

“He said the card she gave him was too romantic. Can you believe it? They’d been dating for a year and she thought he was going to propose, and he breaks up with her cause his Valentine is “too romantic.” Meanwhile, he gave her a membership to Planet Fitness for Valentine’s Day, and said she didn’t need any fattening chocolates. I’m telling you. What ever happened to real men?”

“Sorry, hon,” Andy laughed. “I think you got the last one.” He flexed his biceps comically and she laughed good-naturedly.

“I haven’t spoken to her in ages, but I think that Autism Walk is coming up next month. Do you want to walk on Zack’s team again?” she said as she reached for his hand and they herded the boys into the house.

Don Cassidy made his way back toward his wife, Laurie, and Flo, now standing on the front walkway and talking animatedly.

“…quietest neighborhoods in the city. Mr. Anderson over there,” she pointed toward the white Colonial to the left side of the Webster house, “is a professor at the University of Central Maine. He lost his wife about a year ago…awfully sad…and now it’s just him and his 16-year-old son. They’re really lovely people. And then there’s the young family on the other side, the Nadeaus…she’s expecting a baby soon… and two very nice middle aged bachelors, Tommy and Mark, live in that cute little cape over there,” she continued, pointing at a white cape with forest green shutters and an actual white picket fence across from the Nadeau’s house.

“What about over there, right across the street from us?” asked Laurie.

Just then Don happened to notice his daughter, Jenny, pretending to poke around the flower bed at the left side of the house, near the garage, while simultaneously sneaking glances up toward the second story of the house next door.

“See something interesting?” he said as he made his way toward her.

Blushing, she looked down at a particularly interesting yellow daylily. “No. I mean, there was somebody looking out the window up there, but now he’s gone.”

“He?” said Don, grinning mischievously. “Would that have happened to be a cute, teenage ‘he’?”

“Daddy! Cut it out!” she laughed.

Don looked up at the window of the colonial next door and could just see a pale face framed by a mop of unruly brown hair illuminated by the blue glow of a computer monitor. Just at that exact moment, the boy sneaked a glance back out the window, and their eyes met. Don waved, but the face quickly withdrew into the shadows of the room.

“Hmmm…this neighborhood gets more interesting by the minute,” said Don.

“Daddy! Stop it!” said Jenny as she ran back to the front of the house and her mother’s side.

“Hey Don,” said Flo. “Want to take a look around inside?”
She saw that he had stopped in the driveway in front of the garage and was staring at it intently. Turning to Laurie she said, “Uhh ... is something the matter?”

“Oh, he’s just checking out the storage space.”

Then Don turned to Flo and asked, “Can I take a look inside the garage?”

Flo nodded, and then ducked back into the house. Seconds later, one of the two garage doors rumbled up and Don entered. He looked around, an expression of consternation on his face, grunting as though taking mental notes.

Flo joined Laurie back outside. “Is everything all right?” said Flo.

“Oh yes, yes. Don’t worry…” she said, walking over to Don.

“It’s perfect, honey ... and it’s easily within our price range.”

Don broke away and paced the length of the garage in long strides, counting softly to himself. He studied the garage rafters and ceiling.

Laurie sighed. “Hon ... we’ve looked at a lot of houses, and this one is far and away the best.”

“Maybe ... maybe ...” he replied softly. He approached the center support beam and hit it with the flat of his hand. It made a metallic ringing sound.

Laurie gave Flo a helpless look and shrugged. Flo started to say something but fell silent as Laurie approached Don again. She had a feel for this sort of thing, and her feeling this time was good.

“We’re not going to do any better... not at this price. And it’s a nice neighborhood. Quiet. Well kept,” she paused. “You already met the neighbors on one side. Didn’t they seem like nice people?”

Don nodded. “We do have room to create a second floor on top of the garage.”

He turned to Laurie and said, almost as an afterthought, “How’s the inside? Did you guys like it?”

Laurie smiled, her eyes twinkling. “I think it’s perfect! Let’s make an offer.”

Muriel, who had been observing everything and hearing most of it, was struggling to catch this last bit when a loud voice startled her out of stealth mode.

"What's going on? Somebody looking at the Webster's place?"

Ray, who derived endless joy from "catching" her in her pursuit of being the neighborhood “Nosy Nora”, had sneaked back into the room and was standing right behind her.

"AH!” Muriel squeaked, “Don't sneak up on me like that! You 'bout gave me a heart attack."

She scowled at her husband, who was dressed in his favorite short-sleeved blue shirt and a pair of bright patchwork Bermuda shorts. He was sweeping back his full mop of gray hair, and Muriel had time to think that a trip to the barber shop was in order for her husband. Then she glanced in the mirror over her vanity…she and Ray still had their original bedroom set, they were smart to buy quality… and saw her own short, Clairol-red, permed hair and thought how it wasn’t fair that her husband had more hair than she did at this stage of the game.

"Well, if you weren't so busy snooping you might have noticed me walk in the room," Ray laughed. "You seen my grey cap?"

"It's right there hanging up where it's supposed to be, you old fart," Muriel said, feigning annoyance.

"Huh. That's funny. I coulda sworn I left it on the newel post downstairs."

"You did. I hung it up, as usual."

"Why'd you do that? I was just gonna put it on again the next time I went out. Now I had to come all the way up here to get it." He noticed that Muriel had turned back to the window. "So what's up?"

"Looks like Flo’s finally got a family on the hook. The woman’s sold, that’s for sure. I don’t know about her husband, though. He hasn’t even set foot in the place. Just stood there on the lawn and looked around the whole time she was in the house."

"Probably thinking about how much of a job it's going to be to mow that lawn. You see any kids?"

Muriel shook her head. "Just a teenage girl. Looks just like her mother."

"Good," said Ray. "The last thing we need is more rug rats going up and down the street on them damn Big Wheels or whatever they're called at seven o'clock in the morning."

Ray leaned in to take a look out the window over Muriel's shoulder. Flo and the woman were engaged in lively conversation which Muriel was straining to hear. By all appearances it seemed the woman was delighted with what she'd seen inside and Flo was going in for the kill. Meanwhile, the smiling girl ran over to the man; her father, Muriel hoped, although one could never be sure nowadays. As she approached, he began talking to her and pointing to various areas of the lawn and house, not pausing long enough to, it seemed to Muriel, take a breath as the girl nodded enthusiastically.

Ray stepped back and reached for the cap that was hanging on an antique coat tree by the door.

"I'm going down to Cottle’s to get one of their chocolate donuts. I've been thinking about it ever since I got up. You want anything?"

Momentarily distracted, Muriel said, "Ooooh. Get me a cinnamon roll. No, wait, get me a bear claw. And one of those frozen mocha latte things with the whipped cream.”  Then, turning sideways to look in the mirror again, she patted her midriff and sighed. "No, on second thought, I'll guess I’ll just have a low-fat blueberry muffin."

"'Kay. I'll be right back," he promised, chuckling as he headed down the hall toward the stairs.

"Make sure you get the low-fat kind!" Muriel shouted. “And maybe you could wander over across there and strike up a conversation with them, find out their names…” She trailed off, because as she pushed the curtain aside slightly, she saw that the house across the street was quiet again, and the FOR SALE sign had disappeared from the front lawn.

Read: Chapter Two of The House on Christmas Street.


The House on Christmas Street
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