Love Finds You in North Pole, AlaskaBy: Loree Lough
He glanced up and down Mistletoe Drive, where tour buses and RVs lined the curb. Even in his present mood, Bryce couldn’t help but smile at the joyous laughter of children, harmonizing with Brenda Lee’s rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” emanating from the loudspeakers. He took a deep breath of clean Alaska air and shook his head, thinking of the To Do list he’d scribbled that morning. Except for “haircut,” not a single item had been checked off. But since it wouldn’t turn dark for nearly nineteen hours yet, he’d have more than enough daylight to get everything done.
Shoving both hands into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, he hiked toward Snowman Lane. Despite the bright day, the air held a dry chill, making him wish he’d grabbed a jacket before leaving his apartment above Rudolph’s.
His parents’ shop came into view, and it was more than enough to raise his hackles. His dad had tinkered and fiddled with the hideous two-story white structure until it became a flat-faced replica of Santa’s sleigh, and above the door stood the biggest, ugliest reindeer ever crafted from wood and metal. The deer grinned stupidly around a thick chain that supported a crimson sign, where softball-sized light bulbs spelled out RUDOLPH’S CHRISTMAS EMPORIUM. As if all that wasn’t high enough on the tacky scale, Rudolph’s nose—a gigantic, red-glowing ball—blinked to the beat of whatever tune blared from the store’s speakers.
Today, “Jingle Bells” twittered from above, and Bryce gritted his teeth as he yanked open the shiny green door, upsetting a dozen strands of tinkling gold bells hanging from the doorknob.
“Well, looky what the wind blew in.”
Bryce’s face softened. “’Mornin’,” he answered. His mood had brightened instantly, because as much as he hated Christmas, he loved his aunt Olive ten times more.
“I thought you were gonna get a haircut,” she teased when he whipped off his cap.
Running a hand along the short, flat surface of his hairdo, Bryce laughed. “I did!”
Olive harrumphed and went back to labeling snow globes covering the glass-and-stainless counter. “Coulda fooled me.”
Since his parents’ tragic deaths, Aunt Olive had been his only family. But if the truth be told, she’d filled that role long before they died. As he’d winged his way from the Afghan village where he’d been stationed, it had been Olive who’d arranged the memorial service, and by the time he arrived in North Pole, she’d put in her resignation at the elementary school. “I need a change,” she’d said when the last of the mourners left the church basement. “Soon as you head back overseas, I’ll manage Rudolph’s. By the time you retire, I’ll have the place running like a top…and paying for itself.” As his parents’ only child, Bryce had inherited the shop—along with a hefty mortgage and a stack of unpaid bills. He knew Olive had done her level best to keep that promise. It wasn’t her fault that a dozen other stores in North Pole sold similar merchandise.
Bryce leaned on the counter and covered her hands with his. “Wish I could change your mind about retiring.”
Olive winked. “If wishes were fishes…”
“I’ll be lost without you,” he said, meaning it.
“Pish posh,” she said and, waving his admission away, began counting on her fingers. “You’ve jumped out of airplanes into enemy territory, slept in foxholes, gotten shot at, dodged land mines—except for one—and escaped from a POW camp, yet dealing with a few Christmas shoppers scares you?” She laughed. “You’re weird, nephew!”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Bryce shrugged. “Besides, I suppose it is time you did something for Olive for a change.” To his knowledge, her plan for an extended vacation in sunny Florida marked the second thing she’d ever done for herself. Decades of caring for her aging parents had freed her brother to play shopkeeper. It didn’t seem to matter to anybody, least of all Bryce’s dad, that he was a horrible businessman. Bryce often wondered if his parents even realized that Olive’s “do the right thing” mindset had required her to sacrifice any hope of having a life of her own.
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said, slapping a price label onto another snow globe. Setting it aside, Olive began humming along with Bing Crosby as he crooned the words to “White Christmas.”
Bryce wondered how she’d react when he confessed that he’d been talking to a real estate agent with ties to a national chain about selling the place. And that once it sold, he’d use the proceeds to turn his lifelong dream of opening a carpentry shop into reality. His dad hadn’t left him a dime, but he did leave a few decent tools. If they hadn’t rusted from lack of use and storage in the cold, damp garage, Bryce might just get a jump start on crafting sample pieces that would show buyers what he was capable of. Over the years, during weeklong furloughs, he’d designed and built an armoire, a roll-top desk, a dresser, and a kids’ rocking chair. But he’d need more than that if he hoped to eke out a modest living from the trade…especially in a town where Christmas was the main draw.