Holiday decorations on Summer Street always got a little out of hand. If a two-hundred-foot inflatable Santa was put up one day, you better believe that there would be a three-hundred-foot menorah the next day. Smoke machines were brought out, mechanical masterpieces were set up (Mr. Johanson had moving reindeer that made actual noises and flashed red lights from Rudolph’s nose), and amazing designs were painstakingly created using lights. Even the Galdans, a family not that into the holidays, draped tinsel over their whole house, yard, and car and set up a radio that blasted Christmas songs twenty-four seven.
The only house that was left out of this tradition was the Abbotts’. As Mr. Abbott believed that the holidays should be about being with your family and not setting up decorations (really he was just afraid of heights and worried that he would be forced to climb something) and Mrs. Abbott said that the whole idea was crazy, their comfy old house was left bare each year.
The children decided they had to do something to amuse themselves, and so the Annual Holiday Summer Street Showdown was created. It was a fake competition where each house was judged on three criteria, and the house with the highest number of points won. The first criterion was Uniqueness (how special and different it was from the rest), the second was Impressiveness (its astoundingness; how shocking it was), and the third was Work (how much work was put into making it).
The Showdown started on the same day each year, December first, and submissions could be entered up until the twentieth. But one year, it almost was at risk for being shut down. The story begins on December eleventh, when most of the houses were finalizing their decorations.
“Ooh, look, Ms. Lethern has made spinning dreidels!” said thirteen-year-old Dove, pointing her bejeweled finger out the window (note: Dove is a firm believer in fairies and has dreamcatchers lined around her windows).
“I would rate it a seven out of ten on the Impressiveness scale. Pretty good, but I think we know she can do better,” said nine-year-old Oliver. He quickly scribbled down on his clipboard the score on the already almost filled to the brim chart. His light brown waves (that all the Abbotts had) were spiked up in the air in an almost Mohawk sort of way, as when he was concentrating he had a habit of running his fingers through his hair.
“Look at Liam’s house, look at Liam’s house!” said four-year-old Daisy. She clutched onto her teddy bear named Mr. Fluffy and jumped up and down in front of the window to get a better view. Liam was one of the many crushes that Daisy had been obsessed with over the years, and Mr. Abbott said that at this rate, she would get married at ten years old (the children didn’t know if he was joking or not).
“Oh, don’t worry, Daisy Crown,” said beaming Dove, kissing Daisy on the cheek, “I shall tell you what Liam’s house looks like. Ooh! The whole place is bedecked with lights—even the car!” “Let me see, let me see!” squealed Daisy.
“I got it,” said twelve-year-old Aubrey, who perhaps was the normal one of the family.
She hoisted Daisy overhead, and they peeked out of the window. The whole street was bedazzled with colors and sparkles and bright lights. Daisy went quite still after she spotted Liam’s house, and she stared at it with her blue eyes wide, as if trying to capture it in a photograph.
“Who’s in the lead so far?” asked Aubrey, nudging Oliver’s shoulder to see his calculations.
“Mr. Zhang is,” Oliver announced. “He has a forty-foot-tall Christmas tree with flashing silver lights, a fake Santa and Rudolph climbing into his chimney, and a stand where people can donate presents to kids without them.”
“Oh, the kind man,” said Dove, holding her hand to her heart.
“Yeah,” said Oliver, “but guess who’s creeping up after him? Mrs. Aldrich! She has the lights that spell out Happy Hanukkah, a thirty-foot flickering menorah, and a basket with chocolate coins and dreidels that neighbors can take to play with!”
“I want chocolate,” said Daisy in a dreamy sort of way, and she stared wistfully at the house outside.
“Looks like she’s found another love,” said Aubrey, rolling her eyes.
“Well, to be honest, chocolate is everyone’s love,” said Dove.
They spent a few more minutes gazing outside at the holiday decorations (“I bet that Ms. Whitaker will have the most points! Shake on it now; whoever wins gets a dollar,” said Oliver to Aubrey) before Mrs. Abbott sent them to bed, as there was school the next day. Aubrey settled into her warm sheets, her long hair braided tightly so that it was not messy at all in the morning, and she sighed peacefully. Her hazel eyes slipped shut, with images of snowmen and dreidels and lights flashing in her mind.
* * *
“So, I suspect your house will be blank this year?” said Aubrey’s friend Melissa Galdan as they walked to school.
“Yeah, my parents don’t really want to decorate it,” said Aubrey. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as she walked, watching her hand-me-down rain boots from Dove splash into the puddles. The odd mixture of dirty water and bright floral print was a mesmerizing mix, and she found it quite fun to see.
“Well, why don’t you guys do it yourselves? Dove’s thirteen now, she can make sure that you guys are safe doing it. And you know, I feel really bad, because everyone else’s houses have decorations except your guys’, and it isn’t right that your parents are keeping you from doing it. I always feel a little guilty whenever people talk about it to me ’cause I know that you’re not doing it. And some people at school say you’re above it all, and you believe you’re better than everyone else, and that’s why you don’t put them up. I try to…” began Melissa, but Aubrey interrupted her.
“Wait, people are talking about me?”
“Yeah. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not you, it’s just that your family’s a little bit odd. I mean, I love them, and Daisy’s like my own little sister, but people don’t like people who are different. And the fact that you’re forced into having all of the whispers and gossip and insults is just unfair! You’re not the one doing it!” said Melissa angrily.
Aubrey pursed her lips and looked down again, except this time she wasn’t looking at the hand-me-down boots. She hated those hand-me-down boots, and she hated Dove, and she hated her family. She knew she shouldn’t blame them, but weren’t they the reason she was disliked at school? Weren’t they the reason she was different?
Melissa’s eyes softened.
“You OK, Aub? I’m sorry I said that, I’m sure everything will be fine. If you put up some decorations, I know they will forget about it,” Melissa said. She gave a reassuring smile.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Lissy,” said Aubrey, keeping her eyes on the ground. “You think it’ll snow this year?”
“Well, it hasn’t yet, but I’m positive it’ll come soon. I’m a half-full type of girl, you know?” said Melissa, glad that the conversation was moving on to happier things. Aubrey’s eyes were set on the ground still, and the images that flashed in her mind were of taunting voices and cruel laughter. Who knew what people were saying behind her back at that moment.
* * *
“You want to do what?” sputtered Mr. Abbott when they came up to him the next day.
“Set up decorations. On our house. Today,” said Aubrey, slowly and clearly. Melissa smiled supportively and linked her arm in Aubrey’s. Dove and Oliver stood behind them, pretending not to but listening attentively. Dove was “watching a movie,” but the sound wasn’t on, and Oliver was “eating a PB&J sandwich,” even though he hadn’t taken a bite. Both of their eyes flicked back and forth between Mr. Abbott and Aubrey and Melissa, like minnows flicking side to side in an aquarium.
“That whole decorating thing takes away the importance of family,” began Mr. Abbott, ready to launch into a speech about commercialism.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it,” Aubrey said, “we will. Dove will make sure we don’t get hurt.”
“Oh, oh, well, I guess that’s OK, then,” said Mr. Abbott. He smiled, tousled her hair, and kissed her forehead. “Good luck, and stay safe.”
“We will!” said Melissa as he headed towards his office, muttering under his breath words of relief.
“OK, let’s get started, troops,” said Aubrey, turning to face her siblings. “Melissa has been kind enough to lend us some decorations and…”
“What if we don’t want to decorate? If we do our own house, then the contest will be biased, and we’ll have to end the Annual Holiday Summer Street Showdown!” said Oliver crossly.
“I don’t really know either,” said Dove. “I really want to help you, Aub, but the new Peace for the World magazine has come out, and I was planning on reading it this afternoon,”
“But- but…,” pleaded Aubrey, “what about all those people who will become happy because of us putting up our Christmas lights? Do you not want to spread happiness, Dove?”
“Of course I want to spread happiness!” said Dove.
“Then why not decorate?” asked Aubrey.
“Oh, fine. If it means keeping those children happy, then I must do it!” said Dove determinedly.
“Oliver, it’s two to one, come on, let’s go!” said Aubrey as cheerfully as she could. She needed to show those kids at school that she was normal.
“I will only surrender after Daisy agrees,” Oliver said. All eyes turned towards Daisy, who was counting the buttons on Fluffy Bear’s suit. She couldn’t count past five, so she would say “One... two... three... four... five... one-two... three-four… five-one-two… three-four-five-one-two…” going on and on for hours. Aubrey had to explain the situation to her as simply as she could, which was hard, as Daisy kept on turning her attention back towards her teddy bear.
When finally it was all out, and all she had to do was choose, they all waited for her nervously.
She said, “Fluffy Bear has three-four-five-one-two-three-four-five-one-two-three-four-five-one-two-three-four-five-one-two-three-four-five-one-two (which equaled thirteen) buttons on his suit.”
At that point all of them smacked their hands on their heads and sighed.
“But about the lights—I say yes! When Liam and I get married, we can’t fight over what family tradition we want our kids to have!” she said.
The air was pierced with groans of exasperation from Oliver and a chorus of Yes!-es from Melissa.
“OK, come on, let’s go,” said Aubrey, her teeth gritted determinedly. The group headed outside, Daisy singing the wedding march out loud, Dove saying famous quotes about kindness (“Treat others the way you want to be treated”), Oliver muttering under his breath about the unfairness of it all, and Melissa shouting holiday songs at the top of her lungs.
“Here are the lights. We’ve only used them once, so they aren’t that tangled. Where do you want to put them?” asked Melissa, hauling up a bag that looked almost as big as one that Santa might have.
“On the roof,” said Aubrey. “That way everybody can see them.”
She needed this, she needed to become normal. To have people stop talking about her behind her back, saying that she was stuck up and weird. But… did she really?
They brought out the unused ladder from the backyard and set it up by the house. One by one they headed up towards the roof, Dove carrying Daisy as carefully as possible. But just as they started unraveling the bright lights, Melissa got a call.
“Just a second,” she said, “let me get this. Hi, Mom… yeah, I’m at Aubrey’s house. We’re setting up decorations… yes, decorations… I know! Yeah… uh-uh… OK. Yes, Mom. I’ll see you there. Love you too.” She gave a sad look towards Aubrey and slipped her phone back in her pocket.
“You have to go?” asked Aubrey, even though she already knew the answer.
“Yeah,” sighed Melissa, “but don’t worry, it’s really easy to set them up. I’ll see it tomorrow, OK? Bye, guys!” She gave one last wave and then proceeded down the ladder. Aubrey watched her make her way across the street to the Galdan’s house, where the twenty-four-seven radio was at the moment playing “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” She furrowed her brow, and her hazel eyes darkened, but she managed a few claps.
“Come on, soldiers! Let’s get to work!” she barked good-naturedly.
It’s really easy to set them up must have been Melissa’s code words for impossibly hard. They spent the first thirty minutes just untangling the yards and yards of lights. By the end of it, even Dove was hating the bright monster in some way (“I don’t think you and I are going to be friends,” is what she said). Next was putting it on the roof. The other houses on Summer Street had lights draped artfully over their trees and holiday decorations, but all the Abbotts ended up having was a loud argument over which way the cord was supposed to go and who was going to be on the ends. At some point in the middle, it started to rain—not the warm, wet rain that makes everyone happy but the cold, freezing type of downpour that results in pellets of water the size of golf balls. Aubrey’s fingers were numb, and everyone’s hair had turned a dark, damp, mud color. Daisy would not stop sneezing, and Oliver was absolutely not having a good time.
After another hour, they finally ended up finishing the decorations. All they needed to do was plug in the cord to see the golden lights blazing out holiday cheer.
Aubrey knew she should be content. She had finally become the normal. No Showdown, no bare house, no whispers. But she also knew that behind Dove’s words of “Oh, the children will be so happy,” her thirteen-year-old sister was not enjoying this. And she knew that Oliver practically hated her for forcing him to help her in something he detested. She knew that Daisy was tired, and sick, and hungry, and bored out of her mind.
And at that moment, she realized something. She didn’t care about the whispers. If they thought she was above it all, so be it! She was above it all in the best possible way, in a way she felt proud and happy of. And with that, Aubrey started to take down the lights.
“What the heck are you doing?” yelled Oliver. “I just spent an hour and thirty minutes setting it up in the rain for Pete’s sake, and you’re gonna take it down now!”
They both started tugging over the lights, and with a struggle she managed to get out, “Let’s not do the decorations! Let’s do the Annual Holiday Summer Street Showdown!”
Once he heard that, he was all on board for helping her take off the lights. It took approximately five minutes to bundle the yards back into the bag, in which Aubrey truly realized what a waste of time it was setting them up. The kids headed down the ladder, Dove first, Aubrey second— with Daisy, and Oliver last.
They stood in the yard, getting pelted with rain, and looked up at their bare, drab roof. Aubrey thought that it had never looked so perfect.
With that, they carefully settled the ladder back into the dusty, dark garage and headed inside.
The bright rooms with gold colors welcomed them, and Dove quickly set out to make some hot mint tea, with extra spoonfuls of sugar for Daisy.
The Abbott children crowded around the window once again, Oliver back with a clipboard and Daisy back with the jumping up and down. They noted the Johnsons’ yard with an inflatable Nativity scene, and Ooh-ed and Aah-ed at the twenty-foot spinning dreidel set up in Ms. Aldrin’s place.
It was getting dark, and Mrs. Abbott would soon come to tell them to go to bed. Aubrey watched her sisters and brothers laugh, joke, and tease, and she smiled, thinking she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Oliver yelled, “Again, I bet Ms. Whitaker will have the most points! Shake on it now; whoever wins gets a dollar! Coming once—coming twice?”
Aubrey grinned, and brought out her hand.
“I’ll take you up on that one.”