The Dandridge community center was more crowded that it'd been in a long time. And not just because Christmas was in a week. There was an excited buzz in the audience until the mayor stepped onto the stage, took the microphone from its stand, and raised her hand.
“May I please have your attention,” she said. “Excuse me, if I may please have your attention.”
The buzz ebbed into respectful silence.
“Thank you,” she said. “As you all know, with the end of the pandemic, we've had little time to plan our usual Christmas festival. It will still take place, even if it's smaller than usual, and it will include a competition.”
The buzz rose again, but ebbed again.
“We in Dandridge have been blessed to have to have the two best bakeries in the entire state,” the mayor continued. “The Polychrome Pantry and The Three Sifters.”
“At least we didn't stoop to a silly pun for our bakery's name,” a woman whispered to her teenage daughter standing nearby.
“I think it's a cute name, Mom,” the girl whispered back. “After all, it's run by three sisters. So why not?”
“Because they're the competition, Julie, that's why,” the woman angrily whispered back, almost too loudly, and was immediately shushed by others in the audience.
“The goal is to create the best gingerbread house ever,” the mayor continued. “It can either be an existing design or you can create something brand-new. The judges will be chosen from among your loyal customers.”
“What's the prize?” Julie's mother called out.
“Mom!” Julie protested.
“No, no,” the mayor told her. “Your mother has every right to ask. The prize is a two-thousand-dollar gift card good at any of the stores here in Dandridge. The gift card was paid for by donations from local businesses.”
The buzz increased more loudly this time before ebbing again.
“Are there any other questions?” the mayor asked.
“What if there's a tie?” another woman asked. She wore a red and green dress, with a white-bordered and pink apron with the name The Three Sifters in front of it. Another woman and a girl stood near her, dressed identically.
“Then the prize will be divided in half between the two bakeries,” the mayor said. “You have one week, starting right now. Let the best bakery win!”
In the kitchen at the Pantry, Julie's mother stood at one counter, searching through her homemade dessert cookbook. It was a collection of recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers over the last twenty or so years. She shook her head at each recipe.
“No, not that one,” she said over and over again.
“The mayor did say we could create a new kind of house,” Julie reminded her. “Maybe combine elements from two or more recipes.”
Her mother looked thoughtful. “That might work.” She removed three recipes, looked at the list of ingredients. Together, they began gathering them and putting them on the counter.
Three sisters stood in the kitchen at The Three Sifters, hair-nets covering their dark hair. They could've been triplets, they looked so similar. None of them were smiling.
“Winning this competition could bring more customers to our bakery,” the eldest sister argued.
“We have more than enough, Mara,” the middle sister said. “We're busy morning, noon, and sometimes even at night. Why can't we just let them win?”
Mara gave her a shocked look. “Let them? Good God! Are you that weak, Rachel?”
Rachel shook her head. “I just wonder if it's worth it. Right now we're doing fine. In fact, better than they are. They deserve to exist just as much as we do. Why ruin it?”
The youngest sister sighed. “Oh, leave it alone, Rachel. Mara has never been one to give up. She always has to win.”
“There's nothing wrong with that, Debbie!” Mara said angrily.
“There's also nothing wrong with losing, either,” the youngest sister said, almost as angrily. “And don't call me Debbie. Our parents named me Deborah and that's what I prefer.”
Rachel stepped between them. “You two back off. This is a competition, not a fight. And certainly not a fight between us. We're a team. We've always been a team. Let's pool our brains and our resources and see what we can come up with.” She looked at Mara and Deborah. “Okay? Truce?”
Mara frowned. “Truce.”
Deborah nodded. “Truce.”
“Good,” Rachel said. “Now let's find something really special. To show the other bakery what we're capable of. Mara? Do you have your special dessert cookbook?”
Mara nodded. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
“Could be, could be,” Rachel said. “Deborah? We might need some ingredients from the Co-Op. If you wouldn't mind?”
Deborah looked relieved to be away from the bakery, even if only temporarily. Just as Rachel knew she would be.
“What do you need me to buy?” Deborah asked.
Julie's mother locked their bakery's front door. It was night and it felt like years since this morning at the community center. They leaned against the door and looked up at the night sky.
“Not as much progress as I'd hoped for,” Julie's mother said, “but we're making headway. Slowly but surely.”
“We still have six days before the end of the competition, Mom,” Julie said.
Her mother nodded and sighed. “Do you want anything to eat at home, sweetie?”
Julie shook her head. “I think I'll go get a pizza at Laurenzo's, and maybe some hot cider.”
“Don't stay out too late,” her mother said. “We're going to have early starts all the rest of this week.”
“I know, Mom,” Julie said. She gave her mother a hug. “Try to get some sleep. You look more tired than I feel.”
Her mother smiled a little and nodded. “You remind me of what your father was like. He was never competitive. He wanted to earn his rewards and wins by doing his best. If he won, fine. If he lost, oh well. There was always next time.”
“It's definitely less stressful,” Julie said. “I'll try to be home before midnight. That way I won't run the risk of turning into a pumpkin or a white mouse.”
Her mother kissed Julie on the forehead. “I love you, sweetie.”
“I love you, too, Mom,” Julie said.
They hugged once more and then went their separate ways.
Deborah didn't want to go home, even though it was after nine at night. She wanted to do something that took her mind off of the competition, off of the arguments in the kitchen at the bakery, and especially off of the angry looks on Mara's face.
Her stomach grumbled. They'd worked through dinnertime, figuring that they could always eat something at home.
She looked up and down the street. Most of the places were dark and closed for the night. But a few were still open. The bar was open, but she didn't want to get drunk. She wanted something solid in her stomach.
A block beyond the bar was Laurenzo's Pizza. The only authentic Italian pizza place not just in Dandridge, but in the entire county. She could almost smell the pizza from here. She smiled and started running.
The restaurant was mostly full when she reached it. There were two tables. One was empty, but the other one had one diner. A girl about her own age with shoulder-length blond hair. The girl's head was facing the table, looking at what she was writing. Maybe notes or solving a puzzle?
Deborah entered the restaurant. The owner walked over to her with a big smile on her face. Mama Laurenzo looked like she had just come from southern Italy. She wasn't tall, she wasn't thin. She was just the right size, and with a heart big enough for the entire town, indeed for the entire county.
“Deborah,” Mama Laurenzo said and hugged her. “So good to see you again. You must come here more often. I missed you at lunch today. You are feeling okay?”
“I was working at the bakery,” Deborah said.
“Ah!” Mama Laurenzo said with a knowing nod. “Mara was in one of her moods?”
Deborah rolled her eyes. “That's putting it mildly.”
“I have heard of the competition between your bakery and the other bakery,” Mama Laurenzo said. “Is it going well?”
Deborah shrugged. “I was hoping if I came here, I wouldn't be reminded about it.”
“Then I have just the table-mate for you,” Mama Laurenzo said, putting an arm around Deborah's waist, and guiding her toward the table with the solitary diner. “Deborah, this is Julie. Julie, this is Deborah. Deborah has been a long-time friend of mine. Our first diner, in fact.”
“Hi,” Julie said, looking a little nervous.
“Hi,” Deborah said. “Mind if I join you?”
“I … I guess,” Julie said. “I was just leaving.”
“Please don't,” Deborah said. “I don't like eating alone.”
Julie glanced at Mama Laurenzo and the latter nodded. “I guess I could stay for a little while longer.”
“One medium pepperoni pizza, then?” Mama Laurenzo asked.
“With pineapple on it,” Deborah said.
Julie smiled. “I was going to suggest that.”
“And hot cider for each of you?” Mama Laurenzo asked and both girls nodded. “Molto buono.” And headed for the kitchen.
Deborah sat down across from Julie, looked at what she was writing. “You write poems too?”
The latter nodded. “They're probably not very good. But it's a good way to cool off after a stressful day.”
“I should do the same, then,” Deborah said with a sigh.
“This is just crazy,” Julie said. “Couldn't they just put aside their grievances this time? If only during the festival? And then the mayor suggests this competition.”
“If only they'd opted out of it,” Deborah said.
Julie tried not to stare at her. “Exactly.”
“This isn't going to make them feel any friendlier toward each other,” Deborah went on.
“No kidding,” Julie said, then laughed softly. “Do you think our mothers would be mad if they knew we were sitting here at the same table?”
“Probably,” Deborah said. “Though I'm not sure if the rules forbid it.”
“The mayor didn't say we couldn't interact,” Julie said.
“I'm just sorry this didn't happen sooner,” Deborah said.
“The competition, or being here tonight?” Julie asked.
“The latter,” Deborah said. “Every time I wanted to say something to you at school, you would be surrounded by a crowd of people.”
“And you would just go to the library,” Julie said.
Deborah nodded. “At least I don't have to compete with books. They like me just the way I am.”
“They aren't the only ones,” Julie said.
Deborah's left eyebrow rose. “What do you mean?”
“I've been wanting to talk with you for a long time,” Julie said. “But it's hard to convince the 'crowd' – as you called it – to leave me alone long enough that I could talk with you.”
“The price of being popular, I guess,” Deborah said.
“It's not usually worth the price,” Julie said with a sigh.
Mama Laurenzo returned with two plates and a metal tray with a fresh-cooked pepperoni and pineapple pizza on it. The steam could still be seen curling up from it. She also placed two mugs of hot cider on the table, one in front of each girl.
“It is going well, ladies?” she asked them.
They both nodded.
“Eccellente,” Mama Laurenzo said. “I knew you could be very good friends if I could just find some way for you to meet. I am glad that you met tonight. Enjoy your meal.”
She headed for another table, to take their order.
“That smells amazing,” Deborah says.
“It sure does,” Julie said and picked up one plate. “Here. Let me serve us both.”
“You don't have to,” Deborah said.
“I know,” Julie said with a smile. “I want to.”
They didn't speak as they ate. But every so often they glanced at each other and both smiled. When they finished the pizza, they talked again.
“It's nice being with someone who isn't talking about the competition almost every minute,” Julie said.
“It sure is,” Deborah said. “You'd think that there was nothing else in the world to discuss.”
Julie took a sip of her hot cider. “Such as?”
Deborah thought about it. “Having a friend to do things with. A real friend. Someone who accepts me for who and what I am.”
“Haven't you ever had a girlfriend before?” Julie asked.
Deborah shook her head and took a sip of her own hot cider. “No.”
“What about a boyfriend?” Julie asked.
Deborah shook her more vehemently this time. “Definitely not.”
Julie leaned forward, elbows on the tabletop, her chin resting in her upraised palms. “Why?” she asked.
“Why what?” Deborah replied.
“Why neither one?” Julie asked. “You're pretty. You're smart.”
“Maybe I'm too fussy about who I want to be with,” Deborah said.
“Or maybe you think you don't have any chance to be with them,” Julie suggested. “What if you did? What would you say? What would you do?”
Deborah blushed a little, hoping that it wouldn't be that visible. “I'd ask if they wanted to go for a moonlit walk with me.”
“Him or her?” Julie asked.
“Her,” Deborah said. “You, in fact.”
“Me?” Julie asked.
Deborah nodded. “I mean, if you don't mind.”
Julie smiled. “I don't mind. I haven't done something like this in a very long time. Not since my parents I used to go see the Christmas lights at Yuletide Park when I was a little girl.”
“We used to do that, too,” Deborah said. “It was magical. Like being in a fairy tale.”
“Well, they have the lights up this year,” Julie said. “You interested in going there?”
“Alone or together?” Deborah asked.
“Together, of course,” Julie said.
“Yes,” Deborah said.
“Same here,” Julie said.
Yuletide Park wasn't its official name. Except in December, it was called Joplin Park, in honor of the famous ragtime pianist. It was said that he came here once and played for an hour. Julie wasn't sure if that was really true, but it was a nice myth that someone like that had actually visited Dandridge more than a hundred years ago.
They paid for tickets, and then began a slow, wandering walk through the park. Everything was lit up with lights of all sorts of colors. The pavement beneath their feet looked like a cross between a rainbow and a kaleidoscope. Even the fountain at the center of the park was lit up in different colors, every so often turning white like snowballs hurled straight up into the night air and at other times green like Christmas trees before they collapsed against the fountain's central metal hub.
“I hope you don't have to be home too soon,” Julie said.
Deborah shook her head. “I think I can stay out until midnight. What about you?”
“Same,” Julie said. She paused and looked up. “It's even snowing. Can it get any better than this?”
As they stood beneath a lighted framework that looked like a church, snow fell on their faces. Like little girls, they stuck out their tongues, to try to catch snowflakes on them. They giggled, nudged each other, then giggled again.
“I haven't had this much fun in a long time,” Julie said.
“Same here,” Deborah said. “I'm so glad we met and came here.”
“So am I,” Julie said, and her face turned serious. She linked her hands against Deborah's back. “I hope you don't mind.”
Deborah at first hesitated, then shook her head, and did the same to Julie in return. “It feels nice doing this.”
“It sure does,” Julie said.
Their breath was coming out in clouds of steam, rising up above their faces and their increasingly snow-covered hair.
“I don't really mind whose bakery wins the competition,” Julie said.
“I don't, either,” Deborah said.
“Have you ever been kissed?” Julie asked softly.
Deborah shook her head. “Unless you count good-night kisses from my parents.”
“Those don't count,” Julie said. “Want to?”
Deborah's thoughts raced, and then when they finally calmed down, she nodded. “All that's missing is mistletoe.”
“We'll save that for next time,” Julie said and they kissed.
The kiss probably didn't last more than a minute, but it felt like forever. Softness, warmth, and the cool wetness of snowflakes. Magical and wonderful.
When they broke, they smiled, didn't quite laugh, and then held each other as close as possible.
“If only we could tell our mothers and my aunts,” Deborah said.
“Let's keep this between us for the time being,” Julie suggested. “Our little secret.”
“I haven't had to keep a secret since I was a little girl,” Deborah said.
“Same here,” Julie said. “Just until after the competition. Then we can tell everyone.”
Deborah nodded and reached up to wipe the melted snow off of Julie's cheeks. “When we wake up in the morning, will this be nothing more than a dream? I hope not.”
“It's real,” Julie said and reached under her coat. She took out a simple gold necklace and put it around Deborah's neck. “Merry Christmas, Deborah.”
Deborah was touched. “Merry Christmas, Julie. Thank you for this … and everything else.”
“You're welcome,” Julie said.
“If only I had a gift for you,” Deborah said.
“You've already given me one,” Julie said. “One that I will always treasure.”