Francie Farmer wanted to spoil her husband, Frank, for Christmas. They’d been married for fifty-four years, and every year Frank had managed to surprise her and give her the best Christmases of all her life, but this year she would be turning the tradition on its head.
She grinned as she got off the phone with the contractor. Since they’d moved into this house almost fifteen years ago, Frank had wanted to have a roaring fire in the hearth, but the fireplace had been bricked up by the previous owners. For this Christmas, she had a contractor coming today, Christmas Eve of all days, to break down the bricks and make the fireplace useable. By the time their son and his family came tomorrow morning, Francie thought with giddiness bubbling up in her stomach, Frank could have his roaring fire.
“Francie?” Frank called from the den. Francie put down the phone and walked out of the living room and through the pale-yellow kitchen, trying to smooth the crazy smile from her face so she wouldn’t give herself away.
“Francie, are you about ready for lunch?” Frank asked from his easy chair when she entered the den. He had the TV on and a blanket over his legs, even though he kept the heat cranked up until she was nearly stifling.
“Well,” she said, checking her watch, “I was thinking maybe we could go out for lunch today.”
Frank muted the TV and looked at her. His white hair was perfectly combed, the collar of his golf shirt starched. Francie felt a little underdressed in her eggplant-purple velour tracksuit, and she wouldn’t be back to the beauty parlor to have her perm touched up until next Thursday.
“Why do you want to do that?” Frank asked. “The traffic will be terrible today, with it being Christmas Eve and all. If you’re not up to cooking, I’ll make you something.” He moved to take off his blanket and stand, but Francie stepped forward.
“No, no,” she said, “I don’t want you to have to trouble yourself.” Trying not to be too obvious, she smiled as her mind raced to think of some way to get him out of the house. “I’m just kind of sick of the house, that’s all. And I’d kind of like to pick up a little something extra for Marlee’s stocking.”
The mention of their only granddaughter brought a faint smile to Frank’s lips, and Francie knew she had him. He lifted the blanket from his legs and heaved himself to his feet.
“Well,” he said, “you’ll need to get your coat.”
Getting Frank out of the house had been easier than Francie had thought, but keeping him out was proving more of a challenge. She’d already taken him to lunch on the other side of town, fighting through horrendous holiday traffic the whole way there, then ordered too much food and taken her merry time eating it. Now she’d dragged him to a little strip mall with some boutique shops where she could find something for Marlee to keep up the ruse.
“Have you found what you’re looking for yet?” Frank asked. They were in the fourth shop in a row, this one all neutrals and pastels, with “Silver Bells” piped in through the speakers in the ceiling.
Francie meandered down another aisle in the airy shop, gently skimming her fingers over cashmere sweaters and silk blouses folded on long wooden tables.
“These all look too old for Marlee, don’t you think?” she asked. “She needs something more youthful.”
She thought she heard Frank mutter something about not being youthful by the time they left this store, but she ignored it and pressed on. Checking her watch, she sighed. They’d been out for nearly four hours. The contractor had said it would only take about two hours, and he’d promised to call when they were done working. Francie’s shoulders filled with tension. What if he forgot to call? Would Frank grow weary of waiting around for her to be ready and make them leave before the work was done? Or suppose the contractor called and said he wouldn’t be able to do it, that it was a bigger job than they’d supposed?
Frustration built up in Francie as she rounded another aisle, Frank trailing just behind. She just wanted to do something nice for him, just wanted to show him how much she appreciated all he did for her. She furrowed her brow, trying to squash her growing dismay.
A warm hand enveloped her shoulder. “Don’t worry, dear, we’ll find what you’re looking for,” Frank cooed in her ear, having mistaken her expression for frustration over Marlee’s make-believe present.
Tears welled in Francie’s eyes, and she turned around to pull him into her arms. Even after all these years, he still managed to be the sweetest man she knew. She sniffled, right there in the middle of the boutique, while her husband patted her awkwardly on her back.
“I know we will,” she said. She pulled back a bit and smiled at him. “With you by my side, I can do anything.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek; his face reddened with a bashful smile, and for a moment, she forgot her aching knees and her sore feet. All she knew was that Frank was worth whatever trouble she might go through for his surprise.
Francie turned away and started up the aisle once more, holding Frank’s hand in hers.
A loud ringing sounded from her purse, and Francie jumped. She dropped Frank’s hand and fished through her purse, snatching her cellphone from her bag’s depths and grinning at the name flashing across her caller ID.
“Just a moment, dear,” she said, and stepped away from her husband. Her hand was shaking with excitement so badly that she had to hit the answer button several times before she got it right. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Farmer?” the contractor said.
“Yes, this is she. Have you finished?” She cast a surreptitious glance over at her husband, who thankfully had shoved his hands in his pockets and started looking around at the clothes and tables of knickknacks.
“Well, unfortunately, we’ve run into some trouble,” the contractor said.
Francie’s stomach dropped. “What kind of trouble?”
“Well, the fireplace wasn’t just bricked up along the outside. We found bricks up in the chimney itself, and fixing all that will take a lot more time than we thought. We might have to completely tear down the chimney before the end,” he said, confirming her worst fears. “We’ve got the hearth itself open, and it looks quite nice now. It just won’t be housing any fires for the time being, not unless you want to fill the house with smoke.”
Francie swallowed, thanked him, and asked how long until he could be cleaned up and out of the house. He was already on his way out, he told her. Francie hung up.
After all her planning, after all these months of secrecy and preparation, it all came to nothing. Her shoulders slumped as she stowed her cellphone back in her handbag. How did Frank always manage to make such perfect surprises for her when she couldn’t even make her one grand idea come to life?
Shuffling back to her husband, she tried to think of some way she could salvage it. They could put candles in the new fireplace opening, she thought, or maybe Marlee could make some kind of fire out of tissue paper, and they could put a space heater inside to give the illusion of the blazing fire of their dreams. Or maybe it would be just a terrible gaping hole in the brick in the middle of their living room wall.
“I’m ready to go home if you are,” Francie said to Frank when she reached him by a table of artsy gifts. He looked at her in surprise, measuring up her glum face and drooping posture.
“Did you . . . find what you wanted for Marlee?” he asked carefully.
Francie grabbed a bar of artisan soap wrapped in blue paper from the table beside them. “Sure did.”
Frank didn’t ask any questions, just took the soap to the register and led Francie through the cold to the car.
All the way home, she considered how to tell him that her grand surprise ended up a grand flop, but nothing seemed right. Thinking as hard as she was, Francie didn’t even have time to be scared by her husband’s driving. She’d thought she would have plenty of time, but of course now that she wanted to spend as much time in traffic as possible, they passed through every green light on the way and made it home in no time.
Frank parked, but neither one made any move to get out. He didn’t say anything, and Francie knew he was waiting for her to explain herself. She sighed and looked at her hands on her lap. Her silver wedding band was in need of a shine.
“Well, Frankie,” she said as the car began to grow cold, “I wanted to have a surprise for you this year, like you have for me every year.” She looked at him, and his blue-green eyes met hers.
She sighed again. “Yes. I suppose we ought to go in and see it now, but I have to tell you now, before you get too excited, that it didn’t turn out.”
Frank’s face warmed into a gentle smile. “Francie, do you mean to tell me that you kept us out all day just for me?”
Heat flooding her cheeks, Francie turned to the door and fumbled for the handle. “Well, of course I did, you old buffoon. I didn’t do it all so Marlee could have a bar of old lady soap.” She opened the door and shimmied herself out before turning around to see him again. “You’d best come in and see the damage done.”
Frank chuckled, unbuckled himself, and got out. He came around the car and slung an arm around her shoulders as they walked in the house.
Francie led straightaway from the carport to the living room, and there it was, in all its glory, standing proudly on the wall opposite the door, between two windows and across from the white sofa. The fireplace really was lovely, and the contractor had done a beautiful job. Where it had been filled in with bricks earlier, now it was clean and open, seemingly ready for use. Not a single red brick was broken, and Francie couldn’t help being impressed. It looked like it had never been covered over to begin with.
“Ta-da,” she said, throwing her arms out toward the fireplace. When she cautioned a look up at Frank’s face, his mouth was a perfect o. Her husband was a man of few words, it was true, but seldom had she ever seen him truly speechless as he was at this moment.
“Francie,” he spluttered. “It’s—it’s beautiful.”
She smiled wanly and looked over at the fireplace, disappointment filling her stomach. “It looks nice,” she conceded, “but I’m afraid it’s useless. We can’t have a real fire.”
But his face didn’t change from its wonderment. He stepped forward and ran his fingers over the clean bricks, looking the whole thing over, from mantle to hearth. He turned back to her, and unshed tears sparkled in his eyes.
“I think I need to give you your present early,” he said, and before she could answer him a word, he’d passed her and gone down the hall. Francie heard him rustling through the closet in the spare bedroom. A moment later, he emerged, dragging a thick rectangular box behind him. He pulled it right up to the couch and gestured for Francie to sit.
She sat, and he pushed the box over to her.
“Go ahead,” he encouraged her. “Open it.”
Francie quirked an eyebrow at him. “You’ve never given me my present early before,” she said.
He shrugged, suppressing a smile. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Francie bent to tear a long strip of the red, reindeer-adorned wrapping paper. Her eyes shot to his. “Is this—” she began, but he just gestured with nervous excitement for her to carry on. She tore another piece and ripped the paper off the box.
“Electric Fireplace,” boasted the bold letters on the box. “Feel the flames!”
A grin slipped across her face. “Frank Farmer,” she laughed, “you’ve outdone yourself this year.”
With Frank’s help, she opened the box, and together they positioned it in the newly opened fireplace. It fit perfectly, just like she knew it would. Francie plugged it in and turned it on, and warmth spilled into the room. When they sank back onto the couch to look at it, neither could stop beaming. The faux flames danced merrily in their new fireplace, and coals glowed at the bottom through the glass.
Frank found Francie’s hand, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Well,” she said, “I think we’ve finally done it.”
“What’s that?” Frank asked, not moving his eyes from the fire.
Francie pulled a blanket from the corner of the couch over their legs and snuggled her husband. “I think we’ve finally equally surprised each other.”
“We make a good team,” Frank said with a chuckle.
Francie giggled as a thought occurred to her. “Home is where the hearth is!” She laughed. “I’ll have to put that on a pillow.”
And they sat for hours, enjoying the fire and each other, until it was time to go to bed, and the promise of Christmas danced in their minds.