Skip to main content



Bright Lights, Big Christmas

Chapter 1

Kerry Clare Tolliver couldn’t remember a time when the smell of a Fraser fir tree didn’t make her smile.

Tollivers had been growing this particular variety of Christmas tree, in this particular patch of farmland in the mountains of western North Carolina, for four generations.

But today, standing in front of the flatbed trailer loaded with hundreds of freshly cut and baled fragrant firs, she wanted to cry.

“Mama, please don’t ask me to do this,” she whispered.

Her mother wrapped an arm around Kerry’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, honey, but there’s nobody else. Your daddy is coming home from the hospital tomorrow, and somebody’s got to be there to make sure he eats and takes his meds and gets his sorry butt up to do physical therapy. Like it or not, that somebody is me.”

“What about his sorry wife? Seems like it shouldn’t be his ex-wife who has to play nurse.”

Birdie—short for Roberta Tolliver—gave a short laugh. “Come on. You know Brenda is the human equivalent of a potted plastic plant. Cute, but useless. Anyway, I’m not supposed to know, and I’m sure as hell not supposed to tell you, but Murphy says she’s flown the coop. Moved out right before Halloween. Honestly, I really don’t mind. But that means you’ve got to step up and take Jock’s place. We’ve already missed out on the first week of the selling season. Either you go to New York and run the tree stand with Murphy, or it doesn’t happen.”

Kerry shrugged. “Would that be such a bad thing? I mean, can’t we sell the trees to our local retailers, like always?”


Kerry turned to see Murphy, her older brother, who’d walked up behind them. He was an imposing figure—six-four, with a beefy build, dark bristly beard, and weather-beaten skin. Dressed in a quilted plaid flannel jacket, jeans, and muddy work boots, with a chain saw slung over his shoulder, he looked like something straight off a wrapper of paper towels.

“That late freeze in May wiped out a quarter of the trees. Locals won’t pay the premium prices to make up for the loss. Anyway, the New York trip accounts for seventy-five percent of our revenue, and like Mama said, we’re already a week behind.”

Murphy stowed the chain saw in the toolbox in the back of his pickup truck and slammed the lid for emphasis.

Now Kerry was eyeing her father’s truck—the rusting 1982 Ford F-150 with the vintage fifteen-foot travel trailer hooked up behind it. Like the pickup, the trailer had seen better days. The teardrop-shaped body with faded two-tone turquoise-and-white paint looked like a discarded canned ham.

Spammy, as the Tollivers called the 1963 Shasta trailer, spent most of the year parked in a barn at the tree farm. But every November, for nearly four decades, on the day after Thanksgiving, the trailer got hitched to the truck and then driven the seven hundred miles to New York City, where the Tollivers set up their Christmas tree stand in the West Village. This year, Jock’s heart attack and hospitalization had delayed the trip by a week.

“I can’t believe you expect me to live in this hunk of junk,” Kerry said, walking around the trailer and peering in through the door, which was draped with spiderwebs.

“Have a little respect,” Birdie said, patting the trailer’s mud-splattered door. “Spammy is practically a family heirloom.”

Kerry pointed at the curtained-off cubicle that contained the dreaded chemical toilet. “There’s no way I’m using that gross thing.”

“It don’t work anyway,” Murphy said.

“Then where…?”

“We use the bathroom at the café, or at the deli on the corner,” her brother said. “Neighbors let us use their showers.”

He grabbed a broom and thrust it at her. “Might want to sweep it out before you hit the road. I think there’s a squirrel’s nest in the bunk where you’ll be sleeping.” He looked at his watch. “I’m leaving outta here five minutes from now, which should put me in the city by tomorrow, noon, at the latest. I need to know now, right now, whether you’re coming. Otherwise, the trip’s off. We can’t afford to hire help this year.”

Birdie’s calm gray eyes seemed to bore into Kerry’s soul. Birdie had been only seventeen when she had Murphy, twenty-one when she had Kerry. She and Jock had split up when Kerry was seven. Murphy had stayed on the farm with Jock, and Birdie and Kerry had moved into a small cottage in town. The two were more like sisters than mother and daughter. Kerry knew Birdie would never order her to make this trip. Not in so many words. She’d kill her with that pleading look, slay her with silence. Birdie Tolliver was a ninja master at guilt.

“It’s not that I don’t want to go. I do. I’m willing to help. But I’m terrified of towing the trailer.”

“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” Birdie said. “You used to tow the boat to the lake every summer, growing up. And what about all those years you towed the horse trailer when you were show jumping?”

Kerry sighed. She knew she was beaten. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Birdie beamed. “It’ll be almost like old times. You used to love it when the four of us would live in Spammy in the city. You thought it was like living in a dollhouse.” A dreamy look crossed Kerry’s mother’s face.

“New York at Christmas is magical. Walking down Fifth Avenue to see all the store windows decorated. Getting hot chocolate at the market at Union Square…”

“Won’t be time for any of that with just the two of us working the tree stand this year,” Murphy said bluntly.

He pointed at Kerry, taking in her fashionable slim jeans, lightweight sweater, and suede flats.

“Hope you got warmer clothes than that. We got a space heater in the trailer, but it gets cold on that street corner, with the wind whipping down from those apartment buildings. Call me when you’re an hour out from the city and I’ll put out the traffic cones to block off our parking spot.”

Murphy climbed up into the cab of his own truck, where his English setter Queenie was patiently waiting in the passenger seat, fired up the diesel engine, and slowly drove away.

Kerry watched as the trailer loaded with trees moved down the farm’s rocky driveway. It was sunny and in the mid-sixties, but she shivered, already anticipating the month she was about to spend living in that cramped trailer, coexisting with a brother she hardly knew.

“You’ll be fine,” Birdie said, reading her mind. “He’s kinda rough around the edges, but Murphy’s a good man. And I think it’ll be good for you to get back to a big city again. You can’t keep hiding out here in the boondocks forever, you know.”

chapter 2

Murphy had been wrong about the squirrel’s nest in the bunk. It had actually been mice that had taken up residence in the crumbling slab of foam mattress. One of the tiny residents went scurrying across the floor as soon as she set foot in the trailer.

Kerry screeched loudly, caught the mouse with her broom, swept it out the open trailer door, then picked up the mattress and flung it outside. She spent the next three hours sweeping and scrubbing and sanitizing the trailer.

It was obvious that no woman had slept a single night here since her parents had divorced.

Jock’s string of girlfriends—and his most recent wife, Brenda—had shown no interest in accompanying their man on the annual trip to New York.

And as for Murphy? He’d lived alone, since high school graduation, in a sharecropper’s cabin on the farm that he’d painstakingly restored. Kerry knew, from the gossip around Tarburton, that her resolutely reclusive brother dated—and was what she might call a serial monogamist—but he’d never introduced any of his lady friends to her or Birdie.

Murphy was thirty-nine, she was thirty-four, and although they were brother and sister, the two hadn’t lived under the same roof in decades. He was a stranger to her.

But then, Kerry mused, as she peered into a tiny mirror tacked outside the unused bathroom cubicle, that cut both ways. What did Murphy, or anyone else in the family, really, know about her?

When she’d moved back home to Tarburton three months earlier, she’d been deliberately vague about what she called a “temporary” relocation. She hadn’t mentioned the fact that the advertising agency in Charlotte where she worked as an art director had merged with another, larger agency in Atlanta, thus rendering her what the firm’s human resources department liked to call “redundant.”

Kerry had been working nonstop since graduation from art school in Savannah, until she was suddenly … not. She’d managed to live on her separation pay for the first three months, but the rent on the Charlotte loft was ridiculously expensive, and every day, as she stared at the online account of her dwindling savings, she’d asked herself why.

She’d built a life around her work. Her boyfriend, Blake, was an account executive at the ad agency. Most of her friends either worked there or were people she’d met through networking. Once she was out of work, she realized, with more than a trace of bitterness, she was also out of mind.

Blake hadn’t actually ghosted her. He’d just … gradually shifted his interest, until the only souvenirs she had of their two-year relationship were a tennis racket he’d left in her hall closet, along with a windbreaker and a tube of the expensive toothpaste he bought online.

There was nothing keeping her in Charlotte. It was time to face facts. It was time to go home—to her childhood bedroom at Birdie’s cottage a few blocks from the square in Tarburton.

She took on some freelance graphic design assignments, mostly website work that she could probably do in her sleep. Aside from taking an occasional walk around the square, Kerry rarely strayed far from the house.

“You’re getting to be a hermit, just like Murphy,” Birdie observed one sunny autumn Saturday morning, as she headed out with a basket over her arm to meet up with old friends at the weekly farmers’ market on the square.

Kerry looked up from the novel she was rereading. “I’m fine. Okay?”

Birdie shrugged. “I just think it’s a shame to stay inside on a gorgeous day like this. Winter will be here before you know it.”

“I happen to like winter,” Kerry told Birdie.

“I’ll remind you of that in January, when the roads up here are iced over and we haven’t seen sunshine in days and everything is gray and gloomy,” her mother retorted.

The truth was, Kerry rarely ventured into her hometown because she felt so out of place there—like an alien, beamed down to the wrong planet. During the last few months she’d lived in Charlotte, she’d felt aimless and adrift there, too. Maybe, she thought, experiencing a fleeting moment of optimism, a month away from both places, in New York, was what she needed, to reset her equilibrium.

* * *

Birdie hefted a cooler onto the front seat of the pickup truck. “There’s sandwiches here so you don’t have to stop to eat.” She placed a plaid thermos in the truck’s cup holder. “Here’s your coffee. Your daddy said to tell you there’s a good rest stop outside Winchester, Virginia, where he and Murphy always pull over. Clean bathrooms and plenty of room to park. Make sure you lock the doors and get a couple hours of sleep before you get back on the road.”

“Okay,” Kerry said. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. The sun was rising, peeking through the fog-shrouded mountains. Nervous energy fizzled in her veins. She hadn’t slept much the night before, worrying about the trip, towing the trailer while braving New York City traffic, and yes, the prospect of living in a mouse-infested claustrophobic canned ham for the next three weeks.

“I better get going,” she said, gunning the engine. “I don’t wanna piss Murphy off by being late.”

“Have you got your phone? And your charger? Plenty of wool socks? Extra underwear? God knows when you’ll get to do laundry.”

“Yes, yes, yes, and yes,” Kerry said. “I’m a grown-ass woman, Mom. Not an eight-year-old going to summer camp.”

“I know,” Birdie said, leaning in and kissing Kerry on the cheek. “And I know you’ll be working, selling trees. But don’t forget what I said about the magic of New York at Christmas. Don’t forget to stop and have fun.”

“You mean, don’t forget to stop and sniff the subway platform?”

“Don’t be like that,” Birdie chastised.

“Fun. Right.” Kerry rolled her eyes.

She took a deep breath, looked both ways, and slowly pulled out onto the county road.

“As if.”

Copyright © 2023 by Whodunnit, Inc

Bright Lights, Big Christmas
by by Mary Kay Andrews