Walter and Claire’s house was nowhere as grand as these. Nor did it have any fruit on it. They had found a comfortable three-bedroom, two-story traditional red brick home with white trim and green shutters in an older neighborhood adjacent to the parkway. The mailbox, attached to the front of the house, was dark red with a flip top lid and large white letters that said POST. The mailbox, like the chimney with the ivy crawling up the sides, had a warm and friendly aura about it. The house had hardwood floors, paned windows, pocket doors and a stone fireplace.

As of this morning, the Hawkins family had been in the house one year, six months and four days. Walter didn’t know how he did it, but he remembered numbers in detailed ways. This would be the Hawkins’ second Christmas in the charming house and Walter’s second Christmas as headmaster at Cypress Academy. For any school administrator, private, public or charter, the month of December was second in activity level and energy demands only to the month of May, when students graduated. Walter knew this from experience and, of course, he had statistics to back it up as well.

Even without his Blackberry in view, Walter had a clear idea of how the day would unfold. It was Friday, his final chance to catch up on a growing mound of paper before the weekend. At 8:10 there would be announcements, followed by an 8:25 meeting with the director of development, followed by a nine o’clock meeting with the counseling staff, followed by an open window of time to put out assorted brush fires, followed by time allotted to work on the accreditation forms. At noon he would meet several of the Parent Teacher Fellowship board members for a working lunch. In the afternoon he would answer e-mails, return phone calls and clarify guidelines for the upcoming, and much ballyhooed, senior class trip. The high school principal had informed Walter that there were going to be some changes this time around. Last year, several students had gotten a little too friendly at the back of one of the charter buses late at night. This year the high school principal wanted guidelines requiring girls and guys to return to their separate sides of the bus by midnight.

Walter wheeled into the parking lot and was delighted to see that vehicles were sparse. He’d have time to get a few steps ahead of the crowd. The basketball coach’s SUV was parked by the gym and there was a truck by the maintenance office. The only other vehicle he recognized was a maroon minivan belonging to his administrative assistant, Peggy Valentine.

“What in blazes?” Walter muttered, as he eased into parking spot No. 112. 

Either Peggy had decorated her minivan for the holidays, or her vehicle had been car jacked and vandalized by craft maniacs armed with glue guns and garlands. Silver aluminum garland, the kind that went out of style in the ’60s, and giant, plastic red bows had been wrapped the entire length of the luggage rack on top of the minivan. There was a big silver wreath with a white dove attached to the grillwork on the front of the minivan.   

He peered inside and saw Christmas lights wrapped around the interior, with some sort of adapter dangling from the cigarette lighter. A Christmas tree shaped deodorizer that said “Wise Men Still Seek Him,” hung from the rear view mirror.

Walter liked his assistant Peggy, he really did. The students did, too. They were all fond of her. She was bubbly, enthusiastic, a regular Old Faithful when it came to creative ideas. He couldn’t do his job half as well without her. She kept her ear to the ground, he could trust her to keep private information private, and her energy was infectious. But Peggy had become an empty nester this year. Her last one had gone off to college and Peggy’s extra energy seemed to carry over to the job. Often it was welcome, but sometimes it was simply over the top.