Boston -- By the time she hung up the phone, the mother was feeling uneasy. Not anxious, exactly. Laurie wasn't an alarmist. Just a bit unsettled.
Another mother across the street, Margaret, had called with a peculiar story. While she was driving her kids home from day care, the 4-year-olds had started talking about a stranger coming to town. Margaret couldn't tell if the kids were imagining things or not but she thought Laurie would want to know. You can never be too safe.
There had been similar reports last year at this time, Laurie remembered, but that was before they'd started the Neighborhood Crime Watch. If there really was a stranger in the Maplewood subdivision, someone would notice.
It was the second call that made her start worrying. Her next-door neighbor Chuck used the word ''stalker.'' He too had heard his kids talking about some old guy who knew an awful lot about them. The fellow said that he knew which ones were naughty and which ones were nice.
It was probably nothing, Chuck told Laurie, but the one old guy on the street had gone to Florida for the winter. Anyway, it would be wise to remind the kids to let a grown-up know if someone -- anyone -- was hanging around them. Especially anybody acting very friendly, very jolly. You can never be too safe.
Laurie told the story to her husband Dan who shook his head unhappily. Laurie and Dan had left the city, had bought the house in Maplewood for the kids' security. Now this. You just never know. You can never be too safe.
Suddenly she remembered her son Brian saying that some guy he didn't even know was going to give him a Power Ranger for Christmas. Everyone knew they'd been sold out for weeks. Now she wondered.
At 9 o'clock, when Laurie finished the dishes, her mother called. Her friend Edith was part of a mall-walking group. Yesterday, she'd seen this fat, unshaven, old guy talking to kids out there. He was in a crimson-colored sweat suit and he was promising the children that if they sat on his lap he'd give them a present.
Edith said the guy looked vaguely familiar too. She'd seen him somewhere before. Was it on ''Unsolved Mysteries?''
Laurie reassured her mother that she'd taught Brian and Jenny never to let anyone they didn't know touch them. It had been awkward when Dan's parents came all the way from Arizona for one of their rare visits and the kids refused to be hugged, but now she was glad. You can never be too safe.
Just about this time, Alicia called. She was the certified worrywart of the car pool, but now Laurie was all ears. Alicia had heard reports on the new all-crime news show about a man breaking into houses, one after another.
This was a guy with a record and an M.O. He waited until the kids were asleep and then he got into all kinds of homes. By the time anybody reached 911, he was gone. He'd never been caught.
Alicia hyperventilated. She was prone to guilt and anxiety ever since she'd gone to work. This never happened when we were kids, she told Laurie. In those days, the moms were always around. At least, Alicia said, she had followed the Christmas advice of the Smith & Wesson people and bought a LadySmith handgun. You could never be too safe.
By this time, Laurie was feeling chilled in her own house, her own skin. She walked by the Christmas tree that had been so comforting earlier. She peered out the window, looked carefully up and down the street and slowly drew the curtains.
Upstairs the kids were tucked into bed. It was Christmas Eve and she had visions of crime. What was the world coming to? She walked through the kitchen that still smelled of cookies and stood for a long while in the hall.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Tonight, she would be sure to turn on the house alarm. She was glad that they'd had the security company wire their entire home. Now even the chimney was protected.
After all, you can never be too safe.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.