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Here we are for the sixth scene of my Christmas short story, The Christmas Sweater. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Chapter Two—Scene Six

Debbie stuck her head in the door about suppertime and asked, “Have you called Emily yet?” Snuffles wagged behind her.

“No,” I admitted. “I will.”

I’d been thinking of Emily’s invitation all day, as well as Debbie’s counsel that I’d be sorry if I didn’t go but never sorry if I did. Wouldn’t they both be surprised if I accepted.

She glanced at her wristwatch. “You have an hour to call before I get back and call her myself.” She seemed a bit nervous, which was out of character. I waited.

“Listen, Oh Friend of Mine. Mickey’s at work and I have to go to an Alzheimers meeting at the  Seniors’ Centre and they won’t let me take Steena inside. I know you don’t like animals in your house, but could she stay right here in the entry? Just for an hour or so? I’d leave her at home but she’s been really scared of being left lately. I think she’s going through separation anxiety. We took her to Regina with us last time and it seemed to throw her to see my folks again but in a new place.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Not only was she commanding me to phone my daughter, she was requesting that I babysit her dog. In my home.

“Or you could come to my place and sit with her,” she said, as if reading my mind, “but I know you want to call Emily so I thought this made more sense.”

Well, I was tired of everyone thinking I was a wimp. I’d show them all, shut them up for good. The thought took root so quickly it shocked even me, spontaneity not being my forte.

“Go ahead. I’ll look after Stumpy,” I said, and tried to keep from laughing at her incredulous expression.

“Thanks…I think,” she said, and told the dog to stay put. I doubted the mutt understood, but it sat and wagged as Debbie backed out quickly, probably expecting me to change my mind.

When she’d gone, I sat down on the entry steps and spoke to my guest. “Well hello, Stinky. Nice of you to come by. I have nothing to offer you but my presence.” Tentatively, I reached out and patted her head. Her hair felt so soft and silky to my touch that I couldn’t help scratching her ears. She leaned her head on my knees and closed her eyes, and I had to chuckle. That launched a bout of tail wagging that made me laugh for real.

“You are a strange little creature,” I said. “Now I have to clear up my supper and make an important phone call. You remember what Debbie said: stay put right here while I call. The rug is quite comfortable enough for you.” I gave her one more pat on the head and went back into the kitchen.

I forgot all about the dog while I washed my few dishes and considered what I’d say to Emily. I hung the dishtowel under the sink and rubbed lotion onto my hands. Sam used to joke about the amount of lotion I rubbed into my skin, but he liked the resulting softness.

The phone sat mocking me from its cradle near the table, and I decided there was no time like the present. I had Em on speed dial, I’m not sure why since I rarely initiated the calls, so I hit the button and waited, wandering back and forth through the house just like Sam used to do when he spoke on the phone. Emily answered after three rings.

“Hello? Mom?” She sounded surprised I was calling and I guess I couldn’t blame her since it didn’t happen often.

“Hi, honey. How was your day?”

“Good, yours?”

Enough small talk. I was on a mission here. “Listen, about your invitation to Paris, you know how I feel about the timing and all, but I’ve decided, after a good deal of interference and coercion from an unnamed source, that I’ll take you up on it.”

Her silence lasted so long I thought the line had gone dead. “What did you say?”

“I said I’ll come. Have you changed your mind? You said you needed to know by today.”

The silence stretched between us, and a giggle escaped me at the incongruity of the situation.

“Are you jerking my chain, Mom? Because I was serious about the offer. I mean, if you don’t want to come, just say so.”

“After all this emotional upheaval, you want me to change my mind again? Sorry, Em, but the decision is final. I’m going—we’re going—to Paris. In two weeks.” I must be crazy.

I wasn’t prepared for her scream, but it ripped through the phone lines and into my house with such clarity that Stocky came running and buried her head in my lap. I started to chuckle and then the situation overcame me and I was laughing. In the background I heard Emily say, “Mom, are you all right? Have you started drinking?”

Her words made me laugh harder and that’s how Debbie found us, Spookie and me, when she returned from her meeting. She looked as troubled as Emily sounded. I knew I was on an adrenaline high, but I hadn’t had this much fun since…since Sam died. My laughter faded, but the bubble of joy inside didn’t go away.

“Listen, Em,” I said when I’d caught my breath. “I have to go. I’m babysitting Debbie’s dog and we’ve frightened her and Debbie’s here now. Just tell your friend I’m in and we can talk another day soon. Good night, my dear.”

“Goodnight, Mom.” I heard the uncertainty in her voice just before I disconnected.

“Hey, Debbie, how was your meeting?” The look on her face made me want to start laughing all over again, but I was too tired. It was exhausting being this happy.

 

**I hope you’re enjoying The Christmas Sweater. Only two more scenes to go. Join us next Thursday, November 22, for the seventh installment.

 

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This is the fifth scene of my Christmas short story, The Christmas Sweater. Enjoy the story and the season.

 

Chapter Two—Scene Five

Monday morning came without me aware of the day or the time. Being so close to winter solstice, it seemed to be always semi-dark outside. The jangle of the doorbell and the dull pounding finally brought me out of my stupor. Was the world ending? No, but my world already had. It couldn’t get worse.

The pounding stopped and my phone rang. I reached for it reluctantly.

“Hello?”

“Oh, thank goodness you’re okay. Jeannie, what’s up? Are you sick or what?”

I shook my head to clear it. “No, I’m fine. Just slept in…So, you’re back. How was the weekend?”

She ignored my polite questions. “Jeannie, you’re always up at the same time every morning. Now tell me…no, just open the door. I’m coming over. I can’t believe we’re sitting here talking on the phone when we live next door. And if you don’t open up, I’m gonna get Mickey to pick the lock on your door. He knows how.” And she hung up.

I rolled out, threw the covers over the bed in a quick but completely unacceptable fashion, and pulled on a sweat suit and Sam’s shirt, realizing it needed washing again. I could hear my mother’s words in my mind: Jeannie,your first task upon rising is to make up your bed. AndA lady never, ever leaves the house in dirty clothes.Somehow the memory of her scolding was a link to sanity, albeit a flimsy link.

The doorbell rang as I was brushing my teeth. She’d have to wait. Pushy woman. I remembered her threat about Mickey picking the lock, and although I didn’t believe he’d ever agree to do it, the thought made me hurry.

When Debbie blew into my kitchen, she took a look at my puffy eyes and swollen face and wrapped me in a wordless hug. The only thing that can ever stop her tongue is compassion. She’s hard to resist. Like water eroding stone. Over time you succumb.

She pulled back and stared at me. “You haven’t been outside all weekend, have you?”

“Yes, I have,” I said in my defense. “I walked on Saturday.”

“It’s Monday. That’s two days ago. That’s a lot of alone time, Kiddo. So you sat here in the dark and brooded?”

I shrugged.

“No one came? No one called?”

“Well, it’s none of your business, but yes, someone did call.”

Her eyes looked a bit less severe and she turned to get the tea things. “Good. Who?”

Incredulous, I stared at her back.

“I know it’s not my business,” she answered with her head in the tea cabinet, “but I’m curious. Who called?”

Fighting Debbie was like trying to stop the wind. I sat in my chair at the table and accepted peppermint tea in my cup with the roses on it, while she sat in Sam’s chair with a double-double Earl Grey in a black mug. “My daughter Emily called from Vancouver. She’s planning to go to Paris for Christmas.” May as well get it all out right away instead of parrying the questions one by one.

Debbie’s eyes widened and she slapped the table so hard I spilled some of my tea. “Get outta town! Paris? Who’s she going with? Did she ask you?”

The questions kept coming until I held up my palm to stop them. “Yes, she asked. I declined.”

Her eyebrows disappeared under her curls. “What the heck? Are you crazy?”

I waited for her to understand. When her expression didn’t change, I leaned forward and explained. “Debbie, remember what time of year it is. It will soon be the anniversary of Sam’s death. I simply cannot go traipsing around that romantic city of Paris with my broken heart in full view of everyone.”

“No, of course not,” she said, and I leaned back in my chair, satisfied that I’d connected with her at last. But she had more to say. “No, you have no business going to Paris on the anniversary of your husband’s death. Your place is to sit here in the dark with no tangible sign of Christmas and weep. Or stay in bed till mid-morning because you spent all night feeling sorry for yourself.”

I stood up so fast I almost spilled the rest of our tea. “How dare you? You have no idea what I’ve experienced and yet you judge me!”

“Simmer down, Cinderella,” she said, as if the argument was over spilled tea instead of death and grieving. Her silly comment took the punch out of me and I sat while she grabbed a clean tea-towel and wiped up the tea.

“I’m not judging you, Jeannie, but I have to watch you suffer every day, and I’ve only been here a couple of weeks. If this is what you’ve been doing for a year, it’s time you changed your ways or one morning all I’ll find upon breaking into your tomb of a show home is a puddle of tears on the kitchen floor. How long do you have to make your decision?”

I rubbed my bleary eyes. “I’ve already made my decision. I told Emily to accept her friend’s offer and go.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said. “When’s the deadline?”

I blew out my breath forcefully. “Today. Debbie, I’m just not up to it.”

She sat back and pretended to write something on an imaginary paper with her finger. “Excuse number one: Jeannie’s not up to it. Next excuse?”

I rubbed at my forehead with my fingertips, trying to massage away the ache. “I can’t go so soon, It’s a bad time of year. I have to get through it.”

“What do you mean, a bad time of year? It’s the best time of year!”

“Used to be. Not anymore. Ever.”

“So you’re gonna let it spoil Christmas from now on?”

I felt a burning in the pit of my stomach as the words boiled up from deep inside. “It’s not my fault,” I shouted, my voice quavering like an old woman’s. “It’s Sam’s fault. He’s the one who up and died on me. At Christmas, for heaven’s sake! He ruined it all. My favourite time of year and now I’ll never be able to enjoy it again!” The sobs started their way up my throat. “I hate him for robbing me. For leaving me.”

I took my cup with the roses on it and threw it into the sink, shattering it. Grabbing the counter with both hands I wailed, loud and ugly and guttural, till I thought I’d turn inside out.

The whole time, Debbie stood behind me, running her hands up and down my arms, murmuring comforting words, praying out loud, waiting. When I’d used up all the tears and felt like an empty husk, she turned me around and hugged me and patted my back as if I were a child. Later, we sat side by side on the couch, fresh cups of tea on the coffee table in front of us, Debbie’s arm around my shoulder.

“You know he didn’t leave you on purpose, right?”

My voice came out in a squeak. “I didn’t know I was so angry.”

Debbie’s answering smile looked sad. “We never do. Anger is one of those emotions that evolves into a monster over time if we don’t face it. I could see it consuming you.”

I narrowed my swollen eyes at her. “You goaded me into this hysterical fit.”

“Goaded? No. I may have nudged a bit, but you were well on the way without me, honey. I knew you had to get it out.”

The tea felt like sweet healing going down. “How’d you know?” I asked.

“Been there.”

“What? When?” I stared at her now, focused for once on someone outside of myself.

She pursed her lips, set down her cup and pulled up her knees, hugging them. “I have cancer,” she said in a quiet voice. “It’s in remission now and hopefully it will stay that way. But one never knows.” She stared out through the frosted window in a more contemplative manner than I’d ever seen her.

“I was so angry at everyone and everything, but mostly at God. Mickey didn’t know what to do with me. He tried everything: counseling, pastoral visits, deacons, friends, but I pushed everyone away, groveling in my pain and fear…and anger.”

Tears slipped from my eyes. “As I’ve been doing.”

She shrugged and gave me a crooked grin.

I had to know. “What happened to change that?” I was holding onto the end of the rope she’d thrown me, hoping to be pulled out of the quagmire I’d been sinking in.

“I admitted the anger.” She looked at me again. “You can destroy yourself with anger. Pretending all’s well, or pretending you aren’t angry or afraid. When I finally admitted how I felt, it was like a dam burst and reality was released. I could name it and face it.”

I nodded, recalling the feeling of release after my outburst.

“And I knew it wasn’t God’s fault,” she continued. “He’d been there the whole time, arms reaching for me. I’d stepped out of his arms when my anger and fear took over. I’d avoided him.”

She cupped her hand on my cheek. “Honey, you gotta let him in. He’s the only one who can help you become whole again.”

On the tip of my tongue the words gathered. I’ll never be whole again.I bit them back and swallowed.

“Yes.”

Such a simple word, but the release overwhelmed me. Tears I’d thought spent poured down my cheeks, not the exhausting upheaval at the kitchen sink, but a sweet peace.

“Okay, listen up, sister.” Debbie leaned forward to look into my eyes and brought me back to reality in a hurry. “You have a decision to make sometime today. You may forfeit Paris and be sorry later, but if you go, you’ll never be sorry. And another thing. Maybe Emily needs you with her right now. She can’t bear to be here in this empty house with memories of her dad everywhere, but she doesn’t want to be alone either.”

I stared at her. She really was pushy.

On her way out the door, she looked back and said, “Promise me you’ll seriously consider this, for Emily’s sake as well as yours. I will follow up, you know.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said, more to get her out of my house than anything. I appreciated that she cared, but she hadn’t lost her husband. I couldn’t suddenly change my feelings because I had faced the truth, and I needed time to adjust.

 

**Come back for the sixth installment of The Christmas Sweater next Thursday, November 15. Until then, enjoy the season.

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This is the fourth installment of my Christmas short story, The Christmas Sweater. Look for it through October and November on my blog. Enjoy!

 

Chapter One—Scene Four

Next day I woke with a headache. Must have been a change in barometric pressure or something. When I turned on the radio, Christmas carols assaulted me on every station. December first. ’Tis the season. I snapped it off and tried the TV just for white noise.Jeopardydidn’t necessarily air December reruns in December, but even the ads were all about Christmas, all the gifts you could/should buy for everyone from Great-aunt Hilda to the mail carrier.

Last year I’d loved it all, the music, the lights, the decorations, the shopping. I had begged Sam to put up the tree as soon as December rolled around.

I sank into my recliner, pulled the butter-yellow crocheted throw over me and leaned my head back. How could I be exhausted when I’d slept fairly well and only been up for an hour?

A couple of times I perked up, thinking I heard Debbie at the door, then remembered she and Mickey were in Regina and the noise was probably just the wind. She’d reminded me to go for a walk every day, but the outside world looked so gray and cold, I elected to stay put under my warm blanket.

I watched the flicker of movement on the TV screen without seeing it, lost in thoughts of yesterdays. Ever since Debbie came back, she’d dominated my mornings with tea, visits, interruptions, and walks. I’d been upset about having my well-planned schedule interrupted, yet the first day she was gone, I couldn’t get myself moving.

I woke an hour later, angry with myself for sleeping in the morning like an old woman. Maybe I was old, like yesterday’s newspaper. A sliver of sunshine had forced its way through the layers of cloud, making my frosted windows sparkle, and it seemed the wind had calmed. Without allowing myself time to think, I pulled on my winter garb, including the lime green toque, some thick mittens and my hiking boots, and forced myself out the door.

I felt like the Abominable Snow-woman, all muffled like that, but I was warm. I walked east then south toward the new school, passing homes in the process of being built. For a few minutes the sun shone on my face and I could almost hear Debbie’s joyful comments. I actually caught myself looking around for Snuffy. Silly dog.

Then the clouds huddled together and pulled a slate gray sheet over the sky again, and the wind picked up. Like my life. Gray. Cold. Empty. Ugly. Pointless. In spite of my flagging spirits, I forced myself to go the usual distance. Back home, I warmed up with hot chocolate and settled on the couch to read.

The phone rang about noon. My heart jumped with anticipation when I recognized the number on the call display. Emily! I mentally counted the weeks since my only child had called. I didn’t like to push, but was anxious to know when she’d be home for Christmas and how long she’d be able to stay.

“Em! How are you? I’ve missed you.”

“You too, Mom. How’s the weather in Winterland?”

I chuckled. “Wintry. How about you?”

“Rainy but warm and green. I love Vancouver.”

We talked of little things, I told her all about Debbie and her intrusive kindness. She skipped a beat and so did my heart. “What’s up, Emily?” I’d always been able to read between her words, even if I couldn’t see her face.

I heard a long-distance sigh and knew. She wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas. I felt like I was slowly slipping down a dark chute.

“Mom.” She had a way of saying it that sounded like a command. “You know I miss you and I know it’s only a year since Dad—you know—but, umm…”

“Just tell me, Em. You’re not coming. Something better came up.” As a mother, I should have been kinder, but the thought of being alone over Christmas bothered me more than I’d thought it would.

“Mom,” she repeated. “Just listen, okay?”

Did I have a choice?

“So, a friend of mine found a Groupondeal for a trip to Paris and you know how I’ve always wanted to go, and we’d see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe, and we could wander along the Champs-Elysees. All in the beauty of Christmas, and well, I haven’t decided yet, said I needed to talk it over with you, but I have to let her know by Monday. What do you think?”

What could I say? You go ahead and have a good time in Paris while I die of loneliness here at home? I had to say something, it was just difficult to make my voice work. I cleared my throat and said, “Sounds like an offer too good to pass up, Em. Go ahead and have a good time. I’m sure I’ll survive here.”

Again there was a strange silence before Emily filled it. “I guess I haven’t been clear. I’m asking if you’ll come with me. I want us to experience Paris at Christmas. Together. How about it?”

I couldn’t even breathe, I was so surprised. “Me? To Paris? I’ve never traveled. Your dad and I never got farther than Maui the year you graduated. Paris! Paris?” What a ridiculous idea. Didn’t she realize the implications?

“Emily, it’s sweet of you to think of me, but I can’t go. I’m just not ready.” I paused to gather my emotions. “It will be the first anniversary of your father’s death. How could I possibly go now?”

I could envision the scowl on Emily’s face. “And how do you plan to “celebrate” Dad’s death? Sit in the dark and cry?” Even as my heart withered at her words, I heard her long-distance sigh. “Mom. Think about it. Dad would want you to go.”

“How do you know what Dad would want me to do?”

“It’s a guess, and a pretty good one, I think. Now are you coming or not?”

I took a deep breath. “No, Honey, I can’t. I’m sorry. But you go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

“I won’t go without you. I can’t leave you home alone over Christmas.”

“Why not? I’ve been alone for almost a year and I’m fine.”

“You don’t sound fine, Mom. You sound mad. Angry.”

Why did everyone think I was angry? They could all just leave me alone in my misery. “Emily, I’m telling you to go. Understood?”

Another sigh told me she was weakening. “Would you at least think about it until Monday? I’ll wait to give Carly my final answer until then.”

“I won’t change my mind, but thank you for thinking of me. I love you, Emily.”

“You too, Mom. Talk to you Monday.”

She sounded hopeful and I didn’t want to squelch her hopes, but really! What did she expect of me? I grabbed my book and sank back into the recliner, but I couldn’t read. It was all right. I was all right. I would cope, just as I had when Sam up and died on me. I pushed out of the chair and shuffled to the window. The emptiness of my life stared at me from my faint reflection in the glass, like the fading light of day outside. I fixed a small bowl of Greek yogurt with almond butter and raisins, had a cup of tea, and went to bed very early, hoping for blessed sleep to rescue me from my brokenness.

 

**Meet me here again next Thursday, November 8th, for the fifth scene of The Christmas Sweater.

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This is the third installment of my short story, The Christmas Sweater. Look for it every Thursday through October and November. Enjoy!

 

Chapter One—Scene Three

“We need to walk,” said Debbie Friday morning when she’d let herself into my house.

“Walk? Where to?”

“Just walk,” she said. “Doc says to keep the heart and lungs healthy we should walk every day. So how about it?” She was bouncing on the balls of her booted feet.

“Now?”

She shrugged. “Why not now? You have to vacuum first or what?”

I chose to ignore her ill-concealed sarcasm. “What about Mickey? Wouldn’t he like to go with you?”

“Can’t. He’s working.”

“Where?”

“Got hired on at the cop shop part time, just to help out over Christmas.

“He’s a cop?”

“Sheriff, actually, but he retired last year. Anyway, love, you’re my next choice and I’m getting too warm waiting.”

I stared out the window at the falling snow and shivered. “Looks cold out there.”

“Nah! It’s gorgeous. C’mom, grab a jacket and some mitts. I’m going to get my hat and scarf. Meet you outside in five. Steena’s gonna love it!”

Oh joy. We were going to take the dog too. I sighed. With no acceptable excuse, I donned my quilted jacket over Sam’s shirt, pulled on my heeled winter boots and a scarf and my driving gloves. I stepped outside into a chilly wind and hoped I wouldn’t freeze solid. When Debbie arrived, she took one look at me, ran back inside her house and came out with a lime green knitted toque which she unceremoniously pulled over my head.

“My hair!” I yelped. “I just had it done yesterday.”

“Fix it later. You have to dress properly if you’re gonna enjoy it. C’mon Steena.”

I was cold, but Debbie’s chatter kept me from dwelling on it. We talked of everything from the weather in Saskatchewan compared with Texas, to her grandkids and their antics, to Sam’s death. Again. Debbie seemed to home in on it like an hummingbird to sweetened red syrup.

“Are you set up okay?” Debbie asked.

“You mean financially? Yes.”

“Good. That’s a big worry for some people, you know, when their spouse dies. Sorry, passes away.”

“Passes. That’s what they call it now. As if he slipped away from me on a foggy night and I didn’t realize it in time.”

“I sense some anger here.”

The girl was nothing if not relentless. And tactless. “I’m not angry, only shocked and left reeling. Anger is pointless.”

“Anger is part of the grieving—”

“Don’t start with that,” I interrupted. “I’ve heard the sermons, read the books about the phases of anger and how we all go through them, only at different levels and in various orders. I am not angry.” So shut up already, I said in my head.

Seeger ran in front of me and I almost tripped over her. Nuisance of a dog.

By the time we returned to my door, my fingers were numb, my feet and legs ached, but I was thankful for the toque, even if my hair would be a mess.

“Thanks for coming, Jeannie. Next time wear flat boots or you’ll kill your feet. Yeah, Mickey loves law enforcement. So tomorrow we’re going into Regina to see my folks and figure out how to help them. So I won’t see you till Monday…or Tuesday, depending on how it goes. Bye for now, love,” and she gave me a hug and a peck on my frozen cheek while I tried to keep up with her scattered conversation.

As I took off my winter clothes and hung them back in the hall closet, I thought about several whole days without chatter, interruption and unwelcome walks. It would be a lovely, quiet weekend.

 

**Next installment next Thursday, November 1 right here on my blog. Only one month until Christmas!

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This is the second installment of my short story, The Christmas Sweater. Look for it every Thursday right here on my blog. Enjoy!

 

Chapter One—Scene Two

I wished I could stop the time from passing. I didn’t want to have to face the anniversary of Sam’s death. And yet, I didn’t want to forget. I hugged the plaid shirt around me and let melancholia take over.

Mornings were bad enough, with the whole empty day ahead, but I could pretend Sam was at work. Evenings were always the worst. I was alone and he wasn’t coming back. Working in the house helped, reading distracted me for a while, TV rescued me from my circling thoughts and memories, but I kept coming back to my loneliness without Sam.

There’s a difference between loneliness and aloneness. I’d often been alone in my life, all the days Sam was at work and I wasn’t. I’d only ever worked a few days a week at the library because I liked being at home. But I was never lonely. Sam always came home at the end of the day happy to see me. I loved the evenings with him, watching TV or going for a drive or working on another of his household projects together. Sometimes we even entertained a few people, but he knew I didn’t like a lot of company.

I looked around me at the finely crafted cabinets, the dining table, the desk in the den, the arched doorway from dining to living room, all work of his hands. I wanted to smile but all that came were tears.

Why did he leave me so soon? Why just before Christmas? It had always been my favourite time of year: the decorating, small dinner parties, music.

The music was unbearable now. I couldn’t risk listening to the radio because of the songs of the season. Debbie’s words crept back into my mind. Are you coping or content?How about neither of the above?

A sharp barking jolted me from my doldrums. A dog? Here? Whose dog? Oh please, not the McCormick’s. No way was I going to put up with incessant barking at all hours. On my way to the door to make this clear I saw Debbie approaching, followed by a light brown, curly-haired mutt.

I opened the door before she could attack the bell, intent on making my feelings known, but she was already talking.

“Don’t worry, Jeannie, I won’t bring him inside. Just wanted you to meet him.” She picked up the fluffy creature and it grunted and snuffled at me. I backed up but they followed. “This is Steena,” she said. “She used to belong to my mom but she had to give her up when they moved into the condo in Regina. Say hello, Steena.”

No way was I touching the animal. And I don’t believe in talking to anything non-human. I opted for focusing on her owner. “How long have you had it?”

“Just picked her up a few days ago when we got here,” said Debbie, shifting the dog to one side and scratching her ears. “We adore her already. She’s a Doodle, you know.”

“A Doodle?”

“Yeah, a cross between a poodle and a retriever.”’

When there was no further comment from me, Debbie seemed to realize introductions were over. “Plug in the kettle, honey, while I take Steena home. I’ll be right back.”

It irritated me that Debbie never asked if it was convenient for her to invade my home. “I have an appointment this morning,” I said before she was out of earshot.

“What time?”

Nosy parker. “Ten-thirty.”

She grinned. “Lots of time for tea, and you look ready to go.”

I’m glad I don’t rely on her for fashion tips. I was wearing my housecleaning clothes and, of course, Sam’s shirt. She turned to take the dog home and I grumbled into the kitchen to fill the kettle. Was this my life from now on? Every day with Debbie?

“I’m ba-ack!” she called, before the water had even boiled. I quickly pulled out the Earl Grey, the sugar and cream and set them on the table. She probably wouldn’t have washed her hands after scratching the dog, and I wouldn’t have her thumbing through my cabinets with doggie hands.

“So you don’t like dogs?” she asked.

Congratulations, Debbie! You’ve guessed my secret.

“I don’t mind dogs, but not in the house and not yapping all hours of the day and night,” I said.

She looked hurt and I felt a twinge of guilt. It wasn’t personal, just a dislike for dirty animals in my home. Sam had wanted a dog early on in our marriage, but I’d refused. When Emily came along, I allowed her to keep a budgie, but it died before I could kill it myself. Messy creature scattered birdseed all over the floor, and the cage had to be cleaned more often than Emily did it. She also had a small aquarium for a while, but when the fish started swimming upside down we opted for a kitten, which had to live in the garage. Now she had a house full of cats, well, three of them, in downtown Vancouver, and I never went there. She came to visit us—me—occasionally, sans cats.

“Nothing personal, Debbie, I just don’t approve of animals in my house.”

I poured the hot water and we dipped our tea bags. Well, I dipped mine and she poked and prodded and squeezed hers, while she told me about their moving-in progress.

“We have the kitchen table and chairs set up and the barbecue on the deck. How about joining us for supper?”

“But it’s too cold to barbecue.” I shivered just imagining it.

“Nah! Mickey doesn’t mind. We have steaks and I’ll open a bag of potato chips and I saw a few jars of my pickles too.” She laughed. “Stop shivering, Kiddo. We’ll eat inside.”

The tea soothed my senses. “I’ll bring a salad,” I said. I had to make an effort to balance the meal.

Debbie’s eyebrows shot up. “Sure, if you want. I like salad but Mickey will probably skip it, so don’t make much.”

A picture of Mickey was forming in my mind, a huge hulk of a man with neither manners nor tact, snarly and unkempt. Someone resembling Daisy’s Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances. Poor Debbie. She deserved better.

“What time?”

She pursed her lips. “Six-ish. Whenever you smell grilling steaks.”

Their deck was on the opposite side of the house from mine, thank heavens, so I wouldn’t have to witness every barbecue.

About 5:45 p.m. my doorbell rang and a large but fit man of about sixty stood waiting outside.

“May I help you?” I asked.

He grinned widely. “I believe you can!” I was sure his broad Texan accent could be heard around the block. “Name’s Mickey McCormick and I came to escort you to my house to help me and the wife polish off a few fine steaks.”

I’m afraid I stared. “You’re Mickey?”

If possible, his grin widened. “Guilty! You were expecting the Incredible Hulk? What did Debbie tell you about me, anyway?”

I could feel the heat climbing into my face in spite of the cold air sweeping into my house from the open door. Better not to comment than to sputter and back peddle. “I’ll grab my salad and a jacket,” I said, as I shrugged out of Sam’s shirt. “Come in if you’d like.”

He entered and stood on the doormat. “Nice place you have here, Ma’am. Debbie’s been so excited about living next door to you. It’s been hard for her to leave the kids and grandkids, but we needed to come help look after her parents. So you being here is a lifesaver for her.”

I almost dropped the bowl of salad. Had to go back for the dressing. Debbie was having a hard time? I hadn’t entertained the possibility. She seemed so happy. And me, her saving grace? That was a stretch.

Supper turned out much better than I had anticipated. Yes, the house was cluttered and chaotic, but I was so entertained by the two of them, three if you included the dog, and by the perfectly grilled steaks, that time flew. Conversation too. I found Mickey very polite, even when I insisted he not call me Ma’am. Debbie obviously adored him and he her. He let her talk, helped her serve the food (or we wouldn’t have ever got at it) and looked after the details, even as far as shutting the dog away till we finished eating.

My house felt empty and too quiet when I returned from the McCormick’s. Theirs was a collection of mismatched furniture and goods, all needing order and decisiveness. I could have had it ship-shape in a few days, since the house had all been freshly painted by the VanWoordens and new flooring installed, but they had their own way of living and I didn’t intend to interfere.

Next day Debbie had an appointment so I got my house cleaned on time and things fell back into routine, but subconsciously I kept listening for the doorbell or the dog—Snoopy—or whatever its name was.

 

**Please come back for the third installment next Thursday, October 25th!

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October 2018 New Releases

More in-depth descriptions of these books can be found on the ACFW Fiction Finder website.

Contemporary Romance:

A Christmas to Remember by Julie Arduini, Valerie Comer, Janet W. Ferguson, Kimberly Rose Johnson, Deb Kastner, Elizabeth Maddrey, Lindi Peterson, and Ginger Solomon — Eight authors from the popular blog Inspy Romance each share a Christmas-themed novella to put you in the mood for the season. (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)

Their Family Legacy by Lorraine Beatty — Annie’s inheritance will provide a home for her twins and all she had to do is keep a man paying for his mistake forever. (Contemporary Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

The Return by Marianne Evans — A prodigal who never wanted to return home must repair his family farm and rush back to the big city before an old love convinces him to stay. (Contemporary Romance from White Rose Publishing [Pelican])

A Harvest of Blessings by June Foster — When Nadia accidentally sits on a stranger’s lap in the graveyard where her late husband is buried, she’s horrified to learn the good-looking guy with salt and pepper hair is her new boss. Jared is intrigued by this beautiful woman who puts God first in her life, but his daughter isn’t ready for him to move on after his wife’s death. As Nadia and Jared try to cultivate a relationship, will they reap a Harvest of Blessings, or a season of drought? (Contemporary Romance from Forget Me Not Romance [Winged Publication])

A Sparkle of Silver by Liz Johnson — Ninety years ago, Millie Sullivan’s great-grandmother was a guest at banker Howard Dawkins’ palatial estate on the shore of St. Simons Island, Georgia. Now, Millie plays a 1920s-era guest during tours of the same manor. But when her grandmother suggests that there is a lost diary containing the location of a hidden treasure on the estate, along with the true identity of Millie’s great-grandfather, Millie sets out to find the truth of her heritage–and the fortune that might be hers. When security guard Ben Thornton discovers her snooping in the estate’s private library, he threatens to have her fired. But her story seems almost too ludicrous to be fiction, and her offer to split the treasure is too tempting to pass up . . . (Contemporary Romance from Revell – A Division of Baker Publishing Group)

Reason to Breathe by Deborah Raney — At twenty-nine, Phylicia Chandler put her life on hold to care for her dying mother with her sisters, Joanna and Britt. Now Mom is gone and their father has run off with a woman young enough to be their sister. Phylicia feels stuck–until her father’s protégé, Quinn Mitchell, presents her and her two sisters with an intriguing business opportunity to purchase a trio of cottages just outside of Langhorne, Missouri. But Phylicia is skeptical. Quinn soon finds himself falling hard for Phylicia. But how can he pursue this beautiful, talented woman twelve years his junior when she’s still reeling over her father’s hasty engagement to a younger woman? Quinn is determined to give Phylicia her happily-ever-after. But first, he must help her come to terms with her discovery of long-held family secrets and persuade her that true love can transcend their differences. (Contemporary Romance from Gilead Publishing)

General/Women’s Fiction

An Amish Homecoming by Amy Clipston, Kathleen Fuller , Shelley Shepard Gray, and Beth Wiseman — A collection of four new Amish stories of coming home. (General from HarperCollins Christian Publishing)

Miles from Where We Started by Cynthia Ruchti — These no-longer-newlyweds want out of this road trip–and their marriage. Too bad they can’t find the off-ramp. (General Contemporary from Gilead Publishing)

Historical:

When the Heart Sings by Liz Tolsma — In 1943 Poland, the Nazis have forced Natia and Teodor from their peaceful farm to the harsh confines of a labor camp. When the couple is separated, Natia risks everything to send him messages through song as she passes Teodor’s dormitory. The stakes get higher when Natia finds a Jewish orphan on the doorstep where she works. She is determined to protect the boy and raise him as the child she and her husband were unable to bear—but if her German captors discover how much she’s hiding, both she and Teodor may pay the ultimate price. (Historical from Gilead Publishing)

Historical Romance:

This Courageous Journey by Misty M. Beller — When Noelle Grant sets off to visit her brother in the Canadian Rockies, the prospect of making a name for herself as a news correspondent finally seems within reach. But when the dangers become more than she bargained for, she finds herself—and the mountain man she’s come to love—in a situation more hazardous than any story her imagination could conjure. (Historical Romance, Independently Published [ACFW QIP])

The Reluctant Warrior by Mary Connealy — Union army officer Cameron Scott is used to being obeyed, but nothing about this journey to Lake Tahoe has gone as expected. He’s come to Lake Tahoe to fetch his daughter and nephew, and seek revenge on the people who killed his brother. Instead he finds himself trapped by a blizzard with two children who are terrified of him and stubborn but beautiful Gwen Harkness, who he worries may be trying to keep the children. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker] Publishing)

Enchanting Nicholette by Dawn Crandall — As she acclimates to life in Back Bay again, Nicholette Everstone meets someone she can’t help but fall for. But when she learns of the danger and sacrifices Cal Hawthorne takes on for the safety of others, will her heart be strong enough to keep her fears of “what if” at bay? (Historical Romance from Whitaker House)

The Christmas Heirloom by Kristi Ann Hunter, Sarah Loudin Thomas, Becky Wade, and Karen Witemeyer — A family heirloom brings true love to its bearers through the generations as it is handed down from mother to daughter. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker] Publishing)

A Heart for Freedom by Janet Grunst — Life was better than she dreamed, now the conflict between the British and the colonists threatened the loss of everything dear, even her husband. (Historical Romance from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas)

Romancing the Bride by Melissa Jagears — Marrying a stranger to save a ranch is one thing; losing the land on their wedding day is another. Desperate to keep the ranch where three of her children and a husband lie buried, Annie Gephart must marry or sell. Which of the few bachelors in town would consider a surprise proposal to wed a plain widow with a rebellious daughter, a spirited boy, and unpaid taxes—without laughing in her face? (Historical Romance, Independently Published [ACFW QIP])

The Cumberland Bride by Shannon McNear — Thomas Bledsoe and Kate Gruener are traveling the Wilderness Road when conflicts between natives and settlers reach a peak that will require each of them to tap into a well of courage. (Historical Romance from Barbour Publishing)

Mist O’er the Voyageur by Naomi Musch — Desperate to flee a cruel suitor, Metis woman Brigitte Marchal flees into the wilderness to find her long-lost, fur-trader father, but who will save her from the dangers of being a woman among a voyageurs’ brigade? (Historical Romance from Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas)

Romantic Suspense:

Five Years In Yemen by Luana Ehrlich — When the President issues a memorandum to bring home a military scientist who went missing in Iraq, CIA operative Titus Ray has been given the assignment. However, when the mission takes an unexpected turn after his contact is murdered in Riyadh, Titus is forced to make changes in the mission’s protocols, changes that endanger his operational team and have lasting consequences for his future. (Romantic Suspense, Independently Published [ACFW QIP])

Hidden Peril by Irene Hannon — A woman who owns a fair trade shop and a police detective find themselves plunged into international intrigue—and danger—when people connected with her shop begin dying. (Romantic Suspense from Revell – A Division of Baker Publishing Group)

Burden of Proof by DiAnn Mills — A hostage negotiator is thrust into danger and betrayal when a frazzled young woman shoves a crying baby into her arms, then disappears. (Romantic Suspense from Tyndale House)

Supernatural Thriller:

Surrounded by Darkness by Rachel Dylan — When attorney Olivia Murray opens a legal clinic for victims of domestic violence in Windy Ridge, she knows she will face legal and spiritual opposition. The New Age presence has grown stronger as alliances form between groups hoping to spread their destructive way of life and gain a stronghold in the community. While the forces of evil target Olivia’s new clinic, her legal partner Grant Baxter, and her relationships, she refuses to let them stop her quest for justice. Will Olivia’s and Grant’s faith be strong enough—in God and each other—to prevail in the battle that threatens to bring darkness to the entire town? (Supernatural Thriller, Independently Published [ACFW QIP])

Speculative:

A Dance of Shadows by Erica Marie Hogan — Ten days have passed since Sundragon blood was shed for a sacrifice by Raphaela Kael. Ten days since Lathan and Maxx Jandry fled the city in search of Princess Damari Kael and their niece, Noelle. Brecken Jandry, Brae’s loyal husband, remains a tortured prisoner in the Kael dungeons and no one in Sunkai is safe from Roderick and Raphaela’s wrath. Damari Kael flees Sunkai with little Noelle Jandry, determined to deliver the child to the safety of the Shadow Lands, even as her own power emerges within her. The Eventide Sisters embark on a mission to join the Winter Queen. Across the land, Clea Jandry arrives in her birthplace of Molderëin where she is met with a savagery she thought long dead. Afra Malaki seeks the Creator’s will and the Queen of the Woodlands prepares for battle. In the peaceful city of Quintaria, the Winter Queen grieves. But the shadows are coming for her. They carry a message for Adlae Sundragon, and they will not rest until all is revealed. (Fantasy from Elk Lake Publishing, Inc.)

Body By Blood by Dr. Patrick Johnston — In the not-too-distant future, where cloned bodies are marketable commodities among the super-rich, leaving graveyards of trampled dehumanized classes in science’s wake, the richest man in the world who pioneered the breakthrough technologies learns the meaning of true love from a disabled granddaughter. (Speculative Action Adventure from Ambassador International)

Mercury Rising by Tim and Gail Sattler — Four ordinary people are thrown into an extraordinary situation when they are thrown into a diabolical plot hidden under the guise of global warming. (Contemporary Fantasy from Mantle Rock Publishing)

The Awakened by Richard Spillman — If Lazarus didn’t die a second time what would he be up to today? (Speculative from Mountain Brook Ink)

 

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As stated last Thursday on my blog, I will be releasing my Christmas-themed short story scene by scene through the rest of October and November. Stay tuned each Thursday for the next installment, and enjoy!

 

Chapter One—Scene One

I wrapped Sam’s ratty red-plaid shirt around me more securely as I sat on the couch and watched the snow pelt down from a leaden sky, indiscriminately covering both the immaculate lawn in front of my house and the mess my new neighbors had created while moving in. The mess didn’t surprise me. Debbie had always been surrounded by mess and half-completed projects back when I knew her as a kid growing up. Apparently, she hadn’t changed.

I still couldn’t believe that spunky little Debbie Doram, now McCorkmick, had moved back to Moffat’s Landing. The biggest shock came when she and Mickey bought the house next door to mine.

I’d always liked my former neighbours, the VanWoordens. They were friendly but discreet. We had coffee back and forth several times a year, but they never intruded into our lives, although Jerry and my Sam did collaborate on a few yard projects. I hated to see them leave, but Mrs. V was beginning to show signs of Alzheimers and her husband needed a low maintenance home where he’d be able to care for her.

I couldn’t have been more surprised when Debbie and Mickey bought the house. They were anything but discreet, as far as I had observed. As if to prove the fact, my doorbell rang—not once but three times—and, if my door hadn’t been locked, Debbie would have burst right in. As it was, she called to me through the door while I set aside my photo albums and carried my tea to the kitchen table. She was bouncing up and down by the time I unlocked the door.

“Jeannie!” she squealed as she wrapped me in a hug. “I can’t believe we’re next door neighbors.”

I extricated myself from her smothering hug and stepped back. “I go by Jeanne now,” I said, as she brushed past me.

“You got the coffee on, Jeannie?” she asked.

“It’s Jeanne,” I insisted, but I don’t think she heard me.

“So? Coffee?” Her brown eyes danced in her round face, surrounded by the bobbing auburn curls I remembered from high school, now streaked faintly with gray.

I took a steadying breath. “I don’t drink coffee.”

She shrugged. “Tea? Water?” She grinned widely, showing her beautiful teeth. “I bet you drink water.”

Her effervescent grin gave me a dull pain at the base of my neck. I glanced at the hall clock. Ten a.m. Time to dust and vacuum through the house. I doubted Debbie would understand. If I made her a cup of tea, maybe she’d go home and leave me to my work.

“What about this weather, eh?” she commented. “I haven’t seen a lot of snow these past thirty years. Texas doesn’t get much. I can hardly wait to go sledding and skating and make snowmen when the grandkids come. You have grandkids, Jeannie?”

I opened my mouth to answer but she was talking again. “We have eight now, mostly in Texas, a few in California. Have you been to California? Great place to visit but way too ‘out there’ for me.”

I couldn’t imagine. I led the way to the kitchen and plugged in the kettle.

“Whoa! Nice place you got here. Bet I could eat off the floor! My place is still in shambles, but I’m hoping to at least have the kitchen straightened up by Christmas.”

“Christmas!” I couldn’t help but comment. “That’s a whole month away.”

“Yeah.” She grinned and winked. “But I can do it.”

I was about to ask Debbie what kind of tea she wanted, but she beat me to it.

“Just don’t give me any of that herbal junk.” She pronounced the “h” in herbal. “Makes me gag. If I’ve gotta have tea, then give me the strongest you got.”

She reached past me into the tea cabinet and rummaged through it, knocking several boxes out of place.

“Hmm. Guess I’ll risk Earl Grey. Where’s the sugar?”

She pulled open the next cabinet, stepped back and shot me a look of disgust. “Has someone been filming a kitchen organization show from your home? Geez, Louise! You scare me.”

Frowning, I pulled out the seldom-used sugar bowl and handed it to her, then took the cream carton from the fridge and reached for the cream pitcher.

“Whoa, girl!” Debbie said. “Don’t fuss over me. If you make a big production of it every time I drop in for coffee—I mean tea—you’ll wear yourself out.”

My headache had crept forward to my temples.

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Debbie as she settled her rounded frame into Sam’s kitchen chair. I sat across from her, picking up my morning tea to finish it. She propped her elbows on the table, hands wrapped around her cup, and smiled at me with sadness in her eyes. Here goes, I thought.

“So how have you been doing these thirty years since I left you for life’s adventures?”

This time she waited for me to answer but I needed time to come up with something acceptable. I took a sip of my lukewarm peppermint tea, hoping it would calm the sudden sharp pain in my chest, and rubbed the rim of my cup with my thumb as I fumbled for words.

“Well, it’s…I’ve been…” I looked into her eyes, now soft with compassion. “It was a good life till Sam left me.”

“Left you?” Two deep ridges formed between Debbie’s eyebrows. “I thought he died.”

I didn’t look away. “Yes. He died and left me alone.”

She stared a moment longer, then smoothed out her features and reached across the table to lay a hand on my arm. There were tears in her eyes.

“I know, Honey. I always got Moffat’s Musings, even when we were in Texas. I read Sam’s obituary and my heart broke for you.”

Her words, meant to comfort, only pinched the nerve of grief that pulsed constantly within my chest. But Debbie, who had rarely been comfortable with silence when I knew her, carried on.

“What happened anyway? The paper said it was sudden.”

The pain in my chest spread to my gut and I set down my cup to hug myself. It was so difficult to put into words.

“He, ah, he was working in the driveway clearing snow. We had an early winter last year and he didn’t want it to pile up on the driveway and get icy, so he tried to keep it cleared.”

I could still see Sam attacking the heavy snow with his new yellow snow shovel from Canadian Tire, his green knit toque pulled down over his ears, breath coming out in white puffs.  A former farmer, he dubbed the backyard and driveway his “back forty,” and claimed it as his own turf.

“Sam always whistled while he worked. It didn’t register with me right away, but suddenly I realized he had stopped whistling. I looked out and there he was, lying in a heap in the driveway.”

On edge with the telling, I stood and moved to the kitchen window where I’d been that terrible day almost a year ago. “I heard a shout and saw our neighbour, Mr. VanWoorden, running toward him.”

I grasped the countertop with both hands to still their shaking. “I ran out the door and Mr. V yelled at me to call 911, so I did. The ambulance only had to come from the hospital two blocks away, and it probably only took five minutes, but it seemed like hours.” I leaned against the counter, remembering.

“I held Sam, begged him to stay with me, begged God not to let him die, but somehow I knew he wouldn’t make it. The EMTs tried their best, but they couldn’t bring him back. Massive heart attack.”

I turned to look at Debbie and was surprised to see tears running down her face. I picked up the Kleenex box and took it to the table for her. My own eyes were dry. Maybe I’d cried out all my tears through the months of being without Sam. She grabbed a couple of tissues, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Then she jumped up.

“Oh Jeannie, I’m so sorry. You’ve lost the love of your life and I’m sitting here bawling my eyes out. I’ll get us some fresh tea.”

She plugged in the kettle again and fished around in my cabinet for whatever kind she thought I liked. “Here you go,” she said. “Chamomile. That’s relaxing, isn’t it? Oh girl, you’ve gotta learn to make coffee. This Earl Grey just isn’t cutting it.”

She refilled my cup with hot water, then added some to her own, along with two spoons of sugar and a generous splash of cream straight from the carton. Then she sat down across from me at the table again.

“So how have you been managing everything this past year? Did you have family here to help?”

“Emily—that’s our daughter—came out to stay with me for a couple of weeks, but she has a life out in Vancouver, and a job she apparently likes, so that was that. I had to pull up my socks and deal with reality.”

“What does that mean?”

Her question stumped me. Most people are content with stock answers because they really don’t want to delve into personal pain. But Debbie had never been most people. I rubbed my forehead to ease the ache. My fingers were cold. I was always cold.

“It means I’ve done what I had to do, asked for help when I needed it, hired a few people when I couldn’t do something myself. I’ve adjusted.”

Debbie frowned. “You’ve adjusted. Does that mean you’re coping or you’re content?”

I remembered Debbie being nosy and it irked me now.

“Yes.”

Her eyes narrowed and then she snorted. “You and your dry humour. At least you didn’t lose that.”

I couldn’t work up a smile for the life of me. Even when she was young she could move from caring to crass in very short order. I’d have to learn how to handle her if we were going to live in such close proximity. Set a few guidelines. Be upfront with her.

Suddenly she stood, carried her cup to the sink and set it down. “Well, Honey, I gotta go. Poor Mickey is up to his eyeballs moving furniture so I’d better tell him where to put it. He hates moving stuff too many times, poor guy, but I’m not sure myself where I want it all.”

She opened the door to leave, then turned back. “Too bad it snowed again. Makes everything wet and messy. Well girl, keep your chins up and I’ll see you later. Drop by for coffee if you can handle the mess. I’d love for you to meet Mickey. By the way, I love your shirt.”

I sensed sarcasm in her comment because the shirt, with its tattered tails, didn’t suit my image, not even at home, even though it was clean. Debbie came back over and hugged me, then walked out the door hollering “bye” as she went.

I sank into my chair, rested my head on my arms on the table and sighed deeply.

 

** Come back for the second scene next Thursday, October 18th.

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