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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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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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Just out:  a pack of devotionals and a Christmas story!

A couple of months ago I crafted a Christmas short story. The parameters were: contemporary (as opposed to my usual historical bent), minimum of 10,000 words. The outcome is called The Christmas Sweater, available now on amazon and soon on kobo and B&N.

The Christmas Sweater (a short story)

The Christmas Sweater
(a short story)

I loved writing this little story, once I got into it. Actually, once Debbie entered stage left! Two friends reunite after thirty years amid sad circumstances. How will they face Christmas this year when everything has changed?

The second publication I’ve been working on is a collaboration between six Canadian authors, a devotional volume titled Uplifting Devotionals III (the first two are from other authors). My contributions are ten reflections on portions of Scripture. I chose not to follow a defined devotional format, rather offering my perspectives on the passages. 51U3uoxkStL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-27,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_

I hope you enjoy these volumes. Merry Christmas to you all.

Janice L. Dick

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