Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Today's Guest brings us a piece of home town Christmas...
Please welcome, TWRP author Nicole McCaffrey.
I am convinced the world is made up of two types of people; those who are ready and willing to celebrate Christmas, anytime, anyplace. And those who aren’t. I fall into the former category, probably not so much by chance as by inheritance.
I grew up in an older section of the city, in a 3000 SF Queen Anne Victorian style house. Painted a deep gingerbread brown, the white trim, sloping eaves and large porch lent itself to being the perfect house to decorate for Christmas. All it needed was a bit of colored lights for trim and a dusting of snow and it looked good enough to eat. Inside, my mother took the idea of decorating to an extreme. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, every door and window sill, every nook and cranny—and literally, every and any flat surface, held a bit of Christmas whimsy. Twinkle lights filled every room, even the upstairs (although as I recall my dad did draw the line the year she strung them up in the bathroom. It was a very small bathroom and some of the lights hung over the shower and tub area. Probably not a great idea.) The final step of making our house The Christmas House fell into place the year my dad ran a line from outside the attic window to the tree at the far end of the front yard and strung a lighted Santa Claus and reindeer along it. One can only wonder how many fenders benders were caused by cars slowing down at the sight of Santa and his team taking off from the rooftop of our home.
So little wonder that I ended up loving anything and everything to do with Christmas. Now before you jump on me about the religious aspects of the holiday, rest assured, these were observed as well, and are in my home today. But there’s something about the brightly decorated trees, the twinkling lights against the back drop of a wintry night sky that soothes my soul like a cup of warm cocoa on a cold day. And while I wish I could decorate my house for Christmas the way my mom did ours, my tiny home has to settle for a few less buttons and bows, so to speak (Although I did manage to put up four Christmas trees last year.)
As the summer of 2006 drew to a close, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads in my life. My father had begun to show signs of senile dementia. My youngest was just beginning preschool, (and instead of celebrating my new-found freedom, I was miserable) and my beloved cat had died quite suddenly. On top of all that, I was staring the big 4-0 in the eye. Is it any wonder then, that to lift me out of the doldrums and depression, I turned to Christmas?
The characters of Holland McCall and Tucker Callahan had been vying for space in my brain for quite some time. I wasn’t sure there was a real story there, or at least enough of one to support a full length book. But when I heard that The Wild Rose Press was looking for holiday stories—and that they actually published short stories, an idea took root. I had originally envisioned a Thanksgiving story—a woman returning home to the small town she wants to forget about for the Thanksgiving holidays. And running into, not just the one who got away—but the one she never really had. But I’d never written a short story. In fact, I had trouble keeping my full length works to 100k or less.
But I gave it a shot. I found a satellite radio station that played Christmas music all day, every day, tuned in (feeling a bit guilty and a bit silly to have Christmas music blasting in the dead of August) and, with a deep breath, sat down at the keyboard. I didn’t come up for air until about a month later. But during that time, I excised the aching loneliness of a house suddenly too quiet two days a week, the loss of a beloved friend. The loss, a little at a time, of my father, and the loss of my youth. (Silly I know, but if you’ve ever turned forty, you know where I’m coming from!) I poured those emotions into that story and told myself that even if it was never published at all, it had done me good to write it.
Small Town Christmas was not only accepted for publication, it was released the week before my 40th birthday. On my 40th birthday, it hit #1 on TWRP’s overall sales chart. Who could complain about turning forty when it was starting out with such a bang?
Though other stories have since been written and published, and other characters have stayed with me far longer than Tucker and Holley did, I will forever be thankful to them for sharing that Christmas in August with me.
It’s mid November now and a little at a time, I’m decking the halls of my home. I even managed to squeeze in a new tree this year-- in the one room that lacked one last year. The kitchen. Sure it’s small, but it’s a start!
Below is an excerpt from Small Town Christmas. Wherever you are, and however you feel about Christmas, I hope it warms your heart. Just a little. Please be sure to leave a comment and share some early Christmas joy with me—I’ll be sending a PDF copy of Small Town Christmas to one of you!
All Holland McCall ever wanted – for Christmas or any other occasion – was Tucker Callahan. Unfortunately, he was the high school jock and she an overweight, unattractive nobody. But things have changed. Holly has left the small town they grew up in and made a career for herself, with plans to move on to even greater things. Tucker, on the other hand, has just returned to town, divorced and the single father of two young girls. A visit home for the holidays and a chance encounter leaves both of them questioning everything they thought they ever wanted.
Fat, wet snowflakes splattered the windshield as Holland McCall waited for the red light to change. Three turns of the darned thing and she still hadn’t made it into the grocery store parking lot. She hated to drive in the snow. And only a fool would be caught dead anywhere near this place on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Guess that makes me a fool.
The radio DJ announced a news break, and with a frustrated sigh, she jabbed the seek button on the car stereo. Officially on vacation from her job as the early morning newscaster in Syracuse, the last thing she wanted to listen to right now was world events. The scanner landed on “sounds of the season.” She glared hard at the radio as “Let it Snow” poured merrily from the speakers.
“Bah friggin’ humbug,” she muttered, switching the thing off altogether.
It was twenty minutes before she found a spot at the far outer edge of the lot. As she stepped from the car, heavy snow began to pelt her head. She had showered at the gym before leaving Syracuse, and while her hair had air dried on the five hour drive to Castleford, the last thing she needed was to catch cold. With a foul-natured grumble, she reached into the back seat and found the hat her grandmother had knitted for her last year. It was brown and lopsided, but better than a bare head. She tugged it on and made her way inside.
Here, too, the holiday season had arrived with bells and whistles. While Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas,” she passed two women battling to the death over the last remaining shopping cart and felt a smug sense of gratification that she wasn’t the only one in a rotten mood. But she wouldn’t be staying long. A quick stop in the frozen food aisle, a few minutes in the express checkout, and she’d be on her way.
Thanksgiving was never her favorite holiday; she had dreaded it since she was a kid. Being forced to sit at a table surrounded by relatives she could barely pretend to tolerate, and listen while everyone bragged about their accomplishments—it was less a time for giving thanks and more an opportunity for boasting. She still didn’t like it. Even though she had plenty to crow about. On the outside, at least.
As she rounded the corner to the freezer aisle, she saw, even from a distance, that the cases were empty. “Oh, no.” She quickened her pace, as if getting there half a step sooner would change anything. It didn’t. All that remained was one smashed up box way in the back. In desperation she went up on tip toe and reached for it; maybe it was salvageable.
She grasped the box at last and gave a little yelp of triumph—which quickly turned to a moan. Blueberry? No one brought blueberry pie to Thanksgiving dinner. She heaved a sigh. She’d promised Mother she would bring the pie. Days—weeks, actually, of procrastinating and a busy work schedule had kept her from making good on the promise.
But there was only one kind of pie you brought to Thanksgiving dinner. Unless you wanted to look like a total idiot in front of people you really didn’t want to see. Cousin Tiffany was making apple pie—undoubtedly with apples grown on a tree she’d planted herself. From a seed. But Holly was in charge of the pumpkin pie, and since her domestic skills were lacking she’d hoped to play it safe with Mrs. Smith’s. No such luck.
Following the signs hanging from the ceiling, she headed for the baking supplies aisle. She would simply whip up a pie from canned pumpkin. How hard could it be? She might not be able to compare to the super moms of this world, like Cousin Tiffany, but she had spent many a winter afternoon in the kitchen with Gran baking cookies and cakes and all sorts of comfort food.
And she’d had the figure to show for it, she thought ruefully as she jostled her way through the crowd. But that had all changed. She had changed. Moved away from the small town to a big city. Lost weight in college instead of gained. Had blossomed in the anonymity a large city offered.
For some reason, coming back to the town she had grown up in always made her feel like a kid again. A fat, unattractive kid in coke bottle glasses with mouse-poop-brown hair. She forced her chin a bit higher and squared her shoulders. She wasn’t that girl anymore. She was a success story all on her own.
As she was about to turn down the main aisle, the sound of laughter reached her ears. Not just any laughter; the happy, belly giggles of a delighted child. Or two. She turned to see two cherub-faced cuties, dark hair pulled back in pony tails, giggling with delight as their father zoomed a shopping cart up and down the aisle. And then her gaze came to rest on their daddy.
“Oh, dear God, not now.” Ducking down the nearest aisle, she hid there, heart racing as though she had just run a mile. The face was older, less boyish, but the smile was the same. And what her eyes might not have recognized at first, her heart certainly had.
As she stood there, too panicked to move, the three raced past her aisle. She gave a silent sigh of relief. Gran had told her Tucker Callahan moved back to town a few months ago. Divorced, she had made it a point of mentioning. Said he wanted his two little girls raised with small town values.
That’s where you and I differ, Tucker. I want nothing to do with this place.
She shook off the momentary shock and glanced around to see if she was anywhere near her destination. Tugging the hat farther down her head in a pathetic attempt to remain invisible, she whipped out of her hiding place—the baby food aisle, of all places—and followed the signs to aisle Eleven-A.
If the frozen pie section had looked like a Middle Eastern war zone, then the baking aisle was Ground Zero. For a brief moment, she wished she’d played football in high school. At the very least, attended a game. Because it was fourth down with no time outs left. Gearing up like a receiver intended for a Hail Mary pass, she focused her sites on the goal line—the lone, dented container of canned pumpkin. And went for it. Her fingertips were just about to brush the can when a gloved hand snatched it away.
Without so much as a backward glance, the other shopper plopped the can into her cart and shoved off. Frustrated but not finished, Holly stood there for a moment, mentally calculating the distance to the grocery store the next town over. But Castleford wasn’t like Syracuse; there was only one grocery store in this town. Heck, it had been big news when they’d changed the flashing red light at the corner of Main Street to a full fledged three-cycle traffic light. She sighed. Next year, she’d buy the pie the first part of November. No, better still, the day after Halloween.
Halloween! Pumpkins. With a cry of triumph, she put her feet in motion. Sure, it might take half the night, but she could make a pie from scratch. She’d Google up a recipe once she got to Mom and Gran’s house, tie on an apron and go for it.
Fighting her way back to the produce department was like swimming upstream. It took twice as long as it should have to wade through shoppers fighting over bundles of celery and a near-empty bin of chestnuts. But luck was on her side. As she rounded the last aisle, she spied two orange blobs in a bin marked “pie pumpkins.” The familiar sounds of a fast-moving cart and little-girl giggles bore down. She quickly turned her back as he raced past. Not that Tucker Callahan would recognize her. Or even remember her.
While he paused to look at the pumpkins, she felt a familiar pang of longing for the well-remembered sandy-brown hair, wide shoulders and long legs. One little girl stood in the back of the cart, a half naked Barbie doll dangling from her hand. “Pick that one, Daddy!”
He turned over a broad, denim-clad shoulder. “This one?”
She nodded, face animated with excitement.
The other girl, who appeared to be her twin, plucked a thumb from her mouth. “Are we gonna make a zack-o-lantern?”
A deep laugh preceded a gentle explanation about baking a pie. Her gaze wandered to the contents of the cart, a small turkey, a box of stuffing mix, eggs, milk, and several spice jars. The girl with the thumb in her mouth caught her watching and waved.
Holly offered a quick smile and turned away once again. Tucker plopped a pumpkin in the cart and moved on without noticing her. Some things never change.
The minute he left, she seized the remaining pumpkin from the bin. Like a linebacker with a Thanksgiving game football, she clutched the pumpkin under one arm and dove back into the crowd. What were those ingredients again?
Eggs. Milk. Spices.
This was getting easier. All she had to do was follow the crowd. And sure enough, back in the baking aisle, they were all clustered around one area. The spices. She stood back, watching as shopper after shopper grabbed things like allspice, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon. Until her gaze happened across an ingenious little item on display in the center of the aisle. Pumpkin pie spice.
She snatched one of the tiny containers and half ran toward the dairy cases. Eggs. Milk. The handle of the cold half-gallon container dug into her fingers as she awkwardly juggled it along with the pumpkin, spice and her purse while trying to check the eggs as she had seen her mother do so many times. It was a ritual really, where she lifted the lid and wiggled each egg once or twice to be sure it wasn’t stuck.
She shifted, hefted the milk a bit. The egg carton toppled from her hand. She let out a cry and tried to catch it, but it flopped upside down onto the floor. Other shoppers passing by flashed her the “you’re such an amateur” look. Feeling like an idiot, she sheepishly reached for another carton of eggs while keeping an eye out for a store employee she could alert to the mess she’d made.
This time she set both the milk and the pumpkin on the floor and knelt beside them as she checked the eggs.
She had just lifted the lid when she heard it again. The giggles and shrieks of “Faster, Daddy!”
“Coming up on dairy,” he called out, sounding like a tour guide, the cart barreling toward her. “To our left we have a lovely display of elbow macaroni at three boxes for a dollar. And to our right, the dairy case, where a dozen large grade A eggs are on special this week for—”
“Daddy, watch out!”
With a wild grope for the pumpkin, Holly tried to scramble to her feet. But she slipped on the broken eggs and went sprawling. The pumpkin rolled from her arms. She lunged for it once more, one eye on the cart coming at her like a runaway train. The carton of eggs tumbled from her lap. She darted out of the path just as Tucker spotted her. He tried to stop but skidded through the broken eggs with a “whoa” of surprise. She covered her eyes as the cart continued down the aisle
When she dared peer between her fingers, Tucker was sprawled on the floor, covered in raw egg up to his thigh. The cart had come to rest at the far end of the dairy cases. Two little girls laughed hysterically and chanted “Again, again!”
“Miss, are you all right?” Tucker scooted to his knees. “Did I hurt you?”
She put a hand to the floor to push to her feet; it came away wet, soaked from a puddle of milk. Raw egg and bits of shell covered her coat and jean-clad legs. It dawned on her the cold sensation beneath her wasn’t the floor. It was spilled milk.
He rolled to sit up, made a grimace and pulled out something from beneath him. Her pumpkin. “I believe this is yours.”
Holly let out a little wail of dismay at the sight of the ruined vegetable.
“Can I at least help you up?” He rose to his feet and held out a hand.
She lifted a wet hand, grimaced, and spied the stringy orange goo and seeds clinging to his leg. So much for wanting to slip in and out of the store, for not wanting to see or be seen while in town. The absurdity of it all sent her into a fit of giggles.
“I suppose if you can laugh, that’s a good thing.” His face, alight with humor, suddenly sobered, and he crouched down in front of her. He plucked the hat from her head. “Holly McCall?”
Self-consciously, she raised a hand to her hair. A sticky egg-and-milk-coated hand, she realized belatedly. But her gaze was riveted on the fingers that still held her hat. Long, lean and calloused. A working man’s hands. Her heart flipped over backward. She looked up at his face and took in the lines at the corners of his blue-green eyes, the denim jacket, the collar of a flannel shirt tucked over it. Not flannel in the icky beer-belly-and-pretzels way, but in the warm, inviting way. Oh, plenty about Tucker Callahan had changed. And yet he was exactly as she remembered him.
He smiled. “I haven’t seen you—”
“Since graduation,” she said, brushing bits of egg shell from her coat.
“Has it been that long?”
“Yes.” She hated the bitter edge in her voice, hated the memories that rushed over her. Soft, warm lips against hers. The heart-fluttering thrill of a requited crush.
The stinging pain of rejection.
She shook off a sudden stab of agony. No longer Fat Holly; she was Holland McCall, News Channel Eleven reporter on the fast track to bigger and better things. He was just some small town guy.
He rose and walked over to his grocery cart, and returned with a roll of paper towel. He tore it open and knelt down. “Let me help you clean up.”
He began to dab at her coat, and she stiffened, resisting the urge to run off somewhere and cry. “I can do it.” She took the toweling from him. A million times she had played out this moment in her mind, the surprise in his eyes when he saw her, the way she would ignore him as if he were nothing.
She had never imagined their next meeting would come with her sprawled on the floor of a grocery store, covered in broken eggs, milk and overripe pumpkin.