The Christmas Secret
By Donna VanLiere
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Donna VanLiere
All rights reserved.
November—One Year Earlier
It was winter again. We were in light jackets until the week before Thanksgiving but then a gust of frigid air blew in and each day felt like deep night. Everything was cold and hard and seemed far away. While growing up, when winter grew long and weary, my mother would say, "The trees are barren and ugly now but they're rooted in the promise of spring." I understood what she was trying to say but over the years winter carried itself into summer in my life.
I walked to the door for the fourth time and looked out the window. The driveway was empty. My chest tightened and I felt pressure in my head. Why can't a teenager ever be on time? I wondered, crossing to my cup of coffee on the kitchen counter. I took a sip and spit it out. It had gotten cold as I waited for Allie, one of my babysitters.
"Mom, can you play with me?" my five-year-old asked, sitting on the living-room floor with two of her stuffed dogs. "Can you be Brown Dog and I'll be Genevieve?"
I crossed to the front door. "I can't right now, Haley. As soon as Allie gets here I have to bolt for work." I looked at my watch: ten fifty. I was getting angry and my face was growing pale from waiting.
"I flew again last night," Haley said, making Brown Dog soar above her head.
"In your dreams?"
"No, Mom. I got up and flew all around the house."
I kept my eye on the road. "You did that in your dreams. You fly a lot in your dreams." I noticed our neighbor's newspaper in our driveway and decided to throw it on her front porch. Mrs. Meredith looked like she was in her early seventies, and although we'd never spoken a lot, I sensed she didn't care much for my children or me. Last summer when Zach was six, he and Haley had been playing in the yard that stretches behind this row of duplexes when Zach kicked a ball that landed on Mrs. Meredith's deck, breaking her bright red hibiscus. He apologized but I don't think it helped. She wasn't used to children and I think the noise and busyness associated with them got on her nerves. To keep the peace, whenever the paperboy got a wild arm and the paper landed in my driveway, I made sure it got to her front door as soon as possible.
I scooped up the paper and walked to the front of Mrs. Meredith's house. I groaned when I heard the lock turn and looked up to see her. She was wearing a pink robe that she cinched tighter on opening the door. "Landed in my driveway," I said, holding the paper out to her. The few times we had talked Mrs. Meredith always kept the door opened about four inches as if keeping me from invading her home. I handed the paper to her through the small opening and pushed the corners of my mouth up into a faint smile.
"Thank you," she said, closing the door before I could rob her.
"You have a great day, too," I said, mumbling to myself.
Allie pulled into the driveway and I ran into the house to grab my purse. "I'm going to work, Zach," I said, craning my neck around the corner of the hall toward his bedroom. I closed the door and saw Allie sitting in her car. "Take your time," I muttered, walking to her door. "Allie, I really need you to be here at ten thirty. I can't be late to work anymore."
Her blond hair was pulled up in a scrunchy, dark liner rimmed her eyes, and big hoop earrings dangled close to her jawline. "Sorry," she said, closing her door.
I didn't have time to deal with it all again. I got in my car and sped out of the driveway, looking at my watch: ten fifty-two. "Inconsiderate kid," I said. The pressure in my head had turned into a headache and I reached back, squeezing my neck. It always felt like I was running from one place to the next, always scrambling with doubt and failure piling up inside me like snow. I sped up to make the light at Main Street but didn't make it. My heart was pounding. I couldn't be late. I prayed that the manager wouldn't notice that I wasn't there but knew it was no use. Rod had been riding me for months about being late. The disc jockey announced the time and I turned off the radio, feeling my pulse race. My nearly bald tires squealed as I turned into the parking lot the restaurant shared with the bank, and then I slammed my door, running for the back entrance. Renee was in the back prepping cups of salad dressing for the lunch rush and I glanced at the time clock: eleven thirteen. "Is Rod here?" I asked.
"He's here," Renee said, raising her eyebrows.
"Stupid sitters," I said, lining small cups of dressing onto a tray. "Did he know I wasn't here?"
"'Fraid so, kid." Renee always called me kid even though she was no more than five years older than me.
Patterson's had been a family-owned restaurant for forty years until the last of the family died nine years earlier. No children or grandchildren wanted to leave their jobs to run a restaurant so the place was sold but the new owners kept the name. Rod was the day manager. He was in his mid-forties with a potbelly and a bald patch as wide as his forehead that ran to the back of his head. "Can you ever make it to work on time, Christine?"
I cringed and turned to see him behind me. "I am on time when my kids are in school. It's my sitters."
Rod scratched his domed head, looking at me. "Why aren't your kids in school now?"
"It's Thanksgiving break," I said, wrapping a fork, knife, and spoon in a napkin.
"So why were you late last week?"
My throat tightened. I didn't want to be late. It wasn't my goal each day to show up late for my job. "My five-year-old was sick and I had to find a sitter last minute."
"It's always something," he said, walking away. Rod had been gracious throughout the summer months when I'd shown up late for work at least once a week but that cat only had so many lives and his patience was wearing thin.
I married Brad Eisley when I was twenty. Sometimes you go into a situation knowing you're making a mistake but think, "Well, I need a car and this one is right here and available, so how bad can it be?" Or, "The roof does need to be fixed but I need a house and this one is available so ..." Brad was a nice guy, cute, and at the beginning I found him charming. We met while working at a grocery store in our hometown. I was a cashier and he stocked the shelves. He didn't work there long; he said management didn't know what they were doing. When he asked me to marry him he was unemployed; I was nineteen and consumed with the thought of being and doing nothing for the rest of my life. I was unable to go to college; my mother couldn't afford it and, although my grades had been good in high school, they weren't high enough for any sort of scholarship. There weren't a lot of men in our area so when Brad wanted to get married, I thought, "Well, he is nice and I would like to get married and he is right here asking me, so how bad could it be?" My mother knew.
"Christine, you are a dreamer. You love books and flowers and sitting next to a lake. You need a man who will appreciate that about you. Don't marry him because you think he'll be the only one to ever ask you," she said, weeks after our engagement.
"I'm not, Mom."
"Then why are you marrying him?" she asked, folding a load of towels in the laundry room.
"He's a nice, nice guy," I said, trying to convince her as well as myself. She wouldn't look at me and that made me angry. "What's your problem with him?"
"I don't have a problem with Brad. You're right. He seems nice. I know all about nice." She stacked towels one on top of the other in silence.
I leaned against the washer and folded my arms, waiting for her to say something more. "Stop talking in code, Mom."
She placed a small stack of towels in the laundry basket and picked up another one to fold, looking at me. "Do you love him?"
"Of course I do." She nodded and continued her work. She wasn't any more persuaded than I was and that really got on my nerves.
She stopped her work. "Parents want more for their children."
"So what's the problem? I'm getting married and that's something you never had." That hurt her and I knew it but I didn't care.
She grabbed the laundry basket and set it on her hip. "But you're not marrying the right man!"
Heat rose to my face. "I'm marrying the father of my child!"
Her face was stricken. I didn't want to tell her that way. I didn't want to tell her at all but knew my expanding belly would soon give me away. She carried the laundry past me in silence. I felt tears in my eyes but held them back. "You don't know anything about Brad," I said, my voice breaking. I grabbed my purse and left for work as she closed her bedroom door.
Months before our wedding I began to notice that Brad would demean me in front of friends and my mother and make me feel dim and irrelevant. "You don't know what you're talking about, Christy," he'd say. Or, "How dumb are you?" I married him anyway, hoping my love for him would justify any minor failings once we became man and wife. When Brad found a job here my mother seemed angry. I assumed it was because she knew that once the baby came I would need her more than ever and she would be two hours away, but we had to move where Brad's job was.
We moved during my sixth month of pregnancy, and a month after Zach was born, Brad promptly lost his job. "Management didn't know what they were doing," he said, the veins in his neck swelling. Brad knew so much more than anyone else. He'd yell at the sportscasters and television news anchors; his jaw hanging open so wide I could see his lungs flapping for breath. Employers never knew what they were doing and I was a constant disappointment. I didn't tell my mother he lost that job and when I discovered we were having another baby I found myself making up a job title for him so she'd think he worked and earned more than he did. I didn't tell her when the electricity was turned off twice in one winter, when Brad wrecked the car and we didn't have insurance to get it fixed, or when he left less than two and a half years later. Marriage and father-hood wasn't what he thought it would be.
He'd been gone for two months before I could build up the nerve to tell her. Haley was six months old and needed antibiotics and I was broke so I called Mom. She didn't say I told you so. She asked about the kids and my job but didn't talk much. She'd said it all before I got married and there wasn't anything left to say. I couldn't undo my mistakes. When I was a child I dreamed of a life that would be extraordinary. After I married Brad I hoped for one that was at least interesting and when I ended up alone with two kids I groped for one that was somehow manageable. That's how dreams go sometimes.
I finished my shift and clocked out; staying until seven twelve to make up for the time I missed that morning. Renee and the other waitresses had left for the day and the new shift had arrived. I tried to make a quick getaway before Rod saw me.
"Christine, you can't be late anymore." I stopped and turned to see him stepping out of the walk-in cooler. "We get way too busy during the holidays. This is your last warning."
I nodded. "See you tomorrow, Rod."
Jason Haybert pulled a five dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it to the stewardess. "Rum," he said, folding the newspaper.
She ran her tongue over her teeth. He was one of those young bucks who made a big deal out of drinking on an airplane, dying to prove that he was of age. "ID please," she said, sizing him up. Twenty-two or twenty-three, she thought to herself. He handed her his driver's license and she smiled. "Oh, you just had a birthday. Happy twenty-four!" He poured the rum into his cup of cola and handed the empty bottle back to her.
"Maybe when we land I can take you out for a drink."
She blushed, laughing. "I think my husband and children might have a problem with that."
"Bring them, too," he said.
She cackled and pushed her cart to the next seat. Jason had inherited his father's sandy brown hair and blue eyes, had been one of the university's best soccer players, and he thought one of the most valuable employees at the accounting firm until they downsized and gave him the boot. He was confident another equally impressive firm would snap him up before the dust settled on his desk, but three months later he still couldn't find a job. He took the call from his grandfather half-seriously.
"Come work for me at the store for the Christmas season," his grandfather Marshall had said three weeks earlier.
"Grandpa, I went to college for a reason," Jason had said. He hadn't intended that to sound so demeaning.
"How are you making money right now?"
Jason clicked the remote to the sports channel. "I'm not," he had said, reading the day's highlights on the screen.
Marshall couldn't imagine sitting around and not working when there were bills to pay. "So how are you paying rent?" he had asked. Jason was quiet. "Fly here this weekend and check it out. Once you find a job you'll be out of here. But in the meantime, you'll make some money."
Jason paused. His skills were above working at a department store but one firm after another said they weren't doing any hiring until the New Year. He didn't go to college to sell socks to old ladies but it seemed his grandfather's offer was the best thing going right now.
Marshall Wilson pressed his nose closer to the pictures in the catalog. "What are those flowers?" he asked the florist. "Those are pretty."
"Lisianthus," she said.
"Never heard of them." He flipped through the pages. "How about those?"
She leaned over the counter to see the picture. "Casablanca lilies."
Marshall rubbed the whiskers on his chin. "Those are nice. Can I see one in person?"
"Well, no," she said. "It's the wrong time of year for lilies."
"What?" she said, flustered.
"Where is it the wrong time of year for lilies?" He set the book on the counter, looking at her.
"But it could be the right time of year in another part of the world?"
She thought for a moment. "Sure ... but it would be very expensive to buy them and—"
"Can we put some of those first flowers in there, too? What were they called? Lis something."
"Lisianthus. But again that's not an average flower and—"
"Save your breath, Natalie," Dwight Rose said, stepping beside her. Dwight had owned Rose's Floral and Gift for fifteen years. "What is it, Marshall? Anniversary or birthday? I get them confused."
"Anniversary," Marshall said, thumping his hand on top of the counter.
"Number forty-four coming up in December."
"Marshall married a very sensible woman," Dwight said. "She never wanted big gems, gaudy necklaces, or, these are her words, 'ridiculous hoopy earrings.' Just flowers. Nothing fancy or exciting per se. All the reasons she married Marshall."
Marshall bowed. "Thank you, sir. I will take that as a compliment of the highest order."
"But Marshall doesn't like simple flowers. He likes to pick ones he's never heard of before. It makes him feel—"
"Less simple," Marshall said, smiling.
"Linda realized many years ago that between Thanksgiving and Christmas she was in essence a widow." Marshall rolled his eyes. "She'd make dinner but Marsh here would still be at the store and wouldn't show up until after ten o'clock each night."
"It was never ten o'clock," Marshall said.
"Okay, eleven," Dwight said. Marshall sighed and waved his hand in the air to hurry Dwight along. "Linda decided that she'd take this time to travel the country and visit the kids and grandkids. After—"
"A few weeks away came the long-awaited return and a bouquet of beautiful flowers," Natalie said, finishing his sentence. "That's so romantic." She pulled the pages of flowers out of the catalog.
Dwight put his hand on the young woman's back. "No one, not even Linda, has ever referred to Marshall as romantic."
"You have no idea what goes on behind closed doors," Marshall said, picking up the photos.
"Great. Now I'll have that image in my head all day," Dwight said. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Christmas Secret by Donna VanLiere. Copyright © 2009 Donna VanLiere. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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