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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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Jennifer looked down and away. “Oh, well, I’m going to be busy that night, you see I...”

Mayor Hartman cut her off, shaking his head. “No excuses, Ms. Taylor. You can come by for an hour or so; and I will consider it a personal insult if you do not.”

Jennifer struggled for a clever excuse, but faltered. “Well... I’ll try.
 
It’s just that I’m so busy here, and there is so much to do this time of year.”

“No excuses, Ms. Taylor,” he stressed, his forefinger pointed up and wagging. “No excuses. Come and meet the local business community. Eat, dance, drink eggnog and have some fun. It’ll do you good.

Jennifer just wanted to get rid of him. “… I guess I can…”

The Mayor interrupted. “Of course you can! Excellent! It’s a date then! I know we sent you an invitation, but I just wanted to come in person to make sure you’re going to join us.”

Jennifer managed a strained smile. He was the Mayor, after all. It wouldn’t be good business to alienate him. “Thank you, Mayor. So nice of you to stop by.”

He shined with enthusiasm. “We’re going to have carolers, prizes, a live band and many other surprises. You’ll have the time of your life, Ms. Taylor! I guaran-damn-tee it!”

She looked about awkwardly. “Well, doesn’t that sound like fun,” she forced out, half-heartedly. She motioned toward a group of people. “I guess I should be getting back to my customers... so many things to do.”

“You go right ahead, Jennifer. Don’t let me keep you one more minute. We look forward to seeing you soon. Don’t forget now, it all starts at 7 p.m. sharp on December 22nd.”

Jennifer nodded and slid away toward the window displays, where a pugnacious boy was reaching for the flying Santa Claus.

The last customer of the day was the most difficult. He was portly, spiritless and adversarial. She presented him with gift ideas for his wife, and he shook them off like a pitcher shaking off signs from a catcher.

Jennifer brought out a book of Christmas poetry.

The man’s lips thinned in irritation. “A book of love poems? No way. She doesn’t read. She watches TV.”

Jennifer grabbed a snow globe, filled with a beautifully hand-carved manger scene. She shook it and held it up to the light. “Isn’t this beautiful?”

He snorted. “Don’t like it.”

Jennifer felt her blood pressure shoot up. Three additional gift ideas were all nixed, brusquely.

Finally, he bought a chocolate Santa Claus, bit off the head, chewed it vigorously, and left the shop in a huff.

 

At 7:16, the last customer finally left and Jennifer gratefully locked the door. A welcomed silence descended, broken only by the hollow toot of the electric train in the window. Jennifer and Angela sat hunched in back of the shop on wooden stools, massaging their aching feet and sipping tea. Nat King Cole was singing
The Christmas Song
.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”

“Angela, please turn that thing off,” Jennifer said. “I am sick to death of Christmas music already. I don’t know how I’m going to make it to Christmas. Do people really like that stuff?”

“Yes,” Angela said, reaching up and turning it off. “Most people really love Christmas carols.”

Angela Garcia was 22 years old, perky and ambitious. She was full-figured, with long silky black hair and ready dark eyes. Her wardrobe and jewelry were colorful and trendy. She loved makeup, and used an abundance of blush, shadows and creams, spending many happy hours shopping for it, applying it and experimenting with it. If Angela was an artist, her face was her canvas and her makeup was her palette.

“I suppose you love Christmas music,” Jennifer said, wearily.

“Yes… I do.”

“Figures…You’re the type.”

Angela rested her head on her hand. “I think I’m going to get my father one of those gold pens. They’ve been selling really well. He hates computers and he loves writing letters to my sister’s kids in Florida. He gets so bored just sitting around, but his heart isn’t very good and he can’t do that much.” Angela paused, waiting for Jennifer to say something.
 
When she didn’t, Angela continued. “My little girl wants a new Barbie doll, of course. Those things cost a fortune, but that’s what she wants, so what are you going to do?”

Jennifer’s face turned darkly private. She stood up, reaching for her boots. “Let’s finish up in here, okay? I’m really tired.”

There was long icy silence as Jennifer pulled her boots on.

“I don’t really want to know about anybody’s shopping,” she added. “I’m just so tired of hearing about everybody’s kids and everybody’s boyfriend and everybody’s cute little cat and dog and bird, and everybody’s family. I am just sick and tired of it all.”

Angela sat quietly for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was a wounded whisper. “Okay…”

Jennifer drooped, as the wind howled around the building. “And now all this snow. We never got this much snow in Tennessee.”

Angela took a peek out the nearest window. “What are you going to do for Christmas?” she asked, tentatively.

Jennifer leaned back against the wall, releasing a sigh. “I’m not going to celebrate Christmas. I’ll celebrate when it’s over, because I’ll be able to sleep an extra half hour in the morning and close the shop on time every night.”

“I never knew anybody who didn’t celebrate Christmas.”

“It’s a waste of time.”

“But it doesn’t take time. I mean, you just kind of celebrate as you go about your day. Then you just get with your family and friends and have fun with each other.”

“Well, that’s nice,” Jennifer said sarcastically, dropping back down to the stool.

Angela lowered her voice and looked down. “You sound like that guy on TV,” she said, quietly. “The one who hates Christmas. Scrooge.”

“Let’s just drop it, okay?” Jennifer snapped. “It’s such a silly story. Life is not like the movies. Life is real and hard and sad.”

Angela stared at her sympathetically. “Then why not celebrate happy times when they come?”

“Because charging right behind the happy times is ugly reality, ready to kick you in the teeth.”

“Do you really believe that, Ms. Taylor?”

“Yes, I do. But hey, Christmas is good for my bottom line, so I’ll certainly celebrate that.” She hoisted her mug. “Cheers.”

Angela looked at her, trying to understand. “I always feel happy at Christmas, like things aren’t really so bad and that the world is basically a cool place. You know what I’m saying?”

Jennifer stared, coldly. “No. The world is what it is and a cool place it isn’t. A cold place it is.”

Angela continued, lost in her own thoughts. “Sometimes, at Christmas, I even think I’m going to find the right guy for me and Mariah. At least, it’s a dream I have.”

Jennifer barked a laugh. “The only dreams you’re going to get in this life are shattered ones. That’s all the world has to offer. Believe me. I’ve lived long enough to realize that.”

Angela slumped forward, dispirited by Jennifer’s words. “Does your family feel that way?”

Jennifer took a long, thoughtful sip of her tea. “I don’t have any family. My parents are both dead and I don’t have any brothers or sisters.”

“That’s so sad.”

“No… that’s just the way it is.”

“Don’t you ever want to get married? Have a family?”

Jennifer’s eyes grew distant and reflective. She blinked a couple of times as if to clear them. “I almost got married once… that was enough.”

“What happened?”

“Nevermind. It didn’t happen and I’m never going to make that mistake again. I’ll leave all that to giggling girls, who have nothing better to do.”

“But what about children? Don’t you want some?”

“There are plenty of those already. Just look around. Then look into the faces of most of the parents and you’ll see nothing but stress, exhaustion and regret. When the kids grow up, they’re even more trouble—and they cost a fortune!”

Angela straightened, feeling challenged. “I don’t regret having my little girl. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Jennifer turned away from her. “Whatever.”

“I didn’t know you were so, like, cynical.”

“I am not, like, cynical. Wait until …”

“What?”

Jennifer hopped off the stool. “Forget it. Let’s close up and get out of Christmas fantasy land. It’s starting to make me nauseous.”

Angela sat quietly for a moment, then worked to brighten the mood. “I saw you talking to the Mayor.”

Jennifer went to the cash register. “Yes, he invited me to his Christmas party on the 22nd.”

Angela leapt off her stool, excited. “You’re kidding me!”

“Nope.”

“You are so lucky! Their parties are so cool! I mean, that’s what I hear. I’ve never been to one.”

“I’ll send you in my place,” Jennifer said, jokingly, batching out the cash register. “Can you be here early in the morning? We need to rearrange the shelves and restock those Santa Claus dolls that everyone seems to be buying.”

Angela hurried over, incredulous. “You’re not going to the party!?”

“Of course not.”

“That’s unbelievable! It’s like the most awesome event of the year around here! Only the real cool people get invited.”

“Well, I’m not cool and I’m not going to that silly party.”

Angela frowned. “You sound so … like jaded or something.”

Jennifer looked up, unable to control her irritation. “That’s it. I can’t take this conversation anymore.” She faced Angela, gesturing for her to stop. “Please, Angela, just get your things and go home! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Angela stared down into the glossy wooden floor.

“Do yourself a favor, Angela. Learn to live in the real world.”

Angela crossed her arms. “I do live in the real world, Ms. Taylor, but my real world seems a lot happier than yours.”

Jennifer glared. “Go home.”

 

After Angela left, Jennifer deposited the cash in the safe, completed her security check and turned off the train, which had continued to make its endless rounds around the track. She gathered her down coat and started for the front door, switching off lights. As she opened the front door to leave, she heard the tiny ring of bells. She paused, turning back toward the shop. As the bells faded, she heard a woman’s voice—singing.


We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year
!”

It was a soft voice, falling around her like mist. Jennifer released the doorknob. She stepped back into the shop, peering into the darkness. “Who’s there?” she whispered. “Who’s singing?”

The voice fell away into a loud silence.

“Angela turned off the CD player,” Jennifer said to herself, gently puzzled.

She crossed to it, letting her careful gaze settle on it. The power was off.
 
Definitely off.
 
No red ON light. No sound. Apprehensive, she went back to the front door, opened it and passed a final uneasy glance into the shop before leaving.

Outside, the night seemed harsh and endless, the wind frigid and sharp. It howled through the trees like a hunting animal. Jennifer tramped through the snow toward her car, hunching her shoulders, turning her head away from the wind.

She stopped abruptly. Was that the singing again, coming from inside her shop? She took a ragged breath and coughed. Her pace quickened and she nearly slipped and fell. At her car, she yanked open the door and slid behind the wheel, shivering.
 
As she drove past her shop, she didn’t give it a final glance as she usually did. She just kept on going.
 

CHAPTER 2

 

That night, Jennifer sat alone in her two-bedroom condominium, staring blankly at the flickering television. She reached for the remote and surfed the channels absently, sipping white wine and feeling the familiar dull ache of loneliness. She finally turned off the TV and stared at the empty room, which seemed alive with quiet.

Christmas was coming, and all the old memories of Lance would come crashing in on top of her. They’d already begun. All she could do was make sure she stayed busy, and not allow any idle thoughts to intrude. It would be the only way to get through the Christmas season—a technique she’d been practicing for months.

She got up from the couch, went to her computer and booted it up, waiting, staring into the middle distance. She’d already finished her spring and summer ordering, but there was always something to do. She could review invoices and e-mail. Anything to keep her mind distracted and active.

As she read her e-mails, a low rumble shook the computer. The flat-screen color monitor flashed then went dark. Jennifer sank, troubled.

“Oh no, not a hard disk crash!”

A low eerie moan emanating from inside the computer startled her. The room slowly filled with it—a deafening and frightening groan. It was the sound of loneliness, like a cold howling wind. Jennifer sprang back, afraid the computer might blow up. She looked on, astonished, as the monitor exploded into flashes of lightning, shooting out beams of blue and golden light that blinded her. She threw up her hand to cover her eyes.

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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