Chapter 2 of my Christmas novel

This may not end up as Chapter 2 in the final version of my Christmas novel (it’s actually the fifth chapter I’ve written), but today it’s what I’m sharing.

Thank you for coming on this journey with me. I’ve been having a blast getting into fiction mode lately — it’s a new thing for me to write fiction AND to be confident enough to put it out there in public. So it means a lot that you’re reading it.

I woke up at 12:45 a.m. and wrote this chapter a couple of days ago. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and getting the story fleshed out, so I fired up the iPad and got busy.

I hope you enjoy it.

NOTE: I won’t be publishing EVERY chapter here, so if you’d like to get insider news about my writing and see previews of this book and my other projects, join my mailing list and I’ll send you updates. (Click here and leave a note that says “add me to your mailing list” or fill out the form that pops up on this page — so sorry; I hate pop-ups but am still trying to find a work-around with my email service provider.)

You can read Chapter 1 here.

Chapter 2: A Trip to the Emergency Room

Within 15 seconds of the loud crash, six of Joel Stewart’s seven co-workers were huddled around him in his small office, trying to avoid stepping on huge shards of glass.

“Are you OK, Joel?” said his assistant, Elizabeth, watching wide-eyed as the accountant reached for a towel from his gym bag to try to keep the blood from staining his white dress shirt — or the brand new cream-colored area rug.

“What happened?” said Lee, whose office was next door to Joel’s. “It sounded like you fell through the roof!”

Joel laughed, which was a huge mistake, because it made him ease off the pressure he was holding on his forearm. Blood gushed from the wound, and Kaitlyn thought she might faint from the sight of it.

“Well, first, I think I need to get to the emergency room. Can someone drive me? I’ll explain on the way to the hospital. This cut seems to be kinda deep.”

Joel, standing there bleeding, was a bit annoyed that he had to point out the obvious. And accountants were supposed to be details people.

Stepping cautiously around the broken glass, Andre took Joel’s good arm and navigated him toward the door.

“Kandus, would you grab Joel’s coat and his cell phone while I grab mine from my office? Keep pressure on that arm, Joel. I’ll meet you in the reception area in a minute.”

As Kandus gathered Joel’s belongings and escorted him out to meet Andre, the others began picking up the pieces of tempered glass that, until five minutes ago, had been Joel’s fanciest office furnishing.

The small accounting firm had struggled for years, experiencing one setback after another — bad hiring decisions, an ill-advised marketing campaign that had made Goldman & Blackburn the laughingstock of the local industry association, even a lawsuit from a disgruntled client (who was now serving a 15-year prison term). They just hadn’t been able to catch a break, and for too long the office always seemed to be in crisis mode — until recently.

*******

Since the beginning of the year, and especially once the frenzied pace of tax season had passed, things had started to settle into a nice rhythm.

No one was calling in “sick,” employee interaction had become more pleasant again — conversational rather than borderline confrontational — they landed a big client, profits had jumped accordingly and the boss had made a couple of decisions that put everyone in a chipper mood:

“First off,” Kim began, “this firm is starting to look more like the company that Dad and his best friend established 45 years ago.” She looked around the conference room at the faces she had grown to love since she took over after her father’s death 10 years earlier.

“And it’s about time. We’ve had to overcome a lot these past few years. You don’t know what your loyalty has meant to me. Although, I must say, a few mornings I woke up afraid I might discover a mutiny when I arrived at the office.”

The group laughed politely — except for Terrance, who let out a guffaw so loud it made the others stop and stare for a moment.

Kim continued.

“So, because we’ve had three positive quarters in a row, and because you’ve all been troupers and have stuck with me throughout so much uncertainty, you’ll all be getting Christmas bonuses this year!”

That brought a loud collective cheer. It had been three years since the last bonuses.

“Also, in time for Christmas, we’re going to spend a little money upgrading this tired old space. There’s enough in the budget for each of you to have $700 to decorate your office spaces as you please — within reason, of course. No psychedelic sofas or moose heads on the walls. You get what I mean. This is a dignified accounting firm, after all.”

Another round of laughter and a few minutes of chatter about this positive turn of events, and soon it was back to business. But the announcements had lightened the mood of Goldman & Blackburn Accounting, and the hum of productivity was accompanied by smiles rather than furrowed brows.

(What Kim hadn’t said was that the decorating stipends meant she wouldn’t take home a paycheck in December; business had been good this year, but not that good. She still wanted to exercise caution. Nevertheless, she felt that her employees deserved a reward — and the workspaces did need a bit of sprucing up.)

*******

No sooner had Joel finally settled into liking his fancy new glass table — with no small bit of convincing from Elizabeth, who had picked it out — than it all came crashing down.

It was a good thing he had Andre around to pick up the pieces.

Chapter 1 of my Christmas novel

It may seem a bit early for Christmas stories, but the magical holiday will be here before you know it. Also, I’m only four chapters in, so if I want to get my first fiction book ready for holiday shoppers, I need to keep at it. (I’ll also admit that this story is distracting me from the piece of nonfiction that I’ve been working on FOREVER — and will finish eventually. But sometimes a girl just needs a little holiday-themed distraction. Does anyone else watch Hallmark Christmas movies in July??? I thought so.)

I’m feeling a sense of achievement this day after experiencing a bit of holiday-novel mojo, so I thought I’d share with you Chapter 1 of my as-yet-untitled Christmas book. (If you have an idea for a good title, feel free to leave a comment! 🙂 )

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’m enjoying the writing process — and the anticipation of calling myself a published author! I will be self-publishing this, so, yeah, I’m pretty sure I can claim that title in a few weeks (the publishing world has changed a lot, my friends; no longer are authors dependent on traditional publishers — we can publish our own books on our own schedules).

If you want updates on writing, reading, editing and all things WORD, click here to give me your name and best email (and don’t forget to add suzy@suzyoakley.com to your safe-senders list).

Here you go:

Chapter 1: ’Twas Three Weeks Before Christmas

“Christopher Columbus!” Maribelle shouted as Santa smashed into her green-stockinged foot with a wham.

The ceramic Santa that she hauled out of storage at Bedford Books every December — along with all the other ancient decorations — had broken free of his cardboard prison, and her foot bore the brunt of his revolt. This wasn’t the fat man’s first escape attempt, but it was the first time he didn’t have a softish surface to break his fall.

This time it was fatal.

Santa was beside himself.

And on top of himself. And, well … all around himself.

Santa was everywhere — but not in that “Santa can circle the globe in one night” kind of way.

Santa was smashed.

Maribelle was more annoyed at jolly ol’ St. Nick for dashing himself to bits than she was sad to see him go. In fact, if her right foot hadn’t been throbbing from the blow, she might have booted him the rest of the way into oblivion, past her wet shoes, out the back door of the bookstore and into the alleyway. He already had a skinned-up face; why had the Hatches kept him around all these years, anyway?

As that thought came to mind, though, just as quickly a sweet Christmas carol pushed it away. “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen — really?” Maribelle muttered to herself as the lyric “tidings of comfort and joy” flitted across her conscience.

She supposed it was because she had been a bit miffed at God lately, and God was chiding her for being in such a sour mood.

He often interrupted her self-centered meanderings by bringing snippets of songs to her. Or sometimes Bible verses she had learned as a child. Or maybe a quote from Mother Teresa — anything to make her feel guilty for being a scrooge at “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Usually Maribelle could handle the holiday merriment. She would just put on a close-lipped smile to hide her gritted teeth and go with the flow. Parties? Plastic smile. Family gatherings? At least there was Nanny’s strawberry cake — her favorite. She could even halfway enjoy herself at the family events, as long as no one commented on her bare wedding-ring finger and lack of a mate.

But not this year. This year, faking holiday cheer seemed too much to ask.

Even though she had grown cynical about Christmas and outwardly grumbled about the holiday, she secretly bristled at the injustice of a small family business being put on the defensive when its owners and staff should have had nothing heavier on their minds than handing out hot chocolate and hugs with abandon.

Just the thought of it sent a chill up her spine — and not just because she hadn’t adjusted the thermostat yet this morning.

As store manager, Maribelle typically arrived at the old storefront on Bailey Street at least an hour before anyone else, and that meant two hours before Bedford Books opened at 9. She always had one part-timer arrive an hour early to help her get the place ready for business. The owners were getting up in years and, though the Hatches still had a strong work ethic, it was harder for them on the more frigid mornings to get to the store as early as Maribelle.

Besides, she was an early riser, and she reveled in the crisp weather.

As she turned up the heat and went to the closet for the broom and dustpan, she tried to hold back tears, but the pain in her foot and the thought of losing the store — her happy place — made her stop in her tracks and put all of her effort into holding back the ugly-cry.

The faint scent of peppermint wafted over to her just in time. She paused for a moment, closed her eyes and savored the lingering aroma. She had sipped on peppermint tea last night as she looked over the store’s balance sheet, and 12 hours later she could almost taste the sweet indulgence again; the memory — and the scent — helped her perk up enough to move on and get back to the business at hand.

The Hatches had built a beautiful little sanctuary at Bedford Books. In fact, “business,” while necessary to keep the doors open, wasn’t the primary word most people would use to describe the store.

Clem and Ginnie not only treated their staff like family, their customers were the recipients of the couple’s warmth and kindness, as well.

People didn’t come here just to buy books. They came to sit and chat, to sip coffee or tea (on the house), to see their friends, to experience story hour with their children and to participate in a myriad of other rituals that created a living, breathing community.

In her time off, when it was just Maribelle and her cat, Dickens, in their cozy apartment, she would much rather have her nose in a book — a good, old-fashioned classic like Little Women (where she got some of her pet phrases) — than decorate the store for Christmas.

But she couldn’t deny that she loved the Bedford microculture. She had made real friends here — children and their parents and grands, college students, business professionals, intellectuals, authors, visitors from other cities — and she was grateful she had found a home away from home in this little section of town.

As Maribelle visually assessed the front counter, making sure the little pencil cup of multicolored candy sticks was full, the cardholder held plenty of bookmarks and the basket of freebies overflowed with fuzzy Christmas critters, a little dancing prism of light caught her eye.

She pushed up her wire-rimmed glasses and watched. A sunbeam seemed to pirouette around the countertop. She looked across the room to see where the little scene originated. There it was! It was the delicate glass bell that hung from a silver thread in one of the front windows. When the heater kicked on, the warm breath from the vent caused the small iridescent bell to twirl gently in its wake.

For a moment, Maribelle was transfixed. Her heart rate slowed, and her shoulders relaxed. The little scene was pure magic, and it made her forget her troubles, if only for a few moments.

Too often lately, she had been so preoccupied she failed to notice such tiny wonders.

It was a small thing, yes, but she used to marvel at so many little things that most people overlooked. But now, she had grown accustomed to barreling through life, shutting out — deliberately or not — the things that used to make her smile, if even for just a moment.

When had she become so cynical? When had the little things lost their magic?

As she went to straighten the display near the door, Maribelle resolved to work on her attitude, despite what was going on behind the scenes at Bedford Books. No one likes a year-round Scrooge, and Christmas was definitely not the time to be a crab cake, a grinchy-grinch. Or, as her mother would say: a Negative Noelly.

When she was a little girl, Christmas couldn’t come fast enough. She wasn’t the typical kid on Santa’s knee with a mile-long list, though. She had always been more interested in the caroling, the cookies, the decorations and the TV specials — even the church pageant where she was perennially tasked with the famous angelic annunciation because none of the other kids could memorize the passage from Luke 2 — than she was in the shiny packages under the tree.

Maribelle had always been a bit different.

And suddenly a memory stopped her in her tracks.

As she paused her tidying, she remembered a story that Clem had told her several years ago about the ceramic Santa that had just bit the dust.

Clem’s grandmother had received the Santa when his mother was a girl, and she passed it down to her only daughter when she married and had children of her own. Mother kept it wrapped in a soft scarf and would gently take it out each December and place it on the mantel. Clem remembered because this iridescent piece of Christmas lore was his mother’s favorite memento from her own childhood, and she would talk about it with anyone who paused to comment on it. Each year, Santa Claus perched high upon the mantel, as though he were watching over the family as the busy holiday season ramped up.

One December, just after Clem turned 7, he was in the living room practicing kamikaze dives with his wooden airplane while his mother tended to the laundry in the garage. Santa, sitting a bit too close to the edge of the mantel, skittered off as the plane swooped in for a crash-landing. As Santa commenced his own suicide attempt, Clem caught him in the nick of time. Well, almost: St. Nick skimmed the coffee table on the way down, and Clem scooped him up just in time to keep him from hitting the floor.

For the rest of his life, Santa had a skinned nose, despite Clem’s best efforts to hide the evidence of his crime.

After such a close call, Clem was so shaken he never took his warplanes near the living room again. That was voluntary; the punishment from his father was … well, a little more like a prison sentence. He made Clem chop wood for the stove every day for the next month. Clemmie’s 30-day haul pretty much ensured that their woodpile was set for the rest of the winter.

The first time Clem told that story in Maribelle’s presence, she was a bit horrified. His father’s punishment of 7-year-old Clem seemed harsh — quite extreme for the crime. But Maribelle hadn’t understood the sentimental value of the holiday figure, and still didn’t — until Santa was gone.

Maribelle’s face felt hot. How could she have regarded someone’s else’s prized possession with such a cavalier attitude?

Now she dreaded telling Clem the truth about Santa.

But she must.

It would be a double-whammy: First Santa, then she would have to deliver the bad news about the store’s finances.

And with Christmas only three weeks away.

If you can read this, consider donating to help those who can’t

I inherited my love of reading and writing from my dad.

I often joke that I came out of the womb reading. Not sure I could hold a candle to Dad, though. My mom once commented that he could “read the words right off the newspaper.”

He and I spent every Sunday poring over the newspaper, section by section. From the time we got up until it was time to leave for church, then after lunch until evening church service, between the two of us we read it ALL. I skipped the classifieds; he didn’t. I read the society section, and I’m pretty sure he passed on that.

In other words, literacy — while we didn’t discussed it with that terminology — was very important to us.

Bruce Oakley Just in Time Award
Bruce Oakley honored with Just in Time award. (If only they knew. #LateForHisOwnFuneral)

I married one of those dudes, too. Bruce got a degree in English (mine is in journalism), and he has volunteered for the past few years for the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project. In fact, the organization honored him with its inaugural Just in Time award a few months ago “in recognition of his dedication to logistics and ’saving the day.’ ”

That’s my Brucie.

Yes, literacy is important to us.

So when Bruce let me know this week that the literacy project’s director, Morgan Reed, created a Facebook Fundraiser dedicated to taking donations for the program (in lieu of birthday gifts), we knew we had to donate. Bruce also insisted that I read Morgan’s story. I’m usually the one pestering him to read something that I find meaningful, but this time it was the other way around. I’m glad he didn’t let me off the hook with simply making an online transaction. I read Morgan’s story and immediately asked if I could publish it on two of my blogs.

I’m so glad she said yes.

Here’s Morgan’s story, reprinted with her permission:

“I know we all have things going on. Whether you have a new baby on the way, an illness you are battling, or you only have forty-three cents in your bank account, I’ve invited all of you for a reason. Not because I expect everyone to donate, but I hope that if you can’t give, you can at least share.

“For my birthday, I’d like to tell you a story. I’m a big fan of stories.

“In 2011, I was on track to be Valedictorian. I was enrolled in college classes while in high school. I had a 4.0 GPA. I did Zumba twice a day two days a week and walked everywhere! I helped care for other people. I did a lot of heavy lifting. I worked at the nursing home, sometimes doing overtime, sometimes 12 and 14 hour shifts.

“Then I got sick. Inexplicably one day, I had a seizure in Mr. Hall’s art class. My heart rate exceeded 200 beats per minute. From then on, I could barely walk down the hall to the bathroom. I had multiple seizures a day. I missed three months of school. I had to drop my college classes with no refund, and without the extra credit, I was no longer Valedictorian.

“I gave up a full ride to ASU and consequently my bachelor’s degree, because I couldn’t live on my own. I had to have a babysitter. I couldn’t drive. I was 17. I went from being the person taking care of others with disabilities to being the person with the disability.

“I worked a year here, three months there. The result was always the same. I’d run myself into the ground, constantly faint or have seizures at work and end up having to quit.

“It was frustrating to me and to everyone in my life, but I went to Ozarka [College] and got two Associate degrees. I couldn’t afford to move or to transfer, so instead of racking up student debt, I just tried to find work. It was incredibly tough. Every job description said ‘must be able to stand’ or ‘must be able to regularly lift X amount of pounds.’

“I was an emotional wreck, so I moved back home to try to take care of myself. I lived in a ’77 Dodge motor home. The front cab was my closet, and the oven door doubled as a night table.

“I found an ad in the paper for an office assistant at the Ozark Foothills Literacy Project, and I did some research. I was accepted for an interview, and I was so nervous. Like all the places I worked before, I didn’t mention my disability. I wouldn’t until I was hired on.

“I was shocked to hear back the next day that I was hired! I thought it would take weeks! After my first tutor training, I told them I was a freak of nature. Turns out, another person that was considered for the job also had POTS, so they knew of it, and they didn’t care.

“They didn’t care that I was sick, or that I was driving a rusted out ’92 S10. They didn’t care that my water pipes busted every other day. They didn’t care that I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. They gave me a shot, just like they did every adult learner who came through their doors.

Morgan and her sleeping beauty, Aslyn.

“When I miscarried just a month into the job, they supported me. When I had to leave every other day for blood draws, they supported me. They sent me to classes to learn new software, new teaching methods, and all about career development. Then ultimately, they believed I was good enough to take over the program as the director.

“The Ozark Foothills Literacy Project gave me a chance, but I’m not the only one. Every person who comes to us for help gains an opportunity to improve their skills, be connected to the community, and referred to services they might need.

“I’ve seen people get their citizenship, college degrees, GEDs, jobs. I’ve seen them learn to navigate on their own after divorce and domestic violence. I’ve seen children learn alongside their parents, and I’ve seen a man in his fifties write a letter to his wife for the first time.

“So, if you can’t donate, I understand. I have forty-three cents in my account until payday. I have a one year-old with an expensive diaper habit. I have medications and bills. But please, if you don’t mind, share this for the folks that need a chance. Share it for the 9,500 that need our services. Share it for the 36 million nationwide. Share it, because it only takes a second.

“Thank You.”

Click here to make a donation to Morgan’s fundraiser (no amount is too small).

Happy birthday, Morgan! We’re big fans of stories, too.

Welcome, and please excuse the ‘mess’

Suzyoakley.com is going through a major overhaul, and I can’t wait to welcome you to the new site. For more than three years, this page has served as “my digital business card” — a static page hard-coded by my husband with no “theme” (that’s blogger-speak), no updated posts — just a picture of smilin’ ol’ Suzy and a mini-bio with links to my two other blogs.

As I begin to narrow my focus and concentrate more on my book writing and freelance editing, I want my main website to reflect that.

I’m toying with some ideas about grammar and editing, and you’ll find those topics here if that proves to be an area where folks want and need to read tips and inspiration.

Stay tuned — I won’t leave you hangin’ for long!

SuzyO