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 email@example.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 and momentary 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 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.