My first novel, written in '99. I was going to give the manuscript an overhaul, but there's something naive and even charming about the voice. One of the advantages of being an independent writer and artist is that I don't have to bend my work to the approval of any one person other than myself.
Besides, I can no longer write in this voice, having evolved. I couldn't 'fix' this manuscript. I'd do better to just open a blank WORD document and write the story anew.
I'm going to publish the novel as-is. I can call it the benchmark by which to measure what I have learned.
Don't get me wrong. It's a 'good' novel. Often wordy, often preachy and often wanders off track, but those are things writers (should) learn to write-out of their work by writing.
1: Ghosts of Christmas
Christmas comes and goes, he thought, sitting by the window watching the snow dance in the darkness beyond. He had vague memories of when Christmas was a day to look forward to – a time of magic. Now, the holiday was a thing to get passed. Christmas was now a disruption to his routine. He put a stale cookie in his mouth and tried to pinpoint the exact moment when things changed.
In the vague and distant past, expectations would build starting in late November. The witches and ghosts and skeletons had disappeared seemingly overnight to be replaced by turkeys, cornucopias and pilgrims. The dressings of the holiday were reflected at school as the crafts turned to the creation of Thanksgiving cutouts and paste-ups. He tried to remember how to make a folded snowflake cutout but couldn’t. To a child, it’s magical to unfold a square of paper to reveal a snowflake but now the process was just another mechanical trick.
The falling snow at one time seemed magical, too. In his mind, he could see clearly his own excited face pressed against the window on a cold winter’s day as he watched the snow. He realized the face he saw in memory was not his but the face from a Christmas card.
Memory is a funny thing.
“I was twelve years old,” he said aloud. Sure, he thought, the so-called age of reason. We grow up and realize there’s no Santa Claus. We come to know Santa was all just a lie for the amusement of children to warm up the winter nights.
Soon after Thanksgiving, as Christmas decorations were created and put up in the classroom, his mother would begin to decorate the house. She made the trimmings herself from holly, ribbons, pinecones and sprayed snow. Mixed nuts were put out in bowls on the tables and batch after batch of cookies where baked.
He put another stale store-bought cookie in his mouth.
The Christmas to come after his father left was different. His mother did the best she could, going through the motions, but the landscape had flattened out. This, he thought pointing a finger to the snow beyond the window, was the year Santa Claus died. His mother, too, he realized in that moment, died that year – when in fact another six years went by before she drank herself to death.
He jumped in the darkness of the room as the telephone screamed from the end table. He smiled at himself. In his imagination, the telephone, traditional, black with a dial and not pushbuttons, shook and vibrated as it sang its shrill yell three more times – the phone, in reality, did not move. Following a brief pause, his own voice said, “Sorry. I’m out killing cats. Please leave a message, or not,” punctuated by a beep.
Lenore’s voice was next: “I wish you’d change that message,” she stated for a countless time. Staring at the snow, he said aloud, “You would” as she continued with, “Dinner’s in thirty minutes and you said you’d be here. Where are you? I hope you get here soon, Don,” and a click followed. Her voice was tight, steeped with unspoken concern – maybe even worry.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said aloud again popping a cookie into his mouth. He was amused and thankful no one was around to tell him not to ruin his dinner. Yet again, he tried to think of any excuse he could use not to go but fully realized nothing short of his death could get him out of it. Lenore didn’t give him instructions on how to dress; however, she did make a point to say it was a formal family dinner. He dressed in the only suit he owned – dark blue. To Don, owning a suit was important. “You never know when you’re going to have to attend a funeral.”
A few feet out the common downstairs door, Don almost walked into his neighbor from below. The older man pushed his shovel and flipped snow aside. “Well, Merry Christmas, Don,” he said with a smile.
“What the hell are you doing, Mr. Levinstein?” Don blurted thoughtlessly. “The complex has people for snow removal.” He added, “That’s one of the reasons I live here.”
Mr. Levinstein leaned on his shovel. “We lived in our own house for fifty years and for those years I shoveled my walk. This is my house now. I shovel the walk.”
“But it’s not your responsibility,” Don argued.
The elderly man’s wrinkled face made a smile as he placed a hand on Don’s shoulder. “It’s my responsibility if I choose it to be.”
“People get paid to do this for us,” Don added more argument. “You’re nuts,” he concluded with a wave of his hand.
“Maybe so, Don.” He looked toward the sky. “But I’ve never let getting paid or not, being called nuts or not, define what I do or what I consider my responsibility.”
Don decided to walk the fifteen blocks to Lenore’s house, yet again delaying his arrival. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t want to go. Something about social gatherings kept swimming within him, calling him back to the peace of his solitude. The winter storm had brought a thicker darkness to the sky but the holiday lights of Christmas Eve created islands of brightness in the sea of black. He thought about the happiness in the houses and how someday the happiness would be shattered by the reality that inevitably had to come.
Don was not outgoing as a child – shy they called him – and as an adult, he fell into a pattern of never wanting to go anywhere. He was very pleased, almost joyful, to simply sit by his window and stare, drink coffee, read or just talk aloud. He spent the last two Christmases with the telephone off the hook, sitting by the window and pretending he was happy. Buried in the darkness of his own thoughts, he was really sad, lonely and aching for the ghosts of Christmas past. He was bitter and angry he could no longer see as he did as a child. Don pushed through the storm and found he was cursing the day he had met Lenore, some eight months before.
Lenore was a friend. Lenore, for some reason that escaped Don, liked him. Don didn’t see himself as a likable person and often went out of his way to prove it. Lenore and her younger sister would hear none of it. He was accepted and invited. This was why he had to push through the cold wind and snow to join a dinner party he really didn’t wish to attend.
He paused to watch a Mr. and Mrs. life-size mechanical Santa on the snow of a stranger’s front lawn. Christmas is life’s linchpin, he thought. It’s a litmus test for the rest of the year and even life itself. Christmas is the compass by which all else is measured. Or, just maybe Christmas was a reflection of life itself and life’s nature at the time.
Don said out loud to Mr. and Mrs. Santa, “You can enjoy your home all your life but sooner or later you’ll end up in an apartment you can pretend is a home but it’s just an apartment.” Don thought that just maybe happiness was an illusion only to be lost when the image slips away.
The three inches of wet snow clung to his shoes with each step and he thought he should have taken his car. He wished for a good coat to go with his suit as the cold pushed against him. He stopped briefly to watch two children rolling snow to make a snowman. He was reminded of the time he and his brother had done the same. That snowman was long melted now, even in his memory. He hadn’t seen his brother in two years. Again, he found himself wishing for an acceptable excuse not to go to dinner.
Lenore hung up the telephone and stared at the receiver for the longest time as if expecting a ring. She didn’t understand why her boyfriend was so shy. She merely accepted there were things he just wasn’t comfortable doing – like calling someone on the telephone and meeting family. Lenore felt a hand in hers and was pulled up the steps, “You gotta help me with something,” her younger sister Caitlin said with dead seriousness. Behind the safety of the bedroom door, Caitlin went to her dresser and carefully removed a box. “Show me how to do this!” she commanded.
Lenore glanced toward the bedroom door and then blinked at the complete makeup kit that Caitlin – who just yesterday was a little girl of thirteen years old – was holding. Caitlin answered the unspoken objection. “With so many people in the house, Mom and Dad won’t dare say a thing. By the time everyone’s gone they’ll be over it.”
She’s still a little girl of thirteen, Lenore thought. However, with a smile, she remembered the first time she delved into this aspect of womanhood. She looked more like a clown than a young lady. Besides, making Dad feel very, very old was an interesting Christmas present. “You’re right. Mom and Dad aren’t going to be thrilled.”
“They’ll get over it,” she repeated smugly. “After all, it is Christmas.” She hesitated just a moment and added, “Besides – believe me – I’ll be upstaged for sure.”
“What do you mean?” Lenore asked with a turn of the head.
She just smiled her impish smile, batted her blue eyes and answered, “You’ll see.”
Lenore was tempted to go over the top and dress Caitlin up like a ten-dollar whore just for effect, but quickly changed her mind. She went with subtle earth tones to complement the sandy blonde of Caitlin’s hair. Caitlin was born with her father’s bright white blonde hair but as the years passed, so did the brightness. Lenore was born with and maintained the consistent very dark, almost black like her mother’s hair. Caitlin’s hair was kept neat just below her shoulders while Lenore let her hair grow almost to her waist.
As Lenore worked intensely but quickly, Caitlin said offhandedly, “He’s not shy, you know.”
Surprised, Lenore cocked her head as her eyebrows came down a bit. “Who’s not shy?” she asked.
“Don,” Caitlin stated flatly. “Don’s not shy. You go on and on in your head about Don being shy but he’s not shy at all.”
“Now what makes you say that?” Lenore asked about Don’s shyness and not about how her little sister might know what her thoughts were. She wasn’t comfortable with Caitlin seemingly reading her mind but, at least, she was used to the idea.
“I can tell by looking at him.” She looked up so her sister could apply the mascara. “He’s not shy – he’s scared and there’s like this big difference.”
Lenore let out a long breath as she inspected her work. “What’s he scared of?” Lenore asked with a slight tilt of the head.
“Everything and nothing.”
Until that moment, Lenore hadn’t realized, even having a good four inches on Caitlin’s five-foot two, Caitlin fit almost perfectly into Lenore’s clothes. She declined to lend her a bra that she could stuff, explaining that it wouldn’t be nice to kill their father on Christmas Eve. She did find pumps that almost fit.
“Do I look okay?” Caitlin asked with a little spin and a tilt of her head.
“To me, you look great but we shall see, shan’t we?” Lenore thought for a moment looking toward the closed door again and asked, “Do you want to just slip downstairs or do you want to be announced?”
“Announced,” she decided quickly and added, “After Don gets here.”
“Paul Robertson isn’t taking any phone calls this afternoon,” the perky voice on the other end of the phone said. “It’s Christmas Eve and we’re closed for business.”
“Please tell Paul it’s his wife,” she retorted and thought, he’d better take this call, adding, “And I know it’s Christmas Eve.”
Following a long pause with festive sounds in the background, a voice finally said, “Hi, Jeanne. I’ll be leaving in about twenty minutes.”
She looked at the large clock on the kitchen wall and guessed Paul would get home about three o’clock. “They’re calling for snow. You know how Deanne hates to drive in the snow.”
“I’m looking out the window. No snow. They’ll be in long before it even starts. Maybe they can stay a few days?”
“I’m just worried. That’s all.”
“You’re a mom. Worrying’s your job. That’s why you get married, so you have a guy to tell you to stop worrying.”
Hanging up, she was worried, but not just about the snow. It had been more than two years since she had seen her sister and her sister’s family and now they were all going to be under one roof for a long time. And, Don was coming to dinner, and Howie, her nephew’s friend. As she ran the list in her head, now she was worried not only about the dinner being all right, but having enough food for everyone. “How did my mother ever do this all the time?” she asked the refrigerator.
At least Paul’s mother was down for her nap, but how was she going to react to having so many people around? And how do we talk about Cassandra or do we talk about Cassandra? Lenore and her cousin practically grew up as sisters and Lenore was insisting on having a chair for her. How’s Deanne going to take that? Just how do I stop worrying?
Pouring wine, Jeanne stood with her eyes closed, suffering with the memory of her lost niece. Warm lips touched her cheek and she heard the whispered words, “What can I do to help?” Her eyes opened with a start and she dropped the bottle to the floor, letting out a short scream.
Lenore and her mother faced each other in a forever moment, finally falling into each other’s arms with tears that were a very long time coming. Jeanne sobbed, “You look and sound so much like her.” Lenore could only nod. Answering the call of breaking glass, Caitlin appeared in the doorway. She knew what happened. She understood the pain she could not fully share and didn’t wish to intrude. Amid the sobbing, she picked up broken glass and toweled the floor.
“God, it hurts.” Caitlin wasn’t sure which said it, but it could have been either her sister or her mother. She checked the cookies in the oven and removed one sheet to the table, making a mental note to check the other in ten minutes.
Caitlin’s sharp ears heard the front door and she hurried in that direction. “Hi, Dad. How’s your day? I really need your help with something.” She pulled her father toward the sofa and sat next to him. She looked very thoughtful for a long moment. “You know in school the kid Johnny doesn’t do good on tests and the other kids pick on him and I don’t think they should just because he’s not good on tests and all and you say sometimes we shouldn’t pick on people because they aren’t like us so is that what we shouldn’t do and if someone does, should we tell them not to?” she said in one breath.
Paul looked into the hungry face of his youngest daughter, toward the hallway and back again. “Caitlin, I love you dearly,” he said and stood. She was up to block his path.
“Dad!” she whined pulling on his arm and batting her baby blues, “I need an answer! I’m in school so I can learn about people so you gotta tell me the answer!”
Caitlin was in school for socialization. She had a natural talent for picking up just about anything and could easily talk rings around any of her teachers if she really wanted to. Paul felt she could start college if she set her mind to it, but Caitlin wasn’t very good at dealing with people. Paul hoped the school system would survive the process. “We’ll talk about it later,” he said as he moved her aside and headed for the kitchen to see what his daughter was trying to hide. He paused at the entrance and found Lenore looking through the glass of the back door and Jeanne leaning over the sink with the water running. “I thought we weren’t going to do this?” he asked.
Turning from the door, Lenore stomped across the kitchen and said, “We’re not!” as she pushed passed him.
Moving to his wife and putting a hand on her shoulder, he said, “I just want us all to have a nice holiday.”
She smoothed her apron, shrugged her shoulders and retrieved the sheet of cookies from the oven. “It will be, as always, Paul. Want a fresh cookie?”
The drive up the coast for George and Deanne Heathe was not a bad trip considering it was Christmas Eve. They were riding ahead of the holiday traffic and George was pushing a bit harder than he normally would, sensing a storm on their heels. At one point halfway through the trip, they stopped to stretch their legs but the snow came out of nowhere and he hurried everyone back into the car.
Sixteen-year-old John said, “I like snow. I don’t know what your problem is.”
George found him in the rear view mirror and answered, “You don’t have to drive in it.”
“I’ll drive!” Howie said. “I’ve had my license for almost three months.”
George grumbled. Howie was along for the ride. His parents were in Europe for the month so Howie was staying with the Heathe’s. Deanne could drive, but since George was in the car, he would be the driver.
George instructed, “We can leave everything in the car for now. John and Howie can bring it in later.” He had beaten all but about an inch of snow. Paul, Jeanne and Caitlin met the troupe at the door with welcomes and hugs. Remarks of, “How the kids have grown,” were exchanged and, “It has been a long time.” When things quieted a bit, Caitlin took Howie and John by the hands and walked backwards. “We’re going to get some soda!” she announced.
Paul conducted the adults to the living room and asked, “What can I get you?” as they relaxed into heavy chairs, relieved the threshold had been crossed. Caitlin appeared with a serving tray sporting a bottle and four glasses. Howie followed close behind with a plate of cheese and crackers in one hand and traditional baked party mix in the other.
“How sweet!” Deanne exclaimed. Caitlin smiled sideways as she popped the cork with a twist. “And thank you, Howie!”
Caitlin handed out glasses and filled each. “I know if I don’t do my very bestest to get you guys drunk, we’re not going to get away with nothing tonight.” Everyone laughed, not realizing she was serious. “We’re going up to my room,” Caitlin stated. “After the boys unload the car.”
“She’s the little charmer, isn’t she?” Deanne said.
“Yeah,” was Paul’s simple answer coming with a roll of the eyes. He knew anyone watching Caitlin work a room wouldn’t have any idea what the little charmer had put the family through. With the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, Paul watched the back of Caitlin’s head as she disappeared into the foyer. It wasn’t her fault, he reminded himself.
Deanne put a hand on Paul’s knee and asked, “Has she been okay?” with a nod toward the living room arch.
Paul nodded grimly and answered, “So far.”
Upstairs, Howie and John dropped their packs on the floor. John fell to his knees and said, “I have a secret gift for you, Cait, ‘cause I have no idea where your parents are at. They may not approve,” and he handed her a box.
“Too very cool for words!” she exclaimed and put her hand over her mouth with a little giggle. “You’re right! Mom’ll have a cow!” She dropped to her knees and kissed him on the cheek. “This is really, really cool!”
John winked at her and said, “You’re lucky in two ways.” His eyebrows went up and his eyes got big as he leaned toward her.
Howie leaned a bit closer as Caitlin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Oooookay. I’ll bite. How’m I lucky in two ways?”
“You’re looking great. You’re lucky you’re my cousin and you’re lucky I don’t like girls.” His eyes got even bigger as Howie snickered.
She blushed and then her mouth opened wide. “You mean?” she looked for words. “Like no way! Really, really?”
“Yes – way – really, really,” John stated flatly.
She looked from Howie to John, Howie to John and back again. “You mean you two?” she said with her finger waving from one to the other.
Howie laughed and said, “No, but I’ve a surprise of my own tonight.”
“One thing at a time you two,” Caitlin said with her hands up in front of her. “Does Uncle George and Aunt Deanne know?”
John looked at his watch. “Ask me that in three hours or so.”
“Please! Make it at dessert. I hate flying food and Mom worked so really, really hard to have like this perfect dinner for everyone. Ruin dessert – not dinner. But I guess you’ll help with the dishes, huh? You people like that sort of thing, right?”
They snickered at the jokes. Seriously, John asked, “Do you really think your folks’ll be like upset? Really?”
“Here’s what I’m thinking.” Caitlin closed her eyes and continued with a hand on her forehead, “Mom’ll be quiet for a long time and say, ‘If that’s what you want to do.’ Dad, who knows everything about everything, will give you a long lecture about safe sex and getting along with people. That is, if’n your Dad doesn’t pop your head like a pimple!”
“Ah, he’ll be okay, I think,” Howie said. “He’s always talking about freedom of choice makes America great blah blah blah.”
Caitlin smiled touching John’s arm and returned, “Blah blah blahs are dandy but we’ll see what happens when he finds out it’s his kid and not people next door!”
“It’s great to be together again,” Howie proclaimed and added, “And on this night,” finishing with, “and we have snow for Christmas Eve even!” He held his hands out and John took one as he held a hand to Caitlin. Caitlin took a hand of each. John winked at Caitlin as Howie drew a deep breath. “In the name of the Goddess and in our names, I make sacred this Circle. May we have prefect love and perfect trust between us from this day forever and forever. This is my wish.”
With eyes closed, John said, “So mote it be.”
Caitlin hesitated and then added, “Amen.”
Howie’s eyes popped open as he leaned forward, “I told you she’d get it!” He nodded with approval. The three children laughed; Howie became a bit obsessed and solemn. “Have you been okay, Caitlin Robertson?” he asked as if he didn’t want the answer.
Caitlin’s eyes caught and held Howie’s. “Everyone’s so damn worried about me like I’m going to go on a shooting spree or something and everyone’s so damn afraid to talk about it!” Her eyes flashed and glistened sending a shiver from Howie’s head to his feet. “No one’s got a clue – but I get it!” She laughed at both boys. “And I ain’t telling ‘cause no one’ll understand.” Caitlin tilted her head down and looked from under her brows. In a calm and even voice she finished with, “I’m fine. I’m finer than anyone I ever met except for maybe one other.”
Howie forced himself to start breathing again. “Gotcha, Caitie,” he said and changed directions. “What kinda video games do you have?” Caitlin moved the boys down to the family room, peeked in on the adults, and then woke her grandmother.
Gram always came back from sleep in a fog and confused. “What time is the wedding?” or “Did they rebuild the barn yet?” No one seemed to understand this but Caitlin. Caitlin would often wake and, for thirty seconds, not know where she was. When she was younger, Caitlin woke in the fog and didn’t come back for over a year – or so she was told.
“Gram was somewhere else and now she’s here,” Caitlin would explain when asked. That day, Gram asked, “Are they here yet? Am I late?”
“They’re all here, Gram,” Caitlin said gently. “You’re right on time.”
“I just love when the soldiers come back from the woods,” Gram said with excitement. “They always tell me what others don’t know.”
“Yeah, Gram. Secrets are always fun.” Caitlin helped her into her housecoat. With Gram sitting on the bed, Caitlin leaned over taking her grandmother’s face with both hands, going almost nose-to-nose. “Who am I, Gram?”
She squinted and placed a hand on Caitlin’s face. “Why, you’re my sweet, sweet Cait!” and Caitlin knew she was back from wherever she was. With little effort, Caitlin guided Gram to the living room.
“Uncle George and Aunt Deanne – I’m sure you remember my Gram,” Caitlin said placing her grandmother in a comfortable chair.
Gram leaned forward to meet the two new faces. “If I don’t remember you now, give me some time, I will!” Caitlin brought a cup of tea and refilled the wineglasses. She took a moment to watch her grandmother looking around – smiling like an idiot, seeing her even in that moment slipping away from the world and into her own world where reality and delusion carried equal weight.
Caitlin equated Gram’s journey with her own earlier journey. The doctors puzzled over Caitlin’s condition, working everything from drug therapy to what seemed more like voodoo. Caitlin had a vague memory of a man in black with a white collar waving a vile of water and a Bible. When she asked about it, everyone, even her sister, disowned any knowledge of the event. Caitlin wasn’t sure of anything in that missing time – living in a place where reality and delusion carried equal weight. Caitlin still wasn’t sure of reality, but had learned not to tell anyone about it.
Out of the shower and dressed, Lenore found Caitlin in the mirror behind her as she was finishing her makeup. Caitlin smiled, placed her hands on her sister’s shoulders and kissed her cheek. She whispered, “Are you okay?”
Lenore placed a hand on Caitlin’s and nodded.
Hand in hand, they entered the living room. Uncle George jumped to his feet. “There she is!” and hugged Lenore hard enough to take her breath away.
George stepped aside to let his wife greet Lenore. Jeanne held tight to Paul’s hand. Deanne stood two feet away with her mouth moving and nothing coming out. Lenore tried to turn away but Caitlin’s hands in her back wouldn’t let her. Deanne took a deep breath, shook her head and smiled meekly. “It is very good to see you again, Lenore.” She reached out and they joined hands.
“Very much so,” Lenore forced a smile and everyone in the room began to breathe again. Cassandra was Lenore’s cousin and Deanne’s daughter. Cassandra and Lenore were often mistaken for twins. Lenore knew it wasn’t her fault she looked so much like her cousin and she knew the pain this resemblance must cause her aunt. Lenore squirmed uncomfortably and looked at her watch. “Let me make a phone call.” When she placed the receiver down, she found herself being dragged upstairs by her sister.
Don tried to guess how long he had been standing on the sidewalk looking at the house. He felt the tug to just walk away, but he also felt the responsibility to knock on the front door. In that moment, he felt it would be easier to keep walking and deal with Lenore later.
Don, in living through his teens, had really become a recluse. He was uncomfortable around people in general, strangers in particular. Until eight months before, he had developed a very structured existence in which his contact with people was limited to necessity. If not for his desire for a warm bed, he could see himself living in a bathtub deep in some woods.
The calm sea of seclusion was disrupted by a series of events that brought Lenore and Caitlin crashing into his life. Lenore chose to like him in spite of himself; Caitlin took it upon herself to make him look at life a bit differently. It had been a dynamic, to say the least, eight months. Don had become comfortable with not only Lenore and Caitlin, but also Paul and Jeanne who took it upon themselves to be surrogate parents – if not good friends.
Still, Lenore had said this would be a family dinner and an evening of traditions. The thought of being confined with strangers in a house made his stomach swim. He longed to be alone in his apartment, sipping coffee, closed off from the rest of the world.
In the quiet of the snow covered landscape he heard a window open and a voice float on the night air. “Hi Don,” came a loud whisper. “What are you doing?”
“Oh,” he said with the surprise of discovery, “Hi Cait. I’m just enjoying the fresh air,” he offered as an excuse.
“Cool. Or should I say cold? When you get done enjoying the fresh air, I need your help.”
“Sure, Cait, what do you need?”
“Lenore got like this idea to make me up for the holiday and it’s the first time I’ve been all made up. I’m scared to go downstairs. But,” she leaned out the window with wide eyes, “if I know you’re there I won’t be so scared!”
“I can do that,” Don replied with the stern resolve of a man with a mission.
“Ducks, my Blood Brother,” Caitlin said. “Ducks.”
With that, Don brought ducks full to his mind and boldly walked on to the porch and rang the doorbell.