First off, thank you everyone for all the input for this chapter. It gave me lots of great ideas and I hope you'll enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. And for the first time in a long while, I actually have the video ready on time! Huzzah! So be sure to check the end of the chapter for the video and you can listen to me read. It was actually surprisingly hard to do because I had to keep a straight face while reading the...well, you'll see for yourself. Be sure to vote in the poll and let me know what you think of this chapter. Here's another peek at the official cover. Not going to reveal it all just yet. But soon...
“If you used more mistletoe, your daughter wouldn’t be single,” I heard Grandma say as Scarlett and I came in from the barn. Scarlett immediately retreated back outside, slamming the door behind her.
“Mom, please, give it a rest. There is enough stress and tension around here without you adding to it,” Mom replied. She saw me and smiled, “Everything okay?”
“Yep, Josiah’s horses are fed and watered as are ours.” Mom had offered to let the surviving horses stay with us until Teddy and Josiah could rebuild. Josiah would be staying with us too, at least through the holidays. Teddy was in a hospice care center and would remain there indefinitely. “Do you want me to hang some of those garlands for you?”
“Yes, please,” Mom said, handing me an armful.
Grandma wasn’t going to be so easily deterred. “Well, don’t come crying to me if you never get to hold your grandchildren.”
“Mom, I’m warning you…”
“Geeze, Grandma, do you honestly think Scarlett and I are both going to stay single forever?” I interrupted, trying to lighten the situation.
“No of course not! But…”
“There’s plenty of time for Mom to hold grandbabies. I plan on giving her a house-full.”
“Besides, Mom, I seem to recall you telling your own mother to let me alone when I was young and single.”
“That was different, you at least had young men around to date. If you ask me…”
“She didn’t,” Scarlett interrupted. None of us had heard her come back in from the barn and now she was standing in the doorway, her eyes going tornado green. “When and where and to whom I get married is none of your business and if I hear so much as one more word on the subject…”
“I’ll leave,” she finished, ignoring Mom’s warning. “I’m sick of you hounding me about it. I’m sick of feeling like I have to justify my decisions. I’m sick of you reminding me that I’m not getting any younger. This isn’t the middle ages. I’m not an old maid, or stuck on the shelf, or a spinster or any of those other stupid phrases out of your idiotic romance novels. And before you think that I’m just perfectly happy in all my single glory, understand that no one in this room is more acutely aware of how lonely my life is than I am. Just leave me alone.” Without giving Grandma a chance to respond, Scarlett turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, running into Josiah on her way out.
He looked around the room and seeing my grandmother’s eyes fill with tears asked slowly, “Did I screw something up again?”
“No, you’re not at fault this time,” I said. “Here, help me with these garlands, would you?” While I felt bad leaving Mom to deal with Grandma’s meltdown by herself, the last thing Scarlett needed was for Josiah to weigh in on the problem.
“Is she always like this?” he asked as we took the garlands outside.
“Scarlett or Grandma?”
“I already know Scarlett,” Josiah pointed out. “Your grandma.”
“Yeah, pretty much. In high school it’s all about having perfect grades and making a future for yourself. Then somehow at eighteen the gears in her head shift to matrimony. Scarlett has been disappointing her for years.”
Josiah nodded as he plugged the garland in. “I’d help her out, but she doesn’t seem to want my help in that department.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, but do not tell her I said that.”
He gave me one of his heart-melting, mischievous smiles. “Not a word.”
When we’d finished, we went back in the house. Scarlett was still nowhere to be seen and I decided to go up and check on her. I knocked on the door. “Scarlett? Can I come in?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I opened the door and watched her turn from her desk, her laptop closed but blinking. She had been using it recently.
“I suppose Mom sent you to make me apologize.”
“Good, because I’m not going to.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” I replied, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
She slid out of her seat and joined me with a hug. “I know.”
“Would you really leave?”
For a moment she didn’t respond, which was answer enough by itself. “No, Blizz,” she said after a long while. “I don’t exactly have anywhere to go. I was just mad, that’s all.”
“You know we need you, right?”
She smiled and ruffled my hair. “Don’t worry, sis. I’m not planning on just running out on you.”
Somehow I didn’t feel totally reassured, but I let the subject drop. “It’s gonna be a crazy day.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. I guess we ought to go help Mom finish decorating. The Lesters will be here before we know it.”
The Lesters were a family from church we knew. I often babysat the five boys, especially in recent weeks as their parents were going through an unpleasant divorce. Mom had invited them over for a Christmas Eve party.
Promptly that afternoon, the doorbell rang. Five exuberant boys between the ages of five and nine came barreling into the house. Grandma fussed over all of them as Mom hugged her friend. “It’s so good to see you, Leslie.”
“Thanks for inviting us over. The boys have talked about nothing else for a week!” Leslie said with a laugh. She then turned to her boys, “Remember the rules.”
“Yes, Mom,” they said in unison.
“Who wants to decorate cookies?” I asked. Soon I was leading the giggling group into the kitchen.
The day grew wilder as the hours went by. Hyper with excitement and sugar, the boys were soon playing a rough and tumble game of tag throughout the house. I was glad I’d closed my door, but soon heard the unmistakable sound of discordant notes. I ran upstairs to find the five boys had invaded my room. The twins were jumping on the bed throwing my stuffed animals around while two other boys were playing the guitar (or attempting anyway) and the other had pulled out my neon pink sports bra and was wearing it like a crown on his head. “Get out of my room!” I shrieked and the boys went scrambling out, laughter ringing through the stairway. “Don’t you dare come back or you’ll be sorry,” I warned. An idea came to mind and I went into the kitchen. Finding Mom’s biggest leftover container I filled it with ice before then adding enough water to cover it. Then I went back up and got it situated on the door frame. “That should deter anyone from coming back in.” But as it turned out, they never did and I soon forgot about it.
After dinner, we went into the living room for caroling. I asked Scarlett to get my guitar for me. Soon a crash and blood-curdling scream filled the air. Everyone ran to the stairs. Scarlett, dripping and obviously cold handed me my guitar. “Think you’re funny, huh?” She shivered as the boys howled with laughter.
“Scarlett, I am so sorry. I totally forgot. I put that there for the boys…”
“Do I look like a boy?”
“Nope, definitely not a boy,” Josiah replied, staring at her soaked shirt for which he got slapped.
“Excuse me while I change,” Scarlett hissed.
The rest of us went downstairs and began caroling. Scarlett joined us and Josiah wrapped his arms around her. She said something to him and looked mad, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I noted that she didn’t move away from him. Then Josiah disappeared. Within moments, Santa Claus came into the room carrying a large sack over his shoulder to the astonished joy of our guests. Leslie’s eyes filled with tears as Josiah, I mean Santa, picked each boy up in turn and set him on his lap while Grandma snapped dozens of pictures. He emptied his sack, giving each child the carefully selected presents. Mom passed out steaming mugs of hot cocoa as Santa instructed everyone to have a seat. Then he began reading reverently from Luke the story of Christ’s birth. Sleepy little boys dozed and I have to admit I started feeling a bit drowsy myself.
I started awake when Mom said, “Let’s thank our visitor and get your treats before you go home.”
The boys hugged their Santa before skipping after Mom to the kitchen. I followed them and helped get everything packed away and ready as Leslie expressed her thanks over and over.
Mom hugged her around the sleeping boy on Leslie’s shoulder and said, “I remember that first Christmas as a single mom and while my children were older, it didn’t make it easy. You keep doing what you’re doing and keep your chin up.”
We heard hushed giggles and looked to see the boys pointing into the living room, shaking with laughter. Josiah had gotten Scarlett under the one bit of mistletoe and they were now locked in a passionate embrace. But unlike make-out sessions I’d witnessed in high school, there was real tenderness in the way they held each other. I tried valiantly not to giggle as the boys commented on the scene.
“What’s he doing to her face?”
“He’s kissing her, I think.”
“That doesn’t look like a kiss.”
“I thought the song said Mama was kissing Santa Claus, not Scarlett.”
“I don’t think that’s actually Santa. His beard’s half-off.”
It probably would have continued if Grandma hadn’t arrived at that moment and clutched her heart with a loud gasp. “Merciful heavens! I hope you have a shotgun handy because that’s the type of wedding you’ll be planning if this keeps up.”
Scarlett jumped away from Josiah like she’d been burned while he replied nonchalantly, “Well, Mrs. Samuels, you are the one who advocated mistletoe. I’m just putting it to good use.”
The noise had wakened the sleeping child in Leslie’s arms and one of the brothers said, “You missed the grossest kiss ever, Timmy!”
“Aw, I always miss the good stuff,” he whined as tears welled in his eyes.
Grandma marched up to Josiah and demanded he announce his intentions and Leslie turned to Mom. “I think I’d better take my hooligans home. Looks like you’ve got enough on your plate for tonight.”
Mom rubbed her temple and replied, “Normal for me. Have a merry Christmas.”
Once Leslie and her boys were gone, Mom practically dragged Grandma from the living room begging her to leave Josiah and Scarlett alone.
The next morning I woke earlier than normal. It was Christmas at last! I couldn’t wait to see Mom’s face when she opened my present for her. She was going to be so excited. And yeah, I was excited to see what I got too. I went down to the kitchen on quiet feet. I could smell Scarlett’s cocoa before I even arrived. Scarlett drinks cocoa like other people drink coffee. We never had coffee in the house, but one year Scarlett just fell in love with cocoa. I’m not talking about the stuff out of a packet. Mom taught her how to make real, old-fashioned hot chocolate and Scarlett got hooked. She started experimenting with flavors and it was always a treat to taste her latest combination. I could smell citrus and something a little spicy though I couldn’t place what it was. I saw Scarlett sitting with her back to me and could hear the tapping of her keyboard. I silently walked in, hoping for a peek at what she was being so secretive about. On the screen, I saw the words, School of Business Work Study Opportunities, just before the mystery spice registered in my head. “Cloves!” I said aloud.
Scarlett jumped and snapped the laptop shut. “Hey, Blizz, merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you.” I walked to the pot of cocoa sitting on the stovetop. “May I?”
“Of course. Tell me what you think. I added a few different things this time.”
I ladled the steaming beverage into a mug and took a slow mouthful. “Mmm, orange, cloves and cinnamon?”
“Mmm-hmmm, do you like it?”
Nodding I said, “It’s very festive. I like it a lot. How did you get the orange flavor? I thought we’d run out.”
“We did. I melted a couple slices from a chocolate orange.”
“That’s why it’s so creamy today. It’s delicious though. Maybe you should open a specialty shop in town.” I winked.
Scarlett beamed at me. “Maybe someday.” A wistful look crossed her face followed by a frown. “It would be a lot of hard work, though. Besides, there’s too much to do here.”
“Hey, a girl’s gotta have a dream, right?”
She smiled at the words she had told me months before. “Right.”
Almost at the same time, Josiah and Teddy came in from the kitchen patio door and Mom walked in. “Good morning and merry Christmas,” she said, hugging each of us.
“Mornin’, Mama,” Scarlett replied.
Mom turned to Teddy and Josiah, “Merry Christmas.”
“And to you,” Teddy replied, accepting her hug. “Thanks for inviting us over.”
It wasn’t long before Grandma joined us and soon we all went out to the barn. I’m not sure exactly when opening presents in the barn became the thing to do in the Jannsen house. It may have stemmed from the year Daddy gave Scarlett her first pony. Or it may have been done to prevent a very curious, and very sneaky, Scarlett from discovering all her stocking stuffers early. In any case, we always opened our presents out there. Soon stockings were emptied and we were opening presents. I was purposely waiting to give Mom my gift until last. But then I watched Mom open a plain box from Teddy and stared in disbelief. The most perfectly adorable German shepherd puppy barked and wagged his little tail. “Awe, Teddy, he’s adorable!”
“Check his collar for his name,” he said gleefully.
Mom managed to get a hold on the wiggling puppy’s tag and read, “Mclintock.” She laughed, “That’s so perfect, Teddy. Thank you.”
“You’ve been saying you wanted a dog. I thought he would be a good help to you on the ranch as he gets bigger.”
Scarlett noticed my dismayed expression and said, “Blizz, what’s wrong? You like dogs.”
“Yeah, I do, and Mclintock is cute but…” There was only one thing to do. I went into the empty stall I’d been storing my presents in and carried out a large, plain box with a green bow. Mom didn’t even have a chance to open it before the occupants pushed their way out. Two wheaten Scottish terrier pups began prancing about Mom’s feet. “A friend of mine from 4-H breeds Scotties and I remembered you saying you’d always wanted one…”
“But Daddy said only work dogs were allowed on a ranch,” Scarlett finished for me. “House dogs are too much of a hassle.”
I nodded. “She had these two left from her litter that hadn’t been sold yet. Everyone wanted the females.”
Mom laughed through tears as she said, “Oh, Blizzard, you sweetheart! I don’t know what I’ll do with three puppies to train, but we’ll make do. Do they have names?”
Shaking my head I replied, “No, I thought I’d give you the honor.”
“I suppose we better keep with our theme. Any suggestions?”
“Look at that one strut about,” Grandma giggled.
Grinning, Mom watched the pup walk with his chest puffed out before picking him up. “We’ll call you Rooster and your brother Cogburn.”
There was one last package under the tree to Scarlett from Josiah. Grandma started to get that matrimonial gleam in her eye, but Mom squashed it with a look. Scarlett opened the small box to find a palomino stallion with a jewelry box tucked under his belly. Her cheeks turned as red as her Christmas sweater as she picked up a small card. “Hello Lettie,” she read aloud, her voice quivering slightly, “my name is Promise.” She opened the jewelry box and pulled out a delicate locket with an intricate, braided design around the edges. “Is that…”
“Horsehair?” Josiah finished for her. “Yep, the braid is from strands of Goliath’s tail. I hoped it would help you feel close to his memory.”
“What about you?”
“I guess I’ll just have to see you wear it.”
“A horsehair locket?” Grandma burst, ruining the moment. “In my day, a young man gave you a diamond ring with his promise, not horsehair.”
Scarlett snapped the box closed with a glare. “I guess in your day people were less appreciative of heart-felt gifts too, weren’t they Grandma? This isn’t the kind of promise you’re thinking.” She then left the barn. Josiah soon followed after, looking strangely disappointed. I had the feeling Grandma was closer in her assessment than Scarlett realized.
“Mother,” Mom sighed. “We talked about this.”
“Well, really. Horsehair.”
“Goliath was born here and was Josiah’s horse project when he and Scarlett were in school,” Mom said. “He died a couple months ago and this was Josiah’s way of mending some broken fences and giving Scarlett something to cherish that had meaning for both of them. Much better than diamonds. Come on, Teddy, let’s get you back inside so you don’t relapse. Your nurses would never forgive me if I sent you home sick.”
I watched the adults walk away as the three puppies played in the hay. Taking them outside for a potty break, I then walked inside with them. I couldn’t help but think that this had been one of the most up and down Christmases we’d ever faced. And I wasn’t all that sure how merry it had actually been.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius