© 2018 by Becky Monson

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

 “Your father and I are getting a divorce.”

This was my mother's greeting when I reluctantly answered the phone, and the third thing to add to my list of crappy things that had happened that day. The first on the list was walking out on my job—no notice, no nothing. But I had to. I had to. I couldn’t have stayed there one more second and looked at Braydon’s stupid, smug face.

The second crappy thing had been waiting for me in the mail, which I'd again waited too long to grab. I mean, it’s almost always bills, and who wants to see those? Even worse than bills was the Christmas card and letter from my high school teacher, Miss Anna Cate. The news from my mentor was not good. The worst kind of news, actually.

And now my parents were getting divorced. I’d have been sure to write this all in my diary and mark it “worst day ever,” if I even had a diary, which I didn’t.

“Come again?” I asked, not sure I had heard my mother correctly. Or maybe hoped I hadn’t. I reached up and twisted some of my hair around my finger. A nervous habit, but I had a lot going on.

“I’m divorcing your father,” she repeated, her tone firm. I could easily picture her face. The downturn of her lips, the creases between her brows.

“Are you sure?” I asked. It was kind of a dumb question, but in my defense, I wasn’t thinking normally. The proverbial rug had already been nudging its way out from under my legs, and then my mom swooped in and dragged it full-force, leaving me to land right on my rear.

“London,” she said, clearly irritated. “I’m quite sure.”

“Um, okay,” I said, unsure of what I could even say to that. I needed to hang up, to process this. I looked around my messy apartment, hoping for some way to get out of this conversation. But it offered nothing. No excuse to save me. So I plopped down on my bed, still wearing the Rachel Zoe black pant suit that I had put on that morning before work—back when life was still hopeful and bad things hadn’t happened. Oh, to go back.

“Why are you getting divorced?” I asked, reaching up and pinching the bridge of my nose. I was feeling a headache coming on.

She sighed a big, hearty sigh. “It’s been a long time coming. Your father and I . . . we will always love each other; we just can’t tolerate each other anymore.”

“You can’t tolerate each other anymore?” I repeated, wondering briefly if maybe I was still sleeping and this was one of those stupid dreams you are so relieved to wake up from. My parents couldn’t tolerate each other anymore? Are most marriages based on tolerance? What about love? What about respect? When did toleration become the most important part of the equation? Maybe there was more to it and my mother didn’t want to tell me.

“Oh my gosh, did Dad cheat on you?” I asked, my mouth speaking on its own accord—something that happened on a frequent basis for me.

“No! There’s been no cheating. Not by either of us,” she cut me off before I could ask if perhaps she had done the cheating. “Actually, there’s been none of any of that for a long time. For either of us.”

“Okay, Mom, ew,” I said, swallowing hard. That was what every daughter in her mid-twenties wanted to hear about her parents.

“Oh, grow up, London,” she said, incredulous. “Anyway, I’m calling because I need you to come home.”

“Mom,” I sighed, “I am coming home, remember?”

My plan had been to drive out to Phoenix on Christmas Eve, stay until two days after Christmas, and then drive back to San Francisco. I had taken a full week off from work, but I didn’t think I could stomach being with my family for that long. Seeing my siblings would be hard with my older sister, Savannah, and her perfect children and husband, and my younger brother, Boston, whom I hadn’t seen since he graduated top of his class from Stanford earlier that year. He already had a job in some fancy-shmancy brokerage firm in Scottsdale. Overachiever.

And then there was me. I was just London. Living by myself in a ridiculously overpriced closet (it wasn’t big enough to call an apartment) and quitting a job yet again. This was job number five since graduating college. Of course, it wasn't like anyone in my family knew I’d quit my job earlier in the day. And it's not like I was going to say anything about it now because it would only add to the utter disappointment I had become. I was, by all definitions, failing at life.

“I know you’re coming home for Christmas, but I need you to come home this weekend,” my mom said with her no-nonsense tone.

“This weekend?” I asked, feeling panicked. The walls of my closet-sized apartment were suddenly feeling even smaller.

“Yes,” she said, an unmistakable you’ll-do-what-I-say tone to her voice.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I need you. Everything is moving quickly. There’s so much to do, so much stuff to separate. I need your help. Savannah can’t, and I don’t want to bother Boston.”

Of course Savannah couldn’t help. She never could. And my mother wouldn’t even think of bothering her sweet baby Boston. Heaven forbid.

I, on the other hand, was an easy target. I had no strings attached—no children or significant other or new job to keep me busy. I had all the time in the world, according to my mother. And the truth was, I didn’t have anything going on. No job to keep me busy, no boyfriend to speak of. Not since Braydon and I broke up. No way would I be able to stomach him being my new boss. That was a deal breaker. Not that Mom knew about any of that. I could tell her I had work to do on my Etsy shop, but since that hadn’t made me any profit as of yet, and was more or less just a hobby, she’d never take that as an excuse.

But what was there to go home to? My parents were adults. They could work all this out between themselves. Why drag me into it, anyway? Honestly, a visit to the dentist sounded more pleasant than being engulfed in all this family drama. It was freaking Christmastime.

“Mom, I really don’t think I can. I have, uh, work stuff,” I lied, since that was really my only option.

“You can, and you must,” she said.

And that was the way things were done with Melinda Walsh, contracts lawyer extraordinaire. Why couldn’t she passive-aggressively guilt me into things like a normal mother? She was demanding, frustrating, and overzealous in her endeavors to rule over me. Well, maybe that was exaggerating a bit, but she had always been domineering, and I was kind of tired of it. Actually, I was really tired of it.

I looked down at the letter staring up at me from Miss Anna Cate. The other-other piece of bad news from this horrible day. My heart sank as I remembered her words. My mentor—my favorite teacher—was dying. She had one request—that I come back to Christmas Falls and sing the final song in the pageant at the community center. My initial thought was to tell her no. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go back to Christmas Falls, I did. But I didn’t know if I could handle seeing Miss Anna Cate in the state she was in. Dying. She had been one of the brighter—if not the brightest—spots of my early life. How could my heart take it?

But as Mommy Dearest was making her demands, I had the sudden feeling that Christmas Falls might be the answer to all my problems. I could get away from San Francisco and the job I no longer had, away from my family and all the drama that would most definitely ensue, and go to the place—the only place—that had ever felt like home to me. Try as I might, in the eight years since I’d left, I could never find that feeling of belonging again.

Maybe I’d romanticized it. Maybe it wouldn’t feel like home anymore. But there was only one way to find out.

“Well, actually, I wasn’t going to tell you this because I didn’t know how to break it to you,” I gulped down my lie, “but I can’t come home, Mom. I have to go to Christmas Falls.”

“Christmas Falls?” she practically spat. “Why on earth would you want to go there?”

My mom was raised in the wealthy part of Denver, Colorado, and had always claimed to be a “city girl.” She met my dad on a family vacation at a dude ranch near Gatlinburg where he worked in the summers. A small-town boy and a city girl. It was love at first sight, according to my dad. Apparently not so much anymore.

After years of doing the long-distance thing, they finally got married their sophomore year of college. After graduate school, they settled in Christmas Falls, unintentionally started a family not long after that, and it wasn’t long before my mom wanted out of the small-town life. She said she found it stifling. After years of pestering, demanding, and ultimatums from my mom to my dad, we moved after my senior year and none of us had ever been back.

“I need to see Miss Anna Cate,” I said.

“Miss Anna who?” she asked, disdain ringing through her tone.

“My music teacher? Throughout high school? My mentor from the community center?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

And there it was. Miss Anna Cate meant the world to me back then. She was one of the most important people in my life. I can’t say there had been a lot of people who had made such an impact on me, but Miss Anna Cate was definitely one who had. And my mother had no recollection. So typical.

“It doesn’t matter. She needs me to come to Christmas Falls,” I said. “She’s dying, Mom. She wants to see me.”

“Well, that’s sad,” my mother said, and to her credit, she did sound sincere. “Miss Anna Cate . . . Miss Anna Cate,” she repeated her name as she tried to recall the woman that had meant so much to me.

“She had the shorter, graying hair? Led the choir? Ran the community center?” Short of sending her a picture, I wasn’t sure anything would jog her memory.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I remember now. She gave you that silly bracelet you wouldn’t take off. I hated that thing.”

Right. The bracelet. The one I didn’t have anymore. Not that it mattered, it was years ago.

“Anyway, so you understand why I can’t come home this weekend.”

“Yes,” she said, still lost in thought. “But you’ll be home for Christmas.” This was not said in the form of a question.

I closed my eyes tight, bracing myself. “Well . . . I’m not sure. She, uh, wants me to sing one last time in the pageant.” My heart started racing, knowing this was going to go over about as well as a lead balloon.

“The pageant? That silly little show at the community center?”

“Yes, that one,” I said, slightly annoyed. It was not a “silly little show.” It was one of the highlights of Christmastime in Christmas Falls. The community center, Christmas spirit everywhere, singing my heart out with my best friend—well, my ex-best friend that I hadn’t spoken to in years. I could never find a friendship like I had with Piper, not in the past eight years, even though I’d tried. Dear heavens, I’d tried.

“Wait . . . wasn’t the pageant on Christmas Day?”

I cringed. I was kind of hoping she wouldn’t put that together, and then I could text her about it later. I couldn’t get yelled at via text. Well, I could, but it was less scary.

“Um, yes,” I said rather timidly.

“London Jean Walsh, you will not be staying in Christmas Falls for Christmas. You will come home!” she demanded, her voice escalating with each word.

“I need to go to Christmas Falls,” I said, a pleading tone to my voice.

“You need to come home!”

Oh yes, she was livid now. I briefly wondered if I should hang up. Maybe let her cool off.

That was the thing, though—Phoenix wasn’t home. I never really lived there, only stayed there over summers and other school breaks. Northern California should have been my home since I had spent the last four years there, but that never felt right either. The only place I’d ever felt at home was Christmas Falls.

“Mom, this is kind of important,” I said, holding the letter up as if she could see it. Miss Anna Cate needed me. How could I let her down? Even if I had just come up with the idea.

There was any easy fix for all of this—an easy way to get my mother down from her angry perch. I scrunched my face and said, “I’ll take the first flight out the day after Christmas to Phoenix, okay? I’ll even stay the whole week.”

“The whole week?” I knew the second she said this that I was in the clear. I hadn’t come home for an entire week in ages. I, on the other hand, was having a quick onset of heart palpitations. An entire week? Heaven help me.

“Yes, Mom, the whole week,” I said, half-heartedly choking out the words. “I’ll be there to do y’all’s bidding.”

She let out a huff. “Don’t say ‘y’all,’” she reprimanded. She never liked the fact that her children had gained Southern accents while living in Christmas Falls. Mine was almost gone at this point, but I did throw out a “y’all” every now and then. Mostly to annoy her.

“I’ve gotta go, Mom,” I said, knowing we were heading down a petty road. First, it was correcting my grammar, next it would be telling me to stop chewing my nails, which, coincidentally, I was doing. “Tell Dad I love him . . . I mean, next time you see him.”

I added the last part since I didn’t know how all that worked. It still hadn’t set in—at twenty-six, my parents were not going to be together anymore. I felt some comfort in knowing I would be in Christmas Falls and could sort all of that out later. In my mind, and in reality.

“Well, okay,” she said, sounding as if she still wasn’t completely convinced. “Quick question, though—how are you getting so much time off work? I thought you could only take a few days?”

“What was that?”

“I said—”

“Sorry, mom, shhhhhhh! Bad shhhhhh connection! We’re going through a tunnel! Shhhhhhhh.”

“I thought you were at home?” she said, now yelling like people do when losing a phone connection. As if escalating your voice would even help.

I hung up quickly and powered off my phone, pretending the connection was lost. No way was I going to go explain all of that. Besides, she would never understand why I had quit. If they hadn’t promoted Braydon, I’d probably still be sitting at my desk right now. It was a knee-jerk reaction, I know. I hadn’t even given the guy a chance. But to have your ex-boyfriend as your boss? That was not a good idea. Not when things ended as poorly as they had. Actually, the bad idea was dating a coworker in the first place. But live and learn, right?

Not having a job lined up was probably not very wise either. Like I said, it was a spontaneous move. But I did have some money saved. At least there was that.

As I grabbed my laptop and pulled up the travel website I always used, I wondered, briefly, if I was making a mistake by not going to Phoenix. But my mind was made up. I was going to see Miss Anna Cate; I was going to sing in that Christmas pageant.

I was going home.

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