Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One Stop on Jaycee's Journey

And this is what came of all the hoping Jaycee did as a child.


Later, while they unpacked, Jaycee said, “Hey, you never gave me that hint about my Christmas present. Spill it, you welsher.”

Bud took a wrapped package a little larger than a shoe box from his bag and held it in front of her. “It’s something you’ll like.”

“That’s not a hint, Bud. Let me hold it.” She reached for it, but he shook his head.

“Not unless you let me see mine.”

“Okay, then forget it. When are we gonna open them anyway?”

“Christmas Eve I guess. Hey, you wanna get a tree?”

She shrugged. “You should probably save your money now that your dad disowned you and you’re poor.”

“We can wait until Christmas Eve when they cut the prices. Would you care if we had to settle for a Charlie Brown tree?”

“No,” she said with a scornful laugh. “It’s not like I’m used to having one at all.” When she saw the expression on his face, she wished she hadn’t said it. “Don’t look at me like that, Bud. It’s not a big deal.”

“C’mere, Firecracker.”

She rolled her eyes. “Do you always have to be such a sap, Bud?”

“We’ll get the tree today so we can get a nice one,” he said as he hugged her. “Then we’ll go buy some decorations—-lights and everything.”

She looked up at him. “Okay, if it means that much to you. I’ve even got some stuff we can use, but I’m not gonna tell you about it unless you promise not to get all weepy on me.”

“I can be tough.”

“Yeah, right,” she said as they sat on the bed. “You know how kids always make decorations at school to take home and put on their tree? Well, I’d hang mine in my bedroom window and make up stupid stories in my head about how I was a prisoner of war or I’d been kidnapped or some shit like that, and I’d pretend I made the decorations from stuff I sneaked from my captors.” She paused and shook her head with an embarrassed laugh. “I know it was dumb, but I kept them for some reason. They’re in a shoe box in my closet at the dorm.” She looked up at Bud. “Oh, Jesus. Is that what you call tough?”

“Shut up and let me hug you. And don’t give me any lip.” He pulled her roughly into his arms. “How’s that?”

They bought a six-foot Frasier fir and put it up Sunday night. When they went shopping for decorations, Jaycee couldn’t help getting caught up in the excitement of the Christmas rush she’d never been a part of before. Since Bud was so hell-bent on making up for all the Christmases she’d missed, the least she could do was enjoy this one. They bought lights and tinsel and a star for the top, and when Jaycee hung the childish decorations made from construction paper and glitter alongside the beautiful glass ornaments they’d bought, she decided they went together as perfectly as she went with Bud.

When they were done decorating the tree, they made love on the floor in the glow of the lights. Afterward, Jaycee lay watching them twinkle as Bud slept beside her, his arms around her and his breath warm on her neck. She tried to remember ever feeling so happy, and that’s when the first rumblings of terror struck, because the last time she’d felt that way had been the day she’d lost Cole.

She turned and clung to Bud in a panic, and his arms tightened around her.

“Where you going?” he murmured.

“Nowhere, Bud. I’m staying right here with you.”

He smiled without opening his eyes. “Good. Don’t ever leave me, Jaycee.”

She pressed her face against his neck and inhaled the scent she’d come to associate with him, a combination of soap and sex. She told herself her happiness didn’t have to end this time, because Bud needed her as much as she needed him. They would hold on to each other and keep the bad things away.

Buy Your Own Copy Of DIFFERENT ROADS here

~Stay true to yourself, and your dreams will come true.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Child's Spirit

This is my favorite short story. It features Jaycee, the heroine in my book DIFFERENT ROADS, when she was a child. It also explains why she grew up to be the hellion she is.

“Hope Chest”

Jaycee pulled the covers over her head and wondered if she could make herself throw up so her daddy would let her stay home from school. If he hadn’t just been put back on the graveyard shift, he would either be asleep or at work when she woke up and wouldn’t know if she went to school or not, but she could hear him down there in the kitchen fixing himself something to eat. No way would he let her stay home unless he thought she was so sick the school would send her back if she went.

The thought of going to school today definitely made Jaycee feel like throwing up. She hated the last day before the Christmas holidays because of the stupid parties and their stupid gift exchange. Stupid bunch of spoiled kids who already got more presents than they needed, and some of them even still believed in Santa Claus too. Stupid third grade babies.

She heard her daddy open her bedroom door and say, “Get outta that bed and get dressed, girl. And if you’re gonna sleep with the damn covers over your head, don’t be whining to me no more about wanting a light left on. I ain’t working myself to death just to pay for your foolishness.”

Jaycee peered over the edge of the blanket at him. “I don’t feel good, Daddy. I think I’m gonna barf.”

“Probably because you had your damn fool head covered up,” he said around a mouthful of egg sandwich. “Go on and get dressed. I don’t want you around here bothering me while I’m trying to sleep. The school can keep you in the sick room if need be. That’s what they’re paid to do.”

He turned and went back to the kitchen. Jaycee sighed as she got out of bed and hurried to get dressed, hopping from one foot to the other on the cold floor. Her daddy had said he might be able to get the heat turned back on in a few days, and she sure hoped so. Good thing they lived in Alabama and not somewhere up north where it was really cold, like Tennessee.

“Or the stupid North Pole,” she said and added a rueful, “Ho, ho, ho.”

After putting on her shoes, she went to the bathroom and did her best to subdue the uneven cap of short blonde curls on her head. She ended up sticking out her tongue at the reflection in the cracked mirror over the sink. What a brilliant idea it had been to cut off all her hair with the garden shears last year. She’d hoped maybe her daddy would like her better if she looked more like a boy, since he’d cried so much over the baby boy who’d died with her mama when he was being born the year before. But all it had gotten her was a whipping and her daddy telling her she had to keep it that short from then on for doing such a damn fool thing in the first place.

She went back to her room and sighed again as she took a crudely wrapped gift from under her bed. If she had to go to school, at least she would be able to give Mrs. Russell her present. Having Mrs. Russell for a teacher was the only good thing about going to that stupid school, so Jaycee had used the wrapping paper they’d made in class to wrap the poem she’d written and framed in construction paper.

Jaycee had thought she was going to hate Mrs. Russell at first because she’d told Jaycee from the start that she wouldn’t tolerate any of the behavior she’d heard about from Jaycee’s previous teachers. Jaycee remembered how serious Mrs. Russell had looked as she’d told her she would handle any problems Jaycee might have with her classmates but would absolutely not put up with any fighting, swearing, or name calling from Jaycee, no matter what had prompted it.

Maybe it was the way Mrs. Russell’s blonde hair and blue eyes reminded Jaycee of her mama’s, but something had made her believe this teacher would be tough but fair, and she’d been right. Mrs. Russell definitely didn’t let Jaycee get away with anything, but she also didn’t let the other kids get away with their stupid jokes about her hair or her clothes, so Jaycee hadn’t needed to kick anybody’s butt all year.

She put the package in her book bag and felt her stomach do a little flip at the thought of Mrs. Russell reading the poem. Not that it was sappy or anything, but Jaycee was happy with the way it had turned out, and she wanted Mrs. Russell to think it was good. When they’d done their first writing assignment in class, Mrs. Russell had told her she had a true gift for words—even though Jaycee had written about how much she hated school—and she’d liked the way it made her feel.

When she went in the kitchen, her daddy was sitting at the table with his head in his hands, still wearing the green coveralls he wore to work at Surplus Textiles. He didn’t look up at her when she opened the refrigerator to see if there was any milk.

“Eat that egg in the skillet,” he said. “I don’t want it wasted. And hurry up so you don’t miss the bus.”

Jaycee put the egg between the last two pieces of bread—the yucky end pieces—so she could eat it while she walked the quarter mile to the bus stop. “You want me to wake you up when I get home from school, Daddy?”

He still didn’t look at her. “I’ll be gone by then. Make sure you got your key so you can get in.”

Hoping he might be going to pay the gas bill so they’d have heat and hot water again, she said, “Are you going somewhere before you go to work?”

One of his calloused hands struck the table and made her jump. “Ain’t none of your concern where I'm going! You just get your ass in the house and stay here! You hear me, girl?”

Jaycee nodded and had to force herself to swallow the bite she’d just taken, her appetite fleeing now that she saw the crumpled piece of paper on the table in front of her daddy. Whenever he did that to his paycheck stub on a Friday, it meant he would be going to the Crossroads Club instead of going to work, and she might not see him again until Sunday night. She wrapped up the rest of her sandwich in a paper towel and put it in the refrigerator. It might be the only thing she’d have to eat when she got home.

“Bye, Daddy,” she said as she left, but the only reply she got was the sound of his chair scraping the floor as he got up from the table and went down the hall to his bedroom. She ran to the bus stop so it would warm her up, but she slowed to a walk when she saw that stupid Curtis Manning and his sister Nelda were there already. Mrs. Russell had kept the kids in her class from agitating her, but Curtis was a year older than Jaycee, and Nelda was a stupid kindergartner.

“Hey, Ugly,” Curtis said when he saw her. “Didn’t I see a hobo throwing that shirt in the trash yesterday?”

Curtis and Nelda got free lunch the same as Jaycee and everyone else who lived in their crappy neighborhood, but their house looked like a mansion compared to hers, and their clothes came from their older brothers and sisters instead of the Salvation Army store. Jaycee supposed it made Curtis feel like a big shot or something to point out that they had more than she did, but that didn’t mean she had to take it from him.

“Hey, Curtis, didn’t I see your face on something coming out of a dog’s butt yesterday? Sure smelled like you.”

Nelda giggled and got a shove from Curtis. “You must’ve been smelling yourself. What, can’t buy any soap ‘cause your old man spent all his money on booze again?”

Jaycee took a step toward him, her hands clenched into fists. “Kiss my ass, barf face!”

Nelda covered her mouth with her hand. “Ooh, you said a cuss word! Santa's gonna bring you a bag of switches.”

Jaycee opened her mouth to tell her there was no such thing as Santa Claus, but something about the little girl’s enormous brown eyes made her change her mind. Stupid baby would probably just cry anyway. Jaycee hated it when people cried.

“Good, then I’ll use them on your stupid brother,” she said, relieved to see the school bus turning the corner.

Curtis snickered and shouldered both the girls aside to get on the bus in front of them. Jaycee sat behind the driver—the assigned seat for troublemakers that had been hers for as long as she could remember—and wondered why she had wimped out instead of telling Nelda the truth. It wasn’t like it was a big deal or anything. Jaycee had actually been happy when she’d found out there was no Santa Claus, because it was a lot better than wondering why he just never brought her anything.

Not that she cared, of course. She didn’t want any of the stupid toys all the other kids asked for anyway. She had something a lot better than toys. She could make up stories that let her do things none of them could even dream about doing, and her stories were even better than some of the books she got from the school library. For sure a lot better than the stupid stories about Santa Claus.

Trying to shut out all the talk around her about what the other kids were hoping to get for Christmas, Jaycee looked out the bus window and decided to finish the story she’d started making up the night before about the princess who was kidnapped as a baby and given to peasants to punish her father for being such a heartless king. All the way to school, she stared out the window and forgot about stupid Curtis Manning, the stupid Christmas party, and stupid Santa Claus that didn’t even exist.

Jaycee went inside the building as soon as the bell rang so she could get in the room before her classmates. Despite her rush, she couldn’t help noticing the school’s usual smell of chalk dust and eraser shavings was masked by the aroma of Christmas party goodies wafting down the halls.

When she reached her classroom, she hurried up to the aluminum Christmas tree in the front corner so she could find the red package with her name on it that she’d seen Ginny Tucker putting under the tree the day before. Using a piece of tape from the dispenser on Mrs. Russell’s desk, Jaycee replaced the nametag on the red gift with a scrap of construction paper and wrote Pam Kriegler’s name on it.

Her classmates were arriving with a party-day clamor, but Jaycee didn’t think any of them noticed what she’d been doing. She congratulated herself on thinking of a way to fix her gift exchange problem and wondered again why Mrs. Russell had made her put her name in the basket and draw one out after she’d said she didn’t want to do it. At least this way nobody would be missing a gift except Jaycee, and she didn’t want one anyway.

When she saw the other kids putting their teacher gifts on Mrs. Russell’s desk, Jaycee took the package from her book bag and put it with the others. As she walked back down the aisle to her desk, Scott Simmons—Mr. Little League MVP—stuck out his leg and tried to trip her, but she saw him and stepped on his foot as hard as she could.

“What’s wrong, Scott? Still mad because I got you out at second in P.E. yesterday?”

“Better watch it when you’re batting today,” he said, brushing off his Converse All Stars. “You might get hit by a wild pitch.”

Jaycee snickered. “If you’re the pitcher, it won’t even leave a bruise.”

He stood up and pushed her. “Why do you wanna be a boy so much? Because you’re too ugly to be a girl?”

Jaycee shoved him back, letting her anger hide the hurt the way she always did. “I don’t want to be a boy, I just don’t want to be a stupid sissy like you who can’t take getting beaten by a girl! And I can whip your scrawny—”

“Okay, that’s enough.” Mrs. Russell pushed Scott back into his seat and led Jaycee away by the arm. “It’s always better to show than to tell, Jaycee. Whether you’re writing or playing baseball. Prove yourself on the field, and they’ll all see how good you are.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Russell,” Jaycee said as she took her seat. “I’ll try, but he’d better leave me alone if he knows what’s good for him.”

She ignored the looks she was getting from everyone around her and took out her library book. She’d read Heidi two times already, but she’d checked it out again because it was her favorite. She loved pretending she had a grandfather like Heidi’s somewhere that she would be sent to live with someday. Sometimes she could hardly wait to go to bed at night so she could invent new adventures for herself in the worlds she created in her head. Worlds where she didn’t always have to prove herself and act so tough.

When it was time for the party at the end of the day, the room mothers and other parents who were there to help got everything set up. A few fathers had even come for the party, and Jaycee tried not to watch enviously as Pam Kriegler’s daddy picked her up and gave her a hug when he arrived. Anybody with a daddy who came to her school parties and called her “Princess” shouldn’t be as mean and selfish as Pam, but she was the worst one about making fun of Jaycee’s chopped-off hair and shabby clothes. Jaycee hated letting her have the gift that was supposed to be hers, but she knew Pam would have a hissy fit if all she got was a homemade gift from Jaycee.

One of the mothers handed Jaycee a plate filled with party food, and she wrapped up most of it to take home for later. But since Newley Butler gave her his cupcake and fudge because he was allergic to chocolate, she even got to eat some treats there. Ever since Jaycee had taken up for Newley when Scott and the other cul-de-sac creeps teased him for using an inhaler and sometimes wearing a bowtie, Newley never looked at her without hero worship lighting up his asthmatic little face. It was kinda embarrassing sometimes, but Jaycee didn’t really mind. Newley read a lot too, and she liked talking about books with him.

When everyone finished eating, Mrs. Russell called all the kids up to sit on the floor around the Christmas tree so they could pass out the presents. Jaycee held her breath to see if Ginny said anything when Mrs. Russell read Pam’s name off the red gift, but Ginny was too busy opening her own gift to notice. Jaycee tried not to look at what Pam got so she wouldn’t know what she’d given up, but curiosity got the best of her. She was glad she’d looked when she saw it was only a musical jewelry box with a stupid ballerina inside, and Pam even seemed to like it. She showed it to her daddy, and he told her he’d buy her some new earrings to go in it.

Jaycee was still smiling about her successful switcheroo when Sandy Stewart handed her a blue package with her name on it.

“Where did that come from?” Jaycee asked.

Sandy rolled her eyes. “Duh. From whoever had your name.”

Jaycee looked around at her classmates, but no one was paying any attention to her, and there was nothing written on the gift tag about who it was from. She almost didn’t want to open it because it was wrapped in beautiful blue foil paper decorated with glittering snowflakes. Careful not to tear the paper any more than she had to, her surprise changed to wonder as she unwrapped the book inside and turned it over to read the title: The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. Inside the cover was a library card with her name on it—from the public library, not the sissy school library—and there was a typed note along with it.

Dear Jaycee,

I thought you’d like meeting Pippi since the two of you have so
much in common. And you can use the library card to take you down
many wonderfully different roads on your journey to becoming the
strong, independent woman I know you’ll be someday.

Love, Santa

Jaycee looked around again but still didn’t see anyone watching her. Mrs. Russell met her gaze briefly before going back to making a fuss over the gifts all the kids were showing her, and Jaycee thought she detected a slight shake of her head, as if she were telling Jaycee not to say anything in front of everyone else.

“Open your presents now, Mrs. Russell!” Cathy Overton said, punctuated by yeahs and mine firsts from the rest of the class.

Everyone crowded around the desk to watch as Mrs. Russell opened her gifts and gushed appropriately over a wide array of apple-themed stationery items, Christmas ornaments, and scented candles. Jaycee didn’t know if Mrs. Russell had saved her gift for last on purpose or not, but she found herself holding her breath again while Mrs. Russell opened it, Jaycee's bottom lip caught between her teeth as she watched for her teacher’s reaction.

“Oh, Jaycee.” Mrs. Russell’s face reflected her delight. “You wrote a poem for me, and I love the frame you made for it. Thank you so much.”

“It’s an acrostic poem,” Jaycee said. “Like we learned about in English.”

“Yes, and you did a wonderful job on it. This is one of the most special gifts I’ve ever received.” She reached for Jaycee’s hand and squeezed it.

Jaycee could feel her classmates watching her and looked around a bit uncomfortably. Most of them appeared only curiously surprised, but Sandy and Cathy were clearly envious of Mrs. Russell’s praise, and Pam Kriegler was giving Jaycee a look that was downright resentful.

“Read it to us, Mrs. Russell,” Pam said. “So we can see if it’s any good or not.”

“That’s up to Jaycee,” Mrs. Russell said. “Do you mind if I read it aloud?”

Jaycee shrugged and tried to sound nonchalant, although her insides were doing calisthenics. “I don’t care. You can read it if you want to.”

Mrs. Russell stood and cleared her throat.

“M – is for mistakes you hardly ever make
R – is for rules you don’t let us break
S – is for stories we love to hear you tell
R – is for rarely do you ever have to yell
U – is for understanding you have for everyone
S – is for showing us even math can be fun
S – is for smiles, you always have plenty
E – is for education you give to so many
L – is for laughter that follows you like a pet
L – is for lessons we’ll never forget.”

Enthusiastic applause filled the room when Mrs. Russell finished reading, and Jaycee knew her face had to be a flustered shade of pink. She felt several pats on her back accompanied by complimentary remarks, and even Pam appeared grudgingly impressed. Jaycee knew it probably wouldn’t last any longer than the end of the day, but for once she didn’t feel like the broken cookie left on the party tray, and she liked it.

Mrs. Russell sent everyone back to their seats before she passed out their gifts from her: little treat bags containing sparkly Christmas pencils, erasers shaped like snowmen and Santa faces, a sheet of stickers, and a small notebook. Everyone had to help clean up after the party, and Mrs. Russell reminded them all to take the ornaments they’d made in class off the Christmas tree so they could hang them on their trees at home. Jaycee got hers so they wouldn’t be the only ones left on the tree.

When they were all packed up to go home and in line at the door, Mrs. Russell asked one of the room mothers to lead everyone out to the grassy area in front of the school where the bus riders were separated from the car riders and walkers.

“I’ll be out in just a minute,” Mrs. Russell told the lady. “I have one little thing to do and need Jaycee to help me do it.”

When the other kids had filed out of the room, Jaycee said, “Thank you for the book and the library card, Mrs. Russell. I know they were from you.”

The teacher's blue eyes blinked beneath raised brows. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Jaycee. What did you get?”

Jaycee showed her the book and the note. “I know there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

“Are you sure?” she asked with a trace of a smile. “This gift seems to have come from him.”

Jaycee’s chin lifted resolutely. “I stopped believing in Santa Claus and God too when I was in first grade. Right after my mama died.”

Mrs. Russell’s expression lost all hint of teasing. “I’m very sorry to hear that, Jaycee. I suppose I can understand why you’d feel that way, but I hope this gift will help you believe in something else that will let you believe in both of them again someday.”

“What do you mean?” Jaycee asked.

Mrs. Russell put an arm across her shoulder. “Believe in yourself, Jaycee. You possess one of the most incredible spirits I’ve ever seen—a fighter’s spirit, and it doesn’t have anything to do with using your fists. Your spirit will carry you through anything you encounter and will let you do whatever you want to do if you just believe in it, and a spirit like that only comes from divine places.”

Jaycee wasn’t sure what she meant by it all, but she liked knowing that Mrs. Russell believed in her. If someone as smart and beautiful as Mrs. Russell believed it, Jaycee had to think it might be true.

“Okay, Mrs. Russell,” she said. “I’ll try to remember that the next time I get mad and want to punch somebody. And the library card is the best present ever.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, Jaycee. Use it to keep your brain as strong as the rest of you, and you won’t have anything to worry about.”

Jaycee’s euphoria lasted even after she got home to her cold, empty house. Her daddy must have gone to the store before he went to the Crossroads Club, because there was milk, bologna, cheese, and bread in the kitchen. He’d even left a box of Twinkies on the table—-food of the gods in Jaycee’s opinion. She made herself a sandwich and snuggled under the covers in her bed to read her new book, the box of Twinkies waiting not-so-patiently on the bed beside her.

She couldn’t help glancing at the Twinkies while she ate and read, a little surge of happiness tumbling her stomach at the proof that her daddy still must still love her no matter how unhappy he’d been since her mama died. She hated it when people talked bad about him—-like that nosy Mrs. Griffin down the street and Curtis Manning’s gossipy mother. They hadn’t seen her daddy crying in his bedroom all those nights, calling out her mama’s name sometimes. Jaycee didn’t like it when he drank whiskey, but she knew why he did it. It helped him forget how much he missed her mama.

Her gaze fell on her open book bag on the floor and the ornaments she’d made at school—-a snowflake made from popsicle sticks and glitter, and a pipe cleaner candy cane. On a whim, she decided to hang them in her bedroom window, and she had to smile at the way the glitter sparkled in the light from her lamp and reflected onto her walls, almost like Christmas lights.

She opened one of the Twinkies and lay watching the ornaments twist and turn on their strings while she savored the heavenly combination of golden sponge cake and creamy filling. She made up another story about a kidnapped princess, but this princess knew she was a captive and was always trying to escape. The princess had made ornaments from things she’d stolen from her captors, then she’d hung them in the window of her locked room, hoping the light from the North Star would reflect off them and lead her rescuers to where she was imprisoned.

Happy with the way her new story turned out, Jaycee got an idea as she licked the last bit of cream from her fingers. She got the little notebook Mrs. Russell had put in their treat bags, and she decided she would write her favorite stories in it so she wouldn’t forget them. Maybe someday she could even get them made into a real book. She thought most kids would like her stories, but especially the ones like her who wanted to escape into other worlds sometimes. How cool would it be if she could write a book for them someday?

Jaycee fell asleep making up more stories and writing in her notebook. She dreamed she was in Heaven, eating Twinkies with her mama, God, and Santa Claus.

In the morning when she woke up, she went to look in her daddy’s room in case he’d come home after all, but his bed was empty. She spent the day reading her book and trying to resist eating more than two Twinkies so they would last longer. When she finished her book around three o’clock, she found herself holding the library card, trying to talk herself out of what her traitorous mind was prompting her to do.

The public library was only about a mile and a half away, so she could easily walk to it, select a couple of books, and still get back home before dark. She wasn’t supposed to leave the house when her daddy was gone and knew he’d tan her hide good if he found out she had left, but he probably wouldn’t be home until late that night or the next morning, so how would he know? And all she wanted to do was get some books to read. It’s wasn’t like she’d be doing anything wrong.

And since the next day was Christmas Eve, getting the library books would be like a Christmas present to herself. She could even wait until Christmas morning to read them so she’d have something to look forward to. She decided it was worth the risk and made up her mind to go.

When Jaycee rounded the corner at the end of her street on her way back from the library and saw her daddy’s truck parked in front of their house, she almost dropped the armful of books she was carrying. After all the times she had lain in her bed at night, listening hopefully for the sound of his ratty old truck over the terrifying creaks and groans of an empty house, wishing with all her might for her daddy to come home, he had picked this time to come back sooner than expected. And despite her fear of the punishment she knew was coming, she was still glad he was home.

Her legs felt full of cement as she walked the last block, and the windows of the neighboring houses seemed like scornful eyes mocking her because she couldn’t stay out of trouble for longer than a day or so at the most. When she went inside the house, she heard her daddy in his bedroom at the end of the hall, and it sounded like he was rummaging in the closet where all her mama’s clothes still hung.

Jaycee stopped off in her room to leave the library books, then she walked cautiously to her daddy’s bedroom and looked in. The empty Jack Daniels bottle lying just inside the doorway made her stomach try to climb up her ribs, but she took a deep breath and stepped over the bottle.

“Daddy? Are you in here?”

She heard a grunt amidst the thumping sounds coming from her mama’s side of the open closet, but she wasn’t sure if it was in response to her question or was frustration over whatever he was doing in there. She took a step closer and could see him on his hands and knees underneath her mama’s dresses. Suddenly, he backed out and fell into a crooked sitting position against the side of the bed, a pink shoebox cradled in his arms. His bloodshot eyes told Jaycee it hadn’t been long since he’d emptied the whiskey bottle.

“You sit down over there, girl,” he said. “I’ll deal with your disobeying little ass in a minute.”

She did as she was told, briefly considering an attempt at convincing him she’d only been in the back yard and hadn’t heard him come home, but she hated people who lied. And if her daddy found out she’d lied to him on top everything else, it would only make her whipping that much worse. Besides, she had deliberately disobeyed him and deserved her punishment, so she would take it like a big girl.

He stroked the box in his lap as though it were a kitten. “I knew it was here with her things. My Nicole’s things . . .” His voice broke, and he hugged the box to his chest.

Jaycee wanted to comfort him, but she knew from experience that it would only make him mad if she tried. She should just be quiet and let his grief run its course the way it usually did, but her curiosity was stronger than her fear of his anger.

“What’s in that box, Daddy?”

His head jerked up, and he grabbed her by the arm before she had time to flinch.

“Don’t you pay no nevermind about what’s in it, girl! I don’t know why the hell I dragged myself home to find it for you in the first place! I shoulda knowed you couldn’t do like you was told less’n somebody beat you into doing it!” He threw her across his lap and pulled down her pants to hit her across her bare buttocks. “Can’t keep your little ass outta trouble to save your life, can you?”

“Daddy, I’m sorry!” Jaycee could barely get the words out because of the way the box in his lap was cutting into her stomach every time he struck her. “I won’t ever do it again! I swear!”

He hit her a few more times before pushing her roughly off his lap onto the floor beside him. Still struggling to breathe normally, Jaycee pulled up her clothes as she rolled over to see if he was taking off his belt, but he was looking inside the box and crying again.

“I seen you carrying that book around with you all the time,” he said, “and I thought maybe you was gonna be like your mama—-gonna have book smarts and all. But you can’t even mind me and stay in the damn house! You ain’t nothing like your mama, you’re worthless just like me.” He took a stack of books out of the box and tossed it aside. “I’ll burn these before I let you have ‘em! You don’t deserve nothing that was my Nicole’s!”

He rose awkwardly and started to stagger from the room. But the prospect of being so close to having something of her mama’s—-of having books that had been her mama’s—gave Jaycee the courage to get up and try to stop him.

“No, Daddy! I only went to the library so I could get some more books. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I swear. Please let me have Mama’s books.” She pulled on his arm that held them.

He turned and grabbed her with his free hand, dragging her out into the hall and shoving her into her room. “Get yourself in there and stay! And the next time you decide to disobey me, you think about your mama’s books burning with the trash because you couldn’t mind!”

“No!” Jaycee tried to grab one of the books but only tore off the cover. “You can’t burn—”

The back of his hand struck her across the mouth, and she fell to the floor.

“Don’t you ever tell me what I can and can’t do, girl! Get your ass in that bed before I take off my belt and teach you not to talk back to me!”

Jaycee crawled to her bed and got in, curling up into a ball and sobbing as she heard him throwing the books into the big metal barrel where he burned the trash in the back yard. She could hear the sounds the fire made as her mama’s books burned along with the leaves and the garbage in the can, and her heart broke a little more with each crackle and pop.

She didn’t know how long she lay there like that before she finally heard her daddy’s truck sputter and cough its way into life then drive away. She could tell her lip was bleeding, so she got up to go to the bathroom and wash her face. The torn cover of her mama’s book lay in the middle of her floor, so she picked it up and took it over to the lamp where she could look at it. She’d torn it diagonally from the top, but she could tell it had been a copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott—-one of the books she had just checked out from the library.

Jaycee sat on the bed and stared at the torn cover in her hands, and she felt her heart begin to mend itself. Her mama had loved to read too, and she must have liked the same kind of books as Jaycee, because they’d picked the same one.

Her daddy was wrong—-she was like her mama. And she thought he knew it too, no matter what he'd said. He was just mad at her because she hadn’t minded him, and the whiskey always made him do things he wouldn’t usually do. And if her daddy thought she was like her mama, it meant he must love Jaycee too, no matter how many times he got mad at her. Because the one thing she knew for sure about her daddy was that he had loved her mama more than anything in the world.

She went to her daddy’s room to find the pink shoebox and lid. He probably wouldn’t remember most of what had happened, but if he did he’d think he must’ve burned the box too and wouldn’t know she had it if she kept it hidden. She took it back to her room and put the torn cover in it along with the book and the note Mrs. Russell had given her and the notebook with her stories in it. Then she reached under her pillow and took out a creased photo of herself with her mama and daddy when she was three years old, a happy family posing in front of their azalea bushes. She held the picture to her heart briefly before putting it in the box.

She’d heard Pam Kriegler telling the other girls one day about the hope chest her mama had started for her when she was born and all the things she had in it already, like quilts and doilies and other stupid stuff like that. Jaycee remembered thinking how stupid it was to hope for things like that when there were so many more wonderful things to hope for.

She ran her hand over the cover of the pink shoebox and decided it would be her hope chest from her mama. She would keep things in it to remind her that she could do anything she wanted to do if she didn’t give up, just like Mrs. Russell had told her. And when she grew up to be a smart, successful writer with her mama’s blonde hair and blue eyes, her daddy would see how much she really was like her mama. Then he could be happy again and stop drinking.

When Christmas was over, Jaycee would put the ornaments from her window inside the box to save them, and she would make more the next year and the next and would save them too. And someday, when she was all grown up and had a beautiful Christmas tree of her very own, she would hang the ornaments she’d made on it to remind herself of how far she’d come, and of all the obstacles in the road she'd beaten along the way.


For the rest of Jaycee's journey, read DIFFERENT ROADS. And stay tuned in the next few days for a glimpse of another Christmas with Jaycee.

~Stay true to yourself, and your dreams will come true!

Tis the Season!

For the next week leading up to Christmas, I'm going to post some of my short stories set at Christmastime, along with a Christmas excerpt from one of my books. Enjoy!

“Journey of a Thousand Miles”

Curtis had hit JoElla in the past more times than she could count, yet she had never considered leaving him until that day the week before Christmas.

Nothing he’d done before had seemed so terribly bad to her, at least not compared to everything JoElla’s mama had put up with from her daddy before he ran off and left them when JoElla was twelve. Besides, Curt had to put up with a lot too. God knew she wasn’t much to look at, and she was so dumb that she probably wouldn’t have finished high school even if she hadn’t gotten pregnant and had to drop out her senior year. Curt also worked really hard at the shipyard to take care of her and the baby, and that was a lot of pressure on him. So what if he drank too much sometimes and came home in a bad mood? JoElla had learned when to leave him alone so she wouldn’t provoke him.

But this time was different.

The Thursday before Christmas, Curt promised they could go get their tree when he got home from work. Most of the lots would have them reduced by then, so JoElla was hoping they could get a fir instead of the usual pine. After she finished her housework, she spent the day stringing popcorn, making garland out of construction paper, and singing carols that delighted eighteen-month-old Cassie.

JoElla loved the way her little girl clapped her chubby hands and bounced whenever she sang. And she thought it was pretty smart for a child that young to recognize music and know what to do when she heard it. Maybe with the right encouragement, Cassie could grow up to play in the school band and maybe even get a music scholarship. JoElla had wanted to be in the band herself once, but it hadn’t worked out.

The first sign of trouble with Curt was when he was an hour late getting home from work. JoElla tried to convince herself that it must be the holiday traffic holding him up. That had to be it. He wouldn’t go to the Crossroads Club on a weeknight, especially when he had promised her they could get the tree when he got home. But when he finally arrived at seven thirty, JoElla smelled the whiskey on him as soon as he came in the front door. Since getting mad wasn’t an option, she questioned him under the pretense of concern.

“I was worried sick about you, Curt,” she said, taking his lunch pail and hanging up his jacket. “You said we were gonna go get the tree tonight as soon as you got off, so I was scared to death that you’d had a wreck in all that Christmas traffic. Where’ve you been?”

He walked past her without so much as a glance and fell heavily into his chair in front of the television. JoElla hurried over to help him take off his heavy work boots.

“Don’t worry ’bout where I been,” he said, his words noticeably slurred. “I’m here now, ain’t I? What’s for supper?”

“I’ll heat you up some of that stew I made yesterday,” she said. “I got some biscuits left over from this morning too.”

He grabbed her arm before she could walk away. “Why ain’t it already heated up?”

“I thought maybe we could... oh, never mind. I’ll go get it heated up for you now, Curt. It won’t take but a minute.”

He didn’t release her arm. “You thought maybe we could what?”

She didn’t want to make him mad, but she knew she couldn’t get away with not answering. “I just thought maybe we could get a hamburger or something at the Burger Hut after we got the tree. You know, make a special night of it.” She looked at him with a querulous smile that died when he shoved her toward the kitchen.

“We can’t afford no damn hamburgers! The shipyard cut our bonuses in half this year without so much as a word of warning. Blamed it on the damn economy!” He kicked one of his work boots viciously across the room then sat with his head in his hands.

JoElla put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Curt, but try not to worry. We’ll make it all right. We’ll just get a little pine tree and forget about the fir. I already got some decorations made that we can—”

“Didn’t you hear me, Jo?” He stood and grabbed her by the shoulders, his red-rimmed eyes boring into her along with his fingers. “They cut my bonus in half! We can’t afford no damn tree either.”

“But, Curt, even if you only got half your bonus, it should be enough for a little tree.”

He shook her roughly. “Don’t you get it, you half-wit? I already had that money spent!”

Ordinarily, she would never dare to question him when he was mad, but she was too distraught to check herself. And the possibility that he might have spent it on her or the baby never entered her mind.

“Spent on what, Curt? It was supposed to be for our Christmas!”

Her head struck the edge of the coffee table when she fell after he hit her, so at least she didn’t have to feel the pain of the other blows until later when she came to.

Curt was gone when she opened her eyes again. He’d put Cassie in her high chair in front of the TV before he left. JoElla was glad that at least be hadn’t left her free to roam around the apartment without anybody watching her. She told herself that meant he was trying to be a good daddy.

She got up slowly—-the only way she was able to get up. Curt must have kicked her a couple of times in the thighs before he was done, but she reckoned that was better than getting kicked in the ribs like he’d done the time that he’d forgotten he bet on a football game and thought she had taken money out of his wallet.

Cassie had what looked like a soggy Ritz cracker clutched in one of her hands and was mesmerized by Sponge Bob on the television, so she didn’t cry to be held when JoElla finally managed to stand up. Good thing, because she would have been afraid to carry her while her legs were so shaky. She went into the bathroom and reluctantly looked in the mirror to see how bad she looked this time.

There was a gash on her forehead at her hairline where her head had struck the table, but it didn’t look like it had bled much. Her top lip was cut and starting to swell, but it didn’t look too bad either. It seemed her legs had gotten the worst of it, and that would be easy to hide, so she actually felt relieved. She washed her face and went back to check on Cassie.

“C’mere, baby girl,” she said as she removed the high chair tray and lifted Cassie into her arms. “Sponge Bob went bye-bye, and we need to get you some real food for supper.”

Cassie put a chubby index finger on her mama’s lip and said, “Boo-boo.”

JoElla’s eyes had been dry until then. She never cried anymore when Curt hit her. She’d learned a long time ago that it only made him angrier and made her feel worse later from having swollen eyes along with any other injuries. But when her little girl leaned over to kiss her busted lip, JoElla’s eyes filled with tears. She tried to wipe them away before Cassie saw them.

“Yep, Mama got a boo-boo. Silly Mama.” She tickled her daughter and got a giggle as usual, but she wondered how much longer she would be able to distract her so easily. Cassie would soon be old enough to understand how her mama got hurt.

JoElla pushed the thought from her mind the way she always did. She busied herself fixing Cassie a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup, trying also not to think about where Curt might have gone and what kind of mood he’d be in when he came back.

After Cassie finished her supper, JoElla carried her into the bathroom to put her in the tub. She heard Curt’s key in the front door just before she turned on the water.

“Get in here, Jo!” He yelled. “I got something to show you!”

She hurried into the living room with Cassie in her arms. In one hand, Curt held a scrawny Christmas tree nailed onto two crossed boards. In the other he held a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey.

“Look what I bought for you,” he said, his speech so slurred now that JoElla had trouble understanding him. “Spent good money we don’t have on it too, so you damn well better ’preciate it!” He thrust the pathetic-looking thing at JoElla, and she hurried to take it.

“Thanks, Curt. It’ll be real pretty after I get it decorated.” She set it down in front of the window and turned to take Cassie back down the hall.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” Curt demanded, falling into his chair. “Go on and get it decorated. You was so hell-bent on getting it.”

JoElla stopped but didn’t turn around. “I need to get the baby bathed and put to bed first.”

“Fine,” he said, and she could hear him taking a swig from the bottle. “Just hurry up and get back in here.”

“I will, Curt.”

She cringed as she walked down the hall, because she could tell from his tone what was coming. While he finished the bottle of whiskey, he’d start thinking about what he’d done earlier and get mad at himself. He’d start crying and telling her he was sorry, then he’d want to put his hands on her. She sure didn’t want him to, but if she didn’t let him, he’d hit her some more.

She tried to take extra long getting Cassie into bed, hoping Curt would pass out before she finished, but he was still working on the bottle when she went back to the living room. He was staring at the Christmas tree and turned to look at JoElla, and she could see the tears in his heavy-lidded, bloodshot eyes.

“You think I like not being able to provide for my family, Jo? You think I wanna spend my whole life crawling around in ship hulls?”

“I know you work hard, Curt,” she said.

“I was gonna use that bonus money to go in with Dougie on buying an oyster boat we saw for sale over in Moss Point. Guy who owns it says he’s too old to work it anymore, but two able-bodied men like us could make a killing on oystering.” He paused to take another drink from the bottle. “I used the rent money last month to give Dougie part of my half. That bonus money was gonna catch us up.”

“Oh, Curt…” JoElla caught herself before she said anything critical, even though she was terrified at the trouble they were in now. “Maybe it’ll be okay. I can look for a job as soon as Christmas is over.”

He ran a hand through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m so damn stupid. What made me think I could ever be anything different than my old man—just a grunt living from paycheck to paycheck?”

Despite everything, it broke JoElla’s heart to see him like that. She walked over and put a hand on his arm. “Don’t say that, Curt. You done real good by me and Cassie.”
“You’re even stupider than me if you think that.” He looked up at her, and she could see the change in his expression. Too late, she realized that he’d suckered her again. Before she could move away, he pulled her down onto his lap.

She knew better than to try to get up, but she said, “I need to get the tree decorated.”

“You can do that later.” He took a drink from the bottle then put it to her lips, but she shook her head and turned away.

“You know I can’t drink that, Curt. It makes me sick.”

He laughed and took another drink before setting the bottle on the floor. “Makes me sick sometimes too, but I don’t let that stop me.”

He turned her face back around and kissed her. When she winced, he touched the cut on her lip with his finger.

“Why do you make me hit you, Jo? You know I never mean to hurt you. Don’t you?”
She didn’t know it by any means, but she said, “Yeah, Curt. I know.”

He started to unbutton her blouse. JoElla closed her eyes and bit her lip, despite how badly it hurt.

Later, while Curt snored beside her in the bed, JoElla lay awake trying to get up the courage to ask him for the only thing she really wanted for Christmas—an electronic music maker for toddlers that she’d seen at the toy store. She knew Cassie would love it, and she truly believed her little girl had musical talent that just needed to be encouraged.

Curt would say they couldn’t afford it of course, but JoElla hoped that if she told him she could go door-to-door in their apartment complex to see if anyone would hire her to clean for them, she could make enough money to buy the toy for Cassie and help them pay the rent too.

He stirred in his sleep, so JoElla took advantage of it and said, “Curt, you hungry? I can go fix you some of that stew now if you want.” She never understood how he could eat after drinking, but he always did.

He stretched and yawned. “Yeah, gimme a couple of biscuits too, and put some apple butter on ’em.”

“Okay, sure thing.” She threw on her robe and hurried to the kitchen, thanking her lucky stars that they weren’t out of apple butter. She’d wait until he was eating before she asked him about getting the toy so that he’d be in the best mood possible.

He came in the kitchen a few minutes later and shielded his eyes from the overhead light. “Can’t you turn on something that ain’t so blinding, Jo?”

“Sorry, Curt. I’ll turn on the light over the stove. Here’s your plate all ready for you. You want milk with it?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.” He sat on one of the stools at the small bar next to the stove. After taking a couple of bites, he said, “This ain’t bad at all, Jo. Thanks.”

Her hopes soared at his good humor. “I’m glad you like it. I got a piece of apple pie saved for you too if you want dessert.”

He nodded without looking up from his food. “You ever know me not to want dessert? ’Specially pie.”

She smiled and went to get it for him. When she set the pie on the bar, she said, “Curt, I wanted to tell you that it’s okay about the money. I already got you something for Christmas that I been saving for since August, and I didn’t want nothing for me anyway. But there is something I wanted to get for Cassie.”

He looked up and started to shake his head, but she hurried to go on before he could say anything.

“Just hear me out, Curt. I think I figured out a way we can do it.”
He sighed and went back to eating. “How?”

JoElla took a courage-boosting breath. “Well, I was thinking that I could go around to the other apartments in the complex and ask if they want any cleaning done. You know, to get ready for Christmas.”

He looked up at her again. “People ain’t gonna have money to spend on nothing like that.”

“Some of them will, Curt. The ones having parties and stuff. And they’re gonna want their apartments cleaned before people come over.”

He thought about it and looked interested. “How much you think you could make?”

“I figure I could clean two a day and still be able to get my housework done, so I think I could make at least a couple of hundred dollars. It’d be plenty enough to buy Cassie’s toy and help make up the money for the rent too.”

He shrugged and continued eating. “I guess it’d be okay. We gotta get the rent money somehow.”

“And I can buy Cassie’s toy?” JoElla held her breath after the question.

“What kinda toy is it?”

“It’s a music maker for toddlers. The box said it would help with their fine motor skills and…” She paused to think. “Oh, and their hand-eye coordination.”

He scoffed as he sopped up the last of the stew with his biscuit. “What the hell does she need any of that for? Just get her a toy broom and a mop so she can start learning to be like her mama.”

His words hit JoElla in the gut harder than if he had kicked her. And the funny thing was that all the times he really had kicked her, it hadn’t made her mad nor opened her eyes the way it did for him to talk about their daughter with such disregard, as if she were nothing special at all instead of the precious treasure she was.

And the worst thing was that he was right about Cassie, but not about what kind of work she was destined to do. If she grew up in this house with him for a father and saw her mama getting hit over and over and taking it, Cassie had no chance of ever being anything different. The image of the way Cassie already cowered whenever Curt was yelling about something, even though it wasn’t directed at her—-not yet anyway—-made JoElla finally see just what she was teaching her daughter to become, the same way JoElla had learned it from watching her own mother.

And that was when she knew she had to leave.

She muttered something to Curt that maybe he was right and busied herself cleaning up the kitchen, but her mind was busy with something a lot more important. She had to figure out the best way to get both of them away from Curt’s abuse, and JoElla finally saw it as exactly that. She couldn’t go on making excuses for him just because he worked hard. She had to break the cycle of abuse and get Cassie away from him.

Because if she never did anything else for the rest of her life, she was determined to make sure that Cassie learned not to ever let a man hit her. It was the best Christmas gift JoElla could give to herself or her little girl.

The following night, JoElla and Cassie sat with a group of women and children around a huge Christmas tree at Penelope House in Mobile, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Like JoElla, many of the women had bruises, black eyes, or busted lips, but there was something else they all shared as well.

In this season of light, a glimmer of hope shone in all their eyes.

Penelope House 24-Hour Crisis Line: 1-251-342-8994
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

~Stay true to yourself, and your dreams will come true!