Excerpt: Full first chapter
‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ came over the speakers in the café, and I smiled, humming along to the jazzy song. It was one of my favourites, but then again I had a lot of favourite holiday songs.
I added a dollop of whipped cream and shook some red and green sprinkles onto the peppermint mocha latté I’d just made. I carefully pressed a lid into place before setting the hot drink on the counter. “Here you go, Mrs. Sanders.”
“Thank you, dear.” Mrs. Sanders tucked a loose white curl under her crocheted hat. She was in her seventies, and had a sweet tooth like I’d never seen. She volunteered at the used clothing store down the street, and on any given day would pop into the café two or three times for a sugary drink or a freshly baked goodie.
Mrs. Sanders’ gaze swept over the café. “The place is looking wonderful, Ginny,” she told me, a warm smile lighting her grey eyes. “Looks just like it did when your grandma owned the place and decorated for the holidays.”
I swallowed the lump that always formed in my throat when someone mentioned Grama. “I’m really happy to hear you say that,” I replied, managing a small smile. “Christmas was always her favourite time of year.”
“Don’t I know it.” Mrs. Sanders chuckled and shook her head. “She’d be up in that attic of yours fishing around for Christmas decorations as soon as Halloween was over.” Her smile dimmed slightly, turning wistful. “I’m glad she passed her love for the holidays on to you. It’s nice to have someone to keep up those traditions and add in some new life.”
I nodded, swallowing compulsively around that stupid growing lump in my throat. It had been three years since Grama passed away, but I still felt her loss as if it were yesterday. She’d been so much more than my guardian—she was my best friend and confidant, the one person who loved me unconditionally and supported me no matter what. She’d also been a huge part of the community; she had a seat on town council, and had owned what was once the only café in town until a Tim Horton’s moved in near the mall.
“I do it for her.” I knew Mrs. Sanders would understand the slight tremor in my voice that I couldn’t control. “Because of her, I’ve believed in the magic of Christmas for as long as I can remember. It was always the best time of year growing up. Everything just seems different around Christmas. Like anything could happen, you know?”
Mrs. Sanders still wore that soft, wistful smile. “Now you sound just like her. She was always talking about the magic of Christmas. She’d be really proud of you, Ginny.”
This time my smile was genuine. I knew Mrs. Sanders missed Grama too. They had been friends most of their lives, and Mrs. Sanders was one of the few people who freely talked about Grama around me. Most of the other people in town seemed to think I’d shatter into a million pieces at the mere mention of her. “Thank you.”
The older woman nodded and reached for her wallet, but I waved her away. “It’s on me today. Enjoy.”
Mrs. Sanders patted my hand where it rested on the counter, then pulled on her leather gloves and tugged the collar of her coat up around her neck. “I’ll see you tomorrow, dear.”
I watched her go, then glanced around the café as Mrs. Sanders had done a few moments earlier. Most of the decorations were Grama’s, but I’d added a few over the years. There was a small artificial tree in every corner, decorated with lights and the mismatched ornaments Grama and I had been collecting or making since I was a child. Star-shaped lights hung in the big windows on either side of the door, and the fireplace was adorned with stockings that were almost filled with donated toys for the local yearly toy drive.
I made my way around the counter, smiling at the people scattered at tables and on couches around the café. It was one of the quietest times of day; the after work rush had finished and most people were home having dinner. Things would pick up again around seven, when a lot of folks liked to drop in for coffee or dessert, or grab a snack on their way to the movies.
I collected dirty mugs and plates before wiping down tables, all the while humming along to the carols playing on the stereo. I was surprised to find almost every empty table held a tip. People didn’t often leave tips, and if they did it was in the fancy jar by the cash register. I scooped the money into the pocket of my Christmassy apron, enjoying the musical jingling sound as the change and bills accumulated.
I was heading back to the counter when the front door flew open, sending the bells overhead into a tinkling frenzy and a gust of wintry air into the café. I turned and smiled when I saw my best friend, Clara, sweep inside, stamping her booted feet and shaking the hood of her coat.
“Is that snow?” I rushed through the café to the window. I nearly pressed my face against the cool pane when I saw that it was, indeed, snowing softly. We’d hardly had any snow yet this winter, and as Christmas drew nearer I was afraid we weren’t going to get any. Christmas wasn’t Christmas without snow.
“I’ll be right back, everyone,” I called to no one in particular as I grabbed Clara’s hand and pulled her back outside.
“What are you doing?” Clara asked. “Where’s your coat? You’re going to freeze!”
Ignoring her, I stood on the sidewalk and turned my face toward the sky. Fat snowflakes fell, melting instantly as they touched my skin, which was overheated from being close to the fire while bussing tables. An uncontrollable smile spread over my face, and I closed my eyes, letting the flakes cool my eyelids, cheeks, and forehead.
“You’re a loon, you know that?” Something warm settled over my shoulders, and I opened my eyes to see that Clara had taken off her coat and draped it over both of us. She looped her arm through mine and pressed against me, pulling her half of the coat around her as much as she could.
“I know,” I answered easily. “But you know how much I love snow.”
“I do, which is why I stopped in. I figured you’d be busy and might not have seen it yet.”
“That’s why you came by?” I asked, surprised and touched.
“Well, yeah.” Clara shrugged. “I was leaving the library when it started, so I figured rather than call I’d just come up the street and see you. I know I haven’t been around much lately.”
It was true. Clara had been dating a guy named Bobby since summer, and they were nearly inseparable. I’d gone from seeing my best friend all the time to practically having to make an appointment just to have a conversation with her. It had been hard on me, and at times it felt like our friendship was scarcely bearing the weight of the strain. None of that seemed to matter right now, though. She was here, it was snowing, and everything seemed right with the world, even if it was only for a few minutes.
“Thanks for coming.” I turned my face back to the sky. I didn’t want to talk about Clara’s absence lately.
“Well, I knew…” Clara’s voice trailed off and she shifted closer to me. I glanced at her and saw she was staring resolutely at the sky, her jaw tight, and tears glistening in her eyes.
“Don’t,” I pleaded. “Please don’t.”
She jerked her head back and forth, and one lone tear slipped down her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I swore I wouldn’t. I told myself all the way over here that if I started to cry, I’d never forgive myself, but I just can’t help it.”
I let out a quiet groan as I felt the lump return to my throat. Clara and I had grown up together, so she’d known Grama forever, and felt her loss almost as acutely as I did. She’d been the one who had mourned with me, held my hand when I needed comfort, cried with me, and shared stories from our childhood.
Clara took a deep breath and slid her hand down my arm to grip my hand tightly. “She was like a little kid when it snowed,” she said quietly. I couldn’t look at her for fear I’d start crying, but I could hear the smile in her voice now, and it calmed me a bit.
“I remember you telling me about how she’d drag you outside during the first snow, no matter where you were, what you were doing, or what time it was,” she continued. “Like that time when you were six and it started snowing in the middle of the night and she dragged you out of bed to see it. I don’t think I really believed you until the next year when I was sleeping over and she woke us up at 3 a.m., bundled us into our coats, and took us outside.”
I laughed shakily at the memory. It was one of my favourites. I could still remember us throwing our coats, hats, mittens, and boots on over our pajamas and following Grama outside. The three of us stood on the huge front lawn, holding hands, and staring up at the sky as fat snowflakes fell around us.
Clara squeezed my hand, drawing me back to the present. “I think someone wants a refill.” She pointed over her shoulder at the woman waiting patiently near the counter with an empty mug.
“Shoot.” I started to slip Clara’s coat off, but she swung it off her shoulders instead and wrapped it around me.
“I’ll go. You enjoy the snow for another few minutes.” She paused with her hand on the doorknob and gave me a small, sad smile. “I swear I feel her out here, Gin.”
She hurried inside before I could reply—or before either of us could burst into tears and spend the next half hour blubbering on the sidewalk in the snow. I watched her for a second as she spoke to the woman at the counter, smiling brightly and tossing her golden hair over her shoulder. I felt a swell of affection for her that nearly took my breath away, and I turned away quickly before I really did start to cry.
While there were a few people who understood that I was still mourning the loss of my grandmother even after all this time, Clara was the only person who I felt really got it. She’d been like a sister to me growing up, and I’d happily shared Grama with her.
Christmas was the hardest time of year for me since it had been Grama’s favourite, but I’d promised myself I would celebrate it just like we always had. I swore I would hold on to the magic of the season, the way she’d taught me. I turned my face to the sky once again and closed my eyes. The snowflakes slowed, touching my cheeks gently like angel kisses. Clara was right; I could feel Grama here too.
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