The TWELVE MONTHS OF CHRISTMAS
Sunny Hollowell had planned a perfect day for her first Christmas as a wife and stepmom and it was a fail. Who was it that said something about the best-laid plans getting screwed up? Whoever it was, her mom liked to quote him a lot.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men,” her mom had begun when Sunny told her about the latest development as she and Dad walked in the door, presents in tow.
“And women,” Sunny had added before Mom could finish. Women who were trying their best to be a good wife and mother, women who only wanted to bring two families together for a memorable day.
The day was memorable all right, but not in the way Sunny had intended.
It all began at eight in the morning. Sunny had found a recipe online for a crescent roll breakfast pastry with a cherry filling shaped like a candy cane and, to her surprise and glee, it had actually turned out like the picture, ready for the kids to be dropped off by their mom at nine o’clock. She was laying it out on the family room coffee table for everyone to enjoy while they opened presents when the Weed called Travis to let him know that she wasn’t going to bring the kids over for the big day.
“What do you mean you’re still stuck in Spokane?” Travis had growled into his cell phone.
Sunny had watched the anger roll over his features like a breaking storm. Scratch two kids from the guest list. Tansy strikes again.
“You did this on purpose,” he’d accused.
Of course, Tansy would deny it. That was how she rolled. Mess with the ex and his new wife as much as possible but never let it look like you meant to. Was Tansy’s mother psychic when she named her daughter after a noxious weed?
“Well, thanks a lot,” Travis had growled. “Way to screw up Christmas for the kids.”
“Okay, what happened?” Sunny had asked after he ended the call and dumped his phone on the coffee table.
“She did it again, managed to screw us over,” he’d said, and slumped on the sofa. “She and Jared accidentally—” he held up exaggerated air quotes “—missed their flight home last night and are stuck at his parents’ place.”
“Can’t they get another flight out? There has to be something going out today.” Of course, by the time they got to Bremerton, Washington, breakfast and Christmas dinner would long be over.
“Not until tomorrow.”
Sunny had made a superhuman effort to blink back tears. Poor Travis was already upset about not getting to be with his kids. She didn’t need to make things worse by having a holiday meltdown. But darn, she’d sure wanted to. It seemed particularly cruel that Tansy had waited twelve hours after their missed flight to tell them the kids wouldn’t make it.
“I’m sorry, babe,” he’d said, and he’d looked like he wanted to cry.
“It’s okay. We’ll have a nice day and do a belated Christmas with the kids later.”
But it wasn’t a nice day. Here she sat in her PJ bottoms and red sweater and her Santa hat, watching as her husband of eight months fumed his way through the morning. Her father wasn’t beaming, either. Dad wasn’t a fan of Travis.
According to Dad, Travis wasn’t good enough for her. Divorced and with kids and a problematic ex—he had baggage, and the theatrics today weren’t doing much to prove otherwise.
Sunny was thirty. Everyone she knew had baggage. And it wasn’t Travis’s fault his ex was a weed. Besides, she loved him. Which meant helping him carry his baggage.
“Anyone want more coffee?” she asked, trying to sound cheerful.
“Yeah,” Travis said sourly, handing her his mug. “Lace it with whiskey.” This made her dad frown, and, seeing it, Travis added, “I’m going to be Irish for the day.”
“How about you, Dad?” asked Sunny.
“I’ll have some more. Plain. I’m not Irish,” he said, looking at Travis like a school principal ready to put a problem student on suspension. Since Dad had been a school principal, it was an expression that came easily to him.
“I could use a refill,” her mother said, and followed Sunny to the kitchen.
“This is so not what I imagined today would be like,” Sunny said in a low voice as she set the cups on the counter. She looked to where the two men sat, the bad boy and the disapproving principal.
Her mother laid a comforting hand on her arm. “I know. Try to remember that it’s only one day.”
“It’s an important day. Christmas is supposed to be fun and filled with love,” Sunny said.
She’d hoped this would be a chance to connect with her step-kids, and maybe impress her mother-in-law just a little bit. Self-pity got busy in the tear factory, producing a couple of nice fat ones to trickle down her cheek.
“There’s still love here,” her mother said. “And your turkey is already smelling delicious.”
Sunny harrumphed. “Not that there’s many of us here to eat it. I still can’t believe Rae chose Will’s family over us. We’ve always all been together at Christmas, and we really should have been this year with Gram gone.”
“Your sister has another family to consider now,” Mom pointed out.
“They’re not married yet. She could consider her new family next year,” Sunny argued. Okay, she was sounding like a brat. She knew it. She poured coffee into the mugs, ignoring Travis’s whiskey request. No Irish coffee for him on Christmas Day. Why should he get to numb his pain when she didn’t? “It’s wrong that Travis doesn’t get to see his kids,” she said in defense of his foul mood.
“You’re right,” said her mother.
“I had so many cool things planned for our first Christmas with them,” Sunny continued. So far, they hadn’t had any stellar firsts, but Christmas was different. Christmas mended all kinds of broken fences. At least that was what she’d always believed.
“Dylan would have loved the Santa treasure hunt,” Mom said.
“So would Bella,” Sunny said.
Her mother didn’t say anything, but her sympathetic smile made it clear she didn’t think so.
“She would,” Sunny insisted.
Okay, she was deluding herself. Her thirteen-year-old step-daughter probably would have deemed a hunt for her Christmas presents beneath her and then glowered her way through the rest of day. It seemed like everything Sunny tried to do with or for her was met with derision.
“She’s at a difficult age,” Mom said in Bella’s defense.
“You’d think she’d see the benefit of getting a bonus mom,” Sunny said. “Double the Christmas presents.”
“It’s not that simple,” Mom said. “Her parents turned her life upside down when they split and now both Tansy and Travis have added new parent figures into her life. That has to be upsetting.”
“But I’m nice,” Sunny protested. She wasn’t an evil person. She tried to be kind, gave money to good causes, was always buying little gifts for the kids. And she never yelled at them. What more did they want?
“You are nice,” Mom said. “So don’t worry. Dylan’s adjusting and Bella will come around eventually. Give it time.”
“And what about Jeanette?” Would Travis’s mom ever come around? How much time did she need?
Sunny’s father-in-law, Harry, had called not long after Tansy dropped her holiday bomb to say that he and Jeanette wouldn’t be coming over for Christmas dinner. Jeanette wasn’t feeling well and he had to stay home to take care of her.
“That was such a pitiful excuse for bailing on us,” Sunny groused to her mom.
“Maybe she really isn’t feeling well,” Mom said, being irritatingly reasonable.
“I’d bet a stocking full of gold coins she’s feeling fine now.” This was so not right. “What have I ever done to these people? Why do they hate me?”
“It’s not you they hate. It’s seeing everything changed.”
“Well, they knew it was going to change.” Sunny could feel her voice rising. She lowered it and continued, “Travis and Tansy were already over when I met him. Tansy’s moving on, so how come he doesn’t get to? How come the welcome mat got yanked out from under my feet?”
She already knew the answer. Tansy had pulled the proverbial wool over Jeannette’s eyes early on, convincing her she was a sweet, lost soul, and they’d bonded. Jeanette had nursed hopes that Travis and Tansy would get back together. Sunny’s arrival on the scene killed those hopes.
“Come on, the coffee’s getting cold. Let’s finish opening our presents,” Mom said and led the way back to the family room. A family room with barely any family in it. Happy holidays.
Christmas wasn’t going any better for Arianna White—once upon a delusion, Arianna Jorgenson. Thirty-five had not been a good year for her. She’d gotten divorced, said goodbye to her house and moved in with her mother.
She’d loved that house. They’d bought it five years earlier and she’d envisioned them growing their family in it and then growing old. But after they divorced, it felt like a house of horrors, mocking her with memories, reminding her that Wyatt was no longer there to leave his dirty clothes on the floor or sneak up behind her and lay a sloppy kiss on her neck.
They’d survived COVID but their marriage hadn’t. She’d worked her tail off at the hospital, coming home and going through the motions like a zombie. Zombies, it turned out, didn’t make good wives. At least according to Wyatt.
One night when their daughter, Sophie, was in bed and Arianna was collapsed on the couch watching The Gray Man on Netflix with Wyatt, he’d suddenly aimed the remote at the TV, killing the show and then killing her by announcing, “Ari, this isn’t working for me anymore.”
“What? The show?” “No. Us.”She’d gaped at him, wondering if her lack of sleep had finally started causing delusions.How had that happened? Why hadn’t she realized it wasn’t working? More to the point, what kind of man had she married? She figured that out soon enough—when the going got tough, he got going…in search of someone who wasn’t a zombie.
At six years old, Sophie was perfectly fine living with Grammy. She loved Grammy, and she loved sleeping in the bed that had once been Arianna’s. She still didn’t understand why Daddy hadn’t come with them but was happy enough to visit him. On weekends when he could fit her into his busy born- again bachelor schedule. They’d worked out a plan for split- ting time with Sophie but Wyatt rarely bothered to stick to it.
Except for today. Arianna had kept Sophie for Christmas Eve and the morning, so that she could open her presents and see what Santa brought—an art activity book featuring uni- corns and a Got2Glow Fairy Finder, which she’d been thrilled with. But there’d barely been time for pancakes and presents, it seemed, before her father was calling to say he was on the way to get her.
“You’ve had her long enough,” he’d informed Arianna when she’d protested him coming so early. “I get her Christmas Day and it’s Christmas Day so deal with it.”
Deal with it. It seemed to her that she’d already had enough to deal with, thanks to him. He had never acted like this when they were married, and she was still reeling from the day-to- night change in the man she’d thought she’d spend her life with.
She wasn’t dealing with any of it very well. She’d picked up her old childhood habit of biting her nails and now they were ragged and ugly—rather like her life. But, hey, she’d picked up new habits, too, like spending nights in her mother’s guest room eating ice cream in bed—such a cliché—and streaming reality shows.
And crying. There had been lots of crying. On her way to work. On her way home from work. After she’d tucked Sophie into the bed that once was hers. On her mother’s shoulder.
With the holidays she’d made an effort to dry the tears. She couldn’t sit around and feel sorry for herself for the rest of her life. At least that was what her mother, Mia, told her. Mia had cajoled her into baking cookies together and she had enjoyed shopping for Sophie, enjoyed Christmas Eve. And, up until only a little while ago, enjoyed Christmas morning.
Sophie had taken her Fairy Finder with her when she left. She’d also taken her mother’s Christmas spirit.
“I hate him,” Arianna said to Mia as she watched Wyatt’s Mustang disappear down the street. She executed the nail on her index finger and sent it flying.
“I’m sorry,” Mia said, coming to stand with her at the window. “Try to think of all the fun you had yesterday. Sophie loved making cookies for Santa and watching Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer.”
“And she loved having your chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast,” Arianna said, smiling as she remembered her daughter’s happy face.
“The same ones I always made for you every year.”
Arianna hugged her mother. “Thanks for letting us move in with you. It’s been great for Sophie, and it’s been a lifesaver for me.”
She’d been busy working on her health-centered website, which she was hoping to monetize. Plus, even though she was still only working part-time, she had long shifts and there were days, especially when there was no school, that she appreciated having her mother’s help. It sure beat day care.
“I promise we won’t stay forever,” she added. It wasn’t fair to her mom. She’d stay just until she could figure out her next step. Hopefully it wouldn’t be off a cliff.
“Don’t be in a hurry. I like having you girls here,” said Mia. “You’ve got a life.”“And you’re the most important part of it.”“I’m sucking you dry.” She was an emotional vampire, and she knew it.“No, you’re not. How about some eggnog?”“That sounds good,” said Arianna.They didn’t have much planned for their holiday dinner. With Sophie gone, Arianna hadn’t seen the point and Mia had said she didn’t care one way or the other and was happy enough with the leftover French zucchini soup she’d made for their Christmas Eve supper.
“And eggnog,” she’d added. “You have to have eggnog on Christmas Day.”
There were a lot of things you should have on Christmas Day, like a Daddy at home to watch while your little girl opened her presents. Arianna scowled. Wyatt was such a shit. A needy, immature shit.
“While you get the eggnog, I’m going to put on some Christ- mas music and make a fire,” she said. There was still some snow on the ground. That called for a cheery fire in the fireplace.
She had the perfect fire starter—the last bunch of pictures she’d found of her and Wyatt. She’d scrubbed her phone and laptop clean of them, but some still remained in a box that had been waiting for when she got around to scrapbooking. Now she was glad she hadn’t had time for scrapbooking. What a waste that would have been.
Out came the shoebox, half-full of memory triggers.
She plucked out one of him and her at the beach on their honeymoon in Hawaii. She was in a string bikini, showing off a body she’d never get back. Maybe she’d cut him out and keep it. It would be nice to have proof someday if her daughter ever asked, “Mommy, were you ever skinny?”
“I’m not fat now,” she told herself. “I’m curvy.” There was nothing wrong with curves. Every woman should celebrate her body, no matter what its shape.
Whose body was Wyatt helping celebrate this holiday sea- son? She knew he’d broken up with Office Barbie because he’d come crawling back in the summer, hoping Arianna would be willing to hit restart. In his dreams. He’d probably gotten a new girlfriend for Christmas. She fetched scissors and cut him out of the picture with one clean snip.
There were so many pictures, so many memories that should have been happy but were now painful. Them on his motor- cycle Hit the road, Wyatt. Them out to dinner for their anniversary. Barf! She’d lost the man but kept that dress. Maybe she should burn it, too. Then there was one of them after they’d brought Sophie home from the hospital. She had Sophie in her arms and he was sitting next to her, looking on and grinning like a proper family man. Looks were deceiving. She ground her teeth and crushed it.
She crumpled a bunch of newspapers, then scattered the pictures on top. Next came a tent of kindling, lots of it, and more pictures, and a couple of small pieces of wood, enough to get a good flame going but not enough to smother the fire. Once that all caught, she’d add a nice fat log.
Her mother returned with the eggnog. “The New Year will be better,” she said.
“Yeah, because there’ll be no man in it,” replied Arianna. “I should roast marshmallows over these.”
Mia handed her daughter a glass. “Sorry, we don’t have any. And roasting them over burning photos would probably make them toxic, anyway.”
“Oh, well. Eggnog is better.” Arianna took a sip. It had a satisfying amount of rum in it.
“Just the way your dad liked it,” Mia said.
Her dad. Now there was a good man. He’d adored her mother and claimed there was no sense in looking at another woman since none could compare with his wife. They’d had twenty-five years together before he died, far too young.
We loved more in twenty-five years than some people do in fifty, Mia liked to say.
Twenty-five years. Arianna and Wyatt hadn’t even made it to ten.
“You’ll find someone,” her mother said softly.“Not holding my breath,” said Arianna. She turned on the TV and started streaming Christmas songs. On came the Jackson 5 singing, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
“Oh, that’s a fun one,” said her mother.
Yes, it was. Arianna turned up the volume. Then she grabbed a long match from the can where Mia kept them and struck it against the hearth. It came to life with a hiss and she smiled as she touched it to the papers under those pictures. They burst into flame, curling the pictures to black swirls, chewing on the wood and producing smoke. One failed relationship up in smoke.
Good thing Santa had already come. This would have toasted his toes. Ha ha.
The pictures vanished as the flames grew and produced more smoke.
More smoke, and it was coming out of the fireplace instead of going up the chimney. Oh, no. The damper!
“The damper, hon,” her mom said, her voice almost calm.
“I can’t remember where it is,” Arianna cried. “What side is it on?”
“On the right,” said Mia as Arianna felt around for it. Chimneys weren’t that big. How hard was it to find a damper? She stuck her head into the smoky cloud and tried to see up the chimney but all she saw was inky smoke. She came out cough- ing, her eyes burning.
She squeezed them tight and reached in again, feeling around for the stupid thing. Where was it? Ow! It was hot in there.
Meanwhile, the smoke was wafting out into the living room, like a gray ghost, and the heat was trying to melt off her hand. There was only one thing to do. “Let’s get out of here!”