I’ve been pondering short stories lately, as you do. Despite having a story in the A Hand of Knaves anthology that came out earlier this year, I still feel like short fiction isn’t my natural state. (My current novel WIP was intented to be a novella, and it’s … well, it’s longer than Guardian Angel and I’m still going.) But I think that might be because I’m out of practice — I used to do a lot of writing challenges, but I’ve fallen out of the habit.
The below — which I’ve decided to re-share because yay, Christmas — is an example of that. I wrote it in 2013 as part of a challenge to write out of my usual genre. The original is hosted at The Midnight Type, if you want to show them some love (although the site seems to be inactive now, sadly).
Michelle decorates the house in silence.
In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.
That was before she found the emails.
Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides — too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.
The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.
Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”
“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.
“How are you?”
She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”
“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.
He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.
“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”
“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”
“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.
“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”
“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben– She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”
He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”
This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”
“Read them again. Properly, this time.”
“Leave me alone.”
She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.
It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the pokies.
Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.
The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.
The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.
The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.
“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.
“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns at the thought. “I’m looking for someone.”
He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”
“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.
“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.
“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”
Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.
Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”
“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”
Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.
“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.
“To see you. I…” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but she looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.
“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, you can piss off.”
“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”
Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”
“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.
“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”
The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”
Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with the details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.
She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
I’ve blogged a little less this year than I did last year — mostly book reviews, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed — but I absolutely can’t miss my tradition of a Christmas wish and a song.
This is the fifth year I’ve done one of these posts. And it’s not the first time I’ve used a Straight No Chaser song, but I only discovered the below today and I’ve been playing it … rather a lot. Not only does it have amazing a cappella, but it has Kristen Bell, who is always a delight. ❤
This year has been quieter for me than 2015 was on a publishing front, though that’s not hard. I self-published Melpomene’s Daughter after the closure of my small press. I also finished writing my Greek-inspired fantasy, and wrote the vast bulk of False Awakening, the sequel to Lucid Dreaming. (I have half a chapter left to go. It’s so close I can smell the champagne and chocolate!)
I can’t wait to sink my teeth into something new. 😀
As I’ve said previously, I’m not a religious person, but I do love the tradition, sharing and joy (primarily my son’s) at Christmas time. We’re going to my parents’ place; most of my family will be there. There’ll be music, pavlova and prawns (not together).
As always, thanks to everyone who has supported me this year — my beta readers, designer, editor, friends and family. Thanks also to anyone that has bought and/or reviewed any of my books. May your Christmas cracker jokes be not too terrible and may your food bountiful and delicious. (Or if you’re not Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas, have a wonderful day anyway! There’s a new Pokemon Go event starting — go out and catch all the gyms while the rest of us are busy. Except my gym. You can’t have that.)
Every year on my blog I’ve had a Christmas post with a song for people to enjoy. My two favourite Christmas carols are here and here, but I posted those early; last year, I went with the Muppets, because you can’t go wrong with Beaker and Animal. (Note: Beaker may not agree.)
I don’t write this post every year for the views. Goodness knows, on Christmas Day most people aren’t reading my little blog. Partly, I write it because traditions are good. My family has Christmas traditions, and even though I’d describe myself as somewhere between agnostic and atheist, I still really love them. They remind me of sleepy summer afternoons after too much food; the sweetness of overloaded pavlova; the crinkle of bright paper.
I also write the post because I know some people don’t have anywhere to go, anyone to be with, on Christmas Day, and maybe my random blatherings and a song will make them feel less lonely. I get a taste of this every second year, when my son is with his father for Christmas. I will see my boy on Boxing Day, and I will still see my parents today … so it could be worse. But I miss my son and his enthusiasm and cuddles.
One more day to go.
This year has been huge. I thought last year was huge — my debut came out in October 2014 — but this year was huger. I released two books with TMP. TMP then closed down just as I was about to self-publish Lucid Dreaming … so I released that, then re-released two of the three books I’d released with TMP. (The third one will hopefully be done before the end of February.)
I’d take it as a kindness if next year is slightly less huge. Or, if it really must be huge, let it be in such a way that I can quit my dayjob to manage the hugeness. 😉
To everyone who has supported me throughout the year: Kim with her beta reading and design, Lauren and Jennifer with their editing, Stacey with her beta reading; my family, for their support and somewhat baffled enthusiasm; my friends for their enthusiasm and endless coffee. You guys are the best.
And to anyone who has read one of my books, or pimped them on social media, or left me a review (or some combination thereof) … may your holidays be bright and full of crinkling paper.
Warm and fuzzy hugs. (And an a cappella carol by … the Brady Bunch, I think?) xo
It’s been a hella crazy year. I released a book with Turquoise Morning Press and prepared two more for release early next year. I self-published a novella and sent my boy to preschool, where he learned stuff and flourished. And the best thing is that I continued my friendships with a bunch of awesome writer and reader friends, and met new ones!
To everyone that’s read Isla’s Inheritance, left a review, or even just provided moral support during this crazy ride: I LOVE YOU GUYS!
It’s Christmas here and, although I’m not religious, I love it because I have a small boy and he loves it. Plus, what’s not to love about catching up with family and friends, and eating delicious food? Nothing, that’s what!
It’s a tradition (three years running now) that I celebrate Christmas on the blog with a song. So here’s one for the whole family. Merry Christmas (or other holiday of your choice).
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is “Top Ten Books I Wouldn’t Mind Santa Bringing This Year”. Since my family does a Kris Kringle-style gift-giving, and these four are actually on my wish list, I’m hopeful I’ll get at least one of them. Whatever I don’t get I have no doubt I’ll buy in short order. Because I have a credit card and poor impulse control.
The first two are non-fiction (well, sort of), which has got to be a first for this blog.
My Story by Julia Gillard
Warning: this summary contains politics. If the subject makes you want to tear your eyes out, maybe skip to the next one.
For those who aren’t in Australia and/or don’t follow our politics, Julia Gillard was Australia’s first female prime minister, from the Labor Party (our equivalent of the Democrats…sort of). The way she came to power was controversial, in that she was the deputy PM for a year, and the then-PM was basically bollocksing everything up (yeah, I’m showing my political stripes here). He lost the support of the party, and so she was appointed in his stead. Those who weren’t paying attention to politics at the time — which, let’s be honest, was most of the country! — basically got whiplash because it seemed to happen out of the blue, and a lot of people never forgave her (assisted by the far right opposition and the Murdoch press). I’m really keen to hear Gillard’s side of things, especially as I basically think she was brilliant.
Except at giving pre-written speeches. She sucked at those. (See, I can do “fair and balanced”.)
Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
I have a bit of a celebrity crush on Neil Patrick Harris — the kind of celebrity crush that is more futile than most. 😉 But still, you can’t figh these things.
I’m going to let the blurb speak for itself here. Because I’d read this book regardless, but with this premise I NEED it.
Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened?
Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.
Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song. Yes, if you buy one book this year, congratulations on being above the American average, but make that book Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography!
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The only Maggie Stiefvater book I’ve read is The Raven Boys, which I loved. But whenever I mention this fact — here or anywhere else on the interwebs — the response is overwhelmingly “OMG YOU HAVE TO READ THE SCORPIO RACES RIGHT NOW”! Alright, alright, already!
I gather from the reviews I’ve skimmed on Goodreads that it’s a 1950s-ish alternate Earth with the mythical kelpie as a feature. And that does sound pretty awesome. And since I already know that Stiefvater has serious game, I figure I’ll give it a shot.
White Cat by Holly Black
I know basically nothing about this book, and I can’t even remember how it caught my eye … although it may have been Cait’s rather enthusiastic review. She does make it sound wonderful: “It’s Supernatural meets the mafia. It is. You don’t need me to say anymore. THAT ALONE SHOULD SELL YOU.”
I haven’t even seen more than an episode or two of Supernatural, but that worked. 🙂
What books are on your Christmas list?
Last year, I posted a Christmas message with a video. So, as is the grand old tradition of this blog (YES YOU CAN HAVE A GRAND OLD TRADITION AFTER JUST OVER 12 MONTHS SHUT UP THAT’S WHY), I shall do the same again this year.
For those of you that partake of such things, have a wonderful Christmas (or other festive season of your choice) and a happy new year. For those of you that don’t, well, enjoy the public holidays, anyway!
This is one of my two favourite Christmas carols EVER. The Straight No Chaser CD is the only one I listen to at Christmas.
My other favourite Christmas song I linked last year. But it makes me cry.
And as my final gift to you, here is a picture of a puppy under a Christmas tree.
Merry Christmas, gentle reader. Even if you’re not at all religious, it’s still a great time of year to cuddle your children (if they’ll let you) and spend some time with your nearest and dearest.
My son is three. I’m almost as excited to see his reaction on Christmas morning as he is about the idea of Santa coming. Christmas doesn’t get any better than this.
Mr Minchin said it best – with song. And epic hair!