Driving into town in a rented Chevy two days later, Eve realized even the name, Connor Falls, sounded ridiculously close to the Bedford Falls from the classic Christmas movie. The small town might even have passed for a movie set with its long, quaint main street, original turn-of-the-last-century homes planted in narrow side lanes running like spokes from the park at the village center. The speed limit signs in Connor Falls read an improbable twenty miles per hour. How did cars even continue to have forward momentum at twenty miles per hour? With a conscious effort, Eve let up on the gas pedal.
Unfortunately, twenty miles per hour granted Eve a protracted view of every shop front in town. Each window was populated, as expected, with greens and lights and all the standard holiday icons. Fresh wreaths with bright red bows hung from old-fashioned lampposts. The white picket fences Eve glimpsed up side streets dripped with fir roping. And there were people everywhere—not everywhere like New York City, but far more than one usually saw on Connor Falls’ quiet streets at any given time, let alone after nightfall.
Eve spied Gina Hart chatting animatedly outside her bakery with a tall, sandy-haired man. Aglow in several small spotlights, a three-storey gingerbread house bore a huge blue ribbon in the bakery window behind them. Not only did From the Hart Bakery produce the best darned baked goods for miles around, but Gina made gingerbread houses for the townspeople and beyond. One probably sat smack-dab in the middle of Eve’s parents’ dining room table right now.
Eve tightened her grip on the steering wheel. After a moment she cracked the window, letting in the crisp evening air. She tried to recall the last time she’d been home to spend the holidays. Years. Years filled with excuses and guilt, but the guilt hadn’t carried quite enough muscle to override her reasons for staying away.
At the town’s outskirts, Eve had sped up to a whopping forty miles an hour on the climbing, curving road, when she reached the stone bridge spanning Connor Creek. Making her turn, she drove at a crawl along the winding street, trying to avoid looking at the lights, the nativities in the yards, the old fashioned sleighs hitched to twinkling, mobile-headed reindeer. These people were slap-happy crazy about the season and made no bones about it.
Suddenly Eve braked. She rolled down the window to gape at a large display with blinking colored lights flashing in rhythm “It’s a Small World.” Putting the car in park, she leaned her head out the open window, breath feathering up into the illuminated night air. The changing lights danced across the car’s hood and in her eyes as she stared at the tiny figures blinking in and out around green and blue bulbs shaped like a globe. No doubt the display had cost the better part of someone’s weekly salary. She thought about that fact, and in the next instant found herself behind the display, the extension cord in one tight fist, the power cord in the other, listening to blissful silence. At her back, a door opened.
“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Eve sucked in a painful breath, eyes wide as she stared at the cords in her hands. Spinning on her heel, she held them out like a felon confessing a crime. “I—I thought—” What could she possibly say? Could she plead temporary insanity? She dropped her hand to her sides. “A light was flashing. I’m sorry.”
“Are you crazy?” the man yelled.
The man likely knew her parents. She could only hope he wouldn’t recognize her.
“They all flash!” he went on, stomping out onto the sidewalk. “Plug those lights back in and get off my damn lawn lady, or I’ll call the police.”
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, hastening to insert the plug back into the extension cord. “I’m sorry,” she said again, running to her car. She jumped into the seat, slammed the door shut and sped away from the curb without bothering to hook her seat belt. Her stomach filled with an icy churning as though a freezer’s contents had been dumped inside.
“What is wrong with you, Eve Nolan?” she demanded several times, trying to ignore the fact chiding oneself out loud probably wasn’t good. Her heart pounded. Sweat glazed the wheel beneath her hands, despite the open window.
Glancing in the rear view mirror, she fully expected to see a police car’s strobe lights. Thankfully, the road remained empty, the only reflection the dancing lights in the distance.
Parking against the curb outside her parents’ home, Eve removed the keys from the car’s ignition and clutched the fob in a tight grip. Taking time to still her racing pulse, she met her own gaze in the mirror.
“Really,” she said, “what is wrong with you?”
She’d never done anything like that before. It had been a moment of gross stupidity and short-circuited impulse control rolled into one. This went far beyond ‘cranky’. This was lunatic.
Eve forced herself to open the door, climb out and breath some more. She grabbed one of the two bags from the back seat and started up the driveway. Outside the garlanded front door she hesitated, her hand poised to knock. She grew up here, for crying out loud. Why should she knock? Any other month of the year, and she wouldn’t. But at Christmas she felt like a stranger everywhere she went.
Even here. Why?
She rapped on the only wood showing beside the monstrously huge wreath. The door opened to reveal her mother’s broad smile.
“Honey! Why on earth are you knocking?”
Eve stared at the bright red plastic headband in her mother’s dark hair. Two antennae-like projections topped by stuffed fabric silver stars bobbed gently as her head moved, giving her an almost cartoon-like animation..
“Never mind that,” said Eve. “What on earth are you wearing?”
Her mother’s eyes rolled upward, following Eve’s gaze. She reached up to pinch a star between thumb and forefinger. “I’ve just been making these for the kids. They’re adorable, if I do say so myself. Get in here!”
Eve stepped into her mother’s embrace. A flailing star poked her in the eye with a soft point. Dropping her bag to the floor, Eve wrapped her arms around her mother, a woman every bit as short as she. She fought back the moisture threatening to seep past her lowered lashes. From the living room her father’s gruff voice boomed.
“Jeanette, who’s at the door? Oh, for goodness’ sake, Eve! You were knocking?”
Jeanette stepped back, tears in her eyes as well. “Of course she was knocking. Who, but our daughter would knock on her own door?”
“It’s your door, Mom.”
“Nonsense,” said Jeanette, backing away as Eve father’s lunged forward. Wrapping Eve in a one-armed hug, he slipped the other arm around his wife. He kissed both their heads and lifted his own to look out the open door.
“Where’s Kevin?” he asked. “Getting the rest of the luggage?”
Jeanette rose up on her tiptoes to better glimpse the empty front yard. Eve turned her head to follow her mother’s gaze. Although she knew no one would be there, she needed a moment to figure out what to tell them.
“We’re dying to see him again!” Jeanette said. “How long is it now—”
“Oh, please, don’t do that,” Eve said. She pressed two fingers against the bridge of her nose, staving off a threatening headache. “He’s not here.”
Jeanette drew back. “What? Did he drive separately? Is he coming later?”
“How silly is that? Waste of gas,” said Fred.
“He’s not wasting gas. And it’s not silly. Kevin isn’t coming,” said Eve. “We broke up.” There. Cards on the table. And why hadn’t she been able to tell them sooner? God, she was pathetic.
Both parents turned to look at her. The only noise came from the television’s murmur in the living room and the grandfather’s clock swinging pendulum.
Fred released his grip on their shoulders. He reached over his wife’s head and swung the door closed. “We’re not heating the neighborhood, you know.”
“More alcohol for me, anyway.”
Turning on his heel, he strode back toward the living room. As he passed the smaller of two Christmas trees stationed in the foyer he straightened a silver bell, glaring at Eve over his shoulder. Jeanette leaned close, whispering.
“He’s just kidding. I can’t remember the last time your dad had even so much as a beer.”
Eve sighed. “So much not the point.” She bent and lifted her bag from the floor. “But I’m thinking maybe I could use a beer about now. This seems like a good time to start.”
Jeanette’s eyebrows arched. The nearest star wiggled on its stem. “A beer? Honey, really? How about a cup of tea instead? Some chamomile? Or a hot chocolate. I have a fresh batch of cookies just out from the oven, too.”
Eve’s shoulders slumped beneath her down jacket. “Of course you do,” she said.
Resigned, she followed her mother down the short hall into the kitchen. She hung her coat on the chair and sat, folding her arms on the table cloth. After a few seconds staring at the centerpiece, she extended her hand to touch the red sleigh’s worn curves before looking around in the stove light’s mellow illumination. All the old familiar pieces were there, and a few new ones: holly-printed potholders, the Santa cookie jar, the snowmen salt and pepper shakers, Christmas cookbooks, curtains, tea towels, baskets of greens and pine cones and little silver balls. Eve wondered how long it took her mother to remove all the ordinary household items each year and replace them with holiday décor. When Eve had been little, it had seemed like magic. She’d come home from school and the house would be transformed.
“Marshmallows?” Jeanette offered, holding out the bag.
Carrying the two mugs over, Jeanette sat down beside Eve. Eve pulled her mug closer, tipping her head to the side to examine the Santa face on the front.
“Mom, did you ever consider toning down the decorating a bit? Giving yourself a break?”
At the silence following her question, Eve glanced up from the mug to her parent’s face. Her mother spoke before Eve could get the apology past her lips.
“Why?” Jeanette asked. “Because of Steven?”
“I—no, of course not,” Eve stammered. “That’s not what I meant.”
Jeanette closed her fingers over Eve’s mug. “I’ll get you a plain one, if that’ll make you feel better.”
Eve held on tight. “No, Mom. This is fine. I was just saying.”
“I know what you were saying.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I most certainly do.”
“Let go of the mug, Mom.”
Jeanette breathed in and out, not quite ready to give up the battle. Easing the mug from her mother’s grasp, Eve held it close to her face, breathing in the warm cocoa scent. Her mom put cinnamon in it, and vanilla. Eve took a mouthful while her mother watched her with an expression Eve couldn’t quite read. But the chocolate tasted like home. Like home, when her home was where she’d made it, in her apartment, at her job, with her friends in the city. Not here.
“Cripes,” said Eve, setting the mug down again. “I guess I come by it naturally.”
“Come by what naturally?”
“I’ve been accused of being cranky,” said Eve. “How about you?”
Jeanette cleared her throat. “Occasionally.”
Eve smiled, pressing the radiating ceramic warmth against her lips once more and breathing in. The olfactory senses could be traitorous.
“I’m sorry about getting upset,” Jeanette said. “I know you don’t understand.”
“What is it you think I don’t understand? I didn’t mean anything by what I said. I was only asking a question. It’s a lot of work for…you know…such a short season.”
Jeanette gave a little nod. The stars on the headband bobbed. She reached up and pulled it off, laying it on the table near her mug. “Of course. Just a question. And that whole thing with Kevin is bound to make you lash out at people, too, I’m sure.”
Eve looked into her mother’s golden brown eyes, recognizing her own, right down to the darker brown ring around the pupil. “It was no ‘whole thing’ with Kevin. Really. And I wasn’t lashing out. Did I even raise my voice?”
Making an impatient noise, Eve sipped and swallowed another warm chocolate mouthful. She tried to remember why she hadn’t backed out of coming with whatever stupid excuse came to mind. She could have. She could have been in her apartment right now curled up on the sofa in her pajamas watching a movie in the dark, unremarked and undisturbed. Any guilt she might have felt could have been vanquished with chocolate marshmallow ice cream.
Jeanette watched her over the mug pressed to her lips. Eve recognized the cogs in her mother’s mind meeting each other, tooth-to-tooth. She could only hope the thoughts being cogitated between those toothy wheels wouldn’t spit out a neighbor’s unattached son.
Jeanette stirred in her chair, set her mug down. “Now that you’re free,” she said, “I have an idea.”
Ah, yes, here we go, thought Eve with a small amount of satisfaction. She rolled hot liquid around inside her mouth and swallowed before answering. “Free? Like buy-one-get-one?”
Jeanette sighed. “Like unattached, Eve.”
“I knew what you meant.”
“Well it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
Jeanette pushed the mug several inches across the tablecloth brilliant with red poinsettia blooms. She tapped her fingernail against the ceramic handle in a short, staccato rhythm. On her finger she wore a ring shaped like a wreath. Eve frowned at it, quickly lifting her gaze back to her mother’s face before her own revealed what she was thinking.
“Even before you told us Kevin wasn’t coming—how long has it been anyway, since you two broke up?”
Eve wondered if her mother could be any more obvious. “Does it matter?”
“Three weeks. Three weeks, four days, and, mmm, about two and a half hours.”
“No need to get snarky, dear,” said Jeanette.
“I’m not getting snarky. I figured you’d probably prefer a very precise answer.”
“Are you angry with me?”
“No, Mom, I’m not,” said Eve. “I just got here. I have no reason to be angry. At least, I don’t think I have a reason to be angry. Do I? What is it you have planned?”
Sticking a forefinger into her chocolate, Jeanette pulled out a soggy marshmallow and popped it in her mouth. “I’ve been thinking that it might do you a world of good to get involved in something.”
Eve eyed her mother wordlessly. Involved in something? Not quite where she thought her mother had been going with this conversation.
“Now, I want you to listen with an open mind, okay?” said Jeanette.
“Okay,” Eve answered slowly.
“Not like that.”
“Not like what?”
“I mean with a really open mind.”
“This is going to be bad, isn’t it? Should I just say no, now?”
Eve pressed her thumb and forefinger to the place where nose met brows again and slid her digits outward over her eyelids before dropping her hands to her lap. She raised her chin to gaze wide-eyed at her mother. “Okay. Okay. My mind’s wide open. A vacuum. Look. Blank stare and everything.”
With her pointer finger, Jeanette flicked a star on the headband lying nearby. A small smile played over her lips and disappeared. “You know we have that wonderful pageant every year at the church,” she said.
“And all those children are so adorable.”
Eve arched her brows. “If you say so.”
“And the props and the costumes are always so cute, and everyone works so hard on them.”
“Uh-huh—wait, are you asking me to make costumes?” Eve sat up. Why did everyone leave the costumes to the last minute? Did they not realize how much work was required? Or that there was likely a shortage now of Styrofoam cones? Especially in Connor Falls.
Eve pushed her chair back. Where the heck did her mother keep the aspirin these days? She needed one, now.
“Eve, I wouldn’t do that to you,” Jeanette said. “Not at this late date. They’re already made, anyway. But I will keep that in mind for next year, considering what you do for a living.”
“Next year. Right,” Eve murmured, pulling her chair back in. She reached into the cookie jar on the table and pulled out two chocolate chip cookies. She bit into one, handing her mother the other. They were still slightly warm. “Go on,” she said around a mouthful.
“I got a call this morning from a friend of mine who knows the person directing the pageant this year, and apparently the person assisting him came down with the flu, and—”
Eve choked, a cookie crumb catching on its way down her throat. She coughed, and coughed again. Eyes watering, she swallowed more cocoa. “Mom, no!” she croaked.
“Honey, take another drink. And I don’t know why you—”
“You can’t be serious! Come on—you didn’t tell anyone that I would, did you?”
Jeanette looked at her. Just looked. It was like being condemned to hang. All those years of self-inflicted guilt hadn’t gone away. It took that one look to make them come rushing back.
“Mom, no, I can’t,” Eve said, trying to sound reasonable. “I can’t. I have…other plans and I just can’t get involved with all that—that Christmas stuff.”
Jeanette broke her cookie in half, dunking it into her mug. “Shame on you.”
“What?” Eve glanced to her right to make certain no one else had crept into the kitchen and that her mother was, in fact, speaking to her. “Why?”
“You’re twenty-seven years old. Grow up and act like it. Besides, it’ll probably only be for a day or two. I’m sure Melanie will be feeling better before the pageant takes place and then you can go back to doing whatever non-Christmas stuff you do in your life.”
Eve struggled to inhale and exhale. A bowling bowl had settled onto her diaphragm. She knew her mother wouldn’t accept anything but agreement. In the house for less than fifteen minutes and Eve already recognized one thing with absolute clarity: Coming home for Christmas had been a bad idea.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpts from Hurry Home for Christmas! Coming next week, three excerpts from Winter Light, the prequel novella to the Connor Falls Christmas Series.
See you then!