Caroline is a cynic career woman living the high life in Manhattan where love and relationships are but a distant memory of the past.
But after a freak accident on Christmas Eve, Caroline receives a visit from a cheeky spirit of Christmas Past, Present, Yet to Come, and—most importantly—Christmas That Could Have Been. When she wakes up on Christmas Day suddenly married with three kids and living two doors down from her parents in New Jersey, Caroline has a chance to experience the life she would’ve had if she’d made a different choice.
Will small-town life as a mother and a wife make her rediscover what’s really important in life?
A modern-day retelling of A Christmas Carol…
Release date: October 26, 2021
Publisher: Pink Bloom Press
Print pages: 230
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
A Christmas Caroline
One - The Population Surplus
I refresh my inbox one last time, hoping to conjure a bold-font, all-caps subject line marked URGENT!!! that will give me an excuse to spend the night at the office.
But no magic salvation message materializes—only a bunch of last-minute holiday shopping offers. I click the email boxes in anger, wanting to snap the mouse in half.
All the Christmas-loving idiots must’ve stopped working hours ago. They should all be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their hearts.
The clock on my desk strikes three, leaving me no escape. Almost time to go.
From my corner office in the Wilkins and Marley tower, I stare out the windows at the mist clouding the city. Bleak, biting weather aligned with my mood. The dingy cloud engulfing New York City is so dense it obscures everything: lights, buildings, and Central Park—of which I usually have an unobstructed view. But the thick fog doesn’t cover the angry sounds of the car horns blaring around Columbus Circle.
The scarce visibility must be causing all kinds of traffic jams around Manhattan.
I could use it as an excuse to stay longer and then blame traffic if I turn out to be late. But if I do, I’d probably end up stuck in the commuting madness and fully miss my family’s annual Christmas carnage.
If nothing else, I should leave early.
Gosh, I hate the holidays.
With a heavy sigh, I accept my fate. I shut my laptop, a little too forcefully perhaps, and head for the coat hanger behind the door.
“Is she ever going to leave?” Debra’s voice drifts in through the open door. My junior assistant is whispering, but not softly enough for me not to hear, especially not now I’m standing so close.
“Yeah, believe it or not, she has a family,” Annabelle, the senior assistant, replies.
“What?” Debra hisses. “She’s married?”
“No, nooo,” Annabelle says as if the mere idea were absurd. “I didn’t mean a husband.”
“Right. Does she even date?”
“She had a serious boyfriend like ages ago when we were still working at Bucknam, but nothing ever since—that I know of.”
“Really, who was the guy?”
“Sam Crawley, some kind of artist,” Annabelle says.
A wistful pang squeezes my heart. I can’t pretend that hearing Sam’s name tossed around so casually leaves me indifferent, not even after all these years.
“Was he hot?”
I have to silently agree. Looks were never a weak spot for Sam.
“And what happened?”
“I’ve no idea. One day he was on her speed dial, and the next, she instructed me to erase him from all her contacts.”
“I bet it was. Anyway, we should be off the hook soon. Every Christmas she goes to visit her sister…” Annabelle pauses before delivering the punch line. “In Jersey.”
“Are you kidding me?” Debra is rightfully shocked. “Caroline Wilkins in Jersey? I thought that if she ever crossed the Manhattan border to go anywhere other than Paris or Milan the soles of her Prada would auto combust.”
I’ve had enough. I step out of the office, making them startle.
“Good evening, ladies.”
“Good evening, Miss Wilkins,” they return the greeting, their cheeks flushing different shades of crimson. The junior assistant blushes so brightly she matches my red leather boots.
“She,” I say pointedly, “is leaving and would like her car called.”
“Of course, Miss Wilkins, right away.” Debra scrambles to grasp the receiver and pushes the garage extension with trembling fingers.
One might say it’s cruel to keep staff members so obviously terrified of their boss, but I’d respond that a little fear can go a long way in terms of efficiency.
“The car will be waiting for you downstairs, Miss Wilkins,” Debra confirms quietly.
I nod curtly, imagining how she must be sweating under her cream polyester cardigan.
“Very well,” I say. “Enjoy your holiday. And be here early on Monday,” I say, happy that Christmas comes on a Saturday this year and they won’t get any extra vacation days.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Miss Wilkins,” Debra, the most inexperienced of the two, dares to say.
Annabelle knows how much I loathe hearing the MC words; she lowers her eyes to her pleather boots, fully aware it was her responsibility to teach Debra to neverwish me a merry Christmas. The mere sentence is an oxymoron.
I wince without responding and proceed to the elevator. Debra and Annabelle scramble to grab their things and follow me down the hall. When the elevator doors ding open, I step in and push the lobby button, enjoying the last glimpse of my terrorized assistants—they’ll wait for the next one.
Just before the doors close, I lock eyes with Debra, and, wiggling the point of my left boot, I say, “These are Jimmy Choos, by the way.”
After a split-second view of her jaw dropping, the doors seal me in, and the elevator begins its fifty-floor descent to the main lobby.
Nelson, my driver, is waiting for me in front of the building next to the company’s black SUV. He’s stamping his feet on the curb to keep warm, his breath pluming in the cold air. The moment he spots me pushing through the glass doors, he snaps to attention and opens the car door.
Now that is a well-behaved employee.
On my way to the car, two portly men in twin Santa costumes step into my path, blocking me. They’re holding an assortment of brochures and flyers in their leather-gloved hands.
“Good evening, ma’am,” the one on the right greets me, his fake white beard bobbing as he talks.
“Sorry, I’m in a hurry.” I try to shake off whatever sales pitch they’re about to palm off on me and sidestep them. But the two Santas mirror my movements and keep blocking the way.
“It’ll only take a minute, ma’am,” Left Santa says. “We’re promoting literacy among less fortunate children, do you have kids?”
“No, I’m trying to decrease the surplus in population,” I say ironically. I’ve seen enough friends and colleagues devolve their uteruses to those energy-sucking demons to know best.
“Well, you must have a nephew or a niece,” Right Santa encourages.
Of those I have plenty, my sister shoots one out every couple of years—she’s become more reliable than the tax man.
“I do,” I say. “In fact, you’re making me late for my visit to them.”
“Then why don’t you bring them the gift of a book?” Left Santa shoves in my face a bundle of pages that looks more like a pamphlet than a proper novel.
“Thank you, but I already bought them gifts.” Correction, my assistants did and had them delivered to my sister’s house.
“Then buy one for the poor. Christmas is such a hard time for those less fortunate.”
“Pals, with all due respect, can you read the names on that building?” I ask, pointing at the skyscraper behind my back. Above the entrance, Wilkins and Marley is prominent among the names of other firms. “Mine’s the big name on the left. I run a publishing house and I promise you I have all the books I need. Plus, we already sponsor”—I glance dubiously at the pamphlet—“legitimate programs to grow the next generation of avid readers. So, thank you, but, no thanks. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
My tone doesn’t leave room for a reply and the Santas part to let me pass.
“Good evening, Miss Wilkins,” my driver greets me, holding the dark SUV door open for me. “Were they bothering you?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle myself, Nelson. Thank you.”
He nods and closes the door after I’ve gotten in.
As we head down Eighth Avenue, the fog and darkness thicken around us. Even without traffic, Nelson would be forced to proceed at a walking pace. At least I won’t get to my sister’s house too early; I can’t stand to linger for more than a few hours and try to visit as sparingly as I can without creating a family feud. But Christmas Eve, like Thanksgiving, is mandatory.
Fan, my sister, bought a house two doors down from our parents’. I’d break out in hives at the mere consideration of sharing a zip code with our mother. A shudder runs down my spine as I try to absorb the warmth from the air vent. Actually, I’m not sure if it’s the cold that’s making me shiver or the idea of living in Jersey. But Fan swears that since she’s had kids, being neighbors to Mom makes everything much easier on her. I can’t imagine how.
I picture my top-floor apartment in the Upper West Side. I wouldn’t swap the glass walls, clean surfaces, and huge closets for anything in the world. Not to mention I would never trade Manhattan with the suburbs. Not a chance in hell.
As Nelson and I make our slow progress through the city, the shop windows’ lights glitter through the fog. Holly sprigs and decorations crackle in the heat behind the thick glasses and a swarm of people crowd the streets. Unreasonably cheery, last-minute shoppers who stroll around happy to throw their money at useless gadgets they’ll give and receive tomorrow and then forget all about before the year is over.
My phone rings as we leave New York behind to enter Lincoln Tunnel.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Caroline,” Yashika, one of my senior editors, says out of breath. “Glad I could reach you. I stopped by the office, but you were already gone.”
The declaration bugs me for two reasons. First, because where was she an hour ago when I was desperately searching for an excuse not to leave? And second, because I don’t like the idea, even implied, that someone could pull longer hours than me. I’m always the first in and the last out.
“Well, this is the one night of the year when I can’t escape my family. I’ve tried, believe me,” I say. “But what couldn’t wait until Monday? We had nothing urgent on our plates if I’m not mistaken?”
“Actually, we did.”
Yashika’s seniority is the only thing that allows her to contradict me.
“Really?” I watch the concrete walls blur past as we make our way through the tunnel, a flurry of cars getting out of the city before Christmas. “What?”
“The option for The Yellow Window expires tonight.”
“Yes, I’m aware. I’ve decided to pass.”
The silence stretches between us before Yashika cuts through. “You’ve passed on The Yellow Window?Why?”
“I made Kendall Hick an offer, and her agent turned it down.”
“How much did you offer?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“But that’s not nearly enough. That story is worth at least a six-figure advance.”
“For a debut author with no existing platform? You must’ve lost your mind, Yashika. I’ve already doubled what we offer to newbies. If Hick’s agent thinks she can get more somewhere else, they’re welcome to try their luck.”
“But, Caroline, The Yellow Window is a masterpiece. I had to bust my ass to convince the agent to give us an exclusive option, and you’re going to pass? Why? We have the money, haven’t we?”
Irritated, I spat, “Maybe you should’ve also negotiated for the agent to have realistic financial expectations. And for your information, I had to spend a considerable chunk of our acquisition budget on securing our newest memoir. With the rest, I prefer to buy twenty new books for five thousand each rather than risking it all on a nobody.”
Yashika’s line goes quiet, and for a moment I can’t tell if she hung up on me or if the poor reception in the tunnel cut her off.
Until her voice crackles back to life. “I can’t believe you’re throwing money at another ghostwritten celebrity bio instead of publishing the best book we’ve read in years.”
“Celebrity novels sell. I’m merely making a business decision.”
“It’s the wrong one. Another publishing house is going to snatch The Yellow Window and make it a number one bestseller, and we’re going to look like fools. You used not to care about profit that much. When I joined Wilkins and Marley, you were one of the best editors in the industry. You were ready to take a chance on new authors and you actually cared about the quality of the books we put out into the world.”
“Well, that was before we had to compete with streaming services that let you binge unlimited content for less than ten dollars a month. And careful, Yashika, that’s starting to sound awfully like a resignation speech.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Yashika replies in a much more subdued voice. Guess her solid principles stop at the security of a paycheck at the end of the month.
“Well, if there isn’t anything else?” I say, curt.
“No, Caroline, merr—I mean, have a good night.”
I hang up without replying and stare out the window.
On the other side of the tunnel, we’ve officially crossed into suburbia. The bustling streets of Manhattan have been replaced by tidy rows of houses lining both sides of the road, Christmas lights hanging from gutters with plastic blow-mold Santas, and snowmen snickering from their perches on the lawns. Meticulously plowed driveways split the otherwise immaculate blanket of snow down the sidewalks. In the thick fog, the houses beyond are mere phantoms, indistinct and unrecognizable. But I don’t need to see them to recognize every gate, postbox, and tree as we drive across my hometown. Until Nelson pulls up in front of yet another phantom house where the same plastic candy canes Fan has been using for years line the shoveled path to the front door.
Two - Leaks and Slips
“Would you like me to wait for you, Miss Wilkins?” my driver asks.
I meet his eyes in the rearview mirror.
“You’d rather go home, I expect?”
Nelson’s gaze lowers with guilt. “If it isn’t too inconvenient; it is Christmas Eve.”
“It’s not convenient for sure, but I suppose you must have the night like everybody else. Leave me the keys and call a cab. You can expense it.”
“Thank you, Miss, but it’s no matter. I’ll walk a few blocks to the station and take the train back. In this weather, it’ll be faster.”
Nelson exits the car to open my door and once I’m out, he hands me the keys. One last goodbye nod, and he gets on his way to the station.
All too soon, I’m alone walking up my sister’s driveway and slipping on the ice despite the pointy spikes of my leather stiletto heels—these should work as crampons.
I stop at the front door, allowing myself one last quiet minute. A Christmas tune is busting from inside the house, pouring out at every chink and keyhole, scraping against my skin. An ominous prelude to the chaos awaiting me within these walls.
I raise my hand to ring the bell, but before I can push the button my eyes fall on my sister’s door knocker, which isn’t at all particular, except for its largeness. Except now, I stare aghast as the tarnished brass surface transforms into Sam’s face.
I haven’t spared my ex-boyfriend of seven years a thought until Annabelle mentioned him earlier this afternoon. Was that enough to make me hallucinate him?
I try to blink the image away, but when I reopen my eyes his features, pale and wistful, are still there, aglow in a dismal light. Sam’s expression isn’t angry, but his gaze on me is the same as the day we broke up: disappointed, hurt, sad. His hair is curiously stirred, as if by a breath of hot air, and, although his eyes are wide open, they’re perfectly motionless—fixed on me in that accusatory, regretful frown.
As my heart throbs under the relentless scowl, Sam’s face disappears and the metal molds into a knocker again.
Startled, I squeeze my eyes shut and open them again to make sure he’s really gone.
Yep. It must’ve been a trick of the light or something. I blame the hallucination on the lack of caffeine—I skipped my regular four o’clock double espresso today—and push my sister’s doorbell.
Harper, Fan’s oldest kid at age eight, comes to open the door, yelling, “Auntie Caroline.” She tackles me into an embrace and drags me into the house.
An explosion of warmth and colors along with the smell of my mother’s cooking replace the dingy fog and frost of the front porch.
“Mom,” Harper shouts. “Auntie Caroline has arrived, I told you she’d be on time.”
Ah, so the will-Caroline-deign-us-with-her-presence merry-go-round has taken place also this year.
I don’t hear what Fan says in response if she replies; immediately after Harper’s announcement, Fan’s middle kids, Nora, five, and Benjamin, three, burst out of the living room and wrap themselves around my legs too.
They “help” me get rid of my coat, scarf, and gloves like little trained elves.
Nora also steals my bag and saunters back into the living room with the Prada tote slung over her shoulder and reaching to her calves.
The noise in this room with the tall ceilings and crooked wood floors is perfectly tumultuous. Instead of four kids, there might be forty for the uproar they’re making. No one seems to mind. On the contrary, Mom and Fan are by the fireplace, laughing heartily, enjoying the raucous.
When Thomas, Fan’s youngest at eight months, crawls to the couch and successfully steals Benjamin’s toy car, his older brother manhandles—or should I say kidhandles—him, prompting Fan to break them apart. On all fours, she gets in between her youngest to separate them and, at once, becomes the new attack focus. All the kids gang up on her. Benjamin pulls at her braid, tearing it half undone. Nora jumps on her back and tries to ride her like a horse, while little Tommy is quietly working behind the scenes to pluck off one of her shoes.
The scene is pure chaos, everything I don’t want in my life and that makes me cringe watching. And yet… my sister looks so happy. A string I haven’t stroked in years pulls in my heart, and I can’t help but wonder if that could’ve been me if I’d stayed with Sam and we’d had kids. Another thought strikes me, who would our kids have taken after? Me? Him? Would they have laughed like Sam? His whole-heartedly laugh was one of the things I loved most about him.
But then I take another look at Fan’s living room, at the mounds of discarded sticky toys and crayon stains adorning most surfaces, and at the stash of diapers she probably hasn’t had time to put away, and I retract. No, thank you.
Harper comes standing next to me, arms crossed over her chest. “They’re so juvenile sometimes, Auntie Caroline,” she says, observing her brothers and sister with contempt. “Can I offer you anything to drink?”
“Thank you, Harper, I’m good for now.”
My niece grabs a tray from a nearby coffee table. “A cookie then?”
I try not to wince at the tinge of artificial dyes on the sugar cookies. Gross. “No, thanks, I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite before dinner.”
The festive atmosphere is already churning my stomach enough. Gag.
I’m scoping out where a safe place to sit would be when someone knocks on the door. In a rush, Fan shakes off Nora, scoops up Tommy, and, with her hair flying in all directions and minus a shoe, she rushes to the entrance.
“Hey, Caroline.” My sister stops briefly by my side to greet me. “Sit down, get comfortable.”
Then she carries on, followed by all her kids, to embrace her husband. Elijah comes stumbling into the house laden with Christmas presents.
At once my defenseless brother-in-law becomes the next victim of the shouting and struggling in an onslaught of miniature bodies.
Benjamin scales him, using a stool for a ladder. Nora picks his pockets. And even Harper, while not trying to get ahold of the presents, jumps on him from behind and, arms around his neck, rides him into the living room.
Elijah scrolls off his kids as a dog would with water, provoking even more shouts of wonder and delight. All the pillaged presents are recollected and placed in their rightful spot under the giant tree in the corner to be opened after dinner. At last, with all the adults finally present, we sit at the table.
The meal isn’t any less anarchic than my welcoming into the house. Fan insists on maintaining “baby-led” weaning for all her kids. This means the children don’t eat dinner before the adults or at a different table, but sit with us and have license to feed themselves however they see fit. In a nutshell, I can’t protest when Tommy puts his dirty, chubby fingers on my plate to steal a bite of turkey or to squish my mashed potatoes and lick the puree off his knuckles. I don’t know what sadistic instinct inspired my sister to place me next to the baby.
After a couple of hours around her kids, my temples are throbbing into a splitting headache. So much so that when the time comes to open the presents, I’m as eager as my nieces and nephews. Once this final consumerist ritual—great for book sales, I’m not complaining—will be completed, I’ll be free to go. I brush off a stray smudge of gravy from my hand, a leftover from the baby slamming their fists down into their plate, and give the little monsters my presents to speed up the process. Annabelle always marks the packages with remarkable stickers so I know what I supposedly bought for each.
The unwrapping proceeds smoothly, the only bit of drama occurring when Tommy steals a doll’s frying pan from Nora’s new toy kitchen set, and the baby becomes more than suspected to have swallowed a plastic turkey glued on a wooden plate. And with all his imparted lessons on self-weaning, how to blame him?
My sister breaks into hysterics, expecting Tommy to go blue and suffocate any minute. And when the turkey reappears at the bottom of Benjamin’s slipper, she’s ecstatic with relief.
Once the drama is over, the kids become gradually more subdued. Instead of running around screaming and playing with their new toys, they lie on the couch or in someone’s arms, rubbing sleep from their eyes. One by one, they’re brought upstairs and put to bed. Fan and Elijah work together as a well-oiled team. Benjamin goes first, then Nora. The youngest, Tommy, will go last as he still takes many naps during the day and is not yet time for his final feeding. When the time comes to put Harper to bed, Fan drops the baby in my lap in another shrewd maneuver.
The move surprises me so much, I don’t have the promptness to complain. I remain stranded on the couch, with this miniature person in my arms.
We study each other.
Tommy looks up at me with big blue baby eyes and flashes me a one-toothed smile, followed by a happy gurgle. Kind of cute.
The baby reaches up for my hand and grabs one of my fingers with his tiny ones. A strange wave of heat flushes my cheeks and empties my stomach. A powerful emotion I can’t describe, but that makes me deeply uncomfortable.
“Mom,” I say when she reappears after tidying the kitchen for Fan. “You want to take little Tommy?”
“Caroline, he’s just a baby.” She sits on one of the twin armchairs by the fireplace next to my dad, who’s reading the paper. “Holding him ten minutes won’t kill you.”
“I know, Mom, but I need to get going. The drive back to the city will take forever.”
“You can’t possibly mean to go in this awful weather,” she protests.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“It’s not safe to drive,” Dad interjects, not looking up from his newspaper.
“It’s as safe as when I came a few hours ago.”
“That was different,” Dad continues. “Nelson was driving.”
“I have a license, you know.”
Dad scoffs and eyes me over his newspaper. “You haven’t been driving in, how long?”
“Dad, you’re being melodramatic, it’s just a little fog.”
“A little fog?” My dad drops the paper on his lap. “Your mother and I had trouble finding our way across the street.”
“And what’s the alternative?” I huff. “I’m not spending the night on Fan’s couch.”
“Of course not, darling,” my mom says. “You can stay in your old bedroom. We’d only have to make the bed.”
I haven’t slept in that room for exactly six years and three hundred and sixty-four days, and I’m not going to break the streak now.
“I’ll call a cab then.”
Dad arches an eyebrow over his black-rimmed glasses. “And how is putting your life in the hands of a perfect stranger any better?”
“I don’t know, let’s assume that if he or she is competent enough to get here safely, they can drive me back without harm.”
“It would be safer to stay here tonight,” Mom says.
I drop the argument with my parents, once they become so headstrong it’s impossible to make them change their minds, and covertly order a car from an app on my phone.
Half an hour later, just as I get a notification that my driver is five minutes away, Fan and Elijah come back down the stairs.
Perfect. I’m craving a good night’s sleep in my California King bed. Mmm, I can almost feel the caress of my Egyptian cotton sheets. All I need to do is give Tommy back, say good night to everyone, and get the hell out of here.
I’m about to execute that plan when a sudden gush of wet warmth heats my lap.
I shoot up, holding Tommy away from me and yelping, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, he pooped on me.” The move, unfortunately, brings his leaking bottom closer to my nose… Oh. My. Gosh. How can such a tiny creature produce such a potent stench?
“Shhh,” Fan shushes me. “You’ll wake up the other kids.”
“Fan,” I hiss between gritted teeth. “I’m covered in shit.”
“It’s just a little baby poo-poo.” She takes her son back, cooing at him. “You’ve made your poo-poo, what a good boy.” Fan doesn’t even wince at the putrid smell. Either her nose isn’t working, or becoming a mother for the fourth time has fried her few remaining neurons and they can’t process signals anymore.
I rush into the bathroom and try to wash the literal crap out of my knit Fendi dress, but it’s useless: the dress is ruined. I pull it off, careful not to make the contaminated patch come in contact with any skin or my hair, and trash it. Under the strong spotlights, I examine my tights, checking that no fecal matter has permeated through. Thankfully, it seems not. I still yank off my wool tights and grab a towel to scrub my legs thoroughly.
Now I’m clean, but I can’t exit the bathroom in my bra and panties.
My phone pings with another notification.
Your driver is waiting for you at the address you provided.
Okay. I briefly consider stealing a bathrobe and walking out in that when my sister mercifully comes to check on me.
Fan knocks on the door. “Caroline, are you alright in there?”
“Yes, but I need clean clothes. Can you lend me something?”
Through the closed door, I hear Fan rustle in the adjoining laundry hall.
“Are sweats okay? I wear little else these days.”
“Sweats are great,” I say, cringing at the idea of borrowing the shabby mommy uniform.
I open the door and she stops on the threshold, handing me the clothes.
“What about your dress,” my sister asks. “Did the stain come off?”
“No, it’s ruined.”
“Oh, maybe at the dry-cleaner, they can—”
“It’s no big deal, Fan, I threw it away.” Even if the stain did come off, I’d know it was there once. I’d never wear the poop dress again.
Fan’s eyes fly to the bathroom trash bin and widen. “Gosh, Caroline, what is that, a two-thousand-dollar dress?”
Closer to three thousand, but I don’t correct her.
Fan pouts. “Wow, it must be nice to have so much money you can literally throw it in the garbage.”
I prefer to avoid the whole you-sold-your-soul-to-a-golden-idol dispute, so I purse my lips and pull on the black leggings and bright red Cornell sweatshirt Fan has given me. The fact amazes me every day that despite her Ivy League education, my sister chose to be a stay-at-home mom.
I zip up my boots and take a quick glance in the mirror. All I can say is that the Jimmy Choos could rock any outfit, even the suburban mommy uniform.
My ringtone goes off with an incoming call from the car company.
“Yes,” I pick up. “Yeah, I’ll be out in a minute,” I reassure the driver.
“You’re leaving?” Fan asks. “In this weather?”
Moving next door to my parents is slowly turning her into a carbon copy of my mother.
“Yes, in this weather, and before you can say anything, I’m not sleeping at Mom’s.” I hug her to prevent any further protest. “Thank you for dinner, everything was amazing,” I tell Fan even if I know Mom cooked and not her.
I kiss my sister’s cheeks and rush past her into the living room.
I collect my belongings from where my nieces and nephews have scattered them, saying my goodbyes and throwing around reassurances. Yes, the drivers from the car company are carefully vetted. And, yes, I’ll text them when I get home to let them know I’ve gotten in safe.
I stuff my gloves, hat, and scarf into my bag—I won’t catch a cold for a one-minute walk down the driveway and pull on my coat.
“Remember to text us,” Mom pleads. “You always forget.”
“Sure, Mom, I will.”
Elijah walks me to the door and holds it open for me. “Good night, Caroline. Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, you, too.”
I give him a quick hug and hurry down the driveway just as my phone starts ringing again. Gosh, this driver must be an impatient prick.
I rush on the wet concrete, doing my best to keep my balance, but halfway down, the snow slush suddenly turns into a solid slab of ice, and the leather soles of my boots slip on the ice block as if greased, sending me flying.
I land with a hard tug on the frozen concrete, hitting my bum and head with brutal force as everything goes black.
Three - Christmases Past
I become conscious again to the sound of a monitor beeping, a persistent throbbing in my head, and a girl I don’t recognize sitting at the foot of my bed—a hospital bed.
What the hell?
I stare to my right where a black monitor shows an electrocardiogram pulsating regularly. Cables jut from behind the screen and I follow one to a medical clip clasped to my index finger. On the other side of the bed, an empty IV stand is dangling above my head.
The room is tiny; it feels more like a cubicle. Between the bed and the left wall, there’s merely enough space to host a leather armchair, for visitors I suppose, which is now empty.
I refocus on the girl sitting on my feet.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“Oh.” She looks up at me through a curtain of white-blond hair so bright it’s almost luminescent. “You’re awake,” she says, her voice soft and gentle. “And just on time.” The girl lifts a finger as if waiting for something and, promptly, the chime of a bell resounds in the distance. Big and clear, like that of a church. “Right on the first stroke of midnight.”
“Who are you?” I repeat. “Why am I in the hospital?”
“The answer to the second question is pretty straightforward: you bashed your head on the concrete after you ran out of your sister’s house scared by a little diaper leak and landed yourself in a coma.”
“I’m not in a coma, I’m talking to you.”
“Technically, your spirit is talking to me. Your body is still out cold.” She pats my feet over the blanket. “Don’t worry, you’re not dead, but you haven’t gone back to the living yet, either. You’re in a middle plane.” She layers her hands one above the other. “Which brings us to the first question you asked. I’m Melodie, your assigned spirit guide.”
I take a better look at her. The girl must be seven or eight, she’s wearing a pristine white tunic trimmed with summer flowers and bound at the waist by a lustrous belt. In her hands, she’s holding a branch of holly. But my eyes keep being drawn to the belt, which sparkles and glitters. The light parts, becoming dark and vice versa so that the girl’s entire figure appears to fluctuate.
“Have you escaped from the pediatric wing?”
Or more the psych ward.
Melodie sighs. “A skeptic, I should’ve guessed from your file. You don’t believe I’m a Christmas Spirit.”
“Well, of course not.”
“What about now?” she asks as her head disappears.
“And now?” Her head reappears, but floats in mid-air over no body.
“All right, all right, stop that.” I touch the back of my head and find a huge bump just above my nape. The impact with my sister’s driveway must’ve been a TKO.
The girl reassembles in one piece, head, body, and belt, and eyes me suspiciously. “You still don’t believe me.”
“If I say no, you’ll make your head disappear again?”
“You know what, let’s agree to disagree for now. Are you ready to go?”
“Caroline, I thought you were this big-shot career woman”—she snaps her fingers three times in quick succession—“keep up! It’s Christmas Eve, well, was Christmas Eve until a few minutes ago. Merry Christmas.” Crazy Melodie makes jazz hands. “And I’m your spirit guide. Now, I know you Scrooge types are used to the five-star treatment: get a ghost to warm you up, then three separate spirits each on a different night, the whole shebang. Sorry, it no longer works that way. With the Christmas Spirit at an all-time low, we had to streamline our resources. So now you get only one spirit, yours truly, and we try to cover everything in one night.”
“Cover what exactly?”
“Your Christmases: past, present, future. Come on, Caroline.” She snaps her fingers again. “You didn’t hit your head that hard.”
“Listen, I still don’t understand what business you have being in my room.”
“I can assure you a night of uninterrupted sleep would be more beneficial.”
“Your salvation, then.”
“I don’t need to be saved.”
“Caroline, stop resisting me. You have a unique opportunity to take a hard look at your life and fix your mistakes—”
“What mistakes? I don’t have any mistakes to fix. I have a wonderful life, a successful company I built from the ground up, I’m perfectly happy, thank you very much.”
The spirit crosses her arms over her chest and eyes me like a professor would an unruly student, making me feel like the child between the pair of us. “What about regrets? Do you have any of those?”
Sam. The name pops into my head before I can do anything to prevent it.
“Just as I thought,” Melodie replies smugly.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She taps her temple. “When you’re with me, thinking is enough. Now, we should technically wait until one o’clock.” The girl stares at the clock mounted on the sidewall of the hospital chamber. “But what do you say we get a head-start and get going?” She jumps off the bed and pulls off my blankets too quickly for me to clasp them.
Next, she grabs my hand and, with surprising force for a child, drags me toward the window.
“But it’s freezing outside, and I’m wearing a hospital gown.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”
“Can I at least put on some shoes?”
Melodie stops and eyes the far corner of the room, where a plastic bag with all my personal effects is resting on a chair.
“Haven’t those boots done enough damage? Here, use these.”
She hands me a sad pair of hospital slippers. While I put them on, she pushes the window open.
“Are you planning on flying?”
“Not when you’re mortal like me. I’d rather not splatter on the concrete, thank you.”
“Don’t worry; hold my hand and you’ll be fine.”
Melodie drags me along, and we pass through the hospital wall as if it were unsubstantial and walk right onto my parents’ driveway.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...