Read A Carol Christmas Online

Authors: Sheila Roberts

A Carol Christmas

A CAROL
CHRISTMAS

By Sheila Roberts

Copyright Sheila Rabe 2006, 2015
Originally published as Christmas in Carol

This is an original work of fiction and may not be copied or in any way duplicated without the permission of the author
.

All characters are fictional and bear no resemblance to any person living or dead
.

http://www.sheilasplace.com

Dear Reader,

Once upon a time there was an obscurely published little tale about a career girl reluctant to return to her home town and her crazy family for the holidays. It was a fun read and I decided it deserved a chance to find a wider audience. So here it is, all shined up and ready to go. I hope you'll enjoy coming along for the ride as Andie Hartwell and her nearest and dearest prove that there is no place like home for the holidays.

Merry Christmas and may all your holiday cookies be calorie free!

Sheila Roberts

CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter One

My family is to Christmas what ants are to a picnic. No, that’s not strong enough. Let me put it to you this way. Paid assassins couldn’t do a better job of killing the holiday than my nearest and dearest.

It’s not that they don’t celebrate it. They do, by putting their unique Hartwell stamp on it. And that’s the problem, because every year that stamp has a new design more horrible than the one before.

One year my Uncle Bob thought it would be cool to help my brother Ben try out his new football inside the house. They broke the pottery masterpiece Aunt Chloe had given Mom and Dad (a vase with graceful but misaligned curves and a glaze that made it look like someone had barfed on it), and that touched off the Christmas equivalent of a dirty bomb. The noise level rose so high, one of the neighbors finally called the police. (There’s not a lot of crime in the almost-thriving metropolis of Carol, Washington, and both the neighbors and cops had nothing better to do.) We made the newspaper’s police blotter page. No names were mentioned, but people still managed to figure out it was us.

Another year my Mom hired a Santa to come to the house and surprise all the kids. But Mom was the one who got the surprise when Santa made a pass at Grandma. Grandma got practically giddy from the experience. Our neighbor, Mr. Harris, was far from giddy when the fake Santa took out his car’s rear bumper while driving away.

Then there was the Christmas Dad burned too much wrapping paper in the fireplace and started a chimney fire. Actually, that happened a couple of times. The first time, I was in grade school, and I thought it was exciting standing around outside with coats thrown over our bathrobes and watching the fire truck roar up to the house. But when I was a teenager, the experience was just plain mortifying, especially when I heard one of the neighbors comment, “Hartwell. Who else?” That was mild compared to some of the comments I got when I returned to school after the holidays. We made the police blotter page again that year, and I seriously considered changing my last name. The only thing that stopped me was the realization that I was too late. Everyone already knew who my family was.

I remember thinking,
Why me, God? Why, of all the families in the whole, wide world, did you have to torture me with this one?
Nobody likes a lippy teenager, and God never gave me an answer.

I could cope with little things like chimney fires, family squabbles, and irresponsible Santas. It was the betrayals that finally pushed me to decide I could live (quite happily) without ever spending another Christmas in Carol.

Not that I was bitter. I was simply protective of my heart.

Who could blame me? My first Christmas home from college, I found Gabe Knightly, the one-time love of my life, on my doorstep, mistletoe in hand and looking for my sister, Keira. He had stared at me like I was the Grinch, and stuttered, “Hi, Andie. Merry Christmas.”

Yeah, right. Ho, ho, ho.

The next trip home for the holidays, I arrived to find my dad loading his belongings into his Jaguar (the one he’d spent his and Mom's emergency fund on). I guess, when it came to midlife crises, Mom had no patience. The only silver lining to that bleak Christmas was no chimney fires.

By the third Christmas Mom and Dad were divorced and I came back to find Gabe Knightly no longer dating my sister. Now he was seeing my best friend, April White.

Make that former best friend. No, I’m not bitter. I’ve just been too busy to stay in touch with April. You can’t keep up with everyone.

Oh, and the final straw that trip was when Aunt Chloe drank too much eggnog and decided to set Hans, the family parakeet, free. Uncle Bob was coming in the front door at the time, dropping presents, and calling, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.”

“Shut the door!” we chorused.

He did, right after Hans shot through it. We never saw old Hansy again. I like to think of him in a tree on a tropical beach somewhere, soaking up the rays. It beats thinking of him winding up as Christmas dinner for Lucifer, the neighbor’s cat.

My last year of college I got smart and stayed away. I shipped presents to my family, then went with my roommate to her home in Texas and saw how a normal family celebrated the holidays. It was peaceful and quiet. Nobody fought, no one tried to burn down the house, and they all went to Christmas Eve service together. It was deeply soul-satisfying, like living in a Norman Rockwell painting. Much different from my family’s Andy Warhol existence.

Then, last year, I was broke and job hunting, and insisted I couldn’t come home. I nobly resisted all offers to buy me a plane ticket. And I intended to do the same this year.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. I really do. And I’d gladly have come home any other time of year to be frustrated, embarrassed, and disappointed. Just not Christmas, at least not my first Christmas in New York. All I wanted was this one nice, normal holiday in my new home.

And I had my excuse ready. I had to work at my new job at Image Makers Advertising Agency clear up until Christmas Eve. That’s how it is on Madison Avenue: Busy, busy, busy.

Not that I’m a hot shot, but what I do is important. I’m a planner. We take a product brand and project where it’s going to go for, say, the next five years. And, of course, do our part to get it there. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? It would have been, if I were the head planner. But I wasn’t, which meant my boss got to tap into my genius, suck out all the great ideas, then leave my empty shell to do her grunt work. That supposedly made me a team player. I was fast concluding it made me more of a victim, and with big plans in the works, I was reluctant to leave. Who knew what might happen in my absence or what opportunities I might miss?

“I just can’t get away,” I said when Mom called.

“You have to come, Andie,” she wailed into the phone. “We already paid for your plane ticket.”

“Mom. Why didn’t you ask me before you did that?”

“Now I need to ask my daughter if she wants to come see her family at Christmas? Especially since she didn’t come home last year?” Mom sounded all huffy.

“I have to work.” I looked around my cozy living room, funky with old furniture and throw rugs scrounged from flea markets. My roommate, Camilla, and I had already decided where we were going to put the tree. Then she played her trump card. “And it would mean so much to your grandmother. She’s not well, Andie.”

Oh, no. What was Mom trying to tell to me? “Not well? What do you mean?”

“I mean she’s reached an age where you can’t take it for granted that she’ll be around forever.”

Mom was trying to break it to me gently. Something was really wrong with Gram. “Is she . . . ” My throat closed up and I couldn’t finish my sentence.

“No,” said Mom. “But I think you’d better tell your boss to get her priorities straight and let you come home. And tell her you have to stay for New Year’s.”

There would be fireworks in Carol’s town square New Year’s Eve. Everyone would be there, including Gabe Knightly. Just the thought of seeing him set off fireworks in my stomach.

New Year’s might be a bad idea. Anyway, ever since I hit NYC last August, I’d been looking forward to going to Times Square to see the ball drop. Camilla and I had been talking about it since Thanksgiving.

“We never get to see you now that you’re on the east coast,” said Mom. “Anyway, you don’t want to miss the New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

Heavens, no! Who wouldn’t pick downtown Carol over Times Square?

“So, I’ll e-mail the tickets to you. Okay?” Mom asked.

“Let me check with my boss first,” I told her. “That way I’ll know how long I can stay.”

Mom harrumphed at the thought of having to run her holiday plans by another person, but she agreed. “Tell the old Scrooge I already bought the ticket. I’ll call you tomorrow at work.”

My boss, Beryl Welling (Beryl the Brit behind her back), was our head planner. In her late thirties, she was an elegant and charming barracuda, and office gossip had it that she once dated Hugh Grant.
She
dumped Hugh. Clients ate out of her hand and the owners of the company worshipped at her feet. The only thing her underlings did at her feet was fall down dead from overwork.

There had been plenty of that lately. We were right in the middle of reeling in a big client: Nutri Bread. And I had provided the bait.

I went into Beryl’s office, sure that she would make me choose between my job and my family—a terrifying thought because if I didn’t come home, Mom would probably FedEx me a spanking.

“Home for Christmas,” Beryl said thoughtfully after I’d presented my request.

“If you need me here, I won’t go,” I said nobly.

I’d call Gram and have a nice, long chat. And I could come back for a few days in the spring, after we had the Nutri Bread campaign up and running. After all, Mom did say Gram wasn’t dying. But maybe she was and Mom didn’t want to tell me over the phone.

What
was
wrong with Gram? It had to be something serious for Mom to be so insistent that I come home. I wished I’d thought to find out before I went to Beryl’s office.

“We are a team, my poppet,” Beryl reminded me. “And with so much to do on the Nutri Bread account, you don’t see me taking time off.” She drummed her perfect, acrylic nails on her desktop. “Our media strategy is complete,” she mused.

We’d gone over it only a few days before. I nodded agreement.

“Art proofs?”

“Will be ready by January second.”

“Ad copy?”

“Done by the twentieth.” I was too efficient for my own good.

I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “I suppose if your family has already made plans, you must go,” she said slowly. “I think we can manage here without you.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be able to manage without me. “Thanks,” I said miserably, and left her office feeling like a gold miner who had just deserted her claim to go have a nice vacation in a mental ward.
You’re doing the right thing
, I told myself.

Maybe I would have felt better about doing the right thing if I hadn’t been guilted into it. I decided to find out what exactly was going on with my grandmother and texted my sister, Keira. “What’s wrong with Gram?”

“Nothing,” Keira replied, “other than her usual bad taste in food. She came over for dinner last night and brought prune whip for dessert. Gag. Anyway, where did you get the idea something was wrong with her?”

Where, indeed? I frowned at my phone screen. Leave it to Mom to parlay Gram’s never ending intestinal troubles into a coup of motherly manipulation. For that I was supposed to abandon a perfect holiday and, even worse, leave my ideas unguarded and at the mercy of Beryl the Brit.

Of course, advertising execs only steal their underlings’ ideas in the movies, so I was being paranoid. Still, I wished I’d checked with Keira before I’d gone to Beryl. I got a sudden visual of Beryl proudly presenting my brilliant media strategy to the client in my absence and taking all the credit.

Actually, brilliant is an understatement. This was ultra brilliant, like the Old Spice Man or those Got Milk ads. With everyone in Western civilization on some form of low-carb diet these days, bread sales are sinking faster than the Titanic. But we still need some carbs. They give us energy and keep our brain functioning. So, what the Nutri Bread people needed to do was remind consumers of those needs and make sure that when they thought of energy and brain food, they thought of Nutri Bread. To make that happen, I’d proposed we run TV and magazine ads featuring stumbling athletes, students slumped over text books, tired moms leaning against cluttered kitchen counters, worker bees napping on their desks, all in need of rescue. Then we’d ask, “Need a Boost?” The answer to the need, of course, would be Nutri Bread. This was such an incredible idea. I’d projected a double in sales in the first year alone. It would make my career.

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