Tuesday, December 23, 2014

O Little Town of Bethlehem; a Millers Kill short story

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: A couple years ago, I did a series of short-short stories set in my fictional town of Millers Kill, NY, at Christmastime. Last year, with a book just released and the usual round of present-wrapping and turkey-roasting, I didn't get a holiday story out. But this year, all I have to deal with is Christmas Dinner for 34, so I can present this story, which takes place between I SHALL NOT WANT and ONE WAS A SOLDIER.  Light a fire in the fireplace, shake yourself up one of Susan Elia MacNeil's fabulous seasonal cocktails and enjoy my gift to you.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Russ pulled off his watch cap and hit it against his leg as he entered the Millers Kill Police station, leaving a trail of spattered snow melting on the floor. He strode up the hall to his office, nervous about the time even though he knew he had plenty to spare. 
 
His boot-steps echoed against the walls, a sound that only occurred on those rare occasions when the station was entirely silent. Harlene's dispatch board was dark, and in the squad room beyond it, only a single lamp was proof against the early winter night. Everyone was either home with their families or out on patrol; their calls were routing through the Glens Falls dispatch.

He himself had been on duty since the morning. It had been slow, thankfully so, and Russ had had time to stop by his brother-in-law's farmhouse and say hello to all the family gathered there. Mom had packed him a dinner-to-go: prime rib and mashed potatoes and cranberry-orange relish. He had eaten off his lap, idling near the tricky intersection on Sacandaga Road, watching for drunks or visitors who didn't know how to drive in the northern New York weather.

He had logged off with Glens Falls at four and made his way back to the village, wending past glowing windows and shining trees and sagging old houses made beautiful with snow. St. Alban's church was dark and still, as if resting after the explosion of light and music late last night. Russ found himself singing a snatch of a carol beneath his breath, “How still we see thee lie...” For a moment, his hardscrabble shabby town was at peace. For a moment, everyone here was rich.

In his office, he snapped on the lights and centered his laptop on his desk, which he had cleared for the occasion. He flipped it open and turned it on. His oldest niece, Katherine, had loaded the program for him and shown him how to use it. He booted it up and logged on. No one was on the other end; he wasn't expecting her until five o'clock his time. He studied the large blank screen and the small inset that showed him what she would see on her computer. He squinted at himself. He looked tired; winter pale and undoubtedly with more gray in his hair than he had had when she left. His dark-brown uniform blouse, insulated for winter, was the opposite of festive. No help for it. He was what he was, and she had never asked him to be anything different.

The background, he realized, was dismal. A large-scale map of Washington County tacked up over a cheap wood credenza piled with the magazines and papers he had swept off his desk. An unkillable house plant was dying in the corner. Crap. He couldn't give her a crackling fireplace decorated with swags of cedar, but he could by-God do better than this.

In the squad room, he found the table-top-sized tree Harlene put up every year. He lugged it into his office, elbowing the heaps of paperwork onto the floor in order to rest it on the credenza. The tree — well, it didn't exactly twinkle, but the little balls soldered onto its branches were merry enough. 
 
The wall map...something for the wall map. There was a small collection of holiday cards that had been sent to the station – mostly cheery greetings from vendors happy to continue doing business for another year in a tight economy. Lyle had strung 'em up on a length of twine over the white board they used for briefings. Russ pried the tacks out of the board's wooden frame and carried the display back to his office, arms stretched wide to keep the cards from falling off the line. He retacked the ends to his wall and adjusted the cards so they would show to advantage. He removed the Smith and Wesson guns-and-holly as inappropriate, but he rather liked the one that showed a cop car with a wreath hanging from the push bar. Festive.

He glanced at the wall clock. Five o'clock coming up fast. He went to the machine to grab a cup of coffee and at the last moment switched his selection to hot cocoa. He had seen somebody sucking on candy canes... a quick search of the desks revealed Noble Entwhistle's stash. Russ stripped off the plastic wrapper and stuck it in his mug. There. If he couldn't look seasonal, at least his drink--


His eyes fell on the rows of hooks in the squad room. A couple of department-issued parkas, something that looked like an apron – God knew what that was – and Hadley Knox's scarlet scarf, forgotten in her rush to get home last night and get her kids to the early service at St. Alban's. He tugged the scarf off its hook. It didn't look girly, did it? He looped it around his neck and studied his reflection in the black window. Nope. It was a straight up length of wool, the color of Santa's coat. It gave him a kind of jaunty air, he thought. Not that he would ever have said that aloud.

He picked up the mug and settled himself at his desk. The inset picture showed a much cheerier view than it had twenty minutes ago; busy and colorful, green and red and white and gold. The borrowed scarf gave his cheeks a flush of color – or maybe that was his heart rate, rising with excitement as the second hand swept toward five.

The screen brightened. A new name popped onto the sidebar: DoDIraqComCA.12. Then a brief flash of the Department of Defense shield and then, oh, then, there she was, tan and smiling and healthy and whole, beautiful even in dusty ACUs and lit by the florescent lights of the communications trailer.

Hey, darlin'.” He could hardly speak for smiling.

Oh, Russ.” Major Clare Fergusson's eyes were bright. She blinked hard and pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Oh, look at you. It looks just like Christmas. It looks just like Christmas at home.”

50 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

There are tears in my eyes . . . what a beautiful little story, taking us back to that long, long time of waiting and worrying for Russ when Clare was deployed. What a delightful Christmas gift; thank you . . . .

Edith Maxwell said...

Well, you've got me weeping at 7:30 in the morning, Julia. Thank you! Lovely. Merry Christmas to you and your 34. ;^)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

You are brilliant. Love you so much.

Brenda Buchanan said...

Lovely, Julia. The perfect start to this gray day in Maine.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas.

Brenda

P.S. 34 for dinner! I couldn't even begin to pull that off.

FChurch said...

Oh, Julia! A definite lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, even when I KNOW it's fiction! Beautiful story! Thank you for the gift and bless you and yours this Christmas.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Brava and merry Christmas, Julia!

Mary Sutton said...

Lovely, Julia. Merry Christmas.

Kristopher said...

Aww, lovely story - perfect for the start of the holidays. Thanks Julia.

Karen in Ohio said...

Tears in my eyes, too, what a lovely story, Julia.

Hope it's okay that I was having coffee, and not a seasonal cocktail, though. :-)

Merry Christmas to every one of you, Reds and Red fans. I hope Santa is as good to you as Russ was to Clare in this story.

Karen in Ohio said...

Two years ago, when my son-in-law was deployed to Afghanistan, he and my daughter Skyped twice. Once while we were opening gifts, and later on, when they could connect again. He got to see her, chat with each of us, and to watch my grandson open his toys. Such a precious gift, that Skype program.

Grandma Cootie said...

Okay, I guess we are all dabbing our eyes. What a sweet little story to have with morning coffee. Makes me love these characters even more.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful gift of a story and I loved the photos to go with the story.

Happy Holidays,
Diana

Kathy Reel said...

Tears in my eyes, too, and a sappy little smile for Clare and Russ. Thanks you so much, Julia, for a wonderful early Christmas present! Merry Christmas to you and your sweet family.

Reine said...

Thank you, Julia. Merry Christmas. xoxox

Deborah Crombie said...

Love this, Julia!! What an unexpected treat! And love the photos! Thank you, and Merry Christmas to Russ and Clare:-)

Kaye Barley said...



oh, my.

What a lovely little cry I've just had.

Thank you, Julia.

Lisa Alber said...

I love this, Julia. It gave me happy shivers.

I laughed about "only" dinner for 34. Holy cow!

Merry Christmas to you!

Sandie said...

Julia,
Thanks for the besutiful story and the reminder that real people will be marking this Christmas like Claire and Russ. May we keep them all in our prayers.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Perfectly sweet Julia--thank you for the lovely gift! xo

Pat D said...

Oh, you made me tear up. Russ is such a sweetheart.

Eve said...

Oh.

Jody Crocker said...

Wonderful story. Merry Christmas!

Marianne in Maine said...

Ok, I cried!

This was brilliant. Thank you so much.

This is why I love you ladies so much.

Merry Christmas, everyone

Nikki LaCrosse said...

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing and Merry Christmas!!

Laura Benedict said...

What sweetness, Julia. Totally brightened up my gloomy Christmas Eve Eve. : )

Gwen Romine said...

oh my! *sigh*

Julia said...

Thank you all so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I didn't mean to make people weepy - but it is a good thing to remember all those folks who are spending Christmas far, far away from home.

Denise Ann said...

I have been feeling very good about Christmas this year --- but never expected such a wonderful present as this!!!! Thank you sooooo much. I love Russ and Claire sooo much. Brilliant.

Denise Ann said...

Where can we find other year's stories?

Donna Byrnes said...

Beautiful, Julia -- hope you and yours have a lovely Christmas!

Gram said...

Thank you, thank you. Teary here too.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Julia. One more reason Clare loves Russ. He does try. Thanks for this wonderful story.

Ramblings from the Edge said...

Tearing up here as well. That was so perfect, and it only reminded me of why I love your writing so much. Blessed Season's Greetings to you and your's. And a very Merry New Year.

jayne m. said...

Add me to the list of snifflers, Julia; it's lovely and making me miss Russ and Clare even more!!! Merry Christmas to you and your family

Gail Cromack said...

Lovely story. Thank you. Love your books.

scooter said...

Thanks, Julie. It isn't a proper winter holiday without something Russ and Clare. Merry Christmas to you and the family. Argyle Scott

stitchkat said...

So touching! Russ really is one of the good guys. Thank you for this lovely treat. 34 for dinner?! Better you than me, dearie. Wishing a very Merry Christmas for you and yours! And the same for all the Reds and readers!

canuck on the wet coast said...

What a lovely little story to ease us into the Christmas festivities. I love to read of Claire and Russ, and in fact the ladies of Jungle Red Writers are some of my favourite authors!
Wishing you all, Reds and Readers, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and "Joyous Whatever" you celebrate.

Anonymous said...

The story is Russ, Miller's Kill police station and well just perfect! Thank you for such a lovely Christmas gift. It is truly appreciated.

Diane said...

Love this story! And the photos were perfect. Thank you for an early Christmas gift.

storytellermary said...

This is so very sweet, and a reminder that sometimes the small touches make all the difference.
Merry Christmas! <3 I have missed Clare and Russ.

Lynn in Texas said...

Wonderful story, Julia. Thanks and Merry Christmas!

Suzanne Chazin said...

Just what I needed today before all the festivity begins--a moment of quiet reflection on the meaning of true love. Thank you, Julia. And a Merry Christmas to you and your family!

Katy M said...

Thank you, Julia, and Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Julia!

Susan Ericsson said...

Thank you! For this, and all the joy you bring.

Anonymous said...

Perfect! What some of can only imagine for a memorable moment in our lives. Happy Holiday Season to you and yours.

Margaret Anthony said...

Ok, I searched back for this as I wanted to see what was in it. Took 20 min. to find and oh, how sweet it was. Thank you!

Deborah Carroll said...

I missed this earlier and was just searching for any possible announcements regarding a new book when I stumbled across it.

Thank you Julia <3

Marie Menard said...

Don't know if you'll ever see this, butI'm going to write anyway. I live on the Maine/NH border and came across your books in my public library quite awhile ago. I guess I connected because Clare's character is so human, a person with faults, a big heart, and a strong sense of what is right and making it so if it isn't. Your baby is overdue and the longer you wait, the harder it is going to be to deliver it. You have expectations and preconceptions about what it will look like, but like any baby, you should throw those out and accept that things don't always go the way you thought they would.

It seems to me that you left your characters in a precarious place, but you do have a baby being born. That's good. In your last book, you included very little God. There's another place that Clare needs to work on. Clare and Russ worked past the difficult area of her pregnancy. they are living in the rectory. Maybe Russ puts his renovation skills to work fixing up the rectory and finds his own faith tested and built up in the process. Perhaps Clare's deacon develops jealousy or makes Clare feel pushed out as she adjusts to the demands of motherhood, being a relatively new wife, and living as an ordained minister. In the best of times, women have to deal with many divergent demands on their lives. Being a new sleep-deprived mother is going to test her resources.

Russ, for his part, has to deal with the fallout of a deputy who starred in porno movies and the fallout among the personnel in his department. He will be able to empathize with Hadley as a parent and the choices she had to make as a young woman---the choices and resulting consequences---as well as the potential disrespect for Handley from fellow officers. I suspect Clare will exert some influence there as well. He also is a 50 year old first- time father. I am 51 and I cannot imagine being a first-time parent at my age although I was Clare's age when my third was born.

There are also crimes that take place in any community. Pick one and work it through. I suspect that you may not be happy with this particular novel. Perhaps it will be your last for these characters, but your characters deserve some closure if that's the case. Perhaps you will leave it open just enough that you can come back. You are a good writer and writer's block does not have to stop you in your track although you may feel it has. I have never written a book although I've had many ideas over the years. The advice I've read most often is write every day. Maybe you need to write and see where the story takes you. Perhaps you have finished a manuscript. Either way,it's time to birth that baby.

AlthoughI Ipads are wonderful inventions, typing on its browser is not. I may have multiple typos. The word prediction software stinks! Please disregard those errors. They are unintended.
All my best,
Elaine
ehmenard@yahoo.com