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The Best Gift
Author: Eli Easton

 

 

Chapter one

 

December 1, 2017

Greg

“Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” the one with the glorious trumpets, was playing over the PA system when I looked around for the next customer. There wasn't one. I couldn't believe it at first, walking from the baler, where I netted Christmas trees, down a row of Scotch pine, Douglas fir, and Norway spruce, and back around to the central clearing and the Cabot's Christmas Wonderland store. But the crowds had cleared out. Only a few customers lingered among the rows.

Something wet landed on my cheek. They were numb from being outdoors all day, but I felt the damp. I glanced up. Fat flakes floated down from the late afternoon sky like a million tiny parachutes.

I smiled at the sight and, for just a moment, indulged myself, continuing to stare up at the leaden pink sky and the descending slow-motion avalanche.

"It wasn't supposed to snow."

I looked down to see Tori standing next to me, hands on her hips, face tilted up. Her shiny black hair, which fell straight to her shoulders, collected snowflakes like the fur of a black cat. Her short, plump figure was clad in a black puffer coat and, over it, a red and green Cabot's apron.

"Sure wasn't in the forecast," I agreed.

"And this ain't no light stuff. These goose feathers'll pile up fast."

"Yup." A thought occurred to me. "Damn it. I was gonna make a trip to the bank today."

"Well you'd best go and do it before the roads get bad."

"I can't leave you and Roscoe and Lucy here alone. What if there's another rush?"

Tori gave me a look. "It's a Friday, and it's only December first. No one's desperate enough to come out in this weather. It's already cleared out, in case you haven't noticed."

I looked around again. She was right. The parking lot only had a few cars in it. How long had it been snowing, and I'd not even noticed? I glanced down. The ground under my feet had a good inch already.

Since Sam's death, last February, I lost things sometimes. Long minutes. Whole hours. I'd been netting trees and carrying them out to cars on autopilot for God knew how long. A wave of guilt swamped me. Had I even said two words to my customers? They didn't come all the way to Cabot's, home of holiday cheer, to be served by a morose robot.

Tori laid a hand on my arm and spoke gently. "Do the bank run, boss. Me and Roscoe and Lucy'll be fine."

"Okay," I said, because my chest was tight, and I suddenly wanted to get out of there so I could breathe. But the thing about escaping was, I always had to come back. All roads led to Cabot's for me. At least for now. "Hey, if it's still snowing like this by the time I get back, we'll close early so you guys can get home."

"Sure, boss. I'll start tidying up."

I went into the store. There were only two customers browsing the ornaments, lights, wreaths, and other assorted Christmas paraphernalia. I greeted Roscoe, a good man in his 40s who’d worked for Cabot’s for twenty years. His sweet smile and eagerness to please more than made up for his intellectual disability. He ran the till in the store every day we were open and loved to tell customers about the different ornaments we carried.

"Did you see it's snowing, Greg?" Roscoe asked me, looking between me and windows at the front of the store.

"I sure did. Heavy too. I'm gonna run to the bank, and then maybe we'll close early."

"'Cause the roads get bad when it snows a lot. And it's not good to drive on 'em."

"That's right. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Okay! Watch out for the snow."

"You know to call me if you need any help, right?" I reminded him.

"Your number is in my phone. But you shouldn't talk on the phone when you're driving, Greg."

I gave Roscoe a little smile. "I promise I'll pull over. Just let me know if you run into any problems."

I knew they wouldn't. Tori and Roscoe were both as dependable as the sunrise in Vermont, the leaves in the fall, or the snow in the wintertime. But, like my father and grandfather before me, it was in my nature to worry about Cabot's. Though soon, it wouldn't be any longer.

The thought sent icy prickles through my blood as I took off my Cabot's apron and hung it up in the employee's kitchen, grabbed the past few days receipts from the small office safe, then left through the side door.

Fresh snow, marred only by my boots, was already thick on the long sidewalk that went around a stand of American Holly to the house, and on the cement steps to the side entry. The way was so familiar—trodden a million times in the course of my forty-three years—that I knew every crack and bump even when it was buried in white.

Inside the house, I turned up the heat. It would be nice to come back to a warm house. I thought about changing from my sheepskin-lined wool work coat, which was always dotted with pine needles and tree sap, but decided against it. I didn't care how I looked, hadn't bothered to cut my shoulder-length dark hair in over a year, and the beard I'd let grow rampant was more about depression than fashion. I just brushed sawdust off my jeans in the mud room and stomped snow off my boots as best I could. Then I went through the kitchen, grabbing my keys, and down the hall to the front door.

I opened it and froze. On the braided doormat, safe under the porch overhang, was a package. The postman must have dropped it off, but I couldn't think of anything I'd ordered. I bent to pick it up, then sucked in a sharp breath. The package was the size of a large book, wrapped in plain brown paper. My name and address was written on the front in a familiar hand.

The pain struck so hard I bent all the way over and laid a hand on the porch floor to keep from falling. I squeezed my eyes shut and took deep breaths. I was still learning the contours of this grief for Sam. I'd grieved when my grandparents died, and then my parents. But the grief of losing my only child was a monstrous thing. Even ten months on, it lurked like a malevolent bird, never far away, and swooped in to tear into my guts or heart when I least expected it.

Pull it together. Sam wouldn't want this.

A low moan sounded from somewhere, probably me, and I steeled myself. I opened my eyes and picked up the package. It was from Sam. Why had it taken so long to arrive? But mail was strange, especially when it involved the military. Maybe it had gotten lost. Maybe Sam had addressed it, and it had been mislaid and never mailed until someone found it recently and sent it. Anything was possible.

Well, that wasn't true. One thing wasn't possible and that was for me to open it. Not now. Not yet.

I went back into the house, holding the package like it was a precious glass figurine with sharp edges. I put it on top of my desk in the study. And then, not happy with that, into a bottom drawer.

I left the house again, this time making it to my Ford pickup truck and down the driveway. I glanced over at the big Cabot's parking lot, driving slow, but there were even fewer cars now and no sign of anyone on the country road. Tori and Roscoe would be fine. I turned left.

I drove toward town. The goose-feather flakes—that's what locals called the enchanting fat, fluffy kind—were turning into a squall. Already the median on the road was mounded and my snow tires gripped on packed white. The plow'd be out soon, hopefully before I had to turn around and drive home.

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