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Friday, November 30, 2012

Turkey in the Snow

The stories are out, and I have the link!
  Dreamspinner released all of their Advent Calendar stories for individual sale for December 1st, and finally, I get to talk a little about Turkey in the Snow.  
I know that a lot of you are parents, and I think you'll like the premise of this story.  
It's about a man who has taken in his niece, and is at the end of his rope.  
He's the kind of guy who needs to do everything by the book--you know the kind?  Childhood was rough around the edges, and he likes to know when he's waking up and counts out exact change, because the more he can control the world, the less frightening a place that is.  And, like most of us with children, that other human being who depends on us?  That person throws our lives into chaos, and it's a rocky transition at first.  At the beginning, all we want, all we need, all we crave, is a little bit of help.  Even if it's from the person we didn't want anything from at the beginning.  So let me introduce you to Hank and Justin, and it's up to you to decide who's our Turkey in the Snow. 
(I'll be at the Dreamspinner Press Facebook Page to chat tomorrow, 1 P.M. PST, if you want to stop by and say hullo!  I'll be giving away a free copy of Turkey then, if you want to wait until then to buy:-)

All the Drama
“But you said we can go make cookies!” Josie was trying to be patient, Henry Calder knew, but it had been a long day for him too. He swung his four-year old niece up into his arms, threw his gym bag over his other shoulder, and shut the door to his brand new hybrid  with his knee.
“I know, Bunny,” Hank said, trying hard to keep his voice from ratcheting toward irritation as he wove around the cars in the parking lot. “But if your Uncle Hank doesn’t get his workout in, he gets cranky!” He made his voice low and growly, and since she was in his arms anyway, he blew a bubble through her puffy pink jacket, just to make her laugh. It worked, and he held her close and kissed her blonde head. He’d done his best at a braid today, and he thought he was getting better.
“I promise, Bunny. If you can let Uncle Hank get in a little bitty workout, we’ll go home, and make some cookies and we can eat some mac ’n’ cheese while they’re baking. How’s that?”
Josie nodded adamantly. “Good. ’Cause Mommy’s not going to come back unless we make Christmas perfect.”
Hank smiled and nodded, and tried not to clutch his stomach and bury his face in her shoulder and cry. The odds of his sister coming home for Christmas—or any day, for that matter—weren’t great.
“We’re doing okay, aren’t we?” he asked, as he wrestled the gym bag and Josie and the door, coming in from the Sacramento cold into Cal-Fit, his happy place. “We managed Halloween and Thanksgiving okay, right?”
Josie wrinkled her nose. “That princess dress was too big!” she told him, and he nodded. It was true, the costume would fit her again next year. Well, sue him. His sister had left her daughter with him the week before Halloween. He’d managed a princess dress, candy for the door, and a friend to give the candy out while Hank took his niece trick-or-treating throughout his neighborhood. The fact that the only dress he could find at the Halloween store had been two sizes too big was extraneous. He’d come through.
“I know it was,” he said, taking it on the chin. “Next year we’ll do better.”
“Next year Mommy will take me.”
Hank held out his pass for the nice lady at Cal-Fit, who scanned his card and smiled warmly at Josie. Cindy had curly blonde-gray hair pulled back in a pony-tail and faded blue eyes. Hank felt bad—she was the closest thing to a woman in Josie’s life at the moment, and Josie lit up whenever she saw her.
“Hey Josie,” Cindy said, her voice sweet and grandmotherly. “You gonna go visit Justin today?”
“I like Justin,” Josie proclaimed, and Hank nodded. Of course she did. The guy drove Hank banana shit, but no, Josie liked Justin.
“That’s good, Bunny,” he said, and took the nametags from Cindy before giving her an absent smile and turning down the hallway to the daycare area.
“Do you like Justin?” she asked, and he smiled. For her, he’d love Justin, marry him, take the guy into his house and give him foot rubs.
“Yeah, of course I do!”
He hated that guy.
Of all the flame-outs Hank had ever seen, in college and after, Justin was by far the most dramatic, over-the-top boy-princess in the entire northern half of the state. Oh God. Even as they got near the playroom enclosure, Hank could hear him squeal. And of course, the kids loved him.
“Oh my God! Do you guys think… did I hear… is Santa going to be coming to Cal-Fit? Did you know that? Santa is coming to Cal-Fit! Are you all going to be here?”
Yes!” The cheer was deafening, and Hank actually looked at the door before he opened it and saw that there was going to be an event on Saturday. Oh wonderful. Santa.
“Santa?” Josie said, her voice all excited, and Hank started doing his mental schedule all over again.
“Of course,” he said. “Santa.” Oh God. Please God. Just let him get to the treadmill. Twenty minutes on the treadmill so he could clear his head. Twenty minutes on the free weights, and a five-minute shower, and he could do this. Just please please please please please let him have his happy time before he figured out how to fit Santa into redoing Josie’s room and dealing with the child welfare services who were going to visit on Monday and who insisted that he show that she would have her own space and—
Justin!” Josie squealed as he opened the door, and Hank looked up to see the cherry on his headache smiling so wide, Hank was surprised the top of his head didn’t fall off.
Justin was young—in his second, maybe third year of college, with widely spaced blue eyes, surrounded by a fringe of dark lashes. He had one of those Irish fair complexions, the kind that showed color easily, straight black hair, a heart shaped face, and a nose that tip-tilted on the end. The first time Hank had ever seen him, Hank had thought he was one of the prettiest young men on the planet Earth, ever. And then Justin had opened his mouth.
“Josie!” Justin trilled, opening his arms and doing a little dance. Josie squealed, trying to get to Justin as he held court at the end of the coloring table. He’d apparently been inspiring all of the young artists to put glue and green sparkles on their Christmas tree masterpieces.
“Justin!” Josie squealed, throwing herself at him after wiggling out of Hank’s arms and almost getting her tiny bunny butt dumped onto the floor of the gym’s daycare room.
“Omigah, Bunny,you will never guess what I just told everybody!”
“Santa!” Josie squeaked. “You said it was going to be Santa! Uncle Hank said we could come, isn’t that right Uncle Hank?”
Oh God. Commitment time. Hank wondered desperately who he could call to be at his house while the movers delivered Josie’s little white twin bed, so she wouldn’t be lost in the big queen sized that took over what used to be his guest bedroom. But Justin was pouting at him like he was being a big meanie and Josie was glaring at him like he was depriving her of this one and only childhood experience because he was determined to suck at this whole parenting gig, and, oh, hells, even Hank remembered that Santa was important.
“I’ll try, Bunny,” he said quietly. “Is that good enough?”
Mommy would make sure I got to see Santa,” she said spitefully, and Hank nodded. Yup, that was the truth. Amanda would have taken Josie to see Santa for the photo op. Amanda would have shown a picture of Josie sitting on Santa’s lap while wearing a red velveteen dress she hadn’t been able to afford, and then shown all of her friends just to listen to them coo, and then she would have told Josie to go away, couldn’t Josie see that mommy was talking to her friends? And then she would have dropped Josie at a friend’s house while she, Amanda, went out to party because why was a girl her age at home with a child anyway? Didn’t she deserve to party? Hadn’t she earned that right? She’d had the kid’s picture taken with Santa, after all.
“Yeah, Bunny,” Hank said, needing the freedom of the treadmill like he needed nothing else in the world. “Your mommy would have made sure you got to see Santa.”
He wasn’t sure what was in his voice when he said it, but Justin flinched back, and Josie stuck her tongue out at Hank, and Hank signed his name on the roster. “I’m going to have my earbuds in,” he muttered, because this was something they had to know. “If you need me, you need to come get me.”
And with that he fled the daycare, leaving Justin who was probably going to cry about what a big meanie Hank was and tell Josie that he was a big loser and that any uncle who couldn’t sprinkle glitter on Christmas trees was obviously not going to be a good bet as a parent.
Yeah, well, until the better mommies and uncles lined up to take her, Hank was all she got .

He changed quickly and queued some Linkin Park up on his iPod, putting it in the handy little case that wrapped around his bicep. He’d always been an active kid, and when you worked your body a lot, it tended to protest when that sort of activity stopped. He’d also always liked this gym—it was designed specifically for families—and he liked it even more now that he had a family to bring here.
But at the moment, with Linkin Park queued up, he wasn’t thinking about the daycare, or the nice supportive vibe or the kindness of the staff. He was thinking about nothing more than warming up and pushing his body to the point where all the stiffness got worked out, and then cooling down responsibly—and getting it all done before daycare closed. He didn’t want to impose.
Oh, gods! It felt so good! There was no worrying about keeping custody of Josie, no worrying if Amanda was going to come back and completely disrupt Josie’s life, no worrying if his job was too many hours or if he was doing enough as a parent, no stressing about Christmas and getting all the little details down. There was no disappointment in his sister or irritation at their mother or loneliness at doing all of this alone or—
The hand tapping his shoulder startled him so much he missed a step, which sucked because he was going fast enough for the treadmill to throw him hard against the console, slamming his shoulder with enough force to bruise. The rebound threw him backward and he was just seizing hold of the handrails so he could stabilize and press the stop button, when a long-fingered hand darted in front of him, and pushed the stop button for him. Hank grabbed hold of the handrails and steadied himself, panting and furious, and turned around ready to unload his temper and his pain and found himself face to face with the one person he hadn’t been running from.
“Justin?” he asked, his temper skating the fine edge, and Justin grimaced.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Calder—I really am. But Josie has to go potty, and company policy says that her guardian has to take her. We’re not allowed to.”
Oh. “Oh.” God, he felt dumb. “Of course.”
Suddenly Justin—who had shown some clear-headedness turning off the treadmill—started shaking his hands and trilling, and Henry was not in the mood.
“Ohmigah omigah omigah! Mr. Calder—you’re bleeding!”
Hank looked down at his aching arm and saw that Justin was right. “Fuck,” he said succinctly. “Fuck. Just… hell. Okay. Let me get Josie to the bathroom. I’ll get some Band Aids or—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Justin assured him, flapping his wrist airily. Hank had picked the treadmill closest to the wall, and Justin grabbed a disinfectant bottle, paper towel, and poly gloves from the little alcove made just for that purpose. As he spoke, he put on the gloves and wiped the console that had taken a chunk of Hank’s skin. “I’ve got the supplies, you just get your little princess to the potty before we have lots of things to clean up, okay?”
Hank grunted, sort of impressed by his competence and the triceps flexing as he worked, and Justin turned to him, furrowing his brow. “Okay?
Deep breath. The kid was doing his job. It wasn’t his fault Hank hadn’t been laid in a year and a half. “Okay,” Hank said mildly. “Proceed.”
Justin smiled, like he’d won something, and Hank followed him down past the weight machines to the daycare room again. There was a tiny little bathroom adjoining the playroom, and Hank walked Josie over to it as fast as he could.
“Wait outside!” Josie ordered, and Hank nodded.
He stood outside and listened to her tinkle, and Justin approached him. His hands were already encased in the poly gloves, and he had a first aid kit open on the tiny kid-sized table.
“This really isn’t nece—”
“Oh, of course it is,” Justin said, a playful inflection in his voice. “Besides! We’re trained to do this and everything. I’ve been dying for someone to bleed on my watch, just so I could doctor them up and prove I can! How else am I going to get my merit badge?”
Hank allowed a brief laugh to escape. “I have no idea,” he said, and then, calling behind him into the bathroom, “Josie, angel, how you doing in there?”
“I have to go number two!” she called back, and Hank looked at the clock and sighed. So much for his workout or his cool down or working out any of the anxiety that had built up in his muscles over the—
“Ouch!” he cried, pulled out of that death spiral of frustration by the sudden sting at his arm.
“Sorry!” Justin apologized brightly. He was dabbing at the cut on Hank’s arm with a cotton ball and some hydrogen peroxide, a look of concentration on his face.
Hank grunted. He didn’t want to be a baby.
“So,” Justin said, setting the cotton ball down on the absurdly small table next to them, next to the rest of the first aid kit, “why don’t you want to take her to see Santa?” He picked up another cotton ball then and smeared some antibiotic ointment on it, and his attention on those things were what let Hank answer.
“I’m dying for her to see Santa,” he said, more sincerely than he thought possible. “But the social worker is coming on Monday to give me full custody, and her bed is coming on Saturday. I want it to look like her room, so it’s perfect.” Justin smeared the ointment delicately on his arm, and Hank sighed. “She needs permanent. And that’s—”
“Ohmigah! That’s way more important than Santa!” Justin said, and Hank turned to him, surprised.
“I know but—”
“I can totally see why you’d want to do that more! Why can’t you just tell her that? She’s a smart girl, I’m sure she’d understand.”
“Uncle Hank!” Josie called imperiously. “Are you still there?”
“Right here, Bunny!”
“Mommy likes to sing when I’m in the potty so I don’t get scared.”
Hank met grim eyes with Justin, who grimaced, and then launched into something Hank and Amanda’s mother had played almost constantly when they’d been kids.
I’m on top of the world looking down on creation—” And then Josie’s voice interrupted imperiously.
Christmas music, Uncle Hank!”
Hank closed his eyes. “Deck the halls with boughs of holly—
Tra la la la la,” Justin chimed in, smiling encouragingly, and Hank smiled back, grateful for the moral support, and they continued.
La la la la.
Justin bandaged his arm and they kept singing. They made it through the entire song by the time she was ready to go—after needing some help with the cleanup, of course. Hank figured that there was nothing more guaranteed to let you know where you stood in the order of the world than a four year old, bending over the potty, waiting for you to wipe her behind.


Barb said...

Ohmigah! Sounds great! :-)

Donna Lee said...

You have one of the most grab at you and engage you styles of writing of anyone I've ever read.

Saren Johnson said...

Great byte!