Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
by Cassandra Page
Michelle decorates the house in silence.
In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.
That was before she found the emails.
Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.
The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.
Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”
“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.
“How are you?”
She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”
“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.
He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.
“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”
“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”
“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.
“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”
“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”
He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”
This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”
“Read them again. Properly, this time.”
“Leave me alone.”
She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.
It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.
Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.
The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.
The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.
The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.
“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.
“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”
He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”
“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.
“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.
“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”
Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.
Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”
“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”
Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.
“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.
“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.
“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”
“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”
Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”
“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.
“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”
The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”
Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.
She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”