The national bestselling author of The Sister Season shares a new novel about a woman who discovers the spirit of the season is truly in the giving....
With the holidays around the corner, empty-nester Bren Epperson realizes that for the first time in decades, she has no large family to cook for, no celebration to create. So she starts teaching a holiday cooking class, and it’s a hit—until Virginia Mash, the old lady upstairs, bursts in complaining. Rather than retaliate, Bren suggests that the class shower Virginia with kindness—and give her one hundred gifts. So they embark on the plan to lift a heart. Along the way, amidst the knitting and the making and the baking, they’ll discover the best gifts can’t be bought and family celebrations can be reborn.
CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Jennifer Scott is the national bestselling, award-winning author of Second Chance Friends, The Accidental Book Club, and The Sister Season. Her acclaimed YA novels under a pseudonym, Jennifer Brown, have been selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a VOYA Perfect Ten, and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
Read an Excerpt
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
Visit us online at penguin.com.
It was the fifth day of November, and Christmas commercials had been in full swing for weeks—sweatered, singing suburbanites holding power drills and cans of soda and Big Macs and mops as microphones and dance partners. All the stores had their decorations up, and the bell ringers were out in force, their cheerful Good mornings and You have a nice day, nows making Bren Epperson duck with guilt. Who carried cash anymore? She could hardly drop her debit card into the little red bucket.
Ordinarily, by the fifth day of November, Bren would be rushing from store to store, clutching a list of errands so long it could garland her tree. But this year, for the first time ever, she didn’t know where she should go. Planning for the holidays was always such a pain, but not actually having holidays to plan for was maybe the loneliest prospect in the world.
She drove around, an open box of peanut butter cookies sitting in the passenger seat next to her, the radio set to a talk station, not that Bren was actually listening to it—back-and-forthing between two local hosts, one Democrat, one Republican, tedious and typical. She could have scripted their arguments for them. But the conversation in the background gave the illusion that she was not alone in the car. They were like friends, the kind who will let a third wheel tag along, but not really ever acknowledge her. At each stoplight, she tipped up a latte that was more flavored syrup than actual coffee. So sweet it made her jaw ache.
Stopped at a traffic light, she glanced to her left. A frazzled-looking mother and daughter sat in a minivan, the mom’s hands clutched tightly around the wheel, her eyes fixed on the red light. Her mouth was moving, her head bobbing in such a way as to suggest an argument. Every so often, the daughter, in the passenger seat, would roll her eyes, say something, gesture wildly.
“Oh. Don’t do that,” Bren said softly, her breath fogging the driver’s-side window. “Don’t waste your time on that.” How many nights had she wished she could take back arguments she’d had with Kelsey? How many regrets did she have, even if they did get along incredibly well compared to many of Kelsey’s friends and their mothers? “Talk about good things instead. Cookies and coffee.” She held up her cup, accidentally getting the attention of the mother, who glanced across at her. Bren smiled and waved, feeling embarrassed, but also kind of good that she’d interrupted their disagreement.
The woman gave a curious, halfhearted wave, and, to Bren’s surprise, rolled down her window.
Bren pushed the button to lower hers, a bluster of cool air pushing right in on her.
“Do you need something?” the woman asked.
“Eight thousand,” Bren shouted over the noise of the traffic, the first thing to come to her mind.
The woman’s confused look deepened. “Excuse me?”
“Well, eight thousand six hundred and twenty, to be exact.” Bren sipped her coffee. “From Missouri to Thailand. It’s eight thousand six hundred and twenty miles.”
“Okay?” the woman said. A car behind them honked, and both Bren and the woman checked the rearview mirrors, startled.
“That’s where my daughter lives,” Bren said. “In Thailand. Eight thousand six hundred and twenty miles. Not door-to-door, of course. That would be even farther.”
The woman pointed through the windshield. “The light is green,” she said.
“Oh!” Bren sipped her coffee again as the guy behind her held down his horn. “Sure thing. You have a great day! These, by the way”—she held up her cup—“are fantastic!”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, as if she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be feeling or how she was supposed to react. Finally, on the third honk, she roared away, her window shooting up to close out Bren.
Bren laughed aloud, wishing she were feeling mirth rather than . . . whatever this was that she was actually feeling, and set her cup in its holder. She pulled forward just as the light turned yellow, leaving the window open so she could shout, “Merry Christmas,” to everyone she passed, just because.
The cookies were gone, and she was still hungry. Hungrier, maybe, now that she’d pointed out three times—loudly—how very far away Kelsey was. She headed for the square.
Vargo Square was a place that for decades had been desperately trying to be relevant in a world of strip malls and big-box stores. As county seat of Vargo County, the square was dominated not only by a massive centrally positioned courthouse, but also by the county jail, the juvenile detention center, and the sheriff’s office, and every time someone important went to trial, also by a parking lot full of news vans. Yet at the same time, the square tried fiercely to appeal to small-town sensibilities, trotting out a rolling troop of kitschy shops, breakfast joints, antiquarians, booksellers, clothiers, and shoe repairers, all of which sprouted and failed at alarming rates around the sturdy and permanent Vargo County Historical Museum, inside of which Bren had never set foot, nor had she ever known of anyone who had.
The Hole Shebang, on the north side of the square, had been a favorite of Bren’s since the day it opened. Not just donuts—although just donuts would have been enough, because weren’t donuts always enough?—but the kind of donuts you put an “ough” into. Doughnuts. Food of the gods—that was what they were. The Hole Shebang’s specialty seemed to be putting the most absurd things in and onto their doughnuts and somehow making them sound delicious—crispy bacon brittle doughnut, buttered cracker crunch doughnut holes, candied anchovy Bismarck, long john with creamy black truffle icing. Froofy food was what Gary called it, but Bren couldn’t help feeling just a little bit worldly while noshing on a sprout fritter.
The bell tinkled as she walked through the door, and even though she’d downed the last of her coffee before getting out of the car, and her body was positively sloshing with insulin, she couldn’t help but feel a twist of hunger at the scent of sugar in the air. It was intoxicating, and in a way overpowering. But who minded being slapped upside the head with a cloud of sweetness?
“Good morning, Brenda,” the young man behind the counter said when she walked in. She was torn between feeling thrilled at the familiarity of being a regular—made her feel like a townie, like someone who belonged—and ashamed that she’d frequented the Hole Shebang often enough for the staff to know her by name.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will eat right, she told herself. No, today. I will eat salads for the rest of the day. Or fast. Yes, fasting is a great idea.
“Merry Christmas, Tod,” Bren said cheerfully, wondering if she was feeling mirth yet.
He laughed, pushing his adorable baker’s cap back on his head. “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.”
“Never too early to get into the Christmas spirit,” she said.
“Well, I suppose you have a valid point there. What sounds good today?”
Bren tapped her bottom lip with her forefinger, contemplating what was left in the case. Not much, actually. She was a little later than usual, and the morning rush must have been heavy. “Any recommendations?”
He leaned over the counter, peering inside, as if he alone hadn’t made all of the doughnuts and had no idea what was in there. “I’ve been playing around with a sage, potato, and pumpkin cream cheese filling.” He stubbed a finger straight down. “If you’re in the holiday spirit, it’s supposed to evoke memories of Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Like the Gobstopper in Willy Wonka,” Bren said.
“Huh?” He was young. Far too young to appreciate a good Gene Wilder movie reference.
“Never mind. I’ll take one.”
Tod pulled the doughnut out of the case and handed it to her, wrapped in a sheet of wax paper. It was still warm—their signature, and her favorite thing about the Hole Shebang doughnuts. “Enjoy!”
She wasn’t actually sure that she would. She was not the biggest fan of sage, and for all of her bluster about Merry Christmas and Never too soon to get into the holiday spirit and so forth, she was not fooling herself. The number 8,620 flashed in her mind over and over again as she paid for the doughnut, a numerical reminder of how far away her perhaps closest child would be on Thanksgiving Day. Did she really want to evoke that image with this doughnut?
Even though she knew Tod was watching, waiting for her to take a bite and give him feedback on his new creation, she suddenly just couldn’t do it. The caffeine and sugar had all rushed to her brain, made her nervous and forlorn. She smiled—a shaky smile that felt as though it couldn’t hold up her cheeks for longer than a few seconds—and backed through the door, thinking she would take a walk and discreetly dump the doughnut in the trash barrel in front of the vintage jewelry store around the corner. Do the right dietary thing.
But she was only a few feet away from the Hole Shebang when she noticed a piece of paper taped to the inside of the vacant shop’s window next door. It caught her eye immediately.
LOVE THE HOLIDAYS? LOVE TO COOK? LOVE SHARING YOUR RECIPES WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY? THE KITCHEN CLASSROOM NEEDS A TEACHER FOR A HOLIDAY COOKING SERIES. EXPERIENCE HELPFUL BUT NOT REQUIRED. CALL PAULA 555-1454 ASAP.
Bren read and reread the paper, her lips moving over the words. She did love all of those things. In fact, that had been her problem of late, right? It was almost too perfect that she should run across this paper on this day at this moment. She cupped her free hand and placed it against the glass, peering through the window. The shop was no longer vacant. A round, red-haired woman bustled about inside, a hammer in one hand, some nails pressed tightly between her lips.
There were several island counters, each with a small sink and work area on top, an oven beneath. One of the islands was elevated and facing the rest of the room. Behind it was a wall of wire shelves, empty baskets and bottles lining some of them, an accumulation of jarred spices at attention on one end. Bren’s heart raced at the very sight of them.
The Kitchen Classroom. Cooking and teaching. Sharing recipes.
Maybe this was providence. A sign. Maybe this was exactly what she needed right now. Maybe she’d been led to the Hole Shebang and this awful doughnut—the smell of which was starting to turn her stomach a little now—so that she would discover what she was supposed to do with herself this holiday season.
Her hand plunged into her purse, searching out a pen. Without thinking, she stuffed the wretched doughnut into her mouth to hold it while she smoothed out the wax paper and wrote the phone number on it. She would give the job some thought. Sleep on it. Talk to Gary about it and give this Paula person a call in the mo—
Bren blinked, looked up. The redhead was leaning out the door, the hammer dangling at her side, the nails between two fingers now.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
Bren shook her head, forgetting that the doughnut was in her mouth until it cracked, split, and broke, landing with an orange potatoey-cream-cheesy splat on her foot, a ragged chunk still clenched between her teeth. She had no choice but to chew and swallow, glad for her strong stomach. It definitely tasted like Thanksgiving. But not in a good way. More like if you’d perhaps licked the dirty dinner plates clean instead of putting them in the dishwasher.
The redhead ventured out onto the sidewalk, pretending as if she hadn’t seen the doughnut fall. “I’m Paula. Are you interested in the position?”
Bren swallowed. “Yes. Well, maybe,” she said, swallowing again. “I was writing down the number. I’m Brenda, by the way. Bren.” She held out her hand and the redhead took it.
“You’re hired,” Paula said quickly. She laughed, self-conscious, breathless. “I’m sorry, but I’m desperate. I’m new here and I want to get up and running and I had a teacher all lined up for this class, but now she’s going to Buffalo for Christmas and . . .” She shook her head. “Buffalo. Can you believe it? Anyway, the class was supposed to start this week.”
“But I haven’t filled out an application,” Bren said.
Paula waved her off. “It doesn’t matter. Can you cook?”
“Yes, I think so,” Bren said. Nobody had ever told her she was the best cook in the world, but then again, nobody had ever complained, either. Not really, other than the one time she got experimental with the quinoa. In any case, nobody ever died from eating her food.
“Then you’re hired,” Paula said.
“I haven’t talked to my husband. . . .”
“He can have the leftovers.”
“I was going to sleep on it, and . . .”
“I’ll pay you double what I was going to pay the other lady.”
“I haven’t really had any sort of job in over twenty years,” Bren said uneasily, and it was this, she realized, that frightened her the most.
“This isn’t a job. It’s a friendship. I promise. You will love it. Please?”
A friendship. Bren liked that. Bren needed that.
And, without thinking about it, without really pondering what this would mean for her holidays, without even considering whether she could actually come up with a single recipe worth sharing, Bren found her shaky hand extending toward Paula’s chapped one.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
Virginia Mash hated her apartment. It was small and dark, always dark, and the windows were painted shut, thanks to her incompetent boob of a landlord. Plus, it was smack-dab in the middle of the square, perched atop a doughnut shop like a dusty old hat.
Square shopping had become trendy over the past couple of years or so, she had noticed. Virginia Mash hated trendy. And she hated square shopping. All those stores, thinking they were so original with their sheep’s-milk soaps and their antique chests and their hand-sewn children’s clothes and their crêpes. What on earth, Virginia thought, made a crêpe trendy? Hadn’t they been around for centuries? It would be like calling gladiator sandals trendy, which, she supposed, some of the girls were doing these days, too. Trendy seemed to be defined as I have it and you don’t.
And because the square had been revamped, the old, sleepy shops replaced by these new, trendy stores, that meant the square, and the space around her apartment, was always filled with noise and cars and exhaust and slamming doors and children throwing loud fits, and all the things that Virginia Mash hated most in this world.
It had been especially bad for the past year or so, once the doughnut shop had moved in directly below her apartment. The Hole Shebang, they called it. Virginia could not believe such a ridiculous name. Whatever happened to family names on businesses? Proud, anchored names with history. Ferguson’s Rugs or Elliott’s Pharmacy or Samuel’s Furniture. Well, that one—Samuel—was so anchored it was downright biblical, wasn’t it? Unlike the Hole Shebang. Virginia knew where she would like to punch a hole. And it wasn’t in someone’s shebang, that was for sure. Depending, of course, on what a shebang was, and where on a body it might be located.
Her apartment now smelled like sugar. And not in the good kind of way, either. Not outdoor festival sugar. Not Christmas cookie sugar. Cloying. Sickening. Overpowering, overbearing, overdone. Good Lord, did the irresponsible people of the Hole Shebang think nothing of their arteries? Probably diabetic, every last one of them, or heading there. Dead before they were fifty, and when the medical examiner cut open their lardy fannies, what would she find? Doughnuts. The Hole Shebang doughnuts. Of that, Virginia Mash was certain.
But to make things worse, when she took her fourteen-year-old dachshund, Chuy, out for his walk today, there was a truck out front. A moving truck, parked right in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the Hole Shebang, making it darn near impossible for Chuy to do his business at all. Did these insensitive people think dachshunds could just hop up and down curbs all willy-nilly to avoid ill-placed ramps and boxes and dollies? Did they not realize that those short, stubby legs tired easily? Did they not notice that Chuy himself was nearly an octogenarian, half blind, arthritic? You would think these trendy people would have more respect for their elders, even the furry kind. Especially the furry kind. Animal rights were also trendy these days, after all.
The front door of the previously vacant storefront next door to the Hole Shebang was propped open wide, a flurry of movement going on inside, with several men lifting, grunting, sweating, sliding enormous boxes, and a red-haired woman, who looked to be in her mid-forties, wearing flannel and denim and boots directing them while simultaneously rooting through boxes and pulling quilts off countertops and . . . were those ovens? All of them? And with even more of them inside the truck?
“No,” Virginia said aloud, hoisting herself up a few steps of the ramp that lolled out of the back of the truck like a tongue. As if the very truck were mocking her. She peered inside. Everything was covered, boxed, wrapped in cellophane. But, yes, she definitely saw at least one oven in there. “Cripes. Just what we need, Chuy. Another damn smelly restaurant at our feet. Don’t people ever eat at home anymore? Why can’t a good old PB&J be trendy?”
Chuy peered up at her through bleary old dog eyes that seemed to say, Frankly, Virginia, I just don’t give a shit. Virginia harrumphed at him.
“Can I help you?” She whipped around and, seeing the flanneled woman coming toward her, Virginia quickly—or as quickly as she could, at her age—scuffled back down the ramp. Startled, the woman held out her hands. “Oh! Careful!”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Virginia groused, swatting at the air between herself and the woman’s hands. There were few things she hated more than someone treating her as if she were incapable just because she was old. She’d driven a tow truck in her lifetime, for golly’s sake. She’d fired no fewer than a dozen incompetents. She’d once installed a dishwasher with nothing but grit and determination and a single Phillips head screwdriver. “I can walk down a blasted ramp.”
The woman’s hands dropped to her sides. “Can I help you?” she asked again.
“Haven’t you seen a woman walk her dog before?” Virginia answered, thumping down the ramp with her cane, because for some reason this seemed like an important point to make at that precise moment.
The woman bent down and scratched Chuy on top of his head. He wagged his tail gratefully. Traitor. Turncoat. Attention whore. “He’s adorable. What’s his name?”
“Speaking of, I suppose you’re going to name this place something as stupid as the Hole Shebang,” Virginia said, gesturing at the storefront. “I hope it isn’t sweets.”
The woman looked confused, turning to follow Virginia’s gesture, but then she seemed to get it. “Oh,” she said, her hand flying to her chest. “No. No, actually I’m calling it the Kitchen Classroom, because that’s what it is, a kitchen where people can come to learn how to cook. Pretty straightforward. I suppose I probably should have come up with something more creative, huh?” She’d turned and was studying the doughnut shop. “The Hole Shebang. Cute.” She turned back to Virginia and extended her hand. “I’m Paula, by the way. Owner, manager, and only employee so far. But that will change soon. In fact, I think I may have just hired someone. I hope, anyway.”
Virginia gazed at Paula’s hand with such disgust, Paula retracted it, pinning it up against her stomach with her other hand. “A kitchen classroom? You mean a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing in a kitchen are going to be firing up ovens right below my apartment?”
Again, Paula glanced backward, this time tilting her head up to take in the painted-shut windows above the Hole Shebang. “I’m sure they’ll know how to do that much,” she said, but her voice was soft and uncertain. She turned back to Virginia, but her freckles had been clouded over with a flush. “We’re more of a recipe instruction kind of place.”
Virginia squinted one eye. “People need instruction on how to follow a recipe? I knew how to follow a recipe before I was ten. Can’t they read?”
“We’ll also be renting it out to culinary students and chefs who might want to try out new menu items and so forth.”
“So there will be strangers streaming in and out at all hours of the night,” Virginia said. “And I suppose it would be too much bother to have their backgrounds checked for criminal behavior.”
The flush turned beet-colored. “So, are the—are the doughnuts good?” Paula asked, flicking a finger over her shoulder. “They smell delicious from here.”
Chuy began to tug lightly at his leash, letting out a garbly whine. Virginia had no time for this Paula person and her recipe instruction. Plus, the weather was getting ready to turn. She could feel it in her arthritis. Her knuckles hurt when Chuy’s leash grew taut around them. She glanced up at the sky, which was the flat gray of incoming winter. The tops of trees blew and swished. It wouldn’t be long before a skiff of cold air swooped down onto the square and whipped her hair and clothing like those leaves. Chuy didn’t like the cold. Virginia didn’t like the holidays that the cold heralded in.
“Just make sure you have this sidewalk clear before I get back,” Virginia said, ignoring the doughnut question. Did she honestly look like someone who would eat those nasty lard balls? She gestured toward Chuy with her cane. “My dog can’t do curbs.”
“Okay,” she heard at her back, but she didn’t bother to so much as take another look at redheaded Paula with the flannel and the boots and the ridiculous business idea.
With any luck, the Kitchen Classroom wouldn’t be around for very long anyway.
It was what should have been dinnertime when the phone rang. Of course, it wasn’t actually dinnertime. Not officially. It hadn’t been officially dinnertime in the Epperson house since Kevin, leaving a trail of balled socks and loose change and mementos of a lost age—football cards stuck upright in the cracks of the baseboards, a Sanibel sand dollar plucked from the ocean an impossible decade ago, figurines from the imaginative days of childhood—had left the house with a passport and only half a harebrained plan. And quite a bit of cannabis, from the smell of him. Oh, he could deny it, but a mother knew when the eyes of her child weren’t right.
Her youngest. Her baby. A once-treasured bedroom now home to only forgotten Super Balls and soccer pads and slippers, rock band posters and a rat’s nest of old phone chargers, and the college textbooks he’d foolishly purchased before he’d decided to admit that he wasn’t planning to go, all abandoned.
Kevin had sprung the news on Bren that he’d never actually enrolled in college at a pancake house, of all places.
“Now, Mom,” he’d said, holding his hand out to shush her, not even looking up from his plate of sunny-side-up eggs and congealed bacon grease, so condescending, so combatant, so very Kevin. “I know what you’re going to say.”
And she’d turned her face back down toward her plate, her Belgian waffles, her sausage links, her hash browns, and commenced eating, not even pausing the slightest while he went on about the confines of the American education system and his needs as an inquiring, and still growing, late adolescent mind—no, make that young adult mind—for the freedom to explore.
“If I see a flower that is beautiful, I need to be able to spend a day contemplating the folds of every petal on that flower—don’t you understand?” he’d said, and Bren had nodded, made a muffled affirmative noise, and stuffed another forkful of strawberry topping into her mouth to keep herself from asking him when exactly was the last time he’d even noticed a flower. If, in fact, he could name one single flower in existence.
He’d launched into his plans to travel abroad.
“And I don’t mean just Europe,” he’d said, stretching back, his hands folded behind his head, as if he were the goddamned king of England. “Europe, yes, but it’s so cliché, don’t you think? Finding oneself in Europe? As if we all exist only there. I mean, what if the true me exists in the Himayalas, you know? What if the essence of Kevin is in . . . in Kazakhstan or . . . or Beirut?”
He’d been so good at debate in high school. Well-spoken, extremely intelligent. Bren and Gary had been so proud, so very, very proud of his ability to think for himself, to put his thoughts together and present them convincingly. He could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo, Gary was known to say, a quip that made Bren feel uneasy—was it offensive to Alaskans? She could never quite tell.
Turned out Kevin hadn’t needed to sell anything to anyone but her. By the end of the breakfast, she was so full she felt sick, stuffed to the gills with carbs and fat and sugar, but she was smiling, assuring Kevin that, yes, yes, she would talk to his father about these new plans of his. It sounded like an adventure, she told him between muffled belches. Something she wished she’d done while she was young and had a chance to explore the world.
He’d left with a jacket, a pocketful of snacks, and a sleeping bag harnessed along the underside of a backpack, for Christ’s sake. Isn’t he taking this backpacking-across-the-world business a little far? How can he possibly have packed enough to live off of in that thing? Bren had asked Gary, who’d sat on his parked motorcycle looking one-tenth worried for Kevin and nine-tenths envious out of his gourd. Oh, he’ll be fine, Brenda. Let him explore. This is important. You don’t want him to turn around in thirty years and regret that he never went. Bren had rolled her eyes. Of course Gary would make this about himself. Ever since the man turned the corner into the back side of his forties, he’d managed to make everything about himself. God love the old oafish bastard.
And so Kevin had hugged her and made promises about phone calls and postcards and a future that she knew would never come true and had hopped into his friend Tony’s idling 2000 Toyota, checked his pocket for his passport one last time, and set off for the airport, a flick of his wrist through the passenger window for a wave, Epperson family dinners whisked away on a fog of alternative music and car exhaust.
At last check-in—must have been at least three weeks ago—Kevin was just pulling into Ceský Krumlov, which Bren had made him spell so she could look it up on the Internet later. Somewhere in the Czech Republic, he’d said. He’d dropped his iPod in the Vltava River, but he didn’t care, he’d said. He’d met a girl, he’d said. Her name was Pavlina, and she was an artist—like, a real artist, not one of those weird girls who use creative stirrings as their excuse not to shave their pits, Mom. Pavlina didn’t believe in shoes, and she was the most beautiful thing he’d seen yet, and that included all of the Roman sculptures and paintings combined. He was smitten, but was telling Bren this as if dictating a travelogue, as he always did. Sounding removed, dutiful. Bren forever fretted that there would be a test at the end of his phone calls. She never talked to him without a pad of paper—what she thought of as her telephone pad—and a pencil so she could write down all the confusing foreign-sounding things he said. When they hung up, she felt like a completed chore he could check off his list. A confused completed chore.
But this time, the ringing phone had a +66 country code at the front of it. Bren was eating cheese on toast—her fourth piece—and idly filling out a magazine quiz while the news blatted through the tiny kitchen TV, a persistent buzzing of negativity and fearmongering that both frightened her and made her feel superior. She jumped at the receiver.
“Hello?” and then, covering the mouthpiece with her palm, “Gary! It’s Kelsey! Kelsey is calling!” Then back into the phone, “Hello?”
A strange click, some faraway hissing. “Mommy?”
Bren’s breath caught. She loved that her daughter had never gotten too old to call her Mommy, but had to admit that hearing the word Mommy coming from her daughter, even at twenty-four years old, even married and a whole continent away, brought to mind skinned knees and Barbie dolls, an eight-year-old Kelsey who would never grow any older.
“Kelsey!” she exclaimed. “How’s Thailand?”
“Oh, Mommy, it’s beautiful. The rain has stopped, and it’s so warm. Perfect, really. We’re getting ready for Loi Krathong here. Do you know what that is? Have you ever seen it?”
Bren scrambled for her telephone pad and pencil, flipped to the Kelsey page, and scribbled down Loy Rithong. “I’ve never even heard of . . . Did you say Rithong with an R?”
Kelsey giggled. “A K, Mommy. A K. Krathong. We make these little boats and fill them with flowers and candles and coins—we’re making ours out of bread to feed the fish, our boat. That was Dean’s idea. Isn’t that a great idea, Mommy, to make it out of bread?” Bren nodded, but there wasn’t time to speak between Kelsey’s breathless sentences. She always got that way, especially when she talked about her new husband. “He’s so smart about things, even though we’re still learning. It’s like he’s lived here his whole life. Anyway, so you float these little boats down the river during the full moon. It’s like an offering, Mommy, but it’s also symbolic. It symbolizes letting go of your hatred and anger and bitterness, and there are lanterns, so many lanterns, and, gosh, it just sounds so beautiful. Doesn’t it sound beautiful?”
“Yes, beautiful,” Bren said, but she’d gotten behind on her notes. “Wait, you have hatred and anger?”
“It’s symbolic, Mommy.”
“Symbolic hatred,” Bren said, writing down the words as she spoke them.
“So what are you and Daddy doing this evening? It must be about dinnertime there. I just woke up. I’m waiting for Dean to get out of the shower. We’re playing hooky and going to the beach today. I’m telling you, Mommy, someday you and Daddy simply must come visit us. We have space. Dean said he would make space, isn’t that the sweetest? He’s so thoughtful that way, you know. Always worrying about everyone else. He would probably give you our bed and would sleep outside on the ground if that was what you wanted. You must come and let him be thoughtful to you, Mommy. It would mean the world to him. And you would be amazed by these beaches. The water, it’s so clear. You’ve never seen water like that in Missouri, I can tell you that much.”
Ah. There it was. The requisite Missouri-bashing that both of her kids had to do on a regular basis, now that they’d moved on to such exotic locales. As if nothing good could have possibly come out of a place so bland as the Midwest. As if they both had not come out of the Midwest themselves.
Bren wrote the word beeche—misspelled, after overthinking that it might have some foreign iteration like all the other things she’d been writing down—then scratched it out and wrote hooky instead, then scratched that out, too, and put down her pen.
“So?” Kelsey asked.
Impatient grunt, followed by a giggle. Kelsey’s signature. The girl moved like a hummingbird, always zooming on to the next thing, the next conversation, the next song, the next location. “So what are you and Daddy doing tonight?” she repeated.
“Oh, that,” Bren said. Her head felt swimmy, stuffed too full of information. She placed her hand over the phone receiver again. “Gary!” Nothing. She went to the garage door and pounded on it with the flat of her hand three times, marital code for get your ass in here. “Gary!”
“Daddy in the garage again?” Kelsey asked. “Still working on that motorcycle?”
“Yes and no,” Bren said. “He’s onto dune buggies now—it’s a long story. I suppose we’re not doing anything tonight. Although I’d hoped to catch up on some of my recorded shows.”
“Well, that’s boring. Honestly, Mommy, you should get out sometimes.”
Bren’s hand went to the back of her head. “I get out. I’m going to the hairdresser tomorrow.”
“The hairdresser? What, are you ninety? I mean get out, get out. Do something fun. Go dancing. You’re empty nesters now. You have freedom!”
Don’t remind me, Bren thought, thinking for the thousandth time what an awful term empty nester was. So lonely, evoking images of things dried and barren. It was bad enough to feel that way without putting a name to it, too.
Bren found herself stuttering, nothing intelligible coming out, as her daughter continued to talk over her with suggestions of things to do—fancy dinners, romantic river cruises, day trips, double dates, clubs—followed by condemnation for sitting around and rotting at home, doomsday predictions of what happened to old couples who didn’t thrive, old people who didn’t leave the house.
“They die younger, Mommy, did you know that? Retired people who get out and do things live longer.”
“We’re not retired,” Bren found herself saying, bewilderedly. “I’m only forty-five. Your father’s not yet fifty.”
“It’s here before you know it,” Kelsey said, in a very sage voice, as if a twenty-four-year-old knew the first thing about the advancement of time.
Bren considered telling her about the Kitchen Classroom job. Or was it the Classroom Kitchen job? And was it even a job? What kind of job could a person have if she couldn’t even remember exactly the name of the company? She hadn’t said a word to Gary about it yet. She hadn’t even really convinced herself that she was going to go through with it, anyway. The further she’d gotten away from that strange encounter with Paula, the more hours that elapsed, the less likely it seemed that Bren could be a teacher of anything. Surely the woman didn’t actually expect her to begin a job that was offered on the sidewalk with no background checks or résumé exchange or anything. What if Bren was a murderer? A kitchen knife–wielding murderer. It could happen.
There was a thundering of footsteps, and Gary came into the room, reeking of grease, wiping his hands on a filthy towel. Grateful for the interruption, Bren sat the phone on the table and hit the speaker button.
“Hey, there, princess!” Gary said, without waiting for an opening. Exactly where Kelsey got the chatty gene, right there.
“Daddy!” Kelsey squealed. If they’d been visiting in person, she would have wrapped her entire self around him, the way she always had. Such a daddy’s girl. Although he’d taken her marriage and moving much more easily than Bren had thought he would.
She’d always had a vague fear that one of her children would move away. Away away, not college away or different town away, or even different state away. Away away, where she couldn’t get to them within a few hours. But she’d never have guessed that one of them would actually go and do it. Not to mention both of them. Where had she gone wrong that both of them suddenly wanted to be away away?
Kelsey was married for exactly forty-six minutes before making her way to the middle of the reception dance floor, grabbing the mic, and announcing that Dean was accepting a new job (pause for polite applause) and that it was a really great opportunity (pause for excited grin) and that they would be moving (pause for hopping on toes) to exotic and beautiful Thailand (pause for confetti and balloons and a goddamned unicorn shitting puppies shaped like hearts and four-leaf clovers). Bren had smiled and clapped with the others, all the while trying to remember if Thailand was a place with big, scary insects or a place with big, scary diseases or a place with big, scary kidnappers. Or maybe all of the above. She was quite possibly the first mother of the bride in all of history to wonder aloud, at the reception, whether her daughter was up-to-date on all of her immunizations.
Oh, Gary had taken it hard at first. But he’d gotten over it so fast. How did he do that? Kelsey had now been gone for six months, and it already felt like six years, but to listen to Gary, to watch him as he putzed around on his dune buggy without a care in the world and as he casually chatted with his daughter on the phone—no pad and pencil required—you would never know the girl had been gone at all.
“How are things down under?” he asked.
This got the usual giggle from Kelsey. “We’re not that close to Australia, Daddy.”
“Oh, does that mean you don’t have a pet kangaroo yet? Well, then I’m never coming to visit.”
More laughter. They were so cute together, those two. It made the bridge of Bren’s nose ache. She pinched it, wondering if she should write down kangaroo. Out of nowhere, her shoulder itched. She shrugged a few times, the friction from the bra strap scratching it.
“How’s Dean-o?” Gary asked, his voice booming, making Bren flinch.
“Oh, he’s just great. His project is going well and it looks like he may get a contract extension, which we’re so excited about. We haven’t seen nearly enough of Thailand yet. We’d like to stay a few more years.”
“Years?” Bren barked, and then slapped her mouth shut. She’d vowed to never make either of the children feel guilty about their decision to live lives separate from hers—even if they were so carelessly breaking her heart—but she couldn’t help it. Years was a long time. Years was long enough for her to miss the birth of a grandchild. Years was long enough to put down roots, real roots, the kind of roots that you don’t want to dig up.
“Well, you tell him we said hello and to keep up the good work,” Gary boomed, as if Bren had never said anything at all. Thank God.
“So I can’t talk for much longer,” Kelsey said, her voice going down at the edges. “Trying to save money where I can.”
“That’s my girl,” Gary said. “Levelheaded.”
Bren shot him a look. As if saving pennies by shortchanging her own parents on phone calls while lollygagging on a beach all day instead of working were a fiscally responsible decision.
“I just wanted to say hi. And to tell you I miss you both bunches.”
“Bunches?” Bren repeated. Her pen scrawled it out of its own accord, but she was drowned out once again by Gary.
“We miss you, too, pumpkin. You take care of yourself down there. Don’t forget to put another shrimp on the barbie.”
Kelsey’s laughter tinkled through the phone speaker again. Bren had more than once wished she could bottle up that laughter, keep it safe, keep it handy. It was a sound of such pure joy. But now it only sounded faraway, dulled by distance. A joy that she could only admire, but never fully experience again.
“Oh, just a reminder, by the by, that Dean and I won’t be coming home for the holidays.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve told us,” Bren said tiredly. Did her daughter have to keep reminding her of that? Did she really think that having her first-ever Christmas apart from her children would be something Bren would absentmindedly forget?
“Got big Christmas plans?” Gary asked.
“Not really. It’s mostly Buddhist here, so not a lot of Christmas celebrating goes on, I don’t think. Plus, the place will just be flooded with tourists, from what I hear. We’ll probably have a quiet dinner. Maybe some noodles, some fish. Just the two of us.”
“Same here,” Bren said. “Just the two of us. Only without the noodles.”
“No Grandma?” Kelsey asked.
“She and Aunt Cathy have plans,” Bren said.
“They’re going to Vegas, those dirty dogs,” Gary added. “Christmas with Elvis and all-you-can-eat steak.” The way he said it made it sound fun, and not like the abandonment it was. Even Bren’s own mother couldn’t be bothered with Christmas this year. Imagine.
“Well, tell them I said to enjoy that! I hope they roll sevens. Or elevens. Or whatever it is that’s good,” Kelsey cried out, right back to her sunny self. “And you two should make the most of your alone time. A romantic Christmas dinner for two, for the first time in, what . . .”
“Twenty-four years,” Bren supplied.
“Wow, twenty-four,” Kelsey said. “You are long overdue.”
“I suppose we must be,” Bren said. She didn’t have the heart to tell Kelsey that their grand Christmas Eve dinner plans involved a cafeteria, nor did she mention the cheese on toast or the pad and pencil with all the foreign words or even her incessant nightly scouring of the Internet for cheap flights halfway around the world.
“That we are,” Gary said, snaking an arm around Bren’s shoulders. She resisted the urge to pull away, though she knew she was going to smell like that damned buggy now even if she did.
Their good-byes were, as always, over so quickly it left Bren’s head spinning. She clutched the pad and pencil, gazing at the words as if trying to memorize the conversation, file it away so she would have it to pull out on her next lonely evening filling out magazine quizzes and listening to the nightly death report.
Gary drifted away, taking the rag and a glass of iced tea with him. Terse, typical conversation, the amiable guy with the big smile and the cute turns of phrase snuffed out like a candle on a birthday cake.
“Just some cheese toast.”
“You want me to make you something?”
“Naw, I’ll grab a bite later. Working on the buggy.”
A shuffling of footsteps toward the garage again. “You gonna be long?”
Garage door opening, an echoey answer that drifted into inaudible murmurings, and then a shut door: “Got to get to bed. Meetings tomorrow . . .”
Bren stared at the pad of paper. Bunches was the last word she’d written.
But off in the margin was the sad face that she’d drawn when Kelsey had told them she didn’t plan to come home for the holidays.
Suddenly the cheese toast looked congealed and disgusting, postsurgery fleshy. She could feel the bread perching at the base of her esophagus, coiled, ready to launch as soon as she lay down for bed. She could practically see little orange pustules of grease popping into the pores around her mouth, on her cheeks, her forehead, suffocating them, making her skin dull and cheeselike itself. The very thought made her tongue curl back in a gag.
She got up and carried the plate to the sink, snatching up the remote control and turning off the TV as she went. The room hummed with silence. The sun had fallen.
She padded back to the bedroom, where her black long-haired cat, George, lay waiting for her, curled at the bottom of the bed. He made a brrr noise as she slid headfirst into the bed, and moved so his hind end pressed warmly into her side.
It was barely seven o’clock, but Bren Epperson went to bed anyway, thanking God, as she drifted off, for the short days of autumn.
Bren closed her eyes, concentrating on the shush of the water and the warmth that spread itself over the crown of her head, the feel of Nan’s fingers snaking over her scalp. She always kept her eyes shut during the washing, the better to ignore how irregularly long the sinks made her neck feel, and how scrutinized she felt in that position—stretched backward, throat bared, skin tags laid out for anyone to assess or attack. Plus, hairdressers could see right up your nose when you were under the faucet. Nan probably knew more about Bren’s nasal cavity than Bren did. Mortifying.
Of course, she’d been going to Nan long enough to go through the washing in silence. Nan recognized a good, quality neurosis when she saw one and understood when to go ahead and humor it. Before Bren had found Nan, though, she’d endured innumerable washing sessions filled with yammering, the stylists raising their voices to be heard over the water—Can you believe this weather? I didn’t even need a jacket today! Do you have kids? Yeah? How old? What are their names? Blah, blah, blah. From what Bren could tell, nobody particularly enjoyed this routine; they simply put up with it. Anything to keep everyone in the room from acknowledging the truth, that you were a grown-ass woman who’d just washed your own hair an hour before, because you were perfectly capable of washing your own hair, and because you were too vain to go anywhere with greasy comb marks in your limp tresses, even to the hairdresser.
Or maybe these were just the things Bren thought about when lying back, giraffe-necking the sink, earlobes squished against the washbasin, expensive shampoo scent fog around her head, until Nan let the nozzle snap back into place and cradled her head with a towel, urging with her hands for Bren to sit up.
Then and only then would she allow herself to open her eyes. But she was never quite pleased with what she saw in the mirror. Especially these days. Her neck looked squat and squeezed under the collar of the brown cape. She looked, to herself, like someone who’d been buried chin-deep in mud. Or maybe at this point it was more chins-deep. Plural. The snap of her jeans jabbed into her gut as confirmation.
“So,” Nan said briskly, combing Bren’s hair into straight chunks around her shoulders, “Turkey Day’s in nineteen days, huh?”
“Oh, is it?” Bren asked. “I had no idea.” Out of the corner of the mirror, Bren caught Lucy, the impossibly young desk clerk, so skinny Bren would have worried if she’d been the girl’s mother, stepping up onto a stool to pull down the orange and black Halloween garland that had been strung across the shop’s front window.
Nan nodded. “And you know what that means.”
Bren frowned, then, seeing her hideous frown lines in the mirror, quickly released it before pasting on a pleasant little grin. It was totally fake, but much nicer to look at. “No,” she said.
Nan stopped brushing, met Bren’s eyes in the mirror. Really, Bren thought, Nan had terrible hair. Frizzy, overworked, bleached within an inch of its life. And Nan was forever fiddling with it. Bren imagined she could hear Nan’s follicles cry out in terror every time the woman picked up a teasing comb. “It means”—dramatic pause for effect—“only forty-eight days until Christmas.” Nan laughed as Bren groaned. “Have you started your shopping yet?”
“No,” Bren said, though she didn’t elaborate, that there wouldn’t be any shopping this year. Not really. Everything these days was so impersonal. Gift cards and money, money and gift cards. Even her nephews couldn’t think of anything they wanted; her sister-in-law had told her, Just get them gift cards or money. And then she’d done that thing that wannabe-rich people so often did when conversations turned to money—the knowing-laugh thing—and added, Money’s always one size fits all, amIright?
Bren had knowing-laughed along with her, but secretly, inwardly, she wondered what five-year-old boy or seven-year-old boy or twelve-year-old boy couldn’t think of one gift to ask for. What were they going to do, line up their dollar bills on their beds and count them? Roll around on their cash a little bit? Was that what passed for recreation these days? Knowing her snooty nephews, that was probably exactly what they did.
So shopping was going to look a lot more like running to the ATM—one size fits all, amIright?—and maybe not even scraping together enough energy to buy fancy cards to put the cash in. Instead of heavy card stock laden with iridescent glittery snowscapes, she would probably end up tucking twenties into dollar-store flimsy getups, glossy and thin with some ridiculous animal, entirely unrelated to the holidays, smiling on the cover. What the heck does a raccoon in a necktie have to do with Christmas?
“I haven’t even started to think about shopping,” Nan said, shifting around Bren’s chair to pick up a pair of scissors. “Nico’s already got a list as long as his arm. And you know he’ll get all of it. Just can’t say no to him.”
Bren smiled. “He is so cute. What is he, four now?”
Nan nodded. “Four going on fourteen. Spoiled seven ways from Sunday. Tilt your chin down.”
“Not spoiled,” Bren said to her breasts. My word, but they had also gotten so big. Was it her imagination, or was she unable to tilt her chin all the way down, for the breast barricade? “Just loved. You two went through the wringer to get that baby.”
Nan stopped cutting and Bren tipped her eyes up just in time to see Nan pointing to the mirror with her scissors. “Boy, have you got that right,” Nan said. She went back to Bren’s hair, tickling the base of her neck with the scissor point. “Thought we’d be two old farts, all alone together forever. So depressing.”
Bren felt a prickle inside her stomach. Two old farts, all alone. Just like she and Gary were now. And Nan had never been more right—it was depressing as hell. The top of her shoulder itched. She snaked her hand up through the cape and scratched it. Nan stopped clipping again.
“You ever tell Gary about that?” she asked.
Bren shook her head, glad to be in the chin-tilt position so Nan couldn’t see her face. Nan made a noise.
“Girl, you better tell him. Sooner rather than later, you know.”
“I will,” Bren said. “It’s just . . . there’s nothing to tell yet.”
“I suppose,” Nan said. She combed a swath of Bren’s hair down and ducked to clip it. “But you told me.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of Jennifer Scott
“A really wonderful book.”—Jen Lancaster, New York Times Bestselling Author
"An uplifting story about...the redemptive power of familial love."—Liza Gyllenhaal, author of A Place for Us
"A fantastic story."—Examiner.com
"The perfect book to curl up with on a nice snowy day!"—Open Book Society