Monday, December 7, 2020

 November was busy with National Novel Writing Month. This year I set myself a 50,000 word target and I made it. I have only 10,000 or so words to add to it to have a new contemporary western romance in the bag. I'll be posting a new short story later this month, but just as a sample, here's my short story from last Christmas. Enjoy!


PORTER COLLIER'S CHRISTMAS ANGEL

  by Victoria Chatham

 

“Of course you’re coming home for dinner, Porter. It’s Christmas Day.”

Porter Collier moved the phone away from his ear and sighed.

“I heard that,” his mother said.

Porter removed his horn-rimmed spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the inevitable headache resulting from a conversation with his mother.

“Mother, Christmas is just another day. An expensive one for many people, which is why I prefer to stay here and work to make sure that I, and subsequently you and Aunt Min, can look forward to a prosperous New Year.”

“Don’t be so snippy,” his mother sniffed, “and it’s unfair to bring your aunt into this.”

Porter replaced his spectacles, knowing that he could not escape the mandatory dinner. “I have to go. I’ll see you later.”

He replaced the receiver in its cradle on his desk and stared gloomily out of his third-floor office window. Christmas was his least favourite time of year. He wished he could avoid it all. His mother, with every reason to not like the season, insisted on celebrating it.

Suddenly restless, he got to his feet, grabbed his jacket and headed for the main office. He knew he wasn’t the only one of his staff with issues on the whole Holly, Jolly, Jingle-jingle holiday. Even today, there might be someone with whom he could chat over a coffee.

He paused at the entrance to the central hub of his company, the workspace usually inhabited by more than thirty IT specialists. Today the desks were empty with not a soul in sight. About to leave, a sudden movement caught his eye. He peered through the glass pane, and his forehead creased into a frown as a blonde head emerged from beneath a desk, followed by a petite, decidedly feminine form.

Who was that?

Porter pushed the door open a little and heard indistinct muttering. He pushed the door all the way open and walked in.

“Can I help?” he asked.

The girl looked up, regarding him with a pair of cornflower blue eyes. Porter’s breath caught in his throat. He prided himself on knowing all his staff but had never seen this girl before.

“No, thank you,” she said. “I just dropped my phone.”

“Is it okay?”

“I think so. At least the screen isn’t cracked.”

“Well, if you have any problems with it, let the office manager know. There’s usually a couple of spare phones around if you need one.”

“Great, thanks for the tip.” She grinned at him. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home with your family?”

“Shouldn’t you?” he said, his voice rasping a little.

She laughed at that. “Touch√©. Have you worked here for long?”

Porter cleared his throat. She had no clue as to his identity, and maybe that was a good thing.  “A few years now.”

“You must like it then.”

“Yes, I suppose I do,” he said, nodding his head. “How about you?”

“I’ve only been here a couple of months and love the flexibility of it. It’s awesome being able to come and work at midnight if I can’t sleep or on a weekend if I have a sudden breakthrough in fixing a problem.”

“Are you fixing problems today?” He would find things to do if that were the case and stay with her.

There was that grin again, the grin that transformed her into a cheeky, adorable pixie. “No, I’m only killing time until I go and take my girls out.”

That remark gave Porter cause to pause before curiosity overwhelmed him. “Forgive me for saying so, but you seem very young to have children.”

The grin turned into a laugh. “There’s nothing to forgive, and it’s not kids, it’s dogs. Mollie and Sheba. Would you like to come with us?”

Porter was inexplicably drawn to this girl and didn’t want to part company with her. He’d never had a pet of any kind but would walk a dinosaur to stay with her. “Do you think they’d mind?”

“I can’t imagine that they would, but I’ll warn you they’re a bit different.” She busied herself with stashing things in her purse, then took her coat from the back of her chair and shrugged it on.

“Different how?” Porter asked as he caught her collar and helped settle the coat into place on her shoulders. He couldn’t help noticing the garment was somewhat threadbare.

“They’re both old,” she said, “and some would say they’re not attractive dogs, so it’s not likely they’ll be adopted even though the shelter does its best. I like to visit them and take them for walks.”

“On Christmas Day,” Porter mused.

“On any day. Come on, there’s only one car in the lot, and it’s mine.”

Her small stature belied the speed of her walk and Porter had to hurry to keep up with her. The car was a Chevrolet Malibu that had seen better days. As she unlocked it, a thought struck him.

“Before I drive off with a stranger, shouldn’t I at least know your name?”

Again that laugh. “You’ll be quite safe with me, I promise. I’m Juliet Pym. And you?”

Porter thought fast. If he told her his real name, she might be embarrassed and drive off alone. He couldn’t let that happen. “It’s Brad, Brad Carpenter.”

He offered his hand across the hood of her car, and she took it. Her fingers, soft and warm, curled around his. She might as well have thrown chains around his heart.

“Then hop in, Mr. Carpenter, and I’ll take you away on my magic carpet.”

She put the key in the ignition, and the engine fired on the first turn. The bodywork might be a bit iffy, but there was nothing wrong with the motor. She headed out of town, taking streets Porter didn’t recognize. He opened the window, smelled salt in the air and knew they were heading towards the coast. The buildings they passed were older, run-down strip malls and single storey homes in a part of town that he didn’t know existed. Then she turned in to a dusty parking lot in front of a long, low building with a sign above the door advertising the Costa Animal Shelter.

Beyond the crumbling adobe brick wall, a cacophony of barking assaulted Porter’s ears.

“How many dogs do they have here?”

“At the moment about sixty, give or take. Monica updates the website every day, so chances are one or two might have been adopted out or fostered. Come on.”

She breezed through the double doors into a tiled lobby with a long reception desk at the back of it. Behind the counter, an open door revealed a yard shaded by olive trees.

Juliet rang the bell on the counter. “Yo, Monica,” she called. “I’ve come for my girls, and I’ve brought a friend.”

Instantly a sturdy figure darkened the doorway. As the woman came into the office, Porter took in her muscular brown arms and tanned face. A red bandana corralled her mop of long, curly toffee-coloured hair. As she set eyes on Porter, she smiled, revealing a set of healthy white teeth.

“This is Brad,” Juliet said. “He’s going to walk the girls with me today.”

“No problem. Just sign Mollie and Sheba out before you leave. You know where the leashes are. Nice to meet you, Brad. You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got half a dozen puppies on the go out here.”

She waved and ducked back out the door.

“Hello, to you too, Monica,” Porter said to her retreating back.

Juliet laughed. “There’s usually at least four on staff. As it’s Christmas Day, Monica lets the others go home after the morning feeding and cleaning routine.”

“I take it she’s the owner?”

Juliet took two leashes from a rack on the wall and walked along a corridor with kennels on each side. “Yes, and lives onsite here. She bought the property when she left the military. She’s one tough cookie, let me tell you. Here we are.”

Porter heard the dog before he saw it. A snuffling and snorting came from behind the security screen covering the lower half of the chain-link gate, then whining and scratching.

“It’s okay, Mollie,” Juliet said. “I can’t wait to see you either. Just give me a minute here.”

She set the screen against the wall and opened the gate. A brindle and white body came barreling out right into Juliet’s open arms. Porter stepped back. He hadn’t known what to expect, certainly not this awkward, misaligned creature with a broad, scarred head, gaping jaws, and misshapen front legs.

“Good grief, what is it? And why hasn’t it got any ears?”

“I told you she was different,” Juliet said. “This is Mollie, who is mostly pit bull. The likely reason for her ears to have been cropped would be if she came from a fighting ring. Her front legs have both been broken and healed on their own, which is why she is so bandy. But look at her, she’s all smiles and happiness despite everything that may have happened to her.”

Juliet bent down and cuddled the dog, getting a slurpy tongue all over her face in return. She clipped a leash onto Mollie’s collar and handed it to Porter. Mollie looked up at him expectantly, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. He slowly sank into a crouch, touched when the dog put its paw on his arm. He reached out and rubbed behind Mollie’s battered ear.

“Who could have done such a thing to you, hmm?” he queried softly.

In answer, Mollie reached up and swiped her tongue across his face.

“It looks like you have made a friend,” Juliet said.

Porter looked up. She came towards him, holding the leash of a rough-haired, sad-looking dog. While Mollie bounced up and down, her tail wagging, this dog stood beside Juliet, quietly waiting for what might come next.

“What’s her story?” Porter asked.

“Sheba was orphaned,” Juliet told him.

“Orphaned?” Porter raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, her person passed away. She’s still mourning. No one has seen her wag her tail since she came to us, and she’s been here six months already.”

“What about Mollie? How long has she been in the shelter?”

“Eighteen months.” Juliet sighed. “I wish people could see how beautiful these dogs are, inside and out. Anyway, shall we go? It’s only a couple of blocks to the beach.”

On their way through the office, Juliet stopped and filled in the book on the counter, leaving the date, her name, the dogs’ names, and the time she checked them out.

“Security,” she said in answer to Porter’s unspoken question.

They headed towards the beach, Mollie knowing where she was going and charging ahead as much as she was able. Sheba shuffled along between them. Porter looked at the dog’s low-slung head and the slouch of her shoulders.

“She looks like a German Shepherd,” he said.

“Mm, Shepherd Labrador mix, Monica thinks,” Juliet agreed. “Here we are. You can let Mollie off the leash. She’s got an excellent recall response and never goes far, so we don’t need to worry.”

“What about Sheba?”

“I think she wants to make sure nothing happens to us so she won’t go too far, either.”

Juliet unclipped Sheba’s leash, and the dog wandered a few feet ahead of them, frequently looking over her shoulder to see where they were.

“I see what you mean,” Porter said after watching her for a few moments. “That’s plain sad. You said they were old, so how old are they?”

“Best as we can tell, Mollie is ten, maybe eleven and Sheba a little older. The next-door neighbour said she was fully grown when she and her owner moved in and then lived in that house for ten years, so she might be twelve or thirteen.”

“And people don’t want older dogs?”

Juliet shook her head. “There’s always the risk of medical problems and then the expense of medications and end of life arrangements. Most people want at least a few years of fun with a dog before they have to deal with that, and some never do. They give their dogs up anyway or dump them.”

Porter shook his head. “I can’t even begin to understand how people can do that.”

Juliet shrugged. “Me neither, but it happens. Some of the reasons make me sad, some make me mad, but I’ve learnt to ignore that and concentrate on the dogs to make them as happy as I can.”

“Mollie’s certainly happy,” Porter said, nodding to where Mollie wrestled with a long strand of kelp that had washed ashore.

Juliet laughed and then whistled and Mollie hustled towards them, dragging her prize with her. They walked in silence for a while, their feet leaving prints in the wet sand and the breeze coming off the ocean misting them with salt-laden spray.

“So tell me,” Juliet began, “why were you in the office today?”

“I don’t like Christmas,” Porter said bluntly. “I treat it like any other day.”

“May I ask why?”

Porter stopped walking and stared towards the horizon where the blanket-blue bowl of the sky masked the birth of white-tipped waves that rolled across the ocean’s surface.

“Eight years ago today,” he said, watching the surf tumble onto the shore like a visitor on the doorstep, “my father didn’t wake up. Every Christmas since, Mom tries to make it a regular, everyday celebration, just like she always did when he was alive. But it’s not.”

“I’m so sorry.” Juliet slipped her hand into his. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

Porter looked down at their entwined fingers. “I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.”

“No.” Juliet shook her head. “Grieving takes as much time as it needs. I lost both my parents when I was eight, and my grandma brought me up, but she’s gone now. I haven’t got anyone to love, so I love the critters at the shelter instead.”

“And you’re happy?” Porter stopped walking and looked down at her.

“Yes,” Juliet said without hesitation. “But then, happiness is a choice, don’t you think?”

“I can’t say I’ve ever considered it.” He looked into Juliet’s eyes and saw a glow there, a glow enhanced by her wind-blown pink cheeks. She looked fresh and innocent and made him feel old and careworn. “Were you born wise, or did that come with the territory?”

Her shoulders rose and fell in a movement that seemed as natural to her as blinking. “A bit of both, I think. I certainly had my fair share of counsellors.”

“And now you have the dogs.”

She nodded in agreement and stopped to watch them.

“That’s my mom before dad died,” Porter said, nodding towards Mollie, who, with the kelp clamped between her jaws, ran in exuberant circles. “and that’s what she’s like now.” He pointed towards Sheba, who stood with her face into the wind, her nose twitching as if searching for a familiar scent.

A tremor ran through Juliet’s hand and Porter turned to her. “Are you cold?”

“A little bit,” she admitted. Porter slipped his jacket off and slung it around her shoulders, surreptitiously checking his watch as he did so.

Juliet did not miss the motion. “Have you got to be somewhere?”

“No,” he began, but then hesitated. “Uh, make that a yes. But just a minute.”

He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket, hit a number on his speed dial and waited for the call to connect.

“Hi, Mom,” he said. “Would you mind if I bring guests for dinner? One two-legged, and two four-legged?” He paused and listened. Juliet waved a hand in front of his face, mouthing “you can’t do that,” but Porter took no notice, only catching her hand and kissing her fingers. “Okay, we’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Brad, I cannot intrude on your family Christmas,” Juliet insisted.

“Tell me you have somewhere better to be,” Porter said and grinned at her. “By the way, will Monica let you bring the dogs?”

“Probably,” Juliet said. She whistled for Mollie, who lolloped towards her like a drunken sailor, and clipped the leashes onto the dogs’ collars for the short walk back to the shelter.

Monica agreed to them taking the dogs but insisted they be back by nine o’clock for the final night check.

“We’ll probably be earlier than that,” Juliet said as she turned towards the door and joined Porter. They bundled the dogs into the back seat and Porter slid into the passenger seat. “You’ll have to give me directions.”

“Go back to the office, and I’ll direct you from there.”

Juliet did as he asked and then followed his instructions as they passed the heritage building housing IT Inc’s business premises. She followed his directions, glancing at him curiously as they headed towards a more upmarket side of town. She began to frown as they turned into an avenue lined with fan palms. Ahead of them were a set of closed gates with a security station in the centre.

“You live here?” she breathed, ducking her head to peer at the estate-style houses beyond the gate.

“No, my mother does. Can you open your window, please?”

She did as he asked and he leaned across her and waved at the security guard. “Hi, Frank. We’re just on the way to see Mom.”

“Do you want me to call her for you, Mr. Collier?”

“No, thanks,” Porter responded, “She knows we’re coming.”

Juliet sat still, staring straight ahead of her.

“Um, you can drive on now,” Porter said. “The gate’s open.”

“Yes, I see that,” Juliet snapped and put her foot down. The car shot forward, slamming Porter back in his seat and shifting the dogs. Mollie huffed, and Sheba’s wet nose connected with his neck.

Porter could barely contain a chuckle at the furious expression on her tight little face. “Mom’s house is the next drive on the right.”

Juliet swung into it with a maneuver that might have impressed a movie stunt-driver but brought a shout of laughter from Porter. She slammed to a stop and turned to face him, anger sparking electric-blue in her eyes. She took a deep breath as if struggling to form words, and then, “ohmygodyouaremyboss,” rolled out of her perfect little mouth on a single exhale.

“I’m sorry,” Porter said, “but if I had told you who I was back in the office, would you have invited me to go for a walk with you and the dogs?”

“No, of course not,” she stammered.

“And so we would not have had a perfect day, at least it’s been perfect for me. How about you?”

Juliet dropped her head but put her hand over his. “The best in a long time,” she whispered.

“Come on,” Porter said. “Mom and Aunt Min are waiting for us.”

Porter opened the back door of the car and Mollie and Sheba hopped out. Sheba looked around, her nose twitching and then she headed up the front steps with Mollie and Porter in her wake. As they approached the front door, it swung open and Sheba stopped, pricked her ears and sniffed the air.

“Well, hello, sweet girl,” Porter’s mother said. “And how are you?”

Sheba pushed her nose into Mrs. Collier’s outstretched hand and wagged her tail, leaving Juliet speechless. Porter grinned at her, then leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Thanks for having us all, Mom.”

Mollie charged through the open doorway. They heard her claws skittering on the tiled floor and then another voice yelled, “what the hell is that thing?”

Porter held out his hand to Juliet.

“Come on,” he said. “Now they have met the dogs it’s time for my mother and my aunt to meet my Christmas Angel.”



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