Welcome to week one of CJM’s Short Story Showdown! Each week we will pit two short stories from CJM authors against each other. Vote for your favorite! You can vote on the poll in the social media link on our Facebook page or Twitter page or you can comment with your vote. Everyone who votes and comments Done! will be entered to win a free signed copy of a CJM publication. Are you ready for the first stories? Here we go!
The Christmas Locket
Ivy Franklin was sick and tired of being left out of the merriment. The youngest of five siblings, her family ignored her opinion, especially on festive occasions. And well, Christmas was the ultimate festive occasion in her family.
“Stop eating the cookie dough, Ivy.” Of course her mother noticed. Bella Franklin was a saint or a witch, depending on your viewpoint. Saint for having the patience it takes to raise six children. A witch for always knowing when someone was up to something, even if she was in another room.
“But, it’s just so good.”
Bella turned the corner. “It may be, but I don’t have time to go to the store and buy more. We need those for the Christmas Eve dinner and for Santa.”
For Santa? Was she serious?
“Mom, really? Santa? We’re all old enough to know it was you and occasionally Dad when he didn’t fall asleep too early to help.”
“Ivy Marie Franklin. I don’t care how old you all are. We still put out cookies for Santa.”
“Sure, Mom. But just one more scoop?”
Bella scurried to the bowl and snatched it from Ivy’s reach. “Absolutely not, young lady. Now get out of my kitchen and get ready. Your brothers and sister will be here soon, and you haven’t even showered!” She flailed her hands at Ivy. “I mean it! Now, shoo!”
She raised her hands in surrender. If she thought her mom would appreciate the sentiment, she would have raised a white flag too, but Ivy knew better. When Bella Franklin was busy with Christmas prep, one didn’t mess around.
Trudging up the stairs to her bedroom, she couldn’t help but to dread her incoming siblings. You’re twenty four, not eight anymore, she reminded herself. Unfortunately age didn’t matter in the Franklin household. Experience and birth order mattered, and, quite frankly, Ivy was lacking both.
Staring in the mirror, her mother’s voice rang crystal clear. Don’t dawdle. Again, saint? Or witch?
Approaching her closet, she sighed. Christmas, while it was the ultimate get together, was also incredibly stressful, at least for Ivy. Her three brothers and one sister always found a way to make her feel the size of an inchworm, no matter what. They were smarter. They were prettier, more successful, and overall just better at being a Franklin. Over the years, Ivy had tried to suggest ways to help at Christmas, but, just like today, someone always shooed her from the kitchen or away from the tree. How was she supposed to help, if no one gave her a chance?
She settled on a red knit sweater dress and black flats. The color would complement her strawberry-blond hair—another difference. She was the only blond- haired, blue-eyed child. The rest had dark brown hair, almost black hair—a circumstance that frequently led to her most despised taunt; her parents had adopted her. Usually her mom would curtail the teasing, but it always hurt regardless.
She smoothed out her dress, took a deep breath and descended the stairs. She reached the bottom just as her brother Jake came through the door.
“Hey, kiddo.” He ruffled her hair as she went in for a hug.
“Really, Jake? I’m twenty four. I’m not a kiddo.”
He continued to ignore this fact as he wrapped his arms around her upper body and messed up her hair more. “Sure ya are.”
You’re twenty four. Twenty four … she chanted. Maybe if she said it enough times, they would actually believe it.
Jake was the second oldest, the most charming, and the worst person to engage with in an argument. He was a successful lawyer and used every bit of it to help get his view heard.
In the living room, most of her family was settled by the tree. Her father, Art, sat in his recliner watching the Hallmark channel—another Christmas staple for the Franklins. On the couch was her eldest brother, John, and his wife, Kristi. They were expecting a little boy—the first grandchild—in the spring.
Next to Kristi was her sister Paige, who was always perfectly put together. High-end clothes and jewelry and an air of arrogance followed her only sister. As a successful fashion magazine editor, she made it clear she was better than Ivy. Sure, her brothers teased her and poked fun, but her sister, well, that was a different story. Paige was insufferable, even when they were kids. She was older and did it all first, and, quite frankly, she seemed better than Ivy ever could. To offset competition, Ivy always veered in the opposite direction. Why compete with perfection?
“Ivy, come sit.” Paige patted the space next to her.
Ivy did her best to hide her disdain; it was still too early to start an argument.
“So, how are you, Ivy?”
Broke, depressed, and lonely. “Oh, you know. Same old, same old.”
“Any job prospects?”
Here she goes. Just because Miss perfect knew what she wanted to be since she was in diapers didn’t mean Ivy had to set the world on fire immediately too. “Yeah, I just sent my resume out. Lots of options.”
“Oh, good. Mom and Dad are always so worried about you when they call. We never thought you’d still be jobless two years after college.” She giggled. She actually giggled. “Dating anyone?”
Of course. Who wouldn’t want a jobless twenty-four-year-old living with their parents?
“No. I’m focusing on myself right now.”
“Hmm, well that’s a shame.”
Would she go for the trifecta?
“Any living options? You had that friend from school who’d live with you, right?”
“No, Paige. Remember it costs to live in apartments.” She slowly rubbed her fingers in a circle on her temples, trying to release the tension. Why couldn’t she just worry about herself?
Paige huffed. “Well, I’m only asking how my baby sister is doing. Excuse me for caring.”
Ivy nodded. “Where’s Allen? Shouldn’t he be here to partake in the festivities?” His absence was a little strange; Paige loved to flaunt her husband.
“Business trip. He’ll be home New Year’s Eve.”
“A trip during Christmas? That’s a little strange, Paige.”
“Not really, Ivy. Grownups have to do things for their jobs sometimes, including missing a holiday here or there.” Her smug expression never faltered.
Ivy wouldn’t engage. Instead, she turned away and rolled her eyes. Typical Paige—butting in but never actually being nice about it. She didn’t care; she only wanted to assure she was winning on all three accounts—which, of course, she was.
It was easy to win when you knew what you wanted to do and had things handed to you, not so easy when you were single and a psychology school graduate. She surveyed the room again, hoping to see her youngest brother, Everly. Everly had been born right before Ivy and was subject to their parents creative naming phase. For the first three children, common, even basic names were chosen, but, for the last two Franklins, that wasn’t allowed.
Everly was named after the Everly Brothers, a duo Bella and Art grew up loving and listening to as their family matured. As for Ivy, well, that was the season she was conceived in—Christmas. One would think that being conceived in the joy of the holiday season would warrant someone rights to Christmas tradition decisions, but that logic was always lost on her family.
Just like magic, Everly walked through the front door, closed it then removed his coat. “The gangs all here!” Everly’s typical entrance. He was always the last one, so he always got to say it.
“Thank goodness,” Ivy muttered. With Everly around, all the heat wouldn’t be on her.
“Just in time.” Bella embraced her son. “Let’s go everyone. Time to sit for dinner.”
Oh joy. She slowly walked to her seat. Dinner was a punishment, she was sure. Everyone staring and no escape. It was a rule. No one could leave until everyone was done.
“Art, will you cut the ham please? Everly, you grab the biscuits. Ivy, get the napkins. Paige, grab the gravy. John, turn off the TV, and, Jake, get over here.”
As ordered, they dutifully followed direction. Bella Franklin was an expert at commanding attention and getting everyone to follow suit. It was almost like she put them under a spell.
Bella raised her glass, then everyone slowly followed. “I’m so grateful all my babies are under the same roof for this Christmas Eve. I know you’re all busy, but you still came to spend time with us old folks. May you all get what you need and have love without bounds. I love you all.”
Everyone clinked glasses, drank some wine then waited for the final cue.
“Dig in, everyone.”
The table was full of food brimming over the bowls and containers with smells wafting through the air. As children, this dinner was usually on Christmas day, but, as everyone got older, tradition changed to Christmas Eve. They stayed the night, had Christmas morning together and then left to attend other parties or visit other families. No matter how crazy her family made her, Ivy wouldn’t miss it for anything.
Jake was the first to break the silence. “This is delicious, Mom. You’ve always been the best cook.”
“Thank you. Although flattery will get you nowhere. Where is your girlfriend Jenny? Or was it Janine?” Bella asked.
“It was Emma, and we’re over.” That was Jake for you, always with a different woman. Always a charmer but retaining the ladies was a different story. It was his only flaw, at least in Ivy’s opinion.
“What happened with this one, Jake?” John asked.
“Well, it’s not clingy to want to see you, Jake,” Paige added.
“Nah, she was clingy. Ivy, what about you? Any new dating prospects?” Jake eyed her as she stared at her plate, hoping to be invisible.
Before she could answer, Paige butted in. “No, she doesn’t. She’s as single as can be.”
Ivy glared at her sister. “I do have a voice, Paige. I’m capable of answering Jake’s question on my own.” Why was she always interjecting? Didn’t she realize how annoying it was?
“Settle down, girls,” Bella warned.
“Mom, we’re fine. Paige just always likes to answer for me. Maybe she should have my life, since she’s so worried about it.”
“You heard your mother,” Art said. “Now that is enough, you two. Can we just eat in peace? You’re all adults. This shouldn’t sound like the conversation of a bunch of high schoolers.”
Ivy fought the urge to reply with, Well, she started it, but that would only prove his point. She tried to stay out of it, but Paige always found a way to put the hot spot on her. Always.
“Why does it matter if anyone is dating anyone? We should all be worried about more important things in life, like water pollution and the hungry. Not silly relationships.” Everly once again saved the day.
Ivy looked across the table and mouthed, Thank you.
He nodded in response.
“Absolutely, Everly. It’s a shame …” John trailed off into a long winded speech, none of which interested Ivy. She was happy for the attention to be off her, and that’s what mattered.
Following dinner, everyone usually gathered around the tree, sharing memories and then singing Christmas carols.
“Thanks for saving me at dinner, Everly.”
“Of course. I know how persistent they are. How are you though? The real story, not any of the made-up shit you tell everyone else.”
“I’m okay. Paige is doing a number today. Hit the trifecta in literally two minutes. She’s ridiculous. Right, but ridiculous.”
“Right about what? So what you don’t have a job, are single, and live with Mom and Dad? You’re twenty four. Who cares?”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you too, but you know how it is. They stifle my creativity too much. I need to be inspired so I can keep growing.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Big shot photojournalist. At least call or text once in a while on your big adventures.”
“I’ll try, okay?”
Ivy nodded. She missed this and him. Always traveling, always so busy. She couldn’t blame him for escaping the moment he had the chance, but he was her only buffer. At least he had come back for Christmas this year. Last year, she was all alone while he photographed the African jungle.
Everly drifted toward the rest of his brothers. Ivy scanned the room; most were talking and laughing, but someone was missing.
She walked to the kitchen. “Mom, why aren’t you in there with everyone else? This is your favorite part of tonight.”
Bella jumped. “I have to clean up dinner. Dishes to do, that sort of thing.”
“Mom, we could help you. Come join us by the tree. You know you love singing the carols.”
She waved her hands, never turning around. “I’m just too busy.”
“Mom, are you sure you’re okay? You’ve never missed the carols. Dishes can wait.”
“Ivy, I’m fine. Just go, and I’ll catch up.”
Something was wrong; Ivy could sense it, like dogs sensing a storm. For her whole life, her mom was front and center after dinner for the carols. She led the song choice. With most of their traditions, her mom was the leader, the decider. Why wasn’t she doing it this Christmas?
Merry Christmas, Darling
December. The month of fake smiles, insincere compliments, and conceited generosity. Georgianna Hughes—better known as Georgie—hated it all. Everywhere she went, the spirit of Christmas infected people, changing them into holiday-crazed unproductive idiots. She couldn’t get a decent idea from her advertising team. They gushed over Secret Santa and decorated their cubicles with tinsel and lights while she worked extra hours to complete client presentations. She declined invitations to parties, content with her antisocial persona. She believed work should be all business. There wasn’t time for socializing if she wanted a promotion.
The Christmas madness in Havensport didn’t end at work. She endured the holiday chaos every day as she walked home. The busy city streets teemed with people rushing to complete their shopping. Bell ringers were stationed at every corner, hoping to benefit from the holiday spirit. Georgie was accustomed to the craziness of the season in her hometown of Brighton but was convinced the city would be different. After five years in Havensport, she realized there wasn’t an escape.
Georgie trudged four blocks from her office to her apartment building. She adjusted her scarf and lowered her head as she passed tall buildings and bustling people readying themselves for the big day. Christmas Eve was tomorrow, then life would return to normal. Until then, she would barricade herself inside her bedroom and work on her latest project. When she resumed work after the holidays, she would be prepared and would hopefully snag that corner office. That would be the best Christmas present.
She approached her building and gazed toward the fifth floor. Her roommate, Sarah Newton, was a Christmas freak. But she had plans for the holidays. Georgie couldn’t wait to have the apartment to herself. Blasting 80’s music, surviving on coffee, pizza, and chocolate and watching Netflix excited her. With no expectations or people’s feelings to trip over, it would be the perfect Christmas.
Georgie climbed the steps into the building and headed toward the elevator. She hoped Sarah had left, so she would have the apartment to herself. She needed time to unwind in peace. The elevator reached the fifth floor, and she strode down the hallway to her apartment. Christmas music reverberated against the walls. Great. She was still here. Georgie opened the door and dropped her briefcase. Her eyes bulged as she perused the unexpected sight. What was he doing here?
Georgie balked as she stared at Sarah and a tall brown-haired man. They sat on the couch deep in conversation. He sported an uncomfortable smile and squirmed as Sarah’s hand grazed his thigh. Sarah flirted with every guy she met, and this encounter wasn’t any different. His gaze darted around the room, as if searching for something. As they conversed, Sarah leaned forward and laughed, her sunny-blond hair cascading over her face. What were they talking about? Derek wasn’t the funny type. Georgie stared, trying to decipher the meaning of this scene.
Sarah’s gaze met Georgie’s, and she rose to greet her. “There you are. You never told me you had such a handsome brother. Why did you keep him a secret?”
Georgie took a breath and breezed past them. “Go home, Derek.”
Derek reached and grabbed her elbow as she passed. “I’m not going home without you. Aunt Lynette says it’s time you came to terms with things.”
Georgie turned and crossed her arms. “What things? I’ve been in Havensport for five years and haven’t gotten more than a Christmas card from you. As for Aunt Lynette, she should know better. There’s no life for me in Brighton. Not after Mom and Dad died in that plane crash. Not after the town blamed me. There’s nothing to fix. Go home.”
Richard and Esther Hughes had been the light in Georgie’s life. When that light extinguished five years ago, Georgie disappeared. The remainder of her family in Brighton let her go and didn’t keep in touch. Derek’s visit and Aunt Lynette’s summoning was unexpected. And in Georgie’s case, unwelcomed.
Sarah shifted her gaze between the two. “I’m not one to get in the middle of a family disagreement, but he came all this way. Sit down. I’ll get some hot chocolate. Listen to him. It is the Christmas season, after all.”
Georgie rolled her eyes and dragged herself to the couch. “One condition. Turn off that dreadful music.”
Sarah smiled. “Done.” She disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Georgie and Derek alone.
“Still hate the holidays, I see.”
“There’s no reason to like Christmas. It’s a ridiculous holiday. Why pretend you care about people at Christmas, only to treat them like crap the rest of the year?”
Derek shook his head. “Is that how you feel about Aunt Lynette? She tried to do right by you, Georgie. She tried for both of us. But you were too stubborn to give her a chance.”
“She blamed me, like the rest of the town, for the plane crash.”
“No one blamed you. Dad knew better but took off in the snowstorm anyway. Unless you control the weather, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m the one who asked him to go. It was the culmination of my advertising campaign for the children’s center—Santa Claus dropping presents from a biplane. It was genius and stupid at the same time. If I hadn’t asked him—”
“Stop blaming yourself. And stop hiding from your past. Come home for Christmas. Aunt Lynette misses you. Janelle misses you, and I miss you.”
Georgie shook her head and sighed. Janelle was her best friend, but, like everyone else, she didn’t keep in touch when Georgie moved to Havensport. Her own family ignored her. And now they wanted her to come home? Aunt Lynette should have asked herself, not sent her older brother to do her bidding. “If you miss me, why haven’t you visited? No phone calls, no texts, nothing until Aunt Lynette sends you on a mission. It’s hard to believe you.”
Derek sat next to her and grabbed her hands. “The Christmas you moved away, after the crash, was hard for everyone. I didn’t know what to say to you. I was your older brother, and I couldn’t make things better. I hid. Then too much time passed, and I didn’t know how to reach you. I was a coward, I admit. But we have to put the past behind us and forge a future. I’m ready to do that. Are you?”
“I don’t know. I have so much work to do.”
“For what? Is your job more important than your family? Georgie, you can’t hide from life. And your job isn’t your life. I’m asking for a few days. I’ll have you home by New Year’s.”
Stubbornness ran in the family, and Georgie was outmatched. “Okay. One weekend.”
Sarah entered the room with a tray of hot chocolate. “So, what’s the verdict? Are you going home for Christmas?” Her hazel eyes gazed in Georgie’s direction.
“Yes. Excuse me while I pack.”
Sarah smiled and sat on the couch, sipping a cup of hot chocolate. “Derek, you are a godsend. If anyone can knock the grinch out of her, it’s you.”
Derek parked in the driveway a few hours later. It felt strange to be back at her childhood home without her parents. She supposed Aunt Lynette claimed the house, since Derek and Georgie had little use for it. Georgie regarded the house that encompassed her childhood. It hadn’t changed. Her mother’s daisies dominated the garden, and the willow tree stood tall in the front yard. Georgie pictured her parents sitting on the front porch—Dad smoking his pipe and Mom swinging and sipping on a cup of sweet tea. A tear streaked her cheek as she recalled the joy Christmas used to bring—a joy cut short because of her stupidity.
She slammed her door and meandered up the walkway toward the porch. Derek huffed behind her carrying her bags. When they reached the front door, Aunt Lynette pushed it open and engulfed Georgie in a hug.
“Merry Christmas, Georgie! I’ve waited five years to say that.” Aunt Lynette met Derek’s gaze and mouthed Thank you.
Derek nodded and tramped into the house.
Georgie pulled away and looked toward the ground. “Aunt Lynette. I’m not sure why you sent Derek to fetch me, but I’m here. What’s your angle?”
Lynette put her hands on her hips and knitted her brow. “Angle? It’s been five years. That’s enough time for you to stew. I’m not letting you waste your life in that city, tied to a desk job. You’re more than that. And it’s time you faced your past and moved on.”
Georgie shook her head. “You have me until Monday. Then Derek is taking me home.” She breezed past her aunt and strode into the living room.
It hadn’t changed. Georgie studied the six-foot Christmas tree positioned in the corner. It was bare. A smile formed as she remembered her family’s tradition. The day before Christmas Eve, they would gather to bake, eat, and decorate the tree. She smoothed back her hair as she realized what that meant. She hadn’t participated since her parents’ death. Why had she agreed to come?
She turned her attention to the remainder of the room. The fireplace sat next to the tree, covered with candles, garland, and three stockings. This had been her favorite part of the Christmas decorations as a child. She would help light the candles every day and bask in their glow as she sipped hot chocolate and ate Christmas cookies.
Georgie ran her fingers over the stockings as she recalled her childhood. Only three stockings remained, labeled in glitter—Lynette, Derek, and Georgie. Had they expected her to say yes, or had they hung her stocking every year?
“I tried to keep your parents’ traditions. It was important to you—before the accident. I hoped the good memories would jolt you back to us. We miss you, Georgie. It isn’t the same without you.”
A tear streaked Georgie’s face. “It’s not fair. Mom and Dad should be here. They would be, if it wasn’t for me. I’m better off in Havensport.”
“Are you? I don’t even know who you are anymore. Christmas was your favorite holiday, and now you hide from it. You pushed away everyone who loved you and ran to the city. Did that work? Do you have a relationship with anyone, or is your job ruling your life? You can’t keep running. Someday you’ll have to face what happened and deal with it.”
“My career is flourishing in Havensport. I have a direction. What did I have here?”
“Love. Family. Relationships. Everything that makes life worth living. If your parents knew what you have become—”
Georgie’s face reddened. “Don’t tell me what you think my parents would say. You have no right to surmise their thoughts.” She stormed out of the room toward the hallway.
Why had she agreed to this? Aunt Lynette never crossed the boundaries of Brighton. What did she know about ambition and personal achievement? Everything revolved around family and friends. She wouldn’t understand Georgie’s drive to better herself, to become more than Brighton could offer. Georgie released a breath and gazed at the ceiling. She was stuck now. She should make the best of the situation. She strode toward the hallway, thinking of ways she could be productive.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m getting the decorations from the attic. Since I’m here, might as well decorate the tree.”
Georgie pulled down the attic steps and stomped upstairs. Aunt Lynette thought she knew better, but she didn’t understand. The Christmas of her childhood was no more, and reviving it was futile. Without her parents, it was another day; the magic was gone.
She turned on the attic light and surveyed the boxes that filled the space. Her fingers grazed each box labeled with the contents. Her old books, toys, and bedroom decorations—childhood memories long forgotten—stacked in boxes along the wall. They reminded her of frivolous times when she didn’t care about deadlines and clients. She had no use for that life now.
As she turned, a silver glint caught her gaze—the Christmas decorations. Memories of her last Christmas before the accident flooded back. Six years ago, Christmas had meant something. Her parents had guaranteed that. When they were alive, Christmas had been magical. They had traditions and holiday experiences from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. Georgie reveled in each activity and insisted on observing tradition, even into her twenties … until the biplane crashed five years ago.
It was a week before Christmas, and Georgie had used her advertising skills to bring attention to the failing Brighton Children’s Center. If Santa dropped presents from a biplane onto the children’s center rking lot, it would bring attention to their needs and help to fulfill disadvantaged children’s dreams. But it backfired. The plane crashed in a field behind the center, killing her m—who often served as copilot—and her dad on impact. Georgie had been inconsolable. Within a week, she had moved to Havensport and got an apartment with her college roommate and never looked back.
But now Aunt Lynette and Derek wanted a magical Christmas, as if her parents had lived. They were deluding themselves. Christmas would never match the magic of their childhood, so why try?
Georgie snatched the box of decorations and scanned the area for the remainder. As she roamed, her sneaker caught on a small container in the middle of the room. She fought to maintain her footing but fell forward, spilling its contents. Georgie sat on the floor, rubbing her ankle and eyeballing the papers covering the floor.
She snagged one from the top and unfolded it. The paper felt brittle, and the writing looked faded. Georgie squinted and tried to decipher the words.
Merry Christmas Darling,
Our first Christmas as a family of four. You outdid yourself this year. The decorations are gorgeous, and the Christmas cookies were superb. Derek and Georgianna are lucky to have you as their mother, and I’m lucky you chose to marry me. Without all the frills of the holiday, I’m a blessed man because of my family. You gave me the greatest gift.
All my love,
Love letters. Georgie smiled, recalling her parents relationship. They had been in love until the end. Georgie had been jealous of them, because they had something she never hoped to find. She folded the letter and returned it to the stack.
Georgie jolted upright. She turned and saw Derek standing by the attic stairs. “Don’t sneak up on me like that. What are you doing up here anyway?”
“Seeing if you need help with the decorations. Janelle and Christopher are downstairs. They’re anxious to see you.”
Janelle Lyons and Christopher Pruitt. Two names Georgie hadn’t heard in years. Did the entire town know she had returned home for Christmas, or did Aunt Lynette orchestrate everything?
Georgie peeled another letter from the stack and focused on reading. Aunt Lynette and Derek’s attempts to revive her Christmas spirit wouldn’t work, no matter who they invited.
“What’cha got?” Derek leaned down and snatched the letter.
“Careful! These letters are old. You could rip it!”
“Old letters? Interesting.” Derek plopped down beside her and began to read.
Georgie leaned over his shoulder and squinted to decode the message.
Merry Christmas Darling,
I didn’t think it would feel like Christmas this year. Losing my job a month before the holidays hurt us, but you still managed to make it magical for Derek and Georgie. I hope they remember this Christmas, not for what they didn’t get but for what they have. Your example saved the holidays for us all. I promise to work harder for you and our children, but I know that no matter what we have, you will stand behind me and bring the magic.
All my love,
“Do you remember this Christmas, Derek?” Georgie crinkled her brow.
“Nope. Mom really was magic. She shielded us from a lot, according to Aunt Lynette.”
“Like what? Dad losing his job? What else did they hide from us?”
Derek folded the letter and faced Georgie. “Chill. They did what was best. We didn’t need to know all that stuff.”
Georgie huffed. “Mom’s magic hid reality. I wonder what else these letters will reveal.” She sorted through them and snatched one from the middle.
“This is ancient history. Can’t we go downstairs and have a normal Christmas?”
“No.” Georgie sat cross-legged and unfolded the letter.