*This is a short story in the Lacy Steele Mystery Series. It may contain spoilers if you haven’t read the first few books*
It’s Steele Christmas
“The Smithsonian is going to call soon and claim your grandmother’s VCR as an antiquity,” Jason said.
“Don’t knock this VCR. Without it, I might not have been able to preserve my favorite Paula Deen cooking shows,” Lacy said. She picked up the remote for the maligned VCR and pressed play.
Lacy’s mother groaned. “Lacy, not that again. I gain weight watching that show. “
“But it’s the Deen family Christmas special,” Lacy argued. “It’s festive.”
“Pick something normal,” Frannie said.
“A Very Brady Christmas?” Lacy suggested.
“Mom, Lacy doesn’t understand normal,” Riley said. “You have to put it in terms she can relate to. Tell her to watch whatever would be playing on the TV if she pressed her nose to Cindy’s living room window.”
Jason’s ex-girlfriend, Cindy, was one of the beautiful people and always had been. The mention of her made Lacy frown and dig her heels in. “We’re watching Paula Deen.” She turned the television to a moderate level and swapped the remote for a spatula.
“Tell me again why I’m here,” Jason said. Before him sat a perfectly aligned row of candy eyeballs. A minute ago they had been in an untidy pile. Now they looked like a line of macabre souvenirs from a deranged serial killer. Or the work of a bored OCD cop.
“It’s Christmas Eve, cookie decorating day,” Lacy said.
“Yes, but why am I here?” Jason asked.
“Forced family bonding time. It goes better if you don’t struggle,” Tosh said. He put his arm around Riley who was deftly piping dozens of little black hats on snowmen.
“What are the eyes for?” Jason asked.
“For the reindeer,” Lacy said. Everyone in the family was allowed to cut and decorate cookies however he or she wanted. Usually Lacy was better at eating than frosting, but this year she had spent time plotting her cookie design. So far they were shaping up to be her best yet. The shapes had stayed after she baked them, unlike years past when they swelled and oozed into each other so that she ended up with indiscernible frosted blobs.
“I’m going to frost them, and you’re going to stick the eyes on,” she continued. “And you can’t take your time aligning them perfectly because the frosting will dry. Just plop them on and move on with your life.”
“I lack the ability to plop, but I will try to align them quickly,” Jason said.
“Here’s the frosting,” Lacy’s grandmother said. She set a large bowl of brown icing on the table.
“Letting Grandma make it for you was a good call,” Riley said.
“I could’ve done it,” Lacy muttered.
“Yes, and we could’ve had our stomachs pumped.”
“No one’s stomach was pumped,” Lacy said.
“No, we suffered a night of food poisoning instead,” Riley said.
“How did you get food poisoning from frosting?” Tosh asked.
“I thought it had eggs in it. I didn’t know it was only butter and sugar,” Lacy said.
“In Lacy’s defense, the eggs gave it a light, pleasant consistency,” her grandmother said. “I think she might have been on to something.”
“Mom, you don’t have to defend everything Lacy does,” Frannie said.
“She defended me,” Lacy’s grandmother said in a rare fit of defiance.
“Anyway, Mom made the frosting and Jason’s helping. There’s not much chance of Lacy messing up the cookies or winding up in the hospital again this year,” Frannie said.
“Mom, you know better than to say that. You’re tempting fate,” Riley said.
“They’re going to be great,” Jason said.
“Suck up,” Tosh coughed.
Lacy ignored them all and focused on frosting her cookies. She had never mastered the art of the piping bag. Instead she did it the old fashioned way by smearing them with a knife. She told herself she preferred the more rustic look, but the truth was that she envied Riley’s piping skills. Still, as she examined her little brown deer, she had to admit they looked pretty good, almost as good as Riley’s snowmen. She handed her first cookie to Jason and concentrated on making a second.
“Uh, Lacy, do candy eyes come in different sizes?” Jason asked.
“Did you buy the large ones?” Jason asked.
“Yes. Why?” She paused to inspect the deer he was holding aloft. The eyes took up two thirds of its face.
“I’ve heard of doe-eyed, but that’s a bit much,” Frannie said.
“That is one surprised deer,” Tosh said.
“It looks like it landed on an electric fence,” Riley added.
Mr. Middleton entered the room then and, unaware of any previous conversation, offered his own opinion on the cookie. “Why does Rudolph look constipated?”
They were all laughing. Lacy knew it was ridiculous to be overly sensitive about Christmas cookies, but she couldn’t tamp down her wounded feelings. She had tried so hard this year to plan the perfect cookie.
“I’m going to grab another bag of powdered sugar,” she said. She stood and left the room. No one hailed her back. They were so deep in laughter over the bug-eyed cookies; she doubted they noticed her absence.
The extra sugar was in a container in the garage. Her grandmother bought it by the skid and stored the extra in a plastic tub outside. She would never admit to crying over a reindeer cookie, but her eyes were clouded by something, so much that she missed the last two steps out the door. She pitched forward, her head crashing hard on the concrete. Everything faded to black.
“Wake up, y’all.”
The familiar smell of gooey butter cake wafted under Lacy’s nose. Her eyes popped open. Paula Deen stood bending over her, holding a piece of cake just out of reach under her face.
“What?” Lacy said. She reached for the cake. Paula snatched it away.
“It’s time to wake up, y’all,” Paula said. She stuffed the cake in her mouth and wiped powdered sugar off her lips.
“Paula Deen, what are you doing here?” Lacy asked. She sat up feeling remarkably unbruised after her tumble down the stairs.
“I’m here to show you what life would be like without you,” Paula said.
“Why?” Lacy asked.
“Because you asked me to,” Paula said.
“No I didn’t,” Lacy said.
“Well, you would have eventually. Thought I’d save myself a trip,” Paula said.
“Am I dead?” Lacy asked.
“Something like that.”
“Wait, how are you here? You’re still alive,” Lacy pointed out.
“Honey, I’m a manifestation of your inner consciousness. Let’s be glad I’m not a talking cupcake,” Paula said. “Now, stand up, we have to go.”
“Where are we going?” Lacy asked.
“We’re going to see what the world would be like if you’d never been born,” Paula said. The garage around them swirled away into dust.
“What happened?” Lacy asked.
“You weren’t here to live with your grandmother. Her house was bulldozed years ago.”
“But why? Where’s Grandma?” Lacy asked.
“You can’t guess?” Paula said. She tried to snap her fingers, but they were too greasy from the butter cake. She swiped them on her pants and tried again. This time the snap worked and, in an instant, they were in a different place.
“Where are we?” Lacy asked.
“Prison,” Paula said. “Where hard criminals do hard time.”
“I’m not sure I have the stomach to see this,” Lacy said.
“Brace yourself, y’all. We’re goin’ in,” Paula said. They whisked weightlessly through the solid walls of the prison, zooming around corners until they came to a small windowless room. Lacy’s grandmother sat in the middle of the room, cocooned by a gathering of younger women.
“And that’s the difference between knit and purl,” she concluded as she held her needles and yarn aloft. The other women clapped and began talking among themselves as they tried to replicate her technique.
“You’re allowed to have knitting needles in prison?” Lacy said.
“They’re safety needles, the kind given to children so they don’t poke themselves in the eye,” Paula explained.
“Hey, that’s the kind Grandma always gave me when she tried to teach me,” Lacy said.
“It’s almost Christmas. Aren’t you having any visitors this year?” one of the women asked.
“No, my daughter and granddaughter are much too busy this time of year,” Lacy’s grandmother said, a sad smile on her face.
“Mom and Riley don’t come to see her? Why not?” Lacy asked.
“Do you really want to know?” Paula asked.
“Yes, I want to see what they’re up to,” Lacy said.
Paula snapped her fingers and suddenly they were in New York.
“Oh, I miss Manhattan at Christmas,” Lacy said. The city was perfectly decorated and snowy. They strolled Fifth Avenue, admiring the windows.
“Come this way,” Paula urged. They veered into one of the fancy buildings, floating up several flights of stairs.
“Who lives here?” Lacy asked.
“Riley. When Barbara Blake died, the inheritance passed to her.”
“But that was only a million dollars. An apartment like this would be at least ten,” Lacy said. They floated into Riley’s luxury apartment and hovered. A phone rang.
“I’m coming,” Riley called, huffing and puffing from an adjoining room.
“Is she still pregnant?” Lacy asked. Pregnancy was the only time she had ever heard her sister breathless.
“Oh, you’ll see,” Paula said.
Riley waddled into the room, her large frame filling the doorway and spilling over. “Exactly how many babies does she have in there?” Lacy asked.
“None,” Paula said.
“Riley’s fat?” Lacy said.
“Without you around, all the treats went to her. She’s struggled with weight her whole life. Weight finally won,” Paula said.
“Hello,” Riley said as she picked up the phone. “No, I don’t have the money. I’ll ask my husband as soon as he gets home.”
“Did she marry Tosh?” Lacy asked.
“Without you around, she never came home to meet him. She married someone else.” Just then the door opened and Robert came through.
“Riley, I’m home,” he called.
“About time,” Riley said. “Did you bring my cookies?”
He handed her a box from Levain Bakery. Riley opened it, took out a cookie, and bit into it. When she had swallowed, she spoke. “The loan company called. They found us.”
“I’ll get my suitcase,” he said. “Take what you can carry.”
“I’m not leaving here without those silver candelabras,” Riley said.
The conversation moved into the bedroom. Lacy saw Robert pull out a leather bag and rifle through it. “Who do you want to be this time? The Bernsteins?”
“No, last time we were the Bernsteins I had to play kosher. I’m not giving up bacon again,” Riley said.
“The Kosters then,” Robert said.
“What’s happening?” Lacy asked.
“They’re grifters,” Paula said. “They live life on the run, taking what they can scam from other people.”
“Are they happy?” Lacy asked.
“She eats her feelings and he’s having an affair. Eventually they’ll get a divorce and try to steal from each other, but not before they bring a couple of kids into the world and inflict their misery on them,” Paula said.
“Does Mom know?” Lacy asked.
“Your mama sees what she wants to in Riley,” Paula said.
“Where is she?”
Paula snapped her fingers and they were in Greenwich Village. “Mom is here? Why isn’t she in Florida?”
“She and your father divorced when Riley was ten. She came here to ‘find herself’ and never left,” Paula said.
“This place smells like incense and B.O. My mom would never be here,” Lacy said.
“Wouldn’t she?” Paula said. She stuffed another piece of gooey butter cake in her mouth.
“Where did you get that?”
“Can I have a piece?”
“No,” Paula said. “Now pay attention.”
“You’re a lot nicer on TV,” Lacy muttered, but people filing into the cavernous room caught her attention. “Is this some type of fitness class? That makes sense. Mom likes to take care of herself.”
“There she is,” Paula said. Lacy’s gaze followed her pointed finger. Her mother’s hair was longer than she had ever seen it, straight and parted in the middle.
“All right, ladies, are we ready to get started?” she called.
“Mom’s the instructor?” Lacy said. “She does like to boss people.”
Her mother turned on some tuneless music and began contorting her body into impossible positions.
“My mom teaches yoga?” Lacy said.
“Hot yoga. It’s about to get real warm in here, y’all.”
She watched a few more minutes as her mother continued her stretches. Sweat beaded on her partially exposed back. “So, she’s a hippy?”
“Not hardly. In addition to teaching this class, she works as a waitress for a restaurant in Chinatown. After she burned through her settlement, the divorce from your dad left her broke. At night she sleeps in a studio over the restaurant. Her bedroom is above the kitchen. It smells like fried wontons.”
“What about my dad?” Lacy asked.
Paula snapped her fingers. In an instant, they were back at the home where Lacy grew up. “He didn’t move to Florida?” Lacy asked.
“He couldn’t. Your mother took his retirement in the divorce. He’ll work until he dies,” Paula said.
“Is he happy? Does he have friends? Does he date?” Lacy said.
“Twice a year he goes fishing with some buddies. He goes to church on Sundays. He dated a few people, but it didn’t last. He still says Frannie was the love of his life.”
“Does he go to Tosh’s church?” Lacy asked. She was sure Tosh and her father would be friends, at least.
“He did, but…”
“But what?” Lacy asked.
“About a year ago, Tosh went missing.”
“Missing? What do you mean missing?”
“He gone,” Paula said.
“But you know where he is, don’t you?”
“Are you sure you want to see? It’s not pretty,” Paula said.
Paula snapped her fingers and they were suddenly at a house Lacy recognized. Even if she had never been there, she would have known the house by its décor—dozens upon dozens of taxidermy rodents.
“Why are we at Pearl’s house?” Lacy asked.
“Have you ever seen the movie Misery?” They floated toward Pearl’s bedroom. Inside, Tosh was chained to the bed.
“Pearl kidnapped Tosh? I guess that makes sense. Except she was arrested for her husband’s murder. I helped get her off,” Lacy said.
“She was tried for his murder, but it was a hung jury,” Paula said.
“What about Michael?” Lacy asked.
“In jail in Minnesota awaiting trial,” Paula said.
“Grandpa?” Lacy asked.
Paula made the sign of the cross. “Rest his soul.”
“I’m fairly certain you’re not catholic,” Lacy said. “What about Joe and Suze, Kimber and all my other friends?” Lacy asked.
“C’mon,” Paula said. She snapped her fingers.
“Wait, what about Tosh? Is he going to be okay?”
“She’ll let him go eventually. Or she’ll stuff and mount him. The future’s a bit cloudy on that one,” Paula said. “Here we are downtown.”
Only it didn’t look like downtown. Not only was it dreary and deserted, but it seemed darker somehow. Finally it dawned on Lacy what was different. “Where’s the Stakely building?”
“Demolished, of course. Only the other deal fell through and nothing ever took its place. Now it’s just a depressing pile of rubble.”
“Still in prison, in the infirmary. I fear he’s not long for this world,” Paula said.
“What about Suze?”
Paula snapped her fingers again. They flew to another familiar abode. “This is Barbara Blake’s house, Riley and Tosh’s home,” Lacy said. Except instead of being the cute bungalow it had been under Barbara Blake’s tenure or the stylish craftsman it had become under Riley and Tosh, it was a rundown heap with boarded windows. They passed through the walls into the living room. A pile of trash was in the middle of the floor. The pile moved and Lacy yelped.
Suze sat up and pushed a mess of dreadlocks off her face. “Time for food, Squiggles,” she said. She used a rock to bash open a can of vegetables, not caring when the liquid gushed onto the floor. She picked up a spoon, scooped some peas, and set it on the floor. In a little while, a mouse skittered out and began tentatively nibbling the peas. Suze watched with a smile.
To her right, another mouse scampered out of its hiding place and began edging toward the spoon. Suze picked up the can and flattened the oncoming mouse. “No, it’s for Squiggles!” she yelled.
Lacy turned away. “I’m ready to see Jason.” If everyone was so bad off without her, she couldn’t imagine how much worse Jason was.
“Are you sure? You might not like it,” Paula said.
“Positive. Take me to him,” Lacy said.
With a snap of Paula’s fingers, they were suddenly in a beautiful ballroom filled with dancers. Two of the dancers Lacy recognized. Jason, bedecked in a tuxedo, led Cindy around the floor at a dazzling pace. They were both beaming.
“I think I might be sick,” Lacy said.
“I warned you it wasn’t pretty,” Paula said.
“I thought he’d be miserable. Look at them. They look like they’re filming a toothpaste commercial. If I stick my foot out, will she fall?” Lacy asked.
“Keep watching,” Paula said.
Jason’s phone rang. He led Cindy to the side of the dance floor as he took the call. He talked for a minute before stuffing the phone back in his pocket. “It’s work. I’m so sorry, but I have to go.”
“So soon?” Cindy said.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said. “Let me take you home.”
“Don’t be silly. I can get a ride with Melody. Be safe tonight.”
“Sure thing,” Jason said. He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the lips.
“Stop that,” Paula said when Lacy began trying to ineffectually scratch Cindy’s eyes out.
“All this time he insisted Cindy meant nothing to him, but the minute I’m not born he goes running to her willowy, blemish-free arms,” Lacy said.
Paula snapped her fingers and they were at Jason’s house. Jason was just opening the door.
“How did he get here so quickly?” Lacy asked.
“I don’t know why we’re here. He’s just going to change and go back to work,” Lacy said, only he didn’t. Instead he opened the fridge and peered inside. Sighing, he closed the refrigerator and headed for the couch. He turned on the television, drummed his fingers restlessly on the remote, and turned it off again. He stood, walked to the table, and picked up the mail. There was one Christmas card, a corporate greeting and picture of a Christmas tree. Jason propped the card in the center of the table and returned to the fridge.
“What’s he doing? Why isn’t he going to work?” Lacy asked. As if in answer to her question, he took out his phone, dialed, and spoke.
“It’s Cantor. Thanks for the call. No, nothing wrong, I just needed an out. Later.”
“He lied?” Lacy whispered. Jason never lied, ever. She watched as he took out some lettuce and made a salad. When the salad was prepared and the work area clean, he sat, picked up a fork, and set it down again. He stood, walked to the counter, and began rifling through drawers. When he found a candle, he held it triumphantly aloft before lighting it and setting it in front of the tree card.
“Merry Christmas,” he muttered and started to eat his salad.
“That’s so sad,” Lacy said. Knowing that he had purposely ditched Cindy went a long way toward restoring her warm feelings toward him. “He’s bored and alone.”
“It gets worse,” Paula said.
Jason finished the salad, washed the bowl, stuck it in the dishwasher, and opened the cupboard. He put his hand on a box and withdrew it.
“What is that?” Lacy asked. “Is that millet? Jason doesn’t eat millet.” She stood on her toes to read the boxes in his cupboard. “Kasha, buckwheat, quinoa. What is going on here?”
“Lacy, Jason’s gone gluten-free,” Paula said.
Lacy gasped and covered her face. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Maybe you should wake up now,” Paula said, only her voice sounded funny. “Lacy, wake up.”
Her eyes fluttered. Jason’s face was startlingly close to hers, his eyes filled with concern. “Do you eat millet?” she asked.
“Why would I eat bird seed?” he asked.
“How do you feel about gluten?” she asked.
“I don’t,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, I think.”
“I’m sorry we were teasing you about your reindeer cookies,” he said.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said.
“Look.” He held up a cookie. Someone had added a bulbous red nose, puckered pink lips, and lashes to the oversized eyes. It looked adorable. “I think you win the cutest cookie contest.”
“Did you do that?” she asked.
“I did the nose. Your mom did the lips. Riley did the lashes.”
“Thank you. It feels good to be alive,” she said.
“I’ve always thought so.” He lay down beside her. The concrete was cold and she shivered. He draped an arm over her, warming her with his nearness.
A new, more disturbing thought occurred to her. “You didn’t call an ambulance, did you?”
“I’m afraid so,” he said.
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” she said.
“You got a pretty good bump on the head,” he said.
“You know they’ll just keep me for observation,” she said. “It’s what they do every time I get a concussion. They’re so unoriginal.”
“Then I will stay and observe you,” he said.
“You don’t have to stay with me,” she said.
“What else do I have to do?” he asked.
She pictured him sitting in his lonely, undecorated house eating millet in front of a Christmas card and candle. “Absolutely nothing. In fact, I might be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“I think this head injury knocked some sense into you. You’re speaking truth,” he said. Outside, they could hear the siren drawing nearer. Riley stuck her head out the door.
“We decided to move the cookie party to your room, as soon as you get checked in. It won’t be the first time we’ve spent Christmas in the hospital with you. And it probably won’t be the last.” She disappeared back inside the house.
“Do you want me to disinvite them?” Jason asked. “It’s going to be chaos at the hospital.”
“I sort of like the chaos,” Lacy said.
“It’s growing on me, too,” Jason said. “I guess these are our last few minutes alone. We should make the most of them.” He eased closer, his lips brushing hers. “Merry Christmas, Lacy.”
“Merry Christmas, y’all,” Lacy said.
“Hmm?” he said.
“Never mind,” she said and kissed him until the medics arrived with her neck brace and stretcher.