Warmed by the fire, Teddy had fallen asleep on the sofa. Although the heat was lulling me to sleep as well, I needed to put the final touches on my weekly gardening column. Glancing at my Yorkie that slept so soundly made me smile. Pausing to stretch a moment, I was drawn to the Christmas music playing on the radio and hummed along. Silver Bells happened to be a favorite of mine.
Last article of the year.
How much longer did I want to be doing this? The internet held such a wealth of information on gardening nowadays. Perhaps people didn’t need to read garden columns in papers anymore. Still, I did have loyal fans who enjoyed holding the hard copy in their hands. Maybe I could keep writing another year. My thoughts were interrupted.
Oh, good. Time for the noon news.
I turned up the volume.
“This is AP radio news,” said the announcer, “WASHINGTON: A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter crashed on a nighttime mission in southwestern Afghanistan yesterday morning. Initial reports from the scene indicated as many as three soldiers may have been killed, with another soldier seriously wounded….”
“Oh, dear! Not another helicopter.” I winced.
“Oh, dear! Not another helicopter.” I winced.
“In a brief statement, the American military command in Kabul confirmed the reports of three casualties. Unspecified weather difficulties may have played a role in the crash, but enemy action has not been ruled out. The name of the wounded soldier was released as Corporal Kenneth Romero of Hackensack, New Jersey. He was listed in grave condition and being flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany to undergo evaluation.”
Not my nephew-in-law! My heart skipped a beat thinking how Kaitlin must feel hearing the news about her husband.
“I need to call my brother immediately, Teddy. Where’s my iPhone?”
He whimpered and stared at me, now alert, sensing something bad had happened. Jumping off the sofa, Teddy raced into my office and yipped at a small table next to the wing back chair.
“You’re such a good dog!”
After I clicked the number, Teddy crawled into my lap to comfort me as I waited for Daniel to answer.
Will they still come for the holidays?
They were due to arrive tomorrow afternoon, the day before Christmas Eve.
“Daniel? It’s Jillian. I just got the news. Is he okay? Have they told you anything?”
He paused before answering.
I could tell Kenny’s condition was serious.
His voice sounded strained. “All they said was he’s alive and at the medical facility at Ramstein. We won’t know anything more until they do a complete evaluation.”
“What about his injuries?”
“Too soon to tell. But he’s alive and conscious. It’s a miracle he survived. Hey, don’t worry. We’re still flying in tomorrow. Kaitlin is holding up pretty well, considering what a shock this is. She’s being strong for the kids.”
“I’m glad you’re still coming. We’ll ride this out together. I’ll be praying for his recovery day and night.”
“Thanks, sis. I’ll call if we hear anything. Otherwise, we’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. I’m having a shuttle bring us to your house. With six of us, you can’t imagine how much luggage we have!”
“I can’t wait. And Teddy’s going to love all the attention.”
“Oh, by the way, we have an extra guest coming with us. I hope it’s okay.”
“Extra guest? Are you teasing me?”
“Just a little. Kaitlin’s dog sitter had to cancel at the last minute, and with the holidays, everyone is booked. You don’t mind him coming, do you?”
I looked at Teddy to catch his reaction.
He understood we were talking about him.
He woofed as if to say, “Depends on the playmate.”
I had to chuckle. “Teddy’s not so sure, but I think they’ll be fine. I can’t wait for you all to get here. And Daniel, let’s believe Kenny’s going to be okay.”
“I appreciate your positive attitude. I love you.”
I sat back on the sofa and prayed. Lord, please put Your hand on Kenny right now and cover him with Your healing touch. Amen.
“Come on, Teddy, let’s get those cookies baked and decorated. The kids will be here tomorrow.”
He pricked up his ears at the word cookies and followed me immediately into the kitchen where I had assembled all the ingredients.
After the oven was set to 350 degrees, I began mixing the dough. Teddy lay on the floor, rested his head on his paws, and watched as the mixer buzzed. He looked so cute in his Christmas sweater and jingle bell collar. I knew people thought I was crazy for the way I dressed him, but I didn’t care.
The weather had been colder this year. Heavy rain predicted for the next several days would add to the chill. I didn’t mind — rainy weather meant sitting by a cozy fire reading a book and sipping tea from one of the lovely teacups I’d collected over the years.
That reminded me — my turn for hosting the garden club was Wednesday, the day after Christmas. At least plenty of goodies would be on hand, and fruitcake, of course. I didn’t care if I was the only one who enjoyed the old fashioned concoction — Christmas only came once a year.
With the baking finished, I put aside some of the confections in a goody bag prepped for an inmate.
Just a few months had passed since Rhonda O’Brien had been incarcerated for taking part in the demise of several elderly victims in Half Moon Bay. I made a promise to befriend her in spite of her ill treatment of me. The visit would be the second attempt to reach out to the lonely woman.
I had no reason to visit her other than my understanding of her loneliness and the empathy I felt. The man she loved had committed suicide rather than face multiple charges for murder, unlike my husband who died courageously saving the lives of his friends during Vietnam.
Knowing dogs were not allowed inside the prison (except for the police-collared variety), I dropped Teddy off with Cecilia, my very pregnant personal assistant.
Whatever was I going to do without her after the baby was born? I never left Teddy alone anymore after my last Yorkie had been kidnapped.
Cecilia, supporting her swollen belly with one hand, answered the door and invited me inside. She reached for Teddy. “Come here, you sweet little doggie.” My personal assistant was beginning to sound like me!
“I can’t stay, dear. I’m running a teeny bit late for an appointment.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to visit Rhonda again. She was so standoffish last time!”
“I know, but it’s Christmas, and she has no one. I can relate to her situation. Now, Teddy, be a good dog and I’m sure Cecilia will take you for a nice walk if the rain lets up. You don’t mind do you?” I handed her the red rhinestone-studded leash.
“Of course not. I need to go for a walk myself. The doctor said walking could help start my labor. I’m a week late, you know.”
“Dear me. Well, just be careful you don’t slip. I’ll be back soon…especially if she’s unfriendly.”
Coupled with the dreary weather, the women’s correctional facility was the least festive environment I could think of. Rhonda sat across from me behind the screen, looking far worse than I’d seen her the last time.
I handed her the small bag of treats. “These are for you. I thought you might enjoy some Christmas cookies.”
Rhonda took the sack perfunctorily and set them down on the counter.
“Thank you,” she said in a faint tone.
I waited for her to say something but she sat stoically, staring past me. I still wanted to reach her.
“Rhonda, can I do anything for you?”
She turned her gaze slowly and faced me.
“You can burn in hell!” The look of hatred in her eyes was unmistakable. She blamed me for Ira Sinclair’s death.
I stood and lowered my head. “I’m sorry for your loss, Rhonda. But I’m also sorry for the men and women who died because of what you and Ira did.”
I couldn’t stay any longer. “I’m going to go. I won’t bother you anymore.”
Her stoic gaze returned as the guard escorted her back to her cell.
The bag of cookies lay abandoned on the counter.
I was depressed now thinking I had failed with her, but what more could I do? Rhonda O’Brien had gone over the edge. I’d better just get Teddy and return home. Presents still needed to be wrapped, and a stack of mail waited. Christmas cards poured in from friends and fans this time of year, and I always took the time to answer each one personally.
The rain came down in a steady downpour as I arrived to pick up Teddy. I opened my umbrella and held it overhead as I walked quickly to the door.
Cecilia invited me in for a cup of tea.
With no fireplace in their tiny condo, I longed to be sitting by mine. I scanned the room and noticed piles of belongings — papers, books, and laundry everywhere — Cecilia had nowhere to store them.
I thought back to when I was first married living in a tiny quadplex. Still, I managed to find a place to put everything away, but I didn’t work full-time like Cecilia did as a contributing journalist for a newspaper. I simply stayed home and threw dinner parties. More like playing house, looking back.
Cecilia returned with the tea tray. I refocused on the present.
“I wasn’t up for baking this year,” she said, “I just picked up something. Hope you don’t mind.”
She set the service on the modern black coffee table then handed me a mug and a slice of chocolate cake. “I put the sugar in for you — three teaspoons.”
I smiled at her efficiency, beginning to miss her already when her baby would come.
“Actually, the store-bought stuff is pretty good,” I said. “Truth be known, I’ve picked up things to serve myself!”
We drank our tea and devoured the delicious cake in just a few forkfuls.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Has your labor started?”
She sighed. “It’s only the baby turning over trying to get comfortable. It takes some getting used to.”
She repositioned herself on the sofa, spreading a throw over her legs.
“Well, before too much longer that baby will be here. You still don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy?”
“No. We wanted to be surprised. It’s old-fashioned, I suppose, but that’s what we decided. The nursery is in yellow and green so the colors will suit either…ooh!” Cecilia moaned a second time.
“Do you want me to call Walter? Where is he anyway? Working?”
“No, he’s out shopping. He didn’t want to be going out at the last minute. We only have Dad and Daisy left. Dad wants some kind of tool. He told Walter what he wanted, and I just said to find a gift that looked like Daisy and buy it.”
“Are you sure that was a good idea?” I smiled picturing the bustling woman so immersed in her plant care business. “I hope you steered him in the right direction!”
“He’ll probably get her something to do with cooking. I think she asked for a counter top grill. Knowing Walter, he’ll figure out a way to make the gift benefit him. More tea?”
“No thanks. I need to get home to wrap gifts and go through my cards. I’d better be going. Are you sure you’re okay, dear? I can stay longer if you need me.”
“No, I’m fine. I did take Teddy for a walk before the rain started.” She glanced outside the front window. “The weather’s clearing a little. It’s probably a good time to drive home. Forgive me for not walking you to the door. I’m really tired!”
“Well, when you get a sudden burst of energy and start cleaning the entire house, you’re about to go into labor. Trust me, I’ve heard enough stories about women cleaning things. Of course, I wouldn’t know first-hand.”
“I’ll take note, thanks!”
“Merry Christmas, dear. Enjoy Christmas Eve with Daisy and your Dad. Tell them I said hello.”
“I will. If I make it. Merry Christmas to you and Teddy. Tell your family hello for me, too.”
Cecilia had to travel an hour away to where her father lived in Half Moon Bay. I worried whether or not her labor might start during the trip. Would there be time to get back home for the delivery? I tried to stop the circular thoughts.
Why did I have to fret so? Perhaps because I thought of Cecilia as the daughter I never had. Anyway, it was good to visit with her. I always enjoyed tea and cake.
Then, I was home at last!
Twinkling white Christmas lights outlined the roof of my house. This year I had hired a service to hang them. A cheerful wreath on the door added to the festive scene. Another first was hiring the LaBelle sisters, a pair of professional decorators, to come and decorate the interior. Everything would be perfect.
I finished wrapping all the gifts in red paper and gold silk ribbon and placed them under the tree. Teddy enjoyed playing in the scraps, but I had to wrestle them away so he wouldn’t eat them. The dog loved trash!
What a Christmas this was going to be. Eighteen adults, four children, two toddlers, two dogs, and oh, I mustn’t forget — my dear friend Prentice Duvall would be joining us, too.
I did enjoy being with him. Besides finding him easy on the eyes, with slightly graying temples and a small tummy pooch, Prentice treated me like a lady and catered to my every whim. In fact, I learned to be careful what I admired because he would want to buy it for me immediately!
As the owner of the finest art gallery in the area, he was certainly the most interesting man I knew. Prentice was not only a gentleman — he had a dry wit that made me laugh whenever we spent time together.
The subject of marriage had come up on several occasions, but the memory of my late husband still lingered. Up until now, I hadn’t needed anyone else to fill the void and had remained a widow. The older I grew, the more unsavory the term became. Recently I had begun to resent my “widow” status.
A quick supper for me, dinner for Teddy set out with fresh water and a small cup of milk, brought the day to a close. The house had been scrupulously cleaned by my house cleaners in preparation for my company. I had attended to every detail. Tomorrow after church, I would take a rest and wait for the family to arrive.
“Time for bed, Teddy,” I said.
He stretched his front paws and yawned.
“Napoleon’s coming to see you,” I said.
Teddy pricked up his ears at hearing the name and cocked his head a little to one side.
“You’ll have fun. I promise.”
Teddy sneezed a tiny “achoo” in protest.
I carried him into my room and placed him on his towel at the foot of the bed. “Night-night, little one. Tomorrow is going to be full of excitement, so I won’t have much time to spend with you.”
He circled around several times then settled down to sleep.
As I got ready for bed, first indulging in a luxurious bubble bath, relaxing in the soothing hot water, a picture of Rhonda’s face contorted in hate flashed across my memory. I tried to drive the image away, dismissing her forever. It wasn’t easy.
When I finished my bath it was time for the hourly news. I turned on the radio, hoping for an update on Kenny. No further information — only the report of the crash.
I silently prayed again for Kenny to get the care he needed in Germany and for him to come home as soon as he could.
When finally I stretched out in my cozy bed, sleep came immediately.
When my eyes opened again it was morning.