Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Child Finds Christmas in "Arizona Christmas"

Christmas is only a few days away.  Peter and I are in Cleveland, Ohio, with our son and his family.  It's cold, but I'm enjoying the white landscape, as I grew up with white Christmases and always love to see snow this time of year.  With that in mind, I'm sharing this children's Christmas story that I wrote many years ago.  It was published in a church magazine and later in an anthology of Christmas stories for children. 

"Arizona Christmas" was inspired by my love of white Christmases, my first visit to Tucson, Arizona, and the beautiful white mission church there—the Mission San Xavier del Bac.  Maybe you can share my story with your own child or grandchild.



     Kristi’s brown eyes glared at the blue sky outside. The radio announcer had just given the temperature: 80 degrees. Now he continued, “While we enjoy beautiful weather this Christmas Eve here in Desert Springs, Arizona, the East is preparing for a big snowstorm.  At least eight inches are expected by midnight in most of New England and . . .”
     Kristi didn’t wait to hear the rest. Eyes filled with tears, she turned off the radio and flung herself on her bed. How she hated it here! It was bad enough they had to move, but to do it right before Christmas just wasn’t fair.
     She closed her eyes and pretended she was in the white colonial house near Boston where she had spent the eleven years of her life. Maybe when I open my eyes, this will all be a bad dream, she thought. But when her younger brother Jeff burst into the room, she opened her eyes to sunshine instead of snow, Arizona instead of New England.
     “Come on outside,” Jeff said. “Dad’s bought some lights to put on the house. He says this is the first year he doesn’t have to worry about freezing his hands off. Then we’re going to string some around the big saguaro cactus on the front lawn.”
     “What lawn?” Kristi asked. “There’s no grass around here. Just brown earth with a few clumps of cactus. Big deal!”
     Jeff looked disgusted. “You know what I mean,” he said. “Besides, I think the cactus garden is nice. Dad says a lot of them flower in the spring. You can stay here if you want to. I just came in because Dad suggested it.”
     On his way out, he flung over his shoulder, “I don’t know why he cares about you anyway. All you’re doing is ruining everybody’s Christmas.”
     No, I’m not, thought Kristi. Mom and dad ruined it when they decided to move. Still, Jeff’s worlds hung in the air, and Kristi wondered if maybe she was being unfair.
     Her parents had tried to explain the move to her, tried to make her understand. Dad had been very unhappy with his selling job. Here he was in research, something he had always wanted to do.
     “Of course, it’s going to be hard on all of us for a while,” her mother had said. “But the important thing is that we’ll all be together.”
     The smell of molasses cookies and the sound of Christmas carols drifted through the doorway. For as long as Kristi could remember, she and Jeff and mom had always baked molasses cookies the afternoon before Christmas, just as mom had always done with grandma and Aunt Betty when she was a girl. She felt bad leaving mom to do it alone. Maybe she would help. Then the radio in the kitchen began playing “Winter Wonderland.” Kristi was reminded of the snow at home and the desert outside. Instead of joining her mother, she shut the bedroom door.
     Through the open window, she saw Jeff and her father putting the last of the lights on the saguaro cactus. Its thick, prickly arms were laced with wires.
     “Turn on the lights, dad,” yelled Jeff. The sun was shining so brightly Kristi couldn’t see that it made any difference whether they were on or not.
    “How does it look?” her father called, seeing her face at the window. 
    “It looks dumb,” Kristi answered, “just like everything else around here.”
     No one came near her until it was time for supper. Then, while she ate in stony silence, her parents and Jeff talked about the Christmas Eve service they were going to in a little while.
     “This is the only night of the year when the church is lit entirely with candles,” her mother said. 
     “The Michaelsons next door told us that people come from all over, even if they don’t belong to the church,” added her father.
     Dusk was slowly approaching when they left the house. By the time they reached the church, its white stone wall glowed pink in the sun’s last rays.
     Inside, it was almost dark. A few men were quietly lighting candles in the wrought-iron chandeliers hanging over the altar. They threw light on a simple wooden crèche in a garden of red poinsettias.
     Kristi’s parents stood uncertainly in the back of the church. Then they saw the Michaelsons waving them over. “Merry Christmas,” all the adults said to each other, shaking hands. Jeff and the two Michaelson boys nodded shyly at each other. Kristi pretended she was invisible.
     Suddenly, a hush came over the congregation as a white-robed children’s choir started up the center aisle. They were singing “Silent Night,” their faces lit by the single candle each one carried. The singing swelled as the congregation joined in.
     Kristi remained silent, but soon the familiar words of peace and love and joy began to work their magic. A few minutes later she was singing her favorite carol, “Joy to the World,” along with everyone else. When she reached, “let e-e-v’ry-y hea-a-rt, pre-pa-are-hi-im-ro-o-om,” the words stuck in her throat like a piece of hard candy.
     Why, she hadn’t been preparing room for Him at all. Her heart was so full of resentment, there wasn’t room for anything else—not her parents, not Jeff, not Jesus. The door was shut, just as her bedroom door had been shut all afternoon.
     Feeling ashamed, she squeezed her mother’s arm and looked up at her. “I’m sorry I didn’t help you with the cookies this afternoon.”
     Her mother smiled. “I know,” she answered, putting her arm around Kristi’s shoulder. “I left a few for you to decorate, just in case.”
     Kristi’s father leaned over to give her a kiss. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” he said. “Welcome home.”
     Kristi kissed him back. Home. New England would always be a part of her. She knew that, but maybe Arizona could be home, too, if she gave it a chance.
     She looked at the Christ child lying in the candlelit crib. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered. There was room for Him now.




Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Christmas Romance — The Blue Christmas Tree

I usually write for children, but I've also written several short stories for adults. This light Christmas story was inspired by a conversation I had many years ago with a senior writer at the magazine I worked for in New York City. 

It was Christmastime and he was telling me about a glamorous Christmas Eve party he once attended in a fancy New York apartment.  He described soft lighting, candles, elegant people, city lights shining through the large windows, and the center of everyone's attention, a beautiful blue Christmas tree.  I nodded and smiled, but inside I flinched.  Blue? I thought, blue ??  And the seeds of this story were planted. 

"The Blue Christmas Tree" was published by an on-line site in the U.K called Alfie Dog Fiction  —  I was delighted when they asked if they could include it in A Wish for Christmas, an anthology of Christmas stories also available as a paperback book.  Here is the story.  I hope you enjoy it.


Lisa felt the fresh, clean snowflakes fall gently on her cheeks.  Snow at last!  It finally felt like Christmas.  Even the grimy city streets glowed like the town square at home.
Home . . . she could picture Mr. MacDougal locking restaurant and Mrs. Carroll turning the sign on her gift shop to “Closed.”  In a few hours, the bell of the old stone church would call everyone to the Christmas Eve service.  And for the first time in her life, she wouldn’t be there.
A blast of homesickness hit her like wind whipping down the mountain.  She swallowed the lump in her throat and said fiercely to herself, “You will not think about home.  You will think about Ben.”
Ben was the reason she wasn’t home right now.  Ben, whose soft brown eyes and easy laugh had warmed her like the summer sun ever since their first date, just three weeks ago.  Ben, who had invited her to a Christmas Eve party.
“Why don’t you bring him home with you instead?” her father had asked.
“I can’t.  He’s so . . . so . . .”  Lisa had groped for the right word.  “He’s so big city.”  She thought of Ben’s crisp suits at the bank where they both worked.  “Somehow, I can’t picture him wearing a plaid shirt, chopping wood.”
When Ben arrived at her apartment that night, Lisa knew her instincts were right.  He looked as polished as a GQ ad in his navy blazer.  She was glad she had spent a week’s salary on a new dress.
A few snowflakes still danced in the air as they walked the five blocks to the party, gloved hands locked together.  When Lisa slipped on a patch of ice, Ben put his arm around her waist to steady her and kept it there . She could feel his warmth through her coat and dress.
Lisa glanced at their reflections in the darkened shop windows.  They looked successful and . . . elegant, even.  She had come a long way since last Christmas Eve.  She remembered sitting in jeans on a cluttered floor helping her sister and brother-in-law assemble tricycles for Emily and Tommy, their three-year-old twins.  And tonight she was on her way to a penthouse party. 
“I’m glad you could come tonight,” Ben murmured, pulling her closer.  “This is the first year I haven’t been able to get home for Christmas.  I didn’t want to spend it alone.”
“I’m glad you asked me,” Lisa replied, enjoying his closeness.  She looked up.  The clouds were thinning and a few stars sparkled over the busy city streets.  Lisa took a deep breath and made a wish—that tonight would be truly magical.
Once at the party, Lisa couldn’t believe the luxury—high ceilings, deep carpets, and huge, plush couches, all done in soft shades of blue and silver.  About a dozen well-dressed couples scattered throughout the room.  And Ben and I are part of the scene, she thought.  We belong here, too.
Then she saw the Christmas tree.  It was large, perfectly shaped—and blue.  A soft, pale baby blue with silver ornaments and white blinking lights.  Even the packages were blue, tied with silver ribbons.  Before she could stop it, the image of another tree sprang to Lisa’s mind—the one at home.  It would be fresh pine with paper chains, mismatched ornaments, and a slightly worn, but familiar angel on top.  Nothing elegant about it at all.
        But it's real, a little voice said, and it's put together with love.  
This is real, too, she answered, squashing the voice, and how do you know there's no love in it?  Because, the voice answered, it looks perfect and cold and . . .
She pushed the voice away as Ben took her hand.  Together they joined the party.
“And so I told him I’d buy the condo if . . .”
“The Giants’ll go all the way to the Super Bowl this year . . .”
  “They say it’s the greatest musical since. . .”
“We’re flying down to . . .”
Pieces of sentences floated around Lisa like snowflakes she couldn’t quite grasp.  But her eyes kept going to the blue Christmas tree.  She wondered if the blue packages held any gifts or if they were just for show.  She thought of Emily and Tommy and the bright packages they would tear into in the morning.  She wondered if they’d miss their Aunt “Lisie.”
Suddenly, she knew that she was missing them.  And her parents.  And the mountains.  She also knew she didn’t care who bought what condo.  Or what the Giants did.  She cared about getting home.  If she left right now, she’d be just in time for the midnight service.
Only the thought of Ben kept her from heading straight to the door.  His warm hand felt so right in hers.  But she realized now that wasn’t enough.  She’d never fit into his world of blue Christmas trees.  
“Ben,” she said, “I have to talk to you.”
They walked to the windows and gazed at the city lights below.  Lisa took a deep breath.  “It’s that Christmas tree.  It made me see . . . well, look at it . . . it’s just . . .”
“Awful?”  Ben finished her sentence.
“Right, it’s awful.  That color . . .” She stopped when she realized what Ben had said. “You think so too?  But I thought Connie and Josh were your friends.”
“They are.  They helped me settle in here.  But that doesn’t mean we think alike.”  He put his hands on Lisa’s shoulders and looked into her eyes.  “Do you know why I asked you out the first time?  Because of the picture on your desk—two little kids in front of a big old farmhouse.  I figured I’d like the person with that picture.”
“That’s my niece and nephew,” Lisa said absently, her mind racing.  All this time, she had thought Ben wanted city sophistication.  But she was wrong.  Maybe she was wrong about his chopping wood, too.
“Ben,” she blurted out, “are you game for a three-hour car ride?”
He started to loosen his tie.  “Only if we’re going to that farmhouse.”
Lisa nodded.  “Right after midnight services at the village church.”
It was a few minutes after midnight when they arrived at Lisa’s church.  The congregation was already singing “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.”  Lisa started up the steps, but Ben gently pulled her back.  He put his gloved hands on her cheeks.  
“Thank you for a wonderful Christmas present,” he said before kissing her.  Lisa returned his kiss as the strains of another carol filled the air.
They clasped hands again and entered the church, then looked at each other and grinned.  Two brightly decorated Christmas trees stood on the altar.  Neither of them was blue.


What inspires you to write your stories?  Please send a comment and share.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PAIRS AT NATIONALS—Now Available at Special Price!

I’m excited to announce that PAIRS AT NATIONALS, the second book in my Pairs on Ice series, is now out and available on Amazon!  In this book for tweens, Jamie Bartlett, 13, and her partner Matt O’Connor, 15, have just won a gold medal at the sectional competition.  Now they are psyched to win gold at the National Championships.  But then an accident changes everything—and they are forced to train at a new rink with a new coach.  With skating as the backdrop, this book lets the tween reader (and older one, too) feel the struggles of training, the thrill of competition, the pain of bullying, and the power of family and friends.

For the next ten days you can download the Kindle book for only $.99.  So now is the time to buy.  You’ll not only have a fun book to read or give to your favorite tween, but you’ll help me achieve a higher ranking on Amazon.  Why does this matter?  Because Amazon gives more attention to books with high rankings—and that’s especially important to indie authors (like me) who don’t have a big publishing house behind them.  I just learned, for example, that once a book receives fifty reviews, Amazon will actually promote it.  So . . . if you decide to download Pairs at Nationals and enjoy it, I’d appreciate a review.  It doesn’t have to be long—just a few sentence is fine.

To find Pairs at Nationals on Amazon, just click on the cover picture to your right.

Here’s the first chapter.

Chapter 1

Jamie counted to the music as she circled the rink. Five . . . six . . . seven . . . At eight, she tightened her muscles and leapt. One, two, three rotations, then a smooth landing as her right blade touched the ice in a flowing glide. A perfect triple Salchow! Even better, she could see Matt coming out of the jump in perfect sync with her. They were awesome!
            She skated over to Matt for a high five. It was hard to believe that when they started skating together last year, they couldn’t stand each other. Now he was her best friend—or second best. No one could replace Nicole. She had been Jamie’s best friend since their first time on the ice when they were six years old. Jamie looked across the ice. Nicole gave her a thumbs up before setting up for her own triple Salchow.
            So, what do you think we should do next?” Matt asked. But he wasn’t looking at Jamie. His eyes swept the rink.
            Jamie’s eyes followed his. “Where is he?” she muttered. Cam was almost an hour late—and he was never late, not once in the whole year and a half he had been their coach.
            Got me,” Matt said, as if she expected an answer.
            Jamie scanned the rink again, hoping she had somehow missed Cam. But no, all she saw was a kaleidoscope of skaters jumping, twirling and gliding over the ice. Cam wasn’t anywhere to be seen . . . but . . . what was her father doing here? He was standing by the bleachers talking with Bob, the rink manager. They both looked serious.
            Her dad glanced up and his eyes met Jamie’s. He waved her over. “Get Matt, too,” he called as she started skating toward him.
            She turned, but Matt was right behind her. They stepped off the ice. “What’s up?” Jamie asked. She grabbed her skate guards from the shelf around the rink.
            Her father touched her arm. “Let’s go sit in the bleachers. I’m afraid I have bad news.” He turned to include Matt. “There’s been an accident. Cam’s in the hospital. They took him to surgery as soon as he got to the ER.”
            Jamie stopped so suddenly Matt bumped into her. “What do you mean? He’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”
            Dad waited until they were seated before answering. “I don’t know. He was unconscious when they brought him in. The only reason Bob knows anything is because one of the skaters’ moms—Ashley’s, I think—works there. She called to tell him.”
            He has to be okay.” Matt blurted out what Jamie thought. “We’ve got Nationals in two months!”
            They had almost missed gold at the Midwestern Sectional Championships last week when Jamie stumbled coming out of the twist lift. Luckily, their biggest rivals, Sarah and Sean, fell on a throw jump, which gave Jamie and Matt first place. But they couldn’t count on that happening at Nationals. They needed Cam. They had to nail that lift.
            Jamie’s father gave Matt a weak smile. “Cam may have bigger problems than Nationals.”
            Jamie flinched. It was hard to imagine Cam lying still on an operating table. Not Cam, who was constantly moving. He was more than their coach. He was like a favorite uncle, always encouraging them to be their best, on and off the ice. His thick blond hair, red Olympic jacket, and soft folksy accent were a calming machine telling them they’d be fine. Tears filled her eyes. She sat stone still. So did Matt, cracking his knuckles, a sure sign that he was upset.
            The rink’s announcer cut into her thoughts. “Skaters may now take the ice for the next session.” Everyone poured through the opening to the rink. She and Matt should be out there, too, having another lesson with Cam.
            Jamie stood and grabbed Matt’s arm. She couldn’t just sit there. She had to be on the ice, just like she had to believe Cam would be back in a week.
            Come on, Matt,” she said. “Let’s get out there. Cam’d be really mad if we slacked off because he wasn’t here for a few lessons.”
            Matt looked at her as if she had two heads. “A few lessons? Didn’t you hear your dad?”
            I know, but Dad’s not sure of anything. Besides, I need to be on the ice.”
            Matt stared at the skaters whirling and gliding in the rink. He shrugged. “Okay,” he said, “let’s do it.”
            He took her hand as they charged onto the ice. Jamie breathed deeply, taking in its clean, cold smell. They glided into the familiar Killian position––Matt’s right arm around her waist with her right hand over his, their left hands joined in front of his body.
            Her stomach slowly unknotted, calmed by the scrape of her blades and the steady rhythm of their strokes. What a difference from the first time they skated together. She remembered how their skates had tangled, causing a fall and a major battle about whose fault it was. Today, they moved as one person, expertly weaving in and out of the other skaters.
            We better warm up again before we start on our lifts,” said Matt.
            Jamie nodded and they dropped hands. She got into position for the easy Salchow, doing a double jump with ease. She worked through to the more difficult Lutz, where she tapped the ice before leaping, and landed in a perfect glide.
            As she turned to skate forward, Nicole appeared. Her red practice dress looked bright and cheerful next to Jamie’s black skirt and top. “What’s going on with your dad? You guys looked so serious I was afraid to interrupt. And where’s Cam? I thought you had lessons today.”
            The high Jamie felt on landing her jumps faded away. The knots came back to her stomach. “We did, but––oh my God, Nicole––Cam’s been in a car accident, and he’s in surgery right now. We don’t know what’s going on.”
            Nicole’s blue eyes widened. “But Nationals are coming!” Nicole skated junior singles and had placed first at Sectionals. Nationals were on her mind, too.
            I know. That’s the first thing I thought. Matt, too. Now I feel guilty thinking about us and not Cam.”
            Maybe it’s not so bad,” Nicole offered. “Maybe he’ll be all right.”
            That’s what I keep telling myself, but what if we’re wrong . . .” Jamie’s eyes filled again as two skaters in her class, Ashley and Megan, joined them. Ashley touched Jamie’s arm. “Sorry to hear about Cam,” she said. “My mom sent me a text.”
            Megan nodded. “Me, too.” She really did look sorry. Megan was a lot nicer to Jamie now that Jamie skated pairs and didn’t compete against her anymore.
            Thanks,” Jamie said. She guessed the rink’s rumor mill was whirling with the news.
            She and her friends skated together silently, then one by one, they went back to practicing. “See you later,” Jamie called as Nicole glided away.
            Matt took her place. “You’re the one who wanted to practice,” he said, “so let’s do it.”
            Okay.” Jamie wanted to keep some sense of things being normal. “We should start with the platter. I know I can do it.” She loved that lift, but it had been so hard when she started pairs. There was something terrifying about being six feet off the ground. Now she could spring into the air, confident that Matt would hold her.
            Side by side, they skated once around the rink before Matt turned to skate backwards. “When I count to four,” Jamie said. She counted off to the music, then Matt put his hands on her waist. Two more counts and she jumped as he lifted, until she was in the air, back arched, arms out as if she were going to do a swan dive. Matt turned again to skate forward. A few more beats and she came down, landing so smoothly she hardly felt her blades meet the ice.
            Yes!” said Matt, pumping his fist in the air.
            Jamie grinned, but her grin disappeared when Matt said, “How about the twist lift?” That was where she had stumbled at Sectionals.
            She shrugged. “Okay. Maybe I can get it together today.”
            They started skating, Jamie close behind Matt. When they turned to skate backwards, Matt placed his hands on Jamie’s waist as she put hers on his wrists. After two beats of the music, Jamie tapped the ice with her toe-pick and leaped. At the same time, Matt lifted and threw her into the air. She drew in her legs and arms as she whirled around––once, twice. She struggled to complete the second turn, but her blades met the ice a moment too soon. She stumbled into Matt as she tried to control her landing. Only Matt’s hands on her waist kept her from falling. She stomped her foot. This was just like Sectionals.  Would they ever get this lift?
            The music stopped and Jamie heard, “This session is now over. Will skaters please clear the ice.”
            What the heck’s the matter with you?” Matt snarled, as they skated to the exit. “How hard can it be to make two stupid turns?”
            You try coming down clean every time, you’re so great.”
            I sure wouldn’t stumble like some kid who’s never skated before.” He practically shouted the words.
            Jamie’s face flushed. “Oh yeah, maybe I wouldn’t either if you’d lift a little . . .”
            She stopped when she saw her dad talking with Bob again. Maybe he had more news about Cam. That was more important than fighting with Matt, even if he could be so full of himself sometimes.
            They stepped off the ice, still not looking at each other. But when Jamie’s dad walked toward them, his face grave and shaken, Jamie took Matt’s arm. She was over the stumbled landing.
            Cam’s wife just called,” Dad said before either of them could speak. “She said to cancel all of Cam’s lessons.”
            For how long?” Jamie asked.
            When her dad didn’t answer, her heart began to race. “He’s not dead, is he?”
            No, but he was hit hard. She said the other car ran a red light and smacked right into him. The impact broke his hip and shattered his femur––that’s the thigh bone. He won’t be walking for a long time. And . . .”
            Yeah, but he can get better,” Matt said. “Maybe he can come to the rink in a wheel chair.”
            I don’t think so.” Jamie’s dad reached out to touch Matt’s shoulder. “You didn’t let me finish. Cam also has a bad head injury. He’s not waking up. They think he’s slipped into a coma, and they can’t predict when he’ll come out of it. The longer it lasts . . .”
            His voice trailed off as he pulled the two of them into an embrace. “I’m so sorry,” he said, holding them tight. Jamie tried to imagine skating without Cam, but the image wouldn’t come. Tears filled her eyes.
            Matt pulled away, eyes glistening. “I gotta go.” He grabbed his skate guards and stopped only long enough to put them over his blades. Then he practically ran to the locker room.
Jamie didn’t care who saw her. Her dad’s arm still around her, she sobbed into his shoulder. Cam was gone. Maybe he was never coming back. How could they skate without him? And if they couldn’t skate, what would happen to their Olympic dream?

Want to read more?  Just click on the cover picture to your right.