Tyndale House Publishers
December 24, 8:15 A.M.
Lefty Boyle’s rusted ’76 Caprice sat half a football field from the other cars in the factory parking lot, and he was in it—head back, eyes closed, mouth open, drooling.
A loud knock on the window interrupted the Hallmark portrait.
The car door opened from the outside. “You alive in there?”
The voice belonged to Kamal, the janitor who’d served as Lefty’s alarm clock for the past three days.
Lefty stirred. “Yeah.”
With that word came a stench of alcohol and morning breath that almost startled Lefty fully awake. Almost.
“You’re fifteen minutes late. Dale’s looking for you, and he’s more ticked than usual.”
Lefty tried to sink back into sleep. Nothing to think about. No reminders of, well, anything. Sleep was good.
Kamal nudged Lefty’s shoulder. “You hear what I said?”
Lefty opened his eyes a sliver, but the morning light blinded him. He saw just enough to be reminded of where he was. He didn’t remember exactly how he had gotten there, but fortunately, routine was his guide. As long as he got to his workplace parking lot at the end of each night, he would be where he needed to be the next morning.
“Yeah, I’m coming. And thanks for making me late!”
“Oh, gee, I’m sorry! My boss, who pays me, wanted me to do something more important than waking you up. Next time I’ll tell him I work for Lefty.”
For a foreigner, Kamal had an impressive grasp of American sarcasm.
Lefty grabbed his mangled toothbrush from the visor and stumbled out of the car. The effects of sleeping upright for six hours, combined with his usual morning headache, nearly caused him to collapse. He steadied himself against his car, rubbed his eyes, and took a deep, nasty breath. He found the factory entrance up ahead, trained his eyes, and headed toward it.
Two minutes later, his shoes shuffled across the sticky floor of the factory bathroom. Lefty brushed his teeth and smoothed his greasy hair. He noticed a mustard stain on his shirt and, thinking quickly, turned the shirt inside out and took another glance at himself.
The shirt idea was a good one. Perhaps today had some promise. And wasn’t it the twenty-fourth? Yeah, the last day before a holiday break for a few days. He could make it through today no problem. He straightened his shoulders and stared confidently at the image of himself before spotting his boss behind him in the grime-spotted mirror.
“Hey, Princess,” Dale said, “when you’re done putting on your makeup, get your royal behind into my office.” The door slammed behind him.
Lefty’s shoulders returned to their slumped position.
It wasn’t even 8:30 in the morning, and Kirk was tired. Not a good sign.
The call had awakened him at 6:30. Kirk found it hard to believe that his seventeen-year-old employee had magically fallen sick the day before Christmas, but he was at least impressed the kid got up that early to call him. If only he was as committed to his work . . .
The fact that it was Christmas Eve wasn’t what annoyed Kirk about coming in. He had no special plans, and he wasn’t a big holiday guy anyway. It was more that he had gotten his hopes up about sleeping in today. Kirk took only a handful of days off each year; and when he did, he slept in till noon, worked on the porch he’d been building for years, and relaxed. He’d been looking forward to today for over a week, and he’d been in the middle of some deep sleep when he was informed that this day would be the same as the 360 or so other mindnumbing days of the year.
Kirk wheeled into Mr. K’s Quick Stop and parked in his usual spot, off to the side, amid loose gravel and tall weeds, close to the woods. He glanced up at the rusted sign. Good grief, what a cheesy name.
That he was responsible for it made it worse.
He unlocked the door and two padlocks and stepped inside. His place. Four rows of “convenient” goods (healthy food was inconvenient, apparently) in front of a wall of beverages and frozen food. The side wall bore random fishing items and included a tiny, greasy eating area no longer open for business. Large banners, depicting beer and cigarettes consumed by people who looked nothing like his customers, hung from the ceiling.
For most gas stations of this ilk, opening meant turning on the pumps, the cash register, and the food machines. But try as he might, Kirk couldn’t break the routine he’d started when he first bought the place and actually gave a rip. Toilet scrubbed. Garbage emptied. Soap dispenser filled. Paper towel and napkin canisters loaded. Merchandise organized. And, of course, brewing the gourmet coffee. He knew that offering gourmet coffee at a place like this was akin to offering a filet mignon at a hot dog stand. His store and his customers didn’t deserve gourmet coffee. But he couldn’t do the instant stuff. Just couldn’t.
He finished the brew, wiped down the counters, and tossed some loose trash. For the local trailer park families, shirtless smokers, meth addicts, fishermen, and long-distance travelers who thought the Southwest would be a good Christmas location, Mr. K’s Quick Stop was ready.
Sorry, We’re Closed became Yes, We’re Open!
Eva was determined that her death would cause no complications for anyone, and since today was the day—or rather, tonight would be the night—she thought it best to prepare.
She trudged through her house toward the kitchen, running through a mental checklist of the tasks she needed to accomplish today. She had always made a point of ensuring nothing was left undone or turned on when she left the house for vacation; she certainly wanted to make sure of the same now that she was leaving her house forever.
As Eva grabbed the cat food bag from her kitchen counter for the last time, it wasn’t sadness or remorse she felt. Just a sense of duty. She would accomplish her tasks today with calm and dignity. She would not cry, she would not be overly sentimental, and she would not act scared. This would be like any other day, just perhaps a little busier.
Eva lugged the bag out to her driveway and, leaning against the house, bent and filled the bowl. The sound brought Scrappy, the neighborhood stray, running. As the cat dug in, Eva emptied the rest of the food onto the concrete. Scrappy would need enough to last however long it took for someone to discover Eva’s body.
Mary pulled into the drop-off spot at the elementary school a bit too fast. Her morning routine with Jacob always seemed rushed now that she was raising him on her own. At six years old, Jacob had no problem getting up at 6:45 every morning. But Mary did. She would turn on the Disney Channel for him, go back to bed for half an hour, then slam through the morning to get him to school by 8:15 and herself to work by 8:30. It helped that she didn’t need to look flawless and that she and Jacob were both fine with Nutri-Grain bars in the minivan as their breakfast of champions.
Jacob’s too-cute teacher, wearing a too-cute Santa hat, bounced out to greet them. “Hey, Jacob!” Megan said. “How’re you doing, buddy?”
Jacob smiled and waved, unbuckling his seat belt.
Megan’s smile vanished, and she cocked her head.
Here it comes.
“Hey, Mary. You doing okay?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Seriously. You doing all right?” Megan lowered her voice, as if to emphasize the seriousness of her question.
Mary paused. Megan wasn’t going to let her off the hook, especially today. “As well as can be expected. Seriously.”
Thankfully, Jacob struggled with the door, and Megan rushed to help him out of the van.
As he ran off, Mary called out, “Love you, Jacob! Be good!”
Without turning or slowing, he hollered, “Love you!”
Mary turned back to Megan. “His juice box is in his backpack. He’ll try to tell you I forgot to give him—”
“Got it.” Megan smiled knowingly, then looked puzzled, peering in at Mary. “Hey, you know those seats are adjustable.”
Mary had been riding low in the seat, reaching for the wheel, for a year and had gotten used to it.
“Oh. Yeah. Well, this is the way Rick liked it, though. I just . . . you know . . .”
Megan backed off. “Yeah. Okay. See you at noon?”
“See you at noon.”
Today was December 24. This conversation would not be the last of its kind, Mary was sure. People are just trying to be nice, she reminded herself.
Mitch exchanged his car for the fifteen-passenger van in the church parking lot. The van needed gas for a dozen small trips all afternoon and evening. This jaunt to the gas station would mark the only time he would be in it without a load of loud teenagers.
It was going to be a miserable day, plain and simple. In six hours, when he had to take his youth group kids caroling, it would get really miserable. But this was also the one-year anniversary of the accident.
A year before, Mitch’s car had been in the shop, so Rick, his best friend and one of the youth leaders, gave him a ride home from the church youth party. The drunk driver never slowed as he raced through the intersection and rammed the driver’s side of Rick’s car. Mitch suffered cracked ribs and a separated shoulder when Rick’s body drove him into the passenger door.
Mitch had needed a sling and bandages. Rick had needed epic, emergency surgery. A year later, he was still institutionalized.
Everything had changed that night. Everything. Rick wasn’t really Rick anymore. On the rare days he was settled enough to have a moderately coherent conversation, they had nothing to talk about. Most days Rick was like a two-year-old, everything included—tantrums, diapers, you name it. Either way, the casualness and shared sense of humor that had defined their friendship were gone, replaced by awkward small talk.
Mitch hadn’t visited him in weeks; it was too hard, and the visits didn’t seem to do much for Rick anyway.
Now, as Mitch passed through the same intersection, he got that same chill and couldn’t keep from looking both ways repeatedly. He’d passed through it hundreds of times in the past year, but it was always the same. Every time, random details of the accident flashed in his mind. The screaming of a woman bystander, the blood pooling in Mitch’s lap, the flashing lights of half a dozen cop cars and ambulances. Every time, he shuddered and felt weak because of his reaction.
The fact that the accident had taken place on Christmas Eve made forgetting or ignoring the one-year anniversary impossible, even if he had wanted to. Eventually, Christmas Eves might feel normal again. But so far, this one wasn’t looking good.