This is CHRISTMAS SECRETS, a short story. This is the first of three segments, all of which will appear in the next two weeks. Enjoy and Merry Christmas! RC Bonitz
The pre-Christmas sale at Denby’s Toy Shop had attracted crowds of shoppers, but Mike was paying no attention.
The crowd parted briefly and he saw her, just for an instant. Searching, he spotted her again, at the far end of the aisle, talking to a flashy looking blonde. Dark hair, pretty as all get out; she seemed soft and self-contained, not out to impress. That was his heart’s opinion; the normally logical organ between his ears having suddenly shut down. He slipped through the crowd, heading in their direction.
“I like toy stores at Christmas time, with all the lights and decorations. Those great big “Sale” signs just don’t do it for me.” Kristi swept stray strands of long blonde hair from her eyes and grinned at her friend Beth.
“The crowds are just as big though. I suppose you like that?”
“Don’t be sarcastic. You are such a grouch today. What’s wrong?”
Beth sighed. “Jim walked out last night.”
“You told him about Ben?”
“What else? You tell a man you have a son and that’s it, he’s gone.”
“He was a jerk. He’s what, the third guy to bail out on you?”
“I’m not counting. I usually tell them when we meet, but I held off with Jim, hoping he’d get to caring or something, so he’d be all right with it. If they’d only give Ben a chance they’d like him, you know?”
“It’s not Ben. It’s raising someone else’s child.”
“Sometimes I almost wish I’d kept Hank around.”
“Don’t even think that.”
“Is it me, Kristi? Am I doing something wrong?”
“No way. These guys just want one thing; and it isn’t responsibility.” Kristi gave her a hug and smiled. “At least you got married once.”
“Big success that was. Listen, if you’re going to buy Ben a birthday present we better get going before all the good toys are gone.”
Kristi squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry, hon. What should I get the little guy?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Sure, but mom’s know best. Does he like trucks?”
“All little boys like trucks. He has a zillion of them.”
“Well, what else is good?”
“They like Lincoln Logs.”
Kristi swung around. The voice belonged to a guy, a tall and handsome guy wearing a mischievous grin. Beth stared. There was something about him, something special. Charm, or maybe that smile that lit up his eyes. Whatever it was made her insides tremble. She quickly turned away. Kristi had caught it too; Beth could see that in the flirting look that broke out on her face. Dark haired, he was one hunk of a man, with drop dead sexy eyes and a dimple in his chin.
“What?” Kristi asked, and then went silent, just smiling sweetly at him.
“I said, little kids like Lincoln Logs.”
“Oh, sure, of course. Who are you?”
“I’m Kristi Morgan. Hi Mike.”
“Who’s your friend?”
Kristi turned, took Beth by the arm, and swung her back to face the man. “This is Beth. Beth Tompkins.”
Beth gave him a tiny wave.
A fleeting look of confusion crossed his face and disappeared. He offered his hand. “Hi, Beth, nice to meet you.”
Beth met his eyes with a noncommittal stare but did not take the hand. That smile, the easy way he held himself; if he wasn’t a one-night stand type she’d be totally surprised. “Hi.”
His face faded to bland, all the sparkle lost somewhere. His glance held steady though. It stayed on Beth, studying her eyes. Not her curves, not her breasts, just her eyes. She shivered, wished her breasts were more his interest. She could get mad at him for that, could choose to be insulted if she wanted to. But this was worse. It was as if he could see into her heart, and her heart began to thud hard enough to shake her.
“Are you buying presents?” Kristi asked with a twinkling smile.
He released Beth’s eyes and turned back to Kristi. “Presents? Yes.”
“Not a toy for you?”
Mike laughed. “Not for me. If you’re asking whether I’m single, the answer is yes, I am now.”
“You’re divorced? Me too,” said Kristi.
That drew a groan from Beth, only in her head she hoped, but Mike Hartnett glanced in her direction with another smile. It was just a flash and then he was back to Kristi.
“Three years. What about you?”
“It’s been two years for me. It’s ancient history now,” Kristi said.
“Can I buy you guys a drink or something?”
It was Kristi’s turn to grin. “That might be arranged.”
He looked at his watch. “Almost four-thirty. Happy hour soon.”
“Today? Why not, let’s do it.”
“Beth? Will you join us?” he asked.
“Can’t I twist your arm?”
“I have things to do. Go ahead.”
Kristi threw her an appreciative smile. “I’ll call you tonight.”
“All right, yes, good.”
She stood beside the Lincoln Logs and watched as they left, Kristi happily chattering away. Just stood, and struggled with the tears that suddenly wanted to drown her. Her hand brushed a canister of Lincoln Logs. He forgot his logs. He was such a fan; he must have planned to buy some. If he had bought some, Kristi would have too. That she knew about her friend. A hiccup burst forth and then another.
A woman stopped in front of her, a testy stare on her face. “Excuse me,” she snapped as if Beth were deliberately blocking her path. Beth stepped aside and pushed through the crowded aisle, not sure where she was going.
There wouldn’t be a phone call unless this guy was a dud. That was the only way she’d hear from Kristi. Tomorrow she’d get details, more than she needed. Sometimes she could kill Kristi.
Ben too, and she could kill herself when she got mad at him. Her six-year-old little sweetheart he was; the love of her life and her million-pound anchor. Men didn’t want someone else’s kid. Somehow, Ben knew that too, it seemed. Maybe he’d heard her cry at night? Or had seen a guy like Jim go cold when he made his first appearance?
Tears subdued, but hiccups coming in a steady rhythm, she wandered through the aisles and finally selected a yellow plastic fire truck for Ben.
The clerk smiled when she asked to have it gift-wrapped. “For Christmas?”
“His birthday’s next week.”
The woman smiled again. “He’ll like it.”
Beth suddenly wondered if he would. She bought trucks for Ben every time she was in the dumps. Maybe that was how he knew when she was unhappy. “Thank you very much,” she said and returned the woman’s smile. She would have given Ben the truck when she got home, but not now. It would go into the closet until his birthday.
Wandering through the mall, she bought a pillow for her mother and a pink flannel robe; the robe just because she wanted to, the pillow because Liz had asked for one. On the way home, she sucked it up and stopped at McDonald’s. She despised the place, but Ben loved their fries and burgers, so a MacDonald’s supper would be a treat for him. It would be the perfect thing in place of the truck.
Quiet ruled the house when she walked in, except for the sound of her mother singing softly in the kitchen to something on the radio.
“Beth? Is that you, dear?”
“I thought you and Kristi might go for dinner out.”
“She went for a guy. I went for McDonald’s.”
She slipped into her bedroom and dumped her purchases on the bed, then headed for the kitchen. Her mother studied her expression and wrapped both arms around her in a hug.
“Thanks Mom, that feels very nice.”
“Don’t let these so-called men get you down. You’re better off without Jim. Ben is worth twenty of him.”
“It’s just hard to see Kristi go off so happy like she was. I guess I’m feeling sorry for myself.”
“All right, but don’t make a habit of that.”
Beth kissed her mother on the cheek. “I won’t, promise. Where’s Ben?”
“Mrs. Humler called. Billy asked him to supper and an overnight.”
“I bought three cheeseburgers and two salads and a large fries.”
“I can eat an extra half a burger if you can.”
“I really don’t need the calories but why not.”
Her mother smiled and stepped back. “Tell me about Kristi and this man she met. She’s not going to…? At least not tonight I hope?”
“She might. He’s cute enough.” Cute? He’s a dream. Oh sure, he’s probably another runner, just like Jim. Lucky Kristi. “She’ll be fine Mom. He seemed like a nice guy.”
“Not for you though?”
Beth considered for a second. Why had she turned away? The feeling sorry thing? “I’m just a little tired of men right now. That’s all.”
She should have left it there, knew it very well, but didn’t. “He’s about six two, with dark, almost black hair, and he could be a movie star. And he’s charming.” Do I really know that about him? Wasn’t it just the way he looked?
Her mother said not a word, just listened, and watched her face.
“The sex appeal was what got Kristi going. And he is a hunk.”
“I need a break. He’s probably another runner anyway.”
“It’s not Ben dear. Maybe you’re just picking the wrong kind of man.”
“Mom, that’s enough. Eat your burger and a half.”
Beth was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner when the doorbell rang. Expecting Ben in the grip of Billy’s mom, she rushed to open it.
“Hi,” said Kristi.
Beth glanced at her watch. It wasn’t even a quarter past seven. “I didn’t expect to hear from you tonight.”
“Well, it was an interesting date,” said Kristi as she stepped into the house.
“A short one, I’d say. Was he a complete dud?”
“Actually, no. He was very sweet. He took me to Pirate’s Cove for a drink and bought me dinner. But he never even came close to asking for sex.”
“Really? Could it be he’s one of the good ones?”
“I don’t know about that. He was really after you when he asked us for a drink.”
“That’s ridiculous. I gave him the brush.”
Kristi grinned. “Well, maybe he’s gay?”
“You’re asking me?”
“No, of course you wouldn’t know. Your little pouting act got to him though. All he did was ask about you.”
“Asked what? Did you give him my phone number?”
“No. He wanted to know why you were the way you were. If you were selfish or shy or something. I told him a guy just dumped you and he sort of liked that. Not liked really; understood I guess.”
‘I didn’t mention Ben.”
“Should you have?”
“No. it’s just that he asked a zillion questions.”
“About me? Why?” Be quiet heart. It doesn’t matter.
“I asked him that. I mean, he’s out with me and wants to know about you? I’m not a dope. I told him so.”
“What did he say?” Beth could not think, could not get beyond Kristi’s words.
“He apologized. Big deal. He said he likes you and wondered if he had a chance. I mean, I almost choked. The man is not cool, not cool at all.”
“He sounds like a jerk. Like all the others.” Right, good riddance, except why was her heart still pounding.
“You never know. His wife is dead.”
“I thought he said he was divorced.”
“He said it’s complicated to explain. Saying he’s divorced is easier in the beginning.”
“What happened to her?”
“Drugs. She was an addict and he didn’t know that before he married her. He thinks the most important thing in a marriage is honesty. So, of course, I told him I do too.”
“He’s thirty-one. It’s too bad you’re so old.”
“I’m thirty-one Kristi.”
“Yes, but you’re supposed to be younger. Two years is best.”
“Oh well, of course, that’s too bad.”
Kristi hugged herself and laughed. “It was that look you gave him in the store. The mystery look or whatever.”
“I didn’t do that for him. I wanted to avoid him.”
“He called it something? I forget. Honest, that was it. Honest. Isn’t that the pits? I fall all over him. You show the guy a mad face and he falls for you.”
“This is so ridiculous.”
“He’s sort of quiet, but you’ll like him. I didn’t tell him you’re thirty-one.”
To be continued