As Christmas draws near, I thought I would share an excerpt from my second novel, Until My Soul Gets It Right, which follows farm girl Catherine Elbert as she bounces from coast to coast in search of her true self in a story about growing up, making peace with one’s past, and finding a little love along the way.
This chapter is Catherine's first Christmas away from her family's farm in Wisconsin.
UNTIL MY SOUL GETS IT RIGHT
By Karen Wojcik Berner
This year, Catherine Elbert would be celebrating her first Christmas as a free woman, far away from the farm. Since her only experiences were in Burkesville, Catherine had no idea what normal people did for the holidays. Did Mainers stuff lobsters? She chuckled to herself. She would find out soon enough at Patsy’s house tomorrow.
Fresh Christmas Trees. The lot was almost empty now except for a few half-dead scrawny pines.
“I’ll take the wreath, please.”
“Sure, miss. Merry Christmas to you.”
Catherine trudged toward the ferry in the slush from last night’s snowfall. She was beginning to understand what Mrs. McLellan had tried to explain a few weeks ago. Snow just kept piling up here, not like in Wisconsin, where it snowed then melted, snowed then melted. Her left leg slid right out from under her, almost causing her to wipe out right on the dock. So that’s the wicked dangerous ice Patsy had warned her about. She took a seat and closed her eyes, glad to have made it on in one piece. The ferry’s bell jolted Catherine out of her slumber, disoriented and disturbed. The large multicolored Christmas lights adorning Mrs. Marabelle’s cottage brought her back into the present, calming her pulse.
Walking up the stairs to her apartment, Catherine noticed a box in front of her door postmarked “Burkesville, WI.” Maybe they had not forgotten about her after all. But when she opened it, there were no Christmas presents, not even a card, just four high school yearbooks, her graduation tassel, and the picture of her and Beth on graduation day.
“Thought you might want these.” Hank’s scrawling penmanship wrote. “Hope you are okay. Pop.”
That was it?
Catherine threw the box on the floor and rummaged through her drawer for a small nail so she could hang her wreath on her door. Merry Christmas to you, assholes, she thought, wondering how she had survived the Burkesville years with any shred of sanity.
Christmas morning, Catherine was treated to a scene worthy of a postcard. All it needed was the words “Greetings from Maine” splashed along the top. A few inches of snow had fallen overnight, dusting the trees in fresh, white, sparkly splendor. Outside her kitchen window, two deer chomped a breakfast of twigs, while a red cardinal watched from a nearby evergreen.
Ready for her own meal, she loaded up a plate with cookies from the assortment Mrs. McLellan had sent home with her yesterday, all but the chocolate whiskey balls, which were a little too potent for this time of day. Almond macaroons, gingersnaps, almond brittle, fudge, and butter cookies with red and green sprinkles—delicious!
In a little bit, she would get dressed and make her way to the Allen’s house, but first she needed to finish wrapping their presents. Patsy had coveted this bracelet every time they walked by LaFemme. She was going to flip out when she opened it. For Mr. and Mrs. Allen, Catherine chose a sweet-faced Santa dressed in green carrying a walking stick from Christmas Bells, of course. She bunched four Little House on the Prairie candy sticks and tied them together with red ribbon for Patsy’s brothers. She had been warned about their potential for rowdiness, which was almost a deal breaker. Who wanted to spend Christmas with some snot-nosed kids? It had to be better than Elbert Farm, though. Right about now, Clara would be lugging in ten pounds of potatoes that needed to be peeled, cut, boiled, and mashed, while the men took up residence on the sofa watching football, then basketball on TV.
“They work hard every day. Deserve a holiday, that’s fer sure,” her mother would say every year. “Now, get to it, Catherine. Those potatoes aren’t gonna peel themselves.”
Not this year, suckers! Make your own goddamned potatoes. She popped the last gingersnap into her mouth and licked her fingers.
Patsy had talked more about Tom Cruise than her family, so Catherine was curious to see what kind of people lived in this modern Victorian, more streamlined than most, and free of all the frilly gingerbread. Every window was outlined with multicolored Italian lights and had matching wreaths hanging from red ribbons in the center. A gigantic Maine balsam pine wreath adorned the door. She rang the bell.
“Oh, hi. You must be Catherine. Come on in.” Dark hair, spiked. Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt. Black jeans. Black converse gym shoes. A cousin, perhaps?
The Allen home was large and inviting, with dark walnut moldings and trim throughout. An ornate fireplace in the living room, or parlor since it was a Victorian, was draped in more fresh greenery with red tea lights interspersed among the branches, while stockings labeled Steven, Andrew, Jim, Robert, and Patsy hung below. No farming family she knew had a house like this. Clearly her barnyard radar was faltering. Good! One step further away from Burkesville.
“Here, let me take your coat.” He helped her off with her parka. “Merry Christmas, by the way. I’m Steven.”
Pasty bounded in. “Hey, Cat! I see you’ve already met my brother.”
“I thought you said all of your brothers were younger than us,” Catherine whispered.
“No, silly. I said older. I’m the youngest. Come in and meet the rest.” Patsy led her past the kitchen, where the smell of roasting turkey enticed her nostrils, to the family room. Three male heads on the sofa turned to see who was at the door. “Cat, these are my brothers.”
“Andrew.” Light brown hair. Ralph Lauren polo sweater. Jeans. Boat shoes.
“Jim.” Blond. Red-checkered flannel shirt. Jeans. No shoes.
“Robert.” Brown hair. New England Patriots football jersey. Gray sweatpants. Socks.
Patsy pointed to the kitchen. “And my parents are over there.” She grabbed Catherine’s hand, tugging at her until she moved.
Each one of the Allen brothers was more gorgeous than the next. It was like a buffet. “Huh? Oh, sorry.”
Mrs. Allen wiped her hands on her apron. “Catherine, so nice to meet you.” She hugged her. “We’ve heard so much about you, I feel I know you already.”
“Hello, dear.” Mr. Allen was the spitting image of Patsy, or vice versa. “Want some eggnog?”
“Yes, Mr. Allen. Thank you. I brought some…wait, where did they go?” Oh shit! The gorgeous brothers would think she was crazy giving them candy sticks like little kids. To her horror, Steven was lifting his parents’ present from Catherine’s L.L. Bean tote. “Mom, do you want me to put the gifts Catherine brought under the tree with the rest?” The pile was so high, presents touched the bottom branch.
“Sure, honey.” She turned toward Catherine. “I have to put the finishing touches on this chestnut stuffing, if you’d excuse me for one second.”
Mr. Allen carried a tray filled with glasses. “Toast time! Everyone grab some eggnog. Come on, Mona. Okay, to my beautiful wife, my amazing sons, my sweet daughter, and our new friend, Catherine. Good health, joy, and prosperity to us all. Cheers!”
Shouts of “Merry Christmas!” filled the room. Catherine watched as the Allen family took turns hugging each other, smiling and laughing as they went from person to person. Suddenly, Steven’s arms wrapped around her.
“Don’t want you to feel left out. Watch the eggnog. Dad tends to get a little heavy-handed with the brandy.”
She could feel the muscles in his back through the t-shirt. “Thanks for the heads up.” He smelled like a heavenly mixture of pine and oranges.
“Get off her. It’s my turn.” Robert gave Steven a little shove and slid into his place. Taller than his brother, beefier too, his arms totally engulfed Catherine. Very cozy.
Mrs. Allen clapped her hands. “Okay, okay. Don’t crush the poor girl. Andrew, put on the Christmas music. Let’s open presents!”
It was a free-for-all. Paper ripping. Shouting. Wrappings flying everywhere. She was having such a great time watching all of them, she almost forgot to open her own.
“Catherine! I can’t believe you bought it. Omigod!” Patsy made her way through the chaos, flinging her wrist. “Here. Here. Open mine.”
Catherine tore at the red-and-green plaid paper. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. “Thanks! This is massively cool.”
“I remember how much you loved our Christmas Bells scarecrow.”
“Catherine!” Mrs. Allen shouted from across the room. “He’s beautiful! I know just the place for him.” She ran off to the parlor with the green Santa.
Andrew held up a beer stein. “Hey, Jim. Very nice. Thanks!”
“Robert, love the tape,” Steven yelled to his brother. “You like Depeche Mode?” He passed it to Catherine.
“Love ’em. This is the new one, right? Cool. They play them a lot at Parallel.”
“Best dance club in Portland. How come I have never seen you there?”
“Only been there once. After Merry Madness.” Cloudy visions of Scott Dithersby invaded her mind. Asshole had never called. Whatever.
“What’s up, Doc?” Steven chuckled and socked his brother in the arm as he walked by.
“You do know it doesn’t get funnier repeating it over and over until my head’s going to explode, right?” He punched him back.
Seeing Catherine’s confusion, Steven told her Andrew was in pre-med at Johns Hopkins.
“And this turd thinks equating it with Looney Tunes is hilarious.”
“Have you broken your funny bone, doctor?” Jim interjected.
Andrew biffed Jim’s head. “Don’t think so, nature boy.”
“He’s all about the great outdoors. A virtual poster boy for L.L. Bean,” Steven explained. “Loves camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking, cross-country skiing. All that shit. Oh, hey, I put those candy sticks on the counter over there. Thought they were probably for our cousins. That was sweet of you.”
Whew! Thank goodness for younger cousins.
“Cat! You haven’t opened up your other present yet.” Patsy plunked down on the chair next to her. “C’mon, before the rest get here.”
“Who’s all coming?”
“Aunt Ginny, Uncle John, and their kids. Oh, and the McLellans.”
“Yeah, sorry, thought you knew. My grandmother and Mrs. McLellan were college roommates.
Small world. Catherine unwrapped a comfy scarf and pair of sherpa-lined gloves.
“Everyone needs those to survive a Maine winter.” Mr. Allen chuckled. “Well, I’d better go see if the missus needs help in the kitchen. Boys, let’s get this room cleaned up.”
Catherine followed him. “Can I help with anything?”
“Ask the boss.”
Mrs. Allen eyed the contents of the refrigerator. “Howard? Grab these for me, will you?” She tossed lettuce, red peppers, some sort of cheese, and a bottle of dressing at her husband, all of which he caught with surprising ease, then shut the appliance’s door with his butt. “I think Howard and I have everything under control, so go relax and enjoy yourself. Would you mind putting this artichoke and spinach dip out? Oh, sassafras. I forgot to make the bread bowl. Okay, Catherine. Looks like I have something for you to do after all. Carve a hole in the middle of this and arrange bite-sized pieces of bread around it. The other loaf over there needs to be cut for dipping.”
Steven swooped in. “I’ll do that one.”
“Show Catherine where the knives are. Thanks. We only have a half an hour until the others arrive.”
“Aye, aye Captain!” Steven saluted his mother and got to work. “How does someone from the Midwest decide to move here?”
Catherine told him the story of the PBS travelogue and a two-minute synopsis of the hell that was Burkesville.
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re so adventurous. Otherwise, my Christmas would not be half as merry. Come on, let’s put these by the other appetizers.”
Catherine set the bread bowl in the middle of a large glass platter. Steven filled it with the dip, then they both arranged the bread pieces around it.
“Touchdown!” roared from the family room. Robert ran, high-fiving everyone down the line of the sofa.
“Hope we’re not too loud for you,” Steven said. “It can get a bit crazy.”
“No, I love it actually.”
“Good. Want to watch the game?”
Whenever Robert got up to high five his brothers when the Patriots did something good (which was often), Steven’s leg would brush against hers. Catherine could not tell if this was intentional, or if it was because so many people were squished together on the sofa. Either way, it was good for her.
“Hey, she’s my friend, bug.” Patsy sat on the sofa’s arm next to Catherine. “This is just like when we were kids. Steven was always poaching my friends, luring them into playing with his Easy-Bake Oven.”
“What can I say? Easy-Bake Ovens rocked. The first time I pulled one of those tiny cakes out, I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef.”
Clara had refused to buy Catherine one, saying she should learn something useful, like how to bake a real cake, so she frosted the little creations at Beth’s house. “Which was your favorite—yellow or chocolate?”
“Yellow. Has to be yellow. For some reason, the chocolate one never tasted right.”
Catherine clapped. “I always thought so, too.”
Robert looked at her crestfallen. “Are you a Jets fan? That might be a deal breaker, you know.”
Oops, something must have happened in the game they were supposed to be watching. “Oh, no. Sorry, we were talking about Easy-Bake Ovens.” The three burst into laughter at his incomprehension.
“Ding. Dong. I let myself in, Mona. Didn’t think you would mind.”
“Katie McLellan, I thought you already had your own key anyhow.” Mrs. Allen drew Mrs. McLellan into a hug. “Merry Christmas.”
Mr. McLellan followed behind carrying a large pot.
“Here, Marty. Let me take that for you. Smells delicious. Nothing better than your lobster stew.” Mrs. Allen set the pot on the stove.
“There they are, my girls!” Mrs. McLellan embraced Patsy and Catherine, then whispered to Cat, “Enjoying the view?”
Marty McLellan took a seat next to Robert. “How are my Pats doing?”
“Great, Coach. They’re up by fourteen.” Robert was Mr. McLellan’s star middle linebacker three years ago at Portland High School.
The doorbell rang again. This time, it was Mrs. Allen’s sister, Ginny, her husband, John, and their children, Jackie, age nine, and Gregor, age six.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Ginny kissed her big sister. “Deck the Halls and all that shit.” She lowered her voice. “My genius husband decided that to save some money, we would assemble the kids’ new bikes ourselves. We were up ’til four! Then the kids jump on us screaming ‘Santa was here!’ at seven. It’s gonna be a long day.”
“You couldn’t pay me to go back to those days. I’ll put some coffee on for you.” Mrs. Allen rummaged through a cabinet. “Howard, where’s that Christmas Blend I bought the other day at Sea Dogs?”
“Pantry. Top shelf.”
“Thanks, hon.” Mrs. Allen turned to Ginny. “Sit. Sit. I’ll take care of everything.”
“Excuse me, can I grab some dip? It’s excellent, Mrs. Allen.”
“Thanks, Catherine. Have you met my sister?”
Ginny smiled and piled spinach-artichoke dip onto her plate. “Oh, this feels good. Haven’t sat all morning. And that includes church,” Ginny said. “Never run late for church on Christmas morning. Easter either. That’s when all the half-assers like me go, like it’s going to make any difference. When I meet St. Peter up at the Pearly Gates, he’ll probably be able to tell I’m a half-ass churchgoer just by looking at me.”
Mrs. Allen squeezed her sister’s shoulders. “Face it, you’re damned.”
Ginny finished a last bite of bread and wiped her mouth. “Well, if hell comes with three square meals that I don’t have to cook and an occasional bath, count me in!”
A cheer went up in the family room. The end of the Patriots’ game signaled it was almost time for dinner. Mona Allen knew better than to interfere with football, even on Christmas Day. Why put all of that time into cooking if all they do is shovel it into their mouths as fast as possible so they can get back to the game?
Patsy, Robert, Steven, and Catherine had volunteered to sit at the kids’ table so Aunt Ginny could help Gregor cut his meal and so Jackie could join the rest of her family.
“Steven is the best cook. Wait until dessert,” Patsy said. “He made all of them—pecan pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and individual apple tarts drizzled with caramel.”
Robert agreed. “No doubt about it. You’re in for a treat.”
“Really, you are too kind. Keep going. But seriously, while I’ll be slaving away for a pittance, Robert here will be raking in the big bucks.”
“We’ll see about that.” The ex-football player blushed.
“He’s already got a job lined up after graduation.” Steven was clearly happy for his brother.
“Icon Systems. At the San Jose branch,” Patsy added. “He interned there this summer, and they offered him a position.
“That’s wicked good! Congratulations!”
Steven nudged his sister. “See that? She already sounds like a local.”
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Wojcik Berner
All rights reserved.