The Gift: A Restless Spirits Christmas Short

She’s baaaack! Sarah Collier returns in this mini-prequel to Restless Spirits that sheds a little more light on the enmity between her and Joe.

The following is a sneak peek at this new short story, the entirety of which will be exclusively posted in my newsletter on Christmas Eve. Sign up here to be sure you don’t miss it!

 

The Gift: A Restless Spirits Christmas Short

Joe Bentley carried his daughter down the stairs, watching her face light up with wonder as the Christmas tree came into view. The Collier children were already stationed around it, tearing into packages and squabbling over who got the best Santa presents. “Merry Christmas, Joe!” Mr. Collier, his employer, raised a mug in greeting from the settee in the parlor. “There’s coffee in the kitchen. Go on in and help yourself.”

Joe set Clarice down and whispered in her ear. “You go on and watch the other children. And mind your manners.”

“Yes papa!” She took off like a shot as soon as her little feet hit the floor. Turning toward the kitchen, Joe smiled as he heard her say, louder than necessary, “Merry Christmas Mr. Collier!”

“Merry Christmas, Clarice!” he boomed back, just as loudly, amusement plain in his voice.

Mrs. Collier was coming out of the kitchen just as Joe was heading in. She was carrying a tray loaded down with a coffee pot, mugs and a plate piled high with cookies. “Oh, Joe! Good. Here, will you take this into the parlor? And help yourself to a cup. I’ll be in in another minute.”

“Yes ma’am.” He took the heavy tray from her and turned back the way he’d come.

“And don’t let those children touch anything at the back of the tree ’til I get in there!” she called after him before disappearing back into the kitchen.

In the parlor, he set the tray on a little table beside the settee before settling into a chair on the other side of it. He helped himself to a cookie and a cup of coffee, keeping an eye on Clarice while he poured. She sat a little distant from the other children, knees pulled up to her chest underneath her nightgown. She watched, enraptured, as the others opened their gifts, most of her attention fixed on little Sarah, the Colliers’ only girl.

Sarah knew it, too. A flame-haired tomboy who usually preferred balls and fishing gear to dolls and frilly things, Sarah also knew that Clarice adored all that ladylike stuff. Sarah’s own preferences didn’t stop her parents, especially her mother, from foisting girly things on her. Usually she’d complain, but seeing the longing looks from Clarice, Sarah made a big show of how much she loved each and every item–and also of placing it far away from Clarice before moving on to the next present.

Joe did his best to swallow his dislike of the girl along with a bite of ginger bread. She was only a child, barely older than Clarice, and it wasn’t her fault that she was the youngest and the only girl and that her parents and brothers doted on her so. And didn’t he dote on Clarice just as much? That she was such a sweet child and not at all spoiled was more a testament to how much of her mother was in her than any particular fathering skills Joe possessed.

A fog of sadness tried to settle over him at the memory of his late wife. He wished she could be there to see how well their little girl was growing up. Of course, part of the reason he doted so much on Clarice now was to ease his guilt over how much he’d neglected her in the beginning, driven so out of his mind with grief that he’d held that precious, innocent baby to blame for her mother’s passing. It wasn’t her fault Martha’s constitution had been too frail to endure childbirth. Once he’d come to his senses, he’d sworn to Clarice that he’d never stop making it up to her. And that was a promise he intended to keep.

Watching her now, he wished he’d given her the rag doll he’d picked out for her before they’d come down instead of saving it for later. It had to be torture for the girl to watch the other children open presents when there was nothing under the tree for her. He was debating whether he should go get it when Mrs. Collier came bustling into the room with another tray. He and Mr. Collier both stood as she announced, “Hot chocolate and gingerbread for the children!” She set the tray on a sideboard and went to join her husband on the settee.

“It was right kind of you both to include Clarice and me in your family’s Christmas celebration,” Joe said as the three of them took their seats.

“Nonsense. You two are gettin’ to be just like family. And I wouldn’t have missed seeing that angel’s face on Christmas morning for all the world.”

Joe smiled and nodded. “Even so, we sure do both appreciate it.”

“Not as much as we appreciate the help you’ve been to us,” Mr. Collier said around the pipe in his teeth. He took it out and used it to point toward Joe. “Speaking of which, if you turn around you’ll find a token of our appreciation propped up there in the corner.”

Joe turned and spied a brand new fishing rod standing in the corner, tied with a big red bow. He looked back at the Colliers. “That’s too generous. I can’t accept that.”

“Sure you can. The boys got new rods, too, and we can’t have you joining us on fishing expeditions with that old broken down reel of yours.”

Joe grinned as he got up to inspect the rod. “Well, if you put it that way.” It wasn’t top of the line, but it was a far cry better than anything he could afford on his farmhand wages, made of polished bamboo with a shiny new reel. He had mixed feelings as he looked it over. Good manners wouldn’t let him refuse it, and truth be told he couldn’t wait to take it fishing. But it also made the lace handkerchief and tin flask he’d picked out for each of the Colliers seem woefully inadequate by comparison. Still, he swallowed his pride and focused on his gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. “You’re both too kind.”

“We hope you put it to good use,” said Mrs. Collier. Before he could promise that he would, she called to Sarah. “Why don’t you hand out those gifts there in the back?”

Sarah frowned. Joe couldn’t tell if it was from puzzlement or because she was being torn away from her presents and put to work. But she got up and went around behind the tree. Sorting through some boxes there, she handed one each to her brothers before grabbing one for herself. As she settled down and started tearing the paper off, Mrs. Collier, her voice filled with exasperation, said, “Sarah, you forgot one!”

She shrugged. “That wasn’t any of ours.” She kept tearing at the wrapping paper before squealing with excitement. “A baseball glove!” She held it up admiringly before shoving her hand inside, clearly genuinely excited about this gift and not just putting on a show for Clarice.

“I know you’ve been wanting to play with your brothers. Now you can.”

“Thank you, pa!” She ran over and threw her arms around his neck, looking so happy that for a moment Joe forgot the bad feeling he usually got from the girl.

“Clarice,” Mrs. Collier called, “why don’t you have a look at that last package behind the tree?”

Joe looked at her, surprised. “You didn’t.”

“I didn’t do anything,” she said with an air of innocence. “It was all Santa Claus’s doing.”

“Mrs. Collier, I can’t let you–”

“Hush,” she said, and it was already too late. Clarice had already found the package and brought it out where all could see, holding it reverently in her little hands. It was a box half her size, wrapped in bright red paper. She set it on the floor and just gazed at it in awe. “It’s so pretty, papa,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Joe could no more refuse the gift for her than he could live without his own head attached. Relenting, he said, “Well, go on and open it.”

Slowly, taking pains not to tear the paper, she worked to remove it from the box. Joe glanced over at the Colliers to see the amusement on their faces, but instead his gaze landed on Sarah, perched in her pa’s lap, watching Clarice with an intensity that made it clear she’d forgotten all about her beloved baseball glove. The look on her face sent a shiver down his spine. He quickly turned his attention back to his own girl, who had managed to open the wrapping at one end.

“Here, punkin, let me help.” Joe got down on his knees and slid the box out of the wrapping, then placed it before Clarice. She glanced up at him with pleading and hopeful eyes, so he went ahead and pried the lid off the box. As he lifted it away, the look on her face made it worth all the extra odd jobs he planned to do around the place to pay back the Collier’s generosity.

It was a doll. A fine porcelain doll, with real hair, blonde and curly like hers, and a dress finer than anything Clarice herself had ever worn. It made the rag doll Joe had gotten for her look like, well, just a bunch of rags by comparison. With a gasp of delight that seemed to come from deep in her little soul, she scooped it up and hugged it tight.

“Why does she get a doll?”

All eyes turned to Sarah, who had dropped her glove and now glared at Clarice, her face flushed as red as her hair.

“Because Santa decided she’d been a good girl all year,” Mr. Collier said, trying to make light of the situation.

“But why didn’t I get a doll?”

“You don’t play with any of the dolls you already have,” said Mrs. Collier. “You’ve complained every time we’ve ever gotten you a doll.”

“But none of ’em looked like her!” Sarah pointed at Clarice’s doll. “It’s not fair!”

“Sarah Jane, don’t you talk to me about what’s fair.” Her mother pointed at the pile of toys and new clothes that belonged to her. “Look at everything you got this morning! And Clarice only has the one present! You’re being ungrateful, not to mention rude to our guests.”

“They ain’t our guests, they’re hired hands.” She pointed at Clarice. “And she ain’t even that!”

Mrs. Collier got to her feet. “That is enough!” She pointed emphatically at the stairs. “Go to your room!”

“But–”

“Right now, young lady!”

Sarah closed her mouth and stalked away toward the stairs, glowering at Clarice with a look of pure contempt as she went.

“I am so sorry, Joe. I don’t know what on earth’s gotten into that girl.”

“Probably too much sugar and not enough sleep,” said her husband. “All she needs is a nap and a good breakfast, then she’ll be right as rain.” He looked down at the baseball glove and stooped to pick it up, frowning at it in disappointment. “I sure thought this was what she wanted more than anything this year.”

“It was,” Mrs. Collier said. With an exasperated sigh, she shook her head. “Please don’t pay her any mind, Joe. Nor you, Clarice. You enjoy your dolly.”

“I will.”

“What do you say to Mr. And Mrs. Collier?” Joe prompted her.

“Thank you for the doll, Mr. And Mrs. Collier.”

“Don’t thank us,” Mr. Collier said with a wink. “That dolly came from Santa Claus.”

“Well then, we’ll have to write a thank you letter to Santa, won’t we?”

She nodded emphatically, still hugging her doll.

Mrs. Collier reached over and patted Joe on the arm. “You two should head on up and get dressed. Breakfast will be on the table in half an hour.”

“We’ll be there,” Joe promised as he scooped Clarice into his arms. “Come on, punkin. Let’s go put on our Sunday best.”

“Yes, papa.”

Joe carried her and her new doll up the stairs. The second flight of stairs leading up to their rooms on the third floor sat at the other end of the hallway. To get there, they had to pass by Sarah’s room. The door was opened, and although Joe tried not to look, he could feel eyes on him as he went past. Glancing over, he saw Sarah sitting on her bed, glaring at them with pure hatred.

Looking straight ahead, Joe hugged his girl a little more tightly and picked up his pace.

***

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