What is the ultimate gift?
This short story is based on The Garden Collection, one of my favorite novels to reflect on during the holidays … “The heartwarming story of struggle, determination, heartache, and true love …”
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31ST
In Mason’s Diner in rural West Michigan, six-year-old Chloe Miller’s paper snowflakes cover all of the windows as if another blizzard hit town. Multicolor Christmas lights blink around the window frames. By the cash register, a two-foot-high fake Christmas tree holds so many of Chloe’s homemade ornaments the patrons can’t see the branches.
Standing behind the counter, Brianna Carlson waits for Henry Mason to pass her orders through the grill window. She stares at the poster behind the register.
Her best friend, Lucy Donovan, had suggested Bree put her own doodle sketches to good work and enter the competition to design the New Year’s Eve Gala poster. Out of one hundred applicants, she won.
She had drawn dark snowy woods where the old trees have snarled branches. The trees’ arthritic fingers reach for the sparkling red box with a bright white bow that illuminates the small clearing. The caption reads WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE GIFT?
The regulars at the diner celebrated her excitement by encouraging her to attend the gala. As the winner, she received one hundred dollars and a ticket to the party. She had saved her money for three weeks to buy a dress with matching shoes.
“Bree, your order’s up,” Henry yells from behind the grill. She sees only his eyes and the top of his bandana-covered baldhead through the open window.
The retired men on the stools at the counter chuckle. “Are you daydreaming again, Cinderella?” Charlie asks.
She blushes. “Maybe I’ll find my Prince Charming tonight,” she replies, picking up the cheeseburger platters.
George unrolls his silverware from his napkin. “Are you ever going to tell us what’s in the red box from your poster?”
She grabs the ketchup from under the counter. “What do you think is in the box?”
George takes the bottle. “Money?”
“How about keys to a yacht?” Charlie adds.
“I know what’s in the box,” Chloe says from the end of the counter. Her long brown hair in a thick braid matches her big sister’s. Chloe bites into a French fry and grins.
“Well, my sweet one, please share with us,” Bev Mason says from behind the cash register.
Chloe looks at her. “Can I tell them?”
Bree nods. “I always thought it was obvious.” She caresses the etched ivy on her gold heart-shaped locket, an emerald in its center.
“Tell us right now,” George demands. He winks at Chloe as he wipes his mouth.
“It’s LOVE, sillies. I can’t believe you never guessed it.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re a genius,” Bev jokes.
“I’ve gotten all excellent marks so far in first grade.”
Brianna nods. “You have a lot of wonderful tutors,” she says, glancing at her work family. Chloe grew up on that stool. They even put her name on it.
As the men tease Chloe that they made her smart, Officer Eddie Kent stomps his feet inside the door. In his dark blue uniform and auburn crew cut, he sits at the opposite end of the counter. Bree greets him with his usual glass of milk.
“It’s not ready yet?” he asks.
“I wasn’t sure you were working today. I’ll get right on it.”
Bree quickly enters the kitchen and helps Henry with the order of rare steak and scrambled eggs with a side of raw onions and garlic toast. Eddie eats it every day he works.
She carefully sets his plates in front of him. She had learned not to stand too close afterward.
“Bree, don’t worry. I’m here if you need anything,” Eddie says, reaching for the knife.
“Kent! I will explain it,” Chief Cameron Mason says, taking up the entire doorway. He smooths down his thick mustache with his thumb and finger then points her to the end booth. With a hand over her stomach, she sits. He stops Chloe from jumping off her stool. “Stay put. I want to talk to Bree in private.”
“Cam, what’s wrong?” she asks as he slides in across from her.
“Wayne is being paroled due to overcrowding.”
She gasps. “When?”
“Oh, God.” She places her shaking hands on her lap. Chloe stares at her reaction. “Do you think he’ll come back here?” she whispers.
“I honestly don’t know. If you see him anywhere in town, call my cell,” he says, pulling out his card.
She stops him. “I still have it memorized.”
Cam leaves for the kitchen to talk to his father. She stares out the window at the two fresh inches of snow. What should she do?
Wayne Miller’s letters from prison promised to take Chloe away from her. Bree has no legal rights to Chloe. Could he reclaim his daughter?
Bree had taken the brunt for years so he wouldn’t hurt her half-sister. She would not let Wayne hurt her now.
She jumps as Chloe slides in next to her. “Bree, what’s the matter?
She hugs her. “Nothing for you to worry about, my sweet Clover.” She nudges her out of the booth. “I have to get back to work.”
While carrying the tub of dirty dishes, she bangs her shin into the metal cart behind the counter. The tub crashes to the floor. Plates and mugs shatter. With tears in her eyes, she rushes to clean the mess. Partial blindness in her left eye and a limp from a healed broken leg makes her clumsy, especially when stressed or tired.
Eddie Kent laughs as he finishes his meal. “Bev, have you run out of plates yet?”
Bree looks up at her. “I’m sorry.”
“Honey, we know it’s not your fault. Why don’t you and Chloe take off? Tonight’s the big night. Happy early birthday.”
As she puts the last broken plate in the tub, she slides it to the side and stands. Charlie asks, “You’ll save me a dance?”
“I’m first in line. She promised me yesterday,” George adds.
“Only if you recognize me. It’s a masquerade ball after all.”
Thankful for their understanding, Brianna helps Chloe with her coat, hat, and mittens. Stepping outside, she takes a deep breath. They would make a run for it. They’d hide, and Wayne would eventually give up looking. With a purpose, she reaches for her sister’s hand.
“Bree, do you want a ride?” Eddie asks, absently patting the gun at his side.
Resisting the urge to wrinkle her nose at his horrid breath, she shakes her head. “We have errands. Thank you though.”
Chloe shuffles her boots through the snow on the sidewalk and sings “Let it Snow.”
After closing out her savings account with one hundred and twenty-six dollars, she pulls open the door to the pawnshop. The stifling heat hits them in the face as they wipe their boots on the rug just inside the door. In a Santa hat, Gus Fuller strokes his long white beard and waves.
Bree sighs. “I need to talk to Gus for a moment. Do you want to wander around?” Chloe nods and heads for the stack of board games while Bree meets him at the counter. “I’d, uh, like to see what I can get for this,” she says, slipping her precious locket over her head. A treasured gift from Lucy’s brother, Robert.
Gus turns it in his hand. “This is a high-end piece. I’d say it’s worth a grand. I can only give you five hundred, but Donovan’s Jewelry may give you more.”
She groans. Robert had spent too much money on her. She quickly wipes her eyes. This is about responsibility and survival not a sentimental trinket.
Bree takes the locket back from him and stares at it. She wears it all the time and touches it often. Finally nodding, she sets it back on the counter. As she tucks the money into her wallet, Chloe joins her with a magic kit.
“Do we have extra for this? It’s three dollars,” Chloe says.
“It’s yours for a hug,” Gus replies.
Chloe runs around the counter. After paying with a hug, she kisses his cheek and tugs his beard. “Thanks, Gus.”
With slouched shoulders, Bree moves toward the door.
“Take care,” Gus says quietly.
She wants to grab her locket and run. Instead, she limps out the door. No turning back. At the bus station, she opts for the trip tomorrow morning so she can attend the gala. Her one last hurrah.
“What are you going to wish for?” Chloe asks as they walk down the snowy sidewalk.
“Hmm, my birthday wish,” she says, swinging Chloe’s hand. “What would your wish be?”
“It’s a secret.”
“You’re keeping secrets from me?” Bree asks.
“Only my wish.”
“Are you wishing to hold hands with your boyfriend, Patrick Dugan, during recess?”
Chloe yanks her hand away. “I don’t like Patrick.”
“If you say so.”
“Well, I don’t,” Chloe replies.
Bree laughs. “So what’s your wish or should I keep guessing?”
Chloe takes a deep breath. “I wish I had a mom.”
Bree winces. Her eyes blur again. “I’m sorry things are different for us. I try to take care of you the best I can.”
Now, Bree would be making their lives even more difficult. The stress and worry sends an ache to her leg as they walk up the hill.
“Bree, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay, Clover. I sometimes wish for that, too.” Bree points to the golf course country club where the gala would be held. Delivery trucks drop off flowers and balloons. The band unloads their equipment. “Should I bring you home one of those huge balloons? Silver or gold?”
“Both,” Chloe replies, taking her hand again.
Bree slows her pace and huffs as they approach Paul and Marta Donovan’s house. She and Chloe live in the studio loft above their two-stall garage.
After retrieving Chloe’s backpack for her overnight stay, they enter the main house through the huge kitchen. Passing two freshly pressed tuxedos still in their plastic wrap, Chloe races up the steps. Bree limps behind her.
In Lucy’s room, a cluttered oak desk overlooks the snow-covered in-ground pool and golf course. Working from home, Lucy has a knack for marketing while Robert, always away, travels the world and designs amazing necklaces, earrings, and bracelets for the family business — Donovan’s Jewelry.
On the plum couch, Chloe scoots closer to Lucy so they can look at her new magic kit.
Lucy grins as if she knows a secret. “Turning twenty-one will be your best birthday ever. I can feel it. The stars have finally aligned.”
Lucy believes in Happily Ever After scenarios. She had said having a sprained ankle would allow her to watch Chloe while Bree went to the gala this year.
“A new year always brings hope and excitement,” she replies, letting Lucy’s positive energy wash over her. “Are you sure you’re up to this?”
“Chloe and I are going to have a girls’ spa night with facials and manicures,” Lucy says.
“Oh boy,” Chloe says. “Bree, you can go now.”
Bree kisses Lucy’s cheek and whispers a “thank you” in her ear. “Behave, my sweet Clover. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning.”
“Why so early?” Lucy asks. “We’re staying up until midnight.”
“I want to start celebrating my birthday. Chloe promised to be extra nice. I want to take advantage of it.”
“You’re not going to be mean, are you?” Chloe asks.
“I’m going to be so horrible, and you’ll still have to be nice,” Bree replies, kissing her head. Chloe laughs at her jest and pushes her away.
After leaving the main house, Bree hurries up the steps to the loft. Inside, she kicks off her boots and tosses her coat on the double bed that she and Chloe share. She loves this small space but her home no longer.
Read more about Brianna and her struggle in the novel, The Garden Collection
The Garden Collection: Blurb
A few words of encouragement can stay with you for a lifetime. Robert and Brianna’s childhood friendship grew into respect for each other and their ideas. Robert gave her the confidence to stand up for herself. Brianna helped him see his artistic potential and encouraged him to travel for his inspiration. He found it in the letters she wrote.
Now struggling to care for her six-year-old half-sister, Chloe, after their mother abandoned them, Brianna Carlson receives news that her abusive stepfather will be released from prison. Still limping from a once broken leg, she’s terrified he’ll come back to hurt Chloe this time. She decides to leave town.
While traveling for his family’s jewelry business, Robert Donovan designed The Garden Collection, his newest line of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Returning home, he discovers Brianna had lied in every letter she sent. She never received any of his. Before he can demand answers, she disappears without Chloe. As Robert learns about Brianna’s life during his absence, he sets out to find her and convince her to trust him again.