Excerpt ~ The Gift of Christmas Past

The Gift of Christmas Past


Chapter One


January 2003


Hadley’s mind reeled with disbelief as her foster mom shoved her clothes into an old suitcase. “But…but I’m innocent.”

“Maybe.” Dianna gave a half-hearted nod. “I hope so. It’d be an awful thing to squander the opportunities we’ve offered you.”

“I…I am. The investigation will prove it. I promise. You’ve got to believe me. Please.”

“Like I said, maybe you are innocent…of this incident. You had seemed to be making great strides since you went to anger-management classes. I’ll give you that, Hads.”

“Then don’t send me back. Please. My friends are here. Monroe is—”

“Decision’s made. You made it when you broke curfew for the third time.”

“But I was only a little late and for good reasons. You said so—”

“I’m aware.” Dianna didn’t pause her movements as she packed Hadley’s toothbrush.

Hadley bit back tears, hating any sign of being vulnerable. “Then why?”

“They’ve found two witnesses who place you in the Reeds’ yard.”

“What?” Hadley’s knee-jerk gasp was the totally wrong response. Stay cool. Remain calm.

“Yeah, apparently you were there.” Dianna released a slow sigh. “Imagine that.”

Regret twisted through Hadley. She never should’ve set foot on the Reeds’ property. “Okay, I was at their place, but I never—”

“Interesting.” Dianna stood up straight, the top of her head now even with Hadley’s nose. She yanked a beautiful red sweater off a hanger, a Christmas gift from Scott and her to Hadley a mere three weeks ago. “You’ve denied being anywhere near there until right now. They said they saw you start a fire using leaves, sticks, and what appeared to be some kind of accelerant.” She shoved the sweater into the suitcase with the other clothes as if it and Hadley no longer mattered.

Should she explain her actions? The moment the question came to her she knew the answer. No matter the subject or the situation, adults couldn’t be trusted. Anything Hadley said would be passed along to the authorities, distorted, and used against her.

Dianna jammed two pairs of wool socks into the suitcase. “Anyway, Scott and I think it’s in everyone’s best interest if you don’t live here anymore.”

“Please”—Hadley clasped her hands together—“don’t do this. I’m controlling my temper better. Ask Monroe’s parents. My few nights with them over Christmas break were good. They got to know me, and their word matters in this town and state.”

None of this mess was on the horizon then. Hadley and Monroe had enjoyed the most amazing Christmas, the very best in her entire seventeen years. They’d fallen even more in love if that was possible. She’d joined the Birch family—Monroe, his parents, and his college-age big sister, Nicole—for the Christmas Eve feast and unwrapping gifts covered in gorgeous paper and adorned with bright ribbons. It was an evening straight out of a fairy tale with the large family gathering she had always longed to have. His parents had finally seemed to accept her and her wayward past, and she’d stayed a few nights in their guest room.

And now?

Dianna plucked two keepsakes off the dresser—a pair of handblown-glass hummingbirds and a glass rainbow with Monroe’s and her initials inside a little heart. Monroe had it made for her, and he had given it to her for Christmas as a symbol of the covenant between the Creator and her and a symbol of the love between Monroe and her and his promise to always take care of her.

The hummingbirds were from her birth mother, given to her more than twelve years ago. Although she’d only been five years old, she remembered clearly the day. A social worker was at their house to take Hadley into foster care. Mom had packed Hadley’s suitcase and had knelt in front of her. She placed the hummingbird figurines in her hand, saying one was her and one was Hadley. Hadley was to hold on to them as a reminder that she and her mom would be together again one day, that it was a temporary separation. Mom promised she would get off the bad stuff and the courts would grant her custody again.

But that never happened. Despite years of her mom sporadically coming for supervised visits and occasionally getting close to being clean, she never managed to do so long enough to satisfy the courts. She also never signed over her parental rights, which would have allowed Hadley to be adopted.

Dianna stuffed the keepsakes in the suitcase.

Hadley jolted. “Hey, those will break.”

Dianna nodded, took them out, and gently placed them on top of the sweater. “We’ve tried to be fair, Hadley, but you’re just too much for us, and we have other foster kids to think about.”

“I was there, but I didn’t burn down their house!” Hadley pounded a fist into her palm. “I…I’m not an arsonist. I was trying to do something nice for them. I…” Hadley grabbed fistfuls of her thick curls. “I swear it! You’ve got to—”

“You’ll calm down.” Dianna pointed at her. “Now.”

Hadley released her hair, grew still, and nodded. Dianna had earned Hadley’s respect. Besides, as bad as going to the state-licensed group home would be, juvenile lockup would be much worse. Tears stung. She had a fierce temper and often impulsively lashed out against the unfairness of life. Dianna and Scott had dealt with her recklessness for years, helping her learn to cope with her emotions in a less destructive way. They’d even stayed by her when she had to go before a judge on a vandalism charge. She’d been reprimanded and sent to court-ordered anger-management therapy. But because of her past behavior, they were sure she was guilty, apparently convinced before seeing any proof.

Hadley’s heart seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. “But if I go there, it’ll mean a new school for the rest of my senior year. I’ll be separated from Monroe, and…”

Dianna barely glanced at her, and Dianna’s lack of reaction made it clear that Hadley’s boyfriend and what school she attended were not Dianna’s concern. But these things were everything to Hadley. She didn’t want to leave.

Dianna paused in jamming personal items into the side pockets of the suitcase just long enough to point at a framed picture on the wall. “Is that yours or Elliott’s?”

In the photo white sunlight filtered through the wooden beams of a railroad trestle that stood taller than the leafy green trees surrounding it. A preschool-age Elliott stood ankle deep in a clear creek below the trestle, arm in arm with another girl, who looked to be the same age. They both had on shorts and T-shirts, and they had identical dark, straight, shoulder-length hair. Elliott had no idea who the other girl was or where the picture was taken.

“Elliott’s.” Hadley wanted to shake Dianna. Did their foster mom care about them at all? It was Elliott’s most prized possession, the only thing she had left of the family she’d once belonged to. “It’s her in the photo, for Pete’s sake.”

Dianna looked closer, taking a moment to focus on the picture. “So it is. Speaking of her, I’ve told her to stay out of this room until it’s time for you to go.”

“Why?” Adults and institutions were so frustrating. They had rules that made little sense, and they made up restrictions at will. This was Elliott’s room too, and she certainly hadn’t done anything to be barred from it.

Dianna didn’t answer. She laid Hadley’s coat and hat on the bed. Without warning she closed the suitcase and bore down on the top while zipping it.

Stop her! But Hadley couldn’t move.

Glass crunched, but Dianna didn’t flinch. It was as if she’d heard nothing.

Hadley stared at the suitcase, feeling as though every dream she’d tried to protect, every hope she’d held on to was also broken.

Dianna snapped her fingers. “Hadley?”

Hadley lifted her gaze from the suitcase.

“Just take a breath.” Dianna sighed, but sympathy crept into her eyes for a moment. “I guess if you want to say goodbye, you could come downstairs where everyone else is having afternoon snacks.”

Hadley shook her head. “I can’t.” It would be awkward and filled with silent judgment as her foster siblings tried to assure themselves they were too well behaved for Dianna and Scott to make them leave.

“Okay then.” Dianna opened the bedroom door. “Your decision, but since I won’t have my eyes on you, let me be clear. No phone calls. No leaving this room until the social worker arrives.”

No leaving the room? Alarms rang in Hadley’s head. Why? What was going on?

Dianna closed the door behind her and used a key to lock it. Hadley moved to the window, looking for a way to climb out. If she could get to Monroe, they could run off together. Forget graduating high school in a few months. They needed to get out of town. But the view divulged the same information it always did. There was no way to get from this second-story window to the ground below without breaking a leg or maybe her back. The only way out was through the door Dianna had just locked.

Hadley opened the suitcase. The brightly colored glass keepsakes were shattered beyond repair, the emerald green and magenta of the hummingbirds mixed with the colors of the rainbow. She picked up every piece she could, feeling as fragmented as the broken glass.

Thoughts of being on the Reed property assailed her. The elderly couple’s yard was a good cut through when walking to a friend’s house or to town, but they looked at her as if she were a rabid dog. Scott and Dianna’s other foster kids never went through their yard, but Hadley saw no reason for the Reeds to be such sticklers, and they’d had more than one run-in about it. The memory of breaking into their shed to get a rake and their five-gallon container of gas mocked her. Their attitude was infuriating her, and—

The faint sound of metal scraping caught Hadley’s attention. As she turned, the lock clicked and the door eased open. Elliott, dressed in her coat and knit cap, with a backpack slung over one shoulder, glanced behind her before slipping into the room in complete silence. Hadley started to say something, but Elliott put her finger over her lips as she shut the door. She set the key on the dresser. “You okay?” Elliott whispered.

Hadley gently closed her hands around the pieces of glass. “No.”

Elliott was a year younger and a foster teen, like Hadley, but she avoided doing anything that would get her into trouble. Even so, that hadn’t kept Elliott from being moved to one foster home after another. But she was whip smart, had a few good friends, and, most of all, wasn’t an agitator. She was, however, fiercely loyal.

Elliott nodded at Hadley’s cupped hands. Hadley slowly lifted her top hand.

“Oh, Hads, no.” Elliott took off her backpack and unzipped it. She removed a stack of index cards with carefully penned notes from a sandwich-size, zippered plastic bag and held it open toward Hadley.

Hadley carefully eased the shards into the bag, scraping the big and tiny pieces from her hands. “I can’t stay here, Elliott. Something’s up. They’re sending me to a group home and locked the door so I couldn’t leave, which means I need to leave. Now.”

Elliott’s eyes were a strange mixture of golden brown and green. Her hair was dark brown, and her skin seemed perpetually tan. Hadley often wondered about her ethnicity, but Elliott didn’t know. Her memories of her early childhood were sparse. She was clear on what life was like between kindergarten and when she was abandoned at eight, but none of those memories helped her know who the girl in the picture was or what state they’d been in when the photo was taken. The court couldn’t find any of Elliott’s relatives, so she eventually became a candidate for adoption, but no one had adopted her.

Hadley pressed the air from the bag and sealed it. If fragments were all she had left, that’s what she’d hold on to. “Will you help me leave?” It wasn’t fair to ask. If Elliott got caught helping her, she might be removed from this home too. But Hadley was desperate.

“Yeah,” Elliott whispered. Hadley could hear her anxiety, but the girl held up a finger. “Wait.” She eased onto the landing, disappeared, and returned with the handset to a cordless phone. After closing the door Elliott passed her the phone. With the sandwich bag of glass fragments still in her hand, Hadley pushed buttons, calling Monroe’s cell. No one in this home owned a cell, but a lot of the rich kids did.

“Hey, Hads. How’s it going?” His deep, reassuring voice worked its way to her toes.

Hadley moved to the far corner of the room, intending to speak softly. “Bad. I know you’re busy, but…”

“Anything for you.”

“I need to see you. Now.

“Okay. I just picked up some of my mom’s favorite honey at a farm in Marion.”

“Where’s that?”

“Oh, about forty miles northeast of Asheville, all of it narrow and winding roads. It’ll take me”—he paused, apparently doing the math in his head—“about an hour and a half to get to your house.”

“Don’t come here. I’ll explain later. I’d rather meet you at our spot.” Their special place was on Blue Ridge Parkway overlooking the French Broad River, which should be about halfway between them.

“No deal if you plan on hitchhiking, Hads.”

“I promise I won’t hitchhike.”

Elliott pulled the keys to her motor scooter from her jeans pocket. Apparently she could hear Monroe too.

“Elliott will drive me.”

“Be there as soon as I can. Dress warm. It’s really cold to ride a scooter.”

That was Monroe, always so caring. “I will. Bye.”

Elliott pointed at the bed. “I don’t know what your plans are, but the suitcase has to stay. The motor scooter will barely hold the two of us.”

“Sure.” Hadley grabbed her coat off the bed. She released the bag holding the shards of glass into the silky pocket, still determined to hold on to dreams that seemed to want nothing to do with her. Her mom was allowed to have two supervised visits per month with Hadley, but she hadn’t come in more than two years. As far as Hadley knew, she’d never met her dad. Her parents didn’t care about her, and she was weary of caring about them. But Monroe and the rainbow he’d given her were worth holding on to.

She quietly followed Elliott, who ran interference by speaking to people while Hadley lagged behind until the coast was clear. As they snaked through the house, working their way to the laundry room, Tara spotted them from the kitchen, a bowl of popcorn in hand. Elliott covered her lips with her finger, hoping Tara would be quiet. Tara nodded, looking as if she wanted to bolt toward them. She was a tenderhearted kid who wouldn’t betray anyone, especially not Elliott or Hadley. From somewhere unseen Dianna spoke, and as her voice grew louder by the second, Hadley knew Dianna was heading their way. Tara dropped the bowl and yelled as though it’d scared her. It clanked hard and broke, scattering popcorn and glass and creating the perfect diversion. While Dianna rushed to clean up the glass and warned about bare feet and shards, Elliott and Hadley entered the laundry room and climbed out the window. Elliott put the motor scooter in neutral, and they walked it all the way down the long, tree-flanked driveway before Elliott started it.

“Get on.” Elliott held out a helmet.

“If Dianna finds out you’ve helped me, she and Scott will take your motor scooter for sure.” That was the least of what would happen, even though Elliott had earned the money to buy it and had been a star student for years.

“You realize this now?” Elliott rolled her eyes. “Maybe the real issue is you’re worried about my driving.”

Still Hadley paused.

“Are you getting on, or am I meeting Monroe without you?”

Hadley grinned. “I’m getting on.” She straddled the scooter. “I have no qualms about your driving. Trus…” Hadley stopped short of saying “trust me.” Saying those words to Elliott had been a mistake she had made only once—when she first moved into this foster home more than three years ago. When Elliott was eight, her dad had said, “You’ll be fine. Trust me. Just trust me.” He was inside his running car at the time, and then he drove away, leaving Elliott standing in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station.

Barren trees covered the mountains and valleys as they took the back roads to the parkway. Sunlight made the dormant trees look silvery, except for occasional spotty shadows from small clouds passing between the sun and the vast mountains. The cold air stung, but regardless of the season, the view brought tranquility…and lots of tourists. Elliott drove with steady caution over the miles of switchback asphalt. The river came into sight, and they continued onward until they came to the lookout spot she and Monroe had claimed as theirs. A mountain of gray rock was on their right, showing where workers once carved out part of the mountain to make way for this road.

Elliott turned left and pulled into the parking area, which was really no more than a wide asphalt shoulder just long enough for cars to park safely. She stopped at the curb.

Monroe was leaning against the side of his black BMW, a car so expensive he was embarrassed to drive it, but his parents insisted because of its safety. His fleece-lined Italian leather coat and boots probably kept him toasty warm.

The moment he spotted her, he stood up straight. He tucked his phone into his jacket pocket while walking toward her. She got off the scooter and removed her helmet.

He embraced her, holding her tight. “It’ll be okay, Hads. Whatever is going on, we’ll fix it.”

It was easy for him to believe that the world was fair and that anything could be fixed with a little time and money. He’d been brought into the world through an upper class, educated couple—his dad was a doctor and his mom was a lawyer—who in their first ten years of marriage had built their careers and talked of one day having two children. He and his older sister were the prince and princess of their world, while Hadley was nothing in hers. He could attend a prep school, as his sister had, but he chose to go to public school. When he was thirteen, he had seen a PBS documentary on affluenza—the materialism and consumerism from extreme wealth that makes people unsatisfied with life and prone to dysfunctional relationships—and he wanted no part of it.

They had similar interests in music and nature. Hiking was a favorite of theirs, but the main thing they had in common was volunteering at a speech and occupational therapy clinic. She’d had a speech impediment as a child, and no one had made her feel more loved or powerful than her speech therapist. So when the high school offered credits to work at a local therapy center, she jumped at it and talked Monroe into it. She had dreamed of the two of them working together someday in a medical facility. But none of that mattered now.

“Let’s leave,” Hadley whispered. “We can marry and start with nothing to build our lives. You said that was the way to live. No rich parents securing your way.”

“Sh. We can handle this, Hadley.” He didn’t let go.

She held tight, imagining never letting him go. He put some space between them, removed his hat, and put it on her head. He gazed into her eyes. “What’s going on?”

She pulled the bag with the fragmented keepsakes out of her pocket and showed him. “Everything has gone wrong. I don’t have a home with Dianna and Scott anymore.”

He took the bag, studying it, looking sympathetic, and then put it in his own coat pocket. “I’ll find a way to fix it for you.”

Is that even possible? She couldn’t imagine how, but Monroe was always true to his word.

He knew everything—from her run-ins with the Reeds, to being reprimanded by a judge, to the ongoing investigation related to the fire—so she quickly filled him in on the latest. “Please. Let’s leave this town, just the two of us.”

He took her by the hand, and they walked to the bluff that overlooked the French Broad River. Elliott remained on her scooter, watching and ready to do whatever Hadley and Monroe decided. Unlike Hadley, Elliott didn’t trust guys—not one in the entire gender—but she would accept whatever Hadley said needed to be done.

Once in their spot overlooking the valley and river, Monroe cradled her shoulders under his arm. They watched the wide, rippling river flow onward toward places Hadley couldn’t imagine. “Breathe, Hads. Let our view do its thing inside you.”

She followed his instructions, taking in a deep breath and slowly releasing it. This wasn’t their first time to meet here and use the serene beauty to calm their stress. The Blue Ridge Parkway was filled with endless mountains, which now were covered with thousands of leafless trees. For two years Monroe and she had come here throughout every season, but fall was the most beautiful, followed by the rare snowy winter days. They often packed a simple picnic lunch, chose a table near the river or an overlook, and talked for hours.

He squeezed her shoulder. “If we need to leave, we will. I promise.”

“I’ve been thinking on the drive [or “ride”] here, trying to piece together what’s going on, and it’s pretty clear I’m going to be charged with arson. It’s the only thing that explains what’s happening. Dianna and Scott are kicking me out. From how she was behaving, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was arrested within the week.”

He squared her to himself, looking into her eyes. “That’s not going to happen.”

“You’re sure?” She was confident that he knew much more than she did about this and other matters, but fear gnawed at her.

“Yep.” He gazed into her eyes, love and admiration clearly reflecting back at her. “Because you’re right, and I’m taking you away from all this.”

“What?” Her pulse quickened. Was he saying what she thought he was?

He cupped her face in his hands. “Marry me, Hads. This wasn’t the way I planned to propose, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We’ll drive east and not stop until we get to the coast. Then we can say our vows on the beach under the stars in front of God, and that’s all that really counts. When we turn eighteen, we’ll make it official in the eyes of the law.”

“I…” Countless thoughts and emotions rushed through her, but her breath caught. It wouldn’t be the mountaintop wedding she had daydreamed about, but she would be with Monroe forever, no more walls or authorities separating them. “Yes,” she whispered. “Let’s go tonight.”

He kissed her, and the cold world melted.

He broke the kiss by smiling and pulling back enough to look into her eyes. “I think I recall enough about Virginia Beach from my visit there last summer that I can find us a cheap hotel and jobs. I have enough in my savings account to pay for food, gas, and lodging until we start getting a paycheck.”

Were they really going to do this? Her mind was reeling with the details of their plan. “A few weeks ago Kyle mentioned that some states allow teens to marry as young as eighteen without parental consent. I think Virginia is one of them.”

Monroe angled his head, frowning. “Can’t say I’m surprised that your former boyfriend found a way to talk about marriage to you, but in this one case I hope he’s right.”

She chuckled. She should have known that the mention of Kyle’s name would slightly annoy Monroe. Kyle was a year older than they were, had graduated from high school, and was living on his own. She and Kyle had dated for about a year when she was a freshman, before she knew Monroe. Although the romantic side of their relationship had ended, Hadley counted Kyle as one of her few friends, and Monroe didn’t complain about it. But sometimes he seemed a little jealous that she’d had a boyfriend before him. For Monroe, Hadley was his one and only.

Hadley snuggled against Monroe and looked out at their view. How long would it be before they would come back here, if ever? “Wow, we’re really doing this? What if they put a warrant out for me that reaches to Virginia?”

“I don’t know how all that works, but we’ll figure it out. I don’t care if we have to leave the country. We’ll be a family.”

The word family struck hard. Monroe’s family had been good to her, and she was running away with their son. It gnawed at her heart, and she knew they couldn’t just leave without telling them. She’d never had a real family like that, but to save her from her fate, he was going to give up his.

“Monroe, you have to go home and say goodbye to your parents.”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Hads.” He scratched his head. “They’d probably give me trouble about it.”

“But they deserve to hear it from you, face-to-face. Not just get a phone call. They’ve been too good to you for us to disappear until we turn eighteen.”

“You’re right. Besides, now that I think about it, going home is the only way to get my stash of cash, and it’ll make the next few months easier if I grab my clothes.”

“And your PlayStation 2.”

He laughed. “True.”

She glanced at Elliott. “I’ll go back with Elliott, not all the way to the house, but to the patch of woods near the park. Maybe Elliott or Tara could sneak out my suitcase and bring it to me. Meet you at the park?”

“Yeah. But it could take me a while. Worst-case scenario I’ll be there after midnight.”

“You think you might need to sneak out?”

“Yeah. They’ll be upset and will say no way and eventually will go to bed. It’s what parents do. They’ll assure me I’m too young to know what I’m doing. But whether we marry now or five years from now, there is no one for me but you. And I say now. My parents will have to accept that—one way or another.” He kissed her on the lips and smiled. “I’ll be there by one o’clock for sure.”