Authors: Barbara Witek
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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The Story Vault
P.O. Box 11826
Charleston, WV 25339-1826
SANTA WORE COMBAT BOOTS
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2011 by Barbara
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book
To Christine Wenger, author, for your heartfelt encouragement to a new writer (me) all those years ago.
Without you this story would have never been written, and the opportunities for it would have never happened. I will be forever grateful for your friendship and support.
To my husband, Dave, and our kids: Zach, Tyler and Lauren. Thank you for your patience and for constantly believing in me through the ups and downs of this crazy rollercoaster. I wouldn’t be who I am without each one of you.
To my mom, for being the best mom ever.
I love you TONS!
To Kari Lee Townsend and Danielle
for helping me brainstorm and push through this story when I wrote myself in a corner. You guys are the best and I couldn’t do any of this without you. I’m counting down
til our next road trip.
To my agent, Christine
, for cracking the whip when you needed to and understanding when things didn’t move quite as fast as I wanted.
Oh, and for allowing me to take this little detour into self-publication. Thank you Kelly
for pushing along with me and creating my magnificent cover! And to the rest of my family for being the best cheering section and biggest fans I could ever ask for.
“I know you’re here,” Jake Nicklaus said as he stared point-blank into the crackling fire. He’d spent the last half hour shoveling snow, and his gloves had done nothing to ward off the frigid December temperatures. Rubbing his hands together, he blew into them to return the circulation. “You never could sneak up on me, you know.”
The worn blue chair creaked from the corner of his modestly furnished living room as if someone had settled onto its wide cushion. Jake didn’t have to look. His buddy, Larry, always came this time of year. Jake knew it was Larry’s way of checking up on things, to make sure everyone was taken care of, since Larry couldn’t do it himself.
Larry had died three years ago in
Jake understood the reason behind Larry’s visits. He couldn’t blame the wayward spirit. After all, if the tables were turned, Jake would want to make sure his wife and children were safe and happy. That the promise made during the war continued to be kept.
“I fixed her water heater last week.” Jake continued to keep his back turned. In a moment, Larry’s spirit would take on a human-like form, and they would talk like they did every year. “She made me cookies.”
“Molasses?” Larry’s voice still sounded distant. Jake recognized the hint of sadness.
“Yeah, and she dusted them with powdered sugar.”
“I love how her baking smells up the house.” The chair squeaked again, and Jake felt a cool breeze across his face even though the fire blazed. “I miss it. I miss her.”
“I know,” Jake said, his voice carrying a sorrow of its own. He turned to watch the spirit-man take shape. The image faded and focused until it remained whole before him, as if Jake could reach out and touch it. Wearing his army fatigues, Larry Turner looked every bit the soldier he used to be. “If I could trade places with you, I would.”
“But you can’t,” Larry snapped, his image glowing bright-white before becoming clear once more. His body slumped a little, and then he sighed as if catching himself. “She enjoys your company and friendship. I see it in her eyes.”
“You do?” It was only then Jake looked into the eyes of his friend. Over the last three years, the friendship he’d built with Emma had grown to mean everything to him. At times he wished for more, but knew he shouldn’t. Shame was the vice that kept him in check. Larry trusted him to protect her, not steal her away from his memory.
As if sensing Jake’s thoughts, Larry whipped forward in a blast of cold air. Out of reflex, Jake braced himself for the attack. Man and spirit faced off in a silent but soulful battle, the energy like static electricity between them. For what seemed like an eternity, neither moved. Jake barely remembered to breathe.
In the end, it was Jake who backed down, guilt freezing through his veins like frost forming across the window of his heart. He returned to his chair opposite the blue one without a sound. He may not be able to stop the feeling, but he could do his best not to show it. The fire popped from deep in the hearth, drawing his attention to a fresh burst of flame. If nothing else, Jake was a man of honor.
“You’re doing a fine job, my friend. But it’s not enough.” Larry steadied his hand above Jake’s shoulder. Jake felt the weight even though they didn’t touch.
“I can only do so much. Emma is a stubborn woman.” They both laughed and Jake relaxed into the cushions. He knew she hated to accept help, but she was also a woman who knew her limits. At those moments Jake made sure he was there for her to turn to. It wasn’t always easy.
“It’s that stubbornness that wore me down.” Larry took his place across from Jake. “The girl wouldn’t give up ‘til I took her to the dance.” Larry’s eyes became a mirror, and Jake swore he saw a young couple dancing within their hollow depts. “She shouldn’t be alone, Jake.” Larry’s eyes closed and the vision disappeared.
“She’s not. I’m here, and I’ll be here as long as she needs me.”
“She needs you more than she knows.” Larry moved away, the flickering light from the fire creating transparent spaces within his form.
“What do you mean?” Jake rose and followed behind his Major. Did Larry know something he didn’t?
“Every year she loses a little more of her spirit, her Christmas spirit. To see her like this troubles me. She deserves so much better.”
“She misses you. These things take time.” Jake didn’t know what else to say. He noticed it too, how each year Emma seemed to put up less and less decorations. She still made the season bright for her children, but there was definitely something missing for her.
“You have to help her get Christmas back in her heart. She’s not the same woman anymore, and I hate to think it’s because of me.” Larry paused, meeting Jake’s stare. “Do whatever you have to, just make her happy and smile again.”
The guilt Jake felt over Larry’s words threatened to engulf him. He should have been on that chopper, not Larry. Jake’s throat tightened, and he had to clear it to find his voice. “You got it, buddy. You have my word.”
“I trust you, amigo, don’t let me down.”
“I won’t,” Jake answered, putting himself back into the role of soldier. Duty first, then there would be time for him to find his own woman like Emma. A dull thud from outside put both man and spirit on alert.
Since moving in next door three years ago, he could tell the difference between Emma’s car and the Johnson’s who lived on the other side of his two bedroom bungalow. Plus, this was the time of day Emma usually returned home from work, while Marty left for the base an hour before. Jake rose from his chair and peeked out the window.
Five-year-old Sarah slid from the back seat of the old silver station wagon, leaving the door wide open. Shoving her powder-blue hat further on her head, she proceeded to fall backward and make an angel in the snow. She was a perfect combination of her parents, and Jake often caught himself watching her run and play outside. If he was ever lucky enough to have a daughter, he’d want one like Sarah Turner.
Jake looked back over his shoulder to where Larry’s image had been only moments before. “I’m counting on you,” was all he heard fading in the distance, until a noise outside the window drew his attention once more.
Emma hauled Ben from his car seat. “Sarah! What are you doing?” Emma let go of the seatbelt straps, firmly set Ben back into the seat and turned to fetch her daughter. She’d taken two steps before Ben screamed at being left behind.
Whirling around, Emma slipped and grabbed the edge of the car door to steady herself. “Ben, I’m coming, hold on.” While she reached inside the car, she called back to Sarah, “Get up out of the snow. You’re going to be soaked!”
Jake smiled at the spunky little girl who defiantly continued to sweep her arms and legs through the powdery crystals, and then he headed to the front door. Moments later, he couldn’t help but chuckle as he wrapped the woolen scarf around his neck and stepped off the porch. The smell of a neighbor’s wood stove wafted through the crisp air. Sarah lay still in the yard, more intent on catching snowflakes on her tongue than continuing with her angel.
Without saying a word, Jake reached into the trunk of Emma’s car with the intent to help with her groceries. Their hands touched as they grabbed the same bag. Emma startled, then her eyes softened as she formed a smile which had long ago engraved itself in his heart.
“Oh, Jake, you don’t have to do that.” Emma shifted Ben’s weight, slid the earmuffs off her dark brown curls, and picked up a different bag with her free hand. “I think you’ve done enough.” She nodded toward the freshly-shoveled driveway. “I can pay a plow service, you know.”
“I don’t mind.” He loaded up his arms with plastic bags until her trunk was empty, and he closed it with the force of his elbow.
“Inside, Ben.” Emma slid the toddler down her leg and gave him a gentle shove through the front door. The child instantly plopped on the floor, yanked the red knit hat from his curly brown head, and attempted to remove his small red boots himself. “Sarah, come inside and I’ll make some hot chocolate,” Emma called over her shoulder.”
“Hot chocolate? Yay, hot chocolate!” Sarah flew underneath Jake’s arm as he propped open the door, leaving a trail of boots, hat, mittens and coat in her wake.
“I have to put these groceries away, first.” Emma took off her own coat and draped it over the kitchen chair, then turned and picked up the children’s gear with a sigh. Jake was sure she hadn’t intended for him to hear it, because she shortened the breath as soon as it slipped out. He noticed the slight tint of pink across her cheeks before she buried her face in the armful of clothes and headed straight for the mud room. “Sarah, why don’t you take Ben in the living room and watch TV? I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“Hurry, I’m cold.” Sarah picked at the snow stuck in her light brown hair, then pulled her brother up off the floor and out of the room.
“I told you,” Emma responded with hands on hips as she watched her children leave.
Jake looked around her cozy kitchen at the dozen or so bags of groceries, which looked way more than a family of three should need. Then again, it was getting close to the holidays so Emma could very well be stocking up. She’d always gone to her parents’ house over the years, and he wondered if this year was different. Although with Christmas so close, she had yet to put up any decorations aside from the few colorings on the refrigerator.
“So, are you cooking dinner this year?” he asked in a familiar tone that two old friends would use. She laughed, the sound tinkling through his veins like wind chimes on a summer day. He smiled, following her lead and removing items from the bags. He didn’t look at her for fear he’d give his true feelings away.
“You can’t be serious?” Emma crinkled an empty bag, and he raised his eyes for a moment as she slid a couple others closer to her reach. She pulled out two boxes of cereal and set them abruptly in the pantry.
“Then what’s with all of this?” He scrunched the plastic bag so she could see inside and lifted out a large jar of gravy.
“That stuff is for--” She paused, then took a deep breath as if she didn’t want to tell him. Jake could see for the brief moment before she spoke, she was someplace other than her kitchen. “It’s for the annual Post 518 Bereavement Group holiday dinner.” Emma stepped away from the counter and spread her hands wide as she declared, “I’m in charge this year.”
“Good for you.” He tried to sound enthusiastic, because Emma didn’t appear to be.
“Not really.” She dropped her hands and continued to put groceries away.
“Is it ready yet?” Sarah’s impatient voice screamed from the other room.
“Almost,” Emma yelled back, matching her daughter’s tone and letting loose another sigh. She filled the tea kettle with water, then set it on the stove to boil. “What?” She stopped short and put her hands in the air again.
“You’re not excited about the dinner? You go every year.”
“Yes, go, not run the whole thing.” A frustrated growl escaped her as she wadded the empty plastic bags and shoved them in a bigger bag by the back door. She busied herself by taking out the container of hot cocoa, a couple mugs and a spoon, explaining as she whirled around the sunshine yellow kitchen. “Brenda Farmer was going to organize it, but her mother took a bad fall so she left early for Florida to beat the Christmas rush. They are a great group of ladies who have done so much for me and the kids over these last three years. I couldn’t turn them down when they need me most.”
“Maybe this is what you need. You know, to get back into the holiday spirit?” No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than Jake wished he could pull them back. The air seemed to become a wall of ice between them as the softness about her hardened.
“There is no holiday spirit, Jake. There hasn’t been since Larry’s death. And before you say another word,” she pointed a finger, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jake held his hands up in surrender. He was used to honoring Emma’s wishes. She’d opened up over the years about how lost she felt around the holidays without Larry, and how a part of her wished she could get over the pain. Jake wasn’t sure how to help her take that first step, but he believed the answer was in the magic of Christmas. And so did Larry.
Right now her blue eyes held that
look again, but there was something else he couldn’t put his finger on. Worry? Distraction? He wanted to ask, but instead drummed his fingers on the counter. Emma shook her head as if catching herself.
“I only plan on doing what I have to in order to make the widows happy, even if it makes me miserable.” She made a weak attempt at a smile, and it was enough to erase the lines of sorrow from her face.
“I’m sure you’ll do a great job.” Jake handed her the gallon of milk and a brick of cheese, which she set inside the refrigerator door.
“Thanks, if I can find a place to have the darn thing. One week before Christmas, and everywhere I’ve tried is either booked or too pricey. I’ve only got a couple more places to look into. If they don’t pan out, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“I’m pretty good friends with the Chief down at the fire station. I bet he’d let you use the community hall.”
“It’s larger than what we really need. He’ll probably charge me too much.”
“Let me see what I can do. I re-wired his basement sound system, so the guy owes me.” Jake winked and Emma’s face brightened a little.