I Remember Steve Mercado

On this, the 18th anniversary of September 11th, I wanted to re-post the first tribute I wrote as a part of Project 2996. While I was honored to write all of the tributes I did, Steve Mercado’s always felt personal to me. Maybe it is because he was a first responder, a man used to running toward danger in the service or others, or maybe because he seemed like the kind of guy you’d want for a friend. But for whatever reason, Steve will always occupy a little piece of my heart.

I still remember – and I will never forget.

Annie

Firefighter Steve Mercado is among the missing in the World Trade Center attack on Tuesday. This photo is on display at the station where they do duty Wednesday Sept 19, 2001. Newsday photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr.

I did not know Steve Mercado, but he was my kind of guy. He was funny, handsome, made a mean chili and damn it, he was a hero. On September 11th he and eleven other of his firefighter brothers were lost in the World Trade Center. I imagine him charging up those stairs, intent on answering the calls for help. Intent on fulfilling his mission to save and protect. He was that kind of guy. He lived to help people. To make them laugh, make them feel like things were really okay. And I think that when Steve was around, people did feel that way.

He was born and raised in the Bronx and dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees as a kid. He played stickball in the streets with his pals – a game his father had taught him and eventually a game he would teach his own son and countless other children. A tradition he carried into adulthood.

He married his childhood sweetheart Jovianna and eventually they had two sons, Skylar and Austin. He was a dedicated husband and father and took great joy in watching his children grow. I imagine that he had a picture of his wife and kids taped inside his helmet – I don’t know it – but he seemed the kind of man who would. Who loved his life so much that he would want to keep the things dear to him close. I imagine too, that his last thoughts were of his family, what kind of men his sons would grow up to be and how very much he loved Jovi.

He was a modern day warrior, facing life and death as a matter of course. Charging in to whatever task life had dealt him – unphased and unafraid. And, I believe the world was better for Steve having been in it. He made the world a better place, a safer place, and a kinder place. He had a passion for life and it showed.

He loved stickball and dreamed of it becoming an Olympic sport one day. He was a legendary player and the President of the NY Emperor’s Stickball League. According to Steve, “Stickball is all about community. For me, I learned the game from my father, and others of his generation. They were my heroes, the role models we looked up to. Stickball was an important part in our tradition of teamwork, determination and community. My goal now is to reach out to the kids growing up today to make sure we continue to pass down these values.”

 

Stickball was a true calling for Steve. His wife said that he believed that there wasn’t any problem that couldn’t be worked out by a game of stickball. I think he may have had a point. Nothing like whacking balls over the rooftops and running like the wind to give you perspective. He was responsible for creating many teams across the country, starting programs for kids who might otherwise have not had the opportunity to learn about the teamwork and tradition Steve so loved. What lucky kids to have had such a great role model as Steve. He made things better, not by words but by his actions.

Steve was a man who made a difference and I believe still does. In the words of Buddha, If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. I hope that I have in some small way shown you the miracle of Steve.

Steve’s poem to his dad:

Addendum: Sharon Cannone, Steve’s cousin was kind enough to share the eulogy she delivered at Steve’s memorial service in November 2001:

There’s only one way to deal with the pain of losing my cousin Steve and the thousands of other lives that were lost on September 11. There’s only one way to come to terms with the pain and fear we feel. The only way to get beyond this is to live our lives the way my cousin chose to live his. We must be brave.

I have a lot of memories of my cousin. We grew up in the same building together and always stayed very close. A lot of memories…. But one memory in particular has been playing over and over in my mind since I learned that he was among the missing. Among Steve’s many talents a long time ago he dabbled into the world of boxing. And with just about everything else he took on, he trained long and hard to hone his skills. Well, the hard work and training paid off, because Steve qualified for the Golden Gloves and had his big night at Madison Square Garden. Steve was well represented that night by family and friends. When he entered the ring for the main event, the Garden “rocked” with applause from his fans. After the usual introductions, the fight began. But a minute or so into the fight, Steve took a punch to the chin and hit the canvas with a thud.

The moment Steve fell, I jumped out of my seat and started screaming at the top of my lungs. STEVIE GET UP!! STEVIE GET UP! I don’t remember how many times I yelled to my cousin, but all of a sudden, Steve got to one knee, shook his head, got up and beat the living daylights out of his opponent. The Garden went wild.After the fight, we all went to a bar in the City to celebrate. Steve told me that as he was lying on the canvas he heard a voice through the haze screaming his name. And that’s when the haze cleared, he said “That’s Sharon – I gotta get up”. He told me that night at the bar that it was my voice yelling his name over and over that enabled him to win the fight. I never thought I could be prouder of my cousin as I was that night — the night he fought the fight of his life. But I was wrong.

From the moment I knew that Steve was missing, I thought about that night at the Garden. Over and over I prayed, Stevie please get up. But it wasn’t in the cards this time. Even though I was joined in prayer by friends, family, the City and the whole Country. We all screamed your name Stevie, but this time your opponent was a dirty fighter who hit way below the belt.

I’ll never understand the twisted minds of terrorists who can cause pain like this. I don’t understand why some people choose to live their lives with pure hatred in their hearts instead of love. Their hatred defines who they are. Steve’s love for life, great sense of humor and truly giving heart defined who he was. He put his life on the line for his fellow man on a daily basis. And I’m very proud to have been a part of his life.

Note: For those of you in the NY area, PBS will be airing a documentary called “Bragging Rights” that covers the game and tradition of stickball. Steve is featured in this documentary and it will air Thursday, September 14th at 8PM.

How to Write Great Book Reviews

A Guest Post by Larry Froncek

anita rodgers mystery writer
Image courtesy of rawpixels.com

Every year, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of novels are published in each of your favorite genres. In an earlier era, a new novel may only have had to compete for your attention with other recently released books and time-honored classics on the store shelves; however, in today’s world of near-permanent availability and infinite digital shelf space, any newly released novel is essentially in competition with every other book that’s ever been released in its genre. Without word of mouth, it can be almost impossible for a new writer to cut through the noise and gain traction.

That’s why it’s so important for readers to write reviews and share them on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, as well as their reader groups and their social media accounts.

I recently surveyed our VIP reader list to find out what they consider to be the top things they look for in a review when considering a new novel. Here are their most common responses, in no particular order:

  • The author’s unique voice.
  • Couldn’t put the book down.
  • Didn’t see plot twists coming.
  • A new take on the genre.
  • Would read more by this author.
  • Already purchased the next book in the series.
  • Great world building.
  • Total sensory experience.
  • Vivid imagery.
  • Character growth.
  • The book reminds them of an author, book, movie, or TV show.
  • Can’t stop thinking about it.

On the other hand, there are the things readers don’t like to see in reviews:

  • Spoilers (revealing plots twists, whodunnit, etc).
  • A summary of the book.
  • Rudeness or snarkiness.
  • Penalizing a book because it’s not in a genre you normally read.
  • Short reviews like “I loved it!” are fine but sharing WHY you loved the book is more helpful to a potential reader.

What to do if the book didn’t work for you?

Sometimes we give a book a shot and it turns out to be outside of our wheelhouse. Maybe you normally enjoy epic fantasy but thought an urban fantasy sounded interesting, but then found you just didn’t enjoy the book. That’s fine. Just note that in your review. Something like, “I normally prefer epic fantasy and wanted to try this novel. It didn’t work for me, but I can see how urban fantasy fans would really enjoy this story because of X, Y, Z.”

Just remember that if you’re reviewing the book of an up-and-coming author, they will likely see your review. So just remember there’s another person on the other side of the screen who invested months, if not years, of their time to create that story.

What to do if you have criticism for the author that you think might help them?

First, write it down and sit on it for a day. If you still think it’s useful, contact the author privately via email or a form on their website.

Letting them know about a weird spelling error or formatting problem might be helpful but editorial advice is likely worthless. They’re not going to rewrite the book to suit your tastes. If the fantasy novel you just read didn’t have enough romance, that’s your preference, not theirs. Every novel isn’t for everyone.

Once you’ve written that great review, spread it around

The best thing you can do with your new great review is share it on social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and GoodReads and tag the author. If you know their email, send them a link to the review. Not only does it give them a heads up that you reviewed their novel but if they’re smart, they will tag you on their list as someone they can approach to review their next novel.

Need some inspiration to help you write a great review?

Every day I post my favorite new review on the Voracious Readers Only Instagram account and Facebook group. If you want to see some great reviews that you can model your own after, that’s a fantastic place to start.

I hope this short article has given you a useful perspective on the purpose of book reviews and how to write them to best help readers and authors find one another. Perhaps I’ll be reading one of your reviews someday soon!

Larry Froncek is the owner of Voracious Readers Only, a service that connects avid readers with authors in the genres they most enjoy. Since September 2017, Voracious Readers Only has made over 95,000 reader-author connections. For more information about Larry and Voracious Readers, please visit the Voracious Readers Only Website.

Self-Publishing on Amazon: 4 Crucial Tips for First-Time Authors

Guest Post by Savannah Cordova

 

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Self-publishing a book on Amazon is a big step for any author, but especially if you’ve never done it before. No matter how much research you’ve conducted or reassurance you’ve gotten from friends, putting your book up on Amazon is always an intimidating process — there are so many little details to remember, and therefore many little things that can go wrong.

Luckily, there are also concrete steps you can take to insure your self-published book as much as possible. And while no single measure will guarantee a successful launch on Amazon, doing all of these things will certainly maximize your chances! Here are four crucial tips for authors who decide to self-publish on Amazon, covering everything from uploading your files correctly to planning your marketing approach.

Tip #1: Polish and upload your manuscript effectively

Before you even think about putting your book on Amazon, you need to get your manuscript and cover in tiptop shape. Not only does this mean writing the best book you possibly can, but also hiring an editor or proofreader to sweep for inconsistencies and errors — not just proofing it yourself or asking a friend. Paying someone else to do the job, someone whose livelihood depends on their abilities, is a much safer bet than trusting inexperienced eyes.

You should also invest in a professional book cover design. Repeated tests have shown that a professional-looking book cover gets you way more clicks on Amazon, and you don’t want to lose up to 50% of potential buyers just because of your cover! So bite the bullet on the cost and get that gorgeous cover for your book.

Once you are absolutely, 110% sure that your manuscript and cover cannot be improved, you’re ready to prepare your files for Amazon. As you may already know, the Amazon Kindle Store uses MOBI files. This means that no matter what kind of file you upload, it will be converted to MOBI — which can have adverse effects on your formatting. So before you upload, ensure that your file is already a MOBI to prevent Amazon from converting it.

As for your book cover image, pretty much all you need is for it to be 1,000 pixels tall x 625 pixels wide, in the form of a TIFF or JPG. If one doesn’t work, try the other — the cover upload function can act up sometimes, so you may need to re-upload a couple of times.

Tip #2: Optimize your description and keywords

With your files safely uploaded and looking beautiful, you’re ready to write the description and set the Amazon keywords for your book! The more you can optimize these elements, the easier it will be for your readers to find you, and the more sales you’ll make. Annie’s already touched on how to write a great Amazon product description, but here are a few things you can do in terms of keywords specifically:

  • Try to get into your target reader’s head

It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many authors go straight to using keyword tools rather than thinking about it from a human perspective. Simply imagine that you were a reader looking for a book like yours, type all the keywords you can think of into Amazon, and check which titles are ranking for each keyword. If they’re similar to your book and have decent rankings, you can bet that’s a strong keyword, and you should add it to your own details.

  • Focus on high-traffic, low-competition keywords

Of course, though you want to be using some of the same keywords as your competitors, you’ll benefit even more if you can find a few niche keywords with high traffic but low competition. If lots of people search for a certain term, but not too many books are actually a good match for that term, this could be your chance to fill a gap in the market!

  • Use Amazon’s ad system to your advantage

This is a tip for after you’ve put your book up on Amazon, but it’s just as effective (if not more so) than trying to optimize your keywords beforehand. Once you’ve made some sales, you can go into your KDP dashboard and “create an ad” — but instead of actually setting up Amazon ads, just check the suggested target keywords for the ad that you would make. Amazon will tell you exactly which words and phrases readers have been using to find your book, meaning you can go back into your description and re-optimize to capture even more readers.

Tip #3: Weigh your options with KDP Select

There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the various pros and cons of enrolling in KDP Select, the program that offers various promotional opportunities in exchange for Amazon digital exclusivity. As in, while enrolled in KDP Select (which lasts 90 days), you cannot sell your eBook anywhere other than Amazon — though you may distribute print copies if you wish.

The KDP Select program has several concrete benefits, including:

  1. Free and discounted price promotions, which help you get tons of downloads and gain visibility by ranking on two different types of lists (the free store and the paid store on Amazon).
  2. Having your book on Kindle Unlimited, which is basically Amazon’s “Netflix for books” that allows subscribers to pay $9.99 a month for unlimited ebooks. Authors take home a very small percentage of royalties from this (only about $0.0044 per page), but the massive exposure to millions of KU subscribers and subsequent rankings boost makes the actual payout more or less irrelevant.
  3. 70% royalties in extended territories such as Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico, as long as your book is between $2.99 and $9.99 (though with non-select, you still get 70% royalties in most Anglophone territories).

Of course, the program has drawbacks as well. For example, KDP Select is great for reaching readers in the US and UK, where Amazon overwhelmingly dominates eBook distribution — but other countries like Canada and Australia have a much less autocratic ebook market, with companies like KOBO and Apple Books taking 20-30%. Though this is still less than Amazon’s share of the market in those countries, it’s enough to potentially hurt you if you go Amazon-exclusive for your book launch.

You should also steer clear of KDP Select if you’re trying to get onto bestseller lists other than Amazon’s. Not many people know this, but one of the prerequisites for lists in publications like The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, etc. is that you sell your book on multiple retailers — i.e. Amazon exclusivity is a deal breaker.

The takeaway here is that only you, the author, can decide whether or not KDP is the right path. Carefully consider both sides, and whichever you choose, keep track of what works and what doesn’t so you can make an even more informed decision with your next book.

Tip #4: Prioritize getting reviews

Finally, once your book is up and selling on Amazon, you have one goal that should take precedence over all others: getting (legitimate!) five-star reviews. Naturally, five-star ratings in and of themselves are important, but you also want to have as many people as possible leaving written reviews on your book’s Amazon page.

Why? Because you have to anticipate poor reviews and have a buffer in place just in case. Nothing pokes holes in a buoyant Amazon ship like a burst of one-star ratings, and nothing sinks it like a one-star review, especially if it’s the only review on the page. The more glowing reviews you have, the less likely that a potential customer is going to see that one-star review and decide that your book isn’t worth their time.

To that end, maximize your reviews by asking everyone you know to leave one, publicizing your book through your email list, and utilizing promotional sites and services. Of course, you should never pay FOR a review, or even “review swap” with another author — if Amazon suspects anything fishy, they’ll come down on you hard.

But don’t worry: promoting your book in other ways should lead to plenty of organic reads and reviews. And while you can’t guarantee that everyone you ask will leave a review, the more work you put into this stage, the more reviews you’ll get out of it.

So there you have it: polish your book, optimize your keywords, calculate your odds with KDP Select, and focus on reviews. No matter what kind of book you’ve written, these tips should significantly contribute to your self-publishing success… and perhaps even equip you to make a name for yourself in the cutthroat world of Amazon.

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She’s very interested in the self-publishing industry and where it’s headed. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.

New Release – A Dread So Deep

Book Cover Dread so Deep  Mystery Thriller Noir Crime Fiction

Today, I’m thrilled to be releasing a new stand-alone Domestic Thriller on Amazon. For today only the ebook will go for 99cents, so feel free to get it while it’s hot. The print version of the book will be available in the next couple of weeks.

Fans of the Scotti Fitzgerald Mysteries may be interested to know that this story is where Daniels and Davis were ‘born.’  Below is the blurb and the links.

The Line Between Love and Hate, is Murder

Christine Logan has learned to tread lightly around her domineering husband, Phillip. A man who uses his fists as much as words to express his anger. What little joy she has in her life comes from her volunteer job as a painting instructor at the Community Center and her visits with the artist aunt who raised her.

In the arms of her lover, Michael Shaw, Christine finds comfort and escape; for a few stolen moments at a time. Though, as much as she loves Michael, she knows she’ll never be free of Phillip and the hold he has over her.

Until she becomes pregnant.

When Phillip discovers her infidelity, he orders her to get rid of the child— underscoring his displeasure with fists and threats.

But rebellion awakens inside her. She wants this baby more than anything. How can she destroy the precious life growing within her?

Can she break free of Phillip’s iron fist of control? How far is she willing to go to gain her freedom? When love becomes hate, is murder necessary?

Fans of Body Heat and Sleeping with the Enemy, will love this fast-paced thriller of love, hate, betrayal, and murder.

Links:  U.S     UK    CAN   AU

PS: Up next will be another stand-lone novel domestic thriller, then another Lottie Stark book and another Scotti Fitzgerald book. Yup, I’m writing up a storm.

PSS: Also, I’m going to be getting back to blogging – I’ve been away too long and have missed it, so do stay tuned for at least a few laughs and the world according to Annie, as well as some guest posts and author spotlights, book and movie reviews.

Okay then, peace out. ❤

How & Why Authors Can Podcast (Guest Post by Eric Z)

In this post you’re going to learn the easiest and most effective way to start a podcast, and with all free tools!

Also:

  • Why you especially need to start a podcast—as an author.
  • The best platform— that broadcasts automatically to 11 different big platforms like iTunes, Google Play, and and and…
  • Killer tips on the technology and sound recording required.
  • An awesome way to put a book together—fast!
  • And even a killer tip for generating more traffic to your podcast!
  • Go to this link if you want to watch the presentation.

Or…

You can listen to the podcast

Download the PDF

Why You Should Podcast

Instant Authority

Once you start podcasting — it automatically raises your authority, regardless of your genre or niche.

Influencer Outreach

When you start a podcast you get to meet amazing people.

You also instantly improve the conversations you have with people— and you get to ask questions you would normally would never get a chance to ask!

Increase Traffic to YOUR Platform!

When you start a podcast you will almost instantly increase the traffic to your platform:

  • Blog/website
  • YouTube channel
  • Whatever you choose!

Especially when you start re-purposing your content, you can really squeeze out the “Internet juice” to the last drop!

Did you just make an Instagram video? Guess what? That can also be a podcast!

Not only can you publish on the normal podcasting platforms (see the “HOW” section) but you can also publish your podcast on YouTube— Free advertising!

The Easiest Way to Start a Blog – Ever…EVER!!!

Do you want to start a blog but don’t know how or what to publish? —get on that podcasting!

  1. Make a “wish list” of all the people you want to interview in your niche.
  2. Then start that outreach campaign.
  3. Don’t stop til you have your 1st guest…
  4. No excuses!
  5. Everyone has to start somewhere…go listen to my 1st podcast if you want—the audio is terrible. And what was the topic? Audiobooks! (Ironic eh?)

“Virtuous Cycle” Upward Spiral

Once you start a podcast you will automatically start networking with influencers and in general, people that can help you and add value. It might be a book collaboration or package deal of some products…or…they might just send their 10,000 followers to your blog.

Either way you look at it, it is a win-win deal for both participants.

The Fastest Way to Get a Book Together

Also part of this “virtuous cycle” or deal flow…

You can get a book together real fast by podcasting. Just make sure you inform your guest beforehand that you intend to make a book. This way they can avoid any problems that might pop-up. Some big gun authors are bound by their publishing contracts—and won’t like it if you publish your podcast as a book before they do.

How to Podcast

Recording Sound:

There is only one thing you need, and that is a noise canceling microphone.

Regardless of which setup you buy, make sure to read the product description and see if it has some kind of noise canceling feature.

I use a Sennheiser U320 a middle-of-the-road setup for gaming which costs less than $100

Make sure that your headphones come with an adaptor  so that you can use it with a computer, a laptop, or smartphone.

Which Platform?

There is only one to really consider now, and that is Anchor.FM. It’s so easy anyone could do it…seriously! They also have a really handy episode builder. So you only have to record your intro and outro once, upload it to the platform, and then you can tack it on to any audio or video file you upload.

The folks at Anchor are also starting a sponsorship program, which matches up content creators (you) with paying clients and companies who would just love a tiny little advertisement on your podcast. (Remember that keyword “deal flow”?)

Always have a back-up, or 2 or 3!!!

My first pic for podcasting is Anchor but you can also use Zoom or ScreenCastify + Chrome Browser if for some reason Anchor doesn’t work for you. It’s always good to have a backup plan. Regardless of which platform you use to talk, Skype, Zoom, etc., you can record it all with Screencastify. Here’s a video of me recording a podcast call with Tom Morkes.

Other options in podcasting include: MP3 Recorder (free download compatible with Windows and Mac), Google Hangouts+Screencastify, YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Google Talk, Easy Webinar, and more.

Be Prepared

Share a Google Doc with all of your Questions with your guest, even questions that you might not ask.

  • Typically, a full page of questions, (14 pt Ariel, double-spaced) is more than enough for an hour-long interview.
  • You can add comments on the document as needed.
  • Also, be sure to ask your guest if there are any topics they don’t want to discuss or need to avoid, so that when the interview takes place you are both on the same page and no bad surprises happen.

Watch Your Speech—No “um’s”.

This one is challenging… But help is on the way…Toastmasters! Toastmasters isn’t just a good way to practice speech, it is also a fabulous way to network. You will gain readers and buyers of your books when you go to Toastmasters. And…remember that virtuous cycle/upward spiral? This is part of it. It’s a win-win all around.

Don’t Interrupt!

It’s super exciting to talk to one of your mentors or heroes, but you gotta…go… deep!

  • If your guest is on a roll—don’t stick to the questions.
  • Stay with it and let them flesh-out what they are talking about fully.
  • Your listeners will love you for it (or hate you if you don’t).

Custom Thumbnail

Cover art is important. I highly recommend making a custom thumbnail for each platform:

  • Pinterest
  • YouTube
  • Facebook

Canva is great for these, it’s free and easy to use, plus they have templates for each social media platform. And you don’t have to be a graphic designer to make it look good.

Follow UP!

Very important, yet often forgotten (especially when you start interviewing a guest a week, or more). Make sure to thank your guest, and ask them for leads! You can hop from one guest to another this way—never worry again about where you’re going to find your next guest!

So, there you have it, the crash course in podcasting. After all of this, the question is now: “Why WOULDN’T you start a podcast?!”

Merry Christmas with a Story (Sally & Gem)

“You’ve made a mistake. I can’t take her.” Gem’s tone was flat and too loud, making the social worker flinch. She gaped at the young woman, as though puzzled that her definitive pronouncement hadn’t made her vanish on the spot. No. Althea Washington remained perched on the edge of the old brocade settee.

Althea’s dark brown eyes personified empathy and her nod a reassuring pat on the back. “Yes, yes I understand Ms. Morgan—it’s an inconvenience. And a surprise too. But there’s nobody else to take her in. Would you rather your great-niece spend the holidays at a group home? Among strangers?”

Gem’s trembling jerked her small frame forward. Her gaze darted to the bay window – a perfect frame for the snow-covered pines outside – while she tried to think of something clever to say. She was too old to have a child underfoot—couldn’t this woman see that? “You seem to think repeating yourself will change something. It won’t.”

Althea lightly touched Gem’s arm, like you do with a child, to get her attention. “It’s only for three weeks. We’re trying to locate her father but no luck so far. Do you know him or how we can get in touch?”

Memories of her dysfunctional family jangled in Gem’s mind. Her niece Julie, whom she hadn’t seen in years, had gone and got herself killed. She knew nothing of the girl’s life, least of all who might be the father of the baby she’d had on her own.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Gem said. “I only set eyes on the baby once, after Julie came home from the hospital and stayed with her mother, my sister Hannah.” Gem clucked her tongue. “Colicky thing, always crying.” She twisted her fingers together, as though not knowing what to do with a pair of hands. “Julie probably didn’t know who the father was herself.” Althea pulled back as if in defense of Gem’s bluntness. Gem dug her nails into her palm, trying to rein in her bad temper. “It gives me no pleasure to say such things but my niece was troubled.”

“And Julie’s mother Hannah, is in assisted living?” Gem nodded. “I don’t suppose she would know?” Althea looked hopeful.

“My sister, Ms. Washington, has dementia and doesn’t know her own name, so if she ever knew the father’s name, it’s buried in a sea of twisted brain cells.” Gem tightened her lips to keep the hostility inside. “Most of the time Hannah doesn’t know me.” Grief threatened to bubble out of her.

In an act of surrender, Althea rose and straightened the jacket of her red suit. Gem thought the striking woman too lovely to be a social worker. Her beauty made Gem want to help her – funny how pretty people had that affect on her – but she simply couldn’t take in a child who for all intents and purposes was a stranger.

“Thank you for your time.” When she shook Gem’s hand her grip was warm and somehow comforting. At the front door, Althea stopped to admire an antique music box on the table. “How lovely.”

Gem smiled and let her defenses lower. “Yes, my most prized possession.”

“From someone special in your life?” Althea asked.

“My father. The last gift he gave me.” Gem squeezed back small tears. “He passed when I was a child. Very sudden. The day after Christmas.”

Althea’s eyes brimmed with sudden tears. “I’m so sorry. Losing a parent when you’re a child is a real tragedy. Especially at Christmas time.”

Gem nodded and her eyes met Althea’s. The silence between them arced of expectation. Gem uttered a plaintive, silent prayer to God, why me? She busied herself with rearranging the music box on the table. “How long?”

Althea’s smile seemed to cast a light into the room. Yes, she was a beauty and should have been a model or an actress—but her powers of persuasion weren’t wasted on social work. Not at all.

***

“We’re here!” Ms. Washington was very excited as the car came to a soft rolling stop. Sally resisted being coaxed out of the backseat where it was warm and safe. The cold air like needles inside Sally’s nose scratched at her cheeks. Ms. Washington took her hand and they trudged through the fresh snow to the front door. Her little pink backpack was heavy on her shoulders.

The doorbell donged inside the house as they shivered on the doorstep. Sally shifted from foot to foot as the frigid air stung her  bare legs. She worried she’d freeze before anyone came to the door.

With a whoosh the door opened and let out a cloud of warm air. Auntie Gem didn’t look at her, but talked over her head to Ms. Washington. They all trooped into the living room, where Sally perched on the edge of an itchy sofa then drifted into thoughts of her mommy and their cat, Smoochy. Before she was ready, Ms. Washington patted her shoulder, told her to be a good girl, then left.

Auntie Gem waggled Sally’s backpack at her. “What’re you waiting for?”

Sally followed Gem up the big stairs that squeaked and down the hallway until they stopped at one of the many doors. It was a big house for one lady. Auntie Gem must get lonely.

“This is your room while you’re here—and I expect you to keep it tidy. No dirty socks on the floor or cookie crumbs in the bed.”

Sally looked into Gem’s bluest of blue eyes. Her voice came out in a squeak, just barely bigger than a mouse’s. “Yes, Auntie Gem.”

She opened the door. “Just call me Gem.”

Sally gasped. It was a room for a princess. Not silly old her.

“Don’t stand there gaping. Come in,” Gem said, “it won’t bite you.”

Sally tiptoed into the room so she wouldn’t spoil its wonderfulness. Her eyes traveled over the little white bed with its pink coverlet, the baby dolls and teddy bears nestled against the ruffled pillows, all the way to the lacy curtains that filtered sunshine into the room. A table and chair just her size sat in the corner and was piled with coloring books, paper and crayons. Sally flung her arms around Gem’s legs. “Oh thank you, Auntie Gem!”

Gem patted Sally’s back. “Now, now, nothing to cry about little bird. Are you hungry?”

Sally rubbed her tummy as if to check. “Uh huh.”

“All right. You change out of that silly dress and put on something warm then come downstairs for soup.” Gem moved fast and Sally listened to her tromp down the stairs until it was quiet.

***

Sally shuffled into the kitchen dressed in old dungarees and a faded tee shirt. Gem rolled her eyes. Did the child have one stitch of decent clothing? “Don’t be shy, sit down little girl.”

Sally climbed into a chair and leaned her elbows on the table. “My name is Sally.”

Gem put a bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of the child and a cheese sandwich. “Well then Sally, milk or hot chocolate?”

The girl nibbled her sandwich. “Hot chocolate, please.”

Gem added milk, sugar, and cocoa powder to a saucepan on the stove, then stirred it slowly over a low flame.

“What’s that?” Sally asked.

“Hot chocolate of course.”

“Mommy never made it like that.” She craned her neck. “Where’s your microwave?”

Gem scoffed and turned up the flame. “People who know how to cook don’t need microwaves.” When it was ready, Gem poured the hot cocoa into mugs. She gave the little one to Sally and sat down with the other. “I like it better this way,” Gem winked.

Sally sipped the cocoa then grinned. “Me too!”

After lunch, Gem schooled Sally in the art of cookie baking. And  after the counters were lined with racks of oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, and gingerbread men cookies, they’d earned another round of hot cocoa. With marshmallows. Perhaps it was too much excitement for the child because she nodded off halfway through her cocoa. Coaxing the sleepy up to her room, Gem put her down for a nap.

While Sally slept, Gem decorated the cookies and put them in festive tins for her Christmas visit with her afflicted sister. Poor Hannah—once bright and vibrant, now dull and lost. At least she still loved sweets, and although she wouldn’t know Gem or why she brought the cookies, Hannah would be happy to have them. Again the tiny tears appeared and she squeezed them back until they relented.

Somewhere in the middle of an old Christmas movie on TV, Sally wandered into the room, rubbing her eyes. She climbed into Gem’s lap and they watched the rest of the movie cuddled beneath a soft green afghan. And there was nothing strange about it at all to either one—as though they’d always been a pair and always would be.

***

Gem and Sally moved as a shopping tornado through Macy’s department store. Gem flung sweaters, dresses, and pants over her arm, until she couldn’t carry another thing. She fussed over each item before proclaiming it right but Sally loved them all. They left the store with lots of bags. Sally left her old clothes in the dressing room and  wore her new pink sweater, sneakers, and the puffy red parka with matching mittens. It wasn’t even Christmas yet but it felt like Christmas anyway. They tromped through the snow to Gem’s old blue Chevy and were off like two super heroes on a mission. Life with Auntie Gem was a lot more fun than Sally imagined.

When the car stopped in front of a house Sally didn’t recognize, her hands tightened inside her mittens. “Am I going here now?” The red coat and mittens were my going away clothes?

Gem scrunched her face. “This is your Grandma’s house.”

Sally raised her head to get a better look. “My Grandma?”

“Indeed,” Gem said.

Sally craned her neck. “Is she in there?”

“No, but you’ll meet her soon enough.”

Sally slouched back in her seat beneath the window so nobody could see her. “Am I gonna live with her?”

Gem opened her door and stepped out in one quick motion, then slammed the door shut. She came round to Sally’s door and opened it. “Live with her? Good lord, no. We’re here to pick up the mail.”

Gem pulled her along the walkway. “But Mommy said…”

Gem unlocked the door with one of the many keys on her big keychain. “Not for you to worry about, child.”

Inside, it was dark and smelled like old shoes. Sally wrinkled her nose and didn’t understand why Gem chuckled—there was nothing funny about the house.

Gem started for the stairs but the boxes in the entryway stopped her. “What in blazes?” She dug out her eyeglasses from her big purse and studied the labels. “What’s this, Sally?”

Breath catching in her throat scared she’d done something wrong, Sally shrugged her shoulders.

Gem tapped the box with her finger. “These have your mother’s name on them. Were you coming here? To live? With Hannah?”

Sally shrugged extra hard so Gem would see she was telling the truth. “Mommy said we were going home.” Tears formed in the corners of her eyes and they burned. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. “But I don’t know where home is.”

Gem’s eyes creased and she scooped Sally into her arms. “Oh peanut, home is here. With me. Don’t you cry now. Nothing at all to cry about.”

Sally sat on the steps while Gem dug through the boxes as though there were a secret hidden in them that she wanted to know. Maybe she put something in her big shiny purse or maybe Sally dreamed it—her eyelids were heavy and dreaming seemed a good idea. A stack of mail in her hand, Gem ushered Sally out the door. “We’re off.”

Snuggled into the backseat of the car, Sally fell asleep to the rumble of the engine. When she woke, Gem was tucking her in with her teddies and dollies. “I’m not sleepy.”

Gem stroked her hair. “You just rest your eyes for a bit, then.”

***

Gem brewed a pot of coffee and stared at the manila envelope on her kitchen table. The words, ‘will’ and ‘insurance’ scrawled across it like a curled finger trying to draw Gem in. So there it was—the name of Sally’s father, sitting in a envelope on her table. Calling to her – open, open, open me…

The second the coffee finished brewing Gem had a big mug of the stuff in her hand – but she teetered between the counter and the table. If she sat down she’d have to open the envelope. If she didn’t sit down, she could stall a bit longer.

The bell chimed and Gem flew out of the kitchen to answer the door. Caution prevented her hand from turning the knob—the man on her doorstep was a stranger. Skinny and nervous from the way he shuffled from foot to foot. The smell of his cigarette had managed to steal its way inside. He caught Gem watching him through the side glass and his smile was put on and sudden. “Hello!”

Gem turned the knob and cracked the door just enough to speak. “May I help you, young man?”

His dull green eyes looked over her head into the house. “It’s about Sally.”

On that alone, Gem wanted to slam the door shut and lock it against this stranger and any who’d come after him. “Who are you?”

He looked over her head again. “It’s awful cold out here. A nice cup of coffee would be great about now.”

Gem braced all of her ninety-seven pounds against the door. “Again, I ask you, who are you?”

The man leaned closer and he stunk of cigarettes and stale coffee. “I’m Sally’s father.”

Suddenly, the envelope on her kitchen table wasn’t nearly the threat it seemed earlier. Gem glared at the man. “Indeed. Have you any proof of that? You don’t think I’ll turn that child over to you on just your word, do you?”

His smiled collapsed and the dull eyes came alive with something sharp and jagged that frightened Gem. “Where is she?”

Suddenly a little tug on Gem’s sweater turned her around. Sally looked up at her, eyes still sleepy. “Why is Eddy here, Gem?”

Gem was taken aback and crestfallen. “You know this fellow?”

Sally peeked around Gem at the skinny fellow leering at them. “He’s Mommy’s friend.”

Eddy knelt and opened his arms. “No hug for Eddy, little Sal?”

Sally clung to Gem’s leg. “No thank you.”

Eddy took the rejection in stride and rose to his feet. “That’s okay honey. I understand.” His gaze fixed on Gem. “Must be the shock about Julie.”

Gem pointed to the sidewalk. “I’ll thank you to leave. Now.”

Eddy rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “I’ll just be back.”

So fierce was her urge to protect Sally that Gem pushed him and he fell backwards onto the icy porch. “You had better not return. Not without proof.”

Stunned, Eddy flapped his jaw but words wouldn’t come. Gem responded by closing the door. The deadbolt made a satisfying and resounding snap.

She took Sally by the hand and pulled her into the kitchen—away from Eddy who persisted in peering through her window. She lifted Sally into a chair and bent so she could look the child in the eye. “Do you know that man, Sally?”

Sally nodded.

“He says he’s your daddy. Is he?”

Sally shook her head. “No.”

Gem trembled – partly with anger but also with fear. “Are you sure? Maybe your mommy didn’t want to tell you yet.”

A big tear pooled in Sally’s eye for a moment then rolled down her cheek. “I don’t have a daddy. I told you. Eddy is bad. Mommy said so. We didn’t talk to him anymore because he stole Mommy’s  money.”

***

Despite her impassioned pleas, Althea informed Gem that Eddy would still undergo paternity testing. If in fact, he turned out to be Sally’s daughter, they would have no choice but to start custody proceedings. Gem now had another reason not to open the envelope with Julie’s handwriting on the front. The thought of turning Sally over to that wretched creature made her soul ache.

How could she ever give Sally back? Give up the child of giggles and light? No, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She hung up the phone and absent-mindedly ran her fingers over the ornate music box from her father.

“What’s that?” Sally murmured.

Gem jumped with a start and turned to the child. “You scared the Dickens out of me.”

Sally stood on tiptoes and tapped the box with her pudgy finger. “What’s that?”

Gem’s finger caressed the carving gently. “It’s my music box.”

“It’s pretty.”

Gem picked the box then led Sally into the living room. Sally climbed into her lap and rested her little head against Gem’s chin. “My papa gave this box to me when I was a little girl like you.”

“I love it,” Sally said. Her clear blue eyes searched Gem’s face. “I don’t have a daddy.”

“Oh honey, everybody has a daddy.” But please Lord, don’t let it be Eddy.

Sally shook her head. “Nuh uh, Mommy said I don’t have one and it was just us.” Her head dropped against Gem’s chest. “Now I don’t have a mommy either.”

Gem stroked Sally’s silky hair. “But you have me. You’ll always have me, sweet girl.”

Sally looked up at Gem and smiled. “My Gem!” She hugged Gem’s neck. “My Gem, my Gem, my Gem,” she murmured.

Gem cried into Sally’s soft hair. “Yes, I’m your Gem. I’ll always be.” And no one shall ever tear us apart.

***

With the decorations up, and the sparkling tree in at the bay window, Gem couldn’t remember the last time she’d loved Christmas so. Cross-legged on the floor, Sally eyed the packages stuffed under the tree. “Are those all for me?”

“Most of them, yes.”

Sally gaped at Gem as shocked as a six year old could be. “Really?”

Gem nodded. “Now, get away from temptation, we have visiting to do.”

Sally let Gem tug at her dress and pat down her hair. “You look just like a little princess in that dress.” Gem smiled and squeezed back tears. “Do you like it?”

Sally twirled and giggled. “It’s the most beautifulest dress I ever saw.” Tears sprung to her eyes and she threw her arms around Gem. “How come you love me so much, Gem? Am I a good girl?”

Gem kissed the top of the girl’s head. “You are. Such a good girl. The best, my little monkey.”

No time for blubbering, Gem bundled up Sally, loaded the bags filled with presents and cookie tins, and away they went in the old blue Chevy.

The home where Hannah resided stretched wide across the snowy ground and the old pine in front was strung with Christmas lights, a lonely wreath hung on each of the double doors and that was the entirety of the holiday cheer.

Sally trailed after her as she walked through the halls, passing out cookies and small packages. And people seemed more cheerful and happy than in Christmases past and that put a little spring in Gem’s step. No doubt, it was her sweet Sally that had the magical effect on the sad old sacks and tired nurses. Saying hello and Merry Christmas, blowing kisses and passing out giggles. Yes, a little child can be a wonderful elixir if you let her. And no word from snaky Eddy was a reason for good cheer too.

But the mood changed when they reached Hannah’s door. Would Sally understand? She squeezed Sally’s hand gently. “Are you ready to meet your Grandma?”

Sally nodded.

“She won’t know you, honey. She’s sick and doesn’t remember things. But she’ll still be glad to see you. So you give her a smile and a hug and don’t feel bad if she doesn’t know you, all right?”

Sally stood up straight as if to prepare herself for the task. “Okay Gem, I will.”

Only a small lamp shined lit the room and the sad little tree on the bedside table tried to be happy but wasn’t. Hannah was so small that the bed seemed to swallow her up. “Hannah,” she whispered.

Sally brought two cookie tins to the bed. “Hi Grandma, I’m Sally.”

Hannah’s eyes were empty when they looked at Sally but Hannah’s eyes were always empty. Undaunted, Sally set the cookie tins on the bedside table. “These are your cookies. Gem and me cooked them for you. They are very yummy. Would you like one?”

Hannah cocked her head and met Sally’s gaze for a moment, a whisper of a smile danced at the corners of her mouth. “Cookies?”

Sally grinned, opened a tin, and offered it to Hannah. “See? Cookies. Very yum-yum.”

Hannah grabbed at the cookies with both hands. She bit the head off a gingerbread man. “Mmmm, yum-yum,” Hannah mumbled through a mouthful.

Sally giggled and stuffed cookies in her mouth too. “Mmm hmm, yum yum.”

Sally told Hannah all about her room, her clothes and the big Christmas tree in the living room then helped Hannah eat up the cookies.

And when all the cookies were gone, Gem said, “It’s time we say goodbye, Sally.”

Sally nodded and took a napkin and wiped crumbs from Hannah’s mouth. “Good bye, Grandma. I love you.”

Sally hugged Hannah and Hannah said, “I love you too, Julie.”

Gem’s heart broke and soared at once. Hannah thought Sally was her own daughter Julie. If only Gem had cared more, maybe it would’ve been Julie there, hugging her mother. She peered into her sister’s eyes. “You remember Julie?” Hannah’s eyes sparked for a moment and Gem nodded. “Yes, that’s right, your little girl.”

Hannah’s eyes emptied again and she was gone, disappeared into the prison that was her mind. But Gem thanked God for that one moment he gave to her sister. A moment when she remembered being loved.

Gem turned to Sally, “Okay chatterbox, time to go.”

Sally waved and blew kisses to Hannah as Gem pulled her away.

***

Althea Washington was a vision in a green pantsuit and beaming smile. They sat at Gem’s kitchen table, drinking coffee and nibbling Christmas cookies. Gem had finally worked up her nerve to open Julie’s papers. As suspected, Sally’s father name was in them. Thankfully, it wasn’t Eddy’s name she found though.

Althea read the papers slowly and carefully. Finally, she set the papers aside, took Gem’s hand, and looked at her. “You’ve given Sally a great gift by finding her father.”

“We don’t know anything about him. He could be a drug addict for all we know. Or worse.” She made a face. “Like Eddy.”

Althea’s smile dimmed. “Yes, of course, that’s possible. But I’ll make sure Daniel Keller is a fit parent for Sally. It’s a good name, isn’t it? Strong and simple.”

Gem felt a small surge of hope. “And if he isn’t a fit parent?”

Althea raised a brow. “Are you…?” She laughed. “No, of course you aren’t.”

“I’m not, what?” Gem asked.

“You aren’t saying you’d want to keep Sally. I mean, if her father…isn’t fit?”

Gem bit hard into a sugar cookie as if to emphasize her point. “That is most certainly what I’m saying.”

Althea looked genuinely surprised. “That’s the last thing I expected you to say.”

Gem reared back. “Is it so unthinkable that I might want her?”

Althea went to the window and waved to Sally who worked on building a snowman.

“What’s wrong?” Gem asked.

Althea turned away from the window, but couldn’t look Gem in the eye.

“You don’t believe they’d give Sally to me?”

Althea fixed her gaze on the floor. “There may be a question of suitability…”

Gem cocked an eyebrow. “I was suitable enough when Sally had no one, wasn’t I?”

Althea carried her coffee cup to the sink. “When it was a choice between foster care and an actual relative.” She finally gave Gem her eyes. “I know it’s not fair, but Sally is a little girl and the preference is to place young children with families.”

Gem scoffed. “Not some old battleaxe that might kick the bucket any day?”

Althea reached out her hand but Gem went to the window and watched Sally, happy as a little bird. “I’m her blood, Althea. I love that child.” She turned her tear-stained face to Althea. “Don’t you know that?”

Althea clasped Gem’s trembling hands. “It’s obvious she adores you and you her. She isn’t the same child I brought here two weeks ago. It’s just that a permanent placement is different…” her voice trailed off, clearly not wanting to hurt Gem’s feelings. Althea beamed another smile and patted Gem’s hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? Let me locate Daniel Keller and see where that puts things.” Resigned, Gem nodded. “No matter what, you’ll have Sally through New Year’s Day—so let’s focus on that, okay?

Gem surrendered to the emptiness already nesting in her heart. At the front door, she threw her scrawny arms around Althea and whispered. “Bless you for bringing me Sally and a Merry Christmas to you, dear. A very Merry Christmas.”

***

Christmas Eve had Sally twitching and jittery, full of anticipation. Gem read The Night before Christmas to her but was peppered with questions every other line. “What’s a sugar plum? Do you wear a cap to bed? I don’t. Will I hear Santa’s sleigh when he lands on the roof? Are the elves coming too? What do I call them if they come to my room?”

Gem finished the story and tucked the covers in tight around Sally. Such a little angel. Who couldn’t love this child? She didn’t turn off the light and then shush Sally to sleep as was her custom. She sat on the bed next to the child.

“I’ve something to tell you, honey.”

Sally’s sleepy eyes popped open. “Is it a secret? I love secrets. Don’t you, Auntie Gem?”

Gem stroked Sally’s silky hair. “Not exactly a secret but perhaps a surprise.”

Sally’s face flooded with light. “Tell me, tell me.”

Gem forced air into her weary lungs to push the tears deeper inside. Sally mustn’t see. “Well now, remember when you said you didn’t have a daddy?”

Sally lowered her lids and tapped her pudgy fingers against the quilt. “Uh huh.”

Gem patted her cheek. “Turns out you made a mistake. You do have a daddy.”

Sally shot up and craned her neck. “Where is he?”

Gem tweaked her nose. “He’s not here, honey. But Ms. Washington is looking for him.” Sally made a suspicious face. “No honey, it isn’t that terrible Eddy, I’m talking about. His name is Daniel Keller.” She peered into Sally’s face. “Do you remember your Mommy telling you that name?”

Sally shook her head.

Gem let out a weary sigh. “Well, that’s his name. And as soon as Althea finds him, we’ll be seeing him.”

Sally scrunched her face. “How do we know he’s my daddy? How will she find him? What if he doesn’t want to come?”

Gem hugged her. “Don’t you worry, if he’s out there, Althea is the gal who’ll find him. And you, like all good little girls, will have a daddy of your own.”

“Will he take me away? From here?” Sally asked.

Gem nodded. “I expect you’ll live at his house, yes.”

Tears wet Sally’s cheeks. “But I live here. In my pretty room. With you.”

“Well honey, you can come to see me any old time you want. That room will always be yours.”

“Too many things change all the time,” Sally complained. “I don’t like it.”

Gem’s heart soared at Sally’s loyalty, but one look at her father would change her mind. Once Daniel Keller came into her life it would never be the same and Sally would never let go of the father she should always have had. Why would she?

After Sally fell asleep, Gem and went downstairs. She sat cross-legged on the floor and struggled to put together a bicycle and a dollhouse. She muttered and cursed as she hadn’t in years and understood just a small aspect of the stress that modern parents experienced. As Gem staged and re-staged the bike and dollhouse, the doorbell rang. “Who on Earth?” Gem said as she rushed for the door, worried the racket would wake Sally.

Gem opened the door without thinking and when her eyes fell on the handsome blond man she knew. “Daniel?”

He nodded and gave a quick smile—and Gem knew instantly he was Sally’s father. Because that was Sally’s smile. Those were Sally’s eyes. There was no doubt.

Gem held the door open. “Come in.”

“I’m sorry,” he said in a rush, “but I couldn’t stay away. Ms. Washington asked me to wait until after the holidays. I wasn’t going to bother you, I just drove by to see the house and the next thing I knew I was ringing your bell…”

“Take a breath, boy,” Gem said, “we’ve plenty of time.”

They went back to the kitchen for coffee and conversation. And Daniel Keller’s energy and kindness woke up the old house just as Sally’s had. There was no denying that Daniel would be a fine father to Sally.

“From your enthusiasm, I’m guessing you want Sally?”

“Of course,” Daniel said without hesitation. “Julie never told me about Sally. She just disappeared one day, leaving me a Dear John letter on the pillow.” And the hurt in his blue eyes assured Gem that he had loved Julie deeply.

“Why didn’t you go after her? Julie, I mean?” It was none of Gem’s business but she wanted to know anyway.

Daniel shrugged. “Pride, I guess. Maybe I thought Julie would realize she’d made a mistake and come back. I wrote to her but the letters always came back and I don’t know. We were young and stupid.” Daniel smiled sadly. “Julie was my first love. And always will be.”

They talked into the night and Gem learned that Daniel had his own design company, and was married to a pretty redhead named Marsha. Both wanted children but hadn’t been able to conceive.

“I think Marsha might be more excited about Sally than I am,” he beamed. “She loves kids – she’s going to be a great mom, she really is. Sally will never want for anything. I swear, on my honor, that we will cherish her.”

Gem’s heart broke in two. And yet the joy she felt for her little Sally made her smile. “You had better young man, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

***

Gem hadn’t laughed so hard and jolly in all her life. Just watching Sally rip through her presents and zoom across the dining room on her bicycle, falling in a heap on the floor and dissolving into a pile of giggles was more than Gem could take.

“This is the bestest Christmas ever!” Sally sang.

And it was. For both of them.

***

Sally sobbed. “But I don’t want to go.”

Gem hugged her. “I know, sweet girl—but it’s all for the best.”

“Nuh uh,” Sally whimpered.

Gem smoothed Sally’s hair and smiled through her own tears. “Yes it is, honey. Where’s the little girl who always wanted a daddy?”

“I don’t want a daddy—not if I can’t have you too.”

Gem rocked Sally in her arms. “Oh silly girl, you’ll always have old Gem. Always.”

They sat on the bed and watched the sun sink below the horizon. Sally whispered in the dark. “Gem. When will I ever see you?”

“Any time you like. My trusty old Chevy will take me anywhere I want to go. I’ll be there lickety split, any time you need me, honey.” That assured Sally but Gem but knew it was a promise she wouldn’t be able to keep.

“I always need you,” Sally said.

The doorbell rang and they stood like soldiers going to war. Gem picked up Sally’s backpack and her little pink suitcase, and they walked hand in hand down the stairs to the front door.

Althea, Daniel, and Marsha smiled as if on cue, as the door opened.

Daniel had a bagful of gifts and Marsha looked like she would explode from happiness. “Hi!”

“Hello,” Sally said and looked up at Gem.

“It’s your daddy, honey. Give him a hug.”

Daniel bent down and Sally hugged him lightly. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Hi, Sally.” He opened the bag for her to see. “Santa left these for you at our house.”

“That’s a lot,” Sally said without accepting the gifts.

Gem shivered, and waved them inside. “Come in, come in. Let’s have some coffee and sweets. And toast to the New Year.”

Daniel and Marsha looked at Althea. “It’s a long drive and the Kellers just want to get Sally back to their hotel before the roads get too bad. There’s a storm coming.”

Gem was surprised. “Hotel?”

Althea’s smile dimmed. “Yes, the Kellers live in New York.  They’re catching an early flight tomorrow morning.”

Gem’s heart sunk, her old blue Chevy wouldn’t make it back and forth to New York.  She nodded and smiled. “Of course, no reason you’d want to lollygag around here.” She bent down to Sally and buttoned up her coat. “Now, you be a good girl and listen to your daddy. Okay?”

“I don’t want to go to New York, Gem. I want to stay here with you,” Sally whispered.

“Oh, but you must, child.” Gem hugged Sally tight. “You’ll see, it’ll be grand. You’re going to have a beautiful room and clothes and go to a nice school. I’ll come visit you all the time.”

Tears spilled down Sally’s soft little cheeks. “Okay.”

Gem smiled at her child of light and love. “That’s my big brave girl.”

Marsha took Sally by the hand. “Come on, Sally, let’s get you in the car. You’re going to love our house, it’s so big, and we have a dog named Homer.”

Sally’s face lit up. “A dog? Really? I have a dog?”

“You bet.”

Gem watched as Marsha led Sally away, already moving into her new life. The life she was always meant to have.

Daniel gave Gem a quick hug. “Thank you, Ms. Morgan. Thank you for everything.”

Gem clutched his arm. “You take care of her. Promise me?”

Daniel hugged her again. “It’s a promise I will be happy to keep. Please don’t worry about her. We love her so much already our hearts are busting open.”

Gem released him and watched him rush toward his new family and future.

Althea and Gem stood on the doorstep and waved them good-bye until the car was out of sight. Althea put her arm around Gem. “It’s for the best, you know?”

Gem leaned against Althea, unable to hold back her tears any longer. “Yes, I know. I don’t like it, but I know it.”

Althea hugged Gem. “I promise you, she’ll be loved.”

“If she isn’t, I shall move heaven and earth to get her back.”

***

When Sally left she took the sunshine with her and left only shadows behind. Gem couldn’t bear to open the door to Sally’s old room because it made her miss her even more.

Gem busied herself with baking, cleaning, and visiting her sister Hannah. Her heart jumped every time the phone rang or the doorbell sounded, hoping against hope that it was Sally. Sometimes it was, but less and less as the months passed. It was what Gem had expected—she was never meant to be a permanent part of Sally’s life. She was merely a temporary sanctuary until the world righted itself and reunited Sally with Daniel.

Daniel Keller had kept his word, for Gem got regular reports from Althea that Sally was well and adjusting and most important, happy.

***

Soon, another Christmas nipped at Gem’s heels, and she felt emptier still. She wanted to lock herself in the house until it was all over, but instead she went out and bought a Christmas tree. Not as grand as the year before, but nice enough. And that led to buying bags of toys and gift-wrap. And that led to adopting a cat from the animal shelter—a charming orange tabby that she named Smoochy.

Gem wrapped the toys in bright paper and bows, then packed them and tins of cookies into her old blue Chevy.

And no one was more surprised than Althea Washington when Gem walked right in, put down her packages, and said, “Merry Christmas, Althea.”

Althea grinned. “Merry Christmas to you too, Gem. What’s all this?”

“Let’s not dilly dally. You’ve got lots of kids that you look after, don’t you?”

Althea’s eyes went wide. “Yes, many.”

“Foster kids? Kids with no folks or family?” Gem asked.

Althea nodded. “Sadly, we always have more kids than homes to place them in.”

“Well, this all is for them then. Nothing special mind you, just toys, and sweets. You just go ahead and pass them out as you see fit. Okay?”

Althea beamed. “Okay, I will.” Gem could practically see Althea’s thinking wheels spinning. “I know just where to take them too. We have a couple of group homes where the foster parents are wonderful but things are tight. This will be such a blessing to them.” Giggling, Althea threw her arms around Gem. “You always surprise me, Gem. I never know what to expect. You’re a wonderful lady.”

Gem felt her old wrinkled cheeks flushing. She patted Althea’s back. “All right—Merry Christmas, and I’m off.”

Althea caught Gem by her coat sleeve. “Wait, where are you going in such a hurry?”

Gem shrugged. “Home I suppose. Why?”

Althea’s eyes danced with mischief. “Do you have time to meet someone?”

Gem laughed. “Why not? It’s Christmas, after all.”

“I’ll be right back.” Althea disappeared down the hall—her high heels clacking against the linoleum floors. A few minutes later, she returned with a pretty little girl sporting long dark braids and a spray of freckles across a pug nose.

“Gem, this is Zoë.”

Gem smiled at the bashful girl. “Hello Zoë, glad to meet you.”

In a tiny voice, Zoë said, “Hello, ma’am.”

“Do you like cats, Zoë?” Gem asked.

Zoë nodded.

“Well I have a big ol’ cat named, Smoochy. He sure needs a friend though. Would you like to be his friend?”

Zoë smiled and bobbed her head up and down. “I love kitties.”

“That’s grand,” Gem said tugging on Zoë’s braid. “And how about cookies and hot chocolate?  Do you love those things too?”

Zoë giggled. “Of course.”

Gem grinned at Althea and whispered. “Thank you.”

Althea patted her back. “No, thank you.”

Gem put her arm around Zoë. “How long?”

Althea shrugged. “Three weeks? Maybe longer?”

 

The End.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright © 2013 Anita Rodgers

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are 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.