A window into the world of Gayle Hayes, author of The Scrimshaw Set: Books 1 & 2, which follows Emma Favager as she unties the strings attached to her estranged, late grandmother's assets, and The Sunset Witness, which follows four strangers who meet in a secluded seaside town. Gayle takes you behind the scenes of her novels, life as a writer, and more.
Gayle Hayes, Author
Monday, November 25, 2013
SHORT CHRISTMAS STORY
Sgt. White's Christmas Visit
By Gayle Hayes
t was the
week before Christmas and more hectic than usual for everyone in the household
except Granny Allen.Lisa helped her to
the chair in front of the bay window after insisting she was too tired to help
in the kitchen.Granny knew she wasn't
too tired.Lisa was tired of her.She'd taught her daughter-in-law how to make
her son's favorite Christmas cookie.Now, it seemed she sprinkled too much colored sugar in the wrong places
and too late to please Lisa.Granny
brushed a small amount of red and green sugar from the front of her blue
sweatshirt with the birdhouse and red cardinal on the front.After her stroke, Granny Allen could no
longer shop for presents or decorate the tree.Now, it seemed she couldn't help with the baking, either.She watched the snow progress from flurries
to a blizzard and wondered why she was still alive.She seemed to have no purpose any longer.
The school bus arrived at the
curb and the doors opened.Jared ducked
through the door and walked off the bus sideways while talking to someone whom
Granny couldn't see.She twisted her
handkerchief between her hands anxiously.Jared was packing his letter jacket in this weather and taking his sweet
time getting to the house.He'd catch pneumonia
if he wasn't careful.Then she heard him
burst through the back door while talking to someone.He dropped his backpack in the hall and bent
to hug Molly, roughing up her golden fur as she licked his face.He looked for the TV remote and held his cell
phone to his ear.Granny was prepared to
give him a wave, but he was so preoccupied that he did not look her way.It was the same routine every day, but Granny
felt especially sensitive that day.She'd been thinking about someone she knew years before she was a
granny, mother, and wife.
The car fishtailed and headed
into the driveway. Taylor's friend was going too fast on the icy street.It was no use to mention it again.Her granddaughter would just remind her that
she was seventeen and could take care of herself.Taylor's feet slid out from under her as she
got out of the car, but she kept her balance and laughed it off.She brushed her long, dark curls from her
face.A girl who'd been in the backseat
got out and took Taylor's place in the front before the car slid down the
driveway.Once on the street, the driver
regained control and disappeared into the blowing snow.Taylor checked the mailbox.Then Granny lost sight of her until she came
into the house. Taylor waved a cookie at
Granny and then took the stairs two at a time.
Granny closed her eyes and dozed.She was more bored than tired.She awoke after her son, Mike, parked the SUV
in the driveway and began scraping snow from the front steps.She wondered why he didn't give Jared the job
of shoveling the snow, but he hadn't liked it when she mentioned it the first
time.Maybe he resented that his father
had expected him to do certain chores around the house."You're only young once, Ma," he'd
said when she tried to give advice about the children.At least Mike would give her a peck on her
cheek when he came inside.
It was too dark to see outside
now, so Granny swiveled her chair around to look at the tree.Jared had plugged in the lights.The living room was lit only by the large
screen of the TV and the red, green, blue, and white lights of the tree.To make Granny feel part of the festivities,
Mike had dug out the decorations she'd always used from the attic.She'd packed them away carefully.She was surprised Taylor and Jared liked
them.The satin balls were the same
colors as the light globes.This year
the family had even hung the tinsel she'd saved instead of draping the usual
garland.It had been a delightful day
with eggnog and Christmas carols while they decorated.Taylor had asked Granny about a few of the
photos in the old album.For that one
day, Granny felt she was really a part of this busy household.
Lisa stuck her head into the
living room long enough to ask Jared to order pizza for their dinner.She was in the middle of fixing a fancy
dessert for her club's Christmas party the next day.Jared teased her.
"Why would anyone want to
eat a moose?" he asked.
idiot," Taylor said.
Jared was licking the spoon with
chocolate and brandy on it along with some egg and other ingredients.
"You're not supposed to eat
raw egg.You're hopeless," Taylor
said.She replied to "a very
important text" and plugged in her phone before sampling another cookie.
Jared was looking for something
to eat while he waited for the pizza to be delivered.Mike tried to squeeze through the bottleneck
created by Jared and the refrigerator.
"It's freezing out
there.What's for dinner?" Mike
"Pizza.It's on the way," Jared said.
Mike stopped long enough to give
Lisa a quick kiss, and then he walked into the living room.He picked up the remote, found the news, and
gave Granny Allen a kiss on her forehead, as usual, before plopping into his
recliner.For a brief moment, Granny
entertained a thought that caused her to smile.Maybe tomorrow she'd let Molly sit in the chair and wait for Mike to
give her a kiss without paying any
The next instant Granny was
sitting in the dark.
"What the…," Mike began
as he got up from his recliner and tried to remember where he kept a
"Oh, no!Not now!I've got a mousse in the oven," Lisa said.
"At least we'll have pizza
for dinner," Jared said.
"Don't count on it,
son.If we're in the dark, Pizza City's
in the dark, too.I found the
flashlight, but the batteries are dead.I'm going upstairs for the other one.Lisa, do you still have those fancy candles?Jared, stay with Granny," Mike said.
Granny Allen wondered if Mike
even remembered her name.She'd been
Granny ever since they sold most of her things and moved her into the bonus
room off the kitchen.Most of the time,
she felt invisible.Sometimes, she felt
as if she were a child again.Better to
be seen and not heard.She thought it must
be the bleakness of the day that caused her to feel so dejected.Usually, she thought she was more fortunate
than her friends who'd been stashed in an old folks' home.
Lisa found a basin in the master
bathroom and filled it with her nicest candles that she kept around the tub for
luxurious evenings of aromatherapy.Mike
loaded the downstairs flashlight with new batteries as Taylor held the working
light for him.Then he added logs to the
fire, moved Granny closer to it, and covered her with the afghan she'd
crocheted long ago.
With the fire and candles, the
room seemed cozy.Mike's phone was still
charged, so he opened Facebook and checked the page for the local sheriff.Several trees had come down in the wind.People should stay inside and stay warm.It was too soon to tell how quickly the
community would have power.Mike asked
Jared to turn off his phone, so they would have a backup if the blackout lasted
for hours.Lisa and Taylor took one of
the flashlights upstairs to dress in warmer clothes.
Once the family was in the living
room and wrapped in blankets, quilts, and afghans, Granny thought it was the
first time she could remember when they sat in the room together without the
television as the center of attention.Instead of texting, scrolling, or chatting on their phones, the family
was talking.After two hours, Mike
checked his phone for an update.The
crews were still working to restore power.It could be several more hours.Jared groaned.
Lisa made peanut butter
sandwiches by candlelight.Eating helped
everyone's mood except for Jared.He'd
never wanted pizza as much as he did then.Taylor tried to sleep, but she couldn't turn off her mind.What if the blackout lasted for hours?Lisa tried not to think about the mousse
she'd invested so much time and expensive ingredients to make.It would be ruined.Then she wondered if she'd even get to the
club party the next day.The storm must
have been bad.Mike had planned to work
on a legal brief that evening.He tried
to organize his thoughts, but he was too worried.It was up to him to be calm and reassuring
for the family.He needed some
reassurance himself.The family sat in a
gloomy silence for some time.
Then Granny suggested they pass
the time by telling stories.No one was
in the mood for storytelling.Sitting in
front of the fireplace because they had no other choice was not as much fun as
sitting around a campfire in the woods.Granny thought a story was just what everyone needed.She thought of several stories about her own
life, but she decided they would not be interested in a story about her.Perhaps, it was a good time to tell the story
about the soldier who vanished into thin air after the big storm.It was so unusual to hear Granny's voice that
the family was curious.Then they were
caught up in her tale.
It was during World War II and
shortly before Christmas that the Big Storm of '42 wreaked havoc on eastern
Montana and left many people changed forever, but none more than Grace.She was only seventeen, and she did not like being
alone.She'd read stories of heroic
young women in her American Girl
magazine, but Grace had never done anything as courageous as the heroines in
the stories she read.She did not think
she was brave.Her father had died that
spring in an accident, and her mother was in Billings to help her older sister
after the birth of her first child.One
brother was overseas in the war, and the other, Bill, was going to town for supplies.He was running the ranch now, and he told
Grace what to do if the weather turned bad before he returned home.She'd begged Bill to let her go with him so
she would not be alone at the ranch.He
said she would be safer at home, as long as she did not open the door to a
stranger.She was on his mind when the
howling wind blew snow sideways and through the door of the Bear Paw
Grace had watched the storm move
in over the prairie.Snow like goose
down floated through the air.She made
sure the small animals were inside with food and water and that doors were
latched shut.Then the wind picked up,
tossing anything not tied down and hurling tumbleweeds against the
outbuildings.Before long, it was
impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her.Grace had never seen snowflakes so large.They fell like rain and covered every flat
and slanted surface with mounds of white.Dusk came earlier than usual.
The blizzard that was just
arriving in Bear Paw had dumped several inches of snow on the ranch and drifted
against the door to the house.Grace
shoveled the snow aside and stamped her boots on the rug inside the door.She hung up her wet coat and hat by the fire
and stirred the coals, placing several logs over them.She watched as the fire caught and then
roared to life.Then she rubbed her cold
hands together, moved closer to the fireplace, and removed the pins from her
curly dark hair so that it fell around her shoulders.She played Christmas carols on the piano,
hoping to distract herself from the wind that caused the old house to groan
with each gust.
Once the storm had passed by,
Grace made several trips to the wood pile to be sure she had enough fuel to get
through the night.On her last trip, she
thought she saw someone walking up the trail that led from the main road to their
ranch.Bill had tried to get his father
to gravel the makeshift road, but with the war, nothing was done unless it was
essential.She stopped to look again and
decided it was just swirling snow and her overactive imagination.She pulled the curtains in the living room,
but doing so just made her wonder what might lurk unseen on the other side.It did not help to hear the eerie whistling
of wind through drafty windows.Bill
promised they'd install storm windows before next winter if a peace was signed.The news was not promising.Gasoline rationing had just begun in the
United States.The country had recently
marked the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and now the
cruiser, Northampton, had been sunk by the Japanese Navy.
Grace was practicing shorthand
from a lesson in her Gregg textbook and trying not to bite her
fingernails.Blowing snow pelted the
windows, and she was sure the front door would burst open with the next blast
of wind. She felt chilled, put the
kettle on for tea, and then poked at the fire.She hurried to the kitchen when the shrill whistle startled her.She was sure she saw someone in the window
over the sink.Then the lights went out.She stopped moving for a moment until she
adjusted to the dark.She walked slowly
by the flickering light of the fireplace and tried not to spill the tea.
Grace was on her way back to the
kitchen to find the box of candles when she heard a thud.Then someone began pounding on the back
door.A prickly sensation crawled up her
spine and through her hair.She could
"Help me, please!" he
"What are you doing
"My car ran off the road.I hurt my leg.Please let me in."
Grace thought it would be
terrible not to help someone in need, but she was alone and afraid.She remembered that Bill had said she'd be
safe if she did not open the door to a stranger.
"I'm sorry.My brother says I can't open the door if I
don't know you.Go away."
"I'm hurt real bad.I won't make it through the night if you
don't let me in."
Grace thought the man sounded
desperate.She summoned her courage and
lit a candle.She held it to the window
of the door and saw a soldier wearing a garrison cap above a blood-soaked
bandage wrapped around his head.
"I know your brother.I'm a soldier, too.Here.I'll slide my dog tag under the door."
Grace picked up the dog tag.She read his name.
"I hope I don't regret this,
but I'm letting you in, Matthew."
He put one arm around Grace as
she helped him hop to a chair in front of the fire.She took his coat that was soaked with
melting snow and hung it up to dry.Then
she elevated his leg on a footstool and tucked a red and green quilt around him
before fixing him a cup of tea.
Grace's brother was also in the
"How do you know my
brother?" she asked.
"I don't really know
him.I'm sorry.I thought you might not let me inside."
Grace hoped she could trust the
soldier, but he didn't appear to be in good enough condition to do her any
harm. He told her he was trying to get
home for Christmas, but he was afraid he wouldn't make it.
They passed the evening talking
about their childhoods and adolescent dreams.He wasn't much older than she was.She thought his were the most unusual blue eyes she'd ever seen. When he looked at Grace, his eyes seemed
unfocused as if he could see beyond her and the small living room to some
infinite place in the universe.He refused
to talk about the war.
As the night went on, Grace was
less worried about Matthew and more concerned about her brother Bill.She hoped he was safe in Bear Paw and would
be able to drive home in the morning.
Grace tried her best not to
sleep, but she caught herself dozing from time to time.Matthew slept soundly in his chair.She had never known anyone to sleep as deeply
as he did, almost seeming not to breathe at all sometimes.In spite of herself, Grace could not resist
the urge to sleep.She did not wake up
until she sensed daylight and opened her eyes to see a bright blue sky and
Then she realized Matthew was not
in his chair.She called his name and
looked for him everywhere.His coat and
boots were gone, so she bundled up and went outside, calling his name.He was nowhere to be found.
Grace trudged through deep snow
until she was satisfied that the ranch had come through the blizzard
unscathed.She returned to the house,
half expecting to see Matthew when she opened the door.She could not explain how he could have left
in his condition, but she was too hungry to spend much time thinking about
it.She prepared a bowl of hot oatmeal,
poured cream over it, and sprinkled a bit of sugar on top. She was enjoying her last bite of toast and
jelly when Bill returned.She left her
breakfast and went to the door to help him with the supplies he'd purchased in
Grace prepared breakfast for Bill
and sat with him while he ate.They
compared notes about the storm.Grace
was afraid Bill would be angry with her for letting Matthew come into the
house.Before Grace could decide whether
or not to tell Bill about the soldier, he told her about someone he'd met in
"I went into the train
station to see Alice, but she left early.I didn't notice him when I walked in, but when I turned around, a soldier
was sitting on a bench with his leg outstretched.His head was wrapped in a bandage soaked with
blood.I thought he looked like he'd
been discharged from the hospital too soon.I told him I had a brother in the war, and a sister who was holding down
the fort during the storm.He tried to
tell me that you'd be fine, but I felt real bad because you were alone.Anyway, this guy had to catch his train.He was on his way home for Christmas.He asked me to mail his dog tag if I found
it.He said he only had one left.I promised him I'd look for the dog tag, and
he promised me you'd be all right.I
helped him up the stairs to the train.He was the nicest guy, Grace.I
wish you could've met him."
Grace had been listening to Bill
and growing more interested in his encounter with the soldier.By the time he finished his story, Grace knew
she would have to tell him about the stranger who'd come to her door during the
"Did you get the soldier's
"White.Matt, I think.He said he was trying to get home for
Christmas, but he was afraid he wouldn't make it."
Grace remembered that Matthew had
said the same words to her.She told
Bill about the soldier who had passed the previous night in their home.From her description, Bill was almost sure he
was the same person.He couldn't explain
how the Matt he knew could have gotten off the train and driven the opposite
direction with a head wound and bum leg to spend the evening with his sister.Then Grace reached into her pocket and
retrieved the dog tag slid under the door by Matthew the previous evening.She showed it to Bill, and he looked at it in
"Sergeant Matthew P.
White.Blood Type O," he read.
"Do you know what NO
means?" Grace asked.
"It means he has no
religious preference. It has to be the
same guy, but Matt was in no shape to drive anywhere.He told me he only had one dog tag left.I didn't think about it at the time, but he
should've had two.Every soldier is
issued two identical dog tags.If he
dies, one of them stays with his body and the other marks the grave."
"What if Matthew only had
one tag because the other one was on his grave?" Grace asked.
Bill laughed."No wonder you don't like being
alone.You've got one heck of an
imagination, Grace. There must be a reasonable explanation, but I don't have
one right now.We better keep this
between the two of us."
Grace would have liked to tell
her friends the story of the mysterious soldier.What really mattered was that she knew she was
courageous to help the wounded soldier when she was alone.Courage to face big fears made interesting stories
in her magazine, but courage like that comes from facing small fears.She
hoped Matthew was able to make it home for Christmas.
For a short time after Granny
finished her story, no one in the family spoke.Then Jared told her it was a cool ghost story.He asked if she'd tell the story to his
friends.Taylor's eyes were moist with
tears for the soldier.She was sure he
hadn't made it home for Christmas.
Then the tree lights came back
on, the television blared, and the cell phone notifications beeped, whistled,
and chimed to life, as if by magic.
Mike whispered to Lisa in the
kitchen.They'd had no idea Granny was
capable of telling such a detailed story since she rarely talked at all.They were more intrigued by Granny's ability
to tell the story than by the story itself.Mike took a moment to give Granny a kiss on her cheek and pat her
shoulder before he went up to bed.
"That was a terrific story,
Ma.You really took our minds off the
storm.I hope you'll join in more
often.We've been worried that you
aren't happy here.The kids are studying
the war in school.I'm sure you could
help them see how it affected ordinary people.Sleep tight, now."
Lisa dumped the mousse into the
garbage and soaked the pan.Then she
helped Granny brush her teeth.She
seemed less impatient when Granny moved too slowly and couldn't remember the
routine.She was in less of a hurry as
she helped Granny into her nightgown and tucked her into bed.
"You never talk about the
old times, Granny.The kids need to know
where they came from.Maybe you can tell
a story about your own life for Christmas Eve," Lisa said.
Granny lay awake for a time,
thinking about how the storm had turned an ordinary day into something special.For a little while, she'd been the center of
attention and, more importantly, she'd found her purpose by helping the family
through a long, difficult night.She
thought it was true that it was an ill wind that did not blow someone something
Shortly after Christmas, Granny's
cold turned into pneumonia. When they knew she probably would not survive into
the next year, Taylor typed the story of Sgt. White into her laptop at Granny's
bedside so she could ask for details she'd forgotten.The entire family was with Granny when she
passed away on another stormy night.For
the first time in years, she was no longer Granny but the late Grace Allen.
After she was laid to rest, Lisa
and Taylor sorted Grace's few possessions for the thrift shop.Taylor looked through her jewelry box for
anything that might be a keepsake.Lisa
was folding towels in the laundry room when Taylor came to the door with
something she'd found among the jewelry.When Lisa unwrapped Grace's flowered handkerchief, she saw the dog tag
and caught a breath."Oh my
gosh!Sgt. Matthew P. White.It wasn't just a story, and it happened to our Grace!"