The Villainous Return of Beth Paner: A Bea Pearl Christmas Short Story

Beth

One year, two months, three weeks, and four days.

She’d double-checked the calendar just to make sure. It was too cutesy, 1-2-3-4, and Beth Paner didn’t do cutesy.

That’s how long it had been since she’d stepped foot in this town. She’d rather keep driving through it, and never step a wedge bootie-clad foot back in it. There’s the dum-da-dum-da-dum of the narrow concrete bridge spanning over the trees and pea-green water below. Not near as high and soaring as the overpasses north of the New Orleans parish.

Her granny had given her bullfrog-croak laugh as Beth loaded up the car before heading back to Alabama. “1-2-3-4, eh Hun? Represents new beginnings. Or needin’ to put actions in order to reach what you desire.”

“What I desire?” she’d repeated. Normally she’d roll her eyes but knew from experience that Granny had no problems popping her on the side of the head. “I desire to stay here. I desire Mom to come here for Christmas. I desire to know why she insists on staying in a town that kicked out half her family. Doesn’t she feel betrayed? I do.”

Granny gave a crafty smile then pressed a white paper bag into Beth’s hands. The warm, homely scent of beignets wafted out and Beth softened enough to give her grandmother a hug. Not seeing her wrinkled face Christmas morning was going to be hard. “Sounds like goin’ there and talkin’ to her might be the best way to get what you desire, then. Yeah? Keep your eyes open for the signs.”

Now, driving past the hardware store where you could buy rat poison or an electric guitar, Beth risked rolling her eyes.  The town had changed some in the year plus she’d been gone. Fancier streetlights like the ones you’d see in historical districts. A new restaurant and boutique. The town took out a traffic light and made it into a four-way stop. Turning left onto Commerce Street, Beth shifted in her cracked leather seat and reflexively slid down when she passed the old-fashioned drugstore. It had the best coke floats, but it also had memories of Dad dropping the bomb on her and Mom, telling them his latest business venture wasn’t going as well as expected, and could possibly be a little illegal. Well, duh. But Beth had tidied up the loose ends. Not that her dad appreciated it.

Beth wrinkled her nose, her involvement had increased his sentencing time, but really, if he hadn’t wanted her help, he should’ve said something. Surely he had known what she was up to. Her cousin thought it was great and had been the muscle Beth needed, but he was off at a military camp in Florida now and hadn’t responded to a single letter Beth had mailed.

Whatever.  Just like everyone else from her past life.

Her stomach twisted and she stomped the gas when she recalled how Beatrice, the girl who destroyed her family, had spied on them through the pharmacy’s big plate glass windows. Looking at Beth with pity when she was a loose end that Just. Kept. Fraying. No matter how hard Beth tightened the rope.

And she’d tightened it enough to leave scars.

Pity! It still made Beth’s blood boil. If she ran into that girl at Piggly-Wiggly, Beth was going to call her Loose End just to freak her out. After all the trouble Beatrice caused, all she stole from her, it was the least Beth could do.

Beth glanced at the slip of paper with an address written on it in her granny’s elegant, Catholic-school-upbringing script. Tami had moved a couple streets over after the family left. The street had more modest houses than the ones Beth was accustomed to, but she’d grown used to having less this year after the government seized pretty much all of her family’s money.

She drove passed inflatable Santa Clauses and snowmen and a giant Grinch until she reached 432 Rhododendron Way. Unlit icicle lights hung from the soffits and giant glittery ornaments adorned the lower branches of an oak.

Beth sighed. Her home for the holidays. She wondered if she and her mom would get around to making divinity like Beth and Granny did last Christmas Eve. Beth had been forced to hit the brakes hard just inside the Mississippi line and Granny’s vintage cookie tin with the recipe taped to it had slid out of one of the bags. It was probably silly to bring it, but Granny’s eyes had sparkled when she found Beth in her recipe book.

Tami answered the door after the first knock. As if she’d been pacing, waiting. Beth wasn’t a fan of how her eyes thought about watering when her mom hugged her, the familiar perfume wrapping Beth like a childhood blanket.

“Bethie! I don’t think I’d recognize you!” Her mom held her out at arm’s length before squishing her into another hug.

“Beth,” she corrected under her breath. She did look different, her hair was shorter and a shimmery white blonde instead of the brown it was before. “You look different too.”

Tami had softened her makeup application considerably and looked like she dressed for comfort now in jeans and a tee-shirt rather than the pantsuits she always favored (or maybe it was Beth’s dad who always favored them on her) before Beth’s world imploded on itself.

“Let’s get you unpacked first, and then we can settle and catch up.” Tami pushed her out the door, following close behind. “I didn’t know if your phone got turned off since it had been so long since you called.”

Beth rolled her eyes as she popped the trunk.

“Sara acted surprised when I ran into her at Wal-Mart and told her you’d be visiting. Y’all haven’t kept in touch?”

Sara had been the first person who saw the mean streak inside Beth and approved. It matched her own. They were invincible their sophomore year. Boys, parties, forgiveness at the drop of a pout. Until Loose End, obviously. Beth shrugged, then grabbed her purse from the passenger seat. “I didn’t plan on ever coming back here.”

“Junior’s back too. I talked to his mama at a shower last weekend. Sending him away on that work farm out west was the best thing for him.”

Beth went rigid for a half a second before she collected herself. “Why would you think I care?”

Her mom arched an eyebrow and at the expression, Beth saw herself in her mom. The mean streak was hereditary. “The way you threw yourself at him before? Hmm…I have no idea.” She snatched up a weekender bag and pranced back inside.

Beth’s lips quirked. So that’s why her mom wanted her here. Tami must be getting tired of playing nice, pretending to be good and reformed, paying back to society what her husband’s family took away, and needed an outlet.  This would definitely make the Christmas holiday more interesting. Maybe Beth could get back up with Sara and terrorize folks. And maybe she could make Junior Batchelor regret ever thinking of turning her down.  

***

Tami dragged Beth to a Bikes for Tikes gumbo dinner county-wide fundraiser her second night back. She tried to sit in the back and play on her phone but her mom kept ignoring her reluctance and reintroducing her to folks from her past. Beth smirked when she was introduced to the new sheriff and was about to stir up some mischief by asking what happened to his predecessor (she guessed it was the same thing that happened to her dad) when someone lifted her up in the air from behind.

Beth shrieked as she turned around. Then almost choked when she saw who it was.

Junior Batchelor. What the hell?

He dropped her like she was a venomous snake. “Oh shit. Beth?” He took a step back and couldn’t meet her in the eyes. “I’m sorry. With the blonde hair I thought you were Honey.”

Loose End’s best friend. Beth’s lip curled.

“I just got back so hadn’t seen anybody in a while.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Um, how are you?”

How was she? She was in a town where everyone hated her, in front of a boy who had broken her heart. Beth swallowed and rubbed her chest, felt her heart beating. She noticed his tanned face and neck, his Adam’s apple that bobbed with obvious nervousness, the flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows that made guys sexier by ninety percent. The firmness of his arm muscles when he picked her up like she weighed nothing.

She felt her mom watching her, more than likely waiting for Beth to break down in tears. She knew what it was like, to watch that first shiny droplet fight its way out of someone’s eye. To push hard enough but not too much that they lose their will to fight. Beth licked her lips. The pause between Junior’s question and waiting for her response caused his head to jerk up like it was on a string. She looked into his eyes. Daring him to be the first to look away. Daring him to remember that spring it flooded. He held steady. Something like lightning thrummed through her body.

What would be the craziest thing she could do right here?

To show this town that the Paner family wasn’t dead yet.

To thumb her nose at her mom for pretending. Always trying to be someone she wasn’t. Always trying to pretend in public that mean streak didn’t exist. At least Beth was honest.

To get back at Junior. Was he with Honey now? Last Beth knew he was infatuated with Loose End but heard later that she was dating someone in Mobile. Wouldn’t that be awesome if Loose End had broken Junior’s heart too?

What would be the most unexpected thing?

Beth took a step forward so her suede wedges touched his scuffed boots. Before he could take a step back, she pressed her lips to his and held them there until he responded. After a beat, she stepped back and smiled up at him.

“I’ve missed you, Junior Batchelor.”

See? Honesty. Ignoring the proximity-wide swath of silence, she stepped around him, and out the door before speeding off in her Mustang.

There. That should remind him of who he rejected and show her mom she wasn’t playing into her heart-break games.

She forgot the traffic signal intersection had been turned into a four-way stop and zoomed through the stop sign. She shot everyone a bird who honked at her, then turned toward Sara’s neighborhood. Time to see if her old best friend was still loyal.

Junior

Junior had been scared of Beth Paner for as long as he’d known her. That girl was one of those coral snakes—all pretty and colorful on the outside with a poisonous streak as big as her whole insides. When she’d first arrived at Georgefield, all the guys on the basketball team couldn’t wait to be the first one to take her out. Junior admitted to himself that her newness made her interesting but when he overheard her making fun of another girl in the hallway, he didn’t want to be a part of her meanness. Maybe it was because of his disinterest that Beth set her eyes on him. Not that Junior really noticed until it was too late. He was more into fishing. In particular, fishing off a certain redhead’s pier on Lake George.

But then Beth tricked him. He’d gotten so confused over what was really going on that he just went along with what she said. He had thought he was a hero—a good guy—for so long he didn’t even recognize the warning signs. And then he was in way too deep until apologies couldn’t even touch all the things he’d messed up and the pretty redhead had sent him away. Away from the brown-green river teeming with fish, away from his worn-out place on the dock to the middle of the Moab desert where he could only pretend the water-carved rock still held the primordial sea it once did millions of years ago.

 And now here he was, stock-still, the center of attention because of that kiss. He shook his head and looked at Beth’s mom. “Well, I guess the big city hasn’t changed her too much.”

Tami laughed but Junior thought she had a little bit of that snake-tinge around her eyes too.

Folks were slow about turning around and minding their own business. He considered leaving but didn’t want people to think he was chasing after Beth. Also, he didn’t have anywhere else to be and he liked the idea of helping kids have a good Christmas. He’d actually gotten a bicycle from Bikes for Tikes when he was seven. It was the year his dad had been laid-off and his mom was waitressing while she finished up her nursing degree, so everyone figured Santa would skip their house that year. Waking up to a cold house that smelled like gingerbread and coffee, expecting to find a dark tree with nothing underneath but a threadbare quilt, then hearing the tinkling of a bicycle bell was better than any prancing and pawing of tiny hooves on sugar-plummed rooftops.

So Junior made up his mind to put all thoughts of Beth out of his head and spent the next two hours thanking folks for their contributions and ladling out steaming bowls of gumbo.

Beth

Beth pulled up to Sara’s house with its wooden Santa and his reindeer cutouts lit up on the front lawn. When her mother asked about keeping in touch, she didn’t want to admit that when her phone was seized, she lost all her numbers. Apparently, no one had asked her mom for Beth’s new number. Whatever. She wasn’t going to dwell on the fact that everyone dropped her. She did kick the red-painted nose off Rudolph as she walked by. Sara wasn’t getting forgiven without any repercussions. 

She rang the doorbell. Sara’s car was in the driveway so if her mom told Beth she wasn’t here, Beth would know Sara was avoiding her. No worries. She’d use the sharp end of Rudolph’s nose to scratch a little message into the paint job.

Sara herself answered the door. She looked at her blankly for half a second like you would someone selling a home security system out of the back of their van before she squealed and pulled Beth into a hug.

“Holy moly, the White Witch returns! You in town to freeze the life outta us? Love that hairdo. You’re gonna hate knowing this, but it looks just like Honey’s.”

“Shut up. I already know. Are you wearing a cat sweater?”

Sara beamed. “Meowy Christmas, Loser. And it’s got pockets.”

“You’re so weird.” Beth grinned. “Want to go down to the river?”

“Yeah, let me tell my mom. Hang on out here. You better not come in.” Sara pulled the door to but didn’t latch it. Beth heard her calling to her mom as she ran upstairs to get her shoes. Beth stuck her head in and tossed the broken reindeer nose under an antique coat rack in the foyer.

 Footsteps pounded down the stairs so Beth resumed her place on the front porch.

“’K, I’m ready,” Sara said, pulling her hair into a high bun on top of her head and following Beth down the sidewalk. “I haven’t gone down to the river in ages.”

“No one hangs there anymore?” Beth asked as she slid into her seat and cranked up the car.

“Not since they started putting more security on the river, ‘cause of well…y’all.”

Beth smirked. “Who’re you hanging out with now?”

“Mainly just the girls from the squad.”

“Honey and Beatrice?” Here was the true indicator of Sara’s loyalty. Beth wanted to glance at her but feigned nonchalance instead.

“Well yeah, they’re both on the squad.” Sara shifted, picking at her sweater. “Not like I seek them out, but they’re there.”

“I should cut all the puff balls off that god-awful sweater for you not calling me ever.”

“What? You were on lockdown and couldn’t talk to anyone from the outside. I mean, I called and texted anyways but they always came back undelivered.”

“Who told you I was on lockdown?”

“Uh…your mom, duh.”

Beth’s face flushed with anger. “So that’s why she asked all specific. That woman is toxic.”

“Where were you then? Isn’t your dad in jail?”

“Grandmother’s in New Orleans. Doesn’t matter. I have a lot of better, cooler friends there.” Beth fiddled with the radio when Sara didn’t respond. Every station was fuzz. “How do you live like this?” she growled. “What’s going on tonight?”

“Well, there’s a gumbo dinner fundraiser—”

“Yeah, I just made out with Junior there. What else?” Beth was pleased when she sensed Sara’s bottom jaw drop. She really loved freaking people out. It just made her whole day.

“Damn, girl. How long have you been back?”

“Two days.” Beth pulled into the boat launch parking lot and strained to see the dark river water past the streetlight’s glow.

“Are y’all together? Did he pine for you while he was stuck doing hard time in the desert? Did he realize he’s finally madly in love with you and whisk you off your feet while y’all were picking crab shells out of each other’s teeth?”

“Gross, no. I wanted to give him something to think about. And shut my mom up.”

“Isn’t that interesting that y’all came back after all that time within days of each other.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know. New beginnings?” Sara scrolled through her phone. “I’m going to find something to listen to.”

Beth startled at hearing Granny’s words repeated. New beginnings. She aimed the car’s headlights at the river and watched the current flow by. This river had been her family’s roadway. It held so many secrets in its limestone and tree root banks. It was kinda like her, Beth decided. Pretty and fun on the outside, but would turn vicious in an instant if crossed. Flooding its banks and sweeping everything away in its path. Leaving destruction once all the floodwaters receded.

Powerful.

And just across the river and through the woods was Lake George.

Beth was in a really good mood. “Let’s go pay Loose End a visit,” she suggested.

Junior

The last stock pot was scrubbed clean and the extra gumbo was divided between the volunteers and the local food bank. Junior was tired. Not tired like he’d been mending barbed wire or herding cattle, but a good kind of weary where he knew he was edging closer back to being a good guy. He was also brain-tired because he hadn’t succeeded in getting Beth’s kiss out of his head. There had been a tiny bit of openness there that he’d never seen in her before. Like maybe she had a thread of goodness in her that was too scared to come out. He was older now, probably not any wiser when it came to girls, but he wondered if his refusing to see Beth had somehow made her swallow up her goodness. What if she wasn’t all villain, like he realized he wasn’t all hero?

Blue-haired Mrs. Lou Ann, the receptionist from Town Hall, finished counting up the money made from tonight and handed it to the Bikes for Tikes treasurer. Junior volunteered his truck to help pick up the bikes from Wal-Mart.

“James Montgomery donated us the use of his barn to store the bikes until Christmas Eve night,” the new sheriff—Junior didn’t catch his name—said to the assembled group. “So if y’all will deliver ‘em there, we’d appreciate it.”

Junior grinned. He had worked for Mr. Montgomery part of the summer the last year he was here and got along with him great. He always had the coolest fishing stories that were so weird Junior knew they had to be true. And of course, he was the redhead’s dad.

He joined the queue, loaded his truck, and helped pack the others. Then drove out to Lake George to unload. The redhead was there, helping organize and count. He smiled at her but she just looked toward her mother and Junior knew exactly what she was thinking. Oddly, this time his heart didn’t break quite like it had in the past. It was sorrowful but in a remorseful way. He regretted what he did to try to get her attention. But he wasn’t going to be a bad guy anymore. He was working hard to be better.  Not to prove anything to her. It was for himself. And maybe Beth Paner too. People who needed help figuring out themselves.

“One thousand, two hundred, thirty-four bikes for our entire county,” Mr. Montgomery said once the redhead handed him her tally. “That’s how many kids—how many relieved parents—who thought they were waking up to no presents, get a bit of Christmas joy in their life when they spy a shiny new bike Christmas morning. Great job, everyone. Thanks for your time and muscle.”

Junior grinned. He felt really good. So good that he hopped in his truck and pulled out his phone, scrolling to the text message Beth had sent him earlier. He dialed her number.

Beth

He invited her to get coffee at the Chatothatchee Diner off Highway 34. It wasn’t really her speed but Sara had already gone home and Beth really didn’t want to see her mom after she realized how Tami had cut her off. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe Beth really wasn’t good for this town, but still. It was rude. Manipulative. Something that Beth herself would do to someone else.

Junior was already sitting at a table, studying the menu, when Beth walked in, the bell tinkling behind her. She liked the way it announced her presence. Even if there was only one other person in the diner besides them and the two employees. Junior stood as she approached, like a good gentleman. Beth hadn’t decided yet how she wanted to handle this. Cool and aloof, like the kiss never happened? Vengeful and angry? Noncommittal?

She laughed when she saw the table number tucked into its little wire holder.

“What is it?”

“Of course you picked table 12 in a diner off highway 34.”

“What’s that mean?”

She loved throwing folks off balance. “Only that you and me are supposed to be here at this table, Junior Batchelor.”

“Oh. Well…that’s good.”

The server took their coffee order.

Beth leaned forward and steepled her fingers. She decided on honesty. “Why did you invite me for coffee? After all I did to you? You know that kiss was just to get back at my mom, right?”

Junior shifted, making the pleather booth seat squeak. “I figured forgiveness is something we both need. I’m working on forgiving myself and while I was volunteering tonight, I came to the conclusion that I don’t know if I can do that without forgiving you. Otherwise I just sit there and blame you. How can I move on if I put everything on you?”

Two steaming mugs arrived and Beth watched him doctor his coffee. Minimal sugar, no creamer. Junior didn’t want to blame her? Even after she’d told him the kiss didn’t have anything to do with him? Who was he?

“And you may have started the kiss out of spite, but I ended it with something else.”

Beth shivered in a good way and grinned, wrapping her fingers around the hot cup. “You sure did. I think I like this new you. The desert was good for you.”

He nodded. “I had a lot of time to think. Grew up a little bit.”

She’d had time to think too. She may have told Sara she had found better friends but the truth was, she hadn’t. She seemed to have a knack for blowing up bridges wherever she went. “So how do you move forward?”

Junior grinned at her and she startled to feel something like hope blooming inside her heart.

“Well, you gotta let go of the past. Forgive others and forgive yourself. Be the best version of you you can be.”

Beth twitched her lips. “M’kay, now you sound like a motivational cat poster.”

He smiled and cupped his hand around hers. She was surprised at the sudden tears, the hard-to-breathe throat. Here’s what she wanted for ages. But if anything was going to move forward, she needed the truth.

 “What is it? You look like you could murder that coffee mug.”

“You’re not doing this just to get Loose End to forgive you, right?”

“Loose End?”

“Beatrice.” She spit out the name. “Are you saying all these things because you want to try to win her over again? Because it won’t work. She’ll just grind you in the mud again and again until you’re nothing.”

“I do want her family to forgive me but not because I want her or anything. I’ve moved on. Seen the hurt I caused even if I didn’t mean to. Even if I spent half my time warning her away from you.”

Beth figured this was a compliment in disguise and grinned.

 “I think her dad forgives me. But I didn’t try to talk to her tonight. Neither one of us is ready.”

Beth pulled her hands away from his. “Tonight? You saw her tonight?”

“Well, yeah. I helped deliver the Christmas bicycles. The Montgomery’s are storing all the Bikes for Tikes.”

She’d felt so good about her and Sara’s little mischievousness before, and now it gave her a queasy feeling in her stomach like she’d eaten Uncle Rufo’s mystery meat (it was pretty much always ‘possum. The mystery part was how long he’d fed it before slaughter so it tasted less like roadkill and more corn-fed meat).

She sighed and grimaced. “They’re storing the bikes in their old barn?”

“Yes.” Junior’s expression hardened. “Why? What did you do?”

“Sara’s going to text her at 12:30 to get her into the barn.” Beth fiddled with her napkin. “There might be a slight explosion.”

Junior jerked up. “You put a bomb in their barn? Beth, I thought I saw good in you. Was I wrong?”

She chewed on a nail. Damn him for making her feel bad enough for her stomach to lurch. “Bomb is such a harsh word. It won’t destroy anything. It’ll just shoot mud everywhere.”

“All over a thousand bikes for a thousand kids’ Christmas mornings.”

“I can stop it.” She pulled out her phone to call Sara. “It went to voicemail. It’s 12:28 now.”

Junior stood, dug in his wallet, and threw some cash on the table.

“Where’re you going?”

“I can’t let this happen. Christmas morning is too important.”

Beth fell into step behind him. She hadn’t realized how important Christmas morning could be until last year when it was just her and Granny. Tami was still in Georgefield, her dad in jail, her cousin with no Christmas leave. Even the family who didn’t get prosecuted laid low, disappearing back into the bayous her dad had rousted them out of. Beth had never felt as alone as she did last Christmas.     

“Let me drive,” she said.

“How do you even know how to make a bomb?”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Junior Batchelor.”

“I guess so.”

The detonator was scheduled to go off at 12:34. That gave Loose End four minutes to throw on some clothes and run out to their barn. It was also supposed to be Beth’s middle finger to fate but she saw the irony in that as she sped across the Chatothatchee Bridge and down the winding road to Lake George, trying to beat the clock.

“The barn was empty when I rigged it up,” she said to Junior. “I had no idea they were going to store stuff in there. It wasn’t like I did anything to mess up the restaurant or their house.”

She wanted to feel powerful like the river and thought the idea of Loose End covered and hysterical in mud would make her feel good. That was the furthest from what Beth was feeling now. All she could think about now was flooded homes, sweeping away Christmas trees and separating families.

She remembered Granny’s stories of the first Christmas after Hurricane Katrina. When water could be vicious. When water could destroy all your memories and leave you with nothing but the wispy ones in your head and a few scraps of old photos that looked more like swamp grass than past Christmas parties. Losing family albums had aged Granny. Only recreating those memories in the years since Katrina had revived her. Beth didn’t want to take away anyone’s ability to create new Christmas morning memories.

“12:32.”

The darkened trees opened up to a cold, still lake with a hulking building perched on top, lit by a single security light. Lake George Restaurant. On the other side, only the front porch light was on, though a faint glow came from Loose End’s curtained window.

“12:33. There isn’t enough time.”

Beth jerked the wheel, sliding her car to a stop in front of the barn, rocks peppering the wooden doors.

She darted inside the partially open barn door and gasped. Spindly shadows filled the once empty space.

Beth?! What’re you doing here?” a disheveled Loose End squealed. “I should’ve known not to trust Sara now that you’re back in town.”

For the first time, Beth let the opportunity to look at Loose End with derision slide by. No, not Loose End, not even Beatrice, she thought as she yanked the plastic wrapped package off the wall. Bea Pearl. If Beth wanted to move on, to discover if she still had enough good in her to have a decent relationship with someone who wouldn’t drop her like ’possum leftovers, then she needed to at the very least call this girl by her given name. And not blame her for everything bad that had happened.

There wasn’t any time. Beth stuck the packet under her sweater as she ran, then hunched over to absorb the shock.

It hurt like hell and took her breath away.

Funny how she wanted to be the mighty river, leaving destruction in her wake and now she was gasping like a fish left behind. Covered in mud.

She lay winded. First Bea Pearl, then Junior appeared in her sight, their mouths moving without her comprehension. Beth felt like she was underwater the way everything was muffled. Then her ears popped. Junior sat her up and Bea Pearl wacked her on the back. Her ribs. She thought they might be broken they hurt so bad.

“How long have you been waiting to hit me?” she asked Bea Pearl, wheezing.

“You weren’t breathing, Wasp!”

Beth would’ve laughed if it didn’t hurt so badly. “The bikes. Did I make it out in time?”

“Mostly.” Junior looked toward the barn. Light spilled from the open doorway, someone must’ve turned on the barn light. “Looks like it just got the bikes closest to the door.”

Beth looked back to Bea Pearl. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

Bea Pearl squeezed her shoulder. “Let me go get you some towels.”

“I can’t believe you took a bomb to save the Christmas bikes,” Junior said.

“I didn’t realize it would hurt so bad.” She took his hand, wincing as she brought it up to her chin. “Thank you for seeing that tiny bit of good. Will you help me?”

Junior wiped her face with the hem of his shirt. “We’ll find the good together.”

Then she kissed him with no hidden motives, and he kissed her without holding anything back. She guessed she had reached what she desired after all, just like the numbers predicted, even though it wasn’t anything she had ever expected. A light in the darkest day of the year, and a hope of good things to come.

She could almost hear Granny’s bullfrog-croak cackle.

THE END.

Thank you for reading! This short story came from an exercise of writing outside of my genre–romance–and a hero saving Christmas. I like a challenge so I wondered: how could I make a villain a hero? After all, a good villain is the hero in their own mind. It was fun getting to the head of Bea Pearl’s villain and exploring what makes her tick. And finally giving her a happily ever after (or knowing Beth, a happily for now ;))

Happy holidays!

Candice

To purchase a copy of The Existence of Bea Pearl to see what all Beth and Junior got up to before this, signed copies are available at my local indie, The Haunted Book Shop, and online wherever books are sold.

About the book:

If her brother could stop existing, could she too?

Sixteen-year-old Bea Pearl knows her brother isn’t dead. Even if her parents don’t agree. Even if the entire town doesn’t believe her. She knows it’s true. When orders came to evacuate Lake George due to rising floodwaters, Bea Pearl saw Jim head toward the river. She followed him. Only she returned. 

When her parents have Jim declared legally dead, Bea Pearl decides it’s up to her to figure out where her brother could be if he is alive, and so begins to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. But it seems like someone else wants to know what he was hiding when his bedroom is ransacked. More clues come together: a scrap of paper, mysterious numbers that may lead to swamp monkeys, Jim’s shoes turning up in unexpected places. Bea Pearl can’t figure out what connects them all until she’s stolen from her bed in the dead of night.

Bea Pearl’s insistence that Jim’s alive and her quest to figure out why he went down to a flooding river in the first place takes a toll on her shattering family. But she must unearth the truth surrounding her presumed dead brother. Otherwise, the rumors are true and she has killed him. Because if Jim can stop existing, could she too?

CATEGORY: Mystery | Southern | Ecological | Thriller | Action & Adventure

AGE: Young Adult, 12+

Owl Hollow Press

Book Giveaway: SASSAFRAS AND HER TINY TAIL by Candice Marley Conner

Writing and Illustrating

Candice Marley Conner has a new  picture book titled, SASSAFRAS AND HER TINY TAIL, illustrated by Heath Gray and published by Maclaren-Cochrane Publishing. They have agreed to send a book with one lucky winner living in the US. All you have to do to get in the running is to leave a comment. Reblog, tweet, or talk about it on Facebook with a link and you will get additional chances to win. Just let me know the other things you do to share the good news, so I can put in the right amount of tickets in my basket for you.

Sharing on Facebook, Twitter, reblogging really helps spread the word for a new book. Thanks for helping Candice, and Heath!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Sometimes your differences make you a hero.

Squirrels need their tails for balance and to communicate so with her stubby, bristly tail, Sassafras is the laughingstock of…

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Tuesday Debut – Presenting Candice Marley Conner!

Susanna Leonard Hill

Nothing is better than a good Tuesday Debut except. . .when you get to announce the winner of a PB MS critique offered by the last Tuesday Debut!

The randomly chosen lucky winner of a PB MS critique from Christine Van Zandt is MDK45!

MDK45, come on down! (You’ll have to contact me, I think because I don’t have contact info for you! 😊)

Now! Onto today’s Tuesday Debut where we get to meet the lovely and talented Candice Marley Conner, hear about her journey, even get to see some of the original notes she wrote in her journal which were the first seeds of her debut picture book, SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL! (How can you not love a squirrel named Sassafras?!)

Ready?

Let’s go!

SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL
written by Candice Marley Conner
Illustrated by Heath Gray
MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing
June 8, 2021
fiction…

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10th Annual Holiday Contest!

The holidays are officially here when children’s author and contest extraordinaire, Susanna Hill, announces her latest holiday writing contest! This year’s theme is holiday helpers and it immediately put me in mind of a conversation I had with my daughter earlier this year.

She pulled me aside and very solemnly asked the big question: is Santa real?

Y’all. I felt the pivot in the moment–when my little girl was growing up. So I explained how mamas and daddies and grandparents, and all the good adults in kid’s lives are Helpers. We still have the magic in our home and I think she likes having a special secret from her little brother. (Though when she made the connection and asked about our Elf on the Shelf, Alanagator, it took a bit more for her to digest.)

Here’s my entry, right at 250 words. I hope you enjoy it and that the holiday magic is alive and well in your home.

This adorable furry potato just joined our family for my daughter’s 10th birthday. She likes books and tea parties as much as we do!

Guinea Pig Help Comes Wrapped in Snuggles & Squeaks

By Candice Marley Conner

I snuggled in closer. My girl was worrying over something the same way I worry on my cherry sticks. “Wheek?” I asked. Maybe Addie needed something to chew on.

Addie looked wide-eyed at Mama. “I need to ask you a question,” she whispered.

Mama sat next to her and gave me a pat. I wiggled my rump. “I’m listening.”

“Is Santa real?”

“Does a giant elf come down a chimney we don’t have? No, sweetheart. Does Christmas have a special kind of magic where songs make you happy and hot chocolate is like a hug to your insides, and people surprise you with all the good they’re capable of? Absolutely.”

Addie smushed her face in my fur so I tickled her cheek with my whiskers.

“You’re a Helper now.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know how we saw Santa at the bakery, then at the grocery store ringing the bell? Your little brother noticed the beards were different and I said the Christmas Spirit needs Helpers. Those nice people were helping Santa. Sam doesn’t know. It’s up to you to keep the secret safe and the magic alive for him.”

“I can do that,” Addie said. Mama hugged her.

“Wheek?” I asked. Can guinea pigs be Helpers?

“Always,” Addie whispered.

As Mama turned off the light, Addie said, “Does this mean you’re the tooth fairy too?”

“Yes.”

“Whew. Fairies sneaking into my room always made me nervous. Like, what do they DO with all those teeth?”

I squeaked in agreement.

Cover Story

A writing challenge I recently participated in that I highly recommend to other writers & creatives!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Sometimes writers feel we have to limit what we share on social media and in our work: I write memoir, why does anyone want to see my garden? My book is a parenting journey—can I write an essay about addiction? But our whole selves make our creative work. Seeing a writer’s favorite topics juxtaposed shows why you’re writing about those things. Parenting informs your writing on trauma. Gardening influences your thoughts on social justice. Readers want to see what inspires us as well as the words we create.

These topics and interests are your “content buckets” full of ideas for books, essays, articles and social media posts. Everything you see and have a strong feeling about. Every problem people have that you could advise on. Every experience you’re willing to share, so readers discover, “I’m not the only one who feels like this.”

One way to name your content buckets…

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Bringing the Writing Workshop to You: Creativity Exercises for the Stuck-At-Home Writer

Activities to get creativity flowing…brainstorms and origin stories.

The Haunted Book Shop in Mobile, Alabama

Last summer, two other authors and I held a Lil’ Haints Creative Writing Workshop at the bookstore tailored to young authors from nine to fourteen. It was absolutely amazing to see the kids’ eyes light up as they told us about the stories they were working on. The students inspired us just as much as we inspired them, I think.

As I was casting around for ideas on how I could use my talents in this uncertain, coronavirus time to help others, I wondered, could putting my Lil’ Haints workshopping lessons online help encourage and entertain young authors at home?

What follows is the workshop I gave on “Brainstorms & Origin Stories” redesigned for this format:

Today’s workshop is about how to be a creative person—whether you write, draw, or underwater basket weave as my middle school teacher used to say. Being creative is about keeping yourself open to possibilities…

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Laughter is the Best Vaccine: Funny Books to Get You Through These Coronavirus Times

Need to boost your immune system with a good laugh and the books that’ll make that happen? Here’s a post I wrote for the indie bookstore I work at as a kidlit specialist.

The Haunted Book Shop in Mobile, Alabama

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A ghost walks into a bookshop. The owner asks, “How can I help you?” Ghost says, “I’m here for the BOOOOks.”

Yeah, that was more groan-worthy than a haunted staircase. But in these weird times of uncertainty and distancing ourselves from friends and family, having a sense of humor, and feeding it, is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves.

A good guffaw can help soothe tension and physical symptoms of stress by stimulating circulation and relaxing muscles. Positive thoughts (which go hand in hand with laughing) releases neuropeptides that help battle stress and potentially more serious illnesses. Thus boosting your immune system.

A shared joke can help you deal with difficult situations and bond you with a person more fully, even if you can’t be within six feet of them.

Laughter can also be as helpful as a workout…

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Valentine’s Day Giveaway

Love is in the air! But so is something else…

Hi, y’all! If you’re a newsletter follower, then you already know about the Mobile Writers’ Guild’s third annual anthology that recently released called Valentine’s Day Pieces. It’s a collection of short stories, creative non fiction, and poetry. Some fun-filled and loving, others chilling when love goes awry.

AnthologyGiveawayPicAnd because this Valentine’s Day I want y’all to know how much I appreciate the time and attention and positive thoughts from you to follow my tangly journey to publication, I’m giving away a copy! And it’s not only signed by me, so that’s pretty cool.

All you have to do to enter is SIGN UP HERE for my newsletter. If you’re already subscribed, you’re already entered, easy-peasy. I’ll have the kiddos draw Sunday evening and announce the winner on my facebook author page so you can get it before February 14th.

Thanks so much! Y’all enjoy the upcoming chocolate and king cake season that will soon be upon us!

I also want to thank my critique partner, Carrie Dalby, for walking me through all things newsletter-ish. Like this giveaway for instance, lol. If y’all like Southern Gothic family sagas and/or YA historical fiction, go check out her books!