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

Every Rejection Happens for a Reason

Did I get tons of eyerolls for that title?

Of course, there’s a reason for the rejection. I’m not talented enough. My writing needs to be stronger. I’ll never make it as an author. Look how good everyone else is.

Or, Magic8Ball

Acquisitions didn’t see my vision. They didn’t get what I was trying to say. They didn’t give my writing the time it deserves.

Or even,

They already have XYZ genre, subject, or theme on their lists. I’m too late.

I’ve wallowed and gnashed my writing teeth in all that mire. But once my head clears and I don’t take the rejection quite so personally, I wonder: what if I was selling myself short? What if I was settling, an injustice to the words I carefully selected and strung together? Worried and pried to make them the best and strongest they can be?

What if the rejection happened because it wasn’t the right place for my writing?

Two days ago a short story of mine was accepted into an anthology. As the lovely congrats comments posted, I realized a good bit of them were from authors I had ‘met’ from last year’s anthology, published by the same press.

And I thought, if last year’s short story, “Swamp Mallow”, had been published by the first place I sent it, I would never have met these nice authors. And honestly, it wouldn’t have been as strong of a story as it is now. I wouldn’t have been as proud of it as I am now. It would still be called “The Girl and the Gator” and feature a carrot as a weapon. *facepalm*

In 2015, 500 ‘new’ fairytales were discovered in Germany, compiled into The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales collected in the mid-19th century by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth. One of those was “The Girl and the Pond”. I’d always liked the fairytale, “Moss Gown”, the Cajun combination of King Lear and Cinderella, so I wanted to retell “The Girl and the Pond” with that bayou atmosphere. Hence “Swamp Mallow” was born.

I knew it was a good story: had a great setting, developed characters (the villain needed more motivation, mentioned one editor), and a nicely-paced plot. The feedback I received was positive: original, creative, etc, but it was always a no. Dejected, I put it aside. Even though I loved the story, I was forcing it to fit themes that didn’t work.

But then a publisher announced their 2018 theme: a full moon. It spoke to me. I rewrote it. All of a sudden, my story had heart and that pesky villain had motivation. This time a theme not only fit my story but made my story even better than it had been before.

My story found the home it was always supposed to have.

So yes, every rejection does have a reason. And sometimes it’s not anything to do with your writing abilities. Sometimes the reason is because better things are waiting on the horizon.

Don’t give up.
Keep writing.
Keep sharing your words with the world. My hope in this example is that the rejections don’t get you down for long.

How do you get through rejection? I’d love to see your tips in the comments!

Interested in reading “Swamp Mallow” and the 27 other fabulous short stories that take place UNDER THE FULL MOON’S LIGHT? Here’s the link.

Writing Goals: A Look Back on 2018

Last year I participated in children’s author Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series. She challenges participants to post SUCCESSES (rather than resolutions), believing the way New Year’s resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity – what DIDN’T get done or achieved in the previous year. Instead, she suggests we set goals for the New Year that BUILD on our achievements from the previous one. I felt good about what all I accomplished last year so I decided to participate in this Anti-Resolution Revolution again. It really helps for when someone kindly asks: “Anything new with the writing?” and I give a hesitant “no…”

January: I didn’t make it into the Writing with the Stars mentorship or Sun vs. Snow, but I did join an online picture book critique group with five fabulous writers, who have proven to be invaluable. I can’t imagine submitting something without their critiques. I was also featured on Sub It Club’s blog for winning their “Small Steps to Success” contest. And I came up with 30 picture book ideas in 31 days thanks to Tara Lazar’s STORYSTORM. Submissions: 1 MG ms, 5 subs; 1 PB ms, 3 subs

February: I joined the picture book debut group, Newin19, for Sassafras and have learned SO MUCH (and how much I still have left to learn, gulp!). I was also encouraged to create an Amazon Authors page which made me feel pretty legit. I wrote another Bean & Jilly entry for Susanna Hill’s ValenTINY contest, and while I didn’t place, I hope to one day expand it into a chapter book. Submissions: 1 article, 1 sub; 2 PBs, 4 subs

 

 

March: Fireflies & Fairy Dust published 2 poems and 1 flash fiction piece of mine, and our local Mobile Writers’ Guild published our first ever anthology which had one of my poems, and 2 of my short stories in it, one being a story I co-wrote. I manned a table at the Mobile Literary Festival which was exciting to be a part of. Also got an agent #PitMad request. Submissions: 2 articles, 2 subs; 1 MG, 1 sub; 1 YA, 1 sub; 3 PBs, 3 subs

April: Submissions: 2 MGs, 2 subs; 1 PB, 1 sub

May: My YA was a top 3 finalist in Southern Fried Karma’s 2018 Novel Contest. Submissions: 2 PBs, 8 subs; 2 MGs, 3 subs (1 garnered a full agent request!); 1 poem, 1 sub

June: I entered picture book manuscripts into SCBWI’s Southern Breeze contest and Rate Your Story’s Free Day and received super helpful feedback on both. Submissions: 2 articles, 2 subs; 2 MGs, 4 subs

July: I sent my resume to 2 educational publishers as a Writer-For-Hire. Submissions: 1 MG, 1 sub; 1 PB, 1 sub

August: I participated in Marcie Colleen’s August Study Hall with 4 PB mss which was intense and eye-opening. Also met some lovely writer-friends there. Submissions: 1 MG, 1 sub; 1 article, 1 sub

September: I spent this month revising the mss from Study Hall critiques, and received a full agent request on my MG magical realism. My picture book critique group and I launched our brand new blog, Wonder of Words!

October: I participated in my 1st ever twitter chat hosted by Matthew Winner with the Newin19 debut group, and did my 1st public reading at a local indie bookshop’s grand opening! Owl Hollow Press published my short story “Swamp Mallow” in their anthology and I really, really just love Halloween. The poem I submitted to Susanna Hill’s HalloWEENSIE contest didn’t place but I expanded it to a prose PB ms that I am absolutely in love with and hope to start querying in the new year. Submissions: 1 PB, 1 sub

Halloween18

SQUIRREL GIRL! & family Halloween

November: For my birthday, my super supportive parents gave me Callie Metler-Smith’s Writing Magic Lab so I can focus on one of my MGs. Submissions: 2 PBs, 2 subs

December: Pretty much shocked that this month is almost over. I read one of my Christmas poems at the Mobile Writers’ Guild Christmas party and was pleasantly surprised at the applause, lol. My picture book manuscript “Little Oak” won Honorable Mention in the Writing Magic Holiday contest. I decided to invest in myself and used Christmas money to enroll in the Children’s Book Academy workshop in the New Year. Super excited for that! Submissions: 1 poem, 1 sub

So maybe there is ‘something new’ with my writing. Laying out my accomplishments like this helps me see how my writing has grown this year. Maybe next time I won’t answer the question with a hesitant no.

I encourage you to do the same!

A Fruitful Post

Hi y’all! I hope everyone had a nice, relaxing Labor Day. We just got back from a family beach trip in time to batten down the hatches for Tropical Storm Gordon’s arrival.

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Yep, this is the sister that always urges me to read those adult thrillers and mysteries. We love reading together, it’s our favorite thing. 

My lovely picture book critique group started a joint blog and our inaugural post went out this Saturday. BbfCLoet Each of us focus on a different area of children’s literature, mine centering on creativity and inspiration, and we’d love it if you follow along with us at the Wonder of Words. Our posts will go out the first and third Saturday of each month. Obviously from how I post here, I need the accountability 🙂

If you’re in T.S. Gordon’s path, stay safe and make sure you have plenty of books. If not, simply having plenty of books on hand is always sound advice 😉

Are You An Early Morning Writer?

Last week I posted this picture on my private Facebook page and a friend and aspiring writer asked me for tips on waking early to write (thanks, Danielle!). SNPLCQGQAs I replied to her, I realized I had a good bit to say on this so thought it might help and encourage other writers who are also searching for more time to write.

Two years ago on the eve of Dinosaur Boy’s 3rd birthday, I blogged about my struggle of finding time to write with a toddler and a newborn. You can find that post here. Now, as DB is on the cusp of turning 5, here are what works for me, and hopefully some of these resonate with you as well.

First off, I’m one of those people who need pretty much silence to write. I can edit and critique with noise and flurries of activity around me, but I can’t hold onto plot threads when there’s too much distraction.

I figured out pretty early on that my writing time would need to be when everyone is asleep. Before even the chores wake up and start demanding my attention.

How Do You Get Out of A Nice Warm Bed to Sit In Front of A Computer?

Nothing gets you out of bed faster than the sounds of a hacking cat or screaming child.

Some mornings are incredibly tough.

Especially if I’ve been up and down all night with a sick child. Or if the A/C hasn’t kicked off once and the house is finally frigid and my covers deliciously warm.

What makes me drag myself out of bed is reminding myself that THIS IS THE ONLY TIME I GET. My day runs so much better when I start it feeling accomplished rather than regretful.

Because my writing time is so limited, that in itself is a motivator. I’m usually forced to close my computer by hungry kids so the whole rest of the day I keep a brain-browser open in the background (and my journal), brainstorming different ideas so that when I finally do have the chance to write, I’m excited to do it.

I look forward to pages to fill and coffee to drink.

I’m Up. Now What?

As my brain and body got used to our arrangement, it became easier to wake up and immediately have enough brain function to write. I don’t always have the ability to speak coherently, but that comes once coffee is consumed and the hubs wakes. Sometimes taking a shower first thing is what it took to get my creative grey-stuff moving along.

A habit must be created and that takes time and doing it over and over.

But for the times I don’t wake bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, or I don’t have an active KzdLVn57manuscript, I have my to-do lists so sleepy-me doesn’t waste time. Just crossing things off helps me feel accomplished and jump-starts my brain. It’s something I can leave out and add to throughout a busy day too.

 

 

 

Accountability

I’m a self-motivator for the most part, but accountability is a pretty awesome thing. Don’t have any early-riser writing buddies? No worries.  Some super smart early birds set up a twitter account with the hashtag #5amWritersClub to help connect with other early bird writers.ZvBfwOkNI hope sharing what works for me helps motivate other writers who want to start their day with words.

Please share any tips for what works for you too!

Third Annual Miss Bookshelf USA

This Monday was the 67th annual Miss USA pageant. Congrats to Miss Nebraska on her win, making her the first lady from her state to wear the crown. Now if y’all know me at all, you know my interests have a bit more bookish lean to them. Hence my 3rd Annual Miss Bookshelf USA pageant, where I scour my previous year’s bookshelf to bring you some of my favorites.

My Goodreads shelves say I read thirty books last year. Eight more than last year and that doesn’t count the books I beta read and the three I haven’t finished yet. Interestingly, a third of those are adult books which I blame mostly on my sister. Here’s the full list and my reviews if you want to check it out.

2018MissUSA

A stack of some of the Miss Bookshelf USA contestants

For my TOP TEN delegates in no particular order (Ok, twelve. I did fudge the numbers just a bit because of sequels. Hey, it’s my contest and if the sequels are as awesome as the first, them I MUST include them):

The Broken Earth #1 & #2 by NK Jemison

A SHADOW BRIGHT & BURNING by Jessica Cluess

Princess Academy #1 & #2 by Shannon Hale

STARS ABOVE by Marissa Meyer (specifically “The Little Android”)

HARRY POTTER & THE CURSED CHILD by John Tiffany & JK Rowling

THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES by Wade Albert White

BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE and THE RAVEN KING by Maggie Stiefvater

THE KEY TO EXTRAORDINARY by Natalie Lloyd

RAVENCLIFFE by Carolyn Goodman

And out of these beautiful books and talented authors…

Miss Amnity 2018!Miss Amnity goes to… Miri of The Princess Academy, for always listening to her heart and her head equally!

Miss Style goes to… THE FIFTH SEASON and THE OBELISK GATE because whoa…Essun has a certain style about her. And that thing Ms. Jemisin does with Hoa’s POV–blew my mind, people.Miss Style 2018!

 

 

MrMr Photogenic Cover 2018! Photogenic Cover goes to THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES. I mean, you know it’s going to be fun just looking at it.

 

 

2nd Runner Up Miss Bookshelf USA!

Second Runner Up is…. STARS ABOVE! So many of the stories in this Lunar Chronicles collection are great but “The Little Android”, Ms. Meyer’s version of “The Little Mermaid”, tugged on my feels just as hard as the original fairytale.

 

 

 

FFirst Runner Up Miss Bookshelf USA!irst Runner Up is this sweet hopeful book…THE KEY TO EXTRORDINARY. Seriously, I’ll read everything Natalie Lloyd writes. She has an extraordinary way with words.

 

 

 

 

 

AND OUR 2018 MISS (AND MISTER) BOOKSHELF USA GOES TO…BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE and THE RAVEN KING! Kind of fitting right? The Raven Boys and Blue looking for royalty all along 😉

So what do you think of my picks? What was your favorite book you read last year?

For the curious and who’d like more book recommendations, check out my 2017 pageant contestants.

Writing Goals: A Look Back on 2017

Last December I wrote a post looking back on 2016 to see how far I had come despite the rejections (why are they always the easiest to recall???). The curious may find that post here. This year, I joined children’s author Julie Hedlund’s 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series. She challenged participants to post SUCCESSES (rather than resolutions) on our blogs this year. She believes the way New Year’s resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity – what DIDN’T get done or achieved in the previous year. Instead, she suggests we set goals for the New Year that BUILD on our achievements from the previous one. I decided to participate in this Anti-Resolution Revolution! 12-Days-of-Christmas-1-300x300

My personal challenge for 2017 was to submit specifically kidlit submissions at least twice a month. I’m happy to say I reached that goal for the year, so yippee for me 🙂

In January, I submitted one picture book manuscript and four poems to kidlit magazines, and was ecstatic when one was accepted by Highlights Hello. The personal essay that I was extremely hopeful for in 2016 was officially accepted by Chicken Soup for the Soul!

February was mainly revisions and working on the adult manuscript I’m co-writing with two others so I didn’t submit much, just the bare minimum I had set for myself–one PB MS and one short story. But I did survive being the Girl Scout Cookie Chair for my daughter’s troop and feel that’s a huge accomplishment, lol.

I entered one of my middle grade manuscripts into a SCBWI contest and submitted a poem, one MG and two PB MSS in March and April. The big thing I did in April was have a book signing for my Chicken Soup for the Soul: Best Mom Ever which was SOOO COOL. Luckily, it was at my best friend’s shop in my hometown so it wasn’t as terrifying as it could have been (and there was wine which always gives courage. Not so much with helping spelling names correctly). And my little sister got married which was a lot of fun!

Three PB MSS submissions in May and my Mermaid Girl GRADUATED FROM KINDERGARTEN!!! We celebrated at PF Chang’s which is always a yum time 🙂

In June and July, I entered another manuscript into a different, regional SCBWI contest and it placed second, and had a dark flash fiction piece two light poems accepted into a fairytale anthology which was great for my confidence because I had been collecting passes like postage stamps for a bit. And Dinosaur Boy turned four which means he’s a big kid now. 20604615_10101620196879773_3007376234309447584_n

(My sister took him to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science for his birthday so you know he ATE THAT UP like a Longneck with a tree-star.)

In August, I had a picture book manuscript accepted, which obviously is a dream come true. More on that here. And in September, a short story cut from my Young Adult MS was a finalist in YA Review Network’s Halloween Contest. In October, I stumbled upon children’s author Susanna Leonard Hill‘s fun contests via Sub It Club which introduced me to SO MANY talented, helpful, and encouraging writers. Not to mention, inspired two pieces I later submitted to magazines.

November I gave myself a grace period on the submissions (and I sent in seven submissions in October to make up for it) when I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. It was such a great experience that I plan on doing it again in ’18. I didn’t “win” in the traditional sense, but I am the proud owner of 20k words I didn’t have before!

And now that we’re to this current month, I hope to hear good things for the two middle grade MSS and one magazine submission I sent out before the holidays! I want to participate in children’s authors BeckyTara Book’s Writing With the Stars PB mentor program in the months to come, and maybe take a few online workshops in the upcoming year.

So why don’t you try this? Write out any and all, big and little successes you’ve had this past year to set yourself up for an amazing 2018!

 

 

Susanna Hill’s 7th Annual Halloweensie Contest

Have I mentioned yet that Halloween is my favorite holiday? The weather’s sometimes cooler, you don’t have to clean cobwebs out of ceiling corners, and if you don’t feel like brushing your hair, a green wig is perfectly acceptable.

And the candy…peanut butter cups are a balanced breakfast, right?

I also love contests. So when I heard about children’s author Susanna Hill and her Halloweensie Contest, I couldn’t wait to write my entry.

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The rules: Entry must have a 100 word count or less, and contain the words candy corn (counts as one word here), monster, and shadow. And be for little ghouls and goblins.

Here’s my entry at exactly one hundred words (that’s harder than it sounds, people!):

The Candy Corn Craft Monster

Bean’s best friend Jilly said he was a monster when it came to crafts. A complete mess. He’d get glitter up his nose. He’d glue his fingers together.

So Bean hid in the shadowiest corner.

Miss Ann found him. “Halloween’s tonight! Come make spooky art.”

“I’ll just make a mess.” Bean hung his head.

Miss Ann led him next to Jilly. “That’s okay. Messes mean you’re being creative and learning.”

Bean looked at the candy corn and had an idea. He got to work.

Jilly squealed, then giggled. “It’s Bean the Candy Corn Monster!”

He grinned as he gnashed his candy corn fangs.

 

A Stroller-Ride, a Squirrel, & a Story

Around five years ago, my daughter (then about a year old) and I took a stroller-ride around our neighborhood. We sang our ABCs, hearty renditions of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and mainly just enjoyed the shade of oak trees over the road, the distant, muted swishing of traffic, birdsong, and each others’ company.

Then a squirrel scampered down, looked at us, grabbed an acorn with its tiny paws, and scampered back up the nearest tree.

“Did you see it’s tail? I’ve never seen one so scrawny!”

“Gggggh-mmftph” (Because she’s one and probably chewing on something)

Looking at things with a different perspective is a value I’ve tried to instill in my children since birth, so the rest of the stroll was all about that little squirrel with the bristly tail:

  • Squirrels use their tails to communicate, so do other squirrels have a hard time reading the tail-flicks?
  • They use their tails for balance, so does this one fall a lot?
  • Do squirrels even care? Is it a thing? Do they spend extra time grooming their tails?
  • How many toes do squirrels have?
  • mmmmffftpphhh (probably imagining what a squirrel tail tastes like)

By the time we got back home, an entire story about a squirrel with a tail as bristly as a chewed-up pine cone was born.

But like all things that are born, it has to grow. Learn new things like formatting picture book manuscripts, brevity (picture books are notoriously low on the word count), and because of this: which words paint the clearest picture, which is the most concise way to get this info across in a way both children and the parents that read this to them will enjoy, when to show and when to tell.

And so, it’s with great delight that I can now announce that the picture book manuscript tentatively titled Sassafras and Her Teeny, Tiny Tail is now under contract with MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing.

Here’s her potential Back of Book content:

Sometimes your differences make you a hero.

With her stubby, bristly tail, Sassafras is the laughingstock of the oak tree. But when danger strikes, the thing that makes her different might just save the day.

She still has some growing to do once I receive edits from my new editor, but one day this little squirrel will have her story.

(And squirrels have four toes on their front paws, and five on their hind legs, for those curious.)

The Blogger Recognition Award

blogger-recognition-award

Middle grade writer and recommender-extraordinaire of books, Laura tagged me in this fun blogging event. Here are the rules:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Write a post to show your award.
  3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
  4. Give two pieces of advice to new bloggers.
  5. Select other bloggers you want to give this award to.
  6. Comment on each blog and let them know you have nominated them & provide the link to the post you created.

Now onto the fun stuff!

The story of how I started my blog.

I’m pretty new to the blogging world. My first post was written on May 26th, 2016, so I’m just a smidge over a year old.

1st blog post announcement

I started the blog because I wanted another way to connect–not only writing and mothering and magically things–but to connect those things with other folks. I had a writing buddy ask how I balanced writing a novel and mothering a newborn, (that post is here) and an illustrator friend requested a post on creativity (click on my Melusine-caricature widget on the right for that). I thought, maybe I do have something important to say. Maybe I can help inspire someone, and wouldn’t that be the most magical thing ever??

Advice for newbie bloggers.

Since I feel like I am a newbie blogger, I think the best thing for me to do is give advice on writing in general (because a blog must have content, right?) I adore this Nelson Mandela quote a writer friend recently reminded me of when she posted it to her facebook author page:

Nelson Mandela quote

We are born to create and be creative. Our greatest fear is the limitlessness of our potential

So my advice? Let your light shine.

My other bit of advice is to study Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. If you aren’t familiar with this, I highly recommend it–it’s what finally tore down my mental blocks and allowed me the courage to write my first novel.

The Artist's Way

My pretty much illegible morning papers

My nominations for this fun tag:

I can’t wait to read what inspired these ladies to start blogging. If you’d like to play along too, tag me in yours so I can discovers what inspired you as well!