Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ghost of Christmases Past and Present Part Two by Betsy Ashton

In spite of the years of isolation and living on the edge, Dan and Jennifer made Christmas Eve their special day. They established their own family traditions, celebrating their love on the eve of a sacred holiday. Tradition evolved into dressing up for Christmas Eve dinner, a champagne toast at midnight, snuggling under the covers and making love until dawn, when they rose and opened their special presents. They didn’t have much money, but they didn’t care. If they could be together, that was good enough.

Jennifer made a fancy dress for each Christmas Eve. Her labor of love was testimony to how she felt about Dan. She had a new one each year. Four years. Five years. Six years.

When they passed their sixth anniversary with no recent sightings of the witch’s bloodhounds, Dan and Jennifer abandoned their vigilance. They moved freely in the large city where they lived and worked. They reveled in each other, hoping for a baby. Maybe a grandchild would lessen an end to the old witch’s hatred.
On their seventh anniversary, tragedy struck. On the way home from their traditional anniversary dinner, a truck T-boned their car, crushing the passenger’s side and killing Dan on impact. The driver ran from the scene, leaving no fingerprints in the cab. Witnesses said he aimed his truck at their car and struck it at high speed. News accounts in the local section of the large city paper mistakenly printed Dan and Jennifer’s real names. Within a day, the witch sent someone to snatch Dan’s body from the funeral home. She reinstated the restraining order in their home state to keep Jennifer from attending the funeral.

The witch demanded the police charge Jennifer with vehicular homicide, but even her vast small town wealth had no sway of a big city police department. Weeks of worry and harassment resulted in no charges. Jennifer hadn’t run the stop light. She hadn’t been drunk. What she believed, however, was that she had been the target, not Dan. She was positive the witch had hired someone to ram their car and kill her. Under normal circumstances, Dan would have been driving, and she would have been in the passenger seat. This night, he suffered from a sprained ankle.

The witch and her hired bloodhounds left Jennifer alone. The witch had her son back; Jennifer no longer existed. Peace settled over the newly-minted widow. Peace and pregnancy. When she said her prayers at night, she prayed the witch would never learn she was going to have Dan’s child. She needed help to keep the child hidden, though. After much worrying and many sleepless nights, Jennifer asked her best friend Nancy from the big city to pretend to be the baby’s mother.

One morning in late summer Jennifer gave birth to a son who looked just like his father. She named him Dan II. Because she had a different last name, she was certain the witch would never connect a stranger named Dan II with her own son. Nancy, Jennifer’s friend and the baby’s pretend mother, moved into a rented apartment with Jennifer and Dan II. The two women moved freely throughout the city, one or the other of them taking the baby for a walk in a stroller. Neighbors who hadn’t met Nancy before Dan II arrived believed the lie. Neighbors who had seen Jennifer every day never knew she was pregnant, because she had always worn loose-fitting tops and long skirts. Dan II grew up surrounded by two loving mothers.
On Christmas Eve of what would have been their tenth anniversary, and as Jennifer had done every year since Dan’s death, she put on a fancy dress and kissed Dan II goodbye. Nancy promised to stay at home to protect the child until Jennifer returned.

Even though the restraining order had been invalidated with Dan’s death, Jennifer feared the witch, who was still alive and more powerful than ever. Jennifer sneaked into the town where she had been born. She carried a small basket with a split of champagne and some snacks to Dan’s grave. She spread a blanket on the ground and waited.

When distant church bells rang at midnight, she poured two glasses of champagne and handed one to her husband. Every year Dan returned to reassure her she was never alone, that his love survived his death and that she should live life to the fullest. She told him about his son, how he loved the memory of the father he would never know. She carried no pictures with her, because in heart she knew if the witch found out, she would kidnap him and win. She lay in her husband’s arms and drifted into a familiar dream.

No sooner had she fallen asleep than she was awakened by a flashlight shining in her face. The cemetery Rent-a-Cop pulled her to her feet and arrested her for public intoxication. She heard Dan’s voice whispering.

“I will always love you. Be well until next year. I’ll watch over our son until you get home safely.”

Jennifer’s holiday traditions were supposed to sacrosanct. Some couldn’t be kept due to circumstances beyond her control. She couldn’t lie with her husband except in memory. Other traditions morphed with time. Sadly, still others were broken, but Jennifer would never break her tradition of spending Christmas with Dan. She looked forward it throughout the year. This was no different until the last moment when she was arrested.

And that’s how she ended up in the drunk tank. On Christmas Eve. In jail. Alone.

I hope you enjoyed "The Ghost of Christmases Past and Present." Thanks for stopping by.

Did you receive an Amazon gift card for Christmas? If so, my book, Mad Max Unintended Consequences, makes a good present for grandparents who are raising grandchildren, grandparents who aren't raising grandchildren. Oh heck, for anyone who wants a book that starts off in one direction and ends in another.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Ghost of Christmases Past and Present Part One by Betsy Ashton

This was the last place she ever expected to spend Christmas.

For some ever was a long time. For Jennifer Warner and Dan Yates ever began in first grade in a small town in upstate New York. As small towns go, theirs was quite normal with a social elite and the rest. Dan’s family was part of the elite; Jennifer’s was part of the rest. All children went to the same schools regardless of background or wealth. No one in the elite group thought to send a child away to private boarding school unless that child was “not right” or behaved so badly he would have embarrassed his parents.

Dan was well behaved, right in the head and very bright. His singular weak spot was his friendship with Jennifer, the pretty redhead from the other side of Main Street. Because teachers seated pupils in alphabetical order, Jennifer always sat in front of Dan. They played games at recess. Later, in middle and high school, they hung out together with friends at the drive in or at sports events. By high school everyone knew Dan was sweet on Jennifer. Everyone knew they are a couple. Everyone was happy, except for Dan’s mother Mrs. Yates, the doyenne of the elite. She had no idea her son was involved with someone as unacceptable as Jennifer, that girl from the other side of Main Street.

At Christmas in their last year of high school, their relationship solidified into dreams of happily ever after. Jennifer never uttered a word about wanting to spend her life with Dan, but one of the mean girls in the school whispered something in the ear of another mean girl who told a third and so on. The fifth mean girl told her mother who happened to be best friends with Dan’s mother. To score points and break up the relationship between Dan and Jennifer, this mean girl’s mother ratted Dan out. Dan’s mother went ballistic. She forbade Dan to see Jennifer again. Ever.

“She’s not our kind, dear.” Like most doyennes, Dan’s mother had a misplaced sense of social propriety. Jennifer did not fit in her equation. Truth be told, she wanted Dan to marry the fifth mean girl to cement relationships between the two wealthiest and most powerful families in town.

Dan thought his mother was outrageous. He called his mother a witch, although Jennifer thought that was a typo. He threatened to run away if the witch used her power and social standing to stop them. The witch retaliated and secured a temporary restraining order against Jennifer, claiming she was stalking Dan and their family. The judge, a long-time family friend and executor of the family fortune, signed the order based on nothing more than a wink and the promise of a generous donation to his next judiciary campaign. Dan was sent to an Ivy League university. Jennifer stayed in the town and entered a local community college two towns over.

That first Christmas vacation of their freshman year in college found Dan and Jennifer hiding away in his car behind the football stadium. They kissed and made plans to elope on Christmas Eve. Jennifer had dreamed of a traditional wedding: white dress, family pastor, home church, friends and relatives surrounding them and toasting their happiness. Dan’s mother would never approve of them marrying. Two families from different economic classes were too much of a difference for the witch to handle.
Dan and Jennifer ran away on Christmas Eve. By early morning on Christmas Day they crossed the state line and found a justice of the peace to marry them. They hid from his mother. He heard through the rumor mill that his mother had begged her friend the judge to send the sheriff after them, but they were over eighteen. The judge could do nothing. The sheriff could do nothing either except to remind Dan’s mother that when the couple returned he would invoke the restraining order and arrest Jennifer. The witch could hope for nothing more.
The witch vowed to do everything in her power to find the couple. Dan and Jennifer severed all contact with his family. At first Jennifer called her mother often to let her know how happy she was, where they were living and what they were doing. Strange things began to happen after the second call.

Jennifer came home from her job at the grocery store to find piles of trash on the front porch of their rented house. Papers were strewn about and a sack with a sodden bottom rested on the mat. She opened the bag to find piles of fresh dog poop. Disgusted, she cleaned the mess and didn’t tell Dan. It had to be a coincidence.

The fourth time it happened Dan came home first. After a tearful confrontation, Jennifer confessed this was a pattern that had been going on for several months. Furthermore, she was positive she was being followed. She saw a strange car in the neighborhood and in the grocery’s parking lot every day. Could the witch have found them? Could she be behind the pranks and following?

Dan would put nothing past his mother. They moved to a different city, a bigger city where it would be easier to lose themselves. Jennifer dyed her hair; Dan grew a beard and wore fake glasses. They cut themselves off from friends and family because they were afraid of the witch. None of their friends knew where they were. Jennifer left her mother behind. They changed their names. They might as well have been in the witness protection program, because they all but disappeared without a trace.

They weren’t safe. Even though their only crime was love, the witch stalked them. Her vast wealth bought private investigators, some better than others. Whenever she received a report of Dan’s whereabouts, she sent men to threaten Jennifer and bring Dan home. Each time the couple learned they were being followed, they fled again. And again. And again.


Thank you for reading part one of "The Ghost of Christmases Past and Present." Tune in tomorrow for part two. 

I'm the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences, the first in the Mad Max series available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas in Space by Diane Burton

Part 2

Why was I the only one left? It should have been Marsh. He was stronger. Or Gloria. She had the biggest heart.

“What are you doing on the floor?”

I was hallucinating. That couldn’t be Marsh’s voice. He was gone. Like the others.

Strong hands lifted me up. I knew those hands, had felt them under my arms before. Had felt them all over my body. Now they cradled me against a hard chest. A chest beneath which beat a heart so loud it hurt my ears. A wonderful hurt.

“It’s about time you got up.” His chuckle rumbled beneath my ear.

I looked into his laughing blue eyes and reached up to touch his face. “You’re alive.”

“I’d say that was obvious.” Again, he chuckled.

“B-But Hal said there was a malfunction in the tubes. I thought…”

“Yeah. We woke up early. All at once. You should have seen MT scrambling from one tube to the next.”

“Wait.” I held his face between my palms. “Are you saying everyone is alive?”

“And waiting for Sleeping Beauty to get her rear in gear.”

He led me down the passageway to the combo gathering/dining space.

“Merry Christmas,” they shouted. Laughing and cheering, the four surrounded us. Ana and Tom, Gloria and Bill. Alive.

After much hugging, Marsh said, “Give her some space.”

“Hal,” I said to the comm speaker on the wall. “Why did you let me think they all died?”

“As I recall, you ordered me to stop speaking.”

“Yeppers.” MT had followed us into the gathering space. “You ordered me not to talk, too.”

They were right. It was my own fault for jumping to conclusions. “My apologies.”

I clung to Marsh, reluctant to let him go, even when he seated me in a chair. I stroked his face and let my hand drift down his chest. My love was still alive.

Gloria brought over a container of the same liquid MT had given me to drink. “This will help.” Marsh took it from her and held it while I sipped.

Gloria returned to Bill’s side on one of the loveseats against the wall. Ana and Tom cuddled on the other. When I looked away from their obvious infatuation with each other, I saw the decorations. Garlands were strung around the doorframe and hung from the ceiling in loops. A small artificial tree sat on the table between the loveseats. I wondered who sneaked the tree into their gear. Sparkling lights blinked next to tiny ornaments on the tree.

Between sips, I asked how long they had been awake. When Marsh answered, I cried, “Two days! And no one thought I would want to be awakened, too?”

“It was my decision,” Marsh said. “I thought it best to let the procedure cycle normally.”

“I could have slept through Christmas,” I groused.

“Nah. I know how much Christmas means to you. Besides, how could I give you your present if you were still asleep?”

I brightened at that. I loved presents. More giving than getting, though. I loved watching others open my gifts and seeing their delight that I’d chosen the right thing.

“What present?” I asked.

He helped me up and with his arm around my waist for support he led me across the room. “Close your eyes.”

“Unfair,” I protested but obeyed.

With me clutching his side, we walked three more steps. He held me in front of him, his arms around my waist. He pressed his cheek against mine. “Merry Christmas, love.”

I opened my eyes. We were standing in front of the viewport. There, across the black. A magnificent blue sphere, with browns and greens, and a scattering of white clouds. Serenity.

“It isn’t barren.” I groaned at my inane comment. Serenity looked like Earth.

The next morning, our landing module gently set us down on the surface right on target at LZ-45. Four cargo containers sat nearby, one for each couple plus a common use container where we would work, eat, and hang out.

Despite Marsh’s instrument readings that indicated an atmosphere conducive to humans, we suited up and took our first steps onto the alien planet. As mission commander, it was my privilege to lead the procession.

I turned to the others. “Welcome to Serenity.”

So prosaic. Although I’d wracked my brain for months during training, I couldn’t top Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man…”

“We should rename the landing zone,” Gloria said. “LZ-45 is so—so boring.”

The others nodded.

“What do you all think of naming it Christmas?” Bill suggested.

“Perfect,” Tom said. “We could enjoy Christmas all year long.” The rest of us groaned.

We each claimed a container. Marsh and I chose the farthest on the left. Once inside, he opened the control box and started up the artificial atmosphere. As soon as the lights changed from red to green, I helped him off with his helmet. He did the same for me. The air smelled musty, not surprising since the container had been closed for close to seven years.

“Would you like your Christmas present now or wait until we rearrange the module?” I asked.

He unfastened the top of his enviro suit. “I wondered why you didn’t give me something last night.” He gave me the silly grin that always set my heart aflutter.

We’d had a small celebration at midnight, singing carols and toasting the success of our mission. I’d handed out small tokens as gifts to the others, but to Marsh I’d whispered, “Tomorrow.”

“It’s tomorrow already. Think I could have my present now?” He reminded me of a kid who got his parents up at six on Christmas morning.

I shoved down my enviro suit and soon we stood before each other in our working jumpsuits. I put my arms around his neck and gave him a long kiss. “I’m your present, Marsh.”

Then I stepped back and reached for the zipper tab near my throat. Slowly, I lowered the zipper, one centimeter at a time. All the while I looked into his eyes.

When his eyes darkened, a shiver of delight rippled through me.

He brushed my hands aside. “I want to open my own present.” He yanked down the zipper. When he got to my waist, his eyes widened. “You aren’t wearing any underwear.”

I gave him a slow grin. “Why waste time?”

Within seconds, he shoved off my jumpsuit and dispensed with his own. We stood plastered against each other, bare skin to bare skin. I held his face. “Think we could get started on our mission?”

“Mission?” The disbelief in his voice almost made me smile. “You want to talk about our mission now?”

“Yes. The mission to populate the planet.”

“Oh, that mission. My pleasure, Commander. My pleasure.” His mouth came down on mine.

Afterward, we lay in each other’s arms, squeezed between containers of medical supplies and dried meals.

“Happy Christmas, Marsh.”

“A very happy Christmas, Sara.”

The End

I hope you enjoyed my short story. For more information about my books, visit my website.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas in Space by Diane Burton

 Part One

This was the last place I expected to spend Christmas Eve. They told us we would land before then. They told us we would wake up sooner. They told us we would not dream.

They lied.

Like my five companions, I lay in a cryosleep tube, frozen, all my bodily functions monitored by the ship’s computer and a medical robot. A joker back at Titan Mission Control christened the computer “Hal.” Even though we were headed for Serenity—not Jupiter like the astronauts in 200l: A Space Odyssey—the thought of a computer that could end our lives terrified us all, though we didn’t let the joker know.

The Powers That Be told us cryosleep would freeze our minds as well as our bodies. Hah!

“Good morning, starshine,” Hal sang.

Finally, they were waking me. That must mean the freezing mechanisms had been turned off and my body was slowly warming up. No wonder I was aware.

“Time to rise and shine.” That was the medical robot. She had named herself MT after her proper designation, Medical Technician 447. She liked the play on her initials though her mechanical brain was far from empty.

She lifted the lid of my unit then began disengaging all the tubes and wires to which I was hooked up. “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” she sang as she worked. Then she switched to “Santa Claus is coming tonight.”

My first real breath hurt my chest. They told us we might be nauseous and uncomfortable when we were brought out of cryosleep. Might be? That was like saying childbirth was mild discomfort—not that I’d ever experienced that phenomenon. Dizziness swept over me and I hadn’t even moved.

“We’ll get you all fixed up for Santa, Commander.” MT gently wiped my face. My eyes had difficulty focusing, but I think she winked.

“Is Ma— Is anyone else awake?” I wanted to ask. The noise that came out of my dry throat sounded like a bullfrog.

“You must have many questions, Commander Grenard,” Hal said. “It is 24 December 2175, Earth time.”

Five years and seven months since we left the station on Saturn’s moon, Titan. I’d been a popsicle for over five years. No wonder I was shivering. Of course the fact that I was naked might have something to do with being cold. Even though I’d gotten over my normal modesty, I was glad MT looked like a girl. I pretended Hal couldn’t see me.

At least we would all be awake for Christmas. I could not imagine celebrating the holiday alone. Alone out in the black with only a computer and an A.I. for company.

“We are one Earth day from our destination,” Hal continued. “You must wonder why our arrival was delayed.”

Of course, I wondered. We were supposed to have landed already on our one-way trip to a barren planet we’d named Serenity—our hope for a peaceful world. We would be the first inhabitants. Three men and three women, matched for our compatibility and our talents to terra-form an alien planet. And populate it. Although I looked forward to that part of the mission, we’d been forbidden to “practice” in case we became pregnant. Darn. No one knew the effects of cryosleep on pregnancy.

During the final planning stage, we talked about the first Christmas on Serenity. Supplies had been sent ahead. The cargo containers would be our homes until we built permanent ones. We planned every detail, from decorations to our celebratory meal in our temporary home. Disappointment oozed through me that we would not accomplish our goal.

“She doesn’t need to know everything all at once,” MT protested.

Yes, I did want to know. I needed to know everything that had happened since going into cryosleep. Hal understood. MT didn’t.

I tried to lift my hand to encourage Hal to continue. My hand reacted like cooked spaghetti.

“We were delayed because a near collision with an asteroid necessitated a course correction.” Was that defiance in Hal’s voice?

“You idiot. Give her a chance to wake up.”

“I am not an idiot,” Hal responded with righteous indignation. “I am the most sophisticated instrument Healogin Industries has ever constructed.”

To me, MT said, “He really has an overinflated ego, you know. He thinks he knows everything and doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion.”

“I do not,” Hall huffed. “It is my purpose to utilize my superior intellect.”

MT snorted. “Now, upsy daisy.” She tucked her arm under my shoulders to help me into a sitting position.

Retching wracked my body. Vertigo threatened to topple me over the edge of my cryotube.

“Easy, Commander. Just take it easy.” MT held me steady. “You’ll be right as rain in a jiffy.”

I wanted to ask how she knew, but my throat hurt too much. She placed a flex tube in my mouth. “This will feel good. You don’t have to sip. Just let the liquid flow naturally.”

Oh my God, that did feel good. Greedily, I swallowed again and again. The sweet cool liquid coated my throat. I could see more clearly now. The gray walls, the narrow space through which MT maneuvered around the cryotube, the monitors with green on black readouts of my functions. Nothing had changed in the five years since I climbed into the tube. Not that I expected it to.

“That is enough for now.” MT removed the drink. I moaned in protest.

“It is my unfortunate duty to inform you—”

“No.” MT whirled around to face the comm unit on the wall. “Wait until she is back to normal.”


“No, Hal. You must give her time to orient herself.”

“I—” I cleared my throat. “I need to know. What happened?”

“Hah!” Hal sounded triumphant. As if he’d gotten his way over MT’s protests. There I went again, giving Hal and MT human-like attributes. When machines, even artificial intelligence, spoke like humans, it was difficult not to. “A malfunction occurred in the cryotubes.”

No. My mind cried out when my vocal cords did not respond to my brain’s command. What happened? I wanted to ask yet afraid of the answer. The six of us were pioneers to an alien planet. Dependent on each other. We were more than colleagues on a dangerous journey. We were a family.

That wasn’t the only reason. Marsh.

Please, God. Let Marsh be safe. Guilt swamped me. I was selfish. What kind of Christmas spirit did I have to be willing to sacrifice the others so that my love could live?

“Malfunction?” I managed to croak, barely a whisper. I struggled to rise, tried to pull myself up by grasping the tube’s rail. So weak. I fell back against the thin pad I’d lain on for over five years, jarring my head.

“Commander Grenard, you must take it easy.” MT patted my arm. “Hal, you dope. Why did you have to tell her?”

“She is in charge of the mission. I must give her all the information.”

“Help me up, MT,” I demanded in a whispery voice that even a bunny wouldn’t obey. I had to see for myself. I had to see what had happened and to whom.

“Commander, the mal—”

“No.” I tried to signal to Hal to make him stop talking. Instead, my hand flopped back in my lap. Damn weakness. “Get me out of here. Right now.” That was more like it. My voice had regained some strength, unlike the rest of me.

“But, Commander—”

“That’s an order, MT.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She helped me swing my legs over the side. I barely felt her hands. But when my legs dangled, pins and needles jabbed at my thighs, then my calves, and finally my feet. Oh, God, that hurt.

Determined to discover if Marsh was alive, I stifled my cry of pain. If MT knew how much I hurt, she would use restraints to keep me down. I kicked my feet and slapped my thighs, anything to return feeling to my extremities. I had to be able to stand or MT wouldn’t take me to see the others’ tubes. I craned my head, trying to see down the long, narrow walkway. Our tubes were in line. None of the lids were raised.

Oh, dear God. No one had survived.

“But, Commander—” Hal began.

“Stop. I will see for myself.”

MT pulled a light green gown over my head, letting it pool at my waist. “Are you sure you want to get up? You should take it slowly. Now sit here quietly while I get an anti-grav transport.” She bustled away.

“No, MT,” I called after her. “I will walk. Come back and help me.”

“She thinks she knows best,” Hal said in a snide tone. “She is very irritating. You would not believe the arguments we—”

“Shut up, you hunk of junk.” MT had returned, lightly steering a pallet that hovered at waist height. “You are nothing but a bunch of circuit boards, chips, and wires.”

“And what are you?” he retorted. “Artificial skin covering circuit—”

I raised my hand to my head. “Enough. You two are giving me a headache. MT, I said no transport. I need to walk. I have to see—” My voice cracked. I swallowed hard to hold back my scattered emotions.

MT put my hands on her shoulders then supported me as I slid over the edge of the cryotube. My knees had the stability of Jell-o. I clung to her shoulders, aware that her slenderness was deceptive. Even though I’m six inches taller and forty pounds heavier, she held me up.

The metal grating of the floor cut into my bare feet. I shivered at the cold. Maybe I should have used the anti-grav transport. No. What kind of a commander gave in to discomfort when the fate of her crew remained a mystery?

Doubts assailed me. I should have allowed Hal to give his report. Wouldn’t being prepared be better than shock?

Clinging to the little med tech robot and holding onto the edge of my cryotube, I babystepped to the end. From there I could reach the next tube. Gloria’s. My friend, my confidante, the first one I told of my budding romance with Marsh. I stopped and closed my eyes. Please, God, let her be all right.

When I opened my eyes, I peered into her tube’s face plate. Empty.

My heart stopped. Oh no! Her body had already been disintegrated.

I hurried to the next cryotube and the next. Empty, like Gloria’s. No. Please, God, not all of them.

Marsh’s was the last. I couldn’t look. I had to. I held onto the edge. Empty.

My knees gave out. Despite MT’s efforts, I sunk to the floor. Tears streamed down my face. Grief battered my heart, squeezing, burning, until my chest felt as empty as the cryotubes.

“Commander.” MT struggled to help me up.

“Leave me alone.” I wanted to die right there. Our mission had failed.

Come back tomorrow for Part Two of Christmas in Space. For more information about my books, visit my website.