Chapter One

Keith Mitchell swiped his palm across the frosty bus window to face his dreaded past. He cleared the condensation to see the whitewashed, cracked wooden town sign draped in Christmas garland, red poinsettias, and a promise of happily ever after.

Welcome to Sweetwater County. Where Your Heart and Home Belong.

The air in his lungs iced. The hometown greeting promised hope and a sense of belonging in the community, but he didn’t belong. Not since the day of the accident and the end of his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Ashley. He’d only seen her once since that day when he’d caught her with his best friend behind the bleachers.

He adjusted his duffel bag with all his possessions at his feet. How did he end up back here? He’d vowed to himself never to return after his last visit three years ago. The one when he ran into Ashley and his ex-best friend, Brian, on Main Street, married and happy.

Greta, the sweet senior citizen in the seat next to him, who’d spoken for the first three hours nonstop about her family holiday plans, wagged a finger at him. “I told you there’s room overhead. You don’t have to sit like a giant Grinch in an elf house.”

“I’m fine, but thanks.” Greta had offered him a cocktail of country sass, preparing him for a buffet of small-town antics and busybodies with his mother as ringleader. He only hoped he could keep his visit quiet and uneventful. A respite to heal some of his aches and pains while waiting for his furlough to end.

Greta harrumphed and crossed her fluffy-wool-covered arms over her chest. “We’re almost there now. You finally gonna tell me what brings you to Creekside? You’re not a vagrant, are you? One of those people who hop from town to town, never settling anywhere?”

He never thought of himself in such a way, but he hadn’t settled in one place too long for half his life. That wouldn’t be a good way to keep attention off himself, though. He cleared his throat of cobwebs since he’d barely spoken to anyone but fellow fishermen for so long, which meant more grunts, belches, and farts than actual conversation. “To see my mother and meet her new husband.”

“Oh, coming home to meet stepdad. Awkward,” she said in a teenage tone. “Who’s your mama?”

He swallowed and struggled to find a way out of the conversation, but there wasn’t one. He wanted to enter Creekside quietly, find a place to clean up, and look respectable before he faced the woman who made him feel like a lost toddler every time they spoke. Not to mention avoiding his ex in her “white picket fence” house with his old friend. But when the bus squealed down the hill on the final approach to the station a block from Main Street, he knew his escape wasn’t too far off. “Cathy.”

“Cathy who?”

“Mitchell…West, actually. She remarried.”

“Oh, give me a hoot and a holler. You’re the Mitchell boy. I didn’t recognize you with all that hair on your face. You haven’t been home in a few years. Thought you’d be coming ’round to check on your mama more since your dad passed, but what do I know?”

His chest tightened at her words, but the sorrow, as real as it was, had faded over the years.

“The town tells tales of your overseas adventures.” Greta slapped her own knee. “I’m gonna be a hit at bunco.”

He wasn’t sure what bunco was, but he knew one thing. His visit wouldn’t remain quiet. Greta would inform the town that he was there the minute her size-five orthotics hit the pavement. He scratched his chin, feeling the guilt and the prickly beard his mother would undoubtedly take issue with. He hadn’t trimmed his facial hair for months on the boat . And he didn’t have a trimmer with him since airport security wouldn’t let him bring a razor on board and he wouldn’t pay to check his bag.

“Does she know you’re coming? I didn’t hear anything from the small-town gossip line. Despite living in Florida, I still stay connected.” Greta air-dialed an old-fashioned rotary phone and held an invisible receiver to her ear.

“No. And I’d like it to stay quiet, please.” He couldn’t send word since he hadn’t known his plans himself until the boat was shut down and they were all furloughed for a few months while some bureaucrats figured out a 500-million-dollar plan to preserve fish. He twisted the frayed cord on his foul-weather jacket resting across his lap. After two years of commercial fishing in the middle of the Java Sea, he hoped he’d cleaned it up enough not to reek of fish and sweat.

“I’d like to see her face when you show up. That woman’s requested prayers every week to have you come home for the holidays. From Bible groups’ lips to God’s ears, he must’ve heard this year.”

Keith gripped the armrest, willing himself to go through with this trip. He hadn’t seen Mama in three years and had only spoken on the phone for the obligatory birthday and holiday phone calls. She’d even enlisted the help of his sister Jenna, who’d jumped on the guilt bandwagon to bring him home once she’d returned to live in Creekside. His mother had a good heart, but she was a lot to handle.

“You don’t look too pleased about seeing her.” Greta leaned over with a Sherlock Holmes gaze.

He inhaled a breath of musty air mixed with overpowering Greta Gardenia perfume. The aroma was too much for his salty senses. She had been too much in general. But she’d provided him practice for conversing with real people again. He needed to be civilized both in speech and appearance when he faced Mama. Their last conversation before he’d left had been heated. Mama hadn’t understood why he couldn’t stay in the same town as Ashley and Brian. “I’m excited and nervous. Not all surprises are good ones.”

Greta clutched his arm with boney fingers that dug into his skin through his threadbare, coffee-stained shirt. “Nonsense. Mamas always want to see their sons. She’ll be thrilled.”

The bus slowed in the heart of downtown Creekside. Faux gaslights dressed with bells, greenery, and red ribbons lined the road as if a running strip to land in his past. A past he’d hoped to avoid the rest of his days.

“If you’re looking for your mama, she’s probably helping Judy and Lisa at J&L Antiques today, since it’s the holiday season.” Greta pointed across his body out the window.

Storefronts decorated for the holidays in a way he hadn’t seen in a few years floated by like they’d Hallmarked the town. People dressed in bright colors and dark coats shuffled through the slush on the sidewalks.

“Or she could be at the recreation center helping out, or the veterans center, or she could be helping Becca Miller with making dresses.” Greta smiled, showing crooked and chipped and bleached white teeth. “Told you I’m still in the know.”

The bus hung a right and brakes squealed, as if announcing to the world, and his mother, that he’d come home.

Greta shimmied out of her seat, so he helped her retrieve her bag from the overhead compartment. “Good luck. I know your mama can be a lot to take in, but she loves you.”

“Thanks. I know I’ve stayed away for too long. It was time to come for a visit.” That made it sound like he had planned to return to Creekside, but until he’d received his walking papers and his work visa had expired, he’d had no plans of coming back to Tennessee.

Keith stepped off the bus into a blast of bitter air, too cold for a man who’d lived in tropical climates for so long. He hiked up the hill toward Main and stopped at the corner. He needed to figure out a way to purchase some new clothes, get a proper haircut, and shave before he faced Mama.

A woman slipped and slid and stumbled to a halt against a lamppost in front of him. She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “Micha!”

She looked left, then right, and then did a one-eighty and ran past Café Bliss, cupped her hands, and hollered, “Micha.”

A sneeze in the alley drew Keith’s attention, so he peered around the backside of Café Bliss and found a young boy aged nine or ten sitting with his knees to his chest and arms wrapped around his shins.

Keith rushed to the corner to get the woman but didn’t see her anymore, so he returned to the alley to find out if the kid was the one the woman searched for.

His work boots crunched ice piles, drawing the kid’s attention, but he didn’t look at Keith. Instead, he looked around him, past him, almost through him. Keith held up his hands in an I-don’t-mean-you-harm kind of way and squatted by the boy’s side. “Hey, kiddo. Are you by chance Micha?”

The boy slid up the wall and bolted to his right but ran into a trash can. Garbage scattered. The boy fell hard on his knees and hands.

Keith grabbed the kid’s arm to help him up. “Don’t worry. I’ve gotcha.”

The boy bucked and twisted and slipped from his grasp like a flapping fish fresh out of the ocean. “No. Don’t touch me. I can do it.”

“Unhand my son, you…you…Neanderthal.” The woman in the red coat charged, arm extended forward with a spray can at the ready.

“I didn’t.” Keith wanted to catch the woman before she slid on the ice and broke her neck on her too-tall-for-the-slick-sidewalks heels. “I tried to help him.”

She blew two large white-blonde curls from her face. “I’m warning you. This is Grade A pepper spray.”

He scooted away from the kid but got a better look at the bottle she held at the ready. “I don’t think there’s a Grade A pepper spray, and even if there was, that’s not what’s in your hand.”

“What?” She shook her head, those curls bouncing between ear and nose. “Just back up, or I’ll spray you.”

He held up his hands in surrender. “With your Poo-Pourri toilet spray?”

Her gaze darted from him to the bottle and back to him. A pink tinged her cheeks, but he assumed that was from the brisk air. “It’s a faux can designed to trick predators,” she said, her voice squeaking at her denial.

“Right,” he said dryly.

She scooted sideways and knelt by the boy with the bottle still raised at Keith’s eye level. “Why did you run off again? You can’t keep doing this.”

The kid shivered, so Keith removed his coat to cover him.

“Stop!” she ordered.

“I only wanted to give my jacket to your son before he suffers from hyperthermia out here.” The woman obviously belonged to the small town’s judgmental club, the one he’d always refused membership to.

“What? You don’t think I can take care of my own son?”

“I didn’t say that.” He let out an exasperated, two-days-of-traveling kind of sigh. “I’m not a bad person. Don’t judge me by the way I look, lady.”

The woman’s hand shook and her eyes were wide with fear, but he guessed it wasn’t about him but about her son. She must’ve been scared when she couldn’t find him.

The way she appeared like a wild tigress protecting her young made him feel sorry for her. “Listen, it’s going to be fine.” Keith studied the thin boy with dark hair and bright eyes that matched his mother’s. “He looks like a good kid. I used to run off all the time at his age when I got bored.” Keith squatted and held out his coat. “Maybe next time wear something warmer, though, little man.”

The woman shot him a narrow-eyed glare with pursed red lips. She looked familiar, perhaps from high school, but he wasn’t sure. It had been too long and he’d been too far away to keep any real memories from this place, but the ones he wanted to forget never faded. “Come on, Micha. We need to get home.”

“I’m tired of staying home all the time.” Micha scooted away from his mother and slumped against the wall.

Keith saw himself in the boy, the restlessness for a good adventure. “Maybe you can get on a ball team or into Scouts.”

The woman rose to her full height of maybe five-four without those ankle-rolling heels on. If she wasn’t glowering at him like she wanted to kill him, she’d be pretty. Heck, downright gorgeous. Of course, he’d barely seen women in the last three years, so maybe she only looked like an angel because he’d lived in a cramped space with devilish men for so long. “Stop. You’re not helping.”

He tossed his coat to the kid, landing it on his lap. Micha wrapped it around his body like a too-large cocoon.

Keith rose but remained in his spot. “I was only trying to tell Micha here that there are options other than running away to get what he wants.” Keith felt the hypocrisy of his words but didn’t share.

“Yeah, Mom. I want to play ball.” Micha swiped his eyes with the sleeve that looked more like pant legs on his twig-like arms.

“Well, you can’t,” she snipped.

Keith took one step forward. “Why not?”

“Because he’s going blind, you oversized grizzly.”

His chest tightened. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t…” He took one more step, wanting to apologize for his rudeness and to offer his assistance to get the boy home.

“I said get back.” She sprayed.

A mist of bitter-tasting perfume assaulted his nose and infiltrated his tastebuds. He sneezed and snorted and stumbled back.

“What in all that is southern is going on back here?” the commanding deep drawl of a woman like no other hollered.

Mama.

So much for his stealth arrival. He wiped at his eyes and nose, discovering a crowd forming at the edge of the alley. He couldn’t help but scan it for Ashley.

His mother’s voice echoed like a racquetball in a closed court.

“This man was messing with Micha, so I sprayed him,” the woman shouted.

“Put that bathroom spray away. I’ve got the real stuff.” Mama stood as a human shield and yanked her own can from her oversized bag. “We don’t want your kind here. You move on to the next town.”

There was no doubt in Keith’s mind that Mama had nothing less than Grade A+ pepper spray if it existed, so he coughed and sneezed and cleared his throat, stood tall, and announced. “Hi, Mama. I’m home.”

Christmas Bells of Creekside         

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