Authors: Patricia Kiyono
by Patricia Kiyono
Published by Astraea Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
THE CHRISTMAS PHOENIX
Copyright Â© 2011 PATRICIA KIYONO
Cover Art Designed by Elaina Lee
Edited by Kay Springsteen
For Mark. Thanks for "starting over" by taking a chance on me. The last thirty Christmases have been so special because of you and all
kids and grandkids. The clan continues to grow, and so does my heart. Life is good.
I'd like to give special thanks to Randy Finch, co-owner of Ice Sculptures Ltd in Grand Rapids, MI and star of Food Network's
The Ice Brigade
for your generosity and patience, answering my many questions about your craft. You're a true gentleman! I hope I portrayed your profession accurately.
Jess Tate checked her clipboard. Thank goodness, there was only one more driveway to plow, and then she could go home. If this last job didn't present any problems, she might be able to get home before Rory left for school. She knew her fourteen-year-old could and would get himself off to school, but she liked to see for herself what he had chosen to wear and check his backpack before he left. He tended to forget things, like books and lunch money. Then she had to run to school and bring them to him, when she could be resting before going to her waitressing job at the hotel.
Life had been so much easier before Doug had died. If it hadn't been for the huge loans they had taken out the year before his death, she would have sold the landscaping and snowplowing business. But the Michigan economy wasn't good, and businesses weren't selling. Since the loans had to be paid, she had learned to drive the mowers and the plow and take care of the customers herself.
Today she was adding a new customer. A Mr. Hanks had left a voicemail message with his address, asking her to plow his drive and "leave a bill in the mailbox.” His speech had been garbled, but she was fairly certain she was supposed to go to 1285 Fairview Lane. The address was one street away from her house, so she had decided to go there last. Taking a deep breath, she squinted out the windshield through the swirling flakes and put the truck in gear.
She had never been a timid driver, but the curving roads on the hilly north end of town required caution, especially in the early morning darkness. Most snowplowing was done before the majority of people left for work, but now, at the end of her route, there were already a few drivers on the roads, who probably had wanted to get an early start. The weather in northern Michigan was infamous for its unpredictability, and most commuters learned to allow extra driving time in the winter.
She headed north, through industrial areas and past the suburbs, into the wooded area known as Apple Grove. She and Doug had fallen in love with the ambiance of the northern tip of Michigan's lower peninsula and had built their dream home here, even though it stretched their budget to the limit. Everything had been perfectâuntil Doug's accident.
No time for whining
, Jess thought. She powered the truck onto Fairview Lane and squinted at the numbers on the mailboxes. 1273â¦1281â¦the next one had to be it. But the mailbox had no number. No name, either.
Shaking her head, she lowered her blade and turned into the steep drive. The steel sliced through the thick snow easily, pushing it off to the side as she wound her way toward the log cabin at the top of the hill. Halfway up the drive, her truck lost its momentum, and she knew she'd need traction and all her truck's horsepower to get the rest of the way up.
Carefully, she put the truck in reverse, looked out the back window, and then backed up to a level spot where she could get a good grip. She shifted gear and stepped hard on the accelerator. The truck shot several feet further up the drive then her wheels spun again. Groaning, she repeated the process until she reached the top of the hill. She was within a few feet of the garage when she realized someone stood in front of her truck, waving his arms. She stood on the brake, stopping inches short of the man. What idiot would stand in front of a moving vehicle? He could have been hit!
The man came around her truck to the window. She rolled it down, wondering if he needed help. He walked with a limp, she noticed, and seemed quite agitated. Maybe he was hurt.
"What in Sam Hill are you doing?" he yelled.
She blinked. "I'm plowing your drive. Didn't you hire me to do it?"
"No! I can plow my own drive, if I need it. But I can't work with all this noise, and with you shaking the ice in my workshop."
Shaking the ice? What on earth is he talking about?
"Aren't you Mr. Hanks? Isn't this 1285 Fairview Lane?"
"No! That's old Ben, next door. Now, get off my property before I get my shotgun and blow out your tires."
Without a word, she closed her window. She backed up, turned the truck around and made her way back to the road. No need to tell her twice.
What a grouchy, ungrateful man
, she thought. With his shaggy beard and piercing dark eyes, he'd resembled a wild mountaineer as he'd waved his arms like a madman. Too bad he'd let her plow that long drive before telling her it was the wrong address. She should send him a bill.
She found "old Ben's" house, which thankfully had a short, straight drive. She plowed, left a bill in the mailbox, then made her way back home.
Rory was on his way out the door when she pulled in her driveway. She held her hand out to him, and he grimaced but gave her his backpack to check. It was nearly empty.
"Where are your books?"
"Didn't have any."
"You had your math book when you came home last night."
"Get it. Did you do your work?"
"I don't know."
She sighed. He was going to miss the bus again.
They found the book under his desk. Sure enough, he hadn't done his work. Jess got him some notebook paper and sat him down at the kitchen table to finish his assignment while she made his lunch and changed clothes for her day job.
They packed up, loaded into the truck and got to the school building with two minutes to spare. Like a good, invisible mom, she dropped him off on the opposite side of the street and refrained from giving him a goodbye kiss.
She drove on to her waitressing job, feeling like she had already put in a full day. Things had to get better, soon.
Jake Thompson stood in his garage, carefully inspecting the eagle he'd carved of ice. Thankfully, the vibrations of the noisy snowplow hadn't done any visible damage to the bird's wings, or the narrow legs at its base. He needed to deliver the sculpture to the Pine Ridge Hotel this morning, and it wouldn't be good for his business if he brought it in pieces. Sighing, he covered the figure with plastic then loaded it into the refrigerated compartment of his van. Satisfied it was packed safely, he opened the garage door.
His lips curved upward. The lady had done him a favor, clearing out his driveway for him. He'd lied when he'd said he could do it on his own. He didn't have a plow and would have had to rely on gravity to make it through the snow to the road below. Now he had a clear path.
His sister and brother-in-law's vacation home was a great place to work unbothered by the usual door-to-door salesmen and kids selling cookies, candies and whatever. People didn't usually want to fight their way up the winding drive to the house. And the cold Michigan winters were perfect for restarting his ice sculpting business. He could work in the garage all winter. Hopefully by spring he'd have saved enough to get his own place, or at least pay for a cold studio. In the meantime, he had no choice but to take advantage of his sister Donna's generosity.
He backed the van out of the garage to a wide area where he could turn it around. The storm must have been worse than he'd thought. He'd never seen snow banks so high. He'd driven on snow before, but there was a lot more here than he'd ever seen in Missouri. He tried to remember the basics. Take it nice and slow and don't slam the brakes. He was going downhill, so he planned to coast.
Halfway down the drive, he realized the van was rapidly accelerating as gravity pulled him down the hill. If he went any faster, he'd lose control. Aside from the damage it would do to his sculpture, Jake didn't relish the thought of having to dig his way out of a snow bank. He tapped the brakes, but the van kept sliding forward. How was he going to slow down and stop at the road? Frantically, he gripped the steering wheel and willed the vehicle to stay on the track. Maybe he should run the side of the van against the snow banks to slow it down?
As he approached the last curve at a breakneck speed, the road came in sight. All he could do was pray no one was coming. Maybe he could spin the van around at the wide bottom of the drive, he thought. And then, miraculously, he heard the crunch of snow under the tires. The drive leveled off, and the van slowed to a manageable speed. Jake stepped hard on the brakes, and the vehicle came to a stop at the road's edge.
Just in time for a bus full of school children to pass by.
He closed his eyes and rested his head on the steering wheel. If he hadn't been able to stop here, he could have slid into the bus, or zoomed on to the street right in front of it.
He waited for his racing heart to stop pounding then looked back to assure himself the sculpture was still there. The eagle seemed to glare at him with a reprimand. Great. Even the ice was angry with him. He turned his attention back to the task of driving and looked both ways before pulling on to the road. He'd memorized the directions to the Pine Ridge Hotel. Barring any more driving problems, he'd get there well before the banquet.
Compared to the slide down the driveway, the rest of the trip was uneventful. Everyone else drove slowly, and a fleet of snowplows had cleared the way for commuters and school buses.
How did people live in this mess for months every year? Jake wondered if he'd made a mistake moving north.
The road conditions improved as he got closer to town. Heavier traffic had melted the snow into dirty slush. Jake concentrated on the street signs, looking for the Pine Ridge Hotel. It was supposedly the largest in northern Michigan, and if he could get the clientele here interested in his work, he'd be able to drum up enough business to build a proper studio so he could work here year round. The garage wasn't going to work during the hot, humid summers.
He drove slowly, probably slower than he needed to, but the experience on his driveway still made his heart race. Gripping the steering wheel, he edged his way through the busy streets, absently noting the decorations adorning the street lamps and storefronts. The holidays would soon be here, and this was the perfect time to attract new customers. With that in mind, he'd brought his business cards. His sister Donna had designed a great new one, with his new cell phone number.
The huge, glass-covered building had to be the hotel. It was the only convention-sized building on the block. He pulled into the circular drive, where a shivering doorman directed him around to the service drive. Jake pulled around and found the correct entrance, and parked. He took out a sturdy collapsible cart and carefully loaded his sculpture onto it.
Now he had to find the "Wolverine Room" and get this eagle to the Audubon Society Banquet before it started to melt. He entered the building and followed the signs to the banquet rooms.
His cart suddenly jerked to the right and he reached out a hand to keep his sculpture from falling off.
A red-haired sprite lay in a heap on the left side of his cart. White linen napkins covered the floor all around her. She looked vaguely familiar.
"Are you okay?"
The sprite picked herself up, not making eye contact with him. "Yeah, I'm fine. I need to look where I'm going." She started picking up her napkins. “I'll need to re-wash these and fold them again.” Looking at his cart, she perked up. "Wow, this is fabulous! I hope I didn't break it."
Oh, drat. He'd been so worried about the sprite he'd nearly forgotten. A quick inspection revealed a feather broken off from one of the eagle's wings, but it was barely noticeable. "No harm done. I'd help you with those napkins, but I need to get this delivered. Which room is the Wolverine Room?"
"Huh? Oh, it's the next room down the hall on your right. The manager, Max, should be in there. He can help you."
Wheeling the cart toward the banquet room, Jake realized the sprite had the same husky voice as the snowplow operator. He turned around to get another look at her. She presented an enticing view as she bent over to pick up her napkins.
No, it couldn't be the same person.