Donna VanLiere, New York Times bestselling author of the timeless The Christmas Shoes and The Christmas Hope, is back with this moving and uplifting story about finding love, hope, and family in unexpected places.
Lauren Gabriel spent many years of her childhood in foster homes, wishing her mother would come back for her and be the family she needs. Now twenty-years-old, she still longs for a place that she can truly call home. Her work as a cashier is unfulfilling, and at Christmas it’s unbearable with the songs and carols and chatter of Christmas that she hears throughout the day.
When Lauren ends her shift one night, she finds herself driving aimlessly in order to avoid returning to her lonely apartment. And when she witnesses a car accident she is suddenly pulled into the small town of Grandon, first as a witness but then as a volunteer for the annual fundraiser for Glory’s Place, a center for single mothers and families who need assistance. Could this town and its people be the home she has always longed for?
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Donna VanLiere is The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Good Dream, Finding Grace, The Angels of Morgan Hill and several Christmas books, including the perennial favorites The Christmas Shoes and The Christmas Hope. She travels as a speaker and lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.
Read an Excerpt
The Christmas Town
By Donna VanLiere
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Donna VanLiere
All rights reserved.
Lauren Gabriel slides her card into the time clock and punches out of work at 6:02. It would have been six o'clock exactly if her last customer hadn't taken a minute to dig through her purse for seventeen cents in change and then another minute to tell Lauren how annoying it is to find those last few pennies at the bottom of her purse. She grabs her bag from her locker before pushing open the double doors to walk back through the grocery store.
"See you tomorrow, Lauren," Jay says, bagging groceries for a mom with two young children.
She smiles and waves as she walks through the front door to the parking lot, wishing she did not have to come here tomorrow. She had wished a few weeks ago when Gordon's Grocery was transformed from Halloween to Thanksgiving and then to Christmas in a matter of days that she could work somewhere else. Someplace where what to cook for the holidays wasn't first on everyone's mind. Lauren hadn't celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas in two years, since leaving her last foster home. She had been with Jim and Lori, her final foster family, for three years and although they were good people, after ten years of being in the system, she had had enough of foster homes. She started working at the grocery store during her junior year in high school and had been there for four years now. She'd do anything else but can't imagine what that would be.
The streets glow with Christmas lights and Lauren feels that hollowed-out place behind her ribs again. Images, snapshots really, of being with her mom on Christmas cross her mind from time to time but the recollections are so short (the man who was her father smoking on the couch, her mom petting the cat, sleet tapping the window) that she can't piece them together into any sort of memory. Her father, Victor, would come and go out of her life until she was four when he decided to go for good. Her mother lived trapped in some sort of romantic haze, thinking that she could attract a good man, but managed to hook up with a string of users and losers. She was sentenced to five years for selling drugs when Lauren was eight. She told Lauren that she would be out in no time and they would be together again. Lauren watches a mom and her young daughter walk down the street and feels that dull, painful jerk at her heart again. She thinks of her mom with equal parts love and hatred. Cassie tried to be a mom but wasn't cut out for it. When she got out of jail when Lauren was thirteen, Cassie told her that she was going to find a job and an apartment and be back for her. That was seven years ago.
Lauren's life has been so much like a short, unfulfilling magic show, full of failed tricks and disappointing illusions. She looks in the rearview mirror and catches a glimpse of herself. She has dark, quiet eyes, not like her mother's, olive skin, and wavy, dark brown hair. She pulls up that snapshot of her father smoking and knows she looks more like him than Cassie.
In their cluttered apartment where smoke hung like thin veils, she used to reach under the bed that her parents shared and pull out a dark wooden box her aunt had given her, with words carved into the top, and dash into her closet, closing the door. Sitting against the wall she would run her tiny fingers over the grooves of the words and imagine them as magical. Lifting the lid she pretended it was filled with precious gems and dazzling jewels, a portal of sorts that led to a charmed kingdom. She even attempted to carve her name on the underside of the lid with a pair of scissors but it proved too difficult and she didn't get further than the letter L.
When her aunt had given it to Lauren, she had read the words to her, but Lauren had forgotten what they said. One day she ran with the box to her mom. "What does this say again?" she asked, barely able to contain her excitement. Cassie kept her eyes on the TV. "Mommy, what do these words say?" Cassie was not paying attention. Lauren tapped her on the leg. "Mommy! What does this say?"
Cassie snapped her head around to look at her. "It doesn't say anything! I'm trying to hear this!"
Lauren stepped away and hurried back inside her closet, where she once more ran her fingers over the words.
The Lord says, "I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you."
— Psalm 32:8
Each time she played, she would dream and imagine what those words said until the day she reached for the box and it wasn't there. Her father had taken it when he left.
She can go home now, to a small, cramped apartment she shares with a girl she barely knows, catch a movie she's not interested in seeing, hook up with friends, or just keep driving past this infinity of buildings and restaurants, sidewalks and people, to someplace new. She passes Walmart and Lowe's, the housing development that is being built on the edge of the city, the park where all the Little League games are played, and the city limits sign.
An hour into the drive the sky is still hung with grays and deep purples, when she notices her gas tank is almost empty. She pulls onto the main street in Grandon and reads a banner hung over the road: "Annual Christmas Parade December 18! Vote for the Grand Marshal at Participating Retailers." The streetlights are wrapped in garlands and topped with large, red bows. Store windows are decorated with everything from hanging stars and waving Santas to Nativity scenes.
She spots a gas station in front of Clauson's, a supermarket, and realizes she hasn't eaten since lunch. She hadn't intended to drive this far. Once the tank is full Lauren walks into the grocery store for something to eat. At first glance it doesn't look too different from Gordon's Grocery except for an especially long checkout line. Her manager at Gordon's would always call another cashier to the front if one line got too long. She makes her way to the deli and finds a premade ham and cheese sandwich and a small bag of chips hanging within arm's reach. The next cooler is filled with every soft drink, tea, lemonade, juice, and various flavored water available. Grocery stores make these grab-and-go sections as easy as possible.
At the checkout she sees that there are two cashiers working but one line is empty while the other has five people waiting. She assumes that the other cashier is either getting ready to leave or just coming onto her shift and isn't set up for customers yet. She takes her place in the long line and wonders if she has done the right thing. The other cashier looks ready.
"Register three is open," a black man with a round face, glasses, and graying temples says. His name badge reads LES, GENERAL MANAGER. HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
No one in the long line moves toward the open register and Lauren starts to step over there when the man in front of her says, "I'm staying right here, Les. I want my message from Ben."
The manager looks at the others in line and motions toward the second cashier. "We're fine waiting," a woman with a child in her grocery cart says. "We want our message, too."
Curious to know what they are talking about, Lauren decides to stay where she is to wait her turn. She watches as the second cashier rings out a customer while two more people join her in the long line. The manager looks on in dismay or awe; she can't determine what his face is saying.
When she gets close enough, Lauren cranes her neck to see around the person in front of her and watches what looks like a typical transaction. However, when the customer gets to the exit doors, she stops and looks into her bags, pulling out a piece of paper. The next customer does the same thing. Lauren notices that as the man in front of her puts groceries onto the conveyer belt, the grocery bagger sifts through a pile of notes in his hand, before slipping one into a bag. As the man walks away he gives the bagger a high five and moves toward the exit. The cashier asks Lauren if she found everything she was looking for but Lauren doesn't answer. She is watching the bagger, a young man around eighteen or nineteen, as he looks at her and then shuffles through the notes, slipping one into a bag.
"Have a great day!" he says, handing the bag to her.
She takes the bag from him and looks behind her at the line that continues to form before heading to the parking lot. She stands just outside the doors and opens the bag, pulling out a small, simple piece of white paper.
It's a great day because you're in it!
You are welcome here!
"What?" Lauren looks through the front window and watches as Ben shuffles through the notes and puts them into bags. She glances down at the note again and shakes her head. "That's freaky," she says, walking to her car.
She had intended to eat the sandwich while driving but sits in the parking lot. Her thoughts aren't consumed with the misery of her job or the drudgery of her life but rather with the note that is crumpled up on the seat next to her. She wants to turn the key and start the car and begin her drive home but can't. The sandwich either has no taste or she's unable to taste it because her thoughts aren't on eating.
When she finishes she wads the wrapper and the empty chip bag together, throwing them back into the grocery bag. She watches as people come and go from the store before opening her door. Ben is still bagging groceries as she approaches him. He's taller than her and skinny with a rebellious head of dark hair. "Excuse me."
Ben turns and smiles. "Hey!" He says it as if they haven't seen each other in a few days and he's happy to see her here. "Everything okay?"
"It's fine." She sounds annoyed and changes her tone. "You put a note in my bag."
He's busy bagging but seems thrilled to be talking with her. "It's a great day because you're in it! You are welcome here."
"You put that in all the bags, right?"
He shakes his head as he places bags into the empty grocery cart in front of him. "Nope. That was the only one."
Lauren doesn't understand. "That was the only note like that and you chose it for me? Why? You don't know me. How do you know it's a great day because I'm in it? Why would you say that I'm welcome here?"
Ben shrugs. "Because if you weren't in this day then somebody would be sad. Your mom or dad or your grandma or people you go to school with or work with. The day wouldn't be the same." He looks at her and smiles again. This kid sure smiles a lot but it's not a smile that could be perceived as mocking. "And you are welcome here! You can come anytime. We have lots of different kinds of food and cleaning supplies and we even have an aisle full of toys and one with makeup for girls. I hope you come back."
At that moment the manager comes over and asks, "Did you find everything that you need?" and she feels stupid for coming back in.
Lauren takes a step toward the door. "Yes! Thank you." She looks at Ben but he is busy riffling through the notes in his hand. "Crazy," she mumbles, walking out the doors. "Gordon's would never allow baggers to do that."
She slips in behind the wheel of the car and pulls away from the store. No one has ever said it is a great day because she was part of it. No one ever made her believe that the world would be in need of something simply because she wasn't in it. How is it possible that some kid, a stranger in another town, made her feel that way? How did he, with one note, instill a spark of wild hope at a time of year that is notorious for dashing dreams and hopes?
She is driving behind a car through a green light when a pickup truck drives into the intersection, slamming into the side of the car in front of her. Lauren screams and slams on the brakes. She is jumping out of the car when she sees the pickup truck back up and pull away from the accident.
She grabs her cell phone and dials 911 while running to the car in front of her. "A truck just slammed into the car in front of me and then raced away," she says into the phone. She looks at the driver, a woman who looks to be in her forties, and yells through the closed window, "Are you okay?" The driver nods and rolls down her window. "The truck came right through the intersection and slammed right into her and then just raced away. I watched him," Lauren says to the 911 operator.
"A patrol unit is on the way. Is anyone injured?"
Lauren looks at the woman inside the car who looks shocked but unhurt. "Are you okay? Do you need an ambulance?"
"No. I'm not hurt. Just shaking."
"Did you happen to see the make or model of the truck or the license plate?" the operator asks Lauren.
"It was a smaller gray Nissan pickup. I didn't see the entire license plate but the first number was a three and it looked like the last letter was a D."
"Thank you. Please stay on the line until the officer arrives."
In a few minutes she sees the police lights just down the street and hangs up when the officer arrives. Lauren tells him what she had seen and a description of the driver, a man around thirty with shaggy light brown hair and wearing a dark T-shirt.
Lauren leaves as soon as she is able and the woman thanks her for remembering so much about the truck and driver. "You were at the right place at the right time. Without you the police wouldn't have much to go on."
"I hope they catch him," Lauren says.
It feels as if adrenaline is still rushing through her on the drive home, but when the images of the accident begin to subside a thought begins to bubble. What if she found a family for Christmas? What if she found people who would look at her and not think of her as a stranger or someone they kind of know from the grocery store, but people who would actually think of her as flesh and blood? A woman who would think of her as her daughter or a man with a receding hairline and a paunchy belly who would teach her how to change a tire or give her advice about boys? Surely there has to be some young kid out there who always wanted an older sister or someone who wanted a kid sister. Her brain buzzes with the thought: between social media and Craigslist, she will put out the word that she is looking for a family for Christmas.CHAPTER 2
Nineteen-year-old Bennett Engler had handed his application to Les Gentry, Clauson's manager, over a year ago. "I'll be a real good worker. I promise," Ben had said.
Les had been the general manager for eight years at that time and was known for keeping his employees on task. If any of them were repeat offenders for failing to show up for work he was quick to inform them that they were welcome to find another job. He had no doubt that Ben would be an outstanding employee. He had watched Ben and his family visit the store each week over the last several years and every time Ben would tell him that one day he was going to work for him. "Ben," Les had said, looking at Ben and Ben's mom, Stacy, "Jo will show you around the store for a few minutes."
"But I've been through the store at least a thousand times," Ben said.
Les laughed and opened the door to his office. "But you've never seen our loading dock or any of the back rooms."
"Cool! Mom, can I have your phone to take pictures?"
Stacy handed the phone to him and said, "I'll be here waiting."
"Have a seat," Les said, closing the office door.
Although he was a senior when she was a freshman in high school, Stacy still remembers Les from the football team. At that time, everyone thought he would marry Ashley, a beautiful black cheerleader, but he went off to college and fell in love with Maura. He played football in college and all of Grandon assumed he was headed into professional football, but some things aren't meant to be. Once college was over he surprised everyone and moved back to Grandon with Maura. Their children were in college now: his daughter was a senior and their son a freshman. Stacy sat in a chair opposite his desk and smiled, feeling a rush of pride and nervousness for Ben.
Les sat in a seat next to her. "Can he handle this job, Stacy?"
She hadn't anticipated them but tears sprang to her eyes and her throat swelled. She nodded her head, smiling. "He can! He'll be great!" She wiped the tears away. "I don't know why I'm crying. He's so excited!"
Reaching for a box of tissues on his desk, Les handed it to her. "Maura will tear up when she does laundry because there's not as much to do anymore."
Stacy laughed and wiped her nose. "He will be one of the hardest workers that you have and I can assure you that he will always be happy to be here. He is the most grateful person I have ever known in my life." She dabbed at tears in her eyes, looked down at the wadded tissue. "I always wish that I could be more like him."
"I've never asked but ..." He wrung his hands in front of him. "What ...?"
Excerpted from The Christmas Town by Donna VanLiere. Copyright © 2016 Donna VanLiere. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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