Be My Christmas Treat by Nia Arthurs

 

Prologue

Mave

The good ones go early.

At least, that’s what everyone said at mom’s funeral.

Janet Leanne DeMarco. Prettiest girl this side of the state river. Heart of pure gold. She could have been a pageant queen or the president, instead she became a philanthropist.

Soup kitchens. Hurricane relief funds. Halfway houses.

If a life could be touched, she was all over it.

Always with a smile.

Always with something sweet in her hands.

Cookies were her favorite to bake. Grandma’s cookies. That recipe. The secret that transformed a little side-business into a bustling billion-dollar bakery franchise with more and more chains opening all over the world.

It was a frantic collision of new money and old dreams.

Press releases. Magazine covers. Calls for TV spots.

Suddenly, mom was more than a random face in a sprawling city. Suddenly, she was co-owner of a wealthy company.

The crown was heavy, but mom wore it with pride and turned it into an opportunity to change the world.

More charities. More cookies. More smiles.

Especially around this time of year.

To the world, she was a saint. An angel.

But she was just mom to me.

She was warmth on cold days, something sweet always in the oven, a tempting fragrance heating the air and making my stomach grumble.

She was a builder of blanket forts and a hunter of fireflies that we put in jars for a few minutes before she felt sorry and freed them.

She was slender fingers stretched over piano keys, playing Christmas carols even in the summer because those were the only songs she knew by heart.

She was the only one who could get dad to smile just by looking at him.

I was ten—that awkward age where I was starting to believe I didn’t need to sleep with my parents on stormy nights, but I still dove under the blankets when I heard thunder.

I was that age where your mom and dad seem invincible, larger than life.

But Life set out to prove I was wrong.

I learned how fragile hearts were the day mom’s heart betrayed her.

One minute, she was smiling down at me, her eyes crinkling as she instructed me to wait for the cookies on the counter to cool.

The next…

Gone too early.

The mourners heaped praises on her like roses.

The same roses I dropped into the hole where they buried her body.

Dad gripped my shoulder in a vice, like he was trying to hold on to me.

Trying.

Trying.

Failing.

I knew because, a couple weeks later, he drove his truck into a tree.

Nothing wrong with the brakes.

Barely any ice on the road.

Not a skid mark in sight.

They said mom’s favorite Christmas carol was playing on the radio when it happened.

They said it was quick.

They said he wanted to leave me.

Well, that part they never said to my face.

But I understood.

Figured he wanted to be with mom more than he wanted to stay here.

I never blamed him for it.

My world shattered that Christmas.

His probably imploded.

Grandma said love is like that. It’s consuming to the point you can’t breathe and it makes you do crazy, stupid things no matter how many people it hurts. She said it’s like a storm that rages and blinds and when you open your eyes, everything around you is broken and scattered. And sometimes, she said, love is soft and sweet and patient and that kind of love is the one that heals.

I didn’t know which love would come for me.

I didn’t really care.

All I knew was that every day after, Christmas cookies started tasting like ash in my mouth.

And every year, when the weather got colder and those carols shrieked from the radio, my heart would splinter, my chest would tighten, and I’d wonder if maybe I should let the darkness swallow me like it swallowed my dad.