It’s December.  For me (this year), it means STRESS.  On top of the full-time job, I’m inundated with formatting jobs.  I just finished a book that will be published (hopefully) before the end of the year.  I’ve not done ANY xmas shopping, and I’m wondering when I’ll find the time…

But, December also means something else.  The Winter Solstice.  It’s obvious the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer; it’s darker, later every morning.  While the temps have been banjo-ing like crazy, it still FEELS like the holiday season.  And on December 21st, we’ll descend into our longest night of the year, with the actual time of the Solstice hitting at around 12 am on the 22nd.

The Solstice is an important part of my life.  Why?  Well, if you’re here around the cottage every once in a while, it must be obvious I’m a Witch.  The Winter Solstice is one of the 8 pagan holidays I celebrate; we call it “Yule”.  You know, “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir”?

Yeah, Yule’s pagan, people.

At Yule, we recognize the longest night of the year, but we remind ourselves that the light WILL return and with it, the promise of NEW.  A new year, new opportunities, fresh start.

My short story for the Eclective’s Holiday Collection is about Yule and second chances.  We were hoping that Amazon would put the collection for free for the holidays, but we’ve been unlucky so far.  So, for the next couple of days, I’m going to share my short story here at the Cottage.  It’s rather long (for a short), so I’ll post a section each day until Yule.

The cool part?  The protagonist of this short story is the protagonist of my upcoming Hedgewitch mystery series.  The first novel, “Mother of All”, is due out in January.

Without further ado…

The Darkest Night

by Heather Marie Adkins

A core belief of my spirituality is that what we put out into the world comes back to us threefold—good or bad. One random act of kindness could return a hailstorm of good juju; mugging a person at gunpoint could make you a toad in the next life.

I don’t know what I did to earn the past three years, but it must have been bad. Stabbing-someone-with-a-knife bad. Ripping-fingers-off-to-feed-to-small-animals bad. Something so naughty that I was running full tilt from the negative energy I must have earned because of it.

So there I was, urging my tiny Ford hatchback through the driving snow and trying to see beyond the blanket of white that obscured the street. It wasn’t even the Solstice yet and already winter was brutal. I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and wondered what in the name of Freya had brought me to Maine in December.

Besides the obvious.

Being a tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, nature-loving Witch doesn’t necessarily keep one from making bad decisions. On the contrary, we’re prone to error as much as the next guy. Maybe even more so, because unlike most of the “Muggles”, we worry about our actions.

That train of thought was not helpful. A shiver snaked up my spine despite the overwhelming heat inside the car. I fiddled with the heater, turning it down a bit, and then glanced in the rearview mirror. Nothing here but us snowflakes. I silently berated myself for being stupid.

I hadn’t been followed.

I needed to get my mind in a better place before I veered down the wrong path. With my eyes glued to the invisible road before me, I searched for the radio controls with one hand. I pressed what I thought felt like the “on” button and was startled by a loud blast of punk rock. My gloved fingers fumbled to turn it down to a trickle. I laughed at myself; at the way my heart was pounding.

I had no idea where I was headed. Just…away. Somewhere northern. I was worried about where I would sleep—where I would live—but I wasn’t worried about money.

There’s something to be said for being frugal while your life is falling down around you.

The warm glow of an establishment was approaching on my right, creeping towards me at a snail’s pace. A large, pulsing red arrow advertised “Diner.” The front of the small building spilled light into the night and the lack of cars in the lot promised obscurity. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, pausing in the icy street while I considered my options. Shrugging, I turned in.

The car slid smoothly into a parking spot near the door. I cut the engine and let the keys fall to my lap, before resting my head wearily on the headrest. The wind howled outside, shaking my little car like a toddler with a Tonka. I shivered, reaching for my long, emerald scarf and wrapping it around my neck.

I popped on the dim overhead light and adjusted the rearview mirror so I could see my face. The bruise had only gotten worse in a day’s time. I probed the dark purple spot, wincing as pain shot through my jaw. No amount of concealer could cover up that bad boy.

There was still a yellow tint to the skin under my other eye. It would probably be gone in a day or two, but beneath the dark blue of my eyes it looked green and dirty. I sighed, pushing the mirror back into position a little too forcefully.

Here’s hoping no one’s nosy, I thought, turning the light off. I pulled my funky, sage-colored ski cap with the ear flaps over my wild, dark curls and braced myself.

The walk to the door took an inordinately long time. My knee was killing me: A side-effect of the bone-chilling cold. The doc had told me it would probably never feel right again. Lovely. I pushed against the wind, limping and cursing under my breath as my thick ankle-length skirt wrapped itself in knots around my legs.

When I stepped through the glass door, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was warm and cozy inside. The tinkle of a bell over the door alerted the staff to my presence. The door slamming behind me effectively cut off the moan of the wind.

“Welcome!” A woman with too much make-up and just enough smile bustled around the counter. Her eyes found the bruise but flitted away just as fast. “Are you by yourself, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Thank Goddess.

“Just have a seat anywhere, hon. You want some coffee? You look like you’ve traveled a long way.” She started pouring a mug before she had finished her sentence.

A long way, I thought, briefly closing my eyes as I settled into the seat. I wasn’t sure if her statement meant I simply looked tired…or I looked like I felt.

“Here we go!” she said brightly, setting the steaming mug on the table. She had the most platinum blonde hair I’d ever seen, plastered by enough hairspray and spit to withstand nuclear holocaust. Her name tag said Rita. “There’s cream and sweetener back there against the wall. Are you hungry, hon?”

“Famished,” I answered, realizing it was true. I started peeling off my gloves. “May I have a menu?”

“Of course!”

By the time she came back with one, I’d managed to rid myself of hat, scarf, gloves, and coat. I tucked my fingers into the sleeves of my black sweater, waiting for feeling to return.

“I recommend the meatloaf,” Rita announced, sidling back to the counter. She picked up a rag and started wiping it down; I wasn’t sure if she was just bored or crazy, because the formica was already glistening.

I opened the large tri-fold menu and scanned it. The usual diner offerings: Chicken tenders, BLT, garden salad, and various brunch items. I had a hankering for waffles.

“You ready to order?” Rita was back at my side. I hadn’t even heard her come up. For a woman of her size, she was stealthy.

“Waffles, please. And a side of eggs, over-medium.” I ripped open a pack of cane sugar and tipped it over my coffee.

“You want cheese in the eggs?”

“No, ma’am.”

Rita cocked her head and grinned. “Aren’t you polite? You don’t sound like you’re from around town.”

I recognized a prod when it came. I shrugged. “A little further south.”

She just nodded, shoving her pad and pen in the pocket of her dirty apron. “Alright, dear. I’ll get your food in. It should be out shortly.”

“Thanks, Rita.”

I was rewarded with another big—if baffled—grin and she headed for the kitchen.

Outside the window, it seemed like the snow was letting up. I reached into the pocket of my coat, extracting my old, brassy pocket watch. Just past seven p.m. I didn’t feel like I’d driven for twenty hours.

That feeling did come, though, after I inhaled my food. Even the three cups of coffee couldn’t wake me up. By the time I was full, lethargic and resting my head on the back of the booth, someone else had arrived at the diner.

She was the kind of beauty you rarely see in real life—the kind that requires a daily stylist and make-up artist to achieve the right effect. Her ash-blonde hair peeked from beneath her pale pink taboggan—corkscrew curls that hugged a heart-shaped face. Her blue eyes were much paler than mine; like the deepest part of an iceberg. The red of her lipstick was vivid against her pale skin. Her puffy ski coat made me think of those gargantuan, pastel marshmallows you can buy in bulk at the grocery.

I looked away, pretending the fall of baby flakes outside the window was wondrous, as her eyes settled on me. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to see anybody… I just wanted to make it to Canada.

What we want isn’t always what we get.

“Are you here alone?” Her voice was as sweet as her child-like face. It sounded like bells ringing.

I looked up, unable to stop the rise of one eyebrow as I nodded.

“Sorry to intrude. I just don’t recognize you and thought I’d introduce myself.” She slid into the seat across from me.

I barely stopped myself from gaping at her. It’s not that I don’t like company, I was just…not in the mood.

“I’m Sarah Koenig.” Her small hand reached across my empty plate, and I reluctantly took it. Her skin was cold. My bitten nails looked like a train wreck next to her perfect, red tips. “My husband is Larson Koenig the Third. Mayor of Waterford.”

“Waterford,” I murmured, pulling my hand back inside the sleeve of my long-sleeved t-shirt where it belonged.

She eyed me quizzically. “Yes, Waterford. The town in which we are currently seated in the only diner…”

“Sorry,” I said. I pushed my plate away, sighing. “It’s been a long day. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually looked at the highway signs.”

Sarah’s eyes widened. “How could you drive and not pay attention to where you’re going?”

Because I don’t know where I’m going, I thought, averting my eyes. “I was headed in the right general direction.”

“What brings you to Waterford?”

When her icy-blue eyes rested on the monster covering my cheek, I cleared my throat and sat up a little straighter. “I’m headed for Canada.”

“Oh?” She leaned her elbows on the table. “Where are you from?”

Dear Goddess, she was planning on staying in that seat until she sucked every last bit of information out of me.

“Kentucky.”

“Huh. Long way to go, isn’t it?”

Rita came to the table, setting a bag of food in front of Sarah. “Mrs. Koenig, I’ve made sure to put in some of the Mayor’s favorite sauce for the meatloaf. He didn’t ask for it when he called, but I know he loves it. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, Rita, thank you so much.” Sarah’s smile was dazzling; the poor waitress looked star-struck. “Just charge it to Larson’s card, as usual.”

“Absolutely, Mrs. Koenig, thanks so much for coming in.”

Sarah’s eyes flicked back to my face… and the bruise.

“Oh, Rita? Will you put…” She turned to me, eyes wide. “I’m so sorry! I don’t think I caught your name.”

“Mena.”

Sarah nodded. “Rita, will you put Mena’s meal on our account, please?”

“Of course, Mrs. Koenig.” Rita made for the cash register.

“No, no, Rita, don’t do that!” I called, maybe a little too sharply. Turning my eyes to Sarah, I shook my head. “It’s not necessary.”

“Consider it my welcome gift,” Sarah responded, pulling her take-out bag closer so she could dig through it. “So, Mena, please tell me you didn’t drive all the way here from Kentucky without stopping. That’s some drive.”

I shrugged, grabbing my ski cap and mashing it down over my long hair. I didn’t know how to answer her. Telling a complete stranger I was on the run wasn’t on my must-do list.

I had managed to finagle into my jacket and scarf, and was working on the gloves, when Sarah finished checking the contents of her to-go order. She looked at me, pursing her lips. “You aren’t planning on continuing to the border tonight.”

I wasn’t sure if it was a question or not, so I just answered simply: “Yes.”

Sarah sighed, shaking her head and tsking at me. “Well, the town motel is an absolute dump, so why don’t you stay at my house for the night?”

She caught me in the act of sliding from the booth, with the intention of escaping into the cold night. I paused, one hand still pressed to the table. There were crumbs under my palm. “Excuse me?”

Standing gracefully from the booth, she picked up her food. “You can’t keep driving tonight. It may look like that snow is letting up, but unfortunately, we have more coming. So, why don’t you follow me home and I’ll put you up for the night?”

“You don’t even know me,” I murmured, my heart beating fast. When was the last time someone had truly exhibited kindness to me? The last time I saw my mom, probably. Before she ran off to Ireland.

Sarah reached across the empty space between us and touched my bruised cheek. Her fingers were so soft and fleeting, I barely felt them.

“I don’t need to know you, Mena. All I need to know is that you need somewhere to go.”

Trusting one’s intuition is not only a witchy thing—it’s a woman thing. And where Sarah Koenig was concerned, my radar gave me two thumbs-up.

***

Look for more tomorrow!

Or, find the rest of this story (and 8 other stories!)

in the Eclective’s Holiday Collection

Available here:

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