Sunday, January 1, 2017

Read the Complete Story--Kiki Lowenstein and the Missing Gift

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Author's Note: I'm celebrating the release of Love, Die, Neighbor. Remember--today (January 1, 2017) is the last day you can buy it for only 99 cents! Here's the link

I know sometimes links can get confusing, so I've pasting together the entire short story that I wrote leading up to Christmas 2016 right here. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

The sight of my scrapbook and crafting store, Time in a Bottle, always gives me a thrill, especially during the holidays. We've decorated our front window to the hilt. The roof line is festooned with bright lights. Vibrant colors bounced off the pristine snow that had fallen overnight. I hate the cold, but I love the sights when Christmas is right around the corner.

There is so much to look forward to!

I laughed out loud thinking of all the festive activities documented on our calendar. With two small kids and a teenager, my husband, Detweiler, and I will be busy in a ho-ho-ho-happy way. Already there has been a lot of buzzing around, whispering of secrets, and giggling after lights out. The children have holiday fever. Their excitement keeps ratcheting up, as does the noise level. These days, when I'm in my car alone, I keep the radio off and savor the silence.

Slowly, I pulled into the parking lot. The fresh snow crunched under my tires in a satisfying way. I've owned the store for nearly a year, going on two. When my friend and mentor Dodie Goldfader found out that she had cancer, she sold the place to me, on contract. In the beginning, I had many sleepless nights, wondering whether I could make the payments. Somehow, by the grace of God, and with a ton of hard work, I've managed to keep this train on the rails, chugging down the tracks.

Craning my neck, I realized I wasn't the first person here. In the parking space next to the back door was Margit's car, an old white Buick. Margit also owns a portion of the store, although hers is a teensy-tiny share. I offered to buy her out, but Margit says the store gives her a reason to get up in the morning. She's a widow whose mother has Alzheimer's and is in an assisted living facility.

According to Margit, we're her family. I like it when she says that.

She's right. We have only three full-timers. There's Clancy--my right-hand woman, and a Jackie Kennedy look-alike--and Margit and me.

Margit is a seventy-something-year-old German woman, who typifies what the locals call "Scrubby Dutch." "Dutch" being a perversion of "deutsche," which means "German." My friend is incredibly precise. Her desk is a monument to the slogan, "A place for everything and everything in its place." She knows exactly how many ink pens, paper clips, and so on she has. At the end of any work day, she arranges her pencils in their cup with the lead tips facing the ceiling. Her in- and out-boxes are tidy to the point of ridiculous. She wears the same outfit each Monday. Another is specified for every Tuesday, and so on. Every part of her life is exactly that organized.

I drive her nuts.

With great care, I climbed out of my car, a black Lexus SUV we'd recently purchased. The slick surface of the snow threatened my balance. For a minute, the world seemed off-kilter. I grabbed the door handle, blinked, and realized...the world was fine.

The problem was Margit's car.

Not only was it parked crooked, but one side was noticeably higher than the other.

What on earth?

Chapter 2

Picking my way across the slick surface, I walked to the back stoop of the store where Margit’s car sat at a strange, lopsided angle. The right side was higher than the left. The front bumper of the old Volvo station wagon pointed northwest and the back bumper pointed southeast. Knowing the precision that governed Margit’s life, I shook my head in wonder at the mess she’d made of finding a parking spot.

Three steps led from the asphalt lot to the door threshold. The first was more of a generous platform. Second and third were regular sized steps.

Bending low until my face was even with the back tire well, I tried to figure out what was causing Margit’s Volvo to sit at such an angle. I squinted, trying to make out the shape caught under her right rear wheel. Margit had reversed her car in such a way that she’d run over our trashcan and run up onto the concrete stoop. Simultaneously.

I doubt that anyone could have managed such a trick without hitting the back wall of our building. But she had. Since the rear of the old Volvo wagon was nearly perpendicular to the ground, she hadn’t torn off a part of the car. However, she’d mashed the trash can flat.

No prob. I’d planned to buy a new one of heavy duty plastic. The old metal cylinder was rusted and noisy. Even so, geez. What a mess!

I scratched my forehead, puzzling out how she could have done such a bizarre deed. Had she noticed the crunch? The strange levitation of one side of her car? Usually she called me if she was in a pickle. Or had she been…pickled? More and more, Margit seemed to act strangely. Clancy and I had chalked it up to stress. As the holidays approached and our friend’s mother became more disoriented, Margit had become more agitated. Clancy, my full-time helper, and Laurel, our part-timer, had both seen signs of Margit’s waning powers.

“She’s losing her hearing,” Clancy had whispered to me. “The other day, I practically had to shout to get her to come and answer a question for a customer.”

“She’s also going blind.” Laurel had leaned in close to us, in order to add her own warning. “Did you noticed she has two lamps and a magnifying glass to help her with her needlepoint?”

“What is she working on?” I said to them in the lowest tone I could manage. “She’s bent over a project since Halloween. Covers it up when I get near. Has she mentioned what she’s doing? Do either of you know?”

“No.” Clancy sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. When posed that way, she looked like an irritated Jacqueline Kennedy. As Clancy aged, she seemed to be turning into the fashion icon that she so admired. Something about the way she dressed or her sleek auburn pageboy added to her classic features and transformed Clancy Whitehead into a duplicate of the widow of JFK. “I’ve asked her what she’s been doing. Margit will only say that it’s a secret, and she’s making it for you and the kids.”

Laurel tossed her long blonde hair. While Clancy looked like a sleek society thoroughbred, Lauren could have been the cover model for a men’s magazine. Her stunning good looks and fabulous figure turned heads. If she hadn’t been the sweetest person in the world, she would have been the most hated, because she was such a gorgeous woman. Clancy’s sigh was lighter than Clancy’s, but equally profound. 

“I know Margit has had several phone calls from the facility where her mother is staying. They upset her. It’s clear that her mother isn’t doing well. I get the impression that Margit is using her needlework as a way to take her mind off her troubles. She’s terribly private. Especially when it involves an aspect of her life that would make her seem vulnerable. Yesterday she rang up two orders wrong. In a row, no less. The customers were nice about the problem, but it was a real mess.”

We’d cut short our observations because a wave of customers walked through the door. Now as I stood staring at the mess made by Margit’s car, I decided I needed another confab with my friends.
Margit’s stress level was a problem, but we could cope with that. We could cover for her. We could give her more time off, and we could fix her mistakes.

But if she was driving erratically, well, we couldn’t fix that.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what we could do.

Chapter 3

“Did you ask her what’s wrong?” My husband Detective Chad Detweiler’s voice was muffled as he nuzzled my neck. I rolled over and faced him in our big bed. The kids were asleep, the nanny had retired for the night, and finally we had time to catch each other up on our days.

“I wanted to, but the store got so busy so fast.”

“That’s good, right?” He kissed the tip of my nose. “You’re making money. It’s the holiday season. I don’t know much about retail, but I’ve always heard that’s why they call it ‘Black Friday.’ Stores are finally in the black, making a profit because of Christmas.”

“Yes, but I am really worried about Margit. When Laurel, Clancy, and I walked in, she was on all fours. Somehow she’d knocked everything off one of the shelves in the back. Stuff was all over the floor.”

“Hey, babe. You sell paper. It’s not like your merchandise can break.”

“No,” I said with a sigh. “But that particular shelf was designated as the place I’ve been hiding the kids’ Christmas gifts. I caught Anya and Erik snooping in our closet, so I moved all their presents onto that shelf in the back room of my store. It’s right next to Margit’s desk. They would never dare look there, because she’s such a grouch about her territory.”

Detweiler hugged me. I buried my face in his shoulder and inhaled the fresh scent of his cologne. “Look,” he said. “Drop by her house. Take her to lunch. Be kind but direct. Ask her what gives.”

“Yup.” I closed my eyes. That had been my plan all along, but it was nice to hear him agree with it.

Clancy blocked the door. “I am going with you.”

“No.” I tried to slip past her, but she wouldn’t budge. “It’s better for me to go alone. I don’t want to make a big deal of out this. If Margit is having problems, her pride will keep her quiet. I’ll have a real time of it, trying to pry the truth out of her. If you’re there, she’ll really clam up.”

“If I’m not there, you won’t have the nerve to confront her.” Clancy’s eyes flashed with irritation. In her beige cashmere turtleneck and brown faux suede pants, she was dressed for a nice lunch out with the girls. The gold necklace of heavy links set off her auburn hair.

I looked the part, too. I’d put on a pair of black pants and a white blouse, topped with an evergreen cardigan. On my collar, I’d pinned a candy cane pin that Erik had made for me out of bread dough clay.

Laurel stuck her head into the back room. “Ladies, quit fighting and get going. If you’re late meeting Margit, she’ll be in a rip-roaring bad mood. You know how upset she gets when people don’t show up on time. I’ve got the store covered. Now, shoo!”


Margit had already gotten us a booth at Brio. As Clancy and I approached, she checked her Timex watch. Fortunately, we were right on time. Unfortunately, she’d only expected me. That meant she had to signal the waiter and ask for another place settings. Although she tried to look pleased to see Clancy, a prissy pout of her lips suggested she was not happy that plans had changed.

Sometimes she could be a real pain in the backside. She and Clancy were both rigid, but in different ways. Clancy prided herself on self-discipline. She didn’t care too much about other people’s bad habits, as long as they didn’t impinge on her organized world. Margit wanted to control everything and everyone, everywhere. She was confident she knew best.

After the server brought the chips and salsa, we placed our orders. Margit wanted the South Texas Tortilla Soup, I had the Chicken Quesadilla, and Clancy got the Orange-Glazed Tilapia Salad.  I also ordered a glass of ice tea, Clancy wanted a Diet Coke, and Margit a cup of coffee.

I had billed this as a management meeting when I approached Margit.  Therefore, I started the conversation by talking about how our sales were going. After our food arrived, I switched subjects. 
“Margit, I’ve noticed you aren’t yourself lately.”

Peering at me through her cat-eye glasses, she said, “Who else would I be?”

The question took me totally by surprise. I chewed the air and struggled for a response. But Clancy, bless her heart, was ready, willing, and able to jump into the fray.

“We don’t know WHO you are, but you sure aren’t Margit Eichen! What the heck is going on?”

Chapter 4

Margit’s face turned sullen as she lined up her cutlery next to her plate. After adjusting the placement of her water glass, she looked up with a mulish expression. “You ask who I am? I am the daughter who cares for her mother. Otherwise, I am nothing and no one.”

The sound of my gasp caused heads to turn at the next table.  My shock turned to sorrow. Did she really think she didn’t matter to anyone but her mother? But in that gap, I saw Margit more clearly than ever before. Her husband had died a few years before I met her. I’d heard she and her son were estranged. That subject was strictly off-limits. All she had was her mother.

And us.

“Margit,” I reached over and took her hand, noting how paper-thin her skin was. It felt like a small bird, beating against my skin. “You have us. Never forget that. In fact, my family would love to have you join us for Christmas. I know you’ll spend time with your mother, but please plan to come to our house. Anya wants to learn to make granny squares.”

“Brawny can teach her.”

There it was, the ugly competition between Margit and my nanny. I tackled it head-on. “No, she can’t. She has her hands full with Ty and keeping him out of the presents. That’s why I’ve kept the gifts I’m giving on that shelf in our back room. My son loves ripping open packages as much as I do.”

That brought a soft chuckle from our friend.

“Margit?” Clancy’s eyes were wet with unshed tears. Although she often sounded brusque, Clancy was all marshmallow on the inside. “When did you last visit a doctor for a complete exam?”
“I do not remember. I have been busy with my mother.”

“That’s what I thought,” Clancy said as she folded her napkin and set it beside her plate. “You are coming with me. I made an appointment for you with my GP. He had a cancellation. If Kiki will get the check, we can arrive on time.”

Detweiler pulled me closer. The kids were in bed, Brawny was busy in the kitchen, and we were enjoying a rare bit of romantic alone time in front of a crackling fire. “Trust Clancy to get right to the heart of the matter.”

“I know. She thinks of everything. I would have never guessed that Margit had ignored her own health. I should have figured it out, but I didn’t. I guess I’m not a very good friend.”

“Kiki, you are a wonderful friend. As for inviting her to spend the holidays with us, I’ve talked to Brawny. She totally agreed that Margit should join us. Brawny promised not to let her get under her skin.”

That made me feel better, and the deep sigh that followed was my response. “Can you believe it? Her ears were clogged with wax? The doctor said she could start her own candle factory. After the GP, who pronounced her a phenomenal specimen of health, Clancy took her to an optometrist and got her prescription adjusted. She even ordered a second pair of glasses for Margit. They’ll help her see when she’s crafting.”

“What busy Santa’s helpers you and Clancy have been.” Detweiler nuzzled my neck. “And you’ve done all your shopping and wrapping, right?”

“Not entirely. I’ve lost a gift.” I explained how I’d purchased a thin gold chain for Anya. My mother-in-law from my first marriage had sent Anya a charm. “It’s a magen david, a Star of David. I know I bought the chain, but I tore the back room apart. I couldn’t find it.”

“It’ll turn up,” Detweiler whispered in my ear. “How about we head upstairs? I have an old family treasure I’d like to show you.”

Chapter 5

Clancy stood back to admire the gift she’d wrapped. With her hands on her hips, she cocked her head and smiled at the beautiful trio of packages stacked like a colorful tower. “I hope Margit likes what I bought her.”

“Of course she will. She needs new accessories to spruce up her wardrobe.” I struggled with the tape dispenser. Somehow I could never rip off a piece without twisting it.

“And thanks to you,” Clancy said with a nod to the boxes wrapped and ready on the table, “she’ll have three nice outfits to rotate into her wardrobe. Her clothes were getting threadbare, Kiki. Honestly, she’s really let herself go while she cares for her mother.”

After giving up on the tape piece in my hands and trying again, I nodded to my friend. “Yes, she sure has. I contacted the administrator of the memory care unit where her mother is staying. A Mrs. Claws. Is that ironic or what? She confirmed that Margit has been sleeping next to her mother’s bed for weeks now. In a chair. Not even a recliner. Mrs. Claws was upset, because none of the night staff had told her what was going on.”

“What does she plan to do?” Clancy ran a perfectly manicured fingernail along a stray wisp of her dark pageboy. With the recent release of the movie about Jackie Kennedy, more and more people were seeing the resemblance. We’d even had requests for selfies with Clancy from folks wanting to post pictures of themselves and “Jackie” on their Facebook pages. Luckily, Clancy took it all in stride.

To keep the cash register ringing in the run-up to Christmas, we’d decided to set up long tables and invite our customers to come here and wrap their gifts.  We kept spiced cider warm in a slow cooker, hot chocolate packets next to an electric kettle, and a huge plate of cookies nearby for munching. The idea had proved so popular that Clancy and I hadn’t been able to get to the task of wrapping our own gifts until after closing hours. Here we were, ten minutes before midnight, the weekend before Christmas, surrounded by packages, paper, and tape. But I didn’t mind. I enjoyed spending these quiet moments with my dear pal, Clancy. Besides, this way I could wrap all the kids’ gifts and not worry about prying eyes.

“Mrs. Claws ordered an oversized recliner to be moved in, next to Margit’s mother’s bed. She was very nice about the whole thing. I guess Margit’s mother really is at the end of her life. Mrs. Claws expected her to go any day now, so she’ll try to make the transition easier for Margit.”

“I wonder if she’ll fall apart.” Clancy took down a box with a LEGO set for Erik and centered it on a broad expanse of wrapping paper.  “Margit, I mean. She’s been her mother’s caregiver for decades. Even before her husband died.”

A lump in my throat made it hard to talk. “Mrs. Claws doesn’t think Margit will go to pieces. Her mother’s decline has been horrible. When I last saw the woman, she had reverted to her childhood. Since then, she’s become more and more withdrawn. Mrs. Claws says I wouldn’t recognize her.”

“I guess having her die will be the kindest outcome possible.” Clancy used the back of her hand to flick away a tear. She hated being emotional. Especially she hated crying or being sloppy, as she called it. “I foresee myself in the same situation with my own mother. I know it’s inevitable. It will come as a relief. But…”

“But once she’s gone, any chance of you mending your fences or smoothing over the rough patches will die with her, right?” I inhaled sharply, thinking of my mother, a woman who has never liked me. Even so, I had these fantasies that one day she would tell me I’d done good, that I’d married well, raised lovely children, and made a success of my life. But, gee, who was I kidding?

“Right.” Clancy opened a small white box that was empty. “What’s up with this?”

“That’s the box for the gold chain that I bought Anya. It’s to go with her Star of David charm. I have no idea where the chain has gone. None. I put all the kids’ gifts on that shelf unit in the back. Everything has been fine, but that box is empty. I checked under Margit’s desk, under yours, and under all the other shelves. I have no idea where the chain has gone, and I hate to go out and buy a second one at pre-Christmas prices.”

“The chain is bound to show up. Could Baby Ty have swallowed it?”

Just last week the sparkle in Ty’s diaper scared the living you-know-what out of me. On closer examination, he must have swallowed a piece of silver tinsel. Since then, we’ve put a pet fence around our tree. The whole episode made me nervous. However, my husband Chad Detweiler had laughed and said, “What goes in must come out. I expect he’ll eat all sorts of trash before he’s a grown man.”

“No. Ty couldn’t have swallowed the chain. I had it here, at the store. I never took it home with me. Ty hasn’t been here since Thanksgiving. There’s no way he could have gotten those chubby little hands on it.”

“Hmmmm.” Clancy smiled. “Then you’ve got yourself a real mystery to solve. I know my mother mislaid plenty of gifts as I was growing up. She’d be cleaning her closet and next thing you knew, she’d be triumphantly waving a box in festive paper. Actually, I thought it was super-cool.”

Yes, but I didn’t. I was annoyed. Where on earth had that gold chain gone to?

Chapter 6

Margit’s mother passed away two days before Christmas. A call from the nurse on duty had hurried our friend to the elderly woman’s side. I kept in touch with Mrs. Claws, the caregiver at the facility, and she told me, “It was an easy passing. She slipped into a coma and only awakened once, briefly. 
But Mrs. Eichen was by her mother’s side the whole time.”

“I don’t know whether to expect Margit for Christmas or not,” I told my husband as we put the gifts from Santa around the tree on Christmas Eve. 

Detweiler gave me a sad smile. “We’ll play it by ear. She’s welcome, of course, but she might not feel like surrounding herself with the noise of happy kids opening presents. I couldn’t blame her. Maybe we can slip away around lunch and take her a meal.”

That sounded like a good plan.

Not surprisingly, Erik was up at first light on Christmas morning. His shouts rang like a church bell as he shouted up the stairs. “Anya! Come see! Santa came! He brought us stuff! Lots of stuff!”

Anya politely knocked on our door, although we were already hustling our way out of bed. Brawny met us in the hallway with a sleepy Ty in her arms. I took my baby and like a Biblical procession of old, we marched down the stairs and into the great room. While Erik hopped from one foot to the other, Detweiler lit the fire. Anya had passed out one gift to each of us when the doorbell rang.
Gracie, my rescued harlequin Great Dane, stood in the foyer, barking and wagging her tail. This was a sign that our visitor was a friend, not foe.

“Look who’s here!” Brawny sang out.

Margit entered the great room with arms full of wrapped packages. Her eyes were red, as was her nose, but her smile assured me she was pleased to be joining us. Anya helped her unload the parcels, but before she could set things down, Margit demanded that we close our eyes. When we opened them on her command, each of us found a beautifully embroidered stocking in our laps.

“Next year, Santa will fill these up,” she said.

An hour later, the floor was covered with wrapping paper. Ty was chewing on a box. Erik was totally absorbed in a Legos set that Anya was helping him build. Brawny had gone to put a breakfast casserole in the oven, and Detweiler was outside shoveling our walk.

“How are you?” I slipped an arm around Margit.

“I am fine.” Her eyes confirmed her words. “I did all I could while I could, and she is without pain. I am free to move on.”


Margit stayed all day and accepted our offer to sleep in a guest room rather than drive home. I watched her carefully, but I quickly realized she’d told me the truth. She was fine. She was at peace with herself. Sure, she would grieve, but she knew she’d done all she could.

Detweiler and I were holding hands in front of the fireplace when Anya took a spot next to me on the sofa. “Mom? This is the weirdest thing ever. See this?” She handed over her stocking. A beautiful Star of David had been stitched on the front.

“Uh-huh. Margit was very thoughtful to combine both aspects of your spiritual life, wasn’t she?”

“Oh, Mooo-oom.” Anya chided me in that special way that’s unique to a teenager. “Not that! Look closer. See the gold trim around the star? It’s a link chain.”

And then I saw it. The missing portion of the necklace I’d purchased for Anya so she could wear her Star of David. My jaw fell open in surprise.

“How do you suppose it got there?” Anya marveled at the sight.

All I could figure was that when my gifts fell off the shelf, Margit had found the chain, thought it gold thread, and stitched it into the design. But, thinking of my friend, upstairs in the bedroom, this explanation seemed too simplistic. So instead, I told Anya the truth.

“It’s a Christmas miracle, honey. A Christmas miracle.”

~ The End ~

Today (January 1, 2017) is the last day that you can buy my newest Kiki book--Love, Die, Neighbor-- at only 99 cents. Why not snap up a copy and "gift" a copy to a friend as a treat? Just scroll down to the BUY  button and below it, you'll see a button that says, "Give as a gift."


Grandma Cootie said...

Thanks for posting the entire story. I traveled in the middle of December and got off track. Nice reading with my morning coffee today. Happy New Year! (already got my coy of Love, Die, Neighbor :-) ).

Suella said...

Thank you for the story! It shows love working in all situations through the year, but is especially nice to read now.

Marla Colorado said...

Great story! I've missed Kiki! Thank you for posting it all together. I just hadn't had time to read the installment version. Happy new year!

Nanaparks said...

Loved reading the story, especially this time of year. It really is about families and the love they share.

Carlene Lewton said...

Great story. I enjoyed it. I love reading your books.

Rhyanna DeTuathana said...

I liked the story and the way it ended, creating a sort of miracle.
thank you for sharing it.
Best Wishes for a Great New Year.

Mary said...

Really enjoyed this story! I must have completely missed the installment version, but I haven't seen any emails or posts from you like I used to get. Anyway, it was a perfect little story to read tonight. Thank you! m2

Joanna Slan said...

Wow, so glad I did this! Thank you all for reading it. I wasn't sure about the value of sharing the whole thing, but your responses suggest that was a good idea!

Joanna Slan said...

Mary, if you haven't see pun my emails or osots you might want to join my readers group on Facebook to keep up with Kiki. Just search for "Joanna's Readers."