(writing) A Christmas Gift for you – Chapter 1 of The Strange Disappearance of Santa Claus

Merry Christmas!  The Christmas story I’d planned to post (the Starchild one) is growing into a novella (I know, shocking), so instead, I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at the first chapter of the Schrodinger novel.  Yes, I’m still calling it The Strange Disappearance of Santa Claus – the concept is changing a bit, but I think it will be fun.  I hope you enjoy it!

 

The Strange Disappearance of Santa Claus

 

Author’s note: This is essentially a reboot of the Carter’s Cove universe that I featured in the last Advent Blog story. I’m reworking the universe in preparation for a novel I want to sell. So some things will be the same, and some will be different. What happened last year was not canon. This is. I hope you enjoy it the same, if not more!

 

Chapter 1.

 

“Schrodinger? Where are you, cat?”

 

Molly Barrett paused at the door to her apartment and looked back towards the bedroom. A large soft cooler sat at her feet, and she held her keys in her hands. One foot tapped impatiently.

 

“Come on, cat!” she said again, when said cat did not appear. “What are you doing?”

 

Coming! I’m coming!

 

True to his word, Schrodinger came bounding out of the bedroom bare seconds later, brown eyes bright. I’m ready! He skidded to a halt in front of her, and Molly had to laugh.

 

Schrodinger was a CrossCat, one of the odd breed of medium-sized cats that had come to Carter’s Cove via one of the interdimensional Roads that gave the town its main industry. No one knew where the Roads had come from: the theories were as numerous as the scientists and mages who created them, and truth be told, it was really only the academics who cared. The Roads simply were, and for Molly, that was good enough. Especially since the Roads had gifted her with her best friend.

 

CrossCats were rare beasts indeed, even in a Crossroads town like Carter’s Cove. Her particular CrossCat looked like a small lynx, even down to the brown spots on his tan coat, the black tufts of fur on his pointed ears, and his stub of a tail. But he weighed just shy of 30 pounds, the perfect weight to be carried if he so chose, and was frighteningly intelligent. Quite possibly more intelligent than was good for him, and he’d already proved that on more than one occasion since he’d come to live with Molly. But he made life interesting, and even though it had only been a few months since she’d come home to find him on her doorstep, Molly couldn’t imagine life without him.

 

She still didn’t know why he’d chosen her. He had to have made the choice himself; it didn’t make any sense that he’d been gifted, although Schrodinger himself had said that he was here because he’d been sent to her. By who, he didn’t know, or said he didn’t. Molly had her suspicions, but no actual proof.

 

What she had, she’d discovered, was a telepathic cat with a penchant for mischief, a taste for Earl Grey tea and murder mystery novels (preferably British), and an insatiable curiosity. That curiosity had already gotten him in to trouble more than once, but Schrodinger also had a knack for winning people over. It might have been the purr; lord knows Molly herself was a sucker for it.

 

Now, he posed in front of her, and Molly shook her head. “Where did you get that?”

 

A small red Santa hat, perfectly sized for the Cat, perched jauntily on his head. Sue gave it to me, he said smugly. She thought I’d like to be festive.

 

“I’m sure.” Molly picked up her cooler. “It’s adorable.”

 

Handsome, Schrodinger corrected her. Adorable is for babies and kittens.

 

“Handsome,” she amended, although privately she thought that he was going to be hearing adorable quite a bit that day. “Ready to go?”

 

In answer, he trotted out the door, waiting for her at the bottom of the steps while she locked up. Outside, the air was crystal clear, and the stars shimmered in a black velvet sky. Molly took a deep breath of the still morning; at 6 am, most of the town still slumbered. She shouldered her cooler and they started walking towards Crosswinds Books.

 

As she trudged along the predawn streets of the town, Molly’s thoughts drifted back to the cards she’d gotten the day before. One thing good about Christmas: all the yearly letters from her classmates, letting her know what they were doing. And they were all doing something. One was off in New York, getting ready to open a new bistro; another was in Phoenix, cooking for some star chef. All her classmates were somewhere busier than here, and Molly sometimes wondered what it would be like to be in a place that never slept.

 

Then, as always, she looked around the small town that she’d been born in, and realized that she’d never fit in anywhere else. The four years she’d spent at Johnson and Wales had been bearable only because of the fact that she could come home every other weekend. It was true: Crossroads kids didn’t leave their towns. At least, not the ones with any talent.

 

“Besides,” she’d said to her mother last week, while helping plan the family party, “Who else would run the tea shop if I weren’t here?”

 

“I’m sure Marge could find someone,” Abigail Barrett had replied.

 

“But they wouldn’t be as good,” Molly had said, and there hadn’t been a counter to that. It wasn’t hubris – just truth. Molly’s particular talents lay in the area of baking: she could tell with just a touch what a particular recipe needed, and how to make the best of any ingredients. She’d sailed through her baking and cooking classes, and then, to everyone’s surprise at the college, she’d turned down all the offers tendered to her, and returned to the small town of Carter’s Cove, perched on the Maine coast, to open a tea shop.

 

Molly and Schrodinger walked in near silence, listening to the town and the sea breathe around them. The snow was deep; there had been another Nor’easter two days ago that had dumped another six inches on top of the foot they’d gotten Thanksgiving weekend. Barring a freak heat wave, it would definitely be a white Christmas. This early in the morning, you could still hear the waves murmuring on the beach, and occasionally the mournful cry of a sea bird would ghost in on the slight breeze.

 

They turned right onto the main road, and Molly paused as a police car slowed down. Police Sergeant Jamie Carter, one of the descendents of the original Captain Carter who had discovered the Cove, leaned over his passenger seat and called out of the open window, “What’s the special today, Molly?”

 

“Peppermint snowmen,” she replied, leaning in.

 

“Ooh, Sarah’s favorite!” He grinned. “Save me a few?”

 

“Certainly.”

 

Sarah? Schrodinger propped his feet up on the side of the squad car, and Jamie chuckled at the sight of him.

 

“Yes, I’ll bring her by. She’ll want to see your new finery!”

 

Do you think she’ll like it? Schrodinger asked.

 

“I think she’ll love it.” Jamie looked back up at Molly. “Any more problems at the store?”

 

She shook her head. “Not that I’ve seen. Luckily. The last thing any of us need is issues with travelers at this time of year.”

 

“Agreed,” Jamie said, and then his radio blasted a bit of static, shockingly loud in the quiet of the morning.

 

“Hey, Jamie, where are you?” Deirdre’s voice, slightly distorted, came out of the dashboard speaker. He rolled his eyes and picked up his receiver.

 

“Talking to Molly and Schrodinger down the road from Crosswinds Books,” he said.

 

“Hi Molly! Hi Schrodinger!” Deirdre said. “Hey, is it too late to order one of your apple spice cakes for tomorrow night? Dennis forgot to tell me he needed something for his holiday potluck party, and I’m working overtime today and tomorrow.”

 

“Not at all,” Molly said, as Jamie held the receiver out to her. “Did you want to come pick it up today at the store, or should I bring it down to the station?”

 

“I’ll pick it up,” Deirdre said, and then chuckled. “The only way I’d trust it here is if you padlocked the box, and then not even!”

 

“Why, Deirdre, don’t you trust us?” Jamie teased.

 

“Around Molly’s apple spice cake? About as far as I can throw you,” Deirdre retorted.

 

“Is there a reason you called me?” he asked. “Or did you just want to make an order?”

 

“Can you get out to the west end of town, by MacCrillis Road?” she said. “We’re getting a call about some noise. Lisa Newton called and said it sounded like someone was murdering cats in the woods behind the barn.”

 

“Lovely. I’ll go check it out,” he replied, and Molly and Schrodinger stepped back. “Save me some cookies, Molly!”

 

And then he was gone, the squad car sliding quietly down the road.

 

Molly and Schrodinger resumed their stroll up to the bookstore, but her mind was on the conversation, and the memories it had stirred up.

 

She shouldn’t be surprised, she thought, that Jamie had brought up the incident. It still bothered her, and as she unlocked the door to Crosswinds Books, Molly found herself looking around, even thought she and Schrodinger were the only ones on the street.

 

I would let you know if anyone was around, Schrodinger said quietly. Especially now.

 

“I know,” she said, and motioned him inside. “It’s stupid, really. They sent the guy back to his own realm, after all.”

 

It’s not stupid. Schrodinger stopped next to her, and put one soft paw on her pant leg. He was scary.

 

He had been. Tall, broad-shouldered – and incredibly rude, both to Molly and to Margie. And disruptive; he’d chased two patrons from the store with his loud demands to Molly for free food. She had finally asked him to leave. When he’d refused, Margie had called the police.

 

It had been settled quickly enough, with no violence, but it had still unnerved Molly. People just weren’t like that in the Cove.

 

“We’re sheltered,” she told Schrodinger, resetting the alarm after she’d locked the front door again. Margie wouldn’t be in until 8 am to start her own opening routine. “No one from the Cove would have acted like that.”

 

That’s because you’re taught manners, Schrodinger said, leading her into the kitchen. Sadly, some villages aren’t.

 

“True.” Molly set the cooler on the kitchen island, and then started her morning routine: hanging her coat in the pantry, slipping off her boots and sliding her feet into warm slippers, lighting the fire in the tea room wood stove, turning her ovens on and putting the kettle on. Her personal stash of tea lived in a box in the pantry, right next to Schrodinger’s Earl Grey; she retrieved a ceramic tea pot, two tea bags, Schrodinger’s mug and her own favorite mug and carried them out to the island. Then, as the water heated and the ovens warmed, Molly pulled out packets of chilled dough and began to roll them out. Peppermint dough, which she cut into circles and assembled into snowmen.

 

The kettle whistled. Molly paused in her cookie-making to pour water in her tea pot and into the mug. Her tea went into the pot; Schrodinger’s Earl Grey went into his mug, which she set down on the floor in front of him. He flopped down, large paws on either side of the sturdy ceramic vessel, and inhaled the steam eagerly.

 

Molly laughed. “You are so weird sometimes, Cat.”

 

Because I enjoy the aroma of a sublime drink? Schrodinger raised an eyebrow at her. Heathen.

 

“Hardly,” she said, leaning over to inhale the steam from her own drink. “But most cats do not make a production out of their tea drinking.”

 

And how many cats do you know that drink tea?

 

“Touché.” The ovens beeped, indicating they were preheated; Molly slid the first couple of trays into them and then settled onto one of the stools. After a moment, she poured herself a cup of tea and sat enjoying the silence.

 

Even the silence couldn’t stop her from thinking about the disruptive stranger though. Molly shook her head. “Get over it, Barrett,” she muttered, and reached over to the small radio that sat on the edge of the island. The strains of “Silent Night” flooded the kitchen.

 

The morning passed in a flood of visitors and baking. Besides Deirdre’s cake, Molly had several other special orders to fill for the next two days, and her kitchen (so by extension, the entire store) was filled with the sweet smells of baking.

 

Margie Barrett swept in after the lunch rush, all smiles.

 

“I take it it’s been a good day?” Molly said, setting a cup of tea in front of her aunt as the older woman sank down on a stool.

 

“It’s been an amazing season so far,” Margie said, her hazel eyes alight with pleasure. “So many books flying off the shelves! Thank heavens we live in a community that loves to read. Civilization. And no more disruptive jerks, like yesterday.” She sipped her tea, then looked up at her niece. “What, no cakes left?”

 

“I was just getting you a slice,” Molly said, turning from the counter with a thick slice of peppermint chocolate cake on a delicate china plate. “I’m testing a new recipe, so be honest.”

 

Margie picked up her fork eagerly, cutting a large bite and putting it in her mouth. Molly held her breath, hoping. She didn’t usually make duds, but there was always a chance…

 

Not this time, apparently. Her aunt’s eyes widened as the fluffy cake melted on her tongue, and Margie made a sound that was half groan, half moan and all bliss.

 

“I take it I should keep this one, huh?” Molly said, her mouth quirking into a sideways smile. Margie nodded, unable to speak around the second forkful in her mouth. “Good to know.”

 

“Need a second opinion?” came a hopeful voice, and Molly looked over to see Drew Travers standing in the doorway.

 

“Of course!” she replied, motioning him in. “I know how hard it is working up at the Gate Station, how they never feed you guys.” Her teasing tone masked the little jump her heart had taken when she’d seen him standing there.

 

Not that I’m the only one, Molly thought, giving him a generous slice of cake and a smile as he claimed the chair next to Margie. Drew had been the topic of much sighing and discussion among the single ladies in the Cove since he’d moved into town from Boston nearly a year ago. Then again, with his broad shoulders, deep blue eyes and ready smile, not to mention the fact that he showed every sign of being willing to live in the Cove and not move on as soon as his current contract with the Gate Station was up, it wasn’t hard to see why they pined for him. Sadly, he hadn’t seemed interested in any of them, as far as she could tell.

 

“That’s why we always look forward to two things,” he replied. “Coming into town and seeing you come up our drive with a smile and a basket of goodies.”

 

“Flatterer,” she said. “Tea?”

 

“Yes, please. Just black, if you have it – I’ve got a long shift tonight. All-nighter.” He winked at Margie. “Gotta keep my strength up for that.”

 

She laughed and pushed her plate back before standing up. “Ah, to be young again. My days of all-nighters are long gone. However, this store won’t run itself, so I’d better get going.” Margie paused at the door to the kitchen. “Don’t forget, Molly, we’re open longer hours next week.”

 

Molly nodded. “Yep, I’m already planning to bake up a storm this weekend. And Sue has next week off due to the museum renovations, so she’s agreed to come in and help me.”

 

“Oh good. I’ll make note of it in the budget.” Margie waved away Molly’s protest before it could escape her lips. “I know you, girl. You were planning on splitting your check with her. No way. I can afford a temp salary for her for a week.” Margie sailed out, shutting the door firmly on any other protests.

 

Drew chuckled. “Do you ever win an argument with her?”

 

“No, not really.” Molly refilled the three tea kettles on the stove. “Especially ones I don’t really want to. And this will make Sue happy – the museum wasn’t going to pay her at all for next week.”

 

“Even though they told her not to come in.” Drew shook his head. “Budget woes suck.”

 

“Yeah, well, new roofs aren’t cheap,” Molly pointed out. “And she’s really not needed.”

 

“True.”

 

The kitchen fell into a companionable silence then, as Drew continue to enjoy his cake and Molly started measuring dry ingredients for yet another gingerbread house. WCOV, the Cove’s very own radio station, had segued to instrumental Christmas carols for the day, and the plaintive cry of a harp wove through the muted sounds of the shoppers in the store. Crosswinds Books had two floors, and Molly knew how full it could get, especially during the Christmas season.

 

“So, you’re pulling an all-nighter, and yet you’re down in my kitchen,” she said finally, as Drew put his fork on the empty plate.

 

“Running messages,” he said, cupping his hands around his tea mug. “I pulled the short straw today, considering how cold it is out.”

 

“It’s December, in Maine,” Molly said. “What did you expect?”

 

“Raised in Boston,” he reminded her. “I knew what to expect. But the wind is really vicious today.”

 

“And they didn’t give you the snowmobile?” Molly added cream and eggs to the batter and began to beat it with a wooden spoon. The Gate Station sometimes had actual messages come through without couriers, and so the techs had to deliver them around the town. Carter’s Cove, being connected by both the Roads and the Sea Roads, got a lot of traffic in and out.

 

“They did,” Drew said. “That makes it even colder.”

 

She took pity on him and refilled his tea cup. “Where are you headed after here?”

 

Drew frowned. “Good question. Let me look.” He’d hung his coat up on the rack as he’d come in; now he got up and went over, rummaging in the inner pockets until he found his tablet. “Let’s see. Besides here, I need to hit the mine, the Connellys’ Inn, and Roxane’s.”

 

“Here?” Molly blinked. “I thought you just stopped in to warm up.”

 

Drew smiled at her. “I’ll always be willing to do that. But I really did have something to deliver.” He went back into his coat and pulled out a long, slim white envelope that glittered slightly in the kitchen light, as if it were dusted with snowflakes. “This came in for you last night.”

 

Molly took the envelope gingerly and turned it over in her hands, wondering what she’d done to deserve this. The envelope was unmistakable, the rich paper soft and faintly cool to the touch, like fine silk left in the snow. Only the Snow Queen sent messages wrapped in envelopes like that. And then she blinked. The letter was addressed to Mistress Molly Barrett and Master Schrodinger.

 

She pushed past Drew and leaned out into the tea room. As usual, Schrodinger was dozing next to the wood stove, his Santa hat down over one ear and the stub of his tail moving in time to the music. Molly started to call over to him, then changed her mind; there were a few patrons in the tea room, all reading, and she didn’t want to call too much attention to herself. Instead, she ducked back into the kitchen, laid the envelope on the island, and then grabbed a kettle of water. She walked out into the tea room and circulated through the tables, offering hot water to the patrons. As she passed the stove, Molly said quietly, “Hey, Schrodinger, Drew’s in the kitchen. Want to come in and say hello?”

 

Mrmph? Schrodinger opened one eye sleepily. Do I have to?

 

“He brought us a letter.”

 

That brought the Cat’s head up quickly. A letter? From who?

 

“Come into the kitchen and find out.” Molly paused to look around again, making sure that no one needed anything, and then went back into the kitchen, Schrodinger hot on her heels.

 

Hi Drew! There was no trace of sleepiness in Schrodinger’s eyes or voice now, as he hopped up on the other stool. Who did we get a letter from?

 

“Hi Schrodinger!” There was another piece of cake on Drew’s plate; Molly gave him a look, which he returned innocently. “It just appeared there, I swear.”

 

“Sure it did.” Molly returned the kettle to the stove and turned the flames down under the other two. Then she wiped off her hands and picked up the envelope again.

 

There was a single silver snowflake seal on the back, holding the flap down. It shattered into a thousand small shimmering bits of wax as she slid her finger underneath the envelope’s flap, and Molly drew out the parchment inside. She laid the envelope aside and unfolded the letter.

 

“To Molly and Schrodinger, greetings,” she read aloud. “I hope this finds you well, and I look forward to seeing you at my ball. I know this is a busy time of year, but I was hoping that you could help me with a small thing. Please, come out to my castle tomorrow and have tea with me. I would like to discuss this favor in person. Yours, Jade, Mistress of the Snows, Queen of the North.” She looked up. “I never knew her name.”

 

“Well, not many people use it.” Drew looked at them. “What on earth could she want you guys to do?”

 

“I don’t know,” Molly said slowly, putting the letter down and going over to the wall. She pressed the small button up by the coat rack; it flashed a light up at the register, letting whoever was up there know that Margie was needed in the kitchen. It was a simple way for Molly to get in touch with her aunt without alerting the entire store. Then she turned back to Drew. “I’m hoping she doesn’t want me to bake for the ball – I’m not sure I’ll have time, but how do I say no if that’s what she asks me?”

 

The Snow Queen had lived in the realm next to Carter’s Cove for as long as Molly had been alive, and for as long as the Cove had existed as a town, some said. She never seemed to age, and every year, the Saturday before Christmas, she threw a grand ball that the entire town attended, held in a glade on the outskirts of town. The Snow Queen’s Ball was one more point of magic in the town, one more thing that set Carter’s Cove apart from the rest of the world. For most of the year, the Snow Queen was rarely seen – some said she was a faery, tied to her own realm except for that one day of the year. But others whispered she was an old goddess, a protector of the area, and just chose not to have much to do with the town. Molly had never personally met her, although she’d seen her at the Ball, of course.

 

This is not good, Schrodinger said quietly, and both Molly and Drew looked at him, surprised. Not good at all.

 

“What do you mean, Cat?” Molly asked.

 

When the CrossCat looked at her, there was none of his usual excitement in his eyes. If the Mistress of the Snows has asked for us to come and do a favor for her, there is something very wrong. She does not need someone to bake for her. This is something that she cannot deal with, and if that’s the case, then we should all be worried.

 

“Worried?” Molly swallowed, wondering if he was right. She’d never seen Schrodinger this somber, not in the six months he’d been with her.

 

“What are we worried about?” Margie asked, coming into the kitchen. “I don’t really want to worry about anything, but if we have to be, at least I’d like to know why.”

 

Molly handed her the letter, and Margie read it, her eyebrows creeping up into her graying brown hair. “Well, I guess you’d better bake now then.”

 

“I beg your pardon?” Molly said, looking at her aunt.

 

“Bake now,” Margie repeated. “So that whoever I can find to cover the tea room tomorrow afternoon while you go out has plenty of things to serve.” She looked at Molly. “You weren’t planning on just leaving me with nothing, were you?”

 

“I…uh, hadn’t gotten that far, actually.” Molly ran one hand through her hair distractedly. “I’m still processing the whole going to have tea with the Snow Queen thing.”

 

Schrodinger jumped down off the stool and shook his head, knocking the Santa hat off. I’ll be back, he said, and then padded out of the room before anyone could respond. His tail flicked once, and then he disappeared, right before he hit the door.

 

Molly sank down onto the stool he’d been sitting on. “Wow, he’s really upset. He never just flashes out like that.”

 

“I wasn’t aware he could,” Drew said, looking back to where the Cat had been. “Can all CrossCats do that?”

 

“I don’t know.” Molly shrugged. “He can, but he’s the only CrossCat I know. And when I asked him about it, he just looked at me like I had three heads and asked me why I wanted to know. I think he forgets sometimes that we’re a bit more limited than he is.” She frowned. “I wonder what he knows about the Snow Queen that we don’t, though. He looked seriously worried.”

 

Drew got up and put his dishes in the sink. “Well, I don’t know, but I’ve got to go, before Mack sends out a search party for me.” He tipped his head towards Molly and Margie. “Ladies.”

 

Once he was gone, Margie looked over at Molly. “What are you thinking, girl?”

 

“Hmm?” Molly had been staring at the door, running over the ingredients in her kitchen and what she could make up that would be easy to do large quantities of. Normally, she baked throughout the day, so things weren’t stale, and she really had only six tables, but…

 

“Earth to Molly.” Margie waved her hand in front of her niece’s face. “I said, what are you thinking?”

 

“Trying to figure out what I can make tonight that I can leave.” Molly got up and started back towards the walk-in fridge. “I think I have stuff for brownies, and I can frost them. Maybe scones? I was going to do scones anyways…” Her voice trailed off as she started to pull ingredients out.

 

“No, I meant about Drew.”

 

“I beg your pardon?” Molly leaned out of the walk-in, giving her aunt a puzzled frown. “What should I do about him?”

 

Margie shook her head. “You, my dear child, are a dunce. An adorable one, and one I love, but seriously. Why do you think he was hanging around in here?”

 

“Because he had a letter to deliver, it was cold and I had chocolate cake?” Molly went back into the fridge again, looking for the buttermilk. “Honestly, I think you’re seeing things that aren’t there. Drew hasn’t been interested in anyone here that way. We’re just friends.”

 

“And is that all you want?”

 

“Why are we suddenly having this conversation?” Molly asked, coming out with eggs and buttermilk. She set them on the counter and looked at her aunt, who was suddenly very interested in studying her fingernails. “It’s not like…oh, Aunt Margie, please tell me you haven’t been talking to my mother again!”

 

“We’re sisters, we do talk,” Margie said. “And honestly, Molly, it’s rude not to invite him to Christmas Eve, he hasn’t got anywhere else to go.”

 

Molly pulled out several bowls and began measuring flour. “Uh-huh.”

 

“And we hate to see you lonely.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Molly shook her head. “Just try not to be too obvious when you play matchmaker, okay? I’d like to keep his friendship, at least.”

 

Schrodinger hadn’t shown up by the time Molly left the bookstore, which was a bit worrying. Not that the Cat couldn’t take care of himself, but the abrupt way he’d left and the fact that he hadn’t come back made Molly wonder just what he was doing, and why. What was so unsettling about an invite to tea?

 

Except, of course, for the fact that it came from the Snow Queen.

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