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Tuesday, Dec. 1
Gage Monroe eased his foot off the gas pedal of his late father’s 1971 Chevy truck to avoid hitting the two workers attempting to raise a banner of some kind across the entrance to downtown Paradise, Montana. The old place hadn’t changed much over the forty-one years he’d called it home. Rustic charm, some might say. A good place to be from, in Gage’s opinion.
He leaned forward to squint through the spider web break in the windshield of his dad’s old beater. Was somebody trying to give Marietta a run for its holiday money? What idiot thought that was a good idea? Nothing Paradise did could hold a candle to Marietta’s well-oiled Christmas festival machine. Gage had a few good memories from the times his mom and dad made the fifteen-mile drive to the “big city” to see Santa and all the pretty lights decorating the rooflines of the beautiful homes along Bramble Lane.
Humble, unpretentious Paradise may have aspired to greatness when it took the name of the wide, picturesque valley stretching between the Gallatin Range to its right and the Absarokas to its left. Unfortunately, the train settled the town’s fate when it chose to locate in Marietta.
Over the years, Paradise seemed to accept its role as Marietta’s mostly overlooked stepsister without complaint. Until some fool decided to challenge Marietta’s claim to Christmas.
Once the red, green and gold banner floated overhead, he read aloud, “Cornerstone Mission’s LIVING CRÈCHE 12/22-12/24.”
Gage looked twice to be sure he read it right. “What the hell’s a crèche?”
He had a vague idea it might be another name for a nativity scene, but he wasn’t sure why that rang a bell. His mom had been the religious one. Church service every Sunday. Choir on Thursday nights. He’d done the good son thing until she got too sick to go anymore. Then, he gave up pretending to be good.
The church his family had attended was called Central Baptist at the time, although it went through so many preachers over the years, Gage had heard the place was now non-denominational.
By leaning to the left he could make out the roof of the small bell tower, a plain, white cross straddling the peak. The one-story white church—more function over form—stood a block off Main with a two-bedroom rectory next door so the ministers didn’t have to walk too far in the snow and cold. Only problem: the rectory’s backyard was filled with headstones.
Gage always wished he could have seen the look on the new minister’s first day when he realized his house hosted a cemetery.
He eased the old truck into a parking place in front of the Post Office. The storefronts along the three-block commercial area hadn’t changed much since the town’s early days. Bracketed by a still-flourishing feed store on the far end and Slim’s “filling station,” as his father called it, on the corner closest to the highway, the town was a mere dot on most maps. Most would agree its main claim to fame was the flashing stop light above the intersection of the highway that led to a popular resort, which featured world-class trout fishing in the nearby Yellowstone River.
During the winter months, people tended to hunker down and wait for the snow and icy winds to let up. Except on Sunday. Then, blizzard or no blizzard, Gage’s mother made him and his father put on their Sunday best to attend church. He and Dad would sit in the same spot—third row back, far right—to watch, pray and listen for Mom’s clear, perfect soprano when the choir started to sing. The memory was almost enough to make him smile…until his gaze fell on the white envelope sitting on the bench seat beside him.
Seemed hard to believe he’d been divorced almost twice as long as he and Pam were married. He still felt gut-punched when he saw her name. He’d done the right thing marrying her when she found out she was pregnant. But, even then, he’d known they didn’t stand a chance of making it. Too young. Too different. Too many things stacked against them. But he’d given their marriage his all—literally.
Out of habit, his hand when to the scar above his right temple. Buried in his hairline most people never saw it, but he’d never forget waking up in a hospital and being told he’d fallen asleep behind the wheel of his big rig and took out a family of five on their way to a party. Two dead because Gage’s boss didn’t believe his drivers needed the mandatory rest periods required of all Interstate drivers. Gage paid the price: prison, divorce, and losing touch with his daughter.
Michele—Cheli, as he’d always called her—would have turned twenty-one a few months back. He hadn’t seen or heard from her mother in nearly fifteen years. He had no idea if this letter would make it to Pam or Cheli, but he decided to try to reach out, now, before their only link—the last place they’d lived as a family—was gone.
He’d given himself a deadline of Christmas to be on the road to a new life. He’d be damned if he’d spend another holiday alone. Especially not in Paradise, living in a travel trailer in his late parents’ barn. Forty-one wasn’t that old. He had options, including the option of sitting on a beach somewhere drinking margaritas.
Gage was done with Montana. Period. If he didn’t hear back from his ex-wife or daughter in the next few weeks, then screw it. He was done with them, too.
But to accomplish everything that needed to get done—with a quickly dwindling bank account, he was going to need help. Cheap help. And he had no idea where to find that.
He shouldered the cranky, semi-rusted hinge open and got out of the truck. The ’71 was practically a low-rider compared to the four-wheel-drive Dodge he just sold. Selling his beautiful new truck had nearly gutted him, but what choice did he have? No way was he going to give his old hometown the satisfaction of seeing the Monroe place up on the auction block. Nope. Not happening.
Gage used his retirement fund to pay off the back taxes, and then he gave up the apartment he’d been sub-letting from a buddy and quit his job. He piled all of his possessions into his two recent purchases: the 2010 Airstream he’d bought off a buddy going through a divorce and his 2014 Dodge half-ton, four-wheel-drive truck. He’d planned to sell the Airstream and stay in the house while he got the place ready to put on the market. But that plan changed when he opened the front door of his mother’s beloved home and almost gagged.
The last renters must have been zombie druggie assholes. Pigs would have taken better care of the place, he’d thought. That left him with no choice. Since Dad’s barn was in relatively good shape, he’d parked the Airstream inside, got the power turned on and hooked up running water. Next, he spent three days under the hood of his father’s old truck, trying to get it road worthy. A new battery and four tires later, he sold the Dodge and caught a ride with the dealer back to the ranch.
He had fourteen thousand dollars to his name and twenty-four days to get the hell out of Dodge…or Paradise, as the case may be. Hard work didn’t scare him, but the thought of winding up alone, depressed and stuck in Paradise kept him up at night. He’d seen, firsthand, what that combination had done to his dad.
A freezing gust of wind whipped around the corner nearly taking off Gage’s black felt cowboy hat. He still hadn’t found his sub-zero gloves and good stocking cap. Probably tucked in one of the boxes he’d unloaded from the bed of his truck and transferred to a pallet in the barn.
Winter in this part of Montana was never boring, he thought ruefully, as he entered the Post Office. Built out of red brick and local timbers, the building had stood the test of time. From its earliest days as a boarding house—some claimed bordello—for copper miners and cowboys, the two-story building had served multiple functions to benefit the community. Most recently—circa the mid-1950s—the U.S. Post Office had set up shop on the ground floor under the vigilant eye of Postmistress Godiva Lynch.
To no surprise, Gage found a group of locals gathered around the potbelly stove. His dad had been a regular member of the group, at one time, along with Warren Vander Wahl. The recently deceased lawyer who had also dabbled in estate matters and property management had been Gage’s father’s childhood friend. Unfortunately, Warren’s mismanagement of Gage’s property was the reason Gage’s early retirement teetered on the brink of crash-and-burn.
Warren’s daughter, who was no spring chicken herself, had tried to make excuses when Gage showed up on her late father’s doorstep with a final notice from the county threatening to sell his place at public auction for unpaid taxes. “Daddy tried his best, Gage, but his health kept getting worse. And, honestly, I don’t think Daddy ever got over your father killing himself the way he did. You know how close they were. Like brothers.”
How do you think it felt to find my dad’s body hanging from a rafter in the barn? He’d wanted to shout at her but didn’t. Why bother? She was still too busy making excuses to realize how insensitive she sounded.
“The last couple of years, things got pretty bad around here, Gage. Daddy sent tons of letters to the renters in your old place, but it wasn’t until the sheriff started snooping around their pot farm operation that they took off. In the middle of the night. Some people know how to play the system, I’m afraid.”
Gage found out just how well the pot farmers played the game the day he got back. And, now, he was left cleaning up their fucking ugly mess. Merry Christmas to me, he thought glumly as he stomped off the dirty snow from his boots on the heavy mat just inside the door.
He nodded toward three silver-haired men seated at one of the square tables set up along the hickory-paneled sidewall. Each of the three tables sported a holiday-appropriate tablecloth and centerpiece—in this case, cheerful red poinsettias.
Godiva Lynch, who had been postmistress of Paradise for as long as Gage could remember, also served some of the best meals between Marietta and Yellowstone.
The hum of conversation faltered for a moment, then carried on as Gage made his way to the lusterless brass bars of the Post Office window. The upper portion was backed by thick, frosted glass with the words “U.S. Post Office” outlined in gold leaf. Pretty fancy for an outpost claiming less than two hundred boxes.
“Good morning, Ms. Lynch,” Gage said. “Quite a wind we’ve got out there today, isn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t be Paradise without it,” she said, looking up from somebody’s magazine. Her standard answer was one he’d heard a million times, but it never failed to amuse him.
He passed the envelope under the opening. “I’m not sure Pam’s still at this address, but it’s the last one I have.”
She looked over the narrow reading glasses perched on the end of her rather prominent nose. “If your return address is good—and it appears to be, the letter will come back to you if the addressee’s forwarding address has lapsed.”
He figured that was the best he could hope for. Pam had made it clear she was done communicating with him once she remarried. “There’s no place in my new life for a past that didn’t work out,” she’d written. “My new husband has plenty of money so you can keep your child support. He’s prepared to support me, Michele, and any children we have together for the rest of my life. Please don’t contact me again. When Michele is of age, she can make up her own mind about whether or not she wants a murderer for a father.”
The word still had the power to make his stomach turn.
Two families’ lives were changed forever because Gage’s wife and his boss both expected Gage to make it back to Bozeman that night—even though he’d pulled three twenty-hour days and was operating on less than two hours of sleep from the night before. He’d popped enough caffeine pills to eat a hole in his gut, his window was wide open to invite the frigid air into the cab of his eighteen-wheeler, and his radio blasted hip-hop because he hated the music and figured it would annoy him enough to keep him awake. But it didn’t work. He closed his eyes for a second and drifted across a four-lane highway into the path of an oncoming car. Two people died on the scene.
Did that make him a murderer? Not in the eyes of the law, which convicted him on two counts of vehicular manslaughter. But in the court of public opinion, he’d been tried and convicted, and would have been strung up from a tree if the rules of the Old West still applied.
“Need a stamp?” Godiva asked.
He inhaled deeply. Godiva had been feeding people on the down low for as long as Gage could remember. When Mom had gotten too sick to eat, let alone cook, the postmistress had brought them Tupperware containers of soup and hot dishes for months on end. “And a serving of whatever that delicious smell is, please.”
She peeled off a self-sticking stamp, applied it to the corner of his envelope and carelessly tossed the thing into a basket with a dozen or so other letters and mailers, including a mess of glossy green and red postcards bearing the same message as the sign he’d seen coming into town.
Curious, he approached the men at the table. All three appeared to be about the same age as his father would have been if he’d had the balls to stick around. “’Morning, gentlemen. What can anyone tell me about the church’s cressy-thing?”
“It’s called a crèche,” the man in a lilac colored cable-knit sweater said. Gage recognized him as a retired teacher. Charles Frank, if Gage remembered correctly. Honors English. Not the track a jock like Gage had been on. “Crèche is another word for a Nativity scene.”
“I don’t know why Pastor Sam doesn’t just call it like it is,” the fellow to the teacher’s left said. “That’s what you get when you hire a minister from Detroit.”
The other two nodded in agreement.
The new preacher is from a big city? Why?
He held out his hand. “Mr. Frank, isn’t it?”
“That’s right. You look familiar. Were you in my class?”
Gage shook his head.
“You’re Joe Monroe’s boy, aren’t you?” the portly fellow across the table from Gage asked. “Larry Hanson. F&M did some business with your dad back in the day. I heard you’ve got yourself a bit of a mess out at the ranch. Real shame about how things turned out with Warren.”
The other man—the one Gage couldn’t place—took off his Farmer and Merchant’s cap revealing a shiny pink crown. “Everybody knew Warren wasn’t himself for the past few years, but to completely let down all his clients, even lying to them about what was going on…well, damn. But I guess it doesn’t do anyone any good to speak ill of the dead.”
The men murmured sympathetically and added tidbits of gossip about lawyer Warren Vander Wahl’s inglorious end. “I heard his heart gave out after he got served papers from one of his very unhappy clients.”
At least he didn’t hang himself in the barn where his son would find him, Gage thought. The dormant volcano in his belly grumbled.
“Here you go.”
Startled, Gage turned to find Ms. Lynch waiting with a brown paper bag. “Thanks. How much do I owe you?”
His mouth watered from the smells emanating from the sack. Inside it, he spotted a white Styrofoam To-Go box, a paper napkin and a plastic fork.
“Six bucks. It’s a chicken-fried steak sandwich with home fries, in case you’re wondering.”
He dug out his wallet and gave her a ten. “Keep it. Thank you. This will be the best meal I’ve had in a week.”
She nodded, nearly cracking a smile.
“I heard you were living out at your folks’ place. Sounds like the renters really trashed it.”
He returned his wallet to his hip pocket and took the handles of the bag from her. “You have no idea.” He looked around. “Do you know anyone who needs a job? I can’t pay much, but I sure could use a hand.”
Each of the old timers shook his head. “Kids don’t wanna work these days.”
“No work ethic. That’s for sure.”
“Too busy fiddling with their cell phones.”
Godiva threw a cross look at the men. “Oh, hush, Mort Isaacsen. Stop being so negative. All you three do is sit around and complain. You’re not helpless. You could help this boy.”
The look of horror that crossed each of their faces would have made Gage laugh if the bald one hadn’t pointed in the general direction of the church and said, “Go see Pastor Sam.”
The other two agreed.
“Pastor Sam? The person behind this…crèche thing?”
Gage had his doubts. But the man might have the names of people who needed to make a few extra bucks before Christmas. And December twenty-fifth was D-day in Gage’s mind. His last day in the tragically misnamed town of Paradise, Montana.
End of Excerpt