On Santa Claus Lane

an excerpt

Chapter One

December 22, 2018



"What's going on?" Rudy asked over the maddening, nonstop Christmas tunes on the radio station he used to love. He had to admit it sort of put him in the mood when Elvis Presley sang Here Comes Santa Claus. The way Elvis sang it, Rudy believed him.

"Nothing's going on. Can't I spend a bit of extra time with my favorite brother?" Lia switched radio stations, avoiding Rudy's gaze as she changed lanes on the freeway.

"You're avoiding going home," he said. "You just sailed right past the Santa Claus Lane exit."

"I know, but I miss you. And I'm not avoiding home. I want you to myself for a few minutes more."

Considering the physical distance between them these past eleven years, it warmed his sagging spirits to know she wanted that.

"Okay," he said, but something niggled. What isn't she telling me?

Rudy Keller was thrilled to see his sister, and was excited to be spending his first Christmas at the family home in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara in over a decade. He hadn't intended to stay away so long but work and love had kept him out of the country. Way out of the country. But now he was back.

Traffic slowed on the 101 North heading toward California's most picturesque coastal beach towns and beyond them, the wine country and then San Francisco. He smiled as a car loaded with not one but two fresh Christmas trees strapped to its roof whizzed by them.

Lia had picked him up at ten a.m. from Los Angeles International Airport. Getting to Santa Barbara shouldn't have taken more than two hours. And it wasn't the traffic that had taken them almost four hours to get home.

No. It was Lia, who found one detour after another. She'd made stops at three different Marshall's discount stores, and some craft ‘emporium' that left him feeling dizzy it was so humungous. They were pleasant diversions, but he'd never seen her so jumpy. She assured him she was fine, and her husband, Alvin was, too. So was their business, a thriving clothing and French import boutique in downtown Santa Barbara.

Then what's wrong? Something's up. Why won't she just tell me?

"How about a quick lunch in Summerland?" Lia asked, as they veered into the next beach town in Santa Barbara. "I'm hungry and it's two o'clock."

"Me, too. I'd love to eat at the Big Yellow House," Rudy responded. Now that was a detour he'd welcome.

Lia winced, giving him some side-eye. "Sorry, babe, it's closed."

"What? Are you kidding me? Since when?" He was surprised how devastated he felt. But then again, the once-prominent Santa Barbara restaurant had featured heavily in their lives from the time they were kids. All the Keller family celebrations had taken place there. Not only that, Lia had worked as wait staff there during their college years at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Do you remember the scale?" Lia asked, laughing.

He ran a hand over his face. "Oh, man. I'd forgotten about that. Could you imagine any restaurant pulling a stunt like that today?"

They looked at each other and said, "No," in unison.

The scale had been especially tough for Lia and many other local girls. All the kids who ate at the BYH had to step on a gigantic scale and were told they would be charged for their meals based on their weight. They didn't realize it was a joke and many dreaded those visits. But Rudy had loved the place.

"I had my first date ever there." He lapsed into silence. A minute later he added, "And my first date with Boris, too."

"You took everyone there." Lia reached across the front seat and squeezed his knee. "Where else would you have taken them? There were no gay bars around."

"Are there any now?"

"Three. I've been checking."

"Good to know." He laughed. "So when did BYH close down?"

"Right after you left. It's changed hands a couple of times and there was an announcement made about a grand reopening a couple of years ago. It just never happened." She kept up the hunt for a different radio station. "Alvin and I christened the men's restroom right before it closed."

Rudy swiveled in his seat. "By christened, do you mean you bumped uglies one drunken night?"

"We were toasted." She laughed. "I had to talk him into doing it. I even took photos."

"Oh, my God. I have to have dinner with him tonight and now I can't stop visualizing him--no, no. I can't think about it. It'll give me nightmares."

"Shaddup!"

They both laughed but then Lia was back on the all-Christmas music station. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, his least favorite holiday song, was playing.

"Oh God, please turn it off." It was Boris's favorite song and anything that reminded him of Boris gave him hives. He didn't mention Boris's fondness for the song.

She turned it off. "Being a bit Grinchy, aren't you, babe?"

"Not Grinchy. Just brings back memories." He tried not to think about Boris and what he'd be doing right now. He blocked the thought of Boris's salt-and-pepper hair and brilliant blue eyes and the life they'd carved out together. It was hard not to think about him or Rudy's former home with him in the town of Kemi, in the Finnish province of Lapland.

Kemi was ten hours ahead of California. He'd be at the clinic. Still seeing animals. No. It's one o'clock in the morning there. He took a deep breath. When he'd left town, Boris had two emergency cases. A husky and a reindeer with terrible injuries from sleigh rides. I bet he's sleeping in the clinic so he can keep an eye on them. He blinked back tears. I've got to stop this.

"You okay?" Lia's voice was soft.

"In Kemi, Christmas is a huge thing with reindeer rides and the biggest snow castle in the world. You know they rebuild it every year, right?"

"Yep. You're missing it a lot, I'm sure." Before he could respond she went on. "This was a big move for you, hon."

He smiled then. "I feel like I'm still there in a way. They play Christmas music all year round."

She grinned. "I never seemed to pick the right time to visit so I never saw the new castles once they'd been finished."

He'd never told her that he'd bid on the chance to design the annual castles several times and never landed a single one. The memory depressed him and he wished he hadn't brought it up now. The words fell between them as they passed the old BYH on their right. It stood on a low rise, and its color had turned more mustard than canary yellow. Why did I have to think of mustard? Now I'm really starving.

He assumed the dull color and broken restaurant sign were due to a lack of care. It looked lost and forlorn. Sort of how I feel. "So where do we eat?" he asked as his stomach rumbled.

"Babe, do you mind a quick detour to Marshalls in Santa Barbara?" Lia asked. "I'm still looking for those golden shoes Elspeth wants. We can have lunch there before we head home."

"Go for it." He couldn't stop thinking about the shuttered restaurant. He'd had fantasies about Boris changing his mind about their relationship and flying out to California. In his daydreams, Rudy pictured them having a romantic, candlelit table by the front window. Rumor had it the yellow house was haunted. He'd never believed it until he glimpsed the alleged ghost herself. A sad-looking woman in a long, floating white gown. He'd almost screamed when he saw her holding up an object in her right hand, but he was too frightened to take a second look.

He'd fled from the men's restroom back to his table.

It happened during his date with Boris. He hadn't mentioned it because he didn't want Boris to think he was some kind of nut. It would have ruined their date and any potential for a future together.

Yeah. And look where that got me.

Lia raced down the State Street exit from the freeway and hurtled into a crush of traffic with a rate of speed Danica Patrick would have envied. He delighted in the sights and sounds of the sleepy beach's main street. It hadn't changed. The pristine white-washed buildings with their trademark red roofs dominated the landscape. Each parking meter had been wrapped in red velvet ribbons and the storefronts bore gorgeous displays of light strands and an abundance of Christmas décor.

Let it Snow piped out from somewhere and fake snow drifted from overhead wires bearing colored lights and huge bulbs strung from store to store. Smiling people walked arm in arm, packages squeezed between them.

I wish they could be like this all year round. "It's lovely," he breathed, the spirit of the holiday touching him at last.

Lia screeched to a halt outside Marshalls. There was no parking on this end of State Street judging by the red-painted curb from one side of the street to the other.

"Go on in," she said. "Please check the girls' shoe section for those flats and I'll find you in the store." Somebody honked her from behind as Rudy clambered out of the vehicle. "I gotta go find parking. When we're done, we can have lunch at Andersen's."

"It's still there?" he cracked.

"Yeah. And there's no scale." She pulled a face as the driver behind her honked again and tore off at break-neck speed.

He sauntered inside the discount department store, wishing he could investigate the more appealing boutiques jostling for space along the street.

An inspired chaos seemed to be taking place. Back in Lapland, he'd seen news bulletins of fistfights between American shoppers during big sales. The bargain hunters here seemed hurried and focused, but not eager to engage in hand-to-hand combat. He grabbed a free shopping cart, the only one near the entrance. He swung it around to head to the well-marked shoe section when a blonde woman holding a toddler in her arms, wrestled the cart from him. She was strong and rude.

"I'm a mom," she snapped, her tone vicious.

"I'm gay!" He wanted to respond because it was as irrelevant as her being a parent.

She nudged him away with her elbow, leaving him stunned. If she'd asked, he would have given it to her. He shook his head, looking around for another cart when a store associate approached him with one.

"Sorry," she mouthed and handed him a roll of glittery Christmas wrap. "On the house." She'd made his day a little merrier and brighter. He thanked her and pushed off to the girls' shoes, surprised and stoked to find the pair of gold ballet flats Lia had been searching for all morning.

He grabbed the box from the stack, checking that both shoes were in there and they were the correct size. Lia had discovered all kinds of jumbled pairs in her pursuit so far. He put the box in his cart and called Lia.

"Got them!" he said, thrilled with his own hunting and gathering skills.

"I love you. I just found a spot. Where you headed now? I want to check the homewares section for one last gift for Mom."

"I'll meet you there," he said. They ended their call. The scent of balsam pine hit his senses and he couldn't help thinking of last Christmas. It had been different. Exhilarating. Stop it. He trudged forward to homewares, startled by the array of Christmas goodies. He didn't stop to check them out. He'd seen the same things in the stores they'd already visited. Besides, he'd shipped a bunch of Finnish sweets to Lia before flying out.

He wondered how his nieces and nephews and even his parents would respond to Salmiakki, the traditional salted licorice. He'd grown to love the stuff but it had taken almost a decade. His thoughts flew to his parents, who still lived in the family house on Santa Claus Lane--not that they spent a lot of time there. He had hoped they'd come to visit them in Kemi but he and Boris flew to Argentina to see them a few years ago.

His parents, wealthy philanthropists thanks to his father winning a state lottery decades ago, had used their carefully invested money to fund orphanages all over South America. They'd also adopted four siblings--two boys and two girls--who'd lost their parents in a devastating fire in Valparaiso, Chile, four years ago.

It had helped fill a tremendous void for all of them. One that Rudy never thought could be filled. None of the Kellers had ever gotten over the loss of Rudy and Lia's twin brothers, Anthony and Timothy. Their parents had lost both boys the same night to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a few days after Christmas, many, many years ago.

"It made me a member of a club I never wanted to be a part of," Lia once told Rudy. News of the twins' deaths had even made the local newspapers. The Internet was in its infancy then--thankfully-- so no trolls had written mean, anonymous things about Rudy's family. Still, it had been rough. Losing one child to SIDS was painful, two together seemed…unfathomable. Rudy had no idea how his parents survived the loss of their precious boys. Though only sixteen months separated him from his younger sister, Lia's life had fallen into place much easier than his. He barely remembered the twins now, except for Anthony's sweet, tender smile. He liked to think his brothers were in Heaven watching over them, still a big part of the Keller family. Their birthday was honored and Christmas had become an important celebration because it was the last time he remembered them all being truly happy.

And yet, over the years, he'd stayed away and his parents constantly traveled. Lia was the only constant in Santa Barbara. Rudy adored her and was grateful for their connectedness. Being with Boris had felt like a gift after years of feeling as though he was a misfit. Now he felt he was the only member of that miserable club again.

Whenever he felt sad about the twins, he thought about his new siblings. All four kids had sustained a terrible trauma but were amazing and well-adjusted. Rudy's favorite was four-year-old Emmélie. He'd had fantasies of teaching her and the others how to ski in Kemi, but that would never happen now. He adored her sister, Abegail, and Rudy loved the Chilean spelling of her name. She was five, and her seven-year-old twin brothers, Max and Sosimo, were a pair of cute little pistols. Sosimo's name meant "likely to survive" and the entire Keller family felt it was a good omen.

The six-pack as his parents called themselves traveled the world. Now they'd all be home for Christmas and Rudy couldn't wait to see them. He loved all four kids, but Emmélie had won Boris's heart, as much she'd won Rudy's. She was absolutely gorgeous. They all were with their olive complexions, lustrous black hair and eyes like copper pennies. Emmélie was the shiest of the bunch until she got to know you. Then she became the fiercest hugger and an unstoppable Chatty Cathy. His parents and mini-siblings had arrived the previous night. Rudy would be staying in the house with them.

"It's gone through a lot of changes," his mom had warned him. "We've rebuilt it and added a second story and a lot of extra rooms."

Rudy broke out of his reverie and spotted the reindeer before he'd even reached the clearance aisle. He snatched it up, worried that the woman with a sobbing toddler strapped into her shopping cart might make a grab for it.

Oh, no. It's her. The shopping cart thief. She didn't make a move toward the hard plastic toy, however. He gripped it, his gaze fixed on the deer's ruby-red nose. It was Rudolph all right. Examining it, he wondered why it had been discounted to a mere two dollars from its original thirty. It was a well-made toy, and surprisingly--according to the price tag--it came from Germany.

Then he saw the missing rear hoof. That was the story of his life. Ever since he was a kid, Rudy got the toys that were missing pieces, lacking instructions, safety features, and sometimes they just didn't work, no matter how many replacements his parents purchased. A missing hoof seemed typical for him. I have to buy it. I can't leave it here. He tucked it into his shopping cart along with his Christmas ‘deluxe hand wash', body lotion, and Christmas tree-scented candles. He still had gifts to buy but hadn't found a damned thing yet.

As he cast a perfunctory glance at the other cast-off items on the grimy glass shelves, he saw nothing else of interest. He could rebuild the deer's hoof, but even in that moment knew he probably wouldn't. He'd add it to his collection; the one Boris called his Special Needs toys. He glanced back at Rudolph and realized that the hoof seemed moist, and it had been chewed off. Teeth marks were visible in the bright lighting of the stemware section. Holy cow! Who or what could have chewed the hoof?

He thought of the cart thief and her little girl who'd been in the clearance aisle. Nah. Couldn't be her. They sped past him, the mom apparently oblivious to the object her daughter was gumming.

He went right up to her. "Hello? Excuse me, ma'am?"

The woman turned her head, her sunny smile evaporating. "You again." She rolled her eyes.

He recognized her now as an actress on a daytime TV soap opera. He also remembered some controversy surrounding her. Boris had subscriptions to many American magazines for his veterinary practice clients. I spend far too much time reading them myself. I can't remember her name but she was either fired or quit. No. She'd been fired and blamed the fact her real age had been exposed by some blogger. She'd accused the show's producers of ageism. Too late, he also realized she had her cell phone out and appeared to be recording him.

Damn.

"Don't you ma'am me, mister." The actress frowned at him. He realized now he'd made a tactical error. He should never have approached her. Since her kid apparently enjoyed eating venison, if he asked her for the return of the hoof, she could have demanded the deer itself.

"I'm very sorry." He was aware of his burning cheeks. "I thought you were somebody else."

The actress arched a brow. "And you call her ma'am?"

"Only as a joke." Oh, man. What am I doing? Could I be any more of a feeb?

She peered inside his shopping cart. He was grateful now that he'd bypassed all the German sweets in the food section of Marshalls. People in California judged a person by the contents of their shopping carts. It hadn't been easy, considering that the sight of fruit-dusted stollen and myriad lebkuchen cookies always made his mouth water. Then there were the fragrant gingersnaps. The actress's gaze hardened as she lifted her head and stared at him.

"My daughter wanted that deer, but the hoof's missing."

"It's not missing." Rudy knew he was about to annoy her once again. "She's eating it."

Her head swiveled like RoboCop and she caught her daughter gnawing away on Rudolph's missing foot. "Oh, my God. Temperance! Get that out of your mouth. Now."

Temperance. He almost laughed. What a hefty name to saddle a kid with.

She wrestled with her daughter for it, making the toddler cry all over again, and then dumped the slobbery mess into Rudy's hand. She took off, wheeling the squalling child toward customer service. He found a tissue in the back pocket of his jeans, wrapped the mangled hoof, stuffing it back in again.

"Well done," a female voice said. "You do have a way with people."

He turned, catching Lia's wild grin. That almost made him laugh, too.

Lia peered over the top of her piles of shopping at the reindeer and pulled a face. "How many's that now?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. But he knew. They both did. She held his gaze until he broke it off and muttered, "Coupla hundred I think."

"You ever thought about doing a traveling museum of your maimed farm animals?" she asked. Before he could respond a beep emanated from her complicated watch. "We have to get going. You got everything you need?"

"Not yet, but I'll be back I'm sure. Let's go."

She nodded. "Let's pay for this stuff. I could use some of Andersen's pea soup about now."

"So could I."

After a long line through the cashiers, they took their bundles and walked down State Street. He was certain Lia was delaying their arrival at the family house, but maybe it had nothing to do with him. Holidays always brought up sad memories for some people, and in spite of a very decent childhood, both he and Lia were haunted by the deaths of their twin brothers so many years ago.

Lunch was rushed partly because they'd snagged a table outdoors and it was chilly. There was also a long line of people waiting.

"Look at their faces. They're all glaring at us," Lia fretted. They sped things up when their parents texted Lia and Rudy saying they were home.

Home on the idyllic Santa Claus Lane.

"I could easily eat another bowl of this stuff." Lia moaned as she licked her spoon. "But, I s'pose we'd better get going." She didn't look happy about it.

Rudy scraped the last of his soup around the bottom of his bowl again with the edge of his own spoon. Not much left, but the soup was as delicious as he'd remembered.

"Won't you tell me what's wrong?" Rudy asked.

She shook her head. "Nothing's wrong. You're home now, which is amazing." She smiled and picked up the check. "And since you insisted on buying Elspeth's shoes, I'll take care of the soup." She put some cash on the table and they rose in unison. At last, after many, many years, Rudy Keller was going home.

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