Wednesday, November 20, 2013

* Spotlight * Nowhere For Christmas By Heather Gray

    Nowhere for Christmas
     By Heather Gray
     Astraea Press
Anything can happen on the road to Nowhere…
A journalist and single mother, Avery is used to being in control though she tries to remind her-self to let God take lead in her life. Eli, her son, is happy as long as he has his music, plenty of food, and the occasional adult on which to practice his rapier wit. Gavin, a virtual stranger, is a photojournalist who mysteriously dropped off the scene a few years ago.

The trio ends up together for a Christmas road trip to the small town of Nowhere. An eight hour drive in a rental car turns into two days of misadventure and calamity as bad luck seems to stalk them. They get a flat tire, the bumper falls off, the car overheats – and that's only the beginning! Along the way they meet some interesting people – from a bait shop owner who moonlights as a mechanic to a chatty preacher's wife and a highway patrolman whose wife and mother can't agree on the best way to remove a skunk's stink.

Hungry, cold, and tired, the three finally reach Nowhere only to discover the town is nothing like they expected. They learn that reaching their destination doesn't necessarily mean the journey has ended.

Gavin's at the coffee shop on Central between Edith and Arno.
Clicking her fingers on the phone, she sent another message. How will I know him?
He's sitting outside. Grey stocking cap. With luggage.
A short while later, Avery was pulling their car up in front of the coffee shop. Only in Albuquerque would a coffee shop be painted the color of terra cotta and have dried chile peppers hanging from the ceiling.
She got out of the car and gazed at the front of the coffee shop. A nip in the air had encouraged all other patrons to enjoy the indoor atmosphere of the establishment.
Avery took note of the man as she approached. He was younger than she'd expected. With the stocking cap pulled down low, she couldn't get a look at his hair, but the scruff on his cheeks and chin was black as night. She couldn't see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but he had an angular face, a strong chin, and… he was drinking a fruit smoothie.
A bright yellow frozen beverage. At a coffee shop. In December. I'm going to have to make allowances for his artistic temperament. I get it. But is this necessary, God? Sticking me with a man who goes to a coffee shop and doesn't order coffee? You're laughing at me, aren't You?
Pulling her it's-okay-if-you-don't-love-coffee smile out of storage, she approached the man. She held out her hand and said, "Mitchell sent me. Ready to go?"
He put down his blindingly bright beverage and ran his eyes up and down her figure. His sunglasses kept his eyes concealed, but his perusal still made her uncomfortable. When he made no move to shake her hand, she began to wonder if she had the right person. "What's your name?"
"I'm Gavin," he said. "Who are you?"
Eyeing his luggage, she took note of the oversized backpack and two large hard-sided cases she assumed held camera equipment. This has to be Gavin, but what if it's not? What if this guy murdered Gavin and stuffed him in an alleyway, then sat down in his spot to lure me into a false sense of security so he can do away with us, too, at his leisure? Homicidal tendencies might explain the yellow drink.
Before the man had time to sneeze, Avery whipped out her cellphone, took a snapshot of him, and texted it to Mitchell. Is this him?
She imagined the man blinking his eyes in surprise behind his dark glasses. Artsy isn't exactly the first word that comes to mind here. He was wearing black jeans, a grey jacket hanging open to reveal a like-colored sweater underneath, and a grey scarf wrapped around his neck a couple times. I thought artists wore lots of color. Guess that's what I get for assuming. He makes me think of a beatnik.
Avery's phone chirped at her, and she glanced down at it. Yep. That's Gavin.
Again frowning at the man's fruity beverage, she tried to shake off the feeling of dread swirling through her stomach. Straightening her shoulders, she held out her hand for a second time and said, "Hi Gavin. I'm here to pick you up and head to Nowhere."
He cracked a smile this time and said, "Heading to Nowhere – isn't that a country song?" Then, looking behind her, he asked, "Where's Avery?"
She stole a look behind her at the white car. What was he expecting? A limo? She gave him a puzzled look, brows drawn together, and said, "I'm Avery. Avery Weston."
Gavin jumped up out of his wrought-iron chair, knocking it back. "You can't be. Avery's a man."
Avery scratched her head and said, "I've been accused of a lot of things, but that's not one of them."
He turned the tables on her then, taking her picture with his phone, presumably to verify her identity with Mitchell.
Eli, evidently tired of waiting in the cramped confines of the car, climbed out and said, "What's the holdup? At this rate we won't make it to Nowhere till two in the morning. Come on, people, daylight's burning!"
Gavin glanced from her to Eli. Then his phone vibrated, and he peered down at it. The part of his face she could see through the pseudo-beard flushed. His hand clenched around the phone in a death grip before relaxing.
"I don't travel with women. I thought I was riding with a man named Avery and his teenage son."
Eli's eyebrows shot up. "You thought Mom was a man? That's awesome. Wait till I tell Grandma and Grandpa! They're going to love it!"
Avery watched as Eli immediately began texting. Great. Now I'm a topic of gossip between my son and parents.

First Chapter
Chapter One

Albuquerque, NM
December 22

Some women are satisfied with one man in their life. There are even women who would say that's too many. Not me, though. Oh, no. Not me. I get to juggle two.
Avery Weston stormed into her editor's office and slammed the door behind her. Mitchell peered up from his catastrophe of a desk. The newsroom had been battling mice off and on for two years now, but Mitchell's office had remained rodent-free. Her theory? The little beasts are terrified of getting squashed under a falling stack of paper, or worse, getting lost in this mess and starving to death.
Mitchell, bushy black eyebrows raised, inspected her and asked, "Yes, Avery?"
She threw herself into the only chair not filled with file folders, books, and other paraphernalia. "I got your memo. You didn't have the guts to tell me in person?"
His eyes returned to the article he was reviewing, red pen in hand. Mitchell was old enough to be her… big brother… but he insisted on doing things old school. There was no way he'd ever get caught editing important articles on his computer. He wanted a printout in one hand and his red pen in the other. "I thought your temper might cool down during the walk from your desk to my office."
"You thought wrong."
"I see that." Mitchell laid his red pen down on top of the printout he'd been studying. "Has it occurred to you this might be fun?"
"Has it occurred to you I might look for a job elsewhere?" She'd worked for Mitchell more years than she could remember. He'd given her the start she'd desperately needed, and because of him, she was able to provide for the other man in her life. They both knew she wouldn't be looking for a job elsewhere, but that didn't stop her from voicing the empty threat now and then.
"Think of it as an adventure."
Yeah, right. "Have you spent much time with teenagers recently?"
Mitchell removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Is that the problem? You don't think Eli will want to go?"
Avery sighed and sank back into the chair she occupied. "He's fifteen, Mitchell. I told him we'd go north for Christmas so he could go skiing. Now I'm going to be hauling him across three states to a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere! Do you have any idea exactly how not happy he is going to be with me?"
Mitchell opened his mouth to say something.
Avery, ignoring him, continued her monologue. "He's not going to blame you, either. Eli won't think Mom has such a rotten boss. How dare he ruin my Christmas plans?" She let out a sigh and said, "This is all going to be my fault as far as he's concerned. I will have broken my word to him, and he will have one more reason to resent me for the rest of his life."
This time Mitchell lifted a hand to stop Avery so he could say something.
Again dismissing his action, she said, "Do you have any idea how hard it is to raise a teenage boy alone? Or to raise any child alone for that matter? He wasn't always a teenager, you know. Eli started out as a baby, and I thought how hard it was to be a single mom to this tiny little thing that cried and pooped all the time. I never slept. No matter how hard it got, I provided a home for him because he was my responsibility, my joy. Then he was in grade school, and I thought that was as hard as it could possibly get. I worked ten hours a day for a tyrant of a boss, then came home to fix dinner for my finicky son and spend three hours working on homework with him so he could pass to the next grade."
Mitchell cleared his throat.
Avery kept talking. "You know, when I was in school, we didn't start working on algebra until I was in junior high. Eli started working basic algebra equations in second grade. Who does that? Algebra in second grade! Sure, it was easy stuff, but whatever happened to being a child? But I did it. I wanted the best for my son. I looked at it as an exercise in building confidence as he put in the hard work and saw it pay off, so I sat there with him for hours and hours every night. Because I'm his mom. Has he ever noticed any of that? Of course not! He notices everything he doesn't get in this life. And now, thanks to you, he gets to add skiing trip to the list of things to hold against me. You're a peach, Mitchell! An absolute peach."
As her voice wound down, Avery eyed Mitchell and saw he had gone back to editing the article he'd been looking at when she'd come in.
"Are you listening to anything I say?" When Mitchell said nothing, she leaned forward and slapped her palm against the edge of his desktop. She didn't use much force, but the impact still vibrated up her arm and echoed among the stacks of files and papers around the room.
Her editor neither jumped nor reacted. Instead, the picture of calm, he put his pen down, took his glasses off, and set them next to the pen. Taking his time, he looked up and asked, "Are you done yet?"
She tried to stare him down, but he was having none of it.
Mitchell leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not an entirely insensitive clod, despite what you may think. Sending you off to chase a story over Christmas isn't my idea. This came down from higher up, and I don't have a say in it. Apparently the Quaint American Towns feature you've been doing for the past year has gotten a good-enough response that the big wigs at Corporate are following through on their promise of syndication and have given me a list of towns and times they want you to cover in the coming year. They're insisting the national syndication of your feature start with this particular story, and they demand it be authentically at Christmas. I did my best to cull down the list and eliminate some of the ones that would take you out of town for extended trips during the school year. Corporate would not, however, budge on the Christmas trip. In fact, they went so far as to make it a contingency of your national syndication."
When Avery started to sputter again, Mitchell held up his hand to silence her. "Contrary to popular opinion, I do have sympathy. You drive down tomorrow, spend Christmas eve and day, drive back the day after, and then you'll have the rest of his break to take the kid skiing. Besides, I already called Eli and told him about the trip. I wanted to make sure he understood it was coming from me, that you didn't have a choice in the matter."
"You spoke to my son about this?" Avery's voice was filled with skepticism.
A bark of laughter escaped as Mitchell shook his head and answered, "Two days ago. I guess he didn't mention it to you?"
"My son has known my job assignment for two days, and I am just now finding out about it?"
Mitchell shrugged. "Hey, I told him to pass the information on to you. The memo was nothing more than the official documentation so Corporate has the nice paper trail they prefer."
Avery ran a hand through her light brown hair, not at all embarrassed by her previous rant. "I suppose it's a good thing we're friends, and you can't fire me, huh? If any other reporter came in here and went off on you like that, they'd be out of here in a heartbeat, wouldn't they?"
Raising an eyebrow, Mitchell replied, "I guess we can all be thankful you closed the door when you came in."
Something in his voice warned Avery she wasn't going to be happy with what she would see. She spun around to look at the door. There it was, standing wide open. Turning to look at her boss, she said, "I did it again, didn't I?"
He nodded.
Swallowing, she leaned back in her chair. "I'm not a very good example to your other employees." This wasn't the first time Avery had slammed the door so hard it had bounced back open rather than shut.
"Which is why I always tell them to do the exact opposite of whatever you do. Unless they're on assignment. Then they can emulate you," he said with a wink.
"I can't believe Eli has known for two days and said nothing to me." Her voice was rueful, all trace of her previous drama gone.
"You know he's somewhere howling in laughter over this. He probably has the office bugged, and we don't even know it."
Avery shook her head. "Even the bugs are afraid of your office," she said, her voice dry. "I don't think he could have convinced any to stay in here." She adjusted her scarf and asked, "Has Gavin been yet to take the pictures? It helps if I can see the photos first so I know which parts of the town to include in my piece."
Mitchell's pronounced eyebrows climbed up again. "You didn't read the entire memo, did you?" She shook her head, and he said, "Gavin's traveling with you. This was a last-minute push by Corporate, and he hasn't had a chance to get out there ahead of you, so he's going to have to go with you."
Avery had a sinking feeling and could have sworn she felt a large stone being dropped into her stomach with a loud kplunk.
Gavin Eastly had once been a rising star in photojournalism. He'd fallen off the radar a couple years back and had only recently started working again. The fact that he was doing work for the Albuquerque Times spoke to how far from grace he'd fallen. She didn't know the story behind it, but when someone as good at their job as he'd been disappears as suddenly as he had, the assumption tended to be a stint in rehab or a mental hospital. Maybe both.
She bit her lip before saying, "Mitchell, I've never met Gavin. The only things I know about him are the photos he takes… and his reputation. I'm not sure I want to be confined with him for such a long trip." Her editor watched her but didn't say anything. I hate it when he does that. It always makes me say more than I intend. "My teenage son will be with me. What if Gavin has… bad habits… that might influence my son?"
His lips twitched, and she had the feeling he was trying not to laugh at her.
"Gavin's story is his own to tell," he said.
This time it was her turn to cross her arms and stare.
With a camaraderie built from years working together, Mitchell sat back, his muscles loose and relaxed, as he looked her in the eye and said, "You don't have to worry about Gavin being a bad influence on Eli."
"I need something more than that. You ought to know that about me."
Mitchell ran a hand through his thinning hair and said, "Close the door."
Surprised by the command, Avery rose to shut the door then pulled her chair closer to the desk so she didn't miss anything Mitchell had to say.
"Gavin is family."
Avery's stomach fluttered akin to when she was on the scent of a big story. "Family?"
"On my wife's side. That's all I can tell you, and you need to keep it quiet."
"Why is it a secret?"
"It's complicated."
"Smoking, drinking, drugs? Anything I should watch for?"
"I wouldn't be sending you anywhere with him if he had any dangerous issues. He's clean, Avery. And a good guy. He's having a hard time right now is all."
"Mental breakdown? Do I need to make sure the knives are removed from the table whenever we stop to eat?"
His eyes narrowed and he said, voice deeper than usual, "He's an amazing photographer, good enough to make even the ugliest town look beautiful." The easy posture was gone as Mitchell leaned forward and said, "Don't give him any grief, and do your best not to ask questions. That's all I'm willing to say about it."
I'm not going to let it drop that easily, and you know it.
"Fine. I'll go. When do we leave, and whose car are we taking?"
Mitchell sat back, his brow wrinkling. "Uh, I've lined up a rental. It's in your name, and they will come pick you up at your house tomorrow morning at ten. Gavin is supposed to text you in the A.M. to let you know where to pick him up."
"Sounds like a plan," she said with a smile. "Thanks for setting everything up!"
Avery breezed out of Mitchell's office with a triumphant smile on her face. She'd left him guessing, and she knew it. He couldn't hide his surprise or suspicion, and that suited her fine. I'll drop my questions about Gavin when purple monkeys start dancing on the hood of my rental car.

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