GRAMMAR GOT RUN OVER BY A REINDEER
A Miss Prentice Short Story
From Murder in the Past Tense
Copyright © 2014 by E. E. Kennedy.
Used by permission of Sheaf House Publishers. All rights reserved.
A Miss Prentice Short Story
From Murder in the Past Tense
Copyright © 2014 by E. E. Kennedy.
Used by permission of Sheaf House Publishers. All rights reserved.
Professor Alec Alexander wouldn’t win any beauty contests. He had scruffy salt-and-pepper hair, a matching spade-shaped beard and an unkempt moustache. He was barrel-chested; what you might call a rotund presence. His gentle tenor voice, however, with its faint Scots accent, had real charm and his kind heart was unquestioned.
My seven-month-old daughter Janet had recognized his sterling attributes from their first meeting, and when he walked into the Chez Prentice B&B this morning, she grinned widely, exposing a tiny bud of a tooth on her bottom gum. Additionally, she began what her daddy called “baby calisthenics,” involving flexing both her arms and legs simultaneously. It was her dance of joy at seeing her Grandpa Alec.
He extended his arms. “Come to me, my wee angel!” Janet, still clad in her nighttime onesie, fairly leaped from my grasp to his broad chest and immediately began tugging on his beard. It had to be somewhat painful, but his only reaction was a hearty laugh that bounced his tiny burden up and down. “What a joy she is, Amelia!” he said to me.
“You’re holding up well, considering,” I said, referring to the recent loss of several large research grants. Alec had long been obsessed with seeking out evidence of the famed Lake Champlain monster. Now his research had to be curtailed in the interest of earning a living.
“Whoopsie! Up ye go!” He lifted a giggling, squirming baby above his head. “I’ll do all right,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m teaching four classes at the college and the speaking engagements are beginning to mount up. Whee!” He spun around.
“Alec, you’d better take it easy,” I warned him. “She’s been known to—“
A gush of white liquid flowed from Janet’s smiling mouth down on Alec.
“Serves you right,” said someone from the kitchen. It was my friend Lily Burns, who had apparently entered through the back door. She quickly pulled off her gloves and hat and reached out for Janet. “Here, give her to Aunt Lily while you clean yourself up,” she instructed curtly.
Alec obeyed with a wink at me, heading for the first floor powder room.
She sat the baby on her lap and inspected her carefully. “What do you know, not a drop on her?” She smiled and stroked the velvety hair. Lily was beautifully turned out, as usual. Her perky short blonde hair was meticulously disheveled and her makeup was subtle but unmistakable.
I envied her slender figure. I was still using Janet as an excuse for a stubborn extra fifteen pounds.
Lily looked up at me. “Neither of you are dressed,” she said. “Get with the program! We’ll be late!”
“Neither of us is dressed,” I corrected wearily. “Neither one is implied.” Even though I was temporarily on leave from the classroom, only tutoring, it was important to maintain proper grammar standards. “Besides, I think Janet is too young to sit on Santa’s lap.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you’re the mother. Why do I have to teach you these things? One word: pictures!” She lifted Janet up so the smiling baby was framed by a Christmas wreath hanging on the wall. “Just look at her. It’s her first Christmas. You’re going to want pictures.”
“Well, all right, but nobody’s going to be late. They can’t open Santa’s Workshop at the Mall without Santa, without Alec.”
“I’m afraid they can, m’dear.” Alec emerged from the powder room, drying his hands on a towel. There was a huge water spot on his jacket, and the ends of his beard were damp, but he looked none the worse for his experience. “I came by to tell ye. T’won’t be me playin’ Santa today. I have a speech to give in Malone at noon, then one in the evening.”
“Won’t be I,” Lily corrected.
I sighed. “No, Alec’s correct. It’s me.”
Alec beamed and blew a kiss at Janet.
Lily frowned, dipping her perfectly-drawn eyebrows. “Oh, I give up. We’ll nebber get the hang of this stupid ol’ grammar, will we, Tweety Pie?” She kissed the baby on the back of the neck.
“Lily, don’t you dare speak to my child the way you speak to your cat!” I retrieved my daughter and headed for the stairs. “We’ll be down in a minute.”
Alec put his arm around Lily protectively. “Don’t be too hard on Miss Lily, Amelia. She’s such a pretty little thing, there’s no need to bother with minor details, is there, wee angel?” He actually chucked Lily under her chin.
Lily blushed, then slapped Alec’s chest. “You smell of baby spit! Get away from me!”
I paused halfway up the steps. “Alec, will there even be a Santa at the mall today?”
“Oh, certainly. They called Dr. Stickley. He’s grown quite the lovely white beard, I’ve heard. Doesn’t need a fake one, as I do. It’s perfect.”
I blinked in surprise. “Dr. Stickley? Really? He was my major professor in college. ‘Stickley, the Stickler,’ we used to call him—behind his back, of course. He scared me to death for two years. He always locked the classroom door precisely on the hour so if you were late, you’d have to take a cut. I hardly dared say a word in front of him, for fear of making a grammar mistake.”
Lily grinned wickedly. “Kind of like somebody else I know.”
Alec glanced at her affectionately. “I hear he’s mellowed in his latter years, Amelia.”
I shook my head. “I’ll need evidence of that.”
Janet struggled in my arms and I remembered where I was headed. “We’ll be right back.”
It was nice, I thought as I changed from my bathrobe into a winter sweater and wool slacks, to have a friendly place like Chez Prentice to stay while my husband Gil was out of town at a journalists’ convention. “And since I’m part owner with your Uncle Etienne,” I told Janet, “we can stay at this classy B&B for free!”
I played peek-a-boo with her as I pulled on the little red jumper appliquéd with a green plaid Christmas tree. “You look perfect,” I told her, “except for this.” I fastened a tiny green bow to one of her downy curls by means of Velcro. “There.” I gazed at my daughter while she contentedly sucked the paw of her stuffed bunny. Was there ever such a beautiful child as this?
“No matter how much you try to decorate these things with flowers and what all,” Lily said a few minutes later as we headed for her car, “I still feel like a pack mule carrying it.” She shifted the diaper bag to her other shoulder and unlocked the car with a chirp. “I don’t how you do it, day after day.”
“It’s not easy. I appreciate the help. This thing weighs a ton, too,” I pointed out, fastening the basket-shaped baby carrier into the back seat.
Janet, warmly bundled into the shape of a little snowman, had settled down for a mid-morning nap. Usually, at this time of day, I would try to grab a few winks myself, but the prospect of a beautiful picture of my little girl as a Christmas present for her daddy superseded rest time.
“I guess Alec has left for Malone,” I said as Lily turned the ignition. “I hope you were nice to him.”
“Amelia, of course I was. I wish you’d stop hounding me about the man.”
“He adores you.”
“That’s enough of that subject. By the way, he told me something more about Stickley. He retired from the college two years ago. They gave him a party and everything. Did you know he was one of nine kids? His mom turned them out like peas in a pod, then up and died. And he was the only one who stayed around here as an adult.”
“No, I didn’t. It’s hardly the sort of thing a professor would share with his students.” But exactly the sort of information that gossip expert Lily Burns would collect, I added silently.
“His dad squirreled away a huge wad of money and willed it all to him. The father died two years ago at the ripe young age of ninety-nine. Didn’t leave a penny to anyone else. All I can say is, I’m glad I wasn’t at that family’s table at Thanksgiving!”
“So he didn’t share the money with them at all?” I asked. Alec had certainly told Lily a lot in the short time that we were upstairs.
“Couldn’t find ‘em! They’re scattered all over this country and Canada, according to Judith Dee.”
“Oh, so you didn’t hear all this from Alec.” Judith Dee was the part-time high school nurse, also famous for her gossiping skills.
“Just the part about when he retired. They gave him a party and everything.”
“I just hope Dr. Stickley’s more cordial than he used to be when he taught us in college. I never felt as though he even liked me. Did you have him in English?”
“Me? Hah! I was just a poor home ec major, remember?”
“I rather wish I had been, now,” I said, thinking about my total lack of kitchen skills. Gil loved me, anyway, thank the Lord.
As we pulled into the mall parking lot, a distinct odor had begun to permeate the car’s interior.
“Whew! Change that baby’s diaper, and quick!” Lily ordered.
It took a few minutes to reach the restroom, but finally we emerged, clean and smiling.
Lily had been waiting at a table in the food court, tapping her manicured nails to the piped-in holiday music. “There you are! The line’s starting to get long, but Santa’s not here yet.” She directed my gaze to the sparkling fairytale village nestled at the base of a towering Christmas tree.
She stood abruptly. “Wait, I see him!”
Strolling towards us was the very image of Santa Claus as pictured in numerous Coca Cola ads: white hair, white beard, red cheeks, rotund belly, red suit, and a big black belt. A pipe dangling from one corner of his mouth was the only thing about him that reminded me of my former professor.
I whispered to Lily, “Is that Dr. Stickley? He’s so much heavier! And his hair is so white!” I remembered him with a gray Van Dyke goatee, standing ramrod-straight and frowning at the front of the classroom.
Lily whispered back, “Hush. We all get old some time, Amelia.”
As he was about to pass, I gathered my courage and stepped forward. “Dr. Stickley?” I held out my hand. “Amelia Prentice; Dickensen, now. I was one of your English majors about twenty years ago. It’s good to see you again.”
He blinked several times, straightened his posture and lifted his moustache in a wide smile. “Oh, yes. I remember you. English major. You were a fine student, my dear.” He shook my hand with his mittened one. “Always good to see a student.” His ice blue gaze was familiar, but not the warm expression. How I used to fear his frown!
“This is my friend, Lily Burns, and my daughter, Janet.”
“Will Stickley,” he said, amiably shaking Lily’s hand. “Are you bringing your little one to see me?” he asked, leaning over the baby carrier.
My daughter slid her eyes sideways at him and her lower lip began to tremble.
“When it’s our turn,” I said hastily. “But we must let you get to work.”
Santa looked around, apparently surprised. “Oh! Oh yes! Must do my duty for the kiddies.” He turned towards the elaborately-decorated throne that awaited him. “Look at that line! Between you and I, much as I enjoy these little ones, this is going to be a long day.” He sighed, waved cheerily and walked slowly in the direction of Santa’s Workshop.
A slender teenaged elf, clad all in green frowned at him as he passed and looked pointedly at her watch.
“My goodness,” I told Lily as he ambled away, “the man has definitely changed.”
The line to see Santa was long. “I told you we should have brought the stroller,” Lily admonished as I lifted the basket-like, lead-heavy baby carrier one more time and moved forward a few steps.
“It’s okay.” Lily was right, but I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of admitting it. We’d known each other all our lives and bickered like blood sisters. “By the way, about Dr. Stickley. Doesn’t he seem--”
“Amelia! Lily! Hi!” In the distance, several dozen people ahead of us in line, I spotted our friend Dorothy O’Brien and her six-year-old daughter, Meaghan, who was headed our way. My cell phone rang.
It was Dorothy, gesturing elaborately. “She just had to go back there to see Janet. I told her she could stay in line with you for just a little while. Is that okay?”
“Of course,” I said. “Send her along.” Meaghan and I were old friends.
When she arrived, the little girl didn’t waste time on social niceties. She immediately knelt by the baby carrier and began playing peek-a-boo behind her hands.
“That’s a beautiful dress, Meaghan,” I said, gesturing at the gorgeous green and red plaid taffeta crinoline with puffed sleeves.
The child rolled her eyes. “It scratches. Mom says I only have to wear it for the picture. I hate these shoes, too,” she added, pointing to her shiny patent leather mary janes.
“Aren’t you looking forward to seeing Santa Claus?” Lily asked.
She shrugged. “Sure. You know, some of the kids say Santa’s not real, but I think he is. I asked Mommy and she said, ‘What do you think?’ and I decided I still thought he was real. And getting toys are good.”
Getting toys is good, I wanted to say, in this case, “getting” is a singular gerund, that is, a noun. But if I had thought Meaghan rolled her eyes before, this would definitely cause her, Lily and perhaps even Janet to collectively roll their eyes.
Actually, speaking from experience, it would probably fetch a loud, juicy Bronx cheer from Lily, too. So I said nothing.
My cell phone played an electric phrase.
Dorothy had texted: “Tell her to come back.”
After Meaghan’s reluctant departure, I said, “I’m not too sure about this Santa Claus thing. I mean, when Janet gets old enough to understand. It seems too much like lying.”
Lily moved the baby carrier a few inches forward. “Nonsense! It’s tradition! The stockings, the cookies left out for the jolly old man, the reindeer…” she pointed to a line of display reindeer that formed a kind of fence around Santa’s throne. “Who doesn’t love Rudolph?”
The mall’s canned music happened to be playing the very song to which Lily referred, “…join in any reindeer games,” she sang softly. “Then one foggy Christmas Eve--” She lugged the baby carrier forward a few more inches. “Oh, this is impossible! I’m going to the car to get that umbrella stroller. Give me that carrier thing, I’ll stick it back in the seat.” We extricated a delighted Janet from the carrier and Lily departed.
Now, all I had to do was kick the diaper bag forward a few inches every time the line moved. Janet was in my arms, gurgling with delight over the sumptuous surroundings.
Though Santa’s area was colorful, the real centerpiece of the mall courtyard was the giant Christmas tree, towering at least two stories above us. Festooned with twinkling lights, toys that actually moved and huge artificial candies, it kept the baby blessedly occupied. Other children didn’t find it so fascinating, and my heart went out to several mothers who had to deal with a variety of child-sized meltdowns.
We rounded the tree and Santa’s throne came into view at last. Only about eight mothers left in line. I watched with amusement as three boys, all under the age of five, scrambled like monkeys over Santa and his chair. The photographer had a time getting them to settle down.
I watched Dr. Stickley’s reaction to the melee and was surprised. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, laughing heartily at the children’s antics. As the mother consulted with the photographer about which shots she wanted to buy, he reached behind his chair, pulled out a vacuum coffee mug and took a sip.
He had definitely mellowed in his latter years, as Alec had said. I couldn’t imagine the stern, stiff-necked professor I’d studied under actually enjoying this. Certainly he didn’t need the money, with his inheritance and all. And the rest of the family was scattered to the far winds.
Could this jolliness be senile dementia? I’d read that some of the diseases that plagued old age brought about changes in personality, but did it make one jolly? Who would have ever thought that Stickley the Stickler would use the word kiddies, or say between you and I, a clear mistake in grammar? I hefted Janet to my other arm. Strange. It was definitely strange.
All at once, it was our turn. I scanned the courtyard for Lily. She’d hate to miss this. It was all her idea, after all. But the photographer beckoned impatiently to us, and I stepped forward, carrying the treasure of my life in my arms, preparing to hand her over to a relative, albeit jolly, stranger.
Just before he reached for her, Santa took another swig from his coffee mug and replaced it.
I handed a surprisingly compliant Janet into his arms and said, smiling, “Was that Earl Gray?”
Santa opened his eyes wide and hefted Janet on his shoulder. “Earl who?”
“You know, your signature drink, Earl Gray tea—never mind.” I backed away, out of the line of the camera, preparing to encourage the baby to smile.
But Santa wasn’t smiling. He was staring at me.
And all at once, facts, ideas, random thoughts crowded my head like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:
Between you and I
Between you and I
The professor I knew would never enjoy playing Santa Claus.
Santa sat frozen with my baby in his lap.
Our eyes locked. He had the same piercing blue eyes that had often skewered me in the classroom. But they were softer, somehow--
I shuddered and my mouth dropped open. “You’re not Dr. Stickley!” I said with a gasp.
All at once, Santa shot out of his seat and ran straight at us, the photographer and me. I reached for Janet, who seemed to be enjoying the ride, but he shoved me roughly to the ground.
I picked myself up and began chasing him.
I could hear a collective, shocked groan run through the assembled crowd as Saint Nick ran across the courtyard, carrying an infant—my infant-- like a football. Someone shrieked. Several children began crying again.
It was clear where he was headed: the exit doors beyond the food court.
Without regard for anyone in his path, Santa pushed people aside, knocked over displays and jumped over obstacles. Bags full of gifts flew into the air. Shoppers stumbled and fell. Everyone seemed too surprised to stop him.
As I ran desperately, the thought flashed through my mind in less than a second: How could I ever have thought this man was Dr. Stickley?
In the distance, I saw Lily, entering the mall with the umbrella stroller in her hand.
I screamed her name. It was a helpless heart’s cry. Obviously, my small-boned friend was no match for the juggernaut that was speeding her way.
Please! I prayed. Please! It’s my baby!
All at once, there was a metallic rattle, a huge thump and the heart-tearing sound of a baby crying.
I ran, my chest heaving, tears streaming down my cheeks, in the direction of the doors.
Somewhere at home, I owned an illustrated child’s Bible. The scene I came upon was reminiscent of several of the pictures: David, standing triumphant over a defeated Goliath and Miriam, lovingly holding the infant Moses in her arms.
Several men, including a uniformed security guard, were vigorously restraining Santa, whose legs were tangled in the ruined umbrella stroller. Lily walked forward with my screaming little girl in her arms.
“The woman’s a hero,” one of the men called out to me. “She threw that contraption at him and caught the baby like it was a forward pass.”
“I can’t take all the credit,” Lily whispered to me as she handed over Janet, who was sobbing and hiccoughing. “Janet upchucked on the floor right in front of him and he slipped.”
Sure enough, the bodice of Janet’s lovely Christmas outfit was coated with the familiar white liquid.
Lily stroked her hair. “Brave girl,” she said. All of a sudden she looked around. “Whew! My legs are giving out! Let me sit down!” She took a seat at one of the food court tables. Feeling none too steady, myself, I joined her.
Dorothy O’Brien, Meaghan in tow, approached carrying my diaper bag. “Here you are. Gosh, I’m sorry that happened. What got into that guy?”
“He wasn’t who he seemed,” I said absently.
“You mean he wasn’t the real Santa?” Meaghan observed. “I already knew that!”
Needless to say, it was quite a while before anything felt faintly normal. By that time, Gil had returned home from his convention and we three were back at our snug lakeside house, preparing for Christmas.
I had answered scores of questions about the incident at the Mall: Did I know the identity of the man in the Santa suit? No. Did I know why he would want to run away with my baby? No. Why was I in the mall in the first place? The questions went on and on in this vein until the officials were satisfied.
A week later, with much groaning and gnashing of teeth, Gil set up our artificial Christmas tree. I had put Janet to bed and was popping corn to string on the tree when there was a knock at our door. I looked through the peephole and jumped back as though scalded.
“Honey, what is it?” Gil joined me at the door.
A muffled voice called, “Miss Prentice, please, it is I, Dr. Willard Stickley.”
I heaved a huge sigh of relief. “It’s the real one. Let him in.”
Gil frowned. “How do you know?”
“I just do,” I said impatiently and pulled the door open. “Dr. Stickley, it’s good to see you doing so well after your ordeal.” I extended my hand to be shaken.
“I came to thank you,” he said as he took a seat on our sofa. “I understand that were it not for your perception, my brother would have usurped me.”
He nodded and his snowy eyebrows dipped into a frown. “That’s correct; my own flesh and blood. I’d sought him out with the help of a private detective. It was a requirement of my father’s will. William came to stay with me. We weren’t compatible, I must say. He’s a slovenly individual. And he wanted to get a cat!” The professor shuddered.
“Sir, why did you volunteer to be a substitute Santa?” Gil asked, his reporterly instincts on alert.
“That was all William’s doing. I had no knowledge of it until the mall people called him to come in. I adamantly refused to allow him to participate in such a ridiculous charade.” Dr. Stickley straightened his posture and continued, “All at once, he shoved me into a closet and locked the door. It’s my belief that the man planned to do away with me and take my place in this community.” The eyebrows shot up his forehead, creating a curiously vulnerable expression.
“Did he actually say so?” I asked, shocked.
The vulnerability immediately disappeared and Dr. Willard Stickley resumed the frosty tone I remembered so well. His piercing blue eyes narrowed. “Not in so many words, but it is certainly a logical assumption.”
Gil leaned forward, and I could tell that his fingers itched to hold a pad and pencil. “What happens now, sir?”
“I presume he’ll stand trial. Obviously, he has forfeited any claim to my familial affection or, for that matter, any portion of the inheritance.”
“Does he have a lawyer?” I asked, thinking of Santa’s warm chuckle as he played with the children.
The temperature in the room dropped a few more degrees. “I have no idea. Certainly there are public defenders available.”
Are there no prisons, no workhouses? I recalled the words of the pre-ghost Scrooge.
He stood. “Well, I must take my leave. Again, I must thank you for recognizing the difference between us. My brother claims he had forgotten there was a baby in his hands. I trust your infant has sustained no vestigial trauma.”
“No,” I said, “she’s fine.” We escorted Dr. Stickley to the door.
From the bedroom, sounds of the aforementioned infant were heard.
“Stay here.” Gil patted me on the back. “I’ll see about the kid. G’bye, sir.”
Stepping out onto our front porch and replacing his alpine felt hat on his white head, Dr. Willard Stickley turned to me. “I understand you have made a career of teaching English.”
“Yes,” I said, gratified by the recognition.
He held up a gloved finger and his eyes bored into mine. “Then I trust you will hasten to instruct your husband in the proper definition of the word kid. Good evening.”