Home > Jingle Bell Hell (Bad Luck Club #2)

Jingle Bell Hell (Bad Luck Club #2)
Author: Denise Grover Swank


Chapter One






Sometimes I need to pretend that life can still be predictable. Which is why I’m Christmas tree shopping with my son, Aidan, the day after Thanksgiving, just like always, even though our lives have changed in every other possible way.

It is not going well.

Problem one: I imbibed too much at my little sister’s Thanksgiving gathering, and now I have a serious hangover. I haven’t had many, admittedly, but this may be the worst.

Problem two: The man who’s trailing Aidan and me around the Christmas tree lot like a bad stench is wearing a Santa suit. Aidan hates it when men who aren’t Santa wear Santa suits. According to him, it’s the bad kind of pretending, especially when the fraud doesn’t have a single strand of white hair, and this one doesn’t.

Problem three: Not-Santa smells strongly of liquor, and he keeps looking me up and down as if Tinder suggested me as a match and he’s thinking about swiping right. He clearly doesn’t care that I am at a Christmas tree lot with my son, wearing a coat that completely conceals my figure. (Confession, I only know about Tinder because my youngest sister, Molly, keeps downloading it on my phone, telling me it’s time to get “back on the horse.” I’m pretty sure she isn’t suggesting riding lessons.)

Problem four: The last time we picked out a tree, we were a family of three, but Aidan’s dad, Glenn, abandoned us the week after last Christmas.

Can anyone really blame me for not feeling jolly? I’d just as soon forget the whole thing, but there’s Aidan to think of. And if there’s any joy to be seized from this holiday, I’ll do it for him.

“What happens to the trees that look like that, Mom?” Aidan asks, gesturing to a tree that’s almost skeletal up top, with thicker needles at the bottom. It looks like one of the mangy dogs at the animal shelter run by my other sister, Maisie. Why do they even have a tree like that? Thanksgiving fell early this year. This sorry-looking tree should be one of the ones left on the lot at the end of December.

“Oh, I doubt anyone will want that one,” says Not-Santa. “Straight into the wood chipper.”

Aidan flinches and starts playing with his zipper, up and down, up and down.

“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” I assure him under my breath, giving Not-Santa a pointed look over my son’s shoulder. I’m trying to convey we don’t need help, thank you very much, but apparently the scotch has robbed him of his senses—if he ever had any—because he says, “Yeah. Half a dozen to a dozen of ’em every year. Makes a nice mulch.” He winks at me. “I could make you a good deal on some. Buy it now, and you’ll be sitting pretty when summer comes around.”

“Sitting pretty?” Aidan asks, his eyes still on the tree.

“He’s saying we’ll be happy we did it,” I explain.

“We wouldn’t,” my son says. The zipper’s going faster now. “A Christmas tree is supposed to be a Christmas tree. It’s not supposed to be mulch.”

“What’s wrong, kid?” Not-Santa asks. “Waste not, want not.” He adjusts his paunch. No, not his stomach. It’s obvious he’s stuffed some kind of pillow down the front of his Santa coat.

Isn’t there someone else this guy can help? I glance around and see half a dozen people wandering the lot without assistance. A red-haired guy hoists a tree over his shoulder, and I’m not entirely sure he’s not stealing it. There’s one other Santa-suited attendant, darting from one customer to the next, and I catch him giving Not-Santa a pissed-off look that’s either missed or dismissed.

Aidan casts a lightning-fast glance at Not-Santa. “Why does he have a pillow down his shirt?”

“That’s not a pillow,” Not-Santa says, patting it in a way that makes his lie more obvious. “It’s my belly. Haven’t you heard that poem? It’s like a bowl full of jelly.” Another leer at me. “Your mom can touch it if she wants.”

“I don’t,” I snap.

“You gonna leave out cookies and milk for me this year?” he presses.

“We’re lactose intolerant,” Aidan offers. “We only drink lactose-free milk.”

The man just laughs and pats his pillow belly again.

I groan internally. This guy is ridiculous, and given he’s already followed us to five different trees, he’s not going to back down easily. I’d find his manager, but since the other guy looks at least a decade younger than him, I’m guessing he is the manager. I haven’t felt this uncomfortable since Maisie’s high school boyfriend tried to hit on me by saying he preferred older women, and the pounding in my head is not helping. But I can’t just leave. I promised Aidan we were going to get a tree, and if we go home without one, he will spend the rest of the night in his cool-down zone. So our best strategy is to pick a tree as soon as possible and get out.

A little girl runs up and hugs Not-Santa from behind, and a flask falls out of his pocket, landing in a patch of dead weeds.

“Is that hot chocolate?” the girl asks with delight.

“Yeah, girly.” Another wink is thrown my way. “That right there is the reindeer’s favorite. Keeps ’em warm and toasty all through the night.” He rips out a belch that puts a confused pout on her face.

“You’re not really Santa, are you?” she asks. “You must just be one of his helpers.”

“Me?” he asks, snapping his suspenders. “I’m his right-hand man. I have access to the naughty list, so you make sure you’re a good girl this year.”

A man quickly guides the girl away, his lips pressed thin.

I try to do the same with Aidan, but he stays put, rocking a little on his heels. It strikes me with certainty that this is too much for him, especially after the holiday yesterday. We had two Thanksgivings. First, we ate dinner with Maisie’s family. Her husband’s extended family came too, so it was a large group, complete with three children under the age of one, and at one point all three of them burst out crying in unison. Babies are a mystery to Aidan, even his little cousin, Mabel, whom he sees on a regular basis, and he had to wear his noise-cancelling headphones for most of the meal. My little sister, Molly, stopped by early on in the madness to say hello, but she celebrated separately with her boyfriend and some of their friends, so Aidan and I went to her house for Thanksgiving Round Two (a.k.a. dessert).

Everyone at Molly’s place was very sweet with Aidan, but I now realize that second stop was a mistake. And not just because it was overwhelming for my son. One of Molly’s friends, a frankly terrifying woman with pink hair and a nose ring and a very direct manner, cornered me and asked me dozens of questions about my dumpster fire of a life. For some reason, which may or may not have something to do with the delicious spiced wine she kept pouring, I found myself sharing more than I should have. I say pink-haired friend because I honestly don’t remember her name…or what, exactly, I told her. What I do know is that I had to ask Molly’s boyfriend to drive us home. I can only hope the whole thing doesn’t end up biting me in the butt.

Given my current record, I don’t have high hopes.

“Chocolate would be bad for reindeer,” Aidan says. “You’re not Santa Claus. It’s not nice to pretend to be other people. People who do that end up in jail for fraud. That’s usually a felony.”

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