Elyse Douglas is the pen name for the husband and wife writing team of Elyse Parmentier and Douglas Pennington. Elyse began writing poems and short stories at an early age, and graduated from Columbia University with a Master’s Degree in English Literature. Douglas grew up in a family of musicians, astrologers and avid readers. Some of Elyse Douglas’ novels include: “The Astrologer’s Daughter,” “Wanting Rita,” “The Christmas Diary” and “The Christmas Town.” They currently reside in New York City.
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While traveling home for Christmas, Jackie and Megan, two young women in their 20s, encounter a huge snowstorm. After crossing a covered bridge, they suddenly find themselves stuck in the past in a small picturesque Vermont town in 1943. While struggling to return to their time, they fall in love with two handsome soldiers. As Christmas approaches, Megan and Jackie are torn between their new lovers and their desire to return to their time. At the last moment, they must make the difficult decision and, because it is Christmas, a miracle happens.
The Christmas Town is a thrilling adventurous novel interspersed with humor and romance. It’s a great read any time of the year, but it’s an especially cozy read during the winter months around Christmas.
Excerpt From The Christmas Town
by Elyse Douglas
They crept along, eye-weary, back-weary and bone-weary. They’d been driving for over an hour and they had not seen another car, road sign, house or town.
“Okay, I’m freakin’ out,” Megan said. “I mean, if we don’t see some sign of life in the next few minutes, I am going to freak out!”
“Let’s try to stay calm.”
“I wonder if this is instant karma,” Jackie said, her shoulders stooped, eyes darting about nervously.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how we got this car. I know you lied to that man back there. I know it. Your mother doesn’t need medication, and now we are being punished.”
“Don’t blame me,” Megan said. “If it hadn’t been for me, we wouldn’t have gotten the car in the first place.”
“And I wouldn’t be out in the middle of freakin’ nowhere!”
“Look, don’t start something you can’t finish,” Megan said.
“I just can’t believe you lied to him.”
“Stop it! Okay? Maybe I feel bad about it.”
Jackie was sweating. “I doubt it, and that was a nasty thing to do. I mean that was just wrong. He was so nice to you and you just lied to him. And, it’s Christmas.”
“I said, stop it!” Megan said.
“I thought there was something funny about the way you acted when he shook your hand,” Jackie said.
“Jackie, that’s enough. Just let it go! While we’re arguing we could be passing a house or motel. I don’t see anything but this blinding snow.”
The wind howled like a wild animal, and snow blew across the road, piling into drifts against the base of trees.
“How far have we gone so far?” Megan asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe 40 or 50 miles.”
Megan blew out an audible sigh. “I feel like I’m in a snow globe and some crazy kid just keeps shaking it.”
“Dramatic,” Jackie said.
“Scared,” Megan shot back.
Megan thought she saw a sign ahead, caked in snow and leaning precariously to the right, as if a burst of wind would blow it down.
“Jackie, stop! Look. I think there’s a sign over there. See it?”
Jackie slowed, saw the sign and stopped. “God, I hope it tells us where we are.”
Megan struggled into her coat and gloves and pulled on her hat. She shoved the door open, braced against the wind, and got out. Snow lashed at her face and she turned away, protecting her face with her hand. She trudged through nearly a foot of snow until she reached the sign, illuminated by the car beams. With her right hand, she brushed snow from the sign, little by little, until she was able to read HOLLY and then GROVE 1 MILE. A little black arrow pointed right. Megan looked right, shading her eyes, and peered into the distance. She saw something. She saw the shadow of a covered bridge, looming out in the blur of snow. That must be it. The town was across the bridge. Energized, she whirled, stomped back to the car and got in.
She was breathing rapidly. “It’s wild out there,” she said, shivering. “There’s a bridge just ahead. Holly Grove is about a mile away.”
“Sounds quaint,” Jackie said. “I hope they have a motel and an all-night restaurant.”
Jackie drove toward the bridge, the narrow road to the bridge looking dark and foreboding.
“Wait a minute, Jackie.”
Jackie paused before making the turn. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I just hate to leave the main road.”
“Megan, across that bridge is a town. We have passed absolutely nothing on this ‘so-called’ main road. Please, let’s just get across the bridge and spend the night in Holly Grove.”
Megan nodded, still reluctant.
Jackie made the turn. But at the threshold of the bridge, Megan called out again.
Jackie hit the brakes again, irritated. “Megan, what?”
Megan stared at the bridge. It wasn’t a large bridge, probably no more than 90 feet across a rocky stream, but something gnawed away at her, some ineffable feeling of danger that she couldn’t put her finger on.
“Megan?” Jackie said, seeing a far-away look in Megan’s eyes. “What are we waiting for?”
“Okay, okay…It’s just that…”
Jackie nudged the car forward and it rattled across the bridge. The two girls held their breath in the cave-like interior, darkness swallowing them, the wind screaming through the cracks all around them.
When they finally exited on the other side, they released trapped air from their lungs.
“Wow, that gave me the creeps,” Megan said.
Jackie looked about uneasily. “What a freaky night this is.”
They passed through a gray and white shroud of blowing snow. Suddenly, as if a curtain were being drawn from both sides of a stage, a gust of wind passed over the car and blew the snow away.
Jackie stopped the car. The girls looked at each other, then blinked around in astonished wonder.
“What happened?” Megan asked.
Jackie was speechless.
There was snow on the ground, but only two or three inches. There was no sound of wind, no blowing snow, just a few gentle flurries. The whispering sound of the windshield wipers was loud in the sudden silence and Jackie switched them off. They sat there, staring. Jackie rolled down the window and felt a cool, intoxicating breeze on her face. She looked up into the sky and saw a few stars and a ghostly near-full moon swimming over the top of a distant shadowy mountain.
Megan opened the door and stepped out, without hat or gloves. She turned in a circle, smelling fresh pine, hearing the splashing stream they’d just crossed. It was quiet, a deep satisfying quiet that relaxed her. She took an easy breath and smiled.
“Jackie… it’s beautiful,” she said, as she held out her hand to catch a few random snowflakes.
Jackie stepped out. It was still cold, but not a punishing cold. There was a softness in the air. Megan looked at Jackie, her brows raised in query. She shrugged. Jackie shrugged. It was as though they were suddenly watching the world at a slower movie projector speed.
Jackie saw a glow, just ahead, advancing toward them. She pointed, excited. “Megan, look! A light or something, up ahead.”
Megan turned. “Yes! What is it?”
Through the smoky cloud of fog, two glowing headlights slowly approached.
“It’s a car! Megan, it’s a car. Let’s wave it down. Hurry!”
Framed in the headlights, the girls walked to the front of the car, and waved, using both arms. The car began to slow to a stop.
Megan gave Jackie the thumb’s up. Jackie stayed back, but Megan moved toward the stopped car as the driver’s window rolled half way down. Megan drew up along side and looked in to see an elderly man, with wary, watery eyes peering up at her.
White vapor puffed from her mouth as she spoke. “Hi there. Thank God you came by. We’re lost and we haven’t seen anything or anybody for miles.”
The man didn’t blink. He just stared. He stared at Megan. He stared at Jackie. He stared at their car.
Megan noticed his car. It was old—a very old black car—dusted with snow. She noticed the running board and heavy fenders. It looked like something out of the Bonnie and Clyde movie her father repeatedly watched.
Megan was actually looking at a 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan, two-door body.
“Can you help us?” Megan asked.
“Well, what do you want me to do?” he barked.
“We were trying to get to Portland and we must have missed the turn-off somewhere back.”
“I’ll say you did. You’re a good 30 miles away from it. You’re going in the wrong direction.”
“We haven’t seen a motel or anything. Is there somewhere we can spend the night?”
He kept looking at her strangely, then he stared at Jackie again, and then at their car. “What is that?”
Megan followed his eyes. “What? Our car?”
“Yeah. What is that?”
“It’s our car.”
He shook his head. “Dang, I ain’t never seen a car like that before. What is it?”
“It’s a Ford. A Ford Fusion Hybrid.”
“A what!?” he asked, pinching up his face and cupping his ear with his hand. “What did you say it was?”
“It’s a Ford. Can you please tell me where the nearest town or motel is?”
He couldn’t pull his eyes from the car. “Ain’t never seen anything like that.”
“Sir, please! We are very tired and very hungry.”
He looked at her again and jerked a thumb behind him. “Holly Grove is about a mile up the road.”
He rolled up his window, threw the car in gear and plodded off. Jackie waved. As he passed the Ford Fusion, his eyes bulged wildly, face blank with shock. He pressed down on the accelerator, hurrying off into the night.
Megan strolled back to Jackie.
“What did he say?” Jackie asked.
“Well, I guess he’s never seen a hybrid before.”
They got back into the car and continued on into the uncertain night, straining every muscle to see the town. Moments later, they came to some railroad tracks, bumped across them and saw a white sign with black letters that read
WELCOME TO HOLLY GROVE VERMONT POP 5,400
“That’s what I call a small town,” Megan said.
“What time is it?” Jackie asked.
Megan checked her phone. It was still dead. She looked at her watch. “Nine forty.”
They crested a little hill and entered the quiet town along Main Street. The first thing they saw was a billboard sign. It loomed large over a low dark warehouse. There was a large picture of a white pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum over a bright green mint leaf. The advertisement read: SPEARMINT HAS GONE TO WAR.
Jackie said, “What’s that all about?”
They passed 19th century brick storefronts, a post office, a pawn shop and a barber shop, with a Christmas wreath hanging inside its window. All the signs were turned off. They saw Dandy’s Market and Dot’s Café. Plastered on the red brick face of Dandy’s Market were soda signs: Coca-Cola, Orange Crush and Royal Crown Cola. They also noticed a large poster with the photograph of a cute boy about 5 years old, with ruffled brown hair and a pleading, sorrowful expression. He wore a white shirt, and had a little blue ribbon and medal around his neck. He was holding a toy car. Below the photo it read:
HE KNOWS WHY THIS CHRISTMAS
ALL OF US SHOULD GIVE WAR BONDS
That struck the girls as odd, but their attention was drawn to the deserted streets. The town must have shut down for the night, they thought. What struck them as particularly strange were the cars parked at an angle by the curb. They were all old, as old as the one that had stopped back up the road, and they looked bulky, blocky and heavy.
“I’ve seen cars like this in those silent movies. Those Charlie Chaplin movies,” Megan said.
“Those two pickup trucks are definitely vintage. This town must be poor,” Jackie said.
Jackie and Megan were processing this as they drove by the town square, with its tall stately Christmas tree, elaborate manger scene, and old redbrick courthouse with a white-faced Roman numeral clock tower.
At the Gulf gas station, Jackie slowed down as they took in the two obelisk-type antique looking pumps. They saw a sign that said GAS 14 CENTS A GALLON. Next to that was another sign written by hand. NO GAS.
The pump on the left had rolling type numbers, and the one on the right had a clock face, showing a dial-type gas meter.
Megan read a stand-alone sign near the entrance.
GET IN THE SCRAP
OFFICIAL RUBBER COLLECTION DEPOT
Jackie’s face fell into perplexity. “What’s going on here? A gallon of gas for 14 cents?”
“The whole town looks like some kind of old movie or something,” Megan said. “And there’s nobody around. This place is giving me the creeps.”
“We’ve got to find a place to stay,” Jackie said. “I am absolutely exhausted.”
“I’m so hungry,” Megan said, hearing her stomach growl. “I’d love a Katz’s Corned Beef sandwich.”
“Oh, God, they are so good, aren’t they? How much are those now?”
“It’s worth it.”
They saw Green’s Drugstore and John’s General Store, with a 6-foot Christmas tree outside. Just then, a young man about 15 or 16 stepped out of Green’s Drugstore, carrying several little brown bags. When he saw them, he froze in utter shock, his eyes bulging, mouth open. He actually did a double-take.
Jackie stopped, and Megan rolled down her window and waved at him.
“Hello there,” Megan said.
The boy was rigid. Then he trembled.
“Is there a hotel or motel or Bed & Breakfast nearby?” Megan asked.
The boy swallowed, whipped his head about, as if calculating the best route for escape, and then bolted away right. He found a narrow alley, skidded on his heels, and disappeared.
Megan turned in a slow confusion, facing Jackie. Jackie lifted a puzzled eyebrow. “What was that all about?”
Megan lowered the sun visor and examined herself in the little mirror. “I know I’m tired, but do I look that bad?”
Jackie massaged her temples. “This has been the strangest trip I have ever taken. Let’s just try to find someplace to eat and sleep and forget this crazy little excursion ever happened.”
They drove on toward the outskirts of town, passing THE GROVE movie theatre. The movie marquis displayed GIRL CRAZY, starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
“I saw that on TCM a few months ago,” Megan said.
Jackie stared, darkly. “There is something going on, Megan. Something… weird.”
After the movie theatre, they spotted The Grove Hotel, but it was closed. Fighting fatigue and despair, they turned off Main Street onto Maple Street, a quiet tree-lined street with neat framed houses, and the occasional vintage automobile parked in the driveway or along the deserted street.
“I just can’t get over all these old cars,” Megan said. “They look like something out of those old gangster movies.”
“Will you stop it with the old cars, Megan? Please? Find us someplace to stay. If our stupid phones worked, we could have found something by now. What the hell is the matter with this place? I am going to go out of my mind if we don’t find some place to stay, and soon.”
“Okay, okay, calm down. Let’s stay positive,” Megan said.
“To hell with positive!” Jackie shouted. “I need something to eat, and something to eat now! I am going to lose it!”
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No! I do not want you to drive. I want you to find us a place to eat.”
Megan spotted something. “Jackie! Stop. Look over there.”
Jackie slammed on the brakes and they rocked forward, Megan’s hands braced against the dashboard.
Jackie followed Megan’s pointing finger to a modest two-story house, with a white fence surrounding a little yard. Above the porch, hanging by two thin chains, was a sign that said BOARDING HOUSE. It was swinging easily in the modest breeze.
“The sign on the porch says boarding house,” Megan said, excited.
Jackie crouched and looked. “Are there any lights on?”
“I don’t care. Let’s try it.”
Jackie parked at the curb, killed the engine, and the two girls snatched their coats and got out. Jackie led the way, with energy and purpose. She crossed the sidewalk, released the latch on the white gate and marched up the walkway, mounting the three concrete stairs to the door, where a Christmas wreath was hanging from inside. Megan arrived, and both shaded their eyes, peering inside through the square glass that was covered by a white laced curtain.
“I see a light on in a back room,” Jackie said.
Megan noticed something hanging in the picture window. She stepped over to examine it. It was a blue star on a small red cloth banner. She shrugged and joined Jackie.
Jackie gently pressed the doorbell. They heard a soft DING DONG. They waited, anxiously, taking in the silent neighborhood. There were no lights on anywhere and it was very dark.
“No action in this town,” Megan said. “It reminds me of a town in Indiana where I did summer stock a few years ago. Two months there seemed like two years.”
The front room light flickered on, not the porch light. The girls inhaled hopeful breaths. They saw an elderly woman draw back the lace curtain and peek out. The girls gave her their friendliest smiles.
A moment later, the door opened, but only a couple of inches.
“Hello,” Jackie said, brightly. “Can you help us?”
The door opened a little wider. She was a small, thin woman and a bit stooped. Her white hair was up in a bun and she wore a long gray nightgown. Peering out from the granny spectacles on the end of her nose, she looked at them slowly and carefully. “What do you want?”
“Please…” Jackie said. “We have been traveling for hours and hours and we are so tired and hungry. Do you have room for us?”
The woman hesitated, then opened the door fully. Her eyes widened as she studied them, up and down. “It’s late. Why are you out so late?”
“We got lost. We were trying to get to Portland.”
“Portland? That’s hours away. You would have run out of gas. There’s no gas anywhere. Did you get it on the black market? I don’t take people who cheat. I’ve got a grandson fighting in Italy.”
Megan and Jackie exchanged mystified glances. Both were thinking, “Is this woman nuts?”
Then Megan recalled how she’d lied about her mother and the medication so she could get the car. She had cheated. Megan gave Jackie a coy glance.
Jackie said, “No ma’am, we don’t cheat. We just want a room. Please.”
“I only have one, with one double bed. The other two rooms are occupied with regulars.”
“That’s fine,” Jackie said. “One room is fine.”
The woman was conflicted. “This is very unusual. I only take in people I know or who are referred to me. How many nights are you wanting to stay?”
“Just tonight,” Megan said, twisting her cold hands. “Please. We are so tired.”
The woman stepped aside, let them in and then closed the door.
“My name is Aunt Betty. May I know your names?”
“I’m Jackie Young and this is Megan…” Jackie looked at Megan, forgetting her last name.
“Jennings. Megan Jennings.”
“Well, that’ll be a dollar each for the night and 35 cents each for breakfast. If you want something to eat tonight that’ll cost you 50 cents. I was going off to bed, but I’ll put something out for you.”
Megan stared into Jackie’s uncertain eyes.
“You mean one single dollar each?” Jackie asked.
“That’s a fair price,” Aunt Betty said, a little defensively.
“Oh, yes, that’s very fair,” Megan said, quickly. “That’s fine, Aunt Betty. And we’d love something to eat. We don’t want to put you out. Anything that’s easy.”
“You get your things then and I’ll take out some cold chicken, apple pie and bread. I hope that’ll do.”
The girls smiled, gratefully. “That sounds wonderful,” Jackie said.
After Aunt Betty padded off toward the kitchen, the girls took in the surroundings.
The living room seemed from another world. It was a simple square room, with a mantel, hearth and several seascapes set in gilded frames. The mantel held a manger scene, some holly surrounding it, and a white candle in the center. Next to that were simply framed black and white photos of what must have been family. There was a meager 3-foot Christmas tree, garlanded, with ornaments but no Christmas lights.
The room was clean enough, but both women noticed that the white paint had yellowed and the rose wallpaper was faded, with some damp spots. They saw floral Victorian antique lamps with opaque glass stems, hand-painted with roses or white and yellow flowers.
They stood on a thin, patterned floral carpet and first heard, and then saw, an old grandfather’s clock standing resolutely in the corner. Its tick tock was steady and loud in the muted silence. A solid wood console radio, with a lighted dial, seemed to dominate the room, much as a TV would, but neither Jackie nor Megan saw a TV.
The furniture was simple and heavy, the couch and chair upholstered in solid fabrics, the couch looking worn but comfortable, and the broad arm chair sunken and looking dejected.
Jackie sensed something was wrong, but she was too hungry and tired to care. Megan glanced about, feeling strangely out of place and time. There was a quality of light and energy around them that neither had ever experienced before, and it was unsettling. There was a growing, uncomfortable sensation that they had become lost—very lost.