“HOW DID I get stuck carrying the head?”
Camille Caron paused near the end of the driveway, her boots slipping slightly on the snow beneath them before coming to a complete stop. “Heille là, you want the feet, Lora? You can have the feet.”
Now she tells me. I inched forward, forcing her to start walking again, her back facing the road, her steps close together.
“Hurry up, will you,” I said to her. “This guy is heavy.”
We scurried another few yards, stopping in front of the open trunk of Camille’s silver Jetta. “You put your end in first,” she said to me.
I hoisted the head as high as I could, bumping it on the rim as I hefted it into the trunk. “Ouch. Sorry, buddy. Lucky for you, you couldn’t feel that.”
Camille slid the rest of the body in and slammed the trunk closed.
“His hat is sticking out,” I told her, pointing to a slip of red fabric flapping in the wind.
She opened the trunk, reached in, tucked the hat tail to the side of his head, and closed the trunk again.
“Venez, les filles,” a voice called out.
I turned to see Camille’s mother, Sylvie, in the doorway of her small stone home. She waved her arm towards the house, snow drifting off the overhang above the door and landing on her sweater that beamed fluorescent green under the morning sun. “Venez,” she said again. “Finissez vos chocolats chauds.”
Yes. That sounded like a good idea, going back in the warm house and finishing our cocoa. Way better than driving this guy ninety miles away from Montreal and stashing him in a barn.
Camille trudged up to the house and I followed, already debating whether to have a maple tart with my cocoa or a butter cookie. Or maybe one of each. Hefting around a body was hard work.
“You need a better coat, Lora,” Sylvie said to me, taking my jacket as Camille and I shed our outdoor gear down to our jeans, sweaters, and socks.
“Maybe a good duck one,” Sylvie added as she reached up to hang our coats in the hall closet.
“You mean down, maman, not duck,” Camille corrected her.
Sylvie was close enough with the “duck” as far as I was concerned. Camille’s mom, like the rest of her family, spoke English when I was around, and her English was way better than my French. Since I’d arrived in Montreal, I’d realized I was very slow picking up new languages. I was starting to believe I’d been shorted the language gene at birth. Or maybe I’d traded it for double scoops of the ice cream-loving gene—I was very fluent in ice cream.
“And Lora doesn’t do down, remember?” Camille went on. “She’s végétarienne.” As she spoke, she fluffed up her short blonde hair, prompting me to do the same to my ginger mane. Hat hair was not a good winter look on either of us.
Sylvie waved a dismissive hand in the air as we walked towards the kitchen off the side of the main hall. “Your mother, rest her soul, would want you to be warm, Lora,” she said to me. “What about wool? I have a good wool coat I can give you, blue like your eyes. It would be good, no?”
I smiled at the generous offer. “Thanks, Madame Caron. But I’m fine, really.”
We all sat at the large oak table, and Sylvie poured out cocoa for each of us from a teapot. Then she passed around a plate of homemade cookies and tarts, set down the plate, and fixed me with knowing motherly eyes, a warm brown like the hair resting on her shoulders. “Your little jacket may have been fine when you lived in New York, but not for Montreal,” she said. “And where you are going it is more cold than this.”
I glanced at Camille as I chose some Christmas goodies and set them around the rim of my saucer. I knew Trois-Rivières, the town where we were headed, was a bit north of the city, but could it possibly be much colder? As it was, the minute I stepped outside, my nose ran and I practically had icicles forming under my nostrils. Any colder and I’d be walking around like a zombie, my legs too frozen to bend. Good thing I packed the new winter vest I’d gotten from my boyfriend Adam as a pre-Christmas gift, and I could layer it on under my coat if Madame Caron was right about the drop in temperature.
Camille reached for a cookie from the serving plate. “She’ll be fine, maman. We’re only staying one night.”
A door near the back of the kitchen opened, and in walked Camille’s brother Laurent followed by her father Édouard. Both men were smiling and red cheeked, Laurent dressed in jeans and a black, long-sleeved t-shirt, Édouard wearing gray slacks and a red turtleneck. The latter with thinning hair and a clean shave in contrast to Laurent’s thick, dark hair halfway to his shoulders and permanent scruff.
“Staying where for one night?” Laurent asked, his nearly black eyes glinting as he snatched a tart from my plate.
“Vraiment, Laurent,” Camille said. “You’re too old for listening at the door.”
Laurent shrugged one shoulder and grinned. “I was not listening. I was helping papa fix a broken window in the sunroom. It’s not my fault you’re loud.”
Loud had nothing to do with it. The man was a PI and an ex-cop. At close enough range, he could zero in on other people’s conversations like the bionic woman. I learned this first hand over the eight months I’d worked as an assistant cum trainee at the PI agency he and Camille ran. And uncanny hearing was just one of Laurent’s many skills I’d discovered so far—most of which left me grateful he was working the good side of the law.
Camille’s eyes squinted at him, and I ventured into their conversation before it escalated into one of their sibling verbal matches. Or worse.
“We’re going to your grandmother’s house,” I told Laurent, following my words with a sip of cocoa.
He took the chair next to mine and directed his next question at Camille. “Chez grand-maman? Pourquoi?”
“It was Lora’s idea. We’re helping wrap gifts for the Christmas toy drive.”
I leaned forward and smiled. “And, we’re bringing the guest of honor for the Christmas Eve party after the family church services.”
Camille’s dad went over to the sink and washed his hands, pulling a towel from a hook to dry them as he turned back to us. “Ah, that explains the empty coffin.”
“Oui,” Camille said. “And I refuse to put him back into it when it’s all over. Keeping Père Noël in a coffin is creepy.”
Creepy didn’t begin to describe how I’d felt lifting Santa’s body out of a coffin and tossing him into Camille’s trunk. If I was a kid, I’d be worried about coal in my stocking this year for sure.
Sylvie got up and got two more mugs for the late arrivals. “It’s not creepy, it saves space. It’s you kids who wanted to keep all the Halloween decorations. Me, I’d be happy with only the Christmas ones.”
Laurent took the cup his mother offered him and poured cocoa into it. “Your Anglophone is not going to help, Lora?”
By my Anglophone, Laurent meant Adam, the boyfriend I moved from New York to Montreal with two years earlier. I shook my head. “He can’t. He’s in California on business.”
Laurent’s left eyebrow edged up and he slipped a tart from my plate. “A business trip three days before Christmas?”
“Uh huh,” I said, grabbing a sprinkle-coated shortbread cookie in the shape of a star and shoving it in my mouth to avoid saying more. Adam and I had argued about that very thing, but he was supposed to be home before Christmas Eve and the trip couldn’t be helped. Some last-minute snafu with a computer game he’d designed that was due to be presented to the investors by New Year’s. The timing was poor to say the least, and I would have had to back out of helping with the toy drive, too, if our neighbor hadn’t agreed to pet sit our cat Ping and dog Pong for the night.
“Pauvre, Lora,” Laurent said as he leaned towards me and took a cookie off my plate, his warm, maple breath skimming my cheek. “Left all alone to prepare for the holiday. I’d be happy to help. Maybe trim your tree? String your lights?”
This was not a bona fide offer. This was Laurent toying with me. He does that. I grabbed my cookie back from him. “I’m fine,” I told him, biting into my cookie. “No need for any help at all, thank you.”
He smiled and reached to take the last cookie from my plate, but Camille swatted his hand away.
“Enough,” she said and stood up. “Allez, Lora. Let’s go. We’re supposed to be at grand-maman’s for lunch, and it’s already ten o’clock. It’s a long drive and if it snows again, it will be even longer.”
Laurent got up, too, and stretched. “Maybe I will go also. I would like to see grand-maman.”
“There’s no room for you, big brother,” Camille said, shooting him a look. “You’ll have to wait until Christmas dinner to see her. The back seat is filled with toys for the kids.”
Laurent smiled and shook his head at Camille. “Ah, oui. Too bad.”
After making pit stops by the washroom, saying our goodbyes, and stowing a few tins of Sylvie’s tarts in the Jetta’s trunk, Camille and I drove off with her family waving to us from the doorway. As I watched them get smaller in my side-view mirror, my eyes picked up a flash of red billowing out from the trunk. More of Santa’s suit escaping again, no doubt.
TWO HOURS LATER, another flash of red hit my eyes. Only this time it was a strobe flaring from the top of a cop car.
Camille’s hands tightened on the steering wheel, and she let out an impressive stream of Franglais expletives as she pulled the Jetta to the shoulder of the road. She buzzed the window down as the cop—dressed in dark clothes with dark glasses and an even darker attitude—swaggered over to the car.
He said something to Camille in French, his tone low and grave, his words strewn together.
“Piss off,” Camille said back to him.
Instantly, my body sank down in my seat, my instincts one step ahead of the rest of me in spotting trouble coming. I loved that Camille was a woman never afraid to speak her mind, but sometimes it would be nice if her mind came with a remote for me with a rewind and edit switch. Continue reading...