by Gail Farrelly
The Christmas Exception is published and sold by Untreed Reads. Check out the website www.store.untreedreads.com for lots of great holiday reads. While not a typical mystery, it does have a mysterious twist.
In her 28 years of life, Nancy MacLeod had never met a rule she didn’t obey. Not that she agreed with every one of them. Far from it. But a civilized society had to have rules, she reasoned, and everyone in that society should obey them. No exceptions.
She crossed only on the green, filed her taxes on time, and recycled as required. Life would be much simpler and better for everyone, she thought, if people would just follow the rules. The problem was—there were always those who thought that they should be the exception to the rule. People like that annoyed her; to each and every one of them she wished she could deliver a five-word message: A pox on your house.
Nancy valued efficiency and organization. In her apartment, in her car, and in her life, everything was spotless and in its proper place.
As assistant director of human resources at a huge conglomerate in Manhattan, she ruled with an iron hand. Paperwork for vacation days and other benefits had to be filed on time—or else. She knew that the employees called her “No Exception Nancy” behind her back. She wasn’t insulted. In fact, she was pleased.
But she wasn’t pleased on a Saturday afternoon four days before Christmas when she was at her desk in the tiny wood-paneled study of her Westchester, New York, co-op reading her email. She found an annoying message from the Public Relations Department of the nearby Bronxville Community Hospital. Two weeks before, there had been an article in the local paper that the hospital, planning to celebrate its centennial the next year, was planning a huge party for June. All those who had been born there were invited to contact the hospital so that they could receive special invitations to the celebration. Nancy had responded by email a few days before, and now she had her answer. She read the message more than once to make sure she got it right:
Thank you for the email. Sorry to say, we have no record of your having been born at Bronxville Community Hospital. You must be mistaken about your place of birth. Please be assured, however, that you are still welcome to attend our celebration.
What gall! Accusing her of being mistaken. No way. They were the ones who were mistaken. A bunch of incompetents who can’t keep their own records straight. Oh well, she’d deal with them on Monday morning. Now she had to get a move on for the half-hour drive north to the Cresthaven Retirement Home. Her maternal grandmother, her only living relative, would be expecting her. Nancy was taking her for a pre-Christmas dinner to an elegant restaurant, beautifully decorated for the holidays, a few minutes from Cresthaven. It was a good arrangement for both of them. Her grandmother would be spending Christmas Day with her friends at the home, and Nancy would be with her boyfriend Joe and his family. She turned to look at the mini grandfather clock hanging over her couch and reluctantly put her laptop aside. Better get a move on. She went into her bedroom, slipped her tall slim body into a black velvet pantsuit, and tied a red ribbon with a sprig of holly into her blonde ponytail. A little makeup and she was good to go. Nancy was never late and today would be no exception.
* * *
A few hours later she and her grandmother were finishing dinner in the main dining room of the crowded restaurant. Conversation was minimal while they sipped tea and ate dark chocolate layer cake with whipped cream.
Not for the first time, Nancy was thinking that her short, chubby, white-haired grandmother looked a lot younger than her 90 years. Was it something in the genes? Nancy hoped it was and that she would inherit that something.
“White Christmas” was playing in the background when Nancy looked across the table, smiled, and said, “You look nice tonight. I like your new white dress. It matches the music.”
Her grandmother didn’t smile back. Instead she said, “I need an after-dinner drink.”
“Grandma, you had a gin and tonic before dinner. You never have more than one drink a day. Do you really think you should?”
“I don’t think it, I know it,” she said firmly, calling over a waiter hanging out at the holly adorned entrance to the room. After she had ordered herself a brandy she said, “I don’t have to drive or anything, and I’ll be fine. You know what Henny Youngman said: ‘When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.’ So there.” She nodded her head for emphasis.
They both laughed. Then the older woman said, “And you know, right now I need it for sustenance.”
“It’s about Bronxville Community Hospital. The story you told me a little while ago. You see, dear, I’m afraid they’re right. You weren’t born there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I have to tell you a story. It’s left to me. I have no choice. Your parents should have told you. They were always saying they were going to, but they never got around to it. They were always postponing. When I got the news that your mom and dad had died in that car accident, I…I…I…was stunned by grief. But when I emerged from being stunned, my first thought was that I’d have to have this conversation with you. Now it’s been more than four years, and I am the one doing the postponing.”
Nancy was getting impatient. “Time is up. Spill the beans.”
Her grandmother took a deep breath and said, “It was Christmas Eve, after midnight, twenty-eight years ago. Your father had to work; one of his bigwig clients had gotten herself arrested on a DUI charge, and he had to go downtown to bail her out. When it came time to come home, your father went to a cab stand where there were a couple of empty cabs warming up. The drivers were inside getting coffee. They signaled for him to get into the first cab. And there you were. On the back seat, all wrapped up in a pretty pink blanket with a note attached.”
Nancy was stunned. Now she was the one who needed a drink. Or two. Unfortunately, she had to drive herself home, so drinking was a no-no.
The brandy arrived. The older woman’s voice was shaky as she thanked the waiter. She took a startlingly big gulp and looked over at her granddaughter. “Close your mouth, Nancy, it’s hanging open.”
“Forget about my mouth and get yours moving again,” Nancy said. “Tell me the rest of the story.”
“Well, the note said the parents were teenagers, college students from the Midwest going to school in New York. They felt they couldn’t afford a baby and didn’t tell their parents about you. So they just asked the finder to please take care of their little Nancy, born on December 21.” She paused for a moment. “And that’s what your parents did.”
“But I don’t understand. I have a birth certificate that says I was born at Bronxville Community Hospital on Christmas Day.”
Her grandmother nodded. “Of course. Your father as an attorney had all sorts of contacts. He knew how to get things done.”
“Get things done? He broke the law. How could he? I mean, that’s a crime, Grandma.”
“Yes, you could say that, my dear.”
Her grandmother’s eyes were misty. “Oh, it cost them all right. And I’m not talking money. That too, of course, but they sacrificed their principles, and they risked their reputation, their conscience, their future, their…well, just about everything…for a little girl left in a taxi.”
Nancy was dumbfounded. “But didn’t people…you know, friends and relatives…wonder where I had come from?”
“Of course, your parents just said you were adopted. They told me the truth though.”
“Mom and Dad, they were such sticklers for rules. I can’t picture them doing something like that.”
“Yes, well, when your dad brought you home, they planned to contact the authorities, but they couldn’t do it. You see, that week in the news there had been a couple of horrendous cases of abuse in foster homes, and your mom said they just couldn’t subject you to that kind of stuff.” She patted Nancy’s hand. “They considered you an exception to all the rules they had always lived by. A beautiful, picture-perfect, God-sent exception.”
The exception was horrified. “I hate exceptions. Couldn’t they have adopted me legally?”
“They were afraid to chance it. You can’t always predict what’ll happen with adoptions. They’d always wanted a baby, but it had just never happened. Now there you were, and on Christmas, too.” She wiped her eyes. “And your name was Nancy. Your Mom’s favorite comic strip character. When she was growing up, she’d always grab the paper and read about the adventures of Nancy, Slugger, and Aunt Fritzi.” She took another slug of her drink. “And she said that when your dad was a kid his favorite book was The Taxi That Hurried. It sounds corny, but they felt it all came together, finding little Nancy in a taxi on Christmas. It was meant to be, they always said.”
Nancy was overpowered by the news. She found some small things to focus on.
“But…but…from what you tell me, I don’t even have a Christmas birthday, something I’ve always thought was so special. Something that useless birth certificate says I have a right to. But my real birthday is four days earlier.” She knew she was being petty but continued anyway. “And that’s today.” A pause. “Happy birthday to me,” she said ruefully, keeping to herself the thought that the woman sitting across from her wasn’t her birth grandmother. No hope of inheriting that “stay young” gene.
“I’m sorry, Nancy, I know this wasn’t the best time to tell you. The holidays and all. And your birthday, too, of course. I just felt I had to, when you told me the story about the hospital. It’ll take some time to get used to the whole thing, dear, but I know you’ll be okay.”
Both women were quiet for a moment, their mood contrasting with the festive words of “Jingle Bells” playing in the background. After an uncomfortable moment or two, Nancy’s grandmother looked at her watch and said, “We’ll talk everything over some other day when you’re ready. Now you’d better get me back to Cresthaven. And you still have a few hours left of your birthday. I know it’s hard, but try to make the most of them, Nancy.”
And she did.
* * *
She listened to Christmas music on the way home. She cried when “Away in a Manger” came on. The tears were for herself, twenty-eight years ago, left without a crib. It was her own “sweet head” she was thinking about, not that of the “little Lord Jesus.”
Nancy knew she should be grateful. Mom and Dad had given her a new life, a wonderful life, but all she could focus on was what they had taken away. Her roots, her past, what went on before she was abandoned in that taxi. And worst of all, they never had the guts to tell her the truth.
Did she have sisters, brothers, cousins, or other relatives? Were her real parents still alive? Maybe she could find them. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
One of the rules she lived by was to avoid procrastination. She could go home right now and start an internet search for the information sources that might eventually lead to finding her birth family. But when she was almost home she passed a movie theater that was featuring Christmas movies. She stopped and parked the car. She’d just check out the schedule.…
Yes! It’s a Wonderful Life was starting in twenty minutes. It was one of her favorite movies, and she had it on DVD. But there was nothing like seeing it on the big screen. The search for her real parents had been on hold for twenty-eight years. What was another day or two? She’d give herself a pass on that “never procrastinate” rule. Her boyfriend Joe was a computer whiz, a first-rate searcher on the Web. What would take her hours would probably take him minutes, so why not wait until tomorrow? Or the day after.
She bought her ticket to the movie but automatically passed by the refreshment stand. Who would pay those inflated prices? She had decided long ago that she never would. But she was thirsty, so just this once she turned around and went back. It was her birthday, she’d make an exception and treat herself to a movie theater Coke. A large one.
As she settled herself in the comfortable seat and sipped the ice-cold drink, she had to admit the Coke was worth the outrageous price. Hey, she was getting the hang of this exception thing.
For a little over two hours, the movie, helped along by the Coke, transported her out of her troubled world and into someone else’s. And everything worked out okay in that other world. Maybe it would in hers too.
* * *
The next morning she got up and just didn’t feel like her usual healthy breakfast of shredded wheat. Instead, she reached into the cabinet and took out some Irish soda bread her neighbor had made for her as a Christmas present. Today was an exception. Tomorrow she’d return to her healthy breakfast routine. She poured herself a glass of orange juice, buttered the bread, snapped the radio on, and settled herself at her tiny butcher-block table. A newscaster was reporting that there had been a drive-by shooting in the city. I was a drive-by baby, she said to herself, not sure that she wanted to search for the people who had put her in a taxi, not knowing how and where her trip would end. Her self-centered thoughts continued: And now I don’t even have my birthday to look forward to in a few days. It’s over for this year.
She looked out her kitchen window at the trees blowing back and forth in a brisk wind and thought about something her mother had said many years ago. She said she could never understand the enthusiasm with which people researched their family trees. “You shake and shake those branches and you might not like what falls out,” was how she had dismissed genealogical searches. Easy for her to say. Her mother knew all about her own birth family.
Nancy wasn’t yet sure whether she really wanted to search for hers. Hmm. Sir Roger de Coverley was right: “Much might be said on both sides.”
It was a big decision, but she didn’t have to make it today. As she went to the stove to make herself a cup of tea, she decided that she would relegate that decision to the back burner of her mind. At least for now. For the immediate future, she decided that she would enjoy the upcoming Christmas holidays as well as her Christmas birthday. Yes, her birthday. Who said that you can only celebrate your birth on one day of the year anyway? And who cares who said it? It wasn’t an ironclad rule anyway. And even if it were, she would break it. She would celebrate on December 25 as she always had. And, in future years, on December 21, too. Who said she couldn’t?
The road ahead wouldn’t be easy. One thing Nancy knew would help. She was looking at exceptions in a different light. Maybe they weren’t that bad after all.
Now that she knew she was one.
Check out more Christmas mystery short stories in our Terrific Tales section, with one more to go up tomorrow! Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.