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Better Not Cry (Rebekka Franck Book 8)

Willow Rose


  A Rebekka Franck Novel

  Willow Rose


  What’s coming next from Willow Rose?

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  Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me

  Been an awful good girl

  Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight

  EARTHA KITT, "Santa Baby"

  You better watch out

  You better not cry

  Better not pout

  I'm telling you why

  Santa Claus is coming to town

  HAVEN GILLESPIE, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."


  For six-year-old Tobin, it all started…and ended…with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. It was only the beginning of December, yet Tobin insisted on putting out the cookies and milk for Santa on December 1st and every day from then on. Just in case, he told his parents. Just in case Santa decided to be early this year.

  They had barely finished Thanksgiving dinner before he pulled out his stocking from the big box of Christmas stuff and hung it by the fireplace, ready for Santa to fill it up.

  Tobin's mother, Jacqueline, enjoyed her son's excitement around Christmas, as she herself was a big fan of this particular holiday and always had been. Jacqueline, or Jackie, as most people called her, encouraged her son to put out the cookies and milk. And this year, Tobin was especially excited since he had made a big wish for Santa. His only worry was that this was one he wouldn't be able to fit into his stocking. It was one Tobin believed Santa might not even be able to fit into that big bag of his. It was a wish so big, Tobin had written a letter to Santa already in the middle of November to make sure the old bearded man with the jolly laugh had enough time to find the right one, the one with the big brown eyes looking back at him from the cage in the Animal Adoption Center at the mall. The little white pit bull puppy with the black spots on his back and paws so big they almost looked like clown's feet.

  He had named it Rocky.

  His mom and dad had told him it would be difficult for Santa to fit Rocky inside his bag, but Santa would just have to work a little harder on that Christmas magic of his, Tobin thought. If anyone could do it, it was Santa. Tobin believed he could and he would.

  That was why he put out the cookies and milk starting on the first day of December. Just in case Santa had to be early to get Rocky to Tobin. Just in case. Besides, Santa deserved a little extra this year if he was going to give Tobin such a big present.

  Tobin placed the plate of freshly baked cookies by the fireplace before bedtime, and the glass of milk next to it. His hands almost shivered with excitement and Jackie worried her son wouldn't be able to sleep much. She leaned over and kissed him on his head.

  "Don't be disappointed if Santa doesn't come tonight," Jackie said. "There are many nights before Christmas."

  "I know," Tobin said with a shrug. "It's just in case he does stop by a little early."

  "All right, then," Jackie said and kissed him again. He looked so cute in those little pajamas of his with all the planes on them. She smelled his newly washed hair. She remembered when Alyssa used to smell like that. Jackie glanced toward the staircase. She didn’t often see her teenage daughter anymore. Not because she wasn't home. She was up there in her room on the computer or phone most of the time. She just never wanted to hang out with her family anymore. Jackie could never really figure out what she did on that computer up there and had given up controlling it a long time ago. She just wished her daughter would get outside and get some fresh air occasionally and not stay cooped up in her room, getting paler and paler as the days passed. She used to be such a healthy kid, always in the pool or out surfing with her friends. But not anymore. Jackie couldn't understand why she didn't want to go outside more often. This was Florida. December was a great time to be outside, often the best time of the year.

  "You think there are enough cookies, Mommy?" Tobin said, concerned.

  Jackie chuckled. "I think Santa will be very happy. Now, off to bed. You know Santa doesn't come till you're sound asleep, right?"

  Tobin's face lit up. He sprang for the stairs. "Come on, Mommy. I have to go to bed now. Hurry."

  Jackie smiled and walked toward the stairs. "I’m coming, I’m coming."

  She glanced back at the milk and cookies before following her son up the stairs, wondering, hoping, and praying that Tobin wouldn't cry the next morning when he realized Santa hadn't been there yet. Otherwise, it might end up being a very long December. Very long indeed.


  "Santa is the best, Mommy. I love Santa."

  Tobin yawned as he spoke. He was under the covers all tucked in and Jackie had finished reading a story. His eyelids were half closed already.

  "I know you do," Jackie said.

  She looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was eight o'clock and Steve hadn't come home yet. She sighed and felt a pinch in her stomach. The renovation company worked him so hard, especially at this time of year. They had barely finished hurricane season with all the extra debris they had to get rid of and this year it was worse than it had been in years since Irma had rushed through the entire state. Cocoa Beach hadn't been hit too badly, but there was still a lot to clean up and the company was running behind.

  Now, Steve didn't pick up the garbage himself. He was in an administrative position and that was why he often had to work late. Tonight, he hadn't even called home to tell her he’d be late. It bothered her and she was worried about him, especially since he didn't seem to enjoy his work very much. He was often miserable once he got home and would hardly speak to any of them except with grunts and grumbles.

  "But now you have to sleep."

  Jackie kissed Tobin one last time, then turned out the lights, except for the one in the walk-in closet that Tobin wanted on as nightlight since he was terrified of the darkness.

  "Do you think he’ll come tonight?" Tobin asked as she approached the door and had her hand on the handle.

  She sighed. She knew he wouldn't be there tonight. Of course, Santa wouldn't come on December 1st, but the boy was so hopeful, it was hard to crush such sincere hope. Fact was, Jackie and Steve had already bought the puppy for Tobin and the Adoption Center would keep it till they could give it to him on Christmas morning. But she could hardly tell him that, could she? It would ruin the surprise and since he so sincerely believed it was Santa who brought the presents, she could hardly let herself destroy that. It would come out at some point and ruin all the magic of Christmas. She remembered the day Alyssa came home from school and told her mother that none of the other kids believed in Santa anymore and so now she didn't either.

  "You gotta believe in Santa," Jackie had told her.

  Secretly, she suspected that Alyssa still believed but just didn't dare to say it. Jackie once believed she had seen him. Jackie chuckled at the memory when walking out of Tobin's room and approaching Alyssa's door. It was covered in signs telling everyone to stay out, to knock before entering.

  She couldn't have been much more than five or six when it happened. It wasn't on Christmas Eve when most people usually saw him. It was in the middle of December when she had heard the rustling from downstairs and hurried down. She had spotted Santa in her living room, sitting in her dad's recliner. As he saw her, he tapped his lap and signaled for her to come and sit on it and so she had. He had laughed his deep laugh while asking her what she wanted for Christmas and Jackie had told him, whispering how she wished for a new bike, a Barbie doll with purple nails and…oh, yes…for her parents to no longer be di

  Santa had laughed, holding his stomach, then told her he couldn't give her all of that, but he could give her something else.

  "What?" she had asked, looking up into his red glowing eyes that looked like two beautiful Christmas globes.

  Santa had turned his lips upward in a grin when suddenly the light was turned on in the living room and her mom had spoken with a sleepy voice.

  "What's going on down here?"

  Jackie looked up at her, then said: "It's Santa, Mommy. He wants to know what I want for Christmas."

  "What are you talking about, Jackie? It's not even Christmas yet."

  Jackie had then turned her head back to look at Santa, but he was gone and she was sitting in the recliner all alone.

  "Get back to bed," her mother had said angrily. "I don't like you running around at nighttime."


  "Go to bed."

  Today, Jackie knew it had just been a dream. Just a product of a child's vivid imagination. She had probably just been sleepwalking, as she had been known to do before. Jackie shook her head again when thinking about how determined she had been in convincing her mother and brother the next day that Santa had actually been there at her house. She had waited for him to come back, but of course, he never did. And her mother had gotten so sick of hearing about it, she had finally told Jackie that there was no Santa. He didn't exist. It had broken Jackie's heart and, just like that, POOF, the magic of Christmas was gone.

  Jackie knocked on Alyssa's door and waited for her to yell.


  Jackie peeked inside. As usual, Alyssa was sitting on her bed, her laptop on top of it, headset on, and speaking into her microphone.

  "Wait a sec, my mom's here," she told whomever she was chatting with.

  Jackie often worried it was some pedophile guy from Russia who took pictures of her, or maybe a member of some gang that stole young girls and trafficked them. But Alyssa usually just rolled her eyes at her when she addressed it and told her she wasn't stupid, and then slammed the door.

  "What?" Alyssa asked and pulled one side of the headphones from her ear to hear what her mother said.

  "Your brother is sleeping. You have one more hour until bedtime."

  Again, the rolling of the eyes, followed by a growl. "Mom, I know that. You don't have to come in here and tell me that."

  "Just making sure you're still alive," Jackie said.

  "Well, I am. Now, can you leave?"

  "Who are you playing with?" Jackie asked.

  Alyssa sighed, annoyed. "Chris, all right?"

  "Who's Chris?"

  "He's my friend."

  "I’ve just never heard his name before."

  "Well, now you have. Okay? Don't forget to close the door when you leave."

  Alyssa put her headset back on, so she could no longer hear if Jackie said anything else. Jackie sighed and closed the door, trying hard to remember when Alyssa was younger. It was getting harder and harder to remember how cute she used to be.


  Tobin woke up just as the clock stroke midnight. Eyes wide open, he stared at the ceiling. Had he heard something? Was it a sound coming from the living room? Was someone down there? Could it be?


  Tobin leaped out of his bed, then stopped for a second and stared at the light coming from the closet. It had always scared him to pass it at night since he often imagined it being a gateway to another universe filled with monsters and that the portal might suck him into it like a spaceship into a black hole.

  Tobin stared at the light coming from the closet, his breathing getting heavier while imagining the door slamming open, and almost feeling the suction from it.

  Then he shook his head and looked away. No, he had more important things to do. If Santa was, in fact, downstairs bringing him Rocky, there was no time to waste.

  Tobin opened the door and went into the hallway, bursting with excitement as he heard another noise come from the living room. It sounded like bells. And not just ordinary bells.

  Santa. It has got to be Santa!

  Tobin imagined Santa eating his cookies and drinking the milk while rubbing his belly and chuckling joyfully. He imagined his red cheeks getting redder from smiling so much and his beard being all white and fluffy as cotton candy.

  But when Tobin reached the top of the stairs and looked down, he couldn't see anything. It was dark, but light emerged from the streetlamps outside and lit up the living room just enough for him to see that there was no Santa, there was no Rocky, and the cookies and milk were still where he had left them.

  Disappointed, Tobin sulked. He was about to turn around and walk back to his room when he heard another sound. Excited once again, he looked down and saw ashes falling in clusters from inside the chimney.

  It is him. It is Santa!

  Tobin let out a small shriek and hurried down the stairs, closer to the chimney. A small cloud of ashes fell and filled the air. Tobin had told his mother to get the chimney cleaned for Santa, but she insisted he was used to it, that a little ash stuck inside of it wouldn't bother him much. As a matter of fact, it helped him slide down easier, she had said. But Tobin knew his mother was just saying that because she didn't want to spend money on getting the chimney cleaned. Christmas was expensive enough as it was.

  Poor Santa. Struggling to get down.

  Tobin stood for a little while by the fireplace, watching the ashes fall down, coughing whenever some of it hit his face, worrying that Santa might get stuck or maybe even sick.

  Nonsense. Santa does this all the time.

  Tobin could hardly keep the excitement inside. He was about to explode while waiting, imagining Santa handing him Rocky and how he was going to play with the dog all night and never go back to bed.

  I am gonna kiss him and hug him and play fetch and…and…

  Tobin stared at the chimney as the movement inside of it stopped. No more ashes fell, no more sounds came from inside of it.

  "Santa?" Tobin said with a small shriek.

  He dropped to his knees and peeked inside. It was pitch dark in the chimney. A lump of ashes fell on his face and he spurted and coughed and pulled his head away, then wiped it off. He waited a few seconds more for Santa to come down, but still, nothing happened. Once again, Tobin peeked up into the chimney to see if Santa might be stuck further up. He couldn't see Santa, but he could see a set of red glowing Christmas globes.

  "Santa?" he said again.

  There was something about the eyes that made him back away, and that was when a voice from inside the chimney, said:

  "Hello, Tobin."

  "Santa?" Tobin answered cautiously. "Is…is th-th-that you?"

  The laughter rumbled inside the chimney. That very distinctive yet familiar laugh that could only come from one particular person.


  Tobin's face lit up. It was him, he was really here inside Tobin's chimney. But why wasn't he coming down? Why wasn't he already in the living room, eating cookies and drinking milk? Was he stuck in the chimney and couldn't get down? Was he hurt? Had he brought Rocky?

  "It is you, Santa."

  Tobin dropped to his knees again, crawled closer this time, and peeked inside again. The red glowing Christmas globes stared back at him. They were sparkling in the darkness. Tobin smiled.

  "Did you bring Rocky?"

  "I sure did," Santa said, his voice as deep as thunder. "Why don't you come a little closer, so you can see him?"

  Tobin did as he was told and stuck most of his head into the chimney.

  "A little closer," Santa said.

  Tobin crawled. His fingers were getting black from soot.

  "A little more, just a little bit and you're there."

  "It's awfully dark in here, Santa," Tobin complained.

  It made Santa laugh his hearty, deep, merry laughter. It seemed to make the entire chimney shake.


  Tobin smiled and crept closer still, soot on his f
ace and arms and on his new pajamas that his mother was so fond of. It didn't matter, he thought to himself since soon he would have his puppy; soon, Rocky would be with him, and the pajamas could be washed and so could he.

  "Reach out your hands, Tobin," Santa said and Tobin did as he was told, thinking only of Rocky and all the hours they were going to play together. "Both of them.”

  Tobin stretched his arms up and felt Santa's hands grab him, his long thin fingernails piercing into his skin. Tobin didn't even manage to scream. He was pulled up into the horrifying darkness and never saw daylight again. And worst of all, he never got to play with Rocky.


  Jackie felt exhausted when she woke up the next morning. Even more than usual. She lifted her head from her pillow and glanced at Steve, then felt heavy. He had come home at ten the night before and smelled like perfume and alcohol. She had smelled it when kissing him and it had struck her right at that moment for the first time.

  Steve was cheating on her.

  That was why he had all those extra hours at work. That was why he always came home late at night making all sorts of excuses, grumbling and growling at all of them. It wasn't because of Irma, nor was it because he hated his job. It was because he didn't like being here with them at the house. He would much rather be somewhere else with that other woman.

  Jackie had thought it through and it all made perfect sense. What she hadn't done was ask him or confront him with her speculations. Because what if they were just that? What if they were nothing but a product of her imagination? What if Steve had just hugged his secretary or someone else at work before coming home? What if they had grabbed a beer before going home at the end of a long day? Because they deserved it for working so long and hard?

  It was possible, wasn't it?