INSIDE THE GIFT BOX
Best of All Gifts was a finalist for the UK Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Details will appear on goodreads.com soon.
“The highlight for me was the confrontation between Jonquil and her father Jack, who mysteriously shows up unannounced after 26 years of silence.” Rick Goldman, author
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Monday, December 1st
JONQUIL HAD JUST sat down to her desk at Children’s Home when she heard a faint tap on her door. Two things occurred to her at once: the Coles kid was standing outside her door and he was being discharged that morning.
“It’s open!” she called out brightly.
The Coles kid negotiated the entire visit in under nine seconds, barely making eye contact and stuttering in that adolescent twang of his. “M-Ms. Bloom, th-thanks f-for helping m-me. I m-m-made this f-for you.”
He dropped something into her lap. Then, before she could react, he bolted out the door, the squishy sounds of his sneakers echoing down the linoleum corridor.
Left to make the discovery in private, she held the object up to the light. It was one of his woodcarvings made in art therapy, she surmised. Roughly four inches long, it appeared to be a crude rendering of a reclining Irish Setter. Pet dog? She couldn’t recall him ever mentioning one, so she examined the piece more closely as her analytical skills kicked into gear. Why a setter? Why the literal pose? Could this be a good omen, another sign of his passivity or—
“Oh, God.” The carving slipped from her fingers. Her eyes darted up to the bulletin board on the wall above her desk.
There, beneath layers of memos and schedules, hung a faded snapshot of her husband, Gerry, and at his feet, all doggy adoration, Baron, taken days before a house fire had killed them both. She’d tacked up the photo when her internship began, but then had covered it over, so conflicted were her feelings. Uncanny, how the Coles kid had selected the most hidden, painful image in her office to serve as his model.
Was it still there? Jonquil jumped up and furiously ripped down the papers. The photo was gone. The Coles kid must have removed it in order to make the gift and surprise her.
She turned pale. What if her son Billy, on one of his rare visits to her office, had ever seen that photo?
She sank back down in her chair, her heart pounding as though she, not Stanley Coles, had just sprinted down the hall.
Moments passed. Gradually, her pulse slowed. Fingers shaking, she again picked up the carving. The Coles kid had even stained the wood to make it more life-like. Baron! A gush of dark memories, like smoke, engulfed her. She was afraid she might pass out. Just then the hall buzzer sounded, shattering the moment.
Jonquil jammed the carving into the pocket of her corduroy jumper, stood up, and after giving her face a quick scan and lipstick touch up, she locked her office and nipped over to the nurses’ station.
Up and down the long corridor, Thanksgiving decorations drooped from the walls, while doors swung open on both sides, lending some light to the dingy hallway. Children’s Home, where UCLA’s graduate school of psychology had placed her, was a residential treatment facility and school for emotionally disturbed, and in rare cases, abandoned minors. Rumor had it some movie mogul in the thirties had hidden his pregnant girlfriend here. Whether true or false, the rambling edifice now housed a hodgepodge of children whom Jonquil knew well.
The children, ages four through sixteen, appeared normal during routine moments such as changing classes. Even so, there were those who would not let Jonquil pass without needing a hug, while others seemed to stare through her, more aware of their “voices” than the commotion in their direct path.
Jonquil knew that her frizzy auburn hair and freckles often sparked snickers among the older residents but she took their reactions in stride. What she would never get used to was the sight of a schizophrenic boy her son’s age, hallucinating on his way to his next class.
When she entered the nurses’ station, her two favorite staff members were busy charting: Nurse Betsy, a bleached-blonde, nurturing type, indispensable in this setting, and Phil, a nursing student from Manila and a natural at dealing with the adolescents.
They both looked up and greeted her as she poured herself a cup of coffee. Then Betsy asked, “How was your Thanksgiving weekend, Jonquil?”
“Long.” Jonquil was glad that the weekend had ended and another full work week lay ahead. “How was yours?” She leaned against the counter and let the coffee soothe her.
“I was here ’cause I usually work on holidays. It’s quieter since most of the patients have weekend passes. I like to take my vacation when all hell is breaking loose around here,” Betsy replied with a giggle.
Jonquil chuckled. “Smart. Good thing the weather changed this morning or else Billy and I might still be down at the beach.”
“You don’t sunburn with that Irish skin?” asked Betsy.
“I’m really lucky because I love having a tan. It makes my eyes greener and makes me feel younger. Maybe my mother’s Swedish genes made the difference.”
Betsy asked if Jonquil had seen the Coles kid before he left that morning. Nodding her head, she withdrew the carving and watched their reactions. After initial oohs and aahs, Betsy commented, “But that boy couldn’t so much as share a lunch table when he came here. Now look at him, doling out hand-made gifts. Jonquil, you’re a wonder with these kids.”
She waved off the compliment like a jinx, tossed her cup in the wastebasket and turned to go.
Phil snapped his fingers rapidly to claim her attention. “It’s a gift, right? Will you use it as an example in your research project?”
Jonquil glanced at him, startled. “Maybe.”
“What’s it about again?” asked Betsy, her back toward Jonquil as she handed a chart to Phil and selected and opened another one.
“The title is: ‘The Psychodynamics of Gift-giving’,” she replied.
Betsy faced her and rolled her eyes. “What does that mean in plain English?” she asked.
“Oh, sorry.” Jonquil colored slightly, remembering that she wasn’t in front of her psychology class at UCLA but with co-workers. “I’m doing a study of gift-giving, using the children here as my subjects. Gifts fascinate me, like, when they are sincere and when they’re not. The psyche literature has little to say about gift-giving, which is great, because maybe if I do a bang up job, I can turn my project into my career.”
In the back of her mind, Jonquil realized that Phil’s question about the carving and her project made sense. Surprisingly, she hadn’t made the connection herself. Rather, the carving posed a most unwelcome reminder of the manner in which her young husband and that animal had both died. She’d never forgiven her husband for destroying his, hers, and Billy’s happiness so needlessly nor had she ever gotten over her shame about what had happened. Except for the authorities she hadn’t told anyone, not even Billy, the exact circumstances of Gerry’s death. Soon after the funeral, she’d moved down from the Seattle area to Southern California. Billy was born seven months later.
Betsy remembered that Dr. Shore had been looking for her earlier. Relieved to have an excuse to cut the discussion short, Jonquil re-pocketed the carving and hastened to the administrative offices in the south wing.
The largest office at the end of the hall belonged to Dr. Mitchell Shore, the Medical Director of the home’s treatment facilities. Jonquil looked around for his secretary who had stepped away and was startled to see two painters in white overalls unloading their gear in the reception area. No word of any paint job had been announced in last week’s staff meeting that she could recall.
She knocked twice on the door and waited. Muffled voices from within invited her to enter. Only then did she realize that Miss Ida Hamilton, the home’s live-in Head of Social Services, was already seated in one of Dr. Shore’s slippery leather chairs. Jonquil thought to herself, this day is not going well.
Why was Miss Hamilton always interfering? Whenever she saw them together, Jonquil felt like the betrayed child who discovers too late that secrets are never confided to just one parent. Dr. Shore stood about eye level with Jonquil, while Miss Hamilton towered over both of them though she was no mental giant. Well, well, mused Jonquil, what have we here?
“Please sit down, Ms. Bloom,” Dr. Shore said, clearing his throat while avoiding her eyes. She felt a prickle of alarm.
“You’ve done a marvelous job here,” he continued, “and I hate to have to do this, but, as we must paint the offices in order to pass state inspection, I am afraid we need your stipend to cover the expense—effective immediately.” The room became so still Jonquil had no trouble hearing her hopes and dreams come crashing down inside her with all the fury of the glaciers in Alaska’s Inside Passage.
“But—but—” she sputtered, feeling totally bushwhacked.
“Come now, Ms. Bloom, it’s for the good of Children’s Home. We mustn’t exceed our budget, dear,” said Miss Hamilton. “You see, don’t you?”
The muscles around her mouth twitched, a sure sign that Miss Hamilton was determined to get her way.
“But the children count on me being here, Miss Hamilton. I can’t even tell them good bye? That’s not fair either to them or to me.”
Jonquil paused to catch her breath. The faces of the children she was scheduled to see that day sprang to mind. “Couldn’t this wait until after Christmas?”
“You don’t need to remind us of our responsibility, Ms. Bloom. We see graduate students come and go all year long as part of our teaching mission. We know best how to handle the situation, I assure you.”
“How am I supposed to complete my research?”
“You’re a talented clinician. UCLA will find you another placement. You’ll have no trouble finding work. This is Southern California, after all,” said Miss Hamilton. Dr. Shore nodded his headed vigorously.
Jonquil could think of no appropriate response to the cliché, so she addressed him. “How can I finish my research anywhere else? The project is based on these children, Dr. Shore.” Ergo, be a man and overrule this shrew posing as a housemother.
“Ida, it does seem a shame. Perhaps we can make some other arrangement?” Unfortunately, his tone had too much whine in it to dissuade Miss Hamilton.
“Mitchell, we went over our options very carefully. The painters are already here.” Jonquil detected evasion in the woman’s voice and pressed her.
“Why me, Miss Hamilton? You’ve said I work well with the children.” She saw a look pass between the two administrators. “What? Tell me.” She bit her lip with frustration.
Miss Hamilton twisted around in her chair and faced Jonquil squarely.
“We have no complaints about your work with the children. They like you and trust you. We’d keep you on here if we could.
“But since you’ve asked, there is one thing that concerns me about you personally, Ms. Bloom. Much of the time, you seem preoccupied when you aren’t seeing patients. Closed off from the rest of us, aloof, unhappy. At meetings, too. You’re a million miles away and not fully engaged in our program. I wonder if you are truly suited to doing psychotherapy.”
Jonquil was taken aback. Hadn’t the staff just showered her with compliments? Now, the administrators were telling her a different story. She wanted to defend herself but didn’t know where to begin, so she said nothing.
“I’m sorry, dear, but I felt duty-bound to mention it. And now, I’m afraid we’re out of time. Dr. Shore, we have an intake interview to attend.” Without another word, Miss Hamilton rose, turned away from Jonquil and crossed the carpet to the door. Dr. Shore also stood. Jonquil’s mouth felt dry; all the moisture in her body had gone to the palms of her hands.
“You mean I’m out of a job just like that?” she blurted.
“I’m afraid that’s reality.” His words were cut short by another feeble cough. “Coming, Miss Hamilton,” he called and followed his colleague out of the door.
“Oh, yeah? Well, reality stinks!” Jonquil shouted after him. But they had both vanished down the hall.
The secretary eyed her with concern. “I am so sorry, Jonquil,” she said. Ordinarily, the empathy in her voice would have reduced Jonquil to tears, except that she was angry. She knew this anger. It was old and seductive. Once it resurfaced, fueled by every frustration in her present and past life, it would annihilate all other points of view but one: that she could not and would not ever succeed. It galled her—that’s how angry she was.
“What will you do? Are you going to fight their decision?”
“I can’t fight this. I don’t have time.” Without thinking, she lifted a brush out of a paint bucket near her. “I have a son to raise, bills to pay. I’ve got to put my energy into finding a job where I can feel secure and not have to worry about getting thrown out the next time the walls need painting.”
With that, she flung the brush back into the bucket, causing a few drops of paint to spatter one of the kneeling workmen. Beneath a dripping bill cap, a pair of bemused eyes the color of black gemstones stared up at her.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” She covered her mouth with her hand, embarrassed.
The painter calmly brushed away the paint drops and beamed back at her in such a mesmerizing way, that it felt as though they were the only two people in the room.
“No problem,” he murmured.
Momentarily, she couldn’t move. Her cheeks flamed, her knees froze, while an exhilarating jolt circuited her body, launching her spirits skyward, higher and higher, until the faraway sound of the secretary clearing her throat brought Jonquil back to earth.
What had just happened?
An excerpt from Chapter Two:
Later that evening as she tucked Billy into bed after listening to his prayers, he asked, “Mom? How will the kids get along without you?” She tried to assure him that the staff at Children’s Home would take good care of the residents, but he persisted.
“Yeah, but they aren’t like you. You have the gift.”
“You know, your teacher told you the night of our Halloween party when we were all in the kitchen. He said you have the gift. What did he mean?” Jonquil sat down on the side of his bed, stroked his soft, sandy-colored buzz cut and saw her reflection in his grayish-blue eyes.
“Well, Billy, it’s an expression adults use when someone is naturally good at something, like playing piano or doing their job. It’s something God gives each of us to share with others. Sometimes if we’re lucky, it becomes our work.
“Maybe Dr. Paxton meant that I seem to know how to help kids with problems. Not everyone does.” She never felt quite as self-conscious talking about her skills as with this precious and precocious child.
Billy sat up in bed all excited. “He was right, Mom! Remember that skinny girl who wouldn’t eat?”
Jonquil thought back on her caseload of the past summer and recalled a shy, black adolescent in the early stages of anorexia. “You mean Luella?”
“That’s the one. Luella’s back in school ’cause of you. And Tommy didn’t even talk till you helped him to.” Tommy Cregier. With a pang, she remembered telling him good bye.
“Why, Billy Bloom, when I started this work, I thought you were jealous of these other kids in my life.”
“Aw, I got over that. Besides, we’re a team, right?”
“So, since every team needs a mascot, can we get a dog? Please, Mom?”
She was annoyed, partly because, even though he’d had dinner at his favorite restaurant and a trip to the movies on a school night, he wanted more, like all kids do. He also knew the subject of dogs was taboo with her. More >>
An excerpt from Chapter Three:
Like other novice therapists, Jonquil had the habit of labeling people. She had yet to learn how inadequate a label or diagnosis is when it comes to describing the unique qualities of a person’s smile. For when she stepped up to the center perfume counter and introduced herself, the woman behind it flung out both arms in greeting and said, “So! You’ve come to your scents(es),” then giggled at her pun.
She had to be fifty, yet she laughed with abandon, like a girl. “Don’t mind me, that’s just my little joke. I’m Ms. Oglesby, but you may call me Rita,” she added with a soft Southern drawl. She glanced at Jonquil’s name tag.
“Do you go by Jonquil? Pretty name, sounds like one of my fragrances. Personnel called down and said you were on your way. Got any sales experience? Ever work in a department store during the Christmas season?” she asked, taking Jonquil’s purse and jacket and stashing them in a drawer. Jonquil shook her head no, but Rita was already handing her a gaudy pink smock, as if it were made of pure silk. The one-size-fits-all cotton cover-up hung down nearly to her knees. She felt absurd in it, until Rita adjusted the matching belt, puffed out the sleeves, and affixed her nametag. Then, she stood back to appraise her handiwork.
“Got any allergies?” After Jonquil shook her head no again, Rita explained. “Last week they sent me a part-time college student, big sun-of-a-gun, six feet two. On his first day of work, he keeled right over the Chanel display and caused quite a stink. Case of a slight hangover and no breakfast. They transferred him to mattresses.” Is she pulling my leg? thought Jonquil.
“Since it’s your first day, I recommend Destiny—it might bring you luck,” said Rita, reaching for a perfume applicator. She prepared to perform a baptism on the spot. “Oh, but I never wear perfume,” Jonquil objected. Nothing could have stunned Rita more. She froze, perfume atomizer in mid-air, mouth ajar, eyes glassy, a textbook example of shock More >>