Below is the first chapter of The Christmas Lights. Enjoy, and feel free to tell me what you think!
I lowered myself into a chair, gripping the armrests tightly when I miscalculated and tipped the whole thing back on two legs. Look at me, these nerves! My heart fluttered unnaturally like I would collapse or sprout wings and fly. But I figured blind boys didn’t fly. American ones, anyway. What did I know of other places? Well, nearly blind. And on days like today, this day especially, my nerves made me clumsy. Made me thoughtlessly throw myself onto furniture even though I could hardly box out an exact landing location. Knock into tables. Bump over things. Good thing my house didn’t have much.
“Louis, there you are.”
A hazy peach shape swam in the right corner of my eye. Red checkered around where I imagined the hips would be. A warm hand, rough and chapped from washing, ruffled my brown hair. Mother said I had that color hair. I never saw it myself, just knew it was thick and didn’t comb very well.
Emmeline said my hair was like new chocolate. A red bay’s coat, shiny and deep.
Emmy made me feel special. That’s why I was going to propose to her today.
“Louis, Louis dear. Have you heard a word I said?”
Mother’s hand lay on my shoulder now, tense and squeezing. I looked up at her out of habit even though I couldn’t read her expression. To me, her face resembled a sloppy oil painting: shadows for the eyes and twitches of color when the mouth opened to reveal teeth.
“I said it’s four o’clock, Louis. Do you want to ask Mr. Godfrey for his mare?”
Ha! A blind boy on a horse. Well, nearly blind.
“It’s the twentieth century, Mother.” I smiled and rose to my feet, adjusting the suspenders digging into my shoulders. My shirt was starched so much the collar felt like smoothed wood bark. One of Father’s old cravats curled around my neck —scarlet, Mother told me, the color of Emmy’s hair. “I’ll walk. You know Mr. Godfrey would want to chat, and demand to see the ring, and—it would take too much time, even if he did lend me his mare. Her house isn’t terribly far.”
Cloth rumpled, and I listened to Mother wring her hands.
“Do you want me to walk you?”
“To my own proposal? Mother, I’m nineteen. I’ve walked that way before.”
“But it’s springtime. The rain…”
I sought out her hand and squeezed. “I’ll be fine.”
* * * *
The rains had made the road muddy, but I felt through my shoe soles and dodged whenever the ground began to give. Mother would approve. She always said my other senses tended to make up for my horrendous vision. Still, I hoped I’d combed my hair correctly. I hoped I’d successfully put on my black socks instead of the brown ones, and I hoped I hadn’t missed any spots while polishing my shoes. I had to make a big impression today. Pleasing Emmy wasn’t worrying me much, but…
The telltale boulder protruding from the sloping road told me her house lay just ahead. No, not a house. A mansion. A palace.
Nerves shook me once, stalling me. Then I took a deep breath, straightened, and kept walking until the dirt turned to cobbles and finally smooth flagstones. Lovely. When Emmy and I married, I’d cover the yard with flagstones. Put a maze of them in the back garden, so we could walk together and it would seem as if I weren’t nearly blind at all.
The door stood, a mere hazy rectangle waiting in the morning shade, white and somehow imposing in its vagueness. My knuckles knocked three times. I almost knocked five times, my little sign for Emmy—it’s me! Knock-knockknock-knockknock. Boots clicked on the other side of the door, too loud to be Emmy’s dainty little feet. The door swung open with a swish of air.
I smiled politely despite the mangling of my name making me flush. My family was French, so it was Loo-wee Eck-lauw. My last name ended with a sound really only the French could make, so I didn’t blame the man on that account. But really, now. Not even Eck-lat?
I curled my fingers against my sweating palms as I stepped inside and wiped them on my trousers for friction and dryness. Told myself to be confident. Don’t be cowed.
“Good morning, Mr. Claiborne.”
* * * *
When I sat in a room that smelled like stuffy cigar smoke and acrid bourbon, it was very clear Emmy’s father didn’t want his “darling cherub” to marry “a boy of…your means.” I couldn’t see, how could I provide for her, I was young. The truth of the allegations and the fact that he brought them up first thing hurt, but I’d been expecting it. Gosh, in truth I’d sensed it soon as he pumped my hand and sat me down.
He did pause considerably after I mentioned how I worked for the local jeweler and was gaining renown for the rings and necklaces I devised. The colors spoke to me, and ladies loved the raggle-taggle shapes I chose. I showed him the tiny smooth box.
I love her, sir. More than I ever thought it was possible to love anyone. I work well with my hands. I’m able to get around easily and yes, I can see, a little… And the jeweler promised me a full apprenticeship if I marry before the year’s up.
But now, with the meeting over, I felt sick. So sick, and a little angry, too. Leaving Mr. Claiborne humming over some files in his office, already off on other business matters, I’d somehow wandered into the back garden and sat heavily on a stone bench. My back bent, and I struggled not to put my head in my hands as footsteps in the grass whispered towards me.
“Louis?” The voice was as soft as the squeeze to my hands. “Louis, are you all right?”
I sensed the worry on my face and smiled. “How could anything be wrong? I have you now.”
Emmy laughed and sat down beside me in the garden, burying her face in my shoulder and digging into me with her fingers like I might cease to be real. “Oh,” she whispered, “I thought for sure he’d say no.”
Me, too. But Henry Claiborne was a man of esteem. He couldn’t turn down a nearly blind—fully able, but nearly blind—boy down. Oh, no. Most certainly that would look bad. And Emmy loved me like the Dickens, he knew that much.
That’s why I felt sick.
“This is so beautiful.” Emmy sat back, and blinding light flickered as the diamond glittered in the warm sun. A diamond, nestled between a sapphire, an emerald, and two rubies.
I nodded, beaming.
So you’ll have a job, Mr. Claiborne had surmised. But you don’t have one now?
Not exactly, sir. I help out at the jeweler’s for no pay. He’s testing my work, you see, but I do work at the docks…
The docks! You have piles of money saved from your days at the wharf, do you, son?
“There’s one more thing.” Reaching over, I took Emmy’s hand and pulled her closer on the garden bench, a smudge of gray in all the brown and green. It was warm on the surface but cold where shadow touched it.
“More?” Listening to her warm, almost breathless curiosity caused me to reach out and touch her hair and cheeks. I squinted to see if she smiled. Emmy clasped her fingers around my wrists, shaking her head. “What more could you give me?”
I smoothed her soft hair away from her brow, so warm and delicate. “We’ll need money, love—”
I stopped myself. Mr. Claiborne hated it when I called Emmy “love.” He thought it sounded too European. Father used to say it to my mother all the time. It was beautiful.
Emmy covered my hand with her own, still on her cheek. “I adore it when you call me that. Say it again.”
“E-Emmy,” I stammered, forcing her to be serious. “Like I said, we’ll need money. For a house, for food and cloth—”
“You have a job,” Emmy nodded. “At the docks. They say you’ve steadier footing than a sailor.” Her fingers tensed around mine. “They didn’t fire you?”
“No, no. No.” I sighed and dropped my hands. “I resigned.”
Inside. On your father’s telephone.
Her body stiffened on the bench, her shoes snapping together. “He didn’t.” Emmy’s voice was cold.
“Why would he do that? Your mother doesn’t make enough!” Fury laced her voice, and her fingers pattered against her mouth a second later. “I didn’t mean to say that aloud, Louis. Really, I didn’t.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Oh, Lord, I had to get this out or else. “Emmy, love, listen. I didn’t make enough at the docks, you know that.”
“You made enough. You’ve been saving!”
“Sorry.” She squeezed my hand. “Go on.”
“But…I have a friend down there. Mason. I always helped him on his rounds, and I’m certain that if I ask, he’ll promise to keep an eye on my mother. The jeweler—Mr. Godfrey—he could watch over her, too. Because your father requires…a dowry, of sorts. A guarantee you’ll be well taken care of.”
Emmy’s hand turned sweaty. “Oh, Louis. What does that mean?”
I swallowed the sour taste at the back of my mouth, nerves trembling in my fingers. “Our engagement lasts until December twenty-fifth. If by that time I’ve not returned—”
“Returned?” Emmy’s gaze burned me. “Louis, where are you going? Won’t my father give you a job?”
I didn’t move and barely opened my mouth to let the words escape. “He’s got me a job.”
“What?” I loosened my shoulders and shrugged. “Marks Brothers pays their floor workers very well.”
“I’d stack inventory outside, in the clean air, and I’d work with a few fellows who’d watch out for me…”
“…I hear factories in London are much safer than here.”
“London! Louis, Louis, what are you talking about?” Emmy grabbed my face. I squinted at two sparkling brown orbs. Was she crying?
“No.” Emmy covered her mouth with a hand. “No, you aren’t going to London. How could you? No one loves you there. No one knows you there…”
Your father seems to think it is my home country.
“Emmy. Emmy Emmy Emmy.” I held her close, stroking her hair. “I don’t plan to work there.”
She sat back. “What?”
“I’ve heard Mr. Godfrey talk about them. A London factory is the last place I should work. Your father means well, but I can’t do that. They wouldn’t take a blind boy.”
“Wh-where will you go, then? How on earth will you make money?”
“I have family in Paris. Mother says they have wine vineyards. I’ll work for them.”
“That…” Emmy’s fingers traced the veins on the back of my hand.
“That’s much safer.” She was silent for the longest time. “You’ll be safe? And come home quickly?”
I pulled her hands away and stood, playing with the ring on her finger. “I will. I love you.”
“Emmy. I don’t have a choice. You want to marry me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. But, Louis…”
"How long will you be gone?”
How long? How long to board a ship, to find a place I’d only heard about, to earn and save an impossible amount of money? How long, indeed.
I set my expression. “I’ll be home by Christmas.”