A Stewart Falls Cheerleaders Christmas Special

Christmas in Stewart Falls

by Shannon Kennedy

Christmas in Stewart Falls by Shannon Kennedy Nikki Tiernan is tired of being bounced around her dad’s family, being sent from one relative’s home to the next while her father is busy honeymooning with his new wife.

Nikki wants to be in Stewart Falls, Washington for Christmas since her mom is still overseas with the U.S. Army, but nobody listens. Instead, her aunt plans to send Nikki to a weight-loss camp for the holidays.

Enough is enough! Determined to find her own way home, all Nikki has to do is buy a bus ticket—or so she thinks. But when a mysterious stranger claims the seat next to her on that bus, Nikki fears her adventure may not go as planned.



Available November 8, 2022


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Chapter One

San Diego, CA – Thursday, December 13th, 2018


Nikki Tiernan


I flung myself on the twin bed in the teen dream-room I shared with my cousin, Phoebe. Her dream, not mine. All the peach and cream colors made me want to hurl. One more lecture from Aunt Gina and I’d run screaming into the California night. This one was because I’d dared to ask when we’d get my dog back from Grandaunt Liz, my maternal grandmother’s older sister. Dad had promised if I went willingly to stay with his family while he was on an extended honeymoon with Bebe, his fourth wife in ten freaking years, then he’d arrange for Fifi, my nearly two-year-old, German Shepherd, to be returned from Washington State. It was one more lie piled on another. As the old saying went, how did I know he was lying? His lips were moving.

Yes, I had issues with the man. He barely saw me when my mom was stationed somewhere in CONUS, the continental United States, and pitched a fit if she was sent off to combat in America’s longest war. No, she didn’t keep me away from him. She didn’t have to–. He’d told me more than once, it’d be different if I was his son, not his daughter. Yeah, right. We learned all about gender bias in school and I certainly didn’t believe that crap either.

Mom was a major in the Army. It wasn’t as if she chose to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular basis. This time she’d been gone for a year, not counting the training she underwent before the tour. When she got home, she’d have a couple months leave before she received orders for her new assignment, and we’d head for Stewart Falls, Washington.

I reached into my backpack and dug out a snack pack of cookies. Thankfully, Phoebe was off at one of her modeling gigs, so I didn’t have to listen to the threats to rat me out to her mother. What else was new? They didn’t want me here anymore than I wanted to be here. Aunt Gina caught me using her computer to try and contact my mom in Kuwait, and I was grounded again.

The witch—all right—Aunt Gina had absconded with my cell phone and IPAD right after I arrived in November, claiming I harassed my mom too often when she was busy in a combat zone and didn’t need to deal with my fifteen-year-old angst. You bet, I thought, not for the first time. The last time I talked to Mom, all I’d said was I wanted to go home to Stewart Falls, Washington. She’d agreed to reach out to Grandaunt Liz and see what it would take for me to join the Tiernan clan for the holidays.

I sniffed hard and bit into another chocolate sandwich cookie. I hadn’t even been able to visit this summer like I always had in previous years. Dad had promised to send me to the States in June, but BeBe wanted to show me off to her family in France, so it was a no-go. That meant I couldn’t meet the foster girls my Grandaunt Liz and Granduncle Ted were adopting. When we talked on the phone, B.J. and Terry sounded like kindred spirits. They were into all the things I liked, dogs, horses, karate—

Okay, so B.J. went off a bit too much about her boyfriend, Ringo. I’d told Terry I knew the guy from my other visits, and he really wasn’t a superhero even if he did extra chores for Granduncle Ted, who was in his mid-seventies. Terry laughed and agreed with me. She was also the one who brought Fifi into B.J.’s studio to FaceTime with me. Tears trickled down my cheeks and I choked up. Losing computer privileges meant I couldn’t even see my beautiful dog or my new friends.

I finished off the cookies and stuffed the wrapper into my backpack. Time to wash up for supper. Aunt Gina would undoubtedly pitch one of her fits that I was overweight. What else was new? My hair was too red, my eyes too violet and I was too short, plus I had a propensity for wearing jeans and t-shirts instead of letting Aunt Gina fix me up with the latest styles from her favorite boutiques. I’d been on everybody’s list after Dad met his latest bimbo and started bouncing me around his relatives. Like it was my fault he had a thing for scrawny twits barely in their twenties. He wouldn’t stay with this one either. When she hit twenty-eight or so, he’d trade her in on a younger model.

At dinner that night, I stuck to one serving of the main-dish salad and avoided the platter of white beans and kale on organic whole wheat toast. Aunt Gina interrogated seventeen-year-old Phoebe about the photoshoot—swimwear in December. I would have felt sorry for my cousin, but she was too busy bragging about how much money she made for my aunt’s talent agency and what she intended to buy with her wages. After that, her sixteen-year-old brother, Chet, and his dad kept trying to one-up each other about the family’s upcoming ski trip to Aspen, Colorado for Christmas break. So not my thing, but I had sense enough not to say that.

As the rest of them finished up with strawberry sorbet and I drank ice-water, Uncle Noah turned his plastic smile on me and then on Aunt Gina. “Did you decide where Nicoletta will stay for the holidays?”

“Stewart Falls?” I asked eagerly. “I’d love to be with Grandaunt Liz and Grandma.”

“Don’t be silly,” Aunt Gina informed me. “They told me that they’re too busy with their families to take care of you. I’ve arranged for you to go to Camp Halsey next week. They have a teen weight loss program, and it even includes horseback riding. You’ll enjoy it.” 

Tears burned, but I blinked hard to hold them back. No way would my grandaunt or her husband or my maternal grandmother ever send me to a “fat farm” for the holidays. They wanted me to come home. They said so whenever I had the chance to talk to them. Oh, Mom, I wish you were here so I could see you. It’d take me less than an hour to pack and we’d blow this popsicle stand.

* * *

Los Angeles, CA – Friday, December 21st, 2018


“Anybody sitting here?”

I looked up from the fantasy paperback I’d bought to read on the long bus trip and saw a white-haired woman peering through her glasses. And my aunt said I was a fashion disaster. This old lady could give me lessons. She wore a flowered dress, thick stockings, and flat brown shoes. It seemed like my privacy was coming to an end. Slowly, I reached over and moved my backpack from the other seat to the floor near my feet.

“Thanks, honey.” She plopped down beside me, her large purse, and the coat she’d held over her arm taking up space between us. She pushed a small overnight case under the seat. “Appreciate it. How far are you going?”

“Olympia, Washington,” I lied. Actually, I was going a lot farther, but I wouldn’t say that, not yet. I didn’t know her. “What about you?”

“Oh, only to Portland, Oregon.” She shifted around in the seat, attempting to get comfortable and fussing with the seatbelt. “I’m visiting my son-and daughter-in-law for Christmas. They offered to come get me, but I just love riding the bus, don’t you? It’s such an adventure, and who doesn’t want to have one of those?”

Was she serious? Who’d really want to take the bus from Los Angeles to northern Oregon? I watched her carefully and listened to her babble about her grandkids. Something didn’t ring true, and I remembered that my mom always said to trust my instincts.

Okay, Nikki Tiernan. Think your way through this. What could some old lady want? What could she get out of me? My money, ID, and the bank card Mom gave me were safe in my jeans pocket. I had my bus ticket in my jacket pocket tucked between me and the large window that looked out on the parking lot with its lines of huge buses.

My wallet was in my backpack, but it only held a few pictures of me, Mom, and Fifi. I’d learned not to put a single bill in it when my cousins ripped me off at the first place Dad dumped me. Aunt Gina locked up her study so I couldn’t use her electronics when she and her family left for Aspen, Colorado yesterday. Her favorite mantra was, “Grow up, Nicoletta Angelique Dubois.”

She didn’t know I’d already been in there to book a bus ticket online and erased my computer footprints when I finished. Sure, a hacker could find them, but I was fairly positive she wouldn’t have one on staff over Christmas. I’d tuned out her lectures during the past week once I learned about the “fat farm” she intended to send me to until New Years. The woman was a total control freak from dawn till dark. She constantly pitched a fit about what I wore—“blue jeans and t-shirts aren’t appropriate at the dinner table,” —what I ate—meat is poison,” the music I listened to—okay I liked country. The singers weren’t all “rednecks or hicks” to me.

“And then I told Muriel, she’s my neighbor,” my seat partner said, “that Christmas isn’t Christmas without family.” The old lady nodded firmly. “Don’t you agree?”

“It depends on the family,” I said. “Yours sounds nice. How old are your grandkids?”

That got her going again and I could think. The driver wound through checking the new passengers’ tickets. He glanced at me. Since he’d seen my ticket when I boarded back in San Diego, we were good. He knew I was going through to Seattle, the end of his trip. Then he was off for the holiday. And I’d keep heading north.

“Oh, my goodness. Where are my manners? I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Hannah Lawrence. What’s your name?”

“Nikki,” I said, using the name Mom called me, the one I liked. “Nikki Tiernan.”

Silence, but only for an instant before the blathering started up again. Wouldn’t you know she had pictures of her grandkids? She pulled them out and started showing them off. There was only one problem. I recognized the kids from my foray on my aunt’s computer. They were stock photos from the various sites where she posted pics of her best models.

Okay, this was a con and I could play along, at least for a while. If anyone tried to get me off the bus, I’d pitch a fit. Like Mom always said, ”Better to know your enemy’s face, even if the person doesn’t know that you know.” I smiled at the old lady. No, think of her as “Hannah,” who sat and twisted her necklace. I doubted that was her ‘real’ name. “What grades are they in? Did you get them something amazing for presents?”

Hannah chattered away as we waited for the bus to leave the station. She was so “hail buddy—well met,” as one of my English teachers used to say, that I wondered who she was trying to impress. When I scanned the rest of the passengers, they were unconcerned. Did they think I’d met up with my family? I took a deep breath and decided she’d calm down in a little bit. If not, I’d open my book and claim I needed to read it for school.

* * *

Hannah Bertha Lawrence


Escape, was all I could think of, escape from Andy. How could I ever be so dumb? Why did I think he loved me? No guy who really cared cheated on his girlfriend, beat the crap out of her in an argument, tried to convince her to sleep with his buddies, or hocked her belongings to buy drugs. So, I left. Well, actually, this was the third time I’d split. He caught up with me the first two times and dragged me back to his apartment. He didn’t know I’d already applied for a transfer to different universities in Oregon and Washington State to totally flee from him, and I wasn’t talking.

This time, when I ended up in our old apartment, I’d played the proverbial game. I acted like I loved him, and all was forgiven. Of course, he meant the best for me, and I was oh, sooo lucky to have him. What an idiot! He totally bought it. When he wasn’t looking, I managed to text my best friend before my phone ran out of minutes. She called and carried on about the last acting class of the semester. She told him if I failed it, there went my financial aid. Of course, neither of us shared the fact that she was keeping my ID and debit card safe from him.

Andy didn’t realize we were scamming him. No money meant no drugs. He’d let me go to the theater and I headed straight to costumes where Trish was waiting. The disguise the two of us came up with was a bit over the top, but I’d made it to the bus station, bought a ticket with the money she scraped together, and now I was out of here. Nobody would see a college student and want-a-be actress in an old granny with her teen granddaughter.

The kid was perfect. Short, a bit pudgy in jeans and a crop top with an old-style camo Army jacket bunched up for a pillow. She’d jazzed up her olive-drab backpack with marking pens. Giant roses covered the canvas. A mop of shoulder-length, curly red hair, big violet eyes, rounded cheeks, and a wide smile with gleaming white teeth—pure innocence. She kept asking questions about my supposed grandkids and I continued making up stories while the bus started up and backed out of its slot.

In moments, we’d headed toward the freeway, north to freedom. I’d figure out my final destination once I was out of California. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d run away from a bad situation. Growing up in foster care taught a girl survival skills. I sighed and relaxed deeper in the seat. “Enough about me, honey. What about you?”

* * *




It was dark shortly after four in the afternoon. That made it difficult to see anything beyond the freeway and stream of cars. We were supposed to be in Seattle tomorrow afternoon, and I’d have to figure out how to get to Stewart Falls from there. If I’d had my cell, I could have called my grandmother or grandaunt for a ride. Stupid, I thought. When I got a new phone, I wouldn’t count on its memory. I’d write down all of my contacts.

Hannah had drifted off to sleep a few miles back. I wondered if she had a cell phone. If she did, would it have the Internet? I could look up Horse Heaven and get its number that way. Then again, I’d do better to call Aunt Cathy at the Pine Ridge Veterinary Clinic. Grandma would probably give me the “respect your elders” lecture and “daddy knows best,” line of trash she’d been feeding me since Mom shipped out to Afghanistan in January 2018. It totally made me crazy, but Mom said playing Cleopatra ran in the family. It was why we always tried to be a hundred percent straight with each other and not do the “queen of denial” thing.

Poor Mom. I’d bet she was freaking by now. I’d barely been able to talk to her over Thanksgiving before her unit was transferred to Kuwait from Afghanistan. Still, she was much safer than when she’d been in Kandahar. I’d emailed her about going from my grandparents to my uncle’s houses and then to my aunt’s in San Diego. I called her on my cell every few days until Aunt Gina snagged it. Now, we were both screwed.

Hannah sat up as the bus slowed to take an exit. She blinked at me, hazel eyes like an owl’s behind her glasses. “What’s going on?”

“Redding, California,” I said. “A scheduled stop. I’m starving. Want to grab a sandwich?”

She shook her head, shrank back in the seat, twisting the gold trimmed stone on its cheap chain around her neck. “Oh no. I’m fine.”

She wore thin, lacy, white gloves like most people saved for weddings or fancy events and it made me wonder how old she really was. I couldn’t tell by looking at her hands. My grandmother and her older sister only wore gloves when they were working outside, or gardening, or when the weather got cold. Hannah had to be lying again, but I wouldn’t call her on it.

Instead, I waited while the bus came to a stop, parking in a slot outside the depot. I slung my backpack over one shoulder, collected Mom’s old camo coat. “Back in a bit. Save my seat. I’ll get something for both of us.”


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