Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 11

Continued from part 10, or you can start from the beginning.

Christmas morning dawned much like any other snowy winter morning. Walt rose before the sun, meeting Murph, who waited in his idling truck, two styrofoam cups of coffee steaming on the dashboard. By the time the herd was milked and pastured, the sun was up, and Walt’s belly knew it was past time for breakfast.

Murph headed out. He had a sister down on Lake Bomoseen who filled a stocking for him.

Walt packed up his mother’s picnic basket with raw milk for Aunt Yolie, and the best of the cuts from his beef share for his mother and the Cartwright cousins. His Pop had sold a bull calf the year before, knocking a fair amount off the sale price in exchange for the future meat. It wasn’t much of a Christmas gift, but he hoped his family would forgive him. He’d spend most of his spare cash on a gifts for Molly.

The Neil Young record was one he was gambling she didn’t have already, since it was nothing new, just something that reminded him of her.

The small box weighed like a stone in his pocket.

Molly had invited him to join the Sanders family for pie and coffee after Christmas dinner; the idea of giving her a present in front of her parents and her little brother was something close to terrifying, but he’d seen the little opal egg on a slim gold chain through the window at the Mercantile, and known it would look beautiful around her neck.

Aunt Yolie answered her door, sweeping open the grand front entry—Walt both loved and feared his aunt’s formal Victorian home. Eolia Cartwright was well into her seventies, but to Walt she’d always seemed old. She wore her steel-gray hair in the same severe up-do he knew from his own christening photographs.

“Walter,” she said. She was always formal, but there was kindness in her eyes. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Aunt Yolie.” He leaned over the threshold to kiss her papery cheek, then followed her into the front parlor. His mother sat in a stiff wing chair, looking at—but Walt suspected not seeing—Yolie’s Christmas tree. “Merry Christmas, Ma.”

Tory Fuller was fifteen years her sister’s junior, but you couldn’t see it in his mother’s grief-ravaged face. She’d paled since Thanksgiving, he noticed. Her gaze drifted toward him. “Oh, Walt honey. It’s nice to see you.”

Yolie fussed over him, putting the food from the basket into her fridge and ladling him a glass of thick, stingingly boozy eggnog. “She’ll perk up when your cousins get here.”

His mother did, in fact, perk up when the Cartwrights arrived. His cousins Charlie and George arrived with their families within moments of another. Between them there were six kids, and their happy noise filled the house.

George’s wife Ginny paused near his position in the living room doorway, where he watched the littlest cousins opening their gifts. She stretched up to kiss his cheek, flicking a glance at the mistletoe ball Yolie always hung there. “You’re quiet today. Even for you.”

Privately, Walt had always considered Ginny Cartwright the most beautiful woman alive, even if she was a quarter of a century older than he was. Looking into her concerned eyes, he was defenseless. “I’m worried about Ma.”

“She’ll be okay. Losing the love of your life takes a lot out of you.” She laid a hand on his cheek and smiled. “I heard you were spending time with someone.”

“Word travels fast,” Walt muttered, but he couldn’t help the way his lips curved toward a smile. “Molly Sanders.”

“I know her. She passed through my classroom a few times over the years. And George wrote her a college recommendation. She’s a good girl.”

“I know.” He was having a hard time not letting his imagination run away with the future. Since the bonfire, they’d seen one another almost daily. Molly seemed content to visit the farm, and unafraid to pitch in, especially if it meant Walt had extra time to show her the secret places on the property. Just two days before, he’d taken her down to Fuller Creek, to the spot his Pop had put up the tire swing the summer he and Joe begged for one.

One the way home, they’d stopped in the barn, and Walt had quite nearly confessed his love when Molly laid her cheek on the forehead of one of the Brown Swiss. She’d smiled at him over the cow’s nose. “They’re wonderful,” she’d sighed.

So are you…

“What did you get her?” Ginny was watching him over her eggnog, while Charlie’s twins squealed over new doll clothes.

“A necklace,” Walt mumbled.

“I’m sure she’ll love it.”Ginny rested her head briefly on Walt’s shoulder before going to see what her daughter Rosie was holding up.

Walt hoped so.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 10

Continued from part 9, or you can read from the beginning.

“I wouldn’t have figured Walt Fuller for a good kisser,” Jane said. She was paging through the Sears catalog, and held up a page for Molly’s approval. “Do you think something like this would be a good traveling suit for the honeymoon?”

“Does Bobby know you’re planning that already?” Molly gave the camel-colored blazer and tailored trousers a once over. “You’d look good in that sweater or the striped shirt, but this is all winter stuff. You’re going to want a summer suit if you get married in June.”

Jane flipped the whole catalog shut with a quick huff. “You’re right.”

“Once we got out of our own way, he’s a great kisser.” Molly figured she was as close to an expert as anyone on that subject. They’d strung popcorn and cranberries while dinner warmed up. They’d kissed in the kitchen while the lasagne cooled. Walt brought down his mother’s box of ornaments and tinsel. Molly held a crocheted sprig of mistletoe over his head, and they’d tangled together in a breathless heap on the plaid sofa cushions.

In the amber-dappled light of the Christmas tree, they’d snuggled front of the wood stove, drinking spiked hot chocolate and talking late into the night.

Jane was looking at her, having abandoned her trousseau shopping. “What about backpacking? Rome? Vienna? Athens?”

Molly wrapped her arms around her knees. “What about them?”

“You’ve been talking about going to Europe ever since you had to take that semester off for your gall bladder surgery, and your graduation got pushed back. Are you going to just give that up because Walt Fuller’s more interesting than he looks?”

“That’s mean.” He was, though. Much more interesting, though Molly liked his looks just fine. “And a dinner date and some kissing doesn’t mean we’re getting married.”

Jane’s eyebrows rose, their groomed arches displaying her skepticism. “A dinner date you invited yourself on, and the bonfire at Randy’s…” Her lips pursed just slightly as she trailed off. “I ran into Cora at the Rexall.”

Molly laughed. “Okay, fine. I like him a lot, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up Europe.” Molly flopped back on Jane’s bed. “It’s not like I have the money to go, anyway.”

“Well, the Fuller dairy herd isn’t going to pay for it, that’s for sure.”

“Jane!” Molly sat up. Jane had paged past the suits and on to winter outerwear.

“Walt’s already married to the cows, as far as I can tell, so I don’t think he’s headed off to backpack across Austria for a summer.”

“You’re awful.” Molly lobbed a throw pillow at her cousin, who caught it neatly and set it on the foot of the bed.

Jane gave her the eyebrows again. “I’m practical. It’s different.”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 9

Continued from part 8, or you can start from the beginning.

John Pease turned up at the farm three days later, dressed in flannel, denim, and work boots. Walt heard footsteps down the barn’s wide center floor and stuck his head out of a stall he’d been clearing out.

“Walt?”

“Hey, John. C’mon back.”

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Murph’s out in the east pasture bringing one of the girls back. Doc Sutton is stopping by later to take a look at her.”

John leaned against the stall’s half-wall. “Do I want to know?”

“How’d’you feel about udders?”

“Bovine?” John grinned. “Not so much.”

Walt chuckled. “You here to work?”

“If you can put me to use.” John cast around the barn as if looking for inspiration.

“I’m walking the fence line by the Swift’s place this afternoon. I wouldn’t say no to company and an extra pair of hands.”

“Sounds great.”

Murph came around the side of barn door, leading one of the dairy’s sweet-faced Brown Swiss. They were his mother’s favorites—gentle girls with furry ears his mother loved to stroke as she crooned over them. His mom hadn’t been back once since the day after the funeral, when his cousins George and Charlie had come by to help move her things to Aunt Yolie’s house.

He ought to insist she and Aunt Yolie come out to the farm for Sunday dinner.

Who would cook dinner? He was pretty competent at the grill, but he’d stocked the freezer with an embarrassment of TV dinners since his mom left. He couldn’t make a turkey or a ham to save his life.

Who would eat it, anyway? His Pop’s had been the biggest appetite. For everything.

Molly and her lasagna flooded his thoughts. Slow down there, Fuller.

“Walt?” John was watching him, a mixture of pity and concern in his eyes.

Walt blinked. “Sorry, thinking about the vet bill.”

“Bullshit.” John’s tone was conversational. “I wish you were thinking about Molly Sanders, not something that makes you look like a kicked dog.”

John’s uncanny question caught Walt off guard. “What about her?”

“She’s pretty, and she likes you.”

His friend’s words unleashed butterflies in his gut. “Is that your law degree talking?”

“That’s my eyes talking.” John clapped Walt on the shoulder. “I don’t get my law degree until spring. You like her, too, if I still know you. Let’s take a walk and you can tell me what that’s about.”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 8

Continued from part 7, or you can start from the beginning.

He didn’t say much, but Molly watched the way his smile played coy with his face when he snuck glances at her. Walt Fuller’s eyes might be windows to an old soul, but the fireflies in her belly flocked to the light that flickered in them when he got out of his truck in the dooryard.

“See that break in the fence ahead?” she said. “Take that. It Randy said we’re meeting up at the mill.”

Walt nodded, slowing the truck and turning onto the dirt road. They bumped down the frost-heaved tractor road that wound from Route 7 around the orchards to the abandoned mill, Molly wondering if he was thinking about the crackling atmosphere between them. Once the tidy rows of bare trees were behind them, she could see the glow of the bonfire through the woods beyond. A scattering of vehicles met them around a bend, and Walt stopped the truck.

He let out a long breath and pulled the key from the ignition. Molly touched his shoulder.

“Come on, let’s go.”

She paused for a beat when he let himself out of the truck. He’d surprised her, closing her door in her parents’ driveway; she wondered if he’d come around to get the door for her.

Her patience was rewarded. Walt opened the passenger door and offered her a hand. With her feet firmly on the ground, Molly looped her arm through his and led him towards the fire pit.

A chorus of greeting rose up from the knot of people around the already blazing fire. Molly felt Walt hesitate and squeezed his arm.

“Walt! Hey, man.” Randy Strickland got up from the log he’d been perched on. “Hey, Molls.”

“Hi, Randy. Thanks for the invite. Nice night for it.”

“Cold night for it.” Walt reached out a hand, the two men shook hands. “Been a while.”

“Yeah,” Randy laughed. “Think the last time I saw you, we were out at your place for a party. Summertime?”

“My mom’s fiftieth.” Walt filled in the information.

Randy’s grin sank. “Sorry about your old man. My folks didn’t mention it until I got back from school.”

“Thanks.”

Molly snugged his arm against her to ward off the sadness she knew kept him company.

“There’s beer in the cooler over there.” Randy gestured at the circle around the fire. “Grab a seat.”

A girl with a wheat colored braid hanging down over one shoulder was playing a guitar and singing, with help from a couple nearby. There was space on a picnic table across the clearing.

Molly slid her hand along his arm, twining their fingers where they met. “Want to grab a couple of beers? I’ll grab some seats.”

Walt nodded, and made his way to the cooler on the tailgate of another pickup. He met her at the picnic table with two bottles of Labatt’s. Molly leaned against him when he sat, enjoying the way her head fit in the crook of his shoulder.

More cars and trucks filled in the makeshift parking, and the crowd around the fire grew. Someone left their car running, providing more music when the guitar-playing girl’s fingers got too cold.

Cora Atkinson and her tall, dark-haired date joined them. “Molly! I didn’t know you’d be here. You know John, right?”

“Hey, John,” Molly said. “John Pease, Walt Fuller.”

Walt’s posture shifted, she felt him relax. “We know each other.”

“Just a bit.” John dropped down next to Walt with an easy grin. “How’s the farm?”

Cora sat on Molly’s other side. “John’s parents live next door to the Cartwrights.”

Molly tilted her head, squinting at her friend.

“Walt’s Aunt Yolie?” Cora prompted her. “Walt’s mom moved in with her sister after Jed Fuller died.”

Cora went on, but Molly wasn’t listening. Next to her, Walt was deep in conversation with Cora’s boyfriend, more at ease than she’d seen seen him yet. His father hadn’t been gone a month, his mother had decamped to her sister’s—she knew from Janey that his sister and brother weren’t nearby.

No wonder he was so solemn, with only cows for company.

She leaned into him a little more, the layers of clothing between them warming from the contact. In wordless answer, Walt’s hand pressed against hers. A quiet gesture, but Molly’s heart felt it just the same.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 7

Continued from part 6, or you can start from the beginning.

Walt had no idea how to dress for a bonfire at Randy Strickland’s parents’ farm, but he’d missed Molly enough during her remaining weeks in Saratoga Springs to say yes to going with her before thinking it all the way through. He knew Randy and his older sister Charlene; farm families were like that. Randy was a few years younger than he was, enough so they hadn’t been in school together. The Stricklands had a few dairy cows, goats, pigs, and chickens, but their main enterprise was found in acres and acres of Liberty and Northern Spy apples.

He zipped a sweatshirt over a Thornton Union High School t-shirt and laced up his cleanest pair of work boots, hoping they was the right thing to wear to a bonfire with Molly Sanders. By the time he made it out to his truck, he was glad of the parka, hat, and mittens he’d grabbed on the way out the door.

As he drove away, Walt realized he hadn’t left the farm—or interacted with anyone save Murph, the farm hand who was nearly as old as his father—in three days.

As old as his father had been.

The mental correction caught in his throat. Generally, he’d been content to get up early with the herd, see to their needs, spend the day marking off the never-ending list of chores the farm required, but he missed his Pop.

Anxiety rode shotgun on the drive south through town. What if he was making too much of Molly’s payphone calls from her dorm? What if he was making too much of kisses and Christmas trees and a lightness that warmed his grieving heart?

Molly Sanders was sitting on her parents’ front porch steps in the same bell-bottom jeans she’d been wearing the day they met. He noted boots and her pompom hat. Down vest, wool sweater, scarf. Desire shot through him, burning away the jitters. Before Molly, he’d dated a couple of girls in high school, but the farm was a demanding mistress. What this girl did to his insides was new.

She stood when he eased the truck in behind the Ford station wagon he now knew was her father’s. He liked the way her body filled out the ski sweater and vest, but more he liked her wide, easy smile, the dusting of freckles on her nose, and the laughter in her eyes.

“You’re on time,” she said as he jumped down from the truck cab to meet her.

The darkness outside the pool of light from a lamp over the Sanders’ garage was deep and cold. Walt could have stayed in that amber-white puddle of light forever, but his date had other ideas. She stretched up and kissed his cheek. “I like on time.”

He led her to the truck, and Molly Sanders climbed into the passenger seat like she’d been doing it all her life. He closed her door, and took the long way behind the truck bed, stopping to consider the way the flat flood light through the windshield turned her cinnamon curls into a halo.

His sister was right. He was a goner.

To be continued…