Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 6

Continued from part 5, or you can start from the beginning.

Molly checked the laundry hamper twice before she loaded it into her dad’s station wagon. A carton of raw cranberries, a paper bag of popcorn, thread and needle pinched from her mom’s sewing box, some bittersweet and holly from the wild tangle of shrubs on their property line, and a Big Crosby Christmas record. Molly wasn’t sure how Walt felt about music, but you couldn’t go wrong with Bing Crosby.

The moon was a low, snow-white crescent in a deep sky over the valley as she drove west out of town. Darkness came early in December, but the radio station out of Plattsburg was playing Christmas carols, and Molly sang along with enough gusto to hide her lackluster singing voice—and her twanging nerves.

It was five-fifty-five on the dot when she turned into the driveway at the Fuller’s farm. The dairy barn hulked in its own shadow, and the pastures rolled away into the night, a study in lonesome moonlight and snow. The house, in contrast, was lit up from within with a warm, steady light that brought an involuntary smile to her face. She stopped the car on the gravel and cut the headlights—just in time to realize Walt was up a ladder, leaning into the front gable, long cords of colored lights dangling from the ladder and a hammer slung from his hammer loop.

“Be right down,” he hollered.

Molly stood in the driveway, arms wrapped around her chest against the cold, while Walt put a nail in the peak of the gable, and hauled the lights into place along the roofline.

He climbed down, leaving the ladder in place, and crossed the front yard, chafing his gloved hands together. “Want to help me light it up?”

“Yeah.”

He led her to the outlet on the outside of the wall, tucked behind a rhododendron in the front garden and handed her the plug. She wondered if he felt the zing of an altogether different kind of electricity when her mittened fingers touched his bare ones.

The lights brought the house to cheerful life, and Molly clapped. “It looks great.”

“So,” Walt said, face alight with pleasure, “what’s the big surprise?”

“We’re going to make a popcorn garland for your tree.”

Walt carried her laundry hamper of supplies inside. Molly followed, shucking her coat and shoes by the door. Walt glanced at her sock feet.

Molly wiggled her rag-toe. “Keeps the dirt out. I might be a messy packer, but I hate dirty floors.”

He was a tidy bachelor, she thought, but whether that was due to natural inclination or lack of opportunity to make a mess, she couldn’t be sure. The wood stove was going in the parlor, and Walt set her basket down by the sofa. “I don’t have much, but I’ve got some Schaefer in the fridge.”

Molly opened the gingham tablecloth she’d wrapped around her offerings. “That’s not very festive. I brought hot chocolate.” She pulled out a large green Thermos, set it down on the coffee table, then dug back into the basket. After a brief search, she brandished a fifth of peppermint schnapps. “With a kick.”

“You’ve got a regular picnic in there,” Walt remarked, looking over her shoulder at the cranberries, the popcorn, and a foil-wrapped baking dish. “Is that a lasagna?”

“It’s my specialty.” Molly pulled out the popcorn and cranberries, then tucked the tablecloth around the dish. “It just needs to warm up. We can put it in when we get hungry.”

“Molly?”

“Or I can put it in now.” She pulled back one corner of the cloth.

“Molly.”

Walt’s voice had gone hoarse. In the same motion she turned and began to stand while he clasped her arm and tugged. She stumbled into his embrace. He wasn’t too tall; she liked where she fit into his body. “I’d really like to kiss you.”

His arms snugged around her and she rested her forehead against his nose, their breath mingling. “You definitely should.”

As first kisses went, Molly thought, it wasn’t so bad. If their teeth clinked and she giggled, if she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands, it didn’t matter. He tasted like mint, and when she didn’t shy away, his lips slanted against hers, and the oxygen in the room went hot.

They kissed, openmouthed, unbothered by awkward hands, for a brief eternity. Full darkness filled in the shadows around the farmhouse, leaving them cocooned in warmth and light.

Molly caught her breath before it whooshed out in a nervous laugh. “We should heat up that lasagna.”

Walt pushed his hands into his pockets. “How ‘bout I go bring in the tree and the stand?”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 5

Continued from part 4, or you can start from the beginning.

Saturdays meant Murph’s day off. Walt hadn’t thought about that in the heady rush of Molly Sanders’ call, which was how he found himself driving into the village mid-afternoon to drop off his cousin Rosie.

She hopped out of the truck with a wave, brandishing her wages for a morning’s work with the herd. “Thank for the ride, Walt.  And the cash.”

Thornton was dressed up for Christmas, garlanded and ribboned, piled with two storms’ worth of snow. He hadn’t given much thought to the holiday. Despite Patty’s insistence that he get a tree, it was easier, out in the quiet valley, to shove aside the idea of Christmas Eve without his parents. Years of carol singing while his Pop played his fiddle, of recitations of ’A Visit from St. Nicholas by the youngest reader—a position Walt had been happy to cede to Patty’s kids a few years back—erased in one shattering morning. His family had fallen apart, and Walt wasn’t sure where he’d fit when it put itself back together again.

The tree he’d cut was out in the barn in a bucket of water. Waiting for Molly’s arrival.

Walt pulled the truck over and got out, leaving the keys in it. The river was half-frozen, singing under the ice and warbling over the falls. The window display at the Ben Franklin wished him a Merry Christmas, the cheery bell inside the door welcomed him. Three steps inside the store, he found a pyramid of outdoor lights.

Flo, who worked the register, insisted on a paper bag for his purchases, and a candy cane for his pocket, as though he were still the child who’d come in for a candy bar on Sundays after church. He was still shaking his head when he very nearly collided with Molly on the sidewalk outside.

“Walt!” Her smile was dazzling. “Hey.”

“Morning.” Morning? Walt took a breath and started again. “Hi, Molly.”

“How are you?”

It was a question he’d heard from everyone who’d spoken to him since his father’s passing, one he’d responded to with an, “Okay, I guess,” to deflect actual consideration of how he felt. He figured most people didn’t really want to know. Somehow, from Molly’s lips the words didn’t seem like a pleasantry. It didn’t seem to matter that he barely knew this girl at all.

“Been better, but I’m looking forward to seeing you later.”

“I can’t imagine,” she said, sympathy shining in her eyes. “But I’m looking forward to it, too.”

They stood on the sidewalk in the clear December sunlight for four heartbeats—Walt counted them as they thundered in his chest—before Molly laughed.

“I have to get home. I promised my mom I’d pick up a few things while I was in town.”

“Oh, sure,” Walt said. His hand in his pocket crinkled the wrapping of the candy cane. “Do you like candy canes?”

Molly’s head tilted curiously. “Yeah.”

He produced the candy cane in his palm, feeling suddenly foolish. He really had no idea what he was doing.

“You’re sweet.” She took the cane from his palm; maybe he imagined her chilly fingers lingering there a moment.

He’d missed casual affection in the last couple of weeks. He did okay on his own, but his parents had been—his mother still was—an affectionate woman. Molly had just crossed the street and Walt drank in the way she looked, the icy spray from the falls billowing up behind her as she crossed the bridge.

“Molly!” She stopped, turning back. “Let me walk you to your car.”

Walt jogged across Main Street to join her.

“You don’t have to. I’m just parked there by the library.” She shifted the bag she was carrying to her other arm. “But I won’t say no.”

Walt shrugged and fell into step with her for less than half a block.

“This is me,” she said, stopping in front of a parked station wagon. They shuffled the bags between the two of them getting the doors open. Walt closed the car door for her, but not before he noticed a stack of travel guides stacked up on the seat.

He wondered how soon she was leaving. He imagined her with a crew of college kids like herself, shuffling on and off trains with huge packs and tourist maps.

She touched his arm, drawing him out of his reverie. “See you around six.”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 4

Continued from Part 3: or you can start from the beginning.

Molly dialed the number inked on an empty page in her composition notebook. The payphone cord was too short to sit down on the industrial carpeting, so she leaned against the wall with the receiver tucked between her shoulder and her ear, tapping the page with her pen while it rang.

She’d looked the farm’s number up in the phone book in her parents’ kitchen before heading back to school, and there it stayed through the week’s classes. The more days passed, the more she doubted herself. After one brief car ride and an awkward exchange at his father’s funeral, what was the likelihood he was still thinking about her?

“Fuller Dairy.” The voice on the other end of the line was the same soft, gruff delivery she’d liked so much the week before.

“Walt?”

There was a tentative pause before he responded. “This is Walter.”

Molly’s pulse jumped; he was adorably serious. “It’s Molly Sanders. From Thornton. I’m glad you picked up.”

“Molly? Oh, hey.”

She was glad he couldn’t see the fiery blush on her cheeks. “Forgot me so soon?”

“No, I…” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t expect you to call, is all.”

Molly inhaled deeply and went for convincing. Walt didn’t have to know that she would stay in Saratoga Springs if he said no. “It looks like I’m going to be home this weekend, and I wondered if you wanted to hang out on Saturday, maybe I could make you dinner?”

“Well, I—“ His voice dropped away so suddenly Molly was sure he’d hung up. “My sister bullied me into getting a Christmas tree. Maybe you could help me decorate it?”

Molly sucked in a breath, then clapped her hand over her mouth to suppress a giggle. Her roommate walked by, giving her a curious glance. Molly flipped open her notebook and silently pointed to Walt’s number. Laura grinned and continued on to their room.

“I’d love to. I’ll borrow my dad’s station wagon. What’s a good time?”

“How ‘bout six? Murph and I can get the herd settled, and…” He chuckled. “You didn’t call me to talk about cows.”

A metallic voice informed them that Molly needed to insert another coin.

“I’ve gotta go. I’ll see you Saturday at six.” Molly hung up the phone and sagged against the wall again. She hugged the notebook to her chest and closed her eyes for a moment.

After a moment, she dug into her pockets for another coin. She was going to need Jane to come down and spring her.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 3

Continued from Part 2, or you can start from the beginning.

“Patty, why are we doing this again?” Walt trudged through the rows of blue spruce with his sister while his niece and nephew covered one another in snow and fallen needles.

Patty grinned. “Because Mom’s not home to remind you, I’m leaving in three days, and we’ll be with Gary’s family for Christmas, and Joe will probably forget what day it is. If we don’t get you a Christmas tree now, you won’t have one at all, and that’s just sad.” She stopped, hands on her hips, and peered through the row at an eight footer a few feet away. “That one.”

Walt followed the line of her gaze and approached the tree in question. “This one?”

“Yes.” One of the kids squealed from somewhere behind them, and Patty hollered back without looking. “Leave your sister alone.”

Walt knelt under the tree, shaking some of the snow off the boughs before he notched the hand saw into the bark. “You know mom’s going to stay with Aunt Yolie. There’s no point in a tree at the farm.”

His sister was uncharacteristically silent. He heard her boots crunching through the snow toward him. Her voice, when she spoke, was gentle. “Mom can’t hide herself away with at Yolie’s for the rest of her life.”

Walt finished notching the tree, then eased out from underneath it to hand the saw to Patty. “Hold that.”

Patty took the saw. “Okay, fine. Mom probably will stay with Yolie in town.”

Walt took the saw back and crawled under on the other side of the trunk to finish the job.

“You could always invite that pretty redhead from the funeral over to help you trim your tree.”

Walt’s head snapped up and he thwacked it on a low branch, muttering a curse in Patty’s direction as the remaining snow in the boughs fell on him with a soft whump.

Patty and the kids laughed; Walt couldn’t help grinning at himself. “Thanks, Sissy. I needed that.”

“The laugh or the tree?” Patty asked, nudging her kids back into the snow to play.

Walt looked between the kids wrestling in the dirty track and his sister standing over the fallen fir, and channeled the memory of his Pop—intentionally this time. “Ayuh.”

Patty’s eyes misted over. “Let’s get this tree back to the truck.” She brushed away the emotion and hollered again at the kids. “Ellen, Alex, back to the truck!”

Walt grabbed the tree by a lower branch and dragged it along. When he caught up to Patty, she gave him a sly look.

“Who is the redhead anyhow?”

His cold-stung cheeks warmed a bit. “Molly Sanders.”

“She’s pretty. How’d you meet?”

“You remember the day I stranded the truck out by the bridge?” He paused; Patty nodded. “Molly and her cousin Jane picked me up and brought me back to the farm.”

Patty rounded on him. “You met that girl last week?”

Walt stopped. “Yeah, why?”

“Not every girl shows up at a family funeral for a second look. Unless you were slipping out at night to meet her after Thanksgiving?”

“Patty.” They’d eaten the holiday meal around the kitchen table, too sad and tired to put much into it.

Patty clicked her tongue. “You’re a goner.”

“Uncle Walt! Look!” Alex, six, came barreling back to them, holding a robin’s nest in his mittened hands.

“Hold onto that,” Patty said. “They’re good luck in a Christmas tree, and your uncle’s going to need it.”

Walt shook his head, but he didn’t argue. Patty started walking again, but stopped after a few steps to turn back to him. “Invite her over to trim the tree.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell his sister that Molly Sanders was probably back at her college in Saratoga Springs, and not likely to waste much more time on a homebody like him.

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 2

Continued from Part One:

Jed Fuller was laid to rest the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Nearly everyone in Thornton was there at the burial ground on Fuller Creek Road. To Molly it seemed half of Vermont was huddled there by the half-frozen creek, heads bowed around the Fuller family stone while Reverend Shutter prayed for Jed’s immortal soul, though his body would wait in the crypt until spring.

Jane shivered next to her, immaculately turned out in a black dress and what Molly thought of as her Sunday coat, though she’d decided on her snow boots. For her own part, Molly had squeezed into something borrowed from her mother, and covered it up with her parka after the service in town.

Walt stood between his mother and a slightly older young woman Molly assumed was his sister. Jane had given her a primer on the family before they’d come, even while she’d tried to talk Molly out of it. “We don’t even know him,” she’d said.

“He needs friends,” was all Molly could think to reply. Watching him shoulder a corner of his father’s casket, a clutch of idle snowflakes sticking to his lashes, Molly stood by her assessment.

The half-hearted snow swirled into a squall just as Reverend Shutter concluded his prayers, and Walt looked up. She smiled at him through the rioting snow, but wasn’t sure he saw.

At the farm, Jane found Bobby’s parents, who drew her into their circle of friends. Molly drifted past the dining room table, stopping to take a cider donut and a cup of coffee. She paused to say hello to some neighbors, but it was Walt she sought out while they spoke.

She found him sitting on the stairs, his coat still folded in his lap. “Hi,” she said. “How are you holding up?”

“All right, I guess.” He blinked at her, and Molly was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that they’d only just met. “How did you know about the funeral?”

“Jane.” Molly broke the donut in half and offered him a piece. “She drove, too. I hope it’s okay.”

Walt took the donut; their fingers brushed, and her insides went warm. For a moment, though, he only held it, staring at a point on the wall just beyond her.

She finished the donut to fill the awkward silence, but then there was cinnamon sugar on her fingertips, and she’d forgotten to bring a napkin. In desperation, she licked her fingertips, then grinned at her own foolishness. She didn’t have a napkin. “I’m sorry. I’m intruding.”

“You’re not—“ he began. A tentative smile played around his mouth—probably at her expense, but she’d take it—then his sister’s voice rang out, challenging his assertion.

“Walter? Where are you? Sal and Rachel are getting ready to leave.”

Walt’s eyes followed the sound of his sister’s voice to the front hall, where an elderly couple were bundling up. He shook his head just a tiny bit, blushing a little when she caught it and gave him an answering wry smile.

“I am,” she said stepping back to let him by. As he passed she brushed his hand with hers. “See you around.”

Jane was easy to find; she was even easier to convince to leave.

Molly shed her jacket and tossed it in the back of Jane’s car. “He’s like a lost puppy.”

Jane sighed as Molly’s coat tumbled off the seat, then turned the car around and pulled away. “He’s a dairy farmer, Moll. Don’t you want something nicer?”

“Don’t be a snob.” Molly reached for the radio dial. “You’re only doing secretarial training so you can work for Bobby’s dad and save up for a house faster.”

Jane’s disapproving frown flipped, and she flexed her left hand. The light caught the small diamond solitaire Bobby Thompson had put on her finger three months before. She looked up at Molly sharply. “So, why did you bother to do four years of college?”

“It’s 1977, Janey. I want to learn things, just to learn them. I want to figure out where I belong. You know?” Molly glanced in the rearview mirror at the receding farm. “In case you didn’t notice, I’ve hardly been a man-magnet in Saratoga Springs.”

“At least Walt Fuller has the good sense to think you’re pretty,” Jane conceded.

A happy shiver coursed down Molly’s spine. “Do you think so?”

“Don’t be stupid. I saw how he looked at you that day on the bridge.”

Molly sighed. With her long, thick blonde hair and blue eyes, Jane Starr was the kind of girl guys just noticed. Molly’s not-quite-red unruly waves that curled near her face, her curves, and her earnest face were more sidekick than leading lady.

The way he’d looked at her that day by the bridge had made her feel like the leading lady. She’d liked his eyes—serious and gray-hazel–and the appreciation in them.

“You know, Moll,” Jane said, pulling the car into Molly’s driveway. “Walt Fuller has something going for him.”

“Yeah?” Molly reached for her coat.

Jane shrugged. “He’s probably got a house already.”

To be continued…