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.