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.”