Walt could see, through the Sanders’ front door, Molly’s family gathered around the Christmas tree, staring at them. Molly’s face was in her hands, her shoulders shook. He grabbed a coat from the coat tree just inside the front door, wrapped it around her shoulders and pulled the door closed, leaving them alone on the cold front stoop.
“What happened?” He pulled her close, not knowing what else to offer her.
She buried her face in his chest and clung to his waist for a moment, but the shaking stopped. When she looked up at him, her eyes and nose were blotchy with crying.
“I got my Christmas present.” She sniffled and wiped her eyes.
“That bad?” He couldn’t help but smile.
She gave him a wobbly smile. “Amazing, actually. Just… unexpected.”
His own gifts still weighed heavily in his free hand while the other held her. “I guess these aren’t exactly amazing, but maybe unexpected?”
He brought the two packages between them, offering them to her.
“Yours is inside,” she said, taking up the record, and slicing the paper. “Neil Young. You surprise me.”
“I wore this one out at the end of high school.” He reached up to touch the curling locks of auburn hair around her face. “The day you and Jane rescued me, that’s what popped into my head: Cinnamon Girl.”
Molly set down the album on the empty planter that stood guard at the front door and took his face in her hands. “That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
Her lips were cold, but Walt didn’t care.
“Now…” She took the smaller box and unwrapped it, handing him the paper. When she lifted the lid off, she looked up at him. “Walt, it’s beautiful.”
“Not as beautiful as you, Molly.”
A pair of fresh tears welled up and rolled over her cheeks.
“Hey, there. Don’t cry.” He thumbed away one falling tear.
She took the necklace out and held it up between them. “Will you help me?”
Walt took the chain, and clumsily at best, fastened it around her neck.
Molly took his hand. “Come take a walk with me.”
She shrugged into the coat, fished in one of its voluminous pockets to find a striped ski hat in Thornton High colors and a pair of leather driving gloves that dwarfed her hands. She tugged the hat around her ears. “You grabbed my dad’s coat.”
She led him around the corner of the yard, through a hedgerow and into the large lawn that surrounded the Riverbend Hotel. The Revolutionary War-era tavern was dark, its windows lit with electric candles. Molly skirted the empty fountain and formal garden, seeking out a gazebo that looked out over the lawn towards the Catmint River.
“Three semesters ago I had my gall bladder removed.”
Walt blinked. That wasn’t what he’d expected.
“It pushed back my graduation, and while I was recovering from the surgery, I started reading old travel guides my Grampa Simon brought for me.”
The travel guides in her father’s car came to mind.
“Ever since then, I’ve wanted to go to Europe, stay in hostels, eat street food, see all the art and palaces and cafés…” She took a deep breath. “I just knew that the world was out there waiting for me to find it.”
The gold band around the opal egg at her throat winked, and Walt’s heart sank like a stone to his gut.
“My whole family got together to give me the plane tickets and some spending money.” She squeezed his hands. I leave in three weeks. I’ll be gone ’til late March.”
Her eyes were shining. She couldn’t know how lovely she was, sitting there telling him she was leaving. The stone in his belly cracked open. Once she’d seen the wide world, she wouldn’t want a hardscrabble dairy farm in her hometown. Once she’d tasted French wine, walked museums and parks with other explorers, kissed men who’d seen the world, she wouldn’t want a man anchored to the eighty acres his family had farmed for generations.
“It’s going to be amazing, Cinnamon Girl.” He swallowed the hitch in his voice. “You’re going to be amazing.”