It’s December, and time for the 6th annual holiday romance! This Christmas, we return to Thornton’s near past, and the valley in which the heart of the series lies. There’s a reason Joss Fuller is the man he is, and it has a lot to do with the people who raised him.
They weren’t always grandparents-in-waiting, though. In the winter of 1977, they were just two kids, figuring out their futures…
Walt Fuller’s father dropped dead repairing a pasture fence a week before Thanksgiving.
Walt missed his Pop something fierce, but his mother’s pain overshadowed his grief. She descended into mourning that lasted until the day she died. Jed’s broad-chested, bull-headed life had been the center of hers, and when his light went out, Tory Fuller switched hers off as well.
If she left Walt alone in the dark, he didn’t have the heart to say.
Within a day, the three bedroom farmhouse on the Fuller’s dairy farm was full to brimming with funereal closeness. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends poured in; the house swelled up with grief and goodwill. His oldest sister Patty came up from Connecticut with her husband and the babies and set up camp in the spare room. His brother was sleeping in his camper in the driveway, but he still came in to eat and use the toilet.
Walt couldn’t say for sure if Joe was showering at all.
He lasted three days among the mourners before taking his Pop’s truck west on County Road and driving until he could breathe again. A few yards shy of the Lake Champlain bridge, the truck ran out of gas. Cursing both the rare impulse and his father’s unexpected death, Walt hopped out of the truck to hitch a ride home.
If his fingers hadn’t been nearly frozen in the pockets of his Levis, the snow-scented wind off Lake Champlain would have made him smile. Walt relished the anticipation of long, dark Vermont winters. The dormant silence of a frozen pasture at dawn eased him in a way even the calving and greening of spring never could. The bovine warmth of the twilight barns comforted him like the drafty farmhouse never had.
He was contemplating the far-distant top of the Crown Point light house memorial when a blue Beetle honked and pulled onto the gravel shoulder. The girl who pushed out of the car had hair the color of cinnamon that curled out of her wool cap, and curves her bell-bottoms and a fair-isle ski sweater did nothing to hide. She came around the backside of the bug and leaned a hip against the rear hatch.
“Need a ride?” Her clear blue eyes were sparkling with suppressed laughter, taking in his truck and lack of a jacket.
The driver waved her hand. She was singing along with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” drumming delicately on the steering wheel of the VW.
Cinnamon Girl grinned, returned to the open passenger side door, and pushed her seat forward to open up the back. “By the way, that’s Jane, and I’m Molly.”
Walt arranged his limbs in the back of Jane’s bug. The car was cramped, and his knees pressed into the seats. He rested one arm on one of about a half-dozen paper bags crammed in with him.
“Where to?” Molly shifted in her seat to crane her neck. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled.
“Fuller Farm. It’’s just—“
“Up County Road another coupl’a miles,” Jane said. She half-turned to Molly as she eased the VW back onto the road. “You must be Walt.”
He blinked at the girl driving. She was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pretty in a catalog kind of way. “Ayuh.”
He heard his father in the old-timer response, and his chest squeezed.
Molly giggled, still twisted around to watch him. “Jane’s mom works at Town Hall. She knows everyone.”
Jane’s gaze flicked to Walt in the rearview mirror. “I’m sorry about your father.”
A cloud of concern passed across Molly’s face. “Oh, I—“
He cut off Molly’s sympathy. “Thanks.”
Molly reached out an arm, laying her slightly freckled hand on his knee. He felt the warmth of that touch through his flannel-lined denim. “Really. I’m sorry, too.”
Her crinkly eyes were wide with sympathy. It was too much. “So, where were you heading?
Before you rescued me?”
“Jane came to get me for Thanksgiving break,” Molly said. “I’m doing my last semester at Empire State in Saratoga Springs.”
“We’re cousins.” Jane’s eyes stayed on the road.
The bags in the backseat made a little more sense. “Do you always pack in grocery sacks?”
Molly’s answering laugh was deep and true; Walt wanted to make her laugh again.
Jane sighed. “She’s hopeless.”
Molly wrapped her arms around the headrest and laid her cheek on the seat with a helpless grin. “My laundry bag ripped.”
Jane slowed the car, turning into the driveway at the farm. He caught her slightly narrowed glance at his brother’s derelict camper, huddled among the jumble of cars, and felt an answering stain rise up the back of his neck. As soon as the car stopped, he leaned forward, ready to flee.
Molly opened her door and climbed out, flipping the lever to release the passenger seat as she did. Walt pushed it forward and crawled out of the little blue car. He turned, ducking down to address Jane. “Thanks for the ride.”
Jane gave him a pitying half-smile. When he straightened, Molly’s gaze was waiting. “I’ll be home all week. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
He pushed his bare hands deep into his pockets. He meant to say, “Going to be busy with all this family, the funeral…” What came out sounded a lot like, “Maybe.”
To be continued…
Missed a previous Christmas story? You can find Joy: Three Christmas Stories, and others at Amazon.com.