Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 10

Continued from part 9, or you can read from the beginning.

“I wouldn’t have figured Walt Fuller for a good kisser,” Jane said. She was paging through the Sears catalog, and held up a page for Molly’s approval. “Do you think something like this would be a good traveling suit for the honeymoon?”

“Does Bobby know you’re planning that already?” Molly gave the camel-colored blazer and tailored trousers a once over. “You’d look good in that sweater or the striped shirt, but this is all winter stuff. You’re going to want a summer suit if you get married in June.”

Jane flipped the whole catalog shut with a quick huff. “You’re right.”

“Once we got out of our own way, he’s a great kisser.” Molly figured she was as close to an expert as anyone on that subject. They’d strung popcorn and cranberries while dinner warmed up. They’d kissed in the kitchen while the lasagne cooled. Walt brought down his mother’s box of ornaments and tinsel. Molly held a crocheted sprig of mistletoe over his head, and they’d tangled together in a breathless heap on the plaid sofa cushions.

In the amber-dappled light of the Christmas tree, they’d snuggled front of the wood stove, drinking spiked hot chocolate and talking late into the night.

Jane was looking at her, having abandoned her trousseau shopping. “What about backpacking? Rome? Vienna? Athens?”

Molly wrapped her arms around her knees. “What about them?”

“You’ve been talking about going to Europe ever since you had to take that semester off for your gall bladder surgery, and your graduation got pushed back. Are you going to just give that up because Walt Fuller’s more interesting than he looks?”

“That’s mean.” He was, though. Much more interesting, though Molly liked his looks just fine. “And a dinner date and some kissing doesn’t mean we’re getting married.”

Jane’s eyebrows rose, their groomed arches displaying her skepticism. “A dinner date you invited yourself on, and the bonfire at Randy’s…” Her lips pursed just slightly as she trailed off. “I ran into Cora at the Rexall.”

Molly laughed. “Okay, fine. I like him a lot, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up Europe.” Molly flopped back on Jane’s bed. “It’s not like I have the money to go, anyway.”

“Well, the Fuller dairy herd isn’t going to pay for it, that’s for sure.”

“Jane!” Molly sat up. Jane had paged past the suits and on to winter outerwear.

“Walt’s already married to the cows, as far as I can tell, so I don’t think he’s headed off to backpack across Austria for a summer.”

“You’re awful.” Molly lobbed a throw pillow at her cousin, who caught it neatly and set it on the foot of the bed.

Jane gave her the eyebrows again. “I’m practical. It’s different.”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 9

Continued from part 8, or you can start from the beginning.

John Pease turned up at the farm three days later, dressed in flannel, denim, and work boots. Walt heard footsteps down the barn’s wide center floor and stuck his head out of a stall he’d been clearing out.

“Walt?”

“Hey, John. C’mon back.”

“What’s goin’ on?”

“Murph’s out in the east pasture bringing one of the girls back. Doc Sutton is stopping by later to take a look at her.”

John leaned against the stall’s half-wall. “Do I want to know?”

“How’d’you feel about udders?”

“Bovine?” John grinned. “Not so much.”

Walt chuckled. “You here to work?”

“If you can put me to use.” John cast around the barn as if looking for inspiration.

“I’m walking the fence line by the Swift’s place this afternoon. I wouldn’t say no to company and an extra pair of hands.”

“Sounds great.”

Murph came around the side of barn door, leading one of the dairy’s sweet-faced Brown Swiss. They were his mother’s favorites—gentle girls with furry ears his mother loved to stroke as she crooned over them. His mom hadn’t been back once since the day after the funeral, when his cousins George and Charlie had come by to help move her things to Aunt Yolie’s house.

He ought to insist she and Aunt Yolie come out to the farm for Sunday dinner.

Who would cook dinner? He was pretty competent at the grill, but he’d stocked the freezer with an embarrassment of TV dinners since his mom left. He couldn’t make a turkey or a ham to save his life.

Who would eat it, anyway? His Pop’s had been the biggest appetite. For everything.

Molly and her lasagna flooded his thoughts. Slow down there, Fuller.

“Walt?” John was watching him, a mixture of pity and concern in his eyes.

Walt blinked. “Sorry, thinking about the vet bill.”

“Bullshit.” John’s tone was conversational. “I wish you were thinking about Molly Sanders, not something that makes you look like a kicked dog.”

John’s uncanny question caught Walt off guard. “What about her?”

“She’s pretty, and she likes you.”

His friend’s words unleashed butterflies in his gut. “Is that your law degree talking?”

“That’s my eyes talking.” John clapped Walt on the shoulder. “I don’t get my law degree until spring. You like her, too, if I still know you. Let’s take a walk and you can tell me what that’s about.”

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 1

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.

The Soloist: Finale

Continued from Part Eleven, or you can start from the beginning:

After the service, Eli melted into the crowd to seek out the youth group cohort. Talia loitered near the vestibule, watching folks catching up and wishing one another merry Christmas.

Hank and his wife Gayle stopped to say hello, and another of the diner regulars tipped his hat before joining some friends.

She was so absorbed in her people watching, she didn’t notice Jojo until she was sidling up next to her.

“Talia!” Jojo hugged her fiercely. Talia froze for a moment before the reality of Jojo’s easy affection hit her. “Merry Christmas! Please, please, please sing with us?” She gestured to two other choristers standing nearby who smiled and nodded, then whispered, “I won’t even tell them who you are.”

Reilly was making his way along the center aisle, shaking hands and embracing his people. She could see it in his entire body, how much he loved them.

Jojo caught the direction of her gaze. “I hope it’s okay that he told me what happened. It shook him up.”

The warmth flickered, and an icicle formed in the pit of her stomach. There was only so much of her circus anyone could take. Even her son would tire of it, of her, someday. She sought out Eli among the teens huddled in one corner of the hall, and forced the corners of her lips back up. “Of course. Don’t worry about it.”

Jojo’s brow wrinkled. “I’ll worry if I like. You’re ours, now, you know. We don’t take lightly to that kind of nonsense.” She waved at Reilly over the tops of nearby heads, then gave Talia a significant look. “He doesn’t, either.”

Reilly approached her, hands in his pockets. There was a sparkle in his eyes that was just for her, and the icicle melted away. “Merry Christmas, Talia. I’m glad to see you here.”

His closeness was intoxicating. “Merry Christmas, Reverend.”

She wanted to fold herself into the curve of his shoulder, to rest her cheek in the hollow there.

Jojo leaned over and hugged him. “Merry Christmas, Doc.”

A petite woman with long hair in a frazzled bun took Talia by the arm. “Talia? I’m Helena Jay, Haley’s mom. I just wanted to say, Eli is great. Haley’s taken him under her wing. I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or warn you. Honestly, she’s a force. Anyway, merry Christmas.”

Helena turned to Jojo and Reilly, but Talia sought out her son with his new friends. He was part of this place already. Whether she was ready or not.

“… I’m going to get her to sing with us, Laney. Next Christmas she and Nancy are going to bring the house down.”

Jojo was talking about her. Talia dropped back into the conversation before Reilly’s Girl Friday could get her in trouble. Jojo and Helena had their heads together, but Reilly’s expression was the one that stilled her. His smile was easy, but hope blazed in those kind eyes.

She was part of this place already. Just maybe, she was ready.

Talia cleared her throat. “Is there music for Easter?”

Jojo whooped a hallelujah, and Reilly took her hand in his as the church bells rang in Christmas Day.

~~~~~

Thanks for reading along, and like Reilly, I wish you light in the dark season, however you celebrate it.