Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Finale

Continued from part 13, or you can start from the beginning.

“Wait,” Molly said. “This is the thing I’ve dreamt about for a year and a half, and when I realized it was coming true, I cried.”

He started to speak, but she hushed him.

“My first thought was, ‘It’s too soon.’” She shifted to be closer to him. “I cried because I didn’t want… I don’t want to fly off and leave you. Not now when you’re still hurting, not now while we’re figuring this out. And there you were on my doorstep, and I had this crazy thought that I would cash it all in and stay here.”

He shook his head. “No—“

“I know,” she rushed on. “All those talks we had, all the time we’ve spent together this last month, and I’ve never even mentioned it… Have you ever had a dream so big you can’t tell the one person you feel like you really should? Like, if you give it words, it’ll fall apart?”

Oh, Molly… “Yeah.”

“I know we only met a month ago, and I know it’s selfish to ask you to wait until spring for me, but will you? Will you still be here in March when I get back?”

The blood was singing in his veins. Relief washed through him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

She launched herself into his arms, kissing him hard. She leaned back breathlessly. “Come on, let’s go introduce you to my folks. And Eddie.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry in advance about Eddie.”

He followed her back across the lawn, through the hedges, and across her yard. Introductions were a blur, and he found himself with a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, sitting in the Sanders’ living room while Molly’s family scattered to their own corners of the house.

She handed him a box from under the Christmas tree, wrapped and ribboned. “It’s not as nice as your present.”

Walt opened the box to find a pair of boiled wool slippers in a size far too small for his feet. When he looked up questioningly at Molly, she was grinning.

“House shoes for me to keep at the farm. Those floors get cold in the winters.”

He set the box next to him, and got up to cross the room to her. “That’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever given me.”

Molly stood, wrapping her arms around him, close enough that she had to tilt her face up to look at him. “I’m going to have to work on that between now and when I go.”

“Merry Christmas, Molly.”

She touched her lips to his. “Merry Christmas, Walt.”

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 13

Continued from part 12, or you can start from the beginning.

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.”

To continued...

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 6

Continued from part 5, or you can start from the beginning.

Molly checked the laundry hamper twice before she loaded it into her dad’s station wagon. A carton of raw cranberries, a paper bag of popcorn, thread and needle pinched from her mom’s sewing box, some bittersweet and holly from the wild tangle of shrubs on their property line, and a Bing Crosby Christmas record. Molly wasn’t sure how Walt felt about music, but you couldn’t go wrong with Bing Crosby.

The moon was a low, snow-white crescent in a deep sky over the valley as she drove west out of town. Darkness came early in December, but the radio station out of Plattsburg was playing Christmas carols, and Molly sang along with enough gusto to hide her lackluster singing voice—and her twanging nerves.

It was five-fifty-five on the dot when she turned into the driveway at the Fuller’s farm. The dairy barn hulked in its own shadow, and the pastures rolled away into the night, a study in lonesome moonlight and snow. The house, in contrast, was lit up from within with a warm, steady light that brought an involuntary smile to her face. She stopped the car on the gravel and cut the headlights—just in time to realize Walt was up a ladder, leaning into the front gable, long cords of colored lights dangling from the ladder and a hammer slung from his hammer loop.

“Be right down,” he hollered.

Molly stood in the driveway, arms wrapped around her chest against the cold, while Walt put a nail in the peak of the gable, and hauled the lights into place along the roofline.

He climbed down, leaving the ladder in place, and crossed the front yard, chafing his gloved hands together. “Want to help me light it up?”

“Yeah.”

He led her to the outlet on the outside of the wall, tucked behind a rhododendron in the front garden and handed her the plug. She wondered if he felt the zing of an altogether different kind of electricity when her mittened fingers touched his bare ones.

The lights brought the house to cheerful life, and Molly clapped. “It looks great.”

“So,” Walt said, face alight with pleasure, “what’s the big surprise?”

“We’re going to make a popcorn garland for your tree.”

Walt carried her laundry hamper of supplies inside. Molly followed, shucking her coat and shoes by the door. Walt glanced at her sock feet.

Molly wiggled her rag-toe. “Keeps the dirt out. I might be a messy packer, but I hate dirty floors.”

He was a tidy bachelor, she thought, but whether that was due to natural inclination or lack of opportunity to make a mess, she couldn’t be sure. The wood stove was going in the parlor, and Walt set her basket down by the sofa. “I don’t have much, but I’ve got some Schaefer in the fridge.”

Molly opened the gingham tablecloth she’d wrapped around her offerings. “That’s not very festive. I brought hot chocolate.” She pulled out a large green Thermos, set it down on the coffee table, then dug back into the basket. After a brief search, she brandished a fifth of peppermint schnapps. “With a kick.”

“You’ve got a regular picnic in there,” Walt remarked, looking over her shoulder at the cranberries, the popcorn, and a foil-wrapped baking dish. “Is that a lasagna?”

“It’s my specialty.” Molly pulled out the popcorn and cranberries, then tucked the tablecloth around the dish. “It just needs to warm up. We can put it in when we get hungry.”

“Molly?”

“Or I can put it in now.” She pulled back one corner of the cloth.

“Molly.”

Walt’s voice had gone hoarse. In the same motion she turned and began to stand while he clasped her arm and tugged. She stumbled into his embrace. He wasn’t too tall; she liked where she fit into his body. “I’d really like to kiss you.”

His arms snugged around her and she rested her forehead against his nose, their breath mingling. “You definitely should.”

As first kisses went, Molly thought, it wasn’t so bad. If their teeth clinked and she giggled, if she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands, it didn’t matter. He tasted like mint, and when she didn’t shy away, his lips slanted against hers, and the oxygen in the room went hot.

They kissed, openmouthed, unbothered by awkward hands, for a brief eternity. Full darkness filled in the shadows around the farmhouse, leaving them cocooned in warmth and light.

Molly caught her breath before it whooshed out in a nervous laugh. “We should heat up that lasagna.”

Walt pushed his hands into his pockets. “How ‘bout I go bring in the tree and the stand?”

To be continued…

Cinnamon Girl: A Thornton Vermont Christmas Story, Part 2

Continued from Part One:

Jed Fuller was laid to rest the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Nearly everyone in Thornton was there at the burial ground on Fuller Creek Road. To Molly it seemed half of Vermont was huddled there by the half-frozen creek, heads bowed around the Fuller family stone while Reverend Shutter prayed for Jed’s immortal soul, though his body would wait in the crypt until spring.

Jane shivered next to her, immaculately turned out in a black dress and what Molly thought of as her Sunday coat, though she’d decided on her snow boots. For her own part, Molly had squeezed into something borrowed from her mother, and covered it up with her parka after the service in town.

Walt stood between his mother and a slightly older young woman Molly assumed was his sister. Jane had given her a primer on the family before they’d come, even while she’d tried to talk Molly out of it. “We don’t even know him,” she’d said.

“He needs friends,” was all Molly could think to reply. Watching him shoulder a corner of his father’s casket, a clutch of idle snowflakes sticking to his lashes, Molly stood by her assessment.

The half-hearted snow swirled into a squall just as Reverend Shutter concluded his prayers, and Walt looked up. She smiled at him through the rioting snow, but wasn’t sure he saw.

At the farm, Jane found Bobby’s parents, who drew her into their circle of friends. Molly drifted past the dining room table, stopping to take a cider donut and a cup of coffee. She paused to say hello to some neighbors, but it was Walt she sought out while they spoke.

She found him sitting on the stairs, his coat still folded in his lap. “Hi,” she said. “How are you holding up?”

“All right, I guess.” He blinked at her, and Molly was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that they’d only just met. “How did you know about the funeral?”

“Jane.” Molly broke the donut in half and offered him a piece. “She drove, too. I hope it’s okay.”

Walt took the donut; their fingers brushed, and her insides went warm. For a moment, though, he only held it, staring at a point on the wall just beyond her.

She finished the donut to fill the awkward silence, but then there was cinnamon sugar on her fingertips, and she’d forgotten to bring a napkin. In desperation, she licked her fingertips, then grinned at her own foolishness. She didn’t have a napkin. “I’m sorry. I’m intruding.”

“You’re not—“ he began. A tentative smile played around his mouth—probably at her expense, but she’d take it—then his sister’s voice rang out, challenging his assertion.

“Walter? Where are you? Sal and Rachel are getting ready to leave.”

Walt’s eyes followed the sound of his sister’s voice to the front hall, where an elderly couple were bundling up. He shook his head just a tiny bit, blushing a little when she caught it and gave him an answering wry smile.

“I am,” she said stepping back to let him by. As he passed she brushed his hand with hers. “See you around.”

Jane was easy to find; she was even easier to convince to leave.

Molly shed her jacket and tossed it in the back of Jane’s car. “He’s like a lost puppy.”

Jane sighed as Molly’s coat tumbled off the seat, then turned the car around and pulled away. “He’s a dairy farmer, Moll. Don’t you want something nicer?”

“Don’t be a snob.” Molly reached for the radio dial. “You’re only doing secretarial training so you can work for Bobby’s dad and save up for a house faster.”

Jane’s disapproving frown flipped, and she flexed her left hand. The light caught the small diamond solitaire Bobby Thompson had put on her finger three months before. She looked up at Molly sharply. “So, why did you bother to do four years of college?”

“It’s 1977, Janey. I want to learn things, just to learn them. I want to figure out where I belong. You know?” Molly glanced in the rearview mirror at the receding farm. “In case you didn’t notice, I’ve hardly been a man-magnet in Saratoga Springs.”

“At least Walt Fuller has the good sense to think you’re pretty,” Jane conceded.

A happy shiver coursed down Molly’s spine. “Do you think so?”

“Don’t be stupid. I saw how he looked at you that day on the bridge.”

Molly sighed. With her long, thick blonde hair and blue eyes, Jane Starr was the kind of girl guys just noticed. Molly’s not-quite-red unruly waves that curled near her face, her curves, and her earnest face were more sidekick than leading lady.

The way he’d looked at her that day by the bridge had made her feel like the leading lady. She’d liked his eyes—serious and gray-hazel–and the appreciation in them.

“You know, Moll,” Jane said, pulling the car into Molly’s driveway. “Walt Fuller has something going for him.”

“Yeah?” Molly reached for her coat.

Jane shrugged. “He’s probably got a house already.”

To be continued…

The Soloist: Part Eleven

Continued from Part Ten, or you can start from the beginning.

Christmas Eve dawned sunny and frosty. Talia woke to the smell of coffee and the jingle of Butter’s collar. Hank’s was closed for three days, and for a week, there had been no noise from Blaine. She wasn’t foolish enough to think he’d forgotten, but his family would go to great lengths to avoid revealing just how unstable their son was, including keeping him on a short leash. The whiff of scandal that followed her disappearance had been enough to allow her time and leverage to get away the first time.

She pulled her hoodie over the camisole and leggings she’d slept in and followed the wafting cloud toward the kitchen.

Eli was buttering toast. “Morning, Mom. Merry Christmas.”

The little tree Reilly had brought them sparkled from the living room. She sat in the same chair he’d sat in when he kissed her a few nights before, this time Butter watched his boy hoping for a bread-shaped Christmas miracle. “You made coffee?”

Eli pushed the hair from his face. “Mrs. Jay showed me how. I didn’t get you a present, but I made you breakfast.” He set slightly limp toast and watery coffee on the table in front of her.

It was the best breakfast she’d ever had.

She wrapped an arm around his skinny waist and pulled her son close. “I love you, kiddo. Thanks for this.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“I know it’s not your thing, but can we go to one of the services at the church? Haley says…”

Talia raised an eyebrow. “Haley says?”

Eli blushed. “She sings in the choir, and she says it’s not like regular church on Christmas Eve. Mostly music and stuff.”

“We can go. If you watch Christmas movies with me all day, and we get Chinese for dinner.”

The awkward eye-roll she got was worth it when he grinned.

The Grove Street Church was packed. The front doors were wreathed with balsam and bittersweet, rainbow flags welcomed congregants. Candles burned on the altar, and the choir was singing low in welcome, the Coventry Carol. Eli nudged her for humming along.

They took their places in a pew near the back of the hall. Talia’s breath caught when Reilly stepped up to address his congregation; she glanced around, half-wondering if lightning might actually strike. He preached no differently than he lived: patiently and without fuss. He’d forgone celebratory robes; the only mark of his leadership was a clerical collar instead of a tie, and a crimson stole over a conservative dark gray suit.

After a few brief words of welcome, the choir began The First Noel. She hadn’t meant to sing at all, but her resolve vanished before the first line finished. At the chorus, when her voice soared over the gathering, there was a moment of astonished quiet from the congregation as people’s voices faded to search for the source of hers, but just a moment. Reilly only smiled, Jojo turned with a wink from the choir, and every voice was lifted along with hers.

It was, as Haley told Eli, mostly music and stuff. Reilly told the Christmas story with humor and grace. He thanked the community for the toys and clothes gifted to the needy and called the younger members of the congregation up to sing with his guitar as accompaniment. Eli made no move to join them, until another boy from the youth group cuffed his shoulder on his way by. Talia couldn’t help noticing Haley Jay smiling from the choir when Eli trailed the others to the steps.

When Reilly wished them all peace and joy for the new year and hoped they would find light in the dark season, she felt his gaze fall on her, and the heat that kindled along her skin had little to do with the candlelight or the closeness of bodies.

To be continued in the Finale