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A Contemporary Christmas Carroll

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            Crissy never thought to see him again; believing he wouldn’t return to Snow once he had left. Her hand shook as she lifted the coffee pot and slowly walked toward the dark haired man sitting alone at a table meant for two. His back was bent; his hands at the sides of his face, as though holding his head up was the only job he could manage.

            He stared out the window of the Holly Café, totally ignoring her as she refilled his coffee cup.

            “I’m sorry about your dad,” she said softly.

            One hand dropped to the table as he slowly turned to face her. A smile tilted his lips just slightly but didn’t reach his eyes -- eyes the same mesmerizing blue yet sadder than she remembered. He was as handsome as ever, but had a mature worldly look. She tried to shut out the memory of that last night when she had cried, begging him not to leave; even though she had known for Joe Roberts, there had been no other options. That didn’t mean she had ever stopped loving him.

            He opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking, staring intently. He reached a hand to her hair, coming away with several strands of silver garland.

            “Hello, Christmas Carroll,” he said her full name in that deep, smoky voice she still heard in her dreams. “I see some things never change.”

            She laughed. “We’ve started decorating and I…” She stopped, wondering if discussing Christmas decorations was appropriate with someone whose father was fighting for his life. “Have you been to the hospital?”

            “No, I just got into town, and I can’t…” He swallowed, turning back to the window where the bright morning sun glinted off the snow.

            “Joe.” She sat down, placing her hand on his. When he had left town after high school, it had been on bad terms with his dad. Now, Crissy only hoped he had time to mend the rift. Before she could ask, he turned her hand in his, laying the silvery garland on her palm and curling her fingers around it. She felt his warmth, the light calluses on his fingers, and the old familiar wave of longing that used to sweep through her at a single glance.

“I have to go. I’ll…” he paused, tossing some bills onto the table. “Maybe I’ll see you later.” And he walked out the door.

They were both older and although she hadn’t seen him in far too many years, Crissy felt like they had never been apart. Joe was her soul mate, and maybe before he left town this time, she could make him see that.

 

            Joe pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears to block the cold wind as he stood in front of Crissy’s place. Seeing her earlier that day had brought repressed memories to the surface, along with a ton of regret. He had known that would happen, yet the café had been his first stop upon getting to town.  Now, he debated whether to knock or to turn tail and run.

Poinsettia Place was exactly as he remembered with red siding and white trim. In fact, the entire town hadn’t changed an iota. Old fashion lamps lit street corners, holiday decorations hung from every conceivable nook and cranny, and snow sculptures scattered the landscape from Center Park to the outskirts of town.

The whole town got into the spirit when it came to celebrating Christmas. That is, when the men weren’t working twelve hour shifts in the mine. Or when there wasn’t a mine accident like the one that had left his dad in a coma. He swallowed hard.

He had refused to follow in his dad’s footsteps and work in the mines after high school. Yet instead of being proud of him for wanting to make something of himself, his father had never understood.

What’s wrong with working the mines? There’s pride in being a third generation Roberts miner. You too good for that? He could still feel the sting of his dad’s words. The guilt he always carried with him had deepened at seeing his father lying lifeless in a sterile hospital room. All he’d ever wanted was to shake the coal dust from his soul; to make enough money to buy his mom all the things she had done without. Only Crissy had understood his desperate need to get away, even as she cried when he boarded the bus to leave for college.

His reflections were cut short when the front door of the Bed & Breakfast opened and Crissy stepped out, carrying a wreath. When she spotted him, her face broke into a bright smile.

            “Hey,” she said, “come in.”

He took the wreath and hung it on the door at her direction, then followed her into the house. Warmth surrounded him; a spicy scent heavy in the air.

“I see you’re at it.” A large tree stood in the living room, lights twinkling from the branches.

“You know everyone has to be ready for the grand lighting ceremony on the twelfth. That’s only three days from now.”

This holiday dominated the town, with local businesses having names like the Holly Café, Noel Cleaners, and Candy Cane Pharmacy. Kids got a free day from school at the first heavy snowfall to create snow sculptures that dotted yards and roadsides. But the holiday was particularly special to the woman standing in front of him, hanging ornaments on the tree. Christmas Carroll had been born on Christmas day.

“This looks familiar.” He lifted a round paper ornament from the tree, the youthful coloring nudging a memory.

            Crissy blushed. “In third grade, I decided to dress up as a Christmas tree for our Halloween party. You know, given my name and all.”

            He nodded. “Now I remember. All the kids laughed at you.”

            “Everyone except you. You made this ornament and pinned it on my tree costume.”

            He stepped closer. “You were the prettiest Christmas tree I had ever seen in October.”

            “And you were my hero from that day on.” She raised her head and his lips brushed her forehead.

Her sweet scent brought back other memories – their first kiss; high school prom; the night she promised to love him always. She had been his one regret in leaving all those years ago.

 

 “Joe, it’s good to have you back in town.” Crissy caressed the side of his face, wondering if she had conjured him up. On days like today when she decorated for the holidays, she often longed for Joe to return to Snow and fulfill her dreams of family and a happily-ever- after life. He was like a ghost from Christmas past.

The phone interrupted her thoughts. “I’ll be right back,” she told him as she left to take the call, which was from the café. One of the waitresses had gone home sick and the café was busy. Most of the time, she didn’t mind her inheritance. It paid the bills and she really loved where she lived. But there were days…

            “Young man, what are you doing? Why are you here? Does Crissy know you’re snooping around her living room?” Crissy could hear Matilda Grumbley from where she stood in the foyer.
            “Ma’am, I’m just…”

            “Don’t you ma’am me. I never married. Men aren’t worth the aggravation,” Matilda continued. “Don’t look at me with that smug expression, Henry Holliday, you’re just an old pain in the behind. Where is Crissy? She knows I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon.”

            Oh, no. Crissy had completely forgotten. She hung up the phone and hurried back into the living room.

            “Matilda, good afternoon,” she said perkily, hoping for once this particular boarder would be in a good mood. She should have known better.

            “You know I like to be at the doctor’s office early. What have you been doing and who is this man?”

            Crissy stole a glance at Joe, whose eyes twinkled and whose smile defied her to tell cranky Miss Grumbley just exactly who he was. She could feel a blush heat her face.

            “Matilda, give the girl a chance to speak, for heaven’s sake.” Henry spoke up from where he sat on the sofa reading the paper.

Crissy smiled her thanks. “Henry, would you mind having your lunch at the café? Jill’s sick and I have to go over there.”

            Matilda interrupted. “You know I can’t be late.”

            Crissy ran her fingers through her hair, frustrated that a day starting with such promise was rapidly deteriorating. She turned toward the kitchen.

Joe followed. “How do you do it? I haven’t been able to get internet service since I got to town and my cell phone is sporadic at best.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have internet, but we usually have cell phone service. I’ll call someone today.”

“That’s not why I said anything,” he cajoled. “Why do you stay here, with this?” Joe gestured toward the living room where Matilda and Henry were still verbally sparing. “Don’t you want more?”

            Crissy stopped in the process of pouring a cup of coffee. Her parents had left her the café and their home, Poinsettia Place, which later became a Bed and Breakfast before gradually drifting to having a few permanent boarders. What more did she need? She tilted her head toward Joe, who despite his good looks, appeared somewhat harried.

“What have you been doing all these years?” she asked the question that had long been on her mind. They had written during college, but had gradually drifted apart.

“Building a business and making money,” he answered, sounding defensive.

“I’m not judging you, Joe, but are you happy?”

“I can buy whatever I want. I have a condo in New York and drive a new car every year.”

“But are you happy?” she asked again. When he didn’t answer, she said, “Perhaps you need to be reminded what Christmas is all about.”

            Crissy knew Joe would have done anything to flee the coal mines, and basically his heritage. Even though small towns weren’t for everyone, she wasn’t sure he liked New York any better. She smiled as a plan began to form. A little reenactment of The Christmas Carol, with some minor character changes, might just be in order. “Would you do me a huge favor?”

            His eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure I like the sounds of that.”

            “If you’ll take Matilda to her doctor’s appointment; since you’ll want to see your dad, anyway,” she hurried to explain when he started to protest, “I can cover at the café and everybody will be happy.”

“Do I get a favor in return?” A smile lifted the corners of his mouth.

“I’ll feed you,” she suggested.

            “Crissy, it’s time to go,” Matilda hollered from the living room.

            She put her coffee cup on the counter with a sigh of longing and shot Joe a pleading look.

            “With dessert,” he negotiated.

 “Crissy,” Matilda’s voice was getting closer.

“You can have a whole pie,” she capitulated easily.

 

            An hour later, Joe wondered if he had struck a bargain with the devil. He knew for sure Matilda Grumbley was the devil’s mother. She complained about all her aches and pains, and practically everyone in town. Joe had grown up here, and although he had his own reasons for leaving, he knew the town wasn’t that bad.

            “Mrs. Grumbley, we’re here,” he finally interrupted.

            “Don’t be calling me Missus. I’m a Miss, always have been and always will be.” She jutted her pointed chin in the air.

            And I can see why. Joe kept that thought to himself as he hurried around and opened the door, helping Matilda out and up the snowy walk.

            “Be back in precisely one hour, young man. I don’t want to stand around in the cold waiting for you.”

            “Wait inside if I’m not here,” Joe said.

            “One hour.” She walked past him into the reception room and Joe turned to walk the short distance to the hospital entrance.

            He wondered what had made Matilda Grumbley an old sourpuss. Apparently she didn’t have anybody to take care of her. He thought about his own life. He had family, although he wasn’t close to them anymore because he had chosen to leave and make something of himself. What was wrong with that?

As he walked down the sterile hospital corridors, he thought about growing older. Would he have to rely on the charity and goodwill of others? He couldn’t imagine being as lonely and bitter as that old woman. Yet why had he worked so hard to make a name and a fortune when he had no one with which to share it? Was he missing out on something more important in life?

 

            Other than returning Matilda home precisely one hour after dropping her off, Joe spent the rest of the afternoon keeping his mom company as she sat with his dad. The doctors assured them his dad was showing signs of improvement, even though he was still in a coma.

Later he had gone to the library to catch up on some work via the internet. He talked to his secretary – calling collect on a pay phone, no less -- and told his partner to take over when meetings couldn’t be rescheduled. He didn’t foresee returning to New York any time soon.

            Now, as he opened the door at Crissy’s, Christmas music washed over him and the tension left his shoulders. He stomped his feet, numb from the cold, and shrugged out of his coat.

            “Crissy?”

            “In the kitchen.”

            He found her with an apron tied around her waist, elbow deep in flour. He thought how right she looked and wondered why she wasn’t married with a houseful of kids. Even as he thought it, his chest tightened in jealousy over an imaginary husband.

            That’s stupid, he lectured himself. When you left town all those years ago, you lost any claim to her.

“How’s your dad doing?” She bent over to put a sheet of cookies into the oven and he came up behind her to give her a hug.

            She squawked, pushing against him. “Stop that! Henry and Matilda are in the other room.”

            “I checked; they’re both asleep in front of the TV. Besides, I think Matilda could use a little jolt. It might improve her mood.”

Crissy reached into the warming oven for a plate piled high with roast and potatoes and he took a seat at the table. She put the plate in front of him and he dug in as she began cutting out more cookies.

“What’s with her, anyway?”

             “She’s just old and lonely.”

            “Yeah, well, she’s going to stay that way. All she did was complain about everything today,” he said around a mouthful of food.

            “From what I know, she moved here because of her fiancée. But he died in the mines, and afterward, she devoted herself to teaching. She never married.” She looked up from the dough she was sprinkling with colored sugar, her eyes searching, her expression serious.

            “What?” He shook his head in confusion. “There’s a message in there somewhere?”

            “I just think there’s more to life than work, that’s all.” The timer dinged and she turned to take the cookies out, replacing one sheet with another.

            “You work hard. You run your dad’s café, and you’ve turned your home into a boarding house for crotchety old people.”

            She gave him a soft smile. “I love what I do. I get to talk to people all day and Matilda and Henry need me.”

             “Is that all you want?” Joe asked. He had been thinking about the two of them and  wondered if there was a chance to start over. He still felt the ache of leaving her, but didn’t know if she felt the same. He circled the table and took her hand to pull her close. He kissed her smiling lips, tasting holiday spice and the sweetness of Crissy.

            “The cookies,” she murmured.

            He reluctantly let her go so she could retrieve the cookies from the oven before they burned. As soon as she put the cookie sheet down, he grabbed her hand and dragged her out of the kitchen. “Let’s take a walk.”

            “Those cookies ready to eat?” Henry called from the living room.

            “The cook has disappeared,” Joe answered, “but help yourself.”

            Henry chuckled and Crissy frowned at Joe, but didn’t hesitate as he held up her coat and led her out into the snowy night.

 

            Always an early riser, Joe was over at Crissy’s making coffee by the time she came into the kitchen.

            “Morning,” he said when she switched on the overhead light.

            She squealed in surprise. One hand flew to her chest and the other began a mad finger combing of her hair, which stuck out in all directions. Being the smart man that he was, Joe knew when to keep his mouth shut.

            Instead, he wrapped his arms around her in a hug, kissing her forehead. “It snowed again last night. I’ll shovel your walks before I go to the hospital.” He chuckled at her look of surprise as he grabbed his coat.

            “Hello, who are you?” asked a young girl who stood on the back steps when he opened the door.

            “Better question; how did you get here?”

            She waved in a vacant manner. “Crissy had the idea of tying a rope from her porch to ours because I come over here so much.” She grinned, showing braces.

“That’s a pretty smart idea,” Joe answered, thinking how easy it would be for a youngster to get lost if it were snowing.

“Is Crissy here?”

“Hey, Megan, how come you’re out so early on a Saturday?” Crissy peeked around Joe, her hand lightly touching his shoulder and he thought how right it felt.

The girl held up a wad of yarn with needles sticking out of it. “I think I dropped a stitch but I can’t tell.” She then leaned forward and whispered, though loud enough for Joe to hear, “Who is he?”

Crissy smiled. “Sorry. Megan Appleby, this is Joe Roberts. Joe, Megan is Polly’s daughter. Polly was a classmate of ours.”

The girl stood in front of him with her hand outstretched. “Is he handsome, Crissy?” Megan turned her head to the side where Crissy had been, but now had moved back inside. Before he could say anything, Crissy smiled and slightly shook her head.

“I think so,” she said, answering Megan’s question, “when he’s not frowning.” Then she grinned, sticking her tongue out at him. He took a step toward her but she put a hand on his chest.

            “Megan and I have Christmas presents to make. If you insist on shoveling the walk, at least go to the hardware store for some coveralls and goulashes.” When he started to protest, she added, “You don’t have to work in the mines to dress appropriately for the weather. And take Henry with you. He commented yesterday he needed nails for the birdhouses he’s making.”

            As they walked away, Joe listened to Megan chatter about the scarf she was knitting. She’s blind. Didn’t that make a difference? He looked across the yard where a path zigzagged through the snow, a rope swaying in the breeze at about waist height.

            Amazing. He had always known Crissy was special, but he was beginning to see the impact she had on people she cared about. He frowned as he went in search of Henry. Did he have the right to ask her to move with him to New York?

 

            An hour later, he and Henry were sitting in the café drinking coffee. Joe wiggled his toes in his new boots, admitting that they were warm, but swore if his partner saw him, he’d laugh. He was a khakis and loafer kind of guy, even in winter.

            “So what did you do before you started building birdhouses?” he asked Henry.

            “I was in the stock market – made millions – but I’ll tell you, young man, all the money in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have someone to share your life.” He got a faraway look on his face. “All that money couldn’t help my Hettie one little bit when she got sick.” He shook his head sadly then took a sip of coffee. “Anyway, now I do a little woodwork to pass the time, but it sure does get lonely.”

            “Have you ever thought of marrying again?” Joe asked.

            “Ah, Hettie was my one love, but you know, I wouldn’t mind having someone to take to dinner now and again, or to cuddle with next to the fire.” He gave Joe a purely male grin as he leaned closer. “You know, I’m thinking Matilda could use a little TLC.”

            Joe choked on his coffee. “Miss Grumbley?” he sputtered and the old man nodded.

             “It’s only because she’s lonely that she crabs about. Maybe I’ll sneak up on her one of these days and give her a peck on the cheek. Whatcha think?”

            Joe grinned, thinking he and Henry had very similar ideas for the women in their lives. He lifted his hand in the air and Henry gave him a high five.

 

            Crissy had just finished payroll when Joe walked into her office. She closed her ledger and slid it to the back of the small desk.

            “Are you hungry?” she asked, turning in her chair. “I can make you a sandwich.”

            “No, I ate with Mom.” He walked toward her and Crissy couldn’t gage his mood. When she lifted her hand he took it, playing with her fingers but obviously preoccupied.

He squatted in front of her. “Dad’s awake.”

            “Oh, Joe, that’s wonderful!” She was really happy for him.

            “Yeah. We talked; really talked. All those years of misunderstanding were about pride.”

            She brushed his hair back from his forehead. “Yours or his?” she asked tenderly.

            He gave her a quirky grin. “Both. I wanted to show him I could make it, and he wanted me to know that, working in the mines or not, he could provide for his family. I wrote, you know, and once I started working I sent money. The money was always returned and it made me angry that he wouldn’t take it, if only to make things easier. But it wasn’t until today that I ever thought about the letters.”

            “Letters?” Crissy asked.

            “Yeah,” he said. “He sent the money back but never the letters. Mom says he still has them.”

            Crissy reached out and hugged him. “Oh, Joe, he might be stubborn and proud, but he does love you. And you’re just like him.”

 

            Monday was Crissy’s day to work at the Holly Café, so Joe spent the morning at the library checking email and doing business; visited his dad at the hospital, then came back to Poinsettia Place to prepare some reports. He was working at the kitchen table when the back door banged open and Megan bounced in, a big grin on her young face.

            “Whatcha doing, Joe?” she asked, tossing her coat at an empty chair then unerringly finding him at the table.

            “How did you know it was me and not Miss Grumbley?” He was fascinated with her abilities, and with the fact she seemed to have such a happy disposition despite her handicap.

            She wrinkled her nose. “It’s your smell.”

            “I don’t smell,” he retorted though he knew she meant scent.

            She just laughed. “Will you take me downtown?”

He frowned at the graph on his computer screen, not happy with the projected fourth quarter sales. He typed in another scenario, preoccupied with his report. “Wait for Crissy. She’ll take you.”

“I can’t. I have to buy her Christmas present. Mom’s working at the store, so I can stay with her if you’ll just take me. I have to get Crissy something special because she always helps me with my homework and she taught me how to knit. She’s a really great person. And she’s pretty, too, isn’t she?”

            Joe sighed, knowing he wouldn’t get any more work done with Megan hovering over his shoulder. “Get your coat, squirt, and we’ll go.” 

            Megan kept up a steady stream of chatter as they bundled up and Joe drove the few short blocks to the square.

            She also pummeled him with questions. “Have you got your Christmas shopping done?”

            “No.”

            “But you have to. What will you get Crissy? You should get her something nice because she really likes you. I can hear it in her voice.”

            Joe pulled into a parking slot. He didn’t need to be convinced that Crissy was someone special, but apparently Megan saw things that he didn’t.

            She skipped beside him on the sidewalk. “Isn’t the snow beautiful?”

            Before he thought, he said, “But you can’t see it.”

            “Oh, but I do,” she replied with feeling. “I didn’t go blind until I was five, and besides, I see with my other senses.” She grabbed his hand, pulling him to a stop.

 

            “Close your eyes.”

            “Megan, we—”

            “Just do it.” She tugged his arm.

            Joe sighed, complying. “Okay.”

            “Now, what do you see?”

            “Megan, I can’t see.”

            “Then you’re not trying.”

            Joe decided if they were to get out of the wet snow and cold, he’d better come up with something. He tilted his face upward, eyes closed, and just like that, he realized what she was talking about.

Wet snowflakes landed on his skin in freezing spatters. The cold seeped through the soles of his shoes. As he opened his senses, he heard the scrunch of tires on snow, and the chatter of people walking by. He stuck out his tongue to catch the frozen drops of moisture and laughed right out loud.

            “Megan Appleby, now who are you dragging around to see through your eyes?”

            Joe’s eyes popped open to see a petite woman standing at the door of a small shop.

            “Hi, Mom, this is Crissy’s boyfriend, Joe.”

Even at thirty years of age, Joe liked the sounds of that. Still holding his hand, Megan dragged him into the store.

            “Joe Roberts, I never thought to see you back in Snow.” Polly took his hands and squeezed. “How’s your dad doing?”

            Everybody knowing his business was one of the things he had hated in high school, but now the concern people showed felt refreshing.

            “Megan,” Polly turned toward her daughter, “there’s a snack for you in the fridge behind the counter.”

            Joe watched Megan bounce around the corner, never bumping or knocking anything off the shelves. When he turned back, he found Polly watching him. He felt his face heat.

            “It’s okay,” she said smiling. “I decided when Megan lost her sight due to a fever, I wouldn’t treat her differently, nor allow others to. But I couldn’t have managed without Crissy.”

            “Joe came to Snow to see Crissy,” Megan called out.

            Her mother smiled indulgently. “Crissy says Megan reminds her of Tiny Tim from The Christmas Carol. She always has such a positive attitude; as if there’s nothing she can’t do.” Polly shook her head slightly. “I wanted her independent, but sometimes…”

            “Oh, this scarf is so soft. Crissy would love it. Joe, what color is it?” Megan came hurrying towards them.

            “Megan,” her mother warned.

            Joe just smiled. Turning to Megan, he took the scarf, sliding it across her outstretched hands. “It has swirls of color running through it – the blue of the sky in the middle of summer and the green of grass and leaves in spring. And there’s lavender – a touch sprinkled here and there like fairy dust.”

            “See, you can do it,” Megan whispered to him. Then she tugged him down and kissed his cheek. Joe felt his heart burst open.

 

            Crissy was totally shocked when she turned and saw Joe herding Matilda and Henry into the Holly Café ten minutes before the downtown lighting ceremony was to begin. Then he walked up and gave her a kiss in front of everyone. The love she saw in his gaze swept away her confusion.

            “I get the message,” he murmured as he hugged her tight.

            She frowned. “What message?”

            Joe waved toward Matilda and Henry, who sat at a table by the front window, for once not arguing. “Grumpy Christmas past and lonely Christmas present.” He tilted her chin with a gentle finger, gazing at her with dark, passionate eyes. “I don’t want to end up like them.”

            Crissy’s eyes filled with happy tears. “You always did catch on quickly, but what about Christmas future?”

            Tiny Tim is with her mother. As for our future, I want to spend it with you – here, in New York,  or Timbuktu – it doesn’t matter as long as you’re with me.”

            “It’s time!” One of the customers called when the courthouse clock began its deep, lingering gong.

            Crissy grabbed her coat and Joe’s hand, hurrying to the door, admonishing Matilda and Henry to stay inside out of the cold. They’d still be able to see the lights from the café windows.

            Joe stood behind her on the sidewalk, his arms wrapped around her, his breath a warm caress at her ear.

            “How did you get Matilda downtown?” Crissy leaned into his embrace.

            “I called her Mrs. Scrooge.”

            Crissy twisted around to stare at him. “You didn’t.”

            He nodded. “I told her since I’m going to be around, she will not be cranky or I’d sic the ghost of Christmas past on her.” He kissed her cheek. “There’s only one gong left. You’d better look that way.” He nodded across the street.

            As the last stroke of the courthouse clock echoed in the frosty winter night, thousands of twinkling lights came on, transforming Snow into a Christmas wonderland. The giant tree on the courthouse lawn was a rainbow of color, and the huge star at the very top shone in the night as snow silently fell on the gathered crowd. Someone started singing, and soon everyone burst forth with a boisterous rendition of Deck the Halls.

Joe hugged her as his deep voice joined the others. Megan and Polly stood beside her, Megan’s hand slipping into hers.  Crissy smiled through her tears and closed her eyes. This was what Christmas was all about – family and friends; love and forgiveness and happiness. It was simply the best Christmas ever; the one she had always imagined.

"It's like visiting Christmas all year long!"