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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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When she bounced on the ice, the breath burst from her lungs. She fell backwards and slid away in a clumsy and chaotic dance of flailing arms and legs, just like a turtle on its back, whizzing across the ice helpless and comical.

When she finally came to rest, cold and sore, she lay back flat, staring up at the dark moving sky, feeling the cool tickle of snowflakes on her face. She was isolated—so very alone. God, how she missed Lance.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Mrs. Wintergreen’s face cut into her vision, smiling down at her.

Startled, Jennifer blinked quickly, disoriented, trying to erase the image, sure it was an illusion. But Mrs. Wintergreen remained.

“Hello, Jennifer. You just took a pretty bad fall. Are you all right?”

Jennifer didn’t move. “Where did you come from? There was no one around.”

“I was around. I was watching you,” Mrs. Wintergreen said, extending Jennifer her hand. “May I help you up?”

Jennifer eyed her warily. “I thought you said you were going to the Hartmans’ Christmas party.”

She nodded. “I was.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“I saw you.”

Jennifer took Mrs. Wintergreen’s hand and allowed her to help her up.

“So you followed me?”

“Yes.”

Jennifer massaged her right hip and grimaced in pain.

“Let me help you over to the gazebo,” Mrs. Wintergreen said.

Jennifer nodded. Mrs. Wintergreen held her arm and skated alongside her until they arrived safely at the gazebo and sat down.

“Are you sure you’re all right, my dear?” Mrs. Wintergreen asked.

“Yes, probably just bruised…nothing serious.”

Jennifer looked at Mrs. Wintergreen’s placid face, studied her alert eyes and saw a comfortable reliability and assurance in them. She noticed her clothes: a red and green ski cap, with embroidered reindeer and children; the woolen red scarf tied loosely around her neck, the burgundy sweater and Little Red Riding Hood cape over her shoulders, the emerald skirt and antique-looking ice skates, with sparkling runners.

“Who are you?”

“Someone who wants to give you a Christmas gift.”

“No,” Jennifer said, abruptly, “I mean, who are you, really, and where do you come from? I’ve never seen you around town before, I mean until the other day in my shop.”

“Well…, Jennifer, people often look at me strangely when I tell them who I really am. So I don’t tell them.”

“I’m looking at you strangely now. It’s more than a little strange when someone follows you around like you’ve been following me.”

Mrs. Wintergreen folded her hands in her lap and looked straight ahead. Just as she was about to speak, Jennifer said, “And don’t tell me you’re some kind of Christmas angel!”

“Oh, no! Although I wanted to be when I was a little girl.”

“So?”

“Well, I’m what you might call... a kind of Christmas Spirit.”

Jennifer nodded, rapidly, her eyes blinking rapidly. “Okay... okay...”

“It’s difficult for some people to believe that we exist.”

Jennifer narrowed her eyes. “Well I can’t imagine why,” she said, sarcastically.

“At Christmas, happiness, hope and love are needed the most, Jennifer. So, I, and others like me, come to help out from time to time.”

Jennifer sighed and looked away. “I see. And where are you from?”

“Well, you could say I’m from right here. I mean, in a sense, I’m always here.”

Jennifer shut her eyes in impatience. “Okay, let’s not even go there. What did you say your name was?”

Mrs. Wintergreen leaned toward her. “I introduced myself to you earlier today, Jennifer, when I came to your shop. I’m Mrs. Frances Wintergreen.”

“Well, that’s a very cheery name. Wintergreen sounds very... holiday-ish, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, Jennifer.”

Jennifer looked away, irritated, watching the snow blow and drift. “Well, isn’t that nice.”

“Of course, you don’t believe in me,” Mrs. Wintergreen said, shrugging.

“No!” Jennifer said, emphatically. “No, I do not believe that you’re some kind of Christmas Spirit. Forgive me, but I stopped believing in Santa Claus a long, long time ago,” Jennifer said, lifting her hand and then dropping it helplessly in her lap. “Do you have family nearby or someone I could call, maybe a therapist, a hospital?”

Mrs. Wintergreen laughed. “You can see why I don’t often tell people who I am, Jennifer. I almost always get the same response.”

“Look, I would really appreciate it if you’d just leave me alone.”

Mrs. Wintergreen looked deeply into Jennifer’s eyes. “Jennifer, it was your request that brought me here. You’re the one who asked for help, the day after Thanksgiving, remember?”

Jennifer shifted, anxiously. “Look, Mrs. Wintergreen, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I think this joke has gone on long enough. I do not believe that you are some incarnate Spirit of Christmas, and, unless you can show me some miracle, I’m going to ask you, very nicely, to stop following me.”

Mrs. Wintergreen looked at Jennifer knowingly. “I’ve been watching you for some time, Jennifer. It was I who sang to you that night, when you were closing the shop. Remember? You thought it was coming from the CD player. You checked the CD player and it was turned off. That same night, at home, when you were working on your computer, I appeared on the screen. I sang to you again.”

Mrs. Wintergreen began to sing “
We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year
. Remember?”

Jennifer felt a prickle of heat shoot up her spine. She stared, alarmed. “Who are you?”

“I told you.”

Jennifer’s breath came fast. She swallowed. “That was an electronic Christmas card,” she said, trying to convince herself. “People send those things all the time.”

“I know. I sent it to you.”

Jennifer shot up, forgetting she was still wearing ice skates. She wobbled, lost her balance and dropped back down. She studied Mrs. Wintergreen, speechless.

“I’m offering you a gift, an opportunity, Jennifer. It’s your choice.”

Jennifer turned away. “What are you talking about? What gift?”

“Well, I have always been known as the romantic in our family, and I have never apologized for it. Romantic adventures are one of the great joys of life.”

Jennifer closed her eyes tightly, as if trying to shut Mrs. Wintergreen out. “Really. So, you’re like the matchmaker of the Christmas Spirit family?”

“No. I don’t match-make, but I can point you in a direction that you wouldn’t normally take, either because you fear it or because you simply don’t know that the opportunity exists. At Christmas, I have the good fortune to offer possibilities to those who are deserving, courageous and adventurous. This year, I have chosen you, Jennifer. I can offer you a wonderful Christmas adventure. But it is entirely your choice. You have to take the necessary steps to have the adventure.”

Jennifer opened her eyes, avoiding Mrs. Wintergreen’s. “The only adventure I want, Mrs. Wintergreen, is to be able to sleep late on Christmas morning.”

Mrs. Wintergreen’s face turned severe; her tone, somber and foreboding. “You’re going to be tested soon, my dear. You’ll have to make a choice anyway. I was hoping I could make it a little easier for you.”

Jennifer crossed her arms, nervous. “What do you mean, tested?”

Frances stood. “Jennifer, when I look at you, I see a heavy belt of bitterness and anger wrapped around your chest, pulled tightly, constricting your breath, your life and the goodness of your heart.”

“I feel fine.”

“You need to move on with your life, Jennifer. If you don’t… if you don’t move on soon, it could be too late. Just like it was too late for Agnes Stanton.”

Jennifer’s eyes widened in recognition and fear. “What about Mrs. Stanton?”

“She was offered an opportunity many years ago. I offered it to her, but she refused it. I hope you won’t refuse, Jennifer. The world needs people with good hearts, with open hearts, at Christmas and throughout the entire year.”

Jennifer stiffened, fists clenched. “My heart is fine just as it is. As for Christmas… It’s just... it’s just a stupid holiday.”

“You’re lost, Jennifer,” Mrs. Wintergreen said.

Jennifer bristled. “I’m lost? No, not me, but I lost someone on Christmas—last Christmas Eve—someone who was loving, steady and joyful, who had a good and open heart, someone who would have helped the world and made it a better place. He was killed in a car accident! A pointless and senseless death! That’s the kind of world we live in. The world of random violence, death and loss. Okay, fine, I accept it! Now, leave me alone!”

Jennifer averted Mrs. Wintergreen’s eyes.

Mrs. Wintergreen remained still. “Wouldn’t Lance want you to be happy, Jennifer?”

Jennifer shot her a startled glance. “How do you know his name? I didn’t say his name!”

“Like I said earlier, Jennifer, I’ve been watching you for a long time.”

Jennifer shifted, uncomfortably. “I don’t know who you are, Mrs. …, but I’m doing fine. I have a nice place to live and I have a successful business. That’s enough for me.”

“Is it really, Jennifer?”

“Yes!”

“To receive my gift, you’ll have to leave town, tomorrow.”

Jennifer laughed, harshly. “I couldn’t leave town now even if I wanted to. It’s impossible! This is the busiest time of year. I’m not going anywhere!”

Frances Wintergreen stood. “All right, my dear… it’s your choice. Goodbye. I do hope you find some peace in your life.”

Mrs. Wintergreen walked her skates onto the ice, leaned forward and glided away across the pond, disappearing into the scrim of falling snow.

Jennifer slowly struggled to her feet, straining her eyes to find Mrs. Wintergreen. But she was gone. Trembling and shaken, Jennifer slowly eased back down, staring longingly into the night.

CHAPTER 5

 

That night, Jennifer slept fitfully. At five in the morning, she finally gave up, pushing out of bed, her throat dry, her chest heavy with grief; a ridiculous feeling of desperation brought beads of sweat to her forehead.

She went to the window and parted the gauze-like curtains, wiping her tired eyes and peering out. It was still snowing! Heavy flakes. The world was covered in mounds and cones of it, blowing wildly into drifts against her building. She could already hear the growl of a snow blower in the distance and the rhythmic scrape of a shovel. She folded her arms against her white flannel gown for warmth and slipped her feet into her brown fuzzy house shoes.

In the living room, she switched on the TV and flopped down in her chair. The handsome weatherman said that the snow would stop by mid morning, but the accumulation would be over 14 inches!

She made coffee and skipped breakfast. Jennifer used to love breakfast—it was her favorite meal—but she hadn’t had much of an appetite in months.

After a shower, she dressed in a heavy brown turtleneck, jeans, and warm socks. She pulled on her brown rubber boots, grabbed her down coat and dashed out the front door. She needed to get to the shop before 6:30, shovel and salt the front walk, just in case Mrs. Stanton took her usual walk. It would be just like her to walk by the shop, in the middle of the snowstorm, just to spite her.

In the parking lot, it took 10 minutes to clear the front and back windshields of her car. When she glanced at her watch, she grimaced.
 
It was almost six o’clock! She’d have to hurry. Jennifer opened the door, kicked the snow off her boots and got in.

The road into town had been cleared earlier in the night, but a new layer of snow made it treacherous and slow-going. Hers was the only car on the road, and it aggravated her to think that her life was being dictated by a bitter old woman who delighted in making everyone’s life miserable, including her own.

It was almost 6:25 by the time Jennifer arrived on Main Street. The stores, cars and sidewalks were nearly smothered in blowing, glistening snow. Impatience and urgency made her press the accelerator with a firm foot. Finally, she saw Cards N’ Stuff ahead. Surely, Mrs. Stanton wouldn’t be out taking her normal walk. Not in this weather!

But just as Jennifer was approaching the shop, she spotted a lone figure, armed with a cane and leaning into the wind, trudging along like an old persevering pilgrim. Jennifer immediately recognized Mrs. Stanton, dressed in her heavy black coat and ostentatious white hat.

Jennifer cursed under her breath. Mrs. Stanton was no more than five feet from the front of Cards N’ Stuff! Impulsively, Jennifer pressed forward, spotting her preferred parking place, near the alley.

Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once, and in slow motion. Mrs. Stanton stepped in front of the shop, stabbing away at the snow with her cane.

Jennifer’s back tires slid away into chaos. It was as if the world was spinning away from her. She frantically fought for control of the car, but the steering wheel became useless. She was slipping away toward the east wall of Cards N’ Stuff.
 
Jennifer held her breath.

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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