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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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Jennifer pushed her hands into her coat pockets, turned her gaze away from the couple and shaded her eyes from the now brilliant sun that was glaring off the ice. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was looking for Mrs. Wintergreen, and she felt pangs of anger for even being there. But she was desperate and had nowhere else to go. She had no one to talk to. She couldn’t stay in her apartment and she certainly couldn’t go back to town.

Like someone who was about to take a plunge into icy water, she took a few deep breaths to fortify her courage, then started circling the pond. Half an hour later, she was hungry, her face was hard with cold, and she was bitterly discouraged. She turned slowly, searching all four directions, and then stared up into the blue dome of the sky. She stood on a hill overlooking the pond, hearing the soft rasp of an airplane passing over, glinting in the sunlight.

Then quietly, desperately, she whispered. “I’ll go…”

At that moment, she spotted Mrs. Wintergreen below, skating beside the elderly couple. All three were laughing, gliding and performing a little dance. Jennifer jolted forward. She swiftly descended the hill, side-stepping, sliding, falling, bracing herself with her hands and hurrying over to the edge of the pond. She frantically waved, trying to get Mrs. Wintergreen’s attention.

“Mrs. Wintergreen! Mrs. Wintergreen!!”

Mrs. Wintergreen did a skillful pirouette, whirling in circles like a top, finally coming to an abrupt stop. The couple applauded.

“Very good, Frances,” the woman said.

“Nicely done,” the man added.

“You gave me the lessons,” she said, applauding them. “It only took me 30 years!”

Mrs. Wintergreen turned to Jennifer and waved. “Hi Jennifer. What a beautiful day!”

Jennifer waved again, shyly, nodding. “Yes…yes…”

Mrs. Wintergreen said her good-byes to the couple, turned and skated over to Jennifer. “Hello, my dear.”

Jennifer let out a pent-up breath, suddenly agitated. “How did you know?”

Mrs. Wintergreen took off her sunglasses. “I heard about your shop, Jennifer. I’m sorry.”

“Isn’t that what you meant, when you said I was going to be tested? How did you know!?” she asked, aggressively.

Mrs. Wintergreen ignored her. “Have you changed your mind? Didn’t I just hear you say you’d go? That you’re ready for the gift, the adventure?”

Jennifer twisted her hands, caught between irritation and desperation. She looked away for a moment, shut her eyes, and then opened them. “I don’t know who you are… I don’t know what’s happening…”

“I don’t have all the answers, either, Jennifer, despite what you might think. Do you accept my gift?”

Jennifer tilted her head to one side, avoiding Mrs. Wintergreen’s eyes. She wanted to take a step back, but to where? She was afraid to hesitate and frightened to speak. There was a small part of her that believed Mrs. Wintergreen possessed some strange power, some extrasensory ability to fling her out into timeless oblivion, like a mad scientist shooting a home-made rocket into outer space toward an unknown destination. There was another part of her that was laughing wildly at the fact that she was even speaking to this crazy woman, who claimed to be some Christmas Spirit! How utterly and completely ridiculous!

“Well, Jennifer?” Mrs. Wintergreen said, staring patiently.

Jennifer winced, and then finally opened her mouth. “… All right…I accept your gift.”

Mrs. Wintergreen smiled, warmly. “That’s wonderful news, Jennifer.”

“What do I do now?” Jennifer asked, fretfully.

“You’ll find a ticket on your kitchen table for a flight to New York City that leaves at 2 o’clock today. Be on that plane!”

Jennifer’s face fell apart. “Today!? New York! I’ve never been to New York. I wouldn’t know where to stay, where to go! I don’t know anyone!”

“Don’t worry. There are wonderful people in New York City, just as there are wonderful people in Oneida, Tennessee and here, in Willowbury. You have a reservation at The Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. After that, the adventure will find you.”

Jennifer was too stunned to speak. Mrs. Wintergreen took her hand and led her back to the gazebo.

“How long will I be there?” Jennifer asked.

“Time won’t matter, Jennifer. Like I said, the adventure will find you and will give you everything you need.”

Jennifer tensed up. “Will you be there? Will you be in New York if I need you?”

Mrs. Wintergreen held Jennifer’s hand firmly between her red woolen mittens. Jennifer’s cold hands immediately warmed. “You’ll be fine. Understand something, Jennifer. This gift, this adventure, will require courage.”

“Courage? What do you mean, courage? What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing that you can’t handle.” She paused. “No more questions, now. Experience is always better than words. You’d better go or you’ll miss that plane.”

Jennifer hesitated.

“Go!” Mrs. Wintergreen said, gently pushing her toward the path that led toward the road.

Reluctantly, Jennifer started walking away, turning haltingly, throwing glances back over her shoulder at an encouraging Mrs. Wintergreen. When Jennifer crested the hill that led to the highway, she looked back again, and Mrs. Wintergreen was gone.

CHAPTER 6

 

By the time the 727 taxied to the runway, Jennifer’s named and unnamed struggles were replaced by a larger, and more immediate, anticipation and doubt. In her haste to pack, dress and call for a taxi to take her to the airport, she’d surely forgotten things—maybe a toothbrush or deodorant. She’d had no idea what to pack for New York—didn’t have a clue what she should wear on “this adventure”, and knew from experience that whatever she brought would be all wrong anyway.

In case she needed something more formal than the slacks she was wearing, she’d packed her burgundy dress and a green silk scarf. The dress was comfortable and it accented her figure; it had some sense of elegance she would undoubtedly need, if she was going to be staying at The Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Her garnet earrings, a gift from Lance, had fire in them, suggesting confidence. She’d need all the help she could get. She found some medium heels that matched the dress, but pinched her toes, especially her left ones, but she’d have to endure that discomfort for the sake of appearance. The boots she was wearing to travel in were warm and comfortable at least.

Just before she’d grabbed her suitcase and started for the door, she felt her hair falling all about her face, so she combed it straight back from her forehead and tied it in back with a blue elastic band. It made her crazy to have hair tickling her face when she was nervous. Maybe she’d lost her mind! Thrown away all logic and abandoned reason. She felt odd and disoriented, and she only hoped no one would ever find out what she was doing.

The seat next to her was empty, for which she was grateful. She was too restless to control her persistent squirming. She crossed her legs, and when her left knee began bouncing, she reached for a magazine in the seat pocket and thumbed through it absently.

Once airborne, she watched stringy clouds flee past the window like remnants of old dreams and memories. It seemed like time itself was racing by in a never-ending stream of forms, events and possibilities. As the plane rose higher, she stared into the endless blue sky, wishing she were as undefined and free. But too many questions intruded. “What would happen to her shop? Should she apply for another loan? Should she just leave Willowbury and move somewhere else? Why was she going to New York? What would happen?”

She took a deep breath, settled back into the seat and closed her eyes. Images flashed by. Her eyelids twitched, she grew heavy and was suddenly, utterly exhausted. She fell into a deep sleep.

When Jennifer awoke in startled surprise, the plane was gliding over Manhattan in a light snowfall. The view nearly took her breath: an endless vision of towers, glass canyons, bridges and water slid gently beneath her, like an exquisite apparition. She saw the veins of streets and highways; the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, shiny and glorious. It was all a dream. A magnificent, special effect from some Hollywood blockbuster film. And she was in it! She felt the impulse to reach for the City, as it, somehow, seemed to be reaching out to her.

Lance had described New York to her many times during the weeks before they were to be married. He was anxiously anticipating playing tour guide on their honeymoon.

“New York’s like a wonderland of the crazy, the playful and the hopeful,” he’d said. “Whenever I walk the streets and look around, I believe that absolutely anything is possible—anything can happen… and many times it does.”

Lance had been to New York three times: once on a high school band trip, once to a friend’s wedding and, finally, to a medical conference when he was in medical school.

Jennifer’s elation was suddenly smothered by the memory of a poem she’d found and read, repeatedly, soon after Lance’s death.

I weep, weep 
for again the departure, 
Your hand on the banister 
Your glove on the stair.

 

That’s how she last saw him, on the stairs, his hand gripping the banister, looking down at her, lovingly. He’d simply said, “I’ll see you tonight, honey.”

That was it. “Honey” was his last word to her.

As she buckled her seatbelt in preparation for landing, she again felt a pain that she could not touch; a loss, unspeakable; a torment that deafened; a new and alarming realization that the taste of his warm lips was fading from her memory a little more every day. That brought a nagging guilt. How could she forget! How dare she! Lance would never have forgotten her! Never!

The pilot masterfully landed the plane, but as the wheels touched and screeched on the LaGuardia runway, she was jolted, not because of the landing: it was the recognition that she had arrived at the city of her unknown adventure. She could feel the proverbial butterflies trapped in her chest, fluttering; she breathed deeply to try to release them.

It was an easy taxi to the gate; the steady falling snow had produced little accumulation. When the seatbelt light went off and passengers stood, Jennifer noticed, for the first time, how light and happy everyone seemed—how ready for celebration—how the anticipation of Christmas hung in the air like the sweet smells of a bakery.

She slithered out between the seats and joined the line exiting the plane, feeling her shoulders slump forward, feeling the heat of uneasiness rise to her face. Would someone be waiting for her? Perhaps Mrs. Wintergreen?

But no one was waiting for her.

She followed the signs and the stream of passengers to the baggage claim area, and after she’d gathered her suitcase, she left the terminal, stepped outside into the cold and traveled toward the taxi stand. Sweat had broken out around her neck and on her forehead. She was not an easy traveler. Lance had teased her about it, not that they had ever traveled very far or often, but even short trips had made her nervous. There were just too many unknowns, things to forget, possible little disasters just waiting to happen. And something always did happen: a flat tire on their way to Florida to see his parents; a minor car accident on a rain-slicked highway as they traveled to Virginia Beach for a long weekend; and Lance’s dog, Oscar, charging off into the woods after a rabbit. It took Lance almost an hour to track him down in a freezing rain. He’d caught a cold and was in bed for two days.

Jennifer found the taxi stand and took her place in the long line. There was an almost frantic energy that she found unnerving and disconcerting. People stepped quickly, nudging and jostling her. Taxis bolted ahead, stopped abruptly, horns blared, people waved and shouted. The taxi dispatcher snapped his fingers aggressively, yelling at the taxi drivers and the impatient passengers. Some travelers hollered back at him, their faces firm, expressions challenging.

She joined the others, noticing some clutching their Christmas packages. Others snapped out cell phones and newspapers, waiting patiently, as if this kind of long line was as natural as waiting for the change of seasons. Children skipped and played, pointed toward the snow and dropped little candies into their mouths.

A few minutes later, Jennifer raised her chin to see that she was next. She glanced at the taxi dispatcher, a craggy-faced man with a gruff manner, and she shrank back. Her taxi arrived in aggressive fits and starts. It stopped, rocked—the trunk popped open. Jennifer hesitated, agitated. She wasn’t sure she wanted to ride with this man! The taxi dispatcher’s hands went to his hips in insulted impatience. He scrunched up his eyes into irritation, then flicked the bill of his captain’s hat, puffed out his chest like a general, and threw an angry pointed finger at her.

“You! Go! Move!”

Jennifer snapped to attention, gripped her pull handle and stepped rapidly toward the taxi, hearing the suitcase wheels growl across the concrete. The taxi driver met her, a bearded man in a white turban; he lifted her suitcase as if it were a paperback book and tossed it into the trunk. She looked at it, distressed. She slid into the back seat to stifling heat, closed the door and peered nervously through the heavy Plexiglas window at the cab driver.

“Where to?” he called, in some strange accent.

Her heart was thumping in her throat. “The Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Do you know where that is?”

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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