Memory and Hope

A strange thing is memory, and hope; one looks backward, and the other forward; one is of today, the other of tomorrow. Memory is history recorded in our brain, memory is a painter, it paints pictures of the past and of the day.-Anna Mary Robertson ("Grandma") Moses

Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.


The slender red-haired woman entered the coffee shop, and stopped shy of the counter, moving her head back and forth, and craning her neck to look past the crowds at the cash register. She was obviously looking for someone, and she hesitated before moving further into the shop.

"Anna! Hey! Over here!" A petite blonde woman was waving from a table to the right of the stone fireplace that took up one whole wall of the shop. She had two cups in front of her, and one hand clamped on the other chair at the table. "Taken," she said firmly to a man who stopped and gestured at the seat. There weren't very many open seats available, and Anna had to push her way through the crowd to the table.

Finally she reached the table, and placing her large leather bag on the surface, took the offered seat. "Lizzie! It's great to see you!" Leaning across the table, she gave the blond a quick one-shouldered hug. "I was so glad to hear you were back in town! Business or pleasure?"

"Both actually. I was just lucky this trip coincided with the holiday. I hated leaving Dan, but couldn't pass up the chance to spend Thanksgiving at home." Lizzie pushed over one of the sealed self-heating cups. "How've you been? Finished that Ph.D. yet?"

"You are speaking to Dr. Keller, the noted anthropologist," Anna replied pompously, then she laughed. "I graduated last year, and landed a post-doc with Dr. Erasmus. We're heading out to Mars for a dig in the new year." She opened the cup and took a sip. "Mmm. Lapsang souchong. I can't believe you remembered."

"How could I forget? You made a pot every night in the dorm. Eventually I got to like the smell of woodsmoke. It was almost like having a campfire in our room." Lizzie took a drink, then put her hand briefly over Anna's. "Listen, I had an ulterior motive in calling you."

Anna sighed, and shook her head. "I should have known. What is it this time? It can't be man trouble. You sound really happy in your com messages. Dan must be a great guy." She smiled at her friend, and continued, "Whatever you need, you know you've got it."

"It's nothing bad," protested Lizzie. Tracing a pattern with her finger on the table, she said hesitantly. "I know how you feel about family holidays, and I get that. But I really could use the company this year." Looking up at her friend, Lizzie asked, "I want you to come home with me, for Thanksgiving."

Anna looked carefully at her friend, "What's up, Lizzie? I don't mind coming, although

it's been years since I met your folks. And I've never been to the farm, all the time we've known each other."

Lizzie was gripping her cup of tea as if she wanted to suck out the warmth into her hands. "It's the first time we've all been together in ages. Even Johnny's going to make it this year."

"All the more reason to make it family only, don't you think?" Anna tilted her head in question, but waited patiently for Lizzie to continue. It sometimes took Elizabeth Sheridan a little while to come to the point, but she'd always been one to face any trouble head on. That was what puzzled Anna about this conversation, and the invitation.

Lizzie took a deep breath. "It's just that I have something to tell my parents, and I'm not sure how they're going to take it."

"You mean your mother, don't you?" asked Anna carefully.

Lizzie sighed, "Yeah, that's right. I love Mom, you know that, and she's great, but sometimes, I feel, like...well. We have to be careful."

"Good God, Lizzie, what is it?" Anna was becoming slightly alarmed. She'd met Miranda Sheridan, and found her to be a warm and charming woman, but Lizzie had told her that her mother was subject to bouts of depression. They were infrequent during Lizzie's childhood, but had eventually gotten bad enough that David Sheridan had taken early retirement from the Civil Service in order to lessen the pressures on his wife.

"Nothing bad. It's good actually." Lizzie started to talk faster and her smile grew bright. "They've offered Dan a permanent position on Proxima, Anna. We'll be building a new life, a whole new world. It's so exciting! But it'll mean emigrating, and it'll be hard to get back here. It might be years." Her eyes shone and her smile blazed. "And I'm pregnant."

Anna broke in, unable to contain her joy. "That's wonderful! I'm so happy for you, and for Dan!" Then she added, suddenly thoughtful, "Oh. I see. You get to tell your mother all at once that she's going to be a grandmother, and that she won't be able to see her grandchild. As an added bonus, she's losing you. She'll have one child married to a colonist, and one married to EarthForce."

"John's not exactly married to EarthForce," protested Lizzie. Then, seeing the sparkle in Anna's eye, she joined her in laughter. "Okay, maybe I've given you that impression. But it's all so wonderful, I want everyone to be happy. Mom'll need some time to get used to the idea, and having a guest to fuss over will give her something to do while she thinks it through."

"That's all I am? A distraction for your mother?" Anna arched an eyebrow in mock disapproval. "If you think it'll help, of course I'll come! I'd just be stuck here on campus, preparing a paper for publication. I can work there, and it will be nice to spend some time with you." She said seriously, "You know, I'll miss you too."

"I know," said Lizzie, setting down her cup to squeeze her friend's hand. "All of us from college, we've scattered to the four corners of the galaxy. I hate the feeling I'm giving up my family, even my world, in order to start another life."

"That's what life is all about, isn't it?" replied Anna. "When you grow up, you make your own family. I've already had to make mine twice; first when my parents died and the Kellers adopted me. They were wonderful people and encouraged all my ambitions. But they were older when I came to them, and then they both died within months, just before I started college."

Lizzie nodded, "That was a tough time for you. I met you just after that, and you were all withdrawn and quiet, hardly talking in class, wandering around the dorm with your hair down around your face..."

"You made the effort to draw me out, to get to know me, and I've never forgotten that," said Anna gratefully. "It made all the difference."

"Well, you didn't stay withdrawn or quiet, if that's what you mean!" Lizzie glanced at the chronometer on the wall behind the counter. "Hey, I've got to get going. I've got a a meeting at the Emigration offices at one o'clock, and I'm running late. Dinner tonight?" she asked, as she gathered up a small black computer case and draped her purse strap over her shoulder. "We could go to Maxwell's. It'll be like old times." Glancing back at Anna, she saw her friend nod approval. "Great! How about we meet there at 7? We can plan out the trip then."

Anna watched as Lizzie maneuvered her way through the crowd, charming everyone along the way with her friendly apologies, leaving only smiles and frank admiration behind her. It was good to be a Sheridan. It was good to have a Sheridan for a friend.

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Anna had taken the train; it was almost as fast as the commuter jet and quieter. She disliked the white noise that sounded so loudly in the little jets. It was one thing she liked about the whole idea of space travel; the silence between the stars. Someday she was going out there, as far as anyone had ever gone. Lizzie had promised to meet her at the station, it was a short drive out to the farm, and then a long weekend in the country with a good friend and plenty of food. Privately Anna thought Lizzie was worrying excessively about her mother, but that had been a pattern with her friend all the time Anna had known her. Besides, from the outside you could never really know the internal dynamics of a family.

It was also obvious that Lizzie had also been worried about her friend's reaction to attending a family party on a holiday. Anna couldn't blame her for that. It probably stemmed from some of Anna's reactions when they were both in college. She'd never had anywhere to go on holidays, and declined what invitations she received. Even when her adoptive parents had still been alive, holidays were muted and discreet. Anna had been eleven years old when her parents had been killed, old enough to remember lavish traditions and the sheer joy of anticipation that had filled her original home at all the major holidays. The quiet dignified celebrations at the Kellers had been in keeping with their personalities and fit in with her grief. Eventually she'd been on her own, and given up trying to celebrate, taking the time to catch up on sleep or work as the situation warranted.

As the high speed train slowed, the landscape became more clear through the thick windows. The fields were striped with brown and dull yellow wisps of some kind of cultivated plant. Anna had spent her time studying cultures and knew a great deal about agriculture in general, but the specifics, like what was grown in this area, had escaped her. It might be corn, she thought, recognizing the stalks from the fall decorations that dotted the college town that had been her home for the last eight years. The sky was a dull grey, with low clouds laid out like crumpled sheets clear to the horizon. There had been a chill in the air when she'd boarded the train in town; it looked even colder here. The intercom chimed, and a warm female voice announced their incipient arrival.

Anna reached over to inventory her things; a small overnight case made to sling over one shoulder, her briefcase with her laptop and some papers, her short suede jacket, and her purse. All were present and accounted for. Looking out the window, she saw a two seater electric car, bright yellow with a white convertible top. Shaking her head, she smiled. She hadn't seen Lizzie's Lemon in ages. She must have left it with her parents when she went off-planet. It certainly brought back memories.

The train slid to a silent stop and the doors opened automatically. Anna rose and gathered her possessions, but she had barely made it into the aisle when Lizzie bounced into the car. "Hey stranger! Come on, I want to get back before it starts to snow. The Lemon never was any good in bad weather."

"Is it really going to snow?" Anna managed to briefly hug her friend, who was busily trying to take hold of the luggage.

"Probably not. It's a little early in the season." Lizzie bustled Anna out the door, across the platform and into the car. They started off and rapidly ran through a modern town center, then through an area of older houses with pocket yards and large tree. Next there was an area of newer mixed developments, and finally the houses grew further and further apart, separated by checkerboard fields and orchards of trees in blurred lines. Anna could see a few pale red apples clinging to the gnarled branches. The sky remained leaden, but there was no precipitation that she could see. Lizzie had grown silent as the drive progressed. It wasn't a comfortable silence, and finally Anna said, "Is everything all right?"

"Oh yes," replied Lizzie. "I talked to them last night. John had just gotten here, and it seemed like a good time. Everyone's happy for me, that is, for Dan and me. Dad put a request for an off world call, and it's supposed to come through tonight. It's hard to get through on a holiday; I think Dad pulled some strings."

"How's your mother?" asked Anna cautiously.

"She's okay. A little upset, but distracted by all the preparations, and she's thrilled Johnny's here, and eager to see you again. I think it's going to be fine, actually." Lizzie looked sideways at her friend. "Maybe I overreacted?"

Anna shook her head. "No, this is fine. If you're worried, I want to be here for you." Then she looked pointedly at Lizzie and said solemnly, "Maybe it's the hormones..."

Lizzie punched her gently in the shoulder. "Don't start." They drove down the road in the fading twilight, content to let the familiar cadences of friendship fill the space between them.

The next day was Thanksgiving. The warm and spacious kitchen seemed full of Sheridans, but Anna didn't feel overwhelmed. They somehow managed to extend a welcome that brought her into their circle but wasn't threatening. Anna wasn't sure why the word 'threatening' had occurred to her. Observing the closeness of John and his father, she also noticed how Miranda's eyes constantly followed her son. Lizzie was like a lighthouse lamp; she flashed and reflected light between the other three. It was obvious they would miss her, but the connections between them were strong. Anna envied them that.

Everyone seemed to have a job, even if it consisted of whacking boiled potatoes with an old-fashioned metal kitchen implement. Miranda noticed her watching John attack the vegetables and laughed at her curiosity. "It's an antique, Anna! We only bring it out for special occasions. Besides, John likes it."

John smiled at her and offered the handle to her, "Want to have a go? It's very cathartic."

Anna stood and took the masher from him. She first looked at it carefully, then began to swiftly and efficiently twist and turn it in the mass of white studded with brown strips of peel. "This would be easier with peeled potatoes," she remarked. "Why leave them on?"

John had lingered to watch her technique. "You're a natural at this! Mom always said the vitamins were in the peel...but I think she likes the way it looks. More natural or something."

Anna shook the peel free of the tool, and edged the clinging mass to the edge of the bowl so she could attack the pulp. "Why did you say it was cathartic? Is there something, or someone, you'd rather be mashing?"

John looked closely at her, wondering why she asked. "Not really. Everything is going pretty well. I'll be joining the Lexington as First Officer under Captain Sterns after the holidays. It's a good berth, a fine crew, and I'm looking forward to it. And there was Lizzie's news..."

"Wonderful news," Anna said quickly. "She seems so happy. I wish it wasn't so far, but it's a good opportunity for both of them. Lizzie says she's had three offers for interviews already. It won't be hard for her to land a job on Proxima. The colonies are eager to recruit medical personnel."

"That's true. Lizzie said you'd finished your doctorate. Congratulations! Anthropology with a specialty in xenobiology; that sounds interesting. What are you going to do next?" John leaned back against the counter, standing out of the way as the Lizzie whizzed by him on her way to the stove.

"I'm off to Mars in January," said Anna, excitement and the rising heat of the kitchen turning her cheeks bright pink. "I've never been off-world before, and it's a fantastic opportunity. Dr. Erasmus thinks he's discovered a site of alien colonization, unbelievably old, and never excavated before. Who knows what we'll find?"

"Mars is an interesting place. I worked the old Moon-Mars run a few years ago; it was my first assignment out of the Academy. The people there, the original colonists and their descendants, are fascinating. Very independent, and very outspoken. It's an interesting way to live, in the domes. A lot like shipboard life, without the travel," John said thoughtfully.

"We'll be living in a portable dome, set up adjacent to the site. But I suppose most of the time we'll be outside working in spacesuits," Anna said, her voice filled with enthusiasm.

"That'll make things a bit difficult, won't it?" asked John with interest.

"Not any more than piloting a StarFury in a suit," declared Anna, her eyes sparkling. "I'm sure I'll figure it out."

"I'm sure you will," replied John. "Let me finish that up, all right? It's the only thing they let me make." He pointed at the large copper-bottom saucepan filled with potatoes smashed fine. He put his hand on the masher, briefly covering Anna's.

Anna flushed, and removed her hand. "Of course. There must be something else I can do." She moved away, towards the cooktop where Lizzie and her mother were standing.

John watched her graceful retreating figure, thinking to himself that there probably wasn't much she couldn't do. Turning away, he went towards the cooler in search of the butter and milk he'd need to finish up his part of the meal.

A casual and good-natured argument was taking place between Miranda and Lizzie as to the best way to deal with the drippings. David was standing by the table, his hand resting on a glass bottle of prepared gravy. Ever the diplomat, he was trying to convince his wife and daughter to accept the store-bought compromise.

"You have to make a roux first, Mom. It brings out the nutty flavour of the flour," said Lizzie definitely.

"It always ends up lumpy when we try that, honey. If I mix the flour and water first, it comes out smoother." Miranda protested. Smiling, she added, "Not that mine is lump-free, mind you!" She saw Anna approaching and said, "Look, we have a neutral arbitrator!" Observing Anna's eyebrows pucker in anxiety, Miranda hastened to assure her, "It's all right. We bicker over this every year. Generally we take it in turns. Whose year is it, Lizzie?"

"Mine," sighed Lizzie. "But actually I'm a little tired. Maybe I'll let you go ahead..."

"Are you all right?" Miranda and Anna spoke at the same time.

"Fine," laughed Lizzie, "Really, I'm fine. Just a little tired. "

"Mrs. Sheridan," said Anna hesitantly, "I wonder if you'd mind if I helped with this. I think I can remember how my mother used to do it."

"It's Miranda, and no, we wouldn't mind, would we?" John had walked over and pulled out a chair and Miranda indicated that Lizzie should sit and rest. Miranda stood behind her daughter protectively, and directed, "You can help your father with the carving. Just try not to steal all the crispy bits."

Anna searched among the utensils standing in a blue and white striped ceramic jar to one side of the stove until she located a wire whisk. "I'm pretty sure Mom added the flour first, but she always said you could never stop stirring. Stir with one hand, add with the other." Making sure she had everything close, Anna took a deep breath and began. As she worked, her mind flickered with faded snapshots of memory. She'd realized a long while ago that she could no longer remember her parents. First their voices had faded, then their mannerisms, and finally only their faces remained, still and frozen in pictures and a few short vacation vids. Miranda, turning to check on Anna, patted her shoulder gently, then returned to watching Lizzie critique David's work. Anna blinked rapidly, striving to contain the tears rising to her eyes. A few escaped to drop into the brown and thickening sauce.

"You okay?" The deep voice was low and comforting. Anna had to restrain herself from leaning back against John Sheridan's broad chest. She felt a sudden insane desire to turn and bury herself in his arms. Forcing her voice to remain steady, she managed to say, "I'm fine."

"We don't need too much salt," John said, sympathy edging his voice. "Think of Dad's blood pressure."

Anna laughed weakly, "I guess you're right. Could you hand me the pepper mill?"

"Here," said John. "I'll do it. Tell me when." He held the mill over the bubbling liquid.

She nodded, and he began to grate pepper into the gravy, watching for her direction to stop. When she indicated it was enough, he set down the mill and said, "You're pretty good at that."

Anna set the pan to the back of the stove, off the burner, and said softly, "Memory is a good teacher."

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It was the middle of the night, long after the various traditional dishes had been consumed, leftovers wrapped and stored, and the kitchen cleared. Anna had come down from her room upstairs to make a cup of tea. The kitchen was dimly lit by a glowing pillar in the center of the table, and a string of tiny white lights hung over the window. A porch light illuminated the deck boards of the side porch, and Anna looked out briefly but no stars, and no moon were visible through the thick grey clouds. Setting the kettle on to heat, she rummaged quietly through the cupboards for a cup, and picked out a tea bag from a canister on the countertop. Sitting back down at the table, she waited patiently for the water to come to a boil.

The day had been long and tiring, a mix of memory and hope. Anna had often wondered if she would ever reach a time in her life when holidays were more than bitter hazy memories, and it seemed that time had come. Lizzie had rescued her once before, this was one more she owed her friend. She hadn't felt so close to her parents in years.

"May I join you?"

The question came from the darkened passageway, and Anna recognized the voice of her hostess, Miranda Sheridan. "Of course," Anna replied warmly, "You don't need to ask. It is your own kitchen!"

"That it is," Miranda said as she gathered a cup of her own, a square canister, two spoons, and the now heated kettle. She poured boiling water into Anna's cup, over the waiting teabag, and then set the kettle down on a wooden trivet. Opening the canister, she spooned three tablespoons of powder into her own cup, then poured water to the top.

"That smells wonderful," said Anna, as she deftly removed her teabag and placed it on the saucer next to her cup. "What is it?"

"Jholla powder," replied Miranda. "You can drink it warm or cold. I add a little cinnamon and chile to mine. Gives it some kick. I got used to it when David was serving at the EarthGov Embassy on Centauri Prime." She stirred the mixture, then took a sip. "Lizzie was just a baby, and John was at the age where he got into everything. Drove the Centauri crazy. They're a fussy people."

"You traveled all over the galaxy, didn't you?" Anna smiled at the thought. "I envy you that."

Miranda sighed, and set down her cup."I loved it, but at the same time I hated it. It was David's work; I had nothing to do but take care of the children and support his efforts. When the John reached school age, I stayed behind on Earth when David went out on assignment. Got a job, bought this place..." She looked around the farmhouse kitchen fondly. "Eventually David requested a permanent post in Geneva, and this place was used for holidays and vacations. When he retired we moved here for good."

"It's nice. Quiet, peaceful...and lovely country. Do you actually farm?" Anna asked curiously.

"David raises corn," Miranda said, then continued in explanation. "I really don't know why. But he likes it. When there's a good crop, the neighbors buy it to feed their stock. We don't keep any animals ourselves."

Anna leaned forward on the table. "Lizzie seems to like to travel. And she's very excited about emigrating."

Miranda's eyes closed briefly. "She is excited. She's an explorer, and John is as well." Looking into Anna's concerned eyes, she went on. "Lizzie was worried about my reaction to her news, wasn't she? That's why she invited you along?"

Anna hesitated, then nodded. "I'm glad I came. I've never been much for family holidays. This was nice."

Miranda shook her head. "I don't blame her. It was a bit of a shock, but she's so happy, I can't help but be happy for her." She picked up her cup and took a deep draught of the warm liquid. "And a bit sad for myself. I would have liked the chance to be a doting grandmother. It's supposed to be easier to be a good grandmother than to be a good mother."

"I suppose," replied Anna, wondering at the flash of shame that crossed Miranda's face. She felt a sudden desire to reassure the older woman. "Both your children are happy and successful. That must mean something."

Miranda shook her head, shadows falling across her light brown hair, barred with grey. "I didn't mean to lay all this on you, Anna. You're a guest, and a friend of my daughter's...and you're very easy to talk to! Has anyone ever told you that?"

"Not really," replied Anna. "I'm a bit too analytical, I think, for most people. Nothing like Lizzie. I've never seen anyone who can connect to people like she can."

"I have," replied Miranda with a laugh. "Her father, for one, and her brother for another. They all three have the easy attraction of self-confidence and a thorough appreciation for other people. David's warmth shines through his diplomatic training, and the children are both outgoing and popular, transparent and true to themselves. Although I always said that John has hidden depths. Did you know he went to visit the Dalai Lama in New Tibet a few years ago?"

"Really?" asked Anna. "Why did he do that?"

"I'm not sure," confessed Miranda. "He was looking for something, something within himself. I think maybe he found it. Now Lizzie...she's never had any doubts about anything, including who she is and what she wants."

"That's true," said Anna, unable to keep a note of envy from her voice.

Miranda regarded her sympathetically. "It must have been hard for you, losing your family, your whole world, twice over."

Anna briefly fought the impulse to withdraw. But she liked Miranda, and all the Sheridans. Lizzie was her best friend. So she answered,"Yes, it was." Looking carefully at Miranda, she asked, "Why was Lizzie afraid to tell you about her plans?"

Miranda sighed. "It's not exactly a family secret. My moods can be...well, erratic. I've always had issues, although it's not too bad these days." She laughed wryly, "It's a constant companion. I think Winston Churchill used to call it the black dog. Lizzie doesn't understand it; and it worries her. Always has." Miranda added hesitantly, "She blames me for her father's early retirement from EarthGov."

"Your husband doesn't seem like someone who can be forced into any decision," replied Anna. She hesitated, then asked cautiously, "Have you tried medication?"

Miranda shook her head. "Never worked for me. Doesn't for everybody, although the doctors don't like to admit it, especially in the 25th century. Besides, it's part of who I am; the shadow that defines the sun. Except I hate it when people walk on eggshells around me!"

"I promise I won't then," Anna smiled.

Miranda looked at her closely. "Lizzie was worried about your reaction to coming here, too. She said you didn't celebrate the holidays, that you weren't much for tradition. That seems odd in an anthropologist. Don't you spend a lot of time examining other culture's traditions?"

"My family's traditions didn't survive their deaths," said Anna harshly. Then she added painfully, "There's a theory that traditions hold a culture together, that they are the links in a group memory that stretches back in time. If you lose too many links in the chain, the culture is lost." She added softly, "The memories are lost."

"New links can be added, and broken links can be forged together," said Miranda. "And memories ebb and flow, strengthen and weaken as we go forward in life. Sometimes they come back, at the oddest times." Her voice trailed off, as if she was lost in a memory of her own. Anna said nothing, letting the older woman drift in her thoughts, as Anna considered the unusually intimate conversation they'd been having. It must be the time of night, or the fact that she was at a crossroads. Her whole life was changing, and suddenly she was unsure of the direction she'd chosen. Somehow it didn't seem hard to reach out, and to reach back.

The two women finished their drinks in companionable silence, and after a token protest, Miranda left the minimal mess for Anna to clear up. It was now after 2 am, and Anna knew she'd have difficulty getting back to sleep. Setting the kettle control back to heat, she went upstairs to get more warmly dressed and fetch her computer, figuring she might as well get some work done. There were layers of memories sliding through her mind; doing homework at the kitchen table with her mother leaning over to help, late nights studying for college admission tests in the Keller's formal dining room, the small cafe at the student union, open 24 hours, with an endless supply of coffee and tea, and study lamps glowing at each of the round tables. The night wore on, and another layer flowed into memory as she worked, solitary yet surrounded by a strange familiarity.

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Dawn began with a smudge of light at the window, pearly grey and barely illuminating the snug kitchen. Anna stretched and with a flourish, she hit the key to save the final revision of her paper. The remnants of the ancient civilization on Orion had fascinating parallels with Earth's Mayans. She hoped that someday she'd be able to see the ruins for herself.

A slight scraping noise from the hallway caused her to whirl around and peer into the darkness. "Is someone there?" she asked, wishing her voice hadn't cracked in momentary anxiety.

"It's just me," said John Sheridan, as he moved into the kitchen.

He was wearing a loose grey-blue sweater and black slacks. He moved quietly, like a cat, unusual in such a large man. His light brown hair was tousled, like he'd just gotten up and dressed quickly. Anna couldn't help noticing how attractive he was, but she tried not to let her admiration show. "Do you usually get up this early?" she asked, striving for nonchalance, wondering why she felt so unsettled.

"Do you usually stay up this late?" asked John with a slight smile. "What are you working on?"

"Revising a paper I submitted to Anthropology Review. They want it next week, and well, I couldn't sleep." Anna gestured towards the kettle. "Do you want some tea?"

John crossed the room and looked out the window over the sink. "Actually, I was thinking about taking a walk. There's a ridge at the edge of the field. I like to watch the sun rise from there." He looked back at Anna, and drew a breath. "I don't suppose you'd like to come with me?"

Anna was surprised at the rush of enthusiasm she felt at his invitation. "I'd like that," she replied. "Let me grab my coat." She had been wearing it for warmth when she'd returned to work, but had set it aside on the chair next to her.

John shook his head at her fashionable short coat. "It's cold out there." He walked into the back hallway and opened a closet, pulling out a fleece-lined barn jacket, and a jade green microfiber pullover. Holding out the soft sweater-like jacket towards Anna, he said, "This is my Mom's. I'm sure she won't mind if you borrow it."

Anna took the butter-soft fabric and pulled it over her head, zipping the collar closed against her neck. "I like your mother quite a bit," she said, reaching into the side slits and discovering a pair of suede gloves. She slipped them on, and after a moment, pulled her jacket on over top.

John buttoned up his jacket, and opened the porch door. "I do too," he said warmly. "She bought this place, you know. When we were kids. I never miss a chance to come out here."

"I don't blame you," replied Anna, clattering down the steps to join him on the driveway. As they set out across the fields glistening with frost, she added, "It's a beautiful place."

"I hope you know you're welcome any time," said John. "My parents like you, and if you could look in on them from time to time, I know Lizzie would appreciate it."

Anna tilted her head to look up at the tall earnest man. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she asked, "And you, John?"

"I'd appreciate it, too." John paused as they reached the edge of the field and began to ascend the short ridge. "I can't believe you've been Lizzie's friend for so long, and I've never met you before."

Anna flushed, her cheeks pink with exertion and pleasure. "Me either. She talks about you all the time. She's very proud of you."

"Is she?" John asked, pleased by his sister's appreciation. "Lizzie admires you as well." Then, he added, "It's strange, I feel like I've known you forever, yet we're strangers. It's a bit confusing..."

Anna nodded, and added under her breath, "and exciting." Then she blushed, wondering if he had heard, but John was ahead of her now. Obviously he hadn't heard, and he couldn't see her face. A few moments later, after she'd caught up, he reached a hand down to help her over some large rocks. Once past the grey bones of the small hill, she found herself standing beside him on the crest. Anna looked down the hill to an old orchard, the trees twisted and gnarled with age, then up at the sky. "I don't think we're going to see a sunrise today," she said. "It's starting to snow."

Snow swirled around them, light flakes patterning the dark ground. Anna noticed that John still had hold of her hand. She didn't mind. He reached out with his other hand to lightly brush away the snowflakes glistening on her red hair. "Your hair is as bright as the sun," John said. Anna lifted her face towards John's, her eyes searching his, wondering if she should take the next step. The sky was lightening as the sun strove to break through the clouds. Time stretched forward and backward, linking memory of the past with anticipation of the future. She moved towards him, and he bent his head to hers, brushing her lips with his own. Hope flared between them like the dawn of a new day. Anna reached a gloved hand behind his head to pull him close, sealing the morning with a kiss.