Author's Notes: Years ago I wrote a story called "The Maine Thing," which was set in a village on the coast of Maine. I was surprised when several people asked me afterwards if I'd write an epilogue for it. They wanted to know whether Josh and Donna actually bought the lighthouse that's for sale at the end of the story, which of the jobs he was offered Josh decided to take, and whether Josh and Donna really did get married and have children.
I could never think of anything to write. Of course, they bought the lighthouse, got married, and had kids. Naturally, Josh went back to D.C. and did something satisfying and influential in politics. But I couldn't think of a story to write about that.
And then, last month, my friend Mistletoe sent me pictures of a truly beautiful gingerbread house she had just made, modeled on the Portland Head lighthouse in Maine. And that made me wonder what Christmas would be like in Josh and Donna's lighthouse in Maine. Why this particular story should be the result, though, I have no idea. It's quite a departure from my usual thing.
You should be able to follow this if you haven't read "The Maine Thing," though parts of it will probably make more sense if you have.
For once in my life, I'm going to start posting before I've actually written the whole story. It's all worked out, though, and I will finish it over the next few weeks, I promise. Unless, of course, you let me know by your resounding silence that it isn't worth finishing, in which case I'll delete this chapter and try to pretend I never wrote it.
Feedback is the best Christmas present possible.
Lights twinkled all through the little house by the sea. Donna looked around with pleasure. The mantel in the snug living room was draped with balsam and the garlands of cranberries and popcorn she and the children had finished stringing just that afternoon. A fire crackled cheerfully behind a glass-doored firescreen on the hearth, and candles flickered on the windowsills.
They were electric candles, not real ones, but they had heavy brass sticks that were much more convincing than the ordinary sort of plastic window-candles Donna had grown up with, and they were—like the glass firescreen—a gift from her mother-in-law, who was sitting by the fireplace playing a noisy game of Parcheesi with Noah, Sally, and Donna's father. Donna's mother was working on her embroidery and inserting occasional comments about the game. Behind them the Christmas tree glowed like a feathery star.
Watching her family, Donna was overcome by the thought of how lucky she was. She had two beautiful children. She had both her parents with her for Christmas. She had a mother-in-law who had welcomed her with open arms and had told her, when Donna asked her before that first Christmas they were married, that she would have no trouble whatever seeing her grandchildren brought up with Donna's traditions as well as her own. She had a husband she loved with every fiber of her being, and who she knew loved her back more fiercely and passionately and protectively than she had ever imagined any man could. She could look back and laugh now, when she remembered all those years when she'd thought she was alone in feeling the way she did, when she'd wondered if he really cared anything for her at all, or if he ever would.
And if the last year had changed almost everything else about their lives, she knew that it hadn't changed that. Or this. Whatever else they had lost or gained—and to Donna it often felt more like loss than anything else—they still had this place that both of them loved, where once in a while, if things were going well, they could tuck themselves in away from the world and worry about nothing (well, Donna at least could worry about nothing) except what the weather was doing, and if there was enough hot chocolate and macaroni-and-cheese in the pantry to keep the children happy until the next trip to the village shops.
Donna smiled. Outside, the early, eastern darkness had fallen, but in the light that was spilling out of the living room windows she could see snowflakes dancing gently. The wind that had been howling in the chimney and beating solid sheets of snow against the house all day was dying down at last. Josh would have no trouble getting there safely tomorrow afternoon.
They'd watch the children hang their stockings, and tuck them into bed. And then they'd leave them in their grandparents' care and go out for dinner together, to the special place they always came back to on that day every year. No matter how many other changes they'd had to make in their lives this past year, that was one thing she knew Josh would never change if he could help it. He'd move heaven and earth to make sure he was here for that. And once Josh was here, nothing else would really matter.
Watching her children playing with their grandparents, Donna couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so at peace with everything, so perfectly contented.
Like most perfect moments, of course, Donna's didn't last long. An hour after dinner she was locked in an all-out battle of wills with her eight-year-old son.
"No, Noah, I'm sorry," she said for what felt like the twentieth time. "We're not going to see Santa tomorrow. We're going to stay here and wait for Daddy. You and Sally can play outside in the snow."
"But it's Christmas Eve. We always go on Christmas Eve!"
"We're not going this year."
"Why not? We have to go, we have to! Say yes, Mommy, say yes!"
Donna wanted desperately to say yes.
She loved the ritual as much as Noah did: the crisp December air; the snow, when they were lucky and there was some—and there would certainly be plenty underfoot tomorrow; the shop windows in the village bright with lights and colorful with toys and small luxuries. The bakery's display of gingerbread and bûches-de-Noël was as big a draw as the toy store: they always went in and got cookies and hot chocolate before joining the long line of other families stamping their feet against the cold as they waited for a last-possible-minute visit with Santa, ensconced in all his scarlet splendor in the bandstand in the little park.
This might be the last year that Noah would actually believe that Santa could be there in the village after lunch, and still get back to the North Pole in time to fulfill all those last-minute orders, harness his reindeer, and fly off to deliver presents by jumping down chimneys all over the world in a single night.
If, in fact, Noah still believed that at all. Donna had wondered for a while now if he hadn't figured it out long ago, and had just been keeping up the pretense of believing because he was afraid he wouldn't get the presents if he didn't. Or because he thought it would spoil things for her if she knew he knew. He was an unnervingly intelligent and complicated eight-year-old—which shouldn't have surprised anyone, given who his father was, but often did.
"We have to go!"
"No, sweetheart. I'm so sorry, but we can't. Really."
"Why can't we? We always go. Always."
Donna looked at him helplessly. No matter how advanced he might be in some ways, he was still a little boy in others. He really was too young—perhaps not to understand the reason why they couldn't go to see Santa, but to have to understand it. She wanted to protect him from that for a while longer—for as long as she possibly could.
"We'll do fun things here. Granny and Grandma want to make cookies with you. Hannukah stars and gingerbread men. There's the snow to play in with Sally. And Daddy will be coming. We have to be here when Daddy comes!"
"Will he take me to Santa, then?"
Donna bit her lip. The temptation to make Josh be the one to say the final no was great. It wasn't fair to get Noah's hopes up, though.
"No, sweetheart. I'm sorry. Sally, what are you doing up again? Noah, finish your hot chocolate, and come and get ready for your bath."
She turned her back on him purposefully, and led his little sister off to be put back to bed. Noah gave his mother a baleful look, and sipped his hot chocolate as slowly as possible, swinging his legs angrily and giving the kitchen table regular, resentful kicks. After a minute or two, though, his legs began to swing more slowly. Then they stopped. He put his mug down with two sips of perfectly good chocolate left in it. His whole attention was focused on the bulletin board in front of him.
One of the papers tacked to the board was a schedule. Even here, on vacation, Donna liked to keep track of things-including who around her was supposed to be where, when.
There were a lot of names on the schedule. Noah knew all the people attached to the names. And because he listened when people didn't think he was listening, he knew that the two he privately thought of as Calvin and Hobbes often drove into the village when their shift at the lighthouse was up. It was up at 1:00 tomorrow afternoon.
For a moment he thought about asking them to take him with them—he liked them better than most of the others, which was why he'd given them names from the books he and his father loved to read together. But he dismissed the idea almost at once as worthy only of someone Sally's age. If his mother wouldn't take him to the village, Calvin and Hobbes certainly wouldn't.
Still, the schedule had given him the beginnings of an idea. By the time he'd finished his bath, he had more than the beginnings, he had a full-fledged plan.
He lay awake a long time, going over the details in his mind and refining them. When he was finally satisfied that he had everything worked out, he fell asleep, smiling.
His mother checked on him before she went to bed, and was glad to see him looking so happy again. "He's forgotten all about it," she thought. Half an hour later, she fell asleep smiling, too.
Eight hundred miles away in Washington, thinking about seeing his family tomorrow, so did Josh.
To be continued. . . .