Elinor, Brian, Veronica and Melissa—a Christmas Story
by dm gillis
At Christmas, my friend Elinor commissions me to write her a personalised story, and she always asks me to include certain items and characters that will make the story unique to her. This year’s character: Veronica, her real life niece. This year’s items: a camping trailer, like Veronica’s, a Shasta Airflyte, and portzelky, a deep fried delicacy usually enjoyed by Mennonites around New Year’s. The rest is up to me…
Christmas Eve morning after the storm, just outside of Grunthal, Manitoba
It was important, Melissa Winter knew, to conjure context when peering out of a steamy window onto the prairie after so remarkable a snowfall. When landmarks had perished and the horizon was an absent keepsake. Imagine the road, she thought. Remember how it is in the summer, neglected by tax payers, scattered roadside shrines riding high on its shoulders, just ten or twelve trucks and cars passing in a day.
In the end, it was the electrical pole at the gate to the property that proved that there was still an up-and-down. The old reliable pole and the infinite east/west line that hung from it, and the service line that drooped under its own weight as it approached the junction box on her property. Her trailer was plugged into it like a blunt appliance—her old Shasta Airflyte that now, under a deep and peaceful white mantle, looked like an igloo.
Most in town said it wasn’t a proper home for a woman of eighty years, but she wouldn’t leave. Behind the trailer stood the empty, slowly decaying, Winter family homestead, after all, one hundred and eleven years old. She’d been born in it, and raised, back when the land grew wheat and barley. She’d raised her own children there, lived in it all of her life, until everyone was gone and she’d become its last lone occupant. And when it became too much for her, she’d moved into the Airflyte, leaving the house abandoned and hollow. But she’d never really let it go, it and the land were hers.
“Now the world sleeps,” she whispered, looking out onto the white landscape, “like a seed dreaming of its garden in spring.”
“That’s lovely,” said a pale, gray-haired man sitting at the tiny dining table for two, on which stood a tiny, well-lit Christmas tree. “I’ve always loved your poetic side.”
“Thank you, Brian, and I’m so glad you stopped by, though I don’t know how you got through the snow.”
“Perhaps it’s love that moved me.”
“Oh stop it.”
“How are you, my dear?” the pale man said.
“A little lonely. A variety of lonely only Christmas brings on. Memories, you know? I never learned how to arrange them in any sensible order, so they’re just in a heap in my head. There’s a wind up there that blows them around sometimes, like scraps of paper.”
“Be careful with them, Melissa,” said Brian.
“That’s a strange thing to say.”
A slow rendition of Silent Night came over a transistor radio by the sink.
“Christmas Eve,” she sighed.
“Time to make portzelky, I think,” Melissa said. “It’s more of a New Year’s thing, I’ll grant you, but I feel motivated.”
“Not in this tiny trailer, you won’t.”
“Of course not,” she said. “The burners on that little stove don’t get nearly hot enough. Besides, I don’t have to. Thomas was splitting wood yesterday. I can make it on the woodstove in the big house. Proper portzelky has to be made on a woodstove. That’s all there is to it.”
“That’s impossible, Melissa, and you know it. That old stove’s cracked and blocked.”
“But Thomas stacked the wood right there on the porch. Kindling, and all.”
“Thomas is gone, Melissa. The wood’s been stacked there for ten years, and that old woodstove’s broken. You’ll burn the old place down, with you in it. I won’t allow it.”
“You know, Brian,” she said, sitting down across from him and taking his hand, “sometimes in the evening I see the lights on in the front parlour room. I can hear everyone talking, and I can hear Michelle playing the piano. And I think, why am I living in this old trailer? It gets so cold with just that little heater. Why don’t I just move back into the big house?”
“Because you can’t, my dear. No one can. It’s a wreck. It should have been torn down years ago, and you should be living in town.”
“Michelle’s so gifted on the piano. I don’t know where she gets it from.”
“Melissa,” Brian said, “there are limits to what I can do to protect you from yourself, and you don’t make it easy.”
“Why don’t I put the kettle on,” she said. “I’ll make us some instant coffee. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Yes,” Brian said. “Thank you. I would.”
Meanwhile near Steinbach
On its website, The Rural Municipality of Hanover states that it maintains a well trained staff. Whether it is road repair in the summer or snow clearing in the winter they are always there to ensure you have access to the places you need to be.
And so, on that Christmas Eve after the storm, at 5 a.m. CST, Veronica Warkentin climbed into the cab of the Municipality’s 1962 Walter Snow Fighter Model FSB, parked in its shed in the Municipality of Hanover works yard, and started the engine and let it idle.
Days earlier she’d strung the cab with Christmas lights so that now it glowed red, blue and green against the early morning darkness. Veronica had been driving the plow part-time every winter since she was seventeen, sharing the duty with Victor Albrecht who was set to retire. Now she drove it, as required, during her winter breaks from university.
Veronica loved the Snow Fighter, it was slow but true, and its four wheel drive and 130 HP of low-end torque made its bulk unyielding. There wasn’t a snowbound road or highway it couldn’t clear, but it was its age, more than a half century old, that had sealed its fate. Despite the incalculable miles of snowbound Manitoba roads and highways it had cleared, this would be its last winter. It had spent its entire life with the Municipality, but parts had become expensive and hard to find.
For Veronica, waiting for the engine to warm up was a meditation. The 3:45 a.m. call-in had pulled her from a restful sleep. Dreams of serenity and daring, now disappointingly impossible to recall in any detail. So now it was time to ground herself, and place herself solidly in the moment. Driving the plow was a serious trade.
A voice crackled over the two-way.
“Veronica, is that you I hear starting the plow in the yard?” It was Jasper Friesen, the night watchman.
Veronica picked up the mic, “10-4, Jasper.”
“Good. They got me doing some data entry here, to fill the quiet hours. I’m trying to find you in payroll but you’re not in the computer, how come?”
“Are you spelling my last name correctly?”
“Of course: W-a-r-c-k-e-n-t-i-e-n.”
“Wrong,” she groaned, and then corrected him. “It’s Warkentin: War, as in War of the Roses; ken, as in awaken; and tin as in Tintin, the precocious Belgian teen-aged adventure-boy with the goofy dog, who hangs out with Captain Haddock, a sailor of indeterminate sexual preferences. Get it?”
There came a brief moment of staticky silence, then—
“Golly,” Jasper said, “don’t get upset at me. It’s a reasonable question, ain’t it?”
“But it’s such an obvious and easy spelling. How long have you been a Mennonite, anyway?”
“Huh? Well, I’m thirty-seven now….”
“Does anybody ever ask you how to spell Friesen?” Veronica said.
“Of course not. Half the population of Manitoba is named Friesen. It’s the Jasper part people think’s funny, which is strange since there ain’t nothing wrong with it I can figure. My father was called Jasper. No one thought that was funny.”
“Maybe,” said Veronica, “it’s because that makes you Jasper Jr., Jasper. Rolls off the tongue in an Elmer Fuddish sort of way, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, hang on,” Jasper said, “Now I’ve got you on the screen. Hey, you make way more money than me.”
“Get your airbrakes ticket, buddy.”
“I got my GED.”
“This snow’s something else,” Veronica said, changing the subject. “It’s going to be a long, slow run.”
“Well, be careful and stay in touch.”
“10-4, and good-bye Jasper,” Veronica said. “I’m signing off, for now.”
After hanging a red-berried sprig of holly from the rear-view mirror, she checked her work order. It called for Veronica to head north on Highway 12 to the Number One and back again, stop at the yards briefly to fuel up and check her Snow Fighter for damage, and then head south to Highway 302. After that, she’d turn round and come back again. By then, she was certain, someone would have found more for her to do.
Placing the clipboard on the passenger seat, she lowered the plow and she set the angle cylinders. Then shifting gear, she cleared a path through the parking lot out the gate. The snow had stopped and the sky was clearing. The temperature would drop even more now, and woe be to anyone caught out in the hard crystal cold without a proper coat, hat and gloves.
Turning up her iPod, she hit the diesel.
Vancouver, round the same time
Being a practical woman who only occasionally lingered at the edge of mysticism, Elinor Warkentin wasn’t one to seek hidden messages in the mundane. So she supposed, at first, that the phone call early that Christmas Eve morning could only have been a wrong number. But it wasn’t.
Her Rockin’ around the Christmas tree ring tone woke her at 3:30 a.m. PST, out of a sound sleep, interrupting dreams of chocolate and the romance of international travel.
“Damn,” she said, picking up. “Hello?”
“Elinor?” It was a man’s voice.
“It’s Brian, Elinor,” the man said.
“Brian…? I’m sorry, I…. You’ve got the wrong number.”
“Don’t hang up!” Brian said, not quite shouting. “You probably don’t remember me, I know. We last spoke a very long time ago.”
“Are you calling because you require the services of a Professional Organizer?” asked Elinor.
“Have you got clutter?” she asked, groggily. “At Goodbye Clutter we help make room for what matters.”
“Then I want to go back to sleep. Good-bye.”
“Wait!” said the man. “It’s about Melissa Winter.”
“Who?” Elinor said.
“Out there on what’s left of the old Winter homestead. You remember her, don’t you? Just outside of town.”
“Town?” Elinor said, sitting up in her bed, “What town? This is Vancouver, sport. No homesteads here. Just over-priced real estate, Starbucks and falafel joints as far as the eye can see.”
“No no,” he said. “I mean outside of Grunthal, where you grew up.”
“Grunthal? Look, mister….”
“Just listen a minute,” he said, “and my name’s Brian. I’ll help you remember. Think back to when you were a little girl, ten years old. Try to recall a day in June, by the creek on the Winter farm, under the willows out back of the house. There was a birthday party, children playing. I was the man who spoke to you that afternoon, at the picnic table over pieces of birthday cake on paper plates. No one else could see me, do you recollect now? And you wondered why. In our conversation, I said that I might contact you in the future. I said you’d forget our little talk, but that you may need to remember it one day, if I ever called.”
“That’s crazy, Brian.”
“This is that phone call, Elinor. The one where I tell you that Melissa needs your help. You need to call Veronica.”
“I’m hanging up,” she said.
“No, Elinor, you’re not. Not now, because now you can see it; that day. The sunlight on the creek and the children, your childhood friends. I’d always hoped that I wouldn’t have to make this call, but I made that connection with you back then just in case. I knew that I could rely on you, and that you could rely on Veronica. Call her, please.”
“Call her yourself if there’s something she should know. Call the cops for that matter. Hang up and I’ll call the cops for you, long distance. Then I can go back to sleep.”
“The police will take too long to respond. They’ve been called in too many times, on Melissa’s behalf, for all of the wrong reasons. Now they don’t take her seriously. Besides, the highways and roads are blocked by snow. Only Veronica can get through right now. Just make the call.”
Elinor paused and thought for a moment. The man’s voice was sincere and familiar, but unfairly so, like so much of something very important hinged upon her remembering. But she couldn’t remember, not entirely.
“Who are you? What are you, really?”
“With all of what a person like you feels about Christmas,” Brian said, “You must be at least somewhat prone to believing in a miracle here and there.”
“You woke me out of a sound sleep for this?”
“Angels aren’t perfect, and sometimes when our best laid plans fail, a miracle depends upon the intervention of a special person. And of all the possible futures I can see unfolding for Melissa, the best ones involve you.”
“Angels,” Elinor said flatly. “Miracles and angels.”
“Yes,” said Brian, “and though a miracle is a matter of faith, practically speaking, it can also be the outcome of actions taken by people in support of another. In this case, a person for whom what’s practical has been replaced by what’s magical, who has confused the tangible with the abstract. Some people, even some angels, say it’s a gift of age, but they don’t take into account the sharp edges of the world.”
Now as Brian spoke, Elinor felt herself being transported. In a moment she stood in a grassy yard between a grand old house and a large red barn, and there was everybody. She knew each child’s name and recognized the happy woman in the flower print dress, neither young nor old in the willow-shade, serving cake and supervising the unwrapping of gifts. Her hair was blond and silver, and as Elinor watched, the woman knelt and a child ran into her arms.
Elinor knew her. It was Melissa Winter, a half a lifetime ago. The wife of Thomas, mother of Michelle and Zack, all three of them passing before her, each of their own private trials.
Then Elinor found her place in the unfolding scene—a child, sitting across from a pale, gray-haired man as the birthday party went on around them. He was dressed in a soft white shirt and blue jeans. His face was fair, and she felt safe in his presence, and glad. In fact, he was magnificent—angelic?—even as he ate the sticky cake with a plastic fork.
Now returning to the present day, on the phone, she suddenly knew him in fact, and immediately understood the implications and wrongness of what was happening.
“You!” she gasped. “Yeah, I remember you now. You’re that spook. I still dream of you, you know? Weird dreams, too. You’re still taking up space in my head, you bastard, and you’ve got no business being there. You had no business talking to me then, either. I was just a kid. And you’ve got no business calling me now. My life is my own, and I don’t go chasing after things because a ghost calls.”
“I’m not a ghost,” he said. “You know it.”
“Then what do you call it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s guardian angel, right?” Elinor said. “Yeah, it’s coming back to me now. You’re Melissa’s guardian angel, calling me on Christmas Eve at 3:30 a.m. Well, ain’t that swell. So I guess being all holy makes you really smart, too, right? Which, I’m guessing, means that you understand the significant psychological impact this is having on me right now. Oh hang on everyone, I’ve got Yahweh Jr on my iPhone. Nothing too freaking bizarre. I can handle irrefutable evidence of the existence of the divine all on my own. No big thing.”
“I guess you have a point, but….”
“But nothing, mister. You just listen to me. I don’t care if you’re an angel, an archangel, demon or one of those creepy little cherub characters in a Raphaelian wet dream. I don’t even care if you’re the risen Jesus himself wearing a goddamn Santa suit. You go haunt someone in Grunthal, Brian, and have them call 911.”
“I can’t,” Brian said. “Yours is too strong of a link to what’s happening, Elinor. You’re the one. It was decided a long time ago. You were chosen for this by some roll of the dice neither of us can understand. Mainly, I reckon, it’s because you’ve a good heart, and Veronica does too, both better than most. And maybe I don’t have any business, but I do what I’m told. The why of it isn’t important right now. Maybe it makes no sense, and maybe you’re having trouble with this because no one believes in anything anymore, even at Christmas. But it’s just one simple phone call. Send Veronica out to the Winter place; have her bring Melissa back to town. I promise I’ll dance on the head of a pin for you when it’s all over.”
“No,” said Elinor, “it’s not just a simple phone call, and you know it. If this isn’t a dream, and you’re for real, then it’s terrifying. It’s incomprehensible. Even if it is a dream, it’s terrifying. Because you’re terrifying—invisible, sneaking around. Talking to kids without permission. How long have you been stalking me? Do you stand in the corner of my apartment, watching? Is that how you get your kicks? Do you know my Visa balance? Do you go tisk-tisk when I behave badly, or even presume to weep over my tragic failings?”
“I haven’t stalked you,” Brian said. “I’m Melissa’s angel.”
“So angels are just a bunch of perverts, huh.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s not like that.”
“Bugger off, Brian,” Elinor said. “Ha, and what kind of name is Brian for an angel, anyway?”
She rang-off, threw off her blankets and put feet on the cold floor. “Merry bloody Christmas to me,” she whispered, then check her cell for Brian’s number. It wasn’t there. Going to her contacts, she brought up Veronica’s number.
Suddenly, she remembered more of her childhood conversation with Melissa’s angel. How he hadn’t spoken in words, but in gentle musical chords, each flawless and making perfect sense.
“Do you believe in angels, Elinor?” he’d asked her that afternoon.
“Of course,” she’d said, being an average ten year old.
“Because they say so in church?”
“No. Just because.”
“Well,” he’d said, “that’s the best reason of all. My call to you may come when it’s least convenient, but I won’t ask much. You’re going to grow up and be strong and generous and smart. You’ll be a good friend to call on.”
She’d smiled, but wasn’t sure why. All she knew was that no one had ever said anything like it to her before.
Then putting down the remains of his cake, she remembered her visitor say, “Bye for now. We may never meet again. That would be best.” And then he disappeared into the music.
Now she checked the Manitoba weather on her iPhone, Winnipeg area. Heavy snow ending, then clearing and cooling. Okay. But what about Veronica? Elinor could call her right now, or maybe that could wait. She showered, got dressed and called a cab.
In Vancouver Airport
“Happy holidays, ma’am.,” the Agent said greeting Elinor at the counter. “How may I be of service?”
“I need a flight to Winnipeg, and I need it right away.”
“Oh my,” he said. “That may be a tough one.” He started to make clucking sounds with his tongue, and put his hand to his chin.
“Ah-huh!” he finally said, grinning too warmly. “Aren’t you a lucky one? We do have a space on the 1pm flight. You absolutely must go over to the kiosk when we’re done here, and buy a lottery ticket.”
“Don’t you have anything sooner?”
“Nothing sooner or later, ma’am. It’s Christmas Eve, you know.”
“But, that’s very disappointing,” Elinor said.
“Well it is only Winnipeg, not Toronto or Miami Beach. People aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to get there, as reflected in our limited number of scheduled flights. May I have your name, please?”
“It’s Elinor Warkentin.”
“Have you flown with us before?”
“Alright, I’ll check for you in the computer….”
More typing and clucking.
“Hmm,” said the Agent, “no sign of you in the database.”
“Last name is Warkentin,” Elinor said. “Try again.”
“Alright, W-a-r,” the Agent spoke as he spelled this time, “c-a-n-t-i-e-n.”
“No,” Elinor sighed. “It’s War, as in War and Peace; ken, as in Ken and Barbi; and tin as in Tin cup.”
“Oh my, what a lovely name,” the booking Agent said. “And there you are, Elinor Warkentin. I’ll have your ticket ready in a moment. Cash or charge.”
She gave the Agent her Visa card, and he grinned and said, “There it is, Warkentin.” Then he flicked the card with his finger and thumb. “What a rare and wonderful spelling. And look how lovely and unique Elinor is spelled.”
“Good grief,” she said, and the Agent’s grin widened. Then with ticket in hand, she went to reserve a rental car, and make a phone call.
“Hello?” Veronica said.
“Hello, Veronica, it’s Elinor.”
“Auntie! What a surprise. What’s happening? Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. Jolly Hanukah. Festive Eid ul Fitr.”
“The same to you, my dear. I have a bit of a strange question to ask.”
“Okay,” said Veronica, “shoot.”
“Well,” Elinor said, “you know Melissa Winter, out on the Winter homestead…”
“Anything strange happening out there, that you know of?”
“No,” said Veronica. “She’s living in that sweet little trailer and refuses to move into town. A lot of people think it’s wrong, but that’s old news.”
“Are you out in the Snow King?”
“Yeah, it’s a real mess out here.”
“Well,” said Elinor, “can you swing by her place and check up on her?”
“It’s a little off of my route, but I guess I could. Whassup?”
“I just have a bad feeling. She’s all alone out there, and….”
“…and?” Veronica said.
“I can’t explain right now.”
“Okay, but in this snow it could take a while. I’m headed in the opposite direction right now, and I should stop back at the yard for fuel.”
“I know it might be a lot to ask of you,” said Elinor, “but maybe you can convince her to stay in town with someone until the weather let’s up, and it gets warmer. She could ride in with you.”
“Maybe, but I don’t know. She’s a tough nut.”
“Do your best,” Elinor said. “I’m flying out of YVR at 1pm my time; there by 7pm yours.”
“Okay. See you then.”
Veronica turn the Snow Fighter around at the number 1/number 12 junction. She knew she should to return to the yard sooner rather than later, but decided to visit Melissa first, clearing the road to the old girls home ASAP.
The Winter Homestead
Melissa Winter began gathering ingredients. There was flour, for sure, high in a cupboard. The other items she’d need were milk, yeast, eggs, sugar and oil. Each she found packed tight in various small corners, and in the refrigerator. The only ingredient she couldn’t find was raisins.
Watching her breath frost against the cold air, she carried the ingredients across the snowy yard, and placed them on the counter in the ramshackle kitchen of the old house. Then she opened the oven door and brushed out some litter, before checking the firebox and giving the smoke stack a gentle tap with a poker. It rattled and soot fell slowly from its joints.
“Silly old stove,” she said, and then took kindling from the wooden box next to the oven, starting a fire in the heart of the cast iron beast. Small at first, but it grew as she lay in stove-lengths. The pine was dry and caught quickly.
“Don’t do this, Melissa,” Brian said. He sat at the old kitchen table in a decaying kitchen chair.
“Nonsense, I’ve done it a thousand times. I get the stove going now, and when I’m done mixing things up, it’s warm enough to make the dough rise. Then I’ll pound the dough down, and it’ll rise again. We’ll chat, you and I, while all that’s going on. At some point, I’ll heat the oil.”
“The stove is too old, Melissa. It was old when you used it to feed your family. It’s cracked and broken, and the chimney….”
“You’re just so cautious, Brian,” said Melissa, adjusting the damper. “You just can’t help it, can you?”
WestJet to Winnipeg
Elinor counted her blessings as she stuffed her slightly oversized carry-on bag into the overhead compartment, refusing to believe that a seat coming available on the sold-out flight was a miracle. Nor, she preferred to believe, was it a miracle that a “technical issue” had delayed the flight twenty minutes at the gate, so she could board late after losing track of time speaking to Veronica.
“Can I help you with your bag?” said the man sitting in the window seat, next to hers. He stood up and made a clumsy try, but failed and sat down again.
“No thanks,” Elinor said, giving the bundle a final shove. “This is a one woman job.” She shut the compartment door and sat down.
“Lucky for you that they had a delay,” said the man.
“And that’s all it was, too,” she said. “Sheer luck.”
“Of course it was,” he smiled.
Elinor gave him a sidelong glance. Was that irony or mockery she heard in his voice?
At 37,000 feet, she brought out a bar of chocolate, and offered him some. “It’s Belgian,” she said, as he took a piece and popped it into his mouth.
“Mmm, that’s good,” the man said. “I love Belgium, don’t you? I had business in Brussels during the war. Heck, I had business in pretty much all of Europe during the war.”
“The war?” said Elinor. The man seemed no older than fifty-five or sixty. “What war? You’re joking, right? You can’t mean the Second World War.”
“Hmm.” He blushed. “That does seem a bit out of sync, doesn’t it.”
Now Elinor gave him a more serious look. He was a pale man in a soft white shirt and blue jeans, with a distressingly familiar face. He smiled again, for just a moment. Then his expression changed to concern, and then to one of resignation. Suddenly there was the faint sound of vaguely familiar music that came from nowhere on the plane; and Elinor wasn’t sure, but was it a halo or only the light from the window that encircled his head.
“Hello, Elinor,” he said.
“Brian,” she said. “You are stalking me.”
“No, but getting us our seats was no mean feat.”
“Well, I’m moving,” said Elinor, looking over her shoulder. “Where’s the Attendant?”
“There’s nowhere to move to.”
“You bastard! I’ll trade seats with someone, then.”
“This wasn’t easy, like I said. So, please bear with me. I had to find a couple sitting together on board who deserved a temporary, if spiffing, bout of food poisoning. I chose a married couple who sold junk bonds to seniors over the internet. Then I had to get the two of them off before they ejected their Sausage McGriddles all over the other passengers. Then there was the technical glitch. It had to be enough to cause the delay, but not so significant as to cause a cancellation. They cancel flights for the smallest things these days, you know? I chose to temporarily zap the aft men’s room toilet. But it’s all of your efforts that interest me. That’s why I thought it would be nice for us to meet again. And it has been such a long time.”
Elinor stared at him, and said nothing.
“Melissa still has things to do in this life, Elinor. I think you understand that, because you’re on this plane when all you really had to do was make a phone call.”
“I was thinking of visiting my family for the holidays, anyway,” she said.
“That’s a fib.”
“Look who’s talking. You’re one of the slipperiest characters I’ve ever met, Brian. Isn’t a sin to steal airline seats, by giving the rightful occupants botulism?”
“It was trichinosis,” Brian said. “And sin is a mostly misunderstood concept. I guess I arranged this meeting because I wonder if we might be very good friends one day.”
“Impossible. And where’s your boss in all of this?”
“Well, he’s a bit of a recluse, especially this time of year.”
“This gets worse by the moment, and you know it.”
“You know, you’ve the radiance of an unrestrainable soul,” he said.
“What does that mean?” said Elinor.
He began fading gently into the music.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Look for me at Melissa’s side,” she heard him say, after he disappeared, “no matter the outcome.”
Then the music itself slowly faded, also.
Back on the Winter Farm
Melissa worked kneading the dough as Brian, who’d disappeared earlier, reappeared and placed a bag of raisins on the counter.
“I’m afraid that makes me an enabler,” he said, “but you deserve the basics.”
Melissa picked up the bag, and grinned. “You’re my source of small wonders, Brian dear.” She stood as tall as she could and kissed him on the cheek. “But an enabler? Such language.”
The dough was lovely and elastic, smelling of yeast. Now it would need to rise. She took it from the counter and placed it on the shelf above the stove, the only truly warm place in the house. As she did, a small puff of smoke, sparks and ash billowed out of a corroded joints in the stovepipe. The smoke rose and was blown away through broken windows. Some of the larger sparks fell and bounced on the floor. Melissa calmly extinguished them with sloe of her shoe.
“That stovepipe, Melissa,” Brian said. “Perhaps it’s blocked. You must be very careful if it is.” He took a moment re-evaluate possible futures. Some were terrible.
“Please, let’s go back to the trailer,” he said.
“So much family,” she said to Brian, changing the subject as she sat back at the old table. “So many friends and farmhands. Labour Days and Christmases. It’s just an old house fading with its memories. How many midday meals did I serve here to the men in from the fields, from the sheds and the barns? Sunday suppers for family. The laughter and prayers. Sorrows and broken dishes. All of the nearby things so hard to reach.”
“A lifetime’s worth, Melissa,” Brian said.
“Just ghosts and whispers now.” she said. “Convince me Brian, that memories aren’t a curse.”
“Blessing or a curse, yours are what make you exceptional.”
Another hour passed, and once again Melissa stood at the stove. Lifting the tea towel, she touched the pieces on a cookie sheet with a gentle finger. “Arisen, next to perfection,” she said, and then took a deep cast iron fry pan with a rusty patina off of a hook on the wall, placing it on the stovetop and pouring in the oil. More smoke issued out of the stovepipe joints, and the fire in the stove had gotten low. She added more wood.
Then suddenly as the new pine caught, there came a sound like a jet plane from the stovepipe, as the heavy stovetop lids blew vertically into the air and the oven door exploded outward. Melissa flew backward against the kitchen wall, and was left unconscious as the dry old ceiling joists above her ignited and sparks showered down, inch-by-inch setting fire to the entire kitchen.
Brian knelt at her side and whispered in Melissa’s ear, “Whatever decision you make now will be the right one. But before you decide anything, you should know that there are people on the way. There’s a good chance, if you choose, that you’ll come out of this alive.”
“I assume, by that, that you mean I might return to my little earthly life,” someone said, and Brian looked over his shoulder. There stood Melissa, as if on a spring morning, neither too young nor too old, but glowing. “Why in Heaven’s name would I want to do that?”
“Because hearts will be broken, if nothing else. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, after all. But mostly it’s a matter of a world being a lesser place with one less wise woman in it.”
“She’s too tired to be wise anymore,” Melissa said, pointing at her elderly mortal self sitting unconscious against the wall.
“Not yet,” said Brian. He stood and took her spirit by the hand. “There are still seasons ahead, in which you’ll be fit enough. They’ll be empty without you, though, and those who love you will be lonely in your untimely absence.”
“And how do you intend to remedy that?” she said, as the flames grew round her.
Driving south, and clearing the road ahead of her, Veronica saw the explosion of light appear from behind a rise in the prairie, and its flash fill the horizon. The Winter homestead was all that stood for miles in that direction. Shifting, she floored the accelerator pedal and pushed the plow as hard as she could, maybe too fast, but there was little choice.
Keying the mic, she shouted, “Are you there, Jasper?” There was no response. “Come on Jasper. Pick up the damn mic.” There was nothing but dead air. “Damn,” she whispered. He had to be on his rounds.
Then coming over the rise, she saw the once grand old house in flames. The bottom floor seemed fully engulfed, and flames were beginning to come out of some second floor windows. What chance did Melissa Winter have if she was still in there? There was only one way to find out. Veronica pushed the pedal even harder, steering the Snow King down the road and through the gate, through the front yard, past the Shasta Airflyte and up to the open door of the burning kitchen, where she hit the brakes and jumped out with a fire extinguisher.
The heat was intense, almost impossibly so, at the door as she shielded her face and triggered the fire extinguisher. Looking to her left, she saw Melissa’s singed body and targeted her with the extinguisher. Then grabbing her by the collar, Veronica pulled Melissa out onto the porch and then into the snow. In the distance was the sound of firetrucks. Veronica put an ear to the old woman’s chest. There was the sound of a heartbeat, and in a moment Melissa began coughing. Veronica surrendered her coat.
“Let’s get into the trailer,” she said, and helped Melissa into the refuge of the trailer.
The ambulance crew worked to stabilise Melissa, as Elinor drove into the yard. Veronica met her as she got out of her rental car.
“This has been a string of very mysterious events,” she said to Elinor.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Did you call 911?” Veronica asked Elinor.
“Have you seen a man hanging out, round here? Looks sort of my age.”
“Take your pick,” Veronica said, indicating the fire and ambulance crews.
“No, a civilian.”
Veronica scanned the crowd. “Do you mean him?” she said, pointing.
He stood next to the rental car wearing a vintage fleece bomber jacket, and smoking a cheroot. He gave a little wave. Elinor strolled up and gave him a gentle shove on the shoulder.
“What next?” she said. “Who needs rescuing now?”
“The whole damn planet,” he said, blowing smoke, “but you can stand down. Why don’t we sit in the car?”
Once inside the Smart Car, he handed her something colourful on a paper plate. Elinor recognized it immediately, a square-cut piece of birthday cake from a backyard celebration long ago. Next to it was a plastic fork. Brian had a piece, too. It was delicious.
“We never did get to finish this,” he said, “and it’s always someone’s birthday, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” Elinor said. “If you believe in that sort of thing. What about Melissa?”
“I think her fixation on the house may have ended,” Brian said. “Perhaps now she’ll reconsider a move into town. Maybe buy a nice little house with a garden. Who knows?”
“And what about us being very good friends one day, like you said on the plane? What’s in it for me?”
“Well, why don’t we see where you travel to next. I know a thing or two about the older bits of the Middle East, for example, and Europe. I can get you into places no tour guide can. You’d just have to listen to a few old angel stories, meet one or two of my pals, and possibly bring along the chocolate.”
Elinor gave it some thought as she ate her cake. “Can you get me travel discounts?” she asked.
“No,” said Brian.
“Well let’s give it a try just the same,” she said, “next time I fly across the pond. And from now on, please warn me when you’re about to disappear. It’s very unsettling.”
“Here’s your warning, then,” he said, and finished his cake. “Merry Christmas, Elinor.”
“Merry Christmas, Brian.”