The town of Pleasant Hollow was nestled in a lovely valley, surrounded all around closely by hills and Smokey Mountain, such that it seemed to exist in a little fairy-tale world all its own. Grand old homes climbed steep streets, every rooftop was laden heavily with snow in the frosty air and the lights of the many lodges and chalets twinkled high up on Smokey Mountain’s summit. Even deep within the dark forest of pines girding the mountain’s flank you could see the Christmas lights of cottages glowing and every building in town and even the foundry down in the hollow were festively lit up for the holiday season.
It was two days before Christmas and out in the woods behind Cromwell’s Smokehouse, David and three other boys were bundled up against the bitter cold and hoping for something different to happen in their otherwise quiet little town. Snow fell softly through the bare maple and poplar and birch trees surrounding the boys and steadily gathered in the crooks and branches.
When Tyler threw a rock and hit the back wall of the smokehouse, old man Cromwell came storming out onto the wooden porch in his galoshes.
“Go choke on a sausage,” Tyler whispered.
Scotty and Finley did their best to hide their laughter but failed.
“I hear you, you little bastards!” Cromwell called out. “You come making trouble and I’ll turn the whole lot of you into slabs of bacon!”
There were more snickers.
“And don’t you doubt I know who’s out there. Yeah, you just keep snickering but the next time I see you, I’ll take you by the ear and drag you right over to see the constable!”
Old man Cromwell stomped the snow from his galoshes and went back inside.
“Hey, bacon head,” Tyler said to Scotty.
Scotty tossed a snowball at him and a general battle broke out.
Later, the boys walked at a safe distance past the back of the smokehouse and through the woods to Pleasant Hollow Schoolhouse. Each of them had their skates slung over their shoulders, their plan being to go for a skate on Chatham’s Pond later on but hoping they could find some girls to join them first.
Tyler was at the center of this plan, as he was with most things. He was not very big and not very small and dark haired and always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about something. Finley in contrast was tall and gangly and red haired and always seemed to have a kind word on his lips and a gentle thought in his heart. Scotty was somewhere between the other two boys, with blonde hair and a critical mind but mostly inclined to get along with the others.
David alone stood apart from his friends. Beneath his shock of chestnut colored hair, he forever seemed to be brooding. He rarely spoke and when he did, his words were few. He was not unkind but something moved inside of him that did not invite you to inquire.
So the four of them had come to be sitting on the swings at the schoolhouse, staring out over the town of Pleasant Hollow and waiting for some girls to come by or something to happen, when the scent of smoked meat wafted across the cold, winter air
“I could do with one of Cromwell’s sausages right now,” Scotty said.
“Okay,” Tyler said. “I’ll throw another rock and when he comes out to chase me, you sneak in the front door and raid the place.”
“Why don’t I throw the rock and you sneak in?”
“What are you chicken? Scotty’s a chicken. Scotty’s a chicken.”
The two boys shoved each other.
“What about you, Finley.”
“I’m not going to sneak into Cromwell’s place.”
“Finley’s a chicken, Finley’s a chicken.”
“Why do you always have to make trouble, Tyler?”
“Because it’s fun, that’s why?”
David had been ignoring this entire fracas. All his attention was on the Huckabee cottage. It was a humble thing with a gabled roof and crooked shingles, a quarter mile to the other side Pleasant Hollow Creek and hard up against the base of Smokey Mountain, very near where the creek ran through Fisherman’s Pond and headed down to the far side of the valley. Three pine trees surrounded the cottage and smoke trickled out of its chimney and the roof was whimsically crooked with its shingles. Laura Huckabee’s father had been killed in a logging accident some years back, her mother had never remarried and the two of them had struggled to get by ever since.
“David’s dreaming about his girlfriend again,” Tyler said.
“What do you want with her anyway? She wears old shoes and old dresses. A few more years and she’ll be an old maid, just like her mother.”
“Shut up,” David said again.
When Laura came outside to gather some firewood, David whistled and waved at her. Laura looked up and waved back. She was red haired and fair and as beautiful as springtime in a meadow.
David waved for her to join them. Laura pretended to tap her watch and held up ten fingers. Both of them waved again before Laura went back inside with the firewood.
“Aw, isn’t that sweet,” Tyler said.
“Why don’t we go down and see if Erin can come out to skate. Now there’s a girl worth fighting over. She’s really beautiful. Her old man’s rich and she’s even got a new pair of shoes.”
Just then, Edward Cratchit came around a bend and down Holly Lane in the family’s horse drawn carriage. Jenny Nash was at his side. A Christmas tree was tied across the back of the carriage. They were coming down from the direction of Smokey Mountain so you assumed they had gone up there to buy the tree. Edward acknowledged the other boys like a lord to his peasants, his head held high and just the wave of one finger going by, without even glancing.
David watched him with hatred. Tyler knew this and decided to poke at his wounds.
“What’s the matter, David? You still sore at old man Cratchit? Let it go. It’s been over ten years now.”
“Shut up. Is that all you can say?”
David stared down across the valley at the backside of town without saying a word.
“Okay, well, I’m going over to see about Erin. The rest of you guys coming with me or what?”
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Scotty said.
“Yeah, I’ll come too,” Finley said. “What about you, David?”
“He’s waiting for his pauper princess to come out,” Tyler said.
David ignored him. He was still staring down at where Pleasant Hollow Creek ran through the valley at the back of town. St. Breeden’s Lock House sat on this side of the creek. Rowley Boat Works sat on the other. The creek ran underneath the lock house and down through the woods before it made a hard turn along the base of Smokey Mountain. The foundry was in that direction, hidden on the other side of the woods.
The faint sound of music suddenly echoed up the valley. Someone must have opened the door to Colleen O’Connor’s pub.
“Sounds like barbershop,” Finley said.
“Yeah, probably David’s drunk old man singing Bill Grogan’s Goat again.”
David jumped up and grabbed Tyler by the collar.
“Shut up, I said.”
“Fine. Screw you.”
Tyler pushed David away.
“Let’s go, you guys. We’ll see if Erin wants to come out and go skating.”
Tyler went off alone. The other two boys bumped fists with David before they followed Tyler down Holly Lane. Holly Lane wound through a grove of maple trees and past Snowdon Falls General Store before it made the turn down towards Cratchit Square. Right at that turn was where Erin lived. Everyone in that neighborhood had a big house and a large lot and was well to do.
David looked again at the industrial works at the backside of town. It was mostly quiet with Christmas two days away. Even the foundry had closed down for the holiday.
Everyone in town seemed to be in a festive mood, everyone except for David. Ever since he could remember, his heart had smoldered with the embers of anger and resentment. There were reasons he could cite, but even he did not understand why so much in life continued to enrage him. It just did.
Near the base of a footbridge that crossed Pleasant Hollow Creek, a squirrel came down from its pine tree burrow and scavenged there in the snow, probably crumbs that had fallen from the bags of Christmas shoppers as they made their way home. Catching the scent of something on the wind, the squirrel got up on its haunches, flicked its tail then returned to filling its pouches. With that done, it scurried back up into the pine tree.
David imagined a cozy little cottage up there with a kitchen and fireplace. If only life could be that simple. A few goodies on a cold winter’s night and you were snug and happy.
Distracted by his thoughts, David hadn’t noticed the crunch of Laura’s footsteps in the snow until she was almost upon him. He stood up and gave her a kiss and a hug. She too had her skates slung over her shoulder.
“What were you doing?” she said.
“Just watching a squirrel gather some nuts.”
“Nuts? Isn’t it a bit late to be gathering nuts?”
“Actually, I think he had found some crumbs dropped by the shoppers coming across the bridge.”
Laura smiled and touched David’s cheek with her glove.
“Always a dreamer.”
“For you, anyway.”
“Aw. So what happened to the others?”
“They went over to see if Erin could go skating.”
“Aren’t we going to join them?”
“Let’s just go down there by ourselves. I don’t want to bother with them.”
“Were you fighting with Tyler again?”
“Sure,” Laura said and shoved David playfully. “Are we going to Erin’s party tomorrow night?”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“Oh, come on. It doesn’t matter. What do you think? They’ll slam the door in your face?”
“Come on, sit down with me,” David said.
She took the swing next to his and they rocked back and forth together. The snow was still falling lightly. All over the valley and into the hills and up at the top of Smokey Mountain, Christmas lights sparkled. The sound of voices echoed up from the town again.
“I love Christmas,” Laura said. “Everyone is so cheery.”
“Yeah, and then it’s over and everyone goes back to being mean and cruel again.”
David looked over a moment later and saw Laura with tears in her eyes.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Don’t be sad.”
“It’s okay. You’re right. The Christmas spirit never lasts through the year.”
Laura tried to smile through the tears and leaned her head against David’s shoulder. The sound of Christmas carols echoed up from Main Street.
“Oh, let’s go join them,” she said. “Okay?”
“You don’t want to go skating?”
“Afterwards. Let’s go caroling first.”
“Okay,” David said.
Laura stood up and pulled on David’s hand in the direction of Holly Lane, where it wound off through the woods towards Cratchit Square.
“No,” David said. “I don’t want to go that way. I want to go down through the hollow.”
He pulled Laura across Holly Lane and down a stone pathway towards St. Breeden’s Lock House and the footbridge nearby. Once down in the hollow, you could not hear the town anymore.
“It’s so quiet,” Laura said.
She stuck her tongue out and tried to catch a snowflake.
“Come on, you try too.”
David pretended not to hear her and kept walking.
At Pleasant Hollow Creek, they walked onto the narrow wooden bridge and stopped to watch the water rushing by. The creek went under the lock house and around a bend and off down through the valley. It wasn’t a creek really but more of a small river. People just called it a creek because that sounded better.
David looked up into the pine tree where the squirrel had gone.
“What are you thinking?” Laura said.
“Just wondering about the squirrel.”
He told Laura about the cozy little kitchen and fireplace. She laughed.
“With little curtains and a little wooden dining table.”
“Probably,” David said.
“It sounds so fun. Let’s build our own little cottage in the trees just like that.”
“Come on, let’s go caroling with everyone,” Laura said and pulled on David’s hand again.
Just then, Mr. & Mrs. Churchill came over the bridge the other way, their arms loaded down with packages.
“Oh no,” Laura said. “Don’t tell me the candy store is closed.”
“No, no,” Mrs. Churchill said. She looked at her watch. “Lila’s still down there for another half hour or so.”
“Oh good. I’m dying for a piece of chocolate. Come on, we’d better hurry,” she said to David and pulled on his hand.
Mrs. Churchill laughed.
“Merry Christmas, then.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too!”
Laura went off in a hurry and dragging David behind her.
Pleasant Hollow Lane wound alongside the creek for a quarter mile. There was a snow covered meadow off to their left with the back of town beyond that. You could hear the din of voices along with the singing now.
At the base of Smokey Mountain, Pleasant Hollow Lane turned left and became Riverside Drive. David and Laura came alongside the Riverside Row Shops and Laura stopped to peek in the windows. There was a butcher shop and delicatessen, a surveyor and a small boutique. The boutique was part second hand, part homemade stuff. This was the low rent district of town.
They came to a T in the road where, if you went right, Smokey Mountain Lane led up the mountain, if you went left, Main Street led into town. They turned left and came around to the front of the St. Michelle French Restaurant.
“Hmm, smells good,” Laura said. “Shall we go in, monsieur?”
Laura made a Gallic face and pretended to have a mustache with her finger.
“Only people like old man Cratchit can afford this place.”
“Oh, who cares about old man Cratchit? Let’s go get a piece of chocolate and find the carolers.”
Just up the street a ways, they came to Mrs. Churchill’s Chocolates & Candies. A bell above the door rang when they went in. Christmas music was playing.
“Hi,” Lila said.
“Hi,” Laura said.
Both Laura and David wiped their feet on a rug. The old wooden floor inside was already wet in places from melting snow.
“What were you wanting tonight?”
“A piece of chocolate. Or maybe like a bunch of them,” Laura said.
She went along the front of the display case, staring in.
“Oooh, I’ll have one of those walnut bars. Yeah, that one right there. What about you, David?”
“I’ll have the same.”
Laura pulled her money out to pay but David stopped her.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. How much?” he asked Lila
David handed her two, one dollar bills and started counting out change. When he came up twelve cents short, he checked his other pockets. Laura stood there, biting her lip.
“Here, I can…”
“No, I’ve got it,” David said. “I’ll bring in the rest tomorrow,” he told Lila.
“Oh, it’s okay. That’s close enough.”
David handed Laura her chocolate bar.
Understanding now, Laura fought back tears.
“Aw. That’s the sweetest Christmas present I’ve ever gotten.” She bit in. “Hmmmmmmmm. So good.”
She kissed David. Lila looked on, feeling terrible for him. Everyone in town knew what had happened to David’s father and mother, even if he never talked about it.
“So, are you two going to Erin’s party tomorrow night?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Laura said with a look back at David. “What about you?”
“Sure. Everybody’s going.” Lila leaned forward and pretended to be telling secrets. “I hear the door prize this year is a vacation to a tropical island somewhere.”
“Oh wow, cool,” Laura said. Laura bit into her chocolate again. “Hmm, so good, isn’t it, David?”
“Okay,” Laura said. “I guess we’re going caroling. Good to see you, Lila. Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Yeah, I hope so. Bye, David.”
He waved as Laura dragged him out the door.
Back out on the snow packed lane, they immediately heard two men singing and coming down the road from the direction of town.
“Damn it,” David said and started the other way.
“No, no. Come on, David. Let’s just say hello and we’ll be on our way.”
A moment later, the two men came around the bend, leaning against each other and singing away.
“When Irish eyes are smiling,
sure ’tis like a morn in spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter…
“Hey, look here O’Reilly, it’s me son.”
The two men staggered up.
“David, laddie, how are you doin’?”
“Why don’t you go home, Dad. You’re drunk.”
“Well, of course I am, son. It’s the night before Christmas Eve.”
“You’re drunk every night. What does it matter if it’s the night before Christmas Eve?”
“Look ‘e here, son. I’m sorry about it all. I am. If I could bring her…”
“Oh please, just stop. I’m tired of hearing it. I’ve been hearing it for the past ten years.”
“Oh laddie, laddie, if you only understood. I…”
“I understand just fine. You’re a drunk and you’re drinking your whole life away.”
David’s father tried to give his son a hug but David pushed him away.
“Now, you shouldn’t be treating your father that way,” O’Reilly said.
“Come on, let’s go,” Laura said and pulled on David’s hand. She looked back once at the two men and shrugged as if to say she was sorry.
“If only he understood, O’Reilly. If only he understood.”
“It’s okay, O’Doul. You’re still a fine man in my eyes.”
Off they went up the road again, arm in arm and picking up where they had left off.
“…In the lilt of Irish laughter
you can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy,
all the world seems bright and gay…”
“He disgusts me,” David said. “Just a stupid old Irish drunk.”
“It’s all right, David. It’s all right. They’re just having fun.”
“Yeah, some fun. He’s let our whole life go to ruin over a bottle of whiskey.”
“Hey, hey. Look at me. My mother can hardly pay our bills. It seems like we never know where we’re going to get our next meal.”
“Yeah, but at least your mother has an excuse. And you have a cottage. I’m stuck living in that stupid row house. It’s like we’re boarding or something. You can hear everyone sneeze through the walls.”
“Come on,” Laura said. “Calm down. It’s the night before Christmas Eve. Remember? Let’s just have ourselves a lovely holiday evening, okay?”
“Come on. We’re going to go sing carols and be happy.” She kissed David. “Let’s go find everyone and have a good time.”
She went skipping through the snow with David walking along behind her.
Around the next bend, they came across Philomena’s Dress & Finery Shop. Laura peeked in the windows again. The Pleasant Hollow Bank was next door, and the Pleasant Hollow Stationery right next to it. Then they came to a small park with the benches all covered in snow. All was quiet in that part of town, and dark, save for a few old street lamps, but they shortly came around another bend and the town was lit up like a magical kingdom, with folks coming and going everywhere you looked, Christmas shoppers and revelers, lovers arm in arm, a buzz and commotion in front of every restaurant. A little boy dressed up as an elf was ringing a bell for church donations and a baker dressed as Santa had his goods nearby, all warm inside a holiday glass case.
A horse drawn sleigh came by just then and everyone on the street cheered. The owner went around the bend with his wife and two children.
“Watch, watch,” Laura said and stared back down the road.
A minute later, the sleigh reappeared, going up Smokey Mountain Lane. You could hear the clip clop of the horse’s hooves as they went up the incline.
“I want to take a sleigh ride,” she said.
David nodded and turned away.
“Oh, it’s okay. I know neither one of us can afford it. I’m just wishing.”
“Come on, let’s go find the carolers.”
Laura stopped and asked two elderly ladies who were shopping.
“Oh, they went up there by the church, didn’t they, Millie?”
“That they did and I’ll bet you’ll find them all the way up at Cratchit Square by now.”
“Okay, thanks, ladies, and Merry Christmas!”
“And Merry Christmas to you!”
“Come on, David. Let’s go find them.”
“Please, David. It just doesn’t matter what happened ten years ago now.”
“It matters to me.”
“Please. Will you come with me?” She kissed David’s face. “I’m here with you. I love you. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Laura pulled on his arm and David reluctantly followed along.
Leaving behind the last row of shops, the road passed by Colleen O’Connor’s Pub, tucked away from the road among some maple trees. A wall of granite rose almost vertically behind it and the snow in front had been plowed into six feet high drifts on either side of the pub’s entrance. The porch looked as if it had been shoveled clear earlier that evening but it was already growing white again from that evening’s snowfall. The windows were filled with warm light and you could see the people inside having a grand time. A young couple came out and the music spilled out with them.
Knowing how David felt about his father’s drinking, Laura pulled on David’s hand and encouraged him on up the road. It wound up hard and fast to the left and past the New Kingdom Church. A dim light glowed inside the stained glass windows but the church looked empty.
They crossed Pleasant Hollow Creek again on a stone bridge and entered another stretch of woods. All grew quiet around them.
“I always think of goblins and ghosts when I pass through this way,” Laura said.
David was quiet and trying not to think of what lay ahead. Then they heard the caroler’s voices faintly through the woods.
“Oh, listen,” Laura said. “It’s them.”
She took David’s hand and began to run again but he resisted.
“Please, David. Come on. If it gets uncomfortable, we’ll just leave. I promise.”
“Let’s just walk,” he said.
In the quiet of the woods, they heard the voices growing louder and louder. Then the road came around a bend and with it the lights of Cratchit Square. Up ahead, the carolers were gathered in front of a great decorated tree and a great many people were gathered in the square, singing along with them.
Seeing old man Cratchit standing there alongside the crowd, lording over his domain in top hat and coat, a new dagger of hatred dug into David’s heart.
Laura, unable to restrain herself, let go of David’s hand and ran up to join in with the carolers.
Silver bells, silver bells,
it’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring a ling, ring a ling,
soon it will be Christmas Day…
When David walked up behind Laura, she pulled his arms around her waist and looked over her shoulder, singing as she did.
City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
dressed in holiday style,
in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…
David stared at old man Cratchit, unable to find a song in his heart. The reminders of Cratchit’s sins were everywhere around him—the Ale & Boar Public House, Browning’s Spice & Curry Shop, M.B. Hackney’s Hats & Canes, Royston’s Candles—fancy, high end shops with high end stuff that catered to the well to do who lived up on this end of town. It was called Cratchit Square because old man Cratchit had built it and owned a big old Victorian home up on the hill right behind it. In fact, Cratchit owned much of the town, including the big foundry down in the hollow, where David’s father worked.
Just then, Edward Cratchit came up in his horse drawn sleigh, but Jenny Nash was no longer at his side.
“A ride anyone!” Edward called out.
He was staring straight at Laura with a big grin on his face. Seeing that Laura was torn, David told her, “Go on. I don’t care,” and started to walk away. Laura hesitated but finally waved Edward off.
“Some other time, maybe.”
She hurried to catch up with David.
“Some other time,” he said.
“I’m sorry, David. I’m sorry. I know it’s wrong but I just get so tired of being poor sometimes.”
“Then just go with him.”
She grabbed David’s hand and pulled him to a stop.
“I’m with you, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, but you’d rather be with him.”
“No, I’d rather be with you. It’s just…oh…let’s plan to work really hard and save our money and build a better life together, all right? Let’s just promise ourselves that our kids won’t grow up feeling the way we do.”
“What are we going to do? Cratchit owns everything and just about everyone ends up working for him in the end. In twenty years, I’ll be just like my father, a drunk and working in the foundry.”
“No. We’ll buy ourselves a little house and fix it up and then buy another one and before you know it we’ll have lots of money to spare.”
When David looked down, Laura pulled his chin back up.
“I mean it, darling. We’re going to make a good life for ourselves and have lots of children and be really happy.”
She gave him a kiss.
“Come on. Please. One more song and then we’ll go skating. Okay?”
Reluctantly, David allowed himself to be dragged along. The carolers were singing The Little Drummer Boy now.
Come, they told me, pa rum pa pum pum
A newborn King to see, pa rum pa pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pa pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pa pum pum,
Rum pa pum pum, rum pa pum pum.
When the song was over, David pulled on Laura’s hand and they started up the road towards Holly Lane. It was named after Erin’s family, the Hollies, who owned a big house right at the corner where Cratchit Lane turned into Holly Lane. Going by the sprawling front yard, they saw it was done up with a Santa Claus in his Santa’s sleigh with reindeer and a nativity scene nearby and a thousand lights. The house itself was lit up with Christmas lights and through the beveled glass windows you could see the Hollies wrapping presents and preparing for their big party and the whole interior filled with holiday cheer.
Another knife stabbed into David’s heart at seeing this. He and his parents once had a nice house in this part of town. David put his head down and walked by without a word. Knowing how David felt, Laura walked along beside him and squeezed his hand.
As Laura and David came upon Pleasant Hollow Schoolhouse again, a snowball flew by and the gang of boys walked out from behind the surrounding trees, laughing.
“Hey,” Scotty said.
“Hey,” Finley said.
“Well, if it isn’t the little lovers,” Tyler said. “Where are you going?”
Laura and David kept walking.
“Oh, too good for us, huh? Love those hand me down shoes there, Laura.”
David started back but Laura held onto his hand.
“Don’t, David. Just leave it alone. Remember? Sticks and stones? Whatever that jerk says can’t hurt us.”
David looked over his shoulder once, wanting with all his heart to run back and smack Tyler in the face.
David and Laura found a few dozen kids already skating on Chatham’s Pond when they arrived. They quickly laced up their skates and went gliding along arm in arm. Tyler eventually showed up with the other guys and Tyler kept racing around David and Laura, being a pest but they ignored him. The cold night air felt good on their cheeks and Smokey Mountain loomed over them, twinkling here and there with lights and the town looked as if it was right out of a fairytale and David and Laura were mostly happy in their hearts.
Later on, as they neared the door of the Huckabee cottage, Laura pulled David around to the side and kissed him sweetly.
“I love you so. Let’s go tobogganing tomorrow, okay?”
“Won’t it be fun?”
“Okay. Will you come by and get me?”
“You. I love you, and remember what I said. Sticks and stones.”
Laura went into her cheery little cottage and David started down the road towards the row houses on Howard Street. No doubt his father was passed out in the living room, snoring away in his easy chair. David was thinking of all the ways he wished life could be different as he walked in through the door.
Just as David had expected, his father was passed out and snoring away in his easy chair. He needed a shave. The few hairs left on his head were disheveled. He smelled of whiskey. Daniel was his name. Daniel O’Doul but they called him Danny.
David went into the tiny kitchen next to the living room and drew a glass of water from the faucet. Besides the kitchen and the easy chair, there was a small table for eating and a threadbare sofa. A hallway led down to a bathroom and two tiny bedrooms in back. A pathetic looking tree sat in one corner but there were no presents underneath it.
David went to his bedroom and lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He remembered being a little boy and living in a big house where Cratchit Square was now. Then Cratchit came along and developed the square and built the foundry and bought half the town and the next thing David knew, he and his father were living in this little row house and his mother was gone.
His father had never properly explained to David the reasons behind his mother’s disappearance. Deemed too young to understand such things at the time, David was left at the mercy of rumors. One was that she had run off with Cratchit. Another was that she had gone mad and drowned herself in Pleasant Hollow Creek. The official police report simply listed her as missing.
Whatever had happened, David blamed his father as much as he blamed Cratchit. A father was supposed to look after his family. David saw other families doing well and getting ahead. All David’s father did was work and drink, and not necessarily in that order.
Thinking of Laura now, David remembered her words—that they would build a better life for themselves someday—and felt a small glimmer of hope. He went to sleep a short while later, clinging to those thoughts.
Very early the next morning, David awakened and heard his father still snoring away, only in his bedroom now. David quickly showered and slipped out the front door without being noticed.
Rather than going straight over to Laura’s cottage, David went around the corner to Rose & Crowns Bakery and bought two cinnamon rolls. Even though it was Christmas Eve, the town was quiet at that hour. David sat around to the side of the bakery on an old tree stump and nibbled at one of the rolls. The morning sun felt warm against his back. The snow and cold air at his feet felt like it did when you opened an ice box.
When the clock on Pleasant Hollow Town Hall Tower tolled eight, David started off through the field at the back of town. He did not want to go up Riverside Drive and chance running into his father. David went along, sometimes up to his knees in the snow.
Coming alongside Rowley Boat Works and Pleasant Hollow Creek, David turned left and followed a trail that ran along the river and through the woods. In short order, he came out onto Pinewood Lane and saw the Huckabee cottage up on his right. Laura’s mother answered when David knocked. She wore spectacles. Her hair was done up in a bun. She had flour on her hands and was wearing an old dress, as usual.
“Well, hello David. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Huckabee. Is Laura home?”
“Of course. Laura!” she called over her shoulder. “Come in, come in.”
“That’s okay. I saw the toboggan leaning up against the side of the cottage. Tell Laura I’m out here getting it ready.”
“Very well. You’ll excuse me. Don’t want to let the heat out.”
She smiled for David and closed the door. He went around and broke the toboggan loose from the snow and ice, then found a broom in a small shed at the back of the house and swept away all the dirt and pine needles. Laura came out just as he was finishing, all bundled up in a heavy coat and a knit cap.
“Oh good. You’ve got it all ready.” She kissed David. “Ooh, cold lips.”
David handed her the extra cinnamon roll.
“Oh, you’re a sweetheart.” She bit into the roll. “I tried to break the toboggan loose last night but couldn’t. Hmm. Good.”
She licked her fingers.
“So, are we ready to go?”
“Sure. Which way did you want to hike up?”
“Let’s go up by the Appleton Skate & Ski Shop. Charlotte stopped by a while ago and said she would be up there having a cup of hot cider.”
“Not with Tyler, I hope.”
“No. I don’t think so. Come on. And don’t be so hard on him either.”
“Hard on him?”
“Well, you know. His father used to beat him.”
“I don’t know that. It sounds like just an excuse for being a jerk.”
“Well, he told Charlotte that when they were going together and I don’t know why anyone would make something like that up if it wasn’t true.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that he’s a jerk.”
“No, but everyone has their own wounds, David.”
“So why make things worse?”
She pinched his cheek and they went along with David carrying the toboggan and Laura eating her roll.
“Let’s take the shortcut,” David said as they neared the row houses where he lived.
“You don’t even want to see your Dad on Christmas Eve?”
“Why would I want to?”
“I’m sorry. I know it’s hard for you. But you’ve got me.”
“I know. I’m glad.”
“I’m glad too.”
Laura wiped the sugary, cinnamon crumbs from her lips and kissed David.
They hiked up a set of granite steps cut into the hill and followed a trail along the ridge, going left. As the trail rose up and up, the town and the whole valley came into view and began to look very tiny below them.
Eventually, the trail came out to Smokey Mountain Lane and they turned right up the hill.
They had been walking along the road for several minutes when they heard the clip clop of hooves coming up the hill and stepped out of the way. A horse drawn sleigh came by and the owner stopped.
“You kids need a ride?”
“Sure,” Laura said and they both climbed up into the seat.
Ten minutes later, the man reined his horse to a stop where the road crested the mountain. Appleton Skate & Ski Shop was tucked back there at the bend in the road. David and Laura thanked him, jumped out and started across the packed snow towards the ski shop entrance. The road bore hard to the right there and cut across Smokey Mountain at the top of the pine forest. David and Laura heard the sleigh bells ringing off into the distance as they went inside.
Charlotte was on the back porch having her hot apple cider with Jenny Nash.
“Hi!” Charlotte said upon seeing them. She got up to give Laura a hug, then David. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you!” Laura said. “And you too, Jenny.”
“Merry Christmas,” Jenny mimicked.
“Well, it is,” Laura said.
“Yeah? Well I say, big deal. Don’t you get it? It’s always Christmas in Cratchitville.”
Charlotte kicked her in the shin.
“Oh, sorry. We’re not supposed to say the Cratchit word in front of David.”
David looked from face to face.
“It’s all right. You may as well call it Cratchitville. He practically owns the whole town.”
David sat down and stared out at the rows of peaks behind Smokey Mountain.
“Come, come, sit down,” Charlotte said to Laura. “Try the hot apple cider. It’s so good.”
The waitress came and she ordered a mug. So did David.
He was still staring out at where the mountains went on forever. It was the same no matter which way you looked out from Pleasant Hollow. The hills turned into more hills and valleys and the land seemed to go on and on and disappear into a mist.
“Wondering what’s out there?” Jenny said.
David looked back.
“Duh?” Jenny said and turned to the others.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Charlotte said. “But, gosh, I have everything I ever needed in Pleasant Hollow.”
“Gosh,” Jenny said.
“What’s gotten into you today?” Laura said.
“The same thing that got into me yesterday, and the same thing that will get into me tomorrow.”
“Oh, why can’t we just be happy today,” Charlotte said. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Fine, but some day I’m going to take a carriage and go over the hill just to see what’s out there.” Jenny stared out into the distance. “It must be a lot of fun because nobody who goes away ever comes back.”
“That’s not true,” David said.
“Okay, who do you know who’s been out there and returned?”
“My father’s friend O’Reilly. He once disappeared for a whole year and came back.”
“So, what did he have to say about the great wide world upon his return?”
“I don’t know. He’s always drunk and anyway won’t ever tell you anything about it, but he did leave and he did come back.”
“Maybe that’s what drove him to drink,” Jenny said.
David nodded wistfully at her laughter.
“Ha ha,” Charlotte said. “But he went somewhere and came back, so obviously people can do it.”
“Well, good. So consider me gone tomorrow.”
“Well, Merry Christmas,” Laura said. “I’m in a really great mood after all that.”
“Oh, let’s just go skiing,” Charlotte said.
“Why don’t we head down the mountain the back way and see where it leads us,” Jenny said.
“Because, Jenny. You know what they say. No one’s ever developed that area so you could get lost and die in an avalanche.”
“Oh, I’m so scared.”
“Well, you ought to be.”
The hot apple cider came and everyone sat there sipping and warming their hands on their mugs. David stared out at the distant mountain peaks again. Everything around them did seem to disappear into a mist. So where did the world go and where did it end? The real truth was, people in Pleasant Hollow rarely talked of such things.
“So I guess you two are going tobogganing,” Charlotte said to Laura and David.
“Yeah,” Laura said, finishing her cider and standing up. “Come on. Let’s all walk down to the slopes together.”
“I guess Jenny wants to wait and see if Edward Cratchit will show up.”
“Yeah, so he can pay for everything,” Jenny added.
She smiled sarcastically and sipped at her drink.
In place of Edward, Tyler came in with Scotty and Finley. Being his usual asinine self, Tyler went along razzing everybody in passing.
“So, ladies, how’s everything?” he said, walking up to the table. “Oh, sorry David. I didn’t mean to include you.”
David got up and left with Laura without a word. Tyler and the other boys were busy bantering away with Jenny and Charlotte as they went out the door.
“God, that was so weird,” Laura said outside.
“I mean, I was in such a happy mood with Christmas this morning and now I feel all gloomy and sad.”
“Why? It’s not your fault.”
“Well, I know I’m not helping.”
“Oh, never mind. You’re such a sweetheart inside. I know that, David. Let’s just go tobogganing and have a great time, okay? I’m tired of all this unhappy stuff. It’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. The last time I checked.”
“Ha ha, you’re funny. Oh god. Look at the beautiful blue sky. Feel the cold air on your cheeks. I just want to be thankful and happy.”
“Come on, let’s go,” David said.
They trekked over to a short slope that ran down one side of the pine forest and were soon whizzing along in the wind.
“Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” Laura said, laughing and looking back at David.
When they got to the bottom, their faces were all red from the cold air. Laura very quickly had the toboggan by the rope and was dragging it back up the hill.
“Come on, let’s go, lazy pants.”
“Here,” David said, taking the toboggan.
The hike up the mountain took five minutes and soon they were racing down the slope by the woods again. Having a spill near the bottom, Laura lay there laughing and making snow angels in the fresh powder.
“Yay, it’s Christmas Eve!” she said, sitting up.
David stood up and looked out over Pleasant Hollow. The whole valley was ringed all around by hills and the old houses climbed up those hills on steep streets and it really was a very lovely place to be. David only wished that he didn’t have so much hatred in his heart and so many questions in his mind and could simply enjoy it.
Laura got up and went over to him.
“Please, sweetheart. Let’s not ruin the day. I’ll stay close to you at the party and afterwards we’ll go skating. It’s going to be a full moon tonight!”
David nodded while still gazing out over the town. Laura put her arms around him and her head against his chest.
“You know, David. Christmas is supposed to be a time of forgiveness.”
David pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t even know what to say to you anymore.”
“You expect me to forgive old man Cratchit?”
“Well, maybe not, but in fairness to Edward, it wasn’t his fault.”
“No. I’ve considered that many times but every time I see him, it reminds me of his father and anyway he’s so damned haughty. He knows what happened. But do you think he’d ever stop and apologize to me?”
“Maybe he’s just too embarrassed to bring it up.”
“Oh yeah. With his nose up in the air.”
“I’m sorry,” Laura said and hugged David again. “Why don’t we just take another ride and think about positive things. Like our future together, okay? We’ll have our own big house someday and kids and our own one horse sleigh. I promise.”
David nodded and started up the mountain with the toboggan.
The ride down was just as exhilarating as the trips before it but the fun had gone out of it for David.
“One more trip?” Laura said. “Come on, just one more.”
“No, I’m tired.”
David wanted to go, but he had no idea where. There was nothing else to do for the rest of the day, and then it would be time for the party. He could go home and watch his father drink, or wander around town aimlessly.
“I know,” Laura said. “It would be nice if we had a rope line to get back up.”
“Yeah, like the Cratchits.”
Laura threw her hands up in the air and plopped down in the snow, overwhelmed with sadness. David went over to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
He crouched down, feeling awful but not knowing what to say.
After a spell, Laura wiped at her tears and sniffled.
“All year I’ve looked forward to the holidays, and here it’s all ruined.”
“It’s not all ruined.”
“Yes it is.”
“Okay, you’re right,” David said. “I’ve ruined everything. You just go to the party tonight and have a good time and maybe I’ll see you afterwards.”
Laura grabbed hold of her knees and hung her head.
“That’s not what I wanted. I wanted you to come with me and for us to be happy and for Christmas to be a really, really joyous time.”
She wiped at her tears and sniffled again.
“Instead it’s become about everything that’s wrong in the world.”
David stood up and kicked at the snow.
“Don’t you understand? It’s as if my neighbor had come over and slapped me in the face one day, and then he went on like everything was normal. Except every time I see him, I remember the slap in the face. I mean, what do you do when a person never apologizes for the first thing? You’re supposed to go on like it never happened? That’s why I feel such rage every time I see or even think about those people.”
Laura stared and wiped at her nose.
“You’re right. It was wrong and they should apologize and if I’m going to be your wife, I should stand by you. In everything.”
David looked out over the town.
“I really wish it wasn’t like this. I really do, but it is and I don’t know how to change it.”
Laura stood up and wrapped her arms around David.
“So, we’ll have our own little party tonight and be happy together.”
“No. You go and have a good time and I’ll see you afterwards.”
Laura threw up her hands.
“Oh great. So now we’re going to argue about me sticking by you.”
David pulled Laura back.
“I just want you to have a good time. That’s all. That’s the best I can do. To wish the very best for you. I shouldn’t expect you to feel the way I do.”
“Oh, I’m so mixed up.”
Laura wrapped her arms around David and tried to forget the whole world.
“I know what,” she said suddenly. “I’ve been saving my money. Let’s go have dinner at the French restaurant tonight.”
“Oh, Laura. I don’t want you to spend all your money on that.”
“No. It’ll be fun!”
David sighed heavily.
“Look, it’s getting late already. Let’s just head down the mountain and get cleaned up and we’ll go for a walk around town and just see what happens, okay?”
“Yeah, that sounds fine.”
Laura looked down at Pleasant Hollow. Christmas lights were already starting to sparkle here and there around town.
“Oh, Merry Christmas,” she said and hugged David.
Her heart felt so full of emotions, it was ready to burst.
Finally, after another big hug and kiss, they jumped into the toboggan and raced down the last part of the mountain. At the bottom, David looked back up and saw two tiny figures coming down the slope on skis. They grew larger and larger until David realized it was Edward Cratchit and one of his buddies.
They slalomed to a stop a short distance up the hill. Edward pulled up his goggles and waved. Laura waved back.
“Will you be coming to the party this evening?!” he called out.
Laura looked at David and back at Edward.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Oh, you absolutely must! There’s a grand door prize and we’ll be having just loads of fun!”
David turned away.
“Oh, well…maybe we’ll see you there.”
“Grand, grand! I’ll be disappointed if you don’t show up.”
Edward gave Laura his biggest smile, pulled his goggles back down and skied off. Out of the corner of his eye, David watched the two boys cut diagonally across the remainder of the slope and down to where the Cratchits had their own personal rope line. Back up the hill they went, as fast as could be.
“Well, at least he was nice.”
“To you. You honestly don’t think he was talking to me.”
“Well, let’s not fight about it anymore. We’re together. It’s Christmas Eve and that’s all that matters.”
She kissed David and they walked together along a path leading back down towards Holly Lane. The path was lined with old birch and alder trees, their crooked old limbs bare with winter and nestling pockets of snow here and there. The town spread out below them all covered in snow.
They were still a hundred yards away from Laura’s cottage when they caught the scent of baked pies wafting in the cold air.
“Yum! You have to come in for a piece of pie!” Laura said.
Soon, they were stomping the snow off their shoes and going inside. The cottage was small but warm and cheery, with old-fashioned wallpaper and homemade curtains over the windows. A fireplace burned in one corner. A cat lay on the back of the sofa, waving its tail.
“Hi, Mom,” Laura called out and closed the door.
“Come in the kitchen! I’m baking!”
They went there and found several pies already cooling off from the oven and more being made. Mrs. Huckabee opened the oven door to check on two more that were baking.
“Can we have a piece, Mom?” Laura asked.
“Not until tomorrow.”
“Now now, you know better. Here, you can each have one of the berry tarts I made.”
Mrs. Huckabee pried two loose from the pan and placed them on napkins.
“So, what are you doing for Christmas Day, David?”
“Well, if you have nothing better to do, why don’t you and your father come over for dinner with us? We’d love to have you.”
David felt a great wave of anxiety wash over him. His father? Drunk? David nearly shuddered at the potential for disaster.
“Yeah…um…I really don’t know what we have planned.”
Mrs. Huckabee studied David knowingly.
“Well, mind you, I don’t want your father around here in his cups, but if he can comb his hair and clean himself up and mind himself for a few hours, he’s most welcome.”
David stared down at the wooden floors with embarrassment.
“You’re welcome to come, either way,” Mrs. Huckabee added.
“Come on,” Laura said and dragged David out onto the front porch to eat their tarts.
“I’m sorry,” Laura said, knowing how he felt.
“It’s all right. It’s true. My father’s a drunk and there’s no getting around it.”
“Yeah, but he’s a sweet old guy. I know. He’s always kind to me whenever we meet in town.”
“Yeah, a sweet old drunk.”
Laura pushed David playfully.
“Oh, don’t be so hard on the guy.”
David nibbled at his berry tart.
“Sorry. I just dread going home every night.”
They were looking down over Fisherman’s Pond and at the back side of town and over the whole snowy white valley that nestled Pleasant Hollow in its arms.
“So?” Laura said. “Are we going out to walk the town tonight arm in arm and have lots of fun?”
Laura finished her tart.
She licked her fingers.
“So, I’d better get cleaned up. And you should too.”
“All right. When should I be here?”
“Just give me an hour. Is that okay?”
“Sure. The faster I can get out of that house, the better.”
Laura stood on her tiptoes and kissed David’s lips.
“Don’t be so hard on him, and I’ll see you back here in a little bit.”
David ate the last bite of his tart and headed down Holly Lane with his boots crunching in the snow. When he turned onto Riverside Drive, his heart sank. It was so sad and pathetic looking, their little row house.
As expected, his father was reclined in his easy chair with a glass of whiskey in hand when David walked in.
“Aye, there’s me laddie. How are you, Davy boy? Are you havin’ yerself a grand Christmas Eve?”
“Yeah, real grand, Dad. We live in a dump and you’re drunk.”
“Aw, now don’t be so hard on me, son. I go to work every day and do the best I can.”
“The best you can.”
“Well, you have a roof over your head and food to eat, now don’t you?”
“Yeah, and a pathetic old Christmas tree with no presents under it no one around to celebrate with.”
David’s father hung his head.
“I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry. I know, I’ve let you down terribly.”
David headed for his room but stopped at the entrance to the hallway.
“Mrs. Huckabee invited us over for Christmas dinner tomorrow afternoon. That’s if you can sober up and change your clothes and comb your hair. I don’t expect any of that to happen any time soon, but I thought I’d tell you.”
His father nodded sadly and stared at his glass full of whiskey.
“Thanks for saying it, son.”
David went back to his room and lay on his bed.