Winter Stroll (Winter #2)

by Elin Hilderbrand



She sneaks out behind the hotel and lights a cigarette. George knows she smokes, but he has drawn the line at watching her do it—so she has to be stealthy and quick. If she’s gone for more than ten minutes he sends out a search party, which is usually comprised of himself and his Jack Russell terrier, Rudy, but also sometimes one or more of the women who work in the shop making hats. George thinks Mitzi is going to hurt herself. Or, possibly, run off and have an affair on him, the way she did on her husband, Kelley.

An affair is unthinkable in Mitzi’s condition. Hurting herself seems redundant; she is already suffering from the maximum amount of pain a person can experience.

Bart Bart Bart Bart Bart.

George says he understands, but he’s never had a child, so how could he possibly?

Nicotine is poison. And yet, since Bart has gone missing, cigarettes are one of two things that make Mitzi feel better. The other is alcohol. Mitzi has become partial to a sipping tequila called Casa Dragones that is packaged in a slender, elegant turquoise box and costs eighty-five dollars a bottle at the one high-end liquor store in Lenox that sells it.

She wonders if any of the liquor stores on Nantucket sell Casa Dragones. Murray’s, perhaps? She would like a few shots of it now, just enough to take the edge off.

When Bart enlisted in the Marines eighteen months earlier, Mitzi had naively believed the so-called War Against Terror to be over. Osama bin Laden had been killed and buried at sea. Mitzi had pictured Bart going to Afghanistan to help a war-torn people get back on their feet. She had thought he would be digging wells and rebuilding schools. She had envisioned him working with children—giving them pencils and gum, teaching them inappropriate phrases in English. Baby got back! But Bart had been in country less than twenty-four hours when his convoy of forty-five troops was captured.

They have been missing for nearly a year now.

The Department of Defense believes that the extremist group responsible for the kidnapping is called the Bely, pronounced “belle-aye.” It means “yes” in the Afghan language. No one has ever heard of the Bely; all that is known about them is that they are young—most of them only teenagers—and they are vicious. One official reportedly said, “These kids make ISIS and the Taliban look like Up with People.” The Bely are also, apparently, magicians—because even after sending three reconnaissance missions into Sangin and the surrounding province, the U.S. military has yet to discover where the marines are being held.

Mitzi can’t watch TV anymore, nor read the newspaper; she can barely log on to her computer. When there is definitive news about what has happened to Bart’s convoy, the DoD will contact Kelley and Mitzi directly.

George’s advice is: Try not to think about it. This is apparently how they deal with misfortune at the North Pole. They ignore it.

Mitzi finishes her cigarette, stubs it out on the sole of her clog, and pops a breath mint—for what reason, she’s not quite sure. George doesn’t kiss her anymore, and they rarely have sex. George is older and requires the help of a pill to be intimate, and Mitzi can’t lose herself for even half an hour. She is a prisoner as well—to her worry, her fear, her anxiety, and her bad habits.

She pulls out her cell phone and calls Kelley.

“Hello?” he says. His voice sounds robust, nearly happy; in the background, Mitzi can hear Christmas music, “Carol of the Bells.” Mitzi has many issues with Kelley, but chief among them is how, at times, he doesn’t even seem to remember that their son is missing. He has handled Bart’s disappearance with an equanimity Mitzi finds baffling. Case in point: right now, he seems to be listening to carols! And he’s probably getting ready to make champagne cocktails for the guests. It’s Christmas Stroll weekend—which, on Nantucket, is even more Christmassy than Christmas itself. The town has an intoxicating smell of evergreen, salt air, and woodsmoke. When the ferry rounded Brant Point earlier that afternoon and Mitzi saw the giant lit wreath hanging on the lighthouse, she remembered, for an instant, just how much she loved the holidays on this island.

But then, reality descended like a dark hood.

“Kelley,” Mitzi says. “I’m here.”

“Here?” Kelley says.

“On Nantucket,” she says. “For the weekend. We’re staying at the Castle.”

“For the love of all Harry, Mitzi,” Kelley says. “Why?”

Why? Why? Why? She and Kelley had agreed that it would be best for everyone if Mitzi stayed with George in Lenox through the holidays.

“You made your decision,” Kelley had said, on the other occasions when Mitzi had mentioned returning to Nantucket for a visit. “You chose George.”

I chose George, Mitzi thought. For twelve years running, Mitzi and George had conducted a love affair during the Christmas holidays, when George brought his antique fire engine to the island and dressed up as the Winter Street Inn Santa Claus. Last year, things had come to a head, and Mitzi had decided to leave Kelley for George. Bart had just deployed and Mitzi’s judgment had been wobbly. More than anything, she had wanted to escape her circumstances; she had wanted to hide in a fantasy life of sleigh bells and elves.

It had been a big fat mistake. Now that Mitzi is with George day in, day out, the allure has worn thin. Who wants to be with Santa Claus on St. Patrick’s Day, or the Fourth of July? Nobody. Santa’s sex appeal is specific to the month of December. On good days, Mitzi feels a brotherly affection for George; on bad days, she is filled with bitter regret.

“I had to come,” Mitzi says. “I missed the island so much, and I know Kevin and Isabelle are having the baby baptized on Sunday.”

“How?” Kelley says. “How did you know that?”

Mitzi crunches her breath mint. She doesn’t want to give away her source.

“Ava certainly didn’t tell you,” Kelley says. “And it wasn’t Kevin or Isabelle. And Patrick is in jail.”

Another second and he’ll figure it out, Mitzi thinks.

“Jennifer!” Kelley says. “Jennifer told you. I can’t believe she still speaks to you. She actually is the nicest person alive, just as we always suspected.”

“Jennifer and I are simpatico,” Mitzi says. “She lost her husband, and I lost my son.”

“She did not lose her husband,” Kelley says. “Patrick is in jail, he’s not dead. And”—here, Kelley clears his throat—“Bart isn’t dead, either, Mitzi.”

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