Winter Stroll (Winter #2)(2)


by Elin Hilderbrand

Mitzi squeezes her eyes shut. She can’t explain how badly she needs to hear Kelley say that. Bart isn’t dead. Which means, Bart is alive. He’s somewhere. The Bely are a new enemy, but the one thing that is known about them is their tender age. The only way Mitzi gets through some nights is to imagine Bart and the other marines playing soccer or gin rummy with their counterparts in the Bely.

When Mitzi shared this vision with George, he gave her an encouraging pat and said, “That’s the ticket, Mrs. Claus.”

Mitzi has become pen pals with the mothers of two of the other missing marines through a service provided by the Department of Defense, and although they are from vastly different backgrounds—one woman is a fundamentalist Christian in Tallahassee, Florida, and one woman lives on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, both women are black—the emails sustain Mitzi and provide her with a sense of community. There are at least two other people in the world who understand exactly what Mitzi is feeling.

“Can I come to the baptism?” Mitzi asks. “Please?”

There is a great big huff from Kelley. “I really want to tell you ‘no,’” he says. “You left me, you cheated on me, you betrayed me, you broke my heart, Mitzi.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“If it was just the one time, I might have understood,” Kelley says. “But twelve years? It was a willful, planned, long-standing deceit, Mitzi.”

“I know,” Mitzi says. They have been over this same ground dozens and dozens of times in the past year, and Mitzi finds the best strategy is to agree with Kelley rather than try to defend herself.

“‘Peace on earth, good will toward men,’ Luke chapter 2, the Annunciation to the shepherds,” Kelley says. “Because that is my Christmas mantra this year, I’m going to concede. You can come to the baptism. It’s at eleven o’clock on Sunday. I’ll save two seats in our pew for you and George.”

“Thank you,” Mitzi says. She would have gone to the baptism even without Kelley’s permission, but it feels better to have asked. And two seats in the family pew is more than she dreamed of.

“You’re welcome,” Kelley says. “Forget what I said about Jennifer. I’m the nicest person alive.”

Mitzi hangs up the phone just as George steps out the back door of the hotel.

“I’ve been looking all over for you,” he says. He waves two tickets in the air. “Are you ready for the Holiday House Tour?”

Bart Bart Bart Bart Bart. Mitzi always says his name five times in her mind, like a prayer.

One of Mitzi’s pen pals, Gayle from Tallahassee, draws on God’s strength in order to go about her normal day. Gayle works in a pediatrician’s office and dealing with sick children and their parents helps keep her from dwelling on her son, KJ. Mitzi’s other pen pal, Yasmin of Flatbush Avenue, stays in bed most days. She admits that she just can’t return to business as usual. She quit her job as a security guard at the Barclays Center. She has a hard time doing anything but watch Dance Moms on TV.

Mitzi falls somewhere in between these two women. When she hears George say, Holiday House Tour, a part of her thinks, Ooooooh, how Christmassy! She had always wanted to go on the Holiday House Tour, but she’d never been able to get away from the inn on the Friday of Christmas Stroll weekend. Now that she has no inn and no guests, she can finally go. But then, the other part of her thinks, Holiday House Tour? How can she admire other people’s festively decorated homes—the greenery, the candlelight, the precious family heirlooms—when Bart is missing?

Peace on earth, good will toward men. She will go on the Holiday House Tour. But first, for the love of all Harry, she will make George find that tequila.

AVA

Scott Skyler has done it! He has found the ugliest Christmas sweater in all the world.

He shows it to Ava in his office, after all the children and most of the staff have left school for the day. He makes her close her eyes as he puts it on. And then, she can tell, he turns off the lights in his office. Scott and Ava have been hot and heavy all year, but one thing they have not dared to do is have sex in the school. They kissed on the bench of Ava’s piano back in the spring, which almost led to… but they stopped themselves. They climbed up to the school roof together in the middle of summer to gaze at the stars, and they almost… but they stopped themselves.

“Okay,” Scott says. “You can open them.”

Ava screams—half in horror, half in delight. It’s a red wool sweater with a poufy white tulle Christmas tree on the front, decorated with actual lights that blink and flash. Ava starts to cackle. The sweater is only made better by Scott’s deadpan expression; it requires someone as big and authoritative as Scott to properly pull it off.

Nathaniel would have looked ridiculous in that sweater, Ava thinks. And furthermore, he wouldn’t have been a good enough sport to wear it.

It’s a year later, and she still thinks about Nathaniel. He moved to Martha’s Vineyard in the spring to build a house on Chappaquiddick for some spectacularly rich folks, and on clear days Ava squints at the horizon and wonders what he’s doing over there—if he likes it better than he likes Nantucket, if he’s met the Martha’s Vineyard equivalent of Ava Quinn, and if he’s ever coming back.

She kisses Scott. He is simply the best, truest, most excellent guy for agreeing to help her plan the Ugly Christmas Sweater Caroling party for that evening. Ava’s sweater is yellow, with an embroidered picture of Jesus on the front. Jesus’s hands are raised over his head. The front of his white tunic says BIRTHDAY BOY. Ava was proud of her sweater… until she saw Scott’s sweater.

At seven o’clock on Friday night, Ava and Scott and their fellow caroling comrades gather out in front of Our Island Home, Nantucket’s assisted living facility for elders. Ava’s best friend Shelby, the school librarian—who is now roundly pregnant with her first child—is there, as is one of the high school English teachers named Roxanne Oliveria.

Roxanne has either forgotten or ignored the fact that this is an Ugly Christmas Sweater Caroling party, because she is wearing a rather fetching red mohair wrap sweater that shows off her fake breasts. Hmmmmm, Roxanne, Ava thinks. Roxanne Oliveria, called “Mz. O” by her students—the O salaciously drawn out to indicate “orgasm”—is of Italian descent with gorgeous thick dark hair, olive skin, and a Sophia Loren beauty mark.

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