A little Christmas themed story with a touch of romance. Enjoy!
The canned goods clunked together each time the four-wheeler ran over another pot hole or ridge of packed snow, every impact driving an invisible wedge into Andrea’s throbbing temple. Drawing the “short stick” and driving the four wheeler and its tow-behind cart had only one benefit: she could sit down the whole night, rather than march along the slushy sidewalks with the other eight carolers. The upstate New York winter had come early this year, making it impossible to drag the old wagon along like usual.
In the twelve years since graduating high school, Andrea and her friends piled on their warmest coats, hats, scarves, and gloves, braving everything from near-blizzard conditions to freezing rain, to canvass different neighborhoods around town when they came home from college on break. It had become something of a local institution, and for a while people had their canned food donations waiting at the front door when they came around.
Their “Cans for Carols” tradition used to stretch over an entire week. Recently, however, the tradition had been pared down to a few hours on December 23rd, depending on who made it home for the holidays. Sometimes people brought their significant others or spouses; if the weather wasn’t bitterly cold, some would bring their kids.
Up until three years ago, Andrea had no complaints. But her heart just wasn’t in it any more. Maybe, if she admitted it to herself, it hurt to see all her friends coupled off and starting families, when she had no one to share the holidays with. Her mom had relocated to Florida after her dad passed from cancer in the spring. And she still missed Mike, even after all this time.
“It’s really not fair,” she grumbled to herself as she turned the corner. This was the street where Mike’s parents lived. She’d spent countless hours playing video games and watching movies with Mike in the basement, after the Portmans moved here from Albany. Mike asked her out on the back porch swing when they were sophomores in college. That same year, he joined the carolers in order to spend more time with her.
Ahead on the sidewalk, Crystal turned to beckon her along with a smile. Andrea sighed and lifted one hand in acknowledgement, though she didn’t pick up any speed. Even though they were her best friends, caroling with these happy, companionable people just rammed her solitude home.
Besides, what was the point of doing this caroling thing anymore? People stood in their doorways and listened to a carol or two, then handed over a dusty can of green beans or condensed soup dug from the back of the pantry. They had to pitch most of the donated items because they were past their expiration dates.
Andrea hated the look on the food pantry manager’s face when they dropped off the donations at the end of the night. “Well, at least people were willing to give something,” the manager would say, shaking her head and glancing at the half-empty wagon.
That was the downside to driving the four-wheeler. Andrea would have to deliver the donations this year, and probably alone, after everyone else begged off in favor of snuggling under a warm blanket with a cup of coffee or cocoa, surrounded by their families. Then she would have to go home, alone, to her little apartment near downtown.
She should have gone to Florida like her mother asked. But she didn’t have the vacation time to spare.
Leading the carolers along, Crystal and Joe broke into a new song. “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green…”
Andrea rolled her eyes as the rest of the gang joined in. Did they have to sing that every year? It was bad enough they insisted on using bad British accents during “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And ever since college, when they got to the Portmans’ house, Mike’s dad would invite them in for cookies and mulled wine.
“Wassailing, after all, meant going from house to house looking for a ‘spirited’ drink to share,” Mr. Portman always told them. “And since you’re all ‘legal’ now, drink up.”
Andrea’s spirits drooped a little farther into the slush as she thought of the Portmans. The “For Sale” sign swayed in the breeze in front of the house, and other than the sconces beside the front door, no lights shone.
“I don’t think they’re here,” she called to Joe as he led the carolers to the house. “And that doesn’t look like their car in the driveway. Does anybody know if the house sold yet?”
Joe shot a grin over his shoulder. “Sidewalk wouldn’t be shoveled if nobody was home. Get up here, Andrea, we need your voice!”
“Maybe Mr. Portman has some mulled wine waiting,” Dan added, slinging his arm around Meg, his wife of three months. This was her first outing with the carolers, and she appeared sheepish as she followed the others to the front door.
Andrea heaved a sigh and parked the four-wheeler at the end of the driveway. Crystal hung back from the group, hands in her coat pockets. “Are you coming?” she asked.
“I really don’t think anyone’s home.”
Crystal pinned her with an assessing gaze. “Or you’re hoping no one’s home. Especially Mike.” She glanced at the rest of the group where they huddled by the front porch, muttering over the song choices.
Her breath pluming in the air, Crystal beckoned Andrea off the four-wheeler. “It’s been three years. It’s not like the Portmans hate you. They’ve known you since high school. Besides, isn’t this the time of year when we should try to spread joy and show love, more than any other?”
Andrea shook her head as she wandered half-heartedly toward Crystal. She would sing one carol – just one – and then resume cart duty. Although, it did feel good to stand up and walk; she hadn’t noticed how stiff and cold she’d gotten from sitting on the four-wheeler all night.
Joe hopped up the porch steps and rang the doorbell, then gave the signal to start. The carolers broke into “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and Andrea started to sing before she even realized it. This was her favorite carol; she even knew the Latin verses. Good thing they decided to start with this song.
A light came on in the front window, and then the door opened. Andrea’s voice died in her throat as everyone else’s rose in a cheer of greeting.
“Mike! When did you get into town?” Dan asked, swinging Meg forward for a quick introduction.
Andrea wished the sidewalk would crack open beneath her feet. While he shook hands with Dan’s wife, Mike found her on the edge of the group, a twinkle in his eyes. She swallowed hard. His eyes were green, she remembered, the only person she knew with green eyes. And they were locked on her.
He looked good, fit and athletic, broader in the shoulders than he’d been three years ago. He wore his brown hair longer now, a little scruffiness along his jaw, like he hadn’t shaved in a couple days. And the smile he was giving Dan’s wife, that old cocky, self-assured smile…
Why had she dumped him? Because he wanted to take that job out in Silicon Valley, and he wanted her to drop everything and go with him. Andrea had balked, protested, asserted her independence. She had her own career, thank you, and didn’t need to tear up stakes to follow Mike Portman halfway across the country. He had outlined all the reasons she should go, hinted at making their relationship permanent.
Maybe that’s why she dumped him. After watching so many relationships fall apart among their group of friends, among their parents, she couldn’t fathom, couldn’t trust, that Mike would want to spend his life with her. And then she had said he would stay if he really loved her, that he wouldn’t demand such big sacrifices from her. And after he left anyway, she wished she had gone, wished she hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. She’d wanted him to sacrifice what she refused to.
And it happened the last night he went caroling with the group.
“How much have you collected so far?”
Mike directed his question at Andrea, and she flushed with embarrassment when she realized how her mind had wandered. Her feelings, her regret, had to be written on her face. “Probably six dozen cans,” she said quickly, shoving her hands in her pockets.
“This is the last street,” Joe explained. “Then we’re calling it a night.”
“Who’s stuck dropping off the loot?” Mike asked.
Andrea grimaced and raised one hand. Mike stared at her, then stepped back into the house, emerging with his coat a minute later. “I’ll go with you guys, then help Andrea with the donations. She can leave the cart here, and we’ll carry whatever we collect from the rest of the block. Probably won’t be much.”
Everyone’s approval showed in their smiles and comments as Mike locked the door behind him. Andrea released a groan as he ambled toward her, pulling on his coat and giving a somewhat insolent grin. She looked, pleading, at Crystal, but her friend just shrugged and rejoined Joe at the head of the group.
Mike paused at Andrea’s side. “Shall we?
“Sure, whatever.” They started after the rest of the carolers, strolling at a slower pace.
“So when did you get back?” she finally ventured.
“Two days ago. Mom and Dad got an offer on the house, and they wanted me to come box up the rest of my stuff. You know, the old track trophies and CDs and embarrassing posters still plastered on my bedroom wall.”
Andrea nodded, unsure exactly what to say. “Have they already moved?”
“Into the retirement community on the west side of town. They’ve been going back and forth for the past month or so, moving stuff and sorting out what they want to toss, sell, donate. You know how it goes.”
The carolers serenaded the Portmans neighbors one by one. Andrea and Mike waited at the ends of driveways, squishing clumps of snow and slush under their boots, like bored kids waiting for the school bus. Then Mike eased a little closer. “I heard about your dad. How’s your mom doing in Florida?”
The sympathy in his voice unnerved her. “Fine, I guess. She likes the weather better than here. No snow.” She grinned and kicked a chunk of ice down the street. “She wanted me to go down for the holidays, but I couldn’t get the time off work.”
Heat rose in her cheeks. “I’m looking for a new one.”
“Me too.” She glanced at him, surprised, as he continued. “Sort of, anyway. My company bought a manufacturing facility downstate, near Poughkeepsie, and they want me to relocate.”
“That’s just four hours from here. How do… people… feel about you relocating?”
“What people?” he asked, frowning.
“I don’t know. Like a girlfriend, maybe.”
They took several steps down the street before he answered. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Oh.” Something leapt in her heart. “Do you think you’ll do it? Take the job, I mean?”
Mike shrugged, glancing back at his parents’ house. “With Mom and Dad retired, I kind of want to be closer to home. My sister’s in Memphis with her family, so she’s not close enough to help if they need it. And I’ve got the mobility to move back, so…”
Joe, Crystal, Dan, and Meg sauntered over, arms loaded with cans. “While you two have been shooting the breeze, the rest of us have been working,” Joe said with a grin. “Canvassed the whole rest of the street without you.” Laughing, they headed for the four-wheeler and dumped the cans into the cart.
Andrea turned to Mike. “Well, if they’re done, that means I need to get all this sorted and bring it over to the food pantry.”
“Let’s get started, then.”
She shook her head. “You don’t need to come, really.”
“It’s fine. Besides, isn’t that Dan’s four-wheeler?”
“His brother’s, but yeah.”
Mike nudged her elbow. “Well, then Dan and Meg can ride it home. You and I can load everything into my car and take it to the food pantry. We’ll sort when we get there.”
Andrea started to protest again, but Mike jogged back to the cart and recruited the rest of the carolers to transfer the donations to the trunk of his rental car, which was parked in the driveway. Then Dan and Meg climbed onto the four-wheeler and started off with a wave, while everyone else dispersed down the street toward the market where they’d left their cars.
A light snow began to fall as Mike returned to Andrea’s side. She still stood in the middle of the street, a little dumbfounded about the way he had taken over. The way he figured everything out.
“Is that little coffee shop still open downtown?” he asked.
He meant the little hole-in-the-wall place where they’d gone for their first official date. And many dates afterward. Andrea’s heart flipped again. “Open till ten tonight.”
Mike flashed that brilliant smile at her. “It’s only seven. Let’s get this down to the food pantry, and then we can head over there to warm up. You’ve got to be freezing.”
“I am,” she admitted with a weak giggle. The mere mention of the coffee shop put her on alert, but in a strangely good way. Would he remember…?
He opened the passenger door for her. “The heated seat will start thawing you out. They still have that vanilla chai you like?”
Nodding, she slipped into the car. Mike folded his arms on the top edge of the door, looking down at her. She licked her lips, an old nervous habit. “Mike, do you ever feel like your life’s been put on hold, and if you just find the right moment, you can pick up where you left off?”
“No,” he answered, stepping back. One hand on the door, he leaned toward her. “But I think if you find just the right moment, you can start over.”