Excerpt for Home in Time (Book III in the Christmas Village Trilogy) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Christmas Village to Call Home

Smashword

Copyright 2016 by Lisa Pendergrass



Home in Time

Chapter 1

Oh, Christmas isn't just a day, it's a frame of mind...” … Kris Kringle

“Don’t you remember? You love Lexington, Florrie! Do you remember the last time we were here, and we went to that amazing restaurant?”

“No.” Florrie bit, staring disinterestedly out the window. Her mother was trying to cheer her up. It wasn’t working. She refused to be cheered up.

“They’re expecting record breaking crowds at this festival.” Her dad said. “We should clear a lot of money, and be able to take some time and just have fun.”

“Sure.” Florrie responded doubtfully. At ten years old she, along with her parents, had spent more time on the road than off. They made things… her mother was a master crafter of hand-pressed jewelry and her father was a wood worker. They both were talented and successful; successful enough to own a home in Inner Harbor and two thriving internet businesses based out of Baltimore. But this was their passion; loading up their truck and setting off for fairs, festivals and flea markets to mingle with consumers and other artists.

That would have been all well and good if they hadn’t had a ten-year-old daughter who was lucky she was gifted because otherwise she’d never have finished kindergarten. As it was, the posh private school she attended continued to pass her because she was smart, but if they graded on attendance and class participation, she’d still be in preschool.

“If we have some free time before we meet the organizers, how about a quick stop at Kentucky Horse Park?” Mom asked hopefully.

“I don’t care. I’ve seen it.” Florrie pouted.

“Honey, we know you had to miss a sleepover…”

“I never get invited anywhere because no one from school even knows me well enough to invite me, but Janie did, and I can’t even go! It’s not fair!” She cried, and then…

Squealing brakes, a scream she later realized was her own voice and crunching metal… for the rest of her life those would be the three things she remembered; the last three things she remembered about her mother. Squealing brakes, a scream she later realized was her own voice and crunching metal… she’d never forget it. She’d never forget that or the fact that the last thing she said to her mother was spoken in anger.

A kid in an SUV scrolling through his favorite tunes on Bluetooth and doing 85 on I68 hit the guard rail, over-corrected and spun into mom’s door, driving dad’s side into the concrete partition. Mom died on impact. Dad died nine months later after multiple operations to correct a major spinal injury; but in Florrie’s mind, he died that day with mom. He was never the same afterwards anyway. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t travel. He couldn’t even make breakfast before school.

That first Christmas was the worst. The Callahan’s were nice, but they were strangers. And this place… Snowy Pines… it felt like another planet and not in a good way. All she remembered from that first year was arriving at this ridiculously quaint “village” where everyone smiled and said Merry Christmas. And all she wanted to do was cry… until the night they took her to carnival.

She was afraid it would make her sad because her parents loved carnivals, but this wasn’t like the traveling shows where they’d set up and sell their merchandise. This was something else. For lack of a better word… it was magical. And the magic all began when she followed seven-year-old Lola to the lemonade stand. Lola was talking excitedly to people who knew her, and Florrie was looking on with dark, wary, eyes when a flash of Raven’s purple and gold disappeared around the stand and caught her attention.

She walked away from Lola, promising she’d be right back, and went in search of the jacket that was just like her dad’s. Instead she found a boy; a boy who looked a little older than she, with shaggy blonde hair and sullen green eyes… the greenest green eyes she’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” She said, backing away.

“It doesn’t matter.” He barked.

“Oh… okay.” She said nervously, and then blurted out, “I’m Florrie. I like your jacket.”

“Thanks. It was a Christmas gift from my mom. She gave it to me right before she dumped me here with my grandparents, so she could flake out with some guy in the Bahamas.” He sneered.

“Oh.” She said, wondering if she should tell him that her mother was dead, and her father was listed as stable, but still wasn’t even able to speak to her when last she’d visited him. But she didn’t want to tell him that. She didn’t want to be that girl.

So instead she said, “I’ve never been to the Bahamas.”

“Me either.” He said with a shrug. “I’ve never been anywhere but Baltimore and here. My grand-poppa and grand-mama own the tree farm.”

“That sounds…”

“Lame.” He filled in the blank for her. “I hate this place with its stupid decorations and stupid carnival. It’s like… not even close to a real place.”

“Seriously.” Florrie said, relieved at last to find a normal person.

“I’m Gabriel by the way… Gabe. Do you want to ride the swings?”



Seven Years Later

The Callahans arrived in Snowy Pines on December 22nd just like most every year. As soon as the car was unpacked at the cabin Florrie started for the door. “Can I go to Gabe’s?”

Kellany wrinkled her brow and said, “I’m going back into town to pick up groceries in a few minutes. Don’t you want to wait and ride with me?”

Florrie fidgeted. She was anxious to see Gabe for the first time since summer. It seemed the older they got the more she wanted to see him and the longer she had to wait between visits. They texted a lot and talked on the phone occasionally, but it wasn’t the same. Of course, it didn’t help that last time she’d seen him things had been strained. She was determined to get back on track this time.

“It’s just down the road. I can walk it in a few minutes.” She insisted.

“Can I go too?” Fourteen-year-old Lola asked.

Florrie could tell that Kellany was just about to refuse when she jumped in. “She can come too. Please.”

“Okay, but don’t you want to go buy groceries with me?” Kellany asked.

Lola had inherited her mother’s love of cooking, if not her gift for it. Florrie was a natural, but she often resisted it out of some sense of denial.

Lola was clearly torn so Florrie suggested that Kellany come in a few minutes and pick Lola up. That would make Lola happy because she’d get to tag along with Florrie; and it would make Kellany happy because it meant Florrie and Lola were bonding, she’d get to see with her own eyes that Florrie was safely at the Patrick’s farm, and she’d have Lola to accompany her to the store; and it would make Florrie happy because she’d get to spend uninterrupted time with Gabe.

Kellany pondered it for just a moment before finally agreeing.

“Florrie?” Kellany said, reaching for her hand as they started out the door. “I’m glad you’re with us this year. It’s just not Christmas without you.”

Florrie offered a mumbled thank you before racing off down the road with Lola talking happily beside her. She loved Lola and was thankful to have a little sister… after a fashion. She loved all the Callahans and couldn’t imagine better foster parents than Josh and Kellany. But it didn’t change the fact that they weren’t her real family.

She and Lola reached the Tree Farm in just a few minutes and Lola took off exploring to choose a tree for later. In the past, Josh and Kellany always chopped down their tree in the woods, but somewhere along the way Kellany decided it was better for the environment if they left those untouched and chose from the one’s the Patricks grew especially for Christmas.

She spotted a truck loaded down with several wreaths and rolls of garland. It was December 22nd and she couldn’t believe that, other than their cabin, there was anywhere in Snowy Pines that hadn’t already been smothered in evergreen. Perhaps some of the folks who decorated days before Thanksgiving were coming back for round two already.

And then she saw Gabe helping the customer close his tailgate and secure his purchases, and her heart did that strange little flip it always did when she saw him. The flip would be more pronounced when he came face to face with her and she got her first glimpse of his eyes. In some ways, he still looked so much like the shaggy blonde boy she’d met seven year ago, but in other ways he’d grown up. He was almost twenty after all and starting to look more like a man than a boy.

When he finished with his customer, she was just about to approach him when Lola beat her to it. But it was okay. She liked the way he smiled down at her little sister, and she even sort of liked the starry-eyed look that Lola gave him. It gave her a zing of pride to know that someone, even if Lola was only fourteen, might be jealous of her.

Once he greeted Lola he knew that she must be close by. She watched from a distance when he started searching for her and she slipped into a row of trees hidden from him. She could see him walking up and down the rows of trees until he came to hers. She slipped between two trees and waited till he walked down hers calling her name. When his back was turned, and he was just about to turn down the next aisle, she tapped him on the shoulder and covered his eyes with her burgundy mittens.

“Guess who?” She whispered, close to his ear.

He turned quickly with a big smile and dragged her into a hug that was just long enough and just warm enough to be deemed more than friendly.

“When did you get here? I’ve been dying!” He said happily.

“Just now. Lola and I left as soon as the car was unpacked. So, are you really glad to see me?” She teased.

“What do you think? Come on. I’m working. Are you here to help?” He said, grabbing her hand and pulling her back towards the barn that served as the Patrick Tree Farm offices.

Most people don’t know that running a Christmas Tree Farm is a year-round venture. It starts with planting in the spring, and then through the summer the trees must be watered to survive the hot temperatures and regularly trimmed to achieve a desired shape. Autumn begins advertising, supply ordering, additional shaping as well as using the discarded portions to wire into wreaths and garlands which are then stored in cooling rooms inside the barn. Finally comes Christmas and the onslaught of customers and then January and February are inventory, taxes and more supplies to start it all over again. Each spring they plant between 750 and 1200 trees, in the summer they employee an average of twenty people and at least a dozen in the fall and more from Thanksgiving on. It takes eight to ten years to grow an actual Christmas tree and at any given time the Patrick’s Farm has between ten and twelve thousand trees in various stages of growth.

“So, how’s school?” Florrie asked as they walked back together. Gabe was in his first year at the University of Maryland after spending his freshman year at a junior college. Florrie was a senior in high school with a 4.0 and looking forward to joining him at UM next year.

“It’s fine.” He said evasively.

“That wasn’t very convincing.” She questioned.

He sighed. “Fine. It’s not fine. I… I’m not going back.”

“What do you mean you’re not going back? You have to go back! It’s school. We were…” She stopped herself before she reminded him that she was following him there in just one more semester. They weren’t dating… exactly. Actually, other than several years ago when they’d
“accidentally” ended up under the mistletoe, he’d never even kissed her. But she always thought it was sort of understood. She’d always been too young. And then last Christmas she’d blown off coming to Snowy Pines in favor of tracking down some of her family. That was a disaster. That led to the past summer when he was anything but forgiving after her Christmas betrayal. But she’d felt certain that this time they’d finally move in that direction.

“I know that school is important to you. You’re smart and you want to do things.” He reasoned.

“You’re smart!” She argued, feeling herself sliding dangerously close to tears.

“But I’m not good at school. I never have been.” He stated certainly. “And I’m wasting time and money there, when I could be here working.”

“You’re not wasting time if you’re learning to do something that will lead to a career.” She protested before reality dawned. “This? This is what you’re planning to do for the rest of your life? Tell me I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong.” He admitted guiltily. “This is our family business; grand-poppa and grand-mama's legacy. They’ve worked and sacrificed for forty years to build this place. People come from all over and say it’s part of their family's Christmas tradition. They started all of this from nothing.”

“Great! It’s the American Dream! Go to college, get a good job and hire someone to carry on the tradition.” She argued vehemently. “But don’t throw your life away on this place.”

Gabe took a deep breath and said, “This place is my life... or at least where my life is going to happen.”

“Oh.” Florrie said softly before clearing her throat. “When we met you said this wasn’t even a real place.”

Gabe shrugged. “I was twelve. My mom had just ditched me for good. I was scared and mad and about to cry… and trying desperately to look cool in front of the cute girl from the city. But this place is my home. And this farm is my future.”

“OK.” Florrie breathed, afraid to say more for fear of breaking into tears. Instead she turned on her heels and started away, biting her lip to keep the sobs in, but Gabe grabbed her hand and pulled her back towards him.

“Talk to me Florrie.” He pleaded. “Someone will be here in a few minutes to cover for me. Just give me a second. I want to hear your thoughts, and I want to help you see my point.”

“I have to go.” Florrie said waving to catch Lola's attention. “Kellany is on her way to get us. We’re buying groceries.”

“Stay with me.” Gabe begged. “Tell Kellany I’ll bring you home later. I’ve really missed you.”

“I can’t.” Florrie refused, ignoring the stricken expression on his face or the sadness that immediately filled his clear green eyes.

“I’ll be at the carnival tonight. I’ll see you at the swings?” He asked hopefully.

“Sure.” She agreed hurrying to the car before Kellany left her.

She tried hard not to look back at him. She gave it her best effort. But just as she opened the car door she turned. He was leaning against the wall of the barn, his arms crossed defensively. He looked exactly like the twelve-year-old boy she met so long ago. He held up his hand and waved, and so did Florrie.

She made an excuse to miss the carnival that night, and ignored Gabe’s texts. When she got back to Baltimore she sent him an upbeat message telling him she was happy he’d found his place in the world and now it was time for her to do the same.

After that, no more texts or calls came from Gabe except every year a week or so before Christmas. Around the middle of December every year he’d text and ask about her Christmas plans. She always answered him, but he never made any effort to see her, and whenever Florrie was back in Snowy Pines, she made a point not to visit the tree farm.

Three Years Later

Florrie Gentry looked at the phone as if it was somehow offensive instead of acknowledging that the problem wasn’t the phone, but in the words coming through it; mostly on her end.

“You look a little shell shocked.” Said Tabitha, her roommate of two years, as she passed through on the way from class to work. She and Tabitha had started out at Georgetown as freshman in the same room and had stayed together, not so much because they were friends but because they both led fairly separate lives and neither of them expected more from the other.

“Yeah I just told my mom I’m going to Boston with Devon for Christmas instead of coming to Snowy Pines.” She said dismally.

“Snowy what?” Tabitha asked with wide eyes.

“Surely I’ve talked about Snowy Pines. It’s the little town where my dad was raised. It’s like a real live Christmas village… even in the dead of summer.” She said disgustedly.

“Nope. I’ve never heard you mention that. Of course, you’re short on details when it comes to your personal life anyway. I gotta go. I’m late. BYE!”

Florrie watched her disappear into the hallway and then fell back on her twin bed. Tabitha was right. She was very short on sharing her personal details. And the ones she shared were usually not entirely accurate. For instance, to her friends at school she always referred to Josh and Kellany as her parents and Lola, Paxton and Crawford as her sister and brothers. But to their faces she never acknowledged it, even though she’d been with them more often than not since she was ten.

They’d tried multiple times to make it legal and become her adoptive parents instead of just a foster home, but she always found some reason to stop it. After all these years, she couldn’t begin to say why. She loved them all and couldn’t imagine her life without them, but it didn’t change her reluctance to accept them fully.

She stared at her phone again with the same look on her face. But this one wasn’t because of her conversation with Kellany. This one was because of the text she’d gotten two days ago. She’d ignored it while she tried to work up her courage to tell Kellany and Josh. Now that it was done she had no excuse not to respond to Gabe.

She sighed and typed out the simple message that she was going to Boston with her boyfriend. She supposed she didn’t have to include the boyfriend part, but, why shouldn’t she? Gabe was the one who had pulled the rug out from under her three years ago when he quit school and let her know without a doubt that she didn’t figure into his future-plans. Why he persisted in acting as if she mattered to him was beyond her. Besides, she was sure that he’d seen evidence of Devon on social media. They were “friends” there, if not in real-life.

She hit send and then went about the business of getting ready for her job at the bookstore. She had one more final before they could leave, and then she and Devon would be hitting the road. She was excited about a trip to Boston. She hadn’t been there since she was a child traveling with her parents, but she remembered it as a favorite city. But she was also nervous. She knew there were certain expectations that came with traveling with a boyfriend. Those expectations hadn’t been realized yet, and she wasn’t sure if she was ready for them; but she questioned whether her relationship would recover from her refusing him now.

It was enough to make her nervous, but not enough to make her refuse to go. She smiled at just the thought of it, just as her phone dinged.

She picked it up expecting something from Devon. Instead it was from Gabe; the first time he’d responded to her in three years. She read it through three times and still didn’t know what to make of it.

Enjoy your trip and let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas.

If you need anything, I’m here.

Chapter 2

I believe... I believe... It's silly, but I believe.” … Susan Walker

Forty-five minutes into her romantic holiday get away with Devon, and Florrie found herself watching his taillights disappear down a deserted highway while she stood on the shoulder of the road; more surprised than angry.

From the time they left DC she couldn’t stop feeling claustrophobic. It wasn’t that he was getting on her nerves… exactly, but more like she just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going to disappoint her somehow. Self-fulfilling prophecy was the story of her life. By the time she realized that she was the one picking a fight it was too late. He told her if she didn’t want to be with him then he’d leave her in Baltimore with her parents, and she replied that if he didn’t want her there he could stop the car right then.

She didn’t think he’d do it. When he did she had no choice but to get out of the car. She thought he’d beg her to get back in. She thought he cared enough to put up a fight. And now he was driving away, and she was alone. She had no cell service. She had no idea where she was. And it was almost dark.

She wanted to cry, not because she was sad but because she felt so stupid. How could she have wound up like this? She heard Josh’s voice over and over in her head, warning her and Lola about dating guys who treated you like a lady. She also knew he was adamant that any time you got in the car with a boy you were trusting him with your life. How many times did he tell them if a guy didn’t hold the door, pull out the chair and say yes ma’am then she should never get in the car with him? Devon was fun and cute and charming, but he never opened a door and certainly never pulled out a chair; and she’d not only gotten in the car with him, but she’d trusted him to take her all the way to Boston.

With no other options, she started walking, not sure which direction she should even go. With nothing else to go on she headed in the same direction of the taillights, and as she walked, she couldn’t stop her mind from wondering how Gabe was spending Christmas.

Chapter 3

You think I'm a fraud, don't you?” … Kris Kringle

Lola McCauley squinted in the distance and shook her head. What would possess a young girl to start off on foot on a deserted road like this? You could walk for hours and not see anyone. She heard Chris’s voice in her head telling her to speed past and not make eye contact, but then she thought of her mother and some of the reckless things that Alice had done in her younger years. She shook her head again, offered up a silent prayer and pulled the car over on the side of the road and rolled down her window.

“My husband would kill me if he knew I was doing this!” Lola said by way of explanation.

“My father would kill me too.” The girl replied, her eyes immediately filling with tears. Lola had the overwhelming feeling that she knew her from somewhere.

“Where are you headed?”

She shrugged. “Anywhere. My family is in Baltimore, but I don’t have any cell service. If I could just get somewhere where my phone would work I could call them.”

Lola nodded and popped the lock. “If you’re an axe murderer, not only will I be dead, but my husband will never forgive me. And furthermore, your father is 100% right because I could totally be an axe murderer.”

“I’m Florrie, and I promise I’m not an axe murderer and if you are, I’ll be dead, and my parents will never forgive me!” Florrie exclaimed, throwing her suitcase into the backseat of Lola’s Prius and then sinking into the front seat with relief.

“Florrie. That’s an interesting name.” Lola said, as the feeling that she knew her grew stronger. Then she continued with, “This road leads to almost nowhere, but there’s a truck stop about two miles from here. If we don’t have cell service there, surely they’ll let you use their land line.”

“Thank you.” Florrie said with a sigh.

“Well, as dangerous as this is, I’d hope that if I was in this situation someone would help me out. Did you have car trouble or…”

“No. It’s so much more tragic than that.” Florrie replied sarcastically. “I had this stupid idea that I should rebel against the forces of nature and go with my boyfriend to Boston for Christmas instead of with my family. And then literally 45 minutes outside of DC, I panicked so I picked a fight with him and ended up on the side of the road. How do you like that?”

“Well, if he left you on the side of the road, it sounds like you had good reason to panic. I’m Lola, by the way.”

“No kidding? My little sister’s named Lola, but you don’t hear that name a lot.” Florrie said and then turned to stare at her and said, “Wait a minute. Were you ever a nurse at UMMC?”

“Since I was twenty-two and I still am.” Lola answered and then she gasped. “Florrie! You were my patient when I had my accident!”

“What?” Florrie asked, clearly confused.

“I stayed late at the hospital with you. My husband and I were separated, and I was pregnant and just dealing with all this drama; but you were so sweet and… you needed me. So, I stayed late with you and then on the way home I got off the main road and ended up in a hold up at a gas station. The robbers left, and then I passed out and ended up in the emergency room. I cannot believe this! So, your dad made it through?” Lola said excitedly.

Florrie looked down for a moment and then shook her head sadly. “No, actually, he hung on for a few months, but he never left the long-term care facility.”

“Oh…” Lola said, clearly confused. “You just said…”

“My foster family… the Callahan’s. I spent that first Christmas with them, and then I went to live with some friends of my parents when he went to the nursing home, but when he died they didn’t want me and the Callahan’s had kept up with my case. I’ve been with them most of my life since I was ten.”

“They never adopted you?” Lola asked, curiously.

“No… they wanted to, but it just never worked out.” Florrie sighed sadly. “I’ve been such a brat. It’s amazing they even want me!”

Lola nodded and said, “Good foster families are hard to come by, but when they’re in it for the right reasons, it’s a true blessing. That truck stop is just up ahead. No fears. We’ll get your family here in no time.”

“I can’t wait.” Florrie said, just as it came into view… and became very apparent that it wasn’t open.

“I can’t believe this!” She cried holding up her cell phone. “I still have no service! Where are we anyway?”

“Highway 330.” Lola answered.

“You mean… toward…”

Snowy Pines. They said in unison.

“You know Snowy Pines?” Florrie asked in disbelief.

“You know it?” Lola repeated.

“Yes! That’s where my family will be. That’s where we spend every Christmas!” Florrie said excitedly, feeling like her luck was changing for the first time that day.

“Seriously? My family goes there every year too; since my daughter’s first Christmas nine years ago. My husband and kids are already there, but I had a patient who had an emergency surgery scheduled. I’d been with him for days and just couldn’t make myself leave before he came through it.” She explained, feeling a strange prickle on the back of her neck. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, “Who are your foster parents?”

“Josh and Kellany Callahan.” Florrie answered.

Lola gasped and had to fight to keep from running off the road. “Kellany. Are you kidding me?”

“Do you know Kellany?” Florrie asked in disbelief.

“Yes! Since I was a little girl. I’m the reason Kellany has foster children!”

“You’re that Lola!” Florrie screeched.

“She’s talked about me?” Lola exclaimed excitedly.

“Of course, but we all thought it was just some kind of make believe! She had a car wreck and woke up in Snowy Pines where she met Josh, and a little girl named Lola who she thought would be my sister when she grew up, but then she wasn’t. And then like nine years later she just dreamed, on a regular night, that she was back there for a normal Christmas, but it was in the future and she saw you again and helped you fix your marriage.” Florrie finished without ever taking a breath to pause.

“Wow.” Lola said slowly. “So… she dreamed the future?”

Florrie shrugged. “I guess so?”

“So how old are Kellany and Josh?” Lola asked. “Because when I knew them when I was little, I was eight and she was twenty-nine, but then when I was older she wasn’t quite the same amount of age difference over me.”

“She’s forty-nine now.”

“She’s getting younger.” Lola said lightly. “I’m catching up to her. I’m thirty-four.”

“This is really weird.” Florrie said with a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold outside since Lola’s car was nice and toasty.

“Listen…” Lola said reaching for her hand. “Kellany taught me never to underestimate the magic of Snowy Pines. I’ll get you there and we’ll find them. When will they be in town?”

“Today, I think. Have you ever met her in real-life?”

“No.” Lola admitted, realizing how ridiculous it was that someone she barely knew could have such an impact on her life. “We normally visit Snowy Pines a few days before Christmas, but… we’re coming a little later this time. I always believed Kellany was real and hoped someday I’d meet her in real-life, but it’s bizarre to think that it could actually happen today.”

“She’ll be so happy. You were the first person she let herself love… even before Josh.”

Lola smiled at the memory of having her hair brushed and decorating a tree that the three of them cut down together. “Does she really make those cookies?”

Florrie smiled and said, “The best Christmas cookies in the world!”

“I have thought of you over the years Florrie.” Lola said seriously. “Some patients touch you more than others and I always felt like we were connected. Now I know it was Snowy Pines. I can’t wait till we get there and see your mom!”

Chapter 4

And by filling them full of fairy tales they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of reality.” … Doris Walker

Lola pulled the car over at the carnival and said, “I don’t want to put you out here. What if Josh and Kellany aren’t here yet?”

Florrie shook her head. “It won’t matter. Josh’s mom will be running the show and his sister is always here. Go to the B&B and see your kids. Tell Mrs. Appleby I said, hi!”

“You’re sure?”

“I’ve got your number. We’ll catch up soon. Kellany is going to die when she meets you for real!” Florrie said, waving excitedly.

She threw her duffle bag over her shoulder and contemplated heading straight to the gazebo to stash it behind Santa, AKA Josh’s dad. But she decided she’d see if she could find the Callahans first. After the way she’d behaved the last few months, she knew she owed a lot of apologies, but this was Christmas; in Snowy Pines. It’s like Lola said; never underestimate the magic of Snowy Pines.

She started walking and she knew people everywhere she went. She smiled and waved at most of them and they returned the sentiment with merry enthusiasm. She idly wondered if they knew her from year to year. She didn’t come all that often and she wasn’t particularly friendly when she was here. But whether they knew her, or she was just another face among the people who visited for the holidays, she supposed the enthusiasm was simply contagious because all she could think was that it felt so good to be among people who cared about her.

She stopped when she got to the swings and the memories were overwhelming. She was ten and Gabe was twelve the first time they rode the swings together. It was going to be the worst Christmas of her life; there was no doubt about it. Her mother was dead; her father was dying, and she was celebrating with strangers trying to act like she was part of their family.

And then there was Gabe. They rode the swings together at least five times. Every time they started to come down to earth, she’d feel herself about to cry and then Gabe would nudge the back of her seat with the toe of his worn-out Converse. She’d turn around to his shy smile and he’d ask her to ride them once more. She would have stayed there all night if his grandparents hadn’t finally told him he had to go.

Afterwards when she finally met up with Kellany she expected to get in trouble. These people were all about the “family togetherness thing”. She was sure that Kellany would be angry that she’d ended up riding the swings with a boy they’d rarely met instead of staying with them, but instead she’d simply slipped her arm around Florrie’s slim shoulders and smiled saying, “The swings have always been my favorite too.”

It was the worst Christmas of her life for certain… but it was also Gabe and the swings and that tiny moment when it felt like Kellany actually cared about her and not about a foster kid.

She didn’t see Gabe again that year and she left thinking she’d probably never see him again. But then her father died, and she ended up back with the Callahans and back in Snowy Pines and there he was.

Suddenly, as much as she wanted to see them, she needed to see Gabe more; not because he was her first crush or even her first broken heart. But because when her world fell apart, he was her first friend; the first person who was able to reach past the hurt and heartbreak and make her smile – offer her hope. She started away from the carnival and headed instead in the direction of the tree farm.

She tried to calm the nerves that told her Gabe had surely moved on. They’d never really even dated. They’d barely ever kissed. He had a life here in Snowy Pines; a life that from all indications he loved. And for all she knew he was involved… with someone far more whole and healthy than Florrie could ever hope to be. She knew she was, in many ways, still the same train wreck who’d landed here ten years ago. But she told herself that none of that was the point. The point was that he was her friend. He’d been a good friend to her for most of her life and she owed it to both of them to say hello and catch up. After all, she had her own life too. Georgetown was a big deal and a foster kid who made it to a top ranked University was a great story. It didn’t matter if she felt like a fraud most of the time. She had stories to tell and that was her gift; that was her life.

She started across the street and she heard a giggle behind her. She turned just in time to see her sister Lola laugh with a boy Florrie didn’t recognize.

“Hey Lolabug!” She yelled, but the pretty blonde teenager just offered her a strange glare of indifference and pulled the boy through the trees and away from Florrie.

Florrie told herself it shouldn’t hurt her feelings, but it did. Of all the Callahans she’d always been closest to Lola. When she was little, she wanted a sister. She always thought that it would be so much easier to deal with her parents’ nomadic lifestyle if she’d had a sister to share it with. Lola was seven when she first came to the Callahans’ and she’d been thrilled with an older sister, doting on Florrie with such exuberant eagerness that it was impossible for Florrie not become attached to her. She was the first one of them that Florrie felt comfortable with… and over the years they’d been extremely close – more friends than sisters. But since she’d gone to Georgetown and put distance between herself and the family, Lola had taken it personally and the aloofness was obvious… more now than ever.

Florrie sighed and decided maybe Gabe could wait. Seeing him after all this time was impulsive and something that could go terribly wrong. And if it did go terribly wrong it would ruin her reunion with the Callahans; not to mention that she’d end up getting dumped twice in one day. She decided instead to head back to the carnival. If Lola was out here on the edge of the property, then everyone else would be close by.

Florrie headed back into the action and within just a minute she recognized another familiar blonde. She’d always envied Kellany and Lola’s golden blonde hair, not to mention their long, willowy figures. She, by contrast, had dark, wildly-curly hair and darker-brown eyes with olive skin, and was short and compact in build. It was almost eerie how much Lola McCauley looked like her sister Lola and Kellany. It was no surprise that just the sight of her made Florrie feel that connection of family.

“Lola.” She yelled, waving happily. Lola turned and immediately smiled and started toward her.

“Florrie. Come meet my husband… actually you met him before, and my son Ethan. This is Florrie Gentry. And this is my daughter Allison. I was expecting her when I knew you.” Lola explained as Florrie smiled and greeted them all warmly.

If Chris was mad at her for picking up a hitchhiker, he obviously wasn’t holding it against her. They exchanged a couple of pleasantries and finally Lola encouraged them to go ahead, and she caught Florrie’s arm.

“Here’s the thing. Chris knows about the dreams. He knows that’s why I wanted to come here in the first place. But if Kellany turns out to be my Kellany and she knows me and everything… Well, Chris is a lawyer and very sensible. Explaining this to him is going to be a bit of a challenge. For now, let’s just keep this low key.”

“Absolutely. Josh teases Kellany about it, but he’s going to freak when you turn out to be real. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I wasn’t right in the middle of it.” Florrie said, shaking her head. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just a random hitchhiker who happened to be your former patient and you’re my former nurse who happened to give me a ride; end of story. But you were right about the time thing being weird. I mean, you were a little girl when they met you, but Lola is only two years older than your little boy and she was born just a year and a half after they met.”

“Yes, Kellany always told me that Snowy Pines is magical, but I’m not sure I like that part of the magic.” Lola teased, and they laughed together before Florrie pointed across the distance.

“There she is!” Florrie said excitedly. “And she’s alone. Come on!”

Florrie dragged Lola toward her, and the look of fear and excitement on Lola’s face was unmistakable.

“Kellany.” Florrie called when they got close enough for her to hear them.

Kellany looked up and her eyes fell on Lola, and she gasped and then covered her mouth in surprise.

“Lola… is it really you?” She asked tearfully.

“It’s me!” Lola said, running ahead to hug her tightly. Florrie watched with a smile on her face, though if she was being honest she was a little surprised and disappointed that Kellany didn’t make a move to greet her. For the first time, it occurred to her that this time she might have pushed the Callahans too far and they might not be eager to forgive her for not spending Christmas with the only family she had left.

“Every year I hope and hope that you’ll be here and here you are! I can’t wait for you to meet my family. Look at you! You’re a grown up! You’re catching up to me!”

Lola laughed happily and said, “My husband isn’t ever going to believe this. He has always thought I was a little nuts about this.”

She waved Chris and their kids over while Kellany was waving Josh and the boys over. Florrie looked on happily, if a little shocked by Kellany’s obvious failure to acknowledge her.

Chris, Ethan and Allison arrived at roughly the same time as Josh, Pax and Ford and Kellany and Lola began making introductions… introductions that didn’t include Florrie.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Josh said incredulously. “I have always thought that Kellany was insane about this!”

“And yet he married me and had three kids with me.” Kellany teased, elbowing him in the ribs.

“Guilty here too.” Chris said. “I humored her last time because she was pregnant so...”

They all continued to laugh and talk, and finally Kellany turned to Florrie and said, “You must think that we are the rudest people in the world. I’m so sorry! I’m Kellany Callahan. I don’t think I caught your name?”

“Excuse me?” Florrie said, looking around to see if the woman who’d raised her and repeatedly asked her to call her mom, was speaking to someone else.

“Florrie?” Lola said, watching her face and reaching for her hand.

“We’ve met her.” Josh said, stepping up. “I know we have.”

“Don’t listen to him. My husband has never met a stranger!” Kellany said with a laugh, looking at her with a bit of confusion as Florrie stared back at her in shock.

“This is Florrie.” Lola said, her voice taking on a nervous edge as she reached for Florrie’s elbow and started to pull her away. “Um, can you guys excuse us for a minute?”

“I don’t get this! What’s going on?” Florrie asked nearing tears just as Lola Callahan joined them.

“Hey mom, what’s with the text?” She asked, looking at Lola McCauley and Florrie with a polite smile. “Hey, you’re the girl from the woods. How’d you know my name?”

Florrie looked at them… Kellany who bought her first make up, taught her how to bake cookies, went with her to choose prom dresses and took a million pictures at her graduation; Josh who taught her to drive a five speed before he’d let her have the luxury of an automatic– just like he’d done with Lola and would do with the boys, who proofread every essay before she turned it in and picked her up on the side of the road when she had flat tires or forgot to turn off headlights and had a dead battery; Lola who she sat up nights with her eating cookie dough ice cream and trying out YouTube video hairstyles; Pax who shared her love of dramatic story telling and Ford who had never known a world that didn’t include Florrie… they all looked at her with the polite, blank stares of strangers.

“I…I’m sorry. I have to go.” Florrie whispered, turning on her heels and hurrying away. She got a few feet before Lola McCauley finally caught her.

“Listen to me. I should have known something like this was going to happen. This is what I meant about the magic of Snowy Pines.”

“Magic!” Florrie cried. “This isn’t magic. This is a nightmare!”

“Come back with me and we’ll talk.”

“NO!” Florrie shouted, pulling away from her. “Those people are not my family… did you see how they looked at me? They care about you, but I’m a stranger to them. Just let me go!”

Chapter 5

But... but maybe he's only a little crazy like painters or composers or... or some of those men in Washington.” … Mr. Shellhammer

Florrie left the carnival on foot with no real idea where she was going until she realized that she’d ended up at the tree farm after all. A little while ago all she’d wanted was to see Gabe, but now the thought of seeing him and having him look back at her like a stranger was simply devastating.

She turned to leave as quickly as she’d come, but then she heard a heart-stoppingly familiar voice.

“Well if it isn’t Florrie Gentry, the girl who blows off her family, and the people who love her to spend Christmas with some random guy.”

Florrie felt her hopes jump at both the reassuringly raspy voice and the fact that someone was saying her name. She turned slowly and came face to face with stunning green eyes that had danced through her dreams since she was ten years old. And now they were looking back at her from the equally stunning face of a twenty-two-year-old Gabe Patrick. He wore a full beard and his dark blonde hair was long to detract from his baby-face image, but Florrie knew it was there and, at the moment, she’d never been happier to see anyone.

“You know me?” She whispered in disbelief.

“Well… I thought I did. But that was before…”

She didn’t wait for him to finish whatever snide comment he was about to hurl at her before she launched herself into his arms.

“I know I’ve been a wretched person and you have every single right to despise me, but I’m so happy to see you. Something crazy is going on and I’m absolutely freaking out!”

“Okay Florrie, talk to me. You sound insane.” He said, grabbing her shoulders and forcing her to look at him. The cool mask of indifference his eyes held just a few moments ago was now replaced with obvious concern.

“I was supposed to spend Christmas in Boston with Devon… you know that much. But along the way we started fighting…”

“Do I need to hear this part?” He said irritably.

“Yes! I’m sorry, but it’s part of what happened. We started fighting, and he put me out on the side of the road.”

She watched her words register on his face, and he stepped away to run his hands through his hair. “Okay, I’m gonna kill him!”

“Fine, kill him later. But listen to me now. He put me out on the side of highway 330… which is weird because we were going to Boston and shouldn’t have even been on highway 330. But anyway, I started hitching.” She watched his eyes blare and his fist clinched, and she hurriedly added. “I know you want to kill me, but kill me later. I started hitching and this woman picked me up. And I knew her. She was my nurse when my parents died when I was a little girl. But here’s the crazy thing. She was on her way here to meet her family. She says they spend every Christmas here. And her name is Lola like my sister Lola. And she knows Kellany. She knows all the Callahans. So, we got here, and I ran into my Lola first and she didn’t know me. She looked right through me like she never met me before in her life. And then I ran into Lola the nurse again, and then we saw Josh and Kellany and Josh said, ‘We’ve met her. I know we have.’ And then Kellany said, ‘Don’t listen to him. My husband has never met a stranger!’ and she also said, ‘I’m Kellany Callahan. I don’t think I caught your name?’ ‘I DON’T THINK I CAUGHT YOUR NAME!’ They looked right through me; Pax and Ford… no one knows me… except you.” She said tearfully. “Lola the nurse started trying to tell me something about the magic of Snowy Pines, but there’s nothing magical about this!”

Gabe shook his head and said, “Okay Florrie I don’t know what you’re pulling, but this isn’t funny.”

“No, it isn’t! I’m not pulling anything.” She said tremulously. “Okay and there’s more. Kellany always tells this story and I always thought it was like a bedtime story, but now I think maybe it’s true; about how Josh’s grandmother had this Christmas Village that was a replica of Snowy Pines and she used to hang out at her house and look at this Christmas Village and pretend she could live inside it. So then when she grew up, she had this wreck and she woke up in the Christmas Village. She met Josh and a little blonde girl named Lola. And then when she woke up she met him for real and they fell in love and had Lola. Only, Lola the nurse told me this story when I first met her about how she had this dream when she was a little girl about this blonde woman and this doctor who took care of her and I think she’s the Lola from mom’s dream. “

“Okay… are you sure that Demon boy didn’t hit you on the head or something because...”

“I know I sound crazy, but I’m not. This is all for real!” She pled, near hysteria.

“Okay.” Gabe said, hugging her to him, rocking her gently and placing a calming hand on her back. “Okay. Listen to me. There’s a logical explanation for this and we’re going to figure it out.”

She wasn’t sure if it was the soothing tone of his voice or the gentle circles he was rubbing between her shoulder blades, but she felt herself begin to unwind just a bit. “What? What could be a logical explanation for my entire family suddenly forgetting they know me?”

“Maybe.” He began, before stepping back and taking her shoulders to look her squarely in the eye. “Just maybe, they’re trying to prove a point.”

“Prove a point about what?” She asked angrily.

He looked at her and raised an eyebrow before saying, “Really? I mean, come on. You haven’t exactly been a picnic this last decade.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She cried, silencing her phone for the second time since she arrived.

“It means that the Callahans have been really good to you and you’ve repaid them time and again by choosing everyone in the world over them. Christmas together as a family is a big deal to Josh and Kellany and they’ve always wanted you to be a part of it, but you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to be a part of it; this year more than ever.” Gabe pointed out.

“Okay, first of all, Josh and Kellany would never do anything so intentionally cruel. It’s just impossible. But even if they would, they didn’t know I was even coming.”

“Maybe the boyfriend called them, or they saw something on social media. Maybe this person who picked you up is in on the whole thing.” He reasoned.

Florrie shook her head. “No, they wouldn’t have, and they couldn’t have. I mean, even if Josh and Kellany were in on it they’d never get the kids involved.”

“You don’t get it.” She whispered as tears began again. “I was at the house when Ford came home from the hospital. I was in the floor with Kellany when he took his first steps. Pax used to hear me crying when I was alone in my room and he’d come sit in the floor beside my bed and offer me his stuffed horse. They looked at me like they had no idea who I was.”

She looked at Gabe with pleading eyes, pleading for some explanation for this. But all she saw was that he was grasping at straws because there wasn’t an explanation; not one that made sense anyway.

“Who keeps texting you?” He asked because there was nothing else to say.

“Lola… Lola McCauley, not Callahan.” She clarified. “She says she thinks she has an idea about what’s going on.”

“Well ask her where we can meet her.” He replied, pulling her toward the office of the tree farm.

“We?” She asked hopefully.

He looked at her and smiled ruefully. “Yeah. Just let me make sure they’ve got it under control till I get back here.”

Florrie watched Gabe disappear into the barn and then sent Lola a text. A few minutes later he came back out with his truck keys in his hand.

“You look ready to drop. Normally I’d say let’s walk, but I think I’ll drive.” He said, taking her bag without asking and slinging it into the back of his pickup.

“Thanks. Lola said her husband knows what’s going on so he’s covering for her with everyone else. She’ll meet us at the gazebo.” Florrie explained as they climbed in the truck. Just as they were about to back out Gabe stopped to roll down his window and she realized that his grandpapa was approaching.

“Hey papa. The crews got everything under control here so we’re going to run over to the carnival for a minute.” He explained.

Papa Patrick was a young sixty with thick hair with only the slightest bit of gray and Gabe’s same green eyes, frequently crinkled and on the verge of a smile or a laugh. “Sure thing. But aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend first?”

Gabe’s brow furrowed, and he stammered, “Uh this is Florrie… Florrie Gentry?”

Papa smiled at her without the vaguest recognition and raised a hand in greeting. “Nice to meet you Florrie. Will you be staying for Christmas?”

She shook her head. “It’s nice to meet you to Papa… Mr. Patrick.” She quickly corrected. “I’m actually not sure what my plans are at the moment.”

“Well, any friend of Gabe’s is welcome here any time. Y’all have fun.”

He walked away, and Gabe turned to her with his mouth opened.

“You still think it’s a plan to teach me a lesson?” She asked skeptically.

“Well, it does seem a bit extreme to involve my grandparents, but…”

Florrie groaned. “If they were going to involve anyone, it would be you. I mean, the only thing worse than them not knowing me would be if you didn’t know me.”

Gabe frowned a little and said, “Really?”

Florrie closed her eyes as she realized what she’d said and replied, “Let’s go. The sooner we talk to Lola the sooner we can get some answers.”

They drove back to the carnival in silence and Gabe got the best parking space he could find, but they still had to walk a good way to the gazebo. Along the way everyone waved and spoke to Gabe and everyone looked at her politely, but with the curiosity granted to strangers. When they finally spotted Lola, she waved them over to a corner table, and stood to embrace Florrie.

“I’m so sorry. This must feel like a nightmare.” She said sadly.

“It does. What is going on?” Florrie asked anxiously.

Lola looked at Gabe and raised a questioning eyebrow, but Florrie said, “This is Gabe Patrick. He’s my… he’s known me almost as long as the Callahans. And he knows me now, but no one else does. His grandpapa had no clue, and I’ve been to his house dozens of times. We passed at least fifteen people on the way here who should have known me, but didn’t.”

Lola nodded and motioned for them to sit down and said, “I must admit, when I left you at the carnival I had a … niggling worry, that something like this would happen. I should have seen it coming.”

“I’m sorry.” Gabe said interrupting. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re talking in circles.”

“I know. I’m sorry! There’s no way to say this other than just straight out. I think this is… a dream… or something.” She blurted nervously.

“A dream?” Florrie asked skeptically.

“Like the times Kellany and I were here before. At the time everything felt 100% real. I pinched myself so many times I had a bruise. But then I woke up, and it hadn’t happened. I mean, even now I keep thinking, ‘is this really happening to anyone other than me’? I don’t know.”

“It certainly feels like it’s happening to Florrie too.” Gabe said protectively.

“Okay, let’s try to piece things together… what we know is real and what you know was a dream… or something.” Florrie said trying to make sense of the madness.

Lola nodded. “Tell me what Kellany has told you and I’ll tell you my part.”

Florrie looked at them and she wasn’t sure how much Lola knew or how much she’d ever told Gabe, and decided she should start at the beginning. So, she took a deep breath and began recounting the story that every child in the Callahan family heard at Christmas; a familiar bedtime story meant to make them believe in magic and destiny and the possibility of something more than they could see with the naked eye. But now as she talked, for the first time the words became real and she realized that for Kellany this was never a story, but a memory that made her the person she became.

“Kellany grew up in foster care. Her mom was a junkie who lost custody of her more than she kept it. So, when she was little one time she was with this family and there was an older lady who lived next door, Mrs. Paxton. Mrs. Paxton had an amazing Christmas Village named Snowy Pines. Kellany loved it and she used to spend hours looking at it and imagining what life inside the village would be like. As usual her mother got her back just in time for Christmas, but for the rest of Kellany’s life she thought of that village and wished a real place like that could exist.


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