Brian slung his skates off his broad shoulders and into the trunk of his car, next to the other assorted belongings he planned to take home to Sleepyside over Christmas vacation: several medical textbooks, a duffle bag full of clothes (mostly clean), the few presents he had managed to buy in the little free time he had between his studying and practical shifts.  

 

I don’t know why I’m bothering with the skates, he groused to himself as he opened the car and took his seat behind the wheel. I doubt if I’ll have any time for pick-up hockey games or skating parties on the Wheeler lake.  I should have just brought my books home and not bothered with anything else. Better yet, I should just stay at school over Christmas break and try to catch up with my studies.  

 

He shook his head as he started the car.  Too late now, he reminded himself.  He’d already committed himself to driving Mart home for Christmas.  Besides, Moms knows I’m coming home.  I just can’t call her and cancel at the last minute.  I couldn’t do that to her.

 

Thinking of Moms brought back images of previous Christmases at the Beldens’ cozy farmhouse Crabapple Farm: warm, happy memories filled with fun and food and family and friends.  There was really nothing like Christmas at Crabapple Farm.

 

So why am I being such a Scrooge now, when I’m on my way there for the holidays? Brian asked himself as he backed the car out of the parking space and away from his dorm at Upstate Medical College onto the road that connected to the nearby Environmental and Forestry School that Mart attended. 

 

It was a pointless question, and the answer was so obvious that Brian didn’t know why he even asked it.  His first semester of med school had been tough, tougher than he had ever imagined it would be, and it definitely wouldn’t get any easier as time went on.  He had studied every waking hour for his finals, and yet he had the feeling that he had barely squeaked by with passing grades.  And now I’m taking three weeks off for Christmas break, he thought with a sigh.  If only I had those three weeks to work, uninterrupted, I could get a jump start on next semester.           

 

Brian shook his head as he pulled up in front of Mart’s dorm.  He didn’t know what had gotten into him lately. Maybe I’m just tired of all these long, cold, dark, dreary days, he tried to convince himself. Or make that short, cold, dark, dreary days, he thought, remembering that today was the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. 

 

He waved mechanically at Mart, who was standing on the curb waiting, several suitcases, bags and packages lined up on the sidewalk beside him.  Brian got out to unlock the trunk, eyeing Mart’s baggage as he did so.  “Think you have enough stuff?” he greeted his brother.

 

“Not really. I still have some Christmas shopping to do when I get home,” Mart answered as he joined Brian at the back of the car.  Peering into the mostly empty trunk, he added, “I think the correct question is, ‘how come you don’t have more stuff?”

 

“I haven’t done any shopping,” Brian admitted as the two got to work, piling Mart’s luggage into the little car.  By the time they were finished, the trunk and the back seat were both full.  Brian closed the trunk as gingerly as possible, hoping nothing got crushed as he did so. 

 

As soon as Brian had returned to the driver’s seat and restarted the car, Mart spoke up.  “Can we stop at Burger King or Mickey D’s or something?” he asked.  “I’m starving.”

 

Brian rolled his eyes.  “What a surprise,” he commented, not making any effort to hide the sarcasm in his tone.

 

“Hey, I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast,” Mart defended himself, “and it took a lot of muscle and energy to drag all this stuff out here.”

 

“It’s only 11 o’clock,” Brian pointed out.  “And you moved all that stuff yourself?”

 

“Well, not exactly,” Mart admitted, “I did have a little help.”  He thought it best not to mention that the help had taken the form of six other guys from his dorm. 

 

Brian snorted anyway.  “Can’t we just get on the road and get it over with without making a bunch of stops for food?” he asked. 

 

“The trip home takes at least several hours, possibly longer, depending on the weather,” Mart observed.  “I don’t see the big deal in making a couple of short stops for food along the way.”

 

“Short?” Brian echoed derisively.  When Mart didn’t answer right away, he said in a firm tone,  “We’ll stop for food after we’ve put a few miles behind us.”     

 

Mart sat in silence for a few minutes.  “What’s got your goat?”  he finally queried.

 

“Huh?” Brian responded, his eyebrows furrowing into a frown as he swung the car onto the exit ramp leading to the highway. 

 

“You’re obviously in a bad mood,” Mart said.

 

 “What makes you think that?” Brian asked, giving his brother a dark look. “I’m not in a bad mood.”

 

Mart held up a hand to signal Brian that he was backing down in the face of his grouchy expression, but as soon as Brian had turned back to the road, Mart couldn’t resist adding, “Far be it from me to disagree, but you’ve scarcely said a civil word to me since you first pulled up in front of my dorm. I would think you’d be loaded with Christmas spirit. Maybe this will help!”  Unzipping a pocket in the backpack stored at his feet, he extracted a CD.  “The Chipmunks,” he proclaimed, holding it up for Brian’s inspection.  “No one can listen to the Chipmunks around the holidays and stay in a rotten frame of mind.”  He popped the CD into the player, and the sounds of the Chipmunks filled the little car.   

 

Christmas, Christmas time is near; Time for toys and time for cheer.
We've been good, but we can't last; Hurry Christmas, hurry fast…

 

Brian sighed.  This time, he didn’t even bother to argue with his brother’s words.  He knew his Christmas spirit level had plummeted to about zero recently.  In fact, he had to use every ounce of restraint he possessed to keep from reaching out and snapping Mart’s CD out of the player.  He settled instead for turning the volume down so low that the sappy critters’ voices were barely audible.  Mart made a face but for once didn’t comment.

 

Brian sighed heavily. Normally, he wasn’t a big fan of the Chipmunks, but their cheery song would usually at least have produced a reluctant smile from him.  This year, though, it only made him feel irritated, just as the decorations on his floor of the dorm had…as had the carolers outside the dining hall, the hastily-glanced-at cards and unwanted holiday newsletters clogging his mailbox every day, and the constant barrage of holiday specials playing on the TV in the lounge. He sighed again. Despite his good intentions, he couldn’t resist questioning Mart, “What’s so good about the holidays, anyway?”

 

Mart twisted in his seat to stare incredulously at his brother.  “Are you serious?”

 

Brian nodded, knowing he was being unnecessarily grumpy. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes fastened stubbornly on the road ahead of him, avoiding his brother’s penetrating stare. 

 

“What’s not good about the holidays?”  Mart asked.   “Exams are finished for the semester, there are no more middle of the night fire alarms in the freezing cold, we have tons of presents to look forward to… ” He ticked off the items on his fingers as he listed them.  “Then there’s Moms’ mouth-watering roast beef, complete with steaming popovers, delectable gravy and mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.  Her delicious cranberry bread and apple pie, not to mention cherry pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie…”

 

“Enough!” Brian stopped him.  “Is food all you ever think about?”

 

“Well, all that food is definitely worth thinking about,” Mart said, rubbing his stomach in contemplation.  “But it’s not the only thing I’m looking forward to, if that’s what you’re wondering.  There’s also the fact that there’ll be no studying for almost a month; I’ll be sleeping in my own cozy bed at Crabapple Farm, minus the lumpy dorm mattress; I’ll also be seeing the other Bob-Whites, especially Diana, and…oh, yes, speaking of Diana, seeing her in her hula recital tonight is a highlight among all the things I’m looking forward to about the holidays.”

 

“Hula recital?”  Brian’s eyebrows rose in surprise.  “It’s the middle of winter.  I don’t think the temperature’s gotten over twenty degrees in the past week.”

 

“Well, they don’t have the recital outside,” Mart guffawed.  “And didn’t you hear?  The Lynches have booked a condo in Hawaii for the spring break.  I’m still hoping they decide to invite me along.”

 

Brian bit his lip, barely resisting the urge to answer, Good luck with that.  

 

Mart must have had some idea of his brother’s reaction, as he defended himself, “Di’s parents like me.”

 

“Yeah, but would they trust you in Hawaii with Di in hula skirts and teeny, tiny bikinis?” Brian asked.

 

“Not sure,” Mart mumbled in reply.  Then a grin flashed across his face as he admitted, “I’m not sure I’d trust myself with her in Hawaii in hula skirts and teeny, tiny bikinis.”

 

Brian grinned back and chuckled for the first time since Mart had seen him that day.  Mart figured he’d try to make his brother’s good mood last as long as possible.  “Honey’s going to be in the recital, too.”   Brian didn’t react as enthusiastically as Mart would have hoped, but at least the grumpy frown hadn’t returned to his face. 

 

“Is Honey going to Hawaii, too?”  Brian asked, in what to Mart seemed like a suspiciously detached tone.

 

Given Brian’s present mood, Mart decided to keep his observations about Brian’s level of detachment to himself. “I don’t think so,” he replied instead, “but Di talked Honey and Trixie into taking the lessons with her.”  He glanced at his brother, wondering why he hadn’t heard about the girls’ hula lessons from Honey.  Do they even talk? he wondered. 

 

 “I can’t believe you haven’t heard about this before,” he ventured.  “I know you’re out of touch, but don’t you ever talk to any of the other Bob-Whites?” 

 

“You know I haven’t had time for any of that,” Brian said.  “I’ve talked to Moms and Dad every Sunday night, and that’s about it.”  A gleam appeared in his dark eyes as he added, “Apparently, our parents don’t see hula recitals as quite as important as you do.”

 

Mart laughed.  “Probably not,” he agreed.  As Brian’s face once again took on a somber look, he frowned.  “Seriously, bro, you need to lighten up.  If you don’t lose this attitude, you’re really going to put a damper on the holidays.  And I, for one, don’t plan to let that happen.”

 

Brian’s lips twisted into a reluctant grin.  “And just what do you plan to do about it?” he questioned.

 

“Whatever it takes,” Mart answered promptly.  He thought for a minute.  “Isn’t there anything about Christmas that you’re looking forward to?”

 

“Well…sleeping,” Brian said.

 

Mart rolled his eyes.  “Anything a little more festive than that?” he prompted “Haven’t there been any Christmas parties or concerts or anything at your school lately?  We’ve had tons of them over the past few weeks.”

 

“There have been,” Brian stated, a certain moroseness creeping into his tone.  He didn’t want to tell Mart that these were just the kinds of things that he had found irksome and tiring lately.  Instead, he obediently racked his brain, trying to think of a holiday activity he had actually enjoyed.  His mind swept rapidly over the past few weeks, back to the Sunday after Thanksgiving when they had lighted the big tree in the main courtyard of the college. 

 

As darkness fell over the campus, most of the students gathered around the tall pine that stood in the center of the courtyard, its dark silhouette barely visible against the black sky.  The icy air clung to Brian’s cheeks and nose and fingers as closely as mosquito netting to a sweaty beekeeper. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, though, and welcomed the frostiness against his face; a biting, awakening change from the over-warm, stale air of the library, where he had been studying all afternoon. The students huddled in groups of twos and threes and fives, talking and laughing and glancing at the tree every few minutes.  A brass quintet was assembled in front of the tree, playing Christmas songs with more gusto than talent. 

 

After a few minutes, the college president and his family appeared, all waving good-naturedly at the crowd.  The little band stopped playing, thinking perhaps that the president wanted to give a speech.  Instead, he took his young grandson by the hand and walked over to pick up a cord near the tree, indicating a switch on it.  The little boy had obviously been rehearsed in the procedure, as he nodded, excitement shining in his eyes. 

 

Brian smiled as he watched the boy flip the switch, until a sudden burst of illumination swiftly shifted his attention to the tree itself, its brilliant display of multi-hued, vibrant, twinkling lights replacing the previous darkness.   A hush came over the crowd, and Brian gazed up, savoring the sheer enjoyment of those few seconds of quiet splendor before a cheer came up from the crowd, and the brass quintet began fumbling its way through their own very unique version of “O, Christmas Tree.”  

 

Brian smiled again at the memory.  He glanced at Mart, noticing that his brother was watching him carefully.  “Well?”  Mart questioned.

 

“The tree-lighting ceremony in the quad was pretty impressive,” Brian admitted.

 

Mart pounced on his words like a famished feline springing on a particularly plump mouse.  “Ah-hah!  I knew there was Christmas spirit somewhere under all that grumpiness,” he exclaimed.  

 

“Don’t get too excited,” Brian said dryly.  “That tree-lighting ceremony took place nearly a month ago, and since then, any positive feelings toward the holidays have pretty much flown out the window.” 

 

“No, they’re still there,” Mart stated positively.  “We just need to find a way to bring them back to the surface.”

 

Brian shook his head.  “Before you start devising any crazy plans…” he began.

 

“Let’s forget about burgers and fries,” Mart interrupted. 

 

Brian’s mouth dropped open.  Those were the last words he ever expected to hear his brother utter.  “Huh?” he questioned in surprise.

 

“We can grab some cold cuts or sandwiches at a deli or someplace,” Mart said with a nod.

 

Brian could tell that for once there was more than just food on Mart’s mind.  “And?” he encouraged his brother to continue, despite the misgivings that were already beginning to spring up in the back of his mind.

 

“We’ll head up to Catskill Park,” Mart declared.  “It’s not far out of the way,” he added quickly before Brian could object.   “We can have a picnic and maybe take a short hike.”

 

“That’s crazy!”  Brian shook his head at the way his brother’s thought processes operated.  “And what does hiking in the Catskills have to do with Christmas spirit?”

 

“You need to get outside and feel the air on your face to put all thoughts of school behind you,” Mart explained.  “That’s what being at that tree-lighting ceremony probably did for you.”

 

Brian had to admit that Mart had a point, but there were still way too many things wrong with the plan, as far as he could see.  “Moms is expecting us home,” he said, voicing the one foremost in his mind.  “And I don’t have boots with me.  Plus, there’s snow in the forecast this afternoon,” he continued with a worried look at the sky.

 

“The sky’s perfectly sunny and clear,” Mart scoffed.  “The snow’s not due ‘til later, and we’ll only take a short hike.  We’ve done that without boots tons of times.”

 

“Easy for you to say, since you have boots on,” Brian kidded with a glance at Mart’s feet.  He sat silent for a minute, thinking about the proposed hike.  He knew it was probably a bad idea, but he found himself turning it over in his mind with a certain amount of pleasurable anticipation.  “We do know parts of that park pretty well,” he finally conceded.  “We’ve hiked there often enough.” 

 

“Sure!” Mart agreed happily.   “And you can call Moms from wherever we stop and let her know we’ll be a little late.”  He pulled a map out of the glove compartment and enthusiastically began to chart a course to the park on a road that would have an acceptable place where they could stop for food.

 

Brian only half-listened to his brother’s comparison of the benefits of fried chicken versus Italian grinders.  Their plan seemed crazy, but he couldn’t help feeling a little happier thinking about it.  He even reached out and turned the volume back up on the Chipmunks CD.  Maybe the little guys aren’t so bad after all.

 

 

Brian drove the heavily-laden little car carefully through the village where they had stopped to pick up lunch and west toward the Catskills.  He glanced at Mart, who was rummaging through the bags of food they had bought.  “We’re almost there,” he reminded his brother.  “Can’t you wait a little longer?”

 

“Just making sure that everything’s still there,” Mart retorted. 

 

Brian returned his eyes to the road, taking in the clouding skies in front of him with a worried look.  “Maybe we should just eat while we’re on the road,” he suggested uneasily.  “I can still cut back to the highway from here without much of a problem.”

 

Mart followed his brother’s gaze.  “Just a few clouds,” he said, but Brian didn’t think he sounded wholly convinced.  A few minutes later, as they were turning into a back road leading to one of the park entrances, wet flakes began to appear on the windshield.

 

“Great!  Just what we need,” Mart grumbled. “I should have known the weatherman couldn’t be right for once.”

 

“Yeah, it kind of puts a damper on your idea for a picnic, doesn’t it?”  Brian rejoined in a wry tone.  His expression softened, though, as he took in his brother’s disappointed face.  After all, Mart had been doing his best to cheer him up, and it wasn’t his fault that the weather was intervening unhelpfully.   “We can drive up a little further and at least eat our lunch with a view,” he said in what he hoped was an encouraging tone.

 

“Yeah, I guess it’s the best we can do at this point,” Mart agreed glumly.  “We certainly can’t eat outside with stuff coming down.”

 

The bumpy road quickly became covered in snow, and the small car skidded a couple of times on the way up the low hill they ascended to get to a scenic spot for picnicking.  Brian let out a sigh of relief as he pulled into a parking spot.  “We’ll have to eat quickly and get right back on the road,” he commented as he pushed his seat back in an effort to stretch his long legs.

 

When he had graduated from college the previous spring, Brian had finally had to face the fact that his old jalopy wasn’t going to accompany him to medical school, or in fact, anywhere else.  Despite every effort at tinkering by himself and Tom, her ancient, overworked engine had given out, never to start again.   It was a sad day when The Queen had to be towed away to the junkyard, but Brian had taken some comfort in the fact that the other Bob-Whites had seemed almost as sad to see the end of the loud, unreliable, beat-up old car as he had. He’d never forget how Trixie and the others had sacrificed to help him get his pride and joy of a car, and it was somehow fitting that they had grieved with him when he eventually had to say goodbye to it.

 

The fact had remained, though, that he had needed another car, and since he still had med school to get through and wasn’t quite ready to get stuck with a car payment, he had chosen another older car.  This time, it was what he considered a classic: a 1973 AMC Hornet in great running order. 

 

The BWG girls had promptly dubbed the new, old car “The Queen Bee” and before long, Brian had found himself almost as attached to the Hornet as he had been to his old jalopy.  On longer trips like this, though, he wished the car wasn’t quite as compact, wistfully thinking about the roomy sixties’ styling of his old jalopy.

 

Well, at least The Bee doesn’t cost me a fortune in gas, he reminded himself, as he took a sip of his coffee, savoring its warm, milky sweetness. He reached out for the sandwich Mart gave him and took a good-sized bite.

 

“This is good,” he commented in surprise.  “I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I started eating.”

 

 “You doctor types don’t take enough time out to take care of your sustenance and beverage needs,” Mart said. 

 

“It’s lucky I have you to worry about all that for me,” Brian said with a grin.

 

Mart returned his grin, nodding at his brother’s quiet way of his expressing his thanks.  When Mart took out the candy bars that he had bought for dessert, though, Brian shook his head. 

 

“We really need to get going.  If you want chocolate, you can have it on the road.” 

 

Brian moved his seat up to its former position and pulled on his gloves.  Mart rubbed his hands together.  “Yeah, I guess so,” he said, “and it will be good to have the heat back on.” 

 

Brian pulled his gloves back on and fastened his seat belt before turning the key in the ignition.  He and Mart exchanged glances as there was no answering purr of response from the engine.

 

I’d be happy enough with even a rattle or a clang or even the sound of a small jet taking off like my old jalopy, Brian thought to himself as he closed his eyes and said a small prayer before turning the key again.  This time, there was a small growling noise, followed by nothing.

 

“Um, Brian?”  Mart queried, his voice sounding loud and harsh in the resounding stillness.  “You did replace that old battery, didn’t you?”

 

Brian looked down at the steering wheel in disgust.  The car had been famous this past summer for stalling at the most inopportune moments, and he had kept promising to replace the battery whenever another person was inconvenienced by it.

 

 “I just haven’t had time for anything lately,” he said weakly.  “I always keep the jumper cables in the trunk and ….”  His voice broke off, realizing how far out in the middle of nowhere they were and the unlikelihood that they would see another car on this deserted road. 

 

“Those jumper cables won’t do us a damn bit of good now,” he said, banging his fist on the steering wheel in frustration at himself for getting them into this situation.  He didn’t even have any emergency supplies in the car, other than a small first aid kit he kept in the glove compartment.

 

Both men were quiet for several long moments, as they contemplated their situation. 

 

“How long of a hike do you think it is back to the nearest house?”  Mart asked.  “Two or three miles?”

 

“More like eight or ten,” Brian estimated.  “And it’s snowing hard now.” 

 

Mart bit his tongue, barely resisting the urge to answer, “No kidding.” 

 

Brian reached for the door handle.  “Hand me that first aid kit out of the glove compartment,” he said decisively, “and I think there’s a little flashlight in there.  I’m going to get an extra sweater and a pair of socks out of the trunk for each of us.” 

 

“I’ll take the candy bars and what’s left of the coffee,” Mart said.  “Just in case.”

 

“Just give me one of the bars and the rest of my coffee,” Brian instructed.  “I have an old sleeping bag and possibly another blanket in the trunk, so you should be able to keep warm enough. You may have to clear the snow from the exhaust pipes from time to time.”    He cursed himself for not giving in to the almost constant pressure to get a cell phone.  He knew Mart didn’t have one either.

 

“Huh?” Mart looked at him blankly.

 

“You’re staying here.”  Brian got out of the car and slammed the door shut, for the minute effectively drowning out all of Mart’s objections.

 

Mart sat stunned for a few seconds, before quickly springing out of his seat and joining his brother at the back of the car.  The snow blew wetly and heavily into his face, but he ignored it.  “You’re not doing this, Brian,” he protested harshly.

 

“Try and stop me.” Brian’s reply was just discernible over the howl of the wind.  He fumbled around in his duffle bag for a few seconds and then banged the trunk lid down.  He sauntered back to the front of the car, stamping his feet in the snow before getting back in and pushing his seat back once again.   Leaning over, he began unlacing his sneakers.  Mart joined him, and he threw an extra sweatshirt and pair of socks to his brother. 

 

“Brian, you can’t go out there alone,” Mart began.  “In fact, maybe neither of us should go.  Someone must come out here from time to time.”

 

Brian snorted derisively.  “You think forest rangers patrol these roads in snowstorms?”

 

“Well, they might,” Mart said unconvincingly as he kicked off his boots and began pulling on the extra socks. 

 

Brian shook his head.  “We can’t afford to take that chance,” he said grimly.  “We could freeze to death sitting and waiting.  The only solution is for one of us to go for help.”

 

“For both of us to go for help,” Mart corrected.  “It’s dangerous enough for one of us to be wandering around in a snowstorm looking for some sign of civilization.  At least, with two of us, we stand a chance.”

 

Brian grunted from the exertion of trying to retie his sneakers in the small confines of the car.  When he finished, he took a deep breath.  “Look, Mart,” he said, his words quietly enunciated with tight control.  “There’s no sense in both of us risking frostbite walking around in this weather.  I know I can make it if I just keep to the road. Just sit tight and wait.”   He yanked Mart’s backpack from its spot by his feet, unzipping it and dumping the contents unceremoniously into the backseat.  Wordlessly, he began stuffing the flashlight, first aid kit, an extra sweat jacket, and a couple of candy bars into it. 

 

“Hey!”  Mart yelped in protest, but his voice died out as he realized what his brother was doing.

 

Brian ignored him as he reached into the back for his old sleeping bag, dumping it into Mart’s lap.  He then slapped his car keys into Mart’s hand.  “There’s a small penlight on the chain,” he said.  “You’ll have to make do with it.  I’ll need the bigger flashlight.”

 

Mart started to nod in response, and then shook himself.  What was he thinking, agreeing to Brian’s plan?  As Brian again reached for the door handle, Mart grabbed his arm. “Brian, let me go,” he rejoined quietly.

 

Brian paused for only a fraction of a second before shaking his head.  “I got us into this mess,” he said.  “And I’ll get us out of it.”

 

“That’s not true,” Mart argued angrily.  “I’m probably more responsible for this than you are. I was the one who talked you into coming up here in the first place.  You just wanted to go home,” he reminded his brother.

 

“Yeah, but I was the one stupid enough not to have my battery replaced after the car stalled out or didn’t start how many times?”  Brian berated himself.  “Five?  Eight?  Fifteen?”

 

“You know it was only about three or four times,” Mart argued, hating the look of self-reproach on Brian’s face.  As Brian pulled the handle to open the door, he tried his final argument.  “I have the boots.  Let me go,” he pleaded, his voice deep and serious.

 

“Stay here!” Brian ordered impatiently.  Realizing how harsh his voice sounded, he turned back to his brother once more.  “I shouldn’t be gone too long,” he said, his voice husky.  “But if I’m not, don’t take any unnecessary chances.  You should be able to ride the storm out with the sleeping bag and all the clothes in the back.”  Without giving Mart a chance to answer, he jerked the car door open, jumping out quickly and slamming the door decisively after him. 

 

Mart hesitated for just a few seconds before stuffing the rest of the candy bars and the car keys in his jacket pocket and zipping it shut.  He pulled on his hat and gloves and looked around the little car before pushing himself out of the car and into the cold, blowing whiteness.  He ignored the look his brother gave him and the command which he couldn’t quite hear but assumed was something like “Go back!”

 

“I’m going with you,” he yelled back, “and there’s nothing you can do about it, so deal with it.”   He put his head down and his hands in his pockets and stubbornly trudged along in the snow next to his brother.

 

 

It seemed like they had been walking for hours, but Mart had no idea how much actual time had elapsed; he wasn’t wearing a watch, and there was no point in asking Brian.  It would slow them down and use needed energy to stop and shout at each other long enough for Brian to understand Mart’s question and for make out his answer.   So they both just kept slugging wordlessly through the heavy, wet snow. 

 

I hope Brian can tell if we’re keeping to the road or not, Mart mused, ‘cause I sure as hell can’t.  He wondered what his older brother was thinking about on their seemingly endless hike.  Mart himself had been doing anything he could to keep himself from concentrating on how cold his feet were and how much they were beginning to hurt.  Hey, at least I know they’re not frostbitten that way, he thought, chastising himself for complaining, even in his thoughts, when he had heavy, sturdy boots in and Brian only had sneakers.  I wonder how his feet feel, Mart speculated.  He’d probably just keep walking on; even if they were so numb he couldn’t feel them anymore ‘cause one thing Brian has never been is a complainer, he thought loyally.

 

He kept walking, going back to quoting Shakespeare to keep his mind occupied. He had gone through Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar and had finally resorted to Romeo and Juliet, but he found that quoting the famous Shakespearean romantic tragedy made him think too much of Diana.  Of course she’s always worth thinking about; there’s no doubt about that, he thought as he pictured her in the gown she had worn during the famous balcony scene of the play.  But Diana made him think of love and warmth and good things, and thinking about those things made the snow and cold and the endless hiking almost unbearable.  He focused his mind deliberately away from Diana but was stumped on what else would occupy his mind enough to keep him going.  He didn’t really know any other Shakespearean plays well enough to quote for any length of time.

 

Mart’s mind darted back to the Poe course he had taken last semester at college.  He had become fairly conversant with the author.  But isn’t old Edgar Allan a little morbid to be quoting in these circumstances?  he wondered.  But his mind was already racing ahead, coming up with Poe quotations.

 

“Sleep, those little slices of death. Oh, how I loathe them.”

 

“To be thoroughly conversant with a man’s heart, is to take a final lesson in the iron-clasped volume of despair.”

 

And even worse:

 

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

 

Stop that! Mart ordered silently, further willing himself not to even start thinking about the terrors of The Cask of the Amontillado and The Tell-tale Heart.

 

His thoughts were interrupted as he walked right into a snow-covered tree branch.  Damn! he told himself, another Poe quote coming all too readily to mind: “I have great faith in fools; self-confidence my friends call it.”

 

Mart swiped impatiently at the branch, feeling a scratch across his cheek as he did so.  Must be one of those pain in the neck holly trees with the prickly leaves, he thought.  But wait a minute, what were trees…?

 

“Brian!” he bellowed, straining to make his voice heard over the wind and wondering if his brother noticed that there were quite a few trees around them.  They must have gotten off the road somehow. 

 

Brian turned around.  He took just a quick look at Mart’s face before nodding in reply to his unspoken question.  “I know we’ve gotten off the road a little,” he yelled back.  “But I think I saw a light in the trees back there.”  He turned around and continued trudging through the snow. 

 

Mart didn’t answer.  What was there to say?  All he could do was follow along after his brother and hope that what he saw really was a light in the semi-darkness of the storm.  Because if it wasn’t, they were definitely getting further and further from the road.

 

The two brothers plodded along again endlessly.  One foot in front of the other again and again and again and again.  Mart was too tired to distract himself with any more quotes; in fact, he was too tired to think of much of anything.   The wind had died down a little, but it felt colder; the quiet air seemed to have a sharp edge to it.

 

“It’s starting to get dark,” Mart commented to his brother.  His voice sounded hoarse and scared even to his own ears.  

 

Brian swung his upper body around to observe Mart.  “Are you okay?”  he asked anxiously.

 

Mart merely nodded, too exhausted to bother with a spoken reply. 

 

“It is getting dark,” Brian commented.  “It’s the shortest day.” 

 

Mart just stared at him blankly.

 

 “Today’s the shortest day of the year,” Brian repeated. 

 

Mart finally grasped what his brother was saying.  “That’s right.  It’s the Winter Solstice.” 

 

“Yup,” Brian said.  “The shortest amount of daylight in the whole year is today.”  His pronouncement sounded fatalistic, and Mart felt that his brother’s statement didn’t call for a reply. 

 

They plodded along in silence for a few minutes more until Brian stopped short.  “Can you see it?”  he asked. 

 

What did he mean?  Mart felt slow and stupid.  He looked around, not able to see much of anything except the whiteness against the darkening sky.  He squinted his wind-and-snow-weary eyes into the trees ahead.  Was that really a light, or was he imagining things?

 

Brian nodded encouragingly.  “It really is a light,” he answered Mart’s unspoken question.  “I’ve been watching it for a while now.  Sometimes it seems like it’s going to flicker out, but then I see it again.  I don’t think it’s moving, or I would have lost it by now.”

 

A house, then?  Mart scarcely dared to hope. Brian resumed walking, and Mart walked behind him, his spirits considerably raised.  The light couldn’t be far away now, could it?

 

Mart imagined a little cottage with a warm fire.  Perhaps there would be a little old lady who had just made cookies and hot chocolate.  Or maybe some soup.  Mart could almost smell it cooking.   He took a deep breath, and all that reached his nose was cold and wetness, but he felt a little warmer inside. 

 

Without warning, Brian let out a yell and fell over.  Mart stopped himself from falling onto his brother just in time.  He swallowed hard and somehow found his voice.  “Brian?  Are you okay?” 

 

There was a muffled groan in response, but Brian dragged himself slowly out of the snow, ineffectively brushing at the snow on his clothes as he did so.  “I tripped over something,” he said.  “Maybe an old log or tree branch.”

 

“Maybe it’s a stone wall,” Mart said.  That might mean they were getting closer to the cottage.

 

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Brian cautioned, squinting into the distance.  “The light still doesn’t look very close.”

 

Mart nodded, trying not to sigh at the thought of more slogging through the wet snow.  He glanced at Brian’s feet but couldn’t make out his sneakers; they were so covered with white powdery wetness.  “Are you okay?” he asked his older brother.

 

He could just make out Brian’s nod in the growing darkness. “Yeah, I seem to have lost one of my gloves when I fell, though,” he said.  He stooped down and felt around in the snow.  After a minute, Mart joined him in the search.  He saw something dark against the snow.  That must be the glove.  “I think I found it,” he told Brian.

 

He reached down quickly to pick it up but dropped it again, confused by its heaviness. 

 

“What is it?” Brian asked, a confused expression crossing his weary face. 

 

“I don’t know,” Mart answered.  “It’s heavy.”

 

Brian reached down to where Mart had dropped the glove, looking up with surprise when he lifted it up. 

 

“What is it?”  Mart questioned.

 

“It’s a glove all right,” Brian answered soberly, “but there’s a hand in it.”

 

“A hand?”  Mart echoed weakly.  “As in a corpse?”  Fear clutched at him, and he cursed himself for ever thinking of Edgar Allan Poe in the secluded dark countryside.

 

Brian attempted to laugh, but the sound was bitter and hollow.  “It would have to be a pretty warm corpse if it is one,” he said grimly.  He bent over the hand again, apparently feeling for a pulse.  “It…that is, he or she, is alive,” he said.  “The pulse is faint, but it’s definitely there.”

 

The pounding in Mart’s heart slowed and he let out a huge, relieved breath before he realized that finding a live body in the snow when they didn’t even know if they could get to shelter safely wasn’t much better than finding a corpse.  We could all be corpses before long, he couldn’t help thinking morbidly. 

 

“Mart!” Brian said sharply.  At the sound of Brian’s voice, Mart snapped his head and attention back to his brother’s actions was doing.  Brian was kneeling in the snow and reaching out to the prone figure; heedless of how wet his jeans must be getting in the slushy snow.  He shrugged the backpack off his shoulders.  “It’s a girl…or woman,” he commented, pointing toward the person’s head.

 

Mart could just make out long, black strands of hair against the whiteness of the snow.   His heart skipped a beat, as Di came into his mind.  It’s not Di, he told himself impatiently.  Di is thankfully many miles from here safe and warm in Sleepyside.  He shook his head.  He had to focus and concentrate on the here and now.  “What are you going to do?”  he asked his brother.

 

“I’m not sure,” Brian answered.  “Get the flashlight.”  Mart fumbled in the backpack until he found the light and held it so that Brian could see.  The future doctor had taken off his gloves and was probing the girl’s head and shoulders with gentle, steady hands.  As he touched her left shoulder, the girl cried out. 

 

Startled, Brian and Mart both moved back reflexively.  Brian was the first to recover, and with a sheepish shake of his head, he moved back to examine the girl more closely.

 

“Look here,” he said, touching the girl’s shoulder again, and then holding up his hand.  “Blood.” 

 

Mart’s eyes widened.  “Blood?” he echoed.  Suddenly he felt dizzy and like he was going to be sick all at once.  “Wh-wh-what happened to her?”

 

Brian shook his head.  “I don’t know,” he answered.  “She may have been walking in the woods on her own and fallen, or a something may have fallen on her.”

 

“Or I could have been shot.” 

 

Brian and Mart both jumped at the sound of the girl’s voice.  “Shot?” they asked in unison.

 

“Yes,” the girl answered, her voice faint but steady.  “Actually, just grazed with a bullet, really.”

 

“But…but….but…”  Mart was uncharacteristically fumbling over words.  “Why were you shot?”

 

“I don’t know. Hunting season is over, you know,” the girl answered weakly.  “But I think it was a hunter or poacher, just the same.” She closed her eyes from the effort it had taken her to speak and leaned her head back onto the snow. Brian winced and lifted it back up, maneuvering himself so her head was now resting in his lap.

 

“Don’t try to talk,” he said.  “We’ll try to get you fixed up and back….where you came from,” he finished lamely. 

 

The girl’s answering nod was barely perceptible.

 

“I’m Brian and this is my brother Mart,” Brian went on.  “We’ll do what we can to help you.”

 

“I’m Holly,” the girl said feebly.

 

“Save your strength,” Brian advised her.  He turned to Mart.  “The first thing we need to do is rig up some kind of bandage.  He looked around.  “These are the times when I wish people still carried handkerchiefs,” he said regretfully.

 

“Or girls wore slips when they stopped by woods on a snowy evening?”  Holly attempted to joke.

 

“Slips?”  Brian echoed, a puzzled expression on his face. 

 

“Isn’t that what heroes always did in the movies?” the girl asked, bravely trying to smile.  “Tore up the girls’ slips to make bandages?  Or maybe it was the girls who tore them up to bandage the heroes.”  She closed her eyes again as if thinking about it caused her head to ache.

 

Brian chuckled quietly, and even Mart managed a grin.  “I’d think you were pretty crazy if you were wearing a slip outside on a night like this,” Mart said.

 

“We’ll have to make do with what we have,” Brian said, wishing he had put more extra clothes into the backpack.  All he had was the sweatshirt, and he hated to rip that up.  He wanted Holly to put that on; she was very cold and wet from lying in the snow, and he wanted to do everything he could to decrease the amount of shock from which she was suffering. 

 

Well, he’d just have to do the best he could.  There were some bandages in the first aid kit, probably not enough to cover the wound tightly enough to completely stop the bleeding, but maybe it would be enough to get them by until they could get her to shelter and, hopefully, a doctor.  That’s the important thing right now, he thought, forcing himself to shift his cold, wet body so he could begin bandaging. 

 

It took longer than it should have, and Brian knew it was a clumsy, pathetic attempt at a bandaging at best, but it would have to do.  When he was finished, he gave in to the temptation to close his eyes for several seconds, as he tried to will himself on to the next step of getting the three of them to shelter.

 

Perhaps he sat there longer than he thought because he was startled out of his reverie by a nudge from Mart.  Brian shook himself determinedly. He glanced down at his patient.  Holly’s eyes were closed, and she had remained quiet through the entire bandaging process.  Whether she was unconscious or merely asleep Brian wasn’t sure.  He sent up a silent prayer as Mart reached into the backpack and pulled out the extra sweatshirt.  The two brothers worked in silence, managing to get the now-soggy garment over the girl’s head and her good arm into one of the sleeves. 

 

Brian nodded when they were done.  At least the sweatshirt was fairly big on the girl and would provide a little more warmth than her sodden coat and sweater.  He cleared his throat.  “I guess we’d better get going.”

 

Mart started to get up, but Brian touched his arm.  “Wait,” he instructed, carefully shifting the dark-haired girl onto Mart’s lap.  Willing his numb feet and legs to move, he managed to stand.  He took a couple of tentative steps, sending thousands of pins and needles shooting into his snow-drenched feet.  He bit his lip hard and forced himself to ignore the pain as he bent down to lift up the girl. 

 

“Are you crazy?”  Mart asked.  “You can’t carry her.”

 

“I have to,” Brian answered resolutely. 

 

Mart scrambled to his feet.  “Bri, let me,” he protested.  “You only have sneakers and…”

 

“Let’s go.” Brian cut him off in mid-sentence and stalked in the direction of the faint light. He stumbled slightly under Holly’s weight but managed to keep himself upright.  To his relief, Mart didn’t protest but walked wordlessly next to him, the two brothers continuing their seemingly endless trek in the wet, cold darkness.

 

“I was hoping Holly would be awake enough to direct us to her house,” Brian said after a few minutes, grunting to get the words out under the weight of the girl in his arms.  “But I guess with this stuff coming down, she wouldn’t even know which direction we were going in.”

 

“At least the wind has died down a little,” Mart commented.

 

Brian tried to smile at his brother’s effort to look at the bright side but gave it up as taking too much energy.  It’s not like he can see my face, anyway.  He glanced at the sky, which was pretty close to completely dark now.  The end of the day, he thought, for good or for bad.  For the shortest day of the year, it certainly seemed endless. 

 

Mart’s thoughts must have been running along similar lines. “It’s pretty dark,” he said,

 

“It must be close to five o’clock,” Brian managed to get out.

 

“Probably about four-thirty,” Mart corrected.  “I think the shortest day of the year in this part of the world ends between four and four-thirty…more accurately about twenty past five.”

 

Brian didn’t bother to reply.  Were there any inane facts his brother didn’t know?

 

As if in answer to his question, Mart stated, “All around the world, there are celebrations of Winter Solstice in different religions and sect:  Christianity, Paganism, Judaism; they all have holidays and traditions in December which probably originally took place because of the dearth of sunlight at this time of year.  In China, for instance, they eat dumplings on what they call “dongzhi.” He paused.  “It translates roughly in English to ‘extreme winter,’” he supplied helpfully.  “The dumpling tradition began in the Han dynasty.  An ancient physician ordered them to be made to cure chilblains and to be distributed among the poor to keep them warm.” 

 

Huh, Brian thought as he trudged slowly along.  That’s a new one.  I’ve heard of people in the early part of the nineteenth century keeping baked potatoes to keep their hands warm, but dumplings???  You wouldn’t think they’d keep warm for very long.  Although wouldn’t mind a hot dumpling or two right about now.

 

He was still struggling under the weight of the girl, and he dropped a little behind Mart as the two walked along, Mart still talking about the Winter Solstice.  “In many places in the United States, they hold revels around the time of the shortest day. The practice started in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

 

“At Harvard,” Brian concluded.

 

“At Harvard,” Mart agreed.  “It probably derived from the ancient ritual of dancing to make the sun return so another new day would arrive.  In Cambridge, they have fiddlers, clog dancers, Morris Men…”

 

Mart’s voice droned on and on.  Brian felt he should have been irritated by his brother’s usual overzealous spouting of essentially useless information, but instead, he felt grounded by the steady sound of his brother’s voice.  He followed after the constant buzz of conversation, somehow managing to put one frozen foot after the other.  He could barely feel his feet now, and his arms were beginning to feel numb, but he kept on in slow, trudging steps toward the increasingly closer light, lulled into repetition by the sound of his brother’s voice. 

 

As they drew nearer to the light, Brian slowly became aware of a dark shape in the sky around the light.  It must be a house, he told himself.  Just keep going a little further.  He was barely aware now that Mart had taken to reciting poetry.

 

“And so the Shortest Day came and the year died

And everywhere down the centuries of the snow white world…”

 

Fitting, Brian thought. It sure seems like it’s been centuries in this snow white world.

 

Mart’s voice continued.

 

“…Came people singing, dancing,

To drive the dark away.

They lighted candles in the winter trees;

They hung their homes with evergreen.”

 

The light really does look like candles in the winter trees, Brian said to himself, his brain feeling slightly fuzzy.  He took a step closer to the house, and his feet suddenly gave way beneath him.  He dropped full-length onto the snow, still clasping the mysterious girl in his arms.  He just managed to roll away from her, but then found he couldn’t go anywhere further.  He stretched out, laying his head on his arm.

 

“Brian!” Mart turned around, groaning at the sight of his brother and Holly sprawled out in the snow.  He bent over the dark-haired girl.  “I’ll carry her now,” he assured his brother.  When Brian didn’t answer, he nudged him with his foot. 

 

“I’ll just stay right here,” Brian muttered to himself.

 

A look of panic crossed Mart’s face.  “You can’t just stay here,” he protested, giving his brother a stronger kick.  Brian still didn’t move.  “Get up!” he finally ordered in exasperation.

 

“There’s no school today; it’s Saturday,” was Brian’s mumbled response. 

 

Mart shook his head.  Somehow, he had to get his brother to wake up and get out of the snow.  He thought for a few seconds before yelling, “Brian!”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Moms is making pancakes and sausages, and we’re all going skating on Honey’s lake.”

 

“Sausages?” Brian echoed.  He opened one eye, and Mart took advantage of his half-alertness, taking his arm and pulling his brother to his feet. 

 

“Geez, I didn’t think you ate much, but you must have gained ten pounds since you started med school,” Mart managed to grunt under his brother’s weight. 

 

Brian leaned on him for a minute as he looked around at the bleak scene.  “The nightmare’s all coming back to me,” he groaned.  His eyes focused blearily on his brother.  “And you said Moms was making pancakes and sausages,” he accused.  “That was cruel.”

 

“It got you up, didn’t it?”  Mart asked.

 

Brian swore under his breath.  “Let’s get going.”

 

“I’m taking Holly this time,” Mart declared, picking up the girl before Brian could object.

 

His brother started to protest but changed his mind and nodded instead.  Brian stamped his feet in the snow, wincing in pain every time they connected with the ground.    

 

Mart took the lead this time.  “I don’t think it’s far now,” he said encouragingly, and as the little group continued their journey toward the light, he somehow managed to continue reciting the poem he had started earlier.

 

“And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake

They shouted, reveling.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us – listen!

All the long echoes, sing the same delight.”

 

As Mart’s voice died into silence, Brian imagined that the lines of the poem coursing through his weary limbs, bringing them closer to safety.  He felt he could hear voices echoing behind him, guiding his steps through all the frosty ages. 

 

And then, suddenly, the light increased, and somewhere in the back of his cold-numbed brain, Brian realized that a door had opened. 

 

The weary travelers quickly hobbled the few remaining yards to the house and were at long last welcomed into light, warmth, and safety.

 

 

A few hours later, Brian and Mart sat across from each other, comfortably ensconced in armchairs in the sitting room of the house.  Their arrival earlier had been heralded by much confusion. 

 

An older man stood in the doorway in a faded red-plaid shirt, motioning them into the kitchen.  “Come in quick, before all the cold gets in, and the warm air gets out.  I don’t know why you boys are out walking this late in a snowstorm anyway.  Crazy fool hikers, always losing there way and ending up on my doorstep…” 

 

The man’s rampage broke off short as he finally took in the girl in Mart’s arms.

 

“Holly!” he exclaimed.  “Well, I’ll be! What in tarnation…”

 

“Is there someone I can put her down?”  Mart interrupted him, just as Brian broke in with, “Is she your daughter?” 

 

“In here,” the man said, gesturing into a comfortable sitting room.  “And no, she’s not my daughter; she’s my neighbor’s daughter.”  The man watched as Mart laid Holly carefully on the couch, his faded blue eyes widening as he took in the blood on her shoulder.  “What happened to her?” he asked, his tone serious.

 

“According to her, she was shot,” Brian replied.

 

“Shot?”   The man managed to infuse the short word with a host of incredulity.

 

Brian nodded.  “She said the bullet just grazed her shoulder,” he explained.

 

“Damn fool hunters,” the man groused.  “They don’t care where they shoot, or whether it’s the legal season or not, or who gets hurt; all they care about is snagging a three-point buck.”  He turned back to Brian.  “What was she doing wandering around in the snow on a night like this, anyway?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know, sir, but do you think we could call an ambulance?  I don’t know how long she was out in the cold before we found her, and she’s lost some blood.”

 

“I can call one, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to make it out here in this storm,” the man answered.  “Marion!”  he suddenly hollered.

 

Both the Belden brothers jumped.  The man noticed and grinned at them.  “Just my wife,” he said.  “No cause to be nervous.”

 

Brian nodded.  “We’ve just had quite an experience getting here…” he began but that was as far as he got before a compact little woman, presumably Marion, came shuffling into the room wearing a housedress and a pair of ratty old slippers. 

 

“What is it, Howard?  What’s all the shouting about?  And who are these boys?”  She looked at Brian and Mart with suspicious eyes. 

 

“These boys found Tom Watson’s daughter in the snow.  Seems she was hit the bullet of one of those crazy deer hunters.”

 

“Of all things!”  Marion exclaimed, glancing to the prone figure on the couch.  She disappeared through a door and reappeared with what looked like a doctor’s bag.   Then, she sat down by Holly and unhesitatingly began removing the bandage from Holly’s shoulder.

 

“Do you think you should do that?”  Brian cautioned. 

 

Marion gave him a glance.  “What are you doing standing around in those wet things?”  she asked.  “You’ll get pneumonia.”  Her gaze dropped to Brian’s feet.  “And get those sneakers off and put your feet into some tepid water quickly.”  She turned her attention back to Holly.

 

The woman shook her head, as her practiced fingers continued to remove the girl’s bandage.  “Get those things off him,” she ordered, motioning to her husband.  “And those wet jeans too.”

 

Brian backed away.  “I can do it myself,” he said hurriedly. 

 

“Make sure that you do then,” the woman commanded.  “You’ll be lucky if you don’t lose your feet to frostbite, wandering around on a night like this in those things.”

 

Brian opened his mouth and then closed it as quickly. He didn’t have the strength to argue with Marion, and he knew she was right about the frostbite. 

 

Howard gestured the boys into a bedroom where they could take off their wet things. “I’ll get you some dry clothes and run a warm bath so you can both soak your feet in it.”

 

Brian absent-mindedly nodded his thanks, his thoughts still on the injured girl in the next room.   “About that bullet wound,” he said to Howard. “I’m a med student at UMC in Syracuse, and maybe I should supervise the bandaging your wife’s doing.”

 

Howard cackled gleefully in response.  Taken aback, Brian and Mart wondered if the little man was quite sane.  Seeing their doubtful expressions, though, his face became a bit more serious.  “You may be a med student, but my wife’s an MD.  I’ll just get those dry clothes for you.”

 

He shut the door with a resounding click as he left as if to say, “There! That’ll teach you to judge a book by its cover.”  Brian and Mart had exchanged sheepish smiles before turning to the task of taking off their sudden, snow-crusted shoes and clothes.

 

That had been several hours ago, and in the ensuing time, the girls’ parents had been called and had proceeded with Howard and Marion to the nearest hospital in their four-wheel drive vehicle.  Brian and Mart had soaked their painful feet for the required amount of time and called Crabapple Farm to let their family know they were safe and sound.

 

Marion and Howard had fussed over them before leaving for the hospital, putting cushions behind them and blankets over them, and left a tray of sandwiches and hot chocolate sitting in front of them.

 

Brian looked around the simply decorated, homey room with some satisfaction.  The couple’s Christmas tree was small but cheerful with strings of multi-colored lights as well as a collection of various silver bell ornaments.  There was a manger scene laid out on a side table, and the fireplace mantle was decorated with sprigs of holly and evergreens.  He sighed in contentment. 

 

Mart looked over at the sound of his sigh.  “It’s cozy, isn’t it?”

 

Brian nodded.  “It seems weird to be in Howard and Marion’s house when they’re not here, though.  They don’t even know us.”

 

“I guess they trust us.”

 

“I guess so,” Brian agreed. The couple had called a little while ago to let them know that Holly was going to be all right, and she wouldn’t even need surgery. He suspected that they had brought Holly in from the snow had a lot to do with why Marion and Howard were now trusting them.

 

 He glanced at his brother, decked out in a plaid bathrobe and pair of short striped pajamas that obviously belonged to Howard.  He hid a grin and refrained from commenting, thinking that the red long johns and old sweater that he was wearing probably didn’t look any less ridiculous.  “Do your feet and legs still hurt?” he asked his brother instead.

 

“Yup,” Mart answered.  “Do yours?”

 

“Like hell,” Brian responded.   The two grinned at each other.  Brian yawned, trying to stay awake enough to continue the conversation.  There were a lot of things he still wanted to say to his brother, but he just couldn’t seem to muster the strength.  He looked at Mart and saw his eyes close, and then gave up with a smile and closed his own.

 

He was surprised to hear the sound of Mart’s voice a few seconds later.  He tried to concentrate on what his brother was saying, but the words just drifted softly over him as he relaxed in the warm, cheerful room and let sleep overcome him.

 

“This Shortest Day,

As promise wakens in the sleeping land:

They carol, feast, give thanks.

And dearly love their friends,

And hope for peace.

And now so do we, here, now,

This year and every year.

Welcome Yule!”

Next

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, VIVIAN!

 

I have to start my notes with an apology. This didn’t turn out to be quite the lighthearted, fun story about our two favorite Belden brothers as I had planned, but I hope you enjoy it anyway! (I really tried to avoid putting Honey in there, but she just tiptoed in to Brian’s thoughts (and Mart’s) in that one spot. What can I say? I have no control over these characters. *shaking head* I think Honey’s just too used to being in my stories to allow herself to be completely forgotten by Brian in one of them. *g*)

 

This story was written for the lovely Vivian for the 2006, Second Annual Jix Secret Santa Story Exchange. This story is not part of any of my regular universes, nor is it connected with any other story. There may possibly be a short epilogue at some stage, though.

 

The poem is Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. It is read every year at the Revels’ celebration of the Winter Solstice at Harvard. I first read about the celebration in Jane Langton’s book, The Shortest Day, and really hope to attend it one of these years.

 

I used too many websites to mention for information on Susan Cooper’s poem, Poe, Winter Solstice celebrations, Chipmunk songs, hunting season in New York, Catskill Park, the colleges Brian and Mart attend in Syracuse, and AMC Hornets. If anyone is interested in any of that stuff, let me know, and I’ll try to direct you to the correct site. None of the above was used with permission, but I’m not making anything off of the mention of any of it, either.

 

The info on Catskill Park was guestimated from what I read and saw on their website. It looks like a beautiful place, and I apologize if I got any of the facts about it wrong. Maybe I will visit it one day (possibly in the summer!)

 

Thanks to Vikki and Kris for last minute editing and to Carol for her splendid graphics work (also last minute)! A very special thank you goes to Susan for all her help and time spent editing this story. You are the best, Susan. Thank you also to Cathy MW, Terry, and Steph H for all their hard work on the Secret Santa Exchange. I’ve really enjoyed participating, despite my problems getting my story in!

 

This story is CWP # 2.6 for Jixemitri. We only needed a total of 10, and the elements I chose to use were:

 

Long, dark, cold, dreary days

Hunting season

Hockey

A work of Edgar Allan Poe (several quoted and referred to by Mart, of course)

A power outage (for the Queen Bee)

A warm corpse (Well, it wasn’t technically a corpse, but Mart thought it was, so that still counts, right? :) )

Holly, holly berries (the girl and the berries *g*)

An unwanted piece of mail (Brian’s holiday newsletters)

A hula recital

A carryover item from a previous CWP (a blizzard or a snowstorm)

 

Sorry, Susan, I never quite got Cary Grant in there, although I had every intention of it. Maybe in the epilogue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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