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Always Believe

Chapter One

 

“Are we home, daddy?”

“Yeah, sweetie, we are,” Ryan answered as he turned off the car. He closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. Three long days and fourteen hundred miles in the car – he was exhausted. He blinked, finally moving when the porch light flickered on, casting a soft yellow glow across the drive.

He climbed out of the SUV and opened the door to the back seat, then carefully unhooked Emma’s seatbelt and folded her blanket around her. “Grab Teddy; here we go.” He scooped his sleepy daughter, blanket and teddy bear into his arms, ever mindful of the metal brace on her left leg that kept it stretched out straight.

“I can walk.” Her protest, once constant, was now random, and usually at times when she knew Ryan wouldn’t listen. Still, he acknowledged her.

“I know you can, but this is faster. Besides, Aunt Mary is waiting.”

He shuffled along the cracked sidewalk and up the steps onto the porch of the two-storied old Victorian style house. In the weak porch light, he barely saw the shadowy silhouettes of his aunt’s rose bushes that bordered the walk. He wondered if October was too late for the brilliant display of color he recalled.

“A rose’s bloom is a promise,” Aunt Mary had told him when she started the garden shortly after he had come to live with her. For more than the first time since his parents died all those years ago, he sorely needed a promise of something better. In fact, he needed a miracle.

“Ryan, it’s so very good to see you.” Aunt Mary met him at the door. “When you called to tell me you were coming, I didn’t know if you would arrive today or tomorrow. And this is Emma?” His aunt touched Emma's cheek, but she snuggled closer to Ryan’s chest, too drowsy to respond. Even though the doctors had assured him she was getting better, it seemed all she did was sleep.

“Come in, come in. I have Emma’s room all ready,” Aunt Mary said, holding the door wide enough for him to slip through. She led him across the living room to a set of French doors, which she pushed wide. “I thought she would be happier facing the rose garden than being upstairs with those tiny windows. Fact is, I never use those rooms any more. Too much trouble, you know, climbing the stairs all the time.”

Ryan was thankful for her thoughtfulness in putting Emma on the ground floor. Although she maneuvered short distances on crutches, she’d never manage stairs, and she was too weak to go far anyway.

Ryan stepped through the doorway of the guest room with its dark, full sized furniture. His aunt had tried to make it into a little girl’s room because pale yellow curtains covered the windows and stuffed animals sat propped against the pillows. He gently tucked Emma under the covers of the big bed, brushing back her hair and kissing her forehead.

“Sweet dreams, sweat pea,” he said, like he did every night from the time she was born.

“We’re not putting you out, are we?” He followed his aunt through the living room to her cozy kitchen at the back of the house.

“Of course not. There’s plenty of room in this rambling old house. I freshened your old room upstairs, if that’s all right. I remember you loved to pound up those stairs and then more often than not, slid down the banister.” She chuckled in remembrance.

“I don’t think you’ll catch me on the banister anymore.”

“No, but we don’t want to give Emma an excuse to repeat your antics, do we?”

“Emma’s not well enough to…” His voice faded and he wondered if his daughter would ever be well enough to enjoy the simple pleasures of being a child.

“It’ll be all right, Ryan. You bide and watch. We’re all going to be just fine.” Aunt Mary patted his cheek; like she had all those years ago as he grew up in her house in Snow. Ryan held her hand against his face, appreciating the warmth of it, recognizing that age and time had made it frailer. Still, it was a comfort.

He hadn’t known what to do after hearing the doctor’s latest prognosis. He had a sick child who may never recover, a stressful job that demanded too much of his time, and Houston had been too far away from family. Within a week, he had sorted and packed the furniture and taken a leave of absence, piling Emma and their clothes into the car and driving north. He needed to be somewhere familiar.

“Nothing’s changed in twenty years,” he said as he scraped back a chair and sat at the table.

“Why change? We always seemed happy this way.” Mary put a large bowl of stew in front of him, accompanied by a glass of milk and a plate of hot biscuits and butter. “Will Emma eat something?”

“If she wakes. The medicine she takes makes her pretty sleepy. Besides, we stopped an hour ago and she drank most of a milk shake. She still doesn’t have much of an appetite. At this point, I let her eat when she wants and pretty much what she wants.”

“Ryan Diantelli, you know better. That child needs fruits and vegetables and plenty of milk if she’s going to get well.”

Ryan’s gaze darted to the ceiling as the sharp sting of tears threatened. Damn. He was the father. He was supposed to be strong, to know all the answers, to protect and save. Yet he was ready to lose it. How was he going to manage everything life had thrown at him lately?

“I know Emma’s very sick, honey, but you never did tell me exactly what she has or what her prognosis is and how we can help.” Mary covered his trembling hand as she talked. “If you don’t want to talk tonight, that’s fine. But Ryan, you know running away isn’t going to solve the problem. We have to stand together and fight this.”

She was right and he smiled at her continued use of the word we. When he had called and told her Peggy and he had separated because his wife’s drinking had worsened and she had gone into detox, Mary had hoped they would reconcile. But when he’d had to call and tell her about the accident that crushed Emma’s leg and put his ex-wife in jail, Aunt Mary hadn’t minced words telling him exactly what she thought of Peggy’s negligence. She was totally protective of those she considered her family and Ryan regretted not having stayed in closer touch during those rough patches. He had thought he had to do it all himself.

“At the time of the accident, not only was her leg crushed, causing a comminuted fracture, but windshield glass cut the skin and bacteria entered the bone, causing osteomyelitis. Usually it can be cured with antibiotics, but Emma’s leg isn’t healing. The latest tests also showed trauma to the epiphyseal plate – the growth plate -- at the end of the bone.” He scrubbed his hands over his face.

“She’s stable now, otherwise I wouldn’t have considered moving away from her doctors in Houston. They’ve given me a referral to the children’s hospital in Pittsburgh. Once the doctors here examine Emma and recommend treatment, it’s still a matter of waiting.”

The complexities of Emma’s disease were sometimes more than even Ryan could wrap his mind around. “The bottom line is that the fracture in her leg isn’t mending.”

In the year since the accident, they had had to fight for her life three times, and every time Ryan had damned his ex-wife for letting Emma ride in the front seat instead of the back where she belonged. After each operation, it had taken Emma longer to recover, leaving her weaker and more fragile than before, and leaving Ryan physically drained and emotionally devastated.

Yet Emma had always fought back, her indelible spirit eventually allowing Ryan to smile again. There were times when Ryan was well aware of the reversal in roles. Emma buoyed him and kept him going, instead of the other way around. And now he realized why that was.

“Emma is a lot like you, Aunt Mary.” At her look of surprise, he continued, “She never seems to get down. When she was in the hospital, sick as a dog, she would always smile when I came in; always ask me if I had bought her a ticket on the space shuttle yet. It was our joke, and sometimes when I wanted to cry, she was the strong one. For an eight year old, she acts much older.”

“Are you saying I’m old for my age?”

Ryan knew she teased. “You will always be ageless to me. But I think Emma’s very lucky to have inherited your happy spirit and positive outlook on life.”

Ryan helped his aunt straighten the kitchen before he went to the car and brought in their luggage. He had sold the house in Houston and most of the furnishings, putting only a few keepsakes and Emma’s furniture in storage. There was a lot left unsettled, but it would sort itself out. Emma was – always would be – his first priority. He had learned that lesson the hard way when he almost lost her, and he wasn’t going to let it happen again.

He stood at the kitchen sink listening to the wind howl long after his aunt had gone to bed. He glanced out the window but the night was dark. A stained-glass dragonfly, hung on the window with a suction cup, rattled against the glass on the next gust of wind. Tonight’s weather caused him to wonder at the wisdom of moving from Houston to Snow, especially with winter right around the corner.

A sudden burst of rain pelted the window, jarring Ryan from his musings. He watched the water sluice down the pane in a continuous sheet. Sighing, he topped off his cup of coffee, flipped off the switch on the pot and turned toward the living room. He peeked through the bedroom doorway to check on Emma then slouched in an oversized chair next to the small gas fireplace. He stared into the flames as he sipped his coffee.

He missed having someone to talk to and cuddle with on nights like this. He loved Emma to pieces and regardless of his periodic misgivings, he knew they were in the right place for this time of their lives. But he was a healthy male in what should be the prime of his life, and he longed for an adult relationship, even as he felt guilty thinking it was because of Emma that he didn’t have one.

He reached into his pocket for his cell phone, flipped it open and hit speed dial.

“’Lo?” The voice was husky and drowsy and Ryan smiled.

“Hey.”

“Ryan! Where are you? Are you and Emma all right?”

Ryan smiled at Alexis’s questions. She always asked about Emma. She and Ryan had dated for over six months and more often than not, Emma was in the middle of it, by Alexis’s request.

“We’re okay. We finally made it to Aunt Mary’s. I’m exhausted.”

“Why are you talking to me then? You should be asleep.”

“I miss you. I wanted to hear your voice. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure—”

“Yes you are,” she interrupted. “It was the right thing to do. You’ll see.”

The women in his life always had such positive attitudes. “Alexis, I…”

“Sh, I know. Get some sleep.”

When Ryan crawled into bed under the sloping roof of the old Victorian, he chuckled. Aunt Mary hadn’t changed a thing, including the single bed that now didn’t quite fit his six foot, two inch frame. Regardless, he slept soundly for the first time in too long. He and Emma were home.

 

* * * *

 

Laughter. How could such an innocent sound cause Ryan’s heart to soar? He followed the chatter to the kitchen, where Emma sat at the table with a bowl of cereal while Aunt Mary peeled apples at the sink. Ryan watched from the doorway as Emma lifted the spoon to her mouth, paused, and then put it back in the bowl. He frowned.

Reminding himself not to fuss at her, which only made things worse, he sauntered into the kitchen aiming for the coffee pot. “Morning all.”

“Hi, daddy.”

“Hey, pet. Did you sleep well?” He snatched an apple slice from the bowl. Predictably his aunt swatted at his hand. He held it out to Emma but she wrinkled her nose and shook her head so he popped it into his mouth and winked.

She giggled.

“You, kiddo,” he said after swallowing, “need to get changed so we can enroll you in school.”

“No way! It’s Friday.”

“What does Friday have to do with it?”

“Nobody starts school on Friday. Besides, Aunt Mary said I can help make apple pies.”

Ryan turned to his aunt.

“Before you say anything I’m not undermining your authority. I didn’t say anything about her helping until after she said she was being home schooled.” She raised a brow and together they turned to look at Emma.

“Well, I am,” she insisted.

Ryan knew that tone of voice. His daughter used it whenever she wanted something. It had taken him a long time to train his ears not to listen and his heart not to give in to her every whim.

“You’re doing school work at home,” he replied. “That’s not the same thing. You don’t have to stay but I think the principal and your teacher would like to know what you look like.”

“Fern Potts,” Mary said.

“Who?”

“That’s who is principal now. Your fifth grade teacher.”

“But she’s got to be a hundred,” Ryan said. “Hell, she was old when I was in her class.”

His aunt tsked at his language. “She’s only retiring this year. I wonder if she remembers you.” She gave him a smile that said you’d better hope not.

“Oh, great,” Emma said. “Am I going to be profiled because my dad caused trouble in school?”

“I didn’t cause trouble—”

“Ha!” Mary interrupted.

“I was just a little rambunctious,” he finished.

When Emma looked as though she’d say more, he pointed a finger at the door. “Go get dressed. If I go to school by myself, I’ll ask for the hardest teacher.”

“She seems very alert this morning,” Mary commented after Emma left the room.

“She usually is in the morning. That’s why I want her in school, for at least half a day. Once she takes her medicine at noon, she gets pretty groggy.”

“Can’t they give her something less strong?”

Ryan poured a cup of coffee before answering. “Not if she’s going to make any progress. What’s with all the apples anyway?”

He followed his nose to the oven, cracking the door open to inhale the rich cinnamony smell of apple pie.

“Have you been gone so long you’ve forgotten the Apple Cider Festival?”

“You’re kidding? Old man Larsen still has the apple orchard?”

“At least through this year. Every year he says he’s moving south but never does. I do know he’s not been the same since his wife, Eva, died, and that old orchard just doesn’t produce like it once did.”

Ryan recalled sneaking to the orchard to steal apples with his friends, but Mr. Larsen never minded. In fact he had help yourself, boys signs posted all over. It was probably a better deterrent than if he’d yelled at them. It simply wasn’t fun if the element of danger was gone.

“If the apples are just now ready, why do you have a sink full and already baking?”

“The festival is this weekend. The Methodist Church got the bid for the homemade ice cream stand and when the Women’s Auxiliary decided to add pie to the menu, George gave us some of the early variety. Everyone that comes to pick apples enjoys their taste. That’s why they come. Having products like pie and apple butter and the recipes makes people buy even more apples.”

“Making Larsen even more money,” Ryan added, although he was all for entrepreneurship.

“You know how Snow is, Ryan. We help each other. All the different organizations in town have booths for crafts and produce at no cost, and George gives ten percent back to the town’s community chest. We all benefit.”

Ryan glanced at his watch. It was only nine and he wondered how long his aunt had been up. “So you’ve retired from the bakery in favor of making pies once a year?”

“Heavens, no. I was there at three, like always. Greta comes in at seven to take over.” She tsked again, brushing past him with hot pads in hand. “I don’t know what I’ll do soon, though, because Greta’s daughter is ready to have her babies and Greta’s leaving for Boston the minute she does. She always said whenever her only daughter had a baby, she’d be a full time grandma. Since her daughter is having twins, she’ll need the help.”

Ryan grabbed the bundle of clothes he’d brought downstairs with him. “Well, I’m here now so we’ll work something out.” He headed for the bathroom to shower. “It’s been a long time since I made cookies but I think I can remember how.”

His aunt laughed. “You always ate more than you made.”

“That too,” Ryan replied with a smile.

 

* * * *

 

Saturday dawned clear and crisp, the promise of fall heavy in the air. Ryan helped his aunt load the pies, along with paper plates and plastic forks before driving her to Larsen Orchard at the edge of town.

He had truly forgotten how small Snow was; how everything was within walking distance on nice days. Or bike distance, he recalled, having pedaled all over with his friends in his youth. It was a good place to raise a family, he thought as he listened to his aunt greet her friends while he unloaded pies from the back of his car.

“And how’s your job with NASA?” A grey-haired lady with a cardinal on her sweatshirt pulled at his sleeve.

Ah, yes, Ryan mentally sighed, if you didn’t mind everyone knowing your business. “Just fine.” He smiled, not about to add to the gossip mill.

Once the last of the food was unloaded and Ryan had helped arrange the tables, he promised his aunt he’d be back later with Emma. He wanted to wait until it warmed up because at the moment it was a rather chilly fifty-two degrees.

He took a circular route back to the house on Maple Street. The car window was down, the crisp morning air smelling faintly of wood smoke and the ever present coal. Still, it didn’t detract from the scenic beauty of the town and surrounding area. Leaves were changing colors; everything from yellow to red to rusty brown lay scattered across the lawns or drifted toward the ground in the breeze. The foothills were visible in the distance to the east, their crests still dark green with the abundance of evergreens covering the slopes. Somehow this area west of the Appalachians had been spared the worst of the forest harvesting and timber was abundant. As he pulled into the drive he heard geese honking overhead. He scanned the sky. They were heading west, probably to Piper Lake.

“Emma?” he called as he came in the front door and closed it behind him. They had left her sleeping but he didn’t find her when he peeked into her room.

“Emma?”

“Back here.” He followed her voice to the bathroom which was off the side of the kitchen.

She came out dressed, but with her hair wrapped in a towel. She maneuvered quite well on the crutches, he thought, as she swung along to the table where he saw her brace on the floor by her chair. She was only supposed to take it off to bathe and even then she couldn’t put pressure on her leg, which made giving her a bath awkward.

“You already took a bath? You know you’re not supposed to do that alone.” He hadn’t intended to shout but the thought of her slipping and falling, hurting herself when he wasn’t close by, always made him panic.

“Dad, I’m ten years old,” she shouted right back, standing straight and tall, despite the crutches.

“Yeah, so?”

She didn’t say anything; simply stared at him with narrowed eyes. She reminded him of his wife – stubborn and defiant – with blonde hair and snapping green eyes. She would be beautiful when she grew up. When she…

Oh, God, he mentally groaned. Don’t tell me she’s gotten to that age? He studied her from head to toe. She crossed her arms over her chest.

He opened his mouth but she forestalled his question.

“Don’t ask. Don’t even think what you’re thinking.”

“How do you know what I’m thinking?”

“Because you’re my dad and you think you know all about things.”

“I do.”

“Even if you do, I don’t want to hear about some things from my dad.” She scowled.

Ryan suddenly wasn’t at all sure what they were talking about. Did he need to have Aunt Mary talk to her? She couldn’t be ready for a hormone-sex-boy-girl talk. She was only ten.

She sat on a chair and he bent to slip on her socks. He took her brace, already attached to her shoe, and set it in place, buckling it securely. Once again he realized how hard it was to be a single parent.

“Okay, do it your way, only promise me you’ll do it when I’m here in case you need help.” He was hoping do it encompassed all the things she might be talking about.

She narrowed her eyes.

“When your Aunt Mary’s here,” he amended.

“Okay. Now, if you are done embarrassing me, can I finish my hair?”

He tweaked her nose. “Go,” he said, shaking his head. As she left the kitchen he called to her, “Get your hair dry if you want to go to the apple festival. I don’t want you getting a cold on top of everything else.”

“Dad.” He heard the exasperation in her voice.

“Hey. I’m the parent. It’s my prerogative to give orders.”

 

* * * *

 

Ryan drove Emma around the town square, and past the lake, pointing out places of interest, or so he thought.

“That’s where you rode your bike and went swimming every day,” she said. When he pulled into the parking that edged Larsen Orchard, she said, “And this is where you stole apples with your friends.”

Ryan laughed. “You know all the stories?”

“About a hundred times.” She rolled her eyes.

Ryan didn’t say anything else, but unbidden memories came rushing back of childhood years spent picking apples, having rotten apple fights with his friends, and in later years, the annual Apple Cider Days Festival. He didn’t, however, remember it being such a huge deal.

Bright colored awnings and tents littered the road on both sides. Cinnamon and popcorn and other scents converged in the crisp autumn air to tantalize his senses.

From where he stood, the orchard wasn’t even visible. There were hundreds of people strolling along the roadway, stopping to look at the items for sale, most of which had an apple theme.

“Wow!” Emma exclaimed, stopping to look around. “Do they do this every year?”

“I thought you knew all the stories,” he said and they laughed. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from picking her up, wanting to help…too much sometimes. “Do you want to go find Aunt Mary?”

“Dad, I’ll walk as long as I can walk, then I’ll go sit. Quit worrying.”

“Wait.” He touched her shoulder and maneuvered them around some people to one of the booths. Handing the woman behind the table two dollars, he took one of the souvenir pins and bent to pin it on Emma’s shirt.

“What’s that?” She looked at the small red apple pin.

“It means you’re the apple of my eye and let’s everyone know you’re special.” He grinned.

“Oh, brother. This is one of those cornball things, isn’t it? I mean, what happens for the snow festival that you told me about. Do they give everybody a snow pin and tell them they’re a flake?”

“Hmm, that might catch on.” He laughed, and realized he hadn’t been doing that much lately.

A petite blonde popped her head around the corner of the next tent. “Ryan Diantelli, is that you?” She scurried over and gave him a hug.

“Corin Grant?” Even though it had been fifteen years since high school, his friend and classmate looked the same.

“Well, it’s Parker now; although that’s the only thing that idiot left me before he moved out. My god, I can’t believe you’re back in town. Visiting Mary?”

“Actually, we moved here, for a while at least.”

Corin glanced at Emma. Her smile widened. “Hello?”

Emma stuck her hand out. “Hi, I’m Emma Diantelli. I’m ten.”

“Wonderful! My son, Charlie, is ten. I bet you’ll be in his class at school.”

“My dad won’t let me go to school.”

Ryan felt his mouth drop open in surprise. “I never said she couldn’t go; only that it wasn’t the right time now.” He shook his head as Corin laughed.

“Don’t you just love them at this age? Anytime they can get their parents in a dither, they do it. Hey, look, I have to get back to the booth; we’re trying to raise money for a children’s drama program, but a bunch of us are meeting over at Butch’s Bar-b-que tent about one. Why don’t you stop by?”

“You mean you’re not the only one from our class still living here?”

“More like you’re the only one who moved away.” She laughed as she walked away and Ryan wondered if the old adage you can’t go home again would be true here. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see old friends. He only wondered, after being in a high pressure job at NASA, having a marriage fall apart and moving back home, he wouldn’t be looked on as an anomaly.

Following after Emma as she made her way carefully along the dirt path, he figured there was only one way to find out, but it meant handling Butch’s spicy hot wings for lunch.

“Dad, where’s the orchard? Are we going to pick apples?”

“Emma, why did you tell Corin I wouldn’t let you go to school?”

“Because if I say I’m home schooled or I can’t go because of my leg, all the kids will think I’m different.”

“And different is bad?”

His little girl shook her head and sighed. “I have to remember to ask Aunt Mary if you were ever ten years old.”

They finally came to a path between the tents that led further off the road and toward the orchard. When they rounded the curve past the last colorful canopy, Ryan was shocked to see what had become of his favorite childhood haunt. Oh, the trees were there and plenty of apples were still high in the branches, but it didn’t look the same. Some of the trees had apparently been damaged by storm and branches bowed low to the ground. Others had only a few leafy branches; the rest were bare broken limbs. For an orchard to remain successful, new trees needed to be planted continually, and it didn’t look as though George Larsen had done that.

“Hi, I’m Charlie.” A young boy came barreling to a stop in front of them. He was about Emma’s size, with red hair and freckles. He had one hand clutched in the fur of a dog half as tall as him – a husky from the looks of it. “This is Wolf.” He flung his arm around the dog’s neck and hugged him. The dog wore a harness attached to a wagon with wooden sides. It had several sacks of apples in it.

Ryan might have wished for a dog all those years ago when he came and picked apples for people. When he was a kid, he had had to lug the heavy sacks back to the barn for weighing. This young man would go far.

“Can I pet him?” Emma asked and at Charlie’s nod, she reached out, totally unafraid. When she quit stroking him, the dog nudged her with his head, almost knocking her down. She just laughed.

“You’re the new girl at school, aren’t you? I saw you in Principal Pott’s office yesterday. Who did you get for a teacher? You’d better hope it wasn’t old Mr. Jensen. He’s the meanest teacher in school.”

“I’m in Miss Michaels’ class, fifth grade.”

“Super, that’s my class, too.”

Ryan watched the interaction between the two kids, thinking this must be Corin’s son. It would be nice for Emma to know someone, because as soon as her leg healed, she’d be attending school full time.

“Did you pick those apples for anyone?” Ryan gestured to the wagon.

“Yeah, Mom always freezes tons of applesauce and apple butter every year. Do you want some apples? As soon as I get these weighed and Wolf hauls them home, I’ll come back and pick you some.”

Ryan smiled. “Well, you can come back and help, and I know Wolf will be useful, but I’m sure Emma wants to try her hand at picking.”

“She can’t climb a tree with that brace on her leg,” Charlie said with all the tact of a ten year old boy.

“Can, too,” Emma chimed in immediately.

“Bet you can’t.”

She stuck her tongue out at the boy.

Ryan quickly defused the situation. “We’ll all help, as soon as you and Wolf get back, we’ll be over that way.” He pointed to a tree where the branches were low to the ground, figuring Emma could pick without having to climb.

“He’s stupid,” Emma said when Charlie and Wolf had moved on.

Ryan started to reprimand her before recalling how dumb he had thought girls were when he was in fifth grade. And the most stupid were the ones he liked, but they hadn’t like him. Ah, no amount of money would make him want to be ten again.

Chapter Two

 

“I can take care of Emma,” Aunt Mary said the next morning at breakfast when Ryan regaled her of his previous conversation with his daughter.

“No, she’s my responsibility. I’ve been taking care of her since Peggy left two years ago.”

“Then why did you come home, Ryan?”

That question was a lot easier to answer than some. He smiled at his aunt. “Home, that’s why. All I did was work. Between the pressure of the job and Emma’s illness, I was losing it. I didn’t know how to handle anything anymore. The only thing I realized as a certainty was that I needed to go home. When my investment broker laughingly asked why I even worked – that I could have retired years ago, I had this epiphany. Why not?”

“So here we are.” He shrugged. “Is anyone living in that apartment over the bakery? I thought we might stay there and I’ll help at the Snickerdoodle.”

“You don’t have to do that. You can stay here.”

“Aunt Mary, don’t you see? This is the ideal situation. If we’re in the apartment I can work and Emma is right upstairs instead of blocks away. When she’s awake or doing her homework, I can bring her down to the bakery.”

“I thought you said you didn’t need to work.”

“I don’t, but I do need to keep busy; just not the all-consuming way I did at NASA. I realized last Friday when I registered Emma for school that she can’t actually attend until her leg heals. The fifth grade classroom is upstairs even though the cafeteria and music room are downstairs. For a while anyway, this will make it easier for me to help her with her school work.”

He gave Mary a hug then put his dishes in the sink. “You said Greta would be leaving soon and besides, it’s time you started taking it easy.”

She laughed. “What would I do if I wasn’t at the bakery?”

“Bridge?”

She scoffed.

“Bingo?”

She wrinkled her nose.

“Poker?”

Her brows shot up. “I doubt the American Legion gentlemen would let me in their games. They tend to think a woman’s place is at home.”

Ryan knew better. The women in Snow were the driving force behind the town’s success. They were the strength and hope that kept the town going in good times and bad.

Carston Mine, which employed a large majority of work eligible men in town, at one time had owned everything from the company store to the school. Over several generations of miners and mine owners, the town had gradually broken away and re-established itself with privately owned businesses that weren’t controlled by Carston. The majority of those businesses were run by women.

From what he had heard when he met Corin for lunch at the Apple Cider Festival, Carston was running out of coal. That led to a host of problems, one of which was the utilities company, which of course was fueled by coal. There was talk that Carston was going to raise coal prices yet again and quite a few people were up in arms over the maneuver.

It was one thing to raise prices on a commodity that was sold out of state to the highest bidder. It was another entirely to charge your own residents a rate higher than what outsiders were charged. Carston knew there was no option in terms of turning elsewhere for electricity. All the major power grids circumvented Snow because for years, the coal mine had generated the electricity to fuel the town. Now, what would become of Snow?

“Speaking of the American Legion,” his aunt interrupted his thoughts, “are you going to the meeting there tomorrow?”

Ryan focused on what his aunt had said. “What meeting?”

“Harold Carston continues to think Snow is totally controlled by the mine, but we have a city council and a mayor.” She snorted. “Some days I do wonder if he doesn’t control them. Anyway, some of us have put enough pressure on the city council that they have called a meeting to discuss the energy crisis.”

Ryan smiled at his aunt’s language. “Some of us? You’re right in the middle of this, aren’t you?”

She just shrugged.

Ryan had read his history books on coal mining around Snow and the rest of Pennsylvania. Back in the late 1870’s a few men controlled not only the coal industry but law in the towns and the very lives of those who worked in the mines. He remembered reading about the Molly Maguires, supposedly started to resist deplorable mine conditions, and the violence that surrounded the industry at that time as factions faced off. Thankfully things were different today.

“You make it sound dire. Besides, there aren’t any coal kings anymore who control everything in their reach.”

“You’d be surprised,” his aunt replied. “Most people in Snow come from generations of miners. They know who butters their bread, so to speak, and are individually afraid of speaking out. Together, maybe we can make a difference.”

“And I’m an outsider; there’s no sense in getting involved,” Ryan said.

“You grew up here and now you’re living here again. You’re not an outsider.”

“Regardless, I have other things to worry about at the moment. I’m sure Snow isn’t going to run out of coal tomorrow.”

 

* * * *

 

Ryan spent most of the morning at the apartment over the bakery. He had the heat and electricity turned on, made a list of furniture they would need, and after borrowing his aunt’s vacuum, did a lickety-split job of cleaning. He wasn’t the best housekeeper, and in Houston had a lady who came in twice a week to do some cleaning and cooking.

Here, he would have to become more independent from the services readily available in the city. He was sure he could find someone to cook and clean, but because of the size of Snow, he also knew everyone in town would know about it within a week. The real trouble would begin as matchmaking mothers offered their daughters to help him.

He sat on the top step of the stairs to the apartment, sipping a cup of coffee from the bakery and going over his list. He and Emma could do this; he was sure of it, and he would have more time to spend with her while still helping his aunt. He stared down the stairwell. If only Emma’s leg would heal; if only….

He mentally gauged the width of the stairway. The stairs were inside the building, wide and deep, and the landing at the top was at least five foot square, with the apartment door to the left. What if he put a chair lift in the stairway; the electric kind that slid up and down on a rail attached to the wall?

The first time he had taken Emma to the physical therapist, he had been given all kinds of brochures for equipment and apparatus that would make it easier for a handicapped (he hated that word) person to maneuver through a house. Since their house in Houston had been a single story ranch style, Ryan had scarcely bothered with one particular flyer, but he did remember the chairlift. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called the hospital in Houston, who connected him with Emma’s doctor.

Within minutes, he had called the company, and was referred to a rep in the Pittsburgh area who said he would be happy to come to Snow and look at the project.

Ryan walked through the bakery, waving at Greta on his way out the door. He paused, buttoning his coat when the wind hit him. He looked at the cloud laden sky, wondering if it would snow even though it was only October. The annual snow festival that drew thousands to the little town didn’t officially start until November or early December, but the first heavy snow was always cause for celebration.

That was another reason moving to the apartment was a good idea. Snow had that name for a very good reason. He remembered school being closed for weeks at a time when enough snow fell that it buried cars and came almost to the tops of windows. As a kid he hadn’t minded missing school, and had made money shoveling walks and digging cars out once the roads were finally cleared.

Now, as the parent of a child, he worried about getting stranded at the bakery with Emma at Mary’s house; getting stuck in a snow drift while driving, or a hundred other scenarios that probably would never happen. Still, he worried. At least this way, he and Emma would be in the same building; easily within reach any time of day.

“Looks like snow.”

He turned to find Corin exiting the Wonderland Bookstore, which sat right next to the bakery. “Might,” he replied.

“Charlie says Emma’s really not going to school,” Corin commented as she tucked her hair under her stocking cap before tugging on her mittens. “I thought she was just giving you a hard time.”

Ryan chuckled. “I swear. It’s only been a day and everyone in town already knows our story.”

Corin shrugged. “Hey, it’s Snow. What can I say?”

Ryan knew she was right. Everybody knew everything. “The logistics of a second floor classroom will keep her from attending until her leg is better, but I’ve talked to the principal and she’s agreed to let Emma do her work at home. I’ll go to school and get her assignments weekly and take in her work.”

“Charlie can do that, if you want,” Corin said.

“He wouldn’t mind? I’m fixing the apartment upstairs, so we’ll be living here.”

“They’re in the same class and he always comes to the bookstore after school.” She sighed. “He’s too old for a sitter, but I hate leaving him home alone, you know?”

Ryan nodded. “I definitely know that drill.”

“I was going to pop over to Blitzen’s for a latte. Want to come?”

They turned to walk along the square, turning north at the corner. “Man, some things never change, do they?” Ryan asked as they passed Jolly Pots, the Evergreen Gazette newspaper office, and Candy Cane Lane, stores with holiday names that had been around for as long as he could remember.

“They do; and they don’t,” Corin cryptically stated as he held the door to Blitzen’s open and followed her inside. The warmth of the store carried the fragrant smell of roasting coffee and Ryan breathed deep. After placing their orders at the counter, they sat at a corner table out of the flow of traffic.

“We never had a chance to visit at the apple festival,” Ryan opened the conversation. “Bring me up to date.” He and Corin had been friends throughout their school years, but they had been wise enough in high school not to date. Dating can kill a good thing, Corin had reminded him on more than one occasion. And for the two of them, it had worked.

Ryan had had a confidant to explain the female mind when he was having girl trouble, and he had cautioned her against dating certain guys when he heard scuttle-butt in the locker room about who was going to try and make points with whom that weekend. But from the little she had said over the weekend, he hadn’t been here when she needed him.

“I’m sorry about you and Parker,” he said, even though he hadn’t known the guy. He was actually sorry that Corin was raising her son alone.

She shrugged off his concern. “It happened long after you left for college; and with a guy not from around here, so you couldn’t have beaten him up after school for me.” She gave him the smile he had always remembered, and he wondered again why some people remained friends but never lovers.

“I could have beat him up in a bar fight instead.”

Corin laid a hand on his arm. “It is so good to see you back in town, Ryan. I’ve missed you.”

Ryan got the impression Corin didn’t want to talk about her ex. They had once been best friends, but high school was a long time ago. Hopefully their friendship renewed, even if on a different level because of past history.

They didn’t stay long at the coffee shop. Corin ran the bookstore alone, so had put a “be right back” sign in her window and couldn’t be gone long.

“Please say you’ll go to the meeting at the Legion,” Corin insisted as they strolled back the way they had come. “Your input might sway the outcome.”

“Corin, I don’t know anything about coal mining, or what has happened to Snow over the past twenty-some years. Besides, I’m an outsider; like they’re going to listen to me.”

“You’re not, Ryan.

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