I walked along the crowded cobblestone city streets on the gloomy mid-afternoon of December 24, the day everyone was supposed to be happy, supposed to be excited, supposed to be a lot of things I was not. I had a sealed envelope in my hand. People smiled at me. They hadn’t read the papers close enough.
I shoved my left hand, the one not holding the envelope, into the pocket of my capelet coat and walked faster. My breath blew out in front of me in a white fog as if I were a steam engine. My ears and nose were numb, and my eyes stung with cold. I hailed a taxi. It was one of the newer models, with headlights on the far sides of the mustard-yellow machine. It was too sunny of a color for this day.
The taxi was warmer inside, but not by much. “Where to?” the man driving asked.
“Sorry, miss, I can’t get you all the way there. Maybe halfway? You know, my wife and kids want me home tonight,” he said amiably.
“Of course,” I answered distractedly. “How much to Faber Inn?”
I handed him the money, and leaned against the cold glass of the window.
Suddenly, I thought of Mother and Father; they didn’t know about this. I would face the consequences later. I wasn’t worried about it right then, because my other problem was much bigger. And I was only 15, too young for them to leave me on my own, though I knew they wouldn’t do that.
I began to feel myself falling asleep in the back of the taxi, though I don’t know how. I didn’t sleep for days after that afternoon. I was half-awake when I heard Frank’s voice say, “Angela.” I couldn’t explain it then, and I still can’t today, but I know what I heard. I woke up.
I remembered Frank’s voice, his soft tenor voice that had brought me to sleep so many nights, but this time it had done the opposite. I looked out the window. The same desolate, freezing gray sky greeted me. No snow, although there had been snow on Christmas Eve ever since I could remember. I checked my watch. There was still time, but I had been in the taxi for longer than I had thought.
After a while, the man parked on the dirt country road in front of Faber Inn. It was a well-known establishment, mostly for travelers who wanted to rest between cities. But that wasn’t the reason I was there that day. Faber Inn also rented out horses, and I needed to get to the harbor somehow.
I got out of the taxi after thanking him and headed toward the inn, which was especially crowded this time of year. I had rented a horse once from Faber Inn, on one of my first few dates with Frank. I made my way to the stable to the left of the main building, where a stablehand was grooming some of the horses. I might have a problem, I realized. These horses weren’t particularly for riding long distances like I was planning on doing. Not that they couldn’t, but people just didn’t travel that way anymore and hadn’t for a few decades. Now horses were mostly for leisure, a day out, but I had no other mode of transportation.
The stablehand, a woman a bit older than me, looked up as I walked toward her. The stable smelled.
“May I rent a horse?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if you should. It’s getting dark, and we only rent out until 7:00.”
“Please, can you make an exception for me? I must be somewhere tonight and I have no other way to get there. I’m begging you!”
She put down the brush she was using and looked me in the eye. “Where are you going?” It was not a sinister question, but a nosy one.
I knew I didn’t have to tell her, but she also didn’t have to give me a horse, so I was under her mercy, and she knew it. “Cereum Harbor.”
She suddenly looked startled and upset. People here read the papers, I thought. “Which horse would you like?” she asked, the emotion in her voice heard in this simple question.
“Which do you suggest?”
She led me to a medium-sized black stallion and helped me lead him out of the stable. Today, I don’t remember what the horse’s name was.
I thanked her, paid her extra for her trouble, and went on my way. It was getting colder, and it was almost dark now. Only a small bit of sunlight shone softly orange and yellow through the trees in the distance. Once I was about a mile down the road, Faber Inn almost out of sight, I patted my pocket and my heart jumped when I felt no envelope in it. I searched my other pocket, and breathed a sigh of relief when I found it there, safely in the folds of my coat.
I sped the horse up to a slow trot, bundled my coat tighter about me, and buttoned the collar all the way up. I saw the first few flurries of snow in the air, arriving a few days late this year. There was a full moon that night, giving just enough light to see the path in front of me as it thinned even more and wound into the woods, where the light snow had a harder time falling through the outstretched arms of the leafless trees, coming to rest on naked branches.
It was 7:30, and I was still in the woods. This reminded me of Frank, and that day with the horses, and I thought back.
“Come on, Angela!” Frank called. He was riding a big white-and-brown stallion. I was behind him on a spotted gray and white mare.
“Oh, you are?” he asked mockingly. “I bet you can’t beat me to the lake!”
We were going to a nearby lake for a picnic. He carried the basket.
He sped up, ducking under low-hanging branches, and soon he was around a corner, out of sight. “Frankie!” I called in happy indignation.
I heard an answering whoop from up ahead. I sped up, and found him waiting for me around the bend. He went faster again, but he had ducked under a branch that I didn’t see. I rode directly into it, cutting my cheek. I yelled, and lost control of the horse, which sped up and only stopped when she got to the lake. I had been shaken around violently in the saddle. A few red drops of blood had fallen on my horse’s light-colored mane, and when I pulled my hand away from my face, blood was there, too.
Frank came out of the trees and into the clearing at a gallop, and quickly stopped his horse next to mine. “Hey,” he said gently. “Hey, are you alright? I’m sorry, I should’ve warned you.”
I took my hands away from my cheek, embarrassed. Worry creased his face. He jumped down from his horse, dumped the picnic basket onto the grass, and took out the white cloth napkin that had been folded neatly at the bottom. He handed it up to me, and I took it gratefully, pressing it carefully to my face while Frank tried to calm my horse. She was stomping her feet impatiently. The cut stung, but it wasn’t too deep. It healed completely within two weeks, and there is no trace of it today.
He looked up at me. “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? I’m so sorr-”
“I beat you.”
He laughed his beautiful laugh.
Now I was sitting on a horse at night. That day was over a year ago now. I checked my watch again. Four hours left.
I continued making the same pace until I heard a gunshot nearby and a screech from some kind of animal. It was a hunter. My horse reared up, and I slid backwards in the saddle and grabbed the reins tightly to keep from falling completely off. He gave a scared whinny and tossed his head. I tried to speak softly to him, and he seemed to become calm. We started off again, and I was starting to worry about the time. I knew we would need to speed up, but wanted to make sure something like that wouldn’t happen again at a gallop, so I decided to wait. I thought some more.
It was Christmas Eve last year, and Frank and I were getting a Christmas tree. We had hiked into the woods and chosen a big, healthy evergreen and chopped it down. We had dragged it back to Frank’s car, which he had saved up for since he was 14. It was an old car, with peeling black paint and rust along the sides when he had bought it, but he had fixed it up. No one could tell what bad shape it had once been in, and it worked well, too, thanks to his repairs.
We strapped the tree to the top of the car and drove back to his house to put it up. His family needed a Christmas tree, and since his father was sick, Frank had thought we could get one. Frank was the youngest of his four siblings, but he was the only one still at home.
When we were about a mile from home, a deer ran across the road, a small doe. Frank yelled and tried to swerve so as not to hit it, but he couldn’t avoid it. With a loud thump, the car hit the poor animal and it fell. Frank pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car.
After a moment, I heard his footsteps in the snow crunching back towards me. When he opened the door, his beautiful face stricken with sadness, he said, “It’s not dead, but it’s really hurt.”
“Oh no, Frankie, I’m sorry. It was an accident, and it’ll die soon enough,” I tried to comfort him.
“No!” He didn’t mean to be angry, I knew. He wasn’t mad at me. “We have to go back to my house and get my father’s shotgun.”
“Are you sure?” I asked with concern.
So we did, and when we came back, I saw the doe, the snow stained with its blood, looking up at us with pleading eyes. I saw the pain mirrored in Frank’s. The doe’s breathing was labored and I knew it would suffer more before it died if we didn’t put it out of its misery now.
“I’m sorry,” Frank whispered, and cocked the shotgun. He held it right up against the side of her head. She didn’t make any sign that she knew what he was doing. She lay mostly still on the snowy, frozen ground.
Frank didn’t shoot for a moment, just held the gun there. He squeezed his eyes closed and looked away, but still didn’t fire.
“Come on, Frankie. Remember that it’s better for her if you do this than if you were to just let her lie here.”
He nodded, but still didn’t shoot. I shivered in the cold. Fresh snowflakes were starting to fall, covering the fallen doe’s body in a white powder like a final blanket. “Frank, please.”
“If you’re not going to do it, give me the gun.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, and pulled the trigger. I didn’t know if he was speaking to me or the deer.
As I continued on my way to Cereum Harbor, I couldn’t stop thinking about him. He had made me so happy. He deserved to be happy, too, and this was the only thing I could do now.
It was just after 10:00. I was on my way out of the woods now, the ground becoming more even and flat, and the road widening out. I sped my horse up to a canter, hoping that it would be enough, even though I knew it wouldn’t. I was running out of time. His hooves thumped faster along the dirt road and his long black mane swung back and forth with the rhythm of his steps.
At 10:30, I was starting to worry. I knew from the scenery around me that we weren’t close to the city yet. The road would be cobblestone within five miles of it, and I would be able to see the city lights farther away than that. The boat would leave at midnight, and they wouldn’t wait for me. The stallion started to gallop at my command, and I knew he couldn’t keep this up for long, even though he seemed to be a strong horse, in good shape. For a while, he continued to canter. I stopped when I felt him beginning to tire, and knew I would never make it in time if he didn’t go faster. So I gave him five minutes, and continued, this time at a gallop.
He wouldn’t be able to sustain this speed for long, but I needed him to give this all he had. I heard the wind rush and whistle through my ears and I bounced around in the saddle. I urged him to go faster.
When, at 11:15, I still couldn’t see any signs of the city, I gave the horse another break and thought. “Please, buddy, please. Can you do this for me? Only a little bit more,” I promised him as he began to gallop again reluctantly.
After five minutes, there was a faint glow in the distance. I didn’t let myself hope. But after a moment, the road turned into cobblestone and the thumps of hooves on the dirt became a steady and quick clickity-tap. My horse was tiring, and without a command from me, he slowed down and finally came to a stop. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. Maybe he wasn’t in as good shape as I’d hoped. He isn’t a racehorse, I thought. I shouldn’t have pushed him so hard. I hopped off the saddle and landed on my hands and knees on the pavement with a grunt. I tied his reins to a tree off the road and promised him, “I’ll come back.” I checked my pocket again. Still there. I saw the lights in the near distance. Could I make it if I ran? I had to try.
So I ran. I sprinted like my life depended on it. I didn’t stop. I gasped for air but couldn’t let myself slow down. My vision spun and I kept going. So close, I thought. So close. I got to the city gates and threw up, but I could see the ships of the harbor now, their sails flapping in the wind, men rushing on the docks, ready to take the ship out of the river and back to sea.
I staggered to the harbor where I was stopped by a young man helping to carry caskets back onto a ship docked nearby. “Please… where is Frank Atwich?” I asked.
He looked at me with sullen eyes. “And who’re you?” He was more informal than any man I had ever spoken to in my hometown.
“Ah. He talked about you sometimes. It’s a shame.” He pointed behind me. People were surrounding a small group of wooden caskets, women, men, young, old, all tearful.
“Thank… thank you,” I panted. I walked to the only one that was closed. Two young men like the one I had just spoken to came and nailed shut a casket that was beside me.
I opened up Frankie’s, slowly and carefully, like the person it carried was made of glass. I looked at his face, his beautiful face, and said, “Frankie, wake up.” I didn’t know what I was saying. I dropped to my knees beside him and cried. It was not pretty like in the movies. Crying never is.
He looked as if he were just asleep, but never again would he hug me, never again would I hear his voice, never again would I get to go horseback riding or play piano while he sang or kiss him under the mistletoe. I would never get to spend that Christmas with him, even though in two weeks I would get a letter that had been lost in the mail, stating, “Darling, How are you? I’ll be home for Christmas. Love, Frankie” in a messy, hurried scrawl dated two days before his death.
There was a large wrap around his stomach, and even though it was white, I knew there was something terrible underneath. “Frankie.” I didn’t collapse like the women in movies, either. I didn’t lay my arms across him and scream when he was taken away. I didn’t say, “He was only 16, why was he forced to fight and die in a meaningless war that kills as many people as it saves!” even though that was all I thought of for the rest of my life. Instead, I opened the envelope in my pocket and took out a pressed red flower. I laid it on his stomach, over the white cloth, and kissed his perfect face. A Christmas present.
About two years before Frank’s death, I was at a dance. It was open-air, and couples were swaying to love songs while the stars and the moon twinkled up above. A boy about my age that I had never seen before approached me, and he held a hand behind his back. He was blushing. “Would you like to dance with me?” he asked, and offered me a red flower.