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Christmas in the Mountains

by Kathryn Ptacek

Five days after the funeral, she drove up into the Appalachians to the cabin. She hadn't been here since ... well, since Peter had grown ill a year ago. There just hadn't been time for such things. The past twelve months had been a roller coaster--all those ups followed by such disheartening downturns, and just as they were learning to cope with the lows, then along came more highs to make their spirits soar, even if only for a day or two or three.

Now it was over. And her life ... what she had left of it, she told herself, would never be the same.

He was gone ... and yet he was here. In the cabin, in the woods, and most importantly, in her heart.

She fought back the tears as she retrieved the key from under the black rock--a present from Peter to her on their first hike in the woods--by the porch and inserted it in to the lock. She turned the key, paused, then inhaled deeply.

It wasn't as bad as she feared; Peter had built the cabin really well, really tight. What a summer that had been she thought wryly: the hammered thumbs, the mosquito bites, the total exhaustion as they tumbled into bed each night. But she remembered, too, how happy Peter had been that he--a true cityslicker--could build something like this for her.

Now she glanced around the room, savoring the faint smell of his pipe tobacco from their last visit.

She checked under the cabinets for cleaning supplies, made sure the water pressure was good and the well was working, then set to work. She scrubbed and cleaned and swept for hours, never allowing her mind to drift to what had been.

It hadn't been her idea to come up here, so close to Christmas, but the kids had wanted it--"we always spend the holidays there"--and so she said she'd go up ahead and get the place ready. Every holiday ... except last year.

She told herself not to think about such things as she made one trip after another to the truck and brought in the cartons of food and clean linens and firewood, and by late afternoon, she had the place pretty well taken care of.

Hank said he'd be up late tonight, and Susan and Mark would drive up tomorrow. She hoped the snow would hold off until they all got here, but she told herself not to worry--they all drove well. And until then ... well there wasn't much left for her to do, she guessed.

The first time Peter and she'd spent a week up here, she wondered aloud what there was to do, and Peter had just laughed and said, "Everything." They had hiked, watched birds and other wildlife, and at sunset they sat out on the porch and listened to the woods sing with night music. One week had grown to a month's sojourn, and after that they spent the entire summer up here. Soon, they were sneaking up to the cabin for birthdays and anniversaries, and after a while, they started spending the holidays here as well.

She brewed a cup of tea and sat out on the porch. Ever so often a snowflake drifted lazily downward.

Now would be when a grinning Peter would grab his hatchet, and off he'd go to find the perfect tree. He'd bring back his piney prize and stick it in a bucket in the corner of the cabin, and they'd start making decorations.

No more. She was never going to celebrate Christmas again. Why should she rejoice? The love of her life was gone.

She closed her eyes and thought about Peter these past few weeks and how he had asked her to go to the cabin again for Christmas. Unable to speak, she'd simply nodded.

"I'm here, Peter. Now what?" The words hung like frost in front of her for a few seconds, then faded. She shivered. What a fool. She should get back in the truck and head home. She put her head down and cried, letting loose all the emotions she'd kept inside for so long, and when her last sob subsided, she went into the cabin and found Peter's hatchet in the cabinet. Pulling her jacket tightly around her, she marched off into the woods. She didn't have far to go before she found the perfect little tree--a delicate balsam fir.

She raised the hatchet, then stopped. More snowflakes fell, creating a lacy veil around her. Peter loved this kind of snow--good for a snowball fight when there was enough on the ground. Peter. He was gone ... and yet he was here. In the cabin, in the woods, and most importantly, in her heart.

She tossed the hatchet onto the ground, then sat beside the tree, and watched the snow fall all around her.

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published November 30, 2003

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