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Excerpt: 'Dashing Through The Snow'

'Dashing Through The Snow'

Thursday, December 11th

In the picturesque town of Branscombe, in the heart of the Granite State of New Hampshire, lights and banners were being strung to herald the first, and many hoped annual, Festival of Joy. It was the second week of December, and the town was buzzing. Volunteers, their faces glowing with good will, were helping to transform the village green into a holiday wonderland. The weather was even cooperating. As if on cue, a light snow was falling. The pond was frozen solid, ready for the ice-skating events planned for the weekend. Most everyone in Branscombe grew up on ice skates.

Learning of the Festival and its purpose to promote the wholesome lifestyle of a small town and the true meaning of the holiday season, a major cable network, BUZ, had decided to cover the event. They had big plans for a warmhearted special that would air on Christmas Eve.

Muffy Patton, the thirty-year-old wife of the newly elected mayor, had suggested the concept of the Festival at a summer meeting of the town council. "It's time for us to do something special for this town. Other towns in our state are famous for their sled races and bike weeks. Branscombe has been ignored for too long. We should celebrate the fact that Branscombe is a simple hamlet, full of people with good old-fashioned values. There's no better place to raise a family."

Her husband, Steve, had agreed heartily. The third-generation owner of a real estate business, he was all for promoting the land values in the area. His firm had houses listed for sale that would be perfect as a country retreat for people living in Boston. A persuasive and spirited idea man, Steve had helped Muffy generate rousing enthusiasm for the Festival.

"In so many places the spirit of Christmas isn't what it used to be," he opined. "It's all about shopping days and sales. Artificial Christmas trees jamming the stores before the Halloween pumpkins have disappeared. My city friends tell me they all get short-tempered and sulky with the stress of the season. Let's have ourselves a down-home weekend, with caroling in the town square, a new set of lights for the big tree, and lots of fun stuff to do all weekend. We'll set the example that Christmas 'tis the season to be jolly and joyful."

"What about food?" one of the council members asked practically.

"We'll get Conklin's to cater the whole works. We'll price

tickets just to cover our costs. We're so lucky to have a family-owned store like that in this town — it's an institution."

They had all nodded, thinking of how soothing it felt to just walk into Conklin's. The scents of roasting turkeys, baking hams, simmering pasta sauces, and bubbling chocolate chip cookies were a treat to inhale. Food fit for a king, and a few aisles down you'd find wrenches and garden hoses and even clothespins. People in Branscombe liked their sheets and towels to smell of fresh, cold air.

By the end of the meeting, the enthusiasm had spread to a fever pitch. Now, three months later, the Festival would begin the next day. The opening ceremony was scheduled for Friday at 5 p.m. in the town square. Branscombe's huge Christmas tree had already been lit. All the other trees along Main Street and around the Bowling Green would go on at exactly the same moment as Santa arrived on his horse-drawn sleigh. Candles were to be distributed, and the church choir would lead the crowd in singing Christmas carols. A buffet supper in the church basement would be followed by the first of many screenings of It's a Wonderful Life.

On Saturday, Nora Regan Reilly, whose son-in-law was a close college friend of the mayor, would be signing her just-published book during the holiday bazaar. She had also agreed to hold a story hour with the children. Outside, there would be hay rides and sleigh rides, and ice skaters would be serenaded by recordings of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra singing everyone's favorite Christmas music. Saturday night another buffet supper would be followed by a staging of "A Christmas Carol," performed by the amateur Branscombe thespian group. Sunday morning the festivities would wrap up with a pancake breakfast, yet another meal to be held in the church basement.

So far all the plans were running smoothly.

Over at Conklin's Market, the employees were working nonstop to prepare for the weekend. The Festival had been a great idea for the town and for Conklin's business, but the workers were worn out. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, was always busy, but this year things were crazed. And thanks to the television coverage, more and more people from the surrounding towns were expected to join in the activities. The workers at Conklin's had to be ready to supply extra food at a moment's notice. They knew they wouldn't be able to enjoy a single minute of the festivities themselves, but they were sure that Mr. Conklin would reward them with a bigger bonus than usual, a bonus that traditionally had been handed out by now. Some of the staff had even been grumbling that they hadn't received it yet.

Tonight the 8:00 closing hour couldn't come fast enough for any of them. At ten of eight, Glenda, the head cashier, was locking up one of the registers when the front door flew open and Mr. Conklin's bossy new wife, Rhoda, marched in, followed by her increasingly sheepish husband, Sam, whom she now referred to as Samuel. In her late fifties, Rhoda and old man Conklin had met at a senior singles dance in Boston, when he was visiting his son for the weekend. It didn't take Rhoda long to realize that Sam was ripe for the picking. A recent widower, he didn't know what hit him until one day he found himself in his best blue suit, a flower in his lapel, and the sight of Rhoda in a glittery cocktail dress, marching down the aisle toward him. Since then life at Conklin's Market had not been the same. Rhoda was trying to put her stamp on a forty-year-old business that had run just fine without her.

She told Ralph the butcher, whose roasted turkeys were legendary, that he was using too much butter when he basted them. Her attempt to convince the sweet-faced, seventy-five-year-old Marion, who had run the bakery department since Day One, to use canned fillers for her cakes and pies, was not well received. Tommy, a burly, ruggedly handsome young man in his twenties, who had a magical way with salads and sandwiches, was told to cut down on the generous portions of cold cuts he allotted to the submarine sandwiches. Duncan, the head of produce, was mortally offended when Rhoda retrieved a bruised apple he'd tossed out and put it back in the bin.

And then there was Glenda. Glenda knew, because she handled the cold, hard cash, that whenever Rhoda was around she was being watched like a hawk. This offended Glenda to the core. She had worked at Conklin's since high school, and in the sixteen years following there'd never been a dime missing on her watch, nor would there ever be. Now the sight of the new Mrs. Conklin made Glenda's stomach churn. While the employees had all been working themselves to death, Rhoda had obviously been out having her hair done. The broad white streak that ran from her forehead to the back of her midnight black hair looked freshly oiled. Thanks to Glenda's referring to that dye job as "reskunked," Rhoda was now known to the employees of Conklin's as "The Skunk."

Rhoda darted over to Glenda. "Wait till you see the surprise we have for our five key employees! Samuel and I would like you, Ralph, Marion, Duncan, and Tommy to come to the office as soon as you're finished closing up."

"Sure," Glenda answered, as she suspiciously eyed the two heavy shopping bags with the logo of the local frame shop that Mr. Conklin was carrying. What could be in them?

Ten minutes later she found out. The group stood together as Rhoda made her little speech about how the Festival of Joy was really bringing home the true meaning of the holidays. "Samuel and I are so pleased that the town of Branscombe is being celebrated for its emphasis on people, rather than things. Spirituality. Good neighbors. That's why we've decided, in lieu of a cash bonus, which is so mercenary, to give you something else." Diving into the bags, she began to hand each of them a gift-wrapped package. "Open them all at once so it doesn't ruin the surprise for any of you."

A dead silence fell over the room as the senior employees of Conklin's, after yanking the string and paper off the boxes, found themselves staring at the group picture of the five of them taken with the bride and groom six months ago on the porch of the Branscombe Inn. The frames were engraved with the words, "In appreciation of your long and faithful service. Joyous holidays to you! Samuel and Rhoda Conklin."

Glenda was appalled. Every one of us needs a cash bonus and was counting on it, she thought angrily. Duncan had gotten so thrifty he didn't even go in our group lottery tickets today. She was planning to use her bonus to pay off the cash advance she'd taken on her credit card. She'd needed the money to reimburse her ex-husband, Harvey, for his clothes that were "maliciously ruined" when she left them out in two garbage bags on the driveway, just as an unexpected storm made its appearance. Violent winds had blown the bags into the street just as a delivery truck rumbled through. Five minutes late, Harvey found his clothes scattered all over the street, soaked and squashed.

"If I hadn't left them out at the appointed time," Glenda had protested, "he'd be complaining I was in contempt of court."

The judge didn't buy it and ordered her to pay the replacement value of the tacky getups Harvey favored. The bonus would have meant she could have paid him off and be rid of him and his cheating ways forever.

"You don't have to thank us," Rhoda chirped, as they all held the pictures in their hands. "Come along, Samuel. We need to get a good night's rest. It's going to be a busy weekend."

Mr. Conklin followed her out the door without making eye contact with any of his workers.

Glenda saw that Marion was blinking back tears. "I promised my grandson a nice wedding present," she said. "But after paying for the flight to California, now I don't know what I'll be able to afford . . ."

Ralph moaned, "Judy and I were planning to take a cruise this winter to give ourselves a break. With both girls in college, we're always stretched to the limit. Even tonight Judy is babysitting to pick up some extra cash."

Tommy looked as though steam was about to come out of his ears. Glenda knew that he still lived with his elderly parents because they needed his help financially. A good skier, he'd been planning to take a long overdue trip out west with some of his pals.

Tall, thin, quiet Duncan, who at almost thirty-two was just a couple of years younger than Glenda, grabbed his coat and thrust his arms into it. As he pulled up the hood, his sandy hair fell forward on his forehead. His face was flushed. Glenda had always had an almost maternal feeling for him. He was so methodical, so orderly, his produce section of Conklin's was always so inviting, that it was out of character for him to be visibly upset. "I'm out of here," he said, his voice shaking.

Glenda caught his arm. "Wait a minute," she urged. "Why don't we all go down to Salty's Tavern and get a bite to eat?"

Duncan looked at her as though she was nuts. "And spend more money that we don't have?" he asked, his voice rising with every word. "The financial planning course I've been taking emphasizes that eating out when you can just as easily fix something at home is one of the primary reasons so many people are in debt."

"Then go home and make yourself a peanut butter sandwich," Glenda snapped. "Don't you think we're all upset? Sometimes after a blow like this it's good to get out with friends and relax."

But Duncan was gone before she could finish.

"Some misery loves company," Ralph shrugged with an attempt at a smile. "Let's go."

"I'm with you," Marion cried. "I almost never touch the stuff, but right now I could use a stiff drink."

Two hours later, Glenda, Tommy, Ralph, and Marion, feeling somewhat better, and even able to joke about The Skunk, were about to leave Salty's Tavern when Tommy pointed to the television over the bar.

They all watched as the local announcer, his voice excited, cried, "There are two winners in the mega-mega multistate lottery tonight. Two winners who will share 360 million dollars, and what is so incredible is that both tickets were bought within ten miles of one another in New Hampshire!"

As one, their bodies froze. Could they even dare hope that their group could possibly have one of the winning tickets? For every drawing, they each threw in a dollar and purchased five tickets. They played the same five numbers on each ticket and the same separate Powerball numbers on four of them, but the fifth Powerball number they took turns choosing.

The announcer read the first five numbers. "They're ours!" Marion shrieked.

"And the Powerball number is ...32!"

Tommy and Ralph pounded the table. "No!" they cried. "32 isn't one of our regular Powerball numbers."

"What about the extra number this week?" Marion cried. "It was Duncan's turn, but he decided not to play."

Glenda was digging in her purse. Her hands were trembling. Sweat popped out on her forehead. She pulled out her wallet and unzipped the special compartment where she kept the tickets.

"Duncan told me the Powerball number he had chosen. He was about to hand me his dollar, then put it back in his wallet. I was so used to buying ?ve tickets that when I got to the convenience store and pulled out a ?ve dollar bill, I thought what the heck? I bought the extra ticket and used Duncan's Powerball number . . . I'm sure it was in the 30s."

"I can't take it," Marion cried. "What was it? Hurry up Glenda!" she croaked.

Glenda dealt out the tickets like a deck of cards. "Let's all take a look."

In the dim light of the votive candle, the tickets were hard to read. Marion bent over, straining to decipher the Powerball number on the ticket in front of her. An otherworldly grunting sound emanated from the depths of her being. "Oh, my God!" she ?nally screamed as she jumped up, waving the ticket. "WE WON! WE WON!"

"Are you SURE it's 32?" Glenda shouted.

Marion's hand was shaking so much the ticket ?uttered to the ?oor. Tommy reached down and grabbed it. "It's got the number 32!" he boomed. "It's 32!"

By now, everyone in the tavern was on his feet.

"The four of us get to split 180 million bucks!" he shouted as he lifted the diminutive Marion off her feet and spun her around.

Wait till Harvey hears about this, Glenda thought wildly as she and Ralph hugged.

"How about one of those group hugs?" Marion cried as the four of them put their arms around each other, laughing, crying, and still not believing.

This can't be true, Glenda thought. How can it possibly be true? Our lives have changed forever.

"Drinks for everyone," the bartender cried. "But you guys are paying!"

The foursome fell back into their chairs and just looked at each other.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Marion asked as she wiped the tears from her eyes.

Glenda nodded. "Duncan."

"It was his Powerball number," Ralph said.

"Yes, it was," Glenda con?rmed. "I would never have picked 32. But I decided to throw in the extra dollar. So you all owe me a quarter!"

"I'll even pay you interest," Tommy promised.

They all laughed, but immediately their expressions turned serious. "We should share this with Duncan," Glenda said. "The poor guy. He wouldn't even treat himself to a burger tonight. And without his number, we wouldn't have won."

"And we wouldn't have won if you hadn't thrown in that extra dollar," Marion said. "How can we all ever thank you?"

Glenda smiled. "We've been in this together for years, and now we've been blessed. Let's start our own Festival of Joy. I can't wait to hear Duncan's reaction." She pulled out her cell phone. Duncan's numbers were in her list of contacts. She tried his home phone and his cell, but he didn't pick up either one. She left a message for him to call immediately, no matter what time it was. "That's strange," she said when she hung up. "He certainly sounded as if he were going straight home. I wonder if he knows yet that our numbers won and thinks he's not part of it."

"He might think that you just played our four dollars and we lost out," Tommy said.

At that moment the bartender came over, uncorked a bottle of champagne, and started to pour it into four glasses. "Time to celebrate. I'm sure none of you are planning to go to work in the morning."

"You bet we're not," Marion said. "This is the new Mrs. Conklin's big chance to run the whole show. Let her try and bake a cake as good as mine. Good luck, honey!"

They clinked glasses as they nodded in rapturous agreement at the thought of the expression on The Skunk's face when she heard of their good fortune.

But Glenda couldn't put the nagging worry about Duncan out of her mind. He had been so upset about not getting a bonus, and now he wasn't answering his phone.

Could anything have happened to him?

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Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark