There are footprints in the snow, deep and deliberate and she follows them. Her head is wrapped up in a scarf that Moms knitted for her last year. The wool smells like the house, like the love put into it and while Trixie feels like a little girl with mittens on and a covered head, she burrows deep into her coat and follows the footprints.
She should be helping in the house. There are potatoes to mash, a table to set, dishes to wash and while Bobby no longer gets in trouble every 30 seconds, he’s more likely to be turning stuff upside down in a mad dash towards joy than he is to be helpful. But he’s no longer her job, old enough to watch out for himself in that way they all ended up being when they turned 9 or 10. Besides, Bobby is too excited about having Brian and Mart back for the Christmas holiday. He’s still used to Trixie, and doesn’t seem concerned that at this time next year, he’ll have spent months alone with just his parents.
When she left, Brian and her father were discussing Mrs. Franklin. She’d been in the papers for months now. Her pension had been stolen by her boyfriend, and she was due to be foreclosed on for not being able to pay the mortgage. The neighbors were trying to help her, but other bad investments had made the situation nearly impossible to fix. Trixie didn’t want to think about the family being forced out of their home. She didn’t want to think of much of anything. So she was following the footprints that had appeared outside of her window. It was better than the alternative. No other enigmas had presented themselves and she was dying to get out of a house that felt too full with all of them in it.
The air was perfectly winterish today, though, and in the lull between opening gifts and the big dinner, Trixie had taken to the path to the clubhouse. It wasn’t just because of the note, written in an unfamiliar hand, yet straight enough to remind her of Jim’s careful penmanship. It’s not his writing, she knows. He’s on the other side of the country, too busy to make the trek home to Sleepyside, but there’s a small part of her that needs to pretend, just for the duration of the walk.
The last month has been so…lonely. So still and stark that she just wants to feel a little bit of that old warmth.
When she gets to the door of the clubhouse, she pauses. The note had said to knock. They’ve never knocked. It’s always been a second home, their own home, but she lifts her hand and raps on the wood. The wool of her mittens muffles the sound, and she shakes her head in impatience, turns the handle and shoves open the door.
It’s cold inside. It’s empty, and her impatience is replaced with ire. All those warm nights spent here, talking and planning, and now all that’s left are cold chairs and frosted windows, and…wait. The frost on the rear window wasn’t quite right. Instead it looked like…she gets nearer, breathes over the window. It’s an arrow, faint, but real, leftover from the warmth of bare skin against the frigid glass.
The arrow points west. Towards the woods.
“Fine,” she thinks to herself. “I’ll follow you. What else do I have to do?”
As she’s walking through the woods, she sees tiny signs that she’s going in the right direction – a flutter of red ribbon tied to a branch to look like it had been snagged. White fluff from a down parka flitting in the midst of frozen leaves. A pen in the middle of the path where the casual fork that offered the option of the Mr. Lytell’s store or the Manor House.
She follows the fork to the store, surprised to see it open on Christmas day. The bell tinkles over the door, but only the front lights are on near the counter. Trixie calls out hello, cupping her hand to her mouth to create an echo, but no one answers. There’s a small, wrapped package on the counter. She’s not surprised when she sees her name on the tag. There’s a folded piece of paper underneath. The words “Follow Me” are printed in heavy block print.
Suddenly, Trixie’s just tired. She doesn’t want to do this anymore. She takes the box, and quietly slips out the door to go back to the farm.
Her family is boisterously playing a game in the living room by the fire. She can hear Bobby’s shouts of glee as she makes her way back to her room. She’s almost there when Moms calls her name. She pauses in the hallway, and her mother comes by, puts her hand on Trixie’s head.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go up to the Manor House for cider?” she asks, her voice so kind Trixie almost starts to cry again.
“Why would I?” she says, knowing how petulant she sounds. “I don’t want to go somewhere I’m not wanted.”
“Trixie,” her mother is reproving.
“Friends don’t lie to each other,” Trixie says, and turns away to go to her room.
She sits on the bed, and takes the box out of her coat pocket and just looks at it. In her line of sight is the horse statue in glass of Man ‘O War. The case is locked, and she lost the key long ago. The gift from Honey stirs up her anger again, and she pounds a fist against her bedspread, determined to look for the key.
It isn’t long before someone knocks on her door. No one is allowed peace and quiet at the farm. Trixie bets in her mind which brother it will be, and is proud to be right when Mart comes in before she calls a welcome.
He sits on the bed and looks at her like he knows something she doesn’t. She doesn’t say anything, not even, “I’ve missed you,” which is true and surprising. He’s always known how to rile her, but he’s also been her staunchest defender over the past few years as her grades grew more and more mediocre, and her other skills grew.
“How’s the farm?” she asks, finally. Agricultural studies are baffling to her. She likes animals, but she doesn’t understand what Mart’s doing. Crabapple Farm is plenty farm enough for her. She can’t wait to get away from chores that involve chickens and corn.
“Big,” he says, “and more like a business than what I’d expected. I’m only there two days a week and sometimes I don’t ever see an animal or a crop.” He shrugs. “We don’t always get what we expect to have.”
It sounds so philosophical coming from her boisterous big brother. The few months away seem to have suited him. Going away seems to suit everyone.
“Moms says you’ve been up here sulking for a month,” he says, and grabs the package sitting between them. She doesn’t bother to fight him for it.
“I’m not sulking,” she says, “I’ve been studying. Like they wanted. Nothing but studying.”
“Get over it, sis,” he says, and her anger returns. She glares at him, but Mart’s not being a jerk. He’s got this soft look on his face like he can see in her heart, and he wants to be gentle with it.
“It won’t matter,” she says softly, “how much I study. You know that.”
He puts down the little box, and moves on the bed to put his arms around her. Six months ago she would have shrugged him off, but six months ago she was building a future with her best friend. Today, Honey is going to go to Smith or Barnard or Radcliffe, somewhere expensive and exclusive. And she isn’t. There’s no way to deny that she simply isn’t.
She starts to sob, and Mart holds her head. “At first I thought it’d just be about the money,” she sniffles. “And I thought, it’ll be fine. I know the Wheelers would help me out.”
“Our folks said no,” he agrees softly, knowing. They’ve made the same offer for all three children, but she didn’t know it until Peter Belden gently turned the wealthier family down.
She pushes away, wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “Of course. Trips to Europe, sure, but my education? No way.” It’s selfish, but she wants to be selfish. Money would have turned the tide for her. Maybe. Or Maybe not.
“That’s not fair.” Mart has always called her out.
Trixie hangs her head, rightfully shamed. “I can’t get in anyway,” she says, finally. “Honey’s going away somewhere fancy, and I’ll be at the state college, if I’m lucky. If I’m not, it’ll be secretarial school or something equally awful.”
“Does Honey want to go someplace fancy?”
Trixie shook her head, then nodded. “She tried to pretend that she didn’t, but…I heard her talking to Jim on the phone. She just didn’t want to tell me. She says she wants to be a lawyer, not a detective.”
“People change,” Mart says. “Doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you."
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Trixie wails.
Mart sighs. “Then starting wanting more.”
He nudges the box towards her, getting up. “But just because your plans change doesn’t mean you should give up on your best friend.”
When he closes the door, Trixie opens the box. Inside is a small, formerly absent, key, and she knows what the message is.
The small room in the stable has never been locked before, but she has a key, found inside the glass case of a former champion. Her mouth twitches. There was a point in time where she daydreamed about hiding out in this little room, surrounded by the warm smell of horses and hay. She may have even dreamed of someone’s arms around her, in those moments when her daydreams got away from her. It’s not that she’s given up on Jim, it’s just that he’s so far away. She goes to dances with the boys that ask her. She even kissed one of them in November, full of a brief moment of joy after football and music and a pretty orchid. It was nice, but it wasn’t…everything. She still doesn’t know if he’d feel like everything. And giving up on one dream had tainted the others. She feels foolish even wanting things now.
There’s a small Christmas tree wrapped in twinkling lights on the little end table that usually holds old bits and reins for repair. Underneath the tree are two packages. Trixie recognizes one of them. It's the card she gives Regan every year. The other has Honey's perfect script across it.
Honey Wheeler is sitting nervously on the edge of the saddle-bench. She was as beautiful as ever, and Trixie is filled with awe at how grown-up her friend looks.
“Some detective,” she says. “I’ve been here for hours.”
“You could have just called me,” Trixie says.
Honey bites her lip, and then shakes her head. “I have called you. I’ve written you letters. I’ve tried to shout across the hallway at school. You kept ignoring me. I knew the only thing you’d pay attention to were clues.”
“They were terrible clues,” Trixie says, and they both start to laugh so hard that the tears seem like something better than grief.
“They got you here,” Honey says.
“Not really,” Trixie replies. “Mart got me here.”
“I love you, Trixie Belden,” Honey says fiercely. “And you are an utter…” she struggles to find a word bad enough to describe her rage, and fails. “Why wouldn’t you let me explain?”
Trixies takes off her coat. It’s unbearably warm in the small room now, the coziness replaced by the heat of discomfort.
“Do you still want to become a detective?” she asks. There isn’t any more room for unasked questions.
Honey is very still, swinging one long leg against the bench. Finally, she answers. “No.” She shakes her head.
“Then what else is there to explain?”
It’s the impasse Trixie has been walking on for the past few months, alone and solitary.
“I want to do some good for someone,” Honey says, impatient. “I want to study something that will let me do good.”
“Being a detective will let us do some good.”
Honey shrugs. “Maybe, but think about Mrs. Franklin. Even if you found out who took her money, all you can do is punish that person. As a lawyer, I could help her.”
They face off, and the words are finally out in the open.
“I’ve spent years being brave to impress you,” she says softly. “But I don’t want to be brave like that anymore. I want to do what I’m good at.”
It hits Trixie like a punch. She sits down hard. “You’re a great detective.” She shouts. It sounds so silly ringing in this little horseish room.
“I’m not,” Honey says. “I’m good at supporting you! Not finding clues.”
She pauses, “And now, I really, really want you to support me.”
Trixie feels that shudder through her body. “ But I’m not good at anything else,” she whispers. “And if you go away to Smith or someplace fancy, I’ll be bad at everything, and I’ll be alone.”
It’s more of a truth than she’s been able to say out loud before. Honey had been pulling away from the idea of a detective agency since they got to high school. She’d been on the debate team, had shown that in spite of her inherent sweetness, she was a fierce logician, a competitor. And Trixie had gone to all of her meets, supported her, encouraged her. She hadn’t looked hard enough though, had failed to accept the joy she’d seen in her friend, flush with the victory of a good argument. It was the same flush Trixie felt over finding a lead, following a clue.
And all that time she kept waiting to figure out on her own what she’d suddenly be good at, besides finding trouble and solving it. But nothing else had appeared. The only skill she seemed to excel at in high school was the skill of solving problems, and doing research.
Honey gets up off the bench, and puts her arms around her friend and grips her tightly. The two girls cling to each other, hands clasped.
“I’m not leaving you alone,” she whispers, “I’m just going in my own direction. But that doesn’t mean our directions aren’t going to come back together.”
It doesn’t make Trixie feel any less alone, but she doesn’t have it in her to be angry anymore. The anger had taken so much work, but at the same time, it had been so easy to look at Honey’s choices as a betrayal, and not the hardest decision she’d ever made.
“I wish you’d told me that,” she says, and steps back, but keeps hold of Honey’s hand.
Honey shakes her head, soft hair brushing Trixie’s cheek. “I didn’t know how. I knew you’d hate me.”
There isn’t any hate in her, and she knows that now.
“Do you want to come back to the farm?” she asks. Honey shakes her head again. “We have dinner in half an hour. I’ve been here forever. But come up for cider with your family.” She looks steady. “Please.”
The boys declare their desire to brave the elements and walk, so Trixie drives here mother and herself up to the Manor House. She doesn’t feel as awkward in a dress as she did once, but she wishes she could have gone with her brothers, not simpered up a drive way on two wheels.
“I’m glad you made up with Honey,” her mother says when Trixie parks the car in the visitors space in the drive. “Nothing’s more important than friendship.” She takes Trixie’s chin in her hand. “You’ve grown up into a young lady,” Helen says, an air of surprise in her voice. “And you’ve so far to go. But I’m proud of you.”
There are more tears in both of their eyes, but they wipe them away as they get out of the car, blaming the chill. Trixie is deeply tired of tears. No one said growing up was going to be such a festival of damp.
The fire in the lounge is as big as the tree, and the flurry of joyful greetings begins as the boys arrive. The Wheelers had invited everyone and it feels like old times to Trixie as she relishes Diana’s warm embrace and Dan’s hand on the small of her back. It feels warm there and when she looks up at him, she sees another expression she hadn’t been looking for. She takes that smile and keeps it for later, a little startled, but a little pleased.
Honey beckons her over to the couch, and she snugs in, absurdly grateful to feel the warmth of Honey’s body against her. It’s felt like she was only three quarters full for the past month. Now, she’s starting to feel full up again.
They don’t need to talk, but they do. Di comes over to gossip, and throw flirtatious looks at Mart, but Trixie knows that she’s going steady with Simon Fenniger who’s home from Yale. Everyone moved forward. Everyone moved on.
They’re gathered by the tree, waiting to sing carols when Mrs. Wheeler touches Trixie’s arm. “I know it will be difficult next year,” she says, “to be away from Honey. I know she’ll miss you terribly.”
Trixie nods. “It will be.”
Mrs. Wheeler flutters a little, “Do you know where you’re going? What you’ll do? What does one study to become a great detective.”
Trixie grins. She knows the answer. “People,” she says. “You study people. And I do know what I’m going to do. I’m not going to school, at least not yet. I’m going to apprentice, maybe in California.”
Mrs. Wheeler looked startled. “Really? You can do that?”
Trixie nods, lighter than she's been in ages. “Yes,” she says. “I think I can.”