“No sign of your mother yet, Henry?”
Henry, who sat curled up on a heater inside the school entryway, his legs folded beneath him and his book open in his lap, looked up at Miss Blanchard just long enough to shake his head.
“Well that’s strange.” Mary Margaret Blanchard moved into the entryway as well, and peered out into the dim grey light of late afternoon. Henry watched her fold her arms, tucking her hands into her cardigan as if she was protecting herself from a thought she’d just had. “All the parents were notified hours ago that school was closing early because of the weather. Perhaps I’d better make a few more calls. Just . . . to see.”
“You think she’s gone off the road,” Henry predicted, returning his gaze to his book. “Because of the blizzard.”
“No! Oh, no,” Miss Blanchard said far too quickly, “no, of course not. But the snow is getting deep. Maybe she would prefer it if Mrs. Kroner and I arranged to get you home safely, rather than keep you here while the weather gets worse.”
“Because you can’t go home until I do, right?” Henry said. “Not even one of you. It’s the law, right?”
Miss Blanchard smiled at him in that way Miss Blanchard always did; like almost in spite of herself, she had to find him kind of cute. Lots of grown-ups smiled at Henry that way. He was used to it.
“Yes,” she said, “it is the law. But even if it weren’t, you can’t think I would leave you alone in school for Christmas vacation! I would wait with you as long as it took.”
She meant it, too. Henry smiled back at her.
“You can call her if you like,” he said. “I doubt she’s home, though.”
Miss Blanchard hesitated, then ruffled his hair and hurried away to the office, presumably to ask Mrs. Kroner to put a call through to the woman he had lately come to think of as his not-mother.
Henry turned back to the book and continued what he privately thought of as his research. He was in the middle of refreshing himself on the story of the Snow Queen when the silence of the heavy snowfall was broken by the throaty bellow of a diesel engine whose muffler had seen better days. Henry looked up, over the window sill, and a smile such as he never reserved for his not-mother broke across his face.
“Miss Blanchard!” he called. “Miss Blanchard, my mom’s here!”
“Really?” Miss Blanchard’s heels clicked rapidly back down the hall, and she appeared beside him to look out the window. “Oh– Henry, that’s Emma.” She put a hand on his shoulder, gentle and kindly-meant, so he knew she was going to say something he probably didn’t want to hear. “I know she’s your mother, but I really can’t let you go home with a non-custodial parent.”
“I know,” Henry said. “But she can wait here with me, right? And Mr. Nolan too?”
“Mr. Nolan?” Miss Blanchard looked out the window again, and registered the fact that Emma was getting out of an old brown pickup driven by David Nolan. She swallowed. “What in the world is he doing here?”
Henry was less interested in the question of why his mom had received a drive from David Nolan than he was in the task of shoving open the front door of the school, and beckoning enthusiastically at them both to come inside.
It was a rough trek from the parking lot to the front door. The late December storm had already dumped almost a foot of snow over Storybrooke, and all reports indicated it would deposit as much more before it was done. David and Emma both slipped and slid when their boots hit ice beneath the blanket of white. They were almost to the door when both Emma’s feet went out from under her, she careened backwards into David and knocked him flat on his back.
At seeing this Henry ran outside, ignoring Miss Blanchard’s calls for him to wait, and her warning that he shouldn’t be out without a coat. Miss Blanchard hesitated, then made a sound of resignation and followed him out into the snow.
“Are you all right?” she asked, bending over the tangle of Emma and David.
“Fine,” said Emma. “Cold.” She struggled to her feet, and looked down at the man who’d cushioned her fall. “Sorry about that. Are you okay?”
“Ye-eah,” said David, although he said it in a tone half an octave higher than usual. “I think so.”
Henry stood back as Miss Blanchard and Emma helped him to his feet, and they all headed inside.
“What are you still doing here, kid?” Emma asked, once they had gathered in the entryway. “Radio report said everybody went home at noon.”
“His mother seems to have been delayed,” Miss Blanchard put in.
“She doesn’t listen to the radio,” Henry said. “But that's how most parents find out school got closed. The rest they phone, but I guess she's not answering. So Miss Blanchard and Mrs. Kroner got stuck waiting with me.”
“Oh, no, Henry!” Miss Blanchard protested. “We didn’t get stuck, it . . . we’re happy to wait.”
“Mrs. Kroner?” Emma repeated.
“The school secretary,” Miss Blanchard explained. “She lives just one street over, so she said she didn’t mind the roads getting bad. Everybody else had a bit of a drive ahead of them, though . . . are the roads much worse?”
“Ask Emma,” said David. Emma grimaced.
“We left my car in a ditch about half a mile away,” she said. “I thought you’d need a ride home, what with the weather and all, so I was on my way over to pick you up but I didn’t realize how bad the roads really were. I took a corner too fast and the car went off the road. David was driving home from the animal shelter when he saw me walking, so he offered me a ride.”
“Well,” said Miss Blanchard, in a tone Henry knew she saved for students who were getting on her last nerve, “well, wasn’t that just charming of him.”
For a moment there was a heavy, awkward silence in the entryway. Then everybody seemed to realize how uncomfortable that silence was, and they started talking all at once. Emma said she would wait at the school with Henry and Miss Blanchard, David said he could drive them all home, Miss Blanchard said no he should probably just go home because his wife would be worried, and Henry said he really didn’t need anybody to look after him, he could walk home himself.
That’s when the lights went out.
David had recently discovered that he had a weird thing about the dark. He hadn’t yet asked Kathryn if he’d always been that way, or if it was some strange byproduct of the last part of his coma being spent prostrate in a river in the night-blackened woods; he only knew that something about the dark was empty and wide and weightless, and it terrified him.
So when the lights went out, David nearly panicked. He felt his chest get tight, and his palms get damp, but before the threads of terror uncurling in his spine could clamp around his heart, Mary Margaret brushed against him. She was slight and soft, so maybe not the best choice for strengthening one’s resolve against a panic attack, but that didn’t matter. At the touch of her, the scent of her, David’s heartbeat slowed and steadied. He breathed in, he breathed out, and he drew strength from the core of coiled steel he knew she carried within her.
Of course, as soon as she realized who she was brushing up against she quickly drew away, but he had already found his bearings. The dim, storm-muted afternoon light was enough to keep them from tripping over each other in the entryway, and it allowed Mrs. Kroner to find her way along the corridor, down to the entryway, and ask them if everybody was okay.
“Yes, just a little surprised,” Mary Margaret decided. “Are the lights off all through the school?”
“It looks like it,” said Mrs. Kroner. She didn’t look any too pleased about it. “I suppose the wind will have taken the lines down, somewhere. No word from Ms. Mills, yet.”
David couldn’t see Mary Margaret’s face as she said this, but somehow he knew—just knew—that she was biting her lip as she did.
“I could drive some of us home,” he offered. “I couldn’t fit everybody in the truck, but I could get Henry home for sure.”
“He can’t leave with you,” Mary Margaret said. “You’re not his parent.”
“What if I went with—” Emma began, but Mary Margaret turned on her, an unimaginable period of frustration and tension and the additional exhaustion of trying to teach somebody else’s sugar-high holiday-mad hyperactive children finally boiling over in one burst of temper as she yelled:
“His real parent!”
The next heavy, awkward silence that descended on the snowbound party was much heavier and far more awkward than the last. It was broken much faster, too, by the sound of running feet. Henry, his book tucked under his arm, bolted down the hall and ran away into the darkness of the school.
“Oh, no,” Mary Margaret pressed her hands to her mouth, stricken. “I’m sorry, Emma, that was so—”
“So very okay,” Emma concluded firmly, and pressed a reassuring hand to Mary Margaret’s shoulder. “I’ve said it before; I think you’re a hero, to do this job. I’m surprised you don’t snap more often.”
“I’ll go get him,” Mary Margaret said, but Emma vetoed this offer.
“No, I’ll go after Henry; you know the school, you should maybe go for a few candles and blankets, or something. These emergency lights don’t seem to be doing much, and I have a feeling it’s going to get cold in here before we can all go home again.”
“All right,” Mary Margaret nodded, “yes, all right, we can do that.” She addressed her ‘we’ to Mrs. Kroner, but Mrs. Kroner apologetically shook her head.
“It’s all in the basement, Miss Blanchard,” she said. “In the tech room. I can’t manage it; not with my hip and my back the way they are. But I’m sure Mr. Nolan would be able to help.”
David studiously avoided looking at Mary Margaret as he said “yes, of course I can. My pleasure.” He was pretty sure she was glaring daggers at him as he did, but it wasn’t the sort of offer she could reasonably or fairly decline, so they started off down the hall together, in the direction opposite to the one Henry had taken.
The journey to the basement was silent, except for the sound of their feet on the tile and the occasional whistle of the wind outside. David considered and rejected several polite conversation openers, fairly confident that Mary Margaret wouldn’t receive any of them well. Only after they had reached the basement and Mary Margaret, little more than a pale shape standing out against the gloom of the darkened hall, led the way to a locked room, labelled ‘Broad Based Technology’, did she break the silence.
“You’re in the light,” she said, so he stood to the side and let her choose from a selection of keys on a chain, fitting one to the door and admitting them to the room beyond.
It was the room that at one point would have been called the home ec and shop class. Now a bank of computers joined the kitchen and crafting tools, and David turned in a slow, disoriented circle, studying it all in the faint, flickering illumination of the emergency light, while Mary Margaret headed straight for a tall cupboard.
This she unlocked too, and took out a stack of thick woollen blankets. David was on hand just in time to receive them as she pushed them in his direction before moving on to a second shelf, where she located matches and box of candles.
She shut the cupboard without a word, and David followed her silently back across the room to the hallway. They were almost back to the stairs when the flickering emergency light nearest them flared, sputtered, and died, leaving them in perfect blackness.
David bit back some of the words he wanted to say, feeling they were probably inappropriate for a school setting, but Mary Margaret felt no such compunction.
“Damn,” she said. There was a pause, then the scrabbling of fingers on cardboard and the spark of a match. Mary Margaret touched the flame to the wick of a candle she’d fished out of its box, and held it up.
It didn’t shed a lot of light, but it cast her face in a warm yellow glow that David found unnervingly hypnotic and somehow familiar.
“Have we been in a blackout together before?” he asked.
Mary Margaret was startled out of her simmering ire. “What? No. Why?”
He shook his head, confused. The most truthful answer he could give—that he was ready to swear he’d seen her by candlelight before—was probably not one she’d receive happily. If Emma’s stiff and chilly attitude toward him in the truck was any indication, he was still a long way from Mary Margaret’s good graces . . . and rightly so, he supposed.
He also supposed that the impression he was now struggling to tamp down on could be taken as proof that Mary Margaret was right to think so poorly of him, because the kind of man—the kind of married man—who could look at a woman not his wife and get the unshakeable impression he had seen her in candlelight before . . . well, what sort of man must he be?
Besides an amnesiac, that is. Which he was. Which meant this should be fine . . . except, as Mary Margaret and her candle turned to light their way upstairs to the ground floor, David was pretty sure it wasn’t fine.
Because he was getting the feeling he’d seen more than her face in the firelight, before.
The storm was the worst their kingdom had seen in years, and there was some talk that perhaps the Snow Queen was on the warpath, but there was not yet enough proof of her involvement for concern. Snow White urged prudence in their fears, and he tried to heed her request, but with the newly-discovered promise of their child within her and the blizzard raging all without their home, he found it hard not to give in to his greatest terror: that he could not protect them from everything.
“Come to bed,” she told him; not a plea, not a command, but something warming in between. He smiled and slipped in beside her, peeled the sheet back and watched the firelight cast living shadows over the curve of her hip and the swell of her breast, already fuller with the promise of new life to come.
He traced the shadow-patterns with his finger, then mapped them with his lips. Snow fell cold and lifeless beyond the window, but Snow beside him was warm and bright. Her laughter warmed him like fire from the inside out. He pulled her close, and together they banished the cold.
Mary Margaret clutched the boxes beneath her left arm and the candle in her right hand as though she could use them to keep the man behind her at bay. It was foolish, she knew, to view David as a threat; whatever else she might think of him, however she might hate him—and for now, at least, she did—she did not think him dangerous.
In fact, in a very few, fleeting moments of perfect honesty with herself, Mary Margaret would admit that David was the one person in Storybrooke who made her feel truly, wholly safe.
Which was what made the threat he posed to her heart that much worse.
She clutched the candle tighter, and held it closer to her chest. She didn’t realize how this limited the spread of light until she heard a thud and cry behind her, and turned to find David had fallen halfway down the stairs. He lay on the floor with his left leg turned at an awkward angle, blankets scattered around him.
“Oh, my—” she dropped the boxes and hurried back down the steps to kneel at his side. “Are you okay?” she glanced down at his leg, and bit her lip. “Can you straighten your leg at all?”
He could, but the sheen of sweat that broke out on his forehead led Mary Margaret to order him not to stand.
“It’s okay,” he protested, “I think if you help me I can manage it.”
“Or,” Mary Margaret countered, “you could pull us both down and I could sprain my leg too. Just wait, okay? I’ll go to the nurse’s office, there must be some sort of crutch or cane there, surely.”
He caught her wrist in a grip so tight, it startled her. She looked down at him and saw raw, naked fear on his face.
His throat moved as though the words were stuck in there. Mary Margaret waited.
“It’s the dark,” he said. “After the woods . . . I mean, recently, it . . .” he stopped, shook his head, and took a few short, sharp breaths. “I can’t handle the dark.”
Mary Margaret considered this information, and then returned to sit on the ground by his head.
“All right,” she said.
“All right?” he echoed. She nodded, turning her candle sideways, dripping a small puddle of wax onto the floor and then pressing the base of the candle into the wax until it hardened and locked the candle in place.
She used both hands to help him raise his upper body, and wedged a few of the blankets against the small of his back.
“Thanks,” he smiled at her.
Mary Margaret felt her heart do uninvited and unaccountable things at the sight of that smile. She ducked her head and looked at the candle flame instead.
“They’ll come looking for us eventually,” she predicted. “Then they can bring a cane or maybe a stretcher or something and we can get you up to the ground floor. I know I’m no doctor, but it’s probably just a bad sprain.”
“Yeah, well, it feels like hell.”
Mary Margaret looked at him, jutted her chin out and blurted “good.”
David looked surprised, then rueful. He shook his head. “Guess I can’t begrudge you the chance to tell me what you think of me,” he decided, “since you didn’t even have to stay here when I asked you to.” He nodded at her. “Go ahead,” he said. “Just . . . everything. Tell me everything. I deserve it.”
Every disappointed hope, every shred of wounded pride and her desire to see him as crushed as she herself had been that night by the bridge all swelled within Mary Margaret as a primal tide. She drew a breath, opened her mouth . . . and found she didn’t have it in her to give voice to any of it.
Her shoulders slumped, and she pressed her face into her hands.
“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. “But it’s okay.”
“What? No,” said David, startled. “It’s not. Go ahead. You should tell me. I know that whatever you say, it will be nothing more than what I’ve earned.”
She raised her face from her palms, and smiled damply at him. “How can you know that?” she said. “You don’t even know me. What if I say horrible, cruel and unkind things about you?”
“Then they’ll be deserved, because of the horrible, cruel and unkind things I did,” he decided.
She opened her mouth, reconsidered what she had been about to say, and closed it again. She shook her head, and looked down at her hands.
“You hurt me,” she said simply. “But you already know that. What you maybe don’t know is that it shouldn’t have mattered to me nearly as much as it did. I got mad at you for that; not for hurting me, but for the way it hurt so much more than I thought it should. As though that were your fault. That wasn’t fair of me.”
David looked badly disoriented by this revelation.
“Are you serious?” he said. “I was a jerk to you and you’re apologizing for that?”
“No,” Mary Margaret corrected him. “I was right to be angry at you for that. I’m apologizing because I was mad at you for something else; something that wasn’t your fault. That wasn’t fair.”
David shook his head, looking, if anything, even more bewildered. Mary Margaret watched his face, not saying anything. Finally he looked up at her and smiled in a way that did that irksome thing to her heart again.
“See?” he said. “I was right. I knew that whatever you said wouldn’t be any more or less than I deserved.”
She blinked, disbelieving, and then swatted his arm.
“You’re gloating?” she said. “Seriously?”
“Sure,” he said. “After all, if I can’t gloat when I’m wounded and helpless, then when can I?”
“I guess that’s true,” she sighed, and rolled her eyes. “If anybody would gloat when he was wounded and helpless, it would probably be you.”
There were six more words on the tip of her tongue, and, unthinking, she almost spoke them to the air. At the last possible minute she recognized them for the absurdity they were and bit them back, unspoken, to die as mere thought.
They shook her, though, because they made no real sense and she couldn’t imagine what would have made her think to say them to David Nolan, of all people:
You always were a lousy patient.
“For the last time, you need to lie still and let Doc take a look at it.”
“I don’t want that godawful sawbones—”
“Well, I don’t!”
“He is my friend,” Snow said, her eyes snapping dark sparks as she stood over him, “and you will let him help. We’re lucky to have him, if you will insist on attacking every witch you stumble across who happens to have stolen small children. Look, now it’s gone all green. That can’t be good.”
James followed the direction of his wife’s pointing finger, and made a face. “Probably just healing,” he said, and tried to get out of the chair she had pushed him into. She pushed him right back into it.
“It is not healing, it is festering and you had better listen to me, Charming. Doc will be here any minute, and you are going to be the most agreeable and obliging patient he has ever had in his entire life. Because we don’t know what curse she might have charmed that dagger with, and the days when you were allowed to take stupid chances with yourself are over. You’re mine now, do you hear?” She dropped to her knees beside his chair and searched his face. “You are mine, I am yours, and we take care of what is ours. Isn’t that right?”
James looked down into her face, saw her pale, frightened and angry, and smiled. He cradled her cheek in his hand, and could have sworn that even touching her was enough to dull the fiery pain eating his side where the witch had cut him.
“That’s right,” he whispered.
“Good,” she said, and pressed her mouth to the corner of his, greedy for the taste of him, for the reminder of the promise that he would be hers for all of happily ever after. “Good.”
He kissed her back, feeding her hunger rather than sating it, savouring the taste of that same promise.
Emma realized almost as soon as she started after Henry what a ridiculous idea it was to chase her son through a school she barely knew. She’d been there only a handful of times, and all of those times she had gone directly to Mary Margaret’s classroom. Henry had turned down a corridor that was nowhere near that part of the school, and Emma soon found herself lost and wandering the halls.
“Henry!” she shouted as she walked. “Henry, come on; Mary Margaret’s sorry, she didn’t mean it like that. She knows you think—I mean, she knows I’m your mom. She just meant, um, legally and stuff.”
She turned a corner and faced another empty hall, one she was pretty sure she had already seen, though she hadn’t walked down it. It was lit half with emergency lights, and half by a glass door near the end of the hall. The same grey light of winter filtered through the glass.
Emma walked down the hall, and on reaching the doors looked through to see the school library. She pushed the door in and looked around.
Silence, broken by a hiccuping sob.
Emma sighed, stepped through the doors and turned right. There, huddled on the floor at the end of two rows of books, was her dejected-looking son.
Her boots made no noise on the thin green carpet. Henry’s quiet snuffles were the only sound in the room as she joined him, settled onto the ground at his side, and looked at his tear-streaked face.
“Mary Margaret didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said.
“I know,” Henry snuffled, and ducked his head. “But you can hurt somebody without meaning it, you know.”
They sat together without saying anything for a minute more. Then Emma, looking for a diversion, nodded at the book Henry still clutched to his chest.
“So . . . who’s Mrs. Kroner, when she’s in the fairy tales?”
“I don’t know.” Henry hugged the book a little tighter. “Probably a woman from the village, or somebody who worked in the castle. She’s really nice. She has candy on her desk and she lets us all take it, even though they aren’t supposed to give us candy in school. And when kids are sick she tries really hard to call their parents, like calls and calls and calls, a lot, until she gets hold of them. The nurse only calls once or twice before she gives up and you have to stay in the sick room until the end of the day.”
Then Henry hesitated, and looked down at his book.
“But sometimes I’d rather just stay in the sick room.”
Emma remembered a stiff vinyl couch that stuck to her bare legs and paper cups of ginger ale to calm her stomach. The sterile tranquillity of that room, the soothing, meaningless murmurs of the nurse and the welcome weight of a cool hand on her forehead had been her preference, too. In the anonymous chaos of the foster home, even the best-intentioned of foster mothers often forgot to check on the quiet sick child in the upstairs room. Sometimes for hours.
Before she could think better of the idea, Emma slipped her arm around Henry’s shoulders and pulled him close.
“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”
Henry settled his head against her shoulder. His hair tickled her neck, and his cheek was wet from the tracks of his tears.
Suddenly, Emma’s heart felt too big for her chest.
“We should probably go back to the door,” she said, rubbing Henry’s shoulder awkwardly. “Mrs. Kroner’s there, and David and Mary Margaret are probably back by this time, too.”
“Back from where?” Henry asked, as they both got to their feet.
“They went to look for some supplies,” Emma said. “Some stuff to keep us warm, and light this place up a little while we wait for your mother.”
“What if she doesn’t come?” Henry wondered. They made their way out of the library and back toward the main entrance of the school. “What if by the time she finds out everything closed, she can’t even get here?”
“Then we’ll probably ask David to give us all rides home,” Emma sighed.
Henry grinned. “Bet my mother won’t like that,” he said, and sounded as pleased by the prospect as if Emma had suggested having ice cream sundaes before dinner.
“Why wouldn’t she like you getting a ride home safe?” Emma frowned. Henry sighed with all the patience of a long-suffering parent.
“Not that. I mean, she won’t like that we’re all together. Especially David and Mary Margaret. Because they’re Prince Charming and Snow White, and the more time they spend together, the more chance there is they’ll start to remember each other and how they were in love.”
Emma kept pace with Henry in silence for a few more strides before she spoke again.
“Henry,” she said, “curse or no curse . . . do you really think it’s possible that two people who loved each other as much as you seem to think Prince Charming and Snow White did could ever forget each other? Really?”
“Well,” said Henry, “you believe David and Kathryn were married, but you believe he forgot her, don’t you?”
“That’s different,” Emma said, “he had a head injury! That’s what doctors call a severe trauma.”
“Don’t you think a curse where you’re taken away from your home and made to live in a whole other world is a severe trauma, too?” Henry countered.
Emma’s lips pursed in a grudging smile.
“I guess it would qualify,” she allowed. “But still, Henry—” she broke off, looking up to see Mrs. Kroner waving at them from the doorway. “What is it?”
“I’m so glad to see you back,” Mrs. Kroner said. “The storm isn’t letting up, and Mr. Nolan and Miss Blanchard aren’t back yet. Henry’s mother has phoned and asked if there is anybody who can bring him home. Apparently she can’t even get out of the driveway. I assured her we had a vehicle, and now I’m afraid I should go home myself or I won’t even be able to walk to my house.”
“No, of course,” Emma said. “You should start right away. Henry and I will go find the others, and we’ll check on our way past that you’ve made it home, all right?”
Mrs. Kroner agreed this was the best plan, so Emma and Henry left her wrapping a long woollen scarf around her neck in preparation for her trek.
After Emma told Henry what David and Mary Margaret had been looking for, the boy led her straight down a particular hallway with a staircase at the end. At the bottom of the stairs, they found the people they were looking for. David was propped up with a thick roll of blankets and had another blanket wrapped around his legs. Mary Margaret had made a sort of cocoon of two more blankets and huddled within them like a girl at a campfire. She was laughing like one too, and David was chuckling at what seemed to have been his own joke.
They both looked up as Emma and Henry stopped on the stairs, Emma’s expression one of hesitant confusion, Henry’s made of pure delight.
“Oh,” said Mary Margaret, lurching to her feet and nearly knocking over the candle that was stuck to the floor beside her, “oh, good! We wondered where you were. David’s, uh, kind of hurt himself.”
“A lie!” David declared, waving his arm dramatically. “It was an evil plot. She tripped me. I’m almost sure of it.”
Mary Margaret delivered a cordial wallop to the patient’s shoulder.
“Pretty sure he hit his head on the way down, too,” she said, straight-faced.
Emma’s confusion increased. So did Henry’s delight.
After Emma related what Mrs. Kroner had said, and David was helped out of the basement with the combined effort of all three able-bodied people in his company, the four of them made their way out of the school and into the driving snow.
What afternoon light there had been was almost gone. It was dark, the wind bit with the savagery of a rabid wolf, and the tire tracks the truck had made on its way in were almost completely filled.
“We’re going to have to clear it off,” Emma called over the wind, studying the truck. It was covered with snow too.
“There’s a shovel in the back,” David volunteered. “Ice scraper and brush, too. I could maybe lean on the hood—”
“You will do no such thing,” Mary Margaret said firmly.
“I can do it,” Henry offered. “Really. I can.” So once David had been wedged into the passenger seat with his leg somewhat elevated, Emma, Henry and Mary Margaret armed themselves with the ice scraper, snow shovel and brush David kept in the truck, and did battle with the snow.
Henry stood on his tiptoes, his arms stretched to their limit, and brushed the windshield clear of snow. Then he climbed into the truck bed and cleared off the rear window too, grinning when David waved at him from inside the cab.
Mary Margaret attacked the thin sheen of ice that lay beneath the snow on the windshield, chipping away at the brittle shell until David could wave at her, too. She flushed, ducked her head, and then looked back up with a smile.
Emma put her back into clearing small pockets in the snow in front of each of the four wheels, giving them space enough to rock into a decent speed. Henry, done with brushing, jumped down to help her by digging at the snow with his mitts.
Emma paused in her shovelling, studied her son, and said “you know, you kind of look like a dog burying a bone.”
“Really?” Henry said. When he looked up to smile at her, his face was coated with snow. Emma’s laugh surprised them both—as did the snowball Henry chucked at her immediately after.
“Whoa!” Emma said. “Is that a challenge?”
A blizzard isn’t the best place to have a snowball fight. That’s why Emma and Mary Margaret would agree, afterward, that they had probably set a bad example for Henry by waging that one the way they did. Even as the wind roared around them, driving snowballs off course and blowing loose snow up into their faces and down their necks, the three of them put their all into pelting each other with snowballs.
David, watching from inside the cab, noted that Emma seemed to be losing. He rolled down his window and shouted “look out behind you!” at her, just in time for her to look over her shoulder and duck the missile Mary Margaret threw.
“Taking sides!” Mary Margaret accused, and threw her next snowball at David. It got him full in the face.
That marked the beginning of David shouting encouragement at whoever seemed to be losing at any given moment, which meant he got regularly pelted by the other two. Only after he got hit with his fifth snowball did all three adults remember what their goal was supposed to be; only then did they brush each other off, red-cheeked, numb and laughing, and squeeze into the cleared-off truck with Emma at the wheel, Mary Margaret by the window with Henry on her lap, and David squished between them.
Emma turned the key. The truck gave a throaty gurgle, then fell silent.
“Oh no,” she muttered, and tried again. Then again. On the fourth try the engine finally gave an angry wheeze and turned over, to the audible relief of all the adults in the cab. If Henry looked a little disappointed that he was that much closer to leaving all of them behind, nobody commented on it.
The trip home was accomplished in measures of inches. Every time the truck slipped toward the ditch, everyone in it tensed and gasped, except for Emma, who wrestled with the wheel and swore.
“Well,” said Mary Margaret with forced cheerfulness, after their fourth near miss with disaster, “well, this . . . Henry, what will you do for Christmas? Should we talk about that?”
Henry shook his head.
“No?” said Mary Margaret. The wheels slipped beneath them again, and they headed for a stop sign. David grabbed Mary Margaret’s elbow, Mary Margaret clutched Henry close, and Henry went white and pinched around his nose. Emma, very white and pinched herself, said several foul words in such rapid succession they seemed almost to bleed into each other in a raw slurry of panicked profanity.
When the truck was back under control again, she glanced over at her passengers, gave a tight smile, and said “if we’re not discussing Christmas plans, how about we sing Christmas carols?”
They tried. They really did. But when Jingle Bells nearly ran them up onto a parked car buried under a drift of snow, they decided carols could wait. Finally Emma shook her head, rested her head and hands on the wheel and said “that’s it. I give up. We’re all going home.”
“Home?” said Mary Margaret. “Where were we going before?”
“I mean,” said Emma, inching the truck down a street to the left, “we’re all going to our home. This is nuts, being out here in this weather. When it dies down we can get everybody home where they belong, but we’d be risking our lives to keep going in this.”
Mary Margaret hesitated. “What about Henry?”
“Well,” said Emma, easing the truck to a halt in front of their building, “call it a latent maternal instinct or whatever you want, but I don’t really want to make him walk home on his own in this weather. We’ll call his mother from here.”
“We will?” said Mary Margaret, and it was her turn to go pale.
“Fine,” said Emma, and cracked a smile. “I will.” She glanced at David. “You’d better call your wife first, though; I don’t think Regina’s going to let me off with hugs and kisses and a plea to call her in the morning.”
David wasn’t actually sure his wife would let him off with that little, either, but he said okay. He figured he could cross that bridge once he’d been carried up the stairs to it.
Henry curled up on the couch in Miss Blanchard and his mom’s living room, tucked in under a blanket Miss Blanchard had given him. He’d been in the room before, but tonight it seemed brighter and friendlier than usual. Maybe that was because he knew he didn’t have to leave right away. At least, he hoped he didn’t have to. He held his blanket close under his chin, and watched his mom have an angry conversation with his mother.
Emma’s forehead was doing the thing it usually did when she was annoyed and concerned, wrinkling high in the middle. Watching her make that face while defending her choice to stop driving in a blizzard—defending her choice to keep him close by—made Henry feel warm and safe.
He looked down the length of the couch to where David Nolan was settled on the other end, his leg propped up between them with a pair of ice packs and a few bags of frozen vegetables banked around it to keep the swelling down.
“Is it sore?” Henry asked politely. David started and looked over at Henry, who pretended he hadn’t seen David watching Mary Margaret make them hot chocolate.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Your leg,” Henry nodded at the wounded limb. “If it’s sore, maybe you should take an aspirin, or something.”
“Oh,” said David, “no, it’s fine.” He smiled at the boy. “Thank you, though.”
Henry nodded. Then they both sat back on the couch as Mary Margaret came over bearing cups full of cocoa and wearing a nervous smile. David, taking his cup, studied her in genuine concern.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Oh,” said Mary Margaret, “no, I’m fine.” But she seemed to be very determinedly not looking at where Emma’s conversation with Regina was devolving into a lot of shouting and dares to involve the police.
“Thank you,” said Henry, and took the cup he was handed. The drink was rich and chocolatey, and she had put in a lot of cinnamon; it bit nicely into the roof of his mouth. He wasn’t quite halfway through the drink when Emma finally hung up the phone and came to join them, grabbing her own cup off the tray and taking a huge gulp of it, as if she needed it badly.
“Was that,” said Mary Margaret, “I mean, did she . . .” she hesitated. “Is she very angry?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Emma shrugged. “But that’s kind of how she usually is anyway, right? And I never did manage to talk her out of involving the cops, but I’m not too worried about that.” She jerked her head toward the window. “I mean, you’ve seen it out there; can you imagine them getting through that before morning? We won’t be bothered before sunup, at least.”
“Well,” said Mary Margaret, with the attitude of somebody who has made a conscious decision to make the best of things. She raised her cocoa mug. “We’re all here, safe and mostly sound,” she cast an apologetic look at David’s leg, “so I think this calls for some kind of toast. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
Emma and David leaned in to clink their mugs with hers. Then David did the same to Henry, and Mary Margaret next, followed by Emma.
“Merry Christmas,” said his mom, after he’d touched his mug to hers. She smiled at him, and Henry smiled back.
He knew that in the morning his Christmas vacation would start for real, and he would have to go home to his mother. She would be stiff and cold and angry, and try to pretend that she was something else, just like every Christmas vacation he’d had before. But tonight he was somewhere good, with people who were warm and real and mostly happy. He had a cup of cocoa and a blanket, and although most of them didn’t actually know it, he was surrounded by family.
“Merry Christmas,” said Henry, and meant it.