New York, December 6, 2000
The first thing Joel realizes is how cold he is.
It's December, and winter has come early to New York this year, so cold is par for the course. But this is much colder than normal, a different kind of cold, bone deep and frigid, as cold as it was in Alaska.
The second thing Joel realizes is that he's wearing his old parka, and his old hat and mittens, and his old boots.
Of course, he hasn't worn these things since his return from Cicely. He'd thought about getting rid of them, because honestly, when was he ever going to wear those again? But he'd never gotten around to it, and his winter gear had found a permanent home in the back of his closet.
The third thing Joel realizes is that he's dreaming. He's pretty sure it's the moose that tips him off.
He's walking down the main street in Cicely, just like he'd done hundreds of times, avoiding the icy patches and occasionally scaling a huge snowbank. And the moose is wandering down the street in the opposite direction, just like it always did, back when Joel lived in Cicely. He stops to look it at.
But instead of wandering past, like it always did, this time the moose stops to look back at him. And then it speaks, in a low, rumbling voice.
"Welcome home, Joel."
And the moose walks on.
Joel stands there, one foot in a mound of snow, and stares at the moose for a moment. Of course, this is a dream. Moose don't talk. At least, one's never talked to him before. And he's not sure that it's a good idea to ask a dream-moose any questions, but he can't help himself, and he calls out to the moose.
"Wait! What do you mean, 'welcome home?'"
The moose stops again, and turns his head, and fixes his eye on Joel. "Just what I said. Welcome home."
"But this isn't my home," Joel protests, although he's not sure he's bothering to argue with a dream-moose. "I'm just dreaming. I'm asleep, in my bed, in my apartment. In Manhattan. That's home."
The moose shakes his head, but he doesn't say another word. He just walks on, down the street, on his way out of town.
Joel watches him go. "Stupid moose." And then he continues on his own way down the street.
Cicely looks almost the same as it did when he left. He walks by the radio station, and stops to wave at Chris through the window, and when Chris looks at him with a delighted grin, Joel can't help but grin back. He sees all the people he used to know as he walks along - stops and says hello to Maurice, sitting in a chair at the barber shop, getting a trim; pauses at the Brick, where he gets a warm welcome from Shelly and Holling, and all the others enjoying the food and the escape from the cold. He thinks he should stay and maybe have something to eat, but he knows he has to keep walking.
He looks in the window at his old office, and sees Marilyn sitting at her desk. The windows are different, covered with curtains, the waiting room is filed with plants, and there are pictures hanging on the walls. The name on the window is different. It's not his office anymore.
He keeps walking, and goes to the store, and smiles when he sees Ed working, but is disappointed when he can't find Ruth-Anne. He goes back to the street, and continues walking. He waves and smiles at all the old familiar faces, though the one person he doesn't see is Maggie. But Joel keeps walking, even as night falls and the aurora lights up the sky. He walks all the way to his old house, and his toes are tingling inside his boots and his face feels frozen. But he sees Maggie standing on the porch, and he calls to her and waves.
She turns to look at him, and even though it's dark, he can see her face clear as day, thanks to the lights in the sky. But then she turns away and walks off the porch, and Joel is sure she's slipping away, so he runs, but the snow is so deep and he's calling her name but she's not looking back and —
— and Joel wakes, the alarm on the nightstand blaring. Maggie is gone, and so is the dream. But Joel's toes are still tingling, and when he touches a finger to his cheek, it feels like ice.
Maggie's not sure why she dreamed about Joel Fleischman last night. She said goodbye to him five years ago, watched him walk away, and that was the end of that. Well, except for the postcard he sent.
But Maggie hasn't thought about Joel — really thought about him — in five years. Oh sure, he's come up in conversation from time to time, and there's been a moment or two over the years when she thought to herself, Fleischman would love this.
But dreaming about him? That was new. Especially dreaming about standing on the porch of the house she rented to him, watching him walk down Main Street (which was how she knew it was a dream; you can't see Main Street from there) and waiting, waiting anxiously, hopefully, for him to arrive. But when he finally did, turning and walking away, even though she could hear him calling her — well, she's not sure that she wants to think too hard about it, when she wakes up in the morning.
She gets in her truck after breakfast, carrying a basket full of food to bring to Ruth-Anne. She snaps on the radio, and Chris's voice comes out of the speakers.
"Seems like the Aurora is playing games with our dreams again, Cicely. I woke up this morning after dreaming about a visit from our old friend, Joel Fleischman. And I'm not the only one — Ed Chigliak and Maurice Minnefield both report that Dr. Joel greeted them in their dreams last night too. Looks like we might be doing some shared dreaming, Cicely! Feel free to call in and let us know if you met up with our former doctor in your sweet dreams.
"Spend some time on the big old internet, and you'll find out all you ever wanted to know about meeting in dreamspace and astral projection, all kinds of stories from all kinds of people, all about the journeys their minds take while their bodies have checked out. True stories? Well, there's nothing quantified, nothing qualified, nothing proven, but here in Cicely, many of us have had our share of strange dreams, counting yours truly.
"So, maybe we all had a visit from Dr. Joel last night. Are we all getting sick? Is our collective subconscious trying to tell us it's time to see a doc? Or were we all trying to tell Dr. Fleischman something, through the combined power of our dreams? It could be any and all of those things. This is KBHR, and you're listening to Chris-in-the-morning, Cicely. Let's get dreamy."
Maggie hums along to “Mr. Sandman” as she continues the drive to Ruth-Anne’s house. When she opens the door, she finds Ruth-Anne wrapped in a robe, sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and listening to KBHR.
She smiles when she sees Maggie. “Good morning, dear. Did you dream about Joel last night too?”
For a moment, Maggie feels like denying it and she feels herself blushing. But she busies herself putting down the basket of food, and shedding her coat, not looking at Ruth-Anne at all. “I did, actually,” she admits. “Did you?”
Ruth-Anne gives her a knowing look, but just says, “I did. Seems like just about everyone in town did. I wonder why that is?”
“What do you want for breakfast?” Maggie asks.
“Oh, I’m fine with just the coffee, dear.”
“No, we need to build up your strength, Ruth-Anne. We’re flying to Anchorage in 10 days, for your chemo. You need more in you than just coffee.”
Ruth-Anne sighs and makes a face. “I suppose you’re right. I just don’t have much of an appetite, though.”
Maggie lays a hand on Ruth-Anne’s shoulder, and tries not to show her surprise at how thin she’s grown, just in the last few weeks. “I’ll make scrambled eggs and toast. Sound good?”
When Ruth-Anne nods, Maggie turns away to head to the refrigerator for the eggs. So she’s not looking at Ruth-Anne when she repeats, “Why do you suppose we all dreamed about Joel Fleischman last night?” and she’s glad of that.
She shrugs as she breaks the eggs into a bowl, and concentrates on giving them a quick whisk, still not looking at Ruth-Anne. “I don’t know… I suppose because we miss having a doctor here? It’s been two months since Jill left, after all.”
“Dr. O’Connor was a nice woman. Too bad Maurice had to scare her off with that nonsense about a health spa.”
Maggie laughs as she turns on the stove to heat the pan for the eggs. “Yeah, he’s a little obsessed with that idea. I don’t blame her for leaving… although I hope he gets us another doctor here soon.”
“Sooner would be better than later,” Ruth-Anne agrees. “Especially as I’m dying.”
Maggie finally turns to look at her. “Ruth-Anne!”
“Well, it’s just the truth, dear. At my age, I’m not going to beat this cancer. I’ll just be lucky to slow it down for a little while.”
“Still! I don’t like hearing you talk like that. There’s a lot doctors can do for cancer these days.”
Ruth-Anne nods and gestures to the stove. “Don’t forget to scramble the eggs, dear.” And when Maggie turns away, she adds, “Chris thinks we all were dreaming of Joel, because he was dreaming of us. Do you think that’s so?”
“Fleischman? Dreaming of this place?” She hopes she sounds like she’s scoffing instead of wistful as she concentrates on the eggs. She hasn’t had a relationship since Joel left, and she knows everyone in town thinks she’s wasting her time pining for him. But she’s not. Pining, that is. She’s just being choosy, and no one has felt right. It’s not pining if she misses him from time to time, though, right? They were friends, of a sort, in the end. “He couldn’t wait to scrape the dust of this town off his boots, Ruth-Anne. I doubt he’s dreaming about Cicely. Or any of us.”
Ruth-Anne nods and pours a little more coffee in her mug. “Maybe you’re right, Maggie. But I do wonder…” Her voice trails off, and they listen to the radio as Maggie finishes preparing breakfast. Chris is playing “Dream a Little Dream” and even though Maggie won’t say it out loud, she wonders too.
If someone had asked him the night he arrived back in New York five years ago (and please don’t ever ask him how he got there, because to this day, he still doesn’t have an answer that doesn’t make him sound completely insane), Joel would have said that he left Cicely, Alaska behind him, and he would never ever look back.
Of course, even then that would have been a lie, and Joel knew that. As loathe as he was to admit, there was no way to forget Cicely, to forget his time there, to forget all the people he left behind.
He had sent O’Connell a postcard, a few days after he got back. “New York is a state of mind,” he had written. It was pithy and a bit cryptic, and open to interpretation, and true in its own way, and thus, in Joel’s mind, the perfect thing to fill a postcard with.
He had also written “Love, Joel” and maybe that was the truest and most important part of the message, but he had walked away and she had stayed and it was probably too late for that to matter now.
He supposes that it’s all still true. But if he was going to send Maggie O’Connell a postcard now, he thinks he’d write something different, something he’s learned in the past five years here in New York: “New York is a state of mind, but Cicely is a way of life,” he’d write.
He’d write it on the old postcard he’d found in that weird thrift shop he passed on his way to work every day. Every day he’d pause a little longer to peer in the windows. Every day he’d spy something and think to himself, “Oh, Ed would love that old camera” or “those earrings look like something Shelly would wear” and then he’d realize that he was thinking of Cicely again, and remind himself that was a long time ago and move on. But yesterday, he saw in the window the old postcard, edges brown with age, but the picture of the plane soaring over a lake, with snow covered mountains filling the background, still clear on the front. And he’d thought, Maggie, and before he’d even realized what he was doing, the postcard was bought and paid for, and he was out the door with the card tucked in his jacket pocket, over his heart.
The thing is, somehow, without him even knowing it had really happened, Joel had come to identify as a Cicelian as much as he identified as a New Yorker. The impulsive postcard purchase was just one part of it. His mother points it out. His friends point it out. His colleagues point it out: all the different ways Cicely and its residents have stayed with him over the years.
“Since when are you so interested in independent films?” Since Ed Chigliak produced and directed and released two of them, all without leaving the state of Alaska.
“I can’t believe you’re even considering alternative therapies!” But Joel had seen too many unconventional cures and home-grown remedies during his time in Cicely to turn up his nose, and even his colleagues had to admit that some of those treatments actually worked.
“Volunteering at that walk-in clinic is so unlike you, Joel.” It might have been, for the old Joel. He sometimes wonders why he didn’t notice that old Joel slipping away. But when he’s down at the clinic with some of the patients, he’s glad he did. He looks at the homeless, the down-on-their-luck, the desperate, and sometimes he thinks, they just needed a different place to belong. If they had ended up in Cicely, he thinks, maybe life would have been different for them, kinder, easier to fit in. So he tries to bring that kindness, that sense of belonging that came so easily in Cicely (and that he rejected so often, he knows that, too) to all of his patients.
So Cicely has stayed with him, and really, it's not that surprising that he dreamed of it last night. Although he's never had a dream that vivid, that clear, one that stayed with him for the rest of the day.
He's finished seeing patients, and is spending the rest of the afternoon in his office, doing some much needed paperwork, when Ed walks in.
"Hi Dr. Fleischman!" Ed says, with a huge grin and a wave.
Joel is not even surprised. "Hi Ed. I've fallen asleep at my desk and I'm dreaming again?"
Ed shakes his head. "Nope," he says as he settles into the chair in front of Joel's desk. "I'm really here."
This is confirmed a moment later when Joel's secretary, Karen, rushes in after Ed. "I'm so sorry, Dr. Fleischman! He doesn't have an appointment - I told him to wait while I called you! But no, he just walked right in!"
"It's all right, Karen," Joel assures her. "He's an old friend."
Karen seems taken back. "Oh. Well. Fine, then." She leaves the office, but before the door shuts, a faint "rude!" echoes back.
Ed's not fazed. He's looking around the office. "This is really nice, Dr. Fleischman! So much bigger than in Cicely!"
"Mmhmm. What are you doing here, Ed?"
"Oh, I came to give a talk on my latest film at NYU. I always wanted to see New York in December, so I figured it was a good time to come. I got in last night and they put me up at a really nice hotel, and this morning I went and gave my talk, and then I was able to walk around the city and I took so many pictures and — "
Before Ed can launch into a recitation of all the things he's seen in the city, Joel interrupts. "And then you thought you'd just stop by to see me?"
"Didn't think to call?"
"Nope. I knew you wouldn't mind." Ed grins at him again. "Plus, I wanted to surprise you."
Joel nods. "Of course you did. Well. I'm surprised. But glad to see you. Do you want to get dinner? We can catch up."
"No…. I wanted to ask you a question."
Joel waits, but Ed doesn't continue, and Joel remembers how this goes. "Okay. Ask away."
"Did you dream about Cicely last night?"
He should have been expecting this question, but he wasn't. At all. "Er. Yes."
"I figured. I dreamt about it too, in the hotel. I dreamt I met you there. You came in the store, and I was working."
"Mmm, yes," Joel says slowly, not sure where this is going. "That's what I dreamt about too." But he doesn't add the part about the moose welcoming him home.
"So," Ed says, "I figured it meant I needed to come get you, to take you back to Cicely."
"Back?" Joel's never been back, not even for a short visit. Not even when he'd wanted to - for Maurice and Barbara's wedding (his father had an appendicitis attack on the day he'd planned to leave), not when Walt passed away (Joel had been attending a medical conference in Norway). "I don't think I can go back right now, Ed. I've got patients, and —"
It's Ed who interrupts this time, and his grin is gone. "Please, Dr. Fleischman. Ruth-Anne's sick. She's got cancer, and there's no doctor in town right now."
Joel knows about the cancer - Marilyn occasionally sends him a random letter, and one had arrived last week. "But Ed, even if I come… I mean, I can't stay. I can't be her doctor."
"Please, Dr. Fleischman. You don't have to stay. I just know she wants to see you."
Joel's never known how to say no when Ed's given him that pleading look. And he thinks about the dream, and the postcard, and he's pretty sure that he wouldn't have said no, no matter what the case. "All right."
Ed looks surprised, as if he didn't think it would be quite that easy, but then his face lights up. "Great! I'm on a flight tonight from LaGuardia to Anchorage. I bet you could get a seat if you called."
Joel can't help it; he laughs. "Of course I'll get a seat." It seems like the fates are conspiring to get him back to Cicely, and he's learned long ago not to argue with fate. He picks up the phone, and dials Karen first, telling her to cancel and reschedule all his appointments for the next week. Then he dials the airline, to book the seat that's waiting for him.
Joel's not surprised at how easily everything goes, once the wheels are in motion. He and Ed stop back at his apartment so he can pack a bag, and get all his old winter gear out of the closet, and then they head off to the airport. The flight is on time and uneventful, and it seems like in no time at all, they're landing in Anchorage. He's a bit disappointed that Maggie's not meeting them there to fly them to Cicely, but Ed's explained that Maggie's been staying in Cicely as much as possible to help out Ruth-Anne.
So they take a bus to Cicely, just like he did all those years ago, and Ed's truck is waiting by the side of the road when they get off the bus. Cicely's version of Park and Ride, Joel thinks, and he almost feels like he's dreaming again.
"I don't have anywhere to stay, Ed," he says, as Ed drives them into town, in the late afternoon, the sky already dark as night.
"Don't worry, Dr. Fleischman," Ed says. "I'm sure there's room for you at the B&B, or maybe Maurice will put you up. Or you could stay with me, if you want! I mean, you could have the bed and I'll take the floor."
"I don't want to put you out, Ed. I think the B&B will be just fine."
Ed drops him off at Ruth-Anne's. "Come on down to the Brick when you're ready, Dr. Fleischman. Everyone will be so glad to see you!"
Joel waves as Ed drives off, and then makes his way inside Ruth-Anne's. He knocks and when he finds the door is unlocked, he pokes his head in. "Hello? Ruth-Anne?"
He hears her voice coming from the back. "Come in! I'm in the bedroom!"
Joel walks down the hall, and finds Ruth-Anne sitting in bed, propped up on many pillows, with a stack of books on the bed beside her. Even though he's prepared himself, he can't help but being shocked at how she looks, how thin and how frail.
But her face lights up when she sees him. "Joel Fleischman! What a wonderful surprise! Come here!"
Joel sits on the edge of the bed and returns the hug she gives him gently. "How are you, Ruth-Anne?"
"Dying. Now, don't give me that look. It's lung cancer. I know they caught it early, but it's still not a good prognosis. I might have a year left, depending if I can handle the chemo and the travel to Anchorage for the treatments."
Joel sighs. He knows she's right - the travel will be hard on her, in her condition. "What about having the chemo here? Can't the doctor work something out?"
"We don't have a doctor in Cicely right now, Joel. Dr. O'Connor's been gone a couple of months. I know Maurice is trying to get us a new one, but he hasn't had much luck yet."
"No one like me, owing his education to the state of Alaska, on the hook?" Joel laughs, but at the same time, he's paying attention to Ruth-Anne's color, her breathing, wishing he had his stethoscope with him, that he could give her a full exam.
"There's no one like you, dear." Ruth-Anne catches his hand, and squeezes it, and then she laughs with him.
Joel spends an hour with her, catching up with all the things he's missed in Cicely since he's been gone, and telling her all about his life in New York for the past five years, all the while making notes in his head about her condition. He can't help it - he's a doctor. It's what he's supposed to do.
Before he leaves, Joel gets Ruth-Anne a glass of water and her pills from the kitchen. "Here you go."
She takes the pills with a grimace and puts the glass on the nightstand. "Thank you, dear. Now go on and see everyone. But I do hope you come back. I really would like to see you again. Before you go, I mean."
Joel nods and assures her that he'll return. But as he walks to the Brick, he knows that she's not really asking him for just a visit. And despite the Fates conspiring, and dreams that seem very real, and all the signs seem to be pointing him in a certain direction, he's not sure if he's ready to make that choice yet.
The party's been in full swing for a few hours, and Joel's still waiting for Maggie to show up.
It was a nice surprise to step through the doors of the Brick, and see the "Welcome Joel" sign, and everyone waiting for him, for an impromptu party. He was greeted with hugs and smiles from just about the whole town, as far as he could tell. He's had a mooseburger and a few beers, and has just been having a good time with all his old friends, but he keeps wondering where Maggie is.
He's met Holling and Shelly's son, and been reintroduced to their daughter Randi, who looks decidedly unimpressed when Shelly tells her that Joel was the doctor who delivered her. He's caught up with Chris, and fielded an offer from Maurice - very low pressure, much to Joel's surprise. "The job's yours if you want it, Joel," was all Maurice said. But Barbara dragged him off for a dance right after that, so maybe Maurice will come back for a second session. Joel actually danced himself, with Marilyn, who, as usual, had not much to say, but was still very light on her feet.
It's not until people start leaving that Maggie actually shows up. She slips into the opposite side of the booth where he's sitting with his last beer. Her hair's much longer than the last time he saw her, and there's a few tiny lines around her eyes, but he's five years older too. And Maggie O'Connell is still the most beautiful woman he's ever known. Even when she's looking at him coldly.
"O'Connell." Joel can't help smiling - it all feels so familiar, and so right. He hadn't thought he'd missed Cicely in general, or Maggie in particular, but now, sitting with her, it does feel like he's home, and he wonders how that stupid dream moose knew what he didn't.
"What are you doing here, Fleischman?"
"Just here for a visit, O'Connell. Seeing the sights, you know."
"The sights in New York not enough for you?"
"The sights in New York are just fine. But they're not like the sights here in Cicely." He's not sure if they're bickering yet. But it wouldn't be a conversation between the two of them, if she wasn't being prickly, and he wasn't being antagonistic. Except Joel doesn't feel antagonistic today. He's just glad to see her.
Maggie smiles at him and Joel thinks she may be warming a bit. "I went to Ruth-Anne's, to give her dinner. She told me you'd stopped by."
Joel nods. "I did. She told me about going to Anchorage for treatments, and how you've been helping her."
She shrugs. "Just doing what I can." She looks down at the table, tracing a finger along a scar in the wood. "She wants you to stay, you know."
Maggie looks up at him, and her gaze is fierce. "Don't lead her on, Fleischman. Don't let her get her hopes up, that you'll be here to help her through this." She gestures around the room. "Everyone wants you back. They wanted the sign to say, "Welcome Home" but I told them no."
"O'Connell — "
"I'm not even sure why you came back. I mean, you didn't have to. You could have just sent a card, with your best wishes." She looks down again. "It's just going to make it harder when you go."
Joel's not sure what to say. Ed asked me to come doesn't quite cover it. And a moose in my dream said "welcome home" sounds insane. Well, it would in New York, he supposes, but in Cicely, it's pretty much par for the course. "I came because I wanted to be here." And even if that's not all of it, it's true.
The surprise is clear on her face when she looks up at him again. "You? You wanted to be here?" For a moment he thinks he catches a tone of hope in her voice, but then she scoffs. "Don't make me laugh, Fleischman."
He just studies her face for a moment, thinking about the postcard he'd found in that thrift shop, and how much he wanted to send it to her. "O'Connell…" But even with all the things he's thought about saying, he's now at a loss for words.
And right then a song comes on the jukebox, and he's saved. He stands and holds out his hand. "Dance with me."
She hesitates for a moment before taking it, but after a beat, she does, and lets him lead her onto the tiny, crowded, makeshift dancefloor. As he pulls her close and swings her into the dance, feeling the press of her body against his, he knows why none of the relationships he's had in New York since he got back, none of the blind dates his friends fixed him up on, none of the women his mother told him were "just perfect for you, Joel" ever worked out.
He thought once he left Cicely, it would all be behind him, and he'd have the perfect life, the life he was meant to live, waiting for him in New York. It had never occurred to him how much of himself he would leave behind in this town, with these people. He had never thought about how Maggie O'Connell, as crazy and obnoxious as he always thought she was, would get under his skin, and into his heart and stay there.
Maggie rests his head on her shoulder as they move together with the beat of the song. "Fleischman?"
"Do you have a place to stay tonight?"
"Why? Are you offering?"
She lifts her head and looks at him, and the brief kiss she presses to his lips is all the answer he needs.
Maggie's dreaming again. She knows it. But as she wanders down Main Street, looking everywhere for Joel Fleischman, she can't help thinking, I knew he'd leave.
She stops when the moose walks by her down the street. And the moose stops when she does, turning his head and fixing his large brown eye on her. "Give him a chance, Maggie."
Well, that's odd. She already knew it was a dream, but even in her dreams, moose don't usually speak. Not that she usually dreams of moose. But if she was, she doesn't think they'd talk. Who even knew what a moose's voice would sound like?
"Wait," she hears herself say to the dream moose. "Who am I supposed to give a chance to? Fleischman? Why? He's already left once before! He probably can't wait to get out of here again."
The moose shakes his head, and repeats, "Give him a chance" and then walks on.
And as much as she wants to argue with the moose, she can't, because her alarm is going off. Time to get up and go to Ruth-Anne's. Give him a chance, she thinks, but when she opens her eyes, and looks to the other side of the bed, Fleischman is gone.
Joel's walking down Main Street in Cicely again, but this time it's not a dream.
He knows he's not dreaming, because he woke up in Maggie O'Connell's bed. Big mistake? Maybe. But just like everything else that's happened, so fast, in the last few days, it felt exactly right.
He decided he needed to think about things, and a walk in the frigid early morning, under a sky still pale and glistening with stars, would be just what he needed. So he got dressed and walked into town.
Of course, all he's been thinking about is how freezing he is, and how he must be insane for even thinking for a moment about coming back here. He walks along Main Street, waving to the few people who are out and about. He knows Maggie was right last night, that he has to make a decision about what he wants, whether his life is going to be here in Cicely, or back in New York, where he always thought it would be.
He pauses in front of his old office. The curtains he saw in his dream are gone from the window, and there's no name in the window either. He pushes at the door, and it opens, and he walks in to find Marilyn sitting at the desk, knitting. The place looks exactly the same as he left it, all those years ago. "Marilyn? What are you doing here?"
"Waiting." She doesn't even look up, just keeps knitting away, and Joel's not sure if he's going to understand this conversation any better than he did most of the ones they had in this office over the years.
"I got the office ready for you." She looks up and for a moment, Joel is reminded of the look the dream moose gave him. "It's time to go back to work."
He doesn't say anything for a moment, doesn't think anything, doesn't even think he's breathing. And then he realizes he's not going back to New York. He's staying in this town, the town he tried so hard to get out of, the town that drew him back and held on to him, so strong and so tight, he didn't have a chance.
And he laughs. "Yes. Back to work. I've got a few things to take care of first, though."
Marilyn nods. "I'll make the appointments."
Joel turns and walks back out to the street, thinking of all the things he has to take care of in New York, all the ties he has to sever, how complicated it's all going to be, and how can he do all that from here, when O'Connell pulls up in her truck.
She parks and jumps out and strides right up to him, and the look on her face is so angry that Joel knows he shouldn't smile at her, but Maggie O'Connell being angry with him feels like a welcome home.
And she pushes his shoulder, hard. "You didn't have to leave without saying anything this morning! You could have said something! I'm a big girl, I can handle it. I've said goodbye to you before and I'll say goodbye to you again. And why are you smirking, wipe that stupid smirk off your smug face, we all knew you weren't going to stay, no matter what we were dreaming about, it doesn't matter —"
"Maggie," he says, trying to keep his balance as she keeps pushing him, trying not to laugh as she reads him the riot act. "You don't have to say goodbye again."
That catches her off balance and she's cut off, mid rant. "I … I don't?"
"No. I'm staying."
"You are?" Her eyes flash as she raises her hand to his shoulder again. "Don't make fun of me, Fleischman!"
"I'm not." He catches her gloved hand in his own mittened one, just holding it. "I'm staying. Really. I'm going to stay, for good this time."
The smile that lights up her face is the one he's been longing to see for years, but all she does at the moment is squeeze his hand. "Good."
"Yeah," he says, squeezing back. His face hurts, and he's not sure if it's from smiling so much, or from the cold. Probably the cold. He's going to have to get used to this again. He's going to have to get used to a lot of things again. He can't wait.
"We should probably tell Ruth-Anne," she suggests.
"And Maurice, before he finds another doctor."
"Yes, everyone," she agrees, but neither of them move, just standing there, holding hands and grinning stupidly at each other.
And in the pale morning light, a moose walks past them down Main Street, and he doesn't say anything. But Joel's pretty sure he sees him wink.