As she zipped up her coat, Allie reminded Todd to pull the a-frame sign from the sidewalk before he locked up. The newest books in their stock were listed on the sign. She’d decorated the corners with holly leaves and berries depicted in green and red chalk which had been scuffed off in certain sections. She really needed to break out the chalk and fix them. The pieces were right behind the counter in a coffee can. What on earth was wrong with her?
“Off to see lover boy?” Todd asked from his position at the register.
Allie pointed at the sign, visible through the glass door. “Do me a favor and fix those holly leaves when you bring the sign in, will you?”
“Am I paid to be an artist or a clerk?”
Allie didn’t answer. She yanked the door open and stepped outside, frowning at the lights framing the floor inside the window. They created a soft illumination of winter white, and if no one looked too carefully, they might believe something else existed inside the rectangle. Of course, if anyone came close to the window they would find only strings of bulbs taped along the boundaries of bare wood. Tomorrow, though, a live tree would be in the space. There’d better be a lot more than that before the morning was done. A complete display, in fact, or she’d be forced to give up and fall back on a bit of recycling.
Allie headed down the block in the direction of her car. Luke hadn’t been too specific about the time she should come over, but she figured most normal people would have had dinner by now. With business picking up for the holidays, she ate her evening meal standing at the counter, usually just before closing. Fortunately, she had Todd and two others working tonight, allowing her the freedom to leave, but she hadn’t eaten yet. As if reminded of the fact, her stomach gave a low growl. Eyeing the front of Gina’s bakery covetously, Allie decided she would have something when she got home. No matter how delicious, a pastry did not constitute a solid meal.
Sliding behind the wheel of her car, Allie thought of Luke’s brave but foolhardy daughter. Lydia was no doubt a handful for her father. He’d mentioned something when he’d come to pick her up about hiring help to look after her. Allie had no idea how long ago Lydia’s mother had left, but it seemed Luke should have been seeking aid of some sort before now. Allie was in no position to offer any assistance herself, nor was she inclined to, since she barely knew the two of them, but she was looking forward to having Lydia in the store tomorrow. If nothing else, a pair of young eyes might be just the thing she needed for that stupid window.
Allie pulled the car from the parking space and headed out of town. She’d bought more than a few of her trees in the past from Luke’s Tree Farm, but she’d always dealt with Luke, Sr. or one of his men. She’d heard in recent years that the younger Luke had taken over from his father. Maybe that was why she stopped going there and started buying pre-cut trees in the parking lot of the hardware store. She hadn’t done it consciously, but now that she’d opened up to Luke about the incident on the pond, she realized she’d been avoiding him.
“Allie, you’re an idiot,” she said as she pushed her foot down on the accelerator, climbing the hill toward the sign in the distance. As she neared, she saw the driveway lined with lights leading to the red barn where the cut trees were brought to be wrapped for transport. A middle-aged man with sandy hair stepped out to pull a length of chain with a “closed” sign hanging from the center across the driveway. Allie stopped the car and rolled down the window. She leaned her head out. “Hi.”
“Sorry, miss, we’re closing for the evening. If you could come back tomorrow?”
Allie smiled, tipping her chin in the direction of a house on the hillside, windows glowing golden in the darkness. “I’m actually here to see Luke and his daughter. He told me to stop by. Is that his place up there?”
“Are you the one from the bookstore? Who found Lydia?”
“I didn’t find Lydia. Lydia found me.” She stuck her hand out the window. “Allie Roberts.”
“Frank Mohr. Pleased to meet you. Yes, that’s Luke’s place up there. His dad still lives in the house further down, but Luke built that one when he got hitched. Nice little place. A bit lonely for Lydia, though.”
With a nod, Frank backed away to let her car through. Allie thanked him and proceeded to the point where the smaller drive veered off to the left and up the incline. Her stomach fluttered as she made the turn, exactly like the butterflies she used to experience in high school. High school? She still got them with inordinate frequency for a variety of reasons. Right now, it was if a kaleidoscope of the lovely creatures had taken residence in her gut.
It couldn’t be because of Luke. It couldn’t be. Not after all this time.
Biting her lip, Allie pulled up next to a pickup truck and parked her car. She sat for a full minute behind the wheel in silent debate before climbing out and shutting the door as quietly as possible. Hands shoved deep into her pockets, Allie made her way up a series of concrete steps to the lit porch, where she saw evidence of decorating in progress. Fir roping lay across the porch floor surrounded by strings of lights in various stages of disentanglement. A wreath hung on the front door. Allie spotted a Luke’s Tree Farm tag dangling from the greenery. She reached up and tucked the tag out of sight.
An oval of glass behind the wreath revealed an open, high-ceilinged room that combined living and eating, with the most beautiful kitchen at the far end. Seated at an island rather than the table, Lydia was engaged in consuming what appeared to be a grilled cheese sandwich. Luke stood beside her, the expression on his face a naked declaration of anxiety and awe and wrenching love as he turned to speak to his daughter. Allie took a hasty step back, not wanting to be an unwelcome witness to such honest emotion. As she did, she trod on a pair of pliers and sent them skittering against a metal table leg. She heard a shout from inside and looked up to see Lydia racing across the floor. The child yanked the door open.
“Hi.” Allie lifted her hand in greeting.
“Allie,” said Luke, coming to stand behind his daughter, his fingers resting on her dark head.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’d still be eating.”
“We’re running a little behind. I thought we’d get this porch done before dark, but…” He shrugged. “Come on in.”
Allie stepped inside. Luke shut the door behind her.
“Lovely house,” she said.
“Thanks. Lyddie, go finish your sandwich. I’ll get my boots back on.”
“I want to go, too.” Lydia stopped mid-protest, mouth twisting. Allie figured she had to realize she was on thin ice. Making any demands after what had happened earlier in the day was not a good idea. “Please?” she said instead.
“Finish eating and we’ll see.”
Reluctantly, Lydia returned to the counter island, glancing back twice as she went. Defeated, she climbed up onto the stool and resumed eating.
Luke turned to Allie. He looked down. “What do you have on your feet?”
“I—what? I changed into my sneakers. I didn’t want to muddy up my good boots.”
“That won’t do.”
“Ground’s way too wet out in the fields. Your feet will be soaked. Hold on, I’ll be right back.”
He walked toward the back of the house, leaving Allie standing in the living room. Allie did her best to act casual, studying the various photographs in simple black frames on the wall. They were quite good. She took a step closer to view the nearest group hanging to the right of the fireplace.
“My uncle Rory took all of those,” Lydia said from the kitchen. “He’s a photographer. He has a book. You should carry it in your store.”
Allie smiled, returning her gaze to the photos. She knew Rory Hollis was Luke’s brother. She’d seen his work before and should have recognized it. “I’ll check into ordering the book. I’d be happy to carry it.”
“That’s me and Mommy and Dad,” said Lydia, nearer now. Allie turned to find the little girl standing on the opposite side of the long, gray sofa, the last of her sandwich in one hand, her other hand lifted and pointing. Allie followed the direction of Lydia’s outstretched finger to a photo of a beautifully unguarded moment with Luke, a much younger Lydia and a brunette woman, laughing over something during dinner at the table in this very house. The lighting, the clarity, the particulars of position, amazed Allie. But something about the photo saddened her, too. After a moment, she understood what it was. Luke and Lydia were clearly attuned to the humor of the moment, but Lydia’s mother, though possessing a broad smile, watched them both with a certain melancholy visible in her eyes.
Quickly, Allie rejected her conclusions. In the next instant, unmarked by the camera, Luke’s wife had probably been laughing as openly as Luke and Lydia.
Even so, the woman had left her family behind.
At the sound of footsteps, Allie turned her back on the wall of photos over the fireplace. Luke entered the room with a pair of old-fashioned galoshes in his hand. Allie forced her features into an innocent appearance, as if she hadn’t been analyzing his life in the finite moment of a photograph.
“Lydia,” he said, “if you’re finished eating, put your plate in the dishwasher and go get your coat and boots.”
As Lydia hastened to do as told, Luke continued across the room, coming to stand beside Allie. “My brother’s an extremely talented man,” he said, nodding toward the black and white photos. “That’s my favorite. The big one in the middle.”
Allie pivoted and moved to her left for a closer inspection. Rory had taken the photo from behind the two figures, the taller bending low, gloved hand hovering above his daughter’s shoulder as they skated away from the lens across a frozen pond. Soft, diffuse illumination fell over them, around them, haunting in a way. Allie recognized the pond as the one outside Luke’s dad’s house, where she’d fallen. She refrained from comment.
“I can see why it’s your favorite,” she said. “The image speaks volumes. They all do, really, but this one seems to epitomize the father-daughter relationship. Trust, guardianship, love, shared adventure. I’d say, based on the way she’s holding her arms, that was one of Lydia’s first times out on the ice?”
Allie glanced at Luke and away. He couldn’t possibly be conscious of the unguarded, raw emotion on his face right then. Allie nodded at the photo. “The light is…I don’t know what it is, except perfect.”
“Winter light,” said Luke.
“Winter light. That’s what Rory calls it. He loves to shoot when the air is cold and snow is pending and the world is without shadow and time seems held in abeyance. That’s what he says, anyway. I can see what he means.”
Allie looked up at the picture again. She could see it, too.
“Dad? Are you guys ready?”
Luke collected himself with a visible movement of his head, like a dog shaking rain from its coat. “Yep. Allie just has to put these galoshes on. Allie, you can slip your feet in, sneakers and all. That’s what they’re made for.”
Allie sat on the edge of the sofa, reaching for the boots. The metal clasps had already been unfastened and she stuck her foot into the right boot, tugging it on. Her sneaker slid straight to the bottom in a nearly perfect fit. Not a pair of Luke’s boots, then, and far too large for his daughter. Allie bit her lip. The symbolism of stepping into another woman’s shoes wasn’t lost on her. Neither was the ridiculousness of the sentiment. She certainly had no intention of becoming a part of Luke and Lydia’s life. Not in that way. Not in any way. She didn’t know either of them. Luke had been a one-sided high school crush, and Lydia…Lydia was a sweet child who had ended up at her store after an improbable trek to run from feelings she couldn’t really escape. And that was that.
But things happened for a reason. Her mother said so all the time. Many people did, and believed it.
With a grunt of dismissal disguised as effort, Allie pulled on the left boot and rose. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go find us a tree.”
Okay, that’s it for the excerpts of this tale. Winter Light was one of my favorites stories to write. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and, unlike Allie, I hope you already have your tree. Merry Christmas and peace to all!