(advent) Saturday, December 1

The box was waiting for Molly McIntyre and Schrodinger Barrett when they came back from an early lunch with Molly’s husband Drew. Molly took one look at the barely-suppressed excitement in the faces of the four children and two dogs that were arranged around the table and smiled. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t stop at the grocery store,” she said. “These guys look like they’re going to explode if they have to wait much longer.”

If that box is what I think it is, I don’t blame them! Schrodinger bounded into the tea room. Come on, Molly! Don’t you want to see what kind of Advent calendar they sent us??

“Of course I do!”

Christmas in Carter’s Cove, Maine, had always been one of Molly’s favorite seasons, but the last few years had definitely been highlights, thanks in large part to the magical Advent calendars from the Cove’s protectors, the Snow Queen and Jack Frost. Now, Molly hurried after the CrossCat, eager to see what this year’s adventures would bring.

“We’ve been waiting FOREVER for you guys to come back!” Kaylee Barrett said, bouncing in her seat, her brown hair falling into her eyes. “This came right after you left!”

“But we waited to open it!” her older sister Lily added. “Because that’s what it says.” She pointed to the box. “Zette was very specific.”

Indeed, across the top of the box was written: “To Lily and Kaylee Barrett, Zoey Allard, Gideon Fable, Schrodinger Barrett, Jack, and Aurora. Do not open until you are all together!”

“Wow,” Molly said, pulling her coat off. “It must be very special! I wonder what they have planned for you guys this year.” She draped her coat over one of the chairs and then gestured to them. “Well, what are you waiting for?”

Four pairs of hands and one set of claws reached out to the box (Jack and Aurora just watched, of course, since their paws weren’t suited for this), and the tape quickly succumbed to their efforts. There was a slight pause, and then a small wisp of what looked like smoke curled up from the box, to Molly’s slight concern.

“Did she send us a DRAGON?” Gideon asked, his eyes wide.

I doubt it, Schrodinger said, but even his voice was unsure. Dragons are sentient beings, and you don’t give them as gifts.

“But then what is it?” Zoey asked, looking at the others. “What else would SMOKE?”

They all shrugged.

“Maybe you should look into it,” Molly said, moving over and doing just that. To her surprise, the only thing in the box was a tightly rolled tube. She pulled it out. As she did so, another wisp of smoke curled up and around her, redolent of pine and cinnamon.

“What is it?” Lily asked.

“I don’t know,” Molly admitted. The tube was a cardboard poster tube, sealed on either end with green and gold wax embossed with jingle bells, snowflakes, and acorns. She cracked one, releasing a bit more smoke, and privately wondered just what the Snow Queen and Jack had decided to do. Although this feels more like Old Man Winter’s style, she thought.

Inside the tube was a soft roll of fabric. Molly unrolled it and they all crowded around her as she laid it out on the table top, moving the packing materials aside.

“Oh, how pretty!” Zoey said, reaching out a finger to gently touch the richly-embroidered scene. Molly could only marvel at the craftsmanship in front of her.

The scene was a Victorian house, all decorated for Christmas, one room for each day. Each room had a different theme for the decorations, and they all seemed to move, sparkle, and glow. Now it was apparent where the little wisps of smoke had come from – candles danced on mantels, tables, and chandeliers, and every room seemed to have a fireplace alight.

“But how does it work?” Gideon asked, peering closely at it. He frowned.

“Magic, of course!” Kaylee said. “Duh.”

“No, I mean, how do we use it?” Gideon replied. “There’s no windows or pockets or anything for us to open.” He leaned over so close to the tapestry that his nose nearly touched it. “It’s missing something!”

What’s that on the bottom? Jack said, speaking for the first time. The pouch?

Molly saw what he was referring to. A small embroidered pouch hung from the bottom right corner, attached by a green and gold braided cord. She opened the pouch and shook the contents into her hand.

“Is that a cat?” Kaylee asked, as Molly blinked. “It is! It looks like you, Schrodinger!”

“But I don’t understand!” Gideon said. “What does that have to do with any….” His voice trailed off as the little cat stirred, stretched, and yawned on Molly’s palm. It really did look like a miniature CrossCat, complete with the tufts on its ears and Schrodinger’s bright green eyes. Then, as they watched, the cat leaped up and onto the tapestry – and then merged into it.

“Oh my!” Lily breathed, as the cat prowled around the attic, obviously looking for something. The attic was split into three rooms, and the room he landed in was stocked with toys and wrapped boxes. In one corner, a tiny evergreen tree sparkled, covered in silver snowflakes and golden acorns. The floor was covered with a fluffy white carpet that was almost, but not quite, snow, and garlands of snowflakes hung from the rafters. There was no fireplace, but a little candle burned in the one window.

“What’s he looking for?” Zoey said, watching the little cat, who was now deep in a pile of presents, digging for something.

Molly was about to reply when the door to CrossWinds Books blew open, distracting her. She turned to see the Snow Queen, Jade herself, come in, looking unusually upset. She was normally the most serene person Molly knew.

“I’m so sorry, children! I don’t -” And then she gasped as she saw the tapestry. “How did you get that?”

“You sent it to us?” Gideon said, wrinkling his brow. “Didn’t you?”

Jade shook her head, shedding snowflakes from her icy blonde hair. “No, I didn’t. I was on my way here to apologize. The Advent Calendar we were working on, that calendar,” and she pointed to the tapestry, “was stolen from my workroom two days ago. I’ve been looking all over for it.”

“Stolen?” Molly said. “By who?”

“I don’t know,” Jade said. She came over to the calendar and laid a hand on the tapestry. “We had just finished laying the groundwork magic on it and left it to finish overnight. When I unlocked the workroom the next morning, it was gone. Nothing else was taken.”

“Do you think it’s safe?” Molly said. “Or should we not do any more?” She ignored the cries of dismay from around her. “Jade?”

The Snow Queen frowned, obviously concentrating on the calendar. The little cat was still digging in the pile, only the tuft of his tail visible.

“I don’t sense anything malevolent,” she said finally, taking her hand away. “I think it should be okay, but keep an eye on it.” Jade looked up at Molly. “We’ll be doing the same.”

“Yay!” Kaylee and Gideon cheered. “It wouldn’t have been fun without a calendar!”

“Look!” Zoey said, pointing to the room.

The little cat was pulling something from the pile, moving backwards slowly. As they watched, he got the present free of the pile, and nudged it until it was upright. Then he grabbed the ribbon on the top in his teeth and yanked it open. The box fell apart, and a shower of sparks filled the air. They drifted out of the tapestry and formed the words “Welcome to Christmas,” then reformed into “Are you ready for a mystery?”

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