Posts Tagged ‘advent’

(advent) Monday, December 9

“Molly! You in here?”

 

Molly heard Lai’s voice cut through the instrumental Christmas carols from the radio and chuckled. Right on time, as always.

 

“Where else would I be?” she called back, mixing up another batch of scones. “Come on in!”

 

She knew, before they trooped in, that Lai wasn’t alone. They weren’t called the Terrible Trio for nothing, after all.

 

Lai, Sue and Noemi had brought not only the frosting ingredients she’d asked them, but a bottle of wine and two pizza boxes as well. “You guys are my heroes,” she said, inhaling the tantalizing scents of pepperoni and the zingy tomato sauce that Carter Cove’s pizza restaurant was famous for. “I was starving.”

 

“Only you would starve in this kitchen,” Noemi said, shaking her head. “Do you even eat when we aren’t here to remind you?”

 

Only when I’m here, Schrodinger said, wandering in with Jack from the tea room. I’m amazed she survived to meet me, honestly.

 

“Okay, okay, okay!” Molly laughed, and cleaned up the island. “We’ll eat first, and then start working on the bake sale goods.”

 

“Hooray!” Sue said, pulling out four wineglasses from her bag. “I always find it better to do decorating with a glass in my hand.”

 

“Is that your secret?” Lai teased her. “I’ll have to remember that the next time we have to do this. I see you come prepared, as well.”

 

“Damn straight,” Sue replied, grinning as she pulled out a corkscrew. “I wasn’t a girl scout for nothing.”

 

They all laughed and helped themselves to pizza and wine, although Molly made sure Schrodinger and Jack had a cup of tea. Not that he couldn’t have the alcohol, but neither he nor the hound really needed it, and alcohol wasn’t good for dogs. Then, after the pizza was gone, they got down to business. Well, the humans did. Jack wandered out to nap, but Schrodinger opted to watch.

 

“I printed out more order forms for you,” Sue said, handing the folder over to Molly. “Also, this year you have labels for the cookies and scones.”

 

“Oh, you rock!” Molly eagerly opened the folder. Sue had outdone herself this year: the labels held not only the ingredients for the baked goods, but a cute little snowflake logo and the words “Molly’s Treats” in candy cane letters. “Those are adorable!”

 

Sue beamed. “I thought you’d like them.”

 

“I do!” Molly pulled out the sheets of labels, since they’d be using them that day, and put the folder of order forms in the box of stuff she’d already packed for the bake sale the next day. Then she looked at the clock. “Schrodinger, why don’t you go wake Jack up and head out to meet the girls? We’ll get everything set up here while you’re gone.”

 

Will do! The CrossCat jumped down and ran out into the tea room, where Jack was napping by the wood stove.

 

“So, what needs to be done for tomorrow?” Noemi, always the practical one, asked.

 

“Well, we need to pack up the scones I’ve already baked and drizzled with icing.” Molly indicated the trays that she had lined up on the pantry counters. “I have a few more dozen scones that need to be drizzled.” These were on the counter behind Lai and Noemi. “I need to cut out this last set of scones, and bake them. Then I have about twenty balls of sugar cookie dough in the fridge that needs to be taken out and rolled out.” She looked at the clock again. “If I’m not mistaken, Lily and Zoey will be here soon, and the magical Advent Calendar will have them help us out.”

 

“That’s convenient,” Lai said, and Molly winked at her. “How’s the calendar working out?”

 

“Very well.” Molly could be smug, now that Schrodinger wasn’t around. “And I think it’s not just working on the kids, but on Zoey’s mother as well. She even wrote a letter to Santa yesterday after the concert.”

 

“Sweet,” Sue said. “I figured it would only be a matter of time.”

 

“Welcome to the Cove,” Lai agreed. “If you aren’t a believer when you move here, you soon will be.”

 

“Yep.” Molly handed around aprons to her friends, and then looked at them. “So, who wants to do what?”

 

By the time Lily and Zoey came into the kitchen, followed closely by Schrodinger and Jack, the four had become parts of a well-oiled machine. Lai and Noemi were packaging up the finished scones (four to a package) and labeling them, then packing them in one of the boxes that Drew had brought over from the Station for Molly to use. Sue was drizzling sweet orange icing over the cranberry scones that Molly had already baked, and Molly herself was rolling out sugar cookie dough. She caught sight of them in the doorway to the tea room (Schrodinger being smart enough to have them go around, rather than through the back door into the pantry) and said, “Come on in!”

 

“Is it safe?” Zoey asked, looking more than a little worried about entering the busy kitchen.

 

“Perfectly,” Molly assured her. “You know everyone here, right?”

 

“I think so?” Zoey stepped in after Lily, who greeted everyone with a bright smile. “Maybe.”

 

“They’re Molly’s friends from grade school,” Lily told her. “They’ve been friends FOREVER.”

 

“Is that why I feel so old in the mornings now?” Sue whispered to Molly. “Because it’s been forever?”

 

Molly laughed. “You’re not that old, and neither am I,” she said. Then she looked at the girls. “Are you guys hungry? There’s scones, or I can make you sandwiches.”

 

“We have pizza too!” Lai called out from the pantry. “Remember? We saved 4 slices from the second one.”

 

“Oh, right!” Considering how their faces lit up at the mention of pizza, Molly knew it had been the right decision. “Okay, pizza first, then you can open the advent calendar.”

 

Zoey looked curiously at what everyone was doing as Molly brought out the pizza box. “What are you guys doing?” she asked.

 

“We’re getting ready for the bake sale at the school tomorrow,” Molly told her. “It’s a tradition at the school – every December, there’s a huge bake sale and craft sale.”

 

“Yeah, there have to be other things to sell, or Molly would just rake in all the sales,” Noemi teased. “Not all of us can be amazing kitchen witches, after all.”

 

Molly blushed. “Hey, I buy stuff there, and some of it is even food!” she replied. “I hope Lisa brings her jams again – I intend to stock up again, especially since she didn’t have much last year.”

 

“Well, last year she was still recovering from the fire,” Lai pointed out. “I saw her last week, and she mentioned that she’d gone down to her parents’ again, and gotten a ton of plums.”

 

“Mmm, Lisa’s plum jam.” Sue looked dreamily up at the ceiling. “I love her plum jam.”

 

Me too! Schrodinger said. We have to get some, Molly!

 

“We will, if she has any!” Molly assured him. “Now, let’s get you guys out here, so we can continue to work while you eat.”

 

“Do you need any help?” Lily asked, as they followed her out into the tea room.

 

Molly pretended to consider it. “Well, don’t you want to see what the advent calendar has in store for you first? I mean, you don’t want to pass that up just to decorate cookies, do you?” She hid a grin as Lily and Zoey looked at each other, knowing exactly what the calendar had in store for them. “Why don’t you eat, and then open the calendar?” she said, when the silence had stretched. “You don’t have to make your decision now.”

 

“True.” Lily nodded as she took the pizza box from her aunt, who was about to place it on one of the tables. She led the other three over to Schrodinger’s bed, and plopped herself down in it. When Molly blinked at her, she shrugged. “It’s easier for Jack and Schrodinger to eat here. The tables are just a bit too tall.” Zoey sat down next to her, and Jack and Schrodinger nestled in on either side. Molly made a mental note to see if Julia down at the Home For All store had a bigger bed. She must, she thought. She has everything else.

 

Because the extra large dog bed just wasn’t big enough for two kids, a CrossCat and a hound dog. But it was an adorable picture. Molly wished for her camera, but her phone was back in her purse, and by the time she’d come back with it, they’d be done with their snack.

 

So she retreated, and winked at the Terrible Trio when they looked at her. “How are we doing in here?” she asked.

 

“Wonderfully,” Lai replied. “We’ve got almost all of these scones packaged.” She leaned out the pantry and looked at the trays in front of Sue. “Are those almost ready?”

 

Sue nodded. “That tray should be hardened,” she said, pointing with the icing bag. “I’m working my way down the line, so if you start there, we should be fine.”

 

Molly went back to rolling out sugar cookie dough. She had four trays already rolled out, but she wanted to stay ahead of everyone else. While she started the next ball, she went over in her head what she had for decorations. It would depend on what kind of cookie cutters they used, she knew – and then she remembered the stuff she’d gotten the last time she and Drew had gone to Portland. “Sue, how many more trays do you have to frost there?”

 

“Two,” Sue said. “Do you want me to do something else?”

 

“Yes.” Molly nodded towards the pantry. “Go in and grab the six small glass bowls, and the box from the Pastry Shop.”

 

“You actually went to a place called the Pastry Shop?” Sue said in mock-horror. “How could you?”

 

“I do actually enjoy eating pastry made by others occasionally,” Molly told her, rolling her eyes. “But in this case, it wasn’t pastry. Bring the box out, and I’ll show you.”

 

Sue, looking intrigued, brought out the box and the bowls. Molly set aside the fifth tray of dough, all rolled out, and opened the box. Inside, it looked like a jewel box.

 

“Oh, how pretty!” Sue said. “What are they?”

 

“Edible jewels,” Molly told her. “Well, that’s what I think they are. Really, it’s just hand-dyed sugar.” She took one of the boxes out, and the ruby red crystals inside glittered in the light. “They ordered them in specially for me, and I’d almost forgotten them. I thought we might use them on the sugar cookies today.”

 

“Oooh,” Lily said, as they came in. “Those are gorgeous!”

 

“They are, aren’t they?” Molly agreed, putting some of the crimson sugar into one of the glass bowls. There were six colors in all: red, blue, purple, gold, green and pink. The crystals were large, almost mini rock candy in shape, and they really did glitter like faceted jewels.

 

“Wow,” Zoey said. “Those are amazing.” She sighed. “I almost hope the calendar says we can help you today.”

 

“Well, let’s find out!” Lily told her. “It’s your turn today!”

 

“Oh, right!” Zoey tore her gaze away from the sugars, and the food paints that Molly had also taken out, and hurried over to the calendar. She looked for the golden number 9, her face so close to the calendar that Molly wondered if she could actually focus on it. “Here it is!”

 

Number 9 was hanging off the edge of one of the snowman’s scarves. Zoey touched it, and then stepped back.

 

The snowflake came out of the crumbling paint and hovered in front of her. Zoey held out her hand, palm up, and her eyes lit up as the snowflake began to spin. But it didn’t throw anything off – just spun in place, as if waiting for something.

 

“What’s wrong?” Zoey asked, her face concerned. “Did we break the calendar?”

 

“I don’t think you could,” Molly told her. “Maybe it’s waiting for something.”

 

“Like what?” Lily asked, furrowing her brow. “What could it be waiting for?”

 

She and Zoey looked at one another for a long moment, while the snowflake continued to spin in between them.

 

Then Schrodinger said, What if you put your hand out too, Lily? Maybe it has something for both of you?

 

“Well, all we can do is try,” Lily said, shrugging. She extended her hand, palm up, like Zoey’s.

 

That was apparently what the snowflake had been waiting for: it exploded, and two cookie cutters fell out, one into each girl’s hand. They looked at each other, eyes wide.

 

“So, what kind of cookies are we making?” Molly said, grinning as they turned to look at her.

 

“Snowflakes!” they shouted together, showing her. Both snowflakes were different, but they were the same size.

 

“Those will look lovely with this sugar on them,” Molly said. “How about you guys set up out in the tea room? I’ve got an idea for Jack and Schrodinger, so they can help.”

 

Really? Jack said, his tail wagging. We get to help?

 

“Of course you do,” Molly told him. “They’ll need supervision, after all.”

 

And artistic design, Schrodinger added. We’re good at that!

 

“Yes, you are,” Molly said, putting the sugar bowls on an empty tray and bringing them out to the tea room. She put them down on a table, then pulled another two tables over, making one long work bench. Then she went upstairs, and looked around.

 

As she’d suspected, she found a helper. Luke Travers, one of the other Gate Techs, was lounging in one of the armchairs, ostensibly reading a magazine while he waited to see if he could catch a glimpse of Sue coming up the stairs. Molly grinned and went over to him.

 

“You know, you could come downstairs and into the kitchen, and actually see her,” Molly said, and he jumped. “Also, holding the magazine upside down does not, in fact, make us think you’re reading it.”

 

Luke blushed. “You guys looked like you were busy.”

 

“We are. But as long as the two of you aren’t making out in the middle of the kitchen, there’s always room for one more,” Molly said. As she was talking, she was looking for a specific chair that Aunt Margie had tucked into one of the alcoves. Molly hoped it wasn’t occupied today.

 

She was in luck. The large armchair was unclaimed.

 

“Luke, can you help me?”

 

“Sure,” he said, getting up. “What are you doing?”

 

She pointed to the chair. “I need to bring that down to the tea room.”

 

Luke blinked. “Okay. Do I want to know why?”

 

Molly chuckled. “I need a chair that Schrodinger and Jack can share while they supervise the girls, who are decorating cookies. The chairs downstairs are just a little bit too small for Jack.”

 

“Ah, gotcha.” Luke surveyed the chair, and then said, “Hey Zach, come out here for a minute.”

 

In just a few moments, Luke’s younger brother came out of one of the aisles, a few books in his hand. “Wassup?”

Luke pointed at the chair. “Help me carry this downstairs.”

 

“I can help,” Molly protested, but Luke shook his head and grinned.

 

“Let Zach show off his muscles for Lai,” he said, and watched as his brother flushed.

 

Molly eyed the two of them. “Shall I get the Trio out to cheer you two on?”

 

“If you could, I’ll be that would make the trip easier,” Zach said, grinning despite his blushing, and flexed his muscles. “Appreciation makes things lighter, you know.”

 

She laughed. “All right, just don’t fall down the stairs, okay? The insurance can’t handle it.” Then she went back downstairs to pull her friends out to watch.

 

They were as good as their word. The chair was not light, but they managed to get it down the stairs with a minimum of cursing, and both Lai and Sue clapped when they put it into place.

 

“Thank you so much, guys!” Molly said, bringing out two of the freshly decorated scones for them. Then she turned to Schrodinger and Jack. “Is that the right height?”

 

They hopped into the chair and Molly knew she’d been right. It was big enough for both of them to sit side by side, and high enough that they could see the table and everything Lily and Zoey were doing. Perfect! Jack said, wagging his tail and nearly knocking Schrodinger over.

 

Be careful! The CrossCat ducked, and then swiped playfully at the hound. That thing is a deadly weapon!

 

Sorry. Jack’s tongue lolled out at his friend. At least you ducked this time.

 

True.

 

Molly suppressed a laugh with difficulty, and turned to her helpers. “All right, we have eight trays of cookies to cut out and decorate. Do you think you’re up to it?”

 

“Of course!” Lily and Zoey chorused, and got down to business.

 

Between their efforts, and the help of the Terrible Trio, the afternoon flew by. By the time Corrine came in to pick the girls up to take them home, all the cookies were cut out, decorated, baked and were cooling.

 

“But we can’t leave!” Lily wailed when her mother walked in. “We have to package the cookies!”

 

“You have school tomorrow,” Corrine reminded her. “Molly can package up the cookies on her own.”

 

“Hardly on her own,” Lai said. “We’ll stay and help.”

 

“See?” Corrine said to her pouting daughter. “You don’t need to stay.”

 

“But I want to!” Lily wailed, and Zoey nodded. Corrine was unmoved, though, and after a few more tears, Lily and Zoey got into their coats.

 

“You guys did awesome,” Molly told them, hoping to lift their spirits. “Here.” And she handed them both a package of cookies. “These are for you. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

 

“Really?” Zoey sniffled.

 

“Really.” Molly nodded. “Don’t forget your cookie cutters! And I’ll see you tomorrow – you’re going to help me sell all these cookies, right?”

 

They nodded, perking up at at that.

 

“Then I’ll see you at school tomorrow!” Molly said.

 

Before they left, Lily turned to Schrodinger. “You do the calendar tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll swap.”

 

I will, he promised. And then he glanced up at Molly as Corrine led Lily, Zoey and Jack out the front door. Since I bet it will send us to the school anyways.

 

“Maybe,” Molly said, and winked at him.

(advent) Sunday, December 8

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this excited, Zoey!” her father said, chuckling as his daughter pulled them along the snowy sidewalk.

 

“It’s so cool, Dad! And you won’t believe it until you see it!” Zoey danced in front of them, her braids flying around her head. She’d requested white bows today, and Donna had found ribbon with silver snowflakes on them. The silvery bits sparkled in the weak midday sun.

 

They came upon CrossWinds Books and Zoey cried, “Look! See what we did? Isn’t it pretty?”

 

Donna and Peter Allard stared. The large front windows of the bookstore were covered with a blizzard of snowflakes. Large, small, all intricately cut out.

 

“What do you think?” Zoey asked anxiously, when they didn’t say anything. “Do you like it?”

 

“Oh sweetie, it’s lovely!” Donna knelt down and hugged her daughter. “We’re just surprised – that’s a LOT of snowflakes!”

 

“It took us all day yesterday,” Zoey told her, hugging her back. “We worked really hard on it!”

 

“You guys did a great job,” said a new voice behind them, and they all turned to see Lily and Jack coming down the street with Nathan and Corrine in tow. Nathan shook Peter’s hand and continued, “I couldn’t believe the pictures Molly sent to me on my phone last night, but I can’t argue with what I’m seeing before me. You should be very proud of yourselves.”

 

Jack barked, and Lily and Zoey glowed at the praise.

 

“Now, let’s get inside,” Corrine said. “I know your aunt Molly will have hot chocolate and cider waiting for us, and it’s cold.”

 

“Oh, maybe it will be cold enough for Old Man Winter to come and visit!” Lily said, skipping ahead to get the door. “That would be magnificent!”

 

“Says you.” Nathan chuckled. “You didn’t have to shovel the snow last year.”

 

“Isn’t that why Mom bought you a snowblower?” Lily asked, her eyes twinkling. “So we don’t have to worry about snow?”

 

“Someone still has to run said snowblower, and I don’t see you doing it,” he reminded her, and she giggled.

 

“I wish he would come,” Zoey said wistfully. “He sounds very cool.”

 

“In more ways than one,” Lily said, grinning. “But he was very nice.”

 

“Who was?” Molly asked, just hearing the last bit of their conversation as everyone entered the kitchen. Zoey thought that Molly’s kitchen was just perfect – it was never crowded, even when it was full of people, and it was warm and welcoming. Just like Molly herself. Zoey wondered if that was the magic everyone kept talking about.

 

Maybe someday, I’ll have magic too, she thought wistfully.

 

Schrodinger nudged her gently. You have magic already, he said. Look at your painting.

 

That’s not magic, she said.

 

Isn’t it? He tilted his head at her. Are you sure?

 

And she didn’t have an answer to that.

 

“So this is the magic Advent Calendar,” Peter said, as they gathered around it. He touched it gently. “Did I ever tell you about the Advent Calendar I had as a child, Zoey?”

 

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Was it magic?”

 

“Well, not like this one,” Peter said. “Instead of a painting like this, mine was a house, and each day was a different room. There was a Santa Claus, and he started at the beginning of the month on the chimney. He went through the entire house, and on Christmas Day, he would be in the living room with the Christmas tree.” He smiled, a distant look on his face, and Zoey knew he was seeing the old Advent Calendar. “I wonder what happened to it.”

 

“It probably got worn out,” Donna said fondly. “It’s been a long time since you were Zoey’s age.”

 

“True.” He smiled at his wife and daughter. “Well, who’s going to show us how this works?”

 

“It’s Schrodinger’s turn today,” Lily said. “Come on, Schrodinger!”

 

They all moved back so the CrossCat could look at the picture. “It’s a bit hard, because the numbers are all hidden,” Zoey whispered to her father. “We have to help Jack, because he’s not good with colors. But Schrodinger can see them himself.”

 

Oh, here it is! Schrodinger said finally. Number 8 was hidden in the open mouth of the angel who hovered in one of the corners. Zoey hadn’t seen her before – she was all in white, and blended into the snowbank she seemed to be floating above. Schrodinger touched his nose to the number, and then stepped back.

 

“Oh my god,” Zoey heard her mother whisper as the paint around the number crumbled, and the snowflake came out. “It really is magic.”

 

“It is,” Molly agreed. “Welcome to Carter’s Cove.”

 

The snowflake hovered in front of them, and Zoey stuck her hand out. The snowflake spun and exploded, and four brass ornaments, shaped like musical notes, fell into her outstretched plan.

 

“Ooh,” Lily said, looking at them. “How pretty!”

 

“So what is the adventure today?” Zoey asked, confused. “The snowflake didn’t take us anywhere!”

 

And then, from the floor above, she heard a single voice raised in song. It was clear and pure, just the way Zoey imagined an angel would sound, and the notes in her hand vibrated.

 

“I think we should go upstairs,” she said. “I think the notes want us to.”

 

Then let’s go! Schrodinger said, leading them out of the kitchen and up the same stairs they had climbed yesterday to the second floor of the bookstore.

 

Zoey’s eyes went immediately to the mail box, still sitting beside the massive fireplace. However, today the tables had been moved around, and in the center of the room was the source of the singing.

 

There were people standing around her, but Zoey could only focus on the singer. She was dark-skinned, with long dark hair that was braided away from her face and fell down in a loose fall to the middle of her back. There were intricate tattoos on her face, and when she looked at them, Zoey saw that instead of irises, she had stars in her dark eyes.

 

She was beautiful.

 

Schrodinger nudged her, and Zoey came out of her trance long enough to follow the others into the room. They were the first ones there and as she moved, she saw who else was standing in the middle of the floor, besides the singer.

 

They were a choir, she guessed, because they all wore long open robes of dark green. Father Christopher was there, also in a robe, but he had something that looked like the magic wands she’d seen in books. “What IS this?” she asked.

 

“This is the Carter’s Cove Christmas Choir,” Lily said. “They sing here every year! And they come to the school, too, right before we get out for winter break!” She gave a little wiggle of excitement. “And they have both Starsha and Darien here this year!”

 

“Who’s Darien?” Zoey asked, looking around, her eyes getting wide. There were …well, she wasn’t sure what some of them were. There were people like her and Lily, but there was one centaur (a centaur!), three little men that she was pretty sure were dwarves, and two ladies who had green skin and long, wispy fingers. And the singer with the starry eyes, who Zoey was pretty sure was Starsha.

 

“He’s the elf standing next to Starsha,” Lily told her, nodding at the young woman who had first sung. “He’s really neat, and they sing beautifully together.” She looked around the room. “Come on, let’s go over by the fireplace. We’ll get to see everything from there.”

 

Zoey stopped staring at the older gentleman with long silver braids long enough to follow Lily over to the hearth, where they sat down. Schrodinger curled up beside her, and Jack laid down next to Lily. “He’s an elf? Like who works at the North Pole?”

 

Schrodinger gave a snort. Not quite, he said kindly. You know how there are different races of humans? Well, there are different races of elves too. Darien’s people come from a land that is a lot like the Cove – I think if he had to live in snow all year round, he’d be very unhappy. Besides, he’s too tall.

 

Lily and Zoey started to giggle at that. The mental image of the tall, stately man on his knees painting toys was just too funny to keep in.

 

“And what are you four giggling about?” Molly asked, coming over.

 

Schrodinger snorted again. Darien as Santa’s helper. And that sent Lily and Zoey into gales of laughter.

 

Molly joined in, and it took Father Christopher giving them a look to stop. Which he did, because it was time for the concert to start.

 

Zoey looked around the room – it was nearly full, with shoppers amid the bookshelves, and a lot of people standing around or sitting in the armchairs, all looking at the choir. Father Christopher raised his wand, and pointed it at Starsha.

 

The entire world fell away as the first notes came out of her mouth, liquid and sparkling. Once again, the brass ornaments that Zoey held clutched in her hand, almost forgotten, shivered, and she looked down at them in wonder. Then she handed two to Lily, and one to Molly. Before she forgot.

 

That done, she was free to turn her attention back to the music. Darien had begun to sing as well, his baritone weaving in and around the melody of her soprano. It was magic – another kind of magic, and Zoey began to realize what Schrodinger had been trying to tell her earlier. Perhaps there were more types of magic than she’d realized.

 

During the intermission, Lily dragged Zoey and her parents over to meet Starsha, Darien and the rest of the choir. Zoey hung back a little, but the lovely singer leaned down and smiled. “Welcome to the Cove, Zoey,” she said, and her voice was warm and rich. It was almost as if she sang every word. “How are you enjoying your new home?”

 

“It’s amazing,” she said shyly. “I never knew there were such things in this world!”

 

Starsha nodded. “I understand,” she said. “I too, lived most of my life in a small village with little contact with the other realms. Coming here to study with Master Darien was a bit of a shock.”

 

“One you weathered quite well, once you understood that we weren’t going to hate you for being different,” Darien said, coming over. He shook hands with Zoey and her parents when Lily introduced them. “In truth, that’s why I like living here.” He waved a hand at the room. “After all, where else can you meet such diverse comrades, without it being a bloody war?”

 

“Very true,” Peter said. He smiled. “I grew up in a CrossRoads town, but we only had an industrial Gate, so we didn’t get as many visitors as come through the Cove. But I’m so glad we had the opportunity to move here.” He took his wife’s hand and squeezed it. “This will give us all chances we would never have elsewhere.”

 

“Very true,” Donna said. Her face was a little pale, and Zoey realized that her mother was having to reassess some things. Magic had never been discussed in her family before moving to the Cove, and for the first time, Zoey wondered why. Was it because her mother had never really believed in it?

 

Some people have a hard time believing in things that they can’t see, Schrodinger told her. Some people just need evidence. He looked at Starsha and Darien. The Cove has evidence that’s hard to refute.

 

Zoey stroked his head. I wonder if that’s why she doesn’t believe in Santa, she thought. Because she never saw him.

 

Could be. Or it could be because she saw or heard something that shattered her belief. Molly says in many places, children stop believing because they don’t ever catch him. Schrodinger sighed. I wish everyone could see the magic like we could.

 

Me too. Zoey looked up at her mother. Do you think she could learn to believe again?

 

Anything is possible.

 

Luckily, Darien had the conversation well in hand, and by the time the intermission was over, Donna’s color had returned to normal, and she was even chuckling at some of his stories. Then Father Christopher clapped his hands together, and everyone not in the choir retreated to the edges of the room.

 

After the end of the concert, Zoey and Schrodinger sat and watched as the choir filed out. You should have them write letters to Santa, Schrodinger told her. It’s the only way to make sure they get what they want for Christmas, you know.

 

Zoey looked at her parents, wondering if they would. Her mother had always insisted Santa wasn’t real, but that was before the Cove. “You’re right,” she said, and got up before she could think too much more about it.

 

“We have one more thing we have to do before we leave!” she announced to her parents.

 

“Besides buying some of Molly’s cookies?” Peter said.

 

“Okay, two things.” Zoey wasn’t about to pass up any of Molly’s cookies. “But before we do that, you have to write your letters.”

 

“Letters?” Donna looked puzzled, but let her daughter lead her over to the table.

 

“To Santa. You have to write to Santa.” Zoey looked seriously at her mother. “So you get what you want for Christmas.”

 

For a moment, she thought Donna would argue. After all, there hadn’t ever been a Santa in their house before, and this was the first year Zoey had ever written her own letter. But now that she knew the magic existed, Zoey was more than half-way convinced that Santa was real too. After all, Lily and Schrodinger and Jack had all seen him.

 

“Please?” she said, when she saw Donna wavering. “Please?”

 

“What can it hurt?” Peter said, looking at his wife. He reached for one of the cards.

 

After a moment, Donna did the same, and Zoey smiled.

This was going to be the best Christmas ever.

 

(advent) Saturday, December 7

“Molly! Schrodinger! Look what St. Nicholas left me!”

 

Zoey burst into the kitchen at CrossWinds Books, waving a long, narrow package in the air. Her mother trailed behind her with an expression that was half amusement at her daughter, and half something else. Molly couldn’t quite put her finger on what that something else was, though. Confusion, maybe?

 

“What did he leave you?” she asked, after giving Donna a welcoming smile.

 

“Paints!” Zoey exalted, showing her. “A whole box of paints!”

 

It was indeed – a lovely set of watercolor paints with two brushes, in a wooden case that protected them all from the outside world. “Wow,” Molly said. “You’ll definitely be able to use those!”

 

Indeed, Schrodinger said, craning his head to look. Will you paint me a picture?

 

“Of course!” Zoey told him. “We already stopped this morning and bought a whole pad of paper to paint on! What did you get in your shoe, Schrodinger?”

 

A book! His eyes lit up. A book on Christmas customs throughout the Realms. Would you like to see it?

 

“Yes!”

 

He led her out into the tea room to where he’d been curled up in his bed next to the wood stove, reading the book St. Nicholas had left underneath the shoe he’d put out. Molly and Donna watched them go, and then Molly turned to her.

 

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she offered. “I’m baking scones this morning, and the second batch should be out of the oven in a few minutes. And there’s fresh butter today.”

 

“How do you not weigh two thousand pounds?” Donna asked, with a shake of her head. “I’m sorry.”

 

Molly grinned. “Don’t be. The secret is to make others eat most of it.” She turned and pulled out another mug, filling it with hot water before putting it in front of the other woman. “Tea?”

 

“I’d love some.” Donna sank onto one of the stools. “Do you have a strong black?”

 

“I certainly do.” Molly brought out her selection of black teas and Donna chose an Assam. “Do you take anything in it?”

 

“Just a bit of sugar.”

 

Molly handed her the sugar bowl and she spooned a half-teaspoon of sugar into her tea. Watching her stir it, Molly wondered what was on her mind.

 

“You look a little distracted this morning,” she said, refreshing her own cup of tea. “Something happen last night?”

 

Donna started to answer, and then stopped, then sighed. “I don’t know. I might have been dreaming.” She told Molly what she’d seen, and ended by saying, “I just don’t know. Peter swears he didn’t take the carrots and leave the gifts, and I know I didn’t. So who else could it have been?”

 

“St. Nicholas?” Molly suggested.

 

“He’s a myth,” Donna said, but her tone lacked conviction.

 

Molly smiled. “I know you didn’t grow up here, but let me assure you that if you stay here long enough, you’ll meet plenty of myths walking down the street,” she said. “And no, I’m not joking.”

 

Donna shook her head. “I just can’t wrap my head around that,” she said. “It’s so not like the rest of the world.”

 

“No, it’s not.” Molly looked out into the tea room, where Zoey and Schrodinger were cuddled up together in his pet bed, Zoey holding the Christmas book as they both read. “That’s part of the reason I came back. This town is special.”

 

“I’m beginning to see that,” Donna said, also looking out at the two. “How did you manage to get a pet like Schrodinger?”

 

“Oh, he’s not a pet,” Molly said. “He’s most definitely not a pet. CrossCats are companions, not pets. He showed up a few years ago and needed a place to stay. We suited one another, so he moved in.”

 

“So he’s not just a big cat that happens to be telepathic?”

 

“No.” Molly explained as much as she knew about the CrossCats – they were a species from one of the neighboring realms, not far from the Cove, and that they commonly served as scouts in various militaries around the realms, as well as being advisers to several heads of state. “Schrodinger says they are organized into dens, which are extended family groups, and that there are several older CrossCats that teach the others. I’ve met his teacher, a CrossCat called the Librarian. But they definitely are a separate species.”

 

“That’s amazing,” Donna said, sipping on her tea. “I never realized what we would be getting into by moving here, but I think I’m glad we did.”

 

“It can be a bit overwhelming when you first get here,” Molly agreed. “Especially if you didn’t grow up in a CrossRoads town. I mean, Carter’s Cove is a bit more weird than many CrossRoads towns, because we have more than one Gate, but I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” She glanced out at Schrodinger and Zoey again, and smiled. “If nothing else, the magic keeps everyone young.”

 

“Metaphorically speaking,” Aunt Margie said, sailing into the kitchen. “Molly, love, a cup of tea, please. My feet are killing me.”

 

Molly obliged, introducing Donna as she did so. Once Aunt Margie was settled into the other stool, Molly pulled the scones, perfectly browned on top, out of the oven and set them to cool.

 

“How did you know to pull them out?” Donna asked. “You haven’t glanced at a watch or the clock, and there was no timer.”

 

“It’s a gift,” Molly said.

 

“Our Molly’s a kitchen witch,” Aunt Margie said proudly. “She just knows when they’re done.” She inhaled the scent of the scones and sighed happily. “Cinnamon scones – are you going to do a caramel drizzle on them again?”

 

“I don’t know,” Molly said, considering the scones as they sat in front of her. “What do you think, Donna?”

 

“I think that sounds heavenly,” Donna admitted. “But I think they’d be good plain too.” She sighed, and drained her tea. “I might have to get one when I get back. Right now, I think I’ll get a handle on the Christmas shopping I need to do.” She smiled at them. “Thank you for everything. Especially for how you’ve taken Zoey in. It’s made this move so much easier.”

 

“You’re very welcome,” Molly said. “She’s a joy. I don’t mind at all.”

 

Once she had left, Aunt Margie said quietly, “An interesting lady. Just like her daughter. I wonder…”

 

“What?” Molly prompted, when her aunt’s voice trailed off.

 

“Oh, just me musing out loud,” Aunt Margie said, shaking her head. “I was maundering. Just ignore me. So, can I put caramel-drizzled cinnamon scones on the board outside, or just cinnamon scones?”

 

“We’ll see,” Molly said, dismissing the problem for the moment. She looked over at her aunt, wondering if she should push the issue about Donna and deciding not to. “So, everything’s set upstairs?”

 

Aunt Margie nodded. “Please thank Drew and Luke again for their help – I couldn’t have done it without them.”

 

“I will.” Molly started to say something else, but Lily and Jack burst into the tea room and distracted all of them.

 

“Zoey! Schrodinger! Did St. Nicholas leave you something too?” Lily shouted.

 

“So much for a quiet tea room,” Molly said, and Aunt Margie laughed.

 

“This place is never quiet, and that’s why I like it,” she said, watching the four in the tea room. “Looks like St. Nicholas has his eye on a helper for you, Molly.”

 

“I think so,” Molly agreed, as Lily brandished the set of cookie cutters she’d been given. “She certainly seems to have a knack for it. And two kitchen witches isn’t a bad thing.”

 

“You think she might be?” Aunt Margie asked.

 

“She might be.” Molly shrugged. “I was about her age when I realized what I can do. But maybe not. She might just be a really good baker.”

 

“And there is nothing wrong with that,” Aunt Margie agreed. She finished her tea and stood. “I’ve got to go look at the inventory. I’ll put cinnamon scones on the board.”

 

“Aunt Margie, I got cookie cutters! And Jack got a bone! From St. Nicholas!” Lily said, as she came flying in.

 

“Wow, he really knows you!” Aunt Margie said, grinning. “I guess that comes with the job, though.”

 

Lily and Zoey nodded. “Can we open the next door now?” Zoey asked. “Please?”

 

“Sure. Whose turn is it today?” Molly said.

 

“Jack’s!” Lily said, and the big hound came forward. “Let’s find number 7!”

 

Number 7 turned up in one of the windows of the cottage. Jack touched his nose to it, and the painting crumbled away.

 

The snowflake came out, and Lily held out her hand. It spun, and dropped four small squares of paper into her hand, then floated above her head, as if waiting.

 

“What is that?” Zoey asked, leaning in to look.

 

“I don’t know,” Lily admitted, flipping one of the squares over. “It looks like a stamp. But there’s no note or card or anything with it. Just stamps.”

 

For mail? Schrodinger asked, putting one paw on Lily’s thigh and pulling himself up to look. Why would the calendar give us stamps?

 

Maybe we should ask the snowflake? Jack suggested, looking at the others. Do you think it might answer?

 

Lily looked at the snowflake. “Why did you give us stamps?” she asked. “Are we going to send cards or something?”

 

In answer, the snowflake pulsed once, then moved slowly out into the tea room. They all exchanged a glance, and then ran after it. Molly smiled and followed them, not wanting to miss this.

 

DC joined her as they followed the kids up the stairs. “This is going to blow their mind,” the young woman said softly. “Aunt Margie did a great job.”

 

Molly nodded. “I can’t wait. I’ll bet she’s upstairs already, waiting for them.”

 

The snowflake hadn’t stopped – it led Lily, Zoey, Schrodinger and Jack up to the second floor of the bookstore, and Molly heard them gasp.

 

“Oh wow!” Lily said. “Oh wow!”

 

Molly had to admit that Aunt Margie had outdone herself this year. Once it had been confirmed that CrossWinds Books was going to be the official North Pole Mail Stop for the Cove, Aunt Margie had thrown herself into planning the decorations. The right to have an official North Pole mail box was an honor that all the Cove’s businesses competed for annually, and this was the first time CrossWinds Books had won it.

 

Usually, the upstairs room was full of book shelves in neat rows, with an open area in front of the large fireplace for gatherings. However, last night, Drew and Luke had come over and helped Molly, DC, Aunt Margie and Uncle Art move the book shelves around so that the open space was large enough to accommodate three large tables, lots of chairs, and the mail box.

 

This stood alone near the fireplace, in a spot of honor. Instead of being painted blue, this mail box was painted bright red and green, with the letters “North Pole Mail” painted in gold across the front and sides. Multi-colored Christmas lights were wrapped around it, and they blinked merrily.

 

The snowflake floated over to one of the tables and burst into a thousand tiny sprinkles of light. As the kids went to the table, Molly saw it was heaped with cards, colored paper, envelopes and buckets of the golden stamps like Lily held in her hand. There were pens, markers, crayons and stickers as well.

 

“We get to write our letters to Santa!” Lily crowed, grabbing Zoey’s hand and dancing around the room with her. “We’ll get to write our letters, and send them!”

 

This was one of the points Molly had been waiting for. She watched Zoey’s face, to see if it really was working. Would the little girl go along with today’s snowflake adventure?

 

She was letting Lily dance her around, but there was doubt in her eyes. Then she looked down at the paints in her other hand, and a grin spread across her face. “Yes!” she said, pulling Lily towards the tables. “We do!”

 

Schrodinger paused to look back at Molly, and she saw the smile on his face. “Go pick out a card, and I’ll come write for you,” she promised. “Go.”

 

Jack too?

 

“Jack too,” she said.

 

He hurried over to the table, and Molly started to follow, but DC grabbed her arm. “Hey, great job,” she said, before going back down the stairs.

 

“Not me,” Molly murmured, shaking her head. “All I did was make a phone call.”

 

Molly? I’ve got a card all picked out!

 

That got her moving over to the table again. Lily and Zoey were each busy with their letters, writing earnestly. Molly settled in with Jack and Schrodinger on either side of her, and picked up a pen. “Okay,” she said. “Who’s first?”

 

You can go first, Schrodinger told Jack. I need to think a bit more first.

 

She finished Jack and Schrodinger’s letters just as Lily and Zoey finished theirs. “Now what?” Zoey asked, after sealing her letter with a silver jingle bell sticker.

 

“Don’t forget to stamp it,” Molly said, pointing to the gold stamp. “And have you addressed it?”

 

Lily put her stamp on the envelope, then wrote “To Santa, The North Pole” in the middle of the page. “There!” she said proudly.

 

“What about your address?” Molly asked. “Don’t you remember? Santa sends letters back if you put a return address on it.”

 

“He does?” Zoey said, her eyes widening. “Really?”

 

“Oh, yes!” Lily nodded, already writing. “We get them every year!”

 

Once they had finished and all the envelopes were ready to go, Zoey looked at Lily, who walked up to the mail box and put her letter in. To everyone’s surprise, the mail box started to glow, and a whirring sound started deep in the bowels of the box. Then, a small white slip of paper popped out.

 

“What is that?” Zoey asked.

 

“It’s a receipt!” Lily said in awe. “Look! It says ‘Your letter has been received by North Pole Post, and will be delivered to Santa post-haste! Expect a reply before Christmas!’”

 

“Wow! My turn!” Zoey put her envelope in the mail box and, just as before, it glowed with a golden light and then popped out a receipt for her as well. Molly put in Jack and Schrodinger’s letters and handed Jack’s receipt to Lily for safe-keeping.

 

“Are you all set?” Aunt Margie said, coming in to the room. “If your letters are done, I have another project for you, if you don’t mind helping.”

 

We love to help! Schrodinger said eagerly. What can we do?

 

“I want to do something different this year with the decorations for the front windows of the store,” Aunt Margie said, and it was Molly’s turn to have her eyes widen in surprise. Aunt Margie was a bit of a traditionalist when it came to the decorations for CrossWinds Books, and it had never changed, at least in Molly’s memory.

 

“What are you going to do, Aunt Margie?” Lily asked.

 

“Snowflakes,” she said. “I want a ton of snowflakes on my front windows.” She held out the bag in her hands to them. “Do you guys mind making snowflakes for me? There’s paper in there, and some designs.”

 

“Oh, how fun!” Lily and Zoey both nodded eagerly, and Lily added, “We’d love to!”

 

They went back to the table and started pulling out the paper. It was all white, but there were textures, glitter and patterns on the paper, and Molly realized Aunt Margie must have raided her scrapbook paper for the snowflakes. There were designs too, as she had promised, and Lily and Zoey got busy cutting.

 

Jack and Schrodinger sat with them, supervising and offering suggestions. Molly left them to the task, knowing Schrodinger would get her if there was a need. She had baking to do too – the Carter’s Cove Holiday Bake Sale was in a few days, and she still needed to get her inventory together.

 

She brought them up a tray after a bit, with cookies, grilled cheese sandwiches and mugs of hot cider, and found them surrounded not just by snowflakes, but other people, all busy writing letters to Santa.

 

“I don’t get it,” Zoey said quietly, watching as Mr. Dorr went up to the mail box to mail his letter.

 

Get what? Schrodinger asked her.

 

“Why the grown-ups are mailing letters to Santa.” She indicated Mr. Dorr with a movement of her chin. “I thought writing to Santa was for kids.”

 

Molly didn’t say anything, letting Schrodinger answer.

 

Maybe in other places, where Santa is more of a myth, only kids write to him, the CrossCat said after a moment’s thought. But here, in the Cove, everyone knows he’s real, and knows that he does bring gifts. More importantly, he brings good will and the renewal of magic, and it’s the belief of all of us that lets him do that. People forget what Santa really does in those places that don’t see the magic. It’s up to us to make up for them.

 

Zoey considered that, watching the traffic at the mail box, which was steady. “So what you’re saying is that Santa, the real Santa, brings magic into the world?”

 

Among other things, yes. Schrodinger sipped at his tea. Which is why believing in him is so important. You’ll see, soon enough. It’s hard not to, in the Cove during Christmas.

 

(advent) Friday, December 6

Hurry, hurry! Schrodinger urged, looking over his shoulder at Zoey and Lily. Hurry!

 

“Why are we hurrying?” Zoey asked breathlessly as they ran after him. Jack was even further ahead, galloping for all he was worth.

 

“It must be something important!” Lily told her, taking her hand so they could run together.

 

It is! Molly made candy canes!

 

Lily’s eyes widened and she increased her speed. “Real candy canes? Not the cookies?”

 

Real ones!

 

“I’ve never had homemade candy canes!” Zoey said, and they ran the rest of the way to the bookstore.

 

The entire air was scented with peppermint when they burst into the kitchen, and Molly turned around, a startled look on her face. “That was fast!” she said, then looked at their red faces and heaving chests. “Did you run all the way?”

 

They nodded, too winded to speak.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because… Schrodinger said…candy canes!” Lily said.

 

“They weren’t going anywhere,” Molly said, laughing. “They would have waited for you!”

 

“You made candy canes?” Zoey’s eyes were wide. “How did you do that?”

 

Molly can make anything, Schrodinger said. She’s a kitchen witch.

 

Zoey’s eyes got even wider. “A witch? REALLY?”

 

“A kitchen witch, yes,” Molly said. “It’s not really that big a deal.” She took the box from the island and held it out to them. “You each can have one.”

 

They weren’t the candy canes that Zoey was expecting, Schrodinger saw. Instead of the familiar red and white striped shepherd’s crook shapes, the sticks were plain white, thick and short. Lily and Zoey each took one, and Molly broke one in half for Jack and Schrodinger. After they enjoyed them (they were much lighter than Schrodinger had expected, almost meringue-like in texture), they went over to the wall that the advent calendar hung on.

 

“It’s your turn today,” Zoey told Lily. “I wonder what we’ll do today?”

 

Lily found the number 6 curling off the end of a ribbon in one of the corners. When she touched it, the painting crumbled and the snowflake came out. It shimmered and dropped a note into her hand.

 

“Are you up for a walk today?” she read out loud. “Ooh, I wonder where?”

 

In answer, the snowflake zipped out into the bookstore. They followed it up to the second floor, where it burst into a fall of sparkles over an older gentleman who was dozing in one of the easy chairs.

 

Father Christopher? Schrodinger went up to him and touched him gently. Are you awake?

 

“I am now,” the Catholic priest said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “Oh, good, you’re all here!” He smiled at them, and then held out his hand to Zoey. “Welcome to the Cove, Zoey. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

 

“Hi,” she said shyly, shaking his hand. “You were waiting for us?”

 

“Indeed! I have a very special task that I’m hoping the four of you can help me with.” He looked over them. “Do you have time to do that?”

 

They all nodded.

 

“Oh, bless you!” Father Christopher stood up, and led them downstairs. Molly met them at the bottom of the stairs with a tin that she pressed into the priest’s hands. “And bless you too, Molly. What would I do without you ordering tea for me?”

 

“You’d be drinking that horrible stuff you buy from the grocery store,” she said wryly. “The way you do when you forget to tell me that you’ve run out.”

 

He looked guilty, but his blue eyes twinkled. “Thank you, Molly.”

 

“You’re welcome.” Molly looked at the four of them. “Drew will pick you guys up later at the church, so don’t worry about coming back here.”

 

Schrodinger looked over at her, and she smiled. He knew that look. Molly had known exactly what they were going to do today.

 

Then again, does it really matter if she knows what’s going to happen each day? Isn’t part of the fun in the surprise? Jack said quietly to his friend. Just enjoy it, and stop worrying.

 

You’re a wise dog, Schrodinger said, as they went out the front door, following the priest.

 

Of course I am. I’m your friend, Jack said. Comes with the territory.

 

They walked over to the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, which was decorated simply, with holly and ivy wreaths on the doors, tied with red ribbons, and a single candle lit in the center of each one. The stained glass windows glowed with the lights from inside, and painted the snow with brilliant color.

 

“Welcome to the church I serve,” Father Christopher said, patting one of the doors fondly as he led them into the rectory where he lived. This was a small cottage off to the side of the main church, decorated in the same way. He opened the kitchen door and waved them inside to a large room, bigger than Schrodinger had expected. Molly would love this kitchen, he thought. The place was spotless: the cabinets gleamed, as did the appliances, and there was not one dish cluttering the large sink, although there was a tea mug in the drainboard. The kitchen was dominated by a huge table that looked as though it might have sliced from a single tree, and this table was covered with all sorts of bags, boxes and various wrapping implements.

 

“Do you know what December sixth is?” Father Christopher asked them. When they shook their heads, he continued, “It’s the feast of St. Nicholas. He’s said to be one of the precursors of Santa Claus.”

 

You mean like an ancestor? Schrodinger asked.

 

“Not exactly.” Father Christopher motioned them over to the table and indicated they should take their coats off. Once they were all seated around the large table, he said, “St. Nicholas was a bishop in a town called Myra, in what is now Turkey. He was a very kindly man, and he always made sure to take care of the poor, which is what Jesus told us to do, after all. One of the most famous stories about him involved a poor nobleman who lived in his parish with his three beautiful daughters.

 

“Now, in those days, you needed to have a dowry to get married. This nobleman was so poor that although his daughters were very beautiful, they couldn’t get married, because they had nothing to bring to the marriages.”

 

“Oh, how sad,” Zoey said, and Lily nodded. “What did St. Nicholas do?”

 

“He was walking through the woods near their home, and he saw them hanging up their stockings by the fire to dry one night,” Father Christopher told them. “So after the entire family had gone to sleep, he climbed up to the top of their roof and dropped three small bags of gold coins down. One in each stocking.”

 

“So they could get married!” Lily said. “What a good man!”

 

“Indeed.” Father Christopher smiled. “Now, in honor of his good deeds, we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas, and in many of the Scandinavian countries, this is when children look for gifts from St. Nicholas. It’s said he goes around with his help, Black Peet, who carries a sack. St. Nicholas rides a white horse in some countries, and arrives in a boat in others.”

 

I would like to see that, Schrodinger said. Arriving on a boat! Like the Daughter of Stars!

 

“Yes, that would be something to see, wouldn’t it?” Father Christopher said. “Maybe next year, we can get one of the captains to help us, and have St. Nicholas arrive in the harbor.”

 

You should ask Pavel! He would do it! Schrodinger said, bouncing a little in his seat. Captain Pavel Chekhov sailed a ship through the Roads called the Heart’s Desire, and he was as dashing a pirate as Schrodinger could have imagined.

 

“I’ll bet he would.” Father Christopher laughed.

 

“So what is all this, Father?” Lily asked, waving her hand at the piles on the table. “Is this what you want us to help with?”

 

“Yes.” Father Christopher looked at all of them. “Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, after all, and I’m hoping you’ll help St. Nicholas and I with his deliveries. This,” and he indicated the full table, “all needs to be wrapped and put into baskets, which will be delivered tonight to the poor in the parish.”

 

Oh, how wonderful, Jack said, wagging his tail. Thank you for letting us help!

 

“No, thank you,” Father Christopher said. “I would have been up all night doing this myself, and that would put St. Nicholas behind in his deliveries.”

 

Zoey looked skeptical. “St. Nicholas? You can’t really mean that the saint himself is coming to deliver these.”

 

Father Christopher’s blue eyes sparkled. “Are you sure, Zoey?”

 

“But isn’t his feast day the day of his death?” she persisted. “So if he’s dead, how can he come back here and deliver gifts?”

 

“That’s part of the magic,” Father Christopher said. “Don’t you believe in magic?”

 

“Magic shouldn’t work like that,” she said stubbornly. “It doesn’t make sense.”

 

But it does, Schrodinger told her. Magic is powered by belief, or so the Librarian taught me. The more you believe, the more powerful the magic you can produce. If you have hundreds of millions of believers…you could do anything. Even bring the dead back to life.

 

“Or raise a saint,” Father Christopher said. “He’s right, Zoey. If you believe, there’s no limit to what you can do. Magically, or otherwise.” He chuckled softly. “Trust me, I know how hard it can be to accept that, especially if you aren’t born into it.” He nodded at Lily, Schrodinger and Jack. “They’ve grown up with magic – it’s a part of their life, and always has been. But you and I, coming from places that don’t have as much magic, have a bit of a harder time – they’ve seen things we can’t explain, and man is a creature who needs explanations. Sometimes, that explanation is magic. It gets easier the longer you live here.”

 

“You weren’t born in a CrossRoads town, Father Christopher?” Lily asked.

 

“No, child, I was born in a little town in the California mountains.” As he talked, Father Christopher started them sorting the piles on the table into groups. Schrodinger realized that the baskets would have something for everyone: toys, food, clothing, even a small bag of money. It wasn’t a lot, but it would make someone’s Christmas a lot brighter.

 

Wait. Then how come you can hear me? Jack asked him, confused. I thought only people who grew up in the Cove could hear me!

 

“The longer you live in a CrossRoads town, the more the magic changes you,” Father Christopher said. “Eventually, Zoey will be able to hear you too. The more you believe, the faster it comes.” He chuckled again. “It also helps to be young. The young always adapt faster than us old folks.”

 

Schrodinger watched Zoey out of the corner of his eye as they worked with the priest. She was thinking, he could tell: there was a faint frown wrinkle on her forehead, and every so often, she would look up at Father Christopher, as if sizing him up or looking for changes. He wondered what bothered her more: that the priest accepted the magic, or that she didn’t.

 

The table had looked piled high, but in a surprisingly short amount of time, they had packaged everything up and placed them in the large baskets that Father Christopher had supplied. Where did all this come from? Schrodinger asked him.

 

“Donations,” Father Christopher said. “This town is wonderful when it comes to making sure that their fellows are taken care of. I couldn’t ask for a more charitable parish.”

 

“That’s the way it should be,” Lily said firmly. “Mom and Dad say that the responsibility of those who have more is to help those that don’t have enough.”

 

“Your parents are very smart,” Father Christopher said. “And right.”

 

Zoey nodded. “I thought that this town would be cold and unfriendly when we first moved here,” she admitted. “But everyone’s been so nice. I…didn’t expect that.” She looked at the priest. “Is that part of the magic too?”

 

He smiled down at her. “Not the kind of magic you’re thinking of,” he said. “You just happened to choose a very good town to move into.” Then Father Christopher clapped his hands together. “Now, the important part! Who wants pizza?”

 

After dinner (which Schrodinger was surprised to find Father Christopher cooked for them, and the pizza dough was even better than Molly’s), Drew showed up to collect them. Before they left, Father Christopher handed each of them a wooden shoe, painted with reindeer and snowflakes.

 

“These are what the children in the Netherlands put out for the Feast of St. Nicholas,” he told them. “Put a couple of carrots in there for St. Nicholas’ horse, and put it on your hearth. Tomorrow morning, if you believe, perhaps there will be something for you too.”

 

<><>

“Do you think that’s enough carrots?” Zoey asked her parents anxiously later that night. “I don’t want the horse to be hungry.”

 

Peter Allard smiled at his young daughter and ruffled her hair. “I think it’s perfect,” he told her. “Now, where did Father Christopher say to put it?”

 

“The hearth!” Zoey picked the shoe up and went running into the living room. “Come and see, Dad!”

 

Donna watched her husband, wondering what Zoey would do if the carrots were still there when she woke up. Which they will be, she thought resignedly. I don’t want to lie to her.

 

Once again, a scene rose in her mind’s eye, a scene that got replayed far too often during the holiday season. She was six, it was Christmas Eve, and something had woken her from a sound sleep. Something had moved downstairs, and she’d known, in the way small children always knew, that it was Santa Claus downstairs. So she’d crept down the staircase as quietly as she could, hoping against hope to catch him in the act.

 

And then, crouching on the top stair, she heard it.

 

“I wish they didn’t grow up so fast,” her mother had said sadly. “It’s no fun when they don’t believe in Santa anymore, and this is probably the last year Donna will.”

 

With those words, Donna had realized the entire thing was a myth. A lie. And she’d never believed in magic again.

 

Until she’d come to the Cove, that is. And she was still on the fence about how much of the weirdness of the Cove was actually magic. She was betting science could explain most of it away.

 

“Good night, Mom!” Zoey came running back in and kissed her cheek. “Sleep well!”

 

“You too, munchkin,” she said fondly. “You too.”

 

But Donna couldn’t sleep, she found. So she got up from the bed, careful not to wake Peter up, and went into the living room. She turned on the Christmas tree lights, and sat down in one of the armchairs they’d found in a barn sale on the way up from Pennsylvania.

 

In the dim colored light, the living room was a mass of shadows and suggestions. However, Zoey’s painted wooden shoe, filled with a handful of baby carrots, was situated in a pool of colored light. Still full of carrots, she noted. Just like she’d thought.

 

It was snowing lightly outside, a quiet shush-shush of flakes against the windows, and the sounds were oddly soothing. Donna put her head back and closed her eyes. Maybe if I just rest here for a few minutes, I can get sleepy enough to go back to bed, she thought.

 

Not five minutes later, or so she thought, something moved in the living room, jolting her awake. She opened her eyes, wondering who had gotten in. Her gaze fell on the shoe, still sitting in its pool of colored light. But the carrots were gone: in their place was a long, narrowly wrapped package and a thick red and white swirled peppermint stick. Donna blinked, and then looked around.

 

A shadow moved across the room, and she looked at the window in the corner. A man looked back at her, his blue eyes kindly and his long white beard blowing gently in the night. A tall red bishop’s miter collected snowflakes atop his head, and he nodded once to her. Then he vanished.

 

Donna sat there for a long time, wondering just what she’d seen.

(advent) Thursday, December 5

Sorry this is late, guys.  I was busy – hubby and I went to see Rifftrax Live do Santa Claus Conquers the Martians!  It was awful in a really, really funny way.  But here is today’s story!

***

“Brr! It’s cold out here!”

 

Molly grinned at Drew as he stamped his feet on the frozen ground. “It’s winter, remember?” she teased. “What did you expect?”

 

“I know, I know,” he said. “Remember, I’m not from Maine originally. I’m not used to it being THIS cold.”  He squinted up into the slate grey sky. “At least I was used to some cold. Poor Steve is going to freeze solid one of these days.”

 

That was an image that made Molly laugh. Steve, one of the other techs up at the Gate station, was from Texas, and as soon as the temperature dipped below sixty, he started to shiver. “If he’s planning on staying up here, he’d better get used to it,” she said, after she got herself under control. “Global warming isn’t going to make it that warm up here.”

 

“True.” Since it was fairly common knowledge that Steve was deeply in love with one of the new postal carriers, who had made it very well-known that he wasn’t leaving his hometown, the Texan was working to up his tolerance to the cold. “How much longer are we going to be here?”

 

Molly looked at her watch. “It should be any minute now.” As if that was the cue it had been waiting for, the bell rang. “See?”

 

Lily and Zoey ran over to them. “It’s cold today!” Lily announced. “Too cold to make snowballs, sadly.”

 

“You’re right,” Drew said. “So we’ll have to postpone our snowball fight.”

 

“So we’ll have to get you another way,” Zoey said, and before he could move, they both jumped on him and knocked him into the snowbank.

 

“Hey! Help!” Drew squirmed, trying (but not very hard, Molly noticed) to get away from the two girls, who proceeded to wash his face in the snow. “Help!”

 

Schrodinger and Jack leapt into the fray, pulling Zoey and Lily off him, so he could fight back. She sat on her swing and laughed at them all. “You guys are going to be soaked!”

 

At the sound of her voice, they all turned to look at her. Drew leaned in and whispered something to Lily and Zoey, who both nodded.

 

“Don’t you dare,” Molly warned them, as they all got up and started towards her. “I mean it. Don’t you dare!”

 

They dared. In fact, Drew not only scooped her up from the swing, but he, Schrodinger and Jack held her down as Lily and Zoey dropped snow on her face. Molly shrieked in laughter and promised them all doom when she was free.

 

Finally, when they were all chilled through, they trooped down to the tea room, stopping briefly by Molly’s apartment so she and Drew could change. Lily and Zoey had snow pants on, but Molly’s jeans were soaked through, and so were Drew’s. Once they were changed, they went down to CrossWinds Books.

 

“I wonder what the advent calendar has in store for us today!” Zoey said, as they entered the back door of the bookstore. Her eyes were bright and she pulled at one of her braids. Molly noticed they were tied with gold ribbons today, and there were tiny bells in the center of the bows.

 

“Well, come on and find number five!” Lily told her, hurrying over to the calendar. “It’s your turn today!”

 

Molly smiled as she watched the four scrutinize the picture, searching for the elusive number five. It was Lily who finally found it, curled up under one of the stars in the night sky. Zoey reached out and touched it with one fingertip, then she stepped back.

 

As they were used to now, the paint crumbled away in a perfect square around the number, and a silvery, shimmering snowflake came out. It hovered in front of Zoey, who held her hand out expectantly.

 

She wasn’t disappointed. The snowflake spun and, to her surprise, two carrots and two perfect sugar cubes dropped into her hand, along with a note. She handed the note to Lily, who squinted at it and then read aloud, “I hope you have warm clothes! This is going to be a cold one!”

 

Carrots? Jack nosed her hand. Are we making more snowmen, then?

 

If we were, then why the sugar cubes? Schrodinger asked.

 

Maybe we need to sweeten their disposition? Jack said, and Lily giggled.

 

“No, silly! The sugar would melt!”

 

“Maybe you aren’t thinking it through,” Aunt Margie said, coming into the kitchen. She had a large bag in her hands, and from this, she pulled out scarves, mittens, and hats. “It’s a good thing these showed up today, I guess!”

 

“Where did they come from?” Zoey asked, as she accepted a set of lovely gold and green mittens, with a matching hat and scarf.

 

“I bet I know!” Lily said, peeking out from under the silver and purple hat she’d crammed on her head. “Gramma! Gramma makes the best knitted stuff for us!”

 

There were even scarves, hats and mittens for Molly and Drew, and as she drew hers on, Molly thought that Lily was probably right. Mrs. Barrett loved to knit (a common habit in Carter’s Cove, and one that made sense, considering how cold it was every winter), and her products were welcomed by everyone who got them. She’d included scarves and hats for Schrodinger and Jack too, and it was a testament to how cold it was that Schrodinger didn’t object to the hat.

 

“Okay, we’re ready, snowflake!” Zoey announced, giving one of the carrots and one of the sugar cubes to Lily. “Where are we going?”

 

In answer, the snowflake sparkled through a rainbow of colors and shot out through the front door of the kitchen, heading out the front door. They all trooped after it, waving to DC as she checked out a customer, and headed back out into the cold.

 

The snowflake led them back down to the park, and Molly wondered if maybe Jack had been right after all. But instead of leading them to the clearing where the two snowmen lived, it flashed along another path that led to the other side of the park, where they saw a large, ornate sleigh with two large draft horses hitched to it.

 

“Who’s that?” Zoey asked.

 

“Doc!” Molly raised her voice in greeting, and the older man in the captain’s great coat raised one hand in response. “Doc” Robbins had been a merchant marine in his younger years, before retiring to the Cove and farming. No one knew why he was called Doc – as far as Molly had ever heard, it was a nickname given to him when he sailed the Sea Gates.

 

Every December, Doc hitched his two Percherons Daisy and Shredder to the sleigh he’d built with his own two hands, and gave rides around the town to look at the lights. It was a tradition that Molly had enjoyed as a child, and now she looked forward to sharing it with Zoey and Lily.

 

“Ah, I see you’ve come well-prepared!” Doc said, as they got closer. Doc had one rule: he never charged for his sleigh rides, but Daisy and Shredder needed to be bribed, or so he said. The gentle beasts loved both carrots and sugar cubes, and Molly had taken two apples from the refrigerator, as well as a small package of scones for Doc himself. This he accepted with a grin and a wink.

 

Then he showed Zoey and Lily how to give Daisy and Shredder their bribes. He had them balance the sugar cubes on their outstretched hands, and the two horses leaned their massive heads down to daintily lip the treats from the girls, who giggled. Daisy was all grey, with a white blaze down her face, while Shredder was dappled grey and black. Both had red and green plaid ribbons and holly sprigs braided into their manes, and their harnesses were covered with bells.

 

“All aboard!” Doc cried, after Lily and Zoey had offered their carrots as well. Molly knew they’d have the chance to do the apples at the end.

 

Doc helped them all to climb into the sleigh, where they snuggled down under layers of blankets and sheep skins. Then he climbed up into the driver’s seat, picked up the reins, and called out to the two horses. “Giy-up!”

 

Daisy and Shredder perked up, and began to haul the sleigh forward. Molly leaned back against Drew, Schrodinger snuggled on her lap, and enjoyed the ride.

 

Lily and Zoey were up on the edges of the sleigh, wrapped in blankets, looking with bright eyes at the glory of the snow sculptures around the Cove. Every year, the artisans in the town went out and put the snowmen that many towns had as decorations to shame. It was another part of what Molly loved about Christmas in her town.

 

The middle school had done a Charlie Brown theme this year: sculpting the various characters as they skated around the frozen pond (which Molly realized was ice that glowed blue). To Lily and Zoey’s delight, as the sleigh slowed down to give them a look, another small magic made the snow sculptures actually move around the pond, and they heard the strains of music from the classic TV special.

 

At the Gate Station, the theme was A Christmas Carol. Molly identified Scrooge, the three Ghosts of Christmas, Tiny Tim and more. These didn’t move, but they all carried various forms of light that flickered in the mid afternoon gloom.

 

“You guys did really good this year,” Molly told Drew.

 

“Mac is a slave driver,” he replied. “At least this year, we didn’t have to replace all the lights on the mansion.”

 

Carter’s Cove land Gate was housed in a large mansion on the outskirts of the main town area, and Molly and Schrodinger loved to walk to it on their days off. It wasn’t far from the bookstore or her apartment, and many of the techs and engineers knew they were welcome to stop by the tea room for some homemade goodies.

 

Doc then took them down by the harbor, where Lily and Zoey cheered the large three-masted ship Daughter of Stars, which was lit by thousands of magical lights. Captain Carter’s historic ship was permanently moored in the harbor he’d discovered by sailing through the Sea Gate, and it was the centerpiece of the harbor’s display. There were smaller ships that were lit up as well, and at the end of each wharf was a tree that was decorated according to the type of ship that docked there.

 

Then it was a swing through the commercial district, where the shops all had their window displays up. In addition, many of them had musicians that played, and the music was piped out to the outdoors. Molly much preferred that to the muzak that many other stores in other towns had.

 

Finally, Doc brought them to Happy Garden, the only Chinese food restaurant in town. There, he turned around and handed Lily, Zoey, Jack and Schrodinger a jingle bell that matched the bells on Daisy and Shredder’s harnesses. “This is a magic jingle bell,” he told them solemnly. “If you are ever worried, or scared, jingle the bell, and remember this ride.”

 

“That’s magic?” Zoey asked him.

 

Doc smiled. “There’s more magic in memories than you can imagine, little one. Much more.”

 

She looked down at the jingle bell clutched in her hand. “Wow.”

 

Molly handed the apples to Doc and then they went into the restaurant. The fresh air had stimulated their appetites, and they fell onto the food as if they hadn’t eaten in months.

 

“This has been awesome,” Lily declared, finally leaning back and putting her chopsticks down. She’d learned to use them over the summer and was very proud of that fact. “This has been one of the best days ever.”

 

Zoey nodded. “You know, though, that we’re saying that almost every day.”

 

“Maybe that’s part of the magic too,” Lily told her. “You know? The magic of Christmas seems to be rediscovering the wonderful things around us.”

 

Molly hid a smile behind her mug of tea. Well, well, well, my niece is beginning to realize there’s more to life than what she can get out of her elders because she’s cute. That’s a very good thing.

 

Lily wouldn’t do that! Schrodinger objected, but on their private wavelength. She’s a good person!

 

I didn’t say she wasn’t, Molly said. She’s young, and she’s self-centered. Most youngsters are. It’s the ones that don’t grow out of it that are worrisome.

 

Oh.

 

They walked back to the bookstore through a clear chilly night, with Lily and Zoey singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of their lungs. When they walked in, Molly saw that Mrs. Allard was seated at one of the small tables. She had a book in her hands, which earned her points in Molly’s world. Maybe she wasn’t as bad as Molly had been thinking after all.

 

“Mom! Look what the advent calendar gave us today!” Zoey saw her mother and ran over, brandishing the jingle bell in one fist. “A jingle bell!”

 

Donna Allard put her book down and smiled at her daughter. “Oh, how pretty! What did the calendar have you do?”

 

Lily and Zoey shared the story of the afternoon, telling her all about the snow sculptures and the lights and the music. Donna listened, her face genuinely interested.

 

“And now you came here!” Zoey finished, throwing her arms around her mother. “So you can see the calendar! And you can meet Molly and Jack and Schrodinger and Drew!”

 

“Yes, I can!” Donna laughed as her daughter tugged her out of the chair and started dragging her towards the kitchen. “That’s why I came down! I had to meet all these people!”

 

Schrodinger moved over to them. I’ve been waiting to meet you, Mrs. Allard, he said politely, holding up one paw in welcome. Zoey has been a wonderful friend to share the advent calendar with. I’m Schrodinger.

 

Donna paused, her eyes wide as she took in the large CrossCat sitting before her, one paw raised, his hat and matching scarf still on, his intelligent eyes upon her. Molly held her breath, wondering what the woman would do. Would this be the point where it fell apart, and she dragged her daughter out, determined to keep her away from anything magical?

 

Then she knelt down to get to Schrodinger’s level, took his paw, and shook it. “It’s very nice to finally meet you, Schrodinger. Zoey’s told me so much about you, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was true. But you are. Very, very real.”

 

And soft, Schrodinger added modestly. My fur is very soft.

 

“Yes, it is,” Donna agreed, chuckling.

 

“Please don’t feed his ego,” Molly said, moving forward before Schrodinger could say any more. “It’s big enough as it is.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Molly Barrett, Lily’s aunt.”

 

“Very nice to meet you, Molly.” Donna stood up and shook her hand, and then Drew’s as well as he moved forward to greet her. “Thank you both so much for making Zoey feel welcome here. We were worried, moving her so far from her friends and family so close to the holidays, but it was such a good chance for Peter.”

 

“She’s been a sweetheart, Mrs. Allard,” Molly said, and Drew nodded. “She’s very talented.”

 

“Please, it’s Donna.”

 

“Donna.” Molly smiled. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

 

“And you can see the calendar, Mom!” Zoey said. “And meet Jack!”

 

Jack had hung back, knowing that Donna couldn’t hear him. After all, Zoey couldn’t. Now he came forward, his tail wagging, and she stroked his head. “Zoey tells me you can talk too, but she can’t hear you,” she said. “Why is that?”

 

“We think it might be because she wasn’t born here,” Drew said. “When you’re born into a CrossRoads town, you’re kind of steeped in the magic of the Gates, and it expresses itself in all sorts of ways.”

 

“So there’s actual genetic manipulation?” Donna asked, following them into the kitchen.

 

“Definitely,” Drew said, and Molly looked at him. “They’re doing some studies in some of the bigger CrossRoads towns, especially Boston, on exactly what that genetic change is. The studies are fascinating.”

 

“I’ll have to look into that,” she said thoughtfully. “Genetic manipulation has always fascinated me.”

 

“It’s really interesting,” he agreed.

 

“Look, Mom! This is the advent calendar!” Zoey, impatient with the talk, pulled her mother over to the giant calendar. “Isn’t it amazing?”

 

“It certainly is,” Donna agreed, leaning forward to inspect it as if it were a painting hanging in the Louvre. “And you still don’t know who sent it?”

 

“We have suspicions,” Zoey told her, and Molly smothered a laugh with difficulty. “But no proof.”

 

“You sound like a detective,” Drew said, ruffling Zoey’s hair. “Going to give Jamie a run for his money?”

 

“Maybe,” she said. “I’d make a good detective.”

 

“Yes, you would,” he agreed.

 

Donna declined the cup of tea, declaring that she needed to get Zoey home for school tomorrow. But she did stroke Schrodinger’s and Jack’s heads before she left.

 

DC stuck her head into the kitchen, a grin on her face. “And there goes another victim of Schrodinger’s charm,” she reported.

 

“Oh?” Molly looked up, intrigued. “What did she say on the way out?”

 

“This town is so much warmer than I thought it would be! Weirder, but in a good way. Maybe magic isn’t as bad as I thought it was,” DC recited, and Molly giggled.

 

Schrodinger, however, looked insulted. I am NOT weird!

 

Molly knelt down and hugged him. “Oh, you are, Cat, but honestly, I like you that way.”

 

(advent) Wednesday, December 4

“So, what do you know about the Allards?”

 

Molly’s question was quiet and meant to be for Aunt Margie’s ears only, but Schrodinger heard, even from his bed next to the wood stove. CrossCats had really sharp hearing anyways, and it helped that the bookstore was fairly quiet, even for a Wednesday. He continued to pretend to sleep, waiting to hear the answer.

 

“Not much, I’m afraid,” Aunt Margie admitted, and the stool she was sitting on scraped a bit against the floor as she shifted. Probably reaching for her tea, although Schrodinger couldn’t tell without opening his eyes, which would have given him away. Beside him, Jack continued to nap, woofing slightly, and his legs twitched as he dreamed.

 

“More than me, probably,” Molly said, and Aunt Margie chuckled.

 

“Well, I know that Peter Allard was born in one of the CrossRoads towns in Connecticut,” she said. “He went to the University of Connecticut for pharmacy, and that’s where he met Donna Carlton, who was getting her teaching degree. They got married, moved to Pennsylvania, and had Zoey.”

 

“Let me guess: Mrs. Allard has never been in a CrossRoads town, has she?”

 

Schrodinger heard the scrape again, and bet Aunt Margie was shaking her head. “Not as far as I know, although I assume they must have gone back to visit his parents at least once. But remember, not all CrossRoads towns are like Carter’s Cove. The fact that we have the two Gates here makes us a bit more…”

 

“Outrageous?” Molly offered, when Aunt Margie’s voice trailed off.

 

“I was going to say magical, but outrageous works too.” Aunt Margie chuckled a little. “We’re lucky in that we have so many magical realms so near to us. The industry in the big Gate towns has driven a lot of the magic away.”

 

Schrodinger made a mental note to have Molly take him to one of the other CrossRoads towns in New England, one of the bigger ones. He’d always wanted to see what they looked like.

 

“So maybe it’s not that she hates Christmas,” Molly was saying, dragging his concentration back. “Maybe she’s just not used to the way a small town works?”

 

“That could be it,” Aunt Margie agrees. “I mean, look at Zoey. She’s polite, adorable and a joy to have around. That speaks well of her parents – and I’ve not heard any complaints about Peter Allard. Donna just hasn’t been around.” The stool scraped one more time and Aunt Margie sighed. “Time to get back to the mines. Are Schrodinger and Jack going to get the girls for later today?”

 

“No, they had a field trip to one of the local realms to look at Christmas traditions there. Corrine’s bringing them over, since she was a chaperone.”

 

“Ah, good.”

 

Schrodinger waited until Aunt Margie had left before extricating himself from the bed without waking Jack (a feat in and of itself, considering how much of the bed the hound had taken up). Then he wandered into the kitchen and jumped up on the stool.

 

“Did you have a good nap?” Molly asked him, putting his mug in front of him and filling it with water and tea.

 

I did, although Jack is chasing things again in his dreams.

 

“Poor Schrodinger.” Molly reached out and rubbed his head. “You’re such a good friend to put up with that.”

 

He leaned into the caress and purred a little. Well, he’s warm and he puts up with me snuggling up next to him. I’m so glad Corrine let him come and stay with us during the week.

 

“Me too. Dogs aren’t meant to be alone, and this means you have someone to hang out with too, when I get busy.” Molly looked up at the clock. “Speaking of, want to keep me company while I make some cookies?”

 

Always!

 

Schrodinger loved to watch Molly bake. Her kitchen was her kingdom, and the magic of the Gates had flowed into her blood as well, imbuing her with the innate senses to know exactly how and when something was done. Her magic wasn’t powerful in the terms of the warriors he’d known before, but it was homey, and he’d be willing to bet on her against any army in a fair fight.

 

Never bet against a kitchen witch, because everyone has to eat, after all.

 

Today, she was baking sugar cookies: snowmen and Santa Clauses, he saw, as she brought out her cookie cutters. What are you baking for today?

 

“I’ve been asked to help out with some of the charity work around here,” Molly said, rolling out her first lump of dough. She’d made the dough last night, and brought it in to the tea house that morning. “I told you that Corrine’s nursing group has become part of the charity assistance group that Father Christopher started a few years ago, didn’t I?” When he nodded, she continued, “Well, they’re trying to expand a bit this year. So Corrine asked if I would do some baking.”

And you said yes, of course, because you love baking.

 

“And I love to watch people enjoy my baking,” she said, cutting out a row of snowmen and laying them on the cookie sheet. A row of Santas followed, and for the next few hours, Schrodinger sipped his tea and watched her dance.

 

She had the innate sense of when the dough was ready, when the cookies in the oven were done, and when they were cool enough to go onto a tray for decorating. There were no timers in Molly’s kitchen – she simply didn’t need them.

 

Once she was done, the sideboard was full of cooling cookies. She brewed herself a fresh cup of tea and wandered out into the tea room to wait for the girls. Schrodinger followed her.

 

“Molly! Schrodinger! Jack! Wait til you see what we got today!”

 

Lily and Zoey came running into the shop, followed by Corrine, who grinned at her sister-in-law.

 

“Hi! How was the field trip?” Molly asked, putting her tea cup on the table next to her before kneeling down to hug the girls. Their voices had woken Jack, and he and Schrodinger crowded around as well.

 

“It was AWESOME,” Zoey told her. “We went to this little village and they don’t even have electricity, Molly!”

 

“They don’t?” Molly looked astonished, but Schrodinger saw the twinkle in her eyes. “What do they use?”

 

“Magic!” Zoey said. “They use MAGIC!”

 

“The school took them to Durintown,” Corrine told Molly. “To see the toy makers.”

 

“Oh, I love going there,” Molly said. “They have such beautiful work.”

 

“They paint everything by hand,” Zoey said, her eyes shining. “Everything. And look what they let us do!” She held out the horse that she’d carried in.

 

Lily had one too, and Molly oohed and aahed over them. They were very well-made, and Lily and Zoey had done an amazing job painting them. Lily’s was pink, of course, and she’d painted a butterfly on the back, almost like a saddle. Zoey’s horse was grey, and she’d painted tiny snowflakes all over it with an attention to detail that made Schrodinger blink. The little girl was quite talented with a brush.

 

“Are you guys hungry?” Molly asked. “Or do you want to just get right to the advent calendar?”

 

“Advent!” Lily shouted. “I can’t wait to see what we get to do today!”

 

“Yes, Advent!” Zoey agreed, and they both rushed into the kitchen, followed by the others. Corrine looked more tired than usual, and accepted a cup of tea gratefully.

 

“I’d forgotten how tiring field trips can be,” she admitted, and Molly chuckled.

 

“It’s Schrodinger’s turn today,” Lily reminded them, and Zoey nodded. Schrodinger went up to the calendar and peered at it. Unlike Jack, CrossCats were not color-blind, but it was still hard to see the golden numbers against the brilliant painting. He finally discovered number 4, sparkling against a snowflake, and pressed his nose to it.

 

The sweet smell of sugar and spice filled his nostrils as the painting dissolved underneath his touch. He stepped back and the snowflake floated out on that sweet breeze to hover over them.

 

“What are we doing today, snowflake?” Zoey asked softly. “What fun do you have planned for us?”

 

“Do you think it will answer?” Lily whispered. “Wouldn’t that be neat if it did?”

 

Zoey nodded, but the snowflake didn’t say anything out loud. Instead, it spun and went to hover in front of Lily, who held out her hand. A stream of silver shot out from the center of the snowflake, turning into a small piece of paper that said, “Magic works best when shared with others. Bring some magic to someone else today.”

 

That sounds like a fortune cookie, Schrodinger said, wrinkling his nose. What could it mean?

 

The snowflake then zoomed off and went to hover over the trays of cookies. “Looks like you guys are helping me today,” Molly said, and Corrine smiled.

 

“What are we doing?” Lily asked.

 

“Remember how you and I talked about getting your Scout troop to come and sing carols at the retirement home?” Corrine asked her daughter, and Lily nodded. “Well, the director there asked if we’d like to visit with the residents, and bring them over some cookies. I asked Molly to bake some-”

 

Because Molly’s cookies are the best ever! Schrodinger interrupted, and Molly blushed a bit.

 

“And it looks like the calendar thought you guys might like to help,” Corrine finished.

 

Zoey looked at the snowflake, which was still hovering over the cookies. “What does sharing the magic mean?” she asked.

 

Schrodinger looked at her. The Librarian once told me that magic shared is magic multiplied, he said, after a moment. There’s something about the way magic works, almost like a virus, that it spreads and spreads as more people share in it.

 

“I don’t like viruses,” Zoey said doubtfully.

 

“Magic as a virus.” Molly laughed. “That’s as good an analogy as any, I guess. But in this case, Zoey, think of it more like this – if you’re happy, and you hug Lily, you share that happiness, and it grows. That’s what we’re doing today. Growing magic.” She and the snowflake led them back out into the tea room, where she pushed two of the tables together. The chairs were big enough that Jack could sit in one and watch too.

 

“I need you guys to help me decorate these,” Molly said, and brought out not only cookies, but a couple of sets of edible paints. Schrodinger had wondered why she’d bought them. “Do you think we can get all of these trays done by six?”

 

Schrodinger looked up at the clock, which said 3:30 pm, and then at his comrades. We can, I think, he said, and the others nodded. Let’s get started!

 

The snowflake spun up towards the ceiling and then burst over them, drenching them in sparkles. They all laughed and settled in at the table, with Zoey and Lily picking up paint brushes and Jack and Schrodinger offering suggestions.

 

By 6 pm, they were done, and tired, and hungry. Molly had been packaging up the cookies as they dried, and she and Corrine had a full box with three bags of brightly decorated cookies in cellophane, tied up with sparkling ribbons. Molly had a plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ready for them, and once they were done eating, she said, “Are you ready for the next part?”

 

Lily and Zoey looked at each other, eyes wide. “The NEXT part?” Lily said finally. “It’s a TWO-PART adventure?”

 

“It is.” Corrine grinned. “Get your coats. We have to deliver these cookies!”

 

Corrine had a mini-van, and they all tumbled into it. She headed out to the Carter’s Cove Retirement Home, which was located out on the other side of town from the bookstore. It wasn’t a long drive, which was good: everyone was too excited to sit still for long.

 

“Welcome to our home!” boomed out a female voice, as they disembarked from the van. “It’s so good to see you!”

 

Zoey gasped as they came up to the front door. “Is that Mrs. Claus?” she whispered to Lily, who shook her head in wonder, eyes wide.

 

The woman looked like the classic Mrs. Claus, Schrodinger thought, which was impossible, because Mrs. Claus had other things to do this time of the year. But it was an uncanny resemblance: she had curly white hair that was currently tucked up under a muffin cap of bright red, and her blue eyes and blushing cheeks radiated warmth. Her white apron glowed against her red dress.

 

Corrine went up and embraced the woman. “Hello, Mrs. Dawson, how are things going?”

 

“Everyone’s excited to see you, dears.” Mrs. Dawson kissed her on the cheek, then beamed down at everyone else. “As am I!”

 

“This is my sister-in-law, Molly,” Corrine said, turning back to them. “And my daughter Lily, her friend Zoey, and this is Jack and Schrodinger. They all worked very hard on these gifts.”

 

“Just having you here is a gift!” Mrs. Dawson declared. “Come on in!”

 

Schrodinger didn’t like hospitals, or doctor’s offices, or vet’s offices. They all had a smell of antiseptic that he hated, and he knew Jack did too. Despite the warmth of their welcome, he entered hesitantly, not sure what to expect.

 

It was not what he found. There was no antiseptic smell – instead, he smelled pine boughs and cinnamon, and the air was warm and inviting. He and Jack exchanged a look and relaxed.

 

The foyer of the home (and it really was a home, he realized, a large mansion that had been adapted for its current use) was already decorated for Christmas, with a large wreath over the reception desk, and a Christmas tree in the corner.

 

“Most of our residents have just finished dinner,” Mrs. Dawson told them, leading them down one of the hallways. “They’re about to sing some carols, so I think this is the perfect time.” She led them into what once had been the grand ballroom. The ceiling soared high above them, and Schrodinger was suddenly reminded of the massive outdoor ball room that the Snow Queen brought with her to her ball every year. This one was paneled in warm wood, and large windows opened out to a lawn on one side and an enclosed courtyard on the other, both with trees strung with brilliant lights. Inside, more lights were strung along the walls, twinkling like stars against the paneling and the green boughs they were intertwined with. A grand piano sat in one corner, with a small artificial tree on top of it and an older woman sitting on the bench, stretching her fingers out.

 

And there were a LOT of people in the room, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers or canes. Some were quietly sitting, but more of them were talking, gathered around tables and in groups. Mrs. Dawson led them in, and then clapped her hands, getting everyone’s attention.

 

“Look what we have here!” she said, her voice not loud but carrying clearly through the room once everyone had quieted down. “You all have guests, and they’ve brought surprises!”

 

All the eyes in the room turned to them. Schrodinger felt Lily and Zoey shrink back a little, but he knew they would be fine once they started talking to people. They were like that.

 

So he poked Zoey in the knee and, when she turned to look at him, said, Why don’t we work together? Jack can go with Lily and that way, we can spread all sorts of joy.

 

She nodded, and Molly gave them a bag of the cookies, pointing with her chin. “Why don’t you start over there?”

 

“Over there” was a group of older men and women around the piano. Schrodinger and Zoey went over and then Zoey stopped, unsure of what to say.

 

Hi! Schrodinger went up to the first older lady, who sat in a wheelchair, knitting on her lap. He put one paw on the wheel of her chair and stood up to get closer to her. I’m Schrodinger, and this is Zoey.

 

The woman smiled at him, but didn’t say anything. She did, however, reach down with a dry hand to stroke him gently.

 

“Polly can’t speak,” another older woman said, leaning over. She too had knitting in her lap, but she wasn’t in a wheelchair. “Poor dear lost her voice several years ago, when she had a stroke. But she understands perfectly well.”

 

Schrodinger rubbed Polly’s hand. I’m sorry you can’t speak, he said. This works just as well, though.

 

Polly smiled and continued to stroke his head. He couldn’t help it; a purr built up in his throat.

 

“What do you have there, dear?” An older gentleman, his hands folded around a cane, leaned forward to look at Zoey’s bag. “Sweets?”

 

“Just what you need, Francis,” the other woman said.

 

“Always,” Francis said, winking at Zoey. She grinned and pulled the first package of cookies out.

 

“Molly made them, and we decorated them,” she said shyly, offering them to him.

 

Francis took the package of cookies and looked them over. “They’re beautiful,” he told her, and her smile widened. “Is that whole bag for me?” He winked at her again, and she laughed.

 

That broke the ice, and she handed out cookies to the other people at the table. They all started asking her and Schrodinger questions about the cookies, about school and about their plans for the holiday. At one point, Schrodinger looked up to see that the room had split three ways: one group with them, one group around Jack and Lily and one group with Molly and Corrine. Mrs. Dawson and her nurses (they must be, they looked official, although none of them had uniforms on) circulated around, keeping an eye on everyone.

 

Zoey was listening with fascination to Francis and another older gentleman, who were telling stories about getting Christmas trees back in their youth.

 

“No cars then, little miss,” Francis told her, his blue eyes misty as he looked into the past. “My da and me would go into the forest with the sleigh and the horses, and bring a tree back. Took a long time, but it was worth it.”

 

“And what did you decorate it with?” she asked, her eyes wide.

 

“Popcorn strings, cranberry strings, paper snowflakes that we kept from year to year,” he said. “My ma had some lovely glass birds and ornaments from her ma, and we’d bake gingerbread cookies to decorate and hang. One year, my sister tied her hair ribbons to the tree.” He looked down at the cookies in the bag he still held. “This brings back memories, it does. I haven’t thought of our Christmases at home in a long time.”

 

“It sounds lovely,” she said. “Are they good memories?”

 

He reached over and ruffled her hair, but Schrodinger saw just the faintest sheen of tears in his eyes. “They are, yes. They are.”

 

Mrs. Dawson clapped her hands again, and they all turned to her. “Now that you all have your goodies, who wants to sing carols?” She smiled as many of them raised their hands or nodded. “Mary Ellen has been nice enough to offer to play for us tonight. What shall we start with, dear?”

 

Mary Ellen, who had been talking with Lily and Jack, went back up to the piano. Sitting down, she stretched her fingers out before her. “How about this one?”

 

Notes flew up from under her fingertips as she started to play. Schrodinger recognized the tune quickly, as voices took up the words.

 

“Dashing through the snow, on a one-horse open sleigh…”

 

It was nearly an hour later when Mary Ellen finally pleaded exhaustion and the singing stopped. Schrodinger was surprised to find how disappointed he was at that – he loved music, any music, and the carols sung by the retirees had been heartfelt. He jumped down from Polly’s lap regretfully as Molly and Corrine called them over.

 

“Thank you so much for having us,” Molly said to them all. “This has been a wonderful evening.”

 

Yes, Schrodinger said, and Lily and Zoey echoed his words. Jack contented himself with wagging his tail enthusiastically.

 

“No, thank you,” Mrs. Dawson said. “You have been wonderful guests, and we would love to have you back any time.”

 

“Especially if you bring more cookies!” someone called out from the back of the crowd, and everyone laughed.

 

The ride home was quiet: everyone was tired, and it seemed right to listen to the instrumental carols on WCOV and watch the stars twinkle in the night sky. Schrodinger was nearly asleep when they dropped Zoey off, but the van stopping woke him up.

 

“Here,” Molly said, passing back another bag of cookies. “Take this with you, and tell your parents that they’re always welcome at the tea room.”

 

“Thank you,” Zoey said. “For everything.” And she hopped out.

 

“Mommy?” Lily asked from the back, as Corrine waited for Zoey to get in the house.

 

“Yes?” she said, waving to the woman (Mrs. Allard, Schrodinger assumed) who had come out on the porch. Schrodinger saw, as the door shut, that Zoey’s wreath hung on the door, which made him smile.

 

“Can parents be wrong sometimes?” Lily asked.

 

“Everyone can be wrong sometimes, Lily love,” Corrine said, backing the van up. “That’s part of being human. What’s really important is how you react once you realize that you’re wrong.”

 

“Oh.” Lily turned back to look out at the window again, and Schrodinger wondered what was going through her mind. She didn’t say any more, though, and in a few minutes, his eyes closed again.

 

It had been a long day.

(advent) Tuesday, December 3

You have to tell me, Schrodinger said, as they waited with Jack for Lily and Zoey to come out of the school. I know you had something to do with this. He’d used their private link to say this, so Molly knew that Jack couldn’t hear them.

 

I don’t know what you mean, she said silently. They were waiting in the playground, Molly sitting on a swing while she and Schrodinger watched Jack chase snowflakes. It was flurrying in little bursts, nothing serious, but just enough to add a holiday feel to the day.

 

Schrodinger looked up at her, disbelief in his green eyes. Seriously? I’m not a kid, Molly. I know you weren’t going to let Zoey and Lily ruin Christmas.

 

Okay, I’ll give you that, she said. I may have made a few phone calls. But I had no idea what they would do.

 

You called the Snow Queen?

 

Among others. Molly looked fondly down at the CrossCat. You looked so bereft when Corrine told us. And really, Jade has been looking for an excuse to do something like this ever since Drew and I told her the story of what he did with the carols.

 

Really?

 

Molly nodded, laughing a bit at Jack’s antics. “She’s a bit of a romantic, you know,” she said out loud. “I wonder why she’s never found someone.”

 

Well, there’s the whole being the Snow Queen bit, Schrodinger said. I can see that being a bit off-putting.

 

“True.”

 

The bell rang then, and the doors of the school opened, disgorging students. Lily and Zoey were in the second wave, and when they saw Molly waiting for them, they ran over.

 

“What do you think today’s advent adventure will be?” Lily cried, throwing herself at her aunt. Molly wasn’t prepared for the assault and they both went over into the snow, laughing.

 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I bet it will be fun!”

 

Which wasn’t true – that she didn’t know. When she’d first called her, Molly had demanded a part in the calendar, and Jade had sent her a list of the adventures she’d planned. Which is why Drew was waiting for them at the tea room, his Range Rover ready to take them where they needed to go.

 

“All right, let’s go!” she said now, pushing herself up from the snow. “I want to see what’s coming up too!”

 

They walked quickly to the bookstore, admiring the Christmas lights that were starting to glow in the late afternoon air. “It’s so pretty here,” Zoey said. “Do you think we’ll see Spot and Mr. Grey again?”

 

“I don’t know,” Molly said. “I don’t think so. It’s Tuesday – they usually come by on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. They seem to have something else to do on the other days.”

 

And I’m not sure I want to know what, Jack said. Spot is cool, but he’s a little creepy sometimes.

 

Well, he’s a hell hound, Schrodinger pointed out reasonably. He kind of can’t help it. And he’s still a puppy, you know.

 

Molly idly wondered what a fully grown Spot would look like, and didn’t envy Mr. Grey at all. “I think Spot will be fine,” she said. “It’s all about the owner, after all. And Mr. Grey isn’t creepy.”

 

I like him, Schrodinger said. He likes Earl Grey tea – that shows that he’s a man of sophistication.

 

“It does?” Zoey said, eyes wide, and the CrossCat nodded. Molly smothered a laugh at that.

 

“Are you guys hungry?” she asked, as she unlocked the back door. On her off days, she didn’t usually unlock it, since Schrodinger didn’t need to get in when Molly wasn’t at work. If he’d gone without her, he’d just go to the front door and wait for DC or Margie to let her in. Grace, the assistant clerk who helped cover the tea room on Molly’s off days, didn’t actually go into the pantry unless someone broke a mug or needed one of the more exotic teas Molly stocked.

 

“Yes,” Drew said, from his perch on one of the stools. “Starving.”

 

“I wasn’t asking you,” Molly said, laughing as she went over to him and gave him a quick kiss in hello. “I was asking them.”

 

“Well, you didn’t specify,” he said, pulling her close and stealing another kiss, since the kids had made a beeline for the Advent Calendar. “And you know Mac never feeds us on shift.”

 

“Hah. Then what does he do with all the baskets of goodies I send up to you guys all the time?”

 

“He hoards them like a dragon,” Drew told her, and the image of dour Mac, curled up on a pile of picnic baskets and smoking his ever-present pipe, was enough to send Molly into peals of laughter loud enough to not only drag Lily, Zoey, Jack and Schrodinger from the Advent Calendar, but to bring Aunt Margie into the room as well.

 

“What mischief are you up to, Drew McIntyre?” she demanded, her hands on her hips and her eyes sparkling as she surveyed the room.

 

“Me?” he protested. “Why do you think it’s me?”

 

Aunt Margie shook her finger at him. “Because you’re the only one who can make her laugh like that.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like a maniac,” she said, and that set Molly off again.

 

When she finally got her giggles under control, she sighed. “I’ll never look at Mac the same again, you know,” Molly told Drew, who grinned. Then she turned to Aunt Margie. “How’s the day going?”

 

Aunt Margie shrugged. “It goes. It’s a holiday season. We’re going nuts.” She turned to leave, and then apparently remembered something. “Oh, did you have sandwiches set up for tomorrow? We’ve had a request.”

 

“Sort of, but I’m flexible.” Molly ignored Drew’s chuckle at that and went over to the notebook she kept on the sideboard, flipping to the menu she’d set up for the next day. “What’s the request?”

 

“Mr. Dorr asked if you could do a cranberry-nut bread sandwich with cream cheese,” Aunt Margie said. “He said his grand-mere used to do that every year, and he misses it.”

 

“For Mr. Dorr, I would do anything,” Molly said, and wrote down the change, then considered what she could do. The cream cheese was easy – she’d been planning to make cream cheese frosting for carrot cake cupcakes, so she’d ordered some extra. There were cranberries in her freezer, and if she remembered correctly, she had leftover orange concentrate in there too. “Yes, we can totally do that,” she said. “Tell him I’m expecting him to order one now!”

 

Aunt Margie nodded and left. Molly closed the notebook and stretched, then went to the fridge and started rummaging. She was hungry, and she knew Drew was too. Teasing aside, his job was hard, and he used a lot of energy working around the Gates. She tried to remember the last time she’d seen a fat Gate tech or engineer and failed.

 

“Well, what are we doing today?” she called out, as she pulled the remainder of a loaf of bread, some cheese and some roast beef, and the butter. She piled these on the counter and then turned the flame on under the cast iron skillet, then shed her coat.

 

“I love how you have your priorities straight,” Drew said, and Molly gave him a puzzled look. “Food first, and THEN take your coat off.”

 

“I was cold?” she said weakly, and shrugged. “No, I was hungry, I’ll admit it.” She looked over at the four around the calendar. “Whose turn is it today?”

 

That’s apparently what they were trying to figure out. Molly watched as they discussed it in low tones, and then Jack started to look at the calendar.

 

Lily was the one who spotted the little number 3, hidden in a pine tree bough on the sleigh. Jack pressed his nose to it, and the painting crumbled away. He backed up as the snowflake floated out.

 

A blast of cold air followed it out of the hole, cold air that smelled of pine and the forests. It whirled around the small kitchen, chilling them all with its bite.

 

“Oooh, look!” Zoey pointed at the snowflake, which had turned a forest green briefly, and hovered in front of Lily. She held out her hand, and the snowflake pulsed before turning white again. A perfect pine cone with a tag on it landed in Lily’s outstretched hand.

 

What does it say? Jack demanded, his tail wagging so ferociously that he nearly knocked Schrodinger over. Jack’s tail had a mind of its own most days.

 

“It says, ‘The perfect Christmas needs the perfect decorations,’” Lily said, squinting hard at the tag. She looked up at the others. “What do you think it means?”

 

“Well, I think it means that you need to follow the snowflake, after you eat,” Molly said, offering up a plate of grilled cheese and roast beef sandwiches. “I think it will wait, don’t you?”

 

The snowflake sparkled and then went to sit on the end of one of Zoey’s braids. She giggled and then they crowded around Molly.

 

Once the sandwiches were consumed, Molly did a quick clean-up, grabbed some of the cranberries and the orange concentrate from the freezer, and tucked them in a small cooler. “For later tonight,” she told them. “I need to make cranberry-nut bread, remember?”

 

Then they all put their coats back on and looked at Zoey, who lifted up her braid and said to the snowflake, “I think we’re ready now. Where do we go?”

 

The snowflake floated up and shimmered at them, then led them out front, to where Drew’s new Range Rover was parked. It floated towards the vehicle and then stopped, obviously waiting for them to get in.

 

“Everyone in!” Drew said, clicking the doors open with his remote. They piled in, and then he pulled out into the road.

 

Clouds had come in and more snowflakes had started to fall while they’d been in the tea shop, and the Christmas lights glowed in the deepening twilight. Carter’s Cove put on quite a show in December. Molly leaned back against the seat, enjoying the light show. The snowflake was right ahead of the car, glowing above the Range Rover’s lights.

 

“Where are we going?” Zoey asked, as the ride stretched. “Are we even in the Cove anymore?”

 

“Oh yes,” Drew told her. “I think I know where we’re heading, though. What kind of decorations do you think we might find out here for Christmas?”

 

They didn’t have to answer, as a large sign that said “Lavalle Christmas Tree Farm” loomed out of the pine trees on the side of the road. The snowflake strobed again, and then vanished as they pulled into the driveway.

 

“Oh,” Zoey said, as they all got out and breathed in the pine-scented air. “This is wonderful.”

 

“Haven’t you ever gone to a tree farm before?” Lily asked her.

 

Zoey shook her head. “We have an artificial tree.” When Lily stared at her, incredulous, she shrugged. “Mom says real ones are a fire hazard.”

 

“Well, they are, if you don’t keep them watered,” said a new voice, as Josh Lavalle, the owner of the tree farm, came out of the small trailer that stood at the edge of the parking lot. “But if you take care of them, they can not only be fine, they can be recycled afterwards.”

 

“How do you recycle a Christmas tree?” Zoey asked him.

 

“We come and pick them up, and make mulch to use in gardens,” he said. He looked at Molly. “How many tickets do you want?”

 

“Two,” Molly said. “One for us, and one for Lily and Jack.”

 

“Sounds good.” He handed her the tickets, and then went to go and talk to another couple who had just climbed out of their car.

 

Molly turned back to her group. “Okay, so Corrine said nothing bigger than six feet this year,” she said. “She wants to make sure it fits in the living room with the tree topper, without your father having to take some off the bottom.” Lily nodded vigorously. “And I don’t need anything bigger than four or five feet. Got it?” They all nodded this time. “Then go ahead and look!”

 

Lily grabbed Zoey’s hand. “Come on!” she cried. “Let’s go find the perfect tree!”

 

Molly and Drew strolled behind them as they ran off. “This was such a good idea,” he said, slipping an arm around her waist.

 

“Yep.” Molly rested her head on his shoulder and sighed happily. “It was.”

 

They wandered through the trees, hearing the girls shout and Jack bark as they looked for trees. Schrodinger was quiet, of course, but Molly could “hear” his thoughts as they debated various trees. She really didn’t care what kind of tree they got. What she cared about was the fact that she was going to get to share the entire Christmas season with the two guys she really loved, for the first time.

 

“So, what do you want for Christmas?” she asked Drew. “You never gave me a list.”

 

He didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I really don’t want anything this year, except to spend it with you and Schrodinger. I’ve got everything I want.”

 

“Everything?” she teased gently. “There’s not one thing that you don’t have that you want?”

 

“Well, of course, but where are you going to find a castle for sale around here?” he teased back.

 

“Are you challenging me?” Molly asked.

 

“Oh no!” Drew laughed. “I know better than that!” Then he looked off over the trees. “Honestly, though, I don’t know what I want. I’ll think on it.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Molly, Drew, we found it!”

 

The high-pitched shout of joy from Lily brought them at a run. She and Zoey were dancing excitedly in front of a tree that reached full branches up to the gently-falling snow. It was just a shade under 6 feet, and Molly nodded. “Your mother and father will love it,” she told Lily, and handed her the tag to tie on one of the branches. Each ticket had a number attached to it – Josh had already taken the other half of the ticket off before he’d given it to them, and written her name next to the numbers in his log book.

 

“Now you need to find one for Molly,” Drew told them, and they ran off again.

 

“Not as big!” Molly reminded them. “Lord, why do I think I’m going to get a huge tree this year?”

 

“Because they’re enthusiastic?” Drew chuckled. “Besides, a big tree wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

 

“Where would we put it?” Molly pointed out.

 

“Well, there’s that.”

 

However, the second time the cry went up, Molly and Drew had to admit that they had done wonderfully. Schrodinger and Jack had found a compact balsam fir, just a shade over four feet tall, with full branches and a lovely scent.

 

“You’re right,” she told them, as Drew put the tag on the tree branch. “This one is perfect too.”

 

“So now what?” Zoey asked, as they tromped back through the snow to the parking lot. “Are we going to get a saw?”

 

“Not yet,” Lily said. “It’s too early.”

 

“Too early?”

 

Lily nodded, clearly in her element. “If you cut the tree and put it up now, it runs a greater chance of drying out. So around the 15th or so, we’ll come back, and Josh will have the tree cut and waiting for us!”

 

“That’s really cool,” Zoey said, as she looked around. “Maybe I can convince my mom to get a real tree this year.”

 

Josh wasn’t outside when they got back to the parking lot, but his son Cory was, and he grinned. “Did you find trees?”

 

“We did!” Lily told him excitedly. “I can’t wait to come back and get it, so we can decorate it!”

 

He chuckled. “I’ll bet. Now, hold on a minute. Dad said something came today for you guys, and he wanted to make sure you didn’t leave without it.” As he ducked into the trailer, Lily and Zoey traded curious looks.

 

Do you know what this is? Schrodinger asked Molly, who shook her head.

 

Cory came back out with four large wreathes, each already decorated. “Yep, here they are. Ordered specially for each of you.”

 

They received their wreathes with awe, Molly and Drew taking Schrodinger and Jack’s for them. Each one was different, and beautiful. Lily’s had gingerbread men dancing all over it, while Jack’s had dog bones, tied with the same red ribbons on Lily’s cookies. Zoey’s and Schrodinger’s had blue ribbons, hers holding snowflakes on, and his holding dragons.

 

Oh, look, it’s Ember! He cried, nudging Molly.

 

“I know!” she said, admiring the wreath. “It looks just like her, doesn’t it?”

 

Ember was the dragon that Drew and Old Man Winter had rescued last year. They carried the wreathes back to the Range Rover, and headed off into the night.

 

When they dropped Zoey off at her house, she jumped out with her wreath clutched tightly in her hand and sprinted to the door, where her mother stood waiting. “Mom, Mom, look what I have!” she called, holding the wreath up. “Isn’t it pretty? They gave it to us – we each got one! Can we put it up? And can we go back and get a tree? Please?”

 

Mrs. Allard looked at the wreath, and then smiled down at her daughter before looking out at the car, where Molly and Drew and the others were waiting to make sure Zoey got in safely. She waved, but Molly wondered if she was truly as happy about the wreath as she was pretending to be.

 

Time to talk to Aunt Margie, she decided, as Drew put the Range Rover in gear. If anyone knows anything about the newcomers to the Cove, it’s her.

 

(advent) Monday, December 2

Sorry it’s late, guys.  I have a snot-squid in my head, and it’s not being very cooperative.  That being said, it’s still Monday!  So here it is….

 

Schrodinger! Come on, it’s almost time for the bell to ring!

 

I’m coming! Schrodinger stretched his legs, straining a bit to keep up with Jack. Remember, my legs are shorter than yours!

 

Sorry! The big hound slowed down. I’m just excited!

 

Me too!

 

They had spent the morning at the bookstore with Molly – Corrine had gone back to work this year, with Lily in second grade, and so Jack spent Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Schrodinger and Molly at the bookstore, and then went to work with Nathan on the other two days. It was preferable to leaving him home alone, and he loved hanging out with the CrossCat. Now, they were rushing to get to the elementary school to meet Lily and Zoey and escort them back to the bookstore to open the next box on the Advent calendar.

 

They skidded into the school yard just as the final bell rang, and they waited on the side for Lily and Zoey to come out. Most of the students recognized them and shouted greetings as they ran by to hop on the busses.

 

Lily saw them first, and snagged Zoey’s hand to drag her against the tide of children to where Schrodinger and Jack were waiting in the snow. It was another cold day, but not nearly as cold as it had been the day before. Grey clouds hung over the school, and Schrodinger could smell snow in the air.

 

“Did you open it yet?” Lily demanded, when they made it over to the two.

 

Of course not, Jack told her, punctuating his statement with a deep bark. That would have been rude. We waited!

 

“Oh good!” Lily said, and quickly told Zoey what he’d said.

 

“I wish I could hear all the animals,” Zoey lamented.

 

You can hear me! Schrodinger snuggled up against her.

 

“Yes, and it’s wonderful,” she assured him, stroking him with a gentle hand. “But I’d like to hear Jack.”

 

Maybe that’s what you should ask Santa for, Schrodinger said. I’ll bet he could give it to you.

 

“Oooh, yeah!” Lily said. “You should!”

 

“Maybe I will!” Zoey said, grinning, and Schrodinger realized that she was serious. “Come on, let’s see what the Advent calendar has today!”

 

We should take it a bit slower than we did yesterday, Schrodinger said, looking at the girls. It’s a bit more slick today. He sniffed the air. And it’s going to snow again soon.

 

“Really?” Lily sniffed too. “Yes, I can smell it.”

 

“What does snow smell like?” Zoey asked. “I just smell the sea.”

 

That’s because you’re not used to it, Schrodinger told her. Once you get used to it, you’ll smell the snow again. It’s a dry, dusty kind of smell, with a sharp undertone.

 

It smells like cold, too, Jack added. But not as cold as last winter.

 

That’s because Old Man Winter was here a lot last winter, Schrodinger reminded him. He caused a lot of cold air to come in.

 

“Who’s Old Man Winter?” Zoey asked. “You guys mentioned him yesterday too.”

 

“He’s really neat,” Lily told her. “He’s a spirit of Winter, my mom said, and he’s got a sleigh, like a huge version of Santa’s, except it’s not red. It’s kind of like an oversized sled.”

 

“But why was he here?” Zoey asked.

 

Schrodinger kept his mouth shut. No need to tell Lily, who adored Old Man Winter, that the spirit had been responsible for kidnapping Drew last Christmas, and had been about to destroy the Gate that connected Carter’s Cove to the Roads and the realms around it. Molly and Drew, with Schrodinger’s help, had turned him around and shown him the Cove had plenty to offer the realms around it.

 

“He wanted to know more about Christmas,” Lily was saying, and Schrodinger dragged his attention back. “He even came to my dance recital!”

 

“Wow, cool.” Zoey’s eyes were bright with excitement. “Do you think I’ll get to meet him?”

 

We don’t know if he’ll be back this year, Schrodinger said. He’s not sure that he can safely come back to the Cove yet. She looked so disappointed that he hastened to add, But you never know.

 

 

“I hope he comes back,” Lily said. “He promised me another ride in his sled.”

 

They stopped at the crossing before the bookstore, and Zoey gaped at the man crossing the street. “What is that?” she asked, pointing.

 

“Oh, that’s Mr. Grey and his puppy, Spot! Hi, Mr. Grey!” Lily dragged Zoey over.

 

Mr. Grey was an older gentleman who lived on the outskirts of the Cove. He was a writer, and together with Spot, he walked around the Cove looking for more things to add into his collections of humorous writing. Schrodinger was quite proud to have made it into no fewer than four of his stories.

 

While Mr. Grey was fairly average-looking, his dog Spot was not. Spot was over four feet tall at the shoulder, and despite his name, he was solid black, with shaggy fur not unlike a bear’s. Grey refused to tell anyone where he’d gotten Spot, or how Spot had gotten his name, but Schrodinger had his suspicions. Especially with the gleam of Spot’s scarlet eyes. Despite that, the giant hell hound was one of the gentlest animals the CrossCat had ever met.

 

Now, he leaned down to snuffle gently at the top of Zoey’s head. You are not from the Cove, he rumbled in a deep voice, and her eyes widened. How are you enjoying your new environs?

 

“Very well, thank you,” she replied, gulping a little.

 

Where are you from, little one?

 

“Evansville, Pennsylvania,” she said. “And my name’s Zoey.” She smiled tremulously up at him. “Where are you from?”

 

He won’t answer that, Schrodinger told her.

 

Spot chuckled. I’m from far away, he said. Farther than Pennsylvania.

 

“Where are you heading, children?” Mr. Grey asked them. “Off to the bookstore?”

 

Lily nodded. “Santa sent us an Advent calendar, Mr. Grey! A magic one!”

 

Mr. Grey and Spot exchanged looks. “That is a very special gift,” the writer said, smiling. “I hope it brings you much joy.”

 

And much fun, Spot added. We shall not keep you from it. Merry Christmas! And with that, the two walked off.

 

Zoey shook her head. “This town is way too cool. We never had anything like that at my old home town.” Then she looked at Lily and Schrodinger and Jack. “How come the rest of the world doesn’t know about it?”

 

“About what?” Lily asked.

 

“About the magic.” Zoey waved her hands in the air. “I mean, I never heard anything about this. My mom said time and again that magic was real. But it has to be – how else could I hear Schrodinger? Or Spot – is that really his name?”

 

Lily shrugged. “It’s what Mr. Grey says his name is.”

 

“But where did he come from?” Zoey asked. “How come no one else knows about this?”

 

It’s not that they don’t know, Schrodinger said, after a few moments. It’s that they don’t see it, so it kind of passes them by. They know it’s there, but they forget to remark on it.

 

“I don’t get it,” Zoey said, as they went in the back door of the bookstore.

 

“Don’t get what?” Molly asked, turning around to greet them. The entire room smelled of oranges, cranberries and sugar, which told Schrodinger she was busy making his favorite tea cakes, and his mouth started to water.

 

“Why the rest of the world doesn’t know about the magic here,” Zoey said. “I mean, if they did, they’d come here!” She told Molly about meeting Spot and Mr. Grey on the road as the girls hung their coats up on the rack.

 

“Some do,” Molly said. “Some prefer to forget they know.” She put mugs out on the island and spooned her special hot chocolate mix in for Lily and Zoey. “Some people aren’t comfortable knowing there’s magic in the world. I mean, if you didn’t have Lily, Schrodinger and Jack with you, and you met Spot in the dark, would you be as comfortable as you were meeting him during the day, walking on a leash?”

 

Zoey considered this as she watched Molly pour water into the mugs, then add some fluffy homemade marshmallows. Her braids had dark blue bows attached to the ends, trailing ribbons, and she played with one of them now.

 

“I don’t know,” she said finally. “He’s big, and his eyes are kind of creepy, but he seemed nice.”

 

Seemed being the operative word, Schrodinger said, watching Molly put tea bags in the other two mugs of hot water. He enjoyed hot chocolate, but he knew that Jack couldn’t have it, so he accepted the tea Molly put down for him. He could always have hot chocolate later.

 

“What do you mean?” Zoey asked him.

 

“Spot is a very special kind of dog,” Molly told her. “They’re generally not as friendly as he is.” When Zoey looked dubious, Molly laughed. “Trust me. When you’re older, I’ll give you some of the stories about Spot’s species. You’re too young now.”

 

“We’re always too young,” Lily groused, accepting the mug from Molly. “When won’t we be too young?”

 

“When you’re not,” Molly told her, chuckling. “Trust me, kiddo, enjoy this now.” Something shifted in her face – Schrodinger saw it, although he doubted either Lily or Zoey did. And he knew why. But it was gone so fast that he was sure only he noticed. “You’ll be sorry when it’s gone.”

 

“The cocoa?” Lily asked.

 

Molly chuckled again. “Yes, the cocoa.” She put a plate of the tea cakes in front of them, and put another plate on the floor for Jack and Schrodinger. For the next ten minutes, the only sounds in the tea room were the sounds of eating.

 

When they were done, Molly cleared the table and the four hurried to the calendar. They looked at each other.

 

“Your turn,” Zoey told Lily, and both Schrodinger and Jack nodded. Lily looked intently at the picture, trying to find the number 2.

 

She finally located it, almost hidden in the bells on the lead reindeer, and touched it gently. The area shimmered, and vanished beneath her fingertip, and she stepped back as the snowflake floated out in front of them. “What are we going to do?” she asked it.

 

“Why are you talking to it?” Zoey said, giggling. “It’s just a snowflake.”

 

“It’s a magic snowflake!” Lily retorted. “It might actually talk back!”

 

The snowflake did not talk back, but it did sparkle through a rainbow of colors, as if it were laughing at them.

 

“Are you sure there’s nothing else?” Molly said, and they looked past the snowflake to the box that still lay open in the painting.

 

“Ooh, there’s a note!” Lily said, and pulled it out. She squinted at the elaborate writing as the other three crowded around her.

 

“What does it say?” Molly said, after a few minutes of silence.

 

“I…don’t know,” Lily confessed. “It’s very pretty, though.”

 

Tilt it down a bit, Schrodinger asked her, cocking his head. I think I can read it.

 

She did so, and he studied it. It says, “You’ve warmed up your outsides, not it’s time to warm up your inside. To do that, you need to wear warm clothes, because it’s cold outside.” He looked over at Molly. I don’t understand.

 

The snowflake swirled around them, still sparkling, and then whirled over to where the coats were hung, where it waiting for them.

 

“I think you’re going outside,” Molly observed, and laughed as they nearly fell over each other getting their coats and scarves back on. “Don’t forget Jack and Schrodinger!”

 

Once they were all dressed, the snowflake dipped and zipped out of the kitchen through the tea room, with all four following eagerly.

 

Schrodinger and Jack were the first out the front door (narrowly missing knocking DC over as she opened the door for them), but Lily and Zoey were hot on their heels.

 

The snowflake led them down the street, not back towards the school, but down towards the harbor. Schrodinger experienced a bit of a tinge of doubt when he realized that. The snowflake didn’t want them down at the docks, did it? What could be down there?

 

However, the snowflake veered off at the end of the road, and zipped up another street, and he breathed a sigh of relief. It continued up to Three Sisters Park, where it darted among the trees.

 

“The park?” Lily panted. “Why are we going to the park?”

 

Maybe because there’s something magical here! Jack bayed, excitement frissioning through the deep belling of his bark. Schrodinger loved to hear Jack bay – it was a wild, happy sound that thrilled through his bones.

 

They plowed through the fresh snow (the park had trails, which were sort of cleared off, but not really) from the night before. The magical snowflake kept just ahead of them, flickering in various colors so they could see it against the white snow and dark green trunks of the trees.

 

“The snow’s so white here!” Zoey shouted. “I love it!”

 

“What color are you used to?” Lily giggled. “It’s always been white!”

 

“Not in Evansville,” Zoey told her, as they burst into a clearing. “It was dark and dingy from all the coal mines.”

 

“Ugh.” Lily screwed up her face. “That sounds gross.”

 

“It was.” Then Zoey squealed. “Oh, look! Look at the snowflake!”

 

They all stopped at the edge of the clearing, which had a fountain that was turned off for the winter in one corner but was otherwise empty. In the summer, Schrodinger knew, it was ablaze with color as the wildflowers bloomed, but now, it was a blank canvas for the snowflake, which had paused in the center, as if waiting for them.

 

Now that they had caught up, it strobed briefly through a rainbow of colors, some of which Schrodinger had never seen before. Then it began to spin at a ferocious rate. As they watched, it became a small snowstorm, as if someone had shaken a large snowglobe. Then, after a moment…

 

“A snowman!” Zoey shouted. “It’s a snowman!”

 

It was! Just like the cookies they’d helped Molly decorate yesterday – the snowman had a tall black top hat with a sprig of holly tucked into the gold band that went around it, and a long striped scarf. A long carrot nose quivered in the air as he settled onto the snow, and his coal eyes were bright with anticipation. He had a wide grin of more coal, and a long corncob pipe. Mittens that matched the scarf were tucked in close on his belly, and he leaned over to look at them kindly.

 

“A magic snowman,” Lily breathed. “This is AWESOME.”

 

“Indeed.” Zoey nodded. Then she gasped in delight as he stuck out one mittened hand.

 

Well, shake it! Schrodinger urged her, butting his head against her butt to move her forward. Don’t be rude!

 

Zoey moved forward, her own hand outstretched. “Hi!” she said, and giggled as the snowman bowed grandly over their joined hands. “You’re a very polite snowman!”

 

The snowman winked at her, then let go of her hand to doff his top hat at them.

 

“Can you come and play with us?” Lily asked, as he shook her hand as well. “Like Frosty could, in the movie?”

 

After he’d shaken Jack and Schrodinger’s paws, the snowman’s smile turned down at the edges, and he shook his head sorrowfully, indicating his lack of feet with one mitten. There would be no more moving for this snowman.

 

“Oh, how sad,” Lily said, without thinking. “Why did the magic snowflake bring you here, then?” Her face screwed up in a frown. “It should have left you in someone’s front yard. Then you wouldn’t be alone. Even in a pretty place like this.”

 

No one should be alone, Jack agreed, nudging the snowman with his nose, and the snowman nodded. Maybe we could move you, if we all tried together?

 

It seemed like a good idea, and they all pushed mightily, but the snowman didn’t budge. Panting, they looked at one another. What could they do?

 

“We can’t just leave him here,” Zoey said. “It’s not fair to leave him here alone. But what can we do?”

 

Wait a minute. Schrodinger looked around the clearing, with its pristine layer of snow. The only thing that marred the surface was their footprints. He nudged the snow with his nose, and rolled a little ball. It stuck perfectly together. He looked up at his companions. We can’t move him, but what if we make him some companions? I know Molly has carrots and stuff, and I don’t think Aunt Margie would mind if we took some of the hats and scarves from the lost and found. We could make a whole village if we wanted. There’s plenty of snow.

 

“Yes!” Lily and Zoey shouted together. The snowman’s mouth stretched into the widest smile Schrodinger had ever seen, and he clapped his hands together enthusiastically. Then he took his hat off and reached into it, bringing out more carrots, coal and other things they would need to create at least one more snowman.

 

They fell to the task with a will, rolling the balls around the clearing. As they did so, Lily and Zoey sang Christmas carols, with Jack baying along. It went quick, even though the balls were heavy and it took all four of them, plus the snowman, to lift the second ball onto the first (which they made sure was right next to the original snowman). Then they rolled the head.

 

Before they lifted it in place, Zoey held the head, while Lily carefully placed the carrot nose, the bright coal for the eyes and mouth, and the brightly colored knitted cap that the snowman had gave her. “This is a snow lady,” she told him solemnly. “So you can have a wife.”

 

The snowman clapped his hands together in glee.

 

Zoey handed him the head. “You put it on,” she said. “Make sure she’s looking at you!”

 

He placed the head carefully, smoothing it into place. Then he took his hat off again and pulled out a set of mittens and a scarf, and the girls set them in place.

 

Did it work? Schrodinger cocked his head and looked at the snow lady, who was very pretty, but not moving. Why isn’t she moving too?

 

Lily cupped her chin in her mittened hand. “I don’t know,” she said. “We did everything the same.”

 

The snowman shook his head, and reached one more time into his hat. This time, he removed a small snowflake that shimmered in the light, just like the snowflake that had brought them to the clearing in the first place.

 

Of course! She needs a heart! Schrodinger said, jumping up. She can’t be magical without a heart!

 

The snowman nodded and leaned over to Lily, handing the magical snowflake to her gently. Then he touched his chest, where his own heart would be.

 

“I need to put this in her chest?” Lily asked, and he nodded.

 

She stood on her tiptoes and held the snowflake up to the snow lady’s chest. It glowed, and she pushed it gently in to the ball, then stepped back.

 

Nothing happened.

 

“Is there a reason you’re staring at a snowman?”

 

All four of them jumped, and the snowman’s hat fell over in amazement. Molly and Drew stood behind them, carrying a couple of picnic baskets, and Drew had a length of plaid wool over one shoulder.

 

Schrodinger picked up the snowman’s hat in his teeth gently, handing it to the snowman, who brushed it off and nodded his thanks. We’re trying to wake the snow lady up, the CrossCat then told Molly and Drew. So the snowman won’t be lonely here.

 

“But we can’t figure out how,” Lily said, and Zoey nodded. “We built her of the best snow, and the snowman gave us a magical snowflake for her heart! But she won’t wake up.”

 

“And we can’t leave him here alone,” Zoey added. “We have to figure it out.”

 

Molly looked at the snowman, who was looking at the snow lady, his mouth turned down again. “Well, have you tried a kiss?”

 

“A kiss?” Zoey said. “Really?”

 

“That’s what all the stories say,” Molly said, taking the second basket from Drew. “Drew, spread out the blanket?”

 

He took the plaid length of wool off his shoulder and spread it on the snow. “We brought some warm drinks,” he said.

Meanwhile, the snowman was looking over at the snow lady. He took his pipe out of his mouth and held it in one hand as he considered the situation.

 

“You should do it,” Lily urged him. “Molly’s right. The prince always wakes the princess with a kiss. That might be what you need.”

 

Zoey, who had been looking skeptical, nodded. “I agree. After all, it’s magic, right? So maybe you need to kiss her to wake her heart up.”

 

Yes. Schrodinger and Jack both nodded. Do it, snowman. Kiss her.

 

The snowman looked at them, and then back at the snow lady. He straightened his shoulders and then leaned in. They had put the snowmen very close, and his coal lips just reached hers.

 

They all held their breath, waiting.

 

It started as just a whisper at the edge of the clearing, barely noticeable. Jack and Schrodinger, with their sharper ears, heard it first: bells. Clear, sweet jingle bells, as if someone was approaching from a distance. The sound grew louder and louder, and a brisk breeze, sweet with the scent of peppermint and pine, washed over them.

 

The snowman leaned back and looked over at his lady. Slowly, very slowly, one of her mittened hands came up to her cheek, and a red blush appeared on her face.

 

“Yay!” Lily and Zoey clapped in glee, Jack bayed and Schrodinger jumped in triumph. “It worked!”

 

The snowman’s smile was enormous. He reached a hand out to the snow lady, who took it, still blushing prettily. Then he turned to the children and doffed his hat again.

 

“You’re welcome,” Zoey and Lily said together.

 

(advent) Sunday, December 1

“Hey, Schrodinger!”

 

Molly’s voice echoed though the tea room, puncturing his dreams like an arrow through a water balloon. Shards of thoughts fell around him, startling him. Not that he really minded: the dream had been dark, full of something horrible that he had to get away from, even as he couldn’t figure out what it was. He hated dreams like that.

 

He pulled himself to his feet, feeling his muscles ache as if he really had been running. Dreams like that were the worst.

 

“Are you okay?” Molly asked, as he came through the door. Her brow furrowed, and she knelt down to stroke his head. “You aren’t getting sick, are you?”

 

Bad dreams, he admitted. The running one again.

 

“Oh, ick.” She gathered him in her arms, and he leaned against her, enjoying feeling the beating of her heart against him. Too bad humans couldn’t purr. That was one of their deficiencies, but he supposed the opposable thumbs canceled the lack of purring out. “Would you mind running an errand for me?”

 

Of course not. Schrodinger looked up at her. Molly was wearing a dark red sweater today, the color of the poinsettias Aunt Margie had put all around the store. It made her dark hair glow like burnished wood, and her hazel eyes sparkled. She was beautiful. What can I do?

 

“Lily, Jack and her new friend Zoey are supposed to help us decorate cookies today, remember? Corinne said she dropped them off at the school to play in the snow earlier, and I was wondering if you’d mind going and collecting them?” She hugged him. “I’ll have hot tea and goodies when you guys get back.”

 

Sure! Even if she didn’t think she believed in Santa right now, Lily and her dog Jack were two of Schrodinger’s best friends.

 

“Hang on!” Molly got up and got the scarf Mrs. Barrett had made him. She tied it carefully around his neck. “Be careful, and have fun! I’ll be here when you get back!”

 

Will do! Schrodinger ran out of the kitchen through the back door, where Aunt Margie had installed a special door big enough for him and Jack to nose open. The Carter Cove Elementary School was only a few blocks from the store, and the day was clear and cold, perfect weather for being outside in. It only took Schrodinger about ten minutes to arrive at the playground, where shouts, barking and happy laughter told him where to find his friends.

 

Lily Barrett shared her aunt Molly’s dark hair, but her eyes were as brown as her hair, and they danced with mischief. She wasn’t tall, but she was lean, just like her father, and fearless. Right now, she was hanging upside down on the monkey bars, her glasses threatening to fall right off her face, and her scarf dangling, despite the fact that she’d fallen from those same monkey bars not eight months before and broken her arm. Her matching hat, more of Mrs. Barrett’s handiwork, lay on the ground below.

 

Beside her hung another girl, and Schrodinger assumed this was Zoey Allard, Lily’s new friend. He looked at her with interested. She was an adorable girl, a little taller than her friend, with long brown braids that hung a good foot down from the top of her head. Bright green bows hung from the bottom of each braid, and as she turned, he saw they matched her green eyes almost perfectly. Her smile was as wide as Lily’s and Schrodinger decided he liked her immediately.

 

The third member of the party was lying on the snow nearby, not underneath the bars, his tongue lolling to one side. Jack was a half-German shepherd, half-blue tick hound mix, bigger than Schrodinger but as gentle as could be, unless Lily was in danger. Then he was 80 pounds of ferociousness.

 

Jack was the first one to notice him, no doubt picking up his scent on the wind. He jumped to his feet, barking in welcome. Schrodinger!

 

Hi Jack! Schrodinger ran over and rubbed noses with the dog. Then he looked over at Lily and Zoey. Hi Lily!

 

“Schrodinger!” she shrieked in glee, and flipped herself off the bars expertly, landing in the snow. She floundered for a moment before she got her feet underneath her, but then she pounced him. “I’ve missed you!”

 

Me too! Schrodinger rubbed his cold nose on her face, and Lily squealed in pleasure. Then he looked over at Zoey, who had joined them, her eyes wide. Hi! My name’s Schrodinger! Welcome to the Cove!

 

Her eyes got even wider, if possible. “You can talk!”

 

“Zoey, this is Schrodinger – he’s one of my best friends in the world,” Lily said, grabbing Zoey’s hand and dragging her closer. “He’s a CrossCat. He can talk, and he can go onto the Roads without needing a Gate and he knows EVERYTHING!”

 

Not everything, Schrodinger said, embarrassed. There’s a lot more to learn. But I can do the rest. He sat back and offered a paw to Zoey. Nice to meet you.

 

She took it, awed. “I didn’t know animals could talk!”

 

Schrodinger cocked his head, and then looked at Jack. She can’t hear you?

 

The hound’s head hung. No. Lily can, but she can’t.

 

I wonder why. Schrodinger had never encountered someone who couldn’t hear the dog in the Cove that he could remember. Then again, Zoey hadn’t been born in a CrossRoads town. Maybe it would come to her? He resolved to ask Molly and Drew later.

 

“It’s okay. We can translate what Jack says for you,” Lily told Zoey, who brightened up at that. “And you can hear Schrodinger! That’s good!”

 

Yes! Schrodinger agreed. Molly said you guys were coming over to help us decorate cookies. She said to tell you she has hot chocolate and goodies.

 

Goodies? Jack’s tail wagged so hard he nearly knocked Lily over. I love Molly’s goodies!

 

“Goodies!” Lily scrambled to grab her hat and shove it onto her head. “Come on, Zoey! We don’t want to miss Molly’s goodies!”

 

She grabbed Zoey’s hand and they tore off after Schrodinger and Jack. They arrived at the store breathless and laughing, and piled into the kitchen in a rush of cold air and snowflakes.

 

Molly was as good as her word: on the island were two mugs of hot chocolate, and two large soup mugs, one with Earl Grey tea and one with black currant tea. There was also a plate of sandwiches and cookies.

 

“Everyone take their coats off!” Molly announced, kneeling down to help Schrodinger. “There’s room on the hangers for everyone!”

 

Once they’d hung up their coats, Lily introduced Zoey. “This is my new best friend, Zoey,” she announced. “I’m super lucky, because now I have three best friends, just like you, Molly!”

 

“You do!” Molly grinned at her niece, then at Zoey. “Welcome to the Cove, Zoey! How do you like it?”

 

“It’s very neat!” Zoey told her, following Lily to the island, where they both hopped up on stools. Normally Schrodinger would have joined them, but Jack couldn’t balance on the stools, so he stayed on the floor with the hound. Molly put their tea on the ground in front of them, as well as two plates with grilled cheese sandwiches and the special cookies she made for Jack. “I had no idea there would be such interesting people here!”

 

“And cats that talk!” Lily chimed in, and Zoey nodded enthusiastically. “She didn’t think it was true, until she met Schrodinger!”

 

“We never had a cat that talked in Evansville!” Zoey told her. “Never.”

 

Lily shook her head. “I can’t imagine,” she said, and Schrodinger saw Molly try and hide a grin. “All the animals talk!”

 

“Well, here in the Cove, things are a bit different,” Molly reminded her niece. “We’re not quite like other people.”

 

“I like us,” Lily said, and dug into her sandwich with gusto.

 

“Me too,” Zoey said.

 

Me three, Schrodinger said, as he and Jack followed their lead.

 

<><>

Molly watched the four of them eat, their faces flushed with the cold and with excitement. Even Jack and Schrodinger were dancing, hardly able to control themselves. Just as the first day of December should be.

 

She checked the clock on the wall. They’d made several phone calls the night before, and everyone had agreed that what needed to be done could be done. Now, all she had to do was wait until it showed up.

 

The problem was, she’d never really been good at waiting.

 

To distract herself, Molly had baked up a storm that morning, and the results were currently piled up on trays at the back of the kitchen. Once Lily and Zoey were finished with their lunch, she cleared off the island, wrapped fresh aprons around them, and set out the first tray of cookies.

 

“We’re decorating cookies today for the retirement home,” she announced. “Today, we’ve got snowmen and wreaths to decorate. You two ready?”

 

Lily and Zoey nodded solemnly. What about us? Schrodinger asked, looking at Jack.

 

“I have something different for you two,” Molly promised him. “Let me get the girls started, and then I’ll show you, okay? I didn’t forget you.”

 

Schrodinger and Jack went back to their tea as Molly put bowls of red hots, mini M&Ms, pastel sugar balls and sugar snowflakes in front of them. Then she handed each girl a pastry bag of icing and walked them through dotting the icing on the wreath cookies, then putting the candies on them.

 

“Do whatever you want,” she said.

 

“What if we do it wrong?” Zoey asked, looking a little intimidated.

 

“You can’t,” Molly assured her. “There’s no wrong way to do it.” She smiled reassuringly. “I promise. You’ll be fine.”

 

“Ok,” Zoey said, but she still looked dubious.

 

“Let’s work together,” Lily told her. “At least for the first ones.”

 

Once she was sure they were okay, Molly turned to Jack and Schrodinger, who were waiting expectantly. “I’ve a very special job for you two,” she said. “Come with me.”

 

She led them out of the kitchen and up to the second floor of the bookstore, where most of the books were located. Molly looked around for the person that she was expecting, and led them over to a pile of floor cushions. “Sarah, they’re back!”

 

Sarah! Both Jack and Schrodinger surged forward to snuggle up to the young girl, who turned towards Molly’s voice, her face lighting up.

 

“Hi!” She giggled as they attacked her with tongues. “How are you guys?”

 

“Here’s the job I have for you two,” Molly said, after they settled down. “Sarah’s working on a school paper, and she needs help getting some books. Can you two be her legs?”

 

Absolutely! Jack said, and Schrodinger nodded.

 

“Awesome!” Molly looked at the tray next to Sarah. “Do you need more tea, Sarah?”

 

“No, thank you,” Sarah said politely. “But maybe in a bit.” She shifted, and felt for the keyboard that had fallen into the pile of cushions when she’d been mugged by the Cat and dog. “Ready to get to work, guys?”

 

Definitely!

 

Molly left them, secure in the knowledge that the two would help Sarah finish her assignment. Normally, she wouldn’t have needed it, but she’d slipped on the ice two weeks ago, and fractured her foot. The cast, along with her blindness, had made getting around difficult.

 

The afternoon flew by – once they had confidence in themselves, Lily and Zoey threw themselves into decorating the wreaths, leaving Molly to pipe the decorations on the snowmen. Then she turned them over to the girls, who added mini M&Ms to their fronts and red-hots to their hats.

 

“Once they’ve hardened, we’ll bag them up,” Molly said, admiring their handiwork. “You guys did awesome!”

 

Both girls beamed.

 

“Now, why don’t you guys head out to the wood stove?” Molly suggested. “Jack and Schrodinger are hanging out there.” Sarah had stopped into the kitchen about an hour ago to thank Molly, and get a cookie. Her father Jamie, one of the Cove’s police officers, had been with her, and Molly had sent them home with goodies for the rest of the family. It was just the way she was.

 

As they were heading out, Molly heard the front door open, and she glanced at the clock. Just after 4 pm, which meant…

 

“Drew!” she heard Lily squeal.

 

Bingo. Molly moved the last tray of snowmen to the sideboard and hurried out just in time to see Drew go down to the floor in a pile of fur and Lily. Zoey hung back, clearly uncertain, but both Molly and DC, the current clerk for CrossWinds Books, both broke into gales of laughter.

 

“Hi!” That was pretty much the only word Drew was able to get out, given that both Lily and Schrodinger were sitting on his chest, tickling him, and Jack was lying across his legs, preventing any sort of escape.

 

“Should we rescue him?” DC finally managed to stifle her laughter.

 

Molly nodded, wiping tears of mirth from her face. She waded in and picked Lily up bodily (and she wasn’t going to be able to do that much longer, she realized), then said, “Jack, Schrodinger, let him up!”

 

You spoil all our fun! Schrodinger protested, but they backed up. DC gave Drew a hand up, and then she handed him a huge package.

 

“What is that?” Molly and Lily asked at the same time, and Drew wiggled his eyebrows at them.

 

“I…don’t know,” he admitted, making them both giggle again. “It came through the Gate on a sleigh.”

 

Lily’s eyes widened. “A sleigh?”

 

Drew nodded. “And then, once Luke pulled it off the sleigh, the entire sleigh turned around and went back through the Gate.”

 

“Who was driving the sleigh? Was it Old Man Winter?” Lily asked, wiggling. Molly let her down.

 

“That was the really weird thing,” Drew said. “There wasn’t anyone driving it.”

 

“Really?” Lily, Jack and Schrodinger all stared at him in awe, but Molly looked over at Zoey, who didn’t look as convinced. Then again, Zoey hadn’t really been introduced to the Cove yet. Molly was looking forward to seeing how she looked after about a week.

 

“So why did you bring it here?” Molly said, turning back to Drew.

 

“Because it’s addressed to-” Drew paused, and looked at the front of the large package. It was the size of a framed painting, and Molly wondered just what their friends had come up with. “Lily Barrett, Zoey Allard, Jack Barrett and Schrodinger Barrett, care of CrossWinds Books.” He looked back down at the three in front of him, and then over at Zoey. “I’m assuming you’re Zoey, since that’s the only name I don’t recognize. I’m Drew.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” she said a little shyly, coming over to join the others. “Who sent that to us?”

 

“Well, the return address is simply the North Pole,” Drew admitted. “But there’s only one person who uses that address.”

 

Santa! Schrodinger danced around. It has to be Santa!

 

“Santa doesn’t exist,” Zoey said, but she looked doubtful.

 

He does! Schrodinger turned to her. I’ve ridden in his sleigh! So has Drew!

 

Zoey looked from the CrossCat up to Drew, who nodded. “Really?”

 

“Really.” Drew knelt down and held the package out to them. “Why don’t you open it together? It’s not very heavy.”

 

They did. Lily and Zoey held it between them, and both Schrodinger and Jack scratched at the front, tearing the brown paper. It fell away to show a large box that they stared at.

 

“What is it?” Molly asked, and they turned to show her. “Oh, cool!”

 

“It” was an advent calendar, a large one showing a winter scene that looked as if it had been inspired by the Cove itself. A snug cottage nestled in a snowy clearing, surrounded by pine trees. In the foreground, a sleigh carrying two children, a large dog and a large cat was being pulled by reindeer and piloted by a large man dressed in furs.

 

“That’s us!” Lily squealed. “Look, Zoey, it’s us! They even got your braids right!”

 

Molly leaned over the girls and looked. Lily was correct. One of the girls wore glasses and had short hair, while the other had long brown braids, tied with red and green plaid bows.

 

“How did they know?” Zoey said.

 

Santa knows everything, Schrodinger told her, and Jack nodded. He really does. He butted his head against her gently. Trust us. You’ll see.

 

There was a card taped to the corner and Molly pulled it off gently. She slipped the envelope open, took out the little card inside, and read out loud, “Dear Lily, Zoey, Schrodinger and Jack, I heard a rumor that you were having issues believing in Santa and the magic of Christmas. I hope this helps you to find that belief again, because that is a terrible thing to lose, and I hope to see you soon.” She held it out to them. “It’s signed S.”

 

“Wow.” Lily looked at the others. “Wow.”

 

“I don’t know,” Zoey said stubbornly. “It could be the adults.” She peered up at Molly and Drew. “You two could have done this.”

 

Drew nodded. “We could have. But we didn’t.”

 

“But how do we know that?” Zoey countered.

 

Because they say they didn’t, Schrodinger said. And they don’t lie. Besides, I know it’s Santa. I’ve met him.

 

I have too, Jack said stoutly, and he nosed Lily. Don’t you remember? He wrote to us! He brought Drew back!

 

Lily looked conflicted. “There was someone who brought Drew back on Christmas Day,” she told Zoey. “He really did look like Santa.”

 

Molly intervened here. “Maybe we should hang it up, and open the first window,” she said, hoping to head off an argument, since Zoey had a stubborn set to her chin. “See what it has. This is a pretty thick calendar – I’ll bet there are some cool things behind some of these doors.”

 

“Yes!” Both Lily and Zoey agreed with that, and brought the calendar into the kitchen, where Drew helped them hang it on the wall. It came with convenient hangers, and there was room on one of the walls before the counter started. It was even at Lily and Zoey’s height. Then the two girls looked at each other.

 

“You go ahead,” Lily told Zoey generously. “You start.”

 

Zoey looked at the painting, trying to find the first number. It ended up being hidden in a snowman on the edge of the painting, and she frowned. “There’s no way to open it,” she said.

 

Molly leaned over to look. Zoey was right – although she could see the number “1” in gold lettering, there was no box, no handle – no nothing. “Hmm,” she said. “What if you just touched it?”

 

The girl gave her a doubtful look, and Molly chuckled. “Trust me. I’ll bet it’s magic.”

 

Shaking her head, Zoey reached out and touched a finger to the number. Then she gasped.

 

Light flared, and the painting dissolved under her fingertip, in a small box shape. She pulled her hand back quickly, and they all watched as a tiny snowflake drifted out of the hole and floated up, growing in size.

 

“Wow,” Zoey breathed. “It really IS magic.”

 

The snowflake floated in front of her face, and Schrodinger nudged her. Put your hand out, he said, when she looked down at him.

 

She did, and the snowflake shimmered, then drifted down. As it touched her skin, it flared, and then was gone. In its place was a lovely little snow globe with a three-masted ship sailing into a harbor.

 

“It’s the Daughter of Stars!” Lily said, awed. “Captain Carter’s ship!”

 

It was indeed – once she’d pointed it out, they could all see the name of the ship painted on its side. As Zoey tipped the globe to set the snowflakes tumbling, something written on the bottom glinted gold in the light.

 

Molly watched her tip it all the way over. “What does it say?”

 

“Welcome to the Cove,” Zoey read, her eyes wide. “I hope you enjoy it.” She looked up. “It’s signed S.”

 

(advent) November 30 – a prologue

Molly Barrett hummed to herself as she kneaded bread dough. There were four more loaves already rising in bread pans lined up on the stove, and five loaves in the oven. That would be enough bread for sandwiches for at least six days, provided Drew didn’t snitch a loaf for the Station. Maybe I’d better make at least two extra, she thought wryly, giving the loaf before her a final pat before she put it in the last loaf pan to rise. Just to make sure.

 

Or stop making such good bread. That sleepy thought made her smile at the large CrossCat that ambled into the kitchen. Although I’m not sure you’re capable of baking anything bad, unless you’re angry. He blinked up at her and then jumped up onto one of the stools that she kept pulled up to the island. Are you planning on getting angry any time soon?

 

“I don’t usually plan on getting angry,” Molly said, stretching her back and reaching almost absently for the copper tea kettle that lived perpetually on the back burner of the stove. “Tea?”

 

Please. Schrodinger yawned. I just woke up from a nap, after all.

 

“I noticed.” Molly chuckled. “Are you planning on sleeping the weekend away?”

 

It’s an option.

 

“If you’re offering tea, I’d love a cup,” said a new voice, as a tall young woman with windblown brown hair breezed in to the kitchen. “Something hot and black, and sweet, if possible.”

 

Molly grinned at her sister-in-law. “Nathan told you I just got a tea order in, didn’t he?”

 

“Actually, I heard it from Aunt Margie,” Corrine Barrett admitted. “And since the local grocery doesn’t carry the Nutcracker Sweet tea anymore-”

 

“Because they’re heathens,” Molly interrupted, going into the pantry for another mug, and the tea Corrine liked. She came back out and set up the three mugs: Corrine’s Nutcracker Sweet, Schrodinger’s Earl Grey (hot, just like his idol from Star Trek), and her own personal favorite, the Christmas blend from Twinings. Then she poured hot water in, and while the tea steeped, she got out a tray of the day’s bakery offerings: cranberry-orange scones with butter and orange marmalade.

 

Corrine hung up her coat and sank down onto another stool. “It’s bone-chilling out there,” she said. “Almost like last year, when Old Man Winter was around. The wind has a nasty bite to it.” She cocked her head at them. “I hope you guys have warm coats if you’re walking home.”

 

We do, Schrodinger told her. And hats and scarves, too.

 

“Good. You’ll need them.”

 

“Unless Drew stops by and picks us up,” Molly said. “He just bought the Range Rover, after all.”

 

“True.” Corrine sipped her tea, and then sighed. “So, I have news.”

 

Molly and Schrodinger both looked at her – the tone in her voice suggested it wasn’t good news, and that was worrying, especially now, heading into the Christmas season. “What’s wrong?”

 

“It’s Lily.” Corrine sighed again. “She’s decided that she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus this year, and as such, doesn’t really want to do much for Christmas.”

 

Molly and Schrodinger stared at her, stunned. Christmas was a huge deal in the Barrett family, not even taking into consideration the recent history. It was THE holiday in Carter’s Cove, too. “What?” Molly finally said. “After everything that’s happened…after two years ago, how could she decide this? I mean, she MET him!”

 

“I know.” Corrine shook her head. “I think it’s her new friend, Zoey Allard. She’s a lovely little girl, but she’s not from a CrossRoads town originally, and I don’t think she’s really experienced the magic yet. She and Lily are inseparable, and I’ll bet that’s where it’s coming from.”

 

“Well.” Molly picked up her tea and drank thoughtfully, processing this. She knew there were new people in town, but she hadn’t actually met the Allards yet. Peter Allard had taken over the Carter’s Cove Pharmacy when Mr. Irons had finally retired, bringing his family from somewhere south of here – Pennsylvania, she thought possibly. Not a CrossRoads town, although he had been born and raised in Portsmouth, which housed its own Gate. Then again, she’d heard that the bigger towns that housed Gate Stations, like Portsmouth and Boston, weren’t quite the same as Carter’s Cove.

 

Of course, nothing was the same as Carter’s Cove. She quite like the uniqueness of her little town on the Maine coast. “Well, we’ll have to see about that,” she said now, bringing herself back to the present. She set her tea mug down. “Because that won’t do.” Molly looked over at Corrine. “I don’t suppose Miss Lily’s rejection of Christmas included not making a list of what she’d like to see under the tree, did it?”

 

“And forgo the chance to get presents? Not likely!” Corrine handed Molly a list. “Here you go. Nathan and I have the dollhouse covered, so don’t get that. But everything else is fair game.” She grinned. “Just check with your mother first. You know she started shopping early.”

 

“In January, probably,” Molly said, scanning the list. Mrs. Barrett took her grandma duties very seriously, especially since Lily was her only human grandchild. The honest fact was that Schrodinger and Jack were just as spoiled as Lily was, by both elder Barretts. “I’ll talk to Mom and Aunt Margie about this before I buy anything.”

 

Corrine drained her tea and got to her feet with a sigh. “I’d better get back. I left Nathan unattended, and that’s never a good thing.”

 

“Good lord, you’re brave,” Molly said, grinning. “I know my brother – who knows what trouble he could get into.”

 

Corrine laughed. “He’s watching TV with Lily. I figured I was safe.” She looked down at the tray of goodies, and Molly obligingly packaged up some of the scones. “Order me some tea when you next order?”

 

“Or you can take some now,” Molly said, going into the pantry and pulling out one of the boxes. “Since I ordered extra.”

 

“You’re a goddess.” Corrine hugged her, then pulled on her jacket. She paused at the door. “Do you really think you can help Lily and Zoey?”

 

“Let me think on it,” Molly told her. “I think we can change their minds. And have some fun doing it.”

 

Once Corrine was gone, she turned to Schrodinger, who had been very quiet throughout the conversation. He was staring down at his full teacup. Molly went over and gathered him into her arms. “What’s wrong, Schrodinger?”

 

He leaned against her. How can she not believe in Santa? His thought was quietly anguished. After everything she’s seen. After all the magic. How can she not believe?

 

“I think she’s just a little confused,” Molly said, snuggling him close and resting her cheek on his soft mottled fur. The CrossCat was the size of an ocelot, with the same spotted fur, but that was where the similarities ended. After all, how many ocelots were telepathic, and could walk the Roads like he could? “You know the truth. So does she. But it’s something that kids go through, and Lily’s hitting it now. I think we just need to remind her about the magic of Santa and Christmas, and show Zoey what a CrossRoads town really is.”

 

I hope so. Schrodinger disentangled himself from her arms and went out to the tea room. Molly watched him go, her heart constricting. He hadn’t even touched his tea. Then she stood back up, pulled the finished loaves of bread from the oven, put the new loaves in, and cleaned up the island. Schrodinger’s cup of tea went into a mug that she could warm up later – no sense wasting the tea, after all.

 

All the while, her mind raced. Lily was seven this year, a prime age for the “I don’t believe in Santa!” phase to hit. Even here, in the Cove, most kids went through a version of it, although it usually only lasted until they came into contact with the gentleman himself at CrossWinds Books, since Aunt Margie made a point to invite him in every year. Lily would no doubt be the same. It was Zoey who sounded like she might need some additional convincing. Which might be a bit harder.

 

Harder, but not impossible. Especially not here.

 

Molly filled up a thermal carafe with hot water and went out into the tea room to make sure everyone was taken care of. Margie Barrett had revamped her two-story building when her niece had graduated from Johnson and Wales and come home. Now, the bottom floor housed a gleaming kitchen with a large attached pantry, the main checkout area for the store, several rows of shelves full of books, and a modest tea room with six tables for two, a wood stove tucked into one corner, and some overstuffed arm chairs around the edges. On any given day, there were all sorts of people in here: reading, doing homework, making music, writing or doing crafts. CrossWinds Books was more than just a bookstore, after all. It was one of the town’s cultural hubs, and Molly loved that about it. It was one of the joys of working there.

 

As it was Thanksgiving weekend, there weren’t a ton of customers in the tea room, but there were a few regulars. Mr. Dorr and Mrs. Dorr were sitting at one of the tables, she knitting something soft and lavender while he read to her. Nearby, Sam and Brad, two of the local high school students, were working on something that involved a lot of maps and mutterings. Knowing the two of them, Molly knew it was either a school project, their next roleplaying campaign, or a combination of the two. And in one corner, Lee-Roy Johnson, the Cove’s newest artist, was going over what looked to be a portfolio of elaborate art involved skulls and various children’s toys, his notebook open next to him.

 

Mrs. Dorr looked up and called her over. “Molly, dear, is that hot water?”

“It is.” Molly grinned as she refilled their teapot. Then she looked at the table, put her hand in her apron pocket, concentrated, and pulled several more chamomile and lemon tea bags out. Sometimes, being a kitchen witch was pretty handy.

 

As she looked at the blanket Mrs. Dorr was knitting, she said, “So they know it’s a girl this time, do they?”

 

“Not just one girl,” Mrs. Dorr replied, her smile proud. “Three!”

 

“Please tell Jeff and Lee-Ann congratulations from me!” Molly said. Mrs. Dorr’s son and daughter-in-law were famous for the fire kittens they raised – the magical creatures were very hard to breed, and triplets were almost unheard of. This was a momentous event indeed. “When are they due?”

 

“In February, of course,” Mr. Dorr said. “When it’s cold and wet.”

 

Mrs. Dorr smiled at her husband. “That’s a good thing, Steve. Do you remember how hot the last delivery room was?”

 

“Very true,” he agreed, reaching for a new teabag.

 

Mrs. Dorr set aside her knitting and laid a hand on Molly’s arm, gesturing slightly with her chin towards Schrodinger, who was lying in his bed next to the wood stove, his head on his paws, eyes staring off into the distance. “Is everything okay?”

 

“He’s having a crisis of faith,” Molly said, and told them about Lily and her new friend, and their lack of belief in Santa. “So now he’s worried about how this will play out.”

 

“Ah.” Mr. Dorr nodded. “And I assume you are taking steps to remedy the situation?”

 

Molly smiled. “Of course.”

 

“Good. Let us know if we can help in any way.” This was not a little thing – between the two of them, the Dorrs knew just about everyone in the entire area, not just the Cove.

 

“Thank you,” she said. Then she looked over their table again. “Is there anything else I can get you folks right now?”

 

“What sandwiches are you offering today?” Mr. Dorr asked. “The bread smells wonderful.”

 

The tea room had recently started offering sandwiches, as Molly had started experimenting with bread. The menu changed daily and was, like everything else she served, entirely up to what she felt like making. “Toasted cheddar and apple, cranberry chicken salad, or ham and cheese. The bread today is a multi-grain, multi-seed variety,” she said. “What would you like?”

 

They both ordered the cheddar and apple, and Molly nodded. She did a fast circuit of the tea room, topping off the other teapots, and taking another sandwich order from Lee, who asked if he could buy a loaf of bread as well. “It smells amazing,” he told her.

 

“I think I could do that,” Molly told him. “Would you like it sliced?”

 

“You are an angel,” Lee said. “An absolute angel, to keep me from being a starving artist.”

 

She laughed and went back into the kitchen, where she assembled the sandwiches and heated the grill pan. Aunt Margie had offered to get her a panini grill for the store, but Molly had shook her head. “The cast iron is way better, and we don’t do enough in the way of customers to warrant it,” she’d said, and it was true. Sometimes, having a limit of how many people could be in her cafe was nice.

 

The cast iron pan covered two of the burners on her industrial stove, and it took four sandwiches. Looking up at the clock, she added an extra ham and cheese sandwich to the pan, knowing Drew would be along soon enough. Then she sliced up a loaf for Lee and wrapped it up in plastic wrap, and slid it into a bag.

 

As the sandwiches cooked, she checked the other loaves to see how cool they were. Not quite cool enough to put away yet. But soon. She delivered the sandwiches and sliced bread, then came back into the kitchen and put the last sandwich on a plate.

 

Just then, she heard the front door open and grinned.

 

“How did you know?” Drew McIntyre demanded, coming into the kitchen and shedding his coat. “I’m starving.”

 

Molly grinned and offered the plate. “I’m a kitchen witch, remember? And I looked at the schedule this morning when we were at the Station.”

 

“Ah-hah!” He came around the island and claimed the sandwich, but only after he stole a kiss. Not that Molly resisted all that much, truth be told. She loved his kisses.

 

“Tea?” she said, when they came up for air. At his nod, she went and got his mug. “Caffeinated or no?”

 

“No,” he said. “I don’t have to go back until tomorrow.”

 

Dropping a tea ball full of peppermint tea into the mug, Molly brought it out and filled it up with hot water, then added more water to the copper kettle. “Good thing I put the crock pot on, then,” she teased. “Otherwise, you’d go hungry.”

 

“Dating you? Starvation is the least of my worries.”

 

Molly laughed. “How’s things at the Station?”

 

“Busy.” Drew shrugged. “It’s Christmas in the Cove. What else would it be?”

 

The mention of Christmas dampened her spirits a bit, and she glanced out the door at Schrodinger, who hadn’t even gotten up to join them. Drew followed her gaze.

 

“What’s up?” he asked. “Everything okay with Schrodinger?”

 

Molly told him what had happened, and as he ate, Drew pondered. “You know it’s a phase, right?” he said finally.

 

“Yes, but I don’t think Schrodinger believes me,” Molly said, pulling out the saran wrap and starting to package up the bread.

 

“So what are you thinking?”

 

She smiled at him and said, “I think that there are certain people that owe us a few favors, and I think that it’s time to call them in.”

 

“I love it when you plot.” Drew picked up his cup of tea. “What do you need me to do?”

 

****

 

What could Molly be planning??? Tune in tomorrow and find out!