From the air, Fairbanks looked peaceful, under its blanket of snow. Hazy, frozen air was pierced only by the tips of towering fir trees, and billowing pillars of smoke from area chimneys.
Peaceful, thought Elizabeth, her green-eyed gaze raking the cold beauty of the scene below. There’s no peace to be found on this earth. Even here, near the top of the planet, there was chaos and danger; some from the wild beasts that prowled every settlement from beyond the Arctic Circle to the border with Canada, but mostly from people.
People. Elizabeth looked again at the book in her lap, reading, but not really digesting the words. People are so hard.
As a freelance cyber security agent, Elizabeth Blanchard didn’t have to interact with people very often. Most of her work was conducted behind a computer screen. Occasionally her client directed her to assess a geographical area; a town, city or even a rural area for reasons they often didn’t disclose. Elizabeth’s fee was steep. If a client could afford it, she would do whatever job was at hand. Most of her jobs involved foreign governments and large global companies. She maintained strict confidences, coming and going like a shadow. Part of her fee included a talent for being surreptitious anywhere in the world.
“Excuse me ma’am.”
Elizabeth’s head jerked up. Startled, she looked into the face of a pretty young flight attendant, who was leaning over the back of Elizabeth’s seat, one hand braced against the seat in front of her.
“May I take your cup and napkin?” she asked.
“W-W-What?” stammered Elizabeth.
“We’re about to land. May I take your cup and napkin, so you can raise your tray table?”
“Oh. Sure.” Elizabeth crumpled the small beverage napkin and crammed it into the clear plastic cup, where it promptly soaked up the remains of the diet coke she had swallowed earlier. She pushed the cup towards the attendant and turned back to her book.
“Thank you, ma’am, and welcome to Fairbanks,” chirped the young woman.
“It’s fine, I live here.” replied Elizabeth, cringing at her own terse response. Most normal people would just say thank you, she reprimanded herself.
“Oh well, you must be glad to get the last flight in so you can be home for Christmas Eve!” smiled the attendant. The National Weather Service had already posted winter storm warnings, prompting airlines to cancel flights as an impending airport shutdown loomed. Elizabeth’s flight was among the last to land.
“I still have a long way to go, you know. I-I-I-I live way up in the mountains. I won’t get home til dinnertime at least.” Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. She rebuked herself. That lady doesn’t care, and besides, you don’t know her. No one needs to know where you live.
The kind flight attendant just smiled and continued on her way down the aisle, stopping here and there to pick up trash- thoughts already on securing the cabin for arrival at the sleek, modern, wood-and-glass Fairbanks International Airport.
Elizabeth deplaned along with her fellow passengers to a chorus of “Merry Christmas!” from the flight crew. She knew that normal people would return the greeting, but she stayed quiet and trudged on, out to the long-term parking lot, where her powder blue 1983 Ford Bronco II waited.
“Hello, Old Girl!” Breath puffing in the cold afternoon air, she hailed the old truck like a dear friend. She’d had the Bronco since she moved to Alaska, and felt more comfortable talking to it, than talking to people. Unlocking the door, she tossed her bags into the back seat and hopped in, heading north into the hills.
Elizabeth Blanchard was born and raised in the pretty market town of Ludlow, England, to parents who both worked for the Church of England. She was an only child with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, which interfered with a normal ability to interact socially. The syndrome made Elizabeth painfully blunt, with an inability to put the regular verbal gloss on her words. She never meant to be rude or hurtful, but as childhood friends dropped away, Elizabeth learned to protect herself instead of trying to fit in. Friends were a risk. Friends would vanish when they experienced her dreadful social skills. She’d grown to accept that she repelled most people, so it was better to avoid contact from the start.
Her childhood had been serene and quiet- her parents sheltering her from the ugliness in the world, and from those who didn’t understand her. The household orbited around the church and its activities; Elizabeth loved the Anglican Church and felt safe among her church family. But when her parents were killed during a train derailment in Kenya, Elizabeth withdrew entirely into her studies and then into her job. Mr. and Mrs. Blanchard had been opening a home for AIDS orphans, and for Elizabeth, the tragedy was just another way society had hurt her. After a few years working in cyber security, and realizing she could earn a living digitally from anywhere in the world, she decided to immigrate to the most remote place she could think of- Alaska.
Alaska was the perfect place to hide from people.
As Elizabeth drove into the wilderness, Sheriff Gabe Hamm answered the ringing phone on his desk at the Pleasant Valley P.D.
“PVPD, Sheriff Hamm.”
“He’s gone!” The panicked voice crackled on the old land line.
“Who?” Gabe sat up straight, simultaneously reaching for the pencil and pad of paper which lay nearby. “Who’s speaking?”
“It’s Joe here, Gabe, Joe Johnson. One of our foster boys didn’t get off the bus after school today. We’ve looked around the neighborhood, but no sign of him!”
Sheriff Hamm knew it was serious. Joe and his wife Marissa were common sense, down-to-earth folks. They took in all kinds of strays, both people and animals. Their enormous barn-like home sheltered anyone who was in need. They never called for help. They were the help.
“Take it easy, Joe. Give me a name and description. We’ll get out there and start beating the bushes. I’ll swing by in a couple of minutes and pick up a photograph. Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” Gabe was hopeful. Most runaways turned up before dinnertime, and this boy was young. A 5 year-old wasn’t likely to take to the woods alone. Still, snow was on its way. Gabe groaned, looking at the radar, which glowed with the inbound winter storm. Of course, this has to happen on Christmas Eve, of all days, he thought glumly, tearing the top sheet off the pad and staring at the name written there:
Rush hour traffic on lonely, rural Winter Trail consisted of a handful of deer, a speeding snowmobile which shot out of nowhere ahead of Elizabeth, and 3 men with hunting rifles and a small pack of dogs. All of them gleamed in her headlights, sunset having long since passed. She had never minded the dark. To her, darkness provided an almost magical environment where she could create her own reality; hide the ugly and reveal the beautiful. She often worked at her computer with only the glow of the monitor to illuminate her cabin.
Winter Trail was nothing more than a logging path, even in the best of weather. Now, in the grip of the powerful Alaskan winter, it was simply a carpet of white between two walls of evergreen trees. Elizabeth’s cabin wasn’t remote by Alaskan standards, but still took almost an hour to reach, as the old Bronco pushed through the snow, pacing off the miles neatly.
The 5-rail gate at the bottom of Elizabeth’s long, winding driveway was closed, chained and padlocked, just as she had left it weeks ago. Her penchant for security was born from a lifelong distrust of people; and only grew during her decades-long career in the Cyber security field. As the sweep of her headlights illuminated the cold steel, however, Elizabeth’s heart jerked. Something was different.
Wedged between the chain and the timber gatepost was a small flash of white, nearly consumed by the increasing snowfall. Her sharp instincts ramped up quickly as she assessed any possible risk. Oh my giddy aunt. Cut it out. She chided herself. It’s just a scrap of paper. Probably just a sales flyer or something. But she couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding that was threatening to grow into a full-blown anxiety attack.
The Bronco’s door scraped over the fresh snow as Elizabeth climbed down out of the truck. The featherlike icy crystals wafted around the top of her boots, and she felt the freezing wetness as some spilled over and dropped into the void between her pant leg and the padded fleece that lined the boot. I’ve got to get some taller boots, she thought absently, fur-lined, maybe. That would keep my legs dry. Her footwear-related distraction techniques vanished as she plucked a dampened business card from the chain. Who on earth had been at her gate? There were only a couple of seasonal camps on this end of Winter Trail, and she almost never had visitors. Fumbling with her heavy mittens, she turned the card over and read:
Sheriff Gabe Hamm
Pleasant Valley Police Department
Scrawled underneath the neat typeface was a note,
Please call me
POLICE? What did the police want? Heart pounding, she quickly unlocked the digital padlock, pulled the chain free, swung the gate open, and bounded back to her truck. She pulled the vehicle through, put it in park, and re-secured the gate. No one could drive through unless they had the access code or knew her well enough to contact her for the number. She certainly hadn’t given any personal information to the local law, nor did she intend to. Her wilderness home was designed to provide a buffer from not only cyber activity, but a physical defense as well.
The long track led up a low hill, around a bend, and through a stand of evergreen forest, before it ended in a low glade where a tidy, well-built cabin sat buried in the snow. Elizabeth stowed the Bronco in a basement level single bay garage which was partially hidden by a large boulder that comprised the support for one end of the small log home. Although the dwelling was around 100 years old, Elizabeth had had it fully modernized before she moved in. Fiber optic cables ran along the floor joists of the main level, providing her with all the internet speed she needed for her business. She surveyed everything in the cellar parking area as she mounted the staircase which led upstairs. All was quiet and in place on the first floor as well, including the area where she kept her satellite system, which was lit by the wash of light from the house. She set her bags down and reached for her mobile phone. The phone tone rang into the Pleasant Valley PD while she patrolled the rooms of the single-story cabin to be sure things were as she’d left them.
“PVPD. Sherriff Hamm.”
“Um yes. I’ve had a card left at my gate.” The usual cringe-face she made as she talked on the phone emerged while she stammered through the conversation. “I-I-I think it was you, Mr. Hamm- er, I mean Officer Hamm- that is I guess Sherriff is what you call yourself?” She pounded her fist against her forehead, assuming the man on the other end of the line was probably formulating a negative opinion of her, based on her abysmal social skills. When she was working, she had confidence. But outside of work, she felt utterly disabled.
“Yes! Hello Ms. Blanchard.” Shockingly, Elizabeth thought she could hear a smile in his voice. “Thank you for taking time to call me. We’ve got a bit of a problem, and I wondered if you could help.”
Elizabeth was instantly on guard. People. They always wanted something from you. And how did this wilderness Sherriff know her name?
“Oh. Well I can’t i-i-i-imagine w-w-what I could help with. I’ve been out of town.” She tried to extricate herself from being even remotely involved with whatever problem this country cop had.
“We’ve got a boy who went missing this afternoon. Wondered if you’d seen him, or anything that might be out of the ordinary. Boy’s name is Joshua. Joshua Nichols. He’s only 5, so we’re trying to get all hands on deck to locate him. Seen him? Or anything?”
She hesitated. Her business required a certain amount of stealth. Maintaining a covert lifestyle demanded consistency. As far as anyone in Pleasant Valley knew, she was a retired woman from the Outside, which was anywhere that wasn’t Alaska- a prematurely graying single pensioner who travelled most of the time. If she were honest, she hoped no one even knew that much. But when she bought the cabin, she had to interact with a few local folks, and she was canny enough to know that a new face always generated plenty of gossip.
“Um, well. N-n-no. I mean, er… yes. I mean, I’ve just arrived anyway and I don’t see anything odd. Except your card. And the snow of course.” Stumbling though her response, she felt the pricking of anxiety and wondered what she could do to shake the lawman.
“It’s Alaska, Ms. Blanchard. It snows here. Or didn’t you know? Don’t you have an English accent? Or maybe it’s Australia I hear in your voice?”
“I hardly see where my origins will help you find this child.” Elizabeth was perturbed. Strangely, at the same time, she knew most people would just consider this question standard conversation. But her defenses were on alert, and she was doing everything she could to bring the call to a conclusion. “But yes, it’s England- if you must know.”
“Uh, ok then.” Gabe was picking up a distinctly chilly tone from the woman, and decided to end the call. “Thanks again for calling, and if you see anything at all, please give me a shout.”
“Yes of course. Of course I will.” As usual, whenever Elizabeth knew she was close to escaping from any sort of social interaction, she began to machine-gun the words she thought the other person wanted to hear. “And thank you, Mr., er, Sherriff Hamm for thinking I could help. It’s been really nice talking to you. I hope you find your missing boy and nothing happens to him. That would be awful.”
“Yes. It would.” Gabe smiled to himself as he hung up and reached for his coat and keys. What an interesting character. Sounds like a doddering old dear. I should stop in and see her. Everyone likes a good welfare check.
Elizabeth sighed and set her cell phone on its charging station. A missing child. How terrible. She didn’t really like children, but did find that they were easier than adults to talk to. They said what they meant, and although they could sometimes be rude, Elizabeth found their directness refreshing. The emotional minefield of adult interaction fell away when she was speaking with children.
Not, that is, that she had much occasion to be around children. She was almost too old to have any of her own, and lacked any kind of partner to share the job with. Having a relationship would require letting her guard down with another person. Sharing. Communicating. Loving. Opening her damaged heart. Love was a stranger to Elizabeth. She knew what it was, having been deeply loved by her late parents, but she’d never known the feeling with anyone else. As far as children went, she certainly wasn’t interested in single parenting, so had never entertained the idea of a family. Secretly, she had immense respect for those parents who raised children on their own. It seemed like such a chance to have one’s heart broken.
Shaking off thoughts she seldom entertained, Elizabeth turned to start supper and unpack. She lit her large cast iron woodstove, the cheery fire crackling to life as it warmed the room. She always prepared the cabin for her return when she left on a job. Cleaning and laying the fire was just one task. She also cooked and froze flavorful, healthy meals that were ready to thaw and heat. She prepared some vegetable beef soup and stood over the kitchen sink, enjoying the steaming meal with crunchy saltines. Rinsing her dishes and reaching for a mug of rich hot chocolate, she dropped into her favorite soft chair under an antique floor lamp. Book open on her lap, it wasn’t long before the continuous hours of inky black darkness worked on her travel weary mind, leaving her snoring under the glow of the 60 watt bulb, book sliding softly to the braided rug beneath her feet.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Elizabeth’s green eyes snapped open, but she stayed stock still, assessing the noise and its origin. Quickly, she reached up and switched off the lamp, plunging the room into complete darkness.
BANG! BANG! BANG! “Hey! Anyone home?” shouted a male voice.
Elizabeth relaxed slightly, suspecting a home invader would simply break down the door instead of knocking - however loudly – and calling out what might be considered a greeting. Still, she sidled cautiously to the front door and turned on the porch light so she’d have the momentary advantage of seeing her visitors before they saw her.
Standing in a tight group, huddled against the cold, were the 3 hunters she had encountered on the road during her drive home. She recognized the younger beardless man with them. In fact, they looked like 3 generations of the same family, she thought, as the bright security light bounced off their pale hair and eyes. Four or five hunting dogs swirled around their feet, panting great clouds of frozen breath into the frigid air.
“What do you want?” She yelled through the door.
“Oh good! You’re home!” came the muffled reply. “We thought you might still be traveling!”
How did all these people know about her? This unknown person spoke as though he knew her!
“We saw your light on and thought we’d come check with you!” said the bearded stranger.
“Check what?” she replied.
“Ms. Blanchard, could we come in? It’s cold and windy out here!” asked the man.
How could this man possibly know her name?
“Ma’am, I’m Mike Campbell.” said the visitor. “This is my dad and son with me. My wife was your Real Estate agent! Barbara Campbell? Remember her? Please, we’re looking for Joshua Nichols!”
This boy’s name kept popping into her life. Everyone in Pleasant Valley seemed to be out looking for him. Suddenly, Elizabeth felt a rush of compassion for this lost child, and those currently searching for him. Still, she hesitated. People were dangerous. She’d spent her entire adult life protecting herself from them. Now all of a sudden, they were everywhere- even in the secure pocket of wilderness she’d carved out for herself. Anxiety consumed her as she realized she had to get involved with the drama swirling around her. She had to take a chance on these people and try to help in any possible way. She took a deep breath and swung the door open. Waving the men inside, she crossed the wide main room to the lamp and switched it back on.
“You can put the dogs in the cellar. There’s a heater down there.” Elizabeth’s mind was racing, as she mentally joined the race to find a lost 5 year-old in Christmas Eve snowstorm. She handed the men some old blankets. “Put these down on the floor by the radiator for your dogs to lie on. Here’s a dish you can use for water.” She said, passing the youngest one a plastic bowl.
As the dogs were whisked away to warm themselves by the cast iron radiator in the cellar, Elizabeth’s keen intellect appraised the 3 large men standing in her main room, looking decidedly uncomfortable. They were covered in downy soft looking snow, which was beginning to melt in the warm room; drips and drops forming ever-growing puddles on the floorboards around their booted feet.
“Well, if you’re going to be here, you may as well take off your coats and warm up. Hooks are behind you. And take off your boots. You’re getting water everywhere.” Elizabeth had never had visitors. Niceties like warm greetings and refreshments weren’t something she ever thought of. She simply triaged everything. The men clambered to obey, and stood around the woodstove, hands outstretched towards the heat.
An awkward silence followed the flurry of activity. Elizabeth patrolled the cabin, peering out the windows into the dark clearing, illuminated only by her 100 watt dusk-to-dawn flood light, which was mounted on the trunk of a nearby conifer. Snow was falling heavily in large fat flakes, pushed sideways occasionally by the gusty wind. Other than that, the forest was silent. She turned back to the men.
“No one is going to find that boy in this weather.“ She felt sheepish for stating the obvious. “How did he end up in the woods anyway? Doesn’t he have any parents? Who lets a 5 year-old wander around in the wilderness?”
“Gabe said he wandered away from the school at the end of the day.” said Mike. “Seems he slipped into the trees when his teacher’s back was turned. Kids do that. One minute they’re there, the next- poof!”
“Gabe?” she responded. “Who’s Gabe?”
“The Sherriff. Gabe Hamm.” Mike fiddled with his wedding band, finding conversation difficult with this grey-haired woman with the surprisingly youthful face.
“So what’s this Sherriff doing to find the boy?”
Mike turned to warm his backside. “The usual. He’s got every able body out looking. He’s out too. This storm’s worrying everyone though. Doesn’t look to let up until at least tomorrow.“ He sighed. “What a Christmas. Wicked weather and lost child. Doesn’t get much worse.”
“Well, unless the child’s got a tracking device around his neck, the chances of finding him are grim.” Elizabeth unconsciously wrung her hands. A parentless lost child was something she understood. “Nevertheless, we can still try. There’s hot chocolate on the stove. Help yourselves. I’ll take the first watch. Thirty minutes each. Call his name and keep a lookout.” Again she winced at her commanding tone. Most people don’t like to be bossed, she chided herself. Just put on your coat and go out before they get offended.
But the men didn’t seem annoyed. They simply nodded and turned back to the heat of the fire.
Outside, the deep porch that wrapped around the cabin was momentarily still. Surprisingly, the wind had died down, and it wasn’t nearly as cold as she thought it would be. The deep drifts of snow had an insulating effect on not only sound, but warmth. Just like an igloo, she thought. She hoped the boy would find a refuge somewhere that offered this uncomfortable, but tolerable shelter. As she paced the floorboards of the porch, calling Joshua’s name, she wondered if praying might help. She hadn’t prayed since her parents were killed, having lost all faith in a God cruel enough to snatch away the only 2 people who had ever loved her, and whom she had ever loved. She pushed the thought away, the concept stirring nervous apprehension. She finished her shift, returned to the warmth of the cabin, and flagged the youngest of the hunters to take over the watch.
Around midnight, the snow suddenly stopped, yielding to bright moonlight. It was Elizabeth’s 3rd or 4th watch, and she was losing hope. After all, there was no reason to think the boy had even come this way. Her home was miles from the school. Still, something in her softening heart knew there was always a chance. Yearning to ramp up her efforts, she went to the cellar and fetched her best flashlight off the tool shelf. Grimacing against the deep swell of cold wet snow, she lurched into the clearing, sweeping the beam of light across the ominous dark of the forest’s edge.
“JOSHUA!” She called.
Gooseflesh arose on her skin, not entirely driven by the cold. A sudden, penetrating silence descended on the glade. So quiet was the air, it seemed to Elizabeth that time itself had stopped.
“JOSHUA!” she commanded. “Come to me!”
Biting her lip, she made one more pass with the light and turned to wade back to the porch. No sense in catching your death of cold. She scolded herself. That’s what you get for giving a damn. It’s out of your hands. Kid will probably
“Elizabeth!” the wail was high pitched- a woman’s voice…or – a child’s.
She swung around, nearly toppling into the nearest drift. Aiming the blazing glow of the flashlight at the sound, her heart seemed to heave and falter as a tiny moon face emerged from behind a massive evergreen trunk.
“Elizabeth! Is that you?” shouted the moon face. “It’s me! Joshua!”
Elizabeth ran to the child and swept him into her arms. Fumbling with the flashlight, she hitched him further up on her hip and started back to the warmth and security of the cabin, whooping and yelling for the 3 men inside to come see.
Bundling through the door like a mass of humanity and heaving the door shut against the wind and snow, which had suddenly started again with a vengeance. Laughter and activity swirled through the room as the adults assessed the boy’s well-being. Remarkably, aside from being very cold he seemed to be fine- but as with most 5 year-olds-hungry.
Elizabeth plied him with vegetable beef soup and buttered toast, washed down with warm chocolate milk. As Joshua’s belly filled, his eyelids drooped. Elizabeth wrapped him in a quilt that had been warming by the fire, and dropped into her favorite soft chair, under the lamp with the 60 watt bulb, the bulk of the sleepy child taking the place of the book, which was still lying on the floor by her feet.
The 3 hunters mobilized to locate and inform Sherriff Hamm, provided him with the gate’s security code, and waited for him to arrive while Elizabeth held the sleeping child, unwilling to share him in any way. The weight of his small body seemed to melt into her arms, as light as a feather. Her heart was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. This was a child- she had no use for children, and didn’t want anything to do with them. But the feelings this small being brought out of her weren’t to be denied. If she could define them, she might call them love.
While Elizabeth did battle with her senses, the men opened the door to Sherriff Hamm, who was accompanied by a team of paramedics, Joe and Marissa Johnson, and a child welfare officer. For several minutes, noise and commotion overtook the normal peace of the remote cabin, while everyone exclaimed over the Christmas miracle that had just happened in their far-flung community. The first responders appraised Joshua, completed their paperwork.
Joshua, newly woken and groggy, regarded the officials with an easy smile. When he turned his attention to the woman who held him, his expression clouded.
“Elizabeth, why do you have that hair?”
Everyone stopped. The room quieted.
“W-w-w-what do you mean, young man?” she stammered.
Joshua reached up and pulled a handful of Elizabeth’s grey hair. Everyone gasped. But gradually, the hair came away from Elizabeth’s head, revealing a lustrous spill of shiny, copper-colored tresses that instantly enhanced the green of her sparkling eyes.
“A wig?” Gabe burst out. “What do you need a wig for? And an ugly one at that!” His infectious laughter rolled around the room, as all the others pointed and laughed at the red-haired woman with a tiny child and a mop of grey hair in her lap.
Astoundingly, Elizabeth felt no resentment. In a new instinctual way, she understood that everyone was just happy and relieved that the outcome of the stressful day was such a happy one. She joined their laughter, shifting Joshua on her lap as she explained.
“I’m in security.” She said, still not wanting to disclose too much information.
“So am I,” Gabe countered, “but I don’t need a wig!”
“Well, I like to blend in. This hair attracts too much notice.” Elizabeth’s old nerves returned as she realized that, newfound social confidence or not, she still didn’t like to reveal too much.
“I’ll give you that!” laughed Gabe. “I had you pegged for a decrepit old matron. You’re anything but!” Gabe hoped his grin wasn’t too wolfish as he contemplated getting to know Elizabeth better.
Elizabeth blushed, picking up yet another social clue without too much difficulty. Itching to take the focus off herself, she tilted her face to Joshua with a questioning face.
“By the way little one, how on earth did you know about the wig? And how did you know my name?”
Joshua looked at his hands while he spoke, the way small children sometimes do when they find themselves in the center of adult attention.
“The lady told me to look for you. She said your name was Elizabeth. She said I’d know you by your hair. You didn’t have the right hair, but I knew it was you anyway. She said you were supposed to be my mommy.”
The room was absolutely still, riveted on the pair sitting under the glow of the 60 watt lamp.
“I don’t understand.” said Elizabeth. “What lady? I work in a high tech field. I travel all the time. I don’t even have a dog. I’m not meant to be anyone’s mommy.” She refrained from adding that she was socially and emotionally damaged goods and could never care for anyone, least of all a vulnerable orphan. But Joshua was having none of that.
“The lady who came to my room last night. She told me to leave school and look for your light in the woods.”
Joe and Marissa looked at each other in disbelief. “Gabe, there hasn’t been any lady visiting lately. I don’t know who he means.”
Sherriff Hamm was listening intently and waved off the Johnson’s concerns. “I know, Joe. Let the boy finish.”
Joshua continued. “The lady came when everyone was sleeping, and told me I would find my mommy in the woods. All I had to do was look for her light.” He tipped his moon face up to Elizabeth’s. “Will you at least think about it?” He asked, his forthrightness piercing her guarded heart.
She nodded as one of the paramedics reached for the boy. Absently, she released him, her gaze on Gabe.
“Ms. Blanchard,” said Joe, “you know he’s available for adoption. His parents have been gone since he was a baby. He’s a good boy- I’ll certainly vouch for him.”
Gabe decided there’d been enough drama. Midnight had long since passed and it was Christmas Day. Time enough for all the details to be ironed out. Right now, everyone needed to get home and enjoy the day with their families.
“Alright everyone, show’s over. Let’s let this kind lady get some rest.” Elizabeth shot a grateful look at him. “Maybe she might even be kind enough to have a cup of coffee with me the next time she’s in town.”
Elizabeth blushed for the second time. Was this handsome man asking her for a date? Her face was hot, but she smiled at the lawman. “Maybe I will, Sherriff. Thank you for asking.”
Coats were thrown on and engines revved as everyone prepared to depart. Sherriff Hamm stopped for a moment as he flung open his truck door.
“Hey Mike! Thanks again for helping find the boy! A good night’s work done my friend!”
“Thanks, Gabe!” Mike called. “But we didn’t find him…He found us!”
Elizabeth stirred the steaming pot on the stove, reaching in now and then to taste the flavorful venison stew. Night was just beginning to fall, and the rising moon made the piles of new fallen snow glimmer in its cold white light.
Muffled pounding sounded at the door, and Elizabeth grabbed a tea towel as she headed out of the kitchen to answer the knock. Mitten-clad hands had a distinct sound that she’d come to recognize, now that she had more visitors. Mike Campbell stood on her porch, his mittens wrapped around a bundle that he thrust into Elizabeth’s arms.
“Howdy ‘Lizbet! Merry Christmas! Barbara sent this cake. Wouldn’t let me do anything ‘til I’d delivered it. “ Mike’s ruddy cheeks rounded into cherry apples as he offered a toothy grin. “Need anything?”
“No thanks Mike. Gabe’s out back bringing in wood. We’re all set, I think.” She wiped her hands on the towel. “Want to come in and have coffee? I’ve got some fresh cookies too, if you like. It’s awful cold out- don’t you want to warm yourself?”
“You’re kind, Lizbet. But I gotta make my rounds. More cakes to deliver, don’t you know!”
Elizabeth smiled and waved Mike off the porch. How things had changed! A year ago, God had given her the gift of a lifetime: a family. She’d had a good life before that, with a successful career and plenty of money, but the price had led her to pathologically guard her heart- avoiding as much human contact as possible. This fear had led to a solitary life filled with foreboding, anxiety and worry.
Elizabeth shook off the reverie to focus on the voice below her. “Yes, my love?”
“Mommy, Daddy says come see the snowman he made for you!” the moon-faced boy giggled. “It has pearls and a hat!”
“No! Really!? That daddy is something else, isn’t he?” Elizabeth grasped the small boy’s hand, snatched up a fresh cookie on the way out the door, broke it in half, and handed the other half to her son Joshua.
She should have split the cookie into 3. Her husband Gabe waved at her from the bottom of the glade, and pointed comically to what was clearly a very buxom snow-woman, sporting large pearls and a straw hat with flowers. Gabe leaned over and kissed the cheek of the voluptuous ice lady, and Elizabeth laughed, breaking her half-cookie in half again and tossing the bit to her husband.
Following their marriage, Gabe and Elizabeth adopted Joshua and moved into Elizabeth’s cabin to live as a family. Following the adoption, Joshua began to lose his memory of the mystery lady who had led him into the woods to find Elizabeth. He was a happy, healthy child with parents that adored him.
Elizabeth left her career in cyber security and happily became a wife and mother, tending the home’s garden and volunteering in Pleasant Valley. She was as happy as she had ever been, the 5-rail gate stood wide open, and she hadn’t stuttered since.