Mr. Bess snapped into action. "Donna, go check on my daughters," he said to the closest guest; a middle-aged woman I didn't know. He turned up to me. "If you're joking…" he began.
I waited as Donna brushed by me on the balcony. Moments later she returned, and her eyes said everything that was needed.
He stepped away from the crowd. "Kyle, Amy, and Jacob. Search the rest of the house. Maybe they're hiding." He glanced at the others. "I want everyone else outside with me. Amanda, stay here with the children. No one can last outside in weather like this."
I winced as that first blast of icy air tore through every layer of clothing I had and sliced into me. The wind was howling and throwing waves of icy needles into my face. The couples broke off and started searching.
I looked over the lake, and remembered how dangerous it could be. It was warm earlier today, so by now the ice hadn't had much time to freeze to the point where you could safely walk on it.
And their fort is down by the river!I realized. As I started for the back of the building, Mr. Bess grabbed me. "Where are you going?" he demanded.
"I think they're down by the river," I answered through chattering teeth. In disbelief, Mr. Bess shook his head and began pulling me toward the other groups.
I wrenched away. "You have to believe me!" I yelled. "The others will find them if they're anywhere over there. Right now I may now where they are." I turned and started again for Muse Lake.
Soon I felt Alexander come up behind me. Off in the distance, I thought I could make out a pair of shadows moving slowly along what I thought was the bank. In horror I discovered they weren't on the bank at all: they had wandered about ten feet out over the lake.
"There they are!" I shouted over the wind, and pointed. But even as I pointed, I saw the two figures vanish.
I heard the words slip out of my mouth, barely audible: "Oh, no…"
"What's going on?" asked Alexander, squinting into the distance.
"Come on!" I started running as fast as I could down to the lake. I felt a powerful gust try to fling me sideways, but I carried on, wading through the snow. I could see the hole in the ice. Brushing aside fears that I was too late, I ran out onto the ice and approached the holes. Only now could I see them. They were deep within the water, and their faces had gone a pale blue. The thrashing had already begun to slow as I approached, and they slipped farther into the blackness. Every piece of advice I had ever heard about how to safely help someone that had broken through the ice left me, and I reached out to grab the first hand I could. Emily's.
The heavy snow gave me leverage, and I tried to haul her body out. I could see her cold, distant eyes, her white lips, and her pale hands felt lifeless. I realized it would be impossible for me to lift her dead weight from the hole, and I could feel her beginning to pull me in. I put as much of my weakening strength I could into one last haul, and when her body came up far enough I jumped into a kneeling position and slowly rose, dragging her up and out of the water. Soon I felt my body begin to fail on me, and it was all I could do to keep her as far up as she was.
Suddenly Alexander was beside me, and he took her hands and with one mighty haul had Emily out of the lake and lying in the snow. "Get her inside," he commanded, for he saw me moving to try and help Samantha. I went to Emily's form and tore off my own coat and laid it over her body. Then I hooked my arms underneath hers and dragged her away. I saw some of the guests heading for me, and in exhaustion I slipped and fell. They were upon us in not time, and I was glad they went straight to Emily. They piled clothes upon her and lifted her up.
I turned to the lake and saw others helping Mr. Bess with Samantha. Joanne Fairfield came to my side, but I pointed back. "Help them. I'll be okay." She left, and I dragged myself to a standing position. In a mixture of relief and fear I saw that Samantha was out of the water and being taken back to the mansion. I followed.
They were all inside by the time I reached the front door. The warmth washed over me but only brought on a wave of violent shivers. I felt drained. Emily and Samantha had been laid on the carpeted portion of the lobby, and there was a crowd around them.
"They're not breathing!" someone cried.
I worked my way through to the front, and saw their pallid bodies. Mr. Bess knelt beside Samantha and looked with begging eyes up to the guests. "Does anyone know CPR?"
I remembered taking a certified CPR class for Anatomy & Physiology, but I didn't remember much. I was about to meekly offer my services when I heard a voice behind me.
"I do." There, outlined in the raging storm, was Andrew Linke. I had no idea how much of a head start he had had upon the girls when they first left, but I later found out Mr. Fairfield had gone him.
He moved quickly to the girls, hesitated when he saw Samantha, but proceeded to Emily first. The younger child, I thought admirably.
Then, to my surprise, Paul Miller moved out. "I know it a little," he said apologetically. "Tell me what to do."
"Check her breathing again," Andrew directed. "If you don't hear anything, tilt her head back and breath into her mouth for two seconds twice, and check again. If she's still not, let me know." He turned back to Emily.
For what seemed eternity, I stood over Andrew and Paul as they attempted to breathe life back into the two girls. Alexander paced, but knew better than to say anything. He knew Andrew was trying to save their lives.
Five sharp thrusts into their diaphragm, and five second-and-a-half breaths. Mr. Bess stopped pacing, and his eyes looked imploringly down at Andrew and Paul. No one breathed. Their eyes were on the two lifeless figures.
Then Emily tensed up, and took a long, rasping breath. Paul jumped back, and there was an audible sigh of relief that passed through us. I went to Emily and took her hand. Her eyes fluttered open, and when she saw me she tried to smile.
"It wasn't me," I said to her unspoken thought. I motioned to Paul. "He was responsible for saving your life."
Then Mr. Bess was beside me, thoughtlessly pushing me aside. He picked up Emily's fragile form and hugged her tenderly. Emily began sniffling, but he shushed her, and turned back to Samantha.
Andrew was getting tired. His face was red, tears were in his eyes, and hope was draining away. I moved behind him. "Do you need a break?"
He nodded, and gave me room beside her. I leaned down and breathed into her mouth. Once, twice…five times. Then to her stomach. I balled my fist up, found the bone at the bottom of her ribcage, and did five trusts. As I moved back to her mouth, however, I detected a faint breath from her mouth. "She's breathing!" I yelled. "Just barely." Then I looked up to Andrew. This is where my knowledge got sketchy. "Now what do I do?"
"Just wait," he answered. "If she stops, we'll have to do it again."
But we didn't have to wait. Slowly her breathing grew stronger, and soon her eyes opened. She saw Andrew and Alexander, probably the two men she loved most in the world, standing over her. I backed away, and Andrew hugged her fiercely. "What were you thinking?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
Alexander watched the lovers embracing, and there was surprise on his face. Andrew was crying, and slowly Samantha was able to bring her arms up and around his neck.
I moved near Mr. Bess. "Do you see this?" I asked him quietly. "Here's the love you were looking for. The feelings you had for your wife, that you thought you lost forever." I motioned to the couple. "You can feel it again. Right there. There's your chance to experience it, once again, from the beginning."
As I watched, Mr. Bess's eyes grew tired, and red, and tears slid down his face. He was crying. He collapsed beside his daughters, who were now developing their old healthy pink, and allowed all the tears to flow. I knew, somehow, that he was finally allowing himself to mourn. Mourn for his wife, for the years he'd been cold and distant from his daughters, and the time he'd wasted. Andrew moved a respectable distance away, and he looked uncertainly at me. Should he leave? Was he still unwelcome?
Mr. Bess rose, and turned to face Andrew. In a moment of apprehension, he seemed to be thinking something, then he stuck his hand out. Andrew took it, and Mr. Bess shook his hand. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry for how I acted to you. You saved their lives." He hesitated, the continued. "What more, I see now that you truly love Samantha. I' been so afraid to lose the only things that I had left to care about, and in my selfishness I refused to think anyone else was capable of loving them." He sighed, and looked down. "I only hope that, by blessing your marriage…"
Here Andrew's face lit up, and I saw the guests begin to exchange glances.
"…I can show you how much your act means to me, and how much you mean to my daughter."
The guests smiled, and I saw Joanne Fairfield put a hand to her chest, blinking away tears. Andrew and Samantha embraced, and I stood there with a big, goofy grin on my face.
I knew this was only beginning for Mr. Bess. He wasn't going to miraculously change overnight, of course. This was a big start for him, though. Relieved, I knew things were going to be okay for everyone.
I shoved my hands into my pocket, and to my surprise felt the necklace there. I'd almost forgotten about it! I crossed the room to where Emily was laying. I knelt beside her and presented her with the necklace. A look of shock came over her face. It was nice to see someone else getting shocked by events.
"Here," I said, fastening it around her. "I found it…"
…In your dresser. Um, on the floor. Out in your secret spot? Uh, I found it…
"…I just found it. I noticed you weren't wearing it, so I was going to give it to you during the dance." I smiled. "I almost didn't get the chance to give it to you at all."
She smiled up at me, and we hugged.
I rose and stepped away from everyone. I knew my job was done. I'd prevented a mistake that happened some sixty years ago. As I watched, I was amazed to see things were beginning to fade away. Some of the guests looked up at me in shock, and Alexander, Emily, Andrew, and Samantha stood and watched with amazement. Soon they were (or was I?) completely gone from view.
And I opened my eyes.
I was lying in bed, back in Emily's room. I sat up and looked around. It certainly looked like my time. The room was dirty. That was always a good sign.
At that moment Jeff came barging into the room. "Are you going to sleep all day? Uncle Rick sent me up to here to wake you up."
"What time is it?" I asked.
"It's almost nine. You'd better get ready. Breakfast starts in a few minutes."
"What is today?"
"One day more than it was yesterday. December 24th." He looked at me strangely. "Jeez. How late were up reading those diaries?"
Diaries? Plural?I looked down. There were two diaries lying in the bed next to me. "But there was only one," I protested, more to myself than to Jeff.
"She gave you two," he said. "Don't you remember?"
"Who?" I asked, incredulous.
"That older woman you talked to yesterday," Jeff said. "Remember? I think her name was Emily."
Emily?I jumped out of bed and…
"What the hell are you wearing?"
I stopped and looked at him. Jeff was openly gaping at my clothes. I was still wearing the suit! "Uh, nothing," I said, as Jeff looked oddly at me.
I quickly put on a different pair of my own clothes. "Where is she?" I called. "The old woman."
"I think she went into town," he answered. "She left early this morning. What's going on with you?"
I burst into the hallway and started for the front doors. "Have I been acting strangely the last few days?" I knew he was following me down the hall.
"Strangely." I stopped to face him. "You know, have I been, like, claiming to see strange visions?"
"Yeah," he said. "Of course you have." He was confused. "Why would you need to ask me – how could – damn." He shook his head and covered his eyes. "What is going on with you?"
I was back to walking down the hall. I ran down the stairs to the first floor. Past the lobby, I saw the two large pictures. That was good. Then I halted. The mansion was clean! It looked brand new! Jeff caught up with me again, and he saw my wonder.
"Now what's wrong?"
"Nothing," I said quickly, shaking my head.
The sadness was gone, too. I walked through the mansion, but I no longer felt the heavy depression weighing me down. It was completely…light, I guess. Invigorating. I took a deep breath and sighed contentedly.
That evening, I was still recovering from the shock. And as more and more people from all over the village began showing up, I found my sister.
"Lisa, who are all these people?"
"They're here for the party," she answered. "You know, the thing that we came here for?"
I ignored the sarcasm. There were so many guests that I already felt overwhelmed. Suddenly the front door burst open, and the four people I'd recognize anywhere showed up: Mr. Bess, his daughters, and Andrew.
Of course, they were sixty years older, and Mr. Bess was still in his wheelchair, but his eyes reminded me of the eyes he'd had in the old photographs. They were sparkling. And Emily's eyes. They were still as bright as they were when she was younger. Andrew and Samantha were holding hands. And they had a grandchild. A little boy. Emily was wearing her necklace, and I knew everything had come full circle.
After Christmas dinner that evening, we all took another group picture. I saw many pictures just like it on the mantelpiece of the two fireplaces.
The younger kids went and sat down around Emily. "I suppose you want to hear the story," she said mock-seriously. "Every singled blessed Christmas you all gather around me and expect me to tell you that same old foolish tale."
The kids giggled, and the adults chuckled. "Come on, Grandmother Emily," called one of the adults; an elderly woman.
Wendy?I thought, staring. She was sitting with a couple. The woman looked rather like her, and I wondered if it was her daughter.
"Well, okay then," Emily said, relaxing. The children tittered with excitement, and I had to admit that I was curious.
"When I was very young," she began, "and my father was very sad, there was a strange boy that appeared in our house one day before Christmas."
My eyes widened. I knew who she was talking about. I glanced over, and saw Jeff was looking at me as well. I shrugged and grinned meekly.
Emily's eyes were on me as she continued the story, and I wondered if she knew. "He was a sweet and handsome boy" – here she smiled, her eyes never leaving mine – "but everyone thought he was a robber. But I like to think he was a guardian angel."
I rolled my eyes, embarrassed. I was a guardian angel? Emily seemed amused when she saw my reaction.
"He saved my life, and my sister's. He led our father, as if by magic, down to the lake where we had fallen through."
"Why were you by the lake?" asked one of the little boys.
Emily laughed. "We were silly little girls," she answered, "and it was in the name of love, which is something very powerful."
This was just a bit too sticky for my taste. Probably yours, too.
"Anyway, the angel disappeared right in front of us," she said. "He went back to heaven." She leaned forward. "But it taught me that miracles come in very unlikely places. Like an angel who came disguised as a robber." Her eyes twinkled. "And that," she urged, "is what Christmas is all about. Learning to love everyone no matter how they look or dress." She waited a moment and said, "Now, go open your presents."
The kids jumped up and ran over to the tree. I saw Emily walk over. "So, Mike, what did you think of my story?"
"You ladled it on pretty thick," I said, smiling. I watched the guests as the mingled; laughing, talking, and being merry. Samantha and Andrew were sitting together, and their family was gathered around. Alexander Bess sat nearby, laughing at an ornament one of the children had made for him. This was what a good, old-fashioned Christmas party should be like.
"Stories like that don't become you very well," I added, turning back to her.
She shrugged. "The children seem to enjoy it."
I laughed. "I can't believe you figured out what happened to me. You were always the sensible one."
"I think anything is possible," she answered. "You taught me that."