Happy Christmas Eve. Here’s a special winter story I wrote about V, Noli, and James.
(An Aether Chronicles Story)
© 2012 Suzanne Lazear
Author’s note: This takes place the December before INNOCENT DARKNESS.
Noli frowned as she dusted the parlor, which looked…tired no matter how much she cleaned, fluffed or polished.
Christmas decorations! That was what the house needed. Perhaps this year they weren’t having a house full of guests or going to Grandfather Montgomery’s in Boston, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be festive.
Too bad her older brother Jeffrey wasn’t here to share it with them.
Father. A lump formed in her throat. Father had loved Christmas, getting down the decorations and putting them up himself instead of letting the servants do it. They’d even drive into the mountains to collect greenery and cut down a Christmas tree. The day would finish with a stop to play in the snow, building snowmen, and having snowball fights and a picnic with hot coco.
Yes, greenery. That would be perfect—and they’d need a tree, since many of the decorations were ornaments. Mama hadn’t mentioned a tree, but this was a busy time for her dress shop, making dresses for all the holiday balls and parties.
Dusting the picture on the wall of her father, she frowned. How would she get greenery? That could be another reason why her mother hadn’t mentioned it. The bit of money Noli had been saving was for a present for her mother and a proper—if tiny—Christmas dinner. This year she didn’t even have a present for her best friend V, other than a rose she was growing for him in the tiny greenhouse her father had built her long ago before he’d disappeared.
A plan formed in her mind. V’s father was still out of town and her mother was working in the dress shop until dark. Yes. It was time for a snow day.
She went upstairs and changed into her warmest clothes—flannel petticoats, a red wool day dress, winter boots, and a matching red cape and bonnet. They were getting snug; she’d grown since last winter.
In the rag-bag downstairs, she found an old scarf. In it she wrapped some large buttons from her mother’s sewing box and a carrot, and put it in a basket along with some rope and a burlap sack.
There wasn’t much in the cupboards for a picnic—some jam sandwiches and apples. They didn’t even have the makings for hot coco, but perhaps V did.
On the kitchen table she left a scribbled note for her mother that she was with V. Going out into her backyard, she added her goggles and aviator’s cap to her basket. If they were taking V’s father’s auto they she’d need that.
Opening her father’s battered toolbox, which she kept hidden in the back shed, she took out two small handsaws and put them in the basket as well. They’d need them to cut down the greenery and tree.
Noli climbed through the loose board in the fence and knocked on the back door. When no one answered, she cracked open the door. Good, they were home.
“V? V are you home?” she called.
There was a patter of feet and Elise, V’s little sister looked up at her with big blue eyes, blonde hair in ringlets.
“Hi, Elise, is V home?” Noli came all the way into the Darrow’s warm kitchen. Her nose twitched. Someone had been baking, either the housekeeper who came during the day to cook and clean or Quinn, the Darrow children’s live-in tutor.
“Yes, he’s upstairs.” Elise looked Noli up and down. “Are you going on an adventure? May I go? Please? You never let me go.” Her lower lip jutted out in a pout. Crumbs covered the white pinafore of her pink ruffled dress.
No. Her going with them wasn’t an option. Their adventures often wound up with them getting in trouble. Mr. Darrow would be quite cross if their mischief caused any harm to little Elise.
Noli thought for a moment, trying to think of something to appease her. “What if I allow you to use my tree house while we’re gone? It’s a lovely day to play outside.”
Her father had helped her and V build a tree house in her backyard. She and V used it, though now for studying and inventing than playing.
“I can?” Elise’ pale face lit up. “Oh, I’ll have a tea party in your tree house with my dolls. Quinn made cookies today.”
So that’s what smelled so good—and covered Elise’s dress.
“Yes, that sounds perfect. I’ll go find V,” she replied. He was probably studying.
Just like she’d thought, Noli found her best friend, Steven Darrow, hunched over his desk in his bedroom, reading some archaic tome. His idea of a good time.
“Hi, V, let’s go on an adventure.” Noli leaned against the door. Where she liked books, on a beautiful Los Angeles December day they needed to be outdoors having fun, not reading.
V turned around to face her. Golden spectacles rimmed eyes green as oak leaves, his blond hair never quite lay flat. “I’m studying.”
“Don’t be a fussy old bodger. It’s Saturday. Please? I can’t do this without you. I need you to drive,” she pleaded. V was a year older than her and possessed an operator’s license. Where she was an ace driver, not only did she not hold an operator’s license, or even a permit, she’d been expressly forbidden from driving Mr. Darrow’s auto.
“Where are we going?” He closed his book and stood.
Relief flooded her, good, he’d go. “Put on some warm clothes, because today we’re having a snow day.”
The roofless red and gold enameled steam-powered auto sitting in front of the Darrow residence was a few years old, but top of the line. V started up the engine and climbed in, little puffs of smoke curling from the hood.
Noli pulled out her aviators cap and some goggles from the picnic basket on her lap. She stuffed her wild chestnut curls into the cap so they wouldn’t get unruly on their drive. One set of brass goggles went over her head to keep the bugs from flying into her eyes, the other she handed to V.
“Thanks.” He pulled them on over his spectacles, which made for a comical effect.
“Wait for me!” James came running out the front door, a muffler and wooly gloves in his hand. The knit cap on his head clashed with his winter coat.
V looked to Noli. “Do you mind?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He has to sit in the back, though.” James, V’s brother, was about a year younger than her and often accompanied them on their adventures.
James hopped into the back and they took off.
“Where are we going?” James asked. “Why are we taking the auto and not our hoverboards?”
“We’re going to the mountains—you can’t bring back a Christmas tree on a hoverboard,” Noli replied. Hoverboard were tiny things, you couldn’t even carry two people without becoming unbalanced.
They made the drive into the mountains, which James made annoying by serenading them with dirty versions of holiday carols.
“James,” V scolded as he drove up the mountain road. “There’s a lady present.”
“Where? All I see is Noli?” James grinned.
Noli rolled his eyes. “If you don’t stop, I’m going to eat the picnic all by myself.”
Quinn had graciously added cookies, coco, and a number of other delicious things to their basket.
Finally, they arrived at their destination. It was hard to believe they were in California and not back east, everything white with a fresh dusting of snow, making it look like confection sugar had been sprinkled over the landscape.
If only the trees were made of colored marzipan. Her stomach rumbled at the thought.
Holding out her arms and spinning around in the snow, she tilted her head toward the sky and breathed in the scent of pine.
When she stopped, she looked at the buys, her vision swimming. “Should we get tree and greenery first and then have a picnic in the snow?”
A snowball hit her in the face, smearing everything not covered by her goggles with icy wetness.
“James Darrow, I’ll get you for that.” Noli formed a snowball and threw it at James, who ducked behind the auto, causing it to hit a tree instead.
She glanced at V, who nodded and pointed to a small arsenal of snowballs he’d already made.
“James?” Steven called, a grin playing on his lips. “Why don’t we have lunch first? Would you set out the blanket for me? It’s in the auto”
“Sure,” he replied. As soon as James emerged from his hiding spot, she and V pelted him with snowballs, one after the other.
James didn’t give up easily and soon all three of them were covered in snow, laughing so hard their sides hurt.
“Help me.” Noli rolled a ball of snow for the base of the snowman.
James and V helped and soon they had a small snowman with branches for arms, button eyes, a carrot nose, V’s red muffler, and James rather ugly kitted cap.
Noli stood back. “He’s missing something. Ah, I know.”
Taking the hat off the snowman, she put it back atop James’ dark blonde curls. She had to stand on her tiptoes, since even though he was younger, he stood taller than V.
She put her aviator‘s cap on the snowman’s head and her goggles on his face. “Perfect.”
“Hey, Noli.” James threw a snowball at her.
Noli fell backward into the snow to miss it and made a snow angel, moving her arms and legs to make the wings and dress.
V stood above her, all bundled up in a new winter coat, a smart dark wool cap pulled over his messy hair. “Noli, I’ve set out the blanket. But it’s it going to get wet in the snow.”
“I don’t see why that’s a problem?” Already her kidskin gloves were soaked from their fight, but who cared? It’s not as if they got to see snow often.
They sat down to their picnic. Since they hadn’t packed any cups or plates so they used their fingers and handkerchiefs and passed around the thermos of hot coco, which was now lukewarm, but tasty nevertheless.
As they ate and packed up, V gazed up at the grey sky then checked his pocket watch. “We should get going. It looks like it might snow, and either way, I don’t want to drive that mountain pass in the dark.”
“I can drive,” Noli replied. After all, the auto had lamps. “We still need to get greenery and a tree.”
“We have a tree,” James shrugged.
“I don’t.” Noli fished the rope and sack out of the basket. “I’ll gather the greenery, you two get the tree.”
James grabbed the sack from her hand. “I’ll get the greenery, you get the tree. I don’t suppose you brought shears or a saw.”
Shears. She knew she’d forgotten something. “Of course I have a saw, what sort of tinker do you take me for?”
James took one saw and the bag and went into the trees to find greenery. She and V set off to find a tree.
“This one,” Noli called as she stood in front of a majestic pine.
V came up beside her. “Noli, how are we going to tie a ten-foot tree to my father’s auto?”
She thought for a moment, tapping her chin with her finger. “We could saw it in half, then when I get home I could rig an aperture to put them back together.”
“What about this? Driving with this one tied to the auto will be challenge enough. Father’s auto was meant for show, not carrying things.” The pine V gestured to was much smaller, about as tall as Noli, but just as full and green as the other.
“I can drive if you want me to.” Noli surveyed the tree. It wasn’t as grand at their usual tree, but it would work. “This will work.”
The cut down the tree, which took some work with such a small saw, carried it to the car, and tied it to the auto.
Taking a step back, V frowned. “It’ll be hard to see behind me.”
“I can drive,” she offered again. He was such a fussy old bodger sometimes.
“That’s all right. I’m going to make sure all the knots are tight. The last thing I want is for it to fall off while we’re driving. Why don’t you find James?” V bent over to check the knots.
Noli walked in the direction James had gone. “James? We’re getting ready to go, where are you?”
“Up here. Catch!”
Mistletoe fell out of the tree. Noli caught it and examined the plant in her hands. “What’s this for?”
“Your kissing bough.” James jumped down from the tree. “That’s why we’re here, right? So you can have the greenery to make one?”
A kissing bough was a sphere made of wire and greenery, festooned with ribbons, and hung with nuts, apples, and oranges. Ribbons attached mistletoe just below the sphere and the entire thing was hung from the ceiling. If you were caught standing under it, anyone could kiss you as forfeit.
Plenty of ladies—and men—tried to use it as a means to steal a kiss from someone they fancied.
Noli put the mistletoe in the burlap sack at the base of the tree and shoved it at James. “And who would I be wanting to kiss?”
Given her family’s status as “fallen gentry” she had no suitors.
Not that she cared. Her plan was to go to the university and become a botanist. Besides, other than V and James, society boys were boring.
James grinned, slinging the sack over his shoulder as if he were Saint Nicolas himself. “You could kiss V. I think that fussy old bodger needs shaken up.”
“And why would I do that?” It wasn’t that she was adverse to the idea of kissing V, but he had other girls to kiss—ones with money, beautiful gowns, and fine manners. Mr. Darrow might tolerate them being friends, but he’d never permit them to court.
Not that V was interested in courting anyone.
They loaded the sack into the car, took their things off their snowman, and drove back to Los Angeles, James singing more dirty carols.
It was dark by the time they pulled in front of her house. Even in the dark it looked more worn than the other houses. The windows were dark, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t home. It was too expensive to run the gas lamps much.
The door flew open and her mother stormed out. “Magnolia Montgomery Braddock where have you been?”
V got out of the car. “My apologies for getting us home so late, Mrs. Braddock. May I carry this into your parlor?” He gestured to the tree tied to the back of the car.
Mama’s blue eyes widened, a pale, dainty hand going to her lips in surprise. “You got us a tree?”
“Surprise.” Noli held up a sack. “And greenery. We drove all the way to the mountains, too. Will you help us put it up? Maybe we can put carols on the musigraph?”
“I’d love to. Oh, your father…” Her eyes grew misty.
“I know, Mama, I know.” Just the thought made her wish he were here. Now he could wage a snowball war like nobody’s business.
Noli put her goggles atop her cap, and grabbed the picnic basket out of the auto. They all headed up the steps. Her mother carried the basket, she carried the sack, and James and V followed, carrying the tree.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to make hot coco, but Quinn just brought over a lovely pie. Shall I brew some tea and we can have tea and pie and decorate and listen to carols?” Mama’s face suddenly seemed less tired.
What had been a fun day just became perfect.
Noli grinned as they entered the house. “Thanks, Mama, I think after that drive we could all use a warm drink. James, you put the carols on the musigraph in the parlor, V and I will go get the ornaments.”