Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

12 Days of Squire’s Isle Christmas: 12 Hours to Go



Summary: Cheryl Paxton takes a walk around town on the night before Christmas.

(Warning! Spoilers for my novel Silence Out Loud! If you haven’t read that, you can still enjoy this story. But you’ll be learning the fates of characters before you know their whole story. You have been warned!)

 I wake up without knowing exactly where I am, but I know one thing: I’m alone. The side of our bed that she always kept warm is empty, and I stare at it for a few minutes before I finally get up the strength to push the blankets aside. It’s easier now, as much as I hate to admit it, but I doubt the moment will ever be easy. Andrea’s been gone for four years. They found the cancer in 2006, and we had two good years together before it finally took her away from me. I think we fit more into those twenty-four months than most couples get in a lifetime, and we had six great years leading up to the diagnosis. I should feel grateful for the time we had; no one is guaranteed any specific amount of time, so how could even a minute of it be stolen?

 I shower and dress, and I use sign language to announce my intentions to the room. “I’m going for a walk. Come with me if you want.

I bundle up in my coat and boots, tugging a hat down over my ears and wrapping my neck in a scarf that I can tug up over my lips and nose if the breeze is too intense. As I’m gathering my keys and my purse, I hear – I hear… – her voice.

“Where are we going?”

I was born deaf. I’ve never heard my own mother’s voice and, before she died, I never heard Andrea. What I hear aren’t words, per se. I don’t think. I find it doubtful a hearing person would identify what I experience as real spoken words. But deep down I know they come from my dearly departed, and I wiggle my fingers inside my gloves before I reply to her.

We’re just going for a walk around town to see the snow. We got a white Christmas. Isn’t that lovely?

“Sounds beautiful.”

I – we – go out and I pause on the front step. The stoop is icy, and I carefully descend before walking across the snowy edge of the lawn to the sidewalk. We live on the land-side of town before the neighborhoods give way to wilderness. Andrea used to sit out on the back patio in all kinds of weather, her chair turned toward the hill, wrapped up in a blanket if it was cold or fanning herself with a newspaper if it was warm. I often had to go drag her inside when the rain got too much, or if I was about to lose her in a snow drift, and then I’d massage her hands and feet until she could feel them again.

“You always did know how to take care of me.”

Once you taught me how to take care of myself.

“You did that all on your own.”

I smile and continue down the street. The snow has melted on most of the sidewalks so I don’t have to worry about slipping on any ice. The air is crystalized and glistens in the streetlights that have just clicked on. I walk south, aimlessly or so I think, and only realize where I’m going when I see the hospital looming above its neighbors. If Andrea had really been there I would have glared at her. The hospital was where her journey ended. She spent a lot of time there for treatments, so much time that I became well-known by the hospital staff. That was where I met Dr. Rachel Tom. Well, Dr. Crawford now that she and her partner have finally gotten married.

I stop on the corner and look up at the building. I don’t hate it, despite the fact Andrea had been so sick within its walls. The building was the place she’d gone to get better, to fix what was broken inside of her. They didn’t fail. They did the best they could. And when there was nothing left to do, they let me take my partner home so she could pass away in her own home. I briefly consider stopping in to say hello to Dr. Crawford, but I decide to keep walking a bit longer. The night still hasn’t turned completely frigid, and I want to get as much exercise as possible before I get run back inside.

East of the hospital is the sprawling city park, which is covered in a pure white sheet of fresh snow. The little kid in me wants to race over and feel it crunch under my boots; the old woman in me hopes the pristine beauty lasts as long as possible. The new clock, a gorgeously ornate installation that looked like something out of Edwardian England, looms with its golden faces marking out the time. It’s bedecked with festive decorations, red ribbons and bows, tinsel and garland. It looks so much like something out of a storybook that I take out my phone and snap a picture.

“Oh, the flare from the streetlight makes it look so ephemeral…”

I smile at Andrea’s critique as I return the phone to my pocket, stuffing my hands inside before I start walking again. The snow and ice on the sidewalk crunch satisfyingly under my boots so the snow in the park is safe from my destructive tendencies as I leave it behind me and enter the town proper. In twelve hours the kids in town will be ripping open their presents while their blurry-eyed parents drown themselves in coffee trying to wake up. Right now Santa is probably somewhere over Europe before crossing the vast Atlantic to reach us here in the States.

I walk toward the harbor for a few blocks before I cut back to the west, where the businesses of the tourist district glow like a multitude of lighthouses. The sun set early this time of year and each business pours light as if they are stage presentations. Through their front windows I can see the players on-stage: customers taking a break from the cold, employees rushing to and fro to offer assistance, waitresses bearing food and drink for weary tourists and locals alike.

I love Coffee Table Books the most. Their books are an unruly mess, but they are offered for free to anyone who buys something to eat or drink from the shop. I suppose I should feel competition with them, but instead I feel a sense of camaraderie. We provide the books for the island’s many voracious readers, and Amy is always willing to take in the orphan books we would otherwise have to trash because no one was checking them out and we needed the shelf space.

The last time I went into Coffee Table Books, I noticed something unusual. People tend not to be as guarded around me, as if being deaf means I also can’t see. But I see more than most, and the little details often stand out to me. Especially when it comes to hands. Amy has started wearing two rings on her right hand. The reporter for the local paper, and the paper’s new photographer wore identical rings. I knew that she and Kate were an item, and I have my suspicions about the woman who shares their home, but the matching ring sets spoke volumes about their current status.

I can see Amy through the glass, but she is too preoccupied to notice me standing across the street staring in. I watch for a long moment before I hunch my shoulders against the cold and walk on. I’m almost to the ferry lanes before I spot a cluster of people walking toward the harbor on the same course I was taking. Two women, one weighted down like a Sherpa with a massive bag on one shoulder and a stroller in the other. Walking hand-in-hand in front of the older women are a pair of teenagers holding hands, too in love to notice the plight of the women they’re with.

Thought one wouldn’t know it from the way she’s lagging behind the group, the pack mule is the town’s mayor, Patricia Hood-Colby. The woman she’s with is her wife, and she’s carrying the more precious cargo in her arms. I approach cautiously but Jill spots me and brightens. She waves me over with a motion of her head and I cross the street to join them. Their son and his girlfriend stop and we cluster in front of the art studio.

“Cheryl!” Jill says. “Sorry, I’m not really in the position to sign…”

“That’s okay,” I reply, signing as I speak. I look away from her lips and focus on the wide-eyed infant cradled against her chest. “You have more important things to do with your hands. Is this little Isabel?” I tickle her cheek and the girl graces me with a joyous smile, waving her mittened hands in front of her head.

“She’s six weeks old today,” Jill says when I look back at her lips. “We thought we’d show her the world a little bit. What better introduction than Christmas?”

“Right!” Patricia is red-faced and smiling as she stands behind us, the faux-fur of her jacket turned up against her cheek. She has a hat pulled down over her hair and her eyes sparkle with the bizarre exhaustion and elation I’ve seen on new parents before. “Trish, you know Cheryl.”

“The librarian, of course. How have you been?”

“Good! Good!”

“This is our son Michael and his girlfriend, Callie.”

I greet the teens and then incline my head at the bag on Patricia’s shoulder. “You can’t help your mother with her bag?”

Patricia protested, but Michael obediently stepped forward and took the heavy diaper bag from her shoulder. Callie took the collapsed stroller, and I took Patricia’s now-free arm and draped it across Jill’s shoulder. “There! Perfect.”

Jill laughed. “We were on our way to Gail’s for dinner. You should join us.”

“No, no. I’m just out for a walk before I head home for the night. Thank you, though. It was so great to see you, and especially to see you, little one!” I touched Isabel’s hand, and she wrapped her mitten around my finger. “I’ll let her get a little older before I start harassing her to get a library card.”

Patricia grinned. “I’m sure we’ll be in soon. Is Grover still popular?”

“He is in my library.” I wave them away. “But go! Go, enjoy your dinner. And your night out. Lord knows you deserve it. But if you want any books, let me know and I’ll bring them by to save you the trouble of going out.”

“Bless you,” Jill says.

We say our goodbyes again and I let them go, watching as Patricia moves her arm from her wife’s shoulder to around her waist. I blink rapidly so my eyes don’t have a chance to water at the sight. Our town’s mayor out with her family, her wife and newborn daughter. It’s astounding to believe how much things have changed since Andrea and I got together. We were both in the closet, both lying to most of our coworkers about our relationship. We were friends sharing the price of rent, we had a fully-furnished guest room that we treated like a living museum piece so people thought Andrea actually slept there. When Andrea got sick, my condolences were almost entirely “Sorry to hear about your roommate.” You might not think there’s a difference between that and “Sorry to hear about your girlfriend, your partner, the woman you love,” but there is.

Fortunately Andrea was able to see the winds of change. She saw them better than I did, in fact. After Nadine Butler made her stance and forced her radio station to keep her on despite her crime of being gay, there was a shift in how people in this town thought about sexual orientation. I never thought about the difference between tolerance and acceptance until I saw Squire’s Isle take the step from one to the other.

Andrea first pointed it out to me on our way back from the hospital. She was weak from her treatments, head freshly bald, and we were walking around the hospital parking lot so she could overcome a bout of nausea. She suddenly signed, “This town is going to change.

How do you mean?

Nadine fought a little war over there,” she said. “She won. People came out to support her, and they can’t go back in the closet after such a public display. I’d be surprised if they wanted to. I wish I had come out.

I did, too. But I didn’t have the courage and my voice doesn’t provide me much anonymity if I had called in. That thought cemented how conflicted my thoughts were… I wanted to be out of the closet, but I wanted to do it without revealing who I was? Where was my logic?

We did eventually come out of the closet in a rather elaborate way. The state signed domestic partnerships into law, and I asked Andrea to be my wife. She reminded me of her terminal prospects and I told her I didn’t care. I wanted to be hers for as long as possible. We married, and she took my name. Anyone in our lives who didn’t know we were a couple were now informed in the most unmistakable manner. As Andrea predicted, no one cared much. Reactions ranged from, “Oh, of course, that makes so much sense” to “Weren’t you already out?”

I wish Andrea could have lived to see an openly-gay mayor. I wish she could have seen how this town transformed into something wonderful and unique.

I walk north so the Hood-Colby clan won’t think I’m following them, circling around to the boardwalk. I look for a bench that’s out of the wind but still facing the harbor and sit down on the first one I spot. The crowds are unwieldy, overwhelming, and I’m eager to get out of their way. As I sit I start watching people trying to see the natives through the sea of tourists.

There! I recognize her, the one-time astronaut. She was bald on television but she has hair now. I can see it peeking out from underneath her cap. She’s walking with an Amazon of a blonde, a woman at least six inches taller than her. They have their inside arms braided together, their outside hands carrying cups of steaming drink, and they look giddy with each other. The Amazon blonde catches my eye and smiles, and I smile back. She says something that I can’t read and I incline my chin slightly rather than making a fuss. She and the astronaut both wave as they continue past me.

My game is an easy one. The tourists are the ones pausing to take pictures of the snow flurries swirling over the harbor, the ones who point at the evergreens and coo at the sight of snow drifts. Anyone who lives here absorbs these sights in a glance, adding them to a vast photo album in their mind of the beautiful place we call home. We don’t need the physical reminders. We carry Squire’s Isle with us everywhere we go.

I see a woman walking alone, blue scarf over a black jacket, and for the space of a heartbeat I think she’s Andrea. The rational part of my brain knows it’s impossible, not simply because this woman isn’t wearing glasses, but there’s a quickening in my chest as I watch her walking through the crowds. The handle of a plastic bag is twisted around her wrist, her hand turned out so it won’t slip to the ground, and she glances at me as she passes my bench. The closer she gets, the less she resembles Andrea, but I know that’s how I’ll think of her from now on: the twin of my dearly departed wife.

“Merry Christmas,” she says.

“Merry Christmas.”

I recognize her now. Zoe Hudson, a relative newcomer to the island. She has a library card but rarely comes in. Why had I never before noticed how much she looks like Andrea? I consider following her but I’m horrified at any potential conversation. “Hello, you look like my dead wife. Want to chat about that for a while? By the way, I’m deaf, so please enunciate…” No. It’s comforting enough knowing the ghost of her is still out there on the island.

I linger far too long on the boardwalk, only realizing how cold I am when I realize I still have to walk home. I silently chide Andrea for letting me stay out so long, and I swear I can hear the chime of her laughter as I stand up and brace myself for the long walk home. Hopefully I’ll be able to stave off frostbite on the trip, but I’m not very confident. The wind is blowing down Spring Street, at my back but still strong enough to make me shudder.

After half a block I’m considering which restaurant to duck inside to thaw out a bit. A car pulls up beside me and I glance at it, realizing the car is actually a classic Checker cab. I see the driver is leaning across the passenger seat and waving to get my attention. I point to my ears and shake my head, and she seems to understand.

“It’s freezing out. I’m off-duty… get in.”

I hesitate, but the fact is I feel like this is a little miracle. “Thank you.” I get into the backseat and pull the door shut, basking in the bubble of heated air I’ve just enveloped myself within. “Oh my goodness! This feels amazing.”

The driver has turned to face me. “Happy to save your toes. Can you read my lips?”

“I can. I’m Cheryl.”

“Hi, Cheryl. I’m Alicia.”

“This heat feels fantastic. You must be sweltering!”

“I’m used to it since I’ve had it going all night. After getting off the ferry, people need to thaw out. Hasn’t hurt my tips any, I’ll tell you that. Where we heading?”

I give her my address and she nods before turning to face the road again. We’ve been on the road for almost a minute before I notice her jaw is moving.

“I can’t read your lips if you’re not looking at me.”

She cringes a little and turns her head. “Sorry. I was just…” She faces the road, then looks back. “Making small-talk.”

“It’s okay. I understand.”

“You can just talk… and I’ll listen. Kind of like… a therapist.”

I smile at her attempts to pay attention to her driving and converse with me. I spot a photograph on her dashboard, an older woman who looks vaguely familiar. She isn’t old enough to be Alicia’s mother so I guess, “Is that your partner?”

She nod and I can tell she’s smiling. “That’s my Laura.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Be sure you tell her that as much as possible. I lost my wife a few years ago. Every day I want to tell her how much she means to me.”

“I’m sorry.”

I shake my head. “Don’t be. She still hears me.”

“Darn right I do,” Andrea says, and I chuckle.

“I bet you hear all kinds of interesting stories in the back of this cab.”

Alicia nods emphatically. At the next stop sign she turns. “You’d be surprised what people are willing to tell the back of my head. Everyone in this town has a story.”

“I’m sure.” I look out the window as she starts rolling again. I think about the women I saw, the Hood-Colbys and Amy Wellis, the astronaut and her girlfriend… I think of all the little things I didn’t even notice that were monumental in someone else’s story. Even a town this small has a lot of stories hidden in its woodwork. I wondered if anyone would ever know all of the stories, if the secrets would remain secret or if some of them would slip out.

Either way, I’m willing to live with a little mystery.


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