I put Scout in my office with her bed and we settle ourselves on the small couch by the fireplace. I hand my guest the untouched half of my sandwich. Taking the fire-poker I prod the flames back to life and slip them another log to chew on.
She seems to swallow the sandwich in one bite and I gladly give her the rest of the meal as well.
“I’m Agatha, by the way,” she says, sticking out her hand.
“Cornelia.” I hold her hand a second longer hoping some of my heat will thaw her fingers.
“How are you feeling?” She says, licking away the last crumbs from her winter bitten lips.
I smile and shake my head. “My nose is a little unhappy, but that’s not a big thing.”
Her eyes widen slightly and she looks down at her lap. “I’m sorry, I know I probably smell really bad,” she says.
I can almost feel my heart slide down into my shoes. “No! You smell fine—” a coughing fit chooses now to start again. Excusing myself, I slip into my office and take another allergy pill. “That isn’t what I meant,” I say when I take my seat again. I hand her a bag of candy from my desk. “I just needed another allergy pill.”
“You don’t have to pretend for my benefit.” Her eyes don’t leave the rug.
Leaning over, I lower myself until I look her in the face. “Once you’ve cared for a wet dog with blocked anal glands, no smell will ever bother you again. Believe me.”
She laughs the smallest of laughs, but it seems big enough to fill the room. “I can’t remember the last time I bathed.”
Glancing at the door leading to the kennels, I bite my lip. “If you like, I have a sort of shower area where I bathe the dogs. It’s inside, the water is heated, and you’d have all the privacy you need, but it’s not technically built for humans.”
Her eyes begin to sparkle.
Leaving her with the candy, I round up a few extra towels and grab the small bottles of shampoo and conditioner I keep in my purse. “I’ve used the shower myself,” I say as we walk past all my canine guests. “It’s really not bad.”
“As long as the water’s hot, it’s heaven.”
I open the door for her and hand her all the things she’ll need. I show her how to work the heat and put down the slip free mat I always use. “If you enjoy the hot water enough to spend three hours in here, you go right ahead. If I’m not in the main office when you come out it’s because I haven’t finished with my errands, but you make yourself right at home.” I turn to leave and feel the lightest touch on my arm.
“You don’t mind my being here when you aren’t?”
I pat her hand. “My guests are always welcome.”
Grabbing my phone, I bundle Scout into the car and hurry out to the general store.
“Mr. Garber?” I say as the bell above the door tinkles.
Scout barks a greeting when the white haired man appears from the back room.
“Merry Christmas! You caught me just in time, Cornelia. I’m getting ready to close up until after Christmas.”
“I wish I could afford to do that.”
The weathered face breaks into a grin. “Stop caring if you can eat or not, and maybe you can. Or, like me, you can have enough grown children to feed you for the week.”
“Wouldn’t that mean I’d have to raise them first?”
“Yes, and settle down too.” He winks. “Maybe give my son a call?”
I roll my eyes. “Thank you, but I’ve tried that before.” My phone vibrates and I look down to see my sister’s face again.
“What can I help you with?”
“Do you still have any winter supplies? Blankets, coats, scarves, earmuffs, hand-warmers, woolen socks, boots,” biting my lip, I stop to think.
“Are you trying to keep an army warm?”
“I’ll need as many canned goods as you have too.”
“Are we getting snowed in?” His wiry brows fall together.
“Oh, and cat food!” I snap my fingers. “As much as you have of dry cat food. I think the wet might freeze… although it might be healthier for Popsicle too.”
“Cat food, now wait just a sec—”
“My reasons,” I say, batting my lashes, “are mine alone to know.”
With a huff he throws up his hands. “Females, I never will understand the lot of them.”
We spend the next thirty minutes gathering up any warm, cat food, or non-perishable item we can find. When he rings up the total, my heart practically stops.
“That will be $986.55 after tax.”
My mouth dries and I clear my throat. Taking a deep breath, I take out three credit cards.
He puts his hand over mine. “Dear, what is this all about?”
I think about the strength it must take to survive a life lived alone and the life you’d have to live to consider a shed a palace. My eyes water again. “Christmas.” I say.
“But you don’t keep cats.”
I shrug, not knowing what else to say.
He studies me for a moment before hitting more keys on the cash register. “After your Christmas discount, your total is $300.85, but since I like even numbers, we’ll make it an even three bills.” He takes my cards and swipes them as my mouth hangs open. Reaching up, he gently takes my chin and closes it. “Wish Agatha and Popsicle a merry Christmas for me too, won’t you?”
“You know them?”
“My dear wife used to help them when she could but, since she passed, I haven’t seen Agatha. I was afraid something had happened to her too.”
He wraps a red coat, boots, scarf, and mittens in brown paper and ties them up with ribbons. “Tell her these are from Mrs. Garber.”
We load the bags into the back of my car and I wrap him in the tightest hug I can manage. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Garber.
When I get back to the hotel I slip inside and put Scout back into the office. I don’t see Agatha anywhere so I put the wrapped things under my little tree and hide the rest of the bags behind the reception desk. When I stop, I realize the air is completely still.
To be continued…
Thank you all so much for reading, and for your patience with me this week! The final part of this story will be up bright and early Monday morning.