December 13 dawned bright and sunny, unseasonably warm according to the morning nurse. Sarah didn't mind. Temperatures in South Carolina could change in an afternoon, and snow wasn't out of the question. Even for the week ahead. Snow had been a part of their first December; it was bound to come sometime in the next twelve days.
Beth Baldwin was in charge that morning. Beth was a young caregiver who never spoke more than the essentials. Good morning. How are you? Nice December we're having. That sort of thing. Beth was married, or at least Sarah suspected as much since Beth wore a wedding ring. She was a pretty girl, a gentle caregiver, but her eyes were wild and restless. They reminded Sarah of something she couldn't quite take hold of.
"Beth, dear, do you know what day it is?" Sarah leaned forward so Beth could ease her into her red Christmas sweater.
The young woman blew a wisp of dark hair off her forehead. Her voice was pleasant, but she didn't make eye contact. "Monday, December 13."
A soft chuckle came from Sarah's throat. "No, dear. I don't mean the date, I mean the day." Sarah waited until she had Beth's attention.
"The day?" Beth straightened, one hand on her hip. "I give up; what's special about today?" "Why, it's the First Day of Christmas!"
Beth cocked her head. "You mean like the song? The partridge in a pear tree and all that Twelve Days of Christmas stuff?"
"Yes." Sarah tugged on the sides of her sweater, and when it lay smooth around her scant frame, she eased back against the pillow. "Today's the first day."
"Hmmm." Beth took hold of the water pitcher sitting on Sarah's bedside table. "I thought those were the twelve days after Christmas."
"Only in the history books, dear. My twelve days begin today."
"Oh." Beth stopped. "Okay. That's nice I guess." With purposeful steps, she went to the sink, rinsed the pitcher, filled it, and returned it to its place. "I guess that means one thing." She stopped and gave Sarah a lopsided smile. "Twelve shopping days until Christmas."
Sarah pursed her lips, the prayer from last night playing over in her mind. Beth wasn't the one; she wouldn't hold a conversation, never mind listen to a story that stretched over twelve days.
"You know the routine." Beth headed for the door with a glance over her shoulder. "Press the call button if you need anything."
"Thank you, Beth. I'll be okay for a few-" She was gone. Sarah stared at the closed door and gave a gentle shrug of her shoulders. Just as well. If Beth wasn't the one she'd prayed for, better to be alone for the first day of the ritual. She'd been waiting for this moment since the leaves began turning orange back in October.
The envelopes lay fanned out on her nightstand in numerical order, the small plastic tree set up a few inches away, pressed against the wall. Sarah shifted to that side of the bed and let her legs hang over the side until her woolly socks rested on the cold linoleum floor.
The first envelope called out to her, begging to be opened. She lifted the flap, removed the paper ornament, and studied the word scrawled across both sides.
That's what she had wanted that cold January day, wasn't it? Everything about tomorrow. Today, what she had in the moment, was never enough. Not Greer or her parents or their faith. Not even Sam. Everything she'd done back then was focused on tomorrow, that far-off day when she could go after everything country music had to offer. Everything a young woman with her looks and voice and determination deserved. Everything her small town of Greer couldn't offer. Every moment of it.
Sarah studied the word, the faded ink, and bit by bit the piped-in music, the conversations in the hall, the aches and pains of nearly nine decades, all grew dim. She closed her eyes, and in a rush she felt herself going back, pulled into a time that still existed, a time that had never really ended at all. She blinked her eyes open, and she was no longer perched on the edge of her bed at Greer Retirement Village.
She was twenty-three, in her parents' farmhouse across the street from the high school. Her mother was canning in the kitchen and the smell of warm apples and cinnamon filled the air. It was Christmas Eve 1940, and Sam Lindeman was over. The way Sam always had been back then.
Sarah fingered the paper ornament in her hand and blinked. She felt the weathered skin above her eyebrows bunch up and she pulled herself from the memory. She couldn't start in 1940. No, she had to go back to her girlhood days, when she dreamed day and night of catching Sam's attention, dating him, and one day marrying him.
Sam was five years older than her, the brother of Sarah's best friend, Mary. Though the Lindemans sometimes vacationed with Sarah's family, Sam never noticed Sarah in the early years. His age stood like an ocean, the span of time too far to consider bridging. But sometime after her twelfth birthday, despite their age difference, Sarah fell hard for him.
"He's so cute," she would tell Mary whenever the two were visiting. Back then, they spent hours listening to records in Mary's room, pretending they were famous singers.
"Nah," Mary would wrinkle her nose and turn up the music. "He's just my bossy brother."
Sam played football for Greer High and Sarah used to dream of aging four years overnight, waking one morning, showing up at the high school, and being Sam Lindeman's girl. They would graduate high school and head for some foreign land-Spain, maybe, or the South of France or the Bahamas. One of the places her teachers were always talking about.
In the dream, Sam would lead tourists on daring excursions and she would gain fame and fortune singing- not in a church choir the way her mother wanted her to sing, but in fancy dance halls and nightclubs, decked in beautiful gowns, with Sam sitting in the front row smiling at her.
The dream never panned out. Every morning Sarah woke up still twelve years old, and the next year Sam graduated from high school and went off to college without so much as a good-bye to his kid sister's little friend. Years passed, and Sarah kept singing. By the time she turned seventeen everyone in Greer knew about her gift.
She'd been born with a voice that could silence a room; a voice her mama said would make angels cry with envy. Sarah proved it again and again, every Sunday when the church choir featured her as a soloist. Each week Sarah smiled and sang her heart out. But she hated singing in a choir robe. She kept a small calendar beneath her bed where she counted down the days until she could finish high school and take her singing somewhere exciting-Nashville or New York or Chicago. Anywhere but Greer.
One summer Sam returned home for an entire month. Four years had passed since Sam left for college, and he no longer figured into Sarah's dreams. Sarah would never forget the first time she saw him that July day. That morning at the Lindeman house, she was on her way up the stairs to find Mary when she heard a man's voice call to her from the dining room.
She turned and there he was. Sam Lindeman, twenty-two years old, taller, more filled out and more handsome than she had remembered. Sarah's breath caught in her throat and she froze near the bottom of the stairs. Visions of Spain and France and the Bahamas flashed in her mind.
"Sarah, look at you." He crossed the parlor to the place where she stood. His voice fell a notch and his eyes seemed to find her for the first time. "What happened to the little girl down the street?"
"Uh. . ." Heat rushed into Sarah's cheeks and she remembered to smile. "I grew up." She batted her eye-lashes, willing herself to exhale.
"I guess so." He leaned against the wall, watching her. "You must be, what, seventeen now?"
"Yes." She was breathing again, but her racing heart threatened to give her away. "I'll be a senior in the fall."
"You're beautiful. I almost didn't recognize you." "Gosh," Sarah lowered her chin, suddenly shy. "Thanks. I mean ...I guess we both grew up, huh?"
"Yeah." He was quiet for a moment, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. "Can I ask you something, little Sarah all grown up?"
She giggled and felt some of her confidence return.
"I'm taking my sister out for burgers tonight." His smile was as true as time, and her knees grew weak again. "Wanna come?"
Sarah didn't have to think about her answer. "Yes" was out of her mouth almost as soon as he finished asking. Her parents wouldn't mind; not if Mary was going along. Besides, Sarah chided herself, Sam wasn't interested in her. He was only being nice, probably wanting to catch up on the past four years.
That night they bowled before dinner and Sam entertained them with hilarious stories about his roommates back at college. Later, halfway through the meal, conversation turned to Sam's plans after college. Travel, Sarah expected him to say. Exploration and adventure and daring, the sort of life that long ago she had dreamed they'd share together.
Instead, he set his burger down and leaned forward. "I'm getting my teaching certificate and coming back home." His eyes held a new sort of knowing as they found hers. "I'll marry a local girl, raise a family; and teach in Greer. Be the principal one day." He shifted his attention back to his sister. "That's all I've ever wanted. Sooner the better." Once more he looked at her. "How about you, Sarah? What are you doing after high school?"
Sarah's head was still spinning from his answer. "I'm leaving Greer, getting a recording contract." "Really?" His expression held a hint of amusement.
"Someone told me you could sing." "She's amazing." Mary ate a French fry and nodded hard. "One day everyone will know Sarah."
"That's the plan." Sarah tried to find an appropriate laugh to help keep the conversation light, but none was available. Instead she excused herself.
Alone in the restroom she stared at the chipped mirror, her eyes wide. Marrying a local girl right out of college was one thing, but Sam Lindeman living and teaching in Greer? Forever in a town where the closest thing to entertainment was Al's Drive-In or family night at the library?
She shuddered and fear took a stab at her composure. As a girl she'd dreamed of following Sam to the ends of the earth, and now that he was home, now that he'd finally noticed her, those feelings were coming to life again. But she never imagined the dream would take her no farther than the Greer city limit sign.
A mix of emotions competed for control inside her. She was in trouble. Not because of the way Sam had looked at her when he talked about his future, but because of the way her heart leapt within her when he did.
Copyright © 2004 by Karen Kingsbury