Jennilee looked forward every year to Christmas. Sure, it was her favorite time of year and her little café did better during the holidays than at any other time. And, best of all, it was a celebration of the Savior. But she looked forward to it for one other important reason. Friends. Well, most of them she wanted to see.
Living in the same town where she’d graduated high school meant her social circle was her old classmates. And many of them had moved away for college and professional lives. They lived in loft apartments in Pittsburgh or condos in West Palm Beach or brownstones in Cincinnati. They had lives that didn’t take them through Hartland. Except at Christmas. Usually, some of them came back to their childhood homes for family gatherings. And as she was the only coffee shop in town with WIFI, they usually stopped in her place too.
This morning, a couple days out from Christmas Day, she was mixing up a batch of orange and cranberry scones. It was 5:30 AM and the Andrews Sisters were blaring from the café speakers. It was part of her vibe here at Grounds and Grains – vintage music, classic décor and amazing food.
She loved mornings but it hadn’t always been that way. She’d had to work at loving them. And she did it by going to bed before she wanted to and forcing herself to anticipate the next day, by finding her delight in baking bread with the sunrise. Shaping scones, plumping biscuits, slicing loaves, making toast, creating granola – these were the actions that filled her mornings. And then there was the daily grind of the coffee and the aroma that filled the place as it perked. Jennilee provided the atmosphere and the food every day for friends to gather and chatter and share life. And every December, she got to enjoy a little bit of it too.
There were a few of her graduating class who’d stayed in the hometown. Phillip still worked at the automotive shop, now the head mechanic; Beth was manager of the grocery store where she’d been a cashier during high school; Troy owned the funeral home in town which he’d bought after he came back from mortuary school at the university; and Amy and Jess were moms with minivans and kids, helping out with the PTF and chaperoning field trips and activities. But many of the cool kids had moved away for life with brighter lights than Hartland had.
A noise in the dining area brought her to the front, flour on her hands. Kind-of early for customers. She didn’t open the front door until 6:00. Whoever was there was pulling on the locked door, moving the bell just a bit.
It was dark outside still but she could see a man in business dress trying to read the sign and then turning back to his car. Something about the way he walked looked familiar; it wasn’t even, it was a little labored. She squinted to see as he walked under the streetlight and gasped as an avalanche of memories overwhelmed her.
He got into his car and drove away, and Jennilee held onto the window frame for support. She took a couple deep breaths and then noticed the cord for the Christmas tree was lying there disconnected from the outlet. She plugged it in and was wowed again with the shimmer of a thousand tiny bulbs nestled in snow-flocked branches. Ten strands of 100 lights. That was her Christmas tree code. And a flocked tree. She should hate trees, but they had become, instead, a symbol of redemption and rescue.
She turned back to the kitchen and slid the baking trays of scones in their circle into the oven and set the timer. She hit the button on the grinder and started the coffee process. She checked the counter for cleanliness and the five tables out front and the coffee bar area to make sure it was stocked with half and half and heavy cream and cinnamon and chocolate and plasticware and napkins. Grounds and Grains was primarily a coffee and pastry shop, selling both confectionary and healthful options. She stayed with what she was good at and refused the pull to add menu items that required a grill. She wanted to do it herself and yet not be tied to it. Her hours were 6:00 – 2:00, Tuesday – Saturday, and it was perfect to have her afternoons and evenings free.
She had just taken the scones out of the oven and rearranged the shortbread cookies under the glass cloche on the counter when the first customer arrived with more following her. It was pretty much a blitz from them on, with her holiday treats selling quickly. She was refilling the coffeepot reservoir with her back to the counter when he came in. She heard that slow step first.
“Your hair still falls down around your neck when you’re working, doesn’t it?”
She tried to whirl around but the bit of water she’d sloshed onto the floor around her was slippery and her feet glided right out from under her. She grabbed for the counter, dropping the pitcher she was using to fill the coffeepot with a thud. A hand tightened on her wrist before she could hit the floor. As she did a little balancing shuffle, Jennilee looked into the face of Grove Herrand. He still had twinkling eyes.
“Uh, hi. . . yes, it does. . . Thank you, I’m still clumsy too, I guess.”
“You’re welcome.” He released her hand. “I tried to get in here earlier today, but I guess it was more helpful to come now.”
“I know. I saw you.” She ducked her head. “I’d been in the back, baking. Wasn’t too sure if I should call out to you.”
“It’s been a long time, Grove. A long time since the last Christmas I saw you.”
“And I had to come back. You know why? Because it’s December 23 and I wanted to know what you were doing all these years.”
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” She held up a white café mug. She wanted to forget the date.
“If you’ll sit down and drink a cup with me.”
“Technically, I’m still open for 15 more minutes.”
“Then lock the door early in honor of an old friend.”
She didn’t want to smile, but had to. “I can do that. Here, take this cup. I’ll grab some sugar cookies.”
When she came back with the platter of cookies, he was sitting in the table beside the front window, his bad leg stretched out to the side, his good one under the table. He’d taken off his jacket but left on his scarf. She caught a whiff of pine scent as she passed by him and sat down.
“You’ve been outdoors this morning, huh?”
“Had to walk back in the woods behind my folks’ place. Not the best for these shoes, I guess.”
Tears. She couldn’t stop them. “Grove, I’m so sorry. Again.”
He put down the star-shaped cookie he was about to eat and nodded. “I thought that was the problem. Jen’lee, it’s okay. Really. I need you to believe me.”
She smiled at his old nickname for her in spite of herself. “You’re so sweet, Grove, but I still feel responsible. Your life has been different because of me, because of the accident I caused. You could have walked normally. You could have played football in college and joined the paratroopers like you used to talk about. All that changed because you had to help a silly junior high school girl in the woods. Do you know how often I’ve heard that tree snap in my dreams, how often I’ve felt the wind whirl past my face as it comes crashing down, how often I remember your face just before it landed on your leg?”
“Probably about as many times as I’ve heard it in my dreams.” He reached across the table and touched her hand. “Why did you stay here and open this shop?
“To repay my debt. I was the one who got lost in the storm. I was the one the community searched for. I was the one who kept good people out in the cold on a miserable night, who ruined Christmas plans for you and your family and others. So, I decided to give back to these great people. I provide a place, a safe, warm place, for friends and families to gather. I bake treats. And I give away a lot of items during the holiday season.”
He tapped her fingers with his. “Jen’lee, do you know what?”
She looked up, shook her head.
“I don’t grieve the college football or the paratroopers at all. Do you know what I do?”
“You’re a surgeon.”
“Yes, God let me become an orthopedic surgeon. I specialize in traumatic cases. Every day I look into the faces of people who have life-altering injuries and I tell them, ‘This is not the end.’ Because it’s not. I was made to do this, Jen’lee. Not jump from planes or chase a ball. Those are well and good, but they’re not what I was meant to do.”
“But you might have liked them if you’d had the chance.”
“Maybe. But here’s what I like more – seeing hope in the eyes of people I can help. That gives me an adrenalin rush like a crowd in a stadium never would. And you know where I first saw that look?” He winked, softly, sweetly. “On your face, in the woods, a long time ago.”
She blushed and he chuckled quietly, then slapped his stretched-out leg. “Now, this old leg is still in good enough shape to stand at a kitchen sink. Why don’t I help you clean up in the back and you can catch me up on the old gang and what everyone is doing. Sound right?”
She stood up with him. “Okay, that sounds really nice. And Grove, thank you again.”
“You’re welcome, again. Let’s let it go this time.” He squeezed her shoulders.
“If you say so. But the way you walk reminds me that your leg isn’t the way it should be.”
“No, it’s not. But the way I walk also says your name every time I take a step. And there are hundreds of patients out there who thank you for that.” He fingered a tiny manger hanging on the tree. “Christmas isn’t about wholeness, but about healing.” He nodded his head toward the kitchen. “Come on, Jen’lee.”
Jennilee tried to smile. The years of avoiding him on social media and staying tucked away in her hometown were over. He’d come looking for her, to give her hope, to tell her that the pain she had caused was the beginning of redemption for many, to take away the shame and give her a reason to smile instead, to show her that the mark she’d left bore her name in love.
She gathered up the platter of cookies and followed him into the kitchen, awed because his walk seemed perfect now, the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard.