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The boy came to the edge of town at twilight, at the close of a winter day. Although the snows had not yet begun, the air was brutally cold, having leached the life from the fields and forests, turning everything to shades of brown and buff.
The road narrowed to one lane and passed through a covered bridge on ancient river stone pilings. Through the years, the structure had weathered and been replaced, plank by plank, yet it never really changed. The tumbled rocks and sere vegetation along the riverbanks were rimed by a delicate breath of frost, and the trees in the surrounding orchards and woods had long since dropped their leaves. There was an air of frozen waiting, as though all was in readiness, as though the stage was set.
He felt a quiet sense of purpose, knowing his task here wouldn't be easy. Hearts would have to break and be mended, truths would be revealed, risks would be taken. Which, when he thought about it, was simply the way life worked—messy, unpredictable, joyous, mysterious, hurtful and redemptive.
A green-and-white sign in the shape of a shield identified the town—Avalon. Ulster County. Elevation 4347 feet.
Farther on, a billboard carried greetings from the Rotary, the Kiwanis and at least a dozen church and civic groups. The message of welcome read Avalon, in the Heart of the Catskills Forest Preserve. There was another sign exhorting travelers to visit Willow Lake, The Jewel Of The Mountains. The bit of hyperbole might apply to any number of small lakeside towns of upper New York state, but this one had the earnestness and charm of a place with a long and complicated history.
He was one of those complications. His understanding of what brought him here only extended so far, a narrow glimpse into the mystical realm of the human heart. Perhaps he wasn't meant to know why the past and present were about to collide at this moment in time. Perhaps it was enough to know his purpose—to right an old wrong. Exactly how to accomplish this—well, there was another unknown. It would reveal itself, bit by bit, in its own time.
The main feature of the town was a pretty brickwork square around a Gothic block structure which housed municipal offices and the courthouse. Surrounding that were a variety of shops and restaurants with lights glowing in the windows. The first Christmas garlands and light displays of the season adorned the wrought-iron gas lamps around the square. In the distance lay Willow Lake, a vast indigo sheet under the brooding sky, its surface glazed by a layer of ice that would thicken as the season progressed.
A few blocks from the main square was the railway station. A train had just pulled in and was disgorging passengers coming home from work in the bigger towns—Kingston and New Paltz, Albany and Poughkeepsie, a few from as far away as New York City. People hurried to their cars, eager to escape the cold and get home to their families. There were so many ways to make a family…and just as many to lose them. But human nature was forged of forgiveness, and renewal might be only a word or a kind gesture away.
It felt strange, being back after all this time. Strange and… important. Something was greatly at risk here, whether people knew it or not. And somehow he needed to help. He just hoped he could.
Not far from the station was the town library, a squared-off Greek revival structure. The cornerstone had been laid exactly ninety-nine years ago; the date was seared upon his heart. The building was surrounded by several acres of beautiful city park, lined by bare trees and crisscrossed by sidewalks. The library occupied the site of its original predecessor, which had burned to the ground a century before, claiming one fatality. Few people knew the details of what had happened or understood the impact the event had on the life of the town itself.
Funded by a wealthy family that understood its value, the library had been rebuilt after the fire. Constructed of cut stone and virtually fireproof, the new Avalon Free Library had seen nearly a hundred years come and go—times of soaring prosperity and crushing poverty, war and peace, social unrest and harmony. The town had changed, the world had changed.
People didn't know each other anymore, yet there were a few constants, anchoring everything in place, and the library was one of them. For now.
He sighed, his breath frosting the air as old memories crowded in, as haunting as an unfinished dream. All those years ago, the first library had been destroyed. Now the present one was in danger, not from fire but from something just as dangerous. There still might be time to save it.
The building had tall windows all around its periphery, and a skylight over an atrium to flood the space with light. Through the windows, he could see oaken bookcases, tables and study carrels with people bent over them. Through another set of windows, he could see the staff area.
Inside, laboring at a cluttered desk in the glow of a task lamp, sat a woman. Her pale face was drawn with a worry that seemed to edge toward despair.
She stood abruptly, as though having just remembered something, smoothing her hands down the front of her brown skirt. Then she grabbed her coat from a rack and armored herself for the rapidly falling cold—lined boots, muffler, hat, mittens. Despite the presence of numerous patrons, she seemed distracted and very alone.
The sharp, dry cold drove him toward the building's entrance, a grand archway of figured stone with wise sayings carved in bas-relief. He paused to study the words of the scholars— Plutarch, Socrates, Judah ibn-Tibbon, Benjamin Franklin. Though the words of wisdom were appealing, the boy had no guide but his own heart. Time to get started.
Hurrying, her head lowered, the woman nearly slammed into him as she left the building through the heavy, lever-handled main door.
"Oh," she said, quickly stepping back. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you there."
"It's all right," the boy said.
Something in his voice made her pause, study him for a moment through the thick lenses of her eyeglasses. He tried to envision himself as she saw him—a boy not yet sixteen, with serious dark eyes, olive-toned skin and hair that hadn't seen a barber's shears in too long. He wore a greenish cargo jacket from the army surplus, and loose-cut dungarees that were shabby but clean. The winter clothes concealed his scars, for the most part.
"Can I help you?" she asked, slightly breathless. "I'm on my way out, but…"
"I believe I can find what I need here, thanks," he said.
"The library closes at six tonight," she reminded him.
"I won't be long."
"I don't think we've met," she said. "I try to meet all my library patrons."
"My name is Jabez, ma'am. Jabez Cantor. I'm…new." It wasn't a lie, not really.
She smiled, though the worry lingered in her eyes. "Maureen Davenport."
I know, he thought. I know who you are. He understood her importance, even if she didn't. She'd done so much, here in this small town, though perhaps even she didn't realize it.
"I'm the librarian and branch manager here," she explained. "I'd show you around, but I need to be somewhere." I know that, too, he thought. "See you around, Jabez," she said. Yes, he thought as she hurried away. You will.
Maureen Davenport's cheeks stung after the brisk walk from the library to the bakery. Although she loved the nip of cold in the air, she was grateful for the warm refuge of the Sky River Bakery. Peeling off her muffler, hat and gloves, she scanned the small knot of people crowded around the curved-glass cases of pastries and goodies. More couples gathered at the bistro booths and tables around her.
He wasn't here yet, clearly. It was a singularly awkward sensation to be waiting for someone who didn't know what you looked like. She considered ordering a big mug of tea or hot chocolate, but there was a line. She sat down and opened the book she was reading—Christmas 365 Days a Year:How to Bring the Holiday into Your Everyday Life.
Maureen was always reading something. Ever since she was small, she'd found delight and comfort in books. For her, a story was so much more than words on a page. Opening a book was like opening a door to another world, and once she stepped across the threshold, she was transported. When she was reading a story, she lived inside a different skin.
She loved books of every sort—novels, nonfiction, children's books, how-to manuals. As the town librarian, books were her job. And as someone who loved reading the way other people loved eating, books were her life. She tried not to sink too deeply into the page she was currently reading because of the upcoming meeting. She kept reminding herself to keep an eye out for him.
Him. Eddie Haven. And he was late.
As the minutes ticked by, Maureen grew paranoid. What if he didn't come? What if he stood her up? Could she fire him? No, she could not. He was a volunteer, and you couldn't really fire a volunteer. Besides, he'd been court ordered to work with her.
Why else would a man like Eddie Haven be with her except by judicial decree? She tried not to be insulted by the notion that the only way he'd ever be found with the likes of Maureen Davenport would be through court order. The fundamental mismatch was a simple fact, perhaps even a law of nature. He was heartthrob handsome, a celebrity (okay, a D-list celebrity, but still) and a massively talented musician. He was almost famous.
Long ago, his had been one of the most recognizable faces in the country. He was one of those former child stars who had rocketed briefly to fame at a young age, and then flamed out. Yet his role in that one hit movie—along with twenty-four-hour cable—kept him alive for decades. The Christmas Caper, a heartwarming movie that had captivated the world, had become a holiday staple. She'd heard his name linked with a number of women, and every once in awhile, one of the gossip magazines pictured him with some starlet or celebu-tante. For quite a while, he had fallen off the radar, but a fresh wave of notoriety surrounded him now. The silver anniversary DVD of his hit movie had just been released, and interest in him had skyrocketed.
Maureen had nothing in common with him. Their lives had intersected one night he didn't remember, though it was seared in her mind forever. He lived in New York City, but came to Avalon each holiday season—against his will. She'd heard he had friends in town, but she wasn't one of them. To her knowledge, he'd never set foot in the library.
Even so, arranging to meet him here had almost felt like a date. The rendezvous had been organized via e-mail, of course. Using the phone would be far too bold and intimidating. She was much better in e-mail. In e-mail, she didn't get flustered. In e-mail, she almost had a personality. So she hadn't actually spoken to him—who needed to talk when there was e-mail?— yet the give and take as they settled on a day and time had borne all the hallmarks of a date. It wasn't a date, of course, because that sort of thing didn't happen to women like Maureen.
Except maybe in books. And of course, in dreams.
It only happened in dreams that a plain, bookish woman caught the eye of someone like Eddie Haven.
Even if the plain woman had once saved his life. She sighed, and shrugged away an aching wisp of memory, quickly stifled.
She hadn't dated anyone in a very long time. She had exacting taste, or so she told herself and her too-inquisitive siblings and friends. She still cringed, remembering her last two dates—an outing with a stamp collector named Alvin, and a very bad concert with Walter Grunion last year. She'd ended up returning home with a headache, and a resolve to quit going out with guys because it was expected of her. She was determined to stop saying yes to men she wasn't interested in just because she was still in her twenties—barely—and "supposed" to be dating.
People coming and going in the bakery barely looked at Maureen, which was fine with her. She never liked being the center of attention. A long time ago, she used to dream of being in the limelight. Life had quickly cured her of that notion. At a mercifully young age, she'd learned that being well-known and recognized was no substitute for being loved and cherished. Maureen was an unobtrusive sort; that was her comfort zone. Flying under the radar took very little effort on her part. She wore a T-shirt that said Eschew Obfuscation and a button in support of intellectual freedom, yet the slogans didn't seem to draw anyone's eye. Maybe the trendy shirt was counteracted by her hand-knit cardigan sweater—a gift from a favorite aunt—and Maureen's tweedy wool skirt, leggings and boots. Though she knew her style of dressing was plain and boring, this didn't bother her in the least. Fashion was for people who craved attention.
Occasionally, her gaze touched someone else's and they would give each other a slight, social nod. She was the sort people recognized only obliquely. She looked vaguely familiar, like someone they occasionally encountered but couldn't quite place.