The snow had been falling steadily for several hours, covering the ground with more than five inches of crystalline flakes. You looked out of the living room window of your new home at the fresh blanket of winter white and frowned at how little of your driveway could be visibly followed from the garage to the street. Night was rapidly approaching, and the mercury vapor street light down the block reflected against the snow, creating a faint reddish-violet glow in the twilight.
I really should have the drive shoveled tonight, you thought to yourself, trying to remember which neighbor had the able-bodied teens needing some spending money.
The fireplace crackled with a soothing warmth, split hickory logs filled the house with a muted nutty scent as they burned. You turned from the window and crossed the room to the couch. A single lamp upon an end table bathed the area in just enough light to read. You sat on the edge of the cushion as you began flipping through your address book, looking for the fresh ink of new neighbors.
You paused to sip from your glass of wine, enjoying the flavor as you held it in your mouth before swallowing. Then you smiled when you noticed where your finger had landed in the book: Alex Watkins.
Oh, how many times we joked about me shoveling your driveway, and what kind of "payment" would be rewarded for my efforts. You took a slightly longer draw of wine, and let your head come to rest on the high-backed couch as you scooted back from the edge, curling your legs beneath you. You closed your eyes as you sighed and wished I wasn't so far away. All fantasies aside, you really did need your driveway cleared.
A sound outside made you open your eyes. Had minutes or just seconds passed? You glanced at the fireplace and noticed the fire was still burning...it couldn't have been too long. You heard the sound again over the quiet crackling of the fire...footsteps in the snow coming toward your front door. They stopped, and then a gloved hand rapped softly on the heavy wood.
You got up and went to the door. "Who's there," you called out. You were glad you had bolted the door securely as your mother had taught you.
"Snow shoveling, ma'am...at your service." The voice through the door sounded friendly and familiar. You peered through the peephole just as the tall person in a heavy hooded coat turned away and began shoveling the snow from the short walkway with a long-handled snow shovel. That must be Mr. England, or Engleman, whatever his name was, from two houses down and across the street. He had waved when you jogged past his house the other evening, and you had heard him call to his children to come home for dinner.
You watched him clear the driveway near the garage through the living room window before returning to the couch. What a nice neighbor to offer help before it was asked of him, you decided. Money would seem like such a crass repayment to an adult. The least you could do was make him a nice hot mug of real hot cocoa, and you wouldn't mind some yourself. As the rhythmic sounds of shovel blade scraping against asphalt set an easy tempo, you got to work in your kitchen.
As you stirred the heating milk and Godiva cocoa powder with the wooden spoon, the fading sounds of shoveling indicated the job had progressed nearly to the street, and your kind neighbor would soon be done. You tasted the sweet chocolate from the end of the spoon. Excellent. You poured the steaming drink from the saucepan into two large ceramic mugs. Note to self, you thought: buy marshmallows next trip to the store.
Looking out the window once more, you saw that the shoveling was within one or two more minutes from completion. You steeled yourself to the cold as you opened the front door and called to your Samaritan. "I've got hot cocoa here for you," you waved to the man. He turned part way toward you and waved back an acknowledgment before returning to the task at hand. You quickly shut the door and skipped over to the toasty fireplace, shivering and giggling at the chill.
The muffled sound of shoveling came to a stuttering stop, followed by the easy stride of heavy boots up the drive. The gloved hand knocked again, and you used the door as a shield against the cold as you opened it to let the man in. He was quite tall, you realized. Somewhat taller than you had perceived Mr. England/Engleman as being. A sudden flash of doubt crossed your mind as the snow shoveler worked his hands free from his gloves to better undo the hood obscuring his face. Who is this man?
As you watched the snow shoveler untie the drawstring from his hood, your mind raced to identify him, partly in fear, mostly in embarrassment for not recognizing him earlier. He still had his back to you as he silently moved his hands in a stiffened manner, affected, no doubt, by the winter cold. You convinced yourself that this person was not neighbor England/Engleman, as you had thought.
It seemed to take the man a long time to undo his hood, and almost as long to pull it away from his head to reveal himself. He shook his head like a dog coming out of water, his collar-length hair slightly damp from the exertion of shoveling. He gave out a deep breath and turned toward you, smiling.
"Oh my God!" you gasped, putting a hand to your slack-jawed mouth.
"Hello, Jill," I said matter-of-factly, still grinning.
"What...how...," was all you could say at first, shaking your head in disbelief.
I shrugged as I continued to remove my heavy parka. "You needed your driveway shoveled, didn't you?"
"How...what...," you rephrased. Your hand was still at your mouth.
I chuckled at you. "Do you really want an explanation? Because I'm not sure even I know what I'm doing here!"
You simply leaned against the door as you watched me slip my arms free of my coat, and toss it onto an antique wooden chair next to where you stood. My light-gray sweatshirt showed spots of dampness where I was perspiring on my chest. I leaned down and began to unlace my hiking-style boots with the big-treaded soles. I looked like an awkward stork as I lifted each leg to pull off the boots, making half-hopping corrections to my balance.
"Don't worry," I said, still grinning as I placed the boots under the chair, "my feet usually don't stink!" I pulled at the sweatshirt clinging to my torso. "I hope I can say that about the rest of me, too! Whew! Either I worked up a bit of a sweat out there, or your fireplace has made it warm in here!"
Your mind and mouth finally cooperated enough to speak in multi-syllables. "Yes, I do have the fireplace set on 'toasty'. I love it this way."
"I like it, too," I said as I stepped toward you and pulled you away from the door and into a hug. You were still too stunned to really hug me back. I gave you a quick kiss on the cheek as I leaned back to look into your eyes. "I seem to have scared you silly. Does this mean I don't get my hot chocolate?"
That made you smile. "I'm not scared...I just never expected..." You stopped again as confusion derailed your thoughts once more. You squeezed my waist as if to affirm that I was really, truly there.
"Hey...I'm ticklish," I protested. I tucked my forefinger under your chin and tilted it up toward me as my lips sought out yours. I kissed you gently, but affectionately. "How's that for positive identification, Ma'am?"
The way you kissed me back was all the reply I needed. We stood there for a few minutes, kissing sweetly in a loving embrace.
"Mmm..." I sighed. "It sure is good to see you again."
"It's been too long," you agreed. You playfully ran your nails up and down my back, glad that I was definitely not a mirage of sorts. I shivered from the sensation, with an aftershock coming close behind from the lingering chill of the outside air. "Come over here by the fireplace and warm up! You're still cold!"
"I'm hot and cold at the same time," I said, letting you tug me toward the crackling fire. "Once I knew there was a cocoa reward in here, I shoveled like a maniac to finish as fast as I could." I cradled the mug of hot chocolate you handed me and took a sip. "Damn, this is good stuff!" I licked the chocolate foam from my upper lip.
"Jill knows cocoa," you boasted with a laugh.
I took another sip and grunted in agreement. "This is warming me up just perfectly." I continued to pull at my clinging sweatshirt, trying to move some air between my skin and the damp cloth. "I love your new home," I said, looking around.
"I can't believe I'm really here," you sighed. "I really, really like it here." You took me by the hand and walked me through the house, showing me every closet and cupboard. I wasn't sure if I was listening to an architect or a real estate salesperson.
When we got to the master bedroom, you proudly showed me the walk-in closet and the hidden stairway to the third floor/attic. I poked my head into the spacious master bath, and whistled to hear the reverberations reflecting from the tile, making my mental calculations of the decay time. The Ronettes would have loved singing in here.
"Jill," I inquired, "would it be terribly rude of me to ask if I could take a quick shower? I'm afraid I've sweated just a little more than I wished I had. I'd only be five minutes, and I promise not to leave any hairs on the soap!"
Your eyes twinkled as you quickly grabbed towels and a washcloth from the linen closet. "It's not rude at all," you assured me, "in fact, I apologize for not offering my shower to you immediately." You laughed at what you said. "It's not that you smell, of course! I just want you to be as comfortable as you can be!"
.... There is more of this story ...