Marcus sat on the cold bench in the old gazebo staring out onto the snow covered park. He was numb to the cold and deaf to the sounds of the celebrating in the city centre a few blocks away. Another year was drawing to a close. What a year it had been for him. It had started out so full of promise. A year ago he thought everything in his life was pretty close to perfect. The Fates, or whatever was in charge, soon showed him how wrong he was. He sat there, recalling it all.
A year ago he thought he had found his perfect mate. Shauna was so beautiful. He had been dating her only a couple of months, but he was sure he loved her. Besides, it was time he settled down and started a family. It was something he had always wanted. He hadn't spent New Year's Eve with her because she had gone back to her hometown for the holidays. He spent that evening planning. When Shauna returned, he asked her to go away with him at Valentine's to a cozy little country inn. She had hesitated at first, but eventually she agreed. She had never been very affectionate but he thought she was just shy. He found it charming. He was going to propose to her that weekend. Then the Fates intervened. In early February, he'd slipped on some ice and broken his leg. He had told Shauna they would have to postpone the trip. At the time, he thought she'd taken the news well. Now he knew she'd been relieved. She offered to cancel the reservation for him. No, that wasn't accurate. She'd offered to take care of it and he'd assumed that meant she'd cancel it. Instead she had gone with someone else, a man she'd been dating in her hometown, a man to whom she became engaged and married in July. She told Marcus that at the time she first started dating him, she had thought things were over between her and her hometown boyfriend, but they had patched things up over the Christmas holidays. When she returned, she didn't know how to tell Marcus, so she hadn't. She had been trying to think of a way out of the Valentine's trip when he'd broken his leg. According to Shauna, everything had worked out for the best. Perhaps she was right.
In July, he received another shock, after his father passed away. His father had been in poor health for a number of years, since turning seventy, which had also been the year his mother had died. They had called Marcus their miracle baby, being in their late forties when he was born. Their only other child, a son named Archie, died when Marcus was only a few months old so he was an only child in many ways. At least that was what he'd believed for thirty-one years. He had discovered the truth when going through his father's papers. He found adoption papers and a letter of explanation. His 'parents' had really been his grandparents; his brother, his father. Archie had moved out west for a well-paying job but had died after a few months in an industrial accident at the age of twenty-three. A few months later a desperate young woman had come to see them. She was eighteen years old and had a young baby with her. She explained to them that she'd been pregnant when Archie left and he had been sending her money each month with the idea that she would join him when he got more settled out there. But, she'd not heard from him or received any money in two months and didn't know what to do. They offered to care for the baby while she went back to school. She would visit and take him back when she finished college, but in college she'd met a man who wanted to marry her. She hadn't told him she had a son. So his grandparents became his parents. He had toyed with the idea of looking for his mother. He might have brothers and sisters. In the end, he decided not to pursue it. His grandparents lived in the same house they always had. If she had wished contact with him, she could have easily found him.
That wasn't the last of his illusions. He had thought his job, at least, was secure, but the company had merged with a competitor in October and his position was found to be redundant. He would officially became unemployed at midnight, although he'd been on holidays the last couple of weeks. He had been given a decent severance package and a letter of recommendation for his ten years.
"Are you done feeling sorry for yourself now, young man?"
Marcus looked up to see an older woman sitting on the bench across from him. He hadn't noticed her enter the gazebo. He stared at her. She was dressed in a long, dark dress with only a black knitted shawl for protection from the cold.
"Well?" she asked.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Marcus.
"I asked if you were done feeling sorry for yourself?"
"Who are you?" he asked. He wondered if she'd wandered away from a rest home near the park.
"Who I am matters not. Are you ready to move on with your life, Marcus Thompson?"
"How do you know my name?"
"That matters not, as well. You seem to be stuck on the inconsequential."
Marcus thought he heard her softly mutter "Why do I get the difficult cases?"
"Who are you?"
"You already asked that, young man."
"But, you didn't answer."
"I most certainly did. Just because it wasn't the answer you wanted does not change that it was my answer."
"I guess you have a point."
"Of course I do."
"Aren't you cold?" he asked. This cold could not be good for her.
She chuckled. "No. I don't feel the cold, but that's neither here nor there. If you could live the past year over again, do you really think you could have changed the outcome of anything?"
Marcus stared at her.
"Well?" she asked, tapping her foot, impatient for his answer.
"I wouldn't have slipped on that ice," he said. "I never have understood how it appeared there so suddenly."
"It was necessary," she said in an exasperated tone.
"What?" asked Marcus.
"You have an annoying habit of seeing things differently than what they are and hold on stubbornly."
"I do not!" said Marcus.
"Ha! You do, too!"
Marcus was about to swear when he thought to himself, What am I doing? She doesn't really know me. She's just some crazy old woman.
"See? There! You just made my point. I am not a crazy old woman. Hmph!"
"You heard my thoughts? Who are you? What are you?"
"I thought we settled that already. Can't we move on?" she asked.
"No!" said Marcus. "Not till you explain."
The woman let out a big sigh. "What do you think I am?"
"I don't know," said Marcus.
"No guess at all?"
"A figment of my imagination brought on by hypothermia?" suggested Marcus.
She laughed. "At least you have a sense of humour. I do like that about you, Marcus."
Marcus looked at her with one eyebrow raised, waiting.
"I suppose I could be called a guardian angel or a fairy godmother ... whichever you fancy. It matters not to me."
Marcus didn't really accept that explanation but felt there was no point in pushing for more. Instead he asked, "What name shall I call you?"
"I think Molly would be nice," she said.
"OK. Molly, how do you know my name?"
"I've known you a very long time, Marcus."
"Yes, but that is neither here nor there. I've given you enough time to get your act together. So far I've given only minimal assistance. Here you are on a cold night, sitting in a gazebo, feeling sorry for yourself."
"I was not feeling sorry for myself," denied Marcus.
"And just what would you call it?" she asked. It was her turn to raise an eyebrow.
"I was thinking."
"You couldn't find a better place to think than here in freezing temperatures, I suppose."
"I'm not cold," said Marcus. The truth of that hit him. He had been cold before Molly arrived but not since. He realized, too, that he'd heard no more celebration from the city centre. Surely they hadn't all gone home already. He looked at his watch. 11:59 and the second hand wasn't moving. Surely Molly couldn't ...
"Yes, I can stop time," she replied. "Pause is actually more accurate so let's stop dilly-dallying."
"Yes, dilly-dallying. Marcus, the truth is you need help to see what's around you and where you are going."
"You sure do, Buster."
"You think I need help from you?"
"I really don't think so."
"Stubborn young man," Molly mumbled.
"Shall we review the past year or so?" asked Molly.
"That's what I was doing before you arrived," replied Marcus.
"But through your skewed point of view."
"Marcus, dear boy, you were not objective at all."
"You know what I was thinking?"
"And you see it differently?"
"I know I will regret this, but enlighten me."
"Alright. Let's start with Shauna."
"I'd rather not."
Molly ignored him. "Shauna is a sweet, beautiful young woman."
"How can you say that?"
"Marcus, you know that it's true. She arrived here shortly before you asked her out. She was new to the city and hurting from the breakup of a long relationship. She accepted when you asked her out, but did she ever indicate to you any deep feelings?"
"Well, no. I thought she was shy."
"She liked you, Marcus. She thought of you as a good friend. Truthfully, Marcus, did she ever lead you to think anything else?"
"Well, I guess not. But she went out with me."
"How many times before she went home for Christmas, Marcus?"
"I don't know, exactly."
"Alright. Seven times. Every Saturday for seven weeks."
"Were they passionate dates? Did you tell her you loved her?"
"No. It wasn't like that."
"But, while she was away, you decided she should marry you. Why?"
"I don't understand your question."
"I think you do, but I'll put it another way. Did you wish to marry her because you loved her, because you felt you found the one special person for you and she'd indicated she felt the same?"
"No." Marcus squirmed a bit as Molly stared at him expecting more. "I had turned thirty. I always expected to have been married by thirty."
"And Shauna was sweet and beautiful and would make a good wife."
"You had no deep feelings for her, but she fit in with your plans."
"Put that way, it sounds rather calculating."
"Yes, it does."
"But, she agreed to go away with me for Valentine's Day."
"Did you give her a chance to do anything else?"
"I guess she was hesitant at first."
"Alright! I didn't accept when she first said no and kept at her till she agreed. Satisfied?"
"Think back to when she returned, before you started on about Valentine's Day, didn't she say she had something to tell you?"
"You told her it could wait because you had big, exciting plans."
"I don't think I said it like that."
"She really tried to tell you, Marcus. You just wouldn't give her a chance."
"OK. You are right!" Marcus conceded defeat. To himself he admitted Molly had made some valid points. He knew he had not been in love with Shauna and could not claim a broken heart.
"Of course my points were valid," said Molly.
That thought reading was really annoying.
"Too bad. It's one of the things I do best."
Marcus glared at her. Molly smiled back at him.
"Anything more you wish to set me straight on?" he asked, sarcastically.
"Of course," said Molly, still smiling.
"What?" asked Marcus.
"I think we should talk about your parents."
"My parents, or my grandparents?"
"You seem to feel betrayed somehow."
"I was lied to my entire life."
"They all loved you."
"Yes. They all did what they thought best for you. Before you get feeling sorry for yourself again-"
"I was not feeling sorry for myself!"
"Think about this. You are the unique product of your two parents at that moment you were conceived. Whether the circumstances were ideal or not, that was your moment. Your parents were young and in love. They loved their baby before he was born. Your dad left the home he knew to earn money, to be a responsible parent."
"But, he died and my mother gave me away!"
"What are you saying?"
"You saw the adoption papers and that very old letter of your grandfather's. You never read the stack of letters from your mother. Why?"
"She wrote you every year on your birthday until you were twenty-one."
"Your grandparents thought you'd be confused with two sets of parents when you were young so they waited to tell you. Then they couldn't find the words. In the last letter your mother wrote, she said that now that you were an adult, she would wait for you to contact her."
"They never told me. I didn't know."
Molly went to Marcus and wrapped him in her arms. He felt a special strength from the contact.
"They meant well, Marcus. They loved you. Believe that."
Marcus took a deep breath and Molly stepped back.
"I know you are right, but it still hurts a bit."
"That will pass, Marcus. Give it time."
Marcus gave Molly a half-smile. "Anything else you think I need help with?" he asked.
"One more ... for tonight," said Molly, smiling back at him.
"OK," said Marcus. "Shoot."
"You know you were never really happy with your job."
"Yes, but I did like security."
"It didn't really have security though."
"There's nothing really tying you to this city now."
"Except, I live here." Marcus smiled at her. He had an idea where this was heading.
"But you inherited the house from your father."
"Whichever. The point is, you could sell your loft, move back to your hometown, and use the proceeds from the sale plus your severance money to live on while you decide what you really want to do."
"I could," agreed Marcus. "But why would I?"
"Just an idea," said Molly.
"You are plotting something," said Marcus.
"If causing a broken leg was 'minimal assistance,' I fear what you have in mind now."
"Really, Marcus!" Molly hmphed.
Marcus couldn't keep from laughing at her indignant expression.
"If I don't sell the loft and move back, just what will you do to me?" he asked.
"I did try other ways to stop that silly Valentine's trip, you know."
Molly didn't answer.
Marcus thought back. "The wrong numbers when I phoned to make reservations?"
"The rejection of my credit card?"
Molly nodded again.
"My boss' invitation to a Valentine's party that I declined?"
"You were stubborn."
"So you used a patch of ice?"
"Time was running out!" exclaimed Molly.
Marcus laughed again. "Oh, Molly. I guess I better sell the loft and move back to keep you from resorting to such desperate means again."
"No!" screeched Ruth Timms as she pounded the steering wheel of her car. That wouldn't help it start she knew. The battery must be dead. She had noticed lights last night in the Thompson home next door. According to her mother, no one had lived there since Mr. Thompson had died. Maybe Marcus had rented it out. Hopefully, whoever was there could give her a boost. She really needed to get going. Mother would worry if she was late. She got out of her car. The Thompson house was virtually the same as her parents but reversed. The two driveways were separated by only a few feet of grass, snow covered grass at present. She got out of the car, slamming the door closed none-too-gently, to make her way to her neighbour's door. As she walked along the cleared sidewalk, she realized that whoever moved in must have cleared them the day before. Although it was only a little after 6 PM when she had returned last evening to her parents' home, it was dark out and she hadn't noticed the cleared walks. Sunset came early in January. She walked up the porch steps and rang the doorbell.
As the door opened, she exclaimed, "Marcus?"
"I didn't know ..." they both started at the same time.
"Is there something I can do for you, Ruth?" asked Marcus. Marcus hadn't known Ruth would be around. She must be staying at her parents. As kids, he and Ruth had been close friends.
"My car won't start. Could you give me a boost?"
"Sure. Just let me get my keys and coat."
Well, this was a surprise, thought Ruth in the minute she had before Marcus reappeared.
"I had no idea you were staying with your parents," said Marcus as he walked down the steps.
"Mother fell and broke her hip, so I came to help out for awhile."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. My car's in the garage," said Marcus pointing down his driveway to the detached garage at the far end.
"OK. I'll go wait at my car."
"I see you backed in. That'll help."
They separated to go to their individual cars. Marcus pulled into the driveway facing Ruth's car. He opened the hood of his car before getting out.
"Pop open your hood," he called as he went to his trunk to get his jumper cables.
"I didn't realize you had moved back," said Ruth as Marcus attached the cables.
"It was a recent decision," said Marcus.
"Would you like to come over for dinner tonight?" asked Ruth on a whim.
Marcus had always enjoyed Ruth's company, even when he had thought girls had cooties. He smiled at the memory.
"I'd like that," he said.
"I get back from the hospital shortly after 6, so if you come by about 7, I should have something ready."
"You must be tired when you get home, why don't I cook?"
"Are you sure?"
"Oh! Your father. He's welcome, too."
"Actually, Dad picks up something in the hospital cafeteria and eats with Mother. He goes there from the shop and stays till visiting hours are over."
"I see. So, see you about 7?"
"I'll be there."
Marcus thought about Ruth a lot that day. Ruth was only a few months younger than himself and they had done so many things together. Ruth had five older siblings with the youngest of them seven years older than Ruth, so she had had more in common with Marcus than any of them. They had been such close friends until the summer they were sixteen. That year, Bobby White had noticed what Marcus had failed to see. Ruth had grown up. It took two more years for Marcus to fully realize his feelings for Ruth and by that time she was all but engaged to Bobby. He went off to college thinking Ruth would soon be married. His parents kept him informed of most of the happenings in the Timms family and had never mentioned Ruth marrying. He knew that Bobby had married someone else. He wondered what happened there.
As he started preparing dinner, he wondered why Ruth had been the one to come help her parents. He knew that she had moved out of Riverton, just as he had. He'd left for a large city whereas she'd chosen another small town. As far as he knew, all her siblings, married now, still lived here in Riverton or close by. Marcus started to open the refrigerator door when he had a horrible thought. He froze with the door open. Could Molly have caused Mrs. Timms broken hip?
"Marcus Thompson! How could you think such a thing?"
Marcus pivoted to see Molly sitting at the kitchen table. "You broke my leg, didn't you?"
"Not really. I only provided ice where I knew you were about to step. The rest was out of my control."
"Did you have something to do with Mrs. Timms' fall, Molly?"
"I shouldn't answer such a question."
Marcus rose an eyebrow.
"But, you ought to know I couldn't have, if I'd wanted ... which I most certainly did not."
"I can't actually hurt anyone at all, despite what you think. As well, you are my assignment. I can only know your thoughts and actions; only affect your life. Even that has limits."
"Yes. I can not make you feel or do anything really, though I might know what you are about to do, and affect the outcome. You have free choice always."
"That's good to know. Molly, how long have I been your assignment, as you put it?"
"Since you were born."
Marcus thought back over the years. "When I was twelve and fell over the ridge, you saved my life."
"I saw rocks when I fell but ended up in a shrub. I only had cuts and bruises instead of broken bones or worse."
"I did place the shrub there, and might have lessened your injuries, but I have no power over life and death. If it had been your time, the shrub would have made no difference. Now, Marcus, you better get busy making that dinner for you and Ruth."
"It's open," called Marcus from the kitchen, upon hearing the front doorbell.
"Marcus?" called back Ruth, stepping through the front door.
"I'm in the kitchen." Marcus moved the frypan from the stove to a trivet on the counter.
"I picked up some dessert," said Ruth, as she set a box down on the floor to free her hands for unzipping her boots. "I hope that's OK."
"That's great," said Marcus, entering the hallway. "All I have is ice cream."
Ruth placed her boots on the boot tray next to the door and started to take off her coat. As she placed it in the closet, she felt almost like a child. How often had she done these very things in this very house over the years as she came to visit with Marcus? She knew this house as well as she knew her own parents' home. As she turned from the closet, she saw Marcus had picked the box up. He was grinning at her.
"Riverton Bakery? Do they still make the world's best coconut cream pies?"
Ruth laughed. "I honestly don't know. I've not had one in years, but we'll find out tonight."
"Coconut cream is my favourite."
"Where would you like to eat? The kitchen, the dining room, or the den on TV tables to watch Jeopardy?"
"Oh, Marcus! We did that a lot, didn't we?"
"Where would you like?"
"I must confess, I set the table in the dining room."
"Then the dining room it is. Do you need any help?"
"I just have to get the rice and stir fry from the kitchen. I'll meet you in the dining room."
Ruth went into the dining room. Two places had been set at the round table. There were individual bowls of salad by each place setting. Wine sat in an ice bucket. At the table's centre was an arrangement of all sizes of candles, all lit. It looked so romantic, thought Ruth. But, this was Marcus' home. She eaten right here in this room many times before. But there hadn't been candles. There had been his parents. And they had both been much younger. Did she really know Marcus now? In the past ten years or so, the only times she'd seen him was at his parents' funerals.
"I hope you like this," Marcus' voice broke through her thoughts. He was carrying a tray with two covered bowls.
"I'm sure I will. It smells delicious."
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