Frost Under A Bright Moon | Verso.ink
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Frost Under A Bright Moon

A holiday tale inspired by a classic Christmas carol

By Caren Hahn

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Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

“How do you like the chowder, sir?”

Winston looked up from his bowl and smiled politely at the waiter. “Very nice, thank you.”

“It’s horrid,” Stephanie barked. “Look at it, he’s barely touched it. Take it back to the kitchen. Win, what do you want instead?”

Winston cringed at the use of the old nickname. He looked at the waiter, pointedly ignoring his sister. “Please don’t bother. The chowder is wonderful.”

The waiter, a young college kid, offered an uncertain, “If there’s anymore I can do…” which trailed off as he caught Stephanie’s glare.

“Thank you,” Winston said, spearing a fried clam on his fork and popping it in his mouth. The chowder really was exceptional. Made of a rich buttery lobster reduction sauce with battered and fried clams, it was just the sort of thing that Winston’s personal trainer would call ‘heart disease in a bowl.’ He’d have to spend extra time at the gym tomorrow. He wasn’t even that hungry, but it was worth it to keep Stephanie from sending it back to the kitchen.

“Why do you do that?” Stephanie asked as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. “Always favor the little guy as if you think you’re some kind of Robin Hood come to save the poor. Do I dare ask what your tip rate is?”

“I just like the chowder.”

“Come on, Win. Let’s be honest about why we’re here. You can’t keep acquiring these failing companies and trying to resuscitate them back to life. I don’t care how moving their sob stories are. We’re bleeding in so many places right now, the dam is about to burst.”

“Now you’re just mixing metaphors, Stephy.” Hey, she’d started it with Win.

“I don’t care about metaphors,” Stephanie said, lowering her voice so Winston knew she was really angry. That was fine. Winston was angry too. Angry that Stephanie had dragged him out of the house the day after Christmas to have an intervention of sorts in a public place, instead of taking the time to sit down and really hear Winston’s side of the story. She never cared about Winston’s side.

“What I care about,” Stephanie continued, punctuating her words by gesturing to her heart, “is our future. Both of ours. Winston Kingsley, you’re so worried about trying to save everyone, but who is going to save you from yourself? You’re squandering our parents’ fortune and it’s going to be your own kids who pay the price when there’s no legacy left for them.”

Winston’s chowder curdled in his stomach at her false air of concern.

“Well, since I don’t have any kids, that’s one less thing to worry about. But someday if I do, I hope I can leave them a legacy they can be proud of. And not because my wealth will open every door they can ever imagine, but because I’ve used that wealth to make the world a better place. That’s why I take risks to save companies that can make a difference in this world. Sure, there might not be a lot of ROI with nonprofits who offer mental health services to homeless vets or promote free trade in sub-Saharan Africa, but if can give them a chance to make life better for people on the fringes, then I’ll cheerfully go bankrupt in order to sleep well at night.”

Stephanie’s cheeks flushed beneath her perfect makeup. “Fine. Do your little Mother Teresa act. But I won’t let you take the rest of us down with you. Consider that a threat.”

With that, she dropped her napkin in her chair and stalked away.

Winston sighed. Christmas was always a tough time of year, what with the anniversary of their parents’ death on Christmas Eve. Their private jet had gone down over the Rockies ten years earlier and things between Stephanie and Winston had never quite been the same. Stephanie had thrown herself into work, quickly taking over the reins and pushing the company to new heights. But Winston had found that financial success hadn’t brought healing for him. In recent years, he’d turned to small struggling companies with grand ideals and anemic budgets who could benefit from a partnership with someone with deeper pockets.

But Stephanie….the more Winston drifted from her father’s original vision for the company, the more she tried to bring him in line. He should have known better than to meet with her tonight.

“I should have known better than to meet with her tonight,” he complained to Erica over the phone as he settled into his car’s heated leather seats. It was times like this that he was grateful to have a skilled driver so he didn’t have to be the one with white knuckles navigating the slushy roads. Snow had been falling steadily all evening and the later it got, the fewer cars were out helping to keep the roads clear.

“You just let the Christmas cheer get to you,” Erica said, and he could hear the smile in her voice through the car’s internal speakers. “It happens to the best of us.”

Winston snorted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of having an excess of Christmas cheer. Speaking of, how was your Christmas?”

“Very merry, sir. We’re taking the kids sledding tomorrow as soon as the plows get out.”

Winston leaned his head back and watched the snow swirling in the glow of the street lamps. Once he would have thought it was a magical scene perfect for snuggling in front of the fire with a hot drink and ridiculously fuzzy socks. But he was going home to an empty apartment that still bore the signs of his pathetic Christmas — a few unopened gifts from friends and colleagues piled around a pot of bamboo next to his indoor fountain.

It was a dismal prospect.

“Erica?”

“Yes?”

“What’s the latest with that Hartfield something or other?”

“The house for troubled teens?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“As far as I know, nothing has changed. She refuses to sell. Keeps insisting that it’s worth saving the old place. I tried to explain that you’d be willing to help her find a better facility that’s up to code and less expensive to maintain. She’s pretty sure you’ve got a hidden agenda and until she figures out what that is, she’s not budging.”

Winston straightened, an idea forming in his mind. “What’s the address to the house again? It’s on the east end of town, right?” He scanned the street signs coated in a fine layer of snow.

“It’s less of an address and more of a description. GPS was useless trying to find it, but I can tell you how to get there.”

“Great, I’ll patch you through to Mike.”

“Mr. Kingsley, you’re not going to visit Vivian Portman tonight, are you?”

“I’m in the area. Sort of. And it’s not even seven yet.” His sluggish brain was coming alive with purpose.

“It’s the day after Christmas. Don’t you think you oughta make an appointment during regular business hours?”

“Call ahead if you like. I want to see this place for myself.”

“If you say so, sir. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you if they don’t exactly have the welcome lights out for you.”

The lights draped over Hartfield House looked warm and welcoming as Winston’s car pulled up the driveway. Red, green, and white, the Christmas lights outlined large bay windows and festooned an upstairs balcony. They held the haphazard air of being hung by someone with more spirit than experience, but through their outline Winston could just discern the features of the large house as they approached. It could have been charming if it had been properly maintained. As it was, it had an air of aged neglect.

Remnants of a fence had been overrun by blackberry bushes and covered under a mound of snow. The dirt driveway was pocked with potholes that the snow obscured so Winston had no warning until he was tossed about like a bag of chestnuts.

“Apologies, sir,” Mike said over the speaker.

“It’s all right,” Winston said, reaching for handholds to give him some semblance of control over the jostling.

They pulled up to a stop in front of a staircase that was so covered in drifted snow Winston gingerly tested each step before putting any weight on it. They creaked ominously and he skipped the last one to hurry onto the porch. Less snow had accumulated here, blown in from the gusting wind, but the porch was still slippery and Winston shuffled across it awkwardly.

The front door was lit by one brave light bulb couched in a cheap fixture missing one of its glass panes. The door itself was beautiful solid wood with stained glass panes lining either side, clearly original to the Victorian-era house. A metal knob like the end of an old skeleton key sat in the center. Cautiously, Winston reached forward and turned it. A loud clanging ring sounded inside the house, like an old-fashioned telephone from the movies. Smiling at the novelty, Winston brushed snow out of his hair as the door opened, accompanied with sounds of a scuffle.

“Stop it, Willow!”

“Vivian asked me to open it!”

Two girls looked up at Winston and their argument died. The taller one looked to be maybe 14, and she expertly elbowed the shorter one out of the way without a word.

“Good evening,” Winston greeted. “I’m looking for Mrs. Portman.”

The younger girl snickered. The taller one smiled, but it wasn’t friendly. “And who are you?”

“My name is Winston Kingsley. I’m a business associate of Mrs. Portman and happened to be passing by.”

“Were you then?” A woman stepped into the dark entrance hall, backlit against the light so Winston couldn’t see her face. “No one ever ‘passes by’, especially on a night like this.”

A gust of wind coughed snow through the open doorway and onto the wood floor. The taller of the two girls was wearing only short sleeves and shivered.

“May I come in?” Winston asked. “I hate to stand here with your door wide open heating the whole outside.”

“We can’t even heat the whole inside, Mr…what was your name again?” the woman asked without making a move to welcome him in.

“Kingsley. Winston Kingsley.” Apparently Erica had decided not to call ahead after all?

“Kingsley. As in Daddy Warbucks Kingsley? Sorry, we’re fresh out of tap-dancing little redheads.”

The girl holding the door stifled a laugh.

“If I’m Daddy Warbucks, then who does that make you? Miss Hannigan?” He offered the quip with his most disarming grin.

It fell flat on the floor. The younger teen’s eyes widened in surprise. For three heartbeats, the lonely potted bamboo plant didn’t seem so unwelcoming anymore.

Then the woman guffawed and stepped forward to the door. “I’m sorry, that’s about all I can manage of the stern headmistress routine.” As she drew near, the porch light illuminated a smiling round face with cheerful eyes. She wore a soft turtleneck sweater bedecked in sparkling snowflakes. It was hideously garish, but she wore it effortlessly and unashamed.

“The Daddy Warbucks reference just seemed too perfect,” she continued. “Though you really shouldn’t be here, Mr. Kingsley. I told your secretary that I’d be happy to make an appointment to show you the place, but just dropping in like this unprepared makes us feel like we’ve been caught with our pants down.”

“You’re Mrs. Portman?” Winston asked, intrigued. With a name like Vivian, he’d assumed the proprietress was old enough to be his mother. But she was young and had a sharp intelligent look in her eyes.

“Yes, and no. Miss, not Mrs. Married once, but Portman is my father’s name, not his. Come on in, Mr. Kingsley. I suppose we might as well have a chat. But don’t you need to turn off your car?” she asked, looking over his shoulder at the driveway.

“No, I won’t be long. And Mike will want to keep it running so it stays warm.”

“Mike?”

“Yes, my driver.” Winston said it without thinking, but she looked at him with bemusement.

“Ah yes. Of course.”

Somehow, he felt like she was laughing at him. He didn’t know why, but again wondered if an appointment in town would have been a smarter idea.

Well, you’re here now. Might as well make the most of it.

“I suppose since you’re here, we might as well make the most of it,” Miss Portman said as she led him through the dark entrance hall. He sensed a cavernous staircase off to his right and a smudge of light overhead hinting at upstairs rooms before following his hostess into a room on the left.

It was a family room of sorts, with mismatched sofas and sagging bean bags arranged around the room. A TV sat on a stand in one corner with some kind of period drama paused on the screen. The two girls who had opened the door flopped down on one of the couches and started the film again. Old 70’s era paneling lined the walls, draining the meager light from two floor lamps, but the coffered ceiling spoke of grander days in the room’s history. The floor was covered in shag carpet the color of moss, and Winston found himself wondering what sort of original floors slept beneath layers of bad decisions.

The clear pride and joy of the room was the large Christmas tree that stood in front of the bay windows. Winston moved toward it involuntarily, examining the tiny white paper fans and lacy angels adorning its branches.

“We make the decorations ourselves,” Miss Portman explained warmly. “Every year the girls design the tree and we work for a solid week after Thanksgiving to turn their ideas into reality. Every time I’m blown away at what they come up with.”

“These girls stay with you over the holidays?” Winston asked. “I thought this was a temporary place for them to land for a while.”

“It is,” Miss Portman said. “We have six girls home with their families for the holidays. Some will come back when the Christmas spirit wears off. Others will decide they’re ready to try a fresh start home.”

“But not these two?” Winston asked, nodding toward the two on the couch with blankets piled on top of them.

Miss Portman shook her head with a smile. “These two are here to stay. My nieces who put me on this path in the first place.”

Winston wondered what had happened to their parents, but didn’t want to ask. He thought of his own parents’ death and couldn’t decide if it would have been better or worse for people to have to ask instead of it being plastered all over the news.

“I’m guessing it’s pretty spendy to heat the place,” Winston observed, thinking of Miss Portman’s earlier comment about the heat. “What’s your electric bill run, Miss Portman?”

“Well, aren’t we getting personal?” she replied, her brown eyes shining with humor. “If we’re going to go to that level, then I guess we’d better at least be on first name basis. Please, call me Vivian.”

Winston extended his hand. “Then you’d better call me Winston.”

“Not Daddy Warbucks?”

“Please, no.” Vivian’s hand was cool in his and brought him back to his line of questioning. “I don’t mean to be intrusive, but I’ve heard about your work and would like to help. And it seems like the first place to start is finding you a location that can actually keep you warm in the winter.”

Vivan’s smile cooled and she dropped her hand. “I appreciate your offer of help, Winston, but we aren’t interested in finding a new location. This isn’t a facility. It’s our home. And yes, it would be nice to have central heat and — ”

“Wait, you don’t even have central heat?” Winston looked toward a corner where stood an old cast iron stove. He’d foolishly thought it was just a decoration.

“What, do you think that stove is just for decoration?” Vivian laughed. “It’s our only heat source. This whole drafty house is warmed by one tiny little stove. We keep the upstairs closed off as much as possible to trap some heat downstairs so there’s somewhere we can go without freezing. I’ve talked to some contractors about what it would take to install central heat. It’s…beyond exorbitant.”

Winston ran a hand through his hair damp from the snow. “I can imagine. It would be far cheaper to raze this house to the ground and build a new, energy-efficient one in its place.”

Vivian winced. The older of the two girls looked at him in alarm.

“Mr. Kingsley,” Vivian said with a tone of long-suffering. “I understand that from your perspective, the cheapest option makes the most sense. But the work I do isn’t about saving money. It’s about saving girls. It’s about taking teens who are only one bad decision away from disaster and giving them hope for a new life. This house has character. Sure, it’s been abused over the years, but beneath the paneling and this horrendous carpet is a sturdy home crafted with love that’s outlived little nobodies like you and me for over one hundred years. This means something to the girls. It shows them what it means to be resilient. To rise above whatever life has thrown at you and remember who you are underneath.”

“And it makes for a wicked haunted house at Halloween,” the girl on the couch piped up.

A smile pricked the corner of Vivian’s mouth. “That too.”

Other entries by Caren Hahn

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About Caren Hahn

Caren Hahn writes relationship dramas in a variety of genres. With deeply empathetic characters and richly layered plots, readers of her fiction will enjoy an emotionally resonant experience. And have some fun along the way.

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