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Excerpt from A LIGHT IN THE DARK

By Fran McNabb

Margaret Daniels stood in ankle deep snow. Deep in thought, she broke a twig into tiny pieces, tossed each little segment into a stream inches from her feet, then watched them bob in the ripples before disappearing beneath the clear water.

Nothing disturbed the silence of the surrounding forest except the rippling water and an occasional rustling in the underbrush.

She closed her eyes and inhaled the clear mountain air. This is exactly what I need. Finally, I can think.

For as long as she could remember, she'd been coming to this park, first with friends of her parents then with her husband. Now, with so much happening in the past few months, she needed this solitude.

She tossed the last twig into the water and headed toward her cabin to once again spend her Christmas vacation alone in the Southern Appalachian Mountain Range of West Virginia.

The familiar quaintness of the cabin, with its worn, mismatched furniture, warmed her as much as its huge fireplace would soon do. Right now only an electric heater threw off its heat from the corner of the room. At check-in Joe apologized for not having the wood waiting for her, but he'd assured her she'd have a blazing fire in her fireplace soon. Now too old to haul wood himself, he'd have someone else deliver it.

Before she had time to open her suitcase, the sound of crunching ice on the winding trail outside signaled the arrival of her firewood. She left the suitcase on the bed and answered the heavy knock at the door.

"Mrs. Daniels? I have a load of wood for you."

Margaret looked beyond the red plaid jacket to the logs in the truck. "Thank you. I was expecting it."

"Yeah, Joe wasn't going to be satisfied until I got these logs to you."

Margaret pulled her attention back to the man and looked up into a friendly smile. "That's just like Joe. He worries about me the whole time I'm up here."

The man glanced at the empty room behind Margaret. "He said you're up here alone. Is that true?"

Margaret hesitated. The man wasn't wearing a park ranger uniform, but knowing Joe wouldn't send someone who couldn't be trusted, she nodded. "I come up here every year about this time -- sort of a working vacation."

He backed up against the railing and pulled out a pack of gum, took one for himself, then offered her a stick.

"Thank you." How long had it been since she'd had a piece of gum?

"I'm Paul Reynor. Don't you get lonesome up here? I mean, it's none of my business, but this isn't the most desirable place to spend Christmas. It's perfect for chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but those yuletide carolers are going to have one heck of a time finding your cabin."

His eyes, the color of deep milk chocolate, twinkled as his face relaxed into a crooked grin.

Margaret smiled at his attempt to humor her. Probably in his early forties, he wore the look of a hard-working family man.

"You're right," she said deciding to go along with his mountain wit. "I don't get many carolers. I think it's the missing streetlight that's keeping them away."

He looked out at the snow-covered road, where a dented red truck sat next to her shiny Towncar. "A streetlight would definitely help. Of course, a street wouldn't hurt."

They both chuckled, then stood in the waning daylight. It felt good to laugh, even if it had been a stranger who had unlocked that emotion. After hibernating for the past few weeks grading stacks of essays, Margaret felt a weight slip away.

Feeling comfortable in the man's presence, she leaned against the doorjamb and surprised herself by offering a bold invitation. "I haven't had time to make anything in the way of refreshments, but could I offer you a cup of hot chocolate for bringing the wood up to me?"

He looked at his watch. "That sounds good, but it's getting late."

Pushing aside a little sting of disappointment, she smiled. "I understand."

"I appreciate your offer, but I've got my sister and her family up for the weekend, and if I'm late, she'll worry. She's never gotten used to driving in the snow and thinks no one else should either. I'll haul this wood in for you, and then get your fire started."

He pushed away from his railing, piled several logs in his arms, then strode past her. After taking several loads into the house and stacking another outside near her steps, he came back in and knelt by the fireplace. He arranged a small pile of kindling, then nursed a fire until it caught.

Satisfied that it would burn, he stood up and dusted his pants. "Keep close tabs on that basket of kindling. Don't let yourself run out."

"Thank you. I'll do that." Normally she wouldn't have asked anything personal of a stranger, but something about this man piqued her curiosity. "Do you live around here? I've been coming up here for years, but I don't think I remember seeing you before."

"I live south of here, not far, almost to the Virginia state line. Moved back last summer." He looked back at the fireplace. "I think I'll carry in some more logs for you."

"No need--" But he was already out the door.

Raising an eyebrow, she smiled at his take-charge attitude. Her Edward had also been a man in control, but his long, lean lines, suave dress, and scholarly manner left little else in common with Paul.

Still, something about Paul touched a chord deep in the center of her being. Margaret almost laughed out loud at that thought. She'd known the man less than five minutes. How could he strike anything within her?

She opened the door just in time for him to back through with another armful of wood. Small chips clung to the sleeve of his jacket. Without thinking, she reached out to remove a piece, but pulled her hand back before she embarrassed herself by touching a complete stranger. Thankful that he hadn't noticed her action, she let out a deep breath, then helped him stack the wood by the hearth.

Margaret knew she was probably in his way, but she enjoyed watching him toss the wood without any effort from the pile to the bin. He was meticulous, filling the bin to the rim, then picking up the fine chips that had fallen on the floor.

For the last couple of years since Edward's death, Margaret had accustomed herself to doing things alone. Why she would get such pleasure from watching this man do such a menial thing puzzled her.

With the woodbin full, Paul stood up and brushed off his pants legs. "That ought to hold you."

She placed her hands on her knees to push herself up, but realized he'd held out his hand to help. For a moment she looked at his large hand. Even without touching him, she could see the calluses and toughened skin that made his hands so different from Edward's long, slender fingers.

Blinking to rid herself of the visual comparison, she placed her hand in Paul's. "Thank you. I guess the knees aren't what they used to be."

He helped her up, then stepped back. "I know what you mean. Mine are reminding me all too often about those times I hit the ground on the football field. Thought it was cool back then. Now I wish I'd been a little more careful."

"I imagine football can be pretty rough. I don't have that excuse, but my tennis game is starting to feel the results of old body parts."

He laughed out loud. "I don't think either of us fit into the old category. Well-used parts maybe, but that just means we didn't let life pass us by."

She smiled. "I'll have to tell myself that when I'm rubbing analgesics after my next set."

"I haven't played tennis since. . ." he thought a minute, "decades, I guess. That's a physical sport. I'm impressed."

"Well, don't be. I play in the women's doubles. None of us are very physical or very good, I might add. We just like to get out on the court and have fun."

"Don't cut yourself short. Any sport is good for the body and the soul. If it's something you really enjoy doing, well, that's even better. Life's too short not to do what we enjoy, isn't it?"

That's exactly what she'd been telling herself lately. She nodded. "I do enjoy being on the court with the ladies. It's a nice outlet for us."

He turned to go.

"I really do appreciate your doing all this." And brightening my afternoon for these few minutes. She looked toward the fire, not to have to look into his eyes. "I love to have a fire blazing. I think I miss that most in my apartment on campus."

He hesitated at the door. "You live on a college campus? Not the one in Bluefield, is it?"

"Yes, as a matter if fact, it is."

"Nice campus. I know it well. I'm living on the outskirts of town right now."

"When you said you lived near the state line, I wondered if that's where you meant. I'm surprised I haven't seen you around town." Even as she said the words, she knew that their worlds would probably never cross paths. Rarely did she leave campus except to visit colleagues, buy a few necessities, and to spend time in Boston with a few of her parents' friends. No, their paths would rarely have occasion to cross.

"I spend a lot of my time here at the park and at another lot I own."

"It's a nice town. I've been part of that campus for almost eleven years. I love it, and since it's not far from here, I can visit whenever I want. With no snow on the roads today, I made it up to the park in about thirty minutes."

"So you come up here a lot?"

"Not as much as I'd like, but I do get here during the holidays. It was a tradition my husband and I had."

"Nice tradition."

"Yes, it was, but we usually came up the week after Christmas."

"You and your husband lived on campus?"

"No, I moved to campus. . ." She didn't want to talk about Edward. Not today. "I moved there at the beginning of this semester. It's much more convenient than driving from out of town."

He stood quietly, and for a moment, Margaret thought maybe he wouldn't continue the conversation. Why should he? He had better things to do than to talk with a woman in a cabin. But then he surprised her.

"I guess it would be more convenient living next to your work, especially with the snows we've been having in the last few years. Probably a smart move on your part."

Smart move? That's what she'd thought when she sold the spacious two-story that she and Edward had been so proud of. Her campus apartment was convenient, efficient, and, if she were honest with herself, absolutely boring.

Paul stood with one dark eyebrow raised waiting for her answer.

She pulled herself back to the present. "Yes, I guess it was a smart move. It does keep me in touch with campus life, but I do miss our, uh, my house. I lived in the house for almost three years alone. I'm not sure what possessed me to sell last summer. Maybe it was the prospect of driving in all that snow again. When a realtor friend of mine suggested I sell, I stuck the For Sale sign up and within a month was moved into my apartment. It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to change my mind."

"I'm sure apartments are fine for some people, but I tried it once and hated it. Got to have my space. I'm renting right now, but I have a big yard that backs up to the woods and my other lot is about a mile from the nearest neighbor." His face broke out in a broad smile. "I've got the best of both worlds."

She didn't think hauling wood for park guests was part of an ideal world, but what did she know?

He reached for the door handle.

"You sure I can't fix you that cup of chocolate?"

This time he looked as though he was considering the offer, but instead shook his head. "It's tempting, but my sister'll have supper waiting, and I don't want to miss a home cooked meal."

"I understand. It's not often I get a home cooked meal either. It's easier to hit the campus deli."

This time he stepped outside the cabin but turned back to her. "Let Joe know if you need anything. I'll be back up here on Monday."

Pulling her jacket tight, she stood outside the door as he cranked his truck, waved, then disappeared around the curve. She stood on the stoop listening as the low roar of his truck grew fainter.

It was quiet. Too quiet. She looked up at the tree limbs hung heavy with snow then down at the tracks of Paul's truck that cut another new trail along the road away from her cabin. A horrible loneliness enveloped her. She stood in the fading light and stared at the tracks. Where was the peace that this place normally brought her? This secluded cabin had always cheered her, but as she looked out over the road once again, jabs of long hidden desires stung her.

Fran McNabb 2006

Look for A LIGHT IN THE DARK at your local library. Avalon Books, an imprint of the Thomas Bouregy & Co., Inc., is a family-oriented print publisher of hardcover books that has served libraries since the 1950's. If your library doesn't have the book, ask the librarian to order A LIGHT IN THE DARK by Fran McNabb, Thomas Bouregy & Co., Inc., ISBN # 0803498020.

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Copyright 2010 by Fran McNabb
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