When Clara was helping Ema pull the last batch of cookies out of the oven, the bell above the door jingled and Kate struggled in, lugging a giant shopping bag filled with canvases. Emily ran to help her in, and then they unloaded the paintings onto the back counters.
“Oh!” Ema cried when she saw them. “They’re so beautiful.”
“They’re just what we need,” Emily said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to let them go! But that is why we’re putting them up here.”
“I don’t mind at all if you keep one of them,” Kate said. “After all you’ve done for me, you deserve it.”
“We’ll see,” Emily said. “I know they’re going to be a hit and if I keep one I’ll probably have people asking for it all the time.”
“Then I can just paint another! Really, like I said, you deserve it. Merry Christmas, a week late.”
“Thank you, Kate.”
We all huddled around the paintings for a few more minutes, and then Emily spoke again.
“Now – Kate, you make price tags for your artwork. Walter and I will work to hang them – and we need the rest of you to advise us – and then we can make sure everything else is in order to decorate over the next two days.”
And so we set to work, measuring, nailing, and hanging, until Clara left and it grew dark and the stars came out between sheets of blanket clouds.
The thirtieth dawned with a clear sky. The temperatures didn’t rise above freezing, but the sun melted a few patches of dirty snow and lightened our spirits to an even higher degree than they were already at.
I hadn’t set an alarm that morning as we had been up late the night before, but as soon as I was awake I scrambled to get dressed and run down to the café.
“It’s tomorrow!” Ema cried as she flung open the door.
“Shhh,” I reminded, looking at the customers enjoying their breakfast and coffee.
“But not for much longer!”
“People have been saying they’ll come tomorrow,” Emily said. “I don’t have any idea how we’ll fit everyone.”
“If people really want to hear it, they’ll find room, don’t worry,” I said. “They did last time.”
“You haven’t heard anything from Jerome, have you?”
I shook my head. “I can swing by the hospital after I pick up extra cream for you at the grocery store.”
“Best do it the other way ‘round so the cream doesn’t spoil, but that would be great.”
“What time did Clara say she was coming?”
“After lunch, but she didn’t say an actual time.”
“I should get going, then. Anything you need me to do here first?”
Emily shook her head. “Go ahead and go. Jerome is the most important thing right now.” She grabbed two mini quiches off of the stove. “One for you and one for him. Hospital food is nasty.”
I downed one quiche and tucked the other in a paper bag, then hopped on my bike, eager to get back into the sunlight.
“I am fine,” Jerome reassured me when I sat down next to him. “But that quiche does look delicious.”
“Emily sent it for you.”
I waited in silence while Jerome polished it off.
“So the soiree is tonight, isn’t it?” Jerome asked.
“I think I can talk them into letting me go.”
“You’ve been here too much, Jerome. Don’t overdo it. You may need to stay longer this time to heal completely.”
“They said it’s viral and should have finished its course very soon. And once the soiree is over, you’ll have nothing to do for a few days so you can stay with me again if that’s what it takes.”
“You’re stubborn,” I said.
“So’s Emily. She wants me there, and I’m gonna be there. You tell her not to worry.”
“I’ll tell her that, but she still will.”
“I know, I know. Just tell her.”
“Now let me get that rest you want me to have so badly, and get to practicing.”
“See you tomorrow,” I said.
“Mmm-hmm. See you then.”
The rest of the day we spent planning what decorations would go where, although we had agreed not to put them up until a few hours before the soiree.
“Tomorrow at this time, the café’s going to be packed,” I said after we ate dinner.
“I hope so,” Emily said. “And I hope it will boost business. Thanks to Jerome’s help I think we’ll make it, but it’s still shaky unless more people start coming.”
“If it takes a concert every week, we’ll get there, don’t worry.”
Emily smiled, but it was a sad smile. “I wish Javi could see this. Except for him not being here, this café has been everything I dreamed it would be. I know one day we’ll probably move on, but I won’t be ready to give it up for a long time.”
“Nobody’s asking you to, Emily. And as long as I’m here, I’ll keep coming. But who knows what life beyond Julliard will hold. And I wonder if what we expect of the future will change for both of us as we start to get to know our parents better.”
Emily nodded. “It might. But if it does, it’ll be for the better, even if it brings some hard things.”
“Well, I had better go,” I said. “I was going to put up a few more flyers in the park and then turn in early. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye, Walter!” Ema said as I left. “Don’t forget about tomorrow!”
“I couldn’t even if I tried,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning!”
I set off for the park, locking up my bike when I arrived. I checked a few places we’d put flyers before, replacing any that were missing, and leaving a few more here and there. Then I walked over to watch the ice skaters.
As I watched, one looked familiar, and as she came closer, I realized it was Clara.
“I didn’t know you skated,” I said, as she stepped off the ice.
“Oh! Hello, Walter!”
“I was just putting up some more flyers for the soiree and wanted to rest here for a bit.”
“It’s a nice surprise,” she said. “I was just going to get something hot to drink.”
“May I join you?”
“Sure.” She changed out of her skates and we found the nearest vendor.
I dug in my pockets only to find I’d left my wallet at the café, and only had the penny I’d found in the piano.
“Are you getting anything?” she asked.
I shook my head, and she ordered some spiced cider and pulled out some coins and bills.
“You have another penny?” the cashier asked.
She turned to look through her purse, but I pulled the coin out of my pocket before she could say anything.
“I do,” I said.
“I’m sure I have one somewhere,” Clara said.
“It’s a penny, Clara. Merry Christmas.”
She took her cider and we walked back to the ice rink.
“I like to go ice skating before a performance. It helps me clear my mind and refocus. It’s good time to think, too.”
“Just like bike riding,” I said. “For me, anyway.”
“What time are you going to the café tomorrow?”
“Probably as soon as it opens,” I said. “But just come when you’re ready. I always get there early, nothing else to do. Emily is closing it at five, so as long as you’re there by then to practice I don’t think it matters.”
“Alright. I should be able to come before then but we’ll see how it goes.”
“See you tomorrow, then,” I said.
“Mmm-hmm. Good night.”
I waved as I walked away, then shoved my hands into my empty pockets and returned to my bicycle.
Can't believe this is almost over!