The next morning, Joy stood at the kitchen sink, sipping a cup of coffee. The house was chilly. An old hooded sweatshirt jacket that had seen better days was draped on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. She slipped it on and pulled her braid free from the back. In so many ways, this place was exactly the same; it made her feel like a teenager again.
She stared out the window at the familiar property in the daylight. Ruby had always been an animal lover, but Uncle George would flip out if he knew that she’d adopted all these wayward animals.
She glanced at the worn edges of the oversized sweatshirt jacket. Had it been one of Uncle George’s? Maybe the animals were Ruby’s way of filling the gap that Uncle George had once filled. Couldn’t blame her for that. Had to get lonely out here by herself, but the place was beginning to look like a petting zoo. The smell was farm-y too. And at the moment, every single one of the motley crew was lined up side by side, like they’d rehearsed the formation all night long.
Seven o’clock wasn’t early. Joy would normally be up, dressed, and out the door by now, but last night’s farm duty had kicked her butt, and she had a little trouble getting a move on. Another twenty minutes of coffee time wasn’t going to kill those animals.
She turned her back on them and held the warm mug between her hands.
Feeding the animals had sounded like a real cakewalk, but Joy was feeling it this morning. In fact, she was sorer this morning than the last time she got cocky and went for the ninety-minute hot yoga session with Renee.
The sound of the front door swinging open caused the hot coffee to catch in Joy’s throat. The animals were definitely getting restless, but without thumbs, it wasn’t likely to be one of them coming in to drag her outside. So what—or who—was it? But this was Crystal Falls. And she hadn’t heard a car.
Now, that was one sick rooster, or someone was messing with her. She relaxed a little, fairly certain that no one was ever murdered after a See ’n Say sound check.
A fast clippity-clomp came charging down the hall, getting closer to the kitchen.
The only image Joy’s mind could muster, besides that giant Foghorn Leghorn from the cartoons, was that pesky goat, Waddles, kicking and galloping down the hall. Now, that could be a mess.
Rushing toward the ruckus to limit the damage, Joy stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of a little girl standing in the hallway, looking like she wasn’t sure whether to scream or scram.
Only about six feet separated Joy from the blond-haired child. “Who are you?”
The little girl clutched a black lunch bag in one hand against her blue jumper with a fancy M monogrammed on the front, and two chubby orange yarn hair ties hung from the other. The freckle- faced child looked so fragile standing there.
“What’s your name?” “I’m . . . I’m Molly.”
“You’re . . .” Like the rabbit? Joy noticed the hand-painted rabbit on the little girl’s lunch bag that looked an awful lot like Molly the Bunny. This can’t be happening.
Little girl Molly’s mouth hung wide and her eyes darted like a wild animal’s. Cornered and desperate. “Wh-where’s Ruby?”
“She’s not here. She’s in the hospital with a hurt ankle.”
“But I come here every day. Ruby makes my lunch and we go to the bus.” Tears welled in Molly’s eyes.
Maybe the goat running down the hall would have been better than this. Oh no, please don’t cry. “Where’s your momma?”
The little girl pointed toward the door, her hand shaking.
“It’s okay. I’ll straighten it out.” Joy whipped around Molly and ran toward the front door just in time to see a blue compact car back out of the driveway. She waved her arms spastically as she took the porch steps two at a time. “Excuse me. Hello!” She raced out to the front yard, but the driver of the car seemed completely un- aware of her yelling and hailing. As Joy ran to the end of the driveway, the car became a dot in the distance, then disappeared.
Out of breath, and out of her element, she turned and walked slowly back to the house.
What am I supposed to do with a little girl? There are certainly no instructions in the barn about that.
CREDIT: From CHRISTMAS JOY by Nancy Naigle. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.