In the picturesque town of Branscombe, in the heart of the
Granite State of New Hampshire, lights and banners were being
strung to herald the first, and many hoped annual, Festival of Joy.
It was the second week of December, and the town was buzzing.
Volunteers, their faces glowing with good will, were helping to
transform the village green into a holiday wonderland. The weather
was even cooperating. As if on cue, a light snow was falling. The
pond was frozen solid, ready for the ice-skating events planned for
the weekend. Most everyone in Branscombe grew up on ice skates.
Learning of the Festival and its purpose to promote
the wholesome lifestyle of a small town and the true meaning of the
holiday season, a major cable network, BUZ, had decided to cover
the event. They had big plans for a warm-hearted special that would
air on Christmas Eve.
Muffy Patton, the thirty-year-old wife of the newly
elected mayor, had suggested the concept of the Festival at a
summer meeting of the town council. "It's time for us to do
something special for this town. Other towns in our state are
famous for their sled races and bike weeks. Branscombe has been
ignored for too long. We should celebrate the fact that Branscombe
is a simple hamlet, full of people with good old-fashioned values.
There's no better place to raise a family."
Her husband, Steve, had agreed heartily. The
third-generation owner of a real estate business, he was all for
promoting the land values in the area. His firm had houses listed
for sale that would be perfect as a country retreat for people
living in Boston. A persuasive and spirited idea man, Steve had
helped Muffy generate rousing enthusiasm for the Festival.
"In so many places the spirit of Christmas isn't
what it used to be," he opined. "It's all about shopping days and
sales. Artificial Christmas trees jamming the stores before the
Halloween pumpkins have disappeared. My city friends tell me they
all get short-tempered and sulky with the stress of the season.
Let's have ourselves a down-home weekend, with caroling in the town
square, a new set of lights for the big tree, and lots of fun stuff
to do all weekend. We'll set the example that Christmas 'tis the
season to be jolly and joyful."
"What about food?" one of the council members asked
"We'll get Conklin's to cater the whole works.
We'll price tickets just to cover our costs. We're so lucky to have
a family-owned store like that in this town—it's an
They had all nodded, thinking of how soothing it
felt to just walk into Conklin's. The scents of roasting turkeys,
baking hams, simmering pasta sauces, and bubbling chocolate chip
cookies were a treat to inhale. Food fit for a king, and a few
aisles down you?d find wrenches and garden hoses and even
clothespins. People in Branscombe liked their sheets and towels to
smell of fresh, cold air.
By the end of the meeting, the enthusiasm had
spread to a fever pitch. Now, three months later, the Festival
would begin the next day. The opening ceremony was scheduled for
Friday at 5 p.m. in the town square. Branscombe's huge Christmas
tree had already been lit. All the other trees along Main Street
and around the Bowling Green would go on at exactly the same moment
as Santa arrived on his horse-drawn sleigh. Candles were to be
distributed, and the church choir would lead the crowd in singing
Christmas carols. A buffet supper in the church basement would be
followed by the first of many screenings of It's a Wonderful
On Saturday, Nora Regan Reilly, whose son-in-law
was a close college friend of the mayor, would be signing her
just-published book during the holiday bazaar. She had also agreed
to hold a story hour with the children. Outside, there would be hay
rides and sleigh rides, and ice skaters would be serenaded by
recordings of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra singing everyone's
favorite Christmas music. Saturday night another buffet supper
would be followed by a staging of "A Christmas Carol," performed by
the amateur Branscombe thespian group. Sunday morning the
festivities would wrap up with a pancake breakfast, yet another
meal to be held in the church basement.
So far all the plans were running smoothly.
Over at Conklin's Market, the employees were
working nonstop to prepare for the weekend. The Festival had been a
great idea for the town and for Conklin's business, but the workers
were worn out. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New
Year's Day, was always busy, but this year things were crazed. And
thanks to the television coverage, more and more people from the
surrounding towns were expected to join in the activities. The
workers at Conklin's had to be ready to supply extra food at a
moment's notice. They knew they wouldn't be able to enjoy a single
minute of the festivities themselves, but they were sure that Mr.
Conklin would reward them with a bigger bonus than usual, a bonus
that traditionally had been handed out by now. Some of the staff
had even been grumbling that they hadn't received it yet.
Tonight the 8:00 closing hour couldn't come fast
enough for any of them. At ten of eight, Glenda, the head cashier,
was locking up one of the registers when the front door flew open
and Mr. Conklin's bossy new wife, Rhoda, marched in, followed by
her increasingly sheepish husband, Sam, whom she now referred to as
Samuel. In her late fifties, Rhoda and old man Conklin had met at a
senior singles dance in Boston, when he was visiting his son for
the weekend. It didn't take Rhoda long to realize that Sam was ripe
for the picking. A recent widower, he didn't know what hit him
until one day he found himself in his best blue suit, a flower in
his lapel, and the sight of Rhoda in a glittery cocktail dress,
marching down the aisle toward him. Since then life at Conklin's
Market had not been the same. Rhoda was trying to put her stamp on
a forty-year-old business that had run just fine without her.
She told Ralph the butcher, whose roasted turkeys
were legendary, that he was using too much butter when he basted
them. Her attempt to convince the sweet-faced,
seventy-five-year-old Marion, who had run the bakery department
since Day One, to use canned fillers for her cakes and pies, was
not well received. Tommy, a burly, ruggedly handsome young man in
his twenties, who had a magical way with salads and sandwiches, was
told to cut down on the generous portions of cold cuts he allotted
to the submarine sandwiches. Duncan, the head of produce, was
mortally offended when Rhoda retrieved a bruised apple he'd tossed
out and put it back in the bin.
And then there was Glenda. Glenda knew, because she
handled the cold, hard cash, that whenever Rhoda was around she was
being watched like a hawk. This offended Glenda to the core. She
had worked at Conklin's since high school, and in the sixteen years
following there'd never been a dime missing on her watch, nor would
there ever be. Now the sight of the new Mrs. Conklin made Glenda's
stomach churn. While the employees had all been working themselves
to death, Rhoda had obviously been out having her hair done. The
broad white streak that ran from her forehead to the back of her
midnight black hair looked freshly oiled. Thanks to Glenda's
referring to that dye job as "reskunked," Rhoda was now known to
the employees of Conklin's as "The Skunk."
Rhoda darted over to Glenda. "Wait till you see the
surprise we have for our five key employees! Samuel and I would
like you, Ralph, Marion, Duncan, and Tommy to come to the office as
soon as you're finished closing up."
"Sure," Glenda answered, as she suspiciously eyed
the two heavy shopping bags with the logo of the local frame shop
that Mr. Conklin was carrying. What could be in them?
Ten minutes later she found out. The group stood
together as Rhoda made her little speech about how the Festival of
Joy was really bringing home the true meaning of the holidays.
"Samuel and I are so pleased that the town of Branscombe is being
celebrated for its emphasis on people, rather than things.
Spirituality. Good neighbors. That's why we've decided, in lieu of
a cash bonus, which is so mercenary, to give you something else."
Diving into the bags, she began to hand each of them a gift-wrapped
package. "Open them all at once so it doesn't ruin the surprise for
any of you."
A dead silence fell over the room as the senior
employees of Conklin's, after yanking the string and paper off the
boxes, found themselves staring at the group picture of the five of
them taken with the bride and groom six months ago on the porch of
the Branscombe Inn. The frames were engraved with the words, "In
appreciation of your long and faithful service. Joyous holidays to
you! Samuel and Rhoda Conklin."
Glenda was appalled. Every one of us needs a cash
bonus and was counting on it, she thought angrily. Duncan had
gotten so thrifty he didn't even go in our group lottery tickets
today. She was planning to use her bonus to pay off the cash
advance she'd taken on her credit card. She'd needed the money to
reimburse her ex-husband, Harvey, for his clothes that were
"maliciously ruined" when she left them out in two garbage bags on
the driveway, just as an unexpected storm made its appearance.
Violent winds had blown the bags into the street just as a delivery
truck rumbled through. Five minutes late, Harvey found his clothes
scattered all over the street, soaked and squashed.
"If I hadn't left them out at the appointed time,"
Glenda had protested, "he'd be complaining I was in contempt of
The judge didn't buy it and ordered her to pay the
replacement value of the tacky getups Harvey favored. The bonus
would have meant she could have paid him off and be rid of him and
his cheating ways forever.
"You don't have to thank us," Rhoda chirped, as
they all held the pictures in their hands. "Come along, Samuel. We
need to get a good night's rest. It's going to be a busy
Mr. Conklin followed her out the door without
making eye contact with any of his workers.
Glenda saw that Marion was blinking back tears. "I
promised my grandson a nice wedding present," she said. "But after
paying for the flight to California, now I don't know what I'll be
able to afford . . ."
Ralph moaned, "Judy and I were planning to take a
cruise this winter to give ourselves a break. With both girls in
college, we're always stretched to the limit. Even tonight Judy is
babysitting to pick up some extra cash."
Tommy looked as though steam was about to come out
of his ears. Glenda knew that he still lived with his elderly
parents because they needed his help financially. A good skier,
he'd been planning to take a long overdue trip out west with some
of his pals.
Tall, thin, quiet Duncan, who at almost thirty-two
was just a couple of years younger than Glenda, grabbed his coat
and thrust his arms into it. As he pulled up the hood, his sandy
hair fell forward on his forehead. His face was flushed. Glenda had
always had an almost maternal feeling for him. He was so
methodical, so orderly, his produce section of Conklin's was always
so inviting, that it was out of character for him to be visibly
upset. "I'm out of here," he said, his voice shaking.
Glenda caught his arm. "Wait a minute," she urged.
"Why don't we all go down to Salty's Tavern and get a bite to
Duncan looked at her as though she was nuts. "And
spend more money that we don't have?" he asked, his voice rising
with every word. "The financial planning course I've been taking
emphasizes that eating out when you can just as easily fix
something at home is one of the primary reasons so many people are
"Then go home and make yourself a peanut butter
sandwich," Glenda snapped. "Don't you think we're all upset?
Sometimes after a blow like this it's good to get out with friends
But Duncan was gone before she could finish.
"Some misery loves company," Ralph
shrugged with an attempt at a smile. "Let's go."
"I'm with you," Marion cried. "I almost never touch
the stuff, but right now I could use a stiff drink."
* * *
Two hours later, Glenda, Tommy, Ralph, and Marion,
feeling somewhat better, and even able to joke about The Skunk,
were about to leave Salty's Tavern when Tommy pointed to the
television over the bar.
They all watched as the local announcer, his voice
excited, cried, "There are two winners in the mega-mega multistate
lottery tonight. Two winners who will share 360 million dollars,
and what is so incredible is that both tickets were bought within
ten miles of one another in New Hampshire!"
As one, their bodies froze. Could they even dare
hope that their group could possibly have one of the winning
tickets? For every drawing, they each threw in a dollar and
purchased five tickets. They played the same five numbers on each
ticket and the same separate Powerball numbers on four of them, but
the fifth Powerball number they took turns choosing.
The announcer read the first five numbers. "They're
ours!" Marion shrieked.
"And the Powerball number is . . . 32!"
Tommy and Ralph pounded the table. "No!" they
cried. "32 isn't one of our regular Powerball numbers."
"What about the extra number this week?" Marion
cried. "It was Duncan's turn, but he decided not to play."
Glenda was digging in her purse. Her hands were
trembling. Sweat popped out on her forehead. She pulled out her
wallet and unzipped the special compartment where she kept the
"Duncan told me the Powerball number he had chosen.
He was about to hand me his dollar, then put it back in his wallet.
I was so used to buying five tickets that when I got to the
convenience store and pulled out a five dollar bill, I thought what
the heck? I bought the extra ticket and used Duncan's Powerball
number . . . I'm sure it was in the 30s."
"I can't take it," Marion cried. "What was it?
Hurry up Glenda!" she croaked.
Glenda dealt out the tickets like a deck of cards.
"Let's all take a look."
In the dim light of the votive candle, the tickets
were hard to read. Marion bent over, straining to decipher the
Powerball number on the ticket in front of her. An other-worldly
grunting sound emanated from the depths of her being. "Oh, my God!"
she finally screamed as she jumped up, waving the ticket. "WE WON!
"Are you SURE it's 32?" Glenda shouted.
Marion's hand was shaking so much the ticket
fluttered to the floor. Tommy reached down and grabbed it. "It's
got the number 32!" he boomed. "It's 32!"
By now, everyone in the tavern was on his feet.
"The four of us get to split 180 million bucks!" he
shouted as he lifted the diminutive Marion off her feet and spun
Wait till Harvey hears about this, Glenda thought
wildly as she and Ralph hugged.
"How about one of those group hugs?" Marion cried
as the four of them put their arms around each other, laughing,
crying, and still not believing.
This can't be true, Glenda thought. How can it
possibly be true? Our lives have changed forever.
"Drinks for everyone," the bartender cried. "But
you guys are paying!"
The foursome fell back into their chairs and just
looked at each other.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Marion asked
as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
Glenda nodded. "Duncan."
"It was his Powerball number," Ralph said.
"Yes, it was," Glenda confirmed. "I would never
have picked 32. But I decided to throw in the extra dollar. So you
all owe me a quarter!"
"I'll even pay you interest," Tommy promised.
They all laughed, but immediately their expressions
turned serious. "We should share this with Duncan," Glenda said.
"The poor guy. He wouldn't even treat himself to a burger tonight.
And without his number, we wouldn't have won."
"And we wouldn't have won if you hadn't thrown in
that extra dollar," Marion said. "How can we all ever thank
Glenda smiled. "We've been in this together for
years, and now we've been blessed. Let's start our own Festival of
Joy. I can't wait to hear Duncan's reaction." She pulled out her
cell phone. Duncan's numbers were in her list of contacts. She
tried his home phone and his cell, but he didn't pick up either
one. She left a message for him to call immediately, no matter what
time it was. "That's strange," she said when she hung up. "He
certainly sounded as if he were going straight home. I wonder if he
knows yet that our numbers won and thinks he's not part of it."
"He might think that you just played our four
dollars and we lost out," Tommy said.
At that moment the bartender came over, uncorked a
bottle of champagne, and started to pour it into four glasses.
"Time to celebrate. I'm sure none of you are planning to go to work
in the morning."
"You bet we're not," Marion said. "This is the new
Mrs. Conklin's big chance to run the whole show. Let her try and
bake a cake as good as mine. Good luck, honey!"
They clinked glasses as they nodded in rapturous
agreement at the thought of the expression on The Skunk's face when
she heard of their good fortune.
But Glenda couldn't put the nagging worry about
Duncan out of her mind. He had been so upset about not getting a
bonus, and now he wasn't answering his phone.
Could anything have happened to him?
Excerpted from DASHING THROUGH THE SNOW © Copyright 2010 by
Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark. Reprinted with
permission by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.