Rosalie Alderwood was humming "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in the kitchen while Harry watched the news on TV. This was Wednesday, their traditional shopping day, and the advertised grocery specials were in the morning paper. Soup was on special, tomato, his favorite, two cans for a dollar. So was ice cream - three half-gallons for only six dollars. The brand wasn't his favorite but ice cream was ice cream, and Harry had always had a weakness for it. He didn't have much appetite anymore, but the thought of chocolate ice cream was appealing.
For years - ever since his retirement - Harry and Rosalie had done their grocery-shopping in the middle of the week.
"Should I get the car warmed up?" Harry asked. He'd put off the conversation with his daughters about selling it; maybe he'd call them tonight.
"Good idea." Rosalie came to stand in front of him, a dish towel in her hand, and glanced at the advertisements in the paper, spread out on the coffee table.
"You'll want to get a few cans of the tomato soup that's on special," he said.
"Yes," she agreed.
Because Rosalie had gotten so absentminded, Harry had begun compiling lists of items they needed to pick up at the store. This morning they were out of both milk and bread. He didn't want to miss that ice cream, either. He planned to arrive early enough to have his selection of fresh flowers, too. Maybe a potted poinsettia in honor of the season...His pleasures were few.
"I'll get my coat," Rosalie told him.
Harry nodded and reached for his car keys hanging on the peg by the door. She left, and knowing Rosalie, it would take her ten minutes to get ready. And that was after telling him to start the car. Early on in their marriage, that habit used to irritate him, but not anymore. This tendency to dawdle was part of Rosalie's personality and Harry had learned to accept it.
Before he went out to the car, he checked the refrigerator.
Another of Rosalie's longtime habits was her inability to discard things, even rotting food. He didn't understand it but had realized years ago that he was the one who'd have to toss the leftovers. Thankfully, with her cooking so little, there wasn't much. A quick inspection of the contents revealed several odd items. Frankly Harry had no idea why they needed anchovy paste or five varieties of mustard. Good grief, he hadn't even known they made that many.
Sure enough, it was ten minutes before Rosalie appeared. She'd put on fresh lipstick and combed her hair. "I'm ready, Harry."
"Me, too." Rosalie didn't drive. His own abilities were severely limited now and he took to the road only when necessary. In fact, he hadn't driven since he'd gone to see the doctor on Monday. The days of Sunday-afternoon excursions into the country had long since passed.
One of the advantages of shopping on Wednesday mornings was the lack of crowds. Mostly it was a few folks like Rosalie and him. Recently the store had gotten motorized carts for handicapped and elderly patrons, which made the whole experience a lot more pleasant.
Harry drove the motorized cart while his wife strolled by his side, filling the basket. Not once in the past year had Rosalie complained about the fact that he was the one who wrote their grocery lists, a chore she used to do.
They'd just turned down the soup and canned vegetable aisle when Lucy Menard entered from the other end. Her face brightened as soon as she saw them.
"Rosalie," Lucy called out. She left her own cart and hurried toward her friend, arms wide open.
The two women hugged for an extra-long moment. During World War II, after Rosalie and Harry were married and while he was off fighting in Europe, she and Lucy had roomed together while working in the Portland, Oregon, shipyards. At one time, they'd been as close as sisters. In fact, Lucy was godmother to their oldest daughter, Lorraine. Ever since Jake, Lucy's husband, had died, they hadn't seen much of her, which was sad. Mostly Harry blamed himself. Getting out and about was so difficult these days....
"I swear it's been a month of Sundays since I saw you two," Lucy said, stepping back. She looked good, better than the last time Harry had seen her, which was...well, no wonder. It'd been at Jake's funeral.
"I've been meaning to let you know I've moved," Lucy said excitedly.
"Moved?" Rosalie seemed to find that hard to believe.
Lucy beamed. "The kids finally convinced me that with Jake gone, I shouldn't be living on my own."
"I'm surprised you'd leave your home," Rosalie murmured. She glanced at Harry, then looked away. If it was up to Rosalie she'd delay moving as long as possible.
"I got a place at Liberty Orchard, the new assisted-living complex off Frontier Street."
That caught Harry's attention and he instantly straightened.
"Harry's been saying we need to do something like that, too, but I don't think I can," Rosalie admitted sheepishly.
"I said the same thing." Lucy nodded. "I figured after living in the same house for thirty years, I was too old to make that drastic a change. I told my children they were handing me a death sentence, moving me out of my home."
"That's how I feel," Rosalie said, once again avoiding Harry's gaze.
"But you did move," Harry broke in. "And you're happy now, right?"
"Oh, yes." Lucy smiled contentedly. "I always assumed it would take a forklift to get me out of that house. The thought of sorting through and packing up all those years of living just overwhelmed me."
Harry knew that was part of Rosalie's problem, too.
"Thank goodness the kids came in and made all the decisions for me. They went through each room, packing what I needed and dividing up what I didn't. One day I was in my home and the next I was making friends at Liberty Orchard. It's the best thing that's happened to me in ten years."
Frowning, Rosalie regarded her friend. "Don't they serve meals there?" she muttered. "Why are you shopping?"
"The meals are great, but a few times a week I don't feel like being sociable. That's my choice, you know. I fix myself something to eat. I've got my own refrigerator and microwave and that's all I need." She held up a box of microwave popcorn and giggled like a schoolgirl. "I love this stuff."
"It sounds like the ideal setup," Harry said.
"I'm not ready," his wife murmured.
Because Harry recognized her fears, he hoped to reassure her and gently urge her along. "Maybe Rosalie and I could come and see you at your new digs," he suggested jauntily, as though he was proposing a casual visit.
His hope was that once Rosalie saw the facilities for herself, she'd have a change of heart. If he couldn't get her to tour Liberty Orchard, perhaps Lucy could.
"How about tomorrow afternoon?" Lucy said. "Around three o'clock? We have a book club meeting at two and there's an exercise class before that. I wouldn't want to miss either one."
"They have exercise classes?" Rosalie sounded impressed.
"There's something to do every day. Before the move, it was a big deal just to step outside the house."
Rosalie shared a surprised glance with Harry. "I know what you mean. We'd love to come by, Lucy."
"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Lucy said, looking pleased.
She wasn't nearly as pleased as Harry, though. This couldn't have worked out better had he planned it. Lucy's opportune appearance had led to the next day's visit in the most natural possible way. It was exactly what he'd prayed would happen.
They finished collecting their purchases and by the time they returned to the house Harry needed a nap. The doc had insisted he couldn't carry anything heavier than five pounds, so his wife brought in the groceries from the garage. He made it to his recliner and was asleep almost before he elevated his feet.
Mercy was delighted at how well the meeting with Lucy Menard had gone. She sat in the motorized cart Harry had recently vacated, flushed with pleasure.
"How did you manage that?" Goodness asked, sitting on the handlebars of the same cart. "Did you know about Lucy?"
Hands behind her head, Mercy leaned back, gleeful with joy. "I did some research and discovered that Lucy and Rosalie had once been best friends. Then I noticed that she'd recently moved into Liberty Orchard. After that, all I had to do was arrange a coincidental meeting in the grocery."
"And, pray tell, how did this 'coincidental' meeting come about?"
"I simply absconded with her remaining package of microwave popcorn. I also shuffled around her collection of DVDs and put It's a Wonderful Life on top. Which reminded her it's time for her annual viewing - and that, of course, means she needs popcorn." Mercy chortled. "Piece of cake."
"Did someone mention the bakery?" Shirley asked, fluttering down from above, her wings stirring up flyers in the store's foyer. A youngster chased after them, then disappeared into the store.
When Shirley caught sight of Mercy on the motorized cart, her eyes widened. "Don't even think about it," she warned. "Gabriel asked me to keep an eye on the two of you. He knows, as I do, that you aren't to be trusted."
"I wasn't going to take the cart for a spin or anything," Mercy protested.
"But you did think about it."
Shirley knew her all too well. "I considered it." Mercy sighed heavily. "But I'm older and wiser now, and no longer given to flights of fancy." This thing was almost as good as a golf cart (there'd been that unfortunate incident at the Augusta golf course) but if Shirley wasn't going to say anything, Mercy certainly wouldn't, either.
"You're not to encourage her," Shirley warned Goodness.
"Moi?" The other angel brought her hand to her heart with an expression of pure innocence.
Shirley claimed the seat on a second cart. "I thought we should confer before we start our assignments," she said.
Mercy didn't know when Shirley had been put in charge or begun sounding so self-important. She obviously saw herself as their boss; this didn't sit right with Mercy, but she'd do whatever it took to finish her assignment.
"We each have an important task set before us," Shirley announced as if standing at a podium and addressing a huge crowd. She tilted her chin upward and spoke in deep, resounding tones. "This is our opportunity to prove ourselves once and for all to Gabriel and - " she paused, seemingly for effect " - to God."
"Gabriel and God," Mercy and Goodness dutifully repeated, their eyes meeting.
"It is our task," Shirley continued righteously, "no, our duty, to teach these humans a lesson from our heavenly Father before we answer their prayer requests."
"Our duty," Mercy and Goodness echoed.
At that point, Shirley deigned to actually face them. "You've got that look," she said.
"What look?" Mercy demanded.
"The guilty look that tells me you did something you shouldn't have."
"I haven't," Mercy insisted. "Not that it's any of your business."
"I'm working with Beth Fischer," Goodness said, getting in between the other two. "This isn't an easy assignment. I could use some advice."
"What's the problem?" Shirley's tone was, in Mercy's opinion, more than a bit condescending.
Goodness frowned meaningfully before she explained. "It appears that Beth's confidence in her ability to choose a life partner has been badly shaken. She doesn't trust her heart."
"Why is that?" Shirley asked.
"I don't know for sure. I've been watching and studying Beth, and she's a wonderful woman. It's just that...that..." She hesitated. "It's just that I'm afraid she's still in love with her ex-husband. How am I supposed to help her get over him and involved with someone else in only one week? It's impossible."
Mercy could understand her friend's dilemma. "Didn't you tell me her ex has remarried?"
"Then you need to teach her to let go," Shirley said unequivocally. "This happens all the time. It's been almost ten years and she has to move on."
"I agree, but it's going to be difficult to convince Beth of that. Thanks for the advice, though." To Mercy's ear, Goodness sounded a little - just a little - sarcastic.
"I'll help you," Shirley said.
"No," Goodness returned immediately. "I appreciate the offer, but I can handle Beth on my own. She'll be in Leavenworth this weekend."
"Really?" Shirley moved her hand to her chin in a thoughtful gesture.
"Her friend Heidi invited her to come here for the Christmas festivities. No town does it better than Leavenworth - or so I've heard."
"What about your assignment?" Mercy asked, directing the question to Shirley.
For the first time, the other angel seemed unsettled. "Yes, well, my assignment is deceptively simple - on the outside."
"I don't believe you mentioned whose request you've been sent to answer."
"It's a boy named Carter," Shirley mumbled. "He wants a dog for Christmas."
Mercy swallowed a protest. She was dealing with a dying old man who had pressing concerns for his family. Goodness had to guide a young woman with a broken heart. And all Shirley had to do was find a little boy a dog! Talk about easy! Mercy could manage that with one wing tied behind her back.
"As I explained, my assignment is deceptively simple, but - "
"Yes, deceptively." Mercy looked at Goodness. "Listen, I'd love to stay and chat awhile, but I've got work to do."
"Me, too," Goodness said.
"Yes, well, Carter and his sister are in school, so I've got a few minutes to spare," Shirley informed her friends.
"I'm sure you do," Mercy said and promptly disappeared. Goodness followed, leaving Shirley sitting alone in the grocery foyer.
A minute later, Mercy returned, hovering behind Shirley, who hadn't moved from her position on the motorized grocery cart. Shirley seemed to assume the other two had left the premises, and Mercy let her think that. She studied the cart for a moment. These little numbers were a breeze to operate. Not that Shirley, so righteous and well-behaved, would know that.... With the lightest touch of her finger, Mercy fired the cart's engine to life.
Stunned, Shirley glanced around, obviously wondering what had changed and why. Mercy wasn't about to tell her. The cart took off into the store with Shirley on board.
Shoppers gasped and leaped out of the way. Several people reached for their cell phones to snap pictures of the runaway cart, careering through the store minus a rider.
Mercy covered her mouth to hold back a laugh. Goodness joined her, laughing, too. Shirley wasn't nearly so calm.
"Mercy!" she screamed. "Help! Do something."
"I believe she already did." Goodness chuckled and disappeared once again. Mercy did, too. Since Shirley had time on her hands, she could use it figuring out how to turn off the cart.