Weak in the Knees
On Boxing Day, Faith Meredith climbed the hill to Ingleside carrying a cake. A vicious snow squall had kept Christmas revelers at home yesterday, and many long-promised visits had been postponed. Few of the Merediths were much disposed toward visiting even today; Jerry had brought a nasty cold home from Redmond and generously shared it with the whole house. Only Faith was in any mood to go calling.
Faith shielded her eyes against the dazzle of sun on snow. The air was crisp and vaguely electric in the afterglow of the tempest, and downed branches lay shrouded in the drifts, softened by the flakes that had torn them from their trees. Faith reveled in the crunch underfoot and the crackle overhead, reflecting that a white Christmas was a wondrous thing, even when it was achieved by such violent means.
Luckily, someone had shoveled the walk up to Ingleside, but Faith was dismayed to see the unmistakeable tracks of a sleigh leading away from the house. Had the Blythes gone visiting?
Faith mounted the steps to the veranda, hoping that some of the family might still be at home. She knocked at the door and waited. And waited. She knocked again, but knew it was useless. Peering through the sidelite, Faith could see that Ingleside was dark and empty. It seemed that even Susan had gone out.
Faith sighed, wondering whether to leave the cake on the porch or carry it home with her. Perhaps she had a scrap of paper in one of her coat pockets and could write a note . . .
The door opened. Faith looked up, surprised, to find a flushed and bleary-eyed Jem, dressed in pajamas and a hastily-tied robe.
"Jem!" she said, startled into a truncated greeting.
"Hi, Faith," he croaked.
Faith frowned at the sound of his cracked voice. She surveyed his face and noted glassy, red-rimmed eyes, a dripping nose, and a pallor that the hectic patches in his cheeks could not mask.
"You're ill," Faith said unsympathetically. "Get back inside before you freeze."
"I'm . . . not . . . ill," said Jem, confirming this brazen pronouncement by swooning against the doorjamb.
"Jem!" Faith dropped her cake in a crumby smash and jumped to catch Jem as he slid down the wall. "Jem, are you alright?"
"Just . . . tired," he panted, eyelids fluttering.
Faith attempted to shove Jem into the hall far enough so that she could shut the door, but found that she could not budge his unresponsive weight with any casual effort. When had he gotten so big? As tall as Dr. Blythe, at least, and as broad in the shoulders, as befit the captain of the Redmond football team. Gritting her teeth with determination, Faith slipped her arms under Jem's, and half-lifted, half-dragged him into the hall. She propped him against the coat rack and knelt beside him to assess his condition.
"Jem? Jem, can you hear me?"
Jem opened one hazel eye. "Yes."
"Good," Faith said, relieved. "Where is everyone? Where is your father?"
"Visiting," Jem breathed. "Miss Cornelia."
"Well, you stay right here," she ordered. "I'm going to phone over for your dad to come home straight away."
Jem moaned. "No. No, I'm fine, Faith. Just need to go back to bed."
"Oh?" Faith said, a lawless smile twitching the corner of her mouth. "And just how do you propose to accomplish such a feat?"
"Help me up the stairs?" he asked, making an attempt at a charming smile.
Faith felt an odd flutter in her stomach. By why should she? Certainly she could help Jem up the stairs if he were awake enough take most of his own weight.
"I might be able to guide you," she said dubiously, "but there's no way I can carry you."
"I can walk," Jem assured her. "Just let me lean on you a bit."
A bit turned out to be rather a lot. By the time they reached the first landing, Faith was flushed herself, both with exertion and with a sudden consciousness of Jem's fever-heated arm around her shoulders that had never before afflicted her.
"Do you think you can make it?"she asked.
"Yes . . ." Jem whispered, unable to say more.
The final few steps were slow going, Jem's chest heaving with each labored breath, and Faith going slightly weak in the knees under his weight. Fortunately, the room Jem and Walter shared was only a few steps from the head of the stairs. Faith sidled through the door and deposited Jem on the bed he had recently abandoned. The bedclothes were still warm under her hand.
"Thanks," he breathed as she covered him with sheet, blanket, and quilt.
Faith shook her head, exasperated. "You should have just stayed in bed in the first place, Jem. Whyever did you come to answer the door?"
Jem was already half asleep, snuggled deep under the covers that Faith was smoothing over his shoulder. With one last breath before he succumbed, he murmured, "I was hoping it might be you . . ."