Winter was coming and going without much fuss in Ecclesia. Christmas was a flurry of peppermint ice cream and mugs of hot chocolate with too much whipped cream. New Year's Eve was bitterly cold, and the fireworks were enjoyed by a majority of villagers from inside their homes. Valentine's Day was fast approaching now, and Isabelle kept Scarlett very busy running small errands around town to keep her mind at bay.
"Don't worry about it," Isabelle said with a smile and an encouraging push out the door. Scarlett tried to reason with her.
"Come on, Izzy, there's tons of work to do and you haven't let me do any of it for the last week!"
Isabelle closed the door just enough so that only her face fit through. "Please, Mayor? I just need one more pail and it should be enough," she said decisively, shutting the door.
Scarlett turned around, an empty bucket and gloves in one hand, a warm Styrofoam coffee cup in the other. She sighed and pulled on her warm gloves and started towards the town plaza. She passed budding holly bushes and leafless trees, their quiet branches frosted over at the tips.
The town tree stood looming over the gray cobblestones, leafless and ominous. Large roots sprawled away from the base, pressing into red brick planting box around it; cracking through the brickwork and mortar and causing chunks to crumble onto the stones around it. The overgrown tree was riddled with vines that crawled up its trunk, scavenging and thriving on the moisture from dripping snow melt.
Scarlett looked up at the tall tree in awe. The beautifully scarred bark was stripped in some places, forced away from the trunk due to freeze and thaw, and others were carved with initials and hearts. She took a drink from her coffee and exhaled deeply.
“What’s the matter, Mayor?”
She jumped, nearly spilling some of her drink down the front of her sweater. She turned around and met with a new, smiling face. “Um, hi there,” she tried to sound polite, coming off confused.
“Oh! I'm so sorry, hi, my name is Coco,” she said apologetically, picking up on Scarlett's confusion. “I, uh, bought a house here a month or so ago. I actually just finished moving in this last weekend.”
“Hi, Coco,” Scarlett smiled sheepishly, recalling Isabelle telling her about the new resident. She extended her hand. “Please, call me Scarlett. You moved in beside Whitney, didn't you? I’m glad you've finally gotten yourself settled in.”
“Thanks,” she said, returning the handshake. “Yeah, that’s where I’m at. The cliff looks out over the ocean, I think it’s beautiful.”
“It’s a nice location, yeah,” Scarlett replied. Though the neighbor might cause some trouble, she thought to herself.
“Though Whitney hasn't exactly been so welcoming,” Coco added, rubbing the back of her head nervously.
Scarlett took a sip of her coffee and giggled over the rim. “She wasn't so nice to me when I first got here either. She’ll warm up to you. I feel like she’s finally warming up to me, and I've been here quite a while now.”
"I really hope you're right," she said.
Scarlett stood for a moment in silence, thinking about Whitney's softening attitude toward her, before finally stating: "Well, I should go. I have to run an errand for Isabelle. You have met her, right?"
"Yes, I have. Shouldn't she be running errands for you?"
"She's got something special planned. I won't question it."
"Well, have a nice day May- erm, Scarlett!"
"You too, Coco."
Coco skipped away from the plaza and down the frozen dirt path, whistling as she went. Scarlett shielded her eyes from the rising mid-morning sun and looked off in the direction she’d gone, towards the police station. Booker, Ecclesia’s reliable hand of action, stood outside the station and saluted Coco as she passed.
Scarlett smiled and leaned over the planted box, lifting a bucket half-full of sap off of the spigot sticking out of the rough trunk. The sap was nearly solid in the cold weather, and hardly moved as she dropped the bucket on the ground and slung the empty bucket over the slowly dripping tap and adjusted it to catch the drop of sap that fell from the tip. The warmer days and cooler nights of early February were allowing the sap to flow quicker than before. It had taken since early September to produce that half-full bucket.
“I hope this is enough,” she said to herself, taking up the sap bucket and heading back towards town hall at a quickened pace. A biting wind followed her trail.
Isabelle met with her outside the heaven wooden door, grinning excitedly. “Oh! Perfect,” she said, taking the bucket from Scarlett. “This should be enough.”
“What are you making, Isabelle?” Scarlett prodded, having not yet been told of her secretary’s plans. Isabelle was an excellent cook, and her baked goods were succulent enough to melt even before they reached your tongue. Scarlett thought back to the warm chocolate heart she’d been sent for her birthday, freshly made and still gooey in the center.
“I’m actually done with the first batch, would you like one?” Izzy asked, pulling the large door open with some effort and holding it for Scarlett. She led the two of them inside, and pulled a tray of pre-cut baked squares out of the small oven she’d insisted on installing in the office.
“Maple pecan squares!” Izzy exclaimed, watching the glistening syrup sparkle and bubble around the sprinkled-on ground nuts. “They’re like coffee cake, only better!”
Scarlett took one off of the tray, blew over the steaming syrup, and nibbled the corner. “This is delicious, Isabelle,” she said through her food.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Scarlett said, hugging her secretary tightly.
Isabelle beamed. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”