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- The Fishers held a funeral for Bill and laid their patriarch to rest.
- Spencer told Claire that he was torn over how to feel about Philip, in the wake of the revelation that he was the Footprint Killer. 
- Natalie almost told Jason about her pregnancy but stopped when she discovered that Spencer — with whom she’d had a fling — is his nephew. 

When there are 23 days until Christmas, Sarah Fisher Gray makes her husband go up to the attic of her parents’ house with her.

“Are we gonna get locked in here again?” Matt asks as he comes up the final rung of the ladder and joins her in the dark space.

Sarah wraps her arms around his waist. “Would that be so bad?"

“Hmmm…” He plants a peck on her lips. “Guess not."

“But we have more important things to do right now."

“More important? How?"

With a chuckle, Sarah pulls away and expertly navigates through the dark to find a chain, which she pulls, illuminating the space. 

“There it is,” she says, pointing toward the far wall, where a group of red and green plastic tubs are neatly stacked, alongside a cardboard box that has seen better days.

“Your parents have a fake tree?” Matt asks with surprise.

My mom started to worry that the real ones were a fire hazard. Which, given our history of disasters at family gatherings…"

Matt grunts his agreement and crosses the attic to begin moving the crates downstairs. He pauses at the opening in the floor where the ladder awaits.

“Sure your mom’s gonna be okay with this?"

“She will be once the house is decorated for Christmas,” Sarah says. “The only way to start to get back to normal is to start to get back to normal."

They haul the tree and the decorations down to the living room, and when Paula awakens from her nap — in the bedroom where she has more or less sequestered herself since Bill’s funeral — she comes downstairs to find the house awash in garland, tinsel, and lights.

“You didn’t have to do all this,” she says.

Sarah turns back from the tree, whose branches she is painstakingly attempting to straighten out. “Yes, we did. Dad would want us to celebrate Christmas."

  Paula Fisher

Paula nods somberly and takes a seat on the couch. When Billy jumps into her lap, a round ornament in his hands, she accepts him with open arms.

“What’s this one?” he asks, thrusting the silver ball, with frayed threads hanging off it, toward her.

“Your grandfather bought that for me the first Christmas we spent together.” She smiles bravely as she turns the ornament over. “You’re named after him. Do you know that?"

The toddler nods vigorously, though it isn’t clear if he actually understands what she is saying. But she hugs him tightly, hopeful that someday, he will be able to carry on his namesake’s wonderful legacy. 

Some time later, Tim arrives with Samantha, and they help Sarah wind strands of twinkling white lights around the tree. While the others carefully hang ornaments on the tree’s branches, Tim joins his mother on the sofa.

“How are you?” he asks quietly.

“As well as can be expected,” she says, though her voice lacks any sort of conviction. 

He takes her hand. “We’re going to get through this. It’ll take time, but we will."

She rests her head against his shoulder as she tries to believe that. 

“What’s going on?” Tori asks when she emerges from the den, where she has been sleeping since her return from the hospital. 

“We’re getting ready for Christmas,” Sarah says. “Come help!"

The young woman still looks weary and weak, but she nevertheless joins her family at the tree and selects some ornaments to hang.

“Why don’t I fix some hot cocoa for everyone?” Paula asks as they continue to work.

She retreats to the kitchen to do so, and a minute later, Sarah follows her in. 

“Thank you for doing this,” Paula says. “I don’t know if I would have had the energy this year."

“We’re happy to do it, Mom."

They stand over the stove, watching light bubbles jump on the surface of the water for several quiet seconds.

“I’ve been thinking about something,” Sarah says.

“What’s that?"

“Well, our house is on the market… and we haven’t done the best job of showing it this year, with everything going on, but we’re determined to get out of there in the next few months. So, I was thinking… how would you feel about Matt, the kids, and me moving in here for a while?"

Sarah watches as her mother’s face lights up, but just as quickly, that brightness fades into concern.

“You don’t have to do that,” Paula says. “I’m going to be all right. It will just take some time."

“We don’t have to do it. But we want to. Especially with Tori still recovering, and Billy is so much work…"

“You would really want to live here?"

Sarah shrugs. “It’s been a long time. It might be nice."

“I would love to have you all."

“Then it’s a plan. Hey, look — the water is boiling."

They pour the hot water into several mugs, which they then load upon a tray to carry into the living room. 

“Hot cocoa is ready!” Paula announces, and Sarah is certain that she notices a renewed spark in her mother. 

Matt takes a sip from his mug of cocoa and then sets it on the coffee table. “It’s just about time to put the angel on top."

“I think Billy should have that honor,” Paula says.

“Yeah! Me!” Billy exclaims as he takes the faded angel from the box of decorations. 

“Mom, why don’t you help him?” Sarah suggests.

Paula smiles. “I think I can do that."

She slips her arms under Billy’s arms and raises him up toward the top of the tree.

“There you go, buddy,” Matt says as the little boy carefully plants the angel on the very top of the tree.

“Good work, Billy,” Samantha says encouragingly.

“I did it!” Billy says with a squeal.

Matt straightens the angel and makes sure it’s secure, as the family gathers around the tree.

“Look at that,” Tim says, pulling his mother close. “Now it feels like Christmas."

Paula admires the illuminated tree, filled with all the ornaments their family has accumulated over the decades. 

“It does,” she says. “It really does."

* * * * *

When there are 17 days until Christmas, Natalie Bishop makes one of the most foolish shopping decisions of her life.

“Please?” Bree Halston pleads when they are waiting in line to check out at one of the upscale kitchen-goods stores that seem to be multiplying in King’s Bay largest mall these days.

Natalie considers the small package of peppermint bark that her daughter is holding. “Ah, what the hell? It’s Christmas.” They wait another ten minutes to pay for the gifts Natalie has bought, as well as for the treat, which Bree holds in her hands excitedly as they exit the store.

“Can I have it now?” she asks.

“Of course. But not too much. You have your Christmas show this weekend.” Natalie breaks off a piece from the end of the thick, double-layered bar and hands it to Bree, who marvels at the white chocolate coated with shards of candy cane. “I’ll save the rest for later."

Bree savors the holiday treat as they walk through the mall, jazzy Christmas music filling the air. Natalie folds up the candy wrapper and sticks it in her purse.

After the mall, they drive to Jason Fisher’s house, where they find him in the kitchen, preparing dinner, while Sophie sits at the counter with her iPad. 

“What are you watching?” Natalie asks as she gives the little girl a kiss on the cheek.

Sofia the First!” Sophie exclaims. 

Natalie looks to Jason in semi-exaggerated shock. “Not Frozen?"

“Might be the dawning of a new era,” Jason says, looking up from his cooking with a grin. 

  Natalie Bishop

Natalie joins her boyfriend at the stove. “Where’s Alex? I thought he was going to be here for dinner."

Trevor asked him to get dinner, so I told him to go.” 

“Oh. Interesting… Do you think they’re…?"

“I don’t know anymore. But I hope so."

Natalie is about to respond when she catches some activity out of the corner of her eye. “Hey! Hands out of there!” 

Bree freezes, caught red-handed, and Natalie’s purse tips over onto the island. She watches as the world dips into slow-motion and items spill out: the peppermint bark, her lipstick, and the one bottle that she wants to keep concealed at all costs.

She lunges, but it is too late. The vitamins roll right toward Jason and off the counter, and he bends down to pick them up. She sees him register the label and then look up at her, a thousand questions printed all over his face.

“Bree,” Natalie says.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” 

“It’s okay. It’s fine. Can you take Sophie into the living room for  few minutes?"

“Yeah,” Jason says, but his voice sounds distant and fuzzy. “Give us a few."

The girls and the iPad disappear into the living room. Jason holds the bottle of prenatal vitamins in his hand and stares at Natalie, who can feel the tension between them like a thick gauze that threatens to suffocate her. 

“I’ve wanted to tell you,” she says. “It’s just— The timing sucks. That’s why I was so…"

“Why you were pulling away from me.” She can see him doing the calculations, reviewing weeks and weeks of footage from a new perspective.

A wildfire of desperation flares inside her. “I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you, I did. But with everything that happened— your dad—"

“Yeah.” Jason regards the bottle gravely and then sets it on the countertop. “How far along are you?"

“Four months. I didn’t find out until it was too late to…” She trails off, unsure where the lie even came from; she feels the need to absolve herself, to cover up the indecision that brought her to this point. 

She watches him and waits for some kind of sign, but he looks shellshocked. 

“Are you mad?” she finally asks.

“Mad? No.” 

But the silence that follows is not reassuring.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. 

“You don’t have to apologize. It takes two to do this, you know?"

She allows herself the shallowest sigh of relief. “I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t know when— or how."

“I know.” He takes a step toward her, putting his body in her space in a way that is so intimate that it immediately reassures her. “I’m sorry you’ve had to process this on your own."

“It’s okay."

“We’ll figure it out,” he says. “I just… I need some time to let this sink in."

“I’m still letting it sink in,” she says with a laugh that comes out slightly more bitter than she intended. 

“Then we’ll do it together. You’ve been…” He searches for the proper words. “You’ve been a savior to me this past year. You’ve brought me back to life in a way I didn’t think was possible. And, yeah, we didn’t plan this, but sometimes life throws you a curveball and you figure it out. At least this is a good curveball."


“Come here.” 

He slips his arms around her neck and pulls her close. She happily buries her face in his chest. He knows. He knows. And everything is all right. 

* * * * *

When there are 12 days until Christmas, Molly Taylor makes a resolution.

She wakes up before the sun, startled. As she catches her breath, she reminds herself that the D.A. has not made so much as a peep about pressing charges for Philip’s shooting death, and that she has to begin moving forward, even if the nightmares about Philip being in the house, taking out her family members one by one, have still been coming fast and furious in the night.  
She straightens up the house, which has been accumulating clutter since her father’s death. She organizes the living room, cleans the kitchen counters, changes the sheets on her bed and the boys’ beds, and folds the towels that have been sitting atop the dryer for days. She makes a cup of tea and sits in the kitchen with her laptop, responding to a number of non-urgent work e-mails that she has been putting off for days upon days. 

“When is Brent bringing the boys by?” Danielle Taylor asks as she breezes into the kitchen, her blonde hair still damp from the shower.

Molly checks the digital display on the microwave. “About an hour."

“Okay. I have three lessons today, but I’ll be back in plenty of time to get dinner ready."

“Great. It’ll be nice to have Caleb and Christian here again, too."

  Molly Taylor

They say their goodbyes, and Danielle heads out for her day. Molly finds herself watching her former sister-in-law carefully, observing her movements and her tone, as a memory from before the horrible day of Bill’s murder presents itself. Danielle was gone for Thanksgiving, and then so much happened, that Molly hasn’t had to think much about what Jimmy told her when he came by — but now, as everyday life begins to reassert itself, the concerns gnaw at her anew.  

“She didn’t seem like herself — at least, not like the Dani I’ve gotten to know since I came here. She was friendly — too friendly — and then she got mad, real fast."

“Come here and give me a hug,” she tells the twins when they come through the door with their duffel bags. 

Caleb in particular groans through the ordeal of having to show physical affection, and then she sends them upstairs to settle in.

“Thanks for keeping them this week,” Molly says to Brent once they are alone. “I’ve just needed some time to get my head straight."

“Don’t thank me. How are you doing?"

“Fine. Slowly getting back to normal, I think."


Molly hesitates, her hand skimming the bannister, before she plunges into the next topic. “There’s something I need to ask you about, but you have to promise me to stay calm."

Brent’s shoulders rise in anticipation of whatever it might be. “Why? What’s going on?"

“Maybe nothing. Before Thanksgiving, Jimmy came by. He wanted to talk to me about Danielle."

“What about her?"

She checks to make sure that the twins are not hanging out by the top of the stairs. “He ran into her at 322 one night, and he said she seemed… off."

“Off how?” Before she can even formulate an answer, he fills in the blank for himself. “Like she’d been drinking?"

“Yeah.” She sees him ready to spring into action and reaches out a hand to keep him in place. “At first, I thought it was ridiculous, but the more I think about it, the more I can see weird little things — inconsistencies, behavior that didn’t quite make sense. I thought it was just grief, but… How did she seem over Thanksgiving in California?"

“She seemed okay.” Brent’s eyes roll upward as he searches his memory for something telling. “Nothing weird that I noticed, seriously."

“Maybe Jimmy caught her on an off night."

“Yeah. Maybe.” But he is clearly unsettled. “I’m gonna keep an eye on her. What are the inconsistencies you’ve noticed? Has she been lying?"

“No. Or— I don’t know. That night the package was left on the doorstep, she seemed really disoriented when she came home. And she left her car at 322. She said it wouldn’t start, so she took an Uber home, but now I wonder if she had something to drink and was covering."

“I’ll talk to her,” Brent says.

“No. Don’t do that. If she has been drinking, it’ll only make it worse."

“Might not."

“I don’t want her to feel cornered,” Molly says. “If she’s already keeping secrets, that won’t help."

“No.” He touches a hand to his chin as he thinks. “I want her to be all right. But I also don’t want to take the chance that she’s going to get behind the wheel after she’s had something to drink — especially not with the kids."

“I don’t think she would. I got rid of all the liquor in the house, just in case."

“Good. Maybe I should do a sweep of her room."

“No! Brent, we don’t have anything to go on besides the fact that Jimmy said she was acting weird — and there’s so much history there, so who knows? — and she took an Uber home once. We can’t go invading her privacy because of that."

“I want you to let me know if you notice anything strange,” he says. “This isn’t something to mess around with."

“I know. But there might not be anything to worry about."

“Yeah,” he says quietly, though he does not sound at all convinced. 

* * * * *

When there are eight days until Christmas, Claire Fisher goes down to the morgue after her shift.

“Thanks for handling this,” she tells the attendant, a woman named Pam with whom she has had occasional contact over the past decade or so, as she accepts the plain metallic canister. 

Claire drives across town and parks outside the industrial-looking building. She takes the elevator upstairs and finds the loft’s heavy sliding door open as a pair of movers navigate a wrapped table out of the space. She stands aside and waits until they are gone, and then she enters the loft, where Spencer Ragan is standing in the kitchen.

“It’s so empty,” she observes as she joins him in looking around the loft. 

 “I know. It’s weird.” Arms folded, he turns toward her. “Thanks for setting up the movers."

“You shouldn’t have to deal with any of this."

“Too late."

The movers return, and they watch quietly as the two bulky men remove several stacked dining chairs.

“I brought you something,” she says, as she pulls the urn from her purse.

  Spencer Ragan

Spencer reaches out his hands tentatively, as if by touching it, he might contract some of what’s inside. At last he accepts it and turns it over carefully, unable to peel his gaze from it.

“So that’s him."

“That’s him,” Claire says. 

Spencer clutches the urn in his palm, and Claire briefly thinks that he is about to hurl it through the window. 

“I still don’t get it,” he says. “He did all this because Molly broke up with him?"

“I think it was a lot more complicated than that. Maybe Philip wouldn’t have even been able to explain it himself."

“I wish I could ask him what the hell he was thinking. He always acted like he had stuff under control—"

“That might have been part of the problem."

Claire stands by as Spencer gives the movers instructions about which boxes to deliver to the storage unit and which items should be taken to the charity drop-off. 

“Can I help with anything?” she asks once he is through.

He begins to shake his head but then stops. “Actually, yeah. There’s something I need to do — if you want to come along."

“Whatever you need,” she says, wondering what she has agreed to do.

Spencer drives his BMW through downtown. Claire holds the urn in her lap and uses her other hand to hold onto the door handle as the car whips and jerks through the streets; she reasons that now is not the time to critique his driving. He parks in a public lot near the piers and climbs out of the car.

“What are we doing?” she asks.

“Do you have the ashes?"

She holds up the urn.

“Then come on.” 

He leads her down a pier that has only a fishing supply shop on it. Gray shadows loom in the sky overhead, threatening rain, and the water looks dark and choppy. 

“Part of me thinks he should have a funeral,” Spencer says as he takes the urn, “but no one would come besides us — my mother wouldn’t even be able to — and maybe he doesn’t even deserve one."

“You can still remember him as your brother,” she says gently as they arrive at the railing at the end of the pier.

Spencer remains tight-lipped as he unscrews the top of the urn. Inside is a plastic baggie full of dark ash.

“Oh,” he says as he takes in the bag.

“Here. Let me. Unless you want to."

He shakes his head and passes it to her. Claire opens the bag and hands it back to him. She clutches the urn between her hands. 

She can see Spencer’s face tense with self-consciousness as he waves the bag over the railing. The breeze carries Philip’s ashes out over the bay, dark dust that fades into the air and the water. 

“Bye, Philip,” he finally says. “You were… I wish you’d let me know what was going on before it got so bad."

“Goodbye, Philip.” Claire’s throat constricts as she thinks about the man she came to know as her brother, the confidant whom she never would have guessed was harboring such darkness inside. 

A full minute or more passes as they watch the last of the ashes pass into the wind, carrying Philip Ragan away.

Spencer leans on the railing. “Thanks for coming with me."

“Thanks for letting me come."

She wants to add more, to remind him that she and the Fishers are all here for him, and if he needs anything, he has only to let her know. But when Spencer glances over at her, a sad smile upon his lips, she realizes that he knows all this already — and that thought, even in this darkest of times, fills her with a hope for the future.

* * * * *

When there are no days left until Christmas — when the holiday descends upon the world like fat white flakes of snow that stick to the ground, one by one, until they form a thick blanket that cannot be avoided — a sense of obligation convinces Paula to open up the house to host family and friends.

“Merry Christmas,” Tim says as he opens the door to Helen and Don Chase.

Don shakes Tim’s hand. “Merry Christmas."

“How’s your mother doing?” Helen asks. She holds out a wrapped tray. “I brought some of my white-bean casserole."

Tim takes the tray. “Thank you. I’ll put this in the kitchen. I’m sure one of the kids would be happy to take your coats.” He nudges his nephew before closing the door.

“Okay, fine,” Caleb says, exhaling as if the weight of the world has just been dumped upon him.

In the kitchen, Matt removes the oversized roast from the oven and checks the internal temperature.

“Now that is one good-looking hunk of beef,” he announces as he sets it on the counter to settle.

“I get that a lot,” Travis says from his post at the stove, where he is mashing the potatoes. 

“Funny.” Matt closes the oven. “Thanks for your help today. Your grandpa would be proud."

Travis pauses, the milk carton held aloft over the saucepan of potatoes. “It’s weird we’re doing this without him."

“You’re telling me."

They return to their separate tasks in quiet until Travis abruptly speaks up again.

“I was thinking about something,” he says.

Matt turns. “What’s that?"

“I heard you and Grandma talking about the restaurant before, and how you’re gonna run it, and I thought— maybe it’s stupid, but do you have any jobs there? Like in the kitchen?"

Surprise registers across Matt’s face. “Now that sounds like a good idea. You really think you’d wanna do that? It’s hot, it’s stressful, it’s long hours…"

“I think it’s what Grandpa would want,” Travis says, without a single note of doubt in his voice. 

Out in the living room, Helen approaches the tired-looking young woman sitting on one of the sofas as she watches her little brother play.

“Do you mind if I join you?” Helen asks.

“No. Go ahead,” Tori says, patting the cushion beside herself. 

“I was so glad to hear that you were awake and coming home. Your grandmother says you’re a star at your physical therapy."

“I don’t know about that. But I want to get better — fast."

“You will.” Helen pats her knee. “I can’t tell you how much fun that night at the beach was! I haven’t been to a party like that in so long."

Tori laughs. “Thanks for helping me tell off my ex-friend."

“It was my pleasure, dear."

“And I’m glad you aren’t, you know, in jail for murder."

“I never thought that would be something to be thankful for at Christmas, but you’re right — it’s a wonderful present this year.” Helen scans the room and spots Spencer across the way, talking with Molly. “How’s your cousin doing? This must have hit him very hard."

Tori shrugs. “I’m not sure. He doesn’t really talk about things."

“Just do your best to be there for him. And get yourself better. The world needs more of Victoria Gray!"

“Thanks, Mrs. Chase,” Tori says, widening her eyes, which are still rimmed with purple and bearing heavy lids. 

“Oh, please call me Helen!"

As Tori nods in agreement, Matt emerges from the kitchen with a platter of expertly carved roast beef. The aroma traces its way through the air as heads turn.

“Dinner is served!” he calls out, and the guests converge upon the dining room. Serving dishes are passed around the extra-long table, and the buzz of conversation overtakes the house.

Later, with pie plates and coffee cups covering the table, everyone moves back to the living room.

“Why don’t you play something on your new keyboard?” Molly suggests to Christian, who is perched on the loveseat with his favorite Christmas present on his lap.

  Matt Gray

“I don’t know,” the boy says shyly, but his aunt slides in next to him.

“How about if I help you?” Danielle says. She hands her glass to Jason, who places it on the mantle, and then her fingers begin to dance over the keys. Christian watches as she begins the familiar opening notes of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” before joining in himself. 

As they play, Molly slides over toward the mantle. Unable to help herself, she leans toward Danielle’s glass of what is supposed to be club soda and sniffs it. And that’s all it is — club soda. Relieved, she stands up straighter and watches as her son plays for the family. 

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” Danielle sings. “Let your heart be light…"

Samantha stoops down toward the Christmas tree and picks up a small box. “Aunt Sarah, you missed a present before."

“Really? That’s weird.” Sarah takes the small, meticulously wrapped box, which is too square to be jewelry but too small to be much of anything else she can imagine. She tugs at the ribbon for a few seconds before retreating to the kitchen to get a pair of scissors. 

“From now on,” Danielle and Christian sing from the living room, “your troubles will be miles away…"

Sarah cuts the ribbon, pulls back the silver wrapping paper, and pries open the white cardboard box. Inside, she finds a mound of tissue paper and, at its center, a small, black object.

“What the hell?” she says to the empty kitchen as she removes the flash drive from its box. 

Back in the living room, Jason dims the lights and then pulls Natalie to his side. She nuzzles into his side, doing her best to ignore Spencer’s stare from the other side of the group. When she turns away, however, she sees Helen Chase glaring at her from the other direction.

Jason’s hand settles softly over her growing stomach, and Natalie has to stop herself from jumping in response.

If only you both knew, she thinks to herself as she attempts to block out everyone else. 

“Here we are, as in olden days,” Christian and Danielle continue, the keyboard’s tones filling the air as the lights of the Christmas tree bathe the group in their soft, golden glow. “Happy golden days, of yore…"

“Here, this will be nice,” Tim says quietly as he strikes a match and sets a flame atop one of the decorative candles on the mantle. 

“Can I do one?” Sophie asks.

Tim looks to Jason.

“Would you help her?” Jason asks his brother. 

Tim stoops down and picks up his niece. He hands her the lit candle and guides her hand toward the next one.

“Can this one be for my mommy?” Sophie says.

Don places a hand on his granddaughter’s back. “Where’d you learn that?” 

The little girl screws up her face at him. “TV, duh."

Everyone chuckles as the song continues: “Faithful friends who are dear to us… will be near to us, once more…"

Sarah slips back into the room and finds a place beside Diane, who takes one look at her and asks, “What’s the matter?"

“What? Nothing.” 

“You look like you just saw a ghost,” Diane says, still studying her.

Sarah shakes her head. “It’s nothing.” But she feels the flash drive burning hot in the palm of her closed hand; she has a very bad feeling about this. 

“This is for you, Mommy,” Sophie says as Tim and Don help her light the first candle.

Jason steps up behind them and takes the lit candle from Tim. He touches the wick to that of the next candle, a short, green one.

“And this is for Uncle Ryan,” he says to Sophie as they watch the two flames rise up to lick the air. 

“Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow,” Christian sings by himself, as Danielle smiles over him before joining in for the next line: "Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…"

Paula joins her family at the mantle, and Jason carefully handles her a lit candle. She brings its flame toward the last candle, a white pillar.

“And Bill, my love,” she says, “this is for you. Merry Christmas."

"So have yourself,” Danielle and Christian sing, signaling for the others to join in, and as they do, their voices fill the house, and the candles’ flames burn brightly, throwing beautiful shadows over the singing faces. 

“A merry little Christmas… now…"


Will the New Year be a chance to move forward?
How will everyone react to Natalie’s pregnancy?
What will Sarah find on the flash drive?
Talk about it all in the Footprints Forum now!

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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015

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