Kristina Sugar slipped the red gloves on her hands, grabbed her keys and headed out the back door. Snow crunched beneath her heavy boots as she walked the mile and a half to the supermarket. Her backpack grew heavier with each step.
The bluest skies she’d ever seen really were in Seattle. Today was no exception. It reminded her of the day she and her mother visited the beach at Alki. She’d asked her mother where the ocean ended and the sky began. “In your dreams. There the two become one. You can dance among the stars and then dive into the ocean and swim with the whales.”
Her mother was wrong. Sugar had learned many years ago that dreams don’t come true, there is no fairy godmother and people you love die. People like your mother.
“Mornin’, Sugar.” Marley Jones nodded his head as he delivered newspapers to the neatly lined rows of manicured homes on Paisley Boulevard.
“Cold enough for ya?”
“Could be worse.”
“Not by much. Guess that Santa suit keeps you snug as a bug in a rug.”
“Sure does.” Sugar waved a gloved hand and kept walking. “Too bad I have to return it soon,” she mumbled. It was the only clothing she owned that kept her warm. She was going to have to use part of her savings to buy a coat. “Maybe I can talk them into letting me keep it.” She picked at a loose fiber and the thread began unraveling. She had taken a brush to the white, fluffy cuffs just last night to get them to regain some of their poofiness. They were already flat again.
As she glanced around at the Christmas décor sprouting up on trees, fences and houses, she felt a deep sadness. Another holiday alone. Eight since her mother passed. Of course, she hadn’t actually been alone, there were other people in the room. That’s when it hurt the most, when she knew she shouldn’t feel lonely, but did anyway.
“Suck it up, Sugar. Today is a new day. Smile, sing and give the people what they want so they’ll put a couple coins in your red bucket.”
She could do that. She’d made a virtual lifetime out of playing the role of happy girl, determined girl, nothing-bothers-me girl. She could do it in her sleep.
It wasn’t as if people were paying attention anyway. They were busy, had lives. No one looked her in the eyes. Most people avoided her like the plague when she had that shiny bell in her hand.
Oh, how she loved that melodious bell. It had always been one of her favorite parts of Christmas. Her mother would take her shopping and Sugar would stand next to the Salvation Army bell ringer as long as her mother would allow. One time they stood there for almost an hour.
Something about the sound of the bell beckoning to people to stop for a minute and think of others spoke to her spirit. When they’d place a quarter into the red bucket, it seemed to sing back a blessing of thanks.
She had dreamed of one day being part of this special Christmas gift. During her senior year of high school, the Salvation Army needed bell ringers and her class was looking for a service project. It was a win-win. Students teamed up to ring the bell after school and on weekends.
Emily Hatcher had been paired with Sugar. Emily hated everything about bell ringing. She spent most of her time inside the store talking with Patrick, the blonde-haired guy in charge of the produce section.
When she wasn’t sneaking coffee or chatting with Patrick, she shared her views on the commercial aspects of Christmas.
Sugar had kept her mouth shut, until Emily reached into the red bucket, took out a dollar and said she was going to get a doughnut. It was the last straw for Sugar and she told Emily exactly what she thought of her views, her attitude and stealing money from the needy.
Sugar was assigned a new partner and Emily never spoke to her again.
Every year after that, Sugar volunteered to ring the bell and collect money for the Salvation Army.
The parking lot was almost empty when she arrived. That didn’t bode well. The red bucket wasn’t going to fill itself.
She entered the grocery store, heading toward the customer service counter.
“Mornin’, Sugar.” Angie Haskell reached under the counter and pulled out the red bucket and bell. “You’ll be needin’ this.”
“Thanks. Where is everyone today?”
Angie shrugged. “It’s still early, and cold. If I didn’t work here, I’d still be in bed.”
Sugar smiled. “Me, too.”
“You couldn’t pay me to do what you do. How can you stand all the rejection?”
“I focus on all the people who want to help. A little goes a long way when it’s combined with all the other donations.”
“I guess someone’s got to do it. Might as well be you.”
“I like doing it. It makes me feel good, like I’m making a difference.”
“And make a difference you do.” Charles Henry approached from the right. “Sugar brings in more contributions than anyone else.”
“It’s that dark, curly hair and those blue eyes. Who could resist?” Angie said. “You have that whole ‘damsel in distress’ look down.”
“I’m not a damsel in distress.”
“Forget about her, Sugar, you’re doing a fine job. People are happier after seeing your excitement and enthusiasm.”
“I just want to help.”
“I know, and you do. Come on. Let’s get you a cup of coffee before you head back outside.”
Sugar glanced back at Angie. Did people really give her money because they pitied her? Didn’t they know all the money went to the Salvation Army? She didn’t get a dime of it, and she didn’t want any of it.
Sure, working as a maid wasn’t a glamorous job, but it paid the bills. The Cook’s allowed her to stay in one of their extra rooms. It even had its own bathroom. She wanted to save her money and purchase a car. Nothing fancy, just something reliable. Sugar had almost five hundred dollars saved. It had taken her almost two years to save it, but still, she never considered herself poor. Did other people see her that way?
“Warm enough?” Charles asked.
“Yes, thank you. The coffee helped.” She reached into her backpack to get her wallet.
“It’s on the house.”
“No. I can pay my way. I don’t need handouts.”
“It’s not a handout. It’s just one friend sharing coffee with another friend. We are friends, aren’t we?”
Sugar nodded. She’d never really thought of Mr. Henry as a friend. He was the manager of the store. She never really thought about him at all.
“And here’s the man of the hour,” Charles said, looking to the right as a twenty-something man in jeans and a sweater approached them. “How are you, Pat?”
“Good, and you?”
The men exchanged hearty handshakes.
“Business is good. We took a turn for the better on Black Friday.”
“But you sell food. Why would things turn around on Black Friday?” Sugar asked.
“We sell gatherings with family and friends. We entice you with visions of golden baked turkey and cranberry sauce. Then, when you come to the store to get what you need, we put blenders and towels and pots and pans and so on all around the store.”
“Listen to him. He knows what he’s talking about,” Pat said.
“All I know about a grocery store is that when I need butter or milk, I come here and get it.”
“Then you leave with plastic garbage bags, ice cream and flowers,” Pat said.
“It’s all in how you advertise and promote,” Charles said. “It’s good to have you back, Pat. We missed you. The produce department hasn’t been the same since you left.”
“You’re that Patrick?” Sugar couldn’t help the surprise from leaking into her voice.
“That Patrick? What does that mean?” Pat asked.
“I… It’s just… Nothing. I just didn’t realize.”
“Hey, you’re the bell girl. You used to ring that annoying bell every year.”
Sugar’s shoulders stiffened. “I still do. The Salvation Army uses that money to help people. It’s an excellent cause. Speaking of which, I need to get to work.” Sugar moved around the two men and assumed her post at the store entryway.
Her fingers curled around the hand bell, familiar and soothing. She flipped her wrist up and down, back and forth. The happy ring sang a welcome and an invitation to remember those who were not as fortunate during this Season of Love.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as a gentleman walked by, his head hunkered down low. A black and brown scarf covered the lower portion of his face. He didn’t look up, just kept briskly walking.
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” Sugar sang.
“Fa la la la la, la la la la,” a young boy sang back.
“Didn’t I tell you not to talk to strangers?” a woman with a stern face said as she yanked the boys’ arm and led him into the store.
“Good morning,” a woman in her fifties said a few minutes later.
“I don’t have any change right now, but when I come out of the store, I’ll stop by and see what I can do.”
“Thank you. We really appreciate any amount.”
“You’re such a lovely woman. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Um… no, no I don’t.”
“Pretty young thing like yourself? I bet you have to fight them off with a stick.”
Sugar shifted her weight uncomfortably and glanced around the parking lot. No one else was around.
“My nephew is looking for a nice girl. I bet you two would really hit it off.”
“I’m not really looking for a boyfriend, but thank you anyway.”
“We’re always looking, honey. The key is in finding one. Maybe I’ll bring him by later today. How long will you be here?”
“I… Um… Gosh, I’m really not sure. It depends on when my replacement comes.”
“Well, I’ll just take a chance.” The woman winked. “You could be my future daughter-in-law. Wait, is that right? I’m his aunt and my sister is my nephew’s mother, so that makes me—”
“I don’t want you to catch a cold or anything, out in this weather and all. Maybe you’d better head in and get your shopping done.”
“Oh, aren’t you a sweetheart, being concerned about my health. I’m like a horse, never sick a day in my life, but Harold is in the car and he can get pretty cranky when he has to wait. You have a good day, dear.”
“You handled that like a pro.”
Sugar turned to see Patrick leaning against a newspaper stand.
“I thought you were doing something with vegetables.”
Pat smiled warmly. The kind of smile that sends stars sparkling in your eyes.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“No.” He closed the distance between them. “We seem to have gotten off to a bad start. Did I do something to you that I’m not aware of?”
“Not really. It was a long time ago.”
“So, there was something?”
“It’s not silly if it’s still bothering you.”
“It didn’t really bother me, it’s just… My friend Emily Hatcher flirted with you when she was supposed to be out here with me ringing the bell and raising money. Why didn’t you tell her to get back to work?”
“It wasn’t my place. I was doing my job arranging the produce. I treated her like any other customer who engages me in conversation. I didn’t know she was supposed to be out here working with you.”
“Oh. I guess I can’t fault you for that then.”
“Are you sure?” The corners of his lips turned up in a half smile.
Sugar smiled, too. “Sorry. I know it sounds stupid. I was really just mad at Emily. How come you’re back here now? Where’d you go?”
“College. Got my Bachelor’s Degree in business.”
“So, why are you working in the produce department?”
“I want to start my own produce company. I figured a bit more hands-on experience wouldn’t hurt. It’s been a while since I arranged oranges so they wouldn’t all tumble out of the bin.”
Sugar laughed out loud. “I’m serious!”
“Me, too. I think it’s a good idea to do all the jobs involved in any business. Then you know what it’s really like for your employees.”
Sugar nodded. “Makes sense.” She found her eyes wandering around his face, taking in all his features: strong chin, medium cheekbones, thick eyebrows, emerald green eyes and a blonde mass of hair on his head.
“Are you studying me?”
“Oh, sorry. I… didn’t mean to be.” Color rose on Sugar’s cheeks.
“Are you blushing?”
“No, of course not. It’s, it’s cold out here, that’s all.”
“I always thought you were cute. Now I see that you’re beautiful, too.”
Sugar found it hard to breathe. Puffs of white air surrounded her face as she breathed deeper.
“I’ll give you a buck not to ring that bell,” a man said as he headed toward the entrance.
“I’ll take it.” Sugar smiled at Pat. “A buck’s a buck.”
“I think I may have underestimated you.”
“Most people do.”