Chapter Seven: Mike Popkins
“What are you doing here, Mike?” Janice asks as she fills the cappuccino machine with fresh espresso beans.
Mike steps up to the counter. “Can I order something?”
“You know it’s on the house, Mike,” says Walt at the register.
The rest area is almost empty. Somehow, the cheap decorations hanging from the ceiling around Brewing Up Some Happiness and the Christmas music in the background do little to bring any holiday cheer.
Mike waves Walt off. “Nah, you know I can’t do that. Just a cup of the black stuff. Is it fresh?”
Brewed ten minutes ago,” Janice states. “That fresh enough?”
“Works for me.”
A minute later, Janice places a cup of joe in front of Mike. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m working, darlin’, like always.” Mike lifts the cup to his mouth and takes a careful sip. He’s standing at the end of the counter where customers pick up their orders, but since no one is in sight, he stays.
“It’s still early,” Janice says.
Mike checks his watch, and Janice smirks. “5:00 a.m. Just another hour.”
“You’re one of the only people I know, Mike, who still wears a watch.” Janice chuckles.
“Easier than pulling my phone outta my pocket to check the time, ain’t it? So, the kiddos with your parents?”
“Like always. Mommy starts too early.” Janice yawns, then purses her lips at him. “Mike, make the three hour trip and see your family.”
“Hmph. Weather’s supposed to turn for the worst in a few hours. Thanks for the coffee.” Mike finishes the drink, crushes the cup in his hand, and tosses it in the trash. “Merry Christmas, Janice.”
With that, he leaves to clean the bathrooms. Just as he’s coming out of the men’s room and taking down the “closed for cleaning” sign, he sees her walking out of the ladies’ room.
“Oh, excuse me,” she says, startled by his presence.
“Ah, you’re inside again.” Mike smiles at her.
“Well, I can’t very well, um…you know…out there.” She blushes.
Mike steps aside to let her pass, but she holds up just outside of the bathrooms. “What’s your name?” he asks, hoping his eyes speak the concern his voice doesn’t.
“Well, Shelley, are you like me and don’t have anyone to spend Christmas with?”
Shelley frowns and takes a step away. Mike follows. He has nowhere else to be. The rest stop is clean, and time is winding down to the end of his shift.
“You never asked me my name all these times you’ve talked to me before,” Shelley says.
“Well, I’m asking now, and since you told me, I’ll share mine. It’s Mike.”
“I can see that by your nametag.” Shelley smiles a little.
Mike chuckles. “Good try, but let me ask you again–are you alone for Christmas?”
Shelley pulls a cigarette out of her pocket and jerks her head toward the doors. “You want to take a break?”
“I’d rather not in this cold, but considerin’ what we’re about to talk about, maybe it’s a smart idea. Just let me grab my coat.”
Shortly thereafter, Mike and Shelley are shivering as they try to find some protection from the wind by standing where two walls of the building meet.
“No, I don’t have anyone,” Shelley says, “at least not around here.”
“Same here, young lady.”
“What about…no wife, girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend, at my age?” Mike tries to pass it off as a joke, but when Shelley frowns, he says, “I’m a widower.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Shelley’s voice barely carries over the wind. She drops her gaze to the ground.
Mike watches as she taps the ashes from the end of her cigarette. “Her name was Barb. Died four years ago. We were married thirty-five years.”
“That must have been really hard.”
Mike nods, waiting for Shelley to meet his eyes. When she does, he is left gaping at the emptiness in them. They stare through him like two dark tunnels. If he’s not careful, he might lose himself in their depths.
“It was, but you know, that’s part of life, ain’t it? Death.”
Mike finishes his cigarette. “I’m headed back inside. You ain’t staying out here, are you?”
“No, I guess not. It’s getting too cold for me to be outside for so many hours.”
When they arrive back in the warmth, Mike says, “Look, I know you’ve got something eatin’ at you. I know sadness when I see it, but I also hate it when someone tries to get me to talk about what’s on my mind when I don’t want to. Just know…if you wanna talk something, my ears are open.”
“Thanks.” Shelley half-smiles. “I guess you need to get back to work, huh?”
“Yeah, probably for the best. Merry Christmas, Shelley.”
Mike walks away and doesn’t look back to see if Shelley sees the heaviness of every step he takes.
Chapter Eight: Sarah Wilcox
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-laaaa!”
Sarah joins in the raucous singing with the rest of her family. Gathered in her aunt and uncle’s house, it’s never a boring moment with the Wilcox family is under one roof. The talk and the drinks flow like a steady stream. Four generations are crammed into a bungalow meant to hold about half the number of people, but even shoulder-to-shoulder, the Wilcoxes know how to have a good time.
“So, you had to work this morning?” asks Sarah’s aunt Anne, every syllable slurred together.
Sarah smiles at the glass of Merlot in her aunt’s hand and wonders how she doesn’t spill it on her Christmas sweater. To be safe, Sarah scoots back a couple of inches from her dear aunt, who knows how to make merry with the bottom of a bottle of wine every holiday season. “Yeah, but I got off at noon. Hey, what number are you on?”
“What’s that, dear?”
Sarah chuckles. “Never mind. Did you have a good morning?”
“Oh, yeah… y’know, Reagen and Jayden made out like bandits. O’course, what good is it not to spoil ‘em rotten, eh? They’re grandkids for a reason. Hey, what’re you gonna pop a baby out?”
“Um…” Sarah struggles to find the words to answer such a blunt statement, but her cousin, Zelda, rescues her.
“Hey, I wanted to show you something, Sarah,” Zelda says. “Mom, stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself and everyone around you,” she adds to Anne.
Anne hiccups. “Don’t know what you mean, Z.”
Zelda rolls her eyes and clutches Sarah by the upper arm. “C’mon.”
Once they’re in one of the back rooms, Sarah asks, “So, what’s so interesting?”
Zelda’s hands are resting on her midsection. She smiles, gazing at her belly, and then lifts her eyes to Sarah. “Well, along the lines of what my mom was saying…”
“You’re pregnant? Congrats!” Sarah squeals and hugs her cousin.
“Thanks. Unlike my mom and about half the people here, I’m not drinking. We’re still really early on, but if all goes well, it’ll be in the middle of July when this little one makes his or her debut in the world.”
“And Jake? How are things between you?”
Zelda bites her lip, but then smiles. To Sarah, it appears forced. “Better than they were last summer. He’s been clean for months now, but you know, it’s been something he’s struggled with off and on for years.”
“I can only imagine, Zelda. Gosh, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. What’s the worst of it is that I didn’t know for years. What kind of wife and mother doesn’t know her husband and the father of her kids has an addiction?”
Sarah places a hand on Zelda’s upper arm. “Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. We’ve always been more like sisters than cousins. You can tell me anything. You know that.”
Zelda sighs. “I know, and thank you, Sarah. I mean it. Sometimes I wonder if he’s just looking for another guy to supply him with the stuff.”
“It’s pretty easy to come by, sadly. If he wanted to, he could’ve gotten a new dealer months ago, Zelda. I know a thing or two about it. A couple of months in college filled with making stupid choices in friends who smoked weed almost made me flunk out. That’s why I graduated a year later than planned.”
“Oh, Sarah, I had no idea. You? Really? But you always seemed so, I don’t know…”
“The good girl? Yeah, I was. My parents don’t talk about it with anyone, but you get it. I’m not proud of it, and I’d never go back to doing that again, but sometimes people get desperate, want to escape the pressures around them, or they’re just looking for a good time.”
Sarah watches Zelda as her cousin only five years her senior shakes her head, so much going unsaid.
“Well, come on, let’s get back out there before we’re missed. You know Grams has made her devil’s chocolate cake and won’t be too pleased if it’s not all eaten up before we leave.”
Sarah smiles in spite of the lingering heaviness. “Sounds good to me.”
As she joins her family, although the jovial talk, singing, and laughter rings true, an undercurrent of concern for those who don’t have it so good hangs in the back of Sarah’s mind. Jake, whose drug addiction has nearly broken his marriage; her aunt Anne who drinks too much; and a mysterious woman at the rest stop who has all the look of someone with her own sad history are the ghosts who haunt young Sarah. Their songs aren’t about decking the halls.
As she partakes in her grandma’s cake, Sarah stares at the empty chair at the head of the table. Grandpa haunts the space across the distance of time. He picks up his cup of coffee and makes cheers toward Sarah.
Go knock ‘em dead, kiddo.
Sarah chokes down a mouthful of cake, washes it down with coffee. Coffee. A drink shared. Pain shared.