Chapter Five: Sarah Wilcox
A jazzy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” plays in the background. Most people are oblivious to the music, but as Sarah spins out another order on the cappuccino machine, she sings softly and rocks her hips. Caught up in the love of Christmastime, she whips up peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes by the dozen.
“Here you go,” she says with a wide grin as she sets another order on the counter for pickup.
The middle-aged couple returns the smile.
“Thank you,” the woman says, slipping a dollar into the tip jar.
“Merry Christmas,” Sarah replies as they walk away.
She glances at the full tip jar. Normally, at the end of each shift, the workers divide the money evenly, but during the holiday season, they’ve been collecting the money to go toward buying gifts for underprivileged kids.
“We’ve made quite the dough today,” remarks Benny, a handsome African American man who’s been working beside Sarah that morning.
Sarah smiles at him. “That’s part of what I love about this time of year. It brings out the best in people.”
While they talk, their hands are busy making drinks. Benny winks at Sarah, and she feels the blush on her face. She’s been working beside him more than just this morning. In fact, they’ve been spending hours working together, and Sarah wonders if he’s into her like she is into him. He can’t be much older than her, and he’s tall and lean, not overly-muscular. Maybe he played basketball in high school or college.
“What are your plans for the holidays?” Benny asks over the rush of noise.
“Gotta work till noon, but then my family’s spending the afternoon and evening with my aunt and uncle and their kids and grandkids. The grandkids are young, so it’s that fun age of watching them open gifts, still believing in Santa and all that. There will be tons of family there–even more than I can remember. How about you?”
“Would you believe they gave me off work like I requested? My last day before we leave for Florida is the 24th, and then I won’t be back until after New Year’s. My family’s all down there.”
“You’ll be having more days off if you aren’t careful, Benjamin,” the assistant manager, Tina Ross, barks. “Now, pay attention and get back to work, both of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Benny says. When Tina turns her back, he mock-salutes her.
Sarah and he are reduced to a fit of giggles.
“Careful,” Sarah says lowly, “if you aren’t careful–”
Hours later, Sarah finishes her shift and steps outside to gently falling snow. She walks slowly to her car, savoring the peace that the snow brings. Despite the revving of semi-truck engines getting on and off the turnpike, Sarah finds a certain stillness as she gets into her car. She sits in silence for a minute before turning it on, then turns the radio dial until she finds a station playing Christmas music. The song ends within seconds, and the radio announcer starts up.
“And we’re still going strong on our drive to touch the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, who don’t have the money to have a Christmas dinner and a few gifts around the tree. It’s true that our families and friends are greater than what money can buy, as is the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s why in the spirit of giving and love, we are asking those who are able to call in and make a pledge. We’ve already reached–”
Sarah turns off the radio as her eyes fall on the woman who sits at the picnic table every day. Before she can let fear change her mind, she goes back inside the rest area and orders a cup of coffee. Nothing fancy, just something warm.
“You know you don’t have to pay,” Janice says as she rings Sarah up.
“I know.” Sarah shrugs with a soft, sad smile on her face.
“Hmm.” Janice hands Sarah the coffee. “See you tomorrow.”
Sarah holds the cup carefully between her hands, like she’s cradling a precious treasure. She stops at the stand where the cream and sugar are and grabs a few, stuffing them in her coat pockets. She heads back outside into the snow, which is still falling gracefully. With every step in the direction of the strange lady, Sarah’s heart thuds in her chest and up through her head. She eventually reaches the woman, who is staring in the direction of the woods. Standing a few feet away, Sarah hesitates with what to say. She closes the distance between them and gingerly sets the coffee on the table, adding too many creams and sugars next to it with shaky fingers.
The woman turns — a sudden, jerky movement that takes Sarah by surprise. She’s wearing sunglasses. Sarah half-smiles.
“I just, uh, wanted to give you this. It’s cold outside and all, so I thought you might want something to keep your warm. If you don’t like coffee, I can get you tea or hot chocolate. I work at the coffee place right inside.”
Sarah stops babbling as the woman picks up the cup and takes a sip. “Coffee’s fine. Thank you.”
Sarah’s face eases into a full smile. “You’re welcome.”
The woman doesn’t say anything else, but as she takes another sip of the coffee, Sarah is certain she hears a contented sigh. Before the happy moment falls into awkwardness, Sarah says a quiet goodbye and leaves, smiling to herself all the way to the car and all the way on the drive home.
“What are you smiling for?” Sarah’s mom asks when she enters the kitchen.
“Just, you know, Christmas and the season of giving and all that, Mom.” Sarah kisses her mom’s cheek, asking, “What can I do to help?”