by Brenda Anderson
Snow flurries followed Natasha Collins inside the small building that housed the Movie Shack, a modest grill combined with the town's only movie rental store. A sparse collection of movies lined the walls which were decorated with various handmade trinkets for sale. Natasha stepped past a display of children's animated shows and up to the worn counter separating the main room from the small kitchen in the back. A petite woman in her late thirties dried her hands with a towel and smiled at Natasha.
"Afternoon, Ms. Collins. What can I get you today?"
"Hello Jaleen. Vanilla today, I think, with a hint of cinnamon." Natasha watched as Jaleen White spun around to begin assembling her milkshake. Her full brown curls bounced as she worked. Reaching up to pat her own graying blonde tresses, Natasha pursed her lips. Adjusting to small town life has been easier than accepting the intrusion of these gray hairs.
"Here you are." Jaleen set the milkshake on the counter. Natasha reached in her purse and pulled out a couple of bills. She picked up the shake, but thoughts of the cold weather waiting outside kept her from moving toward the door.
"I don't know why I buy these when it's so cold outside. Habit I guess. Never was quite so cold in Phoenix this time of year.
"Sunshine year round?" Jaleen asked as she dried some dishes.
Natasha nodded. "Pretty much. From what I've heard, winters there are more like late spring here."
"Mother Nature definitely takes her time warming things up here. I hope you've got plenty of warm clothes."
"Me, too!" Natasha laughed. "How are those girls of yours doing?"
Jaleen bit her lip and looked down at a stain on the countertop. "Good." She paused, "I suppose you heard that Kelly's pregnant."
"Oh, no, I hadn't. I'm so sorry."
Angry tears slipped down Jaleen's nose. "Father's run off. I guess he was one of those workers they bus in from the city to work at the casinos. Hasn't been back in nearly a month, just after Kelly found out."
Natasha set her milkshake down. "Oh, Jaleen. Come 'round here so I can give you a proper hug." She wrapped her arms around the younger woman running her hands up and down her back as Jaleen allowed herself a short sob.
"I'm okay," she said, as she pulled out of the embrace and took a step back, quickly wiping the tears from her cheeks.
Sensing Jaleen's embarrassment, Natasha searched for a way to change the subject and lighten the mood. She spotted Jaleen's black suede boots.
"Oh my, those are lovely boots."
A faint smile lit Jaleen's features. "Yes, they are quite nice. Took nearly a year of saving to buy them, so I don't wear them too much. I thought maybe today they'd cheer me up."
Natasha knelt down and fingered the soft fringes of suede dangling from the cuffs of the boots. "Beautiful. I used to dream about boots like these when I was a little girl. We didn't have the money then, and when I grew up and starting teaching, they just didn't seem practical anymore." She stood up and patted Jaleen's arm. "You wear them well."
"Thanks." Jaleen gestured toward the kitchen. "Well, I'd better get back to work. Football practice lets out soon; I'd better get some burgers grilling. Those teenage boys sure can eat a lot."
The door opened and Jaleen's youngest daughter, Katie stepped inside, her arms wrapped around an algebra book. She smiled briefly at Natasha before setting the book down and moving around the counter to help her mother prepare for the afternoon rush.
"And I've got papers to grade. It's hard to believe the semester ends next week." Natasha retrieved her shake and slipped out the door into the snow.
Natasha wrote a "C" on the top of the last paper and set it with the others. Sighing, she picked up her favorite mug, with a cute, fuzzy cat warning "Keep your paws off my hot chocolate," and dropped in a few more marshmallows from the plate on the coffee table. She swirled them around before finishing off the cocoa. Her joints protested when she stood up. Not so young anymore. Moving to her living room window, she pushed the curtains aside and looked out.
The bright casino lights that dominated the town's one major road flickered on the foot of new snow that had fallen. Natasha thought it looked like one of the Christmas postcards her daughter had sent her from Montana the last few years. "Help," she laughed quietly, "I've fallen into a postcard, and I can't get out!"
She stayed at the window a few minutes longer, watching the light dusting of flurries spiral down from the night sky. Her laughter faded, and she felt very alone. My first Christmas by myself. She thought of Tony, her youngest son, who she'd just shipped off to college in Florida a few short months ago, right before she took the teaching position and moved to a small town on the northern border of Nevada. He'd refused her offer to join her for Christmas.
"Are you kidding?" he'd asked. "Christmas in Nevada? It snows there you know."
She'd laughed with him then--the holidays were still a long way off. Now they were practically on top of her. Looking down at the dirty mug still in her hand, she started toward the sink to rinse it out. But a movement outside brought her attention once more to the window.
At first she saw nothing but snow covered cars, roofs, and bushes. Natasha felt a pang of longing for cacti: tall, long-armed saguaro, flat-leaved prickly pears, even an ocotillo's winter-bare, gray thorny arms would be welcome now, its life hidden until spring. Because then she would be in southern Arizona, and nothing would be covered in snow. The dark sky would be sparkling with stars, not dressed in a drab layer of storm clouds without a trace of rumbling or flashing.
The same movement in the night brought Natasha out of her reverie. In the dim streetlight near the main road, a shadowy figure trudged through the snow, leaving a trail of footprints marring the pristine whiteness. Even bundled up, Jaleen's slight figure was unmistakable. She's too young to look so stooped and tired. Natasha sighed. She reminds me of me. Oh the dreams I had back then.
She washed out the mug and set it in the drainer, checked on her miniature cactus garden and dressed for bed. Tonight, she lingered over the picture of Anthony she kept at her bedside. The picture was good, capturing the slight crookedness to his smile, the way his dark hair recklessly fell over his forehead. Even as a baby, Tony had looked just like his father, had that same crooked smile that had melted Natasha's heart the first time it danced across his soft features. But Anthony's gone. She tucked a lock of gold-gray hair behind her ear. Been gone longer now than we were married. And Tony's gone too, off in Florida.
Shaking her head to rid it of the memories, Natasha clicked off the light and wriggled under the covers. Footsteps thumped briefly in the apartment upstairs, and then silence settled over her. She could hear only the quiet blowing of air as the furnace worked to heat the room and the low humming of the freezer as it cycled into defrost. They were comforting sounds, her usual lullaby. But sleep eluded her.
After forty minutes, Natasha turned the light back on, dug in her closet for a box of scrap yarn and her crochet hooks and began a chain. By the time she fell asleep, propped up against her pillows with her crochet hook in her hand; she'd finished a scarf and started on a pair of mittens.
School let out three days before Christmas. By then Natasha had used up her scraps and had purchased several large new skeins of yarn. A basket by her bed was nearly filled with her late night work: the scarf and mittens, two baby blankets, some booties, three bibs, three winter hats and a small handbag. When the final bell rang, Natasha watched her twenty-seven sixth graders stream out of the room, energized by sugary Christmas sweets and the promise of two weeks of no school.
As their laughter faded, Natasha grabbed a stack of papers from her desk and placed them in her bag, hoping they would keep her busy over the next few days. She stifled a yawn as she locked her desk and grabbed her ring of keys. Good thing I have a brisk walk home to wake me up.
But her feet didn't take her home. Natasha found herself instead reaching for the door handle at the Movie Shack, her taste buds craving a strawberry shake. The door refused to open. She pulled at it again, with both hands wrapped around the handle. Nothing. Natasha pounded on the door, suddenly worried that something had happened to Jaleen. She had just turned away, wondering if she should call the police when Katie emerged from the back of the building.
"Sorry Ms. Collins. We're closed." Katie shoved her bare hands into the pockets of her worn coat and started down the street that led to her home.
Natasha fell into step beside her. "Is your mom okay?"
Katie kept her head down against the afternoon wind. "She's fine. It's my dad. She's gone into the city to get some medicine for him. Even if Kelly wasn't pregnant, we can't handle the snack bar and the store by ourselves."
Natasha had only met Jaleen's husband once. Derreck White was a large, big muscled man who spent his weeks working on a ranch across the Idaho border, training horses and repairing fences. On weekends he came home and worked the kitchen of the Movie Shack. The milkshakes Natasha found herself addicted to were made with his recipe.
"Can I do anything to help?"
Katie stopped and turned toward Natasha, her eyes filled with tears and worry. "Pray Dad recovers quickly." She turned away and bounded up the stairs to her front door.
Like Patricia had when I told her about Anthony. Natasha paused to say a quick prayer for Katie's father. Only Patti was so much younger. That was when my teaching degree became more than a fall back; the day I decided to set all my dreams aside and make sure Patti and Tony reached all of theirs.
She walked slowly home thinking of ballet recitals, choir performances and dirty football uniforms. And she prayed for Derrick White.
At home, Natasha tried picking up her crochet hook and starting on the sweater pattern she'd found on one of the skeins of yarn, but the process was so familiar that she found herself with too much time to think. So she left the yarn on her bed and went in to the kitchen.
Pulling out a tattered cookbook, Natasha found the worn pages her mother had always turned to when life seemed to be unraveling around her. Soon flour covered her arms nearly to her elbows as she pounded and smashed at the bread dough, taking her frustration, fear and loneliness out on the mound on the counter.
The following day, Natasha awoke confused. The sun's angle was wrong; it should have been lengthening toward her, not away. She slowly sat up, surprised to see that she was still dressed in the green blouse and tan pants from the day before. Beside her, resting on her untouched pillow was the half-finished sweater she'd started last night, after pulling the last loaf of bread from the oven. Squinting at the clock on her dresser, Natasha realized it was nearly four in the afternoon. No wonder the sun angle looks weird. I've slept the day away.
Rising from the bed, she looked toward the basket of finished crocheting projects. "All that crocheting has finally gotten to me," she told it. She reached for Anthony's picture and gave it her usual morning kiss. "I'm getting old Anthony. Old." Setting the picture down, Natasha found her thoughts automatically turning from Anthony to Jaleen, and a heavy weight settled in her stomach.
She showered, dressed, and walked out to her kitchen/living room where her artificial Christmas tree huddled in one corner, decorated so heavily in handmade ornaments that the needles were barely visible, gifts from her children and former students. A red and white crocheted blanket hid the stand from view, but no gifts lurked under the tree's laden branches.
Turning from the tree's blatant reminder of her loneliness, Natasha saw the six loaves of bread she baked the day before lined up on the counter. She had wrapped each one in festive plastic wrap and tied them with variations of green, red, and white bows. They, too, mocked her solitude.
"No!" she told the loaves. She spun around to face the tree. "No!" She dug through the box of Christmas decorations she'd left by the tree until she found a fuzzy red Santa cap. With a look of defiance aimed at the Christmas tree, she pulled the hat on her head and emptied her oversized bag onto the table. Then she refilled it with all of the crochet projects she had completed over the last few weeks.
Natasha hooked the handles over one shoulder, loaded the bread into the now empty basket and took it all to Jaleen's house.
Katie answered the door, her eyes heavy from a combination of sleeplessness and tears. She brightened when she saw the bread.
"This is for your family. Some of the crocheted stuff might be useful when Kelly has the baby." Natasha looks over Katie's shoulder. "How's your father?"
"The medicine seems to be helping. Mom thinks he's going to be okay, although he's pretty weak, so it will probably be a few weeks before he can get back to work and stuff."
Some of the heaviness slid from Natasha's shoulders. "That's good news. Well, I don't want to keep you. Merry Christmas, Katie."
"Thank you so much, Ms. Collins. Merry Christmas to you!"
On Christmas Eve, Natasha sat on the floor of her living room in front of the Christmas tree. Twinkling white lights glowed around the ornaments, and she'd tuned the radio to a station playing carols. This time she smiled as she studied the tree. She could no longer see the red and white blanket that hugged the tree stand. Instead she saw her picture of Anthony, pictures of Patricia and Tony, her case of crochet hooks and a skein of yarn, a worn pair of fuzzy pink slippers, her mother's cookbook, a stack of her favorite novels, her diploma, and everything else she could think of that brought her joy and hope.
Except her favorite mug, which she held in her hand and sipped cocoa from as she watched the tree, the room darkening around her. Natasha stayed there until a light rap at her door brought her to her feet. By the time she arrived at the door, unlocked it and swung it open, whoever had been there was gone, leaving only a brightly wrapped package on the doorstep.
She brought it in and studied the tag. It said only her name, nothing more. Maybe I should wait until morning. Have something to unwrap on Christmas day. But curiosity got the better of her, and her hands carefully began pulling the taped sides open. Underneath the paper she found a plain cardboard box. She unfolded the flaps and gasped.
Inside was Jaleen's pair of black suede boots. Natasha pulled them out and a small card fluttered to the floor. She picked it up, tears stinging her eyes as she read:
"You're never too old for dreams to come true."
Natasha wiped her eyes and set the boots under the tree with her treasures. She fingered the soft fringe and turned to Anthony's picture. "Maybe I'm not that old." He smiled his crooked smile.
Critique: I love this. I never thought I’d ever say to “tell” us more, but it’s a little confusing about where Natasha is and where she’s come from. We need to know that, and that she’s a teacher sooner. Also, play up the mittens a little more to make the title fit better. (Love the title.) I’d also give Jaleen more children and have the father work at the shop with her. Characterization and writing is great. Love it.
What I liked best: I love that she put the things that brought her joy under the tree.
Publication ready: Yes, with a few minor changes (notes for which I’ve sent you in the story document). Get those changes ready because this will definitely be in the next Christmas anthology!