Shiny Spotted Stone, 2021 Third Place

By Bruce Bash

“Mom, why do you have to work on Christmas?” Jacob plopped down on a kitchen chair as if his legs had turned to gelatin. “Why is the café open anyway?”

“Mom has to work, Pinhead, because we’re broke, that’s why.”

“Your brother’s not a Pinhead, Emma.”

“See, Mom. Just because Emma turned thirteen she thinks she can call me names all the time.”

Sara Davis flipped the pancakes browning on the griddle. She let out a heavy sigh. “Listen kids. Mr. Hardy stays open a few hours on Christmas for his regular customers. Some have told him they wouldn’t have any place to go on Christmas if the café wasn’t open. Folks don’t all have family close, or they don’t have much money. So staying open is Mr. Hardy’s gift to his customers for their support, especially during this COVID pandemic. And if someone is short on cash, it doesn’t matter on Christmas.”

Emma opened the refrigerator door and peered inside. “We’re almost out of syrup, Momma. Just a little left in the bottom of the bottle.”

“Okay, don’t drown your pancakes, you two.”

“I still don’t think it’s fair.” Jacob slapped at his fork. It turned a summersault in mid-air, bounced off the table and landed on the floor. “Do we have to go to Aunt Darleen’s again this year?”

“No, not this year.” Sara transferred a pancake to each plate and set them on the table. “Aunt Darleen has way too many health issues to stay with her. Actually, this year you’re going to the café with me to help. We’ll be short two servers with Jamie and Lianne away on family emergencies.”

“Aw, Mom. I’m only eight. I can’t do anything.”

“Sure you can, Jacob.” Emma sat down at the table and opened a butter tub. “We’ll give you a plastic knife and a bucket and you can scrape the gum off the bottoms of the tables.”

“Mom–”

“Come on, kids. Be nice. People don’t do the gum thing much anymore. We’re counting on you, Jacob, to keep the customer’s water glasses filled and to set the cleaned tables with fresh silverware and napkins. You’ll need to wear a mask and gloves.”

“And…what will I have to do?” Emma’s eyes grew wide and anxious.

“She’s pretty good at calling people names, Mom.” Jacob looked at his sister with a big fake grin.

“Someone has to wash tables between customers. And the seats, too.”

“Ick.”

“It won’t be so bad. Marci’s kids will be there. I think you’re old enough to help with the cash register, so you’ll switch off with Cassidy. Part of the time you’ll clean tables and part of the time you’ll take payments. We’ll have to get moving first thing in the morning tomorrow. There’s a lot of prep work to do before we can open the café doors.”

“Maybe we should start walking now, Momma.” Emma brushed the hair back from her face. “You know how the car’s been starting lately. Or should I say not starting.”

“Oh, dear, the car.” Sara’s shoulders drooped. “I need to talk to Robert at the garage. Maybe I can work out a payment plan with him. But tomorrow is Christmas. The car has to start on Christmas. It just has to.”

Jacob pulled the squealing car door closed and sat shivering in the back seat. It was still dark and teeth-jarring cold. “Hold your breath, everyone. Here goes.” Sara turned the ignition key. The car coughed, but didn’t start. She tried again. Nothing.

“Maybe you should have asked Santa for a new car.” Emma tugged her scarf tighter around her neck.

“Come on, Little Blue. You’ve gotta start today.” Sara turned the key again. The car made a clicking noise, sputtered, and roared to life. “Hey, it really is Christmas. Hang on. We’re not slowing down for anything.”

The café was brightly lit and bustling when they hurried through the door. “You need to wash your hands, kids. There are masks on the counter by the cash register and disposable gloves to wear. We have to clean tables and seats, fill salt and pepper shakers, fold napkins, all kinds of things. Every other table has an “X” taped on it. Those tables won’t be used.”

Jacob bumped into a rack of post cards. Several fell to the floor.

“Way to go, Klutz.” Emma bent down to pick up the cards. “I hope you’re more careful with the water pitcher or the customers will need swimming suits.”

The prep hours passed quickly. At 11:00 o’clock Mr. Hardy unlocked the door and people began to shuffle in. By 11:20 the usable tables were filled.

Jacob carried his water pitcher from table to table. One couple asked for extra napkins. A little girl in a booster seat threw a straw at him.

“Hey there, boy. Over here.”

Jacob turned to see an old man seated at a table by himself. The man wore a ball cap with Frank Church Wilderness printed on it.  His grey beard and bushy eyebrows reminded Jacob of a pirate.

“I dropped my fork. It’s under the table.”   

Jacob looked down and saw the fork. It had landed right at the edge of the seat and wouldn’t have been difficult for the man to pick up himself. “I’ll get you a clean one,” Jacob said, stooping down to grab the fork. “But it will take me a few minutes. I’ll need to wash my hands and get clean gloves.”

The man nodded and stared down at his plate. Jacob hurried to the dirty dishes cart in back. “Geeze,” he said to his mother when she approached with some sticky glasses. “That man’s not very nice. He dropped his fork and wouldn’t even pick it up. And he didn’t say thank you or nothing.”

Sara glanced toward the man and smiled. “That’s Mr. Garrett. He can’t bend down, Jacob. He has a rod in his back. An old factory injury.”

Jacob felt the grumpiness fade from his chest. He picked up a fork from the silverware tray and hurried back to Mr. Garrett’s table.

New customers trickled in to take the place of those who had finished. Jacob filled more water glasses and replaced the silverware and napkins on two cleaned tables when he noticed Mr. Garrett had finished his meal. “Would you like more water?” Jacob asked as he approached the man’s table.

“No.” Mr. Garrett cleared his throat and reached into his coat pocket. “This is for you.” He laid a small object on the table, a whistle with three holes on top. It had been carved out of a single piece of wood. 

“Wow. That is so cool.” Jacob picked up the small toy. It was smooth as glass to the touch. “Thank you, mister. Thanks a lot.”

Mr. Garret reached into his pocket again. “These are for your young friends. I have quite a lot of free time at home.”

Jacob picked up the whistles and smiled. He started to speak, but a woman at another table called to him and he hurried back to work. A few minutes later he noticed Mr. Garrett at the cash register ready to leave.

“Mr. Garrett.” Jacob hurried toward the register. He pulled an oval polished stone out of his front jeans pocket. He stared at the stone for a long time before handing it to Mr. Garrett. “This is for you. It’s Leopard Skin Jasper. See, it has a dip on one side that fits your thumb. My mom calls it a worry stone. You rub it when you feel worried about something.”

The old man’s jaw seemed to quiver beneath his mask. His eyes grew moist. “Thank you, son. Thank you.”

The café employees scurried about to get all their customers served before closing time. Jacob didn’t know five hours could go by so quickly. When Mr. Hardy finally locked the door everyone cheered and slumped against the nearest tables, exhausted but happy.

“Why don’t you take your kids home, Sara,” Jacob heard Mr. Hardy tell his mom. “They did a great job helping today. I’m sorry I don’t have a bonus to give you this year.”

Once outside, the fog pressed in like an icy blanket. Jacob slid into the Honda’s back seat listening to his teeth chatter.

“Come on, Little Blue.” Sara pressed the gas pedal. Start one more time. Just once more to get us home.” The starter ground and ground. The battery seemed to be getting weaker when the car suddenly rattled and spewed out exhaust.

“Alright!” Emma let out a cheer. “We won’t have to walk home after all, Momma.”

The town and streets were nearly empty even though it was only late afternoon. They pulled into their driveway and raced each other to the front door. “I think I’m froze through.” Sara’s hand shook as she struggled to insert the key in the door lock. “It must be ten below zero.” When the door popped open, they pushed inside. “Emma, would you plug in the tree lights? I’ll turn up the heat.”

Soon they were huddled together on the over-stuffed couch wrapped in a handmade afghan. Only four small wrapped gifts peeked out from under the tree branches of their artificial tree.

 “My feet are killing me.” Sara let out a groan. “I feel as if I climbed Mount Rushmore in my socks. But I’m happy and thankful Little Blue got us home. Your lucky gemstone must have worked for us, Jacob.”

Jacob rolled the small whistle around in his hand. “Well, actually, I don’t have it anymore. I gave it to Mr. Garrett before he left the café. You should have seen his eyes, Mom. He was so happy just holding that shiny spotted stone.”

 “Honey, that was really nice.  I’m sure Mr. Garrett doesn’t get many gifts.”

“I wish I had a gift for you and Emma.”

Sara slipped out of her left shoe. “It’s been a rough year with the COVID virus closing the café for a while and my hours getting cut.” Sara looked at Jacob and then over at Emma. “Maybe you two could give each other a gift that’s not something you have to buy. Like a gift from the heart.”

The room fell silent. One of the lights on the tree suddenly glowed bright and burned out. “I know what I can give you, Jacob.” Emma tilted her head forward to look at her brother. For the next whole week I promise I won’t call you any names.”

Jacob snickered. “Right. I don’t think you can go an hour without calling me a name. What would you do with your spare time?” Emma stuck out her tongue. “But I have a gift for you.” Jacob handed Emma a small key chain with a tiny silver key attached.

“Where’d you get this? Did you steal my key? Have you been reading my diary?”

“I didn’t steal your key. I found the extra one you dropped last summer when you first got your diary. Besides, your diary is boring.”

“I-I’ll clobber you. You—“

“Wait! What about my Christmas present?”

“Your Christmas present? It just exploded all over the room. You don’t get a week anymore. You’re lucky I’m giving you a day. That’s all. You get one single day—starting tomorrow, you slime ball.”

Now Jacob was laughing. He couldn’t help it, Emma’s threat sounded so silly. He laughed so hard even Emma couldn’t hide a weak smile.

“I know I got my wish this Christmas.” Sara reached out and pulled her kids close. I’ve got you two, the best kids in the whole world.”

“Ah, Momma, parents have to say things like that about their kids.”

“Really?” Sara pushed up her lips. “I don’t remember reading anything about that in my ‘How to Raise a Kid’ manual.”

Knock…Knock…Knock.

“Unless we have woodpeckers, someone’s at the door.”

Sara hobbled to the door and flipped the switch for the outside light. When she opened the door she saw a short stocky man wearing a mask standing on the top step. “Mr. Hardy. What a surprise.”

Mr. Hardy burst into the room. “You won’t believe this, Sara. I can scarcely believe it myself. I had to come over as soon as I got the café in order.”

Mr. Hardy fumbled with a stack of white envelopes he had in his inside coat pocket. He handed the last envelope to Sara. “Did you see that young couple who came in right before we closed? They sat at our employee table in back and ordered coffee. Anyway, I could tell by their accents they weren’t from Idaho. Maybe Canada or Australia. They asked me questions about my staff and said how nice it was they gave up their time on Christmas to serve others. I didn’t think much about it, but after they left I found a manila envelope on the table with the words Secret Santa written on it. Sara, they left $300 for each employee, even Jamie and Lianne. Can you believe it? Three new $100-bills each!”

Sara stared at the bills she pulled out of the white envelope.

“Momma, we can get the car fixed.”

Sara’s mouth felt dry as flour. “I-I don’t know what to say, Mr. Hardy. Thank you.”

“You were my first stop. I have to hurry now to tell the others. Merry Christmas.”

They watched Mr. Hardy drive away and shuffled back to the couch. “A Secret Santa. I still can’t believe it.”

“Mom.” Jacob slumped down on the couch bone tired from the day’s work. “Is the virus ever going away?”

“Oh, Jacob. It’s going to be a while, I’m afraid. It’ll take months before everyone can be vaccinated. We have to be patient and careful.”

“I miss my Explorers group.” Jacob put his whistle to his lips and blew three notes. “When the pandemic is over, do you think Mr. Garrett would come to a meeting and teach us how to make whistles? He told me he has lots of time.”

“I think Mr. Garrett would love to do that.” Sara yawned.  “Tell you what. I’m going to close my eyes for a few minutes and then you two can open your gifts.”

Emma and Jacob snuggled up close to their mother beneath the warm afghan. Jacob heard the mantle clock chime. He thought about Emma’s gift and he knew his sister would never be able to go a whole day without calling him a name. Not the way he could tease her.

He felt his body go limp; his eyelids began to close. Somewhere far off in a dreamy mist he heard another chime of the clock.

Jacob smiled to himself. He couldn’t wait until tomorrow.