The Bell Ringer
Aidan’s backpack sagged against his shoulder. Too many worn paperback books, too many half empty notebooks filled with story ideas and character biographies. Too much baggage.
The largest book, and only hardcover it contained, was his journal. It poked at him through the aging canvas; sharp, painful edges stabbing into his back. He shrugged the bag and shook it a little so the contents would shift and hopefully resettle into a slightly less violent configuration.
He shivered as he remembered the day he’d purchased that journal, cracked the binding and started his very first entry about Emily.
He didn’t need to open the book and try to decipher his scrawling, tiny handwriting to recall every word he’d written.
That first entry, like all the others he’d penned about her, were words too close to his heart to ever forget.
Things that are adorable about Emily: Item One.
Carnations are her favorite flower, she said, because they last such a long time and their petals remind her of fireworks on the Fourth of July. “Large, unfurling circles, bright and happy.”
His head and heart felt heavier with every memory, as one by one they began cascading through his mind faster than he could ever hope to sort them.
His chest ached as he considered all the things he had yet to learn about her, all the items that could’ve been tacked onto that list if he’d only had more time. Still, in the time he’d had, he had managed to fill the book completely; even writing on the endpapers when the pages inside were all spent.
As he stepped out of the coffee shop and into the street, the sights and sounds of the impending holidays assaulted all of his senses.
The soaring refrain of Josh Groban’s O Holy Night emanated from inside the Hallmark card shop beside Run Aground, but only when the door opened to allow someone to enter or exit. Horns honked. Gaggles of teenaged girls laughed as they passed by, arms laden with shopping bags full of brightly wrapped gifts.
The street scene was absolutely stunning, a modern Currier and Ives image in motion if ever there could be such a thing. Beautiful to everyone around him, even though it couldn’t possibly be to Aidan. He was a man alone and lost in the shuffle of the crowd, taking note of every detail only because he was stricken by how empty it all seemed. Lights that should twinkle merely dimmed. The happiest sounds of the season muted down to nothing in a city that, vibrant as it was, felt lifeless now that she was nowhere to be found.
The thought of his world ending as he knew it, mutating into a frozen, empty void without her presence, was devastating.
Two words echoed in his mind as he felt momentarily dizzy and stopped walking.
He struggled to continue, knees weak, feet seeming cemented to the sidewalk for a long moment before he managed to drag them onward.
As he took in more and more of the scenery, he was reminded of her time and again. Everywhere he looked, something brought to mind one of the reasons he had to love her.
A wreath he never would have noticed otherwise, tacked to the door of the Hallmark shop, brought her to mind because of something she’d once said that he’d definitely taken note of.
Reason thirty-six why Emily is adorable: she confided in me that she’s never been kissed under the mistletoe, and doesn’t think that she ever will be.
The Salvation Army bell ringer up ahead looked at him apologetically as he approached, forced to go past her between the shops and his car. She recognized his face. She knew that he and all of the kids who worked at the coffee house could barely pay their rent and feed themselves, let alone give much away to charity no matter what time of year it was… unlike most of the trendy suburbanites that they waited on day in and day out.
Aidan observed the woman as she shivered and pulled her fingerless gloves tighter down over her palms. He changed course and ducked back into the coffee shop, walked straight to the head of the line and flagged down his newest employee; a girl of sixteen who was wandering cluelessly back and forth behind the counter instead of minding her register.
He ordered a plain House Blend with cream to go, leaned halfway over the counter and rang it up, not bothering to take the time to put in his employee discount let alone to let the newbie try to figure out how she was supposed to do it. Then he took his change and combined it with the rumpled dollar bills in his pocket before he headed back to the bell ringer and her kettle.
“Evening, Ma’am,” he said as he approached.
“Merry Christmas!” She nodded and smiled with genuine warmth.
“Not quite.” If he’d had the strength to smile at anything, he would have smiled at her.
Her flawless white teeth shone like a string of pearls in lovely contrast to
her dark skin. “Oh, I am sorry,” she said, clearly worried she may have offended him. “Happy Hanukkah?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“Well, I don’t think I should be wishin’ you a Happy Kwanzaa,” she laughed merrily. Kindness radiated from her; she was one of those souls who seemed to sparkle from within. Aidan couldn’t help being curious about her. She wore an old but well-kept wool coat over her clothes and a thin gold wedding band over the worn down half-finger of her glove. He wondered if she had children or grandchildren. She reminded him of one of his favorite teachers; Mrs. Johnston, second grade.
He wondered what had ever become of Mrs. Johnston.
“Not that either, but here.” Her eyes lit up as he handed her the cup. “I would like to wish you happy holidays, whatever your holiday of choice. I hope you take cream in your coffee.”
“Real cream? Not that powdered stuff?”
“Can’t stand the powdered stuff.”
“Aren’t you kind? Goin’ to all that trouble. Thank you, sweetheart.”
“No trouble,” Aidan said with a dismissive wave. “Give it a minute, though, it’s really hot.” He slipped the money from his pocket into the kettle. When he looked up at her again, he saw that she’d cocked her head to the side, taking him in anew. It was then that she asked him a very strange question.
“Did you make a wish?”
“We’re supposed to wish on Red Kettles?” He blinked, considering. “Never heard that one before.”
“Well, it’s no wishin’ well, that’s for sure. But I like to think that people as kind as you, well, they have a way with the Universe and it with them. That’s why whenever somebody makes an impression on me as they put whatever they can spare into this kettle of mine, I make a wish for them.”
“Does it work?”
“I like to think sometimes it does," she shrugged, adding humbly, “’Course I don’t want to try to take credit for any blessings that God may bestow, if I just take a second to whisper a suggestion into His ear.” Her eyes took on a faraway look as she continued.
“Last year, they put me with the kettle down outside the big JC Penney store. There was a lady, came by the mall all the time, and every so often I’d catch her cryin’ outside the display window for the baby department.”
She blinked rapidly, eyes glistening as she recalled the sadness in the young woman’s face. “One day she put some money into the kettle and I don’t know why, I just reached out and took her hand. I asked her what she was cryin’ about, and she told me then. Doctor said she couldn’t ever have a baby, and she wanted one so bad she cried every time she saw the little clothes and shoes at Penney’s.
“Well, I didn’t care if everybody around me thought I was crazy, I hugged the child and I told her to keep the faith. That she’d be holdin’ a baby of her own, sure as I was standin’ there holdin’ her. That I was going to make a wish for her about it over my kettle.”
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, ringing her bell again after realizing she had forgotten to do it while they’d been talking. “Just this past week, she came walkin’ by here, in a hurry to meet somebody for coffee in your shop. She stopped and backed up when she saw me, and she pushed a baby stroller over to me with the most beautiful little newborn boy in it you ever did see. Told me that my wish worked.”
“That’s really something. Too bad you can’t bottle that,” Aidan said. “You’d have more money than a hundred kettles could hold to donate to the cause.” He nodded to her and turned to go. He was sorely lacking in faith of any sort today, and he just wanted more than ever to be alone. “Stay warm.”
“Young man, wait.”
He glanced back over his shoulder, looking altogether angelic to her as snow began to fall in gigantic, Hollywood-style flakes and settled down onto his hair and eyelashes.
“What wish should I make for you?”
Aidan could barely speak for his sadness, and his voice broke as he tried. “Too late for that, but thank you.” He cleared his throat and tilted his head, indicating his place of employment. “Anytime you want coffee, just go in and tell them Aidan sent you. They’ll give you anything on the menu for free.”
“How do they know Aidan really sent me?”
“’Cause I don’t send a lot of people.” He waved, hefted his backpack over his shoulder again and finally walked on. “See you around.”
She stopped ringing her bell long enough to take a sip of the fresh coffee as she watched him disappear into the crowd. She sighed, warmed more by his thoughtfulness than the temperature of the beverage he’d brought her.
As she began ringing her bell once again, she stared down into the slit of the plastic lid of her kettle.
“Whatever young Aidan is wishin’ for,” she whispered, head bowed in reverence, “Lord, it just can’t be too much to ask, can it?”