Chapter Thirteen

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Mr. Best was up earlier than usual the next morning, and I smelled coffee. It was an amazing, welcome smell, and I needed some desperately.

"Good morning, Mr. Wainwright," he said cheerfully as he gestured toward the small pot on the stove. "Do you like coffee?"

"I love it, sir," I replied, sounding as desperate for caffeine as I was.

He smiled slightly.

"Then bring your cup up here." He used a kitchen towel to pick up the pot by the handle and poured the steaming liquid. I wrapped my hands around the cup as I settled into my seat at the table, immensely grateful, in the moment, for this small comfort.

I ached all over from the day's work yesterday, and I knew today would be no easier.

"I have a favor to ask of you, Mr. Wainwright," Best said, as he placed some bread and jam down in front of me. "I need to decorate the store for Christmas this evening. Windows, interior, exterior. I was wondering if you might not be willing to assist me."

"Oh." My face fell, I couldn't hide it. I was dreading Christmas this year, whatever century I was in. My Grandfather had loved it so, and the reminder of his absence was not a welcome one. I forced a smile. "Of course, I would be happy to help."

"You hesitated," Mr. Best noted, pouring his own coffee and sitting across from me. "I know why I dread the holidays, Mr. Wainwright. Would it be too intrusive of me to ask why you do?"

I shook my head. "Not at all. My Grandfather passed away recently, and it was his favorite holiday. We shared an apartment back home...this will be the first year I'll be celebrating without him."

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said, staring into his cup and watching the black coffee swirl there as he spooned in some sugar, taking a sip and looking at me. "This is my second time alone. It's never the same for me, not without Sarah and her carols. Always singing the carols. But the customers like the trappings of the holiday, so what am I to do? I decorate. I try to get through it as quickly as I can. With your help, the task will be much more quickly accomplished. Then I can ignore them until it's time to take them down. By which time, you won't be in Wishing Cross any longer, will you? You said you were only staying the month."

"With any luck, I'll be on my way back home before New Year's Day."

"Putting some distance between you and your grief?"

I was surprised he asked such a direct question. "Not exactly, but I won't lie and tell you the distance from home isn't welcome right now."

I drew from my coffee cup; it was stronger than I'd ever tasted, and it was just what I needed to get through the morning.

I ate my bread and rose to gather my coat and boots for work. "Would you prefer to start before or after dinner?"

"After," Mr. Best replied. "You'll have worked a much longer day than I by then. I can't deny a man his dinner before I ask such a favor of him, climbing ladders to hang garlands."

"Fair enough. It really is my pleasure to help you, though. You've been so kind to me, sir. I thank you."

He gave a dismissive wave. "Think nothing of it. It's not like you're living here for free. You're paying your way."

"Kindness is something you can't put a price on," I answered. "I am indebted to you."

"You are a curious young man, Mr. Wainwright."

"I will take that as a compliment, Mr. Best."

"Good," he said, draining his coffee cup dry. "It was meant as one."

***

I hurried to the station and picked up the first batch of packages, and I was surprised, upon arrival at the General Store, to find Marigold standing behind the counter.

She looked pale and drawn, her eyes shadowed and swollen as if she'd been crying. She avoided looking at me as I attempted to wish her a good morning, so I left her alone and went about the business of unloading the packages for Mr. Wilson to log. He stopped me, cigar dangling from his lips as ever as he spoke.

"Hold up there, boy. Seems you have too much time on your hands, and you have your wits about you, so I'm going to put those wits to work along with the rest of you."

"Sir?" I didn't know what I'd done to anger him, but it was obvious I had.

"Take this." He handed me the log book. "See the example I've left you here, how to log in the parcel? Log it in, then take the deliveries out that are intended to go. Leave the rest here. Return to the station for the next batch, log those, deliver. Repeat. Understand?"

"Yes, sir." I didn't question, I just did as I was told.

I stole a look over at Marigold, but she had her back turned to me. Mrs. Wilson was instructing her on the proper way to put the holiday items they'd just received on the last train out on display for the customers to see.

"Just don't drop them," Mrs. Wilson warned. "They're expensive."

"Yes, ma'am," Marigold replied, and she went about her work without another word.

Jeremiah and Joseph came into the store to pick up some small parcels and approached me.

"They're over there," I said, too busy with the log to pay them much attention as they took the packages into their arms.

"You really did it," Joseph whispered to me as he took one from the top of the pile and tossed it between his hands.

"Careful! That one's marked fragile!" Then his words sunk in. "I did what?"

"You should have heard Father last night," Jeremiah chimed in. "When he found out Marigold invited you for lunch, he took his belt to her. Then he punished her by making her come work for the holidays with Mrs. Wilson because he said...what did he say, Joe?"

"He said he 'couldn't abide to look at her', is what he said." Joseph replied. "I don't think I've ever seen him so angry."

"He took his what to her?" I stammered. The idea of her being whipped for showing me a simple kindness infuriated me. I could feel my cheeks burning with heat as anger coursed through my body. "I hope there was no trouble for your mother?"

"Not for Mother. He said she did the Christian thing being hospitable to you. But he said Mari had no business inviting you into our house. So she got it, really good."

"I bet she doesn't want to sit down today!" Jeremiah crowed, seeming pleased by what had happened to his sister.

"Shut up, Jeremiah!" Joseph said, reddening. "She didn't deserve it. She did the Christian thing, too. That's what I don't get. One rule for everyone else, and a different one, every time, for Mari. I don't know why he—"

"Get!" Mr. Wilson came over, broom in hand. "You boys get going about your work or I'll swat you one! Go!" He narrowed his eyes at me. "You, too."

"Yes, sir," I said, and as I sat there filling out the log, I suddenly felt as if I were being watched.

I looked up and, in the mirror on the wall, I saw Marigold's face reflected toward me, even though her back was still turned.

Her eyes were so sad, though she did not cry. She held her head high, and continued lining up little glass ornaments on the shelf one by one. She seemed to stare past me, as if her mind were very far away, and I wondered where it was she went inside her head to escape the cruelty of the life she was living in the present.


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