THE GIFT • by Anne Starnes Kingsbury

Jim Cooper braced himself for another show of Christmas cheer.

“How ya doin’? Getting together with the family? We’ve got Christmas Eve supper, breakfast with Santa, brunch at the Club, dinner with the clan, caroling, open house, a tree trimming party, a come-dressed-as-Santa bar crawl…”

Though these remarks were never addressed to him, Jim was forced to hear them repeated over and over again within the course of weeks before the Big Day. As a cashier at Food Fair he was instructed to say “Happy Holidays” to all shoppers, regardless of the tell-tale items in their hands and Christmas in the air. And doomed to overhear interpersonal exchanges between customers randomly meeting each other in the store.

Jim led a quiet life: the last of his family to stay in this town, the last in this state. The others had gone to warmer lands, leaving words of exhortation and invitation behind them. Jim wanted to stay where it was cold in winter. And quiet. His small apartment above a jewelry store suited him until… until he went back to school someday, finished his accounting degree, and…

“Clean-up in aisle seven.”

Jim, on break, collected the rolling bucket, mop, and broom with dust pan. A jar of sweet gherkins lay smashed on the floor. He scooped and mopped to the tune of “Santa Baby” on the sound system.

“Yeah, we’re leaving tomorrow for a Christmas cruise to nowhere. All twelve of us are going.” Jim tried not to listen to the excitement underlying their plans. “Sounds great. We’ll be skiing over New Year’s.” Jim wheeled the clean-up bucket away from their exchange. But it was okay. He had plans of his own.

Food Fair was almost empty of shoppers when Jim’s shift ended. He strode to the dairy section and got some milk, picked up a can of salmon, and a bag of small dinner buns. As he paid for his Christmas Eve dinner, he noted that an icy wind had picked up outside, swirling the dry ice crystals on the ground. He placed the bag in his car, put on his gloves and wrapped his scarf more securely around his throat. He walked to the edge of the parking lot and entered a grouping of shrubs and pines. A small collection of cans now empty lay where he had originally placed them. He stopped and listened.

A rustling sound preceded the appearance of a small, miserably thin orange cat. Jim proffered his hand knowing the cat would investigate. He had saved a sliver of deli ham from his lunch. The cat bent his head. Jim lifted him by the middle and before any protests, tucked him inside the left side of his coat. The cat struggled before the deli ham was offered to it again. Jim could feel the chilliness of its fur, but was surprised at how quickly the cat’s own warmth reached him. He hummed “What Child Is This?” as he walked to his car, amused that he felt the need to lullaby a cat. They drove home.

Jim sat on the couch watching TV with some salmon sliders he’d made for himself. The cat, having finished his salmon and milk dinner, and a brief explore of the two rooms and bath afforded to him, landed with grace beside Jim. The string of lights in the window glowed on their mutual contentment.

Anne Starnes Kingsbury writes a flash fiction piece every two weeks to be allowed admission to a favored writing group. Not completely true, she knows she could just show up empty-handed to laugh and talk shop with her fellows. She teaches poetry to visiting school groups at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, (Smile! O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!), works in the library in the Circulation dept circulating among the thoughts and words, and is learning to play ukulele at the speed of light by trying to keep up at a local ukulele jam group.

‘Tis the season of joy and giving — Patreon makes it easy.

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