Angela Amman

Frost Flowers – Part Five

Frost Flowers Angela AmmanContinued from Part Four — or start at the beginning

Joni knew she shouldn’t let it get to her. Even before her job at the store, she’d worked enough retail jobs to understand the mentality of shoppers as the holiday rush intensified. From her first job as a greeter at an ultra-preppy mall store to the teeny boutique she’d worked at for a few months in college, shoppers acted the same way. So when the fifteenth person of the day lamented loudly about how close Christmas was, Joni wanted it to roll off her shoulders. Instead, they curled higher and higher until they practically crowded out her ears.

To Joni, who bought presents for only a handful of people and who baked even less, the holiday season stretched in front of her like an ocean she’d never cross — a loud, frantic ocean that would shove her out of the way for the last snow-tipped poinsettia wreath.

She took over a register from one of the seasonal staff members, and the resulting smile made her feel marginally better until a customer insisted on looking for her emailed coupon for at least four of the twelve days of Christmas.

“Ma’am,” Joni said, the address tentative. The rebuke from Gabriela weighed on her mind, a sore spot in a long series of irate customers. She returned to it more than she’d like to admit because it meant returning to the charming dimples accompanying Grady’s smile. Only an impatient cough from one of the customers in the growing line pulled her from thoughts of that smile.

“Ma’am,” Joni repeated. “I can just scan one of our coupons.”

“No, thank you. I know it’s here somewhere, and I really want those reward points, you know? I’m in here so often, and — oh! Here it is. No, that one’s expired. Just another minute,” she said.

Joni’s shoulders rose higher and her customer smile hurt her cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see other customers stepping up to registers and finishing transactions while she waited. Finally, the pesky coupon emerged from email purgatory and Joni scanned the phone. The savings of under two dollars seemed paltry compared to the time spent, time crawling toward the end of her shift. She handed the receipt and the bag across the counter, her eyes already on the next person in line.

“Thank you, dear,” the woman said. Joni looked back at her. The face staring back at her smiled, not just the lips-lifted smile Joni practiced all season, but a smile that crinkled eyes. “I know you didn’t have to wait for me to find that silly thing, but I appreciate it.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Joni said. She curled her hands into tight balls and found the pockets of her smock.

“No, dear, it’s not. It means a lot to be kind,” she said.

Joni opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out, so she just nodded. For the first time she wondered if the reason she had so few wrinkles had anything to do with how rarely she truly smiled. Regret bloomed in her chest, but she pressed it down until it could consume her later than night, keeping her awake. Polly walked up to her register, pointing the next customer down the line to an open terminal.

“Hey,” she started. Her voice sounded conspiratorial. “That guy’s back from the other day — and he asked for you.”

Joni flushed. “What?”

“I know! He’s asking if you design centerpieces,” Polly said. “He needs wedding flowers.”

Joni’s heart plummeted. Disdain for herself for picturing his eyes and smile countless time flooded her gut.

Polly rewound her words when she noticed Joni’s face. “Oh. No. I’m talking too fast again. He asked if you did wedding flowers, but he’s not here with his fiancee, he’s here with his sister. A different one this time. She seems nicer.”

Her heart righted itself in her chest, and she felt something else there, too. The smile lifting her lips continued to her eyes this time, and she felt the crinkles there with her finger. She felt hope.

to be continued…

Frost Flowers Angela Amman

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Frost Flowers – Part Four

Frost Flowers If you’d like to start from the beginning, you can find Part One here.

Joni walked home at the end of her shift. One of the reasons she applied at the craft store had been its vicinity to her small apartment, though she preferred it in the summer months, when she could ride her bike and let the warm air push the day off her skin and out of her hair. Walking in the winter felt harder. When she arrived home, she could barely feel her toes, but she could still feel the holiday stress creeping into her shoulders. Shearling slippers helped her toes, so she settled into the crook of her couch with a heating pad and vat of herbal tea for the shoulders.

Her phone pinged but she ignored it for a few more moments. It would be her mother, she knew. Peggy asked for Joni’s schedule periodically, painstakingly writing down dates and times as though she needed to go to work with her oldest child. When Joni first got the job, Peggy wriggled her opinion about the change into little comments about Joni having to work late hours or how much more convenient it was to work a traditional schedule. Joni’s banking job intrigued Peggy, and she had a harder time letting go of the job than Joni did.

Peggy didn’t mention the bank anymore.

The next ringtone surprised her. She’d programmed a special ring for Rosie. Joni never ignored her niece’s calls, but Rosie generally texted before calling, technology a second nature for the middle schooler in a way it might never be for Joni. She picked up the phone and her niece’s sweet face filled the screen. Joni averted her eyes from the corner, where her own tired eyes would meet her.

“Dad said you haven’t changed your mind about Christmas,” Rosie said.

“I just can’t swing it this year, Rose. I’m already scheduled at the store. Grammy and Papa will be there, though.”

Rosie’s words bubbled out. Part of the reason Joni looked forward to their conversations was how little she had to contribute compared to how much joy she felt when they happened.

“Oh, I know,” Rosie said. “But I still crossed my fingers. I want to see you! By the way, Grammy said you have gray hair now. Can you turn on a better light? Oh! It’s pretty, Auntie. Jana and I bought this chalk, but of course Mom freaked out because it got on pillowcases. You should come at Christmas, but Mom said I could ask if you want to come in February instead. I don’t have school, and there’s no way we can go on a vacation with this new baby.”

Rosie wavered between excitement over a new sibling and angst over how things would change as her only-child status toppled to the ground. Joni harbored her own reasons for not feeling completely excited about the new baby, but she would never speak about them to even her mother, let alone a twelve year old child. For now, she felt grateful to move the conversation away from her lack of travel during the holiday season.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Joni said, though she hadn’t, not until she’d heard Rosie’s words. She exhaled an idea into the universe before she could change her mind. “Maybe I could fly you up here during your break?”

“What? Seriously?” Rosie squealed. “Could we go into the city?”

Joni laughed. Her niece refused to give credence to the geographical fact that upstate New York was nowhere near Manhattan. She also staunchly ignored how could February could be in New York. It reminded Joni of the way she’d once found the city magical, the idea she could find a new version of herself between skyscrapers and a career that never materialized in her head as anything more that a vague version of success.

“Why not?” she said, calculating the cost of the trip. Her bank account would groan under the burden, but she’d been smart about investing before quitting her real job, as Peggy still called it. Her self-dictated lack of a social life meant the majority of her savings never saw the outside of her meticulous budgeting spreadsheet.

“Auntie, I can’t believe it! I love you! Do you care if I let you go now? I need to text Jana about this. She’s going to die,” Rosie’s words tumbled on top of each other, and Joni could hear the attention shifting to her best friend.

“Go text Jana,” Joni said.

“Are you serious, though? Like, can I tell Dad, and we can start looking at flights, and maybe I can try to figure out what things we should see?”

“I’d be thrilled to have you visit,” Joni said, meaning it. “Of course you can tell your dad.”

“I love love love you, Auntie.”

“Love you, Rose.”

Joni cradled the phone in her hands, wanting to cling to the warmth of the conversation for a little while longer. Soon, her brother would call — or text, knowing Rob. And he’d ask the questions Rosie would never consider, like how she could afford what she and Rosie discussed while not being able to afford a single plane ticket to spend Christmas with her family. The thought of that conversation exhausted her, and she turned up the heat on the heating pad, leaning into it and closing her eyes.

…to be continued

Frost Flowers Angela Amman

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Frost Flowers – Part Three

Frost Flowers
If you’d like to start from the beginning, you can find Part One here.

Polly’s bottom lip looked white beneath her clenched teeth, and Joni shifted from introspective to damage control in a blink. A line snaked through the checkout aisles, and even with every register ringing away, impatience wafted through the air. Half of Joni’s mind wondered how many times she’d hear “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” that day, while the other half tried to determine what had Polly so upset. She stood in the middle of the sale section, which had basically comprised all of the holiday decorations since the first of December.

A woman stood near her, dangerously close to the halo of personal space dictated by social norms. The woman wore an expensive looking camel coat and severe leopard booties. Joni focused on the boots, supposing anyone would be crabby with their feet encased in a toe box that pointy while shopping.

“Hi there,” Joni heard the false ring of warmth in her voice, secretly a little pleased it sounded so concerned. “Is there something I could help you with?”

Polly tucked her lips back with her teeth and audibly inhaled. The customer took the opportunity to begin the conversation.

“Your manager called you up here because I demanded to speak with her manager, and she informed me she is the manager. Undeterred, I asked to speak with someone else who might be able to solve the problem,” she spoke loudly, turning the heads of several people waiting in line.

“Well, I’ve never seen a problem Polly couldn’t solve, but I’m happy to do what I can to help,” Joni said. Her statement rang true. Polly deftly handled irate customers all the time, which wasn’t always true for Joni, though she’d gotten better in the three years she’d worked at the store.

This particular irate customer paused, taking in Joni’s hair. Hating herself for doing it, Joni raised both her hands and pushed back the sides, twisting it into a long tail down her back. Even that seemed to bother the woman, whose eyes narrowed. She stared at Joni’s hands. Joni noticed the woman’s impeccable red nails, a little too long, in her opinion, but impeccable nonetheless. Joni took another breath. This woman’s fingernails had nothing at all to do with whatever problem she had with Polly.

“I was just explaining,” Polly said, her voice coiled tight around whatever emotion she was trying to hide, “that all of our Christmas decorations are on the floor.”

Joni nodded, trying to look sympathetic.

“And I was explaining,” the woman said, “that I was interested in purchasing a wired garland I saw here the other day. I just can’t believe it’s all gone.”

“What did it look like, ma’am?” she asked.

“Various sized leaves, all coated in gold foil. And don’t call me ma’am,” the woman said, spitting the word back at Joni.

Joni wracked her brain through the store’s inventory. They unpacked the seasonal merchandise as a team, which meant everyone saw everything on the floor. Some people groused about it on early Sunday mornings and late Wednesday nights, but Joni stayed longer than necessary, cataloging ornaments and ribbons, false greenery and rustic wooden signs. It beat sitting at home and rearranging her mantle again.

Right now it meant she recalled the garland in just seconds. She knew, though, she’d need to tread carefully.

“Unfortunately, we did sell all of that garland…recently,” Joni said. The customer jumped on the vagueness trailing at the end of Joni’s words.

“Recently? I just saw it,” she insisted. “Countess spools.”

“I understand, and I apologize that we don’t have any left in stock. I could suggest something that could work in its place,” Joni said.

The woman turned on her heel. “Grady. Grady!”

A man turned, and Joni noticed his eyes immediately. Their combination of bemusement and boredom struck her, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek against the laughter threatening to erupt. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, a well-worn puffer coat that belied the expensive elegance his companion seemed to prefer.

“What is it, Gabriela?”

“They’re out of the garland I need,” she said. “I can’t believe they’d be out of stock of Christmas garland when Christmas is weeks away.”

Joni figured correcting Gabriela would be the opposite of damage control. She forged forward with her original tactic.

“Do you mind if I ask what you wanted to do with the garland? Was it for your tree? I might be able to suggest — “

“The tree has been finished for ages,” she said. “If you must know, I planned on creating a mantle display with it. Rustic elegance, of course.”

Of course, Joni thought, fighting against the laughter again. Instead, she nodded, thinking quickly and grabbing a few things from the shelves practically overflowing with decor.

“I just need a little space,” she said to Polly, who looked noticeably more relaxed now that she wasn’t alone with the woman’s anger. She moved a few decorative gingerbread houses from an endcap shelf, and Joni started arranging the things in her hands before Gabriela could protest.

“I just can’t believe they don’t have what I need,” she repeated to the man.

“Let’s see what they can put together,” Grady said. Joni thought she heard a little laughter creeping into his soothing tone, but she could have been imagining it.

“I don’t know why,” she said. “I had a specific idea in mind, Grady, and you know how I…”

Her voice trailed off as she noticed Joni’s quick mockup. A swag of faux pine, tipped with just a bit of snow cradled oversized pinecones. She’d added candles ringed with birch and twisted thick gold ribbon under the swag, so you could only see a peek of shine.

“You could put it together on a larger scale,” Joni said. Gabriela would have an expansive mantle, Joni imagined.

“Well,” Gabriela said. “It’s not exactly what I had in mind, but I do like it. Grady? Your thoughts?”

“Looks great,” he said. This time the laughter reached his eyes, but Gabriela was staring at Joni. “You have a good eye.”

Joni hadn’t expected the compliment, and it made her twice as uncomfortable as Gabriela’s former irritation. Her cheeks burned, and she studied her fingernails — again — before remembering how bad they looks and shoving them into the pockets of her smock.

“Thanks,” she said. She stepped back, three sets of eyes on her at once made her cringe. Polly noticed.

“I can pull the additional items from the shelf for you,” Polly said.

“Grady, can you wait for her to finish.”

It wasn’t a request. Joni felt sympathy bloom in her gut. No one deserved to be dismissed so abruptly, especially not someone with the dimples slowly forming around his smile. She started to walk away, and as she passed him, he leaned in toward her. She smelled cinnamon on his breath.

“Let me apologize. My sister can be a bit much.”

…to be continued

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Frost Flowers – Part Two

Frost Flowers

Continued from Part One

Joni cleaned up more than baskets before she retreated to the lounge for her short break. Fifteen minutes felt like an instant during December, when questions abounded and patience couldn’t be found anywhere amongst the aisles. She tried to remind herself the same fifteen minutes might feel like an eternity in mid-January, after all of the holiday shoppers returned to their lives of intermittent decorating, leaving the store almost as quiet as her apartment. Now, though, she would have appreciated at least an extra ten minutes after cleaning up shards of glitter and glass from a shattered ornament display knocked over by a leader dog in training.

Mariska seemed frazzled when she swung through the doors, too. At least she looked as frazzled as Mariska got, which wasn’t nearly as much as anyone else in the store. She pushed up her glasses again, then turned her attention toward Joni.

“It’s going to be a long night, hon. Rest those feet as long as you can,” she said. She sank into the folding chair, and Joni heard it creak. “I don’t believe it’s only Thursday.”

Joni looked at her nails, as though she might find something more interesting on them than chipped polish and angry red cuticles. The winter air made her hands worse than ever, though they were never her best feature. Still, studying her hands distracted her from thinking about the looming weekend.

“Did you cut yourself cleaning up those bulbs?” Mariska asked, glancing at the spreading red stain on the Band-aid Joni had wrapped around a particularly bad cuticle tear.

“No,” Joni said. She heard the bluntness and tried to correct it. “I cut myself at home.”

“Ah. I see. I’ve been meaning to ask, hon. Why did you decide to change your hair?”

Joni could hear in Mariska’s voice that the question had been locked inside for a while, probably since the day she’d shown up at work weeks ago, her previously mousey hair bleached and colored within an inch of its life to a pale gray. In her apartment’s dim light, she loved it, but Joni knew the perils of florescent lighting better than most people. Despite the craft store’s focus on making things look better, the overhead lights made everything look either garish or wan — and she wasn’t delusional enough to think her hair would be an exception to the rule. Still, she had to admit her locks looked their worst against the yellow smocks everyone at the store had to wear. If the powers that be meant the color to be cheerful, they failed somewhere between the swatches of Sesame Street Big Bird and Classic School Bus.

Joni bit her tongue against a sarcastic comment. Mariska always went out of her way to be kind, even when Joni didn’t deserve it. She tried on a smile, found it more comfortable than she expected. “I just wanted something different.”

Mariska nodded, and Joni knew without knowing that Mariska’s tight cap of curls had been the same for all eternity. “Sometimes change helps,” she said. Joni tried not to bristle. She seemed to bristle at everything lately, and her skin hurt from the effort.

“I guess this isn’t a particularly flattering different,” she said, shrugging. She felt the flush creeping into her cheeks, and suddenly she was close to tears again.

“Oh, hon, everything looks terrible in this light.” Mariska paused, looking a little wistful herself for an instant before snapping back to practicality. “You just have to find better light. And on that note, I need to get out of here. Cal and I are taking some of the babies for a sleepover tonight. Arlo and Gina have a fancy holiday party somewhere downtown.”

“Have fun with the kids,” Joni said, surprised to feel her face still stretched in the smile.

“We do our best,” Mariska said. “It’s a real treat to have them around so much, even though they do always mess with Cal’s model trains.”

“I miss my niece,” Joni said. She blinked quickly. The words slipped between her lips like a prayer she hadn’t expected to say.

“You know Cal and I stick close to home during the holidays. That offer I made still stands. You should go on down to Charleston with the rest of your family,” she said.

Joni absently picked at the peeling cuticle around her thumbs. Her parents were leaving to visit her brother and sister-in-law in just about a week. They’d be thrilled to have her come along, and she missed Rosie terribly. As quickly as she entertained the thought of joining them, she thought of her sister-in-law’s rounded abdomen, the countless social media posts chronicling the pregnancy.

“Not this year,” Joni said. “I can’t swing the cost of a holiday plane ticket. Besides, you deserve a break from this madhouse. Now, go and have a fun sleepover.”

The creak of Mariska’s chair made Joni aware of the time, and her smile faded a little as she thought of the hours stretching between now and closing time.

“We will, hon. Remember what I said about the light. You find the right light, and that hair of yours will glow,” Mariska said, pulling a quilted bag from one of the battered lockers against the wall.

“I will,” Joni said, her own words an automatic echo of Mariska’s own.

Walking back onto the floor, she felt static in the air. The bustle of holiday shoppers always felt too close to her nerves, but this felt different. Joni glanced back into the break room, but Mariska was already pushing open the back door to leave. Lost in thought, she didn’t hear Polly bellowing her name over the loudspeaker until exasperation took over the announcement. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see what was waiting for her at the front of the store.

…to be continued

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Frost Flowers Angela Amman

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