Ten Days Until Christmas
“Judith, are you sure you don’t mind locking up tonight?” asked Joshua, a guilty tone heavy in his voice. “I feel bad, letting you close the store two nights in a row.”
“You shouldn’t. I don’t mind staying late at all. That’s what sisters are for, jah?”
When Josh continued to look doubtful, Judith Graber lifted her chin, forced a smile she didn’t feel inside. “Come, now. Gretta needs you. As does Will. Go on, or you’re going to be late. You two have plans, don’tcha?”
“Nothing much. We’re just getting together for supper with some other couples. You know, before things get too busy.”
She knew Joshua was talking about Christmas gettogethers and other holiday parties. Every frau she knew was busy baking and cooking for the planned activities.
Being single, she was not. “Go now, Joshua. I’ll be fine.”
“I promise, I’ll close the rest of the week,” he said as he shrugged on his coat.
Judith crossed her arms over her chest. “You better,” she teased with a mock frown.
However, she doubted her bruder had even noticed her expression. He was already beyond the wreath-adorned door that was closing behind him with a jangling of bells.
Judith watched through the store’s large picture windows as her brother weaved in between two parked cars and then, reaching the sidewalk, almost knocked into a woman carrying a wrapped package. He was practically racing home.
To his new home.
Just two months ago, he and Gretta had told the whole family that they were moving into a small house two blocks from the store. Living above the family shop no longer made sense, especially with Gretta in a family way again.
No member of the Graber family disagreed with their decision.
But, of course, none of them had been prepared for the adjustments that would have to be made now that Joshua would no longer be on the premises at all times. Now each member of the family had to take turns opening and closing the shop. Well, she, Joshua, and her father. Mamm was still too busy at home with the little ones to come in much, and Caleb had recently started at the brick factory. Anson was still a little too young to be of any real help.
So, it fell on Judith to do the majority of the work. As always.
Because she was the steady one.
The reliable one.
More like the one who had no life, Judith thought wryly. All while Joshua had been falling in love, and her brother Caleb had been struggling with his future, and even as Anson wrestled with his own growing pains, she had held steady and had quietly done what was expected of her.
Everyone was appreciative, to be sure. But that didn’t ease the restless ache that seemed to be growing inside.
Wistfully, Judith looked out the window at the gently falling snow, the wheel ruts in the lane, the road beyond that led . . . somewhere else.
She wished that she, like Joshua, had somewhere to run to. Wished she had someone who counted the passing minutes of her absence. . .
If only. . .
Realizing she’d been standing there in a daze, Judith slapped her hands on the counter. “If you’re going to be so dreamy, you might as well be truthful about it,” she said out loud. “You don’t wish just for someone. You wish you had a man, a sweetheart, counting the minutes until he saw you again.”
Her hollow laugh echoed through the empty store, a store that surely needed tending. And she knew from experience that wishes and dreams didn’t get things done.
Since there were only five more minutes until closing time, she left her spot behind the counter and began her usual walk through the store. As she did so, she organized stock and picked up stray pieces of trash people had left behind. A child’s toy, a gum wrapper. A grocery list.
The bells on the door jingled merrily, causing her to straighten.
“Hello?” a deep voice called out.
Well, of course someone decided to come in, now that it was mere minutes before closing time. Irritation flowed through her as she stood with her hands full of trash and a metal toy car, as the person darted toward the front. “May I help you?” she called out.
Then skidded to a stop. Because right there in front of her was Benjamin Knox.
Recognition flashed in his eyes as he glanced her way. And then a long, slow smile spread. A knowing and too-personal smile. “Judith Graber . . . Hi.”
“Ben.” She lifted her chin, pretending that she wasn’t shocked to her core. Two years ago, Ben Knox had left Sugarcreek under a haze of disapproval. Gossips reported that he’d gone to Missouri to help some cousins on their dairy farm, but had in truth done little besides flirt with the girls.
She needed to remember that. Keeping her voice cool and even, she asked, “May I help you?”
Under his black hat’s thick felt brim, his hazel eyes seemed to take in every inch of her. She felt his gaze’s sweep as surely as if he’d run a hand right down her periwinkle dress, down her black apron, along her black stockings.
“Nee,” he said.
She couldn’t remember what she’d asked him. “Nee?”
“No, I don’t need your help,” he said with an almost- smirk. “I’m not here for anything special. Just thought I’d look around for a few minutes. You know. See if there was anything that catches my eye.”
“And do you think there might be?”
Judith went cold. Was he purposely being rude, or was she being too sensitive?
Probably a bit of both.
Keenly aware of the tension she felt around Ben— that bit of unease she’d always felt around him—she cleared her throat. “Just to let you know, we’re closing in exactly one minute.”
An eyebrow rose. “In one minute, huh? Then what happens? All customers get locked in?”
“Of course not!” Oh, but of course he was teasing her. “What I meant to say is that you should probably leave.”
“Right now? Before I get a chance to look around some more?” He turned around and stared at the clock above the door. The ridiculous clock with birds on the face instead of numbers. The clock that chirped on the hour, much to the amusement of her mother . . . and to her extreme annoyance.
Before she could answer, the clock struck six and chirped. When he grinned, she felt her cheeks heat. Wished she was absolutely anywhere else but here, with him. Alone together in the store.
Ben Knox bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
It wasn’t because of the clock—his Aunt Beth had a large collection of hand-painted birdhouses on a shelf in her kitchen. He was used to such silly items.
No, what had him tempted to laugh was the girl standing across from him. Standing as stiff and looking as ruffled as the clock’s fierce mother sparrow painted where the number three would be.
But that was where the similarities ended. Judith Graber was far from being just a difficult, fussy girl, and she was not drab at all. No, her bright blue eyes and lovely light brown hair with its streaks of auburn caught his eye like little else.
He found her exasperation with him amusing. And very little had amused him in a long time.
“I guess the cardinal’s trill is my signal to leave?”