Wide-eyed, mouth open, Joan stared at the sales clerk. The woman held the offending credit card high, dangling from thumb and forefinger. "I said, it was refused. There isn't twenty-five dollars left on it."
Joan raised her hand to take the card and the woman released it a fraction of a second too soon so it fell heavily toward the counter, landing on Ben's gift. She picked it up slowly and put it back in her wallet, her wallet back in her purse. Eyes still down, she said, "I guess I won't be needing this after all."
She turned away and pushed past the person waiting behind her, an older man with a full beard. "Excuse me, sir."
"Quite all right, my dear."
Out the door, down the sidewalk, across the street through the pushing crowds and braying car horns, into the car, toward home on automatic pilot, up two flights of stairs. She closed the door to her apartment, hands empty, face burning, and leaned back. How could the card be over the limit? She'd been so careful. She knew it had enough left for Ben!
She kicked off her shoes, then picked them up and carried them through the living room to her closet, set them down and stripped off her clothes, replacing each item with something warm and comfy. Then an extra sweater, the big plaid one. The colors didn't go, but who cared? A deep breath and back to the tiny living room.
Joan plopped down, then curled her legs under her. Now what? She picked up a magazine from the used coffee table, then put it back, reached toward the TV listings, then hesitated and leaned back.
Now what, indeed. Now what? What now? She realized she was playing with her left earring and pulled her hand away. She sighed. Now what?
How about some cocoa? She got up and padded the four steps to the kitchen. Yes, some hot chocolate. She even had the tiny marshmallows to put in it. Then she'd be ready for anything. She'd figure it all out.
The phone rang. No! Not human contact. She wasn't ready for that. Please, no!
The phone rang again, the chirp of a cheap off-brand. Another chirp. Joan leaned against the refrigerator, her eyes starting to mist. She raised her fist above the refrigerator, then brought it down with a thud. She stretched her fingers, then grabbed the phone. "Hello."
She didn't recognize the voice. Male, not a teenager. "Joan, you don't know me, but we have a mutual friend: Ben Carter."
Joan narrowed her eyes. "Yes?"
"I wondered if you'd gotten Ben a present yet."
"Who is this?"
"I told you, a friend of Ben's. Anyway, if you haven't gotten Ben's gift yet, I have a suggestion."
Joan interrupted him. "Look, I don't have any money, my credit card's maxed out, and I'm not interested in buying anything. Thank you for calling." She started to put the phone down, but she heard the man's voice, much clearer than the phone normally managed.
"Joan, please don't hang up. I can help you."
She raised the phone back to her ear. Sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts.
The voice said, "Thank you. Joan."
Joan sat abruptly. "Who are you?"
"Joan, you'll remember me if you think about it, my dear. Meanwhile, if you open your door, you'll find an envelope. It has what you need. And please, have a merry Christmas!" His voice resonated through the tinny phone with the clarity of an a cappella choir.
Joan looked at the phone. She jumped when it gave a muddy dial tone, then hung it up quickly before it started complaining.
She went to the door, put her ear to it and listened. Should she open the door? This was probably a setup. But it didn't feel like it. She put on the chain, then inched the door open. Right at the crack was a red envelope with her name on it. She snatched it up and slammed the door.
She sat down and put the envelope on the coffee table. Well. She took a deep breath, picked it up, turned it over. Then she tore it open. Out fluttered a gift certificate for the store she was just in, made out to her in flowing, old-fashioned script, for twenty-five dollars.