Mrs. Claus’s Cookies

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Phoebe Grant had to laugh as she looked at herself in the small bathroom mirror as she finished getting dressed. The reflection that greeted her was one that had become quite familiar over the last few weeks, but still filled her with a certain amusement all the same. What would her co-workers at the bank think if they could see her now? She was an Elf, right down to the pointed ears and the equally pointed bright green shoes.

“Well it’s not the worst job I’ve ever had,” the twenty-two year old blonde thought. She pinned up her long hair to better hide it beneath the floppy red cap, remembering the varied assortment of things she had done to make ends meet back in her school days. “Still, I don’t think this is going to be a high point on my resume.”

Phoebe didn’t need to remind herself just how lucky she’d been to even get this part time job as she stepped out of the make-shift dressing room and headed out to the front of the store to begin her shift. As holiday jobs went, the pay wasn’t bad, the hours were flexible, and the people fun to work with. A lot more than most of the employees at First National Trust where she had been employed for the last two years. Yes, it certainly was her lucky day when she happened to be passing by in front of the bakery shop just as they’d put the “Help Wanted” sign in the window.

For most of the year, the C & B Bakery was no different than a hundred other similar shops around the city. A place to buy both traditional and trendy desserts. But, for the short span between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it stood out as a little piece of the North Pole transplanted to midtown Manhattan. The home of Mrs. Claus’s Cookies, it had, over the last ten years, become as much of a holiday tradition as the tree in Rockefeller Center or the Christmas show at Radio City. A winter wonderland with decorations that rivaled the best Fifth Avenue stores, it truly was a marvel to behold.

Despite the fact that it was Christmas Eve, or perhaps because of it, Phoebe found the public area of the small store even more crowded than usual. Working her way behind the counter, she took note that all three of her fellow Elves were also in today. Normally, only two of them worked at a time since they all also had other jobs. She flashed a quick smile to Sandra Kingston, the short redhead that looked like she was born to wear the costume they all shared. Sandra took a moment to acknowledge her, then went right back to wrapping the box of two dozen cookies she had just filled.

The other two Elves, Mary Pitt and Kendra Brown, were even busier and didn’t even notice the new arrival until she squeezed in between them. Her fellow blonde Elf and her taller, dark skinned counterpart, looked more than relieved to have help dealing with the crush of last minute shoppers. As Phoebe took her first order of the afternoon, she noticed that Mrs. Claus herself, known the other eleven months of the year as Emma Burke had been pressed into service behind the counter as well. Normally, the owner and chief baker liked to work the crowds on the other side of the long tabletop, spreading her infectious brand of Christmas cheer.

A decade before, the idea to specialize only in Christmas cookies for one month of the year had been a risky venture for the then struggling shop. But it was one that quickly turned into a veritable gold mine for the two owners. The bakery did almost a third of its yearly business during that short span, and the good will they spread during the holiday season continued across the rest of the year. It wasn’t just the cookies, good as they were, that kept bringing the crowds back year after year, it was the entire Yuletide experience. Right down to the helpful Elves and of course Mrs. Claus herself.

The next few hours passed in a pleasant blur of smiling faces, Christmas Carols echoing from the wall mounted speakers and an assortment of wondrous smells wafting from the kitchen. Still, by the time eight o’clock rolled around and the last customer had been served, Phoebe was glad the long day was finally over.

“In a way, I’m almost sorry to see the season end,” Mrs. Claus said as she locked the door behind the last customer and put up the “Closed For Business” sign. “I wish it could go on another month.”

The comment brought a friendly groan from Sandra and Mary, who had each put in more hours in the last week than the other two girls combined. Mrs. Claus laughed and assured them she was only kidding.

“I said almost,” she broadly smiled. “Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without you girls.”

The smiles now on all her helper’s faces were just as warm and genuine. Their gratitude and affection toward their employer was the result of far more than the salary they received, which was worth noting, was higher than the minimum wage Phoebe had originally expected. Mrs. Claus was a lot more than just the person signing the checks. She was a friend who took a deep interest in the people who worked for her, even casino oyna if just part time. All three of the other girls had worked for her the previous season, with Kendra having even worked the one before that. Kelly George, whom Phoebe had replaced when she had to quit two days into the season to take advantage of an opportunity on her regular job, had been there for three years.

Since she’d been there only a few weeks, and her short hours left her limited time for socializing, Phoebe understandably hadn’t had that many chances to get to know the woman behind the “Mrs. Claus” persona. Still, in those moments when she did have the chance to talk to her, she found the white haired woman to be a kindred spirit. Some of the blanks were also filled in by her chats with the other girls. Sandra told her that she’d heard that Emma had been a widow for about five years, and Kendra confided that she’d been told by Kelly that it was because she couldn’t have kids of her own that Emma loved the holidays so. Since it was all second-hand, Phoebe didn’t know how accurate it all was, but it made her a little sad to think that this nice woman who gave so much of herself to others had no one to share her life with.

Having someone to share with, or even just someone to talk to, was something Phoebe really missed these days. Unfortunately, as nice as Mrs. Claus and the other girls were, she doubted they’d really understand her situation. Well, maybe they’d understand the situation, since it wasn’t all that unique, but it was the particulars that might give them pause.

-=-=-=-

A little over a year before, soon after she’d gone to work at the bank, Phoebe had met the love of her life. Or at least the person she thought would be. Barbara Ann Phillips had been twenty-three, pretty and intelligent, and worked at the pharmacy down the street from the bank. More importantly, the short haired brunette had, like Phoebe, realized at an early age that her interest in her own sex far outweighed any interest in the opposite one.

A casual friendship, started awkwardly, had turned to romance soon enough. Six months after they began dating, they found a small apartment in Brooklyn and set up house together. For the slightly younger blonde, it was like a dream come true. Each day seemed better than the last, each tomorrow full of promise. That was, Phoebe sadly remembered, until the phone call eight weeks ago.

The call had been from Barbara’s mother, whom Phoebe couldn’t remember her lover ever even mentioning before, except to acknowledge that she was still alive and living with the rest of her family back in Connecticut. The news had been bad, one of Barbara’s closest friends had died in an auto accident and her mother wanted to know if she planned to come home for the funeral.

Of course Barbara would go, Phoebe had no doubt of that. Just as certainly, she offered to go as well, to offer moral support in what she knew was a time of personal anguish for her love. They were still of an age where death was a distant concern, and even more devastating when it visited one of their contemporaries.

To her surprise, Barbara declined the offer, saying that it would be better if she went alone. Phoebe knew the woman who shared her bed well enough to note a look of concern at the prospect of her coming along. Not wanting to pry at such a painful time, she instead used her own experience to fathom a reason.

Ever since the day she had informed her own parents that they could stop trying to fix her up with what they considered suitable young men, and the reason why, Phoebe’s relationship with her family had been strained to say the least. It was possible, she considered, that Barbara’s parents had a similar reaction, and she didn’t want to flaunt a lover in their face. Or, it also suddenly occurred to her, Barbara’s parents might not even know of their daughter’s sexual preference. It wasn’t something that had ever come up before, and Phoebe certainly wasn’t going to bring up the subject now.

So she’d settled for helping Barbara pack, and going with her to Grand Central Station to see her on her way. It was hard to see her go off alone, but she had made it clear that she would go with her if asked, even up to the point they were standing on the platform. The request had never come.

The four days that Barbara said she would be gone seemed longer than any Phoebe could remember. Sitting in the empty apartment, waiting for her lover to return, she felt even emptier than when she had been alone before meeting Barbara. How could she not be, when before, she didn’t know what she’d been missing. She wasn’t a virgin when they’d met, neither of them had been, but it was the first time she had ever been in love.

Finally, on the night that Barbara was supposed to come home, there came instead a phone call saying that she’d be staying at her parent’s house until the end of the week. Phoebe was disappointed of course, but said she understood. If her canlı casino lover was mending broken fences with her family, what was her temporary loneliness compared to that?

The few more days turned into a second week, and Phoebe began to become more concerned. A concern that also held the emerging elements of fear. Fear that something was wrong.

Finally, three weeks after Barbara had gone home for the funeral, Phoebe decided that enough was enough. Phone calls to her parents’ house brought only vague promises from her love that she would be home soon. Taking a half-day on Friday, Phoebe headed home with the intention of just grabbing her overnight bag and then heading for Grand Central Station to catch an early evening train. If there wasn’t anything wrong, then let Barbara tell her to her face.

To her surprise and relief, she opened the door to their small three-room apartment to find Barbara standing there. She started to rush into her arms but was stopped by the sudden awareness that Barbara wasn’t alone. That, and the realization that the look on her lover’s face was that of shock and not happiness to see her.

A look that was reflected on Phoebe’s face as she expanded her view of the room and saw a sight that sent a devastating chill through her. If she’d discovered the two women flagrante delicto, it wouldn’t have hurt half as much as the sight of four suitcases lined up next to the front door. The same four that she had helped Barbara carry when they had first moved in together.

“I wanted to be gone before you got home,” Barbara said, her voice cracking as a tear ran down her face.

Phoebe had listened, totally stunned, as her once true love explained how, at the funeral, she had been reunited with Diane, the first love of her life. Phoebe remembered Barbara casually mentioning Diane as the girl in high school who had taken her virginity. At the time, that was all the information she had cared to share, but now the blonde haired woman learned that the relationship between the two had gone much further than she might have imagined. In fact, up until a month before she and Barbara had met, the two of them had still been lovers. They had broken up for reasons that the brunette didn’t care to elaborate, but she did confess that when they’d seen each other at the funeral, the reasons no longer seemed important.

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Barbara concluded, “but as much as I love you, I realize now that I love Diane more.”

Phoebe didn’t know what to say. Her eyes turned from Barbara to the woman standing across from her that she now knew was Diane. Taller then the two of them, with jet-black hair tied back in a bun, the slightly older woman had an almost masculine quality about her. Not the type that she ever imagined Barbara going for, it was obvious that her lover had spent the last three weeks in her company, if not her bed. Diane returned her stare with equal intensity. Additionally, she had no trouble finding her own voice.

“It’s best we just go, Babe,” Diane said, her tone almost a slap in Phoebe’s face as she moved forward and picked up two of the suitcases, “especially if we want to catch the 3:40 home.”

“Home,” Phoebe couldn’t help but think. “Until an hour ago, this was home for the two of us.”

“I’m sorry,” Barbara repeated as she stepped past Phoebe and picked up the remaining bags.

With that, they were gone and Phoebe’s perfect little life was destroyed.

-=-=-=-

“I already let the kitchen help take off,” Mrs. Claus said, having shut down the kitchen early so they could clean up, “so I just wanted to take the time to wish you all a Merry Christmas and to give you a little something for all your extra effort.”

With that, the portly woman produced four small, wrapped packages from beneath the counter and handed them out to each of her helpers. For a moment, Phoebe was worried that she might’ve been expected to get a gift for Mrs. Claus as well, but Kendra saw her concern and quickly whispered that wasn’t the case. They’d tried in previous years but she always insisted that she could easily afford to spend the money, they couldn’t. If they really wanted to give her something, she always said, then just spread a little more Christmas cheer in her name.

One by one the girls opened their gifts, to discover that each was something that they really loved. When Phoebe ripped the paper off hers, she found the latest model Walkman, one that would even play MP3 files. Her own unit, had been on its last legs for months.

“Thank you,” she said to the older woman and joined the rest of the Elves in giving her a Christmas kiss on the cheek.

“Now off to your families with the lot of you,” Mrs. Claus laughed, sounding like one of the characters from ‘A Christmas Carol.’

One by one, the other three girls headed into the back room to quickly change clothes. In no time at all, they were back and reaching for their coats on the row of wall hooks. With a final kaçak casino Merry Christmas, they passed through the door onto the now dark streets.

“Don’t you have someone waiting for you too?” Mrs. Claus asked when she noticed that Phoebe hadn’t even changed yet but was straightening a few last minute things on the counter.

“Not really, I …” she started to reply, pausing for a second. “I broke up with someone just before Thanksgiving.”

“No family?” the older woman inquired further.

“We really don’t see eye to eye on some things,” Phoebe answered, thinking that was an understatement if ever there was one. “It would only ruin their Christmas if I was there.”

“Parents and kids,” Mrs. Claus said as she undid her apron and laid it across the counter, “some things never change.”

“I guess not,” Phoebe smiled, then realized that she might be keeping her now former boss, since this was her last day, from heading out to meet her own family.

“Actually,” the white haired woman replied when Phoebe apologized for not considering the idea, “my own plans for the evening sort of fell through. My younger brother was supposed to come to dinner tonight with his family, but his youngest came down with chicken pox yesterday. So it looks like I’m on my own too.”

Phoebe wondered how much younger her brother must’ve been to have a kid with chicken pox. Maybe, she concluded, he married someone a lot younger. Her own cousin married a man twenty-five years her senior.

“Phoebe,” Mrs. Claus interrupted the younger woman’s musings, “I know we haven’t had the chance to get to know each other like I do some of the other girls, but I was wondering if you’d like to have a late Christmas Eve dinner with me. I mean I already have most of the food prepared, it just needs to be heated up, and it would be a shame to let it all go to waste. Besides, no one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”

It was obvious that the offer took Phoebe by surprise.

“But please don’t feel obligated to say yes if you’d rather not,” the bakery owner quickly added. “I just wanted to make the offer in case you might enjoy some company.”

Thinking that all she had waiting for her back at the empty apartment were some leftovers in the fridge and a place in front of the television, Phoebe decided why not. After all, only a few hours ago she was saying she wished she had someone she could just sit and talk to. Even if she had to confine herself to non-controversial topics.

“Excellent,” Mrs. Claus smiled as Phoebe said yes. “Why don’t you change clothes while I finish up a few last minute things in my office. I’ll be with you in say, ten minutes?”

It took Phoebe only eight of those minutes to change into her street clothes, which consisted of a pair of jeans, a simple white blouse and a pull over sweater. Laying out her costume and the slip on ears next to the others, she suddenly wished she had gotten a picture taken of her in the outfit. All in all, it had been a lot of fun, even if she had taken the job in the first place to help cover the loss in rent that Barbara’s sudden departure had caused.

“Maybe I’ll get hired again next year,” she thought as she turned off the light. After all, the girl she replaced wouldn’t be coming back.

The light was still on behind the closed office door, so Phoebe retrieved her coat and just waited in the now empty store. A minute later, the door swung open.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long,” the familiar voice said as a figure emerged from inside.

Phoebe did a double take. The voice was indeed familiar, but the person behind it wasn’t – at least not totally. Only now did it occur to the daytime bank clerk that in all the weeks she had worked in the bakery, she had never seen the owner out of costume. Naturally, she just assumed that aside from the traditional accouterments, that was what she looked like. Boy was she ever wrong.

First of all, Mrs. Claus might’ve had snow-white hair, but Emma Burke had short, curly dark brown locks. Any trace of gray had long been banished. Her face was also free of both the wire frame glasses and what Phoebe now realized was stage makeup designed to make the wearer look older. The woman standing before her was twenty years younger than she might’ve guessed. In fact, Emma was two years younger than Phoebe’s mother, who had celebrated her forty-seventh birthday two months before. It was also obvious that the Mrs. Clause outfit had been padded to give a more traditional appearance. The bright blue dress, cut just low enough to accent an ample bust, was about as far as the Mrs. Claus costume as you could get and still appear to be a respectable businesswoman.

“You didn’t really think I looked like that, did you?” Emma asked when she saw the look on the younger woman’s face.

Phoebe reluctantly admitted that she had, quickly pointing out however that she had never seen Emma out of character before.

“I guess I should take that as a compliment to the costumers over at Dave’s World of Make Believe,” Emma smiled, showing that she hadn’t taken any offense at Phoebe’s mistake. “Although I think some of my padding is all too real these days.”

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