A Beggar’s Choice

Chelsea faced the little hellions on the garage roof; her arms perched akimbo on her hips. “You get down here right this minute, or I’ll call your mama and daddy, and we’ll just see what they have to say about all your goings on!”

David and Susie grinned and climbed higher on the steep roof.

With a long shuddering sigh, Chelsea decided that there wasn’t enough money in the Fredrick’s bank account to pay her to babysit these twin wretches. Dusting her hands clean of the matter, she marched inside and picked up her plastic, pink purse—the one her daddy had given her before he left for his overseas assignment. The one he’d never returned from. She sighed again and perched on the couch waiting for the Fredrick’s return.

~~~

Ten years later, Chelsea landed a job at Mid-State University Library. She wasn’t a full-fledged librarian, but that hardly mattered since she spent most of her days sorting and cataloging files on the computer. She had her own cubicle—that was something. Since her scraggly brown hair always wafted over one eye, she habitually tilted her head as she worked. The crick in her neck had ceased to annoy her.

A tall, slender man in his early fifties leaned over the cubicle. “Hey, kiddo, I noticed that the coffee pot’s empty.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the lounge.

Blinking away a grimace, Chelsea nodded and scurried to the coffeemaker tucked into a gray corner. When the filter split and the wet grounds cascaded across the counter and onto the floor, she merely closed her eyes for a brief second and counted to three. Kneeling on the tiled floor, she started the laborious process of compiling the icky mess into a neat circle.

An elongated shadow slanted over the black spray.

Chelsea peered up, her hair falling like a theater curtain to one side.

A plump, young woman grinned and waved a handful of paper towels. “Personally, I think the company that makes these thin filters should be sued—and then drawn and quartered.” With lightning speed, she swiped up the mess, tossed the remains into the waste bin, and clapped her hands clean.

Chelsea stood and faced the energetic, little wonder-woman. She almost put out her hand, but as black grounds still stuck to her palms, she merely clasped them together and attempted a brave smile. “Thanks. Do you—?”

“My name’s Sue—just part-time—work-study to help pay the atrocious tuition—you know.”

“Ah.” Yes, Chelsea knew. Her student loans sucked any hint of joy out of her financial life since graduation. She unleashed a grimace. “I’ll take my debts to the grave.”

“Ha!” The young woman apparently enjoyed shared desperation. She stuck out her hand, unconcerned about coffee grounds or germs exchanging pleasantries. “Nice to meet you—?”

“Chelsea.” She slipped a new filter into place and poured a small mountain of grounds into the appropriate basket.

“Ooh, nice. I knew a Chelsea once.”

A shadow glided passed the doorway.

Sue’s eyes rolled. “The old geezer, he’s a fright, isn’t he? Told me to hurry you up. No mercy—”

As the coffee began to percolate, Chelsea shrugged. “Mr. Howe says I make coffee better than he does.”

“Oh, brother!” Suddenly, Sue’s eyes widened. “Hey, I think I might know you. Did you ever babysit an unruly set of twins—for the Frederick family?”

Chelsea’s throat constricted. She swallowed convulsively.

Pouncing, Sue reached over and gripped Chelsea’s arm in a vice grip. “Oh-my-gosh! This is amazing. I’ve always wanted to meet you again—”

A pronounced throat clearing turned the two women like marionettes.

“Ahem.” Mr. Howe stood in the doorway and tapped his watch, his eyebrows raised, lips pursed tight.

Chelsea started forward but Sue’s grip tightened. “After work, okay?”

At closing time, Chelsea slid into a worn brown jacket, shoved her purse strap over her shoulder, stacked files under her arm, and slipped along the bookcases until she was near the front door. She made a quick dash and—froze.

“Hi! I’ve been waiting for you.” Sue’s brows puckered. “What? You take work home?”

With a grunt, Chelsea bundled herself through the door into the blustery night.

Keeping a determined pace, Sue marched along at her side. “You know, I never forgot what you did. It meant a lot to me.”

Hunching her shoulders, Chelsea ducked her head against the chilly wind and the first splattering raindrops. “I quit.”

“Huh?”

Chelsea stopped on the corner and looked both ways, though the street was deserted. “I quit babysitting. I can’t see—”

“But it was the way you quit!” Sue gripped Chelsea’s arm again. “Look, there’s the Corner Café. Let’s stop. I’ll buy.”

Smothering a groan, Chelsea let herself be dragged across the street into the tiny shop. They slipped into the first booth and wiped the wet from their clothes.

A tiny man wearing a bright smile slipped over. “What can I getcha’?”

“Two hot cocoas with plenty of marshmallows and the biggest cinnamon buns you got.” Sue grinned as she leaned back into the puffy red booth.

Chelsea’s mouth tightened into a firm line.

“So, you want to hear my story?”

Chelsea shook her head and laced her fingers together like a doctor about to give bad news. “Look. I think we’ve got some kind of memory discrepancy here. According to my data banks, I only babysat for you and your brother a couple of times and then I quit. No pleasant memories. No story.”

Like a released catapult, Sue flung her body forward, her hands slapping the table. “That’s why I gotta tell you what happened. I figured you never knew.”

Chelsea pulled her stack of files closer and played with the corner edge. “Okay. I’m listening.”

“The day you quit changed my life. You told mom that babysitting us wasn’t worth all the gold in Fort Knox. I had to look that reference up later. But at the time, I just figured we’d riled you pretty good, which was always our intention.”

The host returned and gracefully slid two hot mugs of steaming cocoa in front of the women. Mountains of marshmallows did indeed bob up and down on a foamy chocolate sea. The cinnamon buns looked like they could float a couple of aircraft carriers.

Chelsea’s eye rounded. “Good glory.”

After taking a deep sip and licking her lips, Sue nudged the bun plate across the table. “Business first. Anyway, I’d never seen my mom turn that shade of red before.”

“I remember. She called me a beggar.”

“Yes! But you remember what you said back?”

Chelsea shoved her cocoa aside.

Sue leaned forward, her long, blond hair splaying across the table. “You said, maybe beggars don’t have pleasant choices, but they still have choices.”

Leaning back and letting her eyes roam over the mottled ceiling, Chelsea exhaled. “So?”

Sue’s eyes brimmed with tears. “So—a few years later, my brother got killed drinking and driving. My parents blamed each other—and they split. I thought my life was over. But your voice came back to me, like some kind of movie voice-over, and I could hear you saying—even beggars have choices.”

Reaching out, Sue beckoned for Chelsea’s hand. “Some people said that David’s death was just an accident. But it wasn’t. He made a choice. And so did my parents. But after a while, I realized I had choices too. Even though I felt like a beggar with a ruined family, I could still decide how to live my life.”

Chelsea shoved her files aside and took Sue’s hands in her own.

~~~

The sky had cleared by the time Chelsea arrived at work early the next morning. In one hand, she held a Corner Café mug of steaming coffee, and with a light tap, she dropped her files on Mr. Howe’s desk. In a moment, she settled down to work, humming to herself.

Mr. Howe’s shadow fell over her. He shook an empty coffee pot in the air.

Brushing her hair from her face, Chelsea glanced from the pot to Mr. Howe’s face.

“Hey, kiddo. I think you forgot something.”

With a winning smile spreading from ear-to-ear, Chelsea lifted her mug of hot coffee in salute. “Not this time. My memory’s working just fine.”

 

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Coming in 2018…

OldEarth ARAM Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

2 thoughts on “A Beggar’s Choice

  1. Wow. This is a densely packed story. High content-to-sentence ratio. Good stuff. I *like* the way you illustrated – quite a bit. Free will; consequences, intended and otherwise; memory; perceptions contrasted to reality. Realities that are apparent only in hindsight – if them. Thanks for sharing this.

    Like

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