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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Will Work for Freedom by Kai Strand

Can you find freedom in a scoop of ice cream?

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Merrilee thought having a job would lead to freedom. Because of the money, mostly. Freedom to go to the movies whenever she wanted. Hang out at the new retro arcade downtown on Friday nights. Even be able to afford the gas to drive out to everyone’s favorite float spot in the mountain pass.

However, you have to have friends to use your hard earned cash on those things. She’d had one and she’d moved halfway through the school year. A friendless summer was an endless summer, but not in a good way. At least she could stop for an iced coffee whenever the spirit moved her. Just her, a trusty book, and her people watching skills. Maybe she’d do that this evening.

So basically freedom sucks. It just highlights the big, empty areas of your life.

The bells on the door to the ice cream shop jingled, pulling Merrilee out of her stupor. A large group of tweens entered, giggling and jostling against each other. Merrilee sighed and trudged over to stand behind the coolers to take their orders. As she scooped up each request, the door jingled again. She glanced over to see a father and young boy enter, the boy walking on his toes with a huge grin of expectation on his face. Merrilee wasn’t even halfway finished with the tweens, and hoped the young kid was the patient sort.

One of the tweens kept changing his mind when Merrilee began to scoop his request. She assumed he was doing it spitefully. Mean spirited kids exerted power however and whenever the opportunity arose. She patiently abandoned one flavor, rinsed the scooper, and began his newest request. She was scheduled to scoop ice cream for a set amount of time whether the customer knew what he wanted or not.

By the time she finished dishing out the large group’s orders and collecting their money—mostly lots and lots of change—a small line had formed, snaking back to the door. Merrilee turned to the father and son, and pleasantly asked what they’d decided on. Her eyes flicked to the wall clock and did a headcount. This line of customers should take her up to the end of her shift.

Ten minutes later she pushed the register drawer closed and was relieved to see only two other people stood in front of the coolers. However, Jenna hadn’t shown up yet. She was always late. Merrilee sighed inwardly at the extra time she’d put in until Jenna showed. She walked over to the two people and opened her mouth to ask if they’d made a choice, but the words lodged in her throat.

Mark Stemsky.

Holy crap.

He was hunched forward reading the names of the flavors and pointing to the corresponding cartons inside the cooler. He held hands with a young girl, maybe seven years old, with the same red hair and freckles as him. The girl wore her hair in long wavy pigtails. Her thick-rimmed glasses slid down her nose.

“Does it have nuts? I can’t have nuts.” The girl’s voice was nasally, tinged with worry, but held an unmistakable cadence of innocence that touched Merrilee’s heart.

“No nuts, Ellie.” Mark’s patient tone seemed to calm his sister. “I know you can’t have them.”

Merrilee thought Mark was the most handsome boy at school, but at that moment with his expression soft and full of love for the little girl, Merrilee thought he was the most handsome boy in the universe.

This is when having a job directly conflicted with her debilitating shyness. She had to help him. She had to talk to him. Her hands shook as she grabbed a fresh scoop—because of the peanut allergy reference—and finally choked out, “What can I get for you?”

Mark straightened from his hunched posture. “Hi, Merrilee. I didn’t know you worked here.”

She smiled and nodded, her mind a riot of thoughts. Oh my god, he knows my name. He knows who I am. His eyes are so brown. Oh god, I love his hair.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream,” sang the little girl.

Merrilee turned her smile onto Ellie. Usually the song irritated her. It was such a clich├ęd response to learning her name, but hearing the lilting notes come from such innocent intent made her appreciate it anew. “You have a pretty singing voice.”

“I’m allergic to nuts.”

“I heard.” Merrilee held up the fresh scooper. “I’ve got a nice clean scoop just for you. Do you know what you want?”

“Mallow yellow, please.” Ellie pushed the glasses up her nose and stood straight giving Merrilee the impression she’d just declared an important decision.

Merrilee glanced at Mark to verify the flavor was acceptable. His eyebrow arched and a curious look crossed his face as he studied Ellie. He swung his gaze to Merrilee as if assessing her impact on his little sister. Shivers of pleasure raced down Merrilee’s arms having inadvertently done something to please him. She verified, “A single scoop?”

He nodded. “In a cup, please. And I’ll have a sugar cone with a double scoop of rocky road. Obviously do hers first, since mine has nuts.”

Jenna rushed in from the backroom, tying her apron around her waist. As glad as Merrilee was to see her, it was a visual reminder of how totally dorky their uniforms were and suddenly Merrilee felt very self conscious in the multi-hued, polka-dotted shirt and the pink hat shaped like a fat, round scoop of ice cream. Actually, she pretty much wanted to die.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Jenna blustered. She nodded at the scooper in Merrilee’s hand. “You want me to take over there?”

“No.” Merrilee blushed at how desperate the response sounded. She attempted a more casual tone and nodded at the young couple approaching the store. “I’ll finish this up. You can help them.”

Grabbing a cup, she leaned into the cooler and dug the scoop into the carton of mallow yellow. One of the boys from the group of tweens she served earlier walked up behind Ellie and said, “Move cripple. I need some napkins.”

Mark reached in front of Ellie and plucked several from the holder on the counter, handing them to the boy. “Here you go, ugly.” The kid’s mouth twisted into a snarl and Mark shrugged. “You know, since we’re stating the obvious and all.”

Merrilee grinned as she sunk a tiny spoon into the scoop of ice cream and handed the cup to Ellie. “Here you go. One mallow yellow. Lemon’s my favorite too.”

Mark let go of Ellie’s hand so she could reach up to take the cup. Merrilee grabbed a sugar cone, rinsed the scooper, and shifted down the cooler to the carton of rocky road. She hadn’t noticed the braces that encased Ellie’s legs until the boy called her a cripple. Mark helped Ellie to a table, sat her down and she dug into her ice cream right away. He returned to the counter and Merrilee handed him his ice cream. Their fingers brushed and Merrilee stifled her surprise over the flipping sensation in her stomach.

He followed her to the register and gave her money to cover the total. Merrilee’s mind was busy replaying every kind word and action of Mark’s she’d witnessed over the years. She’d always been attracted to his gentle ways and now she understood him better. Like an idiot, she had to blink away a rush of emotional tears as she handed him his change.

“Enjoy the ice cream,” she said, though she hated for this interaction to end and she wished she could think of some question to ask that would give her even thirty more seconds with him.

Mark nodded toward Jenna. “It sounds like you’re off the clock now. How about I buy you a scoop of mallow yellow and you join us?”

Merrilee’s heart simultaneously expanded and accelerated. She thought she might choke on it. She swallowed loudly and said, “I don’t really like ice cream much, but I’d love to join you. Let me clock out.”

Mark nodded, a shy smile curving his lips that made Merrilee’s pulse rise until she wondered if the heat it generated could melt all the ice cream in the store.

As he turned to join his sister, Merrilee raced into the backroom to clock out and get rid of the hideous hat.

How many times had she tried to quietly insert herself into his path at school? How many times had she wished she could start a witty conversation? Maybe having a job would lead to freedom after all. Just not the kind she’d suspected. But she’d be totally happy with the outcome if it led to her making new friends.

She punched out from her shift, tore the pink blob off her head and rifled her bangs. With a deep, fortifying breath, she tossed her apron into a bin, stored her shyness behind her newfound sense of freedom, and entered the store to sit and visit with Mark and Ellie. 

Freedom rocks.

***
This story, and its exploration of social anxiety and facing ones fears, is most like Kai’s novella duet, Worth the Effort

Kai Strand was painfully shy into her twenties and still hates to enter an establishment alone. Social anxiety is a real thing and not to be ignored or laughed at. Because people are often suffering silently, always show kindness first, but feel free to respond to meanness appropriately—like Mark did. Kai writes for kids and teens. Check out her work and discover her social media haunts, where she is decidedly not shy, by visiting her website: www.kaistrand.com.