J. R. Hart © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Peppermint. Everywhere Alex looked, on every shelf, peppermint surrounded him. Before Thanksgiving had ended, someone sneezed red-and-white stripes throughout the grocery store. Most of the year, Alex was indifferent to peppermint. He didn’t have a personal grudge against the flavor, not really. At Christmas, however, indifference became loathing.
What was the point of basing an entire season around one specific flavor profile? He didn’t get the excitement of mint, the mad rush to stock up as if the ingredient were scarce. Calculating an extra ten minutes into his routine to account for peppermint mochas being all the rage and the long lines accompanying the seasonal drink? Not particularly enjoyable. Personally, Alex preferred peppermint in the summertime, stirred into a glass of lemonade. In the current season, chamomile tea was a far better option, particularly in Omaha, which may as well have been a frozen wasteland. As he loaded the chamomile variety into his cart, he looked at the peppermint tea beside the others on the shelf again. How many people buy that thinking this is the only time it’s available? It wasn’t a limited holiday tea. Do people really not know this? Peppermint tea was right there, on the shelf, year-round. But somehow, no one touched the tea in the summertime.
Alex found it a little scary how some crafty marketing on the part of a few national giants—a few food brands—could push peppermint to the forefront of everyone’s minds, convincing them the one flavor was a requirement for a good Christmas. Marketing alone could make one flavor of tea, available year-round, fly off the shelves during the right time of year. “Madness.”
While he could deal with the fascination—darn near obsession—with peppermint products surrounding him in the aisles, he couldn’t stand the chaos and overcrowding Christmas caused. He hadn’t realized he’d been standing in front of the tea for as long as he had until a woman bumped him out of the way—no “excuse me” or anything—to reach the tea. He watched her snatch up several boxes of the very same peppermint green tea he’d rolled his eyes over. He wanted to be home badly, instead of at the store.
“You know they sell that stuff all year?” Alex asked. Stupid question.
She replied with a glare, then added two more boxes to her cart before wheeling away.
Comfort food. Alex stalked away in search of comfort food. Not comfort food in the way most people would define it, but rather the food he personally found most comforting. Starting with the obvious item—the largest jar of peanut butter the store had to offer. He wondered how offended the cashier would be if he grabbed a pack of plastic spoons and tore into the jar now. He needed comfort. Moving to a new city, right before the holidays? Yeah. He needed peanut butter. Bread wasn’t important. His preference was to eat the substance straight out of the jar, where the creamy—never crunchy—mass could squish in and fill the emotional void left behind from the tension of shopping at Christmastime, the internal stress from packed aisles crowding in on him, overwhelming him. He scuffled his feet along the floor, head low, set on trying to avoid eye contact with any other shoppers.
Alex wasn’t in the mood to conjure the polite, Christmassy grin he was forced to give the other shoppers. The store piped in annoyingly saccharine, cheerful Christmas tunes, and the music was starting to give him a headache. I hate Christmas. He hadn’t always, but right now, he couldn’t bring himself to like the holiday. He attempted to elbow his way around a cookie display with shoppers crowded around. When he couldn’t manage to get through the crowd, he maneuvered between, reaching an arm in under someone’s elbow and above another shopper’s wrist. He grabbed two boxes, tossing them unceremoniously into his cart.
Too late to put the cookies back, he noticed the words “candy cane,” printed on the label. With the crowd, there was no way he could reach in and put the packages back. What about the season necessitated peppermint added to the cream-filled center of a sandwich cookie? He didn’t understand the need there. “What’s wrong with plain Oreos?” No one heard his question. Which was fine—he hadn’t wanted an answer. He should have ordered his groceries online, he realized in hindsight. But, he was here now. Leaving the store empty-handed didn’t make sense.
Saccharine tunes came through the speakers, crooning classics surrounding shoppers in the store. “On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” From the next aisle, he could hear a voice singing along. The stranger didn’t bother to hum or sing along quietly as most other shoppers did. Instead, he made his presence known. “Eleven pipers piping.” His voice was booming and excited. “Ten lords a-leaping!” Whoever he was, he was getting into the music, holiday cheer annoying Alex from an aisle over. As Alex grabbed a box of cereal off the shelf, he caught a glimpse of a garish Christmas sweater, a peek of beard, and lips moving along to the song. Of course. He was desperate to get out of the store. The sooner he finished shopping, the sooner he could leave the festive hellhole and take a nap. His mind flitted to the booze aisle. Alex considered alcohol to be a decent enough solution for getting through the holiday season. Unfamiliar with the store’s layout, he wanted to find where he needed to go so scanned above him for a sign. He didn’t see it. Instead, he turned and saw a lone box of peppermint bark on an endcap. He debated grabbing some.
If the candy was any good, it might make up for the peppermint overload the season itself had. Besides, it was the last box. The fear of missing out overwhelmed him. Peppermint wasn’t all bad, even at Christmas. He reached his hand out to grasp the box as a large hand wrapped around the other side.
“Oh. Oh gosh.” A man, the one who had been singing, judging by his festive, candy-cane-striped sweater matching the one Alex had seen through the aisle divider, looked at him. “You can have it,” he said, but he didn’t let go of the box. He was offering with the hope Alex would decline and let him have the box. Alex could barely stifle a groan as he looked up at him. The guy looked a little too into Christmas in the sweater, and his obnoxious attire was a lot to take in.
Alex wasn’t short. He rarely had to look up at anyone. But this festive giant towered over him, so he let go. “I don’t even like peppermint bark,” Alex said. “Take it.” The last thing he wanted was to get on this guy’s Grinchy side over a box of candy he didn’t actually want.
“What?” The man in front of him stared, aghast, mouth open, jaw dropped in an exaggerated way Alex had only ever seen in movies, as if Alex had somehow personally attacked him with the statement. “You’re not a fan? It’s a holiday staple, man!”
Alex resisted any and all temptation to tell him, “I’m not your man.” He hated when people said things like that, so overly friendly, as if they knew each other, but he bit his tongue. Instead, he tried to hide his basket behind him, remembering it was full of peppermint cookies, not that he’d wanted them either. He worried the man had caught an eyeful, but then again, did he really care? He wasn’t on trial here! Apparently, what was on trial was whether or not he liked peppermint bark. Christmas and everything related to the holiday was on his last nerve; that was certain.
“No,” Alex said. “I am not a fan of peppermint bark. All it is is mint and chocolate. Go get a box of chocolate mints in the candy aisle—exact same thing, but the stuff sits there year-round, and nobody’s trying to convince you you’ll have the worst Christmas ever if you don’t have it.”
“Uh…” The man cocked his head to one side.
Alex considered he might have come off a little too strong, and for a moment, he was embarrassed by his mini-tirade about how awful the holidays were. He didn’t back down though. In fact, he realized he’d made a good point. Like he’d told the guy, he could go to the candy aisle if he needed chocolate and mint so badly. “It’s true,” Alex said. Frustrated with himself for getting sucked into the marketing, he was thankful some crazy person in a sweater had come along to snap him out of buying the peppermint bark—or worse, into the peppermint delusion—when he didn’t want it.
“It’s not the same!” The man protested. “This has a pepperminty crunch! It’s magical! I can’t imagine not loving peppermint bark!” Alex quirked an eyebrow and backed away slowly. “Or Christmas! Or candy canes! Of course, I bet that’s because my mom set me up with the whole naming me after Saint…” Alex shook his head, muttering “Merry Christmas,” and went down an aisle before the man could finish explaining how his mother’s love for Christmas somehow translated into a desperate need for peppermint. He didn’t have the energy for any of this. Instead, he stalked away, grabbing a bag of chocolate-dipped pretzels—sans any sign of peppermint—before checking out.
Nicholas finished his sentence under his breath, mumbling, “Saint Nicholas…you know, the Jolly ol’ Santa Claus.” One person wasn’t about to ruin his holiday spirit, even if the cute redhead did cut him off and walk away.
He felt both victorious and a little guilty in the moment, having taken the last box from the man. For a second, he considered chasing after him and giving him the box, already regretting his choice to take them. “Merry Christmas,” he said, watching the guy stalk away, ripping a bag of pretzels from a shelf in a huff as he made a beeline for the checkout. He’s cheery, Nicholas thought, but he pushed the sarcasm from his mind. “Oh. Well.” He considered the man didn’t deserve them, but reigned himself in from his judgment of the guy. He wasn’t going to let this grumpy stranger get him down. Not during his favorite season.
His cart was overflowing—fresh fruit for pies, shortening and flour for the pie crusts and his famous Christmas cookies, some nuts, boxes and boxes of butter, and more sugar than appeared sensible—all for his Christmas treats. Everything in his cart was for making others happy, ingredients he would use to bake gifts for his friends and neighbors, all things he would use to make their holidays brighter. But the peppermint bark? That particular treat was entirely his to enjoy, the one thing he took delight in having without feeling the need to make the sweet from scratch. Peppermint bark was the one item he had no intention of sharing with anyone. He put the box into his cart, then looked at the list in his hand. Though he’d crossed everything off, he found himself double-checking regardless. Better to discover he missed something while he was at the store than to get home and realize there was a key ingredient he’d have to scramble back for midrecipe. The phrase “checking it twice” popped into his head, and Nicholas found himself humming about Santa Claus coming to town, all the way to the checkout.
Alex hadn’t finished his mental list, hadn’t bought half the staples he decided he needed to stock his new apartment, but he was over shopping and the forced cheer. Loading the items in the trunk of his car, he bristled against the cold. Even the interior of the car was cold. The heat on full blast wasn’t enough for him, coming out icy at first. He sat there shivering, waiting for warmth. He wondered if his heat worked properly. In LA, he’d only had to use the setting once. The rest of the time, the dial was either set to air conditioning or off completely. He held his hands up by the vents—he wasn’t used to this Midwest chill—and rubbed them together for any bit of warmth he could get. “Getting gloves would help, Alex,” he said, snarking to himself in his otherwise empty car. “And now you probably look absolutely ridiculous talking to yourself in a very clearly empty car. Way to go.” He turned to the backseat, which had tinted windows. “At least now if someone saw how crazy you look, they can assume you’re talking to someone in back, right?” Alex sighed and shook his head. Yeah. You look ridiculous.
As the air inside the car warmed, he stopped rubbing his hands together, settled into the seat, and turned the radio dial. He tried to get any station not playing Christmas music. His car was old, and he didn’t have the luxury of an aux cord or a CD to keep him company. Not finding what he wanted, he gave up completely. “Great. Frickin’ great.” Right when he didn’t think he could get more miserable. He didn’t know any of the stations in Omaha yet. Regardless, programming stations in a frigid parking lot was a waste of time. He grumbled to himself and shifted into reverse.
The knock on the window jarred him out of his thoughts. He yanked the gearshift back into park, then lowered his window an inch. The glass was frosted over and fogged up from his breath. He wasn’t sure what to expect. The Jolly Giant from inside the store was high on the list of things he’d never thought to consider, and Alex blinked at him, not entirely sure what to say.
That didn’t stop the guy. He leaned down, peering through the small slot Alex had given him to speak through. “Hey! Looks like we parked next to each other, stranger.”
This man was cheerful to the point of sending every stranger–danger signal in Alex’s body flaring. No one should ever be so chipper, he thought. Alex found himself wondering how much sugar—or liquid Christmas cheer—the man had already had that day. Alex wanted to close his window and block out the flurries starting to drift into his car. He desperately hoped to cut the conversation short. “Yeah. It, uh. It’s quite a coincidence, I guess. Have a good day.” Alex’s finger smoothed across the window button and he started to close it. Who knocks on a stranger’s window to comment on where they parked? For a moment, Alex wondered if he’d dinged the guy’s car with his door, and this was a friendly way of calling him out.
Alex released the button, lowering the window again the tiniest bit and peering skeptically through the crack.
“I’ve got something for you. I felt bad about taking the last box. Seems like you could use a pick-me-up.” Nicholas held the peppermint bark up, rocking the box gently back and forth in his hands.
This guy clearly doesn’t let things go, Alex sighed and lowered the window the rest of the way. Was this some kind of trick? “Thanks, but I don’t have any cash on me.”
“No! I didn’t mean for you to buy it. I meant as a gift. Consider this an early Christmas present.” He kept grinning, and for a moment, Alex wondered if he was on one of those weird hidden camera shows.
“Seriously, you don’t have to. I mean it when I say I’m not fond of peppermint bark, and I get the feeling you’d enjoy the stuff a lot more than I would. I was, uh… I was buying it for a friend. I’ll find them a different gift.” Alex was an awful liar, and he imagined the man could tell by how much he overexplained the situation instead of saying “no thanks.” He kicked himself for the dishonesty. Every lie was written on his face, and this guy was just being nice. Still, Alex was only a little ashamed. He should feel weird, not me. After all, Alex was simply trying to get home, and this guy was practically forcing peppermint bark on him.
“Please take it. I hope your friend enjoys it!” He had a brilliant smile and a complete lack of concern or confusion, as if he was willing to accept Alex’s lie for whatever reason. He passed the box through the open window.
Alex didn’t have a choice but to accept the gift and place the box on the passenger seat. If he didn’t, the whole situation would be weirder than this already was. The man had already chased him down in the parking lot—or maybe not chased, if they were truly parked beside each other—and offered him candy until he’d lied trying to refuse the gift. They’d passed awkward. Refusing again would have made Alex look downright strange. “Thanks, uh…” Alex trailed off. He didn’t know this guy, didn’t know his name or anything about him. He was quite literally taking candy from a stranger. Doing so was a slap in the face of anything his mother had ever taught him; that was for sure.
“Nicholas. I’m Nicholas,” he said. His cheeks were rosy, kissed by the cold air and turning them a soft pink like his nose. They peeked up over his beard, nice and round. He looked cold, in spite of the fingerless gloves and the scarf he had on, both bright red with white stripes. Or white with red stripes. Alex couldn’t be certain.
“Oh. Right. Like Saint Nick. I should’ve guessed,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Thank you, Nicholas. Seriously.” He actually meant it.
“No problem. Have a Merry Christmas!” Nicholas said.
“Thanks. You too.” Alex gave a small wave and rolled his window up. After he pulled away, he realized he’d never offered his own name. “Stupid Christmas spirit,” Alex muttered, but he couldn’t help smiling at the box on his seat. If nothing else, he could take the kindness as a sign Omaha wasn’t a bad choice after all. At least the people were nice, if not completely weird. At this point, he would have taken any good thing as an indication he’d made the right choice to move, even if the situation was half-baked.
For a moment, he wondered if he were hallucinating. A jolly man who was so into Christmas, generously gifting sweets to a complete stranger in a grocery store parking lot? Nicholas? Really?