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Kiss or Candy?

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A chilly October breeze forced Chantelle to shut her geranium blanketed shop window. She noticed Tom closing up his ice cream parlor across the way and realized it was almost 5PM. He wore his red flannel jacket with a pair of relaxed tan corduroys to keep warm. She returned to the cash register and sighed as she punched in the last two numbers of the day. She’d already let go of sweet and adorable Chelsea, a part-time student employee, who loved chatting about New York fashions and Hollywood celebrities.

Even though it was Friday, Chantelle’s countenance mirrored the oncoming storm that pirouetted above. She wondered if she’d have to say goodbye to Jellies and Jingles after two short years. At twenty-six years old, getting a loan from First California Bank had been a pretty big accomplishment. Her B.S. and M.S. in chemistry from UC Berkeley didn’t exactly lend her a cutting edge on business matters, though they did help her to concoct lots of creative candies for the shop. Somehow, Mr. Langley saw her beaming potential and signed off on the fifty thousand dollars to kick-start her dream (or maybe it was just the box of hand-made white chocolate caramels that convinced him).

The sleepy cabin community of Julian may have gone unnoticed by Wall Street but the restful mountain getaway was a safe haven from the traffic below for its residents and its relaxed weekend guests. Just an hour away from the majestic Pacific, San Diego’s beach bums could easily sneak away for a casual day-hike and a slice of Julian’s renowned apple pie.

Chantelle reminisced about her own childhood visits to the previous candy shop that offered jawbreakers of all sizes and licorice ropes of varying colors that doubled as skillful cow-girl lassos. The oversized candy rings she’d bought accessorized a plethora of dress-up outfits back home. This stroll through memory lane just made her feel worse. With Dad gone from a serious illness last Christmas, she felt engulfed by loneliness and despair. How would she get out of this financial mess?

Her mom and step-dad lived down the back side of the mountains in Borrego Springs, a small desert community just thirty minutes away. So Kathleen could drive up and run the store on slow days when Chantelle had to head down the hill for errands or supplies. But facing their own challenges, they didn’t have the resources to bail her out of this economic nightmare.

To assist at the store, she still had Jane, a recently divorced middle aged woman who’d decided to move in to her vacation rental full-time. Luckily, Jane had invested well in the market and sold several stocks before the terrorist attacks of 911; so she never needed more than twenty hours a week and really just longed to keep busy.

The problem for Jellies and Jingles was a paucity of customers and a recent rent increase due to the state’s monetary woes. Chantelle had just enough capital to make it to the middle of January. Then she’d have to close down her beloved candy store for good, unless she could come up with a plan to save the shop.

Chantelle stopped by Stan’s Diner for some veggie-loaded chicken chili and a slice of freshly baked apple pie topped with homemade vanilla ice cream. Then she biked home and hopped on her treadmill for an hour while watching Pride and Prejudice for the hundredth time. After a hot shower, she read her Bible for twenty minutes and headed to bed. Her murmured prayers for guidance slowly faded into soft rhythmic breaths of peaceful sleep.

The next morning she awoke to Chuckles’ incessant purring as he massaged her chin with his moist nose and his sandpaper tongue. With his tenacious morning demands for warm milk and canned tuna, he was the only alarm clock she ever needed. Since Chantelle didn’t have any kids of her own, Chuckles was a bit spoiled; however, he never considered the attention excessive. In fact, he felt quite deserving of it (then again, that goes unsaid for most cats, wouldn’t you agree?). The only time he ever fussed was when she snuggled him like tattered Old Teddy from her childhood days, making it hard for him to breathe.

Chantelle ate her standard cup of oatmeal with fresh berries and a strong cup of black coffee, which allowed her to save room for the few calories that inevitably snuck in during her long work hours at the shop. She didn’t weigh a buck twenty-nine while standing at five-foot-seven by giving in to every sinful craving. She was careful with her caloric intake as she was with her spending. But despite those careful efforts, her small business was sinking faster than the Titanic.

As she stood up to put her bowl in the dishwasher, she felt puzzled by the strangest dream the night before that involved a passionate kiss from Tom. She hadn’t dated in three years after ending a nine month engagement that simply hadn’t panned out. That’s when she decided to trade the fast paced urban scene for this predictable pattern of serenity. But why Tom? At thirty-four, he wasn’t too old for her, but he had already been married once, during his early twenties. She’d just never thought of him as her type before. Why did she have to dream up such an amazing kiss? Why did she long for more?

“That’s it, I’ll start a kissing contest,” she told Chuckles. “The hundredth customer of the day, no matter how young or old will receive a kiss on the cheek. It will be a catchy new marketing strategy. And if the person doesn’t want a kiss, then I’ll give them a free box of candies instead.” Her mind racing, she hugged Chuckles and sprinted into the day. “‘Kiss or Candy?’ That’s what I’ll call it.” She never imagined she’d author such an off-the-wall plan, but since her store was in trouble, she was willing to try anything.

She advertised on Facebook and Twitter with a charming picture of herself standing in front of Jellies and Jingles. Then she zipped onto her iPad and ordered several banners that said, “Kiss or Candy?” Within a few days, word spread and the banners were hung. By Tuesday afternoon, a line of fifteen people, ranging in age from six-years old to eighty-five-years old trailed out the door. She quickly realized she’d have to stock up on chocolate covered peanut butter balls and strawberry taffies.

The kiss or candy option was paying out about fifty-fifty. The boys all wanted the candy. The men all wanted the kiss. She hadn’t had one hundred customers on Monday, so there was neither a kiss nor free candy given out that evening. Jake won on Tuesday and chose a complimentary box of assorted chocolates. Mr. Crane won the kiss just before five on Wednesday and had returned four times to ensure his hundredth-place-spot in the line-up. It seemed this was becoming a competition amongst him and some of his retired old buddies. But their eighty-year-old smiles and laughs didn’t bother Chantelle in the least. In fact, seeing them in her store just reminded her of her own kind-hearted grandfather.

Even though things had turned for the better, this increase in clientele made her miss her own dad so much. She wished they’d been able to reconcile before his passing. Nothing she did could change that now. Not even saving her store would allow him to hear her say she was sorry. But he’d hurt her and she remembered being terrified of him as a child. His drinking problems had left deep internal scars that had affected the type of men she’d dated over the past decade.

Part of the reason she’d cut things off with Brian, her fiancé, was the fact that he couldn’t get his own life straight. Too many of his motorcycles, tattoos, and late nights at the bar had left her panicked and afraid. She certainly didn’t want to repeat the cycle of chaos that she’d experienced during her own childhood. So she felt resolved that her single life here in Julian was much less eventful, but safe. It was the right thing for now.

Thursday flew by like the blink of an eye with yet another kiss for Mr. Crane. And Friday began with the normal routine, including one quick hug for Chuckles before she dashed out her red front door to head to the shop. By early afternoon Chantelle had seen several local faces but lots of new ones as well. At a quarter to four, Jane was over helping a young family with some lemon drops and some orange chews while Chantelle rung up Mr. Jones who inquired about his number in order to get an edge up on Mr. Crane. She told him that she couldn’t give that away because it would be unfair to the other customers. He giggled and walked out of the store with his Charleston Chews and a glass bottle of Coke.

She’d been marking tallies on a small piece of scratch paper beneath the counter; though the register would serve as an official count in case of a potential discrepancy. An hour later, she looked up and saw Tom at the front of the line, buying some old fashioned bubble gum. His charming grin took her by surprise and made her blush. She wondered what he was doing there, since he usually only visited with his nephews during the weekends. He paid in cash and thanked her for the gum; then she handed him his receipt and told him that he was number ninety-four.

“My luck’s been pretty good this week. I guess I’ll have to come back tomorrow as well,” he said winking a few times in her direction while popping a piece of gum into his mouth.

“So maybe the gum isn’t for his nephews,” she wondered curiously. “Maybe he came in to get a kiss? But why would he be interested in me? We don’t really have very much in common,” she pondered in frantic silence. The clock struck four-fifty-nine and it just so happened that Mr. Crane was back for some more black licorice. But at five on the dot, it was little Johnny who chose the free box of bottle caps.

Jane clocked out for the night and Chantelle sat laughing to herself as she closed out her credit card machine and locked up the register. She refilled candy bins with supplies from the back of the store and got the coffee machine prepped for Saturday morning. She didn’t mind working on a Friday night because her social life was pretty relaxed, other than late night dancing with Chuckles, if that counts. U2 kicked into action on her iPod while raindrops began to tap dance against her aged shop windows.

By six-fifteen she had wrapped things up and walked her bike over to Sally’s Pizza Place for a slice of pepperoni pizza, a garden salad with blue cheese dressing, and a tall Coke filled with lots of ice. She ate dinner quickly and realized it was raining cats and dogs as she exited the green wooden door covered with white twinkle lights. Thankfully, she only had to brave four blocks without an umbrella. She knew Chuckles would be upset if she didn’t arrive home soon.

Saturday morning, Chantelle woke up chilled and coughing. She’d have to call her mom for back-up today. Jane could hold down the fort from ten to twelve, but couldn’t handle the store by herself all day long. Hopefully Kathleen could weave up the hill by lunchtime. Chantelle prayed she would start feeling better by the evening so she could stop over to greet the hundredth customer.

It was such a new marketing strategy after all. “But, couldn’t Jane give the kiss just this once?” she questioned rhetorically as she stroked Chuckles on the back. Chantelle got out of bed, made herself some herbal tea, and dialed Kathleen’s number.

“Hey Mom, it’s me. I’m totally sick. Is there any way you can come up today to help Jane run the store? I just feel like it would be bad press for me to come in looking so sick. If I feel better as the day goes on, I’ll try to make it in to close things up,” she said in between frog-like ribbits.

“Oh honey, of course I can come up. You sound terrible. Just stay in bed sweetie. I can close the shop for you. And Jane can help me if I forget some of the prices,” Kathleen spoke reassuringly into the red iPhone Chantelle had bought her the previous Christmas.

“Okay, thanks Mom. I owe you one.”

Jane opened the store and Kathleen arrived just one hour later. With Halloween quickly approaching, candy longings filled the air and there were already thirty-five customers within the first few hours. Maybe Jellies and Jingles would survive this challenging economy after all. Chantelle sat eating chicken noodle soup around 2PM and called the store to see how things were going.

“We’re already at the eighty-ninth customer of the day. What should we do?” Jane questioned anxiously.

“Well, that’s okay, we’ll simply start counting over at zero each time that happens. Just offer the customer a box of candies or a kiss on the cheek from you or my mom… or a rain-check kiss from me,” she explained calmly while slurping another soothing bite of broth.

It just so happened that the hundredth customer at two seventeen in the afternoon was a young girl from Oceanside, up visiting for the day. She certainly didn’t want the free kiss, so she happily chose a box of milk chocolate covered raisins instead. By four fifteen, the numbers miraculously added up again and they were at the one hundred and seventy-eighth customer. Kathleen called to check on her daughter and to give her an update.

“That’s great Mom. I’m glad that business is picking up. We’ve done more sales this week than we did for August and September combined,” Chantelle exclaimed excitedly.

Just then, she heard a man’s voice in the background.

“Hey Jane, where’s Chantelle today? Is she okay?” Tom inquired with concern.

“Oh, she’s fine, just sick with some kind of bug,” Jane responded absentmindedly.

Chantelle didn’t want to inquire about Tom’s presence in the store because she knew that her mom’s Emma-like tendencies would have them set up for a date within the hour. The truth is, Chantelle was interested in that prospect. She just felt nervous and didn’t want to rock the boat right now. She was curious though and somewhat surprised that her heart started racing the moment she’d heard his charming voice.

“So are you going to make it in to close things up honey or do you want me and Jane to handle it?” Kathleen asked as she slipped the larger bills into the brown money-bag and placed it under the drawer.

“No, I think I’ll just stay home if that’s okay. I’d hate to get anyone else sick,” she answered thoughtfully.

“No problem Chantelle. I can bring you some soup if you want or some pie. That always makes me feel better when I’m sick.”

Chantelle told her she had enough soup in the cupboard already and encouraged her mom to head back to Borrego to make Jack his dinner. After hanging up the phone, she grabbed her iPad and flopped down onto her teal-colored, floral, cotton sheets. She opened up a browser and clicked to a few of her favorite blogs. Her tummy grumbled as she viewed her sister’s new chicken-pot-pie recipe on CookOutLoud.

Then she checked out Susan’s blog to see how things were going in Japan and began to cry after reading Missionary Katie’s blog from Uganda. “How does she handle such a heavy burden all by herself?” Chantelle voiced aloud to herself and to Chuckles. On cue, he walked over and plopped his head next to her pillow. Chantelle opened her upstairs bedroom window to get some fresh air and noticed some more foreboding clouds to the east.

Just as she shut down her iPad to take a nap, she heard a knock at the door. Chantelle figured it was probably just her mom stopping by before her drive back down the hill. So she grabbed her red, floral robe and ran for the door even though she hadn’t yet brushed her hair or teeth.

“I brought you some soup from Stan’s place. I heard you were sick and wanted to make sure you had the right stuff to get better fast. I was the one hundred and seventy-ninth customer today,” Tom said revealing a boyish dimple above his left cheekbone.

His dark brown hair hung loosely to the right of his forehead contrasting his light colored, ocean blue eyes. Chantelle didn’t know what to do, so she slammed the door and yelled, “Just a second. Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude. I thought you were my mom. Hold on…” as she raced upstairs to change clothes, pull back her long blonde hair, and brush her pearly whites faster than Chuckles could drink a bowl of warm milk.

She darted back downstairs, opened the door, and saw that Tom was still there, waiting patiently for her return. This time, she noticed a cheerful yellow bouquet of daisies and a small scar below his soft, red lips that she’d never seen before. They began to talk about their shops and the poor economy while Chantelle put on some French roast coffee and some eighties rock music to mitigate the initial awkwardness. A couple of hours sprinted by and she began to feel remarkably better. They even meandered out to her spacious front porch to discover a couple of newly formed snowflakes falling from the starlit sky.

She longed to learn the history of his ex-wife but didn’t want to sound too forward. As if he could read her mind, he began to share how it had been an overwhelming shadow from his past and how Anne had gotten pregnant so they’d raced to get married. He revealed how she’d miscarried and subsequently left him all alone to deal with the loss and the confusion.

Chantelle couldn’t believe that Anne had been so cruel. Over the past few years of bumping into him around town, all she’d seen was kindness and decency. It was unfathomable that someone could leave this good-natured, strong and handsome man so shattered and afraid to love… until now.

Since he’d been so open with her, she decided to share about some of the scars that Brian had left upon her heart as well. She was relieved to feel so comfortable unloading such intimate baggage with Tom, even though she hadn’t opened up to anyone else about it over the past couple of years, not even to herself.

“So did my mom set you up for this?” she asked inquisitively.

“Set me up for what? For coming to your house with soup and flowers?” he laughed.

“Yeah, I just wondered if you really wanted to come on your own or if Mom pulled one of her match-making-routines on you.”

He moved closer to her body on the couch and placed a strand of unruly blonde hair behind her left ear.

“No, it was all me Chantelle. I’ve had my eye on you for a long time. I just needed an excuse to come over. Once I heard you were sick, I seized the opportunity. The truth is, I’ve wanted to ask you out for the past several months. I just didn’t know if you’d be interested in me.”

Chantelle reddened like a Mister Lincoln rose petal and grabbed his hand.

“Well I’m really glad you came over Tom. I appreciate you telling me your story. And I’m glad I got to share mine with you too,” she said, biting her lip shyly.

They chatted for a few more hours and finished up a nature puzzle that had been sitting unattended on her dark wooden dining room table for the past three months. Then Tom said goodbye and gave her a hug.

“If I don’t bump into you tomorrow at church, I’ll swing by the store on Monday to grab a kiss if you’ll let me,” he said as he softly caressed her left arm.

Chantelle couldn’t let this moment pass her by. She stood on her tippy toes, reached up for his muscular neck, and kissed him like he was the winner of her heart, not just a silly candy contest.

“I’m pretty sure you were the hundredth customer a couple of times last month, so we’d better make up for lost time,” she said pulling him back in for a longer embrace.

The following Friday, Chantelle closed up her store and walked a few blocks down Main Street to hand Frank her shop’s rental check for November and December. Then she headed home to load up her bicycle’s basket with a container of home-made chicken noodle soup, some chamomile tea, and a box of Kleenex. She grabbed her beloved DVD of Jane Austin’s Emma from the entertainment center and headed over to check on Tom. But first, she made a quick stop at Mountain Flowers for some cheerful daisies.

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