A CHRISTMAS IN GUMTREE: Fiction writer loses secret, gains inspiration

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

Still with no fresh ideas, Scarlett Jones found herself once again in the Nuts and Bolts Hardware store.
A cupcake in her stomach and another meager do-it-yourself task in mind, she felt a little like she was living the same day over and over. The same high chime of the bell had greeted her entrance from the unchanging chill outside. Nothing seemed to have been bought or sold, and the hard old floorboards were gray with the same dust they had been wearing for decades.
This time, though, a girl stood behind the register. She looked about college age, little snowflake earrings stark against her dark hair that spilled over the shoulders of her turtle neck, abrasively red.
The United Way jar had more in it than last time, but the level of wadded bills and dim change seemed a little lower than the jar of Sweet Lips Bakery.
“Can I help you,” asked the girl, sounding genuinely pleased to see a customer.
“Where’s Ms. Lane?”
“Oh, she’s out, um, raising money for…” she trailed off, pointing at the jar.
“I’m Cindy, Cindy Burnet.”
“Well Cindy, I’m looking for a level. The crooked shelf above my stove needs straightening out so it will quit dumping spices off into my chili pot.”
Scarlett was not, in fact, planning to resurrect her charred skillets from beneath the sink, but doing things with her hands helped take her mind off her writing, or lack of. In previous bouts with writer’s block, she had tried her hand at cooking and found that certain people are just not meant to do certain things.
Cindy shuffled from around the counter, looking around uncertainly.
“Levels, levels, are right over –”
“There,” another voice finished. Sam emerged from the stock room with a ratty cardboard box. He put the box down by the counter and directed Scarlett to the proper aisle.
“I heard you say something about a shelf,” he said, “Nails and screws are over there, so just holler if you need help.”
The kids went back to the register and began talking excitedly back and forth over the contents of the box. Scarlett wandered closer to hear what they were saying.
“This is never going to work, plus even if we got the money there’s no way they would end up with the same amount. Someone will donate a dollar or two last minute or our parents will put their own money in themselves,” Sam said.
Scarlett peered over to see the box was filled with tiny antique medicine bottles made of blue or white glass.
“Come on, Sam, trinkets like these reel in big money at the Gumtree Flea Market. There must be a hundred of them. If we sold them all for five dollars apiece …”
“I don’t know, Cindy.”
The girl sighed and ran her hands through her hair. The boy’s eyes looked tired. They were so young, but they worried like adults do. In a small community like Gumtree, Scarlett couldn’t help but know they had each lost a parent. She wanted to preserve them like that, young and earnest, to paint with words everything from the looks on their faces to the smell of the hardware store. Her spice shelf seemed somehow less interesting.
“There’s got to be a way they can both get what they want,” Cindy said. “There has to be a way for both of them to be happy.”
Scarlett plucked a pack of screws and stepped up to the register, fishing her checkbook out of the worn pocket of her sweater. Yellow and orange splotches of mold bloomed on the paper because she kept the book in the floor of her truck. Scarlett always used cash, each month taking a regimented sum of her Artimus the Vampire earnings and stretching it meticulously over the weeks.
Spending money, having lots of things, seemed pointless to her. She felt like lots of people found themselves obligated to their possessions, and she found comfort in simple living. Paper check trails and credit card transactions made Scarlett feel tied up.
But her detours to Sweet Lips and the hardware store had sapped the last green dollar of her allowance without her realizing it. Sam rang it up and Scarlett hurriedly scratched out a check, pausing momentarily to remember how.
“Thank you Mrs.,” he looked down at her name. Her signature was illegible from signing so many Artimus the Vampire novels, but the bank printed her name as “S.A. Jones” on the check, “Miss Jones. What’s the S.A. stand for?”
“Scarlett. Scarlett Ann.”
“Would you like to donate,” Cindy asked, nudging the jar towards Scarlett a little.
Scarlett looked from her to the Sweet Lips bakery across the street.
“This screams ‘conflict of interests,’” Scarlett said, turning to leave. She heard Sam ask Cindy under his breath “What’s her deal?”
“I don’t know,” Cindy whispered. “She comes in the bakery a lot. I think she lives by herself out in the county.”
“Pretty name. Like old, you know, but not,” Sam said.
“Scarlett Ann,” Cindy whispered as Scarlett met the door. “Wait.”
Outside, the cold numbed Scarlett’s fingertips. She pictured them standing there, wondering what to do. She had to go, she had to write it down, all of it, while she still had the smallest details.
She fumbled her keys, dropping them in the slush because it never really snows in Mississippi. Irritated, she tossed the level in the bed of the truck with a clang and bent down to snatch the keys. When she came up, Cindy was standing there, Sam jogging behind to catch up.
Cindy held a dog-eared copy of the fourth Artimus the Vampire novel.
“This is you, isn’t it,” Cindy asked.
Coming Monday: Chapter 6: North Pole Ambassador competition comes to a close.