Ashley couldn’t stop the smile lighting her face as she waited in the too-warm kitchen for the last seven turkeys to finish cooking. Her arms ached from mashing hundreds of pounds of potatoes, peeling carrots, and stuffing more than half of the fifty birds they’d provided, yet she was happier than she could remember being in a very long time. The rest of the Society were out front ladling gravy over plates of food fit for a king and keeping the nosy media away from her domain. The shelter employees and regular volunteers had kept up with the dishwashing, taking the compost to the bins Suze had provided, and stirring whatever Ashley needed a hand with.
Ashley’s heart filled with pride as she wiped her hands on her apron, seeing the success of the day written on the glowing faces of her helpers. She sat on the rickety chair someone had scrounged up for her when they realized Ashley had no intention of taking a proper break. She’d been there since just after four, prepping and cooking ahead of schedule with Char, and knew she’d sleep well that night.
The rented ovens, now clean and shiny after hard use, were waiting for pick-up the day after Boxing Day. The brand-new, top-of-the-line, professional standard oven Char had purchased and donated as her own personal contribution, stood proudly in the middle of the kitchen and made the decent old ones look shabby.
“You have the energy of ten women.” Clarisse, the shelter director, looked at her with amazement. “I’m exhausted, and I’ve hardly done anything.”
“Don’t say peeling carrots and baking rolls along with everything else you’ve been doing is doing nothing.” Ashley laughed, grabbing a bottle of water from the counter beside her and drinking deeply. “I’m not going to be able to eat a bite at my grandparents later. If I ever see another turkey it will be decades too soon.”
“I hear you. Last year I oversaw the potatoes, and I haven’t eaten one since. Not even a French fry.” Clarisse made a face at the leftover potatoes waiting to be mashed. “Next year I think we’ll serve salad instead of potatoes.”
Laughing, Ashley glanced up as Char swung through the doors, looking her usual exotic self. She wore a peasant blouse and jeans, her long black hair tied up high on her head in an intricate braid. Anyone else would look ridiculous, but Char made it work beautifully.
“It’s going to be at least ten more minutes until these last turkeys are done.” Ashley checked the electronic thermometers they’d bought to make sure the turkeys reached proper internal temperature. “I just basted them.”
“The crowd is dwindling. Might not need them. We definitely didn’t need the biggest birds we could find,” Char sighed, leaning against the counter. “Media’s gone if you want to come out.”
“I’ll come out after the turkeys are done,” Ashley promised, even though she was hoping to wait longer, face even fewer people.
“At last count we’ve served three hundred and seventeen people. I know we’ve run over our time, but it was worth it.” Char looked to Clarisse for approval. “If no one else lines up, you’ll be able to serve a ton of sandwiches and casseroles for the next several days.”
“The freezers were getting low, so we’ll freeze a bunch of the meat for mid-winter sandwiches or soups. I can’t thank you or the Society enough, Char,” Clarisse said, her tone awed and full of sincerity. “Most years we’re lucky if we have anyone but staff to serve, and the most we can give is one piece of turkey. You and your friends not only offered the best meal these people have had all year, you raised enough money that we’ll be able to feed them for most of next year.”
“That was the plan.” Char’s smile lit her face and her eyes sparkled.
Raised voices penetrated the happy glow. Everyone in the kitchen stiffened as Char rolled her eyes and headed for the door. Ashley considered following until she recognized the voices. Sophie, screaming at someone about gravy drops on her shoe. Suze’s sniffling shrieks of apology followed.
“You go on out, sit and mingle with the folks finishing up.” Clarisse rolled her shoulders as the first thermometer dinged it had reached desired temperature
“No, it’s okay. I’ll get that turkey out, check the others.” Ashley finished her bottle of water and tossed the empty into the blue bin.
“You ‘fraid of the homeless?” Roger, a beefy dark-skinned man, asked with a frown.
“No, why would you say that?” Ashley felt her eyebrows shoot up.
“You ain’t been out there once. Your friends all took turns eatin’ a plate with the rest of ‘em, but you ain’t bothered to stick your head out the door.” Roger narrowed his chocolate eyes at her, and Ashley felt like she’d been assessed and found lacking.
“Oh, well, I –” Ashley took a deep breath, willing herself to calm down. She didn’t need to explain her terror of the media. “I was put in charge of the cooking, and I take my duties seriously.”
“Or just don’t want to get dirty.” Roger grumbled, his eyes full of disbelief.
“Roger!” Clarisse, hands on her narrow hips, stood tall and sounded horrified. “That’s enough!”
“Well, wasn’t so long ago I was out there, gettin’ my free food, and you’d be surprised how many volunteers were scared to join us.” Roger licked his large pink lips as he concentrated on mashing the last pot of cooked potatoes.
“I don’t feel that way.” Ashley spoke just above a whisper. “I have my reasons for staying behind closed doors, and not one of them has to do with prejudice.”
“Ah, media. Pretty thing like you is camera shy?” Roger’s whole face lit with a wide grin. “I noticed when they came back here to take pictures you disappeared outside.”
“Something like that.” Ashley put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “I just don’t like the spotlight.”
“Cameras all gone now.” Roger winked. “Me and Clarisse’ll take care of the rest of the food, you go on out there.”
Ashley had no choice. She pulled her apron off and jammed it in the hamper with the rest of the days dirty laundry. Fingers crossed there were no lingering reporters out front, she pulled the sleeves of her red shirt down and squared her shoulders, stiffened her spine, and smiled at Roger before pushing through the doors. She scanned the huge cafeteria, sighed her relief when she saw only the volunteers and a few homeless eating their dinners. The tree Sophie’s company donated stood in the corner, and Ashley noticed there were very few wrapped gifts remaining beneath the boughs decorated by a local daycare centre. All holidays were represented in the ornaments and decorations hung around the cafeteria.
“Take this and eat.” Char shoved a compostable plate in her hands. Ashley glared at the food – her hours in the kitchen had her stomach rebelling at the thought of eating – but she nodded and went over to a grubby man eating alone.
“Merry Christmas. Is it okay if I join you?” Ashley stood across the table from him, waiting for a response. The man shoved potato on his fork with his thumb before he finally nodded. He ate with gusto which pleased her. “Any good?”
Again, he nodded, but he never looked at her. Ashley took a tentative bite, decided she could manage a few more. Sophie and Liz bickered behind her over who would do what in the clean-up, and she grinned. One of the perks to sweating it out in the kitchen since early morning was that she was relieved automatically of clean up duty.
“You gonna eat that?” The man pointed a dirty finger at the bun Ashley had moved to the side so it didn’t get soggy with gravy. The bun was the only thing that didn’t turn her stomach (because she’d had nothing to do with baking them), but she shook her head and offered it to him.
“Would you care for another plate?” Ashley asked, looking down at the one he had scraped clean already.
“Nope, but the buns sure are tasty.” He winked, looking straight at her. Ashley had a vague feeling of familiarity, but his unusual blue eyes were unforgettable. Perhaps she’d seen him when she’d hid outside from the press? He had a grey beard, was greying at the temples, but for some reason she thought he looked years younger than the fifty or sixty she’d originally pegged him for. Did living on the streets age you beyond your years?
“How was the turkey?” Ashley asked, frowning when the man gave the thumbs down. “Really?”
The man laughed then pounded his chest as he started to wheeze. He fidgeted with his pockets, and she thought he was looking for a handkerchief. She was about to call for help when he picked up one of Suze’s printed environment handouts and wiped his mouth with it. “Gotcha. You’re the one that cooked all this up, ain’t ya?”
Ashley grinned and nodded. “I was part of the cooking crew, yes.”
“Pretty good grub, not McDonald’s or nothin’, but not half bad.” Ashley laughed when he winked again.
The man eyed the slice of pumpkin pie and snatched the plate away before she could change her mind. “I remember my mother saying stuff like that. Spend the day in the kitchen making a huge dinner, and even though she never sampled nothin’, she was still stuffed by the time it was on the table.”
Ashley felt a wave of melancholy wash over her. Growing up as a Gallagher meant they’d dined on incredible dinners prepared by their cook Louise, a heavy-set woman who’d been there all of Ashley’s life and still worked for her parents. Her mother baked often, said it was therapeutic, but swore she was a natural at burning water. Every day, meals magically appeared on the diining room table at dinner time, all photo-worthy creations by Louise. Ashley had spent half her childhood following Louise around the kitchen, learning how to cook and enjoying the work, even though Ashley’s grandmother felt she shouldn’t be allowed.
“Thanks, I think.” Ashley shook her head at his teasing, pushing her plate away. “I’m stuffed. I swear, working back there I must have consumed half of what I cooked through my pores. Do you want my pie? The bakery that donated the pies is amazing but I just can’t eat anything else.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Ashley admitted before frowning at her own wistful tone.
“It was.” The man’s blue eyes seemed to fill with sadness as he nodded. “Hard sometimes to remember, you know?”
Ashley thought she might, so she nodded. She wanted to ask him if his mother was gone, what had happened to him that he was there, eating Christmas dinner in a shelter and not with a family he loved, who loved him. But she bit her tongue. Questions like that were rude and intrusive, and none of her business anyway. She’d made the mistake of getting involved and asking Jennifer last month, she wasn’t about to repeat the error.
“I’ll get us some coffee.” Ashley didn’t wait for a reply. She hurried to Liz who was manning the beverage station.
“Making friends? I can’t believe you were allowed out of the kitchen.” Liz’s sleek hair shone beneath the fluorescent lighting.
“Char put her whip away, said I’d earned a break.” Ashley laughed, putting cream in her coffee.
“I’d say. You’ve got potato in your hair.” Liz chuckled as Ashley felt her hair that was escaping the hairnet she’d forgotten she had on.
“Great.” Ashley felt her cheeks warm. “How did I get food in my hair with a net on?”
“No idea, but if anyone can manage it, it’s you.”
Ashley picked up the cups and went back to her companion. Setting hers down, she held his. “I wasn’t sure what you took in yours.”
“Black.” He shoveled a forkful of pie, his tone gruff. Ashley handed him the steaming cup.
“What’s your name?” Ashley asked, sitting back on the bench at her side of the table.
He hesitated at the question, shifting in his seat. He picked up his coffee, sipped, and set the cup down. “Henry.”
Ashley didn’t know why, but she didn’t think he was telling the truth. Maybe it was because he didn’t look like a Henry, or maybe it was because those strange blue eyes didn’t meet hers as he fidgeted, but either way, Ashley would have bet her trust fund Henry wasn’t his given name.
“I’m Anne.” Ashley held out her hand, her eyes open wide.
The man’s eyes fixed on hers for a second, and she knew he’d pegged her a liar, too. Good, so he’d know he hadn’t fooled her. His brow wrinkled in disbelief as he stuck out his hand to shake hers. “Nice to meet you, Anne.”
She pulled her hand away the instant she deemed they’d touched long enough. She resisted the shiver that ran down her spine as she put her tingling hand in her lap.
“Ash!” Ashley spun in her seat to see Suze waving frantically as she hurried over.
“What’s up?” Ashley half hoped the kitchen was on fire and they needed her to put the flames out, the other part of her hoped there was nothing wrong so she could chat longer with Henry.
“Clarisse told me to tell you that the food is cooked and they’re going to put everything away in the freezers. They don’t need you anymore.”
“If they’re sure – I don’t mind helping them prep the leftovers.” Ashley crossed her fingers in her lap, still not sure what she was hoping for.
“Clarisse said you did the work of ten today, and she wasn’t going to risk slave labor charges by letting you do anything else.” Suze went back into the kitchen and Ashley shifted on the bench, nerves fluttering in her belly as she fixed a smile to her face. Her smile dropped. Henry was gone.