© 1999 Jess Mercer

Aaaarh!
Chapter 1

Aaaarh! There are times when I'd love to go out in the wild and let go with a primal scream. Not that it would accomplish anything other than making me feel better. It certainly wouldn't go anywhere towards getting me out of the predicament I find myself in at the moment. Two years ago, fresh out of college with dual degrees in business and the arts, I started a small business specializing in out of the ordinary Christmas decorations and dealing with specialty shops that cater to the carriage trade. For those with the bucks who want to outdo the neighbors or are having a special occasion, I have two people who, for a fat fee, will go into a person's home, coordinate the holiday decorations, make them up, then install them. However, most of my business orders from specialty shops come in via the net.

Now in the first week of November and business beginning to roll, it's just my luck that my computer operator walked into my office last week and quit. He's been offered a less demanding job at a far higher salary than I can afford to pay, so I can't blame him. I immediately contacted the two colleges in town that have computer departments, placed want ads in the daily paper, and inquired at the temporary help places with no success. It seems anyone with training is being snapped up just as my man was. The one applicant I interviewed was completely lost when she looked at the system I use for orders, sales, and the items set aside for use by my decorating crew. Even if she had been that interested, none of us have time to train her, so here I am with orders starting to pile up, and my secretary and I can't keep up with all the ordinary aspects of the business, much less the computer work.

The last straw came this morning when my warehouseman turned in his running inventory sheet for the week and told me it will be another week before a shipment of gold fruits we use in wreathes and garlands comes in. I tell him to put the part-time help on creating stock items until then, and I'll follow up on the delayed order. There's enough to do to keep them busy for a few days at least.

I went back to my paperwork only to be interrupted just now by my secretary. "What is it this time, Joyce?"

"A young man to see you."

"I don't have the time," I snarl.

Bless her, she's accustomed to my moods. "I think you NEED to see this one, Randy," she says with a smile, which tips me he must be very attractive. She does enjoy looking at handsome young men.

I sigh in resignation. "Okay, then, send him in."

Despite my mood, I'm immediately taken with the neat dress of the blond young man who walks into my office with the aid of crutches. I wave him to a chair in front of my desk, noticing that he's unusually good looking.

"What can I do for you?"

"I'm Val Connar, a senior at Summerhill College. I saw your notice on the bulletin board for computer help. When I realized what type of business you run, I knew I would like to be a part of it. My mother ran a florist shop, so I'm no stranger to decorating."

"I've got plenty of help in that department. What I'm desperate for is someone to take over our computer operation."

"I'm majoring in fine art with a minor in computer science. I set up the spreadsheet for my mother's shop when I was a junior in high school so I believe I can handle your program."

I close my eyes in a moment of silent thanksgiving, then say, "I need someone full time. What about your class schedule?"

"I'm only taking nine hours this semester, so I have classes only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays."

"Then effectively, you would be out four hours on those days, counting time for getting here from the campus?"

"Yes, sir."

"Come over to the work station and take a look at the programs I'm using." At this point I'm willing to take anyone who will work.

He pulls himself up, literally, by grasping my desk, then placing his arms in the cuffs of his forearm crutches walks awkwardly across the room. I pull up another chair to my workstation and he drops down into it.

He recognizes my programs as quickly as I pull them up, even pointing to one of them and asking why I haven't upgraded. I tell him I hadn't been notified of an upgrade, and I don't have time to read ads that come in the post once September arrives.

He asks if I want him to enter anything, so I hand him the inventory sheet and watch as his fingers fly over the keyboard. Most impressive, both in terms of speed and skill.

"Why haven't you found a job already? You're certainly better than most."

"Some don't want me because of my problem with walking. The others didn't want to let me have time off for school. I quit my last job because the boss told me school was a waste of my time and if I didn't quit I'd get fired." He smiles. "I promised my mother I'd finish my degree, so I told him to stuff his job and quit. Now I need to work to pay for my last semester."

I shake my head. "That has to be the dumbest thing an employer has ever done. I'd be encouraging you to continue your education."

"Then you're the type of man I'd like to work for."

I ask him to move back to his chair by my desk and while he's doing that I pour us mugs of coffee from the pot I keep going on top of the file cabinet. He takes it straight just as I do.

"I guess Joyce told you I'm Randolph Stanton. We all go by our given names here. Now, here's the situation … ," I lay it out for him, and finish by apologizing for the low salary I can pay him, but with the promise of a bonus in mid January, when the customers usually pay their accounts. He looks a little disappointed, so I add, "If you like us enough to become permanent, I think we can work something out to your benefit. This is a new business, so we've got some growing to do before I can match the bigger outfits."

"I like the way you've been totally honest with me. I'd like to work here, especially if you'll let me continue school."

"That's one of my demands. You will, and I repeat will, finish school."

"One other thing. Most of the time I use a wheelchair. Does that bother you?"

"As long as you're comfortable doing your work, I don't give a damn what you use."

He smiles broadly. "In that case, I'm ready to go to work. Where's my desk?"

"You mean you're ready now?" I can't believe this.

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Randy like everyone else, and forget the sir. You can also forget the tie and jacket. But if you're ready, you're hired. Your office is next to mine, so it'll be easy for you to call me if you need any explanations."

After he struggles up, he follows me to his office and sits down in front of the computer, switching it on. I yell for Joyce to bring in the stack of stuff that she's been trying to enter in between her other duties, tell him where the restroom is, and let him go to work. I tell Joyce to add him to the payroll immediately, like now, and give her a two-thumbs-up when I pass her desk on the way back into my office, then settle myself to other work.

An hour later, Joyce comes in asking me if I'm going to lunch or if I want her to bring me a sandwich when she returns from the deli where she usually grabs her lunch. I tell her what I want, and ask if she'll do the same for Val, because of his problem walking.

When she returns from lunch and brings in my sandwich, I tell her to leave Val's on my desk as well, and yell for him to join me at my desk. We'll eat together and talk over anything he's run into.

I can hardly believe that in just over an hour he's downloaded the upgrade of my main record keeping program and made headway inputting information that would have kept me here half the night.

"I'm really enjoying myself, sir. I hope I take a few minutes sometime soon to look around in the warehouse to see what you're selling. I enjoy Christmas and all the decorating. I looked at your catalogue while the program was loading. You have some beautiful things."

"Let me know, and I'll take you through. I don't bother with a display because most of our orders come in by computer, and the catalogue is enough. It will be good for you to have a general knowledge of our stock, so you can answer any questions that might come up if Joyce and I are busy."

"Thanks." He looks wistful for a moment. "Guess this is as close to Christmas as I'll get this year."

"Why? I usually close the week before Christmas. Doesn't that give you enough time to get home for the holiday?"

He shakes his head sadly. "I'll have to spend it in a motel. My mother died last spring and I had to sell our house to pay her medical bills, so I've got nowhere to go when the dorm closes."

"I'm sorry, Val. I know it's going to be hard for you."

"I'll survive just like I did after the accident."

His tone dissuades me from asking, so I show him a set of designs one of the decorating crew and I have put together for a special job.

"Looks turn of the century," he comments.

He really does know this stuff. "Precisely. The owners have just finished restoring a huge old Victorian, and want everything in keeping with the period. They are one of the homes on a charity house tour this year."

"May I make a suggestion or two?"

"Please do."

He points out that a more liberal use of dried materials sprayed with a transparent pearlescent coating would give the arrangements an antique look. He also suggests that if we hire school kids in rural areas to gather things like dry hydrangea heads, goldenrod, cones from conifers, and so on, we could create our own stock of items at less cost than buying them commercially. Preparing them would involve a minor cost on my part and also provide year 'round employment for a few of my better part-time help.

When he finishes, he looks at me in alarm. "I hope I wasn't out of line, sir."

"Not at all. We have meetings to discuss every special job and everyone gets a chance to contribute. None of us have a lock on all the good ideas. I can already see your work in a florist shop is going to be valuable. Thanks, Val."

"Glad I could help, sir."

With Val taking care of the computer entries, I'm able to reduce the stack of paper on my desk by over half when Joyce sticks her head in the door to say she's leaving. I can't believe it's after five already. I finish up the item I'm working on and get ready to leave myself. As I close my office door, I notice the light is still on in Val's office. I look in to see him working steadily.

"Hey, Val! Quitting time was half an hour ago. What are you doing?"

He turns with a smile. "Just finishing up today's entries, so I can give you a summary when I come in tomorrow."

"You don't have to impress me by putting in overtime on your first day for heaven's sake. There's nothing so vital it can't wait. Let's go so I can lock up."

"Sure thing, boss," he says with a grin.

The entry to our offices is two steps up from the sidewalk. Val holds tightly to the rail with one hand as he steps slowly down. When he's solidly on the walk, he looks at me. "If you like my work, it would sure be nice to have a ramp for my chair before long."

"I like your dedication already, so I'll have a couple of the guys on it tomorrow. They'll put it at the back door. That's closer to the parking."

"Thanks. I'll see you as soon as I'm out of class."

I slow my usual fast gait to match his as I walk around the building to our small parking lot. "You have a car?"

He points to an Oldsmobile Cutlass a couple of years older than my Buick Century, the only two cars left in the lot. "That's it. I hope I didn't take anyone's place."

"That's a place for customers. Park next to mine tomorrow. I'll have the guys paint your name on the curb where the guy before you parked."

"Thanks. Good night, Randy."

"See you."

First thing the next morning, I get my warehouse crew building the ramp and painting the parking space marker. I finish up all the current work and start on the stuff I've let pile up for later attention. It's almost noon when I get a phone call asking for an estimate on decorating another of the homes to be on the tour. I tell Joyce to send one of the guys on the decorating crew to the address for a look, and start out the door to get lunch when I see Val pull into his parking space. Wondering if the guy stopped for lunch, I wait.

He opens both the front and rear doors on his Olds and gets a folding wheelchair out of the back, then hoists himself into it, and closes the doors. I'm surprised to see both his legs have been amputated just above the knees. He wheels himself over, then smiles.

"I didn't think you'd have the ramp this soon."

"Hey, a reasonable request gets action around here," I say half jokingly. "Did you get any lunch?"

"Didn't have time. Class ran a little longer than usual."

"Then come on. There's a place down the street where I always eat."

"I left a lot of work piled up."

"The boss is happy, so no sweat. Besides, I like to take new employees out to eat when they first start. The way things are going I may not have another opportunity any time soon."

"Thanks." He turns his chair.

"Need a push?"

"I can take care of myself," he snaps, letting me know I've committed a faux pas. Then he smiles up at me. "Sorry, didn't mean to snap. I'm used to this. I only need help on high curbs or steps."

"Whatever." I walk along side and tell him about the possibility of wanting him to attend a meeting with the decorating crew this afternoon. "I have a feeling your input will be valuable."

"Glad to help any way I can."

Over our lunch He mentions that he has a small library of books on architectural styles and furnishings, and several on types of Christmas decorations in various periods. Most are for historical restorations like Williamsburg, but a few cover later periods. He tells me he'll be glad to keep them in his office for reference. If I didn't already know, I know right then Joyce was right in saying I needed to see this young man.

Cary is so late getting back from looking over the potential job and discussing it with the owner of the house, I schedule the meeting for the first thing tomorrow.

I sleep a little late, so I arrive at the office just ten minutes before everyone else. Val's car pulls in next to mine just as I get out. He rolls the window down and calls, "Need your help if you don't mind. I brought those books along."

I walk over and see at least a dozen books stacked on the passenger seat. "No need for you to carry them. Just stack 'em in my lap and I'll let you push us in." Which is exactly what I do.

The one shelf for books in his office is too high for him to reach, so I put the books on his desk, remembering a low bookcase in Joyce's workroom. It's used mostly to hold junk, so I tell him to wait while I get it.

"Perfect," he says, and places the books in the order he wants.

Half an hour later, Val and Cary are seated in my office to work on the estimate for the decorating job. Cary lays out two dozen Polaroid pictures he's taken of the interior. "Gonna be a bitch, boss," he says. "Revival, as you can see, and the interior is formal as hell. She wants something totally different."

Cary and I brainstorm for a few minutes, then Val says, "Try Della Robbia. It fits and it isn't used often."

"Della, what?" Cary asks.

"Della Robbia. It uses a lot of fruits and ribbon. Could work in some cupids, too, but we can use gold angels since it's Christmas."

"Don't remember ever seeing any," Cary replies.

"Let me get the book and I'll show you." Val wheels himself out rapidly.

"That guy's something," Cary says to me.

"Damn right he is. He's a computer whiz and is getting a degree in art. Going to bother you working with him?"

"No way. I've been running out of ideas lately. I can make up anything he can give me a design for. Shame the kid's got no legs. I damn sure wouldn't be as cheerful as he is."

Val returns and flips opens the book he's brought in. "Here," he says to Cary.

"Yeah, I know what you mean now. I've seen a similar picture, but never thought about using it. It'll go great in that house. Let me make up a small piece to see what it takes to get it right. Can you come to the workroom and keep track of what I use? Danny's out on a job."

Val looks at me.

"We'll both go. I want you to show Cary the pearlescent paint while we're there. I stopped at the wholesalers on the way in and got one," I tell him.

It's not until then that I remember the workroom is part of the warehouse and three steps up. When we're at the steps, Val looks at me questioningly. I nod at Cary, and we lift his chair to the entry. Cary takes the weight easily. He's built more like a professional boxer than a decorator, and I try to stay fit.

With Val's guidance Cary and I pull the materials from inventory and take it back to the workbench Cary has appropriated as his own. He's put everything he could possibly need at hand, and raises hell if anyone else touches it. But he's so skilled that within a half hour he holds up the finished wreath for approval. Val makes one suggestion at which I'm amazed Cary does not complain.

When he's made the change, Cary grins at Val. "Man, you're something else. This is exactly what that place needs."

It is a beautiful piece of work, but far too ornate for my tastes which run to the traditional. But as I have learned well, the customer is always right, taste or no.

Val looks at Cary and shakes his head. "I've never seen anyone do such beautiful work so swiftly. You're fantastic, Cary."

Cary grins modestly, but I know he's thrilled at this compliment from a new comer.

"Okay, guys, back to the office. This one is going to take a hell of a lot of time to work an estimate for. You have the measurements, Cary?"

"Don't I always? Look, boss, you're gonna have to build a ramp here for Val. I'm gonna need his help if we land this one. Danny's good at the usual stuff, but he ain't gonna be worth shit at this."

I smile and say, "If that's what it takes." But I'm stunned. Despite his talent, Cary has never worked well with anyone. He tolerates Danny, but that's about all I can say.

Four and a half hours and three pots of coffee later, Val finally turns from his computer and hands Cary the last page of the printout. "This is a list of what you'll need for the entire job, Cary. I've checked against inventory, and have an order to go to the manufacturer the minute you tell me we've got the contract. He has everything we need in stock and can truck it in next day."

Cary's mouth drops open. "You can do all that just by messin' with your computer?"

Val grins. "You've got it in your hand." He hands me another sheet of paper. "Here are the costs of what it will take according to Cary's figures. I hope you're gonna soak 'em for this."

I look at it and my eyes widen. "You're damn right I am, especially if you wind up helping Cary instead of doing your job."

"Won't be that much. Cary knows what he's doing, but I'll help him work out some variations so it doesn't get repetitious."

One look at Cary's face tells me he's looking forward to Val's help. I look at my watch. "Damn, it's seven-thirty. Let's go get something to eat, guys."

The least I can do is pay for their dinners, so I order steaks all around. Cary actually smiles at me when I suggest it and Val looks surprised.

Though courteous and pleasant enough to deal with potential customers, Cary is usually rather sullen at all other times. Handsome is one word that would never be used to describe his rugged features. So I'm amazed at the pleasant way he banters with Val over our dinner. Val has a sharp wit and always a perfect come-back. Cary actually laughs a few times, a first as far as I know.

I look up to see Cary at my office door about ten the next morning. "Sorry to be late, boss, but I stopped off at the library and looked up some of that stuff Val was talking about last night. He in yet?"

I'm almost afraid to answer, knowing the contempt Cary has for college students. "He has classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He comes in about one."

"He's a college kid?"

I nod. "Get's his degree in the spring."

"Damn! I sure hope you can keep him on. He's got some real smarts we can use around here."

I grin in relief. "Tell me something I don't know. It's up to him, but I'll do my best."

"Make damn sure you do. I can work with that guy, and I ain't never seen anybody come up with cost figures fast as he done. Hell, he's worth a lot more than I know you can pay him."

"I'll give you no argument there. If we get this job, you and Val can look for a nice bonus."

He nods. "Good. I may need it."

That afternoon the laughter I hear from Val's office is so uproarious I slip next door to see what's going on. Cary is holding one of Val's books open to a full page illustration of the famous Manikin Piss. "We ought ta get one of these, paint it gold, and set it in one of them Della Robbia wreaths for them to serve punch from." He says between peals of laughter.

Val is just sitting there wiping his eyes from laughing so hard. He composes himself long enough to say, "I thought you had some taste, man. That is tacky!"

"Hell, all that money don't mean they got any taste. By the time I finish that job I'm gonna puke. A little is okay, but a whole house full is too damn much of this crap."

"Remember your bonus depends on our getting this contract," I say, snickering to myself.

"Then I'll try to control my gag reflex," Cary fires back in an unusual show of wit.

Joyce is sitting at her desk with an open mouth when I start to pass by. "Was that really Cary laughing?" She asks.

I can only shake my head. "Believe it or not."

"I don't. That Val is something else if he can make Cary laugh."

"He's even asked Val to help him on the job."

She clutches at her heart dramatically. "Oh, God, I think I'm dying. Never!"

"Get used to it. Val’s shaking this place up."

She shakes her head in disbelief and turns back to her computer keyboard.

When I open the door the next morning, Val behind me, the phone is ringing. I answer and listen for a moment, then hang up and grab Val's hand. "We got it! The profit from this one will give us the best year yet."

"Cary's going to be wild when he hears this. Mind if I tell him?"

"Go ahead. I think I saw him driving in."

The warehouse is about thirty feet from the office building, but I clearly hear Cary scream, "Holy shit! After what Randy quoted them! Damn, guy, we gotta get busy. Go put that order in now."

Val comes back grinning from ear to ear. "Guess you heard Cary."

"Along with half the town. Go get that order processed. They're sending the contract back by messenger."

I have to turn regular orders over to Joyce and spend a lot of time with Cary and Val working on the project. Despite the pressure Cary doesn't snarl at anyone, but stays cheerful. A few days later I have to refuse a smaller contract because of lack of personnel and work space.

The specified day arrives. It takes two of our trucks to deliver the decorations, and I go along with two others to help Cary install them. Val has come in with his legs on, for Cary has insisted he come along to supervise, another first for Cary and another surprise for me.

We're all whipped by the time we've finished, but the owner is delighted and fulsome in her praise of our work. Unexpectedly, she hands me a check for the full amount of the contract before I leave.

The next week, we finish up some smaller stuff, then I close for the holidays. I'll check the answering machine daily for emergencies, but we usually have nothing to do the week before Christmas Day. I think to ask Val what he's doing for the holidays. I live alone, so I'll be glad to have him stay with me while the dorm is closed.

He grins when I ask. "I'm spending them with Cary. He has nowhere to go, so we'll party together."

I get an invitation to Cary's apartment for drinks and dinner on Christmas Eve. I've never been there before, so I'm stunned at the beauty of his place. The Christmas decorations are traditional and beautiful, as I might have known they'd be, but I'm more impressed with the tenderness he shows toward Val.

I'm not certain who cooked our dinner, but it's superb. Val and Cary constantly snip at each other teasingly, keeping me laughing so much I can hardly eat. I'm glad I accepted their invitation because I'm seeing a Cary I never thought existed.

My real shock comes over our after dinner coffee. They both look at each other, then at me.

"Brace yourself, boss," Cary says. "We've got something to tell you."

My heart sinks, afraid they're going to tell me they're quitting.

"What?"

"I know it's going to come as a big shock, but ..." Cary looks at Val.

I look at Val and see him grinning. "Cary and I are in love. I'm moving in with him."

"You're kidding!"

"No way. He finally told me he's gay, too, and he loves me."

"Yeah." Cary smiles and reaches over to stroke Val's stumps. "This guys got it all."

Chapter 2

My shop remains closed the week after Christmas, but I ask my four main people and a high school kid who serves as 'gopher' to come in and help with the inventory so Val and I can close out the business year. Thanks to the big contracts and Val's precise ordering system, we've precious little to count. In three days the work is completed and I plan for us all to take off until after New Years, but a panic call from a favored client wanting something unusual for a New Year's Eve party cancels that. I'm about to refuse the contract when Val, Cary, and Danny overhear the conversation and tell me to go for it.

Cary remembers something. "Hey, boss. Remember those stupid animated Santa and elf figures you bought? Let's go with a Passing to the New Year theme and use 'em. I know Joyce makes some of her own clothes, so let her make up some kind of robe for the Santa so he'll look like Father Time, and put a diaper on the elf for the baby new year."

"That's kind of hackneyed isn't it? I mean you see that stuff every year."

"No, wait a minute," Val says. "What if they're the main decoration? Put the Father Time figure in a grandfather's clock and at midnight have him pop out and hand a calendar to the baby who comes out of the arrangement of greens at the same time."

"Yeah. I saw a plastic grandfather's clock not long ago that's just about right for the figure. I can antique the clock so it looks like real wood," Danny adds.

Cary grabs a pad and pencil and does a sketch that surprises me at its imagination and beauty. "How's this?"

"Amazing, Cary. I hate to throw a damper on this, but I think you're gonna need some more animation for what you've got in mind."

"Got that covered," Val says. "Guy in one of my computer classes at school used to work for the guy you got that stuff from. He told me he bought a big box of parts they used to use for all that because he likes to tinker around with computer controlled animation. Want me to give him a call?"

I nod.

Cary jumps up. "I'm gone. You go get them figures and put 'em on my bench, Danny. Go get that clock, too."

"You think you can come up with the robes and stuff for the figures, Joyce?" I ask.

"After making doll clothes for my little girl it'll be a snap," she says.

When Danny comes back and shows me the clock, I almost fall out of my chair. Tacky doesn't begin to describe it. "Damn, Danny, Cary's gonna kill you. How're you going to make that look presentable?"

He grins. "Wait and see. If the kid says it'll work I'll have it looking good by tomorrow morning."

"You'd better be a magician."

The kid strolls in an hour later and greets Val. "Hi, guy, what's up?"

We all follow Cary to the shop while he explains what he wants to Ted.

"No sweat. I did one does what you want while I was working for Action Figures. This is their stuff so I know how to handle it."

"You have the parts you need?" I ask.

"Yes, sir. I can have it working by tomorrow evening."

"Okay. Give Val your figure; he'll call you soon as we get the contract. I'll pay your travel today whether we get it or not. Val, work up a bid fast and I'll take it by and see what she thinks soon as we leave here. We've got only two days, you know. I'll give you a call at home if she buys it so you can let Ted know and place the order for flowers."

"Yeah, babe, live stuff this time. I'll help you work out what we'll need," Cary adds with a grin.

I have two days of surprises. First, my client is delighted with Cary's ideas and tells me to get started immediately, not even asking the cost. The next morning, Ted shows up and spends the morning adding the motors and parts needed to make Cary's idea work, going so far as rigging the clock, which is a small electric clock, to set off all the action at midnight. By mid-afternoon Danny shows me the clock which I would never recognize. It looks very nice, almost like the real thing in miniature.

When Ted finishes installing the things he couldn't while Danny was painting the clock, he offers a great suggestion. "I know you didn't pay near what these figures actually cost, but you should hang on to 'em and use 'em again in the future. It's no trouble to make them look different, so you can rent them out to keep the cost down."

"Good thinking, but none of my people know how to do what you did."

"I'm going to be around for a while, so I'll be glad to give you a hand when you need it."

"Thanks, you've done good work. Tell Val and Joyce to add your name and phone to our list."

I was delighted when the local paper gave our work for the Christmas tour six full pages in their Home supplement on Sunday, but they give another full page to our New Year's decorations and future bookings for holidays and other special occasions begin to pour in.

Cary reminds me Valentine's is coming up and he needs more help, as does Danny in the warehouse. When I ask him if he knows anyone he'd like to hire, he says he'll get back to me.

A few days later Cary knocks on my office door and walks in, shutting it behind him. "Got a minute, boss?"

"What's up?"

"Got a kid outside I want you to see. He used to work at Flowers Unlimited in Washington until he got hurt. He does a great job cause I saw his work at a convention a couple of years ago. He ain't pretty to look at, but that ain't no reason he can't do great work for us if you'll give him a chance."

I hope, because Flowers Unlimited is one of the most prestigious floral decorators, as they prefer to be known, in the country. "I don't know what all the secrecy is about, but bring him in, Cary."

When Cary does, I see a tall dark haired young man who looks perhaps a year or two younger than myself. It's when he turns I understand. The left side of his face is bisected by a cruelly disfiguring scar running from temple to chin, and his left hand is obviously prosthetic. It has the basic shape with digits approximating a thumb and three fingers.

I fight to keep a neutral expression as Cary introduces him. "This is Tim Walton, Randy. Tim, Randy Stanton, the boss."

I stand and shake his hand. "Cary says you do excellent work, so I know already you're good. You sure you want to work for a small outfit like ours?"

"Absolutely, sir. I've missed it."

"I wish I could pay you what I know you must be used to, but we're growing and I put everything I can back into the business. Would you accept twelve an hour until we see how you're going to work out?"

"I really want to get back into the business and this is the first time anybody's given me an interview since I got hurt. I know how I look, so ..."

"Tim, I don't give a damn how you look, only how you perform. Sit down and let's talk. Cary, pour us some coffee if you don't mind. I want you in on this, too."

After we're all set with coffee, I lay out my plans and ask Tim if he's familiar with the specialty decoration side of the business. He says he was assistant purchasing agent for the gift department where he used to work and names a few European manufacturers I've never heard of.

"Tim, your first job will be to get catalogues from those people and make a sample selection of things for me to see. If I like them and think they'll sell, that'll become part of your job."

The right side of his face draws up in a grimaced approximation of a smile. "I'd like that."

"Good. I want you to meet our business manager." I reach for my phone, but Cary jumps up. "I'll get Val, boss."

I know he wants to fill Val in, so I don't object. The moment he sees Val in his chair, Tim looks relieved and accepts Val's warm greeting. Cary tells me to let Tim use his office since he's in the shop most of the time anyway.

After Cary takes Tim to his office, Val looks at me. "Thanks, Randy."

"For what?"

"Giving another poor guy like me a chance."

"Poor guy, my ass! You saved my butt last fall and don't you forget it. I don't give a damn how Tim looks as long as he works out like Cary says he will."

"I hope he does. Cary needs the help."

"Yeah. I hope you and him come up with something new for Valentine's."

"We're trying. Cary asked Tim to stay with us until he finds a place. We'll see what kind of ideas he has tonight when we get home."

"Do that." I grin at him. "Coffee break's over, so back to work, flunky."

The next morning Val has classes so it's Cary who comes to my office. "Think you can get that kid helped us New Years, boss? Tim got a great idea ought to go with the younger set."

"Like what?"

Cary shakes his head. "Naa. Want you to see it in action, boss. If you don't think it's cute, I'll pay the kid out of my own pocket."

"No need for that, Cary. Val has Ted's number and he's at school here, so Val probably sees him. It's almost time for classes to break, so call Val on his cell phone and tell him if he sees Ted to have him drop by to see you after school."

A couple of afternoons later my phone rings, it's Cary asking me to come out to the shop. He, Val, Tim, and Ted are waiting. Cary has done a large rough looking basic Valentine's arrangement of red anthuriums, their heart shape appropriate for the season, but these are too old to sell. On one end of the arrangement hovers a gold cupid holding the usual bow with arrow. On the other end are a young man and woman holding hands. Cary grins as Tim pushes a button. Cupid slowly draws back his bow and suddenly the tiny arrow flies straight into the seat of the young man's pants. He immediately bends and kisses the girl.

It takes a while for me to stop laughing. "Damn it, Cary, I might of known when you asked for Ted. Tim, it's cute as can be, but I just wonder if we'll get a party large enough to accommodate something that large."

"I hope so. When Cary told me you had those animated figures I thought you should be using them for special events if you had somebody knew how to make them work." He smiles at Ted. "This guy really does."

"Hope this goes, Randy. It's sure to get us another page in the paper for originality," Val says.

We get a contract to do the Junior League Valentine dance at the country club. The cupid animation will work perfectly there, so I turn Cary and Tim loose on it. Cary happily reports that Tim is so good with his fake hand he's almost as fast as he is.

Val's prediction is accurate. The paper does give us full credit for the decorations and pictures the cupid arrangement with glowing comments about the fact that it's animated. Lamenting only that once cupid fires his arrow, it must be manually reloaded. Cary is howling with laughter when he and Tim come in from removing it the morning after the dance.

"The manager said he had to lock it in a closet cause a bunch of the guys got a little looped and kept playing with it. Told me one guy said if he'd caught cupid drawing back the bow when he was dating he'd of busted his damn arm."

As with any florist, we're swamped at Easter, then comes June and big weddings. I keep all of my part-time help on the run and hire a few more to help Tim on the jobs Cary passes to him. The first week of July I call a planning meeting of the crew and we start to discuss Christmas themes for the custom division. I'm already receiving inquiries and few early contracts, several from out of town. The coverage in the papers is beginning to pay off.

September is traditionally slow, so the crew all turn to on cleaning out and making room for the influx of Christmas material which has already begun to come in. Val maintains the most accurate inventory I've ever seen in a business like mine. We have a few run of the mill jobs and were it not for the fact that Tim and Cary have my best part time people making up Christmas stuff from artificial greens I'd have to lay them off for a few weeks.

Tim comes by the office one afternoon. "Randy, I know this is asking a lot, but could I bring a young man by for a few minutes Friday after he gets out of school?"

"Sure. Things are slow right now, so I'll have time to talk with him. What's this all about?"

"I'll let him explain it."

"Whatever."

I'm not prepared to see a high school kid in a chair when Tim wheels him into my office.

"Randy, this is Jerry Wilson."

The kid struggles, but manages to raise his arm enough for me to shake his limp hand.

"Thanks for seeing me, sir."

"My pleasure, Jerry. What can I do for you?"

"I guess it's cause I can't do much of anything, but the junior class made me chairman of the decorating committee for the Halloween dance. I want something that looks great, a lot better than crepe paper streamers and punkins and that stuff."

"Where is it being held?"

"The gym at school."

"What sort of budget do you have, son?"

"Five hundred dollars."

Damn! Five hundred won't be enough to even make a showing in that cavern. I look at Tim and see him nodding at me.

"Let me talk to my people and see what they suggest, but I'm afraid your budget is awfully low for what I suspect you want."

"Please, sir. I know it's not much to a big firm well known as this one, but this is the first time the class has ever asked me to do something and I want to show 'em I can."

"I'll meet with my people and Tim can let you know if we decide we can help you."

He smiles. "Thanks, sir. It'll mess up their minds if I can tell them I got Stanton Creations to decorate."

Monday morning I gather the crew in my office and Tim explains. "I know this isn't a charity, but Jerry lives in the same building as I do, so I've gotten to know him. He has some type of degenerative condition and probably won't live long past high school. That's why I really want to help him have one big success to look back on. Randy, I'll give a week's salary to the kid's budget and work on my own outside business hours if you'll go along with this. I know we'll have some flowers and stuff past date that'll still look good for one night. We can use that for most of the work."

"This can be written off as good will, Randy, so you won't lose anything, and it'll be good advertising to people who don't really know us. I mean it's not like we're the usual retail operation where people pass by and buy flowers on impulse," Val adds.

I hold up my hands. "Okay, you guys, I'm sold. We haven't anything big going, so it's not going to make that much difference. What's the theme, Tim?"

"I talked Jerry into a harvest barn dance setting, so the kids can wear jeans. They'll start out with a couple of square dances then move on to the stuff kids that age like. He says the maintenance people will build a barn setting of old wood for a background for the band, so I'll use lots of corn in shocks, pumpkins, some mums, and stuff like that. I talked with Ted and he'll build us a big harvest moon that starts out as a new moon then gets fuller over a couple of hours until it's the only light. It'll make the kids feel like they're outdoors instead of in a gym."

"Did you get the school's approval?"

"Not yet. When we've worked this out I'll contact the principal and teachers sponsoring the junior class."

"How do the rest of you feel about this?" I ask.

"Go with it, boss," Cary says. The others agree.

Wednesday afternoon Jerry comes in accompanied by his principal and two teachers, introducing them to me.

"Jerry says you're decorating for our dance. If he's kidding me I'll kill him for wasting my time," the principal says by way of greeting.

"Please have a seat and let me call in the people who have planned this."

Tim and Cary come in quickly and Tim lays out several sketches of the proposed decorations and explains the theme. The principal and teachers look delighted until the principal says, "I don't pretend to know anything about your business, Mr. Stanton, but there's no way you can do anything this elaborate for five hundred dollars."

"I have a feeling that without thinking Jerry's classmates assigned him something they thought he can't handle, but he's taken them seriously. Well some of us have physical challenges to overcome too, and we're not going to let him down. Five hundred will cover the basics, but the rest we're doing as a contribution to your school. In return Jerry is to receive all credit for the planning and Stanton Creations gets favorable mention in any publicity that might result," Tim says.

"No question about that," the principal says.

Tim looks at the teachers in charge of the dance. "Are any of the students on the decorating committee from farm families?"

"I know of two," one teacher says.

"A lot of this is going to depend on their getting the corn for us. It'll take quite a bit."

"I'll have the entire group help. I'm sure one of the fathers will have a big truck to bring it to the gym."

"Excellent. We'll need at least two days to set everything up except for the flowers." Tim turns to the principal. "We will not be responsible for clearing the decorations out after the dance other than the things we're lending such as containers and the moon."

"The students and maintenance can do that."

"Good."

The afternoon of the dance I go by the school to take a look at what the guys have done. If it wasn't so light I'd swear I was in a barnyard. They've even found an old wooden horse trough and a pitcher pump and put it just below the 'barn' bandstand. A recirculating pump keeps water flowing from the pump into the trough which is surrounded by lush greenery just as it would be in real life. The moon hangs above the 'barn.'

"Mr, Stanton!" I hear a voice call. It's Jerry. He looks so excited he's tearful. "Thank you so much, Mr. Stanton. Nobody's gonna believe this tonight. We've kept it a secret and Billy's dad and his friends have a band that plays square dances. They're coming to play the first few and teach us how to dance like that."

"I'm glad you're happy with what you and my men have done, Jerry. Did the dance committee give you any grief over the theme?"

"At first, but some of them have been to parties you've decorated for, so when I told them who was doing it, it was fine. Some of 'em are still here. Let me call 'em." He manages to get two fingers in his mouth and gives a shrill whistle.

Five kids come running up. "What is it?" A husky boy asks.

"Some of you didn't believe Stanton's was doing all this. Well, here's Mr. Stanton," he says proudly.

"Wow! Thanks a lot, man. My mom's not going to believe you really did this. She laughed when I told her who Jerry said he got."

"Yeah. My mother said you would never do a school dance," a beautiful girl says.

I smile at Jerry. "We don't ordinarily, but you have a very persuasive chairman."

He grins. "Chair man is right cause I'm in it."

The beautiful girl bends over and kisses him. "And you're gonna save the last dance for me."

Jerry blushes. "Aaaw, I can't dance."

"I'll show you, you can," she says. "We want you and your nice men to come tonight, Mr. Stanton."

"I don't know about that, but you young people enjoy it."

I do drop by the gym about ten-thirty that evening, surprised to find the square dance band still playing, most of the kids are wearing jeans and plaid shirts and are dancing. "What happened?" I ask one of the teachers who came to my office.

"I wouldn't have believed it, Mr. Stanton. The kids are having the time of their lives and refused to let the band stop." She points to the moon which is now full and quite bright. "The moon is a stroke of genius; the kids can't get over it. The last dance is coming up so please stay and watch what the kids on the committee have planned."

After a brief break, the band starts a slow number. I see the girl from that afternoon push Jerry's chair to the middle of the floor and take his hand, moving slowly and gracefully around his chair as though he were twirling her, then still holding his hands sways before him in modified dance steps. A few minutes later the other students begin to move to the floor until all are dancing.

When the music ends, the husky boy jumps up on the bandstand and grabs the microphone. "A lot of you people asked who planned this dance and got it together. Well, you saw the chairman of the dance committee start this last dance with Darlene. Let's give Jerry Wilson a big hand for doing a great job."

The applause is deafening and Jerry is crimson when the spotlight picks him out.

The teacher I've been talking with takes my arm. "Thank you, Mr. Stanton. Your kindness has given Jerry something he'll always remember. He's such a sweet boy and he's been shut out of nearly every activity because of his condition. His parents are here and I want you to meet them."

She leads me over to the other side of the gym where a couple are about to push Jerry to the door.

"Hi, Mr. Stanton. I'm glad you came," Jerry says. "This is my mom and dad."

I can tell the poor kid is exhausted. "We've got to get Jerry home," his father says, "but may I call you at home tomorrow or Sunday?"

"Please do. I'm glad things went so well tonight."

Mr. Wilson comes by my house late Sunday afternoon, his face streaked with tears. He hugs me, then sits down. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stanton, but I had to do that." He looks up at me, tears about to flow again. "Jerry passed away last night. Until the very last he couldn't stop talking about how wonderful you and your people were to him and how many of the kids told him it was the best dance they'd ever been to." A quiet sob escapes and he wipes his eyes. "They asked him to be in charge of the Junior-Senior dance in May and he was thrilled."

"I'm so sorry. Jerry was a fine young man."

"Thank you. We've known all along he probably wouldn't live to finish school, but it's no easier to take." He stands. "His mother and I will never forget the kindness you and your people showed our son."

"There are several of us here who would like to attend the service. Would you let us know?"

"It'll be at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Tuesday afternoon at 2. It's going to be a simple service."

"In that case, would you allow us to make the pall out of our respect?"

"I wish I could say yes, but we can't afford it. Jerry's illness has taken nearly everything we have."

"No charge. It's our way of remembering him."

"How can I refuse. Thank you seems so inadequate after all you've already done, but Jerry's mother and I thank you."

As soon as my people come in, I herd them into my office. I can tell from the expressions on Tim's face he already knows, but Cary is incredulous. "But he was laughing and looking forward to the dance when I left Friday afternoon," he says.

"None of us knew how sick that poor kid was," I tell him. "I've told Mr. Wilson we'll make the pall out of our respect for Jerry. Keep it simple and tasteful, but I want something he would have liked. You have any ideas, Tim? You knew him better than anyone else."

"Jerry had a small orchid plant in his bedroom. He asked me once how to make it grow better because he wanted to see it bloom so bad. I thought about that and here's my idea."

He passes me a sketch that knocks me out. Most people want lavish displays, but this is all huckleberry and fern, with four cattleyas forming a cross in the center with a single row of phalaenopsis reaching to each end of the pall.

"All white orchids, boss. I don't think it needs anything else."

"It's beautiful, Tim, order what you need. The funeral is tomorrow afternoon."

I don't know who Tim had to murder, but the cattleyas are the largest I've ever laid my eyes on and the butterfly orchids seem in constant motion leading the eye to the center. There's none of the usual joking when I go in the shop to see it, just a respectful quiet.

"It's even more beautiful than I imagined it would be. Thank you guys." I tell them.

"We've voted, boss, and we all want to go and sit together," Cary says, "and Joyce wants to go with us."

"I'll call her part-time helper to come in. I'm going with you, too."

The small church is already filled when we get there a full half-hour before the service is to begin and adults and schoolmates of Jerry's are standing outside where the sexton is busily setting up a speaker system. We're about to find a place to stand when the funeral director comes up and asks if we're from Stanton's, then he leads us to a pew directly behind the one reserved for Jerry's family. The moment we're seated, I see Tim nudge Cary and nod toward the casket. On a little table at the head is a small purple butterfly orchid with several buds and one bloom fully open. I know immediately this was Jerry's. It seems miraculous that it's bloomed for this moment.

Jerry's parents are seated and I see them look at the pall. Mrs. Wilson begins to cry softly and Mr. Wilson turns so he can look at us. "It's so beautiful, Jerry would have loved it," is all he says before the minister begins the service.

There are scriptures, prayers, and a few hymns. No eulogy beyond a brief comment about rising over adversity and contributing what Jerry could to his family and school then it's over. There is total silence as we leave the church a number of his classmates, male and female, wiping tears. I tell my people to go home and I'll go close the shop for the rest of the day.

We spend the rest of the week catching up for our busy season has begun. I desperately need more part-time help, but I have no response from the state employment commission office or the ad I put in the paper. Thursday afternoon, Mike, our part-time 'gopher' comes to my office, a school kid who looks to be his age with him.

"Mr. Stanton, you still need some help?"

"Desperately, Mike."

"Jimmy wants to help out here. I'll leave him with you cause Cary's yelling for me."

"Come in, Jimmy. Why would you want to work with us?"

"Cause you were so good to Jerry, and Mike says there isn't a better place anywhere. I don't know much, but I'm willing to learn if you can use a guy like me."

"I know you're too young to have any real experience, but the closer Christmas gets the more frantic it's going to become around here. Mike's going to need some help moving things and getting out supplies for my staff. Can you work afternoons and weekends until the week before Christmas?"

"Yes, sir, but I guess you better see this." He pulls his right hand from his pocket, but there's no hand, his arm ending at the wrist.

I nod. "Mike tell you one of my best designers has only one arm?"

"Yes, sir. That's why I asked him to bring me here. I can't find a job anywhere else."

"No one here is going to care a bit about your arm, Jimmy, and you've got enough stump to be very useful. Still interested?"

He breaks into a broad smile. "Yes, sir."

He accepts what I'm able to pay and I tell him to come back tomorrow in jeans and ready to work.

The new issue of Florists World I find in my day's mail blows my mind. It contains a four-page article titled 'What next from Stanton?' We're described as innovators in the business and details how I've quietly built a first class operation. It ends by repeating the title: 'What next from Stanton?'" When I recover enough, I take the journal into Val's office.

"What do you know about this?" I ask holding it out.

He grins. "We didn't tell you, Randy, but a guy from Flowers Unlimited scouted us out a few weeks ago trying to hire all of us away from you. Cary and Tim threatened to pound his ass in the ground and kicked him out." His grin gets wider. "They're apparently losing people because of management problems. I guess he may have put the word out about us, because when World called me soliciting an ad, I told them we didn't need one, but I did take a small help wanted ad. I hope we get some response, cause we're going at top speed right now and can't keep up."

"I'm glad you placed the ad, Val. I did hire another 'gopher' to help Mike. He'll be in after school tomorrow."

"Good. Hire another, cause Tim's training Mike hard as he can. Mike can already do some basic stuff."

"Good Lord, I didn't know that. When Jimmy comes in ask him if he knows anyone else would like to work until Christmas."

Once more I have an urge to scream, Aaaargh! This time because of our need to find new and larger quarters for our operation.

Indeed, what next for Stanton?


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