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Six Cents
Please keep in mind that the opinions of this story's
narrator are not necessarily the same as mine, and
that this story is loosely based on actual events.

      The Christmas season had always been my favorite time of year. Old and dreary houses come alive with decorations and bows and wreaths, and the flashing lights strung across the eaves throw fluidly dancing patterns across the newfallen snow. The twinkle in the stars overhead is reflected in children's eyes as they await the moment when Santa Claus arrives with all kinds of toys for them to play with. Even after I learned that the man was a myth, I continued to believe in the spirit of Santa Claus - the spirit of giving to those we love and cherish. I continued to believe, that is, until an event forced me to reconsider.

      Some of my friends and family think Christmas shopping is a chore, but I always found the experience delightful. The malls and department stores are garnished just as floridly, if not more so, than our houses and Christmas trees. You can meet all kinds of people, see wonderful sights, and smile upon children as they race towards Santa Claus' workshop, their parents struggling to keep up. I could almost feel the energy in the air as I walked through the mall one Saturday morning, doing a little last-minute shopping before the big day arrived.

      Usually I got all of my important shopping done in a hurry, not because I want to get it over with, but because there's so much more to do than hanging around in malls for a month. For some reason, though, I felt obliged to go back to the mall on that snowy morning, even though I didn't think I needed to buy anything. As I'd eventually find out, the trip to the mall that day did happen for a reason, though not the one I'd anticipated.

      I wandered through one of the large department stores, and I was perusing the shelves when I heard the sounds of a skirmish close by. I assumed that a couple of children, probably sisters, were having a little disagreement, probably provoked by sibling rivalry. Imagine when my astonishment when I turned the corner and saw two grown women fighting over an action figure!

      "I had it first, you shameless hussy!" declared one of them. "Let go of it!"

      "I've been looking all over town for this thing!" challenged the second. "It's mine!"

      After a few moments, I recognized the toy over which the battle lines had been drawn. It was a "Captain Neutron" action figure, one of the newest toys to hit the shelves. It was a very popular item, selling fast in all the big stores. Most of them had no more to sell, and those that did have some in stock were charging ludicrous prices for them. It seemed like every little boy in town wanted a Captain Neutron toy, with real karate chop action and heroic sound effects, and it was a shame that they wouldn't all get one.

      Part of me wanted to break up the fight, and scold both of the combatants for acting like the children they were buying toys for. After further consideration, I decided that Captain Neutron himself wouldn't have had much of a chance at pulling the greedy gladiators apart, and I went on my way. I vowed not to let an isolated incident spoil the atmosphere for me, and I headed away from the battlefield just as a pair of store clerks rushed up to save the merchandise.

      It felt much better in the mall proper, just outside the rather crowded department store. A small band was taking requests for popular Christmas music, more holiday songs were coming in over the public address system, and even the nearby grunge-music store was belting out festive tunes, albeit a revised version appropriate to the source. Christmas lights and decorations were everywhere and, as I looked down the hall towards the food court, I saw the gigantic Christmas tree erected there.

      I stopped at the local bulk food store to indulge my sweet tooth, and I emerged a few minutes later with a bag full of red, white and green Christmas candy in one hand. In my other hand, I carried the change the cashier had given me: six cents, a penny and a nickel. In retrospect, I probably should have told the cashier to keep the change, as I normally do when presented with such small denominations, but for some reason I neglected to do so, and I was left with the six cents.

      Pocketing the coins, I headed towards the bookstore, on the other side of the food court, walking slowly to soak in the atmosphere. Huge bristol board posters announcing special holiday prices were being set up in front of the stores that were just opening, and employees walked around with red and white Santa Claus hats on their heads as they rolled back the glass doors to admit eager shoppers. I saw through one of the mall entrances that the snow was letting up, and I decided to head back to my car in a few minutes if I didn't find anything of interest in the bookstore.

      As I entered the food court via a short staircase, my eye was drawn towards a little red contraption, with a clear bin hanging by a trio of thin chains. When I saw the logo of the Salvation Army on the plastic sphere, and the little slot cut into the top, I knew instantly what it was. The bin had no money in it yet, but that was understandable, because that part of the store had just opened. The canvasser was nowhere to be seen; he was probably getting a cup of coffee somewhere.

      I reached into my pocket, withdrew the six cents, and dropped the coins in the little slot, listening for a second to the dull clinking noise as they struck the plastic bottom of the receptacle. I felt sheepish because of the small amount I had given, but it was better than nothing. Others would surely come by and give money to help those in need, and all the loose change people gave would add up over the course of a day. By closing time, there would be enough to feed a family on the verge of starvation, or clothe a child who would otherwise catch cold. I was glad that I had contributed to that, even if in a small way.

      I browsed the bookstore for maybe ten minutes, seeing if the latest best-sellers had hit the shelves and looking for something that would catch my eye. After I admitted to myself that there was nothing in the store that interested me, I walked out, heading back through the food court to my car. I climbed back up the little staircase, passing the receptacle of money for the Salvation Army, which was still missing its human counterpart. As I reached the top of the short flight of stairs, I realized that the canvasser wasn't the only thing missing from the setup. There were still only two coins in the bin; the nickel and penny that I had deposited ten minutes earlier!

      I turned back to the food court, and saw that it was bustling with people. Some were eating, some were talking, some were laughing and a few were holding hands. But none of them were giving money to the cause that deserved it. A family of four walked by the Salvation Army bin and didn't give it a second thought, or a first one for that matter. Had they all forgotten what time of year it was, or were they simply ignoring those who were less fortunate?

      I looked back down at the solitary pair of coins in the bin, and I felt a brief stab of rage and sadness because of the emptiness there. After a moment, I knew that it would be futile to pursue that emotion any further. If that bin was to remain as empty as their hearts, so be it. I simply turned and walked away, knowing that I had done all I could with the six cents I had given.

Copyright 1999 James Rioux.