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The growling yawn of the soft-serve machine coming to life startled me. I had been leaning against the cool sticky counter top to gaze out the service window, looking past the dead flies clinging to the screen across the street to the nameless auto shop. A tall eighteen-year-old was peering under the hood of a car, running a hand through his dark, messy curls. He was Jay Michaels, and he had just lost his brother in a car crash. His head fell forward and his shoulders slumped in a way that signaled defeat.
“Lulu,” I called, “he doesn’t look any better today.”
“Huh, child, can you blame him?” Lulu appeared from the back room, all five feet of her, with her tangled mane of crazy scarlet curls. “He lost brother two short weeks ago. I’d be upset too, if I were him. But he promised me he’d stop by today.”
I nodded. Up until the car accident, Jay had been stopping by the ice cream shop every day at three o’clock since I started working here two years ago. His order changed every day, but I could rattle off his favorite treats like I could rattle off the names of the planets; it was an unconscious effort, easy as exhaling. He was my favorite customer, always joking with me and leaving me tip money whenever he could. I had also been harboring a crush for him since I was fourteen, so I never minded seeing him at Lulu’s.
“Honey, have you talked to him yet?” Lulu asked me, stirring up a batch of chocolate ice cream. “Have you seen him since the crash happened?”
“I haven’t seen him since the funeral,” I muttered, opening a jar of maraschino cherries, “and I haven’t spoken to him since the accident occurred.”
“Hmm, now that’s not right,” Lulu said sternly, opening up the door to the walk-in refrigerator. “If anyone knows about car crashes and losing people, it’s you, Miss Elsie.”
I shook my head as the intoxicatingly sweet scent of the ruby-red cherries engulfed me. “It’s different, Lulu. My sister was a reckless driver. Jay’s brother was hit by a drunk driver. I can’t imagine how he feels.”
“Huh. Well, I think you need to talk to him. That’s my opinion.” Lulu pulled out two bucket-sized jars of toppings. “Now let’s look at these choices. We’ve got peanut butter cups or marshmallows. We’ve got almonds and brownies. What are we going to put in this chocolate ice cream?”
I shrugged and joined Lulu in the back room of the ice cream shop, where Lulu worked her magic. Goosebumps prickled my skin; this room was as cold as December, even though it was a scorching day in late July. Shelves lined the back wall, filled with every dessert topping I’d ever seen and even some I could place names to; bottles of slimy-looking red or purple syrup sat next to jars of thick hot fudge or peanut butter topping, while boxes of sprinkles and peanut brittle crunch surrounded the basket of fresh bananas. Lulu had so many toppings that her choices were nearly endless.
“Elsie, we’ve got a customer here,” Lulu informed me, and as I turned around my heart skipped a beat. I stole a glance at the clock on the wall. It was three o’clock, sure enough. Through the service window was Jay, black curls falling into his green eyes. He was smiling, but it was the ghost of his usual wide, slightly gap-toothed grin.
“Hi,” I stammered nervously. “W-welcome to Lulu’s, where we serve up smiles. How can I help you?”
“Hey, Elsie. How are you?” Jay’s green eyes focused on my face, and I self-consciously swung my hair in front of my face. I could tell he was looking at the jagged scar that ran from my hairline to my left ear, the result of the accident that killed my sister.
“I should be asking you that,” I said quickly. “I’m so sorry about what happened, Jay. I was at the funeral. It was a great service. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay.” His smile looked a little brighter as his eyes left my face and found the menu on the wall. “I’m happy to start eating ice cream again, but I think I need a minute to decide what I want. There are so many choices. Do I want a milkshake, or a sundae? Or maybe just a plain cone. Maybe I want something fancy today, like a banana split. My brother used to love milkshakes, though…”
I smiled to myself and grabbed a cup. He was going to order a milkshake today. I didn’t speak to him in school very often, but I knew him pretty well.
“I think I’ll have a milkshake,” Jay said certainly. “Definitely a milkshake. But what flavor? Too many choices. I really like banana, but cake batter is sounding pretty good today, too.”
His green eyes, the color of the lime slush drinks that were served at Lulu’s, scanned the menu, and I felt myself growing jealous of the flavors as they got his attention, rather than me. I tugged on a strand of hair anxiously, waiting for Jay to choose.
“Hmm, Elsie, baby, you gotta put your hair up,” Lulu ordered, still creating a new flavor in the back room. “You know the rules.”
I tied back my long, dishwater-blonde hair, embarrassed that my scar was now exposed.
“Now I can see your pretty blue eyes,” Jay said, his own eyes twinkling with mischief. “I was wondering…this is a weird question, but your sister’s buried at Grove Cemetery, right?”
I bit my lip. “Yeah,” I said softly. I hadn’t been to visit her in a while.
“That’s where my brother is,” Jay sighed. “I was going to go see him tonight…do you want to take a ride with me up to the cemetery?”
Since I had met Jay, I’d been wishing on every star in the sky for him to ask me on a date. But visiting our dead siblings in a graveyard wasn’t exactly what I had pictured for our first date. I didn’t want him to see my cry, which I would surely do at the cemetery. I shook my head. “I don’t think I can, Jay. Not tonight.”
When I looked into his eyes again, he was frowning slightly. “What are you most afraid of? What’s your biggest fear?”
His question caught me so off guard that I answered truthfully, without trying to lie. “Stepping out of my comfort zone. Taking a chance.”
“I can tell,” he said. “You never take risks. And I know I’m pretty reckless, Elsie, and sometimes I get hurt or in trouble, but I’d rather take risks than let life slip away wondering ‘What if’? Now I get it, if you don’t want to go out with me. That’s fine. If you just don’t like me, I understand. But when have you ever taken a risk in your life? When is the last time you’ve tried something new, instead of being so…vanilla soft serve?”
Before I could answer and tell him that driving in a car with my sister was a risk that had nearly cost me my life, he spoke again. “I’ll have a mint chocolate chip milkshake. Extra whipped cream and two cherries on top, please.”
I set to work making the milkshake, adding ice cream and milk to a cup and firing up the mixer. As I blended his frozen treat, I watched a glob of green goo spurt out of the cup, onto my apron. “Yuck!” I groaned, walking back to the service window. I squirted on whipped cream, garnished the drink with a cherry, and handed it out the window. “Here you go,” I said, “and that’s four twenty-five.”
As Jay handed me the money, his fingers lingered on mine for a moment. “Keep the change,” he said. “This milkshake is delicious.”
He continued to stand outside the window as he drank his milkshake. He shouted inside to Lulu, “Hey, Lulu! I bet I can do a handstand while drinking this milkshake!”
“Huh, boy, I don’t need to see you hurting yourself,” Lulu muttered. “Ah-ha! I did it! Elsie, come back here. You need to try this new flavor. It’s delicious.”
I headed into the back room, where Lulu was beaming proudly and brandishing a spoon filled with her new creation. I took a bite and felt a sweet, cold sensation spread over my tongue. “Lulu, this is fantastic. What did you put in it?”
“Gummy bears!” she cried. “Huh, would you ever think of putting gummy bears in chocolate ice cream? It just goes to show how amazing something can be when you take a risk.”
I swallowed and felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the ice cream. Lulu’s words didn’t just apply to ice cream, and I realized that we all had choices to make. Most of them involved whether or not to take a risk, whether or not to play it safe. Lulu took risks every day, owning an ice cream shop, and sometimes things turned out badly for her. But usually, things turned out wonderfully, just like the chocolate gummy bear ice cream. I knew I had a choice to make and I decided what I wanted to do.
I returned to the front room, where Jay was still lingering by the window with his milkshake. “I did a cartwheel,” he said proudly, “a one-handed cartwheel, and I didn’t spill any of my milkshake. How impressive is that?”
“That’s very cool,” I said with a smile. “I’d like to see it sometime. I also would like to go to Grove Cemetery with you, if the offer is still available?”
Jay’s face lit up. “Really? You mean it? That would mean so much to me, Elsie.”
“I know it would,” I said with a smile. “And I think it would mean a lot to me too.”
“You don’t have to,” Jay said, suddenly serious. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. You have a choice.”
“I know I do,” I said, “and I want to go with you.”
This, I knew, was the right choice.