FICTION – By Shelly Reuben
A confrontation in the parking lot marks Clementine’s 26th adventure at The Happy Store.
Even though The Happy Store would be closing early on Christmas Eve, it was dark outside when Clementine and her co-workers began the process of shutting down.
Walter Graybill, the store manager, secured the back door, straightened his desk, and turned off the office computer, singing along, as he always did during the season, with the holiday music being piped in.
Athena Eliopoulis, the assistant manager, shut down the two showroom computers, cleaned out the cash registers, counted the money, and then locked it in the under-the-counter safe.
Betty Davis, the lead sales associate, went from display to display, turning off Christmas tree lights, LED candles, and glimmer lights. She was about to turn off the music, too, when Clementine, sweeping up last bits of glitter and berries with a broom, called out, “Stop! Can’t we leave it on? Just for tonight?”
“Why?” Betty Davis shot back.
Clementine shifted her eyes from Betty to Walter.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled almost guiltily. “I just think the store would like to listen to music tonight. After we’ve gone.”
Betty rolled her eyes. Athena raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Both turned to Walter, who also shrugged, but said, “Leave it on. We want to keep our resident crazy-person happy.”
Clementine clapped her hands gleefully.
“Thank you, Walter,” she said. Her smile shone.
“You’re welcome, Clementine,” he responded. He looked from her, to Betty Davis, to Athena Eliopoulis, and added, “Everybody ready to go?”
His never-misses-anything eyes scanned all three employees.
Betty Davis, he noted, looked tired but pretty. A mistletoe pin peeked out from her sweater, and her blond hair fanned luxuriously over the faux fur collar of her winter coat.
But Athena Eliopoulis seemed barely able to keep her eyes open. In the frantic rush of last minute shoppers, she had bunched her wild red hair into a knot. Now, with her jacket zipped up to her neck and a knit hat pulled down to her forehead, she was clearly eager to go home.
Then there was Clementine. Barely five feet tall and, Walter thought, “The runt of the litter.” The youngest and newest of his sales associates, she looked less that night like Tinker Belle and more like one of Peter Pan’s lost boys. Her open coat was hanging crookedly over her shoulders, one tassel of her purple scarf dangled precariously near the floor, and her winter gloves were falling out of her pockets.
Walter commanded, “Organize yourself, Clementine. You’re falling apart. Straighten up. Zip up. Look alive.”
“Bu … but…” she sputtered. “I’m just going to the coffee shop next door.”
Betty Davis asked, “It’s Christmas Eve. Why aren’t you going home?”
“My car’s still in the shop, so my father is coming to get me,” she looked at her watch, “in fifteen minutes.”
Walter grinned evilly at his lead sales associate, and said, “Your boyfriend will be here soon to pick up your future stepdaughter. Don’t you want to comb your hair?”
Betty stamped a weary foot. “Rufus Fraile is NOT my boyfriend!”
Walter turned to Clementine.
“Does your father know that Betty used to be a stripper?”
Amanda moved closer to her colleague and bristled, “She was a ballet dancer. Not a stripper!”
Walter’s grin widened, “And before that, a roller derby queen, a mud wrestler, and …”
Betty just shook her head, “Walter, you are so full of it.”
Clementine laughed. “Betty,” she said. “You’re my hero.” She turned to Walter, “Stop being so mean.”
Walter’s eyes twinkled. Then he smiled and said, “Come on. Hot chocolate next door. I’m buying. We’ll all wait for Rufus together.”
“I’m in,” Betty said, the fatigue leaving her eyes.
“Me, too.” Amanda also seemed to perk up
Clementine unlocked the door from The Happy Store to the Parking Lot and was about to step outside when Amanda whispered emphatically, “Shush! Stop! Look!”
Not long after the last customer had left, it started to snow. Mall employees were required to park in the spaces running along the east side of the building, so the front lot was empty. Haloes of lights on tall poles glowed through fat flakes of snow.
The scene, eerily quiet, became other-worldly when, looking back at them from six feet from away, they saw four deer standing as motionless as forest creatures in a snow globe. Their bodies were angled to the left or right, but their long solemn faces met them head-on, with huge listening ears and huge innocent eyes that stared unblinkingly at the four human being who were staring as unblinkingly back.
Nobody sighed. Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.
Music from The Happy Store sang, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
One minute passed. Two minutes. Three. Then, far off in the distance, a car honked its horn. All four deer swiveled their heads toward the sound. Their tails shot up, they turned, leaped, bounded, and in an instant, they were gone.
“May your days be merry and bright…”
Amanda, Betty, and Clementine shook themselves, as though out of a dream. They filed through the front door. Walter locked it behind them and said to Clementine, “And before she was a stripper, your future stepmother was an embalmer.”
Betty Davis aimed a fake punch at Walter’s shoulder.
“Stop it,” she said.
“Why are you so mean?” Amanda demanded.
And laughing, they turned toward the coffee shop next door.
…exhausted from the effort to remain upbeat and cheerful for the two months that preceded Christmas.
…moved by the beautiful spectacle of four deer in the parking lot.
…secretly exhilarated by their camaraderie.
And enchanted by the snow.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2020. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falco09n awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com