“Will that be all?” Caroline asked hopefully.
“Yes!” The customer snapped—at the two sticky, whining children in her stroller.
Dang. Caroline handed the woman her receipt. “Merry Christmas.”
Paper angels fluttered on the angel tree as mother, children, and stroller whisked by.
Caroline turned resolutely back to her post. There were still customers in the bookstore, and still forty-five minutes until closing time.
“Good evening. Did you find what you needed?” she recited, sizing up the next customer.
“Yes, thank you dear.”
Polite, elderly, well-dressed—tidily dressed, Caroline corrected herself. Purchasing a dictionary and an unabridged Les Miserables. “Would you like to donate to our angel tree? Each angel shows a disadvantaged child’s Christmas book wish.”
She wasn’t supposed to solicit for the angel tree, but her boss Judy was in the storeroom, and this customer would obviously want to donate, as soon as she knew. To Ellen.
Caroline had Ellen’s paper angel ready. Ellen wanted the latest teenage paranormal romance, but Caroline had penciled in some additional ideas.
“What’s this?” The customer picked up the angel. “Ellen, age 14,” she read. “Wants...” Her voice trailed off into a frown, until she reached Caroline’s suggestions. “Oh! Pride and Prejudice! Of course!”
Of course. “There on the back wall, top shelf.” Caroline pointed. She didn’t know any more about Ellen, or the other children, than what was written on the angels, but she had imagined stories for them all. Caroline felt certain that Ellen, who’d requested Book Four in the romance series, was ready to move on to something meatier. She could always check out the romance from the library.
Caroline watched the elderly woman’s back as she hurried to Aisle 14. Was this the One? Someone had to be, and soon. She had thirty-nine minutes until closing time, and nineteen angels to go, if the nice old woman really did choose a book for Ellen.
A woman using a diaper bag for a purse—or perhaps a purse for a diaper bag—bought angel books for the three remaining toddlers on the tree. On her way out she [who?] passed the old lady, who purchased an upscale, hardcover Pride and Prejudice.
“Merry Christmas!” The lady had a nice smile, too. [which lady?]
Caroline’s reply was sincere [what reply], as she added the lovely book to her growing angel pile. But sixteen angels still remained.
“Am I too late?” A man laid a copy of Goodnight Moon on the counter.
“No. Certainly not too late.” Even before she looked at him, Caroline knew he had to be the One, whether he liked it or not. The store closed in eighteen minutes.
The Goodnight Moon man had lots of hair, white evenly mingled with darker brown [this sounds like he's old. Two elderly people?]. His collar was frayed along the edges, but a glance at his keys revealed a new-looking key fob for a quality auto make. It might hurt a little—Caroline’s seven angel books had hurt her student budget more than a little—but she thought he’d manage.
“Goodnight Moon! That’s one of my favorites.” Caroline’s fellow English students teased her about the piles of children’s books she checked out at the library.
He nodded, green eyes softening. “Yeah. The baby’s crib is secondhand, but he really needs his own, new copy of Goodnight Moon. The other kids went through one apiece.”
Seventeen minutes left, and the One had finally arrived! Judy hurried down Aisle 12, straightening books and whistling her nearly-closing-time song. Caroline racked her brain. Even if Judy hadn’t been close enough to hear, Caroline couldn’t just suggest that this man purchase every single angel. She had to think of a way to help him figure that out for himself.
“‘Went through’?” she inquired brightly, stalling for time.
The man chuckled. “Wore ‘em right out. It’s not easy to be a favorite book in our house.”
“That’s a lot of reading.” She slowly turned the book over, praying for help. She was starting to scan the UPC when inspiration hit. “By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off,” she murmured.
The man’s battered wallet matched his frayed collar, not his car keys. His Visa said George Schaeffer.
Now [delete] Mr. Schaeffer’s hands stopped moving. “Shoot. What’s that from?” His brow creased. “It doesn’t happen to people who break easily...something-something...all the hair’s worn off...” He looked at Caroline. “What’s that from?”
Caroline blinked innocently and made a noncommittal noise.
Judy was bending over in Aisle 11. Caroline quickly murmured, “Would you like to donate to our angel tree?” She pushed Eddie’s angel toward Mr. Schaeffer.
“‘Age seven. A book about love’,” he read, frowning.
“There are more on the tree.” She cocked her head that direction.
“Huh.” His brow wrinkled as he wandered over to the tree. “It doesn’t often happen to people with sharp edges...your eyes fall out...What is that from?”
You’re the One! Take them all! But he took only four, in addition to Eddie.
While he shopped, Caroline mentally rearranged her own budget half a dozen times, failing each time to fit in another eleven books.
He returned to the counter with four books at 9:59. “That’s about all I have time for, I guess,” he said as Judy slid the iron gate shut and lights went out in the mall. “Too bad...” He laid Eddie’s angel on the counter.
“Oh, don’t worry. No one else can come in, but we can wait until you finish.” Caroline pretended not to notice Judy’s exasperated glance. Maybe she’d be looking for a new job after Christmas vacation.
“That’s OK. I’ll try to come back tomorrow.”
“The angel tree ends tonight,” Caroline replied without looking at him.
“Oh.” Judy stepped briskly to the back of the store and turned out the lights in Nonfiction. “Hold on.” He pulled out a cell phone and stepped into Aisle 11.
Caroline’s heart sank. It hadn’t occurred to her that the One might have to consult with someone else—like his wife.
She straightened the bookmark display, trying and not trying at the same time to hear his conversation. At last he emerged again, smiling broadly. “I’m buying them all!”
“OK, sir!” She wanted to hug him around the neck, but instead she hurried out from behind the counter to help him pull the remaining angels off the tree. Judy rounded the counter with a red face, but she stopped short when she saw what they were doing.
Like most book lovers, Mr. Schaeffer had strong opinions about books. He called home to consult with his older children twice. Caroline did talk him out of Agatha Christie for Zach, who wanted a mystery, steering him instead toward The Westing Game. And Judy nearly got into an argument with him over Narnia vs. The Hobbit, for Lexie. Before long, Mr. Schaeffer had a pile of sixteen books—fifteen angels, plus his original Goodnight Moon.
“There!” he said again.
Mr. Schaeffer paused while opening his wallet.
“What about Eddie?” The last paper angel lay alone on the counter.
Mr. Schaeffer and Judy let out simultaneous sighs—his troubled, hers frustrated. He picked up the angel and frowned at it. “Do you have any suggestions for ‘A book about love’?”
Caroline hadn’t had any good ideas, not ones that sounded exactly right, until tonight, so Eddie’s angel had no penciled notes. Now she knew the perfect book, but she also knew that Mr. Schaeffer had to think of it himself. “When a child loves you,” she whispered, “really loves you...”
“...then...” Mr. Schaeffer was staring toward Aisle 11, but Caroline could tell his thoughts were much farther away than that—maybe back in his own childhood. Suddenly, his eyes popped wide open. “...you are Real! That’s The Velveteen Rabbit!”
Judy hurried back to the children’s section to find the book—and turn out more lights. A minute later she brought it back.
Caroline tucked Eddie’s angel under the front cover, rang up the book, and handed it to Mr. Schaeffer.
He flipped through it, scanning text. “Here we go.” Upside down, Caroline could see a picture of the old Skin Horse talking to the Rabbit in the nursery. She nodded encouragement.
“Real isn't how you are made,” he read, “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you...” His voice trailed off. His white hairs glinted in the darkness, and Caroline noticed that the cuffs on his shirt were frayed like the collar. “...then you become Real.” He read silently for a moment. “Once you are Real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” He pulled out Eddie’s angel, nodding back as if it had spoken to him. The cash register blinked Christmas red in the half-light. “Yeah, it does.”
What I liked best: The idea of stretching a little to help others have a Christmas.
Magazine ready? Yes.