I huffed. Instantly fogging up my glasses, which was only a further reminder that it meant my mask didn’t fit correctly. I was only supposed to have been in the store for twenty minutes. Twenty. My anxiety had allotted only so much time. My depression having wanted more was reminded that we were in the middle of a pandemic, for goodness sake.
Even the timer on my phone had wailed while I was in line, alerting my inner thoughts to the breaking of the accord as well as everyone around me. It even made the guy standing at the bookmark carousal the entire time I had been in line so far jump. How long did it take to pick a bookmark? How could he stand in one place for so long just absorbing the air around him? Maybe he had gotten caught up in if the person he was gifting it to like cats or dogs more? Quite possibly it was for his latest read and he couldn’t remember if he already had a cat bookmark at home.
The poor store clerk’s eyes narrowed slightly.
I tried not to puff the words out but enunciate them like a lady. “You’re saying…the book…placed on… hold for me…is gone?”
A stifled-masked-gasp from behind me acknowledged my own horror when the store clerk nodded.
If this had been regency times, I might have clutched at my chest, or my hand would have flown to my forehead hoping someone might be in possession of some smelling salts. But it was 2020 and I was still white knuckling the books I had yet to set upon the counter.
The clerk’s hand extended for the pile. “I’m so sorry, but there are time limits on any and all holds.”
“But it was just this morning? How long is a hold supposed to be?” My words felt mumbled and would have been had they been masked or not.
I almost felt the gasp-er at my back leaning in to hear better. The six feet between us dwindling. The hairs on the back of my neck stood in alert.
It was the store clerk’s turn to huff. “All I can say is that it is no longer here. Is there another book we could help you find?”
‘We’ had been stressed but I knew it was meant as anyone else but this specific clerk.
My particular sorrow was palpable and it caught the attention of what I assumed must be a manager. She came up behind the store clerk and signaled for me to move to my right. With my luck, I was about to be kicked out of the bookstore for making a scene.
“I couldn’t help but overhear. You had placed a book on hold and now it is gone? Unfortunately, there are time limits.” Her eyes were appearing as though they were sympathetic but without being able to see what her mouth was doing I had no idea if she was also being patronizing.
I straightened my spine and slow blinked just once. “You see, the book was to be a stocking stuffer gift for me. A regency themed holiday story. They all have to be holiday themed.” I shuffled the books showing her the Western with the cowboy on horseback pulling a pine tree, the mystery themed one with mistletoe in the title. “I even found one taking place during WWII.”
Perhaps time stopped in that moment as she debated what to actually do with me. I hoped she believed it was such a great idea to not only give a book as a Christmas present but to have it be holiday themed.
I’m sure my anxiety was counting the actual seconds as she looked from the books to me, my depression relishing in the amount of time we had remained in the store even if it wasn’t browsing books. But it was all interrupted by a huge crash emanated from somewhere behind us in the store.
Panic flared in her eyes, “I’m so sorry.” She picked up speed as she rounded the corner. “Perhaps you could stuff your own stocking?” And she was gone.
Had she just said what I thought she said? My glasses began to fog but for a completely different reason. A new cash register had opened and the girl running it waved in my direction.
I nearly bumped into bookmark guy as our paths crossed on my approach. The eyes above his mask where warm and actually filled with compassion. I had even forgotten to wince at how close we came to actually running into one another.
Reaching what I knew was my final destination, I slid the books onto the counter towards the latest employee forced to deal with me.
“Was there anything else?” She seemed genuinely unaware of what happened. Maybe she had just come off a break.
Resigned I replied as clearly as possible, “No. This is it.”
I would find another way. One stocking sans book wouldn’t be the end of the world, even if it was my stocking. The person who had started the tradition in the first place. The postal shipping deadline hadn’t been met yet.
With the books rung up and safely stowed, I made my exit. The wind pricked my face as I stepped away from the door so I could safely stow my books in the bag I brought, freeing my hands to liberally apply themselves with hand sanitizer.
An “Excuse me.” came at me from my right.
My already bad luck decided to combine with my frayed nerves and the slightly slippery sidewalk to result in a display of movement even I didn’t know I was capable of making. If I was kinder to myself I might say it looked like one of those really amazing star like Broadway-esque moves but in reality I looked like I was trying to make a snow angel in the air.
I closed my eyes and succumbed to the fall.
“Can I help you up?” Came from the darkness.
“No,” slithered from my pursed lips followed by, “thank you.”
I opened my eyes to spy bookmark guy. It crossed my mind to ask if he had actually purchased one and if it had had a dog on it.
“Do you think you injured anything?”
“Beyond my pride? Doubtful.”
His mask stretched and I knew without being able to see that it hide a smile.
“I think it already took a bit of a hit at the checkout.”
“True. Very true.” I nodded still laying on the ground. Now making continuing to make scene as more people exited the store.
Thankfully bookmark guy gave them a thumbs up. An indicator of a state of okay-ness I couldn’t quite commit to.
He attempted distraction as I fought gravity and rose to lean on my elbows.
“Did that one lady actually tell you to stuff your own stocking?” He had a difficult time chocking down what I knew had to be a chuckle.
You know the moment when you are on the precipice of either crying your eyes out or laughing so hard you can’t breathe? Either way your eyes end up moist. This was one of those times.
Thankfully what bubbled up within me was laughter at the way bookmark guy had attempted to mimic the manager. I don’t think my mask could have contained my sobbing at this point.
I could only nod as I rolled myself into a seated position.
He extended a hand from about four feet away and then shook his head withdrawing it.
“I just can’t get over not being able to at least try to help someone who needs it. Perhaps I should get a walking stick.”
Now on my knees I looked him up and down, “It would definitely lend you an air of…”
“Tolkenism? Adventure? Rogue-like quality?”
“Sure. All of the above.” And as if in slow motion, I winked.
Why was my body betraying me? Could I brush it off as having gotten something in my eye when I fell?
I went with the second. “I think there is something in my eye.” Bringing my hand up I wiped at it as I finally got to my feet.
Another thumbs up was motioned behind me.
“If they didn’t ban me from the store before, they just might now.” I glanced through the window.
“They should be the ones banned for giving out a book that had been on hold.” He kicked at the salty sidewalk below us. “Sorry I couldn’t help overhearing.”
A simple shrug was all I had left as I turned towards where I had parked my car.
“I might have done something odd…” He began.
Angling back in his direction I watched as he pulled out a wrapped item from his bag. It happened to be larger than a bookmark.
“… or more out of character. For me that is. I guess I am odd. Or I think of myself as such in a lot of ways.” He began to ramble.
“What is it?” Annoyance at my ability to be completely obtuse filled me entirely.
“It’s a holiday-themed book.” He extended it towards me. “A regency one. I hope you haven’t read it yet. You know to stuff your stocking with.” His eyes crinkled at the edges.
My mouth formed a tiny ‘o’ and I realized he couldn’t see it. We stood for a moment with the wrapped book hovering between us.
I extended my arm and took a step to close the gap as my fingers brushing the paper with tiny illustrated books embossed on it. “Thank you. You are too kind.”
He released it and I brought it tightly against my chest. “You’re welcome.” He remained planted where he stood, definitely less than six feet away from me.
My feet itched to move closer but I managed to wrangle back some control over my body.
His body began to shift in the opposite direction and I found a part of myself I had never known existed up until this moment, “Wait!” The word came out a bit more frantic than needed.
Maybe I imagined it but he almost appeared relieved.
“Do you like holiday-themed literature?”
The crinkles at the edges of his eyes deepened, “What if I don’t have a stocking to stuff?”
“One can be easily obtained.” I was quick on the comeback. Quicker than I had ever been before. Perhaps too quick.
My boldness hung just a tad too long between us.
“That is if you would like one.” I stumbled over the words taking a step back.
“Oh!” The gap was closed with a single step closer. “I would. I definitely would.”
I wish you all the best this holiday season and for those who celebrate in other ways on other days may you enjoy whichever season you find yourself.
If you are interested in my other Book Shop Meet Cute Tiny Tales you can find them below:
Literary Lovelies, if you are interested in some more holiday short stories I will link the ones I’ve written the last two festive seasons below. Just an FYI they all take place on the same hospital floor during Christmas and therefore contain that hint of sadness which can be found within those hallowed halls.