Here is the last part of a little Christmasy short story. Start here to enjoy it from the beginning.
----A baby was crying when Joseph returned. He’d gone upstairs for a break while Jessica was leading a class for moms with babies. His eyes quickly found the source of the noise. One of the little ones hadn’t liked being placed on the floor. But he quieted as soon as his mom started doing push-ups over him. Another baby giggled at the rising and falling of her mom.
Joseph made his way around the back of the class to the desk by the door. Jessica had asked him to try not to look as though he was watching the class because it would make some of the women self-conscious. He tried to busy himself with the schedule for the first week of January. As much as he loved his gym, he didn’t want to think about it while he was on vacation. He looked up as the door opened and saw a teenage girl enter and nervously approach his desk.
“Hi,” he said. “Can I help you with something?”
“Um… maybe.” She kept her hands in her coat pockets and pushed them together. She appeared to hug herself as much from nerves as from the cold. “I, uh… my teacher hangs some artwork here. She said… she said I could have my painting back early.” She drew in a shaky breath, and her eyes searched the wall behind Joseph rather than looking at him. “But she forgot to get it for me, and…” That was the moment she realized she didn’t see what she was looking for. Words failed and her face turned a darker red.
“You’re Claire, aren’t you?” he asked.
She was startled by his guess. Her eyes darted towards him but quickly back to the floor as she nodded.
“I’m pleased to meet such a talented artist. Your work got a lot of attention while it was here.”
Her lips twitched in a shy smile she was trying to hide. “Does that… uh… did Mrs. McDonald get it after all?”
The answer was no. Joseph knew that if he gave that answer, Claire’s next question would almost certainly be about who did have the painting. Then he’d be in the same position Natalie had faced, trying not to say her mom had it when he couldn’t honestly pretend he didn’t know. Joseph tried to dodge. “Your painting has had so many admirers. Everyone has said it’s beautiful. A few even said they wished they could have it.”
“Did one of them take it?” Her mouth fell open.
His stomach dropped just as far. He had not meant to imply someone might have stolen her work. “It’s safe,” he said. “It’s… I’m sure it will somehow make its way back to you… eventually.”
She nodded slowly, looking not the least bit reassured and still confused. “Okay. Uh… thanks?” She moved towards the door with her shoulders slumped.
Joseph wanted to stop her from leaving so downcast. He wanted to think of something he could say to cheer her up. He couldn’t tell her about the frame though. How could he convince her nothing bad had happened to her precious painting without giving away something he shouldn’t?
Claire’s hand froze on the door. She’d been watching the babies as she left. Her head snapped back to him, and she looked him in the eye for the first time. He saw the lightbulb had turned on. She’d realized who else she knew who had been in the gym.
He offered a tiny nod of confirmation. It didn’t count as spoiling anything if she figured it out for herself. And he enjoyed watching the grin spread across her face as she left. Her lovely work would be on display again soon. With snow in the forecast, her family might even have a chance to reenact the idyllic scene she’d created. That would be a pretty merry Christmas.