Monday, December 18, 2023

Christmas Fiction - Part 3

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.

Friday, December 8, 2023

Christmas Fiction - Part 2

To start this story from the beginning, read the post from last month.

    The gym was packed. More than half the people walking or running laps had come in joking about needing to burn off Christmas cookies while they could. Joseph smiled at the jokes, but mostly he was happy to know all these people would miss his gym when it was closed for the next several days.
    He spotted someone running outside the window, too. It wasn’t the steady pace of a jog but the stuttering quick-step of a woman trying to run in heeled boots with a giant purse throwing off her balance. Joseph recognized her before she reached the door and flung herself through it.
    “Good morning, Natalie.”
    “Last day before break,” she said, sounding out of breath. “I have five minutes to grab a painting on my way to school.”
    He fell into step next to her. Since she was clearly in a rush, he’d get details on why she was there while moving. “You need a painting?”
    “A student stopped me after school yesterday and begged me to get her work back before the break.” Natalie paused, either to sigh or work on catching her breath. “She wants to give it to her parents for Christmas.”
    They waited for a break in the lap traffic, then crossed to the wall of art. Natalie scanned it all with nods of appreciation. Her students did nice work. But then she put her hands on her hips and said, “Where is it!?”
    Joseph winced at where the conversation might be headed. She had eventually replied that giving the art to a parent was fine with her. But neither of them had tried to confirm it was the right parent. “Are you looking for the picture with the snowman family throwing snowballs?”
    “That’s the one I gave away yesterday.”
    “Oh!” She slapped her hand on her forehead. “I totally forgot about that.”
    “It wasn’t Claire Miller’s painting?” he asked nervously.
    “That’s whose mom I gave it to.”
    Natalie blew out a slow breath, her expression revealing how her brain was trying to fit everything into place. “Claire is the one who asked me to get it back,” she finally said.
    Joseph felt some relief. He had <i>not</i> given the art to the wrong parent. The relief didn’t last long as he saw there was still a slight problem. Claire wanted to give it to someone who already had it.
    Natalie had reached the same conclusion. “What am I supposed to tell her?” she asked. “A frame is a wonderful idea, and I don’t want to ruin that surprise. But… I can’t just lie and say I forgot.”
    “Um…” Joseph shrugged at her. “Can you be vague somehow?”
    “Yeah. I guess I can say some form of I don’t have it or I couldn’t get it. Anything like that is going to make her assume I forgot though. I hate to look like the bad guy.”
    “She’ll understand when she gets it back at Christmas,” he said.
    Natalie frowned. “I don’t think that’s going to make me feel better when I face a very disappointed child later today. Gotta go regardless. Merry Christmas!” She waved over her shoulder as she resumed her quick little steps towards the front door.
    Joseph turned back to the other snowy paintings. Next year he was going to remind Natalie to ask her students if they’d finished their Christmas shopping before she hung up the batch for December.