Rashid bought a bottle of expensive perfume, a scarf, a watch, and a pair of pearl earrings. A casual observer would think he had something to feel guilty about, the way he was spending his money. Especially when the casual observer was Emerson.
Something inside him began to burn.
“I need to get a few things,” he said. “I’ll meet you back at the car.”
He stomped out of the jewelry store and into the mall, where his senses were assaulted by tinny Christmas music, the glare of green and red lights, and the whining of children in line to sit on Santa’s lap. His head throbbed. He walked faster, knowing only that he had to get away, out of the crush of people and their false cheer. Parents shielded their children from him as he stormed by. He must have looked monstrous to them, a modern Frankenstein in his big green coat, blue scarf, long hair, and winter boots.
Oh, fuck you, he snapped at them in his head. They couldn’t possibly imagine the raw, pulsing ache inside him, the gaping hole in his body he had created by pushing Sarah away. He willed a meteorite to fall out of the sky and crush them all—Santa and the decorations, the bratty, sniveling kids, the speakers, and Rashid and his American Express card.
It can take me out, too.
This last thought paralyzed him with self-pity. He collapsed onto the nearest empty bench and dropped his head into his hands, hating Christmas and the memories it stirred up, feeling sorry for himself that he wouldn’t have Sarah this year to make it almost pleasant for him. He took deep breaths as he tried to gather up the fractured pieces of his mind and let the cool air and the relative quiet soothe him.
He’d landed in a spur of the mall, a little-used back entrance between, he noticed for the first time, Victoria’s Secret and the bookstore. He filed away the irritating coincidence of where he had wound up, the two stores as metaphors of the disparate parts of his psyche.
Later, he would find it amusing. In the moment, it was just pathetic. He wanted to look up his old college roommate and kick his ass for rescuing him from that window.
Then, out of a general hum of distant conversation, of sleigh bells, crying babies, and Muzak carols, he thought he heard his name.
He looked up. No one met his gaze, no one he knew. Not in the hallway, not in the bookstore. But at Victoria’s Secret, two pretty salesclerks arranged shimmering green and red lingerie on a table near the entrance. Like a magpie he was drawn to their shiny charms: the way they moved in their tight little dresses, the music of chatter between them.
One of the women reminded him of Sarah, by the shape of her body and her long, smooth hair. But something else was familiar about her. Then he remembered: Mrs. Fanelli’s granddaughter, Daisy. She’d visited a few times and came to help her parents clean out Mrs. Fanelli’s room. And with a generous hug, she’d thanked him for taking such good care of her grandmother.
He found himself on his feet, walking toward them. She turned and blinked quizzically at him for a second, as if she, too, knew him from somewhere.
Then she smiled, going from cute to gorgeous. His knees turned to jelly. “Emmett, right, from the infirmary? I thought that was you over there.”
“Emerson,” he mumbled at his boots. Good-looking women still intimidated him. He didn’t know how he had ever gotten up the nerve to talk to Sarah in the first place. Probably because she’d been in trouble. Sarah in trouble always brought out the best in him.
“Emerson. Right...” She nodded, her voice trailing off, the way women sometimes did when they tired of you and wished you would go away. Then she said, “It looks good on you.”
“What?” He looked up and noticed that the other salesclerk had mysteriously vanished.
“The scarf, dope.”
His hand went to it as if realizing for the first time there was something hanging around his neck. He fingered the scratchy wool. “Yeah, I...this really knocked me out. I mean, she was almost blind, I know you can still knit by feel, count the stitches, but how did she know what color...that it would be exactly...”
A mischievous look bloomed on her face. “Because I told her. Nana said she wanted to knit you something for Christmas and asked me to pick out a good color.” She took a long look into his eyes as if appraising her choice. “Yep. It works.”
First he was disappointed. He wanted to believe it had been magic, that nearly blind Mrs. Fanelli knew by some sort of extrasensory perception, by the sound of his voice or the feel of his touch what color would be best. But this was better. That a pretty girl had thought so long about the color of his eyes. It rendered him temporarily speechless.
A managerial type hovered near a rack of frilly things on satin hangers. “I should get back to work,” Daisy said. “Really, thanks so much for taking care of Nana. She was lucky to have you.”
The words fumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. He asked her if she wanted to get together for coffee sometime. It hadn’t come out that coherently, and he didn’t even drink coffee, but she understood the general drift. And shook her head. “I’m sorry. I sort of have a boyfriend. He wouldn’t like it.”
He nodded. Of course she had a boyfriend. What had he been thinking? “That’s okay,” he said. “I’m sort of not really over my last relationship. It wouldn’t be any good. I’d be thinking about her. I’m the one who should be sorry.”
Her face softened. She blinked moistly at him. “Whoever she is, she’s a total idiot.”
“Never mind. Look,” she lowered her voice, “we’re having a sale. And I get this employee discount? Pick something out for her for Christmas. I’ll buy it for you and you can pay me back.”
He smirked. Her logic was hopelessly adolescent. A gift wouldn’t make Sarah love him. It had never worked before. Although for the last ten years, his greatest—and many times only—joy of the season had been shopping for the perfect present for Sarah.
“Just do it,” Daisy said, grabbing his elbow. “Come on. I’ll help you. And if it doesn’t work,” the look on her face reliquefied his knees, “call me.”
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