A cramp seized Amber’s belly. Pain shot through her core. Her knees crumpled, but she clutched the counter in either side of her register. The life within her writhed. Gut, hips, and low back burned all at once. Not yet. She grit her teeth through the vice of tension. Exhaled. Steadied herself.
“Are you okay?”
“It’ll pass.” I hope. Amber lifted her gaze from the register to focus on the antler-crowned customer.
Sleigh bells jingled from the woman’s felt headgear. “How often does this happen?”
The store manager emerged from the far aisle and glared at the long checkout line.
“It’s not anything to worry over. I’m fine.” The pressure eased enough for her to straighten her posture a bit.
A sharp-jawed fellow stood next in line, rapping the counter. “Then there’s no reason we should wait here all night, is there? Let’s step it up. I got other things to do today.”
Amber forced a smile and resumed scanning the items. “I’m sorry for your wait, sir.”
She handed reindeer-lady her bag. Exchanged the normal pleasantries.
The manager raised a brow as she ambled toward the register. “Is there a problem, here?”
A plump woman leaned out of her position in queue. Her diamond earring hoops sparkled as she tossed her chin. “Seems you hired a sloth. I’d like to get out of the parking lot before Santa comes next week.”
“My apologies, ma’am. This isn’t our usual wait time.” She darted a glance at Amber. “My new hire and I will both work through our breaks to help you until closing. Next three in line come to the cosmetics counter for check out.”
The angular-faced man drummed his fingers on the top of the register. Checked his Rolex throughout the transaction. “You should pay me back for my time.”
Bile splashed into her mouth. She tucked his receipt in with the purchase. He snatched the bag.
The last of her farewell hit his back as he stormed out of the drug store.
Diamond hoop lady stepped up next. Slammed her Coach satchel and a bottle of sale-priced perfume on the counter. “Think you can handle this?”
She bit her lip. “I’ll do my best …” Not to vomit on your designer bag.
A relentless stream of shoppers flooded the counter. Despite green and candy striped garb, maleficence soured their faces. She passed the hours naming these holiday goblins. Rude-Dolph. Slayer Belles. Hag Nog.
She shuffled the last customer to the exit. Mumbled, “Have a Christmas.” Jerked the door to a close and twisted the lock.
Paper tapped on her shoulder. She turned. The manager extended a folded slip of yellow paper.
Not a birthday card.
Amber hesitated a moment. Took the paper. Unfolded its carbon-imprinted surface.
“It’s a warning. Goes on file. In the probationary period, you only get one.” The manager tightened her lips as she pointed into her employee’s face. “Next time we get a complaint, you’re fired.”
She studied the bluish tint seeping through concealer in the hollows of her boss’s eyes. The bell-trimmed decor of her uniform vest contrasted with deep wrinkles pronouncing the sag at her jowls. Elf Vader.
“Do you understand?” Vader asked.
She sighed. Nodded.
“Then I expect you here promptly at six tomorrow.”
Merciless gusts whipped at her across the parking lot as she de-iced her car’s windows. The chill burrowed deep beneath her layered clothing to root itself in the marrow of her bones. She climbed into her hatchback. Shivering complicated her attempts to settle in the driver’s seat. After coaxing the engine to a rumbling start, the fuzzy numbers on her dashboard insisted a full night’s sleep would not be possible.
Snow drifts walled the sidewalks along the city streets. An ambulance screamed by. She slowed. The child jolted within her. Not yet. Don’t have a birthday this close to Christmas, kid. Trust me.
Decades of neglect flashed through her mind. No parties with friends. A bottle-littered coffee table instead of a cake glowing with candles. And that first year of marriage brought her a single rose. A notion of romance, the promise of love, now turned to dust.
Bulges moved across her abdomen as the imminent visitor wrestled with its confinement. She took one hand from the wheel to stroke her belly. Wait. Stay in the dark as long as you can. Avoid this life and all that comes with it.
With a yawn, she turned onto her street. Colorful spots flooded the center lawn–her bungalow. Her hatchback’s tires crunched onto the frosty driveway and stopped just short of an inflated Mylar smiley face. Crisp wintry air filled her gaping mouth as she wandered through a forest of latex balloons. Anchored with weights strewn across the lawn, each ribbon bore an envelope. Tears streamed over her frigid cheeks as she plucked cards from neighbors, the postman, strangers. Near the middle of her yard lay a snow angel. The balloon next to it held a handmade string of paper dolls with wings. An inscription in blueberry-scented marker was scrawled across the center.
Life is a gift.
Receive and give every moment of it.
You have more to offer than you know.
****TO BE CONTINUED****
“For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them … The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
– Matthew 25:29,40