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She catches her gaze in the middle of a crowded store just a week shy of Christmas Day.

The object of desire is a small brown valise, rich leather and able to resist any sort of wear, something for Rindy to use. If the divorce proceedings go bad, Carol had told herself before she’d arrived at Frankenberg’s, it’d fit a doll and some clothes, a few pictures to remind Rindy of her mother. She hadn’t been in the best of moods at the time—yet everything simply stopped at that moment. The electric train she’d been eyeing towards the storefront wasn’t quite so interesting, and the way a young mother, with purplish circles colouring apologetic eyes bustled by her didn’t seem to bother Carol as much as it would have at any other moment. No, she thinks; It’s her eyes that are interesting, pools of green wonder framed by a curious, cautious purse of the lips. They’re painted red. Her posture is nervous. But the hat is painfully darling. (She’d never wear a Santa hat like that, not in her thirties, but it looks good on her.)

The workers at this time of year are skittish, of course they are, deerlike in their posture, ready to bolt from the store the moment they’re given their cheques. Nothing changes each Christmas, except perhaps the mood this year is only more and more bleak. Carol could never quite say if it was her own melancholy mood that brought on the shift, or if other people feel the same way as she does. It’s a busy, cursedly busy time of year, a horrible time and place to work, Carol imagines. In the background of her mind, she hears the flip-flip-flap of her gloves rhythmically slapping against her hand, but she does not stop the movement, nor the delicate swing of one leg in front of the other as she moves towards the salesgirl. Best not bother the girls who are busy as hell, Carol thinks, and her eyes are good. Is she catching every detail, the wonder in Carol’s own face? Would someone care to notice something like that? It feels almost perverse. She looks observant.

It becomes evident in the way that the salesgirl looks at her—or is Carol imagining that? It’s a certain sort of reverence that keeps her suspended in a state of wonder as she asks for the valise. The girl offers her the one on display, in lieu of the broken one with a design  that Carol finds just as darling as she, and simply shakes her head when Carol asks if that’s allowed, like a private joke of sorts. “It really doesn’t matter,” the girl says, voice like sweetmilk, eyes downturned as she stares at her own fidgeting hands. The action is rather endearing, she finds. Carol looks at the dolls, hanging from racks of silver wire and down in the display cases below the wooden counter slicked with wax. She had not planned to buy a doll from the upstairs department because Rindy did not need a doll with real hair, or one that would wet itself. In fact, Carol supposed that Rindy would find a gimmicky thing like that ultimately dull like Harge might find it unnecessary, a father’s girl through and through.

“Sign your name here,” the girl says as she extends a collect on delivery slip towards Carol. Carol is horribly affixed on the small quiver in her voice, daringly shy. And her hands. She dots her I s very peculiarly. 

She does not particularly need a doll from the upstairs department, and the girl helpfully points her downstairs like she’d intended to go. Yet as Carol meanders towards that counter, the one with another salesgirl who was not quite so charming nor quite so enchanting, she cannot help but to linger. No, she doesn’t need a doll, but she wants to observe her for longer, watch the sheer fervor in her eyes as Carol passes by.  “The doll over there, may I see it?” Elation—is that what she sees, or is it what Carol wishes that she sees?

Carol leaves the doll department dragging the rich leather valise behind her, feeling a certain sort of elation of her own.

 

The mail arrives two days later; Harge brings it to her as he picks up Rindy. He tosses it haphazardly onto her bed and Carol eyes the contents as it skids across the cotton comforter. “Florence brought in the mail today. Something for you,” he says with that gruff, impersonal voice of his, and Carol flips through. Bills, something from Abigail, a stack of coupons to several furniture stores throughout New York, a thin, stiff envelope from Frankenberg’s. It’s the last thing that interests her the most, and she cuts the top with her letter opener with interest.

Merry Christmas. Special salutations from Frankenberg’s. 645-A.

It’s written with the same sort of personal tone that Harge might use to write to one of his businesses, and yet it means everything. Much more than that. She brushes her thumb against the ink and it smudges a sort of blue. Who would have written this to her? She thinks about the people who had waited on her as she shopped. The woman who’d tried to sell her three sweaters that were explicitly different than the one she’d asked for, the girl in the doll department and the one across the aisle as well, the bored-looking man in the record department… Ah. 

It was likely the nervous young man in the ski department, with blond hair and eyes that were wholly forgettable in every possible aspect. But wouldn’t it be nice, Carol thinks, looking through the curve of the u in salutations , if it were the young woman with forest eyes who’d cared enough to send her a Christmas card. She’ll call Frankenberg’s when they open later today, and ask for the employee.

645-A, Carol memorizes the sequence of letters until it’s the only thing on her mind.

The A, for angel.