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For this week, we bring you...
By F.J.R. Titchenell
Beyond were the aisles of cards for all different occasions, relationships and tones, though presently more than half were a medley of seasonal color.
Delia had spent the last month and a half hoping to be struck by some perfect inspiration for what to get her dad and sisters for this first Christmas when she would finally be able to buy presents with her own money.
This inspiration had, with a week left to go, so far failed to materialize. Nothing she’d found had said “dad” to her, or “Leslie,” or “Bree,” but she thought it would be difficult to leave this store without something that at least said, “Merry Christmas.”
The only employee present was a woman a little older than Delia, who stood leaning against the checkout counter, glaring listlessly at the floor. She didn’t look up when Delia entered. Delia likewise ignored her and wandered down one of the warm, inviting aisles that made it hard to imagine that either glaring or listlessness could be possible within them.
She pulled out the first card that caught her eye, a glitter-encrusted one in the shape of an ornament that seemed likely for Leslie.
“You decorate my life,” said the inside.
The next one contained a generic “Happy Holidays.”
A dirty version of the lyrics of Jingle Bells in the following one made her giggle, but it couldn’t be read aloud over a family breakfast.
When she moved to put it back, it hit against something that must have fallen into the card rack from the shelf above.
She pulled the cards forward to look at the little wind-up elf figure. It was also dusted with glitter, though of a finer texture and in less intentional-looking patches than the cards. With a mechanical jerk, a last bit of wind-up energy let loose by the disturbance, it raised one plastic arm and puffed out a cloud of the glitter over the card Delia had been trying to replace.
Delia moved the elf to the top of the display and tried to shake off the card. The glitter spreading across the surface changed the colors, until hidden letters became discernible, between the re-written lines of Jingle Bells.
“I want you to think I’m cool.”
The elf moved with another clockwork noise, and Delia looked up at it. It moved again, half a jolting step, and the noise it made sounded curiously like a word.
When Delia made no move, the elf raised its arms in the closest thing to a gesture of exasperation that its stiff little joints could manage, and shot a cloud of its glitter into her face.
Through her coughing, blinking, rubbing efforts to clear her eyes and throat, the groaning steps of the elf along the top of the rack toward the door unmistakably sounded out,
“The sparkle may save you.”
When Delia’s eyes grudgingly opened, everything was iridescent and tinged with peach and purple. She steadied herself against the rack, knocking a few cards to the floor. Similar hidden text on them was clearer now than the unhidden as she gathered them up.
“I don’t know you well enough to know how not to offend you,” said one.
“I’m hoping you’ll ask me for spiritual advice,” said another.
“I hope everyone likes cats,” said the next.
Another said simply, “This card is shiny.”
In spite of the burning in her eyes, Delia smiled at the thought of how much Leslie would like the hidden text version of that one, and then watched, transfixed, as more words formed. The more she thought about her sister, the clearer they became.
“I love you.”
Whatever the elf had blasted her with was making it possible to see, at a glance, what the cards were saying, and therefore the perfect card for anyone.
Delia flicked excitedly through the racks, searching for the next card that would reveal exactly what she meant to say when she held it and thought of either of the others.
“I’m masking my contempt for you,” she quickly put aside.
“I don’t remember your face.”
“You’re just another bank client.”
“I hate you.”
“I hate this.”
“My soul is dry.”
“I’ve been fed on by a thousand sheets of cheap cardstock and I can’t do it anymore.”
“Let me die.”
Delia looked warily up at where the elf had run off from, frozen in place. “The sparkle may save you,” it had said.
A few of the dancing snowmen, still in their boxes, were scattered in the aisle behind her. They had definitely not been there before. The purple-peach tinge of her vision made them look unsettlingly unlike snowmen.
With a few off-tempo notes of Carol of the Bells, the nearest snowman did not dance, but picked up the card she had set aside at the front of the rack, the one with “I love you” in fading letters on the front. It looked up at Delia, and its sewn-on coal mouth widened its smile.
She took a panicked step backward, away from that smile, tripping over the boxed reindeer that had taken its place behind her.
Before she could get her weight onto her hands to sit up, the deer clamped its mechanical jaws onto her sweater sleeve and the thin skin of her wrist and forced her hand flat against the rack of cards. The fear brought on more thoughts of her family, and the words spread out over the fronts of the cards across the rack, radiating out from her hand.
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Possibly the elf’s glitter had gotten into her ears, because dimly Delia could understand the lyrics hidden in the tinkling notes of the dancing snowmen’s version of the carol, playing endlessly for the passing foot traffic outside.
“Love for sale here, love for sale here.”
Delia looked across the store at the lone clerk who still had not moved from her post, at the lifeless, joyless expression on her face, and understood that it would, in a matter of seconds, match her own.
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