I hate Christmas, Laurie thought as she scanned the barcode of yet another vampire romance. She jabbed the touch screen on the register and waited impatiently for the receipt to roll out. It was Christmas Eve at the downtown bookstore. Plastic garlands and twinkling lights decorated the walls, Manheim Steamroller blared over the loudspeakers, and the checkout lines snaked all the way to the doors.
Laurie glanced up to see the store manager jostling through the crowd. Red-faced and scowling, Mr. Vaughan looked like an evil Santa in his furry cap with the white pompom dangling over his ear. “Where’s your hat?” His voice was a harsh whisper.
“Just a minute.” Laurie grabbed the thing from where she’d stashed it under the counter and pulled it on. Blondes and brunettes looked cute in Santa caps, but freckled-faced, red-heads like Laurie looked positively feverish. Besides, it itched.
“I’ll take over here,” he said. “Straighten up the kids’ books. It’s a mess up there.”
Bing Crosby was crooning “White Christmas” for the umpteenth time as Laurie climbed the stairs to the children’s section. What a mess. Picture books were strewn over the floor and stacked on the table and chairs. Laurie pushed back her Santa cap and rubbed her forehead. Why didn’t parents watch their kids? They left them to wreck havoc in the children’s area and expected someone else to pick up after them. Laurie might have been more tolerant if she had children of her own, but she was a college student working part-time at the bookstore, single and determined to stay that way.
One boy sat on the floor playing with a Christmas pop-up book. He laughed as Santa and his reindeer flew up from the page and then folded back down–again and again. Laurie snatched it away. “If you tear that book you’ll have to pay for it,” she said.
He ran off crying for his mommy.
The other children glanced at Laurie suspiciously. She loomed over them, hands on her hips, her name tag dangling from her neck on a long lanyard. “Merry Christmas,” she snarled.
The children fled. Only one little girl remained. Bundled up in a furry, red jacket, she sat on a child-sized chair hugging a book. Laurie guessed the child was three or four, too young to read. Someone would have to read it to her. Laurie glanced at her watch. Why not? Santa Vaughan was busy downstairs gloating over the cash registers. “Would you like to hear the story?” Laurie asked.
The child held up the book. She didn’t speak or look at Laurie’s face. Her dark brown eyes moved from the floor to Laurie’s dangling name tag and to the floor again. Laurie had enough nieces and nephews to know that this was a special-needs child. Why was she alone? Where was her mother?
Sitting on the floor beside her, Laurie opened the book. To her surprise, it wasn’t about Santa. “Mary and Joseph are going to Bethlehem,” she began, telling the story in her own words. “Mary’s riding on a donkey because she’s going to have a baby.”
Still silent, the little girl leaned her head against Laurie’s arm.
“There was no room at the inn.” Laurie turned the page and pointed to the cow and the donkey. “So they slept in a stable with the animals. That’s where Baby Jesus was born.”
Laurie smiled, enjoying the moment. She hadn’t thought about Christ’s birth in days. Christmas had become nothing more than noisy crowds, “credit or debit?”and Mr. Vaughan’s unpleasant face.
“An angel appeared and told the shepherds that Jesus was born.” Laurie recited the Bible verses she’d memorized in Primary: “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Laurie turned the page. “The shepherds came to worship Jesus.”
“Chandi!” A dark-haired woman rushed over to the little girl and scooped her up in her arms.
Laurie smiled, watching Chandi snuggle against her mother’s neck. But Laurie’s smile quickly disappeared. Was that an Indian sari the woman wore under her coat? And was she speaking Hindi? I’m in trouble now, Laurie thought. If Chandi’s mother was offended by the Bible story and complained to Mr. Vaughan, Laurie was afraid she’d lose her job.
She tucked the Christmas book under her arm, hoping the East Indian woman hadn’t seen it.
“Thank you. Thank you so much” The mother spoke clearly but with an accent. “I thought Chandi was with me but when I turned around, she was gone. I’ve been looking everywhere. Thank you for taking care of her.”
“You’re welcome,” Laurie said. The little girl leaned from her mother’s arms, reaching for the book.
“Let me see that,” the mother said. “I think my daughter wants it.”
Trying not to appear nervous, Laurie handed her the book. Chandi’s mother sat down on the little chair and Chandi climbed in her lap. Laurie wanted to dash downstairs but she still had work to do. She shelved books while the mother read to her daughter, translating the words into their own language.
“Gee-jas,” the little girl said.
Surprised to hear the child’s voice, Laurie turned and saw Chandi pointing to the picture of the baby Jesus. The mother hugged her daughter close and continued to read. When they got up to leave a short time later, Laurie gestured with a little wave. “Bye-bye.”
Chandi didn’t respond.
“My daughter is autistic,” the mother said, clutching Chandi’s hand. “That’s the first word I’ve heard her say. Thank you again.”
“Merry Christmas,” Laurie said. And she meant it.