Chapter Eight

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When Carla first decided to offer gift-wrapping services during the holidays, I didn't expect it to take off as it did. But with a week to go until Christmas, most of my workday is spent in a blur of colorful paper, shiny ribbons, and rebellious tape, while Carla takes care of the register. I'm just glad I don't have to deal with rain check policies or the people who think yelling at us will fix their holiday deadline problems. I wish I could, but that's out of my range of power and responsibility. And there are only so many "toys of the year" that we can stock.

I finish curling silver ribbon for a box wrapped in blue snowflake paper, then stick a matching bow on top. Inside the square box is a superhero playset; a box similar to it, wrapped in red, holds the accompanying villains. I slide both across the counter to the waiting mom, and with a "Merry Christmas," send her on her way.

The paper cut on my left thumb continues to burn.

I sort through the shelves until I find the stash of Band-aids.

"I'll be right back," Carla says, stepping around the counter. "Gotta grab something from the office."

The door of the shop creaks open, letting in the chilly breeze. Merritt shudders before taking a step forward; his nose and cheeks are bright pink from the cold.

"I wasn't expecting to see you until tomorrow." It's been a few days since we've really talked, except in passing. "Where's Nash?"

"Uh, he's at home."

"Oh." I know someone must babysit him from time to time when Merritt has to work later, but I've gotten used to seeing them together.

He's still wearing his work uniform—black pants and a dark green shirt with the grocery store logo embroidered in white thread on the left side. "Were you able to keep the train set back?"

"Yeah. Just a second and I'll grab it." The backroom is where we've been keeping the few things we've had on reserve, because we only put things back for the customers we know we'll show up to get them. I was kind of surprised Carla actually agreed to let me set this back, since Merritt is a newer customer.

I carry the rectangular box to the counter for inspection.

"That's the one." There's no enthusiasm in his voice.

"Do you want us to wrap it or DIY?"

"I'll do it." He takes out his wallet and waits for me to ring up the order. I consider asking about the items on the list, but don't; I haven't even told him I made that copy of it. The more I think about it, the stranger it seems, even to me. Too nosy.

"It's a good gift idea, isn't it?" he asks. There's an edge to his voice that almost makes him sound frantic, like second-guessing this is the only thing he can think of to do. "I mean, he likes trains. But—I don't know if it's because I used to like them or if he really does. Maybe I should just get another thing on the list."

"He said he likes them. In my experience, little kids don't usually lie about things they like."

His shoulders relax a little. "I just want to make it a good day."

"It's Christmas. Why wouldn't it be a good day?" I ring up the order and he hands over a debit card.

"Long story."

"I go on lunch soon. You could tell me about it."

He braces his hands against the counter, wordless.

I hand him the card and receipt. "It's not about the train set, is it?"

"I—"

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