Flash Fiction By Ida Smith
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It was past noon and Valerie still had so much to do before she picked Jacqueline up at the junior high. She shifted the shopping bag with the decorations for her women’s Christmas party to the other arm. A display of dress scarves caught her eye. Just a quick detour, she told herself. She still needed a gift for her mother-in-law and that sapphire scarf would be perfect. It would also mean she’d be done with her Christmas shopping. A sense of relief covered her.
Valerie approached the accessories counter and stopped. Was that? No, it couldn’t be. That woman looked much too, too, shabby?
Just then the woman looked up.
“Carla?” Valerie couldn’t believe her eyes. Carla’s usually stylish blond hair was uncut and light brown with streaks of gray.
“Valerie.” Carla turned from an arrangement of jewelry. “It’s so good to see a friendly face.”
Valerie hugged her. She tried not to focus on Carla’s baggy blue striped cardigan over a black blouse. Valerie was taken aback. Carla was always fit and fashionable—but not today. “Carla, how are you?”
Carla glanced at the ground. “You know, surviving.”
A tinge of concern pricked at Valerie. “How is Justin?”
“Alright, I suppose. We don’t talk much.”
“Will he be home for the holidays?”
“No, he’s stationed in Iraq.”
The always present sparkle in Carla’s eyes was gone.
Valerie thought of her own son who would be home from college in just a few days. “I’m sorry, that must be hard.”
Carla nodded. “Yeah. If I could skip the holidays I would. Just me and the cat this year.”
Valerie tilted her head. “Jack?” she ventured.
“Oh, yeah, I guess it’s been a while since we’ve talked. He left me this spring.”
Valerie’s eyes misted. She hugged her friend again. Hadn’t she thought to call Carla several times over the past few months? “I’m so sorry,” she said for the second time in two minutes.
Carla stepped back and dabbed at her eyes. “It came as a complete surprise. One minute we were planning a cruise and the next minute he was taking someone else.”
“I can’t believe it,” Valerie said.
“Neither could I.”
“We should get together for coffee and catch up,” Valerie said.
Carla nodded in agreement though her expression looked as though she didn’t believe it would happen.
Invite her to the Christmas party. The idea popped into Valerie’s head. Oh, she wouldn’t want to come. She doesn’t know any of those women, Valerie argued with herself.
An awkward silence crept between them.
“Didn’t you start a new job here a while back?” Valerie asked. “How’s that going?”
Carla sighed. “Yes, I was promised a position in management. Then Jack left. I couldn’t concentrate. They gave the position to another woman.” Carla gave a wry smile. “And she loves to flaunt that she beat me out.”
Valerie shook her head. “I think instead of coffee we need to get together for a girl’s night out—we can have dinner and maybe see a movie.”
Carla’s eyes searched Valerie’s, as if daring to believe this would in fact happen.
Invite her to the party. The thought reappeared. It’s in two days, Valerie countered. I’m sure she’s already got plans. Though Valerie doubted the legitimacy of her own argument. She glanced at the time on one of the watches in a display case. She needed to go. There was still a lot on her to-do list.
“Dinner would be nice,” Carla said, her voice a mixture of hope and sarcasm. “I’d better hurry up. We drew names for the company Christmas party and guess who I drew?”
“Your supervisor?” Valerie cringed as she said the words.
“You guessed it. I haven’t a clue what to get her. There was a time when I would have come in here with the perfect gift already in mind. Now it just takes too much energy.”
“The holidays can be like that,” Valerie said. “What does she wear?”
“Dress suits, slacks.”
“Any particular colors?”
Carla cocked her head in thought. “She wears black or sometimes gray skirts and jackets with white or pale blouses.”
They turned to the accessory counter. Valerie knew she should go. “How about a scarf?” she asked.
Carla nodded and ran her fingers over several scarves hung on a display. She stopped when she came to the sapphire one. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
“This would really accentuate her blue eyes,” Carla continued.
Valerie smiled. She noticed a little of Carla’s old thoughtfulness seep out.
A sales clerk approached. “Isn’t that color just fabulous? It’s our last one.”
Carla looked at Valerie. “What do you think? Should I get it for her?”
Valerie remembered that scarf was the whole reason she’d walked into the store in the first place. “I think so.”
“I’ll take it,” Carla said to the clerk and pulled it off the display. “Oh, look at this one.” She pointed to a salmon colored scarf with paisley print. I just love this color.”
“Would you like that one also?” said the sales clerk.
Carla fingered it one more time then shook her head. “No, not now.”
Valerie watched as a veil of unworthiness fell over Carla’s countenance.
Her friend made her purchase and checked her phone. “Oh no, my lunch hour is almost over, I’d better run.”
Invite her, the thought sprung again into Valerie’s mind.
“It was so good to see you,” Carla said, her bag clutched in her hand.
“And you too.” Valerie hugged Carla again.
“Have a good Christmas, Valerie, and thanks for helping me shop.”
“You—” Valerie stopped. “You wouldn’t be interested in coming to a Christmas party I’m hosting this Friday—would you?”
Carla bit her lip. “Who all is going to be there?”
“Just some women from my church.”
A tear rose in Carla’s eye. She blinked it away. “You know, I think I’d like that.”
“I understand if you don’t—” Valerie paused. “What’d you say?”
“Yes.” Carla smiled for the first time.
“Oh, I’m so glad. They’re a great group of women. I’m sure you’ll have fun. It’s at seven. You remember where I live, right?” Valerie’s words spilled out in a rush.
Carla smiled again. “Yes. I’ll see you Friday.”
Valerie watched Carla leave.
“Was there anything I can get for you?” the sales woman asked.
“No, I’m fine.” Her gaze fell on the paisley scarf. “On second thought, I’ll take that salmon scarf. And could you wrap it?”
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Set in north Idaho, Eleanor and her family are somewhat sheltered from the life-changing effects of the Great Depression. Until the morning the dog would not stop barking.
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