Three unforgettable strangers enter The Happy Store for Clementine’s 11th Adventure.
It was a day at The Happy Store like any other, meaning that memorable things were happening every few minutes, most of which Clementine Fraile immediately forgot.
There was the gigantic clock hanging on a pegboard at the back of the store. Mr. and Mrs. Could-Have-Been-Anyone wanted to see it, and Clementine somehow managed to get it down off its pegs. But she could not get it back up again without the husband’s help, “Shush,” Clementine whispered. “Don’t tell my boss. I’m sure there’s some antediluvian regulation that I’m supposed to it myself.”
There was the enthusiastic self-published author looking for wall art (meaning a big, frameless landscape) as a backdrop for a video he was doing to promote his book. Clementine showed him various paintings, the whole time suspecting that he was wasting her time, but enjoying his self-delusion nonetheless.
There was the lean, gaunt woman with the straight black hair to whom Clementine talked about books for five minutes, her comments met only by an uncomprehending stare. Seconds after she left the store, she re-entered and said, “I’m sorry. I just realized that you must think I’m my twin sister Nora. She’s the librarian. I’m a nurse at St. Francis Hospital.”
Then, there were the soldiers.
The two men were spic and span, shoulders thrust back, tall and handsome. The slim woman between them was as pretty as a spring flower sheltered on either side by strong trees. She had a military bearing, too. Together, they emanated confidence, youth, and joy like a jaunty reincarnation of the Three Musketeers.
And nothing really happened with them either.
But it did.
As they strode through the doors, they gave the impression of being arm-in-arm.
But they weren’t.
And although they seemed to be in uniform, who knew what they were or were not wearing under the brass buttons of their wool coats?
They were smiling, and their smiles grew broader when Clementine said (long since having deviated from the script that Walter Graybill, the store manager, had taught her), “Come in out of the cold. Look at all our pretty things, and if some of them leap off the shelves into your arms and sing ‘Take me home!’ I won’t stop you!”
All three laughed, and their laughs made Clementine laugh.
They towered over the small sales associate, enjoying the friendliness of her greeting and the warmth, after the bitter cold outside, of the store into which, on a whim, they had entered. Then one of them – Clementine later thought it must have been the woman – asked, with a wide open smile and sparking black eyes, “Do you give a military discount?”
Clementine raised a hand, lifted a finger, and said, “Wait!”
She ran up the aisle to where her boss, Betty Davis, imperturbably elegant as always, was putting price tags on wreaths.
“Psst,” she said.
Betty turned. “Oh. Hi, Clementine. We’re a little slow now. Do you want to take a quick coffee break?”
“I can’t. I have three gorgeous people at the front of the store who want to know if we give military discounts.”
Betty nodded. “Ten percent off all regularly priced and sales items.”
Clementine uttered a quick “thanks,” and bounded back to where her customers were waiting.
“Yes!” She beamed, looking into their eyes. “We do give military discounts.”
Then, for no reason at all, she studied the faces of the two broad-shouldered, handsome men, and she thought to herself, “Why. They are both in love with her.” She put a period at the end of that thought, shifted her eyes to those of the woman with the wide-mouthed smile, and added to herself contentedly, “And … why … she is in love with them, too!”
Then, as unexpectedly to herself as it was to them, Clementine moved into the small, tall, circle of her three musketeers, and one at a time; she hugged each one, saying softly, “Thank you for your service to our country.”
That’s really all that happened. Except that on their way out of the store (Clementine forgot to check if they were carrying Happy Store bags), they made a point of bidding a warm goodbye to the exuberant little creature who had made them feel so welcome.
And they left behind a long, strong, lovely and enduring afterglow.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2019. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com