CJ Allison neither honored Christmas nor kept it in her heart.
She'd had the incredible misfortune to be born – a month early – at precisely 11:55 pm on Christmas Eve. Her mother, giddy on exhaustion, the holiday, and (CJ suspected) an epidural, had named her first-born child in honor of the season.
Her younger brothers, born sensibly in March and August, were Thomas Nathan and Mark David.
Her name was Christmas Joy.
You'd go by CJ, too.
CJ's opinion of her namesake holiday steadily deteriorated with each of her birthdays, which was alternately forgotten, ignored, or (worst of all) combined with Christmas. She endured birthday presents in leftover Christmas paper, cakes shaped like trees, and parties none of her friends ever had time for.
It dropped even further when she graduated from college, and discovered that her very expensive and hard-earned philosophy degree qualified her for a glamorous life in retail. She works in a sprawling department store, in the women's department, and counts down the days till January.
It's two weeks till Christmas. It's been an impossibly long day, and CJ wants nothing as much as she wants a pillow and her pajamas. Instead, she reluctantly allows herself to be dragged out by her girlfriends for drinks when she finally gets home. She wouldn't have gone at all, if she'd known Rachel was going to be there.
Rachel works at the department store at the other end of the mall and owns something like forty-five Christmas sweaters. "The most beautiful thing happened at the store today," she says, and CJ preemptively orders another drink.
"Yeah? What?" Genie asks.
"Well, this little boy with no coat and these worn out clothes brought these shoes up to my register – really pretty, gold with beads on them and not exactly cheap. And he said he wanted to buy them for his mother, because she never got anything for herself, because she always made sure he and his little brother got things for Christmas. And he wanted to get her something this year because she's real sick, and the doctors said she wouldn't be with him much longer, and he wanted her to have something beautiful when she went to heaven and met Jesus."
Rachel pauses, temporarily overcome by the emotion of her tale. CJ drains what's left in her first glass and starts on her second.
"So, then," Rachel continues, "he told me he brought all the money he's saved up, so he can buy these shoes, and he put $2.86 on the counter. And I had to tell him he didn't have enough. It just broke my heart. And then – then the man behind him in line paid for the shoes. So the little boy could give them to his mother. Isn't that just beautiful? It's the true meaning of Christmas, isn't it? Even you, CJ, have to agree."
"Yeah, I guess," CJ says, though privately she's wondering where this kid goes to Sunday School that he thinks Jesus will care about his mother's shoes.
CJ gives the little boy and his mother and true meaning of Christmas no more thought at all . . . until the next day, when someone sets a green cashmere scarf on the counter next to her register and announces, tremulously, that he wants to buy it for his mother.
CJ looks down into the freckled face of a boy, maybe ten years old, with green eyes that look just a little too sharp to match his tone of voice, and very well-worn clothes.
He doesn't give her time to say anything, just launches into his tale of woe – dying mother, never got anything for herself, needs a pretty scarf to wear to her heavenly homecoming.
CJ will give him this: he sells it. By the time he puts $2.86 (in change) on the counter next to the scarf and looks at her, with an impressively hopeful expression, the woman in line behind him is tearing up. CJ isn't surprised at all when she whips out her charge card to buy the scarf.
The boy thanks the woman with the charge card five or six times while CJ wraps up the scarf.
"Here you go, sir," CJ says, handing the shopping bag to the little boy. "I'm sure it will look beautiful with your mother's shoes."
The boy startles for one split second – no more – then thanks her and books it out of the store.
But he's waiting for her, by the door to the store, when she leaves that afternoon.
"How'd you know about the shoes?" asks the miniature con artist, without greeting or preamble.
"I know the person who sold them to you," CJ says. "She thought it was great example of the true meaning of Christmas."
He snorts. "Yeah? So how come you didn't tell that lady I was lying?" he asks.
"Eh, you were entertaining," CJ says. "What's your name?"
"Dean," he says. "And you're CJ. It was on your nametag. What's CJ stand for?"
"So, Dean," CJ says, without answering his question, "what's the deal? You hit a different store every day, spin some sob story about your mom needing something pretty to wear to heaven – "
"Hey, people love that part," Dean says.
" – then return the items and pocket the cash?"
"Pretty much. Hey, we don't have much and I really do have a little brother who deserves a Christmas, all right?"
"Look, kid, I'm not going to turn you in or anything, so relax. Just be careful. And if you're thinking of coming back here . . . make sure you come to my register."
Dean gives her a salute that's just a little too crisp to have been done by a ten-year old and sets off across the parking lot.
She's not surprised when he turns up the next day. Or the one after that. In fact, watching him con his fellow shoppers quickly becomes her favorite part of her day. He's just so good at it, at putting just the right amount of quaver in his voice as he produces his $2.86.
He's waiting for her again, as she leaves on her birthday (or, as the rest of the world calls it, Christmas Eve).
"This is for you," he says, holding out a bag from the store. "'Cause it's your birthday and all."
"How do you know that?" CJ asks, taking the bag but not opening it.
"Broke into your break room, picked the lock on your locker, and looked at your driver's license in your wallet," he says, easily.
"What?" CJ says, automatically reaching for her purse to check for her wallet.
"I didn't take anything," Dean says. "I wouldn't. Not from you."
CJ checks her wallet, anyway, but nothing seems to be missing. "Sim why the hell did you break into my locker?"
"'Cause I wanted to know what CJ stood for and you wouldn't tell me," Dean says. "Christmas Joy, huh?"
"Well, there's a reason I go by CJ," she says.
"How come you don't just change it to like, Christine or something? I mean, sure, then you're named after a killer car, but at least it's not a dumb name. You should think about it."
"I'll take it under advisement," CJ says.
"Good," Dean says. "And, um, thanks. For, you know, not turning me in and all."
"Sure," CJ says. "Merry Christmas, Dean. To you and your little brother."
"Merry Christmas." Dean looks at her for a second, and then nods. "See you around or whatever," he says, and then turns up his collar and sets off across the parking lot.
CJ opens the bag he has left her with and finds a green cashmere scarf.
It just might be her best Christmas ever.