“On three everyone say cheese. Alright, 1… 2… 3!”
Click. Done. Last photo of the day, for rest of this season. Jean could be happier, but he could never lie to himself. He did smile at the Springers in their red and green sweaters and thanked them as they left. Connie looked over his shoulder and gave a thumbs up then helped Sasha guide their young children from Santa’s corner to the bookstore’s door.
“My, my,” Zackly stood up from his gold chair and stretched, the gold buttons on his red suit almost popping off. “What a day its been.”
“Coffee time.” He said to himself. “Would you like some, Jean?”
As Zackly waddled off stage toward the break room, muttering his hope for biscuits, Jean delicately powered down his camera. He gazed up at the clock and heard the black winter night wisp behind him as the bookshop’s door firmly shut itself. He closed his eyes and quietly sighed into his palm. Then the itching under his elf cap resumed.
“Hey, Jean.” Mina tiptoed over. “How was it?”
“Ah, you know.” Jean pulled it off with ring. He scratched behind his ear. “Beats climbing up a mountain and shooting pro snowboarders any day.”
“Yeah, I can imagine.” Mina smiled. “I just came over to say the boss is wanting a word.”
“Jean,” Mina covered her mouth. “You know who I’m talking about.”
“Just clarifying.” Jean smiled. “What are you and Marco up to this Christmas.”
“Staying over at Marco’s this year. I hear his mum is a great cook.”
“Yeah, she is.” Jean crouched to unzip the tri-pod duffel bag. “How is he by the way? Haven’t seen him on the streets in a long time.”
“He’s been given desk work for now. He comes home stressed, but he is making a lot of friends. He might get a new partner soon.”
“Nice. Tell him I was asking for him, would ya?”
“Of course, and Jean?”
“Oh, right. Where is he?”
Mina pointed to the Historical section. Jean mouthed his thanks before peeking around the book cases holding the numinous door-stopper volumes on the Crusades. Easily, the photographer found his hirer sitting, cross-legged with a small paperback in his hand and mug of coco in his other. He too wore a red and green sweater with reindeer and a long sled knitted over it. He didn’t wear a ridiculous Santa’s helper hat with a bell on end of its pompom for his forehead is too big, and it would ruin his perfect blond bangs.
He raised the mug and took a sip before noticing any presence standing before him.
“Ah! Hi, Jean.”
“Sorry.” He shook the book next to his head. “It's a perfect one. Its all about China annexing Tibet.”
“Mina said you wanted to see me?”
“That’s right!” He placed his bookmark and got to his feet. “Is it alright if you take one last photo with the staff? In Santa’s corner?”
“Its why you hired me.” Jean shrugged.
Armin took another sip, the steam rising over his eyes. The great pause had Jean curious.
“Is that all you want me to do?”
“Are you interested in joining us tonight in our staff night out?”
“Well, thanks but-”
“But what? You know everybody here, and no one’s had the chance to speak with you in a while. Why not?”
“I have a long drive, Armin. I have all these photos to upload and backup when I get home. Besides its getting darker by the minute and I hate the cold.”
“You can stay at ours. Annie won't mind if you crash on our couch.”
“Armin, I know what you're trying to do, and I appreciate it, but right now I just want to take your picture, get in my car and leave before I freeze to death.”
“I understand, Jean, break ups are hard but if you take my suggestion on board-”
“Dammit, Armin! I said NO!”
His eyes and mind squirmed. He looked over his shoulder and found everyone still running around. He faced Armin again who didn’t seem fazed by his friend’s outburst.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that.” He looked aside. “I need time. Alone time. ‘Sides some days, I just prefer going home.”
Armin swallowed his latest sip, nodding. He walked over and patted Jean’s shoulder.
“How about we take our staff photo first. Then give my suggestion a think. Sound like a plan?” Jean gave the nod. “Okay, I’ll get the team together, and you do your thing. Deal?”
“Cool. I’ll see you in five.”
Armin swiftly left.
Jean hung his head and shuffled out over toward his gear. He tried shutting off all peripheral distraction as his camera decided to focus upon switching back on. He noticed it had the juice for another hour then set up and aligned it properly for a group shot. He gazed upward and saw snowfall. Long before his drive back to his student apartment, he felt a sudden cold shiver come over him. He seethed and coiled away from the lens, just as Hitch did him the night before Marlowe took her away.
He needed warmth. He needed out.
“Everything all right, Jean?”
Jean opened his eyes to Armin’s concern, sans book and mug of coco.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Are the staff coming or-”
“Annie is taking care of it. They should be here in a second.”
“Listen, Armin; I’m sorry-”
“Jean. It's fine. I should be the one to apologise - for being too forward.”
“You were trying to help, and I appreciate that, Armin. But I need some time on my own.”
Armin looked him over and slowly broke a smile.
“Trust me, Jean. The last thing you need at this time of year is to be alone.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jean slowly turned back to his camera as Annie, Mina and Zackly joined Armin at Santa’s corner. Zackly sat down, and Annie orchestrated the positions of the four staff members as Jean tried framing through the lens. But thoughts of his empty hallway and a half-creased double bed kept him off balance.
Zackly peered at Annie.
“What would you like for Christmas, dear?”
“Keep your hands to your self or get a candy-cane up for ass, Zackly. Your choice.”
“Another restraining order then.”
Everyone laughed, except for Annie. Then Mina piped up, looking from her left and right.
“Wait, where’s the new girl?”
“Krista?” Armin looked over too. “Shit. I nearly forgot about her.” He leaned out the way of everyone. “Krista?! You there?!”
“Here!” Came a small voice from the staff room.
“You want your picture taken or not?!”
“Shoot! I’m coming!”
Jean ignored the commotion and did his final preparations as Mina finished her hair, and Zackly got rid of the last crumb in his beard. At Christmas everybody wants their photo taken with Santa, even the staff. He took a look through one last time and reckoned Armin wanted something else as he stood aside him patiently.
“Oh, no. Sorry. I’m not Armin. I just wanted to apologise for the wait I caused.”
Jean unclenched his left eye and froze. A blond female wearing a red and green elf hat with a gold bell stood sheepish aside him. He straightened up, about to apologise but his mouth fell apart.
“No. Fine.” Jean shook his head. “It’s fine. Happens all the time.”
“Nothing. I’m Jean. The photographer.”
She curtly bent her knee and the bell in her elf hat rung.
“You're the new girl?”
“Can you tell?”
They smiled. Annie stepped forward and took Krista’s arm.
As she followed her boss, Krista still smiled. She wore everything Christmas green, save for her hat and red and white striped sleeves. She had a long skirt and pointed shoes. Jean thought oddly, of the whole season, Krista looked the most convincing as an elf. Jean hid behind his camera and watched her move along, aligned and transfixed with her every movement. He felt his cheeks brighten.
He felt warm, his coldness gone.
“We’re ready, Jean!”
“Cool. Everyone. Say Cheese!”
Everyone smiled, a fact he came to know of later. Against all his training as a professional photographer, Jean only focused on a singular subject. In a single click, a camera can capture a moment in time better than memory, and Jean caught the moment he fell in love with Krista Lenz.