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“I wish I could take time off to attend a Christmas party with friends,” Helen complained, placing the final book from the trolley on the shelf.
Emma smiled at her friend and workmate. Even though Helen’s words sounded harsh, Emma knew she was only joking. “It’s once in a blue moon. Jack’s colleagues are breaking up from work today, unlike us. That’s what office workers do—have lots of time off at this time of year.” Emma shrugged. “I suppose that’s a major downside to us working in a public library.” She dug her friend in the ribs as they pushed the trolley back to the reception desk in the old, cold library. “Just think how lucky we are not to be working behind a counter in a shop. At least we get to have Boxing Day off.”
“I suppose. I just wish Christmas Day always landed on a Sunday. Then we’d get an extra day off every year like we had last year,” Helen moaned, her mouth turning down at the sides.
“You really are on a downer, aren’t you? Anything you want to share?”
Helen shook her head and sat down behind the counter. “Don’t go treating me like one of your helpless homeless people you care about. I’m allowed to have a little self-pity at this time of year after losing my dad in June.”
Emma rubbed her friend’s arm. “I’m sorry. I totally forgot that this will be your first Christmas without him. I know how close you two were. Is your mum going to be spending Christmas with you?”
“No, she said she’s too depressed and doesn’t want to spoil it for us. We’ll pop round there during the day.”
“Beneath that gruff exterior, you have a heart of gold, my dear friend.” Emma kissed Helen’s cheek lightly.
Helen scrubbed her face as it turned crimson with embarrassment. “I better stop wallowing and let you get off. Say hello to Jack for me and have a good time. Are you working down at the shelter tonight?”
Emma removed her coat from the stand and slipped it on. “Yes, I’ll be there at seven, dishing out the dinners, as usual. I feel so sorry for the homeless people in our area. The numbers seem to be increasing each week, especially at this time of year. If I was granted one wish, it would be that there was peace on earth and every single person had a roof over their head that they could call home, even if it was only for the Christmas holidays.”
Helen shook her head. “I don’t want to appear rude, but you’re living in a dream world if you ever believe that’s going to happen, sweetie.”
“I know. No harm in hoping, though, right? See you tomorrow. Sorry again for leaving you short-handed this afternoon. I hope you’re not too busy.”
“I’m sure we’ll be quiet. Hopefully, people will be too occupied buying last-minute gifts in town to bother pestering me for a book on the Ayatollah Khomeini for some project or other at college.”
Laughing, Emma waved at her friend then left the library by the main entrance. She crossed the car park and slid behind the steering wheel of her car. It was an anxious journey to her home. She had less than thirty minutes to get home and throw on her party outfit. She had chosen a subtle outfit, though nothing too fancy, as it was still the middle of the day, but she knew Jack was expecting her to make an effort for a change. Emma had always been the type of girl to prefer roaming around in jeans rather than skirts and high heels.
Ten minutes later, she pulled up outside her parents’ house, where she still lived, and opened the garage door. After parking the car, she rushed through the internal door and flew up the stairs to the bathroom. She jumped in the shower, aware that the clock was ticking, and dried herself on the way into her bedroom. She glanced down at her mobile lying on the bed and saw there was a text from Jack.
Sorry, Em, traffic is bad. I’ll be with you as soon as I can!
She let out a sigh, relieved that she would be able to slow down and at least catch her breath a little for the next few minutes.
After drying her hair, she studied the outfit she had laid out on the bed and doubted for the umpteenth time if she had made the right choice. Sighing, she shook her head and walked over to the wardrobe. Instead of the dress she had chosen the night before, she decided to go with a smart pair of trousers and the Christmas jumper with Rudolph and his red nose on the front. “I hope Jack is okay with my change of outfit.”
She gasped when she heard the doorbell ring. Emma swiftly pulled on her grey trousers and slipped on a T-shirt. Carrying her thick winter jumper, she raced down the stairs to open the front door.
“Just a minute,” she called out. At the bottom of the stairs, with the front door only a few feet away, she placed the jumper over her head and opened the door at the same time, but the jumper got caught on one of her earrings. She laughed. “Oh no, so sorry, Jack. I’m rushing to get ready. Come in and make yourself comfy.” Emma turned away from the door and started up the short hallway, but before she could get very far, she felt a sting in her back that took her breath away.
Her legs unable to hold her upright, she stumbled to the ground. With the jumper still over her face, she began to panic, unsure what was going on and whom she had let into her house. Her head felt woozy, and she had no idea what had caused her knees to buckle or what had struck her in the back. A shadow fell over her. She felt disorientated and had no control over her arms or her legs. The jumper obscuring her view was yanked down. She gasped. “You!”
The man didn’t reply. Instead, he punched her in the face. Her head swam again. In the distance, she heard what sounded like a sucking noise, or was it? The next thing she felt was something being placed over her mouth. Panic set in. What are you doing to me? Why?