When I first see the lady in robes at the mall, I think Virgin Mary. “Bedsheets!” my big sister whispers. “Toga party!” But she’s the Mother of Jesus to me, handing out cards to anyone who’ll take them. My feet grew two sizes this summer, my mother says. She inspects boxes of ugly trainers, looking for a Back to School deal. The Mary wears flip-flops, like me, only leather, and her smile stays even as people ignore her as they walk past. At some point a man accepts a card, then drops it at his feet just as my mother holds up a box and calls me over. The shoe store is bright and the sports game piping through the speakers makes it seem more crowded than it is. The man in the store wears a referee’s uniform, which he does not seem to like. Nor does he seem to like my dirty outgrown flip flops and feet to match, but all the same, he offers me a sock before he measures my foot with the sliding scale, pressing hard against the ridge of my toe.
“Mom, why is that woman wearing a toga?” my sister asks. She holds a white high-top with pink piping as though a trophy. Mom holds up my box of trainers, squints her eyes to the layers of price tag stickers.
“Is it twenty percent off the discount price? Or the original?” Mom says.
“Mom, can I get these?” my sister asks. Holding up her high-tops. Unicorns.
“The original,” says the referee. My trainers are white with ugly gray stripes.
As the Mary tries to hand out cards, her blue robes flowing, I picture her like they showed us in Sunday School: on a donkey with Joseph, looking for an inn to have her baby in, and everyone ignoring her, just like they are now. But this is not Bethlehem and this is not a desert and she is not the Virgin Mary and she’s not going to have a baby. But she keeps on offering up the cards, as though she is testing us, like our teacher told us God tested those innkeepers. I lean forward when she moves out of view, just as the referee strangles my ankles, one then the other, with shoelaces.
“Well, that’s too much,” Mom says. She sets down the box. Begins to sort through another bin.
“Stand up, kid,” he says. He presses his thumb into my big toe, hard, then just above it. “Good?”
“Wiggle your toes,” she says. It’s tight when I wiggle. But I can’t think about my shoes because the Mary is wiggling now, too, away from someone. The pale blue of her robes is clutched by a stout man in gray—a security man?—who is talking to her real close and angry, pointing at her, then at her cards. She offers him one and he bats the stack out of her hands, raising his voice, and in another moment she’s gone.
“You got anything cheaper?” Mom says. The referee taps my ugly shoe.
“Take a walk, kid. See how they feel.”
The sneakers balloon around my feet, my ankles feel heavy from the tight-tied laces. Now, tingling. I walk toward the mall entrance as the crowd in the store cheers on a man running around a diamond.
“It’s all we got right now,” he says. “Slim pickings in July, lady. Hey, kid. You can’t go outta the store with those.”
I stop at the mall entrance threshold, looking through the crowd for her blue robe, but all that’s left are the cards, scattered like leaves on the floor. On the cards, trampled by footprints, is a painting of a boy a little younger than me, with the same smile as the Mary, sitting crossed-legged. A chain of flowers floats around his neck, and he beckons me to join him. Is this her Jesus? Did she lose her child, too? I want to pick up this card, and the next one, and rest of them and wipe them clean and put them in a stack and give them back to the Mary and promise I’ll pass God’s test and her help her find her little boy, and as I bend to pick up the one closest to me, my feet buckle under because I can’t feel them and I fall to the floor just as the referee comes up from behind, clutching the back of my shirt like a mother cat.
Erica Plouffe Lazure’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #29, the Greensboro Review, Meridian, Eleven-Eleven, Inkwell, Litro (UK), the North Carolina Literary Review, Booth Literary Journal, 4:33, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), The New Guard, Keyhole, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Exeter, NH.