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I was stocking GI Joes at the Super Kmart. I’d been working there all summer to save up for Ivy Tech’s dental technician program. It wasn’t so bad—it got me out of my mom’s house, away from the smoking and the bitching. I liked stocking the toys. I always made sure they were lined up real neat. I put the last GI Joe on the bottom row and started loading the next shelf. A little girl barely tall enough to reach the handles pushed a dingy blue stroller into the aisle. She was a scrawny thing with stringy blonde hair and a big snot glob sitting on her upper lip. Underneath her faded orange sundress, she wore a green bathing suit. A baby napped in the stroller, wearing only a diaper. He had to be freezing—the air conditioner was blasting because it was August. Which, in Evansville, means hot and sticky outside, freezing cold inside.
The little girl stopped in front of the Barbies. Rows and rows of pretty pink boxes that I’d put there a little while earlier, filled with smiling, blonde dolls in fancy dresses. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and shot me a nervous look. Then she grabbed a box. As she stared at the Ballerina Barbie, the little girl ran her fingers over the clear plastic wrapping. The light pink nail polish on her fingernails had started to peel.
“Dammit, Crystal!” someone shouted.
Both me and the girl jumped. I dropped a GI Joe, but the little girl hung on to the Barbie. A woman marched toward her, pushing a cart and trailing the scent of cigarettes and beer. She couldn’t have been too much older than me. Maybe twenty-five?
“I told you to stay with me!” she said. Her dirty red flip-flops slapped against the hard floor. She wore black shorts that oozed white, dimply flesh, but her lower legs were bright pink—like her belly hanging out of her purple mesh top. A brown, fringy purse thunked against her thighs with every step. Her bleached hair frizzed around her face. My mom would’ve said she looked rode hard and put away wet.
The woman tried to grab the Barbie box, but the little girl moved it away just in time.
“Please, Mama,” the girl said. It was sad how she hugged that box.
“No! How many goddamn times do I got to tell you?” The woman yanked the doll away.
“Why can’t I have one?” the girl asked. More snot bubbled at her nose.
“We can’t afford a Barbie.” The woman sounded more sad than angry, and for a second I felt sorry for her. Then she shoved the Barbie onto the shelf, knocking a bunch of boxes over. Some of them got dented when they hit the floor. The woman didn’t even pretend to care.
The girl started crying. The baby woke up and looked confused.
“Jesus Christ, Crystal. Stop crying. Stop it.” She slapped the girl. The poor little thing touched her cheek and whimpered.
I glared at the woman, but she didn’t notice. The baby just watched. He looked about a year or a year and a half old—I can’t always tell. Also with a snotty nose. He coughed and the pacifier shot out of his mouth onto the floor.
“Shit,” the woman said. She picked up the pacifier, wiped it on her shorts, and stuffed it back into the baby’s mouth. No wonder her kids were sick. She got the cart. “Come on.”
Crystal looked back at the Barbies and started crying again. The woman grabbed Crystal’s arm and shook her. “You should’ve been looking after your brother, not staring at toys we can’t afford!”
I had to do something—I couldn’t just watch her hurt her kids—so I took a step forward saying, “Hey—”
Her glare shut me right up. Her face was all sunburned and puffy. I recognized her expression—anger and bitterness all tangled together. My mother looked at me like that sometimes.
“Mind your own goddamned business!” she barked.
Mr. Schultz, the manager, came puffing around the corner into the aisle. He’d been a big deal at Harrison in the eighties. High school football. I think he’d been a quarterback. But now he was just fat, bald, and middle-aged.
“Is everything okay here?” He wore his good ol’ boy grin. Mr. Schultz took customer service seriously.
The woman rounded on him. “What do you want?”
Mr. Schultz kept grinning and put out his hands. “I’m just making sure there’s nothing wrong.”
“We’re fine,” she said. “Come on, Crystal. Get your brother.”
Mr. Schultz turned to me. “Shelley, is everything okay?”
I had to give him credit for asking me. He could’ve just backed off and let the woman go.
So I said, “I think you should call Social Services, Mr. Schultz. She—”
The woman came at me fast, saying, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I nearly tripped over my feet getting away from her. Luckily, she stopped just before she reached me and pointed at her kids. Crystal huddled against the shelf, and the baby wailed. “You don’t know nothing about me or my kids!”
“Everyone just calm down, now.” Mr. Schultz held the woman’s arm. “Ma’am, I’m sure Shelley’s exaggerating.”
The woman tried to pull her arm away, shrieking, “Get off me!”
He let go. I was afraid he was going to let her leave with those poor kids. They were so little.
“Look at the kids, Mr. Schultz!” But I kept my distance from the woman because after Mr. Schultz touched her, she went kind of crazy: her eyes got really wide, and I think she stopped blinking. She reminded me of a cornered dog. If she’d had hackles, they would’ve been raised.
Mr. Schultz glanced toward the kids. Crystal rubbed her arm where her mother had gripped it. I could still see the red mark on her cheek from the slap.
“Are you okay?” he said, taking a step toward Crystal.
“Don’t touch her.” Crystal’s mom was shouting before, but now she went all cold and quiet.
I looked away from Crystal and froze. The woman had something grey in her hands pointed at Mr. Schultz. It took me a second to realize that it was a gun. At first I thought it had to be fake—who takes a gun into the Super Kmart? But then I saw the sweat on Mr. Schultz’s upper lip and forehead. He held up his hands.
“There’s no need for that.” His voice cracked. “I’m not gonna touch her. I’m just looking out for the little girl.”
“She don’t need your help.” The woman gestured with the gun. “Back up.” I’m pretty sure she was scared of Mr. Schultz. She had this look in her eyes—like my mom did most of the time until my dad finally stopped coming home.
Mr. Schultz obeyed. I didn’t blame him.
She hesitated, like she didn’t know what to do next. We stood there for a while—me and Mr. Schulz staring at the gun, the woman holding it away from her body with both hands. Then she looked at the pink boxes on the floor.
“Crystal, get a Barbie.” She looked up at us—daring us to say no, I think. Mr. Schulz nodded.
Crystal stopped rubbing her arm and stared at her mother.
The woman kept her gun pointed at Mr. Schultz, but looked over her shoulder. “I said you could have a Barbie. What? Don’t you want one?”
The little girl reached out slowly—like she wasn’t sure her mom was serious—and then snatched another Ballerina Barbie off the shelf. The woman looked at Mr. Schultz again.
“She’s gonna get as many as she wants.”
Mr. Schultz nodded, hands still held up, palms facing the woman. “I don’t want any trouble, Ma’am.”
I stared at Mr. Schultz. His hands shook. So much for heroics.
Crystal dumped Barbies onto the packages of toilet paper and paper towels that were in the cart. Me and Mr. Schultz just watched, helpless, which pissed me off. I wanted Mr. Schultz to do something. I wanted to do something, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the gun. The woman’s hands trembled, so I didn’t think she’d actually shoot us. But I didn’t want to take any chances. She was clearly coming apart after a day of sun, beer, and cigarettes. And, if she was anything like my mother, a lifetime of disappointment.
The woman glanced at the cart. “Get something for your brother, too.”
Crystal stepped toward me, looking scared and confused. I held out a GI Joe. She took it and dropped it in the cart.
“See? I take care of my babies!” The woman’s voice shook.
“Yes, you do, Ma’am.” Mr. Schultz had gone a scary shade of grey. He kept clenching and unclenching his left hand. Plus he was breathing hard. I put my hand on his back to, I don’t know, remind him that I was there. His shirt was damp.
When Crystal finished putting toys in the cart, the woman motioned to me with her gun. “You push it. If you try anything, I’ll shoot your boss.” She made Mr. Schultz turn around. He winced when she shoved the gun into his lower back.
The cart’s wheel squeaked as we walked down the aisle, Mr. Schultz in front with the woman behind him, and Crystal pushing the stroller beside me. I prayed that Mr. Schultz didn’t have a heart attack before that crazy woman got the hell out of the store with her kids. I just wanted to get to the front door. I figured I’d help her load all the stolen stuff into her car. Then I’d write down the license plate number and call the police and Social Services. I had a plan. I felt calm and cool-headed. Watching all those crime shows had finally paid off.
But then Russell came dancing down the aisle from where he’d been stocking feminine supplies. He listened to his iPod, not paying much attention to anything else. I held my breath, willed him to turn around, to get out of the way. But the woman saw him.
“Stop!” she shouted, although she kept the gun pointed at Mr. Schultz’s back. Russell stopped dancing, but he pushed his bangs out of his eyes and kept coming toward us, smiling at me because we had a little thing going on. We liked the same music and books. Plus we both hated Evansville.
“Russell!” I shouted. “Go away!”
He pulled his earbuds out. I could hear the music enough to recognize the song: “Asleep” by the Smiths. I motioned for Russell to stop, but he didn’t. He looked from me to Mr. Schultz, like he was trying to figure out what was going on.
“Just go!” I shouted and almost started crying.
But then Russell noticed the gun and, like an idiot, lunged toward the woman.
The gun went off. Crystal screamed. You know how they say that bad things happen in slow motion? That’s total bullshit. One second Mr. Schultz stood in front of the woman, grey and sweaty. The next he twisted on the floor, a dark patch of red spreading beneath his ribs. I couldn’t stop staring at the blood. Mr. Schultz stopped moving and looked at me. The fear in his eyes made me cold. He gasped a few times, but then he went horribly still. I stared at his chest, but it didn’t move.
“Fuck!” the woman shouted. I could barely hear her over the high-pitched squealing in my ears. She looked at Russell. “This is your fault! Back up. Back the fuck up or I will shoot you, too.”
Russell backed up a few steps, but then he tripped over his shoelace and ended up on his skinny butt. He didn’t get up. I couldn’t move or take my eyes off Mr. Schultz. I dug my finger into my left ear, trying to make the sound go away.
“Shit! Motherfucking shit!” Crystal’s mom shouted. She started pacing, waving the gun around. “Just let me think!”
But then other customers showed up. When they saw her and Mr. Schultz, they stopped. An older woman with big glasses and short hair screamed. Behind her a chubby teenager clutching a box of diet pills said, “Oh my God!” and covered her mouth. A man carrying a cell phone came from the other side of the aisle. Crystal’s mom grabbed my arm and shoved the gun into my ribs. It burned. When I tried to get away, she dug the gun in harder.
“Stay away. Or I’ll kill her.”
I almost threw up. The man dropped his phone and raised his hands. “No one’s going to do anything.” He looked at me. “Okay?”
The woman still held the gun to me, but she seemed not to know what to do next. I watched the cellphone man. He was about Mr. Schultz’s age, but in much better shape. He caught my eye and glanced down at his cellphone. I don’t know how I understood, but I did. He’d already called the police. I prayed again—that the police wouldn’t use their sirens. I didn’t want to get shot.
“Come on.” The woman jerked me forward by the arm. “We’re getting out of here.” She pulled me around to look at the kids. Crystal trembled next to the cart, eyes wide. The baby had, miraculously, fallen asleep in his stroller, mouth open, pacifier resting on his bare chest. Maybe he was deaf.
“Get your brother.”
The girl didn’t move.
“Crystal, get your goddamn brother!”
Crystal looked at the cart of toys and then wheeled her brother forward.
The others didn’t move as the three of us walked to the front doors. The woman didn’t say anything. She walked fast, pulling me along. We had nearly made it when the middle door opened. A cop in a bulletproof vest stepped inside. He saw us right away and aimed his gun at the woman.
“Put down your weapon.” He reminded me of a character from Law and Order. Even though the gun at my ribs was all too solid, I felt like I was in the middle of a TV show and that everything happening came from some script.
The woman stopped. She breathed fast—almost panting—and dug her fingers into my shoulder.
“Put it down, Ma’am.” A second cop had come inside. Outside another police car pulled up, lights flashing.
“Everything will be okay, Ma’am, if you just drop your weapon.”
I don’t know why she didn’t do what he said. She let go of my arm, but she kept the gun.
“Please,” I said. “Just—”
She looked at me with the saddest expression I’d ever seen. Then she looked at her kids.
“Mama?” Crystal said.
“I’m sorry,” the woman whispered right before she took a step forward and fired. The cop nearest to us fell, holding his upper arm. The cop in the doorway shot the woman a second later, and she crumpled to the floor.
The baby and Crystal both shrieked. I grabbed her and pulled her to me so that she couldn’t look at her mother. She weighed almost nothing.
“Mama!” she screamed over and over again, struggling to get away from me.
“Get the baby!” I shouted to the cellphone man. He knelt and unclicked the stroller’s straps and then pulled the baby to his chest, one hand held gently against the back of the baby’s head. We stood side by side, holding the hysterical kids as more people ran past. A young cop stopped nearby and spoke into the radio on his shoulder.
“We need an ambulance. Officer shot.” He gave the address. “And there’s another person down.”
“Two,” I said.
The cop looked at me.
“She shot the manager.” I pointed to the aisle where Mr. Schultz had fallen.
“Two civilians down,” he said.
Sirens wailed in the distance. I could just see the flashing lights coming down Burkhardt Road. Two or three cop cars were already parked outside. People kept going in and out. I moved farther away from the door. The little girl had gone quiet.
“Crystal?” I said. “Are you okay?” She had flecks of blood on her face and arms. “Are you hurt?” But then I realized that it was her mother’s blood. Crystal didn’t answer me. She just held me tighter. I stroked her hair and made cooing sounds. I couldn’t lie to her and tell her everything was going to be okay, but I wanted her to stop shaking.
Russell came over to us.
“What the fuck?”
I shook my head, looking at Crystal.
The cellphone man handed the baby to Russell and went to kneel by the wounded cop. I couldn’t hear what he said.
“You okay?” Russell asked.
I held Crystal tighter and shrugged. I didn’t want to talk.
More policemen swarmed through the store, talking to the customers.
“Can you tell me what happened, Ma’am?” someone said behind me. It was the young cop who had called the ambulances. “Someone can take the little girl while we talk.” He held out his arms like he wanted to hand Crystal to someone else.
I pressed her closer to me. “No.”
“Come on, Ma’am.”
“Stop calling me Ma’am. My name’s Shelley.”
“Okay, Shelley.” He let me hold Crystal. “I’m Officer Williams. I just want to know what happened.”
I kept my hand against the back of Crystal’s head and rocked back and forth while I talked. The cop took notes. When I stopped, he looked up from his notebook.
“Thank you, Shelley. Could I get a number where we can reach you?”
“In case we have any other questions.”
I gave him my number. He walked back to the entrance where a black lady stopped him. I guessed that she was from Social Services because of her blue pantsuit and sensible shoes. The cop gestured toward me and Crystal, and the Social Services lady came over.
“Hi, I’m Mrs. Daniels,” she said to Crystal. She had a gentle voice.
Crystal buried her face in my shoulder.
“It’s okay, honey. This nice lady is gonna take care of you,” I said.
Crystal looked at me with wide brown eyes. She shook her head and then wrapped her arms around my neck, pulling herself closer to me. I had to work hard not to cry. “I’ve got to let you go with the nice lady. But she’ll take good care of you.”
Mrs. Daniels took the baby from Russell, strapped him back into his stroller, and then tried to get hold of Crystal. She screamed and clung to me. But the lady managed to get her away and spoke softly to her, stroking her back. I managed to keep myself together until they were gone.
“That poor girl,” I sobbed into Russell’s bony shoulder. He patted me lightly on my back. “That poor baby girl.”
Then I remembered the Barbies. I didn’t want to go near the cart filled with pink boxes—it was too close to Crystal’s mom—so I ran to the toy aisle, ignoring the cops who shouted at me, grabbed a Barbie for Crystal and a stuffed monkey for the baby, and sprinted to the parking lot. Mrs. Daniels was loading Crystal into the car. When she finished clicking Crystal’s car seat shut, I knelt inside the car.
“Hey, Crystal, I got you something.” Crystal stared at the package, not seeming to know what it was. “It’s a Barbie. For you.” She took it and looked up at me. Then she hugged the whole package to her chest. I set the stuffed animal next to her brother.
I stood and took Mrs. Daniels’s arm. “Please tell me they’ll be okay.”
She got a serious look on her face and started to speak.
“Lie to me if you have to.”
“We’ll do our best for them.”
She got in the car and drove off, merging with the traffic on the Lloyd Expressway. I kept watching long after they’d disappeared.
“Shelley?” Russell stood behind me. “They say we can leave now.”
I didn’t answer.
“Are you okay?”
I shook my head.
“Can I do anything?”
I shook my head again. Russell stood there a little while longer, but then he left.
I turned back toward the store. The cop cars hadn’t moved, but the ambulances had arrived. Two paramedics wheeled the shot cop toward an ambulance. He was sitting up, so he must’ve been okay.
I found Officer Williams.
“I’ve got to get my stuff. Can I go back inside?” I didn’t want to, but my purse was in the back room. I needed my keys.
“Hold on. I’ll check.”
As I waited I started to shiver. It was so hot outside but I stood there, freezing. I just wanted to go home and wrap myself in a blanket.
“Miss, are you okay?”
The cell phone man stood in front of me. He had blood on his shirt and jeans.
My teeth chattered. I shook my head.
“Hold on.” He went over to an ambulance. I figured it was waiting for Mr. Schultz’s body. Or for the woman’s. Thinking about that made me feel sick. When the man came back, he wrapped a scratchy blanket around me and led me to the bench at the front of the store. I felt like an idiot, but I couldn’t stop shivering. He put his arm around me. It felt good. Like a dad’s arm.
He looked at my nametag. “Hi Shelley. I’m Dave.”
“Do you have anyone to talk to about this?”
I just shrugged. I couldn’t talk to Russell about it. Or my mom. And my friends wouldn’t know what to say. Then I shook my head.
He pulled out a card and wrote down a number. “You’re going to need help processing all this. Give me a call, okay? I’ll help you find someone to talk to. A professional,” he added. I must’ve looked confused.
I took the card and slipped it into my pocket. “Thank you.”
Officer Williams showed up. “I can take you to the storeroom.”
I stood with the blanket around me like a cape. “Thank you, Dave.”
He nodded. I wondered who he would talk to.
Then I followed the officer inside. We passed the aisle where Mr. Schultz got shot. A bunch of cops stood around while someone took pictures. There was so much blood. I made it all the way to the storeroom before I threw up in the employee bathroom. Officer Williams waited while I rinsed out my mouth. Thank God he didn’t say anything. I didn’t think I could take another person asking if I was okay.
I hung up my Kmart vest and grabbed my purse. Then I followed Officer Williams back through the store. There were still some pink boxes on the floor in the toy aisle. I snuck away from the cop and stared at them. Most of them were okay. A few had crushed edges, but nothing was wrong with the Barbies inside, so I put them back on the shelf, lining them up as neatly as I could. When I was done, I looked at all those smiling plastic faces behind their plastic walls—so pretty and so peaceful. Like nothing bad would ever touch them.
Beth Deitchman has been a dancer, a university lecturer, and an actor. In 2013 she co-founded Luminous Creatures Press with Emily June Street. Her books include Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, and Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, both part of her Regency Magic series. Additionally, she has co-authored two collections of short stories. Her story “La Voshnikaya” appears in the September 2016 Issue of SQ Mag. Beth lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Dave and dog Ralphie. You can find Beth and Luminous Creatues Press online, and follow her on Twitter.
Image: Flickr / Rob Shenk