FREE FICTION

The employees of Save-N-Shop never dance with glee when they see old Mrs. Halston pulling in with her list of demands regarding her forever unsold handmade toys. But young Kerry learns a valuable lesson—and maybe spots a new direction for her life—when those toys bridge the gap of loneliness.



I slammed my rusted blue Bug into park in the third spot in Save-N-Shop’s employee lot. The lot has six spaces and occupies the far corner of the main lot, which holds about forty cars if the asphalt held up through the Indiana winter, and twenty if it didn’t. But we only ever need ten spots to be functional for parking. Since things calmed down a year ago, we’re never that busy.


The employee spots are for the manager, two clerks—I’m the second clerk, thus the third spot—Deli Guy Greg, and two stock folks. A couple of oak trees, aggravated at the intrusion of their solitude in the corner of the lonely lot, drop limbs on our cars in the winter, toss twigs in the spring, spit their acorns in the late summer, and poop leaves in the fall. They want us gone. After my shift, I’ll have acorns to deal with. Bright blue sky and crisp breeze, though, so I’ll likely take my lunch break at the battered picnic table under the oaks. I promised them I wouldn’t talk much, though. They could go about their tree-ness.


I don’t usually talk to trees. But I think after the last couple of years, lots of people do lots of things they normally wouldn’t. Like talking to plants.


I’m on time today, but barely, so Steve won’t be on my case too much. I told him as much as I do around here, I should get the first clerk spot, since Savannah is always late—later than me—and I’m his go-to acting assistant manager. Putting out fires, triaging whining customers, and unsticking registers and payment machines while he spends most of his day like a king in a high tower behind his only slightly elevated glassed-in overlook in the front corner of the store. From there, he’s got a good view of the entire establishment, and watches us and the customers wander like avatars in a slow-moving video game. He may answer the phone in between his bites of pizza rolls or egg salad or whatever Deli Guy Greg put out fresh that morning.


I shuddered a bit. We knew what Steve ate by the color of the stains on his blue necktie and the bits that escaped that track and gobbed up around the buttons in his white oxford.


I grab my smock from the backseat and slip the apron top around my neck and over my t-shirt and jeans. I pull my straight brown ponytail out from captivity and check myself in the mirror. Which is new for me. Our clientele doesn’t care what they look like, let alone what I look like, as long as our hands are clean.


But as of about last week when that guy started coming in every couple of days, I found myself making sure things were a little more on point. Light blush. Light eyeliner. That’s about it. I’m pretty simple. But still.


That evaluator fellow would fill one of our lime green shopping baskets with only healthy-ish stuff. He was polite and soft spoken. Jet black hair and blue eyes. And about five years my senior. As I checked him out, both his groceries and his muscled physique, he’d sometimes ask where a certain business was or the hours of our local post office.


His job was to check up on the counties. Rural ones like ours got to go last. But we’d been fairly self-sufficient to begin with, so the government put us at the bottom of their to-do list. And for a government employee, he wasn’t stuffy. He dressed in jeans and a simple collared shirt. No stains down the front like most of the men I see all day. And when he left my register, the faint hint of his cologne would linger and make me near drunk.


The only two non-post-pandemic business questions he’d asked me ran through my head over and over again. “Where’s the St. Venue Children’s Hospital from here?”


First, that’s not even in our county and second, he had a GPS. And Google. So I got my hopes up that he enjoyed chatting with a lowly grocery store clerk and I answered him.


The second one: “What’s up with all those unicorns?” And the crooked little smile he had on his face and the sparkle in those ocean eyes. Wow. I’d stammered and stuttered as I answered him, but wow.


And he bought one. Our first knitted unicorn sale came from the money stuffed deep in the right front jeans pocket of the most handsome guy this side of the Mississippi.


So today, if he were to restock his salad and bagels, I’d decided to muster the courage to ask him his name and how far he’d traveled to give our good old Covort County the once-over.


I straightened the front of my smock and my nametag. Last year Steve finally realized I’d likely stick around for a bit and swapped out my hand-Sharpied “Kerry” sticky note with an engraved one with pin-back closure and the mom-and-pop’s emblem—a brown paper grocery bag with green dollar bills spilling from it. Most of the temp help he’d hired during the panic buying frenzy of Covort County went on with their college plans or back to being stay-at-home parents. The Save-N-Shop employment got them through until things settled. But I stayed.


Don’t know sometimes if that was the right decision. According to the parental figures in my life, I’m now wasting my life because some bug got me off track of my high-end nursing field dreams.


I came to Save-N-Shop when college stopped and was still able to do good without the stress. I saw what those 24-hour shifts did to Sue and Amara, the gals that graduated just three years before I would have. Just not cool. Not cool.


So I stayed. I walked across the rubber-coated pressure-plate that swung open the glass entry door nearly every day since Steve and Gary begged us all on social media to help them stock shelves and take care of our ever-growing old folks’ shopping needs. Well, sometimes, when I was the one that opened the store, I had to jump up and down on the mat. Gary has some mad mechanical skills, and Steve decided to save money and not upgrade to one of those cool high-tech door sensors. “’Cause, Kerry, once you get her movin’, she swings the doors open just fine.”


“Yeah,” I’d argued. “Until old Mrs. Struthard can’t get out the door and she breaks a hip jumping up and down in front of it.” The old guys shrugged and went about their business. But really. It was fun for the kids to jump on the plate to open the doors. Not so much for the elderly.


“Hey, Freckle-Kinned Kerry. Good morning my dear.” Gary, in his white deli apron—must be a new one because there are no hints of stains on the front—greets me this way each day. Every day. I do have freckles, but I have no idea what a Freckle-Kin is. But Gary’s old. Like a Dad-almost-granddad type, so I allowed him the nickname.


If Steve tried such a thing, we’d have a sternly worded conversation. I’ve been a faithful Save-N-Shop employee long enough to be allowed one sternly worded conversation with Steve a month. Aside from being on the cheap side and a slob, I’ve come to think of him as family-once-removed. Gary, too.


Even Savannah. Even though she’s just a bit too needy. Like now. She’d walked in and started up her register and immediately asked if I’d deal with the first customer of the day. I turned back toward the parking lot.


A dark green Buick Lesabre was pulling into the handicapped spot. Right on time. It was Tuesday, after all.


“Savannah, what if I’m not here some Tuesday? Sick or…” I thought a moment for a good reason not to be here. I didn’t have anywhere else to be. Then Mr. County Evaluator Man-hunk popped into my mind. Then I panicked. And out of my mouth came, “…or on a date?”


“Why on earth would you go on a date on a Tuesday morning, Ker?”


“You’re missing the point. Point is—”


“I know, but she’s so, so—”


“Insistent.” The word boomed over the speakers and bounced around the customer-less store. Steve had left the glass office door open and could hear us below him at the registers. He still held the intercom’s mic in his hand. He also didn’t particularly enjoy the elderly Mrs. Halston’s antics. And he wasn’t wrong.


Insistent was the correct term for her.


By the time she killed her engine, Robby and Chris were coming across the lot from their spots under the oak trees. They saw her car, and Chris tried to retreat back to his pickup, but Rob grabbed him by the shirt and spun him forward. The boys, one high school and one high school dropout, approached Mrs. Halston’s car, and, like good Midwestern gentleman, offered to help. Because, we all knew, the sooner we help, the sooner she’d be on her way.


Until the next Tuesday rolled around.


Savannah and I watch as the guys dutifully offer to hold her four-pronged walking cane as she maneuvers out of the car. I first see her black clunky slip-ons. Then the rim of her skirt. Today she wore the one with the sky-blue background and purple petunia print. Then I saw her head, only barely, poke up above her opened door as she stood all the way up. She may at one point have been five feet tall. But gravity and years shaved an inch or two off that. Her dark gray hair is always pulled up in a twisted bun and covered with a dainty black hair net.


Chris hands her the cane and she points it to the back seat where Rob retrieves an oversized reusable Save-N-Shop bag. Already full.


Steve moans into the intercom then killed the feed. He pulled from the window and focused down on whatever menial tasks await him at his desk. Savannah ducked behind the register to do her morning sanitation routine.


Rob walked a couple of steps behind Chris and Mrs. Halston. She’d knitted her shawl of beige yarn and it covered her shoulders and arms so just a couple of thin wrinkled hands peeked out. It hung all the way past her butt. Maybe she’d knitted it long ago when she was a few inches taller. Rob shook his head as he snuck one of the items out of the bag and held it up quickly behind their backs so I could see.


Another costume.


This time a pumpkin.


Deli Guy Gary was rounding the corner from the fresh meat case, likely to rib one of us with his dad jokes or tease with the nickname bit. Before he said a word, he took one look toward the door—where Chris was hopping up and down on the pressure plate to open the door and allow Mrs. Halston entrance. Gary spun on his heel and retreated into the depths of the store.


Well, there are small blessings…


“Good morning, Mrs. Halston. How are you today?”


“Fine Kerry. Just fine. A little nippy out.” She hugged her shawl closer and motioned for Rob to hand me the shopping bag. “Time to switchem’ out, dear.” She smushed that word together. She’d made her own vocabulary for her craft.


The bag was heavier than last time. She’d been very busy.


“Well, let’s get to it, shall we?” I really did have several tasks to attend to that had nothing to do with redressing thirty-five—well thirty-four now since Tall Dark Evaluator purchased one the other day—knitted unicorns.


Wait.


A handsome man like that.


Buying a prissy unicorn doll?


Why hadn’t I thought of it?


You idiot. Kerry. You Freckle-Kinned idiot. He’s got a kid.


All these days and weeks swooning and daydreaming and the man’s got a daughter.


“You quite alright, Kerry?” Mrs. Halston had taken me by the arm and nudged me a little.


I tried to shake off the embarrassment, and though it was completely internal since no one knew what I’d been thinking and hoping for, it still stung like a swarm of wasps. “Yes, Mrs. Halston. I’m fine. I just remembered something, that’s all.”


“Oh, girl. That happens to me all the time. Always getting interrupted by something I don’t want to think of. Maybe this little project of ours will help brighten your countenance.”


I couldn’t imagine any universe, no matter how dark my countenance, in which undressing knitted unicorn dolls from patriotic tutus and star-studded scarves of summer and redressing them with pumpkins and witch hats would brighten my countenance.


But the sooner we helped—I, the sooner I helped, as my cowardly coworkers wouldn’t stoop so low as to pacify Mrs. Halston’s obsession—the sooner she fills her reusable shopping bag with bread and milk and moves on with her day. Then we can move on with ours.


We go to the back corner of the store, and, as always, I point out the few loose tiles along the way. She’s spry enough to remember but she politely thanks me each time. The last thing we need is a broken hip lawsuit from the unicorn lady.


Save-N-Shop has a tiny selection of live plants that we cosign for the local greenhouse, and I usually inflate a few birthday balloons and tie them to the display. We have one rack of greeting cards, most of them needed dusting.


And then, before you round the corner for the cereal aisle, tucked in the corner by the plants, is our largest non-food corner shelf display. I think it was meant to hold apples and oranges and such, but ever since I started here, it’s held Mrs. Halston’s knitted unicorns.


Only when I started here, they were all naked. Some were white bodied and some purple. Lots of yellow horns, though a few had black or blue ones with tiny specks of silver or gold knitted through. They were just the right size for a small child to tuck under their armpit and take on an adventure. And when I was four or five years old, I’d have loved one of these—naked or costumed, it wouldn’t have mattered.


But, lately, I’ve had my fill of knitted unicorns.


Mrs. Halston and I began the process of undressing the steeds and mares from their summer attire. I pulled an identical empty Save-N-Shop reusable bag from under the unicorn display (I’ve learned a few tricks along the way to save time) and we tossed the red, white and blues into it as we went. Mrs. Halston rattled on as we worked about the same old stories. How they met. Their kids. How much she missed her family. I nod appropriately and try to not think about Mr. Evaluator Guy.


Steve and Mr. Halston—may he rest in peace—thought this project would give Mrs. Halston some closure after losing her family. Some to sickness, some to age. Some to just hard living. No one quite knew why she got hung up on horned horses, but that was beside the point. She needed an outlet for her craft, and Steve allowed her this corner.


And within a month, she’d filled the shelving unit with thirty-five knitted unicorns. “Priced to sell, priced to sell.” But not one soul in Covort County cared about unicorns nearly as much as Mrs. Halston.


Then she took to making them costumes. “Added value, is what the marketing people call it. Added value.” She wasn’t wrong, but still, no nibbles.

Until Mr. Evaluator Guy.


“Oh, my good lord in heaven above.” Mrs. Halston’s gasp drew my full attention. Health concerns always concern me. Maybe because I wanted to go into nursing.


Maybe because she’s old and Save-N-Shop can’t go under or I’d be uneducated and unemployed.


“What’s wrong?” I dropped the glittery tutu into the sack and wrapped my arm around her frail shoulders. She didn’t answer me but stared straight ahead at the shelf.


“Mrs. Halston?”


“Kerry! You should’ve told me!”


“Oh. Yeah. That. An out-of-towner bought one the other day.”


Her blue eyes filled with tears that she didn’t bother holding back. She turned and buried her head in my smock and sobbed. “I knew it. I knew it. I knew if I waited long enough, someone else would appreciate them.” She pulled back and dabbed her face with the shawl. My apron top was wet, but I didn’t care. I was still worried the old gal might stroke out.


“Tell me, tell me about who bought it.”


“Well, ma’am, I did.”


I let go of Mrs. Halston and spun to see him. Mr. Evaluator guy. Standing behind me. All fatherly-like and polite with those crisp blue eyes. And he smelled so much better than the fresh roses the greenhouse gal brought yesterday. Startled, I took a slightly-too-wide of a step backward.


Into the herd of unicorns.


And the corner shelf which held up thirty-five—no thirty-four—knitted dolls broke under my weight. I was barely aware of controlling my legs, but my nurse-wannabe-brain was, and I managed to kick over a half-full sack of summer unicorn outfits and an entire sack-full of fall wardrobe bits and sent them everywhere.


Gary heard the ruckus and came running. Chris and Rob showed up next.


It all happened so fast.


And in front of THE GUY. Who reached for my hand while Rob looked after a very startled Mrs. Halston and Gary helped THE GUY set me right again.


“Well, then, Freckle-Kinned Kerry. How ‘bout that?” Not even a dad joke to soften the humiliation.


“Are you okay, Kerry?”


“Yeah. Well…” My face was redder than the stripes on our flag, I knew because I could feel the blood boiling under my cheeks. I tried to straighten myself up. My ponytail came loose and my hair was all a mess around my shoulders and hung in the way as I bent to try to save the unicorns from the rubble before Mrs. Halston had a cow—Wait.


Mrs. Halston. Oh, my lord. I killed her mental health outlet.


But she wasn’t stroking out. She was belly laughing. So much so that she had to lean on her four-pronged walker and Rob at the same time.


Steve brought us a shopping cart. The gang, even Savannah, all helped free the unicorns from the rubble. Search and rescue, Save-N-Shop style, all while Mrs. Halston caught her breath.


“So, young man. Who was the recipient?” I froze mid-bend and looked up at her. She winked at me.


“Oh, my niece. She’s a patient at St. Venue. Doing much better. But she loved her unicorn with the sparkling tutu. Just loved it.”


“Niece, huh?” She winked at me. AGAIN. “Got any daughters that would like one as well?” Always the saleswoman. Always. I was mortified, heart pounding in my ears and as the adrenaline came and went in oceanic waves, I was starting to feel the effects of my fall. Ankle. Hip. Shoulder.


But mostly I just felt mortified. I let my hair hang in my face and kept cleaning up as I waited for his answer. By this time, a few customers, god bless their hearts, had gathered at the back corner and watched as their dear Save-N-Shop staff cleaned up the most magical of messes.


“So, your name, my dear first customer?” Someone handed Mrs. Halston a naked unicorn for her to dress as a pumpkin.


“Brian, ma’am. Brian Rogers.”


She winked at me again. “He said ‘ma’am.’ And your niece’s name?”


“Emily.”


“How did little miss Emily like her gift?”


He tossed two more bodies into the cart. I fished out several scarves and a ripped tutu. “She loved it. Was the envy of the whole girls’ wing.” He paused and held one of the unicorns, turning it over in his hands. “You know, Mrs. Halston?”


Her eyes sparkled as if she knew what was coming.


“I think, I think…” Then he winked at me. Mr. Brian Rogers, the Evaluator Guy. My heart couldn’t hand this kind of emotional whiplash. “I think I’ll take the whole cart.”

“All of them?” I choked. Whatever will we do on Tuesday mornings now?


“All the knitted unicorns. And their pretty little outfits, too. It’ll do the hospital good to have them to pass out to the little girls.”


Mrs. Halston clasped her hands together and nearly floated off the broken tile floor in her black flat slip-ons. “Oh, Brian. Oh, oh. Thank you soooo much.”


We finished fishing out the thirty-four bodies, saved what summer and fall attire we could, and tossed everything into the cart. Steve insisted he pay Mrs. Halston directly, saved him the commission paperwork later.


We reached the parking lot amid the applause and bows of the ever-growing crowd, mostly that was for Mrs. Halston. I got a few well-earned happy heckles as the word spread on who broke the display. A couple of the younger, more tech-abled bodies likely live-streamed us. I probably already have memes.

“Got any nephews, Mr. Brian Rogers?”


“No, ma’am, why?” He shuffled the bags of costumes from the cart into the back of his rental car. I leaned against his shopping cart full of all the knitted unicorns and tried to decide what just happened.


She fished out her car keys from her shawl pocket and popped the trunk of her Buick.


“I’ve got thirty-five knitted red-winged dragons just waiting for good homes.”


Brian’s eyes widened. “No ma’am. No nephews.”


“Well, maybe someday you’ll have a little boy of your own, and you’ll know just where to find him a dragon.”


She winked at me again.


I know what I’ll be doing next Tuesday morning.


Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first Monday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.

Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.