In the Shadow of Charn

Carter and Colton.... upon seeing Colton this way, I thought he had a face made for mustaches and advised him to grow one as soon as possible... His mother disagreed strenuously with my advice.
Carter and Colton…. upon seeing Colton this way, I felt certain that his face was made for mustaches and advised him to grow one as soon as he could.  His mother strenuously disagreed with this advice.  (This is why aunts are cooler than moms.)  : )

It was not my intention to write and share this story, but one evening while telling it to a friend and her son, my honorary nephew, Colton, he sat riveted, shushing anyone who made a noise as I spoke.  When I was done he requested, (well, perhaps demanded would be a better word) “Tell more stories like this!”  I reminded him that it was still early days with my new job, so this is the only one I have for now… but more importantly, I wasn’t sure I wanted any more to tell, because the problem with having this kind of story in your reserves is that before you can tell it, you have to live it.  : )

*****

For most of my grown-up life, I’ve worked in management, dealing with the public every day.  Well…..except for that one year when I tried an office job, only to discover that I wasn’t built to sit in one place all day long…. Then there were those three years I spent at home raising a small child.  (For the record, I still count that as time in management since one of my accomplishments during this period was “managing” to train a toddler to ball a watermelon.)  Last month, as that three year period at home drew to a close, I found myself, once again, managing a store, though on a smaller, more specialized scale than before.I was full of mixed emotions as this change began…. I’d loved my time at home with Carter; the opportunity to be there for all the firsts that come with childhood…the luxury to be home with him if he wasn’t feeling well, and not having to be concerned with what it may mean for my career…. but we all knew the time had come:  He was ready for preschool.

After a few months of looking for a job, I happened upon an opportunity that excited me, though it would mean returning to retail.  Steve was hesitant about me pursuing this job because of the nights and weekends, (more on that in a bit) but as I pointed out to him… this is the kind of work I enjoyed, and it really wasn’t available Monday – Friday, 9 – 5.  I finished our discussion with this:  “I’m going to apply for it… who knows?  I may not even get a call back, but I want to try.”

Turns out this one was meant to be.  I went from phone interview, to interview, to second interview, to job offer in a dizzyingly brief period.  Then, all too soon, Carter was enrolled in preschool, I’d worked through my first few weeks, and then found myself closing a store for the first time in years.I dreaded closing, not because of work, but because of what I imagined may be going on at home.  Even when Steve and I had been childless, there’d been some issues when I wasn’t home in the evening.  I would come home after closing to find that the dogs had not been fed or watered.  I would then fill their bowls at 11, they would drink them dry, then wake me up three hours later to go outside.

Things only became more difficult after Carter was born.  Though he was less than 6 months old when I quit… those four months I worked while he was a baby were tough.  I’d usually come home to find the house turned upside down, the baby awake and fitful, and… as usual… very hungry and thirsty dogs.

In an effort to circumvent some of the closing-shift mayhem this time around, I got a chalkboard for leaving reminders, (and instructions) for when I couldn’t be home.  My first closing shift was on a Thursday. Hoping for the best, I wrote out some notes for the evening and headed to work.

An example of what may happen with Steve in charge...
An example of what may happen with Steve in charge…
Only one of these instructions is a joke : )
Only one of these instructions is a joke : )

As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised.  Everything at work went smoothly and I came home to find the house in order and everyone sleeping peacefully.  As I contemplated my closing shift scheduled for the following day, I was relieved.  This was all going to be OK…..

….. Or maybe not.

*****

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that Friday night was not going as well as Thursday.  Was it when the toilet nearly overflowed, (where I work, managers deal with this) or perhaps when the grown man drinking milk from a clear Starbucks cup waylaid me, insisting that I recite my college transcript?  I can’t be sure.  What I do know is that by the time a woman and her daughter approached us (I was closing with P., another manager) to report a shoplifter, there was no longer any doubt; my evening had definitely headed south.

We followed the reporting customer to an isolated area where she presented us with an opened box of sparkly, scented gel pens.  Taking the box from her, I did a quick count and realized that one was missing.  “I watched her open the box and dump it, then head to the restroom,” the lady reported.  “I can show you the girl,” she added.

Locking eyes with my P., I said, “I’ll go with her,” just as she said, “I’ll check the bathroom.”

We split up, and I soon found myself looking at the alleged thief; a blonde in her early teens.  I thanked the customer, who walked away just as P. rejoined me.  Jerking my chin, I said, “that’s her.”

“There was nothing in the bathroom…. though someone took some silk flowers from the sink and put them in the pad receptacle.”

Weird.  And things were only getting weirder.

As the two of us headed through the aisles, the customer with the cup full of milk appeared from behind.  Gesturing towards his old fashioned flip-phone, he said, “I have something I want you to hear.”  He then hit play on a recording… it was a message he’d made, telling himself that he was a loser and a failure.  I barely had the chance to think, “What in the world?” before we were face-to-face with the pen thief.  Surprised, she blanched and rushed away.  As if by magic, the flip-phone guy disappeared.

Allow me to digress a bit.  Having spent many years working in retail, I’m no stranger to dealing with shoplifters.  There are many guidelines you must follow so as to be absolutely sure they’ve got something and have passed the point of purchase before you can make a clean stop.  I’ve worked with people who get all amped-up about catching people and having them hauled away by the police, but I’d much rather get them to drop what they’ve concealed and perhaps make them uncomfortable enough that they decide stealing isn’t worth the risk.  Over the years I’ve developed my own technique which violates none of the guidelines and is wildly successful at bringing about this desired outcome.  Though I’m not going to share what I do, I will say that it requires a steel spine and intense focus mixed with just the right amount of subtlety.

So, back to the night in question.  I’d explained to my co-worker what I was going to do, just as she was called away to assist a customer.  I’d moved into position, and all was going perfectly…. then out of nowhere, once again, I was flagged down by the milk guy, who inexplicably tried to corral me into working quadratic equations with him.  (I will forever remember him as “Quadratic Equation Guy”.)  I was now in a tight spot.  I was where I needed to be, but as I said, what I was doing required a high level of focus.  I couldn’t make an excuse and go somewhere else…. nor did I see a polite way to remain where I was while extricating myself from working quadratic equations.  Moments later P. reappeared, and I decided to just walk away.

As all this came together, the girl we’d been watching made another break for the bathroom, and though  P. followed her in, she found no evidence that she’d dumped the pen.  I’d not been able to carry out my usual plan and it seemed I’d failed.  (Sigh!)

As the weight of defeat settled uncomfortably onto my shoulders, my phone chirped an unwelcome alert:  Our closing cashier reported smelling smoke in the back room, and a thorough investigation, (translation:  storming quickly into the room and sniffing vigorously) revealed that he’d been right.  Fortunately, there was a happy ending.  We opened the back door and peered into a dark night, illuminated by the glow of the rising full moon, and discovered a bonfire wafting smoke from across the street.

Case closed.  The rest of the evening?  Not such a tidy conclusion….

At closing time, as we were scooting the final customers out the door, I breathed a sigh of relief…a bit too soon.  I’d thought everyone was gone, yet a final customer remained.  He was a young man, clad in jeans and a suit coat, sweating profusely and wearing a snarly expression; his arms laden with last minute purchases.  Considering it was 11pm on a Friday night, I couldn’t help finding it a bit odd that one item he struggled to carry was a full-size globe…. (but perhaps I only feel that way because I’ve never been in a predicament requiring a late night globe purchase).  I watched as he hoisted his items onto the counter and then verified that he’d been escorted outside with the doors locked behind him.  With that out of the way, I walked to the other side of the building to grab a till, then made my way back to the front, only to find the cashier and P. all shaken up.

“What?” I asked lamely, struggling to steady the till in my hands.

“That guy we just let out forced his way back into the store!” P. exclaimed.  “He’s gone now,” she added, as my eyes darting around looking for him.

It seems he’d left his backpack in the store and somehow managed to force the door open.  When confronted and told he must leave, he refused and became hostile, before deciding to comply rather than have us call the police.  Reluctantly, he agreed to wait outside while his backpack was retrieved.

I’d only been 20 yards away… how had I missed all this?  Still… it was all over now… nothing left to do but run a few reports and count some money.  The rough stuff was behind us.

This may be a good time to explain that I am not at tip-top condition late at night.  For years I’d gone to bed between 9 and 10, and willing myself to remain alert to learn closing procedures was becoming problematic.  Perhaps this odd sleepy state was responsible for painting the evening with surreal qualities.  I’m not sure… All that I know is that when the other manager poked her head into the cash room and asked if I minded if she let the other employees go, leaving the two of us to finish up together, I felt as though I was responding through a fog as I said, “No, I don’t mind.”

With everyone gone, the deep quiet settled over me.  I kept working…. balancing tills and trying to remember which color copy of each report went where, when it began to dawn on me:  P. had been gone an awful long time.  How long should it take to walk to the front of the store, let some people leave, relock the door, and then return?  Not as long as it was taking.  Unsettling thoughts began forming:  I was behind a locked door, but I was alone and had no idea what lay beyond.  The person meant to stay with me should have returned several minutes before… and yet there I sat….alone in the eerie silence.

I thought back to the moment I’d first seen the job posting, and was excited to apply.  Steve had been against it at first, but I’d insisted I’d had a good feeling about it.  That all seemed so foolish now.

Why did I decide to go back to work?  Why????  (I can get dramatic when I’m tired and several weird things have happened.)

At the moment I’d decided to investigate, I heard the ‘beep, beep, beep’ signaling someone using the code to open the door.  I found myself looking at P. and the closing cashier.  Turns out my dramatic thoughts hadn’t been quite so ‘out there’.  When P. had opened the door to let the employees leave, she’d spotted our last customer’s car (without him in it) still in the parking lot.  The cashier had volunteered to wait for us so that we wouldn’t have to walk out alone.

Weird.

Finally we were all finished and exiting through the front door.  Though the customer was nowhere to be seen, his car was still there!  Looking all around, we couldn’t see him, and we knew he couldn’t be in the building… yet this was all so unsettling.  As we were getting into our cars, I couldn’t help but muse:  “What is he doing out still?  Shouldn’t he be home learning geography?”

Before guiding my car onto the road, I fiddled with my phone, bringing up the audiobook I was listening to, The Magician’s Nephew, from C.S. Lewis’  The Chronicles of Narnia.  As I drove through the late hour, with the misty glowing fog all around me, I couldn’t help but notice that a particular passage suited my evening all too well:  The children had just met the White Witch (though she was not yet the White Witch) in the creepily blighted world of Charn:

“Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun, far bigger than our sun.  Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours:  a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down on that world.  To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright.  Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group.  And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen.  And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disasterous-looking shadows in the light of that withered sun.  Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of gray dust.” [1]

By now I was in my neighborhood, so ready for the night to be over.  I’d wound up driving through the increasingly dense fog behind a slow-moving car; one that made every twist and turn that would guide me home, which only served to heighten the creepiness pressing in around me.

Finally, I pulled into the garage before wearily making my way into the house.  Resolving to have a snack and unwind with some TV after checking on Carter, I headed for the steps.  Yet the evening held one more surprise.  As I reached the landing, I registered an unnatural glow coming from behind the closed bedroom door.  Charn and her cursed sun flashed through my mind as I made it to the end of the hall and yanked open the door.

Though Charn colored my thoughts, I truly didn’t expect to find anything odd when I opened the door…. and yet…. I did.  All of the lights were on, (in the bedroom, the walk-in closet and the adjoining bath), and the TV was on, though stuck on an all-blue screen.  Steve lay blissfully asleep on the bed; Ichabod slept on his floor pillow, and Lucy, also on the floor, glared resentfully at the bench where she usually slept.  The reason for her rancor was the most inexplicable part of the scene before my eyes… Carter had fallen asleep on Lucy’s bench… and he was buck naked!

Striding to the bed, I roughly shook Steve awake.  Smiling sleepily, he asked, “How was your night?”

“WHAT IN THE WORLD HAPPENED HERE, TONIGHT?” I demanded in a whisper; gesturing wildly.

“Huh?” came the reply.

I quickly realized I wasn’t going to get any real answers… whatever had gone on, Steve had slept through it.  I began looking around and found the potty seat on the toilet and Carter’s discarded clothes on the floor right in front.  Carter must have gotten out of bed, turned on all of the lights, stripped off his clothes and went potty while Steve remained sleepily unaware.

Dads.

I gathered Carter gently in my arms and placed him on the bed before dressing and covering him.  With one last exasperated glance at Steve I went downstairs for my midnight snack.  Blessedly, my crazy night had come to an end.

*****

After a weekend off I returned to work bright and early Monday morning.  Word of our Friday night exploits had been discussed and re-discussed all weekend, and I learned there was an unexpected positive… because we never recovered the missing pen, the entire pack was scanned out, and we were allowed to use them.

“There’s one thing that still bothers me,” I told a group of managers as we waited for our weekly meeting to begin.  “The box didn’t list the colors and scents of the pens… we’ll never know which one we are missing.”  I breathed out a sigh, then headed for the restroom.

As I reached for a seat cover, I was still contemplating the missing pen as a flash of unexpected motion caught my eye.

What was that?

Sticking my hand into the seat cover box, my fingers closed around something… could it be?

It was!

The missing pen!

And now I knew…. the missing scent….grape!

Closure.

Lucy... reclaiming her bench
Lucy… reclaiming her bench

[1] The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis, Copyright 1955, pg. 68

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