Thursday, August 30, 2007

Peter Breaks In

Wendy locked the front door from the inside, waving goodnight to her coworkers with half a smile. Mr. Darling had told her there were a lot of bills to take care of and the budget needed balancing; from the looks of the ramshackle filing cabinet in the back room, Wendy had a full night ahead of her. Darling Toys was thriving; it seemed like they couldn't keep the toys on the shelves, but for some reason they were still barely in the black. When Mr. Darling had promoted Wendy to assistant manager last week, he told her that her first job was to find out why.

She pulled one of seven tea bags out of her purse at random - it was apple-cinammon black tea - and took a mug off of the shelf, filling it with steaming water from the coffee machine. She set the tea to steep and turned to the sheet of plywood, balanced on a filing cabinet and a massive old computer, that Mr. Darling called a desk. It was covered in children's toys - dolls and wooden trains, a remote control car, and even one of the heavy-duty, high-quality lightsabers. She cleared the desk, booted up the computer and held her mug of tea up to her face, breathing in the cinnamon-flavored steam and leaning back into the folding chair. She wished that Mr. Darling hadn't been so very... frugal with his purchases for the administrative part of the store. But perhaps there hadn't been much of a choice, if things really were as bad as he claimed.

Mr. Darling founded Darling Toys with his wife, twelve years prior, when they realized that they would not be able to have children. The Darlings loved children, and wanted nothing more than children of their own, but they hadn't even met until Mrs. Darling was thirty-five and past her reproductive prime, and so by the time they were ready to make the commitment to eachother that a child would bring she was forty and simply too old to conceive. Even the adoption agencies turned them down as too old. Mr. and Mrs. Darling fought the decision, sent calm petitions and angry diatribes and everything they could think of to nearly ten agencies, but simply could not get results. And so they sat down one night, and Mr. Darling looked Mrs. Darling in the eyes, and said to her, "My dear, why don't we just start a toy store, and spend all the rest of our lives making children happy?"

And so they took a loan out of the bank - for while having a child is much easier when you are twenty, getting enough money to start a store is much easier when you are fifty - and they rented a space and they began to sell toys to children. Of course they struggled in the beginning, because Mr. Darling had to scale back his psychological practice and Mrs. Darling was only a school teacher, but they squeaked by just barely and slowly grew their inventory and the store until they could move to a bigger location, which they did on the fifth year of the store's history.

And so they came to their present location, a friendly little corner store taking up the basement of a red brick three-flat, and until Wendy came it was just the two of them and their customers. Wendy walked into the store, a bit tentatively, two weeks into her first term at a nearby University and desperate for a job. It being a Saturday, Mrs. Darling was working the register and she took one look at the nervous girl in front of her and knew, instantly, that the girl would be just the right fit for the store. It didn't take long to convince Mr. Darling, and it took even less time to fill out the proper forms and hire Wendy officially. The Darlings came to look at her as a surrogate daughter, and she admired their love. Mr. Darling wasn't sure they would be able to pay her at first, but he and Mrs. Darling went into the back room and calculated expenses and insurance and decided that they could give her nine dollars an hour.

After Wendy, John, a boy who grew up in the neighborhood and was going to the local highschool, was hired (with much the same fuss). John was followed everywhere by his younger brother Michael, but no one really minded except John, because little Mike had too sweet a disposition to be much of a problem to anyone, and besides, he swept up and reshelved the toys for free.

There had been marginal raises and bonuses over the years, and Wendy was now managing to get by, in her third year at the University, working as many hours as she could at Darling Toys.
John was due to leave at the end of the summer, and Michael was already a freshman in highschool. Wendy realized now, of course, now that she was privy to the account book, that Darling Toys had only ever just squeaked by by the very skin of its teeth before, and that it had perhaps not been wise to move into the larger space, or take on any employees at all. But they had made do, and they formed quite the little happy family to the passer-by, and truth be told it was a very good place to work, if Wendy's judgement was to be trusted.

Wendy took a gulp of her tea while the computer finished booting up. It was a relic, a dinosaur, but all Mr. Darling asked it to do was run Microsoft Excel, and so it managed to limp along. Wendy opened the accounting spreadsheet and tapped her fingers against the keys of the keyboard, thinking.

The accounts were a mess, scrambled and unintelligible. Wendy sighed and opened a new file, and then pulled the bills and inventories from the past year out of the filing cabinet, spreading them on the floor. She began to categorize them; into regular expenditures she placed rent, electricity, the phone line, costs for advertising, her salary and John's. The security system she put in a different pile, resolving to investigate if perhaps there wasn't a better system available. She sorted the inventory by company and calculated the rate of return for each toy company, which jumped off the shelves and which they ended up giving away at a loss. She noticed that they lost toys regularly, but not so regularly that anyone would see anything amiss, and not with any pattern. She assumed that it must just be random teenagers or small children stealing on occasion, and was tempted to write it off as simply a regular expense. By the time she was done, she was down to two tea bags. She took a sip of her tea - mango green - and rubbed her eyes and back. Then she turned to the computer and began to set up a new spreadsheet.

There was a soft clatter in the front of the store, just barely enough to hear over her typing, but audible nonetheless. She froze, looked around for something to use in case of an emergency. She wasn't sure if she should call the police or if the security system would automatically do that, but she guessed that the security system would call someone, who would know better than Wendy what to do. Then she heard laughter. It was one person, alone, and with such a charming and innocent laugh that she felt her fear melting a little. She could, perhaps, explore, she decided, and so Wendy grabbed the heavy toy lightsaber from the ground by the desk and made her way to the front of the store. "Who's there?" she called, cautious.

The person fell silent, but she heard another soft clatter as something fell to the floor, and then footsteps moving towards the door. "Stop! Thief!" she shouted, and ran to catch him, but all Wendy saw was a bright green hooded sweatshirt before he was out the door. She turned back to the shop and began to check the shelves. As far as she could tell, nothing expensive was missing, although she would recommend a full inventory the next morning. The only disruption appeared to be pieces from the wooden train set scattered on the floor.

She told Mrs. Darling about what had happened the next morning, and Mrs. Darling told Mr. Darling, and together they reached the consensus that Wendy must have been dreaming. Michael and John helped with the inventory but nothing was missing, and it was impossible for someone to get into the store after it was locked without setting off the alarm system. And so it was settled, and left at that, although there always were the train pieces picking at the back of Mrs. Darling's brain, just unlikely enough to have fallen out of their box that it made her wonder.

In truth, it made her wonder enough that a week later she spent the night at the store, bringing an air matress and sleeping on the floor behind the register. She dreamed that night that someone had opened a store across the street from hers, and that all the children in the area preferred this other shop, and that Darling Toys was going out of business. But somehow, she was calm in her dream until she saw Wendy, John, and Michael peering into the windows of the new Toy Store with awe. She woke with a start to see a face through the window by the door, a boyish round face surrounded by a cotton sweatshirt hood. He looked her straight in the eyes, as if he knew she was there although it was dark in the store so he couldn't possibly, laughed in audibly through the glass, and then walked away.

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