As part of my study of Ray Bradbury’s writing advice, I am writing 52 bad short stories. He proposed that you can’t write 52 bad stories. Challenge Accepted!
It’s Always Playtime Now
Julie parked her car near the back of the lot with a few other vehicles. Staff parking to make sure customers could have the spots closest to the door. She stared at the front door of the StadMart. Her first day as the new General Manager gave her a bit of a stomach ache. It was an exciting opportunity until the Regional Manager explained that the previous three occupants had been reassigned and demoted for not bringing down staffing costs. On top of that, three department managers were less than thrilled that a woman from a store in the Dallas-Fort Worth region would be their new boss. “Expect less cooperation than you would like,” was the only advice he had to offer. So now she sat in her Hyundai Sonata, watching the Galveston breeze blow paper and other bits of trash around the entry area. She glanced at her watch. Six am. No time like the present. She could go in, observe her new team, and maybe leave early enough to find an apartment. The less time she lived at the Hampton Inn, the better.
As she walked up to the door, more trash swirled around. She could hear her mentor, Ray’s, voice in her head, “Always see the front door through the eyes of the pickiest customer.” She took a deep breath and walked through the sliding door.
The store was open, yet there were not yet any customers where Julie could see them. There were a couple of associates standing near the self-service registers. One looked up, smiled, and started walking toward Julie.
“Hi, you must be Julie. I’m Kailita, the CSM.”
Julie shook her hand. Kailita didn’t look old enough to work here, much less be a customer service manager, but she at least seemed friendly “Hi, and yes, I’m Julie. How did you know?”
“Regional sent an email to all the department managers with your pic… Wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid when you got here.” Kailita rolled her eyes a bit. “A bunch of us are really glad to have a woman for a GM. Most of the associates are female, so it’s good to have a boss who gets us. You got kids?”
Julie shook her head. “No, no husband, no kids.”
Kailita looked a bit deflated.
Julie figured that without kids, maybe they thought she couldn’t “get them.”
“Well, I should warn you, Eli in shoes is so pissed that he is going to report to some “white bitch” – his words, not mine. Anyway, we got your back, girlfriend.”
Julie forced a smile. “Great, and thank you.” She looked around. “So, where is everybody?”
Kailita pointed toward the back corner of the store. “Toy Department, cleaning up.” She started walking that way and waved for Julie to follow.
“Bunch of toys on the floor in the morning. We clean it up first thing.”
Julie stopped a moment. “You make it sound like it’s a daily thing.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t take long.” Kailita kept walking.
Julie followed, and they soon reached the aisles with toys all over the floors. The toys were out of their boxes as if they had been played with. All Julie could guess was that either the overnight stock crew or the cleaning service staff were bringing their children here during their shifts. She pulled out her iPhone and tapped into her notes app: Check Toy Security Cams.
She looked over at Kailita. “Do you know who is doing this?”
Kailita shrugged and started walking back to the front of the store.
“Can you get someone to tidy up the front entrance?” Julie called out.
Kailita just waved her hand over her head. Hopefully, that meant she was on it.
Julie took that to mean that she would not rat on a co-worker. But Kailita was part of the management team. She needed to be able to enforce policies, not protect those who didn’t follow them. She added to her notes: “Talk to CSM about duties.”
Back at the hotel that night, Julie started to fill the bathtub. Between meeting everyone and learning the store’s “personality,” she was so busy she didn’t get to check the cameras. But, she thought, it wouldn’t happen again. Surely Kailita and the other department managers would be on top of this tonight. And she could check the cameras in the morning, just to send the message that she would not be in the dark about things like this. It was an insurance nightmare. If one of those children got hurt at the store overnight, workers’ compensation did not cover them. But as she settled into the hot tub, a glass of wine in hand, she decided it was just a test. She would let it all go as a first-day prank.
The next morning, the front entrance was free of debris, even as the breeze was still blowing, even stronger than the day before. Good, Julie thought, they got the message about the front. The wind pushed her hair in front of her eyes. She pulled it back and held it in a ponytail behind her head as she entered the store. A couple of customers were checking out with donuts, and one lone cashier was chatting with them as they paid. Kailita walked up with two disposable cups.
“Coffee?” She held out a cup. “I didn’t know if you drank it or how you take it, so I made it like mine, one cream, one sugar.”
Julie took the cup and sipped it. Sweet, creamy. “I always drink coffee, usually black, as prescribed in the GM handbook.” She took another sip. “But this is good, a nice treat. Thank you.” She looked around again. “Do we have more associates this morning?” She was careful to use the official word for workers.
“Yes, everyone showed up this morning for a change. Most are over in Toys.”
Julie sighed. “Again?” She was going to check the cameras first thing for sure.
Kailita just smiled and shook her head. “Oh, it’s every day. Been that way since I started working here four years ago. The vets say it’s never been any different. But we deal.” She turned to walk back to the CSM desk.
“Wait, hasn’t anyone checked the cameras? Is it like this at closing, or does it happen overnight? Why don’t the cleaners take care of it?”
Kailita took a sip of her coffee. “I think that is what they pay you to deal with. I just handle people returning things they didn’t buy here. But don’t bother with the cameras. It’s a waste of time.”
Why would the cameras be a waste of time? They would show who was messing up the toy aisle. Then they could be dealt with. Julie was now sure that a big part of the high staffing costs was bringing in extra people early to deal with the mess. A solvable problem. It had to be the stockers or the cleaners bringing kids in, as childcare overnight was not readily available. If it was the stockers, she could deal with it. If it was the cleaners, well, they were contracted, so she could just call the company and have them fix it. Easy peasy.
She walked to the stairs at the front of the store and climbed up to the office suite. There were shared offices for the department managers, a break room, a private office for the GM, and a small room of television screens for the security crew. She poked her head through the door to the security team, where a large man eating a small cup of yogurt was supposed to be watching all the cameras. When he saw her, he stood up.
“Ma’am, um, hi, I’m Gus.” He pushed the yogurt cup back behind a computer monitor.
“Hi Gus, I’m Julie.”
“I know, the new GM.” He nodded toward the cup. “Sorry about that. I know we aren’t supposed to eat in here, but my night job ran late, and I didn’t get a chance to eat.”
Julie paused a moment. She needed Gus’s help. “What is your night job?”
He relaxed a bit. “Oh, it’s security too. At Moody Plaza. We had a break-in last night, so the police paperwork took a bit.”
Julie nodded. So at least he wasn’t here when it was all going on, and he knew to call in law enforcement when needed. She was liking Gus already, even if he ate around the equipment.
“At least you got here on time,” Julie said. “Can you pull up some footage for me, please?”
“Oh, of course.” Gus sat down and started tapping on the keyboard. “What day and time?”
Julie counted days on her fingers. “Thursday night. Let’s start at closing. The Toy Department.”
Gus stopped typing. “Um, you’re not from around here. Yanno, there is a reason you are the fourth GM in six weeks.”
“Yes, the enormous staffing costs. I’m here to fix it.” Julie tried to contain her frustration. “Just show me the footage. I’m not going to fire people. I just need to know what is going on.”
Gus sighed and started typing. “No, no one to fire,” he said softly.
“Just don’t have a freakout, okay?” He pointed to a large screen to the right.
Julie watched the grainy black and white image of the toy aisle. The time read just after midnight. The store closed at eleven. After a few minutes, a tiny glowing dot appeared, then another, and several more, one at a time, until there were dancing, glowing dots all over the floor. As more dots appeared, toys began to float off the shelves. Boxes opened, piles of legos and Lincoln logs dumped onto the floor, then started forming shapes.
Gus cleared his throat. “It’s Christmas season, so they really like all the new things.”
Julie couldn’t look away from the screen. “They? Who are They?” She felt something behind her knees. Gus had pulled a chair behind her. She sank down.
“They are kids,” Gus said. “Yanno, the orphans. The ones that died in the Great Storm. This land was a steal for StanMart, but there was a reason. The Sisters of Charity, they ran the orphanage that washed away. Ten of the Sisters and ninety kids all drowned here.”
Julie kept her eyes on the glowing dots. They did not stay still. A red rubber ball was going back and forth as if it were the object of a game of catch. “You’re saying these things are ghosts?”
Gus put a large hand on her arm, “You okay? You look like….”
“Don’t say that I look like I’ve seen a ghost. There has to be a reasonable explanation for this.” She got up. It was a prank, she was sure. One to run her off, like her predecessors, so Eli or one of the other DM’s could get the job. Elaborate prank, but nonetheless, it would not scare her off. She got up and went out of the room, down to her office. She would call the cleaning company. If it were a prank, they would need to be in on it. And StanMart was a huge company. They wouldn’t want to lose a contract over a silly joke.
The next afternoon, after several phone calls moving up the chain of command at the cleaning company, Julie looked up from her desk to see someone at her door.
When Julie stood up, the woman walked in with purpose. Instead of a corporate polo, she was dressed in a tailored purple suit with a shiny silver name tag, proclaiming she was Glenda, the District Supervisor.
After a stiff handshake, Julie invited her to sit down. She did not. “Let me tell you one thing,” Glenda began,” It takes us weeks to find people who are willing to work here with this, this, ….”
“Ghosts?” Julie asked.
“Whatever. We are grownups. We know there are no such things. But what I do know is that someone is making it next to impossible for me to keep our crew staffed, and I have to pay twice the overnight rate to keep them here.”
“You do pass the costs on to us,” Julie observed.
“But still, you will not have the same quality of work as you got from the company in Dallas or where ever you came from.”
“It was Dallas.”
“And the people in your position either laugh it off or quit. Which are you going to do?” Glenda’s face was set like stone.
Julie thought a moment. “Do you have plans this evening? Around 11:00?”
Glenda stared back.
“I am coming back tonight. I saw things on the camera, but I want to see what is happening in person. It’s the only way.”
Glenda nodded. “You’re right. No one else would do it before. We can have our Scooby-Doo moment and unmask whoever is doing this. We can save a lot of money once we clear this up.”
Julie smiled. “I’ll bring coffee.”
Glenda was waiting at the door with a coffee cake when Julie arrived just after 11. “You know,” Glenda said, “I got here with my snacks and realized that, duh, this place has groceries.”
Julie smiled. “But we don’t sell Entenmann’s coffee cakes. Let’s get a knife and go ghost-busting.”
The store lights were on, but the store was eerily quiet without the piped-in music tracks. There was a cleaner mopping over in produce and a couple of stockers setting up new mannequins in Men’s.
After getting slices of the coffee cake, Julie and Glenda headed to toys.
“Holy Mother of God,” Glenda whispered, crossing herself over and over.
The toys were once again floating off the shelves and. Unboxing, but this time, there were faint shapes instead of little glowing dots. Child shapes. Julie could only stare. She looked around. There had to be some apparatus projecting this, right? Then she felt a cold shiver like she was standing in the hall in front of the walk-freezer when the door was slammed shut.
“I can’t thank you enough,” a soft, whispery voice said. “The children so enjoy coming here to play.”
Julie felt Glenda’s hand gripping her arm.
“Who are you?” Glenda asked, voice quivering.
“I’m Sister Frances, from the Sisters of Charity. I took care of them.”
Julie’s mind was racing. “Gus was right? This is where the orphanage was?”
“Yes, until the storm came.”
Julie noticed that she didn’t say the Great Storm. It was simply the storm. It wasn’t a historical event to her. Just the last thing she experienced.
Glenda confirmed what Julie was thinking. “I don’t see any lights or projectors….”
Julie cleared her throat. “Are you saying that…”
“Yes, dear, we are dead.” Sister Frances said. “Lost spirits, actually. The children are too young for heaven, so they have to wait here.”
“But you,” Julie stammered, “you are a nun. Shouldn’t you…”
There was a soft sigh. “I promised them I would not leave them. That I would never leave them alone.”
six months later
Greg, the regional manager, stood up from the chair next to Julie’s desk and held out his hand. “Great work. Have to say, I was not keen on converting a storage room to in-store child care for associates, even the overnights, but this is working. Your staffing costs are down, the cleaning crew costs are down, and associate absenteeism is almost gone.”
Julie smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“Well, my boss would like a proposal for the other stores, so if you can put something together. This could be good for you.”
After he left, Julie stuck her head into the security office. “Morning Gus, how is everything?”
“Going good.” He tapped a couple of keys and pulled up the camera on the new child care area. Six children were in various parts of the room with toys while a staff member was changing a diaper in a far corner of the room.
“How about two in the morning?”
Gus tapped a few more keys. The same room was on camera, with fewer children, but there were groups of tiny glowing dots on the screen this time. “They seem to like the new kitchen playset.”