Rachel Stewart Johnson
Shoplifting is not difficult. The elements needed are few: a quick hand, an object for cover. Leslie Lord pays for some things. For every four items dropped in her bag, one is kept out. She pays in cash, often with exact change.
At King Soopers, the ratios differ by day. Two apples in, one out. A loaf of bread in, a box of donuts out. If anyone notices her hidden items she says oops and pays. She works early in the morning before her husband, Steve, and their twins, Travis and Courtney, have awakened.
One morning after returning home, Leslie receives a phone call from her friend. Dee Vierra cleans rooms at the Sleep Inn on Colfax Avenue and has good news. Four rooms are staying over, she says. Leslie listens but wants to tell Dee about the morning’s visit to the store.
I lifted a tri-tip. Clean.
Not bad. Okay well I’m telling you.
And a pack of pork chops. Got that too. I think like a four-pack or something. I should come now?
Now or never.
Leslie taps on Courtney’s shoulder to get her attention. The six-year-old is sitting on the floor with her coloring book. Leslie lifts the crayon from Courtney’s hand and drops it on its side. Courtney tries to pick up the crayon again but her mother pushes her hand away. Leslie turns and calls to her son.
Travis. You too. Let’s get going. We gotta go see Aunt Dee now. Are you dressed yet? Where’re your shoes? If you kids could do one thing for yourselves.
I don’t want to go, Travis tells her.
Bring your Hot Wheels then. Travis frowns but grabs four cars, two in each hand.
Where’s your shoes? Leslie asks him. Travis peers at his feet.
Courtney picks up her crayon again. She looks up and watches her brother’s lips. “I dunno,” Travis says, shrugging his shoulders. He hurries back to his bedroom and returns wearing his shiny Christmas Day shoes with no socks.
Oh come on. That’s all you could find? Leslie groans.
Courtney stands up. Her mother beckons her: “’Mon.”
At the Sleep Inn, Dee pushes her housekeeping cart on the second floor landing. Travis jogs toward her. Dee! Look!
Hey Travis, Dee murmurs.
Moments later Leslie and Courtney arrive. Leslie is carrying a shopping bag. Dee stares at Courtney and waves to her. “Hi. Hi.”
“Deh,” Courtney says. Dee smiles.
“Yes. Dee. Nice-to-see-you,” Dee responds, careful with each word. She had an old deaf uncle when she was a kid. She has reminded Leslie of this several times. She turns toward Leslie and lowers her voice. Okay now there are two stay-overs up here and the other two are in the other building. The kids need to stay out here don’t forget. Quick quick, she adds.
Leslie enters the first room. She checks the pockets that line the one suitcase resting on the floor. Men’s clothes. Nothing nice. No prescription medicine, nothing appealing on the bathroom counter. No watch.
Nothing, she calls as she heads for the door.
Dee taps her lips, just a lightning tap.
The next room smells of cigarette smoke. There are two suitcases, both deeper than the length of Leslie’s hand. She checks the pockets. In one, there is a calculator. In another, three DVDs. She drops one in her bag and returns the other two.
Meanwhile, Courtney inspects the contents of Dee’s housekeeping cart. There are two squirt bottles. She lifts one with blue liquid inside and sprays her palm. Washcloths are stacked on top of the cart. One more and the tower will fall.
Travis discovers the feather duster. Courtney recoils when her brother tickles her arm. She retreats to the safety of the opposite side of the cart. Both children’s jaws are open wide, teeth in full view. Sssh, no no, Dee scolds. No you two gotta be quiet you should know that. No give that here now.
Inside the next room, Leslie searches. There is a toiletry bag near the sink. She leans over and hooks one side with a finger. Her lips unseal. Twenties. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, one hundred. She holds the spot with her other hand. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, two hundred. A few more. Maybe two forty. She is uncertain of what to do. She decides on sixty. Eighty. Finally, she grabs a fifth twenty. She drops the money like trash into her bag and hurries.
By 2:00 that afternoon, the Lords are sitting at a table in front of La Fiesta Grande. Steve has bought a late lunch for everyone. He has something to tell Leslie.
So Tommy Beck, you know, from the yard? Tommy’s gonna cut down the trees starting tonight. He’s gonna come by after he gets off.
Then quickly he tells Travis: don’t put that on there.
It’s not clean, Steve explains, and points to the opposite side of the table. Look. Bird shit, right there.
Steve, gross, Leslie says.
Travis bares his teeth and bites off a piece smaller than a dime. No it does not got poo on it, he says.
Steve grasps Courtney’s arm. She looks into his eyes. Hurry up, he says. “Eat,” he instructs next, moving his fingers from the table to his mouth. “Eat.”
There is a pigeon on the cement, moving closer to them. This pigeon may have only one eye. “Tur,” Courtney tries to instruct it, and points at the bird. She moves her hand in a circular motion.
Steve takes Courtney’s burrito and eats a bite of it. He points to himself with his other hand. “Eat.” Courtney nods, but then the bird emerges from the shadow. Jesus Christ, Steve says. He goes back to talking to his wife. So Tommy said those four pine trees out front are probably a good ten cords of wood put together.
That a lot?
Oh you kidding? Hundred bucks a cord pretty easy.
Really? How much’s Tommy gonna take?
A hundred a day.
Leslie nods. Well yeah let’s, yeah. That’s a lot of money. Sitting in our yard all this time.
And I we— might be able to store a boat or something over there. Probably get fifty, sixty a month for that.
Shoulda thoughta this a long time ago.
No shi—what’s with the kids?
Travis’ hands rest on the cement, his butt in the air. Courtney still sits, her food untouched.
Let’s just go, Steve says. Travis, stop, he adds. The pigeon hobbles ten feet away. Courtney stands and approaches the bird, leaning forward. Her mother taps her.
“Eye,” Courtney tells her.
You what? Leslie says. She grasps Courtney’s chin. “What? You did what?”
Courtney shakes her chin free. She points at her eye.
On the way home, the family stops at the house of Steve’s friend, Rodrigo. Gonna ask for his wheelbarrow, Steve explains. Gonna need a few t’help with Tommy.
The twins follow their father toward the house. Steve and Rodrigo disappear into the garage. While the men are gone, Travis and Courtney wander into the first bedroom. On the opposite wall is a large fish tank. Courtney lifts her hand, flattened and sideways like a fish.
Travis wedges himself next to Courtney. I wish there was a red one, he tells his sister. But the blue ones are nice. “Courtney, fish.”
“Fet,” Courtney says.
Travis smiles and nods. “Yes. Fish.”
Steve returns. Cradled in his arms is an empty fish tank.
Rodrigo says you kids can pick out a few for home, he tells the twins.
Travis springs in delight and immediately taps Courtney’s arm. “You.” He points at his chest. “Me.” Then he points at the fish tank. Courtney smiles. The kids return to the inspection of the giant tank. What kind should we get, Travis says.
Don’t tap the glass, Rodrigo tells them.
I want that one, Travis answers. See? And can we have one of those wiggly kinds? Rodrigo shrugs. Just one.
That evening, Tommy Beck arrives at the Lord house, arms full of buckles and clips.
Don’t touch anything, he tells Courtney when she approaches. Don’t get too close. I’m gonna drop branches.
He begins at the lowest branch. After that he must shimmy up the tree within a ring that he has wrapped around the trunk. He climbs higher. Courtney doesn’t take her eyes off him.
She witnesses his fall. The chainsaw reaches earth first and commences a dangerous rebound, and Tommy falls next, spared from the chainsaw, landing elbow first. Courtney watches him make a fist with his leading arm. He rolls to his knees but then drops again.
Next, Tommy and Courtney both notice something horrible and Tommy gags in that instant. The bone of his arm protrudes through the skin and is visible.
Courtney tries to yell. She runs toward the house. Leslie is in the doorway by then.
Steve! He fell!, Leslie calls. Steve emerges from the garage.
Jesus, he says. Oh fuck, he adds when he nears Tommy’s broken limb. He cups a hand under the elbow of Tommy’s intact arm and urges him to stand.
“Leslie,” Steve says. Can you grab a sheet or something– wrap this for the drive?
“Fet,” Courtney whispers. Tommy has the eyes of a fish now.
The trees remain standing past that night, four Ponderosa pines, one with its three lowest branches removed. The empty fish tank sits in the entryway to the house. Late one afternoon, Steve places a pair of boots inside it.
I don’ know. Maybe twenty-five for the tank, ten for the boots.
That’s it? Leslie wants to know.
Yeah well I don’ know.
Steve drops the tailgate of his pickup. Courtney guesses at the sound: tuh, she says. She opens her mouth wider on her next attempt. Tao, she tries, and her mouth doesn’t close. She leaves it open, stiffening her lips above her teeth. Finally she closes her mouth and watches her father load the fish tank onto the bed of his truck.“Fet?”
Her father does not answer. Soon the truck is out of sight.
A month later, Leslie chooses a Saturday for a trip to Dillard’s. Today she wants more people around, not fewer. She will bring Courtney.
She’s gonna make those noises and people’ll—look, Steve says.
Yeah but Travis has that cold so I don’t want them playin’.
At Dillard’s, Leslie hands Courtney a large shopping bag. Courtney wears it like a bracelet, hanging from her wrist. Leslie looks behind her and shakes her head. She slides the handle from Courtney’s wrist and forces open the child’s palm. Then she pushes Courtney’s fingers around the handle. Like this, she says. Hold it low, she adds, demonstrating.
Courtney doesn’t object when Leslie pulls her arm and leads her to the dress section. Leslie removes a dress from the rack, then a second one. She puts one against her body to note its length. Soon she has several draped over her hand. Without hesitating, she removes a violet knee-length from its hanger and drops it into her bag. She returns two other dresses to the rack and then steps to the left. Courtney begins to follow but stops. She looks inside her own bag. She tips it forward and coaxes it back.
Leslie has become a more skilled criminal with each passing month. Several minutes later, she stops to casually finger a bathing suit, then a blouse. Leslie again grabs Courtney’s hand and they continue toward the exit.
That evening, Travis is still sick. Leslie sighs when the boy finally closes his eyes and begins to sleep open-mouthed on the sofa. God, Leslie murmurs. She steps into Courtney’s bedroom and sees her daughter positioned a foot and a half below her pillow, asleep in the light. Leslie frowns and pulls Courtney’s thin frame toward the head of the bed. Something moves with her. It rolls like a tiny expert animal. Leslie sees that it is a camisole with a price tag on it. She searches the bed, finding nothing else among the sheets. She picks up the camisole and pulls the covers to Courtney’s chin.
There is a moth in the room, full of scurry and fright, casting a reckless shadow against the lampshade in its binge of light. It makes sounds in its flicker and pause, the soft applause to announce its almost immeasurable mass. Courtney turns in her sleep when her mother switches off the room’s light. The moth quiets with the dying of its moon, and there is nothing to hear. A shopping bag sits on the opposite side of the bed nearest the wall. It is full of many fallen moths: a skirt in gray, a dress, a blouse with sharply pointed collars, a second camisole. At the bottom there are two pairs of earrings. Hidden, they are mute like the child, unable to recount the tale of their heist.
Rachel Stewart Johnson is a writer based in San Diego County. A Colorado native and former lecturer in human development, her short stories have appeared in Gravel, District Lit, pif Magazine, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. She also publishes nonfiction, with recent work in elephant journal, Thought Catalog, and Thrive Global. Follow her on Twitter @rachelstewjo.