The sun radiated through clouds floating above the ruins of an ancient strip mall. A warm glow shimmered off the surface of large bodies of water that swallowed up the empty parking lot while a few dull lights beckoned customers to certain disappointment. Most of the shops sat boarded-up and forgotten, yet there was still a little life left in this decaying carcass–a thrift store.
The shopfront had tall accordion-style windows harkening back to a nearly-forgotten era in American history. It stood between an ethnic hair shop and a Chinese restaurant hidden behind a circular green door. The restaurant and hair shop shared the same owner while the thrift store belonged to no one. It was donated to charity and came into the possession of a non-profit organization that didn’t think highly of planned parenthood. So, it should come as no surprise that a thrift store of this caliber prided itself on offering lightly (to put it delicately) used goods for families on a strict budget.
The door to the thrift store swung open as a yellow bucket on squeaky wheels rolled out. Guided by a frumpy-faced girl in a red smock, the bucket stopped in front of a dirty window. Piping hot vapors rolled off the suds as the girl dunked the mop several times before slinging it against the window. The loud thud it made summoned a flustered woman that wagged her finger aggressively on the opposite side of the window. Before she could mouth a word of disapproval, the window thumped and steamy suds rubbed her displeasure away. As her image reemerged in another window, she tried to shout her disapproval but the girl simply repeated the process.
Several feet away, a mature lady stepped off the curb barely using the cane she brandished. Although it was Saturday, she always dressed for church on Sunday. And with seasons changing, the best Sunday attire was (of course) a floor-length sable in white (preferably). She never left the house without a statement brooch and today it was a white dove covered in mostly diamonds and a small colony of emeralds for the branch in its beak. As soon as she saw the careless mop-wielding girl, she shifted her fur to give the girl a wide birth which did little to prevent her from being splashed before reaching the entrance.
Just above the door, a rusty bell chimed as the woman stormed inside with a dreadful look on her face. She stuck her arms out and shook droplets everywhere with little regard for where they fell. Her lily-white sable looked more like a homeless welp than the functional work of art it was intended to be.
“Good morning Ms. Bethune,” said the manager tending the cash register. The manager was a woman of a particular age, but nowhere near as accomplished in years as Ms. Bethune. Ms. Bethune’s anger wore poorly on her face as she grabbed a shopping cart and slung her African cane off the handle. The impala-headed cane swung back and forth as she pushed the cart towards the register.
“That pompous sasquatch splashed me with water and the attack was extremely well-coordinated—expect a dry-cleaning bill for her vulgar carelessness,” huffed the woman as she approached the manager. “I…I am so deeply sorry Ms. Bethune. I am trying—"
“Not nearly hard enough for a devout Christian woman, my dear Betty. You have some ways to go before you reach the status of a true servant of the Lord–do you attend church at least four times a week—no you do not…I’ve only seen you twice including today. I came here today—filled to the brim with his holiness and eager for fellowship. Your protégé just tested my faith with the sewer swill—no doubt some back-alley attempt at a baptism she picked up off the streets.”
“She’s young and inexperienced—she needs time. I’m very sorry about your coat—it is lovely.”
“Flattery gets you nowhere with me. You know back in my day a poor decision would have had you fired—my how things change—and not necessarily for the better. Christ compels us to forgive…be thankful and consider yourself blessed.”
“Absolutely Ms. Bethune, I hope that you will forgive us—I’ve been trying to get through to her, but it has been extremely challenging.”
“Clearly—the very nature of the welcome I received outside is proof of that—the devil’s putting in plenty of overtime here while you two appear barely coherent! You’re not peddling cheeseburgers and extra-large fries to the dregs of society anymore, Betty. This here is an extension of the house of the Lord—it demands your respect. I suggest you ship-up or get shipped out alongside your little bestie.”
The woman clacked a heel on the floor while removing her glove and extending the palm of her hand. Betty missed the entire motion having buried herself waist-deep in the register. As soon as she heard a second clack, she stuck out a tiny crumpled paper. Ms. Bethune quickly snatched up the paper and studied it immediately as Betty began to plead. “I’m awfully sorry Ms. Bethune. Please take this as a sign that we are trying to better ourselves and live up to your standards.”
“They’re not just my standards to keep and you should think to do better than a bribe, Betty. The Bible doesn’t mince words when it speaks of false prophets who come bearing gifts. I’ll be confiscating this pitiful offering so you won’t try to tempt another. Do better Betty and seriously seek the Lord’s guidance…you’d be surprised by what you might find.”
The crumpled piece of paper disappeared into the folds of Ms. Bethune’s sable coat before she sauntered down the aisle. She stopped in front of a rack of used shoes before rubbing her cart down with a disinfecting wipe. Afterward, she stuffed the wipe into a bulging sandwich bag filled with used clothes she kept in the folds of her sable. Examining a pair of patched leather heels circa 1980-something, she sighed longingly. “Boy do these take me back,” she recounted while pushing down the cart’s child seat and placing the heels inside.
The bell above the door rang again as a mother and daughter walked into the store holding hands. Aja (Aasha) Jones-Abdul plays the role of a semi-single parent while her husband serves overseas. He knew the language and the culture very well which made him an asset as well as a target. It’s very dangerous work which led Aja to start experimenting with cannabis-infused gummies paired with weekly video sessions with her therapist to manage her growing anxiety. Atom is their exceptionally bright and quizzical daughter who prides herself on individuality which is never a good idea at St. Mary’s Heart of the Veil, an all-girls catholic school she attends.
On this day, Atom wore her hair parted into two symmetrical poofs bound with hair ties that resembled jumbo gumballs. It was a juvenile look, but her mother was very fond of them so she wore them from time to time. “They already know you’re smart but these make you look sweet,” which was hardly a compliment in this day-and-age where girls were interested in acceptance without compromise.
“Good morning,” tweeted Betty as she hovered over a sign at the entrance that proudly displayed the colored dot that corresponded with the marked-down items for today. “Addy, check the sign real quick?” Atom smiled and quietly crept up behind Betty then turned to her mother. “60% off green dots!” Betty leapt out of her senses, only catching the faint glimpse of Atom’s puff before she rejoined her mother.
Aja leaned off the cart and set herself right in Atom’s ear. “Stay where I can see you because if you don’t…I’ll see you at home later tonight. Hope you got your bus card handy because you can’t bum off me if you’re nowhere in sight.” The girl nodded with a smirk. “Great…mom humor. I don’t know if that was meant to be a threat or if I should laugh…? Either way, I’ll be in toys.”
“Toys you say…fascinating.”
Atom’s hair nearly took up the aisle. When she passed Ms. Bethune, the poor woman caught a mouth-full when daring to look back at the footsteps that approached her from behind. The woman threw her head back and began spitting and fussing about hair in her mouth.
As soon as Atom rounded the corner she stopped in her tracks. Long luxurious black locks fell like a waterfall over this girl’s petite shoulders. Is that a sinched silk kimono over a bare leg paired with a nude sneaker? This mystery girl looked more like a forty-year-old’s version of a twenty-something. The woman stood there frozen in time, and even when Atom drew close enough to touch her, she didn’t flinch. Atom decided to halt her progression. Don’t surprise her, she looks old enough to have an underlying heart condition. Atom cleared her throat to announce her presence. “There’s something new that arrives nearly every week–mam. Isn’t that just wild…? I’m sure your children would think so.”
The woman didn’t even move slightly—it was like she wasn’t even aware of Atom’s existence. Atom kneeled down and picked up a long-legged plastic doll dressed in a skimpy Christmas outfit. “Oof, that just went in my mouth. Thought I smelled something rank amongst all this stank,” huffed a hoarse voice that only got rougher after switching to vaping exclusively.
“You’re coddling one of my weekly dumps—how cute. Take a gander at all this shit…I’m mostly responsible for all that you see which is supposed to make me feel somewhat appreciative,” the girl chortled.
“I see—you’re the reason I had to make a written complaint to staff about the store’s overwhelming odor,” Atom replied to the girl who appeared completely unfazed.
The girl leaned forward and carefully surveyed Atom’s jacket. “I’m actually the reason you didn’t catch cold today. Not my finest, but the charity I run recovered your frock from an abandoned drug den. I must say it suits you quite well—lovely chatting, but I do believe that’s my ride.” The girl breezed past Atom and drifted outside where the winged doors of an open Tesla awaited her.
Atom suddenly felt lightheaded from all the blood collecting in her tightly bound fists. The doll was lying face-down on the ground and she stomped it as hard as she could. The little head popped off bringing her a tiny measure of satisfaction. When Atom poked her head in the aisle her mother was having an enthralling conversation at the register. She glanced at her phone and it was blank. Not even a voice message…she really was planning on leaving me behind.
Atom pulled up to the counter and her mother looked at her rather oddly.
“Did you say hi to your Classmate, Atom? I think that was…Matilda?” Aja asked while looking to Betty for confirmation.
“Matilda Granger, yes. She’s an angel really–I absolutely love her style–it’s kind of edgy,” Betty professed.
“A woman in her sixties would say something along those lines,” smiled Atom.
“I beg your pardon; I am not sixty nor am I anywhere close. Furthermore, I do hope you plan on paying for that little hat on your head. Don’t think I didn’t notice you weren’t wearing a hat when you entered the store,” sang Betty.
“I was curious about that, but now you have my undivided attention, Betty. Are you trying to accuse my daughter of stealing?” Aja gently placed her hand across Atom’s chest like a seatbelt and slowly guided her daughter out of harm’s way.
“I was not trying to accuse her of anything–I’m simply stating that she is currently wearing the store’s merchandise.”
“Merchandise?! Do you even understand what you’re saying? I’ve been coming here for years and this has always been a dump posing as a store—just because you put price tags on everything doesn’t change the fact.”
Atom ignored the exchange between her mother and the store manager and ran to the nearest mirror. There was a gray fur ball tangled between her puffs that looked so unsightly—it warranted an outburst. Atom screamed loud enough to break up the petty squabble at the register. After that, it only took seconds for Aja and Atom to metaphorically render Betty unconscious.
Mother and daughter left the thrift store triumphantly smiling ear to ear. Aja looked at Atom and couldn’t help but laugh. “Doesn’t look that bad and what you did in there—that was masterfully done—especially the scream at the end. Who knew a little drama could turn out a ninety-percent discount? You’re really helping me dig out of that money pit you created when you begged me to take up acting—I know your life depended on it and I didn’t want to risk losing you at that time.” Such a petty statement. It seemed almost unnecessary unless Aja was trying to get a rise out of her daughter.
“What about now?”
“I had my doubts—about the acting!"
“Wow, there’s that humorless humor again—completely missing the point. I honestly think I had what it takes back then—then again I was naïve enough to think I had real support back then—is there anything real about you?”
“Ouch—a backhanded compliment—walked right into that shit.”
“You didn’t walk—you dived headfirst—and if you thought that was a compliment…you should have your head examined—oh wait, you already are. Maybe you should worry about the money pit you’re currently digging because clearly, you’re not getting the help you so desperately need.”
Atom’s smile only underscored the distress on Aja’s face. “Please don’t look at me like that—you can keep the desperation along with your head off the chopping block—I’m not offended, mom.”
No other words were exchanged as the two continued down the sidewalk carrying large trash bags.