Friday, November 25, 2022

Free short story for one week only!

 "Black Deeds on a Black Friday" is a short story that appears today in the WMG Publishing Holiday Spectacular. 2022.  You can get it and other holiday short stories by checking out their website here:https://wmgpublishinginc.com/project/spectacular/  

But for visitors to my blog, I'm giving you a chance to read it for free for the next seven days.  If you enjoy the story, let others know about it and the Holiday Spectacular.

The editor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, refers to this tale as "a crime story with heart."  I hope the tale helps you find maybe a touch of Christmas spirit.  Enjoy!


Black Deeds on a Black Friday


 

My name is Jane Carson, and I’m about to go shoplifting for the very first time.

Look, I know shoplifting is wrong, okay? The Bible is pretty plain about it: “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

But you know what else is wrong? Your stingy boss at the neighborhood convenience store firing you because you won’t sell cigarettes to minors. And you ignore his flirting, which I guess is almost as bad in his eyes.

I’d worked for this creep for six months and always before I managed to duck the cigarette issue, but he called me into his rathole of an office that stank of smoke and sweat the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and told me flat out the other clerks didn’t think I was pulling my weight. I needed to get with the program or get out.

I’d report him if I knew how to, except I made a couple of friends at that store who would be collateral damage. Yeah, most of the others could take a long walk off a short pier as far as I was concerned, but I try not to hurt people. Most people.

He then had the nerve to give me a once-over with his nasty squinty eyes and suggested that if I gave him an “early Christmas present” he might reconsider. And he meant right there and right now, on his filthy metal desk with the door locked.

I told him in unladylike terms what he could do with his suggestion.

So, I got handed my walking papers with cash to cover what he owed me, which wasn’t much. I have rent due the first of the month and I can’t blow that off—Portland, Oregon, is cold this time of year.

I have no family in Portland—my dad kicked me out of the house back in Georgia not long after my mom passed away from cancer. Mom had done her best by me: made sure I didn’t drop out of high school and worked even when sick to get me a semester at the local community college.

But when she died, my dad bought me a bus ticket to Portland and told me to stay away from him. I’m not even sure why he picked Oregon except it was in his mind too far away to come back from.

Not that I would.


Around noon on Thanksgiving, I wind up at a church’s soup kitchen, scarfing down turkey, dressing, and green bean casserole, along with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. Others like me sit at long tables covered in white paper tablecloths. A Christian radio station plays softly while we poor and downtrodden get something hot to eat.

Before we ate one of the men from the church prayed, thanking God for all His blessings to us. I didn’t say it out loud, but I think that when it comes to blessings, God’s being pretty stingy with them on my account.

The church people are nice enough to let me have two plates. I’m not sure where my next meal is coming from and want to be good and stuffed at least one day. They even have pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and while I normally turn my nose up at that dessert, I take a slice back to my tiny one-bedroom apartment and eat it for dinner.

The apartment’s furnished with old stuff I swear the landlord got from the side of the road.

I’d bought a dark gray slipcover to put over the couch, which is a hideous orange color and stained with I don’t want to know what. No television. I have a cheap radio I bought to listen to and I have my old laptop that’s slower than molasses in January, as my grandma would say.

Internet is paid for through the fifth of December, and then I’ll lose it probably.

So after dinner I take a hard look at my finances. The money I got from my stupid boss plus the little still in my bank account will cover rent next week—due on the first of the month, no excuses.

Like I said, I need to keep my place, because Portland is cold right now and I don’t even have an old car I can sleep in. And no thank you to homeless shelters, I’ve heard enough horror stories about single women in those places to film a horror movie.

But after I pay rent, I’ll be down to five lousy dollars to live on. I can’t live on that.

Get another job? I want to. But I’m pretty sure my former boss isn’t going to gush about me. And most jobs don’t pay right away. And you need stuff like a cell phone or access to the Internet to even apply for some of those jobs.

My cell phone will be turned off before the end of the month. I have an electric bill that will be coming up and if they turn off the power I might as well be tossed into the street.

So, I decide that shoplifting is my only hope. And because I’m desperate, I decide Black Friday is the perfect time to do it.


If you asked me about Black Friday before I got fired, I’d tell you that only crazy people participated. The stores were crowded and people were pushy and rude. They’d fight tooth and nail for the latest game console. Yeah. Way to show the Christmas spirit.

But I think the chaos will work in my favor. And I’m not brain dead—I’m not going for big ticket items with tags that’ll set off alarms if you try to walk out with them. I need stuff like food and maybe a couple of things I can sell to cover the electric bill.

And if push comes to shove and I get caught—well, I’m pretty sure the jail has electricity.

 

 

***

 

 

I’m up way too early Black Friday. I put on two T-shirts, a sweater, and a gray hoodie pullover along with a pair of jeans and my one pair of thick socks. My sneakers are dirty and worn but maybe I can add a pair of new ones to my “shopping” list.

I have a bunch of Bob’s World pale green plastic bags that I stuff into a yellow cloth bag with handles on it. I see people walk into stores with bags like this all the time—it’s supposed to be good for the environment. I figure no one will peek inside and if they do, I’ll claim I’m recycling the Bob’s World bags like a good girl.

I decide to go to Bob’s World because they’re a big box store that makes a ton of money and won’t miss what I take. And it’s located over in a shopping plaza that’s close enough to my apartment I won’t freeze to death getting there.

Even though Bob’s World opened at midnight for the shopping spree, I decide to wait until something like three a.m. There were probably people camped out there hours before, and I don’t want to stand in the cold any longer than I have to. It’s a risk, but I think the store will still be plenty crowded at that hour.

I step outside and resist the temptation to turn right around and go back into my warm apartment. It’s dark but the moon is shedding enough light to see the cracked sidewalk and the barren trees with bare branches reaching up to a starry sky. Thankfully, no snow or ice—but somehow in the pale moonlight it looks cold.

I pull my hood up and wish I had gloves. I loop the yellow bag over my arm and jam my hands into my armpits to keep them warm. Hunching my shoulders and trying to ignore the light breeze that’s robbing me of warmth I trudge down the street.


Even though I’m blocks away I see the glow from Bob’s World. I let that light draw me to it, a beacon of hope. If I can pull this off I can buy myself at least a month to find a job that isn’t temporary. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

As I pass houses, I see some people have decorated for Christmas already. Multicolored lights frame windows. An inflatable Santa waves at me from a yard. It’s all colorful and I suppose pretty but I’m too wrapped up in my own problems to let it cheer me like it normally would.

By the time I get to the shopping center, my teeth are chattering. I’ve never been so cold in my life. I just want to get into Bob’s World and soak up some heat. I don’t care about the shoplifting at the moment—I just want to feel my face again.

The parking lot in front of Bob’s World is a sea of cars. It looks like every parking spot is occupied. People are streaming in and out of the four doors that give entrance to the store. Good. There’s still a lot of people about—easy to get lost in the shuffle.

I see a food truck parked near the entrance. It surprises me until I get a whiff of coffee and hot chocolate and realize someone is smart when it comes to business opportunities. I near it and my stomach rumbles, the pie a faint memory.

But I don’t have any money. I didn’t bring any because I need it all for rent and can’t even afford a stick of gum. I didn’t want to be tempted to spend anything.

I see a plump woman with white hair at the window. For the moment, there’s no line and our gazes lock. I watch as her expression softens. “Would you like some coffee? Or a hot chocolate?”

Yes, I would. But I can’t. “That’s okay,” I say to her, trying to act like it’s not important. “Gotta get shopping.”

The woman stares at me a few more seconds, then says, “Let me give you a cup of hot chocolate. On the house.”

I feel my cheeks suddenly—they’ve gotten warm. “Um, that’s not necessary…” “Please,” she insists. “Let an old woman do her good deed for the day.”

Pride makes me want to protest or walk away. But that cocoa smells good. And the thought of a warm Styrofoam cup in my hands…

I tell my pride to shut up. “Sure,” I say, “that’s real nice of you.”


“Don’t mention it,” the woman says. She turns away and I see she has a small stovetop along with a Mr. Coffee machine. There’s a pot on the stovetop with steam rising from it. She carefully ladles some of the contents into a large Styrofoam cup and adds a dollop of whipped cream from a can in a mini fridge under the metal counter that holds the coffeemaker.

She hands it to me. “It’s hot. Be careful. And you can’t bring it into the store. They were quite adamant about that.”

I nod and inhale the sweet warmth. “Thank you,” I tell her.

“You’re welcome,” she says. Looking behind me, she waves. “Can I help you?”

A man so bundled up I can’t get an idea of what he looks like lumbers to the counter. I turn and see a couple more people in line waiting. I step aside, cradling my drink in my frozen hands.

It’s not the powdered garbage you can buy at places like Bob’s World—I taste real milk in this heavenly concoction. The whipped cream adds to the flavor, and I take little sips because it is hot. But it thaws me just a little bit and I can’t believe this woman just gave it to me.

Unfortunately, while the cocoa did me good, it wouldn’t pay the electric bill or feed me later today. I take bigger sips as it cools while I snag a shopping cart from the parking lot. Once the drink is gone, I stuff the cup in a trash can that’s already nearly full.

I take a deep breath, get a firm grip on my cart, and enter the store.

 

 

***

 

 

The place is cooler than I like, but warmer than outside. The clothes I have on make me comfortable for the first time since I first stepped outside, before the hot chocolate. I want to stand there a moment and just thaw, but people are behind me and probably will run me over if I’m silly enough to stop.

My eyes blink at the tall Christmas tree with tiny multicolored lights that stands to my left, with wrapped packages beneath it I’d bet my last paycheck were empty. The employees I spot all have red Santa hats and somehow, they can still smile though this must be the worst day in the year to work here.

The noise of all those people under one roof nearly drowns out the Christmas carols being played. But the music continues and is just loud enough for me to know they’re playing “Jingle Bells.”


I sail past a woman whose hat seems askew as she looks over a couple’s receipt. They have, among other things, a huge flat screen television sticking precariously out of their cart. The man, who’s balding and looks to me to be somewhere around forty, is gripping the box with one hand and looks peeved. His partner, a woman whose jet-black hair screams dye, hangs on to the cart handle and telling the man to “Just let the woman do her job.”

I note several people going past the employee and the couple without stopping or being stopped. I make a mental note to time my departure with someone being checked.

Out of curiosity I swing over to Electronics. There are bins of DVDs bargain priced in the middle of the main aisle with shoppers pawing through them. Inside electronics it looks like wall-to-wall people and the noise level is a quiet roar.

I turn my cart around and leave there. Sure, I could pawn a couple of DVDs, but they might have something that sets an alarm off. I don’t know and don’t want to find out the hard way.

I pass the Shoe Department, which is a little less crowded, and find a pair of decent looking blue and white sneakers in my size. I reach out to grab them—then pause.

Look, I’m not a bad person, okay? Just a cold, hungry, desperate one. I know the minute those sneakers go into my cart I’ve committed myself to a path that could land me in jail. That thought makes me hesitate.

But there are a lot more people like my boss than like that old lady outside. No one is going to take pity on me—okay, almost no one—and I have to find a way to survive.

The sneakers thump into my cart and my heart thumps right with them. I can almost hear my mother’s voice: “We didn’t raise you that way.”

“Sorry, Mom,” I mutter as I blink my suddenly wet eyes and head towards the grocery side of the store. “I gotta do what I gotta do.”

 

***

 

 

There are fewer people grocery shopping in Bob’s World—only two or three to an aisle. I do my best to look at ease, even as my heart slams in my chest like I’ve run a marathon. Focus, I tell myself. Do what you came to do and get out.


I grab cans of soup, American cheese, and two loaves of bread. I’m not a steak person, but there are some tasty-looking boxes of frozen burgers with cheese and bacon in them that I add to my cart. A Dutch apple pie joins the burgers, along with a can of whipped cream.

I consider grabbing a two-liter of root beer, but remember I have to carry all this back to my apartment. My arms are going to be breaking as it is, and the water from the faucet at my place is drinkable.

Unless I steal the cart, too…

I think about that one. What did my mom like to say? “In for a penny, in for a pound.” I’m already a thief, what’s one more item? I can always return the cart later.

I don’t like how my conscience is nagging at me. My hands start to shake for a moment, and I think about abandoning the cart with its contents and running out of the store.

My stomach grumbles, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place. I need this food to live. And it’s not like I’m stealing a television or anything expensive. The store won’t even miss this stuff.

I go to the cereal aisle and add two boxes of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal. As I look around me, I see a couple of people with a shopping cart more loaded than mine looking at all the different cereals in front of them.

I then realize I have a problem. With people everywhere, how am I gonna bag this stuff without being noticed?

You’re an idiot, mocks a voice in my head that sounds an awful lot like my dad. You can’t even do this right! Why not give up?

I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head to clear it. I can figure this out. I have to. I am certain that jail, while warm, lacks a lot of Christmas spirit, and the thought of spending the holidays behind bars is depressing.

I mean, if it’s that or freeze to death, sure, I’ll go. That doesn’t mean I’m going to try to make it happen.

So, how do I get my stash out of the store?

I rule out the bathrooms because I’m not sure a cart will get in the door—it sure won’t fit in a stall. I take a minute to roam the aisles and don’t see any place isolated enough for what I need to do.


That means going through the self-checkout and tricking the scanner. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s gonna have to do. It’s not a totally awful plan since it will lessen suspicion of me if I come from that area.

Squaring my shoulders, I head for the self-checkout area closest to where I came in. I wish I’d thought to grab another sweater, but I feel like I’m rolling the dice as it is. I didn’t get anything to pawn, either. I figure food will have to do and maybe getting on my knees and begging the power company for time will work.

I know—another long shot. But the Christmas season is supposed to be a time of miracles, right?

 

***

 

 

Another line—I’m not the only one using self-checkout. It takes a few minutes to get to the front of the line. Meanwhile I’m standing next to a Christmas candy display and my mouth is watering at the different types of chocolate they’re displaying.

They have a bag with dark chocolate/caramel squares and my stomach begs me. Before I change my mind it’s in the cart with everything else.

People ahead of me look like they need some Christmas spirit as well. They hunch over their carts, eyes glued to their phones, frowns on their faces. Their carts are filled with brightly colored wrapping paper and DVDs and toys and other things I can’t afford.

The cheery wrapping paper depresses me. I can’t think of anyone who cares enough about me to send me a Christmas present. While I have a couple of aunts and uncles, they never got close, thanks in no small part to my dad.

I don’t know much about my grandparents—three of them are still living but Dad’s parents washed their hands of him a long time ago. My mom’s mom came to the funeral and was kind, but Dad was so mean to her I doubt she’d want anything to do with me. I don’t even know how to contact her.

A tear slips down my cheek. It doesn’t help that the song currently drifting through the store is “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” If my luck holds, I will be in my stupid apartment on Christmas—but is that home?


By the time I get to the head of the line, I just want to be done with this. I wish I’d grabbed something Christmassy to put up—but this is about survival, not decorating.

The lady running the self-checkout waves me to an empty register. For once, luck is with me: it’s in a corner, the better to hide what I’m doing. I get the cart over there and empty my yellow bag.

I decide to scan a few things—not many, just maybe five dollars’ worth or so—so that it looks like I’m actually checking out. The soups are cheap, and I scan a few of them in, putting them into my bag.

Then I make motions as if I’m scanning the rest of the stuff in, but I keep it away from the sensor. I see there’s a camera on me and I hold my breath, waiting for an alarm to go off.

It doesn’t. I accidentally scan one of the loaves of bread and I start sweating. I hear raised voices behind me and tense, wondering if Security has come to arrest me.

Looking over my shoulder, I see some guy in a black leather jacket and jeans arguing with the employee running the area. I quickly turn back to my task, wanting to get done and out while she’s busy.

Finally, the total comes up to $4.83. I get the rest of the food into bags and put them on the cart. I’m not much of a praying person, but right now I’m sending mental appeals to every power in the universe that I can to help me pull this off.

I swipe my debit card. To my relief, it works without a hiccup. I grab the receipt, stuff it into a pocket, and point the cart towards the door and victory.

The employee apparently called for backup—a man is there now talking to him, shirt and tie, no Santa hat, and a down-to-business expression on his face. I quickly wheel past, trying to look unconcerned. If I weren’t holding my breath, I probably would be more convincing.

The gal by the door is checking a customer’s receipt as I walk by. No one stops me, or yells at me or anything. I join the throng heading out. Just a few more steps…

I finally step outside and the cold slaps me hard. I shiver, but at the same time I feel some relief. I just have to keep walking with the other customers, and I’ll be home free.

I start back towards my apartment when I notice some men gathered at the front of the food truck. They aren’t standing in line—there isn’t a line at the moment—and something about their posture tells me they aren’t customers.

One of the guys tries to reach into the window and jerks his hand back.


“Don’t you hit me, Grandma!” he yells, and I can hear it. I’m sure others can too, but they’re busy heading to their cars. The situation doesn’t seem to concern them.

I edge a little closer to the food truck. There are three guys, who look like they’re in their early twenties, like me. The one who yelled has a mess of dark hair and is wearing a gray hoodie. His buddies are both blond, with dark blue pants and what might be green jackets—color is hard to tell in the dimness.

I hear the kind woman’s voice. “Roger, go home. You and your friends are drunk.”

“I need money,” Roger insisted. “Gimmie your take from tonight—I know you’re loaded.” “I will not,” the woman answered. “Now please, you’re making a scene.”

“I’m gonna bust your face if you don’t give me the money,” Roger warned.

That fired me up. I march up to where they are and shout, “Hey! What’s going on here?”

The three of them jump and turn towards me. Roger’s eyes narrow as he looks around. I look around too and realize just how isolated we are for the moment. “Little lady, keep walking if you know what’s good for you.”

“Wait, man,” one of the other guys says, “She might call the cops.”

I take a step back but Roger darts in and grabs my cart. “Oh, just a minute, little lady. Are you one of Santa’s helpers? Did you bring us presents?” He starts pawing through my bags.

“Leave her alone,” the plump woman says. She’s leaning out, a cell phone pressed to her ear. “Yes, Security?”

Cussing, Roger rushes at her and slaps the cell phone out of her hand. I hear her cry out in pain as the phone hits the pavement.

My temper shoots up. I grab the handles to my yellow bag and with a cry of outrage, charge forward, swinging it.

The guy closest to me jumps back. That gives me a clear shot at Roger, who’s just turning towards me when my bag, which contains soup cans among other items, smacks him in the side of the face.

He hollers—it sounds like a Christmas carol to my ears—and stumbles back. Someone grabs my arm from behind and I stomp on his toes with all my might. He yelps and lets me go.

I stand in front of the window to the food truck, swinging my bag. “Go away,” I tell the three of them. “Leave us alone.”


Roger shakes his head and winces. I see a lump forming on his temple. “There’s three of us and one of her. Come on!”

I gulp. I’m not fond of my odds at the moment. But maybe I can keep them busy until the nice woman can get away.

Then a sharp voice cuts through the chilly air. “Hold it right there!”

We all freeze. I let my eyes shift to my left. The guy at the self-checkout with the shirt and tie is standing there, a walkie-talkie in his hand and two guys wearing black uniforms behind him. “What’s going on here?”

The nice woman sticks her head out the window. “Hello, George. These three hoodlums were trying to rob me. This young lady stopped them.”

George sighs. “Are you okay, Millie?” When she nods, he turns to one of the black uniformed guys, and says, “Call the police. Let’s get them down here.”

Roger’s mouth hangs open. “Cops? Grandma, you can’t let them call the cops on me.”

Millie has tears in her eyes. “I hate to do it, but maybe it will wake you up, Roger. Your parents would be so disappointed in you if they were still alive.”

Roger looks devastated. “Grandma, please—it’s gonna be Christmas soon.”

George jerks his head towards Roger and his buddies, and the two uniforms lead them to the side of the building. Roger is blubbering.

I hear a soft sob behind me, and I see the Millie crying. “I’m sorry,” I say to her.

She pulls out a tissue and dabs her eyes. “He’s been in trouble before, but he never seems to learn. It breaks my heart to do this, but I was told it was for the best.”

George clears his throat. “Young lady,” he says, “is this your cart?”

I now know what a deer feels like when headlights hit it. “Um,” I mutter. He holds out his hand. “I need to see your receipt.”

I close my eyes briefly. It looks like Roger’s not the only one going to jail tonight. I pull out the receipt and hand it to George and put my yellow bag in the cart.

“What are you doing, George?” Millie asks. She’s watching him from her food truck. “Millie, this doesn’t concern you,” George says, kindly. “Young lady, there are a number

of things here not on this receipt. Did you think we wouldn’t notice you weren’t scanning some things?”


I swallow. What can I say? “I know. I—I don’t have any money for food. I lost my job this week.”

George doesn’t look stern at me like he did with Roger and the others. “Do you have any money? Can you pay for these things?”

“I need that money for rent,” I sniffle. “I—I’m sorry. If I put it back, will it be okay?” “George,” Millie says, “you aren’t seriously thinking of putting this girl in jail after what

she just did.”

“Shoplifting is a crime, Millie,” George says. “But you have a point.” Turning to me, he says, “Have you ever done something like this before?”

I shake my head. My stomach rumbles. I didn’t pay for much—but maybe I can just eat once a day or something to stretch it out.

“Okay,” George says. “I’m going to have the police run a background check on you. If you’re clean, you can have the food you paid for, but I’ll take the rest.”

I hear a door slam and Millie is coming around the food truck. She’s wearing a bulky green sweater and gray sweatpants. “George, let me see the cart.”

“Millie,” he says, “I’m not going to have her arrested if she doesn’t have a record.” “No, you’ll starve her instead,” Millie said. She looks over my cart. “George, there isn’t

much more than seventy-five dollars’ worth of items here.” “Shoplifting—”

“—is a crime, yes, I heard you.” Millie turns to me. “Young lady—I don’t even know your name, dear.”

“Jane Carson,” I say.

Millie smiles and lays a hand on my arm. “Jane, I’m going to pay for your groceries.” She turns to George. “That will satisfy the store, will it not?”

George looks thoughtful. “They won’t want her back in the store.”

“Understandable,” Millie said. “But they won’t press charges if the items are paid for?” He nods slowly. “Yeah. We’ll settle it up after we deal with your gang there.”

I’m stunned. “Ma’am…you don’t have to do that.”

“Hush, Jane,” Millie says. “You saved me from some unpleasantness, and I want to return the favor.” She steps over to where her cell phone lies and picks it up. She looks it over. “It appears the case protected it. That’s good. I don’t want to replace it.”


I’m stunned. Suddenly I’m not going to jail? And I’ll have food? “Ma’am, when I get another job, I’ll pay you back….”

“No, you won’t,” Millie says firmly. “This is a gift—a Christmas gift, if you like. You don’t pay back gifts.” She looks at me closely. “Will you be all right if I do this? You said you needed money for rent. What about utilities?”

“I’ll be okay,” I say quickly. I don’t want to burden her any more than she is.

She gives me a sharp look and I know I haven’t fooled her. “I will see what I can do.

There’s no point in feeding you if you don’t have a roof over your head.”

That’s too much. My throat gets a huge lump in it. “Ma’am…please…you’re doing enough as it is.”

“That’s for me to decide,” Millie says. Sirens sound in the distance. “I believe the police are near. Come sit with me in my truck, you’ll be warmer.”

I can’t help myself. I throw my arms around her as I start to cry. “Thank you,” I sob. “I don’t have anyone here. Thank you for caring.”

She pats my back. “You’re quite welcome. Now, get in the truck, your hands are like ice.” I get in the truck, finding a little bit of the Christmas spirit warming me. If I believed in

Santa Claus, I’d think Millie was his wife.

So, I have a shot at a Merry Christmas after all. That’s something to be thankful for.