“Oh, would you look at all those darlin’ children in their Halloween costumes?”
My friend, and coworker, Marge joined me to look out the front window of the Piggly Wiggly. The management of the shopping mall where our store was anchored invited school children to Trick-or-Treat with the merchants. School was out for the day and they were beginning to arrive in droves.
“Oh, yeah, Trixie, that little girl in the blue princess costume there sure is cute? And, look, some of their parents have dressed up, too.”
“Ladies, you have customers!” Dwayne, the manager, had noticed our absence from the checkout stands. “Back to work, girls. I’m not paying you to daydream out the window, and that goes double for you, Trixie.”
Marge mocked a salute as she returned to her register, “Yes, Chief.”
I remained a moment longer to look out the window. “I wanna be a princess.” There was no one there to hear my wish. I didn’t think there ever would be.
“I’m on it, Dwayne,” I called, even though he was midway through the store. Waiting alongside my checkout stand was a little girl sitting in the front portion of an empty shopping cart. Her mother had unloaded items and was looking at the titles of the magazines on the adjoining rack. I moved the various cans of food, fresh vegetables, and other sundry items as the belt conveyed them. Calling out the prices of each item from the gummed sticker, placed there by the night stocking crew, I simultaneously typed on the register with my right hand, seldom taking my eyes off the item held in my left.
Charlie, the box boy, had finished bagging for a customer at Marge’s register and moved over to work at mine. With a swift motion, he took the large folded brown paper bag, and with expert precision, snapped it in the air so the resulting rush would pop it open. “Double-bag your meat items, ma’am?” he asked each customer before filling the bag, heavy items on the bottom, delicate goods on top, placing it in the customer’s cart.
“That will be $37.85, Mrs. Martin.” While the woman filled out her check, I flirted with her, maybe four-year-old, little girl. “Aren’t you pretty in your costume. What are you? A little faerie?”
The child gestured to the gold colored, plastic tiara, set in her mess of fine curls, “I’m a princess. I have a crown.”
“I see, it’s beautiful”
“Now, Betty Ann, what did I tell you about playing with your tiara. Tsk-tsk, kids!” With precision, the woman tore off the check from the pad, “Here you go, Trixie.”
I typed on a few more buttons to trigger the release of the cash drawer. I placed the check under the tray and slammed shut the drawer with a resounding ding. “Here’s your receipt, Mrs. Martin, would you like Charlie to help you unload your groceries?”
“That would be nice. Charlie, I’ll even let you push the cart out to the car.”
Betty Ann waved goodbye and I waved back, as her mother left the store.
“You know, Trixie, Dwayne thinks you spend too much time fawning over the customers’ babies.” Marge had left her register and was now standing next to me at mine.
“Yeah, I know, but the way I look at it, I’m just making for good customer relations.”
“Well, you just tell yourself that the next time he barks at you to get back to work.”
My eyes went back to Betty Ann, in the parking lot, being lifted out the now empty shopping basket, and I sighed. “I want to be a princess.”
Marge had begun to walk back to her register when she spun around, “A what?”
“A princess, Marge, you know, with a crown and everything.”
My friend looked like she wanted to laugh, but her expression turned tender when she saw that I was serious.
“Well, Trix, unless you’re born one, as far as I know, you have to marry a prince. And other than the good-looking guy who manages the feed store down the street, I don’t think I know of anyone who even comes close to that description.”
“I know what you mean, Marge, but somehow, there’s a part of me missing and I’m sure I should be wearing a crown.”
Marge patted my shoulder and smiled before she returned to her register. “If you need a crown to make you feel like a princess, why don’t you buy yourself one?”
“Oh, you don’t buy yourself a crown. No, to be a real princess, you must be given one.” I don’t think Marge heard my reply as a customer was now standing between us with her purse open to make payment. I didn’t have long to dwell on it though as my line filled just as fast. “Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Gideon. Did you find everything you wanted?”
I had finished my lunch and crossed the hall from the breakroom to the ladies’ restroom to wash my hands. I applied fresh lipstick and curled my lips to see if the orange-red cream needed to be wiped off my teeth, when I heard the report. Even over the sound of the overhead fan, I could hear the single pop. It seemed a hundred times louder than Charlie’s bag opening trick.
I switched off the light, and with it the fan, before I opened the door. Gently, I pulled it and poked my head out into the hallway. There was the breakroom door ahead, the door to the cleaning closet to my right, the door to the men’s restroom on the left. All of them quiet with doors closed. I snaked my way out and tip-toed to the open end of the hall toward the store.
The store was strangely quiet, the recorded music provided by the main office played to the aisles absent of customers, though I swear I could hear crying. The back of my neck began to tingle, and the skin of my forearms turned to gooseflesh. “I’ve gotta be quiet and investigate.” Turning to my left, I positioned myself behind the display at the end of the aisle, but I wasn’t going to have a clear view of the front of the store from here. Staying low, I crept to the other end of the aisle, using the shelving for cover.
This got me closer to the front of the store, but still not with a good view. In front of me, was the produce table which ran perpendicular from the aisle I was in. What it did do was offer cover to move forward if I stayed below the shelved fruits and vegetables. On my hands and knees, I inched my way totally disregarding the lone strawberry that had fallen and been kicked under the shelf. Mumbled voices became louder … women crying … a man yelling, “I said keep your faces down. Don’t look at me! Don’t make me use this gun again.”
“The store is being robbed. I’ve got to get out of here.” Like a slap in the forehead, thoughts came fast and furious. “Back the way I came? Yeah, gotta hide. Oh, God, I think I’m gonna be sick!”
Still on my hands and knees, I retraced my route back to the restroom. Wanting to vomit and all I could think of was getting to the toilet, but it was then I heard the crying again, only this time it was different. It wasn’t the sound of frightened adults. It was softer, a quiet weeping followed by a shush.
Just as suddenly as it began, it stopped.
“The crying is behind me.” I moved backwards again while trying to keep my attention on the front of store. I crawled past the aisle I had originally been in until I was parallel with the next aisle over. It was all I could do to keep from crying myself when I saw the little boy of about ten in a policeman’s costume, and a girl of about seven, dressed as a mouse, ears, tail, and all.
The girl was huddled next to him, his arms wrapped around her, their baskets of candy on the floor beside them. They were doing their best to tuck into the lowest of the shelves. I saw them first, so I raised a finger to my lips and hoped they understood. Quickly raising their heads, they realized they had been discovered, yet remained silent.
I sat back, hidden by the table overhang, and strained to listen for what was happening with the robbery. From what I could tell, the manager was having difficulty opening the safe, so I laid on my stomach and crawled like a lizard to the children. When I had joined them, the girl made a small gulping sound, as if she were about to speak. I once again placed my finger to my lips as the boy seemed to catch on to my silent plea. He placed his hand over the girl’s mouth and nodded his understanding.
I nodded back and crawled past the children to the opposite end of the aisle, motioning for them to follow. I poked my head around the endcap to see if we were still alone. With a bump to my backside, I turned back in time to see the boy sit up and catch the girl in his arms. She evidently had followed too close and hadn’t time to stop.
I needed to make these children understand my plan, so with two fingers, I mimed walking to demonstrate how we should go around the corner to the right and then a sharp left into the hallway. They both nodded their understanding. Once more a finger to my lips, followed by a nod of the head, and then together we crawled out of the aisle.
I felt like a sheepdog as I pushed each child into the hallway before me. I placed a hand on the back of their heads to guide them towards the door marked Ladies’ Room, letting go of the girl’s head long enough to turn the handle on the door. She went in willingly, but the boy began to balk. I shoved him in and closed the door, locking it from the inside.
With a voice louder than a whisper, she whimpered, “It’s dark in here!”
“Ouch, don’t push, Cindy! I can’t see anything either.”
I turned on the light, which started the whirling of the overhead fan. “Shush, we have to whisper. I’m sorry, there’s not much room in here.”
Going from dark to light caused the children to wince. “You work here, don’t you, lady?”
“Yes, sir. My name is Trixie. I take it her name is Cindy ‘the Mouse’, but who are you ‘Officer’, her brother?”
He put his arm around his sister, “Yeah, I’m Tommy. Is the store being robbed?”
I put my hand up and placed my ear to the door before turning back to whisper, “Yes, I think it is. We need to hide until it is all over, but we need to be quiet, so only talk in whispers, okay?”
Tommy nodded as Cindy clung fast to her brother, in a timid voice she asked, “Are you here to hide us?”
Kneeling down to look her in the eye, I smiled, “Yes, Cindy, I am. See here on my nametag, under where it says ‘Trixie’? It says, ‘How may I help you today?’ and today, I’m going to help hide you.”
Cindy reached out with a pudgy finger to trace the engraving on my badge as if she were reading Braille. I could see her shoulders relax, for even though she was probably too young to read it, just touching the piece of plastic seemed to reassure her.
“Is your mother out there, or were you two alone in the store?”
“Mom’s in the mall with our brothers. Cindy had to go pee, so she told me to take her, ‘cause you guys have a clean bathroom.”
“Did you get to go, Cindy?”
“I don’t have to go anymore, Trixie. I don’t know if I ever want to go pee, again.”
The child’s simple comment brought me the first hopeful feeling I’d had in what felt like an eternity. I smiled and placed a hand on the shoulder of each child, “We’re going to have to stop talking and turn off the fan, so the robber doesn’t hear us if he comes this way. That also means, the lights turn off, so we will be in the dark again. Do you understand?”
Cindy must’ve panicked because she forgot to whisper, “But, I’m scared of the dark, Tommy!”
“Tommy will protect you, and I’ll protect Tommy, okay?”
She nodded, her eyelids pooled with unshed tears.
“Now, you both have to do exactly what I say. Cindy, I want you to fit yourself under the sink and into the corner there. Make yourself small, like the mouse you are. Good girl.”
Now, I addressed Tommy, my hands on his shoulders so I could look him in the eyes. “Tommy, you’re the big brother, the protector. I need you to wedge yourself down there too, in front of your sister.
“There, that’s a good boy.”
From behind Tommy, a little voice squeaked, “Where are you going to be, Trixie?”
I kept my hand on Tommy’s knee to guide me as I reached up to switch off the light. “I’m going to be down here with you, Little Mouse.” I hoped my tone would soothe her worry. “Officer Tommy is here to protect you, and I’ll be in front to protect both of you.
“Okay, you guys scrunch in as tight as possible because I’m going to hide under the sink, too.” Then the room went dark.
“Trixie, I’m not really a mouse, and Tommy’s not really a policeman.”
“I know, Cindy, I know.”
“What are you really, Trixie?”
I thought before answering. “I have to say something hopeful for her to cling to.” “Cindy … I’m really a princess, and you two are my subjects. As a princess, it’s my job to protect my subjects; and as my subjects, it is your job to do as I command. Right now, I command for us all to sit quietly and wait.”
“Darkness has a way of distorting time. How long have we been here?” We sat huddled together in silence, but occasionally one child, or the other, complained about the onset of a cramp or someone’s elbow poking through, but I calmly shushed them and whispered words of encouragement.
The sink was in the corner, with the mirror above. If the door was opened, the first thinking anyone could see would be their own reflection, that is, if the light stayed out. I had Cindy wedged into the corner, with Tommy next to her, their backs against the same wall. Like her, he had pulled his knees up to his chest as they sat holding hands, her head on his shoulder and his on hers.
I curled up next to him as best I could. Occasionally, my legs would cramp like the children’s. “I must stay positive. I can’t let the children know I’m scared”. But it was hard to do when a silent tear ran down my cheek. I stroked the hair on their heads, I hoped it brought them as much comfort as it did me.
“I want Mommy! I’m scared, Tommy, where’s Mommy?” Cindy’s voice grew louder with each word.
Her brother did his best to be brave for his sister, “Shush, Cindy! I want Mommy, too, but we can’t let the bad man hear us.”
“Are we gonna die, Tommy?”
“I don’t think so—we’re not really going to die, are we Trixie?”
“No, no, of course not.” I’m glad we were sitting in the dark, at least they couldn’t see worry on my face. “Shush, now, listen to me. Your mommy is safe, and we’ll be too, but we have to stay quiet.”
I put my arm around both children and softly began to hum, “Hush, Little Baby.”
“I’m not a baby!”
“No, no, of course not,” I whispered, “you’re Cindy’s protector. But, I’m nervous, and for all of us to be safe right now, we need to be calm and quiet as possible. It calms me down to hum, so please, let me hum to you. Okay?”
As I started humming again, I could feel tension leave their shoulders. I imagined these were my own children cradled in my arms.
“Wait, I thought I heard something over here!”
It was a man’s voice, somewhat muffled, but a man for sure. I stopped humming and got up on my knees to face the children. “Be quiet now. I promised I’d protect you.” Still on my knees, I draped by body over their quaking bodies until my head touched the wall.
“You check the breakroom and the cleaning closet, I’ll check the cans.”
We could hear conversation outside our door along with the opening and closing of doors. “No one in here,” responded one of them.
The sound of the fan in the Men’s Restroom started as someone turned on the light in there; but, just as quickly it went off. “Yeah, no one in here either.” He’s standing outside our door.
“The closet is empty too, all’s that left is the powder room.”
By now both children had begun to whimper, and little could I blame them, as my silent tears were dripping on the back of heads tucked between their knees.
The handle to the door of their hiding place shook. “Hey, this door’s locked,” he called out.
“Okay, I’ve got you covered,” assured the other man.
I flinched with every pound on the door. It felt like lightening down my spine.
“Open up or I’ll kick this door down!”
I bumped by head on the sink as I turned to call out, “Wait, wait!” “The children, think of the children.” I turned back to them, and with as much calm as I could muster said, “Remember, I will protect you.” Still on my knees, I reached over to release the lock on the handle. The light for the hallway blinded me as the door swished open. “Don’t shoot, I have children in here!” On came the light, along with the overhead fan which overwhelmed the small room with light and sound.
“Hands in the air!” barked the policeman, his gun drawn. “What the, Sam, there’s a woman with kids in here, get some help!” Confusion showed on his face when he saw me kneeling before him, my back towards the sink.
“Mommy, we want Mommy!”
“Don’t shoot us!” pleaded Tommy.
The first policeman holstered his gun and grabbed my upper arm to lift me to my feet. “Who are you, lady?”
Even though I heard him ask the question all I could say, over and over, as he led me to the front of the store, “The children, I had to protect the children.”
“Trixie!” It was Marge who cried out as she pushed past the myriad of people at the front of the store. No one else seemed to notice our approach. They must’ve been giving statements to either the police or the press. But my friend abandoned all the others for my side as she threw her arms around my neck. “Trixie, thank God, you’re safe!”
“You know this woman, ma’am?” asked the officer, his hand still gripped around my arm.
“Yes, yes, this is Trixie Neumann, she works here. Oh, you can let go of her. Trixie, we were robbed. I’ve never been more frightened, and when we couldn’t find you—oh, Trixie, we thought he had killed you!”
As I listened to Marge ramble, it all seemed surreal as a calm draped over me like a cloak. “I know, Marge, I had to protect the children.”
“Children, what children”
I turned in time to steady myself to keep from being bowled over by Tommy as he threw himself at me.
“Put me down, I have to hug Trixie, too!” insisted Cindy as she wiggled down from the arms of another officer.
I knelt and hugged both children with a fierceness I had never known.
“The kids told us about how you hid them and kept them safe, miss.” It was the second officer corroborating the events.
“Tommy! Cindy! Let me through, those are my children.” An anxious woman commanded from the front of the store as she squeezed through onlookers.
“Mommy!” Both children cried out as they pulled away from my arms and into those of the woman calling their names.
They closed the Piggly Wiggly for the rest of that day, and the next, but it opened on November 2nd with all the fanfare and hoopla of a Grand Opening. District management offered us the option of taking time off, unpaid of course, for as long as we needed “to overcome any emotional distress incurred from the ordeal of being robbed at gunpoint” the memo had read. Many thought Dwayne would’ve taken them up on their offer after his continual comment to anyone who would listen, “My life passed before my eyes when I heard him cock the trigger!” But, he was a company man, and with it being his store, “wasn’t going to let any punk push him around.” Though thankfully no one was hurt, the armed man in the Halloween mask, made off with several thousand dollars.
I think they were surprised when I showed up for my shift, though it felt surreal being there. I performed my job with my usual efficiency, but gone was any hint of effervescence. I finished every transaction with the same flat, “Thank you, come again,” totally ignoring the children in the shopping carts.
I knew they were talking about me. I would catch them whispering to each other while looking my way. I imagined even Marge and Charlie probably thought I was in shock and pitied me. “What do you think is going to happen when she comes back from lunch, like she did the day of the robbery? Do you think she’s going to cry?” I’d looked and see the others murmuring. Often, Marge would just shrug her shoulders or shake her head before they noticed my watching.
Fortunately, I didn’t have time to dwell on the concerns of my coworkers due to the steady stream of shoppers. It felt like the entire community was showing support by purchasing their groceries today. Eventually, the atmosphere become electric with the arrival of a local television van in our parking lot. “Must be here to cover the re-opening of the store for the 10:00 o’clock news.”
Marge hid behind a large poster advertising a sale of rump roast while she looked out at the crowd. “Look at all them gawking at the reporter. Don’t they realize this is just another day, like every day?”
“You’d better get back to your register. Dwayne may be busy, but you don’t want him to catch you away from the register and say something in front of all these big shots,” I warned.
“What’s with you, Trixie? You’ve been acting…uh…different all day.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Marge, I just don’t think I have anything to really be happy about.”
“There she is, Mommy! That’s Trixie!”
I turned in time to see Cindy run up to my register. I kneeled and opened my arms to catch her, we held each other with our bodies rocking side-to-side.
“Oh, come here you!” I opened an arm to embrace her brother. I wrapped an arm around each child. “I thought I’d never see you guys again.”
“Actually, it was hard to keep them away.” The voice belonged to the children’s mother, a blonde woman with a smile very much like her children’s. Behind her was Dwayne and the district manager. Behind them, pushing a double-wide baby stroller filled with twin toddlers, was a man who resembled Tommy. Completing the entourage was the reporter from the parking lot and his camera man.
Dwayne spoke in a genuine tone of sincerity I had never heard him use before. “Trixie, this is Mr. and Mrs. Arnott, they have come to thank you personally for helping their children.”
I kept a hand on the shoulder of each child as I slowly stood. “Anybody would have done what I did. There’s no need to make a big deal.”
Without warning Mrs. Arnott embraced me, pinning my arms, as she spoke loud enough for only me to hear, “Thank you for saving my babies.”
I pulled away, embarrassed from all of the attention, “I—I didn’t do anything, really. We just found a place to hide ‘til it all blew over.”
“What you did was risk your life to save others. That is the noblest of gestures in my book.” Mr. Arnott joined our conversation with his compliment, in his hands a small box. “Our children told us everything that happened; the hiding, your humming, even how you shielded them with your body.”
“We came by to say thank you and give you a gesture of our gratitude,” added his wife.
I’m sure I was blushing with everyone looking. I shook my head, “I don’t require anything other than hugs from these sweeties.”
“But we want to give you a present, Trixie,” chimed Cindy. “Give it to her, Daddy!”
Mr. Arnott held the box before his wife, so she could lift the hinged lid. I gasped when I saw the fine tiara of white gold, with its diamond chips mounted to resemble the center of flowers inside the silver-toned filigree. The sound of a collective “ah” could be heard from those looking on, including the people looking in from outside the window when Mrs. Arnott held it up.
“The children told us that you were a princess who was ready to protect her subjects with her life.”
“Oh, ma’am, I said that to calm them.”
“But, Trixie, you said …”
Tommy pushed at his sister, “Not now, Cindy. Let Mommy talk.”
“Still, like my husband said, it was a noble gesture, and we’d like you to have this crown to remember that you are, and always will be, our princess.” The noise was deafening with the applause, whistles, and whoops from the staff and customers, inside and out. Mrs. Arnott placed the tiara on my head, making sure to center the design above my tear-filled eyes.
I released my grasp on the children to feel the metal ring. It felt cool and smooth as it rested in my hair. The crowd was shaking hands and slapping each other’s backs, when my friend ran up to me smiling. As she threw her arms around me, I said, “Oh, look, Marge, I’m a princess!”
P.A. O’Neil has been writing professionally for four years. In that time, her stories have been featured in multiple anthologies (many of them international best-sellers), as well as on-line journals and magazines from several continents. She released her first collection, Witness Testimony and Other Tales, in April 2020 in both ebook and paperback. It has met with great success. She and her husband reside in Olympia, Washington, with her adult children living nearby. Links to stories she has had published online, go to her Publication Resume in the Notes section of her FB page, for links to books which feature her stories, look under the Photo section. Follow her career on the Facebook author page, or visit her Amazon author page: P.A. O’Neil.