*Warning, this story contains strong subject matter that some readers may find upsetting. Reader's discretion is advised.
I pulled my jacket closed as the cold autumn wind whipped through the parking lot of Chick-A-Dee store. I put on my tacky, neon orange, employee vest. It reads “How can I help you?” across the back. Right, as if I can help people while I’m chasing run away carts. Not that it stops them from asking. I pull my sandy brown hair into a pony tail, and sigh. I close my eyes for a moment, wondering how I can make this more fun. Did I say chasing carts? I meant…wild horses! I’m a cowgirl in a warm, southern prairie, gathering wild horses to tame. I mount the bucking steed and gallop through the field, letting out a “woohoo!” as we approached the (cart) corral.
“Miss? Hello, mi…AH!!”
I snap out of my day dream to see the small, elderly woman lying on the asphalt. I had apparently just knocked her over. I quickly dismount the cart.
“Oh my gosh I’m so sorry m’am!” I reach out my hand to help her up, but she shoos it away.
She gets up slowly. “Young lady you’d better watch where you’re going! I was just about to ask for help getting some items in my car and you damn near broke my hip! I’m going to have a talk with your manager about your reckless gallivanting!”
I’d try to changing her mind, but I’m afraid I’ll make it worse. My first job and I’m already blowing it. Chick-a-dee is the only places that will hire 14 year olds, because they’re the only major store within 20 miles of this dusty old town and they need all the help they can get. Now I’ll have to deal with my manager, Robert, and his “I expect better from you” speech. Gag.
I shuffle slowly across the lot to deal with “the wrath of Robert” when the wind picks up again, and I’m smacked in the face by a crumpled paper. I smooth it out, and examine the writing.
So, Plan Foil
Hot on trail
Con Sol Tom
Run Out Cov
Can Dye Twice BB
FFS Lett Bomb work
Not Safe, P
I stare for a minute, totally confused. Clearly it’s an encryption, and the author intended to confuse anyone but the recipient. But they’ve never met Alice Turner before. I am an excellent sleuth! Plan foiled…wash pod… what if this is some extra-terrestrial level stuff?? We could have a men in black situation on our hands. That’d blow this dumb town topsy-turvy wouldn’t it?
I’m pulled from my thoughts when I see Robert, storming out of the store. Coming to address me, no doubt. I try to look as nonchalant as possible.
“Well hey there Robbo, how’s your day?” Oof. That couldn’t have come out worse.
“Not so great, Alice.” He looks down on me with that “disapproving dad” type stare. “I just had a customer complaint about you. An elderly woman just told me when she attempted to ask you for help, you ignored her, then hit her with a shopping cart. Do you want to explain that to me?”
I meet his gaze, crossing my arms. “Sir, I did NOT ignore her, I didn’t know she was talking to me since I was busy putting the carts away. As far as hitting her, I would NEVER do anything like that on purpose, I was daydreaming to make things a little more interesting and I guess I didn’t see her. I tried to apologize but she ran in to tell you!”
He’s still upset. Right, professionalism and ownership…I try again
“I’m sorry if I reflected poorly on Chick-a-dee today sir, it won’t happen again.”
He softens finally. “Alice, you have to be more aware of your surroundings. I know working in a store, even one as exciting as the Chick-a-Dee mart, can be dull. But you have to be conscious of how you’re treating customers and your job. Just a few days ago I saw you on camera, “day dreaming” while restocking our toiletries aisle. I know you can do better than that.”
Little did he know I was laying down bricks for my sturdy house to keep the big bad wolf out, not REALLY stacking shampoo bottles. But it’s probably best I keep that to myself.
I chuckle nervously. “I guess that’s what comes from being raised by literary minds! We’re daydreamers. Heck, I’m named after one of the biggest daydreamers in novel history! But I got it sir, no more chasing white rabbits in my head, I’ll try to do better.”
He glares down at my hand, still clenching the mystery note. “What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Nothing!” I shout, crumpling it further and putting my hands behind me. “Erm…Some trash I found in the lot. Just trying to keep Chick-a-dee a happy, clean place!” I say with a fake, plastered grin.
Robert smiles at me. “Excellent. That’s what I like to hear. He nods at me before going back in the store.
That was a close one. I study the note again. Hot On Trail….Con Sol Tom…Run Out Cov…Was someone chasing them? Maybe they were discovered and that’s why the plan was foiled. Are they hiding out in some sort of Cove until this blows over? I mean, North Dakota is pretty landlocked, maybe it stands for “run out of cover” like they have nowhere to hide…And who’s Tom? Maybe it’s their superior? Or…supreme leader…This is crazy. There’s so many possibilities. Each one of them is even bigger than the last, and only leaves me begging for answers. The rest of my shift is difficult to get through. I’m crawling out of my skin until I can get home to do some research. I’m hanging up my orange vest in the back room, about to clock out, when I hear a familiar voice, talking to Robert.
“Literary minds? Jesus Christ, I’m an accountant. And Alice, like Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland? Is that what she told you? My god that girl is absolutely off her rocker. SHE may be from Wonderland, but I assure you the rest of us are NOT Mr. Goldstein. Alice was named for her late mother’s father, Alastor Higgins. We had planned to name a son after him, but when it became clear my previous wife would not be able to carry another child, and the one she was pregnant with was a girl, we adapted. I can’t believe Alice is telling lies about her namesake. I’m so sorry for any trouble she caused Mr. Goldstein. I will deal with her.”
It’s dad. Crap.
“Please, call me Robert. We are a family here at Chick-a-dee. Alice didn’t cause any trouble, and I would be none the wiser Kevin. No harm done. I was just concerned for Alice’s mental health with all the day dreaming she does. Maybe she could look into counsi…”
“Please, call ME Mr. Turner. My family is at home, where I’ll be taking Alice now. She’s already spoiled the dinner her stepmother made by spreading more nonsense. It’ll be a miracle if I can get our sons to settle after the ruckus this will cause. And as much as I appreciate your…concern…for my child, I assure you, she is fine. She is on medication for her…delusions. She just forgets to take it sometimes. Shame we can’t discipline them with the old belt like we got in our day. That’d make her right as rain”
Robert looks horrified. He starts to open his mouth to respond, but I immerge from the back to save him from the war he doesn’t know he’s about to wage.
“He..hey dad. I thought I was taking the bus today?” I pretend I didn’t hear any of their chat, and Robert straightens his face.
“Do you want the ride or not? Let’s go. Tracey is already very upset and I won’t add to it by being late.” He motions me toward the door. I give a silent nod to Robert, who gives a cheery “See you tomorrow Alice, nice meeting you Mr. Turner.” Dad scoffs, and shoves me out the automatic doors.
I reach for my seatbelt in the 1987 red El Camino. Dad stomped his cigarette into the asphalt before coughing and getting in himself. Great, another thing I’ll have to clean up tomorrow.
He starts the car, and turns to me with a sharp death glare.
“You listen to me and you listen good. You will NOT stir up trouble for this family. Do you understand me? What the hell are you thinking, making shit up so you sound like a goddamn nut job? Do you know what they do to nut jobs Alice? They’ll dope you up on medications far worse than what you’re on, that turn your brain to mush, then they put you in a strait jacket so tight you can’t breathe, and lock you in a room with padded walls, until you bash your head off them so many times you break your neck. And nobody cares, or misses you, because you’re just a pain in the ass. So you just keep your mouth shut, and cut the crap before I have the police on my doorstep. I am NOT your mother. I won’t tolerate it. Understood?”
I put on my best stone face, even though my insides are screaming, and nod. I wouldn’t know what my mother would, or wouldn’t tolerate…she died giving birth to me. I wish I got to know her. I wish I got to be with her now. I bet she was loving and kind and imaginative like me. I bet losing a woman that great is what drove daddy off the deep end. It must be hard having a reminder of her always around. Lord knows my stepmother, Tracey, is nothing like that. She is the spitting image of the evil step mother from fairy tale stories
We pull up to the single level ranch house. It isn’t much, certainly not large enough to accommodate the five of us. And I have the smallest room.
I unbuckle my seatbelt, and dad grabs me. “Alice, I’m sorry. I know you think I’m angry just to be angry. I know I don’t show it, but I love you. You’re just like your mother, inside and out, and that gets incredibly hard for me. But we have been through so much, and I don’t need your manager calling child services because he thinks we don’t take care of you. You need to be taking your Clozapine. I know you only take it when things get bad, but it needs to be every day now. In fact, any time you start getting in your head and that fantasy world of yours, I want you to take one. I’ll get the script refilled after dinner. Understood?”
“Yes dad.” I mumble back. I haven’t seen a doctor, or a psychiatrist in years, but dad’s doctor is a “family friend” and treats me under the table. He says if mama was schizophrenic, chances are I am too, and we’d better “nip that in the bud”. I am suddenly aware of the note from the parking lot, burning a hole in my pocket. “Uh, dad? I’m really not hungry, I think I’m gonna go to my room and lay down. Okay?”
“Alright. I’ll leave the medication on your nightstand when I pick it up”
I run to the back of the house toward my room, hoping to bypass Tracey and the boys. I’m anxious to do some research on this note. I know she called my name, but I just walk faster, like I didn’t hear. Finally. I shut my door, and grab my laptop off my desk and flop on my bed before examining the note again.
I go to the most interesting part. Can Dye Twice BB. FFS Lett Bomb Work. Not Safe. P. There’s a big, dark scribble between Can and Dye. Obviously they mean die. I feel like the word “not” was in the scribble’s place once. But what can’t die? And did they discover it could and crossed that part out? Or had they failed their mission once before and could not fail again? Let bomb work…A plea, clearly. I google “bomb testing sites near ND”. Several articles about Nevada and nuclear testing…but nothing useful. This is clearly top secret and hidden well. I’ve been digging for nearly 3 hours before there’s a knock on my door.
“Al, I’m gonna leave these here for you, I want you to take one before bed. Got it?”
“Got it. Thanks dad” I call back. I pop my head out and retrieve my pills from the side table in the hall. Take one…no, two. It’s been bad today.
I get back to my search. Look up “Coves near ND”. Google spits back “5 of North Dakota’s greatest beaches” UGH! I’ll have to get a little smarter, dig a little deeper, I’ll have to….have to…Sleep.
Alice….Alice…come back my love. Come back to me here…
The alarm is blaring. I unstick my cheek from the keyboard. What was that noise? I try to ground myself as I rub my eyes and look toward the clock. Must’ve been a dream. Crap. 6:47. I have to be to school in 15 minutes. I throw on dirty clothes and toss my pills in my bag. The whole day feels like a blur. I’m finding it so hard to focus. But I have to try. Ten minutes into third period, I excuse myself to take my medicine. This will help, I think. Before I know it the bell is ringing, and I’m on the bus to Chick-a-dee mart. I walk through the automatic doors, through the back curtain. Have to relax. No weirdness today.
“Cashier duty today kiddo!” It’s Robert. I nod, taking my orange vest from him.
“Please go get the till for register 8, and get ready.” He says before going to the front podium. I take a big gulp of water, and take one…no…two pills. Need to be on my best behavior today.
I put the till in the register drawer and close it. Flick my light on. “Open for business!” I call out, and a heavy set woman with a beehive hairdo starts putting her items on the belt. I usually try to make a game out of the things people buy if I’m on register. But not today. Today I just grab the like items, scan, and bag them. Soap. Laundry pods. Hair dye. *beep* Outlet Covers. Notebook. Safety pins. *beep* Carpet runners.
New bag. Food this time. Plantains. Hot sauce. Trail Mix *beep* Tomato. French fries. Lettuce. Onion. Potatoes. *beep*
“Foil with your food or household items m’am?”
“Food.” She mumbles, looking at the items next to the belt. “This too, please. Out of the bag”
She places a lip balm on the belt, and I scan it and hand it back.
“$62.98 please” I tell her as I put the bags in her cart. I glance over as she’s filling out her check. The paper under her check book reads “So, Plan, Foil, Hot, on, trail, Wash Pod…”
I left out a soft gasp, and she notices me staring. “My grocery list. I rattled things off to my husband as I was getting ready because I lost my list yesterday and apparently I was talking too fast both times because his list is barely coherent. I couldn’t find my contact solution, or a bath bomb for my co-worker’s gift. How inconvenient…”
I nod and apologize. A grocery list. I’ve been obsessing over a grocery list this entire time. Maybe dad is right. Maybe I belong in one of those padded rooms where someone throws away the key. I wish her a nice day, and flick my light off. Robert notices and walks over.
“Alice? Everything okay?”
“No sir. Not feeling well. I need to leave”
He stares at me, but nods, and I hang up my vest and walk to the corner to catch the bus. I could’ve asked dad for a ride, but I need to think. I take another pill. I only took one today and it seemed to help. I sneak through the door, but dad and Tracey are fighting, and I don’t think they noticed me anyway. I can hear Tracey yelling.
“I don’t care if she’s your daughter, she’s a wackjob and I don’t want her around my sons.”
“Our sons.” Pleads dad. “Trace, you don’t get…”
I shut my door. I don’t want to hear any more. Just take one more pill, for good measure, and lay down, and be “normal” for dad.
I wake on a crowded subway. Where am I? New York, maybe? Dad took me there a long time ago, once. We went to FAO Schwartz. I picked out a stuffed elephant. I have him clutched in my hand now, as I remember his big floppy ears, and soft fur. It’s filled with people, but I can’t make out any faces, except one. A petite woman with sandy brown hair, and a face that’s soft and inviting. She’s staring out the window, until she notices me. She waves, and her identity suddenly dawns on me. Mom?! I shout, as I run toward her. She’s illuminated in a bright white light, and turns to extend her arms out to me. “My Alice girl. I’m so happy to see you.” I bury my face into her soft white dress and cry.
“It’s okay baby. You’re safe now. It’s alright.”
“Mom…dad’s gone crazy. I just want to stay in this dream with you, where everything feels safe and happy again.”
“Just let go of all that pain now sweetheart. Don’t you worry about dad, he’ll be fine.” She takes my hand, and guides me toward the exit to the station with bright, beaming sunlight shining out of it. “You’re here with me now, and I have someone who’d really like to meet you.”