Roy took a deep breath and drummed his fingers rhythmlessly on the donation counter. It used to be all white but there was a big smear right in the middle where the paint had long worn off – a sign of the overbearing generosity of the patrons. Which meant this was a very important counter to be manning.
He looked down at his nametag and then caught his manager, Bill, out of the corner of his eye. Bill’s face was solemn – he was on duty after all – but he gave Roy the thumbs up. Roy nodded and took another deep breath. His heart was galloping, and why not? This was his first shift at his first job. Everything depended on this.
Suddenly he froze when he spotted a woman approaching. She wore a voluminous purple coat, an extravagant violet hat with lace and a flower cocked to one side, and she carried a sizeable cardboard box done up rudely with masking tape. Her heels clacked as she made her way to the counter and her giant pearl earrings swayed like tiny wrecking balls, but when she spotted him and smiled a toothy smile he felt a wave of relief.
Bill had told him donations was mission critical, but it was also turnkey. People loved being generous, all you had to do was respect them for it and take their stuff. Easy peasy.
“Hello!” she said, warbling it. She set the box down on the counter and leaned toward his nametag. Her breath smelled of something sweet masking something not. “…Roy. Good afternoon, Roy.” Up close she was spindly tall, standing nearly a head above him.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he said.
She placed a delicate hand, bony fingers trembling under heavy rings, onto the top flaps of the box. “I have a tiny bit of a donation to make today. I do so wish it were more, but alas it’s all we had.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Roy said. Then he cleared his throat. “I mean, every little bit helps, Ma’am! We really appreciate it. We wouldn’t be here without generous people like you.”
She gave a throaty laugh, and her assorted pearl necklaces clicked against each other. “Well. I have some baby clothes to drop off. We simply shan’t be needing them anymore, you see, and there’s no reason they should go to waste.”
She slid the box over to him with some gruntful effort and something inside it thumped. Perhaps there were toys in there as well?
“That’s very kind of you, Ma’am.” Roy lifted the flaps. “You’re right, of course, there’s lots of people who – holy what the crap!”
“Yes?” she said, smiling her toothy grin, her head constantly bobbing up and down. “Is something amiss?”
“There’s a baby in here!” It was a jolly, pudgy little thing in a blue onesie.
The lady raised her brows. “Yes, baby clothes. I believe that’s what I said. Is the issue that they’re the wrong colour?”
“No, I mean there’s a real live baby in here!” Roy gestured to the box and then ran his hand through his hair. The baby looked up at him and smiled, giggling once or twice. Roy looked around but couldn’t see Bill anywhere. The employee handbook never covered any of this.
The lady, still grinning and nodding at him, approached the box and peered into it. She slid one hand into it and poked at the contents with her long, chipped nails.
“No,” she said, drawing it out, “I don’t think so…” The baby giggled again as her prodding nails tickled it.
“It’s right there!” Roy said. “You’re touching it!”
She took a step back. “Well now, Roy, there’s hardly any call for shouting. I daresay, youths used to be a mite more respectful in my day.”
Roy’s mouth moved up and down but he couldn’t make a sound. Couldn’t think of what to say. Then a short, spherical man waddled up to the counter. He wore a tweed three-piece suit and a brown bowler, and had an umbrella in the crook of his arm. His mole face was perpetually scrunched up as he squinted at everything through his pince-nez, and his mouth never quite closed since he seemed to breathe through it exclusively. A kind of scraggly beard ran from one ear, through the nostrils, and into the other ear, never quite touching the chin.
“I say, love, whatever is the hold up?” he said. With his free hand he adjusted his pince-nez. “I’d dearly love to make it to the château in time for the matinée.”
“Yes, love,” she said, still grinning and either shaking her head or nodding it. “Well, to be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure what the issue is. Is the box the wrong colour?”
“No, of course not! The problem is there’s a baby in the box!” Roy said.
She looked at her husband and shrugged.
Roy made an exasperated sound.
“The wrong colour?” the man said. He snorted. “Well, that’s preposterous, I think.” He turned to Roy and cleared his throat, and it rumbled deep with the promise of phlegm. “Excuse me, ah…” and he leaned in and squinted twice as hard.
“Roy,” Roy said.
“Benjamin,” the man said, triumphantly. “Now, Benjamin, I’ll have you know, we have our pick of donation counters in this city, and we continue to choose this one out of the fond, sentimental memories we have of donations past. But I must say, the level of service has been starkly lacking of late – declining, in fact – and I’m not at all convinced we’ll continue our patronage.”
Roy felt a wave of panic. The employee handbook was very clear about how important donator retention was. “I’m so sorry, sir,” he rattled off, “I assure you we appreciate and value your continued donations, and I promise to address all your concerns to restore your faith in our establishment.”
“Well, that’s what I like to hear,” the man said. “So now, tell me, what exactly is the hold up? We’d like to donate these baby clothes and move on with our day.”
Roy licked his lips, drummed the counter. The man continued squinting at him and the woman continued her bobbing grin. Roy took a sharp breath.
“Well, sir, the issue is that there’s a baby in this box of baby clothes.”
“A what?” he said, and then he looked at his wife dubiously. She shook her head and frowned – but just for a moment. Then the toothy grin was back.
“A baby, sir. A tiny human.”
The woman and man both leaned over the box, and then leaned into it. They examined it for what felt like hours before surfacing again, and the man’s breathing became loud and wet, the well of phlegm gurgling deep within him. They finally rose and once more looked at each other. He shook his head uncomprehendingly, she shrugged again, and they whispered something back and forth in their married shorthand.
Finally the man turned to Roy again. “Are you certain?”
“Yes,” Roy said, teeth clenched. He stuck his hand into the box and pointed to the baby. “See this? This thing right here? This is a baby.”
“Hmm,” the man said, his furry brow furrowed.
“Did you hear that?” Roy said. “The giggling? That was the baby, just now. You can see its mouth move. See – oh, look at that, the baby just grabbed my finger. And now it’s laughing.”
Husband and wife shared one more dubious look and then examined the box again.
“Oh,” the man said, and then rising, “Oh! I think I understand what the issue is now.”
Roy let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and smiled. “Yes, finally!”
“So,” the woman said, “is it that the baby is the wrong colour?”
“What!?” Roy said, his voice cracking. He grabbed his hair with both hands, and husband and wife took a step back. “No, the problem is that this is a box of baby clothes with a baby in the baby clothes!”
The man harrumphed. “Well, of course there’s a baby in the baby clothes. I’ll have you know, these are very fine baby clothes.”
“We only donate the best things,” the woman said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “It’s perfectly natural for a baby to want the best clothes. It must have seen our donation and wanted to purchase it for its own wardrobe.”
Roy strangled a howl of frustration, turning red in the face. He suspected he was about to say something regrettable, something fireable, but just at that moment Bill arrived with a beaming smile.
“Hello!” Bill said in sing-song, addressing the donators. “I trust all your needs are being met today.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, not especially,” said the man.
Still smiling, Bill grabbed Roy by the arm – hard. Then through clenched teeth, he said, “Whatever is the issue, Roy? We don’t want to keep our donators waiting.”
Roy pulled himself free and gestured wildly to the box. “There’s a baby in the box! They’re trying to donate a baby!”
Bill motioned behind Roy and Roy followed his gaze. The wall behind the donations counter was plastered with a giant The Customer’s Are “Always” Right sign, just like in the employee handbook. Then Bill hissed under his breath, “I put you on donations as a favour. Don’t make me regret it.”
Bill turned to the husband and wife, took the box from them, and apologized. Then he stamped their frequent donator cards, and they exchanged some final pleasantries before going on their way.
As soon as they were out of sight, Bill’s smile vanished. He thrust the box into Roy’s arms.
“Don’t argue with donators,” he said. “Now, go and shelve this stuff.”
“But there’s a baby in here!” Roy hissed.
Bill looked into the box. “Okay? Just put it with the others I guess.”
“What!? We don’t sell babies here!” Then a chill went down Roy’s spine. “Wait, do we sell babies here?”
Bill was already walking away, another customer flagging him down. He turned for some parting words. “Roy, figure it out, all right? You said you didn’t need supervision in your interview. I’m going to have to dock you hours if you continue goofing around.”
Roy just stood there, holding the box, for what felt like an eternity. When he looked down he saw the tiny baby waving its hands and feet playfully, and it smiled up at him.
* * *
“But I couldn’t just leave you there,” Roy said, “for some stranger to buy, so I brought you home. I probably spent a week trying to convince Mom and Dad to keep you – I mean, my Mom and Dad, of course, they’re not your parents – and in the end they finally agreed.”
Jill, his baby sister, bloodless white with saucer eyes, stared up at him unblinking.
“But they said, She’s your responsibility. One strike and she’s out!”
Her jaw hung slack, trembling just the slightest. Her teddy dropped from her listless hand.
“Now, I want to keep you, but Mom and Dad’s word is the law. So, if I ever catch you in my room again then that’s it. We’ll have to take you back to the store.”
Roy grinned at her, tousled her hair, and returned to his room without even slamming the door. Jill remained motionless in the hall, her eyes watering.