Fiction Coming of Age Contemporary

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: Mild foul language

Climbing the Ladder

               Darcy Miller turned eighteen last Thursday. There was no party, no cake, and no family or friends. There was no gift for her, except that she could claim her rank amongst the millions of kids who had aged out of the foster system. She was seven years, three months and seven days old when she was placed. She understood that’s the state’s way of saying that your parents are bad and now you have to live with strangers. And live with strangers she did. At least twenty houses full of them, but who’s counting? She made it through 10 years and 9 months of hell. Don’t ask her to share a favorite childhood memory, you won’t get what you are looking for.

               Aged out. Darcy thought the phrase sounded like the agencies and caseworkers got her to the finish line and gave her a participation medal. They had tried to find an adoptive family for her after her parents’ rights were terminated but she always did something to sabotage it. Sometimes she did it on purpose, but not always. The families that she would have liked to be part of ended up being “not a good fit”; at least that’s what her caseworker told her. She wished they would just say they didn’t like her enough to tolerate her existence in their home.

               As a parting gift, the state of Kansas did help her get a job at the Walmart Supercenter. Not bad, considering she had no work experience, a mailing address of a small rental room she had occupied for three days, and a GED. The manager who interviewed her asked what her strengths were. Darcy bit her lip and said what Kelly, her social worker had told her to say, “I’m resilient.” It sounded better than the truth and more importantly, didn’t make people uncomfortable.

               “You’re a smart girl Darcy. Show them you want to work and learn new skills. You’ll do fine.” That was the extend of Kelly’s coaching advice. She had a huge list of kids still in the system to deal with and really had no other guidance to give her. Darcy had aged out and was no longer her problem.

               Darcy rolled her eyes. She knew she was smart she didn’t need Kelly or anyone else to tell her that. She was smart enough to live in twenty different homes. Smart enough to not to get noticed. Smart enough to defend herself when the creeps and bullies did notice her. She knew how to lie when well-intentioned adults wanted to help. Big help they were, it just meant she had to move in with another foster family who didn’t have time for her either.

               The resilience answer must have worked because Darcy was told to start orientation the next day. Dressed in her blue vest with yellow trim, they took her photo for her ID and gave her a packet of “Welcome to Walmart” information. After a couple of hours of trying not to nod off, she was sent to her department manager to learn the first and most hated job, stocking shelves. The receiving department unloaded the trucks and pushed pallets of product out to the aisles for the stockers and new employees like Darcy to put on the shelves.

               It wasn’t a hard task, but at 5’2”, it was a physical workout for Darcy. In each department she was stocking, she would have to ask that manager to use their ladder. Her request was usually met with a sigh of aggravation since the managers never had time for any extra work, including finding their own department’s ladder. They openly complained that it was ridiculous that the company kept hiring people who couldn’t do the work.

               “But I can do it. I just can’t reach the top shelves. I just need a ladder…”

               “I heard you the first time and I said I’m getting it, god damn, lose the attitude. You millennials all feel so entitled.”

               “Millennial? I actually think I’m Gen Z but what does that have to do with anything? That doesn’t even make sense, I’m just not tall enough. I see other employees using a ladder, I don’t know why it’s a big deal. In orientation, they said…”

               “I don’t want to hear what you learned in orientation. This is the real world out here and you better figure out how to do your job without being babied. Just come on. Stop standing there gawking and help me find it.”

               The ladder was located a few aisles over and the manager disappeared without another word. When Darcy finished that zone’s stocking, she took the ladder with her to the next department and their pallets waiting to be stocked. “Screw them,” she thought, “try and find it now.”

               At lunch, she found the break room was a ridiculous miniature version of the Lord of the Flies Island.  She clocked out and grabbed her peanut butter sandwich and water bottle from the counter. The jar of peanut butter, gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, butter, toilet paper and a bus pass had been a parting gift from the state. She had stolen the loaf of bread, a lighter, and a People magazine from the Dollar General across from the sublet with the tiny room she called home. She glanced around the room and saw a sign for free snacks on a table containing bags of chips, crackers, and cookies. A group of women appearing to be cashiers all sat together and glared at her. Darcy’s very existence apparently interrupted their loud bitch session about ex-husbands and their rotten kids. 

               “Hey,” a woman with an ass so big she was hanging off both sides of her chair, “Those there snacks ain’t for stockers, do you hear me?”

               “I wasn’t… I didn’t know…I didn’t even see them until you said something. I brought my lunch anyway.”

               “Another thing, grease bag. This is our table, cashiers only,” the fat cashier and her friends roared with laughter.

               Some of the others in the room were apparently grouped according to job title as well and glanced her way but didn’t offer her a seat. Darcy rolled her eyes and found a seat in the corner. When the room stopped glaring at her, she ran a hand over her hair. She thought she had done a good job that morning of disguising her oily hair with a ponytail. She made a mental note to check the women’s lockers for shampoo and other products before she left today. She had to get some tampons too; her tits were sore, so she knew her monthly was coming. If the locker room didn’t pay off, she’d steal some from the travel size aisle. Bitches in the lunchroom, it was like high school all over again. Not wanting to get any more attention, she wolfed her sandwich down and clocked back in.

In aisle thirteen, Darcy was putting paper towels in the upper shelves, when she heard a beeping noise. A grizzled old man, sat on one of store provided scooters beneath her ladder, honking the horn at her.

               “Girl! Get down here and help me, I’m in a hurry!”

               Darcy descended the ladder, her eyes falling on his bare diabetes-reddened lower legs. His white compression socks were doing him no good, rolled down, cutting into the circulation at his swollen ankles. She sighed and offered a smile when she got to the floor.

               “What can I do for you sir?”

               “Get me some of those paper towels you were stocking up there. I need a couple of packages.”

               “You couldn’t have said that while I was up there?”

               “I’m not going to shout it up there at you.”

               “You shouted at me to come down. Just tell me which brand you want, and I’ll get it. I’m in a hurry too. I have eight more pallets to unload.”

               “I don’t know the brand. Go up there and I’ll point you to it.”

               Darcy was finally able to get the old man his paper towels after he decided the ones he really wanted were just out of her arms’ reach. Breaking all the OSHA rules she had learned in orientation, she stretched her body over the edge of the ladder and swatted the towel package to the floor. It landed in his basket. She was thrilled at the outcome, but the old diabetic was not impressed.

               “You could have killed me! Crazy girl, it’s a damn shame the people they will hire these days!” He continued his rant as he drove his scooter down the aisle and away from Darcy.

               It’s not like he’s going to do much cleaning with those paper towels anyway, Darcy thought, imagining most of them would be used to wipe chocolate cake from his disgusting lips.

               “Hey Darcy, you need some help?”

               Darcy looked beneath her at a scraggly looking guy about her age wearing the same ugly vest as her.

               “Do I know you?” She started down the stairs and then stopped, her instincts telling her to keep some distance from this guy.

               “No, but all the stock guys know who you are. I think we should get acquainted. I could be a real good friend to you,” he grinned, showing a missing canine tooth. “My name is John Jerry Goodwin. I think we had a PE class together a few years ago. I always did like co-ed PE, didn’t you Darcy?”

               “No, I hated school and tried to forget everything about it. That must have included you too. I’m behind on emptying these pallets, John Jerry, nice to meet you, but I gotta get to work.”

               “Maybe you didn’t hear me, I asked if you needed help. You just said you are behind, so I’m helping you,” John Jerry started loading the shelves at an incredible speed. Darcy stood halfway up the ladder and watched as he filled the same amount of space that had taken her at least 30 minutes. “The trick, Darcy…I like your name, did I tell you that? The trick is, to get it full, then straighten and face the product in the front two rows. After customers buy out those rows, the department is responsible for straightening and filling in the open spots until we get another truck. You are spending way too much time placing each item, you’ll never get done if you keep working like that.”

               “Wow, thanks. Why don’t they tell us that?”

               “Because they think we are suckers. Why should we spend all that time setting the back rows perfectly when the customers screw it all up anyway? Trade me spots, I’ll do the top stock and you finish the lower shelves. You get off at eight, right?”

               “Yea, how did you know that?”

               “Because I came in right after you this morning. I’ll walk you out after work.”

               “I can walk out myself, thanks,” this guy was giving her the creeps.

               “The way the guys in back have been talking about you today, I’m telling you now, that’s not a good idea. You better cozy up to your good friend, John Jerry, if you know what’s good for you.”

               “Are you freaking kidding? Whatever… I guess, you can walk me out, but you better not try anything.”

               “Who do you think I am? I don’t kiss on the first date; I like to build up the tension real good first… you know what I’m talking about?”

               Like he promised, John Jerry walked Darcy to the bus stop. She missed the eight o’clock bus since that’s when her shift ended, so unfortunately, she had ten minutes to wait with him.

               “Do you take the bus too?” she asked, trying to fill the quiet and keep him on a safe subject.

               “No way, I’m a biker, I wouldn’t be seen dead on a bus. On your day off, I’ll take you for a spin.”

               “You have a Harley?” Darcy had ridden a few times. One of her foster dads had one and he’d let her ride it on the back roads. The bike was too big for her, so she was terrible at it and usually laid it over which made him furious. She never did get a license, motorcycle or car, and probably wouldn’t get another chance to learn.

               “No way. I’m a dirt biker. Mine is street legal though. I race it on the weekends, you should see me sometime.”

               “Oh, well, maybe,” Darcy checked her watch, which John Jerry noticed.

               “Hey, listen, I know your first day sucked-they always do, right? I’m going to give you some advice. Don’t let those people scare you. You need to speak up for yourself or everyone will walk all over you. The women are bitches, but some of the guys are pretty creepy too. Make sure they know you can handle yourself, you hear? That includes the managers, they don’t give a crap about employee morale, they just yell at you if they think you aren’t pulling your weight. The others will totally throw you under the bus too, so make sure they understand you aren’t going to take it. I won’t always be close enough to protect you.”

               After her alarm screeched at 6 am, Darcy stood in the lukewarm shower and lathered up her hair with the Salon Selectives travel size shampoo she’d pocketed yesterday. The suds ran down her entire body, and she lingered under the spray, enjoying the scent and the feeling of clean. She fell asleep last night thinking of John Jerry’s advice. He was right; work wasn’t going to get better if she just avoided people. She wasn’t looking for a friend, but she didn’t want to get pushed around.   

               She clocked in a few minutes early and stood looking at the bulletin board with the schedule assignments. Her manager entered the break room without speaking and went straight to the coffee pot. Darcy watched as she took a sip of scalding hot black coffee.

               “Whew, that’s warm. Ok, I’m better, people can speak to me now,” she laughed at her own joke. “Darcy, right? How’s your first week going?”

               “Um, ok, I think. Just getting to know how things work, you know? Could you tell me where I’m assigned today? I don’t have the zones memorized yet.”

               “Sure, someone keeps removing the list of zones I put next to the schedule to help with that. You are in cosmetics today. I’ll walk you over if you want.”

               “No, that’s ok. I know where it is, I walked through there last night before I left,” Darcy smiled; a perfect place to stock up on some things she needed. 

               “Alright, let me know if you need anything,” the manager’s voice faded as Darcy walked out of the breakroom.

               Her ladder was right where she hid it last night, so she pushed it over to her first aisle of the day. The store wasn’t very busy yet this morning and the aisles were empty. She had the space to herself and used John Jerry’s technique to finish a few pallets in record time. She started on a pallet of feminine hygiene products and slipped a small package into her pants, flattening it against her skin as much as possible. Her vest was too long for her and would conceal it anyway. She looked around to be sure no one saw her and noticed a well-dressed woman in the aisle. She looked out of place here, must be from out of town and forgot some essential item. After she was sure the woman didn’t see her slip the package in her pants, Darcy decided to offer to help her. She was getting bored stocking anyway.

               “Thank you so much, yes, I’d love some help. I flew in this morning for a business meeting, the airline lost my bag, so I have no makeup with me to freshen up. Don’t even look at me, I’m a total mess.”

               Darcy found her a cute makeup bag and the woman filled up the bag with her selections. As she was bending to get a tube of mascara, her new iphone peeked out of the top of her bag. The woman kept reaching for other items and the phone kept sliding closer and closer to toppling out. Darcy couldn’t take her eyes off it. Within that device, this woman probably kept her entire life, calendars, emails, bills, and banking information. The home screen wasn’t even locked. Amazing, jackpot. It was too much temptation to bear. Darcy swiftly slid the phone out and into her vest pocket. It was just like any other iphone, who would think it wasn’t hers?

               “What do you think you are doing?”

               Darcy spun around to see one of the cosmetic associates staring at her. Her heart was pounding so hard she could hear it in her ears.

               “I said, what are you doing? You are a stocker. You don’t help customers. Get back to your pallet,” the associate sneered at Darcy.

               “If you were doing your job, I wouldn’t have to do it for you!” Darcy walked past her and let out her breath. Hands shaking, she thrust them into her pockets and around the phone. Unlimited possibilities awaited her. As she went back up her ladder, she decided she’d celebrate and help herself to some breakroom snacks at lunch. Just let those cashier bitches say something to her. 

July 06, 2022 19:31

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Robert Gross
14:19 Jul 15, 2022

I liked the ending so much! I think this woman is in real trouble, but I also thought she's a real survivor. I think she will improve only if her circumstances do. It's so dark, but a really good read!


Susan Williams
22:05 Jul 23, 2022

Thank you, Robert! I really appreciate your feedback.


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