Lucy Carter forces herself to stop trembling by standing stock-still in front of the massive and shiny brass doors of Percy’s Department Store. Her stance is made difficult due to the Christmas passers-by that keep bumping into her and hitting her dirt smudged Percy’s labeled gift bag which she has tightly coiled through her white knuckled hands. Her equally filthy used-to-be white woolen coat is torn away at one sleeve, the coat buttons dangling by threads. Taking a deep breath and tracing her eyebrow with her free hand she moves toward the heavy doors then opens them. Her already large brown eyes widen and grow larger as she takes in the scene in front of her.
Percy’s Department Store prides itself on its overachieving spirit, particularly during the holiday season. Every year since its inception in 1896 the small town store transforms into a holiday wonderland at Christmas. Trees in every color are part of the shopping landscape, including an ominous looking black tree hanging from the shoe department ceiling.
The store’s staff must always be friendly and proficient, per company policy, but they must ratchet up all that good will during this busiest of prosperous seasons. These faithful employees’ happy continence is displayed through their holiday only themed name tags resembling small snowmen –with their names etched in gold and red.
But the main holiday attraction is the towering Santa anchored in the middle of the store’s toy department. Not only is this Santa 40 feet tall, he also sports a massive red velvet bag full of toys slung over his abundant shoulder.
Everything a kid could dream of for Christmas is in this bag; scooters, play dragons, pixie dolls, and video games. But the showcase super want of the year for the young crowd is a Stuffy Fluffy Buddy Polar Bear. And this crème de la crème of the season is what is sticking out of the very top of Santa’s red velvet bag.
Meanwhile at the returns desk Percy’s employee, Mrs. Flatchett, is silently reciting the Percy’s Department Store Returns Desk Employees’ Pledge found in the Percy’s Department Store Returns Manual:
Be nice, be sweet but always, always get their receipt.
She concentrates on the first part of this phrase. Nice and sweet can be difficult in this job, but during this hot mess of a season it is nearly impossible. Mrs. Flatchett has been at the return desk for over twenty years. Her first name is Veronica, but in keeping business, well business, she requires that everyone refer to her as Mrs. Flatchett.
She sticks to the Percy’s Department Store Returns Manual with the diligence of a boot camp sergeant. Her coworkers know that if they have any return policy questions they can ask Mrs. Flatchett who will in turn say, refer to Section 3 - shoes and sizes – page 23. Likewise, her features will scrunch into a tight pony tail face if a returns employee doesn’t know the three basic Percy’s Department Store Return Questions:
1. What item is being returned?
2. Does the customer have a receipt?
- and finally –
3. Why are you returning this item?
This brings us to the one day dreaded by all department store employees: the last shopping day before Christmas. Without a doubt, the days following Christmas are horrible in the world of return desk employees, but the last day of shopping before Christmas can be equally as exhausting. Shoppers need to replace an item or receive a refund because they are on a deadline.
Testimony to that fact are the three long lines stretching toward the counter in the Percy’s Department Store Returns area.
Mrs. Flatchett looks up at the next customer in her long line. Now, Mrs. Flatchett has seen every type of customer imaginable in these hated and dreadful queues that lead up to her section, but even she was taken aback by the otherwise nice looking young woman now standing in front of her wearing a ripped and black smudged one hundred percent wool and used-to-be white coat and thrusting an equally grimy tire tracked gift bag at her. Not taking her eyes off the forlorn woman, Mrs. Flatchett slowly removes the contents from the bag then holds her possession at arm’s length.
“It’s a polar bear.” Lucy says this almost inaudibly as she looks around at anything but Mrs. Flatchett.
“Are you sure it’s a polar bear? It looks more like a dead raccoon.” Mrs. Flatchett professes.
“That’s because… Well, it was a Stuffy Fluffy Buddy Polar Bear. Now, as you can see, I am not at my best. It has been a very long day. So, please - help me!”
“I would love to help you, Ms…?”
“Ms. Carter, but I have a few company policy questions. The first question being—“ Mrs. Flotchatt straightens her back.
“What item is being returned and for the record, as I have pointed out to you, this,” Mrs. Flatchett thrusts the dirty mangled mess at Lucy, “scarcely resembles a polar bear.”
“Look, okay. To your point, the bear ran into a slight problem. I was…”
“Excuse me one moment. Claire, does this look like a polar bear to you?” Mrs. Flatchett holds the mangled mess up for her coworker.
“No, Mrs. Flatchett. It… it looks like…” Claire turns the furry mangled object in her hand.
“Hey lady, how long is this going to take? We’ve been standing here for days now!” a man wearing a red flannel shirt in line behind Lucy angrily shouts.
A flash of recognition crosses Claire’s face. “Now I know! It looks like a dead raccoon!”
Lucy begins to trace her eyebrow with her finger, “If I could explain it will speed this whole thing up. Your company…”
“I’m sorry Ms. Carter, but our proficiency expert is very adamant about protocol. We have to move through the questions as they are written. Something about liability, lawsuits, yaddah, yaddah. So, let’s move on, shall we? Question number two. Receipt?”
“I had one.”
A simultaneous groan from the twenty or so people behind Lucy fills the immediate area of the returns desk.
“You had one.” Mrs. Flotchatt says in a flat voice.
“Yes. I still do but well, it was run over. Back on Chelsire Street. In the middle of the road. Stuck in the pavement. “ Lucy says in a slow heavy tone as she produces a tire-track smeared and torn piece of paper.
“Okay. Question number three. Why are you returning said item?”
“Finally. Now I can explain.”
At the intersection of Chelsire and College streets sits Five Star Grill, a popular gastropub. Lucy Carter is sitting at a table facing an empty chair. She looks at her watch for the gazillionth time brandishing herself for depending upon Harry to meet her. As an in-demand real estate agent he rarely has time for lunch with her so she was excited when he said he was free. Sighing into her glass of wine, she stares out the window at the passers-by as she looks for Harry, then glances at her phone again and is slightly startled when a text comes up.
Did you get the bear? The message reads.
Yes, I did. Lucy taps into her phone.
Lucy breaks into a smug smile as she contemplates Christmas morning and her niece’s complete happiness when she opens her gift. She has finally accomplished something her big sister can be proud of.
Her phone pings again.
Be there soon.
I can wait. Lucy taps into the screen. Harry is a real catch. A fine man, her sister said. Don’t mess this one up. She has plenty of things to do today, but they will just have to wait.
Lucy starts tracing her eyebrow with her finger and again stares out the restaurant window. A red panel van parks at the curb obstructing her view of the street. She lifts her wine glass to the window as she reads the inscriptive logo on the side of the van “Stuffy Fluffy Buddies.”
The driver of the van dashes into the restaurant. He takes his knit cap off and starts rolling it with his fingers as he looks around. He’s in a real hurry-just like everybody else this time of year, Lucy surmises. Her attention is immediately drawn back to the window as the panel van begins to move back into the street as if by itself, then hurtles into the traffic, tires squealing leaving a trail of smoke.
“That’s when things went a little haywire.” Lucy says to Mrs. Flotchatt.
The prior line of angry people behind Lucy becomes a crowd encircling her, hanging on her every word.
“Then what?” asked the flannel shirt man.
“Well, I sat there staring like everyone else in the restaurant. Then, the driver of the van ran outside and stared down the street. He ran back inside and asked for a cell phone. Apparently his phone was still in the van.” Lucy nods at the crowd and the crowd shrugs their shoulders in agreement.
“And he hadn’t found his restaurant companion yet. So being a very nice person,” Lucy looks directly at the flannel shirt man. “I offered my phone to him. He grabbed it and before he could dial 911 it started ringing.”
“Who was on the other end?” A woman in a jogging suit asks.
“Well, let me explain.”
At the restaurant, the van driver says into the phone, “Hello?” Then, “Who the hell is this?”
He hands it back to Lucy saying, “I think it’s for you.” He then asks another stunned restaurant customer for their phone.
Meanwhile, Lucy grabs her phone back and checks the screen. It’s Harry. But as soon as she reads the name, Harry hangs up.
The driver runs back into the restaurant tosses the phone to its owner as he says thanks and runs back out and down the street in the direction of the van.
In the confusion, Lucy freezes and narrowly misses getting thrown to the floor by a missile fast woman in a furry gray coat as she runs out the door screaming, “Charlie! Wait, Charlie!”
Lucy stares at her phone and then comes out of her daze. She runs out of the restaurant to talk to the woman. “Ma’am, he’s probably running after the van. Although I think he’s a bit too late.”
“Charlie’s my son! He was meeting me here. I had my lunch and ordered carry out for him. He’s real busy this time of year delivering those stuffed animals to stores and doesn’t have time to eat except in his van.”
As the lady explains both her and Lucy hear a deafening sound. They both look down the street at two vehicles on their sides about two blocks over in the middle of an intersection. One of the vehicles is the Stuffy Fluffy Buddy van, the other is a red sports car. Lucy realizes the red sports car is Harry’s Maserati.
What’s Harry’s Maserati doing in the wreck?” A young metro guy in tight jeans asks.
“Well,” Lucy says. “He was on his way to meet me and decided to just call rather than text and he heard a voice on the other end of the line that definitely wasn’t mine ask “Who the hell is this?”
“Startled, he gassed the pedal taking off in the direction of the restaurant. As he started around the corner a red panel van rounded the same corner and t-boned his Maserati.”
Mrs. Flotchatt sighs, “So, Ms. Carter. That is a very interesting story, but, it doesn’t answer question number three. Why are you returning this item?”
Now the crowd turns on Mrs. Flotchatt, “Cmon lady, let’er tell the rest of the story,” says flannel shirt man with the crowd around him yelling ‘yahs and c’mon, lady.’
“I am wrapping this up,” Lucy says to Mrs. Flotchatt as she turns to the crowd with a half curtsy, “And giving you the rest of the story.”
Charlie’s mom and Lucy run the two blocks to the car accident. The police arrived earlier along with Charlie. The area was sealed off with caution tape trapping a garbage truck that was apparently making its rounds. The occupants of the garbage truck were standing near the truck yelling that they still had rounds to make.
Unscathed, both Harry and the van thief drunk walk out of the wreckage.
Lucy squares her shoulders as she begins, “So, imagine my dismay when Charlie, the van driver, walked over to me, eyed my sack, grabbed it and threw it in the road. Then says ‘I have had it with this company!’
“When Charlie threw the sack its contents fell out,” Lucy snatches the pitiful dirty ball of fluff from off the counter. “This little polar bear aka dead raccoon landed in the street next to the bag.”
“About that time, one of the officers cleared the perimeter and motioned the garbage truck out. As the truck backed up I realized what was about to happen so I ran to retrieve the polar bear before the truck ran over it, but Harry stopped me by pulling me back. I could only watch as the front traction tire slowly ground the sack and the polar bear into the street.”
A large resounding ‘ahhh’ comes from the crowd.
“So, you see, Stuffy Fluffy Buddy is at fault. It was their employee that threw my sack. I only want compensated for what I lost!”
Mrs. Flotchatt begins maniacally turning pages in the Percy’s Department Store Returns Manual in a desperate search for guidance.
“Did you ever find out why the guy stole the van, lady?”
“So. That is a good question. Let me explain.”
As Lucy picks up the sack and the now known as dead raccoon, the thief, in handcuffs and held by two police officers shouts “I just needed a few Stuffy Fluffy Buddy Polar Bears for my kids. They’re so damn hard to get I was desperate. So, I decided to just take the van for a ride, grab the contents and then take the van back.”
The man shrugs like that is the most reasonable thought that anyone should have. He then continues, “So, I followed the van until, in what I thought at the time, was my great fortune, it stopped at the curb and the driver got out. To my delight, the keys were in the ignition. So, I took a big chance. I’m sorry. I just wanted to make my kids happy on Christmas morning.”
Lucy looks around for Harry. She finds him explaining to the officers that he had an appointment and asking if they could give him a ride due to his misfortunate accident. He didn’t even glance her way when he left in the police car. It was at that moment that Lucy knew she had to get another Stuffy Fluffy Buddy Polar Bear. She couldn’t let her niece and subsequently her sister down.
“So, here I am. I walked straight here. I need this polar bear.”
Mrs. Flotchatt asks the one question that wasn’t in the Percy’s Department Store Returns Manual, “How did you get a Fluffy Buddy Polar Bear in the first place? And today? We are completely sold out and waiting for a delivery, which I suppose, your story explains why we haven’t received one yet.”
“You weren’t quite sold out. If you can see on my receipt. Right there? On the right side of that tire track?” Lucy points to a torn area of the receipt. “It says Percy’s Department Store and dated with today’s date.”
Lucy shrugs as she traces her eyebrow with her fingertip.
By now, the crowd was getting upset. They had heard the story from beginning to end and once satisfied with the ending, were ready to get on with their hectic day.
Mrs. Flotchatt decided to end this transaction and without much consternation decided to end her returns career. Her recently retired to Hawaii friend had been begging her to join her. Now seemed as good a time as ever.
A shipment of Fluffy Stuffy Polar Bears on a wheeled cart came through the returns area. But this time considering the prior incident, armed guards surround the cart. Mrs. Flotchatt, displaying her name tag like a badge to a guard, grabs a plastic wrapped brand new bear and hands it to Lucy.
“Okay, Ms. Carter, according to the Percy Department Store Refund Policy Manual, we are not responsible for any mishap incurred by the Stuffy Fluffy Buddy Company, But, I am going to replace your damaged product anyway.”
The crowd roars as Lucy clasps Mrs. Floggatt’s hand and shouts, “‘Thank you!’”
Lucy tugs at her torn coat and smiles as the crowd begins to form a line again. She then waves at everybody as she leaves. The return clerks begin assisting the customers. That is, all returns clerks but one. After giving the new plastic wrapped polar bear to Lucy, Mrs. Floggatt undoes her red and gold snowman shaped nametag, lays it on the counter, grabs her purse and coat and after doing one last crucial errand walks out the massive brass doors of Percy’s Department Store one last time.
Later the store lights dim, the massive brass doors lock, and the store CLOSED sign lights up. The retail employees have gone home leaving only the maintenance crew. One lone member of the crew in charge of picking up and cleaning the toy department begins his rounds. As he stands up after picking up toys strewn all over the floor, he adjusts his back stretching skyward. His eyes follow the tall Santa. As he slowly looks upward, he notices that something isn’t quite right. For, in Santa’s red velvet huge toy bag a scruffy and black smudged animal resembling a dead raccoon leans out of the bag and stares straight at him, a grin on his dirt-encrusted face.