Jack Washburn’s heart hammered in his throat as he sat in the stall just outside the food court at City Center Mall. He’d been there for half an hour already, and his legs were starting to get sore, as were his arms, mostly from the fact that he was perched with both feet on the toilet bowl with his hands pushing at the sides of the stall for support. Sweat beaded on his face, and his mop of curly black hair was sticking to his forehead from beneath his hoodie. He gave his arms a short break, but a ding from the intercom made him quickly push them out again.
“Attention shoppers,” said a smooth female voice, “City Center Mall closes in fifteen minutes. Please make your way to the exit. Thank you for choosing City Center Mall for your holiday shopping.”
He cracked his neck, feeling the straps of his backpack press into his collarbone. Just fifteen more minutes…
After what felt like two hours, the sounds of boots entering the bathroom. A gruff male voice called, “Anyone in here?”
Jack felt the breath slide in and out of his lungs in complete silence. The guard’s footsteps came closer for a minute, but soon receded out into the mall. Jack let his feet down gently and did some high-steps to get the blood moving again. He opened his bag and put on an old Halloween mask - some sort of neon smiley face. After he was satisfied with the functionality of his legs, he padded along the wet tile floor of the bathroom, the lights turning on once more at his motion. Jack stopped at the mirror, seeing his pale face reflected with complete clarity. His sweaty visage would indicate nervousness, but there was a haunting determination in his blue eyes - something so innate that it had to be quelled. Jack pulled out a bottle from his bag and popped a couple pills into his hand.
“No harm,” he muttered, swallowing, “No foul. Taking one final deep breath, he opened the door to the bathroom and slipped out into the dark mall.
The moon shone above him through angled glass panels, though the light pollution meant he only saw a few stars. Keeping low and near the wall, he spied his first hit just below. The escalators weren’t working, so he stepped quietly while keeping his now calm eyes darting all around the mall for any trace of a flashlight beam or a blue uniformed security guard. Soon, he was in front of his first store: Hallmark. It was odd, he knew, but there was only one person on his mind as he slipped his allen wrench and hair clip into the lock for the metal grate. As soon as he heard the click, Jack pulled open the gate just slightly and slid underneath. He ran to the jewelry section and picked up a couple cute earrings, a necklace, and another pair of earrings. Then he went to the register and picked up some small metal animals - an elephant, a turtle, and a horse. Before leaving, he threw all that and a couple nice model cars into his backpack. Jack slid back under the grate and lowered it into a closed position.
His next hit was Macy’s - a store with just about all the clothes he needed. Once again, he picked the lock and slid under the grate, running straight around the store like he’d memorized the sections and grabbing stuff almost at random off the racks. If there was a security tag on it, he’d place it surreptitiously back, but he managed to grab about $200 worth in clothes before he turned to the exit. His bag was already nearly full, and there were still a few key stores to hit. He cursed himself for his poor planning as he locked Macy’s back up.
He quickly went into the Barnes & Noble’s and the Fanzone and picked up a couple things, his bag now dangerously heavy. There was just one more store to hit - and he hoped he could find something there which he could hold in his arms. He opened the gate to Toys & Beyond, wincing at every creak. Inside, Jack found a Cinderella doll and a Transformers action figure. He managed to stuff the former in his bag, while the latter he had to carry under one arm as he ran out of the store, his heart racing again. As soon as he locked it up, he began making his way to the nearest exit. If he could just make it outside, he’d be home free. The night had deepened since he’d begun his spree, and now the corridors of the mall were drenched in inky blackness, causing him to stumble at times. He was almost at an exit when he noticed a new bar in the mall. Fat Tony’s. And it’s gates were open. Before he could put two and two together, he was blinded by a flashlight.
“Going somewhere?” said a woman sharply.
“Agh!” He yelped, raising both arms, “Please, don’t shoot!”
She lowered the flashlight and smirked. “I’m not gonna shoot you. Raise your mask.”
“Please ma’am, don’t arrest me… I… I’ll put it all back, I promise. I-I’ll leave and-”
She held up her hand. “No need for that, yet. Why don’t you join me for a drink?”
Jack narrowed his eyes and wiped his forehead. “A… A drink?”
“Sure,” she said mildly, “I know the owners of this place - they let me have a drink or two after hours. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me bringing a plus one. Especially not one as interesting as you.”
“Interesting?” Jack swallowed and felt his bag weigh on his shoulders.
“Oh, I haven’t even introduced myself,” she said apologetically, “I’m Stacy Lawrence.”
“J-Jack Washburn,” he whispered, eyeing the exit. If he ran…
“I wouldn’t run, if I were you,” said Stacy firmly. “The night guard is armed, and we wouldn’t want you becoming a headline, now would we?”
Jack’s heart dropped into his stomach. He took a good look at Stacy. She had long, wavy brown hair and an athletic build which showed even under layers of uniform. “Uh… no we wouldn’t, ma’am.”
“Please, don’t call me ‘ma’am’,” she said, turning on a light behind the bar and gesturing to the stool in front of her. “My mother’s a ‘ma’am’.” Jack sat down wordlessly, and Stacy continued, “Now, Jack, what can I get you?”
“Uh… I don’t drink,” said Jack tentatively.
Stacy raised her eyebrows. “Really. A man with a bottle of unmarked pills in his bag doesn’t drink?”
“What do you want to drink?” she asked again, her brown eyes sharp and dangerous.
Jack blinked and said, “How… how about a dirty martini?”
Stacy smiled. “Now we’re getting somewhere. But won’t that make your breath a bit-”
It was Jack’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “D’you mean you wanna-”
“No,” she said firmly, without a blush on her alabaster face, “I only mean it’ll make conversation a bit awkward.”
“Okay then,” said Jack, still unsure of her intentions, “A whiskey sour?”
“I don’t know how to make that,” she answered. “Pick again.”
Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, his heart still racing out of control. “Look, why don’t you just make two of what you’re having?”
Picking up a couple Boston shaker tins, Stacy grinned, saying, “Alright then,” as she got to work.
Soon, there were two well crafted Sidecars in front of them. Jack took a few sips and couldn’t help but say, “Stacy… what’re we doing here?”
“Well, you tell me.” She took a long drink “You can start with where you got that backpack full of stuff from.”
Jack pursed his lips, his mind going faster than his heart. “I, uh… I got it because… I was shopping, but then I got caught in the bathroom. It was a real… bad situation in there, y’know, and I… must’ve missed the closing announcements. Next thing I knew I was stuck in here with all this stuff and with no way to get out.”
“So you mean to say you bought all this stuff legally, had an… episode on the toilet, and then tried to feel your way out with a smiley face mask covering your face?” Stacy looked at him candidly, tapping the counter.
After a long pause, Jack said, “Okay, fine… I… I stole this stuff. I meant to do it, and I did it. Are you happy?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m not happy. Did you really think you were gonna get away with this?”
“Well,” Jack shifted in his seat. “I had it all figured out. You probably don’t know this, but I’d done some dry runs before.”
“I did know that, actually.” Stacy grabbed her drink and moved from behind the bar to a stool on Jack’s left. “So who’s all the stuff for?”
“Oh… Well, some of it - about half the clothes, the Cinderella doll, the metal animals, the picture book… That’s for my daughter-”
“What’s her name?” asked Stacy.
“Her name’s Cindy… Y’know, after Cinder-”
“I get it. What about the rest of it?”
Jack cleared his throat and continued, “The Transformers toy, the cars, and the Red Sox jersey are for my son - his name’s John, before you ask, and the other half of the clothes and the jewelry are for my wife, Laura.”
“Jewelry from Hallmark, huh?” Stacy looked at him with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Everyone knows you don’t rob a jewelry store at the mall! They have… alarms, and lots of cameras, and-”
“Oh, like silent alarms? And cameras like the ones around the mall which have been watching you since you began prowling around stealing stuff?” She took a sip. “Like those?”
Jack paled and felt the glass shake in his hands. “Please, please don’t do this to me. I’m a good guy, I really am. I’m just… This was my first time doing something like this, okay?”
“You’re a pretty good lock-picker there, Jack,” she observed.
“I… It was just a hobby I had when I was-”
He sighed and said, “When I was working.”
“Ah. So you had a job.”
Jack stared at the wall of glass bottles in front of him. “Yeah… I did.”
“What’d you do?” Stacy sounded genuinely interested.
“I was a teacher. A math teacher.”
“So you were smart, huh?”
Jack laughed harshly. “No… No, I was an idiot. I didn’t see the other teachers conspiring against me. I didn’t see the students turn on me. I didn’t see the principal getting ready to fire me weeks before he pulled the trigger. All these pieces were getting in position around me… and I couldn’t predict the checkmate.”
There was a long pause in which Jack looked at the liquor bottles and Stacy looked at Jack, the former’s eyes full of loss and regret, while the latter appeared sympathetic, intrigued, and eager. Finally, Stacy said, “Why d’you think everyone was against you?”
“It was my own damn fault,” Jack swigged his drink and continued, “I was too ambitious. I went after other teacher’s jobs to help me rise to the head of my department.”
“Sounds like something worthy of Shakespeare.”
Jack cracked a smile. “Or Kafka.”
“Who’s that?” Stacy asked, frowning.
“Nevermind. It was a dumb name to bring up.”
There was another pause, and just as Jack was about to ask Stacy for an ultimatum, she asked, “What happened after you lost your job?”
“Well… no one was hiring. I’d been blacklisted from every math department in the county. And it’s not like I had Ivy league degrees to back me up, either. Just the strength of my word, pretty much.”
“That wasn’t enough?” Stacy’s eyes were concerned and attentive.
Jack shook his head, letting the backpack fall to the ground. “No… No it wasn’t enough. I had two kids to feed… and rent to pay… I started falling in with… unsavory people.”
“Drug dealers… arms dealers… gang members… I’d… take some profit through them, occasionally,” Jack downed the rest of his drink. “Just to pay the rent, though. I always hated it.”
“So you’ve done illegal stuff to get by.”
Jack swallowed and nodded. She already knows about the stealing and the pills, so what’s the worst that could happen? he thought. “I did some illegal stuff for sure. Never hurt anyone, though. And never stole anything before tonight.”
“And why tonight?”
“Because,” Jack felt a lump rising in his throat, “Because it’s gonna be Christmas soon… and I don’t have anything to give my kids. We never had huge Christmas’ before, but we always had something. I lost my job in February, and we’ve been living on scraps since then. I hadn’t worked long enough to start saving much, and neither of our families - Laura and mine, are well off enough to help us. We’re… we’re totally alone. She’s taken part time work at a grocery store just to scrape together enough for the rent. We’d already missed both Cindy and John’s birthdays… I remember Laura and I stayed up all night crying because of it. Their sullen faces, their wistful eyes… dejectedly playing with the same crappy toys as last year. I… didn’t want that for Christmas. I wanted to show our kids that even though we didn’t have a lot of money, Daddy would always… always make Christmas special for them.”
Jack began to cry in earnest, the tears cutting lines through the sweat pasted on his face. Stacy found her way behind the bar again and made him another Sidecar, after which she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “It’s alright… Your kids know you love them. They know you’re trying hard.”
“Do they?” asked Jack harshly, “Y’know, when I was a kid, we were living paycheck to paycheck too, but I never thought about what it was doing to my dad… I just thought about myself - all the toys I didn’t have, all the trips we didn’t go on. My kids are the same - just worried about their own stuff.”
“Kids know more than you think. Like… they know you love them with all your heart. Enough to… Well, to go to jail for them. To steal for them.”
“Yeah, but what if that’s not enough?” Jack’s voice was small.
“What? All the love in your heart?” asked Stacy incredulously, “How on earth could that not be enough, Jack?”
He shrugged. “And my wife, too. She’s thinking I’m working a night shift at a warehouse right now.”
“You mean the wife who’s stuck with you even after you lost your job? Who didn’t leave you but instead decided to take on work herself to help you out? I think she loved you no matter what’s under that tree, and I know you love her, too.” Stacy’s eyes could’ve been a little mournful, but Jack didn’t notice. He was too busy staring at the deep brown drink before him.
“I wish I’d never come into this mall… Now I won’t even be able to see my family for Christmas… and they’ll never know I was just trying… just… just trying to do something nice for them. Something which-”
“Something which would help your family heal and move forward into the new year?”
Jack nodded. “Exactly.”
Stacy sighed and said, “Look… I’m no shrink, but I do know a thing or two about fathers who are absent to commit crime with the whole ‘I just want what’s best for you’ spiel. Now, in my dad’s case that was a load of crap. But I feel like you really mean it, Jack. You were really just trying to do something nice for your family. I mean, none of the stuff in the bag is for you! I also know for a fact… I know your family would rather have you by their side without a penny than have all the money in the world and have you away from them… in jail.”
Fresh tears came to Jack’s eyes. “Y-you… you really think so?”
“I do,” Stacy grabbed his arm. “Your family loves you, Jack. Not the toys, not the jewelry, but you. I think the best Christmas present you could give them is just being there yourself. Spending time with them…”
“Well, good luck to me, I guess, because I’m about to get arrested for theft.” Jack rubbed his eyes hard. “God, why did I come to this mall?”
“Woah, let’s not be hasty here,” said Stacy, standing up and pulling Jack with her. “Normally I don’t let guys go like this… but-”
“But,” began Stacy firmly, “You seem like a good guy. So just leave the bag here and promise me three things.”
“Whatever you want,” Jack felt his heart race again.
“First, don’t ever steal again. Second, Don’t speak of this to anyone. Third, enjoy Christmas with your family.” Stacy smiled widely and pulled him in for a hug, which Jack accepted graciously.
When they broke apart, he said, “Done, done, and done.”
“Alright,” said Stacy, grinning, “Go for the exit then.”
“Thank you… thank you so much,” Jack brushed a tear away and felt something being thrust into his chest. He blinked and found a Transformers toy, a Cinderella toy, and a pair of earrings in his arms.
Stacy winked. “They won’t miss that stuff. Now go on. I’ll deal with the security.”
“Right. Thanks again.” Jack turned around to run, but decided to turn back for one last goodbye, only to find Stacy, his backpack, and the drinks gone - as though they’d vanished into thin air. Before he could process anything, he heard a voice yell from far behind him, so he turned and ran straight through the exit with the toys and earrings in his arms, his mind fixed on how hard he’d hug his kids when he got home.