Rita stood at the edge of the store, watching through huge glass windows past the mannequins at the queue of people waiting to return and exchange gifts. She stared, her own department store bag held tightly in hand. Could she do this? Did she have the courage?
In the queue, people were fidgeting, some casting fearful looks at the doors, others attempting to hide faces behind huge sunglasses and sun hats. Really? In the cold of winter? As the first person in the queue shifted, she caught sight of Sally, her friend who’d given her this gift. Sally seemed busy at the Return/Exchange counter, her expression snarky as she stared down the queue at the people waiting to exchange.
Rita could almost tell what her friend was thinking: her room-mate didn’t waste her time on much, but complaining about people who returned gifts was one of her favorite topics of discussion. She even brought it up wherever she went, whether it was on speed-dates, literary salons or shopping excursions.
As the line shortened, Rita fidgeted, her attention completely captured by the scene in front of her. Sally seemed to have gotten into a tiff with one of the returnees. She felt a pull and the bag was gone, departing in the arms of a skinny fellow with threadbare jeans and a blue anorak that had seen better days.
Rita footed after him, determined to get the bag back. After all, one could hardly tell Sally one lost a gift given only two days ago. Sally would want to know all the details, like she always did - and Rita would inevitably spill the beans - like she always did.
She gained traction on the thief, who had entered one of the alleyways to escape. Well, this was Rita’s favorite bit: gaining on someone. Not for nothing was she one of the best track athletes in college.
Also, she’d grown up in this part of the city, so these alleys were her home-ground. She’d even done a few stints like these, with the bounties of her struggles going straight to Big Joe’s pockets. She smirked as the youth slowed down, gasping rapidly. Amateur. She passed him easily, throwing her leg out to trip him up.
She picked up the bag.
“Tell Big Joe Rita says Hi.”
He looked up at her, still panting. “Haven’t you heard? Big Joe’s gone.”
“Aint nobody knows. It’s every man to himself, now.”
Rita smiled. It looked like Big Joe had finally run afoul of the big guns. She opened the bag to check out the gift and gasped. Parts of the pure white dress inside had gone brown, the brown of fresh mud, of Rita’s eyes.
“What did you do to it?”
“Nothing! I swear! But when you tackled me, it fell in,” he said, finger pointed to a large puddle.
“Shit, shit shit.”
Rita sat with the hairdryer, trying to dry out the dress. It had to be in pristine condition so it could be returned, after all. So far, all the cleaning hacks she’d found online had failed - a simple soak on the muddy sections to rubbing with vinegar to washing with saddle-soap.
She’d even tried her hand at some old baking soda that had been hanging out at the back of the kitchen cupboard for years.
Something had finally done the trick - but she didn’t know what. It had been splotchy one moment, and back to pure white the next. Hmm. She got up, staring at the clock. Sally was due back at any minute, and she still had to hide the traces of her day’s work.
She stretched. One more day. Tomorrow was the last day she could return it, but she needed to do one more thing. She tamped down her conscience.
“Sal, whatcha doing tomorrow?”
“Can I pass by?”
“Sure. You’ll want to check out the number of people returning gifts. Sods, the lot. Why not be happy with the presents you get? I wish there was no return policy on gifts. Honestly, the cheek.”
“Looks like you had a tough day. Let me make you some coffee, then we can sit and talk.”
Sal got up and stretched. “Thanks babe, but I need to get to bed.”
“OK, no probs. Here, I filled out your water bottle.”
Morning. Sally retching. Rita smiled.
“What happened, Sal?” Sally waved a hand at her.
“Let me get you a cuppa,” Rita said. Sally shook her head. “No, I’m just heading back to bed.”
At the store, Rita ran to the Return/Exchange counter. The pills she’d put in the water were guaranteed to act for twelve, and only twelve hours. She was on a short window.
“Reason for return?” The girl at the counter asked.
“It’s hideous, I’m afraid. I can’t go out with it.”
“Looks like there’s been some use. I’ll get the manager to look at it.”
“Sure. I’ll wait.” Five minutes. And then another. Rita drummed her fingers on the counter-top. This was taking forever.
The girl came back, manager in tow. “Hi. I understand you wish to return this gift?”
“Yes, please. I haven’t used it, I just got it a couple of days ago at Christmas.”
“Well, have you tried it on yet?”
“I think you should.”
Rita grabbed the dress and walked to the fitting room. As she put on the dress, she felt something that felt like paper in one of the pockets. She pulled it out, excited. A note.
She opened it.
“Ha! I knew you’d try to return this, you sneaky little witch! Love, Sal.”
Rita jumped. And smiled. Trust Sally to come up with something like this.
She looked at herself in the mirror. It wasn’t half-bad, sleek yet filmy. But Sal knew she never wore white. She couldn’t.
She changed and headed out. The manager was waiting outside.
“Can you take it?”
The manager smiled, snarky.
“Isn’t Sally the one who gave this to you?”
“So we can’t accept it.” She shrugged. “Sal told us not to, when she called in the morning. We probably would have, before you tried to poison her and leave her for dead. And all for a dress.” She smirked.
Holding the dress in both arms, she fled home.
“Hey babes.” Sally, smiling.
“So… How did it go?”
“The dress exchange?” Sally laughed. And laughed. And laughed, rolling around on the sofa.
Rita bit her lip. “I’m so sorry Sal. It’s just… I never wear white. You know that.”
Sally looked at her, sober now. “Well, if you hadn’t tried to get rid of me just because I gave you a white dress, I wouldn’t know how far you’d go to avoid wearing one.”
Rita sat down, shoulders hunched.
“C’mon, babes. You need to put those days behind you. Big Joe and his fetishes can take a hike.” Sally said. “Wear it for me, then. I’ve already missed the day at work. Let’s get dolled up in our whites and paint the town red!”
Rita sat up. Perhaps it was finally time to let go.
“The dress got stolen yesterday, Sal. One of Big Joe’s guys. He told me Big Joe disappeared.”
“Well, that’s that, then, right?” Sally asked. “Why do you still let him dictate your life?”
“I haven’t, Sal. I’ve tried. You know that.”
“OK, then! What are you waiting for? Wear it! Let’s head out for lunch. My treat!”
Rita looked at herself in the mirror. She turned around, looking at her back over her shoulder. It was official. She’d never looked better in white.