Daniel stood behind the counter, fiddling with the barcode scanner and shifting from foot to foot.
He muttered quietly to himself, willing people to not come into the store.
He didn’t usually work at the cash register. The customers made him nervous.
So did the register itself. Over his years at Payless, its keys had gotten stuck and the cash drawer wouldn’t open or close depending on the day. Countless rolls of register tape had spooled out onto the floor and, one on memorable occasion, it had caught fire. All under his watch.
It was the running joke among employees that Daniel was not to be left alone behind the counter. But today had been an emergency.
Betty, the assistant manager, had received a phone call that her son had been hit in the face with a kickball at school. They were pretty sure his nose was broken. Betty’s husband, a long distance truck driver, was on the road, so Betty had to go to the hospital.
Monday mornings were slow so Daniel was the only other person working.
Another assistant manager was on his way so Daniel only had to be alone for 30 minutes. “You can handle a half hour, right?” Betty had asked before she left.
Daniel wasn’t sure. He considered putting a closed sign on the door, but instead he stood beside the register, praying no one would come in.
After an agonizing 20 minutes, he heard the front door alert bell.
Gritting his teeth, he turned to greet the shopper, a smile that looked more like a grimace plastered on his face. But the person darted down the women’s size eight aisle.
The customer’s speed dismayed Daniel. He had hoped for a browser, someone who would spend at least ten minutes looking at shoelaces and leather cleaner before making their way to the shoes. But this person obviously knew what they were looking for and where to go.
Daniel squinted up at one of the strategically placed mirrors that allowed the employee at the register to see every aisle.
Something about the girl standing in the size eights seemed familiar.
Her hair was short and a vibrant shade of blonde, too bright to be natural. She wore a black t-shirt with writing on it and jeans that were rolled halfway up her calves, revealing mismatched knee socks, one rainbow stripes and the other bright blues.
Then she leaned over and stuffed a pair of fake Doc Martens into her Hello Kitty backpack.
The blood started pounding in Daniel’s ears and he grasped the counter for balance.
He had never confronted a shoplifter before. He knew he should leave the register and walk down the aisle, but he couldn’t move. And he knew from trainings session what he was supposed to say, but he couldn’t find his voice.
The girl stood up, put her backpack on and hurried towards him.
Her eyes were on the floor as she emerged from the aisle, but she glanced up at Daniel as she walked past the register. Her t-shirt read “Jesus Love Me.”
Suddenly, Daniel recognized her. She was one of the Flaming Disciples, the teenage guitarist who was dating the old drummer. What was her name? He thought back hard and it came to him.
“Meg,” he called just as she reached the door.
The girl spun around as if she’d been shot.
“How did you know my name?” she demanded.
Daniel came out from behind the counter but, scared that she’d take off out the door, he didn’t approach her.
“I met you last Sunday. You know, at the movie theater church?”
Meg fidgeted with the strap of her backpack. “Oh, yeah. I remember you. You sat next to Gretchen. You’re… um…”
“Right.” Meg nodded. They stared at each other for a long moment. “Well, I gotta go.”
She turned towards the door again.
“I know you took some boots,” Daniel blurted out.
Meg’s shoulders slumped. She stood with her hand on the door, not moving.
Daniel had expected her to deny it, or run. But she did neither. Instead she just said in a quiet voice, “What are you going to do?”
The question made Daniel feel unexpectedly powerful. If she had argued with him, he had no doubt that he would have backed down. And if she had bolted out the door, he wouldn’t have dreamed of chasing her down. But her resigned acceptance of being caught granted him some authority. He was unaccustomed to the feeling.
“Why did you take them?”
Meg turned back to face Daniel. “This is going to sound like a cop out, but I really don’t know. I just wanted them.”
“That’s a stupid reason to take a pair of boots.”
Meg wiped the back of her hand over her eyes, smearing her face with big black streaks from her caked on mascara.
“I know it’s stupid. But I can’t control it. I just need to take things. I’ve talked to Pastor Sebastian about it and he’s helping me. Really, he is. We pray about it together. But sometimes I just lose it. I feel like I’m going crazy and stealing is the only thing that makes me feel better. Are you going to tell him? Or call the cops?”
Daniel sighed. He didn’t know what to do. His supervisors at Payless would expect him to call the police. The manager was always telling the employees that the store had a “zero tolerance” policy on shoplifting. “Shoplifting is a crime!” he’d proclaim “Would you let a murdered go free?”
Daniel had always felt that comparing the theft of a twenty dollar pair of shoes to homicide was a bit silly.
“Tell you what. You give me the boots and we’ll forget about it.”
Meg looked skeptical. “Why would you do that?”
Daniel shrugged. “I could never go back to church knowing I put one third of the Flaming Disciples in jail.”
Meg grinned in relief as she slid off her backpack.