-----Missed Chapter One? Read HERE-----
Shuffling through the paperwork and stacks of unopened mail, Ellie sniffed back the mixture of dust mites meeting loss. She bit back angry words and shameful complaining, noting the two store employees working in silence by the counter of the workshop. Her grandfather’s toy store seemed hardly the place for diatribes or whining, and Ellie knew their spirits already hampered with the funeral earlier that week. She’d assured them their jobs would be safe and asked that they continue their work filling orders and running the store until all the paperwork finalized.
The chair squeaked under her slight weight, the chair itself an antique mess of wood chips and chiseled paint particles. Her grandfather had kept his office in the workshop on the back-end of the store front, “So I can stay closer to my little friends,” he’d say. The toys, of course, were his obsession and great endeavor. He’d crafted wooden sculptures, knickknacks, collectibles, furniture, and toys since he became apprenticed as a twelve-year old, and loved the sport ever since day one. Toy-making served as a delight for him, a channel for the creating of puzzles and magical mystery for children to entangle themselves. He’d loved the whimsy of it all. He’d loved the simplicity of it all. But he was gone on to other adventures, leaving Ellie as sole proprietor of a shop where she’d spent many a summer of her own behind the industrious counters watching and learning.
“September first and those crazies are already playing Christmas songs!” Darcy moaned in the background.
“You’d think they would wait until the other holidays are over. Or at least Halloween,” Declan squinted up at her through his thick, black-rimmed glasses. “Let me wear a scarf or two before we rush into the death grip of winter.”
“Wow. Death grip?”
“Why do you think Christmas happens so early in the winter? If it happened in February when it’s actually cold in Texas, nobody would be around to celebrate. By February, everyone is tired.”
“Valentine’s Day is in February, Declan. The holiday of looove.”
“Because they all want to leave for the equator by that point. The greeting card companies needed a holiday to keep everyone at home.”
“You are so dramatic.”
“Realism, honey. I’m planning a revolution.” Declan shoved his glasses up his nose and focused closer on the wooden block in his palms.
“For what? Scarf-wearers anonymous?”
“For the storm-weary travelers! For the hard-working, bare-knuckled grunts who make this country move!”
“You need to drink less coffee, Dec. Watch where you point that knife.”
Ellie looked up from the stack of bills in her hands. “Guys, what’s this?”
Declan and Darcy glanced over at her from their stools.
“Yes, ma’am?” Darcy asked.
“This notice from the county tax board?”
“Was it in the pile of opened or unopened?”
“Well, let me look, there.” Darcy wiped her palms together, scraping off curlicues and wood crumbs. In rising, she towered above Declan’s wiry frame, whisking new scents of coconut sugar butter in the air with her swishing blue capris.
"This one,” Ellie continued. “About a late tax payment?"
"I'm not sure," Darcy said. "Elwood took care of all the paperwork. I work the front register. I can tell you exactly how many dollars are in the till right now but I have no idea about the office work. Elwood always did all of that."
"Well I guess I just need to sort through everything," Ellie muttered, trying to offer a smile toward the two assistants. She flipped her wrist over to check where the misguided numbers sat accusing her of being late to the office. "This might be a late evening for me."
"Want me to close up shop?" Darcy leaned over the counter hours later, studying the blond head bobbing behind three innocuous, haphazard piles now coating the desk. "Declan clocked out. I've got the door locked. Fridays, Elwood liked to count out, but I can do it."
Ellie blinked up at Darcy, scrunching her eyes in the dim light. She twisted her head and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand.
“That would be great. If you can count down tonight, I’ll work with you next week on getting that figured out. I think I need to get caught up on these piles before anything else.”
“Makes plenty of sense to me, girl. You just let me know if you need help with those stacks.”
“Well. I did have one question. Or a thousand.” Ellie unwrapped her legs from the chair, solidifying her numb feet on the floor before standing up. She flipped through a thinner stack on the edge of the desk for a pink sheet of paper. “There’s this renewal notice for the business license. And enclosed in it was a brochure for the mall development across the street.”
“Psh.” Darcy spat out the distaste before thinking. “He’s been pushing for that development for two years.”
Darcy giggled. “Mr. Something-or-other Jones. He’s a big-city big-shot who wants to buy up all the real estate. He thinks the town has a lot of ‘charm’ but could use some sprucing up.”
Ellie’s lips curled up at Darcy’s description. “He could be right, Darcy.” She stifled her own giggle.
“Oh no.” Darcy shook her head, like a cat shaking away a fly. “He wants every empty building downtown. Plus the full ones. He’s funding the mall expansion and has wanted to buy this lot since he arrived into town. Wants to knock down the shop and put in a parking lot.”
“He even dared to tell Elwood he’d give him a prime location for his shop on the mall’s third story.”
“The mall doesn’t have a third story.”
“Did he think Grandfather would fall for that?”
“He certainly did. Elwood chased him out with that plastic pistol he keeps in that drawer next to ya.”
Ellie’s shoulders shook at the mental picture, and she slapped a gritty hand over her mouth to keep from spitting out the hearty chuckle. “Now that’s Grandfather.”
“Jones came back with a packet of letters saying he’d give a spot on the first floor by the food court. I don’t know if Elwood were considering or not.”
“Never said anything to you?”
“Nope.” Ellie admitted. Without a word, she admitted she hadn’t even spoken to the man since her birthday in February. Her eyes blinked to pull away the guilt and stuff it onto another pile to sort through later on. “I guess that answers that question.”
“I’ll go finish the registers.”
“Thanks, Darcy. I’ll owe you.”
“Just keep paying my check, lady. That’s all I ask!”
Ellie caught the jab and threw it back with a grin. “As long as those registers line up, you’re set. I might even let you take over if you sweet talk me enough.”
Darcy left after a hefty hug and two last offers to buy pizza. Ellie had declined, saying she had a salad in her purse, but the truth was she had half a squashed protein bar and a packet of balsamic vinaigrette in the side pocket, next to a coupon for one dollar off a salad at Hall’s Quick Stop. Her stomach hadn’t rumbled all day, but instead filled with a thick, hollow resolution to sort through the mess and straighten it up. If it took all night, she’d clean up the tedium left by her grandfather and make it her own. It was, after all, her own, whether she wanted it or not.
Around 1:48 am, and Ellie knew the time because she had checked her watch, she heard a rattling click from the front windows. What sounded like metal tapping against glass caught Ellie’s quick attention.
Ellie jumped in her spot, shaken and rattling herself. She ducked down behind the desk. Clattering against the worn tiles in the storefront, glass shards broke open to the elements and to the base of Ellie’s spine. Her mind a blending concoction of exhaustion, expense reports, unpaid bills, and sudden powerlessness, she flew toward the nearest door, stumbling over her purse on the way. The cement floor became an unwelcome guest banging against her knees.
Voices whispered from the storefront. Clenching her quivering jaw, Ellie held in a terrified yell, all while terribly frustrated at the leather straps of her purse. Blasted cross-body purses. A single beam of yellow light flitted through the door to the storeroom and then disappeared back into the storefront. Ellie yanked the strap off her bare foot. That door still sat shut only four feet away, and Ellie hurled herself into it, whirling the handle in her palm and sliding it shut without a sound. The storage room.
Complete darkness surrounded Ellie. She knew boxes in stacks piled high of — everything — filled the room. Years of unsold inventory, extra parts, spare tools, old tools, receipts, taxes, who-knows and whats-its, all crammed into that blank sauna of a storage room.
Feeling through the cobwebs, shuddering and flinging her hands away from her body, Ellie shoved the nearest stack in front of the door. She gripped her bare feet against the cement in order to wrangle the demanding boxes from their spot. Sweat even began to build up as she willed her bodyweight against the — four? five? boxes — away from their comfort zones. Surely they will think the door is busted and move on, if they try to get in here, Ellie thought.
Wiping her palms against each other, Ellie considered the options. She slung the leather purse strap over her head into its familiar slot against her neck, and dug into the contents. Her fingers slid around the smooth purple wallet, the slick, shiny tube of retired lip gloss, and the prickly pink hairbrush. As she rifled and rooted for her phone, that startled brain of hers began to untangle from its coiled state of petrification. It seemed to cough, and then sneeze. Your phone’s on the desk.
My phone’s on the desk.
Ellie closed her eyes against the void, wrinkling her nose like she did when something ridiculous obstructed her path. She wrinkled her nose at flat tires, at delayed mail, and expired coupons. And Ellie wrinkled her nose at the phone on the desk. It couldn’t see her, but it felt her exasperation and shrugged with a sheepish smile.
Fine! Ellie again wiped her palms together, curling her cold toes against the cement. I’ll stay here and wait for the robbers to come kill me. Or I’ll move another stack of boxes in front of the door.
The darkness bit its lip.
Ellie slid one foot toward her left, against the cool concrete and the dust covering it, and then waved her hand to feel for cardboard. Another step, sliding, and a waving of the hands, and smack, she found more boxes. Wiggling through the gritty dust beneath her toes, she glided to the other side, wedged against the other boxes, and coerced the stack into moving. Slithering between the stacks, she inched the bundle, as tall as her frame and three times as wide, behind the first barricade stack.
After quite a bit of huffing and heaving and silent groaning, Ellie’s mind began to quell. Nobody can get through the two stacks. Oxygen bumbled around her throat and cleared out of her chest, leaving room for chaos. Her eyes had still not adjusted to the lack of light, and the enormity of murky space began to whirl before her eyes.
Her brain began to click, filling the silence. This is the only door, right? Ellie scrunched her nose, pursing her lips.
I think – I don’t know. Maybe I can find another way out. Or a place to sit.
Ellie’s eyes began to tingle in the shrill silence, and, blinking, she let her palms lead the way.
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