He yawned. Nothing interesting ever seemed to happen at toy stores outside of the holiday season. At least, not in the years that he’s been working at the place. The store was practically empty beyond the occasional eager child that, with parents in tow, explored the place like it was some kind of paradise. It made sense. After all, a toy store isn’t known for selling items of practical use.
That was what he believed all this time anyway. And that’s what he continued to believe after reading the news article. It was ludicrous to think that someone would rob a place similar to the store he worked for. It was even more preposterous to think that someone would steal all the toy cars. He put down the paper. There was nothing interesting in the news these days.
He sighed, considering the boredom that he would have to endure for the remainder of the day, without any stories to entertain his time. Time that he would otherwise be spending by staring into space.
It was then that he noticed that something was off about the store. He had just restocked all the empty shelves this morning. Furthermore, he was the only employee on duty today. There couldn’t have been anyone that emptied the shelves that fast. Even if there were an unusual set of customers that visited the shop that morning, they definitely didn’t collectively buy enough things to empty an entire shelf.
Furthermore, it was a shelf of cars. The items were so overpriced that no one would want them. Wait. Cars. Wasn’t that mentioned in the article he had just read? No way.
He opened the paper, and flipped back to the page. So it was. There was some kind of toy car thief on the loose. He put the paper down and pulled up the list of the last few customers. In the daze that he transitioned to, in order to tolerate the boredom of the work he did everyday, he hadn’t remembered who exactly visited.
He recognized all the names that came up onto the screen. One was a member of a local car club. Another was a local bartender that he knew acquired a set of debt recently. One more was a cop that he knew was recently traumatized by a car accident. The final person, on the list, was a recently paroled inmate, an individual that he didn’t have too many details on.
As far as he could tell, the two that were most likely to have committed the crime were the two that he could see motivation in. It could be the man from the car club, who had a extreme love for anything that resembled a vehicle. It didn’t even need to be on four wheels. But at the same time, it could also be the man that owed a significant amount of debt. The cars were probably one of the most pricy items in the store, given the amount of detail and accuracy each of them had. They could probably make some money if they were sold in an auction.
He looked up then and widened his eyes. The other shelves with cars were empty as well. But those hardly had any value. He’d be lucky to sell them for even half the price that the store valued them at. Why would anyone possibly want those? Could the thief be the man from the car club? But he distinctly remembered that the man left the store moments after entering, seemingly disappointed at the store’s lack of inventory in some product that he took interest in.
Then who could it be? He wasn’t going to let his paycheck fly out of the window. He was going to find out who was behind all these crimes, and make the robber pay for the items or the crimes. Picking up a baseball bat from a nearby barrel, he approached the next set of shelves where toy cars could be found.
If the pattern continues, the thief would stop at this shelf at some point, regardless of the shelf’s prominence. Raising the bat over his shoulder, he readied himself for physical confrontation. As he stood there, he realized that not only were the car club member and the bartender suspicious, but so was the recently paroled inmate. As an inmate, the man must’ve gone through a lot. A shiver ran down his back. What if a bat wouldn’t be enough against the man?
He drew his weapon closer, suppressing the thought. If anything, the man probably wouldn’t be much of a threat, whether or not he was an ex-gangster, especially with his recent release date. In all likelihood, he would be out of practice. He couldn’t imagine there would be many experiences to fight in prison.
Taking a breath, he returned his attention to the shelf, and almost let out a scream at what he saw. The shelf was empty. How? He’d been standing in front of it the entire time. Releasing the hand he used to muffle himself, he took deep breaths. A desperate effort to calm himself.
“There isn’t anything supernatural about this.” He chanted under his breath, repeating it as a sort of mantra. “There isn’t anything supernatural about this. There isn’t anything supernatural about this…”
A rustle behind him. He jumped, quickly turning, almost striking…a child? He stopped the bat in time to see a teary eyed boy looking up at him. So that was how they were doing it huh? The boy was small enough to walk inside the shelf and push the items to the adjacent aisle without having to ever step foot off the shelf. Behind the boy, he could see that there were three other children of similar age.
When had the children come into his store? How did he not notice? Was it while he was reading the paper? He let out a breath of relief, glad that the disappearances weren’t caused by some supernatural force. But these children… he couldn’t simply let them off either.
“What are you doing stealing?” He asked in a harsh tone.
The boy he’d caught began to cry. A sense of guilt washed over him. He reached arm out to him, before quickly suppressing the emotion. The kids were caught stealing. If he let them off too easily, the lack of discipline would probably give them the wrong idea and encourage stealing in the future.
“We just want to return things to how it was before.” One of the other children answered.
“What do you mean?” He inquired. “What’s a store selling toy cars got anything to do with the past?”
“Take a look for yourself.” The child answered, fishing a paper…no a photograph from his pocket.
Taking the photo, he quickly recognized four of the eight individuals in the photo. They were the car club member, the bartender, the cop, and the recently paroled inmate. They held cups to each other, cheers. From their smiles, it looked like they were close, possibly best friends. He focused on the background. It was a car club. Behind them were dozens of different car models. The women in the picture were smiling as they watched.
“We’ve never seen our papas smile.” The boy continued. “We just want our mamas and papas to be happy together again.”
“Come with me, I’ll buy whatever cars you children want, as long as you promise that you won’t steal anymore and will give them to your papas.” Though stealing was wrong and helping was technically condoning the behavior, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pity rise in his chest. He couldn’t imagine growing up in a family absent of warmth. But he couldn’t blame the men. Other than the man that he already knew was part of the car club, the others weren’t in especially favorable positions in life.
“We have a plan.” One of the children, a girl, shared. “We sent invitations to each of our papas. We know they will go. It’ll be a surprise party. Maybe you can come?”
“Of course.” He answered. “Now, which cars did you want?”
Though there were some minor hiccups in setting up the party, he was still glad that the children got it to happen. Even if getting the men to repair their relationship wasn’t quite as easy as the children envisioned, their rowdy laughter and friendly interactions told him that it wasn’t far off. The childrens’ actions played the first step in binding them back together. The shared laughter washed away whatever misunderstandings, resentment, anger, and time-brought distance that lingered between the men.
He smiled. The gift of childhood innocence wasn’t something to underestimate. Sometimes, its power had the ability to affect the surrounding adults. He smiled, watching the children share the various cars with their parents. Watching their shared happiness. He was glad that this was one of those times that it successfully rubbbed off. Everyone deserved a happy family. He was glad that he had the opportunity to play a role in ensuring that it happened sooner than later.
He closed his eyes in thanks and prayer. Thankful that he had the opportunity to grow in a loving environment. Thankful that the childrens’ efforts weren’t in vain. May everyone one day find happiness for themselves and their families. Amen.
This story was inspired by a writing prompt from the “Promptly Written” Publication.
**_I’ll give you the crime and the suspects, you take it from there
_THE CRIME: A string of car thefts are committed across the city
THE SUSPECTS: A recently-paroled inmate, a member of a local car club, a bartender in need of money, a former cop seeking revenge