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By Kristin Leonard
When I was eight, Kiddie World toy store was my favorite place in the whole wide world. It was down the street from our apartment on Steven’s Creek Boulevard, a short walk actually, and whether I went with my mother to buy some last-minute birthday gift or card, or with my brother and sister, or with an older friend, I made sure to stop at the long glass counter and look at the dolls.
There, coiffured dolls dressed in satin and velvet smiled down at me with frozen dimples and blushes of pink on either side of their porcelain and vinyl cheeks. They had ringlets of auburn and black and gold, too, and stood side by side next to eight-inch Ginny dolls who pursed their pink lips and held their tiny fingers quiet against red and white gingham aprons, which were lined with a bottom row of lace.
Lifelike baby dolls were also on display, propped up with a metal stand that encircled their chubby porcelain bellies. Their blue eyelashed eyes sparkled brightly, and the rosy-cheeked babes seemed truly un-concerned that their play clothes alone—the frilly lace dresses and fancy pantaloons they modeled—displayed a ticket price four-times what my mother would ever pay for my clothes.
But it was the display of dressed up toy mice that captivated me. I’m not sure whether it was the fact they were three-inches tall, with tiny mouse hands and feet and jackets and dresses, and even light blue parasols; or whether it was the price tag strapped to their furry ankles, which fit so nicely in the realm of possible in my world. But all I needed was one dollar and ninety-nine cents to purchase a mouse of my very own. I understood one-dollar and ninety-nine cents.
It was the process of planning my very first mouse purchase that got me into trouble. This, along with a conversation I had with Shelly, with my older, wiser next-door neighbor. According to Shelly’s ten-year-old reasoning, every store had a lot of inventory; too much, really. Too much candy and too many bracelet charms, as well as a surplus of many other items. She explained that if stores made a lot of profit on one item, like candy or bracelets, they really didn’t care if they lost a little money, here or there. In fact, Shelly surmised that picking up (nonchalantly, of course) something that might not be noticed—a pack of gum, candy cigarettes, or even a dressed-up toy mouse—and dropping it into our pocket and “forgetting” to pay was almost a service to the store. After all, the clerks would have less merchandise on the shelves to count and the store manager could re-order the newest styles and brands. So, everyone wins. Even us.
If anyone deserved a freebie in life, Shelly did. She was one of ten children, the youngest with nine older brothers. Money never quite made it down to her. Shelly’s clothes closet and toy shelf, like mine, were replenished with second-hand treasures; the best and brightest to be found at Goodwill, Thrift Village, and, of course, the after-Christmas clearance table at Kiddie World.
I didn’t exactly plan to go into Kiddie World that Tuesday after school, but I found myself dismissed two hours early. Mother told me to ride my bike straight to the babysitter’s house, except I really wanted to take another look at the dressed-up mice. I needed to decide which mouse would be the first acquisition and the start of my collection. I had just finished reading a story about a girl named Vanessa at school, and I liked the name Vanessa, so I wanted my first mouse to be as Vanessa-like as possible. And I knew a ten-minute detour wouldn’t hurt.
When I arrived at the glass aisle with the dolls, the grumpy silver-haired clerk was gone. I’m not sure where she was, but instead of her beady eyes watching me as I looked at the dolls—going from one to the other—there were four little mice standing all alone on the counter. Three were little boy mice dressed in tuxedos, and the fourth was a girl, dressed in a long dress of white lace. She peered up at me with tiny black eyes, coyly, from under a thumb-size straw hat, which had even tinier yellow marigolds glued to its rim. It was Vanessa. I stared at her. My Vanessa. I stretched out my finger and touched her.
I scanned the length of counter and counted. There were only four mice for sale this week: three boy tuxedo mice and one Vanessa girl mouse, and today was Tuesday. I had to wait until Saturday for allowance, and then I would finally have enough saved. But would Vanessa still be here on Saturday? I looked at her again. No, she was too pretty, too delicate, and too special. Someone would surely come in and buy her before Saturday. Someone who saved up one-dollar and ninety-nine cents before I could.
I thought about what Shelly said—how the store might have made their profit on something else. I picked up Vanessa and turned her around, squinting at the tiny stitches that lined the hem of her dress. I thought of the store-clerk and the store manager. Maybe they were tired of selling fancy dressed-up mice. Maybe they wanted to stop selling them. Maybe, just maybe, they didn’t even want Vanessa anymore, and would be glad to have her gone.
I can’t remember the exact action. My hand worked independently, seeming to already know the drill. My fingers circled Vanessa, and my elbow bent just enough for me to casually place my hand back in my pocket. Before I left, I took a last look at the tuxedo mice who were still standing on the counter. I was thankful they couldn’t talk and tattle on me.
At my babysitters’ house that evening, I found myself reaching into the pocket of my sweatshirt. I wanted to touch Vanessa, and just make sure that she was still there. Oddly, touching the tiny mouse had the opposite effect on me. Instead of making me happy, I kept thinking of the old silver-haired clerk. Would she notice tomorrow?
At home that evening, I took Vanessa out of my pocket. She was still beautiful. She had the same shiny fur, the same jet-black eyes, the same teensy-weensy whiskers and the same straw hat that tilted ever-so-slightly on her head. Yet in the passing hours of the day, hiding in my pocket, Vanessa had changed. When I looked at her, all I could think about was my hand going into my pocket and walking out of the store.
I tried to shake the image. I tiptoed across the floor and placed Vanessa on the corner of my dresser. Then I returned to my bed and sat down. Yes, she was mine, standing proudly on my dresser, but she had definitely changed. She was no longer the fragile, but beautiful toy mouse I longed for on the doll aisle. Instead, she had morphed into an embarrassment. A humiliating reminder of my thievery and my shame. While I stared at Vanessa, the door opened.
“Why aren’t you outside? Are you sick?”
I looked up to see Mother, her brows furrowed. She crossed the room and sat down beside me.
“Maybe you have a temperature…”
Her hand was on my forehead. It was cool and moist, and smelled of the antiseptic soap she uses at work.
“I’m just tired.” I leaned away from her hand, pressing back on my arms, and shifting my weight onto the pillow behind me. “I just want to lay down.”
“Okay, I’ll call you when dinners ready.” Mother paused for a moment, then kissed me on the forehead, and told me she loved me. Then she stood up and turned around towards the door.
I looked past my mother at Vanessa. She was still standing on my dresser, staring back at me, but her sightless eyes were taunting and teasing.
“Mom…” The choking sobs and tears burst through, and I couldn’t stop. “I’m a bad person.”
Mother held me in her arms as it all spilled out: the words, the tears. Vanessa.
The following day was Wednesday, and we took Vanessa back to Kiddie World. Mother gave me an advance on my allowance and together we walked into the store. My right hand was deep in my pocket, holding furry little Vanessa and three crunched-up dollar bills. The silver-haired clerk appeared, and Mother spoke first. I was quiet.
When the grown-ups stopped talking, two sets of eyes burned down on me. I reached into my pocket, took out Vanessa, and placed her on the counter in front of the old clerk.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered, too afraid to look up. With a shaking hand, I set down all three dollar bills next to the bottom edge of Vanessa’s dress.
The wrinkly clerk studied me for what felt like a minute, then she said something, and picked up the small pile of money. She unfolded each bill and placed them in the cash register, one on top of the other. When she was done, she picked up Vanessa with her skinny fingers. I was waiting for her to return Vanessa to her place on the counter next to the tuxedo mice, and I wanted to cry.
But she didn’t. Instead, the silver-haired clerk pulled out a white bag with red lettering that spelled out “Kiddie World,” and slipped my darling Vanessa gently inside. Then, for the first time ever, I saw the beginning of a smile spread across the face of the old clerk as she held out the bag to me, along with a handful of quarters and pennies.
I left Kiddie World that day holding my mother’s hand. We walked across the parking lot, and it was the sunniest, brightest, happiest afternoon I had ever experienced. The few words Mother spoke to the clerk, along with my confession, combined with three crunched-up dollar bills had restored my eight-year-old life to normal. Arriving home, I made a beeline to my bedroom, ignoring my sister and brother, who were bickering over who gets to change the channel on the next commercial.
Then, for the second time in two days, I put Vanessa back on my dresser, exactly center this time, so all the world could see. I stood back to take in the full image of my soon-to-be collection. This time, Vanessa’s eyes sparkled. She seemed to wink at me in a secret language that only we shared.
I sat down on my bed and smiled back at her. Yes, there was no doubt about it, Vanessa mouse was every bit as beautiful as the first day I saw her.