by Goody Niosi
Madison started small: a packet of chewing gum and a candy bar from the 7-11. And even then, she only did it on a dare.
“Bet you’re too scared to steal anything!” Barb had said.
“No I’m not.”
“Oh yeah? Prove it!”
So she’d gone in, wandered up and down the aisles and when she was sure the clerk was busy ringing through a customer, she’d slipped the items into her pocket, then walked casually to the magazine rack, leafed through Teen Vogue, put it back on the rack, shrugged, and waved her fingers at the clerk as she pushed the door open.
She was sweating, her legs trembling.
“So?” Barb asked.
Madison emptied her pocket. “No big deal,” she said.
“Sure isn’t – like that’s all you got?”
“Well why don’t you go in there if it’s no big deal?”
“Can’t now – not two in a row. They’d get suspicious.”
Madison decided “never again.” It wasn’t worth it. She looked behind her all day, expecting to see a policeman with handcuffs. Would she get expelled from Junior High if anyone found out?
She didn’t think about stealing again until she lived on her own with a roommate. Brigitt was struggling between night school and a minimum wage job as a cashier at Wal-Mart. Madison worked at a Hallmark store in the big mall at the north end of the city.
They split the rent of a small basement suite and shopped together for food. Most nights they ate eggs and toast or mac and cheese. One Friday, while they cruised the aisles of Loblaw’s looking for specials, Brigitt slipped two cans of salmon inside her bag.
“Won’t they know?” Madison asked.
“No – we’re good,” Brigitt said.
They paid for their Kraft dinners, a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, a jug of skim milk, and a bag of apples. They walked out, Madison certain she would hear an alarm. Nothing.
That night they ate salmon salad sandwiches. “Best meal ever!” Madison said.
They didn’t steal food every week – just when money was extra scarce – or when one of them craved something special.
One day Brigitt came home with a new T-shirt tucked under her sweater.
“Tell me you didn’t shoplift that.” Madison said.
“I did so.”
“Holy cow! What if you get caught?”
“You have to take off the tag – that’s all,” she said.
“But what if they’re watching?”
“You take it into the dressing room.”
“What if they have cameras?”
“Look for them. They won’t anyway – for sure not in the smaller stores.”
One Saturday afternoon, they walked into a busy gift shop on Queen Street West. Its shelves were crowded with small stuffed animals, colouring books for adults, replicas of old Toronto streetcars, and photo place mats. Earrings and bracelets hung from a wooden rack.
Brigitt tucked a set of earrings into a pocket. Madison slipped a bracelet into her bag. They took a couple more pieces each and walked slowly out of the store. They had taken about a dozen steps when they heard “Hey! Thief – Stop!”
They ran. “Split up!” Brigitt gasped.
Madison turned a corner, reached into her bag, flung the bracelet onto the sidewalk. She fumbled in her pocket, dug out two pairs of earrings, threw them behind her, ran around another corner, tore across a street and ran and ran.
She ran down an alley, past overflowing garbage bins, dodged a skinny grey cat, and barrelled to a stop at a door, slightly ajar. She walked down a dark, narrow hallway and into a bookstore. At the raised front counter, an old man was bent over a book, glasses sliding down his nose, white tufts of hair sticking up over his ears, a dim light bulb painting a round sun on his smooth, bald skull.
The man looked up. “You’re back.”
“It was inevitable, you know. You can’t escape your plot line.”
“But I don’t want to be a thief! I don’t want to go to prison! I don’t want any of it – the gangs and the recidivism and all the horrible crap that goes on inside jail.”
The man shook his head. “I wish I could help you. I can’t. You need to go back now. I can’t sell a book missing its main character.”
He pulled a volume from under the counter. The Reluctant Thief. He opened it, laid it on top of a stack of magazines. “Just slip in.”
Madison stared at the open pages of the book. “How does it end?”
“I can’t tell you that,” the old man said.
She walked toward the back of the store.
“Don’t be stubborn, Madison. Don’t make me use force. This is your second escape – I won’t have you doing it again.”
He reached for her. Madison grabbed a book, opened it – and jumped.
“And we are his sisters and his cousins and his aunts – his sisters and his cousins and his aunts.”
Madison stood in a group of more than a dozen women dressed in nineteenth century bonnets and crinolines.
“Where am I?” she whispered to the older woman closest to her.
“Oh!” the woman said. “Who are you? You’re not in costume!”
“I know – but what…”
“Are you in the wrong book, dear?”
“Well – I suppose you can be a sister or a cousin or an aunt.”
“The admiral. Can you sing?”
“You may just have to mouth the words.”
“HMS Pinafore of course.”
“Oh no – only the main characters get to joke. But it’s great fun and you get to rest a lot being in the chorus.”
Madison learned the sisters, cousins and aunts bits of the chorus quickly enough. But all the free time was boring and she considered her options – back to The Reluctant Thief? Or should she try Harry Potter. Hogwarts would be such fun. But escaping the pages – that was only possible when someone opened the covers.
She could only hope that a Gilbert and Sullivan fan entered the store before the pages yellowed and faded with age.