Diane picks up the small, black notebook, looks for a price tag. She sees a barcode, but she finds no price tag, so she puts it back. Diane picks it up again. She puts it back. She grows agitated by her indecisiveness and resolves that if she picks the notebook up again, she will buy it and leave Pen Buddy Stationery.
Diane hates being in this much debt; she has three credit cards maxed out. She needs new brakes on her car, and it was going to take her years to finish paying the hospital for her brush with Covid-19 last month. Yesterday, Diane decided to take charge of her finances, live within her means, save 10% of her income, etc. Diane felt she should commemorate her decision with a new notebook to record how much she owes.
“Next customer, please,” the cashier says.
Diane steps forward and hands the notebook to the cashier.
The cashier’s name tag says, ‘Hi, I’m Heidi!‘
“Can you tell me how much this is, Heidi? I think I might want it, but it has no price tag.”
The cashier scans the barcode three times before it registers.
“This says neg two hundred? That can’t be right,” Heidi says to herself, her eyes flitting across her monitor.
“No thanks, Heidi. Two hundred dollars!? For a notebook? Sorry, I wasted your time. You have a nice day.”
“Pardon me, but it says negative two hundred dollars.”
Diane looks confused.
“I don’t mean to tell you what to do, lady, but this shows a negative price; two hundred dollars, to be exact. So, if you buy it, I would have to give you $200. We should call my manager over. Again, not telling you what to do, but if you don’t buy this notebook, I will,” Heidi says.
“Sure, call your manager over. Let us see if we can sort this out,” Diane says.
“Helen, to check out for a price check,” Heidi says over the intercom.
Diane exits the stationery store with the new notebook and two crisp $100 bills. She feels like she’s walking on air. While $200 won’t make a dent in her tall stack of bills, it gives her a little wiggle room.
Eager to begin her new life of financially responsible behaviors, Diane makes herself a cup of tea and sits down with her stack of bills. One by one, she makes a little line entry in the journal for each. She adopts the age-old ‘IOU’ convention with each.
I. O. Quick-Car Insurers $95.18, Jan. Premium.
She even signs each entry with her full signature.
She enters half the tall stack of her bills when she takes a break. She returns the notebook to the center drawer of her desk and promptly forgets about it for the rest of the day.
Diane wakes early and checks her medical bill account.
She launches her hospital’s account application.
After the page loads, she scrolls down to check payment activity.
She is stunned. She sees a payment transaction from yesterday. But she’s not paid it since last month’s payment was due! She scrolls down one line and confirms the previous month’s payment. There it is. On December 15 (only three days late, she remembers) – ‘Paid by Personal check–Ck. #2429 – $137.50.‘
She sees the payment posted yesterday’s entry. – ‘Paid by Third-party – Trans #193AQ-490A7CE – Skinny Mole Enterprises …‘
“Skinny Mole Enterprises?” Something about the name is vaguely familiar, she thinks.
She pulls the notebook out of the desk, turns it over and rubs her fingers over the trademark embossing at the bottom, and laughs. Flipping the journal open, she sees that her medical account was the final one she’d entered into her notebook last night.
She sits there for a moment, thinking of what this might mean. She loads her other online account apps, checks their balances. Every single one of them records a third-party payment from Skinny Mole Enterprise made yesterday.
She loves her new notebook. She returns it to the desk, locking the drawer this time.
Entering her kitchen, Diane notices she has a message.
“Hello Miss Saunders, this is Heidi Pembroke from Pen Buddies stationery. Please call me back. It’s important. Thank you.”
Diane picks up the phone and starts to press REDIAL, but then doubts flood into her mind.
What if they want the notebook back? Is that why they called? That would be terrible. The mysterious third-party payments and the notebook must be related somehow. The notebook had been a part of her windfall.
She has no desire to return the phone call or the notebook. She presses the DELETE button on the answering machine and replaces the phone in its charger.
After a simple dinner of miso soup and garden salad, Diane returns to her desk and finishes entering the minimum balances owed into the notebook.
She wakes, gets out of bed, and goes to her desk. She checks the accounts she logged journal entries for last night. Skinny Mole Enterprises has paid every one of her bills. She opens a new tab and searches for the unlikely-sounding company name.
She finds no relevant results.
“Another message?” Diane sighs as she pours her first cup of coffee.
She takes a sip, braces herself, presses PLAY.
“Ms. Saunders, this is Hal from Pen Buddies. Please call me back. It is regarding a purchase you made.”
She jabs the DELETE button, and the machine goes silent.
Diane finishes washing her lunchtime dishes as three crisp, loud knocks come from her front door.
“Just a second, please!” Diane shouts towards the front door.
She dries her hands, opens the door. It’s Hal from the stationery.
“Mr. Hartling, this is unexpected. But it’s not a good time. I’ve just started … “
“Please, Miss Saunders, I won’t take but a minute of your time. It’s important. May I come in?”
Despite her every instinct, Diane steps aside and lets him enter.
They settle in over cups of fresh coffee at the kitchen table.
“I’m afraid there was a bit of mix-up at our store on Sunday. That notebook wasn’t for sale.”
Yeah, I guess not. It’s a magic notebook!
“It’s my wife’s journal. I’m not sure how it got shrink-wrapped or tagged, but, well, I need it back.”
“But I didn’t see any writing in it,” she says – the truth.
“Oh, my wife, she always starts at the end of the book, turns it upside down,” Hal mimics revolving the notebook with his large wrinkled hands. “She keeps all our account passwords in there. My memory isn’t what it used to be!”
“But I’ve already written several private journal entries in there, Hal. I would die if anyone … “
Hal raises his hand palm toward her.
“That’s alright. You can rip the pages with Margaret’s account info out, give me those, and then I will be on my way. You can keep the notebook.”
‘Keep the notebook?’
Music to her financially challenged soul.
She hurries to her office and retrieves the notebook.
As she returns to the kitchen, she wonders why he didn’t suggest that she tear out her pages?
Sitting before Hal again, she opens the book from the back; sure enough, there are two pages of tiny, neatly printed account usernames and passwords.
“Perfect,” he says.
She smiles at him.
“They are such wonderful notebooks, aren’t they?” Hal asks. “Just magical if you ask me.”
Does he know?! She doesn’t trust herself to speak, so she raises the notebook to tear the requested pages.
“Yes! Magical!” Hal interjects, startling Diane. “I’ve said it for years. Do me one small favor, please? When you’ve torn the pages out, don’t hand them to me immediately, but keep your eyes on the book? Please.”
Whatever will get you out of here the fastest, she thinks with an uncharacteristic harshness she doesn’t like.
Diane begins slowly tearing the account information from the back of her precious notebook. Per his request, when the pages are free from the binding, she looks at the notebook.
She sees nothing at first. But then, amazingly, magic happens in her hands! It looks like a special effect. The pages regenerate in the notebook; her jaw drops.
“Well, I guess I’ll be on my way then,” Hal says, rising from the table. “Thanks for the coffee.”
“Mr. Hartling?” she catches him at the front door.
“Yes, Miss Saunders?”
“Oh, call me Diane, please!” she says. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
He looks down at the torn pages in her hand.
“You forgot your passwords,” she says.
“Oh, so I did!” he takes them from her, shoves them into a pocket, and winks at her.
One Month Later
Diane sits bundled up on her front porch. It’s still cold, but the promise of spring is in the air even as the snow melts. She finds the cooler air invigorating while she enjoys her coffee and novel. She’s been back to Pen Buddies several times. Heidi is usually there, but there’s never any sign of Hal.
Her bills are now all fully paid. During her next experiment with the journal, she had entered the ‘FULL BALANCE’ owed rather than the suggested minimum payment. Her credit card debt paid; she’s stuck to her promise to be disciplined and even torn up all three cards.
She shuts her novel and turns on the NPR podcast. They are playing a report on Soft-Tek Industries. Saying they may have to file for bankruptcy. Years of mismanagement, a culture of unparalleled greed by the CEOs, and numerous lawsuits had left them at a place of being ‘cash poor.’ Diane thinks that ‘cash poor’ for that behemoth company was probably still in the billions of dollars.
“Bunch of crooks,” she says as she pauses the podcast and goes inside to fix dinner.
Lying in her bed, she thinks about the notebook, Soft-Tek Industries, and about the cruise she’d love to take with her daughter. A promise she’d made on Danielle’s 18th birthday. She had to break it when Danielle had chipped a tooth and needed a crown. She’d made (and then broken) the same promise three more times before she grew too embarrassed to promise such a thing again. Still, she would love to make good on the cruise.
She thinks about IOUs and how, if you reverse the letters, about something she had dreamt of or something Hal had said, maybe?
Without further thinking, she leaps out of bed, grabs the notebook and pen. She moves fast; so she doesn’t lose her nerve and inspiration. She writes in the tiny book:
Tek-Soft Industries owes me – Diane Viola Saunders $20,000.00.
Some base instinct tempts her to put $500,000 or even a million. She is sure neither figure would account for much of a loss to the corrupt company, but in the end, she decides not to be greedy. Besides, 20 thousand would be enough for the cruise and maybe enough left over to make an extra mortgage payment as well.
She signs the entry, closes the notebook, returns it to the desk, and then climbs back into bed.
When her head finds her pillow, her heart fills with the rugged anticipation and resilient hopes of a child on Christmas Eve.