Mega Toys was the closest thing to heaven Suki knew. She wandered along the endless aisles adding item after item to her Christmas wishlist. The enchanted unicorn looked good, its shortened horn not too threatening. The grinning monkey would make a great night-time companion, and the rows upon rows of Barbie dolls promised long afternoons of dress up and fashion shows.
A giant stuffed bear pointed the way to a grotto with elves and fairies. Inside, fireflies barely illuminated the dark, velvety walls.
“Look, mommy, there’s a little pool of goldfish. Aren’t they pretty?”
She squatted near the edge and inserted a somewhat grubby hand, trying to pet one of the shimmering forms. The fish darted in all directions but soon returned, and Suki tried to recognize and name them.
“You are Malnacort, and you … you I shall call Mirriwell. Hey, Mirriwell, would you and Malnacort like to come home with me? You could sleep in a bowl beside my bed, and every night you can tell me stories of your life in the great ocean.”
The fish, however, were not very talkative, and soon Suki couldn’t tell one from the other. She left the cave and roamed the aisles. The toys were bigger now, and not for girls anymore either.
There were trucks, giant derricks and ride-on tractors and Bobby cars. Suki wrinkled her nose at a mean looking gorilla, considered turning on her heels but stood her ground and stuck out her tongue.
The gorilla didn’t seem impressed, so she said, “You come near me, my mommy will give you a right spanking, just you wait and see.”
She straightened her back and trotted past like a queen inspecting her troops, checking from the corners of her eyes to make sure the beast stayed where it was.
Boys sure liked some strange things. If it hadn’t been for her mother’s reassuring presence, she might not have been so brave, but now she allowed herself to drift deeper and deeper into a sparsely lit area of the store, past a long row of video games to what appeared to be a tableau of a space movie.
There was a seven foot tall creature that resembled the gorilla she’d just seen and a man in a dark cape and a black helmet that obscured his face.
“The cuddly toy section is three rows back, young lady,” said a gruff voice behind her.
Suki looked around and saw a man in a Mega Toys uniform towering over her.
“Are you the boss?” she said. “Only your uniform seems a little too small for you. My auntie Rosemary tells my uncle he eats too much. Do you like chocolate?”
The man seemed taken aback. “Er … I guess I do.”
“Me too,” said Suki. “What flavor do you like?”
“What flavor? I … I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? That’s just silly. I bet you’d like to know what my favorite flavor is. Of course you do. It’s strawberry.”
The man snorted. “There’s no such thing as strawberry chocolate.”
“There is, too. And it’s the best. My mommy always used to buy it for me.”
“But they’re totally different flavors,” protested the man. He looked around and said, “Are you here all alone?”
“Of course not,” said Suki. “I’m with my mommy.”
The man looked around again. “Where is she, then?”
“She’s right here, silly,’ Suki laughed. “Been with me all the time. I never go anywhere without her.”
“You’re not telling me the truth, young lady,” said the man. “I happened to see you come into the store alone. There was a girl with pigtails who dropped you off and left.”
“That was Susan from the White Hippo. She arranged for my auntie to come pick me up here.”
Looking puzzled, the man said, “Why is your aunt coming to pick you up?”
“Well, duh. You don’t understand anything, do you. She’s coming to take me home because I live with her.”
The man wrinkled his brow as if trying to make sense of Suki’s story. Then he shrugged and seemed to come to some sort of decision.
“You can’t walk around the store by yourself,” he said. “It’s not proper … I mean, a young girl like you all alone, it’s just not safe. Didn’t your mother tell you to beware of strange men?”
Suki thought this over for a bit. “Like you?”
The man shook his head. “Not like me. I work here. I’m a security guard. See, I’ve got the uniform.”
Not much of a guard, in Suki’s opinion. Security guards were like Action Man. This guy was more of a Mr. Potato Head. He didn’t even have a cap, and the buttons on his uniform jacket were straining against his ample girth.
“You can trust me,” the man continued. “In fact you’re lucky I found you because I’ll make sure nothing bad will happen to you.”
“My mommy protects me,” smiled Suki. “Last year some boys from our neighborhood were bullying me, she hit them over the head with her umbrella and made them apologize.”
“Lucky you, with such a wonderful mother, but seeing as she’s not here right now, I’ll do the honors and see that you’re safe.”
Suki rolled her eyes, obviously not impressed, so he tried another tack, “Of all the things here in the store, what would you most like for Christmas?”
After some deliberation, Suki said, “The monkey!” And when she saw the man didn’t understand, she said, ‘Come on, I’ll show you.”
She took the man to the section where she’d seen the toys she liked and showed him her favorite. “This one.” She pointed to a cuddly monkey half her size, wearing what was supposed to look like a friendly grin.
“That one, eh?” said the man. “You think your mom will buy it for you?”
Suki shrugged. “Didn’t I tell you? I live with my auntie Rosemary. And we don’t have a lot of money.”
“How about letting me buy it for you, then?” said the man.
Suki may have been a little girl but she wasn’t born yesterday. At home, she had to do her share of household chores, and mostly she got nothing more than a nod of approval for her trouble.
She eyed the man suspiciously and said, “And what would I have to do? Mop the floor? Clean the windows? Dust all the toys?”
“Nothing of the sort,” answered the man. “But now that you mention it, there might be something I’d like you to do for me. Why don’t you come along and I’ll show you.”
Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed the monkey and turned on his heels.
Suki didn’t much feel like following him — she was sure she wouldn’t like what he was going to ask her — but the lure of a new cuddly toy proved too big, and she ran after him, struggling to keep up with the man’s long strides.
She passed the rows of Barbie dolls and the stuffed bear, the video games and the space tableau through the frightening supply of laser guns, swords, knives, pistols, handcuffs and assorted weaponry that made up the universe of little and not so little boys.
The man was waiting for Suki at the back of the store, holding open the door to a room and gesturing for her to get inside. As she walked past him and he closed the door behind them, the light in the room seemed to darken for a moment.
It was obviously a storage room, with racks and shelves that held all sorts of toys and boxes. Many of the toys were broken and piled on top of each other. Whoever got a job of cleaning up this mess had his work cut out for him … or her.
“Here’s your present,” said the man, handing her the monkey. “You’ll find some wrapping paper on that table in the corner, along with scissors and tape. Why don’t you start wrapping up your gift and let me get ready.”
“Ready for what?” said Suki. Now that she had the coveted monkey in her hands, all she wanted was to get out of there, out of that stuffy room and out of the store to wait for auntie Rosemary to pick her up and take her home.
“Ready for your surprise, of course,” grinned the man, showing a row of uneven yellow teeth. “It’ll be ready for you once you finished wrapping up your present.”
Suki didn’t like it one bit. She already had her present as far as she was concerned and wasn’t looking forward to whatever it was she’d have to do for it.
But it wasn’t as if she had a choice. She’d already accepted the monkey, and now she had to do the chore. The best thing would be to get it over with quickly, so she could go and wait for her auntie.
Turning her back to the guard, she got busy. The crackling of the wrapping paper only partially disguised the rustling of clothes, but Suki paid it no mind. In her thoughts, she was already at home and in bed with her new toy.
“No turning around now, dearie. I’ve got your surprise almost ready,” said the guard.
Suki heard him breathing heavily and suddenly felt very uncomfortable. She sent up a silent prayer. I’m frightened, mommy, she thought. Please, make him go away so I can leave. I don’t like it here.
Then the man cursed, and she heard him shuffle, as if he was trying to keep his balance, followed by a thump and more cursing, and then a deafening noise, as if the whole world came crashing down.
Minutes after it had gone quiet, Suki still stood rigid, her shoulders hunched and her head down, not daring to look up.
When she finally plucked up the courage to look behind her, the wreckage was immense. The rack had toppled over and all the shelves and boxes were scattered throughout the room.
Buried underneath it all was the security guard. His bare legs were sticking out, his trousers on his ankles, and Suki could see part of his head. There was some blood on his face, and his forehead looked a little dented.
“Eh … mr security guard … are you okay?” she said.
But the man neither moved nor spoke, so Suki turned to the one person she could always rely on.
“What happened, mommy? Is he hurt?”
“Just a scratch, honey. Nothing to worry about. And there’s nothing you can do here, so why don’t you take your monkey and go to the exit, where auntie Rosemary can find you.”
“Yes, mommy,” said Suki. She picked up her present, gave the bare legs a wide berth and gingerly opened the door.
In the store it was business as usual. No one seemed to have heard the noise and no one was looking in her direction.
She reached the exit just in time to see auntie Rosemary’s car pull up.
“Look, auntie,” she said as she opened the back door and slid into her seat. “I got a present. From the security guard. Only he fell down and now it’s a big mess. But I couldn’t help with the cleaning because I had to come home with you, didn’t I.”
But as her aunt pulled out of the parking lot, her thoughts were on other things and she hardly heard what her little niece said.
Suki looked out the window at the passing cars. It was dark now, and many houses were decorated with strings of Christmas lights.
“Look mommy,” she cried, pointing at a front garden with a sled and reindeer in front, blazing in a sea of light. “Isn’t it pretty?”
Her mother didn’t answer but that was alright. Suki knew her mother always heard her. She leaned back and cradled the wrapped monkey in her arms, the guard in the storage room all but forgotten.
Copyright © 17-01-2018 Theo van der Ster
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