“Gordon, I’m running out to the bakery. Be back in a jiff,” Rachel yells as she backs out the door. “If Jensen’s calls, tell them we’re low on checkers, Sorry and Monopoly. And don’t forget we have dinner with the Hyltons tonight.”
“Okay,” Gordon mutters, not bothering to tell his wife the shipment has already arrived, and is stacked against the back wall waiting for him to muster the energy to stock the shelves. He wishes he could forget their dinner plans, considers feigning a headache or a back strain — whatever might prevent having to make polite chatter over dry chicken and limp vegetables.
He’s only thirty-eight, but feels decades older, barely able, and increasingly unwilling to keep up with Rachel, who never stops moving. Busy at their toy store, busy at home, busy at the hospital where she volunteers. Somehow unfathomable to him, Rachel has resurrected herself into the dervish of focused energy she was before Carrie disappeared.
It’s been nearly four years since their little girl vanished from her kindergarten playground. Fourteen hundred thirty two days. Long ago, he’d stopped hoping, stopped pretending she’d arrive home, still beautiful, still innocent, full of giggles and silly stories. Unharmed and unaffected by whomever, whatever had stolen her from them.
Now he simply wanders through each day, stocking shelves, assisting customers, balancing accounts, while somewhere in the back of his mind, he dreams of disappearing.
Just like that. With nothing but the clothes on his back.
Like Carrie did.
On autopilot, Gordon straightens the shelves, barely seeing the brightly colored boxes until he reaches the last rack in the rear of the store. There on the bottom-most shelf, from behind an army of stuffed animals, he retrieves a small pink music box.
He lifts the lid, watches the plastic ballerina spin in lazy circles to the tune of Swan Lake, smiles at the memory of Carrie sitting cross-legged on the floor, mesmerized by the tiny dancer.
When the music ends, he gently closes the lid and tucks the box in its hiding place.
He returns to the front, counts the money in the till, then begins to lower the shades. Beyond the two cars parked at the curb, he notices a woman hurrying across the street toward the store, her face a mixture of frustration and fatigue, one hand clutching the neck of her frazzled gray sweater, the other tight around the wrist of a skipping little girl.
His fingers are still gripping the shade’s pull when the door bursts open. The bell above the threshold needlessly announces their presence, bringing with it a cool rush of air, the soft scent of a spring evening, and the animated chatter of the little girl.
“Mommy, can I have a new Barbie? The Ballerina Barbie. Mommy, please?”
“Amanda, how many times have I told you, we’re shopping for a birthday present for your cousin. That’s it.” The mother’s voice is measured and stern, the words rushing out while her eyes roam the shelves. She turns to Gordon and drops her daughter’s hand to glance at her watch. “You’re still open, aren’t you?”
Gordon stares at the little girl’s hand, notices a mole on her thumb. Suddenly the room seems stuffy, his shirt collar too tight. He means to assure the woman she can take her time, realizes he should ask if he can help her find the proper gift, but all he can manage is a nod.
Amanda tugs on her mother’s sleeve. “Can I have a book? They’re ed-u-ka-shun-al, aren’t they?”
Amanda’s lower lip pushes out in a pout, but she does not cry, and when she looks up at him, Gordon is astonished to see the clear green eyes flecked with gold.
Gordon stares at the little girl. She’s about the same age as Carrie was when he last saw her. The same slight build, the same dark hair. An overpowering surge of love and loss sweeps over him, and, without thinking, he reaches out to stroke her cheek. She cowers from his touch, and he quickly draws his hand back, and looks to the woman, an apology ready to spring from his lips.
But the woman has already stepped away, heading toward a video game display.
Gordon forces himself to walk to the cash register. He stands behind the counter, opening and closing drawers, shuffling papers, trying to keep his eyes off the little girl. Finally, he switches on the small television suspended from the ceiling, and feigns interest in a Japanese game show.
Ten minutes later, between squeals of the game show contestants, he hears Amanda pleading with her mother. When the woman brings a Tonka truck and plastic hardhat to the register, he is not at all surprised to see the child also carrying a toy.
Triumphantly, she places the pink music box on the counter. “This is for me.”
Gordon pales. “I… I’m sorry, that’s not for sale.” He snatches it, and quickly, but carefully, places it behind the register, out of the little girl’s sight.
The woman frowns. “But it was on the shelf.”
Back stiffening, Gordon mumbles, “My mistake. I’m sorry.”
Amanda begins to wail, green eyes flashing.
Once again, Gordon feels the room growing hot, the air stifling.
Her mother offers ice cream, pizza, Ballerina Barbie, but she continues crying for the “pretty pink box.” Finally, the woman holds up her hand, threatening. “Amanda, that’s enough!”
The little girl shrinks back, stuffs her hand in her mouth. Tears stream silently.
Later that night, Gordon sits in his den, the music box before him on the desk. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out the woman’s check. Studies her signature — all jagged lines and sharp peaks. Remembers the frown lines and upraised hand. Quietly recites the address he’s already memorized.
Sees again the enchanting green eyes flecked with gold. Imagines how they’ll shine when she sees the pretty pink box.
And dreams, again, of disappearing.
Renee Holland Davidson lives in Southern California with her husband, Mark, their two mutts, Josie and Kinsey, and an obstinate and unnamed muse. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including the Los Angeles Times, the flashquake, and Chicken Soup for the Shopper’s Soul.