Under the fluorescent lights that lit everything with a perfectly neutral white, in between unkempt shelves of children’s toys, Mark held in his hand a stiff box containing a series of transforming robots. He had been wandering inside the Target department store for nearly an hour. Originally, he had intended to quickly drop by to purchase some dinnerware.
The toy looked rather complicated, with numerous articulating limbs and moving parts, and separate accessories that could be removed and attached depending on whatever one fancied at the moment. It even had an electronic display of some sort. He looked at the back of the box and saw that it was meant for children ages six to eight. Mark replaced it on the shelf, wondering if he had those complicated and expensive sort of toys when he was young.
A tug at the bottom of his sleeve prompted him to remove his earphones. Mark looked down and saw a young boy standing next to him. The boy had a limp brown bowl cut that went halfway down his ears, and he was staring down at the ground.
“Hey, mister, could you help me?” He slurped on a juice box without looking at Mark.
“Sure pal,” Mark replied. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t find my mom.” The boy did not sound particularly scared.
“Oh, sure, I’ll help you look for her. What does she look like?”
“She has blonde hair.” He spoke flatly, as though he were bored.
“Alright, that’s a good start. Do you remember what she was wearing?”
“Jeans. And…I think she was wearing a gray T-shirt. I forget though.”
“Sure, don’t worry about it.”
“C’mon, stick with me, you wouldn’t want to get lost again,” he joked.
“Nah, it’s pretty hard to miss you, mister.”
Mark wasn’t sure what to make of the comment. He walked around with the young boy following very closely next to him, searching for his mother.
“You walk slow,” the boy commented. “I like this better. My mom’s always rushing around. Sometimes she’s a real drag. She pulls me by my arm. It hurts.”
Mark, unsure of what to say, simply smiled sympathetically down at him.
The two of them made their rounds hand in hand, searching for the boy’s mother on both floors of the store. Passing by an aisle end cap stocked with bags of candy, the boy stopped in his tracks. He had in his eye a look of desire.
“Wutcha lookin’ at?” Mark asked him.
The boy didn’t break his gaze. “These.” He pointed at a bag of gummy bears.
“Are they your favorite candy?”
“Yup,” he replied flatly.
Mark felt that the boy had an unsettling quietude about him. “Say, we’ve been walking around for a while now, and I don’t know your name. My name’s Mark, and you are?” Mark reached his hand out to the boy, who shook it.
“Sam,” the boy said. He didn’t let go of Mark’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Sam.”
“Hi Mister Mark.”
He chuckled. “Just Mark is fine.”
“You’re older than me. I should call you mister.”
Mark put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and looked at the gummy bears. “So…gummy bears, huh?”
“What’s your favorite flavor?”
“The green ones.”
“Oh wow, really? That’s my favorite too.”
“No it’s not.”
Confused, Mark frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“You’re just being nice to me. You don’t really like the green ones. Grownups don’t even eat gummy bears.” Sam sounded a little sad.
“That’s not true, Sam,” Mark said reassuringly. “They really are my favorite.”
The boy gave him a dubious look.
“Alright, well, it doesn’t really matter if you believe me or not. I’m gonna get some.” He picked up a bag. “C’mon, I gotta go pay for this.”
Mark made his way to the small cafeteria for shoppers looking to refuel, and little Sam followed behind closely. After paying for the candy, he sat down at a table. The boy hopped up onto the chair across from him and watched Mark rip the bag open. The boy eyed it eagerly, though the look was strictly in his eyes: his face was fixed like a ceramic mask.
“Want one?” Mark offered, pointing the bag’s opening at Sam.
“I shouldn’t be taking candy from strangers.”
Mark shrugged and popped a green gummy bear into his mouth.
Sam blinked. “You’re not a stranger, Mister Mark. And the only reason I shouldn’t take candy from strangers is because I don’t know what’s in them. But I watched you buy them. You didn’t do anything to them. And you’re eating one yourself.” He concluded by reaching his hand out.
“You sure?” Mark said with a smirk. Sam gave him a dubious look.
Tilting the bag, Mark dropped some gummy bears into Sam’s small hand. Sam looked at the contents for a second, then promptly dumped them all back into the bag. Mark looked at him, his eyebrows raised in question.
“I only want the green ones,” the boy explained. “The yellow ones taste stupid. The red ones are okay. But I only like to eat those on Thursdays.”
Mark chuckled and nodded in appreciation. “But I like the green ones,” he said.
The boy, who had barely expressed anything on his face until now, pulled his lips wider in sadness, though only barely so.
Mark never had any intention of denying the boy his favorite flavor of candy. “Hold out your hands, Sam.” Sam did so, and Mark spread out a few napkins across the whole table. Then he poured the entire contents of the bag into the boy’s hands, sending a few bears tumbling onto the table. One unfortunate bear, a green one, fell to the floor. Sam’s eyes followed its tragic trajectory.
“Nuts,” he said. “There goes a green one.” He barely sighed.
From Sam’s hands, Mark picked out the green gummy bears one by one and placed them in his own cupped hand. “Here, put the rest of them back in the bag.” The boy poured the gummy bears back in and looked at the remaining ones in Mark’s hand.
“Go ahead, take half of them,” Mark said, reaching his hand out to the boy, who proceeded to pick up his share one by one.
“Thanks, Mister Mark. You’re real nice.”
“Sure thing Sam, think nothing of it.”
They sat there in the cafeteria, eating green gummy bears in silence. Mark finished his share first. When Sam had two left, he put them in his pants pocket. Without being prompted, he explained.
“I think I’d like to eat them later,” said Sam. “When I’m watching TV.”
“Just two? That’s not a lot. That’ll barely last you one show. You won’t even get past the first commercial.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s better than nothing.” He shrugged his tiny shoulders.
“You sure? We can split another bag,” Mark offered.
“No, it’s alright Mister Mark. I don’t think my mom would be happy about me eating so much candy.”
“Speaking of which…how’d you get lost?”
“Dunno. She just sorta disappears.”
“What do you mean?”
“She just goes off and does her own thing. She walks really fast and I can’t keep up with her.”
A female voice intruded. “Joel! What are you doing!?” Both Mark and the boy looked up at the woman. She was dressed in tight jeans and a tight gray T-shirt, and she had blonde hair.
“Joel! I asked you, what on earth are you doing!?” The woman was shrieking. “Who is this guy?”
Mark stood up to address her. “Sorry about this ma’am. This is your son?”
“Of course! Who the fuck are you!”
“The name’s Mark, ma’am. Your son asked me to help him try to find you.”
“Oh,” she said, relieved. “Okay.” She turned to the boy. “Joel, I told you a million times, you’ve got to keep up with me,” she scolded.
The boy looked down at the ground in shame. “Sorry mom.”
Turning to Mark, the mother said, “Say, while you’re here, could you watch him for just a little bit more? Thanks.” Without waiting for an answer, she sped away, arms bent at the elbow and rocking to and fro like a speed walker.
“Joel?” Mark asked quizzically. “Why’d you tell me your name was Sam?” Feeling a little hurt, he frowned.
The boy shrugged. “I always wanted to be a Sam. Haven’t you ever felt like you should be someone else?”
Mark heard the woman laugh, so he looked over at her in the book section, where the boy’s mother was chatting it up with a clerk. From a distance, he watched her as she leaned towards the tall fellow and touched his forearm.
“She does that all the time,” the boy said.
At a loss for words, Mark replied only with, “Oh.” His mind was lost in ruminations, and he sat there mindlessly watching the boy’s mother merciless flirtations, a corner of his mouth upturned in disapproval.
Suddenly, the little boy sniffed the air. He turned in his seat to look at something. Then, finding something of interest, he got out of his seat to investigate.
He went up to the counter and watched an employee putting freshly baked cookies into a display case. The cookies slid gently off of the tray and into neat rows onto a slanted shelf.
Mark stopped staring and went over to the boy.
“Wutcha lookin’ at? he asked him.
“Those,” the boy said, pointing at the cookies. “They smell really good. My mom used to make them. She stopped last year though.”
“Probably because she hates my dad,” the boy said, shrugging. Then he explained as a matter of fact. “He left us. He told me it’s not because of me. I believe him. My mom’s a bad woman. And now I don’t get cookies anymore.”
Mark took a deep breath, inhaling the caramel scent of warm cookies out of an oven. It was not the oven of a kitchen in a warm loving home, but he did not care. He hoped that the smell would unlock some happy memory locked away deep inside his mind. Alas, nothing came to mind but his first day of work as a salesman.
“I sell cookies, you know,” Mark said.
“Oh. Do you sell double fudge chocolate chunk? I really like those.”
“We just call them double chocolate.”
“Double fudge chocolate chunk sounds much better.”
Mark chuckled. “I bet you drink chocolate milk with that.”
“You want one?” Mark asked, gesturing at the cookies.
“No thanks Mister Mark. You already got me gummy bears.”
“It’s no problem at all, Sam. Besides, that’s what friends do.”
The young boy looked up to connect with Mark’s eyes for the first time since he had tugged on his sleeve. Mark looked back at him, and they both smiled at each other.
But then the boy sighed and looked at the ground. “It’s better if I don’t have one though. If I eat one now, I’ll just want one again. And I’d be sad all the time that I couldn’t have one again.”
Mark looked at the boy and frowned sadly that the boy connected with him on that point. He took the boy’s hand and headed to the counter to order a cookie for him, but the mother swooped in and pulled the boy away. “Thanks a lot you’re a life saver!” she said as she raced away, dragging the boy behind her.
Mark sighed, wondering what would become of the boy as he made his way to the dinnerware section, where he picked up a single dinner plate and searched for drinking glasses. Unfortunately, they were only sold in boxes of four, which was three more than he needed. He settled on purchasing a box, thinking that at least he would have spares lying around.
At the register, Mark stood behind two middle-aged men. He estimated that the two of them, with their spackle-spotted jeans, work boots, scraggly stubble and sinewy forearms, were blue-collar working men. They took out of their cart a set of dishes and glasses.
The taller man said to the stocky one, “I dunno, man. I’m not really feelin’ these cups. They lookin’ a lil too weird for my taste. I don’ like the blue stripes, man.”
“They’re called glasses, dude,” the stocky one said. “Not cups. You can’t read?” He shook his head in disdain. Noticing that the cashier had a hint of a smile, he said to her, “Oh, don’t worry, he ain’t my honey.” She chuckled. Then, with a contagiously big grin, he said, “Nah, he my ol’ lady.” The tall man guffawed and put his arm around his friend and made a kissy face. The cashier laughed and shook her head in humored embarrassment.
When she finished bagging their purchase, they wished her a good day, and she turned to Mark with a residual smile. He paid for his purchase in silence, leaving her with a smile and a nod.
ON THE WAY HOME, Mark had decided to walk through a nearby park to enjoy the autumn air. There was a walking path from the west side gate that wound through the entire park and ended at the eastern gate on the opposite side of the park. High above in the blue skies, the autumn sun beamed gently down at Mark through brown-red oak leaves. As he walked underneath the rustling branches, the sunlight flickered over his eyes like a vintage movie projector with a reel of silent film spinning through its lens.
He entered at the eastern gate and ambled along the winding path. With his eyes cast downward, he couldn’t help but notice how ugly his surroundings were. Strewn all about were cigarette butts, dead leaves, pieces of tissues and napkins, half of it wet like mulch. A couple of stagnant puddles of dirty water narrowed the path for any pedestrians who wished to keep their feet dry. A discarded candy bar wrapper floated in one of the puddles, completing the motley collection of litter.
But then two squirrels distracted Mark’s attention from the garbage. They darted from out of nowhere and came to a stop at the base of a big oak tree with a heart and initials carved into it. He watched the squirrels curiously as they dug a hole in the ground and imagined that they were husband and wife, a mother and a father storing up acorns for the winter. Before he got to observe the squirrels any longer though, the beeping of a green Parks Department truck backing up scared the creatures away.
A woman trudged past him with a tiny young girl in tow, pushing a rickety plastic stroller in front of her. The girl, hanging on to the woman’s worn green wool coat, waddled as best as she could to keep up with her mother’s long strides.
Acorns crushed underneath the woman’s foot with each step, and the little girl’s brow furrowed deeper with each crunch. Finally, the little girl tore her tiny hand out of her mother’s grasp. Her eyes wide with concern, she squeaked with urgency, “Mama, stop!”
The mother stopped walking, but turned to her with a weary face. “What is it?”
The little girl bent forward and pointed at the ground, littered with cracked and flattened acorns. “You’re stepping on those nuts!” Her face was tautly drawn downward with distress.
Wearily, the mother said, “So what, Olivia?” She sighed. “What is problem?”
“Squirrels have to eat them, mama! You’re breaking their food!” She swung her tiny fist at her mother’s leg.
Mark, who had taken a seat on a nearby bench, laughed gently.
The mother kept walking, and her daughter followed closely behind. But when the mother stepped on another acorn, the little girl yelled out as if she were about to cry. “Mama!”
The woman sighed and slumped her shoulders. “Okay Olivia,” she asked her daughter. “Why is important to you?”
The girl pouted and answered without looking at her mother. “Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel have to eat those, mama. How would you like it if someone stepped on our bread and eggs?” She huffed.
The woman’s eyes lowered in guilt. “I stop stepping on acorns, okay?” she said softly. “You are right, Olivia. I’m sorry to mister squirrel and misses squirrel. Now come on, let’s go home.”
Obstinately, she said, “No, I want to stay.”
“Oh Olivia, my little ray of happiness…why you are doing this to me. I am tired.”
“It’s nice in here, mama, I don’t like it out there.”
“Okay, fine, you win.” She resigned by sitting on the bench next to Mark. It wasn’t long before she began to nod off. Mark began to rise from his seat, but stopped when the tiny girl yelped out in glee.
She had spotted a nearby pile of leaves that was taller than she was and had burst towards it. Mark smiled at the sight of her running around it in circles. He could see her cute little face marked by two rosy cheeks lit up with a cheery smile. Then, she paused to catch her breath before she shuffled through the leaves with her eyes closed and her hands thrown up in delight.
Suddenly, he felt frightened for the little girl. Anybody could’ve snatched her up, he thought, and the mother couldn’t have done anything about it—if she’d even notice before it was too late.
To him, she was adorable in her puffy brown jacket that matched her brown hair perfectly. She kept playing with the leaves, scooping them up into the air and kicking her feet to launch even more leaves into the air. As the leaves popped skyward and floated down around her, he thought that the tiny girl might disappear altogether, her sepia tones melding with the pile of auburn leaves that enclosed her.
When she was done having her fun, she ran to her mother, her short little legs pattering along. “Mama!” she yelped happily. The little girl poked her mother’s arm, but she didn’t stir from her rest. After several more attempts to wake her mother, she climbed up onto the bench and sat next to her quietly, wiggling her feet.
After a few moments, the little girl peeked past her mother at Mark. He smiled at her, and she waved at him. Then she hopped off the bench and climbed up to sit down next to him.
Mark turned to look at her. “Hey there you little cutie pie! My name’s Mark, and you are?”
“I’m Olivia!” With a beaming smile, she bounced happily. “Are you a father?”
“Oh, no, I don’t have kids. Why do you ask?”
“Because you’re dressed like one.”
“What do you mean?”
She pointed at the black shirt under his solemn charcoal suit. “That’s black,” she said. Then she pointed under his neck, where there was a triangle of white T-shirt between the collar points of his black shirt. “And that’s white.”
Mark laughed. “Oh, a priest. No, I’m not a priest.” He thought a moment before asking the girl. “Wanna go feed the squirrels?”
Her eyes lit up. She looked over at her mother before standing up to hop off the bench, but Mark motioned with his hand for her to sit back down. “Wait for your mommy to wake up before you ask,” he said to her, “she’s very tired, okay?”
The little girl hopped over to her mother and leaned on her shoulder, pressing their noses together. When the woman finally opened her eyes, the girl rubbed noses with her. “Mama, can we stay and give nuts to the squirrels?” she asked.
The woman smiled and got up off the bench. “No,” she said softly. “We cannot worry for squirrel, okay? We must get home, and then we must visit deda at hospital. You want to see deda, don’t you? He will not be here for much longer.”
“Oh.” The girl frowned. “Where is grandpa going?”
“To heaven,” the woman said, patting her daughter on the head.
“He used to play peekaboo with me. Can he still play from up there?”
“I don’t think so, honey.”
The woman started walking, heading for the eastern gate. “Come, Olivia, let’s go, okay?”
The girl pouted, but she complied. With her arm stretched out in front of her, she attached her hand to her mother’s coat, and her tiny shoes pattered over many acorns for every long stride her mother took. She turned to smile and wave goodbye to Mark. Rising from the bench, he waved back and stood there watching her for as long as he could, until she walked down a far hill and sunk into the grassy horizon.
COMMENTARY. This is the first time I am publishing a piece of my novel here on this website. The piece was an assignment for my fiction workshop, and I had trouble condensing things into the ten page limit. In my novel, the two events depicted here have much more distance from each other in the narrative. What was shocking to me was how many of my readers suspected Mark of being a pedophile and felt that the story was a little creepy. I’m interested in what some other people’s reactions are.