Though he’d never especially enjoyed visits to the shopping mall, today was different; Robert had a mission. Today, for an hour or two, he could withstand the too-many teenagers lounging next to filthy fountains, the aggressive mongrel scent of too many spritzes of too much cologne. If he thought he couldn’t stomach it, now he’d have to try. After all, his dear wife was not the patient kind, no longer willing to allow him the time he needed to plan or to scheme or to dot the ‘i’ in her name on a birthday card. Always preempting, assuming, always waiting in the wings, Bob’s better half was weary of vain expectation and dashed hopes. He allowed the mental picture to sharpen. This very moment, she was no doubt sitting at home, toes tapping and wrist twitching, surmising her surprise- a snug red sweater, the very one she’d requested weeks ago.
Robert bobbed in and out of the thick crowds haunting cute boutiques and department stores, feeling robbed of precious time with two children he’d not seen since breakfast. Straight to dinner from work- a comfortable daily routine, on those normal days when he wasn’t compelled to purchase arbitrary items in celebration of a wedding anniversary. Still, proud of himself for remembering the gift in the nick of time after many explicit reminders, he soldiered on in search of the golden ticket which would gain him admittance to the dinner table and, hopefully, into his wife’s good graces. But 'later,’ he thought, was getting sooner by the second, so “
why can’t I remember the stupid store
?” In response to his frenzied frustration, a young cashier turned with a slight grimace, not because Robert was no longer welcome, but because she could not wait to clock out and escape the piercing headache of too many shoppers on a too-hot day.
Hoping he could cheat, perhaps, and find a knockoff of the desired designer’s design, Bob even toyed with the idea of presenting a flashier item in its place. A ring, maybe, or a new painting could do the trick. He paused and sighed. The tragedy of it all was that his lover cared not about material goods; she wanted nothing more than an occasional, tangible sign of his undying affection. Since her husband did not know to kiss her everyday, and was not fond of chores, their bank account took the hit. She had learned to deal with a lack of creativity on his part, a tendency to stall and buy time. They had settled comfortably on this, a tacit agreement to give and take just as much as they could handle.
Walking past the blinking neon arcade, Robert braced himself for the onslaught of annoying noises and shrieks from the children inside before a sudden bang, an aural assault both distant and deafening, interrupted his dread and caused him to jump slightly and take in a terrified breath.
Boy, have these games gotten creepily realistic.
He disapproved with a shake of his bowed head. A woman’s guttural cry broke the silence that had frozen all shoppers in their tracks several seconds ago. Looking up just in time to avoid being tackled by the crowd, Bob turned and ran, keeping pace as a helpless member of the startled and stirred herd.
Because he was headed toward the exit, Robert was spared a glimpse of the thing, of the unfortunate reason for his hasty, empty-handed departure. If he had looked back, past the throngs of gasping sprinters, he may have been curious enough to walk toward it. He’d have almost certainly tip-toed toward it- an abandoned corner near the restrooms, now doubly-abandoned and quieter than a late Sunday night. At the moment, no brave or foolish soul was there to see the grisly scene, a site of shocked terror and arrested exchanges of quips and merchandise. It’s a good thing he did not look back, a good thing he did not allow his morbid curiosity to draw him closer. Not much remained, save the casings of the slain- an ugly sight, to be sure, for any eyewitness. Lucky Robert, thank heavens, was not among the many who saw what clamoring reporters reported that night- two bodies too limp to stand (one very young, one a mother). The details were not spared- a pool of bright red, a small, pink sleeve, a tiny tennis shoe, a sticky rubber toy. A mess of brown curls, a smudge of lipstick, and a bullet between the eyes.
His aversion to shopping now justified, Bob sank into his car with no feeling but the slightest twinge of regret. Leaving without a gift, nothing to show for his trip besides a sweaty brow. A waste of time, he thought, a waste and a terrible bother. Before turning the key, he blinked and wiped away the torrent of tears on its way to his collar, wet already from his dramatic dash to freedom. Home is two minutes away, and they can’t see him wild and upset like this. They can’t, not like this, when he was too eager to escape with the crowd, too weak to guide stragglers toward the door. Too shaken to investigate, too startled by a too-loud bang. He felt sick and ashamed as he watched security guards in their feeble attempts to detain fleeing vehicles from the expansive parking lot. It was already dark, already late; hundreds of headlights only added to the macabre chaos. Once again, he pushed through, like a bat out of hell, away from danger toward the safety of his home.
Early in the morning, Robert awoke from fitful sleep to the smell of singed butter and the sound of his daughter laughing. To the kitchen he carried a half-remembered nightmare in his throbbing head, heading toward a frantic wife with a somber kiss. “Sleep okay?” she asked, to which he shrugged and smiled. Nothing should ruin this special day- not a foul mood or a missing present or a toy on the floor. “Pick that up, please,” he grumbled to his beaming little boy. “It’s not mine!” but he obeyed anyway, dutifully straightening up the cluttered space. Robert kissed his wife’s temple, her cheek, her shoulder. Suddenly thankful to have her next to him, safe in the crook of his arm, Bob whispered two words in her ear. She smiled, with genuine surprise and a gleam of hope visible even to her husband on this day. Breakfast at the table was a very rare occurrence; she feared that was what tipped him off. If Bob had had his wits about him last night, his wife would have awoken to a bouquet of flowers and a playful hint regarding her gift. Alas, he was not so clever.
After a bite or two of dry eggs and soggy toast, Rob dragged himself to the double doors, stopping to sit and put on his shoes. A voice drowned out the clanking dishes: “Go say goodbye to Daddy before you put on your sneakers!” A bundle of baby girl rushed through the foyer with outstretched arms. Robert, scooping up and kissing his daughter, tickled her neck until his wife walked up to the mirror to fix a mountain of tumbling curls. “Honey, go put away your jacket. It’s going to be hot today, and we’re not leaving until later.” Robert watched as his child removed a heavy coat to reveal a hot pink shirt while bouncing up the dangerously steep stairs. “Where are you guys headed?” he asked, scratching his head and smiling up toward the occupied mirror. “I promised her a trip to the toy store, just the two of us, once we drop him off at soccer,” she half-whispered, gesturing toward their still-eating son. Robert nodded and realized he had just enough time to finally pick up the coveted red sweater; hopefully, he would recall the one she wanted. “Can I bring ducky with us?” yelled their baby from the bathroom, her plea falling on distracted ears. Mom fiddled with her hair while Dad crossed his arms. He sure did hate shopping, but he’d have to make a quick trip to the mall after work- just this once, for his wife on a special occasion.