Nancy noticed nothing wrong with the store as she and her daughter, Bea, entered its automatic glass doors. She took a few steps inside then turned around to call Bea, who was leaving a large maple leaf she had found in the parking lot on the bottom of a shopping cart parked outside the entrance.
“Come on, honey. Let’s get inside,” she said.
“I’m leaving this for when we come out, Mommy. So it don’t get lost,” the three-year-old informed her mother. “Okay?”
“Okay. Good idea,” Nancy replied and smiled. They joined hands and walked all the way in.
Interiors was a nationwide chain of large stores containing everything one could ever dream of for their home. Furniture, artwork, pottery, kitchen supplies, candles, lamps, huge area rugs and various home accessories lined its walls and filled its floor. Soft lighting shone around the perimeter, accenting the elegant signage for the different departments. The gentle smells of autumn potpourri and new upholstery wafted throughout the store. Jim Croce sang about his conversation with a telephone operator over the loudspeakers. Nancy smiled in appreciation of the soft rock. It was a cheesy but pleasant touch.
They had come to Interiors to look for Halloween decorations. The move into their new house had inspired Nancy to make a concerted effort to celebrate each holiday in a grand style. Or at least a grander style than they had in the house they had recently sold. That house had been built the year Kennedy took office and was now, over forty years later, in constant need of repair. Funny, but Nancy could never muster up the holiday cheer to decorate when what she was decorating was crumbling down around her.
The seasonal section was at the front of the store, near the registers. Nancy led Bea around its shorter aisles filled with ceramic ghosts and pumpkins, stuffed witches and funny wooden signs that proclaimed, “Boo!” in crooked letters. She loved this type of stuff. It was charming, whimsical. Having it in her house would make her feel like a fun mom who does up the holidays for her kid and who is also a delightful hostess with an off-beat sense of humor.
“Whaddya think, Bea-Bea? What should we get?” she asked.
“I wanna mask, Mommy. I wanna mask for my princess costume,” Bea declared.
“Well, honey, they don’t have costume stuff here. They just have stuff for our house. To decorate. Okay? Can we pick out a few things here and then go get your mask at the costume store?”
Bea put her hands on her hips, cocked her head and considered this.
“All right,” she demurred. “Let’s get a punkin, a witch and a ghostie for our house. To decorate our house.”
An elderly woman and her daughter who happened to be standing close by and heard the exchange chuckled and smiled down at Bea.
“I remember when mine was that age,” said the elderly woman to Nancy. “It goes by so fast.”
“I know. I can’t believe she’s already three,” Nancy said and reached down to smooth Bea’s shining brown hair back from her little face.
Bea looked at the ladies then at her mommy. “I’m free, Mommy,” she said, holding down the thumb and pinkie of her right hand so that three chubby fingers remained up. “I’m free.”
The ladies chuckled again and moved on. Nancy returned to looking at the Halloween decorations. She crouched down to examine a row of cute pressed-tin witches with purple hair and green faces. Their playful smiles revealed crooked teeth and hair-covered warts stood out on their hooked noses. With legs splayed over broomsticks and arms clutching spazzy-looking black cats, they were quite funny. Nancy thought they would look cute hanging on the pantry door. She turned one over to examine its price tag. It read $16.99. Not bad, she thought, but they would be close to half that price a week from now, closer to the actual holiday. In fact, if she waited until after October 31st, she could probably rack up quite a deal on all this stuff for next year. She ran her finger along the sharp metal outline of the witch and tapped its warty nose. She put it back.
Bea was getting restless. Her mommy was in one of her contemplative shopping moods wherein she talked herself out of almost everything she picked up, certain she could somehow get it for a better price. These shopping trips took forever and Bea almost never left the store with anything for herself.
“Mooommmy,” Bea whined and pulled at Nancy, who was still crouched on the floor. “I want my maaask.”
“Huh?” Nancy mumbled, her retail reverie broken. Bea pulled at her again, almost causing her to lose her balance and tumble to the floor. “I know, baby.” She was a little irritated. “Here, let’s get a couple Halloween things and then Mommy wants to look around a little more. Then we’ll go to the costume store. Pick something out. How about this punkin?”
Nancy handed a small paper mache jack-o-lantern to Bea. Bea held the jack-o-lantern by its wire handle which was strung with colorful beads.
“I like him!” she exclaimed, giggling.
“I do, too,” Nancy said, giggling along. “Now what about this wreath?”
Nancy picked up a wicker wreath that seemed to have been thrown haphazardly to the bottom of the aisle. It was strewn with a gauzy type of material that was meant to resemble spider webs. Affixed to it were white skulls with gaping mouths and purple haunted houses leaning and tilting under yellow half-moons. Nancy liked the effect. It was cute and fun but also kind of creepy without being too scary for Bea. It definitely would go nicely on the pantry door in the kitchen. She turned it over to see how it was meant to be hung and noticed a small, black, plastic box right under the hanging loop. It had an on-off switch. Nancy flipped the switch to “on” but nothing happened.
“Hmm,” Nancy said to herself. “Must need batteries. I wonder what it plays. Hey, Bea-Bea, whaddya think about this? Kinda cool, huh?”
“Yeah. Let’s get it. Let’s go get my mask.”
“Beatrice,” Nancy said in a cautionary tone. “I said I wanted to look around some more, okay?”
Bea gave an exasperated sound but took her mother’s hand as they began to explore the store. Nancy was again enchanted by how much the store had to offer. Frankly, she saw nothing she wouldn’t consider buying. She had been looking for months for the perfect thing to hang in the foyer. She didn’t want a painting but a one of those funky metal hangings. All most stores had to offer were cutesy hangings of metal butterflies or flowers. Nancy wanted something funky and cool, and was amazed to discover that Interiors had a whole wall of just the kind she was looking for. She hummed along to “Angel of the Morning” as she excitedly examined them. She also found the perfect painting to hang in their bedroom. There was a large wall to the right of their bed, and Nancy wanted one large piece to go there. This one was an abstract landscape just the right size. It had the perfect color scheme, too, with various shades of deep blue and gray washing through the trees that floated on top of what looked like a body of water. It was peaceful and beautiful. It was only eighty dollars.
Nancy had been so entranced by the reasonably-priced art that she didn’t notice Bea had run off. She never went far, though, and Nancy calmly walked towards the furniture section to look for her. Employees were moving some of the furniture around, and Nancy tried to keep out of their way while looking for Bea. As she scanned the various couches and chairs she began to feel mildly unsettled, like something was off. The employees still moved around her, carrying benches and settees and dressers, although Nancy wasn’t quite sure what their purpose was in doing so. They seemed to be just moving the pieces from one place to another, with no real design or meaning to their work. She noticed that none of them spoke. It was quiet as a tomb. Nancy thought it odd not to be addressed by an employee, especially when she appeared to be looking for something. Then she realized with not a little alarm that as each employee walked by, he or she turned their head and looked directly at her. Their solemn stares were not particularly menacing, but Nancy felt unnerved. Her heart began to beat a little faster. She called out Bea’s name in a shaky voice that surprised her.
She heard Bea run up behind her, red and white gingham sun dress flapping around her little legs and a big grin painted across her face.
“I got you, Mommy! I got you!”
Nancy took a deep breath and shook her head. She picked Bea up and walked a little faster than she had intended back towards the front of the store to pay for their wreath. She felt a little woozy but attributed it to low blood sugar from skipping lunch and not to the weird experience she had just had among the groovy retro coffee tables and overstuffed throw pillows. She told herself that if indeed the staring furniture movers were all focused intently on her, it was because she was blocking the progress of their mysterious floor plan. As for that, she had worked retail before and knew that the designers who worked in corporate often sent floor plans to their stores that didn’t seem to be physically possible.
In order to reach the registers, Nancy and Bea had to pass by the lighting section. It was there that they passed the dazzling display that would prevent them from ever reaching the costume store. Later, Nancy thought to herself that if they had just kept walking, had just passed the display by and gone straight to the registers, none of it would have happened. But stop they did to admire a four-foot-tall silvery -metal structure with arching branches that gracefully twisted and turned from its base like a long-limbed ballerina. It was adorned with gleaming silver and ruby-colored flowers and delicate but intricately carved leaves. Running all through the piece were what looked to be white, over-sized Christmas lights that sparkled like diamonds against the silver metal. It was truly a magical thing, and Nancy and Bea couldn’t help but stop to admire it. Bea softly exclaimed over its beauty, bending her head to “smell” one of the gleaming flowers.
It all happened so fast. As Nancy went to take Bea’s hand and lead her on to the registers, she saw from the corner of her eye a figure coming towards them. The tan apron and nametag that flashed through her vision told her the figure was an Interiors employee. She heard the employee mumble something quickly In Bea’s direction and then pass them by. Nancy tried later to piece together what the employee had said, but the only distinct word had been “touch”. She turned her head quickly to get a better look at the employee, who was walking quickly away. Nancy couldn’t make much out from behind, but she did see that the woman was old and thin, with black hair pulled into a bun on top of her head. Stray gray hairs had escaped from the bun and were standing out in crinkly rebellion all around it. Suddenly, the woman turned her head slightly to the left and revealed her profile. On the end of her horribly hooked nose was a hair-covered wart.
Nancy had less than a nanosecond to comprehend this, because just then Bea screamed and yanked her hand back so violently from the piece they had been admiring that she lost her balance and fell hard to the floor, landing squarely on her bottom. She screamed again and started to wail. Nancy stared dumbly at her daughter for a moment, as one would who has had many stimuli introduced at once and is waiting for her brain to catch up.
“Mommy! Ooowww! Mommy!”
Bea’s fresh screams snapped Nancy back, and she threw her purse, the Halloween wreath she had been holding and herself to the floor to attend her daughter.
“Bea, honey, what happened? My goodness, what happened? Tell Mommy!” Nancy said, raising her voice over Bea’s wails and sobs.
“The light! The light! It burned! Oooww!”
Bea offered the forefinger and thumb of her left finger up to her mommy as evidence. On each finger Nancy saw an angry white blister rising. Bea had evidently grabbed and been burned by one of the sparkling, oversized Christmas lights. Nancy reached out to touch one of the lights herself. She felt the pad of her finger singe a little.
“Shit!” she said under her breath and yanked her hand away.
She looked again at the blisters on Bea’s fingers. Cold water. The restroom. Where were the restrooms? She anxiously scanned the signage again and found them, of course, all the way at the back of the store. Picking her little girl up into her arms, she began to make her way quickly back there. She passed through the furniture section, dodging moving furniture and staring weirdoes without a second thought. Bea was hurt, and she needed to help her. The little girl had stopped crying, now becoming curious about where her mommy was taking her. They burst through the door of the women’s restroom, Nancy plopping Bea down on the counter beside the sink and Bea beginning to whimper as she remembered the pain. As she held Bea’s burned fingers under the cold tap, Nancy crooned to her little girl in soothing tones, stroking her hair and wiping away the tears that rolled down her face.
After a few minutes, Nancy started to think about what to do next. She had tried to remove Bea’s hand from the numbing effects of the cold water, but Bea yelped as the pain came quickly rushing back in and shoved her little hand back under the water. How would she get them home? Ice. Ice would be good. As she thought about where to get ice in a home goods store, she notice the sink beside them was running, and standing at it, washing her hands, was another Interiors employee. Nancy swore she couldn’t remember the woman walking up and standing beside them. She must have missed it in all the excitement of trying to nurse Bea’s wounds.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” Nancy asked what she knew was a stupid question, since the woman was plainly wearing a tan apron.
The woman sighed heavily and closed her eyes. “What can I do for you?” she asked wearily.
That pissed Nancy off. She told the woman what happened in an irritated tone and then asked for a cup of ice. Finally, the woman turned to face Nancy and Bea. Since she was pissed, Nancy wanted to make direct eye contact with this person, to show she was not to be trifled with. Her courage was lost, however, when she saw the woman’s eyes. They were almond-shaped and set far apart on her face. The outside corners were turned up. The irises themselves were a hard yellow and black that glittered in the fluorescent lights of the restroom. Nancy realized with a sickening panic that she was looking into the eyes of a cat. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t look away.
“I’ll get someone to assist you,” the woman said and walked to the door, never moving her gaze from Nancy’s face. Nancy swallowed, but didn’t respond. The woman left.
“Mommy, it huuurrrts,” Bea moaned and hiccupped.
Once again, Nancy snapped back at the sound of Bea’s voice. “I know, baby. I’m getting some ice for you so we can go home.”
“Mommy, where’s the wreaf?”
“What wreaf? Wreath. What do you mean?”
“The spider wreaf. The one you wanted. Did you drop it?”
“Oh, honey, don’t worry about that wreath. We’ll find another wreath another day. We need to get you home to take care of you.”
“But I want the wreaf, Mommy! I want it! Can we get it? Please?” she begged, her breath hitching, her eyelashes wet with tears. Her burned fingers slipped out of the stream of cold water, and she jumped when the pain hit her. She began to cry again.
“Oh, honey.” Nancy held Bea’s hand under the water herself so it wouldn’t slip again.
“Please, Mommy! Please!”
“Okay, okay, Bea. Just calm down. We’ll get the wreath after we get your ice.”
Nancy heard the door to the restroom open again. She glanced up at the mirror to see who it was, hoping someone was coming with the ice. Into the restroom walked a tall woman, mid-forties with short, graying hair. On her face was a large, hooked nose tipped by a hair-covered wart. Both Nancy and Bea shrieked at the sight of her. The woman jumped herself, startled by their screams that echoed through the bathroom. Then she saw her own face in the mirror.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I guess I forgot to take this off.” She reached one hand up to pull the nose away from her face, hooked a finger from her other hand around an elastic string at the back her head and lifted upward, removing the entire thing.
As relief flooded over Nancy like a warm, soothing liquid, she had it on her mind to laugh until she saw what was under the plastic nose. Or, rather, what wasn’t under it. Where the woman’s real nose should have been, there was nothing but a small hole. Bea screamed again, but Nancy managed to maintain her composure.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry again. I’m just not thinking straight today, am I?” The woman quickly pulled the plastic hooked nose back on her face. “This better?”
Bea buried her face in Nancy’s chest. She had had enough. Nancy could sympathize. The woman stepped toward them and handed Nancy an ice pack from a first aid kit. Nancy took it, removed Bea’s hand from the water and pressed the ice pack to her fingers. She couldn’t look back up at the woman but knew she should say something.
“Thank you so much. I’m sorry we screamed at you. We’re just a bit frazzled right now,” she said.
“I can see,” the woman replied, looking down at Bea’s fingers. “I’m sorry, too. We were playing sort of a Halloween practical joke today with these noses. I think Helen still has hers on, too. I usually wear a prosthetic nose since the cancer ate mine off last year. But I couldn’t get both it and the joke one on at the same time. I figured I’d just put the prosthetic back on after the fun was over. I guess I’m so used to feeling something on my face, I forgot I had the wrong one on.”
Nancy tried a good-natured laugh after the woman’s speech, to show her there were no hard feelings and that she was totally not bothered by the hole in the woman’s face where her nose should be. The woman stared back at Nancy, expressionless. Nancy’s laugh quickly morphed into a throat clearing. She told the woman what happened to Bea’s fingers and suggested that the store might want to place a sign by the lights so that no one else would suffer the same fate as little Bea. Again, the woman seemed unmoved and didn’t speak. Nancy busied herself for a moment wiping Bea’s moist face with her free hand and pressing the ice pack down with the other.
“So, would you like me to show you where they are?” she finally offered to break the silence.
“Okay, sure,” the woman replied.
The walked out of the bathroom and back to the front of the store. Nancy hugged a now limp Bea tightly to her chest. As she walked in front of the woman, whom Nancy assumed was a manager, she started to feel angry. How dare the store leave such a dangerous albeit beautiful piece on the floor of the store where any child could easily reach them and hurt themselves? What if a baby had reached out from under the folds of a receiving blanket and touched the sparkling, alluring light? And what about the fire hazard of it? The whole store could go up in flames on a packed Saturday, killing dozens of innocent people! The more she thought about it, the madder she got until by the time they had reached the display, Nancy was filled with righteous indignation. The store better do something about this. They just had better. And this woman-manager-noseless-person better do some serious sympathizing about Nancy’s baby being hurt and quick-like. She wasn’t sure what she wanted done about it but someone needed to make her feel better about the situation soon or there would be hell to pay, by God.
Nancy pointed at the lights on the piece and said in what she thought was a strong tone, “Touch those lights. They’re hot as fire.”
The woman obliged and agreed that the lights were indeed very hot. “But they’re not supposed to be sticking out like that. They’re supposed to be running up the middle of it.” She proceeded to push the offenders back into their place, touching and handling them as if they weren’t burning her fingertips as they had Nancy’s.
“Mommy, the wreaf!” Bea suddenly exclaimed, pointing towards the wreath that lay at the foot of the piece where Nancy had hastily discarded it. “Let’s get it now!”
In a daze, Nancy bent down and picked the wreath up. She stood there for a moment, holding the wreath and Bea, not quite knowing what to do next.
“Okay, thank you,” the woman mumbled, still pushing the lights back in.
“Okay. Thanks for the ice pack,” Nancy replied, still angry but now really wanting just to leave the store and go home.
They approached the registers where a sullen teenaged girl was ringing up customers. The girl scanned the wreath and bagged it without even looking up at Nancy. Nancy put Bea down and swiped her credit card. When the girl handed her a pen to sign the slip, Nancy saw that she had only three fingers on each hand. It was then that the girl finally looked up.
“So, one thing I have to ask you,” the girl whispered conspiratorially as Nancy picked Bea up again and grabbed the plastic bag. Her voice then rose to a shaky but exuberant tone that made the hair on the back of Nancy’s neck rise. “ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?”
The girl emitted a high-pitched giggle and covered her mouth with a three-fingered hand. Nancy heard more laughter and looked back to see the manager and the cat-eyed employee from the restroom standing beside the lighting display, both looking at her and giggling in the same way.
She walked quickly to the exit, trying not to run. James Taylor had Carolina on his mind over the loudspeakers. Bea’s maple leaf scuttled nervously out of the shopping cart as they hurried past, caught in the wind that was blowing very hard outside the store. It sailed across the parking lot and into the busy street. No one noticed it.