Tate knocked on the front door of The Toy Shoppe and, as if willing him inside, it eased open. Somewhere inside, a radio faintly played “O Holy Night.”
He paused, peering into the darkened hall. At his back, his pickup ticked in the heat of the dirt driveway. The air was dead, bugs buzzed in the August-burnt grass. Red and green signs in the scorched yard of the red-painted farmhouse advertised The Toy Shoppe with promises of “Become a Childe Again!”, “Toys for all Goode Girls and Boys!”, and “Donations Welcome!” Tall wooden cut-outs accompanied them — a rose-cheeked Santa Claus, round white snowmen, reindeer prancing before a sleigh. Glossy candy cane pillars lined the porch. A wreath of fresh pine boughs hung on the door.
All of this was visible from Manx Road, a dimpled, one-layer asphalt affair three miles out of town, swallowed in high corn fields. Tate had been by the house twice before going to his new job in Arenzville: just an old farmhouse remade into a holiday shop selling donated toys. Probably the dream of a retired farmer and his wife. Each time Tate had driven by, The Toy Shoppe hooked his attention enough to slow his truck. Now it had reeled him in enough to stop.
The front door open, he caught a fragrance of warm gingerbread, saw brilliant strings of Christmas lights twinkling in a room at the end of the hall. Though he didn’t know it, a smile came to him, and he found himself in the hall, slipping the door shut. Vivid memories of Christmas mornings flooded him, and he felt a giggle in his throat. Puzzled, he held it back as he moved toward the room.
“Hello?” he called, and a man laughed in the room. Though there were no other cars here, he thought maybe a father and son were shopping for toys.
He stepped in the doorway of the room, squinting against the Christmas lights tacked to the wall and ceiling. The room was packed with toys. Toy cars, rockets, stuffed animals, Play Dough, dolls, Lego sets, Matchbox cars, Nerf balls, and guns and darts—all on shelves, all covering the floor. That wild elation sprang through him again, and now he did giggle.
Movement caught his eye.
A very fat, naked man in a business tie sat playing in the toys. The man was fish-belly white. Spit and red peppermint was smeared over his chin, down his hairy chest, his crusty tie. His eyes were flat-black, like dull marbles. When he saw Tate, he produced a delighted wail, like a baby.
“Come play wit me?” the fat man asked, his voice rough and stupid. “Come play?”
Tate stepped back. “No, no, I — “
“Come playeee!” the man howled, rolling to his side, crushing toys as he tried to get up. Tate fought the urge to cackle gleefully at the man’s nest of black pubic hair, his stubby white dick.
Let’s play, Tate felt himself think. Let’s play with that Millennium Falcon and that X-wing, and then let’s bake a cake in the Easy Bake. Let’s smear frosting over ourselves, let’s play all day and all night, and then tear into more presents in the morning and play all day and all night —
“Stayeee ‘n playeee wit me!” The man lunged for Tate on his knees. “Stayeee ‘n open prezeees!”
Without realizing it, Tate had backed out of the room until he bumped the front door. Jolting him to action, he seized the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. It was like it had hardened in cement. He slammed his fist against the door and halted.
The late afternoon summer sun was gone. Frigid wind pried at the door.
He shoved the curtain aside.
The sky was gray, and snow was falling. It blanketed the yard, driveway, empty fields. It piled over his truck. Several snowmen with coal buttons, carrot noses, and stovepipe hats grinned in the yard. He could hear sleigh bells. Christmas lights had been strung on the cut-out sleigh in the yard, over the reindeer. Some kids in snowpants and scarves were pulling a toboggan by the candy cane porch. When he banged on the window in the door and shouted, the kids waved to him. Their faces were icy-blue, their eyes flat-black marbles.
Now he did scream, but it came out as a bizarre, kid-like laugh. He laughed, and it was hilarious because it was Christmas, it was always Christmas, and why should the fat man get to play with all the prezees?
Tate felt his arms move, saw his workshirt fall to the floor. His shoes came off, pants and underwear kicked aside. He thought maybe he’d like to go sledding. But first he wanted to play with some of these prezees.
He’d start with the Sit-n-Spin.