The house needed work, but it came cheap and had a grassy back yard for Sara to play in. I’d signed the mortgage contract two days before, and as my daughter and I walked on the cracked sidewalk to the dilapidated front door, I knew this would have to do until I could pay off the medical bills that had almost wiped us out financially. All the money in the world wouldn’t have saved my wife, though. Watching her waste away from cancer almost did me in. Only the thought of my four-year-old daughter stopped me from going into a dark hole of depression. Sara needed me.
She clutched my pinky with one hand and her favorite doll with the other. Behind us was a small rental truck with our belongings. Since this house came furnished and we’d had to sell just about everything we owned to pay bills, there wasn’t much to bring in. Inexplicably, the realtor had told me, the previous owners dashed off one night without any of their things.
“Let’s go see your new bedroom,” I said, trying to smile.
The two-story house had been built during the seventies. The furniture was well-used but functional, and the appliances worked. It would be enough.
I let Sara pick her bedroom, and as I thought, she selected the room with yellow paint on the walls and a wooden toy box by the door. “I have to bring in your sheets and clothes and things,” I said. “We’ll make it look just like your room in our other house, okay?”
She didn’t look upset, which was good. As she opened the toy box, I trotted out to the truck to grab boxes. A few minutes later, I lugged a big box of linens and towels up the steps. Sara sat in front of the open toy box, holding a matted, dark brown lump.
I set down my box. “What have you got there, sweetie?”
She held it up. It had four legs and a long neck. “It’s a horsey.”
I looked closer. The thing was filthy and half flat, like it had been dragged through the mud and run over by a car a few times. “I think it’s a giraffe.”
“He’s mine.” Sara smiled and hugged it.
It was all I could do not to snatch it away. I didn’t know what was on it, and I didn’t want her getting sick. “Why don’t we give it a bath,” I said. “It looks a little dirty.”
“No. He doesn’t want a bath,” she said, and buried her face in its matted, grimy chest.
I gritted my teeth. As soon as I could, I’d throw it in the washing machine. “Look,” I said with forced cheer, pointing into the toy box. “There are more toys in here. There’s a doll like yours, and a teddy bear, and…um….” A smashed train car, some scattered puzzle pieces, and two Barbies with no clothes and no heads. “I’ll bring up your toys.” I turned toward the door.
“I love you.”
I swung back to tell her I loved her too, but she wasn’t looking at me.
She held the giraffe out in front her, nodding. “Hi Mally, my name is Sara.”
Sara carried Mally with her the rest of the day, but I got my chance to wash it at bedtime. She fell asleep as I finished up her favorite story. I began to gently pull the giraffe from under her arm. Then, I paused. Its black plastic eyes gleamed, smooth and shiny and not at all scratched and scuffed like they’d been earlier. The moonlight from the window made them look alive, and they stared right into mine with a malevolent coldness. Like the thing dared me to touch it. My breath hitched. I pulled back my hand.
At that moment, Sara brought it up to her face.
No, this would not do. I didn’t want my daughter breathing against the dirty thing all night. Ignoring its eyes, I lifted it and carried it from the room, then made my way down to the basement. As I started to toss it into the washing machine, it seemed to… no, I refused to believe that. It didn’t wriggle. It didn’t move at all.
Into the washer it went, with double the amount of soap.
Sara asked about it first thing when she awoke. I had just made coffee and was still groggy, and now realized I hadn’t put it in the dryer. “I washed it last night, honey,” I said, trying for an excited tone. “Let’s go see how clean it got.”
Sara’s eyes filled with tears. “He didn’t want a bath!”
“Sure he did. Every giraffe wants to be clean. Let’s go check.”
Downstairs, I opened the washing machine, and my smile faded. I reached in and pulled out pieces of the giraffe. White fluff lined the barrel of the washer. From limp brown and tan fur dangled legs, a body, a neck, and a flat head. It had certainly gotten clean, but had ripped apart in the process.
Sara sobbed and ran upstairs. I felt bad and made plans to buy her a new toy giraffe and name it Mally the Second.
In the kitchen, I glanced at its eyes, still intact. They stared at me, hard and livid. Dangerous. I flung the pieces into the trash can. Good riddance.
I made breakfast for Sara and called her down to eat. She danced into the room carrying the giraffe.
“You fixed it, Daddy. You fixed it!” She held it out.
My body went rigid. The thing had been re-stuffed and crudely sewed up. Its evil gaze locked with mine. I lifted the lid to the trash can. It was empty.
“Mally doesn’t like you, Daddy, but he loves me. Forever and ever.” She kissed it.
My lips stretched in a grimace. “Sure, honey.”
Mally would like me even less when I cut out his eyes.