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.
Mr. Thomas has already taken his seat, and he strokes his beard with gnarled fingers as I set a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. I’ve heard his hands are quite strong.
“Smells good,” he says, watching me. “I always eat too much.”
I give him a polite smile.
“And afterwards I always swear I’m going to get on my old ten-speed and ride it for five miles every day,” he said. His low, untroubled chuckle brought bile to my throat. “And then I think, how silly would that look? An old man on a bike. Old men don’t ride bikes. They swim laps in the pool or play golf. Bikes are for you teenagers.”
The strain of my smile hurts my face. “I guess.”
I hear sobs coming from the kitchen. They bring no reaction from Mr. Thomas. Perhaps he’s used to it. Ten years ago, he’d brought the town out of financial debt with his millions. All he demanded in return was an annual payment to keep the population manageable. The whole town had signed the agreement.
I escape to the kitchen to see Mom holding the basket of warmed rolls at arm’s length. They smell far too good. Mr. Thomas always brings the rolls and asks that they be warmed up. Mom’s face is turned away. “Take it. Just take it,” she says to my twin brother.
Jake takes the basket. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“We weren’t fine three years ago,” my aunt reminds him. The plunk of ice cubes she drops into glasses punctuates her words. “Three years ago, your father–”
“I know what happened to Dad,” Jake says, and the strain on his face as he walks past me surely matches my own.
I point to the turkey cooling on the counter. “Do you want me to take that to the dining room?”
Mom’s eyes look old, haunted. “No. I’ll do it.” Her gaze darts to the broken clock on the wall. It had given up recently after years of use but hasn’t yet been replaced. We still check it out of habit. “What time is it?”
Aunt Grace glances at her watch. “Almost six.”
“We need to hurry,” Mom says. “Terri, get your little brother in here.”
If only he could stay outside. My eyes sting, and I blink away tears.
Eleven-year-old Alex has been raking leaves for over an hour so he won’t have to be near Mr. Thomas. I breathe in crisp fall air and approach him. “It’s time.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat. You know the rules.”
“Screw the rules!” Alex throws down the rake and rushes past me to the back steps where three rotting pumpkins sit, their shriveled carved faces collapsing inward, remnants of happier times just weeks before. We’d each had our own pumpkin to carve this year.
Alex stomps on each one. His furious, frustrated grunts at the effort break my heart.
The pumpkins flattened, Alex stands, panting. Tears roll down his cheeks. “Screw the rules,” he repeats, softer this time. He yanks open the door and enters the house.
Moments later we sit at the table. Alex is across the table next to Jake. Aunt Grace sits beside me, putting herself between Mr. Thomas and me. Mom brings out the turkey, a trace of old pride still in her step. We compliment her cooking, as is tradition.
On each of the holidays throughout the year, Mr. Thomas takes turns dining with the families left in the town. Our turn is every Thanksgiving at six o’clock. If a family has to make a payment during his visit, he will stop dining with families for the remainder of the year. Sometimes, the town gets lucky on New Year’s Day, and we can all relax.
He stands and carves the turkey, setting the juicy pieces onto the dinner plates stacked before him, and we pass the plates down the table. Bowls of vegetables and mashed potatoes go around. We pile our plates, then sit in silence. No one moves.
Mr. Thomas lifts the one item that hasn’t been passed. “Bread, anyone?”
At the foot of the table, Mom puts her hand over her mouth, closes her eyes, and gives a soft moan. Mr. Thomas hands the basket of dinner rolls to Aunt Grace without taking one for himself. Grace takes a roll and sets it on her plate, then passes the basket to me.
I stare at the five remaining rolls, willing myself to see through them.
Mr. Thomas’s voice holds a gentle, coaxing threat. “Terri.”
I take a roll and pass the basket to Mom. It makes its way around the table back to Mr. Thomas, who sets it in front of him. One roll remains in the basket.
“Eat now,” Mr. Thomas says.
First Aunt Grace, then Jake, bite into their rolls, eyes downcast. Mom is next. Alex stuffs his into his mouth and swallows it whole.
Mr. Thomas sends a piercing gaze to Alex. “We’ll find it, if it was in there. What goes in must come out.”
I bite into my roll and my teeth hit something warm and hard. Cold terror makes my heart slam my chest. With trembling fingers I pull the coin from the bread.
“Ah,” Mr. Thomas says, smiling at me in delight. “You got the lucky penny. I wondered if we would go the entire year without a payment.” He stands, looking satisfied. “Your family and I will eat this wonderful meal afterwards.”
My family’s faces hold sheer misery. It has happened to us again. First my father, and now me.
I gulp in shallow breaths and try to speak. My desperate gaze meets Jake’s, then my mother’s. I am alone in my terror. No one can help me. Fighting is useless. If I resist, all of us will die.
Mr. Thomas takes my hand and leads me to the front room. My family follows. Alex begins to cry, and Jake puts his arm around him. Aunt Grace and Mom cling to each other.
Mr. Thomas pulls a small rock from his pocket and hits the window. The glass shatters in the middle and leaves long shards stuck in the sash.
He turns back and faces me. “You’d think a broken window means failure to those who see it from the street. But your payment is an honorable symbol of the agreement. The population stays as it should and the town is better off financially.”
Payment. I keep the word in my mind as I move my feet to the window. Mr. Thomas dons a thick leather glove in his right hand, grasps the back of my neck, and pushes my head out the window. My throat is inches above the shards.
Sobs and wails emit behind me. “Let me hug her, please,” Mom cries out. “Let me say goodbye.”
“You know the rules. The agreement has no room for emotion.” His warm breath wafts over my neck. “It’s all about payment owed.”
Payment. For them. For my family. They’ll be safe. For now.
I close my eyes. His hand tightens on my neck and shoves it down.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.
The idea for this story came from a “what if” scenario involving a millionaire who owned a town and everyone in it as the result of a signed agreement to keep everyone financially secure. What would happen if one person per year was killed by the millionaire so that there would be one less mouth to feed? This story might remind you of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which is about an annual tradition in a small community where one person is selected via lottery and killed in order to ensure the harvest will be good that year.