Simon walked along the street, holding his daughter’s small hand in his own. He looked down at her and smiled seeing her wide-eyed interest in the busy street.
‘Shall we head home then, Mathilda?’ he asked.
‘Not yet, daddy,’ she said dragging him forward.
They continued along the street, meandering through crowds of people. After aimlessly wandering for a while they neared a haggard-looking man sat in front of a pet shop. In front of him was a large glass cage containing a number of small furry creatures. As they approached, the man heaved himself to his feet with a grunt.
‘Hullo there, interested in a playmate for your little ‘un?’ he asked.
Simon eyed the shapes darting around in the cage. ‘I don’t think so.’
Mathilda bent down to get a closer look at the creatures.
‘Careful, ‘Til,’ he warned, gently pulling her back.
‘But look, daddy!’
‘I’m working for this pet shop here. It’s a new scheme for us less fortunate types. I sell their fuzzy little critters for them, draw in some sales, and in return I get a cut for each one I sell. Works out all round, see? And before you ask, I have official class five certificates showing ’em all to be clean as a whistle and disease free.’
Mathilda shook herself free of Simon’s hand and knelt by the cage. ‘Oh daddy, can we get one? Please? Look they’re so cute!’
‘Seems like your little ‘un is smitten.’ The man’s weathered face creased as he grinned widely. Simon caught the look and sighed, they both knew there was no talking her out of it now. He peered into the cage. There looked to be a dozen or so creatures in there, each one about the size of a squirrel.
‘How much?’ Simon asked.
‘Only fifty standard each.’
‘Alright, ‘Til, which one would you…’
‘That one, that little one there,’ she interrupted pointing to a small brown one in the corner. Its head was cocked as it studied Mathilda. After a moment, it looked away and began sniffing its own arm.
‘Good choice, that is,’ the man winked at Mathilda.
‘Yay, thank you, mister,’ she squealed.
‘Don’t thank me, little ‘un, it’s your dad here that has to pay.’
* * *
Simon was drinking tea in the kitchen when Mathilda entered. ‘Morning ‘Til, what would you like for breakfast today?’
She shrugged and slumped into a chair at the table.
‘Alright, lets fix you some cereal.’
Simon poured some cereal and milk into a bowl. As he turned towards the table he saw the creature appear on his daughter’s shoulder.
‘I didn’t see it in the living room this morning. I thought we agreed to leave it there overnight?’
‘He’s not an “it”, dad. His name is Rab.’
‘Rab, eh? Alright, I’ll try to remember that.’
He placed the bowl on the table in front of her but she seemed more interested in playing with Rab. Simon noticed the happy look on his daughter’s face. It was good to see her smiling again. It had been too long.
‘So have we worked out what he is yet?’ he asked.
Rab began chattering into Mathilda’s ear – a fast, low clicking sound like a playing card flicking in a bicycle wheel.
‘I’m not really…’ Mathilda sat up suddenly, ‘I want some fish for breakfast.’
‘Fish? For breakfast?’
She smiled sweetly at him. She knew he couldn’t deny her, he could tell by the glint in her eyes. She was growing up so fast already.
‘Alright, but I think we only have tuna, will that be alright, princess?’
‘Dad, I keep telling you to stop calling me that!’
Simon chuckled as he pulled down a tin from the cupboard and opened it. ‘Want it in a sandwich?’
‘Nope, that’s fine,’ she said grabbing the tin from him.
‘Hey, no snatching!’
‘Sorry,’ she called behind her as she ran upstairs to her room.
Simon looked at Rab sitting on the table, his small black eyes darting around the kitchen. His head jerked towards Simon and their eyes met. Simon felt uncomfortable pressure growing in his forehead. He closed his eyes and pinched the top of his nose.
After a moment the ache began to fade. He looked back at the table to see Rab sniffing his arm. Then he scampered off upstairs towards Mathilda’s room. What a strange animal.
* * *
Simon sat in his car outside the school waiting for his daughter. He caught his reflection in the rear-view mirror. Unshaven, creased shirt, black rings under his eyes. Anne would have hated to see him like this. He rubbed the scar on his cheek. It had been over a year since the accident but her sanguine face still haunted him constantly.
He was jolted from his thoughts as Mathilda collapsed into the car grasping her school bag in her lap.
‘Good day?’ he asked.
Mathilda unzipped her bag and Rab leapt out and settled onto her shoulder.
‘You took Rab to school with you?’
‘He wanted to come.’
‘I don’t think the school allows pets, ‘Til,’ he said putting his hand on her arm.
‘No one saw. He just wanted to go on an adventure, that’s all.’
She was getting more and more independent these days. Soon she’ll be more than just a handful. Turning out just like your mother, he thought.
‘Alright lets head home, make sure your window is closed so Rab doesn’t jump out.’
‘Rab wouldn’t leave me,’ she said, petting the small creature as it gazed out of the window.
Simon glanced sideways at her. She seemed more distant from him since they bought that creature. Probably just the novelty. He was sure he would be the one looking after that thing in a few weeks after she gets bored of it. The car engine whispered to life as he pulled in to the road and started for home.
‘Want to go to the pet store this weekend and see if they can tell us what Rab is?
‘I’m not taking him back,’ she said, her voice cold.
‘I don’t mean return him, just find out what sort of creature he is.’
She leant forward and switched on the radio in response. He didn’t want to press her and cause an argument. He was curious though, so he decided to go by himself at some point.
‘So, what do you want for dinner then, princess?’
‘Sorry,’ he grinned, ‘so what do you want?’
Rab started clicking excitedly in her ear.
‘Um, can we have fish again?’
* * *
A few days later Simon found the pet store again and approached the cashier inside.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
‘I wanted to ask you about an animal I bought from this store a few days ago.’
‘Of course, what sort of pet is it?’
‘Well I’m not entirely sure. You see, I bought this creature from a homeless man that was set up outside the store. He said he was employed by the shop in some sort of scheme.’
The cashier stared blankly.
Simon continued, ‘He had a cage with some small creatures in. He sold me one for fifty standard credits?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about. We don’t have any schemes that involve the homeless and we sell all our animals from right here in the store.’
Simon frowned, ‘You know nothing about the man that was outside a few days ago?’
‘No I’m afraid not. If you want to bring the animal here, we would be happy to classify it for you though.’
‘I have to go. Thanks for the help.’ He exited the shop and raced home.
* * *
Simon ran through the front door calling for Mathilda. She answered from the kitchen. He entered to find all the cupboards open and her groping around inside one of them.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked catching his breath.
‘Yup,’ she replied.
‘Oh. Yeah, he er… died. Over there.’ She pointed to the floor behind her without turning around. Simon looked where she was pointing and saw the creature’s limp body on the floor. He walked over and nudged it with his foot. No response.
‘What happened?’ he asked, a mixture of relief and confusion washing over him.
‘I’m hungry,’ she said, still rooting around the cupboard.
‘I’ll make you some food in a minute, ‘Til, just tell me what happened first.’
‘Aha!’ She climbed out of the cupboard happily clutching a can to her chest.
She must be in shock. ‘Mathilda,’ he asked gently, ‘what happened?’
‘Oh, er… I think he fell. Or something.’ Her eyes darted around the kitchen until her gaze fell on her arm. She raised it to her nose and sniffed curiously.
Simon dropped to his knee and looked at his daughter. A feeling of dread crept over him as he watched her. Holding up the can she beamed at him, ‘I found fish for dinner!’
© 2015, Gavin Zanker.