“I need a price check on this yak.”
Nobody will respond to my call. I’m behind enemy lines. It’s every man for himself. Every man and/or sixteen-year-old young lady attempting to make some extra cash so she can buy her sixty-year-old neighbor’s broken-down Buick at some point in the near future. That’s how you wind up working the cash register the day before Christmas Eve at Felicity’s Department Store at a mall that only has three stores left in it other than the one you’re working in. A pretzel stand, a frozen yogurt emporium, and a pet store that only sells goldfish.
Is your life your life? Have you been dropped into a short story that’s trying too hard to be quirky? It’s difficult to tell. Nearly impossible to tell.
The yak grunts.
“Excuse me,” the woman trying to buy the yak interrupts your existential crisis, “How much longer am I going to have to wait? I need to get home and wrap this yak, because it’s for my niece Kierstina and she’ll be arriving on a tugboat first thing tomorrow morning.”
The woman doesn’t seem as pushy as some of the others do. She’s dressed head-to-toe in what appears to be a coat made out of forest underbrush. She smells of pine and mahogany. Her hair has twigs in it and she has a bow and arrow strapped to her back. She’s someone you’ll seek out one day when the world ends. That’s if it ends in a burst, rather than a trickle. You look around you. The cashier at the next register is trying to scan a life-sized portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec as an eight-foot-tall man screams that she didn’t give him the promised discount.
This might be the trickle.
The yak laughs. You wonder if you’re losing your mind. Yaks don’t laugh, do they?
“He’s not laughing,” the woman informs you, “That’s just the sound they make. It sounds like a laugh, but I can assure you, this yak does not find any of this funny. Not one bit.”
Perhaps she’s not as nice as you originally thought, but can you blame her? You’ve both been waiting for a price check for over three hours. Rumors circulated earlier in the day that the entire Wild Animal Department had quit in a huff, but you couldn’t confirm that before it was time to clock in with your ninety-digit code. It’s a miracle you can remember it, but then again, it is just the number seven repeated eighty-nine times and then the number three.
Numbers swirl around you--
You’re sixteen, your neighbor is sixty, eighty-nine sevens, one three, and four more hours left in your shift until you can go home and make dinner for your seventeen little sisters. Your mother would do it, but she’s working across town at the nicer mall with the nicer Felicity’s and the customers who only buy reasonable items like Faberge toilet bowl lids and faux ivory salad dressing ladles. Every item is marked. Price checks are never needed. Your mother has been trying to get you a position there, but the manager only hires blonde women and you have your father’s ginger locks.
Life is unjust and the absence of justice comes in a trickle.
Or a rush.
“Can you just charge me seventy-three dollars for this yak,” asks the woman, “That’s what it costs. I know, because I would never pay more than seventy-three dollars for a yak. Not even a yak in pristine condition. As you can see, this yak is not in pristine condition.”
You look at the yak. It’s true. It doesn’t appear pristine. Its cloven hooves are caked in mud. How did that happen? Did the Wild Animal Department forget to mop the floor before they resigned en masse? The yak doesn’t seem bothered by its slovenly appearance. It kicks one sturdy leg back, but not in a threatening way. It seems to be stretching and who could blame it? It’s been standing on a belt for three hours waiting to be told what it’s worth.
“What are you going to do with it anyway,” you ask the woman, which isn’t totally professional of you, but what does it matter? You’re quitting this job after the holidays one way or another. You’ll go back to working at the yogurt emporium if you have to. So what if all the machines are broken and your entire shift is spent telling angry customers that it’s now only a yogurt emporium in theory and not in practice? It’s still better than this…
“The yak is going to keep me company,” the woman tells you, her demeanor softening, “I have no one. I live in the woods. When the holidays arrive, I light a fire and give thanks for all my blessings. My log. My stick. My pile of branches. I like to have someone there with me as I do this. Last year, I bought a raccoon, but it ran off shortly after New Year’s Eve. The year before that it was a badger, but the same thing happened--Gone by January 1st. This year, I’m picking something larger. That will solve the problem. At least, I believe it will.”
You know the yak will run off just as surely as the other animals did. In fact, you look into the yak’s eyes and it seems to be telegraphing to you that as soon as the clock strikes midnight on the last day of this year, that yak will go barreling into the wilderness never to be heard from again. You give the yak a little nod to say that you understand. That this woman may not be a bad person, but there is no living with her. The most it can offer her is company for a few nights, and after that, she’ll be back on her own again.
Hopefully she won’t come back looking for a refund as the customer service department is now manned entirely by a robot named Steve7 that hasn’t worked in weeks.
“You know what,” you say, “Take the yak.”
The woman eyes you suspiciously. She’s not sure she heard what she knows she’s heard. She leans in close.
You repeat yourself. You even push the yak a centimeter closer to her on the belt.
“Won’t you get in trouble,” she asks.
With a shrug, you indicate that you don’t care. Felicity’s will be out of business in another year anyway. It’ll become strictly digital, and if anyone wants a yak or a portrait of a dead French artist who was only five feet tall, they’ll need to have it delivered to their house or their clearing in the woods.
“Happy holidays,” you say, as you try to package the yak in the brown paper you’re meant to use for precious items like candles or marble soap dispensers.
The woman smiles at you. She sees your humanity. Each of you is eager to have this moment. This spurt of generosity amongst the madness of the trickle.
Suddenly, a voice comes over the loudspeaker--
“Attention shoppers, please be advised there is a flood on Aisles Forty-Five, Forty-Six, and Forty-Seven. The ark on Aisle Fifty-Two is currently full, but we will be offering space on the next ark as soon as it’s built. Thank you for your patience, and from all of us here at Felicity’s, we want to wish you a very happy holiday.”