This is a guest post from Shannon Carpenter.
“Ticket, please,” the Sentinel says, crossing her stroller with the other guard on her right. It makes an X, ye shall not enter.
“Um,” I say. Why would I need a ticket to shop?
I quickly scroll through the emails from my wife, the ones that ask if I’m ok going to the consignment sale to do some shopping for our two boys. These giant kid sales happen everywhere, and they have names that try and hide their true nature. Names like “Just between toddler’s friends with twins and triplets.” Normally, my wife would be here, entering the arena and giving out a challenging war cry.
I find my pre-purchased ticket and present my sacrifice to enter. The strollers uncross, and I make a crack about how it really makes no sense to pay so I can come here to spend more money. They throw a diaper bag at my head. I dodge. I’m nimble. I sting like a bee, float like a butterfly.
This is the perfect venue for the sale. It’s big enough to hold a herd of Mammoth’s, complete with a center stage where some of the pricier items are located, such as high chairs and things crafted by Sharon. She sales essential oils and Unity Crystals. I don’t think the crystals are working, maybe they require a blood ritual because inside the auditorium is chaos. The smell of mothballs and diet coke singes my nose.
The floor space is covered by racks and racks of kids’ clothing that create a hedge maze, and I fear what may be lurking for me in the middle. Girls 2T, Boys 5t, infants, toddler dogs. All marked on haphazard poster board pinned to the top of each row. Moms fly between those rows like velociraptors looking for the weak sale; the little one that has been separated from the pack. The easy meal. I’m immediately pushed in the shoulder. Someone calls me a chump as they take my shopping bag. I have to gather what resources I can before I am devoured.
I grab another bag and get my list out, keeping my elbows in and my shoulders tight. I need jeans for my five-year-old son and his older brother needs a couple of shirts. And if I get the chance, my wife says I’m supposed to challenge the Alpha. I’m not sure how that will turn out.
I take a wrong turn in the maze and end up by child’s belts. Who knew there was such a thing? There is a sign above the bin. 50% off! It’s like throwing chum to the sharks and hands dart in and out of the belt bin until there is nothing left but torn leather.
This isn’t my world. I’m surrounded by people that call themselves “mamma bear” on their social media accounts. “I want to speak to your manager” haircuts bounce around snarling faces. I’m kicked in the knee and almost go down.
“Excuse me!” I’m told from behind. I’m the unlucky seal who wandered into the frenzy. I look at the mom behind me. Outside of this place, in the normal world where Pit Rules don’t apply, I bet she is very nice. Her black hair is up in a ponytail and she pushes a green double stroller. But underneath her red and green Christmas sweater, I know she probably carries a shiv.
“I’m sorry,” I say and dodge out of the way, through a rack of clothing and into a different aisle. Society has broken down, and the only rules are the ones you make yourself. I watch as one mom holds up a pair of boys jeans, thinks about it, and then drops it over the handlebars of her stroller. A grandmother’s hand, a true OG, snatches at them. But the mom turns around before the grandmother can consume her prey. There’s a snarling conversation, and the grandmother backs off.
This is my wife’s world, not mine. As Beyonce recommended, I did put a ring on it. Then I put a baby in it. Several times (high fives all around). Now I find myself trying to get discounted clothes because I also have to pay for braces and the furnace blower sounds dodgy. I need to do some bargain shopping this year because my budget is getting a bit stretched.
I make my move and reach my hand into the generic clothing to my right. I’m hopeful that whatever I grab is the right size for my youngest, but honestly it’s up to the gods at this point. I pull out something denim and something long sleeved. I throw it into my bag and go full on Wolverine berserker mode. It’s the only way I’ll make it out. I lumber down towards the sizes for my older boy and pounce, claws out and drool glistening my chin. I feast on what is in front of me, but with no recognition of what I’m doing.
And then the Alpha shows herself.
She has three kids in total, one strapped to her chest in a war saddle. The other two kids are on foot, lean looks eyeball my shopping bag. The Alpha mom smiles and waves, the first salvo to distract me. I break down and start to shake. She’s too much, to put together, to in control. This is her domain and she doesn’t even see me as a threat. I’m a snack; a morsel to chew on. She has a red bow in her hair but the undercurrent of her look is terrifying. It’s the holly-jolly look of terror and it consumes me. She’s the kind of mom that I’m sure wraps all the presents in matching paper with razor-sharp folds. Everyone around her gives her a wide berth. I get ready to hand over my bag.
“Gladiators!” a disembodied voice booms from overhead. “There is a lost child! If you see Samantha, age four with a unicorn sweatshirt, please bring her to the front.”
A chant begins in the arena. “Find her! Find her! Find her!” I turn and run. I am a coward. I knock over a stack of Hot Wheels cars and stuffed animals on purpose to distract the younglings that are surely on my tail. I spot Samantha next to a Barbie Princess castle that looks like it has survived countless imaginary sieges.
“She’s here! I have found Samantha!” I bellow, my voice echoing off the walls. The pack descends, and I ride the mob to the cashiers. I place whatever I have managed to plunder onto the counter.
“Have you sacrificed! Have you felt the pain!” the cashier yells at me.
“Then hand over your credit card!”
We complete the ritual and she uses the ash of a fire to mark me on the forehead as one of the survivors. I weep. The doors open and outside the sun shines warmer than I can ever remember, even though it’s the middle of winter. Behind me, the chaos continues. The pit will shape those that enter, but the question is what that shape will be? Sometimes, what comes out the other side isn’t pretty.
Back in my car, I text my wife. I ask her to remember me as the man I was, not what I have become.