Under the Shrew
*Welcome to Ritzy World!
The Funnest Place on the Planet!*
As soon as the sneaker had driven itself into Michael’s groin, he immediately realised that his jockstrap, specially made from scrotum-shielding neoprene, had failed in the line of duty. There was no sure-fire way to tell what had caused this catastrophic hull-breach. He may have forgotten to fasten it all the way across his mid-riff, or perhaps the precious insulation had simply gone flat from years of service. Either way, the result was the same. Michael fell to one knee clutching his balls with an oversized white glove. The height adjustment had brought him eye-level with his assailant. Through the cotton and polyester headpiece Michael could see a perfectly rotund little boy of eight or nine years old, snacking on a cloud of cotton candy and beaming at him with dull yellow teeth. All the world’s hatred seemed to be reflected in those teeth, all its malice and (more literally) decay. Crouched under the fearsome glare of the Florida sun, Michael made a desperate bid to be professional. He quickly let go of his heaving testicles and wagged a finger at the chubby boy as if to say ‘no no, let’s not have that again buddy, that wasn’t very nice.’ The fat kid let out a short quack-like laugh then waddled away, most likely on the hunt for a hotdog.
Sammy Shrew kept on smiling, but underneath it all Michael scowled. Deep down in his ventricles, he knew the boy was just playing, that in his mind there was no distinction between the costume character in front of him and the cartoon mouse that had been bouncing on a television screen for eighty years. He knew this, but it didn’t help. By this time, a lot of people were staring. Dozens out of the human traffic, bopping along to brass band swing, took some time to see Sammy at his lowest. There in the late 1890’s town-square, opposite the magnificent theatre- front of pillars, struts and arches, they observed something very rare. The Shrew had fallen, an icon spanning decades, momentarily defeated. And then, because stopping was out of the question, they walked on, forgetting what they had seen. Slowly, Michael inched his fur-clodden feet onto the red bricks of ‘Boulevard U.S.A’, and stood up. Sparks exploded in his vision as he read the town-hall clock behind him. 11:45, coming up high noon. Shit. He would need to do a dance outside the Emporium in fifteen minutes, a hip-hop number with a jangling synth track and three guys in backward caps. No way he’d be able to do that now. He would have to find a supervisor and have them message the break room for a swap. Anyone would do, (so long as they’d been briefed on the ‘DJ Rumpus Routine’) the novelty would carry them through. Michael was considering this as a family of three approached the steps of the town hall, two fragile little girls and a father, hailing him with raucous cheers. Michael froze. Between the squeezing pain in his groin and the tinny music on the P.A system he had forgotten where (who) he was.
‘Remember your training. What would Sammy do? ‘’
A small voice in the back of his head answered him.
‘I’d give them a big ol’ welcome of course! Let’s go say hi, Mike!’
There it was. Michael waved with both of his giant mittens and ran to meet the girls half way, doing his best to disguise the limp. He bent down and patted each of their straw coloured heads, then signed their autograph books with a shaky signature.
It had taken seventy man-hours to perfect that penmanship and the work of a sports shoe to scramble it. Certainly the girls didn’t seem to notice. They were too full of sugar to care. In another minute they were ploughing their way toward ‘World of Tomorrow’ and Michael was on the hunt for an attendant. Michael only noticed the sunburnt man after he had walked passed a Gooby the Dog balloon stand. He was a barrel-chested figure shuffling away from the Enchanted Palace in baggy chinos and a faded leather coat. Too hot for that today. You wouldn’t reach heatstroke under direct sunlight quite as fast as one of the Ritzy gang, but you’d only be an hour behind. Michael wouldn’t have noticed him at all were it not for the ridiculous colour of his head. Lobster red, stoppered by a pair of thick sunglasses jutting off his face in a block. Was he alone? Did he want an autograph? He watched as the sunburnt man turned in past the Emporium, coming to a stop on the asphalt path. He was still watching as the sunburnt man took a joystick out of his coat.
(No, don’t do that).
It wasn’t really a joystick, because a joystick wouldn’t have looked like this.
(Please stop doing that. I’ll do a dance for you).
For one thing, the wiring looked homemade.
(Do you like hip-hop)?
Time slowed. Hawaiian shirts and the parents inside them faded away; greasy stumbling children blurred out of view. Nothing in the world existed except for Michael and the sunburnt man, each with their stories stretching away from them and finally knotting at this, the tail end. The sunburnt man pressed a button, and his story was over.
News reports described it as one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st Century, which in his private thoughts Michael considered untrue. You couldn’t say a thing like that without knowing what the next eighty-five years would bring; and if the likes of Bill O’Reilly could read the future then Florida would soon fall into the sea.
Not to say it wasn’t sad. It was very, very sad.
The endless banners of screaming text that circled Fox News and CNN championed how sad it was.
RITZY WORLD BOMB DISASTER. They read.
31 DEAD. THOUSANDS MOURN AT GATES OF ORLANDO RESORT.
And it was true. Hundreds of shuddering forms came into focus on the cathode-ray television, all holding tiny candles and huddling together, tears staining their multiple chins like cling film. They swayed like barnyard animals before the camera panned to a mile long perimeter wall adorned with flowers and photos. Every available space had been overtaken with tributes to the lost. In one shot someone at the back of the gathering was eating a big-mac. That was the clincher. Michael switched the T.V off, plunging the room into darkness. He fell weightless onto his mattress and stared up at the gently turning ceiling fan.
He couldn’t have been the only one to think there was a kind of unspoken agreement with extremists. It was fair game to attack capital cities where spirits were already at a lull, but Ritzy World, the mecca of everything child-friendly and innocent? It was (a kick below the belt) unthinkable. The ‘funnest’ place on the planet had been breached and this time the lasting damage wasn’t in bricks or fatalities, it was in dreams. There was no place left to go that couldn’t be hurt in some, awful, irreparable way and everyone could feel it.
‘Hey Mike, maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong.’ Sammy said, his voice gaining new purchase in the dark room.
‘I mean only thirty-one dead in a crowd that packed, Gee willikers! That’s gotta be some kinda miracle!’
Michael rolled onto his side.
‘Ritzy World security is better than some police forces, Sammy. It was a miracle the guy was there at all.’
Sammy Shrew was silent. By 1.am they were both asleep.
For Michael, home was a coral-white villa a few miles off the interstate with a small-enclosed pool and walk-in bathroom. Despite it having no second floor the retail value had recently clocked in at around two hundred thousand dollars, this not including the extra paneling he’d had done in the kitchen. All mahogany. No laminate. You could afford to splash out when your second home was the Enchanted Palace. Needless to say that property had been closed until further notice. At some point in the morning a phone was picked up.
Words fell out the speaker in a southern drawl.
‘One thing you gotta understand Michael; Ritzy World is efficient in everything. Stuff like the parades and the shows, you already know. I’m talking maintenance, cleanup, marketing, the things you don’t see. This will just be another job to them.’
Michael dragged a hand across his face and said ‘I quit. That’s it. You hear me? I’m done.’
There was a sigh from the other end of the phone.
‘Well, guess I can’t blame you, but we’re already processing more than we can handle right now. Much as I can tell everything will be fixed late August. Then it’s a question of sensitivity. How soon is too soon? Just cos the park is ready doesn’t mean people will come inside. They have to feel it’s ok to enjoy themselves again.’
‘Sure, sure. When I hand in my notice, it needs to be in an office. ’
‘Exactly. Whatever happens we’re still on the payroll, so get your bearings. Go see your family, maybe watch a few movies. Just…’
‘ …Just take care of yourself Mike. It was an awful thing that happened.’
Michael thanked his manager and rung off. Another voice spoke up to fill the space.
‘Oh Boy! I know a movie you can watch.’ It said. His breakfast finished, Michael slid his plate in the sink and shrugged his shoulders at the ceiling.
‘Fine, what do you have in mind Sammy?’
Behind his eyes, Michael could imagine the roll of a snare drum, a spotlight on a bare-plank stage, and the three intersecting circles of Sammy’s face.
‘Howsabout, The Muppet Movie!’
Michael groaned, then looked at the clock. Still only seven a.m. with the whole day ahead. If he wasn’t going back to bed he could at least do some errands. The fridge hadn’t been restocked since before the bomb and by the look of things Michael had been eating less to avoid fetching groceries. With a concerted effort, he could be out the house and on his way to an Aldi by half past. It would beat watching the morning sitcoms on A.B.C After all, how many re-runs of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ did it really take to make a life complete? Michael was thinking this over when there was a dull thud far off in the house. He looked up, but seeing nothing in the corridor, relaxed into his morning routine. He went to the dresser and pulled on a pair of jeans. A mental shopping list popped into existence and hovered in front of him. Bacon was a must, so was bread, cheese; a couple ready meals with potato in them, and chicken; anything with chicken in it. There were also (something missing?) soups, canned goods. He was getting lazy when it came to pasta so he’d avoid that food group altogether. Having formulated a rough list Michael pulled on a hockey jersey and walked to the cupboard, intent on finding a jacket. There was a cross draft at his back.
He flipped through his options. Grey, blue and white stripes, (it’s not here), red hoodie, anorak. Michael picked the hoodie and swiped his keys from the desk. Perhaps he’d buy a new kettle from Target on the way back, they usually had sales in the summer and he wanted something that could make latte foam like in the cafes. Michael had almost reached the door when it came to him. The gap in his memory filled with sudden clarity and he drew a rattled breath. His keys hit the doormat. He had lost track of his work clothes.
‘Aw geeze, you should have watched the movie Mike. Been easier if you were sitting down.’
That was wrong. The voice had come from outside that time, deeper than its usual, studio-cut tone. Michael pressed himself against the door.
There was a soft padding across the carpet; he turned to look.
Michael froze. All at once, the smell of rotting meat was everywhere, like a boarded up butchers shop with the hams still inside. The time-lapse of a decomposing mouse filled his head.
‘Don’t turn around Michael. I’m in bad shape this time. I’m slipping away.’
In his periphery, Michael could see a tail the thickness of a bullwhip lashing back and forth in complete silence. All the moisture in his mouth evaporated. The Shrew spoke again.
‘All I need now is a body, so I’m going to take yours.’
‘Please, go away.’ Michael tried to shout but there were paws in his brain, tiny hands with claws attached. They gripped at him and took hold of something deep inside. It was the helm of a steamboat. Using all of his strength, Michael turned to face Sammy, and fell to the floor with the effort. For an instance, Michael thought Sammy had lost his eyes. The peach flesh of his face was blank, then he realised.
The eyes were still there. They were the size of marbles.
Business at Ritzy World, Orlando was resumed on September 28th in order to (as the papers quoted) ‘get the jump on Halloween and Christmas’. To complement this tagline The Miami Herald included a hilarious picture of Goober the Dog springing out of a pumpkin and getting tangled in some festive wreaths. There was, expectedly, mention of the June bomb tragedy and Ritzy had been hard pressed abating the concerns of potential customers. Did corporate really think the parks security was any better now than it had been in summer? Words like ‘radar-fence’, ‘garrison’ and ‘safe’ all seemed to imply that they did. From Crayon Canyon all the way over to Sunshine Forest a new strength was leaking into the resort and as soon as the gates creaked open, there was Sammy. Curiously, there were no complaints from the on-staff costume department following the relocation of a single Sammy Shrew suit. The costume was clearly in pristine condition from the way Michael (who had once been a tanned, thirty-something man with brown hair and blue eyes) took care of it. The general opinion was that he’d earned it.
As for Mr Shrew, he was waiting in a hotel suite for a very special guest. Presently a female attendant walked in with a small child at her heels.
‘This is Lucy’ she said, and stood aside to watch the magic.
Sammy looked down to see a bald girl with a nasal aspirator snaking its way into her face. She gazed up at him, enchanted.
They held each other for a full minute before Lucy pulled away.
‘I love you Sammy.’ She said.
Sammy Shrew laid a hand on her shoulder.