The warm orange glow of the street lights complimented the humdrum of the city that had just woken up to flashily dressed youngins that graced every liquor store in sight, trying to find the cheapest happiness they could, all passing disapproving elders that mused on the waywardness of the youth of today, while also visiting the said establishments.
Though a usual scene, it never seemed to bore him on his way home from work on Friday. In fact, it almost reminded him of his younger days, when the world ended the tomorrow and you had to make the most of it the night, only to realize that you had to wake up the following day to the memories of a bittersweet thrill in the name of having fun. He sometimes wished he could go back to those days, but life took over, and he had to grow up sometime.
He made a left turn at the end of the street, meeting a more morose scene, one that had shops with broken window displays, broken pipes splurging water on the already filthy pavement, only visible under the flickering fluorescent lighting that dotted the length of the street. As he went on, he met a short, fat man dressed in a shiny suit buckling his belt, a bad attempt at cleaning up his tracks. Behind him was a scantily clad buxom woman, well advanced in years from her wrinkled face, who followed him closely, expecting something from him. He turned back and handed her a thick envelope, after which he darted across the street to his Range Rover, driving off silently into the night.
“Hello Michael. How’ve you been?” she asked him, reaching out for a hug that he was all too willing to give.
“Not bad, as a matter of fact,” he replied.
“And home? How is Rachel?”
“She’s okay, I guess.”
“Well, we haven’t argued in a while, so I guess we’re okay.”
The lady shook her head, marveling at his obvious ignorance, yet her smile was welcoming as always.
“So, you want to…”
“Um, not today. I have to be somewhere else,” he said.
“Where? I know this street like the back of my hand. Where else do you want to go?”
“I need a bit of love tonight,” he calmly said.
“Aaah, I see. Not a problem then, I’ll see you when I see you then,” she bade him goodbye as he went on. More well-dressed men with women tailing them came out of different shops, some even being accompanied by muscular men who each wanted their dues. Some greeted him, others offered him their services, but as soon as he said where he was going, they bid him farewell, and one even pointed him in the right direction.
“I know where it is,” he said.
“Everyone needs a bit of help, right?” he had said behind his mask.
He turned left again at the end of that street to meet a queue of people, some whom he had just passed. It was no surprise what they had come for, as some of them still had a semblance of a conscience in them.
“Great location,” he always said. On the line, he saw a lot of men and women that he recognized from various areas, few who he didn’t know at all. They chatted as they inched closer to the venue, laughing merrily as if they had known each other for years, yet it was their remorse that bonded them. Directly in front of him was a rather beautiful lady who had a picture of a gentleman, beaming as bright as the phone she held.
“Husband?” he asked. She turned, peering at him under the dim light for a while before exhaling.
“Yeah, the love of my life.”
“I see. He seems like a wonderful man.”
“He is. I’d do just about anything for him.”
“I know that feeling.”
“Wife?” she asked him, now turning to face him.
“No, Michael is the name I was given,” he said as she giggled.
“Of course. I’m Malaika. And you? Have someone?”
“A wife, for over ten years now.”
“Ten??!” Others turned to see them, also surprised at that figure.
“Can you believe it?”
“Why? All it takes is love, sacrifice and commitment…”
“And a lot of gifts to smoothen things,” she interrupted as they both laughed.
“That too.” They looked into each other’s eyes, seeing the others’ torment eating at them from the inside, yet being hidden by their well-choreographed statements and calm-looking demeanor.
“Next,” a voice said over an intercom device mounted on the wall.
“That’s me,” she said, “it was nice to meet you, Michael.”
“Pleasure,” he said as she walked through the metal door. He watched her disappear into the room, as did the old man behind him.
“Lovely young lady, isn’t she?” he croaked.
“Yes she is. Her husband is a lucky guy.”
After a while, she walked out with a bag in her hands, grinning sheepishly as she waved at them and disappeared into the night.
‘I wonder what she could have gotten’.
“NEXT!” The voice screamed at him. He opened the door and walked downstairs into a brightly lit room with glass displays on both sides forming a corridor, showcasing designer jewelry, expensive-looking gadgets and high-end watches with various toys on shelves at the wall ahead of him, on which the old slogan of the shop confidently stated:
‘HAPPINESS AT NO EXTRA COST.’
As he waited, he walked around the shop. His eye was drawn to a particular toy car; a scale model Lamborghini Aventador that he remembered his father getting for him on his 10th birthday. At the time, it was the greatest gift he could have ever gotten, and he recalled how much he paraded it to his friends, how he eventually settled on becoming a racecar driver due to it, and in particular, the heartbreak he got when his mother destroyed it.
“Why mum? Why?” he had cried to her, holding the broken pieces like a corpse.
“You won’t understand why I’ve done it, but know that it’s for your own good. Now please go, I need to talk to your father,” she had said, but in his pain, he felt he had deserved to know why she had caused him such pain. Amidst the yelling, the insults and obscene language was a statement she said that he had always remembered:
“You cannot buy your son’s affection!”
When he grew older, and when this shop opened, is when he understood what she meant by this. If only he had thanked her before she died.
“Hello, Michael,” a raspy voice welcomed him. He turned to see an old woman, hunched over on a cane, hobbling towards him.
“Hi,” he said, reaching in for a hug.
“You look well, son.”
“I have, for over 3 weeks now.”
“I know, fidelity does that to someone,” she always said, walking over to a table where she met her customers.
“You know, mama,” he began as he pointed to it, “that car over there. I had one just like it when I was a child.”
“Ah, yes. I remember your father coming here for it. He said he wanted his son to be happy, so I pointed to it and he quickly bought it.”
“It amazes me how you can remember so far back.”
“Read more, Michael! That’s how you stop being stupid!!”
“Hmm,” he chuckled slyly, those words cutting him like a hot knife through butter.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend,” she said, “here, have some of this.” She handed him some bright blue pills which he downed as he settled in, ready to make his request.
“Now, the one you gave me last time was defective.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said it would make her forget all those times she felt bad.”
“It did, but you have to keep buying the bracelets for her. Don’t you remember? The more the jewelry, the less painful the memory.”
“Nonsense!” he shouted, the drug clearly acting up, “you just want more money, that’s it!”
“Calm down, son. I just want to help you, okay?” she spoke, her hand shaking on his wrist.
“Okay, okay. Then how about the picture frame, the memory, um…the mem…”
“Yes! That one! I remember looking at a picture of my family on vacation at the coast, and I really believed it happened.”
“It only works on children. It plants false memories on the person it was bought for, and if they are near it long enough, it becomes a truth they grow up with. Your wife is a grown woman, she will not buy that, trust me.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“How about you stop cheating on her?” she snapped, clearly anticipating his answer.
“Aii, mama. First of all, it’s not cheating, okay? Everyone is doing this. Look, I love that woman to death, but I loved other women before. And the one I’ve being seeing? Waah, the things she can do, my wife will never do.”
“But she kept herself for you till marriage. Doesn’t that count for something?
“I appreciate it, but I didn’t ask her to, okay? I can’t just stop having fun like that.”
“Then why be with her?”
“One of us needs to be good for the children, and I’m damn sure it can’t be me. I feed, clothe and house them, what more do they need?”
“If that is the case, then why are you here?” the elderly lady asked. He thought for a while before he answered with a sullen countenance.
“I…I can’t lose her. Not her, okay?”
“I see. You said she’s a good woman, yes?”
“I believe she is.”
“Then she is the perfect candidate for this.” She limped away, leaving him exhausted from his confession, but excited at what was to come.
“Are you bringing me that new one everyone has been talking about? What does it look like?”
“Be patient,” she groaned.
Finally, she re-entered the room with a dusty old book that she slid over to him.
“Really? These books still exist?”
“Look inside.” He opened it, but saw nothing written on the yellowed pages.
“I don’t understand.”
“This is my greatest work yet. I realized that most of these gifts only changed the people they were intended to. But what if it could change the giver of the gift into something they were needed to be by their loved ones?”
“Okay, so what does it do?”
“Hold on to it, stand and let me ask you a few questions.” He stood up, held the book firmly in his right hand and nodded at her.
“Is what you’re doing wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is what you’re doing wrong?”
“I’m…I’m not sure, um, maybe?”
“Is what you’re doing wrong?”
“I think so, I think I’m hurting my wife and children, and I feel bad about it, but I can’t stop…”
“Is what you’re doing wrong?” she interrupted.
“Of course it’s wrong! It’s adultery, plain and simple. Why do you even have to ask me that??” he snapped, after which she swung her cane at the book, relieving him from holding it. He looked at it in amazement, then at her.
“You spoke what was on your mind, you were convinced it was the truth, and for as long as you’re sure of it, so will she. A changed man is what she needs you…”
“Aii, haven’t I just said…”
“Let me finish. A changed man is what she needs you to be, but all you need is the look of it.”
“My finest work yet,” she boasted, “I call it the Guilty Special. One item for everyone. And, it has a bonus. Pick it up and read inside.” He took the book, opened to the first empty page that read:
‘Of course it’s wrong! It’s adultery, plain and simple. Why do you even have to ask me that?’
“I don’t understand, it recorded what I said?”
“No, no, no,” she said, both in excitement and frustration at his slow wit, “One standard product, but with your own truth. Never to be questioned by anyone, because it came from the same source. And if it all came from the same source, then whatever is in it…”
“Must be true,” he said, finally getting it, but his face gave away his uneasiness, clearly expecting something else.
“You doubt, I understand. You’re welcome to try it for some time for free, let me know how it works, okay?”
He nodded, thanked her and walked out of the shop to the eager eyes of others waiting their turn. He couldn’t help but notice the longer line that turned into the desolate street, all looking at him in admiration at receiving the latest innovation from the Love Shop.
He stopped in the middle of the street, under a street light and looked at the ancient looking book in his hands, his words still screaming at him from the pages.
“Does it really work?” he asked himself. Just then, from a shop just ahead of him, a beautiful woman in a business suit stepped out, fixing herself up as she reached into her purse to pay the woman behind her dues, just before Malaika turned to him.
Their eyes met once again, and that feeling came back. She then talked to the other woman, who beckoned him to come to them as they all went into the shop, up the stairs to the sounds of screaming and loud grunting accompanied by the stench of sweat and alcohol they were all too familiar with. Finding a room, the lady held his hands and led him to the bed, but not before taking the book from his hands and tossing it outside, saying,
“Careful. Hold on to it for too long, and you might actually believe in it.”