John shuffled his feet and ran his fingers through his damp hair. His eyes darted around the street, searching for the woman, a certain Stephanie Lu who had contacted him a week ago, saying she wanted to meet him for a business proposition. But the area was empty—and silent. The shops that lined the streets remained closed since the lockdown was enforced, their windows dark and their doors barred. Aside from John, the only other living creature was a stray dog hiding from the sweltering sun, asleep under a rusted red sedan.
Sweat dripped down his back, his shirt clinging to his body. The scratchy surgical mask he was wearing clasped his nose and mouth in an uncomfortable grip. He stood for some time in front of the display window of his shop. Etched behind him was the white cursive loop of the store’s name: Joy’s Toy Emporium.
Still, the road stretched before him, long and empty. With a sigh, he turned and found himself locking eyes with the despondent stuffed bunny at the other side of the glass. Someone cleared her throat, interrupting his staring contest with the toy. He looked up to find a kind face reflected on the window in front of him. With a slight flush on his cheeks, he turned to face the impeccably dressed woman. He discreetly wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans.
“John Ronaldo, I presume?” She started. He nodded. “I’m Stephanie Lu,” she held out her right hand.
He glanced at her hand but didn’t take it. The woman smiled and clasped her left arm with her right hand. “Thank you for finding the time to meet me. I hope you didn’t wait long?”
He nodded. Of course, he came. The lockdown left him with nothing better to do. With people locked inside their homes, running a toy business seemed pointless. No one would buy things that could not calm their hunger pangs. This meeting gave him something to do—a reminder he’s still a businessman.
“It’s fine, I wasn’t waiting for too long. Sorry for not shaking your hand.” He gave her an impish smile. “You know, social distancing and virus.”
She nodded. “I understand.”
He tilted his head towards the store. “Come on, I’ll show you around.” Then he pushed the door open.
Like the other businesses lining the street, Joy’s Toy Emporium had been severely affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. It had been weeks since anyone had stepped foot inside. It was dark and devoid of life. Motes of dust that filtered aimlessly in the air surrounded them, musty from disuse, like an old house abandoned for years. Despite his mask, John took one inhale and sneezed, the sound echoing throughout the shop. He felt the unbidden heat of shame douse his face and ears—oh, how far this place had fallen. It was almost unfathomable that until a few months ago, children filled this store with wide eyes full of more wonder and laughter than twinkled all around, attention caught by a new toy. His little Joy was one of those kids: happy, healthy… full of life.
He felt it then: the stinging pain, then the onslaught of worry. His hand shook—an involuntary tremble—so he put the shaking hand in his pocket. After taking a calming breath, he reached for the light switch. He turned to Stephanie and spread his arms before saying, “Welcome to Joy’s Toy Emporium.”
And with a flick of a switch, the entire place lit up, illuminating rows and rows of shelves filled with toys. Upbeat music started playing through the sound system, echoing around the store.
John heartily welcomed the guest in his turf. He was the ringmaster of his own carnival. Striding down the aisles, he swung his invisible cane and tipped his unseen hat as he talked about each toy they passed. He was a walking catalog of the newest toy cars, toy trains, toy planes, for family board games of Monopoly, Jeopardy, and Twister. He knew every stuffed toy’s material and every dolls’ features. John enumerated each feature with wild hand gestures and an enormous smile behind the mask on his face. It had been a while since his life’s work surrounded him. This meeting reminded him why he started this business all those years ago—to bring happiness to children and kids-at-heart.
For the first time in the past months, he forgot about the bills stacked on his dining table. He ignored the nagging worry of how he could pay them off. For a moment, the thought of his baby girl lying on the hospital bed pinched his heart instead of the usual gripping pain. And yet, her picture flashed vividly in his mind. Surrounded by white, she was an angel hooked up to a respirator and IV fluids. He could not forget her raspy voice and pale face from their last video call.
Oh dear God, his Joy—
“I’ll buy all of it,” Stephanie’s voice interrupted his presentation of toys.
He blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
Stephanie reached for a Barbie doll and held it against her chest. “I’d like to buy all your toys,” she repeated.
Reeling from the idea she presented, John grabbed the nearest shelf for support. He can only utter one word in response. “Why?”
She turned to him, squeezing the toy she was holding. “We’re in a time of crisis, yes, but we should not forget what happiness is. We need it, especially in times like this. People receive necessary supplies from donations and the government. That’s not enough though. Without smiles and laughter, we would be in total lockdown—physically and in our minds. I’ve seen the way you care for your shop. You find joy in making people happy with toys, don’t you, John?”
His face softened at the thought of his daughter. Every time they sold a new toy, Joy’s face would light up.
“I do. My daughter does, too.” He smiled. He could imagine how happy Joy would be when she learned that the toys were all sold.
She smiled. “Closing down the shop must have been hard for you. I want to help spread happiness to you and to everyone else—with your toys. I’ll buy these,” she said with a slight flick of her wrist. “Then, I’ll give it away to children—a ration of smile and laughter.”
Her words allowed for hope to blossom in his heart. He couldn’t wait to share the news with Joy.
Stephanie held out her right hand towards John. “What do you say? Do we have a deal?”
John stared at her outstretched hand. His smile was wide when he clasped her hand with both hands, “Yes,” he replied, shaking her hand. His voice broke, and tears glistened in his eyes, as he said, “Thank you! Thank you so much.”
He was still shaking her hand.
Stephanie smiled and pulled her hand away. She reached inside her purse and handed him a bottle of hand sanitizer.
They both laughed.