The panda was in the dairy aisle again, fur damp from the milk bottle condensation. Every Friday night since I’ve worked the late shift, I’ve watched this familiar stranger circle the store to the Best of the 80s soundtrack that plays on loop. I’ve witnessed him linger in the cereal section, weighing up the advantages of Coco-Pops vs Sugar Puffs. Occasionally a paw hesitates over muesli before swaying back to the comfort of sugar. Sometimes I consider looking him up online, discovering which team he mascots for. Which sport, even. I imagine scrolling through a squad’s headshots like Who’s Who, before finally my finger hovers over him, the face beneath the costume. But I don’t. Partly, for the same reason I didn’t ask questions of the woman who lives upstairs. When she appeared last weekend in her dressing gown, placing a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a pregnancy test on the counter between us. They’re only passing through and some things are best left unknown.
When I was nine there was a lion outside the ice cream parlour in town, giving away balloons. Mum would take me there most Saturdays after Dad left, hoping to heal a child’s grief with bubblegum ice cream and sprinkles. I only wanted to see the lion. He smelt of Dad, the same concoction of cigarette smoke, Old Spice and mint shampoo. I believed it was him underneath the mane and plastic toothed grin, with pure childhood indifference as to why he would choose this disguise. It was his arms that hugged me and his felt paw that pushed a balloon ribbon into my hand. I kept every one he gave me, even when they shrunk and withered like old grapes. I stored each wrinkled carcass in a shoebox under my bed. Then one day we drove past the parlour when the lion was on his break. I saw him by the bins, decapitated, holding the maned head under one arm as he rolled a cigarette. He was a pale teenager with a face rouged in acne. For once, I didn’t beg Mum to stop.
The panda brings his purchases to my counter. I wonder sometimes if the panda has someone at home who takes off his head, kisses him and asks about his day. Or if he’s single, roaming bars and apps for connections. I wonder if the women he meets ask him to stay in costume, revealing late-night fetishes for a man in a mask and polyester fur. That, like me, they prefer an illusion. I scan his discounted steak pie and a four-pack of lager. As I pass him the receipt, his fur briefly grazes my palm and I envision another night, when I’ll put my arms around him, my name badge pressed into his chest, when I’ll stare into his glass eyes and hear him say,
“I promise I will never leave.”
Iona Rule has always had a fear of people in mascot costumes. She recently came second in the Bath Flash Fiction competition and has been shortlisted in Retreat West, Fractured Lit, and TSS Publishing. Her work can be found in a few places including The Phare, Epoch Press, and Sans Press.