“There’ll be hell to pay.”
“Looks like it.”
“She had it last when we were at the supermarket. You’ll have to go out and look for it.”
Dad groans. “Have you seen the time?”
“She won’t sleep without it. Which means we won’t sleep without it.”
“She’s far too old for a blankie, anyway. Maybe it’s an opportunity for her to give it up. We could tell her that now she’s nine years old, her blankie knows she’s far too grown up to need it anymore. And that it’s gone out into the world to find a new little baby to comfort instead.”
Mum snorts. “She’s nine, she’s not an idiot. Look, she can give up the blanket in her own time, but I will not be having a tantrum on a Saturday night just because you were too lazy to go out and find it.”
“Why can’t you go out and find it?”
“Because there’s a bottle of wine in the fridge with my name on it.”
“Have you got blankie yet?” comes a forlorn call from the bedroom upstairs.
Dad sighs. “I think it’s in the car, sweetie,” he shouts back. “I’ll go out and get it. Hold tight.”
Dad dashes from trolley-bay to trolley-bay, hoping beyond hope that precious blankie hasn’t been stashed away in the lost property box of the now locked-up and deserted supermarket. Or, even worse, tossed into a rubbish bin. The latter wouldn’t surprise him; poor Blankie looks an awful lot like a dirty old dishrag and a public health hazard.
His search is fruitless. He examines hundreds of shopping trolleys and finds nothing more than a couple of rumpled receipts and a handful of battered, rain-smudged shopping lists. He heads back to his car, feeling defeated, when something catches his eye.
At the far end of the car park, basking beneath the yellow glow of a lamppost, is a lone trolley.
Surely not, thinks Dad. Of all the trolleys in this whole place…
He bolts over to it, barely daring to hope that it could be the trolley with the blanket.
Aaand… It isn’t.
But there is something in there — a large, manila envelope with MUM + DAD written carefully across the front in thick, black marker pen.
The fuck is going on? Dad asks himself. Surely I’m not the Dad this is meant for?
But he is a Dad, and the address hasn’t given him anything more specific to work with. Still panting from his run, he tears open the envelope and retrieves a thick sheet of card with a typed message:
Blankie is safe.
BUT NOT FOR LONG.
Deliver 250 packets of strawberry laces to Pearson Park, at the bench under the biggest tree, by 9.30 PM.
Dad laughs. He retrieves his mobile phone from his trouser pocket and calls Home.
Mum answers on the first ring. “You got it?”
“What are you on about? Have you got the blanket? She’s starting to get upset.”
“You can give up the act now, I’ve read the note.”
“Come on, be serious.”
“I am being serious you feckless fucking fart. What note?”
Dad knows now that Mum’s not joking — she’s at the end of her tether. There’s no faking the end-of-her-tether voice. “Shit,” he says. “Someone has blankie. They’re holding it ransom.”
“What do they want?”
Mum laughs. “You’re having me on.”
“I wish. What do I do?”
“Well if you think it’s real, you better get the strawberry laces.”
“But the supermarket’s shut.”
“You’ll have to find somewhere that’s open, then.”
“Can’t we just tell her that blankie’s gone?”
“No chance. You either come home with blankie, or you don’t come home at all.”
And the end-of-her-tether voice assures him that she is.
“Hope you don’t mind me asking,” says the shopkeeper as she strains beneath the weight of a box full of strawberry laces, “but why do you need so many packets?”
Dad considers telling her the truth. He wonders if she’d believe it. He thinks it might be quite funny to try and convince her. But then he remembers how much time he’s already wasted driving from shop to shop in hopes of finding the precious loot, and shrugs instead. “Pregnant wife. Cravings.”
The shopkeeper nods. “Ah. Cat biscuits.”
“Cat biscuits is what I craved when I was expecting. Couldn’t get enough of them.”
Dad wants to ask what cat biscuits taste like, but he resists. “You sure there are 250 packets there?”
“Pretty sure. You’re lucky, actually — we don’t usually have this many in stock. Delivery error, it was. We’d never usually buy in so many strawberry laces. Not much demand for them these days.”
“I gathered — you’re the first shop I’ve managed to find that even sells them. Surprised they’re not more popular, actually. My daughter loves them.”
“She’ll have to fight your wife for them, I suppose.”
“Your pregnant wife won’t want to share, I imagine?”
“Oh — yes. Course. How much do I owe you?”
“Well, they usually go for 25 pence a pack which would be £62.50. But since it’s a bulk buy I’ll do you a good deal and round you down to an even £62.”
Dad sighs. “Buy 248, get two free. How very generous of you.”
Dad’s sweating by the time he reaches the bench under the biggest tree at Pearson Park, laden down by 250 packets of strawberry laces. He dumps the hefty box unceremoniously on the bench and slumps down beside it to take the weight off his aching legs.
He pulls out his phone to check the time — 9.30 PM on the dot. He’s made it by the skin of his teeth.
There’s a rustling sound above him, and when he looks up something hits him right in the face and blocks his vision.
He yells and batters at the thing, throwing it to the ground in a panic. But then he sees what it is, and relief washes over him.
He retrieves it and examines it — it has the same familiar stains and holes, the same raggedy hemline, even the same fusty, musty odour that comes with years of cuddles and strict demands that it should never, ever be washed.
The box of strawberry laces has already disappeared. Dad feels goosebumps creep over his skin as the realisation hits that he isn’t quite alone.
He gets to his feet and rushes back to his car, gripping onto blankie like his life depends on it.
Daughter rubs blankie over her cheek. “Night-night,” she mutters. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” say Mum and Dad in unison. “Sleep tight.”
The parents creep away from Daughter’s bed, too relieved to have avoided a tantrum to think too long on the potential identity of blankie’s kidnapper.
“Where did you find it, Daddy?”
“Where was blankie?”
“Just in the car, darling. Now go to sleep.”
Dad slips out of the bedroom and pulls the door almost closed behind him, leaving a chink of warm light to cut through the darkness.
“Liar,” Daughter whispers, suppressing a giggle.
She tosses stinky blankie to the floor with disgust, reaches under her pillow and retrieves her burner phone.
She opens an unread text message:
Ransom delivered. It’s all here.
Her mouth floods with saliva as thoughts of strawberry laces overcome her. She taps out her reply:
Good job. Split 50:50 as agreed. Will discuss at school on Monday.
She sends it off and then, remembering her manners, adds:
Sleep tight xoxo