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Claire Leng

Theo loved hosting dinner parties. It was a tradition that he inherited from his parents. He enjoyed cooking and meeting old and new friends at his cozy home, opposite to the loud restaurant where the commercialized atmosphere ruined the intimate experience of the dining. It wasn’t like he could afford to go out every week, anyway. The budget got tighter after Liz was born; he had to agree with his wife Natalia to reduce the dinner party frequency from every weekend to twice a month.

The parties were slowed down further when the pandemic exploded and mandatory quarantine been imposed.

The first two months weren’t too difficult, Theo and Natalie didn’t go anywhere if they weren’t buying groceries. They bought baby diapers and toys on Amazon at the first but later found out the prices were more expensive; they were better off going to Walmart. Getting fresh air, seeing people’s faces, and buy the necessities, was a brainer better option.

After a few outings, Theo and Natalia concluded the deadly virus wasn’t that powerful at all. After all, Theo heard none of his families or his colleagues being diagnosed with the virus.

The itch of seeing his friend’s face and finding excuses to get drunk grew in his bones. The longing bubbled up in his stomach day by day. He wanted to talk to different people other than his wife, show off the recipes he refined through the lockdown, and light up the fancy candles, drown out the smell mixed of milk, baby powder, and used diapers for one joyous night.

He believed he would lose his marbles if he didn’t have the party.

So that Sunday morning, he sends out the e-invite for his dinner party regulars, inviting them to a feast that they will not forget next Saturday.

In a few minutes, Natalia showed up at the bedroom door, swaddled the baby in her one arm, “Are you sure about this?”

“It’s not a big deal. Car kills people every second, yet we still have traffic.” Theo shrugged. Natalia has always been a prude, he questioned how did he fall in love with her when they back in college, then he remembered she was the popular one between the two, all his friends are hers first.

“Better order more disinfectant wipes online.” She said and shifted her focus back to the baby.

Only two-person Rsvp by Friday. Brad, Natalia’s brother’s friend who became good friends with Theo at one party, said he will bring his new girlfriend. Theo couldn’t stop smiling at work. A small group is always more fun and intimate.

Preparing a dinner for four wasn’t that challenging as some might think. Theo baked the baby ribs, chopped up the salad, boiled the corns, and dumped the chopped onions, garlic, ground meat, and seasonings in the instant pot to cook the chili. All in less than three hours.

Brad arrived twenty minutes late. His girlfriend, Cassy, brought a small plush toy for Liz.

The toy has cheap pink furs, a llama or a goat looked head, a non-existent neck, a long and fat torso with two sloppy and dangling legs, and a gift receipt price tag that covered half its plump body.

“What is this thing?” Brad asked.

“I just searched for the keywords baby toys and this is the first toy that comes up within my budget.” Cassy giggled.

Two more people changed the chemistry at home immediately, Theo noticed. Natalia laughed more than she did in the past few months. And he didn’t mind hearing guests compliment how juicy the ribs are and how amazing the chili was - in fact, the best they’ve ever had.

A few drinks after, Theo retreated to the nursing room to check on Liz.

Liz’s eyes were half open and half closed while chewing her new toy’s legs like it was her soothie pacifier. Theo picked up the toy and gave her a real pacifier instead. The baby didn’t resist.

The price tag card was still attached to the sloppy cheap toy. He was glad it didn’t cut Liz’s face. He flipped the folded card, wondered what amount of information this toy needs to have that its price tag is as large as his palm.

Inside the card, one page showed the small black and red words: Made by Mammon Inc. There’s no information about the country of origin nor the materials used for the toy. The blank page was visually thicker than the other. Out of curiosity, he traced the side of the blank one with his index finger, sensed a slit on the tip of his finger, he poked his nail into the crack, and pry two pages stick together open.

The extra page had words dotted about. When he read the first paragraph, he froze as hit by a clap of thunder. These were the bank account number, password (Mammon2020), and the bank’s website. Below the bank details, it listed the amount with a dollar sign followed by two with six zeros, elegantly written on the card by the black and red ink.

Theo stared at the cards in his hands. This must be a joke from Cassy and Brad, but what if it wasn’t?

He pulled up his phone, typed in the bank’s website, and entered the login information with the card listed. Fully expecting the password error message, he was stunned when the familiar dashboard showed up in the browser.

“Holy shit.” He muttered.

There it is, 2 million dollars in the account.

He selected accounting information. The account ID was Mammon Inc. Could this be some disgruntled worker who tried to steal company money and share the information with one lucky customer? Or Could it just be some incompetent executives who wanted to write the company message, but accidentally shared the company’s account?

Either way, Theo is that lucky customer who can use some of this money. Paying off mortgages, hiring a nanny, saving the college funds, and taking out of country trips anytime he wants, the potential only awaits.

In the dimmed nursing room, he pinched himself three times. There were pain and pleasure, but no wide awakening from the dream.

“Theo? Are you joining us? We are playing board games!” Natalia shouted from the living room.

“Coming.” He logged out from the phone, carefully held the toy, and tried to take the picture of the card.

He saw more words underneath the dollar amount on the page. Were these sentences on the card before? The small blue words underneath the bank information wrote: Kill Elizabeth Iris Roberts, the money is yours.

The air became thick and hot that he needed to breathe heavier to retrieve the oxygen back to his blood. There’s no other Elizabeth Iris Roberts Theo knows, but his firstborn daughter. Iris is his mother’s name, where Elizabeth is Natalia’s mother’s name.

“Theodor Junior Roberts, are you coming or not? Dominion will not play itself!” Brad yelled.

Theo looked back in the cradle, Liz was sound asleep with the pacifier sucking in and out on her little mouth. Caressed her soft, flawless face, he sighed. First time in Theo’s life, he hates companies.

Natalia had already dealt the cards for him when Theo sat down at the cleared-out dinner table.

“All I’m saying is company do not have responsibilities to support the sick workers if they cannot work, then GTFO,” Brad said, sipping his beer from the can.

Theo laughed and padded on his friend’s shoulder.

“So true,” His girlfriend agreed, “And look at the shit we are in right now, it’s all old people dying anyway, why do we care?”

“It could be your grandma,” Natalia said and bought two cards with her copper cards.

“All my grandparents passed away, guess I’m Gucci,” Brad said.

Cassy picked up the cards in her hand, “I heard young kids get the virus easily, too. And their death rate is just as high.”

“Sad, but their mommy and daddy can probably just make a new baby?” Brad said.

“It’s not that easy,” Natalia said.

Theo’s heart pounded fast. Out of nowhere, he wanted to smack Brad’s head and wipe that shit-eating grin from his face, but he stayed quiet. Brad has always been a goofy jerk, liked to make in-your-face jokes, that’s why Theo liked him. Tonight, Brad was on fire and didn’t seem to want to stop.

Come to think of it, his friend had some good points. Natalia and he are both only 28, they have a long life ahead of them and they planned to have a second baby once his store manager's job becomes stable. 2 million dollars isn’t much to the elites, and not sustainable for the long run, Theo was well aware. This money could serve as a small loan that was gifted to him by accident, and he could use it to jump-start his life. He knew he won’t mess up like these idiot lottery winners who spend money aimlessly, he would know how to manage the wealth - if he had that wealth in his pocket…

However, the payment for this loan is too expensive. Assume he was considering ending his daughter’s life, how would he be able to walk out free to spend the money?

A flash of pink caught Theo’s eyes, the toy that was supposed to be in the nursing room, now sitting on the kitchen counter behind Brad. Its glassy, colorful eyes looked straight at Theo. The price tag was still attached to its pink body.

“Theo, I’m new to this game, but I think you will have to do something so I can play?” Cassy said. Then she traced his eyesight, “Oh, wasn’t that toy I bought? Why is it here?”

Natalia stood up, “Must be misplaced, let me bring it back to Liz.”

“No,” Theo said. The gears in his brain turning and running. His wife should not be allowed to read the cards. He used his coppers bought a gold card, “Here, Cassy, now it’s your turn. I will bring the toy to Liz.”

He picked up the squishy toy but dropped it on its floor at the touch, as its head rocked under his grab.

“So clumsy.” Brad said behind him, “All jokes aside, you guys should not bring your baby out too often, it’s dangerous. I heard people would pick up a fight if you don’t cover your baby’s face like a full-blown Mad Max-style.”

Theo entered the nursing room, welcomed by a slightly pungent smell. He tore a new pack of diapers and carried Liz to the changing table while imagining how he could have hired a maid to do all these dirty chores.

So much potential awaits him.

He stared at the toy he tossed on the dress. Noticed for the first time it had no mouth, but who would care?

“Kill her.” A strong, demanding voice came out of the toy.

Mesmerized, Theo grabbed the wooden bar of the cradle to steady himself.

“Kill - her -” The toy’s llama head turned, stared at him, making the command from its mouthless body.

Theo shivered. Yes, yes, he could easily take away Liz’s life right here, right now. But he wouldn’t do it, he’s smarter than that.

“Kill, kill, kill……” The toy continued chanting, Theo lunged at it, opened the top drawer, and stuffed the toy in. The gruesome chanting continued, it was directly spoken in his brain.

He picked up Liz, who was about to fall asleep again.

Holding the agitated baby, he took out the phone and logged into the bank’s website again. He needed to confirm he wasn’t just hallucinating. If the money was real and he acted fast enough, maybe he can transfer the money into his account, who’s there to hold him accountable? The small toy? What can that thing do?

The page refreshed, he could log in successfully, but the amount is gone. Big zero appeared on the remaining balance.

He checked the account activities. There are no records. Not even a record to show the initial amount has been deposited into the account.

Pulled open the drawer, he found the toy, facing outward, looking at him sarcastically, as if mocking his failed attempt to steal the money without doing the work. He flipped the card again, cringed. The card is now filled with the command, Kill Elizabeth Iris Roberts, the money is yours, Kill Elizabeth Iris Roberts, the money is yours, Kill Elizabeth Iris Roberts, the money is yours…

The blue words crawled every corner of the card, overlapped with the banking information.

When Theo returned to the living room, the guests were gone. Natalia was sitting on her feet on the couch, browsing her phone. He loaded the dishwasher and wiped the counter clean.

The next day, he took the family out for brunch at one of the popular restaurants that’s still open. At the entryway, he saw a few license plates hanging on the wall, spelled “Freedom”, “Resistant”, etc. He gave the servers who also weren’t wearing masks an appreciative nod. After the big meal, Theo took the baby for the grocery trip. He argued with the old man who’s shaking the bell at the door but could enter the store with the face mask hanging on his chin. Then Brad invited him to the bar, and he accepted without a second thought.

At night, Theo returned home and made sure he kissed his daughter many times till she beamed like a sunflower.

Two weeks later, he started coughing and having high fevers.

In another two days, Natalia, Liz, and he checked into the hospital.

The fevered dreams swallowed him. All the nurses and doctors looked like the ridiculous pink llama in their scraps, asking, “Did you kill her yet?”

“No, not yet, just wait,” Theo said in his chlorine smelled sick bed, his blanket was always dotted with blood, as he scratched his chest day and night, the pain in the chest was so unbearable that he wanted to dig them out for good.

This was the worst flu he ever got, he told Natalia, who slept in the bed next to him. Liz had been put into the ICU and him barely able to get out of the bed to see her.

One day, when he woke up, his head was lighter, the fog and burning feeling that haunted him were subdued. Natalia sat beside him with red, puffy eyes.

“Nat…” He said weakly, surprised by the whistle come out of his throat, “Where’s Liz?”

“She, she is gone.” Natalia could stop shaking, tears poured and dripped on her cloth collar, “The.. the virus left scars on her lungs, and scars formed the callous… she couldn’t get enough air, it’s all their fault…”

Tears covered Theo’s vision. He howled, punched the bed, and cursed all the useless doctors in the hospital in the filthiest language he could think of.

In the back of his head, a tiny, small voice told him, “You got the money.”

Two months passed by; Theo had almost given up checking that bank account. Every time he checked; the zero-dollar showed up on the page, no matter how much refresh button he hit.

Then he received a couple of letters from different insurance companies he never heard of.

“Oh, must be the baby life plans I bought for Liz,” Natalia said.

“There’s insurance for babies?” Theo’s mouth turned dry.

“Of course,” Natalia said, looked at him weirdly, “I don’t know about you, but my mom always told me to max out the life insurance, you never know what would happen. I bought the plans for all of us, the company’s plan, and the third-party firm’s plans, it’s never too much.”

She picked up the letters and opened them, wiping her eyes, and let out a long sigh, “Who’d have known, your baby’s life worth only two million dollars.”

“What did you say?” Theo said. The headache returned, he breathed in, but his nose felt nothing.

“All the insurance compensation combined into a large sum,” Natalia said, “Congratulations, we are two million dollars rich and one baby poor.”

As if being punched to the gut, Theo lost his balance, sloped down on the chair. A soft object pushed his back. He reached for it and found out it was the pink toy. He coughed, sneezed, and gasped for air.

“Sit down,” Natalia said, “You have that phantom limb syndrome where you still think you have both of your legs. The doctor warned us about it.”

“Screw the doctors,” Theo said, staring at the rolled up right pants leg, there’s nothing left after his hip.

“This amount of money should be just enough to cover our ICU, hospital, and your second and last surgery fees. If it weren’t Liz, we would be bankrupt.”

Don’t want to listen to what Natalia has to say about how messed up the medical systems were, Theo, played the toy, and flipped open the card, the ugly crawled blue words were gone. Replaced with the clean bank account information, and another sentence:

Kill Natalia Roberts, you got the money.

Without checking the bank page online, Theo knew that a large sum of dollars was there again. He just knew.

With more funds, he could purchase the fancy robot leg, get back on his feet. The store fired him because they don’t want to continue to pay for his insurance. How can they be so heartless? But that’s their loss. If he got more hard cash, he could start his disabled owned business. His favorite podcast channel said people liked to patronize the disadvantaged, he can monetize his situation.

There are just so many potentials waiting for him, and only one payment to make.

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