– Must be.
– Seriously, Dad, there’s nothing in there.
– Ah, but what about that big rock that just moved?
As soon as the colour-crazed Toonal TV logo and its accompanying laugh-track jingle both erupt in sync, and the Sock Puppet Squad whoosh on-screen with their googly button eyes and wide sticker grins, Joe Easton wakes up much faster.
“Quick, Mum – you’ll miss it!” he shouts through the lounge doorway, holding half a bowl of cereal under his already milk-damp chin.
10 minutes later…
It’s almost the break when she appears, still wearing her threadbare dressing gown. She doesn’t carry any cereal or toast. Not even a manky old banana from their fridge’s blue-tinted plastic drawers.
“Sorry,” she says, sitting beside Joe and making the tired sofa sag even more. “I dozed off again for a bit there. Right, what’s been happening?”
She leans forward, peering across at him. “Ignoring me, are we?”
“So, spill then.”
“Fine.” He twists round towards her, his own seat groaning. “They keep rapping about kindness and how being kind’s most important when times are hard. It’s easy for them to say, though – they’re socks!”
“You don’t think being kind’s important?”
“Yeah, but not every single morning.”
Joe lowers his bowl.
“Oi.” Mum points at the glass tabletop. “You’ll leave a ring if you’re not careful.”
Except Joe’s not really listening anymore. Ads hopscotch on the telly, jumping across the screen one after another, each eager to show off.
Several slots in, that promo from yesterday repeats, all jungle backdrop and CGI vines, with some cartoon creatures lurking about too; not as realistic as they could be, but they’ll do. Letters golder than buried treasure reveal clear instructions while wild animal noises play on loop:
WE KNOW YOU KNOW WHO RAINFROSTEDS’ NEXT MASCOT SHOULD BE… WE JUST NEED YOU TO TELL US.
PLEASE SEND YOUR DRAWINGS AND TOP 5 REASONS WHY TO:
Contact details, deadlines, etc.
Soon followed by:
OPEN TO CHILDREN AGES 6-11 (WITH PARENTAL/GUARDIAN CONSENT)
£1,000 PRIZE UP FOR GRABS!!
Joe presses pause on the remote, waiting for his mum to notice.
“Is this real?” she asks after a few moments.
“Seems it,” he says.
“OK, OK.” Now she’s nodding loads, reminding him of the bulldog bobblehead inside her car. “OK, we’ll start brainstorming today after school.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean, young man?”
“No offence, Mum, but you barely ever eat breakfast.”
She mumbles something about “not always my choice”, which Joe can’t quite hear.
– Looks sort of like your mum in the morning.
– I’m telling.
– Don’t you dare!
Their kitchen table is round, biscuit-coloured with brown flecks all through it; a large inedible cookie. Joe found this out when he was really small, and his teeth still hurt at the memory.
He sits there now, not tempted in the least, crushing A4 sheet after A4 sheet into compact snowballs, before letting them fly behind him – where the recycling crate lives. Whether against wall, floor or hard plastic, each crumpled projectile thuds weakly.
“Maybe we should have a breather.”
Mum rises from her squealing chair opposite.
“I’ve almost got it,“ Joe insists.
“Fair enough, but I need water. Do you want some?”
“No, thank you.”
She walks to the sink. It’s almost lunchtime and she’s still wearing her Do Not Disturb Before 10AM pyjamas. Outside, sunlight eggs the dirt-smeared windows while giant weeds grow taller between slate tiles.
Joe rubs ink-stained fingers across his closed eyelids.
“Why don’t we ever go to the zoo?” he asks, yawning. “Dad used to take me.”
Mum slurps, replying, “Because it’s too far and I’m not comfortable driving long distances.”
“We could ride the bus.”
“Why are you so fixated on the zoo all of a sudden?”
“Because I need a cool animal for this, and the zoo’s full of them.”
“So’s the internet.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It is cheaper, though. Go on, get searching.”
She hands Joe her phone while he’s still groaning; however, he soon relents, unlocking it and typing ‘weird wildlife’ into the top bar.
Results flood the screen like a pixelated Noah’s Ark.
Several taps later, he grins and reaches for his pencil again, plus some fresh, unballed paper.
Mum sits back down. “Find anything good?”
“Maybe,“ he says, doodling fast.
– Do you think he enjoys pretending to be still all the time?
– I would; it looks peaceful.
Its limp, grey nose reminds Joe’s mum of those old windsocks they have around airfields. She starts giggling.
“Why are you laughing?” he asks her.
“I’m not, just appreciating.”
Joe flips the page. “I wrote my reasons why he should win, see?”
Mum squints as she reads each scribbled bullet point aloud:
“1) He’s cute.”
“People love watching cute things on TV. It makes them softer.”
“OK, if you say so. 2) You probably haven’t heard of him.”
“Me and Dad didn’t until we saw one.”
“Hmm. 3) He really does live in the rainforest.” Mum nods. “Nice and topical. Or should that be tropical?”
Joe rolls his eyes.
“Tough table. 4) He could make people smile.”
“Not enough smiles these days.”
“5) I want him as a pet, but he’s too big for our garden.” Mum chuckles. “Don’t even think about it, mister. Has he got a name?”
“Crap, I forgot to add it!”
“Sorry.” Joe reflips the page, writing rapidly in the top left corner. “Will you send it for me?”
Mum tugs at the edge of her pyjama top. “Yes, on my lunch break on Monday.”
– What is he?
– Name: Toska. Species: Malayan Tapir. Age: 7 years – same as you, mate.
– He’s a long way from home.
Two weeks later and Joe keeps running home from school. Always the route sweats his heavy breath right out of him, but he still manages a feeble gasp of “Any post?” after letting the door slam shut each time.
Today’s no exception – standing there in the hallway, fists clenched at his sides and jumper clung around him, a superhero’s fallen cape.
He peeks into the kitchen, but his mum’s video-calling on her laptop (at least she’s dressed for this one, he thinks). She waves him off sideways towards the living room.
When he enters, his tomato cheeks ripen into a smile. He attacks the big cardboard box faster than he can see it; ribbons of brown paper float like the remnants of long-dead fireworks, before falling slowly to the crumb-fed carpet below.
Joe practically sticks his head inside, grabbing the creased note from on top. Swallowing hard, he unfolds it and reads:
Dear Joe Easton,
Thank you for submitting to Rainfrosteds’ Next Mascot competition.
We’re pleased to inform you that we loved your entry and will be making Toska the Tapir our new spokesanimal.
Tune in next Friday after SPS Adventures on Toonal TV (7.30am) to meet Toska on the telly.
And don’t forget your free Rainfrosteds to enjoy while you’re watching.
The Rainfrosteds Team
Joe’s chest constricts a little and he sends more paper dregs spiralling. They must just have forgotten the money, he tells himself, as Mum appears and asks, “What’s the verdict?”
– Says here he was born in the zoo.
– So, he’s never even been to Malaysia?
– ‘Fraid not.
“Listen here, sunshine.”
Joe’s mum practically spits into the speaker of her mobile phone.
“No, I’m sorry, you guys screwed up. We did everything right. Now what are you” – she uses that last word for target practise – “gonna do about it?”
It’s been over two weeks of this; her slippers have left tracks in the living-room carpet, and her voice is deep as Dad’s used to be.
Joe says nothing, watching CGI undergrowth stir once more on the telly screen.
“No, I didn’t check social media… Because I haven’t logged onto any accounts since my husband died, that’s why. Grief’s one way to keep you out of the bloody Matrix, let me tell you.”
Blurred around the edges, Toonal TV’s latest cool-guy presenter appears as if emerging from digitised bushes. He wipes invisible sweat off his forehead and keeps panting too loud.
“Hey, guys.” An exaggerated Australian accent makes Joe cringe; tapirs aren’t even from Australia! “I’m just looking for my new mate. You seen him?”
“The point is my son worked hard, won fair and square, and now you selfish people won’t give him his prize money. So, what am I supposed to tell him? That it was all for nothing?”
Joe braces himself as the final insult waddles into shot.
Identical to the updated cereal box perched on the table in front of him, Rainfrosteds really did turn his beloved tapir purple for some reason – with tiny white spots dripping like paint-splatter down his back and lime-green tufts of hair quiffing out of his head and tail.
Joe shivers, getting major supervillain vibes.
OTT again, the presenter cries out “Oh, there you are, Tim! Where were you hiding?”
So that’s why Toska hadn’t appeared on the box. But it’s only two syllables! If Joe can remember reading it years ago, Dad by his side trying his best to keep up and stay awake, then everyone else could understand it too.
Kids aren’t stupid, he wants to scream at the screen.
“Another free cereal? Are you actually serious? Fine, we’ll just see you in court. Goodbye.”
Mum jabs the button, then slams her handset on the table so hard the case cracks even more.
Right now, they can’t bear to look at each other, not with Tim the Tapir’s smug little grin, the colour of long-expired milk, all around them, and the creature’s high-honking laughter curdling in their eardrums.
Robert Keal hails from Kent but currently lives in Solihull, where he works as a copywriter. His recent fiction can be found in 100 Word Story and The Ekphrastic Review. He loves walking the tightrope between strangeness and reality.