It was all Jason could do to not walk away right then and there.
* * *
He let her wear the dress that she had wanted to the mall, the bright pink and purple princess one. He let her wear her pink ballerina shoes out of the house, even though he knew they were only supposed to be worn for practice sessions at the studio. He had even held her purse for her when she “needed” to pet the puppies at Pet Adoption World, which of course she immediately ran toward once he had relieved her of the pink and purple sequined purse that was large enough to have held her little brother.
He was beginning to consider himself probably the best father a four-year old little girl could ever ask for, when they walked in front of the Disney Store and Eliana spotted the latest princess doll from the biggest movie out there, it was so cleverly stocked on a shelf placed dead center of their giant entryway.
Jason could have sworn his heart had stopped for a second the moment his brain registered the doll, and then again as his brain registered his daughter’s immediate response to that doll. He saw it all happen from an almost detached perspective, as if he were floating above the disaster that was about to come. He sees the doll, he sees her see the doll, and as soon as she realizes it could be her doll to take home, her feet turn toward the Disney Store and her purse leaves her hand. Without thinking about it, Jason reaches his hand out to Eliana and grabs her by the wrist before she can complete her first step away from him.
“We aren’t here for a new doll, Eliana. We came to get Mommy a birthday present, remember? This is a shopping trip for Mommy, maybe next time we can think about a doll for you.” He says the words as calmly and sweetly as he can, he suppresses his annoyance at having to remind her that not every trip to the store has to be for her.
He had just been feeling that the day was going so well and now he knew that any award for “Coolest Dad in the World” that he may have once been in the running for was about to be yanked from his grasp by the stiffness he was feeling in his daughter’s arm at that very moment.
“I want that doll, Daddy. We can get Mommy a present after you get me that doll. I really, really want it.” She stomps her foot with that final “it” as if to make it perfectly clear the cost of denial will be high. But Jason already knows the cost and knows that he is going to have to deny the little princess the doll that she obviously needs, no matter the cost.
He shakes his head at her and crouches down to look her in the eyes as he turns her body toward his face.
“Eliana, you are not getting that doll. That is final. Remember how nice the trip to the mall has been, you got to pet the puppy and you are wearing your favorite princess dress. Lets not ruin the trip now with this doll nonsense, okay? We can think about getting a doll next time, not today.” Jason feels confident that he asserted himself and that he didn’t take the doll off of the table completely, just for today and he had reminded her that they were having a good experience up until that point. Clearly he is still a contender for that award, right?
She is silent in response, at first.
He lets go of her wrist, thinking that the disaster has been averted. It isn’t until he stands all the way up that she starts sobbing. The sobbing is quiet at first, he can barely hear it and recognizes the tucked chin and bobbing head more than anything. But the sobbing turns to actual crying after a few moments of vain head bobbing.
The crying isn’t that bad, at least no one walking by them seems to be paying attention, and not a single person in the store has noticed them standing there yet. So, as long as he doesn’t feed into her tantrum she will stop soon and they will avoid a scene. He tells himself this thinking that then everyone will be happy, even if they are a doll lighter than the twosome would have liked.
It doesn’t happen like that though. The crying increases, both in volume and pitch. The tears come out almost as if she was holding them in reserve, the moment the first wail escapes her mouth the tears accompany it. Before Jason can react, her hands are in her hair and she is shaking her head. Then she is pulling at her dress, her nails scratching against the metallic thread that makes the dress sparkle so brightly. Those nails threatening to tear out the gossamer lace that line each ruffle and hem.
The performance is not unexpected, it is on par with similar incidences in the past, though both he and his wife had thought she had outgrown these displays. Despite the familiar territory of the tantrum, the stage for this particular one is far and away the most public and populated to date. People being people, foot traffic slows as shoppers stop to marvel at the vocal range the young Eliana is offering them and then the people in the store begin to notice the crowd gathering. As the songs playing inside the Disney Store change from one soundtrack hit to another through the piped in speakers, the howling of a little four-year old greets the shopper’s ears.
This is the point he had fantasized about being able to walk away and leave here alone to fend for herself since her existence was obviously so terrible, but he knew he could never, would never, walk away from his daughter. So instead Jason stands there, watching as the people gather. He listens as his daughter does her best to force him into compliance, then a thought occurs to him.
He taps his foot as he figures her breath would soon run out and he leans down to whisper in her ear the moment the screaming stops, that moment lasting only long enough for her to take four sharp intakes of air.
He whispers nine words, “Do you want a visit from the Knot People?”.
Eliana holds her breath as she processes the words she has just heard. With a shake of her head, she lets her hair fall into place as she runs her hands down her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles her fit had created and she reaches down for her purse.
“I am sorry, Daddy.” She looks up at Jason with her eyes puffy and red, and he takes her offered hand into his.
“It is okay, sweetie. Let’s go get Mommy’s present.” Jason knows his point has been made.
* * *
As Jason reaches down to tuck Eliana into bed she reaches up to him and wraps her arms around his neck, squeezing him tight.
“I love you, Daddy. Please tell the Knot People I am a good girl and they don’t need to visit me.” She whispers the words in his ear as she hugs him, and she doesn’t let go until he tells her that he will make sure they know not to play with her hair.
* * *
Eliana fell asleep that night free of the fear that had filled her little head when she was at the mall. She knew that the Knot People would come and tie knots in her hair if she was a bad girl, she had woken up to it before. She would never forget the tangles that had to be brushed out by her mom, the pain of having her head brushed over and over again to work the tight knots out, the knots that had made her hair into a rat’s nest. She had cried as the brush went over and over her hair, each knot getting stuck until the brush was pulled hard enough to break it free. Her scalp left raw from the bristles scratching over and over the same spots.
Her dad had told her the stories of the Knot People, the little boy and girl-like creatures that moved like cats through the night, not making any noise. About how they rode on bats through the night, wearing armor, some carrying swords and others carrying bows and arrows. How they hunted in the darkness and when they heard of a little human boy or girl that had not behaved, they snuck into the child’s house and then onto their bed, then their pillow and once they were there, the knot tying would begin. A group of Knot People would take turns, twisting and turning hair until there was no hair left for more knots to be tied from.
The Knot People made sure that the little boys and girls of the world behaved themselves, or they would feel the pain of the hair brush. Only shaving all the hair off of a child’s head would leave the Knot People with nothing to work with, only those children dared incur the wrath of the bat riding creatures.