Behind the Shelves

Posted on February 1, 2006 by Jenna

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When Emily is just a little girl she goes to Ikea with her parents Tabitha and Betty. There is something strange—something a little like a snail and a little like a cat—that darts behind the shelves in the shelving section.

Tabitha and Betty exchange a look.

“Do you think—?” Tabitha asks.

Betty nods.

Tabitha drops to one knee. She looks seriously at Emily. “Can you wait here a moment for Mommy?” she asks.

Betty is already running towards the shelf and then around it. She has a gun in one hand—a Target .45, optimized for in-store combat. Her jacket flares out behind her.

Emily looks at Tabitha. Emily is sucking on her thumb. Emily thinks. Then she takes her thumb out of her mouth and gives Tabitha a thumbs-up signal.

“Good,” Tabitha says.

She hugs Emily and then she runs after Betty. That is the last Emily sees of her parents, for Ikea giveth and Ikea taketh away.

It has been nearly forty-five minutes, and the lights of the store are growing dim, when a manager finds her. His face is tight and sorrowful and a button on his chest reads, “Chad.”

“You are—” Chad says.

He hesitates.

“You are theirs?” he asks.

Emily looks at him.

“Betty’s? And Tabitha’s?”

Emily nods.

A muscle under Chad’s left eye twitches. Then he sighs. He sits down, tailor-style, right there on the floor in Ikea by the shelves.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Emily doesn’t understand yet.

“Your parents,” Chad says. Then he frowns, confused. “Your parents? Your mom and her sister? A friend?”

“Mommies,” Emily says.

Chad bites his lip. He shakes his head. Then he says, “They were going to expose our corrugated Swedish secrets,” he says. “They can never come back.”

Emily is not old enough to understand the phrase ‘corrugated Swedish secrets’. She says, “Snail thing?”

“Yes,” Chad says. “The snail thing.”

Emily isn’t quite sure what’s going on, but the tears are starting to come anyway. Her parents had prepared her for this, of course. It was always a possibility that sometime when they were visiting Ikea they would never come back. But the situation of emptiness that faces Emily is not yet real.

“We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, of course,” says Chad.


“Your parents probably had some sort of government sanction,” Chad says. “I mean, those women were not civilians. So you probably won’t have to worry about money. But we’ll make sure. And we’ll give you a street.”

“A street?”

“When you need it,” Chad says. “Whenever you need a street, it’ll find you, and you’ll be able to come right back here.”

He rises. He dusts off his pants. He gestures around at the row after row of cheap furniture and the gaping absence of the mothers that Emily had loved.

“Won’t that be nice?” he says.

He’s telling the truth—pretty much all the way along. For example, Emily doesn’t have to worry about money. She didn’t uncover Ikea’s corrugated Swedish secrets, but she did see the snail thing, just for a moment, and that makes her valuable. She lives in a nice house and there’s an agent of Target watching over her at all times and she goes to the finest schools.

Once, when she’s sixteen, her boyfriend tries to rape her. He pins her up against the wall and he is tugging on her top and he is very surprised when suddenly instead of a wall behind her there is a street that leads to Ikea.

“Eyagh,” Emily is whimpering, even though cogent English would be more fashionable, and she shoves at him and she staggers down the street as he gapes. He doesn’t pursue her at first because he’s having too much cognitive dissonance. Then it’s too late, so he mumbles an insincere apology and turns away. The grim “I” of the Ikea sign seems to watch him all the way home.

There’s also the time when she’s twenty and she’s totally high on pot and the cops knock on her dormitory door. She’s very happy to discover a street leading straight from her dorm room to Ikea, even though Chad lectures her once she gets there on the many evils of drugs.

“You don’t find people making fine quality drugs out of pressed cardboard,” says Chad. “Not in Sweden you won’t!”

“Sweden must be totally marvelous,” Emily says.

There’s a thing that’s sort of like a cat and sort of like a snail scurrying around in the background, and if she weren’t feeling kind of mellow Emily would probably follow it and the story would end right there.

But she doesn’t, and after Chad explains how much better it is to buy brass Ikea coil lamps than drugs she goes back to her dorm.

Ikea giveth and Ikea taketh away.

When Emily is twenty-three, the space armada comes. It is a do-it-yourself space armada assembled from parts imported from Sweden. The alien invaders are cheap and sensible Ikea shoppers: the lasers they use to blast major American monuments are scarcely 70% the price of competing lasers from Target. The devastation they wreak is flimsy Swedish devastation. But as it comes from large flat saucers in the sky it is terrifying.

Emily is working in the office of Senator Johnson—one of those tireless Senators who labors day and night to draft emergency legislation to bestow war powers on the President, only to have them die in committee—as an aide.

“Fill this part out,” Johnson says.

He passes her seven blank pieces of paper and a post-it saying, “Grant the dude the power to seize Ikea assets.”

Emily begins typing up subsection A in legislative format. Three pages in, she is sweating; six pages in, she is exhausted. She cannot afford to rest.

There is a loud retort. The block shudders.

“Damn it,” says Senator Johnson.

He looks out the window. There are bits of stone and mortar flying down the street. The sidewalk has split.

“Situation, sir?” Emily says.

She daren’t look up. She’s on the last page of subsection C of the portion of the emergency bill granting the President the power to seize Ikea’s assets.

“It’s over,” the Senator says. “This building will be gone any second.”

The death rays of the space armada dance from building to building, causing them in sequence to explode.

“No,” Emily says.

“It’s over,” he stresses.

And behind Emily there is the street.

“No,” Emily begs the world. “I won’t.”

She has pride. She doesn’t want Ikea to save her. Not while it is killing everything she loves, again. Not while Ikea and America are at war. Not while she holds legislation against the franchise in her very hand.

But it is the street or death, and Emily wants to live.

The street is an incline. She staggers up the hill towards Ikea and away from the death of Washington D.C.. Her foot crunches on a skull, and she does not know whose skull it is, or how it came to be there.

She staggers into Ikea and stares full at Chad’s face, and she says, “This doesn’t make up for it.”

He looks at her and his eyes are sad.

“This doesn’t make up for it,” she says. “I don’t care if you save my life. I don’t care if you save me. You can’t make up for what you’ve done. You won’t make me forgive you for what you’ve done.”

And he shakes his head slowly and says, “My dear, the one has nothing to do with the other.”

The alien morality of Ikea is in his eyes, the corrugated Swedish ethics of him, and she sees that he is hollow and he is kind.

“If you have given up on the world,” he says, “then follow.”

And he leads her behind the shelves.