The following is a short story I turned in as my final project for Northwestern’s Intro to Fiction Writing class. As a longtime IKEA fan, it brought me great joy to work on this project, from three rounds of revision all the way to the final product. Enjoy!
Cliff didn’t think twice about his sister Ivy’s suggestion for him to go to IKEA, even if it came with the caveat of bringing Ivy’s five-year-old son, Gus. A trip gave Cliff a needed break from the shadow of Ivy’s sprawling mansion estate and intensive questions, both of which put a damper on his family reunion experience. At Ivy’s, Cliff had to reconcile the successful lives of his siblings with his own dead ends as an entrepreneur, but at IKEA, he could be anyone and anywhere he wanted.
While Cliff initially recoiled at the idea of being Ivy’s errand boy, he changed his mind once he heard the destination.
“You do remember when we used to go there as kids, don’t you,” Ivy said with a laugh from behind the kitchen counter earlier that morning. “Our parents lost you in the store for an hour and then found you assembling furniture up in the rafters.”
Cliff grinned. The store manager had been furious, but his family had been quite impressed, though also a tad confused at his proficiency as a builder. When the family returned home that night, his father trusted him to read the instructions and build the various tables and chairs, and Cliff didn’t let them down.
“That had to be my peak,” Cliff said, still lost in the daydream.
“Just don’t do it again!” Ivy scolded playfully as she left the kitchen to attend to her work emails. Cliff knew the rules this time, but his creative streak had never left him, even as an adult.
Of course, the exhilaration of returning to the IKEA product floor with Ivy’s credit card had the unfortunate tradeoff of having to entertain Gus. Driving down the highway, Cliff glanced into his mirror to see Gus — predictably — zoned in on his new tablet, a gargantuan device that captured Gus’s attention around the clock.
It wasn’t that Cliff didn’t like kids. He saw in their eyes limitless ambition, ambition that had been watered down in the eyes of the adults he knew. Childhood had also been the most fulfilling time of Cliff’s life. Cliff fondly remembered his outside-the-box LEGO creations, soapbox derby cars, and majestic blueprints, achievements that garnered him the elusive praise of his parents and put him on par with the successes of his know-it-all siblings, Ivy and Marcus. But Gus — and maybe all of Gus’s generation — had no interest in anything constructive, just his tablet and its games. Not even Minecraft or a world-building game, just a bunch of random button presses and sounds that made Cliff’s shoulders hunch up in the driver’s seat.
“How are ya holding up back there?” Cliff called as he veered lanes toward Exit 43. He knew the answer would be submerged in distraction.
“Level 36,” Gus muttered as he craned his neck to avoid an obstacle. Cliff saw Gus’s face grimace in the mirror. “You made me lose.”
“Now Gus, how about you leave that device here in the car as we go in.”
Despite her Ivy League education and high standing in academia, Cliff’s sister clearly failed to read up on the addictive effects of technology on young children. She surely wouldn’t be thrilled with Cliff confiscating Gus’s beloved tablet, but this was an “act now, apologize later” situation. After all, there was plenty for a kid to do in the showroom floors of IKEA, and once he had inevitably won Gus over to his side or at least stunned him with sensory overload, Cliff might finally crack Gus’s shell and for once connect with the kid.
“No way, I need to get to the next level,” Gus said as he restarted the level. But as the bright sunlight gave way to the darkened basement garage of the IKEA complex, Cliff persisted.
“Just give it a try. There’s a big TV inside! And there might even be an XBox.”
Gus’s eyes widened, unaware that the TVs in question were merely store models with the sole purpose of completing the modern living room displays. Cliff opened his door, checked to make sure his wallet, keys, and shopping list were in his pocket, and then unbuckled Gus from his car seat. An animated Gus hopped out and looked around the garage, already scanning for screens and media to consume.
“Here, I’ll even let you lock the car,” Cliff said as he offered the key to Gus. Seconds later, the boisterous beep echoed through the nearly vacant garage, eliciting giggles from Gus. This will be no problem at all, Cliff thought as the unlikely pair strolled through the subterranean IKEA entrance.
Nothing could top the mounting adrenaline Cliff felt while riding the escalator up to the ground floor, list in one hand and Gus’s arm in the other. Gigantic and bold banners proclaiming the sale prices of lamps and chairs hung down from the ceiling ahead, a sight that Cliff emphasized to Gus to distract him from the kids’ playroom (and, more importantly, the giant TV perched on its wall) off to the side. Everything felt just as it should to Cliff, with the openness, the warmth, and the possibility just seconds away.
While Cliff finally reached the top, his five-year absence from IKEA faded away and the opening displays welcomed him like a treasured friend. To the superstore’s other customers, they merely strolled around a warehouse full of artificial “homes,” but to Cliff, he was home.
The carefully crafted scenes were too perfect. Sure, Cliff would have preferred a more soothing wall color in the family room setup than the unfortunate red hue and a glass table instead of a wooden one in the middle, but as he settled himself and Gus down into the depths of a couch, he could fully imagine himself living here like a king. In these moments, Cliff couldn’t care less about how his half-finished apartment looked in comparison to Ivy’s mansion — she would be the one envying his sweet digs.
“Could you imagine yourself living here, Gus?” Cliff mused, momentarily forgetting the fact that Gus already lived in a plush mansion. Gus didn’t respond, still frustrated by the TV’s inability to turn on and show his favorite channels.
“Why doesn’t it turn on?” Gus gestured to the flatscreen TV as he kept poking the blank screen.
“You have to use your imagination!” Cliff responded, perhaps a bit too cheerfully. Gus didn’t buy it. A couple minutes later, he had waddled over to the next exhibit.
Cliff took his sweet time at each of the floor’s sections, from the living rooms to the bedrooms to the kitchens. He didn’t bother looking at the price tags or remember to pull the to-do list out of his pocket, instead reveling in the infinite possibility and addictive snap judgments that he made passing through each display. Even with frequent tugs from the impatient Gus, Cliff was fully immersed in his imagination.
Once the odd couple of the lanky Cliff and stout, chubby Gus rounded the corner to the area of the floor dedicated to offices, Gus all but disappeared from his uncle’s consciousness. The pristine surfaces of the clean, white desk harkened back to the work stations of Cliff’s high school woodcarving class, the one place he felt free to follow his own path and realize his far-fetched ideas. He lifted Gus onto one of the stools and took a seat on an adjacent one. The crowds bustled past on the carefully directed pathways while Cliff and Gus remained in the scene.
Cliff pulled out his list and was pleasantly surprised to see “office table” listed near the top. Gus had never shared Cliff’s interest in building LEGO sets in their many visits before — Cliff had to finish each one according to the exact instructions, brick by brick — but perhaps seeing the finished products would inspire Gus to tag along in the construction process once the pair returned back to Ivy’s place. He doubted the kid would be anything other than a hindrance, but Ivy would surely appreciate the gesture.
“Your mother wants us to buy one of the work tables, Gus,” Cliff said. “I’ll buy whichever one looks best to you.”
“You said there would be a TV,” Gus said, feigning betrayal. The kid hopped down from the stool and continued on with the walk. We’ll swing back around, Cliff assured himself.
Cliff presumed that the next display would be more up Gus’s alley. The gentle colors of the kitchens gave way to the bright set-ups of the children’s rooms and even a miniature metal slide, perfectly sized for Gus. Cliff saw gaudy colors and arrays of toys everywhere, and with other children playing tag though the rooms, he felt akin to a performer on stilts in the middle of a circus. The kids bedroom section wasn’t his cup of tea then or when he was a kid — he preferred the exquisite tastes of the adult displays instead of the amusements that catered to younger audiences — but perhaps the commotion and noisiness of the section could capture Gus’s elusive attention or slow his pace.
“Now wouldn’t this be the coolest place for hide-and-seek,” Cliff mused, bending down slightly. Only, Gus had beaten him to it, and Cliff had no idea where the mischievous little kid could be.
The ease and warmth Cliff felt devolved into a sinking realization that he was in hot water. Not fifteen minutes had passed in the IKEA trip and Gus was gone, just one more reason for Ivy to write of Cliff as irresponsible and detached from reality. He scanned the children’s rooms for Gus’s navy-and-green striped shirt and distinctive (and objectively atrocious) bowl cut, but had no such luck at an easy solution. There were infinite possibilities for Gus’s hideout. The wonderful fantasy of the IKEA warehouse had flipped into a labyrinth, the worst possible place to lose track of a kid.
Cliff’s mind immediately flashed to the worst-case scenario. Spending the whole day looking for Gus and having no time to spend looking at furniture… no, worse than that. Could Gus be kidnapped? Cliff couldn’t fathom a middle-aged crook grabbing the innocent kid, but he could very well picture the pale-faced horror of Ivy’s face when he returned home. He’d seen that version of Ivy just months before, when he’d squandered her investment of $100,000 dollars in his latest product, an airport walkway-like apparatus to decrease congestion in middle school hallways. The idea was brilliant, Cliff was certain, but it didn’t matter how cool or futuristic it looked to him. Not a month after Ivy’s reluctant check, the investors and school board members that sat in on Cliff’s pitch failed to see the vision or the cost efficiency of such a product. The walkway never got past the design and prototype stages, and Ivy’s money, one of seven five-to-six-figure investments over the decades, went down the drain. Cliff knew Ivy would never run out of money or have her livelihood threatened, but she made it clear that the swift rejection Cliff received would threaten her social reputation if word got out. Cliff knew that he could never fully rebuild his trust with Ivy unless he struck it big. And that was before he lost the kid.
“Sir, do you need help finding something?” a teenaged IKEA employee asked Cliff, her upright and professional posture in stark contrast to Cliff’s hunch over a baby blue-tinted bunk bed. “We have a special sale on dressers, if you are interested in purchasing one of those today.”
“No, no, I’m looking for something else… a kid.”
The employee took a step back, her mouth gaping.
“Well, it’s my kid. My sister’s son, I mean. Gus. Short five-year-old kid, kind of chubby, likes video games.”
She still looked bewildered. “Do you know where you last left, uh, Gus?”
“I told him how great a place this would be to play hide and seek…”
Before Cliff could finish his sentence, the employee nodded her head and walked off, unable to contain her laughter from hearing Cliff’s unfortunate predicament. “I’m afraid you’re on your own on that one,” she added as she continued along toward the dining rooms.
Once he had exhausted the bedroom section, Cliff directed his nervous hustle in the opposite direction, fending off confused customers like a fish going upstream. He loathed the indifference of fellow visitors, the way they could carelessly stroll through the store without the panic of misplacing a five-year-old companion.
As soon as Cliff bolted down the hall, Gus rolled out from his hiding place under the lower bunk. A boy in the room next door, having witnessed Cliff’s panic and Gus’s emergence, wanted to get in on the fun. One high-five and a point toward a shortcut later, and Gus was off to his next hiding space.
Everywhere Cliff looked, there were kids. Tall kids, short kids, kids on couches, kids playing on devices. Kids prancing around bright, shiny rooms or testing the bouncing capabilities of the king-sized mattresses, their joyful shrieks unmistakable. A couple especially stout youngsters nearly tricked Cliff into a state of relief and the notion that his mission was complete, but once they turned around and looked at him, he realized they were someone else’s kid. It was better to find out that way than to yank the wrong kid, Cliff thought, but that silver lining was of little solace.
As Cliff continued his frantic search, he couldn’t set aside echoes of his family. He’d always been the black sheep of the family, the one who always seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough but could never get to the top. Cliff’s optimism and creativity, his two greatest strengths, only amplified his lack of awareness and perpetuated his disheartening cycle of failure. Worse, those fiascos were tied in with the financial support and last chances of his family and close friends, and even that circle was growing smaller. Cliff kept at it, vehemently opposed to living off the riches of his family and quitting on his entrepreneurial streak, but the stresses and inadequacies, both big and small, added up over time. He couldn’t see the error of losing Gus without seeing their disapproval or, even worse, their stinging expectation of his failure.
Cliff paused to consider if he had been going about it all wrong. Where would a stubby five-year-old hide? Maybe Gus made his way back to the car in search of his tablet or secretly stole a peek at the playroom TV on the way in, but even Cliff had trouble navigating the map of the IKEA showroom floor. Cliff also eliminated the possibility of where he would have gone — and indeed, had gone — as a young kid. Gus would have no motivation to go to the rafters, let alone the height to get up there.
All of this would have been avoided if I brought that darn tablet or sent Gus to the playroom with the ball pit and the TV, Cliff scolded himself. Cliff’s optimism, his desperate hope that someone, even a five-year-old, could see the world the rich way that Cliff saw it and share in his enthusiasm for imaging, had blinded him. He continued to trace his steps against the current of customers, the best shot at solving this agonizing cat-and-mouse game.
Ahead, he spotted an IKEA employee walking his way, his objection to Cliff’s rule-breaking path clear from his cross expression. So Cliff turned, scrambling between a row of leather couches and sliding through a shortcut. He had gone past the point of embarrassment now. Cliff needed to find the kid, no matter the appearance. There were just too many places to check, too many hiding places that a kid like Gus could pick to hide in. Cliff ducked through a hole in the wall to lose the furious employee and found himself in an entirely different exhibit, the living room corridor at the opening of the floor.
Cliff stood up from his crouched position and walked around casually, so as to not arouse suspicion. But as he continued his search, he picked up on the peculiar expressions of the other customers. Each one looked amused, seemingly intent on rubbing more salt in the wound. Elementary school-aged children tugged on the sleeves of their own parents, surely asking questions about the strange man pacing around the store. Here Cliff was, out of breath in IKEA, outsmarted and fooled by a five-year-old with dozens of families taking in the entertainment of the episode. Cliff crouched down in the middle of the chair section, both to recollect his breath and to hold himself back from an outburst of emotion he knew would only serve to dig him into a deeper hole.
Then, the last sound Cliff wanted to hear — the Brady Bunch ringtone he’d assigned to Ivy. He reluctantly withdrew his phone from his pocket and collected his breath. Cliff was still steaming, but he knew bringing Ivy into the situation to bail him out once again could make the situation much worse.
“Hello, Ivy,” Cliff said with fake cheer.
“I hope you haven’t lost Gus,” Ivy mused with a hearty laugh.
“Oh no, I most definitely have not,” Cliff responded as he continued scanning the room.
“I’m surprised — you’re holding up your end of the deal this time. I didn’t know if I could even trust you with little angel Gus, but maybe he takes after your imaginative spirit.”
Cliff grimaced and was careful to let Ivy do the talking.
“If things are going so smoothly, I’ll move up our lunch time to noon, so you and Gus will have a little bit over a half an hour to finish up there and meet us at the Lakeview Diner. Bye now.”
Cliff tucked his phone back in. He was already in for a scolding for not picking up any of the furniture kits, that was for certain. Gus, though, was the target, and once he was sure that the call had ended, Cliff got back to work.
One of the passing customers, an elderly woman with a smirk from ear to ear, made eye contact with Cliff. After glancing away for a second, Cliff returned her gaze. She certainly appeared amused, but her smile was genuine and warm rather than judgmental. The woman gestured to a wooden table in a display on the other side of the hall, the same room from the entrance, and under it Cliff could see the familiar light green fabric.
Endgame. Cliff felt his shoulders loosen up and his stomach finally settle. He stood up, face still burning red with embarrassment, and walked across to the model room in the most nonchalant stroll he could muster. But the angst that consumed him dissipated with each step, the illusion of life-or-death stakes giving way to the fun of the game.
After taking in the sights of the room to build up the anticipation, Cliff crouched down under the table in a playful fashion to find his nephew at last.
“You never thought I’d hide here!” Gus said with a laugh. His body was tucked into the fetal position, sized just right to fit into the small crevice under the table. A pretty good hiding spot, Cliff had to admit.
“You sure got me good,” Cliff responded enthusiastically.
“And I’ve got both of you!”
Cliff turned around to see the irate employee standing above him, and from the expression on the man’s face, Cliff knew that their IKEA visit had reached its end. To a smattering of applause, Cliff and Gus made their way, escorted by the employee, down an escalator and back to the basement.
“And don’t you ever make such a grumble at our fine establishment again!” the employee hollered at the pair, though Cliff and Gus giggled from behind their turned backs. Cliff reached into his pockets — his keys were in there, to his great relief — and unlocked the car’s doors.
“Never, ever tell your mother about this one, Gus,” Cliff said as he fixed the rearview mirror. “This little adventure stays between us. But tell me, how did you get away from me that whole time?”
Gus tucked his tablet back into the seat pocket and beamed as he recounted his story. Cliff nodded from time to time, soaking in the sun as he drove up out of the IKEA garage and made the turn onto the highway.
Once Gus concluded his tale of near misses and narrow escapes, he said something that broke Cliff out of his customary nods and smiles.
“We make a great team,” Gus chimed.
“Team? I don’t know about that, Gus. I don’t think we accomplished all that much besides getting kicked out. I hate to break it to you, but we still have to explain why we don’t have any of the items on the list.”
Gus was unfazed. “I was the hider and you were the seeker, and we had a lot of fun.”
Cliff started to get defensive, then eased his hands’ grip on the wheel. The missing piece clicked into place. From his IKEA trip to the moving walkway, he always wanted to see his vision realized, the next level reached. Being a part of someone else’s vision and making that richer? Sure, Cliff’s brazen ideas could pass off as creative visions, but Gus’s imagination proved just as vivid and spectacular, and Cliff had helped fuel that with his IKEA enthusiasm and ill-fated suggestions.
“We do make a great team,” Cliff said. “But I think you were the real MVP today, Gus. I just tagged along.”