It was a beautiful summer day on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Tommy and his little sister Hanna were running down the wood planks, hand in hand. They were two of the very few kids that actually lived near the Boardwalk, and after every summer all the new friends they made had to leave to go back to New York or Maryland. They always had each other though, and that was enough for them.
That particular day was nice, warm with an overcast. That meant they could run down the beaches barefoot without the hot sand burning their little feet. The Boardwalk was coated so that they wouldn’t get splinters as they ran along, looking at all the ice cream and candy vendors that dotted the storefronts all along the ocean.
They turned a corner, skipping and yelling out to some of the other children that were dripping ice cream on their tee shirts or spilling snow cones down their chin. Then they saw a small store tucked into an alleyway next to the Hershey ice cream store. It didn’t have any candy or decals in the window, only a large sign that read “Salt Water Taffy.”
“Hey, let’s check that place out, I’ve never been there before,” said Tommy, pulling his little sister along.
“Wait… I’m scared. Let’s get mommy first.”
“Come on, I’ll protect you sis, it’s just a store, what are you, a scaredy cat?
She finally relented and they walked slowly up to the wooden door of the small store. Tommy twisted the brass knob and the well greased door glided open on its hinges. There were huge hooks nailed to the walls and a counter that the children were too short to see over. The display case had lots of little wrapped candies in different colors, but all the same size. A tall dark man leaned forward from behind the counter and greeted them.
“So children, would you like to try some salt water taffy?” the man said, as he held out two little wrapped pieces for them to grab out of his long lanky hand.
Hanna hid behind her brother, a little startled by the man that she hadn’t seen before. Tommy grabbed the taffy and said “Thanks,” then they both walked toward the door to leave.
“Remember kids, if you chew it you can’t stop until it’s gone….”
The door shut behind them.
Tommy unwrapped one of the little white pieces of candy. It was covered in wax paper, and was a little hard to get out of its cocoon. He popped it in his mouth. It was just the right size to fit inside and suck the swirling creamy-sugar juice that seemed to spontaneously emit from it. The juice was getting a little too much so he started chewing, and just as the dark man said, he couldn’t stop. If you stopped chewing for even a second, it would stick to your teeth like cement, and you couldn’t get it off.
“You want this piece?” he asked his sister. She shook her head no, so he unwrapped it and popped that one in his mouth too. They ran along the Boardwalk for a while longer before their parents came to the arcade to take them home.
All night Tommy was having strange dreams. He found himself in a dark cellar—damp, with the smell of mold and warm mustard seeping into his flaring nostrils. There was a cauldron in the center, and logs with orange fires dancing about them. He walked up to the cauldron and saw a goopy white liquid in there, and right before he went to dunk his hand into it he saw the face of his little sister, bobbing up and down in the liquid.
At breakfast his mom made pancakes and eggs for the family. It was seven in the morning, and the family was sitting down at the table before another day on the Boardwalk. Both parents were elementary school teachers, and were able to let their children play all summer without having to send them to camp or summer school.
When Tommy’s mother poured the syrup on his pancakes, he had a weird feeling in his mouth, kind of like how he felt after eating the salt water taffy the previous day. His mouth felt sticky, wet, and sweet. He ate the pancakes but they didn’t fill him up or quench his sugary thirst.
That day at the Boardwalk his parents ate lunch at a fish and chips restaurant, while the two kids had tokens to play some of the carnival games scattered around the area. They popped balloons and threw rings on bottles, trying to win big furry animals to put into their rooms. The whole time Tommy’s mind was occupied by the old shop that sold salt water taffy in the alley. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t convince his sister to go back with him, so after their money ran out he told her to go back to mom and dad and that he would go by himself.
He walked down the alley, and approached the wooden door with the brass knob. He turned it quickly and stepped in. The dark man stood behind the counter, and smiled as Tommy made his way over.
“So, you liked the taffy that I gave you yesterday did you?”
“Well, here are a couple more pieces for you to have if you like.…”
The man threw him two more pieces of taffy, this time colored red. He opened one and put it in his mouth, chewing violently so that the sweet creamy treat wouldn’t stick anywhere in his mouth.
The man lifted a huge glob of red sugary mass and put it on one of the huge hooks nailed to the wall of the shop. He let it droop down, and then gathered it up and placed it back on the hook. Every time Tommy thought the taffy would fall off the hook, the dark man would snatch it real quick and place it on the hook again. He did this over and over again for about five minutes while Tommy watched, fascinated by the whole process.
“I need someone to test this fresh batch, what flavor should it be I wonder….”
“Oooh! Strawberry, it’s my favorite,” said Tommy, as the man put the blob into the wrapping machine.
“Strawberry it is….”
He flicked a switch and the machine started to rumble and spin, and then little blobs came out, and tiny pieces of wax paper formed around the tasty bite size candies. The bucket at the end of the machine was filling up with taffy, and the dark man grabbed one and gave it to Tommy.
“Go ahead… try it.”
Tommy put it into his mouth and the taste was more than he could ever hope for. On his way back to his parents all he could think about was salt water taffy. He asked his parents if they had ever tried it, and they said yes of course, it’s just as important to Atlantic City as the casinos—it just wouldn’t be the same place without it. Tommy was thrilled at what his parents said, and loved the fact that he had found out how wonderful the candy was all on his own.
The next morning Tommy felt ill, and couldn’t eat his breakfast. It happened right after his mother told him that they were just going to relax at the house today, and not go to the Boardwalk. All he could think about during the day was the red taffy that he ate yesterday, and how he could get more. It filled his mind and pushed out all other thoughts, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t play video games, all he could do was sit in his room and think about salt water taffy.
Finally he decided to wait until the family went to bed. He peeked outside his room, and quietly tiptoed around the house, making sure to check everyone’s bedroom to be sure they were asleep. Once he felt confident enough, Tommy put on his fresh sneakers and hightailed it out of the house and toward the Boardwalk. They only lived a few blocks away from it, so he was at the shop in less than ten minutes. It was nine thirty at night, but something told him that the shop was still going to be open, even though it was usually only the most popular places that stayed open this late.
The door to the taffy shop was closed as usual, and when he turned the knob it opened noiselessly just like all the other times. The dark man was behind the counter, this time with a bag full of strawberry salt water taffy.
“I thought you might come back… do you want some taffy?” the man said with a devious grin.
The man threw Tommy a few pieces of taffy, which he summarily unwrapped and scarfed down. It filled his little stomach with a pleasure that he had forgotten, like he had just scratched an itch after being in a straight jacket for ten years.
The man’s eyes pierced into Tommy’s soul, “So, do you want this bag of salt water taffy? I’m running out myself, and need more ingredients. I’ll make you a deal, if you bring that little girl with you tomorrow, I’ll give you all the taffy in this bag and then as much as you can stuff your face with before you leave, do we have a deal?”
As he turned to leave for home, the dark man said, “By the way, what color was her hair again?”
“Blonde huh? So, do you like banana flavored taffy or crème flavored?” asked the man, smiling.
“Oh I like banana!” said Tommy, opening the door to leave.
Hanna was wearing the summer dress that her mother made for her as a foray into her passion, clothing design. She had made a few mistakes with this one, so it didn’t bother her to let Hanna run around the beach or the Boardwalk with it on—she would have another go of it next week. Tommy was with her, always her guardian, and sometimes an annoying older brother. This day, he was extremely annoying, trying to get her to go with him to the salt water taffy shop. She really didn’t want to go again, but after a few hours of this she finally relented and agreed to go, but only to get some free taffy and then leave.
They approached the shop, but this time the door was open. They both walked in, Tommy first, and then Hanna. Then a loud bang, and the door was shut. Tommy whirled around, and Hanna was gone. The dark man appeared behind the counter.
“Hello Tommy, thank you for bringing your sister, I was starting to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to make anymore salt water taffy.”
A calm came over the shop, and Tommy was introduced to his banana flavored sister again—in neatly wrapped wax paper packages.