I noticed her at the end of the aisle of toys.  She looked very small surrounded by such a staggering glacial ravine of pink princess dolls, plastic ponies, frilly child sized dresses with glittering gems, arms full of bouncing balls, a basket of hula hoops.  Perhaps more toys than she had ever seen in one place before in her brief 5-years of life.  I watched her from a distance and recognized the look of absolute amazement on her face as she stared longingly at something beyond the aisle.  Something up near the ceiling.  She was like a child watching a cloud transform above her head.  I stood for a long time watching her.  Waiting for her to move.  But she just stood there with her hands clasped behind her back obediently (as it is the family rule in stores like these).  She blinked softly, and I walked down the chasm of gaudy joy to stand by her side.

I laid a hand on her shoulder and turned to look at what had mesmerized this sweet little girl.  What I saw surprised me.

Out of all the toys and games and dolls and attractive packaging, she was standing here in the middle of the aisle staring at the hanging billboards showing the child’s play forts.  She studied the picture of the largest of the wooden castles as if it were a piece of art at a museum.  The children in the picture were laughing as they climbed the rope ladders, slid down the bright yellow twirly slide, shot imaginary arrows from parapets, and swung grinning from a tire swing.

“This is why Mom and I brought you here last time.”  I told her.  “So, we could pick one of these forts for you, remember?”

She nodded.  That was several months before, and since then I had slaved over the wooden beams in my backyard to construct a beautiful fortress for my girls to play on.  Several Saturdays and late evenings I had sacrificed in the hottest days of summer, sorting nuts and bolts and matching them with poorly written instruction books in multiple languages.  I had done all of this so my children could climb inside and roar with happiness and we could watch from the porch and wave.

But here she was, back at the toy store, staring up at this picture and sighing deeply.  After a moment she said, “I like our fort, Dad, but this one is better.”

My heart sank slowly to my feet and I looked back at the perfect fort in the picture, with its photo-shopped flags flying on the bright green roof and the soft beach sand foundation.  “I know it is better.”  I told her.  “You know, I can make your fort better too if you would like.  What is it about this fort that makes it better than the one I made you?  Is it the slide?  Or the ladder maybe?  This one has a tire swing.  You know, I could make you a tire swing.”

I looked down at the little girl, still engrossed in the picture.  “No Dad.” She said quietly and pointed.  “Look.  This fort has other kids on it, and I would like to be their friends.”

I pulled her close against my side and kissed her on the top of the head.  I had been ready to pull out my wallet right there and give her exactly what she wanted, but what she wanted was the very thing I couldn’t buy her.  Here, in this wonderland of distraction and flashing electronic explosive pink chaos, my daughter had blindly looked past it all and seen something that even I had not realized.  People.

I took her by the hand and proudly lead her to the hula hoop basket.  “I don’t think you will have to worry.”  I told her.  “When people finally get to know you, I think everyone will want to be your friend.”