Her hopes of getting a few moments of relative peace and quiet to contemplate whether waking up tomorrow would even be worth it were dashed when the man plopped down next to her. Resentment flared in her gut, churning her already soured stomach, as she felt the telltale vibrations of some inconsiderate civilian selecting—of all the empty rows on the bus—the seat next to her. How dare they, she thought, halfheartedly bitter. Lifting her head from her hands, the young woman resolved to give the Stranger a look that screamed “I will kill you if you test me” but faltered after a few moments of meeting his eyes.
The man was unnaturally tall, bending over halfway to be at eye level with her. His eyes were matte, with irises such a light grey they were almost colorless, set deep into his skull. It took her a moment to even see the severely dilated pupils. As she stared at his pallid skin made even paler by the contrast of his bulky black turtleneck and curling sable hair, she was struck by the observation that it didn’t quite fit right. The epidermis stretched a bit too tightly over jutting cheekbones, bulged oddly near the base of his left ear. Unconsciously, she shifted closer to the window.
“Are you alright?” the Stranger asked, voice seeming to echo despite its low volume.
She leaned further away, avoiding eye contact. “I’m fine,” she stated, with a firm tone that made it clear that any further discussion would be unwelcome and likely to result in serious injury or death. He hummed a skeptical response, but didn’t respond. Casting her gaze outside, the young woman noted the passing high rises morphing into rusted warehouses, dilapidated synagogues, then finally shoddy brownstones and bodegas. A wave of relief lapped at her troubled mind as the bus began to slow and she prepared to get off at her stop. Her fingers had just grasped the fraying strap on her backpack when the man cleared his throat. It grated against her ears, an irrational compulsion coming over her to clap her hands over them and pray to never hear such a sound again, and she snapped upwards rigidly, bag forgotten.
“Here.” Rummaging around in his pocket for something, his hand finally emerged with a silver token clenched between the spindly fingers. Numbly, she held her hand out, and he pressed the cold metal onto her palm. The Stranger smiled. His teeth were a dentist’s dream and an orthodontist’s fantasy: perfectly straight and white, though they gave her the impression of a feral beast. “Someone gave me this when I was going through a rough patch, and it really helped me pull through. I think it’s about time I carry on the tradition.”
“No problem. Good luck.”
The bus lurched to a stop, and he stepped into the aisle to let the young woman through, giving her a friendly nod. Shoving the token into the pocket of her hoodie and snatching her bag, she walked out of the row as quickly as possible in such a narrow space. As she passed by, she heard him murmur, “Just remember to bargain. The Shopkeeper fancies itself a swindler, but haggle a bit and it’ll crack like an egg.”
She turned, brow furrowed and lips already prepped with questions, but was pushed along by the pack of exhausted college students and blue-collar workers behind her and only caught a glimpse of his subtly malformed head as she hopped off the steps onto the cracked pavement. Instinctively, her legs propelled her towards her apartment complex through the throng of foot traffic. Congestion was even worse than usual (Typical, she thought, reflecting on her recent luck or lack thereof), and her thoughts drifted to her strange encounter on the bus as she was forced to a snail’s pace behind a group of elderly ladies taking up the entire sidewalk. Gingerly, she reached into the pocket of her hoodie. The tips of her fingers brushed against the metal, and a toasty feeling spread through her arm and through her body at the sensation of warmth. Grasping the token between her index finger and thumb, she pulled it out and held it up to eye level.
The coin bore an uncanny resemblance to the glaukes she’d seen in one of her history courses from freshman year, though it didn’t look nearly as old; it was stamped with an emblem of an owl—one she realized, with a twinge of unease, with human teeth grinning out from the sharp beak—holding a scroll in one taloned foot and a blossoming olive branch in the other. Around the edge, angular glyphs were carved into the metal in a language the young woman couldn’t understand or recognize. Looking at them for too long gave her a headache, and she could’ve sworn she saw them shifting and coiling into different shapes out of the corner of her eye.
The sun was sinking among the high rises, causing the skyline to flare with the concentrated reflections of a million windowpanes and staining the nearly empty avenue she was ambling down a vivid copper, light’s glorious last stand before it fell to the forces of night. Shadows stretched their dark features, languidly unfolding and loitering fifteen feet behind their owners. Admiring the reddened hue of the row of shops in the dying daylight, the young woman was thinking about what shade of paint she would need to recreate the phenomenon when a glinting sign caught her eye. It was hanging from a steel rod above a narrow hole-in-the-wall crammed between a German bakery and a vintage boutique she was quite fond of.
She was positive it hadn’t been there that morning.
At first glance, nothing looked too out of the ordinary, but as she stared harder she noticed several subtle qualities that were… off. How there were no windows showcasing the goods inside, just a single circular peephole near the rooftop and a sturdy-looking wooden door, how the few other stragglers and window shoppers seemed to ignore it completely, their eyes slipping away vacantly when their gazes landed on the shop, how the stone seemed to blur around the edges. Quickly glancing at either side of the street, she hustled across, ignoring how the skin at the nape of her neck was raised in a patch of gooseflesh that spread like a cancer along her arms and back. Then she caught sight of the logo emblazoned on the sign, and stopped dead in her tracks.
It was the exact same owl as on the token, complete with the gibberish script which sent daggers of pain through her skull and left black spots drifting in her vision. Though for a second, she thought the swirling letters transformed into a recognizable sentence before becoming completely unintelligible:
We have what you need.
After one last jolt of agony, the young woman averted her widened eyes from the sign, casting her gaze toward the door. It was fashioned out of a mahogany-esque wood, the grain curled in intricate patterns that she couldn’t quite follow. Sitting near the middle of the door was a bronze knocker. Upon further inspection, she could see it was molded into the shape of a stylized squid, the four front tentacles held in its own beak to form the ring while the others spiraled around its head, large eyes a sort of amber inlaid into the metal. Before she could comprehend what she was doing, her hand grasped the ring with astonishing determination and delivered three heavy blows to the wood. She pulled the traitorous appendage back in horror, but the damage was done. A screeching whine echoed throughout the avenue as the door slowly swung inward.
The inside of the shop was shrouded in shadow, the dark draped like a veil over whatever lay beyond, and her stomach dropped as she imagined all of the different horrors that could be hiding in the gloom. But her feet propelled her forward, and in a moment she was past the threshold. Behind her, the door clicked shut with an air of finality. Warm light flooded the room as a menagerie of lanterns, chandeliers, and fluorescent light bulbs dangling from the ceilings flicked on one by one. The young woman was caught up in the solace of the illumination and admiring the chaotic but aesthetically pleasing layout of the lighting that she almost walked into a miniature sapling sprouting up from between the floorboards.
Short but robust, the branches of the young tree—the topmost of which came to her chin—jutted out at odd angles perpendicular to the floor, most wrapped with hanging bottles of herbs or necklaces beaded with heavy pendants or strings of shells. On the very top branch that grew nearly sideways, an owl perched, so still she thought it was stuffed at first. Then its eyes flew open, irises cyanide blue and the structure oddly human-like, and the bird grinned at her, revealing a mouth full of human teeth.
“Welcome to—” the owl said before shrieking some inarticulate notes that made her feel like her soul was being sucked out of her body and flung into the void. “My name is—” More screeching. “—but your kind typically prefers to call me the Shopkeeper. I am the proprietor of this fine establishment, one of the most exclusive antique and variety stores this side of existence, if I do say so myself. May I see your pass, miss? I’m sorry, but they’re necessary for tracking our transactions with new patrons in the human plane. For our insurance provider.”
Struggling not to scream, the young woman produced the token impressed with the Shopkeeper’s image from her pocket. Leaning forward to inspect it, the owl’s head rotated upside down before nodding in a manner that would have broken a normal bird’s neck, feathers ruffling.
“Thank you. I see the Uncanny has bestowed his ticket to another. Of course—” The Shopkeeper rolled its eyes. “Now that he’s on the regular customers list he doesn’t need one anymore. Pah! I trust you won’t abuse the privilege like he did.” Beating its wings to simultaneously convey its irritation and achieve liftoff, the owl took off toward a wooden crate sitting next to a counter with an old-fashioned black cash register. “Honestly, after he got that token the boy was in here twice a day for months. Worst of all, most days he didn’t even buy anything, just lurked and stared. Scared off quite a few customers. You seem the reasonable sort, though, so I’ll hold out hope that you won’t resort to the same measures your predecessor took. Now, my dear, what do you need?”
“Excuse me?” The words came out of her throat strangled and high.
“I assume you saw the sign upfront. Here at—” It let out the same soul-wrenching cry as before. “—we cater to the needs of beings across all dimensions and planes of existence. And no, before you ask, those two are not the same thing. It’d be like comparing apples and Variola major.” Gesturing at the crate with one wing, the Shopkeeper began to rummage around the unseen contents with its beak. “This week, we have quite the collection of clearance items! Let me see here… a vial of Vague Existential Dread, a trophy whose inscription shifts to accommodate your most recent greatest accomplishment… oh, the coat of the thing that stands in the corner of your room and watches you while you sleep! A bit threadbare, but serviceable. A magnifying glass that lets you see a person’s soul, a shapeless, humming, and luminescent blob that secretes acid onto whatever it touches—already in protective casing, of course, you humans have such fragile flesh—and a day old loaf of bread from the finest bakery on Ceres. Anything that interests you?”
“I think,” the young woman managed to choke out. “I’ll browse a bit.”
“Excellent, excellent. Please, take all the time you need. It’s in that container there, beginning of aisle seven. Just smear a bit on your forehead.”
Sure enough, a bucket full of navy sludge swirling with strands of indigo and violet that seemed to have no bottom when she looked inside hung from a hook in a shelf, glittering with eddies of stardust down in its depths. The viscous fluid was warm to the touch, and, hesitantly, she did as instructed. Instantly, it felt like the very essence of winter itself had settled into her bones. The young woman shivered. Wiping the excess off on her pant leg, she began to search through the rows of wooden shelving.
Merchandise was sorted into aisles in a nonsensical order only the Shopkeeper seemed to understand; tins of curses that promised to slowly turn enemies inside out were stocked next to flowers that would only bloom during the new moon and would grant one wish per lunar cycle, swords that critiqued your fighting style were kept in a rack next to various exotic pharmaceuticals the owl swore would heal any minor affliction in over three-hundred and twelve dimensions and twenty-five planes, and compasses that would point you in the direction of fame and glory were stacked among a pile of “Last Straws.” She had a macabre fascination with the hanging selection of shrunken heads of various different beasts, only a few of which she recognized, and wonderingly admired the craftsmanship of a staff carved with glowing runes and pictographs of galaxies and nebulas. But there was a tug at the very core of her being, one that none of the novelties satisfied and that led her deeper into the deceptively large store, despite the flustered mutterings of the proprietor of “hazardous to humans” and “quite messy, indeed.” Finally, after what felt like and what might have been hours of searching through vinyls imprisoning the souls of dead musicians and mirrors-that-were-not-mirrors, she found the object calling to her.
High on a dusty shelf in a neglected region of aisle two, a small lilac box sat surrounded by long-abandoned cobwebs. She reached up to pull it off the shelf.
“Oh, dear. Are you sure that’s what you need?” the Shopkeeper protested, but the young woman was already turning it over in her hands, examining the delicate floral patterns lacing the exterior in wreaths of obsidian. A small lock with an indentation clearly meant for a fingerprint kept the fabric coated wood from opening to reveal the rattling contents.
The silence filled with the whisper of ruffling feathers. Her feet instinctively carried her back through the labyrinth to the front of the shop. She stopped in front of the antique cash register, clutching her prize eagerly, while the Shopkeeper fluttered down behind the counter, eyeing her every few seconds while punching in what she assumed to be numbers with its talons. When the owl spoke again, its voice was calculated, honeyed. “Alright, you’ll be needing a key for that. I can cook one up in the next hour, but it’ll cost extra. Your total will come to… a happy memory, a childhood dream, and five hours of existential terror.”
Slowly, she pressed her index finger to the cool metal of the indentation. A click echoed throughout the shop. The young woman got the feeling that if the owl had skin, it would have paled. She remembered what the man on the bus had told her and smiled serenely.
“I guess a key won’t be necessary. That lowers the total quite a bit, yeah?”
Blinking deliberately, the Shopkeeper considered. “A happy memory and three hours.”
“A happy memory and two childhood dreams.”
“Two memories, and two dreams.”
Nodding sagely, the owl put one talon to her wrist, and slashed. A few drops of blood leaked out from the wound, along with four golden wisps of smokes. With a sweeping motion, the Shopkeeper grabbed a bottle off the counter and shepherded them into it before stopping the bottle with a cork. “Thank you for shopping at—” More shrieking. “Have a nice day.”
As she walked out into the blood-red light, grinning ear to ear, box steady in her hands, she thought the pleasantry might actually come true.
Bio: Ever since I can remember, I’ve been driven to create, whether it be art, poems, or stories. To me, creating something is a way to get people to think about the world differently, whether it be through a particularly good painting or a thought-provoking novel. It lets us put the stories and images we all carry inside our heads down on paper where everyone can see. A few artists that have helped inspire my work with their own stories and images are Neil Gaiman, Maggie Stiefvater, and Jonathan Sims.