“The Store” – Fiction by Mari Ness

By QuentinUK (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Shop Until You Drop – Banksy, 2011; Photo by QuentinUK  [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, it’s the perfect time to browse the curious wares in Mari Ness‘ flash fiction “The Store,” from our Winter 2015 issue.

{ X }

THE STORE MOVES AROUND. Sometimes discreetly, sliding in between two other stores; sometimes flamboyantly, planting itself firmly in a previously empty lot, with glowing “GRAND OPENING” signs and flags.  In times of economic prosperity, it enjoys nestling in quaint streets dedicated to antique shops and art galleries; during recessions, it often inserts itself into dying strip malls, or leans next to grocery stores and pharmacies.

She never moves.  Not that anyone can see, anyway.

She sits at the cash register near the front of the store, a register that seems to change slightly each time the shop moves.  It had been one of those old fashioned types, and now sports a computer screen that would put many larger businesses to shame, a screen that seems somehow out of place.  Her most noticeable quality: an utter absence of color, with excessively pale skin, nearly as white as paper, white hair, and colorless eyes.  Not pink, not pale blue, but literally colorless. The effect might be caused by contact lenses and makeup and bleach, but somehow, few customers ever think this.  The eyes move, to watch the customers, and her hands move, to take money and credit cards, but her body never shifts, though she must eat and drink and sleep. She must.

Where she might do this is less certain.  Certainly no one has ever seen her eat or drink inside the store, or leave her seat for any reason.  Indeed, she gives the impression that she is not just rooted to, but part of her chair, which in turn seems to be part of the floor.

Not that anyone checks too carefully.

What the store sells, it is hard to say. The merchandise shifts whenever the shop moves, and somehow, few customers seem to linger over the items.   Ordinary things, knickknacks, and jars of jam, and scented candles, and piles of music and books. Books that when opened tell of Jane killing Mr. Rochester by eating through his neck; where the Heart of Darkness is a river eagerly sucking away at the waters of the jungles, leaving a place of dryness and death ripe for fire; where Alice cuts her wrists with the shards of the looking glass. CDs where no one ever hears the secret chord that David played to please the Lord.  Small statues of fairies and angels, their eyes and mouths glued or sewn shut. Brilliantly colored flowers with grey edges that feel cold to the touch. Surprisingly delicious soup mixes, bringing delirious joy when prepared.  Jewelry, rich and strange and delicate. Candles labeled with never-known words.

Some of the customers linger.  She watches those, with care, as they bend to the statues, as they sniff candles, as they come to her, with furtive purchases, their eyes darting throughout the store, to see if anyone watches. Not that the store has many customers; no one has ever seen more than five inside at any given time. Just as well, perhaps, since the store, despite whatever size it might be at the moment, and however many people might be in it, always seems narrow, overcrowded. And everyone, it seems, can feel the angels watching them through those sewn-together eyes. Purchasers do not linger, and she never watches them leave.

Sometimes, after a purchase, customers find their money returned to their wallets, their credit cards credited for the amount of the sale.  And when they check, later, Jane is marrying Mr. Rochester, the candle is merely vanilla, and the soup is any instant soup.

But others feel the blinded gaze of their fairies, savor the unknown scents from the burning candles, read deeply as Oliver Twist learns the art of serial killing, savor the tempting soup, ignore the hissing sounds as their CD players melt.  Those are the customers that return, that find the store every time it moves.  The customers who stretch over the counter, to whisper to her.  What they ask – or say – no one ever knows. But at their whispers, she tapers her hands together, and smiles, a terrible pale smile.  And they find, after their questions, that the store has moved again, with new merchandise to sell, with more customers creeping in through the door.

{ X }

MARI NESS has published short fiction and poetry in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Apex. For a longer list of her works, check out her official website at marikness.wordpress.com, or keep up with upcoming projects by following her on Twitter at mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.

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