On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Rachel had been lingering across the street for nearly an hour, staring intently at the doorway opposite. The same questions had been going through her mind over and over.
Would she be a bad mother if she did this? Or would she be a bad mother if she didn’t?
The storefront was elaborate and inviting, and well-lit despite the late hour. Rachel’s little girl was at home, safely tucked up in bed, with Rachel’s own elderly mother watching over her. The old woman understood why Rachel had to go out, and she probably even knew where she had gone.
Go in or go home, she told herself for perhaps the tenth time, and for some reason her feet began to move now, carrying her across the deserted and narrow road towards the golden sign that said simply Toys.
The place was known throughout the city, though spoken of rarely. There were many other toyshops, but only this one was the toyshop, and the first clue regarding its special nature was that there were never any children to be found within. Parents kept their sons and daughters away, preferring to instead go in alone to obtain whatever was desired. The need for such discretion had been passed down through three generations at least, and no-one had ever been able to come to any consensus on who exactly ran the shop, because parents never spoke of their visits, even amongst themselves.
Rachel came to a halt just in front of the cheerful and whimsically green-painted double doors, with polished brass handles. There were blinds in all the windows, and inside the door panes too, so nothing was visible from outside, but a small hanging sign indicated that the shop was indeed open. She took a breath, then reached for one of the handles and pulled the door open.
The interior was brightly lit, with primary-coloured objects all around. The carpet underfoot was burgundy, and somehow still plush. There were little cars and action figures, wooden horses and soldiers, play kitchens and electronics, model kits and building blocks and every possible other thing, all arranged on shelves and displays which wound their way backwards into the cavernous space. There was no-one else to be seen.
She hesitated for a few moments, then gathered her resolve and walked down the nearest aisle. The fittings were all polished wood and brass rails, luxurious and somehow festive. There were signs, each apparently hand-lettered, indicating what sort of toys were to be found in each section. Rachel knew what she was looking for, and it took only seconds to find the right place. She had the distinct feeling that she would have readily found almost anything here.
Dolls, the section’s sign said, and the same image arose in her mind that had haunted her for weeks now. It was all over the TV, and the internet. The doll was expensive — wildly so — but it was because it was really more like a little machine, with cameras in the eyes, voice synthesis, and some sort of clever software that allowed it to interact with its owner in a limited way. They were calling it a new era in childhood companions. And so, of course, it was sold out absolutely everywhere. Rachel had been searching for over a month, not just in person but in online auctions, shopping sites, and international retailers. All without any luck.
Her daughter’s birthday was fast approaching, with only a few days left, and so Rachel’s resolve had finally been broken by a rising sense of panic and duty. Everyone knew it wasn’t wise to go to the toyshop. But everyone also knew that nobody ever left empty-handed.
There was a separate display stand, of the same polished and dark wood, standing out in the middle of a junction between shelves. It bore a single item: a pristine boxed unit of the very doll she sought. Of course it did.
She felt a sense of relief, but an instant later she became aware of something strange: there were ornate price-tags attached to everything she could see, including the doll’s box. Had they been there a moment ago? Surely they had, but surely she would have seen them; they were oversized, made of thick card that seemed to have subtle iridescence inlaid into the paper stock, and they were of the same deep red as the carpet beneath her feet.
She reached for one that was attached to a different doll nearby, and turned it over to see the price.
Santa Claus, it said.
Rachel frowned. The doll itself wasn’t a Christmas-themed toy, and was female in appearance. She reached for another tag.
She suddenly felt cold, despite the comfortable warmth of the place, and she began to understand. Rachel moved in the direction of the toy she had come here for, but she inspected the tags on others as she went.
Heaven, said one. Safety with Police Officers was another. And so on, until she reached the wonderful and otherwise unavailable doll that was her daughter’s only wish for her birthday.
The tag looked the same as all the others, but Rachel somehow knew that it had been prepared especially for her, perhaps the very moment she opened the door. Or perhaps even earlier, as she stood across the street. Or when she’d decided to come here. She lifted the tag, feeling the reassuring quality and gloss of the magnificent card, and then she turned it over.
She could still choose, after all. She could decide that the cost — which would be paid by the recipient of the gift, her daughter, rather than Rachel herself — was too high. She could just leave, and tell the girl that she’d find the doll somewhere else, even if it took a few extra days or weeks or months.
But of course she wouldn’t. Those who came to the toyshop already knew that the transaction would be completed the moment they took an object and walked back out of the beautiful doors, without the need to speak to — or even see — another soul. That was how it worked.
The price tags were all in the currency of innocence, and they each described the precious childhood belief which would be lost as soon as the chosen toy was given.
Parental Immortality, the tag said.
Rachel reached towards the boxed doll, as she already knew she would, and picked it up.
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