On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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A common dream of childhood, and I suppose of adulthood also, is finding the thing you seek the most. I’ve had that dream many times. Sometimes the coveted object is from my waking life, and sometimes it’s invented by my subconscious especially for the occasion, but in every case its unexpected discovery is the cause of disbelief, delight, and immediate greed.
But there’s another feeling too, following closely afterwards. It’s a sense that surely this can’t be happening; surely life is never so kind; surely I’m just not that lucky. And thus distrust and suspicion set in, often dissolving the dream and bringing regretful wakefulness and then confusion as the images lose cohesion. That’s one of the sources of the particular subgenre of tales we’ve told ourselves all throughout history, where your heart’s desire can be had, but only at a retrospectively-terrible price: the Faustian bargain. Needful Things, Rumpelstilzchen, and so on, back into the mists of time.
It says something about the human psyche in at least three respects; first that our desires are often for things which cannot likely be had, second that our fantasies of acquisition resort to surrendering agency to supernatural forces, and third — and worst — that we believe odds-beating good fortune must be the prelude to a catastrophic con.
Such is one of the many curses of humanity: in imagining things beyond our understanding, we can see only that which reflects ourselves.
Winfield had left it too late, if he was being honest.
It was a Tuesday evening, already past closing time for most of the shops in town, and they were few and far between these days. Too many boarded-up windows adorned with posters and graffiti, where businesses had once been.
The clocks had gone back a week ago, and sunset had already come and gone. It was cold, and dark, and for the hundredth time he cursed his own stupidity and laziness. It wasn’t like a birthday could be a surprise; it was on a fixed date every year. It was programmed into his phone. He’d also circled it on the wall calendar in the kitchen, and then duly walked right past it every day without bothering to look.
As usual. Exactly the kind of behaviour that led to situations like this, trying to find a gift with barely enough time to get home, change, and head out again to the family dinner. And turning up without a suitable gift wasn’t an option, because his aunt was a very particular sort of woman. The type to hold a grudge, and to tell you the unvarnished truth of her opinion regardless of social conventions, with a little bit of bile and spite thrown in for good measure.
The handful of boutique shops hadn’t been much help, and since he was single at the moment, Winfield had no significant other to offload this hateful task to. He’d also browsed the newsagent, the supermarket, and in desperation even the charity shop that helped pay for cats to be re-homed. Unsurprisingly, he’d come up empty.
One year he’d turned up with a costly champagne, and had learned immediately that it had instead been a costly mistake. The woman was as particular about her alcohol as about everything else, and she clearly felt that the gift lacked thought and consideration — because she’d told him so, in front of everyone else who was there. It was how she was. But it was in everyone’s best interests to just pucker up and endure it, because her sole redeeming feature was that, courtesy of her late and doubtless-gratefully-so husband, she was filthy rich. Add into the mix that she was a few years north of eighty, and the whole thing became a tactical waiting game.
Except that Winfield kept forgetting about her damned birthday. At this point it was clearly a psychological phenomenon, like an expression of repressed dislike and vengefulness, or something like that. It was also a gigantic pain in his backside, because it changed nothing, and he had less than an hour left to browse this godforsaken little shopping district before he would be forced to give up and go home.
The side street was little more than an alley, dirty and unremarkable, with two bins standing as sentinels at the near end of it. A cat was perched on one of them, looking at him with feline disdain from its one remaining eye, and Winfield was surprised to see the warm yellow light spilling out from what had to be a large window down at the far end of the otherwise dark passageway.
He felt a note of unease, but there was something so inviting about the light, and as he looked, he could see a wooden sign sticking out from the brickwork down there, just above the source of the illumination. Winfield took a few steps in that direction, watched by the cat all the way, and after a moment he could see what the sign said.
Just What I Wanted.
Curious now, he decided to walk the rest of the way, and he found himself standing outside a narrow shopfront, the window bearing gold-coloured applied lettering indicating that the place offered gifts for all occasions. Winfield knew immediately that this was his final stop for the evening, and that further searching would be unnecessary. He had no idea precisely why he felt that way, yet he did, and at this point it was enough. He went inside, hearing the little bell above the door ring sweetly as he passed below it.
The place was strangely spartan, with whitewashed shelving bearing only the occasional item, each one tastefully spotlit from hidden fixtures. There seemed to be no counter or till, but there was a single person inside, waiting patiently in the rear half of the space. She looked to be only in her mid to late twenties, with raven hair and vivid green eyes, and she was dressed as if her wardrobe came exclusively from the cat charity shop from earlier. She watched Winfield closely, and for a moment she reminded him of the creature perched on the bin outside.
He smiled at her, and she nodded instead of smiling back, then she gestured to a particular shelf further inside the surprisingly deep room. Winfield frowned in confusion, but he also trusted her completely for some reason, and so he dutifully followed her. It was the right decision, because he actually gasped when he saw it.
One of the worst moments of his childhood, which he still thought about at this time every year. He’d been a little boy, and hardly to blame for playing with anything he happened upon, but his aunt’s dolls had been special in a way he didn’t understand. It made no sense to a child that toys could be collected instead of enjoyed, but as an adult he had come to realise that his definition of enjoyment had simply been incomplete. He had often wished that such knowledge could apply retroactively, because he would remember the day he’d accidentally destroyed the fragile porcelain doll for the rest of his life. He could even remember the woman’s face, and his own mother’s, when they’d found him. He was reasonably sure that his aunt still held it against him.
And yet here it was. Another of the same, identical kind; strange painted eyes and glazed, shining pale skin. The same little outfit. It was eerie, but it was a chance at redemption he had never expected to be given. His pulse quickened, and he swallowed, a part of his mind telling him not to look so eager, but he knew that he had to have it. The price didn’t matter. It was too perfect. It was the ultimate gift for her. It was inevitable.
Winfield tried to school his expression, then he nodded thoughtfully before looking at the girl. “I think I’d like to take this,” he said, and the girl nodded without a hint of surprise. He felt an odd sort of pressure to say something more, and the girl was looking at him, but every sentence he tried out in his mind sounded banal, or overly eager, or unhinged. The truth was that he wanted it, perhaps more than he’d ever wanted anything else, and if he could only buy it and get out of the little shop, he thought that he might have the greatest triumph of his life.
The girl reached for the doll and picked it up, and Winfield found that he had to suppress the urge to tell her to be careful with it. Somehow, she had a gift box ready, all filled with soft tissue paper, and she set the doll reverently into it. After closing the box, she offered it to him, and when he reached out to take it, an image flashed through Winfield’s mind.
It was of his aunt, lying dead in that room of hers where she kept all the dolls. Porcelain faces, looking at you no matter where you stood, now seeming to focus on her frail and lifeless body on the floor. The new doll, or rather the old doll, was there too, in pride of place, just where its predecessor had been. There was a smile on the old woman’s face, frozen there now and forever. Winfield understood. The girl released the box, and he clasped it to his chest.
“And the cost?” he asked, but now the girl only gestured towards the box.
“This is payment in full,” she said.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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