The shop was old and musty. It smelled of mildew and dust balls, the velvet curtains were decayed, and every shelf was packed with the things no one wanted. The windows were so caked with dust, only a few stray rays of the sun made it through to cast shadows in the cluttered, square room. Though it had stood on the corner of a street for years, the rusted bell above the door never rang. Even the oldest of residents didn’t remember it was there, hidden and tucked away. And while the buildings grew taller around it, shining brighter with new promise everyday, the little shop lay forgotten, yet not abandoned.
Every day its door was unlocked. Dust was swept from the chair and the lone light bulb switched on. Frail, weathered hands hung the welcome sign. Then those hands lay folded on a counter to wait, as they had for years, in case someone might wander in. And after the long day was done, the door was locked tight with care, as if the store held diamonds instead of musty air.
The old man could not tell you what day he was born, nor how long ago it had been. But he could tell you the name of every doll that sat in their moldy, yet once colorful, dresses. And if you asked him the name of his wife, or how she’d looked, he’d only reply, “Beautiful.” Because so many years had passed, it was all that remained of her. Yet if you needed something to warm your head, he knew exactly where all the best hats and earmuffs were, whose stitches had long since crumpled to dust and earth. Every day was spent caring for that little shop, like he’d cared for his children, and who had had long since forgotten he was there.
Alone he sat, in his kingdom of dust, but he did not feel the solitude. For he always had his most treasured prize close by. Either in his pocket or spread before his dimmed eyes, they reminded him of days past and the man he once was.
If you asked him what they were, he’d hold up a card with a grin. He’d tell you the story of the place he said he’d been. Of green valleys and snow caped mountains, mermaids on rocks, and buildings of stone and ice. Whatever dazzling picture the card held, the old man had a story to tell from there, even if it was never told exactly the same way twice. If you asked him where he’d got it, it was quite the same. Some days it came from a pirate ship he’s once fought, or from a garbage bin outside a magic shop, or even his wife had painted them to remind him of his adventures. But these days, it was rare to find a person to listen to his tales. Everyday was harder on his old bones, it was only his store that kept him waking and rising out of bed again each day.
* * *
A girl, no longer a child but not yet old enough to be vain, suddenly looked up and found herself lost, and a little stuck. Before she could pull out her gadgets that flashed and dinged to go on her way, she caught sight, out of the corner of her eye, a shop she’d never noticed before. Be it fate or destiny, or whatever you may say, something made her notice the faded sign across the way. It was old, its letters faded and hard to read. Before she knew it, she had crossed the street, wondering what it could be.
As she entered, the door-bell hardly made a sound, and in the gloom it took a few moments before she could see. Shelves lined the walls and boxes piled underneath, every inch overflowing with things old and broken. Decay and dust seemed to cling to everything. From the ceiling hung costumes and masks, with paint chipping off and the thread thin as glass. She stepped further in and stared at the things on the shelves. Cameras with corroded metal sat next to a faded puppet with broken strings. Hubcaps rotten with rust leaned against a shelf cluttered by tiny shoes with the leather cracking and books with pages as brittle as leaves.
The girl turned slowly, staring wide-eyed at what most people would call junk. Her eyes came to rest on the site of an old man sitting at the counter, a slight smile in the wrinkles of his mouth and a distant look in his eyes. In a voice as ancient as the things surrounding him, he called, “Welcome, my dear.”
The girl blinked, took a step back and blinked again, stunned by all she’d seen.
“I’m… I’m sorry.” She suddenly felt like she shouldn’t be there, like she’d just been caught in someone else’s home. She glanced at the door, thinking maybe she should leave, this place certainly wasn’t what she had expected.
“No, no, you are a guest,” he said quickly. “You are welcomed. I will play you music.” This time the girl caught the accent in his voice, from where she did not know, but it sounded far away and old. As he spoke, he pulled out a little wooden music box from under the counter, and with one boney hand he wound it up. The ballerina, her paint faded and one leg gone, turned in circles as the soft melody was plucked out. “Please feel free to look at whatever you like,” the old man said with a smile and a gesture to the packed room and the curtain, halfway parted, leading to more that the girl had not seen.
She stopped backing towards the door, and returned the smile. The soft music and the old man’s kind gesture reassured her. Walking through the dusty curtains made her sneeze, but the other side held many shelves and more things, like clothes on hangers. She stood for a moment, staring in fascination. Then her pocket vibrated, and she looked down at her phone. The screen flashed with glowing color, casting the room in an odd light, beeping with messages that called her. It was hard not to check everything; the red notification always got to her, but this store was something new and interesting. She realized she was tired of the social game, she had been for some time, but she somehow always came back to the beeping and the noise. But not this time. With a sigh, she held down the button and shut it off.
She sifted through boxes, stood on tip toe to look at shelves. The music drifted through, accompanied by a deep old voice singing a song she had never heard. Everything she saw fascinated her, and she couldn’t stop staring. Even as old and faded as the things were, they were so real to her. And she careful picked up and studied things she’d only heard about or seen in books. When she moved to the racks of clothes and hats, she wondered at the styles and shapes. Some she did not understand, others were downright strange, but many were very lovely indeed. One such one was a long flowing dress with a high laced neck and carefully decorated sleeves and waist. And though it’s light pink fabric was spotted with age, the girl thought its beauty rivaled the styles in those fashion shops her mother loved.
She exclaimed happily over her new find, but she was also twinged with sadness over how very old and fragile it was. There was a tapping on the floor, and looking up she saw the hunched form of the old man, leaning on a cane by the half drawn curtains. The light overhead cast deep shadows in the lines of his face, but some of those lines were forced up in a smile.
“Have you found something?” he asked, nodding towards the dress.
She held it up and let the long skirt drape over her arm. “Yes, I think so,” she said, but then frowned, “but it’s so…well, old.”
“Would you like to see what it looked like before?”
She looked up in surprise, “You have a picture?”
“Of a sort,” he said, reaching his free hand into his coat pocket and pulling out a small box of cards. He opened the frayed top, and with long, thin fingers he tried to sift through the cards. But his hands would shake and he’d fumble. Frowning, he turned and began to hobble back to his desk with slow, painful steps. Curiosity and worry made the girl follow, and she watched him closely as he sat down with a creak of legs, from human and chair alike.
Slipping on a pair of glasses, he slowly dumped the cards from the box and began sorting through them. She now saw the box read “Tarot Cards.” Many long moments passed, and she glanced from the cards swirling around the counter to the deep, old eyes of the man. She noticed how weary those eyes looked when he wasn’t smiling. Suddenly his hand shot up with a card, and his face lit up with triumph.
“Here you are, my dear,” he said, handing her the card.
The girl looked at the bright card, a sharp contrast to the dull grays and shadows of the store. Indeed there was a dress, just like the one in her arms, but colorful and lively as it swished around the bare legs of the girl in the picture. She stared, entranced by the beautiful style and liveliness of dress in the picture, then at the spotted, old one in her hands. “Wow,” she breathed.
“That was my Love’s dress,” the old man said.
“Is that the girl in the picture?” she asked, pointing to the girl on the card. Long black hair spilled down her back; both hands held the dress as she twirled and looked over her shoulder with a smile. In a way she thought it looked like her, at least in her smile.
“Oh, no,” he shook his head, causing the glasses perched on his nose to bounce off and be caught by the chain around his neck. “That was the beloved servant girl of a native woman. See you, one day as I was walking along the beach on an island far away…..”
The girl listened as he told the story of how he rescued the drowning girl from the fierce tides of the ocean, and returned her to her mistress. The girl, orphaned from a young age and working in the house of a fair estate woman, was loved by the aging woman. In return, he was rewarded a safe passage home and the lovely dress for his wife. Though she never wore it much, for she was afraid she might mess it up.
She was captivated by his tale and the way words flowed from his mouth. Never had she encountered someone who could paint such vivid and fantastical pictures in her mind, and tell of them like he’d been there. She had to hear more. Plopping herself on a rickety stool, she picked up a card with moon and stars above a silver lake, and asked him to tell her about it.
The man’s eyes danced as he began the next tale. His body still sagged and his words were careful and labored, but his eyes and mind were alive, though they still seemed to wander.
Time passed, but how much nether knew nor cared. They laughed and smiled, and the tales grew longer. The girl brought him items from the shelves, and he told her their stories as well. The music box was his mother’s. She had always played it for him when he was young. The cameras, with all their metal and glass, were from a movie-making man who no longer required them, but they had been in many great films. The girl nearly danced from shelf to shelf, plucking up things and lighting up with the joy of discovery. Because, though they well surpassed her in years, they were real, and history, and new to her.
A shadow passed over the girl’s excitement when she heard heavy coughing and turned to see the old man bent over. His hunched shoulders were shaking, as he pressed a spotted white handkerchief against his mouth with one weak hand.
The old man lowered his cloth as the spasms died, and he saw his young friend looking at him with her mouth turned down and her eyebrows pushed together with worry. He tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it was hard when the aches and pains seemed to never leave. “I am fine, my dear. It’s just the price of age.”
Her lip stuck out in a pout, like she didn’t believe him, and she looked about the small room. “It’s all this dust,” she said, “it’s not good for you. You need fresh air.”
The old man sat on his withered thrown and watched as the girl carefully cleared everything away from the window, unlatched it, and pushed with all her might.
One… Two… Three… Crack!
The window flew open in a spray of dust, and afternoon sunlight rushed in like a warm hug. He sat, stunned for a moment, in the light as the flood moved to the rest of the shop, brightening it. But the girl was not done. She found a rag and dusted the widows, as the wind carried it away. Then she found water and washed the wood and glass, all the while talking to the old man. He ask her what had become of the world, and she told him all she could. Some things made him frown, and others made his eyes light up in wonder. He listened as she talked, until the window was clean.
She helped him get up and walk over to see. The panels were clear, and the wood once again bright and deep with color. He admired her clever handy-work, then looked out at the world outside and the small view of the street. “Thank you,” he said, looking down with a smile that went all the way to his eyes and made them water in gratitude, “it’s beautiful.”
“This place is what’s beautiful. This… and that dress,” she said, skipping back to where it lay on the stool. Then her eyes lit up with an idea, “Maybe I can clean this up too. I’ll need to do some research and get the right stuff—”
Bong. Bong. Bong.
The girl’s head whipped up as the city clock sounded, and she pulled out her phone and turned it on. “Oh no, I was suppose to be home already!” She rushed to the door, but then stopped and looked at the dress.
The old man saw the look on her face, and said, “Take the dress, it’s yours.”
In an instant she had wrapped him in a tight hug. “Oh! Thank you!” she said, before carefully folding up the dress and heading out. She paused at the door and waved goodbye. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she promised, and was gone.
He watched from the widow, as she disappeared down the street with her new treasure, and smiled. Then he pulled his chair over, and settled in to watch the sun set over the city.