By Sabrina West
From her hiding spot in the antiques shop, Sarah watched the man pacing along the street. For the past ten minutes, he’d been at the back of every store and the edge of every crowd, blond hair sweeping down over lowered eyes. She could swear she knew him. But whenever she had tried to approach him, he had slunk away. Now, as she finally had a chance to study his face, the sensation of familiarity grew stronger.
The man paused just on the other side of the window. Sarah could see the bright blue of his eyes and the frustration evident in his expression. He looked lost and sad, on the verge of tears. As the man ran his hands through his hair, a strand fell into his eyes.
And Sarah remembered.
Rain pelted her face, ran down her cheeks in rivulets, and plastered her dress to her thighs. Her body shuddered with cold. The blue-eyed man cradled her, mumbling something over and over that she couldn’t quite make out. As the drops coated her lashes, she squinted up at the dark clouds and wondered if the rain would ever stop.
When the memory released Sarah, she found herself on her knees on the shop floor, half-tangled in the curtain. People were staring. Dazed, she got to her feet and stumbled outside, but the stranger had disappeared. She hurried down the street, desperate to find him, to ask if he had any memories of her on a rainy night. But it felt more like a dream than a memory, all languid and emotionless.
Sarah ran the memory through her mind, but it gave her no further clues, only restlessness that prickled across her skin. She tried to let her surroundings distract her. She loved the historic district. Back at her apartment complex, everything was sterile and sparse. Here, the houses and stores were jumbled together, slapped down apparently at random. The cars lining the streets were parked so close they seemed to be one long, jointed organism. Every house had a garden. Vines climbed up the walls of the buildings, holding them tight.
Music flooded the street. It spilled out of shops and the windows of second-floor apartments and passing cars. Buskers played on their street corners. To Sarah, it wasn’t a cacophony, but a swirling mélange of sound, letting her drift from one world to another in just a few steps. The music stirred something deep within, and Sarah reached for a phrase, a response, but her mind came up empty, and her throat ached from words unsung.
At one particular storefront, Sarah paused. The mournful note in the singer’s rich voice made her breath catch in her throat. There was something in the music she desperately craved, something she’d been missing with a terrible ache. But just as she began to catch at the edge of memory, the song ended, leaving Sarah standing alone with her hands pressed to her face. The restlessness, which had begun to abate, returned in full force. It deepened and settled in her chest, no longer the aftermath of a dream but an unmistakable tug.
Sorrow shifted to alarm, but the tug blurred her senses, only lessening when she began to walk again. It didn’t hurt, but the feeling of being pulled to an unknown destination was oddly familiar. Again, she tried to remember, but her thoughts slid off a blankness in the center of her mind. Sarah made a half-hearted effort to fight the pull, but a part of her craved some small adventure, a touch of real magic to enliven her banal existence.
When the pull finally released her, she didn’t recognize her surroundings. With crumbling houses and boarded-up stores all around her, she doubted she’d have success asking for directions. She picked up her cell phone to call a cab, or a psychiatrist, and scowled at the dead battery signal. Finally she glimpsed one building that, though still boarded, had a shop sign: “Curios.”
A little bell tinkled above her head as she pushed open the thick wooden door, but the old man behind the counter didn’t look up. Sarah stared around her, breathing in perfumed air, all her questions about directions and mysterious sensations forgotten. The shelves were crammed with all sorts of small objects. On one shelf alone lay wooden toys, pictures, crayons, pens, shells, tea cups, yarn, forks, earrings and candleholders. Despite the multitude of items, the shop didn’t feel cluttered. Not a speck of dust marred the meticulous arrangement. Sarah had the brief and almost overwhelming impulse to move one spoon to a slight angle, just to see how quickly the bespectacled old man would come hobbling over to set it straight. But a quiver of apprehension held her back.
Sarah wandered along one aisle of the store, arms wrapped around herself. Nothing had a price tag. Though she coveted a beautifully etched butterfly, she didn’t want to ask how much it cost. If it wasn’t marked, it probably cost more than she could afford. She reached out to the figurine, and her shaking fingers almost knocked it over. Startled, she snatched her hand back, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. She couldn’t understand the anxiety prickling her skin. The tinkle of the shop bell made Sarah flinch. Feeling ridiculous, she ducked around a corner and stayed out of sight as the new customer spoke to the shopkeeper. She would ask for directions once the girl left.
Sarah was examining a shelf containing mostly bottle caps when footsteps approached.
“… would really be helpful. If you have it.” The girl’s voice sounded flat and dull.
“You’ll find, miss, that we have a little of everything,” said the shopkeeper. They stopped on the other side of the shelf across from Sarah.
“Well then, what do you recommend?”
The man picked up a bag from the shelf above her, a bag that rattled and clinked. Marbles. A wave of dizziness swept through Sarah. The thought of marbles pulled at her memories in the same hazy, abstract way the music had. She crept to the end of the section where a cardboard divide blocked off the end of the aisle. Further down the aisle, the shopkeeper held up three colored bags of marbles for the girl to examine.
The girl pushed her lank brown bangs out of her eyes and sighed. “I’m not sure. I mean, they look cheap.”
“All of our merchandise is of the highest order.”
“Whatever you say. I’ll come back another time.” The girl stomped down the aisle, followed by the shopkeeper.
Once they were out of sight, Sarah crept back to that section of the shelf and picked up one of the bags of marbles. They clinked in her hand, but meant nothing to her. She slipped them carefully back into place and walked to the end of the aisle.
She turned the corner, and there they were. Whole racks of marbles sat in trays below the window. In the closest tray, each glass sphere contained a little ghost ship rocking on an invisible sea.
Those are his specialty, a stray thought told her. His hobby.
On the next shelf, each marble held one wispy ballerina. The edges of their smoky forms wavered ever so slightly, enough to give the illusion of movement. She laid a finger against one of the clear globes, but her fingers only encountered cold glass. Her shoulders slumped. This wasn’t what she missed.
The heavily perfumed air of the shop was making Sarah woozy, so she sat down next to the ballerina marbles. She put her hand to her head, checking for fever, pressing her fingers into her temple as if she could compress her whirling thoughts, or understand the confusing impressions of marbles and music. It was like the world spun around her, dredging up every last bit of the despair and emptiness inside her and whirling them around until she could no longer think straight.
She lifted her head. In front of her a picture lay propped against a candlestick. Sarah picked it up. The holographic image showed a girl in a cocktail dress standing before a crowded club, head bowed. A band stood behind her — guitar, keyboards, drum, bass, violin, oboe, and cello. The loss came back with a vengeance, making her hand shake worse than ever. As the picture tilted, the figures moved. The crowd swayed, the singer nodded, the musicians moved back and forth, the drummer nodded his shock of blond hair and opened and closed vivid blue eyes. With one more tilt of the picture, the singer raised her head, and Sarah found herself looking into her own face. Pain clenched her stomach.
That’s me. That’s mine.
I had that, and I lost it.
No. It was taken from me.
She strained at the memory of music, but like an already forgotten dream it eluded her. She stared at the picture, captivated by her own expression: fierce, proud, wild. Had she ever felt that way?
Now she understood where the tug had come from. In the same way she’d realized the importance of marbles, she knew this shop was built to pull people in, but for what she could not recall.
Behind her, a door creaked open. Sarah shoved the picture under a tray and grabbed wildly for something else.
“She almost took the yellow bag,” the shopkeeper said.
“It would have done her good,” said a new voice, cool and amused. “That girl could use a huge improvement in personality.” Their footsteps paused. Sarah stared fixedly at the shelf in front of her. “May I help you, miss?”
More than anything, Sarah did not want to look up. But she raised her head to meet the eyes of the man with the sleek voice. His face and his voice caught at her in the same way as marbles and music, but this time striking a panic that numbed her tongue and turned her limbs to jelly. She had to swallow twice and clear her throat before the words would come out.
“I’m just browsing,” she said. Despite herself, her voice cracked. She unclenched her fingers from the book she had picked up and put it gingerly back on the shelf.
“Oh, well,” the manager said. He frowned quite fiercely at her. “If there is anything at all we can help you find, do not hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you very much,” Sarah whispered.
The manager nodded sharply at her and the shopkeeper followed him to the back of the store. Sarah stood up, swaying. It took all of her will to make her steps steady and unhurried as she walked past the counter and out the door. She managed three paces before she broke into a run.
As soon as the cab dropped her off, Sarah sprinted up the stairs to her apartment. She pulled the shades down and huddled in the corner next to the couch, her quilt clutched in sweaty fingers.
Finally, she could begin to patch together the fragments of memory and emotion. She thought of the blue-eyed man, the drummer in the picture, the one who followed her throughout town. She remembered the look on his face when he stopped in front of the store, and the way he cried into her hair during her memory of rain. The emptiness swirling within her had a shape now, of a life stolen, and she had no idea how or why it had been taken from her.
And the manager — he had stolen that life, of that she was certain. Now that he’d seen her, she feared he would find her again and take more of what belonged to her. Had she escaped from him before? Or had he just let her go? She tried to force her mind backward, but found nothing there to latch onto. Her stomach churned anew at the thought of her memories being touched, like someone inserting a finger into her skull and delicately scooping out a thought.
Afraid she would be sick, Sarah stumbled into the bathroom. She flicked on the light and paused at the face reflected by the mirror. She bore only a trace resemblance to the singer in the picture. Her hair was longer and stringier, her face gaunt. The biggest difference was in the eyes. The singer had smoky gray eyes surrounded by dark eyeliner that made them look bold and full of seductive rage. Sarah had eyes the color of dirty dishwater that contained nothing but anxiety. She stared at herself in the mirror until she could no longer stand her own gaze.
For the next few days, Sarah didn’t leave her apartment. Several nights without sleep made her delirious. She lay on the carpet as thoughts circled languidly through her head. The jumble of fear and uncertainty ran together, becoming a mishmash of sound. Sarah tried to sing to herself, but no words came. Her voice emerged a scratchy whine that grated against her ears.
That anguish stripped her of any last lingering emotion. All she could think then was: It was mine. And I want it back.
As she walked through the darkened city, the slap of her bare feet against the pavement resonated with the mantra inside her head. Mine, mine, mine. Wind gusted up dry leaves and papers from the gutters to catch on her legs. With her desperation, the tug returned, and she followed it until she found herself staring up at the shop. Its sign swung violently in the wind. With air this heavy and thick, there would be a storm before long.
“Mine,” she said, her voice cracked and rusty. But her conviction had faded. It’s the middle of the night, she told herself. The shop will be locked. I’ll just check the knob, and when it doesn’t turn, I will go home and forget all this.
The knob turned easily under her fingers. Sarah stood for a moment, staring at the door. Then she pushed it open and stepped inside, reaching up to still the tinkle of the shop bell.
Inside, all was silent but for the creak of the walls as the wind pushed against them. Sarah stepped gingerly through the aisles, her bare feet making no sound on the smooth wooden floor. Before she could wonder where to look, a door at the back of the store squeaked. She walked toward it.
Beyond the door stretched a cavernous, bare room of gray concrete. The manager stood in its middle, dressed in gray a few shades darker than the walls. “Come in, Sarah,” he said. “I’ve been waiting quite a while.”
She clutched at her dazed state, holding it around herself like a cloak. If she could distract herself from the danger, she could manage to be bold. “What do I need to do to get my memories back?”
“A test,” he said. “Like the one you faced before, and failed.” He still looked angry, but another emotion she couldn’t quite interpret tightened the lines of his mouth.
“But if I win now, I get my memories.”
She narrowed her eyes. “If you have nothing to offer me, why did you call me back?”
He waved his hand. “The shop calls all those with strong emotions. Such intensity transfers better to the marbles. I didn’t think I had left enough emotion in you for the spell to catch hold.” The manager looked her up and down. “But I’m glad I did, as I apparently botched the extraction the first time.”
“If you win, then you get to do your, um, extraction,” Sarah said. Her calm was unraveling, leaving her nearly faint with fear. “But if I am to accept your challenge, I must have your promise I will get back what you stole.”
“No,” he said. “Will you leave?”
Sarah didn’t move. The manager smiled, and held up a marble. “Listen closely. You have three challenges to face. If you succeed, you leave. If you fail, I distill what is left of your original personality until I find what I missed.” He held up a marble, swirled black and gray.
Sarah took a few steps back. “What exactly did you want from me?”
He smiled again, and she identified the emotion on his face as eager anticipation. “Your music,” he said. Before she could dodge, he threw the marble, hitting her in the chest. The force of the impact knocked her back, the breath going out of her in a rush. Above her, the concrete ceiling flickered and became a cloudy sky. Grass cushioned her fall.
Sarah stood. Before her, the field gave way to a forest of towering pine. A path wound its way into the woods, where distant lights flickered between the shadows. The blue-gray clouds above her glowed with a depth of color she hadn’t thought possible. Beautiful, but under the clean smell of pine lingered a faint odor of rot. Sarah ran her fingers down her chest and over the hard lump where the marble had sunk in. Her half-memories flickered, reminding her there would be challenges for her to face, trials that would leave her so frightened she would never come back to trouble the manager again. The thought of entering the forest eroded the little will she had left. Unable to face it any longer, she turned around.
Behind her stretched endless darkness, a shadow so thick it had texture, swirls she could perceive moving only out of the corner of her eye. If the forest had strained her will, this obliterated it entirely. Sarah turned back to look at the path. She would not get her memories or her music back, and she would be very lucky to make it out alive.
Sarah turned and walked into shadow.
Instantly, she could neither see nor hear. The ground beneath her feet had the texture of smooth, cold glass. A force like a strong wind pushed her back toward the forest. Perhaps that meant she was heading the right way. She pressed forward even harder.
“Well, Sarah.” It sounded like the manager spoke right in her ear, but no puff of breath stirred her hair. “Are you so eager for death?”
“No,” she said.
A pause, then the ground fell out from beneath her feet. Sarah did not scream at the sensation of falling. There was still no sight or sound, but she spread her arms wide and cherished the icy gale in her hair.
“Curse it.” A hand took her arm and the world twisted until down became sideways and she stood on solid ground. Sarah blinked up at the manager, then down at the cool gray floor that stretched out to the horizon.
“I suppose it’s my fault,” he said, “for leaving you with nothing. You don’t even seem to have the capacity for fear.” The shadows of his face slipped and blurred, shifting him to a form far from human.
“I am frightened,” she said, “but not of falling, and certainly not of death. And though they weren’t what you originally intended, I believe those were two tests I just passed.” The cleverness to avoid the trap of the forest, and the bravery — or stupidity — not to be intimidated by death.
“But the third is always the worst.” He swung her around until they faced a mirror. In the reflection, she could see the cold way he looked at her, could feel his anger in the iron grip on her arm. “You hate me for what I did. But you should be grateful for all the pain I took from you.”
The mirror rippled until Sarah saw herself as the singer from the picture. Fascinated, she placed her fingertips on the glass, and the figure mimicked her movements.
“Please,” she said.
The girl in the mirror smiled and reached out through the glass to take Sarah by the neck. As its nails sunk into Sarah’s skin, the memories rushed in.
Her child-sized hands pushed down a smaller boy. Carefully chosen words spilled from her lips as she took vicious pleasure in stripping the confidence from a friend. Endless temper tantrums. The vicious rage that arced through her as she slapped her blue-eyed boyfriend. The selfish pleasure as the faces of her band members fell. The satisfaction in getting her way once more.
Sarah dug her fingers into the arms of the reflection. In the mirror, she met the gaze of the manager. “I will not give up,” she whispered. Her lungs lacked enough air for a shout.
The reflection shook her, and the flow of the memories redoubled.
Ripping weeks’ worth of compositions into tiny bits in a fit of temper. Watching her blue-eyed boyfriend walk away from her because he could no longer tolerate her need to control. Getting drunk so she wouldn’t have to contemplate the endless tiny failures that had dragged her life into mediocrity, and worse. The reflection of light off metal as she tilted the blade to her wrists, even as she knew no one would care if she died. No longer able to tolerate her own weakness, but not willing to take the effort to change.
With the memories came emotion, a despair so deep that when she’d experienced it as her old self, she’d rather have died than endure it another day. And now, months of that old despair piled on her in a few heartbeats, mixed with rage and worthlessness and a fear that eclipsed any she’d experienced in the past few days: a fear of a life that would mean nothing, a life spent alone. The sensations stretched and tore at her, feeding on each other until she split apart.
But even the worst of her memories carried with them the distant flush of music. She strained forward, trying to grasp the next hint of a note. As the reflection’s fingers melted into her skin, she turned to look at the manager. “Please,” she said. “Show me more.”
She had never seen such rage. The reflection, the mirror and the horizon shattered. Without the mirror to lean on, she staggered forward, blood flowing out of tiny cuts all over her body. The manager stepped in front of her, and reached through her skin to pluck out the marble. The darkness flowed from the hole in her chest and melted back into the concrete walls of the storage room.
She gasped, rubbing her chest, but her fingers did not encounter the slickness of blood. The skin of her throat where the creature’s nails had dug in was whole and unbroken. Relief washed through her, so much she was giddy with it. She’d passed the third test.
The room had changed. Rows of pedestals stretched out to distant walls. On each sat a marble, glittering and foreign. She walked down one row, fascinated. Despite her relief, her hands still trembled; she wasn’t out of this yet.
“Well,” the manager said. In his defeat, he had shrunk back in on himself and looked almost human again. “Even in its withered state, the soul remembers its shape. I should have known you’d still be trouble.”
Not knowing what to say, Sarah continued to move among the marbles, trying to ignore the tears building at the corner of her eyes. This, so near the end, was no time for weakness.
“I could still kill you.” But the anger had gone from his voice, and he sounded almost weary.
“I know.” She could almost see the memories in the marbles, shaped in swirls of color. All her fear had fled. She turned to look the manager straight in the eye. “Why?”
He looked away. “I cannot myself absorb human memory or emotion, but I can brush up against them and catch at the edges of their intensity. When you came into my shop, radiating loss and fury, I touched your music, and I wanted it more than I have wanted anything in centuries.
“It wasn’t anything as simple as the sounds themselves, but the emotion and energy behind it. I was enthralled by the place it had in your life, giving you a few, fleeting moments of brightness in an existence filled with despair. After you lost the first time, I thought I had taken enough. But when the marbles would sing to me, at night, the music lacked the emotion that I’d felt from you.”
She closed her eyes, and the part of her personality he’d taken was not sorry he too would suffer for this encounter. “Will I spend my life looking over my shoulder, wondering when you’ll return?”
The manager came to stand before her. “Maybe. Will you run?” From his pocket, he drew a bag of marbles.
“No,” Sarah said. “You’ll never catch me so weak again.” She thought the manager almost smiled then. He placed the bag of marbles in her outstretched hand. Sarah’s fingers curled around the cool spheres. The way they clinked together in her palm was almost like music.
Sarah wasn’t far down the street when everything caught up with her. Overwhelmed, she slumped to the ground, clutching the bag of marbles to her chest. This time, no one cradled her in their lap, so she lay still for a while, staring up at the thick clouds racing overhead. A few people passed by, giving her disdainful looks reserved for drunks and vagrants brazen enough to announce their personality flaws by lying in the gutter. But she didn’t care. She had never cared what people thought of her.
Her fingers stroked the marbles. A rush of energy scalded her fingertips, and pictures flashed into her mind: her own vine-covered house, the appreciative roar of a crowd, the vaguest outline of a name. Sarah let her hand fall. Perhaps he would forgive her. Perhaps they could have their music and their life together again. This time, she would try to deserve it.
Exuberant, she lay on the sidewalk. This time, when the rain fell, she did not blink up at it — she stretched up her arms. She sang to the rain with a voice that was deep and rich but not the least bit sorrowful.
Sabrina West is a writer and wildlife biologist living in San Diego, California. Her short fiction has appeared in markets such as Cover of Darkness; Strange, Weird and Wonderful Magazine; and Kayelle Press’s Night Terrors Anthology. She shares a blog with five other writers at theprosers.blogspot.com. Her first novel, Alchemy (coauthored with Sheena Boekweg and Melanie Crouse), was voted as one of ‘The 50 Self-Published Books Worth Reading’ by Indie Authorland.