Page 21

 A.G. Howard

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Morpheus had wandered off to another set of shelves, purposely ignoring me.
Hesitant, I padded to the front of the shop, where the clerk, Mr. Lamb, sat next to his cash register. He was an odd-looking creature who appeared to be pieced together from the same curiosities that lined his shelves: raised gray and white patches coated his humanoid face, as if his flesh had mildewed. His lips, eyebrows, whiskers, and hair were made of fungus, green and nappy like worn felt. His body—nothing more than a tattered dress form—had twenty sets of pencil-thin robotic arms and legs affixed to the empty shoulder sockets and torso’s edge with rusted nails and hinges.
“Mr. Lamb, I found something I’d like. Please reach it for me?” I pled in my most polite tone.
His flat, open-ended bottom teetered on the bar stool, and he peered over square glasses with eyes as sharp and shiny as wet rocks.
“No,” he snipped.
Knitting needles clacked between his brass fingers and toes as he wove butterfly wings into strands of glistening rainbow cloth. With the help of his abundant appendages, he kept adding more knitting needles and was producing bolts of the fabric at an alarming pace. The pile of butterfly wings that had touched the ceiling when I arrived now came to just above his head. I looked at them longingly, wistful for a set of wings, although I knew I would never use them because I didn’t like heights.
“My job”—his guttural voice scraped inside my ears like fingernails clawing across a coffin lid—“is to assure the customers don’t get bit. It is up to you to capture your own buys. And mind you don’t offend the shelves. They’re made of tulgey wood. Now step off. I’m busy sewing myself a new dress.”
I wondered what was so special about tulgey wood and what he meant about customers getting bit. But I had a bigger problem. The only way to get the toy would be to climb, but my tummy kicked anytime I went high.
I wove through the maze of aisles back to the rag doll. Plush and clean, she looked down on me. Her pretty face promised hours of fun make-believe in my sandbox at home. Something inside me thrummed to life, a subtle assurance that I could meet this challenge.
I cautiously balanced my bare feet on the first shelf, gripping the one above it with my fingers. I made my way up slowly, as if climbing a ladder. Two shelves, four, then six shelves high. The steady clacking of the clerk’s knitting needles gave my movements rhythm.
I didn’t dare look down. Instead, I focused on my prize, only two shelves away now. The backs of the bookshelves appeared to have holes that showed only in my peripheral vision. When I looked straight at them, all I saw were dark lines in the wood.
At last, I was at the highest shelf. Nervous tremors shook my hands. For comfort, I leaned in to nuzzle the doll’s soft yarn hair. She smelled of detergent and vanilla. I drew back, grinning, then spotted a clown next to her, propped against the back of the shelf. Something about its jolly smile called to me. I reached toward it, the fingernails of my other hand digging into the wood for extra balance.
“Ouch, you’re pinching!” A shout came from behind the clown, gritty and breathy, like two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together. There was movement where the dark lines I had mistaken for wood grains formed a set of lips. They yawned open to reveal a cavernous hole with splintery teeth and a bumpy gray tongue.
The shelf had a mouth …
“Ease up, would you?” it barked at me.
Startled, I almost fell backward but gripped the shelf even harder with both hands just in time.
“Want to play rough, eh?” the mouth screeched at me, its breath as rank as a compost heap. Without warning, jagged teeth—embedded in black gums—snapped out of the wood like an old man spitting up his dentures. Biting down on both toys, the jaw retracted back into the mouth and the rag doll and clown disappeared. The hole vanished, too, leaving only the wood grain and an empty shelf.
Terrified, I lost my balance. Morpheus caught me in midair before I could even scream. As we drifted toward the floor, the mouth and teeth seemed to chase us down the back of each consecutive shelf, catching and swallowing the display items.
“You just had to wake the shelves,” Morpheus scolded the moment we landed. “Don’t you know that tulgey is the most irritable of all kinds of wood? You’d best hope whatever you wanted to play with so badly doesn’t come back to haunt you.”
“Come back?” I asked, my heartbeat still scattered from my almost-fall. “But they’ve all been eaten!”
“No. A tulgey’s throat is a two-way portal to another dimension. A place called AnyElsewhere … the looking-glass world.” Morpheus tapped his fingers on his knee nervously. “If the items that went through are turned away at the gate, they’ll be sent back. And once something is spit back out, it rarely returns the same way it left. It’s changed. Forever.”
“Drat it all.” Mr. Lamb’s complaint carried from across the room. We couldn’t see him for all the aisles between us, but the clack of knitting needles had been silenced and a mechanical whir rang out. Metal feet ground along the stone floor as he came around the corner.
He took one look at the empty shelves, then pointed to the door with several of his brassy fingertips. “Get out!” he demanded. A loud belch from behind us masked the echo of his voice. We all turned to the lowest shelf, where the wood-grain mouth had reappeared. With another belch, it coughed up everything it had swallowed.
The items were mangled—altered nightmarishly. The Christmas ball had withered down to a black coal. A large bloodshot eye opened in its middle, glaring at us. It rolled toward me, but Morpheus kicked it away. The magnifying glass had shattered and blood leaked from the cracks. The silver handle wailed so loudly my spine shook. The stuffed yellow canary—now pale pink and featherless—opened its beak and squawked. Eight wire legs sprouted from the cage’s base and shuffled the raging bird toward us.
We backed up. The clerk said a word his mother would’ve spanked him for and clambered toward the cash register, mumbling something about nets.
Morpheus took flight and left me alone on the ground.
“Help me!” I cried up at him. My heart pounded in my chest, making it hard to breathe.
“I can’t always be there to carry you.” The jewels under his eyes were a sincere blue. “You must figure out how to escape.”
Something pecked my ankle, and I jumped back with a yelp, facing the screeching canary. I shoved the cage over. The wire dome rocked and the metal legs squirmed in midair, like a turtle rolled onto his shell.