Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Edsel Little/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

I could smell my own breath—the distinctive waft of garlic and onions—as it crystallized, mid-sigh, in frigid, early morning air. Bits of poppy and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth. I ran my tongue along my gums, grimacing as I tried to work them free.

I should have stuck to my regular order.

Plain bagel, lightly toasted. Small coffee, black. No fuss, no mess. No lingering onion breath, nor visible evidence to clear away. My order took longer than usual today and by the time I was out the door, I’d missed my train.

I should have known.

Deviation from routine equals disruption, then distraction, which leads to mistakes, then to reorganization and, if all these warning signs go unheeded, demotion. Deviation from routine is how you find yourself alone on the platform in the freezing cold, digging bagel bits out of your teeth while you wait for the train to take you to a job you hate, in a life you never wanted.

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

I stomped my booted feet against the frozen tiled pavement and checked my watch for the tenth time in last two minutes. According to the blinking sign above the platform, not only had I missed my train, the next one was running late. Not that it really mattered; I could parade in naked to the call center, or stumble in drunk, and no one would so much as look up or bat an eye.

Of course I’ve never done that. Too conspicuous.

The whole point of my working there is to blend in and take up no more space in the pack of pathetic sad sacks who work there than necessary. I resign myself to that existence because I have no choice, but I would much rather arrive on my own terms. On time.

A long, exasperated exhale escaped. At least my breath was clearing up.

The train finally rumbled into the station, the blurred faces in its packed cars coming into focus as it slid to a jerky stop. The doors jutted open and a stream of passengers spilled out and mingled with those waiting. I joined the advancing swarm, expertly navigating around the elbows, briefcases and backpacks until I found a seat. I brightened slightly; I never get to sit on my regular train.

Cellphones, tablets, and the occasional book or newspapers appear in the hands of my fellow commuters, pulled from their various purses and pockets. Their eyes glaze over; their jaws go slack as they disappear into them, shielded from unsolicited small talk and awkward eye contact with the people planted much too close within their personal space.

This is why I hate having bad breath. I can’t control who breathes on me, but I can lead by example.

“Excuse me, Miss, can you think of an eight-letter word meaning ‘to cause to function or act?’” says the man sitting next to me. I jump at his voice and my eyes lock involuntarily with his for a second. He is a jovial, unassuming old man: round face, pointed nose, grey eyes peering out from behind thick glasses, wispy tufts of white hair poking out beneath a faded green cap. I glance away, but not fast enough to discourage further conversation.

“Starts with ‘A’?” he ventures, eyebrows raised hopefully. He gestures to the crossword puzzle on a tattered page of newspaper in his hand.

I’m caught. But I don’t have to play along. “Don’t know. Sorry,” I reply.

He looks crestfallen.

“Active?” The woman across the aisle pipes up. She puts down her knitting and shoots me the briefest of glares as the man counts the squares in the crossword grid. He shakes his head and sighs.

“Activate?” I offer. I wouldn’t normally get involved but the woman’s righteous glare shames me; she’s like the teacher who guilts you into partnering up with the fat kid with no friends.

The man resumes his counting—the word fits. He fills in the spaces carefully and looks up at us in triumph. “How about another? I need an eight letter word for ‘a stipulation, explicit or implied, in assurance of some particular in connection with a contract—‘”

The wording of the crossword clue stirs up a memory. A monotone voice, an odd instruction from the past:

Study these definitions; you’ll need them when someone asks for help with a crossword…

“Warranty,” I state before I’m aware of it. I feel a familiar unease stirring; old instincts aroused. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, my mind starts taking in and noting the smallest details: the knitting woman’s wool is baby blue, the person three seats down from me just spilled tea down his front, a child’s mitten is lying abandoned on the floor under the emergency buzzer…

It could be nothing… don’t read into it unnecessarily…

The old man smiles and nods his confirmation but I already knew it was the right word. My body grows tense in my seat. He busies himself with the puzzle but keeps his eyes trained on me. My gaze shifts towards the door, where I count the blinking lights above indicating the train’s route. Four more stops.

They’re supposed to ask for help three times… he’s only asked twice.

“One more—seven letters, means ‘an exceptional degree; particularly valued’…” The third question. He trails off and there’s a weight in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s knows that I know and he’s waiting.

“I really can’t help you—” I grope for my bag and try to stand up as the train starts its screeching deceleration. It’s not my stop but that doesn’t matter. I need to get off the train right now. The car rocks as it rounds a turn and the lights dim for just a second. Before I’m on my feet,a strong hand seizes my elbow and pulls me back into the seat.

“Oh, I think you can,” the man says, his voice low. His smile remains benign but his eyes darken ever so slightly. His hand is gripping my elbow, squeezing it so hard I almost wince.

“It starts with an ‘S’…” He hisses the letter and I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the gust of icy wind that rushes in when the doors fly open.

“Special…?” I whisper.

He nods again and releases my arm. I fight the urge to rub where his fingers dug in through the thick tweed of my coat. He gets up, touches the brim of his cap in a gesture of farewell to the woman across the aisle before he exits the train. He glances back at me for a moment while the door buzzer blares. The train jolts ahead and he’s gone.

I look down at the paper he placed on my lap and see it, intersected within the crossword puzzle, the signal from a former lifetime:

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

It’s an hour and seventeen minutes later when I walk into the half-empty diner. It’s next to the Specialty Electronic Shop on 10th Street, with an ‘Active Warranty’ sign in the window. The man from the train is waiting for me.

I move to sit in the booth behind him, with our backs to each other as is procedure, but he beckons me to sit opposite him instead, my back to the door.

I slide into the booth and bite back the sense of dread that creeps up from my gut. I need eyes on the door and I don’t have them. I catch a crude image of the door reflected in the dented metal napkin dispenser. It’s better than nothing.

“Did you forget how to interpret the signal?” He taps his watch at me in a ‘tsk, tsk’ gesture; all traces of the old-man joviality gone. He’s irritated, impatient.

I don’t apologize for being late; just as every other day, when I show up is one of the few cards I have to play.

The first words are critical… don’t rush them. You have all the time in the world…

I take my time getting settled: I pull my gloves off finger by finger, and then rub my cold hands together. I unwind my scarf in near slow motion.

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

I hear the bell above the door jangle every time someone enters. The early lunch crowd is arriving: the businessmen in their tailored suits, the old ladies shuffling in with their bulging shopping bags, the solo diners gravitating towards the counter. The noise level swells as the tables fill up.

I turn my attention back the man. His mouth twists itself into an irked half-smile as he takes a sip from his chipped tea cup.

“Terrible. Over-steeped.” He finally says, exasperated by my continued silence.

Good… Make him come to you.

“Would you like something? Coffee? A late breakfast?” He pushes a greasy laminated menu towards me.

I ignore it and clamp my eyes on his. “I already ate.”

“I can tell. You have something stuck in your teeth.” He smiles at my obvious annoyance. The bagel that put today in motion refuses to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” I ask. My voice is devoid of emotion, calm even, despite the sweat gathering under my arms and at the base of my neck. They trained me well.

“You can call me Carl,” he says, offering his hand which I refuse to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mathilda.”

“I go by Brenda now,” I counter before I can stop myself.

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

I gave him—‘Carl’exactly what he wanted: a noticeable reaction to my real name. I press my hands into the table and take a steadying breath.

Stay in control. You can do this.

“I know. Brenda Southland. 31 years old. Entry-level Customer Service Representative. Single. No children. No friends. Not even a cat,” he recites in a bored voice. He opens his jacket to reveal a thick manila envelope tucked inside. He taps it over his heart before zipping his jacket cheerily.

“What do you want?” I repeat, raising my voice a hair above normal.

Steady now… it’s a test… stay with him…

“I want to eat lunch. I’m starving. Then we’ll talk.” He snaps his fingers and a waitress, glaring haughtily at him, appears at our booth. “Two cheeseburgers, please.”

“As I was saying, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m aware of your current predicament—your demotion and subsequent relocation—and I want to help.” He removes his glasses, polishes them on a gleaming white handkerchief and puts them back on.

I open my mouth to respond but he cuts me off.

“Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t need my help. You were a good agent but you got sloppy. And now you’re stuck warming the bench. But you’re still valuable. I’m willing to put in a good word with The Administration. Get you back in the game.” He watches me draw in a breath. “What do you think, Mathilda?”

My real name sends me back to that last fateful mission:

I’m alone, crouched in a darkened motel corridor. I’m waiting for the ‘all-clear’ but something’s not right. My watch reads one minute past the specified drop time. I catch the faintest whiff of something in the air… cigarette smoke? No, gunpowder. I hold in a gasp as something dark and red oozes slowly under the door. Then I run.

I was training at the call center less than 48 hours later, or rather, ‘Brenda’ was…

I snap out of my memory. Carl is munching happily on his cheeseburger, waiting for my response.

“The Administration made it very clear the agents were killed because of my mistakes,” I tell him. “I don’t see them changing their minds so easily.”

He takes a long time to finish chewing as he considers what I said. He gestures for the ketchup, lobs a healthy dollop on his French fries and leans in closer. His voice is so faint, barely a whisper but there’s no mistaking his excitement:

“The Administration needs new intelligence. The easiest way to get it is to access a large communication network. Tell me, ‘Brenda’,” he says, a disgusting leer on his face. “What is it again that you do all day at the call center?”

Realization dawns, bright and clear, and a rush of goosebumps shiver up my arms. My pulse quickens. I just stare at him, unable to speak.

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

“What do they want me to do, exactly?” I ask, breathless. My knee jumps under the table so I reach down a hand to steady it. The bell rings as the diner door opens. In the napkin dispenser, I see the distorted reflection of two construction workers in bright orange vests enter.

“Plant the malware on the server. When the system backs itself up, a copy will automatically download to the district server. The Administration will have its access and you’ll have your life back.” He smiles and for the first time all day, so do I.

Suddenly, a raised voice startles the noisy restaurant into a stunned silence.

“FBI! Freeze! Put your hands where we can see them!”

It’s the voice of Special Agent Mathilda Hawthorne—me.

I’m on my feet, my one hand brandishing my badge, the other closed around my gun, which I retrieved from my boot in one swift motion. My dining companion never saw it coming. He cowers, arms over his head.

“Great work, Agent Hawthorne,” crackles the voice in my earpiece, my partner in the Bureau.

“Thanks. Let’s get him out of here,” I motion to the construction workers, my backup, and they haul him out of the booth and into the waiting van.

“Nice undercover work, Hawthorne.” says Agent Cole as he tightens the handcuffs on ‘Carl’. “But just so you know, there’s something stuck in your teeth.”

pencil

Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Rendez-Vous

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.

Love,

Grandpa

I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad, and exploring photography and visual storytelling with the photo blog Bridges and Benches. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Heirlooms

Erin McDougall
Dead of Winter ~ First Place


Snowglobe

Photo Credit: Michael Berke/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

“This is where all the unwanted stuff goes to die.”

The door of the room on the top floor of the antique shop gave a perfect, high-pitched creak on its rusty hinges as Ruth, our manager, opened it slowly.

The room was a dark, crowded mess of boxes, old dusty furniture and tables and piles full of old, rusted, broken junk. In the faint light from the small circular windows, I could see piles of stuff covered by old sheets and something hanging from the ceiling in the corner. Ruth navigated her way confidently around the heaped piles, reached up and pulled on a chain next to the lone dangling light bulb in the center of the ceiling.

“The full effect is better with the lights on,” she said as the chain made a loud clunk as the light snapped on. I jumped involuntarily and my eyes stung from the sudden flash of light.

“Obey the sign on the door; the things in this room are not for sale,” she continued “The idea is they’re kept here to eventually be repaired and then put back on display downstairs, but as you can see,” she swept her arms around the room, “that hasn’t ever happened.”

It was grimy and smelled of mildewed fabric and rusty metal. Our other co-worker, Burke, was fascinated by what appeared to be a broken puppet swaying pathetically from the ceiling. It was an old-woman puppet with a missing eye. Ruth cleared her throat obnoxiously and we snapped back to attention. She adjusted her thick glasses and fixed us with a sharp, no-nonsense glare.

Ruth’s imitation of our old boss was pitch-perfect—the way she glared at us and cleared her throat. We all broke down and started laughing.

We were like that for a good five minutes. It didn’t help when I breathed in a particularly large dust bunny and my laughter turned to violent sneezing that continued on for another five minutes.

“Jesus, Greta, you allergic to this place?” Ruth asked as she passed me a dusty handkerchief she got from who knows where. I cringed slightly as I pressed the moldy fabric to my nose and blew.

“This room is crazy! There’s a whole other store up here!” I exclaimed.

“As ‘Manager,’” Ruth said again in her ‘boss’ voice, “Only I have permission to drop things off. She made me swear not to let any of the other employees come in here.”

“She must think we’ll mess it up or something,” Burke retorted. He was examining a contingent of little robot toys whose eyes lit up and blinked. “Can you imagine actually playing with these as a kid? I love them!” He watched gleefully as the robots marched around his feet after he’d wound them up.

“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t know about this place before. We wouldn’t have gotten any work done!” I pointed out as I surveyed the rest of the room. In addition to Burke’s strange robot toys and the disabled puppet hanging in the corner, there were more toys piled everywhere. Most were broken, like the twisted heap of model train tracks and the herd of headless rocking horses. I sat down on one of the rocking horses and chuckled as it creaked loudly beneath my weight.

“Enough browsing,” Ruth said sternly. She was dragging a big, peeling chest from out of the corner and motioned for me to help her. Burke heaved a few heavy boxes off an old ripped chaise lounge and a tarnished rocking chair. Ruth opened the chest and pulled out a case of room-temperature beer and an ancient bottle opener. She popped off three caps, handed them around and raised hers in a toast:

“To surviving a very dead Boxing Day rush!”

We clinked our beers together and drank deeply. The ‘Not for Sale’ room, with its graveyard of broken playthings and odd drafts of winter wind, was then christened as our club house and suddenly felt cozy. I sipped my beer slowly, and half-listened to my friends and their tipsy stories and toasts. From what I could see out the windows, it was snowing.

Ruth stood up slowly and cleared her throat again. “On my many jaunts up here to drop off surplus stock, I’ve discovered, among the junk, quite a few little treasures. Like this,” she indicated, pulling from somewhere a heavy gold watch that dangled from a long chain. She swung it in front of our curious faces like a hypnotist. “And this,” she tossed a gleaming silver cigarette lighter to Burke. He grinned with surprise at his gift and flicked open several times.

“Not everything up here is worthless. I just think the old bat doesn’t remember where anything is anymore,” Ruth continued and pointed to an old wooden dresser draped with an old white sheet. She whisked it off to reveal it was intricately carved. An impressive collection of music boxes and snow globes sat on top. They looked polished and well-cared for and completely out of place in this room.

“This is a dying business and everyone knows it. I say we take what we can from the good stuff up here, the things that aren’t ‘dead’, and call it a reward for a job well done,” she pronounced and began to pilfer through the dresser drawers. Burke’s eyes lit up and he scampered back to the robot toys. I was drawn to the beautiful, glistening snow globes.

I picked up one of them carefully, surprised at how light it was. Tiny white snowflakes glittered and twirled around a small brick building under its crystal dome. There was a small key sticking out the back. I turned it around once and I heard a faint chime of bells. I shook it and watched the little flurry swirl around while the chimes wound down.

“Go on! You like them, don’t you? They need a good home,” Ruth goaded me.

I couldn’t help wondering how much it might be worth…

The light bulb flickered suddenly, off and on. We paused in our pillaging and in that a brief moment before the light flickered back on, I thought I saw a movement from the corner with the hanging puppet. I blinked and let out a gasp.

“What’s the matter, Greta?” asked Burke.

“Nothing… I thought I saw…” I squinted through the dim light at the puppet. It was still. I shook my head and turned back to the snow globe.

At the exact moment I looked at it, the churning little snowflakes suddenly turned black. I shook it again and watched, disturbed, as black snow delicately blanketed the familiar-looking red brick building inside. Then a small sound broke through: chimes. They were soft at first and then grew louder. But I hadn’t re-wound the snow globe, it was playing on its own.

I suddenly felt it grow hot in my hand. I yelped in surprise and tried to release it but it remained planted in my hand. The heat grew as the black snow within it swirled faster and faster.

“I— I can’t let it go!” I shouted, shocked at the hot glass and metal that was stuck to me.

Ruth darted across the room and reached toward me. She touched the snow globe for a split second before reflex withdrew her hand sharply, as though she’d touched something hot. “What’s doing it?” she exclaimed, horrified.

My hand was pulsing with the pain of the heat and my heart raced. Burke thundered towards us but a sudden gust of cold wind blasted through the room and knocked us all apart. The room was a blur as we thrashed around, caught up in some unknown force. I heard the crash of furniture and glass tumbling and shattering against the floor. The force gradually subsided and we were sprawled around the room. Burke’s forehead was bleeding from flying shards of glass and the one-eyed puppet had somehow become tangled around Ruth. The heat of the snow globe vanished instantly but I still couldn’t let it go. My hand throbbed with pain as I crawled towards my friends.

“Ruth! Come on, Ruth! Wake up!” shouted Burke, gently slapping her cheeks. Her eyes flickered open and she stared at us with an expression of sheer terror on her face.

“My fault… it’s all my fault…” she whispered.

Burke and I locked eyes, relieved she was awake but confused by what she was saying.

“Don’t try to talk,” I whispered as I helped Burke hoist her to her feet. He tugged gently at the puppet’s strings but they were too tangled. We started towards the door gingerly, afraid of provoking whatever force we’d just witnessed.

Then the light in the room went out completely.

It was unnaturally dark. The room had windows. We should have been able to see the streetlights below. But no light seeped in. We paused, terrified and trapped, unable to see our way to the door in the debris of the sudden indoor flurry.

And in that instant, I knew why it was so dark and why the little building inside the snow globe looked so familiar:

Outside, it was snowing black snow and we were inside a red brick building, just like the snow globe welded to my hand.

“It’s my fault! They wouldn’t have come here if it weren’t for me!” pleaded Ruth suddenly.

“What are you talking about?” I demanded.

Ruth shook herself away from Burke and me. “It heard me say we should just take whatever we want and it’s angry… it protects the stuff in here—” something cut her off suddenly and she gasped.

We heard her start to flail in the darkness. I fumbled in Burke’s pocket for the lighter she’d given him and flicked it open. The tiny flame illuminated for a split second the sickening sight of the puppet strings snaking themselves around her neck.

“No! Stop!” I screamed, powerless as the strings tightened. Burke was frozen, horrified. The snow globed burned hot in my hand again, the wind swept through the room, and once more, we were turned inside out.

The chimes tinkled three times and everything stopped. Then, I heard another sound emerge from somewhere in the darkness: the slow, mechanical grind of a key being turned in a wind-up toy.

Little blinking lights rapidly pierced through the darkness and the sound grew and grew. The lights were coming from the eyes of the little robot toys Burke had been playing with earlier. They flashed furiously as their numbers swelled and marched around us, surrounding us.

“…punishment…” rasped Ruth as she lost consciousness and crumpled to the floor.

“You aren’t leaving this store,” commanded a strange unknown voice. All the lights in the store suddenly snapped on and the wind-up noise stopped immediately. The one eye in the face of the puppet around Ruth’s neck swivelled and fixed its soulless gaze upon us.

“I have a duty to the heirlooms in this building,” the puppet croaked. “You never cared about these things, the broken and the tarnished. They may be stored out of sight but they are never forgotten. And even those that aren’t broken, they aren’t to be stolen out of greed!”

The puppet wound itself even more tightly and Ruth’s face was a deep shade of purple. Burke made a step towards her but the robots all raised these tiny arms in the air. We saw they were hand-less and the joints where they should have had hands were filed into razor-sharp spears.

I looked around helplessly and felt the snow globe grow hot in my hand once more. In the millisecond before the wind began again, my other hand reacted by flicking Burke’s lighter open. I felt a spark ignite and I shut my eyes as the wind blasted and shook the room. The flame was fed by the rush of air and fire spread everywhere.

“Noooooooo!” bellowed the puppet and the room stopped shaking. But the damage was done.

The fire leapt from one pile of junk to another, spreading furiously through the dry and dusty room. The robot toys broke ranks and scurried every which way but many were swept away by the growing flames.

In one motion, Burke snapped the one-eyed puppet’s head from its cords and scooped Ruth up in his arms. We thundered down the stairs and through the main floor, the fire pursuing our every step. The wind-up sound grew, as did the shrieks and moans of the burning toys, as we ran past the displays and their glass cases exploded, sending more fragments sailing through the air and slicing our hands and faces. But we didn’t stop, not even when the smoke was so thick and it became as dark as the sky and its black falling snow.

At last we were outside and almost to the safety of the street. I looked back and saw the antique store completely ablaze.

The flames snaked down the walls, devouring them with a ravenous pace. The roof became a skeleton of charred beams and the smoke reached its black, curling tentacles high in the air.

I felt the sudden chill of the wind on my face and through my hair, a brutal reminder that winter lingered just on the edge of the inferno that was once Heirloom Antiques. I abruptly felt an intense, over-powering pull that forced me forward onto my knees. I realized with dread that I was being dragged back towards the fire by my hand.

I thrashed and fought against it. The flames reached out to me like a giant hand, ready to curl and crush me into its fist. I heard the chimes and the invisible pull intensified. The chimes grew louder now and the fire crackled and purred in sick anticipation, about to be reunited with its last heirloom.

Using all the strength I had left, I flung my hand clutching the snow globe directly on the concrete steps of the store. As the glass shattered against the pavement, I felt blood run down my hand and I was released. I sprawled for the briefest of moments on the ground before scampering backwards towards the street. Burke was next to me and Ruth was slowly coming to. My chest heaved as I gulped in the fresh, frozen air, my heart pounded hard in my ears and I felt the sweat and tears on my face begin to cool.

As we sat shivering in the frigid wind, watching the store burn steadily, the black smoke billowed higher and higher. A gust of wind unfurled it across the night sky, where it hung like a cloud for a split second and then vanished.

At the same moment the smoke turned from blackness into nothing, the thick snowflakes turned white and fell silently from the sky.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. Before her recent move to France, she taught dance, drama and English in Edmonton Public Schools, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips on the food blog Sandwiches are Beautiful, and documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture, both in Canada and beyond, with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com