The doors of the store you pass every day but never noticed before slide open with a pling, starting your journey. You’re welcomed by shelves of potatoes, carrots and tomatoes stretching before you. Delicate pastels shine in greeting.
Check your list and go to the pumpkins. One will carry you on your way. Squeeze until your fingers tingle, lighting a spark in you and driving the past back. Put that one in the shopping basket and continue down the aisle.
Pick up anything misplaced – kindness will be rewarded.
Take a right at the man offering samples, notice the pointed ears but don’t stare. He’ll offer you honey from a thousand bees, but remember that nothing is free. Thank him and continue.
Wooden shelves gnarly like trees stretch towards a darkening sky. Check your list and don’t waver from the path.
Grab the grey cloth pouch on your left. Add it to the basket. Not that one, the one with flowers escaping through the seams.
Finger sized creatures live in the shelf-forest. Things with too many eyes reflecting the waning light. Hurry now, night is coming.
Leaves crunch under your feet. And under other feet as your past follows in your steps. If it catches you it’ll never let go – Run!
Rushing forward the undergrowth seeks to bind you. If the thorns draw blood you’re trapped in dreams so sweet your inner life will drip drop away. They block the way back. But it doesn’t matter; you struggle towards the unavoidable end to your journey – payment.
Stars blink alive above when you pass – the store only visible through squinted eyes. One item left on the list and still a way to go. You should hurry on, but you falter passing cage after cage. Little eyes observe your passage. Those who snuck in without permission, tried to leave without payment. Things will haunt and challenge you, but you aren’t for sale. Customer rights apply.
A finger, thinner than a match tipped by a pointed claw, reaches for you. You stare transfixed.
“Take me with you. I’ll pay part of the price,” says the monkey-cat with emerald eyes. It sees the yearning for your lost companion in your heart.
The steps behind you close. No time for discourse.
You open the cage. Never refuse help or your own pleas will be unmet. The light in you grows to a flickering flame. Enough to scare away the shadows, but not to warm your frozen insides.
The creature climbs to your neck. Needle claws piercing at every step. You move before it settles. The path has shifted while you looked away, still only one way to go.
The shopping basket pulls you down, the pumpkin already doubled in size. Too soon, too soon, you tell it, but you’re starting to overstay your welcome.
The path winds through the aisles. You check the list. Up and up you need to go. Your goal gleams above you. Hunger tears its claws through your stomach and you stumble. How long have you wandered?
Frost covered berries hang among the thorns. Bright red like drops of frozen blood they draw your shaking fingers. A touch and the ice turns to dew.
The creature screeches in your ear and you jerk away. Something brushes against your back.
Leap up on the nearest shelf, berries bursting under your white sneakers. Up you climb with the basket over your arm. The shelves branch and grow, shaking at each step. Cold permeates your summer clothes – no one told you how to dress.
You reach the top, perilously standing on the last branches while your pursuer makes its own ascent below. Swaying you stretch towards the bright night sky. Behind extends the shelf maze. The green exit sign shines in the distance. You face forward, never going back.
About to fall you clench your eyes and leap. I believe. I believe. I believe.
Wind streams through your hair, while you forever fall through the frigid air. Open your eyes – the infinite roads of what could be, once was, or never will come stretch ahead. You drift and dream but aren’t led astray.
Upwards you fall through wisps of cloud wet against your face. Perhaps you laugh. Stretch out your hand when you speed past and catch the last item on the list. Stuff it in your pocket, it’ll escape if you let it.
Ethereal when free, once caught it weighs you down. The descent is slow. The store appears empty from this high, but you know better than to assume. You rose above your past, but until you paid the price it can wrap you in its claws once more.
There is an island of light ahead. The end. The new beginning. The checkout.
The last feet are filled with small things no one needs, but wants. Rainbow crystals, paws of birds, the roots of a mountain. Stick to the list or the price will be too steep.
The cashier smiles politely when you place the basket on the bone white counter. The creature crawls down your neck and you fish the star from your pocket. Brushing against your face you feel smooth fur under your clawed hand. You cannot go on a journey and expect not to change on the way.
“Is that all?” they ask with eyes like a starless sea hiding leviathans ready to swallow you whole.
You nod. “How much?”
The cashier puts the items in a net of golden light. “For the three you pay with your past and present. It’ll be gone from you and you from them.” They lift the creature you freed. “This is extra.”
You face the endless eyes. “It said it would help to pay.” The creature nods, its emerald eyes locked on you.
“A shared price then. The familiar’s dream of freedom and your fate. He will be yours and no longer dream of being his own. Your space in the world will be filled by those willing to pay the price.”
“And I?” you ask.
The cashier smiles. “You’ll be someone else.”
You take the bag, accidentally brushing the cashier’s hand against yours. Something leaves you – your burdens, worries and wishes. You’ve already forgotten.
A girl walks out through the sliding doors. A snow-covered forest awaits and a fire burns under her skin. The pumpkin comes first. It grows until she steps inside and paints it with fairy dust until it rises in the sky. The star she hangs up front on a vine, guiding her on.
Her familiar purrs in her lap and she purrs back. There is no past but the future shines bright.
Liv Strom is a Swedish writer residing in Zürich, Switzerland. She is the winner of NYC Midnight 250-word 2021. Her work has appeared in Mystery Weekly and Dragon Soul Press. Her website is: www.LivStromWrites.com
Artwork: Henry Desbarbieux, Le Chat Noir, 1922.