It's pretty common on the east coast to see houses rented out for shops and other businesses. I always thought it was pretty cool, and well, it certainly feels less sharp and antiseptic than a Walmart. I hate those places, the droning noise of the crowds, the fluorescent lighting pointing out every flaw of everyone you see... eh, I'm off topic.
Anyways, there's this wonderful homey feeling, and even something sacred about these places that make people talk in hushed whispers when they're inside. A few have even worse reasons than you think for that silence. Something dark, that you'd probably want to have sleep for at least your own lifetime. Forget the kids' lives, or the grandkids, just your lifetime. That's enough to ask for, isn't it?
Well, I live in a small suburb that connects to a bigger city in Maryland. The places I mentioned line the streets in some areas, recession be damned. If I wasn't so poor, I would've used them a lot more often. I did get to visit one for more than window shopping or the occasional shoplift. This place wasn't exactly the cleanest I'd seen, but hey, neither was my place. They looked to be some kind of new age store, just recently opened up.
Poor bastards had no idea what kind of market they were in for... literally no market. You don't really knock for these places, which already feels weird enough just walking into someone's house in the broad daylight, but they welcomed me in just the same. An older woman, go figure. The place smelled of mold and air freshener, the kind of fake, medicinal flowery scent you hate smelling in your parents' bathroom.
The place was dimly lit with scentless candles and a few gas lamps. This place must save a fortune on energy bills. The old lady had been sitting at a desk in the back of the main room. She really could have been a witch for all I knew. Her hair was ratty and long, an old nameless metal color that fell behind her shoulders. One eye looked to be lost to cataract, milky white with a dark iris beneath it. Her bony fingers trailed over a few printed documents.
I wasn't about to pry and read what could have been a ledger or family matter. Despite this sickly, frail appearance, she was smiling like a child, even slowly kicking her feet under the desk. A dark, long dress twisted and billowed around her in the slight breeze of an open window, making her seem all the more lively. You'd think it'd make her look flimsy like an old tree.
Well, either way, she really was the only thing of interest in the room. When asked about her shop, she told me the other rooms held most of her stock, but not to open any doors or go upstairs. Well, it's a shame she didn't say the basement or something, because I honestly would have split then and there.
The next room did hold quite a few things... and new smells. The mold never really left, but the next room about sucker punched me with the strong scent of strange herbs and spices. Earthy, strong scents that make it pretty hard to breath if you haven't been around them too much.
There had to be at least ten sticks of incense lining the ceiling in their smoke. A small child was quietly counting a stack of home made jams in mason jars labelled the people's jellies. I smiled and stood next to him as I looked over the different types. I don't even think they were made for eating, honestly. I asked the child jokingly if they were really made out of people.
He flatly replied,
"Only if you call my mother's garden a city..."
He didn't even look at me, but I instantly noticed his tone lacked something. Was he actually trying to joke back? There wasn't a hint of interest. Maybe he was autistic or something, it was getting pretty common, after all.
I looked a little closer at the jars and read a few labels. "Love", "Sarcasm", "Sadness", "Ambition". They sounded like some cheesy line of colognes or perfumes. I laughed under my breath a bit and picked up a bottle labelled "Thought" and searched around the room some more. They actually sold quite a few things labelled with single words like that, from pies to soaps, even a few perfumes after all.
I picked up a bar of soap from the basket labelled "Laughter" and took a whiff. My entire body grew cold for a moment as I could hear that child's voice, but... laughing. I tried reasoning that the herbs were getting to me, but I had to smell it again. There was his voice, in my head. I even giggled a little myself, against my will. I dropped it quickly and looked at the child, who didn't even seem to notice. I tried speaking quietly, so I didn't make a scene.
"Young man," I squeaked, "where is your mother's garden at?" I tried making a quick lie up as he shrugged and stopped counting.
"It's just.... what kind of herb could make you laugh? It's pretty cool."
The child sighed in the same dull, bored tone and looked at me, turning in a slow, unnatural way to face me, like only one joint could move at a time. I cringed a bit as he smiled. It wasn't real, it just wasn't. His eyes didn't smile with him. It was like a some creature bearing its' teeth at me, ready to attack. I shook my head quickly and put my hands up, shaking them in fear as well.
"No, no, no.... it's alright, I probably shouldn't ask. Trade secrets and all that."
I scooped up the bar of soap again and handed it to the child, trying to find something to occupy him, really I don't know why I thought it'd do anything to get that torpid grin from piercing me. He curled his fingers around it as he held it in his little hands, staring down at it with a weak, half lidded stare.
"Y-you're giving it back, mister?" he bit his lip passively and let it go before speaking again.
"Mommy said it's not mine anymore."
I didn't know what he meant, but definitely didn't care as I tried to back out of the room.
"Ah uh.... s-sure kid, I already have enough soap uh- what the fuck?!"
I grimaced disgust as he started eating the soap, like he hadn't had a decent meal in weeks. I mean he looked well fed but... dear god. There were bubbly chunks streaming down the sides of his mouth by the time he was done with it, but he just sat there. I almost figured he just did this a lot and got in trouble for it... until he started giggling.
His laugh that I had only heard a minute ago, but he was crying. His laughter was accompanied by tears as he sat down and laughed to himself. His eyes were blue. They were grey just a minute ago, I think. My thoughts are getting a little hazy. He looked up at me as his laughter subsided, only to scream as something hit me in the back of the head and everything went dark. The last thing I saw before that was the old woman with a roll of duct tape.
Hours of strange, concussion induced dreaming and headaches passed as I tried to remain conscious. How could I know the time? After an eternity of fighting, I woke. The smell of mold and the metallic scent of blood filled my nostrils as everything swam into clarity. I was in a room made of stone, with a single light, and an old set of wooden steps leading up to the door. I was tied up and thrown carelessly into a corner, where I was bleeding from the scalp. It wasn't much, but it could be worse if I didn't get some help soon. My ears rang still from the strike, any movements made me slip into a migraine.
Up above I could hear crying and yelling, the little boy was begging for something. I couldn't remember what I did, but I could remember to scream for help. As I made my lungs burn for my freedom, I was answered by a young woman whose smile was just the same as the boy's before. I felt like a wounded animal trying to escape a serpent while it played with its food.
She welcomed me to her garden in a dull tone as she held up a plastic bottle and sat down next to me, looking me over as I begged her to help. She shook her head and jammed her thumbs into my eyes without a word. All I could do was scream and beg her to stop, the pain and pressure as she kept pushing harder tore to my soul.
Then, it actually tore it out. There was no more pain. No more... anything, really. She took her thumbs away as I watched her pick up the bottle, now full of green liquid. It was the only thing that had any color. After that... I can't think. I'm drying up.
Well, these stores always were.... anything you could call them: 'odd', 'off', 'sketchy' even. Maybe there's a reason we stopped shopping majorly at small businesses. Maybe next time you won't buy a shampoo called 'memory' from some new age site, because it's not improving anything. Probably got into your eyes a little though.