by Taylor Hagood
walked into Bryceton Antique Store, which was housed in an old bank building.
The glass door, closing behind her, skewed the run-down buildings across the
street and the hills beyond. A smattering of trees had already turned yellow. But
on this raw day in this forgotten town on the river they looked harsh rather
Rain had been falling from
low-draping gray clouds for over three weeks, and the river had risen to an astonishingly
high sheet of swooping slate. It had reached the level of Main Street and threatened
to spread into the buildings themselves like a visitor with no tact whom nice
people cannot figure out how to refuse or repel.
settled into its old wooden frame with a jittery jingle of a tiny bell, and
Sherry smelled incense. The smell dissipated the usual antique store smell of
old paper, used up clothing, and stained furniture.
welcome in,” said the woman standing behind the counter. Her short wiry hair
had long since faded from red to a pale orange mixed with white. She wore large
glasses with clear frames and thick lenses. I CARE was printed in dark
blue letters across the front of her yellow t-shirt.
Sherry said to the unorthodox greeting.
In fact, Sherry hardly heard
woman and took no real notice of what she had said. Her mind was fifty miles
away from this store and this river town. She was thinking about earlier today
when she dropped off her eight-year-old son, Flynn, with her ex. She had
hurried away so that neither of them could see her tears, got in her Ford
Escape, and started driving eastward. She had no real destination in mind.
Before she knew it, she was just here. She saw this store and decided to park
and go in for no particular reason except that she was now far enough away from
This town did
fit her mood. All these towns along the river were slowly dying since the mills
went out. This one matched her current feelings. So did the antique store,
especially when the first corner she turned revealed a booth full of little
boys’ toys. There were Hot Wheels, Tonka Trucks, remote-control cars, and
Spiderman, Batman, and Superman figures. All were packaged in that familiar
style that reminded her of trips to toy stores with Flynn.
tears forcing themselves into her eyes and blinked them back. She remembered
the look of Flynn when he was two, when he was four, when he was six. He was
growing so tall so fast now. His body had grown leggy and thinner, no longer a
toddler’s. He was big for his age anyway. And his face was beginning to take on
the shape it would have when he was grown. She could see it in the photographs
she took with her Iphone.
I hope he’ll be
little a little
herself walk on away from that booth, but its display burned in her brain along
with the look on Flynn’s face this morning when she dropped him off and he ran
to his dad. She kept trying to remember a time when his face beamed with such
joy to see her.
image grabbed her attention. She had been looking at it for a moment before it
registered with her. Hanging on the wall in another booth in an 8 x 10 cheap
frame was a grainy black-and-white photograph of a clown. It was a sinister
clown, his eyes glaring and aggressive behind a disturbing smile.
jolted before the image’s fierceness, stepping back as though it had reached
out and pushed her. She looked around the rest of the booth, which was
unremarkable. Then her eyes drew back to the photograph. The sticker on it
smiled at that. Ok, this booth-owner had a sick since of humor. Halloween
approached, only two weeks away, so why not?
prices are negotiable, honey,” the woman behind the counter said as Sherry now
passed by. The woman had not moved, nor had she actually looked at Sherry
either time she spoke to her.
“Just let me
You’re welcome in.”
phrase struck Sherry this time. She had never heard anyone say that. It must
have been a purely individual quirk. It got Sherry to thinking about how
sometimes people will reason out things and decide they should be said a
certain way. She remembered somewhere along the line hearing people talk about
something being said “inside” a book instead of just “in” it. They were very
literally minded people, Sherry had decided. She wondered what line of
reasoning got this woman to say “You’re welcome in.”
her way through the store. In the back corner of what had been the lobby a
short flight of stairs led to a raised room open to view by floor-to-ceiling
windows. Sherry envisioned what this bank would have looked like in the 1930s,
40s, or 50s. Or was it inside those years?
As she walked up the few
she imagined coming in here to discuss getting a loan. It reminded her of buying
the house with her ex and the fact that she now lived in a tiny, drab apartment
over her ex-mother-in-law’s garage. She fought those thoughts off, choosing
instead to enjoy the fun of imaginative time travel.
A new smiling face smashed
her vision. Another clown photo. A different clown, but the same grainy black-and-white
in the same frame and also marked $13. This clown looked even more dangerous
than the first.
Sherry understood even better
now the sense of humor behind this photo. But another one stuck in among the
other products bothered her. Who would buy such a picture? And who would think
to buy two of them? They
really were probably just a seasonal joke. But this was a store, where the
purpose was to sell not display.
The raised room no longer
any resemblance to its original purpose in the bank. It was filled with the
most garish of furniture, posters, instruments, and clothes from the 1960s. That
was her parents’ era, and visions of her lanky mother and father dressed in
such clothes and sitting on such furniture arose in her mind. A blue
Stratocaster in one corner reminded her of her father’s. He may not have had
money for anything else, but he could afford that guitar. The pain of their
divorce had lessened with the years, but Sherry felt sickened at herself daily that
she could not make her own marriage work. How could she play a part in hurting
a child as she and her sister had been?
She turned and walked out
room but pulled up short to see the woman in the I CARE shirt standing
at the foot of the stairs.
“It’s ok. You’re
“I’m just still
“I can give you a
anything in there. Guitars, whatever.”
Sherry felt her senses heighten.
This woman seemed too close to her not only physically but mentally.
“I’m just looking.”
Sherry and the woman stood
still, Sherry at the top of the stairs, the woman at the bottom.
“If you can excuse
The woman did not move.
“Can I get by?”
The woman waited a moment
backed away. She had not been looking at Sherry’s face but instead at her
stomach. It was difficult to see the woman’s eyes through the thick glasses.
Something inside Sherry
to leave. But another part of her worried about being rude. A sign pointed to
more booths being in the basement, so she headed that way.
As she put her foot on the
step, she saw another picture hanging in the stairwell. This one pictured two
clowns. One leaned on the other. Both smiled hideously, their eyes murderous.
Again a sticker with $13.
bad joke if it is one, Sherry thought. Who would even take pictures like
these? Who would dress up in those outfits and do that? And who would hang them
up all over the store?
hurried past the picture and down the stairs. She planned to swing through and
back up and leave. At the foot of the stairs stood a mannequin wearing an old
steel mill uniform and a mask that looked something like an octopus face. Its
tentacles dropped down to its chest, and its eyes did not match with the
mannequin’s so that where the shadow of the eyeholes ended slivers of painted
blue eyes appeared in the dim light.
came into Sherry’s chest of not being entirely in control nor of being quite
safe. She hurried past the mannequin and around the basement. Here hung picture
after picture of the clowns, sometimes one, sometimes two, in one case three in
the photo. All smiled hideously, their hair splayed, their eyes hateful. In the
back corner a fake skeleton lay in a bed.
an antique store or a haunted house? It would not have bothered her to go
through the latter, but making a haunted house out of antique store seemed out
of order, wrong.
Back up the
stairs she went, headed for the door. But the woman met her there.
“I’ll make a
deal with you, honey. I’ve got good deals here.”
have to get going. I have to be somewhere.”
to see the woman’s eyes through the thick glasses, but they were refracted into
cartoonish largeness and seemed not to be focusing on anything. Sherry did not
feel safe. She wanted to leave. But she could not figure out how to without
to see the bargain safe,” the woman said. “Those are the best deals.”
I really do have to go.”
a minute, come on.”
actually took Sherry by the hand to lead her.
this and then go.
led her into another room and to the massive, thick, round door of the bank’s
old vault. The door stood open, revealing shelves of merchandise inside.
in there is marked way down. And better yet, if you buy one thing you get two
more free. Doesn’t matter what the price tag is. You can buy something for a
dollar and get something marked for twenty dollars free.”
good deal,” Sherry managed to say.
whopping good deal! And you’re welcome in.”
that came over Sherry was not new. She had felt it several times in her life: when
her parents had divorced and she had to go from one parent to the other the
first time, on her first day of school and her first day moving into a dorm in
college, when (despite denying it so many times since) she took the first step
down the aisle in her wedding.
have only a minute,” Sherry said, weakness in her voice.
miss this deal,” the woman said, squeezing her hand. “You’ve been needing a
good deal, I can tell.”
jarred Sherry. What did the woman mean?
“You need a
change of fortune. And it’s ok in there, because it’s a safe. And that’s safe.”
the word buzzed in Sherry’s ears. Then I’ll be in there. Or will I be inside
You’re welcome in.”
the first step. The next few she had no awareness of. Now she stood inside. She
looked over the blue metal walls. The products on the shelves did not entice
her, but her eyes followed them to the left, then to the right.
enough. Time to go. She turned around to leave but stopped with a jag of ice in
her chest. The wall of the vault was covered with those grainy black-and-white
clown photographs. She recognized some of them from elsewhere in the store, but
there were many more she had not seen. All of them glared down at her, their
smiles speaking a silent language of hatred and crime.
went out, leaving a hundred rancorous smiling clown images photo-negatived in
her mind. A sound of metal clashing followed, with a click.
darn the electricity’s out,” the woman said from the other side of the now
closed and locked vault door.
atmosphere in here pulsated with aggression, anger, and something else Sherry
could not quite define. The image of Flynn came to her mind. She could see his
round face and his fresh little-boy haircut. She could see his little paunch
under his t-shirt. His innocence struck her painfully against the evil of her
surroundings. It seemed wrong even to think of him in this setting.
She felt weak against the
resistance she felt she must put up. She needed to be strong, hard, vicious if
necessary. She had to get out of here and back to Flynn. Her mind working
against her will, she envisioned him playing with his father all those miles
away right this minute.
another click. Thinking the door had opened, she reached out but felt only cold
metal. Apparently some other door had opened. She heard a footstep and then
another in the darkness. There was absolutely no light in here. She could see
nothing. But she thought she could hear the slightest suspiration of breath.
herself deflate into hopelessness. She imagined Flynn’s life without her. Flynn
having another mom. Flynn growing up with only a dim memory of her.
breathing grew louder. She felt a hand on hers.