Caroline’s Essential Emporium — A Short Story

emporiumitems

There is no magic in the world. Nothing I’ve seen in the past fifty years has changed my mind on that account. While she was with me I started to believe otherwise, but I think Caroline just had that effect on folks. Now I’m closing up her shop for the last time.
Wisehaupt’s the name, and it suits. “Old and proud,” she always said, but she never took it herself. “There is no magic in Wisehaupts, darling.” I never blamed her though. Caroline LeFey did carry a certain kind of sparkle.
The sign above the door reads Caroline’s Essential Emporium. I think the name is the only reason folks ever nosed her place out. Wasn’t the easiest to find. It sits halfway down the block on Constance, in the first floor of what used to be a candle shop. The smell of dry wax drifts into my dreams sometimes. It’s cluttered and jumbled, shelves and mismatched tables piled high with all the odd little things Caroline drew to herself. Ceramics, old vinyls, velvet paintings and rusted iron locks the size of dinner plates, her treasures seemed to appear overnight to fill the spaces left behind when one of her occasional customers left with exactly what they hadn’t known they’d needed until they walked through the door. The shop’s sign is faded and chipped, just like everything else on Constance. It has the look of something that’s been touched for luck a few too many times.
The brass key for the front door is warm in the palm of my hand, and as I turn it in the lock for the last time I can’t help but wonder why in the hell she put her shop way back here? “Doesn’t make the least bit of sense” I told her years ago. Two blocks over from Constance is Garret Avenue. You can buy anything you want and two things you don’t on Garret. The only reason anyone ever wandered back this way is if they already knew the shop was here, or, perhaps, if they simply knew that they didn’t want to be there.
“Excuse me, sir?” pipes a mouse voice behind me. I turn to see a little brown thing standing there, all curls and over-large shoes. I raise her an eyebrow.
“Is Caroline in please?” She hooks a thumb towards the silent shop.
“No”
“Well…could you tell me when she’ll be back please?”
She walks right up to me, till she has to tilt her head to look me in the eye. She has big eyes that fill her face, green and quick and curious. They’re framed by a swirl of freckles. My heart jumps up and punches me in the throat. Caroline had those freckles. I told her once that I thought they looked like the stars at night. She just kissed me with a smile and started to cry.
“She won’t,” I say, shaking my head to clear it out. “She’s dead.”
Her little mouse face just caves in. “Oh…oh dear, that’s just…just awful.” Her eyes blink butterfly fast.
“But I owe her this!” She begins rooting in a weathered knapsack I hadn’t seen hiding on her back, hidden beneath the curls. She pulls out a small wooden box, simple but very beautiful in a way that pulls at me.
“I came here to the shop a few months back. I hadn’t seen my mom in a few years. She and my dad…well, you know, and so I live with my dad now here in the city. I hadn’t seen her in a while, but I was supposed to go stay with her over the summer, and I thought if I could bring her just the right present to say ‘hi’ then she’d know I wasn’t angry…well, not too angry anyway…and we’d be ok, you know?”
I mumble something agreeable because I think she expects an answer, but she is looking down at her too-large shoes as she spills out her story and I don’t think she even hears me.
“So I was over shopping on Garret, but man everything over there is so expensive and shiny and none of it was right…you know? But then I found this place and I told Caroline all about my mom and everything. She said she had just the thing, and boy was she right cause my mom loved it! We sat in the kitchen eating pumpkin bread and we talked about school and stuff all day.”
She finally looks up at me again, and I wonder how something so small can carry such weight in her eyes.
“But Caroline wouldn’t let me pay her for it! She just said that if everything worked out then I should bring her back something I loved as a trade, and that…wait…what’s your name?”
“Henry”
“Oh!” she squeaks, “that’s great! She said Henry would be here today and that he…or, you I guess…would need it.”
She looks up at me as if she really is waiting for an answer this time, but I don’t know what to say to that one.
“Soooo, I guess this is yours then Henry.” She deposits the box in my hands.
“I have to get back home now, but um, thanks. Bye Henry!”
I watch as she turns and half-runs back up the block the way she came. As she reaches the corner, she stops and looks back over her shoulder. The setting sun burns through the gaps in her curls, and I can’t see her face anymore.
“She really loved you, you know!” And then she is gone.
I stand still for a long time. No one else wanders by, so her parting words float undisturbed in the air around me. Finally, I look down at the box in my hands. The dark brown wood grain swims like fresh coffee just after the cream has been poured. The lid is held down by a small brass clasp that glows in the sun like something that has been touched for luck a few too many times. I flip back the clasp and open the lid, and the delicate gears that had been waiting inside begin playing our song.
I stand there for a long time, listening. That song is a memory I don’t care to share with you. When it runs itself out I close the lid, take the key out of my pocket, climb up the familiar steps, and unlock the shop’s front door.
There is no magic in the world. Nothing I’ve seen in the past fifty years has changed my mind on that account. But there was Caroline, and I think that’s enough for me.

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