There is a small shop at the edge of town. To find it one need only to turn right off the main thoroughfare, then turn right again, then left. An alley should open between two shops, a narrow space that turns and twists as it winds deeper into the unknown. If one was to explore all the way to the end, one would find a quaint store front, complete with a red door (always open just a jar) and a cluttered shop window. Above the window, “Clearbrooke Cafe and Shoppe” is printed in faded red letters on the awning's sign.
Few find it by accident, but fewer still find it on purpose.
Claire hummed to herself as she dusted the window display. It was October now, maybe it was time to change out the summer parasols for winter coats? On the other hand, the collection of scarves from last February were still hanging there too, and the boss had yet to complain, so maybe things were fine as they were? Besides, it wasn't as if anything in their window was what they ever actually sold.
She set the dust wand down behind the counter, debating what she should do next. They hadn't had any customers yet today, and the customer yesterday had only ordered tea, so there was no need to do inventory or restocking yet. She could sweep, or perhaps dust the mannequins in the back? There was always something that needed to be dusted, she had learned that very early on.
She was just about to get up to dust the mannequins when the bell above the door rang as the red door was pushed open. A man in his early thirties walked through, looking as confused as every other guest of Clearbrooke's.
“Good afternoon,” Claire said. “Anything I can do for you today?”
“Ah, no, I'm just looking,” he said and proceeded to find the shelves opposite her very interesting.
“Let me know if you change your mind!”
She kept up her shop keeper's smile. No one who walked in here was “just looking”. Or rather, if they were, they inevitably found what it was they were “just looking” for.
Even she had, in the end.
He picked up a jar from the shelf. “Canned laughs?”
“Good for rainy days,” Claire said with a nod.
He frowned, looking between her and the jar. Finally, he said, “But it's an empty jar?”
“No, everything is as marked. If it says canned laughs, that what's inside.”
His frown deepened as he looked between the jar and her again. “But… It's a jar?”
“Good for rainy days,” she repeated. He set the jar back down without further argument.
He walked along the shelves, stopping in front of an umbrella stand.
“How is a 'rain repelling umbrella' different from an ordinary umbrella?” he asked, reading the tag.
“Oh, it's not really. But it's been enchanted so that if you carry it, it won't rain.”
“Isn't that just a superstition?”
“No, no, it's a superstition for regular umbrellas. These ones it's a guarantee.”
“How can an umbrella guarantee it won't rain?”
“How does any magic work?” she asked.
“Magic?” he laughed.
“There is no such thing, yes, yes, I know.” She waved away his protest before he could voice them. “How about you tell me what you actually want?”
“I thought I already said, I'm just window shopping.”
She shook her head. “I've worked here for over five years. No one who walks through that door is just window shopping. You don't get caught by the shop unless you need something.”
“Caught by the shop?”
She smirked. “It's more magic. Would you believe me if I said that?”
“Do you think I'll stick around longer if you speak in riddles?”
She shrugged. “No one has left without buying anything yet.”
He didn't answer, just turned away from her to inspect a rack of greeting cards.
That was fine. Like she'd said, she wasn't worried about bullying him out of the shop. It was part of the magic. The same magic which had brought him here would keep bringing him back until he found what it was that he was looking for. That was the nature of Clearbrooke's.
Most never believed it was magic that had brought them here, most left without realizing there was real magic for sale on the shelves either. Certainly, none believed it when they first walked through the doors. She certainly hadn't, those years ago.
Cold and hungry, she had fled down the alley trying to find shelter from the rain. She'd lost her job days before, just been kicked out of her apartment that morning. Yet she couldn't bear to tuck her tail, leave the city, and return to her parents. Couldn't admit she hadn't been able to make it.
She'd come to the city to find something to live for. To find a cause to fight for. A code to live by. She'd found empty work and silent living places. And she hadn't been able to survive the daily grind toward nothing.
“Is this real?” he asked, breaking her from her memories.
He stood in front of a display of colored beads on tasseled strings. Some were tied in loops or bows. Some were designed to be tied around another's wrist or a bag's handle. Some ended in plaques inscribed with ancient symbols, while others were made up of only the tiniest glass beads.
“Yes,” she said. “Those are real magic charms. We carry everything from good luck and love charms to wards and wishing cranes.”
He ran his fingers through the beads, letting jingle as they fell back into place. His hand stopped on a bracelet of alternating green and yellow dragonfly beads. “And this one?”
“Mmm, if I remember correctly, that one wards against disease and aids recovery,” she said. “An all-purpose health charm.”
“Any disease?” he asked.
“I thought you didn't believe in magic,” she teased.
She knew it wasn't fair. They couldn't help the tug the store had on their need. Whether they believed in its power or not, the store would guide them to what they needed. Whether they believed what they were purchasing would actually help or not, they couldn't help but buy it.
But she always tried to break that hold. To make them admit the magic must be real, or to dissuade them from buying it. It felt dirty otherwise.
“He loves dragonflies,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow.
“He loves them,” he repeated. “I would take him fishing with me. And, well, he never stood still for the fish, never had that kind of patience. But he would run for hours by the lake side, just chasing them.”
He held the bracelet of dragonflies up to the light, watching the beads sparkle as they turned slowly on their string.
“How much is it?” he asked suddenly.
She took the bracelet from him and stepped behind the cash register. A memory of an early morning, a renewed hope, and a loving heart, paid not to the store, but to the item's recipient. That was what the store told her the man owed for this one. She smiled. How was she supposed to eat if that was all she charged?
“Five dollars,” she said to the man. He would give the boy he spoke of those things without her telling him he needed to. She could already feel it. “Would you like me to wrap it for you?”
She tapped the arm of her throne impatiently. Her long, pointed nail clicking against the dark stone echoing through the still throne room was the only sound.
Her head she kept propped on her other arm, a bored look on her face. Her red eyes, with pupils slit like cat's, remained fixed on ...