By Xyggurat

I didn't get hit by a bus. I did, however, miss the last Greyhound heading back to State. I was, in the politest sense of the word, fucked.

If I were anyone else, I could have whipped out my cell phone and called a friend to pick me up. You have to understand something about me that I didn't mention before: I don't have friends. I was sort of an odd guy, and while I knew a lot of people by virtue of living on campus, there was no one I could count on to take me places. The people I knew were all acquaintances, a fact that was hammered into my brain every time I needed someone to help me out.

So it was that I ended up walking through the streets of Cerritos at 11PM on a very dark Tuesday night. The skies were free of clouds, but the newborn moon lent no light. Only guttering streetlights lit my way. The stars shone, watery and silent above me, distorted by the haze of smog that covered the city. That same smog burned in my lungs.

Cars roared by, twice as fast as the speed limit of the town's streets allowed, but I didn't dare try to hail one down. I'd read an article only the previous Tuesday about a Cerritos College student who'd been kidnapped after trying to hitchhike. In retrospect, I think I used to read the paper way too often.

The acrid scent of chemicals was waning as I moved further away from the industrial district and toward Hart Avenue, the commercial thoroughfare. Most of the shops were closed, but a few early drinkers were clustering around the local dives. I passed by one, "Church's," that was frequented by an especially seedy crowd, and tried to make myself look small. Luckily, the guys outside weren't sober enough to be interested in me or drunk enough to challenge my passage.

There were a few people still in the corner taco shop at Maryland and Hart, but otherwise, all of the windows down the street were black. There were fewer streetlamps here, and more shadows. I supressed a shiver that had nothing to do with the night's damp air. I was a small man by the kindest standard, and each alley sprouted amorphous dangers in the fertile fields of my mind. There are heartpounding times in a man's life when concern for his own mortality suppresses rational thought. This was one of those moments.

I tried to slow my steps, make myself look confident in the face of my fear, but something kept quickening my pace. I tripped, once, and could have sworn I heard laughter. My eyes scanned the nearby buildings, but there were no inhabitants.

My mother's face flashed in front of my eyes, as it often did when I was searching for strength. She was a small, frail woman, although almost all of my memories came from pictures of her. She'd left my father when I was very young, just as I had left him when I was old enough to think for myself. The stench of beer still drove me to nausea, and I couldn't even form an image of him in my head.

My pulse was thudding in my ears as I took step after uneasy step down Hart street. Something moved at the edges of my vision and I stopped, cold sweat spreading over my face. A block of something solid and chill settled in my stomach, but I forced myself to look. It was just my reflection, distorted by the dark windows of a nearby furniture store.

As I stopped to reassure myself that it was just my reflection, I felt eyes on my back.

I spun about, but the street was dark behind me. Nothing was moving, but my weak eyes could not have picked someone out had he been standing still. I supposed I could go back to the taco shop and call a cab, but a hot rush of warning passed through me. There was a sickening certainty that some danger lurked behind me.

I trusted my instincts and hurried on. The way ahead was pitch dark but for the guttering light of a single streetlamp about a block away. The intervening space seemed like miles. I quickened my pace while trying to look as if I wasn't hurrying. Not the best idea, as I ended up tripping over my own shoelaces after a few shuffling steps.

I made my way past an alley. An old black tomcat was pawing at the remains of a pizza box. He stared at me and hissed a warning before scampering off into the dark.

All I need now, I complained to myself, is bad luck.

Some power must have been listening to my self-pity, for as I reached the patio of the of shop nearest the streetlamp, the unthinkable happened. The fickle lamp guttered once, twice, and was extinguished. Panic rose in my veins as darkness fell. My heart beat at the insides of my chest as if it were trying to escape. Not a soul shared the streets with me that I could see, but the sense of threat was undeniable. I tried to tell myself that it was just my mind playing tricks, but rationalizing felt absurd.

Something brushed against the back of my neck, and I spun around again. One of the tassels of the storefront's overhang had drifted down to touch me. I told myself this several times before I could draw a steady breath. I took a few steps down the street before niggling uncertainty again forced my eyes back to the street behind me.

"You don't look well," a gravelly voice said from nearby.

I forced myself to calm, even though I felt my knees trying to jump out of their sockets, they were shivering so hard. Calm, I told myself, could be the difference between life and death. I turned to face the speaker.

I stifled a giggle. The source of the voice was a little man, white and short enough that he made me feel tall. He was little more than skin suspended over too many bones. His skin was weathered and thin like parchment. A part of me recognized his yellowed smile as a corpse's rictus, but there was something almost comical about him that put me instantly at ease. His trousers were pulled up too high, and the knobs of his shoulders were visible under the blue button-down shirt. He was hanging out of the doorway of a shop whose windows were blocked from the inside

I had to clear my throat before I could manage a sentence. My mouth was dry and it took effort to get it to work correctly.

"I'm just trying to find my way home," I told him, and started to shuffle past.

"Care to use my telephone?" He asked.

The combination of nerves and the absurdity of the diminutive fellow had built up inside me over the previous few seconds, and I answered his polite question with a burst of uneasy laughter.

"I couldn't intrude," I babbled, and tried to move past him.

He slipped out of his doorway quickly and interposed himself between me and the sidewalk beyond.

"I insist," he said. "Maybe I can interest you in some of my wares after you've used the phone. It's not the best time to be out on the streets alone, especially with some of the crimes that have gone about lately."

That cold knot in my stomach swelled three sizes with the reminder. I glanced over my shoulder at the ominous bulk of night, and compared it to the frail figure standing before me.

"I don't think I'd like to buy anything," I forced myself to say, and almost turned to march on.

Then I looked at his face. His eyes had a forlorn look to them. He was, I told myself, probably just a lonely old man. And what was the possibility of anything bad happening to me with him? I out-massed him, which was something I couldn't say often. He looked so frail that he could blow away if a stiff wind came along.

"On second thought," I said, "I'd appreciate it if I could use your phone, and maybe I can take a look. What do you sell?"

He didn't answer me. Instead, he chuckled. "Sir? I haven't been called that in a while. Young people these days have forgotten their manners."

I never knew what to say when old people complained about my generation, so I just smiled and nodded. I'd just head inside and call myself a cab, like I should have done in the first place.

The old man beckoned, and I followed him into his shop. Little bells on the door heralded our entry.

It looked larger from the inside than the facade would have led me to believe. The walls and carpet were all of a red shade that reminded me of drying blood, unpatterned but for black wooden wainscoting about the base of the walls. Not that I could see much of wall, carpet, or wood through the clutter.

After blinking a few times, I knew my eyes were not deceiving me. I had stumbled into the sort of paradise that only a Dungeons and Dragons player could appreciate. Old swords hung from a martial procession of hooks on the walls, ranging in style from Mameluke blades to katanas. Lacquered chests leafed in gold rested beneath a clutter of mouldering books. A display of pendants was strung from a tree made entirely of what looked to be precious metals.

I nearly tripped over a Buddha that was several times the size of my head. The jovial statue was carved entirely from jade, but little red lines traced the paths where veins should be in a normal human body. The way the little oil candle in front of him flickered and danced made the statue seem like he was laughing at me.

There were a few birds carved from black glass on one old shelf. I would have taken one down, but a big brown spider was busy spinning a web over one of the bird's beaks. Nonetheless, there were plenty of other trinkets to keep my interest. My fear had been replaced by child-like exhilaration. How I'd managed to miss a shop full of such esoterica was beyond me.

I finally managed to speak through my awe.

"Wow," I said, and applauded myself internally for my eloquence.

"You like? Anything you want, you just tell me, son, and I'll give you a fair deal." He patted me on the shoulder. His bony hand was surprisingly firm. "Shop around if you'd like. I'll call you a taxi." He moved back behind the counter.

I shifted my eyes to him. "Where'd you get all this? It's quite a collection."

"One man's trash... You know how the saying goes. I fancy myself as a man who gets people what they need and takes from them what they don't want any more."

He left to head behind the counter.Turning back to the pendant tree, I noticed a dusty wooden box partially concealed by a stack of old books. It looked to have been almost lost to a fire, as scorch marks marred a good third of its left side. The iron lock on it was rusty.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Oh, that," he said. His pale eyes settled on the box for a long moment before they flicked back to me. "You don't want that."

"Why not?"

"Because you probably wouldn't want to pay for it," he chuckled. "What about a nice pendant? Surely you have someone waiting back at home."

"Not really," I admitted.

"Too bad," he said. "You seem like a nice young man."

"I haven't had the best luck with girls," I told him. It was not precisely a lie.

"That's too bad. They're special creatures." He fiddled with a plain gold band on his left ring finger.

I stepped toward the counter, unwilling to let him change the subject. "How much does it cost? The box, I mean."

"You can't afford it, I said." He brushed the question away without a hint of ire.

In frustration, I said, "Could you at least give me a price?"

"Dollars aren't the issue, son. You don't want what's in that box. You're a nice young man, and what's in it... it's not for nice people." A strange gleam had risen in his eyes as he spoke.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He leaned over the counter. In a hushed whisper, he said, "It's not for you right now. I can always tell the type of person that needs something I have to offer. I sell things most people wouldn't benefit from, because they don't believe. But you believe, don't you?"

"I'm sorry?" We were face to face, and his breath was sharp in my nose. "Believe in what?"

"In magic," he breathed, his tongue giving the word a lover's caress.

My heart was pounding, suddenly, and blood was roaring in my ears. A flush burned in my cheeks at the certainty that he was playing with me, but his face was solemn as an unfilled grave.

"Uhm, I guess so, but--"

"So do I. And I believe in common sense. Son, you don't want that box, and I won't sell it to you. Some of these charms here are for good things. That one with the amethyst will bring you pleasant dreams. The alexandrite will help you with your confidence. Maybe that one for you, tonight?"

I frowned. "Maybe, yes, but... what's in the box that's so special?"

"You're not the sort of fellow who'd dabble in vengeance," said the old man, but his voice caught a bit as he spoke. "Now, son, your cab is here. Come back some time and we'll find the right charm for you."

"The cab--" I began, but I was interrupted by the chiming of the door bells. A tired-looking Middle Eastern man poked his head in.

"Taxi?" he asked.

"That's me." I said, and turned back to the old man. "I'll be back," I told him.

With a resigned sigh, he said, "You will."

I glanced back as the door closed behind me. The old man was smiling. •

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