The Night Shop — Anna Pittenger
During the daytime, this shop is just a normal drugstore, the small-town, slightly eclectic type which is becoming less common nowadays, which sells not only over-the-counter medicine but also a variety of herbs and herbal supplements, as well as other miscellaneous small items: handkerchiefs, boxes of confectionaries, ribbons, spices, and numerous other things; a small place run by a single enigmatic shopkeeper. Yet as soon as night falls, this fairly ordinary small-town drugstore transforms into something else entirely, something out of this world, a place outside of space and time, where the contents of the shop are transformed from physical objects into something more symbolic or metaphysical.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, the transformation slowly spreads across the shop, the electric lights transforming into gas lamps, the cinderblock walls and the stainless steel and plastic furnishings becoming aged wood. This is the time the shopkeeper lives for, the nighttime, when the shop takes on its true form. The Night Shop is where they do their true business, where customers from all countries and time periods come either to sell, bringing with them something that they want to get rid of and accepting their choice of objects from the shop in exchange, or to buy, looking for something specific from the shop and making an offer of their own emotions or memories in exchange.
The shopkeeper walks through the shop, lighting the oil lamps and taking inventory of all the products available, making note of any changes since the previous night, as the stock in the Night Shop is influenced by changes in the stock in the Day Shop, as well as by the sales and purchases made with the customers in the Night Shop. Once everything was in order, the shopkeeper resumes their seat at the counter to wait for the first customer to arrive.
Jane had been walking through the streets of the town in the evening, and as twilight faded into dusk, she found herself on a street that she did not recognize, the last remnants of daylight illuminating a shop she had never seen before. This was strange, Jane thought, since she had lived in the town all her life and, as it was not a particularly large town, had thought that she was quite familiar with all the streets and shops in it. It was a small shop, set back a little way from the street, and from the outside, it was difficult to tell what sort of shop it might be. Though the light shone through them, the windows were shuttered, and the sign hanging above the door read only “The Night Shop.”
Although she knew that it was getting late and that she ought to be getting home soon, Jane could not quite bring herself to do so. Going home meant going back to her brother Bartholomew, and after what he had done to the cat, she was not sure that she ever wanted to see him again. In fact, she had gone on her walk in the first place in order to avoid him, at least temporarily. Certainly, she was not ready to face him yet. I’ll just take a quick look inside the shop, Jane told herself, and see what sort of a place it is, and then I suppose I really must go back home, Bartholomew or no Bartholomew. She heaved a sigh at the thought and pushed open the wooden door of the shop.
A small silver bell over the shop door tinkled as it opened, and a voice from inside—which Jane knew must belong to the shopkeeper—called out, “Good evening. Welcome to the Night Shop. Are you buying or selling?”
Jane blinked, taking in the scene around her. Inside the shop, long wooden shelves lined the walls, covered with boxes and bottles of all different shapes, sizes, and colors, and tall wooden cabinets made up of tiny drawers stood in the corners, so that, all in all, it had much the appearance of an apothecary’s shop, or perhaps that of a spice-seller or an herbalist. This impression was heightened as the shop was filled with the smell of herbs and spices, and of old wood. It was lit, sufficiently, but not brightly, by the light of oil lamps placed at strategic intervals around the room. The shopkeeper was an elderly person—though Jane could not determine whether they were male or female—with fingerless gloves on their bony hands and a pair of half-moon spectacles resting on their long nose.
Aside from the shopkeeper, Jane was the only person in the shop.
“Are you buying or selling?” the shopkeeper asked again.
“Neither, just now,” Jane said, recovering her voice. “I just came in to have a look around.”
These words sent a chill down the shopkeeper’s spine. Even though the night shop itself existed outside of space and time, it seems constrained by the reality of the Day Shop since the two could not exist simultaneously. The Night Shop appeared when night fell on the Day Shop and transformed back into the Day Shop when daylight came again. Yet within the Night Shop, there was no indication of the passage of time. The shopkeeper had no way of knowing how much of the night had passed, or how close it was to dawn until it came. Normally this was not a problem; most customers came with a specific purpose in mind, and the transaction was completed fairly quickly. However, when Jane said that she had not come with a specific goal in mind, the shopkeeper began to worry. There was no telling how long such a person might stay, and once a person had stepped through the door into the Night Shop they could not leave again until an exchange of some sort has been made.
The shopkeeper frowned and raised a silver eyebrow. “No one just comes here to ‘have a look around,’” the shopkeeper said severely. “People don’t stumble on this place by mistake, you know. They only come here if they already have something they want, generally something they want very badly.” Seeing Jane’s frown, the shopkeeper sighed. Well, if she doesn’t feel like revealing her inner motivations, they thought, no matter. Even if she doesn’t receive the thing she really came for, all that’s needed is that she make an exchange of some sort so she can leave, and I’ll be free of her.
“If you aren’t ready to tell me what you want yet,” the shopkeeper said politely, “I suppose you might as well take a look around while you gather your courage.”
Jane shrugged, frowning herself. “Well, I suppose I could buy something,” she said, hoping to please the shopkeeper, although their insistence that she must have come there with a certain purpose in mind was somewhat unnerving. She tried to remember how much money she had on her. Not much, she realized, feeling in her pocket. “What do you have that isn’t very expensive?”
Now, what might a young girl be interested in? The shopkeeper wondered. Their own childhood seemed so far away that it was only a faded memory. The shopkeeper moved through the shop, pulling out items and examining them in search of something suitable. What is it children like? Candy?
“How about some insincere compliments?” The shopkeeper suggested, holding out a box of what appeared to be some sort of small and brightly colored confectionary. “Sweet to the taste, go down smoothly, but ultimately leave you feeling empty. Go ahead,” the shopkeeper urged, “try one, just as a sample.” People seldom came for something so insignificant as a box of compliments, but like any shrewd businessperson, the shopkeeper like to upsell as much as possible, and flattery and compliments made a nice addition to a bundle deal.
Jane did as she was told, picking out a rose-colored candy from the box and putting it in her mouth. It did taste sweet, she thought, like honey and rose petals, and as it melted on her tongue, she thought she heard a soft voice whispering in her ear, “You have the loveliest singing voice.” She smiled in spite of herself.
“Delightful, aren’t they?” the shopkeeper asked, watching her expression. “I can even gift-wrap them for you if you’d like,” they said. “Compliments are fairly popular as a gift item. We’re extending our line of products, and that’s one of our newer ones. It’s a variation on an old favorite,” the shopkeeper said, holding up a small bottle with a label that read flattery, “but you’ll find it has a milder flavor and is much less addicting.” The shopkeeper poured out a little of the contents of the flattery bottle into the palm of their hand, and she saw that it was a fine brown powder, with a smell strongly reminiscent of cinnamon. “Would you like to try a pinch of the older product, to compare them?” the shopkeeper asked.
Jane shook her head, her smile gone, replaced by an angry scowl at the fact that she had allowed herself to smile after what had happened to the cat. “Why would I want to try it if it’s addicting?”
“Oh, very well!” Really, what a rude child! The shopkeeper thought, putting on an offended look as they poured the powder back into the bottle. “I don’t give out samples to just anyone you know, but suit yourself.” Do you think I enjoy catering to an indecisive brat like this? Just pick something and be done with it!
The bell over the shop door tinkled, and the shopkeeper looked up eagerly, resuming their old pleasant, but brisk and businesslike, expression as another customer came in.
Finally, a real customer! The shopkeeper felt a surge of relief at the sight of him, recognizing a regular customer. While most people only managed to stumble upon the Night Shop once in a lifetime, there were a few who returned to it again and again.
“Good evening,” the shopkeeper said, repeating the same words that the girl had been greeted with. “Welcome to the Night Shop. Are you buying or selling?” The shopkeeper already guessed what the man had come for, but asked the question anyway, as a matter of course. This is all part of conducting a professional business transaction, the shopkeeper thought. Come in, state what you want, take it, offer payment, and leave. No idling about, no loitering. I hope the girl can learn from the example of this customer.
“Buying, please,” said the person who had just entered. Turning towards him, Jane saw that he was a young man, tall and thin, with a crooked nose, and that he had a lute strapped to his back.
A minstrel! She thought. He looks just like an illustration out of a book of fairytales.
“Certainly,” the shopkeeper said. “What would you like to purchase this evening?”
“I’d like some love,” the minstrel said.
The shopkeeper nodded, going over to the array of colored bottles on one of the shelves in the back. “Requited or unrequited?” The shopkeeper asked.
“Oh, unrequited, please.” The young man said quickly, almost as if he didn’t need time to think about his answer. “I don’t have any time to engage in a romance just now.”
“How much do you want?” The shopkeeper asked, holding up a couple different bottles for his inspection. “As one of our new items, we also have a sampler set, if you’d prefer that. Twelve different bottles of our smallest size, so you can have the experience of falling in love with twelve different people, one at a time, or all at once, however you prefer.”
The minstrel nodded, a faint smile crossing his lips. “That sounds excruciating,” he said. “It will be perfect.”
The shopkeeper busied themself packaging bottles into a box, which they handed to the minstrel. They were beautiful glass bottles, each of them a different color, and each one of them only as long as Jane’s pinky finger. “There you go,” the shopkeeper said. “Use them carefully.”
The young man gave a deep bow as he took the box. He crossed back over to the shop door and pushed it open.
“Have a good evening, and come again,” the shopkeeper called after him as the door closed behind him.
“That is the way people are supposed to conduct business here,” the shopkeeper said, a little severely, turning back to Jane. “They come in, state what they want, pay for it, and leave.”
Jane ignored the shopkeeper’s sharp comment and continued looking after the door where the minstrel had left. “What sort of person would want unrequited love?” She asked.
“He is a musician,” the shopkeeper said simply, “and songs about unrequited love and star-crossed lovers are always in demand. No doubt he hopes the personal experience will give his music more power to move the hearts of those who listen to it.”
Jane frowned, thinking of another part of the transaction that had struck her as odd. “He said he was buying, but he never gave you anything in payment.”
The shopkeeper nodded. “He will, though. Musicians are some of the best customers because they do the most to promote the business. Everywhere he goes, his music will stir up desires and emotions in the people who listen to him, and if those desires are strong enough, they will come here, to make purchases from this shop. For him, the song itself is payment.
Jane nodded, thinking of another question. “Where did he come from, though?” She asked. She was certain that she had never seen such a person in the town before.
She really is full of questions, the shopkeeper thought. How irritating. Why should I have to explain all the details of how the shop works to someone who will likely never come here again? Still, the customer’s wishes must be respected, even if it is irritating, and perhaps knowing more about the shop will help her decide what she wants to purchase. It seemed doubtful, but in the face of steadily progressing time, the shopkeeper clung to this faint hope.
“This shop exists outside of space and time,” the shopkeeper explained, “and we thus receive customers from all countries and time periods. The door for each person becomes accessible to them when they are in need of it, which is another reason why people do not stumble upon this place by accident.” The shopkeeper peered at Jane over the top of the half-moon spectacles. “So, have you finally decided to tell me what you want?” The shopkeeper asked.
Jane shook her head, silently reading some of the labels on other items in the shop: Love (Unrequited), Love (Requited), The Dreams of Children, Nightmares, Mercy (Deserved), Mercy (Undeserved), Good Fortune, Bad Fortune, Confusion, Courage (Reckless), and Veracity. The shop seemed to have no end of interesting items, and it certainly made a good distraction from thinking about the cat and what Bartholomew had done to it. Still, she did not think that any of those things were ones she would have much use for.
The shopkeeper gritted their teeth in irritation, seeing that Jane seemed to be no closer to making a decision. If only I knew how much time we have left before morning, the shopkeeper thought once again. We’re running out of time, but I have no way of knowing exactly how much time has already passed or how much time is left. I’ll have to think more deeply about this and try to discover the real reason why she is here rather than attempting to placate her with curiosities.
The shopkeeper pursed their lips, their forehead creasing in thought. What’s something that would bring a child into a shop like this, which is mostly frequented by adults, something that everyone needs or feels at some point in their lives? “How about some forgiveness, then?” The shopkeeper asked.
Jane frowned. “I don’t need forgiveness,” she said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
The shopkeeper raised an eyebrow at her tone. “Ah, but someone else has?” that eyebrow seemed to say, though those words did not pass the shopkeeper’s lips. Finally a clue! The shopkeeper thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. They said nothing out loud, waiting for Jane to elaborate, but inside they were thinking, Come on, girl, out with it. Tell me what you’re here for before the time runs out and I’m stuck with you. The shopkeeper shrugged. “It doesn’t have to be for you. You could give it to someone else, as a gift. Forgiveness makes a lovely present. I could even gift-wrap it for you, if you like.”
Jane hesitated for a moment, then shook her head. She couldn’t bring herself to forgive Bartholomew for what he had done to the cat. Just thinking about it made something harden inside her heart. She would never forgive him.
“A grudge, then?” The shopkeeper held out what looked like a small black rock. “This isn’t one you eat; it’s one you carry. Careful, though, it’s a bit heavy.”
Jane took it, curious, and almost immediately dropped it, surprised at its weight. “It’s much heavier than it looks!” She exclaimed. “What does it do?”
“Nothing,” the shopkeeper said. “You just carry it around with you, and it weighs you down and makes you feel miserable.”
Jane shook her head, quickly handing it back. “Ugh. Who would want a thing like that?”
“They’re surprisingly popular, you know,” the shopkeeper said, dusting the dark rock with a cloth as if Jane might have left greasy fingerprints on it. “After a while, people get so used to the weight of them that they can’t bear to let them go, even after they’ve forgotten why they bought one in the first place.”
Jane shook her head again. “I don’t think that’s quite what I want.” Even though the shopkeeper did not ask, she began to tell about what had happened before she came to the shop.
“At my house I have—or had—” she corrected herself, frowning, “a cat. She is—was—a beautiful cat, with long white fur and blue eyes,” tears welled up in Jane’s eyes as she remembered, but she wiped them away angrily. “My older brother, Bartholomew hates cats. He was always being cruel to her, pulling her tail, or tying things to it, or kicking her,” Jane’s eyes flashed at the memory. “He’s bigger than me and stronger, so I could never do anything to stop him, but then yesterday he did the worst thing of all. We had a piece of meat that had gone bad, and he gave it to her to eat, and she got sick.”
There we go, the shopkeeper thought, at last. Now the story comes out. They listened quietly while she continued her story, happy to be patient now that it seemed the transaction was actually progressing.
Jane paused, the tears welling up in her eyes again, and for a moment she could not speak around the lump forming in her throat, but then she pushed herself to continue. “I did everything I could for her,” Jane said, “I even prayed for her, but today she died. Then, when I told my brother, he said, he said,” Jane paused again, not wanting to repeat the terrible words, but then she forced them out. She had to finish, had to get the rest of the story out, had to make the shopkeeper understand the full horribleness of what had happened. “He said that any cat stupid enough to eat rotten meat didn’t deserve to live.”
Tears sprang to her eyes again, but this time they were tears of anger, more salt than water. “He isn’t even sorry,” she said. “He isn’t sorry at all. For a moment, Jane stood there, clenching and unclenching her fists at her sides as she stared at the floor of the shop, hot tears running down her cheeks.
The shopkeeper watched her in silence, with no change of expression. They were used to the tales of human wrongdoing told by customers. Over the years the shopkeeper had worked in this shop, they had listened to the schemes and confessions of murderers and the plans for revenge of the relatives of victims; born witness to the ravings of madmen; provided charlatans with the ingredients for chicanery; and abetted the plots of dictators and revolutionaries alike. The shopkeeper help no real interest in the circumstances that brought people to the shop, or what their plans were when they left, although so many customers seemed to feel compelled to inform them. It was the shop itself, and its unusual contents, that the shopkeeper loved, not its often unsavory customers.
Finally, Jane took a deep breath, wiped her eyes, and looked back up at the shopkeeper, who turned and began rummaging again through the bottles and boxes on the shelves.
“Would you like a bottle of remorse?” The shopkeeper asked, holding up a small brown bottle full of liquid, like a container of vanilla extract, although the scent that came from the bottle when the shopkeeper unscrewed the lid was entirely different: an earthy, bitter scent like decaying leaves and sadness. Jane had not even known that sadness could have a smell until that moment.
“A drop or two of this,” the shopkeeper said, “and the person will feel sorry for whatever it is they’ve done to make you upset.”
Jane considered it for a long moment, then shook her head. “He needs to be more than sorry,” she said at last, firmly. “He needs to be punished.”
Jane thought the shopkeeper gave a small sigh as they screwed the lid back on the bottle and returned it to the shelf, but the next moment she was sure she had been mistaken, for the shopkeeper’s face betrayed no more emotion than ever.
“It sounds like what you want is revenge,” the shopkeeper said, pulling out another small bottle from the shelf.
Jane peered at the bottle, which resembled the bottles of rat poison her uncle had bought back before they had had a cat. “It looks like poison,” she said.
The shopkeeper nodded. “It is. A costly and sweet-tasting poison that people drink gladly, before they realize what it is doing to them, and by then it is too late.”
Jane frowned, her fingers pausing halfway through reaching for the bottle. “I don’t want to kill him,” she said doubtfully, even though, she thought, there would be a certain kind of justice in that, since he had killed the cat. “I just want him to…to…” She faltered, unsure how to put her wish into words. What was it, precisely, that she did want?
“To suffer?” The shopkeeper finished for her.
Jane’s eyes flashed. “To be punished a bit,” she finished firmly. “What he did was bad, and he ought to be punished for it. Punished, but not killed.”
The shopkeeper nodded and shook the bottle twice before holding it out again to Jane. “Put a few drops of this on his lips as he is sleeping,” the shopkeeper said. “Afterwards, everything he eats or drinks will taste to him like rotten meat. Will that be sufficient for your purposes?”
“Yes,” Jane said, reaching out her hand for the bottle. It seemed an entirely suitable punishment, almost poetic, even, in its justness, so she was surprised to find that, as her hand grasped the bottle, a single tear dropped from her left eye and slid down her cheek. She was even more surprised when the shopkeeper reached forward with a small, clear, glass bottle and caught the tear in it as it fell. “What are you doing?” Jane asked.
“This is the first part of your payment,” the shopkeeper said. “The rest will come after you actually do the deed.”
“What is it, though?” Jane asked. A tear seems a strange sort of payment, if it even was a tear, she thought, for her eyes were now dry.
“Childhood innocence,” the shopkeeper said. “It is a commodity that is hard for me to come by, and thus a fitting payment for such a costly purchase as this.”
Jane considered the shopkeeper’s answer, wondering what it was exactly that she had lost or given up, but she didn’t feel any different. She took the bottle of revenge and walked toward the shop door, already thinking of Bartholomew and how she would sneak into his room while he was sleeping to drop the liquid in his mouth. He will be sorry, she told herself, for what he did to the cat. She would make him sorry, and she would make him pay.
“Have a good evening,” the shopkeeper called out after her as Jane opened the door, “and come again.”
Alone in the shop once more, the shopkeeper tilted the bottle up, examining its contents in the light of the gas lamps, and wondering what it would become when the light of morning illuminated the shop once again.