Haris was processing the day’s receipts when the kid walked into the store. Her yellow hair fell in greasy tendrils to tangle in the belt of tattered black jeans. Her tee-shirt was covered with posies of pink elephants. Haris figured her to be around twelve years old, a typical street brat, not even wired or enhanced as far as he could tell. He smiled wryly, doubting that she had enough plastic on her for so much as a nouveau goldfish, let alone the kind of creatures his store had in stock. Animals like these were for the privileged, for the folks who had the big money and wanted to show it off.
Still, you never knew. The grunge look was back in style this year. She could be richer than she looked. And anyway, it had been a slow day. A bit boring. He plastered a more professional smile onto his face and gestured round at the force cages, each one boasting some exotic beastie that frolicked or languished in its own holographically replicated environment. “Feel free to look ‘round. If you need help, ask.”
She smiled back at him, a sweet, shy, honest little smile, not darkened by the streaks of grime on her face. “Thanks.” Her gray eyes slid swiftly away from his, drawn toward the cages.
She drifted for a time while Haris worked over his computer interface, making sure that each of the animals had been fed and watered, and made as comfortable and showy as possible. Sometimes he’d glance up to see her lingering by one cage or another, reading the info data which flashed above them, or simply staring, awed, at the wondrous creature within. He saw her draw back from the sight of the strebgoose’s suddenly extended steeline claws, laugh at the calerian’s nine-limbed tumbling display, and smile as the trylig’s ear tentacle shot through the specially constructed force slots to tickle her under her chin.
In front of each cage she lingered, seeming to concentrate for a while. But each, in the end, received a small, disappointed head shake. Then, slowly, steadily, she’d move on to the next.
It was getting close to closing time. All up and down the street store lights were dimming, hinting politely that any customers should swiftly make their decisions, their purchases, and their departures. Through the security holos Haris watched as slicker-clad people started their homewards scurries through the warm rain. He watched one store close, then another, their flickering blue force screens brightening as each shopkeeper engaged the nighttime defenses.
The lights dimmed another notch. Sighing, Haris turned his gaze away from the holos and hit the manual override.
The kid had pretty well finished her tour of the store. She stood, paused in front of a rack of collars and leashes, her mouth curled in a disdainful sneer. For a moment Haris wondered if such accessories were the true reason behind her visit. But no, she didn’t look like one of the leather and chain set.
He cleared his throat. “Lookin’ fer somthin’ special?”
She nodded, a small, abrupt jerk of her chin. “Yes.”
Haris waited, giving her time to continue, to explain.
Silence. She bent suddenly, intently studying a small creature she’d looked at once before. Haris heard her sigh as she straightened.
He narrowed his eyes briefly, then winced as he saw the time on the old-fashioned clock that appeared, overlaying his vision of the room. Darn. He’d never make it home in time for his favorite entertainment show.
“Look.” Again he cleared his throat. “I think you’ve seen ‘em all. All the critters I’ve got.” His hand inched longingly towards his dull gray slicker.
The kid turned slowly toward him. Her gray eyes locked on his. “All?”
So plaintive. So bloody despairing.
He swallowed. “Well, not all. Not quite.” Why had he said that? The new orders hadn’t even been processed yet. The holo boy wouldn’t be in till tomorrow. The new animals were still sitting in their own filth in unholoed cages at the back of the store.
But the kid looked so desperate.
Resignedly, he dropped his coat and unplugged himself from the computer. “There’re a few new ‘uns in back. Follow me.” He fumbled with the old-fashioned palm lock on the storage room. Outdated piece of junk. He’d have to get that replaced. “Just don’t expect fancy. Like I said, these ‘uns are new.”
He mumbled briefly to the sound pickup, and light flooded the front of the room, illuminating the five plain shipping cages.
Behind him, Haris heard the kid gasp. She brushed past him, pressing her hands, her face, flat against the gently flexing force wall of the closest cage.
He had to grin at her enthusiasm. “It’s a dragon.”
She nodded, her eyes still riveted on the beast inside the force field. “I know.” Slowly, gently her hand stroked down and across the cage, outlining the shape of the creature within it. “It’s magic.”
Haris laughed softly. “That’s what the old books and stories want us thinkin’. And the folks who breed these beasties.” He leaned back comfortably against a bin of orangian ferret food. This was actually starting to be fun. “Truth wise, there’s nothin’ magic ‘bout dragons. Modern science has shown they’re just normal animals. Bright as heck, sure, but so’s yer average tibris-cat.”
Now she turned to him, her lips twitching slightly. He couldn’t tell if her expression was one of pain or humor. “Okay. But dragons breathe fire. What about that?” Her accent was odd, her words very precise and clear. Maybe not a common street brat after all.
Haris shrugged. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a pack of Vespren cigarettes. He stuck one between his lips, drawing air through it till it lit, filling his mouth with its acrid herb-flavor. Carefully he breathed out, watching the air around him turn a delicate green. “Yeah. Well I breathe smoke. Does that make me magic?” He grinned at the girl, watching her lips thin in disapproval. “Seriously though, the fire comes from what the critters eat, and the way their guts’re put together. It’s all just science, kid.”
He wasn’t sure how he expected her to react to that. Certainly not with such tightly clenched fists and jutting chin, and the unspoken promise of childish violence. But her voice was cold, controlled as she gestured towards the next cage. “And that one? The unicorn?”
Haris gazed through the force field at the lovely creature. He actually had a soft spot for this one, linked perhaps to childish peeks at one of his sister’s fairy tale books.
He cleared his throat and looked away. “A dumb animal. The horn’s nothin’ but a kind of growth, sort of like thick skin. It glows because of some crazy bug thing that lives there, eatin’ away at the old dead cells, keepin’ the thing trimmed back like we cut our fingernails.”
The girl turned away from him, leaving Haris with a purposefully insulting view of her back. He shifted position slightly till he was able to watch her sad examination of each imprisoned beast. She was ignoring him now, focusing only on the gryphon, the kraken. It made the whole thing way too boring. Shifting again, he started to open his mouth.
Her voice stopped him. “No, don’t.” Her back was still towards him. How had she known he had been about to speak? “I don’t want to hear what you have to say anymore. I don’t want to hear them explained away. I don’t want you to break them down into bits and pieces of science. Leave them alone.”
Haris found suddenly that he couldn’t smile anymore, couldn’t grin and laugh at her ignorance. “Kid, don’t blame me. These critters are what they are. I didn’t make them that way.”
The girl slumped a bit, then straightened again, fists clenching harder. “Right. Fine. But science didn’t make them either. It can try to explain them, but it can’t define them. It can’t limit them.”
She turned towards Haris, a brilliant smile spreading across her face. The elephants on her shirt seemed to glow in that smile’s light. “They are magic, you know.” She backed up until she stood close beside him, looking at each animal in turn. “The dragon, the unicorn, the gryphon, the kraken. And especially all of those.” She pointed to the fifth force cage, which sat a bit farther back, apart from than the others.
Haris swallowed, staring into the gloom of the room’s dimly lit back corner. “That cage’s empty. The idiots at the other end messed up. They were supposed to be sendin’ me some sort of Yeti-type thing. Instead they just sent me some useless ‘we’re sorry’s, and a bloody empty shippin’ case.”
The girl was already moving into the darkness of the back corner. At Haris’s words, she turned back toward him, her pale eyebrows raised. “No. No way. Those aren’t Yetis.”
“What aren’t?” Haris could hear the confusion in his own voice, the incredulity.
“Those.” She pointed again. “I’m not sure what they are, but they’ve got to be magical. Nothing could look like that and not be.”
This from a girl who’d just seen the entire weird contents of Haris’ shop. He moved forward, drawn by the conviction, the wonder in her voice. “What...what’s it you think you see?” For a moment he could almost believe her, almost think he saw some impossible, invisible nothing moving in the darkness of the empty cage.
“They...they look...” she paused, obviously searching for words. “They look like rainbows feel on your face.”
He glared at her, his eyes finally forsaking the cage and its nonexistent occupants. “There are no rainbows anymore.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“You’re full of crap.” Haris spun on one foot, heading back toward the door. “This store’s closed. Get out.”
“Wait.” The desperation was back in her voice, but it was mixed with something else. Satisfaction? Relief? Contentment? “I want to buy one.”
“One what?” Haris’ own voice echoed bleak and emotionless in his ears.
“One of those magical creatures. In the last cage. Please?”
Haris shrugged. The whole situation was getting too stupid for words. All he wanted now was to go home, put his feet up, and watch mindless old holo reruns. “Fine.” He walked to the empty containment unit, keying it open with a humorless wink. “Be my guest. Take anything you find in there. Then get the heck out.” He stood to one side of the opening, waiting.
Slowly, step by cautious step, the girl worked her way towards the back of the cage. With a trembling hand she reached up for something Haris couldn’t see, paused, flinching back a little, the reached out again, with more confidence. Strange cooing noises emerged from her throat as she gathered something close to her chest, bending to kiss it gently.
Swiftly, yet keeping her stride very smooth and careful, the girl walked out through the opening and toward the door. As she reached it she turned back to him, delight etched across her face. Her fingers tenderly caressed the—feathers? fur? scales?—of the thing she held, sketching a shape about a foot and a half long. “Thank you.”
Haris looked at her, at her cradling arms, her sheltering pose. He swallowed hard. “For what? You haven’t even asked how much you owe me.”
She glanced back at him, her cheek resting lovingly on empty space. “How can I? You don’t see it. You don’t believe in it. How can you put a price on it?”
Without saying another word she walked out through the storage room door, still holding a patch of emptiness cradled tenderly close to her small chest. A moment later Haris heard the force door to the street first crackle off, then on again as she left the store.
Haris shook his head silently. He started to lock the cage again, then smiled bitterly as he caught and checked his action. Why bother? The thing was empty. No matter how sure that kid had seemed.
So very sure. So confident. So joyful.
Once more he peered into the gloomy cage. Darkness. A brief shimmer, but no, that was nothing but reflected light from the unicorn’s bug infested horn. Still...eyes closing, he listened, straining to block out the sounds of the false mythological creatures around him to hear....
Nothing. No swirl of wings, no hiss of scales on scales. Nothing he could see, or hear, or feel.
Haris spun away from the empty cage, his tight, painful frown only lessening for a moment as he faked a brutal kick at the unicorn and heard its nervous, horsey whinny.
Dumb animals. Dumb kid.
If he hurried he might be able to catch the last bit of his favorite show, in his sane, scientifically enhanced apartment.
He stomped out of the storage room, his eyes somehow avoiding all the creatures it held, and slammed his palm against the lock.
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Copyright 2009, Marcie Lynn Tentchoff. All rights reserved.
Marcie Lynn Tentchoff is an Aurora Award winning poet/writer from the west coast of Canada. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Weird Tales, On Spec, Aoife's Kiss, and Dreams & Nightmares, as well as in many anthologies and online publications.