This is in response to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge over at Terribleminds.com, something I always enjoy doing but have had little time for lately. This week’s challenge was a sub-genre mashup. I chose cozy-mysteries and dystopian sci-fi. Please forgive the pun in the title. I really couldn’t help myself.
© 2012 Marlan Smith (published as Martin Kee)
“Do you have anything more… red?”
Jimmy stood holding the limp, pink tie in his hand. It dangled to the counter-top, the noose at one end still tied.
“You’ll have to give that one back,” I said.
“That’s fine. I just want a more red one.”
I took the tie from him and turned to face the stack of odd-shaped bins that took up the entire space of the wall. Sitting in the stool, I opened the bin in front of me. It was empty. The first bin was always empty. The only way to get something back from another box was to place something of value in the empty one. Jimmy knew the rules as well as I.
The bins were anywhere from a few feet long to the size of a trunk. They emerged from the wall, suspended on a a rotating rack that vanished into the workings of the shop. Nobody ever went in the back, not even Murray.
After the Big One nobody trusted machinery much. I just happened to be someone who wasn’t bothered by the plain beige bins, the rattling from deep within the wall, the clanking of chains as the bins rolled under one other, each one unique with its own scrapes and dents. Murray hadn’t been bothered by it either.
I inherited the shop from Murray. Well, not so much as inherited as Murray just wasn’t here anymore. That left me. It wasn’t a bad job, and it gave me something to do on the cold, grey-rain days.
A long, shallow bin stopped in front of me and I opened the metal lid, pulling out a wide tie, red as a gaping wound. I turned to Jimmy. “Will this do?”
“Yeah!” he said, eyes wide. “It’s great!”
He slung the tie around his neck, resting it against his dirty shirt. His brown suit was worn at the elbows with stray strings poking out. Jimmy liked to dress up.
“You got a job interview?” I asked, joking. Nobody had a “job” anymore. We were all just kids playing pretend in some fashion.
“Yeah,” he said. “Otto says he needs help with the rain filters. I’m gonna see if I can get him to hire me.”
“That tie should impress him,” I said.
He nodded and left through the door. Behind me I could feel the empty bin gaping at me, waiting for something new to be placed inside. As if on cue, a woman entered just as Jimmy left. I recognized her, Molly from down the street, where grass has actually begun to grow back for a while.
“Hi,” she said, looking around.
“I was told that this is the place people can go to trade things.”
“That it is,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
She continued to stare around the walls, bare except for the cracked certificate of business, Murray’s first dollar. “I don’t see any merchandise.”
I jabbed a thumb over my shoulder. “It’s in the bins.”
“How do I know what I’ll get?”
She frowned. “How does it work?”
“Don’t know. What do you want to trade?”
She pulled a ring off her finger. There was a naked facet, the tiny gem gone. “I guess I won’t be needing this.”
“What do you want in return?”
She looked past me, a whimsical expression on her face. “Oh, my life back,” she laughed. “I don’t know, actually. I just want something new. I want to remember what new things are like.”
I held my hand out and she placed the ring there, hesitating slightly before letting it go. I winked at her and turned to the empty bin, placed it with a small metallic clink at the bottom and closed the lid. I caught her jump slightly as the machine roared to life, pulling the bins underneath with rattling finality.
We waited. Bin after bin rotated under another, until a long, slender container came to rest in front of me. I opened the dented lid with a creak. Inside was a key, a worn bit of masking tape stuck to the side, the number 4 fading in black ink. I turned and handed it to her.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Dunno. Must be for a door somewhere. I guess that part is up to you to find out.”
“What a fucking ripoff! I want my ring back!”
“Sorry,” I said. “No refunds. You can always place the key back and see what you get next, but it’s usually something similar.”
“Maybe. Who knows?”
Molly almost handed it back to me, but stopped, looking at it for a while. She placed it in her pocket. “Have you always worked here?”
“I used to. Murray left it to me.”
“Dunno,” I said. “Was just gone one day while I was sweeping in the back room. Sometimes people just go away. You know how it is.”
She nodded, her expression melting a little. She moved towards the door. Over her shoulder she said, “Have you ever wished for anything?”
“Once, but I don’t have anything good to trade.”
She nodded and left.
As the door closed, the machine began to hum on its own. First just a rattle, then a full on, grinding racket that shook the entire shop. I hadn’t placed anything in the bin. I was afraid to turn around.
The sound stopped with a hiss and I forced myself to look, thinking of Murray, thinking of how the machine had roared to life that day, wondering if he had failed to place anything in the bin.
In front of me was a five-by-three-foot metal container, beige and dented, rocking gently in its cradle.
It’s still there. Rocking.
I could climb in.
Or maybe I’ll just stare at it a while longer.