Fantasy / A furniture store / A dog leash / 1000w
Content warning – issues of racism
It was twilight by the time Hadley arrived at Darkest Antiques, Ltd. It the only authorized dealer of cursed furniture in the entire southeast, so if he had any hope of finding what he was looking for, it would be there.
Hadley looped Matchstick’s leash around a hydrant just outside. “I’ll be out soon. No barking, please.” Matchstick boofed softly.
A man and a woman leaving the store both gave Hadley nasty looks as he stood by to let them pass. He sighed as he entered.
To Hadley’s Vision, the showroom was ablaze with technicolor magic. Each section of items was carefully cordoned off with velvet rope. Like all objects infected with evil, Hadley knew that the various rugs, bedframes, cabinets, mirrors, candlesticks, settees, and armoires could only transfer their curses if touched with bare skin. He tucked in his elbows.
He had just noticed an especially brilliant glow toward the back of the space when an older gentleman, presumably the store’s proprietor, appeared with a tap of expensive leather loafer.
“I’m afraid you used the wrong entrance,” the proprietor said by way of greeting.
Hadley looked back over his shoulder at the door. “I don’t think so.”
“The colored entrance is on the other side of the building.”
Even though Swann had warned him, even though he had expected a certain amount of sideways looks and strange treatment, and even though he had experienced some discrimination in the north, the proprietor’s words still felt to Hadley like a jab to the throat.
Right. He was in Georgia. The proprietor was looking at him with unmistakable suspicion.
“I’m here on behalf of William Swann, of Boston,” Hadley said. “I believe he phoned.”
“You’re the assistant?”
“Hadley Bellamy. Right.”
Sort of. Hadley collected for a collector. He went looking for rare items, strange magic; ideally, both. Swann was well known as both a board member of the American Mage Association, and as a curse enthusiast of such zeal that it occasionally threatened his seat on that board. He’d offered Hadley a job as a curse-hunter after Hadley, then a hotel clerk, had Seen a thrice-hexed pearl in the brooch of Swann’s wife as she handed over her luggage – a fact which caused husband joy, and wife alarm. It had been sheer luck that neither of them had yet touched that particular pearl.
“I see,” the proprietor said, after some hesitation.
“And you are?” Hadley asked, trying for at least polite normalcy.
His answer was a glower, followed by a curt, “Utrecht. If you’ll follow me.”
Hadley contemplated leaving that instant. Then, he contemplated his small family, his baby daughter, whose daily bread depended on his earnings from Swann. Swallowing hot resentment, he followed the man.
“I’m to show you the most vicious items. Isn’t that right?”
“And you know how to handle them?”
Hadley stamped down annoyance. “Of course.”
They stopped in front of a small miniature jewelry wardrobe, crimson, to Hadley, with magic. “A slow death,” Utrecht said. “One touch and a heartbreak, two touches and a betrayal, three touches and a suicide. Will you be needing gloves?”
Utrecht failed to hide his relief when Hadley produced his own thick wool gloves, donned them, and picked up the wardrobe to examine its underside. There was a maker’s mark, but a water stain. The curse’s glow was relatively dim.
They spent an uncomfortable forty-five minutes together on the showroom floor. Utrecht presented him with a bleeding chess set missing a queen, five unforgiving chairs from a sunken luxury liner, and a velvet-lined cabinet that tended to induce unremorseful murder. Nothing was quite of the caliber, the rarity, that Swann sought.
“I’d like to see what you don’t have on display, please,” Hadley asked.
Utrecht’s brow seemed to lurch forward. “You’ve seen it all.”
Hadley pointed to the brilliant glow in the western corner, which he had seen earlier. “What’s that over there?”
Utrecht was no fool; that became clear when Hadley saw him recognize immediately the implications of what Hadley had said and where he had pointed. That Hadley had the Vision. That he Saw. Hadley didn’t like to admit it, but he never tired of the awe, and the proprietor’s awe was especially gratifying.
They were about to make their way over when Hadley heard Matchstick start to bark, frantically, fearfully. Horrified, he bolted to the entrance.
Outside, two young men were taunting Matchstick with wooden rod. Matchstick was howling and whining and straining at his leash as one man jabbed the rod toward the dog, and the other laughed. Hadley Saw that the rod was afire with a curse, a nasty turquoise that flickered and spat. With a furious yell, he leaped forward and buried his gloved fist in the rod-holder’s solar plexus. The man folded like a paper doll; the rod clattered onto the asphalt. Hadley swung and cuffed the other man around the head, knocking him backward.
“You stupid fuckers!” Hadley said, as he scrambled to untie and comfort Matchstick, who was whimpering and cowering. Both men were on their asses, groaning.
Neither was wearing gloves.
“What the hell is going on?” Utrecht demanded from the doorway.
“This —– attacked us!” The first man spat a racial slur so vile Hadley felt that he himself had been punched in the gut.
“Set his dirty fucking mongrel on us,” the other said.
That was all Utrecht needed. He turned to Hadley with a triumphant snarl, all traces of propriety melting from his face. “Get off my property, or ain’t all your Mr. Swann’s money in the world gonna keep you out of the county jail tonight.”
Hadley got to his feet, holding Matchstick’s leash tightly. “Gladly,” he said, with as much confidence as he could, despite the sickening feeling settling in his gut. Of all the terrible magic he had encountered, there was nothing quite so corrosive as this.
As he left, he said nothing about the turquoise glow starting to lick at the stranger’s skin.
Racism and hate, in any form, have no place in a just society. As a white person, I can never really know what it is to have an experience like Hadley’s, in the mid-twentieth-century American south.
My thought here was to explore how things with nice connotations, like fantasy and magic, might overlap and interact with issues of social justice. I ended up being invested in Hadley’s character and I kind of want to write more stories about him and learn more about him. He’s a man with a gift and a family, who loves his dog and his job and has to navigate a world that is not always safe for him and does not always value him as a person.
I think the ending here is probably too rushed. I dwelled too long in the showroom.
Quick note – while “The Question” got me an honorable mention in the third round of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2017, I didn’t qualify to move on. Oh well! Still better than last year!