“What is this place?” I ask. “What do you do here?”
Instead of answering, Sullivan turns away from me, there on the other side of the glass counter, and reaches for an item on the shelf behind him. He sets it down between us and folds his arms, not speaking. It’s an old wooden fishing lure, an eyelet at the top where the line would be tied, and a barbed hook at the bottom.
“Is that for me?” I don’t pick it up. I’m afraid to touch it.
“No,” he says. “It’s not yours.”
“Whose it it?”
“A madwoman,” he says. “I don’t know her name. I don’t know when she’s coming for it. But she’ll be here eventually.” He leaves the lure on the counter, and beside it sets down a small spool of blue thread. “This one belongs to a smoking man. He has a cancer in his liver, but he doesn’t know it yet.” Another item goes next to the others, this one a swatch of yellowed wallpaper the size of a playing card, and Sullivan’s hand shakes slightly as he pulls his fingers from it. “This one belongs to a woman on fire. I don’t know anything else about that.”
“What is this place?” I ask again, the words escaping my lips in a ghost of a whisper.
He still doesn’t answer, but from under the counter, he brings forth another object, which he gently sets on the counter between us: the Japanese coin I found inside the envelope Arthur gave to me, a thousand years ago. As I watch, the glass beneath it begins to cover in frost, an inch-long halo of ice surrounding the coin.
“This isn’t yours,” Sullivan says. “But you gave it to yourself.”
“I wrote myself a letter,” I say. “Or at least I think I did. The coin was in the envelope.”
“I don’t know who this belongs to. A woman, I think. Made of smoke and shadows.”
“In the letter. I told myself to find someone named Penelope. Is the coin hers? Does it belong to her?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know names. I just know who belongs to these things. Names mean nothing.”
“Penelope,” I say again. “Rum and molasses.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. It was in the letter.”
“Take the coin,” Sullivan says. “It’s not yours, but it doesn’t belong here either. You need to carry it to where it needs to go.”
I put my index finger on the coin and slide it across the counter toward me, but I don’t pick it up yet. The coin doesn’t frighten me like the other objects here do. I’ve held it for weeks now. I am used to its oddness.
“There’s something else,” Sullivan says. From beneath the counter, he produces a small black leather book, thin in width, and tied shut with a red ribbon. He puts this down next to the coin.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“That’s for you,” he replies. “You have to take it.”
I don’t reach for it. It rests on the glass between us. “You made the man in here before me take the giraffe statue.”
“I did,” Sullivan says. “But I did him a favor.”
He nods. “People who don’t take what’s theirs… Miss Keeper sees that they come to bad ends.”
I glance down at the little book, and then back up at Sullivan. “Who’s Miss Keeper?” I ask.
“She one of them. The Uninvolved.”
“Like Mr. Middlemost,” I say, thinking of his handsome features and fine brown suit.
“Yes, just like him. Beautiful and sly.”
“They aren’t uninvolved at all, are they?” I ask.
“It’s better if you don’t ask that question,” he says. “Much better.”
I don’t pick up the book, but I do reach down and untie the ribbon holding it shut. I open the cover and flip slowly through the pages. The text is in a language I can’t read, something from eastern Europe perhaps, full of crowded consonants and curved accents, but I have the feeling the words are not what’s important about this book. There are photos pasted to the front of every other page, some square with smooth edges, some with jagged sides and looking as though they have been torn out from larger images. Each photo is of the same woman, thin, light brown hair, eyes that hold something below their surface that I can’t quite identify. I don’t know her, but there’s a familiarity to her that unsettles me.
“Who is she?” I ask.
“It’s not for me to know,” Sullivan says.
“Will I find out?”
“Doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. You still have to take it.”
I trace my fingertip along the edge of the photo the book is open to. The woman in the picture is holding a trio of balloons, and walking along a foggy roadside. She is barefoot and unsmiling. A pair of headlights shine dimly in the distance, but the car itself is invisible in the fog.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” I say.
“You’re taking the book,” Sullivan says. “Then you’re going to have to leave my store.”
I look up from the photo and at Sullivan. My eyes are warm and I feel as though I am going to start to cry. “I’m so lost. Completely lost.”
He leans forward on the glass counter and puts his hand over mine. “Outside my shop is a road which goes two directions. If you turn left and start walking, you’ll reach a white house with a wraparound porch. If you knock on the door, a woman there will give you food and shelter, though she might ask for something in return that will be a devil’s bargain. If you turn right from here instead, you’ll pass through a haunted place, full of pieces of things which shouldn’t be, and they’ll demand a price for your passage. Not your little coin. Something much more precious than that.”
I slide my hand out from under his, and he pulls his arm back. “I want to go home,” I say.
“The way out is in,” Sullivan says, and I remember when Middlemost said the same words to me, back in the dim light of the shed. It feels like months ago, but it was only days. “It’s always in.”
Without giving myself time to think about it, I close the book and take it in my hand. I pick up the coin in my other hand and feel the familiar coldness from it making my palm tingle.
Sullivan bends behind the counter for a moment, then straightens and sets a small blue backpack on the glass. “Your things are in there,” he says. “Clothes, keys, the things from your pockets. You can’t come back in here once you leave, so you’d better take them with you.”
“I need my shoes,” I say weakly. I don’t want to set foot outside the store.
“In the pack. The clothes you have on, you can keep those. If you’re going to the woman’s house, put your own clothes back on first. You’ll need your own skin on to be safer there, not mine. But if you’re going through the haunted place, keep on the ones you’re wearing now. The things there are clever, but not very smart, and a little bit of a disguise might help you get to the other side faster. In there, faster is better.”
I open the backpack to take out my shoes, and find a plastic packet of white socks on top of everything else.
“You’re going to be doing a lot of walking,” Sullivan says. “I thought you could use them. They’re a gift. You don’t have to take them.”
I take my shoes out of the backpack, but leave the socks inside. Before I zip the pack shut again, I put the photo book inside as well. “Am I supposed to thank you?” I ask. “Not for the socks. For the rest of it.”
“You’ll have to decide that later. Some people thank me. Some curse me. Nothing for you is clear at the start.”
I put the pack over my shoulder and step away from the counter. “This isn’t the start,” I say. “This is definitely not the start.”
The bell over the door chimes as I open it.
However long it rings after I shut the door behind me, I have no idea.