The bell jangled merrily as Wesley pushed through the doorway at last. He’d been staring in through the window of the Curiosity Shoppe for more than a week now, trying to work out the intricacies of the puzzle box that lay, almost out of sight, on a velvet cushion in the corner of the window display.
Inside, the sound of the traffic on the street was reduced to a quiet murmur, and a smell of dust and age crept up his nose. He fought the urge to sneeze, and his fingers tightened on the wad of notes crammed into his pocket. There was no price on the box, so he’d brought all his savings, almost fifty dollars.
He looked around the dim interior uncertainly. There was an abundance of dark wood, of beautifully carved and jointed furniture, though he wasn’t sure what function it would serve. There were dozens of clocks on the walls, all telling different times – some without numbers, some without hands. Cabinets lined a kind of alleyway through the centre of the shops, glass fronts staring blankly, the insides too dark to reveal their contents. Wesley shuddered involuntarily, trying not to imagine what might be held inside.
“Can I help you…sir?”
The voice wheezed out of the dark space at the end of the alley of cabinets, and an old man shuffled into the light from the door, starling Wesley into stepping back. His back bumped up against the door, and he was trapped. The door opened into the shop, and to escape he would have to step towards the aincient, doddery figure now getting closer and… But wait. Now he was illuminated by the daylight, the shopkeeper was just a harmless old man, like someone’s grandpa, or a great-uncle. The shroud around him was a homely cardigan, and the stunted hooves were just mouldy carpet slippers. The sickly gleam was nothing more than a reflection from the eyeglasses he wore low on his nose. Wesley blew out a big sigh and tried to find his voice.
“Yes..Yes, you can. I mean, I’d like to buy the puzzle box in the window, please. I mean, if I can afford it. I mean, how much…?”
The man’s head cocked to one side, suddenly, like a curious bird examining a worm. Then he chuckled, like he’d read about it once and decided to try it out.
“The puzzle box? Well now…well now…That puzzle box, young man, is a very special thing. More than a puzzle, you see? For the right person, the right young man, that puzzle box is a gateway.”
Wesley fought down a rising sense of excitement, trying to concentrate on not being conned into paying too much for the box, but those words… He’d always felt he was meant for more than Math and Chemistry, more than the stupid pushing and yelling of the playground. Was this really his chance at REAL adventure? The old man had padded off to the window, his carpet slippers flapping slightly at each step, and he returned now with the box still on its cushion. He held it out to Wesley, quite formally.
“Take it, young sir. Open it, if you can, and you will step through into another world and meet your destiny.”
Wesley’s money was forgotten. As he had imagined doing for so many days and nights, he grasped the box in both eager hands. He was sure he hadn’t imagined the thrill that rushed through his fingers, a shiver that came from the box itself. He twisted, pushed, pressed and pulled, the sequence half guided by his eye and half by the feelings in his fingers. The box wanted to open, wanted him to open it.
And then a hidden seam gaped wide. Not the false seam running around the middle of the box – that was nothing more than a groove in the surface of the wood. This seam opened in the unbroken grain, wider, wider than Wesley could have believed. A dazzling light poured out, making him turn his head away. He could feel warmth on his cheek, fell it on his closed eyes. Warmth….heat…hot…so hot!
There was a pattering of ashes on the shop floor, then a solid THOK! as the box itself bounced onto the floor. It was closed up tight again, and none of the ashes from the vaporised body of poor young Wesley so much as dusted the deeply polished surface. With the edge of one old carpet slipper, now looking more hoof-like than a few seconds ago, the old shopkeeper nudged the box back onto its cushion and replaced it in the window.
Heading to the back to fetch his dustpan and brush, he sighed heavily. Clearly, this young man was NOT the chosen one.