Sweets to Ashes

Sweets to Ashes

The inside of the store was filled with every kind of candy imaginable. The open jars contained individual pieces of licorice, chocolate candies with hard shells, pieces of pink bubble gum wrapped in cellophane, and other delights I couldn’t identify. My brothers and sister screamed in excitement when I told them they could choose one of anything they wanted.

Jimmy and Bryce headed straight for giant lollipops, their rainbow of colors blended across pure sugar in swirls. They fingered them all, arguing over which one was the best. My baby sister, Daisy, chose a long purple stick of powder you pour onto your tongue, then stood dutifully beside me. She knew if she wandered off, my dad would never let me bring her somewhere new without him again. It was a small, new privilege, us going out together. This trip was a gateway to bigger responsibilities and more privileges, and I was ready for that.

The shop owner stood behind the counter, watching us make our selections, a small smile on his face that was warm and welcoming. “Good Sir, have you chosen a treat for yourself?” he asked me, spreading his arms to illustrate the wide variety he had to choose from.

“I’m too old for kiddie stuff,” I said, trying to appear taller than my 5 foot 5 frame. “I don’t need an oversized lollipop to make me happy.” I tried to seem aloof, mature.

“Perhaps the gentlemen would like something really ‘grown-up’: A dark chocolate bar with Himalayan sea salt, or perhaps a Pistachio taffy with a marshmallow twist?” He held up the largest taffy I’d ever seen, pale green swirled with creamy white goodness and wrapped in an opaque casing; the ends were tied with green ribbons.

I held my shoulders back, hoping I was presenting myself in the manliest way possible. I coveted that taffy with every cell in my body, though. It was as if the molecules that made up my being were all screaming in unison: “You want that! Buy the taffy!” I stared at it, the green and white wrapping around one another, creating a vortex of deliciousness that I needed to have in my mouth right now. Transfixed, I blinked lazily, my eyes refusing to open fully. I reached out to grab the taffy; I caught my hand inches from the wax paper.

“I’m allergic to pistachios,” I said, and when the words came out of my mouth they were frail and barely audible. I glanced down, trying to collect myself. Beneath the edge of the counter, I spied a tail, scaled, mint green and plum purple, with buttery yellow spikes coming out of the end of it. It was whisked away before I got a second look. Reality snapped back as my heart accelerated, pounding a warning beneath my ribs.

“No one is too old for a well-deserved sweet treat,” the shopkeeper said, picking up another taffy, this one white with red bows tied at the ends. “This fiery gem is made with cinnamon and sugar; it makes the mouth feel alive.” He leaned closer to me; I could smell the sweetness through the wrapper, the spiciness of the cinnamon reminded me of hot apple cider on a winter morning. Suddenly, I held a large yellow mug of cinnamon-laced cider, and I took a long drink. It was not so hot that it burned me, just perfect, and my mouth felt alive, tingling. Every taste bud on my tongue responded and celebrated in unison… but I didn’t like apple cider. I shook my head, and closed my eyes tight, then opened them. When I looked up again, the mug was gone, but in front of me, I saw a glimpse of a monster.

When the shopkeeper blinked, there was a flash of yellow and black; his pupils had changed to a golden yellow with a black slit down the center, large reptilian eyes whose evil pierced my soul like a sword thrust into my body. I shook my head again to chase the vision away. Wait, did I see that right?

When I looked again, his eyes were the same deep grey they had been since we’d arrived. Were my eyes deceiving me?

“Is the gentleman feeling alright?” he said, smiling wider now. He put the taffy back into its tall glass jar. The glint in his eye seemed wicked and deceitful, or was it just me? I turned to my family; it was time to go.

“I’m fine,” I said. It was easier to talk to him if I didn’t have to look into his eyes, the ones that changed if you looked hard enough. Too loudly, I said to Jimmy and Bryce, “Pick already, or I will pick it for you.” I was ready to be out in the fresh air again. There was something about this place, the sugar in the air seeped through my skull and made my brain soft, pliable like the cinnamon taffy that beckoned me from its glass pedestal. If I could walk outside, breathe in green grass and dirt roads, I could make sense of things.

My little brothers had their treats in hand, Daisy had hers, so I pulled out the money my dad had given me: four crumpled dollar bills from the front pocket of my jeans. “How much?” I asked, trying to avoid making eye contact with the shopkeeper. It may have been my runaway imagination, or the sweet air playing tricks on my eyes, but, the guy gave me the creeps. The sooner I could leave, the better. When I got out the door, I was never coming back to this place again.

“Go ahead miss, you can eat your treat now,” he said to Daisy, his smooth voice was louder, but gentler somehow, melody-filled, and sedating. It rolled over the room, running over everything like a semi-truck in high gear. The pounding in my chest settled, and suddenly, I knew the man behind the counter could be trusted. He was a good guy, a pillar of the community, a real moral dude; it didn’t matter that I’d just met him in this new town, far from home. The sense of rightness draped over me and sunk in, releasing my earlier panic and fear, stealing my suspicion right out of my brain.

Daisy smiled and handed me the paper tube. Her tiny hands were not strong enough to tear the top off of her candy, so I did it for her and handed it back. “Here you go, little miss,” I said, brushing a chocolate-colored curl away from her face. The feeling of comfort seeped into my bones. I relaxed, and the weight I’d been carrying, the responsibility, the pressing urge to flee, the adrenaline rush, they all evaporated. I hadn’t felt this good in a long time, maybe I’d never felt this way. She tipped the tube back into her mouth. It sent sugary dust into the air, and the sweet powder clung to her lips.

“How much again?” I asked, looking at the bills in my hand, vaguely aware that I owed this man something for the items in my brothers’ and sister’s hands.

“How much do you think you owe?” he asked me, “The lollipops are ten cents apiece, the sticks are twenty cents, and the licorice is five cents a pop,” he said, holding up a bright red stick of licorice in front of my eyes.

I did like licorice. This particular piece was fat and soft; I could tell because it bent over instead of standing tall like licorice did when it became stale. It leaned over toward me from the shopkeeper’s hand, inches from my face, taunting me with its promise of familiar, treasured deliciousness. The red, sugary rope was exactly what I wanted. How did he know?

I thought of my mom handing me a piece of licorice and an ice-cold lemonade as I headed out the door to play with my friends on a hot summer day. If you bit the top and bottom off, you could use it as a straw, and I often did. The tart lemons and the sweet candy were a perfect pair. I searched for other recent memories of her and came up with nothing. Faintly, in the back of my mind, reality tugged at my brain. She died last year, and I missed my mom terribly. This licorice, this memory, was the only tie I had to her, wasn’t it? I had to have it.

“Only five cents, you say? I think I will take a licorice, thank you.” I grabbed the treat from him, putting a single dollar in his scaly hand in return. I did it quickly, before he realized how little money he was charging for the four of us to have a treat, for me to find something I’d been missing for so long.

I put the red rope to my nose and inhaled deeply. Its scent was like a balm, soothing my mind and blocking out everything else. One thing I knew in this life: I wanted to eat this licorice. I wanted to savor it for as long as I could, enjoying every last gummy bit that stuck between my teeth.

“She can stay for just a bit if you like,” the shopkeeper said, pointing down a long, narrow tunnel that left the back of the store. His fingernails were long and black, and they actually looked more like claws or daggers, but I didn’t think anything of them. Was that tunnel always there? I thought. I hadn’t noticed it before if it was. I bent over to look down the tunnel; Daisy was at the end, asleep on a large, brightly colored floor pillow at the end. The tunnel led to a small room, perfect for little kids, but there was no way I would fit back there. She was smiling, at peace in her slumber.

I didn’t see anything wrong with leaving her there while I found a good place to walk away and eat my licorice. She was happy, and I knew better than to wake her from a nap. She could be a bear if she didn’t sleep enough. I had my red rope of licorice, my sister was taken care of; everything was great.

“Jimmy, Bryce, will you stay with your sister until she wakes up?” I asked, but my brothers were climbing through the tunnel before the last words of the sentence left my lips. I didn’t really have to ask; they just followed. They didn’t think it was weird, I thought. Why should I? They had both unwrapped their lollipops and were licking them in a comic way that only little kids can. The giant pillow had room for them all. I noticed a stack of books off to their left and a container filled with building blocks. It was a little kid paradise back there. Dad would be proud that I’d left them in such a wonderful place, he would. Besides, the boys would watch over Daisy. This is excellent, I thought.

“Go, find something that makes you happy, good ssssir,” the shopkeeper said, a thin black tongue snaking out between fangs as the ‘sir’ escaped his lips. I smiled, seeing him, but not really seeing him. I saw my candy, my well-deserved treat for being so responsible, such a good brother.

“I will, and thank you,” I said, walking out of the store, my steps light and joyful. I was going to find a shady tree in the grass, stare up at the clouds, daydream of my mother and I enjoying summer together, and eat. Nothing could be better. The bell above the door rang a perfect, golden note as I walked out of the shop and off into the warm afternoon. Its ring should have been an alarm to me, a wake-up, but nothing could change the determination the monster had set my mind to.

###

“Where are the little kids?” my father bellowed out, his booming voice breaking the peace I was enjoying. He leaned over me, shaking my shoulders, “Where are they? I can’t find them,” he said.

The clouds floated above me, forming a parade of elephants, rabbits, and fish that swam past me slowly. I don’t know how long I laid there, but I was not leaving, because I was not done with my licorice yet. I smacked his hand away from my shoulder, “Get off, I’m busy,” I said, moving my eyes from his face and back to the blue expanse above us.

“Johnathon Thomas Davis, you tell me where my kids are right now!” my dad yelled at me. When I looked at him, his face was a deep shade of red, making his green eyes stand out like lime jelly beans in a field of strawberry syrup. That is weird, I thought, turning my attention back to a squishy-looking elephant with its trunk in the air. I took another bite of my treat and clutched it tight to my chest.

“I’m eating my licorice. I said, ‘Get off.’ Didn’t you hear me?” I was far away in my mind. Even my voice sounded like it was coming from someone else’s mouth. It was distant, a voice from another world. This tantrum he was having, or whatever it was, had nothing to do with me.

“This licorice? Give me that,” he snapped, ripping the licorice from my grasp and throwing it behind him. “I don’t know what is going on, but you are freaking me out! Where are the kids? Where are they? Where are your brothers and your sister? What have you done with them?” he screamed, tears rolling down his cheeks.

My dad was nearing hysteria when I snapped out of the hold the shopkeeper had on my mind.

It all came rushing back: the creepy shopkeeper, the candy visions, the way I’d left the kids with him—I left the kids with him! My heart caved in on itself; it shattered into a thousand pieces in my body. I stopped breathing. The landscape swam in front of me, and everything blended into a smear: my father bent over me, sobbing, the grass of the park I’d walked to, the strange city we’d stopped at to get a snack before returning to our road trip. I had to get it together. Daisy, Jimmy, and Bryce were counting on me.

My feet hit the ground running before my lungs started working again. I knew where the shop was. I had to get there. My dad came after me once he’d realized what was happening, but I was so far ahead of him that he wouldn’t be with me when I faced the beast’s handiwork.

###

The bell above the door chimed, but when I entered this time, the shopkeeper was nowhere to be found. Not only that, but the candy had vanished. There wasn’t even a single stray chocolate-shelled treasure to be found. The store had been a clever illusion, and what was left looked nothing like the place I’d been not long ago. Even the air felt different than when I was here before. It was stale now, less enchanting, and the sweet smell was gone. The counters were covered in dirt, the lights dim. If it wasn’t for the bell above the door with the sweet chime, I would have been sure I’d walked into the wrong place.

I ran to the side of the shop where the tunnel started. The wall was solid. Where the round opening once was, there was now a plain wood-paneled wall with a small table in front of it. Stacks of old, dusty books covered the top of it. I swiped my arm across the top of the table, sending the books flying. The table was light enough once it was empty, and I overturned it, looking for the opening. It was as if it had never existed. There was no seam, nothing that indicated that an opening was there before.

I looked around the candy shop, hoping to see something, anything, that would help me. There were the books I had flung to the floor, and there was garbage on the floor, but none of that was useful.

Then, I smelled fire. Fire is a tricky thing to hide. Even if you can’t see it, you can smell the smoke for a good ways, and you can feel the heat, unless it is burning somewhere incredibly well insulated. I was grateful for these two things; they were the difference between life and death.

I stood stone still in the middle of the room, feeling the seconds tick by like they were physical stones hitting me, telling me, “Go! Go! Go!” What can I do? I thought. I took a deep breath, and realized I could tell where the smoke smell was coming from. I rushed over to the wall behind the shop’s counter. When I placed my hand against the wall, the heat overwhelmed me. There was a fire behind the wall. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. And then, faint screams, like children on the playground, but these weren’t screams of joy, they were terror-filled and frantic.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted an ax. It was new and even the dingy light coming through the dirty windows couldn’t dampen the glint of its sharp steel blade. Finally! It was just what I needed. I grabbed the red striped wooden handle and prepared to break through the wall.

“Stand back if you can!” I yelled as loud as I could, hoping they could hear me. I swung the ax over my shoulder, and it smashed into the wood paneling, breaking through. I swung again, again, again, until my shoulder ached. I kept swinging.

The wall opened in giant splinters until there was finally a hole I could see through. Behind the hole was a giant wood stove; the massive black iron belly was large enough to cook a horse in, I imagine. The heat radiating from it was minute compared to what it could probably produce, but I still didn’t want to stand too close to it.

I could hear the voices louder now, “Help, let us out!” they cried, one after another. I tore my T-shirt off, wrapped it around my hand, and turned the lever on the front of the stove.

Bryce, Jimmy, and Daisy were inside. The boys had their arms wrapped around Daisy, one on each side, protecting her instinctively. Though they were covered in soot, they were amazingly untouched by the flames that were burning around them.

“Come on, out, let’s go!” I yelled, waving my arm for them to come to me. As they did, I saw another door open opposite me. A giant face filled the opening, a horror that I could not comprehend, that struck icy fear into me despite the heat of the oven.

Row upon row of fangs exposed as the terror smiled at me, stretching his scaled face open in a semblance of a smile. “Goodnight, good sssssir,” he hissed, then began drawing in a massive breath.

I yanked my sister’s hand, burning my arm fiercely on the side of the stove. Jimmy and Bryce both followed her, and we ran out the front door. The chime rang merrily, the distinctive sound that has haunted me since that day, and I pushed the kids out the door ahead of me.

Though I knew better, I took one last look at the shop. The shopkeeper was visible from the doorway I stood in. His eyes were golden again, and he had grown to an enormous size that no human could achieve by any means. When he exhaled, flames burst out of his mouth, bright orange like a volcano exploding into the night sky. I slammed the door behind me, and we ran to find our dad.

###

We barely escaped being cooked that day by a horror disguised as an innocent shopkeeper. I still don’t fully understand what happened. Whether he was a demon, a monstrous dragon, or the devil himself in disguise is unclear; I’m not sure I actually want to know. I count my blessings, say my prayers, and hope that one day I can forget that man, the sheer evil that still exists somewhere out there.

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