By Victoria Wraight
Curious Curios sells nothing but garbage said to be invaluable proof of cryptids. The werewolf teeth are all shark teeth, and the witch’s grimoires are just old Russian novels my uncle found at a yard sale for a nickel each. I almost feel bad for the customers, but then again, they’re gullible enough to believe this nonsense, so I keep quiet and do my job.
My uncle owns the shop, after all, and I feel obligated to help him peddle his trash to unsuspecting customers, much like the strange man pawing through the muck lining our broken shelves.
“Anything I can help you find, sir?” I ask in the cheeriest voice I can muster.
The man looks up from the stack of dusty books, his eyes an impossibly light blue. It sends a brief shiver down my spine, but I shrug it off as abnormal pigmentation.
“Not at the moment, Thalia,” he says, his voice slightly accented. I usually hate it when customers read my obnoxious name tag, but for some reason hearing it in his voice is captivating. I almost don’t hear him when he asks, “What’s that you’re reading? Is that Dorian Gray I spot?”
“Oh, yeah.” I show him the cover of my tattered copy. “I’ve read it a million times.”
“Do you believe it?”
Absently smoothing out a folded page, I dare to ask, “Believe what?”
“That such magic exists? That one could truly remain eternally beautiful at some gruesome price?” the man continues. He comes over to the counter, and I scrunch my nose at a sudden stench. It reminds me of the rotting rat carcass we found in the backroom last week. My disgust must not be as subtle as I hoped, as the man now asks, “Sorry, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Something about this town makes me feel...nostalgic.”
I lean back on my stool that creaks in complaint. “Cresthill is the home of all cryptic happenings, as they say. We have some old town records somewhere if you’re interested.”
The man shakes his head. “I’ve no interest in history. When you grow as old as I am, you’ll find that you’re more antique than anything sold in curious little shops as this one.”
I politely laugh, though he looks no older than thirty-five, and he excuses himself to continue browsing. The awful stench leaves with him, thankfully, and I hope he doesn’t notice as I gag behind my hand the moment he turns his back. I understand that Cresthill’s rumors of the dead leaving their graves is what draws so many to visit, but I wish tourists would stop trying to fit in with the town’s strange ambiance.
I half-heartedly skim the book that once made my heart race, when I grow nauseous once more at the return of the corpse stench.
“Sorry to bother you again, dear. I found a sign saying I need permission to access the rest of the shop?” the man sheepishly asks.
With a sigh and the mental note to get absolutely hammered at Christmas this year, I hop off my stool and lead the man to the backroom. I struggle to unlock the creaky door, needing to shove it open with an embarrassing grunt. For all my allergy-driven protests, I’m not allowed to dust this room for fear of making the garbage look less like cryptic relics.
“This is where we keep our more dangerous items,” I tell the customer who must be sorely disappointed by now. “Spellbooks bound with human skin, vials of vampire blood, authentic chupacabra skulls---you name it, we likely have it.”
The man covers his mouth briefly in either a polite show of hiding a laugh or a disgusted reaction to the layers of dust and cobwebs on everything. “A stunning collection. All genuine?”
“Cresthill is the home of all cryptic happenings,” I parrot as per my uncle’s instructions. “We merely collect what the dancing devils dropped.”
This evokes a laugh from the man. “Well, now I must look around. See if I lost anything last I was in town.”
Something in the stale air shifts, and a wave of nausea briefly washes over me. Those icy eyes pierce my own when he speaks, and I find myself so allured by them I nearly miss the peek of a sharp, yellowed fang from his fake smile. I must be seeing things. I’m probably dizzy from drinking too much coffee or something.
I find myself oddly embarrassed at the state of the shop. I can only barely see what garbage is concealed in the display cases through the layers of dust and grime and God knows what else. I wish we had something genuine to show off. Something to really live up to this tourist’s cryptic expectations of Cresthill.
With as much disgust in his voice as I feel for the dust-covered cases, the man suddenly exclaims, “Merciful God, how did you get your hands on this?”
I turn to see him gaping at our dustiest display case containing an alleged vampire skull that’s likely nothing more than a prop skull with fangs glued to the teeth. Our most expensive item, and popular enough to keep customers coming in. Well, they come in for a picture with the skull, and then buy a pack of tarot cards out of pity.
“I’m not sure how we came to be in possession of it, but it is for sale if you’re interested.”
He looks at me as if I’m as mad as my uncle. “For sale? Her skull belongs with the rest of her body in the cemetery. Have you humans no mercy?”
Of course this is the one shift I forget my pocket knife. “Sir, I’m not sure what you mean.”
He mutters something under his breath in a language I can’t place. “I’m sure this isn’t your fault. Just open the case so I don’t have to break it.”
“Please don’t break anything, sir,” I sigh. I bet my life that my uncle would see the broken glass as an aesthetic miracle, and then I’d have to be stepping over glass every day for six dollars an hour and an extra glass of wine at Christmas. “I’ll open the case so you can have a better look, but I’m not handing the skull over unless you pay for it.”
“I’m not buying back my wife’s skull,” he seethes through clenched fangs.
My uncle advised me to play into whatever odd situation I find myself in, since fighting it might end in broken merchandise and police involvement. We can’t get the police involved because some of our “tonics” are nothing more than illegal spirits from Canada.
“What makes you so certain that this is your wife’s skull?”
“I can smell her,” the man insists. “Sweet with a touch of bitter, like blackberry wine. And nevermind the fact I’ve been on the hunt for her remains for nearly a century. She lived here once, my darling Annaliese. She loved how distant this town felt to the rest of the world---it made her feel more human. But it appears humans are now nothing more than piggish graverobbers.”
My phone is on the counter. There’s a replica sword hanging on the wall, but it’s just out of reach, and I feel like a rabbit being eyed by a circling hawk..
All too quickly, he moves closer. His cold hand drifts to my cheek as if savoring the heat of my blush. Bile rises to my throat at the ambush of his horrible corpse-stench as his free hand slithers around my waist. I could run, but his dark eyes dripping in crimson are too lovely, too alluring. Why do I keep moving so miserably through life when such desire exists? How did I not before see just how handsome this stranger was?
His cold thumb brushes over my parted lips, where all words of protest have died. Heat burns my cheeks like a fire has been lit in my core, ignited by his seductive stare and tender touch.
“I think you just need a little persuading, Thalia,” the man whispers, pulling a content sight from my throat.
I feel as though I will be granted the world if I only smash open that filthy case. What’s one fake skull compared to euphoric revelations? Oh, I could drown in his eyes, forever lose myself to those cold lips that move down my lips, my cheeks, my neck---
On my first day working in Curious Curios, my uncle wrapped a heavy knit scarf around my neck. For the vampires, he joked. Only, now I know he wasn’t joking.
And he’s depending on me to watch his shop.
With a gasp, I pull away from the stranger, my neck throbbing with a nasty bruise. Nausea sits like a rock in my stomach as I force myself to meet his cold eyes, finding they’ve lost their luster and now appear feral, hungry.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I stammer, my mouth suddenly dry. “But seduction isn’t proper payment.”
He grins at me, revealing a mouthful of rotted fangs, a maggot squirming about in his cracked canine. His eyes hold me in place again, only now, I’m frozen in disgust.
“Oh, but I’m afraid I haven’t any money on me, dear,” the man says, coming around from behind the case to tower over me. “But let me offer you something more valuable than all the gold jewelry in a graveyard: I’ll let you keep your skull if you give me this one. Deal?”
I used to daydream that one day an attractive stranger with a dark secret would visit the shop and sweep me off my feet, but this isn’t what I meant. At a loss, I nod my head.
From the corner of my eye, I spot something as old and nasty as the vampire, something we’ve had hanging in this room since my uncle opened the shop. A vampire hunting kit crafted in Cresthill in the 1800s. I can’t remember if it’s the real deal, or just a pathetic prop.
Without hesitation, the vampire punches into the glass, his hand free of cuts when he delicately pulls out the skull. No time left to think. I dash for the hunting kit while the bloodsucker is distracted, my trembling hands struggling with the latch.
I finally snap the clasp, the ancient contents of the kit crashing onto the floor and alerting the vampire’s attention. His smug smile fades at the sight of wooden stakes, moldy garlic, pocket bibles, foggy vials of holy water, and even a bag of rice to spill out and force him to count, if that legend is true. I lunge for the stake, instantly regretting not going for the silver cross---
But I’m not fast enough to grab either. The vampire’s icy grip is around my wrist before I can even blink.
“Enough of this,” he hisses in my face, his stench making my eyes water. “Why do you fight me? Do you truly wish to end up as another artifact hanging on these dusty walls?”
He wouldn’t be so ferocious if he wasn’t frightened. One of these objects must be deadly to him, but what? There are so many legends about vampires, yet no telling which are true. The Bible and holy water would be worthless if the vampire wasn’t a Christian in life, and the obsession with counting is a legend that’s faded from popular belief.
But a stake could kill anyone, mortal or immortal. The dark wood is chipped and stained, but otherwise looks ready to be plunged into a bloodsucker’s chest.
Twisting out of his grip proves impossible after a few agonizing movements. Each pointless struggle tightens his grab more and more until I hear a sickening snapping sound. Pain explodes in my now broken wrist, but it reminds me of all the times my older brother pinned me to the ground when we were kids. I’m left with one option.
Sucking in a breath, I headbutt the vampire as hard as I’m able, startling him enough to release his grip and letting me twist away. Adrenaline smothers the agony in my limp wrist, giving me the courage to grab for the stake with my uninjured hand. My wild stab to his chest is blocked by his arm, the weapon going straight through with a sound like water sizzling on a hot pan. The vampire recoils, taking the stake with him as black blood drips from his wound.
At his frantic attempts to rip the stake from his burning, undead flesh, something tumbles out of his coat’s pocket and lands on the bloodied floor with a heavy, metallic thud. A pocket watch, shining pure gold in the dim overhead light.
I dare to move closer to get a better look at the watch as the vampire screams in pain, still trying to tear the stake from his arm. Picking the trinket up, I see that it’s engraved with the name Matthias Greaves, and boasts a diamond-encrusted frame around the clock.
A guttural hiss tears my attention from the relic. I look up to see the vampire grasping the bloodied stake, glaring at me with murderous intent in his dark eyes.
“You stab me, and then you steal my pocket watch?” he pants, gripping the stake so furiously it snaps in two, falling to the floor and drawing another sizzle from the puddle of black blood. “How low can you get, human?”
“How low can I get? You tried to steal from me, and then you broke my wrist!” I shoot back. “Let’s make another deal, Matthias.”
He hisses in response, and I take that as a sign to continue.
“Keep the skull and leave, and I won’t call the cops on you or hunt you down. In return, you let me keep this watch.”
“I’ve had that for over four centuries.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, should I go and find the grave of Annaliese Greaves and tell her you value this trinket more than her? That you tried to kill an innocent girl, the same sort she must have once been?”
He flinches as if stabbed again, slowly retrieving the skull from the bloody floor and softly regarding it as if it speaks to him. With a growl, he kicks the broken stake away.
“Fine,” Matthias grumbles after what felt like an eternity of uneasy silence. “You win this time, little mortal. But next time we cross paths, I won’t be so kind.”
Every vein in my body pulses as he makes his way out of the shop, grumbling all the while like a child cheated of sweets---or in his case, bloody vengeance. Whoever Annaliese Greaves was, I’ll have to lay flowers at her grave for the rest of my life.
I don’t dare move until I hear the door slam shut, the bell chiming madly. The pocket watch slips from my sweaty hand and falls to the floor once more, and I fall along with it.
Pain once more erupts in my wrist as I roll onto my back, sweating and shivering and staring up at the dim lights. A werewolf pelt hangs from the ceiling, one I can attest to being soft enough to nap on. I think it’s a deer pelt, but after Matthias’s little visit, I’m inclined to believe it truly was stripped from a slain beastman.
After all, Cresthill is the home of all cryptic happenings.
Victoria Wraight is a recent English graduate with a minor in creative writing. She is an avid reader and writer of fantasy, and can often be found searching for the cryptic and strange in her hometown of Buffalo, NY. Her work has been featured in Not Deer Magazine, Miniskirt Mag, and Wintermute Lit.