40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was, by Alex Acks

1. The little ice cream shop has 52 flavors and no vanilla, all served in paper cups, and sprinkles are not optional.

2. The shop that was once a mattress store and once a home electronics store and a mattress store again stands empty, its windows covered with red tape because red keeps ghosts out—and in.

3. The costume shop is open all year round, not just at Halloween. A massive selection of Carnivale masks that are never sold for money hang on the wall behind the cash register.

4. A shrub grows upside down with its roots climbing higher and higher up the fire lane sign, which it will one day consume. All of the other shrubs on that side are burnt, black sticks that haven’t ever been removed after the fire that destroyed the old candy shop from within.

5. The candy shop was replaced by the costume shop. The smell of burnt caramel squeezes up from under the foundations on hot days and makes everything faintly sticky.

6. The payday lender stands empty, with what were once its glass doors a gaping hollow. That’s where the grackles live, after they declared paper and electronic money anathema and peanuts the only currency.

7. The little gas station has only two pumps, and one of them is always broken. No one buys gas; rather, they throw peanuts into the parking lot and walk away with coffee that tastes like burnt metal and cigarettes that trail green smoke.

8. In the winter, the parking lot turns into one massive sheet of ice that the owner of the ice cream shop keeps smooth using a broom with its bristles dipped in boiling water. Though no one dares skate on it, the surface is cut like filigree each morning, weaving and branching out from the empty payday lender.

9. There’s a chunk broken out of the sidewalk outside the old mattress store where the tall man who owned the mattress store dropped his sledgehammer after being surprised by an angry plague of grackles.

10. The clerk at the gas station owns rolls and rolls of red duct tape and keeps them stored in the fridge behind the cases of energy drinks.

11. A single rust-red chain dangles from the ceiling of the old mattress store. It sways gently as if in a breeze, though the thick dust covering the floor of the sealed shop never moves.

12. Cell phones work in the costume shop, but they will text only one number, which returns answers no one wants.

13. The best-selling flavor of the ice cream shop is cherry, which is the color of Pepto and dotted with black fleshy fruit, and they always run out before you can get there to ask for it.

14. The least popular flavor in the ice cream shop is butter pecan, which no one has bought since the tall man who owned the mattress store disappeared.

15. A permanent shadow is burned into the cracked sidewalk outside the mattress store, tall and thin, with no head and too many fingers.

16. The grackles hold weekly meetings in the wreck of the payday lender. They’re halfway through writing a new constitution, pecked in delicate Morse code on receipts.

17. The grackles remember everything that has ever happened here; the humans are too afraid to ask them.

18. The least expensive item in the costume shop is a cloak of iridescent blue-black feathers. No one buys it because they are afraid to wear it.

19. Now and then a person with their face covered and shoulders round will go to the costume shop and purchase a mask. They leave through the back door, their bones as light as air, and fly away.

20. The day the mattress store emptied out of everything, a delivery truck had been at its dock for twelve hours, quaking faintly on its shocks. The regular staff had been given the day off, and only the tall man worked.

21. The gas station is open 24 hours, but between midnight and three a.m., the clerk has a nose like a beak and angry yellow eyes and does not speak.

22. The night of the delivery truck, the costume shop was open late to outfit an opera that would perform for only one night.

23. The woman who runs the costume shop is the most beautiful in the world. She has crooked teeth and brown eyes and is soft and round and impeccably dressed. She never has the makeup you’re looking for, because she’s given it to someone who needs it far more. 23. The man who runs the costume shop is the most beautiful in the world. He has crooked teeth and brown eyes and is soft and round and impeccably dressed. He never has the makeup you’re looking for, because he’s given it to someone who needs it far more.

24. No children are allowed in the costume shop, because once they disappear between its racks, they emerge only years later as puzzled adults who cannot speak, only croak and click.

25. No matter how hot it is in the summer, frost rimes the windows of the old mattress store, until the sun dares to burn it off.

26. The sledgehammer that the mattress store owner dropped on the sidewalk lives in the back of the ice cream shop now, hung with aprons and towels.

27. Only one tree has survived all the years at the strip mall, a green elm whose bark is strange and bubbly where it’s entombed the beetles that once tried to eat it.

28. The grackles sleep in the green elm when they aren’t passing laws. The pavement under it is white and chalky with their leavings.

29. Sometimes white, chalky footprints made by small, bare feet or worn tennis shoes lead from the elm to the mattress store. The footprints stop at the windows and obscure the burnt shadow on the sidewalk.

30. The night the delivery truck sat at the mattress store, the ice cream shop was open late because the costume shop owner wanted to treat those on overtime to cold ice cream on a hot night.

31. There were delivery trucks at the mattress store all the time. What was different that night when emptiness and black-blue feathers came? Nothing. Everything.

32. If you peer through the lines of red tape on the windows, you can see shards of layered paper on the floor of the old mattress store, brightly colored with paint like a disintegrated Carnivale mask.

33. There is a single blank space on the Carnivale mask wall of the costume shop, an empty peg to remind you that something was once here, and it should be remembered.

34. Dots of blood used to show up on the loading dock of the mattress store, hanks of hair no bird would touch, the broken white shards of fingernails.

35. At three a.m. the night clerk with angry yellow eyes sits on the curb of the gas station and drinks a Coke, watching ghostly handprints in the windows of the mattress store appear and fade away.

36. The thin, terrible carpet of the mattress store used to be replaced once a month, revealing the concrete underneath that was covered in strange, dark blooms. The store owner claimed it was the caramel from the candy shop seeping through, but the mattress store only ever smelled like metal.

37. Concrete is thirsty, and grackles never forget.

38. Once upon a time, the evil dark of a mattress store that wasn’t really a mattress store shredded into a thousand shards that became grackles and whirled around a soft, round person in a Carnivale mask, who believed in beauty for the needy and justice for the living.

39. Grackles believe in justice for the dead. It’s the first law they passed from their green elm parliament, and it’s written over the mattress store a thousand times in scratches and pecks.

40. But the best flavor at the ice cream shop is actually white pepper and chocolate, and you ought to try it.

Alex Acks is an award-winning writer, Book Riot contributor, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Angry Robot Books has published their novels HUNGER MAKES THE WOLF (winner of the 2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award) and BLOOD BINDS THE PACK under the pen name Alex Wells. A collection of their steampunk novellas, MURDER ON THE TITANIA AND OTHER STEAM-POWERED ADVENTURES, is available Queen of Swords Press. For more information, see http://www.alexacks.com.

1400 words, November 2018, Shimmer #46

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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