The Smoke Shop
One moment she was clinging to rusted metal rungs in the side of the shaft; the next, she was in the shop.
The place reeked of tobacco, permeating the magazines that sat dusty on long racks down the aisles of the store. Dirty plastic filtered out every color but a sickly yellow from the harsh fluorescent lighting. Shadowy figures in long coats skulked the aisles, disappearing periodically into an alcove at the back of the store under a sign saying “UNDER 18 STRICTLY PROHIBITED.”
Lily fought not to gag on the tarry stench, hardly better than the miasma of the hags’ cave. Looking around the dismal space, she felt like she had arrived at a temple of male vices: porn, cigars, and comic books. If this was part of Matthew’s dream world, she didn’t want to know about it.
She approached the checkout counter, avoiding the indefinably seedy figures that moved around the aisles. No one was there by the old beige NCR register, smudged with decades of fingerprints, but the shelves under the counter caught her eye. Each held foil-wrapped packs of movie trading cards...Fatal Attraction...The Crying Game... Schindler’s List. She picked up a pack of Night of the Hunter cards. No one seemed to be paying attention to her, so she pulled apart the foil and removed six cards and a petrified stick of bubble gum.
She dropped the gum on the counter, and flipped through the cards. The black-and-white images looked more like something from a Tarot deck than trading cards. The first was titled “The School,” and showed Robert Mitchum as Reverend Powell standing in front of a chalkboard. The next was entitled “The Fall.” It depicted the boy from the movie hanging from a window sill above an abyss, while Powell leaned out above him, the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos visible across his knuckles. The third card was called “The Time Traveler,” and showed Lillian Gish helping the boy into a rowboat. “The Temple” showed Powell chasing the boy through a crowd.
The fifth card was untitled; it was one of those cheap plastic “holograms,” the kind that sometimes show a winking eye or a changing picture. This one was either a tower or a moon, depending on how Lily tilted it. None of the characters from the movie appeared on the card.
The last card was “The Meaning of a Name.” The boy held his sister cradled in his lap on a checkered linoleum floor.
It had been a long time since she had seen the movie, but Lily was virtually certain that these weren’t scenes from the film. She flipped them over, and discovered that the card backs each had a rectangular fragment of a larger image on them; it was one of those puzzles where, if one had the whole set, they could be re-arranged to reveal a bigger picture. The card backs were in color, brighter than seemed possible in the dingy light.
Lily pushed the stick of gum out of the way and spread the cards out on the counter, trying to see how much of the picture was there. It was obvious that she had much less than half of the puzzle, but there was something familiar about the pieces that she did have. It was someone’s face, that was obvious. There was a shock of brown hair, and that was an eyebrow and part of an eye...
She blinked, and quickly moved the other four cards into their logical positions. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. It was Matthew.
Lily looked back below the counter to see if there was another pack of the cards she could open; if Matthew was connected to the deck, she thought, then maybe the images could help her find him. But before she could find another pack, she heard a bell ring.
She looked up, and saw two police officers entering through a glass door she hadn’t noticed before. They were black-and-white, like the cards, and walked straight toward her.
One of the officers raised a gray eyebrow and nodded at the cards on the counter. “It’s usually customary to pay for the cards before opening them, miss.”
“I was going to pay, but there’s no one at the counter,” Lily said. “Look, I need your help. Do you know where I can find this person?” She pointed to the partial image.
The other officer snorted. “Like we’re in the business of finding missing persons now.”
“You’re cops, aren’t you?”
The first officer sighed. “Now, why don’t you just be a good girl and chew the gum?”
“I don’t want the gum. I want to find my friend.”
The second officer said. “Oh, she doesn’t want to pay. Makes all the difference in the world, that does. Look, you opened the cards, you have to chew the gum. So get on with it before we have to take you downtown.”
Lily picked up the stick of gum. It felt brittle, but the artificial, vaguely fruit-like scent was still strong. “You want me to chew the gum? Fine.” She popped the stick in her mouth. It cracked into pieces as she bit down on it, but the shards softened quickly. “Now, will you help m...”
Suddenly, she couldn’t talk. The wad of gum had expanded, the soft mass filling her mouth. The police officers nodded with grim satisfaction. Desperately, she tried to spit it out, but it was too big to fit past her teeth. She tried to chew it down, or push it into her cheek, but there was just too much of it.
“You’d better blow a bubble before you choke, honey,” said the second cop.
If only I could talk, you pig, Lily thought. She inhaled through her nose, as deeply as she could, opened her lips, and blew a bubble. It grew and grew, becoming wider and wider. When she ran out of breath, she inhaled again through her nose and kept going. The soft orb stretched ridiculously, now larger than her head, her torso...now it was touching the floor, and still it grew.
The smell of the gum was cloying, and the pink membrane filled her vision. It expanded until it somehow curved back on itself, and she found herself inside the bubble. With a last exhalation, she spit out the rest of the gum, which was absorbed into the sticky sphere that surrounded her.
Great, I’m in Topps rebirth therapy, Lily thought. She reached out to touch the wall of the bubble, expecting it to stretch or part under the pressure of her fingertips. Instead, she felt a sudden pressure as the bubble started to rise, carrying her with it. She didn’t know what happened to the ceiling of the store, but it didn’t stop her; the bubble just kept going up, on a blind flight to who knew where.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 9.1]