Chapter One: The Shop of the Unknown

Michelle watched him sleeping—his chest rising and falling in a rhythmic pattern that her own breath seemed to mimic unconsciously. He always fell asleep afterwards and he always stayed that way until she had to leave for work. Then it would be days, maybe weeks before she saw him again. Harrison was her boyfriend, but she didn't love him. Michelle didn't think he loved her either, but she had never thought to ask before this moment.

Taking a deep breath, she rolled onto her back and reached for her cigarettes. The first breath was always the best. Every particle of smoke filled her lungs, spreading a warm, quickening feeling throughout her entire body. It was the one moment during the day that she felt alive. That first puff of smoke enhanced by the magic of nicotine and poison.

Harrison stirred at the smell of smoke, but quickly fell back into a light sleep. As she stared at his features, they began to morph and change. His nose became smaller and less defined. His hair turned from darkest black to a light shade of chestnut brown cut in an almost childish, sloppy fashion. Harrison lost his smile lines, which were replaced by frown ones. If she could see his eyes, they would be the blue/green of the ocean on a calm day. She tried to imagine his smile, his smell… but those things were long gone. Time was a petty thief, Michelle thought to herself as she closed her eyes against the tears.

She lay like that for hours, her face pointed towards the ceiling, the light fading from the sky outside. She watched the trees dance and sway, sending shadows into every corner of her room until eventually even they were invisible. Her watch beeped to let her know that it was 8:00. Her shift began at nine.

Rolling back onto her side, she reached out to wake him, but hesitated. He was snoring softly and she could almost imagine he was happy there with her.

"I think I might do it," Michelle whispered and Harrison's eyelids fluttered.

"Do what?" He mumbled.

"Kill myself…" she waited for him to react, but he didn't. She had said it so quietly that not a soul could have heard her. But she had said it and that was the first step on the path she knew she had been barreling down for two years. Michelle wondered if her parents would miss her… If Harrison would miss her… if he would miss her…

"You have to go," she said quietly, giving Harrison a small nudge with her open palm. He groaned and rolled onto his back, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. All at once, his true appearance came back to her and Michelle recoiled. Harrison was classically good looking—tall and athletic with dark features that told the story of his Mediterranean roots. But the truth was, his type had never been hers. They were from two different worlds—his being one of beach volleyball and protein drinks, hers being one of paint flecks that covered her face and arms and the deep, all consuming sadness that only the victims of total devastation can understand.

All of her hopes and dreams had passed her by, but not Harrison's. His life was just beginning. Every line in his face spoke of joy and an anticipation of the future. Why he hung around her, she would never understand fully. Maybe his hero complex was stronger than the average male's. Maybe he thought he could bring a second sun into her life—one that could nourish all the pieces of her that the actual sun could not. Whatever his reasons, Harrison was wasting his time.

"Where you at?" His voice shattered her reverie and Michelle started. Harrison was dressed already and was sitting on the edge of her bed putting his socks and shoes back on. His brown eyes bore into her. Michelle pulled the covers over her legs and chest and shrugged. "Have a good night at work, baby," he said as he stood. He took two steps to her and placed a tender kiss on her forehead. He smiled as he slid out the sliding door and tossed a wave before leaving her in the black hole that her life had become.

Fighting the ache of pure emptiness, Michelle threw her blankets aside and stood. She walked to her dresser and pulled out the clothes she needed before stepping into the shower. The bathroom filled with steam and when she finally stepped out, the mirror was so fogged that only a shadow alluded to her presence. With a quick swipe, she found herself face to face with herself and the realization of what she had become hit her with all the force of an unexpected revelation. Her face was thin and bony, her neck no less so. The bones of her shoulders stood in sharp relief and she reached a curious hand out to explore the offending parts. She was so thin that every piece of her body looked rigid and defined. Three years ago this was the body she had prayed for, but now that she truly saw herself, Michelle felt sick.

A rogue sob burst from her chest and she hugged herself—as if she could hold her body together with the meek motion. The involuntary convulsions subsided and she was left weaker than a minute before. She wandered into the bedroom, managed to dress herself, and walk out the door. The numbness spread throughout her and Michelle recalled the life she had once had with perfect indifference. One that wasn't filled with a perpetual one night stand, a menial part time job at the local grocery story, or suicide…

. . .

It was four in the morning and the sun was floating on the distant horizon like a shy child. It grew brighter and fuller as Michelle watched and then, in one awesome moment, it broke the barrier of its imprisonment and burst forth in all the glory it could muster. Violent shades of pink and purple slowly faded upwards into blue as the sun climbed out of its nightly pit. Michelle felt free to admire it all with unrestrained joy. It was her last dawn. She pulled her coat more tightly around her as a gust of wind caused a shiver, then moved on.

The street was surprisingly busy for being so early in the morning. She watched people running from place to place and as she approached Main Street, she stopped abruptly. He was standing directly in front of her. He stared into her eyes with his own blue depths and slowly shook his head. Michelle lurched forward as someone backed into her and when she looked up, he was gone again. More likely he had never been there, for the person standing in his place was an older gentleman who was helping two women about Michelle's age raise a Strawberry Festival sign.

Staring around herself, Michelle suddenly realized that it was August… The Strawberry Festival marked two years since her life had fallen apart. Tears welled in her eyes and before she could stop them, they overflowed and ran down her cheeks. Two years of missing him. Two years of hell. It was enough for her—it was enough for anyone. She had tried to adjust and move on, but there was just nothing left on this earth for her anymore.

With more resolve than she had ever felt, Michelle turned from the buzzing crowd of people that had started to form and walked towards the docks. It may have been August, but the water was still cold enough to drown her in a few minutes.

She passed the darkened windows of a dozen shops before she reached the end of their small city's antique downtown centre, but as she eyed the crosswalk, she saw something that surprised her. The very last shop was open. Its lights were on and everything. She looked down at her wristwatch. What kind of store opened at five in the morning? Her curiosity piqued, Michelle hesitantly stepped inside. She could tell by the silence that she was the only customer there, but as she moved further inside and no one came out to greet her, she wondered where the proprietor was…

"Hello?" Michelle called and there was no answer. She paused at the counter and hit the bell once, its ring echoing throughout the small, crowded space of the store. Leaning against the counter, she looked down at some of the merchandise and jumped back. There were giant preserved spiders and scorpions inside the display case. They were next to ancient looking books and some tarnished jewelry that bore symbols that seemed to be of religious or spiritual significance.

Taking a few steps back, she took the time to look around and actually see what kind of shop she was in. First and foremost, it looked like a book shop. There were thousands of books in varying states of aging shoved in bookshelves all around the store. Then there were display cases filled with crystal balls, card sets, maleficent looking sculptures, and crystals. Each case was different and the more she saw, the more uncomfortable she felt. After finally spying what looked like a shriveled human hand, Michelle decided to leave. Turning to face the door, she let out a small squeal of fright. There was an old woman standing in the doorway watching her—her gaze intense and personal.

The woman's hair was all silver with a streak of black on one side. Her cheekbones were high and rigid, encasing her eyes which were as black as coal. Her clothes were nothing out of the ordinary. She wore bright colors and an embroidered shawl over her shoulders.

"I'm sorry if you're closed," Michelle managed to stutter. "I saw the lights on and thought I would have a look around."

"I'm open," the old woman growled, moving past her to the counter. "I might wonder, though, why someone like you would be wandering around my shop at five in the morning."

"Someone like me?"

"What use is magic for the young and beautiful?"

Michelle looked away, biting her lip. "I didn't know it was an occult shop when I came in," she responded.

"Occult," the woman scoffed. "Occult is synonymous with dark magic and forces these days. I prefer to call this place a shop of the unknown. After all, none of us are truly master of our own life." The woman eyes Michelle for a long moment before saying, "I read tarot, too, if that is what you're interested in."

"No thank you," Michelle said with a kind smile. "I should be going." She could see the sun rising even further through the window. She was wasting time—condemning herself to yet more suffering.

"I know what it is you seek to do." Michelle jumped. The woman had approached again and her breath danced across the skin of her neck smelling of spice and heat. "Let me help you."

Michelle turned and looked down into the woman's eyes, for now that she was close, Michelle saw that she was almost an entire head shorter.

"There is nothing you can do for me," Michelle murmured.

"Life is precious," the woman said, turning away. She walked from shelf to shelf until she reached the book she was looking for. She returned to Michelle's side and handed it to her. Before Michelle could look at it, she woman took her hand and dragged her to four different cases, grabbing several different objects. "Let me help you," she repeated as she brought Michelle back to the counter and bagged the various occult artifacts into a thick bag.

"What is this stuff?" She asked stupidly.

"Your salvation. It is the chance to change a regret—a gift most people never get."

"I don't have any money to pay you for these things," Michelle said and the woman chuckled softly.

"I dreamed you would come to me," she said. "The work I do is not done for money, child. It is done because it is my calling, as it was my mother's and her mother's before her, all the way back to the time my family still lived in our homeland. Yes, I sell valueless replicas to curious or appalled tourists to pay the rent on this building, but when my dreams tell me there is true work to be done, money is not the object."

"Why me? I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who need your help—who want it."

"Just because you don't know you need my help doesn't mean you don't." The woman handed Michelle the bag, which was surprisingly heavy. "Now, follow the instructions exactly. There is no room for error. If you do everything correctly, you will have the opportunity to change the one moment in your life you regret the most."

"And what happens if I choose the wrong moment?" Michelle asked.

"There is no wrong moment," the woman responded, obviously humored.

"How do I know this is real?"

"You are afraid of feeling foolish," the old woman chided. "But think. If it is real, your suffering will be lessened. If not, then you can curse an old woman for being crazy and do as you will." Michelle nodded grudgingly and the woman touched her shoulder. "Now go home. Sleep. And tonight, the night of the full moon, do as the book tells you."

Michelle tightened her grip on the bag and turned to leave. "I hope to never see you again, child." She walked back out onto the street and heard the door close and lock behind her. As she looked back, she saw a pale hand pull the window shade down.

Facing the sunlight and all the people in down town, the magic of the shop slowly faded. This was reality and reality was full of pain. She looked down at the bag and felt a pang of fear. What was another night wasted, she asked herself. And… what if… She hugged the bag close to her side and walked home at a brisk pace. She would do as the old woman said.

. . .

The candles had to be placed in a five point star pattern equidistant from the middle point—the point at which Michelle would be sitting when everything began. The candle holders were old, but how exactly old they were, Michelle had no idea. The candles were white and used, but the book said that didn't matter. What mattered were the words and the meditation.

Michelle had memorized the incantation by now, using her computer and the infallible internet to figure out the exact pronunciation of what she assumed was a Latin incantation. By eight, she was ready, but the moon wasn't yet at its apex and wouldn't be until about midnight. So she waited, repeating the words under her breath as she attempted to go about her business normally. She ate dinner with her parents, silent except for the occasional answer to a simple question. Once she was done, she went back to her room and sat in the center of the star and waited, forcing her body into a state of patient calm.

The most unpleasant part of this experiment was the mixture she was required to concoct for the ritual. It consisted of unpleasant animal parts, some that had to be added fresh—frog legs not excluded. At the end of it, she felt creepy and demoralized, but excitement and worry soon overcame those emotions.

Looking at her bedside table, the clock gave her good news. It was almost time. Three more minutes and she would know. She began the chanting a little early. More practice never hurt. Midnight rolled around and her chanting continued. She added the last ingredient to the small bowl she had mixed everything in. The inscribed dagger sliced effortlessly into her palm and a tiny stream of blood flowed into the bowl. The pain was intense, but the effect was interesting enough to force it from her mind. The bowl began to smoke and a small flame erupted. The ingredients melted into one another until it was a solid forest green. The flame still lived. She reached to her side and grabbed a piece of paper with a single sentence written across the top. She tossed it into the flame, which hungrily ate it. Throughout it all, Michelle never stopped chanting the simple words. When the paper was gone, the flames slowly dimmed and died.

Michelle waited, every fiber of her being hoping beyond hope that something amazing was about to happen. But seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to hours. It was two in the morning before she finally gave up. Tears streamed down her face as she blew out each candle and crawled into bed. Her eyes closed and her chest ached more than it had in years. Sleep was not easy and it was without rest. Dreams of the old woman and her shop of the unknown filled her mind as she finally slipped into unconsciousness.

. . .

AN: Still doing some minor tweaking, so this chapter might improve. Reviews are appreciated. This is a story very close to my heart and it's taken me about three years to actually get it down on paper. Thank you for reading.