Wandering through the old mall, Sara couldn’t help but winced at the pain in her foot arced up her heel and into her calf. All her time spent working as a seamstress would have made one think she’d get used to sitting down, but she spent more time standing, squatting, and kneeling next to clients getting their clothes altered or resized for some celebration that she knew would be far to fabulous for her to ever imagine. Jumping at her side was her daughter, the birthday girl bouncing about on a sugar high after waiting patiently in the second floor of the shop watching cartoons all day while Sara fitted an entire platoon of bridesmaids for an upcoming wedding.
Profitable, to be certain, but hard work.
“So, what do you want for your birthday, Holly?” Sara asked the now nine-year-old girl.
Dressed in hand-me-down jeans sewn together with thread and patches taken from denim jackets deemed too old to wear, Holly held her mother’s hand while walking alongside her down the cracked sidewalk, eyes narrowed in thought.
“I don’t know Mommy,” Holly said after a moment before perking up, “maybe a new doll?”
“Aren’t you a little old for dolls?” Sara asked as she followed Holly’s line of sight to a store she’d never seen before. What had been a boarded-up storefront in the mall some two days before was now a darkened shop, tinted glass keeping the sizzling Texas heat from spilling into the interior. The only indication that the shop was open was the open spot in the window where a toy train set ran in circles, around a pedestal that held a small sack cloth doll with mis-matched buttons for eyes.
Staring at the doll, Sara felt uncomfortable as she studied the thing. It was old, worn stitches and stains showing that it’d probably been young when Holly’s grandma was a child. Shaking off the odd feeling of dread, Sara raised her eyes to scan the storefront for a name, only to find that it had none.
“How odd …” she said, “most stores at least advertise themselves.”
“You’ll find,” a creaking, dried voice akin to the crinkling of a paper bag, said from behind her, “that some stores aren’t in the market for an increase in clientele.”
Spinning in place and moving in front of Holly, Sara looked at the man that had somehow snuck up on her in the quiet halls of the open-air mall. Standing with a straight back in a vest and powder blue long-sleeved shirt, the man had rectangular glasses perched on the end of a bulbous nose and large eyes that seemed magnified by said lenses. His hair was wild and short, shocks of silver and gray that stood up from behind. He wore a simple golden band on his wedding finger, and a plain gold wristwatch on his left arm. He was shorter than Sara, though she could tell this was likely due to age.
“I’m sorry, I must’ve upset you…” the man wheezed, his breath the stuff ashtrays were made of, “I am the owner of this business, and I was just finding it… odd that someone like you would even notice it.”
“Notice it? I work out of Eve’s Jeans and Seams across the mall, I walk by here every day,” Sara said, pointing down the mall towards her store. “’m amazed you got your store opened so fast!”
“Oh, you’ll find I’ve been here a while as well,” the man chuckled, coughing into his hand as he walked over to the front door, fishing out a brass key from his pinstriped pants. He looked down at Holly, eyes studying her. He adjusted his glasses and squatted low, knees popping as he made the motion in one fluid drop.
He stared at her hard, squinting after a moment before looking up at Sara. “I take it this is your daughter?”
“Um, yes? Why?” Sara asked, pulling Holly into a hug from behind. Holly remained quiet, staring at the odd man.
“She looks like you, save for the eyes. I’d say she got those from the father, yes?” The man asked.
“Oh, well … yes, I suppose she did. I’m sorry, we haven’t been introduced, my name is Sara Owens,” Sara said, extending her right hand.
The man, still squatting, looked at the hand as if it were some offensive object and instead stood up, knees popping once more, before wiping his hands on his vest. “Oxford Taylift, though to for you and your daughter you may call me Ox. I imagine you’ll be customers before long, and for quite some time as well.”
“Oh, I doubt she’ll be wanting dolls for much longer!” Sara laughed.
“Dolls,” Ox repeated, pushing the tumbler of his door until a loud clanking could be heard on the other side of the door, “who said I only deal in dolls?”
Sara fell quiet as Ox pushed through into his shop, clicking on an overhead light to reveal narrow pathways between glass cases containing a myriad of strange decorations: animal skulls, animal pelts, small men carved from bone, beaded ropes of colorful leather, and small drums laid out next to old weapons of war. Pistols from the Civil War lay next to tomahawks, across from various spearheads; all made from different materials. Sara looked around and found that indeed there were a few toys scattered about, but this was, by and large, not a store for children.
As she followed Ox in, Holly close behind, she passed by a full set of armor on a mannequin, dented and worn with scuffs and scratches where it’d obviously saved someone’s life. Attached to the breastplate near the belt were iron rings, thirteen after a quick count from Sara’s discerning eyes.
“Saw that did you?” Ox asked, now standing behind the counter, in front of a large apothecary rack worth of vials and boxes of reagents, all labeled in the script a doctor would be envious of.
“Yeah, it looks… odd?” Sara said, releasing Holly to walk over to the armor, leaning over to look at it. She cast a quick glance at Holly. “Don’t touch anything!”
“I won’t!” Holly assured her, before rushing off in a different direction, shoes thudding on the hardwood floor.
Sara returned her gaze to the armor, moving until her face was a few inches from the unpolished metal.
“No closer!” Ox said, his scratchy voice more a warning than a command.
Sara rolled her eyes. “I doubt I could damage this thing any more than it already … is?”
Sara’s statement fell flat as the armor, once a dull patina, became a reflective black for but a few seconds. During those scant moments, she could see hundreds of nude children, shredded and cut from sword blows, all chained by the neck, pressed up against the metal of the armor, weeping tears of blood as the cried in absolute silent terror for her. In her mind she could hear their screams, their plaintive please for release.
And then, after she’d fallen backward into a wooden case, the armor was the same coppery sheen it’d been when she first saw it.
Sara, panting, with sweat on her brow and tears at the edges of her eyes, looked up to Ox. He just gave her a smile.
“I told you I sold more than toys,” he said with a smirk.