Sara scrambled up to her feet and reached for her purse, intent on reaching for her can of mace.
“Now that wouldn’t be too kind,” Ox said, sliding her large cloth purse up onto the counter next to him, wrapped in several lengths of violet cotton binding it all together into a cocoon. She could see the handles of her purse dangling out of the bottom, along with her car keys.
“Shit,” she muttered. Her hand went to her belt, where her roiled up shirt held her one last defense against muggers—a length of silver blade that once belonged to a pair of shears. Holding it out in a defensive gesture, she growled as Ox quirked his eyebrow.
“This,” he said, pushing Sara’s purse to the side, “had been mildly interesting. Now it is fully amusing.”
“Just give me my purse now scumbag!” Sara spat, taking a few steps forward, looking around for any sign of anyone else. “I just want to leave with my daughter and never set foot in this fucking store again.”
“That’s easy for you to say, place wasn’t built for people like you anyway,” Ox said, shrugging. He stood up and popped his back, rubbing just above his ass with his hands. “God damn, I’m getting old … your daughter though, nine years old! Talk about envious!”
“What?” Sara asked, looking at Ox as he turned around, scooping up Sara’s purse to walk towards the back of the store, “hey, wait a minute!”
“Just taking it to make sure you don’t bolt! Be right back!” Ox shouted as he descended steps into the basement of his store, a light flickering on from showing that mottled green stone made up the lower room, which was crowded with things if the numerous shadows was any indication.
Sara relaxed her stance, and looked around at the items on display. The polished mahogany wood cases held clear glass with large locks, small trinkets and do-dads with nameplates resting in front of them bearing a city name, date, and price. Looking over at a thick bracelet of tarnished silver adorned with skulls Sara squinted to read the placard.
“London, seventeen nineteen ninety-nine, forty-five dollars?” Sara asked, incredulous over the claim and price combination.
Ox walked up from the basement with a carafe of coffee and two cups on a tray, a bowl of cream resting between them. “Figured we could use a drink to calm the nerves. Plus, I’m tired and need to wake up if I want to finish getting my inventory done this century!”
The joke fell flat and Sara brandished the impromptu knife at Ox again. “Why would I drink anything you gave me? What’s to stop you from drugging me and taking my daughter?”
Ox looked at Sara for a moment before shrugging. “Um, nothing I suppose. I mean, I’ll be drinking everything with you. And you can keep your little scissor blade aimed at my groin if it makes you feel better. You just look like you could need a way to relax.”
“And coffee would do that?” Sara asked.
“Mine would,” Ox said with a wink, before he pointed at the cream. “Baileys Irish Cream, to make things go down a little smoother, if’n you catch my drift.”
“I have to drive soon!” Sara exclaimed.
“And the coffee will keep you sober!” Ox said, shrugging. “I’m not asking you to do a keg stand, just to try and unwind a bit Sara, you obviously lead a very stressful life as a single mom.”
“Um, how did you know I was single?” Sara asked, lowering her upper half of a pair of shears relaxing.
“I just know these things,” Ox said, pouring her a cup of coffee before pouring himself one. “It helps that you don’t have a wedding ring or missing band, that you have your child with you while working, and that you didn’t argue with my guess.”
“Oh,” Sara said, stepping up to the counter to pick up her warm mug of coffee, savoring the heat radiating out of the ceramic into her aching fingers. She sniffed the coffee and was amazed at how strong it smelled. “Jesus, were you in the military?”
“No, though many of my customers have commented on my coffee as being of engine cleaner quality,” Ox smiled, picking up the cream to ladle in a few spoonsful of the liquor into his coffee. He didn’t take any sugar, nor did he blow to cool his coffee down, as he took his first sip. Sara watched as he slurped up the drink, before setting up her own.
“So, tell me about Holly?” Ox asked once Sara took a sip, her three spoons of sugar having proven to make the drink a tad bit too sweet for her tastes.
“She’s a sweet girl, smart as a whip too,” Sara said with a smile. “She gets that from her father, from what I know of him.”
“Not in the picture, eh?” Ox asked.
Sara shook her head. “No, David and I had a one-night stand in college and weren’t ready for children as a couple. He pays child support, plus a little extra to not have to see her. I think he’s a little ashamed of her, though I don’t know why.”
“Reminds her of past mistakes, perhaps?” Ox guessed.
“Whatever it could be, he’s a total ass because of it,” Sara said. She took another sip of her coffee. “I mean, who takes out their petty feelings on their own child? If he took the time to get to know her, I know he’d really love her!”
Ox looked up at Sara, eyes darting across the store then back at Sara. “Some people aren’t ready for children.”
“He’s just a coward,” Sara said, “Holly is a wonderful girl, but does he take the time to get to know her? No! All he does is send the child support and a birthday card every year. Do you realize how much she wants to actually have a father in her life?”
“I wouldn’t know … Have you considered dating? You are fairly attractive, and young; snagging a man by the heartstrings isn’t beyond your capabilities.”
“I work too much,” Sara groused, looking down into her coffee. “And besides, who would watch after Holly? I can’t leave her with just anyone now, can I?”
“I’d offer my services, but you hardly know me … Perhaps after we get to know each other you could learn to trust me enough to become a babysitter for your child while you go out searching for a man.” Ox said, sipping his coffee. “After all, every woman deserves a man in her life to warm her bed, if nothing else.”
Sara’s face burned scarlet, and she reach across the counter to swat Ox on his bony hand. “Get your mind out of the gutter this instant, you dirty old man!” She laughed, earning a chuckle from the clerk.
“Hey, I was married for thirty-one years, I remember having a wife,” Ox said, bringing his cup up to his lips. “She was just around your age when I started getting put through my paces, so to speak.”
“Ox!” Sara cried, laughing even louder.
“What? Nothing wrong with it, it’s perfectly natural, and safe so long as you’re careful.” Ox replied.
Sara didn’t reply, instead choosing to glug down half her cup of coffee. The Bailey’s cream gave her a slight head rush, bringing warmth to her stomach that spread throughout her limbs.
“This is good coffee,” she commented, setting her cup down.
“Told you,” Ox said, turning his attention towards the stacks to the left of Sara. “Now I think we have a little eavesdropper who found something she likes. Come on out Holly, no need to be afraid.”
Holly emerged from behind a bookshelf stuffed with leather-bound journals clutching a long armed, long legged cloth doll with a limp head bearing two button eyes. Devoid of any other features save for the burlap material that the that the doll was sewn from, the doll looked old and worn, tattered beyond its time. Sara frowned, thinking of how much an antique such as this could cost.
Then the images of what she saw in the armor flashed past her eyes, and she gave a sharp glance to Ox, who gave a quiet shake of the head, as if he knew what question was running through her mind.
“The doll is one of a kind, too true, but it won’t project nightmares into your mind like the armor would,” Ox said, before turning to Holly. “And where did you find that Holly?”
“In a corner with a bunch of other dolls! She seemed so lonely …” Holly said, hugging the doll close to her chest.
“And … And did you learn anything about her, while you were picking her out?” Sara asked, looking askance at Ox to see if he gave any indication that this would be normal. He didn’t so much as change his breathing, but Holly gave an answer anyway.
“I learned that her Mommy was a seamstress, just like you, and that she became an orphan when she was my age,” Holly said, cuddling the doll close. “She’s scared, and just wants a family that she can call her own.”
“Well,” Ox said, “who am I to deny a young girl a new friend?”
Sara spun and looked at Ox with wide eyes. “What?”
“I think I’ll let you have the doll for your birthday, at least until you’re too old for dolls. Say, once you become ten?” Ox said.
“I guess …” Holly said, looking down at the doll.
“That’s just a year, and I’m sure she’ll be happier by then, thanks to you.” Ox said.
“You think so?” Holly asked, looking to her mother.
Sara swallowed the lump in her throat. “I know so, Holly. After all, we’re the perfect family already, right?”
“Right!” Holly exclaimed.