The boy heard the soft tinkle of a bell as he entered the shop. It was cool and dark inside, like the inside of a cave; not at all what he had expected, though not unwelcome after the hot July sun outside. He had been expecting the sort of stuffy junkshop his Gramma Helen used to frequent before the Big C took her a few years back. The boy, who looked to be about thirteen, with sandy blonde hair and oak brown eyes, looked around with profound curiosity, his bookbag slung casually over one shoulder. Scattered around the small store were all sorts of objects. Everything from teddy bears to cuckoo clocks could be seen, each item set carefully upon neat wooden shelves or displayed within a glass case against one wall. It made him think of the old adage, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It was certainly true of this place; some of the items looked to be of meager value. Worthless, even. There air was tinged a faint musty smell that reminded Toby of a used bookshop he used to go to before the place closed down because of the recession. Looking around, he could see all sorts of things, ranging from the incredibly bizzare to the mind-numbingly ordinary.
This was a junkshop, to be sure, but it seemed as if the random assortment of things scattered about had a sort of ordered chaos to them. Almost a sort of purposeful randomness.
“Hello?” he called out tentatively. No answer met him. His voice sounded somehow small inside the shop, seeming only to emphasize the silence. A small instinct nibbled at the back of his mind, telling him to leave, but he ignored it. The sign outside had clearly said OPEN, and besides, he could never pass up a chance to explore such a wonderful store as this.
He walked over to one of the shelves and began to browse the items, each one set daintily upon a square of red fabric. A delicate porcelain elephant with rosy rings on its cheeks and a little blue ball balanced precariously upon its trunk, a delicate bone-china tea set, an old cloth doll that was missing an eye… there was even what appeared to be nothing more than a battered old phonebook, with a picture of an old dial telephone on the front. He picked it up, leafing through it casually. On one page, there was a large red stain that looked uncomfortably like blood.
Setting the book down, he picked up the doll, which lay limply in his hand, smiling up at him with its stitched mouth and staring unblinkingly with its solitary eye. Its lacy dress was moth-eaten, its straggly black yarn hair falling back in a tangled curtain. Looking at it, he felt an uncomfortable chill run up and along the back of his neck, making his hair stand on end. Setting the doll back on the shelf, he turned back to the store proper. An intense feeling of being watched had settled over the boy. It was a strange sensation, and one he had never experienced outside of what were mostly bad horror novels. The hair on the nape of his neck stood up in hackles, and a sudden… presence would perhaps be the best word for it… seemed to surround him, as if the shop itself were somehow alive, and he felt suddenly claustrophobic despite the rather large interior of the shop.
“Hello?” he asked again, trying to ignore the sudden and entirely unwelcome appearance of an uncomfortably audible shudder in his voice. “Is there anybody in here?”
Only dark, musty silence greeted him… and a sound that was almost- but not quite- like breathing.
He began to turn towards the door, thankful for an excuse to leave, when a soft yet subtly threatening voice spoke behind him.
“Leaving so soon?” it asked.
The boy spun around to see a lanky, well-dressed figure leaning casually against one of the glass cases.
He froze, looking at the man with a mixture of shock and fear- he was sure the man had not been there before- would have bet his life on it, in fact.
The man could best be described as a human toothpick. He was tall- almost comically so, in fact- and very thin, giving him an almost cartoonish look. Dressed in a dark purple tuxedo of purple velvet, with a dark green bowtie and black silk trousers. The shadows within the shop collaborated with the tall silk top hat he was wearing to hide its wearer’s face in darkness. The hat was the same color as the jacket, with a pine green band. As the figure drew closer, the boy could just make out a perfectly straight white-yellow grin and a curling moustache protruding from beneath a long and pointy nose. The only features that could be clearly discerned were a pair of bright green, catlike eyes within a sea of shadows.
He let out a soft chuckle, then took a few strides towards the boy. As he did, he saw with amazement and disbelief that his eyes were slowly changing color, changing from that neon green to a delicate dark blue.
He drew back unconsciously as the man drew nearer, pressing his back against the door.
“Now, my dear boy,” he said, sounding hurt. Red, now, his eyes were red now. “There’s no need to be frightened. I don’t bite.”
“Who… who are you?” he stammered, his eyes locked upon those of the mysterious shop owner.
The mysterious man extended one long-fingered hand, encased within an orange silk glove. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. His voice had a kind of smooth, friendly tone to it, though it was lined with a barely detectable sense of menace. “Walter O’ Whimsy,” he announced proudly. “Purveyor of rare and desirable artifacts at affordable prices.”
The boy simply stared, unsure what to make of this bizzare newcomer. The air of claustrophobia and the feeling of bête noire that had surrounded him seemed to have dissipated as quickly as a candle flame in a gust of wind.
The man who had called himself O’ Whimsy laughed. It was a pleasant sound, and the boy was suddenly sure that whatever menace he had heard earlier must have been a figment of his imagination, brought about by his earlier jitters. Now, both the shop and its owner seemed much more strange and interesting than dangerous.
“Your eyes…” he said, his voice filled with amazement.
O’ Whimsy laughed again. “Oh, yes, they are rather arresting, aren’t they? I’m afraid that it’s nothing more than a chemical imbalance in my irises. I’ve had it since birth.” He chuckled. “Seems a rather mundane truth to a rather interesting phenomenon, does it not? Alas, life is full of such things- take the illusions of a magician, for example- mind blowing, until you discover the secret to the trick. If Mindfreak told you how Chris Angel walked on water, the poor man would be out of a job, would he not?”
Despite the man’s eccentric demeanor, Toby found that there was something eminently likeable about the shop owner. He noticed, not without some embarrassment, that O’ Whimsy’s hand was still extended. He took the hand, shook it, releasing it quickly; there was something unpleasant about touching the man. His skin experienced a sharp tingle when he touched the hand, like one of those prank sticks of gum that shock whoever pulls it.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. O’ Whimsy,” he said, rubbing his hand against his pant-leg and using the polite voice he always used when his father had people from work over for dinner. “I’m-”
“Toby,” O’ Whimsy said, and said boy’s jaw dropped. “Toby Daily, I believe.”
“But… how did you know?” The boy was flabbergasted... but was he? Was he really? In this shop, it seemed to be a different world, a world where anything could be possible… whether good or bad remained to be seen.
“I have a knack for guessing names,” he replied, and winked at Toby. When the eye opened again, it had shifted from light rose to a deep hazel. “So,” he said, his manner becoming much more businesslike. “What brings you to my humble shop?”
He couldn’t say why he accepted the things this man was telling so easily, whether about his name or about the eyes, but he did. Anywhere else he would have been skeptical, but here… How do you get to Wonderland? Screw the rabbit hole- just walk through the door of this little shop.
“Well…” the boy said. The truth was, he didn’t know. He had simply been passing by the shop when he had felt the urge to enter the strange building. “I just…”
O’ Whimsy gave a soft, not-quite-sinister laugh. “Yes,” he said quietly, and the good humor seemed to have all but seeped from his voice. He seemed not to be talking to Toby at all. “My shop does have that effect on some people. A sort of calling.”
“What is this place, anyway?” Toby asked, slightly disconcerted by the sudden shift in the proprietor. He cast another quick look around the large, dingy room. A large stuffed orangutan wearing a garish green bowler hat stared back.
O’ Whimsy seemed to snap suddenly out of his grim state, becoming once more engaging and energetic. He gestured to the shop around him in a wide, sweeping motion.
“This, my dear boy, is God’s Attic. Gathered here are some of the greatest treasures of this world- and others.” He winked yet again, and Toby found himself mesmerized by those color changing eyes. They reminded him of those dollar-store see-through squishy balls with the lights inside, the ones that flashed different colors when you squeezed them… but immeasurably more beautiful. The man turned, walking towards the glass display case. “Come on, my boy. Let me show you.”
Toby followed the man to the case, watching with intense curiosity. He watched with bated breath O’ Whimsy drew a small golden key from his breast pocket, formed into the shape of a delicate question mark, with a purple gem set into the end. He was unspeakably anxious to see whatever great treasure the strange man desired to show him… for he knew, somehow, that it would be a paragon of wonder beyond anything he had ever seen. Dimly, Toby could see O’ Whimsy’s broad smile within the shadows of his face.
He slipped the key into the lock before dropping it back into his breast pocket. “Look here,” he said, pulling a small glass phial, carefully stoppered with a piece of dark blue crystal, from within the case. Inside was a slim black strand that Toby first mistook for a crack in the glass.
“Are you familiar with the story of Samson, my boy?” O’ Whimsy asked. Purple. His eyes were purple. Toby was dimly aware that he had never seen purple eyes before.
“Yeah,” he said, thinking all the way back to the time when he was little kid attending Sunday School with the rest of the good little girls and boys. It was weird, he thought. Then, he had accepted every little bit of Bible story bullshit as the god-honest, absolute truth. Now, eight years later, while he didn’t know for sure, he was probably an atheist. “Yeah, he was the guy who got really strong from his hair, right? He got hooked up with that girl, but she turned out to be a bitch and cut his hair, and then they gouged his eyes out or whatever. But then his hair grew back knocked down the temple or whatever it was and killed all the bad guys.”
O’ Whimsy laughed. “I’ve never heard it put quite that way, but I suppose it all comes down to that in the end.” Tapping the glass with one finger, he pointed to the black line inside. “They say, Toby, that this is a clipping of that very hero’s hair. This is one of the few specimens left on the entire surface of the earth. They say that whoever possesses this single strand of hair will acquire herculean strength.”
Toby looked at the delicate black curve within the glass tube with untold wonder. It couldn’t be true of course… Samson never existed, so how could that be his hair? But all the same, he knew, didn’t simply believe but knew that what the store owner was telling him was true. He felt a peculiar sensation of endless want seep over him, and he was on the verge of asking the no doubt astronomical price when O’ Whimsy whipped the glass into the case, setting it back upon the glass shelf with the deft and experienced hands of a Monte dealer. He then drew out a very old book, carefully bound in white leather. On the cover were thin, curving golden runes unlike any ever seen in this world.
“This,” O’ Whimsy said with grandeur. “Is one of my proudest pieces. Unlike many of my others, its authenticity is assured. This, my dear boy, came from the shelves of the Great Monk himself, from a very great library never before entered by any from this world.”
Toby was not really listening. The book, while pretty, to be sure, held no allure for him. No, something else had caught his attention. He pointed to it with wonder. “How much for that?” he asked.
O’ Whimsy trailed off, looked where the boy was pointing, and smiled. Sitting on the second shelf of the display case was a small golden ring, set carefully upon a square of purple cloth.
“Ah, yes,” O’ Whimsy said quietly, placing the book absently back in the case. He withdrew the ring with those long fingers, holding it in his palm for Toby to see. “This, Toby, is said to date back to the eleventh Egyptian Dynasty. I acquired it several years ago on an excursion to Cairo, during which I was searching for items of such a nature. The man who sold it to me had no clue of its value- it was mixed in, it saddens me to say, with a jumble of cheap jewelry fit only for the very vain and the very stupid. Upon seeing the ring, I purchased it for a very reasonable price before taking it to an expert for authentication. According to the proffssional, a sly fox I had dealt with before and trusted named Masud, this ring was a possession of King Mentuhotep himself. He told me that this particular piece holds great power… power, he said, beyond anything you could begin to fathom.”
Toby only half heard the man’s story. His attention was focused solely upon the circle of gold upon O’ Whimsy’s palm. He felt an insane urge to reach out and grab it, to try it on… it was as if the ring was calling to him in a way he couldn’t begin to understand.
“What ways?” he asked, eyeing the ring and thinking of How wonderful it would feel to slip it onto his finger…
“That, I cannot say,” O’ Whimsy admitted. “I myself have never tried it on, for fear that, in reality, it is but an ordinary ring, void of any power. An old man afraid to have his hopes and dreams dashed, I suppose. Silly, really.”
“Could I…” Toby began, and his voice sounded distant and far away. All of his focus was upon the piece of jewelry. All his doubts had completely and utterly deserted him; he could feel the power radiation from the ring, almost taste it. “Could I try it on?”
“Of course,” the man said. His grin broadened, and his eyes began to sparkle with an otherworldly light. Within the shadowy confines of his appearance, he appeared to be a grinning demon, eyes alight with malice, though Toby noticed not at all as he picked up the ring from O’ Whimsy’s outstretched palm, careful not to touch the hand.
The metal felt cool against his skin, and he felt a shudder of pleasure as he touched it. As he slipped it onto his finger, he was amazed at how perfectly it fit. Not too loose, not too tight. He felt a surge of power rush up through his finger, across his body, and then… nothing.
“Well?” O’ Whimsy asked. His voice sounded eager… hungry. Green, blue, red, purple, yellow, hazel, blue again, pink, even orange- those eyes were blinking orbs of swirling colors.
Toby shook his head in disappointment. “Nothing.” He had been so sure. So absolutely convinced.
When O’ Whimsy spoke, he sounded let down. All hints of malice had deserted him, and the pace at which his eyes changed had slowed to its previous casual crawl. “Well,” he said. “These things do happen. I’m afraid to say that I’ve come across a fair share of duds during my tenure as a shop owner.”
Toby looked down at the ring, and he knew that he still wanted it, still liked the way it felt on his finger, the way the sunlight filtering in through the front window caught the etched hieroglyphs upon its shining surface.
He looked up at O’ Whimsy. “How much?” he asked, sure that the price would be impossible for a kid like him to afford, dreading the numbers that would pop from O’ Whimsy’s mouth, sealing the obvious truth that he would have to remove the ring from his finger and return it.
“Take it, kid,” O’ Whimsy said, smiling. “Go ahead and keep it. You strike me as a good kid, and it was wrong of me to get your hopes up like that. Go ahead and keep the damn thing. I’ll have a helluva time tryin’ to sell a magic ring that isn’t magic, anyway. But take care of it. That’s not an antique- it’s ancient.”
Toby looked up at O’ Whimsy with wide, grateful eyes, and for just one moment he felt an overwhelming urge to yank the ring from his finger, throw it at O’ Whimsy’s smiling face and run out of the store as fast as he could, and then keep running, run until his legs burned with the heat of a thousand suns and his lungs felt as if they would simply explode… and then it passed, and he was overcome with immense gratitude and disbelief. “No kidding?” he asked. “You serious?”
“Dead serious,” he said, and grinned. “Go on, take it.”
“Thanks!” he said, looking again at the ring, admiring its beauty. “Are you sure you don’t want anything in return?” he asked, feeling slightly guilty about taking something so wonderful for nothing in exchange.
“I said take it!” he said, still smiling his friendly, good-natured smile. “Go on and get outta here before I change my mind.”
Toby turned, walked to the door, and then turned back to the shop owner one final time.
O’ Whimsy gave a wave, which Toby returned. “Bye, Mr. O’ Whimsy! I won’t forget this.”
As the boy left, bell tingling, the thing that called itself Walter O’ Whimsy sunk back into the shadows at the back of his shop, the smile turning to a smirk of black satisfaction. “No,” he said, lighting up a thin white cigarette that he seemingly pulled from thin air. Taking a quick puff on it, he chuckled. “No, Toby Daily, I don’t think you will.”
Toby was riding his metallic red Schwinn down a dusty road outside of town as he made his way quickly home when he became aware that the man O’ Whimsy had mention- Masud, or whatever the name had been- had been quite right about the ring. This final realization mattered little- the course of events which were to occur had been set- and within a few short minutes nothing would ever matter to Toby Daily ever again.
He kept taking quick peeks at the ring the entire ride home as if to confirm the fact that the thing was still there, and had not somehow disappeared. It was because of this fact that he failed to realize that something horrific had been happening to his other hand until he lost control of the bike and went crashing onto the side of the road. The bike tumbled over, and he put out his hand to stop the fall… only to discover that said appendage was no longer there at all.
Eyes as large as saucers, drawing in a sharp intake of breath and oblivious to his scraped knee, which had been injured quite badly, he stared at the spot where his hand should have been, watching in terror as the nothingness crept up his arm, consuming first his rest and then his forearm. It was up to his elbow when he began to scream. No one heard him, of course- there was only empty green farmland for nearly a mile around. The odd squirrel heard. A few crows, maybe. A butterfly fluttered past, the sunlight bouncing off its rainbow wings and making it look absolutely stunning. It landed on the boy’s shoulder, but he took no notice.
It wasn’t invisibility- it was nothing at all. He couldn’t feel his fingers, his hand… or his entire arm. Where there was once living flesh there was now empty space.
He knew. It was the ring. It had to be the ring. And even more, O’ Whimsy knew. He saw the grin on the shop-owner’s face, and he suddenly seemed less like an eccentric older man and more like Satan himself. Satan… or something else. Something worse.
He raised his ring-finger to his mouth, trying to pull it off with his teeth, but the metal seemed to have become somehow fused to his flesh. He bits at the ring, gnashing at it with his teeth, ignoring the sudden pain in his finger as his mouth flooded with the salty iron taste of his own blood. Still, it seemed to constrict on his flesh, impossible to take off. He was bleeding profusely from the gash in his knee from the fall, but he didn’t notice. Finally he gave up. He was fighting a hopeless battle. He could only watch in untold horror as that feeling of nothingness crept across his chest, down his legs, consuming even his clothing. He saw his backpack fall to the ground when there was no longer a body to support it, thumping as it hit the ground. He could feel it work its way up his neck, saw his other arm disappear. He watched in terror as his entire body save for one single hand floating in midair disappeared, phasing out of existence… and then he felt his mind begin to slip.
He felt thoughts and memories slipping out of his mind, felt his consciousness falling apart at the seams until only a dim vestige of his being still remained, overcome by blind screaming fear. All thoughts of his family, his friends, his life… spiraling away into nihilistic oblivion. Memories ceased to exist, emotions sublimated like dry ice, and very soon, all that remained of the boy was a dim shade of being and a single, bloody finger floating in the air, a golden ring upon it. The finger began to evanesce as well, and as it exited reality promptly and without any sort of altercation, the ring fell to the ground, and the last remnants of the boy’s soul disappeared as well. The ring fell to the ground, flashing in the sunlight before coming to a sharp rest upon the dusty side of the dirt road.
They found the bike of course, and the backpack, and the blood- all in all, the whole thing cause quite a stir, but through it all, through all the chaos caused in the wake of the boy’s unexplained disappearance, no one noticed the small circle of golden metal glinting half-buried in the dust.