's 2019 Horror Write-off:

Not For Sale

Submitted by Charred Newt

Helena was starting to think she had gotten lost when she finally saw the small shop’s front. It nested comfortably in the mossy brick walls of the old alleyway, like an old dog sleeping against a fence. Despite its position the shop was a bona fide suburbia institution, if Jemi was to be believed: a wonderful little treasure trove of used curiosities, knick-knacks and plain weird kitsch relics for the discerning eye.

“Getting there is a bit of a labyrinth, but it’s worth it” she’d said, flipping her black curls off her forehead as if to reinforce the point. “It’s a great occasion for you to get to know the neighborhood anyway!”

“Ok, so, what is this place called? What’s on the sign?”

“Weeell, actually the sign only reads ‘Second-hand Goods’. And it’s so old it’s barely legible so you might not even see it, but you’ll know the shop when you get there. It’s the one with the dress in the window!”

“A dress? Just one dress? That’s still a bit generic.”

Jemi’s eyes had given off a glint over her little cat’s smile “Oh, it’s not just a dress. Believe me, you’ll know it when you see it.”

Helena understood what she had meant, now that she was standing a few steps from the glass front. A busy scaffold offered to the eyes colorful arrangements of commemorative ceramics and dishware, old tin wind-up toys with faded smiles, logo t-shirts of long-disbanded artists, figurines celebrating obscure puns, others which might have been about dirty jokes and still seemed delighted about it, a table lamp made up of small bones and others put together from scrap metal; and yet, all of this variety failed to wrestle the viewer’s attention away from the dress displayed in the corner, a glass panel apart from the rest.

It was antique in its cut and draped over a worm-eaten mannequin that looked even older, though the cloth had clearly been carefully looked after by someone: its colors were only slightly marred by the passing of time, a gentle turquoise that flowed in light-filled sea greens going down from the bust to the hem of the long skirt, which was made of thrice-folded cloth varying in shade, darker towards the bottom. A delicate speckling of black marked some spots on the dress, seemingly at random, making the contrast all the more eye-catching; the sleeves draped just slightly over the mannequin’s hands, darker in cloth than the rest. She couldn’t help but wonder just how would somebody give away something like that; maybe it was made of much cheaper materials than it looked like? Actually, she surprised herself thinking, she was kinda hoping that was the case.

Her curiosity hooked, she stepped inside.

The shop wasn’t very big, but it surely looked like the owners were making the most out of every cranny. Objects of every shape and size crowded the walls and two rows of tall shelves that left only a free strip right in the middle of the local, such as to make the entrance door visible from the cash register desk. The soft light of an art noveaux chandelier, which hanged proud like an old professor among the modern neon fixtures, made for an inviting atmosphere, a promise of affordable treasures waiting for a careful explorer.

There was already a customer at the desk, arguing with a clerk who looked extremely tired of the conversation.

“Please, Daniel, listen to me one more time: it doesn’t matter how high you go, Louie’s never gonna want to part with the dress on terms like these. I know that’s not reasonable but there’s nothing I can do about it, I accepted this long ago and so should you.”

The client, a youngish type with dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, leaned harder over the wooden table-top “And I tell you, no one else is gonna offer you this much for that old thing! You’re already coming on top here!”

“Believe me, I’ve heard that line many more times you might think, but I’m not the one who makes the rules and I’ve got my hands tied on the matter.”

“Well, then you really have to get to Louie and make him realize that this is no way to run a shop!”

The man left with his hands buried deep into the pockets of his jacket, seeming not to notice Helena’s presence as he made his way out in the street. Through the glass storefront, she could see him pause a bit to gaze at the dress before storming off; the clerk, who also had been following the man’s pacing with his eyes, shook his head and let out a sigh before turning to her with a warm smile. He couldn’t have been older than forty, forty-five, Helena thought, but had an anachronistic ex-hippie feel in his graying ponytail and single bone-made earring.

“I’m very sorry for the inconvenience, miss. Daniel’s a long-time customer and normally a perfectly pleasant fellow, but he can be a little stubborn. I hope that scene wasn’t too much.”

Helena let out a nervous chuckle as she approached the desk, which was tightly snuggled between two scaffolds in tye farthest end of the room “No, no need to worry. He does seem very passionate about that dress, tough!”

“Ah, miss, I wish I could say he was the only one giving me a headache about that old thing, but it’s become almost part of the job I’d say.”

“It is? What is the matter with it? I mean, it looks very nice and is clearly a quality piece but I cannot imagine a reason that would make it that pricey. No offense meant!” she added quickly.

The clerk tilted his head a bit, a tinge of worry in his eyes “None taken, it always sounds unbelievable at first. Miss, hate to pry but you don’t happen to be interested in the dress yourself, do you? Because unfortunately I’m not authorized to accept any offer.”

“No, no, I’m mostly here to look around!” Helena lied with a small chuckle “But color me intrigued: why keep it in the storefront if it’s not for sale?”

“It’s for Louie, the owner, he’s greatly attached to the thing and wants it kept on display. Besides it’s quite an eye-catcher, wouldn’t you say?”

Who wouldn’t have said that? This thought kept bouncing inside her head as she absent-mindedly explored the rest of the shop in the following hour, letting the colorful and frankly interesting objects on the scaffolds wash over her like light rain, chatting a bit more with the clerk who was nice, was named Felix and was quite a bit younger than she had thought at first, picking up the flyers about the neighborhood fair that was going to happen in just a couple weeks from then and so on; she left the shop with a teapot she didn’t really need but had a delightful pattern and was all in all pretty cheap.

All with that dress firmly lodged into her mind.

It only took a handful of days before her feet brought her back to the small second-hand shop. There were a lot of good reasons to be out for a walk on a nice day like that, she kept telling herself, she couldn’t pass the chance to get a bit of movement in the last weeks of passable weather before winter really got too cold and rainy. But she knew that what she was out for was another peek at the dress: it had been gnawing at back of her thoughts, a haunting by the most colorful ghost ever.

It wasn’t as if she had a plan as she approached the warmly lit storefront: Felix had been clear enough and she wasn’t going to waste any time arguing. She had half-wondered about trying to commission a copy to a tailor, but for that she would need some good detailed photos and probably the permission to take the dress down from the mannequin for a bit: so, all in all, it was perfectly reasonable for her to come back, just to check and ask.

Coming inside she found much more activity than her first visit: the shelves, storefront display and desk were being decorated with a variety of paper ornaments and fake mistletoe by Felix and three other people, all of them trying not to step on the cardboard boxes that cluttered the narrow space between the scaffolds.

“Oh, miss! Welcome back!” the clerk exclaimed with a surprised expression. He seemed to be wrangling a sizable tangle of Christmas lights. “I’m extremely sorry for the mess but we’re doing a bit of holiday glow-up in here. Weren’t really expecting any customer right now to be honest.”

“Oh!” Helena turned around, just then noticing the “SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE, WE’RE DECORATING” sign hanged on the still open door. “Oh, no, you shouldn’t apologize! I’ll come back later if now isn’t a good time...”

“No need to worry, I’ll put this away a bit and be right back for you. We’re almost done anyway, just have to pick up this clutter; oh, let me introduce our friends here, they’re regulars and volunteered to give us a hand for the holidays!

These are Maud and Jim” he said, gesturing to the stout woman and the elderly man, who stopped a moment to smile and nod at Helena. “And I believe you already met Daniel, however briefly” Daniel, who almost disappeared behind a pile of empty cardboard boxes, turned towards them and waved awkwardly.

Helena waved back. “...I must say, I’m a bit surprised to see him here” she said in a lowered voice.

Felix, still struggling with the lights, smiled at her “Miss, you’d just caught him at a bad time. As I said, most of the time he’s reasonable and helpful, we talked it out just fine.” He finally crammed the tangle in a small box, then stacked it on top of two other boxes which looked on the verge of bursting open and loaded them all in his arms “I’ll be in the back for a minute, once I’m done with this I’ll be right here for your business!”

Not without a considerable effort he disappeared in a door on the side; Helena was alone in front of the desk, unsure on how to proceed with her request. But it was just what seemed like few seconds before her thoughts were interrupted by an exclamation from the woman, Maud: “Oh no, I really don’t think you should do that!”

Helena turned and saw Daniel, who had managed to shimmy his way to the storefront display and was reaching for the dress while he replied “Calm down, calm down, it’s nothing! I just wanna take a peek at the label for the maker’s brand, I’m not thieving or anything!”. His fingers caught on the gown and Helena thought for a moment that he must had knocked the mannequin out of balance somehow, surely, because its wooden arm came down like a hatchet and hit his skull with a resounding clunk, knocking his glasses away.

But then the other arm also moved. Daniel looked too shocked and dazed to react in any way, a stain of blood slowly spreading on his right temple, as the dark cloth of the sleeve lowered enough to caress his shoulder and the wooden hand closed on his throat. On the sides of the store Jim and Maud were scrambling to reach him through the narrow spaces, shouting something barely understandable: she too tried to shake herself and move to the rescue though what she was seeing defied any plan or explanation. She registered as if in a dream some kind of crashing sound coming from the back of the store.

The mannequin was lifting Daniel by his neck with both hands now: the man’s face was getting redder and redder as he fought for air and clawed fruitlessly at the worn wooden fingers that strangled him. The face of the puppet seemed to be staring at his struggling prey and began changing too; with a creaking noise, a deep crack ran across its middle through what had before looked just like regular wormholes and wear but were now more like teeth in a mouth that split the wooden head ear to ear. It bent down its new maw towards the man: the top half was opened so wide that it seemed impossible for it to still be attached to the rest. Helena could see the ancient rings of the wood lining the flat roof in the thing's mouth.

Suddenly, Felix charged through the backdoor brandishing a long metal pole that shone menacing in the neon light.

“No, Louie, no!” he bellowed to the mannequin, who didn’t show any sign of stopping and was now closing his jaws on Daniel’s head. Felix jumped past the desk and Helena and struck over the boxes and scaffolds, hitting the wooden figure right in the forehead hard enough to tilt it. “Let! Him! Go!” he shouted while raining smaller blows on its closed fingers and arms: the noise clacked in the room echoing like hail. It was hard to understand if the mannequin was feeling any pain from it, but it closed its face up again and after a bit its finger sprang open and its arm returned to their original pose. Some new black spots were flourishing on the dress.

Felix dropped the pole and moved to reach Daniel, who had crumpled on the floor in a gasping mess. “Jim, fetch me the first aid, quick!” he said while making sure that the wounded man was conscious; he then cleaned the sweat off his brow with a rapid gesture and beamed again at Helena, who had been staring incapable to say anything. In the cold light his skin shone just like plastic, she couldn’t help thinking.

“I told you, miss, he’s really got something for that dress!”