Fiction: The Gift by Dawn Vogel

By Dawn Vogel

T’was the night before Christmas, and I wasn’t done with my shopping. There was only one person I wanted to buy a gift. I knew she’d understand if I didn’t give her anything, but I wanted to. I needed to see her eyes sparkle with delight.

I worked until close, which meant there were no shops open by the time I was done.

Well, no shops above ground.

I’d heard rumors about the Goblin Market. Mostly whispers filled with regrets, but other murmurs suggested there might be something worth finding. Something that wouldn’t come at too dear of a price.

Working in retail, I talked to a lot of people. Enough of them had given me directions to the Goblin Market. Some of them were contradictory. I’d teased out the pieces that weren’t, and I was pretty sure I had the route figured out.

Half a block down Main, take the alley through to First, and then use the half-alley to get to the courtyard in the back of the Highland Apartments building. Turn around three times widdershins (which I had to look up—counterclockwise, it turns out), back the way you came, and the entryway would reveal itself.

I was a little leery of that last detail. Reveal itself how? I guessed I’d have to just try it.

I didn’t see a soul on the streets as I made my way to Main. The alleys were empty too, bearing the lingering scent of garbage. A sleek black cat sat on the fountain in the Highland Apartments courtyard, cleaning itself. It looked at me, blinked its big green eyes, and resumed ignoring me, even as I turned three times.

The half-alley felt different when I stepped back into it. Cleaner, less smelly. And brighter, even though there were no more lights than there had been before. When I reached the other alley, people strolled down it. People who weren’t dressed for the winter weather.

A bead of sweat rolled down my cheek, my hat, scarf, gloves, and heavy coat now too much for the temperature. As I shucked them all, more people passed me, shouting out greetings to one another.

A wave of panic passed over me. Would I be allowed to shop in a place I had never been before? Was this a secret club I was violating?

More importantly, now that I was on my way, could I even change my mind?

I had no choice but to follow the crowd. At least I didn’t have to worry about the entrance being revealed. They’d lead me to it.

There wasn’t a door on the side of the old brick building before, but that’s where they were headed. A riot of smells, sounds, and colored lights poured from the doorway, coming from somewhere down the stairs.

Folks filled in behind me, giving me no choice but to continue into the belly of the beast, as it were.

I reached the bottom of the stairs and realized I’d dropped one of my gloves. I turned to see if I could spot it, but the steady stream of people descending prevented me from going back. Clearly, this was the entrance. I hoped I’d find an exit.

Then I turned to take in the sights, and I knew I was in the right place.

The booths were bedecked with curtains, streamers, and more twinkle lights than I’d ever seen, giving the whole place an ethereal feeling. The aromas were earthy but spiced with otherworldly scents. There were snippets of conversation I couldn’t follow, and others I could, and music from throats and instruments unlike anything of the waking world. I wanted to take pictures, or video, but I felt like that would be a violation of the inherent secrecy here.

I let the wave of shoppers carry me along past the vendors, catching the barest glimpses of their wares. Every table was a mix of simple practical items and tantalizing slivers of something special, magical. I was glad I wasn’t ready to shop yet, because I couldn’t have stopped to look at anything I was interested in, as the crowd swept me along.

And then, before I knew it, I was back out on the street, the cold air nipping at my bare fingers and face. The swirls of lights and colors and scents already felt like nothing more than a dream.

I had to get back. I ran, ignoring the cold, to the place where I started. The door that had appeared was gone now, so I followed the directions again.

Half a block down Main, alley through to First, half-alley to the courtyard behind the Highland Apartments building.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I rejoined the stream of shoppers headed to the Goblin Market. This time, I reminded myself, I’d step out of the flow of traffic and shop.

My other glove was gone by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs. I had no idea if I’d lost it during my first pass through the Market, on my mad sprint back, or on my second trip down the stairs. Wherever it was, it wasn’t important. I could replace a pair of gloves. I was back inside, and I wasn’t going to wander out again without getting what I came for.

The throng of humanity moving through the main thoroughfare was less pressing now, but as long as I was within that mass of people, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to shop. Instead of looking at the wares, I scanned the pathway ahead, identifying a dark hallway to the left near the midpoint of the Market. That was where I could step out of the flow and work my way along the booths, swimming upstream, as it were, to find a gift.

The hallway was narrower than I anticipated, barely wide enough to squeeze through sideways, like some of the shelving in the stockroom at work. At the opposite end was more light, more smells, and fewer shoppers. I hadn’t seen this part of the Goblin Market on my first pass. Maybe there would be something better in this other section. I grinned and picked up my side-shuffling pace.

My scarf slid out of my hands like someone had yanked on one end, and I looked back the direction I’d come. The opposite end of my scarf was caught on a nail or splinter at the end of this passageway, and before I could chase after the end nearest me, a hand snatched the snagged end and pulled the entire scarf out of my sight.

I sighed. It wasn’t dear to me. Just an old scarf I’d worn for years. It, like my gloves, could be replaced.

I reached the end of the hallway, which opened into another section of the Goblin Market. In this space, though, I could see the wares and their vendors. I could walk up to any table I liked and peruse the offerings.

Finally, I could find a gift.

The first table I passed was covered in shoes, all of them without a match, most of which had seen better days.

“Interested in a trade?” the vendor asked, eyeing my boots.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I need these.”

The next table was covered with paper flowers–cute, but not quite what I wanted. The woman selling them worked on another while she followed me with her gaze, never once looking down to make sure she’d folded the paper correctly.

I passed by three or four more tables, none of them bearing anything that caught my eye. I wondered if this space was for the vendors who didn’t have the sort of flashy items the front space held. I thought about going back, braving the crowd, and finding something there to take home.

A door slammed open nearby, bringing with it a blast of icy cold, reminding me too much of my previous accidental exit from the Goblin Market. I wouldn’t try to go back to the main room. I’d have to make do with something here.

A young girl stumbled through the open door and closed it, blocking the wind. She wore a thin shirt and slacks, nowhere close to sufficient for the weather.

I frowned, looking around to see if any of the vendors were paying attention to this girl. She had to be the daughter of one of them. But no one looked in her direction.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

She started at my words, a confused expression crossing her face. “Pardon?” she murmured.

I pointed toward the door. “It’s cold out there. Aren’t you freezing?”

“Yes, but there’s nothing for it.”

Her statement was matter of fact, but it hit me all the same. I could do something about her being cold. I’d lost my gloves and scarf, but I still had my hat–the one I’d worn for years, still warm. Without even thinking, I held it out to her. “Here. You need this more than me.”

A smile crept across her face as she reached for the hat. “Thank you.” She pulled it down over her hair, covering her ears and nearly covering her eyes. Her smile remained, bright and beaming.

“Let me do you a favor, now.” She looked around, then tapped twice on the door she’d come through. Stepping to the other side, she opened the door, using a handle that had appeared where the hinges had been.

I blinked at the improbability of it, but when she stepped out of the doorway, the space beyond was red and golden, with a palpable warmth radiating out, even at a dozen feet from the room, where I stood.

“You’ll find what you need inside,” she said.

Drifting forward, I barely felt the rough cement beneath my feet. The room drew me toward it with promises of exactly what I was looking for.

Beyond the door stood a young boy who could have been the girl’s twin, or definitely a sibling. He held his arms out, palms up, like a doorman or porter at a fine hotel.

Without even thinking, I laid my coat across his arms. I marveled at the colors within—while the entryway was red and golden, a little bit beyond that was a section of blues and greens, silvers and bronzes beyond that, a black and orange section that reminded me of Halloween, and then, finally, an array of violet and rose like the world had never seen.

In the center of that final section sat a tiara, shimmering pink with a dozen faceted stones in as many shades of purple. It was at once beautiful and gaudy, a princess’s treasure and a child’s toy.

It was perfect.

From nowhere, an old man, dressed in a tuxedo, appeared and lifted the cream and gold satin pillow the tiara rested upon. “Monsieur?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.

“Yes, it’s perfect,” I breathed, reaching to pick it up. It was the right size and weight, with velvet lining the inside and padding near the ends, so it wouldn’t pull hair or pinch.

“Very good,” the old man said.

“Wait, how much?” I asked, but the old man was already gone.

So, too, was the boy at the door, and the girl outside.

“My coat?” I asked.

A voice came from deeper within the shop, or perhaps from all around me. “Is an acceptable payment for the item you chose.”

And then the scene outside the door was no longer the back space of the Goblin Market, but an alley, and me without gloves, scarf, hat, or coat.

But I still had the tiara.

***

I shivered the whole way home, running to keep myself from freezing solid. I held the tiara tightly enough to ensure I kept my grip on it when my fingers went numb, but gingerly enough to not bend it out of shape.

Mrs. Kellogg, the sitter, was in my recliner, watching something silent on the TV and knitting. “Good gravy, where’s your coat?”

“Long story.” I didn’t want to try to explain where I’d been or what I’d done. Mrs. Kellogg was an honorary part of our family, but she never understood “flights of fancy,” as she called everything that didn’t fit into her worldview. “Is she sleeping?”

The bedroom door creaked open, a pair of eyes peeking out from the crack.

Even if I wanted to hide the tiara and wrap it, it was too late now. Those eyes lit up like the sun, and she rushed out of her room. “Daddy, is that for me?”

Mrs. Kellogg turned to admonish her but stopped abruptly.

“You bet, Pumpkin. Merry Christmas.”

I barely got the tiara on her head before she tackled my legs in an enormous hug.

“You like it?” I asked.

She didn’t speak, just looked up at me, her eyes still glowing.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Mrs. Kellogg murmured, letting herself out of the apartment.

I didn’t have a spare coat, and I needed to go out for new winter gear sooner rather than later. But in that moment, I didn’t care. I looked into my little girl’s face and knew it was worth it. I’d made my daughter’s day.

Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.