©2019 by Daniel Alexander

Need

A Short Story by Daniel Alexander

The Strange Mundane - Part 3

            It took Alice hours to find the shop. This was in large part due to its confusing address – 110 Abbott Road, which she found to be a crooked alleyway running between the local deli and the shop itself. The shop itself didn’t lend itself to attention, either, outfitted as it was with gray siding, cramped windows, and a notable lack of advertisement of any sort. It looked very much like just a small rental house, and yet Alice knew it had to be the place. Apart from the deli, there were no other buildings on Abbott Road.

            The door opened easily, without a sound. Inside, the shop was a mess of trinkets and curiosities, some of which looked broken and all of which looked extremely old. A small counter with a cash register was situated in the middle of the shop and behind it there was a man, leaning back in his chair with a strange hat pulled down to obscure his face. A faint snoring sound reached Alice’s ears and she realized he was asleep.

            Alice coughed. “Excuse me?” she said, then louder, “Excuse me? Sir?”

            The snoring stopped and the man slowly reached up and brushed the hat off, letting it fall to the ground. His face, now that she could see it, was an odd one. He looked as if he could be any age, old or young or somewhere in between. He stood, and the light on his skin shifted in a strange way as his features seemed to dissolve and solidify as the shadows moved across him.

            “Are you Mr. Cain?” Alice asked.

            “Yes,” the man said. “I’m sorry, do you need something?”

            “I was hoping to apply for a job.”

            Cain frowned. “Here?” he asked. “In my shop? Why?”

            “Umm . . .” Alice hesitated. “Your place came up while I was looking online? There wasn’t much information, just the address and a short sentence about this being a small antiques store or something.”

            “Sorry, no.” Cain leaned down and picked the hat up. “I don’t need any help here, so thank you and there’s the door.”

            “Wait, Mr. Cain—”

            Cain glared at her. “Was I somehow not clear?” he asked, sitting back down. “Leave.”

            “I need this job.”

            Cain opened his mouth to speak, but he hesitated. Alice couldn’t get a read on his expression, couldn’t tell if he was looking at her or off into the distance somewhere or anywhere else in the store. “There must be somewhere else you could go,” he said after a moment.

            Alice shook her head. “None.”

            “You tried the deli next door? They always seem to make a mess, surely they could use someone to help clean up, at least part time.”

            “No. I was there yesterday, they said they couldn’t afford to hire someone else.”

            “What about the craft store? Or that diner over by the highway?”

            “I’ve been everywhere. No one’s hiring.”

            For a very brief moment, Alice thought that perhaps he was indeed going to hire her. His eyes glinted from the shadow and he seemed to be appraising her, judging her worth. It was a strange feeling, as if she were being dissected, her skin and sinew and bone being dismantled. Then Cain turned, his eyes disappearing, and the sensation passed.

            “No,” he said. “No go away.”

***

            Her car barely made it back to the house, but that was nothing new. It always felt as if the thing was on its last leg and yet it trundled along, picking up new sounds like a grinding whenever she braked or a desperate wheeze as she revved the ignition. It had been like that for nearly a year, leaving Alice with a paradoxical choice – she couldn’t afford to take it to a mechanic, but neither could she afford for it to break down on her. She really had no idea how the vehicle had lasted as long as it had, but she kept her fingers crossed it wouldn’t die on her and so far that had been working.

            Storm clouds were gathering overhead. They’d started to congregate when she left the shop, swirling overhead in a stew of blue and dark gray. There was no thunder yet, curiously, although Alice could swear she saw lightning crack every so often. It made her feel odd, like there was something she was missing, but then the wind blew, making her shiver, and she hurried to the door.

            There was an envelope taped to the front, flapping about like a seagull’s wing. Alice snatched it off and stuffed it in her jacket pocket. There was no need to look at who it was from – only one person delivered letters to her in such a passive aggressive manner.

            Inside, Alice gently closed the door against the wind, trying not to make too much noise. “Mom!” she called out, her voice echoing down the hallway. “I’m home!”

            There was no response, just like always, and just like always Alice felt a pang of fear in her gut. Is today the day? She tried to silence it, but it kept pressing against her other thoughts, worming its way back in. Is today the day?

            Her mother was sitting on the couch, exactly as Alice had left her. The only light in the room came from the TV, playing an old game show rerun. Alice didn’t recognize which one it was, although she’d gotten pretty good at identifying them in the past few years. Her mom turned to look at her as she entered, but her eyes remained glassy and vacant, as if she was about to go sleep or had just woken up from a long nap.

            “Hey Mom,” Alice said, sitting down next to her. “How was your day?”

            Alice’s mother said nothing. She turned back to the TV, the images reflecting off her eyes.

            “We got another letter from Mrs. Crawford – taped to the door, as usual.” Alice pulled the envelope out and unceremoniously opened it, shredding the edge to pieces in the process. “Dear Ms. Johansson,” she read, adopting an affected tone with a terrible British accent. “No doubt you are aware that rent was due last week. I have taken the liberty of extending your credit temporarily to cover this slight lapse, but will not be able to do so indefinitely. Kindly contact me at your earliest convenience so we may work out an arrangement. Most sincerely, Tabitha Crawford.” Alice rolled her eyes. Every one of Mrs. Crawford’s letters was nearly identical, each with their own variation on “you owe me money” masked by professional pleasantries.

            “You feeling hungry?” Alice asked. “I’m feeling hungry. How about we get dinner, yeah? Does that sound good?” She waited for a few seconds, and then got off the couch to go into the kitchen.

            The fridge was fairly sparse, but there were still a few slices of leftover pizza that Alice figured probably hadn’t gone bad yet. She stuck took them out, sniffed them to make sure they didn’t smell funky, and stuck them in the microwave.

            Her mother no longer ate solid foods. She’d tried, once, but it seemed like chewing was no longer a thing for her. After a close call with a brussels sprout, she switched to a liquid diet. Alice pulled out the blender and added a few cups of water along with a packet of what looked a lot like dirt, but was apparently “hyper-nutritious protein-powered satisfaction mix.” Sometimes, if she had the spending money, she buy some orange juice or apple sauce and mix it in too. Her mom seemed to like that.

            Before she could start the blender, the phone on the wall let out a warbling shriek. Alice sighed and picked it up. “Johansson residence,” she said. “Who is this?”

            “Alice!” The voice on the other end was filtered through several layers of static and distortion, but she could still identify her brother’s insufferably chipper tone. “It’s Craig!”

            “Hey Craig. Is something up?”

            “Does something need to be up for me to call my big sister?”

            “We haven’t talked in over a month.”

            “Really? It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long to me.”

            “It has.”

            “Well anyway, I was just calling because I know you were looking for a job last time we spoke and I think I found one that you’ll just love. It’s got decent pay—”

            “Craig.”

            “—flexible hours, some training ‘cause I know—”

            “Craig!” Her brother went silent. Alice sighed. “Where is it?”

            “San Francisco. Now, before you say no—”

            “No.”

            She heard a groan on the other end of the line. “Come on Alice,” Craig said. “I’m trying to help you here. Can’t you see that?”

            “I can’t move Mom that far away. The answer is no.”

            Craig was silent for a while, and then he started talking, the enthusiasm drained from his voice. “Alice, at some point you have to start doing something for yourself,” he said. “It can’t all be about what’s best for Mom. You know I love her too, but—”

            “Shut up, Craig,” Alice said. She never shouted at her brother, but somehow she’d always been able to silence him when she was angry. “If you meant that, you’d be here helping, not off in some city a thousand miles away doing god knows what.”

            “Alice—”

            “And I just got a job.” The lie slipped out of her mouth without her even meaning to say it. “So I don’t need your pity, Craig. We’re doing just fine on our own here.” She took a moment to catch her breath. “Goodbye.” She hung up before he could respond.

            A raindrop hit the kitchen window as Alice started the blender and by the time she was done, one drop had become a veritable torrent, beating out a rhythm on the roof. The first peals of thunder finally started, too, slowly growing under it felt as if they were shaking the very foundations of the house. Between the deafening sounds, Alice heard her mother in the living room. She was groaning, as if she were in physical pain.

            Alice left the food in the kitchen and darted into the living room. Her mom was lying on the floor, rocking back and forth, jumping at each clap of thunder. “Hey, hey, it’s alright,” Alice said, sitting down next to her and propping her up. “Shh, shh, it’s okay. Shh. Shh.” The thunder came again, louder than before, and her mother squeezed her arm, scrambling to get closer. Alice reached her free arm around and held her.

            “Do you remember when I was ten?” she asked, trying to keep her voice low and soothing. “There was a storm then, too. It was raining all day and the thunder just kept coming, like it would never stop. I was terrified, do you remember? I hid under my bed with a blanket and just lay there, my eyes screwed shut, curled up into a ball. You came and you crawled underneath with me. Do you remember what you said? You said we would be like little caterpillars in our cocoon and that once the storm was over, we’d get to go out and be butterflies and soar through all the rainbows it left behind.”

            Alice couldn’t tell for certain, but it felt like her mother’s groaning grew softer, less urgent, and her grip loosened ever so slightly. They sat together until late into the night, when the storm finally ended.

***

            Cain sat in his office, eyes closed and shutters drawn. No sounds broke the silence, not even his own breathing. He preferred it this way – quiet, empty, alone.

            A scratching on the floor echoed through the room and into his ears. It wasn’t very loud, not really, but it was deafening through contrast. Cain frowned and cracked his left eye open slightly to see what was making the sound. A small marionette sat on his desk. It was dressed in colonial era garb and all of its strings were severed, leaving completely unbound.

            The puppet hadn’t been there when Cain had first closed his eyes.

            “What do you want?” Cain asked. He didn’t move nor did he open his eyes any further. He didn’t see the need.

            “Thurmond,” a voice said in a stage whisper, coming from the marionette’s unmoving mouth. “Is something wrong?”

            “Why would something be wrong?”

            “The woman. What’s her name? Abigail or Annabel? Annalisa or—”

            “Alice.”

            “Yes, what’s wrong with her? Why did you send her away?”

            “Because I decided to.”

            “But Thurmond, she was perfect. Don’t tell me you couldn’t see it, I know you could. You always see these things.”

            Cain opened his eyes and leaned forward. “Perfect for what, exactly?” he asked.

            “Come on, Thurmond, I’m trying here,” the puppet said. “Pain. Loss. Desperation. Resentment. And you just let her walk away, without even trying to—”

            “To what?” Cain’s voice was not angry but it conveyed the feeling all the same. “To strike some kind of deal with her? Some kind of bargain with dire obligations? Or maybe we should have made a bet that would be impossible for her to lose. Perhaps you’d prefer if I’d offered her a dead animal’s paw, is that it?”

            “Something,” the puppet said. “You used to be the Thurmond Cain, master of all things chaotic and crooked – and now you just sit around your shop all day. Remember the games we played? Bargains for a soul, contracts for a life, gambling with months and years instead of dollars and coins? What happened, Thurmond?”

            Cain sighed and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. “You never understood,” he said. “What’s the point of playing a game you know you’re going to win?”

***

            Alice awoke to the phone ringing once again. She briefly contemplated letting it go, but her mom was shifting and had a deep crease along her forehead – she didn’t like loud noises. So Alice gently got off the couch, being sure to lay her mother’s head down softly on the pillow, and tried to sprint to the landline as quietly as possible.

            I swear to god, if this is Craig again, I’m just going to hang up. Or if it’s Crawford . . . Alice picked the phone up and slowly closed the kitchen door before answering in a hushed tone. “Hello?” she said, fully prepared to slam it down on the receiver if she didn’t like who answered.

            “Alice Johansson, right?” said the voice on the other end. “Thurmond Cain, we spoke yesterday.”

            “Mr. Cain,” Alice said, surprised. “Umm – do you mind if I ask why you’re calling? You seemed pretty adamant yesterday that—”

            “Yeah, yeah, you asked for a job and I threw you out. I reconsidered. If you still need work, just come over today whenever you get a chance and we can figure it out.”

            “Wait, are you – you’re serious? I have a job? At the shop?”

            “Yes.”

            Alice fist pumped the air and nearly dropped the phone as she did. After a second of scrambling with the old, clunky device, she regained her hold. “Thank you so much, Mr. Cain,” she said. “I’ll be there right away.”

            “Or, you know, whenever,” Cain replied. “Really, there’s no rush.”

            “Okay. And thank you again.”

            “Uh huh. See you later.”

            Cain hung up before Alice got a chance to say goodbye, but she really didn’t care. Finally! It’s about damn time! Putting the phone back on its holder, a veritable ocean of possibilities drifted across Alice’s mind. We can stop dipping into the savings, maybe get Crawford off our backs a little bit, pay off some of the debts – hell, I could even get my car fixed!

            Alice knew she was letting her excitement get the better of her, but it was difficult to contain it. She hadn’t actually had a job since her mom’s incident, and the idea of having an income stream again was almost beyond belief. It would make everything so much easier, especially taking care of her mom.

            Oh crap. Mom.

            Alice peeked into the living room from around the kitchen door. Her mother was awake, it seemed, and staring at the blank television screen. Alice slowly stepped out of the kitchen and walked over to her, sitting down. “Hey,” she said.

            Her mom was silent.

            “I’m going to have to be out of the house for a while today,” she said. “I’ll probably have to be out a lot, actually – I got a job.” Alice grabbed the TV remote and hit the power button the screen blinked on to show grainy footage of a game show rerun – The Newlywed Game. “But I’m going to make some shakes for you before I go and I’ll see if I can find anyone to come over and keep an eye on you. Does that sound okay?”

            Her mom stared blankly ahead, the new couples from the TV reflecting off her eyes.

            “Okay,” Alice said, standing. “Okay.”

***

            Alice yawned as she pulled up to Cain’s shop. She’d only gotten a few hours of sleep the previous night, most of it punctuated by her mother’s groaning. Strangely, she never felt that drowsy when she woke up, but as she went about her day she always found herself nodding off at inopportune moments. Coffee and energy bars helped for a little while, but their effects always wore off quickly. She just hoped she wouldn’t fall asleep on the job – not that she really understood what the job entailed yet.

            Cain was sitting behind the counter, just as he had been the previous day. He turned around as she opened the door, even though there was no bell to signal her arrival. “Johansson,” he said. “I called you less than an hour ago. You did hear the part where I said you didn’t need to come in immediately, right?”

            “Yes,” Alice said. “I just figured, since I wasn’t going to do anything else today, I’d come in now.”

            “Nothing else? No prior obligations at all?”

            “None. So, what exactly is it you need me to do?”

            Cain nodded and stood up, stepping out from behind the counter. “It’s simple,” he said. “You sit and wait for people to come in. If they want something, they can take it, no questions asked.”

            “Wait, you mean it’s all free?” Alice asked, gesturing to the crowded walls of the shop.

            Cain gave a small, half-hearted chuckle. “Sure,” he said. “If they ask how much something costs, just tell them they can have it. Some people might come in and ask for me specifically – either for Mr. Cain or Thurmond Cain or they might just say ‘him.’ In that case, come get me in my office.” He indicated a small door near the back of the shop. “Otherwise, I’d appreciate being left alone. Do you understand everything?”

            “I suppose so.”

            “Wonderful. Come get me at around five and I’ll pay you for the day.” With that, Cain started towards his office.

            “Umm, Mr. Cain?” Alice said.

            Cain stopped and turned towards her. “What?”

            “Is that really all you need me to do?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you sure there isn’t anything else? Nothing more I could be doing?”

            “You’re the one who wanted a job,” Cain said. “Honestly, I don’t care whether you stay or leave, but only one of those options gets you paid. Your choice.”

            Without waiting for Alice to respond, Cain covered the remaining distance to his office impossibly quickly and shut the door behind him, leaving Alice alone in the shop.

***

            Alice hadn’t realized that she’d dozed off until she felt someone poking her arm and frantically sprung awake, arms flailing briefly as she got her bearings. Right – Cain’s shop, the job. She looked up and saw a man standing in front of her.

            He was a rather small person in many ways. His face was delicate, with thin features and shallow eyes covered by his spectacles. He wore a suit that had clearly seen better days and an obnoxious tie that demanded attention like a plane crash. In his left hand he held a metal briefcase and a wide smile was plastered across his mouth. “Hello,” he said in a predictably nasal albeit good-natured tone of voice. “I hope I didn’t startle you too much.”

            “No, not at all,” Alice replied. “I should have been awake, anyway. So, is there anything I can help you with? Anything in the shop you want?”

            “Oh, these things?” the man said, gesturing around to the clutter surrounding them with a chuckle. “No, I’d rather not test my luck. I’m actually here to see Thurmond, is he in?”

            “Yes, he’s in his office. I’ll let him know someone’s asking for him.”

            The man nodded and sat his briefcase down on the counter. Alice exited the counter and picked her way through the various odds and ends over to the office door. She knocked twice, and then again when there was no response. After waiting a moment, she cracked open the door and peeked inside.

            The office was very sparse and very dark. It looked like the only furnishings were a desk and a chair that Cain was currently sitting in, his back turned to the door. Some light filtered in through a window opposite Cain, but there was no other light source present. All in all, Alice decided that it was a very eerie office.

            “Uh, Mr. Cain?” she said. “There’s someone asking for you.”

            The room was silent for a moment and then Cain held up a hand, waving her away. “One moment,” he whispered, and yet she heard it as if he were standing next to her.

            Alice closed the door and made her way back to the counter, where the man had opened up his briefcase to reveal a portable chess set that he was just about finished setting up. “He should be right out,” Alice said.

            “Splendid,” said the man. “Oh, and I apologize – I haven’t properly introduced myself. Eustace Levine, at you service.”

            “Alice Johansson. Pleasure to meet you.”

            Eustace placed the final piece – a white bishop – on the board and then stood back. “So, Alice,” he said. “Tell me – how much do you know about my dear friend Thurmond?”

            Alice shrugged. “Not much, honestly,” she said. “I just started working for him today.”

            “Working for him?”

            “Yes. I’m supposed to greet people who come, let them take whatever they want, apparently.” She winced. “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t mention to him that I was asleep. I can’t really afford to lose this job.”

            Eustace frowned. “So . . . correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t owe Thurmond anything, do you? You aren’t here to work off a debt?”

            “No. Why would I be?”

            “Oh, no reason, no reason. And don’t worry, I won’t tell him you were taking a little nap – to err is human, after all.”

            “Levine.”

            Alice jumped a little. She hadn’t heard Cain approach, or come behind the counter, and yet he was somehow standing right beside her.

            “Thurmond, you old rascal!” Eustace said. “How’ve you been?”

            “We saw each other yesterday, Levine,” Cain said in monotone. “If I’d known it was you, I would’ve stayed in my office.”

            “Your words, sir,” Eustace said in mock offense, “they wound me so!”

            Cain sighed. “Let’s get this over with. Which color are you going to be today?”

            “I’ve got a good feeling about white. Besides, I think black appeals to you, doesn’t it?”

            “Not particularly.”

            “Ah, you’re no fun. No matter – let’s begin.”

            Eustace made his opening move, nudging a pawn across the board. Cain went almost immediately after Eustace’s hand had left the piece, and Eustace also followed Cain’s move with equal speed. Alice leaned over the counter to get a better view as their hands darted back and forth across the chessboard, moving and discarding pieces at an absurd pace. She could barely tell whose turn it was, let alone who was winning.
 

            After a few minutes, the pace of the game slowed and Alice saw that in fact Eustace was losing, and losing badly. His queen, a bishop, and both his rooks sat forsaken to the side of the board alongside a smattering of pawns, and Cain’s pieces were steadily encroaching on the white king.

            “Checkmate,” Cain said, moving a bishop into position. He didn’t sound particularly enthused about his victory.

            “Hmm,” Eustace mused. “What to do, what to do.”

            Alice frowned. “Isn’t the game over?” she asked. “That’s checkmate. There’s no way out that I can see.”

            “To that,” Eustace said, reaching for his discarded bishop, “I would say you aren’t looking hard enough.” With a little flourish, he toppled Cain’s bishop with his own and placed it on the board. Grinning, he looked to Cain. “Your move.”

            “Hold on,” Alice said. “What just happened?”

            “He cheated,” Cain said. “He always cheats.”

            “As do you, Thurmond.”

            “Yes,” Cain said, selecting one of his own lost pieces and placing it back on the board, “but you always cheat first.”

            “I don’t understand,” Alice said. “How can you still be playing if you’re both cheating?”

            Eustace shrugged. “If you cheat enough,” he said, “eventually cheating itself becomes a part of the game. Just one more rule to figure out and understand. True, it’s a nebulous rule, an enigmatic rule, one could even say a chaotic rule, but it’s still a rule.” He flashed a grin her way. “Besides, I’d lose if I didn’t cheat, and we can’t have that now, can we?”

            The game resumed its breakneck pace and Alice found it completely impossible to follow along. Pieces were removed and replaced for no apparent reason, moved around in ways that made no sense, and it seemed that at some point, the players switched sides. The board was a confused jumble of nonsense by the end, with Eustace grinning triumphantly as Cain sat back, his arms crossed.

            “Looks like I win again,” Eustace said. “Tough break, Thurmond. But hey, maybe you’ll beat me next time.” Cain was silent as Eustace packed up his chess set and left the shop whistling.

            “Umm,” Alice said. “Do you mind if I ask what just happened there?”

            Cain sighed. “Levine and I have a wager,” he said. “We’re supposed to play chess every day. If I beat him, he loses. If he keeps beating me, though, then he wins. To tell the truth, I’ve stopped seeking him out for matches. It’s really unpleasant listening to him gloat all the time.”

            “What’s the wager for?”

            “Nothing important. Anyway, it’s past five – time you were on your way home.” Cain produced a white envelope from his jacket pocket. “Payment for today.”

            Alice took the envelope and looked inside. Her eyes widened. “How much is this?” she asked.

            “A few hundred dollars, I think. Just take it, I’ve got no use for it.”

            “Wow. Uh. Wow. Thank you, Mr. Cain. This is . . . well, it’s very generous of you.”

            “No, it’s really not. Now please, go away.”

            Alice nodded and hurried out of the shop. She carefully deposited the envelope on the passenger seat in her car and started the ignition. The old machine wheezed and sputtered for a moment before starting up. In less than a second, however, the engine emitted a high pitched whine and then went completely silent as the car died entirely.

            “Oh, come on,” Alice muttered, turning the key in the ignition again. Nothing happened. The car didn’t respond to any of her attempts to get it started again, and on top of that a few small whiffs of white smoke drifted out from underneath the hood.

            Well that’s bad. No, don’t panic, I just need to call a mechanic. I should actually be able to pay him now, too. Alice removed her phone from her pocket just in time to see the charge go from ten percent to two and then the screen went black.

            “Well shit.”

            “That is by far the worst car I have ever seen.” Alice turned and saw Cain leaning against the wall of the alleyway. “How in the world is it even still in one piece?”

            Alice got out of her car. “No clue,” she said, walking over to Cain. “Hey, would you mind if I borrowed your phone? I need to call a tow truck or something.”

            “Hmm. Do you have the car key?”

            Alice frowned. “Of course I do,” she said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

            “Let me see it.”

            With a shrug, Alice handed him the key. Cain walked back down the alley to the shop door and opened it. “One moment,” he called back, and then entered, slamming the door behind him.

            A minute or so later, Cain emerged, key in hand. “Try it now,” he said, handing it back to Alice.

            “You know the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different things to happen, right?” Alice asked

            Cain chuckled. “That’s not insanity,” he said. “Just humor me, alright?”

            Alice sighed and walked back to her car. She got in, put the key in the ignition, and turned it. Much to her surprise, the car started up immediately. On top of that, all the regular whirring and clanking and whining was gone – the engine sounded as if it had just come off the assembly line.

            “Holy crap,” Alice said, leaning out the window towards Cain. “What did you do?”

            Cain shrugged. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, and he vanished back into his shop.

***

            Cain took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, keeping his back pressed against the shop’s front door. He felt stiff, like all the joints in his body had decided to stop working. “Idiot,” he muttered quietly, although he wasn’t sure who he was referring to.

            “I wouldn’t say that,” a voice said. Cain looked up and saw the marionette sitting on the counter next to the cash register, its head tilted to the side at such an angle that it seemed to be grinning. “In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve seen the real you in years.”

            “Stop talking,” Cain said, making his way over to the counter.

            “I don’t think so,” the puppet said. “This is all far too interesting to be quiet about. Why’d you do it, by the way? Fix her car?”

            “Perhaps I was just being nice.”

            The puppet laughed. “Please,” it said. “You don’t do nice, Thurmond. ‘Nice’ isn’t your thing.”

            “Really?” Cain asked, picking up the puppet and carrying it into his office. “Then what exactly is my thing, if you’re such an expert?”

            “Deals, bargains, pacts, accords, agreements, and of course the things they lead to – debts, reckonings, and the fallout that comes from people making poor decisions.”

            Cain shook his head. “That’s not why I did this,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to be manipulative or deceitful. I didn’t want to give her a favor.”

            “And yet you did. A job that pays much too well, a car that will never break down, and an intriguing, enigmatic boss who she can’t help but be fascinated with. Do you think she knows what you are, Thurmond? Do you think she suspects?”

            Cain tossed the puppet onto his desk, where it slumped but still retained an upright position. “I don’t care what she knows or what she thinks she knows,” he said, sitting. “I just don’t want this time to turn out like every other time. Like you.”

            It almost looked like the puppet shrugged. “I made my choices,” it said. “I knew that this was a possibility, and I’ve accepted how it all played out. But hey, maybe she’ll be different. Wouldn’t that be interesting, Thurmond? Someone who doesn’t take your offer?”

            “That would be.” Cain leaned back. “But no. You don’t understand like I do.”

            “What don’t I understand?”

            Cain was silent for a moment. “I used to enjoy what I did,” he said. “I thought it was exciting, unpredictable, unknown and unknowable. But it’s not. Breaking the illusion of the perfect, ordered world, showing people just how truly free they could be if they let go of everything – it used to be exhilarating, waiting to see what they’d do. But they always did the same thing, they always made the same mistakes, and now I see the irony of it all.” Cain chuckled without humor. “They have freedom,” he said. “They can do whatever they want, even if they don’t realize it. But me . . . I don’t. No matter what deal I offer or pact I make, nothing ever changes for me.”

            “So what are you going to do? About Alice?”

            “Nothing,” Cain said, sighing. “I’m going to do nothing.”

***

            Alice woke before her alarm went off and sat up, stretching. She didn’t really think that she needed an alarm – it had been several weeks since she’d started working in Cain’s shop, and he remained ambivalent about her hours. She tried to at least get in at around nine, but the few times she’d been late, he hadn’t seemed to notice. It didn’t affect her pay, at least, so she figured either he was worse at tracking time than she was or he simply didn’t care.

            After a quick shower, Alice stopped by her mom’s room and cracked open the door. She could hear soft breathing, so she quietly stepped away. It had been a little difficult, figuring out how to reconcile the necessity of having a steady income with taking care of her mother, but she’d managed to work it all out. She had a few neighbors who she was almost friends with and who she’d been able to guilt trip into coming over to keep an eye on things for a few days at first, and then she’d found a nursing service that did house calls. It wasn’t perfect and it cost a bit more than she would have preferred, but she could afford it now.

            He’s late. Alice frowned, craning her head to look out the front window. The nurse – his name was Kris, or Kevin, something that started with ‘K’ – usually arrived before she left or called when he was going to be late. She shrugged. He probably just forgot. Going to the living room, she flicked on the TV and lowered the volume to a buzz, then left. She’d call the agency from work, make sure that everything was alright, and besides, it wasn’t like her mother was completely helpless. She’d left her alone before, and it had been fine. It’ll be fine.

            There was no note taped to the front door as she closed it and Alice smiled. Even Crawford had stopped annoying her, likely due to the back-payments she’d finally begun sending the landlady. She was still a handful of months behind, but most of the pressure had been lifted. It felt good, like she was finally in control of things. Still smiling, Alice walked to her car, started it up, and drove off to her job.

***

            Eustace Levine was already in the shop when Alice arrived and the game was fully underway, pieces flying across the board so quickly it seemed a miracle they weren’t being flung about the room. Levine had a smug smile on his face while Cain’s expression was, as usual, impossible to pin down. Alice stepped around to the side and leaned against a shelf, watching.

            “Checkmate in four,” Levine said. “Really, Thurmond, it’s almost like you’re trying to lose.”

            “All I am trying to do is end this game and get you out of my shop,” Cain replied. “I really don’t care whether I win or lose.”

            “Oh please,” Levine scoffed. “I don’t know what’s up with this ambivalence act you’re trying on, but I know you, Thurmond. Remember when we first met? When we made this wager? You can’t tell me you don’t care when you so clearly do.”

            “Did. Past tense.”

            Levine sighed. “This used to be such fun,” he said, moving his rook across from Cain’s king. “Chess with you was always exhilarating, always a rush. Now it’s just gone stale. Checkmate, by the way.”

            “Stale, you say?”

            “Exactly. After all, what fun is playing this game when your opponent doesn’t even have it in him to beat you?”

            “What’s the point of playing a game you know you’re going to win.”

            “Precisely that, Thurmond.” Levine reached for his briefcase. “Ah, well. I’ll see you tomorrow, I suppose.”

            “You haven’t won yet,” Cain said.

            “Excuse me?”

            Cain took his king and moved it off the board so that it was sitting precariously on the edge. “The game continues,” he said. “Your move.”

            Levine frowned. Alice thought she saw something in his eyes as they darted from the board up to Cain and then back to the board. The confidence and brashness he exuded seemed to diminish slightly as his hand hovered over his rook. He finally moved it forward a space. “Checkmate,” he said, although the tone of his voice phrased it more like a question than a statement.

            “No,” said Cain as he moved his king to the side.

            The game continued. Alice leaned against the shelf and studied Cain as he played. She thought she could finally see something within his inscrutable face, something resembling an expression of . . . she couldn’t tell. But as the game started to slow, it became more and more defined.

            “No,” Levine muttered, grasping his king. “No, no, not now. No, I win, I always win.”

            “Checkmate in one,” Cain said evenly. “It’s over, Levine. No amount of cheating or bending of the rules will stop that.”

            “But I can’t . . . I don’t lose. I never lose.”

            Cain leaned forward. “Then what’s even the point of playing?” he asked. “To gamble is to take a risk. To bargain is to roll the dice. But eventually, if you play long enough, all risks get cancelled out and you see the pattern of the dice and you start asking yourself if you ever enjoyed this game to begin with. You stop wondering if you have a chance of winning and start wondering if you have a chance of losing.”

            Levine said nothing, simply staring down at the chessboard. His hand hovered over it, trembling. Alice almost stepped forward, but stopped herself. There was an uneasy tension in the shop that she hadn’t felt before. She found herself looking at Cain’s posture – his easy confidence, his burning gaze, his folded hands – and could hardly recognize the man.

            “Do you understand, Levine?” Cain asked.

            Levine nodded. “Yes,” he said, his voice hollow. “I do.” Levine moved a bishop a space and then collapsed backwards, defeated.

            “Good,” said Cain. “Then I concede.”

            Levine blinked. “You what?”

            “Concede. Surrender. Admit defeat.”

            “But . . . you’ve won.”

            “No. That’s the whole point, Levine. I could always beat you at chess, true – even the way you play it – but there is a certain loss in always winning. The only way out is to not even try to win, even when you can.”

            “I don’t . . .” Levine trailed off.

            “You won. Again. Like always. Now take your game and get out of my shop.”

            Levine slowly stood up and packed up the chessboard into his briefcase. He walked out of the store, and Alice noticed that the spring that was usually in his step was gone entirely.

            “That wasn’t about chess, was it?” Alice said, moving towards the counter.

            “Of course not,” Cain replied. He began walking to his office, but paused. “She’s alone, you know.”

            Alice frowned. “What?” she asked.

            “Your mother. There was a mistake at the nursing agency today and the nurse – what’s his name, Kyle? Kendall? – he thought someone else was filling in for him, and so he didn’t show up.”

            Alice frowned. “How could you possibly know that?”

            Cain didn’t seem to hear her. He turned and walked towards her, his eyes turned down. “She’s sitting in front of the television now,” he said quietly. “A bird hit the antenna, so it’s just showing static. She can’t tell the difference.” Cain looked at her. It wasn’t a sinister gaze, but Alice still felt a chill run down her spine. “She doesn’t remember you,” he said, and Alice wanted to protest, but somehow when he said it, the words felt true.

            “She’s my mother,” Alice said quietly. “She took care of me for almost my entire life, and now it’s my responsibility—”

            “Stop.” Alice went silent. Cain sighed and leaned against one of the shelves, its contents rattling as he did. “Don’t just say what you’re supposed to say,” he told her.

            “I love my mother.”

            Cain chuckled. “Yes, you love your mother,” he said. His voice seemed to have shifted – where before it had been calm and slow, it grew vibrant and alive, almost as if another person were talking. “You love her so much that you’ve spent the past few weeks coming here, where you don’t need to be around her. Where you can act like she’s not an anchor around your neck. Where you work for a mysterious man with enigmatic clients in a shop that is so far removed from your actual life that it may as well be nothing more than a fantasy. Is that it, Alice?”

            “Mr. Cain—”

            “Call me Thurmond.”

            “. . . Thurmond. Aside from insulting your only employee, I don’t see what you’re trying to accomplish with all of that.”

            Thurmond shook his head. “Still won’t admit it, eh?” he said. “Very well. I won’t force you to do anything. But I do want to offer you something that I haven’t offered anyone in a long time.”

            “And what’s that?”

            Thurmond leaned forward with a grin and the shadows seemed to clear from his face, leaving it plainly visible for Alice to see. There was something off in the proportions – the smile was too wide, the eyes were too small, and it looked like the bone structure underneath had been broken, leaving everything from his jawline to his nose crooked. “I want to offer you a deal,” he said. “A once in a lifetime chance to have everything you never knew you wanted.”

            “And what exactly do you think I want?”

            “What everybody wants – a life of your own, where you are free to do as you please. It’s what Levine wanted. It’s what all who come to this shop really want. What they need. What you need. Nothing tying you down, nothing binding you to the mundane or the ordinary – true freedom, Alice. What do you say?”

            Alice breathed out slowly. “It sounds nice,” she said. “But of course it would. What’s the catch?”

            “Oh, no catches here,” Thurmond said, his grin spreading even wider. “No tricks or ruses, no manipulation or deceit. I never fool my clients, Alice dear – they always know exactly what they’re getting. So there are no strings attached to this that I offer – only a consequence.”

            “Just one?” Alice chuckled humorlessly. “Well, what is it?”

            “Your mother.”

            The shop was silent. It had always been silent, Alice realized – she’d never been able to hear cars on the street outside or people talking as they passed by – but now it was as if the silence had a presence that filled the space between her and Thurmond Cain. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “What about my mother?”

            “Loathe as you are to admit it, she is what ties you, Alice. What binds you in place, what forces you to remain here. For you to have a life of your own, you will have to leave her behind. But do not fret.” Thurmond’s eyes narrowed. “I will make sure she is taken care of.”

            “Is that your deal? I’m just supposed to give you my mother, and then leave as if she means nothing?” Alice shook her head. “You can’t make me. You won’t – I won’t.”

            Thurmond shrugged. “I am not making you do anything,” he said. “I can’t, as a matter of fact. But should you take me up on this offer, Alice, as I said – a life lived freely means a life free from guilt, from pain, from regrets. You need only say yes, and it will be done. You need only—”

            “Yes.”

            Thurmond leaned back and his face was unreadable once more. Alice held her breath, though she wasn’t sure why. “Typical,” he said. His voice was more measured now, like it had been before. “I don’t know what I expected.”

            “Thurmond . . .”

            “Cain. Or Mr. Cain. Or perhaps just nothing – get out.” Alice frowned and Cain looked up at her. “Leave,” he said.

            Alice slowly made her way around the counter, keeping her gaze fixed on Cain as she walked to the front door. The handle was turning when she stopped. “What did you want me to do?” she asked.

            “Something else,” Cain said. “Something different. But no – I was being foolish, this whole time I thought . . . it doesn’t matter. People don’t change. They just don’t.”

            Alice sighed and opened the door. “Perhaps,” she said, turning away from Thurmond Cain, “but then, I guess you haven’t really changed either, have you?” Alice left and the door shut softly behind her.

***

            Alice stopped and turned off the ignition. She was just around the corner from her house – all she could see was the roof over the tops of the other houses, and yet she knew exactly what it would look like. The lights would all be off, save for the soft pulse of the TV from the living room. There would be no car in the driveway, no nurse inside, nobody except her mother.

            She doesn’t remember you.

            Her hands tightened on the steering wheel, but otherwise she didn’t move. It doesn’t matter, she told herself. It doesn’t. What matters is that I’m there for her.

            But you’re not there for her.

            You love her so much that you’ve spent the past few weeks doing everything you can to get away from her.

            She’s alone, you know.

            No one would need to know, she realized. She could just . . . leave. She could find work, send money to Crawford and the nursing agency. No one in town saw her all that much to miss her. Except for Cain. But that bridge is burned anyway.

            A once in a lifetime chance to have everything you never knew you wanted.

            There is a certain loss in always winning.

            I love my mother, she thought. I’m not just saying that. I’m not.

            The key was in the ignition. I have to go home. Just drive around the corner and park and go inside and take care of her and love her and . . . just keep doing that.

            Forever.

             She reached for the key.

            You need only say yes, and it will be done.

            Alice turned the key and the engine hummed easily to life. She shifted out of park, took a breath, and drove forward.