“Noooooo!” Lynn’s cries of distress came out high pitched and quiet; a pathetic mumbling carried away by the wind. The well worn strap, all but threadbare, snapped off her shoulder tumbling onto the downtown sidewalk. That hadn’t been when she cried out though. That had only earned a well deserved curse of “Dang it!” It wasn’t ideal, but she could have just tied the two ends of the strap together with a box-knot, or carry the bag under one arm.
The pathetic “Nooooo!” came out when she lifted the bag up off the pavement and the bottom dropped out. Diapers, wipes, plastic toys, board books, coloring and art supplies spilled out like salt through sieve. Her diaper bag was now officially useless. Lynn should have expected it considering how overloaded she tended to keep it and how much abuse had put upon it through the years. She did expect it, in fact. It’s just that the breakdown in her mind never explicitly happened in when it would be inconvenient. Thing about breakdowns is they weren’t breakdowns when they were convenient.
This was possibly the worst time. Lynn had a job in just a little over an hour, Wal-Mart was on a completely different bus route, and she didn’t have enough money on her to buy a replacement bag besides. She was babysitting Bradley too. She NEEDED most everything in her bag to deal with Bradley; the kid had the energy of a sugared up ten year old, the body of a two year old, and the attention span of a six month old.
She NEEDED to be prepared for Bradley.
And now she was being a litter bug!
She had a job in just a couple hours, too. What was she going to do? Looking up at the sky in a form of desperate prayer, Lynn saw the sign hanging from the old Not-Bank. “Lost Things Found” and “Grand Opening”.
Huh. Another new store. It’d be lucky if it made it half-a-year in this spot by the corner, but maybe it was something she could take advantage of in the now. Maybe she could ask for a garbage bag or something to lug all her supplies in. A tacky garbage back was better than being unprepared, especially for Bradley. Her arms overfull with baby supplies, Lynn climbed the steps and walked through the open, heavy wooden door.
It was dark inside. Pitch black. The only light was the one from outside. “Hello?” Lynn called out. Her voice didn’t echo back, but that was the only sign that the place wasn’t completely abandoned.
Lynn felt no gust of wind, heard no footsteps behind her, heard no vacuum or rushing of air. All the same, the heavy door of the place slammed shut behind her. “EEEEEEEEP!” Her various supplies went clattering to the floor. Completely blind, Lynn went to dash to the door; to push it or pull it (which way had it been opened? Lynn hadn’t paid attention) and rush back out into the open air. In the stillness and darkness, the place seemed more like a tomb than a room.
The girl hadn’t had the time to properly turn around and run screaming when she was struck blind yet again by the sudden flashing of lights from above.
“Ahhh!” A deer in the headlights, Lynn froze, holding her hands up to her face and blinking away the pain as her pupils undilated themselves.
“Terribly sorry about that,” a new voice said. A new voice, but not a young voice. Lynn turned back around to away from the door and into the shop. Standing in front of her was an elderly, wrinkled man, in a clean white button up shirt. He was bald on top of his head and was completely clean shaven but had patches of white hair wildly streaking out the sides and back, not unlike a certain politician.
Very much unlike a particular democratic socialist, this old man hunched himself over a cane, and his glasses were so thick they made his eyes seem bigger than his mouth. The weather wasn’t nearly cold enough to merit the light brown, sweater jacket he had draped over his shoulders, but he stood there with a quiet shaking shiver all the same.
“Still working on getting the lighting fixed,” the old fellow said. He was a grandpa of sorts, Lynn thought. Elfish, and good humored. She might be wrong, but her nose was picking up traces of caramel candy and she could swear it was coming from him. “You know how these old buildings can be.”
“Y-y-yeah.” Lynn stuttered. She took a breath and collected herself. There was nothing to be afraid of here. “Yeah.” The old man smiled. His mouth was so jowelly and wrinkled, he looked like a kind of friendly dog when he did so. An old basset hound that had long ago finished hunting and was now content to curl up by the fireplace and softly wag its tail for a pat on the head.
“So…” the elderly shopkeep said. “How can I help you, young lady? Is there something I can help you find?”
Her shock over, Lynn remembered why she had stumbled in to begin with. “Yes, do you have a trash bag I could have?”
The old man adjusted his glasses and looked around the chess patterned floor of the old building. “Trash bag?” he said. “I suppose so. But why?”
“To pick up my-” Lynn stopped and looked to the floor herself. The bundle of diapers and baby toys and supplies that had gone smattering to the floor when she’d startled were now completely gone. Vanished from existence. “Oh…” That was odd. “I thought...it’s just. Never mind.” She turned around to go and open up the heavy wooden door back out onto the town square. “Thanks anyways, I guess.”
“Maybe I can help you find something…?” The old man piped up just as she reached for the wrought iron handle. “This is a curio store. Something for everyone.”
Lynn froze and turned around. “A curio store…?” She’d never heard the term before, but was too embarrassed to ask.
The fellow was quick on the uptake. “I’m a collector of sorts. Many adventures. Many artifacts. Many strange discoveries.” He said, his voice gaining a kind of strength. “I’ve traveled the worlds, discovered many fascinating artifacts lost to the ages. And after I find them, I look to sell them.”
Lynn stuck out her lip and thought. “So you’re a treasure hunter?”
“Treasure hunter, explorer, antiquities dealer.” His blink was slow and his gaze friendly but fierce; like an owl in a children’s book. “I’ve got a little bit of everything here. Maybe one of those everythings can help you…”
This was stupid, Lynn thought. No way would an antique store have a diaper bag. Even if it did, there was no chance he also had diapers or knick knacks for distracting bratty toddlers. No way. Still; maybe an old purse would work; she could at least prep for the future. Diaper bags were almost more expensive than purses in some instances. Worst he could say was ‘no’.
“I was actually looking to replace my old diaper bag,” Lynn said. “It kind of broked.”
The shopkeep adjusted his glasses again and peered at her. “A little old to still be needing diapers, ain’tcha?”
Lynn’s face blushed deep crimson. She’d heard enough jokes whispered behind her back about wanting a baby. Lots of snickering about putting the cart before getting the horse. No one had ever gone the other way, before and suggested she might need the contents for herself.
“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” The old man’s laughter was high pitched and cawing like a crow. “I’m just joshin’ ya, miss. I’m just joshin’. A bit of good natured ribbin’ is all.” On quickly shuffling feet he turned and started around the store. “Let’s see if we have anything in the baby section for ya.”
‘Store’ felt like a misnomer to Lynn as she followed behind the quick shuffling feet and the sure and steady cane. The inside of this place seemed more like a museum. Everything was in displays behind glass cases. More foreboding to Lynn was the fact that nothing had a price tag. Much of the items here had a feel of ‘if you have to ask you can’t afford it.’
“What’s an Aztec Chastity Fetish?” Lynn wondered aloud reading the plaque of one. It was a tiny little bauble that vaguely looked like a swaddled up infant.
“Oh you won’t be wanting that,” the shopkeep laughed. “That one’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
Taking out a ring of keys out of his pocket the shopkeep unlocked another case. “This though. This might be more your speed.” It was a plain looking grey satchel bag, made of rough hewn fabric. Nice enough. Rustic in a way. In good condition. Lynn wouldn’t have looked twice at it if she’d seen it at Wal-Mart though. “Think fast!”
With surprising alacrity, the old man reached into the case and lobbed the bag at the young lady. On reflex, Lynn caught it. But when she looked down at what she caught, it no longer seemed quite so worn, quite so grey, or quite so rough. “
”What the?” Now in her hands was a polyester tote bag, light grey on the bottom but aquamarine on the top and all sorts of strange, vaguely Asian looking symbols etched into it in gold; shimmering like stars. The inside was the stiff easy to clean waterproof plastic that didn’t soak anything in.
How did? What did? A trick of the light, perhaps? “What do you think?” the shopkeep asked, his voice full of genuine genial sounding curiosity.
There’s no way she could afford something this nice with what little pocket money she had on her. “It’s very nice, but-”
“Now close it.”
Lynn looked up from the bag. “Excuse me.”
“Close it,” the old fellow repeated himself. “Go on. See for yourself?”
Lynn closed the bag. Simple enough. “Okay…?”
“Now before you open it,” the shopkeep said, “whisper something you’d get from a baby bag like that. It doesn’t have to be too loud, just loud enough so the bag knows you’re talking to it. It can be a toy, a diaper, wipes, anything.”
Lynn frowned, thinking this was some kind of trick. “Anything?”
“Okay…” Lynn closed her eyes and whispered, “Target Brand Up & Up diaper, Size two.” Something just specific enough to invalidate whatever trick this might be. Yet when she opened up the bag, laying there waiting for her was a Target Brand diaper, Size 2. The blood that had turned her cheeks red rushed in the opposite direction. “What the?!” She picked the diaper up and shook it open with her free hand. “How?! This is exactly..-?”
“Keep going,” the shopkeeper encouraged. “Don’t just do diapers.”
Lynn closed the bag again and did so. “Teething ring?” Yup. “Bottle?” Yup. “Sippie cup?” Yup. “Plastic keys?” All colors of the rainbow. Rational thought was giving away to pure astonishment. “What is this?!”
That same friendly smile returned, now a little more knowing; a little more mischievous. “It’s the equivalent of a diaper bag from the Lost City of Shangri-La. Every baby gets one. Kids need taking care of for a lot longer in a city where everyone is functionally immortal.”
“How does this even work?!” Lynn was struggling not to shout like she was on a roller coaster. It was a miracle, a gosh darn miracle!
Still leaning on his cane, the shopkeep managed a shrug. “Beats me,” he said. “I never asked. I just know that it does work. Try makin’ something up. Has gotta be for a kid though. It’s a baby bag, remember.”
Lynn blinked. Down at the close bag she whispered, “A pink ball that bounces until somebody catches it.” Then added, “No choking hazards, please.” When she opened it, the bag now had a pink rubber ball squishy with inflation.
Carefully she lifted it out of the bag, and then with much internal pomp and circumstance dropped it on the floor.
The ball bounced. And bounced. And bounced. And bounced. Eyes like pinballs, they followed the ball as it bounced up and down in perpetuity. Up and down. Up and down. Never gaining any speed or height, but never losing any either. It was a rose colored spherical metronome.
It was physics breaking. It was magical. It was quite literally the perfect baby bag. “I’ve got to have this,” Lynn blurted out. The moment she said it she regretted it because she knew it to be true.
“Thought you might like it,” the shopkeep said, self-satisfied.
She didn’t have a cane, but Lynn’s shoulders slumped anyways. “I can’t possibly af-”
“Ah-ah-ah!” the old fellow interrupted. “There’s a reason I don’t have price tags. I’m a practitioner of the age old art of haggling! I love me a good haggle! The bag isn’t yours until we agree on a price or until we agree that we can’t come to one.”
“Ah-ah-ah!” Again she was cut off. “I’ll start, I’ll start.” His glasses had started to slide down his nose and he pushed them up. “Bidding starts at one hundred smackeroos!”
One hundred? That was a steal for a miracle such as this. It was also twenty times the amount of money that she had on her. “I only have-”
“No no no!” Tufts of wild hair shook furiously. “Don’t tell me your limit. That takes the fun out of this. Low ball me!”
A bit of bile, a sour burp, threatened to explode out of Lynn’s mouth. “Low ball?” It sounded vaguely sexual. Meanwhile the pink bouncing ball wasn’t getting any lower.
The fellow must have read between her lines. He smacked his forehead. “People today! Lowball! Make me a counter offer that’s far too low. Insult the bag! Make me lower the price because I want to sell it more than you want to buy it.”
Living her whole life in a corporate retail world and never having been to so much as a flea market, Lynn didn’t miss the point as much as it was a completely foreign. “But I DO want to buy the bag. Really badly”
Tiny feet scuffled forward, and a bony finger shot up. “I know that,” the old man whispered. “You know that. The bag knows that. But the price doesn’t. So go on. Make me a counter offer.”
This was ridiculous. But if it got her the bag… “One dollar,” Lynn said. “No! Fifty cents! This bag isn’t that good.”
Like an overacting theater kid, the shopkeep made an exasperated scoff. “Fifty cents! You’re trying to rob me, you are! This bag is one of a kind! One of a kind! Try fifty dollars!”
“One of a kind?” Lynn said. “You told me that every baby in the Lost city of whatever had one of these. I’ll give you two dollars.”
“Oh-ho!” The shopkeep laughed. “You’re getting the hang of this!”
“Welcome!” They returned to the ritual. “Fine, it’s one of a kind HERE! In this city! Twenty dollars.”
Still out of reach. Lynn made a show of curling her lip. “I don’t know if I’m going to get twenty dollars use out of this diaper bag. It only makes baby stuff! Three dollars.”
“Ten dollars,” he play spat back. “It’s magical. Can take care of any baby forever.”
“Four dollars,” Lynn countered. “Kids grow up. Nature of my business changes once they don’t need baby stuff.
“Seven dollars,” the shopkeep replied. “Lasts for ages in Shangri-La.’
She was running out of money. “Four fifty. We’re not in Shangri-La.”
“FIVE DOLLARS” he hollered. “FIVE DOLLARS, A HANDSHAKE, AND A PROMISE TO REFER CUSTOMERS TO ME!”
“DEAL!” They shook on it. Lynn gave the strange little man a five dollar bill, and walked out of the now re-opened door with the most miraculous thing she’d ever found.