It stood on the corner of 6th and Queens, a mysterious, run down place that must have fared better in bygone days. The old wooden sign creaked tauntingly in even the slightest of breezes. Its words were a faded mess of rotting wood, chipping paint, and half-starved maggots, over a door that looked much the same. A hunk of something that cautiously resembled meat hung in the storefront window; in all my years growing up I’ve never seen it change. A drop of something red glinted with an uncomfortable freshness on the front steps, which were otherwise unremarkable save for a thick layer of dust and grime. It stood alone, across the street from the little unkempt cemetery and the charred remains of the community church, rebuilt twice only to be burnt down thrice, and each time in the most unexplainable of ways, until the people despaired and spat and swore that the hamlet was haunted, cursed, and a better one, more religiously correct and rather less prone to spontaneous combustion, was built in the next village over, as if we were too small, too insignificant, in this godforsaken place that even the angels couldn’t bear to stay.
Our ma used to say it was bad business. “Y’all just stay out of it,” over the crusts and canned soup, “it’s a nasty, nasty place.” She herself avoided it like the plague, but then again, we were always too poor for meat. Of course, being boys we partook in our fair share of self-inflicted terror, daring and threatening each other by degrees to shuffle, all smooth-like, past the front steps, or else to fling pebbles and pine cones at the windows, until one day little Charlie underestimated his arm and knocked the copper handle awry with a rock and we scattered, like so many little mice in the presence of cats, to the relative comforts of our homes.
And it all could have ended there, except it didn’t.
Now, never you mind how it happened. Marty made me swear not to tell it; ma would’ha surely skinned him if she knew, and then Marty’ll surely skin me. But in any case, one early afternoon a few months later found me pushing through the decomposing doors into the beyond.
The air inside smelt musty and foul. From the cracked ceiling hung a single oil lamp, so caked with dust that the light flickered and struggled to breathe. Along the back wall stood a large countertop, its glass cracked and grimy, the cuts of meat inside, if it was meat, oddly green along the edges.
The cash register wallowed alone in a dark corner by a moth-bitten curtain, with keys sprouting in all directions but up. Shelves clung lopsidedly for dear life, carrying smoked ham, salted beef, and whole, feathered chickens with their throats slit and their tongues between their beaks.
There was no one there.
I stood, gaping, somewhat intrigued, mostly terrified, at the tables sagging under the weight of its wares. Braised cow ears, lamb intestines, pig hearts. Jars of unidentifiable organic matter. A pitcher of something I could have sworn to be blood, dark red and tinny, brown clumps floating within. A large battered metal crate, taller than I, lay forgotten on the floor, its bars bent this way and that, as if whoever was inside had just recently been struggling to get out. Trays of marinated gizzards, minced game, and pickled…eyeballs?
“How may I be of service?”
Veering around at the sound of the low, dawdling voice, I came face to face with a thin, balding man. Perched on top of a long, thin nose was a pair of cold eyes, the irises nearly as pale as the whites. He smiled, or sneered, for the mirth never quite reached his eyes. His apron was horribly discoloured, the whites now a sickening yellow and in places, freckled with blood.
He walked behind the counter and leaned over to me, with tremendous effect. Watching me all the while, he opened his mouth and licked his chapped lips, exposing rows of imperfect yellow teeth.
“Pleases, sir. I’d only been looking around.”
“Look all your heart desires,” was his wheezing reply, never once taking his beady eyes off me. He followed my every step with an equal one behind the counter, and stared with the same intensity I was trying to employ to his wares. At intervals he’s sniff the air, like a hungry hound, a sound that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. While I was frantically feigning interest in the jars of pickled quail, he lunged towards me over the countertop so suddenly I nearly yelped.
“I can make a good stew outta you.”
“I-I’d think not, sir. Not much on me, as you can see, sir.”
To be doubly sure he did, I puffed my chest towards him and pointed at my ribs, ribs that I’ve never been so proud of before or hence in my life. For a horrible second, he glanced down at it with interest, then laughed.
I breathed a sigh of relief that was cut short by the grip of his filthy, yellowed nails on my arm.
“You’re right, boy,” he said. “You’ll need a bit of fattening up. Come back next year, you hear?” He shook me roughly until I let out that I had. Only after making me promise to do so “or you’ll catch it” did he let go. As I rushed to leave, he casted a meaningful look at me and nodded towards his huge knife with a smirk.
I never saw him again, the owner of that dingy place. Some say he had abandoned the business long ago, while others believe he perished when the building suddenly collapsed in on itself, the product of years of worm-hollowed wood, but I know he’s still out there, somewhere, waiting.
Even now, I can sometimes hear the sounds of sharpening knives, or feel the warmth of his rank breath about my ears.
word count: 1004