Welcome to Fiction Friday. For today, a short story.

The search for a place to park had put Martha off the Downtown art walk before she even reached the first gallery.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned, jelly-shoed, romper-wearing hipsters spilling out onto the pavement did nothing to help.  It was near impossible to even get into the gallery for a clear look at the exhibit, which appeared to involve old plastic doll parts, a blowtorch, and chicken feathers.  She managed to squeeze back out of the room without anyone spilling two-buck Chuck on her clothes and made her way to the next gallery, which contained only half as many hipsters and (which probably accounted for the smaller crowd) some very nice black-and-white photographs of rusted industrial equipment.  Martha spent a while with these, wondering if the crowds at the other gallery would appreciate their quiet simplicity or if they were too ordinary to satisfy this generation’s insatiable appetite for the “edgy”.
Once that exhibit had been thoroughly examined, she moved on. The next stop was overflowing with more wine-drunk hipsters, so she headed down the street.
Looking around for the next likely place, her gaze fell on a small storefront sandwiched between a defunct watch repair shop and a convenience store.  MYSTERY HOURS, the sign above the door read.  It was done in blue Art Deco tile, with a dusty, still-working brass clock set in the “O”.  There was a light on inside, and the window display of antiquarian books and dusty old knickknacks was so appealing that she had to have a look around.

A tiny bell heralded her entrance into something that definitely wasn’t just a bookstore.  In addition to shelves of old books in all languages, a glass case displayed wrought iron jewelry and trinkets accented with stones of different colors.  A corner cabinet held bottles of perfume with faded Art Nouveau labels.  Looking closer, Martha was able to make out strange names like “Dusk #2” (in an iridescent blue bottle) and “Halcyon” (in a delicate clear bottle with white swirls).

A noise from a far corner caught her attention.  Here an old-fashioned console TV was showing video of a modern woman staring directly into the camera.  She appeared to be speaking, shouting even, but static in the picture and audio garbled her words; it was almost as though she was speaking backwards.  The eerie faded image sent a chill up Martha’s spine and she turned away, only to be faced with what appeared to be a piece of parchment in a  frame, but the words on it kept changing.  First it said I WANT, which faded into some sort of Medieval French text, which faded entirely until the first words slowly appeared, this time in a different color.  She told herself it was a high-tech trick, but couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t quite natural.  Or the feeling that someone was…

She turned around quickly, to find a woman emerging from a curtained area in the back.  It was almost a relief to discover that someone really was watching her.

The woman wasn’t much older than Martha, about thirty, with shimmering waist-length red hair.  Her dress appeared to be handwoven, a simple long tunic in sage green, cinched with an iron-accented leather girdle and worn with beaten-up brown boots.  She smiled.  “May I help you?”

“I…” Words suddenly failed Martha, who wasn’t quite sure how to ask about the parchment and somehow didn’t think she wanted to know.

“Just browsing?”  The red-haired woman perched on a high stool next to the antique cash register.  “Happens a lot on Art Walk nights.”

“Is the Art Walk good for business?”  Martha turned back to the case of jewelry.  It looked like it hadn’t been opened in months.

The woman waved dismissively. “These young ones, with their mayfly memories and surface understanding.  They only see the next gallery and the next glass of cheap wine.”

“That’s too bad,” Martha said, with a sudden feeling that this woman, though she looked thirty, was immeasurably old.

“Not really,” the woman said as she wound her hair into a knot and pinned it with a magnificent metal comb.  Getting down off the stool, she joined Martha at the display case.  “Those who see what’s here and appreciate it for what it is, though rare, are always worth the wait.”  She gave Martha a searching look.  “See anything you like?”

Martha pointed.  “That one.”

“That one” was an iron ring with a green stone set in it.  “Protection,” the redhead said, with another searching look.  “Yes, I think that’s right.”  She took a key ring that hung from her girdle by a chain and unlocked the case.  Before placing the ring in Martha’s hand, she examined the stone carefully and rubbed off a bit of dust.

The green stone gleamed brilliantly, and looked dramatic against Martha’s dark skin. “It suits you,” the woman said.

Once it was on her finger, Martha knew she had to have it.  She reached into her purse for her wallet.  “I’ll take it.”

The redhead smiled.  “An excellent choice.”

While her purchase was rung up, Martha gathered the courage to ask — “That parchment with the changing words…”

The woman’s eyes twinkled.  “Just a trick for the easily impressed.”

Seeing that no further explanation was forthcoming, Martha paid, thanked the woman, and left with the ring on her finger.

It had grown much darker since she went into the shop, but not so dark that the drivers on the street could all be bothered to turn their headlights on. A taxi narrowly missed her as it blasted through the intersection she was crossing to reach the next gallery.

Once safely inside, Martha went to get a glass of wine.  The crowd of skinny-jeaned boys near the refreshment table had turned a bit rowdy… she had to dodge a couple of staggering “patrons of the arts” just to get within reach of the table.  As her hand closed around a plastic cup, one of the boys shoved another, who spilled his drink.  It should have landed on Martha’s white blouse, but somehow fell to earth right at her feet.  Another boy stumbled, and should have bumped her at least, but went careening wildly into the nearest wall.

A glint of green drew Martha’s attention to the ring on her finger.  “Protection,” she mused, thinking of the red-haired woman’s words.

Suddenly weary of the crowds and the mediocre art exhibits, Martha set her cup down and walked outside.  It would be dark by the time she got back to her car, and she needed to get home anyway.  As she walked back to the parking garage, another speeding taxi flew up the street, hitting a puddle. Not a drop fell on her.  “Protection.”  Martha smiled and looked back towards the little shop, but couldn’t make it out in the growing darkness.  If she didn’t know better, she’d have sworn it had disappeared. Shrugging, she adjusted her bag on her shoulder and continued on her way.

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