by Jane D’Aoust
“You’re not going to surprise me by stashing me away, are you?” Alexis blurted out, half-serious, “I’ve already been through a lot of crap, I don’t need more.”
The old man squinted at her. To her surprise, his previously-glum eyes lit up with amusement and he actually smiled at her from his plump, rosy face. She had to fight from tripping back because for a second he looked five, maybe even ten years younger, just from a simple tweak of his features. Even his old, ratty, checkered brown clothing looked better on him. Alexis was even more astonished to re-observe his trolley as a creation of great skill and dignity.
“This is good. You’re asking more questions. Try to hold onto that sense of wonder for as long as you can, Goldilocks. ’Cause once you’ve lost it, it may never return…” Pops replied, and his dark eyes twinkled ever so briefly from the glimmer of tears, a glimmer that vanished just as suddenly as it came.
She watched him wheel towards the back of the small shop, the grey hair around his bald crown flowing unevenly in the minor breeze from vents. Between those sounds, and the modest golden lights in the ceiling, Alexis suddenly had a surge of hope—real hope at long last. She felt safe, warm, and certain to please this man, and perhaps even the other people she had run into, including the sad exhibitionists of Sinner’s Way. This world was growing bigger and more diverse by the minute, for worse but also for better, in this case. If I’m able to stay here for as long as I can, she thought to herself, I should be all right; Pops doesn’t seem very young, exactly. I’m sure he’d be happy to have someone follow in his low-key service…
Alexis followed Pops to the even narrower, more comfortable space of the back, with its stout shelves of tools, and with more paint cans and strips of materials. It all looked quite exotic and smelled great. She was impressed at how clean and fresh it all came across as, for such an obscure and seemingly dead-end corner.
“Don’t you worry about not absorbin’ everything for the first time,” he said, patting her on the back, “It’s in most people’s nature to not want to change, even if they know it’s somethin’ that might help ’em. We believe we’re so comfortable in our own skins and that we’ve got it all figured out—but sometimes you need a wake-up call once in a while…” Alexis’s skin started to crawl, in anticipation of a rude awakening. “Like the people from the Golden Tracks?” she suggested, now desperate to aim his wistfulness at something other than themselves.
He chuckled dryly while uncovering some sample locks and mysterious kits. “Well, it’s somethin’ like that. Not all those people are pressed into their own stubbornness. You’ve met Worm?”
She froze. “Yeah! How’d you know?”
“He sprang by here to tell me you and Mav were comin’. He’s a good lad. Came from a good family, too, but sometimes you just got to take the garbage as well as the gold.” He stared at her hair while she looked down. Despite herself she asked, “How’d you lose your legs?”
Before Pops could even register the question, they heard a unexpected knock at the doorway.