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art by Shothot Designs

What Lies Between the Bread

Greg van Eekhout is a Nebula-nominated author whose short fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and several year's best anthologies, among other places. He writes novels both for adults and kids, including the contemporary mythological fantasy Norse Code, and the middle-grade novel Kid vs. Squid. He lives in San Diego. To learn more, visit his website: www.writingandsnacks.com.
Jessica might have been able to resist temptation had the shop smelled of dust and ghosts or perhaps perfume and Saharan sand and sold music boxes that played the tinkling melody of her every treasured and trampled childhood memory. Or, had it stocked books with titles like Shakespeare's "Tragedy of King Arthur" or Hemingway's "Saigon" or "Martin Luther King, Jr. Biography of a President," she might have kept going and walked right on by.
But it wasn't that kind of shop.
It was a sandwich shop.
Jessica had skipped breakfast that morning and her stomach mewled with hunger. Strange little shop or not, her appetite overtook her caution. She steeled herself against whatever ironic fate might befall her and pushed through the door.
The shop was a little dark, but not unnaturally so, and the aromas were rich with spices and pickles and a tinge of grease, but not in a way that screamed "uncanny" or "disturbing." Jessica approached the counter, situated atop a glass case containing meats and cheeses.
A man in a white apron wiped his hands on a towel. "What can I do for you?"
He was dark, with tight, black curls, and bright eyes, and red lips that curved in a slightly suppressed smile.
"Don't you have a menu?" Jessica said, failing to spot one. She actually didn't expect the place to have a menu. These little shops were never so straightforward as to have menus. Unless they were menus written in arcane and largely forgotten languages.
"No point in menus," the man said. "The fare changes all the time."
Aha, thought Jessica. So that was their game: changing fare. "And what do you... specialize in?"
The man let a silent beat pass. He blinked. "Sandwiches," he said.
"I know that. That's what it says on your window."
"And that's what we serve. So... shall we start with your choice of bread?"
"Wheat?" Jessica ventured. "Possibly made from the grain of Neper, an aspect of Osiris the dismembered god who rules the Egyptian underworld?"
"We do have wheat bread," the man said, "but it's made in Kansas."
"Oh," she said, somewhat crestfallen. "That'll be fine. And as for meat... I don't want human, or kraken, or the body of Christ, or anything too weird. I'd take mammoth, though, or mastodon, as long as it's fresh."
The man looked distinctly uncomfortable. Embarrassed, even. "The roast beef is very nice, if a little rare. And our pastrami is a family recipe. First rate."
"Family recipe, you say?"
He nodded.
"And where is your family from, exactly?" Were she the wagering type, she would have put her chip down on Atlantian royalty.
"Kansas," said the man. "Kansas City, Kansas."
Jessica pinched the bridge of her nose. She was getting impatient. "Let's skip ahead," she said. "What's the most exotic condiment you've got?"
The man considered a moment, scanning the work counter behind him. "Mustard," he concluded. "Dijon. Normally we have a tarragon mustard, but we're out. Sorry."
"Mustard?" Jessica repeated, incredulous. "And wheat bread from Kansas City, Kansas? Look, I know this street. The tavern and the stationary store never had a sandwich shop between them before. You just showed up here, all full of weirdness and strange little shoppiness, but, man, you're just sucking at it."
"You're very perceptive," he said, with what almost seemed like sincerity. "Have you ever asked yourself where shops like us go when we disappear?"
"Sure," Jessica said. "But it's a secret. Isn't it?"
The man shrugged. "Maybe, if I were selling heart-rending previews of your finest moment in life, or candles imbued with the ghosts of your children-to-come. But I'm just selling sandwiches. What have I got to lose by telling you?"
Now it was Jessica's turn to shrug. "So? Tell me."
The man cracked his knuckles, took up his knife, and sawed through a loaf of wheat. "When my shop fades from this street, from this town, from this world, it goes to a place where they find nothing stranger, nothing more eldritch, nothing more unworldly than processed cheese. They're frightened and fascinated by salami. They flip out over iceberg lettuce. This street of yours, this town, this world... this is just where I come to do my shopping."
Jessica had nothing to say in response. She selected a bag of sour cream potato chips and a Pepsi, collected her sandwich, and left the shop. She ate her lunch on a park bench across the street, trying to imagine a world in which the taste of roast beef made people think unimaginable thoughts.
The next day, when she came back to the shop, it was no longer there. She admitted disappointment to herself but was somewhat consoled when she remembered she had a coupon for 10% off at Quiznos.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, November 18th, 2010

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