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Exchanges, No Refunds

Sandra lives in Washington state with her husband, two teenage sons, and two cats. She is an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her work has appeared in such venues as Jim Baen's Universe, Crossed Genres, and Ideomancer. Her first collection of short stories, The Twelve Ways of Christmas, was released by Hydra House Books in 2012.

Sandra is a graduate of Clarion West 2010, and attended Taos Toolbox in 2013. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel.

"They wash ashore like moonbeams. I bring them in and lay them out to dry," the old man said from his stool behind the counter. The words lingered with hints of Latakia blend pipe tobacco. Dull yellow whiskers circled his mouth, those on his cheeks coarse and white. "Sometimes they're so tangled up it takes months to straighten them out. Folks should take better care of how they relationshipize. There's only so many to go around, you know?"
A middle-aged couple, her eyes soft and gray, his intense and brown. She frowned. He nodded. "We're looking for something different. Special," he said.
"Take your time," the old man said, and returned to cleaning his pipe.
Hand in hand, the couple browsed garters hung in colorful rows between displays of Pocky and salt-crusted hula dolls on weak springs. He pulled a strand from the display, blue with hints of summer sunlight--"I like this one."--and brought it to the counter, the middle-aged woman in tow.
"All righty. We don't take plastic, Mister. Cash in hand or nothing."
"Oh. Sorry about that." He pulled a crisp green fold out of his wallet.
The old man took the money. "Wanna check the fit?"
She nodded.
"Nah, it'll be fine," he said.
And lowered her eyes.
"Suit yourself." The proprietor cut the tag.
The middle-aged man hooked one end of the garter through his heart and the other through the woman's. He smiled, eyes wide, seeking her approval. She looked away, tolerant and distracted.
"Thank you," the middle-aged man said.
They returned a week later, garter unattached.
The old man still sat behind the counter, carving sea birds out of used Styrofoam cups. "Back so soon?"
"It was too tight. She wouldn't leave me alone, always telling me what to do but never what I wanted her to tell me." The middle-aged man frowned. "It's complicated."
"Yup. Them motherin' things are most times. Right knotty, too. There was one 'bout a month--"
"Do you have anything new?"
"Ayuh." The knife tip flicked bits of white in the direction of the display. "Found me some good ones down by the docks on Tuesday. Make an exchange if you like, but I don't do no refunds."
The couple took their time perusing possibilities, moving farther apart until fingertips were the only shared interest, and seldom at that.
The middle-aged woman stopped at the far side of the display, intent in her consideration. Her hand hovered between two silk strands: baby blue; cardinal sin red. She tentatively reached for one. "Maybe could we try--"
He held up black leather with silver studs. "This one looks good, right, hon?"
Soft gray eyes closed. She lowered her arm and shrugged with rounded shoulders.
He led her to the counter, rubbing his thumb over the studs in a rosary of anticipation.
The old man set the knife and coffee-speckled gull aside. "Found what you want this time?" He wedged a wooden toothpick between his teeth, rubbery lips positioning it just so.
"Oh, yeah." The middle-aged man fished out his wallet and threw money on the garter.
"Care to try this one on?"
The man answered before the woman could open her mouth. "I think we're good." He snagged the garter and then her heart, tugged to set the hook, threaded the other end through his own. "Oh, yeah. Plenty of play with this one. See?"
The middle-aged woman gasped and smiled cat pretty as she smoothed up to him, rubbing a calf along his leg. She whispered something in his ear.
"Have a good one," the proprietor said to the closing door.
Five days later, the middle-aged man dropped the garter on the counter. "There was too much play. She was more interested in away games."
"Ayuh." The old man sniggered and stuck the knife in the plank countertop. He swept the garter into a white plastic basket with a confusion of others. "Give it another try?"
The middle-aged man opened his mouth to speak.
"Yes, but I want to pick it out this time," the middle-aged woman said.
The middle-aged man frowned. "Um..."
She did not hesitate, heading to the far end of the display without him, returning with the so very red garter clenched tight. "I'd like to try it on, please."
The old man nodded. "Sure thing."
The middle-aged woman secured her heart and then hooked the middle-aged man.
"May I?" she said, shoulders squared, and jerked the knife out of the wood. It came up in a curve that caught the middle-aged man clean and crimson in the throat. He dropped at her feet in a spray of red. The garter stretched but did not break.
When he lay still and moist red, the middle-aged woman unhooked her heart and took his wallet. She set two bills and the knife on the counter--"Thanks."--and out the door she went.
She was nowhere to be found by the time the old man dragged the body out to the beach to feed the speckled birds. He pocketed the garter and went back inside for a tub of soapy water.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Author Comments

Months before starting this story, I watched a video about a man carving gulls from Styrofoam cups, and the images stuck with me. I wondered who else might carve such birds, and the shopkeep came to mind. I built the shop around him, the beach, the world, and finally the customers.

I love the interplay of relationships, the give and take, the possibilities. I wanted the challenge of portraying a relationship in decline, the slippery slope where communication is a thing of the past. In the end, I realized that what the shopkeep says is true--folks should take better care how they relationshipize.

- Xander Odell
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