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Thrifting with the Snow Queen

M. J. Pettit is an academic and writer. His fiction has previously appeared in Compelling Science Fiction, Nature, Toasted Cake, Riddled with Arrows, and numerous times in Daily Science Fiction.

Saturdays are reserved for charity shops and thrift stores. On this, Marnie and I agree. No matter the troubles the weekdays bring, on Saturdays we always make the time to ride the 142 bus to Didsbury, the choicest hunting ground in our vicinity.
Our day starts at the teashop off the high street. Sitting at our table by the front window, we share a pot of the house's Rooibos blend. My cup quickly emptied, I consult the sediment at the bottom. Nothing. But then, even when I soothsaid for a living, tasseography was hardly my forte.
I get up and peruse the adjacent bookroom, leaving Marnie to finish her tea. A familiar mustiness fills my nostrils. They keep this place damper than these treasures deserve. I crouch to leaf through a shelf of yellowed and fraying pulps, searching for the November 1971 issue of Winter Tales missing from my collection. The hunt is futile. I'm told that issue never saw print in this realm. Yet, I keep checking, hoping to get lucky and chance upon the discards left by some passing Traveler. When you possess next to everything, it's amazing what you'll cast off.
I move on to the geography section. It disappoints. Hardly changed from last week. Thumbing through the guides to local trails and canals, I take a risk on The Portals to Paradise: An Atlas. I open it at random only to find the pages static and hopelessly out of date. The 1982 edition. All those portals are now sealed. Ever since our Fall.
I find Marnie sipping the dregs of her tea. She doesn't need to ask. "Better luck next week, Balthazar. You'll find it, I'm sure."
She hands me my coat. The afternoon's a-wasting. Time we moved on to the Oxfam shop.
Marnie has her method as I've got mine. She heads straight to the display of picture frames as she always does. She opens the back of every frame and pulls out the faded, 1980s stock photo inevitably contained within. Turning the photographs over, she inspects each one for secreted messages scrawled in faded ink. Marnie hungers for any link to the old country, a word left by the still faithful, though we both know the time has come to move on and accept our new home.
I take a different tact. I drift towards the rear of the store, ignoring the racks of ratty jumpers and shoulder-padded suits. One cannot force the hunt. It begins where it begins. Besides, the greatest pleasures come from the search. Let go, keep an open mind, and providence will provide. Except when it doesn't.
Furniture is always hit or miss. Upholstery remains a decided no after the moth incident. Yet, we persist. The items manufactured in this realm possess a certain warmth, hold a certain charm. I've come to fancy those made out of cherrywood, though I tolerate genuine pine and even particleboard if the design is just right. Better than my old desk, carved from solid ice.
A triumphant Marnie finds me considering a teak nightstand for the guestroom. She holds a battered old magazine, missing its front cover. I shake my head.
Her face scrunches. "How can you tell?"
"A true connoisseur knows."
She insists on buying it for me. Marnie rewards the loyal.
We proceed to the register, rehearsing our weekly debate about where to stop next. The cashier, a stooped woman with rinse-dye hair, is new today. "Where are you two from? Not around here." She means nothing by it. Spotting accents appears the favorite hobby in this Northern town. They can usually pinpoint a person to a few kilometers. "Canada? New Zealand?"
"Yes," I reply, unconvincingly.
The cashier bends for a carrier bag, returns out of breath. "Then why would you ever come here?"
Marnie bristles. Exile isn't easy. It's damper here than Paradise. Everything ages and wastes, including us. Marnie thinks I don't notice when she plucks the greys from her once raven locks. The Folk judged her harshly. They called her the ice queen. People still do. But they fail to understand her.
Lingering risks a scene, so I usher us onward. The cashier's stray remark leaves Marnie sour. She wants to go home. I suggest a quick visit to the Sue Ryder down the road before heading back to our flat.
The hunt resumes. By my estimate, this is our six-hundred-and-forty-seventh visit to this store (give or take). The third Saturday this month. And there it is. Picture frames preoccupy Marnie, yet I can't fathom how she missed it. The talisman calls to me. Its signal thrums through my bones.
I find it buried among the chipped dinner plates and tacky commemorative mugs. Shaped like an amber teardrop, it looks like some kind of ashtray or a piece of decorative glassware out of the '70s, but I know better. It pulses at my touch. I pick up the talisman. It vibrates in my hand, hoping to escape my grasp.
It holds some powerful magic. The kind capable of wrenching a portal open. My grip tightens.
On the other side of the shop, Marnie hums as she combs through a rack of scratched CDs looking for the title of that one, lost song from her youth. She hasn't noticed my find. The very thing she seeks.
Once Marnie ruled and I served. We possessed everything as she held everything frozen into its proper place. Marnie counts those as her better days, but she misremembers all the stress and strain. The sleepless nights. Her former cruelty.
The talisman slips from my fingers. It smashes into a thousand shards against the marble-patterned linoleum. The shop goes quiet as every head turns to the unexpected noise. I give the shopkeeper a pained smile and promise to pay for the broken wares. Marnie seethes at my habitual oafishness.
Another missed opportunity, or so we will tell each other.
Marnie seeks a return, to regain Paradise. For me, on Saturdays, we are already there.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 6th, 2020

Author Comments

Despite the obvious fantastical elements, this is the most autobiographical story I have written. Portal fantasies often evoke a nostalgic England that never was, so setting a story of exile in post-Brexit Manchester felt appropriate. I think both characters care for one another and believe they are doing the best for the other person. This story was also one of the easiest to write. It came in a flash as I packed my bags for another move.

- M. J. Pettit
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