So, Chuck Wendig had a flash fiction challenge with a subgenre mashup. I spun the wheel and first got ‘Musical’ and ‘Gothic’. I had a whole slew of ideas of song-and-dance sequences going with Poe-ish Addams-Family-ish hijinks, but since I hadn’t a bleeding clue of how the hell to fit that in 2000 words, I made a tiny little cheat and spun again. My Jedi mind tricks on it must have worked because I got ‘Fairytale/Fable’ and ‘Magical Realism’. I had fun writing this.
Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe was far from the regular sort of place to be buying presents, but Amy had always been one for the unique. She liked things with a bit of story and soul in them, things heavy with history. The tragedy was that very few people seemed to understand that, and thus, they bought and would be buying her the usual things: books, quilts, scented candles, overpriced little bits of jewelry. And flowers. There were most definitely going to be flowers. The poor girl’s house was no doubt inundated with bouquets and baskets of every sort, stuffed to the petals with pre-printed cards and a bunch of signatures. If Jian added yet another to the pile, she was going to end up with hay fever on top of everything else.
Also, she would be disappointed in him. After years of being her official favorite person and only interesting gift-giver in her life, it would be awful of him to fail her now.
Still, the options in givable gifts thinned with the years. Hand-painted ribbons and matryoshka dolls had worked when she was a child; sheep knucklebones, calligraphy pens, and second edition hardbound novels as she grew older. When she graduated from university, Jian had polished his wife’s old peacock hair comb until the ivory gleamed, and presented it to Amy wrapped in red paper. He’d never forgotten the shine in her eyes as she held it like the precious thing it was, and slid it into her dark hair.
She had always had such lovely hair.
The proprietor of the shop popped his head around a display. “Any luck, sir?”
“I am still looking, thank you,” Jian replied.
The man approached with clasped hands and a bright smile. “Perhaps I could help. Is there anything in particular you are looking for?”
“A gift for my niece, Mister…?”
“Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow. Now, what’s the occasion? What kind of things does she like?
“I’m seeing her after a long time, and she likes stories. It was our special bond. Tales of faraway lands, fairytales, adventures–”
“Illusions, dreams, and doors of escape from the smoke and mud detritus of everyday life? Excellent!” He talked like an overexcited jackrabbit. “I have some things in the back you will find very interesting. Come!”
Jian followed him to the back of the shop and waited in front of the counter as Robin disappeared into the storage area. A few minutes later, he reappeared, carrying an array of curiosities in his arms. He lined them up in front of Jian.
First, he presented a framed blue butterfly. “Morpho Menelaus,” he declared. “It is said to have once been a jewel in the armor of the god Quetzalcoatl. Dropped from the heavens and took flight, until it was captured. Brings good luck.”
The last time Jian took Amy to a butterfly display, she cried for hours. “What else?”
Robin set the butterfly aside and presented a pair of ships in bottles, along with a brass candelabra.
“The Queen Anne’s Revenge and the Adventure Galley, two of the greatest ships in piratical history, along with a candelabra used by Edward Teach himself to light the captain’s cabin. Comes at a bargain. Good present for a lover of adventure tales.”
The proprietor was clearly spouting tall tales through his handlebar moustache, but they were still beautiful ships. Jian had given Amy a collection of pirate legends for her fifteenth birthday. She had always loved old ships, had dreamed of sailing…
His eye fell on a miniature spinning wheel, about a foot high and made of polished wood. “What is this?”
“That?” Robin sauntered over to the spinning wheel. “Just a toy, a supposed replica of the one Rumpelstiltskin used to spin straw into gold. I am assuming you know the fairytale. Of course you do. The man who sold it to me claimed to have made a wedding dress for a princess with it.”
Robin Goodfellow kept talking, but Jian tuned him out. He spun the wheel, listened to the clicks as it turned, imagined something as ordinary as straw going into it and coming out as bright gold. Even plain things could become amazing with a touch of magic. He remembered performing little magic tricks to make Amy smile when she was sad or sick. His throat grew tight with the memory.
Amy could use some magic.
“I’ll take it.”
Jian was wide awake. He had arranged for a wake-up call and a car to take him to Amy’s house two cities away. There was nothing left to do but rest until the morning, but sleep eluded him.
The spinning wheel sat in a glass case on a table in his hotel room. A beam of moonlight filtered through the blinds and bathed it in a marble glow. If he tipped his head just so, he could almost glimpse a particular sort of shine on the wood that had nothing to do with the moon.
Jian rubbed his eyes. His head ached and he was seeing things. Now, when he thought about it, he felt incredibly stupid for having bought a silly toy for a woman who had completed her last round of chemotherapy. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He couldn’t afford to lose himself again. He had to be strong. If he let himself fall, he would be lost. Amy needed him, just like Mei had needed him, just like his baba had needed him.
He sighed, a soft sound in the screaming silence of the room. He was so tired.
Cancer. The wretched disease just never seemed to be done trying to take the people he loved. It would be a long time before Amy wholly recovered from the treatments, and he knew better than anyone that the danger of relapse always lingered, a Sword of Damocles. He hated it. He hated it with every fiber of his being. He wished he could do something, anything, if it would make her better again.
There was a sharp rhythmic knock–shave and a haircut–and Jian nearly fell off his bed in shock. He scrambled to his feet and stared at the door. It was past midnight. He wasn’t expecting anybody.
Slowly, he paced to the door and opened it a crack. Robin Goodfellow grinned at him. He was panting like he had run a marathon.
Jian blinked hard. His hallucinations couldn’t be that vivid. “What are you doing here?”
“Moonlighting. Are you going to let me in?” Without waiting for an answer, Robin shouldered past Jian into the room. “So, where is it? I could hear you talking to it, so I know it’s here, aha!” He went up to the spinning wheel. “Here you are! You’re working well for a hundred years of slumber, aren’t you?”
Jian’s headache grew worse. He cleared his throat. “Mr. Goodfellow, it’s the middle of the night. What are you doing?”
“I told you, moonlighting,” he replied. “You just told the wheel that you wanted to use it–told it with your head, not your mouth–but it takes a certain skill to get it to work. The imp himself is traipsing around Germany, so I’m here in his place.”
Jian watched Robin flick on a lamp, remove the glass case, and make himself at home like he owned the place. He suppressed the urge to drag the man out by his handlebar moustache.
“I don’t know what sort of joke this is,” Jian growled, “but I want you to leave, now.”
Robin raised a thick brow. “A skeptic. I see. That’s a shame.”
Jian jabbed his finger at the door. “Get out!”
“Easy now, let’s not lose our tempers. I didn’t come here out of choice; you called me through that wheel.”
“I didn’t call anyone, least of all you.”
“Didn’t you? You were certainly thinking very loudly at it. Something about your lovely niece and cancer? Chemotherapy? Am I wrong?”
The words hit Jian like a punch to the gut. “How did you–?”
“You wanted to do something, anything, and you wanted it badly enough for me to nearly trip over myself running here. But if it is proof you want first, then proof you shall get.”
Robin removed a lace from one of Jian’s shoes and gave him a pointed look askance before moving it through the spinning wheel. It slid between the planes of wood, the spokes turned with soft clicks, and out the other end, fine gold threads emerged.
Robin was saying something, but the words got drowned out by the blood rushing in Jian’s ears. The world tilted, swam in and out of focus, snapped away from reality and spun away into an impossible blind. It couldn’t be real. He groped the air behind him, found the edge of a chair, and collapsed into it. The gold thread shimmered and winked.
Robin cleared his throat and Jian dragged his attention to him. The man’s eyes seemed to glow with something unearthly and ancient. A thousand old legends flittered through Jian’s mind, every tale he had ever told Amy. Impossible, impossible. He wondered if he was imagining it all. He didn’t know anymore.
“Well,” said Robin, coiling the thread around his finger. “It’s not as sturdy as what you’d get with straw, but serves well enough. Still want to throw me out or do you want to use the wheel to help your darling niece?”
Jian swallowed once, twice, pulling his voice out from where it seemed to have sunk in his throat.
“Simple. The wheel spins things into gold, but you want more. You want something that will help your Amy. Gold is easy to make, but healers–especially for such terrible illnesses that take life so often–those demand a higher price.”
“What price? I’ll pay it. I’ll pay anything.”
“What do you think is the price for a human life?”
Jian frowned in confusion for a moment before it rang clear to him. He knew. He looked down at his hands, old things with sagging skin on a thinning calcium frame, rough and lined with the memories of his years. It was the easiest decision in the world.
Jian nodded once.
The police were baffled. The papers went crazy. Conspiracy theorists ran amuck. Everyone with an opinion was weighing in on what exactly could have happened in that hotel room.
When Jian Li had not answered his wake-up call that morning, the hotel staff had hammered and shouted, until they broke down the door only to find the room bare. Everything was gone–the wallpaper, the furniture, even the flooring–save a handful of shirt buttons, a trouser zipper, and smears of what seemed to be blood.
A few blocks down, the proprietor of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe returned a small spinning wheel back to its place in storage. Best it not be taken out for a while.
Two towns away, David Zhang found a neatly wrapped parcel on his doorstep addressed to his wife from her Uncle Jian with an apology about being very busy. He took it in, wove between bouquets and gifts, and gave it to Amy, who grabbed it with a shriek of delight. Her expression turned into a look of awe when she opened it. Inside was a wig that seemed to be made of pure gold, exquisitely worked into a long sweeping braid.
Amy tore off the scarf on her head and carefully put on the wig. Her smile lit up the room, bringing a healthy flush to her cheeks. David thought she had never looked more beautiful.
“He remembered,” Amy breathed. “It was my favorite story. He remembered.”
David thought for a moment, then asked, “Rapunzel?”
She nodded happily. Her smile faded as she glanced at the card. “It’s a pity Uncle Jian couldn’t come. I had been hoping to see him.”
“Perhaps next time,” said David.
“Yes,” she nodded, caressing the wig. “Next time.”