Serial Saturday: The Sweet Shoppe Part 1
The Sweet Shoppe by Jameson Grey
I – Larches Lane
The sign had seen better days.
It was faded, barely attached to a wooden post, and Pearl was scarcely able to determine the left turn was for ‘Larches Lane’. Beside her, John was staring at a road map that almost matched the signpost for its decrepitude.
“Are you sure this is it? Check your phone.” Pearl was peering through the windshield. Their current road dipped almost invitingly out of sight, possibly even dropping them back into the valley out of which they’d just risen. Larches Lane appeared to take them deeper into the foothills, where a small wood lay before the crest.
John held his phone up – as if the extra few centimeters aloft would make a difference to the number of bars on its display. “No signal.” He returned his attention to the map. “It’s definitely this one, though,” he said. “The road winds up on over the hill and meets up with the highway in a couple of miles. Once we’re on the highway, we’ll be back on track. We’ll just head into the next town and get something to eat there.”
As much as he didn’t want to admit it, John had gotten them lost. They were out for a drive, looking for a small-town café to have a spot of lunch – as sometimes you might do when it’s the last throes of an Albertan summer. The last place they’d passed through had had a café, but it was closed. Amusingly, the town had also had a stuffed ground squirrel museum, which was open, but unfortunately sold no food, not even the kind of North American snack junk John would complain wasn’t up to the standards of the stuff he could eat back home in England.
Somewhere along the way they’d made a wrong turn and, in trying to navigate back to the range road, instead found themselves driving along old township roads hemmed in by fields, hills and, increasingly, trees.
“OK, if you insist,” Pearl said, easing their old station wagon around the tight corner. If anything, Larches Lane was narrower than the road they’d just been on – more an old country lane – the like of which she’d seen plenty of in her ten-plus years living in the UK. Unusually, it also appeared to be lined with the kind of dry-stone wall these English lanes often had. She was reminded of her and John driving along them on day trips into the Yorkshire Dales shortly after they had first met. They were a hairy prospect for a gal raised in the prairies, at the time more accustomed to driving on wide North American roads.
Now though, Pearl was welcome for the experience. She half-imagined the oncoming squeal of metal on stone as they made their way forward. “Let’s hope nothing comes the other way. There’s nowhere to turn here.”
“There’ll be a passing place, there always is,” John said, with a confidence it sounded as though he didn’t really possess. “Let’s crack on, I’m hungry.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re not the one doing the driving.”
John, having grown up in the UK with its widespread, if occasionally overworked, public transport system had never felt any compunction to learn how to drive, meaning Pearl was the designated driver in their relationship.
Carefully, Pearl accelerated. The car was an automatic with manual first and second gears you could switch to if necessary. Judging by the groan the station wagon gave, Pearl thought she might need them. The climb facing them didn’t get any less steep.
A few hundred yards up the hill, they reached the woods, and the sun gave way to shade. It was dark enough for Pearl to feel she needed her sidelights. “It’s in surprisingly good condition really – the road I mean,” she remarked.
“Mmmm,” John replied non-committally.
Larches Lane wound up the hill, heading deeper into the trees. Pearl switched up to headlights. “Still sure this is the right way, honey? It seems to have gotten awful dark, awful quick.”
John nodded. “Yep, the map shows it meeting up with the highway on the other side of these woods.”
Pearl wasn’t convinced. “These trees don’t look as though they’re going to end any time soon.” As if to belie her words, to the right a gap in the forest appeared and they could see clear across the valley. In the distance, trucks and cars whizzed by on the highway.
“How high are we? It feels like we’ve driven up a mountain in five minutes!”
“Not sure, although it does seem that way,” John agreed. “We’re still a ways from the Rockies yet though,” he added.
Pearl smiled a little at John’s use of ‘ways’. They’d only been living in North America a few weeks. He’d be talking like a local in no time, she thought. The road took a sharp turn to the left and Pearl eased off the accelerator. “Going to take it steady I think,” she said, more to herself than John, and shifted the car down into one of the manual gears.
As they rounded the bend, John stuck his head out of the passenger window. “Whoa, that’s some drop!”
“OK, don’t need that info right now!” Pearl slowed practically to a standstill, unconsciously leaning into the diminished light ahead. The drop off the passenger side of the road continued for a little while before the wall of trees (the eponymous larches, she assumed) started again. It had to be an optical illusion, but they appeared to be driving along a lane that was less than the width of their car.
John pulled his head back in. “Jeez, this is one narrow road. Sorry, love, if I’d have known I wouldn’t have suggested taking this route. Do you want to back up and try to turn around?”
“Too late for that now. It’s onwards and upwards.”
“OK, well, take it steady.”
Pearl decided against bristling at John for stating the damn obvious. She wound down her own window, snapped in her side mirror and accelerated a little, crawling up the hill. “You may as well fold in your mirror too. It looks like we’re going to need those few inches.”
She was right. By the time they’d passed the end of the gap in the trees, the lane was hardly wide enough for the car. If anything, the forest seemed to get darker. Pearl, amazed she should be doing this on a bright summer’s afternoon, flicked on her high beams.
The road continued upwards.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, Pearl occasionally glancing out of her window to check how far away from the wall she was and, not that she could see, to ensure she wasn’t scraping the paint off the station wagon. John did the same on the passenger side.
Pearl squinted through the windshield. There didn’t appear to be an end in sight. John ventured a glance over his shoulder. “Hey!”
“Where did the road go?”
Pearl snapped her head around and saw what John could see, or rather couldn’t see. “Huh, wh–?” The road just wasn’t there, as if the woods had folded in behind them.
“LOOK OUT!” John was back facing front. Pearl slammed on the brakes, instinctively wrenching the car to the left. Her headlights caught a glimpse of a small animal running across the road and leaping onto the right-hand stone wall. There was a thud and a screech as the car scraped along the wall. The animal, whatever it had been, scurried off to safety. “Shit! Pearl, are you OK?”
“I am. Are you?”
“What’s the damage?”
“I’m hoping just cosmetic. Not sure what that thud was, though. We didn’t hit the animal, but we might have clattered one of the rocks at the base of the wall.”
“Can you get out to look?” Pearl asked.
“I don’t think I can fit. Pull the car over as far to the left as possible,” John said. It soon became clear what had happened. They had a flat. “We’re going to have keep rolling on it,” he continued. “Even if I could get out, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Let’s hope the road widens up soon. Take it easy though.”
“I know, I know.” Pearl could feel herself getting tetchy now. It hadn’t been her stupid idea to take this road. Now they were even more lost than before. And with a flat tire to boot! She also had an awful feeling about the spare (possibly lack of) in the trunk. If memory served, it was not in good shape, and she’d not gotten around to replacing it, and she knew she couldn’t rely on John when it came to anything to do with car maintenance.
Gingerly, Pearl applied the accelerator and the car lurched and lumbered forward. It was still passable at least. The road less travelled and all that, Pearl thought. She tried not to think about the potential damage to the wheel driving on a shredded tire might do. She glanced in the rear-view mirror, hoping to see what they’d hit, but the road had been swallowed into darkness. She turned to John, who was looking down at his phone. “Still no signal on your cell?” she asked.
“Worse than that now,” John replied. “No juice. Flat as.”
“Check mine, it’s in my handbag.”
John fished out her iPhone. “Juice yes, signal no.”
They limped on.
Pearl wasn’t a religious woman, but what she saw next briefly had her contemplating the existence of miracles. As the road levelled out, it curved gently to the left, and not only did it widen, but almost incredibly, ahead of them was a building.
“Is that – is that a store?” she asked John in amazement.
“You know, my love, I do believe it is. There’s a sign hanging over the door. Pull up in front, so I can see it.”
“I am doing, I am doing.” Pearl replied.
“It is a shop!” John confirmed with a mixture of surprise and childish joy.
“A candy store, no less!” Pearl remarked. The sign, designed in the olde worlde fashion favored by traditional candy store establishments in small towns all over the world, read: Mr Wolfe’s Sweet Shoppe – All Things Nice, Sweets & Snips.
“What are ‘Snips’?” she wondered aloud, peering in through the shop’s small leaded windows. A film of dirt on the glass prevented her from seeing much.
“Perhaps everything’s a bargain – let’s find out,” John replied.
“Shouldn’t we fix the flat first?” Pearl said, disregarding her initial worries about the state of the spare.
“Let’s go inside first. They might have sandwiches or something else to eat. I don’t know about you, but I’m ravenous.”
Pearl had forgotten they were meant to be out for lunch. Now John reminded her, she realized she was hungry too. “OK, there might be a phone we can use too – perhaps we can get roadside assistance out here.”
“Oh, they’d love this road, wouldn’t they?”
Besides, Pearl thought, we might need ‘em if the spare was in as bad a state as she feared.
- About the Author
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Jameson Grey is originally from England but now lives with his family in western Canada.
His work has been published in Dark Recesses Press magazine, Dark Dispatch, Medusa Tales, and in various anthologies including Chlorophobia: An Eco-Horror Anthology from Ghost Orchid Press and Let the Weirdness In: A Tribute to Kate Bush from Heads Dance Press.
He can be found online at jameson-grey.com and occasionally on Twitter @thejamesongrey.