The Secrets of Seashells (Pt. 5)

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My first attempt at a novel, chapter 5.

“What about this one?” Scott held up a powder blue suit that made Nera think about the oddly blue sheets in the morgue. Blue just seemed so inappropriate for death. It was the color of the sky and the sea and the living.

“Ugh…” Nera struggled for a nice way to tell him never in a million years would she put her father, dead or not, in such a suit. After all, it would be rude to hurt his feelings now, after he had taken off the rest of the day in order to help her. And to protect her from Bobby. Although Scott hadn’t said such a thing, he had opted to keep his uniform on, minus the gun, while he went shopping with her, which gave him an authoritative air that would stop any potential problem makers, including Bobby, from approaching Nera.

“That’s not really my dad’s style,” she said. Then, as an afterthought, “Would you wear something like that?”

“God, no!” he exclaimed, causing the salesladies to cluck their tongues at him and the older lady glowered at him before pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and going back to work moving the lighter fabric fall sweaters all to the same rack making room for the new, heavier winter sweaters.

“I mean, it’s not really my style either,” he added, in a much more hushed tone, his head hanging slightly lower. “But I thought it seemed age appropriate.”

Nera nodded as she flipped through a row of black suit jackets that, to her untrained eye, all looked pretty much the same. The lapels were bigger on this one, ostentatiously so, but then the buttons on the next one were too small to seem functional. The next one had an almost imperceptible stripe that was the same color, but with a slight shimmer of silver hidden amongst the weave of the fabric.

The image of the birds, with their massive black wings and the flash of silver and gold from the chains at their feet fluttered through her mind. She quickly moved on to the next row of jackets. Maybe he would prefer a brown suit, something earthy, she mused. Her father had always liked to present himself as a salt of the earth kind of person.

Had she been in the city, there’d be dozens of old men, balding with tiny, beady little eyes behind their thick bifocals and measuring tape draped like high end scarves around their necks nearly tripping over one another to help her pick just the right suit. They would present her with swatches of fabrics and sample jackets. In some of the higher end shops, they might even create a digital model for her to customize. Her options would be near limitless as they discussed fabrics and cuts and styles, all vying for the honor of dressing her father for his final resting place.

Of course, they might very well need a body to get a proper fitting, or at very least an idea of what size he wore at the time of his death. Nera wasn’t even sure how a nice suit should be measured.

Of course, being home meant she didn’t really have to think about those things. She was at the only clothing store for a hundred miles, and in lieu of a barrage of elderly tailors with years of experience and gobs of options, she had just the two ladies in the corner, steadily straightening racks and gossiping away, and young Scott Michaels: a local cop harboring a high school crush that Nera felt mildly guilty for encouraging.  

When they had first come in, the two sales ladies had rushed eagerly towards them both, talking about the latest styles, and offering to help Nera and Scott both find exactly what it was they were looking for. It was an obvious divide and conquer approach to salesmanship. Split the couple up and get them thinking about what they needed plus what they needed to get for the other, causing both to spend more than they wanted to by means of guilting both parties into wanting to be good lovers to their significant others. The older one had lightly laid one of her boney, elderly hands on Nera’s shoulder, the dryness of her skin making a scratchy noise as it came in contact with the fabric of Nera’s shirt. Meanwhile, the younger of the two had nearly tripped over herself to get to Scott, calling him by name and telling him how glad she was to see him.

Maybe it was just a divide Nera away from the guy approach instead of any actual sales pitch. Either way, as soon as Nera let the ladies know she was here for a suit for her newly deceased father, both ladies clammed up. The older one began visibly shaking for a second as she offered her condolences while she all but ripped her dry and scratchy hand from Nera’s shoulder. The younger one stared at Scott, and when he wouldn’t respond, she pointed both Nera and Scott in the direction of the men’s wear section, hiding in a somewhat dark corner of the store.

That was a good half an hour ago, and she and Scott had been muddling through the piddly selection ever since.

He was sweet enough. The incident with Bobby seemed to have awoken his inner protector, the part of himself that had probably guided him to become a soldier and now an officer of the law, and the help he offered was of a very gentlemanly sort, like he was living some sort of chivalric code of a bygone era. He was the knight in shining armor to her damsel in distress. Bobby had somehow become the big bad villain of the tale.

Nera couldn’t reconcile the two Bobbies in her head: the suave yet naïve boy who had been so many of her firsts, versus this callous, mask-laden monster who hid his true feelings behind a pretentious façade he kept plastered over the boy she once knew. The mask was handsome and well-spoken, but he had an air of entitlement and anger that made him truly ugly in Nera’s eyes.

Of course, right now she thought she might very well be willing to deal with his ugliness just in order to utilize his fashion sense. After all, Scott was sweet, but clueless about fashion, as was obvious by the suggestion of the powder blue suit that hadn’t been in fashion for decades. If not longer.

Nera had just begun flipping through a new row of jackets when she heard the tinkle of the chimes that hung on the door signaling its opening. She saw the younger of the two sales ladies rush to the front of the store in a flutter of fabric. Ruffles were apparently in this season. Nera ignored the mumbles of the sales woman as she greeted the new customer, but something about the sing song way the customer greeted her seemed familiar.  She looked up, but from her vantage point, all she could see was the sales woman nodding, the curls in her perfectly coiffed updo bouncing slightly with each bob of her head.

Nera looked over at Scott to see if he was paying any attention, but his focus had moved from the inappropriately colored suit to the table full of bowties. He was staring intently at a pair of striped ties, neither of which, Nera thought would be appropriate for a funeral. His stint with the military during what should have been his partying phase seemed to have stunted his fashion sense considerably.

Nera could still hear the lilting melody of the stranger speaking. She tried to move ever so slightly to get a better look, leaning purposefully so as to not interrupt the lovely sound of the familiar voice with her footsteps. Nera glimpsed the top of a head of curly grey hair done in a similar style as the saleslady, but in the center of the curls sat an angry looking owl clip.

“Mom?”

Nera’s voice came out hoarse and scratchy, barely above a whisper. She swallowed, but her throat seemed to close up, and the surprise seemed to seal her feet to the floor. She snapped her fingers in Scott’s direction to get his attention, and when he didn’t respond she looked over to see him looking very attentively at a new pair of slightly more color appropriate bow ties. He had a look of serious contemplation on his face, as if his life depended on choosing the right tie. Nera snapped again, and tried to clear her throat. Scott blinked and raised his eyes to look at her for a second, and then went back to staring at the ties.

Perhaps he was going to be even less helpful than she had expected him to be. Here it was possible that her mother, the person they had all been looking for was here in the store, and he couldn’t be bothered to even look to see who was at the door. Weren’t cops supposed to be observant?

It would be up to Nera to scope things out. She was determined on confronting the woman with the owl clip, and with a new sense of courage, she swallowed her fear and took a step in the direction of the door and the talking women. With her eyes still fixed on Scott with the hopes that he’d look and she’d be able to get him to come with her, Nera walked right into the rack of suit jackets, sending them all slumping to the floor, hooks, hangers, metal posts and all, with the clanking sound of the metal arms alerting everyone to her clumsiness as she fell right on top of the pile of fabric.

As she struggled to her feet, she heard the tinkle of the door chimes again, and when she looked back the shop lady was shaking her head and mumbling to herself. Nera could hear the swish of her fabric as she walked in the direction of Nera and the new mess she’d made. Scott dropped the bowties he’d been studying so intently and quietly put the rack back together before he began straightening the jackets and hanging them back on the metal fixture.

The saleslady didn’t seem to see the mess, but instead looked intently at Nera with shiny eyes, but Nera couldn’t quite hear the words she seemed to be repeating over and over again.

“Excuse me, but who was at the front just now?” Nera asked, as she walked to meet the saleslady halfway. Scott kept picking up the jackets, but his glossy eyes followed Nera’s movement.

The saleswoman blinked slowly at her, as if she was just waking from a dream, or as if she was still trapped in the dream.

“There was no one there,” she said in a sing song voice. “Just the wind, dear.”

She cocked her head to the side. It seemed not quite connected to the rest of her body as it snapped and popped into various positions as it looked Nera over from head to toe and back down again. The saleslwoman’s head gave a final snap jutting her chin out at an awkward angle and forcing her to hunch her shoulders as her eyes focused onto Nera’s. Her earrings swayed back and forth from her elongated earlobes as her head came to a final stop.

“You’re very beautiful, you know,” she said, her voice rising and falling in a lightly familiar rhythm, “I always thought so. But something is missing. You need something. An ornament of sorts. Like a necklace, or a hat pin, or maybe a—“

“A brooch?” Nera interrupted. Like the one on my dresser, no doubt, but how would this woman know about the brooch?

“Quite right, a brooch would be a good choice. Some say it’s old fashioned, but it’s timeless!” the saleswoman sang. “Maybe a jewel-encrusted peacock, or a golden rose, but that wouldn’t suit you. You need an owl, a symbol of your wisdom and regal nature.”

“Sure, fine, you can show me your brooches, but what about the woman at the door?” Nera could feel her anxiety level rising.

“Nera, I told you there was no one there. Just the wind,” the woman’s voice was starting to lose its sing-song nature.

“But I saw—“Nera started, her voice raspy as if she’d been screaming or crying. “How did you know my name?”

The saleswoman’s head began to bob and pop like a clockwork chicken, working back and forth. Her eyes seemed like they might very well pop out of her head with distress. She made a clucking sound with her tongue and Nera could see her fingers curling and uncurling as the woman clenched and unclenched her fists.

The sounds of distress seemed to wake Scott from his daze, though he’d almost completely picked up every suit jacket from the ground where Nera had fallen on them. He raced over to the saleswoman and wrapped an arm around her as her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she began shaking.

“Sally?” he whispered. “It’s okay, Sally. What happened?”

At the mention of her name, Sally the saleswoman seemed to wrest control of her own body from some unseen hand. She shook her head very lightly as if shaking a fly away from the fringe of her bangs, causing her to wince. She rubbed at her sore neck for a moment before she seemed to realize that she was in the arms of Detective Michaels, but once she realized who was holding her, she smiled a deep smile, the color that had drained from her face rushing back with a passion.

“Did I faint, Scott?” she asked, her false eyelashes fluttering and her voice back to a normal tone, though the pitch was much higher now.

“I’m not sure what happened, Sally,” he said, and then he looked at Nera with a pleading look, although she wasn’t quite sure whether the look was just asking for information or for help getting away from Sally.

Before Nera could respond, Sally’s elderly coworker came out of the dressing room, arms loaded down with dresses and sweaters in all sorts of disarray, with hangers visibly poking out at odd angles, and making quite the racket as she plopped them down on a counter near where Nera and the others stood.

“Sally, when was the last time you checked these dressing rooms?” the older woman said from behind her pile of clothes.

“Sorry, Hannah,” Sally said as she pushed herself away from Scott, begrudgingly, and began walking toward the counter, turning her back on Nera completely.

“Sally…” Nera whispered the name. She had known a Sally once. This couldn’t be the same Sally who used to come over every Friday when they were children, or that got angry at her for not cheating in Calculus. “Sally Swathmore?”

Sally winced again, this time worse than when she shook her head. “Hey, Nera,” she said keeping her back to Nera.

“Well, that explains how you knew my name. Why didn’t you just say so?”

“I was hoping you wouldn’t recognize me,” she said rather sheepishly as she walked behind the counter to put the clothes back on hangers while Hannah went back into the dressing room to get more clothes that careless women had strewn all over.

“Well, I really didn’t, with the weird way you were acting just a moment ago,” Nera said, trying to ignore the implications of what her one-time best friend had just said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sally said, the contempt in her voice beginning to show. “I was folding clothes a moment ago, and the bell rang, but no one was there, and now I’m trying to get back to my job, but you’re talking to me, making that difficult.”

“Sally, these are customers!” Hannah admonished as she dropped another stack of clothes and hangers onto the counter. The pile was getting massive, but was apparently not the last of the discarded items, as she turned back to get even more.

“Not yet they’re not,” Sally spat back, as she began pulling hangers out of the pile. “All she’s done is make everyone uncomfortable and apparently made a mess that I’ll have to pick up once she’s gone.”

“Sally…” Scott whispered as he picked up the last of the suits from the floor, ever the helper. It wasn’t neat and orderly like it had been when they first arrived, but at least the clothes weren’t on the floor anymore “You’re not being fair.”

“Fair?!” Sally spun her head forcing yet another wince of pain to escape her lips. “What’s not fair is that apparently she’s put some sort of hex on my neck. She’s a witch just like her mother.”

“It’s probably the way you were jerking your head around like a lunatic just now,” Nera said. Her voice had begun to tremble. What had she ever done to Sally? Surely she wasn’t still mad about a Calculus. And was her mother a witch? George had said she wasn’t a witch… but witches were human, right?

“Jerking her head?” Scott asked. “She practically had a seizure, but I didn’t see her jerk her head, just shake all over.”

“I don’t know where you’ve been mentally, but it wasn’t here,” Nera said. “I couldn’t get your attention when I was trying to see the woman who came in.”

“What woman, Nera?” Sally said. She jerked a hanger through the head of a purple dress and slammed it onto the sorting rack near her register. “There was no one there.”

“Yes, there was.” Nera said.

“Nera, I didn’t see anyone either,” Scott added, very quietly. It was obvious he didn’t like getting involved in whatever old spat was lingering beneath the surface.

“I believe that, you were zoned out looking at bow ties!” she said as she turned to face Scott.

Nera was getting agitated. She had enough on her plate as it was, without Detective Clueless and Sally Bitchmore flaking out on her when it was possible that her mother had walked into the very store she had happened to be in. A woman had walked into the store, spoken to one of them, and of the three people in the store, she was the only one who seemed to be aware of it.

Behind her, Nera heard a clattering sound as the elderly clerk, Hannah, dropped her latest stack of fitting room items onto the counter.

Four. There had been four of them in the store.

As if on cue, Sally asked, “Hey, Hannah, did you see anyone come into the store?”

“Heard the chimes, same as you,” she said. “Didn’t like the look of them, so I headed toward the back in case I needed to get Clark from the back. You seemed to have it under control, so I went to clear the dressing rooms.”

 “So you saw her?” Nera all but jumped with excitement.

The hum of the electric lights sounded as harsh and certain as a heart monitor flat lining. Nera felt her own heart pounding against her rip cage in anticipation.

Nera could feel all the hair on her arms and the back of her neck stand up as she asked, “You saw the woman with the owl clip? Was it my mother?”

The older woman half smiled the comforting smile only a grandmother can manage, but before the warmth of it could reach her eyes, Sally interrupted.

“Are you telling me I had a conversation with that witch, Storhm Attwater, and I don’t even remember it?” She spit the name as if it burned her mouth to even say it.

Hannah’s eyes darkened. “Your mother is Storhm Attwater?” she asked.

Nera nodded, uncertain what else to do. This was new territory. Her one time best friend seemed to hate her very existence, and someone’s kindly grandmother, who had been about to comfort her in her time of need had turned into an enemy in an instant. Was everyone going to be against her now? What had happened since she’d left?

Scott stepped up protectively, lightly touching Nera’s arm to assure her that she wasn’t alone.

“Mrs. Stevens,” he said, putting his authoritative detective’s voice to use with the older woman, “did you see who came into the store? And was it indeed Storhm Attwater?”

“No,” Hannah Stevens barked, “it most certainly was not Storhm Attwater. She was older and had a girl with her. They were both wearing black, like some sort of cult.”

“Would you be willing to describe them to a sketch artist?” Scott asked.

“No, I most certainly would not!” the elderly clerk said with the voice that only teachers and mothers can manage. “Now I think the two of you had best leave before you bring any more trouble.”

“Mrs. Stevens,” Scott started to say.

“No, Scott Michaels, I’ll have none of your backtalk. We’re about to close for the day, and we have plenty to clean up, as you can see,” she pointed to the gargantuan pile of women’s garments swirled into a mass on the counter. “Now, kindly leave.”

“But I haven’t bought a suit yet,” Nera said, her voice shaking with combined anger, sadness, and confusion.

“Tough,” Sally said. The smugness of her smile oozed through her teeth as she walked the two customers out the door and locked it behind them. 

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