Hug It All the Tighter

Despite the sign in the window—“50% Off, Enter at Your Peril”nobody had been in the store all morning.

Scratch that; nobody had been in the store all year. Could it be the shop’s name? WHERE MEN FEAR TO TREAD. The Merchant—his actual birthname—shook his head. That couldn’t be it. Could it be the shop’s tagline? Accursed trumpery, wretched gimcracks, jinxed bibelots, and blighted gewgaws. No, that would be absurd. He frowned and shrugged to himself as the incense burned on.

The Merchant had his hands occupied with a gremlin when Nigel and Helen Quinn entered the store. The creature had jimmied the cage’s lock and escaped, but The Merchant had snagged it with a pot half-full of old rice. He’d fought it back inside the cell, but the door remained unlocked. The critter squirmed in his grasp, its eyes bulging like overfilled water balloons.

The repurposed churchbell above the door gave a funeral toll as they staggered in from out of the rain. The sound reverberated through The Merchant’s skull and made his 36 teeth dance. He squeaked—“Eep!”—and his grip on the little bugger loosened for half a heartbeat. The gremlin seized the opportunity and burst out of its cage like a bullet out of a gun’s barrel.

The Merchant stumbled backwards as the varmint scrambled its way to freedom. He landed on his backside with a thump and knocked his head on the table behind him. The gremlin hurried into the shop’s shadowed recesses. Clangs and crashes echoed in its wake.

From the nudged table rolled a faded copper lamp, which dropped into The Merchant’s lap. He wagged his finger at the mist that seeped out. “No, not today, thank you.” Then, with a huff, the steam receded.

The Merchant turned to the besweatered older man. He hovered over him, arms folded, one foot tapping the dusty carpet. A halo of whispy grey hair clung to his skull.

“Ah, yes, hello! Please come in.” The Merchant sat on the floor with the lamp in his hands like a child with a new toy. He nodded to the downpour outside. “Wonderful day, isn’t it? Marvellous!”

“Are you open?” Less of a question and more of a demand.

The Merchant twisted his head around him. The bric-a-brac—in precarious towers—leaned this way and that. Besides the three of them, and the wayward gremlin, they had the place to themselves. He squinted at the sign by the door. COME ON IN! WE’RE CLOSED! That meant the other side—SORRY! WE’RE OPEN!—faced the street. He nodded at the rightness of it all. “Well, yes…?”

The woman continued to gawp in every direction—as if she’d never before stepped indoors. “Niijuul,” she foghorned. She wrinkled her nose. “What are we doing in here?” Her voice had a wonderful, whining, nasal quality to it.

“We are saving money, Helen. That’s what we’re doing!”

“What ooon?”

Nigel—the nailed-shut cabinet to the side had whispered his name to The Merchant—turned on his wife. He planted one hand on his hip, and the other he thrust to the shop’s ceiling like a eureka-shrieking scientist.

“Batteries!” His head jerked in The Merchant’s direction—a hawk zeroing in on its prey. “Do you have batteries?”

The Merchant wobbled to his feet and set the lamp back on the table. He rubbed the spot on the back of his head that would reveal a slight bump in a few hours. “I sell cursed objects from the places men fear to tr—”

“Perfect! Double-A batteries, if you would, my good man.” He tapped two fingers on the countertop. “On the double!”

The Merchant made his way behind the counter. “The thing is, I’m not sure I have any—” He stopped. “What kind of battery did you say you were looking for?” His shop and appliances ran on an unknown energy that throbbed through the place. It limited his understanding of such necessities.

Nigel thumped his hand on the counter, something he’d practised much in his life. “Double-A!”

The Merchant nodded. “Well, the thing is, I’m not sure I have anything that matches a double-A. I have energy sources, of course, but none of the—”

Nigel dismissed him with a flick of the hand. “No bother.” He hoisted up his trousers and gave The Merchant a steely gaze. “Wouldn’t be much of a man if I couldn’t jerryrig something to work, would I?”

The Merchant conceded with a smile. “I guess not.”

He flicked his hand again. “Show me what you’ve got.”

“Well, I do have this one thing.” The Merchant scratched the back of his head. “I-If you’ll just wait here, I’ll just—” He cocked a thumb over his shoulder and offered a grin.

The Merchant disappeared into the shop back. He mumbled to himself as he searched through the chaos of the store. He had tried to install some ordering system once upon a time. But the next day, The Merchant arrived to find the shop in its previous configuration.

He disturbed the hidden gremlin at one point and dodged a claw aimed at his face. The gibbering creature scrambled up the towers like a lizard monkey and climbed onto the top. The Merchant frowned at the vermin as it disappeared into the upper shelves. He’d have to lure it down with food once the customers had left.

After a minute, he found what he’d sought. He donned oven gloves and clasped the item with barbeque tongs. Then, with the artefact held at arm’s length, he wound his way through the twisting maze back to the shop front.

He returned to find Helen inspecting the spectacles on the glasses display. Nigel nodded at the scene with approval. “Specsavers? Ha! You can get everything you need right here for a fraction of the price. Cheaper glasses never hurt anyone.”

“Oh, yes, those are a unique item. They allow you to look into the never-ending—”

“Is that it?” Nigel raised his eyebrows at the small, coal-like crystal. It sparkled a black light that stirred a worm of unease in the chest. A slight tinnitus ringing accompanied the article.

The Merchant failed to smile. “Yes.” He found that his mouth drooped at the corners. From overhead, the gremlin chittered and threw pieces of pottery. A china teacup exploded on the counter. “Although, I must warn you that— Oh!”

The man snatched the crystal from the tongs. He held it with his bare hands and rolled it around in his palm. Something sizzled. The skin of his hand sagged and drooped; a lifeless jacket hung on a coathanger. “How long will it last?”

The Merchant squinted up at the rafters and pretended the smell of rotten flesh didn’t exist. Then, out of the corner of his eye, the gremlin pulled an obscene gesture and readied a saucer. Like a frisbee. “Um, until the inevitable heat death of the universe?”

Nigel slammed his non-ageing fist on the counter and missed the razor-sharp shards by a hair’s width. “You hear that, Helen? Until the inevitable heat death of the universe! Those double-As we got from Poundland lasted less than a week. And I’ll be damned if I’m spending a few quid on a pack of batteries when we can save a bit of money. What do I always say, Helen?”

In harmony, the pair of them recited the sacred text.

“Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”

The Merchant smiled and ducked as the saucer flew past his head.

In the meantime, Helen had selected a pair of glasses. She donned them and paused to check out her reflection in the mirror. One stuttered heartbeat later, Helen screamed and scratched at her own eyes. Then, finally, she sobbed something about “the void”.

Nigel tilted the crystal as the skin sloughed off his fingers and revealed the flesh beneath. The complex roadmap of his veins crisscrossed through the pink meat. “How much do you want for it?” Before The Merchant could respond, the man added: “And need I remind you that your sign says half off?”

“No, I hadn’t forg—”

“It’s like I always say.” He looked over at his crying wife. She had reduced the jelly of her eyes to shredded ribbons. Blind, she reached out with the glasses and tried—and failed—to place them back on the rack. She kept missing the right spot. “What do I always say, Helen?”

In harmony, they spoke.

“A fool and his money are easily parted,” said Nigel.

“THE VOID,” said Helen.

The Merchant nodded. “Right.” He took the spectacles from Helen—tricky with the oven gloves—and slotted them back into their place. “Only, I don’t decide the price of the objects, the objects decide their price and—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, upper management decide for you, you’re just an employee.” The hand holding the relic had disintegrated into bone and ligaments. They pulled like taut elastic bands. With his other hand, he jabbed a finger at The Merchant. “How much?”

The Merchant shrugged. “Why don’t you ask it?”

Nigel pouted like a toddler. He turned his gaze to the item. “Oi!” he said to his hand as the last of the non-osseous tissues crumbled into a fine powder. “How much?”

ONE HUMAN SOUL said the crystal. The words hissed inside their minds. A trickle of blood wound its way down Nigel’s philtrum. When The Merchant wiped his nose, the oven glove came away crimson.

“At half off,” said The Merchant, “that’s half a human soul.”

“Er, I see.” Nigel glanced at Helen. She’d wrapped her arms around herself in a straightjacket hug and rocked on her feet. “Love, I appear to have left my wallet at home. Can you be a doll and get this one?”

Helen muttered something about “the great eternal”.

“I, ah— My wife’s getting this one.” Nigel smiled at the Merchant. The decay had spread to his arm now, and the flesh of his face had taken on a sad, doughy texture.

VERY WELL said the crystal.

Helen whined as her cheeks caved inwards and the skin of her head stretched to reveal the skull. Her lips shrank back from her mouth, and her gums receded. She smiled her death-mask grin whilst her ruined orbs stared at the world. Whisps of smoke trailed from her body, and her clothes hung limp as the body beneath faded away.

The Merchant’s register pinged, and the drawer opened and closed itself. “Wonderful! Thank you for visiting today.” He nodded at the rain, which had worsened to a deluge. “Enjoy the rest of this marvellous day, won’t you?”

Nigel held up the crystal. “Pleasure doing business with you.” How his hand continued to remain intact, The Merchant could not say. All ligaments, muscles, and tendons had become a fine residue on the carpet and the counter. “Come along, Helen.” Helen, now a skeleton with a papery layer of skin, staggered after her husband, arms extended.

The churchbell over the door clanged once more. Before Nigel left, he shot off a salute at The Merchant. Only it came across all wrong because his forehead had sagged down into his eyes. “Do you accept refunds?” He asked through lips that drooped down below his chin.

The Merchant again shrugged. He removed the gloves, picked up a brush, and swept away the jagged shards, even as the gremlin threw another cup. “You’ll have to ask it.”

Nigel grumbled as his shoulders slumped into mounds of uneven flesh. Finally, he turned and stepped out into the storm. The Merchant smiled and waved. “Have a nice day!”


The door slammed shut, and a plate shattered onto the floor.

The Merchant hummed to himself as he cleaned up.

The sign had worked, after all.

February 5 2023

Written for the February 2023 #BlogBattle: Merchant

10 thoughts on “Hug It All the Tighter

  1. Gary

    I see your time away has polished the writing Joshua. It reads seamlessly and not even a grimalkin in sight…although there is that gremlin. Your merchant could earn a bundle if that was loaned to Greek weddings.

    Very reminiscent of Gwendolyn’s Button Box and another merchant that I always thought might be Randall Flagg from the Dark Tower. I feel there is a shade of influence from Resident Evil fours trail too. Possibly in the door sign greeting.

    Really good piece of writing. I’d almost infer its some of the best I’ve read of yours too. Although…to coin a merchant… it might cost you…

    Love the way the “customers” don’t even seem aware of their predicaments too. I feel there is a sequel entitled “101 Things to do with Half a Soul and an infinite energy source.” That’ll score well on SEO 🤣🤣

    While I’m here, I can’t see any like or share buttons…deliberate omission?

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, Gary! I really appreciate the compliments. Yes, now that I think of it, perhaps there is a hint of Needful Things there. Albeit, less intentionally evil, and more of the bumbling variety.

      I took them off the site a while back, to give the pages a cleaner look. Don’t ask me how, as I’ve long-since forgotten, haha! Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could restore them…

      • Gary

        Bumbling can disguise malevolent intent haha.

        I know what you mean re site clean up too. I had to change my theme and I’ve flushed out some posts but need to be more ruthless I think

  2. Sam "Goldie" Kirk

    Great descriptions of the decay (?). It was amazing how unphased the couple was. Well, at least the husband. Made me wonder if that indeed was literal or if maybe the wife got to see what the husband will realize in the future?

    You leave the door open for a story about half the soul being used.

    The gremlin was quite a fun distraction. It seemed, at the beginning, that he was going to be what’s wrong with the place, but…

  3. aebranson

    It’s always such a hoot when dark humor pervades these stories. The name of the shop immediately made me think of ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ and it turned out to be very descriptive for this place. Early on I thought it might be the type of establishment that thieves and miscreants would look into, but then it became obvious that would be more than they bargained for! You mentioned that Nigel ‘turned on’ his wife, and I wondered if that phrasing was on purpose, especially when it seemed that, even if unintended, that’s ultimately what he did. Yes, I might agree that batteries are cursed objects. 🙂 The gremlin was a great ‘subplot,’ and the whole half a soul business a bit of a mind bender. Nice work!

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Thanks, A.E.! I can never really tell if it’s going to be horror or horror comedy with these short pieces. It’s always interesting to see which way it goes…

      Great spot with the turning on his wife business! I didn’t even realise, but that’s pretty cool. 🙂 I’ll be reading yours shortly!

  4. deteremineddespitewp

    Redolent with menacing atmosphere. It’s a good balance because there is no malice in The Merchant, only a with a name WHERE MEN FEAR TO TREAD ‘Be Careful What You Ask For’. I liked the fact that Nigel was bumptious and so self assured even as things were going wrong- the price One Human Soul? And there was a gremlin loose in the place, adding another layer.
    An intriguing and captivating read.
    The late masters of the colourful and macabre Ray Bradbury and Jack Vance would approve.

    • Joshua G. J. Insole

      Very high praise, Roger! Thank you ever so kindly. Yes, I was always rather fond of The Munsters’ and The Addams Family’s kind of obliviousness to the terrors they unleash. I tried to give a nod to that with my Merchant.

      I’ll be over to have a read of your piece soon!

      • deteremineddespitewp

        Ah The Munsters and the Adams Family (John Astin will always be Gomez)… In the former I loved the running gag that everyone else was so sorry about sweet Marilyn’s ‘looks’
        Both shows must have been resonating in the back of my mind as I read your story

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