Author’s Note: I humbly submit February’s edition of Cait Gordon’s 2020 Flash Fiction Challenge,‘ featuring an apothecary as this month’s setting, the object is a spider, and the genre is steam punk – all in 1000 words. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
Albert Pennywise dressed in top hat, monocle, and tailed blazer, unlocked the door to his store. The mounted timepiece protruded from his chest and chimed 8:50 a.m. He turned on the lights which triggered a complex apparatus consisting of conveyor belts, clocks, and mini-broilers. Scoopers attached to a wheel on one end extracted powder from a large bin, then mixed liquid from the bottles en route to the other side where the mixture would be packaged into pill boxes. The process would took less than five minutes.
8:55 a.m. Metal screeching filled the apothecary, shaking the floors and rattling the bottles on the shelves. Albert caught the back end of the air-train in the window of his shop braking its way into the station. It signalled the arrival of his first customer in five minutes.
He retrieved the prepared prescription, labelled it, and placed it on the counter. He spent the next few minutes inspecting the bottles of medicines lining the top shelf on the far wall of his store.
8:59 a.m. The grapefruit sized timepiece on his chest chimed. It activated the series of rods attached to his arms, legs, and neck prompting him to stop his task and take his place behind the counter. He obliged, retrieved another prescription his machine produced, and placed it on the surface.
9:00 a.m. Albert’s first customer entered the store. Albert’s heart leapt, as it did each morning when he had his daily minute with the lovely Agatha.
Like Albert, Agatha had a clock affixed to her chest with rods controlling her limbs. She fashioned a beautiful plumed hat and looked radiant in her floor-length skirt despite moving like a robot.
Albert cursed. She’s fifteen seconds late again. The Watchmakers would not be pleased. He longed for the one minute discourse he was permitted to have with her each day. He’d have to cut out the usual “how are you” pleasantries this morning.
“Hello Agatha, here are your pills,” Albert said.
Her watery eyes contained an emotion which moved him. She picked up the bottle and turned to leave. Albert noticed something falling off Agatha’s back onto the floor when she stepped out the door. About the size of a dime, an eight-legged device with a stopwatch on its back scurried under the counter. Albert moved to investigate, but…
9:01 a.m. The timepiece in Albert’s chest went off forcing him to return to his inventory work, only to stop him at 9:04 to prepare and await for the next customer entering the store. The process continued until 10:00 a.m., at which point the mechanics attached to his body made him complete a requisition form to restock medicines and to refill the drug-making machine.
The next customer arrived at 10:15 a.m sharp, and his day continued as pre-ordained by the governing Watchmakers.
They had scheduled Albert’s life, like everyone’s in the city. No one could deviate from their timetable because of the robotic limbs they were forced to wear. Any resistance to the devices, or worse yet, unauthorized removal, would result in months of painful “recalibration” therapy.
Albert’s apothecary provided state-sanctioned medications to ensure the precision and timeliness of its citizens. People with disease would need to be treated immediately for fear of breaking time-laws. Albert pondered what could have afflicted Agatha to be fifteen seconds late over the last few days.
The pharmacy never had more than one customer at a time. They were all programmed to enter and leave in-between Albert’s other tasks.
5:00 p.m. The screeching metal of the air-train shook his store signalling the end of the work day. Albert locked the shop’s door and left for his home, an apartment above the apothecary.
The Watchmen permitted citizens who weren’t under routine and in the confines of their house to remove the robotic attachments. Albert noticed the small eight-legged creature affixed like a magnet on top if his chest clock. The stopwatch on its back spun around in circles as the creature raised and lowered itself against the timepiece. Fascinated, Albert observed the creature with a magnifying glass. It’s backend appeared to have a microscopic tube attached to his clock, which pulsed with its every movement. It shifted around his chest piece every few minutes and repeated the process. Albert bored of the little spider and permitted it to have its fun. He went to bed dreaming of his next minute-long encounter with Agatha.
8:25 a.m. An alarm went off warning Albert that he needed to don his robotics in five minutes, otherwise be arrested. He rushed to change into his clothes, but noticed the spider was nowhere to be found.
8:50 a.m. His device had him situated in his store to resume business.
9:01 a.m. Agatha arrived over a minute late, sounding an alarm in his chest clock. Albert panicked. He didn’t want his love, Agatha to be arrested. His robotics prevented him from serving her, because he had to perform the inventorying.
She rushed over to him. Her limbs flowed with a grace which Albert never witnessed of anyone in his life. She reached over to his chest-clock and rotated the face 180 degrees, then grabbed his hands.
Albert’s limbs relaxed, almost making him fall to the ground.
“Come with me,” she said. “Before the Watchmakers get here.”
She pulled him out to the back door of the apothecary and ushered him into a passenger seat of steam-powered tricycle. She embraced and kissed him.
“Oh, have I longed for this moment,” she said. “We’re going to finally live among the free.” She turned turned a crank by the steering wheel igniting the engine, and drove full speed to the boundaries of the only world Albert ever knew.
In the back, Albert heard much whirring, ticking, and chiming. He looked over to the boot. Hundreds of mechanical spiders like the one that freed him marched around.
Author’s Note: The following is a chapter from my upcoming novel, Dissatisfied Me: A Love Story. The chapter is set in Ottawa in 1977, where the narrator, Dickie Duncan, is ten years old.
Enjoy and Happy Holidays!
Ten was my lucky number. It represented a new stage in life. It meant when I counted my age, I used all my fingers.
Mum recognized its importance and held a big party for me that September inviting all the kids from the neighbourhood. Peppered with gifts, I felt loved. My Auntie Mary from Vancouver mailed me a cool Montreal Expos jersey with my favourite player’s number embroidered on the back. Even my nasty cousin Heather sent a parcel. Her birthday card read:
You are going to start needing this more than ever.
I opened the package—Mennen Speed Stick?
My Scottish Dad cackled as I stared at the deodorant. “Ach, ye’ve been needin’ that fer years!”
Mum’s gift brightened my spirits. She bought me a state-of-the-art Mattel electronic football game, making me the envy of my friends. Everyone at the party crowded around begging me for a turn while I navigated my bright red dot between the dimmer ones towards the end zone.
Owning a trendy game made me popular for once. Could my parents be compensating for forcing me to attend Sunday school at church the next couple of years?
I put my theory to the test a couple of weeks later. Dad asked—as he always did shortly after my September birthday—“Hey lad, know what ye going to ask Santy this year for Christmas? Maybe that Hot Wheels set ye have always wanted?”
I answered like I did every year, “Yes, that’s EXACTLY what I want.”
My ten-year-old self didn’t really believe in Santa. I had no concrete proof, but my parents insisted he was real.
My first Christmas memory five years ago sparked a doubt about Santa’s existence. It didn’t take a rocket scientist, even for a post-toddler like me, to figure out that our neighbour Barb’s boyfriend Rory had donned the red costume at our family gathering. I’d asked for a Hot Wheels set that year, too, but Santa Rory gave me a cable car toy—shedding more uncertainty over Santa’s credibility.
I confronted Dad about it. He replied, “Santy knows deep down what children really want for Christmas. Ye always wanted a cable car. Now ye have one, so go enjoy.”
I never heard of a cable car before that Christmas, and I couldn’t appreciate it—Heather destroyed it by turning it into a projectile.
Two years later, when I turned seven, my best friend Sandy planted more seeds of skepticism. She stopped believing in Santa a year earlier, and we debated the point one hot fall afternoon. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t believe—after all, where else did the presents come from?
“It’s our parents who play this Santa Claus game,” Sandy insisted. “We kids pretend to believe. It makes them happy, so we get what we want. In my house, we leave cookies and sherry out, and Santa eats them.
“Last year, I asked a friend in school what she leaves for Santa. She said zucchini muffins. I love zucchini muffins, so I asked Mom, ‘Why not make some for Santa?’ But Mom said Santa doesn’t like them. Didn’t make sense why my friend’s Santa likes zucchini and mine doesn’t—but my mom’s boyfriend Rory despises the stuff. It makes him puke. My Santa also loves sherry.” Sandy paused. “My Santa is Rory!”
Sandy had a point. “Neither Santa nor my parents got me the Hot Wheels set I’ve been asking for the last few years,” I said. “The closest to a race car I ever got was that stupid cable car that never worked.”
“Were you good?” asked Sandy. “Santa only gives gifts to those who are good.” My Sandy beamed a beautiful yet mischievous smile.
“I thought I was.”
“You see, that’s the game. You have to be extra good to your parents, then they buy you gifts. I’m gonna prove it. My mom thinks I’m an angel, but let’s do something really naughty. What could we do to make Santa super angry? Something that should guarantee we don’t get gifts from him.”
I couldn’t answer fast enough. I cycled through the usual list of things my parents preached against. Don’t fib. Don’t leave my toys lying around. Don’t speak out of turn. I obeyed all of them. I struggled, though, with eating Brussel sprouts. In fairness, I consumed more of that demon vegetable in the past couple of weeks than I had the previous seven years.
Sandy became impatient. “I’m going to show you. Wait here.”
I sat on the steps outside her home. The warm sun beamed above making me perspire.
She came back with a worn-out Ken doll, a small piece of red felt, some cotton balls, and a glue stick. “Mom and I do crafts, and she showed me how to make simple clothes for my dolls.” Sandy unfolded the red felt producing a small jacket.
Sandy placed it on her Ken doll and glued small pieces of cotton around his face to simulate a white beard. Next, she took a small square-shaped red felt and rolled it around Ken’s head, forming a crude dunce cap.
“This is our Santa.” The hat didn’t work, but I got the point.
She pulled a magnifying glass from her pocket and placed Ken’s head under it directly in the sunlight. The cotton burst into flame leaving Ken’s face a blackened mess.
“You killed Santa!” I protested.
“Do you think I should get gifts for doing this?” Sandy said proudly.
“Absolutely not! That’s horrible!”
That year, Sandy asked Santa for a Weebles House and got it. I didn’t get my Hot Wheels set, again. Instead, I got a board game that taught me French.
Dad told me, “Ye shoulda eaten more Brussel sprouts, lad. It displeased Santy.”
Upset by that Christmas memory, my ten-year old self discovered a family photo album in a bookcase. I flipped through the pages and studied pictures of our annual Santa visits at the mall. These trips were important because I’d officially ask Santa for my gift.
It was fun to observe how I’d changed over the last nine years, but Santa did, too! One had dark skin. Another looked a hundred pounds heavier. A third had a pale complexion. The one from last year was slim and young. Funny, I never noticed before.
I had to give credit to Sandy. Santa couldn’t be real. But, since my parents wanted to keep the myth alive, I figured it would be best to continue to play along with them. Hopefully this year I will finally find my way on Santa’s good list… and get my Hot Wheels set.
Saturday mornings had its share of advertisements for toys like Weebles, Stretch Armstrongs, and Simons, airing non-stop during my cartoons. In late October, something caught my interest—the Micronauts.
The Micronauts were a huge advancement over my Fisher Price people. Their world featured a collection of four-inch characters, vehicles, and play-sets. The ability to change parts, position figures in life-like poses, and adapt potential scenes offered hours of limitless possibilities. Their complex world had many characters and components, like Photon Sleds and Space Gliders.
I loved them and memorized every commercial. I imagined how my Sandy’s destructive spirit could create high-impact adventures in the quest to destroy the evil Micronaut, Acroyear.
Who needed Hot Wheels? Micronauts ruled the universe! I scoured all the toy catalogues we received in the mail and documented every item in the collection in a master list. I wanted them all!
My Dad and I did our annual Santa visit as close to Christmas Eve as possible. Dad, knowing what I’d ask Santa for months in advance, preferred the shorter lines in late December to see St. Nick. I would sit on Kris Kringle’s knee, tell him what I wanted, smiled for the photo, and Dad would whisk me off to a coffee shop for cocoa.
While I’d sip my drink, Dad would soak in the holiday chaos. He’d cackle with delight at people fighting over coveted toys in the stores, or at parents with fretful looks in their eyes scrounging for last second gifts. He told me once, “Ye never git this type of entertainment when visiting Santy in November, lad.” I guess Dad relished people’s hardships.
The Friday, before my tenth Christmas, he took me for our usual Santa visit. We walked by a toy store, and Dad permitted me to browse for a few minutes. He chuckled at a mother looking worried at a stuffed animal she purchased that was missing a tail. I went to the section with Micronauts, but most were gone—only a few action figures remained. I didn’t worry, Santa had it under control!
We joined the short queue outside “Santa’s Village.” I didn’t understand why Dad kept this tradition with me so late in my life. He seemed oblivious that I towered over the other children waiting in line. When our turn came, Dad said, “Sit on Santy’s knee, lad, and tell him what ye want for Christmas.”
I couldn’t really sit on his knee, being too tall, and Santa being smaller than previous years. I more or less leaned into it.
“Ho ho ho, you’re a big one! What’s your name?” This year’s smaller Santa struggled with my full weight against his inner thigh.
“Dickie,” I said.
“Aren’t you a little old to visit Santa?” He gave me a knowing look.
Dad jumped in, accent flaring. “What are ye talking about? Ye’r ne’er too old to visit Santy. Tell him what ye want for Christmas, son.”
My face reddened. “I want the entire Micronauts collection,” I said softly. I produced my list for Santa.
Horrified, Dad yelled, “What? Ye told me ye wanted Hot Wheels.”
Santa asked, “Have you been good or bad?”
“I’ve been really good.” I solemnly looked Santa in the eye. “In fact, I haven’t missed Sunday school since September!”
“You sound like a very good boy,” answered Santa, “setting a strong example for us to follow! I’ll be sure my elves”—Santa pointed towards one tall unshaven man and a young teenaged girl dressed in costumes—“pack them in my sleigh.”
Santa paused and directed my attention to the camera. “Smile for Itchy.”
I smiled towards the male elf who took the shot. Dad paid Itchy, who smelled strong, without uttering a word. I turned to walk towards our usual coffee shop, but Dad grabbed my arm, and proclaimed, “Not this year, lad.” We left the mall with an alacritous stride, and it was an unusually quiet ride home.
I ran to my room and returned to the kitchen carrying a piece of paper. “Hey Dad, this is a copy of the list I gave Santa, in case you were curious.” Though still early, I went back upstairs to get ready for bed.
My father, stressed, yelled to Mum. I struggled to understand his phrasing through his thickened accent from below.
“What the devil is a Microtron? He said Hot Wheels, damn it. I bought it in October. Now this bloody mess?”
“Micronaut. Have you not been watching TV or noticing the reams of cut-outs from the catalogues Dickie has collected? They’re all the rage.”
“Ach, they don’t have kids’ commercials during the news. He has his Hot Wheels, that should be good enough. No idea why he changed his mind on something he wanted for years.”
“No, Richard. He has been exceptionally good. You said he told Santa about Sunday school. If completing your ‘Scottish church tradition’ is important and you want him to qualify for summer camp, you’d better make sure his Christmas wish comes true.”
Qualifying for summer camp? What on earth—
“Bloody hell, it’s only a few days before Christmas!”
“Then you’d better get cracking.”
The heavy discussion continued for a while longer. I only heard the odd cuss coming from Dad. I fell asleep content in the knowledge Santa would come through for me this Christmas.
I found out several years later about the hell Dad underwent to ensure I had no excuse to leave Sunday school. He had to venture out the whole weekend to various stores, and when at home, called every shop in town. On December 24th, he left our house at 3 a.m. and drove six hours to Toronto to buy some items on my list—only to be caught in a snowstorm on the way back. He spent 18 hours in the car that day.
He arrived home in the middle of the night; the thumping in the basement woke me. If I had been younger, I might’ve believed it was Santa visiting the house. However, the amount of profanity that emanated from the basement would’ve convinced young children that Santa belonged to a lineage of swarthy drunken sailors.
I heard Dad stumble into his bedroom, and I checked my clock—5:09 a.m. I waited 15 minutes and ventured to the basement. The Micronauts were all laid out, some in vehicles surrounding a play-set. To his credit, Dad found most of them, and did his best to pose them like a magazine catalogue. Mum told me he had to bribe other parents for some of the figures.
Beside the Micronauts, an attempt to put together a Hot Wheels set had been abandoned. The remaining orange tracks laid on the ground beside a box labelled “some assembly required.” I finished putting everything together, and I raced some cars down it. My parents couldn’t sleep through my racket and joined me.
I enjoyed the toys but had to make a comment. “Hey Dad, did you notice that I’m missing Aquatron in the set? I’m surprised Santa missed it.”
To Mum’s and my surprise, Dad exhausted answered, “Lad, Santy doesn’t exist. Enjoy your gifts and Merry Christmas.” He stormed back to bed and slept until supper.
I showed my Sandy the Micronauts the next day. I thought she’d be thrilled at the destructive potential, but after playing with them a bit, she lost interest. What promised to be months of entertainment, turned out to be a couple of hours. I didn’t see her for the rest of the holidays.
Without Sandy’s creative input, the Micronaut life expectancy expired quickly. My parents were shocked I only played with the prized Micronauts for a couple of weeks. A month later, they were packed in a box, and stored permanently in the bowels of our basement, never to emerge again.
Bruce Gordon lives in the ‘burbs of Ottawa with his author wifey, three basses (hers, but she lends him one), five guitars (totally his), and one drum kit (hers and hers alone). A musician since his teens, he still plays, but has also ventured down the writing path. His upcoming novel, Dissatisfied Me, A Love Story, is about a 49 year old on the verge of his 50th birthday, who reminisces about his life while sitting alone in his room in his mother’s basement.