Authors: E. M. Lilly
Three days later she got home from work a little after eight at night and found Mitch sitting alone in the living room. She didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to her while she took off her coat, just sat where he was and leered at her. Once she had her coat hung in the closet, he told her she had a nice ass. She didn’t believe he’d said that to her, and in her shock and confusion demanded to know what he just said.
“I said you got a nice ass. Small and tight, but shaped like a juicy peach. You’ve got nice tits too. Small, but perky. I’ve been thinking about them for days now.” His eyes had a dull look to them and he licked his lips and continued, “Sally won’t be back for another hour. What do you say we get naked together and have some fun?”
Emily didn’t realize her hands had balled into small fists or that her eyes had narrowed to thin slits. She barely heard herself as she ordered Mitch to leave her apartment. He laughed at that.
“Come on, girl, I catch the way you look at me. I know you want it.” He hesitated for a moment, then a sly look pushed its way onto his fleshy, thick face. “I know you’re a virgin. By now you must be dying for someone to pop your little cherry. So let me do it for you. We can make it a thing whenever Sally’s out.”
“D-Did Sally tell you I’m a virgin?”
“Not in so many words, but it was easy enough to read between the lines and figure it out.”
Emily felt some relief that Sally hadn’t betrayed her to Mitch. A hotness was burning her cheeks, but her voice had a coolness to it as she told him he was a pig. He laughed at that also.
“A pig with a big dick,” he said, his leer turning into something immensely ugly. “I saw how you couldn’t keep your eyes off my dick when I was pissing the other night. And I saw how hot it made you.”
That was a lie. She accidentally caught a glimpse of it and thought it looked like an exceptionally unappetizing piece of sausage, but that was the extent of it.
“You’re a horrible person,” she said in that same coolness from before. “I’m going to tell Sally about this and she’ll see you then for what you really are.”
His expression shifted then to something surly and mean. “You’re really one stuck up little bitch, aren’t you?” he said. “Tell her what you want. I’ll tell her you came on to me. We’ll see who she believes.”
Emily stared hard at him, fighting to keep her emotions in check, and not give him any further satisfaction in knowing how much he upset her.
“Get out of my apartment now,” she ordered.
“No way,” he stated stubbornly. He jutted out his thick, fleshy chin at her and crossed his arms over his beefy stomach. “Sally’s name is on the lease, not yours, and I got her permission to be here. So forget it.”
Emily scrunched up her eyes as she swallowed back what she wanted to say to him. It wouldn’t be worth it. Even though she and Sally split all apartment expenses equally, Sally’s name was on the lease, not hers, so even if she called the police to remove him it wouldn’t do any good. Instead of dealing with him for another minute, she put her coat back on and left the apartment. For the next hour and a half she sat in a coffee shop and tried to concentrate on one of the manuscripts she needed to report on, but her thoughts kept drifting back to Mitch and she’d find herself fuming, and soon the words she was staring at barely made any sense to her. When she later returned back to her apartment, Sally was there but with the cold look Sally gave her she knew Mitch had already lied to her, and that her roommate believed him.
“Sally, I don’t know what Mitch told you, but it’s a lie—” Emily tried to tell her, but Sally gave her a brittle, hurt look and walked away from her, and Emily knew it would be pointless to tell her what really happened.
Now almost a week and a half later, Sally still refused to talk to her and barely could even look at her. Emily in response kept out of the apartment as much as she could. She no longer felt comfortable there, but the truth was she hadn’t felt comfortable in her apartment for months—not since Mitch started hanging around. Of course, it wasn’t her apartment since her name wasn’t on the lease. So she felt both stuck and hurt. Hurt from the coldness she now felt from Sally, and even more so that her best friend would believe this liar over her, and stuck because as much as she no longer felt as if she had a home, she didn’t want to lose her best friend and roommate even though she knew she already had.
So she felt blocked, frustrated, and somewhat hurt romantically and personally, and professionally it wasn’t much better. When she started her job as an associate editor she was filled with so much passion believing that she would discover and bring to the world new literary voices. Very quickly it became hard to ignore the cynicism that the older editors wore every bit as densely as the musk cologne that her boss, Mr. Pish, would use to dowse himself. It was even harder over the last three years not to get disillusioned when she’d see the only books that Mr. Pish and the other editors bought were the formulaic and dumbed-down books that barely hid their contempt for their readers. When Mr. Pish moved Emily off the slush pile to instead report on the agented material being submitted to him, Emily continued pulling manuscripts out of the slush pile hoping to find that one gem, especially given how routinely formulaic and mediocre the agented submissions were. Three weeks ago she found that gem. The voice was so unique and fresh, and the novel beautifully crafted. She had to believe that Mr. Pish would feel the same way, and so she urged him to read it. He seemed surprised that she would do so, but indicated brusquely that he would take a look at it. Today he called her into his office.
Mr. Pish had been an editor for over twenty years and he tried hard to look the part, always wearing tweed sport jackets with leather patches on the elbows as well as baggy trousers. A pale pear-shaped man with only a scattering of hair, he also wore his arrogance every bit as thickly as he did his cynicism and that awful musk cologne. He kept a picture of his wife on his desk, and she looked much like him with that same self-important expression as he often had, although she possessed more hair than he did. When Emily entered his office earlier that day, he sat staring at her bug-eyed. He often would stare at her bug-eyed, but usually with an inscrutable expression. This time his small mouth was pushed into a stern frown. He asked her why she wasted his time with that so-called gem.
His question stunned her. She couldn’t believe he was referring to the same manuscript that she had urged him to consider. “Do you mean
Theater of Sin
?” she asked, hearing her voice break into a stammer, and hating the fact that she was stammering in front of him.
“Exactly,” he said. “The title did give me hope, but the book was otherwise an utter disappointment. Where were the teenage vampires? Zombies? Even werewolves, for goodness sake! Or simply a page-turning plot? Or at the very least a young, plucky heroine who finds romance in every chapter? Since none of those were present, explain to me where this book has even a single hint of commercial viability.”
Emily swallowed hard so she could answer him without stammering any further. “This novel was one of the most moving and brilliantly written that I’ve come across since I’ve been here,” she said, stubbornly.
Mr. Pish blinked several times as he was surprised an associate editor would speak up to him since that seldom happened. After his blinking subsided, he continued with his bug-eyed stare for a good ten seconds before demanding that Emily give him a list of
, which would be bestsellers that
The Theater of Sin
could be compared to.
“I can’t give you that,” Emily said. “This novel is wholly original.”
“And that’s the problem,” Mr. Pish said, his stern frown turning more into a condescending and very smug smile. “Even if I agreed with your assessment on this manuscript, and even if I were willing to overlook a complete lack of any overt commercial appeal, without a list of comps, I’d never get the approval to buy it. And if I did, the sales force would let it die on the vine. This book would be a miserable failure, even if a few hundred readers ended up buying it and agreeing with you. So Miss Mignon, do not waste my time again with another novel of this sort. Do we understand each other?”
Emily nodded, her cheeks reddening, and she could not move fast enough to get out of his office. She had been witnessing for three years how things worked. Why did she have to delude herself that the one brilliant novel that she came across would be treated any differently than the other worthy novels that she would see routinely discarded? When she got back to her desk, she felt too humiliated and too angry at herself to sit in that office building a minute longer, so she sent an email that she wasn’t feeling well and would be leaving early that day. On her way out she grabbed a stack of manuscripts that she needed to read.
The problem was she wasn’t in the mood to sit in a coffee shop and read any more mediocre and formulaic books, and the last thing she wanted to do was go back to her apartment and have to confront Mitch, or even worse these days, Sally and that icy cold shoulder that her once-upon-a-time best friend was now giving her.
With no place else to go, Emily decided to take the subway to Brooklyn. There was a curio shop across the street from the hardware store that she had visited when she needed a bathroom lock, and for some reason she had been thinking about that shop ever since that day. Little did she know how much her life was going to change because of that shop, and how much adventure and danger would soon come crashing down upon her, and possibly even romance. If she had she would’ve run to that shop once she got off the subway in Brooklyn, instead of simply walking at a determined pace.
Mr. Smythe’s Curio Shop
was tucked away in the basement of an old brownstone, and would’ve been easy to miss by anyone walking by since the store’s bronze sign was hidden in a window that was well below street level. Emily wasn’t sure how she had noticed the shop in the first place since it seemed to be doing everything it could to avoid any sort of attention. For reasons that Emily couldn’t explain she had been feeling a growing compulsion to visit the shop ever since she had spotted the sign.
The proprietor of the shop appeared every bit as ancient as the shop’s sign—a gnarled little man with heavily veined hands and thick features who sat hunched over reading a book when Emily entered the store. Emily had this strange impression that the man almost could’ve been carved out of wood, and only when she saw him blink was she fully convinced that he was flesh and blood. She smiled and said hello to him. Without looking away from his book he grunted something back at her from deep in his chest that could’ve been
also, but she wasn’t sure. Aside from herself and this elderly man, there was no one else in the shop.
The pine shelving and floor looked every bit as ancient as the sign out front. Emily wondered briefly whether the old man could’ve been the Mr. Smythe from the shop’s name, but she had a feeling that the shop was much older than even he was. Perhaps he was a grandson or great grandson of the original proprietor.
The store’s shelves were filled with artifacts from bygone eras. Toys that when wound up would cause little figures to spring to life dancing or do other amusing things, intricately painted dolls from the nineteenth century, glass figurines of breathtaking beauty, and many other such objects. Emily soon felt as if she were in a museum. A weird and wonderful and very cluttered museum. It was when she was looking through a pile of antique stuffed animals that she discovered the wooden chest. It was two feet wide by three feet long and painted white with what looked like gold leaf detailing different scenes from the Arabian Nights, and when she opened it she found that it was lined with a rich red velvet. It was heavy also, at least thirty pounds, and seemed solidly constructed. There was no price tag on it. Emily thought about taking the chest to the old man sitting up front to ask how much it was, but then her resolve weakened. Whatever the cost, it would be too much of an extravagance for her. She didn’t have the money to be wasting on an antique wooden chest, especially since she was going to have to save so that she could move to another apartment. While Sally hadn’t made any demand yet about her moving out, Emily knew it was only a matter of time, and besides, she couldn’t stay there any longer, not if Mitch was going to be in the picture, and especially not if Sally didn’t trust her. Reluctantly she put the chest back down on the shelf.
“That once-in-a-lifetime antique chest is only a measly three hundred and fifty dollars, Miss. I would reconsider if I were you.”
Emily hadn’t heard the old man come up behind her. While his speaking voice was very different than the grunting noise he had made earlier, it sounded how she had imagined it would when she had first seen him, almost like a rusty door creaking open, so it didn’t startle her. That amount of money was too much for her, and she was surprised at how disappointed she felt realizing that she wouldn’t be able to purchase it.
“I wish I could afford it,” she said wistfully.
“A shame,” he said. “I can tell when one of my curios is perfect for a customer, and Miss, you were meant to own this exquisite object.” He shuffled forward so that he could pick it up and show it to her. “This was hand built over a century ago. Look at the craftsmanship.” He opened it and pointed a think finger at the hinges. “Those are brass. They’ll last another century. And look at the antique velvet used for the lining. You’re not going to find something like this every day. Go ahead, feel it.”
Emily did as he asked. She felt herself weakening, and the old man must’ve known it also from the way his thick lips twisted into a smile.
“This price is only for you,” he said in his thick croaking voice. “Two hundred and seventy-five dollars.”
She had lost the battle, and she knew it. She didn’t know why this wooden chest had such a pull on her, but it did. “Do you take credit cards?” she asked with a defeated sigh.