You pause your work and pop another butterscotch candy into your mouth, not because you like the taste but because it gives you something else to do as you stop and take in the mess you’ve made. The FOR SALE sign leans hard to the right, and even as you watch, it gives one last exhausted sigh before collapsing onto the yellow, dead grass. You close your eyes, just for a moment, just for as long as it takes you to swirl the butterscotch candy one lap around your mouth, before you have to stoop to pick the sign up again.
It’s a dreary day. The pale sun leeches the life out of the surrounding sky and turns it a dismal yellow, the kind of sky that makes you want to hunker down in the cellar, either because a storm is coming or because if you stare into its infinite blandness for too long you’ll have to give up on this miserable day, and you’ve got too much to do to give in to the emptiness.
Your butterscotch candy has completed its circuit, so you bend down to pick up the FOR SALE sign. The dead grass crunches under your shoe as you step, and for a moment you consider watering your yard, but then you think about how much work that would be and how much you have to do and also how fruitless the effort would be, to put all that work into unravelling your hose and dragging it through the yard and standing there and waving at passing cars as you waste gallon after gallon of water on a yard that will never come to life. You’re moving anyway.
When you stand up, there is a man. He is right at the edge of your yard, the tips of his shoes lined up perfectly with the cracked pathway that leads to your front door. He stares straight ahead, his hands delicately placed in his pockets in a way that makes you uncomfortable, but he seems perfectly content. You’ve never seen a face as plain as his. He has two eyes, and a perfectly average nose, and oddly beautiful lips, although maybe they aren’t that beautiful and it’s only that they look so nice in comparison to the rest of his face. He wears a suit that’s a few sizes too big and a few shades of brown too light, so he begins to blend in with the bleary yellow of his surroundings. He continues to stare forward as he straightens his tie, a terribly checkered thing so wide that you almost can’t see past it to his putrid yellow shirt, but every now and then he glances at you out of the corner of his eye and gives a little hmph and taps his briefcase against his side expectantly or nervously or maybe without any specific intentions at all.
“Hello?” you say, and when he doesn’t respond, you add, “Can I help you?”
The man takes this as a sign to move forward, and he delicately steps onto the path that leads to your front door. You have to pause and watch him walk because you have never seen someone take steps so precise. Each step is short, clipped, but so full of energy that you believe that at any second, he could burst into a dead sprint.
He takes his tiny steps down your path, unbothered as the old stones crumble under his shoes, and then he carefully ascends the one-two-three steps to your drooping porch. He pauses to ensure that his shoes are perfectly lined up, as if there is any chance that they aren’t, and then knick-knick-knicks on your front door.
He continues staring forward at your door, his bland briefcase tucked under one arm as he knick-knick-knicks again. The tips of his shoes also stare at the door.
You drop the sign on your yard and scramble to follow him, and your steps feel clunky as you trace his path with none of the grace that he so easily commanded. You stand beside him, but he does not look at you as he once again raps his knuckles against the peeling yellow paint.
He glances at you out of the corner of his eye, clears his throat, and then knocks again.
You squeeze to get past him, open your door, step inside, and close it.
You open the door, and the man smiles up at you. He is very short.
“Hello!” he says. “May I come in?” He is already stepping past you, tossing his hat onto your coatrack, and moving through your entryway and into your living room.
“I— Of course.” You shut the door behind him and follow him into your living room. Your steps do not make as nice of a sound on the floor as his do.
By the time you arrive, he has already set up his briefcase on your coffee table, open so only he can see in.
“How can I help you?” you ask. You think that maybe this is the wrong question to ask a man who has just invited himself into your home, but you cannot think of anything else to say.
“I am a magic salesman,” he says as though this is a normal thing for him to say, and you suppose that it must be, because he said it with such confidence.
“And I am here to sell you magic.” He spins the briefcase, and you forget to ask any more questions because before you sits eight capped test tubes of something that must be magic. They glow softly in the dim light of your living room— red and green and white and blue and all of these colors that you didn’t know could be so vibrant.
“They’re beautiful,” you breathe, and then you take another breath because you cannot remember if you still need air in the presence of magic, but you might as well keep breathing, just in case. Your lungs reject the stagnant air. They want the life radiating from the briefcase.
“Yes, they are.” The man picks up the green one as you speak, and your eyes fill with tears at how the color reflects against his skin. In the dreary, dim yellow of the tired sunlight limping through your curtains, the warmth and vibrance of the green against the salesman’s fingers feels simultaneously extremely out of place and also like the most perfect thing you have ever seen.
“I’ll take all of them,” you say because you have no reason to say or ask or do anything else. Your voice is too loud or too quiet or maybe not there at all, but you know-you know-you know that he heard.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” The man places the green back in his briefcase as if it is not the most magnificent thing you have ever seen and casually picks up the red. “I can sell you one, maybe two if you promise to be responsible. You couldn’t possibly handle all of them.”
“How much?” You reach out a hand, and he passes you the red. It is the best moment of your life. It is the only moment of your life, the only one that matters. You hold it close to your face and let its soft glow light the tip of your nose. Your eyes burn as you stare directly at this light, but you enjoy the sensation, and you could not look away if you tried.
“Make me an offer.” The man stares at you expectantly, as if you can put a price on something like this, as if there is anything you would not give.
“Everything. Everything I own.”
The man pauses and then quirks those oddly beautiful lips into something resembling a smile. “I thought you might say that.” He spins his briefcase so it is facing him again and clicks it closed. “It’s a deal.”
You do not watch him pick up his briefcase or walk to your door with his perfect, tiny steps or pick up his hat from your coatrack because you cannot look away from how the red reflects against your skin, but he must because when you look up he is standing expectantly at your door. You rush to open it for him, but you cannot look away from the vial in your hand.
“How will I pay?” you remember to call out once he is already halfway down your walkway.
“Excuse me?” He turns neatly, his movements precise enough to embarrass a ballerina.
“How will I give you everything?”
He tilts his head and smiles again, that same small one. “Don’t worry. I’ll collect it soon. Enjoy!” He turns and walks away. You kick your door closed and turn your attention back to the red.
The sun is too hot. It burns against the back of your neck, turning your skin an angry shade of pink. Your hands are too sweaty to properly grip the FOR SALE sign, and it slips from your grasp. You swear and stoop to pick it up, but now it’s become lodged in the dirt in the perfectly wrong way. You brush away the dirt with one hand so you can focus the rest of your attention on the stream of curses coming out of your mouth. You’ve never felt so miserable in your entire life, so miserable and so frantic and so hot.
You drop the FOR SALE sign again just as you think that you’ve got it, and you throw your hands up, not because you’ve given up but because you need to indulge in the idea of turning around and throwing open your door so hard it smacks the side of the house and scratches the new red paint and abandoning the project altogether.
But as you stand and take in a breath to begin your theatrics, you see an unfamiliar man on the sidewalk. He stands so the tips of his shoes line up perfectly with the beginning of the walkway to your house. He is an odd-looking man, and a plain-looking man, and an interesting-looking man. He is focused on the house, but every now and then he glances at you out of the corner of his eye and gives a little hmph. His briefcase taps expectantly against his leg.
You wipe a hand across your forehead and then flick it as though if you flick hard enough, you can flick the sweat and the sun and the red-hot heat away.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
Emmanuelle Knappenberger is a senior college student from western New York. Her work can be found in the Wondrous Real Magazine, GLITCHWORDS, and the Lumiere Review and is forthcoming from The Agapanthus Collective. Follow her on twitter, @emknappenberger, for writing rambling and cat pictures.