The bullies stole his lunch money again. He couldn’t help being smaller than the other boys, but it just made him an easier target. Usually, he could bear the hunger since he hid a few snacks away in his locker and his bag, but Thomas’ mum hadn’t given him any snacks for a few days. She said things were tight right now (though he was so skinny that everything was baggy) so he had to make do with the few pound coins she could give him. Like a good boy, he never complained and never told his mum about the bullies. She was trying her best, so he couldn’t trouble her more.
This was the third day in a row they had taken his lunch money and he had no snacks to take the edge off. For a few moments, Thomas tried to stand his ground against them, a group of three boys a year or two older than him but seemingly twice his size. His courage didn’t last when he saw their fists scrunching, itching to hit something. Probably him. So he dug his hands into the pockets of his too-big blazer, the one his mum said he would grow into so he wouldn’t need a new one any time soon, and held out the coins.
The bullies snatched them and sauntered off, tossing coins in the air. Thomas saw them drop one, but they didn’t try to pick it up. They just watched it roll away and fall between the gaps in a drain before shrugging and moving on.
When they had moved out of sight, Thomas scrambled over and tried peered into the drain. He saw the coin catch the light. One of the whole pound coins. Enough to get a snack or two as soon as school was over. His skinny fingers easily slipped between the gaps, but they were too short to grip the coin. He stretched and pushed his hand as far as he could and, when he finally brushed the rim of the coin, he sent it further from his reach. Still in his sight, but it may as well have been invisible.
Thomas tried to ignore his complaining stomach, but by his last lesson of the day, he was clutching his stomach to silence it and struggling to find ways to distract himself from the hunger pains.
Thomas’ route home took him down the main shopping road of his small town. It was actually the only stretch of road with decent shops aside from the dodgy corner shops dotted around, which never smelled quite right and seemed to only have crisps and sweets and energy drinks. Some of the shops on the main road had shut down over the last few years and nobody had opened businesses that had been able to last long enough to replace them. Hairdressers popped up and disappeared again like the changing seasons. A florist briefly opened but, somehow, their flowers were always starting to wilt so it wasn’t there for long. Each side of the road was speckled with empty shops, but nobody cared.
They weren’t always empty.
Outside one shop that Thomas could have sworn had been empty that morning, was a small foldable blackboard. It had writing on it in white chalk.
WE’RE PAYING EXTRA FOR YOUR:
The shop had no name on it and the widows were tinted black so he couldn’t see inside, but he recognised the shop at once. The one that everyone knew about, that nobody talked about. It was the shop that jumped around on the main road and only appeared when you needed it.
It was the shop that bought your tears.
Nobody knew exactly when it started appearing, but many guessed that it had been a few years ago, when the ordinary shops started closing, leaving empty shells waiting to be filled. Some thought it had been popping up before that but that the closures made it easier for it to appear, and others thought it had probably appeared in another town and moved there, but would not venture a guess as to why.
Thomas read the blackboard and the list of emotions they were paying more for. Everybody knew that different emotions produce different tears. Tears of sadness were not the same as tears of happiness or laughter. It was like the shop had been waiting for him.
He had never been inside the shop, but thought he had seen it before, out of the corner of his eye, but it was gone when he turned to look properly.
This time it was as if it had appeared just for him.
He knew they paid for tears, and he had been holding his in since lunch, and if he could get some extra money, he could make things easier for his mother and get himself some snacks on his way home.
As he opened the door, a bell rang, though, when he looked up, he couldn’t see one above the door. Nobody appeared at first, so he had time to look around. Vials, flasks, and jars of all shapes, sizes, and colours lined shelves on every wall and crowded every available surface. Each one had a yellowed label with scratchy handwriting and was filled with liquid to different levels.
One of the tables had a till on it, hidden behind a group of blue-tinted flasks. Some were straight and some bulged out with a slim neck, distorting the shape of the till. The sunlight came in through the front windows and bounced around the glass curves and fractured rainbows patterned the walls, ceilings, and floor.
He went up on his tiptoes to try and look over the top of the main desk.
A head popped out from under the desk and rose, revealing a neck, shoulders, torso, and waist, making Thomas jump back and crane his neck upwards. Thomas presumed she was the shop owner, and his first thought was that she was the tallest woman he had ever seen. And the clumsiest.
As soon as she saw little Thomas, who was less than half her total height when she stood up straight, she scrambled from behind the counter, knocking every glass she brushed against. Mostly they clinked together, but some fell and would have smashed if she hadn’t caught them in time. She was obviously so used to knocking them over that her reflexes had been honed.
She crouched in front of Thomas, so their eyes were level.
‘And what can I do for you?’ She kept her voice soft and pulled her lips into a slight smile to try and appear as friendly as she could. She was obviously not used to people that small.
Thomas shuffled nervously and played with his fingers.
‘I, um, I saw the sign. The one outside. And I was wondering, well,’ he mumbled, failing to keep his eyes on the face of the tall woman but not knowing where else to look.
‘You want to sell your tears?’ the shopkeeper filled in for Thomas, seeing that he was nervous.
Thomas just nodded.
The shopkeeper straightened back up and gestured to a table with two chairs that Thomas was sure had not been there before. He took one chair and the shopkeeper took the other. Even though she was bending over the table, scribbling some notes on a piece of paper, she still towered over him. Thomas continued fiddling with his fingers.
‘I take it this is your first time here?’ She looked from what she was writing to Thomas, who just nodded. ‘So, you’re obviously a boy, so I just need your age and what emotions you’re giving me today.’
‘I’m twelve, and um, I think it’s a bit of everything you have on the sign outside really. I’m not sure.’
The shopkeeper nodded and jotted a couple of notes down. ‘No worries, we can see where your story leads us. All you need to do is tell me what’s going on, what’s happened to make you come here and let out everything you’ve been holding in. Sound good?’
After a few moments, Thomas began talking. Despite originally being nervous, the words took on a life of their own and he confessed everything from the bullies to the problems at home. As he spoke, the shopkeeper stood up and started searching the shelves of glassware, trying to find an empty one. She pasted a new label on it that immediately started to turn yellow. When she turned around, the tears had just started to fill Thomas’ eyes so without a word she put the small flask into his hand and guided it against his cheek.
Thomas kept on talking, releasing all of his pent-up anger, frustration, sadness, and helplessness. As he kept on talking, the tears kept on flowing into the flask, and each tear made him feel lighter and when he eventually finished, he was more relaxed than he had been in a long time.
‘Feel better?’ The shopkeeper gave him the warmest smile she could as she took the flask. She had seen countless people pass through her shop, heard them spill their worries and joys and secrets, and bottled them up for her other customers.
‘Much better, thank you.’ He returned the shopkeeper’s warm smile as he was led back towards the till. The shopkeeper worked her way back around. She wrote a few more notes and scribbled on the label of the flask, but Thomas couldn’t see what she wrote. The till dinged open, and she took out a few notes, counting them into her hand.
‘So that’s a total of one hundred pounds. We don’t get people as young as you. Your tears are so pure.’ She handed over the notes and Thomas just stared at them.
He had never held so much money. He couldn’t remember ever even seeing his mum with so much money before. He couldn’t say anything for a few moments and just stared at the shiny notes that took up most of his hands.
‘Thank you.’ Thomas looked up at the shopkeeper, his eyes wide, as a grin stretched his cheeks. ‘Thank you! So much!’
Without thinking, he ran out of the shop, eager to show his mum as soon as possible. Once he was out on the pavement, he turned around, and the shop was gone. The windows were once again clear, showing a bare room. Even the folding blackboard that had been outside was now gone.
Then he remembered; nobody talked about the shop that buys your tears. He couldn’t tell his mum how he got so much money out of nowhere.
He unzipped his rucksack and stuffed the notes down underneath his exercise books and pencil case, before continuing on his way home and thinking of how to explain why he was later than usual.
After studying English literature and creative writing at university, I became fascinated with all things weird and wonderful. From short stories to novels, I love to twist and play with the world around us, making my readers come out the other end with a new way of looking at the world around them. I am a strong believer that sometimes it is in these twisted versions of the world, these fantastical tales, that we come face to face with some of the greatest and hardest truths, whilst also providing an escape, a new world to jump into. We all still have an inner child reaching for something mysterious, magical, or downright weird.