It wasn’t hope he was looking for when he stepped into Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities, it was oblivion. He could have taken a more conventional route, but convention was one of the reasons he felt so low, so if he was doing this, he was doing it precisely how he had wanted his life to be: full of magic. He didn’t bother browsing the cramped shelves or looking into delicate yellow-lit glass cabinets; once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom he headed straight for the girl behind the counter.
‘How can I help?’
She looked far too young to be at work. Half-hidden behind a foot of mousy hair, with dark eyes sunk into her skull, she suited Bezzina’s many corners and unusual window display, which consisted of slowly burning set of wooden table and chairs.
‘Something to send me to sleep, please.’
‘For how long?’
He shrugged. Forever. Until the end of the year. For just a little while, just a little break, please—
She looked at him. Long, sallow fingers picked at her sleeve; she was wearing burgundy dungarees and a mustard-coloured top, a combination that he felt shouldn’t have worked, but did. Go to the pharmacy. Go to that guy on the corner by the high street. Go to a hardware store for some rope and a footstall.
‘We have this,’ she said after a moment or two. She leaned over the counter and picked up a trinket on a stand next to the till. ‘These are charms.’
‘Keyring charms?’ It was identical to the little metal key charms you found in Christmas crackers or children’s party bags. The one she was holding was shaped like an emoji, albeit one designed with artistic skill.
‘Also actual charms. This one is for a calm mind, so pop it on your keys and you’ll find you sleep at night far better.’ The little illustrated face was very relaxed.
‘That’s… Not quite what I’m looking for.’
‘Something stronger?’ She walked the shop, pulling items from shelves and racks. The room felt cramped, not because it was small but because most of the space was taken up by cabinets and ottomans and chairs, themselves full of objects. It was actually very organised, he realised—white goods arranged on a Formica table, books alphabetised on shelves, soft toys perched on an armchair, a rail of clothes next to a jewellery cabinet. The table and chairs were still burning, crackling merrily, but didn’t appear to be disintegrating. He wondered who would buy it. He wished he’d visited before, when he was well enough to appreciate every item. Bezzina’s had always seemed a shop for teenaged goths, occultists and the pitifully desperate, which now struck him as pitifully ironic.
‘This eye mask gives the wearer sweet dreams. You can’t feel these headphones, so they’re great for listening to podcasts or the radio in bed if you don’t have a stereo. They’re also noise cancelling. These pyjamas will literally sing you to sleep, although I’m told they can be a bit heavy on the R&B. And—where is it? Bear with me—ah.’ She wriggled a glass case open using an ancient, tiny key on her lanyard. She was at a cabinet labelled ‘potions, lotions and elixirs.’ Several bottles contained what looked a lot like blood. Some were labelled in Latin. A couple were repurposed Body Shop containers.
‘You have something in there to send to sleep?’ He was definitely visiting several pharmacies and probably an off-licence. Still, he respected himself for trying.
She returned to the counter holding a tiny glass vial, about the size of her thumb. It glowed with a cold, silvery light.
‘This is liquid starlight.’
‘It will make me sleep?’
‘Not by itself. But before you do the eye mask and the headphones, before you slip away, drink the starlight. It will warm you from inside, clear away the cobwebs and untangle some of what’s inside your head.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘We get a few of these in a year from a supplier in Virginia. I tried some a while ago when I was under the weather. Pepped me right up.’
‘So I should take this… Before I do anything else?’
‘Well, before you put the eye mask on, certainly. We also recommend you don’t mix it with any depressants or stimulants, even if they’re over the counter. Under no circumstances go near anything that could be considered a narcotic. Our supplier was quite specific—apparently early tests indicated that starlight is not something you can really mix with other substances.’
He thought about it. Weren’t depressants and narcotics the same thing? Learning which pharmaceutical products he could mix with magical substances to hasten oblivion without first vomiting up his intestines was another thing he’d failed at.
‘Starlight’s forty-five. Charms are five. Pyjamas are thirty, headphones are thirty, eye mask is twenty.’ He wasn’t going to be spending his salary on anything else, so what the hell.
‘I’ll take them all except the charm. Wait, not the pyjamas.’
‘You can have them for eighty, sir, if you take one of charms.’ Was she backwards haggling? Did she consider him a random charity case? No wonder the shop looked like it was falling down.
‘Well… all right.’
She smiled and entered everything into a heavy old till and a very old-fashioned ledger. Who still used a paper ledger?
‘Remember,’ she said she wrote out a receipt in neat, spidery handwriting, ‘you do the starlight first. Before anything else. Understand?’
‘Yes, I understand.’
The assistant handed him a sturdy paper bag and his receipt. ‘You have thirty days to return anything, unused, with the receipt and in the correct packaging, as long as it isn’t damaged. Except the eye mask – I’m afraid we can’t accept returns on that for hygiene reasons. Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities bears no responsibility for any unpleasant or unsettling experiences induced by our products, as the origin and intended effects of each product is clearly indicated on the label.’ He checked. So they were.
‘Don’t worry—I won’t be returning any of them.’
Several weeks later, the door opened to Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities. When the assistant caught sight of him her eyes widened a little, but she smiled. ‘How are you?’ she asked. ‘How was the starlight?’
‘I took it before I tried anything else,’ he said tentatively. ‘Then I used the headphones and the eye mask. Best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. I woke up with—with some feelings I hadn’t noticed for a while.’
‘Clarity. Self-esteem… Hope.’ All weighty words to throw at someone he’d met once for ten minutes, but not long ago describing himself as anything but numb would have felt an impossibility. He was struck by a sudden urge to give his previous self a hug. ‘That’s why came back, really. I wanted to say thank you for persuading me to buy some starlight.’
‘Well.’ she said. Fingers picked at a teal, lacy sleeve. ‘The starlight provides a little breathing room, certainly. But I rather think you did all the hard work yourself.’
Dedicated to anyone who could use a little bit of starlight.