Aug 14, 2013

First Place: All My Tomorrows by J. Grace Pennington

It was Misha’s first day minding the shop, and already she’d broken the fifth rule. Always lock the door immediately. When you had the most valuable merchandise in the universe, you had to take the utmost precautions.
She hadn’t meant to disobey. It was just that when she had walked in she forgot everything and stood for a full five minutes just inside the door, feeling the lights and colors reflected in the expression she felt on her face. She knew it by heart, but never had it been hers, to care for and manage and watch over.
A jolt shook the entire shop, causing her to stumble and clutch at one of the file cabinets for support. It seemed to jolt her memory as well, and she jumped as though she’d been slapped, and double bolted the rusty metal door shut.
The rumble subsided, and quiet settled upon the shop again. Turning back around, she saw that the drawer she’d gripped to stay upright had come open slightly, and she pushed it closed and latched it. It was one of the older drawers, and the latch was brown and gritty feeling, and when she pulled her hand away, there was a film of orange rust on her fingers. She started to wipe it down the front of her dress, then stopped herself and just rubbed her fingers together to brush it off.
“That one must be almost gone,” she murmured, and then listened to the very faint echo of her words. She’d never been alone here before. Turning her head, she surveyed the long rows and columns of drawers, reaching far into the darkness, everywhere except where the thick aluminum silicate glass window spanned several feet of one wall, looking out into space. Drawers everywhere, each barely bigger than her hand, reaching so far and so high that she had no hope of ever seeing the end of them. Some of the cabinets were so rusty they were crumbling, and some were still the dull but polished maroon that was standard for the GCC. On each drawer was a name, burned into it by the computer system, and the words ‘Galactic Cabinet Company’ with a phone number. Her gaze followed the sturdy black cables that connected every single drawer to the processor far above her on the ceiling. She couldn’t see where they were plugged in, it was so high up that the darkness hid it, but tiny lights from the computer sparkled like stars.
Once as a child, she’d tried to describe the shop to a friend, and the friend had commented,
It sounds terribly dull. Then, she knew she’d never try to describe it again.
No matter how tight the GCC made the cabinets, they couldn’t keep the colors, the light, the darkness, the smells, the temperatures, the tastes, the emotions, and the sounds from escaping through the cracks. There was no greater thrill than walking by a drawer and feeling a sliver of anger escape, along with a slight scent of roast beef and a dash of warmth. Sometimes she’d catch a snippet of wonder and beauty, tinted with purple and flavored with mint. Other times, a shiver would shake her, and she’d find that she was cold, and would look to see a dark mist seeping from one of the drawers, along with a stench that tasted somehow hollow. Better yet was when a sudden burst of every color would flow freely and sparkle up to the ceiling, accompanied with every feeling that existed all rolled into one. Those moments were always Misha’s favorites, because they were so beautiful. Then her father had explained that that meant someone was dying, and it made her sad, too, but still happy, because it was the best thing in the universe.
And then it would be time to replace that drawer. New people were always being born, and an old rusty drawer would be shipped out, and a new maroon one would come in, ready to be burned with a new name, and filled with new files. Except sometimes, a maroon drawer would go out, and that made Misha sad, because somewhere, somehow, someone had lost their child.
Slowly, she unwound her scarf, keeping her eyes on the cabinets. Wisps of color escaped and floated up to the ceiling, and she caught sight of a hint of green. Tossing scarf and cap on the floor behind her, she darted forward. Green was her favorite. Green was fresh and clean and open and rested, and it usually meant peace. Dodging the other colors, she reached it just in time to let it brush the tips of her fingers. She grinned. This one was a childhood memory, she knew it was. She smelled wet grass, and felt a burst of contentment.
She sighed as it floated away. That was a good one to have caught. She was glad for whoever was remembering it right now. Her father had told her that when bits showed, it was because someone was remembering. Looking at the name on the drawer, she read ‘John Fillmore Tucker III.’ It was still red, with only patches here and there that were just showing rust. John Fillmore Tucker III was a middle-aged man, by the look of it.
She touched the latch, and it slipped out easily. Driven by curiosity, she pulled the drawer open with one finger, just a crack. Green spilled out into the air, and she felt a full blast of the day. It was dew, and a shirt not buttoned straight, and sharp, crisp, open air, and not thinking about anything, and all the smells and sounds of morning. She was there, she could see the overcast sun and feel the childlike dreams and plans and lack of fear.
Closing her eyes, she slammed the drawer shut and replaced the latch. The click echoed in the room, and she felt shame burn her cheeks. Rule number four broken. You weren’t supposed to open the drawers unless there was a technical difficulty. Otherwise, the computer handled all the files itself.
She scurried to the window and settled herself into the swivel chair at the terminal. The terminal, because even though there were others they were rusted over and no longer functioned. Only one had been kept working, because these days only one was needed. In the old days, the shop had been kept busy from morning until night, but now it had been relegated to the stuff of legend, until only a determined few ever came to the out-of-the-way asteroid asking for an exchange of days. Misha remembered when there had been two terminals open, and her father and grandfather would work them, but she had been only seven then. Now things were quiet, Father was getting older, and all her brothers and sisters were grown and had left the asteroid and the shop. Things were so quiet that Father deemed an only-just-sixteen-year-old girl qualified to run the shop now, while he helped her brother move to a planet.
Leaning back in the chair, she looked out the clouded glass at the stars and other asteroids. A piece of rock hurtled towards her and struck at the base of the shop, causing another jolt to rifle through the asteroid. She clutched the arms of the chair to steady herself, feeling the cracked leather pinch her fingers, until the quivers passed.
It wasn’t nearly as interesting over by the terminals. There was nothing to look at except space, and glass, and cobwebs, and the old, brittle copies of the manual for the computer system. She didn’t dare touch the books, for fear they would crumble at a single nudge. And there were no smells except rust and musky leather, and there were no sounds except when a rock hit, or the creaking of the chair if she moved even a centimeter. And there was rarely any emotion to experience except boredom.
She had no way of knowing how much time passed as she sat there. The system would shut itself down when work hours were over, and then she would go home. Until then, she was just to sit there in her best dress and wait, maybe for nothing. She peered back over her shoulder at the colors escaping from the drawers. No one was coming. She’d heard her father say that they only had customers once a week these days, sometimes less. What would it hurt to explore, just a little?
The shop shook again, and she gripped the arms, waiting for the world to stop shaking. But this time, it didn’t keep on trembling. It gave a tiny heave, then paused, then seemed to rest. She knew that feeling, and she felt another grin shape her lips as she turned to the window, straightened her collar, leaned her elbows on the desk, and looked as professional as not-quite-sixteen can.
At the end of the long dock that stretched out before her was a speeder. It wasn’t one of the rusty old buckets that usually stopped there, it was--the only word that flashed into her head was fiery. It was yellow, with streaks of red licking towards the shiny cockpit. She sat up even straighter and watched, trying to keep her mouth set in a firm, business-like line.
The door of the speeder opened upwards, and a man stepped out. It was too far away for her to tell more than his gender and the color of his clothes, which were also red and yellow. He closed the door, pushing it closed instead of slamming it. Then he straightened up, and walked up the long dock and towards the shop.
Misha’s mouth kept threatening to grin, and she pinched the back of her hand to force herself to remain serious as he approached her terminal, every step measured and firm. Her first customer! A real customer, coming to buy a day from her!
As he came to the glass, he reached out and polished a bit of it with the back of his sleeve. She watched as the thin layer of dust peeled away to reveal his features one by one, the brown hair falling over his forehead, the handsome, middle-aged face, the tired, blue eyes. The eyes looked right at her as he tapped on the window with his knuckles, and she gave a polite smile, and spoke into the intercom.
“Hello, and welcome to the Shop of Yesterdays. How may I help you?”
For a moment he just looked at her, his listless eyes seeming to bore through her and ask her a question that she did not understand. His clothes seemed much too young for him, she noted then, as if he were playing dress-up as a twenty-five-year-old when he was really forty. And his eyes looked more than tired, but she didn’t understand it. It was something she’d felt sometimes, from the drawers, but she didn’t know the word for it, and she had an impression somehow that it was a word she wasn’t old enough to know.
“It’s real then,” he said.
“The shop? Yes sir, quite real indeed.”
He rolled up his sleeve, and she flipped the identification switch in front of her.
“Press your wrist to the red light so the system can read you, please,” she instructed, and he obeyed, laying the front of his wrist against the light that blinked on the glass. Old tattoos traced up his forearm and into his sleeve, and she wondered how far they went, and then felt her cheeks grow pink. She looked away.
The red light flashed twice, then vanished, and the computer whirred as it identified him. It only took three seconds for the name to flash on the desk before her, ‘John Fillmore Tucker III.’
She jerked her head up to his face, allowing her surprise to show for a moment. Then she looked over her shoulder at the drawers. The one she’d looked into earlier was illuminated with the white light of the computer.
She looked at him again, lost in her own thoughts for a moment. This wasn’t the kind of man she’d imagined. Somehow what was in his eyes didn’t match the morning she’d felt in his files. Then she blushed yet again. You were never supposed to go silent when dealing with a customer. You were just supposed to serve them efficiently.
“What can I get you today, sir?” she asked into the intercom.
Again, he was silent for a moment, and when he spoke, she felt surprised by the fact that he had. “How much does one yesterday cost?”
This she also knew by heart. “One year, sir.”
His expression didn’t change. She was used to eyebrows raising. It did seem a steep price, three hundred and sixty five tomorrows for a single yesterday. But that was only if you didn’t understand how priceless yesterdays were. They weren’t like a can of beans or a new pair of trousers. A yesterday was time, and memory, and life, and senses, and heart, and knowledge, and ideas all rolled up into one. They were expensive to catalogue and keep and transfer, and Misha’s family were the only ones in the entire universe who knew how.
But he didn’t widen his eyes, or even move a facial muscle. He only said, “I see. I only have two hundred.”
Without another word, but still looking her straight in the eyes, he rolled down his sleeve. Then he turned around and took a step.
She remembered the dew, and the green, and the fresh smell of morning, and called out, “Sir?”
He turned around, looking exactly the same as he had before.
Don’t engage the customers in personal conversation. Rule three.
“I... I’m curious.” She stammered. It wasn’t professional to stammer. “What is important about this day?”
He stepped back towards the window again, and studied her face for a moment. Then he said, “You’re too young to understand.”
“Try me.”
A beat of silence drove the nervousness further into her, and then he relaxed his posture, and allowed one corner of his lips to turn up softly. “It was the last good day.”
“Because the day after that, I learned something I wasn’t ready for.”
Misha recalled the empty child-mind, and how relaxed and trusting it had felt when she’d sensed it for a moment. “What happened?”

“Learning wasn’t enough. I went looking for more, and nobody knew about it except me.”
“Did you find it?”
“Yes. But then, looking once wasn’t enough.” He stopped, closing his mouth firmly as if to keep any more from escaping. But when she prompted “What then?” he continued.
“Then, I met the woman I wanted to spend my life with. I didn’t tell her about the things, thinking they would go away, when I had her to fill me. For awhile they did. But then they returned, and I couldn’t hide from her forever.”
As he spoke, Misha glanced down at his left hand, and detected a band of slightly paler skin around the base of the third finger.
“She told me to leave, so I got on my ship and never came back.”
She looked back at his face. It was a strong, right face, except for the dull eyes. “Why do you only have two hundred left?”
This time he hesitated. He focused behind her, at the drawers, expression not changing, and then ran the tip of his tongue between his lips and took a breath. “It dragged me further down, and moved from my mind into my body, until I’d lost count of the people who had shared it, and it drove me further and further into the pit until it claimed my health. And that, child, is why I have only two hundred tomorrows, and it is also why I’d trade every last one of them for a single day of how things used to be.”
Misha knew that he didn’t expect her to understand, but she’d been around every yesterday in the universe too long not to grasp what the loss of innocence and the spiral into darkness felt like.
Rule number two was never to negotiate price with customers.
“I’ll take two hundred.”
“You don’t even know what day it is...” he protested. As if any day could be worth such a small price.
“I think I do.”
She reached forward and pressed the transaction button, and a message flashed in red on the desk. ‘Error. Insufficient tomorrows remaining.’
Rule number one was to never override the system.
Without so much as a shudder, she pressed the override button, stood up, and turned towards the only illuminated drawer in the room. It was oozing green now, refracting off the air like light through the surface of the water. She unlatched it, opened it, and closed her eyes for a moment as the freshly cut grass and the pure contentment flooded into her. Then she opened her eyes just a crack.
The array of colors felt as though it would blind her, and the incense of darkness, despair, hope, falling, flying, pleasure, pain, guilt, and loss slapped her. She was afraid, she felt dirty, everything was confusion and needing to find someone to share her, and feeling empty and dark. Forcing herself to weather the storm, she scanned the files for the brightest and last spot of green in the horde of days, and reached in to grasp it. It burned her hand, and she screamed, then she managed to yank it out, and slam the drawer shut before collapsing to her knees, panting.
She breathed as her head cleared, hardly feeling the spot of light in her clenched fist. She was herself. Misha. She was home, she was in the shop. She was only-just-sixteen, she loved colors, she was young, she was happy, and she was safe.
The buzzing in her ears cleared, and she heard a faint pounding nearby. Over and over. Then a voice, a man’s voice. “Little girl! Little girl, are you alright?”
She stood up, her legs wobbling like the preserves that mother made. The day burned in her hand, but it didn’t hurt anymore. Looking down, she saw that green was shining between her tightly-clenched fingers.
The man stopped pounding his fists on the glass as she stood, and wobbled towards him. Still keeping her hand closed, she eased into her chair, still panting. “I’m fine,” she answered, realizing only then that she hadn’t responded to his question. She managed a smile. “I have what you wanted.”
She took another deep breath, and this one finally filled her lungs, making her feel strong again. “Put your right forefinger in the hole, please.”
He stuck the indicated finger into the tiny gray hole in the glass. She brought her fist close to the capsule on her side, and uncurled her fingers to reveal the day, a small, green particle, in the center of her palm. She picked it up with her other hand, and slipped it securely into the capsule, glad she’d watched her grandfather do manual transfers many years before.
Taking another deep breath, she pressed the send button, and watched his face wince as the day pricked into the tip of his finger. “It will activate at midnight, and last twenty-four hours,” she said, forcing her voice to be steady. “I hope it’s all you wanted.”
Those eyes bored into hers again, but all he said was “It will be.”
He turned without another word, and strode back towards his speeder. He pulled open the door, slipped in, and flew off, giving the asteroid another jerk as he disconnected.
Misha watched as he disappeared into the stars. The shop was silent again. The colors went on dancing out of the drawers, and she sat in her chair until the lights flickered off. She got up, felt her way to her scarf and cap, and put them both on. Then she unlocked the door, opened it, and gave the shop one last look.
Then she closed the door and locked it.

Find J. Grace Pennington at

My Thoughts:
Overall: 5 stars
I can't help but give this five. If I tried anything else I would be lying. It just fits too perfectly - the wonder, the innocence, the regret, the bittersweet ending. Like a life full of yesterdays, it has everything.

Concept:  4 stars
One thing I adore about this story is its simplicity. The shop is complex but plain in its idea. A futuristic store on an asteroid where people come to buy back pieces of their past? Sounds pretty complicated. But really it's very simple: the desire to re-live. Misha's character also displays this paradox. She's human, she's unpredictable, she's interesting - but in the end she always comes back around to one or two themes. The one thing I would suggest for this concept is to make it a little more consistent. I couldn't decide whether the shop was futuristic or outdated at first, and showing a little more of its wear and tear first thing might have made things clearer. But overall, that's not much of a hole. And I just noticed the correlation between the stars in the picture and the asteroid - very well done.

Plot: 4 stars
This plot...this plot is soft and beautiful, drawing you into its thrall gently with a hint of suspense. It's a little slow near the start, could possibly use some trimming. Once you're in, though, you stay, because this little beauty tugs on your heartstrings. Pulling you deeper and deeper into the shop, into Misha's mind, into her dilemma. Soft and subtle and unforgettable.

Characters: 4 stars
You don't get much time to develop characters in a short story, so every sentence, every bit of dialogue, has to count. Misha isn't overly described, which is another of my favorite things about this story. Her personality describes her, even though we never (IIRC) get a touch of outward description besides the scarf and hat. This is a good trap to avoid, especially in third person. (In a novel I would expect or even require outward description, but in this particular story, or even in this format as a whole, it doesn't seem to matter.) The description of the only other character, John Fillmore Tucker III, is also selective and adds bit by bit to his persona. By the time he climbs back into his speeder, I feel like I know him.

One other thing I love is that the author doesn't complicate things with names. Throughout the story, Misha is referred to as "she" and John as "he". It's another nod to simplicity, and it works well.

Execution: 5 stars
I think the execution is one of the main reasons this story works so well. If it had been done in any other style but the gentle, poetic voice full of curiosity - for example, someone cynical, or flippant, or even apathetic - I think it would have flopped. It's Misha's innocence, her love of the shop, even the slow beginning that made this story strike me so hard. I couldn't stop thinking about it after I finished. It was one of those few that was an instant "yes".

One thing I would suggest  is to strengthen the writing a bit. The passive voice wasn't overwhelming, but there was quite a bit of it in there. Use more interesting verbs, fewer crutches like "felt" (a problem I'm struggling with at the moment, myself.)

Technical: 4 stars
When I got this story it required a lot of editing, but that was no fault of the writer. I suspect it had been done in one program and pasted into another, so I had to weed out a whole bunch of question marks. The program seemed like it was asking "What goes here? I don't know what goes here. Do you know what goes here?" That's just a lesson to me to specify the entering requirements more clearly next time.

All fun aside, this was a very clean story that didn't detract from my reading with a lot of sentences that were the same length or a ton of passive voice. It's unobtrusive writing that gets out of the way and lets the story tell itself.

 Congratulations on first place, Grace! (Hey, a rhyme!) Check back next week for the second place winner: Kitra Skene's The Magpie.


Meaghan Ward said...

I agree with E. Completely and utterly. Definitely deserving of it's position as 1st! Congratulations, Grace!!! :D

Sandra said...

*gawks* That's was a beautiful story. Congratulations Grace!

Juliet Lauser said...