I have no idea how I found this place, or what I’m doing here.
I took off on this road trip with no destination in mind, no schedule to keep. When I ended up in the middle of nowhere—Nebraska or Oklahoma, I think—the last thing I expected was to stumble across a thrift store. But here it is, at the end of a dirt road, a lone house, just a single story, shaded by a huge cottonwood tree. The only thing to see in a vast, featureless sweep of land stretching from horizon to horizon.
Just What You Were Looking For.
That’s what the sign says. I stare at it through the dusty windshield of my car, engine idling, wondering if I’m going to get out, or drive on. Could go either way.
The front door opens, the screen swinging out onto the small porch, and an older woman steps out. Older, like you say a slower car or weaker coffee, like it softens the description. Tall, with hair several shades of grey and silver, wearing jeans and a long sweater. Something about her stance, her attitude, makes me think she was… expecting me. Weird. But now that she’s there, it seems rude to just leave without saying something.
With a strange reluctance, I shut off the engine, open the door, and half climb out, setting one foot on the dirt road. “Hi, there.”
“Hi.” She says the word like she’s feeding me a prompt and waiting for me to say more.
I look away, gazing over the house and its surroundings. Now that I’m looking, I see she has a lot of junk lying around. Typical rural dweller, I suppose. Only it’s not really junk. Sure, there’s a rusted swing set, sitting at an odd angle to the house, and a battered old rubber raft without any oars. But there’s also what looks like a lovingly restored, Fifties-era Cadillac, without a speck of dust on it, parked just off the road.
“Nice location for a store,” I say, just to say something. “Get a lot of customers?” Am I being a jerk? Maybe.
She shrugs. “More than you might think.”
An awkward silence follows this. I frown, scratch my head. I don’t even know how I got here, why I’m even talking to this woman. I should just go.
“Want to come on in, have a look around?” she asks. Her tone is almost condescending, again, like she’s prompting me along some script. Like she knows how this is all supposed to play out. “Might find something interesting.”
I look back the way I came, at the dirt road leading off to where the land meets the sky in a flat line. Then I turn back to her. “Sure.”
She goes back into the house or shop or whatever, holding the door for me as I follow her. The porch steps creak ever so slightly. As I start to cross the threshold, there’s a blur of motion, and a small cat dashes out into the open. It doesn’t hesitate, bounding down the steps and across the yard, then down the road and into the distance. In seconds, it’s just a fast-receding spot.
The woman sighs.
“Sorry about that,” I say. I’m not sure why, but I feel like it’s my fault.
“Don’t worry about it. He’ll be back, sooner or later.”
Inside, the place is even more cluttered than I’d expect of a thrift store. Instead of rows of second-hand shelves laden with a motley collection of knickknacks and old paperbacks and what have you, everything is just lying around. The floor is nearly coated in shoes and children’s toys and small items of furniture. Where there are shelves, mostly up against the walls, they’re covered with the most eclectic assortment of items imaginable: bits of jewelry, mugs and cups, framed pictures, dolls and figurines. A picture in a silver-gilt frame, a bit tarnished, sits next to a set of matryoshka dolls. An old shoe box, lidless, flows over with age-yellowed birthday cards, while beside it lies a small wicker basket full of plastic beads, glittering in a dozen colors.
As near as I can tell, it’s all junk. There are no price tags on display, but I can’t imagine anyone paying anything for this stuff. This is just getting weirder and weirder.
Despite the clutter, the space gives off a warm, homey feeling. The afternoon light, filtering through lacy curtains, is soft, comforting. It feels a little like a childhood home, with that same aura of timelessness and enfolding safety. Like nothing bad will ever happen here, and nothing will ever change.
I turn from my appraisal to find the woman standing there, watching me. Her eyes are a clear, brilliant blue, set in a face worn and weathered with lines that might have come from smiles or frowns. Or both. But her expression is frank, open, one that says she’s seen it all and surprises are few and far between.
I give a little cough. “Uh, I’m Pete, by the way. Pete Wilson.”
“Wendy. Wendy Parker,” she says. She arches an eyebrow. “Can I get you anything?” She moves off, across the room, weaving a practiced, effortless path through the accumulated bric-a-brac. “Lemonade? Coffee? Something stronger?”
Oh, I’m tempted on that something stronger, but if I’m going to drink, I’d rather do it in private. “No. Thank you.”
I move to follow her—again, I’m not sure why—when my gaze goes back to that framed photo on the shelf. It’s resting at eye level, so it sort of stands out. It’s a young couple, wearing tux and a white dress, clearly a wedding photo.
Then I recognize the subjects.
“Hey!” I breath the word in surprise. “What’s this doing here?” Snatching up the picture, I hold it for the woman to see. “This picture; it’s my parents on their wedding day.”
“Oh?” Wendy doesn’t sound the least bit surprised. Like she expected this to happen.
“Yeah.” I stare down at the picture in my hands. “How could this possibly be here? I lost it when my house burned down. More than ten years ago.” I look up at the woman, the question repeated in my expression.
Her thin shoulders rise and fall in a small shrug. “It just showed up here one day, right on that shelf. But I knew someone would be along for it eventually.”
My eyes narrow. “What?”
She takes a deep breath, as if preparing herself for an old argument. “That’s what happens here. Things appear, just show up. Things people lost. Then, sooner or later, the people who lost them follow, looking for them.”
I blink. That’s ridiculous. Like something out of science fiction. Or a fairy tale. Stupid. Made up. She can’t expect me to believe that.
“C’mon, tell me where you found it,” I say.
She nods toward the shelf. “Right there. Must’ve been a week, maybe ten days ago. Never does any good to move them; they just go right back to where they showed up. Where they… need to be. Where people will find them when they come.”
My gaze goes back to the photo, to the faces smiling out of it, so happy on their special day. They’ve both been dead for so long, lost years and years ago. “That’s… impossible.”
“Impossible or not,” she says with a sigh, “it’s been happening every day since I came here, more than thirty years ago. It’ll probably keep happening long after I’m gone.”
“But… but…” I can’t find any more words. I take a stumbling step, searching for a place to sit down.
As I do so, I bump a low table, and something falls off. Instinctively, I reach down to pick it up, only to find myself holding something else all-too-familiar. “And this,” I say, holding up a watch, with a gilded face and a real leather band. “This is exactly like the one my wife gave me on our first anniversary.” I hold it for a second, not daring to look. But the need overwhelms me, and I turn it over. Sure enough, there on the back is the engraving. Time won’t change my love for you, Meghan.
Now I really need somewhere to sit. The room sways. Strong hands take my arm, guide me a few steps, and help me sink onto a soft couch.
“Now, this is strange.”
I look up at the old woman, to see her staring down at me, a puzzled frown on her face.
“You think?” I say, my voice high and sharp. “I… I lost this… threw it away… after… after we… separated.”
She’s silent for a minute. When she speaks, there’s a new tone in her voice. Wonder. “It’s just that no one before has ever found more than one thing. Just one thing, the thing they lost that they most needed to find again.” She shakes her head. “All these years, and it’s never changed. Until now.”
What’s going on? What does this mean? How can these things be here? Why?
I take my eyes off the watch, blinking and fighting the urge to pinch myself really hard. My vision swims for a moment, and when it clears, I see something sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch. Another thing I never thought I’d see again.
“Oh. Oh, no.” I reach out with trembling hands to pick up the small bracelet, formed of a slender cord, fitted with white beads, each one bearing a letter. Together, they spell out the name Andrea.
The name of our daughter.
I just sit there, staring at these precious, lost things I hold in my hands.
“This is unbelievable.” The old woman sounds shocked. Amazed. Maybe a little scared.
“Tell me about it,” I manage to choke out. “These things… they belong to the people I’ve lost. My parents. My wife.” My voice drops to a harsh whisper. “My daughter.”
She sinks down to the couch, sitting next to me. Her hand takes mine, gently.
“My parent died when I was a kid,” I say, needing to speak. “My wife… left me, after…” I draw a ragged breath. “After our daughter died.” I shake my head again, feeling a surge of something like anger. “Why are these here? Why is everything I ever lost here?”
She squeezes my hand. “I can’t answer that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after all this time, it’s that it’s not important what we’ve lost.” She touches my chin, turning my head to look at her. “It’s important that you’ve found it again.”
I can only shake my head. I’m so confused. Everything has gone so wrong in my life. I’ve had so much trouble making things work, for the longest time. Losing my parents… it damaged me somehow. I couldn’t focus on anything, flunked out of school, couldn’t hold down a job. Then I found Meghan, and it seemed to put everything back on track. To repair something in me. We built a life, had Andrea. Then she got sick, and no doctor could help us. When she died, I fell apart all over again. Lost my job and didn’t even want to get another. Gravitated to the bottle, and didn’t want to get out of it. So, I lost Meghan, too. Now I have nothing. And I’m here.
Where I’ve found… something.
“I don’t think I can get back what I lost,” I say. “So much of it is just gone.”
“Maybe so,” the old woman says. “Maybe you can’t get back everything you lost. But maybe, just maybe, you can find something new.”
I choke out a laugh, doubt and frustration wrenching at my heart. “What can I find? Like you said, I’ve lost everything, everything I ever loved, everything I ever wanted. What’s out there for me to find?”
She’s silent for so long that I finally tear my eyes away from what I’m holding. I meet her gaze, those brilliant blue eyes staring deep into me.
“A reason,” she says, so softly. “A reason to go on. And maybe it’s the one thing you lost, that you can’t find here.”
I just stare back at her for a moment. Then it clicks. “Meghan,” I whisper her name. She’s still out there. The one thing I lost, that I can find again. She put me back together once, and when I broke again, I never gave her a chance. But finding all these things, reminders of everything I ever lost, makes me remember her love, her patience, and her endurance. If there’s one reason to go on, to fix what I’ve damaged, it’s Meghan.
I stand up quickly. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. Now. I… I have to find her.”
Wendy stands with me. “Of course. But take those with you,” she nods at the things I still clutch in my hands, “in case you ever forget.”
I nod. “What do I owe you?” It seems inane. I owe this woman more than I can ever pay. Because of her, because of this strange place and its power, I have yet another chance at everything.
“It’s all right, Peter,” Wendy says. “You don’t owe me anything. This isn’t that kind of place.” Then she smiles. “This is just a place for people to find what they don’t know they’ve lost, and remember what they still have.”