QSFer J. Scott Coatsworth has a new MM magical realism romance out: “Between the Lines.”
What if you could hear the words behind the words?
Brad Weston’s life seems perfect. He’s GQ handsome, the chief of staff for a Republican California state senator, and enjoys the power and the promise of a bright future. And he’s in a comfortable relationship with his boyfriend of six years, Alex.
Sam Fuller is Brad’s young blond blue-eyed intern, fresh out of college, running from a bad breakup, and questioning his choices and his new life in politics. To make things worse, Sam also has a thing for the boss, but Brad is already taken.
While looking for a gift for his boyfriend, Brad wanders into a curiosity shop and becomes fascinated by an old wooden medallion. Brad’s not a superstitious man, but when he takes out the medallion in his office, he sees the world in a whole new light.
And nothing will ever be the same.
It began with a medallion.
Brad stared at it through the old, fogged glass, forgetting that he was in a hurry to get back to the Capitol Annex.
The piece was a simple wooden disk, hand carved with the shapes of leaves and forest boughs and polished by centuries of use, giving it a patina of great age. It sat upon a small green velvet pillow—the kind jewelers sometimes use, rather unsuccessfully, to enhance a plain necklace of false pearls. The kind you might expect to find on your grandmother’s settee, in a slightly larger size, embroidered with “Home Sweet Home.”
Yet there was something compulsive about it—something hidden in the dark crevices of the carving, filled with the dust of ages-that drew his gaze to it and wouldn’t let go.
At least that’s what Brad would recall, years later, when he thought back on the first time he saw it: the moment when the lines of his mundane life snarled, snapped, and ultimately recombined into something quite different.
Of course, he didn’t know any of this at the time.
Brad had discovered the little curio store in the heart of downtown Sacramento quite by accident on his lunch hour, shortly after finishing a meal that included something called “candied bacon,” which he was pretty sure was neither. It had left a wretched taste in his mouth.
His six-year anniversary with Alex was the next day, and something about the place—a little boutique store with a faded sign that read “Murdock’s Hardware and Fine Things,” on a nondescript block of K Street—caught his eye.
Brad had almost missed it. In fact he was sure he had missed it many times before, on this busy Sacramento street that he walked four times a day, every day of the workweek. Funny how sometimes you know a place so well that you no longer really see it.
Crossing the threshold into the little shop, he’d felt strangely excited. Well, not quite excited. Entranced, maybe. Enticed by a strange smell inside—sandalwood or cedar?
Long rows of fading pegboard were full of tarnished metal hooks holding dusty little packets, some of them so covered in grime that it was impossible to tell what they held. Brad refrained from touching any of them, a little disgusted by the dust and general uncleanliness of the store. He liked things neat and tidy, everything in its place.
An old fluorescent light fixture lit the cramped space. It had a short—one bulb flickering with an annoying buzz, the other shining a steady, reassuring glow. There was no one else about, not even the owner. “Hello?”
From somewhere in the back of the shop, music drifted through the air, a little scratchy as if it were from a record player… an old song. “Moon River”? His grandmother would have known.
He wandered down one of the aisles, drawn by something he couldn’t define. Some combination of the music, the incense, and strange a sense that there was something old and subtle at work here. The place was a window into the past, just a block away from the bustle of his office and the twenty-first century.
The lighted case sat at the back of the store, illuminated from inside, pushing back the gloom. It was filled with bits of junk: plastic lighters with pictures of World War II girls in bikinis, three decks of playing cards (the old style with the flowing red patterns intersecting like antique lace on the back), striped candy sticks in red and green and orange, their plastic wrappers yellowed with age. Salt and pepper shakers shaped like penguins with red-and-green scarves, an ancient little black typewriter, and a stack of old pens from various motels and gas stations.
Then he saw the medallion.
“Can I help you?”
Brad looked up, startled, to find the proprietor staring at him from behind the counter. She was a woman one might charitably call old, one of her gnarled hands resting on the edge of the case and another on a black wooden cane with a raven carved into the handle.
Brad had a hard time remembering seeing anyone who looked quite so ancient. Her gray hair was tucked into a bun, but several locks eluded her control, hanging down her neck in long listless strands. Her face was nothing but wrinkles and her nose was crooked. In a strange way, she was beautiful: a portrait of age personified.
She looked Brad up and down, taking in his smartly tailored Italian suit, his sharp red tie, and his neatly manicured appearance. She likely saw many people just like him come through her shop, this close to the Capitol building.
He must have looked confused, because she asked him once again, “Can I help you?” in a voice much stronger and clearer than he would have expected. She had an accent. Irish, maybe? Or Scottish?
There was something kind yet threatening in her clear blue eyes. The wrinkles around them gave her a sweet old-womanly aspect, but her gaze was cold and hard. The kind of person you didn’t cross lightly. Despite her obvious cataracts, he had the feeling she saw him as clearly as he could see her.
“I saw the sign….” he managed.
She chuckled. “That old thing? Me father hung that shingle out when he first opened the store… must be seventy, eighty years ago now.” She grasped one hand over the other on her cane, a small smile crossing her features. “Needs a good new coat of paint, it does.”
He smiled back. “Got me in here.” He looked back down at the medallion. “I was looking for a gift. Something for… my boyfriend. Anniversary, you know.”
“Let’s see,” the proprietress answered, searching the case. “I’ve got something here you might like.” She set down her cane and bent over the back of the glass case, working the wooden door open.
Brad watched, a bit alarmed that she might lose her balance, wondering what he should do if she fell. Call 911? Yell for help?
“Ah, here it is.” She stood up, rearranging her old woolen shawl with one hand and holding out her prize with the other. “Real old-fashioned pocket watch.”
It was gold trimmed in silver, engraved with a beautiful pattern of vines and leaves, and hung on a short silver chain. It was beautiful.
“Mmmm….” He admired the watch but was still strangely drawn to the wooden medallion. “It’s quite nice, but he has a watch. Rolex, actually.” He’d bought it for Alex the year before, although he hardly ever wore it. It sat in his sock drawer gathering dust. Brad sighed.
The woman didn’t look impressed. “Good price on this one. Bit of a story. You see, back in the Second World War—”
“Actually—” Brad sneaked a peek at his own watch. His lunchtime was quickly drawing to a close. “—I had my eye on something else. That medallion in the front.” He pointed at the little wooden disk with the leaves and branches, sitting forlornly on its green velvet pillow. Alex loved all things old and Celtic.
She frowned. “That’s an ancient piece. It’s from the old country. Are you sure that’s what you want?” Her hand whipped out, quick as a snake, and grasped his arm.
As she stared him in the face, Brad felt something electric pass between them.
She nodded. “Yes, I think you’re right. That’s the one for you, yes indeed.” She let go, and he stumbled back a step.
That was odd. Whatever had possessed him to come into this dirty little shop, anyhow? He’d have been much better off going to Nordstrom.
She turned away to get a bag and some tissue to wrap up his purchase.
Brad took the opportunity to back slowly away from the case, ready to leave this strange little place with its flickering light bulb, strange smells, and bits of old bric-à-brac. He really should be getting back to the senator’s office. Or, as he called his boss, Her—capital intended. It suited her pretentious nature.
Before he could override his good manners and make a clean break, she turned back to him and smiled again. This time, a distinct chill ran down his back. What the hell?
She took the medallion from the case and slipped it into a small black velvet pouch. She said something softly to herself that he didn’t quite catch.
“What was that?” His skin was crawling, but it would be rude to just turn and run. Wouldn’t it?
“I said, ‘I hope he likes it.’” She flashed a smile at him, and her teeth were yellow and uneven.
Brad nodded. “There’s just something about it. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.” He hoped so. They’d been through a rough patch lately, with their different hours and incomes. He was always offering to pay for things—he could afford it—but Alex hated it.
So they’d come up with the idea of “equitable, not equal”—they each paid for what they could afford, not fifty percent of everything. Otherwise, they’d be eating burgers and fries every meal out, and Brad missed the good life.
She pulled the drawstrings tight on the pouch, wrapped it in tissue, and slipped it in a bright yellow plastic sack. “Here you go.”
“How much do I owe you?” He took his wallet from out of his pocket and pulled out his American Express.
She pushed his hand away. “Nothing. It’s my gift. It’s been gathering dust around here for years, waiting for the right person.” She gave him her gap-toothed smile again.
He shivered. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “It belongs with the two of you. Tell him happy anniversary from an old woman from the Isles.”
“Well… thank you. That’s very kind.” He turned away, and then, feeling awkward about the gift, thought better of it. “Are you sure?”
But the shop was empty again—she must have already disappeared into the back. He could hear her whistling along with the record player.
He shook his head. What a strange little place.
The words of the song followed him out the door, carried on the warm spring breeze like the promise of treasure at the end of a rainbow.
Scott lives with his husband Mark in a yellow bungalow in Sacramento. He was indoctrinated into fantasy and sci fi by his mother at the tender age of nine. He devoured her library, but as he grew up, he wondered where all the people like him were.
He decided that if there weren’t queer characters in his favorite genres, he would remake them to his own ends.
A Rainbow Award winning author, he runs Queer Sci Fi, QueeRomance Ink, and Other Worlds Ink with Mark, sites that celebrate fiction reflecting queer reality, and is a full member member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).