In a gap between The Gap and Gap for Kids—a stone’s throw from The Gap outlet store and directly across from Baby Gap—Olivia noticed a peculiar looking shop in the depths of Magorium’s Mall she had never bothered noticing before. She stopped to scrutinize it, twirling a lock of her fiery red hair as she was often prone to do while scrutinizing.
The store was narrow and oddly crooked, as if it had been hastily shoved in the gap between Gaps when no one was looking. Glossy black paint and frosted windows gave way to a warped purple awning that loomed over the door like a snarling lip.
“Mr. Dred’s Never Deads,” Olivia sounded out the strange words stenciled across it. “Ew.” She scrunched up her nose in revulsion, both at the stores morbid title and the hint of humid morgue rank wafting out from beneath the door.
“Can I help you miss?”
Olivia “Eeeked!” like a stepped on mouse and almost jumped right out of her Reeboks. She spun around, mouth aghast, nearly inhaling the bowtie of the unsettlingly tall man that stood uncomfortably close behind her.
“Ever so sorry miss,” the man said, “did I frighten you?”
“N-no,” Olivia stammered, even though he had—terribly in fact—and continued to do so, increasingly by the second.
The man looked like a reanimated corpse that had been sun bleached and pickled. Sunken eyes, purple lipped smile, goose-downy white hair slicked back from his jaundiced forehead. He was vacuum sealed into a bruise-black suit, so slim it might have been custom tailored to fit a coat rack.
“Come to sample my wares, hmmm?” the man asked, flourishing a twiggy hand at the store front. Olivia followed the hand with her eyes, gawked at it. It looked strange. Seemed almost to have too many knuckles.
“Huh?” She croaked, taking an inadvertent step backwards.
The man laughed, dark and dusty.
“Young miss, allow me to introduce myself,” he said with a bow, “my name is D.W. Dredololopolis, or Mr. Dred, if you quite prefer. I am the humble proprietor of Mr. Dred’s Never Deads.” He leaned in, close enough to trigger Olivia’s gag reflex with his oscillating nose hairs. “And you, my dear miss, have the distinct pleasure of being my final customer of the day.”
Before Olivia could even cringe at the prospect—as if by magic—Mr. Dred spun her around so fast she almost toppled over and whisked her inside the store.
“Welcome,” he sang as the door hissed shut behind them.
A dozen years earlier, as a tenth birthday surprise, Olivia’s parents had taken her to the Circus.
In the midst of that fateful birthday afternoon, the big tops star attraction—Purvis the Preeminent Pachyderm—succumbed to a terrible bout of elephant flu and dropped dead in front of two thousand traumatized spectators, only, not before projectile vomiting half the gory contents of his enormous elephant guts and projectile scatting out the rest.
The smell that troubling afternoon at the Circus was a citrus scented candle in comparison to the interior of Mr. Dred’s Never Deads.
Olivia clamped a hand over her nose, breathing shallow through her mouth as she blinked away tears.
“It’s a pet store,” she said bluntly.
“Of sorts,” Mr. Dred replied, leaning against an odd looking dog kennel big enough to house a rhinoceros.
It certainly looked like a pet store, which was the only reason Olivia was still standing there, soaking the humid fog of animal stink into her clothes. She had a soft spot for pets—dogs, cats, birds, even snakes–and besides the gloomy lighting, the skeletal shop keep, and a few odd looking trinkets here and there, she was convinced she was standing in an ordinary pet shop. At least, at first she was.
Three aisles separated Mr. Dred’s Never Deads, running the entirety of its narrow length, crowded with kennels, aquariums, and cages of all shapes and sizes. Ignoring her protesting nose, Olivia began to browse.
“So what’ll it be, hmm?” Mr. Dred asked as he slunk up next to her, quiet as a shadow. He pointed to a grimy aquarium that was bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. As they passed, Olivia could feel intense heat radiating from it, yet still murky creatures darted around inside. “Haitian curse turtle? Whattayasay? Fair price. I’ll throw in a tank filter, some food pellets? A dehydrated witch doctor decoration perhaps?”
Olivia shook her head dreamily and continued down the aisle.
“How ‘bout a nice Antillean ghost bat?” He pointed at what appeared to be a completely empty wooden perch. “They make great companions. Very neat. Don’t need to eat.”
Olivia shook her head dreamily and continued down the aisle.
“I’ve got it!” Mr. Dred said. “Quasi-departed terrier!” He gestured to a kennel in which slumped a pudgy, gore-streaked dog with drool congealed around its snout and lolling eyes like mini-glazed doughnuts. “A quasi-departed terrier makes the perfect companion. No fuss, no muss. Just don’t let the little rapscallion get a whiff of brain—
“Wait,” Olivia said, pointing towards a bird cage at the back of the shop. It glowed red like a sizzling stove element, fading to regular old dark cast iron as she watched it. “What’s that?”
“Oh no!” Mr. Dred swooned, stepping in front of it. His meager, scarecrow chest barely blocked a quarter of the cage from view. “No, no, no, young miss, you most certainly do not want that.”
“What is it?” Olivia asked as she stepped around him and peered inside. “Some kind of bird?”
“Well, yes,” Mr. Dred muttered. “I suppose it’s a bird. Of sorts.”
Inside the cage, a black bird the size of Olivia’s thumb ruffled around in a dark pile of ash. When it noticed Olivia, it favored her with a plucky bird song and plumed out its feathers. Olivia giggled.
“Does it have a name?” She asked, beckoning it with the tip of her finger.
“Sparky,” he said dryly. “Her name is Sparky.” Mr. Dred was no longer looking at the bird. He wasn’t looking at Olivia either. He was staring past them both, past the bird cage, to a sign above a glass encased, wall mounted fire extinguisher which read:
IN CASE OF PHOENIX BREAK GLASS
“Sparky,” she echoed.
Olivia was in love with the tiny bird before its song even ended. She knew she absolutely had to have it. She checked her wristwatch. Where had the day gone? She was going to have to hammer out a deal quickly if she was still going to make it to work on time.
“She’s perfect,” Olivia said. Sparky blushed, which Olivia realized was odd for a bird, but remarkably adorable. She shrugged it off. Even odder, the blush didn’t fade. Sparky lightened in color from black to dark maroon. Odder still, by the time Olivia and Mr. Dred were done haggling over price, Sparky had swelled up to the size of a hamster.
By the time Olivia left Mr. Dred’s Never Deads, Sparky was the size of a kitten and the color of freshly spilt blood.
By the time Olivia boarded the bus for the industrial district, Sparky was the size of a Shih Tzu and the color of licking flames. Not only that, Sparky had begun to steam. Olivia shrugged it off, blaming it on the hot weather and the poor climate control of the shoddy city bus.
By the time Olivia arrived at work for the evening shift, Sparky was so big she barely fit in her bird cage. She looked uncomfortable, frantic and feverish, so rather than stash Sparky in the break room for the night, Olivia let her out to get some air and stretch her giant, burnt-orange wings around the factory.
After all, Olivia thought as she snapped on her goggles and wrestled into her heavy protective suit, what’s the worst thing a bird could do at nitroglycerine plant?