LEVELS Sneak Peek: “Forbidden Aisles”

cover-smallThe expected jingle of bells was not what announced Jim’s entrance into the Asian goods store. It was instead a loud, hollow clacking sound. Jim looked up to see what looked like a mobile of bleached bone slats connected to the hinge of the door. Huh—different, Jim thought.

The store was dim, but still brighter than the deepening evening outside. At the counter to the left of the door, an old Oriental man with his hair brushed back from his face like Chairman Mao looked up from a Chinese newspaper and said something Jim didn’t catch.

“Uh, hi,” said Jim. “I’m looking for rice flour.”

The man blinked at Jim.

“Rice flour?” Jim repeated.

The shopkeeper pointed further into the store, muttered something that sounded like it could have been “four,” and went back to his newspaper.

“Right,” said Jim to himself, and grabbed a hand-held shopping basket from a stack beside the door. At the Asian market he normally shopped at, he knew exactly where to find those few items Lily sent him for, but Lily hadn’t called him until he was past that turnoff on the way home.

“But I need some rice flour for this recipe,” Lily said.

“Well, if you want me to turn around…”

“No,” Lily said petulantly. “Then you’ll be late. Oh, I remember seeing a Chinese grocery in the strip mall south of the post office, the one with the German deli out front. You remember?”

He remembered the German deli at least, so he had found the strip mall, and sure enough, there was the entrance to South Sea Asian Grocerys & Goods at the very back where the pavement was cracked, between an empty storefront and a bookkeeping service with a hand-lettered sign. The grocery’s name was the only English signage on the store; the rest looked like it was in at least six different scripts. At least there won’t be any complaints about the place not being authentic enough.

Now Jim moved between narrow rows along crowded shelves. The signs above the aisles were in a language he didn’t read, so he just counted four rows back and turned. There was another shopper in that aisle, a thin slumped man with copper-brown skin and a hawk-like nose, and the aisle was so narrow that even turning sideways Jim felt he had come as close to a homosexual encounter as he ever wanted to get. The man smelled of jasmine, car exhaust, and something tangy.

There were at least foodstuffs on the fourth aisle, though none of them looked like things that Jim would ever eat even on a dare. Front and center was a large section of duck eggs preserved in lye; the picture on the front of the cartons showed eggs marinated to a tarry black. That was one of the few products in front of him with English labeling on the package, though if the pictures on the boxes and cans on the shelves were to be believed, the contents of the containers ranged from bird’s feet to an unfamiliar pink-white fruit to an old fisherman in a downeaster. Jim knew from experience that rice flour usually occupied space along with other powdered cooking ingredients; this looked like the wrong aisle entirely…


This story and sixteen more are included in Levels: Fantastic and Macabre Stories, now available! Buy the ebook on Amazon or Smashwords today — print edition coming soon!

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