If you walk down Central Street and veer towards the left, you’ll see a small, unassuming shop at the end of an alley. The old cobblestone street is lined with derelict storefronts that the city pretends are just vintage by designating them “historic” with a shiny plaque. You can’t tell the store is a toyshop, until you open the heavy metal door with the frosted glass window. It smells of freshly cut wood and acrylic paint. Every toy in the shop is handmade by the owner, and a little sticker in each toy reveals the name of the place: Central Street Toymaker.
A 70-inch wide green neon sign hangs above the register with the phrase: “a toymaker is a dream maker.” Underneath the sign, a young man in his early 20’s is reading a graphic novel. He carefully touches the pages as he reads each panel. The sign’s dim green light above him makes it seem like he’s underwater surrounded by lush greenery. The dark wood panel behind him and the black linoleum counter add even more mystique to the ambiance.
“Arturo, did you take inventory of the puzzle boxes?” the man labors to say the words, and after each breath, there’s an audible whistle. The old man emerges from behind a dark green curtain at the far left of the store. His frail and lanky body moves slowly through the rows of display cabinets leading up to the register.
“It was busy,” replies Arturo, never taking off his eyes from the page.
“I see, then ‘busy’ must have a different meaning in the dictionary you’re using,” his lisp, faint but noticeable, makes everything he says less important to Arturo.
“Do me a favor, young man, take care of the telescope instead. I’ll handle the boxes. Make sure you can see as far as the art gallery across the bay. Clean the glass carefully, it’s an antique.”
“Sure, why not,” he says quickly, without much thought. “Never really like those trap boxes. Like, why make something so hard to open? For what, nothing?”
“They’re puzzles, not traps. You enjoy a good puzzle, but hate a good trap,” the man laughs a bit as he shuffles the boxes around, “unless you set the trap, then you also enjoy a good trap.”
“Mr. Saavedra, is there a price for this telescope?”
“No, never, that is not for sale. Like I said, it’s an antique. Probably hundreds of years old,” the emphasis on “never” made Arturo recoil from the artifact. The old man noticed and softens his tone. “But it’s a sturdy old reflective telescope, if it survived this far, it will survive you too. Go ahead, take a peek.”
Arturo feels a pull towards the telescope, and a curiosity forces him to look at the scope before starting the cleaning process. The telescope rests on a solid-wood round end table, in the middle of a bay window protrusion overlooking the city’s old harbor. The view from the window strikes him as a stark contrast with the decrepit alley view of the storefront. All the display cabinets were dated and felt like cheap pressed wood from the 1970s, which made the telescope display area so attractive to everyone who passed by it. A diamond hiding in the coal.
“Why do you even have this here?” Arturo asks, adjusting the scope to check if he can really peer into the gallery across the bay. “How do you even adjust this?” he struggles to move the scope at all. Mr. Saavedra walks towards him with intent, still holding on to a puzzle box shaped like a little storefront.
“You see, the ball underneath lets you move the cylinders above in position. When I was a kid, I used to say they looked like a tree within a tree. You adjust the telescope by moving it back and forth like this,” the old man moves the telescope with ease as if he’s done it a million times before, and with none of his usual lethargy.
After Mr. Saavedra adjusts the telescope, Arturo can see inside the gallery across the bay. He fixates on a painting of a man with a baseball cap smiling at a blazing fire billowing from a circular grill. As he backs away from the scope, he feels an odd tingling in the back of his head. He turns to look for Mr. Saavedra, but he’s gone. The front doorbell rings, prompting him to go back to the register.
“Hello, welcome to-” he stops mid-sentence because he recognizes the man. In the flesh, the smile is disturbing, but it’s him. The man in the painting, with the same expression on his face and the same clothes. “Do I know you?” The man doesn’t say a word, and in his face, Arturo can see the reflection of flames. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and tries to think of all the rational explanations for this.
Mr. Saavedra walks through the man in the painting and laughs. “Great. Excellent. Al Fin. Hundreds of years have I waited for someone like you.” The man disappears behind Mr. Saavedra. Arturo collapses in the chair behind the register, silent, but visibly distraught. “Thank you, kid. Before you walked in, I had given up hope.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on? Wait. When did I start working here?” Arturo’s flood of memories disorients him, and the removal of the planted memories physically hurts him.
“I’m going to walk out this door and be done with this. I don’t care anymore. Be a toymaker, a baker, or a money lender. I don’t care. I’m finally done with this burden. Good luck,” the formerly frail old man extends his arm to tap on the bell above the door and flails his arms as if frantically saying goodbye. “Until never.”
As he walks out the door, he turns into a pile of dust. By the time Arturo runs to the door, the wind sweeps away the dust. Arturo looks back and sees the place completely empty. Another derelict storefront. He feels a cold touch run through his spine and a piercing headache. It takes him a minute to recover, but he remembers his home. His apartment is only a block away.
The world seems different. He walks down the cobblestone alley with a taste of sweets in his mouth. He can’t place the taste, it’s just sweet. He passes a group of old women talking about the weather, and he smells a sweet aroma coming from one of them. The distracted women, the one looking into the distance while the others talk about the upcoming storm, smells decadently sweet. He looks back and tries to take in the scent with a deep breath. After he does this, the woman snaps out of her distraction and struggles to keep walking.
Arturo turns away and keeps walking to his apartment. A man with a stroller passes by his side, and from the stroller, he smells something sweeter than the old lady. He inhales again, taking in all the aroma. Shortly after, the baby in the stroller begins to cry. He keeps walking, and when he gets to his apartment, the door is open. When he tries to close it behind him, he notices the door has no deadbolt and no way of closing it. He actively avoids thinking about all the odd things happening and uses a chair to keep the door locked in place. Without any hesitation, he jumps in bed, closes his eyes, and goes to sleep.
When he wakes up, he’s behind the counter of a bakery. A store that looks vaguely familiar to the toymaker store. There’s a vintage marquee with the phrase, “a baker, bakes your dreams come true” above the register. Arturo walks out of the store and stares in disbelief at the same alley of the toymaker store. He runs back home, passing all the sweet smells of the people walking by him. Again, he props the door closed, without a second thought, and goes straight to bed. For hours he stares at the ceiling of his apartment, trying to piece together what type of drug he must be on to experience this kind of hallucination.
From upstairs, he got a whiff of another dreamlike aroma, like a chocolate cake straight out of the oven. He only has one neighbor, an old man, who spends his entire day reading paperbacks he gets every weekend from the library. Arturo understands he’s taking something with every deep inhalation, and he knows the old man lost his wife less than a month ago. He doesn’t want to take that away from him. He’s careful not to dream either because the memory of the man in the painting still haunts him. Many thoughts race through his mind, technicalities that make this situation impossible. Yet, he knows if he can imagine it, it is possible.
He must have fallen asleep because once again, he’s in the bakery. He doesn’t run this time. He understands the puzzle now. He sits on the register’s chair, and before the person even comes in the door, he smells them. Their dreams. He takes a little, but he can give it back. He thought: Making dreams come true, how much of a burden can that be?
His smile, genuine and warm, greets the customer first. He turns to the counter display to point at a row of chocolate chip cookies shaped like telescopes. “Welcome to Central Street Bakery, what dream can I bake you today?”
– The end.