A Vial Of Vanity (Part 6)

The sound of ringing bells scampers playfully through the air as Buck, in his pre-giant-chicken form, heaves the front door open by shoving it with all the weight he can muster in his left shoulder. It did not occur to him to use the door handle, nor did he care, as he is lost deep within his own mind, buzzing with thoughts that dart around like magical flying keys, messy, clanking, and tangible albeit unreachable.

The lock groans in protest before reluctantly giving way, falling broken with a heavy *clonk* to the ground. Buck steps into the musty shop with a grunt. He ducks under the low ceiling as best as he can. The smell of wafting incense slaps his senses sharply. He gapes around in an odd state of dazed alertness.

The place is overrun with cats. These cats are in every shape, size, hue and temperament imaginable. The sea of them makes it difficult to make out what the boxes and piles of items cluttering the place contain. The hum of purring, hissing and disdain gradually fills the room like an orchestra, the discordant sounds on their own somehow fitting together seamlessly into a lively melody greater than the sum of its parts.

Buck feels light motion underfoot and looks down to find a tiny kitten rubbing his head happily against his pant leg and gently nibbling at a loose thread. The creature has short teal fur with rough patches of deep midnight blue. The latter looks like birthmarks, or as though someone had dipped him into a bucket of paint repeatedly and did not bother to finish the paint job. He is the brightest kitten in the place.

The kitten curls up into a ball and then stretches his limbs out away from him as far as they can possibly go. He suddenly peers up at Buck expectantly. Two bright orbs of blue light shine up at him, studying him, the intensity matching his own. The eye slits narrow and dilate, undulating in a sort of cautious curiosity.

Buck glances around to ensure no one is watching and stoops down to extend a hand towards the kitten. The kitten eagerly approaches it, sniffs slowly and gives it a cute nudge with his forehead. Buck grins and gently pats the top of the kitten’s head. He makes sure to scratch behind the ears and under the chin…

“M’YES CAN I HELP YOU?” an annoyed voice pierces through the moment.

Buck yanks his hand back sending the startled kitten fumbling backwards to flop over its own tail. The kitten gives a small yet fierce meowling shriek and rushes off into the shadows, disappearing instantly.

A haggard woman in a tattered green dress emerges from the gloom and glares at him. Her frizzy greying hair is escaping from her in every single possible direction. Her age is indiscernible, but she is evidently dripping in scrutinizing cynicism. The dark circles under her eyes betray how little sleep she is getting and her shoulders hang low, drooping from carrying the weight of everyone’s problems and their reluctance to solve them. She holds a lumpy handsewn teddy bear in one hand and a used toothbrush in the other.

“Um, hello,” Buck greets uncertainly. “Didn’t mean to disturb your nap. I -“

“Wasn’t napping,” she snaps.

“Oh-kay,” he falters. “I’m looking for Doc Torafore. Supposed to be an off-the-grid specialist for pirat-“

“Who’s askin’?” she folds her arms and scans him up and down, her eyes revealing nothing.

“My name’s Buck and -” he starts.

“I’ve heard of ya,” she frowns.

Buck straightens up a bit more within the constraints of the low ceiling. “So, my reputation precedes me?”

“That’s not always a good thing,” she says flatly.

“I see,” his shoulders fall ever-so-slightly.

“Why’re ya here, Buck?” her eyes narrow.

“I just said -” he protests.

“That’s a what answer. As in ‘what are ya doing here?’ I’m not interested. You’re here, so it doesn’t matter. I’m asking for the why. Why’re ya here?” she insists impatiently.

Buck looks around at the cats. “Maybe I’ve come to the wrong place…”

“And yet here ya are. Must be a reason. The universe doesn’t just throw us around to be where we’re not meant to,” she asserts.

“I’m -” he tries.

“Are ya happy?” she suddenly asks.

Buck blinks. “Huh?”

“A man like you with a rep like that. Clearly you’re set. Why’s it not enough?” she says almost accusingly.

Buck hesitates, steeping in silence for a beat as he assesses how much to reveal to this stranger. He does not much like her brash approach and frequent interruptions, yet there is an air about her that makes him feel compelled to share… The words are practically drawn right out of his mouth on some cosmic impulse.

“There’s a girl -“

The woman clicks her tongue. “And there it is. It always is.”

Buck’s right eyebrow twitches and his cheeks flush. “Look, lass. I don’t need to stand here taking flack from you -“

“Door’s right behind ya. Don’t let it hit ya on the way out,” she says coolly.

Feeling rage at being humiliated bubbling up to the surface, Buck whirls around to face the door. He freezes with his arm outstretched towards the handle when he notices the lock is somehow freshly repaired. A glittering sign now hangs above it at his eye-level reading, “Doc Torafore – Pirate Practice, PD.”

“Ahhh…” escapes involuntarily from his mouth.

“Problem?” he hears behind him.

Buck slowly turns back around to face the woman. Her hands are in fists resting on her hips still clutching the items. Her foot taps rhythmically, impatiently, on the peeling wooden floor.

“I… You… Don’t…” he stumbles over his words.

“Yeah, yeah, I get that a lot. Now, here’s the deal. I could read your entire life story from those eyes not five minutes of ya stepping foot into my shop. It’s a snooze. I have the antidote to your so-called problem of unrequited love. Your vanity will be the death of ya, so you’re gonna lean into it and push the limits till ya bounce back in the right way, away from that extreme. All it takes is a vial. I’m missing one ingredient. Go get it for me, and I’ll do this for ya. Plus, I’ll be getting one favor from ya at some later time,” she adds.

“What favor?” he asks, drinking in her words. They seem to have a strange calming effect over him.

“Undisclosed. One of my choosing. Nothing to worry about yet. Just a small debt to be repaid in the future. So lavish in your present all ya want. We live in the now, anyways. You’ll get your girl. Do we have a deal?” she extends a hand out with the old toothbrush held between her thumb and index finger.

Buck stares at the toothbrush. His mind starts to feel foggy. “Is this one of those things that has some kind of catch? Are you like a genie that’ll twist the meaning of my words and get me into a big mess?”

She flashes a grin, her eyes blank and unsmiling. “You’ll get your girl,” she repeats. “You’ll get what you need. What you need is what you want, after all. We often get that backwards. It’s a priorities thing.”

Buck draws his gaze into the woman’s eyes. They are grey with flecks of gold, calculating and churning.

Perhaps out of desperation to fill the growing void in his heart, or merely for the thrill of adventure, or a combination of the two slathered in curiosity of the novelty ahead, he steps towards her and shakes her hand. Upon contact, the toothbrush crackles with electricity. Buck hears the booming sound of thunder.

A flash of light spills out of the cracks in the boarded-up windows of the shop from within. Fizzing and popping sounds flood the room overpowering the chorus of meows. The lettering on the sign changes to read, “Welcome To The Cat Café. We Take All Your Woes Away.” A low rumble shakes the building.

The blue kitten from earlier reappears, huddling under an overturned chair to watch the exchange unfold.

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