Gwen watched as Ms Shan dropped a pencil near the information counter, and Norman rushed to pick it up. He smiled winningly as he handed it to her. She acknowledged his action with a gesture and moved on, leaving Norman staring, sighing at her back. Gwen bit her hand. What a fool. What a fool she had been! To have given so much up, only for nothing.
All around her were the Handy Pavilion staff, going about their business as if it were just another day. It was a quiet day. Fiona lugged a box of taps. Adam laughed uncomfortably at one of Belinda’s jokes. Axel Platzoff, rubbing his eyes, was being lectured by Sadie MacGregor. Marlon and Wellsey were deep in conversation. Customers were few, but present. An elderly man in a tweed jacket staggered under too many cans of paint. A carpenter’s apprentice eyed expensive hammers with a wistful sigh. A short woman and her tall husband pushed a trolley full of plants.
No one looked at Gwen. If the world ends with aliens or fire and brimstone or zombies, then everyone is in on the fight. When the world ends in heartbreak, there you are, alone.
There was only one thing that could have made Gwen’s day any worse, so naturally that happened. Pennington arrived. Gwen saw him across the counters, in his pressed trousers and polo neck shirt. She lacked the strength to deal with him out the front, so retreated to the safety of the timber section.
Pennington arrived minutes later. In his hand was one of those lightweight folding bags. Nothing sinister about bags like that — unless you know what is meant to go in it.
“I can’t pay you,” Gwen said.
“You can,” Pennington said. “You will.”
Gwen shook her head. The wood in the timber section sang a brave song to encourage her. It was not working. Pennington was a soft looking fellow but his eyes were like steel.
“Gwen, I offered you the love potion for free,” he said. “You insulted me by returning it, then you demanded I sell you more. Against my better judgement, I did so. Even now, I would be prepared to accept the return of my product in lieu of payment – but you don’t have it any more. This is unacceptable, and I think you know that.”
Gwen looked around. The timber section was an enormous empty space, but still it felt like a trap. “It went wrong,” she said. “Norman fell in love with someone else.”
“Was there a defect in the product?” Pennington said. “No. It worked exactly as advertised. If you burn a chop, you still owe the butcher. If you misuse a potion…”
“But what you’re asking…”
“Is the agreed price. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Gwen nodded. Deep down, she had known that there would be no way out of this. Really, how could this have gone any other way? She should have listened to her grandmother. She’d known…
“Now, if you please,” Pennington said, his face like stone.
Gwen looked around to see if anyone was watching, though she was almost past the point at which she cared. She reached up, placing two fingertips within her right earhole. Pushing outward, her ear stretched until there was more room for all her fingers. It burned as she pulled her external ear inside out, revealing her real ear, her true ear, green and gently glowing beneath the surface. Fighting back tears, she tore the green ear from her head like a mushroom from a tree trunk, and handed it to Pennington. The dull brown external ear snapped back into place.
“And the other one,” he said. His words were audible on both sides, but the song of the wood could only be heard through her left ear. Gwen almost hesitated, but knew that if she faltered she would not be able to start again. She opened up her left ear and plucked out the green ear within. Instantly the sound of the woodsong died. Deaf. Not human deaf. That would be bad enough. Dryad deaf, forever cut off from the songs of tree and wood.
Pennington took a plastic Ziploc from his pocket, and deposited Gwen’s ears in it. Sealing it, he slipped it into the lightweight bag. “There you go,” he said. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“It was worse than you could imagine.”
“It may have been bad,” Pennington said, “but I’d be willing to bet you any amount that it was not worse than I could imagine.”
A shudder ran up Gwen’s back. Creepy bastard was probably right.
“What are you going to do with them?” she asked.
“Wouldn’t you be happier not knowing?”
Again, he had a point.
“Well, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure,” Pennington said. “All in all you have been a very ungrateful customer.”
“See what I mean? But just out of professional interest, who did poor Norman fall for, if not you?”
“You wouldn’t know her.”
“Probably not,” Pennington said. “Goodbye, Gwen.”
Gwendolyn Harper stood amidst piles of silent timber. Once again, she thought there was only one way to make her day worse, and once again the universe tested her theory.
“Hey, Gwen,” Norman said. “You seen Axel?”
“Axel?” Gwen said. “I’d have thought you’d be looking for Ms Shan.”
Norman blushed behind his scraggly beard. “Don’t know what you mean,” he mumbled.
“Well, you’re always fawning over her.”
“I’m showing respect to my boss. Maybe if more people did that, this place would work better.”
Gwen couldn’t stand it any longer. “Norman, you’re in love with her.”
The lad went fire-engine red, then to Gwen’s surprise, burst into laughter. “Yeah, Gwen. I guess maybe I am. Silly, isn’t it? She’s twice my age, and she’s too good for me, and Mum would freak if she saw her. And if what Fiona said is… Well, let’s just say winning her over would be an uphill run. ”
Norman shook his head at his own foolishness. “It’s a sad thing to be in love and have it going nowhere. But I suppose I’ll just have to get over it. What else can I do?”
“You could give her a love potion,” Gwen said. “That’s how some people would deal with unrequited love.”
“Wouldn’t that be cool,” Norman laughed. “But, no seriously, though, you don’t want to mess with that shit. My Dad was always pulling that sort of thing, tricking women into liking him. Now there’s all these women who he likes, but who hate him. How sad is that? And he’s all alone, sleeping on his brother’s couch. No, love is a pain in the arse, but you’ve just got to cop what it throws at you.”
Involuntarily, Gwen touched her ear.
“What if someone used a love potion on you?” Gwen said.
Norman shrugged. “Wouldn’t work.”
“Wouldn’t work,” Norman repeated. “I’m immune to that sort of thing. Dad might be an ass, he gave me some good genes, but. Potions, curses, minor wands. I’m immune. It’s all genetic, yeah?”
“Yup,” Norman said. “In this day and age, I guess you don’t have to worry about that shit too much, but I’m lucky not to have to worry at all. Anyway, I need to find Axel. He’s been thinking a lot lately, and I don’t think I should let him think too much. See ya!”
And he left, and Gwen stood alone in silent shock.