The candy shop showed up near the end of April, planting itself in the abandoned yellow building on the corner of Millard and Oak Grove. By the time May drifted to a close, the boarded-up windows had been washed and lined with pink curtains and someone had planted a garden in front that inexplicably bloomed to life in only four weeks.
Mary Elizabeth and I were some of its first customers, though she’d only come along because I had been curious. “Aren’t candy stores for children, Annie?” she’d asked. “We’re going to high school in a couple months. I know you still like to order from the kid’s menu sometimes, but what’s wrong with, you know, doing grown-up things?”
A bell rang over the front door and the candy shop came to life. Lights around the front sign flashed while the flowers opened their petals wider. A sweet aroma wafted into the street.
The door opened and there stood a man tall enough to have to duck through the threshold. He was long and limber, as if he’d been put through a taffy puller once or twice, and he wore an iridescent dinner jacket that glimmered purple from one angle and blue from another. Staring out from a pale face were two bright silver eyes.
The man doffed his top hat and grinned, his teeth remarkably white for someone who made their living in candy.
“Good afternoon, my children,” he greeted in a warm, silky voice. “My name is Mr. Gaffney, and it is my pleasure to welcome you into my candy store.” He stepped aside, his movements graceful yet slightly wobbly, his body wavering as if he weren’t quite substantial enough to stand on his own.
The inside of the candy store should not have fit into that tiny yellow building. I gaped at the arching glass ceilings, the black-and-white tiled floors, and the rows and rows of shelves lining the walls. There were lollipops big enough to use as wheels on a bicycle, chocolate bars heavy enough to anchor a ship, a chocolate fountain deep enough to swim in, and miles and miles of licorice and taffy.
“We should try something,” I told Mary Elizabeth.
“But the calorie count,” she complained.
“Calorie count?” repeated a honey-sweet voice. Mr. Gaffney stood behind us, a full two feet taller than we were. He extended a long arm to pluck two lollipops off a stand. “All treats are on the house, my girls. Opening day special,” he said as he handed the lollipops to us. “Enjoy yourselves.”
I unwrapped the lollipop and tried it. Though I hadn’t been thinking of anything in particular, the minute the candy hit my tongue a scene rushed into my head: a county fair at midnight, fireworks bursting in the sky and a warm arm around my waist as I sucked on a lollipop. As the taste settled, the county fair around me wavered and transformed, and I found myself sitting at the top of a ferris wheel. I wore a pink jumper Mom had gotten me for Christmas years ago.
“Don’t lean over too far, Annie,” a gruff voice called as wrinkled, sunspotted hands pulled my six-year-old self back into my seat. “I don’t want to explain to my own daughter how I lost her kid over the side of the ferris wheel.”
I looked up at the old man, his blue eyes bright despite the wrinkles drooping around them. His laugh was more of a wheeze but my six-year-old self grinned, forgetting to be self-conscious about missing my front teeth.
“Grandpa,” I breathed, blinking several times. Mary Elizabeth and Mr. Gaffney stood beside me and it took a few seconds to remember that I was in a candy store holding a lollipop. I cleared my throat. “This reminds me of when Grandpa took me to a county fair when I was six,” I told them.
Mr. Gaffney’s grin widened. “Sweets are powerful things, are they not?”
Mary Elizabeth touched the lollipop with the tip of her tongue. She paused for a moment, then bit right into the treat.
“It reminds me of Halloween in sixth grade!” she exclaimed. “That year, I gorged on chocolate bars.” Her shoulders slumped. “That was the last time I didn’t care about my weight at all.”
Mr. Gaffney nodded sympathetically. “You all grow up so quickly these days,” he told us. “It’s like you live your lives on fast-forward. So when you’re in my store, I ask that you let yourselves be”–he gestured around us at the excited boys and girls–“children.” He smiled again, but it was the kind of smile you’d see on an older person, full of wisdom and just a touch of melancholy. With that, he sauntered off to help the next kid.
Mary Elizabeth finished her lollipop in three more bites and reached for another. I circled the store, sampling chocolates off trays and picking pieces of taffy hanging from the walls. I lost track of time, not even registering that the sky through the glass ceiling had turned pink then faded to black with a smattering of stars. A bell rang, signaling that the shop would be closing.
The customers filed out, bundles of sweets in their arms. Mary Elizabeth and I were at the end of the line. “What an incredible place,” she said. “Forget dieting. From now on, Annie, I’m living for today.”
By the next day, word of the candy store had spread and now the entire town turned up the hour it opened. I’d thought that Mr. Gaffney would have no supplies left after giving away his entire stock for free yesterday, but the shelves were packed with twice as much chocolate, taffy, caramels, sugary sweets, and peanut butter cups. Though we did have to pay, the prices were so cheap that I managed to buy several pounds of candy despite walking in with only a few dollars. Mary Elizabeth made up for two years of fastidious dieting in a couple hours.
And just like the day before, each sweet put a memory in my mind so potent that it felt like I was living it, not recalling it. Most of my memories involved Grandpa–running to the door whenever he visited, sitting on his lap while he told me to enjoy the age I was, and to never worry about being too old or too young.
I wound up telling Mr. Gaffney all about Grandpa, describing how he never ever smiled for a picture despite being one of the goofiest people to walk the face of the earth. People used to assume he was grumpy and they could never understand why I loved him so much, until I would introduce him and he would do things like make a terrible pun with a straight face before breaking into giggles.
“You miss him very much,” Mr. Gaffney observed.
I nodded. “But at least I have my memories, even though I sound like an old person saying that.”
In early July, Mr. Gaffney invited Mary Elizabeth and I into his store an hour before it opened. He’d recently imported a new kind of candy and wanted us to have the honor of being the first to try it. We waddled into two plush armchairs he’d pulled up and he disappeared into the back room. Mary Elizabeth let out a loud belch.
“Were your pants always that tight?” she asked me.
I looked down at my waist. I’d never been that skinny of a girl, but in the short space of a month my stomach had ballooned and I had trouble fitting some of my clothes.
“You too,” I answered. “Remember when you used to freak out if you ate a slice of pie?”
Mary Elizabeth groaned. “I have to start dieting again. But all this candy… it’s special, isn’t it? It’s not like normal candy. But.. but how am I ever going to look like the other girls in the magazines if I can barely fit into a burlap sack?”
Mr. Gaffney returned then, carrying a box filled with candies wrapped in sparkly blue paper. “Never fear, my girls,” Mr. Gaffney crooned, putting a hand on Mary Elizabeth’s shoulder. “It pains me when people punish themselves for their indulgences. There is a reason I wanted you two to be the first to try my newest product. You see, you aren’t the first people to complain about your weight, and in my store, I pride myself on making people happy.”
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the sparkly blue candies.
That warm, bright smile flashed across Mr. Gaffney’s face. “This is the very first candy in history that makes you lose weight instead of gain it. I thought you two would be perfect to be the first to try it. Believe me, it works.” He leaned back, displaying his slim figure. “They’re sort of like fruits. They have a pit at the center, but you just suck on the candy and spit out the pit afterwards.”
“Give that to me,” Mary Elizabeth said, taking a blue candy, unwrapping it feverishly, and popping it into her mouth. Her pupils dilated. “Me winning a pageant,” she whispered. “It’s not a memory this time, it’s a dream.”
I ate one myself. The minute it hit my tongue, all memories of my Grandpa flooded to my mind, with some new scenes that I knew hadn’t happened but felt real enough to believe. Grandpa had died last year but I saw him doing the things he missed yet would have loved had he lived–cheering in the audience when I had a supporting role in the eighth grade play, dancing with me at middle school graduation, going off on his travels and bringing me candy and souvenirs from around the world.
And then, when I got to the pit, the dreams cut off as if someone had flipped a switch. The pit was cold, its chill spreading to the roof of my mouth and even permeating beyond that to the inside of my head. It was a strange feeling, not entirely pleasant, but not painful either.
“Ah, you can spit those here,” Mr. Gaffney said, holding up a glass jar. Mary Elizabeth and I both spat out the pits. They were bright silver, the same color as Mr. Gaffney’s strange flickering eyes. “One more thing, girls,” he went on. “As this is a new product, I’d very much like to keep it… under wraps, no pun intended.” He smiled then, but there was something rehearsed about it.
“Works for me,” Mary Elizabeth said. We bid Mr. Gaffney goodbye and went on our way.
The next morning, I was five pounds lighter. I stood in front of my mirror for ten minutes, so amazed that I didn’t hear the first time Mary Elizabeth knocked on my door.
“It worked!” she exclaimed, running into my room and showing off her figure, which was a couple pounds thinner too. “We have to go back for more! I’ll be even thinner than I was at the start of the summer. I can’t remember the last time I felt so good about my weight!”
“What about Halloween in sixth grade?”
She frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“You gorged on all that chocolate and didn’t care.”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember that. Why would I gorge on chocolate? Imagine the calorie count!” She laughed.
Several times over the course of the rest of the summer, Mary Elizabeth and I–and most of the town too–returned to the store for the miracle candy. We sucked on our dreams and spat out that pit. And gradually, we got thinner again, back to our weight at the start of the summer. Mary Elizabeth was overjoyed.
On the last weekend before school started, we finished the last of the blue candies. That day, I happened to leave my sun hat at the shop and had to go back right as the store closed. I walked in, but by then the lights were all out and the flowers in the front had sealed themselves shut. The glass ceiling had disappeared, replaced by a low-hanging wooden bundle of exposed beams coated in cobwebs. The empty shelves gave the place a naked, bare sort of feeling, like looking at the store’s skeleton.
There came a rustling from further in the shop. A door at the very rear of the shop had been cracked open, and through it I could see Mr. Gaffney counting jars and jars of the tiny silver pits from the blue miracle candy.
“Enough to start another store,” he said to himself. “And enough to keep me fed through the winter.” His wobbly body was arched in a strange way, and something about how he held his arms made me think of a praying mantis. He sat a jar of silver seeds onto a shelf, turning around just in time to see me.
My blood turned to ice. Gone was that playful smile of his, replaced by a wide, toothy grin of pointed little teeth gleaming unnaturally white even in the dim shop. His skin stretched across his face like ill-fitting cloth, pulled too tight in some places and hanging loose in others.
“What are you doing here, Annie?” he asked in that honey-sweet voice, inching forward. “Do you want something? Chocolate? Taffy? Peanut butter cups? What joy of yours will you trade for a treasure of mine?” His body wavered; I’d been right when I’d first seen him–something about him wasn’t substantial enough. He was made of something else entirely, something ancient, smoke and shadow from a time long gone.
My breath caught in my throat. “G-get away f-from me,” I stammered, my back hitting the front door.
Mr. Gaffney arched an eyebrow. “You lot have it so easy, you know. All the joys in the world at your fingertips, and you trade them for things that don’t matter. What some of us wouldn’t give for that luxury.” Despite the way his skin clung onto his face like it didn’t fit right and despite his razor-sharp teeth, the light in his silver eyes softened. I recognized that look, that look old people usually had. Wisdom with a touch of melancholy.
I glanced around at the empty store, the skeleton of a candy shop, and then at the bizarre, lonely creature in front of me. I shook my head at him, and then I opened the front door and walked outside, breaking into a run when I reached the main road. Though I didn’t look back, I didn’t hear the door close, and I could only imagine Mr. Gaffney lingering the threshold, too tall for the frame as he watched me disappear down the street.
School started with everyone back at their original weight, but a few other things had gone missing. The candy store vanished overnight, leaving nothing behind but the rickety yellow building at the corner of Millard and Oak Grove. All the flowers in front died, and the place looked like it had been abandoned for years. I never did get my sun hat back, nor did I tell anyone what I suspected of the mysterious shop owner.
About a month after, we started noticing the holes. It started small, someone not remembering a birthday party someone had years ago, or a very special date a married couple had a while back. One morning, I came downstairs and noticed a picture on the wall of a grumpy old man glaring at the camera. “Grandpa was such a grouch,” I said.
“What are you talking about, Annie?” my mother asked. I looked at all the other pictures of Grandpa lying around the house. He glared, glowered, and sneered in every photograph.
“Did he ever smile?” I asked.
My mom had the strangest look on her face. “Annie, just go to school,” she told me, her voice irate but her eyes worried. I shrugged and headed outside to meet Mary Elizabeth. She’d taken to high school like a fish to water. She told me repeatedly that she couldn’t remember being this happy.
“What about this summer? You were really happy at points then too.”
“Was I, Annie? Was I really?”
People didn’t talk about the candy shop for the longest time, and once when I brought it up with Mary Elizabeth, she gave me the strangest look and said she had no idea what I was saying. After a while, I struggled to remember the shopkeeper’s name, and eventually I lost track of that too.
I started asking my mom about Grandpa and she told me the wildest stories about a grump with a sense of humor. She asked me why I didn’t remember. I lied and told her it was because it made me too sad. Some things you don’t miss until they’re gone, and we take so much for granted, even our memories.