“That’ll be three hundred nineteen dollars, fifty-eight cents,” said the girl in a bored tone. Clearly, their enormous haul of assorted staple foods was nothing she hadn’t seen before.
The four of them looked at each other. Val had panic in her eyes. Tip cleared her throat. “Actually I’ve already calculated it. It should come to just over three hundred and six dollars.”
The girl glared and pointed at the display. “There’s your total. The till doesn’t lie.”
Tip scowled back. “Either the machine is lying, or your price labels are inaccurate!”
Val laid a hand on Tip’s shoulder and addressed the girl. “Could there be some reason why these things cost more than we thought?”
The girl’s expression softened. “Ya’ll aren’t from around here are ya? You just tried to calculate the total from the prices in the store? Haven’t you ever heard of sales tax?”
A tax! That was it. Tip immediately felt 100% better knowing her brain hadn’t let her down.
“You’re totally right, we’re new in town,” Val was telling the girl. Once again her voice had shifted, a twang of the girl’s own accent creeping in. Val’s clothes suddenly looked different too. Like all of them, she was wearing a long-sleeved tunic over thick leggings for the winter, but her outfit looked somehow more… More like it fit in with their surroundings. It had become sleeker and more elegant. In her ears dangled shiny metal hoops that were just like the ones in the store girl’s ears. Val had never had her ears pierced, Tip was sure. However there they were. Dangling away. Catching the light.
Tip elbowed Sol and jerked her head towards Val’s head. “What?” he mouthed.
“The earrings!” hissed Tip. When Sol’s eyes widened, she knew she hadn’t just imagined it. Val’s appearance had changed again. This time, she’d shifted to look like the girl she was talking to.
“We’re staying with our uncle,” Val was telling the girl. “He’s ill at the moment. He gave us his wallet and sent us to get food.”
“Aww, poor guy.” the girl clucked her tongue. “But if ya’ll can’t pay with cash, surely he has a card you can use.” When Tip opened the wallet again, the girl pointed to a shiny, flat object tucked into a pocket. “There! See, you can use his credit card. If he’s signed on the back you can just copy his signature on the receipt. It’ll be fine!”
“Oh thank goodness,” gushed Val. ”I’m sure he won’t mind.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tip. “If we can use this card to pay, that means we can buy more food.” She glanced at Kerrick and Sol, who both grinned when they caught her meaning. “We’ll be back,” Tip told Val and the girl, and the three of them rushed off to do another sweep of the store. This time, Tip didn’t even glance at the prices, snatching items almost at random off the shelves and cramming them into the cart. She even grabbed a box of the jester flakes, just so they could try them out.
When the three of them arrived back at the counter, they had managed to amass nearly as much stuff as had been in the first set of purchases. Albeit this time a far more chaotic assortment of items.
When the girl had added their items to the total, the final total was over six-hundred dollars. But when the girl took the plastic card and swiped it through the machine she seemed satisfied with whatever the illuminated display told her. Val made a flourishing squiggle on the slip of paper the girl presented and that was it. They were free to go with their haul!
Tip wished she could keep the plastic card. It was like having a magic, bottomless coin pouch that would never, ever run out. But the drunk man had paid for their groceries and that ought to be enough of a punishment for his bad manners. With a regretful pat, she left the wallet on one of the supermarket shelves. Either the man would come looking for it here or someone else could enjoy the money inside. It wouldn’t do them any good back in Grevick.
It took them several journeys to lug everything back to The Underrun. Since the discovery of the card had eliminated their strict budget, they had purchased an armload of the store’s shiny shopping bags, which had speeded things up. Still, it was a slog to get everything back to the building they’d first emerged from. When they finally had it all lined up and ready for transferral into the boats, Kerrick suggested they take a short break and eat something. They’d have to work equally hard when they arrived back in Grevick, and it might be wise to rest now in the relative quiet of the empty room with the trapdoor. They opened a bag of apples and dug in with gusto, chattering excitedly as they relived their experience in the store.
“Can you believe they use money that’s made out of paper and cards here?” asked Kerrick. “It’s fantastic.”
“Turned out to be pretty useful,” said Tip. She gestured at the shopping bags lined up on the dusty wooden floor. “Look how much we’ve got to take back with us!”
“It’d be nice if we could come back here,” said Val. ”Collecting items in a store was easier than all that gathering we had to do last time.”
“That’s the rub,” said Kerrick thoughtfully. “If the Underrun brings us somewhere different each time and we can’t control where, it’s going to be a lot more dangerous than we originally thought.”
“What danger?” scoffed Tip. “You mean that drunk guy? He was hardly dangerous.”
“He pushed you!” protested Sol.
“Speaking of which,” said Val, “it’s a good thing you made such a fuss when he shoved you. I’m not sure the guard would have been so sympathetic towards us otherwise.”
“It hurt!” protested Tip putting a hand to her lower back and shuddering at the memory of the shooting pains the sudden impact had caused.
“Come off it,” said Kerrick. “We all watched the monitor’s guard knock you to the ground the other day. You got back up without even a whimper.”
That was before I had a painful lump the size of a boulder on my back, thought Tip to herself. Out loud she said, “Yes, I was playing it up today, obviously.”
“And it was a good thing you did,” said Val. “The guard was watching us the whole time before that happened. I think he could tell we didn’t have any money.”
“You changed again when you spoke to him,” Tip told her. “You looked older and you sounded richer.”
“What do you mean richer?” asked Val. “How can a person sound rich?”
“Don’t know, but you did,” said Tip. The other two nodded in agreement.
“And at the counter with that girl,” said Sol. “You had earrings!”
Val looked bemused. “What? I don’t even have the holes for earrings.”
“You definitely had them. Just like the store girl was wearing,” Tip told her. “They appeared when you were talking to her and then they disappeared not long after we left the store.”
“This is interesting,” said Kerrick. “It’s happened a few times now. Each time your appearance changes it seems to be in response to the person you’re talking to.”
Val looked confused. “Do you mean I end up looking like them?”
“Not that,” said Tip. “You look like what they want to want to see.”
“It’s more subtle than that,” said Kerrick. “When the monitors came, you said your face changed to make you look younger. That’s why they didn’t take you away.”
Val shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
“Kerrick’s right,” said Tip leaning forward excitedly. “If your face hadn’t changed like that you’d be stuck in with the tavern girls by now. It saved you!”
“This ability, whatever it is, changes you to look and sound like whatever will be most advantageous with regards to the person you’re talking to,” said Kerrick. “With the monitors it made you look young so they wouldn’t take you away. With the guard, it made you sound rich so he’d treat you like a paying customer. The counter girl probably relates better to people who look like her.”
“It helped us a lot having her on our side,” Tip pointed out. “We’d never have known about the magic card otherwise.”
“Did you feel anything happening to you any of those times?” Kerrick asked Val. “Any sensations in your face or voice?”
“No,” exclaimed Val. “I didn’t feel anything at all. If I hadn’t seen it for myself the first time, I wouldn’t believe it really happened.”
“It’s your superpower,” said Sol contentedly. “Just like Kerrick has super sight now.”
“True,” Tip poked Kerrick in the arm. “You could see into the store from the edge of the plaza. None of us could see that far.”
“Do your eyes feel different now?” Val asked Kerrick.
He frowned. “It still makes my head hurt if I try too hard to look at something.”
“They’ve certainly changed colour,” said Tip “Amber now instead of green.”
Kerrick winced. “I’m still hoping they’ll turn back. Eye colour is a difficult thing to hide. I don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.”
“You could pretend to be blind and wear a cloth over your eyes,” said Tip. “You’ll be able to see through it now.”
Kerrick looked thoughtful. “That’s an idea,” he said. “I’ll discuss it with Marit.”
“What’s wrong with having amber eyes?” Sol demanded. ”I think they look nice.”
“Some people might think his eyes have changed because he’s possessed by a demon,” Val told Sol gently.
Sol’s eyes widened. “Oh!”
“You do look a bit demonic,” Tip told Kerrick.
“Thanks, Tip. I can always count on you,” he replied.
“Are we going to talk about why this is happening?” Val asked. “These changes, they all started…”
“It all started when we visited the pink world,” Tip finished for her. “Somehow, something happened to us there.”
“Maybe while we were asleep,” Sol speculated.
“But what else is there to say?” asked Tip. “We’re not going to stop using the Underrun.”
Val sighed. “I just wonder whether it’s safe to keep visiting places if it’s going to have this kind of effect on us?”
“But the changes haven’t been bad ones,” exclaimed Tip. “Even Kerrick’s headache was probably just an adjustment for his new eyes.”
“Even if that’s true, who knows what’s going to happen in the coming weeks?” Val cried. “Maybe we’re all going to turn into dragons!”
Kerrick spoke up. “For my part, I’m willing to turn into a freak and bear any amount of headache if it means we can bring food for the little ones. When we brought that haul home last time it did more than just feed them. It gave them hope. And this time we’ve done even better.”
“He’s right,” Tip said quietly. “I’m willing to bear the changes too.”
“What changes?” Val exclaimed shoving her playfully. ”You haven’t had anything happen yet.”
Though light, the shove on Tip’s shoulder caused her to rock backwards onto her tailbone and sent waves of pain radiating out from her sore lump. “No changes yet,” she gasped.
“Tip and I will get our superpowers later,” Sol said hugging his knees.
“In all seriousness,” said Kerrick. “Let’s make a pact, yes? Tonight has proven that the Underrun doesn’t always bring us to gentle, benign worlds like the last one. But we’ll agree to keep on. We keep sailing the Underrun, no matter the danger. We travel to all the different worlds, no matter how many there are. We forage and we fight, and we provide for our family!” As he said the last words, he stuck out his hand.
“For our family,” echoed Tip and Val, placing their hands on top of his.
“For our family,” echoed Sol, tears shining in his eyes as he placed his hand on the very top.
- Graz, Austria
I write fantasy and humorous tales with a twist of magic. I'm currently working on a full-length manuscript but somehow I'm never satisfied with a single project so my smaller works get posted here. If you like what you read, the completed stories are also available to download as ebooks from my website: victoriakellywrites.com
I'd love to hear what you think of my stories so feel free to leave comments. I'm also happy to trade feedback as long as you write in a similar genre.