By Hannah Christensen
Catalogues and pamphlets were strewed across the counter, and stray pieces of paper drifted down to the floor.
The scrawny young man jolted upright. His face flushed and his adam’s apple bobbed twice as he put a hand over the phone receiver. “I was trying to look up dimensions…How big does a king size measure again? Sorry, I just haven’t…” He trailed away and surrendered the phone to Tom’s waiting hand. He skittered away to the mattress store’s sale floor.
“Hello?” Tom told the telephone. “A king sized mattress measures seventy-five inches wide by eighty long. Though you will have to make allowances for the bedframe for where you place it. Those vary.”
“No, no, I won’t need any frame. I just want something to get poor old Matilde off the cement. It’s not good for her arthritis, you know, and she insists on brushing the straw away.”
Tom pulled the phone away from his ear a bit and frowned at it. He put it back up in time to hear “—details?”
“I can give you details over the phone if you like,” said Tom, “Or send you a catalogue if you’d rather. You can also come in any time to see and try out the mattresses for yourself.”
“Mmm, the catalogue might be a good idea. Do you deliver?”
Tom was just wrapping up the phone call when the bell above the door jingled. He looked up to see a soot-streaked man stride in dragging a blackened stretch of cloth. Some streaks of white hair seemed to have escaped the disaster with dirt, though the white may have been ash. Whatever garment he had been wearing had been long enough to dance long tatters around his knees. “Where dost thou store thy carpets?” he demanded.
Tom decided Randolph was not ready for this customer. For that matter, he doubted he was ready for this customer. Pushing this thought to the back of his mind, he slid out from behind the counter.
“I’m afraid we’ve downsized in our types of merchandise,” he said. “Since our visit from the weatherman, we’ve decided that even pillows—have their downside.” He blocked from his mind the image of feathers swirling in a snowstorm representation. “What you see is what we have. Is there any way I can help you with mattresses?”
The man frowned. His bushy eyebrows met, black as his soot stained face. “My flying carpet hath met its doom—poor workmanship—and the merchant I met assured me The Sleeping Princess doth sell household furnishings.” He shook his finger at Tom. “See thou doth mind to bring me only those of magical nature, none common. I came advised that none in this region hath more magical wares than thine.”
Crackpots, thought Tom. My old supervisor warned me they would come. Do I call someone in to fetch him, or hope he goes away soon? Now he had no doubt he was not ready for this customer.
“Well,” Tom said. “I can’t say as I know much about magic. You’ll have to look around and see what you can find. If you need help with something like memory foam or a lay-away plan, that’s more in my league, but let’s see what we can do, Mr…?”
“A merchant should know his own wares.” The stranger frowned hard and long at him, then finally shrugged and dropped his burden. “Needs press; I shall venture to find a carpet without waiting for the master of this place. Thou mayest call me Master Umber the Blue.”
“Isn’t Umber brown?”
Tom and Master Umber both glared at Randolph.
“You should go pick up that paper mess,” Tom told him.
Randolph reluctantly shuffled toward the counter.
“Now, Mister Umber, is there a particular size you would like to see?”
“So long as it spreads large enough to hold me, I care more for the stoutness of the thing,” he said. “Ask thyself this question: will it fly? Or will it plummet? If it serves me well in my travels, I’ll say naught of its melancholy lack of color.”
“Mmm…I can direct you to some of our sturdier mattresses, but the flying I’ll have to leave up to you. Like I said, I don’t know anything about magic, and I’m sure anything I tried to sit on would go with the plummeting. That’s why I don’t care much for airplanes. But you can try them out yourself.”
Several mattresses later, Tom was wondering if he could blame his old co-worker Martin as the jokester he had to thank for this bit of craziness. He felt the desire to return the favor. Judging by the sharper and sharper tongue of Master Umber the Blue, he wouldn’t mind a little bit of recompensing, either. Almost a dozen mattresses bore black blotches on their clear, plastic covers. Tom wondered if it would wipe off easily or want to smear.
“Thy boasting claims do weary me,” said Master Umber. “Each of thy wares doth entice one to sit with offers of ease, yet clingeth tightly to the ground.”
“Maybe you need to say something magical, like ‘Up, sesame,’” said Randolph.
“A pox! What seemeth to me to meddle with the magic are these.” Master Umber produced a stick out of the blue and thrust it down. The plastic cover gave before it. Umber pulled, tearing a long rip into the plastic.
“Only a customer—a purchasing customer—may remove the cover,” protested Tom. He could already see soot dust drift towards the exposed white mattress.
Master Umber stepped back and flourished his—was that actually a wand?
Master Umber scowled. “Verily, it meddleth greatly.” He began stripping the mattress by hand, ignoring Tom’s louder and louder protests. When it was quite bare, he sat in the middle, crossing his arms and legs.
Tom slapped his forehead. He had doubts the large black splotch directly on the mattress would even smudge without effort.
After several seconds of nothing happening, Master Umber rose, scowling deeper than ever, and headed toward the next mattress.
“No, that’s enough,” protested Tom. “Don’t you see the stain you left behind?”
“The fault is thine. Thou shouldest know thy wares better.” The wizard flicked his wand in almost a shrug and moved on.
The dark spot shimmered, then seemed to slide to the edge of the mattress and slip off.
Tom blinked. The stain did indeed seem to be gone. The puckering rip of plastic drew his eyes away and made him clench up, from his fists to his jaw. This lunatic was ripping the plastic off another of his mattresses. It was time to call in help.
“Do you think he’ll find one that works?” whispered Randolph in the shelter behind the counter. Then scrunched his eyebrows. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a phone number. Do you know if there’s an asylum in the area?”
“A—a looney bin?” Randolph glanced nervously back into the shop. “Surely you aren’t serious. I mean, he’s harmless, right? And then, he did just make that spot disappear.”
“Harmless? Do you see the damage he’s done?”
“I wouldn’t exactly say damage—”
“Take an eyeful of that lump of charcoal he dragged in. From what he says it used to be a carpet. Do you want our mattresses to end up like that?”
“Getting rid of that stain is the least he could do. How many mattresses do you want to shrink wrap?”
Randolph opened and closed his mouth, then shuffled his feet.
“So help me find that phone number.” Tom yanked another phone book off the shelf, knocking off the pen cup. It clattered on the floor.
“I find ye the most lumpish brace of merchants I have yet met,” complained Master Umber. “Dost thou never lift a finger in service of a customer?”
“I already told you, I can’t help. You’re not going to find anything more magical than you’ve already found. You might as well leave and try somewhere else.” Or not, Tom added in his thoughts.
Master Umber stood up on the mattress and glared down. “Dost thou mock me? Where lie the magical wares assured me?”
“I don’t know who told you we carried magic carpets, or mattresses, or anything else, but it wasn’t me. Now if you will stop ripping my mattress protections to shreds—”
Master Umber uttered a dreadful string of syllables in an unknown language. For a moment the light seemed to dim, then a flash made Tom and Randolph wince away. When they could blink the shop back into focus, the wizard was gone.
Tom went out and slowly walked around the mattress Master Umber had last been seen upon. It bore a large black spot in the middle, and smelled faintly of sulfur and cinnamon.
Tom rubbed his jaw. “Let’s put that in the back where I can think about it for a few days.”
“What about that?” Randolph pointed at the sooty bundle left behind.
“Put it out by the dumpster. If he wants it, he can come back for it.”
Tom did think about the mattress in the next few days. He went over to check on it and carefully walk around it several times, and once tried to scrub out the stain. He thought it might have smeared a little, but other than that kept a strong hold. “Now I know what a mattress technician is for,” he muttered to himself. Deciding to do some research on stain removal, he let it be for a few more days, and it began to slip away from his thoughts. Life was busy enough with normal customers and business, and then there were Mr. Zanderdorf’s calls. He had called the day after the king-sized mattress delivery, delighted with his order.
“Matilde loves her new mattress,” he said. “All the other elephants are jealous. I think I may need some more.”
Tom was in the middle of processing this when the meaning of the next question struck him fully. “Monkeys? No, we do not insure our mattresses against monkeys! Where do you I work, the zoo?”
“Evidently not,” Mr. Zanderdorf snapped back. “Chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys. They are occasionally prone to mischief, but I have high hopes they could handle a mattress. It is not as though I planned on buying mattresses for the rodents.”
Tom closed his eyes and concentrated on answering questions in a calm manner, as though he were dealing with a normal, sane customer. Though some days he started to wonder if sane was normal for customers.
A little over a week later the mattress was still there when he came back from lunch break. Randolph met him at the door looking worried.
“What happened when I was gone?” Tom asked.
“Well, Mr. Zanderdorf called.”
“Again?” Tom stepped around Randolph and took off his jacket.
“He asked if we carried heated mattresses—for his snakes.” Randolph followed closely behind Tom as he went to hang his jacket up behind the counter.
“No. I hope you told him that.”
“Well, yes, sort of. I told him I did not know of any heated mattresses, but that I would leave a note for you.” Randolph grinned sheepishly, his head partly hanging down.
Tom sighed gustily. “Anything else?” He tried to look out at the shop over the counter, but Randolph stood in the way.
A thud quivered the room, followed by a splintering crash. Tom pushed Randolph aside and strode out to see. Around the corner where the bathroom and cleaning closet doors lay emerged a knight in shining, if slightly disheveled, armor. He brandished a mop.
“I swear,” whispered Randolph, “He did not come in the front door. I was here the whole time, and he just suddenly started clattering around in the back. You don’t want to see the mess it’s in, and I was afraid he would do the same thing out here, so I locked him in the closet, but—”
“Knave!” bellowed the knight. “Thou hast deceived me! Fie on thee! Now show me to the slumbering princess, or thy life be forfeit. For though thy prison hath splintered my lance, yet have I this to my name!” He threw the mop aside and drew his sword. Lifting it up, he kissed the flat of the blade then brought it down on the nearest mattress. Feathers poufed out.
“What do you think you are doing?” Tom stormed forward.
“Where lieth the princess?”
“There are no princesses here. What are you talking about?”
“Thou speakest falsely. Here lies a sleeping princess. Mine own eyes saw the words written upon the ensorcelled door through which I came.”
“So you found an ensorcelled door and came through to spy on a sleeping princess. I believe the fie is on you.”
“Nay, not to spy—to guard.” The knight lifted his sword to his lips again. “To stand vigil over her blessed sleep. Such an honor is my soul’s craving—and naught but a brace of blackguards stand between and my own heart’s sweet queen.” He swung his sword.
Tom ducked with greater speed and agility than he knew he had.
“There is no princess, you fool! That’s the name of the shop!”
“I shall find her if I must destroy this establishment from ground to thatch!” He slashed down on another mattress.
“Go get the broom. Or some cleaner,” Tom growled to Randolph. He sidestepped over to the cast away mop and picked it up.
The knight paid no attention, but finished reducing the mattress before him to ribbons and moved on to the matching box-springs. This time his sword stuck.
Tom seized the opportunity and clobbered him over the head with his mop. “Out!” he hollered. “Get out of my shop before I dunk you in a water bed and let you rust! Knights are not welcome in my shop!”
The knight tried to turn to meet his attacker while pulling his sword loose, but it didn’t work.
Tom hit him over the head again, then tucked the mop under his arm to pull the helmet off.
The knight let go of his sword to clutch at his helmet. He easily wrested control of the helmet away from Tom.
Tom wondered if a glove would fit through the open visor enough to slap the intruder across the face. He didn’t have a glove, and he knew he was already facing more than he could handle, grappling barehanded against considerably more than brass knuckles. Still, he felt angry enough to want to.
“Fiend! Thou shalt learn to fear the wrath of the king’s own knight.”
A burst of spray shot out from behind Tom. Randolph had returned, armed with cleaner.
The knight screamed and clutched at his eyes. His visor clanged shut as he stumbled back.
“I have this arm. Grab the other side.”
They seized the knight and started dragging him toward the back room. He was heavy, and the going was slower than they liked. Randolph had to pause twice to spray him again through his visor.
In the back room, the large black smudge on the mattress had turned purple and seemed to swirl. Not able to actually toss him into the swirl, Tom and Randolph dragged the knight over and shoved him toward purple splotch.
“Go back where you came from,” said Tom. “And no more knights!”
“Thou shalt rue this day,” said the knight. “The time shall come when thou shalt cry from the heart for the services of a knight, but receive none.”
Tom just pushed. The purple swirl rippled, and the knight was gone. Tom and Randolph watched. Slowly the movement slowed, and the purple darkened into black. All that remained was a black blotch.
“Wizards,” complained Tom. “First thing tomorrow I’m looking for a way to clean that mattress.”
The next morning Tom set Randolph to finish the last bit of cleaning while he tried to find the best way to categorize the ruined mattress for the books. As he thumped the the book closed, a roar shook the entire building. Tom jolted to his feet. “What has that wizard done now?”
A huge scaly head emerged the back room doorway and spouted a shaft of fire. Three mattresses burst into flame.
“I don’t know how to slay a dragon,” whimpered Randolph.
“Water,” said Tom. “Do we have a hose?”
“I think there’s a bucket.”
The dragon turned his head and stared at them. Its eyes glowed.
“Never mind, I’m coming with.”
Tom and Randolph ran to the cleaning closet. Randolph leaned back and closed his eyes. “Where did he find a dragon so quickly?”
“It probably belongs to the wizard. Hurry up. I can hear it coming through the wall.”
After finding and filling the mop bucket, they picked it up and crept around the corner. The dragon sat on the sale floor, preening its wing.
“Any ideas on how to get close enough?” Randolph asked.
“Sneak up from behind,” said Tom. “When it notices and turns its head, run, then aim for its mouth as soon as it opens it. Maybe we can quench its fire.”
“What about the claws and teeth?”
Tom shoved Randolph forward. They tottered onward, but hadn’t gotten nearly far enough when the dragon turned its head. Tom braced himself to heave the water.
“One,” he said. “Two…”
The dragon bared its teeth.
All heads turned toward the door. A tall man with tousled brown hair stood in the doorway. Before Tom could blink, the stranger dove forward and rolled.
The dragon rose and flared its wings.
Something flashed through the air.
“Keep back,” said the stranger, getting to his feet and slowly backing toward Tom and Randolph. “It’s a double dose of the more powerful sedative, but I expect it will take longer to work on it than on an elephant. It should start slowing her down, though.” He turned and looked at them, eyes shining. “I’m Mr. Zanderdorf. I came to look at your mattresses myself, but I never expected this. Wherever did you find it?”
“A long story,” said Tom. “Did you want it?”
“Truly?” Mr. Zanderdorf leaned forward, hands pressed together. “That is, the price—how much—if I can—”
Tom waved his hand. “You remove it, it’s all yours.” He paused, his face puckering in thought. “But before you leave, there is a favor. There’s a mattress I want burned.”