By Doug Linger
His pace slowed as he passed the new store between the two restaurants. It must have finally opened up while he was off for the weekend. "Walk a Mile," he read aloud, and looked in the window. Used shoes. "Oh, good grief," he said, rolling his eyes at the joke.
He paused, then went in. His sneakers were getting rather threadbare; perhaps he could find some cheap replacements. As if I could afford any other kind, he thought, and snorted.
"Hello, young man," a friendly woman's voice called out as he entered. A short, shabby-looking woman put a pair of shoes on a shelf and nodded a welcome at him. "You're one of our first customers! Feel free to try any of these on."
Chris glanced at his graying hair in the mirror behind the counter. Young man? he mused. She's hardly older than I, and I'm pushing fifty! He nodded politely in response and started browsing the shelves.
The variety of shoes available was amazing. There were pumps and stiletto heels, baby shoes and sneakers of all types. They were not well organized, however. Dance shoes and loafers and even a pair of bunny slippers were all right next to each other. It looked like the stock were put on the shelves wherever there was space available.
In a way, however, the arrangement made a strange kind of sense. After all, where in a traditional footwear display would you catalog a full set of four horseshoes?
"See anything you like?" the dowdy little woman said from behind him, startling him.
"No, I'm just browsing." He walked a few feet down the short aisle and stopped cold. "Hey!"
"Ah, you do see something!"
Chris pointed at a pair of children's sneakers. They were a bright red, once, but the color had faded with time and what appeared to be rigorous use. The shoelaces were dirty and the fabric had a hole over the spot where the big toe went. "Where'd you get those? I had a pair just like them when I was seven!"
"It's mostly an exchange program," the proprietor said casually. "Occasionally we just find a pair that we feel meets our standards and put them up."
Chris picked up one of the shoes and looked it over carefully. "I loved mine, wore them until they were dead." In a sudden fit of nostalgia, he blurted, "I'll take them."
"Certainly, dear. Why don't you try them on, then?"
Chris looked at her oddly. She seemed entirely serious. "Lady, I can't wear these. They're made for a kid."
"I can size anything to fit, even those. Go ahead and try them on."
The woman was obviously batty, but he took a seat to humor her. One halfhearted try and he could get out of here. But the shoe fit perfectly. There was no effort to it at all. He stared at his foot, astonished.
"Now the other one," she prompted him. He was too stupefied to disobey. The second fit just as well as the first. "There now, I told you I could fit those."
Chris finally found his voice enough to mumble, "That is totally weird." He wriggled his toes in the sneakers, and had to restrain from giggling when he saw his big toe move through the hole.
"Our return policy is pretty lenient," the older woman told him. "You can try them out for a while, no cost to you. But if you walk more than a mile in them, they're yours."
He tried a few experimental steps around the store. They seemed to be working well enough. "Right. Fine. I'll be seeing you later." He waved to her absently as he walked out the door, lost in thought.
He'd only gone a few steps when he realized he'd never paid for the shoes. For that matter, he'd entirely forgotten about getting a real replacement pair. He put his hand in his pocket and turned around, then stopped suddenly. His wallet was gone. For that matter, so was the little shopping center.
He was still standing on a sidewalk. But instead of the line of closely packed stores was a row of small houses. Picket fences surrounded neatly manicured lawns that seemed somehow familiar. Everything had changed, including, much to his dismay, himself.
He was a kid. "What the hell?"
"Shh!" Came the hurried whisper from behind him. "Tessa will tell for sure if she hears you say that!"
"What?" Chris blurted as he whirled around. His younger sister had died eight years ago in a car crash, along with Jason. Her husband and his best friend. Who was standing in front of him, no older than himself.
"C'mon," the ghost said. "I don't want to be around her. You can never have any fun."
Chris didn't follow. You'll have fun enough with her in twelve or thirteen years. What the hell is going on?
The answer was absolutely obvious, even if it was also absolutely impossible. He looked down at his feet. They had been his shoes, and somehow -- Lord only knows how -- he was seven again.
The woman's voice suddenly sounded inside his head. With the day's events he wasn't even sure if it was just a memory. "If you walk more than a mile in them, they're yours."
He could take the shoes off and return to the present. Or the future, depending. But that wasn't very appealing. He'd never gone to college. He'd gone to work for his father at the drugstore straight out of high school and worked there till the place went bankrupt, squeezed out by the big chains. Ever since he'd just drifted from job to job. There'd been some good times, but such times were few and carefully regimented. He'd sold the years in order to exist, little more.
On the other hand, being seven wasn't especially inviting either. Chris tried to remember what it had been like. No power at home. In to bed at eight, no questions. A meager allowance. A bike that could use a bit of work, and a pretty small group of friends. School. Rules, rules, and more rules.
But at least a seven-year-old had room to grow. He could do something with his life, this time.
"Hey, wait up!" he cried, running after his friend.
In the shop, the worn-out sneakers he had been wearing disappeared from the floor, to reappear a moment later on the shelf. The old woman smiled slightly and considered. They'd not be taken very quickly, with a life such as that. But there was always someone out there willing to buy a fixer-upper.