Bedtime Stories . One Man's World . The Mispronouncer . Downloads . Support
HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


                Almost two weeks after Valentine’s Day, Mira crawled into bed, closed her eyes, and remembered that she’d told her boyfriend Hogan that his Valentine’s Day gift was “on the way.” But his gift had not been “on the way” on Valentine’s Day when she’d declared that it was, and it was still not “on the way” now. Mira had intended to order something for Hogan on the internet as soon as she’d gotten home from their Valentine’s Day date, but then she didn’t. Why hadn’t she? Mira didn’t recall.

               She would order him something now. Mira sat up in bed, reached to her bedside table, and froze with her fingers hovering an inch from her phone. She didn’t know what to order for Hogan. Not that he was difficult to buy for, but the gift would need to be something to justify the delay. The gift would need to be something that Hogan, upon opening it, would recognize as understandably belated. And now Mira remembered that this concern was the exact thing that had prevented her from ordering something for Hogan on Valentine’s Day night. The gift needed to say what Mira could not say without sounding guilty. The gift needed to say, “Mira didn’t forget to buy you a Valentine’s Day gift.” The gift needed to lie, in other words. So Mira hadn’t ordered anything for Hogan before Valentine’s Day because she’d forgotten, then she hadn’t ordered him anything on Valentine’s Day because she couldn’t think of the right thing to order him, and then she hadn’t ordered him anything after Valentine’s Day because her inability to think of something to order had transformed back into forgetfulness until this moment.

               Mira withdrew her hand and lay down again. She would not find a gift that could help to hide her deception without a better plan. She knew herself. Clicking around on her usual shopping websites would only lead her to settle for something incapable of accomplishing her aims. Instead of charging into the internet in a random direction, Mira decided to lie still and think. She would think about Hogan and potential gift ideas for him while here in bed in the dark, free of distracting stimuli. She recalled having a similar thought on Valentine’s Day night.


               The next morning, Mira was awoken by an idea. She needed to get a hand-crafted gift for Hogan. That way, she could blame its delayed delivery on its craftsman. She could say that the craftsman had promised her the gift would be finished by Valentine’s Day, but due to unforeseen circumstances or an inaccurate assessment of the project’s time requirements or the craftsman’s laziness, the gift had taken longer than expected. Now, Mira needed to find a craftsman to whom she could shift the blame. But she also needed a craftsman who would make her something that Hogan would want, or at least something that Hogan would believe that Mira would think he would want. Ideally, the gift would be something that Mira could get from the craftsman soon, but would also look like something that took a long time to make. Fortunately, Hogan was not the kind of guy to correctly guess how long a hand-crafted gift had taken to make. Mira decided that it would be best if she could find a craftsman in Multioak or Dalcette. If she ordered something hand-crafted online, she would have to wait for the craftsman to make it and she’d have to wait for the shipping and it would be more difficult to pressure the craftsman to hurry with nothing but strongly-worded emails.

               Mira called her boss. “I can’t come into work today. It’s an emergency.”

               “We need you to come in,” said Mira’s boss, her voice betraying the fact that she already knew this line of argument to be hopeless.

               “I can’t,” said Mira. “It’s an emergency.” She knew her boss wouldn’t be bold enough to ask for specific details.

               “Well, can you get someone to cover for you?”

               “I don’t have time,” said Mira. “I have to deal with this emergency.”

               On her way out the door, Mira’s roommate Sally emerged from the bathroom wrapped in three distinct towels. “I thought you were already gone, Mira. Where are you going? Don’t you work today?”

               “Someone’s covering for me,” said Mira. “I have some things I need to take care of.” She couldn’t reveal her search for a craftsman in case Sally happened to mention this exchange while Hogan was over. No one could know that Mira was still looking for a gift for Hogan almost two weeks after Valentine’s Day.

               Mira’s brief internet search of area craftsmen had resulted in a list of three names: Raya Fashley, Mikale Jones, and Trev Lom. Based on her perusal of their amateurish websites, Mira concluded that these three craftsmen might be capable of quickly producing some sort of hand-crafted gift that would make her seem thoughtful, but which would also seem like the kind of gift that a craftsman might deliver later than predicted. Mikale and Trev were both in Multioak, but Raya lived out in the country north of Dalcette. According to the map on her phone, Trev’s workshop was closest, so Mira decided to visit him first. If she could get this problem squared away before noon, she would have the rest of the day to do whatever she wanted. Mira had never given her boss the impression that she’d come in after the emergency was dealt with, so her boss wasn’t expecting Mira to show up at all. Maybe Mira would use the free time to write Hogan a very nice note to go with the hand-crafted gift. And since that would take ten minutes at the most, maybe she’d use the rest of the time to watch TV. And she could probably have the TV on while writing the note, too. It wasn’t like she needed one hundred percent of her attention to write a nice note to Hogan. She wasn’t stupid.


               Trev Lom’s workshop was in a run-down, formerly-industrial area of Multioak. There wasn’t much industry left in Multioak, so the buildings around Trev’s workshop were either empty or inhabited by businesses incongruous with the structures housing them. Trev’s workshop, for example, was in the corner of an old factory that had been once been used to manufacture car parts. Now, Trev used it to make kitschy wooden signs to decorate the walls of homestyle restaurants.

               When Mira stepped in from the cold, dry day outside, a bell over the door clanked more than it rang. A man sat at a severe desk in the middle of the workspace. He looked up from his laptop when he heard Mira enter. Woodworking machines lined the walls of the room and boards piled by type surrounded the desk like waves lapping at the hull of a battleship. The man had a beard which neatly summarized his entire appearance. “Can I help you?” he asked.

               “Are you Trev Lom?” asked Mira.

               “I’m him,” said Trev.

               “I’m looking to have a gift hand-made for my boyfriend,” said Mira.

               “Is it for a birthday?” asked Trev. “Is it for an anniversary?”

               “No,” said Mira, ambushed by her own nerves. “No, it’s just a gift.”

               “A gift for what event?” asked Trev. “Gifts are usually meant to celebrate or commemorate some event.”

               “Not in this case,” said Mira. “I just want him to know that I appreciate him. His name is Hogan. Could you make him a wooden sign that says something like ‘Mira hearts Hogan’ where ‘hearts’ is a picture of a heart?”

               “That sounds like a romantic gift,” said Trev.

               “He’s my boyfriend,” said Mira.

               “But the heart iconography sounds more appropriate for a Valentine’s Day gift, for example,” said Trev. “But Valentine’s Day was almost two weeks ago now.”

               “So what?” asked Mira, irked by this craftsman’s probing and irked at her own trepidation. Why should she let him bully her with questions? She was the customer, he was here to serve her.

               “‘So what’ is that I will not make a Valentine’s Day gift two weeks after Valentine’s Day,” said Trev, rising from his chair and adding “tall” to the short list of his notable characteristics. “I will not make a belated gift for any event.”

               “Why not?” asked Mira. “Why should you care whether the gift is belated or not?”

               “Because the belatedness will be blamed on me,” said Trev. “You think you’re the first person to try this? Anyone who sees the gift will say, ‘Oh, this is nice, who made it?’ and you or your boyfriend or anyone else who believes your lie will say, ‘Trev Lom made it. He’s a good craftsman, but he does take a while.’”

               Mira was taken aback at how quickly and thoroughly Trev had inferred her plan. “What if there’s no heart on the sign?”

               “The heart isn’t the issue,” said Trev. “Get out.”

               “I won’t be back,” said Mira. “You just lost a customer forever!”

               “Good!” shouted Trev. “I’d rather go out of business than serve a clientele intent on making me into a scapegoat!”


               Mira’s second stop was in a much cuter part of Multioak. There were at least four pleasant-looking cafes visible from the sidewalk in front of Mikale Jones’s storefront, and the words “Mikale Jones: Handmade Gifts for Every Occasion” were painted on the window in a cheery, colorful font.

 When Mira opened the front door, an electronic chime sounded. “Welcome!” called a smiling girl behind the counter. She looked to be around Mira’s age, 23 or 24. One of her earrings was much bigger than the other, but their design made it clear that they were intended to be worn as a pair. In addition to tables, shelves, and cases full of handmade gifts, the store also had two other customers: a woman in a coat so long it dragged on the ground and a woman who was looking at the screen of her phone and crying silently.

“Hello,” said Mira, turning sideways to slip between the crying woman and a table full of wooden frogs wearing gaudy jewelry around their necks and front legs. “I’m looking for a gift for my boyfriend. Do you make custom gifts here? Your website says you do.”

“Sure, we do custom work,” said the girl behind the counter. “What did you have in mind?”

               “My boyfriend’s birthday is coming up,” said Mira. “In just a few days. I don’t have very long. So I was just thinking of sort of a nice, little thing – some kind of thing – that says ‘Mira Hearts Hogan’ where ‘hearts’ is a picture of a heart. I know it sounds like a Valentine’s Day gift, but it’s not, I actually got him something with hearts on it for Valentine’s Day and he told me how much he loves heart stuff and how he wishes he could get heart stuff from me all through the year, so that gave me the idea, like, ‘Oh, I should get him something custom-made with a heart on it for his birthday.’ And fortunately, his birthday is very close to Valentine’s Day, so the opportunity came up pretty quick. So, here I am.”

               “We’re glad you came to us,” said the girl behind the counter. “I’m Millie Jones, by the way, I’m Mikale’s daughter.” She extended her hand across the counter; Mira took it and shook it. “Anyway,” said Millie, “let me just get this work order out here…” She rummaged around under the counter as she spoke. “It sounds like what you want will be pretty easy, and my dad works fast – he prides himself on his speed – so I imagine it’ll be done by late this afternoon or early this evening.”

               “Oh, that will be perfect,” said Mira. “That’s exactly what I want. But it won’t look like it was made in a hurry, right?”

               “Not at all,” said Mira. “People can’t believe how fast my dad works. They look at gifts he can make in three or four hours, and they assume it took him days.

               “Wow,” said Mira.

               “Yep,” said Millie. “That’s why he inscribes the amount of time it took him to complete a project on the bottom of every gift, from the time the custom work was ordered until it was ready for pick-up: the day, the hour, down to the minute. He does that instead of a signature. It kind of is his signature, in a way. That’s how important it is to him to work fast. He wants everyone to know exactly how fast he works.”

               “Neat,” said Mira. “That’s really neat. I’d like to order this gift without the time it took your dad to make it inscribed on the bottom, though.”

               “That isn’t an option,” said Millie.

               “I’ll pay extra,” said Mira.

               “No, not an option,” said Millie. “We’ll also need the gift recipient’s email address and phone number so we can email and text him very specific details about when the gift was ordered for him and when it was finished. While my dad is working on the gift, I’ll be confirming that you gave us the right email address and the right phone number, and if you did not, then you won’t be allowed to pick up the gift, but don’t worry, I verify the information in a very inconspicuous way that will not spoil the surprise for the gift recipient, we guarantee that. Now, you said you’d like the gift to say ‘Mira hearts Hogan’ where ‘hearts’ is a picture of a heart, correct? But we need to talk about what the gift will look like beyond just what it says. What else does your boyfriend like beyond hearts? What about a wooden frog wearing real jewelry and a wooden speech bubble is coming out of his mouth and it’s like he’s saying ‘Hogan hearts Mira’ where ‘hearts’ is a picture of a heart?”

               All Mira could think to say before rushing toward the door in a mild panic was, “You just lost a customer!” In her hurry to get outside, she trod upon the long-coated woman’s long coat and almost knocked over a display of praying hands where all the praying hands were missing at least one finger, but sometimes more, sometimes many more.

               Back in her car and on her way out of Multioak, Mira stewed. Was her plan so evil? Why couldn’t these craftsmen just go along with it? What kind of a blow would their reputations really take if Hogan thought they’d taken a little too long to make his gift? Mira was willing to blame their slowness on sickness, family emergencies, rebellious subordinates, whatever they wanted, but they refused to give her an inch. They refused to see how much more important it was that Hogan think well of her than that he think well of them. So Mira had neglected to get her boyfriend a Valentine’s Day gift in a timely manner. Big deal! She was a firm believer that the punishment should fit the crime, and she felt that calling off work and rushing around to different craftsmen while feeling stressed and guilty was enough punishment for what she’d done. Forcing her to admit to Hogan that she hadn’t gotten him a gift on time because she’d forgotten was excessive, it was cruel and unusual. She didn’t deserve that.


               It took Mira almost 40 minutes to find Raya Fashley’s property out in the country north of Dalcette. Raya’s house lurked behind a hill at the end of a long driveway that wound between empty fields and into a dense forest. Next to the house, a one-story structure that looked like a storybook cottage served as Raya’s workshop. On the door of the workshop, a sign written in script so fancy that it took Mira a few moments to decipher it read, “Knock Thrice and Enter!”

               Mira knocked on the door three times, hesitated, then opened it and stepped into a low-ceilinged room illuminated by electric lamps designed to look like kerosene lanterns. The room was furnished with rickety wicker chairs, their seat-pads covered in faded material patterned with the faces of elderly people with their eyes closed. On the far side of the room, a fireplace held the cold remains of a not-very-recent fire. Next to the fireplace was a pale yellow door with rounded corners. From the other side of the door, Mira heard grinding, then clattering, then grinding. Mira doubted that Raya, or whoever was in the other room, had heard her three knocks. She wondered if she should knock thrice and enter the yellow door too despite the absence of a sign instructing her to do so. Maybe the sign on the first door was intended to apply to all subsequent doors as well?

               The grinding stopped, there was another clatter, and footsteps approached the yellow door from the other side. Then came three hasty knocks and the door swung open. Hanging on the other side of the door, Mira caught a glimpse of a familiar sign before the woman coming through slammed the door closed behind her.

               “Oh, thank Nature,” said the woman. “Thank Fate. Thank Goodness!” She wore an outfit that looked like a hazmat suit made of violet burlap, but with no helmet. Her hair was in four pigtails, two on each side. Or maybe they were a different kind of animal’s tails since there were four of them, like how it’s a ponytail when there’s one, but a pigtail when there’s two, Mira wasn’t sure.

               “I’m looking to have a gift made for my boyfriend,” said Mira. “Are you Raya Fashley? Do you make handcrafted gifts?”

               “I’m Raya, yes,” said the woman. “Of course I’ll make you something! Whatever you want.”

               “Great,” said Mira. “It’s for my boyfriend’s birthday.”

               “Fine, yes,” said Raya. “Whatever. I’ll make it.”

               “Do you want to know what I want it to say?”

               “You want it to say something?” asked the woman. “OK, just a second.” She went back through the yellow door, leaving it open. Through the door, Mira saw a workshop so cluttered it looked as if a bomb had gone off inside. Raya returned with a sheet of paper and a pen. “Write what you want it to say on here,” she said.

               “Is there a surface I can write on?” asked Mira.

               “The floor tile is smooth,” said Raya. “Use that.” She scurried over to one of the windows and looked outside, moving back and forth to change her field of view.

               Mira crouched and set the piece of paper on the floor. She wrote, “Mira hearts Hogan” where “hearts” was a picture of a heart. “How long will it take you to make something that says this on it?” asked Mira, standing and extending the pen and paper toward Raya. “When will I be able to come back and pick it up?”

               “Stay here,” said Raya. “Just stay here. Just hang around until I’ve finished. It won’t take long. You can take it home with you today.” She accepted the paper without looking at it.

               “That’s convenient,” said Mira. “How much will this cost?”

               “Cost?” asked Raya. She turned from the window to again face Mira. “No, no, I don’t charge money, I trade. I make this for you, you do something for me. You can do something for me while you wait for me to finish crafting the gift. An exchange of services. It’s better that way.”

               “Um, what do you want me to do?” asked Mira. She liked the idea of not spending money, but she was a bit concerned about what sort of service this odd craftswoman might ask her to perform.

               “I need you to collect something for me,” said Raya. “Something from the woods behind my house. It’s very easy. So easy. I’d do it myself, but I need to work on this gift for your boyfriend.” She glanced for the first time at the paper with the message Mira had written on it. “I have a perfect idea for this. Does your boyfriend – Hogan – does he like music? I have a music box I’ve been working on for weeks, you could tell me his favorite song, and I could look it up on the internet, and then make the music box play that melody. And on the lid, I could inscribe the message you wrote down. Would he like that, do you think?”

               “You say you’ve been working on this music box for weeks?” asked Mira. “Does it look like you’ve been working on it for weeks?”

               “Oh yes,” said Raya. “It’s very intricate.”

               “But you can inscribe the message on the lid and make it play the melody of Hogan’s favorite song in just a few hours?”

               “Yes,” said Raya. “That’s the easy part. That part doesn’t take me long at all. Just tell me the song, and I’ll look it up online. Or you can just whistle the melody. Or hum it. I won’t forget it. I’ll match it perfectly with the music box. You’ll be very impressed when you get back from running this little errand for me. And he’ll be impressed with the gift, he’ll think you commissioned it for him months ago. He’ll be blown away that you got him such a personalized custom gift for his birthday.”

               “That sounds great,” said Mira. “That’s what I want.”

               “I knew you’d be pleased,” said Raya. She clapped her hands together. “I can’t wait for you to see it!”

               “And what is it you want me to do for you in exchange?” asked Mira. “It isn’t anything dangerous, is it?”

               “No, no, no,” said Raya. “It isn’t dangerous. It’s just something I’ve been meaning to do and I haven’t gotten around to it and I was going to get around to it today, but then you came in and you wanted this music box for your boyfriend, for Hogan, and I can’t do both things, and since you can’t make a music box, I’ll do that while you do the much easier thing.”

               “You said you want me to fetch something for you?” asked Mira.

               “Yes, that’s it, that’s all it is,” said Raya. “You just get it and bring it back here.”

               “What is it?” asked Mira. “Will I have trouble finding it?”

               “It’s a plant,” said Raya. “It grows in the woods behind my house. It shouldn’t be hard to find. Take this picture with you to help you identify it.” She put her hand into a pocket integrated so seamlessly into her garment that Mira would never have noticed it otherwise. Raya stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth and furrowed her brow as she dug around inside the pocket, her hand bulging in the fabric up near her ribs, then down near her knees. It looked to Mira as if the pocket extended through most of the garment’s inside. Finally, Raya pulled out a photograph and handed it to Mira. The photograph had been taken at night with a harsh flash. It depicted a single nondescript green plant. A short, orange fence formed a triangle around the plant. Inside the fence, the ground at the base of the plant was covered with green grass. Outside the fence, there was gray slush and mud between the exposed roots of huge trees.

               “This is the plant you want me to bring to you?” asked Mira.

               “Yes,” said Raya. “Just pull it out of the ground – as much of it as you can – and bring it to me.”

               “Where is it?” asked Mira. “I mean, I know it’s in your woods, but where exactly in your woods?”

               “You’ll have to look around for it,” said Raya. “Just a little bit. You’ll find it. Look for the orange fence! Meanwhile, I’ll be here putting the finishing touches on Hogan’s music box. What song do you want it to play? Not the whole song, of course, just the melody of the chorus.”

               “I guess, um, ‘Smartly Dressed,’” said Mira. “By Tannedhide. Do you know that one?”

               “I’ll look it up online,” said Raya.

               “And if I get you this plant, the gift won’t cost me anything?” asked Mira.

               “Nothing,” said Raya.

               Mira looked at the craftswoman, looked at the fireplace, the wicker furniture, the lantern-like lamps, the low ceiling, the yellow door. But none of these things struck her as clues, they were just details. Strange, but not significant, although it could often be difficult to determine where strangeness ended and significance began, and it could often be difficult to decipher the relationship between them. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” said Mira.


               The forest behind Raya’s house was caught waist-deep in late winter. Everything looked exhausted by coldness and darkness, waiting listlessly for warmth and light to come sauntering back from wherever they’d been for months. Mira walked the trails, striving to stay on the frozen mud-ruts and off the ice patches of irregular shape. Every few minutes, she stopped to turn in a complete circle, hoping to catch a glimpse of orange among all the brown and gray. The sooner she found and uprooted the plant for Raya, the sooner she could return to the much-warmer workshop and relax in one of the wicker chairs until Raya finished customizing the music box.

Mira now wondered if “Smartly Dressed” had been the right pick for the music box song. It was certainly Hogan’s favorite song, but maybe Mira should have chosen a song that meant more to them as a couple? If she found the plant fast, maybe she’d be able to catch Raya in time to have her use a different song. “Eager Over,” for example, or even the Mammal Watcher cover of “Song of Last Resort,” although maybe with a music box version of the song Hogan wouldn’t be able to tell it was supposed to be the cover version. The more Mira thought about it, the more she became convinced that “Smartly Dressed” had been the wrong choice. It was too aggressive; a music box version of “Smartly Dressed” –  or any Tannedhide song – would sound mocking or cutesy, like those coffee shop guitar-strummers who smirkingly cover rap songs in between indistinguishable originals. But what if once the melody for the music box had been set, it couldn’t be changed? Mira needed to go back to the workshop right away so she could catch Raya in time to tell her to use a different song, and then she could return to the woods to look for the plant Raya wanted. Anyway, worrying about the song choice was interfering with her plant-finding ability. She couldn’t concentrate on the task. Once her concerns about the music box had been dealt with, Mira knew she would find the plant in no time.


Back at Raya’s cottage, Mira was about to knock thrice and enter in accordance with the wishes of the sign on the door, but as she raised her fist to do so, she heard voices inside, and she paused to listen. One of the voices belonged to Raya, but the other was like nothing Mira had ever heard, deep and harsh, words scraping together like boulders shifting under their own weight.

“You should go back to bed,” said Raya. “Keep napping. Don’t you want to be well-rested for tonight? What’s the point of being up now?”

“I can’t sleep anymore,” said the other voice. “I’m too nervous. I feel like something’s going to go wrong.”

               “What could go wrong?” asked Raya. “Everything’s ready for you to reclaim your position.”

               “You’re sure the plant is gone?” asked the other voice.

               “Of course I’m sure,” said Raya. “I uprooted it weeks ago, just like you told me to.”

               “Was it painful?” asked the other voice.

               “No, it was still just a little sprout,” said Raya. “It was kind of uncomfortable, but nothing I couldn’t handle. You told me that if I got to it early, it wouldn’t be too bad, and you were right!”

               “Good,” said the other voice. “Good. It grieves me that my servants have to experience pain on my behalf, but the rewards are so worth it, in the long run.”

               “How could I resent a little discomfort when forgetting to uproot the plant could kill you?” asked Raya.

               “Well, I didn’t think you’d forget,” said the other voice. “I know you’re too dedicated to my service to forget. But sometimes my servants don’t heed my warnings, and they procrastinate, and when they finally decide to act, the plants are too big, and then whenever my servants get close, the plants sense their allegiance to me and they punish my servants with crippling headaches, and then that’s another forest I can’t return to, and I end up spending all spring trying to find a new one where I can start all over, and, oh, it’s just a big mess. So it’s such a relief to have a servant who takes my warnings seriously and acts right away. That’s why I teach my servants that cute mnemonic device: ‘The plant’s away by Valentine’s Day.’”

               “Mhmm,” said Raya. “That’s me, that’s what I did.” Even through the door, Mira could hear the guilt in Raya’s voice.

               Neglecting to knock thrice, Mira entered the workshop.

               “Oh!” said Raya, springing out of one of the wicker chairs. “You’re back. Please, if you could wait outside? I’ll be with you in a moment.”

               But Mira was not paying attention to Raya. Her eyes were locked on whatever still sat in the wicker chair across from Raya. It was a figure shaped roughly like a human, but if that shape were all sloppy shading and no clean lines. It looked like a pencil drawing of a man rendered in soft lead and then hopelessly smudged by one of those bad erasers that tears the paper and leaves it littered with residue of its own failure to adequately erase. “And you are?” It took Mira a moment to realize the voice was coming from the figure in the chair.

               “She’s just a customer,” said Raya. “We’re going to chat outside. No need to get up!”

               “I’m not getting up,” said the figure.

               “I didn’t get the plant for you yet,” said Mira. “I thought of a different song I want you to make the music box play, so I came back to tell you that, but then I was gonna go back and find the plant.”

               “Outside!” hissed Raya, but it was too late.

               “Excuse me,” said the figure, the grating sound of its voice taking on a finer edge. “What kind of plant is this customer looking for, Raya?”

               “No, no,” said Raya. “Not that plant. She’s just…it’s just…”

               The figure heaved a sigh that sounded like a distant avalanche. “You didn’t uproot the plant in time, did you, Raya?”

               “I thought the mnemonic device was ‘The plant’s away by shortly after Valentine’s Day,’” said Raya.

               “Just stop,” said the figure. “Stop lying to me.”

               “Everything’s fine!” said Raya. “Please, listen to me, I’ve got a plan. This girl is going to uproot the plant for us. For you. She hasn’t undergone your servanthood ritual, she’ll be able to approach the plant with no problem!”

               “Is she?” asked the figure. “Is she? Because it doesn’t look like she is.”

               “I was going to,” said Mira. “But I wanted to make sure she didn’t make the music box play the wrong song.”

               “What music box?” asked the figure. “Raya doesn’t make music boxes.”

               “Yes, I do!” shouted Raya.

               “She offered me a custom-made music box in exchange for getting the plant and bringing it back here,” said Mira. She looked at Raya, who seemed to be dreading a very particular question. Mira thought she knew what that question might be. “Do you make music boxes?”

               “Of course I do,” said Raya. “It doesn’t know everything.”

               “Let me see the music box,” said Mira. “Before I go back into the woods to look around for this plant, I need to see the music box you’re gonna customize for me. You said it’s almost done.”

               Raya stood staring at Mira, visibly rifling through a tiny index of tactics in her head.

               “Great,” said the figure. “You hesitated too long.”

               “You’re the one who blew it,” said Raya. “How could you not read the situation?”

               “How?” said the figure. “Look at me! I’m barely here, no thanks to you! Why did you offer her a music box in the first place? Why didn’t you offer her money?”

               “I don’t have any money!” said Raya.

               “You don’t have any music boxes either!” said the figure.

               “I’m leaving,” said Mira.

               “After you uproot the plant?” asked Raya.

               “No,” said Mira. “I’m leaving right now.”

               “Can I offer you something?” asked the figure. “After you uproot the plant, you can become one of my servants. The benefits are eventually significant. Right, Raya?”

               “So I’ve heard,” said Raya.

               “No, thank you,” said Mira. “I don’t want to be your servant. And you, Raya, I will not be shopping here again. You just lost a customer.”

               “Why do people think any sort of retailer is disappointed to hear that from a customer they’ve come to hate?” asked Raya.

               “You hate me?” asked Mira, surprised at her capacity to feel hurt about this revelation given the context in which it was delivered.

               “Yes,” said Raya. “I do.”

               “Me too,” said the figure.


               Hogan opened the red envelope and extracted the store-bought Valentine’s Day card, which had only cost Mira a dollar since all the Valentine’s Day stuff was on clearance.

               “Sorry it’s late,” said Mira. “Your gift is inside the card. It’s a gift card to Big Basement Books.”

               Hogan opened the card. “Ah, so it is. Cool. I can use it to buy some books.”

               “That’s what I was thinking,” said Mira.

               “No wonder it took so long,” said Hogan. “I hate how long it takes to get a gift card from a book store. Is it gonna take a week? Three weeks? You never know. I hate that.”

               “You do?” asked Mira. “You hate that?”

               “Of course,” said Hogan. “Doesn’t everyone?”

               “Um, yes,” said Mira, stunned by this stroke of good fortune. “Yes, they do. But I knew it’d be worth the wait.”

               “Of course,” said Hogan. “I can use it to buy some books.”

               “That’s what I was thinking,” said Mira.

Discussion Questions

  • Handcrafted gifts in general: yes or no?

  • What’s the absolute furthest limit of “belated?” Like, at what point did the person just miss it?

  • What sort of compensation would you need to be promised in order to commit yourself to serving a semi-substantial wannabe-forest-dwelling entity

  • What song do you think has a chorus that would work well tinkling out of a music box

  • If you’ve ever worked retail, have you EVER been sad to have a customer tell you, “You just lost a customer?” When I worked retail, it was music to my ears!

  • How long do you think it takes to make a handcrafted gift, and how good to you think craftsmen are at correctly estimating that time?