The girl licked cotton candy crystals from her fingertips as the first raindrops fell. When drops turned to a summer afternoon torrent, she raced for shelter. She ducked into a nearby tent, nearly leveling an old woman with make-up caked on her face, large rings on every finger, and a colorful scarf covering her head.
The crone looked up. Her wrinkled face registered instant recognition, and she screamed, “It’s you!” She grabbed the girl by the arm. “Sticky fingers all over books, dolls, dishes. You gum up my jewelry counter. Sticky here, sticky there. Gakk!”
The girl gasped. “I don’t know what you—”
The old woman huffed. “No lyink with me. You been three times in store since carnival come to town.”
“Madame Neenie!” She tried to wrench herself from the woman’s grasp. “I’m sorry.”
Madame Neenie yanked the girl in closer. “Scoot your sorry’s into little bag, girlie-girl. Time to clean up mess you made.”
The woman dragged her out of the tent into the downpour. They hurried toward a grove of trees sheltering a yellow gypsy wagon with big green wheels. A sign in elaborate script, “Madame Neenie’s Boutique,” had been mounted over the front window.”
“Up you go.” Madame Neenie shoved the girl toward the entrance. With one hand still holding the girl, she freed the key from around her neck, unlocked the door, and pushed her inside the wagon.
Swags of yellow chiffon hung from the ceiling. Silk scarves had been tacked onto the walls. Curtains of beads divided the front of the wagon from the back. Madame Neenie’s boutique was like a gypsy dollhouse—perfect for attracting a twelve-year-old girl’s imagination and her sticky fingers.
Madame locked the door.
“Don’t hurt me,” the girl cried.
“Pshht! I do nothink to you,” Madame said, removing her scarf. She threw her a towel. “Don’t drip in store.”
The girl dried off her face and arms.
Madame nodded. She lifted a rag and a bucket from behind the jewelry counter. “Now, clean up mess. First wash sugary hands—wash good.”
The girl dipped her hands into the bucket, drawing them through the bubbles.
“No playink, girlie-girl!” Madame planted herself behind the counter. “What is name? What?”
The girl lifted the rag, cleaning between her fingers. “Bobbie.”
“Bobbie? For little girl? Pshht!” Madame said.
“I’m not so little,” Bobbie said. “What about Neenie? That’s kind of a—”
“Never mind, you smarty ‘lick.” Madame drummed her fingers on the counter then pointed to a raft of gummy fingerprints. “Ring out rag—ring good. Get crackink.”
Bobbie squeezed the rag nearly dry and wiped the countertop carefully, watching her fingerprints disappear. The glass sparkled anew.
“Candy cotton yesterday—today.” Madame scowled. “What’s wrong with parents? They let you eat sugar—too much.”
Madame pointed to the doll display. “Clean faces. Get stick-em out of hair. If no, your parents buyink dollies.”
Bobbie approached the table filled with porcelain dolls, her eyes lingering over their flounces and parasols. She picked up a pretty black-haired doll with a sky-blue pinafore and white stockings and removed the sticky residue from her face. She ran a clean hand over her hair until she felt a tacky spot, dabbing at it with the rag.
Madame stood behind her, arms folded. “What parents’ names?”
Bobbie hesitated. “Bubbles . . . and Finley.” She lifted a life-sized pinafore from the back of a chair. “Beautiful.” She slipped it over her head, tying it in the back. “My parents will pay you for this.”
“Yah, they will. Last name? What is last name?” Madame demanded.
From the next doll, Bobbie removed a little balsa-wood parasol and wiped off its porcelain hands. “Fantail,” she said idly.
“Now, we gettink somewhere.” Madame picked up a doll in full riding habit whose long, platinum-blonde hair had been irreparably tangled from Bobbie’s sugary fingerings. She clucked her tongue. “Ruined—completely ruined. Parents buyink Miss Millie, too.”
Bobbie shrugged. “Books next?”
Madame ushered her toward the back of the wagon, behind the beaded curtain. “I remove gooky ones.” She pointed to a stack on the reading desk. “I check others.”
Bobbie smiled. “I’m going to need fresh water . . . soon.”
“Oh, really?” Madame pointed to the back of the wagon. “Sink is behind door—there.” She rubbed her hands across the spines of the books, stopping at a particularly gummy one. “Hmm. How I miss—” She fingered her eyeglass chain, slipping the glasses onto her nose. The Complete Book of Spells. The book fell open to page 459. Sticky fingerprints filled the margins. Bobbie had gummed up the entire page—the title, the incantation. Suddenly Madame’s eyes grew wider than the porcelain plates on display behind her. Bubbles and Finley? “Oh—no!” she cried out.
Bobbie emerged from the bathroom, her bucket now filled with clear, clean water. A sneer crept across her face. “Whatcha been reading, Madame Neenie?”
“Nothink.” Madame slammed the book closed.
Bobbie yanked the book from her hands and flung it open. She read a magic spell in a low voice, and Madame Neenie writhed in pain. Then poof—it was done. A fantail goldfish flopped around at Bobbie’s feet. She sighed, scooping up Madame Neenie with cupped hands, dropping her into the bucket. “Such pretty fins,” she cooed. She picked up Madame’s key, cleaned out the cash register, stuffing a fistful of bills into the front pocket of her new pinafore, and exited the wagon.
“Goodie! More cotton candy!” Bobbie locked the door behind her. “And not one word from you, Madame Neenie,” she warned the fish, “unless you want to be a ring-toss prize next!”
Author’s Note: This story won second place in the Summer 2009 Writers Weekly 24 Hour Story Contest.