I must have been around twelve or so. It gets murky for me because the years tend to bleed together. One moment I am sure I was just turning ten, but then, I remember a detail, and suddenly, I am twelve.
Twelve fits the best. I was twelve. You would think I wouldn’t forget that time, but honestly, I think because of everything I have a permanent block over those years.
But, I am getting ahead of myself.
When I was a child, my parents never let me have candy or anything too sweet.
“You know, my mother is very sick from too much sugar, Mikey,” Mom would say. “I don’t want you getting sick too!”
I remembered my grandmother, vaguely–my mom’s mother. She died when I was young of diabetes. My dad told me he never really remembered her healthy, and he backed my mom’s choice never to give me sweets.
But, I was a child. When we moved to Macon, I explored the town, and my eyes were drawn to “Dr Zestro’s Candy Emporium.”
“Is he a doctor or a dur?” My dad would joke, jabbing me in the ribs. I’d giggle, and I even make the joke now to my kids. It’s lame, but it’s something I am very fond of remembering.
“It looks abandoned. Let’s go to the farmer’s market!” Mom had said. That was the last I really thought of Dr Zestro’s until a few weeks later in my new school.
“No one goes to that place,” Tommy said. He was my first best friend.
“I don’t know. We just don’t.”
“But, it’s a candy emporium! That means a lot! And probably special candy too,” I said with a flourish. I tried to convince him. I could tell it worked a bit. He seemed slightly moved.
“I don’t know… I could ask my brother. He gets an allowance,” Tommy smirked. He was on my side. “Maybe you can come over this weekend, and we can all go.” His eyes started to wander. He was thinking of the spoils to be had.
“I can’t this weekend. I have to visit my grandma.”
“Bummer. I’ll save some for you then,” he said with a laugh. It wasn’t fair, I thought. He didn’t even like the place until he met me, and he was going without me. I sulked most of the weekend.
By Monday, Tommy and his brother were reported missing.
That was the first real hard thing in my life, and it was a massive one. Police searched the area. His parents were on the news crying. They posted pictures all over town of Tommy, and his brother, both with identical blond hair and the most piercing blue eyes. Despite a three or four year gap, they looked like twins.
Parents told stories of the kids for months. At seven, Tommy was too young to be remembered as anything but a sweet child, but Ryan was well known in his school. He was smart, talented, and friendly. I met him a few times, and he always made sure Tommy was nice to me. He would show me new toys that were way too old for me, and he would share. For no good reason.
Who would want to hurt that?
The anniversary of their disappearance was rough. Then, another year passed. And another. Soon, I was older than Ryan when he went missing. People still talked about the missing kids, but that story was soon erased for an even more noteworthy story.
I was nearly twelve–see, it gets blurry until I start walking through it–when my dad had to go to Atlanta to make a speech for his company. Evidently, they were looking at being acquired, and his pull and knowledge were a massive selling point.
Before they headed back home, I remember a phone call. My grandma–my father’s mother–spoke with him for a while before he asked for me.
“How’d ya do?”
“I killed it, champ.” He sounded proud. “They are going forward.”
“All because of you.” I was excited. This was an important speech for him, and I knew it was bothering him.
“Yup! I’ll be moving on up soon. We may even move here.”
“I’d never leave my mom, kiddo. Things will be changing. I can feel it!”
I never saw or heard from them again.
Around 4AM, the phone rang. It sounds weird, but the ring set my grandma and me on edge. It sounded wrong. She answered, holding her chest a bit. She motioned for me to go back to bed.
I could hear her crying and screaming, feeble as it sounded in her advanced age. I started to cry. I didn’t know exactly what she heard, but I knew it was bad.
My parents died in a car accident late that night. They decided to drive back early and surprise us, my dad too excited from everything happening. I blamed myself for a long time. I was barely old enough to understand my budding attraction to girls, and here I was experiencing survivor’s guilt.
My grandma took care of me, officially. What’s worse, despite the massive loss, was I received a great windfall.
My parents weren’t killed by negligence on their part; they were killed by a semi truck, whose driver passed out after overdosing on caffeine pills. What’s worse is the company, a major retail chain, documented his hours as way less than he was actually working. I had a line of lawyers ready to take the case.
At the trial, the judge asked if I wanted to say anything, and my lawyer pushed me into doing it. The defense attorney for the company tried to grill me, gently, to show I was well off.
“What exactly you want out of this, Michael? My client, Mr. Roosevelt over there, is completely destroyed. He has to live with the guilt of what he did for life. He is unable to work. What will make you happy?” The lawyer’s eyes were pleading and kind. I felt vulnerable.
“I want my mom and dad back,” I said with a sob. I tried not to speak because it would become an ugly cry. The jury pool began to breakdown. Even the judge did.
They awarded me, and my grandma, several millions of dollars, more than I’d ever need. My lawyer stopped me after writing the check.
“You know, that speech really did the ticket. We won before that, but I think that little plea act got us over the top.” He was smiling. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d trade all the money to have my mom and dad back.
Life with grandma wasn’t bad. She was older. I figure in her late 70s or 80s. Her green eyes, like my dad’s, were always rheumy, and she moved slowly. She smiled a lot, like my dad, and she pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. I mentally compared her to my mom’s mother, but she died so much younger and so long ago that it seemed unfair to compare the two.
I admit, I took advantage of her advanced age.
I would only have access to my money if she permitted. I talked her into a sizable allowance, though I had no need for it, in hindsight. I saved it most of the time anyway. I would sign up for every sport or after school program with her consenting to it all. Tae Kwon Do was the only one I really stuck with for long. Since I was taller for my edge, like my dad, I was able to excel in those classes.
The worst thing I did was convince her to let me go to the candy store. It was my first act of rebellion, I realize now, and since my parents were gone, it was all I could muster.
She was totally unaware of why this was any sort of a big deal, so she didn’t care. I felt like a bad ass. I was playing hooky from school, sometime in the late fall when it was cold enough to feign the start of a cold, so I had the streets, and I assumed the store to myself.
Dr Zestro’s was somehow still opened, some five years after I saw it first. No one ever said anything, but I always wondered if something happened there with Tommy. It didn’t really dawn on me when the police were searching; I was too sad to care much to offer help.
I approached the store, and it was a lot more intimidating than when I was younger. I think I got distracted by the word “candy” to notice the decor. The entire store was stylized as a 50s style sideshow. Dr Zestro brought candy from all over the world, including the “darkest parts,” according to a slogan painted on the dark window. I walked inside, giddy with excitement.
I was immediately let down when it wasn’t as big as I imagined. To my left, I jumped a bit at a large monkey’s head atop a rack of baskets containing various candies. Next to the monkey rack was a large pig with a top hat and clothes that reminded me of how I imagined Hansel and Gretel. It was holding a tray of these small balls that looked like eyes. The sign next to them said “Seeing Gum Chewing Gum.” I couldn’t tell if it was trying for a joke or anything.
“Welcome to Dr Zestro’s. Let me know if you need anything.” I was startled by the raspy voice of a balding man behind the counter. I barely even noticed him when I walked into the store. He had thick glasses that made his eyes bulge. He was rotund, to be nice, and morbidly obese to be honest. All visible hair–and there was a lot except on top of his head–was as white as a fresh snow. He looked sweaty.
“How much are these?” I pointed to the Seeing Gum.
“Try one. Some people aren’t into it,” he said with a grin. He was painting a small bottle in his hands. I popped a gum ball that had a blue eye painted on it. I shook myself as the image reminded me of Tommy. It tasted like the way varnish smells. I smiled as I chewed, trying to be nice. There was a liquid inside that was tasteless, and it broke down fast.
“It isn’t very chewy.”
“Ahh, another kid ruined by modern corruption!” the man squawked. “Old chewing gum was just a bit of rubber. Was it chewy?”
“Then, it’s chewing gum.” He beamed. “How about this: Try one of everything you want. If you like it, you buy, if not, no loss.” I wondered how he would stay in business with that practice, but I didn’t dare ask. He went back to work on his project as I tried things.
Nothing in the store looked familiar. No Mounds, Snickers, or Kit Kats. No Big League Chew, or even Big Red. It was all nameless candies with custom packaging. Worst of all, I never even saw anything like anything I knew of. Everything resembled inedible things, like buttons, pens, and zippers. There was even a candy floss bag that looked more like hair than anything else.
Still, I felt compelled to buy things since I tried so much. As I approached the register, I noticed a green light, dull as can still be considered on, shining from a doorway. The man noticed me looking and chuckled.
“That’s the lab. That’s where I try out things that isn’t ready for people.” He looked at the vial in his hands. “Want to try one that isn’t even on the shelves?”
“Okay!” I was a bit excited. Maybe this was actually good. “What is it?”
“I call it ‘Chocolate Fog.’ You put one eyedropper on your tongue, and it will add a chocolate taste to everything! Stick your tongue out. First one is on me.”
I did, and it tasted… surprisingly good. It had a bit of a bitter kick at first, but the rest was honest-to-goodness chocolate! I was tempted to ask for another one, when he bottled it and set it down. He looked down at his watch for a bit, and then, he rounded the counter and made his way to the door. I remember it being around 11 when I went to the shop. I figured he was getting ready for lunch after I was done.
I heard the door lock, but I felt a sense of lethargy to say anything. I felt suddenly emboldened, like he’d be gone too long, and I stumbled towards the green light. If the chocolate was this good what else was there.
I heard him chuckling as I walked forever to the door. I looked back, and he was smiling in the same way he was when he gave me the eye dropper. I took it as permission to go forward.
I opened the door, and my vision was blurry. I could make out these green and blue jars of bubbling liquid. I noticed there were black blobs inside.
“The newest,” he said in return. He was a lot closer. I was feeling sicker and sicker.
“I think I had too much.”
“You are a tall one, aren’t you. Do your parents know you are here?” His voice took on a disgustingly seductive tone, like an old prostitute who has nothing better to live for but still needed money. When I felt his hand grab my shoulders, I was shook off the fog. In his other hand, he had a syringe with a black liquid in it. I realized what was happening before he could move.
I realized how much shorter he was than average, and I was taller than average, so it made us almost equals despite our age difference. As he came in with the needle, I punted him low. The pain registered instantly, and he dropped to the ground as he made a shrieking sound. When he was on his knees, I drove my shin into his head. The fog–I started to understand was a poison–made me stumble, but he was in a lot of pain and unable to stand.
I shuffled for the door, but the floor felt like it was made of glass, and I was wearing greased slippers. I couldn’t move fast enough no matter how hard I tried. Once I got to the door, which itself felt like years, I struggled to get my hands to work to turn the lock. I looked back and saw him rising. His face was a mask of rage and malice.
I got out of there and ran into the street. I remember, vaguely, passing out in front of a post office to screams.
I was in and out of consciousness over the next few days. The doctors found a high level of Ricin and Rohypnol. Yeah, ricin. I wish that show would have had a trigger warning because it brought back a lot of complicated emotions for me.
I was able to point police to Dr Zestro’s, but the man running the store was gone. What they did find would have made national news had another tragedy in Oklahoma not usurped the news at the time. I learned from overhearing the police talking that the jars of liquid were filled with decomposing bodies. They also found a skeleton in the office of who matched the dental records of the original Dr Zestro. He went missing around the time Tommy and his brother did.
Since then, my life was mostly normal. Now and again, I’ll search for places like Dr Zestro. I’ll occasionally find urban legends of stores that pop-up, some weird stuff happens, then they go abandoned. While I am sure that old man is dead by now, I still can’t help but get chills when I enter a store in my small town that is brand new. It will always remind me of that fear of vulnerability I felt. It’s also why I will never allow my kids to go into a candy store again.
The resounding memory I had out of that whole ordeal was just how familiar that seeing gum looked. And every time I probed that memory, I immediately retreated into nausea and fear.