One moment I was fine, and the next it felt like an army of fire ants was marching across my head. Seriously. Fire ants wearing combat boots - heavy, cleated combat boots. I'd never experienced anything like it. I scratched at my scalp until my hand cramped. It didn't help. I turned, and the mirror behind the cash register confirmed my suspi- cions: along with the crazy rash creeping from under my hairline, I also had claw marks. Any other head of hair would conceal such blemishes. Not mine. My towheaded, sun-fearing ancestors had seen to that.
I opened the cupboard under the register. Where was that woolen beret I'd seen? Crimson red with a small loop on top. A bit of a fashion stretch, even for me. Oh, well. This town already thought I was odd, the suspicious package dropped at their door. I shrugged the hat over my head. It provided no relief, but at least it covered the damage.
Where the heck was that delivery? My afi - my grandfather - had told me I could close as soon as Snjosson Farms delivered the apples. I looked at the old clock above the candy counter. Nine o'clock. Afi had said the bushels would arrive at seven.
Hoping to see headlights barreling down Main, I looked outside. Across the street, a light in Hulda's Fab- ric and Notions caught my eye. No way. I'd been waiting for a sign of life in the place for weeks. The going-out- of-business sign and unclaimed bolts of fabric, glorious pristine fabric, had been taunting me as a bargain oppor- tunity. I quickly scribbled Back in five on a piece of paper and taped it to the door. Snjosson Farms and their golden pippins could wait.
Clutching my Juicy Couture velour jacket to my throat, I hurried across the road. Dang, it was cold. Mid- September and already something the Minnesota yokels called an Alberta Clipper was bearing down from the north. In California I'd still be in shorts, spaghetti straps, and flip-flops.
A chime tinkled above my head as I stepped over the threshold.
Holy crap. It smelled worse than my grandfather's store, something I hadn't thought possible. Like some- thing died. No. Worse. Like something got caught in the act of dying - some long, lingering, putrefying fade. I knew the feeling. For me it was junior year at Norse Falls
High School. Exile High, as I liked to call it.
"Who's there?" The voice sounded cracked with age. I looked up to see an old ball of a woman with skin more crushed and textured than the bolts of velvet she stood over. Tufts of charcoal gray hair escaped from under an orange hat with floral trim. She looked like a shriveled root dangling under a flowerpot.
"I saw the light," I said. "I've wanted to look at your shop for weeks now." I took a hesitant step farther into the store.
The old lady, dressed in a drab gray skirt and dull gray cardigan, checked the time. "No. Is too late. You come back again."
"But when?" The scalp condition grew worse. "I've been working at my grandfather's store for a couple of months now." I wanted so badly to scratch my head. "I've never seen you open before." What would the woman think if I dropped to the floor and started rolling like some flea-bitten mongrel? And no wonder they called them boils. My whole head felt like it was churning with hot foaming bubbles.
"Next time. You come next time." Once more, the old lady checked her watch. I heard the creak of a rear door, a howl of wind, and then footsteps descending stairs, but I didn't see anyone. Kinda creepy. Then again, the old lady probably had more friends on the other side than on this one.
She pointed to the front door. "So sorry. You go now." On a low shelf, I spied a tartan wool that would be perfect for the cape I was designing. I leaned down for a better look, and the red beret tumbled to the floor. I scooped it up and quickly replaced it on my head. I heard a gasp.
"You have the cap," the old lady said, wagging a trem- bling finger in my face. Her eyes bulged as she stared at my head.
I tugged the beret over my ears. "Not really mine. Just borrowed it." The itching got worse. It felt like fingers of angry red streaks were escaping down my forehead and across my neck. I fought the urge to reach under the hat and yank my hair out, handful by miserable handful.
The old lady looked at me as if I had jabbered in some long-lost Icelandic dialect. Of course, that was prob- ably her native tongue. Half the town, my mom's family included, had descended from the same band of Vikings blown off their little iceberg of an island.
"Not borrowed. Cap is a sign. Follow me." The old lady started shuffling toward the back of the store.
Definitely creepy now.
"I really just wanted to look at the fabric. I sew, and I'm into design, but I could come back another time." My head was screaming with pain. I wondered if scalping was ever medically prescribed. I would do it in a heartbeat, just lop the whole thing off, no anesthesia necessary.
"Time is now. Follow me."
I obeyed like some sort of heeled dog, though how this little old lady could conjure such authority was beyond me. My mom couldn't even get me to pour milk into a glass. I just hoped there was Dupioni silk or pebbled crepe for which the "time is now" phrase was intended.
"Is there something back here you wanted to show me? Mrs. Hulda, is it?" Common sense told me to make like the yards of fabric and bolt - still, I followed.
"Is Huldabrun Vigarthursdottir. You call me Fru Hulda."
Excerpted from Stork by Wendy Delsol. Copyright © 2011 by Wendy Delsol. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.