by Paul Blaney

Whichever way you drive you cannot help but pass, and, passing, cannot fail to notice. A three-storey cube of whitest marble, it crowns an island whose every shore is washed by interlacing highways. A million drivers' eyes must daily shift to rest upon its splendid isolation. Gazes drawn like a desert nomad's to glittering water.

On each side of the cube steps climb to a doorway flanked by fluted columns. Above each door a sign but for these you'd think it a monument or temple plain capitals, unlit by day, slow-winking neon after dark: E-M-P-O-R-I-U-M. No window breaks the sheer marble, no hint at the marvels that surely lie within. What ever can they sell?

Some picture a royal treasury jewels arrayed in cases, crystal watches while others see ranks of suits and dresses, each one tailored more exquisitely than the last. Still other drivers, more fanciful, envision suits of armor, or dim-lit tanks of electric fish; rich tapestries hung beside intricate Persian rugs; claw-footed marble bathtubs; French grillwork; silks and linens; elaborate craftsmanship of every hue and stripe.

Each of us, as we drive, imagines a different display of wonders. From one day to the next our fancies might alter, or for years remain the same. Only why imagine? Why? No one has ever set foot inside Emporium; nor was any car ever seen there. All roads lead past its four-square walls, but none has ever been found that leads to its doors. A royal beauty, virgin queen, Emporium is admired by everyone, approached by nobody at all.

Not to say we haven't made the effort. I've known people drive for days on end, passing now on this side, now on that, never growing nearer, unable to turn away. More than frustration, it's infuriation you taste on that circling quest. A store so exclusive no customer is ever admitted!? To some (likely it's a matter of character) acceptance comes sooner; to others more slowly. In the end you accept it, more or less; you make your peace. And yet the endless promise of those signs!

And still we go on passing, morning, noon and night, like our mothers and fathers before us. Those first captivated as young children now have families of their own, grandchildren. I wish I had more to tell you, some rumor at least . . . But none has any tale to tell of Emporium's origin was it always there? or of its owners. No remotely reliable report as to its wares. No one has so much as claimed entrance.

Some call it enchantment, a mirage; but, if so, it's of the very solidest kind. Others say a symbol, a metaphor, a reminder: you can't have everything. Is that really something we need to recall? Every single day? Presumably those roads could be redirected, though the undertaking would be considerable. Or is it a salutary lesson after all? The benefits of frustrated aspiration, of thwarted desire. Of longing unfulfilled.

What if, one morning, on an outing or errand or simply driving to the office, you were to find your way there? What if you were to climb those steep steps and pass between those columns, through one of those doors? What if it were everything and more?

Paul Blaney is a forty-something British writer who lives in Pennsylvania and teaches at Rutgers, New Brunswick. His novella, Handover, is forthcoming from Typhoon Press (Hong Kong) in December. His short fictions, "The Restaurant" and "North & South," appeared in Issue #27 of The Cafe Irreal; "Four Short Fictions" in Issue #40; and "A Better Place?" in Issue #42.