Frances is just an eighth-grader trying to enjoy his summer. Or, at least, he was-until his great-aunt presented him with the chocolate bar that would change everything.
Nothing could have prepared Frances for what happened that day.
It was a bleary morning, a Monday to be sure. It was the first Monday of the summer, and where Frances should have been sleeping soundly past his mother’s yelling at him to get up he was riding his bike towards the rickety old shop on Castlepenny Lane, muttering to himself about the unfairness of it all.
It was his great-aunt July’s shop. When she had said that she needed an assistant, his mother had all but abandoned him to the task for the next two months.
He had already gone to visit the place a few days earlier, to make sure he knew the directions. To his disappointment he found that it was even worse than he had expected.
It was a small room crammed from top to bottom with every kind of garbage you could ever find, in even worse condition than it would be at a landfill. The air was stale and everything smelled of dust and cheap candles.
Frances would be stuck inside, trying to avoid July’s cat Snookums at a measly rate of six dollars an hour. Well below minimum wage, as his mother had been so kind to suggest.
The beginnings of rain started to patter on the road and he sped up in his efforts, finally hopping off his bike and seeking shelter in the shop with the large faded letters painted on its sign.
Novel-teas was the name. Seemingly chosen because the store originally sold only books and tea, and only then expanded into the area of trash.
It was kind of dumb, but Frances wasn’t about to try and make any suggestions to his great-aunt.
She was, as most people seemed to know, a little....wacky. Had a swarm of bats in the belfry, and more than a few screws loose. To put things lightly.
On that occasion she welcomed Frances with nothing less than her usual demeanor.
“Frances, dear, is it just me or are the morning-stars shining particularly brightly today?”
“Morning-stars?” he asked, already recoiling at her sheer oddness.
“They’re right there, by that large cloud.”
He looked out the window but, as he had suspected, saw nothing but overcast sky.
She cocked her head to the side, blinking in pleasant surprise.
“My, you have grown, my dear! If only my sisters April and June could see you now.”
Frances cleared his throat awkwardly.
“I’ve never met them. Are they...?”
She picked up his train of thought.
“Friendly? Of course! Last I heard they were windsurfing in Aruba. Neither of them can bake quite like I do, mind you.”
He didn’t think anyone could bake like his great-aunt. Or that anyone wanted to.
Before he could think up something to say she ushered him further into the store and then grew stock-still.
For a woman of her age she moved with surprising agility as she pulled the shutters down, shut off the lights and, poking at the antennae of the ancient TV in the other corner of the room, pulled an aluminum foil hat onto her head and handed a similar, smaller one to Frances.
He stared at it a second, wondering if he was being paid to play along. July stared at him until, sighing, he put the hat over his head of dark hair.
“We don’t have long.” She hissed, hopping over a pile of VHS tapes and ducking under the branch of a fake plant, “Follow me.”
Frances looked after her incredulously and, finally, moved reluctantly to see that she didn’t break an arm or something in her acrobatic feats. He had to duck under the arm of a large plastic Buddha and simultaneously dodge a garden gnome in his path to reach her.
She bent over a picnic basket and fished through packing peanuts to pull out a small, rectangular object wrapped in newspaper.
It was only about an inch thick, about the size of a cell phone. Frances wondered briefly if his aunt had gotten him a phone, and his heart quickened with excitement.
Finally. He could be a normal eight grader. Maybe even a... cool eight grader.
“Open it, Frances.” July whispered, handing the package to him.
It was light in his hands, but he unwrapped it with an unquestionable impatience. He stopped, blinked, and looked from the object in his hands to his aunt.
“A chocolate bar. You brought me back here for a chocolate bar.”
It was safe to say he was more than a bit annoyed.
“It’s not just any chocolate bar, dear,” she said quickly, “The fate of the universe depends on it. They’re going to take me, but you...you have a chance. I’m sorry I haven’t explained all this to you, but it’s very important that you keep the bar safe.”
Frances was speechless, and somewhat disturbed.
“...do you want to talk to my mother about this?” he asked finally, “I think she knows a doctor that can help you-”
“-Frances. My dear, dear Frances. The world rests on your shoulders.”
The door chimed to signal that someone had entered and July stiffened, silently pointing at the sarcophagus leaned against the wall. Frances would have argued but a sudden feeling of smallness had erupted in his chest and he stepped into the coffin, closing the door almost all the way.
He watched through the crack as two men in black suits came into view, each of them taking one of July's arms and walking her forcefully to the exit.
Frances could only move until the sound of the door chiming again brought him back to his senses, and he scrambled towards the window only to see a black van speeding down the street.
Rain was pelting onto the glass, obscuring his vision. Even through his confusion, Frances knew that there was a very small chance he would ever see his Great-Aunt July again.
He looked at the chocolate bar in his hand, the wrapper crinkled and glistening with the sheen of his sweat, and slid it into his pocket.
His mother was never going to believe him.