Chapter 13: Flea Market

It was the end of the work day on Friday, and the three clinic employees were in the administrative area finishing up various “work-related” tasks. Strawberry was typing at her computer (probably working on the novel she was writing in her free time, but Thomas allowed that if all her duties were dispensed). Thomas was at the printer collecting sheets of paper (he still liked having hard copies of things). Tabby was brushing a My Little People doll’s hair (it helped restore her focus, so she said, and she kept a supply of dolls with tangled hair tucked under the counter to work on whenever she took a break to chat with Strawberry).

“Well, Tabby, are you going to the flea market tomorrow?” Strawberry asked, breaking the companionable silence.

Tabby sent her friend a sharp look. “Yes, l guess I will be going on my own,” she said with exaggerated pain, “since you’ll be off at the crack of dawn bird-watching in the great unknown with Vanguard.”

“Poor Tabby,” said Strawberry unconcernedly.

“What happened to Toby?” Thomas slyly asked.

“He’s at a conference in Hayton,” Tabby said.

“Thomas, what are your weekend plans?” Strawberry asked politely, shutting off her computer and rolling back in her office chair. 

“Well… as a matter of fact, Moonglow invited me to the flea market,” Thomas admitted.

“Moonglow!” Tabby scoffed, setting down the doll she had been working on. “What does she want with a flea market?”

“She said something about tea pots for her mother. I don’t think she’ll be competition for My Little People,” Thomas assured her.

“Well, that’s good. I already have Foxglove to watch out for,” Tabby complained.

“I thought you already had one of each,” Thomas said. “Why do you keep buying more?”

Tabby looked affronted. “You don’t understand collecting,” was all she said.

“You could, you know, try bonding with Foxglove over mutual interests,” Thomas observed with a significant look.

Tabby muttered something unintelligible under her breath.

* * *

“It’s a lovely day,” Moonglow said, appearing quite content at Thomas’ side. “Last year it was rained out, as I recall.”

It was the next morning, and Thomas had met Moonglow as planned. They were now strolling the fairgrounds, which was a flurry of activity and noise as prospective buyers chattered and sellers hawked their wares. Trailers and carts had been backed into the grass, and random secondhoof treasures were spread out on tables or blankets on the ground.

While Moonglow was haggling with a vendor over the price of some knickknack, a familiar pink unicorn came along, perusing a neighboring table.

“I didn’t expect to see you here this early,” Thomas directed at her. It wasn’t even eight, and it was rare to see her at work before quarter after the hour.

“Oh… hey,” she said, looking up and starting in surprise, but the reaction seemed artificial, as if planned and then poorly acted out. “This isn’t even that early. I’ve been here since seven!”

“You can’t even make it to work by eight,” Thomas pointed out.

“Yeah, but it’s a flea market, and you have to get here early to scope things out and edge out your competitors,” Tabby said matter-of-factly, rummaging through a box of stuffed animals. 

“All that strategy just for old toys and things?” Thomas asked skeptically.

“It’s a cutthroat business,” Tabby said with deadly calm, and then a beatific smile settled across her face as she came up with some treasure. “Look at this!” she announced excitedly, clutching the toy creature with staring eyes.

“Well, that certainly is… something,” Thomas acknowledged.

“I know, right!” Tabby agreed, staring rapturously at the animal clad in overalls.

“What… is it?” Thomas asked hesitantly.

“It’s a Sooka! You know, the pets of the Carrot Patch Foals!” Tabby enlightened him.

“Oh, those things. My sister had one. They were all the rage,” Thomas recalled.

“Yeah, everyone had one of those.” Tabby clearly was not impressed.

“It’s missing a shoe,” Thomas noted. It was the kind of detail that stood out to him, and remarking on such minor inconsistencies usually got a rise out of Tabby.

“Well, Sookas don’t wear shoes, so having one is actually a bonus,” she explained with unusual patience.

Moonglow appeared carrying a wrinkled plastic bag. “Oh… Tabby. Hi,” said the lavender mare with pale yellow hair, unenthusiastically.

“Hi,” said Tabby shortly. “Well, uh, have fun. Bye.” She darted off with her find in search of the vendor.

“She’s rather… blunt, isn’t she?” Moonglow asked in Tabby’s wake.

“Yes, extremely,” Thomas agreed.

The two continued walking up and down the rows of vendors, stopping occasionally and remarking on random objects–sometimes a mixing bowl, or painting, or lawn decoration, or the completely inexplicable–and sharing memories that various obscure items conjured up. Moonglow was a pleasant companion; still, Thomas found himself scanning the crowd, hoping that Tabby would cross his path again.

* * *

Tabby ducked her head low as she turned a corner and saw a familiar blue and purple mare–Foxglove. Seeing that she was loaded down with shopping bags, Tabby was certain she would want to brag about her haul, and–having relatively little to show for her own efforts today–was hoping to avoid that conversation. She hoped that if she didn’t make eye contact, she could go unnoticed.

But it was too late. Foxglove had seen her and was making a beeline straight to her.

“Tabby, hi!” Foxglove exclaimed. “Having any luck? I found these!” She thrust a loaded shopping bag, heads and limbs of dolls poking through the thin plastic, in Tabby’s face.

Tabby shrugged. “That’s nice,” she said, with a carefully unimpressed look.

“I know I’m a long way from matching your collection,” Foxglove fawned. “But maybe someday!” 

“It takes great discipline and endurance to build a collection like mine,” Tabby said sternly.

“So true,” Foxglove agreed, then added in a rush: “Hey, what are you doing tonight because–”

“I’m afraid I’m very busy,” Tabby cut her off, a reflex action. Then she realized that this was one of those times Thomas would look at her reproachfully for–how had he put it–pushing ponies away. She sighed. “Well, you know…” She hesitated. “I’ll be at the SSSS.”

“Really?” Foxglove brightened. “I was going to the SSSS, too! Hey, I have some My Little People fanfic I’d like your opinion of. Maybe I could bring it by tonight?” she asked hopefully.

“Sure… that sounds, uh, great,” Tabby said, trying not to grimace. “Well, I’m sure you have more shopping to do. Don’t let me hold you up.” Surely politeness had its limits. 

“See you later. Bye!” Foxglove called as she moved on. Tabby took a deep breath of relief.

Tabby’s attention was next caught by an ornate wooden birdhouse in the shape of a Victorian mansion. It wasn’t her style, but she knew Strawberry would find it charming. Tabby sighed, feeling a bit lonesome. The flea market had been a tradition of the two friends, but since Vanguard had come along, tradition was falling by the wayside more and more.

Tabby supposed she could buy the birdhouse and present it as a souvenir of the day to Strawberry, but she shook her head. “No… no, she made her choice,” she said to herself and started to walk away, but then realized that this was probably another example of her being uncharitable. She begrudgingly amended her decision, picking up the birdhouse and walking to the seller.

Looking ahead, Tabby found that her trajectory would once again bring her in proximity to Thomas and Moonglow.

* * *

While Moonglow dealt with payment for an antique vase that would be the perfect touch for a house showing–she was quite the haggler, it seemed, and spent a lot of time chatting up vendors–Thomas perused a table at a neighboring stand filled with an assortment of colorful glass, lamps, figural coin banks, and a…

“What is it?” asked Tabby, who popped up suddenly at his side. She looked over the rectangular wooden object that held his attention, but without recognition on her part.

“It’s a zither,” Thomas explained, running his hoof over the stringed instrument. “My mother used to play… it’s not a common instrument.”

“Well, you should get it,” Tabby said matter-of-factly.

Thomas shook his head. “I don’t really play; and there are cracks around the tuning pegs; it would need repairs; and what would I do with it?”

“See, that’s not really the right mindset for shopping at a flea market,” Tabby chided.

The vendor, an olive green stallion, had noticed their interest and strolled over. “Oh, that’s very nice, isn’t it?” he asked conversationally. “A real antique, over a hundred years old, original strings, very rare, real Preuben craftsponyship. Only fifty, and that’s a steal.”

Tabby drew herself up and eyed him haughtily. “What’s this MADE ON CALIMIDAD ISLAND label?” she demanded. “It’s not more than fifty years old, and it’s filthy.”

“Look, it’s got this nice floral painting,” the vendor pointed out. “These go for much more online. I would go forty.”

“And the, uh, tuning pegs are cracked,” Tabby continued, pointing nowhere near the tuning pegs.

“Well…” The stallion pursed his lips. “I wouldn’t do this for just anyone, but I can see you really want it and would appreciate it… thirty-five.”

“Twenty-five or no deal,” Tabby said firmly.

“I’m going to regret this,” the seller said, shaking his head, “but… I’ll do thirty for you.”

Tabby stared at the vendor for a long moment, and Thomas thought she might go another round, but finally she nodded. “Well, there you go,” she said to Thomas, stepping aside and pushing him forward. Reaching for his wallet, he hoped he had the cash on him. Fortunately, he did.

“Thanks for doing that,” he said when the vendor turned away. “I feel kind of bad, though. That was a big discount.”

“It’s all part of the game,” scoffed Tabby. “He probably would have settled for even less as long as it meant cash in hoof. You have to be an actor in this business.”

The seller’s voice carried as they heard him with another customer, for whom he was already eagerly restarting his spiel: “One hundred, and that’s firm. You know, I’m actually hoping this doesn’t sell; it’s one of my favorites…”

“I suppose you may be right,” Thomas mused.

“Thomas, come with me,” Moonglow said imperiously, descending on the pair and inserting herself between them. “I want to look at those decorative soaps over there.” She pulled Thomas on their way, darting an annoyed look back at Tabby.

* * *

There were no more disturbances by Tabby–Moonglow seemed to carefully chart their course with that in mind–and by mid-morning, the pair stopped for refreshments and sat down at a picnic table.

“…but then the closing had to be postponed, because Fuzziwugs had burrowed into the basement,” Moonglow was explaining a recent business experience. “Fur everywhere. A real mess.”

“Howdy!” interrupted a yellow stallion wearing a cowboy hat. It was Beauregard, the salsa shop proprietor. “Out looking for treasures, I see,” he said chattily, in no hurry to move on. “Hey, that’s a nice zither,” he said, his eyes lighting up as he caught sight of the instrument next to Thomas on the bench. “I could tell you were the musical sort when I first saw you, Doc.”

“It’s just for decoration,” Thomas said hastily.

Beauregard shook his head. “It’d be a right shame to leave such a fine instrument collecting dust on a shelf,” he argued. “You need to play it.”

“It’s not even in playable condition, is it?” Moonglow asked.

“It’s not so bad,” Beauregard disagreed, taking an appraising look at the instrument. “Just needs some work around the tuning pegs.”

“I don’t know how I would find anyone with the skills necessary to fix it,” Thomas noted.

“My granny has one of these that I’ve fixed a time or two,” Beauregard said. “Tell you what, give it to me and I’ll get it patched-up for you.”

“That’s not necessary. It was my mom that played,” Thomas said, hoping to dissuade Beauregard from his suggestion. “I don’t really–”

“Nonsense, it’s in your blood; ‘course you can play,” Beauregard cut him off, taking the zither in his hooves.

“I’ll pay you, of course,” Thomas said, seeing that it was literally out of his hooves.

“No, consider it a favor!” Beauregard insisted. “You did such a good job removing Emilio’s oral nematodes–little feller has never been so lively! Consider it a thank you from both of us.”

“Oh, what kind of animal is Emilio?” Moonglow wanted to know.

“Tarantula,” Beauregard said proudly, and Moonglow grimaced.

“I’m glad he’s feeling better,” Thomas said. Emilio was one of his more memorable patients.

“Well, I’ll be off.” Beauregard tipped his hat respectfully at the pair. “I’ll give you a call when it’s ready.” He strolled off, whistling.

“I hope you didn’t have immediate plans for that,” Moonglow observed dryly.

“No, it’s fine,” Thomas said, collecting their trash from the table. “It saves me having to carry it around the rest of the day, anyway. Ready to move on?”

“Yes, let’s,” said Moonglow with a warm smile.