I run a museum of cursed objects. This newest one takes the cake.
Cursed objects have always kinda been my family’s thing.
Of course, they weren’t in a museum until it was my turn to be in charge of them. My mothers insisted on keeping them in the family’s heavily warded basement storage room, just as the previous generations had for centuries. I, on the other hand, have always been something of an entrepreneurial spirit, and especially after seeing how popular cursed objects and similar things have become, I didn’t see any reason not to put them on display. Hell, my family has looked after these sorts of things for as long as our recorded history goes back. Why not make money about it?
You may be wondering why I’m choosing to post here now. Apparently, a smallish first-floor venue in the middle of a bustling big city doesn’t, in and of itself, draw much attention. My girlfriend and co-owner Emelie insists that if I want to make this work, I need to get some people interested, people who actually care about that sort of thing. And she insists you are these people.
So, hello. My name is Alexis, Alex for short, and I’m here to tell you about the Hall of the Cursed. Em says the best way to go about this is to walk you through a day in my life, so I’ll tell you a little bit about our hallowed Hall, and I’ll tell you about the new “attraction” I picked up this morning. I tell you what, no matter how many times you go through things like this, it never stops being terrifying.
Upon entering the museum, you will undoubtedly notice a set of rules. After all, as you all probably know by now, anyone working with the occult keeps a list of no-nos to survive, especially if they’re involving random civilians who aren’t experienced in this sort of thing. Following these rules is paramount to having a happy and healthy visitation, and you will not be permitted until you sign a little, harmless contract stating that you will follow these rules, and that if not, we at the museum are not responsible for any physical, emotional, or otherwise harm that may befall you. The rules are as follows, for your convenience, as I am working on my customer service (Em says I’m abysmal):
1) DO NOT touch ANY object in the museum without explicit permission from the museum staff or an official sign, which will ALWAYS contain at least ONE capital letter and which will ALWAYS be properly spelled.
2) You MUST kiss the dog on the nose upon entering the museum.
3) Follow ALL rules posted around the museum, PROVIDED they contain at least ONE capital letter AND are properly spelled.
4) Wash your hands before leaving the washroom for at least thirty seconds.
5) Visit the Nokia cellphone room AT YOUR OWN RISK. The museum WILL NOT be held responsible for any chance deaths.
6) You MUST be kind to the crow. You MAY offer him snacks if you like.
7) The janitor is nonverbal and unresponsive. Do not speak to him, but nod politely if he looks your way.
8) ALWAYS hold your breath when walking by the road sign. If you breathe near the sign, the museum will provide you with a complimentary bag of salt and sage and send you home with more detailed instructions.
9) Say hi to Herman the Bug. He likes it. DO NOT say good-bye.
Each guest also receives a pamphlet with these rules, although I’m definitely getting a little weary of printing them. These rules are simple to follow, and after a couple of choice...incidents...with the pink bonnet, we’ve even placed yellow tape in a circle with a six-foot radius to keep idiots with poor estimation skills away from it. No wonder the pandemic is causing so much trouble--apparently all men are physically incapable of estimating a six-foot distance.
Of course, the list of rules for employees to follow is far more extensive, but that’s not generally a problem, since it’s just Em, Jan, and me (Jan being the janitor, of course, and that’s obviously not his real name, but we don’t know what it is, so bite me).
Anyway, this morning Em got a call from a panicked stay-at-home mom who was reportedly in big trouble about some sort of vintage wedding dress she’d found on eBay. Since Em is really more the management type, and I’m the one who generally deals with the hands-on bits, I was the one who somewhat reluctantly headed to the address. I say reluctantly because I’ve never found a single good thing attached to a wedding dress.
Upon my arrival, it became clear that something funny was going on. There was the sound of a screaming child somewhere in a nearby room, which I’ve never been particularly fond of, and the woman who greeted me at the front door was in poorly contained hysterics. She had stringy brown hair, although I suspected that it was generally less unkempt, based on the obviously expensive comb wedged near the back of her head. Tears were streaming down her face, and clearly had been for some time, judging by the tomato color of her face and the general swollen stretch to it. Possibly most troubling was the blood staining her hands, already browning as it dried.
“How can I help you, ma’am?” I said in the least threatening voice possible. For god’s sake, she looks like she’s about to jump out of her skin.
“I killed my husband,” she said.
Yeah, that’s kind of what I thought. “May I come inside?”
She nodded, jerkily, like a badly made puppet, or one with a particularly anxious puppeteer. I followed her inside and was instantly hit with...nothing.
I should expand here and mention that I’m by no mean some sort of sensitive--that’s more Em’s thing, and how we met (a story for a different time, I’m sure). That being said, it’s hard to be around cursed objects for too long without getting a sense for the sort of evil miasma that leeches out of them. So either this woman just needed some haloperidol, or my circumstances at the time were not the right ones to invoke whatever was going on with this dress.
“It’s...in here,” the woman practically whispered. Hm, I thought. Not generally an awesome sign, the whispering.
“So why the museum? Why not the police?” I asked as I followed her into a modest kitchen, then through another doorway into an equally modest living room. In the other room, the child continued to cry. I assumed she had used the number my parents used to give out for any weird or unusual problems, but still, the police are usually the first choice for actual murder-related issues.
“I just...I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was whispering to me, telling me...I didn’t want to...but for days, for days it whispered and whispered and it was right! It was right...but now I..., oh, god, oh, god, I don’t know what came over me, what did I do, what did I do...”
Mmkay, I thought, so she wasn’t going to be super helpful. All I was gathering was that the dress had apparently been speaking to her, no doubt persuading her to kill her husband. At least it hadn’t been very fast-acting. That meant it was probably reasonably safe to transport in the lined bag I’d brought. Most things were, provided they weren’t especially hostile.
“Do you know why it would ask you to hurt your husband, Mrs. Meyers?” Or Ms., I corrected mentally.
“It...it knew,” she said in hushed tones. We stopped in front of a large, closed oak dresser. Her shaking hand rested on the handle, but didn’t open it. “It knew everything. The late nights, the lies, the other women. It knew about his drinking, too. It told me...it told me I’d be safe. Happier.”
In one swift motion, she threw the dresser open. Hanging inside, all alone, was a vintage wedding dress in mint condition. It was lovely, all delicate lace and soft edges and white so pure it was nearly blinding. The arms were long and translucent, and the neckline was gently curved. The second the woman’s gaze fell upon it, her eyes hardened. Immediately, a chill ran down my spine.
“He’s better off dead,” she remarked coldly. “Or rather, we’re better off with him dead. Why do women fall into these toxic relationships and just allow themselves to remain there forever? It’s as if they have no self-respect. No, I had to do it, and I’m glad I did. I was far gentler than he deserved.”
A quick glance to the other side of the dresser revealed her husband, eyes wide in death, spread-eagled on the ground with a knife still stuck in his chest, alongside several other stab marks that no longer leaked blood, as his heart no longer pumped. It’s not like I haven’t seen death before, but...the look in their eyes never gets less creepy.
Not only that, but Ms. Meyers still had that look in her eyes. You might call it unhinged, insane, hungry for death or pain or something worse. But for me, it was the look of a curse. The look of blankness, of emptiness, of a person completely not in control of their own body. Of a person to whom the limits of humanity and right and wrong have ceased to have meaning. Ms. Meyers might have said the dress was whispering to her, but this was not just whispering. Whatever was in that dress was in Ms. Meyers, and I had no idea if it wanted me dead, too. Sure, I wasn’t a scumbag husband, but I was definitely intruding, and I’m confident it knew it.
I backed away slowly, nearly tripping over the carpet, sending a jolt through my body. My throat clenched up, and I swear I felt like the dress itself was watching me as I tried to subtly place one of the dresser doors between it and myself. Ms. Meyers’ dead eyes followed me blankly. I forced the words out of clenched teeth. Professionalism, Alex, you’ll get out of this faster, and more alive, if you remember your professionalism. Do your job. “Ms. Meyers, it’s a beautiful dress. I’m...I’m glad you were able to gain your...your freedom.”
“That’s the other thing,” Ms. Meyers said. She was definitely not whispering anymore. Her voice was louder now, approaching a yell, yet still remaining just as hard and cold. Her anger, not hot but icy, frozen, made my stomach clench. “She would appreciate it if you could stop calling her it. Women are not objects, you know.”
The laugh that bubbled out of me was mildly hysterical, and I shoved down the awful feeling in my chest. I was still backing up, which I only realized when my foot hit the late Mr. Meyers’ limp leg and I almost tripped. “I’m very sorry. She is beautiful, and she took good care of you.”
I held my breath painfully. After an impossibly long moment, Ms. Meyers seemed to relax, and some light, some humanity, returned to her eyes. They were quite pretty when they weren’t blank and evil, a nice green. I allowed the green to soothe me. The dresser doors shut on their own.
The tension slipped from the room at once. Feeling as though I’d been released from an invisible vice, I gasped in a breath of fresh air and relaxed, although I definitely did take a step away from the body of Mr. Meyers.
“Ms. Meyers,” I said, still somewhat breathlessly. “I would love to take the dress--” The dresser doors wobbled dangerously. “I would love to take her with me and check her out.”
Ms. Meyers blinked, her eyes becoming dewy again. Poor thing. The influence of a curse tends to leave you with an awful hangover, not to mention the obvious guilt of murdering your husband, regardless of how icky he was. “I’m, um. I’m not sure if that’s okay.”
So, then. I glanced at the dresser. Her nerves made me suspicious that the dress could still exert some control, even out of the line of sight. That was inconvenient. “I do run a museum, Ms. Meyers. I wonder if she would not appreciate the opportunity to meet more women.” There was a pause, and I continued cautiously, “Women with partners, from all over the city. Multiple women every day, in fact.”
Ms. Meyers’ eyes glazed over for a moment, and I tensed, but in the end, she nodded. “I think that would be best.”
“Thank you, Ms. Meyers,” I said, relieved that the dress had apparently given her permission. Either that, or its influence only lasted so long when out of eyesight. Hard to tell, but I was glad for it. “Just relax, okay? Everything’s okay. You did the right thing by calling.”
Short minutes later, I was at the door with the lined bag carefully nestled in my arms.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about her?” I asked. “Anything that may help me?”
It was strange. It didn’t target us in the same way at all. If it had wanted to expand, the way some cursed objects do, it would have exerted its influence directly on me. Instead, it seemed it connected with Ms. Meyers, like there was a trigger, as there often is. I wondered vaguely if it was her feelings about her husband himself. Once I made it clear I wasn’t going to be a threat, it didn’t hurt me, so it must not have been random. Either way, I wanted to get as much information out of this poor lady as possible, especially because you would not catch me messing with that damned thing again.
“She’s beautiful,” sighed Ms. Meyers, and went into a dead faint on the floor. In the distance, her child sniffled.
“Hmm,” I said, and dialed the police. I made sure to tell them that I’d seen someone else fleeing the scene and the wife desperately trying to save her bleeding husband. The timeline won’t be right, and it’ll be overall pretty obvious that that’s not what happened, but the police have long since learned that when someone from my family, adopted child or not, says something, you trust it or pay the consequences. Not her fault, after all. He just ran into that knife. He ran into that knife...about six times.
Back at the museum, Em pretty well confirmed my suspicions: it seemed that the dress carried some nasty energy from a scorned new bride who had died tragically after some sort of cheating-related betrayal from her new husband. As usual, Em got an awful headache after interacting with the thing, leaving me to settle it into what we call the test room. Obviously, before it hits public viewing, it’ll have to be exposed to some visitors on an individual test basis--first one by one, then in pairs, then in threes, and so on. We’ll have to test couples, of course, although we suspect it will only exert its influence on women in unfulfilling relationships. We’ll have to see about same-sex versus opposite-sex relationships, double-check whether it’s actually a visual line of sight that’s the issue or whether it’s physical proximity, et cetera. It’ll be an entire process, but by the end of things, we’ll have a lovely vintage dress hanging in the Hall of the Cursed.
Anyway, I hope to tell you all more about this soon, as soon as I get a break--things keep me pretty busy around here. After all, with every day comes a new vintage wedding dress that convinces you to murder your unfaithful husband.
Or something. You know.
It’s foolish to be afraid of the dark.
People quiver in fear because their eyesight isn’t suited for blackness, for nighttime. Foolish, the lot of them. Do they even bother to think about what “dangers” the darkness holds?
Those large, shiny eyes from the bushes are raccoons and cats, watching for food or attention. The scratching on the bedroom window is the branches of the tree; the groaning of the house is the heavy wood settling in the cold or swaying in the wind. Someone leaving a window cracked is not the fault of the darkness, and neither is the scurrying of the rats in the dirty basement her fault.
The darkness tries to help the ungrateful fools anyway. She cloaks the sun so that they can sleep; she cools the raging heat of the earth so that the very ground they walk upon doesn’t burn them. Nighttime provides them with rest and respite, and the dark extends in the winter, when the sun reflects blindingly off the snow.
The dark is elegant and quiet, the calm of the inside of the eyelids and the void of space itself. She enhances tenfold the grace and beauty of the stars; without her, their light is meaningless. She makes way for the spotlight in the concert hall and the theatre, spurring on the performance with her supportive arms. She allows for sneaking fun, for hide-and-seek, for bonfires that glow and fireworks that dazzle.
Sure, some of those childlike figures laughing outside the window at night are real, but people fear them without giving them a chance. Their laughter brings love, humor, good fortune; the spectre that leaves footprints in the flour protects and the wraith that rattles pots and pans is cleaning and purifying and blessing.
People fear what they don’t know. They set up night lights in every room and make flashlights and headlamps to drive away the darkness, to cast her out. She tries to help anyway, because she loves them, those foolish, puny people that reject her so strongly.
It’s not the fault of the darkness that the eyesight of humans is so pathetic. It’s not her fault that they are easily deceived by magic tricks and dancing lights, and it’s not her fault that people are irrationally terrified of anything and everything that they don’t immediately, innately know.
She can only help them, save them, for so long. They flee from their guardian angel and into something far more dangerous. They’re going to regret it, the utter fools, running from her and straight into the true demons. Those bright rays do nothing but blind them to what lurks within, give a false sense of security, dim and cloud their eyes so that one day, with a morbid irony, darkness will be all they know. The dark can only protect so much if she’s turned away, and without her, people are helpless and vulnerable to what lies eagerly in wait.
It’s foolish to be afraid of the dark.
You should be afraid of the light.
Sweet and Salty
Ally Vahn was perfect.
Actually, everyone was perfect. Ally Vahn simply failed to be an exception. She was five feet tall and had a perfect BMI of eighteen point five. Her cheeks were soft, her face flawlessly symmetrical, her fingers precisely the right length: the results of human mastery of the genome. Inside, she knew, was perfect too, just the right amount of platelets and cholesterol receptors and little inflammatory proteins, each joint submerged in exactly the correct amount of synovial fluid and each precisely the correct distance apart.
Ally was twenty-three years old and worked as a cook. She liked to refer to herself as a "chef," a word she'd heard her friend Mandy use once, but that term hadn't been popular since the Old Days. She worked on a line with nineteen other perfectly built cooks. Each of them produced fifty identical meals of exact, measured proportions, as mandated by code. They did this thrice daily, once for each meal of the day. Then the one thousand citizens of New Mount sat in the gigantic mess hell and finished eating in thirty minutes before returning to their jobs, or, in the evening, home.
On this particular evening, which was, of course, exactly like every other, Ally was clearing away her supplies for the cleaning bots to handle. It was lovely, having things like cleaning bots and retail bots. It meant that each and every New Mount citizen worked from seven hundred hours to seventeen hundred hours each day. There was no need for humans to work late at night anymore, not now that these services could be performed by unthinking machines. So every night, Ally cleared her station, placing her dirty dishes into the designated area, and left.
Which was why, when something rather unusual occurred, Ally was exceedingly surprised. After all, unusual hadn't really happened since the Old Days, either, or so she'd heard.
What happened was as follows: Ally heard a knock on the door.
Perhaps a knock on just any door wouldn't be irregular, just her fellow cooks alerting her to their presence as they bustled in and out of the kitchen making their evening preparations. This particular door, however, was situated in the very back of the kitchen, just meters from Ally's station, and it had never been knocked on before. In fact, as far as Ally knew, it had never even been opened.
Naturally, Ally turned to inform her coworkers of the Oddity, as per protocol, only to find that she had gotten distracted by the sound and had gotten left on her own. Ally closed her still-open mouth, feeling foolish indeed, and made her way to the neat stack of papers labeled "Oddity Report" on the counter. She'd been trained to do so many times (sixty-eight, to be precise), but as she penciled her name in uniform letters at the top, she hesitated.
The trouble was that Ally had always been the curious sort. It was she, and not her sister Sarah, who had asked why there were only ten names girls could be named yearly in New Mount, and received "That's the way it is" as an answer. It was she who questioned why the Old Days were spoken of only in hushed tones and neglected in history classes, she who was told time and time again to mind her place, lest she find herself in a nasty bit of trouble. It wasn't that she wanted to be curious. She simply was.
So, be that as it was, Ally found herself standing rather close to the door in question indeed. There was no sound coming from it now, and Ally's fears of some mysterious figure on the other side began to abate, and she began to think of what sort of marvelous Oddity could be inside. A stray animal, perhaps, as they persisted despite the Government's very best efforts to contain them. A broken machine, crumbling loudly to dust as it aged.
Ally's hand really was getting dreadfully close to that door, and she reminded herself sternly that it was not at all appropriate for her to be here investigating an Oddity after-hours. She really ought to go home. Her sister and mother and father would be missing her. She really ought to go home. She really ought to--
She opened the door.
It took a moment or two for her stinging eyes to adjust to the dark and the dust that settled over her like a second skin. When they did, she was a bit disappointed. Contained in the room were several pink and white bags on rusted old shelves. On the floor was a book, splayed upon the ground where it had fallen. The knocking noise, Ally realized, as she was no intellectual but was certainly smart enough to discern the sources of noises, had been the book falling.
Ally had honestly expected the door to be locked, and she had definitely not expected an old-fashioned, honest-to-goddness book. The proper thing, of course, would be to turn it in so that the Government could preserve it properly. Her fingers trailed along the spine, the texture rough and lovely, and she shivered.
It wouldn't hurt to turn the book in tomorrow, would it?
With that, Ally seized the book in a moment of euphoric boldness, then hastened out, shutting the door firmly behind her. When she arrived home, her parents expressed mild worry and disapproval at her absence, which she waved away with explanations of a cooks' meeting, although that was ridiculous, since the cooks only met every other Thursday. She avoided their questions and small talk and the second she was alone in her room, she flung herself to her bed and opened the book.
It was...hmm. It called itself a cookbook, which Ally found curious, and the dishes it described weren't like anything she'd ever seen, definitely not formulary-compliant. Breads and pastries, pastas, things she was almost certain would have improper caloric distributions. And yet, illogically, inexplicably, she found her eyes drawn to the photos in the book. These foods were so colorful, some golden-brown around the edges, some even possessing tiers of different hues. They were so unlike the nutrient-dense efficiency foods the formulary required she cook daily.
Her eyes were drawn to one of the descriptions. "A sweet treat for the whole family to enjoy," it said.
This was understandably a confusing sentence for Ally to read, and perplexed her on a number of levels. Only the family was to enjoy this treat? Additionally, in what food group were "treats" in the first place? She lingered on another unfamiliar word. "Sweet."
Vaguely, she thought she recalled one of the older, crotchety-er cooks mentioning something along the lines of "sweet." Something about an ancestor, the Old Days. Ally had discounted it because half the things the man said were entirely incomprehensible, and, well, at the time she was trying to put a damper on her investigative nature, futile as she would later find out it was. She returned her eyes to the book, which said, "If you'd rather a less sweet, more bitter cake, simply reduce the amount of sugar by one-fourth cup."
She didn't remember where she had seen the word "sugar" until the next day, when she was unable to resist sneaking back into That Room after the others had left. There, on each pink and white bag, was that same word. Sugar.
Her control altogether gone now, Ally ripped open a bag, revealing a crystalline white powder. Something shifted in her brain, and without knowing why she did it, she scooped a bit of the stuff into her palm and licked it off. Interestingly, it dissolved on her tongue, much like the elemental salt supplements she sprinkled on each person's morning meal.
She stuffed some of the tiny crystals in her pocket, resolving to ask Mandy about it after work.
Her pocket burned all day as she worked, and true to her word, she headed to Mandy's the second it was time to go home, sending her family a quick message to let them know she'd be home late.
Mandy's house was a strange place, just as Mandy was a strange person. They'd been friends since Ally was little, although Mandy was much older, probably in her fifties now. She was the type who never held down a job for very long. Asked too many questions, yelled at too many people. Generally being a nuisance. Ally thought it was exceedingly charming, ever since she'd had Mandy as a babysitter.
"Mandy," she beamed as she entered. The windows were covered by thick black curtains, the room dusty despite being lived-in. Random, seemingly unrelated documents were scattered all about the floor, covering every surface. She recognized at least one paper as a court summons from when Mandy was arrested for public indecency, which Mandy claimed was code for "refusing to be an obedient little puppet."
"Ally," Mandy replied. She had that look she always had. Her proportions were as perfect as anyone else's, skin flawless, eyes large and doe-like and precisely her mother's favorite shade of green. Ally wasn't sure, then, how she managed to look like an overgrown raccoon, but she did nonetheless. It went well with her reputation as local conspiracy kook. "What is it?"
"I wanted to ask you about something," Ally said, and plopped down on the well-abused couch without further preamble.
"You'll get yourself in trouble, kiddo," whispered Mandy in her usual scratchy voice. "Like a smoker's," she'd joked to Ally once, although Ally hadn't the foggiest what that was supposed to mean.
"Okay," said Ally, and then everything spilled from her mouth in a jumble, in typical Ally fashion. "What's cake? And sweet? And bitter? And sugar? And--"
"Where did you learn those words?" rasped Mandy rather sharply.
"I found an old cookbook at work," said Ally, and didn't bother following it up with "Don't tell anyone," because that was pointless when Mandy didn't talk to anyone anyway. She did follow it up with, "There were bags of something called 'sugar' too, some kind of powder, like the elementals."
Mandy was silent for a long moment, shadowed eyes darting from Ally's left to Ally's right. "It might upset you," she said. "To know."
"You know me," Ally said, which was answer enough.
"My mother was a geneticist." Ally didn't answer. She knew this already, had been told many times. "She used to bring some papers home. Wouldn't say anything, never really did, but I looked. I liked to read."
"Sure, Mandy," Ally soothed, familiar with Mandy's cycles of agitation and sensing a spike.
Mandy took a deep breath. "There's stuff the Government doesn't want you to know."
Ally tried very hard not to feel disappointed. She hadn't come for more random conspiracy babbling.
"People used to get fat," said Mandy. Ally nodded; she'd known that much, been told in school that obesity used to be a huge problem before genetic mastery had been achieved. "The geneticists of the Old Times figured out that there were hundreds, thousands, of gene variations that caused it. Receptors for certain kinds of lipoproteins, recycling proteins, enzymes, inflammatory mediators."
"They fixed it when they got rid of genetic diseases," recited Ally.
"It wasn't only that, though," Mandy said darkly. "They figured, even if your genes are perfect, you could make yourself obese. There was this whole...this stigma about it, that being overweight was as bad as cancer, somehow. Made you ugly. And they figured, you could still get fat even with perfect genes, if you ate too much, or the wrong things."
"Why would anyone eat too much?" Ally responded automatically. "The formulary is very clear and nutritious."
"There wasn't always the formulary," says Mandy, as though Ally were a very small, very dense child. "People used to eat whatever, whenever, just by themselves, or with their families. Things that tasted good, or whenever they felt hungry." Sensing Ally's lack of understanding of these words, she sighed. "Humans were...we originally had a hunger drive, a sort of urge or need or almost pain you would feel when you needed to eat. But some people didn't have the right amount of hunger, or felt hunger when they were stressed, so the geneticists shut down your brain's ability to process hunger, just clean snipped some nerves off the hypothalamus.
"And then some foods tasted good. They would...they would hit your tongue and you would feel good. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes salty. It's...hard to explain. But every food tasted different, and the chefs I told you about, they would compete to see who could make the best food, and they would sell it in restaurants. Only sometimes when food tasted good people would eat too much of it, so now, we can't taste."
"Why wouldn't they tell us about that?" asked Ally skeptically. Her brain was whirring, struggling to process. "They told us about the other genetic manipulations. They were good for us."
"Because, kiddo," said Mandy, "if you had any idea what's been stolen from you, you'd burn them to the ground."
Ally read over the cookbook again that night, trying to decide if she believed Mandy. It sounded insane, and Mandy was insane, in all fairness. But at the same time...Mandy hadn't made the cookbook, and it definitely sounded like "sweet" and "bitter" were qualities of these foods that Ally didn't, couldn't, understand. Sure, she liked the texture of some foods more than others, but she ate all of her food anyway, because that was how it worked, how one got one's nutrients. "They would hit your tongue and you would feel good," Mandy had said. Absentmindedly, Ally touched the tip of her tongue, probed along its length. Felt the bumps there, wondered what they were for, or if they were just one of the useless mistakes of evolution that humans sometimes had.
She tried to imagine it. Taking a bite of the food she made every day, and it made her feel. She couldn't envision, not really, how she would feel because of food. Would her mouth feel warm, or pleasantly tingley? She licked her finger, just enough to moisten it, stuck it into her pocket. It coated with sugar.
Ally stared at her finger for a long, long time, so long her bent elbow grew tired and achey. Hesitantly, she popped the finger in her mouth, and felt the sugar dissolve on her tongue, and tried to pretend it tasted good.
It plagued her. The idea of hunger, of taste. Of feeling something upon eating, of wanting to eat, rather than eating because it was scheduled to be so. It was bizarre, and she still half didn't believe it, and yet it consumed her completely, totally. She sprinkled the measured cubic centimeters of elemental salt supplements on the colorless blend of food for the afternoon meal and wondered what it would taste like. Salt, so salty? The cookbook had said more salt made a dish flavorful, tangy. Would her dishes have flavor? If she were a chef in the Old Days, what sort of flavor would her food have?
Each and every day, she tried the sugar, just a little. She furrowed her brow and scrunched up her face like a child throwing a tantrum, gave herself headaches trying to feel something, to taste something, anything. She rubbed her stomach and imagined she was hungry, imagined feeling a hole there and filling it and feeling satisfied.
She imagined she was a world-famous chef who owned a restaurant. She imagined people liking her food, not just tolerating it, not just eating it because they were supposed to.
Still, she tasted nothing. At least, she didn't think she did. How would she even know if she started to feel something? Was it even possible? She didn't think so, and yet, against her better judgment, against all logic, she kept trying and trying and trying.
The Oddity report lay forgotten, trampled underfoot long ago. Ally couldn't remember if she'd ever finished writing her name on it.
Brains were plastic, Mandy had told her once. They could adapt. Change. Could build new neuronal connections over top of old, outdated ones, compensate for damage. But this...this wasn't damage, not really. It was just a hole. There was nothing there. Nothing at all.
Ally should've expected the other shoe.
"This door shouldn't be open," snapped Rob. Ally, in her haste and frustration, had accidentally left the door open the previous night and had not arrived early enough for the morning meal to fix it. She cursed herself silently, schooling her perfectly pretty face into a neutral expression. She wondered, distantly, if this was the taste of bitterness: bitterness at her mistake, at what she would lose. Bitterness at the fact that she never really gained anything to begin with.
"If I find anyone opening this again, they will be fired," Rob said, shutting the door and locking it with a final-sounding click. Ally turned back to her station and weighed out an exact portion of fibrous nutrition supplement.
Mandy was right. Ally wanted to burn them, and she didn't even know what it was, precisely, that she had lost. Her curiosity had turned into a mind-consuming pursuit of answers that were impossible for her to find.
Ally Vahn was perfect. Ally did not require working tastebuds, did not need hunger. Didn't want them. She was, after all, perfect without them. She stood in front of her mirror all night that night, studying her perfect face with her perfect eyes, eyes the exact color her parents wanted them to be, a misty blue-gray that changed hue in the light. She brushed back straight black hair and reminded herself that a genetically masterful modern human did not require such silly things, was better off without them.
Frantic suddenly, angry, she turned her pocket inside out and watched the remaining sugar spill onto the floor, wasted. Good, she thought viciously, chewed agitatedly at her nail, only to stop short and stare in wonder at her own reflection.
She laughed too loudly. Tears, she found, tasted salty.
You've got a magical touch.
What, no one's told you? Well, it's not necessarily common knowledge, after all. It's not like magic is overly prevalent in this day and age, and skeptics have never been more pervasive. But I can promise you that you do have the magic touch, because everyone has the magic touch.
I'll bet you that, at some point in your life, you've smiled at a child, if for no other reason than they smiled at you first. I'll bet it was thoughtless, just a knee-jerk response: see a smile, return a smile. You probably forgot about that child about thirty seconds after that, as I'm sure you're a busy person, or at least a distracted one. The child, though, thought about the gentle stranger all day.
I'll bet you've stopped to pet a dog, or a cat, or to coo at a bird in a window. A minor part of your day, a passing fancy. That animal will not forget your scent, nor the sensation of your hand on its fur.
I'll bet someone has cried into your shoulder and left a damp spot there. I'll bet you've stopped to talk to a forlorn stranger. I'll bet you've bent to retrieve a dropped item, handed it to someone. I'll bet you've done something, anything, that helped someone on the brink of tears, someone who was convinced for all the world that they were alone, someone submerged in darkness, the kind you've experienced before, and I'll bet you've brought them light.
That's the thing about the magical touch. It's not a physical touch, not always. It's the ability, the near-magical ability, to leave an imprint on someone else's soul, in the same way they leave an imprint on yours. You adorn them with your fingerprints, each ridged line delicate and loving, and when they feel alone, they run their hands along the groove and remember that someone, somwehere in the world, noticed them and wanted them to live.
Remember, always, that you've left fingerprints, and that without you, the world would be missing a crucial, important, special magical touch.
The Bear and the Bee
I live alongside a bear and a bee.
It can be terribly inconvenient at times. The bee I find more bearable; it just wants to protect me, aiming sharp stings at my fingertips when I reach for something new, something exposed or exciting. I feel its furry legs as it pads carefully along my collarbone, a sensation as constant as breathing, as the beat of my heart, which races so frantically when the bee approaches. It's a silent warning not to get too close, not to go too far, the stinger always posed over sensitive flesh. Sometimes, when I sit still too long, I feel the prod of the sharp tip against my neck, not deep enough to puncture, to hurt, but enough to force me to my feet and into action. At night, the bee buzzes in my ear, and I have no choice but to stay unblinkingly awake, letting the sound fill me. It doesn't want me to forget, after all. If I forget, I make the same mistakes again and again, so I have to remember. The bee understands that, so it buzzes away.
The bear, on the other hand, I don't understand at all. Some days, I awaken to a pressure on my chest, far heavier than the bee. The bear lies on top of me, its fur pressing me into the bed, smothering me until I'm gasping for breath, unable to move, to escape. Other days, the bear is nowhere to be seen when I wake up, and I stretch, yawn, rise, but I can hear its wet, growling breaths just out of sight. I go about my day cautiously, waiting for the inevitable moment when the bear will spring from the shadows and slam me to the ground, whatever activity I was doing forgotten as I abandon all thought but that of continuing to draw breath. At times the bear is angry, baring sharp teeth at me, at everyone. It frightens me. Other times, it's sad in the way only an animal can be, eyes staring blankly, light gone from them. I want to feel sympathy for it. I do. But all I feel is apathy.
I want to hate the bear and the bee. I want to. I try to hate them, but I can't, because I understand them. I understand the anxiety of new things, of staying still. I understand the depression that weighs heavy upon you like a living thing, that growls when threatened, that bares its fangs at others even as it desperately wishes to be loved. The bear, the bee, and I have become unwilling friends, comrades. Sometimes, when the bear rumbles deep in its chest, I stroke its wiry fur, and its breathing evens out. Sometimes, when the bee buzzes about my head in a panic, I offer it sugar water, and it calms for a bit.
I guess we're in this together, after all.
She was bisexual, or so Sam had heard.
It was funny, Sam thought to herself, she didn’t look it. That is, if one could look bisexual. Melody was her tutor, and she looked the way Sam imagined all tutors looked, albeit maybe slightly prettier—low-riding jeans, simple t-shirt (in this case, one that proudly displayed the words “Orlando Band Festival” in bold white font), worn tennis shoes. She was a college student, so she towered over Sam, but her face still held that roundness to it, that baby fat that made her dark, intense eyes pop out at you. The auburn waves framing her face and neck were incredibly soft. Sam had been allowed to braid them once. There was nothing in her upright posture or perfectly lopsided grin that proclaimed, “I’m down with either, really!” Then again, those ever-gossiping, dreadfully chatty boys at school weren’t exactly known for their intuition and logic. The disdainful tones they took on when they mentioned Melody clashed horribly with the glowing woman in front of her, anyway, so Sam tried to ignore them.
“Are you paying attention?” Melody asked in that usual stern way of hers. Sam had to marvel at how adult her voice was. It was deep and musical and had a slight purr to it when she laughed.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Melody said, gently flicking Sam on the nose. Sam blinked. “C’mon, Squirrel, we don’t want a repeat of last week’s biology quiz, do we?”
The nickname "Squirrel" was born of an incident the previous fall, when Melody had just become Sam's tutor. They'd taken a break at the nearby park, where Sam had made eye contact with a squirrel for so long that she tripped over a tree root. "Squirrel," Melody had called her softly as she scrubbed the dirt off her face with a washcloth. The next week, they'd started to study algebra.
“The mitochondria, Squirrel,” Melody declaimed, more dramatically than was necessary, “is the powerhouse of the cell. And how does the cell transport energy?”
Sam thought about that for a moment. She was confident that it started with an A, maybe a P. Like her aural perception class, which somehow managed to make singing less fun. Her instructor, a balding man with a rather gravelly tone for a singer, raved about Melody whenever she visited or was mentioned. Said she had the most gorgeous, refined voice he’d ever heard. Fitting, he beamed, considering her name. He boasted as if he’d raised her herself, rather than just having taught her for three years, and she smiled fondly and let him.
“ATP, Squirrel,” Melody reprimanded mildly, and Sam’s glassy gaze returned to her sharp one. “ATP, adenosine triphosphate, remember?”
Sam did not, in fact, remember, but she nodded. Disappointing Melody was never any fun. She wouldn’t yell, but she got that certain look in her eyes, that wrinkle in her brow, like she was exhausted. Not with Sam, necessarily, but with herself.
“It’s okay,” Melody soothed at Sam’s involuntary distressed expression. “Can you think ‘adventure, time to play!’ for ATP, Squirrel? For energy?”
Sam nodded. Adventure, time to play. It sounded energetic enough. You needed to have energy to go on an adventure, after all. She reminisced happily on the day after her first test under Melody’s tutelage, when they’d built a giant pile of leaves and played in it for hours. It had thoroughly used up her energy, and Melody had had to half-drag her home.
“I can remember that,” Sam promised, and she was rewarded with a bright smile.
“Excellent work today, Squirrel,” Melody told her. Sam’s eyes were drawn to the curve of her lips. One side was slightly higher than the other, exposing a shallow dimple, and it always caught Sam’s attention. “Just remember, when you take your quiz, don’t overthink things. Your instincts are always better than you think.”
The day after the quiz, Melody showed up in a soft leather jacket and aviator sunglasses and relocated their study session to the park. “As a celebration,” she said, a little more dully than the words merited.
“I haven’t got my quiz score yet,” protested Sam, but Melody shook her head.
“An early one, then.”
About an hour in, in between recitations of her times tables, which always inexplicably seemed to go better when she was moving around or doing something else, Sam fidgeted uncomfortably from her spot on the tire swing. Melody was quieter and less readily laudatory today, and Sam could feel her eyes burning holes in her skull. “Are you mad at me?” asked Sam, choosing to stare at Melody’s left earring instead of her face, obscured by the sunglasses. The earring was a simple baby blue one, maybe imitation pearl, Sam thought.
“No,” said Melody carefully. There was a poignant pause, and then she added, “Sorry, Squirrel. Sometimes adults have a lot on their minds. It isn’t your fault.”
Sam considered this for a moment, tilting her head as the spinning of the tire swing slowed. Wordlessly, she patted the tire swing, and when Melody hesitated, Sam smirked,
“What? Too cool for a swing?” and Melody grudgingly joined her. Even her slender form was clumsy and awkwardly large on the child-sized swing, but Sam would not be deterred, and began to spin with great effort. Melody, smart woman that she was, caught on and helped her. Before long, they had a pleasant, constant spin going. Melody’s thick hair caught the white, fluffy balls that fell from the trees above. They almost looked like huge snowflakes, and Sam blinked them out of her eyelashes.
They spun in silence for a few minutes, and then Melody sighed. “Good multiplication, Squirrel.” Nothing else was said until Sam picked up where she’d left off on her times tables. Things are normal, Sam wished she could say, they’re the same here with me, see? Don’t be sad. Instead, she began on geology and described the cleavage pattern of gypsum. The more details Sam got right, the more she was rewarded with little smiles from Melody, the subtle relaxation of Melody’s tense shoulders until her usual half-slouch had returned, and Sam could relax as well.
When Melody left that evening, Sam thought she heard a mumbled “Thanks, Squirrel.” It was odd; as Melody turned away, the dying sunlight caught Sam’s eye, and she thought she saw a purple gleam underneath Melody’s sunglasses. She was often told she had an overactive imagination, though.
Melody was absent from their next scheduled appointment two days later. Sam had forgotten that they’d even scheduled one until her mother let her know that Melody wouldn’t be over until the weekend. “She never misses,” Sam said hesitantly, glancing at the front door as if tempted to run and check on her.
“Family issues or something,” Sam’s mother replied carelessly, her eyes already locked onto her favorite newspaper section, the horoscope. She was a Taurus, she told Sam often, so it was only natural for her to be bull-headed and stubborn. Sam glanced over her shoulder and saw that today, the newspaper declared she was in for a relaxing week. Her mother’s voice interrupted her reading. “Go do your homework before your father gets home, now.”
In her room, Sam stared at her math book and read the same sentence eight times before closing it and watching the raindrops meander down the windowsill instead.
Sam’s biology teacher, a stiff woman with wrinkled talons for hands, graded as slowly as she spoke, furthering the students’ theory that she was a zombie. It took her four full seconds to extend her hand fully enough for Sam to grab her quiz, and Sam’s heart skipped at the splash of red ink across the top of it. B+. As always, she’d struggled on the multiple choice, but there was a hastily scrawled red “Nice” alongside the ATP short answer.
Melody was waiting for her outside the school. “Figured I’d walk you home since it’s such a nice day,” she said, and Sam nodded appreciatively. “So, how was school today?”
“We got our quizzes back,” Sam responded, tugging her falling backpack back onto her shoulders with difficulty. “I did better than I thought I would.”
“But not better than I thought you would,” Melody said, and Sam grinned.
The sound of giggling drifted over to them, stealing their attention the way secretive sounds tend to do. Sam swiveled her head around and saw a gaggle of her peers; she recognized them from math, and she was pretty sure that the tall one with the particularly loud giggle was named Steven, but she wasn’t sure about the others, mixed girls and boys whose overly bright eyes were fixated on Melody. Steven leaned over, jerked his head toward Melody and Sam, and whispered something into the ear of the student next to him, a bespectacled girl with curly red hair and a baggy ACDC t-shirt, and the entire group broke out in more giggles. Sam met the girl’s eyes, confused, her stomach dropping sickeningly for some reason she couldn’t quite identify.
Melody had stiffened up beside her. “Come on, Sam,” she said lowly, and Sam jolted, not having realized that she’d stopped walking. The giggling intensified, and it still sounded in Sam’s ears an hour later as they studied. “Pay attention, Squirrel,” Melody said, more tiredly than usual, and Sam felt her cheeks burn.
"Sorry,” she muttered, and Melody sighed.
“Maybe we should be done for today, Squirrel. I’m sorry. I’m not really feeling well.”
Sam squinted at Melody, as if she could try to cure Melody’s ailments that way. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” Sorry, again. That was wrong. That wasn’t very Melody of her.
“Wait,” said Sam, and she rifled through her backpack. “Here.” She handed Melody her quiz, with the “Nice” on the ATP question.
Melody looked at it, and Sam thought she blinked rather harder than she needed to. “Thanks, Squirrel,” she said, and her voice was stuffy. She leaned down and gave Sam a hug, a rarity, a treasure, and Sam breathed in her scent, aloe vera shampoo and vanilla latte and a flowery perfume so faint Sam wondered if it wasn’t hers.
She’d forgotten that there was a biology test the next day, but she felt rather better than expected about her performance on it. There had been a short essay question on simple cellular energy storage and transport, which was worth twenty points, and several more questions on different single-cellular organisms. Melody’s bright, cheery song echoed in her head. “Paramecium, bum, bum! Paramecium, bum, bum! Pro-tist, ci-li-a, pa-ra-me-ci-um!” Sam’s teacher rebuked her, inciting treasonous giggles from her classmates, and Sam forced herself to stop humming, flushing with embarrassment.
“Melody was student teaching again today in band,” a lanky, tan boy asserted loudly to another, a squatter boy with a round, freckle-covered face, on the bus home. “She doesn’t know a thing about the trumpet, it’s the worst.”
Heat rushed into Sam’s cheeks, and she bit her lip. Those boys gossiped worse than her mother and her obnoxious friends.
“She’s got another girlfriend now,” Freckles whispered conspiratorially, scooting closer to Lanky. “Saw her this morning, dropping her off at school. Had a boyfriend last month.”
“Ah, that’s because she’s bisexual,” Lanky confirmed, giving a somber, self-assured nod. Sam had the sudden, bizarre urge to laugh, and suppressed it hurriedly. “Feel like I’d just pick?”
“Don’t think I’d date a bisexual chick,” Freckles reflected, “seems like she might cheat on you with a girl, right?”
Should I assume you’d cheat on me with another girl, then? Sam wondered. Her fingers twitched. They felt hot.
“She does seem flakey,” agreed Lanky. “Hope she doesn’t end up teaching here permanently, imagine if she taught a class herself, not knowing the trumpet and bringing in girlfriends and boyfriends, it’d be irritating.”
Sam cleared her throat. She could feel her heartbeat in her ears, her jaw. Enough was enough. Her own voice echoed in her skull, as if someone else were speaking the words. “Melody hasn’t done anything to you. She’s a nice tutor.”
Lanky’s eyes settled on her, and he grinned. Sam envisioned a lean wolf, leering toothily and considering her, lowering his haunches, preparing to spring. Freckles grinned too, more like a bear than a wolf, his eyes less sharp. “I bet you think she’s really nice,” Lanky said. “What, are you bisexual too?”
“Oh, gross,” laughed Freckles, and a couple of girls behind them laughed with him. Sam blinked back tears and stared at her tennis shoes.
When Sam got home, her nerves were stretched to their breaking point, her hands shaking so badly that she accidentally dropped her plate of quinoa salad with a symphony of shattering porcelain. Her mother cried out, maybe with concern and maybe with exasperation, and helped Sam bandage her bleeding, stinging palms. Sam was glad Melody wasn’t coming over.
Melody showed up at their appointed time the next day, her eyes locking on to Sam’s bandaged hands with unnerving speed. Melody tutted, gently taking the soft white wrapping in her own hands. “What’s this all about, Squirrel?”
A strange shiver went through Sam, as if Melody was something foreign, something Sam didn’t know, and she yanked her hands away and glared sullenly at a nearby armchair. It was unsatisfyingly steady under her severe gaze, so she switched to glaring at the dark tabby house cat, Mr. Mo, who stared back defiantly, white-tipped tail lashing. They stayed like this until Melody asked, “Want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” grouched Sam, a bit petulantly.
Melody hummed. “I’ve got something special in mind for today, Squirrel. Quit harassing the cat and come on.”
As it turned out, “something special” involved a picnic lunch at the park, complete with messy tuna salad finger sandwiches made by Melody herself. “Cooking isn’t among my many talents,” Melody defended as Sam prodded experimentally at the soggy bread. Admittedly, the celery and pickles Melody had added in made it delicious enough to compensate for the unsettling texture. They took their time eating, and Sam watched as an ant made its way stubbornly up her leg, even when she started jiggling it.
They were out long enough for Melody to insistently apply sunscreen to Sam’s exposed shoulders twice, despite how Sam loathed the greasy texture of it, before they began the walk back. As they reached the house, Sam frowned, the previous day’s words ringing deafeningly in her ears. Impulsively, she blurted, “Are you bisexual?”
There was a heavier silence than Sam had ever known with Melody, and it lasted so long that she wondered if Melody was going to answer at all. “Yeah,” she finally said, simply, and that was that, although Sam's jaws burned with the effort of clamping in unspoken questions. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” said Sam.
Sam passed the next test just after her fifteenth birthday, and Melody took her for ice cream. She got to order mint chocolate chip, her favorite, but only one scoop. “You know you get brain freeze, Squirrel,” Melody scolded at Sam’s pout, and Sam had to sheepishly agree. They ate their ice cream, reveling in the relief from the heat, Sam with her mint chocolate chip and Melody with a vanilla/chocolate mix. “I just can’t choose,” Melody smirked to Sam confidentially. “They’re both so appealing.” Sam giggled, and Melody was here and she was the same beautiful, funny Melody, and suddenly those boys were just stupid wisps of insignificant chatter again, leaking out of Sam’s ears until they were gone. The tension that had been between them since the day of the picnic seemed to dissipate.
“You realize we’re going to have to actually study next time, right, Squirrel?” Melody said after a while. Unfortunately, this announcement was given precisely as Sam fell prey to a brain freeze, and it seemed that Melody mistook Sam’s pained expression for disapproval at that, because she flicked Sam’s nose. “C’mon, smart Squirrel,” she scolded lightly, and Sam gave her her best shit-eating grin. Melody gave that laugh of hers, the one with the purr.
Finals week was an intense and miserable ordeal that had Sam sleeping three hours a night and stressing for the other twenty-one, nothing like the tame finals weeks in middle school; as expected, high school was hell. She had biology and math on the same day that her essay on the checks and balances system of the government was due, and English, geology, and aural perception the day after that. She walked out of her aural perception final with a sore throat and sweaty everything else, still shivering from the adrenaline rush.
The school was unbearable. Most students in Sam’s grade were done for the semester, and the hallways were flooded with cacophonous voices and loose papers covered in red marks, fluttering on the floor and tripping up the students like Sam, who were just trying to escape. The seniors had left several days before, but their mess still cluttered every room. Sam’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and when she tried to check it, it was knocked from her hand by some stampeding theater kids, fresh from a final rehearsal of some play Sam had to guess was about tragedy of some sort, judging by the dried fake blood on one of their costumes. The real tragedy, unfortunately, was that her cell phone was utterly broken, the screen all dancing cyan and magenta and absolutely useless. She threw a biting glare in the direction of the theater kids, but they were long gone by then, although she could hear their exaggerated vibrato echoing down the hallway like banshee screams.
Melody was waiting outside the school in a tattered silver Cadillac. “Get in, Squirrel,” she called, and Sam complied eagerly. It was a short drive to Sam’s house, but they weren’t going there today. As it turned out, the text Sam’s shattered phone had tried so valiantly, yet so fruitlessly, to receive was from Sam’s parents, who were trying to let her know she had permission to go out with her tutor. “I figured you could use a break,” Melody explained, maybe a little more quietly than usual, but then, it could’ve been Sam’s imagination again. Either way, Sam nodded emphatically.
Sam had only been in Melody’s car once before this, and it was precisely as she remembered. Worn leather interior, cool to the touch, floor that always seemed to look dirty despite the complete absence of any actual clutter or trash. The pestering whine of the engine battled for dominance with the doo-wop cassette tape, which seemed to eternally play “Poison Ivy” and “Love Potion No. 9” on repeat. Sam sang along for a while, clinging to the repeated lyrics and blushing when she blurted out a chorus prematurely, until her long, tiring day caught up to her. The car hit a bump after a while, jostling the napping Sam awake long enough for her to groggily ask, “Where are we going?”
Melody glanced over at her, then hastily returned her eyes to the road, shielding her face against the sun. “I thought we could see a different park today,” she answered. Sam managed to nod before dozing off again.
Much too soon for Sam’s liking, Melody was gently shaking her awake. “We’re here, Squirrel,” she whispered, and Sam stretched and forced herself up, frowning at something in Melody’s voice that she couldn’t quite identify. “Put on your jacket, now.” Sam did, which was fortunate, because the air was chilly when she stepped out of the car, blinking and squinting in the sudden light.
It was a park, but not the one they usually went to. Sam got the sense that this one was always this quiet and empty and it didn’t have a tire swing, just two regular swings, both of which looked as though they were a breath away from collapsing entirely. Vegetation had consumed the teeter-totter and the rusted merry-go-round. Sam made accidental eye contact with a faded hippo painted on the merry-go-round, and its milky stare captivated her until Melody’s soft touch on her hair and murmur pulled her away.
The two of them sat on the swings, Sam thinking to herself that they both might die this way, but it seemed as if Melody needed it right then so it was worth a shot anyway, and for a while there was only the rustling of the wind in the bushes and the ominous creaking of the browned chains that supported them. Maybe a short time later and maybe a long time later, for time seemed inconsequential here somehow, Melody said, “I’m going away.”
Sam’s neck ached from the force of her head snapping around to stare at her. “Away?”
“Yes.” Silence, but only for a long moment. “I’m sorry, Squirrel.”
Sam’s mouth was dry; her tongue was sandpaper, and it scratched the roof of her mouth. “Why?” When there was no response, her heartbeat quickened, and the throbbing in her neck extended into her temples. Her fingers buzzed and went numb. The aural perception final seemed a lifetime ago, a lifetime where Melody hadn’t just brought her world crashing down. “Did I…?”
“No, sweetie,” Melody rushed to answer her, “no, Squirrel, no.” The throbbing didn’t abate. “Remember how I said adults sometimes have a lot to think about?” Sam forced a stiff nod. “Well, I just have a lot going on. It’s my own problem. Besides, I’m going to be done student teaching after this week, and I was offered a job in Oregon. It’s too good to pass up.”
“After this week?” repeated Sam slowly. Her brain, her frustrating brain that never seemed to catch up to the speed of the world around it, to the speed of Melody, hit an obstacle and screeched to a halt. “This. You’re saying goodbye?”
She heard Melody answer, but she was up by then, and it didn’t matter what Melody said, because she was leaving Sam and she hadn’t even told her until today and—
“You’re leaving me,” cried Sam. Melody was following her, something foreign in her eyes, something Sam couldn’t understand. Something wet. “You think I can’t do it, I know I never pay attention, I know, I’m sorry, I…” There was something wet in Sam’s eyes now, on Sam’s face, and she wiped at it angrily, so hard that her skin was rubbed red and hot. “I can’t do it without you.” She never could. “Melody.”
“Squirrel,” said Melody simply, and she held out her arms, and Sam crashed into them, furious waves on the steady rocks that were Melody. “Squirrel. You are without a doubt the smartest, the kindest, and the bravest girl I know.” The two of them sniffled for a moment, and Sam almost had to laugh at the bizarreness of it, this woman and this girl, crying on each other in an abandoned park in the middle of nowhere, knees itching in the undoubtedly moldy playground sand. “Some girls learn differently than others, and some can have more trouble focusing than others, but that doesn’t matter, Squirrel. Be patient with yourself. Believe in yourself. Because if everyone else gets to see the brilliant, incredible Squirrel I know, they’ll be just as amazed and spellbound as I always am.”
Maybe the speech was slightly less effective than it could have been, since it was given in bursts through both of their sobs, and it only served to make Sam cry harder, but the adrenaline rush was fading fast. Emotions were exhausting. “Oregon is stupid,” she informed Melody tearfully, and Melody gave her a watery grin.
“Yeah, Squirrel, it is,” she said, and things were alright.
Melody dropped her off later that evening with a dry, if slightly swollen, face and a warm hug. The embrace lasted so long that Sam started to get overheated, but she squeezed all the harder before eventually being forced out of it by a need for oxygen. “Bye, Squirrel,” Melody finally said, giving a smile that didn’t quite feel right but then, how could it? Sam watched her walk away, those auburn waves that were so very pleasant to braid and to touch falling almost to her elbows now. They’d grown almost three inches, Sam thought to herself. Melody turned and waved. It was final now. This was it.
Surprising even herself, abruptly, Sam called, “I love you, Melody.” She did.
The lopsided smile widened, brightened. “Love you, Sam.”
Sam knew high schoolers were abhorrent gossips, but she was still shocked at how long they clung to pieces of information that they found interesting or dramatic. When the break ended and school started again, everyone was talking about two things: Dawson’s embarrassing attempt at wooing the ludicrously out-of-his-league Jessi Hall, and Melody. Oh, they said a lot of things about her (Melody, not Jessi Hall—all they could say about Jessi Hall was that she was far too pretty and intelligent for someone like Dumbass Dawson). She left to go live in a colony of bisexual people that spent all day, every day just having sex. She left because she was too ashamed at how bad she was at the trumpet and, consequently, had decided to live the rest of her life as a monk in a monastery. She left to get away from her parents, who were rumored to hit her and yell at her from time to time, homophobic old assholes that they were. She left to go find her true calling in underwater basket-weaving or stripping or veterinary medicine, in which she treated lizards exclusively. She left because students’ parents had complained about her, although Sam couldn’t imagine why. It didn’t really matter what you thought at the end of the day. She was gone, and that was that. She was in Oregon, and Oregon was not here.
Sam’s new biology teacher graded much faster than the old one, getting back their first quiz to them the very next day. Sam wrinkled her nose and felt heat rush into her face at the bold “D” scripted neatly on the top of it, and when she got home, she stuffed it into her wastebasket as if hiding something shameful before she remembered that Melody wasn’t there to see it anymore.
Raindrops beat on the roof and the windows, and Sam bit her lip, staring at the wastebasket. She grabbed the quiz and laid it out on her desk, smoothed it out, displayed the grade for herself to see, forced herself to look at it, took a deep breath.“Where did you go wrong?” asked the bright young woman in her mind, her hair bouncing as she tilted her head. Sam’s eyes roved over the quiz, finally settling on the multiple choice section.
“I didn’t read the sentence correctly,” she said, maybe to herself, maybe to the woman, maybe to the rain outside, which drummed relentlessly against her skull. “I knew the answer. I lost my head.” A weight lifted off of her shoulders, and she breathed deeply. The red glare of the D diminished slightly.
“Can you do better?” asked the woman, even though she already knew the answer.
“Underline the important words,” Sam answered, demonstrating on a question about the electron transport chain. “Which of the statements is false, not which one is true.” She read the sentence again, understood it. The electron transport chain took place in the mitochondria, not in the cytosol. She knew that. She took out another sheet of paper and grabbed her textbook, flipping open to the page about mitochondrial metabolic pathways.
“ATP, Squirrel,” the Melody in her brain reminded her, glowing, smiling that crooked smile of hers.
Sam smiled back and began to write.
The Firstborn: Chapter One
It’s nearly four in the morning when I hear the crackling of twigs and stiff leaves outside my window.
I take a deep breath, bracing myself. I always knew that it would one day come to this, but I hadn’t expected it so soon. I quickly remove my nightclothes and begin throwing on my most official-looking dark dress and cloak, although it’s difficult when my fingers are fumbling; after all, I’ve just been rudely awoken, and am not fully in control of my body yet. The continued sounds outside assure me that the intruder has not yet escaped, so I take the extra time to apply a little bit of dramatic makeup, although I feel extremely silly while doing so. Now’s not the time for that kind of thinking, though. I've got to focus.
It’s time. The moment I’ve been warned about since childhood.
It’s time to defend my garden, and my honor as a witch.
I summon my courage, draw a deep breath, and then throw the door wide open, cackling as madly as I possibly can and swinging my lantern wildly. Lightning flashes overhead, and thunder cracks a mere moment later. The autumn always brings with it these terrible storms, and I often lose plants to its fury, but this time, it works in my favor. Ignoring the rain, I step forward, my eyes searching for the one who has intruded.
“Oh, hey,” comes a rather bored voice, and I turn, scowling, to see the criminal.
The light of the lantern illuminates her. She looks young--probably around my own age--and is just as beautiful as one would expect of a maiden. It’s hard to see through the rain and darkness, but her form is slight, her face elegant and feline. The thing I notice even more than that, however, is her expression.
She looks utterly unimpressed.
I’m starting to feel like something is a little out of place--isn’t she supposed to be terrified?--but I continue, as I have studied for. “Impudent girl,” I hiss, advancing toward her, “how dare you come into my garden unannounced? And--” I seize her slender wrist, twisting so that I can see what is in her hand. They’re stems with purple, star-shaped blossoms, and she wears a thin glove on the hand holding them. “My magical plants? You think you can steal my herbs and get away with it?”
“Nah, I kind of figured you’d catch me,” she drawls, yanking her arm out of my grip. She shoves the handful of flowered plants into the pocket of her cloak, and actually has the nerve to yawn at me. “Story goes that you’ll demand something from me to pay for the herbs I stole, right?”
I know I’m supposed to be threatening right now, but all I’m capable of at the moment is gaping stupidly.
She rolls her eyes, actually rolls her eyes, at me. “Uh, hello? Are you distracted or something?” She sounds as though she finds it excruciatingly dull to have to discuss this with me. “I have places to be, you know. I’ve already got everything I need. You took forever to come out, so I’ve been waiting. Let’s just finish this up, shall we?”
Her crisp tone snaps me out of my stupor, although my pride has just started stinging a little. If I’m not mistaken, she’s being kind of insulting. “Y-yes,” I respond, attempting to keep up my act but starting to lose it in my state of confusion.
I squeeze my eyes tightly shut. No, don’t lose it! You’re a witch! You can do it!
“Poor little peasant girl,” I jeer, slipping back into my rhythm and tipping her chin up with one finger, “you came into my garden to steal my magical herbs. You will not get away so easily.” I give another laugh, and am fairly pleased; it sounds reasonably menacing. “Why should I, the witch Siobhan, allow you to live?”
“Oh, come on,” she snaps, clearly becoming exasperated and waving my hand away. “Can we skip to the part where you demand something in return? I really do have things to do.”
I glare at her for a full three seconds before answering. “Fine,” I retort, forgetting the whole scary witch thing for a second. I clear my throat, getting back into the swing of it. “Fine,” I repeat, more eerily this time. “I will let you live, and because I am generous, I will allow you to keep your stolen herbs. They are valuable and will bring you great rewards if used correctly. Therefore, as payment, you will give to me…” I pause for effect; working together with me, as the weather often does with witches, lightning strikes again, and I wait for the thunder to really ring before I finish. “You will give to me…your firstborn child.”
There is silence but for the dripping of the rain; then, the maiden says, “Okay.”
Without further ado, she turns, her cloak flowing behind her. She starts to leave, climbing my towering garden wall with apparent ease.
I watch her go, jaw dropping. Am--am I supposed to just let this happen? I always thought that someone who just barely escaped death and promised their firstborn to an evil witch would be fleeing in a panic, or at least seem a little bit shaken up, but this girl isn’t fazed. It’s actually kind of anticlimactic.
Without really thinking, I shout at her retreating back just as she’s about to drop down to the other side of the wall. “What’s your name?”
She glances back at me, and lightning flashes again, illuminating her fine features as she grins. “Gwyn,” she calls back, and then she’s gone.
I’m not sure what to do now, so I call it a night. After all, nothing’s more awkward than a dejected nineteen-year-old witch, standing silently in the pouring rain and feeling perplexed over some sassy herb thief.
I sleep in until noon because of how late I was up, and I’m still in a foul mood as I wander around groggily. Who does that girl think she is? Sipping my peppermint tea, I flip through some of my old textbooks, searching through the sections regarding exchanges with maidens. All of the books say just what I’d recalled them saying: the poor, frightened young lady will beg for forgiveness, asking to be spared. Then the witch will laugh and mercilessly request something valuable--generally the firstborn child. The maiden will then cry and run away.
I accidentally spill some tea on my shirt and make an unidentifiable noise of frustration.
That Gwyn girl was definitely not typical. Should I ask someone about this? It’s not as if witches really have families to ask about this sort of stuff, but I do have a couple of older friends. Asking them would probably be a bad idea, though; witches aren’t a sociable bunch, and besides, I don’t know a single witch who encountered her first maiden before the age of forty-five. It’s possible the situation seemed strange because I’m not as intimidating yet, being a younger and less weathered witch.
There’s also the fact that I’m not exactly the best at being a witch. My spells are shoddy and tend to set things on fire that they shouldn’t, my evil cackle sounds something akin to maniacal hiccuping, and hunching over to try to look creepy hurts my back, so I don’t really have the whole look down yet. I’m awkwardly in the middle appearance-wise; most witches are either stunningly, superhumanly beautiful or horribly, terrifyingly hideous, but I couldn’t possibly be more mediocre in appearance. My hair is black and a little frizzy, my eyes are a clear grey, and I’m pretty tall, but no one would go so far as to call me either ugly or pretty. I’m also incredibly clumsy and lack general talent, or so I’ve been told. My potion-making is my only redeeming skill as a witch, but even then, I have trouble with the more devastating concoctions; I’m really much better at making healing brews and tasty sauces, which is not exactly what witches are supposed to excel at. It’s entirely plausible that Gwyn just isn’t scared of a woman who looks like she’s more likely to trip over her own feet than perform a curse.
I’m too irritated to continue reading. I throw the book I’m holding against the wall, accidentally dropping my mug of tea at the same time. It takes a couple seconds for the sight of the broken china and soaked floor to register, but once it does, I’m even more upset.
Then again--I go about cleaning it up by hand, not trusting my faulty magic to do it without burning down my house. Maybe it’s a good thing. Who ever heard of a witch that drinks peppermint tea, anyway?
I’m actually a bit impressed with the strange results of some of my spells.
For example, the spell I tried to perform only a moment ago is a very simple one, designed for only one thing: turning a creature into a mushroom. I tried to cast the spell on a tiny mouse for practice, intending to turn it back right away, but I’m no longer sure that reversal is possible. The mouse isn’t a mushroom.
It’s the size of a horse.
I try the reversal incantation for the mushroom spell, but if anything, the mouse gets a little bigger. It blinks its inky eyes at me, twitching its rod-like whiskers innocently, and I stay perfectly still; it’s only a few feet away from my garden, and if it decides to bolt in the wrong direction, all of my precious herbs are done for.
And what if it doesn’t bolt at all? What if it attacks me? I tense up subconsciously, my eyes wandering to its humongous, gleaming front teeth. If I remember correctly, mice are omnivorous. This mouse is certainly large enough to do some damage to me if it attacks me. I could probably make a loud, scary noise if I use a color-changing spell or something like that, with how my magic is behaving today, but I don’t want to risk injuring the poor thing when this is all my fault to begin with. The result of the failed spell could just as easily be an explosion as a loud noise.
The mouse seems to consider me, tilting its head slightly and perking its round ears; I stare back, not daring to move a muscle. After a second or two, the bizarre creature seems to decide that it is content with the state of affairs and lowers itself to the ground, apparently in need of a nap.
The situation seems to be defused for the moment, but there’s still an inconveniently large mouse in my backyard and I can’t trust my spells to fix this for me. My garden isn’t out of the woods, so to speak, yet. Not to mention that I’ve just seriously screwed up life for this mouse, which is undoubtedly not sure exactly how to function at this new size. What will it eat now? Will it still be able to live by just roaming around the forest? Might it terrify its tiny mouse family with its oversized affection?
If word of my failure gets out to my mentor and the other witches, I’ll be even more of a laughingstock than I already am, and that’s saying something. Transformation spells aren’t exactly the simplest of all spells, but they’re certainly not complex enough to merit an adult witch accidentally performing a growing spell instead. In fact, growing spells are, generally speaking, more difficult to perform correctly. Does this mean I’m a better witch than I’d thought, or just an incredibly bad one? I’m confused.
It’s not as though this is the first time that something like this has happened, but I swore to myself after what happened last time never to make my mentor dig me out of a hole like that again. She’s a kind and understanding witch, but even she looked a little bit flustered after being forced to rejoin all of the pieces of the tree that I’d accidentally blown to smithereens. In addition to that, dust particles from the explosion had turned all of the children in a tiny nearby village into rubber balls, and it was quite a hassle for her to correct that issue before the adults drove us both out of village.
I set my jaw in determination. I’m not going to let my mentor down again. Although I’m loathe to leave the gigantic mouse alone, I take a couple of minutes to scan through one of my brewing textbooks, and I’m able to locate what seems to be a suitable recipe for a shrinking potion. After that, it takes me a few more minutes to complete my calculations, but luckily, this kind of thing is my specialty, so I’m confident I’ve done it correctly once I’m finished.
I realize pretty quickly upon re-reading the list of herbs and quantities I’ve written down that I don’t have everything I need in my garden. Most of it I have in surplus, but there’s one specific herb that I don’t grow, mostly because I’m moderately allergic to it. It’s not a plant that has any close substitutes, either--most of the other herbs on this list have at least one other herb that could potentially serve as a replacement, depending on the specificity of the individual concoction, but not this one. It’s completely and totally unique.
I grind my teeth together unpleasantly. I can’t just give up. This is the only way to fix this.
There’s only one solution: I’ll have to go to the market of the closest village.
I start the walk almost immediately, only pausing to discard my usual cloak in favor of more normal, brightly-colored clothes; the village is quite a distance from here, and if I want to make it there and back before dark, I need to get going. The clothes I wear because witches aren’t exactly society’s favorite sweethearts, and for good reason; after all, there are the curses, the stolen firstborns, the threats against the kingdoms, and much more. The list really goes on and on, so one can’t blame people for getting a little suspicious and angry upon seeing a witch. Hopefully these very un-witch like clothes, combined with my un-witch-like behavior, will make me appear to be...well...not a witch.
I nearly trip on a tree root protruding from the path and curse to myself. I’m young and haven’t gained any notoriety, so I should be pretty safe, but it’s better to be cautious in times like these. Witch hunts are gaining popularity by the day, after all; should something about my face throw anyone off, I imagine it wouldn’t be beyond them to test me somehow. At the very worst, I’ll be burned at the stake. I’ve heard it’s not pleasant.
In any case, maybe I’ll try to buy seed for this herb while I’m in village. Just sneezing every time I harvest nearby plants is a pretty good deal, considering it will mean not having to venture into the village. I’ll just have to keep careful control over my magic when I’m around that section of the garden; sneezing might result in some insane spell if I’m not careful, and one of these days, I’m going to accidentally do something I can’t reverse.
A rather foreboding image of the horse-sized mouse decides to visit my mind again, and I do my best to brush it off. Honestly, of all the embarrassing and strangely frightening things to need to purchase plants for…
The walk is a long and boring one, but I reach the village while the sun is still well above the horizon, so there’s that, at least. Most of the shops that might have what I need are probably still open, so I won’t have to wait here overnight.
The village is quite small and sits with its back in the crook of a tiny mountain range, which surrounds the valley in a vast semi-circle. The narrower tributary of a great mountain river runs through the center of the village, and the majority of the vendor stands are set up on either side of this snaking water.
Ignoring an unhappy, hungry squeeze from my stomach, I hurry over to a stand near the edge of village. It’s my go-to stand, mainly because I know the person who runs it personally, and he already knows that I’m a witch and has promised not to rat me--or any other well-meaning witches--out. He’s not a witch himself, but his sister is, so he has some sympathy for those of us who don’t mean any harm and are just trying to survive.
I shudder, trying not to think about his sister. I’d never say it aloud, for fear of word getting back to him, but his sister’s not my favorite witch. She’s horrible at potion-brewing, so she takes an unfortunately common, and unpleasant, shortcut: live animals. They have significantly more energy than the normal plants, so when a witch lacks finesse or quality ingredients, they sometimes make up the slack by using live frogs or mice or bats. I try to avoid those witches.
Not that her brother knows about that, of course. The guy’s completely sweet and clueless. It works to my advantage, though, since a more down-to-earth person might not be so kind to witches. Plus, it’s nice to see a normal human smiling at me for once.
“Siobhan!” the man shouts, waving cheerily. He has a chubby, boyish face and twinkling brown eyes. I do wish he wouldn’t shout quite so loudly. I hush him as politely as possible.
“It’s nice to see you too, Aedan, but people trying to keep a low profile usually don’t shout their names across the square,” I say, straining to keep a note of exasperation from my voice. Aedan seems to get it, luckily, and he settles for a happy grin as I look over his wares.
I frown, not seeing what I’m looking for. “Don’t you have any yarrow today, Aedan?”
“Fresh out, I’m afraid,” Aedan says. “There was a nasty frost this morning and the less hardy plants didn’t survive, and I’m out of seeds, too. It’s killing my business!”
I could go back to my place and try to harvest wild yarrow, I suppose, but I prefer to buy from Aedan because his plants are reliable and he often has spare seeds. My place is slightly south of here, but even so, the plants in my somewhat protected garden are probably going to be the only safe weak plants around.
It looks like he doesn’t have any silverleaf, either. That herb thief Gwyn stole a bit of mine, and while I don’t really need more of it, I’m curious to know what she’s planning to do with it. It’s a nightshade derivative, so it can be used for its toxic effects as a poison or irritant. She knew exactly what she wanted, too, because she was wearing gloves to negate the skin irritation. Curiously, she also stole a little bit of my tormentil, which I only ever use for healing mixtures. It’s an odd combination: a poison and a pretty flower.
I wonder if Gwyn lives here. The thought makes me both furious and nervous. Furious because she stole my stuff and nervous because she was intimidating while she did it.
“You could try the herbalist on the other side of village,” suggests Aeden brightly, pulling me away from my thoughts. “She has her own storage of plants inside her shop. She’s never out!” He beams at me, clearly waiting for a response.
It takes all of my willpower not to release an exasperated sigh. “Thanks, Aeden. I’ll be back later.” As I turn to leave, waving the jolly man goodbye, I stop for a moment and say, “Take care of yourself.”
“You too, Siobhan!” he practically yells. I glare at him for good measure and hurry away, toward the opposite end of village. I have to cross the river, but there’s a conveniently located bridge nearby.
Because the village is very small, it does not take me long to locate the herbalist’s shop. It’s on the border of the village, and it’s a small building with a faded and old but rather neat sign, which is adorned with painted flowers and reads “Daisies on the River”.
I step cautiously into the shop. I’ve never met the owner, so I am once again presented with the issue of trying to not seem like a witch, which is much harder than it should be for a witch as un-witchy as I am. Something about us gives off a magical aura, creeps people out. I just have to hope that the owner of this shop is unperceptive--or doesn’t care.
For the moment, though, it doesn’t really matter; the owner must be in the back, as the shop is empty apart from myself. The assortment of plants is surprisingly vast. In fact, I instantly see the small white flowers of the yarrow I’m looking for, although I don’t see any silverleaf or tormentil. Whoever owns this shop has at least twice the variety of plants that I do, although many of them wouldn’t be very useful to me; I do, however, spot at least three that I would like to purchase. There are even seeds or buds for every type of plant.
I’m just marveling at the selection when a voice from the back calls, “Sorry, I’ll be out in just a moment!”
I barely have time to register how strangely familiar that voice sounds before the shop owner steps out, and I gasp in disbelief.
I can’t tell if she recognizes me or not, since she mainly seems confused and irritated by my dramatic gasp. I guess it’s possible that she doesn’t, since we were in a storm and my face was mostly obscured by my cloak and makeup. I recognize her immediately, though. That clear voice, those sharp features, that almost bored expression. I couldn’t see her hair because of the cloak before, but it’s a lovely, flowing golden blonde, and her eyes are an incredibly bright, pure green.
“Hello?” she says, and I realize she’s been trying to talk to me while I’ve been gawking this whole time. “Can I help you?”
I cough, hoping against hope that she doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t look suspicious, just annoyed. “I need to purchase some yarrow.” I pause for a moment, watching her to see if she recognizes my voice, and when it seems she doesn’t, I continue, “Also, some black haw, some lady’s mantle, some coltsfoot, and some goldenstar.”
“Sure,” she says, her face softening now that I’ve stopped spacing out. Possibly she just has a low tolerance for people wasting her time. Her movements are certain and smooth as she carefully gathers each plant and puts it in a well-sealed bag, adding more or less at my request. I end up having her fill up her largest bag with yarrow.
“Do you want any seeds or buds for these plants?” Gwyn asks.
“Yes,” I respond hastily. “For all of them, please.”
She smiles, and I’m momentarily frozen by how blinding it is. “Are small bags okay?”
I nod dumbly. As she gets to work putting together bags for me, my brain finally starts to catch up to what’s happening.
That sassy plant thief runs her own plant shop! It seems she truly didn’t have the plants she stole from me, though. I can’t help but wonder what she needs them for. For a moment I wonder if she is a witch, too, but I banish the thought quickly from my mind. We’re very in tune with each other, witches. I can tell another witch’s magical aura from a non-witch’s aura instantly, even if I’m not a particularly good witch.
Do I confront Gwyn? I ponder this as I watch her use her delicate fingers to deftly tie the tiny sacks shut. I probably shouldn’t, since it’ll be bad if she ousts me as a witch in the middle of the village. It’s really lucky that she hasn’t realized it’s me already; I’m sure she’d be itching to expose me, since I’d probably have to flee. She must just be one of those people who isn’t good at picking up auras, which is great for me. I am, however, still upset with her, and part of me is itching to pick a fight or intimidate her or at least find out more about her.
“What’s your name?” I ask before I can think too hard about the potential risks of engaging her in further conversation, and although I already know the answer.
“Gwyn,” she says. She’s tying up the last small bag now. “Yours?”
I pause, horrified at myself for almost just blurting it out.
I swallow painfully. “Shrew,” I say lamely. It’s not the best fake name ever, but it was the first thing that popped into my head...possibly because of the horse-sized mouse.
“Shrew,” she repeats coolly, giving me a once-over. Her green eyes rove over me, crystal clear and attentive. She finally gives me a smile, this one a bit more playful than the gentle ones from before. “It suits you.”
Well, it shouldn’t, since it isn’t my name. Also, does she think I look like a shrew? Isn’t that...insulting? Well, whatever; it seems she meant it as a compliment. I smile back despite myself.
“Do you live around here, Shrew?” She’s putting all of the little bags into a larger one as she waits for my response.
How do I answer this one without sounding suspicious? “Pretty close, yes,” I respond. “My family runs…” My brain hurts from all this making stuff up. “...a farm a couple hours away. We have cows and pigs and things.” Really smooth, Siobhan. Very convincing.
“Is that so,” she says, nodding thoughtfully. “Well, in any case, I do hope you’ll drop by again soon. It’s always nice to have customers that appreciate my yarrow.” There’s a mischievous look on her face, and there’s a pause while she hands me the bag, which is still surprisingly light. “That’ll be twelve pounds.”
I hand her the money and bid her farewell, and before I realize it, I’m outside and walking back. It’s growing dark now, and although the way back to my place isn’t terribly dangerous, I really should be hurrying. I spent more time than I meant to due to that distracting Gwyn.
The unusual absence of my cloak has left me rather colder than I’d like, but my newly established half-jog through the forest is keeping my blood pumping, at least. I almost trip several times, though, mainly because my brain’s racing even faster than my body.
One would expect a witch who’s been robbed and mocked to be angry upon seeing the criminal, but I was too shocked and anxious to feel much anger upon meeting Gwyn. There’s that air of incredible confidence that makes me feel like I’m standing before a mountain, rather than a woman. Where does her confidence come from? If I had to guess, she’s about my age, so what is it that makes her so self-assured?
Well, whatever it is, I lack it. At least I know where Gwyn lives now. I think there’s some sort of pact that should tell me when she has her firstborn, since the words of witches can be binding in certain circumstances, but I can at least keep an eye on her until then. For the purpose of making sure she doesn’t sneak off somewhere, of course. She’s undoubtedly a tricky, thieving, cunning maiden.
By the time I reach my home, I’m exhausted and shivering and I have scrapes all over my hands and knees from falling over so much. The giant mouse is still loitering nearby, and I sidestep him carefully on the way into my house, although that doesn’t stop his giant black eyes from staring a hole of shame into my skull.
I store my purchased goods in a cabinet for now; I’m too fatigued and anxious to do anything with them tonight, so I’ll have to hope the mouse will stay intact until tomorrow, when I can start brewing the potion I’ll need to fix my mistake. I climb into bed and quickly fall into a sleep filled with dreams of Gwyn’s face, laughing at me mockingly.
To walk the graveyard is a funny thing.
I’ve been coming here since I can remember, so I’m used to it, of course. One wouldn’t think that it’s a place of death and sorrow, not when there’s so much life. Stray dogs and cats have taken refuge in the calm here, and cats, being cats, have an affinity for curling up on gravestones. The grass underneath my feet doesn’t so much as bend when I tread on it, lush and green. Well, I think, it’s certainly getting enough nutrients. That’s the other thing about walking the graveyard: it gives you a morbid sense of humor.
In a way, it’s nice to see so many loved ones here for the dead. Their families, friends, lovers, even dogs are long gone, but they’re very present in the hearts of the living. I do what I can to ease their sorrow. If only they understood that the dead are the lucky ones, or at least that’s what I’ve heard. I pat a shoulder here and there, brush stray auburn locks out of a young woman’s face; her eyes fly to me with a gasp, and then she’s crying again. I’m sure the wound is too fresh, too new. At least she didn’t run away. Some people do, perhaps offended at their grieving being interrupted by a well-meaning stranger. In any case, no matter what I do, it doesn’t help for long.
I go back to the grave I’m here for and run a hand along its cold surface. Maybe it’s too cold; I can’t really feel it anymore. I don’t remember who I’m here to see; I never do. I know the first few times I walked the graveyard, I had someone in mind, a child, a girl. I think she was blonde or brunette or--well, I can’t remember. It’s been too long. I wish I remembered her, but when one is walking the graveyard, it’s hard not to feel at peace about things.
I pick myself up, clear the residue of something suspiciously salty from my eyes, and wait by my grave. I haven’t had a visitor for a while now, not since that girl stopped coming, but it’s never too late to hope. It’s only been a couple hundred years.
The Little and the Big Things (and how I love them)
1) My mother is a beautiful woman. She'll offer to help me study even after a long shift at work. Sometimes, when we're talking on the phone, I can hear the steady strokes of her paintbrush as she works steadily at the house. I am more than thankful to her. Honestly, I don't know how to repay her. I can only try.
2) I sleep with many blankets, and when I wake from a nightmare, I clutch at them just so I can feel something soft. They've saved me many nights.
3) My cat is huge and named Gizmo. When I finally put down my book and roll over to sleep, he starts to purr and curls up beside me. His fur is soft and fluffy and he has the most perfect blue eyes I've ever seen. Sometimes, when he's sleepy, he runs facefirst into walls and looks offended when I laugh. He's a cat, of course, so he knows I love him, just not how much.
4) I appreciate my heart. I know I've put the poor thing through enough stress. Hearts are complex and incredible things, all electrical potential and contractility and cardiac muscle with intercalated discs and gap junction and perfect synchronization, even when the humans they belong to seem to be doing everything in their power to wear them out young. Thanks, heart, for keeping on beating. I wouldn't have.
5) I'm grateful to myself. I'm thankful to the girl who hated herself so much she couldn't breathe at night for learning to, if nothing else, tolerate herself. For letting herself relax and love people around her and maybe even like certain things about herself, if she's in a particularly good mood. For keeping going even when inside sources tell me she really wanted to stop.
No Good Choices
If I changed the one choice I really want to change, I'd end up right back where I was again. It was three years of my life, there and then gone; three years of insecurities, of tears that were brushed away and ignored, of feeling pathetic and helpless. Three years that ended when he went one step too far, when he crossed the line.
If I could change one thing, one choice I've made, it would be him.
They say that girls with bad fathers choose bad lovers. It would seem they're right. By "they" I mean social psychologists, of course. If I could change my choice, if I could tell him to get out the first time he snickered when I asked if he thought I was pretty (what a child I was then!), if I could stop myself somehow from being pressured at age 15 to make a choice I wasn't ready to make...I'm sure it would happen all over again. Maybe I would be a couple of years older, but I wouldn't know better then.
I was young and naive. I still am. Those three years of my life were a dark time, and I cannot pretend I don't regret them sometimes, but I know that they made me stronger, smarter. They made me into the no-nonsense woman I am. I will not repeat the mistakes of the past. It's over now, and I'm alive, and that's enough.
I'm grateful for it. I want to change that choice sometimes. But if I could, I wouldn't.