The pitter-patter of fairy feet broke through Lily’s dream. Their tinkling voices whispered in a language she didn’t understand. She risked opening one eye and caught a glimpse of small silvery wings disappearing behind her jewelry box. At the end of her bed, her pink curtain blew back and forth. They must’ve opened the window.
Propping herself up slightly, she pulled the covers to her nose and peeked around the room. Two fairies tumbled out from behind her mirror and flew to the window. Their bodies glowed golden, so Lily couldn’t make out their features, except for their tiny feet and their wings.
The window clicked shut, and Lily shot up and pressed her face against it. The fairies were floating off towards the woods in her backyard. She put on slippers, crept through the house, and ran out the backdoor in her nightgown. She could just make out the glow of the fairies disappearing into the trees, so she followed them.
The humidity made the backs of her knees sweat. Sticks poked at her feet and scrapped her legs. Her nightgown snagged on tree branches, but she pressed forward. She needed to see where the fairies had come from. Just when she thought she’d lost them, the woods opened into a clearing with the largest tree she had ever seen in the center. Hundreds of fairies flew around it, just inside a circle of red toad stools. A tin, high-pitched melody drifted from the tree, fairy music. Lily stood in plain view of the fairies, but no one seemed to notice her. They just talked and danced and zoomed around. She inched closer, hoping to get a better look.
Lily had explored these woods a hundred times, but had never come across this place. The leaves of the tree seemed to shimmer in a shade of green so green it couldn’t be possible. The bark of the tree twisted almost as if the lines were writing. Did all of the fairies live here?
She moved closer and closer. The music started to sound familiar. The disconnected notes were finally making sense. She could make out the tiny bodies donned in elegant dresses woven from flower petals. Their hair came in every shade from gold to magenta to mulberry to aqua. As she approached the nearest couple, they turned and stared at her. Their eyes were a dark, deep, impossible blue. Lily wished her eyes looked like that. How amazing it would be to be a fairy. To dance all night and sneak around humans and to be able to fly!
She waved at the two fairies. “Hi!” And as she took one last step, the lights blinked out. All of the fairies and the tree disappeared at once. She was still standing in a clearing, but it was dark. Clouds had covered the stars and the moon. Crickets chirped around her. She blinked and glanced around, trying to understand. Had she dreamed the whole thing?
As she turned to head home, her ankle brushed against a dew-covered toad stool. The circle remained.
After her mom closed the bedroom door, Rae watched the sliver of light creep under her door. If the bathroom light was on, then she could pretend that her parents were awake in the living room. And if her parents were awake in the living room, then she was safe.
She clung to this thought as she hid beneath the covers. Everyone knew that monsters couldn’t get through the blankets. As bursts of orange and yellow began to morph into shapes in her mind, she heard a train whistle as clear as if it was in her room. Now her parents would dismiss this. Call it a dream or tell her she only heard the train passing a few neighborhoods away. But it was so distinct and close.
Rae sat up, eyes darting to make sure her dolls hadn’t moved. They never did, but she could feel them watching. Her eyelids drooped, but her mind bugged her heart until her body twitched with panic. She gathered her courage, bundled her blanket into a lump behind her, turned on her dog flashlight, and leaned over to look under the bed. Two bins of Barbies took up the space there. She pushed them back against the wall so that nothing could hide behind them. No movement or noise indicated that there was anything more there than toys.
Sitting back up, Rae tried to reassure herself. She was being silly. What could a train do to hurt her? How could a train even get in her bedroom?
Adjusting her grip on her flashlight, she headed towards the closet. The doors squealed on their tracks as they slid open. She dropped the flash light. She didn’t need it. Where her clothes should have been was a train compartment. Sunlight streamed through the window onto two dark green benches. She looked behind her into her ordinary, boring room and stepped into the train car.
The closet door slid shut and morphed into frosted glass. The glass door opened. “Candy, Miss?” a train worker asked, gesturing to a tray of chocolate.
Rae accepted two plain pieces of chocolate. “Where are we going?”
“To The Library.”
“The Library. It has every book ever written, including the ones no one has published.”
Rae had never heard of this library, but it sounded perfect. “Do I get to read the books? How many books are there? Can I read them all tonight?”
“You’ve been invited by Lucinda Powell, the head scholar of The Library. She’s studied every book that it contains, and she can answer all of your questions.” With that, the worker left.
Time passed quickly. Rae watched the scenery go by: hills, plains, mountains, back to hills, and then a dense forest overcame them. The train slowed, and Rae pressed her face against the window as a tall twisting glass palace appeared in the middle of the trees. White iron held the large panels of glass together. It was unlike any building Rae had ever seen, prettier than any skyscraper.
The train pulled directly up in front of the palace. Rae knew this was her stop. She passed empty compartments and climbed out of the train onto the grass. A petite woman wearing a purple dress with a shoulder cloak held out her hand. The woman’s blonde bob bounced as she gestured for Rae to follow her. “I’m Amira. It’s nice to meet you. We never get visitors. It distracts all of the scholars.”
“Are you a scholar?” Rae asked, following Amira up the steps of to the front door.
“No. Just a receptionist. Scholars don’t like handling phone calls. I’m a people person, so I do it for them.” Amira’s perky voice put Rae at easy.
The entrance hall of the library was smaller than Rae had imagined, but a crystal chandelier hung over the center of the room, making the hall magnificent regardless. Amira gestured to a pale tan leather armchair against the wall. “Wait here please.” Before Rae sat, Amira disappeared through a side door.
A heavy wooden door blocked the entrance hall from the rest of the library. If Rae knew that the door wasn’t locked or that an alarm wouldn’t blare, then she would’ve snuck in and grabbed as many books as she could carry. Instead, she sat, swinging her legs and trying to ignore the tiredness creeping over her.
“Rae, I’m Dr. Lucinda Powell.” A tall, grey-haired woman with a few wrinkles strode across the entrance hall. She moved fast and her blue gown revealed a thin figure. “I’m so glad that you could join me this evening.”
Rae smiled, unable to find words. Lucinda seemed to understand. “I want to show you the main chamber. The Library has multiple wings and rooms. With so many books, how could it not?”
The floor to ceiling wooden doors thundered open, and Rae melted. The main chamber was as wide and long as a football field. Bookshelves were built into the walls. Windows and bookshelves were staggered, rising up five stories in a twisting shape. Rae didn’t understand how to get to the ones so high up, but she didn’t wonder long because the main level was filled with cozy armchairs of every color and fabric. Scholars occupied most of them with stacks of books resting on their end tables.
Rae wanted to run for the nearest shelf, grab an armful, and claim a chair for the night. Lucinda watched the anticipation and excitement grow on Rae’s face. “That’s how I felt when I first came here. Would you like to read one?”
“I’ll find a good one. Pick a chair.”
Rae scouted a chair near a window and away from the other scholars. It was floral, blue and yellow. She curled up in the seat. She could fit comfortable with her legs bent. Lucinda brought a heavy, brown leather book over. It was a little bit smaller than a normal book, like it was a field guide. The title read: Magick, Wisdom, and Reason: The Ultimate Guide to a Knowledge and a World Beyond the Visible. Rae dove in. Every page had little notes scrawled in blue ink alongside the printed text. Things were underlined and circled and crossed out. Rae couldn’t stop turning the pages. It wasn’t until she finished it that she realized Lucinda was watching her. Rae pretended to read the last page longer so that she wouldn’t have to give it back. But she couldn’t pretend forever.
“Did you like it?” Lucinda asked, letting Rae hold onto the book a little longer.
Rae nodded, all of her questions demanding to be asked. She didn’t know which one to say first.
“I was your age when I moved into The Library. Like you, I wanted to know everything that I could. I wanted to read every book and understand things that no one else had. I wanted to decipher the meaning of life, the origin of the world, and how it all ends. And I have.” Lucinda lowered her voice. “There is a Book of Time that begins before the beginning and ends beyond Time. In order to comprehend it, you need to learn everything that you possibly can. You have to read every book. Only then will you be able to handle it.”
Rae wanted to handle it. She was ready now.
“I invited you here because you love learning and reading. I’m inviting you to be a Scholar of The Library.”
Rae nodded eagerly, ready to accept so that she could keep reading.
“Do you understand that you will stay here?”
Rae nodded. “I’ll get my clothes and tell my parents.”
“The Library is a secret of scholars. You won’t be able to go home.” Lucinda looked sad. “I know that this is a big decision for someone so young.”
Rae bristled. She didn’t like adults thinking she was a child. She had full capability of her thoughts and actions, and she didn’t like being told otherwise. Her thoughts were reasonable, thank you very much. And she wanted to stay more than anything.
But she remembered that time her mom had thought she was missing. The panic and fear in her mom’s voice. Rae never wanted to hear it again. She missed her bed.
Reluctant, Rae handed the book back to Lucinda, and Lucinda called the train.
I hadn’t expected Allie to propose. I couldn’t think straight. She doesn’t even know me. She thinks she does, but I haven’t told her the truth yet.
The bathroom is empty thankfully. Each stall is separated by full walls with wooden doors, the way every bathroom should be. Whose bright idea was it to leave gaps anyway? Does it actually save that much money on materials?
Hiding in the first stall, I expect Allie to come running after me. I expect my phone to buzz with her concerned texts and calls. Neither thing happens. I just stand there sniffling into too soft toilet paper. This restaurant is ridiculously fancy. I should’ve know.
The bathroom door opens. Two girls walk in talking about how awful their double date is. I lift my hand. “Silencio.”
My stall seals, blocking the outside sounds. Allie doesn’t know that I’m a witch.
Being gay is easier than being a witch. My friends were all supportive of the former. None of them know the latter. I can’t see the terror in Allie’s eyes when I tell her. I can’t deal with her looking at me like I’m a dangerous freak.
I wanted to tell Allie at the right time. But if I don’t tell her now, then I’ll lose her. My throat tightens. I’ll never be able to go back and speak the words. So I pull out my phone.
The ringing fills my ear. It goes to voicemail. Allie must be pissed. Her voicemail beeps.
“Hi, Allie. I’m so sorry that I left you like that. I just–I haven’t been fully honest. I–this should be an in person conversation, but I’m too afraid. I’m a witch. I have and use magic. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you sooner. Please call me back. If you still want to marry me after this then, you’re a better person than me. I love you.”
A steaming plate of lasagna sits in front of me, uneaten. Elyssa’s spaghetti is getting cold. I want to go find her. I want to apologize. I want to take it all back.
Ring box closed, I put it beside her food. She’ll come back when she’s done freaking out. I try to eat my food, but my stomach churns every time I look at it.
The waitress asks if everything is okay. I say yes, that my girlfriend is just in the bathroom. She doesn’t feel well, I lie. The waitress looks at the ring box and offers takeout boxes. I accept. I pay the check.
My phone vibrates. It’s Allie. Is she calling to apologize? Did she leave? Is she moving out? As soon as her message is recorded, I listen to the voicemail.
Three years of dating and one year of living together, and she thought I didn’t catch on? I’d suspected the truth for the last year. Did she really expect me to believe that she could clean the entire apartment in ten minutes?
I shouldn’t be mad, but she basically insulted my intelligence. I don’t call her. Instead I text: I know you’re a witch. I loved you anyway. How could you not trust me with this sooner? Ring and dinner will be on the kitchen table. I won’t be there.
Elyssa crosses the restaurant to meet me. This is it. After three years, I’m going to propose today. The ring feels heavy in my dress pocket. She’ll love it. It’s one of the designs from her Pinterest board.
Her hips sway as she approaches. Her little black dress fits her perfect curves. Sometimes I’m jealous of her. Sometimes I want her tiny form instead of my wide thighs and shoulders. She’s an hourglass. I’m a pear.
Not a single hair strays from Elyssa’s blonde bun as she slides into the booth across from me. “Have you been waiting long?” She asks, scanning the wine list.
“No,” I’m not sure. Every second has felt like an eternity. I won’t be calm until she says yes.
The waiter takes our drink orders. I get coconut rum and lemonade. She gets a sweet red wine.
Leaning across the table, she takes my hand. “Didn’t feel like Chinese food and binge-watching or did you want an excuse to wear that dress?”
We bought the dress together a few weeks ago. It’s my first real cocktail dress: burgundy, knee-length, off the shoulder. It’s gorgeous. Elyssa rubs her thumb across the back of my hand and her green eyes fix on my lips. My heart hitches the way it did that first time right before we kissed. Her soft pink lips break into a smile. “What’s the occasion?”
“We’ve lived together for a year without killing each other. Isn’t that occasion enough?”
“No,” she says, but she doesn’t press further.
We order and I wonder when I’m supposed to bust out the ring. People usually wait until after they’ve started eating, right?
“Allie, are you okay? You look pale.” Elyssa puts her hand against my forehead. “You’re burning up. Should we take the food to-go?”
She always does this. If I feel slightly nauseous, she tries to take care of me. It’s sweet and sometimes annoying. I brush her hand away. “I’m fine.” Shit. I said the f word.
“Hey, please talk to me.”
“I’m really okay. Just nervous.” I try to drink more alcohol without seeming suspicious.
“This isn’t our first date. We live together.” She takes both of my hands. “I love you, remember?”
I can’t wait until our food comes. In the mirrored wall beside us, I barely recognize my slick, black hair. I’m glad that Elyssa straightened it for tonight. “Elyssa,” I stand up, move to her side of the table, and get on one knee. The carpet feels gross. Maybe I should’ve worn pants.
Despite her foundation, Elyssa’s face burns red. “Allie?”
I take the ring out with shaking hands. I can barely see her face. I think I’m blacking out. “Will you marry me?”
Her mouth moves, but I can’t hear the answer. She’s crying. She isn’t smiling. Then she’s moving past me towards the bathroom.
The words came undone and broke apart in Alaina’s mouth as the ferris wheel lifted her and her boyfriend, Cam up to the top, “I think we need to take a break.” She had been testing the words in her mouth since they’d gotten on, but they had only just slipped out when her heart lurched. Was she making a big mistake?
Cam’s hand loosened in hers. Alaina looked out over the happy faces of their church picnic. She couldn’t look at him, but she saw in her mind his hurt and confusion. She pictured his eyebrows scrunched into zigzags above watery eyes.
“How long have you felt this way?”
Out of all the questions Alaina had prepared for, this wasn’t one she wanted to answer. The truth was months, but they’d talked about moving in together after college as recently as last week. Part of her had believed that this was what she wanted, but the other part knew the truth. She was doing the right thing. “Not long.”
Alaina turned her head towards him, but stared at their hands. “I applied for a really good job in Florida, and I got an offer.”
“Did you accept it?”
In her mind, she saw his eyes glazing and his mouth pressing into a hard line. “Yes.” She couldn’t pass on it. It was exactly what she wanted to do. How could he ask her to give up her dreams?
Cam’s hand shifted onto his knee, leaving her fingers half-curled. He cleared his throat. “I understand. This was always temporary, wasn’t it?”
The ferris wheel stuttered to a halt. Their cart swung in the breeze. The early summer air still held a chill. “I thought I could find a job here, but I can’t.” She’d tried applying for any job remotely close to her degree, but she wasn’t passionate about them. She hadn’t even gotten an interview. She was doing the right thing.
The wheel turned and stopped. They were two carts from the bottom. Alaina forced herself to look over at Cam. He stared out in front of them, eyes locked on trees behind the church.
“Please say something.” Alaina hated the crack in her voice. She was supposed to be strong for him.
One cart between them and the bottom.
Cam shrugged. “What am I supposed to say? Everything’s different now.”
“Will we still talk?”
Their cart inched towards the platform where the bored carnival worker stood waiting to usher them off and usher on the next couple. Cam met her eyes and the indifference in his cut through her stomach. “No. I’m not going to help you feel better about what you’re doing. You chose this. Good luck in Florida.”
Alaina climbed out of the cart after him, but he walked down the platform and through the crowd before she could stop him. She pulled her phone out of her jean shorts pocket. She had done the right thing, hadn’t she? She needed to grow without him, to pursue a career that would make her happy. She scrolled through her old texts, reading the reassurances from her friends. She’d made the right move. She was doing the right thing. This was right, wasn’t it?
Moonlight spilled across Ms. Freterer’s decanting table, dripping onto the floor. It slid over her bedspread and pooled on her face. Her throat closed. 180 long seconds. Her legs thrashed. Her hands scratched at her neck, but there weren’t fingers there. In the end, it was hopeless. She knew the price of cheating death, but she had done it anyway.
It turns out that coming back from the dead leads to cramped muscles, stiff joints, and a number of awful bodily problems. Castor stumbled out of bed, trying to massage his limbs back to life. They resisted, but he managed to make it to the kitchen without major incident. What do the undead eat? He grabbed a bowl of cereal, Aurora had stocked up on his favorite. “Aurora, do you want some?” Castor had passed his sister in the sitting room on his way down.
She didn’t respond, didn’t look up. Castor watched her. She was crouching by the front window, body clenched in a ball. He moved towards her. “Aurora, have you been up all night?”
As he reached out to touch her, he heard her frantically whispering. “Praise be the moon goddess for bringing my brother back home,” Aurora chanted. She flinched away from his hand. “I’m not done! I’m not done. Eat without me.”
Castor grabbed her shoulder. “Have you been sitting here all night?” No, that was crazy. But she was wearing the same clothes from yesterday.
“Let me go! I didn’t finish yet.” She kept her head bent over her folded hands. “High praise, high praise from your lowly servant.”
“That’s enough.” Castor pulled her hands apart. “Pray after you eat.”
Aurora started to protest, and then she perked up like someone was speaking to her. Her face became serene. “Yes, I’ll eat first.”
Castor’s hunger dissipated. This was his fault.
Aurora’s health deteriorated as quickly as Castor’s limbs. She hadn’t gone to the store to replenish their supply of Say No to Eternal Rest, the only thing keeping Castor’s body from rotting. Even if Castor could go without fear of being lynched again, Ms. Freterer’s was closed. The shop was boarded the day after Castor’s return, the day that Larry found her body.
As hard as Castor tried, he couldn’t pry Aurora from her prayers. The moments she fell silent were the worst. She would disappear for several hours and return with scarlet hands. “Paint,” she’d claim, but her eyes, usually glazed, would glint slightly and she’d smile. Castor couldn’t confront her, couldn’t admit his guilt in all of this when she refused to acknowledge his normal requests, like reminding her to sleep and eat. Often she’d reek of pee before Castor could drag her to the bathroom to shower. He considered ending it, but even in death, she couldn’t rest. He had taken that from her too, gave her eternity away without her permission.
But this was her fault. If she hadn’t been so hellbent on keeping that stupid promise…If she hadn’t played with death…, he thought. He considered crawling back into his coffin, but how do the undead die again? Was he doomed to rot fully conscious? He was pondering the possible suicide options when he heard the worst sound. An exhausted thud.
Aurora and Castor’s house wasn’t tall, but if you landed right…Aurora’s body was twisted. Blood leaked out. A red so dark it was nearly black seeped into the soil. She was face down. Castor thanks the gods that she’s face down.
How long does it take the undead to die? As long as it takes to mourn. Years and years until the pain dulls. Castor’s body disintegrated and his consciousness faded until, like the loved one lost, he faded quietly into dust.
All Castor remembered of life was a rope scratching his neck and his sister’s voice in his ear, “I’ll bring you home again.” The promise stuck with him long after the ground fell away and the cold rushed to meet him and his own name became foreign. When he woke, he couldn’t remember who had said it or if it was real. So many things he saw weren’t real. The space around him looked familiar, but parts of the world would fade in and out of focus. Sometimes shadows would drift past. They were shapeless and if they spoke, their voices sounded distorted like speaking underwater. Castor wanted to engage with them, but if he approached, they would disappear. He couldn’t remember much, but when he was alive, real things didn’t disappear. I.e. the shadows weren’t real.
Though Castor didn’t have a clear body anymore, he could only see so much space at one time. He was connected to everything and nothing, and he was limited. He could travel to different locations but not instantly. Being dead was exponentially boring, so he traveled often. He tried to find other beings like him to no avail.
But he had recently heard a familiar voice calling to him. He couldn’t place how he knew her, but her voice cut more clearly through the veil than any other. Most of her words were mumbled. He caught “soon,” “flame…extinguish,” and “will be home.” This woman had made the promise. Castor couldn’t recall anything about her or his home, but that didn’t matter much. Anywhere would be better than the place he was.
Dead people don’t sleep, but paying attention for all of eternity grows old. To fill the void, Castor stops focusing. He lets himself settle in one spot and then looks past everything he sees until he’s no longer looking. This is exactly what Castor was doing when the moon goddess approached him. She appeared in the form of a shimmering silver orb. “Do you want to live again?” she asked him.
It took him a minute to register her words. “I’m sorry?” He doubted that she had that power.
“Do you want to return home?”
“If it were possible.” Saying yes felt like a trap.
“It is possible.” The orb burned brighter from pale blue to hot white.
“What do I have to do?”
“What does it cost?”
“Your sister’s, your relatives’, and your ancestors’ undying devotion to me.”
Castor didn’t understand. “How can I make them worship you?”
“You can’t, but you can give me permission to make them worship me.” The orb floated closer. “I’m a loving goddess. I don’t hurt my supporters. You have my word.”
“Why doesn’t everyone come back from the dead if it’s that easy?”
“Your sister has already made a sacrifice to me in your name. Not everyone will do what it takes.”
Castor considered. Did he have a sister? Why was she trying to reverse death? Necromancy is known to be the darkest of black magic.
“I don’t have much time, and I need your permission, your half of the deal. Don’t let your sister have suffered in vain.”
Castor wanted to refuse, but refusing a goddess is ill advised. It was already too late. His sister had started the mess. He couldn’t back out. “My sister, relatives, and ancestors will worship you above all other gods and goddess until their dying day.”
“No, I want their loyalty forever, even in death,” the orb snapped.
“They will worship you forever.”
It happened quickly. Castor was formless watching the orb rise into the air, and then an uncomfortable feeling of compression came over him. His being was being compounded into a shape again. The invisible force shoved him deep into the ground, pried open his coffin, and jolted him back into his body. Cold flesh trapped him. He tried to stretch in his skin, but everything was stiff and the dirt weighed down on the coffin lid. What good was coming back from the dead if he had to claw back to the surface?
Then the dirt rolled off the coffin as if made of water. The weight of the ground disappeared, and Castor pushed the lid open. The light from the moon shone too bright for Castor. He squinted up at the world of the living and suddenly it felt safer to be dead. What if his murderers returned? What if they killed him again? What if they tried to kill him again but he couldn’t die? People say nothing is worse than death, but these people don’t know torture.
Castor buried his fear, stepped out of the coffin, and rejoined the world. Memories from his life swirled in his brain, but the loudest one was the whisper from the woman, his sister. Her promise glowed in the graveyard and pushed him forward. If asked where his house was, he wouldn’t be able to answer, but his feet that night led him home.
Aurora had left the front door unlocked. He crossed the threshold, and the candle in the front room flickered out. “Aurora?” he called, moving from room to room. Her footsteps thundered down the steps and her arms were around him before he could turn to face her.
She shivered at his cool touch, but she didn’t let go. “You’re late. Ms. Freterer promised you’d be home before moonrise.”
“Ms. Freterer?” The name felt odd in his mouth.
“She owns the potions shop, don’t you remember?” Aurora stepped back to examine him. Her eyes lingered on the rope burn around his neck. “You still look dead.”
“I only remember certain things right now. I’d be surprised if I didn’t look like a corpse, my heart isn’t actually beating.”
“We can clean you up; it doesn’t matter as long as you’re home.” She tried to pull him towards his bedroom, but he wouldn’t move.
“Rora, what sacrifice did you have to make to the moon goddess?”
Aurora frowned. “Nothing. I just bought a potion, poured it out, and lit a candle.”
“That’s all? You swear?”
“Yes. What happened to you?”
“It’s nothing. Dying just makes you paranoid. On the other side, it was impossible to know what was real.”
“Well, this is real.” Aurora smiled and she showed him into his bedroom.
Aurora didn’t sleep that night. Instead she sat by her bedroom window and prayed to the moon goddess, thanking her for bringing Castor back. She prayed for Ms. Freterer and for Castor’s health. She lost hours just talking to the moon goddess, a one-sided conversation that always came back to Castor. Aurora had always been weary of necromancy, but this wasn’t scary. This wasn’t dark and evil and wrong. This was love.
Aurora walked straight from Freterers to the graveyard where her brother had been laid to rest last weekend. No one stopped her, but Aurora was certain she couldn’t return to the potion shop again without running into trouble. Oh well. She had what she needed.
Her brother’s marble grave, encircled by graves of their ancestors, shone in the afternoon sun. As she stepped closer, she felt his loneliness emanating up through the soil. She ran her hand over the smooth curve of the headstone. “Soon, Castor.”
Aurora read the instructions aloud to him, “On the full moon after your loved one’s death, pour half of this potion into the dirt above the body. Pour the rest into a silver offering bowl for the moon goddess. Do not wait for your loved one to rise. Return home and light a white candle in the front window. When your loved one returns, the flame will extinguish and they will be home.”
She turned the bottle around to make certain she’d read everything. “Seems simple.”
A breeze blew her hair back behind her shoulders. “Patience. We still have a few days to prepare. Then you can come home.”
On the night of the full moon, everything was set. Aurora had made up the guest bedroom in her small cottage, laid out his clothes, and set the candle. Castor would know where to find her. He used to visit often.
Vibrating with excitement, Aurora put on the dress she had worn to Castor’s funeral. It only seemed right, especially since he’d be in his death suit. This time though, she transfigured her hat into a wig of raven black waves. If he saw her without hair, he’d make fun of her as soon as he walked in the front door. She was still sore over the insults she’d received at Freterers. She couldn’t handle much more.
With potion in hand, Aurora lifted her long, black lace dress off the ground and made the one-person procession to her brother. She made it to the headstone just as the moon peaked overhead. The round orb cast a silver glow over the graveyard, eerie and beautiful.
Aurora placed the offering dish beside the grave. When she unstopped the potion a whiff of rotten flowers floated up. She poured part of the liquid in a pentagram over the dirt packed over her brother’s body. Then she filled the offering dish. Clutching the empty bottle, she gazed up at the moon. “Please bring my brother back. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s trapped between worlds. Please, bring him home.”
Following the potion instructions, Aurora didn’t wait.
Sunlight woke Aurora. She had fallen asleep on the couch by the front door, expecting to see her brother before the night’s end. But the candle in the window still burned. White wax had dripped onto the sill and the wooden floor. She went to the guest bedroom. Nothing had been touched. She checked every room in the house, but she was alone. Afraid to blow out the candle, she left it burning as she returned to the graveyard.
The offering had tipped over some time in the night. The pentagram had seeped into the soil. The dirt remained smooth and undisturbed.
Against her better judgement, Aurora went to see Ms. Freterer. The old woman was seated in the back office in a dirty arm chair surrounded by potion crates. She seemed unsurprised when Aurora burst in. “Didn’t work, did it?”
“You’re a fraud. You’re selling bottle of empty promises.”
“I’m selling real products. I give away nothing.” Ms. Freterer’s smile revealed black teeth.
“So it didn’t work because I took it?” Aurora’s indignation faded quickly.
“If you were to buy the product, I’m sure it would deliver.”
Aurora pulled a handful of bank notes out of her pocket.
“Because you stole it the first time, the price is double.”
Aurora gave Ms. Freterer the whole wad of cash. “Will I have to repeat the ritual?”
Ms. Freterer considered. “Usually yes, but because I like you, no. I’ll ensure that the moon goddess finds and accepts your offering. Castor will return to the land of the living by nightfall. You have my word.”
Freterers was known for its controversial potions. Ms. Vera Freterer had no qualms about selling virgin’s blood, baby’s teeth, and witch warts. While witch warts are used in common potions, usually to cure a cold, they are rarely sold as a separate commodity. Not only did Ms. Freterer’s store contain less-than-agreeable ingredients, she had also crafted potions unique to her store. One floor to ceiling shelf held all of her Freterer exclusives where you could find tasteless, clear droplets used to give someone bad breath or a rainbow potion that could change your sexuality. This latter potion wasn’t necessarily intended to make anyone straight, it was only meant to change your attractions to fall anywhere you wanted on the spectrum. In her newspaper ad, Ms. Freterer tried to argue that the potion was made to turn sexuality into a choice in order to empower people. Protesters nearly burnt down her store that year.
Regardless of the bad press, everyone always stopped in Freterers when in town. It was like watching a tornado; you should run, but you want to see what happens next. That’s how Aurora found herself in Freterers the week after she lost all of her hair. She’d been practicing fire spells in university with a friend when her hair caught. Her professors had burn cream for her skin, which immediately healed. But hair isn’t a vital organ and losing it isn’t like losing a hand. Most people just assume that it will grow back. Aurora’s hadn’t re-sprouted.
Ms. Freterer’s shop apprentice, Larry, was pouring a chunky grey potion into a jar when Aurora joined the crowd of eager customers. Larry had seen Aurora before a few months ago. He only remembered her because of her grey and gold eyes and her boobs. With her shiny head, he almost didn’t recognize her. “Hair potions are aisle three,” he offered.
Aurora turned on him. “Excuse me?”
He held up three fingers. “Aisle three.”
“I’m just looking around.” She had initially intended to buy a hair regrowth potion, but she wouldn’t be shamed into buying one. Besides, she looked just fine without hair, and being bald meant a faster shower and no need for shampoo.
Larry’s jaw hung open slightly. “You sure you don’t need help?”
“Yes.” Aurora weaved through the crowd and away to the shelf of Freterer-only products. Most of the people were congregated here. Kids stood in the front and adults read over their heads. Luckily Ms. Freterer knew this and put the kid-friendly potions towards the bottom. Every prank bottle was at kid-height; every potion labeled “desire” sat on the top shelves.
Aurora only wanted the new arrivals, which were displayed prominently on their own table in the back corner of the store. She inched her way to the front and saw the five most objectively awful potions Freterer’s had ever carried. They were part of a new special collection labeled: Philia de Corpse. Beneath the title the sign taped to the table read: Do you love your deceased family members? Do you wish you could adopt a nonliving human? Do you think it’s unfair that the dead are caged and hidden like prisoners? Well these potions can help you do something about it! We have Midnight Kisses for raising your deceased partner for an evening, New Necro Parent for raising a reborn dead child, Undeceased Uncle for raising dead family members long-term, Free from the Coffin for raising someone from death forever, and Say No to Eternal Rest to keep your undead from continuing to decay.
Everyone around Aurora shifted away uncomfortably, but she picked up one of the bottles and read the back. “Dragon scales, newborn blood, and graveyard dirt? There has to be an ingredient or ten missing,” she muttered to herself.
Aurora looked up to find Ms. Freterer herself carrying a fresh box of potions up from the back. Upon first glance Ms. Freterer looked like the most average human person in existence. She had mousy brown hair that she twisted up to keep out of her brown, normal eyes. She wasn’t overweight, but she wasn’t thin. Two shallow laugh lines dug into her cheeks and a few squiggly lines spanned across her forehead. She would have seemed boring and middle aged to strangers, but the magical community knew that she was three hundred and six years old. Unfortunately, she hadn’t picked up potion making until her thirties so her body had already seen some wear when she found a potion that would keep her body from aging.
Ms. Freterer lifted the box onto the table with the new collection and rubbed her wrists. “I never could hold heavy objects for long periods of time.” Her eyes flickered from Aurora to the box.
“Do you always leave ingredients off the labels?” Aurora asked.
Ms. Freterer narrowed her eyes. “It’s common practice, otherwise anyone here could make my potions for themselves. The labels give you a general idea in case of allergies.”
“I’m awful at making potions on my own. What’s actually in this one?” Aurora held out the dark, ovular bottle of Undeceased Uncle.
Ms. Freterer snorted. “Looking to raise your family pet?”
“My brother.” Aurora enjoyed the way Ms. Freterer’s face fell.
Ms. Freterer took the bottle and placed it back on the display table. “Better not to mess with this.”
“It’s bad practice to discourage your customers from buying your new products.” Aurora snatched the bottle back.
“I’m trying to do you a favor,” Ms. Freterer sounded genuine.
Ms. Freterer hesitated and then picked up her box again. “Because a girl who shaves her head clearly doesn’t have guidance.”
Aurora wanted to make a scene. She wanted to reassure the entire store that a woman doesn’t need hair. Instead, she slipped the bottle into her bag and walked out.
The hardware store assistant led Amy and her new fiance Eric into the materials section of the Decor-A-Home store. “Now do you guys want a bed frame that’s made of wood…”
“Too expensive,” Eric muttered. Their price range was tight, but a turquoise Hermes saddle bag hung from Amy’s arm. Though it could’ve been a birthday gift, the store assistant took it as an invitation to up sell.
“Wood is more sturdy. It lasts generations, and if you get a classic style, then it will never be out of fashion.” The assistant looked to Amy. Amy had a long, pointed chin that didn’t match her squinted eyes or tomato-like nose. She hefted her bag higher on her shoulder and turned to Eric.
His clean-shaven face was round and baby-like. He had slicked back his hair with gel to appear older, but it wasn’t working. Amy placed her slender hand on his forearm. “Maybe we could splurge, just a little. For the children or grandchildren. We could pass the bed frame down for generations.”
“Like your bag?” he asked.
Amy withdrew her hand and turned to the store assistant. “We’ll see your other material options please.”
“What about wicker? Beach themes are all the rage.” The assistant lead them further through towering stacks of planks and boards and screws. “The wicker can come in any color you want and is more flexible.”
This time Amy gauged Eric’s reaction more closely. What she saw is impossible to say because his face didn’t change.
The assistant pressed on. “We also have metal, a very popular choice right now.”
Eric glanced at the metal poles and checked his watch. He had an appointment soon, one that couldn’t be rescheduled. “Metal works. Now can we pick a style?”
“Actually, first we’ll go through the paint shop and pick a color.” The assistant led them into the next room. It was basically a bright gymnasium overwhelmed with people. Sunlight flooded the room from windows up high. On the two walls and the floor, the room gradually transitioned through every possible shade of one color to shades of the next one until the rainbow (plus black, white, and gray) was completed.
Eric grabbed his forehead as if the colors had given him a migraine. “Amy, you pick. I’ll go on to styles so we can get out of here faster.”
The assistant was supposed to stop him. She was supposed to stay with the guests at all times. But she’d had a rough day. So she’d say the guest was in the bathroom. Sometimes you can’t keep up with everyone.
“I’m going to the blues.” Amy called as she disappeared into the teeming crowd of store assistants and customers.
The assistant bobbed and weaved trying to keep up, but she’d lost sight of Amy. In a store as big as Decor-A-Home, it was easy to lose someone. The assistant took a breath and spun slowly, scanning every inch of the blue area. When she was satisfied that Amy’s pointy chin wasn’t there, the assistant moved on to the next color and the next, systematically. Protocol told her that she should use the intercom to find Amy, but the assistant couldn’t afford another negative mark. Maybe Amy had gone to the bathroom.
The restroom was filled with women but not Amy. The next best option was to find Eric. He would know where his wife had run off to. The assistant did one last sweep before moving onto style.
Eric was standing right where he said he would be. He’d found a beautiful scroll pattern frame. “Will you tell Amy that I want this one in dark brown? I’m sure she’s already picked out an absurd pastel color.”
“Actually, I don’t know where she went. She said she was going to the blue section, but I couldn’t keep up with her.” The assistant tried to keep her face blank and her tone casual. If she panicked, then so would Eric.
“Amy likes to run off. I’ll check and meet you here.”
Before the assistant could object, Eric was speed walking back to the paint section. The assistant found contentment in the fact that Eric was all business. Then five minutes passed with no sign of his return. Making sure to stay in sight of the scroll frames, the assistant edged towards the paint shop.
After ten minutes, she went looking for Eric. Young couples, old ladies, and families with fussy kids all perused the paint section. They got in the way. The assistant pulled aside one of her coworkers and gave a short description of the customers she was looking for. No luck.
She had to go to the intercom. Keeping her eyes peeled the entire way, the assistant went to the center of the store, lifted the radio for the intercom, and asked Eric and Amy to report to the store center. The assistant dreaded the conversation she’d be having with her boss later. At least she’d be able to get this couple helped and move on. But they didn’t come. After ten minutes, the assistant came over the intercom again urging the couple to meet with her. Maybe they were talking and hadn’t heard. Maybe the intercom system had sounded gravely the first time.
Ten more minutes passed and no one came. The assistant went to the registers. Five were open plus a self-check out section. She gave a detailed description to every attendant. No one had seen Eric or Amy.
“Are you sure?” the assistant asked the man at self-check out.
“Yeah. They could’ve decided this store’s too expensive or that they’d come back another time.” He said this doubtfully. Usually people would have the assistant escort them out rather than run away.
Eric didn’t seem like the running away type.
“And you tried the intercom system?” the worker asked.
“Then that’s all you can do. If they come through, I’ll let you know. It’s not like they’re in danger.”
“Yeah.” The assistant convinced herself that Eric and Amy were capable adults who had probably just left. Then the assistant helped five more customers before the end of the day, luckily avoided a talking to about losing guests, and forgot about the couple.