Thursday, August 16, 2018

New short story: Redeemed Items

Sometimes, trouble was so obvious you could practically hear the dramatic music.

Mavis kept one eye on the teen who had just stepped into the shop, their hunched posture and dingy red hoodie making further identification impossible. Anyone who tried that hard to make sure no one could see their face was automatically up to no good, and the way they were moving along the displays didn’t help matters. This person’s attention wasn’t on the shelves, stuffed with a range of items that fell somewhere between antiques and junk. No, their attention was on Mavis herself, waiting for the moment when her attention slipped.

Mavis pretended to oblige, letting both her eyes rest on her account book. She barely had to wait ten seconds before she heard the sound she was looking for, not quite covered by a fake cough. The cough actually drew more attention to what they were doing, though the more inexperienced ones never seemed to realize that.

Of course, none of them had quite as much experience as Mavis did. “You’re not as good at sneaking as you think.”

She looked up as the teen froze, face still carefully turned away from Mavis’s view. “I didn’t steal anything.” The voice was high enough that Mavis was willing to guess girl, though there was a rough edge to it that usually only came with throat injuries. “I wouldn’t.”

“I’dve preferred you try to steal something.” Mavis could hear the sympathy slipping into her own voice, completely against her will. The injured ones always got to her, whether she wanted them to or not. “Whatever you just added to that shelf, child, take it back. I’m not running a collection agency here.”

“I didn’t put anything on the shelf.” The girl tried to sound casual, but Mavis could hear the waver fear put into the words. “I was just looking.”

Mavis sighed as she pressed the button that locked the door. “I know every single thing on those shelves. If I have to come over there, you’ll walk out of here with both your unwanted prize and an amulet that compels you to shake the hand of every single person in the world with brown eyes.”
The girl made a distressed noise, then covered her mouth with her hand. She had to breathe carefully for a few seconds before she spoke again. “Amulets can’t really do that,” she said finally, voice far too even to be anything but fake. “Magic isn’t real.”

The amulet wasn’t real, in fact, but there was no need to tell the girl that. “Then there’s nothing stopping you from picking up whatever you just tried to slip me. If you have it in your hand, I’ll let you walk out the door right now.”

There was a long moment of silence, then the girl surprised her by walking up to the counter. She stood there a moment, eyes resting on the edge of the account book, then lowered her hood and looked up to meet Mavis's gaze.

Mavis thought she'd prepared herself for anything, but the electric blue lightning that filled her eyes was enough to make her blink. There were no whites, no pupils, but somehow the anguish in them was still clear as day. "I don't know how to make it stop," she whispered. "I tried to give the ring back after the battle was over, but no one would take it. They said the magic would fade once I crossed back over into this world, but it's been months and it's as strong as ever. I can't even use a phone anymore without shorting it out, and the last person who saw my eyes screamed." Her voice cracked on the last word, and Mavis couldn't help but hurt for the girl. "I thought, maybe if I got rid of the ring, it would fade."

Aching at the all-too-familiar pain in the girl's voice, Mavis carefully closed her account book. "Can you hear the ring whispering to you?" she asked quietly. "Or any other kind of compulsion, for that matter. Sometimes it's a pressure in your head, other times it's a buzzing."

The girl looked briefly startled, then shook her head. "No."

Mavis studied the girl's eyes, which hadn't cleared at all in the few moments she'd been away from the ring. "But you can still feel the magic inside you, can't you?"

The slowly dawning horror on her face was answer enough. Mavis's voice gentled. "If it was the ring causing your powers, you'd still feel a connection with it," she explained. "It might have sparked something in you, but its job is done. Getting rid of the ring won't get rid of the magic."

"Maybe if I get further away," the girl pleaded, as if getting Mavis to agree would force the universe to do the same. "Or maybe it just takes more time for it to fade."

Mavis shook her head. "You'd feel the separation already, no matter how short the distance. I'll let you leave the ring, if you'd like, but it won't solve your problem."

Now the girl looked stubborn. "You can't know that." She leaned forward, still focused on trying to convince Mavis. "You might know about magic, but that doesn't"

The rest of the girl's argument choked into silence as Mavis pushed up the sleeve of her sweater. The tattoo covered the inside of her right arm from wrist to elbow, thick, swirling green lines that shimmered like sunlight on water.

"This curl appeared the day I found a necklace in a shop just like this one." She pointed to a small section of the tattoo, almost indistinguishable from the others around it. “It let me open doorways I shouldn’t have, but every time it did a new curl appeared.  A week later, I threw that necklace into the bottom of the reservoir and haven't seen it since." She let the sleeve of the sweater fall. “When it disappeared, the tattoo was less than half the size it is now.”

The girl pressed her lips together. “The magic didn’t leave with the necklace?”

“No.” Mavis’s hand tightened on the page of the account book, letting herself give into regret for a few seconds. “For awhile, I got reckless. Opened a lot of doors I shouldn’t have, told myself it didn’t matter if the tattoo ended up covering my whole body.” She looked down, then met the girl’s lightning eyes again. “Don’t do that. Magic’s like any creature – more you give it, the more it wants. You have to be the one holding the reins.”

The girl swallowed, looking upward like she was sending up a prayer to whatever god or goddess was listening. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked back at Mavis. “Do you need some help in the shop?”

Mavis stared at her, more surprised than she’d been by the sight of the eyes. “I can’t cure you, girl,” she warned her, remembering her own years of hoping. “As far as I can tell, there isn’t one.”

“I guessed that.” She pulled her hands out of the pockets of the hoodie, laying her fingertips lightly along the edge of the counter. “But you seem like you’ve had a lot of practice at surviving.”

Mavis watched the girl’s face, wondering what would have happened if she herself had stepped into the right shop all those years ago. Then she nodded. “I think I can find a place for you.”