Setting: Thorned Page. Get the layout.
Mood: Too tired to be nervous.
- Sets up the Blue Room and sees it’s filling up with locals, Miss Escama, Lynne (with her recording equipment), Alice has her camera (“If there’s going to be audio, there should be some video.”), and a bunch of little kids.
- Meet Tinny and her daughters after Rick introduces them.
- Liliana wants to pass out “Hi, my name is…” stickers, but Sloane tells the kids they don’t have to give her or anyone their real name if they don’t want to.
“She blinks away the looks of horns and forked tongues. Thick arms and broader shoulders. Little girls that smile behind little beards at Mr. Jernigan’s feet.”
The Story Witch’s Time: The Trapped Lady: Sloane tells the story she wrote in her journal (but without her journal; the story is just laid out for her, telling it as she walks through what she sees).
- Description of the woman (the ghost-girl=Antoinetta Drake)
- Sloane starts seeing the story before her, her audience disappears, and she builds on what she wrote last night.
- When she finishes, it’s gone an hour, but no one has left.
Afterwards: Sloane’s treated to accolades and has a view of more encounters with magic and witching.
- Gets black/gray flashes when she talks to Trilby.
- Sees Liliana hex a guy.
Sloane finished writing, or must have. She woke up at her desk, her back aching and a large crease on her chest from where the edge of her desk had been pressed against her skin. She felt compelled to take her journal with her everywhere, peeling it away from her arms when she needed to shower and dress.
When she descended to the shop, she kept her journal pressed to her stomach, which squelched and churned with each step she took. Sloane tightened her grip.
The Thorned Page wasn't open yet. Wouldn't be for another thirty minutes. 8am crept by, the sun already heating the window panes and the light refracted in circles through the bubbled glass. Her heartrate stayed up, her skin prickling and felt as if sweat dotted each exposed bit of it. It wouldn't be another four and a half hours until the designated reading time, either.
"Fffff-" she said softly when she remembered.
She had jammed a pencil and a pen into her hair, which she managed to get into as tight a ponytail as her hair would allow. Yet, there would be no time for revision and little time for edits, unless she used walls or the handy flat surface to write on. But, there would be people. They would see.
She shook her head, loosening some strands of hair as she did.
"They'll hear, anyway," Sloane said and began to walk around each room and passage in the shop.
The upstairs was not as labyrinthine as downstairs, or not as apparently so. Sloane began on the right side of the house, through the Vintage room, as indicated by the sign painted above the doorframe. The upstairs was designed to appear to have had five bedroom, or contrived to look as if five bedrooms could be retrofitted there. Instead, it was three rooms, or technically two. Where the rooms met at the back, was a wall of skeletal shelves filled with books that made a wall with a door sized portal in the middle. Sloane did little to these rooms, except dust and vacuum, and even minimally. The pages and covers could damage easily and the clientele seemed to expect, even demand a particular mustiness.
"If only we could bottle it," Sloane said, rolling her eyes. She coughed when she came out on the left side of the house, directly opposite the room she had entered, through a door marked Collectibles.
She began to feel better, the sound of her feet on the hard wood floor or rugs and how the sounds of the house as it creaked and groaned filtered through the walls. Sometimes she stopped and wondered if anyone else ever heard an echo.
Down the stairs, Sloane leaned her back against the rail and walked carefully down one step at a time, and took a few minutes to look at the decorations her mother had put up over the years. The gifts, the kitsch found at yard sales or online, the photos and paintings guess at ownership. Sloane had added a few here and there, but wasn't nearly as prolific as her mother, or as her mother's family had been. A small, simple cross hung high up where it could only be looked at and never touched, if it was seen at all. It looked more like two nails soldered together and flung up to dangle just above everyone's heads.
The downstairs rooms were bigger and had more shelves, enough for there to be three across and four wide. The Graphics room, which confused many people, as it only held comic books, graphic novels, photography books, and art texts. Contemporaries, Classics, Contemporary Classics. The only author to be stored in all three rooms was Teigue Sloane, the only thing that did not cause consternation amongst her regulars. Sloane's displays to authors other than her father were often altered to include him. Fixing this was what she took the morning before opening doing, as well as distracting herself with what she wanted to say to Red and the people he showed up with.
The last room, directly across from the café, was the Blue Room. So called for the tall, wide windows that mirrored the ones in the café, but allowed for a primary view of the sky and mountains, as if there wasn't civilization beyond these walls at all. That and the ornate circular blue rug that spanned the entire room. Against the shelves were cushiony bench seats and chairs, shelves of the newest releases and children's books, a few coffee tables, and the grandpa chair. A rustic blue rocker, dotted with faded pink roses embroidered on the fabric. Another relic from wherever her mother's family home had been in Boise and, before that, in Basque Country.
Sloane wouldn't be in the café at all that day. Alice said she would be happy to help and no one would be calling her in, unless there was an emergency. So, she left her apron hanging on its hook at the back, just inside the downstairs laundry room. The house sloped downward slightly, as if the place had begun to sink ten years ago. She wondered if it was by design, as all footsteps stopped before coming too far down this way.
Her cellphone was heavy and tight in her skinny jeans pocket.
"What dumbass designed them like this?" She muttered and tried to adjust the device to not jab her so hard when she moved.
Only a few rooms had doors on them and only the important ones had locks. The very important ones were the doors with locks to which only Sloane or Liliana had the keys, Sloane remembered this when she bent slightly to straighten a display and metal teeth stabbed into her thigh.
Sloane stared into the Blue Room, it's door mirrored the café's. Both looked as if half the wall was cutout, with only a foot and a half of wall on either side, reminiscent of the accordion doors the local churches used to section off parts of the gymnasium. The center of the room was always clear of shelves, except she had ordered large pillows and beanbag seats for any and all the kids that might show up for the reading.
Reading. Feels like I ought to get a microphone and hire someone to build a stage.
But, Sloane felt "story time" was infringing on something. As if she didn't have the right to it. Sloane drummed her fingers on her journal's hard cover, biting her lip as she did. The bile swirled in her gut.
The pendulum clock that was hung on the opposite wall chimed the half and Sloane turned and felt, if she had a longer reach, she wouldn't have to move far from where she stood looking into the room. Instead, she beat her head once against her journal and went to open shop properly, beating Liliana to the door for the first time since she was a child. Sloane smirked to herself, she hadn't been able to think that far back in years.
Sloane couldn't leave her journal upstairs. She thought while she talked to customers and guided people around that she should run upstairs and put the book away, at least until it was 12:30. She had gotten close to doing just that when she opened the doorway leading to their apartment, she was distracted and subsequently waylaid by Chatter who darted out and down the steps.
The distraction was willing and lasted as Sloane worked. Her nausea abated while she saw Chatter stay within her reach and the only apprehension that spiked was when the one she decided to call Trilby tossed a paper ball at her kitten. A sharp inhale and glare from Sloane, and he winced and shuffled away. Red smiled apologetically and followed after.
Sloane stumbled at one point, one arm wrapped around her journal and the other held together a series of books she was taking to the front to be rung out. She went to one knee, enough to jar, and dropped all that she carried. A pair of brown shoes entered her field of vision, then shins and knees clothed in green corduroy when the person kneeled to help her gather everything.
"No, don't," Sloane said when Of course, the person's hand grabbed the bright orange book first. She looked up into the curious gaze of Mr. Jernigan.
"Are you okay?" He asked and handed her the journal, choosing to pick up the other books for her.
"Fine. Probably won't even bruise. It's these stupid jeans," she said and struggled to get up, taking his offered hand.
"Sorry about that. No apron today?"
"Nope. Not in the café at all, unless there's a foamy emergency."
He laughed and Sloane tried to cover her journal with her arms as much as possible. His eyes shifted to the bright cover.
"Maybe you could get a fanny pack."
She sighed and nodded, her hastily made tension dissipated, leaving just the one she had accumulated already. It was getting to be 11:50, she saw when he raised his arm to run his fingers through his hair, exposing the large face of his wristwatch.
"That's an idea." She nodded and, when he was about to speak, continued, "How do you get away with wearing such heavy things? It's almost a hundred out there."
She eyed his pants and pointedly looked at the thick metal of his wristwatch. He grabbed his jacket's lapels and gave her a large smile.
"It's like home," he said. "I brought some guests with me today, I hope you don't mind."
Sloane smirked at his quick injection, as she had just done.
"For the reading," he went on.
"You're going to be great, I know it. Would you like to meet them?"
"Yes." Sloane looked back at him and held her other arm out for Chatter, who obligingly jumped down from a shelf and came to sit on Sloane's shoulder. "Sure. I just need to take those books to the front."
"I'll take them, you escort me," Mr. Jernigan winked and slightly jutted his elbow out.
"May as well."
Sloane put her hand on his elbow and walked with him to the front of the house. She stood in the passage between the Blue Room and the café entrances where he left her. She watched him put the book series on the glass top in front of a bemused Alice while Liliana bustled around behind her. As he passed in front, Sloane turned her head to watch him, then followed him into the other room. He walked up to a woman sitting with two little girls, who all stood when he approached, Sloane close behind.
He held out his hand as if to introduce her while she approached and felt herself slow when the woman's eyes locked onto hers and the two little girls ducked behind, presumably, their mother's legs. She was taller than Mr. Jernigan and would be only a little taller if she decided to kick off her heels. She wore a red, sleeveless blouse and black, slim-fitted capris. Her daughters wore plain t-shirts and cargo shorts, but brightly colored.
When Sloane stood before the group, her hands clasped in front of her journal, still held to her belly. They stared at each other, Sloane's mouth stubbornly stayed closed while the woman lips upturned in one corner. Chatter chirped and loosened her grip slightly on Sloane's shoulder.
"Doesn't that hurt?" The woman asked pointing to the kitten.
"I'm developing callouses." Sloane felt the tension raise slightly. "Are you and Mist-I mean-Rick dating?"
The rest of the tension broke like a hammer through drywall when Sloane was suddenly barraged by laughter, mostly from the woman, but some twittering was heard from around her kneecaps and Mr. Jernigan cleared his throat.
"My sister," He began and was undercut when she thrust out her hand.
"Tinny," she finished. Sloane nodded once and took the proffered hand. The shake was firm with an extra squeeze that seemed to Sloane as if she was on the receiving end of a hint. "These are my girls."
Tinny let Sloane's hand go and lightly touched the heads of her daughters who peered out to look closer at Sloane, but had gotten distracted by the space a few inches next to Sloane's head.
"Nice to meet you," Sloane said and gestured her head to the kitten. "This is Chatter and I'm Sloane."
They gave both her and the kitten waves, though the latter was more the object of interest. Obligingly, Chatter hopped down, not a far leap from Sloane's shoulder and let the girls pet her. Sloane bit her lip, watching with some anxiousness, but the kitten was comfortable with them. With other children, Chatter stayed high up and far away, just allowing glimpses. The girls first offered Chatter their fingers to smell and were rewarded with a small purring bundle they could lift and hold.
Sloane laughed lightly, but kept her eye on them.
"Jealous?" Tinny asked, her voice almost as deep as Mr. Jernigan's. She looked a lot like her brother, dark hair and light eyes. One of her daughters looked much like her, while the other girl had bright red hair.
"I guess so. Sorry," Sloane said and shook her head. "I'm new to the pet thing and, come to think of it, people thing."
"Really?" Tinny raised an eyebrow. "I would think this sort of business would bring you in contact with all sorts."
"Well, yeah, but more in the capacity of 'I want this' and 'That's too much.'"
Tinny laughed again, her head thrust back and Sloane felt like backing away, but glanced at Mr. Jernigan instead, who simply shrugged and smiled at her.
"The reading thing is a new idea. I," Sloane hesitated and dragged the words up, "felt like we needed to be part of the community."
"Hmm," Tinny smiled simply, but looked as if she was holding back.
Sloane just shrugged herself, feeling more and more the heaviness of what she said was wrong. But, what else was it? Out of the corner of her eye, Sloane saw Alice shoot up the steps. She turned and saw Liliana shooing out some café customers, and was pulling out the accordion door to lock the room up for Sloane's reading.
"Is Reading the right word?" Tinny brought Sloane's attention snapping back.
"'Reading'. It's out of context with this place and what you want to do, isn't it?"
Sloane opened her mouth and glanced around the room, her eyes landing on the little girls around their uncle, Chatter now on his head, and at the audience filing in.
"No," Sloane said. "But, I don't know what else to call it."
"Nothing wrong with 'Story-time,'" Tinny said.
Sloane looked at the woman, looking for artifice. Mockery. Tinny looked back, her eyes not soft, but neither were they cruel. She simply stated.
"No, there isn't," Sloane said. "You're right."
Tinny smiled again, but not hugely. She leaned into Sloane's space and patted her on the arm.
"Perhaps the storyteller should have a hat," she said and went to sit back where she had been.
Liliana approached and held out a roll of red and white stickers. Sloane took it and looked at the squares, each one saying "Hello, my name is:" and had a big white space beneath.
"For the kids," her mother said.
"Oh." Sloane felt something plummet in her stomach, then when her mother turned her toward the grandpa chair. Sloane looked down at the stickers, then her journal after she sat down. Then looked up slightly at the gathered and gathering children around the chair. Higher up, she saw parents and guardians, most of whom from around town and a lot of them she went to school with.
"Here are some stickers," Sloane said, just to the kids, ignoring how there were black rods and other apparatuses from where Lynne had perched herself, and from where Alice reappeared with a camera mounted on a tripod. "They're the kind you can put your name on, then put on your shirt. But, that's optional," Sloane said quickly, perhaps too loudly. "You don't have to tell your name to anyone you don't want to. Make one up, even."
She handed the roll around and watched the kids take up a sticker, then a pen from a bundle Liliana began to pass around. Sloane ignored the looks from the adults and focused on the dozens of eyes that all looked up at her from around the height of her knee.
Before she could begin, Sloane faltered when Chatter bounded down from Mr. Jernigan and, in two jumps, landed in Sloane's lap to a chorus of the kinds of sounds children make. Laughter, oo-ing, aww-ing. Words that go with pointing fingers.
"This is Chatter," Sloane said. "And, I'm Sloane. The," she looked up at the adults suddenly, as if drawn, and looked into her mother's face, then passed over Alice's, Lynne's, Mr. Jernigan's, even Trilby's and Red's, then finally onto Tinny's. "The Story Witch."
Sloane blinks away the looks of horns and forked tongues. Thick arms and broader shoulders. Little girls that smile behind little beards at Mr. Jernigan's feet. When she looked down and around again, she saw the group of plain faces, wide eyes looking back. She breathed out and held her journal on her knees, thumb between the hardcover and the first page.
"When I was a child, I met the Prince in the Woods, the Knight in the Wall, and the Lady in a Trap."
A thrum passed through her as a heavy ripple in a deep, cold lake and Sloane glanced toward where the woods stood. Her heart felt hollow of blood and movement and while everyone looked out toward the woods, visible only by craning necks and twisting around to see through the windows in the café, Sloane took the time to compose herself and almost gulp her water.
Liliana and Alice looked concerned and Jack cocked his brow at her when he resumed his place against the wall, and the other people settled back as well.
"I'll tell you of the prince later and the knight later on," Sloane said, resuming her voice and pace.
"Why not now?" A child raised his hand.
Sloane cast a gimlet eye over the room.
"There isn't much time," she said. "By the end of our story of the Lady, you'll think I've started at the end, but you must remember, time is a funny thing. Funny in that we made it up and it doesn't do what we expect. First," Sloane said and paused, "the Lady I met a long time ago, but I don't remember how and I don't remember when."
"How do you know that you met her even?" Ruby asked.
"Shhh!" Piper said beside her.
"That's right," Sloane said. "Rules are rules and stories go faster when mine are obeyed. Now, the Lady in the Trap is still trapped and I don't know how to save her yet. Maybe by the end, the real end, you can tell me what to do."
In the back, Liliana pressed her hand to her heart and Alice smacked her forehead. Jack waited with the rest.
"Her name is Samantha," Sloane smiled as she said the name. "She's a little tall, but not so tall. She's a little thin, but it might be because she's hungry. Samantha has long, brown hair like chocolate syrup down vanilla ice cream. Samantha had a family the way a lot of people do. A mom and dad and a little brother. I say 'little,' he was actually bigger than she was.
"They didn't live too far from here," Sloane pointed her thumb over her shoulder, "up north a ways. When Samantha was just a little girl, her family came from back east, the way people haven't done for a long time. With wagon wheels and axes, for a god they could not see."
Sloane smiled, but furrowed her brow and continued.
"They settled and built a house that started small and grew big as Samantha, and her baby brother who was born after they settled in, grew big."
"What was her brother's name?" Jax asked.
Sloane inhaled for playful rebuke and an answer, but paused.
"Nathaniel," she said softly and the thrum passed again. She blinked. "Samantha and Nathaniel grew big."
Sloane took another drink and saw she was almost out of water.
"There was a problem out west, because of course there was. The problem of land and water. Not too much of the best of the first and not enough of the second at all. Samantha's family had both and praised god for it. Some religious people that travelled, too, they did just the opposite.
"Tales from down south came up, of a holy man in charge taking the land from those he tended, and giving it to those he liked best. Some of the holy men up here got the same ideas. One day, Samantha's mother and father told her to watch Nathaniel while they went off to sort out coming trouble. Samantha's mother came back," Sloane stopped and eyed the room, and before someone could prompt her to go on, "In her father's place, their house grew bigger."
Sloane began to tell them about what Antoinetta had shown her. Of her parents, her baby brother, and the small house in which she grew up. She told them about the rumors that came up from down south of massacres and corrupt preachers. Of land theft and water deaths. Sloane glanced up at her mother when she detailed how people staked out their claim over water holes and eddies from the rivers and saw Liliana's eyes wide, her fingers over her mouth.
Sloane told them of how Samantha-Antoinetta-learned to use a Henry when she guarded her own family's pump, no matter how dirty the water, when she was ten years old and how the law was getting strong enough, but lines still needed drawing.
"Samantha sat between her father and mother's feet-papa bent over a good book and mama held baby Nathaniel to her breast-her own eyes set at hemming her dolly's dress. The fire stoked high in the little iron oven, an enamel flame painted on its front, and warmed their skin and bones against the evening winds. Then, there was a knock on the door," Sloane's hushed voice had filled the room and when she stopped to sit back in the chair, her hands clasped over her knee, eyebrows raised, her audience strained for more. For an indication that she would continue again. At the back, Alice glared when Sloane gave her a wink, and reached over to stop the recording.
"Okay," Sloane resumed, "remember where we were for next time, my ducks, and what our goals are for the very end."
The two rows of children began to stir, chattering to themselves and some gone off to find the bathroom. Alice and Lynne began to put away their respective recording devices, Liliana stood and sighed in fond exasperation, then went to head off the post-reading patrons in the café, the first of whom was Lynne and her re-laden green khaki jacket.
Sloane heard a sudden flare of the blue fire under the copper chocolate pot, then an guttural outrage sounded in the room and rang through the rafters. Rick looked out the window to see how the vibration of the sudden shouts even shook his contraptions. He nodded, impressed, and turned back to watch, as did Jack from where he remained propped against the wall, his hand on his cellphone holster.
"What do you mean next time?" Rick said loudly, each of his hands on a shoulder of his compatriots, pressing them back down into their chairs.
Ruby shifted onto her knees, amidst the kids many of whom with their hands over their ears, and said loudly back, "That's how it works!"
The adults quieted down, some mouths agape and others looking from one another, to Sloane, and to the little girl. The other children took their hands down and Sloane reached for a new child, a little girl with an intricate tri-braid draped over her ears and down her back, tears gathered in her eyes and falling down her cheeks at the sudden tumult.
"What're your names?" Sloane asked quietly when she and another little girl with an equally complicated braid wrapped around her head, hands held tight together, stepped forward. They both shook their heads, but took a seat on either side of her in the big, plush rocking chair. Sloane turned to the crowd that seemed to begin to regain their traction.
"There are rules," she said and waited. Some of the adults stirred, looked away, and the nearest to the wide portal walked either out of the house or into the café. Sloane's eyes roved over those who remained until a little boy, a regular with his folks, Spencer raised his hand.
"How many days for this one?"
Sloane took a moment to calm herself and set herself back behind the role of story-teller. She closed one eye tight and looked up at the ceiling with the other, her tongue stuck out slightly, at which the rest of the kids giggled, including the ones almost in her lap.
"Two more days," she nodded her head once.
"What about the other ones?" The little girl with her braid wrapped around her head asked.
"About the same, I think."
The children and cowed adults were mollified, or at least quiet, and milled about the room or left to the café or elsewhere. Rick stayed in his seat, as did Jack still by Alice. Sloane looked them over and got out of the chair and, in a graceful turn, kneeled before the two girls.
"Think you guys will still be here for the rest?"
Each one looked at each other, then over her shoulders to someone at the wall, then back at her.
"Yes," said the seemingly less shy of the two.
"Good. Are your folks here? I love meeting new people."
They both nodded and hopped off and away, Sloane followed at a fast gait and Rick stepped in line with her.
"Not yours?" Sloane asked him.
Rick snorted, shaking his head.
"Nieces. Insisted on coming along."
"What're their names?" Sloane bent her head toward his.
Rick shook his head, some of his black and brown hair had come loose from the low bun he kept it all in.
"They have to tell you that. Ah," they stopped where the two little girls flanked a [desc of Tinny] woman.
The girl with bright red hair took her mother's hand and laughed, as if nothing could touch her, "I'm Jubilee!"
"And, I'm Penny!" Said the little blonde, her thumb pointed square at the center of her chest.
Sloane smiled wide and stepped away from Rick, she pressed her hand to her chest and dipped a tiny bow, at which the little girls and their mother laughed.
"And, I'm Sloane. But," she cocked her head to one side, still in her short bow, "you can call me Berenie."
"Oh!" Penny said and looked back at her mother. [conversation like that already written about choosing names].
Sloane looked out over her audience, starting with the children, than up to the adults. All eyes were on her.
"That's not the end," she said and mass tension bled out of the room. Their attention, their imaginations, flowed and ebbed into hers. Her story brought life and, had she finished with the ultimate two words almost never seen anymore, the life would go out. The air was charged as she spoke and her voice was filled with promises that she couldn't identify. "The end is coming, but not yet."
After a moment, she heard the almost inaudible clicks of Lynne turning off her machines and Alice her camera. Silence crept away as everyone shuffled, not sure yet where to go or what to do.
Sloane picked Chatter up and put her on her shoulder, her ink black tail swept around Sloane's neck as far as it could wrap. Sloane stood carefully, her journal still in her hand, fingers and thumb still where she had kept them as markers.
Hushed whispers throughout the room gradually turned into regular conversation. Sloane saw Liliana go back to reopen the café. First to approach her was Alice, long legs picked up and carefully set down while the kids moved around.
"Well, that was," Alice hesitated, searching, "something."
"Good something or…?"
"Not sure yet," Alice's voice was almost breathy in excitement. "Pretty sure it was good. How did you-"
A throat cleared behind Sloane and Alice leaned her body almost dramatically to the side to look at who interrupted her. Sloane turned around, more careful to hide whatever surprise that might manifest on her face, but wasn't sure if she succeeded entirely. She at least hoped her surprise appeared pleasant.
"Hi," she said and winced when Chatter's claws dug a little sharper into Sloane's skin. The kitten hummed low in her throat.
Trilby looked down at Sloane as if he were a statue always standing there, always looking there.
"How can I help you?" Sloane asked slowly when he didn't speak right away.
The young man, as if taken by surprise himself, swung his bangs out of his eyes. He stared as if his pupils were trying to laser through Sloane's. He didn't acknowledge any other movement when Alice moved to stand next to Sloane and when Chatter hunched down closer to her perch.
"Yes?" Sloane tried again. Time slowed, not by much. Enough to wonder how long seconds were supposed to last. There were flashes of deep purple, like a filter over her vision, and black fog framed it. The sounds of the room and house, livening back up, was overlaid with a buzz.
She blinked rapidly, a few times very hard, too and heard Trilby speak as if from a long way away.
"Sorry?" Alice spoke up, sound cleared and time caught up as if in a pop. Chatter bumped her head against Sloane's. "You were mumbling."
Trilby started back slightly, his eyes darted from Sloane to Alice, to the cat on Sloane's shoulder, then back to Sloane.
Sloane cleared her own throat, bringing her back together with another layer of sensation.
"Could you say again, please?" She asked this time.
"I liked your story," he said. Trilby still spoke softly and the effort to elevate his volume seemed to strain him a little. His eyes tightened. "Some things were," he bit off each word, "incongruous. But, good."
Sloane was about to reply, her tongue against the edge of her bottom teeth.
"How big is the Sloane property?" He asked suddenly, loudly.
Sloane cocked her head and tried to look at Alice without turning her head to no avail.
"I'm not sure," she said and raised her shoulders a little, one more so than the other. "Why?"
Trilby shook his head slightly and walked around her and away toward wherever Red had gone.
"'Kayyyyy…" Sloane looked over at Alice whose eyes were as wide as Sloane's. Alice turned more to follow his retreating figure.
"Wait," Sloane said. "What did he mean 'incongruous'?"
"Weird." Alice said and shifted her body to face Sloane's.
"Sort of the point, really."
"What part are we talking about?" Sloane said, beginning to smile.
The pair fell silent after a moment of light laughter. Sloane looked over to where Lynne sat, caught in the middle packing up her audio equipment and talking to a small gathering of children. Sloane watched her point out some of the buttons and knobs, and thought she saw a sparking purple haze around Lynne's finger. In that second, Lynne looked up and winked at Sloane.
Sloane looked away hastily to see Liliana in what seemed to be deep conversation with Miss Escamas and her father, both librarians and both old family friends. Sloane felt a flash of sickening guilt and looked away again to catch eyes with Mr. Jernigan. She smiled and caught Alice's elbow before she could move away to wherever.
Alice said nothing beyond a monosyllabic exclamation until they got to the furthest point away from everyone, Sloane felt, all the way in the back of the Other room.
"There was a cute guy in there, I'll have you know." Alice looked around the room a beat after Sloane had done so.
"You doctors and your libidos," Sloane muttered, eyes still darting from corner to corner. Her ears felt like they twitched at any small sound.
"What," Alice said, "was that about?"
"I have no idea." Sloane's voice was a harsh whisper, speaking quickly. "Why would he ask about our property?"
"That's not what I was asking about," Alice said and whacked Sloane lightly on the arm. "That guy really was cute and you're going on about some creep."
"What'd he look like?"
"You know what he looks-oh. You mean my guy." Alice took in a hasty breath and forced herself to calm. "A little taller than you-"
"Didn't know you liked hobbits."
Alice gritted her teeth, trying not to smile or laugh.
"Blond hair. It's short, but you can tell it would be curly."
Sloane's excited posture relaxed for a moment so she could pause.
"Ohhh." Suddenly, her shoulder's slumped while she rolled her eyes, her shoulders rolling almost with them. "Jack Murphy?"
"I have no idea. I would have found out," Alice said, but let it drop. "Why'd you drag me off?"
"Detective Murphy. God's speed." Sloane's eyes went back in forth in her skull as she recalled what happened before. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She turned and peeked around one of the shelves. Trilby stood there, looking in, then moved on. Alice dragged her back and pushed Sloane's shoulders back to straighten her up.
"What is it?"
"When we were talking to him," Sloane said and licked her lips. She leaned down, making Alice curl slightly over her. "Trilby. Everything got fuzzy. Like gray and slow. Black around the edges. If it wasn't for you and Chatter…"
"It's alright," Alice said and pushed Sloane upright again, then brushed some of Sloane's hair from her face. "Nothing would have happened."
"I don't know that. Something strange is happening."
"Ever since the other day."
Sloane folded her arms and went to sit in one of the high wingback chairs, some relic from either her mother's mother's house or from a yard sale. Chatter hopped onto her lap and nudged Sloane's arm until she could be petted. Alice knelt down in front of her.
"Do you think it's a witch thing?"
"What? Like what happened in the car and how Lynne's got purple fire in her fingers?"
"I should write this stuff down."
"Well," Alice flicked the journal's hardcover, "you can do that now."
Sloane shook her head.
"It's all muddled. The story was a witch thing." She looked up and out of the window at some of the mountain's face and the side of the house. "The story just laid out for me to walk through and write down. What I said in there…It's just a good thing you and Lynne were recording it. I feel like I should have more control."
Alice pressed her lips together and felt Sloane's head with the back of her hand, then touched her cheek affectionately.
"Maybe it's like brains," she said and touched the corner of Sloane's mouth where it turned up in a slight smile. "They all look the same, but are all so different."
"Maybe I'm sick."
"I don't think so. I could cat scan you, but I need an excuse to do that." Alice leaned forward and touched Sloane's forehead with her own. When she sat back she touched Chatter's forehead, too, and smiled up at Sloane's face, less tense now. "Can we go back now?"
"You go. I've got to put my journal away."
"Okay," Alice said and stood. "But, come straight back. I think you'll have some customers soon and your own cute guy to talk to."
"What?" Sloane shook her head and remembered who she was probably talking about. "Oh. No. It's not like that."
Sloane watched as Alice left and stayed sitting awhile longer. She half hoped or fully hoped, she wasn't sure herself, that Mr. Jernigan would appear. When he didn't, she got up and waded through the milling people to get upstairs. She was stopped a few times, some to try to pet Chatter or to talk, but Sloane begged them off for just a few minutes.
"You better stay up here," Sloane told Chatter when they were behind the hidden door. She checked Chatter's food and water, put her book down on her bed, and psyched herself up to go back.
Sloane was treated to smiles and kind words back downstairs. Most everyone that had come for story time, "To meet the Story-Witch" one said with her hand on her daughter's head. The girl smiled up at Sloane and waved shyly. The Thorned Page did brisk business that day and many people asked when the next story would be, more specifically, when they would get to hear more about the Lady.
"Soon," she said from behind the cash-register, letting Alice go free to talk to people and escape the high steam in the café. She nodded lightly and smiled blandly, sorry she didn't feel more to put behind her sentiments. Sloane wanted very much to go lie down, but the shop wasn't even close to closed.
Voices nearby brought her out of her half-reverie, the person she had been speaking to glanced furtively to the side and hurried away after they paid. The whole café muted, conversation and bustle still went on, but slowly, carefully as a patron began to rage at Liliana. Sloane looked at him, then went to send a text to Alice, able to catch her friend's eye in the doorway before she hit send. Alice was already on her phone. Sloane edged closer to her mother and looked up into the reddening face of the man who towered over the counter and both women.
His words were garbled in curses and spit, yet Liliana stood with a pleasant smile and head tilted slightly as she looked at him. Sloane looked around, the room had gotten quieter and more people had gathered. Some of the few regulars that were from Leicester looked ready to stand, one or two already had and were about to walk over, stopping when Sloane caught their eyes and shook her head. The police would be here soon.
Where's Mr. Jernigan? Sloane thought almost desperate. He never got violent with anyone, his presence and size suggesting only the possibility of what could happen if he did. Then Liliana sighed.
"I'm sorry for the mistake, sir," Liliana said and picked up a clean mug, one almost the size of a cereal bowl. "Please enjoy a fresh cup."
The man smirked and leaned back slightly. Sloane took the mug and filled it, leaving just a quarter inch at the top. When she turned Sloane saw her mother crushing something in a mortar, the spices were a blend of cinnamon, pepper, and something else she couldn't place. When she brought the mug over, she looked into the stone dish and saw just a pinch of spice. She looked at her mother's face, her eyes still on the man until she gave Sloane a quick look and a wink. Surreptitiously, she dumped the contents of the mortar into the mug, stirred it with a metal rod and slid it across the glass countertop. The smell disappeared and the man smiled down into the swirling black and brown brew.
"The waters bend to me," Liliana said conversationally to the man, "from the depths of the sea, the rushing rivers, to thee."
He smirked again, as if she hadn't spoken, and turned away the coffee already going down his fat throat, the hair on his neck bobbing with each swallow. Sloane watched his back, the muscles stilled while the mug was tipped into his mouth. Blue and red lights flashed coming up the hill outside. When the police arrived, the man was bent over, racked with coughs and phlegm. They didn't wait for an ambulance, saying they would take him over to a small clinic in the center of town, then over to the police station. When the patrol cars descended again, the entire house was already back in rhythm.
"Mom," Sloane finally could turn to her mother, the patrons settled to a more comfortable pace. Liliana shook her head.
"Later, my love," she said and swept away to her apothecary room, semi-attached to the greenhouse beyond and the café. The afternoon light bore down and reflected into the multitudes of bottles and glasses, herbs hung in paper bags, making a still kaleidoscope. Overhead, the glass bubble burbled as more water from deep underground trickled in. Sloane saw in it loops and waves of gold cut with green. As she stared, the water cleared. No one spoke of anything besides her Lady, drinks, and book recommendations for the rest of the night.
When they were finally upstairs, Sloane made for her bedroom. Chatter circled her feet, making Sloane stop every one or two seconds, the little furry face stared up at her, Chatter's mouth open in a perpetual mewl until Sloane gave in, giggling, and scooped her up.
Sloane accepted the head rubs and bumps all across her face and neck, being tickled by whiskers and a cold, wet nose. She snuggled in and grinned, despite being tired.
"See," she said to the little black and white face, "I like you because your love is genuine. Not fake like those other people's."
"Nyah," Alice called behind her and went to her bedroom.
She mentioned earlier she would take the story about the previous morning later in hopes she would get to sleep before her cell phone had a chance to summon her back to the icy morgue. Sloane had asked about Alice supposedly having an office, but got a baleful look in return, and let it go.
Before Sloane put her hand on her doorknob, she was caught around the waist and dragged back to the center of the family room, deposited on the loveseat.
"What?" She asked and caught her mother's grin. "Oh, right. What was that earlier?"
"Witching," Liliana said simply and disappeared into her bedroom.
In the process of sitting back in the couch, Liliana returned and put a plastic milk crate filled with miscellaneous items on the coffee table before her and then sat back in her wingback. Sloane let Chatter go and leaned forward again to pick apart the contents. The kitten jumped onto the table and investigated the surface items and each one that Sloane took out to look at, sometimes putting her paw on something's surface and smelling it before Sloane could look at it more closely.
Tarot deck, a hand mirror, crystals, chalk, candles…
"Little stereotypical, dontcha think?" Sloane looked up at Liliana, who flashed a grin.
"Some things witches like us and witches not like us have in common, such as roots."
"I think I saw those hanging up in your little shed."
"Apothecary, smart guy," Liliana said, sticking out her tongue.
"Is this what you used to…I don't want to say poison…"
"Not quite. When I was younger, I would have used ground cinnamon, lavender, and belladonna. Just enough to smell, not to taste. Now, my Craft is stronger. Roots, my love," Liliana said and tapped the side of her nose.
"I don't like bullies, but I need the business. A choking man who was making a positive ass of himself does not reflect badly on me. Admittedly, since Mr. Jernigan-someone left you something, by the way-"
Sloane blinked and looked through the crate again, finding nothing, but couldn't ask about it yet.
"Since he is a fine and regular presence here, it's not something I've had to do in some time. I'm in no way rusty, thank you." Liliana permitted herself a smug moment, flicking her thick hair away from her face. "You already have a grasp on your Witching, but it is potent and you have been out of lessons for so long."
"I don't remember any lessons, as such," Sloane said slowly.
"You wouldn't, I'm afraid." Liliana carefully crossed her legs, positioning her back a little more toward Teigue's urn and picture, but said nothing of it more. "But, things will start coming back to you, more and more. You were so young when you stopped, but I think you can pick up where you left off and catch up lickity split."
Liliana clucked her tongue, then extended her finely manicured index finger toward one of the top items.
"Tarot. A fine place for a Story Witch to start. When you were a baby, I was teaching you water witching."
"Because it's an element?"
"That," she said, her head tipped forward in acknowledgement, "and because I'm an offshoot of it. I'm a Garden Witch."
There was a beat.
Sloane looked side to side, then at her mother who seemed expectant.
"That's a shock?"
"Shush. But, you are also taking after your father. Witch he wasn't, but he had a way with words."
"He wasn't a witch? But, I figured, you know, since," Sloane trailed away. She glanced at the picture then at Liliana, her face slightly pinched.
"I don't know why, but how…" she sighed. "It's possible that a non-Witch can perform spells. A Bind is basic, but powerful. Clearly."
"Huh." Sloane slumped back, the deck in her hands. She remembered the crowd.
"Are there other kinds of magical people?"
"You know, like in the story books," Sloane gestured toward the floor, indicating the books below their feet. "Fairies, elves, giants, trolls, dwarves. You know."
Liliana didn't speak right away, her sadness eeking away into what she might have looked like when she was a student preparing for an exam.
"There used to be," Liliana said eventually. "Or so it's said. No one's ever seen any magical people, whether they were ever real or not. Many Witches speculate, however. We're not unlike regular humans, that way."
"What happens if any Witch says she's-"
"Or 'he,'" Liliana interjected.
"If they can see magical people?"
"Similar to how humans deal with it," Liliana said with a gentle smile. "Politely. Now, we're going to start you off with Tarot and move on from there."
Sloane forced her most recent thoughts away for the moment, idly watching Chatter hop into the box and settle herself atop the contents.
"I already started with the Ouija. Me and Alice did."
"Yes." Liliana rolled her eyes. "And, it seemed to have worked."
They both looked at Chatter. Liliana reached over and pet her, while Sloane returned the kitten's slow blink until she fell asleep.
"But, it's more of a parlor game. Not real Witching."
"How very elitist."
"I do run a café attached to a bookshop and a huge greenhouse," Liliana said. She winked while she smoothed out her skirt.
"That," Liliana continued, her finger pointing once again, "is also for you."
Sloane looked around herself, then looked at the coffee table. Next to the plastic crate was a package that looked rumpled, but secure.
"How?" She asked and brought it into her lap, Chatter brought herself enough to attention to take a few passing sniffs at the air, then settled back down. It was mainly rectangular shaped and soft. For a moment, Sloane thought she saw writing, but turned out to be wrinkles in the brown paper.
"Not done yet," Liliana said quietly, watching Sloane unwrap the parcel. Sloane didn't look up, but idly noted it.
There was writing on paper. Just her name Berenice Sloane and no stamps.
Oh, good, she thought and let the outer wrapping fall away. Liliana snatched it up and looked at the front, too.
"Isn't he bold?" She asked and laughed, letting herself fall back into her chair as she did.
"Real subtle, mama," Sloane replied and worked at taking apart the inner wrap, which was little thicker than tissue, blue, with designs that almost looked embroidered into it with golden fiber.
"Oh, my," Liliana said, looking at it. "Hold onto that."
Sloane nodded and finished pulling the tissue paper away, letting Liliana reach over for it to look and then fold.
"I want to keep the brown paper, too," Sloane said quickly.
Liliana cocked her head, but took that from the ground and folded it as well, using it to cover the finer wrapping and wedged it alongside Chatter in the crate.
"Thanks," Sloane said. "Sorry."
Liliana waved it away.
Sloane lifted it up.
"Um," she said.
It was a bag. Soft brown leather with careful stars and moons worked into it in a pattern that made it look dimensional, like a well-stuffed cushion. There was a zipper on the main pocket, two smaller outer pockets on either side, and another pocket and buckle on the front. It had two straps, one thicker and longer than the other, and both had bright brass hardware. Sloane held up by either one in each hand.
"It's cute," Liliana offered. "Is there a note or something."
Not in the wrappings, Sloane was sure. She looked in each pocket and found a small note in the front pocket. Liliana walked behind the couch and read over Sloane's shoulder.
"My, my," Liliana said and giggled when Sloane clicked her tongue in annoyance, but continued reading.
I'm sorry I ran off after your story. I had hoped to say goodbye, but you looked flustered enough. Your story was wonderful, I say for myself and the girls. They're all taken with you.
Sloane grinned and Liliana lightly pinched her cheek.
There was family business I have to see to, but I hope I get to be back in the shop soon. I'm sure I will.
I saw this in a storefront and remembered how you fumbled for everything before. It's called a drop bag.
See you soon. -Rick
Below, it looked like he half-drew something with curves, but scribbled it out.
"Very bold, indeed." Liliana smiled and walked away toward her room. "Take your Witching things to your room. We'll start on them soon. Oh," she said while Sloane struggled to figure out what to do with the second, smaller strap, "I think the big one goes around your waist and the smaller straps around your thigh. Very clever. Goodnight, my love."
Liliana's door shut and Sloane tried on the bag proper.
"Oooh," she said and spun around a few times in a circle.