Trevor O. Childers
The door chime echoes inside your hungover brain. You squint and wince at the harsh light invading your cramped shop, content to let your new guest peruse the shelves and cases on their own. The door closes returning the store to its musty sepulchral dim and you to your daily routine of inventory and self-pity.
But the hum of an old, old tune cuts through the pain of last night’s bottles. You try to peer through the bookshelves and merchandise, but you can’t find where the humming is coming from. You call out for the customer, lost amidst the maze of crystals and tarot cards, incense and candles. Abruptly, the song stops, abandoning you to the dull pain of your constant loss. You settle back in your chair, not even sure if the song was real. Your attention wanders to a bottle of rum below the register. For a moment, you consider waiting until after noon to open the bottle. You don’t take too long to decide and grab-
“Does this candle come in lavender?” a deep, hoarse voice asks. The words reach inside you and tie your guts into a knot.
Slowly, you tilt your head up to see a pale bald man with a sharp face looming over you. He stands tall and gaunt in a finely made suit that drinks in the surrounding light. The corner of his mouth twists into a smirk.
A half-forgotten pain stabs at your memories. You recall long nights in the woods, a witness to foul things and fouler deeds. And the man standing in front of you now, unchanged by time with the same condescending smirk. You want to vomit, but you can’t even twitch a finger.
“Because you’ll need some in lavender.”
A tidal wave of questions breaks against the narrow crags of your mind. You can hear nothing but your own breath sawing in and out of your tightening chest.
He sets the candle on the counter and steeples his fingers. His movements are closer to a scarecrow’s swaying than a human’s. He leans in, his large black eyes studying you like a pinned butterfly. His smirk grows snider. You cannot move away.
“Your beloved gave you a gift before she… left. You’ve lived long and well – for the most part – but immortality isn’t really living, is it? No, not when you lost the reason to live all those years ago,” he pushes himself off the counter and throws his arms wide, “But I’ll tell you what; since it’s the season and I’m a generous man, I’ll make you an offer. I can bring her back to you, but there will be a cost.”
Whatever the price, you know you’ll pay it.
You never had much to believe in. You hadn’t come to the new world out of spiritual zeal or loyalty to the crown, you came to live a free life.
The colonies were dangerous; harsh winters and scarce resources made for a difficult life, to say nothing of the natives and wildlife. But the people you found yourself with made matters worse. Some days you thought hadn’t gone anywhere, while others created a new kind of Hell altogether. Despite all the hardship, you… endured.
One market day in Salem, though, everything changed. You tried to sell pelts and jerky amidst a sea of farmers, other hunters, and their customers. Around you, townsfolk pushed and yelled as they vied for overpriced produce and rotting fish. Salem reminded you of everything you wanted to escape. Eager to leave, you held a vain hope the next town would be different.
But then the smell of lavender filled cut through the stench of the city. You turned and saw her across the market, bright green eyes in a pretty face, framed by hair the hue of dying leaves. She stared at you and only at you. She smiled, a crooked smile full of crooked teeth, and the rest of the market melted away. In that moment, you could feel a missing piece of your heart settle into place.
Born in the new world, she carried in her the strangeness of the place. Every day, you met with her for long walks outside of town. You found it so easy to tell her all of your frustrations. For the first time, you weren’t made to feel wrong or crazy for what you believed. Instead, you felt you were finally understood.
Over your talks, she helped you to see things differently. She had a way of coaxing your pessimistic heart toward hope. Or failing in that, she could make you laugh like no one else. And she always smelled of lavender.
She often took you to the woods to show you what lived there. She loved her home, had a connection with it you had never seen before. She taught you about the plants, animals, and people; how to hunt, harvest, and prosper from your labor. When you struggled, she helped you understand that you were learning, improving – becoming more. She reminded you the world wasn’t always ugly, that there was always hope.
You kept trying. And as she taught you to do more to just endure, you found a reason to live. So, you did stay in Salem, and happiness followed.
“More than I was expecting,” the man says, surveying the assorted candles you brought from the storeroom, “We’ll only need five.”
“I runna shop,” you slur. All you’ve seen in three and a half centuries and you can’t go through this without a drink. Or five.
His smirk traces its way across his mouth and you begin to reconsider the offer. You’ve heard cautionary tales, real and imaginary. Stories of fairies and genies and stories of him. You don’t get what you want, you get what you deserve.
Your life, though, has little meaning to you. You shuffle from day to day, year to year, and bottle to bottle. You’ve watched while the world passed you by, and you passed it by. After your death – what happened after your death – everything seemed pointless. But a deal with him…
While thinking about it, you can’t help but remember your life with her in perfect clarity. Nothing, not drugs, meditation, magic, nor time, has allowed you to forget. The memory of how those days ended taints any happiness you feel. Drink is the one thing that comes close – so you drink a lot – but it’s a temporary salve at best. You tried to move on, you even found happiness for a bit, but you have always returned to her.
She is a persistent hearth fire inside your head: smoldering when weak, but never quite extinguished. Deep down, you know you’ll won’t ever be rid of her, because you don’t want to be. Nothing has been as wonderful as life with her, nor as terrifying. Nothing ever could be.
The scent of lavender fills your mind and you know you’ll accept his offer.
Later, once you had earned her trust, she wanted to share a secret with you. She bid you close your eyes and led you deep into the forest. The sounds of the birds and frogs, wind and water all melted away while she led you by the hand. When your eyes opened, you stood at the foot of a massive tree in the middle of a clearing. Ancient and leafless, crooked iron nails covered the bone-pale trunk. Long ago, a bolt of lightning had clove the tree in two and the divergent branches rose like horns.
She joined the other women, some you knew, chanting and dancing around the tree to an old, old tune. You watched them sway and writhe in the moonlight while drums beat from nowhere and mouthless whispers burrowed into your ears. They painted bloody symbols on their naked bodies. You saw the beautiful, horrible things others couldn’t, the preternatural things she and her kind brought forth. What you witnessed proved right all those raving holy men and their long-winded sermons.
The sights and sounds and smells sickened you, threatened to break you, but you endured all of it for her. You knew no matter how dark the forest or how bright the torches, no matter what horrors would come, you would stand with her, and she with you.
And you also saw him.
He presided over the dark mass, wearing the same smirk. The congregants, her included, would all move at his direction. He would not allow you to join, though, and his rejection maddened you. You wanted to share in that part of her life but he barred your way. She assured you there was no separation between the two of you, that she loved you.
It should have been enough.
“Yes, a magic shop,” he turns to examine an array of pentagram necklaces, “Funny.”
A magic shop had seemed funny idea at first, and one in Salem even more so. When you saw the painted wooden building, nestled between two other painted wooden buildings, you knew you’d found the one. The storefront struck you as both unassuming and mysterious. It reminded you of her. You laughed out loud at the bank when you bought the place and cried into your bottle at home. Times changed, fads came and went, so you went from magic tricks, to magic knowledge, to the occult. Since you couldn’t escape it, you decided to revel in the strangeness.
You pull yourself back to the present and ask, “Wha’s next?”
Next is a pig. There’s a farm not far outside of town with a few to spare. The farmer gives you a look, but it’s not the first time you’ve received that look. The money from the register, the ATM, and some of your more valuable belongings makes a compelling offer. If the payment hadn’t been enough, you would have just found a way to steal the hog.
You don’t know what’s going to happen to the pig, but you can guess. The pig seems to know.
“An’ the nex’ one?” you ask the man while you bring the car to life.
“Oh, you have everything you need now,” he says, “I’ll tell you how to set the ritual up and we can get started. Don’t worry about a thing.”
His smirk grows.
She often found ways for the two of you to sneak off, little excuses or happy coincidences. You made those moments last and hungered for the next. Finding a hunting cabin in the woods, secluded and abandoned, was a stroke of good luck. There, you cooked and read and warmed each other far more than the fire ever did.
The first night you spent together was the best of your life. People have told you wanting is better than having, that the hunt is always more satisfying than catching your prey. Only when awash in liquid courage could you tell them how wrong they were. You treasured those days, every conversation, every glance, every lazy embrace, even her snores. And you never forgot the smell of lavender.
But in the end, the cabin where you spent so many and too few nights, would be your pyre.
You fought with her once, really fought with her. You both shouted and said awful things you didn’t mean. You can’t even recall what you fought about. Afterwards, you both apologized and embraced. You felt the piece slip back into place.
But you were not alone in the woods that night.
You awoke surrounded by flames. To this day, you can still feel the heat searing your skin, the smoke roasting your lungs. You tried to find a way out. Through the window: a sea of torches and pitchforks. Through the door: jeers and shouts. No escape. In the end, you thought only of her and spoke her name one last time.
But it wasn’t the end.
You awoke in a shallow grave, her kneeling at your side. Your body hurt like a week of hard work. She said she gave you something, though it wasn’t hers to give, and now you needed to run. You will never forget your last kiss when they came for her and she bade you flee.
You would never forgive yourself, powerless as she hung there.
The man directs you, telling you which lines and symbols to draw, how to prepare the herbs and flowers, and where to place the candles. Boxes and bags line the walls of your stockroom, all to accommodate the ritual space. The pig roams about on its own. You light the last candle and take a few gulps of rum.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
“What’ll it cos’ me?”
“Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? Value is so… subjective. What I’ll be taking is your soul.”
You say nothing and take another drink.
“I’m curious, why do this?”
“You have what most people can dream of – what they’d kill for. Why give up immortality for some dead woman? This gift-”
“Wha’, you can’t bring her back?”
“Oh, it’s well within my power to-”
“Then get on with it.”
His smirk returns, larger than ever.
Unbeckoned, the pig waddles to the center of the pentagram. Whispers and drumbeats fill your ears once more. The old, old tune starts inside your head and the nausea follows. The room dims while the candles grow brighter. You are taken back to those long nights in the woods, the other women, the things crawling from the trees. You see her there, dancing with the others but looking only at you.
The pig squeals and falls on its side. Drums pound from nowhere and the whispers have grown to screams. A hand pushes against the pig’s stomach. Your bottle clatters to the floor when the pig explodes, spraying the room in thick, hot blood.
A hand reaches out of what used to be the pig’s belly, followed by another. A smirk you’ve never worn pulls at the corner of your lips. Slowly, a blood-soaked figure pulls itself out of the corpse, struggling to find purchase amidst the gore. You cannot move until you know if it worked.
She stands before you now, shivering and drenched in steaming pig’s blood. After over three hundred years and beneath the blood, she appears as beautiful as the day you met her. Bright green eyes shine through crimson curtains, darting around in confusion. You rush forward and embrace her, stepping through the thick, slippery viscera.
She gasps at the sudden contact. Fear grips you, growing with each heartbeat. Is she in shock? Does she remember you? Is this actually her?
Her arms wrap tight around your body. You don’t care when your clothes begin to soak up the warm blood. You say her name. She says yours and dispels all your fears in a wave of bliss. Hearing her voice, you find happiness for the first time since your death.
The weight of all the years hits you at once. You almost collapse, but she holds you up. You find she still has that same crooked smile with those same crooked teeth.
“I feared to never see you again,” you say, pushing through the inebriation.
“I am glad you have not misused my gift,” she says.
“But such a gift was not yours to give,” the man says.
Jealousy creeps into your mind when you hear the way he talks to her. Goosebumps rise along her skin despite her warmth. He studies the two of you, still entwined, and his smirk grows.
A pain spreads through your chest, a weariness you’ve never felt before. Your legs give way and your breath escapes you. She falls to her knees with you, on the verge of tears. Both of you realize what will come next. You push against the end with every ounce of your being. You would damn the world for a few more seconds.
You look at each other, after so long apart, and share the fading moments of your second life. The tears spill, but you see her eyes hold strength instead of sorrow.
“I will see you again,” you hear her say, fighting for one last moment.
You start to slip away, a smile on your lips. All of your suffering was worth seeing her, even for a moment, and worth more to know she will have another chance to live.
Trevor O. Childers lives in Dallas, TX, where he lives with his fiancé and their cat. When not writing, Trevor works as a title examiner for Fidelity National Financial. He has a BA in English and Writing from the Virginia Military Institute.