Nothing is ever more jolting than your alarm going off during REM sleep. I practically flew out of bed. Smacking around on my bedside table for my phone, I wondered if I could call in sick today. No way would my boss not see through that.
I sat up rubbing my eyes. My room was almost too small for one person; my bed took up most of the space, with the dresser shoved into one corner and a tiny desk in the other. I couldn’t open my door all the way because it hit the desk, but that didn’t matter as I always kept it closed. My plants floated above my head- lavender over my bed, english ivy weaving itself across the windows, jasmine blooming every day over my desk, kokedamas of succulents and ferns drifting around, all hopefully giving off serotonin and dopamine amplifiers. Supposedly helping my mental state.
My current mental state was foggy, distantly awake, and apathetic. A fairly good start. I hauled myself out of bed, snatching up my jeans and hopping into them to the door. I opened it silently in case any of either of the human girls I lived with were asleep. No one was in the living room. It was 4:30 AM, so this was expected, even of the vampire. He got home from the immunology lab at 3, and did reports and studying shut up in his room. Night shift, of course; I heard the other shift workers loved him. I went to pour some tea leaves in the kitchen, and mindlessly scooped at an empty can before remembering I’d run out yesterday.
“Fuck me,” I mumbled, doing my best not to stomp as I made my way to the bathroom instead. As I brushed my teeth, I assessed how much work I wanted to bother putting into my hair. I used to straighten it every morning, but that took so long I eventually gave up. Besides, my mama said natural black hair was beautiful anyway, and if it was good enough for Mama, it was good enough for me. My makeup sat optimistically in my drawer of the cabinet, most of it having expired untouched several months ago. I did the bare minimum; my hair was a mess of corkscrews, longer than it had ever been. I looked like a hyacinth, a smaller face surrounded by an explosion of adornment.
I washed my face and checked my watch. I had more time than usual, so stopping to get Cassie’s tea wouldn’t be a problem. I texted Daphne, my boss, asking if she wanted anything. I zipped up an old canvas jacket and locked my front door behind me.
It was a brisk April morning, alright for a run. The cold air was sharp in my lungs as I started to jog downtown. I didn’t like public transport and couldn’t afford car payments. Males of every species tended to be too…grabby in a bus or metro carriage, and besides I had no issue with running. Nymphs are known for being fast runners. I hear Apollo learned this the hard way. Idiot.
I ran through the street lit morning, the city already humming around me. I passed Merl’s Auto, with Merl himself opening his roll door. Jessie, his familiar currently presenting as a dalmation, barked happily at me as I waved to Merl.
“Alright, love?” He called to me.
“Still going!” I shouted back. Jessie leapt up and ran to the end of the block with me, I turned onto Main, heading towards the heart of downtown. The main drag was lined with huge oak trees. The dryads had petitioned to put them in to “beautify” downtown about ten years ago. As dryad decisions go, it was a fairly good one. I slowed as I neared Cassie’s, pulling out my wallet. Cassie waved at me as I approached the windows.
Cassie’s Coffee was a larger storefront. Windows wrapped around the front, exposed brick warming the inside. Everything was “natural” looking inside Cassie’s, without crossing over into the “vegan anti-vaxxer” style. Live edge tables were lit by simple elegant pendant lights, the different shots and enchantments lined the walls in glass jars, and the best coffee money could buy came in huge mugs. This morning, in the middle of the week at 5 AM, no customers were laughing in the windows. Cassie stood at the grinder, pouring in beans. The chimes above the door announced me.
“Morning, love!” She called out without turning around. “Right there on the bar for you!”
“Thanks, Cassie.” I pulled out my wallet as I approached. Two take-away teas were steaming there; one oolong, extra shot of focus and honey, and one chai with two calm and one vanilla. You could taste the magic in them. Focus tasted bittersweet, something to snap you back. Hope tasted like honey, not too sweet but enough to notice. Calm and confidence were similar, warm and spicy, but the latter with a slight tang. Both were excellent with chai. I wrinkled my nose. I hated chai, but Daphne drank it like it was going out of style. “Wow, how’d you know?”
“Oh, a joker, so original.” She wasn’t facing me but I knew the eye roll just the same. The scorn of a seer over a joke, I tell you.
I was about to remind her that I had to pay when the swinging door to the back room opened and suddenly my lungs forgot how to breathe properly. A girl walked into the room, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She was perfectly proportioned, like a sculptor had agonized over the exact full curves of her hips for weeks. Her hair, shining silvery white, was pinned in an elegant low ponytail swishing past her hips. Carrying a box, she walked to the other end of the bar, away from me. Her hair pin caught my eye; it seemed to glow, emitting its own light. It even flickered. There was something unmistakably magical about her, but not any magic I knew of. It was mysterious. It felt like seeing a fantastical painting scene, where it seems unreachable tranquil and mystical. She was-
“Right that’s 5. 32,” Cassie said, tossing the empty coffee sack aside.
“Money, sweetheart. For the tea?”
“Tea! Right!” I was sweating bullets. The girl turned to look at me and smiled. Fuck. I handed Cassie her $6.00-with-tip-total and booked it out the door.
“I am a disaster,” I muttered to myself as I walked as fast as I physically could to Daphne’s, angrily sipping my tea. This did nothing to assuage my annoyance, but it did distract me by searing the shit out of the roof of my mouth. I turned the corner onto Garden, trying to salvage the morning. At least the focus shot was already starting to work.
Daphne’s Flowers was a hole-in-the-wall shop, literally. When the city was established and a town center founded, buildings were far apart so as to allow for carriages to deliver between them. Some were filled in, especially those along the riverfront. But about 25 years ago, a water main burst between the two, severely damaging one building and destroying the decaying courtyard between the two. Daphne offered to buy the land between for her flower shop, had the concrete removed and began restoring the underlying soil. Now, it looked as I saw it; a Dutch door at the entrance, latices of vines creating a living building, and a soft glow breaching through the leaves. The vines could be opened up if it was warm, or if it was raining lightly. Behind the door lay a calm, lush oasis of Daphne’s wonderful imagination.
Daphne had known me since I was born. She’d been a friend of my mother’s since childhood, and Mama had worked for her since my father had left. Daphne offered me a job and her when I showed a proficiency for magical and ornate flowers. Daphne was a nymph, just like my mother and I. She had general plant and flower manipulation, whereas I, an anthsousia, specialized in flowers. When I was old enough, Daphne developed a wedding wing of her business, which I worked almost exclusively in now due to my talents with the fancier flora.
Today, as I worked the gate open while balancing the cups, Daphne was starting on the local orders of the day. She was wearing her usual uniform of a t-shirt and overalls. Her long black hair was in a braid, streaks of grey weaving almost to her waist. She smiled at me, barely a line in that beautiful face. She stood as I came in.
“Good mornin, hon,” she said, wiping her hands on a rag and accepting her tea, “Oh, how lovely.”
“Morning,” I said, going around the counter to find my apron.
“How’re you doin today?”
“Alright.” I shrugged.
She looked at me for a moment longer than was necessary, as though she might debate this. She was older than my Mama was and yet neither of them ever seemed to have a discernible age. They had just seemed to be. It had been just the three of us, running the shop; three magical black ladies, sipping tea and growing plants.
“Okay then,” Daphne said, in a tone that said she didn’t believe me but wouldn’t admit it. She patted my cheek. “Lots to do.”
I grabbed my orders clipboard, cracked my knuckles, and plunged my hands into the soil.
It rained the whole month Mama was sick, but it was sunny the day she died. It seemed, at the time, to be so unjust as to be criminal. Who could have seen this woman and give her nothing but clouds as she slipped away, never to see sunlight again? It was two years ago, nearly to the day, but I remember vividly the anger I felt at seeing the sun. I’m sure Apollo heard my grief that day. I’m sure every god, regardless of region or religion, was blamed for taking my mother back. I would like to tell you that I let go of that anger, that I had a fairy tale story of rebirth and growing stronger. But instead the anger faded, and nothing replaced it. Nothing at all. It was like I was the one buried in soil, like my plants; aware of the world above, wishing to join, but not strong enough to break through. It was at least a month before I could even grow a daisy.
Now, my magic was full again, and as it was all I had, I put my whole life into these flowers. I grew them slowly, each getting its own care and time. Nymphs can’t grow a whole shop’s inventory on the spot. Well, we could, but the drain on our power and energy would cause any normal nymph to lose consciousness. We grew our flowers little by little. For large orders, we carved out days. For others, like daily deliveries, we could do it in an hour. Sun lanterns, bluebells with soft chimes, and the roses with built in charm enhancements were the biggest magical sellers, my personal favorite flowers being sun lanterns. Vibrant yellow pods, they were essentially immortal. Like Lazurus plants with water, they would remain dormant and shriveled until placed in sunlight for an hour or so; then, they would uncurl and float up in the air, illuminating a room for up to about a day. Natural solar lanterns.
We had all sorts of succulents, flowers, ground cover, and shrubs. We delivered to local businesses and events, especially weddings. These could be an all day affair, when I stayed at the venue to constantly maintain the freshness of the blooms. It drained me, but I got to keep all the tips and Daphne always gave me one or two days off after. Today, we had a delivery to two hotels and two cafes. As I scanned my clipboard, I noticed Cassie’s was the last stop. From under the soil, I felt a little sun break through as I considered that girl would be there. I immediately shook myself. I was being dense. I was just curious; she certainly wasn’t human, but she wasn’t any kind of magic I knew.
In thinking about this, one of the lilies for the first hotel came out slightly pink rather than white. I quickly fixed it, the annoyed feeling from earlier starting to seep in. I was getting distracted and I never wanted to mess up an order due to just being distracted. I got all the lilies cut, added the appropriate greenery we kept handy, wrapped up the package and left for the hotel. I managed to put the girl out of my head until I’d delivered the second to last order and headed back to Daphne’s to get Cassie’s flowers. Her order was easy: six bunches of Santa Barbara Daisies, some filler, and some spray roses. Except for the sprays, we had them all on hand. And the sprays were so easy Daphne did them while I was gone. I quickly wrapped them up, thinking about the girl’s hair clip. The way it glowed was impossibly delicate, and the golden light seemed to contrast her hair beautif-
“What’s the smile for?” Daphne asked, cutting some roses for display.
“What? Nothing. Nice day.” I took off out the door before she could accuse me of another blatant mistruth, nearly smacking into the doorframe in my haste.
I arrived at Cassie’s right on time at 8am. I slid the carrier off my back, taking out the packages of flowers and setting them on the counter. I looked around the cafe, casually. Or almost casually. I leaned on the high counter lining the pickup bar, hoping and not hoping that I could get out of here quick.
“Can I help you?”
I jumped and spun around to the bar. Unfortunately, given spatial relations and Murphy’s law, my hip jammed itself directly into the corner of the bar. I yelped and clutched my hip. “Fuck!”
“Oh my god! Are you alright?” I looked up through squinted eyes and almost swore again. Of course it would be her.
“Uh, oh, yeah, just fine.” I stood slowly and leaned on the bar again, a little more heavily this time. “I’m just delivering the flowers.”
She stared at me for a second, then realized the packages were in front of her. “Oh! They’re lovely!” She had a nice voice. European, maybe Spanish?
“Oh excellent” Cassie emerged from the back room, carrying a stack of boxes. The top one began to slip, and the girl ran over and took it from her. “Ah, thank you Llana dear.”
I realized I was staring. I busied myself unwrapping the flowers, and signing the invoice. Cassie winked at me; I was sure she knew why I was so nervous. I coughed a goodbye and somewhat limped my way out the door.
Her name was Llana.
This routine happened every day for a week. I can’t say I was feeling any more positive, but at least my hip didn’t suffer anymore. I was absolutely terrified to say anything more than “Morning” to Llana. But at least I had something nice to think about.
One morning, I woke up with my alarm but laid there for a few minutes. The morning was very quiet, with sounds of a barely stirring city. For some reason, it was a little easier to get up that day, it was easier to look in the mirror, it was easier to run. It was easier to look in the mirror, and the shop windows blurring past, and see Mama’s face in my reflection. And it was easier to walk into Cassie’s and say,
“Good morning,” Llana replied, handing me the teas Cassie had already made. “I’m glad it’s a good one today.” I knitted my eyebrows. “You usually just say ‘morning.’ Today you said good morning.”
I opened my mouth, but my brain hadn’t decided what was going to come out. It was too slow, apparently, because instead of “thank you” or “You’re the most beautiful being I’ve ever seen upon this hellscape of an earth,” what I said was “You too!”
We stared at each other for a moment as the steam rose from the tea in my hands, and my brain finally caught up. When it did, it suddenly decided, wow, this is the worst thing you’ve pretty much ever done. I decided the best course of action was to spin around, nearly slinging tea all over myself, and leave IMMEDIATELY.
“You too?!” I berated myself as I strode with rage down the street. “What the fuck.” I was irrationally angry, and I know it wasn’t really about “You too.” It had been such a good morning. All I’d had to do was go with it and be a functioning human.
Daphne looked up as I stomped in. I practically threw her tea to her and slammed mine on the desk. She leapt up and grabbed my shoulders. “Oh no, we are taking this bad energy OUT.” She pushed me back out the door and onto the promenade. “What is up with you, girl? You’re spacey, then I can barely get you to talk to me, then you’re happy for a hot second before you come blazin in here with the fury of a thousand suns. Now, I don’t care if I make every order and customer we have today late, you are gonna tell me what the hell is going on.” She folded her arms, and stood as though I was going to charge her.
I glared at her, my hands shoved deep in my pockets and screwing up my mouth. I didn’t want to admit that I was angry over something so stupid, even though I knew it wasn’t just that. I didn’t want to say that I felt like I’d messed up a good day. I didn’t want to say that I’d messed up the last year of my life. I didn’t want to talk about stuff that hurt. But Daphne glared right back.
“I like this girl who works at Cassie’s, okay? And I fucked up talking to her this morning. And I hate waking up and thinking its going to be a good day and then I fuck it up. And I feel like I can’t do anything right and I’m always on autopilot, and I was to actually choose how something goes but I guess fucking not and I just wish I had-” I stopped. My throat tightened. Daphne had one hand on her cheek, her eyes gently gazing at me. “I wish I had Mama,” I choked out. I squeezed my eyes shut and shoved the heels of my hands against them.
“Oh honey.” I felt Daphne wrap her arms around me. “Oh honey.”
Do you ever think you can hold it together as long as someone else doesn’t actually show you any emotion back? Like if they just stand there silently, you can pull it back and be fine and not completely dissolve? The moment Daphne got hold of me, I burst into tears. I cried for a few minutes. It felt good. It felt like I was opening the tattered box in the attic of my mind and letting the bad stuff out for a walk. Daphne rubbed my back. She didn’t say anything else, just let me cry.
I finally caught my breath and pulled away. “Jesus. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” I hiccuped a few times.
“Why are you apologizing?” Daphne asked. “It’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to feel, especially if you’re angry. But I can’t tell if you’re more afraid of crying or of feeling, girl.”
In the back of my internet brain, I knew that was a Quotable Moment™. I often wondered if Daphne had some seer in her, Like Cassie. But in any case, I took a deep breath, and followed her back inside.
Usually, after work, I get home around 5. I go water my plants, toss a meal into the microwave, and slump on the couch with a hyperfixational book or show. Maybe some grocery shopping or stopping in for a drink somewhere. After Mama died, I stopped seeing friends and going to parties. I think they were relieved, honestly. How do you invite the girl whose mother just died to anything fun? With sudden free time and almost no relationships outside of Daphne and Cassie, I went dark. I packed up the house, packed all Mama’s stuff in boxes, sold the furniture and moved away. Mama was the nymph in the family, my dad was human. His family was some rich snobby family who refused to acknowledge the “stain on the family name,” or so they said in their letter back from the funeral announcement. No support from them, then. Daphne let me keep my job and paid me more, now that there were only two of us. I found my apartment, but it’s just one room that’s mine. So I put what I had of Mama into storage, shoving all my memories into that attic.
But tonight, after I got home from work, I didn’t sit down or water my plants. I paced for a while, holding my phone in one hand and tapping the other against my leg. I don’t know whether you’re more afraid of crying or of feeling, I heard over and over again. I flipped my phone over a few times, staring out the window. Yeah. Okay. I took a long breath.
I called the storage company, and then an Uber. I grabbed a jacket, brushed dirt off my jeans, and jumped into the backseat of my White Corolla ride. The nice diver, about my age, was a human girl. She was very chatty, playing the local pop station. I tipped her as much as I could and walked very quickly to my container.
I hadn’t had much to store. They gave me a small one, more like a shed, near the front. It was cheap, as units go, so they told me. I flipped through my keys for the one to the padlock, the wind starting to kick up, whipping the dust off the gravel. I fumbled with the lock for a few minutes before suddenly realizing I was trying to use my apartment key. After a moment of reflection, I managed to get in. I was strangely nervous, as though I was meeting someone else’s mother.
I looked around. It was mostly her clothes and jewellery packed in vacuum bags (As Seen on TV!) and wrapped in fabric. My mama had this love of bangles; one whole box was dedicated to them. I never wore any, they were too hard to keep on, but Mama wore four on each arm, all the same set. She’d loved t-shirts, too. Every concert, every school either of us went to, she would get a new one. I opened the box on top. It was filled with vacuum bags – sweaters. I dug through boxes until I found the packs I was looking for; her oldest, favorite shirts, older than me, so long in her closet she’d forgotten where she’d gotten them. A black long sleeve with glittery thread woven throughout. An a bright yellow halter with a daisy pattern. A faded baseball tee with dark green edging. And the one I loved most, a green t-shirt with a velvet star in the center of the chest, about the size of my hand. I held it for a moment, then grabbed the whole bag and shoved it in my knapsack. I closed the box back up and looked at the shelves.
Up to there were plastic containers of cards and pictures. I reached up, barely able to slide them off with my fingertips. One held all the cards I’d gotten from her and vice versa over the years. The other held all the photo albums and loose pictures from frames. As I reached for it, I saw the picture pressed against the edge.
It was of Mama and I, taken with Daphne’s old film camera. We’re laughing, arms around each other, and Mama is wearing her star shirt. It was my 18th birthday, right before I went to college. I don’t know what made us laugh or what was happening, but it was Mama through and through.
For a moment, I hesitated. I could put it back, put it all back. I could lock up and go home and go to sleep, forget and just ignore. Ignoring was better than remembering, right?
“I don’t know whether you’re more afraid of crying or of feeling, girl.”
I locked up and called another rideshare. A large car this time, enough for a few boxes and a large backpack, and my decisions.
The next day, I dragged myself to work. I hadn’t slept at all. My hair was untenable, my eyes were puffy. But underneath my jacket, I had on that baseball tee. I changed my phone screen to that picture. Baby steps, I told myself. And baby steps felt okay.
I stopped at Cassie’s. Cassie herself wasn’t there, just Llana. She looked up as I came in. She raised an eyebrow in askance.
“Good morning,” I answered.
She smiled. “Good morning. The usual?”
That was all. And that felt okay too.
I walked to the flower shop, where Daphne had the heater on. I took off my jacket, and called to the back to let Daphne know I was there. I tucked my shirt into my jeans and reached for my apron. There was a small gasp from behind me.
Daphne stood in front of the office door, her eyes the size of dinner plates. She blinked a few times, and gave a shaky laugh. “My lord, girl, you look just like your mama.”
“I know,” I said, giving her an equally unsteady smile. I told her about going to the storage room as we started work. I told her how I’d gone home and the vampire roommate had helped me carry my boxes up the stairs, and offered to make me some coffee. I told her how I’d actually made myself a real drink and after politely thanking him but refusing, and looked through everything I’d brought home. I showed her the picture on my phone and told her I saved some cards. Daphne was smiling so big I was afraid she was stuck.
“This doesn’t mean I’m like, magically better, you know.” I warned her. “It’s a step, and there’s a whole mile of steps ahead of me.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, still grinning like a cat. “But you took a step, and that’s big, hon.”
I nodded, and we moved on.
The next week or so passed, and nothing changed. I didn’t go back to the storage room, but I made sure to bring out the things I’d already gotten. I put up the pictures on my wall, and the albums on my bookshelf. The shirts went in my dresser. I looked at one card every day; I was a Valentine’s Day one. Mama and I had our own tradition. We would get each other coffee and a bag of mystery chocolates, then come home and watch bad romcoms and eat it all. Mama had written in the card, “There is a lot to love in this beautiful world, but you are the most beautiful, and the most loved. I love you big, Mama.” Love you big was our thing. It was on every card, every night before bed, before every hangup. I looked at this card every day, and I started to get an idea.
In the meantime, I started talking to Llana more. She was from Spain, and she was, in fact, not human. She avoided the specifics, though, and I didn’t push it. She, in turn, asked more about me, always gauging a Morning from a Good Morning first. On the Mornings, I like to think my tea tasted just a little sweeter than normal. Not too much, but noticeable. But maybe it was psychosomatic. In any case, she always smiled at me through the window and I always nearly collided with something in front of me. I nearly dropped my cup when she laughed at a bad joke I made. Her hair clip, beautifully shining, bathed her face in a warm glow. I began to notice that even when the lights in the coffee shop were dim, and the sky was dark and cloudy, it still glowed and shimmered. It was too bright to be reflecting anything.
The next week, I went back to the storage room. I got some of Mama’s sweaters, and her old books. Curled up in an enormous sherpa jacket at home, I read through as many mythology books as I could. Nothing in any of them mentioned anything like Llana. I did steer clear of Greek though. I knew all about that anyway.
The weather, while in springtime, suddenly took a chill. I found myself wearing the sherpa to work one morning, over the lucky star shirt. I had been up most of the night, turning over the same idea from a week or two ago. I’d been putting the pieces together.
I got to Cassie’s as usual, and Llana smiled as I came in. “Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning! The usual?”
“Actually,” I said, “could I get an extra shot of courage in mine?”
“Courage?” She asked, measuring tea leaves. “Sure, what for?” She slapped a hand to her mouth. “Shit, sorry, that’s inappropriate to ask.”
“No, it’s okay,” I mumbled into my collar. “I’m taking a baby step today, but it’s actually maybe a big step? Like, it’s a good thing, but…but I gotta make sure I can get myself there, y’know?”
Llana gazed at me for a moment, then nodded. “Alright, one Oolong with a shot of focus and a shot of courage, and one chai with a shot of calm.” She dropped in the strainers and turned back to me. She leaned on the counter, and her fingers kept touching her thumb in a pattern. Nervous habit. “So,” she said, “Cassie says you’re a nymph. So you have a specialty?”
“Yeah, I’m an anthousia. Specifically flowers. That’s why I work at Daphne’s.”
“I would love to do that.” She sighed.
I smiled at her, glancing around. “What’s your favorite flower? Magic or not?”
“Hmmm. What’s that golden one? It floats, kind of looks like a bell? It’s magical, obviously.”
I almost choked on my own spit. “Sun Lanterns?”
Her face lit up. “Yes!”
I shook my head a little at the odds, then held up my hand, palm up. A sun lantern seemed to grow from my skin, twisting into being from the light around me. Llana watched with huge eyes as the little flower rose up to her eye line. I smiled at her astounded expression. She looked like she might take a step back when I held it out to her.
“Really?” She asked quietly. I nodded. She tentatively reached out across the counter and the sun lantern floated into her hand. She held it close to her face, letting out a small laugh. She sounded thrilled.
“Here.” I reached out, and touched the bloom, closing my eyes. “There, now it’ll dooooo…..that.” The lantern had floated up to rest just behind her ear, as though it were pinned in her hair.
“No way!”She ran to the other side of the bar, the length of the room. The sun lantern whizzed along with her, keeping its place. She laughed again. God, I could listen to that sound till the end of days. She looked so happy, I could feel her enthusiasm reflected in me, , and I began to feel lighter, like I would really be fully-
What, had she said something?
“I said, I think your teas are done,” she said, pointing to them on the bar.
“Oh, right.” I shook myself. Grabbing the cups, I went to leave, but suddenly, just at the door, I turned back. Llana was holding the sun lantern in her hands again, gazing at it with something like…well, a really good something.
“Hey Llana?” I asked before my brain engaged. She looked up, her face lit equally by the sun lantern and her clip. “Do you want to meet me for a drink tonight? Or a bite to eat?” I was grateful that I managed to ask with a surprising amount of composure, though admittedly at an octave higher than normal.
She didn’t move for a moment. I began to panic. But then, the most amazing thing happened.
She burst into a smile as though she was made of sunshine. She looked as though she’d been given a drink of water after a drought, finally free of uncertainty.
“Yes, oh my god I would love-” She stopped short and coughed. “I mean, yes, I’d like that. Does 6:00 work okay?”
“6 is just fine. Meet you here?” 6pm had never seemed like a better time of day.
“Okay.” She raised her hand in a wave. I gestured with a cup, backing into the door a bit too hard. Half winded, I made my way to Daphne’s in a daze.
Daphne told me the order for the day as I came in, which I barely retained. I concentrated on all the flowers (we had a wedding tomorrow, but we were dropping them off tonight, mercifully) a concoction of lilies, baby’s breath, and forget-me-nots. The bride had been very gracious and accommodating, but the mother was a nightmare. She was adamant that there be ABSOLUTELY NO MAGIC in her baby’s flowers. Some humans were wary of anything magical. A few thought magic was “dirty,” some just didn’t want to pay for the extra labor. The majority of the sticklers just wanted “normal” flowers because it was more….familiar, I guess? These humans were always very courteous and nice. This Mother of the Bride was not one of these humans. Luckily Daphne had a very thorough contract.
I took my time. All these flowers were very delicate, and took a lot of care to get just right. It was easy to overgrow them. You could shoot right past “tomorrow is peak bloom” and straight into “honey the flowers are made of fruit flies” if you weren’t very careful. Daphne made calls all day in the office. We were hitting peak wedding planning season for the end of summer through fall. She was constantly on the phone with brides, planners, and venues. I was set to deliver the flowers at four, and head home from there.
We took lunch at 11:00, and as we ate in silence I turned my question over in my mind. I could feel myself overthinking how to ask it, so when Daphne finished her salad and leaned back in her chair, I just blurted it out.
“I’m going to get a tattoo.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “A tattoo?”
I jerkily nodded.
“What happened to baby steps?”
“Honestly, this feels like a baby step. Well, maybe a little bigger than a baby step, but not a real big one. It feels…good. Natural.” I rubbed my palm with a thumb.
Daphne laced her fingers over her stomach and tilted her face to the ceiling. She was quiet. I picked at the last of my lunch. I told myself she would be the best judge of my actions, and tried to wait patiently.
After the longest 30 seconds of recent history, she finally looked back at me. “Well, it seems like a big step to me, but I’m not you. If you think it’s right, and you’re sure, then it’s right.”
I let out my breath. “Thanks, Daphne.”
“At least you’re sensible. Unlike this client! Lilies?! Half her daughter’s guests will be sneezing their eyes out! And no magic? The day before?!” She shook her head. “When you get married, girl, you better keep a sane head on your shoulders.”
“Alright, who’s taking big steps now?”
I stepped into the Cat’s Cradle, the nearest magical tattoo shop. The walls were covered in pictures of their art and clients. A cat trotted out from behind a desk, meowing assertively.
“Cleo!” A woman called, running out from a closet at the back. She was small, but her muscle tone when she picked up the cat indicated she was deceptively strong. She had a young, confident face framed by a beautifully simple hijab. “Sorry, she got out of the office.”
“It’s okay.” I held out a hand for Cleo to inspect. She gave me a sniff and a small lick
“My name is Soñia,” the woman said, depositing Cleo behind the front desk and firing up the computer. “Cleo’s a comfort cat, she helps calm our clients. Walk in or appointment?”
“Um, walk in.”
“Alright, we could fit you in in about half an hour, around 4:45. Do you need to look at a design binder?” Her tone was brisk, but not impolite.
“Actually do you guys do handwriting?”
She frowned a little. “We can do both magical and non-magical handwriting, but I have to warn you that we cannot guarantee that there will be a perfectly identical match-
“How close can you get?” I cut in.
Her frown disappeared. “Damn close.”
“Good enough for me.” I pulled out the Valentines card, pointing at the line. “How about this, magically?”
Soñia waved her hand and made a pfft noise. “Simple. The same size as the card?” I nodded. “It will take an hour, possibly an hour and fifteen for the magical freeze to set. We freeze the magic so that your skin can heal. It will activate in a day or two.”
I confirmed I’d be back in half an hour and went to get a snack. It was overcast out, but it wasn’t supposed to rain until tomorrow. I sat on a bench, eating my power bar, contemplating. What a day. I did not have these kinds of days. These kinds of days happened to other people.
“Stop it.” I said to myself. “It’s just a day. Let yourself have a day.”
I got back to Cat’s Cradle at 4:45 on the dot. Soñia was rolling up a prayer mat. “Perfect timing,” she said, leaning the mat against a corner and rubbing her hands together. She picked up a stencil that was somewhat glowing. “Shall we?”
I’ll spare the details, as I didn’t watch most of it. I’ve never been a huge fan of needles, so I focused on petting Cleo. An hour and nine minutes later, I was bandaged up, part of the inside of my forearm unsettlingly numb. We’d taken an old style Polaroid of it, and I paid Soñia (with a hefty tip, because her confidence had paid off).
“It’s beautiful handwriting,” she said, printing my receipt.
“Yes,” I said, half smiling, “It was my mother’s.”
Soñia nodded, handed me my receipt, and I left. My arm around the numb part ached, but the bandage was lighter than I had thought. I still had maybe 40 minutes to get home and ready. For my date. With Llana. I almost laughed. “Wow,” I said, as I broke into a jog, “Wow.”
We met casually outside Cassie’s at about 7:01 and 29 seconds (vaguely). Llana had a pretty red peacoat on, and dark jeans and sneakers. My heart seemed to expand when I saw the sun lantern I suddenly felt underdressed somehow, even though Mama’s sparkly long sleeve and high waist green corduroys were perfectly matching the look. A confident, cool outfit. I was desperately hoping it worked.
We went to a small bistro down the street. Luck was with us, and we were shown to a table in front of the window. Our server was a nice guy, took our coffee and tea orders and bustled off.
“So,” I said as the espresso machine blasted, “How long have you worked at Cassie’s?”
“About 3 months ago. I started with closing shifts, but I’m more of a morning person, She drank some of her water, looking at me closely over the rim. I noticed her hair clip was silver now, still strongly lit. “I like it here. This city is so…” she gestured widely, “Open? That’s not right. I can breathe here.”
“I know what you mean.” I glanced down at the table, tracing the line of the napkin with my finger. “It seems like it’s built to be comforting.”
“Yes!” She pointed at me. “Precisely. I used to live in New York, in Manhattan. If you breathe there, you get like 5 years of second-hand smoke and carbon emissions.” I laughed. “Are you from here?”
I nodded. “Yeah, born and raised. My mama was from LA, but I’ve been here my whole life. Daphne and my mom were old friends, so she gave me a job. Besides, growing flowers is easy for an anthousia.”
“Is that what you want to do?” Llana said this in a way that seemed touchingly interested, not concerned or condescending.
I thought for a moment. “You know, I don’t really know. I went to school for web design, but I haven’t taken it anywhere since-” Don’t drop the dead-mother bombshell on the first date – “since I graduated. But working at Daphne’s is peaceful, and it pays well.”
“Web design is complicated, yes? Computer code and all that?”
“It is. It’s absolutely maddening. But when you get it to work and look just right…” I shrugged. “So satisfying.”
She leaned her chin on the heel of her hand, drumming her fingertips on her cheek. “I never went to college. What is it like?”
For the next half hour I explained everything: semester versus quarter systems, dorm life, majors and minors, all of it. I told her I shared a room with three other girls and she wrinkled her nose. “That sounds so cramped!”
“It was, but we all got along, more or less. Can I ask why you didn’t go?”
She waved her other hand dismissively. “Oh, the village school would never have given us college as an option. We were in the middle of nowhere, many families had been there since before Isabella and Ferdinand. We made our living off the land. And my family in particular wanted nothing to do with the outside world.”
“Village? Not New York?”
“I grew up in Spain, the region of Asturias . I probably should have said that,” she said, rubbing her neck. “Sorry. I’m kind of nervous.”
“Don’t worry; me too.” I smiled and held out my hand. She smiled back and tentatively took it. Her hand was warm. “You don’t have to go into it, if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you.” She breathed out audibly, as though she had been holding her breath. Her hair clip seemed to get brighter. “What were you thinking of ordering?”
“Hmmm,” I hummed, casually glancing over the menu as though my stomach wasn’t eating itself.
I found I liked to learn things about her. I liked her explaining something while showing parts of herself. I learned she held her coffee cup (by the handle, not the body) in one hand while gesticulating with the other. I learned she liked bacon in her potato soup, and that she treated waitstaff with the utmost respect when she said thank you at least three times. I learned she loved portraiture, because her eyes crinkled from her slight smile when she talked about it.
The whole evening was nice. She asked if we could split the bill, and that was perfect to me. We paid and she finished her water and we got up to leave.
“I can walk you home if you like,” I said as we stood outside and she buttoned her coat.
She smiled. “I would like.” Her eyebrows knit together for a moment. “I’m trying to think of a smooth way to ask to hold your and again.”
Oh my god. “It’s all yours,” I said, offering it. She grinned so big I wanted to laugh.
She lived just outside downtown, on the opposite end from me. We walked for about 5 minutes, looking into shops on our way. As we turned left off of the big street, I finally had the nerve to say, “Your hair clip is really beautiful.”
“Mmm,” she said. She was quiet for a minute. I was on the verge of apologising for bringing it up when she sighed. “Thank you. I don’t mean to be rude. I suppose you ought to know.”
Now my eyebrows were the ones knitting. “Know what?”
“Well, I don’t usually tell people what kind of being I am, because there are a lot of people who…who would rather we didn’t exist at all. People who listen to rumors with their eyes closed.” Her eyes were fixed on the sidewalk.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a Xanas.” She said this as though flinging the word from around a barricade.
I blinked. “I…I don’t know what a Xanas is.”
Llana jerked her face up to look at me. “Really?” I shook my head. Relief flooded her face. “A Xanas is Asturian magic. We’re all women, all blonde, and we manipulate fortune. There are ugly stories of us throughout the ages. Switching human babies with our own changelings, stealing money, seducing men to their deaths, killing human women in our way. In Spain, we are persecuted. My village is one of the only safe places left. We are deeply tied to the land, so many of us will never leave. But all we do is manipulate luck and fortune, and make things beautiful: art, nature, ourselves.”
I turned this information over in my mind. I knew that story, my father’s actions had told it to me a thousand times. I squeezed Llana’s hand. “I don’t put much stock in rumors, and my eyes are wide open. Besides, stealing a child? In this economy?” She laughed, and I was proud. “But what about the hair clip?”
“Oh, right. All Xanas have them. They’re made of sunlight and moonlight.”
She tilted her head. I waved my hand, my fingers passing through the beams. They danced and flickered against my skin. “Incredible,” I whispered.
“Thank you,” she whispered back.
We’d made it to her street, and arrived at her house. It was a small brick townhouse, with red stairs, a small porch, and a white door. I must have looked surprised, because Llana grinned mischievously at me. “A Xanas does have a way of running into good fortune. An eccentric aunt of mine left Spain when I was ten. She owned this house, and passed away right before I turned 18. She left it to me in her will. We were always close. It’s why I moved here.”
“Damn,” I said. “I’ve just got an apartment!”
We looked at each other for a moment. “It was really lovely,” she said as I blurted out, “I had a great time.” We laughed nervously, and she squeezed my hand.
“Can we do this again?” She asked.
“I’d love that.” I’d almost never wanted anything more.
“Tomorrow! Here. I’ll cook.”
I was smiling so hard my face was sore. “Tomorrow is perfect.”
She ran up the stairs with a sudden burst of nervous energy, and I turned and walked back towards downtown, and home. But just as I reached the end of the block, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned to see Llana running up, skidding to atop in front of me.
“One more thing,” she said breathlessly, and suddenly we were kissing, and everything was alright. Everything was cool and calm, and for one moment, I forgot everything in the world except this. Except Llana. And when we broke apart, and everything began again, I found it was brighter, and more valuable, just for having Llana in it.
Nothing is ever more jolting than your alarm going off during REM sleep. I would’ve flown upright, had my arm not been securely trapped under a sleeping girl. I gazed at her sleepily for a minute, soaking in her light.
It had been two years since that kiss. I still worked for Daphne (hence the alarm), but with her and Llana’s help I had also secured an internship as a local web design company. Llana was taking fine arts classes at a studio. We were busy and exhausted. We were so happy.
I carefully shifted Llana off my arm, grabbing a sweater as I eased the door open. I’d moved in with Llana six months ago, and now I boiled my tea in a decent kitchen and drank it in front of beautiful windows. I’d had the picture of Mama and I framed, and it sat on the end table of the couch. Llana loved that picture. I’d told her about Mama on our second date, and about how I was (not) coping. Llana asked gentle questions, and held my hand. And when I went to the burial plot on Mama’s birthday, I found bright yellow flowers and a note – “To Delphi, from Llana. Thank you.” I cried my heart out for an hour.
Now I leaned against the window frame, whispering to the picture. “I know you’re watching, Mama. You love her, I hope. Maybe you do, somewhere, where you are. I hope you’re proud.” I paused, thinking of the little box hidden in my sock drawer. “It’s two years, today. I got it all worked out. Simple, though, I’m not overthinking. Daphne keeps teasing me about baby steps.” I looked at my face, happy in a black past, and now. “I miss you, Mama. I love you big.”
I looked quickly down at my tattoo, Mama’s scrawl appeared, writing out, “I love you big, Mama,” the ‘big’ underlined for just a moment. It only happened once in a while. Soñia had explained to me that sometimes, a person’s magic can influence a tattoo of them. I smiled, Mama heard me, somewhere, and she was happy.
I heard shuffling behind me. Llana came out of our room, clutching her favorite blanket around her. Her hair was a mess, but as the early morning light fell on it, it began to straighten and unknot. She was so beautiful in the early, foggy light. Any light.
“Hey, you,” I said, holding out my arms. Llana shuffled into them, snuggling against my shoulder. “Good morning.”
She smiled up at me, eyes half closed, and my stomach swooped. I thought again of that little box, and the ring inside, and was more decided than ever. I wanted to get coffee after work with her every afternoon and hear about her class. I wanted to make her breakfast and dinner, and sun lanterns every day. I wanted to wake up every morning for the rest of my life to hear her say;
“Good morning, Joy.”