Alan slides the blade of his boxcutter out of its sheath with his thumb, and grins. "One more and that's it for the day," he says, and plunges the blade into the tape holding the last box shut.
I finish arranging a set of multicolored candles on the showroom shelf, and walk over. "What's this one?"
"Looks like..." Alan says, squatting in front of the box and reaching inside. "Handbags?"
I reach in and pull a squashy object out of the box. "Little ones. Like, change purses?" The bag I'm holding is about the size of my hand and made out of a shiny scarlet material, decorated with blue Chinese characters and a blue zipper at the top. "Pretty."
"Flashy," Alan says, wrinkling his nose. "Should we put them next to the pens?"
"I guess. Can they stand, do you think?" I open the little bag's zipper and spread my fingers in its interior, trying to flatten the bottom so it will stand on its own.
"We could prop them up against each other, a dazzling rainbow of little handbags!" Alan waves his hands in the air as he suggests this, and I giggle. "Little cheap faux-silk handbags," he continues with distaste, "I don't know what's wrong with sticking with stationery." He reaches into the box and grabs a fistful of bags. That's when I notice a huge, black multi-legged monster emerge from the box of handbags and scuttle onto the floor.
In the first flush of panic I back away, bracing my feet on the carpet, and begin the complicated combination of hand motion and incantation needed to zap the thing with a bolt of lightning. But halfway through I stop, hands in midair, and choke back the words. You're in an office-an OFFICE and you can't use magic!
Alan turns around and sees me standing there with my hands in front of my face. "What?"
I point at the thing now skittering its way across the showroom rug and try to speak, but all that comes out is a squeak.
Alan follows my finger to the rapidly moving creature, and when he sees it, he lets out a shriek and tosses his handfuls of bags in the air, bounding for a chair at the other end of the room and standing on it. I race to join him, cowering into the wall half in fear and half in shame. Without magic I'm helpless-useless-just a little girl, afraid.
"What in God's name is going on in here?" Danielle pokes her head around the door to the showroom and sees us cringing in the corner. I point at the creature and squeak again.
Danielle looks. "It's just a cockroach."
Both Alan and I gawk at her. "Just a cockroach? Look at the size of it!" I manage to sputter.
"Oh for-" she cuts off, stomps back to the reception desk, and comes back with a fistful of tissues. She chases the roach into a corner and smashes the tissues into it-moving quickly, considering she's eight months pregnant. "You two are such babies," she says, lifting the tissues to show the squashed bits of cockroach held within. "She's only sixteen but Alan, you're thirty, what's your excuse?"
"Uch don't wave that around, it's disgusting," says Alan.
Danielle rolls her eyes and tosses the tissue into the trash. "I was coming to see if you'd cover the phones, Eliza," she said. "I have to run to the bank real quick, just ten minutes."
Alan's stepping down from his chair. "And leave me to unpack that? There could be, like, dozens or hundreds of those things in there!"
"Yeah, I'll cover," I say, scooping up my own handbag and jogging out of the room after Danielle.
"Eliza!" Alan whines. I grin at him and wave, my roach-inspired terror diminished by the creature's demise.
"Have fun!" I say, slipping out of the showroom and into the reception area.
I settle myself at the desk and watch Danielle walk-well, waddle a little-out of the office and into the elevator. Once she's gone and I'm alone, I rest my chin on my arms and sigh. It would be so much easier if I was allowed to use magic at work. I could have roasted that stupid roach, or teleported it out of the showroom and straight into one of the toilets or something before Alan had even seen it. But instead I was completely helpless before the most terrifying creature on earth-worse than hodags, even-and had to get rescued by a pregnant receptionist. But, like all witches and wizards, I'm compelled to keep magic a secret from those who can't use it, or risk losing my powers and being thrown out of the magical community for the rest of my life.
The phone rings and I snatch it up-bad form to let it ring twice.
"Good-afternoon-Wei-International-Stationers-this-is-Eliza-how-may-I-help-you?" I've said the phrase so many times it comes out in a rapid patter, as though I were singing Gilbert and Sullivan.
"Hello sweetheart, I was hoping I'd get you." A familiar voice with a drawling Boston accent on the end of the line. I have to resist heaving a sigh.
"Oh, hello Mr. Currie, how are you this afternoon? Did you get your shipment?" I hate it when Mr. Currie calls me "sweetheart," but I can't be impolite to him, as he's one of the Weis' biggest customers. He sells a respectable array of their imported stationery from his shop on Newbury Street in Boston, and can be relied upon to place a hefty order every week. Of course, that means he calls at least twice a day, and mostly he likes to talk to me.
"I keep telling you to call me David," he says with a laugh. "And yeah, I got it, but I'm missing those gel-ink pens, do you know if they're coming, sweetheart?"
"Oh-you know, I think there was a problem with those, they came to us late, so we had to send them separately. I'm pretty sure Angela sent them out already, let me look up the tracking number." I start tapping at the computer.
"You're a lifesaver, darling," says Mr. Currie. "Did I hear it's your last day, though?"
"Mm-hm," I respond, tapping out the complicated series of numbers and letters into the tracking website. "A few weeks off before I get back to school."
"Yeah, when are you going to tell me what school you go to? You make it sound like a huge secret."
It is a secret-I go to a boarding school to learn magic, after all.
"Sorry Mr. Currie, I can't have you call me every day while I'm at school, I have to study."
"Oh, well, I'll miss you. Are you coming back next summer?"
"We'll see. Oh-got it, yes, the pens will arrive first thing tomorrow morning. Will that be okay?"
"Perfect. I'll put in a good word for you if you want to come back next year, you know, I'm the Weis' best customer."
"That you are, sir. And just a reminder-the Weis are going to branch out into small gifts in addition to their core stationery line, so if you'd care to stop by the showroom to see some of the new items on display, we'd love to see you." This last phrase is a complete lie, but I'm required to remind all of the customers of the Weis' new inventory when they call.
"I'll keep it in mind, but without you there, what would be the point, sweetheart?"
Yuck. "Is there anything else you need, sir?"
"Just that you call me David. Well, best of luck at school; talk to you next year I hope."
"Thanks, good-bye," I say and hang up the phone. Maybe that will be the last time I have to deal with Mr. Currie's calls-now that will be a relief. Other than dealing with him, I've enjoyed my summer job working as an assistant to the other employees at the Weis' office. I'd helped to place orders, answer phones, pack small sample shipments, and keep track of inventory. The best part was arranging the showroom of samples with Alan. But I'm looking forward to a few weeks of quiet and rest at home before returning to Iris Academy and resuming my study of magic.
Danielle isn't back in ten minutes, or in twenty, and the phone doesn't ring again. Manning a reception desk that doesn't get phone calls is deathly boring, so I open my personal e-mail account on Danielle's computer. Just one e-mail-a short one-from Minnie Cochran, last year's freshman class president. She's been e-mailing all summer with ideas for new fundraisers for next year's freshman class initiation, and seems gleeful about it now that we're sophomores, and not the ones being initiated. I've been slow to reply-my memories of the initiation aren't great, and Minnie seems happy to be doing most of the work so far. No e-mails from Virginia or Ellen either-Ellen's at school for the summer, where technology is generally forbidden, and I don't think Virginia's magical family even knows what a computer is (Minnie, on the other hand, is oddly technology-savvy for a witch). I log out and stare at the blank screen for a little while. No Danielle, no phone calls. So I fish in my bag and take out a letter from my husband.
It's odd being married at sixteen, even if you're not married to one of your school professors, which I am. A "marriage of convenience" doesn't quite cover the circumstances, as we'd only done it after I'd been attacked by a spirit that would have-what, sucked out my soul? Killed me? I wasn't quite clear on the details-had I not joined Professor Grabiner's family immediately. So now I'm married, and can't get divorced until the end of January, next year.
It wasn't a pleasant occasion. Professor Grabiner was already famous as the most prickly teacher at Iris Academy, and I'd already gotten on his bad side simply for being a wildseed-that is, a witch born to non-magical parents. He'd been furious at the necessity of the marriage, and had done his best to avoid me as often as possible-no mean feat, as I'd been serving as the freshman class treasurer under his direct supervision. And needless to say, he didn't so much as touch me, even refusing to kiss me at the marriage ceremony itself.
But over the course of the year, we started getting more comfortable with each other, to the point where we were able to hold a decent conversation. He was prickly, yes, but also interesting, intelligent, witty, and at times, disarmingly funny. And at the end of the year, when I admitted that I might have a bit of a crush on him after all, he'd kissed me. Just once, very briefly, and with no ulterior motive, but it had been my first kiss and was therefore significant. Afterwards he'd said that we might be able to write to each other over the summer.
I'd agonized over that first letter-I'd never written one to anyone other than my grandparents before, and had no idea what to say that didn't seem prosaic and stilted. I couldn't even talk about magic, as I was spending the summer in a completely magic-free environment. I was living with my parents-who'd been bewitched into forgetting that I had magical talent after my first day of school-and working in a non-magical stationery importer's office. How could any of that possibly interest an older, accomplished magician?
I'd spent a week and a half scribbling on, then crumpling up papers from a set of stationery I'd been given from the office, when his first letter came-written on heavy-stocked, cream-colored paper and in a tiny, precise script. It was short and neutral-just a bit about the nicer summer weather in the Vermont mountains and a thought about a book he was reading on an alternate teleportation theory-but it gave me something to respond to, rather than having to think up an entire letter on my own. As the months of May and June went by, I received and sent increasingly longer letters about once a week, and I began to feel more comfortable telling him about life at home, my job, and the mundane little details that made up my summer vacation. But in mid-July, the letters stopped coming. At first I told myself he was just busy, the school year would be coming up at the beginning of September, he must be planning lessons and examinations as well as conducting his own research projects on the side. But after three weeks with no letter, I'm anxious. Had I offended him in my last letter? I couldn't think how, though he had been prone to bouts of pique (sometimes provoked, sometimes not) during the last school year. Even then, he'd always calmed down and apologized within a day or so. I couldn't begin to guess at what could be so terrible that he would stop writing entirely.
I'd taken to keeping the letters in a zippered pouch in my handbag, just in case my mother decided to go through my room. The content of the letters was innocuous enough, and I'd told her when I'd received the first envelope that it was a friend from school who was writing (the handful of letters I received from Virginia and Ellen bolstered my claim), but I didn't want to take the risk of her recognizing his name (which he never put on the envelope return address, probably for that very reason). In the past few letterless weeks, I'd taken to reading and re-reading them until I had each practically memorized, debating with myself whether I should just write to him again, and ask what was going on. But to do so seemed oddly presumptuous, and my attempts only resulted in more crumpled stationery.
So instead, I'm stuck at an empty reception desk, smoothing the paper out on my thigh, re-reading the very last letter he'd sent.
I was pleased to receive your last letter. It is rather troublesome to spend all of one's time unable to use magic, I agree. I have considered lobbying to Professor Potsdam to require students from non-magical families to remain at school during the summer vacation-a rather outmoded concept in this day of air conditioning and de-agriculturalized society, don't you think?-but consider, it may lead to a slightly unfair advantage for those in magical families who don't receive formalized education over the summer, not to mention an inordinate amount of additional work for me, horror of horrors.
Thank you for your inquiry with regards to my latest proposed publication. Your interest is most gratifying though I'm well aware that a lengthy discussion of the intricacies of the more esoteric black magic theories may mean little to you at your level of education. Suffice to say that my initial manuscript will be completed in the next week, at which time I'll be free to spend the remainder of the year fretting over whether I'll receive the requisite funding to continue. I don't expect to hear from the council until next January or so. The wheels of academic publishing, as they say, grind slowly but exceedingly fine.
Unfortunately, I must end this letter here, as I have an unusual number of appointments to attend to today-an anomaly in what has otherwise been a peaceful summer, and I hardly need add, a rather unwelcome one. I promise a longer letter next week; until such time I remain
The promise remained unkept, but the valedictation-what to make of that, I wondered, for the twentieth time in as many days. Yours, H. "Yours." It's a perfectly common way to end a letter, I tell myself, it doesn't mean anything. But still, seeing it written down on paper, holding it in my hand, it's not difficult to imagine it could mean something, even if I can't say precisely what.
Startled, I look up to see Danielle, her arms full of papers and a long flat box, pushing the double doors of the office open with her butt. I shove my letter back into my bag and jump up to get the door.
"Sorry I'm late! I decided to wait for the mail." She heaves the box and papers onto the top of the desk and starts to sort them. "You got something," she says, lifting a large, cream colored envelope out of the stack. "Mmm, nice paper, what is this, 60 pound?" She laughs. "I never thought I'd judge people by the envelope before I started working here." She hands me the envelope.
There's no return address, but also no mistaking the thick, heavy paper and the tiny script in which my name and work address have been written on the envelope. It's my letter, my promised letter, three weeks late.
"It's not from Dave Currie, is it? I've been telling him to leave you alone, if he's not careful, I'm going to be jealous."
"No, it's from..." I'm scrutinizing the large set of three stamps on the right upper corner, wondering why I suddenly feel uneasy, when I see the postmark and blurt it aloud in surprise. "London!"
"Huh," says Danielle, without much interest. "They're lucky it got here today, before you're gone for good. And speaking of which..." She grins and whips open the box that had been underneath the papers, revealing not more mail, but a dozen cupcakes, piled high with brightly colored icing. As if on cue, Alan, Angela, Mr. and Mrs. Wei, and the rest of the office employees burst into the reception area, shouting "surprise!"
"Oh my god, look at her! We scared her half to death," shouts Alan, triumphant. "Come on, doll, pick a cupcake."
"Oh, wow, thanks so much everyone," I start, forcing myself to smile.
"Come on, pick one," Danielle insists. "Are you going to keep my baby waiting for cake? Monster." This, at least, gets me laughing, and I pick a pink-frosted cake that looks likely to be raspberry.
"Happy last day, and thank you for your help this summer," says Mrs. Wei, giving me a quick hug.
"And," says Alan, sneaking beside me to place a candle in my cupcake, "happy birthday!"
"It's not 'til Monday!" I protest, as Alan lights the candle with a cigarette lighter.
"Are you going to let that stop us from having cupcakes?" asks Alan in mock-shock. "You really are a monster." And I have to laugh again, and blow out my candle as the others swarm around the desk to claim a cupcake.
It's not until after the well wishes, the last handshakes, hugs, and farewells, not until I'm safely in my car in the dark of the parking garage that I get a good look at the envelope and realize what was so unsettling about it earlier. It's the handwriting-in the familiar jet ink and almost impossibly small-but it's neither neat nor precise. Actually, it looks as though it was written quickly and carelessly. I rip the envelope open and ease the letter out, realizing that he hadn't kept his promise of a long letter after all-it's only a single page folded over, and just a few lines. The writing in the letter is even worse than on the envelope-it's nearly scrawled, and there's a splatter of ink at the end of the second line.
Don't have time to explain now. You'll receive a communication from Professor Potsdam within the day. It's imperative that you follow her instructions exactly-she'll take care of any resistance from your family.
I'll explain in detail when I see you next.
I read the letter again, and then a third time, but it makes just as little sense as it did on the first read-through. But the feeling of unease that I'd hoped would be dispelled by reading the contents of the letter hasn't gone, it's deepened into a sense of dread. Hieronymous Grabiner, splatter ink on a letter? A letter postmarked from London, capital of the country in which he'd refused to set foot for over a decade? The only explanation I can think of is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.