"Charlotte, you only have four days to live."
The world seemed to come crashing down on Charlotte when her doctor said those words. He was trying his best to sound like he felt bad, she knew, but the words sounded so rehearsed and cold, like he didn't actually care that she was dying. But who could blame him? He probably had to tell tons of kids every day that they were going to die, and Charlotte was just another one of them.
The world was a blur after that. Her mother's pleads and cries—"You can't do anything doctor? She's only ten! Please!"—may as well have been white noise. Later that day, she saw so many family members, even people she didn't remember that she'd only met when she was a baby. They were all crying over her, but Charlotte couldn't even muster a tear.
This was all happening on TV. None of this could be real. She'd always been sickly, ever since she was a kid, and the leukemia had made it worse, but she'd always managed even if it meant giving up her favorite things. There was no way this could all be coming to fruition now. Yes, this had to be fiction—that's why the faces of all her visiting relatives blurred together, and why all their wishes and hopes for her happiness in the afterlife were just background noise, and why their warm tears falling on her when they hugged her didn't feel real. This was all just fiction.
But that night, as Charlotte lay in bed, the numbness that had overcome her all day wore off, and she cried. She sobbed quietly, gripping the hospital bed sheets until her knuckles turned white. Crying always made the pain fly away, but not tonight—the pain would not go away until she was dead.
Suddenly, Charlotte's breaths felt shorter than usual. Had she been crying too much? Perhaps she had cried out all the water in her body and her organs were drying out. One of the nurses did say that could happen if you cry too much, but Charlotte had been sure that was just to keep her from crying all the time, and it had worked up until then.
Oh well, Charlotte thought to herself as she lay flat in the bed and let her breaths get shorter and her pulse slow, let it come. At least I won't have to see my mommy crying again tomorrow.
Charlotte was so wrapped up in the idea of finally letting it all go and dying that she almost didn't notice the cat-creature at her windowsill. But when she did, she didn't think it odd at all—in fact, despite the fact that she was on the fourth story where no cat could reach her, she was rather expecting this to happen. "Are you the angel that's gonna bring me to heaven like Mommy said would happen?" Charlotte said in the strained whisper that she could manage. Her pulse was slowing even more. It was time.
The cat-like creature cocked its head. In the dim light, Charlotte could barely make out its white fur and bright red eyes that pierced the light. Its face was an unnatural, unmoving expression that could be cute, if it were on a stuffed animal instead of a living thing.
"My name is Kyubey," a voice echoed in Charlotte's head. She was still not surprised though; maybe this was just a near-death hallucination.
"H-hello… Kyubey," Charlotte strained again.
"Charlotte, you want to live, don't you?" the voice in Charlotte's head echoed again.
Charlotte thought of all the things she'd done before death. There wasn't much, actually—she mostly just drew pictures, read books and watched TV. There wasn't much for a sick girl to do. "I don't think I would, unless I could be healthy."
"You are an honest girl, Charlotte. Would you like to be able to live again, like a normal girl?"
This got Charlotte's attention. She thought back to all the times her friends had invited her to play with them before she had to be put into the hospital, but she had to decline because she was too fragile to walk too much, or really do anything besides sit around. She thought back to all the things she saw on TV, of men climbing mountains and girls playing sports without breaking their foot every time it hit a soccer ball.
"I-I would! What can I do for that though?"
"If you make a contract with me and become a magical girl, I can grant you any wish you want. I can give you your health again—I can save your life if you just agree to use your powers to fight witches."
"A magical girl… like Sailor Moon?"
"You don't have much time, Charlotte. You will die very soon unless you make this contract with me."
"Sounds fun… I'll do it!" Charlotte said. Her heart had almost stopped, yet she felt like it was dancing from joy.
The cat-like creature flicked its tail. "Wonderful. Your body is far too weak for me to bring it to the place where I usually make contracts, so this place will have to do. Please, formally state your wish so that I can grant it."
"I-I want you to give me my health back," Charlotte said as she took one last sharp breath. Her heart had stopped. Was it too late? I guess so, Charlotte thought as the world faded to black—the last thing she saw was the cat-thing's face floating over her, its red eyes ominously piercing the darkness.
"Charlotte? Charlotte! Are you okay?" a woman's voice, soft and maternal, yet panicked and worrying, filled Charlotte's ears like music. It was her mother waking her up—but her mother was not dead. Was she still alive?
Sure enough, as Charlotte sat up in bed, the smell of warm breakfast food filled her nostrils. Oatmeal with cinnamon sugar and orange juice—some of Charlotte's favorites. But of course, no cheese and dairy—her real favorites.
"Oh thank goodness," her mother practically whispered, embracing her daughter, "I had a bad dream last night that you passed away early. I couldn't believe it—but you're okay now. For now."
Charlotte patted her mother's hair. She loved her mother—she was kind, caring, and beautiful, but she wasn't the best mother ever. Her mother's emotional immaturity had made her father get a divorce, and made Charlotte grow up and learn to deal with her own issues fast.
To her surprise, rather than the usual, five minutes embrace Charlotte's mom gave her after she had a bad dream, her mom pulled away, surprise gracing her eyes. "Oh, honey, you're so… warm!" Her hand brushed against Charlotte's face, "And your cheeks are so rosy! Honey, are you feeling better today?"
Charlotte took a deep breath. It didn't hurt to breathe in a lot. The scent of food smelled warm and delicious, not revolting like it usually did. Even her hands felt strong as she clenched and unclenched them.
"M-mom, I… I've never felt better," Charlotte whispered in surprise.
"Oh baby, I'll get the doctor in here! Maybe he was wrong—maybe you can still live." And with that, Charlotte's mother was gone, leaving Charlotte herself to sit alone in the hospital room. She felt a lump under the pillow where her hand was. Reaching into the pillow, Charlotte pulled out a red gemstone—a very pretty stone. It shined like nothing Charlotte had seen before, not even the diamond on her mother's wedding ring that she still wore.
"That's your soul gem. Always keep it close and take care of it." The voice from the previous night echoed in Charlotte's head. She whipped her head around to the windowsill. Sure enough, the cat-like creature—Kyubey, it said its name was- was still there. In brighter daylight, Charlotte could see its pure white fur and long, ornate ears with gold rings somehow suspended around them. Its paws were fine and dainty, and its tail was fluffy and fat. The creature looked a lot less threatening in daylight than it did at night.
"Don't communicate with me out loud, or people will hear us. Just think what you want to say, and I will hear it."
Charlotte nodded. "I'm healthy again! Did you really do this?"
"Of course. And tonight, you will help to pay me back. I will meet you outside your house when your parents are asleep—you must not let them know what's going on—and we will search for witches. I will teach you how to fight them."
"Ah, Ms. Charlotte! Your mother says you're feeling better and want a re-examination?" the doctor said as he walked into the room, clipboard in hand.
"Yes," Charlotte said, looking back toward the window. The cat was gone. Somehow, though, she knew it was still around.
"Can't we wait one more night, please? My mom isn't going to leave me alone tonight," Charlotte thought as she glanced at her mom's hopeful, beaming face.
"Very well, but just one night only," Kyubey said. And with that, Charlotte knew that he was gone. She didn't mind though; she'd rather it not be there for her re-examination. If it knew how happy she was, it might insist that it was only fair for her to start paying it back that night.
"Is something wrong, doctor?" Charlotte's mother said worriedly as he walked back into Charlotte's hospital room, puzzling over his clipboard.
"Your daughter's tumor… it looks like it's disappeared! In fact, it looks like she's perfectly healthy," the doctor said, still staring at the information before him, perplexed.
"You mean I'm not going to die?" Charlotte said. She knew Kyubey had told her she would stay alive, and the gemstone she clenched tightly in her hands was proof of that, but she wanted it to be confirmed.
"If you stay like this, then yes, you will live. Heck, you'll be healthy as a horse."
Charlotte grinned, and tears started dripping down her mother's face through her own smiles. "Thank Jesus, God… whoever did this! My baby girl can live again!"
As her mother said this, Charlotte thought she caught a glimpse of the now-familiar cat-like silhouette in the window, but when she looked, there was nothing. It must have been her imagination.
"Charlotte, wake up," Kyubey's voice was in Charlotte's head.
Charlotte groaned a little, still half-asleep, but sat up nonetheless. She was still in the hospital—the doctor said she'd have to stay there at least three more nights to makes sure nothing changed. "Kyubey? I thought you were supposed to give me one more night before I start helping you. Besides, my mom will notice if I just leave all of a sudden."
Charlotte froze as her mother, sleeping on the couch nearby, stirred a little, but she immediately settled down again.
"Don't worry about her. I'll make sure she doesn't wake up—but Charlotte, you have to help me now, or tons of people in this hospital will die!"
Charlotte was out of bed now, reaching for a dress to put on instead of the flimsy hospital gown.
"Don't worry about changing your clothing; it won't be necessary. Follow me," Kyubey said, jumping off the windowsill and sitting by the door, looking at Charlotte expectantly.
Charlotte hesitated, not wanting to go out in the hospital nearly naked, but Kyubey's red eyes felt like they were boring into her and he sounded urgent. Charlotte dropped the dress and ran to the door.
As she pried the door open, she noticed there was nobody in the hospital. Kyubey darted down the hallway to the right, leading to the staircase. Charlotte almost shouted at him to stop, because what if somebody saw him, but stopped—he seemed to know what he was doing. She took off after him, running for the first time in years.
It felt good, the running. Cool air pumped in and out of her powerful, normal lungs, her bare feet slapped the cold tile floor, and her arms swung in time with her steps. Her every move felt like clockwork—not the usual stilted movements she was used to. She knew all normal people were capable of running like this, but she felt powerful, like she'd never felt in her life.
Half-way down the stairs, Charlotte stopped dead in her tracks as Kyubey darted past a person. She considered going back—what if she got in trouble for walking around so late? She quickly realized, though, that the person, who was trudging down the stairs slowly, was another patient.
"Excuse me, what are you doing here?" Charlotte asked, tapping the person on the shoulder.
The person whipped around causing Charlotte to stumble back a few steps. Their eyes were ignited with fury, and their entire body was shaking. "We are on our way to a better life. Nobody needs us sick patients. We are all worthless. You should come with us," the woman said.
She reached for Charlotte, her long fingernails scratching against Charlotte's skin. "No!" Charlotte screamed, pushing the woman back. The woman stumbled and fell to the ground, yelping in pain, and Charlotte was reminded again that she was normal and had the strength to defend herself.
Now it was time to use that strength to run away.
"Charlotte! What are you doing? Follow me and don't let any of them catch you!"
Charlotte nodded even though she knew Kyubey couldn't see her, and continued dashing down the stairs, away from the now furious, howling patient. Kyubey was waiting for her on the bottom step, near the doorway leading to the lobby.
Charlotte froze again. The lobby was full of patients, all huddled around something—what was it? One of the patients moved aside, and Charlotte gasped as she realized what it was. She'd only seen it on TV a couple times before, in crime dramas and scary movies—it was the electric chair used to execute people, and these patients were lining up for a seat in it while a doctor operated it.
There were already two charred bodies next to the chair, and as Charlotte watched in horror a third person was electrocuted, their body convulsing grotesquely as electricity coursed through their body.
"No, no, no…. this can't be happening!" Charlotte whispered, tears filling her eyes.
"I never said being a magical girl would be easy. Come on now, you have to go to behind the counter—that should lead you to the witch's layer," Kyubey said, looking at the door.
Charlotte stood frozen, afraid to move another inch so the patients would not see her, when she heard a thud thud thud dashing down the stairs, accompanied by enraged howling, coming closer and closer. The woman had got up and was coming after her.
Charlotte shoved the door open and booked it to the counter where patients normally checked in during the daytime. Thankfully, it was away from where the entranced patients were all congregated—not so thankfully, as the woman Charlotte had pushed burst into the room with angry snarls and howls, all eyes were suddenly on Charlotte and suddenly they were all coming after her, snarling like a pack of wolves.
Charlotte ran faster, her heart pounding against her chest. She was almost there, but the people chasing after her were adults with longer legs. She had to move fast, faster even than any healthy girl she'd ever seen.
A cold, heavy hand brushed Charlotte's leg as she tumbled behind the desk. Suddenly, though, the howls stopped—she was no longer in the hospital. Instead, the world around her was dark, nearly pitch black. The only other thing she could see, what she quickly realized with horror, was blood, thick and red and oozing down the close walls of whatever place she was in.
"Am I dead? Did those people kill me?" Charlotte murmured. "Oh!" She jumped as she felt something warm brush against her leg. Kyubey was two paces in front of her.
"Charlotte, come this way. The witch should be up ahead; if we go quietly we won't attract any of its minions."
Charlotte nodded. As they slowly and quietly tip-toed down the hall, Charlotte took a moment to collect her thoughts. Everybody in the hospital appeared to have gone insane, and now she was being sent off to fight this… thing. She didn't even know what she was about to fight, or how she'd manage.
"What's a witch?" she thought, communicating telepathically with Kyubey.
"It's a monster that uses its power to control people and make them do awful things… like that scene you just saw outside the witch's layer. They often cause people to commit suicide and murder. They feed off of negative energy; that's why they often attack places like hospitals. Magical girls are the only ones who can enter a witch's layer and fight them."
"But… I've never fought anything before! How can I fight this witch thing?"
"Don't worry. You'll be able to transform when we get there to fight it. But for now, don't use any magic—we don't want to grab the witch's attention before necessary. We want the element of surprise here."
Charlotte nodded, and kept padding down the hall—making extra sure to keep quiet now that she knew what a witch was. They sounded scary.
As they ventured further down the hall, a crack of light appeared at the end of the hallway and came closer and closer. Besides the blood on the black walls thickening, other morbid objects started to appear—needles, vials, and other medical items. However, there was something strange about the items that appeared. They looked almost… fake, like if Charlotte reached out to touch one of them, her hand would simply pass through. And yet, they were most certainly there—they were casting shadows on the ground in the faint light.
As they finally reached the end of the hall, the crack of light suddenly jolted open by itself, revealing a plain, bright red room, with white crosses like the ones on the side of a an ambulance adorning the walls and ceiling and floor. In the middle of the room, there was a grotesque creature of sorts, with a mere lump for a body, and six rows of eyes and the tail of a squirrel skeleton and the claws of a rotting cat. Its twelve eyes were all looking directly at Charlotte and Kyubey.
"It's noticed us! Transform now!" Kyubey shouted.
"I-I…" Charlotte muttered. How could she transform? Kyubey said it would come naturally, but as she clutched the spirit gem she'd made into a necklace, nothing was happening.
"You can do it. You are a magical girl, so you must be able to!"
It was the first time in a long time anybody had told Charlotte that she could do something. Normally, people just told her that she was too frail and sick to do this or that, even something simple as eating her beloved cheesecake. Usually nobody encouraged her, not wanting to raise the hopes of the sick dying girl. For once, someone believed in her—Kyubey genuinely believed that she would be able to kill this thing.
Suddenly, the creature's neck elevated, and lunged like a snake—and ten times faster than one—directly at Charlotte.
"No!" Charlotte screamed, clutching the soul gem harder than ever. Suddenly, the gem felt warm. As Charlotte let go, she began to float for a moment, and her entire body was enveloped in light. She gazed in awe as, by magic, her clothes changed, from the frumpy hospital gown to something downright adorable—sleeves too long for her hands, a short red cape with a scalloped edge, her hair styling seemingly by itself to look like candy, a brown vest like the fudge on her favorite ice cream, and red bloomers to match the cape. A giant fork, light enough to carry but heavy and sharp enough to use as a weapon, appeared in her hands last. The monster drove its face right into the fork, poking straight into four eyes. It reared back and yowled, like a dying cat.
"I- I transformed! Just like Sailor Moon…" Charlotte gasped in wonder, surveying her costume. She looked like a giant dessert—a dessert magical girl!
"Charlotte, jump!" Kyubey's voice caught Charlotte's attention just in time for her to notice the beast lunging right at her again. Without even thinking, she jumped high into the air, her legs like springs. Her body tossed and turned about in the air like she was a rag doll, she'd jumped so high—yet she was in control of each turn, each flip she did in the air. For once, she was in control of the situation, had the power to control what happened to her.
The beast reached one of its claws all the way up, and attempted to catch Charlotte. She reacted just in time, instead sticking her fork into its fleshy claw. The best yowled again, pulling back the paw.
"Finish it off, while it's distracted!" Kyubey said.
Charlotte closed her eyes tight as she fell the final few feet before she could stab the beast in its head. This time, instead of her depending on others, others were depending on her to stop this beast, or else they'd die. She had to do it; she had to kill this thing, to pay back everyone else for helping her when she was helpless and sick. But this time, she wasn't helpless—and she was going to kill this thing!
As those thoughts echoed in her heart, a knife appeared in Charlotte's other hand. Instinctively, as Charlotte reached the beast's face she crossed the fork and knife. "Happy ending!" she shouted in English before slashing each weapon to the side. The beast gave a final howl of pain before disappearing, disintegrating into nothing. Along with it, the world around her disintegrated as well.
Now, Charlotte was outside the hospital, in the back where the trash was dumped. As she landed, she was suddenly in her hospital clothes again, though she was still sweaty and panting from battle. Something clattered on the floor as it fell where the witch was defeated.
"Charlotte, pick that up," Kyubey said as he sat next to the thing that had fallen out of the witch. She obeyed, gently holding the black stone. It was almost like her soul gem, but it didn't shine at all. "Now, hold it to your soul gem." She obeyed that as well.
Instantly, Charlotte's soul gem, which had been the tiniest bit cloudy, was cleansed, becoming sparkling red once again.
"Oh… I didn't even notice it was dirty!" Charlotte said as she watched her precious gem become clean once again.
"These grief seeds that witches drop can clean your soul gem, which will become dirty if you feel despair or use your magic. You must always keep your soul gem clean. Understand?" Kyubey said.
Charlotte nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do." Suddenly, she noticed that in the sky, the sun was rising. "It's so late! We have to hurry back to bed, or mom will freak out!" Charlotte said. She ran inside and dashed upstairs as quickly and discreetly as she could—luckily, nobody saw her. The staircase she took was an alternative one away from the lobby, so she could have easily have never saw what took place anyhow.
When Charlotte got back to bed, the hospital finally started to uproar.
"There are people! People dead in the lobby! Oh my god…!" One doctor was screaming outside. Suddenly, people were running around and shouting outside, though they must've been reminded that there were terminally ill patients on that floor because they quieted down as much as possible when facing a terrifying crisis pretty quickly.
It had been pretty terrifying, Charlotte thought as she pictured the burnt bodies lying in a heap. She hoped nobody else had to face that fate while she was fighting the witch.
Finally, her mother stirred awake. "Charlotte, dear? What's all the fuss?" Her mom said as two more doctors ran by outside speaking in frantic almost-whispers.
"I don't know, mommy. Maybe somebody was hurt?" Charlotte said. It was wrong, but she silently congratulated herself on being such a good liar.
"Well, don't you concern yourself with it now sweetie. I'll go find out what happened."
Later that day, the news reports started coming in on nearly every TV station. "Five were killed in a mysterious incident tonight at Yamamoto Hospital. Reports say that a mass hallucination caused many patients to get up in the middle of the night and congregate around an electric chair, where Dr. Daisuke Miyazaku operated it. Many of the patients have an unknown fluid in their bloodstreams, leading officers to believe that the doctor drugged these patients and led them to their suicide this way. However, it is still unclear as to why the suicides stopped so suddenly, and why Miyazaku himself seems so shocked at the events. All involved are being held for questioning now."
"Almost all of them are going to die, you know," Kyubey said. He was sitting in the windowsill, despite the fact that Charlotte's mom was in the same room.
"Kyubey! What are you doing? What if mommy sees you?"
"Don't worry; nobody can see me unless I want them to. Before bringing those patients to the electric chair, the doctor injected almost everybody there, save for the stragglers like the woman who attacked you, with a fatal, slow-working poison. Those people will all feel fine for a while, maybe even long enough for this case to be 'figured out,' but soon after they will all fall horribly ill and die."
"So… I was too late to save them anyhow?" Charlotte thought, horror spreading across her face. Her mother noticed quickly.
"Oh baby, don't worry! Nobody you know was there, and you're okay now. I promise you're going to be all right!" she said, hugging her daughter close.
"Yes, but you stopped the witch from killing many more. Had you not killed it, the witch's influence would have spread and, in all likelihood, the whole hospital could have suffered the same fate," Kyubey said.
"That… it's still terrible," Charlotte thought, tears clouding her eyes. Her mother hugged her closer.
"Sometimes a magical girl's mission does not always pay off. But, in exchange for your life, you must. We did make a contract, you know."
Shoving aside all thoughts of the hordes of patients present at the lobby the previous night, and the thoughts of the charred bodies and the similar sad fate everybody else would soon suffer, Charlotte thought of how good it had felt to fight that witch. Every bone in her body had felt like steel, her legs like springs and her heart like a lion's. She was strong, powerful, and beautiful. That… was a feeling she could get used to.
Summoning a weak smile that said she was okay, Charlotte pushed away from her mother. Seeing her daughter's smile, her mother sat down again, though still wary.
"I'll keep doing it, Kyubey," Charlotte said, looking out the window where the cat-like silhouette sat and flicked its tail side to side. "I will keep fighting as a magical girl."