The Elixir Witch only accepted three forms of payment: IOUs, heirlooms, and secrets. I’d heard the stories — how Mrs. Johnson paid with an IOU and the Elixir Witch collected her left pinky finger a week later. How Mr. Figueroa paid with his family’s Virgin Mary oil painting and afterward, how his abuela haunted him nightly, painting her naked body and crying over his paralyzed form until dawn.
I knew the risks.
The Elixir Witch didn’t have a shop. No storefront full of clinking potion bottles or bubbling cauldrons. She had to be summoned. And thanks to Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Figueroa, I knew how. The Elixir Witch could be summoned, quite simply and efficiently, by declaring one’s intent to provide any of the three forms of payment.
“I wish to pay,” I said to my bathroom mirror, “one secret.”
“Maya,” the Elixir Witch said, pushing the shower curtain aside. She stepped out of the tub, balancing her tray of potion bottles on one hand. She wore black, but not in the gothic Wiccan way or even in the traditional Halloween way. It was the classic, little-black-dress way. Clean lines and sharp stilettos.
“Elixir Witch,” I said, “thank you for coming.” It was good manners to thank the Elixir Witch before a transaction, but also just good sense. She tapped her metallic nails against the countertop.
“Maya,” she said again, arching her manicured eyebrow. “Which elixir would you like? Cupid’s Arrow? Hell Hath No Fury?”
“We both know the elixirs don’t work on you,” I said. “What would I do with Love or Revenge potions?”
She gave an exaggerated sigh. “So what then?”
“Ignorance Is Bliss.”
Her eyes glinted and her lip curled in disgust.
“Only the weak wish to forget,” she said. But I knew she couldn’t refuse service. Not if I had adequate payment.
“You think I care what you think of me?”
“Tell me your secret,” she demanded. I opened my mouth to speak, but she cried, “Wait!” and for a split second, I let myself hope. “All sales are final,” she said with a cruel smile. “No refunds. No exchanges.”
I nodded and looked her straight in the eye.
“I faked it at least three times with you.”
Her eyes narrowed, but when she spoke it was clipped and business-like. “Your secret ranks 2 on measures of Shame and Consequence — well below adequate. But it ranks 5 for Cruelty.” She handed me a tiny crystal bottle of cloudy liquid. “Payment accepted.”
Then she was gone. Technically, she stepped back into the tub and pulled the curtain shut with a flourish, but I knew that if I were to pull the curtain back again, she wouldn’t be there.
I held the bottle up to the light and watched the forgetfulness swirl.
Lorena was surprised to find me on her doorstep. She shifted from foot to foot and her eyes darted down the block. Still, she invited me in.
We sat on her lumpy mustard couch. I refrained from wrinkling my nose until she left the room to get drinks. She came back with two glasses of Coke and set them on coasters. She didn’t even roll her eyes when I asked for more ice. She just got up and went back into the kitchen.
But she still broke first. “What are you doing here, Maya?”
“I came to warn you,” I said, sipping my Coke. “She’s dangerous.”
“Of course she is,” Lorena said. “I like that about her.”
I laughed. Lorena scowled.
“She used to tell me the secrets people told her,” I said. “We’d laugh at how pathetic they were.”
Lorena pursed her lips. Her glass began to sweat.
“You bought from her once, didn’t you?” I said. “What was your secret… that you sleep around to feel powerful? Bet you feel more powerful than ever.”
Lorena said nothing. A peacock feather tattoo peeked out from under her black top as she reached for her glass. She wore black jeans, too — probably a sad attempt to match the Elixir Witch. As soon as I had the thought, I said it aloud. I told Lorena she couldn’t come close to the Elixir Witch’s dark beauty. I told her that by wearing black, she only highlighted the disparity between them. I expected her to scowl again, or cry. But Lorena just smiled and brought the glass to her lips.
“Cruelty isn’t the only way to get her attention,” she said.
All of a sudden, I felt naked. Exposed. It was as if Lorena could see right through me.
My resolve wavered. Maybe I didn’t have to do this. I could knock the glass right out of her hand.
I reached toward her, but I was too late. She drained the glass.
Lorena’s face contorted with pain and confusion. She shifted from panicked to serene, until she looked only vaguely curious.
I left. There was no point in saying goodbye.
At midnight, the Elixir Witch appeared in my darkened living room. Her slender fingers closed tight around my throat. The points of her nails dug into my skin.
“You bitch,” she growled, her breath hot against my ear. “Purchase Forget-Me-Not and give it to Lorena immediately.”
“Do it yourself,” I sneered.
“You know I can’t.” Her breath was ragged, her eyes bloodshot.
And I cared.
This is what she did. She made me weak, then hated me for it.
“I’m out of secrets,” I told her. “You know them all.”
It was true. I didn’t own any heirlooms and there was no chance in hell I’d indebt myself to her. Not after everything. Did that make me cruel enough?
She shimmered. Sparks burned black spots into the upholstery, raised shiny welts on my skin. She was angry, but she wasn’t disgusted. Not anymore. I reached up to take her curls between my fingers and pulled her down to me. I tasted the tang of her magic, pushed past the shock of it. When we broke apart, she was gone.
RACHAEL STERLING lives in sunny Santa Monica, California, staying indoors or else seeking shade. She teaches music to preschoolers most mornings and writes most afternoons. You can find her playing music on the internet under the name Rae Sterling or very occasionally, performing at real live locations around Los Angeles.