Real Magic – A Short Story

Everyday he’d pass it, Matilda’s Magic Shop, and everyday he’d eye it suspiciously. Even when the surrounding storefronts, a butcher, a book store, the across the street grocer, became old hat, and even once he’d gotten used to the cat balancing on the garden apartment rail trilling at him every morning and the gang of crows that scattered from nearby rooftops every evening, Matilda’s insisted on sticking out to him like a lime green umbrella in the gloom of a rainy autumn afternoon.

The shop itself, though, wasn’t actually very sticky-outy. The same dull, brown brick with the same weathered, grey awnings of its neighbors, it emanated a dim glow in its front window cast over the stacks of leather-bound volumes just like the bookshop to its left, and its sign hung overhead, the name etched into dark wood, just like the butcher on its right. People had to eat, they had to read, and they had to…pretend to alter time and space, he supposed. So perhaps what was so odd about the place may have been just how not-odd the place actually was.

No one else looked at Matilda’s like it mattered. He thought he’d seen someone going in there once, an aged woman with a hunch to her back which was exactly what he expected Matilda herself to look like, but after hurrying up to follow he glimpsed the woman between the sausage links hanging in the butcher’s next door window. That had been a particularly annoying day.

Of course, he could just go inside and see what all the made up fuss was about, but then…no. He was sensible, and he didn’t have time for even thinking about that sort of thing. After all, it would probably just be stacks of playing cards marketed with fortune-telling abilities and board games that were supposed portals to the underworld. And so Timothy walked past Matilda’s Magic Shop again that Thursday evening with a furrowed brow and tightly drawn lips, and by the time he got home he’d mostly forgotten about it.

Except, of course, when Timothy was staring at the leftovers he used to not have spinning around in the microwave, he thought about it again. And then when he sat on his side of the couch and realized the whole thing was and had been his for awhile now, the way the shop sign’s chain rattled in the breeze rattled in his mind. When he flipped on the TV to see a movie playing he once loved but now hated, the shine of the shop’s handle in the morning sun crept into his mind. And even when Timothy lay in bed alone that night and stared up at his ceiling, the din of the overhead fan struggling to fill up the silence of his room, his thoughts meandered once more to Matilda’s. It turned out he did have the time, at least, to consider such a place. And if he could consider it…

No, he thought to himself very rationally while pulling the covers over his head, That is a ludicrous idea.

So it was particularly strange for Timothy when he found himself standing on the threshold to Matilda’s Magic Shop the very next evening. The door had a certain creak to it, loud with an upward lilt, but there had been no bell and for that he counted himself lucky: he could just turn around and walk out right now. No one would ever need know about the idiotic thing he’d just done.

But also, no one would know if he took a quick look around.

Timothy’s footsteps, a soft shuffle on the wooden floors, brought him to the shelf just inside the entryway. He’d never gotten close enough to the spines to read them in the window, but now they were clear. 100 Ways To De-Eye A Newt was first. Beside it, The Encyclopedia of Cryptonatural Bites and Stings was leaning against a smooth, teal rock. Perhaps best of all, though was the small stack of Charms and Hexes for A Nice Holiday with Your In-Laws and Other Particularly Unpleasant People proudly displayed in the center of the shelf. The lot weren’t in alphabetic order by title or author, though the covers did seem to be aligned by hue. Well, he thought with a chuckle, Whoever runs this place is certainly dedicated to the shtick. So, this is magic, huh?

He slipped The Kitchen Witch’s Guide to the Hedge off the shelf, precariously posed next to The Hedge Witch’s Guide to the Kitchen, both of which were luckily similar shades of blue-green, and ran a hand over the raised letters and the embossed tangle of briars on the cover then flipped it open. The pages were a bit yellowed, but intact, and there were black ink illustrations here and there. He stopped to study one, a cauldron covered in ivy, and stared at it for a long moment until he realized the steam rising up from the pot was moving on its own.

Timothy snapped the book shut with an inaudible gasp. The cover stared at him, daring him to open it back up. He placed it back on the shelf from exactly where he’d gotten it and turned immediately away.

The shop was not large but had a small maze of racks in its center and a counter at the back, beyond which jewel-toned curtains hung. There were gentle, warm lights dotting the place, a lamp with a beaded shade, a set of drippy wax candles on a bronze platter, but much of the place was left in shadow. Somewhere he heard a scurrying, but it fell away from his ear when he tried to focus on it.

Canisters lined the far wall, each with its own small scoop beside. They were of thick glass and filled with dried herbs and spices. Basil, he saw first, and nodded–yes, that made sense. Orange peel, rosemary, anise, all normal, but then lungwort, wolfsbane, and nightshade made him pause, and when he looked more closely at the handwritten postscript beneath the dried asphodel blooms and read “to help you forget bad memories and old grudges” he quickly pulled back so the label was too far to make out. It was dark after all, and he could be misreading, so no use squinting at poor penmanship.

Timothy meandered between the shelves in the shop’s center. They were over-filled with an assortment of curiosities, a knife with a pearly, white handle, a velvet bag that sounded to be full of rocks, and yes, the playing cards he imagined were indeed there in neat little stacks, tied with powder blue ribbons. Then he came to a section of bottles, corked, but empty. Magicians needed somewhere to put their potions, he assumed, but when he glanced at the price tag on one, he nearly fell backward into a rack of stones on long chains.

He whispered to himself about ridiculousness, and picked one off the shelf, turning it over in his hand. It was nothing more than a vial of air–if that!–and he snorted. Then a brilliantly red glow began to fill the glass, wisps of smoke curling against the sides, and there was something else, something darker, forming just in the center.

“Oh, hello!”

The voice came from the back of the shop, a spot of brightness that made his heart fly up into his throat. Timothy stood up perfectly straight at its sound, his head peeking just over the shelves.

“I didn’t even hear the bell,” she announced. Well, this was absolutely awful.

He chucked the bottle back onto the shelf, the light dissipating at the absence of his touch, and he turned to look for the speaker only to see a shadow flash between the shelves.

“Of course!” she said, the quick clack of her footsteps rushing across the shop. “Damn thing’s stuck again!”

Timothy peeked out from behind the racks to see a woman stretching up to the top of the door, trying to free the bell that had been caught upside down. She would never reach it from her height. He sighed, and sauntered over, flipping it free with ease.

“Well, thank you!” She grinned up at him.

Timothy mumbled something about being welcome, eyeing the door as she closed it between him and the sane street on the other side.

“Now, what can I help you with?”

His mind went blank, thoughts incapable of forming, eyes incapable of blinking. “Uh,” he finally choked out and swallowed. “Are you, um, Matilda?”

“Mmhmm.” She nodded, clasping her hands before her. “Anything you need, sir, I’ve got it all. Just ask.”

Timothy glanced back at the tiny labyrinth of oddities. There was something he was looking for, something he didn’t exactly expect to find, and certainly never planned to ask after. Especially not from Matilda who was–he looked back at her–not the crumpled old woman he expected. No, of course she had to be cute.

“Just browsing.” He cleared his throat and wandered a few steps away from her to fiddle with a piece of quartz.

“Oh, sure!” she chirped as she followed. “I just got in some really interesting specimens from Bavaria if you’re interested. Haven’t put them out yet, so just let me know.”

Timothy made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat as he leaned closer to look at a portrait of a cat whose tail he thought he saw flick.

“And those sprites,”–she tidied up a stack of books–“They’re going on sale next week, so you might want to wait.”

When Matilda winked at Timothy, he tried to smile back, but he could tell from the look on her face that his own wasn’t manifesting right. She narrowed her eyes, then came around to his other side.

“Hey, you’re not a hunter, are you?” Timothy had never even seen a rifle in person, but he apparently didn’t answer quickly enough, and she went on, tinged with exasperation. “Because you’d be, like, the third one this month. I don’t know why they keep sending the newbies here, but there’s nothing that dark on these shelves, and I’m not letting you in the back, so–”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He managed to stop her, raising his hands.

She crossed her arms, all the sweetness of her customer service voice gone, then looked him up and down. “No, I suppose not.”

He thought he should be offended by that, but instead of just stalking out when she wouldn’t stop staring at him, his shoulders drooped, and he sighed. It was at least worth a try, wasn’t it? “I am actually kind of…in the market for something.”

Matilda brightened. “Oh? Well, of course you are. That’s why people come in here. Mostly.”

He shuffled from foot to foot, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Yeah. So, I don’t know what specifically, but I’m looking for something that might help me.”

She leaned forward onto her toes, her eyes round and shining.

“Help me…find somebody.”

“Oh!” She did a little hop, and then ran to the herbs, her voice like a cheetah who just set its eyes on dinner. “There are a couple different blends depending on who you’re looking for, but they all start with caraway. If it’s a relative, I’ve also got pins for drawing blood. For enemies, I’ve got some rusty nails. I assume you already have a scrying stone, but if not, we can find you a match, I got tons.”

“Oh, uh, no.” He waved his hands to stop her from loading spices into a little, velvet baggie. “Not that exactly.”

Matilda gasped. “A lost love?”

“No,” Timothy said more sharply than he meant, “Definitely not that.”

Matilda looked him over again as she placed the scoop beside the caraway seeds. Her eyes wandered around his face, finally finding the answer there. “But,”–she tapped her fingertips together before her mouth–“kind of?”

Timothy knew he didn’t have to say love potion out loud. It suddenly occurred to him she’d probably been through this a million times before. “I don’t have anyone specific in mind. Just…in general.”

“Oh.” Matilda’s face fell. “Well, I don’t deal in that.”

He glanced around at the overstuffed shelves. It seemed like there was little she didn’t deal in. How unfortunate.

“But I do have something that will help.”

She scurried off to the back of the shop and bustled behind the counter, and he followed to have a better look. Hunched over a table there, she was clinking things together, pouring some unknown liquid, and stirring.

When she turned, he pulled back, doing his best to look nonchalant, but Matilda was already extending a cup toward him. Wisps of steam rose up from the brew inside, a warm, cinnamon color. It smelled like autumn dipped in syrup. He took it carefully and examined the contents. So, was this magic?

“What is it?”

“Tea!” She held up a second cup for herself, leaned over the counter and clinked the mugs together.

“Magic tea?”

Matilda shook her head. “Just tea.” She hopped up on a stool and took a sip. “You drink it.”

Timothy examined the cup again, then the woman. She looked at him like he should have known, trickless and expecting.

“And you talk.” She gestured to a stool on the counter’s other side with a vigorous nod, and he pulled it over, sitting obediently. “That’s what I do anyway.”

Timothy hesitated a second longer, paused with the cup to his lips, the smell warm and sweet and inviting, before giving in.

“Go on, then. Tell me everything.”

So–he took another sip–this was magic.


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