She had a laugh like summer, Lacie thought. There was something not quite real about her, something strange and sweet and shivering in the way she swept through the tinkling shop door, in the sharp slant of her jaw, the shimmer of ink that curled beneath black gloves. She plucked a pack of chewing gum off the counter “for the mermaids” and proceeded to fumble around in an empty purse.
“Circus people,” muttered the man behind her. “Young ladies parading themselves like peacocks –”
“You dropped this,” Lacie interrupted quietly, plucking a dime out of her apron pocket. She flinched and glanced down at the countertop, anxious to avoid the shop owner’s sharp tongue.
“I owe you a favor, doll,” the woman chuckled, and her eyes flicked over her, curious, catlike. She slipped Lacie a card and sashayed into the street, her black skirt snapping triumphantly in the June breeze.
Dewdropper Circus, Madame Josephine read the card in elegant red script, beneath a curled black cat. Lacie slid the card quickly into her apron, before her boss could see, but she could have sworn that the cat winked at her.
The ferris wheel glittered gleefully on the hilltop, its jeweled belly swelling over the rippling tents. It was almost midnight, and yet the sky was still blue, the day caught like a butterfly under glass. The smell of popcorn prickled at Lacie’s nostrils as she crept to the edge of the fairground, and she felt a sudden pang of guilt. What would her mother have said about magic, about any kind of bartering for that matter? Then again, her mother had already gone on to glory, and had no more need of such moralizing. She ducked quickly into a red silk tent.
Madame Josephine grinned up at her from behind a pile of books and what looked like jams. Lacie hoped they were jams, but one appeared to be wriggling.
“You read the rules, sweetheart? No love potions, no refunds.” One slender finger jabbed at a sign to her left as she tugged off her gloves. Lacie nodded politely, trying not to stare at the tattooed vines that slithered across her arms, or the black cat that sauntered across her throat to curl in the crook of her collarbone.
The witch laughed. “Shy little thing, aren’t you? Don’t worry – we don’t all fly around on brooms or live in shacks with chicken feet.” She stuck out one hand jauntily, smiling through crooked lipstick. “Call me Jo.”
“What can I do you for? I owe you a favor.” The witch’s smile stretched wider, almost impossibly wide. Her dark eyes gleamed silver for an instant, catlike, and Lacie shivered, hoping she didn’t see her flinch.
“I –” she felt her face flush. “I rent a room above the shop, and it’s always cold in the winter, no matter how many newspapers I put in the cracks.”
The witch bit her lip, then brightened.
“Try this.” One bangled hand held out a small jar of sparkling red dust. “If it doesn’t work, come back tomorrow!” she cried out, but Lacie had already slipped away into the night, scurrying back towards the winking lights of the valley below.
One puff of red sparks, and Lacie’s attic room was forever cool at noon and warm at twilight. And yet, still she returned. Almost every night that week, she found some excuse to slink to the hilltop at sunset, and each time Josephine politely refused her dime. She mended old watches, turned dust into sugar, even enchanted Lacie’s shoes so they would dance by themselves when she was nervous about a date. She had spent the night stepping on the boy’s toes anyway, her mind slipping back to Josephine’s tent, the way her dark eyes danced as she almost fell on top of her, how she laughed as the shoes spun her around.
“My twilight girl, always here at sunset,” Josephine murmured, pulling her onto her shoulder, steadying her. Lacie felt a soft sinking chill thrill through her veins.
She smelled like summer, like lavender and the soft spiced warmth of honeysuckle. “I was a twilight girl once, too,” Josephine whispered as the first stars prickled across the sky. “Before I learned to be a witch.”
The night before the circus left, a dry wind blew down from the hilltop, scattering bits of confetti and newsprint with a sigh. The setting sun shivered across the grass, and Lacie felt her pulse quicken as she slipped under the red awning one last time. She stammered out her request, and watched Josephine flush angrily. The inked cat above her collarbone hissed, the ship on her right shoulder lurched in a sudden gale, and the vines on her arms curled and withered.
“A love potion?” The witch’s eyes narrowed, and Lacie felt her face grow hot. A whisper of rain prickled across the tent’s roof, rumbling steadily into a roar as neither spoke.
“N-not for someone else, I meant,” Lacie stammered at last. “For myself. I can’t seem to fall in love with anyone in town, and I – I should…”
“Magic can’t win you love,” the witch whispered. “If it could, I –” She blinked, her dark eyes welling with sudden tears. “It’s just tricks, really. Making a toy rabbit hop, making a pair of shoes dance by themselves… it’s not enough. It’s never enough.” She swept up to stand beside Lacie. “Not for a twilight girl like me. Like you.”
“Then… can you teach me to be a witch?” Josephine’s eyes flashed silver in surprise, and her lips curled into a slow smile as Lacie clutched her hand pleadingly.
“You already are.” The witch’s smile stretched wider, almost impossibly wide. “The shoes wouldn’t have worked otherwise. Besides, a witch can only fall in love with another witch.”
She tasted like summer, like cotton candy and tingling soft spice, strange and sweet and shivering.
R.J. Happel is a freelance writer from Jonesborough, Tennessee. She is a member of Southerners on New Ground and the Tennessee Equality Project. Her poetry has previously appeared in America magazine, and she is currently a copy editor for one of Fordham’s student papers.