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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Special Issue 13: Hit and Miss

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2018 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

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Shousetsu Bang*Bang Special Issue 13 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

Say No to the Dress, by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)

Around the Way Witch, by T.F. Grognon

Scoring Pass, by Sparklebeard

To Join This Song, by Okō (織工),

illustrated by beili

Unconventional, by shukyou  (主教)

Tiger Prince, Thorn Witch, by green papaya

Après-Ski, by Iron Eater

Front cover by beili

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Special_Issue_13

Say No to the Dress

by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)


Jill took a deep breath, and set her shoulders. In three more hours, this would all be over. She could get through it. She’d be fine.

The Jill in the mirror looked less confident about the prospect – but then, you kind of couldn’t blame her, once you took a good look at the whole picture. First of all, and most unavoidably, there was The Dress. Ah, The Dress. Its day had finally come at last, after six months of dread. Done up in a peachy-pink that was exactly the right shade to make her skin look almost greenishly sallow, it sat in a lank V across her chest that made her small breasts appear nonexistent and her shoulders look plain weird. The arms were cut out in a cascade of chiffon ruffles that plumed over her wiry biceps and continued down the sides, like fish fins, only to stop awkwardly at the waist. Add to that another faux-layered ruffle around the hip, a mega-clingy waist that couldn’t wait to spotlight every last bump, roll, and divot in her belly, and a hemline that stopped high enough that she’d had to spend thirty cursing minutes re-learning how to shave her damn thighs, and you had a hell of a picture. Not even to mention the white satin pumps that already hurt like a bastard and were definitely going to kill her. Todd’s mom had even picked those out, plus the dainty little pearl earrings she’d had to put converter plugs in her gauges to be able to wear. There had been nothing Todd’s mom could do about her sidecut, though, so at least that remained intact, although Jill was pretty sure the woman would’ve stuck a wig on her too if she could’ve gotten away with it. She’d certainly caught enough wrinkle-nosed looks in the mirror this morning while the makeup artist was going after her with too-pale foundation and all the wrong shades of coral and blue.

This mirror, meanwhile, was full-length and free-standing, and had a scrolled white frame that looked like it belonged in a Disney castle, like most everything in the estate house. It was all floor-to-ceiling Victorian furniture and mid-century chintz, porcelain angels peering down from over-molded mantels over bricked-up fireplaces, climbing floral wallpaper and unnecessary chandeliers. Jill had dutifully oohed and aahed over it with everybody else when they came in to claim this study and the adjoining library as the bridal party suite, and helped rope off the double doors with white tulle with the other bridesmaids, but she hadn’t been able to keep from glancing over her shoulder at Liz now and then, just to check in, to see what she could see. She’d been disappointed every time, though. Every time she looked, Liz had looked a million miles away – nothing in her face that Jill could read at all.

They’d been unlikely best friends since they’d started high school: Jill a stubborn, moody debater and field hockey goalie with acne and unfortunate bangs, Liz a painfully shy, sweet, forgettable honor student with braces and a badly kept blonde braid. They had stuck together through all their radical teenaged metamorphoses: Jill’s discovery of drama club and leather jackets and having a social life, Liz’s gradual blossoming into one of the prettiest, smartest, and most popular girls in school. They’d gone on to separate colleges but never fallen out of touch, and ended up moving back to their hometown and reconnecting in their twenties, when Jill was bouncing around lighting and stagehand gigs, and Liz was just getting started in advertising. Jill’d actually stayed in the spare room of Liz and Todd’s apartment for a summer while she was in between things, before getting a place of her own. She didn’t know the other bridesmaids very well, or any of Liz’s other friends these days really, but they seemed nice. Fine. Ordinary. Not to have very much in common with Liz at all, but who was she to say?

And then, of course, there was Todd.

She had been determined to like Todd from the very beginning: when at their first lunch to celebrate her coming back to town, she had faux-casually asked whether Liz was seeing anyone, and gotten that sweet smile and “yes, just the greatest guy.” As soon as her blood unfroze and her tongue unstuck, while Liz went on about the greatest guy, she had made a pact with herself right on the spot that no matter what, she was going to love this Todd guy for Liz’s sake, and not hold any of it against him. It wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t been there senior year when Liz had called Jill the night before prom sobbing that her boyfriend had cheated on her, and Jill had immediately dropped the drama club boy she’d been trying to get interested in so she could take Liz to prom instead. He hadn’t been there when they’d laughed and surreptitiously drank their way through the whole evening, and then finally slow-danced together at the end with Liz’s arms around Jill’s neck, and her lips had been just inches away, inches that would have been so easy to close…. He wasn’t to blame for it, nobody was to blame except Jill’s own cowardice, and she wouldn’t take any of it out on him. If Liz loved him and he made her happy, she would love him for Liz, and that was that.

The first time Jill had met Todd, he’d been playing Call of Duty co-op on the apartment couch with his headset on, and hadn’t taken it off or so much as looked up at being introduced to “Jill Pham, my best friend from high school, remember I told you about her?” Liz cooked him dinner every night after she came home from work, and had confided to Jill how much time she spent looking for recipes that would disguise vegetables, since he wouldn’t eat them otherwise. The apartment was in Liz’s name, and in the entire time Jill stayed with them, Todd never had a job; he was so “creative,” to hear Liz tell it, he’d felt “stifled” in his 9-to-5 job, he was looking for something really “meaningful,” although whatever looking he was doing wasn’t happening where Jill could see it. What he seemed to like to do best was play video games and pick fights that he called “intellectual debates” or “just playing devil’s advocate,” like when he had told Jill there was no such thing as systemic racism and movie studios were just casting the best people, and she just couldn’t be objective about the issue because she was Vietnamese, or when he had argued with Liz that the wage gap was a myth that lots of people on the internet had already debunked.

“He’s hopeless,” was all Liz would say doing the dishes in the kitchen later, after Jill had been infuriated to the point of shouting or Liz had been frustrated nearly to tears and Todd had accused them of being emotionally manipulative instead of wanting to have a serious conversation, and she even said it with a faint little smile like Todd had fucking tripped over his shoelaces or something. But she never seemed to understand that she could mean it, and Jill had bitten her tongue hard every time while Liz went back under Todd’s arm to watch a movie, and they nuzzled and cooed to each other. Until she’d met Todd, Jill had never actually quite believed that there really were such things as Todds out in the wild, and any of them were capable of human relationships and not completely shunned by all civilized society; but she had told herself, and told herself, and told herself, that at the end of the day, it didn’t matter what she thought, and it didn’t matter if she didn’t understand. What mattered was that little smile coming back to Liz’s face each time, whatever the reason. Anything that put that smile there, anything at all, could be endured.

She had kept telling herself that through staying with them, kept telling herself it when she’d moved out and gotten her own place and still got invited over for dinner, told herself it as hard as she could the time they were all four boilermakers deep in the kitchen and Todd, right in front of Liz as he handed Jill her next one, grinning, had said, “You know we’re going to end up sleeping together eventually, right?” And she had told herself the hardest of all, the most firmly, with no possibility of argument, the morning Liz had come to brunch radiant and beaming, and first shown off the new diamond engagement ring on her finger.

Of course, that had all been before Todd’s mother had swept in from the rich side of town his parents apparently supported him from, and insisted they pay for the wedding. Liz’s parents weren’t exactly poor, but they were both older and retired and had never been on anything like the stratum of Todd’s, and the arrangement must have come as an understandable relief for them; and that was how Todd’s mom had swiftly and steadily taken control of every single aspect of the wedding, from the rented gingerbread-house estate to the design on the placecards to a systematic campaign of bullying and needling Liz until she finally broke and agreed to take Todd’s name, which she had been adamantly against from the start. No sooner had Liz given that inch, too, than she took the mile of having the wedding invitations made out as from “the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Todd Avery.” But every time Jill got outraged on her behalf, Liz placated, said she was fine with it, really, Carol was just trying to help and they had come to a compromise, please don’t be angry. And if as the months went by, Liz seemed to withdraw more and more from Jill and from everybody, whenever Jill asked about it or how she was doing, she would just smile that bright smile and say it was just she was so excited, she couldn’t think about anything else.

And that was how they had landed here: with Jill squished into The Dress and lingering in the bridal party suite to steel herself, while all the other bridesmaids went with Liz to help with the final assembly of the approximately 1,000 pieces of her totally un-Liz-like, fairytale-princess gown. She hoped Liz wouldn’t be hurt by her absence for a little while, she just… needed a minute. To breathe, and get steady, and be ready to be as strong and supportive and happy as she could possibly be.

She was just doing a last scrunch at her hair and trying to wipe a little of the clashing blush off her cheekbones, though, getting ready to finally get out there and face the rest of the day, when she heard footsteps coming down the hall outside the study. It didn’t really register at first; people had been back and forth past the doors all day, Todd’s mom or Liz’s mom with safety pins and bobby pins and stray ribbons, caterers or estate staff needing to get to some closet under the stairs just past them. But it only took a second for the oddity to sink in: where all of those passing steps had been brisk and clicking on the marbled floors, these were muted, and – running?

Running fast enough that by the time Jill had turned toward the double doors frowning, they had already been thrown open by some massive floaty white shape like a grounded cloud, hard enough to rip the tulle that blocked the doorway right in half and send it skirling to the floor. The shape thrust the doors shut behind it almost as hard, and by then against their dark wood it was able to resolve itself into – Liz? Draped in too many fluttering white off-shoulder layers of damasked white fabric to count, exploding out from her waist and out behind her like an endless meringue, with a gauzy veil that came down to mid-back depending from a jeweled tiara atop the perfect gold nest of her hair – and with her face about the color of her dress, her eye makeup all run into wild oily smudges down her cheeks.

“Liz?” was all Jill could manage, and only that after a second to really take this apparition in. “What’s-”

“Shut up,” Liz cut her off, suddenly and fiercely, and then seemed to draw back into herself with her eyes wide and lips folding inward. She shook once, with what looked like fresh tears spilling over, and then added softer: “Sorry. I’m sorry. I–”

And then she stopped, staring at Jill wild-eyed, and then she was running again, yanking white fabric out of the way (to reveal bare feet; that must have been why her footsteps had been so odd) to hurl herself straight at Jill. Still numb with total surprise, Jill was at least ready to catch her in a hug – but not as much so for Liz’s mouth to clash into hers in a ferocious, needy kiss, salt-tasting and half teeth and all desperation.

There were a few seconds where there was nothing at all she could do. Nothing made sense, nothing was real, and nothing was possible; all she could do was stand riveted exactly where she was, her hands frozen on the satin at Liz’s back, letting herself be kissed. Finally, after what seemed like endless bewildered years, Liz raised her hands to cup Jill’s face in their trembling palms and fingers, mouthing at Jill’s lips, and even her paralysis couldn’t seem to survive that much. She found herself moving, slowly, tentatively, to press them closer, to answer Liz’s mouth with the slow shy question of her own, to wrap her arms around Liz’s waist and hold it like she would never let it go.

They drew apart after some span of time that was impossible to count, to just inches of separation, Liz leaning down the few inches it took to press her forehead into Jill’s. More of those little spasms shook her even in Jill’s tight arms as she spoke, her voice hitching and catching and running jagged all over the octave: “I can’t do it. I can’t, I can’t – I thought I could, it’d be okay, but I was just standing there, looking in the mirror, and I thought I’m going to scream, I’m going to throw up, I can’t do this, and I just, I started–”

Jill’s whole head seemed to be going reeling off her body; she shut her eyes, breathed deep, tried to stumble back up to the moment and what was happening now. The dry, awful thudding dread of cold feet, just jitters, that’s all, nothing else going all the while deep under her breastbone. “Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay, you’re going to be fine.” Rubbing Liz’s back without thinking about it, not knowing what else to do with her hands or arms or any of herself. “Did something happen?”

Everything’s happening!” Liz choked out, and shuddered with a sob Jill could feel through her chest. “This stupid wedding, Todd, fucking Carol – she wants grandkids! I can’t have a baby with Todd, I’ll have two kids!” Jill let her sob that one out too for a second, before she could seem to get control of herself again. “I kept trying and trying to talk to him, he doesn’t care, he never cares – he was like, ‘just let her have her way or she’ll never leave you alone,’ but he won’t talk to her, he won’t stand up for me, he doesn’t care what I want, he never has, god, I–” Liz took a deep sighing breath, shuddering all through her. “I just feel so stupid. I loved him so much and I’m marrying him and for him I’m just… there. He’s just used to me. I don’t know, I… I just can’t go through with this. I can’t. I’m not ready and I don’t think I want to be, and I. I’m just. I’m sorry, I’m sorry for everything.”

“Oh, honey, it’s okay–” Jill rubbed her back again, tucking her closer to lean the side of her head on Liz’s – trying to ignore the wild, swooping rush starting to make its way all through her own body. “It’s okay! All I want is for you to be happy. I didn’t want to say anything, but… if this isn’t making you happy, if he isn’t making you happy, then god, fuck it. Fuck all of it. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

“I do, though,” Liz muttered, miserably, into her hair. “We’re here, and I did this, and… I knew. I’m so sorry, I always knew how you felt, I just – tried to pretend I didn’t. I was so stupid, I was so scared. But you were always there, and you were always so wonderful, and I…” Her breath hitched again, and then it turned into almost a laugh, the edge of a smile pressed to Jill’s cheek as she tilted their heads even closer together. “…Remember prom?”

It was hard to remember much else right now, and Jill took two deep, hard breaths before trying to draw herself back a little, her hands sliding up to squeeze bracingly at Liz’s shoulders. “Liz… slow down, okay? This is… kind of a lot to manage, for you, right now. I’m not sure this is what you want.”

“It’s all I want,” Liz said, with a new low fierceness that startled Jill’s gaze back to her eyes. They were drier now, if no less smudged, steadier and more sure. “I think about that all the time. I think about you all the time. I thought I was just imagining it, it was just a kid thing, it wasn’t really what I wanted, but… this is what I don’t really want. It always should have been you.”

And while Jill held herself perfectly still, unable to move or even breathe, Liz leaned in and kissed her again: surely, and slowly, and deliberately, one hand again cupped around the corner of her jaw with the most delicate touch.

It didn’t stay delicate for long. In seconds Liz was swarming into her arms and sending her reeling backwards, to bump her hips into the massive oak table that dominated the part of the room not taken up by elaborate, uncomfortable armchairs. She kept pushing forward, even hitching up one leg inside the frothy white mess of her skirts, until Jill finally pushed up and sat on it, and then climbed over her to press her back on her elbows, kissing and kissing. Liz’s tongue slid into her mouth as the kiss deepened and opened, turning hotter and wetter and messier, gradually more and more filthy. At some point Liz’s hand landed in the middle of the awkward V at the front of Jill’s dress, slipping in and under one side without her really noticing it until Liz’s soft fingertips brushed her nipple and made her squeak and jump in surprise. That got Liz giggling, which set Jill off, and once they’d started they couldn’t seem to stop, just shaking with laughter on and off as they roamed hands over each other and slid sloppy and slick between their mouths.

Jill was flat on her back on the stupid antique table by the time Liz’s hands slid down over her hips, then grabbed double handfuls of peach chiffon and started yanking the skirt of The Dress up, first one side and then the other. “Ugh, god, I’m so sorry about this,” Liz muttered ticklish into the skin of Jill’s throat, as Jill squirmed her hips up to try to help, mostly helping Liz rip a big satisfying gash in one ruffled side. “This dress is so horrible, I hate it.”

“I hate it too!” Jill hissed back, gleefully enough that it set them both off laughing again. Liz kissed her hard before returning to wrangling the skirt, drying the laughter at last in Jill’s throat as she managed to thrust her hand underneath and snag the leg of Jill’s boyshorts. She tugged them down and then sat half up to shove them off Jill’s legs, to dangle precariously from one pump-escaped foot before dropping on the floor who knew where.

“I hate my dress too,” Liz confided as she stretched out again, over and along Jill’s disheveled body. “…God. I hate my wedding dress.” Jill tried to get her breath under control a little at that, to blink her dazed eyes up at Liz and reach up to push stray hair out of the wet mess of her beautiful face.

“It doesn’t have to be your wedding dress,” she said, as confidently as she could for how breathless she sounded. “It’s just a dress.”

Liz’s eyes went soft, and she bent in to kiss Jill again, her hand resting at Jill’s waist. “And I love you,” she whispered, against Jill’s lips, as she slid it down soft and low.

It might not have been in the same way, meant the same thing; but under the circumstances, Jill thought it was more than enough. “I love you too,” she whispered back, and let her eyes shut as Liz’s fingers pressed between her thighs, between her lips, finding everything wet and slick and opening up for her.

They were quiet then, breathlessly quiet, creating a little bubble of space between the two of them no one outside could touch. Beyond this room, in other parts of the house, Jill could hear people walking creakingly on the floor above, just barely catch muffled voices calling to each other and discussing over in the next wing, even pick up the faint sounds of activity and setting-up out on the front manor lawn, but here it was just them, just the two of them moving together, holding on to each other. The soft wet sounds of their mouths pressing and sliding against each other, kissing, the even softer and wetter sounds of Liz’s fingers dipping between her lips to soak themselves, then trailing along them, circling her clit, first just exploring and then finding a rhythm; the barely-there rustle of Liz’s fingers moving over chiffon to roll and tease her nipple under it. They kissed, and kissed, and Jill spread out her legs as far as they would go dangling off the table, then propped one foot up on the edge of it for good measure to give Liz room to work. And Liz worked: like she wasn’t new to it at all, like she’d been thinking about this, too, more than just kissing, maybe in bed while Todd put in whatever half-assed effort a guy like Todd would ever muster toward getting her off. Crooking her fingers into a tight wet bunch and rubbing them in tight, tiny circles over Jill’s clit, flicking it between them, sliding along its sides and then teasing it directly with just the firm light tip of a finger, until Jill was lost in the dark behind her eyes and nothing else mattered in the world–

And, finally, until she drew three gasping breaths, each faster and deeper than the last one, and a tremor went through her from her lips to her fingers to a buck of her hips and twitch in her thighs – and then came, sighing out a long heavy moan, her arched back flattening on the release of everything. Panting for her breath, twitching everywhere with the last aftershocks that Liz’s fingers kept pressing and questing and teasing for.

They just laid there like that for a moment, Liz sprawled over top of her with both hands tangled in Jill’s awful dress, Jill’s one hand tumbled to the side and the other clutching at Liz’s veil. Finally Jill blinked her eyes open, caught at her breath, and craned up to kiss Liz again – and then, still kissing her, surged up and pulled Liz into her lap, Liz yelping with surprise and both of them laughing again. Feeling dizzy and light-headed, Jill started digging at the endless confusion of Liz’s skirt, only for Liz’s hands to nudge hers aside and fish out an unsuspected bottom layer of lining, with which she was easily able to corral and shove up the rest above her hips. Jill honestly hadn’t been sure what to expect in the way of over-the-top lingerie might be going on underneath that disaster, and she was relieved to find that, at least, Carol’s influence didn’t seem to have been allowed to reach down quite that far; Liz’s panties might have been white and gorgeously, provocatively lacy, but they were easy enough to tug down to her thighs before she had to stand up and shimmy the rest of the way out of them.

Then she was back in Jill’s lap, holding up her own skirt in handfuls out of the way, and deliberately straddled one of Jill’s thighs and rubbed herself against it, biting her lip, as she settled back in. It was all Jill could do to just stop staring at that sight – Liz on her lap, half-bared, squirming against her with color coming up in her face – and actually do something about it, lying back and pulling Liz with her to lean in an arc over her, so she could reach up a hand between Liz’s thighs. It was slick between them, and Liz gasped, her head dropping forward so the veil tumbled over her shoulders and draped over both of them; a little tremor went through her thighs, but she stayed where she was on hands and knees, spread over Jill like the sky. Jill slicked her fingers and worked them between Liz’s lips, gently over her clit, until Liz ground and bucked her hips down and she began to move a lot less gently. Except for her hand, all of her seemed frozen in place, able only to stare at the sight hanging over her: Liz pushed up on her hands above her, her skirts rucked up in a billow that covered Jill to her chin, writhing and working her hips with her lips parted and eyes almost closed. Her hair coming loose from its elaborate knot at the back of her head, her makeup run and every inch of her a mess, and the most perfect, most beautiful thing Jill could ever imagine seeing.

And then she was surging, her mouth shaking, a series of huffing little cries escaping her as Jill drove up against her again and again in just the right spot – and she was coming, her whole body moving with the force of it, and her beauty of a moment ago took an immediate second place to that. Jill stared into her face as long as she could, watching every shiver and hiss as she finished, until finally it was over and Liz had collapsed down to her chest, breathing hard and heavy into her shoulder.

They lay together, Liz’s fingers weakly stroking at Jill’s arm, Jill rubbing dazed circles on Liz’s back, just seeking out more places to be touching. When Liz finally pushed herself up her veil fell off completely, and Jill had to stretch out her leg that had cramped up and gone to sleep, and another tired little spate of giggles passed between them as they sorted themselves out and groped at the floor for underwear. They pulled them back on in silence, as Jill tried to figure out what to even say: What do you want to do? Do you want to leave? Should I get your mom? Do you want to talk to Todd? Do you want me to? None of it seemed right, all of it seemed thin and not enough and stupid. Where did you begin? This was Liz’s wedding day, and that didn’t really even cover it; it was Liz’s life.

Still, The Dress was now torn up beyond repair from the waist down, and she figured there was no getting around that, at least. She had just found her leggings and pulled them back on – and her boots for good measure, because seriously, fuck those shoes – when the sound came that froze both of them right where they were standing, and whipped their heads around to face each other.

A knock at the door.

“Jill, honey, are you still in there?” Carol’s voice – sickly-sweet and singsongy as ever, if muffled through the wood. “Have you seen Liz? She said she was just going to the ladies’ room, but we’re starting to get worried – she hasn’t been by here, has she?”

They stared at each other a second, speechless. Then Liz reached out her hand, without a word, and Jill reached out and took it. And as soundlessly as possible, Liz crossed to her, gripping her by the shoulder and whispering into her ear.

Let’s go out the window.”

It took both of them to shove all of Liz’s skirts through the gap, shushing each other desperately all the while, so she could swing her bare feet over into the grass along the side of the house; and then Jill had clambered out behind her and they were free, running with clasped hands and rucked-up skirts down the slope of the lawn toward the circle drive out front. Ushers paused in the middle of setting up chairs to stare at them, caterers froze with armloads of napkins as they raced past, but they didn’t stop. Just tore down the hill as fast as they could, panting and laughing, to where Liz’s car was parked at the curb, waiting with windows soaped with JUST MARRIED!!!s and tin cans tied to the bumper. Liz shrieked something about an emergency at the terrified valet, who gave up the key in sheer alarm, and while she was squeezing her dress into the driver’s seat Jill yanked the cans off the bumper and sent them rattling away with a well-placed boot. Then she was tumbling into the passenger seat, shaking with nerves and silent out-of-breath laughter and Liz just the same beside her, and they were peeling out, roaring off down the dirt country road fast enough to plume dust behind them.

They were maybe a mile away when Jill reached across the gearshift with her open palm, and Liz put her hand in it and held it tight. And they were maybe two miles away when Liz took her hand away for just a minute, to yank the ring off her other one and chuck it out the open window, and bring it back open and warm and trembling with laughter and with joy.

Around the Way Witch

by T.F. Grognon

“Hey! Hey, you! Dress for success!”

Vanessa heard the voice calling out of the general noise around the bus stop, but she didn’t bother to make sense of it. Not until an enormous yellow sunflower cartwheeled right into her, knocking her aside. She’d had another long day in an endless string of long days; the Hub was crowded with commuters looking to get home and not really caring who they stepped on to do so.

“Yo, lady! Can you get my flower?”

Losing momentum, the sunflower wobbled, and Vanessa managed to catch it just before it tottered into the street.

The thing was remarkably heavy, more like a hubcap than a flower, and it smelled wonderful. That alone should have confirmed that something was afoot. She’d bought many a sunflower at the bodega over the years and none of them had any scent at all.

Her hands were coated with yellow pollen as she stood against the flow of pedestrians, looking around for the flower’s owner. Owner? Creator? She wasn’t sure what to call it.

“Over here,” the same voice said, but almost in her ear. Shivering, Vanessa turned and looked down the block.

There was a pink-and-lavender ice cream truck parked several spots down. Sparkling silver text swooped across its hood. Charm Offensive: If You Wish It, We Can Magic It. A woman was leaning out the side window, waving at Vanessa. Her smile was dazzling, even this far away.

“How did you do that?” Vanessa asked as she approached. “Throw your voice?”

Beside the window, there was a blackboard listing prices, everything from glamours to change your hair color for the evening to charms for treating aching feet and joints.

“Oh, that?” Up close, she was even more striking. Her box braids were pulled up into two knots, one above each ear. She wore a pink t-shirt to match the truck, the logo distorted over her breasts, the pastel nearly glowing against her dark skin. “Nothing to it.”

That sounded like a whisper from directly behind Vanessa, but the woman’s dark, full lips had moved. She was watching Vanessa with an open, friendly gaze, waiting for her reaction.

Vanessa didn’t give her one. Instead, she handed the flower through the window. “This is yours, I think.”

“Well, it was that guy’s–” She leaned even further out the window and pointed down the block. Her arm was lean and beautifully muscled. “But it got away from me and he got salty, so. Whatever.”

“You’re welcome,” Vanessa said, poking the flower. It was beginning to fade, losing both color and cohesion. “By the way.”

The woman’s eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth. “I didn’t thank you? I totally thanked you, didn’t I?”

Vanessa brushed the pollen off her hands before adjusting the strap of her purse. “No, but better late than never.”

“Thank you! Seriously! These are tricky fuckers, the big-ass blooms and I got distracted when the dude started haggling, like, um, okay, I already gave you the price, you can’t try to get it lower when I already started! This is why I hate working the truck alone, this sort of  bullshit–” She raised her voice a little, turning so she was addressing the truck’s interior. Someone, it sounded like a man, laughed in response. Another man’s laughter joined in. The woman turned back to Vanessa. “Bunch of potheads, taking advantage of my good nature and making me look bad in front of pretty ladies.”

Vanessa snorted at that. “At any rate, I don’t want to miss another bus, so–” She didn’t know how to finish that sentence. She didn’t want to leave, for some reason, but she also really wanted to be elsewhere already.

The woman had her elbow on the narrow counter, her chin propped in her hand. She was still smiling at Vanessa. “What’s your name?”

“Excuse me?”

“Weird, that’s my cousin’s name! I’m Karé–” She stuck her hand out the window and Vanessa shook it. “Nice to meet you, Excuse Me.”

“Vanessa,” Vanessa said and tried to toss back her hair. She probably just ended up looking weird and twitchy. “It’s Vanessa. Hi, Karé.”

“Sorry about missing your bus,” Karé said. “I could make it up to you?”

“What, on your broom?” Vanessa winced. That came out way sharper than she’d meant.

“Well, I was thinking like a drink, but we could kick it old-school if you insisted.”

Vanessa thought of the calendar she kept at home, of everything she had to do, and shook her head. “I’ll think about it,” she said. She tapped the edge of the window and turned. “I really do need to catch my bus.”

“Take your time,” Karé said, as if from beside her. “I’ll just be here, wishing and hoping.”

As she headed for the bus stop, Vanessa murmured her reply, lest the people around her think she was crazy. “Like the song?”

“Thinking and praying, planning and dreaming,” Karé said. Her voice was fading; Vanessa must be going out of range of the magic. “Like the song! Excellent taste, you.”

*

Vanessa felt a crush assembling itself. It had been a while, sure, but all the hallmarks were there. Ordinary things, things she never would have noticed or looked twice at just days ago, now acquired an aura and association. They boosted her daydreams, fueled them, gave her more to smile to herself about.

She saw Karé in faces on billboards and passersby; none of them, on closer inspection, managed to be half as lovely and charming. She bought a regular, non-charmed sunflower for her desk at work. It survived until after lunch, when one of the brokers knocked it over while complaining to her about the commission rates.

One morning while she was brushing her teeth, the lyrics to a song from elementary-school magic class returned to her as if she’d learned them days, not decades, ago: help and love, support and succor, these we promise / never to master nor own, only to aid and console.

She hadn’t thought about magic one way or the other in years. The last time was probably when her girlfriend, their last semester at Hostos, complained about “some creepy coven mumbling together” she’d seen on the 7 train. Witches were like Hasidim or Jehovah’s Witnesses, a spiritual minority with some strange customs but basically harmless.

Now, apparently, some of them were making a bid for a higher profile. It was probably only a matter of time before it happened; after food trucks and yarn bombings, magic was the next marginal identity to present itself. That was sweet and all, and probably beat trying to sell on Etsy or drive a Lyft.

She didn’t need this kind of distraction. She had too much on her plate to waste time thinking about a cute hipster witch.

That was what she told herself, at any rate. Her crush didn’t listen and just kept on growing.

*

For the next several days, Vanessa kept an eye out for the truck, without success. On Friday, however, it was back, a sweet pink vision in the dreary light rain. A crowd of kids was at the window, demanding goldfish lanterns and sugar Moebius strips.

Karé was not, however, at the counter. Instead, there was a guy, messy-haired and darkly stubbled, with sleepy eyes.

“Hey,” he said when it was Vanessa’s turn. “Please say you want something different. I’m so low on sugar it’s not even funny. Charm your umbrella? I could make it look like a jellyfish, it’s really cool.” He wiggled his fingers. “Tentacles!”

“I was looking for someone?” Vanessa bit her lip and shook her head. She hated how nervousness made itself known, twisted an ordinary statement into a tentative question. “Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” he said, leaning forward on his folded arms. A roundfaced calico cat peeked over one shoulder. “What kind of person? I can’t do full-on love potions, but a little help here, a small nudge there, get you going in the right direction…” He waggled his eyebrows as he trailed off.

“Karé,” Vanessa says. “I don’t need a spell, I was just looking for–”

“Oh, shit, okay.” He straightened up, the cat jumping away, and scrubbed his hand through his hair. “That’s my bad, sorry about that. You a friend of Karé’s?”

“Sort of,” she said. “Not really. Kind of.”

“Ah, complications, I get it.” He patted at his pockets for something, but finally dropped his hands. “She’s stuck in the archives for the next little while, maybe you could leave your number?”

Vanessa wanted to ask what “the archives” could possibly mean, but more kids were poking her in the back and crowding her from the sides. She dug in her purse for one of her boss’s business cards and scrawled her name and number on the back.

“Here,” she said, “I’m not Rory McGillicuddy Real Estate.”

“No, you’re—” He squinted. “Vanessa with the sunflower?”

She nodded. “She’ll know what that means, I think.”

“I’d give you her number,” he said as he tucked the card into his back pocket. She got a very bad feeling he was going to forget about this entirely. Recalling Karé complaining about potheads, she got a very clear vision of  the card going through the wash several times before he found it again. The ink was gone, the paper soft and white. He shrugged, then crumpled it up. “But I’m supposed to, something something, ‘respect her fucking privacy for once’.”

The words seemed bitter, but he was smiling the whole time.

Without any idea what to say to that, Vanessa just smiled back. “Thanks.”

“Any time!” he called after her. “Please be sure to remember us for all your magical needs!”

*

She didn’t have any magical needs, that was the thing. It would have been nice if she did. Those kids looked so psyched about their bobbing lanterns and sticky sweets. Maybe if she were older, she’d need muscle balm and spiritual boosters like her aunts used to collect.

But the kinds of problems she had to deal with, none of it was amenable to witchy help, certainly not the non-interventionist aid and support, love and console kind of magic. There weren’t spells to increase the size of your paycheck by 33%, or reduce rent, or ensure an eleven year old boy could wear the same pair of shoes all school year.

It had been dumb to look for the truck, dumber still to stop at it. Now she had the whole weekend to turn over her actions and regret her decisions and basically stew in her own head.

Her nephew Deion had a basketball game out in Kew Gardens on Saturday afternoon and a Scout thing Sunday morning, so Vanessa had plenty of time on the subway and in the bleachers to do all that ruminating. What she didn’t have was time to keep up with all the chores that got piled up and pushed into the weekends, like laundry and meal preparation and mopping. Her mother texted her several times to point that out, which was neither helpful nor intended as such.

So on Monday evening, she didn’t even remember the truck until she was on her bus. Then it was too late to twist around and look for it. She was already running late, without fresh dinner idea or clean clothes for the rest of the week.

“We just had this,” Deion complained over dinner. He was right; these were the leftovers from Sunday’s sweet and sour meatballs and veggie noodles.

“Did we?” She helped herself to more limp salad. “Maybe this is Groundhog Day and you’re doomed to repeat the same meal until you finish everything on your plate.”

“Funny,” he said, but he did seem to be eating a little faster after that.

“Okay,” she said after dinner. “Let’s hear that oral report.”

Slumped in his chair, chewing his lower lip, Deion shrugged, then took a deep breath. “The Tennis Court Oath happened in 17… 1776?”

“1789,” she told him.

“Yeah, that. The estates of French society…” He broke off. “That’s what I’ve got. Need to punch up the intro.”

She tried not to sigh too deeply. Choose your battles, she reminded herself. “Where are your index cards?”

“What are index cards, old lady?”

“Funny guy.” She snapped the dish towel toward the living room. “Stand over there, I’ll sit here, you practice.”

“Vannie, I practiced! It’s fine. No one’s going to listen anyway.”

“I’m going to listen,” she said. “Stand up, straight, and give me the report.”

“You’re such a freak!” But he got up, dug in the horror show of his backpack, and pulled out a notebook that looked like it’d been through a couple hurricanes. He shuffled his feet, then looked away. “It’s not, like. Written yet.”

“When’s it due?”

He said something, but hell if she could make it out. The more inaudible, she figured, the closer the date.

“Dee, sweetheart,” she tried. He didn’t lift his head, but his gaze did swing over to her. “What’s Nan always say?”

“‘Keep it down, you’re not at the circus?'” The corners of his mouth twitched.

“Besides that,” she said. “And the answer isn’t, ‘rub my feet, you don’t know what real work is’, either.”

When he sighed, his shoulders rose nearly past his ears, then dropped precipitously. “No one will take you serious if you–”

“–don’t take yourself seriously.” She nodded. “Write your report tonight. You can practice on me in the morning.”

“Man,” he whined, but it was more perfunctory than anything else. “Fine.”

“Big of you,” she told him.

“I’m a giver!”

*

A few days later, in the midst of a sudden warm spell, Vanessa ran into Karé. She was leaving work, checking her purse for her metrocard and digging out her sunglasses and unzipping her jacket all at the same time, when they collided. Karé was leaning against the fire department connection, one leg up, looking for all the world like she was an architectural feature of the building.

Vanessa worked in midtown, in that unnamed zone that wasn’t Chelsea but hadn’t yet become Hell’s Kitchen. Her office building had been gorgeous at one point, somewhere in the past. The brass walls of the elevators and slick marble walls still shone testimony to that. These days, however, the building, like the block it was on, was unremarkable and featureless.

Until Karé appeared. Her white button-down shirt looked crisp in the early evening sun, glowing against her dark skin, its tails lifting in the breeze. Her braids were pulled back into a messy ponytail today. Vanessa stumbled on her stupid work heels and plowed right into her.

“I only wear heels for work,” Vanessa said for some reason. “They’re the worst, sorry, sorry!”

“Whoa, whoa,” Karé said, helping Vanessa steady herself. Then she held Vanessa at arm’s length and said, more quietly, “hi, lady.”

“What’re you doing here?” Vanessa blurted.

“You left your card. Real estate, huh?”

“You’re looking for an apartment?”

Karé shook her head slowly, her grin never wavering. “Nah, I’m pretty happy where I am. Unless you can get me a good deal?”

“No,” Vanessa admitted. “And anyway I’m just admin, not a broker.”

“Damn,” Karé said lightly. “I was really hoping for something rent-controlled, maybe doorman?”

“Join the club, it’s about seven million strong.”

“Oh, well. So my visit is entirely not professional and completely personal.”

Finally, Vanessa found her sunglasses, but she suddenly didn’t want to dim her vision. She shook back her hair and then her jacket. “Sorry about hitting you.”

“We’re even.” Karé pushed off from the wall and looked up and down the block. “I, uh. Can I buy you that drink, maybe?”

“Yes,” Vanessa said, then, “shit, no, sorry.”

“Oh.”

“No, I mean!” She heard herself getting more flustered, which just made it worse. “Not right now. I have to get home. But maybe–”

“When?” Karé broke in, then her eyes widened and she waved her hand. “Sorry, God, that was rude.” She looked down and inhaled, her shoulders lifting up to her ears. Vanessa wanted to count all the studs and rings and cowrie fragments decorating the elegant whorls of cartilage. When Karé spoke again, she was affecting a pompous, overly-polite tone. “When might be convenient and amenable for your tastes, miss?”

“Ha,” Vanessa said, “so gallant!”

Karé grinned at that, surprised, and swayed a bit on her toes, back and forth. “I try.”

“Walk me to the train? We can figure it out on the way.”

They were both headed for the 2 train, so they rode it together all the way to the Hub.

Admittedly, it had been a long time since Vanessa went on a date, even just out to the clubs, but it was safe to say she’d never gotten so physically close to someone back then as she was with Karé now. Rush hour meant that they were pressed against each other, breast to knee; when the train lurched, that contact became chin and clavicle down to ankles.

She didn’t feel uncomfortable, though, that was the remarkable thing. Everyone was packed in, there was that, but,, further, she liked being this close to Karé. Vanessa was tall (Giraffe, her sister used to call her; Long-Stemmed American Beauty, her dad said one of the last times she visited), but she only came up to about Karé’s chin. When Vanessa tried, she thought of details that ought to be making her uncomfortable — the warmth, the possibility of stale coffee breath, her occasional klutzy shuffle for balance — but they refused to firm up into anything real or consequential.

“So you’re a homegirl,” Karé said, “not just some tourist who stumbled by my truck.”

“Keskeskick for life,” Vanessa agreed. “Mom’s Puerto Rican, Dad’s…not. You?”

“Willisania, third-generation with a little Cubano for extra crazy.”

They grinned at each other.

Talking to Karé was easy. They weren’t from the same neighborhood, but close enough. Checking the details quickly became a game: Vanessa named something, Karé filled it in, and then they switched. Same dry pool that the Parks Department forgot to fill, summer after summer; same bodega on the corner selling loosies and coconut-oil cookies with Arabic nutrition info and thumb-sized plantains; same shitty school where the nets on the basketball hoops had long since vanished and been replaced by a pair of cut-open BVDs.

They were stopped in the tunnel, the power flickering on and off, so Karé looked especially gorgeous and dramatic. The conversation drifted to more personal details, which came just as easily as the others. She told Karé about moving back in with her mother so they could take care of Deion. How she worked days, first as a temp, now at McGillicuddy, while her mother put in nights at a nursing home up in Yonkers.

“And his mom’s just not around?” Karé asked.

“She fucked off when he was about a year old? Fifteen months,” Vanessa replied. It was easier to talk about this in the dark.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry.”

“Free spirits gotta be free, right?”

“I don’t know about that.”

Karé was quiet for a couple moments, during which Vanessa tried very hard not to regret or apologize for the bitterness in her voice.

The train shuddered back to life then. Vanessa didn’t recapture the ease of talking before they arrived at Clemente Plaza.

Karé walked her to her stop, their arms brushing every so often. Of course the bus arrived immediately, something it never did and, Vanessa knew, never would again.

“Text me?” Karé asked, hugging her so quickly that Vanessa stumbled again.

“Sure, okay.” She wanted to believe that Karé was just being polite, but something light and shimmery rotated and expanded right in the center of Vanessa’s chest. “Yeah, of course.”

Karé kept waving as the bus lumbered away.

*

That night, Deion grumbled and complained when she moved his bed away from the wall so she could open the closet door all the way.

“It’s my room, too,” he was saying, and, “It’s this kind of thing that proves I need my own room”, and, “Why can’t you do this on your own time?”

He was grumpy because of a shitty day at school, thanks to his oral report flopping. She wasn’t, however, about to tell him that; there wasn’t any point making him feel worse than he already did. Besides, she didn’t exactly have much of her own time, but he didn’t need to hear that, either. It wasn’t his fault, but he’d hear the blame anyway.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said instead from inside the depths of the closet. “I’ll be done soon.”

“It’s disruptive!”

“It sure is,” she said, going up on tiptoe so she could try to wiggle the middle carton from a tightly wedged stack free. It didn’t quite work, and she lost her grip, stumbling against an old shoe rack that held her mother’s and grandmother’s good heels, things they hadn’t worn since she was Deion’s age. There were even a few pairs of her father’s, Florsheim loafers from his aborted attempt to be soulless suit and canvas tennis shoes, spattered with paint and, she liked to imagine, still stinky.

She said, quietly as she could, as she rubbed the sting from her elbow, fuck.

“You okay?” Deion stuck his head in. “Van?”

“I’m fine,” she said. The pain made her angry, as much as failing to dislodge the carton did. She had to breathe through her mouth to dispel the worst of it. “Give me a hand?”

He reached in and tugged her out from the back of the closet. She slid over the unstable pile of board games, barked her shin against who knew what carton, and emerged, finally, into the room.

“What were you even looking for?”

“It’s stupid, forget it.” She pushed his bed back and went to shut the door, but the edge of yet another carton was in the way. She wanted to kick it, several times, just to exorcise some of the pissiness roiling through her. Instead, because that would be a waste of energy and pointlessly destructive, she went to push it back.

“Nah, now I want to know,” Deion said. He was kneeling at the foot of his bed, right behind her, peering into the closet. “What’s that?”

“I don’t know, stupid old stuff no one cares about,” she said, as the flap on the box came away in her hand. Right there on top, there it was, her pointed hat from middle-school magic class.

She picked it up and put it on her head. There was no way it ought to fit her any more. Yet it did, hugging her forehead and skull like it was fresh from Mrs. Aguilar’s hands. The point dipped over a little and the black wool felt was slightly dusty, but it was otherwise just as she remembered it. Her aunt Celia had taken her all the way to Starrett City, two trains and three buses, to get fitted for the hat. Vanessa could practically smell the Parliaments and cherry-scented devotional candles in Mrs. Aguilar’s front room and see the motes of dust swirling in the light through her Venetian blinds.

Most of the other kids in her CM class wore hand-me-down hats. A couple just used Halloween costume ones. Vanessa, who had adored her hat on first sight and hadn’t taken it off all weekend, realized as soon as she walked into the classroom that it was a mistake. She looked like she was showing off, like she thought she was better than everyone else.

Mrs. Rooney, the witch leading the class, made sure of that. Magic’s not in the props, she said, it’s in the heart. You can’t fake heart.

“Do they even teach magic any more?” Vanessa asked Deion now.

He was sprawled out on his bed, holding his comic so close to his face that she reminded herself again to try to get him an eye doctor appointment. “Couple girls in my class do it,” he said, sounding distracted.

“Just girls?”

He groaned and dropped the comic. “I’m not sexist, Vannie, I’m just telling you the facts!”

“Chill out,” she said, removing the hat and placing it gently on the top of her dresser. “Just trying to talk.”

He kicked her and shook his comic dramatically. “I’m trying to read here!”

“You read,” she told him, heading out of the room. “I’ll be back at lights out.”

“You never let me have any fun!” he shouted after her.

“I know,” she called back, “I’m the worst.

*

No one as young as you should be this busy, Karé claimed in the course of their texting, which was a nice principle, but Vanessa couldn’t exactly do anything about it.

Sorry, Karé’s follow-up said. I’m being selfish.

???, Vanessa typed. She was drinking her lunch smoothie and scrolling through her boss’s expenses spreadsheet with her phone held under her desk. It didn’t matter that it was technically her lunch hour; no personal calls, ever.

Wanna go out! Hate waiting! Wah wah!

You’re busy, too, Vanessa reminded her. She’d been available on Tuesday and it was Karé’s turn to postpone. Locked up in the secret archives and all.

Put that tongue away, unless you’re prepared to use it.

Oh, Karé wrote, you’d best believe I’m prepared. More than prepared. Like a Boy Scout! But not homophobic. I can rock a neckerchief, however.

Vanessa rolled her eyes and fixed Rory’s meals outlay from seven million to the more reasonable seven hundred. Karé got on long, meandering romps through word associations. She blamed it on her friends and too much weed — hell of a coven, Vanessa had said, and Karé replied, you have no idea — but Vanessa suspected it was just Karé. Playful and curious, always ready to experiment and undeterred by stumbling.

You don’t believe me?

I do, I’m just trying to picture it. Vanessa drained her smoothie noisily (vulgar is as vulgar does, her grandmother carped in the back of her mind) and set the cup aside. She cracked her neck, rolled her shoulders, and brought up the week’s commissions. Okay, I’m going back to work. Talk later?

Not if I talk to you first.

That makes no sense.

Doesn’t it?

“Idiot,” Vanessa said softly, stowing her phone back in her purse. When the elevator dinged and she heard the brokers coming in from their lunch, she tried to look serious. She couldn’t do it. She was smiling a lot more these days. When this was pointed out, which kept happening, she had no idea what to say. Was she really that dour the rest of the time? That was pretty sad to think about.

*


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