When I was a kid, I liked to look up in the sky for about an hour before going to bed every night. There were hundreds, probably thousands of stars visible over the Sharonia skyline without a telescope, but only a handful of patterns were officially recognized constellations. I liked to make my own up, but they never really looked like the things they were supposed to be about. A friend once told me that the real constellations were the same way - the names were only supposed to be symbolic.
I started working on a painting of a constellation I liked to call "The Sword". I had seen another one nearby that reminded me of a shield, but I was told that a constellation already existed for that one. The painting was mostly finished, but I was too tired to continue working on it, so I cleaned myself off and went to bed.
I went back to work on the painting the next morning after I had finished eating breakfast and my parents had left for work. All I needed to do was touch up the lines on the sword, and then take a picture of the painting to add to my portfolio. I also made a note to replace the drop cloth on the floor before they returned home. I rarely let my parents inside my room when I wasn't painting, so I didn't dare imagine their reaction if they came inside and saw the walls and floor covered in acrylic paint splatters.
I needed some money to help get me through the week, so I decided to sell my painting at a place called Cherry's Consignments just a few blocks to the east of my house. I passed by Cherry's many times on my way to work but I hadn't thought to check it out until I had a bit of free time to myself. The building was well-lit inside, but there was little room to walk around as almost half of the available space was taken up by tall shelves stocked haphazardly with sundry goods. Each item had a price tag attached to it, with prices ranging anywhere from three dollars for a set of Mini Men dolls to two hundred for a fifty-year-old porcelain teapot.
A young man sat behind the cash register looking for something to watch on the color TV behind him. It took him a few seconds to dust off his Sharonia High Rollers T-shirt and turn around to acknowledge me after I rang the bell next to the register. I had a feeling he was either new to the job or wished he could have been anywhere else.
"Welcome to Cherry's Consignments," he said in a low monotone. "If you can spell it, we can sell it. I'm Elias. How can I help you?"
"I'd like to sell something," I told him.
"Okay, just give me a minute. What's your name, ma'am?"
Elias reached under the desk and pulled out a large black binder stuffed to bursting with notebook paper, occasionally separated with lettered tabs. He opened it to the tab with the letter "R" and rapidly flipped through the pages, each of which was topped by a customer's name and address, followed by a table containing the names of items they put up for sale, the date the item was put up for sale, the asking price for the item, and when and if the item was sold. It was a lot of information to write down, and I wondered whether he also had it stored on a computer somewhere. Elias looked up at me and shook his head after stopping on a page for Lucinda Rider. "I don't see your name in here," he said. "This your first time?"
"All right, Deanna - is it okay if I call you Deanna? - just take a moment to read this contract, sign it, and then put your name and address here."
Elias then showed me two sheets of paper: one containing the page for the binder, and another containing the contract between myself and the store. I read the contract as carefully as I could before signing it, but I couldn't understand much of it other than the parts where the store took a twenty-five percent cut of all sales and charged a ten percent up-front fee to store the item for up to seven days. It sounded a bit harsh to me to let them take such a large percentage of whatever I sold, but I figured I could reach a wider audience through Cherry's than I would by selling my paintings directly from home.
I opted to sell my constellation painting for fifty dollars as a test. If it failed to sell at that price, I planned on lowering it to forty to see if it would draw more interest.
Elias looked at the painting for a few seconds before applying a price tag to it and placing it on one of the shelves by the wall near the front window. "This ain't half bad," he said. "You do a lot of paintings like this?"
"Not really," I admitted. "I'm more into painting cityscapes and things like that. You know, concrete stuff. Pardon the pun."
"That's cool," he said with a chuckle. "I'll let you know if your painting sells. Just keep an eye on your mail, okay?"
I nodded and waved to Elias on my way out of the store. A chime sounded as I pushed the door open, but it was so quiet that I doubted anyone in the store could hear it.
My search for inspiration for my next painting led me southward toward Emerson Park, a large field protected on all sides by steel fencing. Although streetlights lined the main diagonal path from northwest to southeast, there was a sign on one corner that stated that the park was only open to the public from sunrise to sunset.
Over on the southwest corner of the park, to the west of the playground area, I saw a young woman in an all-red blouse and blue jeans standing by herself in the middle of a large patch of dirt. She looked around for a moment and reached into her pocket, and I scrambled for a place to hide in case she was carrying a weapon and thought I was an attacker. I slipped behind a nearby tree on the outside corner and waited for about ten seconds, curious about what she was going to do next.
The young woman drew a circle in the dirt around her with her foot and raised her right hand upward, pointing what looked like a foot-long steel rod at a nearby tree branch. She slowly waved the rod around in a circle above her, gradually moving faster until the circle was as large as the one around her feet. I noticed a faint golden glow when the rod hit the sunlight just right, and I realized that the light was coming from a citrine gem embedded in the tip.
I had read stories and heard rumors about witches and wizards, but this was the first time I had ever seen one up close. I wanted to run and hide again because I wasn't sure what spells she was capable of casting, and yet I was mesmerized by her movements as she started waving her magic wand around more wildly, spinning and twirling around within the dirt circle she had drawn for herself. Once she settled into a rhythm, she became a blur of red, blue, and a streak of gold, with strands of wavy brown hair flying every which way. Finding the perfect time to snap a picture of her was difficult, so I waited for her to turn away from me while I pulled out my cell phone and recorded a short portion of her dance.
After a minute, the young woman stopped dancing, and I could see her smiling as the gem on her wand lit up like a light bulb. Her excitement was only brief, for the gem quickly lost its glow and returned to its original color.
"Why isn't it working?" she asked, clutching her wand and shaking it in the vain hope of making it glow again. "The guy at the shop told me this was how to charge it…"
The woman hastily rubbed out the circle in the dirt with her sneakers before shifting her attention to the tree on the corner. There was no more reason for me to stand behind it, as I figured she would have eventually found me anyway.
"Hey, you!" she said forcefully. "How long were you standing there? How much did you see?"
The young woman's voice was intimidating, but the way she held her wand loosely from her fingertips made me think it was partially an act. Still, I had no intention of getting any further on her bad side, even if her magic dance failed to fulfill its purpose.
"Uh, a few minutes, maybe?" I said, answering both rhetorical questions.
"Well, just forget you ever saw anything," she said.
There was no way I could "just forget" what I had seen. Here I was, in the presence of a flesh-and-blood witch, with video evidence in the palm of my hand. Such a rarity among Sharonians was meant to be preserved, even if it meant keeping it to myself for the moment. The longer I stood still, the more agitated she appeared to get.
"Why are you still standing there? There's nothing else to see. Go home."
I tried to stay calm, hoping to catch her off-guard and get her to stop yelling at me. "Could you at least tell me what you were doing?"
"Do you promise not to tell anyone?"
"Even if I did, there's no guarantee anyone else will."
The witch looked around frantically but only saw a few people calmly walking past her and paying little attention to her or her wand. I hadn't noticed any of them while I watched her dance, so I thought that either they had only arrived in the park recently, or they didn't find anything unusual about what she was doing. Either way, it looked like she was in the clear for the moment.
"Do you see this wand here?" the witch asked in a much calmer tone.
She presented the wand to me in the palms of both her hands. For such a simple tool, it looked quite sturdy, and the citrine gem on the tip still looked brilliant despite its apparent inability to absorb or expel magical energy. "I just bought it a day ago," she added, "and I can't get it to charge up."
"How can you tell?" I asked.
"Take a closer look."
The witch pointed to a long, clear groove on her wand's surface. A tiny sliver was filled with a golden light starting from where the gem was socketed. It reminded me of the battery indicator on my cell phone, or the indicators on one of those premium-brand batteries that showed you how much power they had left if you pressed a certain spot. I always imagined magic wands like this one to be a lot more low-tech, without the need for visual aids.
"Was that why you were doing that weird dance earlier?" I asked.
"Don't call my dance weird!" she said, snapping her head back and grimacing as if I'd tried to punch her. "It's supposed to work by drawing from the earth's natural energy. That's why I figured a place like this park would be the perfect spot."
"Wouldn't it be more practical to do this in your backyard? You'd have a lot more privacy, and you wouldn't have to deal with people spying on you. I mean, witches aren't exactly a common sight in this town."
"I'm well aware of that," she said. "Unfortunately, I live in an apartment downtown, so I don't have a backyard of my own. I can't go back home and tell my mother my wand doesn't work! She'd yell at me for wasting my money and tell me to send it back."
There didn't appear to be any surface damage to the wand or its gem. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, and I didn't know of any repair shops in the area that specialized in magic tools. I stood and listened to the witch give all kinds of excuses for why she couldn't simply buy a new magic wand, ranging from lack of funding to a wand being a fundamental part of a witch's identity, comparing it to a fisherman without a fishing rod. She then gave me a mischievous smirk and asked, "Can you do me a favor?"
"Huh? But I hardly even know you," I said.
"Okay, then," she replied. "Just so we're not strangers anymore, you can call me 'Sol'."
I wasn't sure what this 'Sol' character was up to, but if she trusted me enough to tell me her name - or alias, from the sound of it - the least I could do was return the favor and hear her out.
"'Sol', huh? You mean, like the sun?" I asked.
"No. It's short for 'Marisol'."
"Oh, I see! Nice to meet you. I'm Deanna."
"Okay, Deanna," said Sol, "do you think you can give me a hand with this?"
I suddenly regretted my decision to pass Emerson Park instead of going straight home from Cherry's. All I came to do was gather inspiration for a new painting. I wanted to tell Sol she was making a mistake lending her wand to a newbie, but I knew neither of us could go home until we figured out how to fix it.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Didn't you get some kind of instruction manual or spellbook when you bought this thing?"
"It didn't come with one," Sol replied. "The only thing the guy told me was how to charge it up before I started using it. I feel like I'm forgetting something, though..."
"I'll see what I can do," I said hesitantly.
The moment she handed the wand to me, my body went stiff and I shivered all over. Sol's hand completely covered the metal part of the wand, so the gem was the only free spot available for me to grab. What little energy it had left before I touched it was completely used up. I expected Sol to burst into hysterical laughter and a camera crew to emerge from behind the trees at any moment, but when I looked in her direction, she calmly walked over to a bench along the crosswalk to observe me.
I stretched my right hand out to give myself a good idea of the radius of my circle and marked a spot in the dirt a few feet away with a fallen tree branch. This gave me plenty of room to maneuver, assuming Sol's ritual didn't require her to stay in one spot. After taking a deep breath and inspecting the wand a second time to confirm there was no damage or excess dirt, I began my dance. I couldn't move around as quickly or gracefully as Sol did, so I tried to focus on giving the wand enough ground to cover to potentially draw in as much energy as it needed, rather than copying Sol's dance moves to the very last step. My right arm got heavy again as I tried to maintain my grip on the wand and not send it flying into a tree or onto the ground.
I eventually stopped and struck a pose, stretching my wand arm out in front of me at no one in particular. All that spinning around gave me a headache, so I lurched over to the bench across from Sol so I could recover. I looked down at the wand and was disappointed to find that its energy meter had only filled up halfway after all I'd done. When Sol looked over at me to inspect it, I was afraid she was going to make me get up and do the ritual a second time to fill it all the way up. Instead, she took the wand from me and waved it around a bit to make sure the gem retained its shine for longer than a few seconds in her possession.
"I'm not sure what you did differently," said Sol, "but I think it worked. Thanks, Deanna."
"Glad I could help," I said, still panting.
Sol put her wand down for a moment to check on me. I had regained my bearings after taking some time to rest, but my body still felt tingly from when I first touched the wand. "What are you going to do now?" she asked.
"After I get a bite to eat," I said, "I think I might do some painting."
"Really? What are you going to paint?"
"I haven't decided yet." It was hard for me to say that with any degree of seriousness, but anything less than a stone-faced expression would give away my true intentions.
Sol got up from the bench and dusted herself off, and then started walking toward the exit. "This was a bit more fun than I expected," she said, "but I think I need to get going now."
"I should probably be on my way, too," I told her as I started off in the opposite direction. After taking a few steps, I turned around, realizing I forgot something. "Sol?"
Sol stopped in her tracks at the corner of 31st Street and York Avenue where she had entered. "What is it?" she asked.
"Sorry for spying on you earlier."
"It's okay. I'm used to it. You really should be more careful, though. What would you have done if I attacked you?"
Before I could offer a response, Sol interrupted me by waving her hand in front of my face. "On second thought, don't answer that."
Perhaps it was for the best that I didn't tell her I would have cried for help, because a violent encounter with a witch was bound to draw the attention of the police and the media, and possibly even the McCarthy County troopers if things got out of hand. Sol came off to me as somewhat boorish at first, but she didn't seem like the "criminally violent" type.
"So, do you want to meet here again tomorrow?" I asked.
Sol shook her head vigorously.
"How about Cherry's on 27th?"
"I'm down for that," said Sol. "Tomorrow at two? What do you say?"
"Sounds good to me," I said.
We parted ways from there, with Sol heading south along York Avenue toward her apartment. As I walked past the spot of my magic dance, I saw that most of the grass inside the circle had dried up while the grass outside of it was still green. Some oak bark chips had also fallen from the nearby trees onto the area surrounding the circle. I wondered if this was what Sol meant when she said her dance drew on the earth's natural energy, and if it was something anyone with a wand could do if they knew the proper movements.
Dabbling in magic looked a lot cleaner than dealing with acrylic and watercolor paints, but I knew I'd have a harder time explaining what happened at Emerson Park to my parents when they got home and asked me about my day.