What in the MC Escher hell is this?
I looked about my shop with suspicious eyes, waiting for that candid camera to pop up. Everything looked as it should be, with the glass jars still neatly lining the shelves, the bulk jars available near the front counter undisturbed. My books were all in order for once along their shelves. Even the herb-infused blankets and throws were all in order along their racks, looking decorative and enticing.
My shop, for once, was organized. (Rare thing, let me tell you.) And yet, here I stood over my candy jars and looked suspiciously at the creature that was curled up around a peppermint stick looking guilty but possessive of the candy taller than itself was.
“You,” I pointed a finger at it. “Out of the jar. Yes, yes, take the stick with you. That’s fine. Well, it’s not, but I can’t sell it with your teeth marks all in it anyway. Out you come. Sit on the counter. I open the doors in ten minutes, so you have ten minutes to explain to me how you got in and what you’re gnawing on peppermint for.”
It crawled out and sat on my counter, the wood so old it was black with age, still clutching at its prize and blinking up at me with sad, liquid eyes. Its skin was so pale as to be almost translucent, brown eyes with no pupil, thick brunette hair in an untidy fall down its back and to its knees. It was dressed in a ragged fashion, literally a rag wrapped around its body, and it seemed to be all knees and elbows.
Poor thing looked half-starved. I felt my already fragile willpower crumbling. I had a weakness for cute things in distress. My voice gentled and I tried to duck down so I didn’t loom so much. “How did you get in?”
It pointed timidly toward the side door, which was open a crack. Because of course it hadn’t seated properly and had blown open again. I really had to get that fixed. “I see. And the scent of sugar enticed you? Is that it?”
It gave a ginger nod, clutching to the peppermint and not looking up at me.
“I’m not angry, you know. Worried, but not angry.” And I seriously had no idea in hell what I was even trying to speak to. It didn’t look dangerous, at least?
Turning its head up, it gave me a tentative smile and wow, that’s a mouth full of teeth right there.
Sighing, I stood up and gave my surroundings a look as if inspiration would leap out at me. Nothing did. When I first came to this small town in Connecticut, I thought it would be a good place to just be for a while. My sister and I had made the move together, in fact, opening up our businesses side by side. It had seemed a good idea at the time, and we’d done our market research, we knew the town we were in would support our businesses. And business was good.
I just hadn’t researched the town quite as thoroughly as I should have.
Looking down at the creature once more, I resigned myself to taking care of it today. I had no more time before I needed to open. In the three years since I’d been here, I’d gained a steady clientele, and most of them were early birds. They saw me before they went into work, picking up their necessities and remedies. I couldn’t afford to figure out this situation just yet.
“Look, I need to open. So why don’t we do this? I’ll set you up in a comfy blanket near the cash register, you can eat that peppermint all you’ll like. And when I have a minute, we’ll properly sort this out, okay?”
I got an immediate nod of agreement. Cheerio.
Snagging my favorite throw blanket—the shop sometimes got a bit chilly—I bundled it into a comfy ball and stuffed it into a semi-empty drawer near the register. It was out of line of sight unless someone leaned over the counter. Then I carefully picked up my intruder with both hands and gingerly settled it onto the blanket before tucking an edge around it. With fall approaching, and such scanty clothing, they had to be a little cold. It certainly felt chilled to me.
They gave me a sweet smile, acting bashful, and tugged the blanket more snuggly around its body before resuming eating the peppermint with gusto.
Alright, my stray was settled. I was ready for business. I ducked around the counter and went straight for the door, unlocking it and flipping the sign to open before turning and retreating to my padded stool behind the counter.
None too soon, either. My first customer hurried in and barely gave me a greeting. “Morning, Galen! I just need some Moon Drops and do you have any of that infused chocolate?”
“Morning, Maggie. And I have both. How much do you need?”
“At least a box of each, please.” Maggie grabbed the box of Moon Drops herself, and she did look a bit scattered this morning, with a distinct tilt forward as if her monthly cramps were killing her.
Being a man myself, I couldn’t sympathize, but I could supply the goods to relieve her suffering. My shop specialized in handling everyday ailments. With a touch of magic. (Not that most of my clients were aware of that last bit.)
I picked out a box of chocolates from the back row of shelves. I’d learned not to leave these out for regular clients as kids couldn’t seem to resist getting their hands all over them. The chocolates were infused with a touch of rosemary, magnesium, and a bit of moon-touched sugar. The sugar was one of the key ingredients, as the crystals soaked up the moon’s power and cooled the heat of the body’s cramps. My clients craved it badly during the course of their monthly cycle as it eased their symptoms.
I rang Maggie up, putting both in a bag, but not before she opened the Moon Drop box and swallowed a pill whole. That bad, huh.
With a smile at me, she took her goodies and ran.
Most of the next hour went that way, with people dashing in for a quick purchase, and then dashing out again. I’d have to do something about my stock of chocolate, as they almost wiped me out in the course of that hour. Maybe a bit of cooking was in order tonight.
But with my morning rush over, I had ten minutes to spare for my guest. The peppermint stick was mostly devoured by now, leaving my guest in a sleepy sugar-induced coma on the blanket. I took a picture of it and shot it over to my sister. What is this?
Phaedra called me immediately. “What do you mean, what is this? Did you pay absolutely no attention when Grams went over European mythology?”
“In my defense, I was growing that year and I slept through practically everything but herbology.”
She sighed, the older sister exasperated with her younger brother. “That is a Brownie.”
“Oh. It’s sort of cute?”
“Yes, they are. Why do you have one?”
“It snuck into my shop last night. I caught it licking a peppermint stick.”
“And of course you’re now taking care of it.”
I shrugged, even though she couldn’t see it. What was I supposed to do, throw the poor thing out on its ear?
“Alright, well, this might be a good thing for you. If you’re interested in actually inviting it to be part of your household, at least.”
“Brownies are caretakers of a home. Or a shop, or wherever. If you come up with a good bargain, it will stay and help you maintain the place. Offering it its own place in your house, with meals and such, is a good way to win over its loyalty.”
I thought about not doing my own cleaning again. Wow, yes, let’s do that. “So three solid meals a day, it’s own place, is that all? Oh, and can you tell gender?”
“Yes, that’s all. And Brownies are genderless.”
“Cool beans. Thanks, sis.”
“Wait, did the Brownie get through your side door?”
“Yeah. I really need to get that fixed.”
“You’re a witch,” she reminded me patiently. “Fixing spells are well within your capabilities. Why aren’t you using them?”
“In this small town? Where everyone notices everything and will ask me who fixed it? Yeah, no. I’ll skip that possible quagmire and hire a handyman.”
“You’re exasperating, Galen, you really are.”
“It’s my job as your little brother. I’m doing an amazing job at it.”
“I want you to take a vacation from it for once. Bye.”
Now where would the fun be in that? But I could tease her more later. Right now, I had a Brownie to settle.
I settled back on the stool and gave the napping Brownie a gentle tap on the arm. “Hey. Wakey wakey, I need to talk to you.”
With a slow blink, the Brownie came awake and stared at me with their head canted.
“Hey, so you can understand me fine, right?”
I got a nod.
“Cool. So here’s the thing. If you’re breaking in here, I assume you don’t have a good place to go?”
The Brownie made a sad noise and wilted in front of my eyes.
Ouch. I think I just poked a sore point. “Sorry, didn’t meant to make you sad. Just trying to understand. If you don’t have a place to go, would you like to stay here?”
Their head came up again, expression hopeful on its mobile features. They made another noise, this one lilting up.
“Yeah, I understand you’re a Brownie? I’m a witch. If you promise to help me keep the house and shop clean, I’ll give you a space to live in and three meals a day. Sound good to you?”
The Brownie chittered at me, happy, and reached up to grab my hand with their own, shaking to seal the deal. My dark mahogany skin was in high contrast to its translucent skin, and I had to wonder if that skin color was healthy for my new Brownie. Or was it a sign of malnourishment? Something to ask Phaedra later.
“Alright, done deal. You tell me what you want to eat, okay? I don’t have the faintest clue. And let’s work on better clothes for you, yeah? You’ve got to be cold in that.” I scooped them up, blanket and all, and carried them back into the connecting apartment above the store. The chime would alert me to a customer, if someone came in. I rarely got anyone in at this time of the day. Usually lunch was my next rush hour.
And that's where I woke up.