The breeze didn’t usually smell as nice as it did on that mild summer morning as he biked to the same corner store. Just because he had a break from college didn’t mean he didn’t have to nurse his caffeine addiction. The sun barely crested the tops of the surrounding conifers as it peaked over the horizon; the dew still wet on the uncut grass made his shoes damp as he parked his bike and cut through the yard of the 'General Elsewhere Cornerstore'.
The store was small, family-owned, and they rarely hired new staff. He knew the guy who worked there well enough, and they’d had a few conversations, but today it wasn’t the same guy who poured his coffee. Instead, an unfamiliar girl was behind the counter, reading a book and patiently waiting for him to purchase something. She watched him as he walked around, pretending to look for something on the sparse shelves of the little store. The truth was he just wanted the coffee in the pot behind her and maybe the donut on the display on the counter.
He just wasn’t good at working up the courage to ask. Finally, she set her book down and smiled at him. Oh, great, was he staring? He was probably staring. Of course, he couldn’t just be normal.
“You must be Mr. Carter,” she said cautiously. He tried to say a few clever things at once, and all of them tried to come out at the same time, so he ended up just mumbling for a second and finally resorting to nodding. “Eli told me you come in every day and walk around aimlessly.” she elaborated as she poured him some coffee. Her hair was braided and pinned back neatly.
“Four sixty-five.” She said as she held out his coffee and donut to him. It's a good thing someone told her about his regular order since he never would’ve made it through otherwise. “Um…four sixty-five?” why did she sound confused? Oh, because she’d already said that, and he was still just standing there like a buffoon. Pull yourself together, man. You’re an undergrad, for Pete's sake.
“Oh, thank you, here's five..” he finally managed some actual words, taking a loose five out of his jacket. He discovered to his dismay there was also half a cookie, six receipts, and an open chapstick in there. Wow, he was just a mess this morning.
“That’s 45 cents back, and have a nice morning,” she said with a smile as she handed him some change. He looked down at the coins in his hand. She hadn’t typed anything into the calculator by the cash register.
“Did you just do that in your head?” He asked without thinking. She looked up.
“Oh uh, I guess so, old habits.” she excused.
“You like…ehem…math?” he tried to ask casually.
“Yeah, I do. I’ve been looking at going to school for it, but who has the time?” she smiled at the counter.
“Oh, I go to school! I mean college, not here, E.U…uh computer engineering.”
“Oh really? That's pretty far.”
“Nah, I could walk that.” He tried to say it casually as he sipped his coffee. Oh, it's still too hot. Oh, mistakes were made, don’t spit it out, be cool.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” she said words that were forgiving to his nonsense, but she was clearly just entertained as he became visibly uncomfortable. He tried discreetly to loosen his collar as his face heated up from the coffee. He wasn't going to be able to taste his donut now that he'd scorched all the buds off his tongue.
“I’m bluffing, and also I burned myself ahhHHH,” he coughed and confessed, leaning over the counter. She scrambled around for a moment, handing him a paper cup of ice from the slushy machine.
“That’s on me,” she assured.
“ou ahe a genleman an a sholar,” He thanked her through a burnt mouthful of ice, and she laughed.
“You’re the opposite of cool, Mr. Carter, but you’re funny.” She remarked.
“Gee, thanks,” he panted the words, face down into the store counter.
When he walked out of the store, the sun was at just the right angle on the horizon to blind him. He popped his jacket collar for a bit of shelter from the light and started the journey home. He thought about things as he walked back to his bike. The girl with the braided hair, and speed with numbers.
If you’ve ever been alive or existed on the planet, you likely know the feeling. To wake in the morning, so early that no one else is awake, and you are the only audience to the world's unbrushed bedhead and croaky sleep voice as it wakes itself around you. It's the feeling of falling in love ever so briefly with just parts of it all. Falling in love with the way the air smells today, or the laugh of a stranger you’ll never see again.
Oh no, he never even caught her name.
He supposed it was for the best. Some people are supposed to be prominent figures in your life. Some are just strangers you pass in the morning, a brief moment of beauty to remind you of the things you’ve fallen in love with in the world. Only to be gone in the next moment so you can go about your life.
Burning himself was worth it, in his opinion.
Carter wanted to kick the bike lying on the pavement, broken and leaving him stranded on the side of the road in the chilly evening. He’d wiped out on some unusually thick sludge and bent his back tire. Fortunately, he wasn't seriously injured, but now he would have to spend his savings fixing his bike. With a tired sigh, he stooped and pulled the bike upright, walking it to the nearest place with a phone.
The little corner store was still open, but not for long. Carter parked the twisted bike at the rack and rushed inside out of the wind and the rain. The door opened with a soft bell sound, alerting the only employee to his presence.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back tomorrow.” a quiet voice said from behind the shelves, growing louder as it came closer. “I’m supposed to be closing up right now but I couldn’t find—” She stops short as she rounded the corner and saw him. “Mr. Carter?”
“Corner store girl?” He spoke without thinking. She blinked in confusion. “No I mean, uh, I just didn’t catch your name last time so… not that I’ve been thinking about you a lot I just, like, in passing…” She didn’t say anything while he struggled. She just stared at him with a soft, surprised expression.
“...Alice,” She finally said. “That…My name is Alice.” She smiled nervously.
He extended his arm for a handshake to complete the introduction. She accepted with a wary look.
“Well, it looked like you’re closing so I’ll get out of your hair.” He turned to leave, forgetting why he came in.
“Well wait! It’s pouring outside. Why are you here so late?”
“Oh! Uh I just wanted to ask to use your phone, I crashed my bike a few blocks away but I can just use the phone at home.” He replied. He didn’t want to inconvenience her while she was trying to go home.
“No you can use the store phone, here,” she dropped her coat on the counter and rushed behind it to get the phone, handing it to him.
“Thanks,” Carter said briefly before typing the number in and waiting through the ringing.
Ring ring ring ring
Ring ring-The number you were trying to re—
He hung up with another sigh.
“He didn’t pick up.” He mumbled. Alice looked at the floor apologetically.
“Were you really going to ride all the way home on a bike?” she asked.
“Well it’s marginally better than walking,” he mumbled in response. She paused in thought before speaking very softly.
“Do you want a ride?”
Carter found the offer so unexpected he forgot to speak for a moment.
“Yes, yes that would be super great actually.” He accepted hurriedly. She smiled wide but fought not to let it show.
“Ok great, I’ll call my sister.” She awkwardly reached for the phone, it took Carter a little too long to realize he was still holding it. She dialed and put the phone to her ear as it rang. Casting nervous sideways glances at him as she waited. “Hey, hello, it’s me. I was just wondering if you could give a friend of mine a ride home?” she asked, pausing as presumably, her sister responded. “Just a guy I see at work.” She pressed. More silence from her, but her face went from cautious to tense and her skin flushed slightly. “Don’t—yes, that guy, but please don’t call him that.” She whispered, turning away slightly. “Ok thank you, love you, bye.” She hung up the one-sided conversation with a click.
“Thanks again,” Carter thanked her again, starting to wonder if he was saying ‘thank you’ too much.
They lapsed into a silence that wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was Carter who finally broke the ice.
"So…parallel lines sure have a lot in common…" He said, sweating profusely. Mostly because of what he planned to say next.
"What?" Understandable response.
"Uh yeah…lot in common" Carter had a split second of proper panic where he couldn't remember the punchline. "Shame they'll never meet." Oh good, there it was. Alice lowered her head, distinctly not laughing. Great, he picked possibly the worst math joke, why did he have to go with a math joke? His nerves smoothed a little as he saw her shoulders shaking, was she actually laughing?
"Actually, parallel lines do meet in a finite projective plane," she mused, looking up from the floor. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "They're just very discreet about it." She giggled. Carter laughed blindly, whatever she said was probably funny.
"I'll confess, my understanding of geometry is…" Carter tried to think of a description that didn't make him sound stupid.
"Like Pythagoras and his understanding of irrationals." She rolled her eyes and laughed again. Carter bit his fingernails as she did, making a mental note to try a little harder on the math-based conversation.
Finally, headlights became visible in the dark and stormy weather outside the store's front windows.
"That's our ride." Alice sounded relieved as she grabbed her bag and led Carter out into the rain.
Alice's ride turned out to be with her older sister Erica. A woman of impeccable taste in shag automobiles and interesting shifts in volume throughout a regular conversation. Erica rolled down the passenger side window and lowered her round rose sunglasses to get a better look at him.
"This him?" She asked
"Yeah, thanks Air," Alice replied before hopping in the van and out of the rain.
"Who wears sunglasses at night?" He criticized quietly as he slid open the back door of the van. The inside wasn't clean but he'd never met a van that was. The difference was certainly noticed upon sitting inside and closing the door.
The vehicle smelled like sage, it had the lingering odor of burning. Herbs, candles, and less legal things as well. There were blankets, pillows, clothes on hangers, and boxes of stuff piled high in the last row of seats.
"So, you live here?" He was so excited about figuring it out that he'd forgotten to not sound incredibly rude. Erica didn't care in the slightest.
"Yeah, the ol' lady and me have been fighting lately." She stretched and pretended to yawn through it like it wasn't a big deal.
Both Erica and Alice answered at the same time.
"Uh well, not our natural mother" Erica clarified. "Our coven leader." Alice dropped her face into her hands.
Carter had heard of witches' covens before. He'd heard they were popular in Elsewhere some twenty years ago. Only a few covens remained but they were still sought out in town for their unique services. He hadn't believed they were actually real until now.
"You're...witches..?" He must've sounded as skeptical as he felt because the girls exchanged a tired look.
"Yes we practice the craft, but we're not gonna turn you into a toad," Alice assured. Carter didn't answer for a while.
"Uh so is this 'you think we're joking' silence? or 'you're a little scared of us' silence?" Erica asks after a moment.
"Can't it be both?" Carter retorts smoothly, almost succeeding at sounding unaffected.
"Well don't worry, we don't use magick to curse innocent people." Alice quietly laughed.
"Uh, with all due respect, your bruhemenence, what do you do with your magic?" He asked incredulously. No one answered as the rain outside the car turned slowly to fat snowflakes, sticky and white. They fell lazily on all sides of the car, except the windshield where they zoomed by like stars at warp speed. "I just think if you were magic you wouldn't be living in your car." He clarified to the comfort of no one.
"I use magick for plenty, I like living in the van." Erica defended herself without looking away from the windshield and the dark road ahead of them. Carter pondered their direction for only a moment before becoming suspicious.
"Where are you taking me?"
"I thought I'd drop Alice off at home first," Erica answered. Carter let out a breath of regret.
"Ok, I just...lived a lot closer." He responded. Erica puckered her lips and didn't say anything as Alice voiced a nervous laugh.
"I guess we're kidnapping you." She joked, but Erica's mouth grew into a twisted smile.
"Kidnapped by witches, you'll never be heard from again." She remarked, waving her fingers spookily where her hands still held the steering wheel. Carter rolled his eyes.
"I'm not afraid of a witch who lives in a car." He muttered. Erica groaned and finally gave in to frustration.
"You've got a lot of nerve aggravating the person so generously giving you a ride home." She taunted.
"I thought we were kidnapping him," Alice added quietly and unhelpfully.
"Whatever he's still being a douche."
"Yes, Air, douchetown."
"Ok, both of you." Carter interrupted. "Am I going home?"
Both sisters stayed quiet one more time before Alice started to speak apprehensively.
"Look I know he's being a douche but we can't just—"
"I hope you like never seeing your house again." Erica snapped before the locks on the doors retracted with a loud click.
"You're joking." Carter slumped in his seat, unimpressed.
"You know everything don't you?" Erica taunted in a song as the car gradually sped up. Carter felt nerves begin to build.
"Ok guys usually I'd laugh but I kinda just met you and I'm kinda starting to freak out" he spoke quickly, trying the handle several times before trying the window. He found it also wouldn't open.
"It's ok, we're not actually kidnapping you." Alice laughed more, trying to smooth the tension.
"Maybe you're not, but I'm totally kidnapping you, man." Erica attempted to ramp the tension harder. It worked as Carter's heart began to beat very hard.
"Ok ok, I'm sorry." He became frantic, shuffling across the back seat trying both doors. "I didn't mean to make fun of your cult, you're actually very intimidating.”
"It's not a cult, it's a coven. And you know what Carter?" She laughed an over-the-top laugh that would only sound humorous in another situation. "You're right! I've been using my resources poorly. And you're gonna help me fix that." She concluded. Alice had her head in her hands and said nothing to comfort Carter or agree with Erica.
"I'm gonna help you? I'm not doing any voodoo." He climbed farther into the back seats of the van. Erica snorted.
"We don't practice that, it's just one spell you'll survive." She assured, her eyes, reflected through the mirror, looked at him and seemed to have calmed. "Probably." She corrected.