Melli’s voice was the first thing I heard in the morning.
“Billy.” On the phone, Melli sounded less than thrilled. She said, “True or false: we got married last night?”
Above me, my bedroom ceiling was cracked precipitously. One day I would re-plaster it. Once I figured out where to get plaster. Was that the hardware store? Was that the sort of place plaster came from? Maybe I could order it online. I realized I had no idea how much mass a ceiling’s worth of plaster occupied. In my head it was similar to a pint of ice cream, but possibly it was more like an oil drum. I hated paying for shipping.
“Billy!” Melli sounded a bit angrier this time. “Focus! Did you marry me last night?”
Lifting my hand from the mattress, I brought it close enough to my face that the fingers came into focus. A plain gold band rested comfortably on my left ring finger. There was also a smeared stamp on the back of my hand to allow me admission into the larger rides in the county fair.
“It’s possible,” I admitted. “I’m wearing a ring. Are you wearing a ring?”
“That’s what first tipped me off,” Melli said. “When I woke up, I had the ring, and when I went through the possibilities, you were the most obvious candidate.”
My ring was not very interesting. I suspected it had come from Wal-mart. There was one quite close to the Rookery, and it was open late. “Is yours nice?” I asked.
“My what, Billy?”
“Your ring. Is it nice? Mine’s pretty boring,” I said.
“Is — it — nice? I don’t know, Billy! It’s a ring. A wed-ding-ring!”
“You seem bothered,” I said. “Whenever you say my name a lot, I know that you’re —”
“That’s because we’re married!” Melli snapped. “Doesn’t this bother you?”
What bothered me was that I couldn’t reach my box of Pims from where I was in my bed. I liked to eat two before bed and three when I woke up in the morning, and it was difficult to feel truly awake before I had them.
“Getting married is a big deal. This is the worst thing she’s ever done. This is like rape.”
“Rape!” I repeated. I sat up and got my Pims. Selecting three of them, I replaced the box while I listened to the agitated sound of her breathing on the other side of the line.
“I’m coming over,” Melli said. “We’re undoing this. Put your pants on.”
By the time she arrived, I’d migrated from my bed to the kitchen table; a distance of seven feet. My apartment was an efficiency apartment, which meant that there was one bathroom and one kitchlibedroom (that is a kitchen, living, and bed room in one). I’d lived there for about two years, as long as I’d been one of Elizabeth Jett’s assistants, and I’d decided I liked the place. It seemed a lot like me, somehow. Because the main room was all things to all people. Or maybe because it was cramped and always smelled like Pims.
“I cannot believe you’re eating cereal at a time like this,” Melli announced, as she opened up the front door. She hadn’t knocked; she had a key. Sometimes Elizabeth Jett’s experiments went awry and had ill effects on me, so it behooved me to have someone able to come check on me if I didn’t answer my phone.
I blinked up at her. I wasn’t sure how skipping meals would help anything.
“You’re not even bothered, are you?” she demanded.
I swallowed my mouthful. “I don’t mind being married to you. Do you want some cereal?”
“Billy,” she said, “You’re supposed to be married to someone you love. Do you love me?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to consider this before. Melli and I had both been apprenticing with Elizabeth Jett since high school, back when it was still possible to get a good position with a wizard without any college. Elizabeth Jett was known to be ambitious and capricious, and she’d been unable to keep assistants for long before us. Neither Melli or I had minded. Melli because she was stubborn and determined to get an apprenticeship even if she couldn’t afford college and me because — well, I’m not sure why I didn’t mind. I just hadn’t really thought about it.
In any case, it was hard to imagine life without Melli. I wasn’t sure if that was love. I needed to think about it some more.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter,” Melli snapped. “The point is that you’re not supposed to go around making people do things that they have no control of. It’s evil. She made us get married without us even knowing about it. What if she decided to make us kill people instead?”
Standing up, I got another bowl down from the cabinet and filled it with cereal and milk. I was able to do most of these things without taking a step, because the layout of the kitchlibedroom meant that most everything was within an arm’s length away. I put the bowl in front of Melli. “That doesn’t seem much like Wizard Jett.”
“And having us get married does?” Melli asked. She looked at the spoon in her hand, as if confused as to how it got there. “What is this?”
“Breakfast,” I said. “It’s the most important meal of the day. You can’t think without it.”
She didn’t seem convinced, but she started on the bowl anyway. A few bites into it, she said, “I think what we need to do is confront her. Tell her we’re not her lab rats. The whole world is not her lab rats. Just because she knows magic isn’t any reason to play God.”
“God believes in free will, though,” I pointed out.
“Right, exactly. So who does she think she is?”
I wasn’t sure who Elizabeth Jett thought she was. She tended to start her mornings in grandiose fashion, wearing leather pants and playing loud music while she worked, but as the day went on, she changed into sweat pants and spent more time laying on the floor than working. Have you ever seen anything like me! she asked me at 7 a.m. At 5 p.m., she said I am a failure, Billy. Weeks would go by where she would work on government contracts and in those weeks, she would barely notice us, snapping her fingers when she needed something brought to her. Then her contract would finish and she would become a freelancer once more; I liked those weeks, because she spent more time in leather pants and less time in sweat pants during them. Some days she worked with Melli on enchantments. You’re too uptight, she would say. You need to be spontaneous. Not everything can have rules. Other days, she worked with me. Focus, Billy. Billy, are you even watching me? Billy, any day now . . .
“. . . so I remember her doing the enchantment, I think,” Melli said. “It was the one with the eggplant, right? That’s the one she tried to use on the dog and it didn’t work.”
That had been a few days before. Elizabeth Jett was in possession of a long-haired Chinese Crested Dog named Chad. One of Chad’s greatest vices was barking at the neighbors every time the neighbors took out the trash. Chad had a particularly strident voice and the neighbors were frequent with their trash-taking. Elizabeth Jett had attempted to break Chad of his barking for years, but finally, she’d decided the way to put an end to it was to cast a spell on him. The spell was meant to send him into the sitting room every time he saw the neighbors.
She took hours to prepare the spell. Minutes to cast the enchantment. Chad looked cross. The neighbors took out the trash. Chad barked his head off.
Elizabeth Jett had promptly left to put on her sweat pants.
“It didn’t work on Chad,” I said. “More cereal?”
Melli frowned. “Yes, please. Why did she say it didn’t work on him?”
I poured more cereal. I thought about her question as I went to the bed and retrieved the Pims. Handing her one, I said, “She said he didn’t want to.”
“Well of course he didn’t want to. Is this an orange Pim? This is nice,” Melli said. I was pleased that she’d calmed down enough to appreciate the finer aspects of a Pim. “Compulsion is about making someone do something they don’t want to do.”
But I wasn’t sure that was true. Yesterday morning, Elizabeth Jett had been trying to explain a magical concept to me while I swept her workroom floor. She’d asked me why I’d moved into my kitchlibedroom apartment, and even though I’d known she already knew my story, I explained how my father had decided to move back to Oregon, and so I’d had to move into my own place if I wanted to stay in the area. Elizabeth Jett had said, so you were compelled to do it. I’d replied, I guess so. She said, you would’ve done it anyway, though, right? I thought about it for about an hour, and then I told her, I guessed I would’ve moved into my own place eventually, just not so soon.
This had pleased Elizabeth Jett hugely, and she had gone upstairs to change into her leather pants.
“. . . maybe we can use our work experience to get a transfer to another wizard,” Melli mused.
“I think I do love you,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve given it some thought.”
“You’ve given it some thought and decided that possibly you do love me? Is that how it works?” There was an inexplicable edge of hysteria to Melli’s voice.
“In this case,” I agreed. “I think probably I do. I think we could just stay married, if you’d like.”
Getting up, I took my bowl and hers and placed them in the sink. Then, after some consideration, I realized that if I didn’t rinse the bowls, the tiny remnants of milk would begin to stink in the sink by dinnertime, so I ran a bit of water over them and put the dishes in the dishwasher. I took care to place the spoons handle side down. The silverware hadn’t been getting very clean lately and I kept thinking I would experiment with putting it handle-side down. It seemed like that might be a possible solution.
Melli’s voice sounded a little odd. “Don’t you think it matters if I love you or not?”
I turned around to face her. She was turning her new ring around and around and around on her finger. For a moment, I felt the slightest misgiving, but then I remembered Chad barking at the neighbors. I said, “Well, it wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t, would it?”
Author’s Note: A short story written over three countries: Australia, Singapore, and Germany.
Image courtesy: Glindsay65