“I want to speak to a manager!”
The shrill, Karen-esque voice outside my office door ran straight through me, setting my temples to aching. I hunched my shoulders to keep from moaning out loud in dread. There was no glory in retail management, and nothing reinforced that notion more than the phrase, “I want to speak to the manager,” especially when it was spoken in the angry-lady way only women could manage.
“Ro,” a voice squawked over my earpiece. “Someone wants to speak to you.”
With a sigh, I pushed my chair away from my desk and pressed the button on my earpiece to speak to my team. All the department heads wore one. “Coming.” I’d just sat down after a big rush up front where I’d bagged groceries for an hour to help get my team through it.
Spring had sprung, bringing warm weather and a solid yellow layer of pollen on absolutely everything. And every Karen came to the grocery store to buy grilling supplies and a ton of meat. It’d been a long day, but at least I’d made it nearly to the end of my shift without having to deal with an irate customer.
I opened the door to my office—the office situated behind the Customer Service desk—and plastered the trademark fake-polite retail smile on my face. “Hello, how can I help?”
A woman with a short blonde bob and overly drawn eyebrows glared at me. Whoa, lady. Easy on the contouring.
“Are you the manager?” she snapped.
No, I was wearing business casual clothes instead of the uniform of jeans and a red shirt the employees wore simply because I loved the style. “Yes, ma’am.” I kept my voice neutral and professional. I was a pro at it after twenty-three years in the business. “What can I do for you?”
She slapped a small pack of ground beef on the counter. “This is supposed to be on sale.” She sniffed. “2.99 a pound.”
We hadn’t had a ground beef sale for 2.99 a pound in weeks. I knew. It was my responsibility to proofread the ad every week. “I’m sorry, that ground beef isn’t on sale, but I’d be happy to give it to you at that price as a one-time courtesy.” It was always easier to give them whatever they wanted.
Then they went away, and my day went on.
“It is on sale!” the Karen screeched. “And I can prove it!”
“There’s no need for that,” I said, still pleasant, with my hands up. “I’m perfectly happy to give it to you at that price. As a matter of fact, how about you take this package for free?” Anything to make her GTFO.
She sniffed and looked down at the meat as if considering my offer. “Well, I didn’t ask to speak to you just to get something for free.”
“Of course not,” I said placatingly. She damn well had, too. “But I want you to have it for bringing this to my attention.”
The Karen’s blonde bob swung as she crossed her arms and looked down her nose at me, this woman who probably never worked a damned day of retail in her life.
My anger choked my throat, and as I scanned the package and put in the code for changing the price, I glanced at the pink meat, focusing my magic.
There wasn’t much in this world I could do in the way of magic, but one thing I’d gotten down was accidentally ruining my dinners when I tried to make them cook faster with magic. I hated to cook and had been trying on my own for years to magic my way to easier food, but I still hadn’t made much progress.
I wouldn’t give up. But in the meantime…
Sending a little burst of power into the core of the meat, I smiled genuinely at the Karen for the first time since I came out of my office.
By the time she opened that package of meat, it’d be spoiled. And, if my past experience was any indication, she wouldn’t realize it until the meat was cooked and on the table.
And it would taste awful. Mwahahaha.
“I hope the rest of your day goes well,” I said sweetly to the woman. “And thank you for shopping at Finer Foods.”
She gave me a satisfied smile and took her beef, which I’d put in a plastic bag. As soon as the woman was out of earshot, the customer service rep leaned closer. “Why’d you give her the meat for free?”
With a sigh, I winked at her. “Because now she’s gone. And it cost us about three bucks to get rid of her.” I patted her on the back. “And the store will still be here tomorrow, crazy customers included. Worth every penny.”
My watch beeped, reminding me it was time for my final walkthrough. The paperwork back on my computer would just have to wait another day. It had already waited five or so. What was one more?
I walked around the customer service desk and grabbed a grocery cart to walk the store and pick up any products left lying around. No doubt I’d have a buggy full since I hadn’t had time to do this since the first thing this morning.
Smiling at customers, I made my way around the perimeter of the store, picking up the ingredients I’d need for dinner along the way. One of my regulars stopped me and nodded toward my chin. “You know, some witch hazel would do the trick for that acne.” She giggled. “I bet you never thought you’d be worrying about both wrinkles and acne did you, dear?”
Gritting my teeth, I curled the corners of my lips up. “No, I sure didn’t. But yes, adult acne is a thing and thank you, I’ve tried witch hazel.” Why did everyone think it was okay to speak on things that were absolutely none of their damn business?
“Well, no doubt you used the wrong formulation or didn’t use it long enough.” She reached over and patted my arm. “See you next time.”
Smiling and seething, I watched her walk away, wishing I had enough control over my power to turn all her hair gray or make a bunch of little hairs sprout from her chin. Oh, yeah, that’d be good.
But I’d never had any training. I’d only ever met one other witch in my life, and she lived an hour away, so we didn’t get to talk as much as I would’ve liked. She wasn’t the same sort of witch as me, though. She could do stuff like help plants grow faster and boil water. She didn’t know how to describe my magic to me so I could figure out better how to use it.
When I’d walked every square inch of the customer floor, I pushed the button of my earpiece. “Guys, I’m heading out. Anybody need anything?”
I got no replies besides a bunch of goodbyes, so I pulled the earpiece off and rubbed the back of my ear. What a relief to have that thing away from my skin. I should’ve developed a callous back there by now, but I hadn’t.
By the time I got to my car, I was regretting the new shoes. Why hadn’t I brought a pair to change into? My feet were about to fall the eff off.
When I pressed the button to start the car, I sighed and relaxed before calling my only witch friend. I frequently called her just to catch up during my thirty-minute drive home. My hometown was so small it didn’t even have a grocery store, so I drove the miles to Charlotte five days a week.
“GW!” I said. “What a day I’ve had.” Her name was Giselle Wilhelmina, but I’d given her a nickname once I’d found out what a mouthful of a middle name she had. Most people called her Giselle.
Her voice floated to me in an echo. GW loved speakerphone. “Did you finally figure out how to make a customer disappear?”
I snorted. “Unfortunately, no. I tried to make one woman’s hair go gray, but it didn’t work.”
“Well, better luck next time. Are you coming over this weekend for the planting ceremony?” GW loved to do nature ceremonies. Spring was the perfect excuse.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” I promised. And I wouldn’t. It was always good fun. She made all sorts of things grow and cooked up a mess of food, though I didn’t know why when it was just me and her.
She didn’t have a coven; said she was a loner. Well, she once had a coven, long enough for some training, and I wished I’d had at least that much.
“Any word back from your mom?” she asked.
I’d recently had a horrible dream about my birth mother. In it, she’d told me she was so sorry. I hadn’t been able to see her face, but her hair had been long and bright red like mine. The same shade, which was likely my subconscious tying her to me. “No, the one dream was it. I watched one of those silly, sappy movies that night before the dream. I think it just put me in a weird headspace.”
“I still think you should ask your parents about her,” she encouraged. “Find out if there’s anything they held back about you or when she gave you up.”
Sighing as I sat at a stoplight, I considered her words. “I know. And I’ve thought about it. But what else is there to know? I was dropped at a fire station when I was just a few hours old. My mother was probably very young and couldn’t take care of me. At least she didn’t throw me in a dumpster.” She’d cared about me; I was sure of it. I’d been left wrapped in a soft blanket with a little note in the folds. It had only said, “I’m sorry.”
“No, of course. Sorry to press you.”
I changed the subject and got her talking about her store, an herb and crystals shop, and the ride home passed quickly. Thank goodness for GW. I didn’t know what I’d do without her.
I saw it on the door before I even made it out of the car. A note. Since GW was the only friend I had, my curiosity piqued. I hurried from the car toward the front door. Normally I’d go in the back door, but I wanted to know who left notes anymore, anyway? Everyone texted or emailed. Made a call, maybe. Probably because of handwriting and time and…oof. This one should’ve gone for the text because I could barely make out the handwriting.
Sad and a bit pathetic, I read the note again. The signature was the most legible of the illegible writing. H. Ferguson. Did I know an H. Ferguson? No. I didn’t. Not surprising. I’d lived in Waxhaw all my life, and except for the store’s customers—to whom I didn’t hand out my home address, and except for the neighbors who wouldn’t have left a note, and except for the fire department who’d “helped” with an occasional dinner faux pas, no one ever visited, dropped by, or spent a lot of time leaving notes when I wasn’t home. And I certainly knew no one from the… I squinted at the paper. TIME Agency. Nope. This was either a strange joke or a simple case of mistaken identity.
By the time I made it inside the house and thought to toss the note instead of staring at it, Victoria, my orange tabby, meowed and curled her body between my legs, demanding attention.
I bent and raked my fingers over the white M emblazoned between her ears. If other town cats could leave notes on the door, Victoria was the one they would leave notes for. She’d come to me from the shelter as Maxine, but the name didn’t fit her regally elegant— more like prissy, haughty—personality. Neither did Mrs. Meowington, Melody Meowerson, or McSnobby. I’d tried to tie in the M to her name, but Victoria fit. She was my little Queen V.
V weaved in and out of my legs as I boiled pasta. All week, I’d been working on control of my magic, using it to straighten pictures, to levitate a chair, to stir a pitcher of lemonade. I’d gone all my life pretty much ignoring it, so I’d resolved to at least try to sharpen my skills at least a little.
My new chair was set to be delivered on Saturday, right around the time my landlord was coming to fix the hole in the wall. I’d already thrown the lemon tree into the backyard.
Every time I’d tried to use my magic, it had backfired. Disastrously.
But I had a good feeling today. With energy, I zapped the noodles and pulled the pan from the burner, which I hadn’t even turned on. Hopeful, I drained the water without incident, added the sauce, and still no explosion.
Nodding, I sucked in a deep breath, relishing my sense of accomplishment. “All right.” I’d cooked dinner with magic!
I sat at the table, plate steaming in front of me, lemonade—not fresh or magically squeezed, since I’d already learned that lesson—in a plastic glass to the side. Moment of truth. I twisted the noodles around my fork, gave it a sniff, then took a bite.
And then spit the half-cooked noodles back onto the plate. It was disgusting. The noodles were just shy of crunchy and the sauce tasted burned, even though it had barely been in the pot for a few seconds.
I sighed and gave myself a pep talk. There’d been no fire. No explosion. Still a win if I was being honest. But man, I wished I could find someone to train me in the art of witchcraft. Better yet, it would’ve been great if I could’ve found someone back in high school, when the world was a fountain of possibilities. When potential was a word that actually applied to me.
My biological mother would have known what to do. I’d never met her, but I was confident she was the one who would’ve been able to guide me, train me, teach me. Instead, she’d left me at a firehouse when I was hours old. My life was a chick flick looking for a director.
Not for the first time, I wished I could give my life a solid redo. Start back in the nineties. Oh, the things I would’ve done differently. Maybe appreciated boy bands a bit more, asked Jason Sievers to the Sadie Hawkins dance. So many things I would redo. It was definitely the nineties when things started falling apart. I knew so much more now. I would’ve given myself the kind of advice that avoided about a thousand embarrassing moments.
Eh, well. Crying over spilled milk wasn’t really my thing, or I would’ve spent a lot of time drying my eyes. Instead, I stood, shoveled my food into the disposal and rinsed the plate. Another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Victoria clawed at the back door as I pulled my favorite honey peanut butter out of the cabinet. It was the time of day when she ventured outside and let all the other cats in the neighborhood get their daily look at Her Royal Hineyness before she dashed back inside and insisted I pet her while we watched old Brad Pitt movies.
I popped open the door for her and walked out. She ran in front of me toward… What the hell? A wavy circle made of air and color that blocked my view of the far corner of the yard. The crazy cat leaped—and this baby girl wasn’t usually a leaper—through the undulating bits of color and disappeared.
I rubbed my eyes. No way had I just seen what I thought I saw. No. Cats didn’t disappear. Especially not Victoria. She hadn’t eaten her evening snack. And that hefty biotch never missed snack time.
I looked at the wavy lines as I walked around behind them and saw…nothing. I considered poking my head through the color to see what I could see, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I also just couldn’t let this thing have Victoria, but damned if I knew a spell to call back a cat who’d managed to let herself get sucked into—or she might’ve jumped—a black hole.
There weren’t a lot of choices as far as I could see.
I swallowed my fear, prayed for a second the terror wouldn’t come out the other end, then took a leap. A literal leap.
And I landed in my backyard. Turning in a slow circle, I narrowed my eyes. It wasn’t my backyard, yet it was.
And it wasn’t. The backdoor was the wrong color—I’d painted it blue a few years ago. This one was the brown it had been when I bought the house. And the flowers I’d planted just last week along the sidewalk leading to the alley were gone, and, also, there was no sidewalk leading anywhere. It was my house, but not my house.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Not in Kansas.”
However, my cat—the shady little bugger that she was—stood looking up at me and meowed. Her confusion was as deep as mine. I picked her up and cuddled her to my shoulder.
I turned back to the splice in the backyard—which I now suspected was a portal. A stitch in time. Probably when I zapped the noodles, I’d broken the continuity of whatever scientific mumbo jumbo accounted for me being here. Now. Before sidewalks and door paint.
The portal was gone. No wavy lines. No color zigs, no queasy-making zags. After a disorienting moment of spinning, looking for the portal—yeah, I’d definitely decided to call it a portal—I gave up. Victoria laid her head against my shoulder and purred.
I walked quickly to the street because I didn’t want to be standing in a stranger’s backyard when they happened to look out their window. There was absolutely no explanation for what had just happened, and no way was I likely to be able to come up with one. Leaving was my best option. My only option.
Holy crap. I was losing my mind. Surely this was just an elaborate dream. A nightmare. Except it hadn’t been night when I walked out the back door. A daymare then. Yes! That must have been it. I was tired and cranky when I got back from work. I must have fallen asleep.
Trying not to freak, I hurried down the sidewalk, looking around and taking stock. The houses were all the same. Mostly. I was still in Waxhaw, I was almost sure, but the cars were wrong. Sleek curves had turned into hard lines. Halogen headlights sat where halo lights should have been. It was like I’d ventured back in time.
Stopping short, with Victoria still happily riding along, I stared at a Buick like one my father had driven when I was a teenager. Back in time? Pfft. No.
I turned at the corner of Balk and Elm and walked toward my folks’ house. Mom might not have been running her marathons anymore or sprinting through the grocery store like she was on an episode of Supermarket Showdown, but she still had all her faculties. She could help me figure this out.
I dodged a ball hit by a boy with a bat as he played with three other boys in the street a block further down Elm. Well. That was something I hadn’t seen in years. Kids. Actually playing. Where the hell were their screens? Their phones? Stopping again, I studied all the yards. So many children playing outside. Not an iPhone to be seen. And there were groups of the little rugrats riding bikes in the street.
No kids ever went into the street.
I couldn’t very well ask them what year it was without looking like I‘d just escaped my DeLorean. Instead, I checked a license plate sticker. Due January 1994. No, no. This was crazy. Could’ve been a fluke. So, I walked a few steps and checked another. June 1993.
Oh, for the love of…what the holy cannoli had I gotten myself into? If everyone on the street hadn’t let their state driving stickers expire by about thirty years, and kids hadn’t miraculously decided that playing outside was more fun than Minecraft and Pokémon—or whatever the kids were playing these days—then I’d managed to step through time to 1993.