This is a story from the October 2022 issue of Worlds of Possibility. You can listen to an audio version of this story narrated by Kimberly Yvonne Steele as part of the OMG Julia Podcast on Spreaker, or on the podcatcher of your choice, and you can also read the full text below. Bios of the author, illustrator, and audio narrator appear after the story text.
Content note: This story contains the parentification of a child.Listen to "3AM Eternal - A Story by Eden Royce" on Spreaker.
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by Eden Royce
It’s a fallacy that the witching hour is at midnight. In reality, the time when the veil between the worlds in thinnest is at three in the morning. That’s why the bars in New Charleston all close at two for humans, so they can get their asses home before the clocks strike the top of the hour and control of the city passes to the witches, the haints, and other creatures of the night.
“I’m worried. My mom is always home by two.”
Barefoot, Mikayla paced the length of her apartment’s living room, her ankle bracelet of dimes ringing with each step. She was antsy, not only because her mother had gone missing, but because the night was calling and the witch half of her needed to respond. This was the time she felt her strongest, when her power was full. Each evening after her day job, Mik and her mother made dinner together. After eating, they cleaned up, then watched a program, alternating who got to choose. Once her mother went to bed, Mik gathered ingredients from the surrounding woods under the caress of moonlight to make her teas and powders to sell at local markets. In the kitchen, windows open, she would commune with her two sister witches, wishing their magic well. They had met at a community council event, for those concerned about the growing tensions between the magical and the not. Afterward the women had kept in touch, offering each other their shared knowledge and wisdom. Tonight, Mik had called her sister witches and asked them to come over. Surprised at this turn of events, they had hurried to her.
“It’s not your fault.” Shavon bit her bottom lip, pulling at the dry skin there as she settled one widely curving hip in the reclining chair at one end of the route her sister witch took around the room.
“Or your responsibility, Mik.” Ayo sat on the floor, curled her legs under her and rested her back against the sofa. Her waterfall of pencil-thin braids waggled of their own accord. “All right, all right,” she said to them, leaning forward and flipping her hair from under her butt to rest on the sofa seat. With one finger, she pushed up her glasses.
“She’s my mom. That makes her my responsibility.” Mik glared at Ayo, who glared back. Mik looked quickly away. The last thing she needed was for Ayo lower her glasses and turn any part of her to stone with that stare. Accidentally, of course.
“She’s a grown woman,” Shavon replied, her voice gentle.
“She may be a grown woman, but she’s full human. Not even a tetched.”
Humans who were tetched had whispers of abilities — able to catch a glimpse of ghosts, or make a small thing happen in their lives with a thought, like having a new line at the grocery store open up just for them. Mik’s mother wasn’t one of those humans. She didn’t even flinch when a ghost passed through her.
“If your mama doesn’t have enough sense to get inside before the veil thins, what’re you supposed to do about it?” Ayo sucked her smooth and pearlies. “You can’t put a leash on her like you can with a partner.”
Shavon perked up. “Oh, do you do that with yours? I’ve never messed with a human before. Is she kink-lush?” Her metallic kohl-rimmed eyes widened and she grinned. “I had a feeling—”
“Will you quit? Both of you. In my entire life, she’s never done this. Never not been home before three. Where is she?” Mik read the label of the half-empty wine bottle on the table, then replaced it, huffed, and flopped back on the sofa next to Ayo’s river of braids. They gave a half-hearted hiss before laying over her legs for warmth.
“But you might be worried for nothing.” Shavon pulled a flask from her bag and took a glug. “Did she say where she was going?”
Mik scrubbed her fingers through her thick puff of hair, delving deep to scratch nervously at her scalp. “No, I got home from work a few hours ago and she wasn’t here. I didn’t worry then. Just washed clothes, and made a few dozen candles while dinner cooked. Still no mom. No answer on her phone, either.”
Shavon pushed her lips outward into a moue of disappointment. “You did all of that after a full day at work? Mik, I thought we talked about your taking a break sometimes. What about that book you said you were going to write?”
“I don’t have time for that,” Mik snapped.
“Sounds like you do.” Shavon’s pout protruded even further.
“Hmm, maybe ’Von has a point about being worried for nothing. Your mom could be inside somewhere or even on her way home.”
Shavon let out an elaborate faux gasp. “Are you… admitting I might be right about something?”
Ayo sucked her teeth. Pushed her glasses up on her nose with a pinky. Then she glanced at the clock above the TV before digging in her massive handbag. “For a Mammy Watah gal, you sure let yourself get dry. Here.” She tossed a pot of lip balm at Shavon before returning her attention to Mik. “It’s only 2:40 now. She could come in any minute.”
“I’ve already texted, called and left messages. No answer.”
Shavon caught the pot, unscrewed the lid and sniffed it. “It’s unscented,” she complained, her peeling lip poking out. She rubbed on fingerful of the balm while offering, “Her phone could be dead.”
“Or she could be.”
“Mik!” Ayo scolded. “Why’d you go there? Every chance she could be inside at a friend’s.”
“Or a lover’s,” Shavon mumbled under her breath. Mik didn’t hear her, but Ayo cut her eye, so she dropped the subject. “Have you tried to see where she is?”
“You know my sight doesn’t work like that.” Seeing - really seeing - beyond what was there wasn’t a switch she could turn on. Sometimes things came to her and sometimes they didn’t. It wasn’t always controllable. She shifted in her seat, unable to find comfort. Her foot tapped the air, ringing the dimes and disturbing Ayo’s braids, who hissed their irritation. “Plus, I’m too agitated to concentrate. Can’t you scry for her?”
Her sister witch groaned. “I’m exhausted, Mik. I’ve been watching my babies and the other mammies’ eggs all day. You know we’ve just passed spawning season.”
Ever the mediator, Ayo intervened. “We’ll help you. I’ll run the water in the bathtub.”
As Ayo got up, Shavon stopped her. “I’ll need more water than that. I might need to unfurl.”
“There’s the pool. None of the other residents should be down there now. Want me to get you a swimsuit from upstairs?”
“Girl, please. Like I got anything you haven’t seen before.”
“Fine,” Mik said, grabbing a bottle of her On Point focus oil from the end table with a hand that only trembled slightly.
Where the heck could her mother be? Since retiring, she only went to church and out to lunch or cards with friends. Mik couldn’t remember the last time she’d come home from work to not find her mother stirring a pot in the kitchen or sitting at the dining room table with a puzzle book and a pen. Her mind always went to the worst case scenario, and she had to fight to shake off the fear before it set itself in stone.
Ayo handed her a vial of liquid, which slid from her unsteady hand and plummeted toward the hardwood floor. Before it could make contact, a lock of Ayo’s hair grabbed it.
“Careful,” she said, handing it back. “I made that during the last blue moon and I nearly froze my ass off charging it.”
Mik mumbled an apology. She knew her sister witch hated cold weather, so standing outside naked in the moonlight was an enormous sacrifice. At 2:45, they hopped the fence enclosing the apartments’ pool. It closed at dusk, but few residents ever used it, preferring their gym pools and hot tubs.
They shed their clothes and climbed down the ladder and into the water, skin-shrivelingly cool after the balmy evening. Ayo hissed as the water touched her skin.
“It gets warmer once you start moving around.”
Ayo bit off a curse. “Yeah, right.”
Mik dabbed a drop of focus oil onto her fingertip and rubbed a circle on Shavon’s forehead. After a murmured prayer, Shavon lay back in the water, her Afro flattening out as it got wet.
“Don’t let me change all the way, okay?”
To prevent Shavon’s legs to keep them from fusing together, Mik stood between them, watching the change. Her skin grew iridescent, purplish scales while her eyes rolled back, the water lapping at the white orbs. Frilly gills appeared at her throat, looking like part of a Shakespearean ruff. Her legs scissored, trying to come together in a vain attempt to form a tail. Her body rose and fell, splashing both women.
“Bring her out of it,” Ayo said, worried. Her braids danced in the water, making tiny ripples.
Mik touched her finger to the bottle of Ayo’s blue moon-charged potion and held it under the Mammy Watah girl’s nose. Shavon shuddered, then inhaled on a gasp. She flailed and choked, unable to tell if she should use her lungs or gills. Her sister witches pulled her upright.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” Ayo soothed, guiding Shavon over to the side of the pool so she could get her bearings.
“What did you see?” Mik asked. After a heartbeat, she added, “You okay?”
After an enthusiastic sneeze, Shavon nodded and said, “Not much. It was weird. Some smoky room filled with columns and dark wood. Portraits on the walls. George Washington Carver and that guy who played Blacula in the movies.”
“I know that place.” At the incredulous look from the others, Ayo said, “What? I wasn’t always an old married lady. I used to party.”
“When?” Both voices were incredulous, unbelieving.
Ayo ignored them. “It’s Jonesy’s, the lounge where I met my Maria.”
Shavon pursed her lips. “It’s been open twenty years? Impressive, but it doesn’t sound like the kind of place you’d go.”
In an attempt to avoid a scathing reply that might lead to an argument, Mik asked where Jonesy’s was. She pushed herself up out of the water and patted herself with a towel before pulling her long white sundress back over her head.
“The North Area.”
“You better be glad I love y’all. Carrying myself up to high-crime-ville.” Shavon tilted her head, letting the water running down her face trail into her mouth.
“Nothing wrong with the North Area. You just believe what you hear on the news.”
Shavon shrugged. “Sorry, I forgot you were stationed up there.”
“Never been robbed or carjacked or anything while there either.”
Mik let them bicker while she tried to rationalize a reason her mother would be in that part of town. Was there some new restaurant up there? Maybe she was visiting one of her friends from school? She dusted her fingers over her tight coils while her mother’s stories from her youth filled her head.
Back then, the North Area had been the place to go, bustling with the business from the naval shipyard for both its reputable and sordid offerings. Money flowed into the city like water into the harbor. With the flood of trade, inevitably, non-magic lovers had wanted to move to the area, lured by the promise of good weather and good fortune. For their supposed comfort, they wanted the magic users out. The military had tried to drive them off, but fighting a full complement of witches and conjurers and haints and hags had proved too much.
After a resounding defeat, the military pulled out and the Navy closed its base in New Charleston, leaving the city to itself and its magic. Currently a tenuous truce between humans and the magical was in place and so far, it was holding.
“Must be a long time since you been up there,” Ayo said, pushing Shavon’s recovering body to the edge of the pool. “All sorts of changes happening.”
“I’m going, even if you don’t come with me.” Mik clasped her sister’s shoulders, pulling as Ayo pushed. Slowly, Shavon emerged from the water to land on one padded hip with a grunt. Ayo followed a moment later, using the ladder to climb out with care.
“Fine, I’ll go,” Ayo said, wiggling her nose to push her glasses up. “You coming, Shavon? You feel up to it?”
“Of course. Let me dry my scales first.”
Mik helped Shavon into her SUV and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Sands of time know my agony getting in here.” Ayo complained as she grasped the grab handle. “I don’t know why you drive this big thing. You’re no taller than I am and it’s just you. No kids or familiars.” She finally hefted herself inside and Mik pulled away.
“I just like it. And sometimes I need the extra room when I’m gathering herbs or buying plants.”
They were quiet during the drive, maybe in acknowledgement of Mik’s fear. She had taken care of her mother since she was a little girl of eight or nine years old. There was no talk of a father, ever. Only cryptic promises a young girl couldn’t understand.
Her mother would look at the sky – daytime, night, it didn’t matter – and tell Mik:
He’s coming back for me, you know.
Mik believed her at first, watching the sky when she had time between her schoolwork and cooking and cleaning and shopping. Her mother was absent, not only from her daughter, but from herself. Some might call it abuse, this vacancy, but it was the only life Mik knew, and she protected it with all she had. In the moments when her mother did come back to the world, she was overly tender, her emotions riding so close to the surface tears welled in her eyes at the idea of a harsh word. It was then Mik knew she would have to always take care of her.
As a teen, Mik’s youthful belief dissolved into anger. Her hopeful waiting became irritated backtalk. He’s not coming, Mama. He’s never coming back. Expecting her mother to yell back or cry at her daughter’s berating and almost holding her breath in expectation. Knowing that once she did, Mik would feel like the monster she probably was. But that argument never came.
He’s coming back for me.
As an adult, she thought it might be her mother’s way of coping with a one night stand who’d left her pregnant and alone. Any other ideas were just too horrible to imagine. Her sympathies grew then. She asked her about him on a few occasions and the story was always the same.
He is wonderful, just wonderful to me. He’s coming back, you know…
I know, Mama, she’d replied. But you’re cold, let’s get you under the covers.
“Where you goin’?”
Ayo’s voice broke into Mik’s rambling thoughts and she had to blink several times to realize where she was. “What? What d’you mean?”
“You passed the turnoff.” She jerked a thumb behind her. “Two streets back.”
After a quick U-turn and some cuss words, Mik parked in front of a low-slung building with multi-colored lights hanging from the roof. Several of them were burned out, but most flickered an ominous welcome.
“Here?” Shavon sat up, peering over Ayo’s shoulder. “It looks like a parody of a magical place.”
Ayo opened the door and clambered out. “It sort of is.”
Inside, the bar was undergoing shift change. The human bartender was clocking out and his witch replacement was setting out salt bowls and placing sprigs of lit rosemary in cast iron incense burners on each of the tables. Both men looked up as the trio entered, and the witch greeted them.
“Sisters, what can I do?”
Shavon mumbled, “I wanna drink.” She hobbled off to lean against the bar and get the soon-to-be off-duty bartender to take her order.
Coming out of her mer form so quickly must have been uncomfortable, and Mik was sorry for that, but her focus was getting her mother found. Later, she’d buy her friend a whole bottle of jasmine rum and all would be forgiven.
“I’m looking for this woman.” Mik pulled out her phone and showed the white-robed man a picture. “Have you seen her?”
“Esther? Yes, of course.”
“You know her?”
The man nodded. “I take her custom regularly. Milk vodka with a bolt of cola.”
That was her drink, but did she have to come all the way here to get it? Why? If she liked this place, then fine. But why didn’t Mik know about it and why couldn’t her mother get herself home before the curfew? All of her work to protect her mother from whatever ghost haunted her heart seemed like a waste.
The bartender was looking at her curiously. “Why do you seek Esther?”
“She’s my mother.”
At the man’s shrug, Mik’s frustration bloomed. “I’m worried about her. It’s three a.m. and humans should be off the streets. You know that. Suppose she’s encountered a haint or a witch?”
He peered closely at her. “Wouldn’t that be how you were conceived?”
Her mouth snapped shut, chopping off what she’d been about to say. When she recovered herself, she began, “Look, I don’t want to be rude—”
“Then don’t be.” The man’s gentle comment only fueled her ire but before she could tell him to mind his business about her heritage, he spoke again. “When she was here earlier, she sat over there.”
Mik followed the direction he pointed to and stomped off with Ayo in tow to investigate.
“I get protecting your clientele, but damn. Was that necessary?”
“Old school,” Ayo said in explanation. “I remember when we weren’t welcome in this city and if someone was asking about your whereabouts, it was to lock you up or throw you out of town.”
“Well, I didn’t like the attitude.”
“It means someone is looking out for her. That’s good.”
She wanted to say times had changed since back then, but even she couldn’t make that argument. Grumbling about the unfairness of the truce had begun to pop up on the local news and Mik hoped another skirmish like the one when her mother was younger wouldn’t occur again. “Let’s just check out this table so we can move on.”
The table was made of lightning-struck oak, rough-hewn and bolted to the floor. The stool legs were created from scaffolder tube and couplers, adding to the rustic, industrial atmosphere. Atop the steel tubes the seats were also of oak, smoothed to a gloss but left unvarnished.
“Was this where she sat?” Mik asked.
The bartender looked up and nodded, went back to lighting rosemary sprigs.
A sheen of fine dust lay on the seat, glittering faintly with a crystalline sheen. Mik had no idea what it was for, but it was some kind of magical residue, she knew that much. She reached out.
“Don’t touch it!” One of Ayo’s braids knocked her hand away. “You don’t know what that stuff is and your first instinct is to touch it? What is wrong with you? You must be letting your human half take over.”
Ayo pulled two envelopes out of her handbag, using one of them to scrape the substance into the open flap of the other. “Trace magic can still have an effect on you.”
Mik knew better than to go touching magic powder she was unfamiliar with but losing mama had her rattled even more than she’d expected. Many times she’d said to herself over the years that if her mother didn’t get home by curfew, she would not be traipsing all over the city to find her. And here she was doing exactly that. Looking for a grown-ass woman like a child who’d wandered off in a department store.
“I know, I know. Let’s get Shavon to trace the source of this powder.”
Unhappy about being dragged away from her chance at experiencing kink-lush at the hands of the now-off-duty human bartender, Shavon reluctantly dipped her fingers into the cup of water Mik shoved in her direction.
“You couldn’t have gotten warm water?”
“Fine.” Her pupils and irises faded as she searched, her eyeballs flicking back and forth as if she were in deep sleep. Ten seconds passed, twenty, before Shavon pulled her hand out of the cup, flicking the water from her fingers.
“I can’t tell. Sorry.” She hiccupped. “I might have had too much rum.”
“If you need a magical element assessed, there is a shop not far from here that might help.” The witch bartender arched an immaculate eyebrow. “No guarantees though.”
Mik regarded the shopkeeper closely. Blue hair, cropped to the scalp on the sides and back, long enough on top for it to fall at a charming rakish way over one dark eye. The eye she could see didn’t appear to mind her scrutiny. In fact, that gaze held curiosity, interest and if she wasn’t mistake, a touch of come hither.
Flustered, she tamped down her response, which was fluttery and belly-low. It was not unpleasant.
“I need your help.”
“A moment, then my service is yours.”
Shavon giggled and Ayo shushed her.
That voice. It was sultry, making her think of sub-tropical nights and sweat-slick skin draped in crisp white linen. Wind hot as breath, limbs weighted with heat. Mik knew spells, but this one. This one of the periwinkle hair and the dark eye of mischief knew charms.
Be careful, she told herself.
“That shopkeeper,” she whispered from the corner of her mouth. “Full human?”
Ayo pushed her glasses up on her nose, leaned forward to peer closer. She shook her head. “No, something else is in there. A possessed human, maybe?”
Maybe it was because she was half-human and her mother was full but she could always tell when she encountered possessed humans. There was something awkward about the way they moved with the borrowed body. Or it was the eyes: not blinking enough or the blinks weren’t entirely in sync. This shopkeeper was anything but awkward. The weight of her stare must have been palpable because the shopkeeper joined them immediately.
“Trying to hypnotize me? I fear I may already be under your spell.”
Mik’s lips parted, but no sound came out. She’d never had anyone address her that way.
“Apologies for the lack of introduction. Dev Carlyle, Proprietor. My card.”
Still speechless, Mik took the proffered card.
Fine magics created & procured
Since her sister witch was less than able to respond to Dev’s outrageously antiquated flirtations, Shavon spoke up. “We were told you could identify a magical powder.”
“Oh? Who recommended my shop so highly?”
“The bartender at Jonesy’s.”
“Oh, yes. I’ll have to thank him. How many I help?”
“Do you know what this is?” Mik held out the packet of powdery residue she’d gathered on the counter.
Dev took it, tossing back the wayward hair enough to reveal both eyes. They focused on her, then the package. “It could be many things.”
“That powder was stark white twenty minutes ago when we found it.”
The powder now held a dove-wing gray shade, and continued to darken.
“Hm. That narrows it down.”
“To what?” Shavon asked.
Elbows on the counter, Dev turned the bag over and over, shrugged. “Many medicines come powdered, especially for pain. Drying fruit or vegetables can make it as well. Not to mention materia magica.”
Mik sighed. “How do we find out? We’re on a time crunch here.”
“Use it, then.” Shavon suggested. “Or taste it.”
“Not wise,” the proprietor said. “You’ll forgive me if I refuse.”
“Can you test it in any way? I know there isn’t much but…”
“I can. And there is enough to possibly determine its components and what it was for.”
“How much will it cost?” Ayo asked, ever the practical one.
Mik waved her hand to dismiss the idea of negotiating over price. Her stress was careening upward and she just wanted answers so she could breathe normally once again. “It doesn’t matter how much. I need to know and it’s the only clue I have.”
The blue brows raised. “Clue? I’m intrigued.”
“My mother’s gone. Lost, I mean. She’s a human and it’s … Well, she didn’t get home before the curfew. And I’m worried.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The concern in Dev’s voice was genuine, Mik could tell. “Is this the first night?” When Mik nodded, Dev continued. “And the patrols won’t look for any human until day three, is it?”
“Yes, but I can’t sit around until then.”
“Come to the lab.” Dev stood, picked up the packet of powder.
“You need to know soonest, yes?”
“What about your store?”
“It’s just in the next room. I’ll hear the bell. Besides, you look like you could use a nice cup of tea.”
Dev was proficient at tea making, using a propriety blend of ingredients that included daisy petals.
“It smells wonderful.” Mik sniffed at the brew appreciatively as it steeped.
“I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“You smell good, too. Like leather warmed in front of an open sweetwood fire.” What possessed her to say that? Knowing she would soon have answers possibly eased Mik’s nerves. Or maybe that was the promise of tea. Either way, Mik couldn’t resist testing her wings and flirting just a little. “Oh wow… Was that a shy dip of the head? I had you pegged for a rake, a destroyer of hearts and zippers.”
Dev’s laugh rang out. “A rake? Are we in ye olden times, milady?”
Mik smiled in spite of the worry boiling her belly. “Perhaps we are, gentle...” Man? Lady? She didn’t know how to finish the address and she froze, trying to think of a way to ask what she needed to know. Did she need to know? Maybe not, but her thoughts were a swarming mass of confusion.
“Gentle on its own, serves best,” Dev informed her.
“Perhaps we are then, gentle.”
It took forty minutes and three cups of tea before they got their answer.
“Transport powder?” Mik whispered, almost to herself. She blinked, staring at the remnants of the spent spell.
“A strong one, but not one of mine,” Dev said, pulling off gloves and googles.
Ayo folded her arms. “What does that mean - that Mik’s mom had this on her seat? Someone used it to take her away someplace?”
“Or did she use it herself, to hide?” Shavon bit at her lip. “Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find her when I scryed earlier.”
Finally, the two turned their attention to their sister witch. “Mik, you okay?”
“Yeah. I think… I think I know where she is.” She drummed her fingertips against the empty teacup. “How much do I owe you?”
“On the house. Here,” Dev said.
“What is this?”
“Some of my transport powder. Enough for all of you and your vehicle.” Dev held out a felt pouch, and their fingers grazed each other’s as Mik took it. Pink-cheeked, Dev instructed Mik on how to use it. “Get there quickly; it’s almost sunrise.”
“Thanks for this, gentle.”
“A pleasure, milady.”
Mik sprinkled the powder on the SUV’s wheels while envisioning where she wanted to go, then the three witches sprinkled the remaining dust on their seats and climbed inside. A white mist enveloped them and the entire vehicle jolted forward like someone had slammed on the brakes.
“Why’re we back at Mik’s place?” Shavon leaned against the window and peered out.
The door to the apartment opened, and Mik’s mom stepped into view. Mik’s lips tightened while the other witches gaped.
“She’s home?” Ayo asked. “All this time?”
Mik shook her head. “Not all this time. We left before three, remember? Mom must have gotten this powder from someone and used it to pop home just in time.”
Eyes wide, Shavon nodded. “So you’ve been out searching and she’s been—”
“Home since three?” Ayo finished.
“Yup,” Mik replied, holding her mother’s gaze. The moment Dev had told her it was a transport powder and a strong one, she’d known. She just didn’t know why.
“We’ll be going,” Ayo said, pointing to Shavon then to her mid-sized car. “Let us know how it, um, goes.” They hurriedly piled into Ayo’s coupe and left the parking complex.
Slowly, Mik got out, using every moment to calm her swirling emotions. As she climbed the steps, she said, “You could have called to say you were home.”
At least her mother looked apologetic about that. “I meant to, but we got carried away.”
That stopped Mik in her tracks. “We? Oh no, please. I can’t handle any of that ‘he’s coming back’ stuff tonight.”
Instead of responding, her mother stepped back from the front door to allow her daughter entrance to the apartment. Once inside, Mik realized she didn’t have the strength to argue with her mother. She hugged her chubby waist tightly, glad she was home and safe. Surprised, it took her mother a heartbeat to return the hug. But once she did, she gave herself over to the embrace.
“I’m going to bed. Love you.” She kissed her mother’s cheek, fragrant with the faint scent of face powder and dryer sheets. Any scolding could wait until morning. Or technically, later in the morning. Mik released her mother and headed for her bedroom.
“I did this for you, you know.”
So they were going to talk about this now. Great. “Did what for me, Mom? Bring me closer to having a stroke?”
“No, forced you to see how much of yourself you put into taking care of me. You had nothing else in your life to distract you from the fact I wasn’t home when you arrived.”
“I’ve lived,” her mother said. “I’ve enjoyed my life. Hell… I’m still enjoying it. You haven’t. You’ve spent your life looking after me, as much as I’ve looked after you. Probably more.”
She touched her scarf, adjusting it around her neck. “I know it wasn’t easy having a human mom. I wasn’t able to teach you magic or help you grow in it. And you always felt you had to protect me. Know why I disappeared? It was to get you out of this house. Out of this routine. Something good might happen.”
Mik sighed. “Mom, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But you got to. You gotta find yourself a life outside of working a job you tolerate and caring for a mother you think isn’t all there.”
“I don’t think you’re not all there,” Mik lied, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Besides, I have a life.”
“Uh huh.” Her mother folded her arms across her chest and fixed her with that only parents seem to be able to perfect. “Ayo went home to her wife, and Shavon to all those homeless babies the Mammy Watah gals love to raise up. What do you have? Me.”
Mik opened her mouth, closed it. She stalked across the room, threw her purse on the couch before responding. “So what? What else do you think I need? A husband, kids or else I’m not really a woman?”
“I never said you needed any of that. Just something else to dedicate yourself to. To fulfill your heat and spirit.” Her gaze softened and she opened her arms. Mik gratefully went into them.
“You’ve been looking after me a long time,” Mama said as she rubbed Mik’s back. “Since you were a little girl. I’m sorry I put that burden on you so young. I don’t even remember when it changed from me watching you to the opposite. But it’s time now.”
Mik clung to her as she mumbled into the scented neckline of mama’s blouse. “I’ll stop worrying so much. I can—”
“You can start living your life. Stop worrying about me and making excuses about why you can’t do what you want. Get a new job, take those classes, whatever. Do it and let your passion move you where it will. Drag it along, if you have to. But I’m ready to go.”
“I’m not ready for you to die.” Mik’s throat closed and for a few moments, her heart stopped beating.
Mik’s mother pulled away, put her hands on her hips. “Who said anything about dying? I’m going traveling. Always wanted to do more of that.”
Relief made her burst of laughter verge on hysterical. “I’ll do with you.”
“No, your father is taking me.”
“Mama, not this again. He is not…”
Bright light grew around her mother and for the first time, Mik could see a figure appear in the nexus of illumination surrounding her. Unusually tall, with broad, long arms. Indistinguishable from shadow, but somehow so sharp it hurt her eyes to look at it. Through the haze of shock, Mik felt its attention on her even though its features were obscured. There was a sensation of warmth from the shaded figure, coupled with a slight hesitation and a gentle pleasure at her presence.
“I know you thought something was wrong with me all those years, saying he was coming back. Well, joke’s on you. Meet your father.”
Mik babbled some sounds that she could not have repeated if she’d been threatened with exile from the city. The figure stepped toward her, but she backed up, confused and concerned. Sadness weighted her shoulders and chill seeped into the room. She realized it was from the being mama said was her father.
“It’s all right. She needs some time to get used to you.” She smiled up at him and he moved a shadowed hand toward her cheek. The light brightened. “Isn’t that right, Mikayla?”
“Right. It’s… uh, yeah.” She rubbed a hand over her head. “I’ll need a little while.”
The cold ebbed away and Mama beamed, brighter than Mik had seen her smile in much too long. “Yes, she is. Strong and beautiful, like you.” She laughed and Mik saw and felt the joy in it, the uncertainty of so many years gone. “Okay, like me too.”
“We’ll give you some time. But we’ll see you real soon. Don’t know exactly when as time works different when he’s around. Love you, baby. ”
Mik stuttered. “But, Mama.”
“This is your time now. Go out there and get what’s yours.”
Mama hugged her close, kissed her forehead, stepped back to take Mik’s father’s hand. The light halo surrounding them flashed bright, whiting out her vision for a moment. When it returned to normal, she was alone. In the apartment and with her thoughts. She made herself a vetiver martini, shaking the concoction deftly with ice before pouring it over a glass straight from the freezer. Mik sat down on the porch and looked up at the sky, sipping while she pondered what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
It took six months to write the book, an entire summer’s worth of classes and mentorships to edit it, another six to get an agent and a sale. Yet another eleven months before the book hit the shelves. Mama and Father had checked in once a quarter to offer encouragement and bring snacks. She still only understood a few words he uttered when he opened his mouth to speak, and she wasn’t completely comfortable allowing him a full-access mind communication link. But Mama looked radiant and happy, and she couldn’t ask for more than that.
The shop was Mik’s first stop on the local book tour for her debut novel release, Half Human, All Witch. She’d shared a few cups of tea here with Dev when she allowed herself an infrequent break from writing, but it had been months since they’d met up. Arriving early to sign copies for the store, she saw a familiar face and form setting up a table, chairs, and stacks of books. She noticed a teapot and cup beside a tent card with her name printed on it in an elegant, yet legible script.
“You remembered, gentle.”
Dev flushed and pulled out her chair. “Always, milady.”
She approached the table laden with her books, convinced she wouldn’t ever get used to seeing her name in print. She sat while Dev poured, then watched them stride off to perform some last minute feat before Mik’s presentation. Already people were milling around, flipping through pages of her life while waiting for the event to start. The small shop was standing room only when Shavon and Ayo snuck in, right before the advertised start time. Her heart fluttered and she sipped the tea, letting the daisy petals calm her rioting nerves.
While she may never get used to this, Mik was going to give it her best shot. A flicker of light in the back of the crowd told her mom and father had arrived. She pushed back her chair and stood, straightening the hem of her white sundress. Clasping her hands together to steady them, she headed to the podium Dev had set up. Expectant gazed followed her. Deep breath, now. Smile.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming.”
Eden Royce is from Charleston, South Carolina and is a member of the Gullah-Geechee nation. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications and she is the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic own voices novel, Root Magic, won the Mythopoeic Award in 2022.
She now lives in the Garden of England with her husband and cat. When she's not writing or reading, she's probably roller-skating, watching quiz shows, or perfecting her signature dish for Masterchef. Sometimes all at once.
wunder is a Nigerian artist. you can find more of her work on Instagram where she is @wunder.kid
Kimberly Yvonne Steele is an audiobook narrator and writer living in Chicago. She currently has over 30 titles on Audible.