The air was sharp and filled with the scent of pine trees as Iris made her way down State Road 122. It was mid-morning, maybe nine or so, and she wanted to collect a few pine boughs before it was time to open the shop. There was a little spot in the woods, just over the town line, that always had lush, beautiful boughs that would be perfect for her shop’s Yule altar. So here she was, soft music playing in her headphones and her legs burning just a little with the effort of walking in winter boots.
Iris hummed softly as she walked. It was refreshing to get outside for a bit, especially knowing how much she had to do today. She was overdue to inventory her shop, she had to prepare for another house cleansing session with a first time client, and she was sure there were other things she wasn’t thinking of as she walked.
Seconds later, she found herself lying on her back on the side of the road, nose throbbing as the world spun slightly above her. Iris stood up, gingerly touching her face with a gloved hand.
“No way…” she breathed, lowering her headphones with her other hand as she continued to gently probe the sore spot on her cheek.
In front of her loomed a big white sign that read Now Leaving New Winslow. She stared at it for a moment, then reached out a hand toward the empty space beside it. She couldn’t see anything, but she felt her hand hit some kind of barrier.
She leaned her weight on it, expecting to fall flat on her face. But instead, she remained propped up as though she were just leaning against a brick wall.
Iris knocked on the barrier and felt an otherworldly thrum that vibrated through her body.
“This is incredible,” she said out loud, pain already forgotten.
Despite living in New Winslow her whole life, this was the first time Iris had ever actually been hit with the curse. She felt a thrill of fear, but there was excitement underneath. As the town’s resident psychic, she’d always felt almost guilty that she’d never truly interacted with the force for which their town was legendary. But here she was, face to face with it. And it was real. And powerful. And currently focused on her.
She laughed a little, reaching out toward the invisible barrier again. A car rushed past her, passing the town limit sign with ease. The wind as it passed blew her hair back and made her long, black coat flutter around her legs.
With some reluctance, she remembered she had to open her shop soon. She gave the invisible barrier one last stroke, shook her head in wonder, then slid her headphones back on. Then she turned around and started walking back into town.
Roman’s music was blaring, but he didn’t bother turning it down. He just pressed the phone harder into his ear and yelled over it to his wife.
“Yeah, no problem! I’ll swing by and pick him up! I just have to drop off this delivery, so it’ll probably be twenty minutes or so. I’m driving, so do me a favor and text him to let him know. Yeah, no problem. Love you too!”
He hung up and turned his attention to the mobile home park he’d just pulled into. He knew from experience that the streets here were more confusing than they appeared.
“Ash Street,” he muttered, drumming on the steering wheel as he passed several street signs. “Ash Street…oh, here we go.”
84 Ash Street was a charming yellow single-wide mobile home. A barrel of fake flowers sat in front of the door, their bright colors contrasting with the densely packed snow below. Roman pulled up in front and turned off his car, his ears ringing in the sudden silence. He grabbed his delivery bag, got out of the car, and began to walk up to the front door, carefully avoiding the patches of ice scattered on the walkway.
The front door was a little beat up but decorated with a smiling snowman. He rang the doorbell and waited, stomping his feet for warmth.
“Just a moment!” called a nasally woman’s voice with a strong Massachusetts accent.
A sharp wind blew through Roman’s jacket. He shivered and held the hot delivery bag a little tighter. He didn’t hear any footsteps from the other side of the door yet.
Last delivery, he reminded himself. Last delivery and then he could go pick his son up at school. Fourteen-year-old Jamie had just started playing on the New Winslow High School hockey team. He’d been bubbling with excitement over it this morning, and now he was waiting for Roman to come pick him up and bring him to practice.
Finally, Roman heard soft footsteps on the other side. Then the door opened and a tiny old woman appeared. She wore gray slacks and the brightest pink shirt Roman had ever seen. He almost had to squint to look at her.
“Mrs. Jensen?” he asked.
“Oh please, call me Minnie, dear. And would you mind bringing it inside for me? I banged up my wrist a little recently and I can’t carry things too well.”
He had somehow missed the equally pink cast on her right wrist.
“Not a problem, Minnie,” Roman said. Bring it in and drop it off, that wouldn’t add too much time.
Minnie turned and began walking back into the home, so slowly that Roman had to wait a moment before he could follow her inside. The mobile home was warm and smelled like the scented candles she had burning on top of the hutches in the hallway.
“Right this way, dear,” she said.
Roman was very conscious of how much snow he was tracking onto her plush hallway carpet as he walked slowly behind her.
“Right into the kitchen,” Minnie said. “Sorry about the mess. I took a fall outside the other day and haven’t been much for housework since. Or cooking, which is why I ordered from you. Not that I don’t love pizza, but I’m just used to cooking for myself.”
She led him into the tiny kitchenette and pointed to the two-person table pushed up against the wall. “Right there is fine, dear,” she said. “Now, how much do I owe you?”
“Eight dollars even,” Roman replied, sneaking a glance at the Kit-Cat clock above the table.
“Alright, just give me a minute to get my purse.”
Minnie shuffled out into the living room and Roman tried to keep himself from shifting impatiently. Jamie was a big kid, and reasonable. He would be fine waiting outside the school for a few extra minutes.
“It’s funny,” Minnie called to him. “Your restaurant has been there for so long and I’ve never ordered delivery before. I used to eat there with my Jim though before he got sick. It’s a wonderful place. Delicious food.”
Despite his frustration, Roman felt a warm shot of pride in his chest. “Thank you,” he said.
“Do you enjoy working there?” Minnie asked.
Minnie walked back into the room. “And you’re the manager?” she asked.
“The owner.” Even after ten years, saying it out loud felt good.
Minnie smiled at him, then began shuffling through her purse. “Good. It’s good to do work you love. And you do a wonderful job. Now, here’s ten for the food. And another five for the tip. I don’t need any change.”
She went to hand Roman the money. Roman frowned at her. “Ma’am, that’s very kind, but that’s almost a hundred percent tip,” he said.
Minnie stuffed the bills in his hand. “It’s Minnie,” she repeated. “And I’m not taking it back. Thank you for bringing me some lunch. You have a nice day, son.”
Roman opened his mouth to protest, but he knew it was a losing battle. “Thank you, Minnie,” he said. “That’s very generous of you.”
They started walking back toward the front door. “Keep up the good work,” Minnie said as she opened the door and stepped aside to let him out. “Oh, and watch out for the walkway, it’s a little icy.”
Roman nodded. “I’ll be careful,” he said. “Have a nice day.”
She closed the door, and he immediately bolted down the steps, delivery bag under his arm. Now that he was back outside, it was way too cold to keep his kid waiting for him. If traffic was fine — and in a town of nine hundred, traffic had better be fine — he could be at the school in ten minutes.
As he thought this, his foot hit a patch of black ice and flew out from under him. The bag sailed out of his hands and he landed painfully on his back.
Roman lay there for a moment, getting his bearings and his temper in check. “Damn it…” he growled, then slowly, painfully, got to his feet.
Before he had limped back to his car, his cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, Dad,” Jamie said. His voice sounded a little hesitant. “Listen, um, there’s a burst pipe at the rink. So they’re having us practice at the rink in Ware.”
Roman’s stomach dropped. “Jamie-” he began.
“I know,” Jamie said quickly. “Jason’s dad is going to drive me. So, um, I guess I don’t need you. But thanks.”
“Yeah,” Roman forced out. “Yeah, no problem, kiddo. Um, see you tonight, I guess.”
“See you tonight, Dad.”
Jamie hung up and Roman stood silently beside his car for a moment, trying to squash down the sinking feeling in his stomach. Then he carefully limped to the driver’s side door and got inside.