Jenni walked the leaf-covered streets just as she did every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Thick heeled Oxfords clacked against the cobbled stones as she neared the city, her place for fresh veggies, fruits, milk, and if she felt exceptionally bold the shoppe. Soon the thick haze of steam would veil her view, and the much louder clack of the grinding cogs of half-baked machines designed to improve the lives of all would assault her auditory senses. One-by-one, she pulled the necessary accouterment from the pockets of her overcoat. She placed one soft-foam plug in each ear and hid her almond-brown eyes beneath thick goggles. Not exactly the highest of fashion, but it would preserve her senses just a little longer.
Her Friday trip into the city offered up nothing but anxiety. Too many buildings packed tightly together, many of which obscured the sunlight from warming the ground. But that’s okay, a Sangfried’s Artificial Elements nestled into just about every corner. People rode down the narrow alleys on the latest locomotive contraption brought to us by Millie’s Mobilities. And you’d need her services, too, if the hubris distracted riders of such devices happened to run you over. It was more common than you’d think. But, with the weekend looming before her, Jenni needed the necessary supplies to survive alone in her cottage. A quick trip to the market, pop into the dairy, and a jaunt through the bookstore would see her well. Then, blessedly, her perfectly-punctual routine allowed her to wander home and hole up until Monday. Calvin’s Coolers promised her groceries a longer lifespan, but Jenni figured it was yet another fleeting craze soon to fall into obscurity.
Jenni approached the perimeter of lavish mansions and their equally extravagant lawns that marked the city from the countryside. The last hint of a natural world bordering one of wonder and imagination. The people living among these homes received the best of both environments. Alas, she foresaw herself never residing in such luxury. Her meager salary alone paled in comparison to what such homes required. And as someone unlucky in the romance department, a place so large would feel so very empty. She neared her usual entrance into the city. A snow-white rabbit hopped through a well-manicured sea of deep green, a towering wall of white stone excessively marbled with gold ushered her through, and finally, the sodium lights yellowed all the metal and stone that lie before her as her world abruptly changed.
Moira caught the tell-tale glimmer of sunlight bouncing off goggle glass out of the corner of her eye. She checked her clock, right on time. She finished pouring her cup of coffee before lacing her boots and slipping into her fitted, slate jacket before heading out the double doors and onto her balcony. She set down her cup with a steady hand, pulled out a wire chair, and sat down before casually glancing at the road below. A brief glimpse of the woman in the knee-high, brown stockings leading to the lacy hem of a creamy, pouf dress currently compressed under a thick, velvety jacket was all Moira caught. She sighed but knew the woman would be back, likely in a little over an hour. She did appear quite punctual; a trait currently being taught to Moira.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Moira hoped to view the young woman as she passed. Naturally, she felt a bit odd, an admirer from afar, however, she fully intended to introduce herself one day. As soon as the flirtatious trait known as courage appeared. Moira exuded confidence in nearly any situation she found herself. She knew what she wanted, and she went for it. Knowing when failure meant to desist, however, she learned was just as important as knowing when failure meant to persist. It was, after all, how she managed to become truly independent, how she finally came to live her life as she intended.
She often spent her Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, sitting on her balcony, waiting for the woman to pass wondering if she was the same as her. Her chestnut hair braided halfway down her back swayed haphazardly with each step, as whimsical as the demeanor the woman radiated. Moira settled into a daydream while waiting for the quaintly elegant woman to pass back by.
Two satchels of items hung from Jenni’s shoulders flanking her. She stood on the meager stretch of concrete that passed as a sidewalk. People rushed past her, whirring and clanking filled her ears and vibrated her soul; steam fogged her goggles. But time stood still for Jenni as she nervously stared up at the pink neon sign spelling out Lottie’s Love Potions. Jenni knew countless people who swore by Lottie’s wares, however, Jenni had yet to be persuaded. Jenni liked girls, but she didn’t like girls, and Jenni liked boys, but she didn’t like boys. Originally, she wandered into the shoppe full of desperation. Her first time, she entered wishing to find some cure, something to nudge her in an amorous direction. She always assumed something in her was broken and perhaps in need of some encouragement. So far, every purchase had been a fat waste of resources.
Shoulders slumped, she loosed a sigh and pushed the door open. The jingle of a bell rang through the room and Lottie appeared out from a crimson curtain covering the back room behind the counter. Lottie did not need heels but preferred them anyway. She stood nearly seven feet tall in her favorite platform pair and commanded any room, abundant of confidence, in her patented, shimmering, skin-tight bodysuits. She made friends easily, a perk in her line of work, and Jenni desired to possess half the confidence Lottie did. Lottie brushed her bubblegum hair out of her face, revealing her sharp cheekbones and dazzling eyes.
Jenni approached, unsure if she was remembered. Though Lottie treated everyone like an old friend. Lottie’s velvety voice called to her, “I wondered if you’d be back. I mixed up something special just for you,” Lottie’s smile was both comforting and sly.
“Oh,” Jenni was unprepared for such a generous gesture, “t-thank you.”
“Got it right here,” Lottie reached into a small drawer where she typically kept special orders and produced a vial of bright purple liquid. Jenni stepped towards the counter. The mixture seemed to glow and glitter, clearly higher quality than the plain liquids that lined the open shelves. Jenni’s eyes widened as she realized there was no way she could afford a special order.
On cue, as if sensing her apprehension, Lottie said, “No extra charge darling, we’ll find you something that works.”
Jenni graciously accepted the discount. She shoved the vial into her bag and headed out. Lottie brewed love potions for just about every desire and personality. Her concoctions came from years of hard practice in both chemistry and magic, if anything could help Jenni, it would come from Lottie. And unlike other, less reputable establishments, hers only affected the purchaser, part of the pact one made when purchasing her spells.
Birds chirped softly in the distance, a steady draft rustled the leaves, and the painful screeching of nails on a chalkboard left Moira nearly falling from her chair with steaming coffee covering her exposed hands. After a moment of confusion, she jumped to the edge of the balcony. Billowing black smoke first burned her nostrils then she gazed at the street below. A thick cloud fogged her vision. It appeared as if yet another locomotive malfunctioned. Moira wished people did their proper research before making such bold purchases, but woe, this was never the case.
With the grating smoke and raucous voices ruining the otherwise peaceful day, she readied herself to go inside. As she grimaced in disgust at the scene below and turned to go, a glint of chestnut hair, radiant as the sun, caught her eye. Sauntering through the smog was her desired acquaintance. The poor thing! Timely as ever and not letting the soot and poison below deter her. Moira casually leaned against the rail and admired her. The small woman turned and, choking on the smoke, coughed. Moira felt a pang of sympathy as she noted she donned goggles yet no mask.
As the woman returned to her walk, a thunderous boom exploded from the contraption not far behind her. The noise, loud enough to make Moira, two stories up, startle, barely phased the ear-plugged woman next to it. As Moira settled her beating heart, something new caught her astute eyes. Squinting through the smog she caught a tinge of orange. Taking a moment to assess the unfolding situation, Moira gasped. She recognized the familiar and pungent smell hiding under the smoke. She bellowed at the woman below, but, unphased by the blast, she was surely unable to hear Moira above. Realizing time ran short, she turned and bolted through the double doors, down the stairs (skipping a few every so often), and burst onto the lawn.
Sprinting toward Jenni, a slender woman, sharply clad appeared to be shouting frantically. Jenni moved to withdraw her earplugs. In doing so, she immediately succumbed to the cacophonous sputtering of the broken machine behind her, and the words coming from the woman in front of her. Much more excitement than Jenni bargained for seemed to have found her. The noise behind her momentarily stilled and she heard the woman in front of her shout “Get down!” This did nothing to unconfound Jenni. She decided to ignore the scene and continue on her way. But fate intervened.
Moira ended a mere arms-length from Jenni when the inevitable happened. A simple hiss, a cutting crack, and a hot whoosh. A fury of orange flame burst forth, igniting everything in a short radius around the defunct machine. Moira lept forward, knocking Jenni to the ground and safety. Hot flames licked at the shrubbery around them. Jenni, stunned, took a quick peek around. Unable to find her feet, she scuttled backward desperately looking for sanctuary, anywhere not being promptly devoured by fire. Moira deftly sprang to her feet and offered her hands to Jenni. Jenni grasped them in shock and went abruptly from all fours to once again bipedal.
“Follow me, we’ll get you inside and checked out.”
Jenni, unable or unwilling to protest, obliged. She had no choice but to leave the spilled goods where they fell, soon to be gobbled up in the growing blaze. Distraught, she followed the woman to the door of a border mansion. Moira opened the rich, mahogany door and held it for Jenni.
“This is your home?”
“Indeed. All mine. Please come in.”
Moira and Jenni entered a brightly lit sunroom just off the main entrance and were immediately greeted by a young man bringing them water. Jenni took note of the empty satchels at her sides.
Noticing her newly sunken shoulders and morose demeanor Moira asked, “Would you like to set those down?” She motioned to the table.
Jenni removed her bags and they collapsed on the table. One book, an apple, and the potion peaked out. She further despaired as she remarked their tattered and rugged burlap against the pure white, elegant table. Moira pulled out a chair and Jenni settled into it.
“I am Moira, by the way.”
“Jenni,” she sighed.
“I’m terribly sorry about your items, but as long as you’re well everything will be fine.”
“I am well. Throat’s just a little sore.”
“Well, you’re welcome to rest up here. I imagine you don’t live in the city and might need to make a second trip.”
Jenni sighed again. The thought of traversing the streets, the people, the noises all over again sent her to new depths of exhaustion.
“I’m afraid I’m not one to enjoy the city either,” Moira offered, “But, I could accompany you if you like.”
Jenni perked up just a touch. She’d only just met the woman, but something about her planted comfort in Jenni’s mind.
“I do think I’d like that,” the words that flowed from Jenni’s mouth were typical of her voice, but not typical of her personality. It seemed she managed to astound herself. But as Jenni took a look at the state of her appearance, soot-covered face, torn dress hem, and bruised knees, a renewed lamentation washed over her.
“I don’t think another trip today is a good idea. I’m absolutely filthy.”
“I can offer you a place to wash up,” Moira stated, “Even still, in your current state I’d say you’re more beguiling than the usual city-goers.”
Jenni blushed a touch and bowed her head. Moira extended her hand and showed her to the washroom. The room resided nearby and Moira affirmed she’d be waiting back in the sunroom, no rush. Jenni glanced around the opulent, sea-blue room. Everything matched, everything sparkled. Beside the sink sat a neatly folded washcloth. She turned the knobs that released warm water and dampened the cloth. She found no soap visible and bemoaned the necessity of looking through someone else’s cabinets. Starting with the one above the sink, she gently pried the door open. Thankfully, a small bar lies directly before her. She snatched it quickly and moved to close the door quick, but a curious object stuck out. With a guilty conscience, she eyed the vial. By all appearances, it was the same as the one currently in her bag. Unlike hers, this one rested half empty and lacked the same vibrant glow. Jenni allowed herself a moment to ponder her curiosity before closing the door once more.
Hard heels clicked against the marvelously tiled floor and echoed through the hallway as Jenni attempted to step as discretely as possible. Taking a deep breath, preparing herself for interaction, she stepped into the sunroom. Moira, lacking apparent qualms about rifling through someone’s belongings, examined the vessel of glimmering, purple liquid from Jenni’s satchel. Jenni, ever so subtly, cleared her throat.
“Ahh, I see you, too, paid Lottie a visit.”
“No need to be embarrassed, undoubtedly you saw the same concoction belonging to me in the washroom.”
Jenni blushed a darker shade of burgundy, “D-did it work?”
“No, my dear,” Moira rose, leaving the vial on the table. She stepped lightly to Jenni and placed an arm around the distraught looking woman, “It didn’t work because people like you and I simply lack certain proclivities.”
Jenni’s already sullen disposition took a deeper dive. The fear she’d never find someone, the pain of being rejected again and again over something she considered trivial hit her once more. Usually, she managed to steel herself with thoughts on the benefits of solitude. Stories of her friend's romantic dramas never interested her either. Still, unsolved problems never satiated Jenni.
“Come on, let’s go to the city together and talk a while,” Moira placed her hands on Jenni’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes, “People like us, Jenni, we aren’t broken.”