With Four Words

Submitted into Contest #117 in response to: Set your story at the boundary between two realms.... view prompt

28 comments

Fiction Speculative Friendship

She stumbled into the shop with eyes wider than the chasm between life and death.

I could come up with a better metaphor, given time. The chasm between life and death is not as wide as many assume.

I should know. I run this place.

Some do not believe it exists. Some fear it. Some call it Purgatory.

All are misguided.

She stumbled into my Apothecary not long ago. I've been keeping an eye on her since she crossed the doorframe and the bell above rang out with a lonely tone. I remain silent, of course. Waiting for the clients to come to me is easier than explaining the obvious.

She wanders the aisles in a bewildered quiet. Shaking fingers reach out and touch a few of the vials, tilting labels so she can see them. I note which ones she reaches for. Love. Happiness. Pleasure. The usuals, for the young adults. Things they could never get in life, so they choose them here.

The Apothecary.

I've always found it intriguing, how the word is so widely used. In some places, a medicine shop. In others, the person in charge of the shop. I dwell in the Apothecary, yes, but that makes me the Apothecary. These are the circular thoughts that often occupy my mind while I wait for the new clients to regain their bearings.

She lingers in the aisle in front of me as her fingers graze Peace. Golden hair frames her face, obscuring her features from my view. A wilting plant stands by her feet. It has been wilting for years; it is not dead, nor is it alive. This place—and the people in it—are the same as the plant in this way.

Her eyes remain fixed on the opaque bottle when she speaks. With four soft words, she cements her presence here.

“What is all this?”

Her voice is a whisper. A ghost in Apothecary's shadow. But she knows I will hear her.

I do not budge from behind my desk or pull back my deep hood. She will move on from this place long before she ever sees my face. “Welcome to the Apothecary.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” she snaps. She rips her hand away from Peace and runs it through her blonde hair. “There was a crash—the car in front of me—I remember—”

A pause.

“I’m dead," she breathes.

I give a slight nod. “Your memories returned sooner than most. Be grateful.”

Grateful? For what? That I never got to finish my senior year of college?” She looks as if I struck her. Blue eyes, I notice. Ice blue. I have never seen a shade such as hers before.

The thought occurs to me that we are not distant in age.

“Grateful that you won’t have to stay here as long as most people,” I respond.

“And where…” she turns in a slow circle. Her eyes roam the rows of vials, the shadowed corners, the unswept floorboards. “Where is here, exactly?”

I shrug. “Every person names it something different. The most common in the place you came from is Purgatory.”

She stiffens and open fear flashes in those blue eyes. “You mean…”

“No. The people there have it wrong.” The sleeve of my robe swishes as I gesture around the dusty shelves. “This is the Apothecary. I am the Apothecary. It depends on how you look at it. This is the place after life, but before death. The shop at the bottom of the chasm, I’ve taken to calling it.”

“Chasm?”

I decide against explaining my hand-crafted metaphor. “Irrelevant.”

“So…what’s the point of this place?”

“One last Request to be fulfilled. No cost, no price, no consequences. A way of easing the transition between two worlds, one might say. You’ve been shopping for a little while—you’ve seen what the Apothecary has to offer.”

She casts a glance at Fortune before returning her piercing eyes to me. She cannot see my face, but I frown despite this. The Requests on the shelves no longer interest her.

Her blue eyes take on a determined and inquisitive quality I have not yet seen in a client. “How long have you been here?”

A beat of silence. “I’ve never been asked that before,” I confess.

“So?”

“I’m not certain. Time works differently here. I was just like you, once. It might have been weeks ago, or it might have been years. I’ll never know.” I shake my head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Which Request would you like?”

“None, yet.”

“If you can’t decide, I have to send you on without one. Rules and regulations aren’t something to be toyed with in this place.”

“Don’t you get lonely, working here?”

“I’ve never thought about it before. There’s constant enough company, with clients coming in all the time.”

Her eyes drift to a cobweb in the corner behind me. I keep my gaze fixed on her. I know the scenery around me better than the back of my hand. It is a world of in-betweens, like the wilted plants, like her and the rest of the clients and me.

“Doesn’t look busy to me,” she says.

“You count for two, with all the questions.”

A smile twitches at her lips. “How old are you?”

“Like I said. Time works differently here.”

“If you went back. Right now. How old would you be?”

I can feel her edging into something dangerous. The last time these questions were asked here, management shifted from my predecessor to me. I don’t sense harm in answering, though. “Somewhere around twenty, if I had to guess.”

“So how did you end up like this?”

That is a question I cannot answer without consequence.” I clear my throat. “Which Request would you like?”

She ignores my second question. “What consequence?”

“Consequence to you. Rules and regulations—”

“Aren’t to be toyed with. So you said.” She approaches me and leans her elbows on my counter. I take a step back, suddenly caught in her icy eyes. “I want to know about you. What makes you different from everyone else who passes through here?”

“I asked the right questions. You need to choose a Request soon, or else I’ll have to send you off without one,” I warn. I realize, looking into her eyes as I say the words, that sending her off without a Request makes my stomach turn. Simply sending her off makes my stomach turn.

The epiphany strikes fear into my heart.

She wanders the area in front of my desk. “So that’s it, huh? Someone comes in, you talk to them for a few minutes, and then you send them off? And you say you’re not lonely.”

“I’m not…” I inhale deeply. “You’re right. It does get lonely. But…I would rather stay here than move on.”

“What happens if I choose to stay?”

“You can’t."

She tilts her head. “You did.”

“Yes. I did. And you can’t.”

“Why?”

“Rules and regulations.” That statement may be the first lie I have ever told to a client. Rules and regulations have nothing to do with the choice to stay. If a client asks the right questions, asks to stay, they are permitted to do so.

But not her. Not anyone, not yet. I refuse to condemn someone else to an eternity of something the Apothecary does not stock: loneliness.

Especially her.

“What rules? Don’t you run this place?” she persists.

“My rules. This is a life I could not condemn you to.”

“Why not? What’s so special about me?”

I open my mouth to respond, but restrain myself. Trying to explain the feeling she gives me is crossing a line. “Choose a Request.”

“I want to stay.”

With four words, she sets my heart racing.

I want to stay. “Why?”

“Because something about you seems…different. I can’t explain it. But I want to get to know you. And I want to help the people who take all this harder than I have.”

“I can’t let you stay.” The words taste acidic. In this moment, I want her to stay more than anything. I want to tell her that something about her seems different, as well. I want to tell her that she can stay and we can keep each other company.

“I can’t,” I repeat. The words are more for my own benefit than hers this time. “This is your last opportunity to choose a Request.”

“My Request is to come back here, then,” she says. “Whenever I want. Like a visitors’ pass.”

“Did you see that on the shelf?”

“No. But you said you’re the Apothecary. You should be able to brew something new.”

“I…”

A smile crosses my shadowed face. She is smart. She came up with a solution I missed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

She exhales and glances at the door. When she faces me again, fear tints her eyes. “Now that I’ve told you my Request…what now?”

“Now you go.” Even knowing that she will come back, the words have a hard time leaving my mouth. “You’ll be notified when your Request is fulfilled. The Apothecary’s door will take you where you’re meant to go.”

She offers me a soft grin. “I never caught your name.”

“I never got yours.”

The Apothecary’s dim lights glint on her hair as she turns. The room seems to brighten and I lean forward, waiting for her next words. Her name. I need her name. Not to fulfill her Request or to ensure she goes where she is meant to be—the Apothecary does that of its own accord—but because I want to know. A name is what makes connections irrevocable, especially here.

A name is something I have not received from anyone in a long while.

My heart pounds with anticipation.

“Until next time,” she says instead. A smile plays on her lips. “I’ll see you soon.”

With four words, she is gone.

October 27, 2021 04:07

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28 comments

Zea Mind Werl
00:23 Nov 05, 2021

such a fun idea!

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Tommie Michele
02:17 Nov 05, 2021

Thank you so much! I’ve always loved the idea of apothecaries and the ghost-y type stories, so I wanted to try something that mixed them :) this was one of my favorite stories to write, too, because I’m pretty much addicted to dialogue. I’m glad you enjoyed!

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Zea Mind Werl
15:52 Nov 05, 2021

Haha yesss, writing dialogue has grown on me so much, I used to hate it but now its one of my favorite things.

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Mira Night
21:02 Nov 02, 2021

Con quattro parole, una storia molto bene. With four words, a very good story. :)

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Tommie Michele
00:44 Nov 04, 2021

With four words, thank you so much :)

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Tommie Michele
04:23 Oct 27, 2021

Woohoo, ten stories on my profile and many more to come! I'm always looking for feedback, but for this story in particular, I would love any line-edits and opportunities for rewording you noticed (general feedback is always welcome, but if you're looking for specific critiques to put in your comments, I definitely need some line-edits on this story). Thanks for reading!

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Tommie Michele
01:10 Oct 28, 2021

Edited and updated version is out now! Interestingly enough, I found out that “apothecary” can mean both “pharmacy” and “pharmacist”—the former used more commonly in the West and the latter in the East—so I took some liberties with both. I added some more detailed imagery, I cleared up the ending a little, and I fixed up the first four lines—they felt a little rushed to me. I hope you enjoy and thanks again for taking the time to read!

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Faith Ogedegbe
16:02 Nov 04, 2021

A lovely story.

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Tommie Michele
16:11 Nov 04, 2021

Thank you, Faith!

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Nisha Shirali
22:05 Nov 03, 2021

I really enjoyed this story! I was hooked until the end and didn’t know where it was going to go. Really lovely building of tension and chemistry. I was a bit confused whether the narrator was a male or female though, and what the narrator looked like. Really well done!

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Tommie Michele
00:27 Nov 04, 2021

Thank you for the kind words, and for taking the time to read!

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Charlie Murphy
02:18 Nov 02, 2021

Great story! I like how she kept nudging him.

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Tommie Michele
02:38 Nov 02, 2021

Thank you! The girl (I haven’t even decided on a name—is that a bad thing?) is a kind of personality I like to play with—pushing the protagonist toward their change, but not overbearing. I’m glad you enjoyed :) and thank you for taking the time to read!

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Charlie Murphy
02:43 Nov 02, 2021

You're welcome.

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Tab Glomah
21:51 Nov 01, 2021

I like this story, it was pretty creative in my opinion. I especially like the ending, leaves the reader wanting more. That is always a good thing.

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Tommie Michele
02:36 Nov 02, 2021

Thank you for the kind words! Creativity is definitely what I strive for, and your words about the ending are super encouraging. Thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment!

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08:52 Oct 29, 2021

Hi again Tommie, I've had a re-read, I really like it. Are you entering it in the contest? Good luck!

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Tommie Michele
12:39 Oct 29, 2021

I am! If I have time today, I may go back and do a little more with the imagery and specific word choice, but overall I’m pretty happy with it. Good luck to you, too!

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Alex Sultan
17:12 Oct 28, 2021

I read through again, and I like the changes you've made to the story. A lot of the subtle ones help it flow well, and the metaphor line at the beginning is fun - it caught my attention. The ending is so much better. I liked it before, but it feels a lot more impactful now. And I said it before, but the title for this piece is great. One note: I've been keeping an eye on her since she crossed the doorframe and the bell above rang out with a [melancholy] tone. -I think 'melancholic' might read better. Although I'm not too sure since how th...

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Tommie Michele
23:31 Oct 28, 2021

Hmm…I think I’m going to swap it out for “lonely”—it fits the theme of the story better and ties into the narrator’s loneliness as later described. Thanks, Alex!

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Jon Casper
10:30 Oct 28, 2021

I love this story. Such an original concept. The opening lines are clever about the chasm and it made me smile. It's a nice introduction to the narrator's disposition. The dialogue is outstanding and is my favorite feature. The actions and descriptions throughout are vivid, and the prose is clean and tight. Great writing. The narrator's focus on "four words" throughout is a solid element. (“What is all this?” “I want to stay.” “I’ll see you soon.”) It ties things together well. I'm actually struggling to see issues. The craft of it see...

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Tommie Michele
11:52 Oct 28, 2021

Thank you so much! Yes, Katharine and Alex are incredible editors :) I’m so glad you enjoyed the story! I put a lot of work into this one.

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Alex Sultan
10:57 Oct 27, 2021

I really like the dialogue in this story. It takes over and flows well, and the concept is great. I'd like to hear what inspired you to write it? It's a unique idea. I especially like how well the title works in turn with the story, and the structure is well written. You got the emotion down well, keeping it simple, and I was never confused or distracted. Here is what I have for line-by-line notes. It might come off as negative, but I do like this story. It's all suggestions and you can feel free to disagree. I'm sure you understand 😁 She...

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Tommie Michele
13:22 Oct 27, 2021

Thank you so much, Alex! If I have time today, I’ll be sure to pop over and leave some edits on your latest :). I was strongly considering entering this one—I found the concept really intriguing—but I wanted to make my final edits and revisions before I did (just so be sure I’m actually happy with it). As for my inspiration for this…it’s not as melodramatic as it might seem from reading the story 😂. I read a story on here from a while ago (Diner at the End—one of my favorites), and I was watching that one episode of Arrow (if you’ve seen i...

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10:17 Oct 27, 2021

Hi Tommie, thanks for reading my latest story - I'm not quite happy with it yet so if you have any crit or ideas for improvement they would be well received. I'm happy to have a look at this piece for you, I read it through quickly last night and couldn't honestly spot much wrong with it - it's pretty polished. But I'll have a go now and see if anything stands out on a second read through. I do give Alex a lot of feedback, it's a reciprocal arrangement, you may have noticed that I get in depth crit back in return. If you are looking to swa...

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Tommie Michele
13:11 Oct 27, 2021

Oh wow, thank you so much! I’ll make sure to leave some crit on your latest soon :). Your edits are so helpful. I saw that apothecary meant the person who runs the place, but I thought I’d seen it used as a place before once. Maybe it was just me, so I’ll make some revisions. As for the ending, it’s unfortunately much less tragic than it could have been—the Apothecary wants her name for himself, not for the potion or anything. Just to make him feel like he knows her, if that makes sense. Thank you so much! I’ve got some time today, so I’...

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20:41 Oct 28, 2021

Hi Tommie, I had a very quick glance over this again and couldn't see any major revisions. Let me know if you have done edits and I will read again properly. Just so you know, I am busy tomorrow night so may not get chance until late and I appreciate tomorrow is the deadline. What time zone are you in? It may have a baring on how helpful I can be close to the deadlines, I'm in the UK.

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Tommie Michele
21:00 Oct 28, 2021

I've done some edits--nothing too major, but I fixed the beginning (not sure why, but it was bothering me), and I cleared up some of the things you noticed (with the use of Apothecary, and the details of how the Requests work--without a price--and I cleared up the ending a little; I detailed that the Apothecary doesn't need her name to fulfill her request, but wants it because he craves more of that connection, but I kept the last four lines because I wanted the same impact. Wow, you're far away! I'm in Arizona in the US. It's crazy that p...

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