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.
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—”
“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.”
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.
“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?”
“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?”
She tilts her head. “You did.”
“Yes. I did. And you can’t.”
“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.
“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.”
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.