That morning, Ivy’s alarm was the smell of cinnamon.
Her nose, red from the air vent directly above her head, twitched and her dark eyes fluttered open. Sitting up, she felt her bones crack and crinkle. Her pale, freckled arms were creased all over from the blankets. She must’ve slept like a baby.
After rubbing the sleep from her eyes with clenched fists, she looked around.
Sabel’s room was something out of a fairytale. Ivy was used to her laundry littered studio apartment, and the sanctuary she was sat in now was the complete opposite. The bed was a mountain of colorful quilts and knit afghans, and the gold bed frame was strung with Mardi Gras beads. Little mirrors and old limoncello bottles hung in front of the open window, sending tiny rainbows against the wall. It was all soft and all shimmering, like the way a little child decorates a fairy house.
Ivy took a deep breath and rummaged under the sheets for her bra. The cinnamon smell was heavenly, and past the bedroom door she could hear the sizzle of a pan and someone humming. As she slid out of bed, a tear rolled down her cheek. She felt an impulse to climb out the window and disappear down the street. But instead, she adjusted the amulet around her neck, donned a bathrobe from Sabel’s closet and shuffled out into the hall.
In the tiniest of all kitchens, Ivy found Sabel making the biggest of all breakfasts. There were about a million and one different mixing and measuring bowls out, and it seemed like a constant cloud of flour had taken up residence in the air. The smell of cinnamon was even more heavenly out here, no doubt emanating from the little blue oven.
Sabel was like a giant in that kitchen. They were over six feel tall, and their halo of gold curls threatened to kiss the ceiling. Standing there with a mixing bowl, wearing nothing but pink bunny slippers, a pair of floral earrings, and a “kiss the cook” apron, Ivy thought they may be her guardian angel.
Ivy had been seeing Sabel for only two months now, but she found herself falling fast. They were the sort of person you couldn’t help but talk about all the time because there was always something new to say. Their first date was a rooftop movie, the second a picnic at the local arboretum. They made Ivy laugh like she’d never laughed before, and was always introducing her to something new.
Last night was their first night together. It was the safest, most comfortable she’d ever felt with anyone.
And it was already her biggest regret.
She stood there in silence, watching them hum and cook in their own little world. She’d gotten in much too deep, and her boss was already ringing her daily. Just the day before, she had called as she walked down the city streets to Sabel’s apartment.
“Tonight?” the sultry serpent voice had hissed over the phone.
“Yes, tonight. I know it’s taken a bit longer, but—“
“Trust me, dear. I understand playing with your food. It can be fun. But your debt is far past due.”
“I know, Madam, however I was—“
“I’ve been patient with you. One soul a month to keep your contract validity up to date. If you don’t get me this one tonight, I’m afraid I’ll have to double your rate.”
Ivy had stopped in her tracks.
“Madam, I…” She scrunched her eyes shut and shuddered. Her voice went quiet as a mouse; pleading and weak. “Dammit, I…I think I’m falling for them. Can’t You choose someone different?”
Her boss only laughed, and hung up the phone.
“Wowza! Goodmorning sleepy head!”
Sabel’s voice boomed in the tiny room as their gaze landed on her. They beamed, and Ivy couldn’t help but relax.
“All okay in there? Were you comfortable?”
Ivy wrapped her arms around her waist and squeezed to keep herself from sobbing right then and there. The opalite amulet she wore felt hot against her chest.
“Oh yeah,” she breathed, nodding her head quickly, “super comfortable. Snug…snug as a bug in a rug, ya know.”
“Thank God,” Sabel answered, blowing a strand of their yellow hair from their face, “I like to keep it cold in here and I was worried I didn’t put enough blankets out. I’m making monkey bread and banana loaf! I’ve aaaalso got... bacon and sausage! Do you have a preference?”
They looked Ivy in the eyes again. That time, it struck a nerve.
Ivy couldn’t help it. She started to cry.
Sabel’s eyes doubled in size.
“Oh shit,” they whimpered, quickly putting down the mixing bowl and making their way over to their guest, “I can make both?”
“No, no,” Ivy blabbered, “you don’t have to.”
“No skin off my back!”
Sabel spread their big tattooed arms out and grinned reassuringly.
“I’ll make a whole buffet, baby! Whatever you want!”
When Ivy only shook and started to cry with more vigor, Sabel’s smile faltered. They lowered their arms and offered them to Ivy. Despite the guilt growing in her chest like a cancer, she accepted the offer and sank into Sabel’s arms.
“Hey, hey,” they whispered, craning their neck to rest their chin atop Ivy’s head, “what can I do to help?”
“Nothing,” Ivy groaned, “you’ve d-done everything right. You’re…you’re so perfect, you asshole!”
The corner of Sabel’s mouth turned up in a smile.
“Well then what could be the matter?”
Everything, Ivy wanted to say, because I have to kill you. I’m cursed and the only way to pay off the lady who cursed me and my family is to gather souls for her. It’s really flipping inconvenient and I don’t want to kill you because you’re probably the best person I’ve ever met and you give the best damn hugs. I hate you.
But instead, she just said the thing she had been saying for years. The thing she said right before she ended it—right before the amulet opened up and drained the life from her latest transaction.
“I just…I just don’t deserve you.”
Sabel kissed the top of Ivy’s head and chuckled. A warm, rumbly chuckle that started in their chest and ended in Ivy’s. Then, with a flourish, they pushed open a free space and lifted the young woman up onto the counter with one moved. They kissed all of her tears away, and Ivy exploded into a fit of weepy laughter.
“That,” Sabel said, cupping her face in their calloused hands, “is total B.S. And as your punishment, you’re gonna sit here while I make you a mimosa. Got it?”
Sabel’s smile was warm and safe.
The amulet grew heavier and hungrier against Ivy's chest.
She thought back to the first time she did this. It was one date; a simple movie. Something Marvel that she could hardly remember. They kissed during the credits, and when things got handsy, she finished the job. The amulet opened and the date faded away.
Ivy couldn't even remember her name.
It had been easy. Knowing that her family was slowly losing their humanity, their memories fading and their personalities debilitating into animalistic, demonic instincts—it was easy to sacrifice a life for them. And only once a month, at that! A small price to pay to keep her family alive, to keep her alive.
Three years of that. Three years of little flings, of meaningless hookups and empty I-love-you’s.
Ivy felt like dying.
But Sabel’s smile was warm and safe.
Ivy smiled back, knowing what had to happen before she left the apartment.