A black cat was sitting on a stone wall in front of the old church, watching Lina rush down the street and looking rather picturesque, tucked as he was amidst the Virginia creeper, which was practically glowing red in the autumn sunlight. It was the sort of tableau that made tourists whip out their cameras, exclaiming over the quaint New England town. But Lina, a long-time resident of Prospect Village and generally immune to its charms, was not pleased at all by this tableau. In fact, she started so badly when she noticed the cat watching her that she spilled the rest of her latte onto the cobbles. The cat was a sleek thing, black but for the faintest hint of a white star on his chest. Hopping off the wall he padded towards Lina, curling between her legs familiarly before lapping the spilt milk off the ground. Lina shuddered, a chill running up her spine. It can't be, she thought to herself. It's too early.
Lina nudged the cat away with her boot, gently but firmly. He slunk away with a plaintive meow, disappearing around the corner. Lina straightened her shoulders and tried to shake off the encounter. Surely, it was nothing. There were lots of cats in Prospect Village. Besides, it would do no good to let the cat’s appearance distract her. It was going to be another busy day at the apothecary, and she needed to stay centered. Sniffles and coughs arrived like clockwork on the heels of the first leaves falling to the ground, and her customers needed her.
She had almost pushed the cat from her mind when she rounded the corner to find a distinctive red Vespa parked in front of the shop. It was as familiar as the cat, a shiny retro number with chrome handlebars and a white stripe down its side. Lina clenched her jaw, triggering a sharp pain where it met her ear. She couldn’t look at the bike without seeing her mother the day before she’d disappeared, riding down the street with her long dark hair streaming behind her. The cat could have been coincidence, but the bike? The bike could mean only one thing: Josefina.
Lina stared down the apothecary's glass door. The apothecary was her happy place, not just her livelihood but her calling. She loved helping her customers, mostly older women, people who understood the wisdom of plants and trusted in the natural world. They shopped for tinctures to aid congested husbands and salves for itchy skin. Occasionally someone sought a remedy from the back room, a concoction that Lina didn’t keep on the shelves, but it was always discreet and usually well-intentioned.
But every year in the last two weeks of October, the shop changed. As the autumn winds rained red and gold leaves down on the streets, they also blew in Lina’s big sister. Josefina was Lina’s opposite in every way: towering where Lina was petite; dark against Lina’s fairness; captivating where Lina was studiously unremarkable. When Josefina arrived, Lina’s usual clientele gave way to a mélange of well-heeled women with secrets behind their eyes and dubious men of the sort Lina would avoid if she met them on the street. Josefina had always been cloaked in the sickly-sweet scent of ill-gotten fame, and it attracted all sorts.
Steeling herself, Lina stepped inside, setting the bells on the door tinkling. The shop looked the same - bundles of drying sage hanging in fragrant clusters from the rafters, merry pots of feverfew brightening the windows with their cheerful yellow faces, neatly labeled jars lined up on wooden shelves warped and dark with age - but the smell was all wrong. Instead of the familiar fragrance of crushed oats and dried lavender, she was met with a cloud of cinnamon-and-fireweed-scented air. The smell made the hairs on the back of Lina's neck rise with dread.
Lina cringed at the nickname. Even as a child it had bothered her, but to pretend that level of familiarity now was beyond presumptive.
"Josefina," Lina said, looking up to find her sister in all her autumn glory, tips of her wild dark curls dyed pink this year. "You're early."
Josefina smiled and the sun itself seemed to dance through the windows behind her.
"Winds were just right," Josefina said, walking towards Lina with her arms wide. "As you would know if you ever lived a little."
Lina let her sister crush her in a tight hug, returning it with a limp-armed pat on the back. Josefina didn't seem to notice.
"Shop looks nice," Josefina said as she looked around. Lina bristled. Nice was a reductive term for the business she poured her heart and soul into.
“Are you excited for the big night?” Josefina continued, ignoring Lina’s coldness. “I think it’s going to be a good year.”
“I wish we didn’t have to,” Lina said. “You know I hate the callings.”
“Lucky for you then that I’m the one who does all the work,” Josefina laughed, picking a duffel up off the floor. “I’m going up to get settled in. Just wanted to say hello to my dearest sister first.”
"Josie," Lina said. "I was thinking this year, maybe you'd be more comfortable over at the inn."
Josefina's eyes crackled and for a moment, the scent of smoke overpowered the friendly warmth of cinnamon. Lina felt herself curling inwards, bracing for the outburst. But Josefina laughed, shaking her head so her curls bounced against her shoulders.
"Don't be silly," she said, smiling indulgently at Lina. "I love staying with you."
And with that she trounced upstairs.
Lina was about to follow her and insist she find a room at the inn, but the bells above the door jingled, announcing the first customer of the day. Ousting Josefina would have to wait.
"Good morning, Mrs. Attlebaum," Lina said with a tight smile. “Let me know if I can help you find anything.”
A long, screech-scrape of something heavy being dragged over the floor made Lina and Mrs. Attlebaum look up, their eyes following the noise as it moved across the ceiling. Lina could feel the muscles in her jaw clench as the sound grew, then stopped abruptly. Mrs. Attlebaum looked at her with wide eyes.
"Josefina is staying with me for a few weeks," Lina sighed in explanation.
"Oh!" Lina hated how Mrs. Attlebaum's eyes brightened at the news. "That's wonderful! Would you book me an appointment with her, please? Perhaps Saturday?"
"Of course," Lina said, looking down at the counter to keep from rolling her eyes. "I'll make a note here."
As Halloween ticked closer, Lina's shop grew busier and busier. Josefina was good for business, it couldn't be denied. Many customers came out of the back room, clutching their bags of powder and stoppered vials of smoke and happily added a pot of salve or a pair of healing candles to the counter. Lina supposed she shouldn't complain - business was business - but she felt like an assistant in her own apothecary, the shop she'd spent the last fifteen years making her own. Her entire life really, ever since their mother had disappeared, leaving only a note saying:
The shop is Lina's.
Had her mother known what havoc that note would wreak on her daughters? Most likely she did. It would have been just like her, sowing one last seed of discord before vanishing. Josefina had gotten everything else - her mother’s good looks, her power over men, the uncanny ease with which she could contact the beyond. Even the cat had chosen Josefina. But the shop was supposed to be Lina’s. And every day that Josefina was there Lina felt it slipping further and further from her grasp.
Lina didn’t blame their mother for leaving – who would want to live with their miserable father? But she did blame her mother for what Josefina had done when their father had died, calling him back from the beyond with near-disastrous consequences. Lina didn’t like to think about that night. It was part of the reason she hated Josefina's callings.
Halloween evening arrived as it always did in Prospect Village - shrouded in a warm fog that seemed custom-made for the grand finale of Josefina’s visit. A smattering of leaves still clung to the grand old oaks, although the maples, so recently brilliant, were now stark and bare. Knots of children dressed as ghouls and wizards scurried past the shop, giggling and pointing. Their plastic pumpkins banged against their knees as they ran.
“It’s just an apothecary,” Lina called to a group across the street. “No need to be frightened!”
A tall boy dressed as a vampire, a crude dribble of blood painted on his chalk white face, popped up and yelled: “Witch!” The children shrieked in unison and ran down the street.
Lina sighed and opened the door. She didn’t know why she still tried with children after all these years. They were just as cruel as they’d been when she and Josie were in school, whispering about their mother in tones just loud enough for Lina to overhear. It never bothered Josefina - she would shout nonsense spells at the other girls, routinely pretending to eat worms and frogs until even the boys ran away shrieking. But Lina had never wanted to be powerful. She wanted to be liked.
Inside the shop, Josefina was bustling around, pulling bottles off Lina’s neat shelves. Lina could see a faint purple aura around her sister, her charisma growing with her excitement.
“Do you think you could stay in the front room tonight?” Josefina asked. “It’s going to be busy. We’ll need someone to manage the door.”
“It’s my shop.”
Josefina rolled her eyes. “I’m well aware. I’m not asking you to sign it over in blood or anything. It’s just one night. And half the profit goes to you, you know.”
Lina didn’t care about the money. She didn’t need it, not anymore. At first Josefina’s gimmicks had helped keep the lights on, but now Lina was running a solid business. On her own. Never mind that Josefina’s reputation brought curious tourists through the apothecary even when the daffodils were bursting through the ground. She had built a loyal customer base through trust and hard work. She didn’t need the gawkers anymore.
“Fine,” Lina said. “I’ll manage the line and the front room. But next year we’re not doing this.”
Josefina winked at Lina.
"We'll see what you say about that when I call you in the summer and all your customers are begging for me."
The night was busy, the shop crammed to bursting with people and more waiting outside. Lina sold more in an hour than she usually did in a week, her resentment building with each sale.
A crash and a muffled shriek interrupted the excited murmur of the customers milling about the shop. Lina looked nervously at the door to the back room. Josefina was a master of her craft, but so much could go wrong. The waiting customers resumed their chatter, undeterred. Then another, louder crash came from the back room, followed by an ominous thump.
"If you'll excuse me," Lina said, leaving the woman asking her about her organic gardening practices open-mouthed. Lina knocked on the back door.
"Everything alright in there?" she called, keeping her voice firm and even. She didn't want to incite panic unnecessarily.
When there was no answer, Lina pressed her ear to the door. She felt as much as she heard the low growl on the other side of the door, a sound like rocks grinding against metal, a voice that was never meant to be heard in this world. A voice she recognized.
Quickly, she began herding the waiting customers out the door, plucking bottles and candles from their hands as she did.
"Evening's over," she shouted, ignoring the groans and self-important demands she received in response. "Our apologies. There will be no more callings tonight."
Ushering the last customer out the door, she clicked the deadbolt shut and drew the blinds. Then she faced the back room. She knew who - no, what - was behind that door, and it was something she had promised herself she would never willingly encounter again.
But Josefina wouldn’t be able to send him back to the beyond by herself, and Lina didn't want to think about what would happen to Prospect Village if he escaped that room. She moved quickly around the shop, selecting bottles from the shelves, tilting their contents into her conjuring bowl. Her hands shook as she did, thinking of the last time she’d seen him alive. To steady herself, she spoke the name of each plant aloud. Feverfew. Angelica. Comfrey. Lavender.
With a shaky breath, Lina sprinkled a line of herbs along the boundary between the front and back rooms, then pushed open the door. Smoke billowed out at her, a noxious green-gray cloud. She stifled a cough, clutching the bowl to her chest as she noiselessly pushed the door shut behind her. Then she looked up and there he was.
There it was.
The thing that had once been their father, gray and hateful, made of smoke and anger, floating in the middle of the room. Larger than he'd ever been in life. Larger even then the last time Josefina had conjured him. The grinding, clenching growl rumbled continuously, sounds from another world directed at Josefina, who crouched beneath him. Lina could see the words eating at her sister, her vitality ebbing away. Josefina kept her eyes to the floor, whispering to herself. Words of power that had no effect, not without Josie's fire breathed into them. Words were just words. They needed intent to work.
Somehow, the specter hadn't noticed Lina's entrance. Reaching into her bowl, she moved slowly behind him, sprinkling herbs as she walked, whispering the words her mother had bequeathed her. She made it halfway around the room then nearly tripped on a man spread out on the floor, unconscious. Josefina's customer, clearly unaware what he'd gotten himself into. Lina slid him outside her line of herbs, out of harm's way. Three-quarters of the circle was complete, but she wouldn't be able to finish it without Josefina.
"Josie, Posie," she called out, smiling at her sister and keeping her eyes averted from the specter. She could feel its attention turn to her, its grating sounds climbing into her bones.
"Josie, Posie, silly Josie, come along - no time to mosey!"
Josefina met Lina's eyes with a grimace. She looked twenty years older than she had an hour ago. Lina forced herself to smile even more broadly, repeating the silly rhyme as she closed the gap to her sister, trailing herbs behind her. Without looking at the specter, she reached for Josefina's hand and pulled her to her feet. Leaning in, she whispered:
"Stay with me Josie, I need you to send him back with me."
Josefina nodded as Lina started the chant, first low, then gaining strength. Lina pushed Josefina ahead of her, inching towards completing the circle. The specter's power was starting to take its toll on Lina, too. She could feel it weighing her bones down like lead. She strained to keep her eyes ahead. If she let it look in her eyes, they would both be lost.
"Help me, Josie," Lina said, panting as she continued the chant. Josefina began to whisper, the words swirling up with Lina's. They gathered strength and resonance as their voices mingled, more powerful together than either voice would ever be alone. Lina sprinkled the last handful of herbs on the floor behind her then shoved Josefina out of the circle, gasping for air as the chant finished.
The specter gave a horrific grinding shriek and rushed at the circle. Lina clutched Josefina's hand and squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see whether the circle held.
The horrible grinding sound stopped. Lina opened a wary eye. The specter was gone, leaving only a faint scent of mold behind. The herbs on the floor on front of her smoldered slightly, releasing puffs of sweet lavender air.
Josefina was shaking beside her, her hand vibrating in Lina's own. Lina put an arm around her sister's shoulder.
"It's over," Lina said. "He's gone."
They slept in the same bed that night, huddled together like they had done before their mother left. When they woke, they silently cleaned up the shop together. As Lina was straightening the jars on the crooked shelves, turning the labels so they all faced outwards, Josefina slunk past with her bag. She paused as she pulled the door halfway open, the friendly bells tinkling their little song.
“I should say thank you,” she said, looking sheepishly at Lina.
“Yes," Lina agreed. "And sorry." But she didn’t feel any of the bitterness she’d felt when Josefina had arrived. Lina followed her sister outside.
"How did he get here, Josie?"
Josefina looked at the ground. It was so rare to see her look anything other than completely confident. Rather than making Lina feel justified, it unsettled her.
"It was the customer. Something about an old debt. I wasn't paying enough attention - I was too caught up in putting on a good show."
“It’s OK,” Lina said. “What happened. I mean, don’t ever let it happen again, but in the end – he’s gone, right?”
Josefina smiled, a real one, warm with relief. She stepped in to hug Lina. This time, Lina hugged her back.
"I'll see you next year then," Josefina said, straddling the shiny red motorcycle and turning the key. The bike's engine revved into a low purr.
"Maybe I'll come and see you," Lina said. "Before then."
"Maybe I'll let you in," Josefina said, then winked, buckled her helmet, and kicked the bike into gear, leaves rattling behind her as she rode away.