A limo peeled away from the cracked curb, leaving the girl with twin black braids stranded at the mouth of a dark alley.
A broken gate blocked her path. She shoved it open, letting it clank closed behind her, and stepped into the alleyway. Shattered bottles littered the cracked stone slabs before her. Inching closer to the dilapidated doorway at the end of the path, she felt a crunch underneath her feet. Upon lifting her boots, she noticed glass fragments from a crushed bottle. With a distasteful glance, she toed them aside and continued to venture forward, pushing past stained laundry on clotheslines and dirty tapestries draped on the walls.
The doorway was clean, if a bit unkempt. Three concrete steps led up to a wooden door that had been allowed to rot but hadn’t been allowed to muddy. A four-legged table sat unevenly in front of the steps, tilting slightly to the left. Upon it was placed a dingy golden bell, covered in spots of dirt. The smell of mildew permeated the air, and the girl wrinkled her nose.
Swallowing hard, she stared at the bell.
“Well, sweetheart, are you going to come in?” called a voice from the shadowy depths behind the now-open door.
She hesitated, squinting into the gloom.
“Who are you?” she called softly, fiddling with a silver bracelet on her wrist and pressing the tip of one shoe against the other.
She heard a floorboard groan from inside the house. “You already know the answer to that. You came to me for a reason.”
She shook her head. “I need to know that I can trust you.”
The voice laughed. “You just need to know I can keep the secret that the town’s little golden girl paid little old me a visit.”
She could hear the links on her bracelet clink together as she rubbed it with her fingers. “Yes, I guess so,” she admitted. She leaned closer to the doorway and caught a glimpse of a tall cloaked individual, whose hood hid their features. “But it would help me to believe that if I knew who you were.”
“You don’t know me, golden girl,” replied the voice evenly. “And I don’t want you trying until you enter this house.”
She took a step forward. “I know everyone!” she retorted, throwing her arms wildly apart. “And everyone in this damn town knows me.”
“But that doesn’t mean you know every one of them, now does it?” teased the voice. “But enough flirting. I need to know if you’re serious.”
“Serious?” she asked, her voice strained.
“Serious about doing this,” clarified the voice, becoming momentarily sober. “You can’t undo this once you walk in here. Entering my home is a tacit agreement that you know what you’re getting into and that you want my help.”
“Your help,” she echoed, her heart thumping in her toes.
The voice suddenly grew frustrated. “Yes, my ‘help’! I don’t braid hair into cornrows for a job!”
“You get rid of people,” replied the girl, feeling small in front of the doorway. “You take them out.”
The voice sighed. “That’s not my favorite phrase to use.”
“Then what would you prefer?” she cried, suddenly indignant. “Kill?”
She could hear a foot tapping on the floor and knew that the owner of the voice was getting impatient. “You came to me,” gritted the voice, all teeth and no more sultry honey. “You came to me and knew what services I provided. I did not seek you out. Ergo, it is not an inane assumption to conclude that you then came to me to enlist those services, am I correct?”
“Thus,” interrupted the voice. “You want me to, as you phrase it, kill. Am I wrong?”
“No,” replied the girl, and for the first time, her voice shook and cracked. “No, you’re not wrong at all.”
Her words hung in the heavy air as an awkward silence stretched out for several long seconds.
“I’m sorry,” the voice murmured from the doorway belatedly.
She shook her head, her long braids pasted against her sweaty neck. “Don’t be. It doesn’t suit you.”
The voice chuckled. “Then, can I ask why you still hesitate at my doorway?”
“Can I ask why you kill?”
“Only if you enter,” replied the voice, and the girl felt that the killer she was speaking to was growing impatient, hopping from foot to foot on the creaky floorboards of their home.
She sighed. “The truth is, I’m just not sure if I still want to go through with it. Can I—can I just come in and ask some questions?”
“The rule isn’t for my comfort!” cried the voice. “It’s for security purposes.”
The girl laughed. “You just need to believe that I can keep the secret of your identity, right?”
“Right,” the other replied, after a pause. Then came a sigh. “Come in, then. I feel sorry for you. You’re not like my regular clientele, you know.”
“Do I ever,” she replied, and stepped over the threshold.
The owner of the voice guided her into a sitting room whose windows were boarded up. The girl could see that the room had once been very beautiful, with gilded walls and polished bookcases, but it now sat in an awful state of disrepair.
“Why don’t you take care of your house?” she asked, curiously.
Her cloaked companion laughed. “It’s not mine anymore. It’s my old house, and it’s dead.”
The girl bit her lip, a bit puzzled, and said nothing.
Her host offered her a chair with a ripped cushion, and the girl cautiously settled at the edge of it. Pulling up their own chair, the other sat across from her, an ankle on their knee and their face still in shadow. They lit a cigarette and took a long drag from it. The girl watched a smoke ring emerge from the end of the cigarette and resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose.
“You wanted to know who I am,” the host said, after a short silence.
The girl tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Yes,” she admitted.
The mysterious host lowered their hood, revealing elegant cheekbones, uncracked dark skin, black hair with purple highlights, and plump lips. “I am Matilda.”
Still perched on the edge of her seat, Matilda’s newest customer gaped, her jaw dropped and her eyes wide. “You can’t be any older than me!” accused the girl, the whites of her eyes gleaming in the relative gloom of the house.
“That doesn’t make me bad at my job,” replied Matilda with a grin. She gestured with her cigarette, her eyeliner and golden eyeshadow making her eyes pop. “Your questions, then?”
The girl asked and Matilda answered. After she answered, the girl leaned back into her chair and nodded several times, lapsing into thoughtful silence.
Matilda jiggled her leg up and down. “Does that answer your questions, then?”
“Yes, it does. You’ll end my current life, and I’ll be free.”
“Great!” she replied. “When do we begin?”
Matilda put out her cigarette in a nearby ashtray and looked up at the girl. “Well, now, wait a moment,” she protested, putting out a hand. “I want to hear your reasons.”
“Why?” asked the girl brightly.
“Because the town loves you. I respect you and your decisions but I just…I just want to be sure,” Matilda answered haltingly. “I don’t want to see you waste your past and all your potential.”
“Potential,” mimicked the girl snidely. “What potential?”
Matilda gestured at her clothes and jewelry. “Well, for one, you’re very well-off. That’s not something you can just kick away like you did those glass pieces in the alleyway.”
The girl looked up, a bit shocked and self-conscious. “Y-yes. But that’s the thing. I don’t think I’m worthy of these advantages.”
“You’re still taking your advantages for granted. You can’t waste them!” Matilda added. “You can’t think that you have the privilege to refuse them.”
“But I can! And I will. They all tell me that I’m going to do great things, and for whom? For them?”
“No,” whispered Matilda in quiet realization. “You want it to be for yourself.”
But the girl hadn’t heard her. “I’m tired of the pressure. The pressure to be amazing. The pressure to use all of my immigrant parents’ wealth and investment into me to its fullest ‘potential’. I’m tired, Matilda. So tired. I know it’s selfish, but I can’t keep living for other people, can I?”
“But could living for others not be fulfilling to you? Then, could taking care of yourself not also be supportive to others because of your abilities, your plans—”
“What plans? I don’t know what to do with all this training, all these abilities! All the expectations of me have just left me more confused than ever. A spotlight highlights every feature, every jagged line, every pore on my face, and I just can’t live under one anymore, Matilda! I think I’d do better if I could just start over. If I could change my clean-cut image completely. If I could stop being nice and cutesy and soft-spoken and agreeable and start living the way I want to instead. I could use all that I’ve learned for some actual good, not just some imitation of good! I could—”
Matilda held out a hand, cutting off the girl’s speech. “I hear you.” She paused, and the bated breaths of the girl filled the humid air as she calmed herself down and anxiously awaited Matilda’s decision.
“Very well. I’ll help you,” Matilda said at last. “I’ll fake your death and give you a new identity.”
The girl smiled. It was the first real smile Matilda had ever seen on the girl’s face, and for that she was irrationally glad. “Thank you. What next?”
“Sign here,” Matilda replied, whipping out a pen and a stapled contract from the folds of her cloak. “And then wait at the address typed below. I’ll take care of the rest.”
The girl caught Matilda’s hands before she could pull away and grasped them tightly. “No, I mean it. Thank you. Thank you for being willing to give me a new start.”
Matilda nodded with a smile that barely reached her eyes. “I’ll give you a call when it’s over.”
Still smiling, the girl withdrew her hands from Matilda’s. After glancing over the pages, the girl signed the contract. Retrieving the contract and the pen from the client, Matilda checked the signature before tucking both back into her cloak once more.
Matilda inclined her head with finality. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”
The girl giggled happily back, feeling as if she were smiling for the first time. “I can finally take this bracelet off!” she sang out.
“Didn’t your parents buy that for you? Won’t they be devastated?”
The girl’s gaze was sharp. “They can find another puppet,” she replied coldly, and Matilda couldn’t help but flinch.
Holding out her braceleted wrist to Matilda, the girl tilted her head. “Could you undo this clasp?”
Brushing the hair out of her eyes, Matilda gripped the girl’s wrist and slid a fingernail into the clasp, undoing the bracelet in one smooth motion and presenting it to the girl with a flourish.
“Keep it,” replied the girl. “I never want to see that thing—that handcuff masquerading as a bracelet—again.”
Matilda fingered the bracelet for a moment before tucking it away. “You know,” she added. “I used to have a lovely bracelet almost exactly like this one.”
The girl arched her eyebrows. “Did you really?”
“Yep,” Matilda said, nodding solemnly. “My parents had to save up a little bit to buy it, but I did.”
The girl’s eyes widened in surprise as she digested that statement. After a moment, she looked up into Matilda’s eyes. “I’ve been wondering. How many people have you taken care of, including me?”
Matilda smiled, looking down as she reminisced. “Ten.”
“Who was your first one?” persisted the girl.
At that, Matilda jerked up her head, before she grinned slowly. “Did you know that we’ve met before?” she tested.
“What?” replied the shocked girl. “But I don’t recognize you, and I’ve never met a Matilda before.”
“My name isn’t really Matilda.” She took a step forward, coming nearly nose-to-nose with the girl. “You don’t remember me, but I was one of those girls in that awful prep school with you in 5th grade.”
Something appeared in her hands, and the girl watched it glitter before she recognized it: A bracelet, nearly identical to her own. “Your bracelet? You…don’t wear it anymore?” Then a realization hit her, and she thrust out a finger at Matilda. “You were your first. And this—this was your old house!”
Matilda nodded. “And you’ll be my tenth.” A kind smile blossomed across her face. “Your new identity will come in the mail tomorrow. Be ready.”
She settled back down into her chair, her dark brown eyes catching the girl’s, with a contagious electricity seeming to crackle in her vision. “And enjoy it. You only get a few second chances in life.” She crossed her legs again, one ankle against the other knee. “So, live up to your true potential outside of all of those expectations. But know that a clean slate might not always be all it’s cracked up to be. A life,” Matilda added slowly, “can be hard to leave.” She gestured to the house around her.
The girl shook her head. “I won’t look back.”
Matilda lit another cigarette. “But you should. Leaving your old life doesn’t mean a clean break. It means a messy one. Just because I do the most extreme break possible doesn’t mean that my break is any cleaner. It just makes the consequences come faster.”
“I can take it.”
“I wouldn’t advise this for just anyone, you know.” Matilda held up the contract. “But I’ve heard you, and I think you’re ready.”
“I am ready,” emphasized the girl, her hands balled into fists at her side.
“Second chances can be good, but the effects of your first one will linger,” Matilda continued to warn.
“I don’t care.” The girl squared her shoulders. “Kill off my golden girl status. Give me a rebirth. Magick me a new life, Matilda.”
Matilda grinned. “See you never again, then.”
The girl grinned back. “God, I hope so.”