It’s been a bad day. I thought I saw…Her. At the grocery store, picking out lemons, like a regular person. She would never, I know, but…
My therapist tells me it’s normal, that I should remind myself I left that part of my life far behind me, and She can’t take me back.
I’m shaking, though, as with every time I think I see Her. Each time it’s just some random person with a passing resemblance, but hypervigilance is a bitch.
I decide it’s a good day to visit Raven Roast. An espresso served by a cute goth girl should perk me up.
The barista greets me with a sharp-toothed grin. “Welcome to Raven Roast. Can I interest you in our new selection of premium teas?”
A sensation like diving into a pool of ice water envelops me. For a moment, that smile looked just like—
It’s not Her, of course. “No tea, thank you. Takes me back to a bad time in my life. A double shot, please.” I give an apologetic grin. The barista didn’t need to know that. Stupid d—
Stupid of me to overshare, but she’s already moved on, having barely noticed. Of course.
I do the breathing exercises I’ve been practicing, and they help calm my trembling. I don’t know why I’m on such a hair trigger today.
When the barista calls my name, I barely recognize it, I’m so out of sorts.
When I reach for the tea, the ball joints are back. I clench my jaw and do my best to not cause a scene while I take the cup to a small table in a cozy nook of the coffee shop.
I scrub at my hands, trying with pure friction to wash away the old seams, to bring back my skin.
I close my eyes, remind myself that it’s coffee, not tea, in my cup, and I take a sip.
I open them again, not looking down at myself. There’s the barista, looking cute and bored and mundane. Espresso machine. Another customer. Raven logo sign. Front door.
I concentrate on the sensations in my body. One hand palm-down on the table. The coffee cup warming the other. The cushioned seat under me. My feet on the ground.
Customer voices drift into the air. There’s the hiss of a frothing wand and the grinding of beans.
The roasted smell of coffee suffuses the place, with the occasional fruity waft of a flavor syrup for some drink that’s more like candy than anything else.
The espresso is delicate sweetness rounded out by a touch of bitter, and it brings me comfort and calm.
But then I look down again, and my hands still have those ball joints.
I’m not okay.
“Did you really think you could escape me, little thing?”
It’s Her. It’s really Her. She’s here, She’s sitting in the seat across from me. The seat is empty but She’s still sitting in it.
“You aren’t really here,” I tell Her. “I forgot my meds this morning, that’s all.”
I don’t know if I believe myself.
She laughs, and even now I hear it as a sweet and delicate sound, laced with that familiar, bitter edge. It’s the same laugh that first drew me to her.
“Because you got away clean, right?” she asks. “Slipped out the front door in the dead of night, leaving no trace and no clues where you were going.” She leans forward, her posture radiating predatory delight. “Got yourself a new name and a whole new life, far away from me?”
“That’s right,” I say, feeling as small as I ever did in her presence. “I got away. I’ve got a new life now. A wife who treats me like a person.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s very patient with you. She’d have to be! I know just how much patience it takes to deal with you.”
“She is. And she’s nicer to me than you ever were.”
“Nicer!” She cackles. “Than me! Here I thought I was the only one willing to put up with you. Are you quite sure she’s real? Not another departure from reality, like you’re so prone to doing?”
“She’s real,” I respond, trying to be emphatic in my assertion, but my voice comes out as a quiet squeak barely above a whisper. “I know what’s real.”
“My house is what’s real,” She says. “More real than this life you’ve dreamed up for yourself.”
“I left your house far behind me.”
“A witch and her house are one and the same, doll. If you left us behind, why are you and I conversing right now?”
“Because, because…” I stammer. She’s always so good at talking to me in a way that leaves me confused and inarticulate.
“Because you never really got away,” She finishes for me. “The house and I have let you believe that you escaped, twisting geometry this way and that while you roam the grounds and get lost in my basement, dreaming of an impossible life.”
“No…” I whimper.
“Where are we right now?”
I try to fix my attention on the coffee shop around me, but all I find are suggestive shapes that give my mind no clear handles to grab onto. I don’t know where I am.
I’m lost and scared and I wish my wife were real and could comfort me again.
Stupid doll. I let myself get lost in another fantasy.
My witch extends a hand to me. “I’m all you have, little thing. Don’t worry. I’ll bring you home.”
I take Her hand and follow.