Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Mayu and Kanae spoke at length at the counter. I knew that they would. Mayu has experienced the same dilemma as Kanae and she too had wandered into my cafe. So, it was only natural that they connected immediately.
I kept the children busy as they spoke. We mixed together mashed bananas and flour. I handled the eggs as a precautionary measure which the youngest wasn’t too pleased about. But she cheered up the moment I brought out the chunks of chocolate pieces. Some, if not all, ended up in their mouths rather than the bread.
But it lightened my heart to hear their giggles and watch their faces brighten at the first bite.
The cafe is quiet now. The afterglow of children’s energy still lingers.
Kanae’s words as well echo in my mind. “How did you do it? I came home and he was already gone!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I feigned ignorance and laughed. “Perhaps the mountain gods heard your prayers.”
I head outside. The air is dense with humidity. The clouds overhead do nothing to temper the heat. Sweat is already gathering into my brows and along the nape of my neck. The city is quiet as well. The birds hide among the tree’s shadowy branches. People gather inside to melt beneath their air conditioners.
I lock up the cafe and head across the market square towards the flower shop. It’s strange to see the building look so plain. For years the shop’s exterior was cluttered with hanging plants and windchimes. Every month there was a new flower lined up along the sidewalk, its perfume wafting into nearly every store.
Hydrangeas, I think. This month Saya would have planted hydrangeas.
I move around back through a narrow alley and open the unlocked door. Oriana and Sajja are likely already inside. I expected floral scents to still be lingering inside but my nose crinkles. I cup my palm against my nose and mouth as the sharp scent of something hits the back of my throat. It’s heavy and sour. The scent of spoiled fruit in the hot sun.
I move into the main room where all of Saya’s plants have wilted and died. I hesitate but lean closer. Not just death, I realize. They are all black and putrid, liquifying into tar.
I pull away from the plants and spin around. “What could have done something like this?”
Her thoughts flicker, ’Death.’ She shakes her head and waves me over. “Upstairs. Help me search her room. There might be something there.”
I gladly follow her up to the second floor. We slip off our shoes at the entrance then move down the hall. A few windows are cracked open but the scent still lingers in my mouth. My stomach twists into a knot and I’m tempted to lean my head outside to catch a fresh breath.
“Careful around the windows,” Sajja snarks as he searches the living area. “You know, if anyone sees us foreigners snooping around, they’ll call the police and we’ll spend our years in jail.”
I chuckle but I heed his warning.
“I checked the kitchen already,” Oriana tells me. “Nothing out of sorts there. In fact, the only strange thing was the scene downstairs.”
I give the space a quick glance as we move into the bedroom. It feels strange being in her home, as if I am invading her privacy. The last thing I want to do is snoop through her things and find something she wanted to keep hidden. But if it could save her life, shouldn’t I try?
Every inch of the room is exactly how I imagined it would be. It is a garden of color and sunshine. Plush carpet lines the floor and it’s soft against my feet. The walls are covered in shelves with plants of different sizes and colors. A canopy of sheer curtains surrounds her bed. A nest of pillows and blankets are piled inside. It’s her own personal palace.
“The plants here are untouched,” Oriana tells me. She starts opening drawers and rifling through clothes.
I look over the plants. Their leaves are a healthy green and the stems are firms. Whatever happened in the building, must have happened downstairs. Was it Saya’s magic that wilted them? Or was it her attacker’s?
“I can’t find any sort of schedule book that might give us a hint as to where she went that night.” Oriana pulls everything off of a bookshelf then grabs the books by their binding and swings them. The only things to fall out are bookmarks and the occasional scribbled note.
“I’m going to check downstairs.”
Oriana looks at me and shakes her head. “There’s only an order book in the office. Sales and inventory type things.”
I nod my head. “Yes. But I think she was taken from the store front.”
She sets the books down. Her expression is blank and I can’t hear anything in her thoughts.
“I can’t be certain but it doesn’t hurt to check.”
“That’s why everything is dead, isn’t it?”
I stride closer and kneel down. “She might have done it to leave a clue. Or she used them to power a spell. There’s a number of reasons to explain what happened. We can’t let ourselves jump to any conclusions.”
She nods her head but the clouds fogging her mind say otherwise. “I’m going to keep looking around here. Call us if you find something.”
“Of course,” I promise her.
Downstairs the smell is strong. I tie one of Saya’s scarves around my face but the stench is powerful. A miasma of acid burns my nose the longer I look around the shop. But I can not afford to leave. I examine the tar that fills the flower pots, the leaves that stain the floor in black splotches, the clouds of spores that drift through the air. It’s dark magic; it’s nothing like anything Saya could do.
Life and death are two sides of the same coin. They are natural courses that can not be staved off and they are nearly always in perfect harmony with each other. They are not inherently good or evil. Saya can give life just as easily as she can take it.
But the magic that desecrated the shop is corrupt. It is twisted, distorted, like a virus that has been manipulated by scientists in a laboratory to create a bioweapon.
I press fingers into where a knot is forming in my stomach. Perhaps it’s the smell or the stress but my head feels weightless on my neck as if it were trying to float away. It rolls forward, beads of sweat gathering in my brows. The echoes of Saya’s voice drum into my ears. I can’t make out her words, only the fear in her tone as she’s shouting. I force myself to look, to search the shadows of the shop for fragments that still linger. Through the billows of miasma I can make out her form. She’s powering a spell, a blast of sunlight, hot against my face and sheer white. It blinds me. I can’t see anything except the burning sun and then the flickers of green leaves.
Something vile creeps across my skin. My legs buckle out from under me. My chest is hollow. My lungs are shuddering as I fight back the hot tears. Grief swells up around me. All I can feel is the depth of loneliness, the haunting fear of losing everyone I love. I claw at my chest but my heart is taut, hardening into a lump of stone.
Oriana’s voice echoes but it’s muddled by Saya’s shouting. “Cassie,” she says, a little louder and a little closer. “Cassie! Stop it, Cassie.”
The memory unfolds; the glint of golden sunbeams pouring down between tree branches, the leaves fluttering and dancing in the wind, the chimes clinking together in a lighthearted song. At the top of the mountain, I glimpse the gabled roof top of the shrine. It’s like the sleek shell of a beetle, black and shimmering in the summer sun.
I climb the steep steps, narrow and too small for my feet. It’s a clumsy and awkward ascent. But the higher I climb, the calmer I feel. The mountain spirits welcome me. They call me closer, their energy cool and refreshing in the summer heat. It’s a glass of sweet lemonade to quench the throat and I’m desperate to take a drink.
I can feel their promises rolling around in my thoughts.
“Cassie,” Oriana whispers. “Cassie, please. Come back to me.”