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art by Junior McLean

Break

Mishell Baker is a 2009 Graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop and now oversees Clarion's official blog at clarionfoundation.wordpress.com. She made her fiction debut in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #47, and her next two stories will appear in Redstone Science Fiction and Electric Velocipede. Her Twitter feed is under @mishellbaker.
When I shook Femi's hand in the office break room on my first day, everything faded: the snot-colored linoleum, the nauseous fluorescent lighting, the wheezy hum of the refrigerator. Instead of "Nice to meet you," I heard myself say, "You are a fragment of heaven."
I pulled my hand back, feeling like a complete moron, but her tranquil expression didn't waver.
"I'm sorry!" I said. "What I meant to say was... love me." What the hell? My face flamed so hot I could almost feel steam escaping from my tear ducts.
She laughed, a sound like doves taking flight; no, like bells tumbling haphazardly onto satin sheets; no, like the sound sunlight would make if it made a sound while shining on a sleeping kitten.
"It's all right," Femi said. "You're new; I guess no one told you about the curse. Take one of these. It'll fade in a few minutes."
"What curse?" I asked her, dry-swallowing the pill she handed me. I thought I could taste the salt of her palm on it, and I shuddered. Suddenly thirsty, I stared at the hollow of her throat: a little cup of caramel cappuccino I desperately needed to sip.
"I tried an ancient Egyptian love spell and cursed myself instead. That stuff really isn't for amateurs."
"What happened?"
"Now everyone who meets me is immediately infatuated, and I do mean everyone. Eighty-year-old women. Three-year-old boys. Gay celebrities. And then it wears off and they never talk to me again."
No, I wanted to tell her. This is real. After thirty-five wretched years I've finally found you, and I will love you until the day I die. But all I could do was stare, hypnotized, at the way her lips shaped the word "celebrities."
"What's your name?" she asked. Her voice was gentle, her compassion humbling.
I opened my mouth, but it seemed ridiculous to answer. She was being polite. She couldn't possibly want to know. "Do you like movies?" I asked.
"Sure."
Elation flooded me. "I knew it! So do I. No one understands me. Your hair smells like happiness. Please touch me. How is it that we managed to find each other? Let's go somewhere... a movie! And sit in the back. I'll die if you say no."
Her sudden melancholy was as dark and bitter as baking chocolate, and it tore something in my chest that I feared would never stop bleeding. Oh God, I had hurt her somehow. I'd ruined everything. As I exhaled, I wondered if there was any point in taking another breath.
"All right," she said, with eyes like a thousand Puccini operas. "We can go to a movie. But let's talk for a few minutes first."
"You want to talk to me? But I'm... and you... you're the reason for music. Kiss me. You prove Paradise." My words kept slamming into each other and getting jammed against my teeth. "What was that pill you gave me? It tasted like tragedy."
"Just an aspirin. No idea why it works, tried it at random once. I suppose magic can't stand up to science, or something."
"That's so true. I need to write that down. Do you have a pen? God, I don't even have a pen. I'm such an idiot." I started to sob. She quickly handed me a pen, and I pressed it fervently to my lips. It was warm from her touch--how could it not be?
She made a little choking sound, almost a laugh, but her eyes were wet.
I had no paper, so I wrote her words on my hand. MAGIC CAN'T STAND UP TO SCIENCE OR SOMETHING. My handwriting was terrible, I realized. I looked up at her in mute apology.
And then I guess the aspirin kicked in.
She seemed to recognize the return to sanity in my eyes. I finally saw her, an unremarkable woman in her forties with home-dyed hair and a gray Ann Taylor suit. My adoration rebounded like a hangover, and my loathing was endless. The part in her hair was so crooked I could taste bile.
I should have said something, anything, to fill the awkward silence, but I was too disgusted with the both of us.
"That will fade in a while, too," she said quietly, and turned away to rinse out her empty coffee cup.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 7th, 2011

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