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art by Liz Clarke

Guaranteed to Work

Lee Hallison is a transplanted New Yorker who has grown roots in the Pacific Northwest. This is her second publication with Daily Science Fiction and she has a story in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #53. She blogs at leehallison.com.

The day Ruth met her fairy godfather started out poorly. She sat across from Frank, twisting her cup between her hands.
"Yesterday was our anniversary," she said, watching the coffee swirl.
"Now it's my fault? Don't recall you remembering."
"I didn't say it was your fault." Ruth felt a familiar frown pucker her brow.
"Well if you cared so much, you would have done something about it. I can't keep track of every little thing."
Ruth pressed her lips tight as she stood up. She swept out of the kitchen, hands clenched at her side. Sometimes she felt like bopping him one.
Instead, she bopped the couch with her fist as she passed it. The small leg on the end collapsed, cushions sliding off as the corner tilted. She shoved the couch up and over, and it knocked over the lamp as it tumbled. The racket drew Frank to the living room door, mouth open in surprise.
"I asked you to fix it!" Ruth's eyes smarted. "Don't you care about anything? You don't help. You don't ever pick up, or wash a dish, or vacuum. I wish you'd never retired. You make me crazy."
Frank tightened his lips and turned away. He'd walk back to his workshop to play with his little toys, and she wouldn't see him for the rest of the day. What a total waste of air.
She went into the kitchen when she heard the door bang shut and began cleaning up.
Cleaning. Cooking meals. Mending his coveralls. Fixing things around the house. Doing the household books, filing his papers, reciepts, important junk he insisted on saving. Over and over, the same thing day after day, for years and years. Unshed tears burnt her eyes as she washed the dishes, soaping a glass without seeing it, rinsing the silverware automatically.
She'd had such dreams for when he retired. They'd travel, revisit the places they used to live in, trace their path through the different jobs and stages of their lives. They'd read books together, like they used to, share the Sunday paper in bed, sunlight streaming across the rumpled sheets. She'd make scones and he'd trace her lips with the cream the way he did when they were first married.
Instead, he'd retired and built himself a workshop away from her. Whatever she said, whatever she did, his response was irritation, dismissal, disgust. He couldn't stand her, she realized soon enough. She tried everything, new clothes, new hair, new tone of voice. She wheedled and smiled, tried stroking his hair, touching his arm when she passed by, ignoring his flinches.
She'd had it. The man could rot for all she cared. She grabbed her woolen coat from the peg on the wall and left the house, slamming the door behind her.
In town, she sat at a corner table in the cafe, looking out the window and stirring tea in a white mug. Her heart had stopped pounding. All she felt was grief.
"This seat taken, girlie?" A wrinkled face peered at her from the table's edge. A tiny old man held onto the chair across from hers.
"No, go ahead," she said.
Instead of taking the chair to another table, he clambered up, kneeling on the seat and leaning on the table with liver spotted fists.
"Uh, sorry. I'm not interested, please, I'm having tea alone right now." She pulled back, uncomfortable with his piercing stare.
"Well, now, looks like what you need isn't tea alone, but a friend!" He cocked his head, his eyes softening. His voice crackled with good humor, a grin deepening his wrinkles.
She shook her head, but he didn't seem to notice. He twisted around in the chair and signaled the waitress.
"I'll have a hot chocolate." He watched the waitress sashay away, then turned to Ruth. "Whipped cream, hot chocolate--what could be better?"
Ruth sighed and looked out the window. More grief, old grief, pinched at her heart, prickling her eyes. Their son had loved hot chocolate. Neither she nor Frank ever drank it again after Trey died, his little empty cup sitting in the dish cupboard for nearly 30 years. They'd clung to each other, but at some point bickering started, bickering and picking and poking, almost as if they couldn't otherwise feel.
"Is today a special day for you?" The old fellow wasn't giving up. She looked over at him--such a funny looking thing. Dwarf, maybe? Or just a short fellow. What did it matter, he was annoying, just like another old man she knew.
"No, there aren't any special days in my life," she said, surprised to hear herself speak.
"Johnny." The man held his hand out to shake. Shrugging, she shook.
"Now that can't be, all sorts of days are special. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays...."
Ruth sniffed and the story spilled out. The forgetting, the indifference, the disgust he had for her--Ruth told the man all of it.
"Well now, you need a good love spell. Nothing like a good love spell to turn things around. Yessir, nothing like it." He rummaged around in his pockets, turning things out of one pocket and then another, bits and pieces of paper and lint and clips and plastic chunks.
"Ah, here we go. A love potion, even better." He pulled out a tiny stoppered metal container and held it out to her. "Guaranteed to work."
She couldn't help it--she laughed. The old guy looked ridiculous, offering the container as though he were offering her the world. His smile faltered as she laughed.
"Ruth, Ruth. Please believe me, this works! Put a little in both your coffees tomorrow and you'll start all over. You will fall back in love. Everything will be forgotten--all the little annoyances and petty irritation. You'll see each other the way you did when you first met. Think of the joy, the happiness!"
Ruth looked at him again, bemused. He was just trying to be sweet. She took the proffered container and tucked it into her purse.
"Fine, I'll do as you say. Thanks."
"Okey-dokey, got to go!" He swept the detritus scattered on the table back into his pockets and hopped off the chair. He grabbed her hand and kissed it, then skipped out the door. Ruth shook her head, but her mood had lightened. She finished her tea and paid the waitress for both their drinks. The old goat had skipped right out of his bill.
Later that night, she lay in bed next to Frank, listening to his gentle snore. She thought about their life, the delirious beginning when they'd found each other, the joy they felt when Trey was born, the games they'd played, the books and movies they'd shared. Why had it changed? Losing Trey had shaken them both, but they had years together before Trey, they belonged together in a way that she hadn't ever believed would be possible with another person. She scanned memories, searching, wanting, looking for that point, that moment when their life had gone from sad to sour.
She tossed and turned, flipping over onto her stomach. The words that fellow Jonny had said echoed in her mind. They could start all over. They would forget all the bad stuff. They would be in love again.
"Maybe," she murmured as she finally fell asleep.
The next morning, Ruth looked at the tiny metal jar as she made coffee. She could hear Frank upstairs, running water, moving around their small bedroom. She poured the coffee as he came down. Just as he walked in the kitchen, she caught a look on his face, one he quickly wiped off and replaced with his usual bitter expression.
"What's that?" he said, pointing at the stoppered jar.
"It's a love potion," Ruth said, holding it up to her face. She squinted, looking for a mark, but the metal was smooth. She peeked at Frank, seeing a funny look cross his face--the same one he'd had when he walked in. Was he yearning too?
"Foolishness," he said, sitting down hard in his seat. "What are you doing with such foolishness?"
Ruth looked at him, her head cocked to one side. What would it be like to start all over? What would it be like to forget their history--would they lose the good along with the bad? Was it worth it to have their final years be filled with peace and happiness? She looked at the container again. Yeah, it was real. She knew it in her bones.
Frank blew on his coffee as he brought it to his mouth. He didn't look at her as she pulled the stopper out.
She poured it on the floor.
"What the..." Frank jumped as the liquid splashed. He set his cup down and looked at her. "What did you do that for?"
Ruth sat down across from him and took his hand in hers.
"Let's talk," she said.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story for a 90-minute flash challenge at Liberty Hall Writers Group. I wanted to write about the relationship changes when one person in a couple retires--the fairy godfather appeared out of nowhere and took the story for a ride.

- Lee Hallison
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