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Echoes in Otherwhere

R H Arnold is a storyteller currently masquerading as an engineer. When not toiling away at her day job, she, her person, and her dog (breed: creature) await the next grand adventure. It might be a cross-country road trip. It might be a Netflix binge. They are excited to find out.
There is magic in the world.
Some of it is subtle: coincidences, dreamers, the shock of what a strong will and capable hands can accomplish.
This is not a story about subtle magic.
Lorianne pushed through the doors of the apothecary, closing out the busy honking and oppressive stink of New York City behind her. New-age herbs, tie-dye, and incense assaulted Lorianne's black-on-black senses. Wrapped in a long dark trench coat, and armed with heavy black boots showing the strains of her stomping, she trudged up to the counter.
Mary was there. "Lorianne, good morn--"
"I'm here to make a deal."
That shut Mary up for a long moment. The glazed expression slid away from her face like the mask it was. "I've known you for a few years now, but I've never known you to be a fool."
Lorianne could hardly argue. This was not her best moment. But she'd been on a string of bad moments lately, and was out of options.
"Just let me in to see him."
Her tone must have convinced Mary of her desperation. With a purse of her lips, Mary reached behind her and drew back the psychedelic curtain, revealing a door that separated the Here from the Otherwhere.
There was no mistaking this door for ordinary. It might've looked like a door, but it felt like staring down the barrel of a gun. Magic and menace practically oozed from the grain of the wood. Lorianne wanted to bite her lip, but any indication of nerves might have Mary kicking her out.
It's just a door, she admonished herself. A door that would take her--somewhere else. Somewhere other. Hands sweating, Lorianne approached.
Despite the gravity of the choices weighing her feet and slowing her hands, the door swung in effortlessly. She stepped forward.
There was pressure and cold and a pop in her ears. Then, Lorianne was in Otherwhere.
Before she'd even finished stepping through the door, words were on her lips. Magic words, words that would guarantee her an audience: "I'm here to make a deal."
For its size, the room she'd been deposited in could have been mistaken for a janitor closet, with one bare bulb overhead and shelves lining the walls floor to ceiling. Each of the shelves held hundreds of jars, glowing faintly with a milky-white floating blob inside.
Echoes. Lorianne suppressed a shiver.
She was about to add something exceedingly desperate--Please help me--before her eyes snagged on the figure in front of her.
The Negotiator. He was larger than she would have thought, with a bull-like head on a massive human torso. He was dressed in a suit. And those dark, depthless eyes were trained on her.
"Lorianne," the Negotiator rumbled, his voice so loud it bounced off the walls and rattled the jars. "It's good to see you again."
Lorianne was momentarily stumped. "I've never been here before."
The Negotiator paused. Smiled. "I see. Sometimes I get confused on the when of things. Have a seat and tell me of this deal you wish to make."
A chair appeared in front of his desk. Awkwardly, Lorianne sat down and began outlining her problems.
"About a year ago, my brother got... sick."
Sick was a paltry way of describing it. Her younger brother, Liam, had been dying. The doctors at the hospital didn't know what to do with him, besides monitor him as his body slowly shut down, one painful organ at a time.
He'd been on his deathbed, and Lorianne, who'd been equal parts Liam's sister and mother, had been out of her mind with thoughts of what was next. But then the unbelievable happened: he recovered.
At first, it had been a miracle. A medical marvel. The two of them had swelled in the spotlight, a beaming sister thanking The Powers That Be and a befuddled brother grateful to be alive. Two lonely souls at the heart of a hopeful tale, they'd made headlines and captured the affections of America. But once the mainstream media passed them by, the uglier inquiries started.
At first, it had been easy to brush off: crazy people, pilgrimaging to see them and touch them. Easily avoided.
But the magical communities found them next. The healing must be in the blood, they reasoned. And suddenly, there was an all-out battle for both her and Liam's heads on the black magic market.
They were going to get killed. She had to stop it.
"I need them to forget about us," she finished in a rush. "Just remove us from their memory, and we can disappear."
The Negotiator tapped his finger against the desk, having listened to the tale in silence. At last he replied, "It is difficult, what you are asking. Plucking fine strands of memory from here and there, erasing parts of people's lives. Complicated work."
Lorianne felt herself wilt.
"But," the Negotiator continued, "I can remove all the memories." He nodded to himself. "Much easier. Anyone you've touched, anybody you've seen, anyone who's seen you in the last year. How does that sound?"
It sounded like a lot of damage. But it would get her and Liam out of harm's way.
"What do you want in return?" she asked.
The Negotiator waved to all the jars, all the echoes on the shelves. Remnants of memories from all the deals he'd done. "You'll be supplying me with plenty of payment, Lorianne."
Lorianne had a brief moment of empathy for all the memories tied up in this strange place. None of this was hers to give.
But no one would have to know.
"It's a deal."
When Lorianne got home to her flat that afternoon, she was in a daze, like most of the world.
The Year the World Forgot, the news had been calling it. What a careless phenomenon, to forget a whole year. People were standing around, gawking at new buildings, marveling at new phones. Lorianne's clothes startled her the most at first. A black trench coat? Black combat boots? When had she taken those up? She was still scratching her head about it when she pulled out her keys--the first clue that she still lived in the same flat, thank god. She opened her door.
"Liam?" she called upon entering. A tentative question. The last thing Lorianne remembered, she'd been bringing him back and forth to the hospital, some grave and unknown illness wracking his body.
"Stop where you are!"
Lorianne whirled. Liam was standing just behind her, arm raised with a bat over his head.
"Liam!" Lorianne shouted, and it was equal parts relief and fear. He'd always been good at scaring her. But he was alive, and besides, he looked so healthy she wanted to cry. They must have found a cure for him, during this Year the World Forgot. "Quit playing with that bat. Have you seen the news? And how do you feel? You look so well!"
But Liam didn't lower the bat. Brows low, he demanded, "Who are you?"
Later that day, Lorianne burst through the portal to Otherwhere, words poised on her lips. Magic words. Words that would guarantee her an audience. "I'm here to make a deal!" she shouted, breathless, hopeful.
The room she was in was large, a hanger, and there were shelves everywhere, all the way to the ceiling. They were filled to the brim with glowing jars. The perversity of it startled Lorianne: who would do such a thing? It was absurd to think that there were so many people willing to trade their identities. There had to be billions of them--echoes.
The Negotiator looked up from behind his desk. He was startling to look at, with a bullish head and human torso. Lorianne tried not to tremble when he spoke, the sound so booming she thought it might shake those jars clear off the shelves.
"Lorianne. It's good to see you again."
This brought Lorianne up short. "But I've never been here before."
The Negotiator blinked slowly. Smiled. "I see. Sometimes I get confused on the when of things. Have a seat and tell me of this deal you wish to make."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 10th, 2020
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