Mortality is a cruel trick to play on a creature who had felt the infinite universe and walked among the star dust.
Being given immortality and having it be taken away is akin to the feeling of being half-asleep and, in your fugue state, you miss a step in a dream. And your corporeal body lurches under the blankets trying to catch itself from an intangible fall and you end up with adrenaline pulsing in your blood and the quiet sound of your own breathing.
Life goes on, the clock keeps ticking, but the feeling of missing something that immense is heavier than any pound of flesh. It’s a missing limb, twitching in an incomprehensible nothingness of time and space.
Alice feels this yearning, this indignation, as wind whistles through her hair and Julia’s hand presses against her abdomen.
She’d been about to step into oncoming traffic and the Mac truck screaming passed her is a deafening reminder of how insignificant she is now.
She inhales shakily and Julia presses more firmly, shepherding her back onto the sidewalk.
“Just peachy,” Alice grinds through her teeth and she raises a trembling hand to her mouth. She’s breathing in short, jerky gasps and Julia presses a hand to her shoulder.
“I remember it too,” she says. “The comfort of knowing there isn’t a single thing on earth that can hurt you. It’s easy to forget.”
“I wish I could just adjust,” Alice says and Julia’s hand slips off her shoulder.
“Eventually, you will,” Julia says and she loops her arm with Alice’s. “Eventually, a person can get used to anything. No matter how terrible.”
Neither of them mention Q, and that silence is louder than the traffic around them.
Julia makes a little face at her, a pinched smile, and Alice looks away to keep from rolling her eyes.
Julia is so healthy. She’s processing. She’s sleeping through the night and laughing at jokes.
Alice is so…coping. The bags under her eyes grow by the day and her hands shake so bad sometimes she spills her tea on herself. She tries not to resent Julia but she can’t help herself.
Julia squeezes her bicep and lets go, tucking her hands into her pockets. There’s a break in traffic and they cross, Alice rues checking for oncoming cars.
They’re together for a reason, heading to the magic flea market to collect this month’s rent. It’s busy, full of vendors and shoppers alike.
Alice huffs, tapping a finger on her phone. “Looks like we need an agimat, a bible from before 1856 and a broom.”
“What in the world is an agimat?”
“It’s a Filipino amulet. The broom also needs to fly,” Alice says and sticks her phone back in her pocket.
“Should be easy enough,” Julia says in her wry fashion. Alice huffs again and stalks into the frey.
The broom is easy enough. The Bible takes some finagling but forty minutes and three trades later it’s their’s. The amulet is tricky, however.
“You don’t want it,” the tall, pale, waif-like vendor says. They’re leaning on the counter and sipping from a Starbucks cup. “S’mad cursed.”
“That’s okay,” Julia says and twinkles at them. “We know a curse breaker.”
“Nah,” they say. “It’s like mundo bad mojo. Only reason I have it still is because I don’t want to touch it to get it out of my display. Nasty shit.”
“Then you won’t mind selling it cheap,” Alice interjects and she holds up her secret weapon. “I’ve got schematics on building Piper’s Lamp to trade.”
Piper’s Lamp, if one didn’t know, is a lamp that burns on bad energy. Capable of clearing demonic presence or even just a shitty landlord bad vibes. It’s not a complicated spell, but it does require very specific set of instructions that are only available to Brakebills students. Alice has liberated said instructions.
“Hmm,” they hum and run long fingers through their hair. “Okay. But you can’t come back here when you get cursed. It’s your problem.”
“Deal,” Alice says curtly, passing over the schematics and and holding out her nullifying bag. “Drop it in.”
“You can reach in. Told you—I’m not touching it.”
Alice turns the bag inside out, pushing her hand inside and collecting the ruby amulet with the same air one would pick up dog waste. It’s as simple as that.
“Thank you for your business,” Julia says, still twinkling and Alice scoffs and turns away.
The curse, naturally, takes effect almost immediately.
Alice doesn’t even make it outside.
“Hey, what’s on your arm?”
Alice looks down at her arm where a small ruby has embedded itself on the back of her wrist.
“Christ,” she seethes and presses the heel of her un-cursed hand into her eyes.
“Are you cursed?”
“No shit,” she snaps and watches another ruby speckle on her arm. “Fuck.”
“How do we stop them?”
“I don’t know,” Alice says and stalks towards the subway line.
Julia jogs to catch up and Alice shoulders a lady out of her way, a starburst of rubies scatter across her bicep.
They hurry home, Alice’s face growing paper with rage as they go.
She’s just snatched her hand back from Josh, sending a stream of stones along the line of her forearm, when Margo snaps her fingers.
“It’s because you’re being a twat,” Margo says. “Every time you’re an asshole, you get more sparklies.”
“That is not what’s happening,” Alice grinds out and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Bitch bling,” Margo intones, eyebrows raised and Alice let’s lose a rageful noise.
“Well—it takes one to know one,” she tosses at Margo and lets out another cry and anger when a large princess-cut ruby pops up on her elbow. “Fuck.”
“Try being nice,” Josh says and then withers under her expression.
“Nice and Alice aren’t exactly synonymous anymore,” Kady says. “No offense.”
“I can be nice. I am nice,” Alice says and realizes with horror that she’s on the verge of tears. “I am so nice.”
“Post-Niffin-you is kind of mean,” Josh says and Alice feels a tear bubble over her lash line.
She’s bright red now, she just knows it. She turns and stalks into her bedroom, curling up in a miserable ball on her bed. The door remains closed for a long time, with her unable to pull out of her self-hatred spiral and the fact that nobody in the apartment really cares one way or another about her anymore.
It’s dark when she pulls herself up. She kicks her shoes off and changes into a pajama set. The silk feels nice on her skin and the black hides her cursed arm. She sits on the bed again, presses her hands against her face.
There’s a knock at her door.
When she opens it, Julia’s worries face greets her. Her hair is pulled up in a high-pony, curls falling artfully around her ears. She’s in a giant, fuzzy sweater that looks very cozy and warm and Alice wishes she had it on.
“Hey,” Julia says. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Alice says and steps back, trying not to flinch as Julia takes in her messy room. Cleaning had fallen to the wayside in the past few weeks.
“Compliment me,” Julia says as she sits on the bed. “Let’s year the theory.”
“You—,” Alice breaks off, sucks in a breath. She pushes up her sleeve and holds it in front of her. “Your sweater is nice.”
One of the rubies poofs away.
“Oh! Okay,” Julia exclaims. “Okay. Again.”
“Um,” Alice says and looks at Julia. “You were very helpful earlier when you pulled me out of the road.”
Another small ruby poofs.
“Oh. Your hair is very—very. Very cute like that. It reminds me of Lady and the Tramp.”
“Thanks,” Julia says with a nose wrinkle.
They both watch Alice’s arm and frown when nothing happens.
“Okay,” Julia says slowly. “Maybe I have to like the compliment.”
“Lady is a beautiful dog,” Alice argues and then holds her breath. “Okay. The stir-fry you made last night was good.”
A pause. One of the little rubies poofs.
“Try a bigger one,” Julia suggests and Alice purses her lips, considers.
“You’re—I think you’ve got a natural ability with magic that most people wouldn’t even be able to dream of.”
“Thank you, Alice.”
“You’re welcome,” Alice says and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Do you think only words will help?”
“Maybe actions too,” Julia shrugs. “Whatcha thinking?”
“Have you eaten? I haven’t had dinner,” Alice says and crosses her arms.
“I could eat,” Julia says and climbs to her feet.
Alice goes for simple, grilled cheese, concentrating on positive thoughts. Slowly, her rubies poof, leaving behind only the largest clusters as she plates the sandwiches and gives one to Julia.
Julia smiles over the first bite, cheese stringing between her and the sandwich. Alice fights a smile back and then gives in, releasing another bunch of rubies along with a small smile.
Josh wanders out and she makes him a sandwich too, just for the hell of it. Kady declines but does tell Alice she’d called in her curse breaker contact and they should arrive within the hour.
“Thanks,” Alice says softly, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Kady nods, mouth quirked in a half-smile.
The curse breaker arrives with little fanfare, carrying a kit of colored glass and various implements.
After a few quiet moments, he puts his glass pieces in his pocket.
“Gotta get the—the—all the gems gone but the first,” he says. “Once there’s just the one left, we can start the breaking.”
“And how do you propose I do that?”
The curse breaker hums, turns to the others in the room.
“Anyone need a favor?”
Several hours later, and several inane tasks later, Alice has only one ruby embedded on the back of her wrist.
Josh has perfectly straightened hair and a Nike swoosh carved into the side of his head. Penny has a bird feeder that replenishes itself. Kady has new rust-proof, titanium knuckle dusters. Julia has another grilled cheese.
The curse breaker flicks open his glass shards and peers at her arm a little longer. He drips a silvery fluid from an antique glass pipette on her and brushes her ruby with a peacock feather. Blows on it gently. Flicks it sharply and with a crack it pops off.
“Thank God,” Alice sighs and the curse breaker nods and scoops the ruby up into a beaker.
“Anything else?” The curse breaker asks, already gathering his items.
Kady shakes his hand as she shows him out the door and the group splits back into their rooms, leaving only Alice and Julia in the kitchen.
“Thanks,” Alice says, tucking her hair behind her ear. “For everything.”
“Not a problem,” Julia says with a tiny smile. “Happy to help.”
Julia turns and is headed back into her room when Alice is struck by a sudden urge.
“Wait,” she says, following after Julia. Julia turns, beatific and serene, and Alice’s mouth dries up a little.
“Yeah?” Julia asks, turned like a ballerina.
“I meant what I said,” Alice says in a rush. “Earlier. It was true.”
“I look like a dog?” Julia teases and Alice huffs out a laugh.
“You’re a good friend,” Alice says, faltering suddenly. “I mean—“
“You’re a good friend, too,” Julia says firmly. “And you make a great sandwich.”
“Have a good night,” Alice says, fighting down her blush.
“You too, Alice,” Julia replies gently. Then she goes into her room, leaving Alice in the kitchen alone with a strange warmth in her stomach.