Nikky is a New Zealand writer who grew up as a barefoot 90s kid in Perth, Western Australia. By day she works as a business content writer while by night she dives into the realms of speculative fiction, often burning the candle at both ends to explore fantastic worlds, mine asteroids and meet wizards. Her short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies around the world. Her debut novel The Rarkyn’s Familiar—a dark tale of a girl bonded to a monster—will be published by Parliament House Press in 2022.
The man sinks down beside me, hugging a duffel bag to his chest. His eyes dart to my face, then to the laundromat’s linoleum floor. I pretend not to notice. Perhaps he’s here to do his laundry, like the woman from 32B who taps away at her phone, engrossed as she swipes right, waiting for her drier to finish.
The man looks at me again, swallows, and clutches his duffel a little tighter.
Wait for it.
I am nothing if not patient.
He’s older than I, mid-fifties, face all long shadow under the fluorescent lights. He was probably attractive once, before whatever happened to him. I could ask about that. But it’s not my job to ask those kinds of questions.
Though it’s never stopped me wondering.
He takes a breath––
Here we go.
“I need a favor.”
Ah, the magic words. I tilt my head and cock an ear.
“They say you can fix anything.”
I fish a cigarette from my coat, put it to my mouth but don’t light it. Not yet. Not until I know he’s serious. I’m no showman. “I can.”
“Really anything?” He shifts closer on the row and leans in, worried someone in the near-empty laundromat will overhear. “Anyone?”
I nod. “Whatever needs fixing, I fix.” I eye him over my cigarette. “For a fee.”
The man’s fingers dig into his black bag. His gaze darts down and he stills, forehead crinkling as a last moment of doubt flickers over his face.
“Can you fix… me?”
I close my eyes, focus on the tip of my cigarette and think of campfires, warm coals and glowing embers. A faint fizz and I inhale, warmth spreading through my mouth. Smoke curls to the ceiling as I breathe it out. The man’s watching me, waiting, hungry for my answer.
“Tell me what you want.”
“I want—” The man pauses, eyes turning distant for a heartbeat. He draws in a breath and meets my eyes. “I want to laugh again.”
I crook an eyebrow. “Can you pay? Magic always has a price.”
He hesitates, muscles tensing around the bag, but he relents. “Yes.”
“Then it shall be so.” I point to his duffel. “Leave it on the seat.”
He stands, uncoils his arms from the bag, and nurses it to the seat as if it were a babe. As he releases it, an unreadable expression flits across his face—pain, doubt, who knows. He doesn’t say, and I don’t ask. He turns to me, features tight. “How does this work? Do you wave a wand, chant a spell?”
I draw on my cigarette again. Smoke rolls over my tongue, along with the taste of salt and sea spray. The sound of pattered feet and a child’s laugh curl down my throat with the smoke. A boot against a soccer ball thumps in my ears. I suck the warmth from between my fingers, hold the life in, then flick the butt to the floor and crush the memories under my boot. “It is done.”
At my words, his face relaxes. The tightness runs from his shoulders. My smoke washes over him and his eyes empty.
Blank as a slate.
“Go,” I say. “Be happy.”
The man sways, nods, and shuffles for the door. I unzip the duffel. His payment is tucked neatly inside. His most precious thing: a photo album. Thick and heavy, spine cracked and worn from hours spent flipping the pages. Inside are photographs of him, younger and less gray.
Holding a newborn.
At the beach.
Kayaking on a river.
There’s a boy with him in every single one. Until the last. Then it’s the boy in a hospital bed, tubes coming out of him, trying to smile. A cake with eight unlit candles rests on the bed before him.
As I stare at the photos, a memory of a grave appears in my head. A simple granite tombstone and lilies resting on freshly turned earth. The man’s arms are wrapped around a sobbing woman, her tears turning his lapel wet. An echo. I knuckle my temple and mutter a curse. This one’s going to leave a headache.
Across the laundromat, the man opens the door, ready to step into his new life. The hinges squeak and Miss 32B looks up from her phone. She blinks, frowns for a heartbeat, and her mouth opens. Then she pauses, lips quivering, as if trying to summon a word on the tip of her tongue.
My head swims, my magic unravelling as she stares at him. Something not quite recognition flickers over her face, like she’s encountered this stranger before, but can’t remember where or how. Inside her, the newly minted memories unspool. Inside me, her true past bubbles to the surface. The gentle pressure of his hand in hers. A kiss and a stolen moment whispers across my cheek. A door numbered 32A swings open, her breathless anticipation turning my heart over in my chest.
Forgotten wedding bells toll in my head. Followed by a child’s rosy face. Happiness fills me.
Then a grave.
She clutches a man—the same man I met today but younger and less grey—and cries into his shoulder, wetting his lapel. Despair, so thick it steals my breath opens under me like a maw.
I dive for another cigarette, light it and drag the smoke in deep––drawing the memories down with it. Love, horror, and there at its end, hopelessness. And in that last flicker: her fist pounding a door, rattling the brass 33G screwed into it; myself opening it, half awake and hungover.
“I want you to take them all,” her request rings in my ears.
Then my drawling response, almost bored, “Can you pay?”
All of it washes over me, hot then cold then hot again. For a second time today, I hold her pain in my lungs and press the butt of the cigarette into the chair, wrestling the memories down. The plastic singes and the spark squashes out.
Miss—Mrs. 32B’s eyes refocus. Her new life settles again, pain free, just as she wished. Her memories are still reshuffling, filling in the gaping hole I’ve taken, forming a fresh narrative for those missing years––one without the shy but charming man from 32A who’d won her heart. With a guilty twinge, I thumb the ring in my pocket: her price. Her precious thing.
I glance at the blank man still standing on the threshold. What must it have been like for him to come home from work to find their apartment empty? To learn she’d returned to her old apartment, old number 32B, to start a new life without him? Perhaps that had been the final straw to send him here, to me. I lean back on the laundromat’s plastic chairs and release my smoky breath.
But magic, especially my magic, is a fickle thing. As I exhale the last of the smoke, it gives an odd twist and a sliver of it breaks free, racing back to her. Into her.
Mrs. 32B blinks at Mr. 32A.
“Hey,” she says. She smiles and puts her phone away. “Fancy a drink?”
Mr. 32A straightens, shaking off his stupor. I brace myself for another wave of memories. But instead, he clears his throat, “I… uh, okay.”
Her arm circles around his and guides him out onto the street.
I watch them go, the ghost of a forgotten child echoing in my ears.