“Five, four, three, two, one…You may open your eyes now.”
Toni didn’t want to leave the solitude of her dreamscape. This time Sebastian had taken her to a beach, empty save for an emerald-green chair whose velvet upholstery begged her to sit. There were no birds needing to be fed, no phones to be answered, and no pictures to be taken to prove to the insurance company that a tornado had in fact demolished her home. Just Toni, the lapping waves of the ocean, and her chest rising and falling to the rhythm.
“How did that feel?” he asked when she finally lifted one eyelid.
“It felt”—she sighed—“like a place that doesn’t exist.” She pried the other eyelid open with a forceful finger.
“But it exists in your mind now. Which means you can return there whenever you need to.”
“Even without your”—Toni gestured at Sebastian—“magic shit.”
“Even without being hypnotized, yes.”
Toni doubted that. She’d be lucky if she made it back to her government issued FEMA trailer without flipping someone off. Serenity wasn’t in her vocabulary, never mind her demeanor. She was angry, yes. Sad, sure. Discontent, maybe. Horny, usually. But serene? Let’s just say no one had ever mistaken her for someone who practiced yoga and drank chamomile tea. Everything about her read: coffee, black; whiskey, neat; car horn, activated; music, loud; opinion, given; language, foul; jacket, leather; mother, single.
“I’m not the only magic one in this room,” Sebastian said, peering over her so that he looked upside down.
“Someone should really do something about the gossip in this town,” Toni said.
Sebastian smirked and playfully smacked her on the arm.
“Life will get easier soon.”
“It could hurry the hell up!” She sat up, put her coat on, and handed Sebastian an envelope. “One session for one story, as promised.”
Toni left the hypnosis office thinking about the irony of two people trading modalities to reframe their lives and the ways they thought about them. It was as if their magic only worked for other people. As the town’s hypnotist and resident witch writer, they were destined to be friends. Sebastian had been helping her tap into the calm part of her mind since everything imploded last spring. In exchange, she had been writing him an intuitive short story—a slow burn romance between him and the man he hadn’t met yet. Toni couldn’t look at Sebastian without scenes of domestic bliss and dachshund puppies filling her mind. The latest chapter detailed his first kiss with the mystery man. She hoped it would fill him with hope, anticipation, and the openness to manifest the Mr. to his Mr.
Whether or not she could have an easier life was another thing. Maybe if her parents had named her something other than Fittonia. Fittonia! The plant that needs just enough but not too much sunlight or it’ll faint. It requires watering but too few drops and it turns brown. Three drops too many and, you guessed it, it faints. Too cold? Withers. Too warm? Withers. It’s a high maintenance plant that thrives on being ignored and only being tended to in its hour of need—whenever that might be. Oh, and its surroundings needed to be just right—whatever that meant. Fittonia: nicknamed the nerve plant by botanists.
Toni Chandler’s surroundings were never just right. She was as finicky and affected by everything as the plant her hippie-boomer parents named her after. Things rarely went right for Toni. Meanwhile, they had named her golden-haired sister Forsythia—after a hardy bush that bloomed gold every spring without fail. It didn’t matter if the world was falling down around Sita, because she knew that every spring her luck would shift. She’d land an unexpected promotion with a private office and significant pay raise. The extra ten pounds she’d put on in the winter months would vanish overnight, and she’d walk around like fucking Vanna White, smile smugly in place.
Toni’s namesake didn’t bloom golden, it veined silver. So, despite being the younger sister, her dark hair had gray strands lacing through its long waves. If Sita was Jane Eyre, then Toni was Bertha Mason; she looked less like a woman men fell in love with and more like the crazed wife they kept in the attic so that she didn’t burn the place down. At least her parents hadn’t named her Bertha.
Names mattered. You couldn’t convince Toni otherwise. While Sita wore hers like a May Day crown, Toni carried hers like a heavily guarded curse. Sensitive didn’t begin to describe the level of empathy she had been saddled with. And unlike their entrepreneurial father, Toni had yet to figure out how to make her intuition work for her. It felt more like an allergy to the world than the spiritual gift their witchy family insisted it was. She was approaching forty and no closer to cracking the code than she’d been at ten when she realized other people’s temperatures, their moods, their thoughts, changed her leaves. They made her wither or rise.
When Toni got home, the crows were waiting. After the tornado had taken—no that made it sound too gentle. After the tornado murdered her chickens with the tree it smashed into their coop, she found herself still going out to feed them every morning. A few days later, the crows showed up and began eating the mealworms she’d mechanically throw out because the muscle memory of the chore wouldn’t leave her. They had been gone for a week and Toni had assumed they’d found greener pasture—someone somewhere reeling them in with shiny gifts. But today they were back, and she felt pathetic for being relieved.
Toni reached into the pocket of her leather jacket and threw out a handful of sunflower seeds onto the driveway. The sun had begun to set already, because even North Carolina autumns waited for no one. Just then a hawk flew over the trailer, causing the bravest of the crows to squawk and fly off after him. Toni checked the mailbox, which had managed to weather the storm. The metal door creaked as she opened it, and pinpricks climbed the back of Toni’s neck. Shit, a hawk. Always a sign of change for her. She had seen a hawk fly over the house the evening before the tornado.
“That’s right! Go on, git! Ya shit bird.”
The mailbox offered its gifts: an energy bill (rude), coupons for an oil change (who had the time?), and an official looking envelope with a return address from a lawyer in New York. Toni’s stomach sank. She ran-walked to the trailer, flinging its flimsy door open when she reached it. Fred’s beak thudded against the glass just as the door closed behind her. Oops. She would let him in after she read the letter. She began tearing through the envelope as carefully as her trembling hands would let her. Tap, tap, tap. He was at the kitchen window now.
“Jesus, Fred. Give me a minute!” she called over her shoulder, her eyes scanning through the legalese. Fred: a wise name, for a wise animal. Wise ass, as she affectionately called him.
“Mom!” Anson called from his room. Just fifteen, his voice was already lower than his father’s—a fact she liked to bring up to her ex-husband, Donovan, whenever possible.
“Don’t tell me you’re hungry, dude. You know how to microwave—”
“No, Mom. Look,” he said in his flat, impatient way.
Toni looked up as Anson walked into the kitchen with Fred on his shoulder. He was pretending to be annoyed, but she saw the amusement in his eyes. Toni had named Anson so that he had zero plant complications. Anson: meaning Ann’s son, or the son of the divine. She didn’t know who Ann was, but it was a common enough name that she hoped her son wouldn’t inherit her bad luck. Being the son of Ann or the divine had to be better than being the son of Fittonia Chandler. The tornado had been the ultimate evidence of that truth. Sometimes she believed they’d survived just to struggle more. If anything could undo two overly sensitive people, it was living in a metal box which swayed when the wind picked up.
“He was tapping on my window with this.” Anson held up a silver house key. So, he had found someone with shiny gifts. At least he came back.
“Traitor,” she murmured to the bird when he hopped off Anson’s shoulder and onto the kitchen counter where the letter lay unread. Anson placed the key on the counter, too. Then he went to the cupboard where they kept the sunflower seeds and presented a small pile of them to the bird. Toni went back to reading the letter.
“This makes no sense,” she said.
“What is it?”
“It’s a copy of Aunt Hel’s last will and testament. It says she’s left her house in Fall Creek to me, but she isn’t even—”
Just then her phone rang, DAD flashing across the caller ID.
“Fuck,” Toni said as she swiped to answer the call. Sorry, she mouthed to Anson, who shrugged.
“Nice to talk to you, too,” her father said as she brought the phone to her ear.
“Aunt Hel’s dead, isn’t she?” There was a pause before he answered. Toni met eyes with Anson and exchanged looks that said, another day, another loss. Their favorite people, chickens, and places were crumbling around them.
“Yes, honey, she is. I always knew you two were in tune, but this is uncanny.”
“No, it’s not, Dad,” Toni huffed. “I just read her last will and testament, and there’s a crow on my counter with a key in his mouth.” Fred had picked the key back up and was inching toward her, his flat feet flip-flopping in a way that was too cute for the moment. Time and place, Fred. She pinched the bridge of her nose, closed her eyes, and warded off the tears.
“She was always efficient. Had impeccable timing. I guess this is no exception,” she heard her father reasoning. He was an infuriating optimist. Everything happened for a reason if you asked Orin Chandler. Toni opened her eyes and scanned the FEMA trailer. There were so few things of their own. Anson’s dad had replaced his video game console and all his games in lieu of showing up. Donovan, the whole reason they ended up living in North Carolina in the first place. Donovan: a name meaning darkness. He had certainly brought darkness to several years of Toni’s life. Being present wasn’t his strong suit.
Now what was left for them in this place but hostility and regret? Even Anson’s formerly small school had grown to the point of congestion. Her fifteen-year-old was coming home every day looking as tired and overstimulated as she felt. The whole situation felt like wearing a sweater that no longer fit; it scratched in places and restricted their movement. There was little left to make this place feel like home. What scant family photos Toni had before digital times had been lost in the tornado. The lack of history, of an anchor, made her feel like a ghost floating through rooms that didn’t belong to her.
“Did you know about this? The house?”
“With Beth gone, who else would she leave it to?” Her father had a way of not exactly answering questions.
“I don’t know. Maybe Sita?”
“Even if Helena had died in the spring, she would have still left the house to you. Your sister’s good luck can’t trump an aunt’s favoritism.”
“Ha! So, you admit you gave Sita the better name. It’s about time, old man.”
“No, but I know that’s what you believe. Anyway, no funeral—”
“Because Aunt Hel wanted to be burned and planted with a tree next to Aunt Beth.”
“Precisely. On the land that you now own. Sounds like you inherited the crows as well.”
Toni hadn’t made the connection until now. The crows had shown up after she had told her aunt about the chickens and the tornado. If anyone knew how to keep a Fittonia alive, it was Aunt Hel, and now she was gone, too. Toni ended the call with her dad and sunk down onto her elbows, tears betraying her with each plop, plop onto the counter. Anson’s hand was on her back, rubbing circles in a rare gesture of affection. After a moment, she straightened, pushing her frizzing hair away from her face.
“How do you feel about us going to Fall Creek for a little while?”
“What? And leave all this?” Anson gestured to a cabinet door that was hanging by one hinge. Toni smiled.
“Has anyone ever told you that your spiritual gift is sarcasm?”
“Has anyone ever told you that yours is swearing?”
“Go pack your shit. Let’s get the hell out of here, kid.”
Anson smiled then, for the first time in months.
Toni was surprised by how easy it was to leave North Carolina. It was as if she and Anson had run out of tears for the place by the time they rolled out of there. She even managed to keep her middle fingers on the wheel and only hit the horn twice. It helped that the crows followed their moving truck up the east coast back to their original home. “Home.” It was the first thing out of both of their mouths as they stepped through the door of the American Gothic cottage. Toni stomped the snow off her black combat boots.
“I call dibs on the attic room,” Anson said, climbing up the stairs two at a time with his long legs.
She ran her hand along the lime washed walls before turning into the den. Family photos lined the walls in gold frames. Someone had already laid logs and kindling in the woodstove, so all Toni had to do was strike a match and throw it in. Sinking down into one of the two emerald wingback chairs, she watched the flames lap at the wood. It was hypnotic, taking her back to the last time she had visited her aunt. Toni had rubbed at her eyes that evening, smudging her mascara. Aunt Hel noticed.
“I’m not a painted woman—anymore. In my twenties I would rouge my cheeks and cat-eye my liner until every angle was sharp. I wanted my cheekbones to seem different from the broad Austrian features I was born with. Roundness, you see, was not an option. Not if you were going to trap a man.
“No, only sharpness could do that, could snag one on the impossible knife of a jawline, the blade of a collarbone. And so, I painted my oval face into a diamond.”
“What happened?” Toni had asked, examining her aunt’s features.
“I caught your Aunt Beth instead.” Toni remembered how the corners of her aunt’s thin mouth slowly curved up into a reluctant smile.
“You miss her.”
“More than you know.”
Then they each sipped their whiskey and watched the fog creep up from the valley.
“I can’t do wing tipped eyeliner. The closer I get to forty, the more hooded my eyes get,” Toni had said. Aunt Hel peered at her from the farthest corner of her good eye.
“You won’t need to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jesus, even then, her aunt had sensed her imminent spinsterhood. That’s probably why she left the house to Toni, to keep her distracted while her vagina dried up and sealed itself shut.
“I mean, it’s not gonna matter what your make-up looks like. He’s not going to care.”
“Who’s not going to care?”
Aunt Hel had just squinted at the fog, like she was seeing something much further away—something that wasn’t there at all—something in the future. They had this gift in common, though Toni had stopped trying to intuit her own future sometime after her divorce. Instead, her magic turned outward, sensing things about everyone around her. Grocery shopping was an exercise in insanity. She was a radio tuned into every frequency. Different voices, thoughts, visions, feelings, and memories overwhelmed her—none of them her own. Instacart had been an answer to her witch prayers. She couldn’t remember the last time she stepped inside a busy store. She hoped they’d deliver out to Fall Creek.
Something poked Toni’s side as she shifted to cross her legs, taking her out of her thoughts. She rooted around in the crack between the seat cushion and arm, pulling out a planner dated for the new year. Every week had already been filled out. Who planned their entire year before Yule? Helena Chandler, that’s who. Aunt Hel’s meticulousness bordered on eccentricity. Still, as Toni scanned through the first week of January, she realized her aunt had mastered the art of intentional living. January 1: Take cookies to the neighbors. January 3: Book group at library, 7pm. January 5: Aikido at the community center, 9am. January 7: Register Anson for school at Finger Lakes Charter.
“Wait. What?” Toni flipped to the first page of the planner, and there in her aunt’s precise script was written, The Care and Feeding of Fittonia Chandler.
Toni followed the planner over the next several weeks. Aunt Hel was careful to never overschedule a week. She left a day of rest between every day with an activity. ‘Neighbor’ was a loose term in Fall Creek. The closest house was two acres away, and its occupant was a stocky, single farmer who gazed at Toni like he was looking for a Bertha Mason to shake things up. After she brought him cookies, he could be found plowing her driveway even on days it didn’t snow. Toni was enjoying the consistency as much as the view.
If Tractor Supply was handing out awards for best dressed farm hand, this man would have won. His Carhartt pants were caked in the seasons—the mud of spring, grass stains of summer, and salt residue of winter ringed the cuffs. Had they ever been washed? No, Toni decided, they had not. And Harris wore the dirt like a badge. Above them was a threadbare thermal, framed by the blue and green plaid flannel she’d come to spot him by. Her eyes scanned up to his scot-red beard, not to be confused with that patchy ginger monstrosity Donovan was always trying to grow. This was the beard of a man who could spend the night in the bush just to wake at dawn and strangle a buck with his bare hands. A hunter-gatherer beard. But that’s not what Toni said when she caught herself staring.
“Fucking hipster potato farmers,” she grumbled. “None of you know how to park.”
“Is that what you say to everyone who voluntarily plows your driveway with their tractor?” Harris asked.
“Is that a euphemism?”
“Is that an offer?”
Toni opened her mouth and closed it. Now Harris was wearing her speechlessness as a badge of honor. Toni cleared her throat and kicked at the icicles that were hanging off her tailgate.
“I never asked you to plow my driveway.”
“Are you complaining? Because I can put all the snow back if you’d like.” He turned on the heel of his insulated Muck boot.
“No, you can’t,” Toni said, calling his bluff. “I just watched you get that thing stuck in the ditch. Must be too small”—she paused—“or perhaps too big to get the job done.” She let her gaze drop to his pants before meeting his eyes again. His face blushed wildly. “Your cheeks are burning.”
“I swear, Fittonia Chandler, you could light my house on fire and I think I’d still ask you out to dinner,” Harris said, shaking his head.
“I just might let you.”
Meanwhile, the book club turned out to be less book and more club—soda mixed with vodka and lime. The members showed up in varying degrees of black dress, and Toni in her leather jacket and combat boots felt in context for the first time in her life. These people had their own magic. The members bitched, burned the names of their foes in the library fireplace, swapped tarot readings, and talked about their favorite books. Often, they shared fond memories of Helena and Beth. A few of them approached Toni after the first meeting and asked about her intuitive short stories.
“Hel said you charge $125 per chapter, and that if we tried to low ball you, she’d haunt us.”
“Oh, um…” Toni had never charged for her stories before. She’d only bartered or given them as gifts.
Witchcraft had become mainstream, cute, something to dabble in or make money from just like everything else in this capitalist country. But to Toni it wasn’t something she could pick up and set down like the crystals at a Body, Mind, Spirit Expo. It was more like the birthmark on the inside of her arm; she could hide it, but it didn’t go away. And sometimes, in direct light, it itched. The gifts passed down to her begged to be used, but if she didn’t? Chaos. Unused magic got restless and made its own messes—much like the food expiring in the back of her fridge. She had to find a way to keep her magic occupied, purring, instead of meowing in heat. It was almost impossible when trying to live a normal life, one where her wavy hair was considered exotic and not akin to Medusa.
Toni’s online copyediting job hardly stirred her creative juices nor quelled her magic. So, her intuitive short stories became a kind of salve—a way for her to use her magic for good. They were the spells for those who felt stuck, a way to ignite their imagination. Until now, it was a well-kept secret that almost all her stories came true for the recipients. Whatever they said they wanted to change would manifest after they read the story she wrote. Maybe that’s why she’d never written one for herself; she hadn’t known where to begin mending the mess. She didn’t trust her intuition when it came to herself.
“Just take the money, dear,” Mrs. Jenks said, pressing it into her hand. “I’ll email you the details. Helena gave us all your card before she passed.”
Toni didn’t have cards, but Mrs. Jenks was flashing a black business card at her with the name Fittonia Chandler embossed in gold.
Sebastian called that evening to let her know he’d met someone.
“You sound different,” he said. “You haven’t even asked me his name.”
“Does it matter?”
“To me? No. But I would have thought you’d want to look it up, just in case.”
Toni thought about this for a moment and realized she hadn’t even looked up Harris’s name after his offer to grab dinner sometime. Either she was slipping, or she was getting soft. She blamed the Aikido lessons.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art which focuses on redirecting your opponent’s energy rather than cultivating violence or aggression. It helps extra-sensory people filter unwanted energy as well. After a month of lessons, Toni could walk into public without her protective leather jacket on. She wasn’t immune to her intuition now, but she could turn it down and that made grocery shopping feel less like the seventh circle of hell. Her hyper-vigilance wasn’t ruling her life.
“I’ve met someone, too,” she admitted.
“Is his name Tom?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Because that’s the name of the guy I’m going out with this weekend.”
“Tom sounds like a nice name.”
“You mean generic,” Sebastian accused.
“I mean, maybe names aren’t the curses I’ve made them out to be.”
“Oh,” he clucked. “He must be hot.”
“Hot, consistent, good with a snowplow,” Toni listed.
“Is that a euphemism?”
“It’s about to be.”
“Now, there’s the Fittonia I know and love.”
Anson found his pod at Finger Lakes Charter. Turns out there were a lot of witches with quirky kids in this part of New York. Here his autism wasn’t treated as a diagnosis to overcome but as a superpower that needed honing. Toni began filling in a planner for after school let out. She titled it The Care and Feeding of Anson O’Leary. In it, she wrote things like, “Play Dungeons and Dragons with friends from school,” and “Take a walk with Fred on the trails behind our house.”
“Our house” was the only way Anson referred to the home they’d inherited. There was no question of returning to North Carolina. When Toni broached the subject with him, he said, “And leave all this?” But this time he was smiling with Fred on his shoulder and a phone lighting up in his hand with texts from the new friends he’d made. “I gotta go, Mom. We’re playing video games online in five minutes!”
“Is Fred playing, too?” she called after him as he took the stairs two at a time up to his room.
“Fred is my good luck charm,” he yelled back. “He gave us the key to this house.”
February was a busy month. Toni’s days were filled with writing stories for her aunt’s friends and whoever they would hand her card to. She even made a website so that people could order intuitive short stories from her. Now she was incorporating tarot readings, spells, and other witchy things she’d picked up from the ladies at book group. (Weren’t all book groups just a coven in disguise?) And although she wasn’t ready to admit it yet, the story Toni had begun writing for herself featured a love interest not unlike Harris the hipster potato farmer. She hoped he’d still like her when he found out she was a witch. Something told her she could write that into being. Half the magic—she’d come to realize—was in the belief that her stories could come true. Toni began believing good things for herself, for her name and what it meant.
When the planner’s page showed February 13th, Toni received a text from Sebastian.
S: Tom invited me out for Valentine’s Day!
T: Ask him how he feels about dachshunds.
S: You witch, you.
The next text was a picture of Sebastian’s mystery man holding a dachshund. Toni smiled and then checked the planner for that day’s activity. She frowned when she read the words: Dust the plant stand in your bathroom. But she was learning to trust the process.
The bathroom was where Aunt Hel kept her one and only Fittonia plant on a stand next to the clawfoot tub. The plant seemed to be thriving there in the dappled light of the frosted glass window, so Toni hadn’t moved it. A task was a task, though. So, she picked up the pot from the plant stand. As she did, a folded piece of paper fell to the floor. It read: Fittonia’s are easy. Sometimes they just need to be repotted.