Everyone in Mountain View knew that Miss Minuet’s store was the most interesting thing in town. Minuet claimed she sold magical goods and services from her little store-front right off of main street, and maybe she did. Certainly strange people often stopped in Mountain View just to visit her, usually leaving with some little package wrapped in plain brown paper.
The locals usually left her alone. Miss Minuet tended to charge high prices for items that couldn’t possibly do the things she said they could do. The Saturday morning that Claire pushed through the front door, listening to the bell chime overhead and holding onto Maggie’s hand, she wasn’t planning to buy anything.
Her parents were busy, again, leaving her with the weekend free to do what she wanted. What she wanted mostly to do was add something from Miss Minuet’s store to her collection. Over the last year or so, she’d managed to take something from every other store in Mountain View without getting caught. The only business left was Miss Minuet’s Magical Goods and More.
Maggie usually accompanied her on these outings. Maggie’s big, wide eyes and easy smile did a great job of distracting clerks and store owners, while Claire went about her business. Maggie had protested, at first, but she’d fully embraced the entire challenge after the previous year. Claire knew Maggie was using it as a distraction after her father’s death. She didn’t particularly mind.
Maggie gave her hand a last squeeze, moving over to the counter, where Miss Minuet was watching them both with a scowl. Miss Minuet didn’t have many wrinkles, but the ones she had were deep and set into place. Her hair was steel grey and always pulled back harshly. Her voice suggested that she only drank whiskey and spent a fair amount of time eating cigars. She acknowledged Maggie’s greeting with a little grunt.
Claire left them to it, slipping down a tightly packed aisle. There were boxes and jars, many of them labeled in languages Claire couldn’t read. Pleasant smells wafted from some of them. Others stank terribly. They were all too big for her purposes.
She began to despair of finding anything that would work as she moved through the store, until she exited an aisle and found a display case left open. There was a cardboard box beside it, full of packing material. An invoice lay to one side. Claire lifted it up, snorting a little at the order for one pen, magical. A note on the invoice promised that the pen would write only the truth.
Claire wasn’t sure what use a pen that would only write the truth would be, but the writing instrument was right there, on a little stand in the case. It would easily fit in her pocket. She could probably hide it in her hand, if necessary.
She smiled, lifted it, stuffed it in her pocket, and turned on her heel.
“You about done?” she asked Maggie, as she reached the front door.
Maggie said, “In just a minute, you run on ahead.” It was their normal code. They’d found the process worked best if Maggie stayed behind a few minutes to throw off suspicion. Claire turned towards home, only a few streets away, to wait for Maggie and get a better look at her new trophy.
So, Claire ended up with a pen that could, supposedly, only write the truth. She took it out of her pocket back in her bedroom, turning it over and over. It was heavy and made of some kind of metal, cool against her fingers when she gripped it. She couldn’t see a seam on it; she wasn’t sure how they’d gotten the ink in, but it wrote when she scribbled on a piece of paper.
She shrugged, looking at the ink, and wrote: My name is Claire.
The words were true and the pen seemed to have no trouble displaying them. It didn’t magically improve her handwriting, that was for sure. She tapped the paper a few times, leaving behind little smears of ink, and wrote, to test it: My eyes are blue.
Claire’s eyes were a brown so dark they looked almost black in all but the brightest lighting. Nevertheless, the pen dutifully wrote out the words. She sighed. She hadn’t really believed that a pen could tell what was true and what wasn’t, so she wasn’t disappointed as she scrawled out a number of other lies, before crumpling up the paper, and throwing it away.
At least she hadn’t wasted any money on the pen.
She was preparing to drop it in a drawer when Maggie tapped on her window, her cheeks red and a smile on her face. Claire opened the window and Maggie climbed through, rolled across the bed, and landed on her feet, long practiced in this method of ingress. “I can’t believe you took it,” Maggie said, laughing. “I was sure she was going to see you!”
“She might as well have,” Claire said, rolling her eyes. “It doesn’t work, anyway. It was supposed to only write the truth, but it doesn’t.”
“Are you sure?” Maggie said, some of the giddy joy leaving her expression. “Maybe you’re doing it wrong.”
“I’m sure.” Claire waved the pen around and pulled one of the crumpled papers from the trash. She flattened it across her desk and said, “Look.” She wrote, a quick, inelegant scrawl: Maggie isn’t here. “See?”
She looked up, gesturing with the paper and found her room empty. There’d been no sound of the door opening. The window was down. But Maggie wasn’t there anymore. Something cold ran down the back of Claire’s neck. She stood up, turning in a fast circle, as though maybe Maggie was just lurking behind her shoulder.
“Maggie?” She ducked down, looking under the bed, though that space was just as full of junk as it had been last night. “Maggie, this isn’t funny.” She pulled open the closet, then the door to her bedroom, looking out into the hall.
Everything was quiet. She still held the pen, gripped tight in her hand. She stared down at the words and, in a sudden panic, crossed them out.
She looked around; still no sign of Maggie. “I’m serious, you’re scaring me,” she said, to an empty room and terrible silence. She shuddered and wrote: Maggie is here.
And suddenly, Maggie was there, collapsing down onto the floor, her arms and legs shaking, her eyes rolled back in her head. Claire screamed, not intending to, backing up, and knocking her desk chair over. Maggie jerked across the carpet, her lips gone blue, something dark and wet running out of her nose. She was making a terrible, low, groaning sound.
Claire fell to her knees and scrambled towards Maggie, trying to remember what you did when someone had a seizure. Were you supposed to hold them still, put something in their mouth so they couldn’t bite off their tongue? Roll them onto their right side? She couldn’t remember, even as she grabbed Maggie’s shoulders.
Maggie felt cold as ice, even through her clothes. She was shaking her head, violently, back and forth. She thrashed her arms out, catching the side of Claire’s head, knocking her back. Claire scrambled away, pushing with her heels, grabbing for the paper on the desk and scrawling: Maggie is okay.
Maggie went still, all at once. She flopped down, onto her back, staring up at the ceiling, her breath wheezing in her throat. “Hey,” Claire said, quietly. Her heart wouldn’t slow down. Maggie didn’t say anything. Claire edged closer and leaned over her. “Hey, are you—”
And that was when Maggie started screaming, like she was dying, being murdered right there on Claire’s floor. She thrashed, bringing her arms up and clawing at her face, no, her eyes. Claire reeled back once more, horror making it difficult to think before she reached for the wall, a clean area of paint, and wrote, in a hurried rush, desperate to do anything to stop the screaming: Maggie is the way she was before she climbed through the window.
Maggie wasn’t on the floor anymore. Claire watched her just blink away, disappearing. She left behind smears of red blood across the carpet. As Claire stared at it, there was a knock on her window. She turned, slowly, and stared at Maggie’s smiling face, her cheeks reddened from excitement, as the bottom fell out of Claire’s stomach.
“It works,” Claire said, her voice flat and coming from far away, as Maggie tumbled into her room again.
“What works?” Maggie asked, brushing herself off and looking around the room. “Why were you writing on the wall?”
“This pen. It said it wrote only true things.” Claire waved it through the air. “But it doesn’t only write things that are true. It writes anything, but if the thing isn’t true, it makes it true.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Maggie said, and Claire laughed, flat. The sound drew a concerned look from Maggie, who added, “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” So, Claire did, turning the pen over and over in her fingers as she tried to explain and, at the end, Maggie said, “Alright, ha ha, you really had me going there.”
Claire curled her shoulders over and wrote, on her hand: Maggie believes me.
“Oh, man,” Maggie said, shifting around on the bed, “you’re really serious, aren’t you? Well, what are we going to do?” She looked so earnest. So concerned. Claire had made her that way, changed her inside with just a few letters.
Bile burned up the back of Claire’s throat, bitter and terrible. “I don’t know. I—I think I changed some things, already.” She’d written a bunch of lies, to test the pen. She swore, grabbing at the trash-can and pulling it over, grabbing the crumpled papers, flattening them hurriedly across the table.
Her eyes were probably blue now, she realized. And she was a straight-A student, perhaps. And she’d been accepted into her college of choice with a full scholarship. These were all lies she could fix, she thought. Maybe she didn’t even need to fix all of them. Who cared how she got into college, really?
She noticed Maggie drifting closer out of the corner of her eye and looked up in time to watch Maggie lift the pen, turn it over, and then grab for a paper. “What are you doing?” Claire demanded, grabbing for the pen. “It’s not safe, you can’t—”
My father is alive, Maggie had written in her smooth, flowing cursive. She looked around Claire’s bedroom, expectantly. Claire gripped her wrist, squeezing tight. “You can’t use it. Weren’t you listening to me? It isn’t safe. It does things you don’t expect.”
Maggie gave her a strange, dreamy look. Her eyes weren’t focusing, really. She said, “Just because you wrote stupid things doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the pen. We just have to think before we use it.”
“I am thinking!” Claire tried to pry the pen from Maggie’s hand, but Maggie hit her, then, across the face, and she reeled backwards, holding her nose. Her eyes watered from the sudden pain. She tasted something sharp and salty in the back of her throat. She blinked her eyes clear in time to watch Maggie write something else on the paper. “What are you doing? Stop!”
Claire would have yelled more, but there was a sudden, terrible smell in the room, and a creaking groan. The hair on her arms rose. She turned her head, her hands still up by her face, and screamed. There was a dead man, in her room. Or, technically, maybe he was alive. He was rotting, though. Pieces of him were missing. He smelled of formaldehyde and decay. She recognized him as Maggie’s father, dead and buried for months now.
He clawed clumsily at his jaw. Didn’t they wire your jaw together, after you died, to make sure that you looked nice in the coffin? He groaned in his chest, taking a shuffling step towards them, and Claire jerked back, running into the wall, trying to propel herself up with no success. She looked around; he was between her and the door. He even blocked the window.
Maggie was staring at him, her face bone-white and her eyes wide, her mouth moving soundlessly. She still held the pen in one hand. Claire lunged for it, shoving her onto the bed, pinning her arm to the mattress and yanking the pen from her grip with no gentleness. Mr. Hawthorne is dead again, she wrote, and, when she heard a dull thud on her floor, she continued, dead and back in his grave just like he was like this never happened.
For a moment she couldn’t bring herself to look around, convinced that there would still be a body in the middle of her floor. But it had gone, leaving another terrible stain behind on her carpet. She still held Maggie down, but there was no more fight left in her. Maggie just lay there, curled onto her side, weeping.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said. Her nose felt stuffy. She still tasted blood in her mouth. “I’m—”
Maggie only cried harder, kicking out at Claire, until Claire had no choice but to retreat, scrambling off of the bed. Maggie curled herself into a ball, wrapping her arms up around her head, while Claire thought of the other things she’d written, about her brother never being able to talk to her again, about her ex dying in a fire, and all of it was horrible.
She stared at the pen. The ink was staining her fingers. She’d written so many things into being. She doubted any of them had caused anything but pain. But there had to be some kind of way to put things to rights.
She knew she needed to think about it, to make sure that she didn’t make another mistake, but she couldn’t bear to delay. Everything that she had done needed to be undone. She had to fix it, fix all of it, make sure that Maggie never ended up curled up on her blankets, crying like she was dying or like she’d rather be dead.
She looked down at her bare forearm and wrote, the ink flowing smoothly across her skin: I got caught trying to take the pen from Minuet’s Magical Goods and More.
Claire reached out for the pen, confident that Maggie had effectively engaged Miss Minuet in a conversation about nothing. It was Maggie’s greatest gift. She’d tuck the little thing into her pocket, head home, and they could laugh over the ridiculousness of a magical pen together. She’d almost grabbed it when someone cleared their throat directly behind her.
She turned slowly in place, plastering a smile on her face as she looked over at Miss Minuet, who frowned up at her with one eyebrow arched severely. “And what do you think you’ve been doing, missy?” Minuet asked, her voice that rough, whiskey-and-tobacco rasp.
“Nothing,” Claire said, holding onto her bright smile. “Just looking around. You’ve got some crazy stuff in here.”
“I do,” Miss Minuet said, “but it’s all for paying customers only, so why don’t you two girls run along now? I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than mock an old woman.”
“Oh, we would never,” Claire said, but she relented, heading towards the door. She had no idea how the old woman had seen her, but she knew when she was busted. She gave Maggie a sour look as she headed towards the door, and Maggie shrugged back at her, apologetic. They slipped through the door, the day stretching before them.
As they left, the little bell jingling, she thought she heard Miss Minuet saying, “Now, what have you been up to? Misbehaving, I see.” She made a tsking sound as the door shut.
“Crazy old bat,” Maggie said, hooking her arm through Claire’s. “But, still, there’s some weird stuff in there, Claire. I’m kind of glad you didn’t take anything. Let’s just head over to the park. Get an ice cream.”
Claire rolled her eyes, but good-naturedly. She hadn’t even realized that the hair was standing up on the back of her neck until they stepped out of the store and her heart-rate started to slow. She turned them towards the park, swallowing to get rid of a weird, coppery taste in her mouth, and the afternoon reached out to enfold them.