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Pumpkin & Spice: An Autumn Story.


Today, I have another short story to share with all of you! An autumn story centered around a young girl, a dagger, and a magical Jack-o-lantern. I hope you all enjoy it😊.



▪︎Cassia is pronounced kas-see-uh (normally ka-she-uh).

▪︎Kalla is pronounced Kah-luh.

▪︎Jensen is pronounced Jin-sin.

The chilly October evening that Cassia's father finally fulfilled his promise after many years of disappointment, neither of them knew their lives were about to change.
Drummel and Cassia lived frugal, unstable lives. Constantly teetering the line between poverty and something lesser. The shelfs in the fridge held hardly anything more than cans of cold beer, at least when it worked. And the cabinets always remained bare, save for the insects that found their way in through a crack somewhere behind them. Even those didn't stay long. If the heat was outside, it was also inside. Same with any freezing temperatures or the rain.
It rained just the day before their trip to the pumpkin patch, in fact. And Cassia had gone about the house with dusty bowls and one of their two tin buckets. She plopped them down on the floor, where she knew the water would eventually make its way. After years of it, she had long ago been desensitized to the ritual.
Drummel often assured her that he would fix it, but like most things in his drunken stupor, he forgot before morning. And by the time he felt any such thing resembling sobriety, he'd drown it away in several more pints of alcohol. Some part of him knew Cassia deserved better.
Deep inside ached endlessly when he thought of everything he never gave her and probably never could. As ashamed as he was to admit it, he wanted to rid himself of his pains and frustrations even more. So, he did. He bought more beer than he bought food. And more disturbing still, managed to live with it.
Money wasted away with him no differently than the house did. One brick, one chunk of lumber, at a time. He ignored the meager dollars Cassia took from his wallet every payday because he wanted her to eat. Sometimes, he wished she would take it all and walk out the door never to return. Probably because she'd acquired her large hazel eyes and beautifully frightening cream colored hair from her mother.
He wished that whatever force had ripped her away from them in the end would have come back for him too. Or at least that he'd had a moment to spare her and meet his end instead. Auburn should have lived and shown their daughter the world.
She would have cooked her delicious meals and sung her sweet songs. She would have loved her like Cassia deserved. And like his late wife, their daughter's eyes constantly looked deep into his wretched soul and stayed loyally beside him with love pouring out of her like a fountain. She was a loyal dog. She always returned every evening after payday and ate bread, jams, cheese, and the only thing he ever taught her to cook: a potato soup Auburn loved.
Cassia had begged him for years to take her to the pumpkin patch. He didn't know why, but he'd been determined to see it through that year. Maybe it was the lack of light he saw when their eyes met as of late, or maybe he had just grown tired of their routine.
Drummel didn't know the answer. He only hoped it was something more meaningful. That it had something to do with being a father to a precious young girl. He hoped, maybe he was changing. Even so, it probably wasn't enough. He couldn’t do it sober.
They held hands as they walked, and Drummel tossed his empty can to the side with a loud belch. Cassia ignored it. She walked with a small, pleased smile spread across her lips. While he watched her, he realized her smile was different from the one she wore in front of him any other day. Different from the times she brought his beer to his place on the broken, stained couch in their living room on command.
He wondered, possibly for the first time as she peered over her shoulder at him, if things had been different would Cassia's voice be filled with her mother's grace? He would never know the answer to that question and on most days it angered him. It seemed too cruel for words that she was mute. He'd never hear his wife's voice again. And there he had her near identical image but she'd never speak.
If Drummel could see things from Cassia's perspective as she looked up at her father in the pale autumn daylight, he would have known that she saw him just as handsome as he'd ever been. Though she couldn't tell him. Even though he reeked of alcohol, his hair was a mess, and his clothes needed cleaning.
Her excitement increased tenfold when she caught his eyes brighten as he looked at her. And, to her surprise, smiled softly in her direction. It had been a very long time since he seemed to see her, and even longer still since she could recognize anything like happiness in his features.
At the pumpkin patch, Drummel sat on a large stump and watched Cassia search through the field. He'd never seen her face so determined. As if she were on a mission all her own. How much effort did one need to simply pick a pumpkin from a slew of identicals? He thought it odd, but let her go about without voicing it anyway. It was what he promised her.
He eyed her back for a long time. And sighed as a sadness gripped him as her cream curls lightly shifted with her movements. He could almost see her mother there in her place. He remembered his wife's back well.
Her long hair and skin the color of midnight. The light across her body as if the stars themselves were embedded there. He'd thought it the moment he saw her for the first time and many, many times since then; what all-encompassing yet terrifying beauty. Cassia was nearly the same. Only, she hadn’t inherited her mother's stars or her midnight skin.
It was his own pale complexion that was probably to blame; it lightened hers. Drummel wondered if he'd have been able to love her properly if she'd taken more after him. Would facing his own dark eyes or brown hair have made it easier or harder? Did he actually love Cassia's image because he could see Auburn's shadow within it or because she was herself? Did he simply like being tortured?
Those were Drummel's thoughts as he shivered when the autumn wind ruffled his clothes. He should have bought Cassia a proper coat. How many of their years had she suffered without one? How had she survived their winters?
He cursed under his breath. He was more sober than he liked. The pain shrouding his every bitter thought was all the proof he needed to confirm it. He wanted to return to his place on the couch and numb his heart and mind. For the alcohol to overwhelm him and down out his emotions again. How long did it take to pick a stupid pumpkin?
Cassia soon woke him from the stump with a large smile on her face. She grabbed hold of his hands and urged him to his feet. He gave in. With a groggy groan, he looked towards the other clusters of children and their parents as their eyes followed them them in the patch. Their shameless stares did not seem to deter Cassia. Drummel wondered if that was the kind of strength she also inherited from her mother, or if she simply hadn't noticed.
Auburn would look people like them directly in the eyes and interlock their fingers. Or even, kiss his lips and lead him forward with some unwavering sense of purpose. In either case, it filled him with love and admiration. He never noticed the onlookers after that.
Drummel could admit that he was nothing without her. To each judging look, disgusted or curious expression, and his alcohol, he submitted. He was weak to the world. When Auburn went, she took all that she'd given him and more. He had nothing to offer their daughter. At least, except this.
So, he fought his shaking resolve to continue following her further away from the others. Far to the left corner of the pumpkin patch. An area she must have gone when he fell asleep. And when Cassia pointed towards a sizable, grimey-white pumpkin, he confirmed her choice and then slowly propped it onto his shoulder. They walked back the way they'd came, past the other parents and children and to the two men at the front accepting money.
"How much for this one?" Drummel asked with a huff.
The two men in flannel and overalls stepped back from the table and looked towards the other. Eventually, they decided the pumpkin was free. A sign of good will for the season. Or so they'd said. Drummel realized that they'd either pitied them or simply wanted to rid their fields of their presence, but he didn't care. When they left, he decided that there was another stop they should make.
Cassia herself had been overjoyed at their gifted pumpkin. Almost as much as she had been to find it. She'd never seen a white one before. She hadn't known they existed. And with the money they saved, much more to her surprise, her father took her to a small shop in the square to buy her a coat.
It hadn't been new. A button was missing and there was a tiny hole in one of the pockets, but it was hers now. She made sure to show her gratitude with a tight hug and a kiss to her father's cheek before they left.
Back at home, Drummel placed the pumkin on their lopsided table, grabbed a beer and quickly gulped it down. He tossed the can aside and grabbed another. The faster he could forget, the better. He soon realized Cassia was staring his way, with a pouty look on her face. They weren't done with the pumpkin, were they?
He set about going through the house until he found a couple candles that hadn't nearly been burned to the wick. Then he dragged himself to a closet near the back of the house and to an old box of Auburn's. He paused with his hands in the box and took a long whif. Somehow, it still smelled of her. They didn't have a good knife for carving, but if memory served..
"Found it." He grumbled, wrapping his hand around the grip of a short dagger still in its sheath. He slid the blade out to inspect it, pricked his finger on the point with a hiss, and licked the blood from his thumb. He never knew where his wife had aquired it, but she'd always carried it with her. He took another large sniff of her scent and buried his face in her old scarf before closing the box. He swallowed his tears on the way to the kitchen.
Cassia wiped away a layer of dirt from the pumpkin with a wet rag as her father made his way beside her. In his hands he turned over a two-toned knife. Equal parts gold and silver. The shape of a large golden leaf was burned into the steel. Much like white pumpkins, she'd never seen a knife like that one either.
"It was your mother's." Drummel said with a far away look in his eyes. "She would wear it over her arm, or wrap the ties around her waist some days. I never knew why she had it. It never left her side until the day she..." his voice faded into a sad silence. Cassia wondered why her mother would leave a treasured item behind. Especially one that could have saved her life.
She'd heard the story of her death only once, long ago. The last time she remembered her father level-headed. Or at the very least, the last time he spent a night sober. Seeing him grabbing several cans from the fridge as he spoke now, Cassia knew tonight would not be another. Her mother had been attacked by something in the dead of night.
"You'll have to be real direct, understand? If you want it to look like anything. Use your fingers and I'll cut it with the dagger."
Cassia nodded eagerly as she set to work, dragging her fingers around the pumpkin. To her surprise, between her father's chugs of alcohol and smelly burps, he had steady hands. When he shaped one eye, he popped the piece forward and used it as a stencil for the other, so they were symmetrical. His brows creased and he leaned forward with a sense of focus and diligence. She noticed he slowed his drinking as they went. And periodically asked her a question or two about what she wanted or if he was doing it right.
He even stopped mid cut to ask if he should get rid of the looped vines that stuck out. She'd shook her head no. She thought, it gave the Jack-o-lantern a sense of personality. She wondered what exactly that personality would be as she admired her father's careful hands and breaths of effort. It was another side of him she'd never witnessed. She wished she'd seen more of it.
By the time she'd done what he called the 'messy work' and scooped out the pumpkin scraps and seeds, he handed her a candle and matches, and placef the othet on the table. She nearly dropped them when he pecked her forehead. The first kiss he'd given her in a long time. It was the way she counted her age, for he only gave her a kiss twice a year. Once on the day she was born, and the other on the day of her mother's death.
Cassia never wanted the day to end. Or so she allowed herself to wish for the moment. Until reality set in when he knocked over his open can of beer near the fridge. He picked it up with a silent curse then swallowed whatever was left inside before grabbing another. It seemed to unleash a sort of ravishing inside him. For after he spilt one, he opened three more and downed them messily. Spreading a liquid trail all the way to the living room couch he'd long ago used instead of his bed.
It stung to watch him go, but Cassia knew it better to leave him be. Instead, she hugged the candle to her chest and cried with her head pressed against the jack-o-lantern, company to her anguish. And when she recovered, raw but still feeling the remnants of Drummel's love, she lifted the stem and stuck the candle inside.
Cassia struggled with the matches. She broke most of them and sent many splintered pieces across the floor. When there were nearly none, she finally managed to strike a light and quickly tilted the candle towards the small flame. As she placed the flickering candle in the rounded mound her father crafted, she took a step back to watch as an orange glow flickered in the openings. Only, it didn't stop there.
Before she knew it, threads of bright light and flames burst from the jack-o-lantern. It shook erratically on the table, making her fearful that the broken leg would collapse beneath it. As the flames continued to grow and the sparks of heat flew across the room, they kissed the liquid line of Drummel's alcohol and ignited there, too. In a panic, Cassia slipped past the flames in the doorframe and rushed to her father's side.
She attempted to wake him. Over and over again, but he didn't budge. In her overwhelming fear and frustation she struck his shoulders and shook him violently between tears that the heat of the flames quickly dried away. Not knowing what else to do, Cassia clawed at his clothes and yanked his limbs. She tried to pull him off the couch and onto the floor, intent on dragging him out of the house and to safety.
She couldn't. He was much too heavy.
When the fire traveled toward the edge of the couch, she jumped away and screetched a silent scream. Her eyes and throat burned. Black smoke spread across the room, cutting her vision in half. Shuffling from the direction of the kitchen caught her attention. At the sound of a voice Cassia rushed, even through a part of the flames, to seek help. She'd hoped someone nearby was coming to their rescue. At the very least, it meant someone to help her carry her father away from danger.
"Quickly! Outside!" The voice shouted. "Now, child!"
She didn't know why, but the voice seemed to jolt her into action without her consent. Despite her worry for her father's life, she grabbed the other candle, the remaining matches, her bread, and her mother's dagger as she bolted out the door. By the time she realized that she had left her father all alone inside, the fire overtook the door.
Seconds later, the white jack-o-lantern crashed through the kitchen window and rolled across the grass. Cassia darted its way to catch it, craddled it in her arms, and then sprinted across the yard towards the window. Surely her father had thrown her gift out first. Surely, any moment now, Drummel would somehow climb his way through and out to the other side..
"Step away." The voice demanded. It sounded much closer than before. She turned about her in search of it. Hoping that this was not some trick for the season. Or, worse, that there was a bystander simply watching the events unfold while their home burned. Could anyone be so cruel?
Eventually, Cassia stuffed the items she carried out of the house into her pockets, took the pumpkin back into her arms and scurried backwards towards the trees. The sound of voices closed in on their home as serveral neighbors finally found their way there. None of them had a voice like the one she'd heard. None of them could put out the fire.
They stood at a distance, watching Cassia and Drummel's home get swallowed up in the rest of the hungry flames and contemplated possible happenings. What started it? How long would it burn? One or two even wondered if anyone had been inside, yet never cared enough to check. And long after the last of the fire died down and the neighbors left, unwilling to go inside, Cassia stood rooted in place. Even when the night was closing in around her and the temperature dropped.
She wept silent tears for the only family she had. For her father, a man drowned equally in sorrow and alcohol. And for herself, who couldn't save him. As she looked down at their last project, she realized that the jack-o-lantern was still warm. The light flickered on from the candle and casted their unsteady shadows against the trees.
When she turned its expression around to face her and saw it blink, she felt too numb to react. And when it spoke moments later, she was sure that she'd have never found her words even if she could. "I'm terribly sorry, little one." It said with a frown. "I'm so terribly sorry."
She registered then that this was the same voice that had urged her out and away from the house. It hadn't been someone to save her father. It was never a person at all. It was a pumpkin. Some un-alive thing that Drummel carved her wishes into hours before.
She had no idea if she was losing her mind. She only knew that the only thing she wished for now was for her father to return. Or for her to go back in time and never light the match. Maybe she'd done it wrong. Was the fire her fault?
She cried again for an endless feeling time, then retreated deeper into the thicket. She had nowhere else to go. Her home was gone. She didn't know the neighbors. She was alone. Save for the talking pumpkin, assuming she wasn't imagining things.
"Sometimes you look at me as if you're waiting for me to disappear altogether." The jack-o-lantern spoke. Cassia nodded her head. It didn’t take long for him to realize that she was mute.
When they watched the house fall apart, he'd noticed that he could only hear her sniffles and some strange sound from the air getting caught at the back of her throat. And after sitting with her through the cold while she hugged him for warmth until she fell asleep, he never heard a proper snore. She didn't attempt to ask him questions, even though it looked like she had some on her mind. He didn't know if that was because she couldn't or she was simply accustomed to it.
The truth of the matter was, even if she had been able to ask, there wouldn’t have been much to tell her. Or at least that he could explain about being a pumpkin. The circumstances of his current form were somewhat a mystery, even to himself. One moment he was unbound, and the next, he was stuck in a pumpkin shell.
And the moment he found himself there, he became aware of other lengths of time. Of time since the moment she pressed a hand to the rind in the outskirts of a pumpkin patch, and every second that passed until the fire. What a strange thing it is, to watch something like a jack-o-lantern come into creation from a first person point-of-view. It was worse to see this child in front of him without the happy smile she'd had plastered across her face before.
"Don't you have some other family? Any relatives at all?"
The girl shook her head.
"My name is Jensen." He offered, wishing she could return the gesture. The girl's father never said her name. "Can you read and write?"
She nodded slowly. If only they had paper and a pen. There was no use trying the house for them. And he got the feeling, considering the fact that she never revealed herself to the neighbors, that trying to get her to seek their help would not be well received.
As if she'd also been contemplating a fix, Jensen watched the girl scrape the dagger through the ground. Then, she quickly picked him up so that he could look down upon her work. "Ah. How astute. Your name is Cassia then, like the spice. My mother once had an entire row of them in her garden."
Cassia nodded, although Jensen pronounced it differently. It wasn't his accent. Cassia recalled her father once telling her with a look of amusement that his mother pronounced the name of the flower wrong. Yet, he never had the heart to correct her since he found it so endearing and it was her favorite plant.
When she was born, they quickly decided she'd bear the same name. And carry the weight of her mother's love along with it. Drummel was unwilling to talk about it again. The thought was but an excruciating reminder that she'd never hear his voice again. Drunk or otherwise. And it quickly brought her back to tears.
Another day passed, the two of them sat in near silence, with Jensen tightly craddled in her shivering arms. Every so often he would blow an airy whistle and the candle inside would burn a little brighter and she would be warmer for a time. Cassia refused to eat any of her bread or search for water while Jensen stewed in worry and questions. By the third night, he decided to tell her a story to pass the time.
"There once lived a boy in a small corner of the world. In a place with an unimportant name and a dwindling population. Many of the young adults left in search of an exciting life of their own, often leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. Most expected it. And since the old women and men were generally able-bodied, they did nothing to fight against it. Not even when the young also took most of their food and money when they went.
"When the boy asked why, they often said that 'life was for the young.' And their small, unimportant village was 'no place to fill the emptiness the others felt.' They had lived longer lives and had no need for chasing thrills or trying to clutch life between the palm of his hands.
"The boy, even as more years went by, lacked any such thrill seeking. He never felt that life was passing him by or that it was some sort of thing he needed to hold hostage between his fingers. He never wished for more children in the village, nor ever wanted the others to return.
"The boy's mother tended a great garden with vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. If a green thumb exsited, his mother was made of it. And each harvest time the villagers would praise their bounty and prepare a feast. They served every household.
"The boy was happy, well loved by his mother and equally well-fed. He doted on the old women and men. Blind to anything amiss. That was, until a particular day when the boy returned home early from his trip across the rolling hills. When the sunset burned red and the birds croaked so loudly it pained his ears.
"In the house the pots boiled over on the stove and the rest was in disarray. The boy put out the flames and searched for his mother. She never went far from a hot pot, after all.
"By the time he found her, he'd found himself on the far edge of her expansive garden. Too far for a person watching a pot. Too far for her to ever make it back in time before their food burned. She stood upright with her back towards him, silent and stiff. She never answered his calls or turned to face him. And when he stepped ahead of her and searched her features, he found none there. Her eyes glossed over like wet stone, and her expressions faded away to nothing.
"Every day, the boy would go to her. Some nights he slept at her feet. When he bled from a fall and rushed to show her, looking for any hint of the loving mother he knew, he found nothing. He made excuses for her disappearance. Plucked from the garden and delivered the goods around the village with the excuse that his mother was ill.
"Until the day he returned home and witnessed the very same garden swallow her whole. And a green gem sat in the place where she'd spent her last days. The garden slowly died. Leaving the boy to dispair. He was obsessed and broken for a time. Driven almost to maddness with questions and anguish. At least until, he picked up the green gem that he'd long tucked away as a bittersweet keepsake and it brought the garden back to life.
"It would be years still, before all the pieces fell into place. Until that boy grew into a man who uncovered the truth. Thanks to research and a quiet woman in the village who was once her best friend. The truth was, magic existed.
"The sort made for spellbinding and epic tales. And his mother had used it. She had wanted to help the village elderly more than anyone else. A feeling that burdened her more heavily with each wave of younger generations adventuring off and leaving very little for the rest to survive on behind. She could do very little about the money, but she could grow a garden. She could feed them and grow herbs for medicines and keep them well.
"The soil rotted away her efforts. Else, the cold season froze her buds. She didn't want to give up. Without money, she could not buy necessities from nearby villages. And she didn't know where to find the family members who left just to plead their return.
"Her friend tried to tell her to give up. That she was fighting a losing battle. They knew for years that at some point there would be no more farms on the land. She convinced the boy's mother to leave with her. At some point while away, she met a man, became with child, and happened across a peculiar merchant. Someone who seemed to have the uncanney ability to read her unfulfilled desires.
"He offered her a gem and claimed it would be the answer to her prayers. She could return to her village. She would save them all. Whatever his exact message, the merchant was clearly convincing. And when asked about compensation, the merchant told her that they would be paid in full by other means, in time. And against the advice of her closest friend, she returned to the village.
"She settled back into her family home and looked upon the acres with newfound hope. The gem worked, of course. So she continued to use the gem. And it grew her a healthy, garden that never needed new seed.
"But she had no idea that not every magic was good magic. That some are the catastrophic kind. And every day that she used it, her lover grew more ill. He succumed to his sickness before the baby was born.
"In her sadness, she used it less. Just enough gem magic to keep the garden going, but still without understanding what it took from her. Without knowing that one day, the magic would take her too. The gem was cursed.
"Those decades later, when her own son brought the very same garden back to life, he sealed himself a different kind of fate. One that would send him scouring to learn about the very thing responsible for taking her away from him, and eventually ending the village; magic. Over the years, he came to appreciate it in all it's forms though he found it heinous in the beginning. He learned many things. Even though its origins are still a mystery.
"On this journey of magic discovery, he found himself delighted. As if he'd found his life's purpose. So much so that the pain and confusion of the past weighed on him less heavily than before. This delight was unkindly ripped away from him the day he himself ran into a sketchy merchant selling cursed items. The man was no fool, he was unconvinced by the bearded man's sly words. And the moment he threatened to reveal his trickery, everything changed.
"The seller became enraged . Mumbling a strange lost tongue that the man was certain he'd once heard before. Moments later with glowing eyes, the bearded man broke a small round glass against his chest and his soul was forced out of his body. The boy who had grown into a man that accepted magic, became an unbound spirit by the same means.
"His body was carried off away from him, eventually lost. His connection with it dwindled with time. Until it became a whisper in a slither of his soul. His concious mind slipped away from him over and over again. Making it even more impossible to find his way.
"Then, while following a familiar tether, his consciousness melted away. Only to be reignited an unknowable time later by a little girl lighting the flames of a jack-o-lantern. And as a consequence of what he could only assume was magic, she lost her father and her home. Later, saddened with loss, under the shelter of trees with a talking pumpkin to keep her company..."
Cassia didn't recall the exact moment that she fell asleep, but she remembered well Jensen's story. Hearing it dulled the numbness she felt and somehow gave room for sympathy and pity. It wasn’t a good thing, his story. And yet, it made her feel less alone. There was something there in knowing that he'd lost his parent too. In knowing he was young and alone yet managed to survive it. Maybe, she too would outlive her heartache.
Cassia turned over the thought of magic in her mind. If what she saw in the kitchen was the result of magic, then how had she conjured it? Jensen didn't seem responsible for it, at least. And she couldn’t imagine that it was her father's doing. After all, if Drummel had been holding on to something like magic, she didn't doubt that he would have used it. Or, if nothing else, brought it up to her on his many drunk nights in.
Cassia was both interested and hesitant as she scraped the tip of her mother's beautiful blade against the ground, giving shape to her thoughts as simply as she could. Jensen eyed her curiously as she went and waited for her to position him above it for reading.
"Ah. Thank you for your condolences. I settled my feelings for my mother's death quite some time ago now. Time is unforgiving that way. Wether you agree or disagree, it will pass you by regardless of your feelings. And with it, it takes some of those without consent. One day I could think of nothing less than her end and my void. The next, I went almost the entire night without reliving the memories.
"Yours is more of a worry. A fresh scar is the worst scar. Hmm? What's that? You want to know about tethers?"
Cassia bobbed her head.
"Well, I found out about their existence much later than I wished during my journey. It took a number of years following my mother's death to even begin to notice them. To gain an awareness of something fluttering within my vision. When I tried to look at them directly, they were gone. Even though I felt them there.
"I've since learned that prolonged exposure to magic makes one more sensitive to it, thus enabling them to see magic tethers. Unbound spirits can see them with ease. Or so I understood after the merchant incident. And I noticed immediately that I've become less sensitive to magic since I'm no longer unbound, but tied to a plant of the squash variety. A real hindrance, wouldn't you know, to finding my body now."
Jensen listened to the scrape of the blade as Cassia wrote again. Another question.
"Ribbons?" He read aloud. As he mulled it over in his mind, he let out an airy chuckle. "Now that you mention it, I would say so. Tethers look very much like translucent ribbons. I don't suppose you've seen one?"
Again Cassia nodded, this time in a more erratic fashion. She never knew what they were, but she often saw the ribbons. Sometimes leading out of a window from an old building, or wound tightly around a tree. She saw many of them cutting through the town square.
Initially, she thought them to be beautiful decorations. One day after to suddenly realize, as if by a stroke of light, that no one else seemed to see them. Not a single person acknowledged their existence. They did not look towards them, nor did they try to avoid stepping through them like she did. For that very reason, they unnerved her. Their beauty remained but she was without any desire to be near them.
She supposed it was something like what Jensen said before. In time, it became easier to ignore their existence. She got better at avoiding them, and her father stopped wondering what silly game she had been playing at. Yet, they remained part of her life. Even now, she saw them clearly--the so-called magic tethers.
Were they good or bad? They could somehow lead Jensen back to his body. He couldn't see them anymore. She didn't understand what she'd done in the kitchen but his current circumstance, as he put it before, and inability to do so now were inexplicably tied to that. She couldn't help her father, but maybe she could be of use to Jensen.
In truth, Cassia liked feeling his warmth and seeing his flickering light. She also liked the warm, roasted scent he gave off. Like a pumpkin pie. Though she'd only been near them and never ate one. Still, she couldn't imagine what it must be like for him now if he'd really once been human. Of course, she couldn't know with certainty but Jensen seemed the honest type. And she was thankful for it. She knew him only a short time but she liked him very much already.
She quickly scanned the area with her eyes and pointed at several tethers nearby. From there, she could clearly see three of them. 'I can help,' she scribbled into the dirt.
Jensen frowned. "I appreciate the offer, little one. But, this is no childsplay. Magic itself is dangerous enough without adding a defenseless girl to its complexities. I will find a way, without using a child."
The moment he saw the look on her face, however, Jensen hesitated. Her eyes bubbled with tears and her expression said that he'd nearly ripped her heart out. Had he worn the same expression in the past? Had his fear of being alone been so easily read, as if it were painted messily across his face? He watched her write again.
"While it may be true," Jensen frowned as he read her words, "that you can see the tethers and I'm a pumpkin, I don't think it needed such blunt expression. You're young. Getting so wrapped up in the life of someone you hardly know is dangerous."
Cassia's face fell sadder each moment. Her hands shook visibly as she gripped the handle of the dagger and etched another question below.
"Are you dangerous?" Jensen sighed heavily. "I don't believe myself a particularly dangerous man. At the very least, in my own opinion, I post no negative risk to you. And for the record, I'm a magic pumpkin, thank you. But it's the magic I worry about most. You've never interacted with the tethers in spite of seeing them. You should aim to keep it that way."
When her large tears swayed across her eyes and quickly slid down her cheeks, Jensen felt weak. He pittied her and himself of the past that he saw in her. She scribbled desperate, messy letters into the ground.
She was alone. And if he left, she would still be alone. If he still had his body, he could have at least properly escorted her somewhere. Being a pumpkin was useless. If ever he attempted to talk to anyone untouched by magic, he was sure they'd faint of fright. Else, the time of year would make them a whimsical party trick.
Jensen cursed his bad luck. The possibility that he was making a mistake was high. But he wasn't so heartless as to leave her by herself. Especially now, while she grappled with her father's death. The first time he recalled wishing for company had been after his mother was no longer an option.
"I understand. Please, stop crying. You can join me. Only IF you finish that bread you had, and we find some source of water for you to drink. I don’t care if you must steal it from the neighbors. Otherwise you'll waste away. Sadness has a way of numbing your body. It fools you into thinking you need nothing at all. I won't be responsible for convincing you to eat again. If there is food and water, you must nurish yourself. Have I made myself clear?"
Without a word, Cassia spun him around in what he could only assume was a moment of celebration. Soon to send the world spinning while they were still again and they crashed noisily against a tree. "Don't get carried away! You'll break me!" Jensen shouted. He didn't know if it could happen considering that he was somehow running on magic-or so was his best explanation- but he hadn't known he could ever get dizzy either until a moment before. "Ugh." He groaned. "I think I'm going to be sick."
As luck would have it, Cassia managed to swipe a very warm Sheppard's pie cooling in the window of a neighbor's kitchen, albiet not without a blanket of guilt. She had heard of it, but never expected it to taste so good. And probably finished it a little too quickly. Just the same with the glass bottle of milk from the six recently delivered to another neighbor several houses away.
With her belly full and taste buds satisfied, Cassia listened to Jensen's remaining explanation about tethers.
"Tethers are peculiar things of magic. They have different colors, different thicknesses, and temperatures. They almost feel alive, in a way, with the emotions and scents attached to them. Not all tethers have every aforementioned property, but they are perplexing all the same."
Cassia walked in the space between two tethers going in opposite directions. To the left, a pink ribbon. On the right, a white one. Both danced softly in the wind.
When she ran her fingers along the left, she felt a strong sadness. Heavy and unforgiving. Even though a sweet scent filled her nostrils. The other, cool to the touch, but lacking any other specific characteristics. In a way, she felt drawn to it. But it may have also been her aversion to anything else miserable that caused her to leave the sweet pink ribbon behind.
Cassia motioned to the space on the right. She would follow that one. She wondered if it looked to him as if she gestured to nothing at all. He registered her movement and told her to follow it.
"At the end of a tether," he continued, "is a shimmer. Something akin to a snippet of magic. Or, in some cases, people that are connected that specific magic tether. Be it past, present, or future. There's no exact way of knowing what you'll get, how far you'll travel, nor how exactly you arrived there. If you want to find a tether that's not afixed to say..oneself, only the proprities of that tether will help you find it again."
As the two of them patiently followed the tether, Cassia shivered with a chill. It felt colder now than it had further back, closer to the trees where they'd spent a number of autumn nights out of sight of her neighbors. When she breathed, her eyes followed spirals of her breath. And even with Jensen's light, the edges of her vision were murky.
"This place feels strange, doesn't it?" Jensen asked in a hushed tone.
Cassia didn't know why he had taken to whispering, but she nodded her head. It was as if the light emanating from Jensen's form was shrinking away. She could hardly make out the tether strip. It's white color had contrasted the dark around them until just minutes ago.
Jensen eyed the dour space. He lacked perception of anything beyond it. It was the first time since he found himself chained to the being of a pumpkin that he felt meager and drained. He knew with certainty that wherever they were headed, it was an unnatural place. In the midst of wondering why Cassia had chosen the tether responsible, he felt her jerk to a stop, fighting against the air, tugging her arm backwards.
"What's happened?" Jensen asked, concerned. But before she turned her face to look his way, the two of them sprung forward through the air. Their shift from Cassia's feet being firmly planted on the ground to racing horizontally forward, swaying uncontrollably, was an unforgiving sort. It disolved their senses and exasturbated the weakness Jensen felt before.
Cassia worried that their movements would send her milk and sheppard's pie back up her insides and out her mouth. She'd felt the change in the ribbon under her fingers. Still cool to the touch, but sticky and soft. The sudden difference stopped her in her tracks.
And the moment she tried to let go, she couldn't. Somehow, it was affixed. With such a great hold that she couldn't fight her way free from it. And before she knew it, the tether which didn't seem quite so much a tether anymore, yanked her forward and off her feet. It took all she had not to let Jensen slip from her grip in her other arm.
The sticky line coiled up the length of her limb, almost as if it were alive. It was an awful feeling that left her clentching her jaw. A feeling that soon spread to the rest of her body as she felt it turn in the air and catch along the length of her back.
She hung there, upside-down, with her hair drooped over the length of her face. She couldn't move her neck to see Jensen, but Cassia knew he was close. She could make out the edges of his light several feet away. And in it, between strands of her hair, she made out a very large shape coming closer.
Cassia gulped as eight round eyes looked back at her and its front legs rubbed together as if it were happily anticipating what would come next. Her frantic movements did nothing to save her and she quickly realized that she was trapped within a large spiderweb. One that, without a single touch from the large eight-legged beast she now knew was the spider itself, was quickly encasing her.
As her eyes darted around in a panic, she became aware of something else. Tethers. An almost infinite number of them, a myriad of shapes and sizes, were entangled in the web. Leading the way to countless shimmers. They were enwreathed, if only she could reach one, with ways to escape. Still her struggle was fruitless. The pressure inside her head was making her lightheaded.
Just as she began to wonder, having suddenly recalled her life was likely in danger, what the enormous spider would do to her, she saw a line of flames cut across her vision. "Cassia! Shut your eyes!" Jensen shouted. And she did as she was told. Noticing that his voice demanded things of her in much the same way it had the first day they met. She listened without thinking and felt a thick, warm, cloud brush against her. Grateful for the cold it chased away from her body.
"Hurry!" Jensen shouted, closing their distance. He bounced against the web in front of her and his flames kissed the silky cold threads holding her captive. They burned, curling in on themselves. Cassia dropped next to Jensen, trying to recover between the dizziness and the throbbing ailing her. Another puff of smoke released her again, and small residual sparks ignited the web it touched. She would have found it beautiful if not for the danger.
Jensen urged Cassia to stand up. She had been stuck in an inverted position for much longer than intended, but it took longer than he imagined to conjure his flame. Albiet, he hadn't been certain he was capable of the feat at all. And when he set himself free of the spider's web, he worried that his fire would burn Cassia just as quickly as the sticky threads. Rather than the smolder that occurred instead.
Somehow, he managed to keep the beast at bay with a ring of fire. But he understood, all too quickly, that it would not last. So he set himself to freeing Cassia as quickly as was possible. The hot clouds whose sparks still ate away at the webbing was merely a stroke of luck. Surely of hers and not his own. He was the unlucky sort. Her's seemed to know no bounds. If he could call anyone young with a dead fther truly lucky, that is.
Jensen had been right. The place was unnatural. Since the moment they'd followed the tether, he no longer felt himself. Or at the very least, as much of himself as he could feel living out endless days as a child's jack-o-lantern. His light also waned. He felt even that however he'd managed to use magic tied to himself as a pumpkin, it wouldn't be without consequence. And although he had warned Cassia of the dangers, he did not want her to become prey for a giant, man-eating spider.
Cassia crawled forward and under Jensen's direction, found her way onto unsteady feet. He told her not to look back, but since he was facing the direction with wide-eyes, curiosity teased her mind until she gave in. Only to see the spider racing toward them. It swiped in the air angrily as it charged at them, one of its legs alight. Several of the others were uneven and she assumed, charred enough to disappear into the dark around them.
In a way, with its swift uneven movements, she found it twice as ominous. As soon as there was a tether within reach, she hurried to its other end. Jensen's whiffs kept them free on the way. She wondered if they would have been doomed had his fire not torched its legs.
The next shimmer sent them to a quiet land with a blue blanket across the sky. And Cassia's feet stood firm on an old metal. Walking forward under the cover of hundreds of bright stars, she realized their path was a large, rusted, train. One that had long ago stopped working. The scene in the distance at her back suggested that one of the traincars had crashed and the rest slid forward to an eventual stop.
However it had gotten there, wherever 'there' was supposed to be, weeds and other plant overgrowth made a home of it. She even made out small wildflowers near her feet. She bent down to touch them and thumbed the frost coating their petals. Still reeling from their encounter with the spider and its web, she looked back towards the way they came. Nothing was after them now, it seemed. Relieved, she dropped heavily to her knees.
Between her arms, Jensen's light paled in comparison to the sky. But in another frosty climate, she was glad for his constant warmth. He mumbled something under his breath. She couldn't make sense of his voice, but she was exhausted. So, she laid him down ahead of her and spread out on the train top. It was a bit cold there too, but not enough to worry.
The sound of her movements caused Jensen to stir. She picked him up and let his warmth work its way through her before she started back up the length of the train. He hadn't responded to her when she first treaded on. Nor when she took a break. His eyes were shut and the light was barely visible behind them.
Did magical pumpkins need sleep? She didn't think she'd seen him do so before. Even on the nights she drifted off surrounded by trees and autumn chills, she always awoke to him blinking and looking off into the distance. A myriad of emotions wrapped up in his expressions. When she asked him if he was alright via a very noisy point of the blade against metal, he reassured her.
Only, seemingly without his notice, Jensen's time of consciousness lessened. To the point that he spent much more time with his eyes closed and unresponsive. She felt guilty for it, but she even shook him once. He never stirred. Nor did he remember it when he woke.
She thought she would feel very alone those days. She found herself missing his commentary, but not feeling utterly by her lonesome. She always felt that he would wake up soon. As he normally did. Be it hours or a day. And at night, even if he slept, his candle would still continue burning and lighting her way through the dark. That might have been why she could manage.
Every time he woke from a sleep she could show him the things she scavanged that day or scrape a message into the steel for him to read upon waking. Even if it was possible that she was simply convincing herself everything would be fine. It was better than facing the anxiety that she felt building up. So long as everything was fine, she could fight it.
One night, when Jensen blinked awake for the second time that day, she was sure to ask him if he dreamt when he slept. She regretted asking the question the moment he looked taken aback. Because once the confusion and surprise on his face faded, she registered a hint of fear there. She didn't know what Jensen assumed was happening when he drifted away from her, but his reaction said that he wasn’t resting. That there must have been something else happening to him.
She was too afraid to question him. So, when he answered, all too simply, that he didn't know the last time he had a dream, she let it go. Even though something terrifying had gripped her heart because of it. She left him to his thoughts as her stomach complained of hunger. She was beginning to miss the numbness Jensen's presence had been keeping at bay.
Fear welled up inside her. Threatened to overwhelm her senses and the last of her mind in search of a solution..
For the first time, Cassia had followed a tether while Jensen 'slept.' She wouldn’t have known what else to name it. And regardless of what the truth was, sleeping was a gentle and calming word. Anything else would have awakened the storm of emotions she'd kept locked away somewhere else inside. Only, because of her own impatience, they would soon fight to escape her confines anyway.
Following the translucent two-toned tether with the droplets of dew, had seemed like an interesting choice. She needed a distraction from her rumbling belly and it had been almost four days since the last time Jensen had been present. So, she walked off in search of another new tether. Eventually to find many to choose from. Near the outskirts of an abandoned mill, she chose a particularly beautiful one.
Near the outskirts of an abandoned mill, she chose a particularly beautiful one. On the other side, she was amazed by the fresh, moist scent and the gigantic leaves and plants towering over her from every direction. Cassia saw many flowers and bright patterned plants. Heard a variet of bird calls, and saw several snakes slither up branches. She even saw bright spotted frogs leaping large distances ahead of her.
For a time, she chased after them at a distance, letting them take her wherever they were going. Most, intent on hiding away from her but she enjoyed it all the same. And when she grew tired of her play, she settled on a broken branch and took a nap. When she woke, she took a nibble of a sweet smelling plant and got terrible stomach cramps most of the day.
The next, she realized that the forest was quiet and bare. She didn't see the insects hanging on the edge of the leaves. The frogs had disappeared long before she chased them, and the birds never called. Then the rain fell. And fell some more. Until the drops felt heavy and almost painful to any of her exposed skin and weighed down her coat.
She rewrapped her mother's dagger around her waist and tied it tightly, afraid that she wouldn't feel it slip if it fell under the fabric of her coat. Then she ripped a couple heavy leaves from an overgrown plant and used it to cover her head. Water rose around her ankles and she trudged ahead slowly, sloshing noisily through the flood.
Carrying Jensen with one arm while her body was pounded with more rain proved difficult. So, she decided to take a rest. She placed Jensen down with an apology and held him between her legs against the water. It was a mistake. While she stood there under the protection of the leaves, shivering slightly with chill and looking up towards the sky, she didn't realize that the water level was rising.
She took no notice of the fish slipping past her, carried away against the direction they'd been swimming. Cassia had never experienced a flash flood in the middle of a rainforest. She hadn't even known any places like that one existed and weren't there by magic.
It was only when she felt Jensen slip from her legs and bob against the current that she realized something was amiss.
She shrieked silently in alarm and dropped the leaves. Dark clouds rolled in. Thunder shook her ears and lightning skated across the sky. The water brushed up against her and pushed her sideways, off-balance. All too soon the water increased. It buried her shoulders and spun her in a violent crescent.
She fought the upsurge, nearly hurting her neck just to keep her eye trained on Jensen's white shell getting further away from her. By the time she finally felt her hands wrap around him, his stem top was nowhere to be seen. They floated there for a few moments, Jensen as her life raft, before another dangerous current swept them over.
Cassia's head dropped below the surface of the water then continued deeper against her will. Her arms were still tightly wrapped around Jensen's frame as they were jerked around in different directions. Her fear didn't fully register until a moment of reprieve when she finally felt air reach her mouth and nose. She spit up and coughed painfully. It was the first time she didn't like water. She'd almost drowned.
There was no way of knowing how long they had been under. Nor how long the water had been carrying them. Cassia did her best to dump the water from his casing, amazed that the candle was still lit, though it was hardly visible now. They continued on that way all through the end of the storm and the night. Until a large, broken tree trunk caught them.
Cassia climbed her way to the top, grateful for an indentation just big enough to cradle Jensen so he didn't drop back down to the floodwater below. Still, he never opened his eyes. Cassia let out a silent sob and willed herself not to cry. This was all her fault. She had to do something.
The next morning, the water level dropped a little, and the next, a little more. Just enough that she could see some of what it had been hiding. Cassia carried Jensen through the sitting water. With the help of many broken trees, she snaked her way through the worst of it. Eventually, she found her way to an elevated clearing. There, the water dropped much lower and she continued in that direction. With the sun beginning to shine through the clouds, she hoped Jensen would wake soon.
Though she eventually found her way to safer ground, finally near the forest floor again, the sun did not stay. Rain clouds swallowed its rays and a lighter shower than the first began. Exhausted, she tested her weight against a large canopy of leaves and brush. When she dipped but didn't fall, Cassia quickly relaxed her limbs with Jensen at her side, attacked by a variety of pains. When an tired sleep found her, the pains diminished.
When she awoke, it was to the sound of Jensen's coughs. Cassia was so overwhelmed with relief that she grabbed him too quickly and the two of them slipped through their leaf bed and crashed to the ground. Most of the flood water had dissolved. It was nearly back to her ankles now.
She wondered how long she slept but it seemed much less important than Jensen's consciousness.
"Cassia, while you slept I watched a monstrous amount of water sweep over the ground. Most of it was carried away elsewhere. I think there's an outlet for the water somewhere. We are in a very dangerous place." He groaned. "We..followed another tether..?" Jensen asked, unsure.
He was losing too much time now. He felt weak and sick. And he knew there was something more. His consciousness hung on by a thread. Even though he spent every minute of awareness trying to understand what was happening to him. He had no answers to most of his questions. He only knew that the candle inside him was burning out.
Worse, when they fell, he felt water sloshing around inside. How long until the flames stopped? What would happen to him then? The cool air brushed through his opening and he shivered. The candle was ordinary. There was something else that kept him going, some other source of magic. Only, he had no idea what it was. Nor did he know what happened to Cassia. She looked terrible.
When Jensen wheezed and a puff of smoke slithered out of his mouth, top, and eyes, Cassia quickly peered inside him. She gasped a silent gasp. The candle was nearly to the wick. And when it began to rain again, she feared another flood. There was no more ignoring it now. She was terribly afraid.
When she reached into her pocket and realized the candle was no longer there, a hard lump formed at the back of her throat. She didn't have any more candles and the last match that had apparently escaped being snatched away by the flood, was too soaked to spark a light. Her hands shook as more water sept into her already heavy sleeves.
Even if she cut off parts of her coat with the dagger what would it do? What if the water drowned out the last of his flame? She barely registered the sound of Jensen's voice as he tried to reassure her. Watched the rain plop to the bottom of the pumpkin as the fire trembled, threatening to die. In a panic, Cassia stripped off her drenched coat, placed it over her head, and dropped over the opening on all-fours.
"You mustn't! These are flames of magic! They burn hotter than the fire you know!" Jensen cried.
Cassia ignored him and airily hissed in pain.
The heat slowly burned through her clothes. If it was that hot, why wouldn’t it stay lit? She didn't understand anything. All she knew is that she didn't want him to disappear. He had protected her and kept her company. He was all she had. She had brought them there. What was she supposed to do without him?
She cried with a brokenness and fury carrying the load of every day she outlived her father. Acutely aware of the slightly stale, yet sickeningly sweet smell wafting up towards her nose and the torment of being torched at the belly. It took a time for her to place it. It was the smell of burning flesh. Worsened by the hot pumpkin stench fusing with it.
Jensen pleaded with her to stop. It hurt and she was sure she would have thrown up if there was anything at all in her stomach, but she didn't know what else to do. It was just her abdomen, and yet the pain was nearly unbearable. It took only a fraction of a second for her to realize that Drummel had suffered a much worse fate. This one was a weak, dying flame.
Drummel would have been engulfed in them, just like the door after she'd made it outside. That fire burned brighter, hotter, and much longer than Jensen's. Likely charred away every inch of his features. Every ounce of her father's flesh. Burned away every tin of beer and the rest of their home along with it. And in those thoughts, she began to lose herself. Whatever and whoever she was.
"Leave me. Please!" Jensen begged. Cassia heard nothing. Not that it would have changed the outcome. If she'd heard his words she would have defiantly ignored him. She would have resolved to save him no matter what he'd said. Or how much he begged her.
Their situation would be the same. But at the moment, she was still drowning in fear and loss and a dozen of other emotions that rattled around her brain against her will. Luckily, it would not last. Moments later, while on the verge of succumbing to the pain from the fire, else the cracks in her mind, Cassia's subconscious recognized a ray of hope.
Without thinking, she jumped to her feet. She stumbled painfully forward with Jensen in her arms and chased the fluttering in the corner of her vision. Soley focused on the thing that slipped past her a moment before. She quickened her steps, breathless but unwilling to slow her pace. Faster and faster until her nose filled with an earthy-dust scent and her hand clutched the translucent brown ribbon ahead of her. Knowing it was there somehow sealed the broken lines in her head and buried the thought of her father's sleeping form burning away to a blackness, somewhere in the recesses of her mind.
As she raced along the bent line, a shimmer unfolded before her. It led them out of the rainforest and through a heavy mass of shrubbery. Their shape barely visible in the nearly black space in every corner of her vision. Cassia slowed her pace as she attempted to get a look at her surroundings. And if not for Jensen's bubble of light, the area would be permeated in something mistakable for a void. If only an illusionary one. By any way that mattered, she would have been rendered blind.
"No! Not here." Jensen panicked. "You mustn't stop here, Cassia. Something is coming!"
She heeded his words, though her body screamed for rest. Forced her legs forward until she found a brisk pace again and gave way to a sprint.
As Cassia continued on, she made out the sound of something quickly snaking it's way through the grass. Closing in on them. Carrying with it, a moist gurgling sound she'd never heard. From her right, a crisp shuffle frightened her, as a gray squirrel jumped from the ground, glided through the air, and dropped onto her shoulder. In its mouth looked to be Jensen's stem top which they'd lost before.
After a moment of slight protest, the large-eyed animal released it into her hand and Cassia placed it back over Jensen's opening. It seemed the squirrel had been making a meal out of it, but it was the same.
As she began to question how the squirrel managed to find its way there if they'd been following a tether, even more to get ahold of Jensen's top knowing it, a large slippery blob with glowing eyes splashed down beside her. It broke apart and was swallowed by the ground. Seconds later, another followed suit. Until they dropped down around her like currents of a wave. Edging closer and closer to her body even as she began to dart around in different directions, still following the brown tether now slightly out of reach.
From the noise the squirrel made, it too had been rushing away from that very same danger. Cassia willed herself to keep going as Jensen eyed the blobs with unease, and directed her as another wave of liquid creatures threatened to swallow them up.
The tether guided them to a quaint, faintly glowing house with a large tree beside it in the distance. At some point between the open area and the tree bark, the wobbly creature stopped its pursuit. Cassia turned around to face it as she coughed oxygen back into her lungs.
Unable to fight her curiosity, she held Jensen up towards the direction of its glowing orbs and his dipping light revealed a slowly moving dark shape. It's loose body rolled onto itself constantly, like semi-fluid water. Rounded shapes occasionally protruded from what seemed to be its main body, only sometimes taking the pair of eyes with it.
Cassia felt a disturbed chill run down her spine and her hair stand on end. She instantly regretted her decision to look. The monster squinted its eyes at her. Almost as if it sensed her revulsion, it dived in her direction. Cassia jumped backwards with a silent yelp and tucked Jensen back between her arms when it screeched. As if struck and wounded, it abruptly ducked away and disappeared into the dark.
The squirrel scurried up the tree and Cassia watched a puff of discolored smoke work its way out of Jensen's nibbled top. His light dimmed and reawakened her initial fears. Not knowing what else to do, she hurried towards the front door.
"We cannot simply wander into a lone house in the middle of nowhere. There is something or someone very powerful inside. So much so that even I can feel it with ease." Jensen warned. Cassia ignored him and just as her hand was about to reach the door, a woman stepped out in front of her.
Despite her gray head of hair, the woman looked considerably young and plesant. Almost like a doll.
"A little old lady in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dark things--" Jensen's words were cut short by a fit of coughing. He didn't know who or what she was, but he knew she wasn't nearly as young as she appeared to be. He could feel it in his pumpkin shell. Right down to the end of his wick. "-Is probably hiding something; her true nature, perhaps."
Cassia frantically leapt towards the woman. Tightly gripped the fabric of her plum-colored dress, shaking with urgency. She ignored Jensen's stifled words of protest as she pressed him towards the stranger and clasped her hands together tightly.
"Pay no mind to Mr. Jensen, Cassia." The woman spoke softly. "Come inside and let me tend to your wound."
Cassia's eyes widened as she was ushered inside and the door shut with a creak behind her. Jensen shouted in protest, quickly severed by another coughing fit.
"How do you know our names?" Jensen prodded suspiciously. Just minutes ago, he was convinced the woman's words were mere trickery. He foresaw Cassia's bitter end when the woman offered her a bottle of a thick green liquid and the child downed it in seconds. He wasn’t sure if it had been the taste or her thirst that caused it. He almost wished she drank the rainwater when they'd had the chance.
Surely, by some strange stroke of the girl's own luck and not his own, she didn't fall ill or lose consciousness. She wasn't poisoned. Instead, he watched as the nauseating wound on her belly healed. Completely and miraculously, as if it had never existed at all. Contrary to Jensen's relief, it only made him more apprehensive of the woman's identity and intentions. "Who are you?" He asked pointedly.
The woman's brown eyes twinkled with interest as she placed Jensen back in Cassia's arms. "How exquisite. A white jack-o-lantern." She smiled. "My name is Kalla." She gestured softly to the table on the opposite side of the room to offer them a seat. "When you arrived at my home you were hit with a cloudless potion."
"A potion?" Jensen questioned aloud.
Kalla blinked slowly in his direction. Although he was beginning to have trouble speaking, his tone suggested intrigue rather than surprise.
"You needn't be concerned with the mechanics. The potion temporarily evokes several core memories from your subconscious without your knowing. By the time it strikes you, you've already begun spilling your secrets." She sighed as she took a seat.
"Why you--" Jensen started in disbelief. The woman was as sly as a fox. He almost hated her winsome smile. Seemingly unsuspicious and without pause, Cassia strode across the floor and placed him carefully atop the wood. Joining her at the table. She turned her attention towards the window as the gray squirrel from before found its way inside.
It was warm inside. How many days had it been since she was so warm? This woman, Ms. Kalla, healed her with a magic potion. Would she be able to do something similar for Jensen? Every passing moment his light looked weaker and weaker. She didn't care what she had to do. Nor if Ms. Kalla was somehow an evil woman surrounded by dark things.
So long as she could save him. She didn't want to lose anyone else. Cassia wondered, with a sharp pain in her chest and a heaviness in her stomach, if those were similar feelings to what Jensen's mother felt however many years ago. If so, she thought that she might be able to understand her reliance on the magic gem. Cursed and all. Though it didn't seem that she herself knew when she acquired it.
"Did you think I would be without protection? Surely not. You did warn the girl, didn't you? Who would I be if I let just anyone with possible ill intent step foot near the house?"
Jensen couldn't argue against it, but that didn't mean he was obligated to like it. "Well, Kalla is it? Her name is Cassia, the same as the spice."
"I must say, Mr. Jensen, you're quite clueless, aren't you? You've simply been saying it wrong."
Jensen quickly looked in Cassia's direction, his shell shaking as he turned. "Is this true?? Did this woman pronounce your name correctly just a moment ago?" When she gave a nod between hunched shoulders, Jensen knew that she'd somehow felt guilty.
How unfortunate. It wasn’t her fault he'd gotten it wrong, despite his displeasure. He'd simply assumed. He wished she'd been able to correct him sooner. Regardless of his mistake, how could the woman have known it? Did she also know that sort of thing via a potion?
It was then, as he looked about the inside of the place, that he took it in. Kalla was the embodiment of elegance and neatliness. Yet, from what he could see, her home lived its life in disorder. A dark curtain separated the sitting and eating room from what seemed to be a bedroom beyond it.
There were wooden shapes in the windows, empty vials of varying shapes and sizes in boxes and littered over half the floor. Near the door were two very large showcases with liquid filled bottles behind glass. A sofa and several rugs on the floor between them, and the fireplace. The rest he made no attempt to decipher.
The entirety of the place reeked with the smell of magic although he couldn't say he ever noticed a smell before.
In a pot hung over the fire, Jensen heard liquid boiling. Was it another strange, magic-filled concoction in the making? Seeing him eye it from the other end of the room, Kalla raised a brow with an amused smile. "Don't let your mind run away with you. There're no more potions in creation here. That, is simply my dinner." As she spoke, she gently took a fungus from her pocket and handed it to the squirrel that had since decided his stem the perfect place for resting.
"I suppose it will be our dinner now. From the sound of her rumbling, she must be famished. How inconsiderate of you. Using a little girl to find your body, Mr. Jensen. And starving her while you do it." She spoke with a slight air of distaste. "Your bad luck may just rub off on her."
"She offered! And I'll have you know that I very clearly refused the child." Jensen retorted defensively. In the moment, he was too offended to question her knowledge. "Be it that you're so incredibly well informed, you must also be aware that it's been a losing battle to get her to eat anything at all. Later, there was nothing I could offer her."
"Is that so? Then you simply should have refused her again." The woman scoffed. "As for the rest, you're a pumpkin. You're perfectly edible. At least, you don't seem to be rotting at all." She said, lifting his stem, sending the squirrel to the other side of the table, and peering inside. She chuckled in amusement when he shivered.
"Don't just have a peek as you please! Something about your prying eyes perturbs me!" He hissed. The candlelight inside him sputtered. "Why would I offer myself?" He huffed. "J-just the thought of it is simply horrendous." A small puff of smoke spiraled out of his mouth as he sighed.
Kalla knew she was pushing his buttons, but they were such a joy to push. She could hardly help herself. However, after seeing the mix of worry and disgust on Cassia's face, in addition to the weakness overwhelming Jensen's voice as he continued to oppose her, she knew enough was enough. She took care of Cassia's wound. Now, it seemed, she must do the same for her companion.
After all, she protected him at detriment to her own well-being. Jensen was not a bad man. Just a jilted one. However unlucky. Still, she knew he cared for Cassia. She couldn't help but want to test it. He was, in one way or another, endangering her. She wondered what the most appropriate course of action was to take. In any case, she could save him whilst she made a decision. She did not want to witness Cassia's face when the last of his wick burned out.
"How did you heal me?" Jensen asked the next night. Cassia was still in bed, suffering a stomachache from eating too much soup after too many days of starvation. "Considering you use magic potions, are you a witch?"
"I'm no such thing. If only I were so powerful." Kalla said, amused.
The two of them sat still beside each other on her messy sofa. She never bothered to toss anything to the side before she sat down, though Jensen tried to blow one of her items of clothing away. He wasn't sure he could do it without destroying things considering the spider's lair, so he stopped after the first attempt. She watched him but did not help him. He was sure she did it on purpose.
"You seem plenty powerful to me. Since you healed me, I feel it twice as much as before. I've even seen a tether floating by, in the window earlier. I've not seen one for such a long time. If only I'd been like this the first trip we took through the shimmers.
"Cassia was trapped by a substantially large spider. I managed to burn some of its legs away with fire but I wasn't sure we would make it out. It chased after us in spite of that, and I had been feeling so faint. I've never felt something as unnatural as that space. Or so, not since the day my mother succubmed to cursed magic.
"If I'd had this candle then, perhaps I'd have gotten rid of the threat altogether. We would have stopped there. We should have stopped following the tethers then. Or, never started to begin with."
"If you had, you'd never have come here." Kalla said flatly.
"Yes. Cassia wouldn't have enjoyed your soup. I can't make the simplest meal as I am, but I doubt that would have been such an issue."
"You are a meal, Mr. Jensen." Kalla snickered.
"Is there something about me that makes you want to eat me?" His lip quivered with disgust.
"Aside from the fact that someone else took a bite out of you first? I'm quite a fan of pumpkin and spice."
"It was the squirrel, seems like. Cassia took what she could from it." Jensen explained, weary.
"She's cute, isn't she? She's made a home in my oak tree and sometimes helps me collect the mushrooms for the soup. I think the smell of you simply attracted her."
"Yes, yes. Very cute. When she isn't eating someone else's body parts. And flying through the air to hitch a free ride on Cassia's shoulder."
"She's a flying squirrel. They don't exactly take flight. I'm sure she was tired of using her little pink toes. Have you seen them? They're so soft and bright. I've gotten to touch them some." She smiled again with her palms pressed together towards her face.
Jensen struggled. He knew the woman was much older than she looked, but her demeanor said otherwise. "No. I paid no attention to her 'little pink toes.'"
"In any case," she shrugged, "you're in one piece again. The damage is all cleared up now that you can replenish your magic. As far as your encounter is concerned, I wouldn't be surprised if the arachnid regrew its limbs already.
"There are many places and creatures alike that sap magic. Stay near them long enough, especially in an depleted state and they'd suck you dry. That is likely what was afflicting you at the time. They lure their prey and trap them in silky webs to nourish themselves. You were feeding it the moment you ventured close to its habitat.
"You are magic, but your form dictates your limitations as well as any power you can tap into. As a jack-o-lantern, you need to burn a candle. But just any wax stick simply won't do. You need one that burns magic, similarly to how the arachnid stole from you. That, is what I could offer you.
"Mixing magic into a potion and keeping it alive is tricky business. Your candle was not nearly so much work. You've now acquired a much larger candle and a slow burning wick. Of course, with a great bit of magic woven in."
"Yes. I can feel the difference. I've never felt like this since I became Cassia's jack-o-lantern. But if what you're saying is true, how did I become this at all? Furthermore, how did the last candle keep me going?"
"However you managed so long on a magicless candle is a mystery in itself. If I were to guess, I'd say it could be the exact same reason your soul was channeled into a white pumpkin. Magic was responsible. Something, or someone, powerful. Enough to keep you lit even when starved for magic power."
"Could Cassia have possibly...?" Jensen began.
"She's a pure, beautiful soul. A work of art. A mosaic if I had to be specific. Touched by many magics. So much so, that I cannot tell where one ends and another begins."
"I thought something about art myself while looking at her for the first time. She has very striking, unusually coupled features. It seems she took after her mother. But how does being touched by magic help answer my question?"
"Do you believe she's responsible for your state?"
"Well.. no, but--"
"Tell me why."
"Because she's young and has never touched magic directly until now. And she flung herself over me against my plea, to keep my candle going. Magic, at least as I understand it, responds very well to emotion and wishing. If she was willing to go so far.." Jensen sighed heavily. "It's my fault. When I came, the fire took away her father. I was also the reason she went too far."
"Like you, I don't believe that she is responsible for your state. Only that I feel magic from her. Maybe one day you will know why. It is not something I can see simply from wishing into the likes of a potion. However, if you didn't cast yourself into the pumpkin then purposefully set the house to burning, it can't possibly be your fault. Cassia, too, made the choice to be with you in the end. Which is why I've decided not to test you." Kalla huffed, lightly shrugging her shoulders.
"Test?" Jensen asked, genuinely curious yet with an air of caution. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He didn't pry. Instead, he sat quietly as she stared towards the fireplace. Her eyes closed the moment that he thought he was beginning to understand the emotion swimming behind them.
"Regardless, I don't think I can see it that way. The moment I became this squash in Cassia's life, I stole her father from her. I never bore a single child. Or held one in my arms. It's her luck, I'm sure, that's made sure she wasn't quite so young when I came about. I don't think there will ever be anything I can do to fix it. Meanwhile, her travels with me only expose her to more danger. Even you could see that and said as much."
"Well, I'm not so different from you myself. I too, carry a guilt so unrelenting." Kalla said quietly. For the first time, with a tone heavy with grief and remembering. Jensen's mind formed more questions against his will. He was curious but still could not trust her. Even after her show of kindness.
What weighed on her? And was it responsible for her little home just shy of danger? Afterall, something had to explain why she tucked herself away in such a place. He supposed, also, she could simply enjoy the solitude.
Kalla stretched then gave Jensen a couple of playful slaps, listening to the slight echo of her beats and smiled as he complained of abuse. "Abuse? Again, you're quite clueless aren't you Mr. Jensen? If I wanted to abuse you, I'd simply bake you into a pie and keep the little one."
She watched uncertainty and displeasure creep along his face. It was quite astonishing really-Jensen had a complex range of motion as a pumpkin. His expressions were so sharp and unmistakable. When he was human, Kalla wondered, did he also have a mustache like the vines mimicked on his face? She got the feeling he was handsome. His type usually were.
"Or," Kalla continued as she dipped behind her curtain and grabbed her coat, "I could pluck the candle from your center. Easy."
"You wouldn't!" Jensen hissed. A tuft of fire sprouted from his top. It disapeared soon after. She'd done so much and yet he was still so shaken by her. It was likely for the best. If he was so easily befriended, he'd pose more a danger to Cassia. Still, the way he was now..
"Of course not. Why should I waste my hard work?" She smirked.
"You said the candle was much easier than your potions." Jensen retorted with a hint of annoyance. She was a strange woman. He never had any idea what she was thinking.
"Work is work." She said with a proud nod. "No different for the lesser kinds. Speaking of, I've somewhere to be. Be a dear and look after the house while I'm away? I'll only be a day or two."
She stifled a laugh as his mouth dropped open on her way out the door. And heard his complaints about having a stranger care for her house without letting them make a proper decision first.
Jensen was so honest that he didn't do well controlling his feelings. It was one of the reasons she fully expected her home to be in one piece when she returned, but she also needed to leave. Seeing Cassia so young and full of life brought her a suffering anew. Having dinner with her at the table reminded her of the past. It felt like a wound being stitched closed yet painfully snipped open again all at once. It was true she had work to do, but she needed time to face her again.
The next day, although Jensen told her to leave it well enough alone, Cassia cleaned what she could in the house. She couldn't sit still after all Kalla had done for them. Her pains were gone and Jensen was better than new. He'd even said that he could see tethers again. She felt invigorated. Cleaning seemed as good an idea as any.
She eventually convinced Jensen to help her dust the place with his puffs of warm air. He protested and claimed that he would, with his luck, set the entire house on fire before Kalla returned. Then she'd turn him into dessert, but Cassia didn't give up until he grew tired of arguing against her silence. She'd never doubted him for a moment.
As Cassia finished cleaning, she noticed a shelf in the kitchen holding seven wooden figurines. All but one-a bear with long fur-unfinished. Beside them was a small tool with a metal edge and a red handle, but she found it broken. She picked the figurines up and found her way to the table. Jensen hopped the length of the floor and noisily onto the chair beside her. It was the first time she'd seen him cross any distance by himself. He didn't seem to enjoy it.
"I don't know if you should be touching her things. Notwithstanding anything else that you've already handled. Never mind it. You've practically fiddled with every corner of the house. Do you know what those are?" He asked.
Cassia gave a curt nod. She couldn't explain without needing to carve a message into the table. Which hardly seemed appropriate. She could tell just by looking at them, though they only had part of their shape. A bird with a long tail, a snake, a sheep with large ears, a frog, a kitten, and a wolf. The bear was the only complete one of the set.
She unsheathed the dagger from her waist and began to work away at the wood. And winced each time she cut her finger. Jensen warned her that she would be missing her thumb by the time Kalla returned if she kept it up. She sighed and placed the dagger on the table. And when it floated to the air in front of her, swiping away a clean cut of wood she'd started, Cassia's eyes shifted towards Jensen in surprise.
"Are you..?" Jensen started quietly.
Cassia shook her head with her hands out in front of her. She hadn't done anything at all. Had something happened? Or had her mother's dagger always had a mind of its own?
Eventually, the novelty of it wore off enough that they could focus on the task at hand. Cassia motioned slowly with her fingers in this or that direction and made shapes against the table with her hands. Slowly but surely, guiding the wooden works to completion. And when they were done, as they marveled at their work, Cassia was filled with a sense of deja-vu. A feeling so strong and bittersweet, it made her weep.
The next afternoon, Kalla strode into the house and kicked off her shoes with a sigh. She'd almost forgotten how much she hated leaving the house. She promised herself not to run away again. She was too old for it anyway. Then, she paused as she took a look around. Almost certain, for an instant, that she'd walked into the wrong house.
Kalla let out a joyful sigh. "Oh my. I've been meaning to tidy up. Cassia did you do all of this?" She asked, quickly crossing the floor to squeeze her tight. Cassia nodded and gestured to Jensen too. He had done all the dusting.
Kalla laughed. "It feels like a different place in here. Thank you both." She smiled as she dropped onto the sofa.
When Jensen saw her pleased expression fade the moment Cassia placed the figurines in her hands, he immediately thought that he should have stopped her after all. Kalla wrapped her arms around them tightly and met their worried expressions. "I'd tried to finish them but I had no clue where to begin. Or I didn't understand him well enough to know what they were. Or perhaps, I simply couldn't do it."
"Him?" Jensen asked softly, not wanting to pressure her but not quite understanding. Even if he didn't trust her, there was something about watching someone so strong on the verge of breaking that garnered more than a fair share of sympathy. He hadn't been able to read her. Now, there was no mistaking the familiar haunt of sadness. It had a way of chasing after you, like a nightmare. He was weak to sadness.
"You're not the only one with guilt. Didn't I tell you that, Mr. Jensen? Just the other day I said so." She mumbled in a quick, broken voice.
"You did." He answered back, as Cassia went to comfort her. Her shoulders shook as she bent forward, almost as if to protect the little wooden creatures between her arms.
"You asked if I was a witch. If I could conjure powerful spells, I would never have lost my son." She gently as pushed a few stands of Cassia's hair behind her ear with a trembling hand. "He was about your age, Cassia. Bright and beautiful. And when he got sick he looked to me much the way you did the day you arrived on my doorstep. And I heard it as clearly as my eyes saw it. The fear. The pleading.
"I took to the potions. I made everything I could think of, old and new, but I hardly knew magic then. Nor was I any good at it. I'd only known of it because he taught me to look for it. Children are good at spotting anomaly. Even the magical sort.
"Winter loved to use his hands. One day he took an interest in woodwork. He helped me with the table and chairs, and even the shelves. Then he wanted to carve art pieces. That interest piqued days before his illness.
"Like any afraid, desperate fool, I promised him that he could finish them. I promised to make him mushroom soup until he got better. Then, often forgot. Worse, that I would make him better and he would go on to make enough pieces to replace my potions. I wonder why I told him such a lie? Was it to give him hope? Or had it been a selfish desire for myself?
"It was so long ago now, but I've faced him in every corner of the house since then. In every whisper of the wind and every item left in its place beneath the mess. Even when I told myself that I needed to let him go. He would have wanted that. But what kind of mother would that make me?
"He believed I could do anything. He believed in me so much and smiled at me every morning. He smiled even when he knew he was fading away from me. Then, in a cruelty he'd never understand, asked me to do the same. I try and I try.
"I smile. You've seen it. I promised that, but I promised I would save him too. And I failed. I lost him. The doctors couldn't offer a solution. I had something they didn't have; magic. Still, I wasn't good enough. My potions weren't good enough. All of that, and I couldn't save him." She sobbed.
Jensen felt her heartache. He was never particularly good with consoling anyone. Not even himself. He would have to leave it to Cassia. The only thing he could offer her was a simple truth. However bittersweet. "I cannot absolve you of your troubles nor your guilt. All I can do is offer you, and Winter both, our condolences, and our thanks. If you'd never lost him to sickness, it is likely that you'd have stopped your potions and using magic. And we would not be here because of it. Or at the very least, I wouldn't be. You may not have saved your son but, in our predicament, you saved us."
"Don't let Jensen talk you into anything strange." Kalla warned at the door on their way out.
"Nonsense! You were the one who talked a child into your home in the first place!" Jensen scoffed.
Cassia watched them with an amused smile. It was interesting how easily the corners of her lips upturned after so long. She had smiled at her father every day in their decrepit house and lost it when the magic fire swallowed it up. She didn't know how long it had been but it almost felt too soon.
After the story of her loss, Kalla spent many days in bed with her curtains drawn. Cassia and the flying squirrel--now named Mushroom--kept her company. Every night, they'd lay with her in bed until the three of them fell asleep. It felt sad and beautiful. Sometimes, it made her remember her mother. Or being squished between her parents at an age too young to register. She hadn't known she still had such memories.
She remembered her mother's hair that almost touched the floor. And the flecks of light that dotted her skin and twinkled like pale stars at night. She remembered that she smelled like sun and cinnamon-honey. As if she bathed in it simply from stepping outdoors.
Cassia remembered her father's youthfulness, too. His hair, full of the luster it lacked the last she saw him. And how his eyes lit up every time the two of them passed her around between their arms.
Sometimes, the memories hurt so much that she cried. A few nights, Kalla cried along with her and Cassia wondered if she also had memories, maybe of her son, filling her head and tugging at her, heart. Between then and now, Kalla became similar to the way she was their first day inside her quiet little house. Only, more beautiful and she smiled with her teeth and her eyes.
Now, they were leaving. After many days, nights, and conversations. Because Jensen said they had imposed for long enough. Cassia thought he was also in favor of a break since Kalla spent a portion of everyday teasing and taunting him to no end.
Kalla rubbed their cheeks together with a playful squeal then handed Cassia a small bag. "I can't send you off with nothing, now, can I? There's water with a cap, leftovers from yesterday, bread, a couple of potions you might need, and a new journal and pen. Use it well and don't be strangers. I've sewn something of mine into the pocket on the front so you two can follow it back here any time. Come visit often."
Cassia gave her one last hug before she ran towards the oak tree to say her goodbyes to Mushroom as well.
Jensen waited near the door. He wondered if he was the only one who saw. Cassia, these days, looked different. Even from the back, she was glowing. Her mood wasn't so bad anymore and she finished meals hungrily every day. He wondered if she felt anything like happiness.
"When you look at her, what do you see?" Kalla asked at his side as she leaned against the door frame.
"How do you mean?" Jensen asked, not bothering to turn towards her. He could see Mushroom on Cassia's shoulder, dropping fungi in her hands.
"What will you do with that child, Mr. Jensen, after you've reached your goal?" Kalla asked. The wind whistled softly, twirling loose strands of grass and leaves. "Or what if you never reach it? Is she something you can toss aside?"
"I.." Jensen tried to string the words together in his mind but was unable to do so. What did he see when he looked at her? He didn't know. She was so bright sometimes he thought it would hurt his eyes.
"Clueless again, Mr. Jensen? You'll have to decide. The two of you are traveling in search of your body, aren't you? Either you will be successful or you won't. In either case, this will not last forever.
"If you cannot look after her, bring her back here. If you have any intention of abandoning her, Cassia is better off with me." And with those words, she went inside and shut the door behind her.
Jensen waited, and when Cassia returned and took him up into her arms, the two of them walked back into the dark. Away from the oak tree, the protection that Kalla's house provided. Off into the open in search of another tether.