– – – Now – – –
She calls her mother seven times before she gives up, pressing on their chat’s thread. Her fingers hover over the screen, hesitant and unsure. I’m sorry, she wants to say. Forgive me. In the end, she shuts off her phone, leaving her mother with seven unanswered calls and no message. Some things can’t be said, and she knows this is one of them.
– – – Then – – –
“It’s your turn,” Mathieu said, giving her a look.
Shaz groaned. “It’s one of those customers, isn’t it?”
“One more year,” he said almost gleefully. “One more year of this bullshit contract and I’m out of here. I’ll never have to think about bitchy customers again.”
Trying to keep the jealousy out of her voice, Shaz asked half jokingly, “Do you think if I begged hard enough, Boss would take pity on me and let me go three years early?”
Mathieu just smirked.
Shaz sighed, a childish whine caught in her throat. Sometimes she felt like it was always there in her esophagus. She could neither swallow it, nor spit it out. Like the whine, she was pinned in a life she never wanted. There was a way out, of course, but she knew she couldn’t pay such a high cost.
Shaz pushed into the room. A woman was seated across her desk.
“How may I help you?” Shaz asked, her lips stretched wide with a plastered smile.
“You’re an IT witch, aren’t you, girl?” the woman asked impatiently. “I’ve got a mirror here, and it won’t listen to my orders anymore. I want it fixed fast; my birthday’s in three days.”
“Let me see,” Shaz gritted her teeth. Girl, she thought viciously, I’m fucking twenty-seven. This field of magic had always looked down on women working in it, but the money it made was stable enough for a comfortable life. At least, that was her mother’s opinion.
Shaz brought the mirror to the back room where Mathieu seemed to have finished his work. She could see the murky white on the mirror’s surface, and annoyance towards the idiotic woman bubbled.
“I just don’t understand why people can’t understand the simple concept of overload,” she complained.
“Ouch,” Mathieu said. “But I totally get it. Like, just say one command and wait for it to work. If you say it twenty different times though, it’ll get clogged. Obviously.”
Shaz shook the mirror, muttering the reset spell. “Exactly. How hard is that to do? Can you not be patient for two minutes?”
The mirror glowed, its backlog lighting up on the surface. The words were repetitive, run-on sentences until they finally cut off.
Show me a green dress. Show me a pink dress. Show me a purple dress. Show me, show me, show me—
Shaz flicked her fingers, watching the words erase as if they had never been there. She had done this a million times, watching them be eaten away by the subtle light. Glancing at Mathieu, she could imagine a life where she didn’t have to stand in a dingy backroom watching the light work. I could break the contract, she thought. The boringness of repetition numbed the thought of the consequences of her actions, almost like a truth she tasted on her lips.
– – – Now – – –
She knows this is the last time she will ever see Mathieu. She knows this because he is shouting these words at her, his face angry with betrayal. “Why?” he asks.
“You knew I only had a year of the contract left!”
“It was killing me, my contract was killing me—”
“So was mine,” he heaves.
– – – Then – – –
She left the keys hanging haphazardly from the hook, her shoes kicked off to the side. Her house would have been a mess if it wasn’t as empty as she kept it, a single sofa sitting lonely in the living room.
The walls of her hallway were bare as Shaz padded towards her room, throwing herself onto her bed. Reaching for her side drawer, she took out a black box and opened it carefully. The cover pulled back revealed the collection, her eyes roving over the items.
Each rock sat in a bed of silken fur, its jagged edges protected with enchantment spells Shaz had modified in her free time. She carefully took out the Blue Lace Agate, activating the stone. She could feel the magic wash over her almost immediately, her eyes fluttering from the force of it.
She lowered herself slowly onto the bed, no cushion beneath her head. Calmness floated through the air like music notes, a directionless power. She breathed it in, lifting the stone closer to her nose. She could feel herself relaxing, untensing the muscles of her neck.
The stone carried her away almost immediately, the images softly coming to her mind. The daze of startled laughter hit her first, and she reached out unconsciously like she couldn’t help herself. She could imagine herself hunched over a storm of papers, her right hand furiously scribbling.
It reminded her of the days she had spent modifying her protection spells, the unsettlement of signing the contract with Boss still lingering against her skin. The depression had hit her hard as she had thought about the years she had promised in service of a person she hated, doing a job that was mindlessly boring. It sucked her in, these familiar dreams of herself choosing a different path. It was a much more uncertain road that only a few took, going into spell creation and modification. It was difficult, engaging, and challenging in a way most things in Shaz’s life weren’t.
When the rock’s softness faded, Shaz saw the images flicker away abruptly, her dream shattered. Moments like these, she wished she was brave enough, strong enough to break her contract, to use that final clause that every magical contract had.
She wanted to activate the stone again, but she had no right to magic this feeling away, not when she had a solution she wouldn’t use. It was her fault, this mess she was in. Naivete could only be blamed for so long, and even her mother hadn’t actually forced her to sign. The pressure had been on her, and she had crumbled beneath it, letting society answer the questions she was supposed to write under herself. This punishment was a making of her own, and she let it curl around her like a weighted blanket, drowning in murky waters where she only had herself to blame.
Please, she begged herself silently, please.
– – – Now – – –
Shaz stares at the words floating in front of her, and the numbers from her vaults are a better taunt than her mother’s I told you so. She knows the money will barely last her for a few months, even with the way she meagerly spends, and it’s like every concern she has ever had is coming back to haunt her like a vengeful ghost.
She tightens her fingers into a fist and turns away, letting the numbers fall.
– – – Then – – –
When the door burst open, Shaz knew it was her mother even before she entered her room. “Shaz,” her mother said, pursing her lips when she saw the rock collection laid out beside her. “Must you?” she asked, her nose scrunched.
“It’s nothing,” Shaz defended, scrambling to sit.
She could see that her mother wanted to say something else, but kept quiet. “Why didn’t you answer my knock?” she asked. “You knew I was coming.”
“Why would you knock, Mum?” Shaz asked in exasperation. “Your key is spelled to my door.”
“It’s simple manners. You know, those things you insist that you don’t have.”
“Mum,” Shaz said. “I know plenty of manners, like … not insulting my host.”
“A guest?” her mother rolled her eyes. “I’m your mother, not some great aunt you’re entertaining.”
“Sure, Mum,” Shaz said dutifully, knowing arguing was going to go nowhere. She got off the bed, leading her mother to the kitchen to heat some rice and chicken, their conversation stilted and one sided.
“…and, I was telling Tia the other day that you had made it halfway through your contract.” The word ‘contract’ had Shaz looking up. Her mother continued, unaware of the sudden attention on her, “When I told her about the great work you’re doing, she said there were some good pointers she could give you on how to get a director position instead of the front worker line up you’ve signed with Boss. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful, really, but you want to move the ranks quickly. Why, it only takes a day—”
“Mum,” Shaz interrupted. “Food’s ready.”
“I know. Now, listen to me carefully. I’ve already advised you on this, and look where it got you! Why aren’t you paying attention?”
“I’m paying attention,” Shaz said. Look where it got her, indeed. A place she hated and a job she wanted to quit. If only she could break the contract. The magic that held it in place was powerful and binding, not a single word out of place. The only way out of it was freedom and condemnation, a sweet packet she could feel reaching for her as every second ticked closer.
“Are you having second thoughts, again?” her mother asked, eyes narrowed.
“Now, why would you think that?”
Her mother set the spoon down, wiping her mouth. “Be grateful I stopped you from your stupid mistakes. Spell creation. As if! That job is for the dreamers and the crazies. You’ve got reasonable talent you mustn’t waste.”
“I already took the job, Mother. You can’t force me to love it, too.”
“I’m not forcing anything. You think anyone loves their job? At least you have money to afford this house over your head and food at the table. You know I never had that.” Her mother looked at her expectantly.
“I’d have it anyways if you hadn’t kicked me out.” Shaz stood up abruptly, taking her plate into the kitchen and resting her palms against the counter.
“It was for your own good. Look at the success you have, now. Spell creation would have only drowned you in debt and ruin.”
“Okay, Mum,” Shaz replied wearily. She could argue more, but what was the point? She had lost this argument the day she had signed, and there was only one way out of it. Shaz couldn’t do that to Mathieu, though. He would never recover from the fallout of that betrayal.
– – – Now – – –
She tears the paper, throwing it angrily into the bin. She could cry, except the nights have dried her tears and now she has none left. It is the same pattern of angry customers at this place, the cleaning job she has taken just to be able to eat again. Her savings have long since run out, and she is desperately trying to save herself. Freedom, she knows now, comes with a cost she has never had to pay.
She waves her hand over the counter, muttering a cleaning spell that she has been trying to modify on the quiet evenings she sometimes finds for herself these days. It leaves the crumbs sweeping to one side, glaring back at her. She sighs and says the original spell, watching the crumbs vanish in anguished disappointment.
– – – Then – – –
When she got the call for an extra shift with the new manager that Boss had hired, she sent the fire message with her agreement.
Dagon was much older than her, his back permanently hunched the way most men’s back seemed to as they aged. His magic glitched frequently, letting sparks light between them. Shaz kept her distance, watching him squint at the alarm clock sitting broken on the table. The ticking seemed to be the loudest sound in the room, the second hand moving with a strange pattern.
“So,” Shaz broke the silence. “How long have you been in IT?”
“Oh dear,” Dagon wheezed. “What a question, indeed. Why, a good thirty-five years!”
“Cool,” Shaz replied in silent horror.
He snorted. “Is it? Haven’t taken a holiday in years. My contract won’t let me.”
“Isn’t there a clause for it, though?” Shaz asked.
“Oh,” he paused. “Oh. Youth really are lovely, huh? So preciously naïve, my dear.”
“It’s a hole. It sucks you in, this thankless work. First, you’re offered the world at your feet, aren’t you? Stability, a roof over your head, money you can’t make elsewhere, and all with just one little signature.”
“So,” Dagon said, straightening to look at her from behind his spectacles. “So, my dear, it is a cycle like many others. How do they work, indeed? A spiral of madness, piles and piles of workers, all alike, all working under Boss. A day goes by and the piles just become higher.”
Shaz swallowed. “There is work to be done.”
“A day comes,” Dagon continued, “when the pile reaches a certain height. You must choose, on that day, whether you want to leave before the pile becomes too high to jump over.”
Shaz let her ears ring with those words, her fingers reaching for holy water as Dagon turned his attention back to the clock.
The rest of the day went the same way, Shaz letting the daze work for her instead. When she got home, she almost ripped off the hinges of her closet, hands scrambling for the contract.
She stared at it, breathing heavily. Flipping through the pages, she let her eyes roam over the binding magic that held it together.
What am I doing? Her thoughts raced desperately.
“Mathieu will hate me,” she whispered to herself. She’d be betraying Mathieu, condemning him to three more years of hell. What was betrayal, though, but a small part of life? How long was she going to betray herself to keep Mathieu from getting hurt? How much was he really worth? Was he worth this life? This spiral of nothing she could have?
She closed her eyes, Dagon’s hunched back coming to her mind. Would she become him, thirty years from now? Working in the same stooped shop, hunching over bits of junk to give it a magical fix, another puppet for Boss to chain himself to?
She refused to accept such a horrible fate, the inevitable slide down the rabbit hole. I can change this, she thought, staring at the last line of the contract, instructions on how to break it written clearly in front of her. I can be free.
Mathieu would understand and still hate her forever. She could choose only one of them, and between him or her, she was selfish. She had held on for so long, but she knew she couldn’t be strong anymore.
Her mother would rage at this perceived stupidity, breaking the contract of a job that guaranteed a good life, or so was her opinion. She would see it as disobedience from Shaz, as a rebellion to break her mother’s heart. How could Shaz explain to her that it wasn’t breaking the contract that would kill her, but the contract itself.
She has been afraid of the unknown for so long, but now she was finally afraid of her reality more. Fingers shaking, she gripped the pages. The tear was a loud echo in the room, the magic rebounding around her living room as the contract cracked open.
This was it, the point of no return.
– – – Now – – –
“Do you regret it?” her mother asks.
She looks at her mother. In this moment, she is suspended in her mother’s silence, in Mathieu’s rage, in the crippling nights of loneliness and pain. “I can’t,” she whispers between them.
“I don’t understand,” her mother says helplessly.
“I’m free, Mum,” she replies. “How can you not understand that?”
– – – Then – – –
Contract of the IT Wix [Excerpt]:
Clause IV: Section C
To break the contract, you must choose another person to take your place. Be warned, though, magic always has its consequences. Are you willing to risk it?