He drives with his windows rolled down, autumn breeze filtering through the car alongside a chill that the heater in his car can’t seem to keep up with.
Geno cranks it anyways and pulls on the sleeves of his sweatshirt so they’re down past his wrists, fingers still cold where they’re wrapped around the steering wheel.
He should get used to it. This will be his life now. Ever-present cloud cover with the constant threat of rain and wind that sinks deep into his bones.
This is what he needs now; this is what he deserves.
He’s been driving down the damp, leaf-covered roads that lead to the town of Hallowed Brook for what feels like ages now, having gotten turned around more times than he can count.
The flat tire didn’t help things either and he prays the spare he’s been driving on holds out. The uneven pavement twists and turns before him, preventing him from gaining any real speed, and it only prolongs his journey.
He keeps his eyes trained on the yellow line in front of him the whole while. He made the mistake of looking to his left and saw something between the tall pines keeping pace with him.
He’s sure whatever it was is gone now, run up ahead to alert the town of a stranger's presence hovering along the outskirts.
Located at least one hundred miles from everywhere, Hallowed Brook is nestled in the clearing of a dense pine forest, where the sun never breaks through the clouds and the leaves crunch beneath your feet year round.
Or at least that’s what Geno has heard. He’s never actually been there. He doesn’t know anyone who has either. It’s an urban legend based on fact. A myth with roots in reality. The side of the tracks even the wrong side stays away from.
All he knows for sure is that it’s a safe haven for people, creatures — beings — that have run out of options. No one goes there unless they’re desperate and have nowhere else to turn, and he’s headed straight for it.
Finally, Geno passes the Hallowed Brook town line, announced by a giant wooden sign painted a rusty red with the town's name written in flawless cursive. There are pumpkins and brightly colored sunflowers growing around the bottom of the sign, the first real splash of color Geno has seen since he started his journey.
The road gets narrower the closer he gets to the center of town, the corners becoming so tight he nearly has to slow the car to a stop to get around them. Eventually, the road opens up again and after a handful of miles civilization comes into view.
Main Street in Hallowed Brook would look the same as any other small town, lined with shops and cafes, if not for the colony of bats flying overhead and the mischief of rats scurrying down the sidewalk, the people walking amid them seeming unfazed.
He draws stares. Nearly everyone turns their head and watches as he gets held up at every red light along the way. It makes him feel uncomfortable, like he wants to shrink down in the seat so far that he won’t even be able to see over the top of the steering wheel.
Thankfully he stays upright because a few seconds later he needs to slam on his brakes to avoid the bat that falls from the sky directly in front of him. It shifts just before it hits the ground and the vampire regards Geno with one raised eyebrow, like it was Geno who got in his way instead of the other way around.
With a shake of his head Geno steps carefully on the gas and keeps his eyes on the road, only looking away to glance down at the handwritten directions in the passenger seat.
Geno finally finds his destination after accidentally missing a stop sign and going the wrong way down a one-way street.
The apartment complex is a huge brick building with ivy crawling up the front and winding its way along the fire escapes on the sides.
It’s charming, Geno decides, in the way the roof seems to lay a little crooked and the front steps feel like they’re going to crumble beneath his feet. He has to lean his shoulder on the front door to get it to budge and when it does it opens with a creak.
The lobby is bright, lit up by a large, glass chandelier that hangs from the ceiling. Geno stands in the middle of the room and stares up at it, watching as dozens of tiny spiders weave intricate webs around the bulbs.
There’s no one at the desk on the opposite side of the room and when he taps the silver bell on the desktop it doesn’t make a sound.
“Hello,” Geno calls, leaning over the desk to see if he can find someone. “Anyone here?”
He tries the bell again, this time with a little more force, then bends down to watch the clapper bang against the side but still, no noise.
Geno huffs and turns around, resting his elbows on the desk. The wall on the opposite side of the room is covered in rows of rusty mailboxes. When he steps closer across the dingy tiled floor he can see his name, E. Malkin, written in neat black ink on one of them.
He’s still a few steps away when the box swings open and Geno huffs. Maybe he wasn’t so alone after all.
Inside is an envelope with his name on it as well, written in the same black ink. It’s heavy and when he runs his fingernail along the top seam to slide it open a brass key falls out into his hand with the numbers 412 scratched into it.
There’s also a letter, handwritten on yellowed paper and folded up.
Mr. Malkin, it reads. Sorry I’m not able to greet you but something came up. You’ll be staying in apartment 412. I trust that you’ve already found the key. It’s the only one so please don’t lose it. It’s very hard to make another. The stairs are to the right, there’s no elevator but you said in your email that you didn’t have much to move in. If you need help, most of the other tenants are very nice and I’m sure would be happy to lend a hand. (Please just avoid apartments 516 and 611.) The previous tenant left a few things when they passed that I thought you might get some use out of. No pressure to use anything if it’s not your style. Let me know and I’ll have it removed. I also had the apartment cleansed but if you feel there’s still something hanging around please tell me and I’ll have it done again. Look forward to meeting you soon. Welcome to Hallowed Brook. — S. Crosby.
S. Crosby had signed his name the same way in the emails that he and Geno exchanged, every email, every time. He seems polite and incredibly professional, offering help whenever he thinks Geno will need it. S. Crosby seems like a dream landlord.
Time will tell.
Geno folds the letter back into the envelope and tucks it into his back pocket. Then he attaches the key to his key ring.
He supposes that makes it official. This is his new home.
The four-story walk up to his apartment is dreadful. The stairs are narrow and uneven and the only window on each level is about the size of a deck of cards and doesn’t seem to open.
He’s thankful he only has one suitcase and a potted spider plant that he refused to leave behind. Still, he’s sweating by the time he makes it to door 412, the numbers burned into the wood.
He puts his bag down and fumbles for his keys, pulling them awkwardly out of his pocket and causing his plant to slip from his fingers. The pot holds together but the dirt spills out onto the carpet. With a heavy sigh he drops to his knees and scoops it back up.
His hands are dirty when he gets back to his feet but his precious spider plant seems to have survived the ordeal. The key jams in the lock when he slides it in but after some careful maneuvering and a lot of sweet talk it finally turns and he gets the door open.
The apartment is pitch black and freezing and he feels along the wall just inside the door for a light switch. When he flicks it on, it does little to help.
The front door opens into a small kitchen. There’s a fridge, a stove, and a microwave, all of which look like they’ve seen better days. There’s also a square two-person table that Geno doubts he’ll be able to fit his knees under. The kitchen flows into a living room with a lumpy orange couch and a coffee table made out of a sheet of plywood supported by two milk crates. The sole window in the room is wide open, off-white drapes blowing in the wind.
He sets the plant down, carefully, and steps around it and heads across the living room to the window. The window leads out to the fire escape but just like the kitchen table, the opening of the window wasn’t made for someone his size and he doubts that he’d be able to squeeze out in an emergency.
Down the narrow hallway he finds a bathroom — a toilet, a sink, and a shower-tub combo. Both the shower head position and the length of the tub look far too short for his height. The next door in the hallway is a small linen closet and the one beside that is the bedroom. It’s nearly half the size of the living room, with a chest of drawers made out of dark wood and a twin-size bed beneath an oblong window.
He sits down gingerly on the edge of the mattress, unsure if the bed frame will hold his weight. Thankfully, it holds steady and he leans back on his elbows, trying to get a feel for the mattress beneath him and the room around him.
It’s quiet, almost deafeningly so and as he drops flat on his back the pressure in his ears almost becomes too much. There are no mice moving within the walls or bats scratching their way along the rooftop. No ghostly footsteps in the halls or tapping on the windows. S. Crosby mentioned in the note that there might be something hanging around but as Geno stares up at the cracked ceiling he feels completely alone.
Geno came to this town for the sense of solitude that it offered but now, lying here completely isolated from everything and everyone, the loneliness he feels is nearly bone-crushingly heavy.
He’s not going to cry, but the longer he stays here like this the tighter his throat feels.
His rumbling stomach finally breaks through the silence, echoing off the walls and bouncing back at him. He hasn’t eaten in hours and if he’s going to make it through the night he’ll need some food in his belly.
He stands and pats his pockets, making sure he can feel his keys before he walks back through the apartment.
Despite the chill in the air, Geno decides to walk back toward the center of town. He’s been sitting in the car all day and needs time to stretch his legs.
When he exhales he can see his breath clouding the air in front of him so he pulls his hood up and jams his hands in the front pocket of his sweatshirt. He passes by a demon and an angel, walking side by side with their arms looped together. They don’t seem a bit bothered by the sudden change in weather and give Geno an odd — almost bored look — as he shivers and shakes.
Geno hunches his shoulders and burrows deeper into his sweatshirt. He lowers his eyes to the ground and carefully steps around the numerous cracks in the sidewalk. He’s pretty sure the residents of Hallowed Brook already find him strange. He doesn’t need to embarrass himself any further.
The streets are bustling with all kinds of creatures popping in and out of apothecaries and flower shops with signs advertising special varieties of herbs and plants for spells, potions, and curses.
He’s already had enough experience with curses to last a lifetime.
Even though the temperature is cool, the streets of Hallowed Brook smell warm, with the wafting scents of drying leaves and herbs coming from every corner.
Up ahead a door opens and the air is filled with cinnamon and sugar and nutmeg and Geno lengthens his strides, like he’s being drawn to it, like he can’t possibly turn away and ignore it. He catches the door just before it swings shut, taking note of the delicately stenciled words on the glass.
The bakery is small and cozy with only a handful of tables, each topped with a Jack Be Little pumpkin and a single sunflower in a vase. There’s a large bulletin board on the far wall that’s covered with brightly colored post-its and flyers advertising upcoming events in the town.
But what Geno is here for, what lured him in, is the display of cakes, cookies, and pastries that stretches from one end of the bakery to the other.
Everything is beautifully decorated with frosting and sprinkles and delicate edible flowers and herbs. The pastries look flaky and buttery and the cakes are stacked layer upon layer made of rich, fudgy chocolate or airy sweet vanilla. He’s not sure where to look aside from absolutely everywhere and he’s not sure what he wants aside from absolutely everything. Geno finally looks away from the confections and follows the voice to a little girl perched on a high bar stool behind the counter. She’s adorable, with wide brown eyes and her hair swept back in a braid that falls over her shoulder tied with a bright red ribbon.
Geno’s not sure what to say, and not just because he can’t understand her. She seems to be the only one here, certainly the only one behind the counter, but she’s just a kid. There’s no way that this is her shop and she’s much too young to make all these sweets.
But maybe there’s more to this. Maybe she’s under a glamour spell. Maybe she’s cursed. Maybe she really is just that talented and he’s being judgmental. In this town, any of the three are possible.
“Voulez-vous essayer quelque chose?” she asks and as Geno tries to figure out how to respond the door behind her swings open and a man steps out.
He’s tall and slim and the apron around his waist is streaked with chocolate frosting and flour. His dark hair falls forward onto his forehead and when he shakes it back with a flick of his head Geno can see that his ears pull up to a sharp point.
“Estelle,” he says and the little girl turns to look at him. “Qu'est-ce que je t'ai dit à propos de m'asseoir derrière le comptoir?”
“Pour le faire?” she says, voice tilting up at the end like it’s a question and the man laughs and shakes his head.
“Hop down,” he says. “Go help your mother and sister in the back.”
“Are there extras?” she asks and when he nods she scrambles off the stool, nearly knocking it over in her haste and pushes her way past him and through the door.
“Sorry,” the elf says to Geno. “Kids. Is there anything I can help you with?”
Even in English and to an adult, Geno doesn’t know what to ask for. Everything looks so good and he’s so, so hungry.
“You’re new,” the elf says as he wipes his hand on the apron and holds it over the counter. “Haven’t seen you in town before. I’m Flower.”
“Geno,” he says as he shakes Flower’s hand. “Just move in.”
“Ahh,” Flower says. He still has a tight hold on Geno’s hand. “Sid said he got a new tenant. You just get in today? You must be tired, surprised you made it out. If I were you I would have just crashed.”
“Sid?” Geno asks and Flower blinks at him and lets go of his hand.
“Yeah, the owner of the building. Your landlord.”
“He never sign his full name,” Geno explains. “Only know his last and wasn’t there when I get in.”
“He’s a very popular babysitter,” Flower says. “Guy is in hot demand. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon, though.” Flower smiles. “Sid’s not one to let himself go unintroduced for long. Now. He claps his hands together. “What can I get for you?” “Everything,” Geno says and Flower laughs, clearly delighted. “Everything look so good. You make all?”
“My wife mostly. She’s got the real touch for it.” Flower wiggles his fingers and Geno nods. Kitchen Witch. “Our daughters are taking after her so they like to help. That was Estelle that you met and we have a younger one named Scarlett. Both of them are teaching me how to bake at this point. What would you like to start with?”
Geno takes a step back and surveys the display case.
Geno’s loaded down with boxes filled with cakes and pastries when he leaves Farine. There was no way he could ever decide on just one and when his stomach rumbled for the second time he decided that he’d take a few extra for breakfast in the morning. If they make it that long.
Geno makes it back to his apartment just as the last of the ambient light is beginning to fade from the sky. He eats three turnovers right out of the box standing at the kitchen sink. They’re filled with apricot, blueberry, and apple cinnamon with crunchy sugar on top and the flakey pastry melts in his mouth.
“Going to be problem,” he says to the empty room. “Cursed and chubby.”
He puts the rest of the sweets on the counter and brings his bag to the bedroom to unpack. It doesn’t take long, filling up only half the dresser space and hanging nothing in the closet.
He toes off his lone pair of shoes and sets them next to the dresser, out of the way in case he gets up during the night.
Then he heads down the hall to the bathroom, where the water streams dark brown from the faucet for a few seconds before it clears. It smells a bit like sulfur but the water is warm and the pressure is good and he takes his time rinsing the day off of himself.
It’s nearly completely dark outside when he gets out of the shower and the moon is peeking through the clouds and shining down through the window above the bed.
He punches the pillows down, trying to get them into a comfortable shape, then lies down and folds his hands over his chest.
Any minute now.
He watches as the moonlight slowly tracks it’s way across the room and points his toes so they dip into the beam.
It starts slowly.
His feet begin to stretch as the thick, grey hair begins to grow. His legs get even longer, until they’re dangling off the bed and claws shoot out from the ends of his fingertips. It doesn’t hurt, not when the horns begin to poke out from the top of his head or when his face shifts, nose and jaw stretching out into something of a snout. It feels more like a stretch. Like putting your arms over your head and arching your back after you’ve been sitting for a long time. Like a familiar, pleasant ache, like his body is returning to the shape it’s always meant to have been.
But this isn’t how he’s meant to be.
One week ago Geno was living the good life. He had a great job, a nice apartment, and a loving girlfriend.
At work, he had just spearheaded the agreement to develop on fifty acres of woodlands on the edge of the city, building luxury condos and shopping centers, bringing the new world into the old.
The land was vacant save for a few huts and cottages belonging to the handful of witches that still lived in the area, most of them having decided to move out when civilization moved in.
Those who remained were stubborn and set in their ways and, most importantly, they were magic. They didn’t leave without a fight and by the time each and every one of them was plucked from their homes to make room for the construction, each member of Geno’s team was cursed.
Some guys got off relatively easy. Seven years of bad luck or their hands and feet were always ice cold, no matter how many socks or gloves they wore. Others had their favorite food turn to sand in their mouth or had their least favorite song stuck in their head 24/7.
Geno got the worst of it.
Called a monster for being the head of the company, that’s exactly what they turned him into.
When the sun sinks and the moon rises, Geno transforms into a monster.
The first time it happened his girlfriend ran screaming out of their apartment. He chased after her, scared and confused, and met an angry crowd on the street ready to defend her.
He turned tail, literally, and she never returned.
That night in his apartment Geno paced back and forth, awkward and clumsy on his new legs, dropping down to all fours to stop himself from toppling over. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t make his fingers — his claws — dial his phone. He was stuck and helpless and terrified and worst, he was alone.
It was a long night and when the sun rose in the morning he had never been more grateful to see daylight.
He called out of work. He called his mother who picked up and then his girlfriend who didn’t. He left her a message and didn’t expect to hear back. He never did.
He found the number for a local witch, the kind that operates out of a storefront in a strip mall and charges by the minute.
He didn’t trust her but he wouldn’t have trusted anyone. She told him he needed more help. He needed more time. He needed the love of someone who could never love him back. Whatever the hell that meant.
She gave him the name of a town, one that Geno had only heard of in passing, friend-of-a-friend anecdotes. He Googled, found an open apartment listing, and sent an email.
Then he was on his way.
Geno rolls to his side and curls up in a ball. He needs to find answers in this town. He’s run out of options.
When he wakes, the sky in the window above the bed has turned from black to grey and Geno’s body is back to normal. He wiggles his toes and fingers and cracks his back, reveling in the feeling of his own, familiar skin.
He’s hungry, again, the transformation taking a lot out of him, and pads naked to the kitchen.
It’s misting out now, condensation forming on the glass of the window in the living room and he spares a thought for his poor spider plant. There’s no way it’s ever going to get enough sun.
He shakes his head and opens the box of pastries that he left on the counter.
Miraculously they still feel warm to the touch, like they were just pulled out of the oven a few minutes ago instead of sitting out on the counter overnight.
Geno hums as he takes his first, delicious bite. Maybe not all magic is so bad.
Going down four flights of stairs is infinitely easier than going up them but Geno still feels winded by the time he gets to the last landing.
He wipes the sweat off his brow with his sleeve then freezes mid-step.
There’s a man in the lobby.
Geno stops at the bottom of the stairs and watches in rapt interest as the man crouches down in front of the mailboxes, pulling open the rusty doors and looking inside.
It’s illegal to go through other people’s mail but Geno’s sense of right and wrong gets seriously muddled the longer he takes in the view.
The man’s faded jeans and tight black shirt pull against his ass and thighs and back, muscles shifting beneath the fabric as he moves from left to right, opening and closing boxes.
Geno shifts his weight and leans a little farther around the corner and the floorboard squeaks beneath him.
The man jumps and stands, hand over his chest as he whips around to look at Geno.
“Sorry,” Geno says, guiltily stepping out of the shadows with his hands up. “Don’t mean to scare.”
“It’s okay,” the man says as he lowers his own hand from his chest. “I just wasn’t expecting anyone to be there. You must be Mr. Malkin.” He holds his hand out and Geno takes it. “I’m Sidney Crosby, your landlord. You can call me, Sid.”
He’s not what Geno had been expecting. The emails and the letter had been so polite, so professional. Geno imagined someone older. Even what Flower said yesterday — a sought after babysitter — had conjured up the image of a more grandfatherly type.
The man in front of him now is young and attractive with bright eyes and full lips.
He’s a fae. Or some kind of nymph. Or maybe a siren, although they’re quite a ways from water.
Maybe he’s an angel.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to greet you yesterday,” Sid says. “I had a friend —.”
“Babysit,” Geno says and Sid narrows his eyes. “I went to bakery and guy there, Flower?”
Sid nods. “How much did you spend there?”
Geno exhales a laugh. “Too much. Money is okay but lots of sweets.”
“They keep well,” Sid says and Geno shrugs.
“Ate them already so don’t know.”
Sid smiles, wide and warm. Angel. Definitely an angel.
“Well, still, I’m sorry I wasn’t here. Did you settle in okay? Did you need any help bringing anything up or have any questions?”
“Look busy,” Geno says as he nods toward the boxes. “Don’t want to interrupt.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing. Sometimes mail still gets delivered to tenants that don’t live here anymore so I was just emptying out the boxes. If you need anything I’m here to help.”
“Well, have plant. Worried it’s not getting enough sun?”
Sid immediately nods and ducks behind the desk and starts to flip through a Rolodex.
“There’s a nymph in town that runs a flower shop. He’ll be able to help you.”
Sid pulls out a card and hands it over. Geno’s slow to take it, too busy staring at the way Sid’s eyelashes fan out over his pale skin.
There’s a red rose bud in the middle of the card and when Geno takes it from Sid’s hand it suddenly blooms, revealing the word Thorny’s and an address and phone number in ink.
“I’ll go see,” Geno says as he pockets the card. “Have another question.”
“Is it about the furniture? I know it’s old and out of date but I mean, if you saw Mrs. Johansen you’d understand. Or is it about Mrs. Johansen? Is she not really gone? If she frightened you I promise she didn’t mean to. She was sweet and she’s probably just lonely.”
“No, no,” Geno says. “Furniture is fine.” It’s not fine but what does it matter now? “And am pretty sure I’m alone there, Mrs. Johansen is … pretty sure she’s gone. Is about me. About my curse.”
Sid’s eyes narrow again. “I don’t really know — ”
“Need help,” Geno says, leaning across the counter and touching the inside of Sid’s wrist. Sid immediately pulls his hand back. “I come here because I need help. Have to break it. Can’t live with it. Need help to break.”
“That’s dangerous,” Sid says, voice dipping low and serious. “Breaking a curse before it’s ready to be broken isn’t something most people around here would be willing to do.”
“But you know someone who could?”
Sid looks away. “It’s dangerous,” he says again. “You have to give up something —”
“Would give anything.”
“Don’t say that,” Sid snaps. “You don’t know what you’re getting into or what could happen. It could be worse.”
“Don’t know if that’s possible.”
“It could always be worse,” Sid says seriously. “It’s magic, it’ll find a way.”
“Okay,” Geno tells him slowly. “Don’t worry. Won’t ask.” He’ll ask someone else. He has to, this is why he’s here. He’s sure there’s someone else in town that will tell him.
Sid sighs heavily. “I’m sorry, Mr. Malkin, but if something were to happen —”
“Is okay, really. Help me with plant, that’s enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Sid says again. “But I wouldn’t feel right. If there’s anything else you need, anything at all, please. That’s what I’m here for.”
“You much nicer than landlords I’ve had before.”
“This is your home now. I want you to feel comfortable here.”
It’s an awfully nice thought but Geno knows he’ll never truly be comfortable as long as he’s still cursed.
“Could maybe think about getting rid of spiders,” Geno suggests. The spiders are busy weaving webs against the window pane.
“I can’t,” Sid says. “They all pay their rent on time.”
Geno laughs but when he turns back to Sid it’s obvious that he’s not joking.
Thorny’s is just off Main in a small brick building with a faded mural of Black-Eyed Susans on the side.
The bell above the door dings when Geno steps inside and the first thing he notices, besides the world of color before him and the overwhelming sweet smell, is the warmth.
It’s a pleasant, cozy heat, like the first day of spring where the sun shines down and warms your bones after a long, hard winter. It’s unlike anything he’s seen in this town and as he walks through the sea of flowers, each more beautiful than the last, he finally sees why.
Behind the counter are two men, both wearing mossgreen aprons over crisp, white shirts. The older of the two has close-cropped hair and the younger’s is shorter on the sides and longer on the top so it flops over onto his forehead. They’re both bright blond. They both look like sunshine personified.
“Hello,” Geno says, stepping around a massive bleeding heart plant.
The older man holds up one finger to quiet him and Geno frowns until he steps closer to watch exactly what they’re doing.
The younger man has his eyes closed and his hands cradled around a small, clay pot. His lips are moving but no sound is coming out. His eyebrows knit together in obvious frustration and the older man puts a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“Relax,” he says, “almost.”
The younger man nods and his eyebrows smooth out. Almost immediately a bright green sprout shoots up from the soil, growing taller and taller until a purple flower blooms at the end.
“There!” The older man says, shaking the younger man’s shoulders, nearly making him drop the pot. “You did it! I knew you could!”
“It was harder than I thought it would be,” the younger man admits, but he’s smiling and ducking his head, clearly pleased with himself.
“It’ll get easier, Olli,” the man says. “You just have to keep practicing.” He gently pushes Olli in the direction of two dozen pots at the end of the counter. “That should keep you busy. Now, how can I help you?”
It takes Geno a moment to realize the man is talking to him and when he does he’s met with an impossibly wide smile.
“Just moved here,” Geno says, still keeping one eye on the younger man — Olli — as he grows another flower. A dusty pink this time. “Have plant. Sid said to come here.”
“Sidney.” The man beams. “He’s the best at sending business my way. Now, tell me what you need?”
The man’s name is Patric — but everyone calls him Horny — and Olli is his protégé, both gifted with a green thumb. They keep the shop warm and bright to keep the plants thriving. In addition to the storefront Horny owns a large plot of land on the outside of town that grows pumpkins, squash, and apples along with a long list of herbs and trees.
“Anything you can think of,” he says proudly, “we can grow.”
Geno leaves with a special bag of soil that Horny promises will help his spider plant grow and a morning glory plant that will wind its way around his fire escape and bloom all year round.
“One more question,” Geno says, juggling the soil and the plant in his arms. Horny and Olli have been so helpful so far, he just needs one more thing. “Am looking for someone to help with curse. I need to break it.”
Olli looks to Horny and Horny looks down at the counter. “That’s not a good idea.”
“Please, am desperate.”
“That’s why it’s not a good idea. Magic and desperation don’t mix. You might find what you’re looking for but what you give up to get it …” Horny trails off and shakes his head.
Geno sighs. “You sound like Sid.”
“You asked him and then you asked me?” Horny laughs. “You can ask everyone in town and they’ll all tell you the same thing. I know this place might have a reputation but there are good folks here. We don’t want to cause trouble.”
“Don’t want trouble,” Geno argues. “Just want help. Has to be someone that can help. Is why I come all the way here. Please. I’m beg.”
Horny sets his mouth into a thin, firm line and Olli looks up from the plant he just grew.
“There is someone,” Olli says and Horny briefly shuts his eyes. “He doesn’t practice openly anymore but he’s a good guy. I think he might be able to help.”
“He’ll kill us,” Horny says and when Geno’s eyes go wide Olli is quick to interject.
“Not really,” Olli assures. “His name is Duper.” He puts down the planter he’s holding and picks up a pen and a pad of paper. “Here’s his address.”
According to the address he got from Olli, Duper lives in a large Victorian mansion tucked down a long, wooded drive.
It feels ominous and desolate despite the beauty of the house and when Geno steps out of the car a cold wind blows and he wraps himself even tighter in his jacket.
Geno’s only a few steps up the front pathway when he hears a car tearing up the dirt driveway.
Mud flies behind the tires as the SUV comes to a sudden stop beside Geno’s and Sid throws open the driver’s side door and hops out.
“Mr. Malkin,” he huffs and Geno rolls his eyes.
“Can call me Geno if you’re going to stalk me.”
“I’m not stalking you. Horny called me. He said he and Olli gave you Duper’s information and then they felt guilty about it. You shouldn’t do this.”
“They say Duper is good guy. That he can help.”
“He is good,” Sid says. “But he’s also kind of an asshole and if you don’t know what you’re doing —.”
“Am doing this,” Geno says, shouldering his way past Sid and up the walkway to the front porch.
“Then I’m coming with you,” Sid tells him, keeping perfect step beside him. “You don’t understand how dangerous this could be.”
“Yes,” Geno says dryly, taking steps two at a time in an attempt to dislodge Sid’s steady pace with him. “So you say.”
Geno lifts the heavy door knocker and lets it drop. The noise of it seems to vibrate through his body.
Everything goes quiet for a moment before Geno hears footsteps, fast and heavy, approaching the other side of the door. He holds his breath the closer they get and he braces himself for the worst as the door swings open.
Duper has a heavy five o’clock shadow and prominent eyebrows and a small child hanging off each arm. He looks pretty harmless. He looks like a dad. He doesn’t look like anything Geno should fear.
“Sid,” Duper says, eyebrows pulling together as the children continue to climb up his arms. “Did we invite you for brunch and I forgot?” He looks over at Geno and then back to Sid. “Did you bring a date?”
“No,” Sid says quickly and Geno tries not to take that to heart.
“Not here for brunch,” Geno says. “Here for help. I’m need help from witch.”
“Daddy’s not a witch anymore,” the little girl says as she gracefully drops to the floor.
“You don’t just stop being a witch,” the boy says, still dangling from Duper’s bicep. “He’s always gonna be one.”
“Why don’t you kids go play,” Duper says, lowering the boy to the ground. “I have to talk to your Uncle Sid and his date real quick.”
“It’s not a date,” Sid says and Duper laughs as the kids scurry down the hall.
Duper opens the door and steps to the side to let them in. “Come on, we have a lot to talk about.”
Duper’s home is lovely, warm and clean despite very nearly tripping over two additional children who tear through the maze of rooms. It’s neat and tidy in a way that can only be the result of magic.
Duper leads them into an office and shuts the door. Everything is dark wood and plush velvet and Geno sinks into the armchair on the opposite side of the desk when he sits down.
“I know you didn’t come for brunch,” Duper says as he sits down behind the desk, “but do you want anything? Kids made brownies last night. They put chocolate and peanut butter chips in them.”
“Maybe —” Sid starts but Geno’s quick to cut him off. He’s not here for brownies.
“Am here because I’m cursed.” Geno tells him. “Need help.”
Duper nods and sits back, hands folding together on the desktop. “What kind of curse?”
“Shifting,” Geno says, glancing over at Sid. He doesn’t really want him to know this. Sid doesn’t need to know the monster he becomes. “Is bad.”
“When does it happen?”
“Night. When moon comes out.”
“And what do you change into?”
“Is bad,” Geno says slowly, still sneaking a look at Sid. “Scary.”
“Have you ever hurt anyone?”
Geno shakes his head. “No, no, is still me. Know who I am but … is not good. Have to stop.”
“Why did it happen? Who cursed you? What did you do?”
“Didn’t do anything!” Geno says quickly and louder than he intended. Duper looks unimpressed, and Geno takes a calming breath before continuing more quietly. “Did my job. Sorry little old lady witches have to leave home for new buildings but is just work, not personal.”
He winces as Duper gives him a bored look and Sid shakes his head. Hearing it all at once and out loud like that ... it sounds bad.
It is bad. Maybe he got what he deserved.
“Okay,” Geno concedes. “Was not great, what I did, but I learn lesson. I know is bad. Now fix me.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Duper says as he leans back in his chair, hands hooked around the back of his head. “If you get cursed it’s because you’ve done something to deserve it.” His gaze slides to Sid for a split second before snapping back to Geno’s. “Or because you’ve asked for it. Breaking a curse is something you have to figure out for yourself.”
“You even less help than fake witch I see at home.”
Duper sits up straight again. “You talked to someone else?”
“Some witch in strip mall back home. You know. Big cauldron, big hat. Make you pay, like party trick or something. She said I need more time.” He spreads his hands out in front of him. It’s been a whole week. “Need more help.” He gestures to Duper. “And need love of someone who can’t love me back, whatever that means.”
Duper looks at Sid and Sid looks at Duper and Geno looks between the two of them then snaps his fingers.
“Hey," Geno says, "am here for me.”
“Okay, all right,” Duper says. “I think I can help you but you have to do everything I say.”
“Yes, anything,” Geno says, leaning forward and listening intently.
“Pascal,” Sid says like a warning and Duper holds his hand up, still looking at Geno.
“Everything I say, no questions,” Duper says and Geno nods eagerly. “Okay. I need you to take one shoe off and one sock off. Opposite feet.”
Geno immediately follows orders, shedding both shoes, yanking off one sock, then putting one shoe back on.
“Now stands up on one foot, touch your nose with the tip of your finger and say the alphabet backwards.”
“English or Russian?”
Duper thinks. “Both. But start with Russian. And switch the foot your standing on after every letter but keep the hand touching your nose the same.”
Geno nods slowly as he processes everything then balances on one foot and touches his nose.
He gets nine characters into the alphabet before he loses his balance and Sid and Duper start to laugh.
“Okay, I’m just messing with you,” Duper says. “You can sit back down.”
Geno doesn’t sit. “That won’t help?”
“No, nothing will. Curses exist to give the cursed something, whether they asked for it or not. It’s not always something tangible either.”
“You make me do all this for nothing?”
“I warned you about being desperate in the face of magic,” Sid says. “And I also told you he could be a bit of an asshole.”
“Sidney,” Duper hisses, “the children.”
“They’re rooms away.”
“Little witches have big ears.”
“You think this is all joke,” Geno snaps, stumbling back into his shoe and shoving his sock into his coat pocket. “This is my life.”
“Calm down, big guy,” Duper says. “You act like you’re the only one who’s been cursed before. It happens every day. People figure it out. I have a feeling you’ll do the same.”
Geno leaves his shoe unlaced and storms out of the room. He can hear Duper sigh and say “Go get your boy,” and Sidney’s snappish reply of “He’s not my boy,” as he rushes down the hall, avoiding Legos and colored pencils and crayons as he goes.
He’s barely made his way back to the front door when he hears Sid’s footsteps behind him.
“Geno, hang on,” he says but Geno ignores him in favor of flinging open the front door and bounding down the front steps. “I think I can still help you.”
“How?” Geno asks, fumbling with his car keys. “By taking me to another witch who will laugh at me?”
“I didn’t take you here. I told you not to come here.”
Geno huffs and hits the button on the keyfob to unlock his car. The lights flash, illuminating the heavy fog that’s rolled in.
Sid makes it to the car door before him, putting his hand on the handle so Geno can’t open it.
“I’m not a witch,” Sid says and Geno mentally crosses that one off the running list he has in his head about what Sid is. “But I think I can still help you.”
“Why you want to?”
Sid shrugs, hand slipping from the car door. “Because you’re my tenant. Because you live in this town now. Because it’s clear you need help and it’s the right thing to do.”
Geno deflates, all the anger and annoyance leaking out of him in the face of Sid’s earnest expression.
“How you gonna help me, Sid?”
Sid shrugs one shoulder. “I don’t know yet. But we can talk about it at Vero and Flower’s if that makes you feel better.”
“Already had breakfast,” Geno says mulishly. “Not hungry.”
Sid rocks back on his heels. “You will be once we get there.”
Forty minutes later Geno has wolfed down two cannolis and one cinnamon roll the size of his face.
Sid was right. As soon as he got within a block of the bakery the sweet smell hit him and he was overpowered by sharp hunger pangs.
He licks the cinnamon and sugar filling from his fingers and picks up the crayon that Estelle has pushed his way.
They’re tucked together in the corner of the bakery, Sid, Estelle, and him, eating and sipping, coffee, juice, and tea, respectively, and not talking about Geno’s curse.
Geno has been coloring with Estelle to distract himself from his troubles while Sid’s been slowly sipping his coffee and eating a triple chocolate tart.
If he’s thinking Geno will start the conversation first he has another thing coming.
Geno’s perfectly content to stay here doodling in silence if just to get his way.
The quiet is broken by the bell above the door chiming and Geno looks up from his drawing of a cat.
There are three new customers in the bakery. A tall man with sleek brown hair that just brushes the tops of his shoulders and two fuzzy wolf pups that wrestle and nip at his feet.
He raises a hand to wave at Sid and Sid waves back before the man leans against the counter to talk to Flower in lightning-fast French.
“Kris Letang,” Sid explains. “Shifter. The kids are Alex and Victoria.”
At the mention of their names Estelle drops her crayon and looks up. “Les bébés,” she cries and flings herself out of the chair and across the bakery where she drops to the floor at Kris’s feet. The pups climb all over her, stretching up to lick at her face as she giggles and scratches behind their ears.
“Cute,” Geno says as Kris steps around the wriggling pile of children at his feet.
“They didn’t want to shift,” Kris says with a shrug as he pulls up a chair to Sid and Geno’s table and sits down. “New guy?” he asks as he nods to Geno and Sid nods back.
“Kris.” He jerks a thumb back over his shoulder. “Alex and Victoria. What brings you to Hallowed Brook?”
“Curse,” Geno tells him. “Am trying to break.”
“I’m trying to help him,” Sid says and Kris leans over and attempts to ruffle Sid’s hair.
“What a Boy Scout you are,” he says then looks back to Geno. “What kind of curse?”
“Change,” Geno says vaguely and Kris raises his eyebrows, clearly interested. “Bad.”
“What kind of bad?” Geno pauses as Estelle climbs back up onto her chair with a pup in each arm then he picks up a crayon and sketches out a rough version of himself once the moon comes out.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Kris says and Geno shakes his head.
“Worse in person. Lots worse. I have girlfriend when I first change, she run out, and never come back. Is that bad.”
“Maybe that was her problem,” Sid says, “not yours.”
“Is hard to blame. Who would want to look at this every night?”
“I think you look cute,” Estelle says. Alex and Victoria are curled up on her lap, fast asleep. “Is your fur soft?”
“Don’t know. Never pet myself.”
“Well you should,” she says, “then you should tell me.”
She’s sweet, just like everything else in the bakery.
“How did it happen?” Kris asks. With a heavy sigh Geno recounts the tale for the second time today. When he’s done Kris hums. “So what are you going to do?”
“Break it,” Geno says. “Try to. Somehow. Not sure of details yet.”
“Well,” Tanger says, leaning forward on the table. “Sounds like you really pi—” He stops and looks at Estelle who looks up at him. “Ticked off magic. Maybe you should try to get on it’s good side.”
“How I do that?”
“Figure out a way to show that you respect it,” Sid says and Geno can almost see the gears turning in his head. “Learn more about it. Try to understand it better.”
“I do respect it,” Geno tells him.
“Do you though?” Kris asks.
“But do you?”
“Yes, I already say.”
Kris raises an eyebrow. “But do you really?”
“Don’t want to talk to you anymore,” Geno snaps and Sid lays a hand in the middle of the table, like he’s trying to mediate a fight.
“There’s a difference between saying you respect it,” Sid says, “and actually respecting it. Magic knows if you’re just trying to tell it what it wants to hear. You have to actually feel it.”
“And how do I do that?”
“There’s no shortage of magic in this town,” Kris says. “I’m sure you’ll be able to figure something out.”
Geno rolls his eyes. That doesn’t actually help him at all.
“I’ll help you,” Sid says, “or you can help me. There’s always work to do around the apartment building — someone always needs something fixed — and I do a few favors for people around town. It’ll be a good way to meet your neighbors. You’ll learn that they’re just like you.” He stops to think before he continues with, “you know, for the most part.”
“If you think will help.”
“There’s no harm in trying,” Sid says. “I walk Matt’s dogs for him on Mondays and Fridays so he can catch up with some work. You could do that. Are you good with dogs?”
Not really, Geno thinks, but he’s desperate. He nods. He’ll deal.
“Good,” Sid says, “I’ll give you the address and give him a call to let him know you’re coming.” Sid pulls out his phone. “I think you’re really going to like Beckham and Leo.”
Matt’s cottage is on the edge of a lake with fog hovering over the surface. There’s a wooden dock that juts into the water with a small, metal rowboat secured to it.
It’s quaint and if it wasn’t for the way the shadows in the woods seem to move independently of anything else Geno might call it cute.
The front door opens before Geno can even raise his hand to knock and a tall, skinny man stands in the doorway.
“Geno, right?” he asks with a nod and when Geno nods back the man steps back to let him in. “I’m Matt. Thanks for doing this. It doesn’t take much to walk them but it takes time and I don’t really have that right now. Come on back, I’ll introduce you to them.”
Geno follows Matt through the house, stepping over bones and tennis balls and stuffed animals. It reminds him of Duper’s and carefully navigating around colored pencils and Legos.
“Dogs are a lot like kids,” Matt says and Geno trips over a bone. Matt taps his temple. “Clairvoyant. The woods really aren’t that scary and I’m glad you like the lake.”
“Didn’t know there was lake out here,” Geno says. “Nothing on map.”
“Yeah,” Matt says but doesn’t offer any other explanation before he opens up a door to reveal two giant black bears.
Geno plasters himself back against the wall, too afraid to even run. Sid had said they were dogs.
“They are dogs,” Matt says quickly. “They just look like bears. Sid didn’t lie to you.”
Geno slowly peels himself from the wall and steps forward. One of the bear-dogs sits up, huge paws pushing itself up against the hardwood. It looks up at Geno from behind a thick fringe of black fur. When it opens its mouth its tongue lolls out to the side and its heavy tail thumps against the floor.
Sid should have warned him.
“I think he thought it would be funny,” Matt says. “Surprise. I know they look intimidating but they’re really just teddy bears.” Matt snaps his fingers and both dogs stand. “This is Beckham and Leo. They’re good boys.”
Geno doesn’t doubt it but they’re still just so big. How is he ever going to handle them?
“It’s not hard,” Matt says. “They’re pretty easy to walk. Mostly they’re lazy so you’ll probably be pulling them instead of the other way around. They really just need about a mile-long walk and they’re good. You can take them on the trail that loops around the lake. It’s a nice walk.”
Matt grabs a set of leashes off a hook on the wall as the dogs lumber toward Geno. He tentatively holds his hand out and Beckham and Leo shove each other trying to be the first one to shove their heads into his palm.
They seem nice enough but Sid really should have warned him that these weren’t average-size dogs. He’s lucky Geno thinks he’s so cute.
Matt snorts and Geno flushes. “Don’t worry,” Matt says, handing over the leashes. “I won’t tell him you think that. Although I’m pretty sure he already knows and I’m also sure the feeling is mutual.”
Geno snatches the leashes from Matt’s hand. “You ever not listen to people’s thoughts?”
Matt’s face falls. “It’s hard,” he says quietly. “You know, they made me stop playing hockey because I knew what the guy was going to do before he even took the shot. They said it wasn’t fair but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know how to turn it off. I was born like that.” He lifts his shoulders as if to shrug off the memory. Not all magic is a gift. “Thanks again for doing this. If it goes well I can get you a key so you can just let yourself in, grab them, and go even if I’m not here.”
He gives Beckham and Leo a few pats, tells them to be good boys, then disappears farther into the house to work on … whatever he was working on.
Geno sighs as he’s left alone with the dogs and looks down at the big, brown eyes that are staring up at him.
“Okay,” he says, “let’s go for walk.”
That seems to be the magic word because they both scramble down the hallway to the front door.
Just as Matt said, the walk around the lake is very nice. The dogs stop and sniff the air every few yards and Geno whips his head around trying to find the source of whatever it is they’re smelling, but he never sees anything. He doesn’t think he ever will.
He sends a photo of the dogs with the lake in the background to Sid.
Like my bears, he writes.
Sid’s answering texts comes a few moments later.
— They’re cute, aren’t they?
— Could have told me they were so big
— Must have forgot
Geno rolls his eyes but pockets his phone with a smile.
Geno walks Beckham and Leo every Monday and Friday.
He helps Horny and Olli prune trees and tucks herbs into neat sachets, his fingers smelling of rosemary and lavender by the time he leaves at the end of the day.
He goes with Sid to buy synthetic blood for a little not-so-old lady vampire who still refuses to come out in the daylight despite modern magical advancements. She pats Sid’s cheek and bares her fangs to Geno then laughs when he flinches back.
“She’ll warm up to you,” Sid tells him on their way out the door.
Geno thinks about how cold her hand was when it brushed against his as he handed off the bags of blood and has his doubts.
The real work starts when Sid brings him around the apartment building, toolbox in hand.
The building is old so there always seems to be something that needs fixing.
“I should be thankful,” Sid says as they trudge up the narrow staircase. “Most of the tenants have the magic to fix things for themselves but the ones that don’t, they need a little help.”
Geno nods behind him and takes a deep breath as they continue to climb the stairs.
Together they fix a rattling radiator for a ghoul who has “Jeopardy” playing in the background and a broken door handle for a goblin who proudly shows off his complete collection of Celine Dion albums. There’s a ghost on the third floor who can’t seem to get her window closed. Even though Geno can’t see her, he can feel a cool hand brush against his own in thanks.
They’re all nice and kind, the ogre and the gremlin and the pixie. Even the troll who tries to steal Geno’s wallet looking for gold and the trickster who throws his voice around the room so Geno has to keep looking around when he hears it.
Despite their vast differences and the fact that they are categorically not human, that’s how they seem. Not too far removed from Geno and his own problems with leaky faucets and creaky floorboards.
They all also seem to adore Sid, something that Geno is rapidly learning to do himself.
It’s a lot of work and at the end of the day Geno goes back to his own apartment feeling sweaty and grimy. He takes a shower and pulls together dinner from whatever he picked up from the market. Then he waits for the moon to rise in the sky and hopes that maybe this time, it will be different.
It never is. Nothing ever changes.
He shifts each and every night and each and every morning his frustration grows.
“Is not working,” he complains to Sid as Sid catches up on emails and messages from tenants. Geno’s nearly leaning all the way over Sid’s desk, making Sid scoot back to make room for him. “I work so hard.”
Sid snorts. “It’s been three weeks. Curses take time.”
Geno rolls his eyes and watches Sid’s fingers as they dance across the keyboard. “They all just … email you? Sound so normal.” For some reason he can’t imagine the cyclops on the fifth floor having a laptop.
“Some of them send a raven,” Sid says and Geno’s not sure if he’s joking or not.
What he is sure of is that he’s absolutely enchanted by the curve of Sid’s smile.
Geno wakes up to a flooded kitchen.
Water is flowing out from beneath the sink and when he opens the cabinets to take a look it’s like the dam bursts and he’s soaked up to his ankles.
“Is not good way to start morning,” he mumbles as he pulls the bottoms of his sweatpants up to mid-calves and squats down to take a look.
He tries everything he can think of to fix it, tightening everything that can be tightened before he gives up and calls Sid.
By the time Sid knocks at his door, Geno has used nearly every towel and blanket in his apartment to try to mop up the water. He leaves them all in a big, wet pile and follows on Sid’s heels to the sink.
“Don’t know what’s wrong,” Geno says as he eases himself up on the counter. It feels nice to not be walking in water. “I try everything.”
Sid hums and looks down at the water that steadily streaming out.
“I’d get you towel to kneel on but …” Geno trails off and points to the pile and Sid nods.
“It’s all right,” he says. “It’s just water.”
Sid ends up on his back beneath the sink, bent knees causing the denim of his jeans to ride up just enough to expose the knob of his ankles. Geno can’t say he’s ever noticed the ankles of any of his past partners, he can’t even say he’s spent much time noticing his own, but right now all he wants to do is wrap his fingers around the bone just to feel it shift under his hand.
“I don’t know,” Sid says. “Everything looks fine.”
“Yes,” Geno says distractedly as he forces himself to look away from Sid’s ankles. Unfortunately that lands his gaze on Sid’s thighs. “Is what I think. Is why I call.”
“Well,” Sid starts but he’s interrupted by the chirping of the smoke detector going off.
“What the hell?” Geno asks as he hops off the counter and heads down the hall to his bedroom. He stops in front of the detector and throws his arms out. “Is no fire! Water problem! Opposite of fire.”
The smoke detector chirps in response and Geno fiddles around with it, trying to get it to stop before he gives up and rips the thing off the wall.
“Have you done anything to anyone?” Sid asks. He’s standing now, fanning out his shirt damp shirt against his chest.
“Yeah, you know, anything bad? Cut someone off in traffic? Didn’t hold the door for someone, rolled your eyes … anything.”
“No, I’m most polite. You think is curse?”
“Just a small one. Maybe you didn’t even know that you were doing it.” He looks around the apartment. “Have you brought anything new into the apartment? A plant or a tapestry maybe?”
“No. Just plant I get from Horny and Olli.” He looks over towards the window. It’s thriving right beside his spider plant despite the constantly gloomy skies. “Oh!” He exclaims and crosses the room, snatching the purple crystal off the windowsill. “I find this on sidewalk last night. Think someone dropped it.” He shrugs. “Is pretty.”
“That’ll do it,” Sid says. He holds his hand out and Geno drops the crystal into his palm. “It’s mixing with the magic of the plants,” he explains as he carefully crosses the kitchen, opens the front door, drops the crystal in the hallway, and shuts it again. Immediately the water stops. “Mixing magic is tricky.”
“That’s okay. I’m just glad it was something minor.”
“This is minor?”
Sid laughs. “Relatively. I’ll take care of the crystal and the next time you see something on the ground either leave it there or tell me about it. Don’t just bring it home. You might not realize what you’re taking with you.”
“Why anyone just leave magic crystal on ground?”
“They’re not that rare around here. For some it would be like dropping a penny.”
“Would you just drop crystal?”
“No, but I don’t have any magic. I guess it’s a bigger deal for me.”
Geno stares at him, unsure of what he’s just heard. “What you say?”
“Magic,” Sid continues. “I don’t have any. I’m human, just like you.”
“No,” Geno says and Sid laughs as his disbelief. “No magic, what you mean?”
“I mean I’m human, one hundred percent. No one in my family has any kind of magic. As far as I know no one ever has. What did you think I was?” “I look at you first time and I think maybe some kind of nymph or fae. Maybe angel.” “An angel?” “Yes, because you know.” He gestures wildly to Sid’s … everything and Sid tips his head to the side. “Because the way you …”
“The way I what?”
“The way you look,” Geno blurts out. “First time I see you think you have to have some magic. Have to be angel. No human ever look that pretty.”
Sid ducks his head but Geno can see how pink his cheeks are. It only adds to the beauty.
“That’s not ...” Sid starts. “I’m not.”
Geno can’t hold it in any longer. He crosses the short distance and ducks his head. He leans in, intentions clear, and Sid violently rears back.
“Don’t do that,” he says and pushes himself away, leaving Geno standing there, damp and confused.
He thought this was mutual. He thought Sid had been flirting back. He thought Sid wanted this too.
Sid braces his hands on the counter and looks down at his feet.
“We’re friends,” he says. “It’s important to me that we stay that way.”
“Okay,” Geno says slowly. He’s kissed friends before. It’s never been a big deal. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry if I led you on or gave you the wrong idea.”
“No, no,” Geno says, leaning on the counter as well, keeping a careful distance between himself and Sid. “Is not you. Maybe I just see what I want to see.”
Sid picks his head up and looks over at him. He looks distraught and Geno has to fix it.
“Wouldn’t work out anyways,” Geno says casually. “Turn into monster at night. Is bad end to dates.”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Sid says softly. “It wouldn’t matter to me.”
“You too nice,” Geno says. “Haven’t seen me.” He bares his teeth, trying to get Sid to smile. It works, kind of.
The corner of Sid’s lips turn up, just barely, but there’s still sadness in his eyes as he takes a deep breath. “I’ll bring you some more towels.”
Geno nods. “Thank you for helping me.”
“Of course,” Sid says. “It’s my job.”
Sid finds him later in the laundry room with an armful of clean towels.
Geno’s watching his second load of laundry spin around in the machine when Sid clears his throat.
“I hope this will be enough,” Sid says. “If not I have more.”
Geno nods as Sid sets the pile down on the dryer. There’s nothing but the rumbling of the washing machine to fill the silence before Sid clears his throat.
“Would you like to come to my place for dinner tonight?”
Geno whips his head around to look at him. “You ask because you feel sorry for rejecting me?”
“That’s not —” Sid sputters. “It wasn’t like that.”
Geno knocks his shoulder into Sid’s. “I’m kidding.”
“I’m asking you,” Sid huffs, “because you didn’t have any food in your kitchen. I don’t want you to starve.”
He pats his stomach. “I eat plenty from bakery. Probably too much.”
“So it’s a no then?”
“Didn’t say that? Would have to be early dinner.”
“How about a late lunch,” Sid asks and Geno pretends to think about it before nodding.
“You good cook?”
Sid’s smile is small and real. “You’re going to have to tell me.”
Sid’s apartment looks decidedly … normal.
Light hardwood floors and light blue walls. The appliances in the kitchen look new and the couch in the living room looks soft and comfortable.
It’s a far cry from the apartment that Geno’s been living in. It looks very human.
It suits Sid.
“Is something wrong?” Sid asks and Geno shakes his head, still looking around the room. There are framed photos on the walls and flowers in a vase in the middle of the kitchen table.
“Is fine. Place is very nice. Different from rest of building.”
“I did some work when I moved in,” Sid says, digging through the drawer next to the stove and pulling out a bottle opener. “It was really dark. I mean, I’m already in the basement.” He pops the top of one bottle and hands it to Geno before he opens the other. “I couldn’t live like that.”
“Most people here like dark,” Geno says as he takes a sip. It’s not beer but it is alcohol.
Geno thinks about the drab grey walls waiting for him in his own home five floors up and shakes his head. “No, guess not.”
They fall into a comfortable silence as Sid checks on dinner and Geno wanders around the living room, looking at the photos on the wall. It’s obvious they’re of Sid’s family. His mother and father and sister most likely, given the strong resemblance Sid shares with all of them. He watches Sid and his sister grow up, moving left to right across the room.
Sid used to have a true baby face with full, round cheeks and a soft jaw. Geno looks back toward the kitchen at the man that boy grew to become. He almost can’t believe there wasn’t any magic involved.
“Soup’s done,” Sid says, turning back around and catching Geno’s staring. “If you’re hungry.”
“Is why I’m here,” Geno answers and Sid gives him a tight smile before turning off the burner and grabbing a ladle.
They eat at Sid’s kitchen table, the butternut squash soup heavily flavored with fresh herbs and cream, and paired with a loaf of crusty bread.
It’s the first homemade meal Geno’s had since moving here and he’s not ashamed of the way he nearly licks the bowl clean.
“You can take the leftovers with you,” Sid says, eyes bright as he watches Geno tear off a chunk of bread to mop up the remnants in the bottom of the bowl.
“If you don’t mind,” Geno says as he pops the soggy bread into his mouth.
Sid smiles then looks down at his bowl. “I feel like I kind of owe you an explanation,” he says. “That’s why I invited you here.”
“Not because you feel sorry I can’t cook?”
“Well, that too but mostly because I wanted to clear up some things. It’s about this morning, you know, when you tried to kiss me.”
Geno flashes hot with embarrassment. They really don’t need to talk about this again. “Don’t have to explain, Sid,” Geno tells him, avoiding eye contact. “Is okay. If you don’t want, you don’t want. Is okay.”
“It’s not that I didn’t want it,” Sid says quickly. “It’s not that I don’t. It’s just that ...” He trails off and when Geno looks up Sid’s face is scrunched up in clear frustration. “It’s just that I can’t,” he finishes softly. “I’m cursed. I don’t have a heart.”
Geno doesn’t understand. He’s heard of this curse before. He’s even met a few people afflicted with it. They’d been cold and rude and didn’t exude anything close to the warmth that Sid does. He seems to overflow with it.
“When my sister was really little,” Sid explains, “she got really sick. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her, they couldn’t fix her. She was just getting worse and worse so I went to a witch. I didn’t have a choice. I would have given anything to save her but the only thing the witch wanted was my heart. I didn’t even think twice about it, I had to do it. Taylor started getting better right away and I was so happy I didn’t even notice the consequences of the curse until later. Once the initial happiness bubbled away it was like I couldn’t feel anything at all. It’s like I forgot how it felt to love, even toward my parents and my sister, never mind anyone else. They knew that I loved them even if I couldn’t express it but I couldn’t stay there. I had to try to get help so I came here, like you did. That was five years ago.”
“You never find help?”
Sid shakes his head. “When magic is combined with strong emotions, good or bad, it makes it hard to break. I haven’t found a way to get my heart back yet but I’m learning how to live without it. The love isn’t there but some of the other things, happiness, sadness, frustration, stuff like that … I'm learning how to feel those again. But the love, I don’t think I ever will. All my life, the one thing I always wanted was a family. Someone to spend time with and grow old with. Someone to love. I won’t have that now. People aren’t going to stick around. No one is going to love someone that can’t love them back.”
Geno feels terrible for him but he’s not sure how it connects.
“Sid.” He’s not sure how to say this. Sid’s so sweet, he doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. He decides that maybe direct is best. “Am not looking for love from you. I just think I'm here, you here, we young, you attractive. Attracted to each other …” He trails off with a shrug. “Unless I’m wrong.”
Sid looks down at his bowl, the apple of his cheeks pink. “You’re not wrong but it’s just easier for me if I keep some distance. If something should happen — not that I’m saying it will, I’m not that vain to think that you’d ever fall in love with me — but if it did. I don’t want to lose a friend.”
“Friend,” Geno repeats. He mulls the word over. He could use a friend. “Okay. We friends.” He holds his hand out to shake.
Sid takes it with a lopsided smile. “Friends.”
They’re friends. Just friends. But that doesn’t mean that Geno suddenly goes blind.
The attraction is still there. It flares up in him every time Sid laughs at his own jokes and each time he smiles at a child, eyes going soft but still shining bright as Alex Letang tells a never-ending story.
He looks forward to the maintenance calls now, not because he likes the work, but because he gets to spend time with Sid, walking up and down the floors, talking about nothing and helping the tenants.
There’s always work to do in the apartment building and he always has errands to run around town but the closer it gets to Halloween the more the activity heats up.
“Things get crazy this time of year,” Sid explains as he prints out an itemized list of chores for Geno. “There’s so much magic in the air that sometimes human-made objects can’t handle it.”
“You want me to go alone?” Geno asks, palms sweating at the idea of walking into a stranger's apartment, especially if that stranger has extra powerful magic.
“You’ll be fine. I’ve taught you well, plus Jake is nice,” Sid says as he taps at the first name on the list. “Young kid on his own for the first time, sweet, kinda quiet.”
“Kid? Human kid?”
Sid rolls his eyes. “Nymph. Harmless. Now go on, I know you can do it.”
Jake’s apartment is only on the second floor but Geno finds his heart racing with nerves as he knocks on door 206.
It doesn’t take long for it to open and Geno comes face to face with a young man with curly blond hair. He’s clearly just as nervous as Geno judging by the way he keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot.
Something in Geno relaxes. This is just a kid.
“Need help?” Geno asks and Jake nods.
“I thought Sid was coming.”
“He busy. Send me instead. Is okay?” Geno nods to the door, silently asking to be let in and Jake steps back.
“So I think I made a mistake,” Jake says as he leads Geno down the hall to the bathroom. “I was filling the tub with lily pads and some of them must have gotten down the drain and into the pipes or something.” Jake flips on the light in the bathroom and Geno steps in. The tub is filled with water and the surface is covered in lily pads, bright green with pale pink and yellow flowers. “This is the problem,” Jake says as he turns on the sink faucet. The water comes out a muddy green color and Geno wrinkles his nose. “That’s not all,” Jake says as he flushes the toilet. The water pours in the same green color. Geno sighs. This is out of his league. “I’m sorry,” Jake says, staring down at his feet and hunching his shoulders.
“Is okay,” Geno says. “We figure out.”
Jake hovers while Geno works, like he’s not sure if he should get all the way out of the way or stay and help out. Geno’s not sure which one he’d prefer.
“Why you make lily pads anyways?” Geno asks. He thinks he’s figured out the problem and he’s ready for small talk.
“Water nymph,” Jake answers. Geno can see him wringing his hands out of the corner of his eye. “I guess it made me feel more at home. A bathtub isn’t ideal, but it’s the best I can do. There aren’t many bodies of water around here.”
Geno thinks about the lake that Matt and the dogs live on. How it’s not on any map.
“You know,” Geno says, “think maybe I know a place. Let me see what can do.”
Things get easier after he leaves Jake’s. No more lily pads in drains or nervous nymphs that hover nearby.
It’s a different dynamic than when he goes with Sid. The tenants seem wary of him, a stranger — a human — coming into their homes, but Geno has always been good at talking to people, for the most part.
He meets Nick, who accidentally shifted into a moose while he was still in his apartment and his antlers put a hole in the wall that needs to be patched.
Then there’s Alex, a young werewolf who’s been spending time with Kris, still trying to figure out how to balance being a wolf and being a human.
“The door on the oven fell off,” he says sheepishly. “I guess maybe I don’t know my own strength.”
Geno changes the batteries in the smoke detectors for a tall, skinny guy named Marcus, who says he can change into a dragon, but only when he has enough room, and switches burnt out light bulbs to energy-efficient ones in an apartment that appears to be empty except for a cat. It sits stock still on the arm of the couch and follows Geno with its eyes, tail twitching back and forth.
He’s not sure if it’s just a cat or something more so he’s not sure if he should try to pet it or give it its space. It’s beautiful, as black as the night with a white patch on its chest. On his last bulb, the cat jumps down and winds itself around Geno’s legs, purring the whole time and, just a plain old cat or not, Geno reaches down and gives it a scratch behind its ears.
By the time Geno’s done with the list of chores he feels more than a little disgusting. He’s sweaty and smells and his shirt is stained with some mysterious green slime. He isn’t even sure where it came from but it sticks to his fingers when he pokes at it.
He grimaces and wipes his hand on his jeans as he steps into the lobby. Sid’s making another pass over the empty mailboxes, pulling out the mail for the tenants who no longer live there.
This is how they first met, Geno staring at Sid and Sid looking away, looking perfect, completely pulled together without a hair out of place.
Geno frowns and takes a heavy step toward him so Sid has to look up. “You have easier day than me,” Geno says, gesturing to Sid’s clean shirt before pointing back to his own soiled one. “Not fair. You plan that?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sid says, voice dripping with faux innocence as he stands up. “You look good.”
Geno rolls his eyes and ignores the sarcasm. “I have idea to help Jake.”
“Help him? You didn’t fix his plumbing issue?”
“No, no, I did. But is bigger help. He says he water nymph but all he has is tiny, little bathtub. I think maybe Matt’s lake might be good for him, you know? Big, quiet. You think Matt be okay with it?”
“You want to help Jake by getting him to a lake?”
Geno nods. “You see him? He seems so uncomfortable, kinda sad. Maybe this will make him feel better. You think is okay idea?”
Sid stares at him, a complicated look twisting his features before he steps forward, crowding into Geno’s space and pressing their lips together.
Geno steps back almost immediately with his hands out in front of him, creating an invisible border between himself and Sid.
“What was that?” he asks and Sid’s eyes go wide as he licks his lips. Geno’s knees go a little weak.
“I don’t know,” Sid says as he slowly brings his hand up to his chest. “I guess I just wanted to.”
Geno’s eyebrows shoot up. “You wanted to?”
Sid nods. “I felt … I thought I felt.” He smooths his hand out over the center of his chest, where his heart should be, and shakes his head. No heartbeat. “I thought for a second.”
Now it’s Geno’s turn to step in. He curls his hands around Sid’s hips and ducks his head so they’re eye to eye. “You want to kiss me?” he asks and Sid nods. “You want to do more than that?” Geno whispers, closing the gap between them and bumping their foreheads together.
He waits for Sid’s response, frozen in place, barely even breathing, ready to accept whatever Sid says.
Slowly, but with zero hesitation, Sid eases up on his toes and presses their lips together.
They stumble down the stairs toward Sid’s apartment together, breaking apart for safety but immediately crashing back together once they clear the last step.
Sid grabs at Geno’s dirty shirt, grasping at the fabric and pulling him closer and closer. Geno goes easily as Sid steps backwards, dragging Geno down the hall to his apartment.
Sid fumbles with his keys, dropping them twice and blaming Geno for the distraction. Geno smiles against the back of Sid’s neck as Sid finally slides the key into the lock.
The only windows in Sid’s bedroom are three, narrow rectangular ones that are level with the street in the alley behind the building.
There’s still plenty of light shining through the thin curtains; there’s still time. He still has time.
“I’ll wash this for you,” Sid says as he peels Geno’s shirt from his body, wincing when the slime gets on his hands. “What is this?”
“You tell me,” Geno says with a laugh. “Is from your tenant.”
Sid shakes his head and raises his arms so Geno can pull his shirt over his head. Geno drops it to the floor by their feet as Sid spreads his open hands across Geno’s ribs.
“What does it feel like?” Sid asks, his right hand stilling over Geno’s rapidly beating heart.
Geno takes a deep breath and tries to ignore the warm rush in his ears so he can listen to his heart.
“Is like … can’t believe I’m here.” He touches the curve of Sid’s hip. “Can’t believe you there. So much to see and touch.” He drops his head to Sid’s shoulder and presses his lips to the base of Sid’s throat. “Taste.”
Sid shivers beneath his touch and presses his own face into the crook of Geno’s shoulder. “I wish I could feel that,” Sid whispers and Geno hums and wraps his arms around Sid’s back, running a soothing hand up and down his spine.
“It’s okay,” Geno tells him, pulling back just enough to nudge him toward the bed. “Going to make you feel something better.”
The forecast calls for a clear and balmy Halloween.
Geno almost feels too warm and overheated as he walks the dogs in the morning, rolling up his shirt sleeves and allowing Beckham and Leo to take a dip in the lake.
He takes the long way home, driving with the windows rolled down as he traverses the winding back roads.
Main Street seems to be alive with activity as he enters the town. People are already dressed in costumes, or just out in their true forms. There are jack-o-Lanterns everywhere, already lit and glowing softly.
It reminds Geno of the movies and, for the millionth time, he can’t believe this place is real.
Sid is struggling with two folding chairs and a card table in the lobby of the apartment building when Geno walks in.
There’s a huge bowl of candy sitting on the counter beside two shopping bags and two large metal carafes.
Geno wants to kiss him hello but he’s not sure where they stand. It was one night — hell, not even a night. A late afternoon. A one-time thing, possibly. Geno had to leave in a hurry and they haven’t talked since.
Matt is the only other person who knows and it’s not like Geno told him. He knew before Geno even got through the front door to his house. Apparently Geno was thinking very loudly.
“Need help?” Geno asks now, and Sid sighs and lets one of the chair slide to the ground.
“Yes, please,” he says and when Geno reaches for the fallen chair Sid intercepts him and pulls him up for a kiss.
Apparently that’s where they stand.
Geno hums into the kiss and feels Sid smile against his lips.
“How were the dogs?” Sid asks when they break apart and Geno finally picks up the chair.
“Were good. Is little bit warm out so I let them swim.”
Sid laughs. “I bet Matt loved having wet dogs in his house.”
“They dry off,” Geno defends. “I talk to him about Jake, he say is fine for him to use lake.”
Sid kisses him again with more heat and Geno drops the chair so he can get a hand on Sid’s face and pull him closer.
“You’re very nice,” Sid tells him. “Now can you grab the candy bowl and those bags, too? I’ll come back for the drinks.”
Geno adjusts his grip on the chair so he can grab the bowl and the bags and is taken aback by the weight of them.
“You expecting to have big night?” Geno asks. “How much candy you need?”
“I don’t know if you’ve figured it out but Halloween is a big deal around here. You never want to be the house that runs out of candy.”
“Could feed army with this,” Geno says as he slowly follows Sid out the front door. “And drinks too?”
“Hot cider and hot chocolate. I know it feels warm now but it could get cool later and the parents could always use a pick-me-up.”
“So nice, Sid. When I was little, people run out of candy after one hour and shut off light. Never buy extras, never give out drinks. Halloween wasn’t that big of deal.”
“That’s kind of how it was when I was growing up too.”
“No, no way,” Geno says as he follows Sid out of the apartment building and onto the sidewalk. “Bet you live on cute little cul-de-sac where everyone decorates for every holiday and never run out of candy. Bet you dress up every year as firefighter or cowboy.”
Sid laughs. “Actually it was a hockey player. I got so mad at my mom when she wouldn’t let me wear my skates to walk from house to house.”
Sid unfolds the table and the chair and Geno sets down the candy and grocery bags before he sets up his own chair.
“You expecting company tonight?” Geno asks, pointing at the two chairs and Sid nods.
“Know I can’t.”
“Because, you know what happens when moon comes out. I change, is not good.”
“What, are you worried you’re going to scare people? That’s kind of the point of Halloween. Everyone here is just themselves, even more so than usual. No hiding.”
“How about I make it up to you tomorrow morning,” Geno says, kissing Sid’s cheek and pressing their bodies together. “You let me in early and I’ll do my best to get your day started off right. Sound okay?”
Sid looks like he doesn’t want to give in that easily but eventually he nods. “If I’m getting up that early you better make it worth it.”
Geno scoffs and tugs Sid in by the belt loops. “Don’t worry, is one thing I know how to do for sure.”
It’s a break from the routine. Or, rather, an addition to it.
He finds his way into Sid’s bed early in the morning, his skin still tight over his newly shifted body, or late afternoon when the sun still hanging in the sky and he has dirt beneath his fingernails from helping Horny and Olli all day.
Sid and his clever hands and mouth are a welcome distraction from the fact that he’s been in Hallowed Brook for nearly two months and he’s no closer to breaking his curse.
He supposes it could be worse though. Sid’s on his fifth year.
Sid gets sleepy and syrupy sweet after sex, so much so that Geno has a hard time believing there isn’t a beating heart beneath his flushed skin.
Sid’s eyes are closed, lashes fanning out on his cheeks, and Geno takes the opportunity to slide his hand over to the center of Sid’s chest, just waiting for something to beat against his palm.
“You can leave your hand there all night,” Sid says and Geno flinches. He had thought he was asleep. “You’re never going to feel anything.”
Geno curls his fingers toward his palm and slowly pulls his hand away. Sid covers it with his own, trapping it against his chest.
“You don’t have to move it,” he says softly. “I used to do the same thing when it first happened. I used to lie awake all night thinking maybe I would feel it beating. After a while I stopped. It wasn’t going to be there.”
“You ever think maybe witch did you favor?” Geno watches Sid’s face scrunch up and is quick to launch into an explanation. “I see you around town, with apartment building. You do anything for anyone and that’s without a heart. Maybe witch see you, see how quick you give up heart to save your sister and she knows. You have so much love, you give too easy. Just give and give until there’s nothing left so she take. You can’t give anymore, you know, can’t give to anyone but also can’t give to wrong person. Can’t give to someone who don’t care or won’t give anything back. You can’t get hurt.”
“So then why does it hurt?” Sid asks. “To know that no one can love you back —.”
Geno sputters and pushes himself up so he can look down at Sid. “You think no one loves you? Didn’t you hear, I see you around town, I see you with everyone, they love. You think Flower and Kris don’t love? You think kids don’t love? They don’t care if your heart don’t beat. You lucky, Sid. More love for you here in one block than I have in whole world.”
“I wish I could feel it back.”
“Will,” Geno tells him. “I think maybe you find right person, someone who deserves you. You say curses take time to break. Maybe is just not right time.”
Sid closes his eyes tightly, lines forming around the corners at the pressure, and Geno bends down to press a kiss to his lips.
“Should go,” Geno says and Sid opens his eyes. “Getting late.”
“You could stay,” Sid says softly. “You should stay.”
“Know I can’t. You don’t need to see.”
“I won’t care, you know,” Sid says, sitting up as Geno slides off the bed to find his clothes. “Whatever you think you look like —”
“Like monster,” Geno interrupts. “Don’t need to see.”
“There’s a zombie that lives in this building, Geno, a zombie. He’s undead. He eats raw meat, I’ve seen him do it. Whatever you look like can’t be any worse than that but even if it is —”
“Sid,” Geno snaps, voice sharp. “I tell you, before I come here I have a girlfriend. She take one look at me and take off. Not doing again.”
“I’m not her.”
“I know,” Geno says, the fight deflating out of him. He pulls on his shirt then leans in for another kiss. “You much better.”
It’s supposed to be a quiet night in for him.
Sid’s babysitting the Letang kids and, as adorable as a pair of rambunctious wolf pups are, Geno elects to stay in his apartment, reading and watching tv and waiting for the moon to come out.
He’s just sat down on the couch — he’s made a semi-comfortable indent in it during his time here — with a sandwich made from fresh bread from the bakery when his phone rings.
Sid’s name and number flashes across the screen and Geno sighs, puts down his sandwich, and answers it.
“Geno,” Sid says, not even waiting for Geno to say hello. “I’m really sorry to ruin whatever you have planned for tonight but do you think you could come down here?”
Geno can hear kids yelling in the background. It sounds like more noise than Victoria and Alex can make.
“You okay, Sid?”
Sid hums. “Mmmm. Not really. Flower and Duper dropped off their kids, too, so I kind of have my hands full.”
“You have all the kids?”
“Yeah,” Sid says, his voice tinged with annoyance. “I guess it was one big date night.” Something in the background crashes to the floor and Sid groans. “Girls, c’mon. Do you think you can come down for a bit?”
Geno stands and grabs the plate his sandwich is on. He can put it in the fridge for later. “Be right down, Sid.”
“Thank you so much,” Sids says. “I’ll make it up to you, I’ll —” There’s another loud bang and when Sid swears under his breath Geno hears a kid yell “Uncle Sid said ‘shit’!” and Sid sighs. “Hurry please,” he says then hangs up.
The door to Sid’s apartment opens slowly, just an inch or two, and then suddenly all at once as a long-legged wolf pup scurries between Geno’s legs and darts down the hall.
Geno looks up and finds Sid standing in front of him, toddler on his hip and what looks like butter and sugar in his hair.
“Grab her!” He yells, gesturing wildly down the hall with his free hand and Geno turns on his heels and runs.
He catches up to Victoria down the corridor, just before she hits the stairs. She’s clearly upset at being caught, nipping on his fingers with sharp, baby teeth as he holds her against his chest.
“Is bad to run away from Sid,” Geno scolds, holding her even tighter as she wiggles, getting one paw in the middle of his chest to push away.
Sid’s still at the door when he gets back except now he’s holding two children and keeping a shifted Alex Letang back from the opening with one foot.
“They leave you with this many kids?” Geno asks as Sid puts the kids down and takes Victoria from Geno’s arms. “Not fair to be outnumbered this bad.”
“Some kind of group date night,” Sid tells him. “I don’t know, it was Duper’s idea. I’m sorry to call you, I know it’s getting late but I didn’t know what else to do. You don’t have to stay.”
Wordlessly, Geno leans in and kisses the worry line between Sid’s brows. “Come on,” he says, crowding Sid back through the door, “I help.”
Sid’s place looks like a tornado ripped through it. Or, like eight magical kids have had a field day.
Estelle and Scarlett are in the kitchen, whisks turning in bowls and cookie dough being scooped onto cookie sheets while they braid each other's hair.
Alex has shifted back to human form and he’s lying in front of the TV messily eating popcorn out of a huge bowl.
The Dupuis children are scattered about, two of them taking turns turning each other invisible and a third levitating a coffee cup in the living room. Geno doesn’t know where the fourth one is and that might be the most nerve-wracking thing of all.
“Is crazy,” Geno says over the noise of the TV and the children chattering. He turns back around to face Sid and hears ceramic shattering against the floor.
“What did I tell you about practicing with fragile things?”
Sid doesn’t get an answer because with a sweep of a hand the shards are off the floor and the remade mug is sitting safely on the coffee table.
“At least they fix,” Geno offers and Sid gives him a dirty look as Victoria jumps from his arms, shifting mid-air and landing on her two human feet. “What I do to help?”
“I don’t know,” Sid says as he runs his fingers through his hair. “Kitchen duty? Estelle and Scarlett haven’t gotten the hang of picking up after themselves yet.”
Geno nods and follows the heavenly aroma to the kitchen where the girls have begun taking turns tossing miniature marshmallows into each others mouths. They miss more than they make and the floor is quickly covered with them.
“Everything smells so good,” Geno says, rubbings his hands together and sniffing the air as he gets close to them. “Should tell me what you made while we pick up marshmallows, okay?”
“But we’re not done baking,” Estelle says as Geno lifts her off the stool and sets her on the ground.
“Don’t know how much more you can bake,” Geno says as he looks around the kitchen. There are brownies and cookies and cakes everywhere. “Think Sid run out of flour soon.”
“We can make more,” Scarlett says and Geno sighs. He’s no match for magic children.
Eventually, he gets them to clean up the marshmallows by turning it into a game. He pulls the trash can out from beneath the sink and challenges them to throw as many as they can into it from a certain distance. It keeps them busy — and pulls their focus from baking — long enough for Geno to wash spoons and spatulas and whisks, sneaking samples of the baked goods as he goes.
They’re all delicious, unsurprisingly, and when Sid swoops into the kitchen to grab a dish towel to clean up some mess somewhere Geno sticks a hunk of brownie in his mouth.
“You having fun yet?” he asks and Sid huffs.
“I’ll have more fun when I get my apartment back. I love the kids but all of this at once is too much. If they dropped them off earlier in the day I could have brought them to the park or something I could have had them burn off all this energy but now, it’s so late and —”
“How late?” Geno interrupts, dropping the spoon he’s been washing into the sink with a clang and reaching for Sid’s wristwatch with soapy hands.
It’s late. Very late. So late he’s not sure if he’s going to have enough time to make it back upstairs.
“Shit,” he says and winces when one of the kids sing-songs “Geno said ‘shit’!”
Sid puts his free hand on the side of Geno’s face and lowers his voice. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s going to be okay. You don’t have to run.”
“No one is afraid of you, you don’t have to be afraid of yourself.”
Geno feels hot all over, an intense burning heat that makes him want to scratch at his skin. He has to get out of here. He has to get out of the kitchen and away from the kids but he won’t make it upstairs.
“Go to my room,” Sid says quickly. “I’ll keep the kids busy. It’ll be okay.”
Geno doesn’t even have time to thank him before he’s sprinting down the hall and throwing open Sid’s door. It barely closes behind him before he drops down to all fours, his skin tightening and shifting against his muscles and bones as he transforms.
The noise from down the hall is muffled but he can clearly hear the footsteps coming down the hall.
Too heavy for a child, they can only be Sid’s and Geno hunkers down on the floor at the foot of the bed.
The footsteps stop outside the door. There’s silence then a gentle knock.
“Geno, it’s me,” Sid says. “Can I come in? Wait, you can’t answer. I’m gonna come in, okay? Just me.”
Geno tries to wedge himself beneath the bed but there’s not enough room so he jumps up and scrambles back on the bed, plastering himself against the headboard as the door opens slowly, light from the living room pouring in as Sid slips through the narrow opening. He shuts the door and everything goes black again.
Geno watches Sid step forward through the dark as he pushes himself back against the pillows. Sid will hate him. He’ll be disgusted.
“I’m gonna try to turn on the light, okay?”
Geno squeezes his eyes shut and puts his paws over his face but he can still tell when the world around him lights up.
He braces himself for Sid’s cry of terror, for the sound of his feet as he runs away, gathering up the kids in the next room and getting them as far away as possible.
But there’s nothing but silence and then, the gentle pressure of fingertips against the top of his head.
Geno opens his eyes and is met with Sid’s soft smile.
“The kids want you to come out,” Sid says as he runs his fingers through Geno’s thick hair. “We’re watching a movie. We made snacks.” He sighs and reaches out to cup Geno’s face, tipping it up. “They’re not going to be afraid of you. I’m not afraid of you. You’re still you and that’s all that matters.”
Geno presses his head into Sid’s hands then takes a step toward him so he can rest his forehead against Sid’s chest. Sid reaches back and rubs his hands through the hair around Geno’s neck and down to his shoulders.
“You don’t have to come out,” he says softly, “but the kids would like you to. I would like you to.”
Geno heaves a sigh as Sid steps back and turns the light back off.
“I’ll leave the door open a crack, okay? Come out if you’d like to.”
Sid steps away and Geno feels the loss of him immediately. He wants to follow him, to chase the feeling of his strong hands working through his fur.
As promised, Sid left the door open a crack and if he leans far enough to the side he can see down the hall and into the living room, where he can just make out the shapes of Sid and the kids settling down onto the couch.
He trusts Sid. He trusts what he says and how he feels. He trusts him to know how the kids will react.
With nerves coursing through his body, Geno steps off the bed and nudges the door open with his snout. It creaks as it opens and he hears the movie suddenly go silent and then the quick pitter-patter of little feet coming down the hall.
He backs up, just a half a step, but it’s already too late. Alex Letang stops about half way down the hall and waves his whole arm back and forth.
“Geno, come watch the movie!” He yells. “We saved a spot for you!”
Alex is pushed out of the way by Estelle who runs toward Geno at full force. She skids to a stop in front of him, footie pajamas sliding on the hardwood and Geno lifts a paw to steady her so she doesn’t fall over.
She looks at him with wide eyes that show no fear, only wonder and awe as she reaches out and pats his face.
“Your fur is very soft,” she whispers. “Come on, Sid stopped the movie.”
She hurries back down the hall and Geno follows after.
Sid and the kids have created a cozy nest out of blankets and pillows in front of the couch and they’ve pushed the coffee table off to the side and filled it with freshly popped popcorn, candy, chips, and the freshly baked cookies that Estelle and Scarlett made. It looks as though Sid has every intention of filling the kids with sugar then sending them back to their parents.
The kids all turn their heads to look at him but none of them jumps up and runs away in fear.
“Glad you decided to join us,” Sid says, moving his feet off the couch to make room.
Geno hops up and, as soon as he gets settled, Estelle is climbing up as well, lying in the curve of Geno’s body and using him as a pillow.
“I told you so,” Sid mouths he restarts the movie.
Geno moves gently, as not to disturb Estelle, and lays his head on Sid’s thigh.
By the time they’re halfway through the second movie the snacks have all been demolished and Geno’s eyelids are beginning to feel heavy.
There’s a knock on the door and the kids jump, like they had all begun to drift off, and Sid gets up, dislodging Geno’s head as he goes to answer it.
Duper comes in first, patting Sid on the back and nodding to Geno as he scoops up two while the other two slowly get to their feet and lean heavily against him.
“Thanks for taking care of them,” Duper says. “Tanger and Flower will be right down.” He leans around Sid. “Good to see you, G. You look good.”
Geno ignores him and puts his head back down on the cushion.
Kris and Flower show up shortly after and Estelle gives Geno a hug and a kiss before she hops down and runs to her father.
Flower lingers in the doorway talking to Sid, voices pitched too low for Geno to hear. Geno lifts his head in time to see Sid bend down to hug the girls before getting a one-armed hug from Flower.
“Stop by for breakfast,” Flower says, raising his voice so Geno can hear. “We’re making those croissants you like, you know, the ones with the chocolate?”
Geno lifts his head a little higher in interest and Flower laughs.
“Have a good night, you two,” he says and then Sid’s shutting the door behind him.
Sid turns around with a tired sigh that melts into a groan when he sees the mess the kids have left behind. Geno can’t help, he doesn’t have the hands for it, but he hops off the couch anyways.
“I’m never babysitting again,” Sid says, even though they both know it’s a lie. “If you want to head off to bed you can. It really shouldn’t take me that long to clean up. Whatever I don’t get done tonight I’ll take care of in the morning.” Geno looks past Sid to the closed front door and Sid frowns.
“You don’t have to go, I meant my bed. I’ll be in shortly.” He steps forward as if to herd Geno back down the hallway. Geno turns, bumping his head affectionately into Sid’s thigh, and trots away. He pauses just before he gets to the door and looks back at Sid stacking plates and cups on top of each other to bring into the kitchen.
He looks tired and soft and happy and the wave of love that crashes into Geno is nearly strong enough to sweep him away.
Sid freezes in the living room, his whole face shifting into a deep frown. Geno steps forward, silently screaming to ask him if he’s okay but just as quickly as the expression clouded Sid’s features it lifts and his face clears.
Geno watches for a moment longer, just to be safe, just to watch, then ducks into the bedroom.
Sid comes in nearly forty-five minutes later and Geno looks pointedly at the clock.
“I know, I know,” he says as he pulls his dirty T-shirt over his head. “But Flower said croissants so I know we’ll have to be there early before they run out and I’m not going to feel like cleaning up anything in the morning.” He throws his shirt toward the clothes hamper. “Why are you lying at the end of the bed?” Sid strips off his jeans then throws back the covers and climbs in. He pats the space next to him. “Get up here. Use the pillows.”
Geno moves up the bed and lays his head on one of the pillows.
He could do this. With Sid by his side he could do this, spend his days human and his nights as something else.
“That’s better,” Sid says. His eyes are already closed and he looks like he’s about two seconds from falling asleep. “We’ll take a shower in the morning, okay? I don’t think I’d stay on my feet tonight.” He rolls over on his side so he’s facing Geno. “Are you warm enough,” he slurs. “Do you need to get …”
He trails off, falling asleep between one breath and the next, and Geno inches closer to share his warmth.
Geno’s arm is asleep. It’s completely numb, stuck beneath the solid weight of Sid’s body where he’s rolled closer and Geno has swept him up in an embrace.
He’s also a little sweaty from the way their legs are entwined and he doesn’t want to wake or move Sid, but if he doesn’t at least move his arm —
His arm. Their legs.
He yanks back the arm trapped beneath Sid just to get a good look at it. It tingles as Sid groans and pushes his face into the pillow.
“Geno, what the hell?”
Geno doesn’t answer, too busy tracing the soft skin of his inner arm with the tips of his fingers on his other hand.
His other hand.
Geno looks up at the windows above the bed. It’s still pitch black out and, when he crawls halfway over Sid to check the time the alarm clock displays 3:34 in bright red.
It’s the middle of the night and Geno is fully human.
He shakes at Sid’s shoulder, lays a hand on the side of his face. “Sid! Sid! Wake up! Look! Look!”
“What?” Sid mumbles and Geno rolls close and smacks a kiss to Sid’s forehead. “What is it?” Sid asks, finally opening his eyes. It takes him a moment before everything must register and his eyes go wide. “Geno, what time is it?”
“Is night! Is still night!” He’s so happy he feels like he could cry and he feels the tears begin to fall as he throws himself at Sid, wrapping his arms around him the best he can. “Is you,” he cries. “You did this. You help me. You tell me I’m okay, you accept me, you help me accept myself. You love me.”
“Geno,” Sid says sadly. “You know I can’t.”
“I love you,” Geno says in a rush. “I love you even if you think you can’t love me back. Even if you never love me back. I love you and I want to be here, with you.”
“If you’re only saying that because you think I broke your curse …”
“No,” Geno says sharply then quiets his voice. “No, is not that. Sid, I love you.” He gathers Sid’s face in his hands and kisses him, slow and achingly sweet then rests his forehead against Sid’s. “Love you.”
Sid presses back against him for a moment then suddenly rolls away, hand to his chest as he gasps for breath.
Geno follows, sitting up in bed and laying a hand on Sid’s arm. “Sid, okay? What’s wrong? Talk.”
Sid takes a few heaving breaths then grabs Geno’s hand and presses it to his own chest, covering it with his own.
Geno can feel a beat, strong and steady, thumping away beneath his palm.
“Sid,” he says, voice full of wonder. It’s a heartbeat. “You feel?”
“Yeah,” Sid rasps. “I feel it.” He squeezes Geno’s hand. “It’s you,” he says. “You did it.”
Sid’s kiss is tinged with the taste of happy tears that mix with Geno’s own. They touch, Sid running his hands over Geno’s skin and Geno pressing his hand tight over Sid’s heart until the weight of their broken curses washes over them and tips them toward exhaustion.
“I don’t want to sleep,” Sid says as Geno lays him back down, hooking his ankle around Sid’s, as if to anchor him in place. “I’m afraid that when I wake up it’ll be gone.”
“Will still be there,” Geno assures. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“Romantic,” Sid says through a yawn. He reaches for Geno’s hand and tangles their fingers together and guides it between their bodies, fitting it snugly against his chest. “I love you,” he says and Geno swears he can feel Sid’s heart beat double time against the back of his hand.