My hours run from 3.30-3.45pm.
It’s like no man’s time – right in the middle of the afternoon. It’s short enough so that my parents don’t notice my absence, and it gives me a half hour break in the middle of my shift at the store to head to Queen’s Park and claim my spot on the third bench in, the first that lines the shore of the pond. On a sunny day, there’s a family of swans that circle the lake, gliding gracefully atop the water even though beneath the surface their feet are moving furiously to propel them. It’s not too bad when it rains either. There’s a boat shed that rents out paddle boats to the locals, with a large enough overhang to shelter me from the rain even when its locked up for the night.
I’ve always suspected that Mike is just a middle-guy for one of the rich Talented kids too high-and-mighty to do their own dirty work.
Today it’s not raining, so I’m on my bench, backpack at my feet, tossing crumbs of slightly-stale bread at the swans. The baby cygnets I’ve watched grow up since spring are plump and turning white – soon they’ll head off for cleaner waters.
I’m not alone for long though. I only stay for fifteen minutes, so if someone wants something from me, they have to be quick.
The first guy is one of my regulars – Mike. His sneakers are blue, but they’ve been enchanted by some kind of glamour to subtly change colour, from light blue to deep indigo. I’ve always suspected that Mike is just a middle-guy for one of the rich Talented kids too high-and-mighty to do their own dirty work. It does amuse me that even Talenteds don’t have unlimited access to potions, and they aren’t skilled enough to mix them themselves. I prefer the actual client – the person who is going to take the potion – to come to me, really, so I can find out their problem first hand. But Mike’s guy or girl is way too proud to visit me in person. I think I’ve tweaked Mike’s client’s formula four, maybe five times before they stopped complaining? Guess it’s ‘satisfactory’ now though, as they haven’t asked for any more adjustments. I look back down at Mike’s shoes. At least one of us is making good money out of it.
Our exchange is almost mechanical: he places the money onto the bench next to my thigh, all neatly rolled up and tied with an elastic band, then I reach into the top of my backpack and pull out a plastic bag already sealed and ready to go – his order never changes now that I’ve got the formula right – and place it on the other side of the money. Then we both take our items and he walks away. Five seconds, if that.
After that, it’s a steady stream – boys, girls, some from my school, some from others, some are Talented, some are not, but they all know the drill and by 3.45 my bag is almost empty.
The phone in my pocket vibrates to let me know the time is up, and I leave the bench without looking back to see if anyone is still hanging around. Job done.
I’m almost by the gates to the park when someone taps me on the shoulder. I jump and spin around, instinctively tightening my grip on the straps of my backpack.
“Hey, um, are you Sam?”
An annoyed look crosses my face. “Look, hours are 3.30 to 3.45. It’s 3.48. Come back tomorrow…”
I wonder what kind of pressure drives a thirteen-year-old to hunt down an illicit study aid?
As I ramble off my normal excuse, my eyes finally taken in my assailant. She’s young – maybe thirteen – just a little bit older than my sister, Molly. She’s must be an ordinary too, or at least a very poor Talented; there’s no hint of a glamour about her. Her posture is terrible, her complexion is so pale it’s almost green, and she’s biting at her fingernails and quivering like I’m her teacher rather than just another student. I loosen the grip on my backpack and shrug.
“Do you know what it is you’re looking for?” I have the sudden terrifying thought that she might be looking for a quick fix for boy trouble already. Sometimes these young ones think I have nothing better to do but to make fake love potions. But her reply is unleashed in a torrent of worry and fear that goes way beyond an inattentive crush…
“I’m taking the Hausman exam next week… and I just can’t concentrate on anything and I really need to pass and if I don’t get in my parents can’t afford to send me anywhere else so I’m just going to end up back at State which means I’ll never be able to go into medicine and-” she takes a deep breath. “And I hear you make stuff which can… help people. Get through exams, I mean.”
I chew on my bottom lip as remedies begin to spin through my brain. Rosemary: for concentration, for memory. Poppy: for clarity, but only in the smallest of doses. Already I’m putting a mix together for her, the right doses of ingredients swirling around together to create the perfect potion that will help her find the focus to pass her exam.
“Look, ok, I can help you. Maybe in a week…”
Her voice raises a pitch. “I don’t have a week! If I don’t start studying now…”
“Okay, okay. In two days then.” She looks like she’s about to interrupt me again, so I throw my hand in my pocket and pull out a little plastic bag. In it is a sprig of rosemary. “Take this. Brew it in hot water for at least three minutes, then drink the tea. It’ll help your concentration for the next couple of days, until I can whip something up for you. But it’s going to cost.”
She nods, and takes the herb. “Anything,” she says, in a voice barely above a whisper, then she runs away like she’s spooked being near me.
I do the mental arithmetic in my head. I think I’ve made about sixty crowns tonight.
For some reason I’m compelled to look back at the girl’s quickly retreating figure. I wonder what kind of pressure drives a thirteen-year-old to hunt down an illicit study aid? An uncomfortable – and not altogether uncommon – thought springs into my mind, some voice muttering on about ‘enabling’… but then my hand goes to the cash in my jeans pocket and I’m reminded of the pressures that drive a sixteen-year-old with a talent for mixing potions to start selling them to her peers. Sometimes I feel as dirty as the lix dealers downtown but at least my elixirs won’t leave my clients brain-dead.
With Kemi’s Potions Shop business drying up, I need every penny I can get if I want to save to go to Kingstown University and study Synths and Potions – my dream.
And now it’s the summer – as in, my dry season. Not too much demand for concentration over the school holidays. I look down at my watch. 3.55. If I’m not back by four, my parents will start to ask the awkward questions. Plus, if I’m not back soon I won’t have enough time to finish my daily inventory, mix all the regular store orders and fulfill my – ahem – personal client requests.
I won’t be letting them down anytime soon.