‘So you will ask your grandfather tonight?’
‘Yeah. We always have him round for dinner. I’ll… I’ll see you at school tomorrow?’
Roger nodded. ‘Good luck.’
The next day Roger didn’t cross paths with Jimmy once. Given the size of their school, this was a cause of mild concern. Perhaps Jimmy had made it home only to realise he was insane and hallucinating mythological creatures and skipped school to recover. That’s what Roger had considered. But at the end of the day, as Roger headed for the gates, Jimmy caught up with him.
‘Granddad gave me this.’ Jimmy pulled a small bronze telescope from his pocket. ‘I told him everything, and he admitted he had a ‘brief romantic encounter’ with a sea witch at some point during the 1940s. I refused to ask any more questions. He said that explained why I had refused to go fishing with him for the last six months. He was quite relieved, actually, he thought I was distracted over a girl.’
‘What a relief,’ Roger agreed. They did not speak again until they reached the beach.
There she was, lurking in the surf. Her hair, on second viewing, appeared to be made of seaweed.
Jimmy stopped, wincing. ‘I can’t go any further.’ He handed Roger the telescope. ‘Tell the hag that my grandfather apologised for stealing her coral. He would have come himself, except he’s got one leg and several cats to look after.’ He paused. ‘We’ll know if this works because I’ll be able to join you.’
Roger approached the beach feeling like he was approaching a dog of questionable repute.
‘I’m quite surprised you’re here, dearie,’ the hag said. Her black eyes never left his face. ‘I wasn’t, to be honest, expecting to see you this far down the beach again.’
‘I imagine you weren’t,’ Roger agreed. He inhaled salty air and wondered how Jimmy had stayed sane all those months, staring at the sea but never stepping towards it. ‘Here, I have something for you.’ He held out the telescope. ‘From James I, with deepest apologies and kindest regards. He would have come himself, except he’s got one leg and several cats to look after.’
The hag stared. Roger imagined no one had managed to surprise her for at least sixty years. ‘How did you know?’ she asked. Roger pointed back up the beach.
‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘if you’re going to try to curse somebody around here, you should probably check they don’t go to school with somebody you’ve already cursed. Or that they don’t know the sailor who broke your heart and stole your tropical plants.’
‘Fair,’ the hag said grudgingly. There was a silence during which a small crab made its way from the end of a strand of her hair to the top of her head, where it buried itself. She exhaled. ‘Well, I suppose my coral is dead after all these years. This telescope is… well, also not alive.’
‘That’s true,’ Roger said swiftly. ‘But you were never going to get your coral back, alive or dead, because you banish everyone who touches it from the sea for eternity.’
‘You may have a point,’ she admitted. ‘But what do I get in all of this? I have no coral and no revenge on you ridiculous humans.’
‘Well, now you have a new ornament for your tropical plant collection. Gardens could always do with a bit of decoration, don’t you think?’ Buying gifts for his grandmother had come in useful, after all. ‘And wanting something you can’t have takes its toll eventually.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’ The hag sighed. ‘Very well. I, Mildred of the North Sea, do accept this gift as compensation for my loss, and henceforth lift all curses inflicted upon anyone I have deceived.’
‘Your name is Mildred?’
‘Your name is Roger,’ she pointed out. ‘I didn’t judge you for that.’
‘True,’ Roger agreed, ‘sorry.’
‘You know, I could still give you that potion,’ Mildred offered. Now she clutched her telescope, the teeth missing from her mouth appeared to be growing back. Her hair was starting to look a bit less seaweed-y and even the stench of rotting fish was receding. Maybe Jimmy was right: harbouring emotional baggage aged you.
Roger thought about it. ‘I’m all right, thanks.’
Mildred shrugged. ‘If you ever need me, wade into the sea and shout my name. I probably won’t try to drown you.’
‘Thanks,’ Roger said, and watched as she disappeared into sea foam. He wondered where the crab would go when her hair turned back into hair.
Jimmy joined him at the water’s edge. ‘Why didn’t you take the potion?’
‘How did you know?’
Jimmy crossed his arms. ‘Lucky guess.’
Roger exhaled. ‘I thought I might… stick around for a bit. What about you?’
‘Yeah, I was thinking about doing the same.’
‘So,’ Roger said as they walked up the beach, ‘did you pay to enter the museum every single day?’
Get early access to stories – and have a character named after you! – by pledging $1 on Patreon.
Thank you to Liz for critiquing, as always.
© Francesca Burke 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Francesca Burke and francescaswords.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.