Short Fiction: Names Have Power

The coffee had grown cold in her cup, but she drank it anyway, grimacing at the lukewarm taste. Mystic was the name she had chosen for herself for this group. Mystic Seaborne. It was silly, so silly. She thought they were a roleplay group, but she wasn’t sure what they were about, really. She was trying to make friends. She was all alone in the city. 

Mystic was better than her real name. She didn’t want to think about her real name, or about her one-bedroom walk-up apartment on five flights of stairs in a complex in a suburb forty minutes away. That was the point, too. It wasn’t just about friends. It was about escaping. She tapped her fingers, her shoulders hunched. It would figure if they had stood her up, or if she had gotten the wrong place or the wrong time. That was pretty much the story of her life. 

Mystic ran a hand through her scraggly brown nondescript hair and stared at the reflection of her pale nondescript face in the window. She decided maybe she should eat something. Her stomach was growling unaccountably. Since no one was here yet, it wouldn’t be rude. The coffee mug had a cartoon cat on it; the cartoon cat looked shocked, its eyes wide, its black fur scruffy, set into a purple backdrop. “Caffeinated!” the mug proclaimed in large, scrawling black letters. She needed some more coffee to consider herself that. She looked at the bags in her eyes and wondered what they would think of her. 

The waitress came by. She was a middle-aged woman with slouched shoulders and silver fox hair. She wore a pale yellow dress and her bronze name tag said “Doris.” Women like her usually dyed their hair, so Mystic gave her props for keeping it gray. She smiled broadly at her quiet patron. 

“Want a warmup, honey?” she drawled, her accent thick. 

“Yes, it’s gotten cold,” Mystic said. She realized her hands were shaking, and warmth crept into her cheeks. “Also, I’d like to order.” 

Doris paused, as if surprised, then set her coffee pot down and took out a notepad. “What’ll it be, honey?” 

“The Southwestern Omelette, with sourdough toast please,” she said. Before Doris could ask, she added, “And ketchup and hot sauce to the side please.” 

“Coming right up. You like it spicy huh?” 

“You could say that,” Mystic said, her face growing hotter, as she felt like squeezing into a ball in the corner of the booth. Then she berated herself. She was trying to make new friends. 

Her coffee thus warmed up, her food arrived in no time, and she dug in. She ate like she had not eaten anything in a week, ravenously devouring the spicy eggs after piling them high with mounds of ketchup and hot sauce. Really, she just didn’t want to be eating when the group arrived; that was rude. In no time her plate was finished, and she was sopping up pools of ketchup with her scalded toast. 

Outside, it had begun to rain. Her shoulders fell. Maybe this was a terrible idea. She downed her coffee before it got cold again. Doris came by, eyes widened at her finished plate. She took it away, then came back with the check and another cup of coffee. “Take your time, honey. No rush.” 

Mystic stared at the slip of paper, face down. She swallowed, tasting bile. Her stomach rumbled in protest; maybe she had eaten too fast. She quickly looked at the bill, flipping it over and resisting the urge to crumple the paper. Then she checked her wallet. A dollar short. Fuck. A day late and a dollar… She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a headache coming on. Her new “friends” were nowhere in sight. Maybe something had gone terribly wrong… 

She needed to get out of here. But she didn’t want the waitress to think she was ditching without paying. Sweat prickled her face. Times like these made her wish she smoked. That would be a plausible excuse. So instead she flagged down the waitress. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Doris. “My friends are going to be here soon. I just… need a breath of fresh air.” 

“How were the eggs, sweetie?” said Doris, her wrinkled plump face a combination of knowing, compassion and a dash of judgment. She must have known. Surely it was written all over Mystic’s face. 

“They were great,” said Mystic, giving Doris a beaming smile. Her heart thumped in her chest, and she just felt so wrong, just wrong. Her gut clenched. She was going to be sick. Doris with her kind blue eyes. Doris, not afraid to show her age. Mystic felt like she knew her; or at least, was emotionally invested enough not to rip her off. It wasn’t some nameless corporation she stole from; it wasn’t the restaurant; it was Doris, after all, the tip she wouldn’t get. But couldn’t she just put down the money she had? The question she would need to answer… What about the rest? What about my tip? 

Mystic swallowed. “If you need a lighter just let me know,” Doris said with a wink, patting Mystic’s shoulder. That was what made Mystic feel well and truly awful. It was just one meal. What was the big deal? It was just a dollar. 

Mystic couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The diner was pretty empty that afternoon. Just the usual old men who were retired city council members and businessmen hobnobbing at their coffee klatch, watching Fox News turned down. Mystic grimaced at the garbled sight of Tucker Carlson. The other patrons did not glance her way. 

The bell at the door jangled at her exit, stabbing a knife into her chest. Her eyes watered, but she wouldn’t cry. Why was this so hard? People stole things all the time and got away with it. Bigger things. More important things. More desperate things. This was just a buck. A dollar. A single bill. One Benjamin. 

Mystic found a spot by the dumpster, and luckily no employees were taking their smoke breaks now. She breathed in hard, rapid gulps. The air here felt stale, stagnant, dead. She sank against the wall of the restaurant to her haunches. It was a cold afternoon. She stared at the row of trees in the vacant lot adjacent the back of the restaurant. Their branches danced in the breeze, like harbingers of darkness. Mystic’s face was sweating even though it was cold. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to control her breathing. She kept watching the front of the restaurant, in case the group showed up. But now it was a half hour; they weren’t coming. Something was wrong. 

Then she couldn’t hold it back anymore. She threw up behind the dumpster, hard dry heaves. Her mouth tasted sickly and acidic and she brushed her face with her sleeve. Her jacket was still in the restaurant; collateral, she’d thought. But in her thin cardigan in the cold, she shivered. It was approaching autumn here. That time when you regretted that summer was so short but it would soon become cold days and dark nights. Around here, it happened faster than anyone thought possible. 

Mystic’s knees buckled, and she sat down on the dirty ground, littered with dirt and spent cigarette butts. She stretched out her legs. She couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. The trees beyond beckoned her. Just run, they said. Forget about it. It’s not worth worrying your pretty head over. She gulped. Mystic Seaborne was a dumb name to choose. This whole idea was dumb. A roleplaying group? What was she thinking? A bunch of flakes, more like. She wouldn’t have anything to talk about with them. She didn’t play video games. She didn’t read fantasy novels. She liked Law and Order. She was on the cheerleading squad in high school. Now she worked part time at a nail salon. She could only afford the apartment in the city because her parents paid her rent. First job out of college, times were tough. 

She looked at her own nails. The paint was chipping and the corners were torn from biting them, a nervous habit. A bad look for a nail salon attendant. She hid them self-consciously just thinking about it, then sucked on her index fingernail, the compulsion too strong to ignore. She thought she’d probably get fired soon. But manicures were expensive to maintain, so she did them herself. She needed to keep up with it more often. Even if you worked around them, nails were easily forgotten, especially when you spent too much time in your head, thinking about how much your life sucks.

An onslaught of exhaustion washed over her. She couldn’t decide what to do. She should just go in there and apologize and say she was a dollar short, and she’d be back with more money to make up for it. That would be the ethical thing to do after all. 

But then the mist in the trees seemed to rise, a thick fog that she hadn’t noticed before. It was speaking to her. Taunting her. She didn’t know how, but the longer she studied it, the more it tickled her mind. She squinted into the blackness. It was still afternoon, still far from sunset. But the woods were dark, filled with foreboding. Beyond this vacant lot, there was the freeway. 

“It’s too hard to go back there and explain yourself,” said the voice. “Come with us. We’ll make you feel better.” 

The fog turned into shapes, human shapes, little sprites and fairies, figures outlined in the murkiness. Mystic’s stomach lurched. She vomited again, and she didn’t wipe her face this time; she held her head high, with breakfast detritus sliming on her cheek. She looked toward the front of the restaurant, in case the group had shown up. She checked her phone. An email showed up in her inbox. Five minutes before the meeting time. “Sorry, group canceled today. Erin is sick. We’ll reschedule. Details in the Slack group.” 

Mystic sighed. She didn’t even think to check her phone. Of course, they were geeks, they’d be glued to their phones. Who was she kidding? She was usually glued to her Instagram feed. Making makeup tutorial videos. Chasing Internet fame too. But sometimes she felt like joining the real world every once in awhile.

But the voices still scratched at her mind. “Come with us,” they said. “They’re not coming. They would have loaned you the cash. Or maybe they would have laughed at you.” 

Laughed at her, sure. Mystic bet on the latter. She didn’t even know why she was using that stupid name. This was a group for stupid flakes. She wanted to crunch her phone into a million pieces, but instead she put it in her bag. She stood up, shaky on her feet. She felt drunk, even though she’d only downed four cups of coffee. Black, with four sugars. 

“Come with us,” the voices whispered, sibilant along her racing thoughts. They followed the shape of her thoughts and ran with them, colliding with them. “We can take your pain away.” 

She never thought of it as pain, but maybe it was. Her stomach felt like lead. Her eyes felt like drifting closed, but she fought to stay awake. She looked behind her shoulder. No one was coming for her, even though it was a long break. She thought of her jacket, one of her favorites; but she could leave it. 

“Mystic Seaborne,” whispered the voice, taunting her. “Is that really your name?” 

“No,” she said, her lips chapped and thick. She found herself walking forward, toward the mists. Anytime she expected Doris to come out and yell at her. “Lady, you still haven’t paid!” But she wasn’t coming. She imagined her look of disappointment on her face. 

“What is your name?” 

“Mystic,” she said, licking her lips. Somehow she knew she shouldn’t give her real one. Names had power, or so all the fairy stories said. A face dancing in the mists laughed at her. 

“What kind of a dumb name is that?” 

But she said it over and over again. Her head pounded. She felt as if she were being pulled by an invisible string into the woods, and she was helpless against its pull. She walked through the woods, wide-eyed with wonder. 

Then she heard a voice calling her name, her real name, and she froze. Doris was after her. But the mists caressed her mind, telling her sweet nothings. She felt like a frightened rabbit as she turned back toward the restaurant. It was another world here, and she was trapped. Indeed, Doris had left the restaurant. She was still in her yellow dress and had her nameplate on. Her glasses were on her head. She looked worried, not angry, her blue eyes scouring the parking lot. 

Mystic’s heart raced. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go back now. She clutched her bag tighter to her body. The mists crowded around her, angry on her behalf. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” they said, and she believed them. Her fear quickly turned into something else. She knew this emotion. This ugly, raw emotion. She had worked hard over the years to fight it. And now it was back with a vengeance. It was why she worked part-time at a nail salon and dropped out of college. They had found out. They found out what she did when she was sixteen even though the records were sealed. It was an accident. You could prove it was an accident. But it wasn’t really. She knew the truth. She knew the intent of her heart. 

She thought to run. That would be the easiest thing to do. But instead she crouched behind a tree and waited. She breathed quietly through her nose. The voices kept whispering to her. Validating her anger. “You’re right, honey,” they said. “You’re right. You’re going to be all right.” 

She believed them. Doris shouted her name. The worry was turning fiercer. Doris knew. Doris knew her plans all along. She came closer to the woods, looking through the mist, standing on her toes. “Listen, we can work something out if you can’t pay,” Doris said, sounding like a grandmother. Mystic’s heart lurched. She wanted to throw up again. But then Doris saw the mists. Really saw them. Her pace slowed down; her eyes widened. She came farther into woods. Her feet caught on the underbrush. 

“Come here. Mystic. Now we know your real name. Now we know…” The voices laughed at her. She followed them. But also, she wanted to follow them. It was just like before. She felt exactly as she had before, when she was sixteen, and she had killed her friend. It was an accident, she said. She knew better. She wanted Bridget dead. She wanted her boyfriend. It was a simple exchange. A life for a life. Nothing special about it. 

So Mystic walked further into the woods. If it weren’t for the mist, they would seem like a small vacant lot, and a stand of trees. But the mist made them seem like a wilderness. Mystic could hear the noise of the traffic beyond. She started to run. She kicked off her shoes and felt the grass and the needles under her feet. Doris followed. 

“Good girl,” said the mists. “Good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Just like that. Just like that. Come closer.” 

They ejected her from the woods and she nearly collapsed into the road. It was a freeway onramp. Traffic rushed by her, horns blaring. She couldn’t stop the rush of her breath. Doris was soon behind. Mystic looked behind her shoulder. Her eyes were dark and sad and tired. “Wait!” Doris said, calling out her name. Her real name. “We can work something out, honey!” 

Desperation clawed at her throat, and she couldn’t understand it. Was twelve dollars and forty cents really that big of a deal? She waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran. Doris followed. 

The oncoming semi didn’t wait. “Scarlett,” Mystic whispered, her voice thick and hot. The mists made her do it. But she knew that wasn’t true. Names have power, after all. 

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