Helen Bell laid sheets of wax paper out on her kitchen table, weighing down the corners with small lumps of crystal. She got her dictionary down from where she kept it on top of the refrigerator and rested it on the seat of one of her kitchen chairs. The dictionary had swelled to about twice its original size, full of inserted paper towels and flowers pressed between.
She sighed. She wouldn't normally be working on a Saturday afternoon, but sales of her custom soaps had been way down this month since supply problems for her leather scent had forced her to discontinue "Bad Girl Comes Clean," her best-selling line. She needed to come up with a replacement that her customers would like just as much.
Helen opened the dictionary to "M," where she kept purples. The secret of the "Bad Girl" soaps had been the mix of violets with leather. Violets smell like heaven, but they flood and desensitize nasal receptors, meaning a person will perceive the smell as cutting in and out. The effect on "Bad Girl" soaps had been a changing aroma, sometimes naughtier and sometimes nicer.
She found two stained paper towels nestled between "meadow" and "mea culpa." Separating them with a delicate first finger, she revealed a thick mass of pressed violets, their colors ranging from a deepness that was nearly blue to lighter, pinker blooms. She traced a brittle petal and considered. What could she do with violets that would be new?
She jumped at the ring of her doorbell. It was a bit of a relief to get pulled away from thinking about her dire financial situation. Out of habit, Helen ran water over her hands and wiped them off, then went through her tiny living room to get her apartment door.
Her best friend Silvia leaned against the doorframe, looking like the wood was the only thing holding her up. Her black hair was a mass of uncombed flyaways, half tucked into the back of a leather jacket.
She wore big sunglasses and no makeup, though that didn't stop Helen from feeling jealous of Silvia's gorgeous golden skin. Silvia shoved the glasses down to peer at Helen while taking a swig from a coffee thermos almost as large as her head.
Helen rolled her eyes and grinned. She glanced over her shoulder to check the clock. "I know it's Saturday, but isn't it a little late for this look? It's, like, three."
"Oh my God, you have no idea." Silvia's accent was always stronger when she felt tired and full of attitude. Helen knew she'd actually grown up speaking English, but she'd picked up the sound of a Puerto Rican accent from older relatives who'd been native Spanish speakers. Helen always felt a proprietary thrill when she realized how well she knew her friend.
"Are you going to let me in?"
"Huh? Yeah, sorry. I was working; I'm not really with it either." Helen stepped aside, and Silvia swept past her and headed straight for the refrigerator.
"Girl, how do you live on all this bird food? You've got more stuff for making soap than you do for eating!"
"I actually pay for all the food I eat," Helen teased. She shut the door and went to the pantry. "I've got a thing of bagels I haven't opened yet."
Helen watched Silvia's fingers, unwrapping the package, teasing the two halves of the bagel apart, lifting stray sesame seeds to her tongue. "So, are you OK?"
"Yeah." Silvia dropped the halves of the bagel into the toaster and stopped. "Not really." She took off the sunglasses and turned to face Helen. A purpling bruise marred the ordinarily perfect flesh around her right eye. "Definitely not."
Helen sucked air in through her teeth. She wasn't the kind of girl who did martial arts or worked out at a boxing gym. She'd always thought of herself as an indoor girl. She liked flowers and glittery eye makeup. But the sight of Silvia's face inspired sudden violent fantasies in Helen, thoughts of tracking and punishing and making someone pay for their crimes very slowly. A very specific someone, Helen guessed.
"You went out with Jared again."
"It was Friday, and there was nobody else."
Silvia just held up a hand. The toaster dinged, and she took down one of Helen's plates and retrieved her rose jam from the refrigerator. Helen went to the table and moved the wax paper and dictionary so they'd be able to sit down. "You need to call the police."
"Seriously," Helen pressed.
"What I need is to go see some bruja and have her put a curse on his stupid ass.
"Either way, you need to stop calling him," Helen said. "I mean it. Can we take his number off your phone right now?"
Silvia pulled off her jacket, fished the phone out of a pocket, and handed it over. Helen traced the pattern that would unlock the screen and opened up Silvia's contact list.
"I actually do want advice from a bruja," Silvia said.
Helen checked Silvia's expression to make sure she wasn't joking. "The police would probably be a better bet." Jared was in the phone three different times, under his first name, his last name, and "Cabron," which Silvia called him when she either hated or loved him the most
Silvia winced and shook her head. "I just want to stop thinking about him, OK?" She took a big bite of her bagel. "I want a bruja to help me find someone good. You know I've got terrible taste. I want a love spell. Something to attract the right kind of person."
Helen looked up, her fingers stopping on the phone. "You attract plenty of people."
"Yeah. Especially last night."
"I mean it! There's no one as beautiful as you. Every time we go out together, I can tell other people see it. You're like--" Helen stopped, groping for words. "You're like a stained glass window with the dawn sun shining through it."
Silvia burst out laughing. Helen found herself blushing fiercely.
"Stop it," Helen said, trying to recover. "I'm being serious. If you need a love spell, you need one to help you be attracted to the right kind of person.
Silvia's face got serious, suddenly. "Will you go talk to my Abuela Jimenez for me, Helen? She knows about this stuff.
"Huh? Why don't you talk to her?"
"Are you kidding? If I go there with this bruise on my face, she'll want to cast a bunch of other spells, not what I want."
"The bruja equivalent of calling the police?" Helen asked sweetly.
Silvia groaned and polished off the bagel. "I had no idea you and my abuela had so much in common. Please? Tell her I sent you and you want it for yourself. You'll like her. She has the most awesome garden."
For as long as Helen had known Silvia, she'd never been able to refuse her friend. "Fine," she said finally. She told herself that anything was better than spending the afternoon coming up with a new recipe for soap.