When Meg first walks into a thrift store, a question automatically pricks the back of her mind. How is she gonna drink out of something that comes from a place that smells like this?
Like high-power laundry detergent and a bleach-based disinfectant, failing to cover the undefinable funk from grandma’s attic, the neighbor’s garage, floral notes of a cheap perfume spilled in a bureau 25 years ago. Maybe a hint of cat pee or something septic and mothballs, mothballs, mothballs.
Then a bigger part of her brain, even more primitive and intent on self preservation reminds her: I’m shopping for happiness.
So Meg rummages through housewares.
Lake-cabin smell is familiar to Don and Debbie. It is freshwater and pines trees and juniper. The clean forest scents fail to cover the stench of dead stuff and scat. Don knows this place better than anyone. He’s come at least twice a year his whole life. After high school, he lived in the cabin for a year. He burned through five cords of wood in the winter, sleeping under four quilts, the couch pulled within feet of the wood stove. In the summer, he sprayed every crevice of his body with bug replant and hiked through the woods naked. Bug spray is another element of lake-cabin smell, and so is sunscreen.
He opens the door to the Subaru and breathes. This is where I get my happiness, his nose tells his brain. In the passenger seat, Debbie opens her eyes, then the door. He can’t know Debbie’s mind, of course. These days they speak separate languages, without a common root. But he guesses the familiarity and safety of the lake cabin touches her, too.
Meg doesn’t think she’s evil.
Meg isn’t evil.
But the way this works is you have to mine happiness from somewhere.
Meg scratches Azrael’s ears. As families go, they’re happy.
Azrael keeps the mice away from the apartment at the top of the crumbling purple and green Victorian. Meg feeds him kibble, with sardines on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They read books together – Meg looking intently at the pages for some reason Azrael can’t fathom, while he pushes them gently with his paws. Paper feels nice on cat paws.
Twice a month, Meg has friends over for brunch or dinner. They’re the nice sort of friends – ones who will also scratch Azrael’s ears, but also know to leave him alone when he sits under the coffee table. Sometimes, Meg brings home a date. It’s not often, because she prefers to go to other women’s houses. That way, she can leave whenever she wants. When she does bring someone home, it’s the type of person who will toss the jingly mouse and leave before dawn.
Meg has achieved this life not by evil, but by knowing exactly how much happiness she can pinch from any mound. She only takes when there is enough to share, in easily regenerated ammounts. Sucking down all the happiness can be elating, but it feels like a bad hangover when it wears off.
Meg pours mulled wine into Don and Debbie May 2013. There are tulips etched under the names. She likes the glass okay, but tonight her drink tastes off. More bitter than it should be. She dumps the wine down the drain and leaves the glass on the counter.
She walks down the street to get a beer.
Debbie wants to be happy.
She’s been happy.
But she and Don seem unable to make happiness anymore, as if it came from a kiddie chemistry set and all the pre-packed beakers are empty.
She throws a ball into the lake and Murphy dives after it. He’s got that lab pelt, so he doesn’t mind that the water has chilled with the early fall air. Murphy probably knows something is wrong. Can a dog tell?
Don is on the deck, shucking the last sweet corn they’ll buy from the roadside stand this year. Ever: The last sweet corn they will ever buy from the roadside stand together. Don’s a good guy. But the way he chews. The way he jumbles silverware into drawers. The way he won’t give up on having a baby. The way he breathes. Dear god, the way he breaths: the endless in and out and in and out. The whistling of his nose in the spring. His hard breaths after shoveling snow in the winter. His contented sighs at the cabin in the summer.
Murphy returns to Debbie. She sips wine from her plastic tumbler. The tumbler lives at the cottage, but it predates their marriage. It’s from a girls’ trip to the Barbados. It reminds her of what it’s like to be drunk, careless and laughing with friends.
The wine tastes like freedom.
Meg enjoys three weak lagers. The bartender is flirtatious; they do a shot together at the end of her shift. The purple and green Victorian is only two blocks away, but Meg’s buzz casts a transformative spell on the neighborhood. Everything is a touch more interesting, a touch more dangerous, a touch more magic. Meg kicks wet leaves. The drops of water on her glasses make lights along the road look like dancing faeries.
Azrael is waiting, in his way. He’s a black puddle on the beaten floral couch. Meg brews tea and pours it into a mug, the perfect mug for a night like this. Jenny! is wearing her varsity cheer leading uniform, her puffs bound by silver and red bows. The mug is from last year, so it’s easy to imagine Jenny!, on this damp September Friday eating popcorn with her best friend while they paint each other’s toenails. Or tip-toeing down the hall to her bedroom after a date has gone too late. That happiness seems perfect to Meg right now. She strokes Azrael’s back as she sips the tea and he purrs.
When Meg rinses the mug, she notices Don and Debbie’s wine glass, broken in the sink. Azrael must have knocked it over. Just as well, it was a flimsy thing.
Outside a party in the suburbs, Jenny isn’t much less happy than she was moments before. She’s here with friends. She tried beer for the first time. It was okay, so she drank three, fast. Then she threw up in the bushes. But Aaron brought her a glass of water and a stick of gum.
She feels much better already.
Murphy does know something is wrong.
Don falls asleep on the sofa, flipping through a mushroom guide. Tomorrow, he and Murphy will hike in the woods, Don hunting for mushrooms, Murphy sniffing the scat and wild animal remains.
Murphy sleeps on the rug, beneath Don’s dangling arm. When Murphy wakes up in the middle of the night, he realizes Debbie isn’t there. The bedroom door is open a crack. He nudges it with his nose. Debbie sleeps quietly. When he sniffs, he understands a few hours ago she was crying.
He paces back and forth. Where should he sleep?
Brunch comes late at Meg’s; witches sleep in. None of them planned to become witches. Each woke up one day and realized she lived a queer, solitary life with a black cat and a kitchen full of re-purposed jars. The witches grow and brew and make oddities. They pick their way through a hostile world, using mysterious forces to carve out hospitality for their coven.
Alysha waves the jingly mouse for Azrael, while Maya helps Meg with glasses and mugs. Esme chops leaves she grew on her kitchen windowsill; they open clear lines of communication, she swears.
“Rich and Sue, Brad and Amy, Jeff and Mary,” Maya reads each couple’s names as she pours the mimosas. “Oh! Marc and Lilly are new!”
“I got them yesterday, at the Goodwill on Maple.”
“Where are Don and Debbie?” Maya asks.
“They broke. Last night.”
Esme stops chopping to push her sparkly, plastic-rimmed glasses up her nose. Of the witches, she’s the realist. Magic has its limits, she always says.
“I knew they’d never last,” Esme says. “Weak things like that. At least we got some happiness while it was there. Marc and Lilly seem promising.”
They chant a toast and sip mimosas.
Marc feels especially bad for being grumpy; the keys were in Marc’s coat pocket. They’re not a quarrelsome couple; Lilly took her book to the porch to avoid Marc’s grumbling.
He brings her coffee and kisses the top of her head.
“I’m sorry. I was rude.”
Lilly smiles. She accepts the coffee.
“I forgive you,” she says. “But isn’t it funny, how these unhappy feelings can take over? Sometimes, I imagine I must be under a spell.”
There’s a group photo on her mug; underneath it reads “Jackson Family Reunion.” The image of her family brightens Lilly’s smile.
She sips the coffee and it tastes extra warm, like a summer picnic.