Some people thought the gypsy caravan that roved around Newburg every few weeks was charming. Jackie wouldn’t go so far as to join them in their sentiment. For her, it was merely amusing. This morning the convoy of peddlers was camped outside the gates of the Complex Lab Complex. Judging by the sneers of disgust the researchers in their white lab coats were giving the tents as they rode past, she knew Lower Newburg wasn’t happy about it. The undercurrent of resentment between sages and scientists was still alive and well in Newburg.
She was on her way to one brightly covered wagon in particular to meet Mrs. Pitkin when she caught a white coat on his way out of the tent. Jackie gave a snort of surprise. His face turned as red as the paper bag he shoved into his pocket. She wasn’t sure if it was because he was face to face with a pig or if he’d rather not be seen coming out of a caravan with the banner over it that read Sway Love Your Way Today.
The red faced scientist scampered away to the complex, and Jackie stepped up the three wooden steps into the rickety caravan with the feeling of eyes on her back. She looked around but saw no one. It was probably that interfering Amelia again following her around like a shadow. Jackie shrugged and pulled back the canvas flap.
Not for the first time was she struck with the sense that the interior of the wagon was somehow larger than it seemed on the outside. “I’ll be right with you!” Came a sing song voice from behind a red curtain at the back of the wagon. A small round table hunched in the center of the room with a tatted lace covering over it and a vase filled with musty-smelling roses. Two mismatched chairs were tucked under the table. Red and purple fabric draped from the arched wood frame of the wagon’s roof and acted as a privacy screen at the open back door. Jackie strolled along the wooden shelves on the sides of the wagon, scanning the vials, dry herbs, and powders. Sometimes picking objects up to give them a short whiff and then putting them back down.
The red curtain parted and the highly decorative Mrs. Pitkin breezed through. Her smile fell upon seeing Jackie’s face. “Oh, it’s you.”
“I have a few questions for you, Mrs. Pitkin,” Jackie said, ignoring the woman’s newly curdled demeanor.
“Of course you do. You’re never here inquiring after my services, only inquiring after other things, other people. You of all people could benefit the most from my potions.”
Jackie snort-scoffed at that preposterous statement and began her inquiry. “How much does age factor in to your client’s love potions?”
Mrs. Pitkin snatched up a feather duster and began swiping it over various surfaces. “I don’t sell love potions here. That would be illegal wouldn’t it?” The gypsy woman stared at her for a long moment, and Jackie watched the dust motes she had kicked up settle back down into place behind her. When Jackie didn’t respond she continued, “I’m strictly in the business of romance. Take this romance elixir.” She picked up a heart shaped vial with thick red liquid inside. “It’s made from rose thorns, red wine, impatience, a drop of desire, pine, and a hint of cocoa. There’s no love mixed in at all, but drinking it will certainly nudge you in the right direction.” She proffered the blood red vial out toward Jackie with a fox-like grin. Jackie took it and promptly set it on the shelf next to her without giving it a second glance.
Mrs. Pitkin’s lip curled and she began her feather duster assault once more.
“Do all your clients find themselves happy in romance or is it just the younger ones?” Jackie persisted.
“Age has nothing to do with romance.” She waved her feather duster in the air in front of Jackie, wiping away the notion. The gypsy lady’s arched nose rose higher into the dust filled air. “We sages do not concern ourselves with age. More years bring greater insight and poise.”
“Is that why you wear all that rouge?” Jackie asked dryly. Mrs. Pitkin’s heavily painted mouth puckered. “And if I looked over here, what would I find?” Jackie selected from a set of cylindrical vials full of a bubbling sky blue liquid. “Ah yes, Vitalitonic.”
“Hey don’t touch that!” Mrs. Pitkin cried and yanked the vial from her hand. “I just replenished my supply. I was burgled, and then the gold crisis hit so I’ve just now been able to purchase the necessary ingredients!” She held the vial close to her chest as if protecting it.
Jackie held her hands up placatingly. “Look, someone out there is fiddling with age, and I know turning back the clock a few years would be… advantageous to your clientele.”
Mrs. Pitkin nestled the vial of bubbling liquid back with the others. “So I smooth a wrinkle here or there. A woman wants to look her best when she is searching for love. That doesn’t make me a criminal. Besides, it’s not like it lasts more than a few days.”
Jackie felt her hand reach for her shock pistol before she even registered what was happening. Heavy footsteps ran up the wagon’s wooden steps making the whole caravan shake. The canvas flap was flung aside as a person in a black coat and hood burst through bowling over the table and chairs and knocking Jackie and a shrieking Mrs. Pitkin over in turn. Jackie fired her weapon mid-fall, and instead of hitting her intended target, the electric beam zapped the basket full of romance elixir sending a spray of blood-like liquid all over the caravan and its occupants. Jackie pushed the table and the rose vase off of her and tried to stand, spitting the sweet and sour tasting elixir from her lips. Before she could right herself, the intruder kicked the pistol out of her hand and in the process kicked Jackie right in the mouth. She tumbled back to the floor, lip pulsing with pain and fell next to a potion spattered Mrs. Pitkin. The gypsy woman was awake, but seemed dazed as she slowly blinked red droplets from her eyelashes.
The hooded intruder looked frantically around the shop and then took a determined step for the shelf of Vitalitonic. They took the basket that had recently held the Romance Elixir and with one swipe of an arm, dumped all the vials of Vitalitonic into it.
“N-no!” Mrs. Pitkin croaked as the intruder dashed toward the exit. Jackie grunted and lunged at the hooded figure, plowing into their legs. The intruder lost balance and the basket of vials was hurled up in the air as they tumbled out the canvas flap and down the wagon steps. Jackie managed to catch the falling basket before it collided with her face and gave her another bloody lip. She quickly set it down next to her and scrambled to her feet intent on pursuit. She threw the flap back and ran down the steps her eyes scouring the horizon, the parking area of the Complex Lab Complex, and as far down Zinc Street as she could see. There was no sign of the intruder. No sign of anyone. Huffing and puffing with adrenaline, she ascended the caravan steps once more.
Mrs. Pitkin had gotten to her feet and righted the table, though the chairs and roses still scattered the floor. She seemed to be taking in the destruction around her. Jackie licked the blood from her split lip noting the familiar copper taste mingled with the overly pungent flavors of the Romance Elixir. She gulped in horror as her eyes met the bitter expression on Mrs. Pitkin’s face.
“There will surely be romance in your future now,” she pronounced.
Jackie’s boots felt lighter as she left the busy streets of Olde Towne behind with its squawking hawkers and bustling carts. She had taken the path to Dr. Amas’ home office countless times, but she was surprised that she had never taken in the scenery along the way before now. Her footfalls made pleasant noises as they met small stones and damp leaves. The fresh autumn breeze cooled her lungs and caressed tree branches sending a shower of leaves around her like amber raindrops.
After a blissful walk which didn’t feel long enough, the dappled sun glanced off one of the many facets of Dr. Amas’ glass geodesic dome nestled in the middle of the forest. Dr. Jien Amas ran a naturapothecary and was one of the few sages with the title of “doctor” attached to his name. He had been Jackie’s healthcare practitioner since she was a child and when he was just starting out.
Jackie’s parents had believed that nearly all disease could be stamped out at the genetic level. They disagreed with most medicinal practices which is why she never saw them visit a doctor, and they never brought her to one either. Now, even though she was a grown woman and her parents were long dead, she still couldn’t bring herself to go to a hospital if she needed it. Luckily, she had never had much more than a sniffle and she had rarely received an injury that time couldn’t heal. For anything serious, Jackie called on Dr. Amas.
She lightly rapped on the glass door and saw Dr. Amas alert to the noise as he swiveled in his office chair. The olive skinned man wore a knit turtle neck sweater. The bare areas of his salt and pepper hair line had receded a bit more since the last time she had been here.
“Jackleene!” he said as he swept the door open toward her. “It has been too long!” A gust of interior air rushed over her scented with drying herbs, oil agents, and spicy aftershave.
“It has been too long,” Jackie agreed hoarsely.
Dr. Amas closed the door behind her and the familiarity of the surroundings settled her senses. She felt more comfortable here than most places. Here, she was never judged, just accepted. Sunlight that reached through the canopy of trees around them warmed the dome and nourished an assembly of potted plants that rested on shelves, along glass walls, and hung from thin iron beams above them. Cut and drying plants hung there too waiting to be sorted and ground into any number of poultices, salves, or tinctures. A clean white work table stretched along the center of the large room with the doctor’s swivel chair nearby it and a small pile of chopped herbs heaped next to a mortar and pestle. A flame flickered from a portable burner with a glass beaker full of boiling green liquid hovering over it.
Out of habit, Jackie took a seat on the doctor’s examination table and felt further relaxed. Dr. Amas’s kind eyes looked questioning, the natural dark patches underneath them giving him an unexpected rogueish air. Jackie blinked her eyes rapidly and cleared her throat trying to regain her senses again. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a vial of Vitalitonic ungraciously donated from Mrs. Pitkin. She thrust the vial of bubbling blue liquid at the doctor, who took it, mystified.
“I’m hoping you can help identify what’s in this concoction. It’s a vitality potion from Mrs. Pitkin’s caravan,” she said not daring to meet his eyes again.
Dr. Amas turned and set the vial down gingerly on his work table. When he faced her again he wore a desperate expression and held a sprig of lavender between his fingers for her. She took it, closing her eyes to inhale its earthy scent with her sensitive snout. It was the most precious gift she had ever received. She opened her eyes to look intensely into the doctor’s deep brown orbs. His countenance changed from desperate to perplexed.
“Jackleene, why am I overcome with the compulsion to serenade you?” he asked earnestly.
“A song?” Jackie answered with a question, surprised at the hopeful tone in her voice.
Dr. Amas’s thick eyebrows drew together. “Did you have anything to drink at Mrs. Pitkin’s?”
Jackie licked at her split lip. “Not on purpose,” she answered wryly, though her tongue lingered on her lip a second longer than she was comfortable with.
“I see,” Dr. Amas replied. After a moment he tore his eyes from her face and dashed about the dome gathering supplies. A small bottle here, a pinch of an herb there. He took it all to his mortar and pestle and began mixing the ingredients together. Jackie was hypnotized by the rhythmic motions of his muscles beneath his cable knit sweater as he ground the items down into a mealy syrup. Dr. Amas scooped some of the syrup with a spoon and tasted a bit. He stared at Jackie for a second, and she found herself being drawn into his chocolate brown eyes again. “Oh yes, that’s much better,” he said smacking his lips. “Here,” he said offering another spoonful to Jackie. She noticed she would be sharing his spoon and her cheeks warmed. Her mouth closed around the syrup and she grimaced. Managing to force the bitter substance down she gasped and coughed and met Dr. Amas’s eyes again.
Though this time they were just brown eyes in her old friend’s face. The dark patches under them no longer seemed to enhance any appeal he might have, and Jackie was extremely grateful that he wasn’t singing to her.
“What was that?” she asked trying to scrape the remnants of the syrup off on the roof of her mouth. “What happened?”
“An antidote to whatever Mrs. Pitkin gave you that was toying with our brain chemistry.” He gave her a pleasant and professional smile. Relief draped over her.
Realizing she was still holding the lavender he had given her, she got up and put it back in a basket along with a pile of others saying, “Sorry, if I.. I didn’t mean to…”
“No, not at all!” Dr. Amas said as if he had just helped her clean up a spill and she hadn’t just poisoned him with a love potion. “Emotions are powerful things. Especially when you’re not in control of them. All it needed was some day old coffee, some rosemary—for remembrance—, a bit of bitterroot to counter the sweet, and an ounce of sense and we are in our right minds again! Now, as for this?” he said feeling his cheek and lip where the injuries on her own face were.
“I’m not worried about my face, Doc. Really. I’m more concerned about what’s in that Vitalitonic there. Someone out there is willing to hurt people to get it.”
“I can’t just let you leave without treating obvious lacerations and contusions. Please, sit. Then we will deal with Mrs. Pitkin’s other potion.”
Jackie sat back down on the examination table ready for the treatment to be over with. Dr. Amas briefly prodded her cheek and then went back to his work table where he gave his mortar a good rinse.
“Pitkin can tell me most things that are in it, lamb’s ears, dragon’s blood, the first breeze of spring, moxie, vigor. But she says there’s also an unknown mixture in there that she got from the underground. She claims it’s just to make it bubble, but I gotta wonder if there’s more to it than that,” she said, holding the blue vial up to the sunlight seeping through the leaves above her.
“What you have listed are all potent ingredients,” said Dr. Amas, bringing out an additional mortar and crumbling herbs and pouring oils into both. “You may be right about the unknown component being the motivation for your injuries however I think it’s something simpler.” He set one of the mortars into her lap and handed her a pestle. He began to grind the items in his mortar and nodded at her to do the same. She was pleased that she was not interested in his muscles in the slightest. The oil in her mortar emulsified with the bruised plant parts and gave off a pungent but not disagreeable scent.
“Certain herbs and plants are healing on their own, but sages give their mixes something extra that makes them particularly potent. Now, smear a bit of your newly made salve onto your lip. I’ll put some of mine onto the bruise on your cheek bone.”
Jackie dipped her index finger into the green mush and dabbed it on her lip. She fought back a wince when it touched the open skin. Dr. Amas applied his salve to her cheek in a circular motion and pushed his rolling chair back a few feet to examine the effects from a distance.
While they waited, Jackie’s cheek tingled like a limb out of blood supply. Some of her salve seeped through her closed lips and onto her tongue. It was gross, but preferable to the bitter tasting love potion antidote. After a quick moment, Dr. Amas’s eyes brightened.
“There. All better,” he said.
Jackie moved her snout and mouth around tentatively. Dr. Amas held up a small mirror for her. Her split lip was still apparent and tender, but her cheek was bruise free.
“Well, you’ve proved what we suspected all along, Doc. I’m no sage,” she said sarcastically, poking at her cheek and her lip in turn, noting the contrasting levels of swelling and pain.
“I knew I’d make a great detective,” he joked, wiping the salve from her lip and applying his own instead. Jackie watched in the mirror as the redness diminished and the split skin grew back together. “What I was hoping to demonstrate was that sage brews are more effective because a sage made them. Perhaps this would-be thief wanted the Vitalitonic not because of the ingredients but because Mrs. Pitkin made it?” Dr. Amas took the vial from Jackie and shook his head in appreciation. “The ingredients you listed were simple, but wow, is this powerful!”
“Powerful in a good or bad way?” Jackie asked with a frown.
“It’s good. Can’t you feel it? It’s got a vibe.”
Jackie listed her head to the side making her big ears flop over. “I only get vibes about people.”
Dr. Amas held the bubbling vial up to the light again and said, “Well I get vibes about things, and this has a good vibe. I know Mrs. Pitkin cuts a few corners, but she’s not as bad as all that. She’d never intentionally hurt someone.”
“I don’t get all bad vibes from Mrs. Pitkin, but I don’t get all warm fuzzies either. I gotta hunch her Vitalitonic has something to do with those missing kids. Someone out there was okay with hurting her to get it, and I don’t know who and I don’t know why.”
Dr. Amas cradled the vial delicately on his lap now. “I don’t know either, but this is powerful stuff. If used incorrectly it could be very bad.”
“How’s that? You said it had a good vibe,” Jackie asked confused.
“If you want something desperately enough to hurt someone else, anything can become bad; that’s how curses are born.” He turned to her with just a hint of pity in his eyes. It wasn’t enough for her to hate him for it, merely a recognition of her supposed jinx. “I don’t know why anyone would want to curse someone else. It comes back to haunt you three fold.”
Jackie snorted. This just confirmed what she already knew. She wasn’t cursed. She was a genetic experiment gone wrong. If she were cursed like everyone else believed, and if curses backfired three fold then there should be someone running around with three pig heads out there. She was sure she they wouldn’t go unnoticed. The amount of lipstick needed to hide three pig heads would be staggering.
“A cursed age-defying potion,” she mused. “Could this be used to rob someone’s youth?”
Dr. Amas frowned in thought. “A bad enough curse could do a number of things.”
“Come with me,” she said, standing abruptly and snatching the vial from his hands. “I need your vibe detector.”
They took the sky train back to the Complex Lab Complex. This time, Jackie didn’t bother with the waiting area’s merciless chairs. She found the lab she was looking for in building B and without knocking, swung the door open and entered. Dr. Amas followed uncertainly behind Jackie.
The lab shared the same white walls and white floors as Dr. Weber’s lab, but wasn’t even a quarter of the size. Where Dr. Weber‘s lab smelled of hot plastic and refrigerated air, this lab held the scent of chemicals, and plant extracts. Lotions, and creams, and various other goops were labeled and arranged neatly on a wall of cubbies to her left. A few framed diplomas were displayed on the wall opposite the door along with a digital frame cycling through pictures of people.
A woman in a lab coat glanced up from observing an emulsifying substance in an automatic mixer. She was strikingly beautiful with golden brown skin and a bold mane of tightly spiraled inky curls. Cherry stained lips stretched wide across brilliantly white teeth though the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“Hello,” the woman asked with a hint of perplexity. “It’s not very often I get visitors down here.”
“Dr. Cendella Shaw.” Jackie said the woman’s name almost like an accusation.
“Yes, and who might you be?” Dr. Shaw asked, clearly trying to rein in her horrified fascination at Jackie’s swine snout.
Jackie sauntered to the wall of cubby- like shelves reading the labels as she replied. “I’m detective Jacqueline Thurgood. This is Dr. Amas. He’s assisting me today.” Dr. Amas gave the woman a tentative smile as he walked closely behind Jackie.
“And what brings you both to my lab?” Dr. Shaw asked, suspicion creeping into her voice.
Jackie didn’t answer but continued reading the labels on the shelved bottles. Most of them were marked with an alpha numeric code which meant nothing to her. Every so often, there was a bottle with a name beneath the code. Jackie assumed this meant the bottle contained a completed product, finished with testing and tweaking. Shortly, she came upon the finished product she had been looking for.
“Joie de Vivre,” Jackie read the name on the bottle and cut a glance to Dr. Shaw. Her cherry lips rolled into a tense line. “What kind of vibe do you get from this, Doc?” Without breaking eye contact with Dr. Shaw, Jackie tossed the plastic bottle of Joie de Vivre over her shoulder. Dr. Amas caught it easily.
“Yie!” he exclaimed and instantly lobbed the bottle across the lab as if it had burned his skin. Jackie whirled around at his outburst. The bottle didn’t open, but it scuttled loudly across the floor until it hit the far wall. Dr. Shaw’s, tightly clenched jaw slacked in surprise. “I’m so sorry,” he said, his sudden reaction seeming to have shocked him as well. “The jar, it felt very wrong. Evil almost.”
The metal latch of the lab’s door clanked, and Dr. Shaw frowned at yet another unexpected visitor. Amelia Levin breezed through, ruddy cheeked and windblown. “I have been trailing you all over town, but I finally caught up to you! I have the ID’s you wanted,” she said breathlessly to Jackie. Then, turning to the lab’s owner she said, “Hello, Dr. Shaw. It’s lovely to see you again.”
“Yes,” Jackie moved slowly toward Dr. Shaw. “Not long ago Ms. Levin featured you in her beauty section for your recent advancements in anti-aging products.” Jackie cocked and eyebrow and pinned Dr. Shaw with a knowing glare. A small line formed between Dr. Shaw’s perfect brows, but she said nothing.
Dr. Amas took the awkward moment to hastily replace the bottle of Joie de Vivre he had tossed across the room back on the shelf. Amelia approached the cycling digital frame on the wall with narrowed eyes.
“Wait, that boy. That’s Gregory Matisse,” she said pointing to a dimpled, brown eyed boy of about ten years old in one of the images. “He was the boy reported missing last week. Do you know him?”
“My son.” Dr. Shaw’s dewy skin rumpled before she hung her head. Silent tears spilled to the floor, and Amelia moved to put a comforting arm around the grieving woman. Jackie didn’t remove her glare.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Dr. Shaw sobbed quietly.
Amelia rubbed her hand up and down Dr. Shaw’s upper arm to comfort her. “I’m not sure anyone knows what to do in your situation.”
“No, you don’t understand. I think I’m responsible. But I didn’t know what to do.” She looked Amelia in the eye. Amelia stopped her caress and stared puzzled at the woman. Dr. Shaw then looked to Dr. Amas as if he would have some sort of solution. Then at Jackie. Her open, pleading eyes turned down cast, and her mouth looked as if she had tasted something sour.
“Go on. Tell us what happened,” Jackie urged as if asking a child to fess up to a lie. Dr. Shaw slowly sank onto a nearby rolling stool.
“Human Resources was pushing for something new. Some new breakthrough to justify my presence in this complex. I was on fire when I first arrived here, developing non-toxic serums for UV protection and even topical melanoma treatments. But for the past few years I haven’t been able to come up with anything meaningful or remotely useful. Each night I put Gregory to bed, and then wash my face. Every new wrinkle I see in the mirror is more proof that my best days are farther and farther behind me. My best discoveries, my youthful looks.”
Jackie frowned wondering how this flawless woman could have been any more beautiful than she was now.
“I was desperate for my anti-aging formula to be successful. I didn’t want to be pushed out of my lab in disgrace. But nothing I was mixing was effective in the slightest.” She gnawed on her lower lip for a moment before continuing. “So, I stole Mrs. Pitkin’s Vitalitonic and infused it into my formula hoping that a sage made brew would make my products successful. I put the cream on the back of my right hand to test, but forgot the time and had to rush out to pick up my son from gymnastics. By the time I got to the gym, I could tell the cream was working; the elasticity of the skin was remarkably improved compared to my left hand, and though I hadn’t noticed any problems, my joints even felt looser. Less stiff,” she said objectively; the scientist in her taking over.
“But then Gregory came out of the gym with his friend Desiree, and I marveled at how young and energetic she was. So much like my younger self. Desiree popped a piece of gum in her mouth and asked if we each wanted a piece. I did want one, but I could feel this… this deep chasm opening in me that wanted so much more than a piece of gum. It wanted youth and vigor and effortless beauty. This dark hunger was all I could think of, and I fumbled for the gum, touching her hand in the process. My skin burned where it met hers, but the strange hunger was gone. Later that night, I put Gregory to bed. When I looked in the mirror after I washed my face, I looked younger than I had in years.” Dr. Shaw gazed down at her hands, seeming to not be pleased by the result.
“Desiree didn’t show up for the next practice, and before long I found out she was missing. So you see, I think I did something. But I don’t know what, and I don’t know what to do.”
“You created a curse of wanting,” Dr. Amas said, leaning back against a work table to diagnose the situation.
“A what?” Jackie and Amelia asked simultaneously.
“A curse of wanting. I saw something similar on my Earth about twenty years ago when an entire high school power lifting team atrophied. Their rivals wanted the regional trophy so much they created a curse. If you appear younger, it’s possible that the Joie de Vivre cream is stealing youth. The formula is now cursed and has likely made the child—er Desiree did you say— has likely made Desiree age.”
“She was probably confused with such a rapid change, not to mention the effects of an aging brain and wandered off,” Amelia mused.
“Spreading the curse to others,” Jackie concluded. Dr. Amas nodded in confirmation.
Dr. Shaw’s shoulders sagged, and she blinked more tears away. “I never intended anything like this to happen. And now, my own son—” she broke off as tears choked away the rest of her sentence.
“We’re lucky this isn’t on the market yet. This curse could have spread exponentially,” said Dr. Amas gesturing to the bottle of Joie de Vivre with caution, not daring to touch it again.
“So now we know what probably happened to the children, but we still don’t know where they are,” Amelia remarked.
Jackie wrinkled her snout in thought. “Hey Doc. Can you whip something up to counter the effects of this curse like you did with that romance potion earlier?”
Amelia’s eyebrows shot up in speculation, but Jackie warned off any future prying with a scowl.
“Many of the base ingredients of the Vitalitonic would work well: lamb’s ear, dragons blood,” he ruminated aloud.
Amelia gasped. “You’re not going to cut the ears off lambs for this concoction are you?” she asked, eyes wide in shock.
“These are all plant names my dear. No need to fear for the little lambs. I think I would add hens and chicks to reawaken the children’s need for their parents. But yes, I think I could make something effective.”
“Good. I think I know where to look for our first kid.”
Jackie walked briskly down Lanthanum Street, taking the same route she had the night before. Though now the bright autumn sun was beaming on her and her entourage —Amelia, Dr. Amas, and Dr. Shaw—the temperature hadn’t warmed any. The ocean air carried the promise of winter along with it.
As they neared the entrance to the Quick Shop where she had bought Tom’s tuna, Jackie could see a bent form camped in front of it. She quickened her pace in anticipation. As she suspected, the elderly person clutching the gold coin whom she had held the door for the previous night was there, surrounded by bags of cotton candy in various stages of consumption.
The group stopped abruptly just behind Jackie. “Is this the person you were referring to?” asked Dr. Amas.
Only the individual’s withered face could be seen peeking out amidst the folds of their oversized coat. Their nose was nipped red with cold, but their cheeks were green tinged. A bit of blue cotton candy was crusted to the corners of their mouth.
“Yes,” Jackie answered. “I thought it was strange for an older person to have such a sweet tooth.”
“It could be an unfortunate case of diabetes. They might have an overwhelming craving for the sugar,” Dr. Amas observed looking concerned.
“Let’s hope not. For a number of reasons,” Jackie said.
Dr. Amas unscrewed the top off a small tub of cream just as Amelia pulled the stylus from her hair bun and began jotting some notes. Dr. Shaw had accompanied the group in hopes that the old person Jackie had come across was her son, Gregory. She now stood behind the group, curiosity and guilt taking turns on her face.
Dr. Amas slowly crouched down toward the huddled person and said in a voice louder than usual, “Hello there. I am Dr. Jien Amas. I’m going to apply a small amount of cream to your face. It will not hurt you. At the least it will help you with the windburn on your cheeks. Is that okay?” he smiled warmly.
Cloudy eyes shifted toward him beneath heavy lids, but the elderly person didn’t answer or move to object. Gingerly, the doctor massaged a blueberry sized amount of cream across the person’s cheek, and sat back on his heels to monitor any changes.
Jackie bit the inside of her cheek. For a moment nothing happened. Then, almost imperceptibly, the person’s hollow cheek began to plump up and the skin grew taut over it. Amelia drew in a quick breath as the rest of their face followed course, smoothing in places, drawing tight in others, shortening a bit. Finally, the face disappeared completely as the individual’s body shrank inside the extra-large brown coat.
Dr. Shaw stepped forward earnestly, and peeled down the coat’s collar revealing a young girl with blonde hair and confused, wide blue eyes. Dr. Shaw smiled briefly at the girl, but the smile faltered in disappointment as she rose.
“Is your name Desiree?” Dr. Amas asked the girl, still squatting next to her.
Dr. Shaw shook her head as the girl answered, “No. I’m Ginny.” Her voice was raspy with cold air. “Ginny Barnes. Where am I? What’s happening?’’ she looked down at the coat and the cotton candy piled around her. “Where’s my mom?”
“Virginia Barnes. You’ve been missing for two months. What’s the last thing you can remember?” Jackie asked, trying to sound gentle, but eager to see if this girl knew where the other children were.
Ginny looked up at Jackie taking in her big ears and long pig nose with a mild look of terror.
“Ginny,” said Amelia tenderly, moving cotton candy bags out of the way so she could crouch down on the girl’s other side. “We’ve been looking for you for a long time. And we’re going to get your mother right now.”
Jackie sighed as much in frustration as in relief. One kid found, but still eight more to go. She looked down Lanthanum Street toward the grey ocean as the chill wind swirled around her, blowing open her unzipped coat, and seeping into every nook and cranny it could find.