Mrs. Henderson checked her outfit in the full-length mahogany mirror that had once belonged to her mother when she had the strangest sense of deja-vu. Her cream colored silk gloves went perfectly with her beige trench coat, which she wore over navy corduroy pants and a burgundy high-collar blouse. But her favorite piece had to be her black ankle boots. She knew she had to look good for that afternoon’s meeting, so she really made sure to pull out her favorite pieces. She even wore the moonstone necklace her grandmother had willed her when she was a child, one that had been in her family for generations. The large moonstone sphere glistened on her collarbone. Mrs. Henderson had spent the entire morning coordinating this look to perfection, but something still felt off. As Mrs. Henderson pondered if she should wear a different blouse, she felt a sharp pain in her left temple that came and went without explanation.
Mr. Henderson walked in at that moment and caught the pained look on his wife’s face through the full length mirror. “Another headache?”
Mrs. Henderson nodded. “I’m alright. Just a flash.” That’s what she called the quick ones.
Mr. Henderson pecked his wife on the cheek and met her gaze in the mirror. “Will you be alright for Nico?”
She buttoned up the trench coat that she spent an hour ironing. “Of course. This is what we’ve been working for. It has to go perfectly.” She turned to face her husband. “How do I look?”
“Perfect, as always,” he replied affectionately. “Is the trench coat new?”
“Yes, although I got the strangest feeling earlier that I’ve worn it before.”
“Probably just your nerves.”
Mrs. Henderson smiled at her husband. That made sense. She was quite anxious about meeting Nico. “You’re probably right."
A few minutes later, the Hendersons were making their way to City Center in their shared silver Subaru, Mr. Henderson at the wheel. Getting to city center meant a short drive down Route 32, a quaint tree-lined highway that was almost never in use. Downtowners like the Hendersons rarely had reason to go to City Center and those who did preferred the quicker and more convenient path via the Underground Rail System. Mrs. Henderson watched the pine trees whiz by; they reminded her of her childhood. Her parents had often taken drives down a very similar highway. She was too young to retain where it was they went, but it was a trip they took regularly. It must have been the way home from school, or maybe to her mother’s job at the local motel, where a young Mrs. Henderson spent her days when she wasn’t in school.
Soon, the trees gave way to derelict homes with unkempt lawns, rickety buildings, abandoned tenement halls. “This place is a mess,” Mrs. Henderson remarked as she observed a shanty town established by the homeless residents in a particularly wide backstreet between an old bowling alley and a barely functioning diner. Mrs. Henderson wondered if the squalor bothered the diner’s proprietor at all.
“Yeah, my first time was very jarring, too,” Mr. Henderson said. He glanced at his wife in that moment. “I know we’ve already talked about it, but I still don’t understand why you insisted on coming with me.”
“Sweetheart, I just want to know who we’re working for.”
“We don’t work for Nico. He’s our business partner,” Mr. Henderson insisted yet again. His wife said nothing. It had nothing to do with Nico; Mrs. Henderson just couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to come to this meeting. She wasn’t sure how to explain that to her husband, and she knew he wouldn’t have agreed to such a vague motivation.
The couple didn’t speak for the rest of the car ride.
After making some precarious left turns through a maze of narrow one-way streets, Mr. Henderson finally pulled up to an open area that used to be the courtyard of the city’s five building prison structure, now defunct. Because of limited space and high crime rates, the prison was built upwards and each building reached 40 stories. After the city lost funding, some realtors tried turning the structure into condos, but that venture quickly fell apart. According to Mr. Henderson, his business partner Nico rented out the only ground-level office space in the northernmost building, what used to be the warden’s quarters. A chicken wire fence topped with barbed wires surrounded the entrance to Nico’s office and the door was guarded by two large men in jeans and black tank tops.
When Mr. and Mrs. Henderson approached the two guards, one of them nodded at Mr. Henderson rapt the door behind him in three, quick knocks. Seconds later, Nico appeared at the doorway. He was a thin, wisp of a man with slicked, black hair and a sharp, pointed chin. The rest of his face was partially obscured by dark shades that rested high up on his nose bridge. He gave the Henderson’s a wide grin.
“Ah, my favorite couple,” he said, closing the door behind him. He held out his hand to Mrs. Henderson. “And a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, madam.”
Mrs. Henderson gave Nico her hand and he brought it up to his lip. He looked at her over the top of his sunglasses as they slipped ever so slightly. He had eyes like a snake and Mrs. Henderson had the sudden feeling that he could see right through her trench coat. Her head started to ache.
“The pleasure’s all mine, Nico,” she said, pausing at his name.
“Are you ready to hear our proposal?” Mr. Henderson said, all business.
Nico said nothing, but he turned on his heel and gestured to the couple to follow. Mr. Henderson started to, but his wife tugged at the elbow of his jacket and whispered furiously, “Why didn’t you tell me he was a changeling?”
“He’s a what?” Mr. Henderson looked startled.
“You didn’t know?”
Before he could reply, Nico, whose hand was resting on the doorknob just a few feet ahead, called to them. “Hurry along now, dearies, I haven’t got all day.”
Mrs. Henderson rubbed her temple. Her headache was growing. “On second thought, I’m going to sit this one out.”
“Nico won’t like that,” Mr. Henderson warned.
“He’ll live,” his wife said coolly, making her way back to the car. When she heard the door to Nico’s office open and close behind her, she allowed herself to lean on the car. The headache had subsided to a dull ache. She thought she had some painkillers in her purse, which she opted to leave in the car. When she reached for the handle of the passenger side door, a sharp pain shot through her left temple all of a sudden. Mrs. Henderson clutched her temple with one hand and moaned in pain as though someone had knocked the wind out of her lungs. She needed those painkillers, but every time she tried to get into the Subaru, the pain worsened until she thought she might faint.
For some reason, when she furthered herself away from the car, the tightness around her skull lessened. Mrs. Henderson’s breath quickened with confusion. She had only two other options; Nico’s guarded office, where she most certainly wouldn’t be welcomed now, or an alleyway to the right. Sighing with resignation, Mrs. Henderson made her way towards the alleyway. Maybe she could find something resembling a pharmacy nearby, she thought, ignoring the fact that she only had $20 in her back pocket and her prescription card was back in the Subaru.
She rubbed her temple as she walked, the acidic smell of the alleyway doing nothing to ease her current pain and discomfort. Above her, the day had become overcast and a strong wind was blowing. Mrs. Henderson welcomed the cooling air on her hot skin. When she reached a fork in the road, she took the right path thinking she could circle around to the car and wait for her husband from a safe distance. However, after only a few steps, the sharp pain returned, like a hot blade piercing the space behind her eyes until her vision went blurry. When she tried fighting the pain and progressing further down the alley, she nearly collapsed, the heat on her forehead spreading to her upper back, until her feet would budge no further. It was as if some invisible hand had dug its claws into her brain and as trying to drag her back.
Mrs. Henderson stumbled back to the fork, dazed, confused, and increasingly terrified. The pain subsided, but it did nothing for her sudden vertigo. Feeling like a drug addict going through withdrawal, she made her way down the left alley, wishing terribly she could just sit a rest.
The moment she saw it was the moment her pain finally disappeared as though it was never there. It was nothing spectacular; just some graffiti on the side of a dumpster. But the same feeling of deja vu she had sensed earlier that morning flooded her every nerve when she realized where she had seen that graffiti before. And she remembered when she had seen it.
Around Mrs. Henderson, the wind blew harder. Above her, the sky darkened unnaturally. But she hardly even noticed.
“Today,” she was whispering to herself, her eyes taking in her increasingly familiar surroundings. “It happens today…”
Thunder roared and electricity filled the air as a blinding crack of lightning struck the Earth.
Mrs. Henderson raised her arms to shield her eyes, but it was already over.
Seconds later, Mrs. Henderson heard a small noise behind her and she turned to find its source.
Standing there was a little girl in a plain baseball tee, khaki shorts and sneakers. Her hair was up in a disheveled bun and her knee was badly scraped and bleeding. Her arms were crossed in front of her as though she, too, was shielding her eyes. She lowered them slowly and the first thing she saw was Mrs. Henderson.
No one said anything for a moment.
“Where am I?” said the young girl.
“In an alley,” said Mrs. Henderson, her voice even, “in City Center.”
The young girl’s hands started to fidget as she took in her surroundings. “How did I get here?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
The young girl’s brow furrowed. “I jumped out of a moving car.”
Mrs. Henderson took a breath. “That’s really dangerous… Is that how you scraped her knee?”
She nodded. “Then I just started running,” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
Mrs. Henderson gave the girl a sympathetic smile. “That’s how you get lost.”
The young girl’s hand fell to her side and she hung her head.
“What’s your name, little one?”
“Maya,” Mrs. Henderson smiled, “Do you need help finding your way home?”
Maya shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers…”
“That’s a good rule, “said Mrs. Henderson. “But what if I could give you a reason to trust me?” Her hand dug inside the front of her blouse and Maya watched with curiosity. When Mrs. Henderson pulled out her grandmother’s moonstone necklace, Maya gasped and produced an identical necklace from underneath her baseball tee.
“I thought I was the only one,” Maya muttered.
“No,” said Mrs. Henderson. “There are always two. But this means you and I are family.”
Maya squinted. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Mrs. Henderson.”
Maya examined the woman before her for a moment before nodding. She decided she could trust her, even though she didn’t have much choice. Mrs. Henderson gestured at the alleyway exit behind her and Maya followed. The world outside the alley was not much more welcoming. They were standing at the edge of what looked like a public park whose maintenance had long since been abandoned and squatters made into their homes.
“This is City Center?” Maya asked, her face puckered in disgust.
Mrs. Henderson laughed. “Yeah, it’s my first time here, too.” She thought about that for a moment and corrected herself. “Well, not exactly. I was here once before when I was quite young, but I don’t remember it being this bad.”
A toothless old man suddenly appeared to Maya’s left and he wordlessly shook his tin can at her. Maya felt her jump into her throat and she clutched Mrs. Henderson’s robes for protection. “I wanna go home!” she moaned.
Mrs. Henderson put an arm around her shoulders and led her away from the park and the toothless old man. They walked in silence for a few minutes, Maya still clinging to Ms. Henderson perfectly ironed coat, but Mrs. Henderson didn’t seem to mind. Her eyes were scanning the crowd and the buildings. Maya didn’t know what she was looking for, but she didn't care. Somehow, Maya could sense that this kind lady would help her find her way back. When the wind the wind started to pick up, Mrs. Henderson noticed Maya's shoulders tremble. Instinctively, Mrs. Henderson pulled her trench coat off and offered it to Maya, who wordlessly slipped it on.
"Nice coat," Maya said, feeling the material between her finger tips. Mrs. Henderson smiled knowingly.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Mrs. Henderson said, “what were you running from?”
Maya tensed up at the question. “My parents,” she mumbled. “They wouldn’t stop fighting.”
“Is that why you jumped out of the car?”
Maya nodded. “I couldn't take it anymore! It’s been this way for so long, even before Gran-Gran died.”
“I know how you feel,” Mrs. Henderson said softly. The two fell silent for a while longer, Maya’s mind on her present, Mrs. Henderson's on her past. They kept walk in what seemed like circles until they came across a public square that looked better kept than most parts of the city. In the center was a fountain whose stone facade was bone-white from years sun exposure and little upkeep. The inner well walls were covered in barnacle and algae, but the fountain was still somehow functioning. The two strangers watched the water dance merrily, blissfully unaware of it’s aging condition.
“Can I tell you a secret, Maya?” Mrs. Henderson said at the moment. She kneeled so she would be on eye level with the little girl. Their blue eyes met and Maya’s began to search Mrs. Henderson’s. “The secret to tough situations is knowing that you have the power to make it better for yourself.”
Mrs. Henderson nodded. “Yes. This is something someone told me when I was about your age. It took me a little while to get what she meant, so don’t feel bad if it takes you a little while, too.
But always remember that you can’t control what other people say and do, but you can control how you feel about it. Remember that, and things will get better.”
Maya nodded. “Okay.”
Mrs. Henderson smiled. “Okay, are you ready to go back home?”
Maya frowned and considered the question. “Will I ever see you again?”
It was Mrs. Henderson’s turn to search Maya’s eyes. “Yes, I think we’ll see each other again.”
Maya smiled. A strong breeze ruffled her already unkempt hair. “Okay, then,” she said.
“So, if you want to find your way back home, I need you to close your eyes and think back to the moment you jumped out of the car… And just focus, okay?”
Maya did as Mrs. Henderson asked and her eyebrows became a straight line as she focused. Mrs. Henderson stood and took a few steps back. Looking up, the sky was starting to darken once more and the wind picked up. All around her, the people of City Center went about their lives, seemingly uninterested in the sudden shift in whether. Mrs. Henderson watched Maya, wondering if she said everything she needed to say, when there was another flash of light and boom of thunder.
From somewhere behind her, Mrs. Henderson heard her husband’s panicked voice calling her. She turned just as he enveloped her in his arms.
“Where did you run off to?” Mr. Henderson asked.
“I went looking for a pharmacy,” Mrs. Henderson said, thinking quickly. “My head was getting really bad.”
Mr. Henderson broke the hug and cupped his wife’s face in his hands, looking intently at her.
“Maya Morrigan Henderson,” he said, using her full name like he did when he was upset, “don’t you ever scare me like that again. This place isn’t safe.”
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Henderson said sincerely. She put her arm around him. “Let’s go home.”
As they walked back to the car, a sudden thought struck Mrs. Henderson.
“Darling,’ she said. “Did I ever tell you about the time I jumped out of my dad’s moving car?”