This is the bottom, I think, getting up the nerve to leave my car. The old woman, Madame Ming, is standing at the end of the block in the afternoon sunlight, right where the email told me to find her. I drove two circles before I parked, to check that no one else was waiting for me. Portland isn’t New York City, but it’s Old Town, so I have to be careful.
Finally I step out of my car, one hand sweaty on my keys and the other buried in my pocket with the roll of cash. Madame Ming turns at my approach. She is a head shorter than me with cropped gray hair. Her blue tang suit is faded, her arms folded into the deep sleeves.
I stop a yard from her, and she eyes me. I’m wearing my Lewis & Clark College hoodie. So much for being anonymous.
“You have the money?” she asks in accented English.
I look around and nod, not ready to pull out the wad. She moves her hands and displays a bottle, bulbous at the base with a tapering neck, stoppered. Exactly what I imagined a potion bottle would look like. The glass is clear and the mixture inside is a deep, honey-amber like mead.
“It looks like whiskey,” I blurt.
Madame Ming laughs, and lines break up the smoothness of her skin.
“Tastes much worse,” she says. She raises it in my direction and holds out her empty palm. Time to pay up.
Her gnarled fingers curl around the roll of 20s I give her, all of the savings from my summer job. I bury the bottle in the pouch of my hoodie.
“So I just give this to him, and it’ll be done?” I ask.
She shakes her head and jabs me in the chest.
“You drink it.”
I stumble back. A car with tinted windows pulls up to the curb, and she opens the door behind the driver.
“Then what?” I ask.
“You have the directions,” she says. “The Dragonheart will take care of the rest.”
The car pulls away.
“Too late to turn back,” I say out loud.
Back in my car, I tuck the bottle into my purse and hold my phone, a finger hovering on Alexa’s name. I put the phone down and start the engine, head back to campus.
I found out about the potion lady on Craigslist. Her medicinal herb shop had a storefront in Chinatown, but she wouldn’t sell Dragonheart there. Certain elixirs she would give out in-person only. I made the mistake of telling Alexa I’d been looking into fortunetellers, tarot, charms. I didn’t actually say, “potion,” but the tab was open when she came over for a study session.
“Dee, you are letting this rule your life!” she shouted, picking up the backpack she’d just set down.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “I have to see him every day!”
“I don’t know. Drop the class, talk to the professor—but this is crazy!” Her eyes had the same hard glint I saw on the field after someone tackled her illegally.
She swept a hand before her, gesturing from the heap of laundry to the stack of carryout containers and wadded tissues overflowing the trashcan. My field hockey gear was buried next to my bed, but the smell of unwashed socks warred with stale pizza crust.
“This is gross… but it’s normal,” she said, her voice shaking. “That, whatever that is you’re looking up—I don’t even want to know—that’s not okay.”
I swatted the lid of my laptop shut and tossed it down on my bed.
“Nothing is okay.”
I was up in her face, my fists balled, without even realizing it.
Alexa just stared back at me.
“I’m leaving. I’m not talking to you when you’re like this.”
She turned for the door, her ponytail brushing me in the face. She paused in the hallway, holding the door open.
“The team’s worried about you,” she said. When she let go, the door slammed shut.
“They should be!” I yelled, and then buried myself in bed, my computer humming on my chest.
“Dragonheart,” I read out loud from the site. “For taking back control in love. For power and strength.” I skimmed further down the page. “When someone stops loving you, take back their heart…”
I snickered. “Madame Ming.” What a terrible pseudonym. And then I sent Madame Ming an email.
My dorm room reeks when I get back, but I’m focused on what I have to do next. I pop open the instructions again, although I’ve mentally checked everything off on the drive back. There’s probably some feng shui component that is completely lacking given the state of my room, but I don’t care. My heart’s pounding like I’ve downed a few shots of whiskey.
First I change into my field hockey uniform, washed in preparation for this. I put the shin guards on under the tall socks. It seems a little ridiculous, but the directions recommend dressing in a way that makes you feel powerful. Out on the field is the only place I don’t think of E.
I catch my eye in the mirror, my high cheekbones and freckles standing out with my blonde hair pulled back. I don’t need makeup to feel like I look good when I’m moving the ball down the field. An alarm on my phone beeps and I remember that there’s a scrimmage in half an hour. If this really works, by then I’ll feel completely different.
I unstopper the bottle and leave it for five minutes, microwaving a cup of hot water to stir it into. The mug I’m using was Ethan’s, not washed since he drank from it last.
After the Dragonheart “airs,” I stir it into the water with a silver spoon. It smells pungent and sweet. I pinch my nose, as the directions suggest, and down it.
Madame Ming was right about the flavor. It’s so bad I go down on my knees, and when I try to catch myself, the mug shatters on the floor. My throat burns and all of my blood flares with heat. The room swims before my eyes, in and out of focus. I roll over onto my back and start laughing and retching, as something inside my chest begins to feel like it’s going to burst.
Ethan dumped me two weeks ago, right when the leaves had reached the peak of orange and red.
“I want to burn his heart out,” I told Alexa, tears stinging my eyes. “I don’t want to make him fall back in love with me—I want to make it so he can never love again.”
For two years, we’d been E and Dee. We met at freshman orientation and started dating in sophomore year. He was going to come home with me over Thanksgiving break to finally meet my parents in New York.
Alexa, the whole team, were there for me when it happened. But that didn’t make it hurt less. It seemed so sudden. Things were going so well until one of E’s friends from back home asked if she could visit and see the college.
I offered to host her in my dorm room. I already had a cot set up from hosting field hockey recruits. But Liana—I hated her stupid name—declined, saying she didn’t want to trouble me. Then I found out that she was going to sleep on the couch in Ethan’s apartment. I didn’t love the idea, but I didn’t want to cause drama. Once Liana got here, though, things just got worse. She and E disappeared, didn’t invite me to do anything. I wouldn’t have even met her if I hadn’t bumped into them on my way to class. They were chatting, smiling, standing too close.
“Hi,” I said loudly, and they both whirled to look at me like I startled them.
Ethan introduced us and I suggested we get dinner together, but after class he texted me and said they were going into town. Finally, I called him.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” he asked. His soft Georgia accent washed the words in innocence.
“It feels like you and Liana are completely avoiding me.”
“She’s just shy,” he whispered, and I could tell she was in the same room.
Even after she left, it felt like Ethan was being secretive. Sure, we were both busy, but he didn’t turn up to eat with me as often or call to wish me goodnight. I knew it was coming when he stopped staying over.
My phone rings and I claw at the heap of laundry, trying to get to my feet. I knock the phone off my nightstand and reach for it. My skin burns and itches, and through blurred vision it looks like it’s turning red.
“Alexa?” I gasp. The word comes out in a deep growl.
“Dee? Where the hell are you? The whole team’s here.”
“Alexa, I’m in my room—I think I’m going to be sick.” With every word, my vocal chords stretch and deepen. Even my jaw feels like it’s stretching. I convulse and drop the phone, see that my hands are spreading, my fingernails stretching into claws.
“Dee? I’m coming over,” Alexa’s voice is tinny, and then the call ends.
Scales are sprouting down my arms, across my back. The skin of my neck and chest is hardening. I’m panting through my nostrils, and the breaths are so hot that they burn more than the potion did going down. Two points of pain are growing across my shoulder blades. Fabric tears, and the plastic guards on my legs pop off as my bones lengthen and my flesh changes to accommodate them.
A heaving breath starts in my chest and works its way out of my throat. I cough and splutter, laugh with a noise like stones scraping, and spit fire onto my dirty laundry.
Oh, Madame Ming, I think, which only brings on more laughter, except now each laugh is a gust of flame, the whole room is alight, and the sprinklers shatter, setting off the fire alarm.
When I pick myself up, it is on clawed feet. The pain in my back is a pair of wings, like an extra set of limbs, and my uniform hangs in shreds from my scaled torso. I leap for my window and thrust my shoulder against the glass. It shatters so easily I almost fall out of the frame. With the thick bone of my forehead, I knock the last few pieces out, thrust my wings through.
I hear screams and taste the air with a tongue that flicks out like a snake’s.
Ethan, I think.
Raising my head, I let a breath of flame whoosh out, just for the satisfaction of it. The brown leaves of a nearby tree catch, and I flap my wings a few times for practice, lean forward, and leap from the windowsill into the air.
I’m coming for you, Ethan, I think, looking down on the blaze I’ve started. I’m coming to burn your heart out.
For more poems by Anna Akhmatova, please read her collections online or at your local library. Poem © Copyright, Anna Akhmatova 1985. English translation by D. M. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Jen. Return next Monday for Audrey’s answer to this prompt.