by Caroline Chou
Rain trickles down the window panes and pools on window sills. It’s a faded, foggy morning, a black and white photograph that shimmers and shifts on the skyline of this awakening city. Perhaps this is the kind of day to which you wake with a heaviness in your heart. In the mirror, your lips are frosted violet, cheeks stained indigo. A spiderweb of purple veins is crawling up your neck—a look in your fractured eyes tells you that that time of the year has come. The fog lingers as you walk six blocks of graying streets and concrete crowds to the quiet corner where a little shop lies. In peeling green letters, the wooden sign above the door creaks. You look over your shoulder before you enter. The bell above the door soundlessly at your arrival. As the door closes behind you, the sounds of the outside world fade away, leaving you with silence. It lays thick like dust on the spotless shelves that line the walls, all of which are perfectly bare, save for the price tags that have been placed every few feet, (Tears. Nostalgia. Laughter: limited supply available. Special discount on Regret), all of which are followed by: Please see attendee to purchase. There isn’t a soul in sight. But the air all around you doesn’t ebb and flow—it holds its breath. That heaviness within you weighs you down, slows your steps with something like regret, but you put one foot in front of the other and make your way to the counter at the back of the shop. The back wall is split by three identical doors. All sales are final, a sign above the doors read. No refunds or returns. And there is no turning back now. There’s a call bell next to the register, but before you can muster the courage to ring it, a woman steps into view, as if materializing out of thin air. Her face is completely colorless, pale hair and pale eyes that might’ve held the slightest hint of blue—until she blinks and it’s washed away. If she recognizes you, she doesn’t show it. (It’s standard procedure, after all.) “Here to sell or buy?” Her gaze seems to analyze as it falls on your neck, cheeks, eyes. It takes you a moment to respond. “Sell,” you finally manage, the word torn with an exhale from your suddenly dry throat. But the woman only nods and leads you through the leftmost door. You step into a room that’s an exact replica of the store, only the shelves are no longer empty— hundreds of empty glass jars line the walls. A single lightbulb illuminates the room; the woman gestures to the circle of light that it forms, as if you haven’t done this a thousand times before. You walk to that well-treaded spot, tilt your chin upwards, and brace yourself for what is to come: The door locks, the light is extinguished, and though you know the woman remains at the door, you can’t help but gasp when the sensation of cold, invisible fingers seems to creep across your cheeks, prying apart your lips and reaching into your throat. The tears are falling fast, silver comets down your cheeks, as the hands close around your heart. Your chest, your shoulders, your legs are turning to lead, that heaviness threatening to send you to the floor. Perhaps you cry out, though it is futile to do so: these shadows won’t stop until their work is done. When the lights turn back on, the surrounding glass jars are trembling, the single lightbulb swinging to and fro. By the time your vision comes back into focus, the woman is placing another jar on the shelf. For a moment, it shimmers with frosted violet and stained indigo. But then the woman opens the door, and it returns to colorless glass. Back at the register, she hands you a crumpled wad of bills. “Thank you for your business,” she says, cracking a half smile. You look down at the bills—a handful of George Washingtons stare back at you—and when you look up, the woman is gone. It was to be expected. The store no longer holds its breath—the floor- boards groan as you walk to the door, dust swirling in your wake, the air flat and still the way catacombs are. The moment you step out the door, you have to shield your eyes from the brilliant ray of sunlight breaking through the dissolving clouds. The city has taken on a new palette in your absence, a recoloring of the black-and-white photo from hours before. It’s only a matter of time before the colors—artificial and saturated as they are—fade away, but you cherish them all the same.
As you walk the six blocks back to your apart- ment, you catch your reflection in the mirror. Your face is faded, pale hair and pale eyes, a too-light blot in this city of a million shades. And yet, that violet, that indigo, that purple is gone, so it’s worth it in the end. After all, the reward is greater than the cost, and when the heaviness returns, you can chase it away. Your heart is lighter than it has been for ages, free of that heaviness. It’s so light that it sometimes feels hollow.
In today’s fast-paced society, emotional wellbeing is often sacrificed in favor of workaholic culture. “The Apothecary” explores a world where this idea is taken to the extreme, where emotions are seen as visible burdens that should be removed altogether. While this allows for the absence of pain, it also leads to apathy, leading one to wonder: is it better to feel something rather than nothing at all?
- Caroline Chou
About the writer:
Caroline Chou is a writer. Her piece, The Apothecary features in Erato's second issue, Sacrifice