The whole world did not know that Aristea Byrne was in Prague.
Angela Byrne didn’t know. She didn’t know a thing about what her sister was up to at any hour of any day, and she didn’t know what had gotten into her uncharacteristically persistent workmate. It was just another in the string of unknowns and falsehoods that made up her life.
“I’ll text you every twenty minutes,” Cathy insisted after Angela’s fourth no, trailing after her around the small office. “If anything’s not right, you just say so and I’ll come get you. Or if you don’t reply after two messages, I’ll ring, and if you don’t answer and don’t reply after three, I’ll come get you.”
“Great, so if he’s a serial killer, it’ll only be an hour before anyone knows I’m missing.”
She said it like a sarcastic joke but it was far from funny. Angela’s imagination was the thing her sister’s was modelled on, intensely vivid, though darker, less wild. Unsheltered. It knew. To others, it looked like paranoia. Maybe it was.
“He went to school with my brother. He’s a perfectly nice lad. Besides, you’ve been alone with him before,” Cathy pointed out, smiling with the cheeky ease of someone who has never need to worry about being alone with someone. “Here, in the office, every time he’s delivered anything and you’ve signed for it.” She squeezed Angela’s shoulder suggestively, like someone walking into an office and dropping a box on the counter and someone else signing a clipboard was some kind of courtship. “He never murdered you on any of those occasions.”
“He never had a whole hour before,” Angela muttered. She went to the door and turned the sign to ‘closed’. She looked back at Cathy and saw the heavily pregnant optometrist leaning against the reception desk with her arms folded and her smile playful. She thought she was being helpful, encouraging Angela to go after something she was too scared or shy to admit she wanted. Like most people in satisfying, loving relationships, she had no idea. Angela smiled, not wanting to get into this but not really knowing how to avoid it. Conflict was not her game. Amiable half-arsed agreement usually got people off her back. “You know, yeah, maybe one day, when I get to know him better. But, I just, for now–”
“No.” Cathy nodded and raised her hands in defeat. “Aye, I heard you. Ugh,” she groaned as she straightened, cradling her enormous tummy. “You alright to lock up, then?”
Angela relaxed and nodded back, even though she was meant to have finished twenty minutes ago. “Get home before you burst. I’m not delivering that baby.”
“He’s still two months away,” Cathy claimed, fetching her handbag and slinging it over her shoulder. She looked around the office, ticking things off on her fingers like she did every afternoon. “Everything’s switched off in my room, files are back… I gave you back your keys? Yes, I think so. Thanks for that.”
“No problem,” Angela replied, sitting back down at the computer to finish the data entry for today’s patients. She’d loaned Cathy, whose overbearing husband was insisting on driving her to work for these last few weeks of hers, her car at lunchtime so she could run some errands. Angela wasn’t good at no for herself, saving it for protecting the interests of others and special occasions like being hassled into asking a stranger on a date, but could only imagine how frustrating it must be to rely on someone else all the time for transport. For her, that kind of freedom was everything.
A rumble outside the office let the women know that Cathy’s husband had arrived in his noisy classic car. “That’s me. See you tomorrow.” A quick kiss on the cheek and she was gone, and Angela was alone in the most mundane little office in the northern hemisphere.
Maybe it’d feel a little less boring if her head wasn’t full of questions about what her little sister was up to at her magical boarding school in the moors.
The work was easy enough to do while her mind wandered. Aristea’s occasional letter suggested a wondrous, rich learning journey complete with great new friends and a guaranteed government job at the end of her apprenticeship. When their parents and brother were alive, the sisters used to practise some magic, but for Angela it had been a long time since she’d performed anything that reminded her she was a sorceress. If not for Aristea’s weirdly clean and quiet bedroom at the end of the hall, the only clue, Angela would find it easy to forget that their family was more than the Northern Irish Protestants they’d posed as for generations untold. It just didn’t feel real.
Aristea had never let Angela forget, the little dreamer to Angela’s realist. Aspirations of learning how to scry, a frivolous casual job at a New Age and crystal shop, that fragile cotton-wrapped soul so prone to emotional overload in the presence of others that she couldn’t be sent to a normal high school – there was never any question of Aristea being a witch. Of course she would fit right in at that place. Of course someone would notice how special she was.