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  • Jordan Keller

The Alchemist (A Short Story)

Hunched over a series of hand-blown tubes, watching a drop of pink liquid crawl its way toward an uncorked bottle, the Alchemist frowned at his reflection in the glass. He was unhappy.

Not at his work, he knew this potion would perform as everything else crafted by his wrinkled and liver-spotted hands would, perfectly, but by himself.

His laboratory had seen better days. Upon its opening decades ago, meager peasants and silk-dressed royalty would visit and purchase the wondrous potions and charms made by the Alchemist. Today, no one ventured inside. The cottage’s windows were boarded shut. A pointless addition to the weather-and-time worn hinges that refused to operate. Dirty potion bottles and dinner plates alike spilled over the utility sink. A second and third pile of the objects formed below the counter. No matter the number of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, the laboratory contained a stench most likely to continue to permeate the ground long after the building was gone. Cobwebs clung to every high corner and at least four mice claimed the floorboards as their homes. Everything in the laboratory- the beakers, the ingredients, the tools, the Alchemist- was drenched in shadows. No one could remember the last time sunlight had breached the threshold, or if the sun still survived outside.

The Alchemist hated his aging hands. He hated his inability to hold a conversation with anyone other than the tray of toads stashed on his ingredient shelf. Hated how he hid inside the comfort of his shadowy cottage. Hated how he longed to venture into the harshness of The Realm. He hated his lack of courage. The Alchemist hated the wispy voice that whispered can’t in his head.

At least the Alchemist had his work. No matter how much he changed, his potion-making remained constant.

The drop of pink liquid dripped down the final tube and into the bottle, unleashing a plume of rose-scented smoke. Tiny hearts formed inside the smoke before disappearing. With a mortar and pestle, the Alchemist ground together the remaining dry ingredients. Usually, he used the lesser versions of Karp’s Eye, Eros Feather, and Gilded Lily for this potion. Most customers couldn’t afford the real stuff, but for this potion, it needed to be the best. The man who placed this order was desperate.

The Alchemist laughed. It was dark and bitter and matched his laboratory.

As the liquid components distilled, the Alchemist remembered a time he was last this desperate.

A pretty girl opened a pretty bakery the same month the Alchemist started brewing potions. Her face was permanently smeared with flour and her nails dyed in the same colored icing as her cookies. They had spoken as business neighbors did: genuine hello’s and curiosity of the other’s wares. The Alchemist once purchased a dozen cookies from her, and she once purchased a bottle of essence of lavender from him.

Perhaps, if the Alchemist truly had been desperate, he would have asked for more than baked goods. Perhaps, if the Alchemist had left his laboratory more often, he could have asked her to take a stroll around The Realm’s enchanted gardens. Perhaps, if the Alchemist wasn’t sick, he wouldn’t feel the clouds inside him.

After the pink liquid distilled a second time, the Alchemist carefully used a funnel to pour in the dry ingredients. He gave the bottle a swirl with his old hands until a golden line developed within the pink potion, signifying it was finished. The Alchemist had brewed a hundred love portions before, but none of this high quality. And, none for this one’s intended purpose.

The Alchemist raised the bottle to his mouth and breathed in the subtle scent of roses the potion gave off before downing it in a single gulp.

Nothing happened physically to the Alchemist. He retained his shape, and size, and matching stench of the laboratory. The internal change, however, came immediately.

Setting the empty bottle down, the Alchemist examined his hands. His old hands that had crafted a lifetime of amazing potions and charms. The wrinkles and liver spots were proof of his prowess. He glimpsed a reflection of his eyes in a beaker. The grey eyes he always considered dull suddenly shined in a new light. In these eyes, he saw a well overflowing with knowledge for the alchemical arts. He had never seen eyes like his before. Looking around his laboratory, pride filled him. He built this laboratory from the ground up. He collected every ingredient on the shelf. He made his life in The Realm brewing potions to aid the lives of others.

And he let it fall. Like he did himself.

Laughing, the Alchemist dumped a potion made of soap bubbles in the sink and swept the floor. Dust balls, mice, and dead spiders tumbled away from the broom’s bristles. The laboratory shifted back to its younger, cleaner, brighter days. The Alchemist returned the broom to its proper closet and yanked open the front door. Sunlight flooded the laboratory and warmed his skin. The Alchemist inhaled the sunlight, tasting the solar flares and swallowing the heat.

Guided by his newly acquired self-love and spurred on by the sun’s confidence, he crossed the street to the bakery. The pretty girl from before had grown into a beautiful woman whose face was still smeared with flour.

“Augustus?” she smiled at the Alchemist, dusting her hands off on her apron. “I haven’t seen you in months. How have you been?”

“A lot better now,” the Alchemist answered. “And, I think a lot better to come.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” She hesitated, ignoring the other customers inside her shop, and waited for her old friend to say more. “What can I get you?”

"A second chance." Augustus' cheeks turned the same pink shade as his potion. Before he could love another, he first had to love himself. No matter the chemical help that was required.

The baker grinned, her face mirroring the blush. "Come back after we close shop."

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