26

PANDORA’S TREASURE BOX SPECIALIZED in items that, for the most part, looked to be related to some aspect of magic. They had everything from board games with flying creatures, to amulets, to fairies, to gnomes, to dragons of every sort, to wizards and witches, to crystals, to intricate handmade magic wands that cost hundreds of dollars. Glass shelves in the center of the shop held more elaborate collectible figurines. Books on the shelves against the far wall had titles about spells, wizards, and magic.

Alex had seen places like Pandora’s Treasure Box before. As a boy he had visited such shops a time or two. He’d outgrown them in his early teens.

A smiling, overweight woman in a baggy maroon sweatshirt came out from behind the counter. A small dragon comb adorned her short, curly brown hair. Reading glasses hung around her neck on a chain festooned with delicate winged fairies. She looked to be in her fifties.

“I’m Mary, welcome to Pandora’s Treasures. May I help you two find anything special?” she asked in a warm, friendly voice.

“We’re just looking,” Alex said before Jax could say anything. It didn’t help.

“Why do you have these things?”

The woman’s face creased with a perplexed smile as she glanced around. “They’re treasures. People love to collect them. There’s nothing like a wizard sitting on your desk to brighten your day.”

“Depends on the wizard,” Jax said.

The woman chuckled. “You’re right, my dear. Some of them can be quite mischievous.”

“What makes you think so?”

Mary held a hand out to a display in the center of the shop. “Well, just look at them. We have all sorts. Some wizards are very serious, but there are some — like this fellow here — who love a bit of mischief.” The wizard was levitating a dog.

The woman was right about the variety. There were jolly-looking wizards in peaked hats, wizards with long pointed beards pondering books or crystal balls, and wizards in black robes with glowering, hooded eyes that looked like they really could cast spells. Some were plain pewter while others had been painted in elaborate detail.

Alex thought they had better things to do and wanted to leave.

The woman gazed lovingly at her display. “These figures are reminders to people that magic is in the world all around us.”

“No, it’s not,” Jax said.

She did not look at all pleased. Alex was beginning to worry.

“Why, of course it is,” the woman said with a jovial chuckle. “We may not be able to see it, but magic is very real. You just have to be attuned to it.” She heaved a sigh. “It would be a sad world if we didn’t have magic.”

“Yes,” Alex said before Jax could say anything, “I can see why people would want to collect these, but magic isn’t real.”

Mary winked at him. “Oh, don’t let the magic go out of your life. That would be a sad thing, wouldn’t it, to become so cynical? We all have the capacity to tune in to magic if only we pay attention. We have but to open ourselves to it.”

She lifted a delicate chain off a stand. “We have these crystals on necklaces you might like for your lovely lady. They would be beautiful on her, don’t you think? People say that the crystals help them feel the waves of magic emanating up all around us.”

Jax wasn’t listening. “These things are dead wrong,” she said to herself under her breath. Mary, showing Alex the necklace, didn’t seem to notice.

Jax leaned in a little to peer intently at the items displayed on the second shelf down. A card read “exclusive pieces.” When the woman saw Jax’s area of interest, she put the necklace back and turned her attention to the center display.

Jax carefully pulled a figure out from the back.

The woman looked pleased at the selection. “Ah, you have good taste.”

Jax lifted the figure, an acrylic casting of a nicely sculpted woman with long flowing hair and a simple white dress cut square at the neck.

“Woman of mystery,” Mary said softly.

Jax looked up. “What?”

“They call her the Woman of Mystery.”

“Is that right?” Alex put in, trying his best to sound cheery. He wanted out of the shop. He could see how quietly upset Jax was getting. “Well, we—”

“She’s an ancient figure.” The woman leaned a little closer. “I’ve owned this shop for twenty-seven years and I rarely come across examples of this particular personage.”

“Twenty-seven years,” Alex said. “Isn’t that something.” He saw Jax cast him a sidelong glance.

“Yes, that’s right. In that time I’ve seen the Woman of Mystery offered for sale in a few different forms. Always fine pieces, though, like this one. I like to keep one in the shop. That distinctive dress is a hallmark of the Woman of Mystery. It’s how you can identify her.”

“Really,” Alex said, paying more attention to Jax.

“Yes.” Mary sighed. “Not a lot of people seem to be interested in collecting her. I usually end up having each figure for quite some time before they sell, but I still can’t resist always getting another so that I always have one in stock.”

“Why don’t people usually collect this piece?” he asked.

“Maybe because so little is known about her. I know a great deal about all of my better pieces, but even I am not sure of her powers.”

“Her powers?” Jax asked, looking up sharply.

“Yes,” Mary said. “It’s not known if she’s a sorceress, a white witch, or some other figure of mysterious magic. For that reason she’s always called the Woman of Mystery. I know her when I see her — I recognize her by that dress and her long hair. I’ve never seen her called by any other name, except by people who don’t know her.”

“What do you mean, ‘know her’? ” Jax asked, heat evident in her tone. “How could anyone possibly know her?”

The woman reverently lifted the small statue from Jax’s hands.

“The figure was originally found in a few very old books. Very old — and they were from different places. Though she looked somewhat different in each of the books, the plates in those books always depicted her in this dress.” Mary ran a finger along the neckline of the dress. “Always white, always cut square at the neck. That’s how I know her as the Woman of Mystery when I see her. She’s very special.”

“Why?” Alex asked, caught up in the story.

The woman’s smile broadened at having interested customers. “Well, she’s mysterious. No one knows her origin or who she is.

And, like I said, no one knows her powers. But she has them, that much is sure.”

“How do you know that she’s even supposed to have powers?” Alex asked. “Maybe those pictures were of a queen, or a famous woman from the time — a saint, a patron of the arts, something like that.”

“Alex,” Jax whispered, “can we go, please?”

Mary was talking and didn’t hear Jax. “What little is known from those ancient books is sketchy, however they do say that she had great power, though they never say what those powers were. Some translations hold her in reverence, while others indicate that she was greatly feared.” Mary sighed. “She’s a woman of mystery.” Her smile turned sly. “But she has magic.”

“I don’t see how you can say that,” Alex said.

The woman peered into his eyes for a time. “I know, because people are afraid of her. I have customers who collect figures of every sort — even some of the most frightening wizards. Not a lot of those people, though, will have her in their collection.”

“Superstitious nonsense,” Alex said. “If they don’t know anything about her, why would they be afraid?”

The woman shrugged. “I don’t know. To tell you the truth, she’s my favorite.” She gazed proudly down at the statue as she turned it in her hands. “For as long as I’ve owned the shop, the Woman of Mystery has always been my favorite.”

She at last remembered herself and lifted the statue out to them. “Are you interested in having a Woman of Mystery in your life?”

Jax, looking a little ashen, deliberately turned away.

Alex already had a woman of mystery in his life, but he didn’t say so. “Possibly another time.”

The woman smiled sadly. “I understand. A lot of people are afraid of her.”

“I’m not afraid,” Alex said, defensively.

“Good.” The shop owner set the figure back on the shelf, where a little spotlight shone on it. “The Woman of Mystery needs friends in this world today.”

“Alex, I want to go,” Jax whispered again, more insistently this time.

Alex put a hand on her back, reassuring her, letting her know that he’d heard her.

“Well, thanks for your time, but we have to be on our way.”

Alex had to hurry to catch up with Jax.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as he leaned toward her. She didn’t answer as she marched on through the halls.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Jax, what’s the matter? Are you all right?”

“No, I’m not all right. That was an awful place.”

“What do you mean it was awful?”

“They have everything all wrong, yet in some of it I can see the specter of its origin.”

“All right, but why are you letting that get you so upset?”

“Because they have the trappings but not the humanity behind it all. It’s a fixation on the wrong things. Those things don’t care about the life behind the magic. They have a wizard waving a stupid wand to lift a dog, while the real man, the real wizard, would touch someone who is suffering and lift a burden from their heart. Instead, they show people like game trophies on display.”

“But they mean no harm, Jax. They’re just knickknacks.”

“It’s more than that.”

“Like what?”

She halted abruptly and turned to gaze up at him as if pleading not merely for understanding, but for her very life.

“Don’t you get it, Alex? Don’t you see what was lost? Can you begin to imagine the wonder of what it must have been? People here can’t remember it, yet they can’t forget it. After all this time this whole world still longs for it, still mourns what they lost. It was such a remarkable, magnificent, glorious part of life that they ache to have it back, even though they don’t remember what it was.”

“But that’s past. If it really was lost, as you say, what difference does it make now? We are who we are.”

She tapped a finger against her chest. “The difference it makes is that it’s going to be my world, too. That’s going to happen to us. We’re going to lose it all, just as the people here lost it all. The wonder this world misses we have, but we’re going to lose it just so a few people can seize power for themselves. Everything we have is going to be taken from us. It’s all going to be destroyed at the cost of millions of lives just so a few people can grab power.”

It was heartbreaking to hear the anguish in her voice and to see the torment in her eyes.

Alex put a hand on the side of her neck and with a thumb wiped away a tear as it ran down her cheek.

When another tear followed, and then another, he leaned back against the inside corner of a projecting wall of a shoe store and pulled Jax into his sheltering arms.

Once in his protective embrace she dissolved into tears. He tightened his arms around her as she wept softly.

Alex glanced down the hall at the shoppers going about their day. Most didn’t notice Jax and Alex. Those who did thought that they were simply a couple hugging in a nook — not all that uncommon in a mall. The passersby were polite enough not to stare.

“Jax, listen to me,” he said in a quiet but firm tone. “The people you’re fighting are coming here because they need something. We’re not going to let them get what they need. We’ll stop them, then the people in your world will have a chance.”

“You don’t know these people, Alex,” she said as she wept. “I couldn’t begin to describe their brutality. If we don’t find out what they’re after, then the people in my world will lose everything. I’m only one person with no power here.”

He ran a hand down the back of her head. “Jax, we’ll stop them. That’s why you came here. That’s why you found me. We’ll stop them. I’m not going to give up or let you face it alone. I’ll help you. We’ll stop them.”

“But I feel so alone, so homesick. . And I can’t ever get home.”

“I know,” he whispered as he held her.

Her fingers finally tightened on his jacket, gathering it into her fists. “I’m sorry,” she said through tears, “forgive me.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

“Yes, I do. So many people are counting on me. So many people need me to be strong. Sometimes, though, I’m afraid that I’m not strong enough for them. I’m terrified that I’ll fail them.”

Alex smiled despite how much it hurt his heart to see her miserable. “Jax, if I had to pick one word to describe you, it would never be ‘weak.’ ” He rubbed her back as she quieted a little. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll stop them. Whatever they came here to do, we’ll stop them. I promise.”

She nodded against his chest, content to be there for the moment, content to be in the shelter of his arms, relieved for the moment not to have to face a world that was alien to her.

Something about the way she clung to him told him that she wasn’t used to ever getting that kind of protective comfort, of ever having the shoulder of a friend, or anyone who would simply put an arm around her.

Something told him that she also wasn’t used to ever showing weakness of any sort. He couldn’t imagine the strength it took to be in an alien world, to know that you couldn’t get home, and be able to remain as composed as she usually was. Alex didn’t know how long he would be able to maintain his cool under that kind of stress.

“Thank you, Alex, for being strong, for reminding me to be strong.”

“That’s what friends are for — to be strong for you when you need a moment to find your own strength.”

“I guess I never had a real friend before.”

“You haven’t?” When she shook her head against him, he said, “Well, you have one now. Sometimes, one is all you really need.”

“Tell you what,” he said after a time. “How about if I take you to meet your future mother-in-law.”

That made her laugh. It was a good sound, as beautiful as everything else about her.

“All right,” she said, sniffling. “Let’s go meet Mom.”

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