“Got yourself a job offer, Cassie,” Ronnie said happily. “Just like you wanted.”
“But…but I don’t know anything,” Cassandra said. “Not much anyway.”
“I didn’t know much either when my grandmother asked me to help her out in the shop, but I eventually learned everything she knew and I took it upon myself to learn what she didn’t know. I ended up teaching her a few things. So, what I’m asking is for you to do as I did. You would be my apprentice and your job will be to learn as much as you can so you can be of real help to me and to my clients. I want you to actually learn on your own as well as from me. That way we grow together in knowledge and experience,” the woman said. “Only if you are interested, of course.”
“Oh, believe me, she’s interested!” Ronnie said. “Simon is gonna flip when we tell him!”
“Who is Simon if I may ask?” the lady said.
“He’s my brother. You know him. He came here the other day to get the ingredients for Uncle Mac’s never-fail-cure-for-all tonic,” Ronnie said. “He made the magic potion for Cassie cuz she was so sick and now she’s all better.”
The woman frowned slightly apparently trying to remember.
“It was Christmas day,” Cassandra said.
“It was a miracle you were open.” Ronnie said. “So thanks very much. We like to take good care of our Cassie.”
“Simon…Romanoff, you mean? Yes, I remember. He begged me to open the store for him, that it was an emergency, but he didn’t have to because I was already here working on my taxes…what a nightmare,” the woman said looking from one to the other. “Simon’s your brother?”
“Not mine,” Cassandra said, pointing to Ronnie. “His.”
“He’s her boyfriend,” Ronnie volunteered. “We used to come here with my grandmother when we were little.”
“My goodness, what a small world,” she said, smiling again. Then she looked pointedly at Cassandra. “So…would you like to be my apprentice?”
“I can have a job…like really, just like that?” Cassandra said, looking rather dazed.
“Just like that,” the woman said.
“This is so cool,” Ronnie said. “So, um…what happened to Madam Ruelenska? Hope she’s okay. I haven’t seen her since…well, my grandmother Heidi, don’t know if you knew her, but she died a few years ago.”
“Yes, I did know her. She came here often. I’m very sorry to hear of her passing. She was such a lovely lady, so kind. I didn’t know you knew my grandmother. She is quite well. Thank you for asking,” the woman said. “She’s retired now and living in Boca Raton to be near her great-grandchildren. She gave me the apothecary.”
“I still can’t believe Madam Ruelenska was your grandmother,” Ronnie said, before he could stop himself. “I mean…she’s real…nice.”
“No, she’s not,” the lady said with a smirk. “She was scary as hell and twice as ornery as an alley cat who just got his tail cut off.”
“Uh…okay,” Ronnie said and he suddenly became enthralled in a basket of lavender bath bombs which stood on a small table with a sigh reading Stressed out? Kids driving you batty? Try this. He picked up a paper bag and dropped three of them into it saying, “Betcha Mom would love these. Do you have anything for a cranky baby? Maybe she’s teething or something cuz my Mom can’t get the kid to sleep.”
The woman silently walked over to a shelf and took down two tiny amber bottles, went to the counter, and after mixing up a few ingredients and putting the concoctions into two empty bottles, she took pen and paper and wrote detailed instructions on how and when to use the potions, one to soothe the teething pain and the other to induce sleep.
“Wow, cool,” Ronnie said, pulling out his wallet. “How much do I owe ya?”
“Nothing. You brought me something more valuable than money today,” she said smiling at Cassandra. “I now have an apprentice.”
“You sure?” Ronnie said. “What if she messes up and you blame me?”
The woman laughed as Cassandra elbowed him in the ribs.
“I’m sure she won’t disappoint.”
“So then…you’re the new Madame Ruelenska?” Cassandra asked.
The woman laughed again. “Some of my clients do call me that, the ones who never knew my grandmother, but you can call me Donalena.”
“Pretty name,” Ronnie said.
“It was my great-grandmother’s name I’m told,” Donalena said holding out her hand to Cassandra. “Let us strike hands upon the bargain, as I once heard say in an old movie.”
Cassandra shook hands with Donalena and she felt a prophetic shiver run up her arm. Somehow she knew this was the beginning of her destiny. They both smiled as they held hands.
“You can call me Cassandra,” she said.
“I think we’re going to be very good friends, Cassandra,” Donalena said.
Cassandra couldn’t agree more.
“What do you mean you got a job with Madame Ruelenska?” Simon shouted over the phone.
“Dude, what part of that statement don’t you understand?” Ronnie said, making a face at Cassandra as she stifled a laugh.
“Cassandra, take me off speaker phone,” Simon snapped. “I want to hear this from you and only you.”
She gave an apologetic look to Ronnie, waved him goodbye, and went to her room where she explained to Simon everything she and Ronnie did that day.
“But that doesn’t explain how you got hired by Madame Ruelenska. She’s retired and living in Florida now,” he said.
“I meant the new Madame Ruelenska, her granddaughter Donalena,” Cassandra said.
“Wait a minute, you mean Mrs. Bianchi?” Simon asked. “She’s the only one working there now.”
“I don’t know her last name. She only told me her first,” Cassandra said. “Oh, that place is amazing, Simon. I’m going to have so much fun working there, I just know it! She said she was gonna teach me everything she knows!”
“But what about college?” he said, his voice plaintive over the line.
She signed. “I did a few courses in community college. With what I learned there I can easily get a job doing taxes at H&R Block and do much better than most people at the IRS, but I know I wouldn’t have as much fun doing that as I would at the apothecary.”
“But your dreams of becoming a doctor, that hasn’t changed, has it?” he asked.
There was a long pause. “I just don’t know anymore,” she said. “I really don’t want to do anything solid about my future until I find my mother, and you know, learning about herbs and plants and all that alternative medicine stuff is still like being a doctor…kinda.”
She could almost hear Simon grinding his back teeth at the silly notion.
“What did Tommy say?” Simon asked. “Was he…did he think it was possible finding your mother?”
“He was very positive and encouraging,” she said cautiously.
“But he made no guaranties,” he said.
“He’s professional enough not to do anything like that,” she said. “I have to face it, Simon. She could be in a kibbutz in Israel, or doing missionary work in the Amazon or she coulda taken a vow of silence in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet or anything equally ridiculous where it would be impossible to find her…if she’s even alive anymore.”
“Pretty sure only men can enter Buddhist monasteries, but whatever,” he muttered. “Cassandra, I was hoping you’d come to school near me so we could…you know.”
“Have sex?” she asked as a joke.
“Be together,” he said sternly.
“I know. Just trying to lighten the mood a bit. You’re too serious sometimes,” she said. “Listen, I just don’t see what good it would do. I mean, you’re so busy that you went back to school before you had to, before Christmas break was over. What makes you think you’ll have any time to see me even if I went to your school and was on the same campus as you? It’s just not… Don’t you see how futile that would be?”
“Is this your way of saying you’re breaking up with me?” he said.
“No, Simon…geeze,” she said. “Can’t we just…”
“I don’t know,” she said, sighing again.
“I miss you, Cassandra,” he said quietly.
She half laughed. “A couple weeks ago you didn’t even know me,” she said.
“But I know you now,” he said fiercely. “And I want to be with you, all the time. I’m constantly thinking of you. Dammit, I'm in love you!”
“I love you too,” she said softly.
“But I bet you’d say the same about my brother,” he grumbled.
“Yeah, I do love Ronnie. He’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” she said. “He’s honest and kind and sincere. I know I can tell him anything and he’d listen and care and never make fun of me or tease me about it.”
“You think I don't care about you cuz I tease you?” he said. “Seriously, tell me. I need to know.”
“I know you care and you do tease me a bit, but not in a mean way…like you do with Ronnie and Sophie and nearly everyone else,” she said. “You’re just too sharp witted for most people, but I get it.”
“I’ll try to be…nicer,” he said grudgingly. “I’ll make it my New Year’s resolution.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to change for me, Simon. I like you the way you are.”
“But there are some things about Ronnie you like better than me,” he said.
“Not better, it’s…Ronnie’s been a good friend to me,” she said. “Especially when I needed one. I never had close friends other than Sophie and when her dad died she was…gone and I had nobody, except for Ronnie. Other girls at school never really liked me and Ronnie…”
“Are you saying he was your girlfriend?” Simon burst out laughing.
“You could say…maybe I bring out his feminine side,” she said, quickly adding, “Don’t you dare tease him about that!”
“Dang, you’re making this hard,” he said. And they both laughed for a bit.
“I don’t suppose you’re able to break away for New Year’s Eve?” she said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Oh, besides letting you have your way with me at the stroke of twelve,” she said, giggling when she heard him mutter something unintelligible. “I thought we could go to a New Year’s Eve party. Ronnie said he might take Sophie and me to a club where his band used to play and I was wondering if you could come. I know you have work but…thought I’d ask anyway.”
She heard him groan and instantly felt bad for him. “It’s okay, Simon. There will be other times.”
“I’m sorry, Cassandra, really I am,” he said. “My boss always has a hard time finding people willing to stay for New Years. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
“S’okay. T’is the life of a doctor and his wife’s gotta get used to it…I mean girlfriend,” she added quickly. “I guess I miss you, too.”
“I think you probably miss your family, more than me,” he said.
“Not at all!” she said adamantly.
“Are you sure? Have you called them since I left?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“I have not had more than a few hours break from them in over three years, Simon,” she said. “I’ve never lived apart from them except when Frankie was overseas. I haven’t had a chance to miss them.”
“All right…what do you miss about me then?” he said, sort of testing her.
“Everything, but especially your enchanting eyes,” she said instantly.
There was silence for a bit. “If I’d known that we coulda done a video call,” he said at last. “Switch over.”
“My hair’s too messy…blowing around in the wind all day,” she said, smoothing it down even as she pressed the video icon and she could finally see him. She smiled.
“Not messy… beautiful. There’s my pretty girl,” he said smiling wide.
“There’s those hypnotic eyes…could drown in them and be happy about it,” she said.
They stared at each other for a long time, hearts swelling with longing, and precisely at the same time they said, “I love you.”
Cassandra laughed. “We’re funny,” she said. “I shouldn’t keep you so long…just wanted to tell you I’m good. I got my shopping to put away before Ronnie eats it all,” she said.
“I’ll call you when I get a chance,” he said before hanging up.
She dropped the cell phone to her lap and gazed out the window. Night had fallen so all she could see were the blinking lights on the buildings across the skyline. She frowned. Simon may have been right. She did miss home, the endless stretch of evergreens on the hills surrounding Catalpa Valley, the quiet tranquility, the familiar surroundings…and perhaps more than that.
She stared at her phone. Guess it was time to call home.
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