Ella entered her email address and zip code, created a username and password, and agreed to the Terms of Service. A grey button turned blue, and she clicked it.
Welcome to The Hypothecary, DesperateElla! a sixteen-bit banner read, flapping in the digital wind. Old World Remedies for Every Affliction! Beneath the banner an animated gif of a wizard in purple robes waved a yellow wand that left a streak of pixelated stardust behind it. Ella looked at Rebecca. “This does not inspire confidence,” she sniffed.
Rebecca feinted a poke to Ella’s ribs, and Ella twisted away, winced, and sucked in a breath through her teeth. Rebecca gave Ella’s hand a squeeze. “If your choice is between him and another visit to Dr. Weiss,” she said, “I’ll take my little homie in the bathrobe every time.”
Ella clutched a pillow to her stomach with one hand and scrolled down the screen with the other, ignoring the litany of benefits reserved for Gold Members like Rebecca. She maneuvered her cursor over the Begin Your Seven-Day Free Trial! button. “Let the record show that this is absurd,” she said.
“Duly noted,” Rebecca replied. “Now click the damned button.”
Ella clicked. A dissolve cleared away the text of the entry page, and on the next a bigger wizard scribbled on a clipboard, periodically pausing to lick the nib of his pencil. A word bubble billowed from his mouth. Before we begin, DesperateElla, I’ll need to know a little more about you, it read, the text filling up the balloon character by character. Ella scrolled down and was pleased to find a thoroughly modern series of radial buttons and drop-down menus. She entered her sex, age, height, and weight, then frowned at the next set of prompts on the screen. “Why am I doing this again?” she asked.
“So the purple wizard can fix you with his magic,” Rebecca said, levering herself up from the couch and wrapping her arms around Ella’s shoulders with great care. “Time for work,” she added, “and we’ll probably go to O’Shaughnessy’s after. Want to come with?”
Ella shook her head. “Got a hot date with your Hypothecary,” she said. “Gonna at least be his side chick before the night is out.”
Rebecca laughed. “Good,” she said, pulling on her jacket. “You’ll feel like an idiot by the time you’re done, but remember—my migraines are gone. I don’t care how it works so long as it works.”
“I know,” Ella said. “I’ll give it a shot.” Rebecca kissed Ella’s forehead and wagged a finger at the wizard. “You take good care of my girl, or there will be hell to pay.” She crossed the room, plucked her keys from the dish by the door, and opened it. “I’ll text you to see how it’s going,” she added. “If you need full access just log in from my desktop, okay? My gold password should be saved in the browser.”
“Thanks, Bec,” Ella said, blowing her a kiss. “Love you!”
“Love you back!” Rebecca answered, catching the kiss and spinning out the door.
Ella set down her laptop, walked across the room to grab a blanket, and returned to the couch. Every step brought fresh misery: the muscles in her thighs throbbed, her calves burned, and even the soles of her feet were painfully tender.
She balanced the laptop on her thighs once again, carefully avoiding the bruises. I see from your date of birth that you are a Capricorn, DesperateElla, the text read. Your moon sign and ascendant sign can help me refine your diagnosis. If you know the city of your birth and the hour of your birth, please enter them here. Ella sipped her tea and typed in the information.
The next set of prompts pressed further. What is your birth position—are you the youngest, eldest, or somewhere in the middle? Do you consider yourself religious? If so, what is your denomination? Are you a vegetarian or a vegan? For fifteen minutes Ella answered progressively stranger, more intimate questions. “You’d better bring your A-game, wizard,” she muttered. “I’ve taken longer Buzzfeed quizzes to find out what emo song I am. I can go all night.”
The site proved to be a welcome, weird, mindless distraction. It gave Ella a chance to focus on something other than her assorted aches. Despite Rebecca’s faith Ella couldn’t bring herself to put much stock in The Hypothecary, although she had to concede Rebecca’s recovery made for a compelling demonstration of the site’s effectiveness. Back in August Rebecca had been leveled by her migraines, reduced to a groaning, inconsolable mess. Worse still, the migraines, which had plagued her since she was twelve or thirteen, had begun to occur far more often over the course of that summer, going from a rate of one every five or six months to one every five or six days. All she could do was ride them out, curled up in a curtained room. Ella had tried to nurse her through them, bringing her ice packs, warm compresses, and every over-the-counter remedy she could lay hands on. Nothing had helped.
Dr. Weiss at the college clinic had been worse than useless. He had given Rebecca a cursory examination, dismissed her symptoms as hysterics, and sent her home with a prescription for high-dosage Tylenol. Brent had been able to hook her up with stronger narcotics, but they only bought her a few hours of relief at a time and laid her out just as completely as the migraines did.
One visit to The Hypothecary had changed everything. Rebecca had found the site twenty pages deep into the search results for migraine remedies, well past the pages for acupuncture, healing crystals, and essential oils. The retro aesthetic of the site had caught her eye; she was nearly finished with her certificate in web design, and she could tell a modern programmer had gone out of their way to give it an old-school look. She had fiddled with the drop-downs, fascinated by the way the questions branched, but by the time she was done she had a pinpoint diagnosis, a better description of how her migraines played out than she could have expressed herself without a doctor’s prompting.
The session ended, however, in disappointment: the remedy the Hypothecary prescribed was absurd. The wizard had told her to prick her finger, bleed on the wick of a black candle and let it dry, light it, and sleep with the candle at the foot of her bed and a glass of white vinegar on the nightstand beside her. She had dismissed it at first, but a vicious Monday morning migraine convinced her to give the treatment a try. When she woke the candle had melted down to a stub, the vinegar had turned a rusty red color, and her headache was gone.
That was back in early September. In October Rebecca bought the gold membership as her way of thanking the wizard, and during the intervening month she had gotten utterly lost in The Hypothecary’s recommended reading list, which supposedly explained the rationale behind the remedy. They were midway through May and the migraines had not come back. As far as Rebecca was concerned, the Hypothecary was a miracle worker.
Ella could think of about a dozen ways to explain Rebecca’s recovery, from the placebo effect to the abandonment of her experiments with clean eating to the dissipation of all the tension she had felt since she moved out of Aidan’s place, but she was not about to harsh on the Hypothecary. Rebecca felt better, and that was all that mattered.
Ella finished entering answers to the historical and personal questions and took a moment to try and roll out the inexplicably sore muscles of her shoulders. As she did a hovering pane appeared and glided down to the bottom of the screen. Would you like to chat LIVE with The Hypothecary? Become a Gold Member now for only $99.99! Ella exed out the window, pushed the Continue button, and worked up the courage to go to the kitchen and brew herself a pot of tea.
What had once been an effortless part of her routine had become an ordeal. Pain pulsed down her legs as she uncrossed them, and every step revealed some new ache in her heels, calves, knees, thighs, hips, and back. Tightness in her ribs obliged her to take shallow breaths, and her hands shook as she filled the kettle, trembling as if she had spent hours twisting, squeezing, and kneading. She made the mistake of bumping the silverware drawer closed with her hip, and a jolt of pain shot down her thigh, where a cluster of bruises had just begun to turn yellow at the edges. Even eating a cookie involved extra care, as Ella knew opening her mouth too wide would cause jagged bolts of pain to arc from her jaw down to the base of her neck.
Ella tiptoed back into the living room, caught her phone just as it started buzzing, and thumbed over to read Rebecca’s text. How’s it going? she asked.
This wizard knows more about me than my therapist and gynecologist, Ella typed in response.
Give it a chance, Rebecca replied with a smiley face. When you get to the diagnostic page, the wizard is going to blow your mind.
Back on her laptop, the little wizard waited for her, holding a huge book in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other.
Let’s begin with your primary symptom, DesperateElla, he began. Ella wheeled her cursor down to Body Aches, which seemed like the best fit, and added Ribs, lower when a submenu gave her the chance to be more specific. She could have started with an ache in just about any part of her body, but the difficulty breathing concerned her most. She drew in a deep breath, held it, and exhaled raggedly. Pain clamped around her from her waist to her bust, the muscles clenching. “Yes,” she wheezed, “let’s call that a body ache.”
A re your Body Aches, Ribs, lower accompanied by any of the following symptoms, DesperateElla? the wizard inquired, eyeing her with his magnifying glass. Please check all that apply. Ella started clicking, ticking off Body Aches for her calves, thighs, hips, back, shoulders, and neck and then adding Soreness, Jaw. She slept well—disturbingly well, really—but her daily exhaustion prompted her to add Fatigue, General. The more she looked at the laundry list of symptoms, the more Ella was convinced she had something like fibromyalgia, though her diagnosis didn’t really explain the bruising on her thighs or why the symptoms always worsened overnight. Dr. Weiss had of course mauled her thighs during her visit, smiling none too subtly as she squirmed on the examination table, before concluding those bruises were incidental and the real problem was that she was grinding her teeth in her sleep. He sent her off to buy a dental guard.
Ella’s catalog of symptoms scrolled upward, making space for a new question. Are the symptoms you have selected accompanied by any of the following symptoms, DesperateElla? the dialogue asked. But only a single symptom appeared: Bruising, Thighs.
Ella whistled. “Okay, now that is oddly specific.”
Prompted by the wizard, Ella checked off responses to three more questions, confirming that her symptoms had persisted for more than six months but less than a year, that they were intermittent, and that they had grown progressively worse over time. The page dissolved and the wizard reappeared, peering into a spinning crystal ball.
Progress? Rebecca texted.
Maybe? Ella answered. Me and the wizard are just vibing. If he can fix me up I’ll have his babies and name every one of them after you.
Rebecca sent her an animated gif of Taylor Swift looking shocked. Ella laughed and regretted it, holding her ribs.
Ella turned her attention back to the laptop, where the crystal ball had stopped spinning and a new prompt had appeared. Just a few more questions, DesperateElla! the wizard said. Were any of the following foods in your diet when your symptoms first occurred? The options included a half dozen fruits she had never heard of—Bullaces, Greengages, Damsons, and others. After a series of searches to make sure the fruits listed were not just named varieties of apples, Ella clicked None of the Above.
“Swing and a miss, wizard,” she said.
The next question, however, was a solid hit. Have you traveled to any of the following places in the last twelve months, DesperateElla? There were only four options listed: Greece, Iceland, Thailand, and The British Isles. Ella had gone on a study abroad trip to Ireland with Rebecca, Brent, Aidan, and a dozen other classmates the prior July, about ten months ago. She checked the proper box and waited on the wizard.
Ella almost spit her tea on the screen when the follow-up question materialized. She managed to get a hand up in time, but chamomile still dribbled down her chin. Have you had sexual intercourse with a man or woman from The British Isles in the past twelve months, DesperateElla? the Hypothecary asked.
“Damn,” Ella said. She felt an unwelcome, unpleasant heat suffuse her cheeks. Part of her wanted to argue with the wizard—the man was only of Irish descent, technically, and plenty of whiskey had been involved—but she had in fact slept with Aidan just a few hours after they landed in Dublin. Rebecca, jetlagged, had been passed out cold in the hotel room she was slated to share with Ella just a few doors down.
Ella, ashamed, checked the box. Though Aidan had been extremely busy in Ireland, getting together with at least two more women that Ella knew of, and though Rebecca had caught wind of his infidelities and broken up with him, Ella still felt like she owed Rebecca a confession. She was a doting, devoted friend; she deserved that much.
Ella set her laptop aside, took an excruciating shower as a kind of penance—she had to twist and turn to prevent the spray from pelting her bruises, and all that twisting left her aching and breathless—and slipped into her pajamas. She would tell Rebecca about her fling with Aidan, but she would wait until the moment was right. “Soon,” she whispered, nodding at herself approvingly in the foggy mirror as she toweled off.
Ella made a fresh cup of tea, returned to the couch, tapped her laptop out of sleep mode, and clicked the Continue button. The wizard disappeared in a cloud of pixelated smoke. Finding Your Remedy, DesperateElla scrolled to the center of a digital banner and pulsed for several seconds.
When the next page materialized its arrival was accompanied by a fanfare sound effect that made Ella snort; the wizard stood close to the top, a thought balloon with a light bulb floating just above his pointed purple hat. Great news, DesperateElla! the page announced. The Hypothecary knows your malady and its remedy! Would you like to see how he arrived at his diagnosis?
“I most certainly would,” Ella said. She clicked Yes, but the button redirected her to the Gold Membership subscription page. She paged back and clicked the No Thanks, Take Me to My Remedy! button.
The remedy page featured a full-screen rendering of the book the wizard had held during the diagnostic steps. The directions were brief, and Ella read them eagerly. Then she sighed and tapped out a text to Rebecca. 0/10 stars. Would not wizard again.
Rebecca responded with a series of question marks almost immediately. Ella took a screenshot of the remedy and sent it as her next text. A moment later Rebecca replied with a picture of a pensive gorilla captioned “That just might be crazy enough to work.” Told you you’d end up feeling like an idiot, she typed, but what have you got to lose?
My dignity, mostly, Ella answered.
The restaurant is dead. Leaving in 10. Need anything? Rebecca asked.
Ella looked at the remedy again and frowned. Some sacrificial ball-point pens, she typed. And a box of wine.
A half hour later Rebecca was home, and she bore a ten-pack of pens and a bottle. Rebecca filled their glasses and filled Ella in on the latest restaurant gossip as they made their preparations, cracking open the pens, cutting the ink cylinders of each one with a pair of scissors, and filling the cap of a bottle of Diet Coke with the ink. By the time they were done they had milked a respectable half-capful.
With the ink Ella painted a black circle on a hand mirror, using a cotton swab as a paintbrush. She laid the mirror on the keyboard and walked gingerly into her bedroom carrying her laptop, wincing with each step. Rebecca brought their wine glasses, set them on the dresser, and moved Ella’s laundry hamper to the side of her bed, leaving a corner of the bedroom clear. Ella printed out the remedy and scanned the instructions one last time. “I don’t think I’m drunk enough for this,” she muttered.
“Doing first, drinking later,” Rebecca said with a bright smile. “Now go stand in the corner, young lady.”
Ella sighed. She walked to the corner, turned to face the center of the bedroom, and took three small steps forward. She raised the mirror with her right hand so that the black circle enclosed her face, and she raised the printout with the left. “I just have to look in the mirror and read the lines, right?” she asked. “For a magical ritual powered by a computer wizard this seems a little bland.”
Rebecca scanned the screen. “That should do the trick,” she said. She sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward and watching Ella expectantly, even avidly.
Ella indeed felt like an idiot. Both of her arms were trembling, however, and the printout flapped in her shaking hand. She took a shallow breath and began, glancing at the poem on the page and looking herself in the eyes as she intoned each line.
Climb to fall
and fall to leap,
Nag to steed
and wolf to sheep,
Walk to ride
and dream to sleep,
Heal to hurt
and give to keep.
When she finished she stared at herself in the black circle for a few seconds longer. “On the down side everything still hurts,” she said at last, “but on the plus side this mirror really brings out the dark circles around my eyes.” She let her arms drop to her sides and smiled weakly at Rebecca.
Ella felt a little deflated. She had not taken the Hypothecary very seriously, but just seriously enough to feel disappointed. The next stop was probably her mother’s doctor at home, though she felt none too confident about her readiness to drive that far on her shaky legs. If her symptoms persisted she would need to talk Rebecca into a road trip.
“How would you feel—” she began, but Rebecca’s expression brought her up short. She was looking past Ella, behind her, and smiling.
Slowly, anxiously, Ella lifted the mirror. The black circle had vanished. In the corner behind her a darkness had gathered, and the darkness slithered and grew.
Ella felt as though her breath had somehow lodged in her throat. She knew with perfect certainty that the bedroom lamp was off to her left and the darkness behind her could not be her own shadow. With similar certainty she knew she should scream, she should flee, but her body refused to respond. A profound numbness had enveloped and seeped inside it, and it wanted nothing more than to disappear into those cold, motionless depths, leaving her consciousness behind.
“My promise kept,” Rebecca said, rising from the bed. “She will suffice?”
A voice that sounded nothing like a voice answered. Ella felt breath on her shoulder, and it smelled of turned earth. “She will,” it rasped. “She is a poor mount now, but she will grow strong in time.”
“Excellent,” Rebecca said. She left the bedroom and returned a few moments later with a tumbler in her hand. It was filled with a liquid that was rusty red in color. Rebecca tipped the glass, dipped her thumb into the liquid, and anointed Ella’s forehead. It smelled of vinegar and something sweeter and more subtle.
The darkness curled around Ella, resolving itself into a recognizable shape, though its edges shifted and flickered. It was a woman, an old woman, ageless in a way Ella could not reckon, and the sight of her waked a reflexive dread in the primitive parts of Ella’s brain. The old woman’s skin was a lusterless black, and her face was mapped with inky creases and furrows. She grew tall, gaunt, and angular, and Ella could see ashen bones moving beneath the skin of her shoulders, knuckles, and knees. Somewhere in the recesses of her faraway body Ella’s heart thundered.
With a taloned fingertip the old woman sliced neatly through Ella’s pajamas, letting them fall to the floor. Rebecca set the tumbler aside, gathered the pajamas up, and tossed them in a pile at the foot of the bed. The old woman then pressed an iron bar to Ella’s lips, and she involuntarily opened her mouth. She urged the bit forward until it was wedged behind Ella’s backmost teeth and attached short reins to it, draping the straps over Ella’s shoulders.
The old woman circled behind Ella, and Rebecca approached, studying Ella’s face. “I’m sorry, Ell,” she said with a sly grin, “but you have to admit you feel much better, don’t you?”
The old woman climbed onto Ella’s back, her knobbly knees squeezing Ella’s ribs and her horned heels digging into Ella’s thighs. She could feel the woman’s weight and the vague directional pressure of the bit when she took the reins, but her body seemed like an incidental thing, a curious, indifferent sensation. “You should probably have ponied up for the gold membership,” Rebecca whispered in her ear.
Ella’s nostrils flared, and she felt her body being guided into the living room by the weight upon her back. She could see her teacup, her blanket, and her laptop, her bookbag and her cell phone, a picture of Rebecca and a strange, half-remembered woman on the staircase inside Dublin Castle.
“Our bargain is struck and done, girl,” the old woman rasped. “Hale and whole in head and heart you will be for all your days.”
“I’m grateful,” Rebecca said. “And I have a gift for you.” She handed the old woman the contents of a rolled-up sanwich bag. “A lock of hair from a faithless boy who’s done a wrong and stole my joy.” She sneered as she completed the rhyme.
The old woman took the lock and laughed, a choking, croaking sound that made Ella shudder.
“And you that accept a sister’s gift must vex the soul of one unshrift,” Rebecca added in a practiced cadence.
“That we must,” the old woman said. “You are a clever, learned girl,” she added. “Perhaps someday you will join the sisterhood on our nightly rides.” She wheeled Ella toward the sliding door that led to the balcony, and Rebecca pulled it open.
“Perhaps someday I will,” she replied, “but I think I’ve had my fill of sisterhood for a while.”
Ella lifted her chin, her face turned toward the open door. Horned heels dug into her thighs, and Ella launched her body into the night sky. She felt a strange sense of loss, as if she were on the cusp of forgetting something she wished to remember, but her gaze was fixed on the faraway stars.
William H. Wandless is a professor of English at Central Michigan University. He specializes in eighteenth-century narratives and modern popular culture, but he writes speculative fiction when left unattended. His latest short stories can be found in Not One of Us, Dissections, and Crow Toes Quarterly, and 2022 will see the release of his first chapbook of poetry. He can be found on Twitter at @ArsGoetica.