Felix and Stella

by August Niehaus

 

Stella is a witch. She’s not the kind of girl Felix can bring home to his mother, but he doesn’t care. His mother hasn’t called him down to the docks for months, and he knows the Felicity pulled out of port a few days ago.

Felix is just glad Stella lets him climb up through her window and curl up in her bed to fall asleep with her arms around him. It’s what he wants for the rest of his life.

Stella wakes Felix up every morning by planting a kiss on his nose, and then he smiles and yawns and she tickles him until he rolls out of bed. While she makes her tea and reads the leaves, he watches her from the living room; it’s warmer there, in front of her fire that never goes out. Sometimes she reads to him from whatever book she’s enjoying, and he listens with his eyes closed. And when she opens her shop to customers, he loiters in the doorway or wanders out into the streets, depending on who walks in that day.

This crisp fall morning, it’s grumpy Mrs. Thompson who sweeps in first, so Felix catches Stella’s eye and takes his leave with her smiled blessing. He’s pleased for sunbeams on his cheeks and dry roads to walk.

He wanders down Main Street, tormenting shop owners’ dogs by waltzing past their windows without a look to spare for them.  He’s delighting in the mischief, chuckling to himself, when he comes upon a tiny stall he’s never seen before.

There are cobwebs dangling from the hastily-constructed frame, and half the letters in the sign stating “COSTUMES” are written backwards. There’s a distinct air of hurry and harry about the stand, and Felix is preparing to walk away when a man with a scraggly beard shoves his bald head between the dusty purple curtains and pulls a face at him.

“Ugh. Really?” The man flicks a little brass jar hanging from the frame, squinting at it. “This is supposed to tell me when I have customers, not—” He gestures at Felix. “You.”

Felix stiffens and makes an altogether uncivilized sound.

The man straightens up and cocks his head at Felix. “Ah. Perhaps I—misjudged you. You have more—ah, no, intelligence isn’t strictly the right word, no, ah—character, yes, more character than your average—well, you know. You’ve got the, ah, twinkle in your eye. Were you—were you looking for a costume?”

The man points to the sign. Felix looks up, unnecessarily, and shakes his head.

“Ah. No costumes. I’m afraid I don’t have much for you then.” The man sighs and scratches the back of his smooth head, looking like he pities no one in the world more than himself. “I was never one for love potions or transfiguration spells, no, just… pretty decent costumes.” He gestures around himself grandly, sarcastically. Felix finds this man distasteful. “But you probably don’t want to be anything else, do you? Halloween’s just right for you already.”

Felix does want to be something else. He wants to be…human.

Stella could love a human the way she can never love him if he’s like this. Ever since he first wandered into her shop, cold and hungry, and found a warm bowl of milk and a comforting presence, he’s been in love with her. Not the way he sometimes lusts after the ladies in the alley, when they waltz past him with all their scents and howls; Felix loves Stella like the Earth loves the Sun: forever, inseparably, and impossibly—as life itself.

Some of this must pass across his face, because the man’s expression shifts and he holds up one finger. Then he vanishes back through the curtains. Felix is about to wander off, tantalized by an earthy scent a few shops down, when the man returns.

He’s carrying a small mask, too small even for a child. The mask is a distinctly male human face, with holes for the eyes and nose and a pensive expression.

Felix tilts his head at the man.

“This, my new mate, is no ordinary Halloween mask, no—this is my specialty. Well, not human ones in particular. Actually, would you believe…” The man leans towards Felix conspiratorially, beckoning. Intrigued, Felix joins him on the counter. “…most of my business this time of year is to secret furries. Ah, if you know what that is? Never mind. This—” Attention is back to the mask. “—might be just what you need.”

Felix eyes the mask more closely. What he thought was golden hair is a crown encircling the man’s head, and now Felix can see the imperious jut of the jaw. He narrows his eyes.

The man sweeps his arm so high he dislodges some of the cobwebs. “You would be a prince for a day! On Halloween, other people turn themselves into monsters, caricatures, even the undead… But wear this mask tomorrow, and you, my friend, will become royalty.”

The man glances up and down the empty street.

“Perhaps,” he adds, “for more than a day.”

The meaning hitches Felix’s breath in his throat.

A prince… Stella could love a human prince.

Felix touches the mask, not daring to hope. He looks up in time to see a smile tugging at the corners of the man’s mouth.

“Yes, yes, I think it would you suit you very well,” the man says. “Ah—” As if he’s momentarily forgotten. “There is one small thing. It does cost. I accept US dollars only.”

Felix slumps. He shoves off the counter before his disappointment can get the better of him.

“Wait!” the man calls. “I also accept, ah, an alternative price.”

Felix glares at the man, who wrings his hands and can’t seem to stand still. When the man’s next words come, they’re in an ancient, guttural voice: “Unless she loves you true, you cannot willfully unbecome you. When of your human trappings you are free, you will return to me.

Felix narrows his eyes and stares down the cobblestones. His love for Stella roars in his chest like a caged lion, making his whole body shake with it. He’s never been so close to winning her heart before; he can taste it, metallic and fateful.

He takes the mask.

***

After it’s dark, Felix carries the mask back to Stella’s house, then sits outside for a while, uncertain.

He’s never hesitated to go to her before. Every time he sees her, he greets her anew, even when she’s just gone ‘round the corner to her bedroom. His love for her is always bright and new.

But right now, his feet are frozen on the threshold of her shop-home.

“Felix!” Stella calls, and he flies to her, clutching the prince’s head. She relieves him of it with a curious smile. “Is this a gift for me?”

A vision of Stella putting on the mask herself runs through Felix’s head, and he pulls it away from her. In apology, he nudges her shoulder, and she chucks him under the chin. “Silly boy. Where were you? I called for you after Mrs. Thompson left.”

Felix looks off towards town, wishing he could describe the man and his stall to her. Tomorrow, he hears the man say again. Wear this mask tomorrow.

Tomorrow…

“I know you don’t like her much, Felix, but Mrs. Thompson… she told me her son has a wonderful job in marketing in New York City. I wouldn’t give up my spells,” she says quickly when he twitches his nose, “but a steady paycheck and a day off sound lovely, don’t they?”

When she finally drifts off to bed, Felix lies awake at her feet, sideways in a puddle of moonlight. Stella’s gentle breathing lulls him, but his thoughts have tiny mouse-feet that keep him awake.

A paycheck and a day off don’t mean good things for him. They mean Stella leaves her life behind and leaves him with it, because he won’t survive the real city.

Truly, he just wants her to be happy. He admits to himself, with a knot in his stomach: he’s always held out hope that she’d find her happiness with him.

Sleep does not come.

***

Haggard, Felix greets the sun by stretching at the window. He sits and watches while the sunlight creeps across the room and finally caresses Stella’s cheek. She smiles and stirs, but doesn’t awaken.

It’s already been six hours of Halloween. Time slides away like the river. His stomach in knots, Felix goes to find the mask.

He’d left it at the table the night before, and now he crawls up onto a chair to try and put his head inside the mask. It takes some doing, but finally the rubber hugs his nose and cheeks and ears.

Nothing changes. He stares disdainfully through the eyeholes at Stella’s pots on the wall, then squints. There’s still no change.

It happens suddenly: a wrenching, stretching sensation throughout his entire body, followed by the smell of blood and rain. He can feel his ears shrinking, his legs elongating and straightening. The face he’s donned becomes his own, and he’s looking at a pair of un-calloused hands in front of him. His legs stretch all the way to the floor. There’s a weight on his shoulders, and it dons on Felix: that must be the weight of royalty.

He tips his head to look. In fact, he’s wearing a heavy, fur-lined cape.

The weight of royalty, indeed.

The first thing Felix does is stand up sharply. The motion sends a rush of blood and adrenaline coursing through an unfamiliar stomach, and he doubles over, retching dryly.

That’s when he sees Stella. She’s standing in the doorway, only halfway dressed, a hand over her mouth.

“Dear Goddess,” she gasps through her fingers. “F-Felix?”

He swallows hard. He wanted this to go so differently, but here he stands, wasting his first few precious moments as a prince worrying about how she’ll remember them. At least she recognized him, somehow.

He shrugs off the thoughts and the cape and steps towards her, surprised to find he’s graceful in his borrowed legs. The grace gives him courage, and he speaks his first words to her.

“You gave me a reason to live, Stella.”

He has to fight a strange hunger for her; he wants to clasp her to him. Instead, he offers his hand, as he’s seen her would-be suitors do. But instead of laughing and turning away, Stella reaches to wind her fingers between his.

Her smile is bewitching. “My wish came true.”

***

Over brunch fare at Brigitte’s Bayville Luncheon, Stella explains.

“I’ve been guiding my dreams at night. I’ve been looking for you.” She blushes. “Well, for someone like you.”

She hasn’t let go of his hand since they entered the restaurant.

“I looked everywhere—tried to, anyway, tried to look in Texas and Colorado and even New Hampshire. The spirits kept nudging me gently homeward, and I kept laughing at them,” she tells him with a wry laugh, taking a sip of her mead. “I told those pesky spirits, ‘I don’t know anyone in the village,’ but they insisted. I suppose they were right, after all.”

Stella gasps as if she’s startled herself. “Oh! You can come with me! To the city.”

Felix wants to tell her everything. He wants to spill the story of the man with the mask, and the way the spell works, and how much it matters that she fall in love with him by Halloween’s end, or they’ll never sit across from one another in a café again, much less get an apartment in the city together.

But he knows enough about people to know that telling someone they should fall in love with you is about the quickest way to get them to hate you. He also knows enough about fairy tales to take the midnight deadline very seriously.

So instead, Felix smiles—he knows he’ll have to practice, from the way Stella gently hides the corner of her own smile in her napkin—and looks down at their entwined hands. “Nosy spirits, those. Maybe the same ones who led me to you after my mother—”

He stops.  He doesn’t want to invoke his mother on this most sacred of days. He takes a deep draught of his coffee, which brings a welcome warmth to his head and stomach.

“We don’t have to talk about that,” Stella says, tickling his hand with the edge of her thumb. “Let’s do something we couldn’t have done together instead. You know,” she adds innocently as Felix’s heartrate picks up, “like ride the carousel at the carnival, or going to the harvest party.”

His laugh is half relief, half disappointment. “Yes, Stella, that sounds amazing.” He’s trying not to add her name into every sentence, but it’s miraculous to be able to say it, to have her tilt her head his way when it leaves his lips.

“I’ll even take to you to see ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ with me at the Cinema, if you’re really good.” Her green-gold eyes are all witchcraft and sparks. Felix can feel his insides melting. “Then we’ll go home.”

She ducks her head to take a bite of her scone. Felix tries to concentrate on the fried eggs she’d ordered for him, and though it’s delicious, he’s thinking instead about how her lips will taste.

***

Felix keeps waiting for someone to turn him away, but the faces at the carnival are friendly and inviting. They take their time, whiling away the whole afternoon.

They wander into the house of mirrors, spend a bit on the milk bottle shoot, and solve the corn maze three times. Felix watches from a respectful distance while Stella communes with the ponies waiting patiently between small children clamoring for a ride around a tiny ring. He can’t hear or smell them sharply anymore—a pleasant change, when it comes to the horses, but disorienting, since he relied so heavily on his keen senses in his other body.

When she strays away from him, distracted by something shiny, Stella comes back to take his hand within no more than a moment or two. Felix imagines she believes she’s never too far from him. But every time she lets go of his hand, his heart is in his throat and he can hardly take a breath. Knowing the hours are crawling away sets his skin on fire.

Bringing good thoughts with her, Stella comes back now to tug him gently towards a hastily-pitched tent, with a barrel in its center. There’s a seedy-looking woman and her seedier man sitting in rocking chairs some distance behind the barrel.

“Bobbin’,” the woman croaks as Felix and Stella approach. “Bobbin’ for your fortunes. Try it, laddie, lassie.”

Stella brings Felix to a halt by pressing her hand against his heart, which very nearly stops it from beating. “Listen,” she says, low, so he has to duck close to her sweet warmth to catch her words, “I believe in this stuff. The lady, she’s got the ceremony a little wrong, but I can make it right. Just—believe in it with me, will you?”

Her eyes plead up into his and Felix will do anything for her. He nods and means it.

Then she skips to the barrel, clasps her hands together behind her back, and dips her face into the water without hesitation, and Felix wonders if he can keep the unspoken promise he just made. At the thought of deliberately submerging himself in water, he feels a primeval panic clasp at his insides.

He stands awkwardly out of splashing range as Stella comes up gasping, an apple clutched triumphantly in her teeth.

She drops the fruit into her hand and flashes him a toothy smile. “First go,” she says breathlessly, and Felix fights his desire to scoop her up and steal the rest of her breath. Then his yearning fades to concern as she reaches a hand to him and asks, “Will you try?”

He puts his hands up in front of him, even as the fear of disappointing her grips him with iron claws. “I—it’s water, I can’t—”

Her eyes grow sober. “Felix, our fortune can’t be told if we don’t both peel an apple.” The twinkle returns. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll kiss you if you do it.”

“You’ll…kiss me?” he manages.

“Kiss you. Here and now. Right in front of Mrs. Bendall.”

“Don’t be a scaredy-cat, boy,” Mrs. Bendall hollers.

Felix blinks furiously at Stella. “You’ll kiss me,” he says again. Then he tucks his unfamiliar black hair behind his ears—ears that are smooth and cold and strange to his foreign fingers—and folds his hands behind him before he does the thing that scares him more than almost anything.

Almost.

As he plunges beneath the icy surface of the dark surface of the barrel’s water, he knows that losing Stella scares him more than this.

Against all odds, Felix surfaces a few seconds later with an apple in his aching jaws. Stella giggles and takes the apple to a tall table nearby. Before Felix can shake himself dry, Stella runs back to him so fast that he must catch her, and still she knocks him backwards a step.

Stella cups his face in her hands and brings her soft lips to his.

The next few minutes after Stella breaks away fade and blur as the intoxication of her kiss runs through Felix’s veins. He ignores Mrs. Bendall’s cat-calling while he watches Stella use a knife to take the peel off the apples, bit by bit, until it lies in a pile on the table between them. Then she scoops up the peel, whispers some silent words across it, and scatters it over her shoulder.

They stand very close together to see what shape it made. Felix is certain the peel has fallen in the shape of a cat’s paw-print, but he doesn’t dare break the spell by asking Stella if she sees the same.

Still, she sees something that makes those soft lips smile, in a way that leaves Felix’s stomach in knots.

As the sun sets, they come to the cemetery, which the carnival grounds contain but don’t at all tame. Trails of fog curl through the stone arch, and there are deep shadows on the headstones’ letters. Felix has been to the cemetery many times, and often at night, but never with such ominous fingers scuttling up his spine.

A hunchbacked man greets them at the gate. Felix almost puts himself between the man and Stella, but then the light hits the man’s face and the fear leaves Felix as he recognizes Robert, the reverend’s son, in a Halloween costume. Robert is comically skewing his face, attempting to look scary rather than friendly.

“Here for the tour, Stell—ahh, I mean, weary travelers?” he asks, struggling to get back into character. He looks Felix up and down and gives Stella a look that very clearly asks, Who the hell is this?

Stella meets the man’s eyes steadily and puts on her best stage witch voice. “Yes, Robert—ahh, that is, oh gatekeeper, we are here to meet the spirits.” She squeezes Felix’s hand, and his stomach drops with dizzying speed.

Clearly annoyed not to get an answer to his unasked question, Robert shrugs and lifts the velvet rope blocking them from the modest cemetery.

Once they’ve left Robert’s sight, he seems to forget they’re there, so Felix guides Stella to the little mausoleum. It’s left open to the air but safe from wind and rain—and prying eyes.

This time, he kisses her. He wraps his arms around her shoulders and rests his chin on the top of her head, and she goes limp against his chest.

“You remember,” she whispers. Felix does remember: the night her most recent boyfriend told her she wasn’t the kind of woman he’d like to marry, Stella came home to him and they watched “He Remembers Her” on the couch, and she cried her eyes out when Thomas rested his chin tenderly on Marian’s now-bald head. Felix has never forgotten that.

A breeze nibbles at them, winter-crisp. Stella shivers, a welcome trembling in Felix’s arms. Felix closes his eyes and imagines that they are statues, locked like this forever.

***

After Robert kicks them out, Felix considers telling Stella about how they only have six more hours together, unless she’s in love with him. He thinks he knows the answer, but he doesn’t dare confirm it.

So instead, he convinces her to grab a quick bite with him at the Mill Creek Tavern and then go to the harvest party at St. Gertrude’s, where a few intrepid teenagers are still carving pumpkins and getting their faces painted. They each pick a pumpkin from the dwindling pile and sit at a picnic table laid out with knives and gouges.

While they carve, Felix steals glances at Stella. Her pretty mouth purses in concentration as she carefully takes shavings off her pumpkin’s face. He wants to tell her, ask her if she’s fallen in love with him. He is so close to—

“What are you carving?” she asks, shattering his budding willpower with her coy smile.

In answer, he turns his pumpkin around. The prince magic made him terribly artistic; he knows he’s perfectly captured Stella mid-laugh, in all her wild glory.

Something deep and complicated happens in Stella’s green eyes as she looks at the carving. Felix doesn’t know if it’s the dancing lantern-light or the magic inside the woman he loves, but she’s glowing as if filled with candles.

She blushes deeply. “That’s…incredible, Felix.”

He quirks an eyebrow at her. “What’s yours?”

“Nowhere near as beautiful,” she says, her blush deepening as she pulls her own pumpkin towards her. “I almost don’t want to show you.”

“I’m sure it’s great.”

She straightens up and smirks. “It’s hilarious, is what it is. Just not, y’know, mushy and gushy and romantic and stuff.”

With a delicate twist of her hand, Stella turns her pumpkin to face him, and Felix has to cover his mouth to keep from barking out a laugh. She’s made a three-panel story about her and him and a prank they’d talked years ago about pulling on Mrs. Thompson; and it is hilarious. Stella pulls his hand away from his mouth to free his laugh, and now she’s laughing too, and their laughter rings, a melody written for bells.

Stella insists they leave their pumpkins for the contest the next day, gleeful to put her name on a card, wishing she could see the expression on the reverend’s face when he realizes the witch attended the harvest party on church grounds. Then, though there are precious few Halloween hours left, Felix lets her guide them to the one-screen Bayville Cinema, purchase two tickets to the 9:05 PM showing of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and push him through the empty theatre into a back row seat.

Felix is very familiar with the story of Jack Skellington, all 76 minutes of it. It’s a movie he’s watched with Stella several times every October for the last three years.

What he’s not familiar with is the way she’s running her hand along his leg, and the drunken sensation rushing to his head as he catches the scent of the woods in her hair. Now she’s kissing him, kissing him, touching him, and he’s lost, tossed by the waves, caught by the wind.

***

Stella stretches and rolls onto her back, and the sheet falls deliciously over her side, baring her hip. Felix closes his eyes against the immense ache of startled satisfaction and continued desire, and he kisses her shoulder blade. Stella murmurs something in her sleep, her hand finding his, holding it tightly between her breasts.

Over and over, Felix replays the last words she whispered after falling off him and into the embrace of sleep: Goodnight, my love, the first goodnight of forever.

Sometimes his heart twinges at the idea that forever hadn’t come before, all those nights he’d slept in her arms. More often, his heart twinges because he thinks—no, he believes she’s fallen in love with him.

Felix tightens his grip on Stella and relishes the warmth of her body against his. Skin to skin. His nose to the soft nape of her neck.

He tries not to look at the digital clock, its bright numbers promising a mere two minutes more of Halloween.

He listens to Stella breathing, listens with his human ears and his human soul.

He drifts. He succumbs, for a moment, to sleep.

He twitches four paws against Stella’s back.

It brings him awake, heart plummeting. Felix can feel that he’s small again: a small, furry, sharp-eyed, sharp-toothed predator. A black cat. Not the human Stella fell in love with on Halloween night.

His heart hits bottom when he realizes: if the magic wore off, she didn’t fall in love with him after all.

Without even that thought to comfort him, Felix curls against Stella anyway, shivering with grief and worry, and he waits for the merciless morning to come.

***

He must have drifted, because he comes awake now when Stella does. She rolls over, sleep dogging her eyes, and nearly crushes him. Felix doesn’t even roll out of her way, just lets her weight press him into the mattress until she gasps and sits up.

“Felix!” she cries, her hands going to the sides of his face. She tips his head so he can look right into her tearful eyes. “Felix… I thought…”

And now I can never tell you what happened, he thinks, a wave of despair swallowing him. He pulls his head out of her hands so he can break eye contact. It’s too much, seeing the depth of her grief. I should have told you, Stella. I should have told you what I’ve done.

He makes his decision as he stares down at his black paws. He’ll run away. He’ll relieve Stella of the burden of having to look at him every day and remember what their love was like. And he won’t have to drive himself mad trying to live in the city, where no outdoor cat can truly belong.

He rises, ready to leave now, before the weight of his decision makes him drop it.

But Stella crooks her finger under his chin—not to make him look at her, but just to pet him. The way she always has. He melts into the kindness of her touch.

When she puts her arms around him and picks him up, Felix doesn’t protest. He leans into the crook of her neck, closing his eyes.

“I promise,” Stella whispers right into his ear, “that we will travel the world together for the rest of our lives if that’s what it takes.”

Felix buries his head deeper, pushing down the budding hope welling in him at her words.

“I may not be the kind of witch who can turn cats into humans,” she goes on, chuckling, “but someone out there is. And we’ll find them, and get them to use whatever spell is necessary to make you who I know you really are.”

Stella gently pries him away from her shoulder and looks him in the eye again. There’s that spunk, that determination he adores.

He believes her.

Then he almost yowls, because he remembers the price he paid to the man with the mask. He hears the primordial voice again: “Unless she loves you true, you cannot willfully unbecome you. When of your human trappings you are free, you will return to me.

Well, Felix thinks, the man never said when I had to return to him.

Maybe I’m not yet free of those human trappings after all.

He gazes back into Stella’s star-filled eyes and he knows his days will be filled with herbs and a soft sing-song voice and the sea wind on his whiskers, and that the rest of his nights will be spent in Stella’s arms. No matter what. The way he always wanted.

Pumpkin stock image thanks to PhoeebStock!