What Could Have Been
Edna bustled around her tower room, black robes flapping. Her hat and spare set of robes sat on a chair near the door—no need for them now. She didn’t want her work to be impeded by that silly costume. Her current outfit was more like a lab coat than anything, and indeed, the tower room was filled with an assortment of glassware and other equipment, vials of liquid, and small bottles containing powdered and dried ingredients.
Her spellbook lay open on the stone table, and Edna consulted it quickly. “Cultured Drool of Droolik,” she muttered under her breath, running her hand down the page. “Leave in pitch darkness for three days, then mix with powdered bone from unmarked grave.”
The Zafara sidestepped the black cauldron that squatted in the middle of the room and opened a scarred wooden door. A wide, white bowl sat on the floor, and she scooped it up, wincing as the pungent smell reached her nose.
She hurried back to the countertop and plucked a small bottle from the cluster. Uncorking it, Edna dumped its contents into the bowl and craned her neck to read the book on the table behind her.
Following the detailed instructions, she stirred the mixture with a Cherry Wish Stick, cracked the stick in two, and dropped the pieces into the bowl before dumping the entire concoction into her cauldron.
A swirl of vapors rose into the air, and Edna could hear the wish stick pop and sizzle as it dissolved into the potion.
The Zafara wiped her brow, careful not to flick the sweat into her brew. A single wrong ingredient, and the whole thing would be ruined.
Edna had been working on this project for weeks. Halloween was approaching, and the witch was undertaking one of her most ambitious spells to date. The words on the page in her spellbook drew her eye: Mirror of Emotion.
Over the past month, Edna had pushed her knowledge and skills to the limit. The vast amount of academic research and understanding, as well as time and careful planning, needed to produce such a potion was overwhelming—but so far, she had pulled it off without a hitch. True, there had been a close call when she’d nearly forgotten to gather the Blood Mushrooms at exactly an hour after midnight, but luck had been on her side, and she’d remembered with minutes to spare.
Nobody understood how much work it was, being a witch. A skilled witch, anyway. Edna felt like she’d wasted her talented mind by choosing this profession, one that demanded she dress up like a ragamuffin and talk like a lunatic. But that’s what Halloween was all about; that’s what Neopets wanted to see. It was all about the atmosphere, the theatrics, putting on a show. No one cared to ask how long it took to brew the potions; they just wanted to see Liquid Fear and get a good scare.
A glance at the clock scattered Edna’s thoughts. It was two minutes to midnight, and the mixture needed to be stirred twelve times as soon as the hour struck.
Secretly, Edna was disappointed that this was the last day. After she stirred the pot and added the final ingredients, the journey would be over. The month-long adventure, the long days of reading through Poisonous Plants And Where To Find Them and How To Catch Winged Petpets After Dark, the long nights of grinding, pouring, mixing, titrating, sorting, and preparing the countless ingredients—it would all be over.
This was what she loved to do. This was what made her life tolerable. Everything else—giving out quests, casting fake spells, cackling at visitors—would have worn her down years ago, but for these spurts of creative energy when she got to exercise her brain and her hands making complicated potions.
The hands were weary now, and the brain was ready to shut down for the night, as Edna stirred the concoction. She counted in her head as she thought about Halloween, which had officially arrived as the clock struck midnight.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Four years, she thought to herself. Four years she spent studying and working as an intern in a chemical lab before moving out to the Haunted Woods. That time had gone by in the blink of an eye.
Five. Six. Seven.
Seven years. She’d opened her Haunted Tower to the Neopian public seven years ago. It felt like a lifetime—a lifetime of pretending, performing, regretting.
Nine different emotions were listed at the bottom of the page in her spellbook. She could mirror any of them, just by adding a few ingredients to the base she was nearly finished creating. She could reveal true happiness, true love, true friendship. But nobody wanted to see those things on Halloween. They wanted fear, and Edna always gave the Neopets what they wanted, no matter how unfulfilled it left her feeling inside.
Eleven other numbers on the clock, but the only one that ever mattered was the one to which both of the wiry hands now pointed.
Edna wiped her glass stirring rod with a rag before putting it down. She stared at the potion, which was now a glistening silver color—not quite reflective, at least not yet.
She rested her hands on the stone table and leaned over the spellbook, looking at the table of emotions and their final ingredients. The list started with happiness, but as her eyes moved down the page, they faded into the darker feelings. The last three were all quite similar.
Liquid Fear: Sweat of the Guilty
Liquid Sorrow: Tears of a Child
Liquid Pain: Sweat of the Guilty, Tears of a Child
As Edna searched through the rows of vials, she couldn’t help but wonder how such substances were collected. She’d obtained her samples from a witch doctor, and the Zafara hadn’t thought twice about the specimens from whom such ingredients were drawn.
She withdrew the vial labeled Sweat of the Guilty from its case, and she asked herself, who deemed this Neopet to be guilty?
She carefully pulled off the rubber stopper, and she asked herself, what were they guilty of? What had they done?
She held the cold glass vial above the silvery potion, and she asked herself, did they have any regrets? Did they atone for their wrongdoing? Did they ever wish they could have gone back and changed the past?
She poured the liquid into the cauldron, but she didn’t ask herself anything more. Edna knew that the only other question she could ask—Is it possible to change the past?—would conjure emotions that she did not want to deal with.
So she concentrated on the task at hand and put away the empty vial.
The witch knelt down and scattered soot onto the flames beneath the cauldron, extinguishing them. When she stood up, the potion bubbled for a few more seconds before settling.
It was now a mirror, a smooth, unbroken surface that reflected her creased face as she stared into it.
Reminding herself not to look for too long, lest her fears begin to appear, Edna busied herself with cleaning up the tower room. A month’s worth of materials needed to be put away, locked up until next year, when she would again dust off the spellbook and create another masterpiece.
It wasn’t until a few hours later that she heard a knock from below.
Edna sighed. It happened every year. In the first few hours of Halloween, eager Neopets couldn’t bear to wait for the evening, and they flocked to her tower to see what frights she had in store.
Edna quickly put on her tattered robes and witch’s hat. Clearing her throat and cackling under her breath to get into character, she descended the curved staircase and opened her front door.
As she had expected, three young Neopets stared up at her with nervous and eager expressions.
“Get out of here!” she wheezed. “Or I’ll turn you into toads.”
They knew the procedure. “We’re here to Trick-or-Treat!” a small Lupe said, a little too loudly. His friends, an Ogrin and a Gelert, nodded.
Edna arched an eyebrow. “This witch is all trick and no treat, and she doesn’t come cheap. If you want a scare, you’ll pay your fair share.”
A few Neopoints later, she was leading the youngsters into the tower room. They gazed around wide-eyed as Edna retrieved a wooden stool and set it next to the cauldron.
“Liquid Fear,” she said, and cackled. “Do you dare look?”
The Neopets exchanged glances, and the Lupe and Ogrin eventually nudged the Gelert forward. He crept up onto the stool and leaned forward to peer into the surface of the mirror.
Edna watched, realizing that she had no idea what the potion would reveal. She hadn’t even checked yet if she’d done it right. Here was the test.
The Gelert had been squinting at first, but as time passed, his eyes slowly became round. His hands gripped the lip of the black cauldron, and his elbows trembled.
His friends watched with similar expressions, and Edna studied his face as the Neopet’s mouth opened slightly. The room suddenly seemed very quiet.
The Gelert made a small noise, and Edna noticed a shudder travel from his shoulders down his arms. His hands tightened.
“What do you see?” asked the little Lupe, but the question was swallowed by the heavy silence of the tower room. The Gelert quivered for a moment longer before growing still.
His eyes were haunting to look at, and Edna realized too late that she had waited too long to intervene. Just as she took a step forward, a tear fell from the Neopet’s face into the potion.
At that moment, he let out a scream more wretched than anything the witch had ever heard.
She grabbed him by the waist and pulled him off the stool. “Get out!” she growled. “This is what you get when you meddle with Edna the Witch!”
The Lupe took his friend by the hand, and the three young Neopets fled down the stairs. The Gelert’s wailing drifted to Edna’s ears as she kicked away the stool and stared into the cauldron.
The polished, silver surface was marred by a round mark where the teardrop had fallen. As Edna gazed at her reflection, she cursed herself for being so slow. The potion had worked perfectly—the Neopet had indeed witnessed his greatest fear. This would have been her most successful Halloween yet, if only she had gotten him away before he contaminated the concoction with his tears.
As Edna looked up and saw the spellbook, still lying open on the stone table, her frustrated sigh caught in her throat.
The air was trapped there for a single, sickening moment as Edna stared at the book.
It was released in a single, whispered breath: “Tears of a Child.” And then another: “Sweat of the Guilty.” And a third, like hours being called out by a clock: “Liquid Pain.”
Edna couldn’t help herself. She looked into the mirror.
There was her reflection, a green Zafara still wearing her silly witch outfit. But what was that behind her? Edna leaned forward.
There was a face in the mirror, behind her own; she could see another pair of eyes. Edna blinked as it came into clearer focus. Kauvara the Kau, yes, that’s who it was. And someone else, too, on the other side. It was Kayla, that potion-maker from Meridell.
The red Zafara was dressed in her starry hat and cape, and she was standing next to Edna’s reflection. But Edna was no longer wearing her black hat and robes—she had a starry hat of her own. It changed her look entirely, or maybe that effect was due to her expression.
She was smiling. No, grinning. Edna was grinning from ear to ear, and Kayla was handing her something.
Edna realized that she was gripping the cold edges of the cauldron, and she leaned even closer to the mirror, trying to make out the words written on the plaque that her reflection was now holding proudly.
Neopian Potion Makers’ Society
Award for Lifetime Achievement
In the Art and Science of Chemistry
Edna drew a shaky breath and let it out in a shuddering sob.
Here it was, the life she had always wanted, the life she had earned through years of study and hard work. Here it was before her very eyes, the opportunity she could have had if she had not decided to become a witch and live in the solitude of a tower in the middle of the Haunted Woods. Here, she was respected and honored rather than feared and misunderstood.
Here it was, and yet, of course, it wasn’t.
This wasn’t the truth. This wasn’t her life. This was only a reflection of what could have been.
Liquid pain forced itself out of her eyes in the form of tears. They came slowly at first, breaking through the barriers she had erected in her mind. All of the excuses and rationalizations toppled like the blocks of an unsteady tower, crumbling to the ground as her heart dropped like a cold, smooth stone.
The droplets fell one by one into the mirror, creating little ripples in its silver surface. The reflection began to fade, but there was nothing that could erase it from Edna’s heart, and she felt it begin to crack as it reached the pit of her chest.
Why was she crying? It was only a potion, one she had brewed herself. It wasn’t real.
But, Edna realized as she closed her eyes and clung to the cauldron’s edge, it could have been. It could have been real. This could have been her life.
So she hung her head and continued to mar the surface of the mirror, weeping and regretting and wishing she could change the past.