The world of Witch of Atlas is basically a series of ‘what ifs.’ I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t go into too much detail. The character of Sherry, Althea’s secretary (paperwork enforcer/lunch partner/crazed customer barrier), is introduced in this excerpt. She’s important, but a support character, so I haven’t yet found the space to write much about her story.
Sherry Marshall is one of the people who can’t see magic spells or cast them. That seems like a scary place to deal with all the changes in the world, but Sherry is one of those upbeat people you can’t keep down for long. Like anyone she had childhood dreams, and some of them she had to set aside, but others she keeps with her to adulthood. That’s all any of us can ask for, I suppose. That some of our dreams still burn brightly in us, new or old.
* * * * *
At the time of the Fey Reveal, Sherry was eleven, and she’d outgrown wishing she was a long-lost princess. Instead, she wanted to be a ballerina. After a year and a half of dance classes, she still felt thrilled over the sleek leotards, fluffy tutus, satiny shoes, and the grown-up feeling of winding her blond hair into a bun. Best were the costumes for recitals, where she could be a swan, or a fairy, a tree, or a muse.
And then she’d seen the strange man appear on a boring TV program. The man wasn’t normal for this kind of program at all. He was a little less than four feet tall, with delicate features—and, to her amazement, he had cotton-candy pink butterfly wings and eyes in the same shade. His wings fluttered as he hung in the air, more graceful than any ballerina, those candy-colored eyes widening in distress as he realized that everyone could see him. Then he flew away, and Sherry felt like a newly discovered magic was gone from the world.
In the days that followed, she was glued to the TV—everyone was—as more of the magical creatures appeared. They’d been there all along, hiding, and Sherry just knew that she would grow up to be a witch, a human who could use magic just like these beautiful beings, the fey, could. Boys weren’t quite as fascinating as unicorns, but she giggled with her friends over the class hottie while she waited for magic to change her eyes. Some people could see magic, and not cast it. But if you were going to cast spells, you’d be able to see magic around the same time as ‘the mysteries of womanhood’ her mom was talking about.
The mysteries of womanhood became less mysterious, but she still couldn’t see magic. Eventually, she gave up hoping. She wasn’t going to be a witch, and was too curvy to be a ballerina. So she set her sights on something she could do—work with people who could create spell glyphs in a rainbow of colors, people who knew where unicorns grazed and pixies flew.
After graduation from community college, she hop-scotched through jobs as a secretary, aide, or assistant. Finally, she was an executive assistant at Dwyer Consulting, one of the big magic consulting firms that sprang up in Atlas, a town that had been fading away before everyone discovered how much magic moved under its streets. The fey had always been there, and the witches soon followed, drawing other businesses with them.
There were plenty of witches at Dwyer. A motherly green witch who specialized in fertility spells, a young portal witch who never took his earpiece out and talked constantly on it, a muscular spider witch with flat brown eyes—she saw them every day, in the break room, in reception, or walking the halls. The ones she worked for even greeted her by name, and some would ask about her weekend in the elevator. But none of them stopped to talk to her. None of them were her friends. There were other problems, too.
“Is that really work appropriate, Sherry?”
“What do you mean?” Sherry looked down at her black pantsuit, with pale pink pinstripes, and her blush colored blouse. Her lapels were smooth, her seams crisply ironed, her shoes mirror-bright. She studied her fellow assistants, clustered in a group in front of her, and saw that they all wore neutrals: navy, white, black, gray, or cream. “Oh.”
One day, she saw two of her coworkers get out of near-identical black sedans, look over at her pastel pink Volkswagen beetle, and whisper behind their hands. It piled up, one slight on another. She bought new clothes, scaled back on her jewelry, and started arriving early and parking in the far side of the employee lot. Still, she didn’t quite fit in.
Maybe, she thought, another firm would be better for her. She answered ads, went to a few interviews, but found nothing that fit. She was about to give up when she saw a promising ad online.
Later that week, Sherry knocked on the door labeled ‘Althea Raven, Supernatural Consultant,’ and hearing a voice raised in muffled assent, stepped inside. The office wasn’t large, with room for its two desks, some chairs, and perhaps a few less potted plants.
Behind the occupied desk, rising and coming to greet her with a hand extended and a warm smile, was the witch. “Sherry Marshall? I’m Althea Raven. Have a seat.”
Sherry sat, and they went through the usual warm-up of an interview, discussing the company, the tasks, and plans for the future. “How old are you?” Sherry blurted into a pause in their conversation, studying the woman across from her, whose long black hair fell loose around her face, making her look very young.
“I’m thirty-three,” Sherry said.
“Well-” Althea paused, and looked down at the large bowl full of water on her desk. “Just a sec,” she told Sherry, opening a desk drawer. She pulled out a candy dish full of gumdrops, and set it down next to the bowl, scooting it carefully until the two were touching. “Hey. Help yourselves.”
Sherry looked down at the desk, confused, and saw tiny women with fish tails swimming in hypnotic patterns in the bowl of water. The nereids—nereids, right in front of her!—all moved to hang off the rim of the water bowl, and each took a candy nearly the size of her head.
“Sorry about that. Where were we? Right. I could use your experience, frankly. So if it doesn’t bother you…”
Sherry dragged her attention away from the fey. “Not really. I was just surprised.” She gathered her thoughts. “Ms. Raven, what’s the attire you expect for the office?”
“Business casual,” Althea said. “And please call me Althea.”
Sherry noticed that Althea had her hand cupped under the edge of the candy dish, tipping it so as the candy was consumed, the fey could still reach it easily. After the fey finished a piece of candy, they vanished, new ones appearing to take their place and leave in turn. “How do you feel about color?” She asked, trying not get distracted again by the spectacle.
Althea looked at Sherry’s charcoal grey skirt suit and pale pink shell, down at her turquoise shirt with a silver bead pattern around the neckline and brown peasant skirt, and then back up at Sherry. “Color is fine. I’ll get to the point. You take this job, you won’t get paid much. I’m just starting out, but when I do better, you’ll do better. As long as you’re professional, you can be whomever you like.” Althea paused, fixing Sherry with her pale blue eyes. “There’s no point in being anything other than what you’re meant to be. It’s not always easy, but it’s better than trying to force yourself into what someone else wants.”
Sherry blinked, startled by the sudden turn in the conversation, and dropped her gaze to the bowl. Three nereids were eating the last gumdrops, and then vanished, leaving the bowl empty. “What was that about? With the candy?”
“If you’re patient and lucky, you can be friends with fey. No matter what makes you different, you have something in common.”
“A love of organic gumdrops,” Althea offered her a bag from another desk drawer. “Want one?”
Sherry picked an orange-colored one, and the citrus flavor exploded on her tongue.
“I’d have shared earlier, but if I leave the bag out where they can see it, they’ll clean out my whole stash.”
“Sounds like you have experience.”
“There’s always more gumdrops,” Althea said.
“I want the job.” Sherry thought the witch was someone who’d found a way to make their dreams come true. She wanted to be a part it.
Althea smiled. “When can you start?”