Aeden Romeyn is a queer author specializing in the speculative and mythic fiction genres. While eternally an avid reader, they discovered a passion for writing during their career in journalism. Their short fiction debut “The Game of Tongues” was published in Pine Reads Review in 2021. They graduated from the University of Arizona in 2022 with degrees in Creative Writing and Classics, and has since launched their career as a freelance copyeditor and continues to write fiction and fantasy in the hopes of publishing novels.
You never met Penelope Hermitage, the Proprietor of the Hermitage Academy. She struck an imposing figure. Six feet tall with strikingly sharp shoulders, saplings of white hair, a pointed frown, thin-framed spectacles over black eyes, sinewy hands with a different gold ring on each finger of her right hand.
“Sadie Vail,” she said slowly, her southern accent so strong the name sounded like a different language altogether. “Studied classics at Georgetown. Impressive.”
Her tone implied it was altogether unimpressive. Sadie found herself shrinking into the back of her chair. “Yes, ma’am. Since then, I’ve contributed to a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.”
“Yes, the translation is in our collection. It’s a favorite of my niece’s. As you know,” she said, shifting the conversation with ease, “we recently lost our chief librarian. We require an expert in history, education, and categorization, but also one capable of rounding up both wayward students. The chief librarian is the protector and steward of our books and artifacts, as well as the good students of Hermitage. What say you to these obligations?”
Sadie nodded too quickly. “I am beyond capable, Miss Hermitage.”
“I believe you are,” Miss Hermitage said. She opened a drawer in her red-stained desk and gave Sadie a sheet of paper from it. “If you wish to proceed with this position, sign here.”
Sadie took a pen from her shirt pocket and signed her name. She noticed that where her new employer’s name was signed, the year was incorrect.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, this date is incorrect.”
“You must forgive this old crone. Would you mind correcting it?”
Sadie corrected the date to 1985. “I make that mistake all the time, ma’am. The years fly by too quickly.”
She pushed the paper back towards Miss Hermitage, who elegantly stood and motioned toward the door. She towered over Sadie by nearly a foot.
“Then you should feel right at home, Miss Vail.”
Sadie Vail looked like she belonged at Hermitage Library. Despite a drab sense of fashion, she shined. Her costume earrings refracted the light from the stained glass windows so that sprites of color danced behind wherever she walked. She was right at home beneath vaulted ceilings, between pews of books. She worshiped at the cathedral of Hermitage, the greatest collection of texts she has ever come across even at universities like Georgetown. In a grungy sweater and fading hand-me-down shoes, she looked beautiful. This was how the Latin teacher, Juniper Hermitage, found her.
Juniper Hermitage? Isn’t that your aunt?
Do you know of another Juniper Hermitage, Lydia?
If you listen to the parents of the students here, you would know this: Miss Hermitage was the antithesis of what an heir of the Hermitage fortune should look like. She looked every bit like her grandmother, the proprietor of this very school and the private library accompanying it — tall and lean, with the same brown skin, the same strong brow, the same high cheekbones, and walked with the same confident stride. Where she differed was her smile, wide and crooked, and her clothes, utterly unbecoming, and the array of tattoos between her wrists and her shoulders, the most prominent of which depicted the goddess Venus. But the students, which trailed behind her like dogs, adored her above all others.
Juniper, followed by a class of several students all carrying a book in hand, called out for Miss Vail with a cough. Sadie startled, and the stack of books she carried fell straight through her hands. They smacked against the floor with an echo. Juniper was at the librarian’s side immediately, but as she descended, Juniper collided painfully with the books Sadie had picked up, which promptly dropped through her hands again.
“Christe,” Juniper cursed next to Sadie’s ear. Sadie felt wetness on her cheek. She wiped her face and her hand was bloodied, as was Miss Hermitage’s nose.
Sadie instinctually went to cover Juniper’s chin, to which Juniper cursed again and jerked away. She cupped her hand below her nose and smiled, blood between her teeth. Sadie’s eyes widened at the sight of her face, instantly recognizing the genes of the Hermitage woman.
“Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry!”
Juniper shook her free hand. “No worries, truly, I’ll just —” she faltered, her face contorting in pain. “I’m gonna go figure this out.”
“Wait, I’ll help —” Sadie started, but Juniper was already walking away. She directed the students to set their books on the reception desk and to find cleaning supplies in a broom closet to clean up the mess while she nicked the first aid kit from below the desk and sprinted to find Juniper.
Sadie found her with a wad of toilet paper in one nostril, her head towards the sky. Sadie waved her hands in distress.
“No, lean forward!”
“But then I’ll get blood everywhere,” Juniper stated unconfidently.
Sadie shook her head. “That doesn’t matter! Lean over the sink. I’ll help you.”
Sadie went about cleaning Juniper’s face. She hissed in sympathetic pain upon discovering paper cuts on Juniper’s nose. She offered Juniper an ice pack, but it slipped from her grasp. Juniper caught it.
“I’m so sorry, I’ve been having the worst case of butterfingers.”
Juniper held the ice pack against her nose, muffling her words as a result. “I can tell. You’re missing an earring.”
Sadie’s hand flew to her ears, and she indeed found herself missing an earring. She looked suddenly apoplectic, but Juniper gripped her arm calmingly. “I’ll help you look for it,” she said. “Can’t leave you without the full set.”
“I’m really, very sorry about all this. Your nose is certainly broken and it’s all my fault.”
Juniper shrugged. “The students will think I look ‘fire,’ I think is what they say.”
“I’ve never heard ‘fire’ used that way before. Is it because you’re, erm, ‘hot’ you could say?”
Juniper laughed, then hissed in pain.
“To them, I mean! I’m sure — you’re a beautiful girl, I’m sure many people — gosh, I’m botching this, aren’t I?”
There was a bible within the inner pocket of Juniper’s jacket. It was always there burning a hole in her ribs. She smiled to keep a truth she had not yet named tucked between her lips. She was in trouble.
Every day, Juniper walked the length of the school grounds to meet Sadie after the library had closed. Sadie complained that Juniper’s smokey perfume made her sneeze, so Juniper stopped carrying smudge sticks in her pockets. Juniper teased that Sadie was cold like snow, so Sadie ordered a space heater through the computer just like Juniper showed her to. Sadie said that Juniper’s silver jewelry made her itch, so Juniper started wearing gold. Juniper wanted to spend more time with Sadie, so they took their lunches together and Sadie lovingly watched her partner eat.
There’s no way this is the same Juniper Hermitage! She just got married, didn’t she? It was in the newspaper.
People can fall in love more than once, Lydia.
Every day, Juniper stayed at the library longer and longer. And every day, her great-aunt asked her the same question:
“Have you made any progress?”
“No, Aunt Penelope.”
“Have you made any progress?”
“Yes, Aunt Penelope. I’ve ruled out all other possibilities.”
“So it is as we expected?”
“Yes, Aunt Penelope.”
“Have you made any progress?”
“It’s not her book,” Juniper lied.
“Yes, Aunt Penelope.” In truth, she hadn’t tested the theory.
“Strange. Perhaps it is a different text or one of our artifacts. Look into it.”
“Of course, Aunt Penelope.”
Five months after meeting the librarian, Juniper had indeed made progress. But when the matriarch of the Hermitage family asked for her report, Juniper found she did not want to give one.
“Have you made any progress?”
“We were wrong, Aunt Penelope,” Juniper lied.
Penelope Hermitage craned her head much like a bird. “Put forth your evidence, then.”
“She has a silver allergy. It’s in her medical records,” Juniper lied.
“The juniper sticks?”
“Pollen,” she lied.
“Studied Latin, yet she cannot say the Lord’s name.”
“I never believed in him anyway,” she lied.
Penelope Hermitage has the face of a hawk. She scrutinized Juniper. She noted the tension in her shoulders, how she looked out the window instead of into her aunt’s eyes, how she bit the inside of her cheek.
Then, Miss Hermitage said, “She’s a very pretty girl, isn’t she?”
“Yes, Aunt Penelope,” said a girl who was taught lies were sins. “I suppose she is.”
“Well then,” Miss Hermitage mused. “It seems you’ve done your job after all. Her business is near, well, finished.”
Knocking her chair to the ground, Juniper stormed out of her aunt’s office.
To say Juniper tried everything she could would be an understatement. She tore apart the Hermitage library, scaring Sadie into translucence on several late nights. She spent days apart from Sadie reaching out to other libraries, other cathedrals, and other exorcists. On one night, as Sadie asked her what was troubling her, she brushed a hand up Juniper’s arm and accidentally touched a protective symbol on her forearm. She disappeared, scaring Juniper to tears, only to reappear days later as if the incident had never happened.
Six months after meeting Sadie Vail, Juniper knew she could not stop the inevitable. Sadie excitedly grasped her hand and called her Junebug. She feigned sleep on Juniper’s shoulder. She danced to the Smiths with Juniper. She twirled Juniper around despite being a head shorter. She tightly wove paper flowers into Juniper’s hair. She manifested blood, lungs, a heartbeat, a blush — all for Juniper.
“Sadie, this book of yours,” Juniper asked in December. The moon cast strange lights that refracted through Sadie’s earrings, through Sadie onto the floor. “When did you write it?”
“Three years ago,” Sadie said. She had just finished reading one of Orpheus’ stories from the Metamorphoses in Latin. She was so proud to speak the language with someone. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Which was in …”
Sadie huffed a laugh. How strange this lover of hers was sometimes. “1982.”
Juniper swallowed. Sat so close, Sadie heard it.
“Carissima,” Juniper whispered. “There’s something you must know.”
Sadie watched her with curiosity.
“That was forty years ago.”
Sadie laughed again. Juniper was so funny. She never failed to make Sadie laugh.
“Then perhaps I’ve just been haunting you all along!”
It was a joke. Sadie was not as great a jester as Juniper, but it was a joke. She giggled at her own comedy, but hearing silence beside her, she turned to face her lover. Juniper’s downturned eyes seemed to be melting. And suddenly, Sadie remembered everything she chose to forget.
“You’re already fading, Love,” Juniper said, twining her fingers through translucent hands. So, she told Sadie about the day she appeared with a shipment of old Latin translations, about Juniper’s family, about the silver and the rosaries and the smudge sticks and how she couldn’t go through with any of it, and how in loving Sadie, she had brought about her end.
“I’m so sorry,” Juniper cried.
“Why would you love me if I was already gone?”
“Because I knew exactly what I was losing and it made me selfish,” Juniper admitted.
Hours later, Sadie’s hands flickered with the rising sun. Not having long, she laid down to rest beneath the stained glass window, between the books she cherished, between Juniper’s hands.
“Junebug,” she whispered when the sun streamed through the glass.
Her time was allotted, her work was finished, and someone loved her at the end.
At two-thirty in the morning, the girls’ dorm of Hermitage Academy is alight with emotions. A twelve-year-old Violet Hermitage winces apologetically as one of her roommates sobs into a pillow. She hadn’t meant to make the other girl cry, but it’s hard to tell what truly saddens the friends you made yesterday.
We were supposed to be telling scary stories, Violet! Not sad ones!
You’re right. I’m sorry, Lydia.
We should buy Miss Juniper flowers next time we go into town, Mary suggests.
I think Aunt Juniper would like that. We could even make origami flowers.
At the thought of paper flowers, Lydia’s sobs grow louder. The girls have to quiet her by shoving more pillows in her direction.
Perhaps someone else should tell a happy story while I make Lydia some warm milk, Violet says, removing herself from the pillow fort in the center of their dorm. Mary calmly begins to tell a new story. It’s a happy story. It’s about a white cat who gets lost and finds her way home. Later, when Lydia is finally asleep and the other girls are tiredly cleaning up their mess before the headmistress calls on them for breakfast, Mary tells Violet a secret.
It’s not actually a happy story, she says.
It seemed very happy to me.
Yes, because I always wanted it to have a happy ending. My cat never returned, though. Her lost posters are still all over town.
I’m so sorry, Mary.
What would Miss Juniper say about giving sad stories a happy ending?
I think she would say that it’s good practice.
Moving on, maybe.
I don’t know if I’ll ever move on. I loved her so much. I don’t want to forget her. I don’t want to forget what she was to me.
Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting. It means remembering. Every story ends eventually, but love doesn’t go away. Not really.