The woman who came in was older than my usuals—forty, maybe, judging by the wrinkles that lined her face like paper that’s been creased over then smoothed out again. Water dripped off her coat and pooled on my welcome mat. It squelched as her heeled boot stepped onto my wooden floor. She held a parcel in her gloved hands, wrapped in a beige towel.
I smiled. “Welcome to Cathy’s Promise Repair Store. I’m Cathy. How can I help you?”
“Yes, yes,” the woman waved her hand. The wrinkles on her brow deepened from lines into grooves. “I read your sign. I have an old promise I don’t need anymore, and I was wondering if you’d want the parts.”
She handed me the parcel. I lifted the towel off to find a cardboard box, slightly damp in one corner from the rain. An uneven object sat inside, the right size to fit snugly in my hand, coated by a thick layer of dust and grime. I turned it over in my hand, knowing what broke it—neglect, same as usual, the ending fate of every promise that’s been stuffed in a box and left in an attic and forgotten.
“What was the promise?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t remember. Only children believe in these things.” She glanced at her obviously expensive wristwatch.
I wiped it clean, the grit and dirt crumbling apart under my handkerchief, keeping silent despite the decades of promise-repairing bubbling on my tongue: the boy who promised true love, the soldier who promised to come home, the mom who promised to defeat the disease. Instead, I ran the rag under some water in my sink, and scrubbed.
When I was done, I let out a breath. It was the finest promise I’ve ever seen, cut into a mechanical bird with a glass body, the smooth surfaces shining in every color. It lay lifeless, encrusted with rust and gap-toothed where gears had crumbled apart. At its heart, a simple sentence: ‘I promise to never change myself for anyone else.’
I passed it to her and saw the change, a brief raise of her eyebrows as her memory hit her.
Her pepper hair fell in front of her face, framing the stress lines stretched taut on her forehead. For a long while she was silent, staring at the little bird cradled in her palm. Outside the window, the rain glimmered on the cobblestone street, superimposed by her reflection framed by golden oil lamp light. “God, what happened to me?” Her voice cracked. I imagined her back then—a young girl, beautifully naïve like they all were, who still believed enough in magic to spend a fortune on an enchanted promise.
“It’s not too late,” I murmured.
“Can you fix it?” she turned to me. From her face I could see how she felt—lost. “I have the money. Whatever you need.” Her eyes glistened, much like the puddles of rainwater outside.
I smiled. “Of course I can.”
And I got to work.
Kylie Wang is a Taiwanese writer who grew up in Hong Kong and is now a high school student in California. Her short works have received 35+ awards and publications, including from YoungArts, the Scholastics Arts and Writing Award, Paper Lanterns, and Bluefire. Her debut novel, a co-authored Young Adult novel titled Stuck in Her Head, was published by Earnshaw Books in 2023. You can find her on Instagram @kyliewangwrites or on her website at https://twoteenauthors.com.