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The leap year was supposed to bring magic—or at least that’s what Chloe had been raised to believe. In her family, it was legend that once every four years, the sun birthed one new day ripe with possibility, and such a day could only be a gift.

“The goddesses of the moon, stars, sea, and summits offer up their magic as a thank you, and we all get to enjoy it,” her sister, Gloria, said as if she was reciting from a script and not crafting herself a crown of sun rays out of plastic pieces, felt, glitter, and spray paint.

“Or it’s just a day we humans added to even out the calendar with the Earth’s orbit,” Chloe replied, which was practically her own script for how often she had to act as their sisterly duo’s tether to the reality.

Gloria blew a raspberry. “A little whimsy never killed anyone,” she replied, hot glue gun in hand. Her tongue peeked through her lips as she focused on attaching the felt to a plastic dowel.

Tell that to Mom, Chloe wanted to say, but bit back the acidic words. Their mom, who believed in magic and chased down every dream—even those that were far beyond her reach and clearly a detriment to her and her daughters—remained alive only in the sense that her heart was beating.

Emotionally, her mother was long gone, unlived dreams in her eyes, unfulfilled promises her on lips.

Gloria, of course, witnessed this slow death, but as the younger sibling, it didn’t maim her in the same way, a layer of protection in the form of Chloe shielding her from some of the effects—the letdowns, the sadness, the fear, the sacrifice.

“But you know what does kill? Loneliness and choking on peanut M&M’S because you were laughing at someone on TV falling down a flight of stairs,” Gloria said.

“They wouldn’t make compilations of it if it wasn’t funny,” Chloe countered and tossed a peanut M&M—her favorite treat—in her mouth for good measure.

Gloria arched an eyebrow high in reproach, before shaking her head. “Well, since you’re clearly on a death mission, I am going to have to save you myself. You’re coming with me. No questions or rejections.”

And that was how Chloe—who detested all things magic, whimsy, and leap year—ended up in a meadow, practically a hostage in a homemade moonbeam crown.

If asked to describe the Leap Day Festival, Chloe would say it was like Coachella and Midsommar had a baby (she hoped minus the murder, but it was too early to say for sure).

Tall poles lined the meadow, with canvas stretched wide between them bearing images representing each of the elements Chloe had mentioned in her tale. A navy painting splashed with silver glitter for stars, and swirls of yellows and whites for galaxies. Another mural showed the moon in all its faces, from a waxing crescent to a full glowing moon. A challenging mountain range—steep peaks, and deep valleys, with texture added to depict rugged terrain—was painted on the next mural. The final displayed the vast ocean, turquoise at its top, shading into inky blue at its base. Swimming in the colors between were sharks, seals, turtles, jellyfish, whales, and clownfish.

The murals were all aimed towards a focal point: the bonfire at the center of the meadow, its pyre constructed of palettes painted in shades of gold, crimson, and nectarine, arranged to be the rays of the sun.

When Gloria had first told Chloe of the festival eight years back, she was surprised it even existed, not realizing that anyone outside her family had fed into what Chloe believed to be ridiculousness. But apparently the lore had run rampant, passed down in family circles until it attracted enough believers—or just revelers—to gather with 5,000 other people in a field in Southern California. Included in this group were five of Gloria’s friends, who, while in not growing up with the legend, loved what it stood for: a day of joy and celebration—and a reason to dress up in costume.

Like Chloe and Gloria, people on the grounds donned crowns and braids, along with outfits that ranged from boho chic to full-on theatrical.

Beautiful, fringed vests, peasant dresses, and puffy shirts dyed in fluorescents, pastels, and shades of midnight dotted the crowd to create a rainbow of color. People dressed as stars, moons, and a cresting wave added a disco ball-like sparkle into the mix. Music that could just as easily have been in an L.A. club pulsed through the speakers, as vendors along the periphery of the elemental signs sold everything from moonstone pendants to gorgeous art in intricate landscapes.

“Wow, this looks better than the last one,” Gloria said, hand to her forehead like a visor. The sunray crown glinted in the noon sun, making her molten chocolate hair look like it had gold flake mixed into it. In comparison, Chloe’s silver crown in her raven hair gave her the aura of an evil queen, ready to banish her subjects with one glare.

“What did it look like last time?” Chloe asked.

“I mean, the murals were a lot smaller, and there wasn’t so much a DJ as a lot of Bluetooth speakers. But the bonfire was awesome.”

Chloe subdued her snort and her commentary of, “And you came back?” and instead offered up, “It’s really grown,” in their place. Chloe knew how much her sister looked forward to this. She had talked about it for eight years, and incessantly for the past six months. Chloe didn’t want to play the role of the Negative Nellie in this memory that Gloria and her friends could only make every four years.

Instead, Chloe had decided she would keep her thoughts internal.

She let Gloria and her friends think the amused smile on her lips was from the entertainment—like the man enacting a one-man show of a creation story—rather than sarcastic, caustic thoughts popping up in her brain with the frequency of corn kernels cooking in a five-hundred-degree pan.

“Where do we start?” Chloe asked, but the question was futile considering the rest of her group was already pointing out the things they wanted to do: stop at the renown crepe booth that had expanded to a full-on food truck, have their hands painted with waxing gibbous moons and flower petals in their annual temporary tattoos, and take their photo at the elemental selfie booth.

Chloe ambled after them, snapping mental photos of the various booths, and an actual photo of a woman dressed as a mountain fashioned out of cardboard overlaid with hand-painted muslin. When the group took Leap Peak shots—a concoction of liquors and dry ice—Chloe observed, the self-appointed designated driver. Considering the bonfire wasn’t set to start for six more hours, Chloe feared that she may also become piggy-back rider, hauling the group back to their SUV one by one if and when the alcohol made their legs useless.

Three hours in, as the group—sated on pastel kettle corn and sunshine daiquiris—passed from the mountains into the realm of the sea, Chloe’s mental camera froze on what she was sure must’ve been a mirage. Before her had to be the blandest booth that had ever graced the meadow. The table was covered in a white tablecloth, overlaid with a slightly smaller black runner, a theme that carried through to its backdrop. The tabletop decorations were… minimalist—a few acrylic stand-up sign holders with collage images of people ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, and a handful of brochures. Across the booth was a vinyl sign bearing the words: Longitude Life Insurance. Leap into Life.

Standing behind the table was a very tall, very uncomfortable-looking man.

Sandy blonde hair, cognac eyes, carrying the color palette of the booth through into his clothing with a white button down and black slacks. His mouth was set into a wan smile, and his shoulders were anchored in rigidity. His gaze uneasily followed every person that passed by his table, and when it landed on her—and detected what probably came across as unmitigated glee—his expression took on a layer of nausea.

The kind thing, Chloe thought, would’ve been to leave his line of sight and let this terribly out-of-place man continue with his day. But, when she glanced to her left and saw Gloria and her group deeply invested in the neighboring booth of sea glass artwork merely five feet away, Chloe decided on the unkind thing: to approach him.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” he replied, clearly trying at a smile, although it was so tight it appeared more like a grimace. “You’re not interested in buying life insurance, are you?”

“No, I already have some, but I do have a question for you.”

It was clearly a grimace now. “Okay.”

Chloe planted her hand on the edge of his table. “How did you get here?”

His thick brow furrowed. “What do you mean? Like did I drive?”

“No, like did you know that you were coming here to Leap Year Fest to sell life insurance? Because you don’t look like you want to be here, and I say that as someone who was dragged here, so this comes with no judgment, just pure curiosity.” The words flowed from Chloe’s mouth quickly, with such speed that she questioned whether her daiquiri was spiked with more than pineapple juice.

Chloe couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw a smidge tenseness release from the man’s jaw as he sighed.

“My boss arranged this. He insists that we go to anything with the word leap in the title because it’s in our marketing,” he said, waving to the tagline across the banner. “But he didn’t look to see what the festival actually was before he booked us a spot.”

“Ah,” she said, and tried to hide a grin behind her cup. “And I’m guessing it hasn’t been a boon for business?”

“No. Actually, I’ve been accused of, I quote, ‘harshing the mellow.’”

“Are we in the early 90s?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure where we are,” he deadpanned, his eyes scanning the grounds. “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on here all day.”

Chloe settled for a slow nod, hoping that the motion would make it harder to tell she was vibrating with restrained amusement. “It’s okay. You can laugh,” he said, sounding amused. “It’s ridiculous. This is all ridiculous.”

“It really is,” she said through a laugh, which he echoed. “All of this is to celebrate the sun giving us an extra day every four years, and the goddesses of the moon, the stars, the, the earth, you name it, unleashing their magic in gratitude.”

The man cocked his head at her, his lips shaped into a disbelieving smirk. “That’s a thing?”

“I honestly don’t think so, hence why I said I was dragged here, but these people seem to like it,” she said. “And I guess if nothing else, it’s fun for people to have something to celebrate and find joy in. Even if it’s most likely not based in reality.”

“Is that what they tell cult members too?”

“Try to, but you know them, they never listen.”

He nodded, grinning. “True.” His eyes ran up and down Chloe, and she tried not to let herself feel self-conscious as she often did when too much attention was turned on her. Besides, she would be lying if she said she hadn’t done the same to him.

He was handsome.

The striking lines of his cheekbones and warm eyes double checked that box. But he was also cute in the dorky, buttoned-up way that Gloria mocked Chloe for liking—and that Chloe denied was “her type” (although it totally was). When his eyes lifted back to her own, she held his gaze. “You know, for someone who was dragged here, you don’t seem to be having a bad time.”

“Yeah,” she said. Chloe had to admit, the festival wasn’t as terrible as she had thought it would be. Song after song, the music, though loud, had a catchy beat. The crepes were worth the 20-minute wait, and the barbecue tofu sandwich was shockingly mouthwatering. And the costumes, oh the costumes, like a couple dressed up as starlight royalty in sparkly velvet and jeweled crowns, were spectacular.

Chloe may have not believed in the whole leap year thing, but she could admire the artistry it inspired.

“Past this whole premise, they actually have some pretty cool stuff. The art is incredible. The food is top notch too. When you’re done, you might want to make a lap. At least in the moon quadrant. It doesn’t disappoint and they do have crescent moon crowns if you’re interested. It would match your outfit.”

“Noted,” he chuckled. “Anything you would specifically recommend I try?”

She offered him a list that ran the gamut from bubble tea to ukuleles hand painted with nature scenes so vivid, they were their own pieces of art. Picking up a Longitude Life Insurance notepad, the man dutifully scrawled down the name and location of each, and laughed when she shared the ones he should consider avoiding, particularly a practically naked contortionist.


Her head whipped to the left, where Gloria waited ten feet away with her hands outstretched in questioning. The rest of their group was slowly walking up behind her. “What are you doing? We’ve been looking for you for like 20 minutes!” Then, as if realizing Chloe wasn’t talking to herself, Gloria’s eyes widened and a smile slowly blossomed on her lips.

“Sorry, I was chatting.”

“I see,” Gloria said, and the quirk of her eyebrow was borderline embarrassing. Considering she had a fair amount of alcohol in her system, Chloe needed to get Gloria out of there before she crossed the threshold.

She turned back towards the man, who, maybe it was just wishful thinking, seemed to have lost a bit of his sunny glimmer. “I need to go, but it was nice getting to meet you…” She blanched. They had been talking all this time and she never asked his name.

“Holden,” he said.

“Chloe,” she replied, as if Gloria hadn’t just announced it to everyone.

“Chloe,” he said, pen still poised over the paper, discomfort and uncertainty creeping back into his expression. “Please accept my apology if I’m totally misreading this, and please don’t report me to my boss, but if I go on this tour after this, is there some place I would be able to find you? In like…” He checked his watch “…two hours? I get off at six.”

Chloe thanked the goddesses she wasn’t a blusher because her cheeks would’ve been flush with red.

Her nerves hummed with excitement. “I think I’ll be feeling some bubble tea around six.”

“Bubble tea. Sounds great,” he grinned, and she returned it.

With a wave of her fingers, Chloe strode to Gloria who was all but agape. Weaving her arm through her sister’s, Chloe spun Gloria away from Holden and back into the sea section.

“Why is talking with an insurance salesman the most engaged I’ve seen you all day?” Gloria asked her, sounding a tad annoyed, but a whole lot of intrigued.

Chloe shrugged. “The leap year does weird things.”

Maybe the day wasn’t completely bereft of magic.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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