Aug 14

Alternate Susan –Chapter Five

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Chapter Five

 

 

 

Miles greeted me when I got home from work.  He was halfway up the wall of the kitchen. Spaz was underneath, leaping up not quite high enough to reach him. “Would you help me? I can’t get down without that beastly cat getting me.”

“Seen Zoë around?” I held my hand out and Miles climbed onto my fingers. He scampered up my arm and nestled himself onto my shoulder. This time I was ready for it, and didn’t immediately try to brush him off. “Zoë? You here?”

Zoë entered the kitchen through the back door. “You know, it’s getting pretty creepy having Miles around here. It’s like Charlotte’s web or something. Animals aren’t supposed to write things.” Zoë must have only been home for a while, because she was still wearing her work clothes; leather halter top, low cut vinyl skirt, and thigh high boots. She carried a small bunch of herbs in one hand, and a handful of stones in the other. “Here you go, Miles.”

“Tell her thank you for her assistance.”

“Miles says thanks, but what’s this all about?”

“Ask your lizard friend. And tell him if he really wants to earn his keep around here, he’ll eat the crickets in the bathroom.” Zoë waved a hand at me and walked into her bedroom. Moments later the door shut, and I heard the whine of a power tool. More renovation.

“I was concerned about Derek’s attack on you last night, so today I took the liberty of preparing a ward for you.” Miles used his claws and mouth to tear some of the leaves off the herbs. “You’ll need a better ward to carry around with you, so I asked Miss Zoë to fetch some for me. She has quite a nice garden. I imagine that’s why you live here.”

Back in my world, I lived with Zoë because I couldn’t afford my own place, but Miles didn’t need to know about my financial issues. “So is this witchcraft, or thaumaturgy, or psionics?”

“Witchcraft. You’re not going to invoke your goddess; unless you want to, of course, some thaumaturges don’t even answer the call of nature without invoking their gods.”

“I don’t get the difference.” I took the herb from Miles—it looked like rosemary-and began stripping the purple flowers into small pieces.

“This is witchcraft because it will rely upon the natural power of the earth to aid your thought. Witchcraft is like psionics, but more powerful, and more focused. The drawback of witchcraft is that it takes a great deal of time.”

His words triggered a memory, and I pounced on it before it fled. “It’s like a pulley. In a pulley, the rope is what lets you lift something too heavy. In witchcraft, time is the rope.”

“You studied in your own reality, Miss Susan?”

“No.” I piled the tiny flowers on the table. “I just remembered it here. I’m in Susie’s body, after all. I technically have her brain.”

“But not her soul.”

“No.”

“If you’re unwilling to obey her goddess, you might be able to refuse her. You don’t have a bargain with her, after all.”

I thought about it. Summoning goddesses, or demons, or whatever she was, seemed like something terribly dangerous. How was I supposed to control whatever I summoned? On the other hand, it might not be possible to get back without a little assistance, and I’d be a fool to burn my bridges. If it came down to it, I’d rather risk summoning a demon than get stuck here forever.

“Doesn’t she use precautions to keep the goddess from getting loose from the circle or whatever? I’m not up on magic, but I’m pretty sure that they do that in the movies.”

“Susan and Maggie never did. They said it would offend her.”

“So we run it hot or not at all?”

“Running it hot?” Miles chuckled at the term for summoning without protections. “You use that term in your reality too?”

I didn’t answer. The truth was, it had come out of my mouth automatically, and I knew what it meant without knowing why. It felt like dreaming, when I knew, for example, that there was a dog in the next house over even before I’d seen it or heard it bark. So, I knew things that Susie knew. Maybe there was a way to tap into this knowledge? After all, I was going to need magic to find Maggie again, and from what Miles had told me, it took years and years to become successful.

Unless one were willing to summon a demon, which I wasn’t.

“Before I go to the graveyard, I want to make some kind of portable ward thing.”

“A bulla?” Miles said.

“Yeah.” My mind conjured the feel of my hand tugging at a leather pouch hanging from a thong around my neck. “Something to keep curses away.”

“As you wish, Miss Susan.”

I wondered where I was going to get the supplies; after all, at home I didn’t have much to do with the crafty stuff. However, Susie had several plastic tackleboxes filled with odds and ends, and Miles knew where every herb in Zoë’s garden grew, even though he claimed he had never been there before. On his instruction, I took a piece of turquoise and a twist of copper wire around a sprig of thyme, and wrapped them in a round piece of leather inscribed with a very complicated-looking symbol that Miles assured me was the equivalent of magical boilerplate.

“Here’s what you do,” he informed me, as I poked holes in the outside of the leather. “You’ll string that on a thong and wear it around your neck, close to your skin if possible. During the day, push your energy into it, as though you were recharging a battery. Then, if you feel the onslaught of a psychic attack, use your release mantra to send the energy into your aura.”

“I don’t know my release mantra.”

Miles scratched his eyes with a claw, then blinked at me. “I’m sure it’s written down somewhere.  Did you keep a journal?”

“No.” But starting a journal was on my resolutions every year, right after losing weight and cutting back on soda. I had equal success with all of them. “Wait! Watershed! That’s my release mantra! Cool! I remembered!”

“Ah, Miss Susan, you don’t know what a relief it is to know that you haven’t lost all of your abilities.”

“Yeah, especially since Susie’s body isn’t as in shape as mine is.” I patted Susie’s wide hips for emphasis.

“You’re an athlete?”

“I’m a lot of things. I do rock climbing, I row, I had just signed up for a salsa class. I’ve tried a little bit of everything: tennis, sailing, auto mechanics, beginning Spanish. I like to be busy in the evenings. I hate sitting at home watching television when I could be out meeting people.” I drew the leather thong through the holes quickly, and pulled it tight.  Susie’s hands knew how to punch leather with an awl. She’d done it many times, it seemed, and the inscribed symbol looked neater than what I could have come up with. Maybe that’s what she did in her free time.

“Susie was like that as well,” Miles said, “except she interested herself with things artistic. She was in the little theater, she sang in a community choir group, and liked to make terracotta sculptures as offerings for her goddess. She bought a kiln for it.”

“I saw it out there in the storage shed. In my reality, the kiln belongs to Zoë. One of her friends was selling it for a good price.  I don’t know why she got it, she never seemed to use it.” I slipped the bulla over my neck. “Maybe there’s some odd synchronicity. I’m not that into crafts and stuff, and even if I were, I wouldn’t have had enough money for a kiln.”

“You aren’t working at the title company?”

“Yeah, me and Susie have the identical job, it’s just that I had a lot of expenses. Maggie needed help with the rent and doctor bills sometimes, and Jess and Christopher needed a lot of loans too. They called them loans, I called them gifts.”

“They were the same here. One can only very rarely make a living as a mage, but Jess and Christopher were proud enough to try. Very like Maggie that way. Susie was the responsible one. As sad as she was when her siblings perished, it made her undeniably richer not to have to support them.”

“In my reality, Jess and Christopher are musicians. Maggie was good at it too; used to belong to a band back in the day. I’m the talentless one in the family.”

“I think rather, that you are as talented as they, but that someone had to be the bread-earner,” Miles said gently. “Someone had to give up her dreams that the others might have theirs, and you chose that role.”

“Enough with the psychoanalysis.” I cleared my throat. “Let’s scry for Maggie. Maybe with two of us working together, we can break through whatever warding is placed around her.”

For the scrying, all we needed was a silver bowl, some water, and the right mental state. Miles said that scrying was something even the purest psionicist did, though some of them refused to use a bowl of water, relying solely on their mind powers. They argued that the silver bowl and water were mere trappings, unnecessary. Miles said the witchcraft tenet was that anything that made you feel more capable actually made you more capable. The silver bowl was the equivalent of expensive shoes that made you run faster just because you thought you could.

Wherever Susie kept her non-tacklebox magical paraphernalia, I hadn’t yet found it, so instead I searched the pantry. Zoë had all kinds of crap. She never threw anything out, and her pantry closet looked like a pre-garage sale holding area. Zoë hadn’t come out of her room yet, so while I was looking, I nabbed a pair of Oreos before she could come out and accuse me of hitting her stash. Spaz prowled around my feet, rubbing up against my legs, and in the reflection over the microwave I could see Miles was doing those push-ups again.

“Why do you do that?”

“The cat’s threatening me. Can’t you put it outside?”

“She’s not doing anything, besides, we’ve got two cat doors, it’s not like she can’t come back in.” The pantry doors had long since broken and been removed, and Zoë’d put a black batik hanging in front of the shelves to hide them. I held it back with one hand and rummaged for a silver bowl with the other. Silver plated bowl, anyway. “Hey, can you come over here and check this out? Will this work?”

Spaz slunk over to the food dish, so Miles took the opportunity to climb down off the microwave and scamper across the room to climb the curtain. Spaz leapt. I lunged for the cat, but Spaz was faster, clawing her way up the curtain and grabbing Miles before I could do anything about it.

“Susan!” Miles screamed.

“Spaz! Let him go!” I grabbed the cat by the scruff of the neck and gave her a shake.

Spaz growled at me, closing her teeth on my lizard friend. Miles cried out, and his tail fell to the floor. Spaz dropped to play with it, and I gently put Miles back on my shoulder.

“Oh, you lost your tail!”

“It will grow back. What I’ve lost is my instincts. Maggie protected me too well.” He shook his head at the cat, who was batting his wriggling tail around on the floor. He took a deep breath, scratched his face with a claw, and sighed. “Don’t worry, it will stop hurting soon.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, Miss Susan. Now, it’s time to cast your first spell.”

Spaz slunk off while I was filling the bowl with water. She’d gone outside. I hoped, anyway. “So this scrying thing. Is this white magic or dark magic?”

“What?”

“I was reading a book about witchcraft. It talked about how you should only do white magic to protect your soul from evil influences.”

“Where did you read that nonsense?”

“I went to the library on my lunch hour. I had no idea they had a huge section with books about the occult.” I had filled the bowl with water, but something was missing.

“Lies. There is no good or evil magic, there are no good or evil gods.”

“What about demons?” A phantom smell wafted in front of me, as though Susie were tickling my memories, telling me I needed something else.

“There’s no such thing.” Miles’ voice turned stern as he pontificated, and his tail stump twitched quickly back and forth. “There are humans, and there are gnosti. Some of the gnosti hurt people, but they’re not truly evil, they just have motives that aren’t in line with ours.”

“I’m not sure about that, but I don’t really want to argue right now.” I walked out the door with Miles on my shoulder. It was a hot day, the kind that made me feel like I just stepped under a pizza oven coil. My fingers were sweaty by the time I walked across the driveway to the creosote bush. “Tell me more about scrying.”

“You need to know more about the gnosti, so that you can summon your family goddess for aid.”

“I don’t really want to summon anything.” I plucked a twig of creosote, and hustled back inside. The sweat dried to a film by the time I opened the kitchen door. The kitchen, eighty degrees according to the thermostat, felt chilly.

“Suit yourself,” Miles huffed.

I placed the stones and the sprig of creosote next to the bowl. Creosote, which I always thought smelled like a cross between eucalyptus and cinnamon, made me think of the desert when it rains. I rubbed it between my fingers and took a whiff of it. Nice.

“Remember that when you scry, a small part of you goes to the place you’re looking at. The larger the mirror, the farther away you can scry, not unlike a telescope.”

“So why are we using water?”

“It’s easier for beginners to use water, though the image won’t last as long.”

“So, am I gonna see a picture of my mom, or just floating clouds and stuff?”

“The more skilled the mage, the more aspects come over. Smell and sound, for example. Some of the best mages are able to turn mirrors into actual portals, and step across to another place. You’ll be lucky if you can see anything at all.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“I think that we should cast the scrying spell before the day gets much later.”

The afternoon sun was reflecting light off the birdbaths outside, so I shut the paper screen on the window. It made the room brighter, ironically. “Okay, so how do we do this?”

“Touch my claw. Concentrate on your mother, and on drawing energy from the earth. I can’t explain how to do the rest of it. You’ll just have to let Susie’s instincts take over.”

“Okay, got you.” I touched his claw gently with my pinky.

Miles focused on the stones, his tiny eyes scanning back and forth. He murmured something, speaking so quickly it sounded like the vibration of cicadas outside. I tried to concentrate on Maggie, pull energy from the earth, and let Susie’s body do whatever it was supposed to do. It was a little like learning golf: you have to do seventeen things at once and yet relax while doing them.

At first my concentration flickered back and forth between the soul-finding analogies and Maggie. Then I got the hang of it. Maybe I was a natural at this, or maybe Maggie was helping, because suddenly the vision on the surface of the water blocked out everything else.

“Maggie?” I asked. She stood in a desert garden, with pruned palo verde trees arching over a flagstone path. Brown stucco walls blocked whatever was to her right and to her left. Maggie sat on a bench. The sky was tinted pink and orange, the same as it had been outside at Zoë’s house, and cicadas whirred from the trees.

Maggie stood up. She’d been reading a magazine, folded back on itself, and she clenched it tightly. Her lips moved, but she didn’t say anything.

“Are you all right?” and then suddenly I was back in my kitchen again. Maggie vanished, and the image of the desert garden with the brown stucco wall was replaced by Zoë’s bookshelf and the mirror reflecting the door. I felt weak, flimsy like a dried stalk of grass, and nearly fell.

“Miss Susan!”

The water in the silver bowl had evaporated. Not spilled, but dried. A thin white film of mineral deposits lined the edge. My hairline was stiff with dried sweat, and my heart beat as though I’d been running.

“Are you all right?”

I tried to answer him, but my mouth felt too dry, so I went to the sink and began to drink tapwater, lapping it out of my cupped hands like a dog. I thought I must have drunk half a gallon, relishing the salty calcite taste I normally despised, gasping air just long enough to drink again. When I’d finished, I splashed water on my eyelids, near my nose, and on my neck.

“She hasn’t gone far,” I said.

“You’re certain? What did you see? What did you hear?”

“I know she was near.” I didn’t know how I knew, but I was certain. Wherever it was, Maggie had been less than a day’s drive. “I saw a desert garden. Looked like someplace fancy, maybe Scottsdale. She’s got a friend with a trailer on the beach down in Mexico, so I thought she might be in Rocky Point, but she’s not there. I didn’t smell the sea.” My mouth felt dry again, so I drank more water. It sloshed around in my belly by the time I felt sated. “Why am I so thirsty?”

“I don’t know,” Miles said, but he sounded very afraid, as if he did know and didn’t want to tell me.

“Come on, let’s try this again. I bet I can do a better job now that I know what I’m doing.”

“No.” Miles stood between me and the spell components.

“Why not? It worked pretty well the first time.”

“No. I forbid it. Take the stones and the herbs outside.” His blue throat pulsed out as he swallowed.

“You forbid it?”

“Susan, our mage workings are over for today. You’re already more involved in this than you ought to be. I couldn’t bear it if I …”

“You’re protecting me?” My jaw dropped, and drips of water splattered onto my shirt. “You are! You’re doing the whole ‘now, now, Miss, that’s not the kind of thing ladies should do’ speech. What’s going on?”

“When we did the spell … we called the attention of someone, something. I was too frightened to continue.”

I poured some water in a dish for him to drink. There were dishes in the sink, some from me and some from Zoë, and a new bar of soap she’d bought that smelled intensely of cinnamon.  After drinking more, I let the water run over my hands for a moment, trying to get some moisture back into them.

“Okay. If it makes you feel better, I won’t scry for Maggie again. But Miles, you can’t ask me not to take any chances. She’s my mom.  I have to help her if I can.”

“Call the police again. It’s been long enough. Perhaps they’ll help you now.”

I sat down at the table and sighed, rubbing dried grit out of the corners of my eyes. “I called there twice already. They say she’s an adult and it looks like she left on her own.”

“Then you should obey your goddess and grant her the sacrifice she requested.”

“You mean get the grave dirt? How do I know it was her that asked?”

“Who else might it be?”

“Nightjack, maybe?”

“You don’t have Susie’s soul. He has no right to ask you.”

“Neither does Susie’s goddess then. And anyway, what do you know about Nightjack?”

“Very little, but I know it wasn’t him.”

“Fine. It was Susie’s goddess. I’ll get the dirt she asked for.” Even though it scared the crap out of me.

***

Guadalupe borders on Hayden’s Ferry, but it might as well have been Mexico by how different it felt. I could always tell when I crossed over the city limits, because the streets become narrower and pot-holed, and all the houses had bars on the windows. It was a much lower-income neighborhood than ours. This was the kind of neighborhood where people were only rich in family. The sight of all the kids’ toys scattered across the yards made me feel safer. Surely nothing bad would happen to us in a neighborhood with kids, right? Then again, we were going to a graveyard, and by ‘we’ I meant ‘me’ because Miles the diurnal lizard had fallen asleep back at the house.

Nothing screams ‘up to no good’ like a woman dressed in all black, but wearing light colored clothing would make me too visible. I wore black jeans, boots with low heels, and a black tank top, with my purse slung over my shoulder. The temperature had fallen to the mid eighties by eleven pm, and the air felt as dry as an Englishman’s wit. As I scaled the low block wall surrounding the graveyard, my purse kept getting it in the way. It didn’t go well with the sneaking-around bit, but at least I was quiet. Where do ninjas put their keys and wallet?

So far, so good. Yellow street and houselights reflected off the stone monuments. Most cemeteries I’d been to had flat, plain headstones, either flush with the ground or close to it, but the mostly Hispanic population of Guadalupe favored angels, small statues, folded hands, and other more medieval grave trappings. Small creatures fluttered around the streetlights. Bats, maybe, or more of those ‘harmless’ gnosti. Creepy either way. The ground felt grassy, bare in patches. The light of nearby houses outlined candles and flowers on the top of headstones. There wasn’t enough light to read the stones by. Would it be disrespectful to borrow a candle? Yes, I decided, lighting my Zippo instead.

The good news was, my Zippo provided enough light to see a child’s grave before the heat of the flame burned my fingertips completely. The bad news was, no sooner had I grabbed a handful of dirt to put in the Ziploc baggie I’d brought, then a man called out from the far side of the cemetery. He said something in Spanish, but I couldn’t make it out because he was too far away. He sounded angry, like he was asking what I thought I was doing here. I froze, hoping he didn’t see anything. The gravestone partially concealed me. It would have concealed me completely, but there was a spider clinging to the top of the cross and I couldn’t bring myself to go any closer to it. I quietly unzipped my purse and put the Zippo back inside, along with the baggie of dirt. A chain clanked against a gate, and a dog began barking. The gate creaked, and the barking grew louder.

Okay, that was bad.

I ran, hand still in my purse, following the path by memory more than moonlight. The barking grew louder, then fainter, as the dog circled around. Did it have enough sense to avoid the obstacle course, or could it not see me in the dark? My shin scraped a low stone, and as I tried to bring the other leg up and over, I tripped and fell headlong into a bunch of sun-wilted marigolds.  The contents of my purse spilled out over the ground, and I lay low on the dirt, hoping the dog wouldn’t notice me. One side of the graveyard had a long gravel driveway lit by a streetlight. The dog sniffed the ground. Good. It didn’t see me yet. All I had to do was collect the stuff from my purse slowly, then wait until it forgot about me.

Wallet first, then keys, then checkbook, then favorite pen. The dog peed against a wall, but didn’t turn my way. Life savers, then lipstick, then hair clip. The dog licked itself. Zippo. Where was my Zippo? I felt around in the dust and grass, pivoting in a circle. Where was it? Oh, there, next to the pepper spray.

Just then, the dog barked and began running towards me. I lunged for the pepper spray, scrabbling forward over Bermuda grass and stones and anthills, ignoring the scrapes. A dog’s teeth would hurt worse. I managed to flick the safety cover off and aim just as the dog nipped my jeans. Lucky me, the sprayer was pointing the right way.

They never tell you that pepper spray has an effective radius that also includes the person who uses it. Maybe it was the wind, but the dog wasn’t the only one whining in pain when that habanero-scented cloud came forth. The mutt left my leg alone, and began to scratch at its face with its paws. I stuffed the spray and the Zippo into my pocket and ran for it. My eyes and nose were running like a faucet as I scrambled over the block wall.

“Susie!”

I whirled, holding the pepper spray out in front of me. Good thing it was Darius, because it was too dark to make out features, and my eyes were blurring so badly that I could just barely recognize a white-haired black guy.

“I came here as soon as I can. I was going to help you out.” Darius got within two feet of me before he jerked back. “You smell like hot sauce. What happened?”

There was more yelling, and lights flicked on from the other side of the cemetery.

“You have your bike?”

“No, I had to take the bus. My tire got stolen.”

I grabbed the flap of his trench coat and dragged him across the bare lot to my car.

“I don’t suppose you know how to drive?” I chirped the car open. The remote entry still worked, at least. Stupid Daewoo.

Darius grinned. “Sure, I mean, I’ve never done it before, but-”

“Nevermind.” I wiped my eyes as best I could, and opened the car.

“Man, it stinks in here.” He touched the cardboard tree hanging from the rear view mirror. “What is that, strawberry?”

“Wild Mountain Berry. Don’t insult it. The car is touchy.” Come on, I cursed silently. Turn over, you lemon.

“What’s going on? Who are you running from?”

“A dog.”

Darius turned to look at the graveyard. Whatever he saw encouraged him to roll up the window and lock the door. Now the car smelled even more strongly of hot pepper and wild mountain berry.

I turned the key over. Nothing. “Come on, come on.” More dogs were barking now, and I thought I saw people approach the parking lot.

Darius crunched the empty cans at his feet. “You got a lot of Diet Coke cans. How can you drink that stuff? I hate diet.”

Please turn over, you stupid car. “I like regular better.” The Daewoo sulked.

“How come you drink it then?”

“Diet soda doesn’t have any calories.” I counted to three, and turned the key again. Lights had flickered on in a wave, and more dogs in the neighborhood started barking.

“So why don’t you just drink what you like, but drink less?”

“I’m allowed to be irrational. It’s in the women’s body owner’s manual, page fifty.” I pounded the heel of my palm on the dash.

“What’s wrong with it? Maybe I can look under the hood?” Darius unbuckled his seat belt and unlocked the door. Typical guy. Didn’t even know how to drive, and yet he thought he could fix complex mechanical failures just by his presence.

“Stay here,” I ordered, yanking him down by his shirt.

Two figures were walking towards the car.

“Hey, if your car’s not going to work, I’m taking my chances with the bus.”

Just then the Daewoo’s engine turned over, and I squealed out of the parking lot. I sped down the street, fearful that my lemon of a car would stall on me again, but we managed to get out onto a main street and blend in with the traffic. Darius rolled a window down, and I rolled mine down too. The scent of artificial berry combined with pepper spray was way too much for the inside of such a small car.

“So, what does my goddess want the dirt for, any idea?” I peered in the rearview mirror at my eyes. I’d been crying so much that the tears smudged my eyeliner, but at least the sting was going away. “Do you know any spells that need grave dirt?”

“Nah. Maybe it’s a sacrifice, not a spell component. From what Maggie’s said, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like it had to be dirt, n’shit. It just had to be hard to get. That’s what a sacrifice is all about. It could be for a spell, if you were invoking your goddess. See, everyone casts spells differently. That’s part of what makes them hard to do. I mean, like, I can do stuff my mom can do because I got her blood, you know? And maybe you can do Maggie’s spells better than we can, because sometimes she says, okay, do the ritual this way, and then it doesn’t work at all, and Jason and Amber get all pissed and stuff. Well, Jason does, sometimes. I mean, he’s always working hard to get money for his investments, and Maggie went and won the lottery three times—“

“Why are you telling me this? I know all this, Darius, I’ve been doing magic longer than you have.” I didn’t know any of it, actually, but Darius didn’t need to know that.

“But you, oh, yeah, okay. Sure, I just thought that …”

“Were you and Amber gossiping about me?”

“No.” He licked his lips and looked away. So, Amber must have told him the story about my memory problem. Darius pointed out the window. “Hey, taco stand. Let’s get some food. I’m starving.”

“Sure.”

Maggie won the lottery three times. She’d won twice in my reality. It wasn’t millions, but a decent chunk of change—enough to live on for a couple years if you didn’t have any expenses. Maggie had been doing odd jobs for as long as I could remember, selling beer at football games, working at the record store, parking cars when there was a festival. Her sporadic salary and the winnings from the lottery had kept us going after Dad packed up and found himself a better family. She must not have been much better with money in this reality, if she was still living in the same trailer.

Darius asked me to pick two random numbers, and when we got to the taco shack, he ordered the numbers I had chosen. He also ordered horchata, and when I asked what it was, he ordered a second one for me. Remembering what Miles said about Darius’ financial state, I paid for the food. Darius gave me one of the meals, which turned out to be some kind of egg burrito on a sea of beans and rice. The horchata was a sweet milky drink that tasted like cinnamon. Darius said it was made from rice, which meant it probably had a billion empty calories. Normally I’d never eat spicy food that late, but I wanted some straight answers, and sitting at a picnic table with a guy who had diarrhea of the mouth was a good way of getting them.

We went to the picnic area by the parking lot. The tables were concrete, covered in gum and graffiti. Heat radiated from the asphalt. Moths, both mundane and fey, fluttered around the light hanging from the red metal awning.

Darius held a burrito almost as large as his head. Undaunted, he took a bite and chewed it before speaking. His lack of basic manners made him seem charming, like a half-trained puppy. “So, what’s up with Amber? She was spaz-girl.”

I shrugged, then took a polite bite of the burrito and set it down. I’d had more than enough hot peppers for one evening.

Darius pulled himself on top of the picnic table. “Don’t be like that. I know that you and Amber summoned a djinn. I’m not going to sick the MIB on you, but talk to me.  You’re being weird and shit. Don’t talk to me like I’m just a dumb kid.”

“It’s not that, Darius. I don’t know what I wished for, but whatever it was, I can’t remember half of what happened the past few weeks. I’ve been forgetting tons of stuff, things I should know just vanished out of my head.”

“No shit?”

I nodded. “Jason wanted to know about Nightjack. I can only assume that’s the name of the djinn we summoned. He wanted Amber to arrange more wishes, said something about how since he didn’t summon it, he couldn’t do it himself.” And despite Miles’ warnings, I wouldn’t mind seeing him again. He was hot, and nice, and he didn’t seem to mind this too-plump body I was in.

“Yeah, that’s how it works. The person who summons the djinn gets three wishes.”

“What if there is more than one summoner?”

“I guess they all get three wishes. You got any more?”

I shrugged. “I can’t remember.”

“That’s kind of dumb to wish not to remember stuff. I’d wish for a pimped out truck, with sweet rims and a bitchin’ sound system.”

“You have a driver’s license?”

“I’d wish for one of those too.” Darius poured a small plastic cup of hot sauce on his burrito, and drank a second one straight. “It’s cool that Miles is your familiar now. It’s going to make things better for you. I mean, Maggie does all these spells and stuff. She wins the lottery, when she needs a new car someone just gives her one.”

“I gave her mine.” And paid for the Daewoo. It wasn’t luck, it was my worry that Maggie’s car would get repoed.

“Yeah, okay, so that was all you, but still, she’s never been sick, and she’s got like a ten-foot pot plant right by her patio and the cops never see it.”

“Maggie has a pot plant?”

“See what I mean? I only saw it because I was looking. You know how to dispel a glamour? It’s kind of tricky at first, but once you get the knack, you’ll be able to do it all the time. Kind of like juggling.” He wolfed down the rest of his food. I wouldn’t have believed a skinny guy like him could eat so much unless I’d seen him do it. “Jason and Amber say that it’s Maggie’s demon goddess that give her her spells and shit, but I know it’s Miles. He’s the real source of juju.”

I gave Darius my burrito plate. “I don’t think Miles is the source of Maggie’s power.”

“‘Course he is. How many talking lizards do you know?” He took a huge bite of the second burrito, speaking with his mouth full. “He doesh talk doeshn’t he?”

“Yeah. He talks to me. He wrote a message to my roo—-oh, hang on, I have a voice mail.” I frowned at my cell phone, trying to figure out the number, then grinned when I listened to the message. It was Jason.

“Hello, Susie. I’m so glad you’re not still mad at me for the argument the other night. I want to make it up to you. Can I take you out to dinner tomorrow? If you don’t call back, I’ll be at your house at seven.”

“Who’s that?”

“Jason. He says he’s taking me out tomorrow unless I cancel. It was kind of rude to make me call to cancel instead of giving me the option of saying no right then and there, wasn’t it? Kind of like those CD clubs where you had to tell them not to send it or they’d give it to you anyway.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s pretty ballsy,” Darius agreed. He grinned impishly. “Do chicks like that?”

“I’m not sure.” The smart thing to do would be to turn him down for his presumption, but then again … nice legs. Dinner was a good first date, good for finding out if he was really single, and what he did for a living. “I guess I’ll go.”

“I’m so glad you and Jason aren’t still mad at each other. You guys are like my family.”

“Us guys?”

“Jason and Amber and Maggie and you. You know, it’s kinda hard to find people who are into magic ‘n shit.”

“Are Amber and Jason a couple?

“Kinda. She thinks she owns him. She’s all set to be Mrs. Adler.”

“Mrs. Adler?”

“You know, Jason’s wife. Kind of f’ed up, I mean, he’s not even sleeping with her that much anymore.”

“When did they break up?”

“They were never really going out. He was just sleeping with her. At least, that’s what he says.” Darius, inexplicably, had finished the second burrito and the rice and beans as well. It should have been enough to keep a family of six going, but he was sucking at the bottom of his horchata and scraping up grains of rice. “Hey, you know, that’s kind of rude. Here you are on a date with me, and you keep asking me about another guy.”

“I’m not on a date with you. I could go to jail for dating you.  How old are you, seventeen?”

“Almost. I’ll be sixteen in March,” he protested.

Ten months away. March meant he was a Pisces, I thought, even as I laughed at the incongruity of it. I’d dated guys that young, but not since I was in middle school. Darius made me think of someone’s little brother. “You’re cute, but I think I’ll wait till you’re old enough to vote. You have some learning to do.”

“I know plenty, baby. You wanna find out how much I know?” Darius leered and grabbed his crotch. It came off as adorable.

“Do you know how to scry? I can’t find my spellbook.”

“Scry? Yeah, I’m good at it. How big a mirror?”

“Full length.”

“Sure, I can do that easy. How come you need my help?”

“I want to make it clear enough to use as a portal.”

“Hmm. That ain’t gonna be easy. I’ll give it a shot. Let me know when you wanna do it.” Darius took my nearly-empty cup of hot sauce and knocked back the contents. “Can you give me a ride home?”

“Sure.”

Darius blathered about his retail job all the way home, somehow seeming happy about work even though he described his co-workers as though they would barely make the cut for a halfway house. I found myself liking him more and more. He was so ingenuous, so guileless: a likeable person who remained everyone’s friend so he could glue together fractured relationships. Clearly, I, or rather Susie, was one of the people he was trying to bring back. Maybe Miles could tell me what they fought about that night before Maggie left.

Darius lived  in an expensive tile-roofed box of a house on a tiny lot in South Phoenix. Two miles north and you’d be in stucco and roach slums. This area had been gentrified in the past few years, but it was still South Phoenix. I instinctively locked the car doors, and stopped the car in front of his parents’ house without getting out. Even from inside the air-conditioned car, we could hear the sounds of a violent argument. Moments later, a black man wearing a white work shirt and slacks stormed out the front door, slamming it behind him. A woman shouted something out the window. The man just shook his keys at her and left.

“Those your parents?”

“Yeah. Dad works a lot. Mom wants me to be home with her when I’m not working, says she doesn’t like to be alone n’shit.” He sighed. “We have to take care of her, cause it’s hard to live on earth if you’re not born here.” He pulled out a smile, weak, but well used. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Hey, Darius.” I scribbled my cell phone number on a napkin and handed it to him. “Give me a call sometime, okay? If you need anything?”

“Booh-yah! I told you I wasn’t too young to date.” He lifted his hands in a ‘raise the roof’ gesture and grinned, but his boyishness slipped off him as soon as he stepped out of the car.

I locked the door behind him and drove home quickly.

 

 

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