One moment Fiona was asleep and dreaming about having sex with Marcello’s brother Alex under the bleachers at Clementine High School, and the next moment she was awake and flinging pillows on the floor in terror. It took her a second to figure out where she was, and what had woken her. She thought she’d heard a monster asking to come in. She listened, but heard nothing.
The apartment was dark except for the streetlight shining rudely through the curtains. Since she had a raging thirst and an urgent need to pee, Fiona got up. She managed to find the bathroom without shinning herself too badly on the birch Ektorp coffee table, and she only had to open four cabinets before finding a cup to drink out of. As she was downing her third glass of water, she heard a non-human voice creak at her through the kitchen window.
“Let me in!”
She dropped the glass on the floor. It bounced and rolled under the table, spilling water everywhere.
The voice had come from outside. The stuffy apartment had only one pathetic air conditioner unit and a few tiny windows, which had been propped open. The warped screens weren’t sturdy enough to keep out a determined mosquito, much less an intruder.
“Who’s there?” Fiona asked, in a voice she meant to sound dominant, but which sounded closer to high pitched and hysterical.
“Your fucking fairy godmother. I’m Lenny. Jesus, you try to do someone a favor…” it muttered. “Are you gonna let me in or what? I’m not up in the middle of the goddamn night for my health, you know.”
Fiona fumbled for the light switch and winced when bulb flickered on. Judging by the voice, she had expected a man, heavyset and hairy, maybe with a wool knit cap and a lead pipe. Instead she saw a gorgeous scarlet macaw perched on the railing outside the corridor.
She let the bird in.
The macaw flew to the sink and perched on the edge. “Hate to tell you girls this, but your friend Carlotta is totally fucked.”
“Back up a step. What do you mean by that?”
By now, Sophie had come out of the bedroom, dressed in a tee shirt and pajama bottoms, clutching what looked like a stuffed armadillo. “What’s going on with Aunt Carlotta?”
“Someone took her body,” the parrot said. “And she ain’t likely to get it back. I just came here to warn you that you dolls are likely up next.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sophie said. “You can’t take over someone’s body.”
“Excuse me? Ridiculous? Are you or are you not talking to a man in a parrot’s body?”
“Why are you in a parrot’s body?” Fiona rubbed her aching head, hoping she was just dreaming this. “I don’t know much about magic. I thought that was impossible.”
“Oh, it’s possible all right. I crossed the wrong guy. He used me as a damn magic experiment, and it looks like he’s finally figured out how to do it in a human body, cause that’s what happened to your mom or aunt or whatever. You better get out of here, cause he’s coming for you next.”
“Us? Why us?” Fiona asked. “I didn’t do anything, I just got here. What does he have against us?”
“You saw what he’s up to. Oh, and because you stole his parrot.” He spread out his magnificently rainbow wings. “Look at these gorgeous feathers. Bird like this is worth a shit-ton of money. They got access to your car or apartment?”
“Well, I left Aunt Carlotta a copy of my keys in case I got locked out,” Sophie said.
“Then you’re screwed. They probably planted a curse here already. You want my advice, get out of town and don’t look back.”
“You mean like pack up our stuff and move out of town, in the middle of the night?” Fiona asked, “I’m half asleep here, but it seems like that’s the gist of this conversation.”
“Yeah, tonight, why the fuck do you think I flew all the way over here?”
“I just got here,” Fiona said. “I’m not going anywhere. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“You know what? Fuck you. I’m tired too. I would rather be sleeping somewhere than risking my neck for a couple of dumb chicks who don’t have sense to listen. You want to lend out your body to whichever tenant Guy wants to shove in there, that’s your business. I said my piece, I’m done.”
The parrot flew out the window.
Fiona started at Sophie, blinking sleepily and trying to make sense of what just happened.
“Do you think he was telling the truth?” Fiona asked Sophie. “I’ve seen some weird things, but I’ve never seen a parrot that talked like a human before.”
“I met him at a client’s house,” Sophie said. “He seems sentient. I mean, I’ve never heard a parrot talk like that before either. Should we leave?”
Fiona was still exhausted, and a little tipsy, so she shook her head. “I’m going back to sleep. We’ll talk about it in the morning. There’s no way I’m going to pack up and move somewhere in the middle of the night, even if I had somewhere to go to.”
She didn’t stop to see if Sophie took her advice or not, but she must have, because just before she fell asleep, the lights clicked back off and the apartment fell silent.
The next day she woke up to the sound of a yappy dog barking like its head was about to explode. Another dog started barking as well, and then a third, a canine glee club designed to exacerbate hangovers. She scooped up her bag of clothes and stumbled towards the shower. When she’d washed her hair and dried off, she opened the bag, rummaging around for the last of the pack of clean underwear. She grabbed something soft and pulled out Carlotta’s favorite robe, the one with the big red and green cabbage roses.
Fiona dumped the bag on the floor and looked at the contents. Only half of what was in the bag were the new clothes she’d bought at Walmart. The other half was stuff that belonged to Carlotta. Carlotta would know which was her stuff and which wasn’t, and she certainly wouldn’t have put the robe in there.
Maybe the parrot was right. Carlotta wasn’t just in a bitchy mood or on drugs or something, she really was a different person. What could she do though? Go to the cops? Might as well, though it wouldn’t get her anywhere. Magic was so new that the legal system wasn’t quite sure how to prosecute it, and a robe was hardly concrete evidence. Besides, who would they punish? The guilty person was inside the innocent person’s body.
Fiona toweled off her hair. She’d figure out what to do after breakfast.
In the kitchen, Sophie was pouring herself a bowl of Lucky Charms. She was still wearing her tee shirt and pajama bottoms, and she had slippers that looked like sheep.
“OMG, those are the cutest slippers ever!”
Sophie stuck out her foot and modeled them shyly. “Do you want some breakfast?”
“I’ll make myself at home. Don’t worry about me. Hey, you have an espresso machine!” Fiona said, finally realizing what the shiny metal contraption hidden behind the boxes of cereal was. “And not just any espresso machine, but a La Pavoni, the classic old-school espresso machine beloved of coffee snobs and hipsters who eschew anything automated. I had no idea you were a hardcore espresso drinker. Do you know how to pull shots on this?”
“Well, I bet I can figure it out.” Fiona opened the cabinets looking for coffee beans. Sophie had lots of canned pasta, boxed pasta kits, and envelopes of pasta with powdered sauce, but not much in the way of raw ingredients. She had no vinegar, no spices, only one very dusty bottle of red wine, and while she did have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, she had no vegetables, and her freezer didn’t have any meat in it that wasn’t precooked and boxed. This girl needed help. “Where’s your coffee?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You don’t have any coffee?”
She shrugged and poured milk on her Lucky Charms.
“Why do you have a thousand dollar espresso machine and no coffee?”
“My dad gave me his after he got a new one.”
Fiona put her hands on her hips. “Clearly, fate threw us together because you need someone to get you hooked on espresso.”
“Does that mean you want to move in?” Sophie asked, “I never had a roommate before.”
Sophie shook her head.
“Yeah, if you’re cool with it, I’d like to move in. I was gonna move in with Carlotta but…” Fiona sighed and flopped down at the table. “Thanks so much. I’ll be a good roommate and not leave my dishes in the sink. I promise. I’m gonna get a job this week, so let me know how much I owe you for rent.”
“Oh, yeah, a job.” Sophie slowly stirred the sludgy milk at the bottom of her cereal bowl. “I only moved to Clementine because Aunt Carlotta had a job for me. What am I going to do?”
“About Aunt Carlotta.”
“You’re a mage, right? Do you know how to undo it?”
Sophie shook her head. “This is pure biomancy.”
“Do you know any biomancers?”
Sophie put her head in her hands and made an odd choking sound. Fiona didn’t realize she was crying until she saw the tears pool up along the edge of her fingers and spill onto the table.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry.” Fiona grabbed some paper towels and handed them to Sophie to wipe her tears. “We’ll figure this out, okay?”
Fiona got up and made tea for both of them. Caffeine made everything better, even if the tea was ancient.
Sophie wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Aunt Carlotta’s gone. You heard what the parrot said. They switched her soul with someone else.”
“No, she’s not gone gone. She’s just, I dunno, not herself. Maybe she’ll get better on her own. You and I both know that Carlotta’s one of the strongest-willed women to ever walk on two legs. Carlotta’s gotta still be in her own body somehow.”
“But how are we gonna fix it?”
“We’ll think of something. We’ll see this thing through, and figure out how to undo whatever’s been done to her, okay? Promise, pinky swear, or whatever. We’ll make a pact to get Carlotta out of whatever trouble she’s gotten herself into. But first, let’s have some breakfast. I scheme better on a full stomach. Okay?”
Fiona boiled an egg and used the broiler to toast her bread because Sophie didn’t have a toaster. When she set the plate down on the table, she found Sophie listlessly stirring her tea.
“My mom told me to break my lease and move back home to Berkeley.”
“Fight it, babe, fight it. The gravitational pull of home is strong, as I well know, but the longer you can stay out from under your parents’ roof the better off you’ll be.”
“She says if I ever lost my job, I should come home. Carlotta pretty much fired me.”
“Only because she’s not herself. Don’t worry, I don’t have a job either. We’ll get new ones. You have some money saved up?”
“So you’re not going to starve anytime soon. And the rent’s paid through the end of the month?”
“So you’re fine. I’m fine. I’ll get a job this afternoon and buy you some coffee, and then we’ll hit the internets and see if anybody out there knows anything about how to fix somebody who has a superfluous soul.”
“I already told my mom I was coming home.”
“Wait, what? Already? Do you call her every night and check in or something? Wait, don’t answer that, I think I know. Come on, I can’t do this alone. What about our pact to figure this out?”
“She’s worried about me.”
“So? That’s what moms do. They worry.”
Sophie shrugged, like she wasn’t willing to argue about it anymore, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Well, how long are you going to be gone? Are you coming back?”
“You better, because if you don’t, I’m seducing Marcello.”
Sophie’s eyes flared, and then she stretched her neck up and looked away, in an exaggerated nonchalance which didn’t fool Fiona one bit. “He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my cousin.”
“Bullshit. I call ‘em like I see ‘em. You two are sweethearts, aren’t you? Kissing cousins?”
Sophie blushed. “It’s a secret. No one can know. Don’t tell anyone, please?”
“Who would I tell?”
“No one. Don’t tell anyone, okay? It’s important.”
Fiona zipped across her lips. “Secret forbidden love. Got it.”
As they walked outside to Sophie’s car, Sophie pointed to a nearby tree. The parrot from the night before perched on one of the higher branches, incongruous among the grackles and pigeons. He called something out to them. It sounded derogatory.
“Ignore him,” Fiona said.
“Oh no! My car!” Sophie gasped and ran towards the parking lot.
The back window of Sophie’s car had been smashed. If she hadn’t ridden in that car the night before, Fiona would have assumed it happened days ago, because someone had taken the trouble to tape a piece of cardboard over the hole. They peered inside. Nothing had been taken, not even the radio. Something had been left, however. A small bird fluttered around inside the car.
From the tree across the street, the parrot screeched something, but he was too far away to make out what he was saying.
“What is it?” Sophie peered through the window.
“It’s a sparrow, I think, and something’s been tied to its leg,” Fiona said. “We should get it out of there.”
When the sparrow got tired and stopped flapping around, they got a better look at it. The thing attached to its leg looked like a small mechanical tablet, like a steampunk-themed art project. It was made of brass and wrapped with wire, with a smear of some oily goo on one side.
“It won’t be able to fly unless we get that off of it,” Fiona said, she opened the front passenger door a little bit and knelt on the seat. “We can’t open the back door though, or it will escape.”
“It’s probably a spell of some sort,” Sophie said. “Make sure you don’t touch that thing tied to it.”
“If I can just grab it, we can get it off. Come here, little bird. I’m not gonna hurt you.” She stretched as far as she could, but the bird backed up just out of finger’s reach. Fiona exhaled and backed out, shutting the front door behind her.
“I can’t get it. I can’t get between the seats, and if we open the back door it’s gonna fly out and then we won’t be able to get that thing off it.”
“Let me try,”Sophie said. She opened the door and slowly crawled towards the back seat, making high pitched cooing noises. The bird fluttered frantically, but couldn’t get much height, even if the window hadn’t been taped up. Sophie was both small and agile, and she was able to pinch the sparrow’s free leg. Her nimble hands only touched the bird, not going anywhere near the thing tied to its leg.
Sophie froze, and her muscles started jerking, as if she were being electrocuted. The sparrow chirped and died.
“Don’t touch it!” The parrot swooped down. “Don’t touch it! Or her either. Oh, you dumb bitch. No, don’t listen to me. I don’t know nothing. What’d I tell you, eh? What’d I tell you?” The parrot flew to the front seat of the car. “Close the door and start driving, you pink-haired dumbass. I know a chick who might be able to fix her, though why I’m bothering to help you, I don’t know.”
Sophie had dropped the keys on the front seat, so Fiona scooped them up without touching her. “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What happened? She only touched the bird. I saw. She didn’t touch the spell bundle. Why did it hit her? Is she gonna be all right?”
“I doubt it. Quit yappin’ and head towards the freeway. Go northbound. We’re going to Clementine Valley.”
Fiona glanced down at Sophie. She was barely breathing.