Marcello and his friends Zach and Ashley had been walking in the Windview square area, window shopping with the tourists, when he saw the amulets hanging in the gallery. It was a local gallery that sold quilts, creepy dolls, hand-bound books, pottery, metal sculptures and other handmade arts and crafts pieces. Normally he wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like that, but Ashley liked to shop, and Zach was looking for cute accessories for their apartment, so he got outvoted.
The sign by the amulets on display said they were magical, which he doubted, but he hoped they were because he was always looking for easy magic projects that he could teach his students. They liked the disappearing coin trick. The disadvantage of the trick was that even though it was real magic, it still seemed more like the hats-and-rabbits kind of magic. The former would impress the parents, and therefore make him look good with the principal, and therefore give him power at the school when it came to scheduling students and deciding who got which office. The latter just amused people.
The gallery had a small section for magical items. They sold crystals and candles and bundles of sage, which some people claimed worked twice as well now that magic had come back to life. Marcello said, when he was sure he was in a like-minded crowd, that twice of zero was still zero. New mages like him eschewed traditional witches and sorceresses and all the other patchouli types who claimed that they’d been doing magic since before it was cool. Magic, in his experience, was like science. You learned the theories, you tested them, and by keeping good notes and controlling variables, you created a process, or in the case of the amulets, a product.
The amulets looked like small stones with holes drilled in the middle. They hung from leather cords. Not much to look at; as far as jewelry went, they were as simple as the hemp and wood-bead cords that surfers wore. He took one to the counter while Zach and Ashley discussed the aesthetics of lamps made from recycled license plates and driftwood-framed mirrors. He didn’t think the luck amulets would work, but if they did work, he wanted to know who was doing magic in this town.
“Can you tell me who made this?” he asked.
The clerk turned it over. It had a number 19 on it, but no name. She shrugged. “The manager is the one who deals with the artists. I think that artist was a high school girl.”
“Artist? Don’t you mean mage?” Marcello felt a thrill at the thought that one of his students had done this. He had offered extra credit to anyone who made a good luck amulet that actually worked. And here was someone who had not only made a good luck amulet, but was selling it in a local gallery. He hoped it was one of his students.
The clerk shrugged again. “We call them artists. We don’t test their products.”
Marcello bought it. He left it wrapped tightly in the plastic bag, careful to not let it touch his skin.
When he got home, he went to the courtyard of his apartment complex with a cup of old coffee. He was wearing a newish pair of khakis, and the coffee would certainly stain if it got on him. He picked a seat at random around the concrete picnic table. Nestling the amulet between his shirt and his skin, he spilled the coffee on the table.
The coffee poured towards him.
“That answers that question,” he muttered out loud, disappointed.
At the last second, however, a leaf fell down from the tree that shaded the courtyard. The coffee hit the leaf and altered course, pouring off the table in such a way that it missed his clothes by half an inch.
He grinned. This was the real deal.
Deal, yes. Another test. He went back into his apartment and dug around until he found a deck of cards his grandma had brought him as a souvenir from her cruise. He cleared the dishes off his kitchen table and dealt himself a poker hand, then dealt poker hands to three invisible people.
He had three of a kind, the best of the other three hands was a pair.
He did it ten more times. The first eight times, he had the best poker hand. The ninth time he was tied with an ace high, and the tenth time one of the other hands was better. The amulet had faded, but he was sure it had worked. It had been a real good-luck amulet. Honestly, it was better than the ones he had tried to make.
At school the next day, he tried to figure out which of his students might have made it. He was so proud that he had at least one student who cared enough about magic to take it to this level. Not that they didn’t all want to be mages, it was just that none of them wanted to do the work involved. They all wanted to be rock stars too, but none of them were willing to practice guitar for eight hours a day.
After two evenings of grading tests, where half the students got a C or lower, he started to think he had been wrong. Maybe it wasn’t one of his students. Maybe it wasn’t even a real good-luck amulet, just a coincidence.
He went back to the gallery the following weekend. The manager was there this time, so he asked if she could tell him who made the amulet. She looked down over her reading glasses at him.
“Why do you want to know?” Her lips looked like she’d tasted something sour.
“I think it might be one of my students.” That came out a little gruffer than he had intended, so he softened it with as best a smile as he could manage. “Can you tell me the artist’s name?”
She kept her eyes narrowed, but she looked through a box of cards until she found number nineteen. She licked her finger and plucked it out. “Lunetti.”
He frowned. “Are you sure?” He was related to every Lunetti in town, and he didn’t know of any of them who were into magic.
“What about a first name?”
“We have an exclusive contract with our artists. They are not allowed to sell directly to customers.”
“I wasn’t going to buy it from him directly.”
The clerk looked at him over her reading glasses. “Do you want to purchase another one?”
“Yes.” Marcello bought the amulet, careful to keep it in its bag. On the way home, he drove past his parents’ house and saw his aunt Theresa’s car parked out front. Aunt Theresa had changed her last name to Jimenez, but she was still a Lunetti by birth and knew who Marcello was related to better than he did.
Aunt Theresa and his mom were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and smoking. His mom snuffed out her cigarette quickly and waved at the air to dissipate the smoke. She’d told his dad that she quit, but the furthest she’d gotten was acting furtive about her smoking. Aunt Theresa kept her own cigarette between her lips even as she stood to give him an air kiss on the cheek.
“What brings you here?” his mother said, kissing him. “It’s been so long, we hardly know what’s going on in your life.”
“Do either of you know any Lunetti who is into magic?” he asked. He didn’t want to explain why he was so interested—he hardly knew himself—but once they heard of the mystery they wouldn’t let it go. Aunt Theresa and his mother ran down the list of everyone in the family who still used the Lunetti surname, and could it be someone from Los Angeles? No, but those cousins moved to Phoenix, and anyway, they hyphenated their name. Marcello waited patiently while their talk went on so long that the coffee became wine and his father came in from the fields and turned on talk radio.
“Ask Grandma Marguerite,” they finally suggested. “She would know. She knows everyone.”
But Grandma Marguerite was too nosy. She’d want to know exactly why he was asking, and if she knew, she wouldn’t tell him unless he sat down with her for an hour and let her know everything that was going on in his life, down to how many times he’d been to church. Grandma Marguerite had missed her calling as a confessional priest. He liked having a close family, but he didn’t really want his grandma and his mother and his aunt knowing where he drank on the weekends, and which teachers he had disagreements with at school, and the real reason he’d broken up with the girl he had been seeing last year. You never knew when that sort of information would become embarrassing later on. Grandma Marguerite knew everything, and if you didn’t want that everything blurted out at the most inopportune moment, you had to stay on her good side. The good side would involve regular church attendance, free chores, and other costs he wasn’t willing to pay. He didn’t want to find out the amulet-maker’s name that badly.
Except that he did want to know. As the days passed, the mystery got under his skin. He became a little obsessed.
He parked outside the gallery more than once, hoping maybe the amulet maker would walk inside and pick up his amulets. Was it a cousin going by a pseudonym? Could it be Theo? It couldn’t be his brother Alex. Alex was too dumb to understand magic, and anyway, she’d said Lunetti, not Porto. Maybe one of his second cousins, like Franco’s kid? What was his name? Hunter? He was only twelve, but it could be a boy genius or something.
He thought about asking the manager again, but when she saw him coming, she glared and vanished into the back room. He needed an accomplice.
Zach was perfect. Zach was quite attractive, or so his female friends told him, and he had an easy, flirtatious manner. He also had that friendly/over-confident vibe that seemed to attract women like catnip. If anyone could sweet-talk the manager into giving up artist 19’s first name, it was Zach.
Zach seemed dubious at first, but Marcello gave him the good-luck amulet to wear when he went in the store. Zach sighed, rolling his eyes dramatically, then said “fine” and shooed him off so he could work his own special brand of ‘magic.’
Zach called later, practically crowing. “Tell me how awesome I am.”
“You’re awesome, now how did it go? Did you find out his name?”
“Better than that, she was there, and I asked her out on a date. She will meet me for coffee on Saturday morning. You will be just happen to show up there, and I will just happen to have a sudden appointment I just remembered so I will have to leave right away, leaving the two of you alone.”
“What? Dude, I don’t want to date her. I just want to know who she is.”
“Too late. You’re going on a date with her. She’s adorable. If it weren’t for Ashley I’d date her myself. And it’s just coffee, so if it turns out she’s not eighteen yet, you can beg off a second date.”
Marcello didn’t want to go. Not eighteen yet? He was mad at himself for getting this obsessed, and the last thing he needed for his job was to be seen having coffee with a teenager.
The day of the date, he almost didn’t show up. He waited for an hour, waiting for Zach to call him and tell me how it went. Finally he decided he would just find out who she was, compliment her on the amulets, and leave. No one had to see them, they never had to speak again.
She was adorable, a petite young thing in a tank top and shorts. Her neck and shoulders barely crested the top of the chair. He might have turned around and left if Zach hadn’t seen him approach and given him a pointed stare. Then she turned around, and he saw a woman’s face, not a child’s. A beautiful woman’s face. The way her black hair fell over her shoulder caught him, as did her captivating jet-black stare.
“Oh, look, what a coincidence,” Zach said in a deadpan voice. “My friend just happens to stop by only an hour after we got here. Sophie, this is—”
“—Marcello Porto,” she finished. She twisted out of her chair and gave him a radiant smile. “I know him. He’s my cousin.”
Sophia Lunetti. He hadn’t seen her since his great uncle’s funeral. He’d always liked her, this forbidden cousin. She’d been a cute girl. But she’d turned from a cute girl into a smoking hot young woman who knew more about magic amulets than he did.
Marcello’s jaw hung slack as she kissed him on the cheek. Zach shook his head with an amused smirk and made a show of looking at his watch, then vanished. Marcello barely noticed.
They talked through a cup of coffee, and another cup of coffee, then through the annoyed throat-clearing noises of the waitstaff, then a walk downtown, and dinner, and dessert. They talked through the waiters putting the chairs on the table at the restaurant, and then a walk back to her car, and then they stayed talking outside her car under a street light for so long he suddenly realized he had to get up for work in three hours.
He didn’t sleep at all that night, and sleepwalked his way through work the next day. Sophia Lunetti. Bella Sophia. Sophie. Cousin Sophie. He was obsessed. He was in love.
He was so fucking stupid.
He should have taken the time to buy a fresh amulet before going to see her. Because the only luck worse than falling in love with a girl who wasn’t much older than his students was falling in love with his cousin. And the only thing worse than falling in love with his cousin was falling in love with the daughter of Aunt Rachel and Uncle Michael, the Berkeley Lunettis, whose names were never spoken of in his house, and whom even Grandma Marguerite didn’t invite to family functions anymore.