Parasitic Souls Chapter Seven
While he was doing his apprentice duties at his grandma’s house, Xavier couldn’t get that magenta-haired girl out of his mind. He pushed the broom across the tiles of the patio, fighting with the wind to make a pile of the dead leaves and chicken feathers. Fiona. He’d been smitten from first sight.
Grandma Lupe was in the back of the house by the ravine with one of her clients. He wasn’t sure what she was doing, but it seemed to involve chickens, because the quiet was broken occasionally by the squawk of a chicken and then a gurgle and the scent of wet feathers. Jimmy was doing Tai Chi exercises, breathing loud enough that Xavier could hear him from fifteen feet away. Jimmy’s New Age stuff seemed to work for him.
Xavier didn’t need the Tai Chi. Magic came easier to Xavier than to Jimmy. He’d started earlier, and learned faster. Lupe said it was because he was born into the family, and maybe that was true, because he knew without anyone telling him that when Grandma Lupe retired, Xavier would take over the business and Jimmy would work for him, not the other way around. Until then he studied, practiced, and kept his day job.
After Xavier dumped the leaves and feathers into a trash can, he sat in the middle of his cleaned circle and breathed in slowly, feeling his aura swell. He kept thinking of Fiona. Fiona’s energy drew him to her. She had such a bright and outgoing personality that he could almost see her aura without doing the breath and meditation trick that Lupe had taught him. She had really nice curves, too.
As Xavier breathed in, he felt and then saw his aura fill the circle he had cleaned. This was an easy spell in that it only needed energy, will power, and a tiny focus stone. A lot of the spells that Grandma Lupe taught them involved esoteric ingredients, like alligator skulls or cattail root, which was great for impressing new clients but not so great when it came to making a profit. Grandma Lupe cared a lot about making a profit. He was kind of surprised that she was willing to take favor chits from Sophie and Fiona. Maybe she realized how special Fiona was.
Clementine didn’t have nearly enough girls like her, and the ones they did have mostly had boyfriends already. The only women he saw in town who could even come close to being as attractive as Fiona were the wives who lived in the condos near Windview park, pushing the babies they made for their rich new husbands in four hundred dollar strollers.
How often was a girl like that going to walk into his life?
Xavier had a pebble into which he’d drilled a hole. He fixed the bubble of energy in his mind, held it like a tangible thing, and then pushed it into the hole. He almost lost his concentration when he heard a gurgled squawk and Grandma Lupe swearing in the old tongue. Chicken must have gotten loose again. Chickens were usually pretty tame when you had food, but if you weren’t paying attention, they’d get loose and then the next thing you knew they’d be out in the desert half a mile away. Good luck getting them back then.
He should have flirted with Fiona, chatted with her, asked her out, done anything except fumble with the wooden chits and avoid eye contact. He could still ask her out, if he had the guts. It wasn’t like he had never asked a girl out before. He’d asked out Melanie from the skate shop, and Luisa who worked as a cashier at the Kroger, and he flirted like crazy with the tourists who came into the fortune-telling tent that he and Lupe and Jimmy ran during the Clementine Basil Festival. Sometimes he got lucky. Belinda, his high school girlfriend, still came back to visit a few times a year, and he hooked up once or twice with her when circumstances made it happen, so it wasn’t like he was a complete failure when it came to girls.
But when he saw Fiona he felt like he was dribbling down his shirt. He should have asked her out. He could still ask her out. All he had to do was ask Grandma Lupe for the favor chit sheet and look up her phone number. Did she have a boyfriend? Probably. Or if not, she would soon. A girl like that wouldn’t stay single for long.
Xavier set the pebble on the ground, with the hole side up, and carefully backed away from it. When he got to the edge of the circle, he backed out, feeling like he was trying to withdraw a soapy finger from the middle of a bubble without popping it. When he stepped across the swept line, his aura pulled at the hemisphere, trying to pull its own energy back, but he made it let go. The bubble of energy jiggled, then held fast. Looked good to him. Xavier walked to the back of the house to get Lupe to check his work and see if it was good enough before he dispelled it.
He peered around the corner to see if Grandma Lupe and the client were done or not. The client was sitting up on a table, smiling, apparently happy with whatever Grandma Lupe did for her.
“Jimmy!” Lupe said.
Jimmy came running around the corner, then ran back to get the invoice pad. As soon as he greeted the client, Lupe turned away. Grandma Lupe was walking his way, so he stepped out from behind the wall and caught her eye.
“You done?” she asked.
They walked to the courtyard. If he got Fiona’s number from Lupe, would she think he was a stalker? What were his other options? Drive around town until he saw her and follow her home? That would be stalkerish, and probably get his ass kicked by Fiona’s boyfriend too, if she had a boyfriend.
“Little small,” she said.
He didn’t think it was small, but he didn’t contradict her. Lupe would smack him if she thought he was talking back.
“It’s okay though, for practice. Keep practicing and I’ll expect it twice that height by the end of the month.”
“I got a chore for you.” She waved for him to follow her. Behind the courtyard, where the land sloped down to the ravine, the client had already left. Three dead chickens lay in a pile.
He looked at her questioningly.
“That lady has bad spirits at her house. Jimmy threw a fuss about killing animals, but it was a choice between three dead chickens or a month of constantly renewing Medina pots to throw whatever it is off. They’re fresh, anyway, and I don’t think the meat’s bad. You wanna cook em?”
He shook his head.
She grunted. “Me neither. Too much work, all that plucking. I asked Jimmy, but he doesn’t eat animals, he said. He won’t even touch ‘em. I need you to throw them out, but not in this garbage, because I don’t want animals tipping over the cans. Do whatever you did with them last time.”
Xavier nodded. He picked up the dead chickens gingerly by their feet, holding them away from himself so that their necks didn’t gush blood on his clothes. They got kind of heavy holding them out at arm’s length. Grandma Lupe said she wasn’t sentimental about animals, but she gave her scapegoat birds bits of tortilla from her own lunch, and sometimes he’d catch her plucking mustard weeds and holding them for the hens to peck at. She’d had a rooster earlier that year, whom Jimmy had christened Señor Gallito, and when he’d died from a scorpion sting Grandma Lupe been dour for a week. She didn’t make a grave for him or put flowers on it, but she didn’t exactly stop Jimmy from doing so. Magic had a cost, she said, and if you weren’t willing to pay it, you had no business practicing.
Xavier got to the top of a rise and tossed the dead birds down into the gully for the coyotes. Magic may have had a cost, but it seemed wasteful to throw dead chickens into the garbage when there were so many coyotes out in the desert who might appreciate a free meal.
He had somehow managed to get blood on his hands, so he washed off the muck and feathers in Grandma Lupe’s powder room. How would Fiona feel about a guy who delivered vegetables for a living and disposed of dead chickens as part of his studies? Would she think he was cool for being a mage, or would she think he was just weird?
Lupe was watching television in her chair, drinking a beer and eating a sandwich for dinner. He should ask Lupe if he could get Fiona’s phone number. Xavier walked to the living room. Lupe didn’t like to reveal any private information about her clients, but maybe she’d make an exception. Maybe just this once, she wouldn’t mind if he rummaged through the client files.
“I thought you’d gone home already,” Lupe said, raising her voice to be heard over the commercial. “Why are you still here?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Grandma Lupe looked impatient, and irritated at the interruption. He held up his hands.
“Washing off chicken blood?”
She grunted and turned back to her program.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and went home.
The next morning, Xavier rode his skateboard from home to the lot where the delivery vans parked while off duty. The orange-tinted spotlights illuminated the fog that wisped through the chain-link fence like a living thing. He got there early, so he got his first choice of vehicles. He picked one of the newer vans with the working air conditioner. It was November, and he didn’t need the air conditioning, but it was the principle of the thing. The van said “Krause Restaurant Supply” on the side. Technically, he was only supposed to use it for the actual restaurant delivery, and come back to the lot and switch to one of the other vans for the home grocery deliveries, but that was only the official policy, hardly enforced. Mr. Krause cared more about whether you saved gas than if you followed the rules, provided you didn’t flaunt it.
By the time Xavier picked up his first load of produce from the warehouse and drove downtown for his first stop, the sun had just barely begun to rise. By the time the sun had burned off the fog, he was halfway done with his restaurant deliveries. The only one left was Dee Dee’s Diner, which he always saved for last because he hated it. Xavier pulled into the alley behind the restaurant and honked his horn.
For most places, Xavier would unload the truck himself, carrying box after box of produce in to the back room, sometimes holding out the clipboard with the delivery receipts to sign before the owner even realized Xavier had arrived. Not Dee Dee’s Diner. At Dee Dee’s Diner, he sat in his truck and honked the horn.
The owners of Dee Dee’s Diner were Betty and Karl Wheeler, a tight lipped and even tighter fisted couple in their forties, who ordered the cheapest produce they could get. That was fine, but they also opened every box and went through it while Xavier had other boxes of vegetables waiting in the truck for other customers. That was also forgivable. The annoying thing was the way they pointed out every vegetable they considered “not good enough” and wanted to haggle with him about the prices. No matter how often he said he was the delivery guy, not the salesman, they consistently berated him about how high “his” prices were, and how he ought to be ashamed of himself. They complained about how he was trying to poison their customers with bad food, and when he said he could take it back if they didn’t want it, they glared at him as if they were dogs and he was stealing their kibble.
Despite this, Xavier had continued to unload the boxes through the kitchen door, until about a month earlier, when Betty and Karl decided that they had to keep up with the Joneses and get a magical ward. Wards weren’t cheap, however, so instead of a proper ward, they decided to get a hex.
Hexes sucked. Instead of keeping people out, or protecting those inside the building, a hex just inflicted a minor curse on a small area. The hex above the back door made anyone who passed under it feel like he was in a dirty swimming pool with a live wire dipped in it. The first time he had felt it, he hadn’t known what it was, but by the time he’d finished unloading the waxed cardboard boxes full of onions, mushrooms, and iceberg lettuce, he’d been hit with the dirty shock about fourteen times.
He patiently explained to the Wheelers why the hex wasn’t a good idea for a public building, and asked them to remove it, but they said that they paid good money for it and it was going to stay to keep out the riffraff. Then they went through the cartons of eggs, complaining that they shouldn’t have to pay full price for them since one of them had a downy feather clinging to the shell.
The next time he came to deliver produce, the hex had still been there, so he left the boxes by the back door, shouted for someone to get them, and left. Mr. Krause had gotten on his case about that, said that he had to at least get a signature, because Dee Dee’s Diner’s owners were complaining that their food spoiled.
So the next time he came to deliver produce, he drove around the front of the store, intending to carry them in past the hostess stand, but Betty Wheeler came to the window and pointed sourly at the back door, then walked away. He pounded again, but they refused to open the front door for anyone but a customer.
So now he sat in his van and honked the horn until the cooks bullied whoever was newest or most hungover into going outside to fetch the boxes.
After fifteen minutes of honking, no one had come out to the alley, so Xavier unlocked the back of the van and grabbed a damp and waxy box of cabbages. He’d just leave them in the alley, and if no one came out to get it, he’d forge the signature and claim innocence.
He heard some bickering from the kitchen, and then he heard the rattle and clank that meant someone was opening the back door. He saw a chef’s apron and a flash of purplish-red hair. Then, he saw the face under the hair, and he dropped his lettuces in surprise.
“Ow!” She swore, holding her hand to her head. “They weren’t kidding about that hex.”
“The new girl,” she said, with an adorable grin. She was wearing a chef’s apron, and her hair had been bound up into two tiny buns on either side of her head, like bear ears. “New girl has to help the delivery guy unload. I guess you’re the delivery guy? Xavier, right?”
He nodded, dumbly.
She reached for the cabbage box. He started to hand it to her, and at the last second, held on to it, shook his head.
“You sure? That hex pretty much sucks.”
“Cool. Thanks.” She let him take the cabbage box and walked to the back of the truck. “How many boxes are there? Looks like two three four … eight?”
He nodded. Sixteen dirty shocks, or maybe eighteen if he had to go back in and get a signature after the last time. But he’d be willing to do it for a girl like that. He forced himself to walk in under the hex, feeling that awful dirty shock settle over him like licking a battery that had been in the trash.
When he came back out, Fiona was coming in, carrying the frozen shrimp. She gave an exaggerated wince and said “ack” as she walked under the hex. When he came back in with the onions and mayonnaise, she was dashing outside again. This time she winked and stuck her tongue out at him (which almost made him drop the box).
After they unloaded the boxes, Fiona went back to the kitchen with the rest of the cooks. He wanted to go to the kitchen to talk to her after he got his delivery invoice signed, but when he peered in through the window, he saw a flurry of cooks, knives, boiling pots, and saran-wrapped steel pans full of ingredients. Dee Dee’s Diner opened for lunch in an hour, and the head chef was ordering people around. Fiona was on the other side of the kitchen, crying her eyes out as she diced a giant bag of onions. It was chaos. He couldn’t go in there.
Xavier walked back under the hex to his van. He doublechecked to see the back door was locked (it was) and looked down to see that he had the invoice signed (it was). He climbed in the driver’s seat and put the key in. He started the engine. The engine rumbled to life. He sat, watching a cloud of exhaust build behind the van.
A girl like Fiona didn’t come around every day.
He turned the engine off and headed back towards the door, running under the hex and pushing open the kitchen door before he could change his mind or lose his nerve. He dodged a cook carrying a stack of dirty bowls, and ducked under another cook carrying a steaming pan overhead. Fiona looked up as she saw him, her eyes red with tears. Onion juice dripped off her knife like milk from a cut weed.
“Comehavecoffeewithmeafterwork,” he said. It came out mumbled and rushed, barely audible above the shouts and clanging of pans in the kitchen.
“What?” She sniffed.
He sniffed too. The juice of the onions was already making his eyes burn and his sinuses loosen. “Come have coffee with me after work.”
“Can’t,” she said.
His eyes teared up. She had a boyfriend already.
“I don’t get off until midnight. I’m doing a double shift.” She piled some cut onions into a bowl and peeled the skin off a new one. “How about tomorrow morning?”
He grinned, and scrambled desperately in his mind for a place that might impress her. He finally named a place he’d heard of but never been to, a trendy place that the tourists loved to “discover.”
“See you then,” she said, giving him another one of those bright smiles. “And Xavier?”
He sniffed, turning back to her.
She sniffed loudly, tears spilling over her cheeks. She wiped the knife off on her apron, and then reached out and touched his shoulder in a sympathetic gesture. “Don’t cry. These onions are going to a better place.”
He laughed louder than the joke deserved, and walked out under the hex again. The sting didn’t even bother him. All he felt was the touch of her fingers on his shoulder.