(234) What Was My Living Room

One thing I will say for the Spriggan sibs is that there’s only ever one trip back from the car. They may be small, at least, most of the time, but they’re super-strong and they’ll carry everything. Somehow, and I figure it’s some kind of use of a talent, we never meet anyone in the parking lot. I don’t know how they manage to veil themselves from nosy people looking past the blinds, but who knows, maybe it’s a complete package.

I was able to unlock the door using one hand, propping up my boxes of stuff against the wall while I did it. I didn’t know what their etiquette rules were regarding opening doors, because sometimes it seemed okay, and sometimes it seemed verboten. I’m sure if I paid attention I’d figure out the pattern, but I just went with the flow. It could be a bodyguard thing, and not just some freaky fey formality. Not everything was about magic, right?

I was looking forward to seeing the new layout again.  It had made my whole place feel a little different, fresh and new. I’m glad my bedroom was off-limits, so I still had a familiar area, like a pillow fort I could return to if I needed. I didn’t feel I really had a lot of anxiety, but everyone has their lair, right?  Just because mine was lined in comics and paperbacks was just like laying on piles of gold.  Or fish.  Whatever floats your horde.  That doesn’t sound like the right metaphor. Whatever gathers your horde?

I rushed to the kitchen with the groceries, not really looking. Once I got things settled on the counter, I leaned against the stove and glanced at the living room.

…and kept on looking.

“What did you do?” I asked.  I don’t know how it came out. I was shocked and appalled and in awe at the same time.

First was the lighting. I have (I had to count) three lights for the living room.  One hanging one over the table, one on my desk next to the computer, and the kitchen LED (the management company replaced the fluorescents a few years ago) that was usually left on unless we were leaving.  The kitchen was still on, and it still looked white with that slight blue tint, but I could see little blue lights glowing and shifting in…the distance?

Something about the use of light and shadow made my living room look like a grotto.  The couch was there, but it looked sunken, somehow more a part of the book cases, which loomed like those huge trees in the swamp.  There was a fountain somewhere in the other corner, water barely running, just sliding and leaving a bit of chill to the atmosphere. It was quiet, not that rush of water that every apartment dweller feared.  It was pleasant.  I recalled the fountain as something I’d picked up from a garage sale and never had put together. I wondered what else Nen had found in my storage.

Everything smelled so nice, I just spent time breathing it in.  I could hear Rayya and Nen setting things up in the kitchen.  There was the moving of plates, quiet sounds.  I sat down on the couch, stretching out my legs.  I closed my eyes, and leaned back for a few minutes.

I hadn’t meant to fall asleep.  I woke up with a growling in my stomach, and my nostrils full of the spices and all the Maillard Reaction goodness of baking something that smelled amazing.

“You looked peaceful,” Rayya said.  She was wearing something different.  I tried to put it together, and I remembered. The babies breath.  She had used it to make a kind of lace overlay, and she smelled like the faint scent of the flower.  There were different silver rings on each of her fingers, all shiny.  She’d done something faintly to her eyes, make-up I would guess.  Some kind of faint line to them that changed their shape.  I was quick to notice only because I’d gotten in trouble so many times for not knowing.  It bugged me that she wore the headscarf so I couldn’t compliment her for something she might have done with her hair.

“Not a bad dream or even,” I stretched it out, “a crick in my neck. You look nice. Is that why you wanted the flowers?”

She smiled, and maybe I even detected a bit of pleasure in her expression.  “In part,” she said. “I am glad you appreciate.”  That was better than my approval, I decided.  Even this old dog could learn some new tricks.

I glanced in to the kitchen.  Nen looked as he did this morning. “Should I dress up?” I asked. I had meant to do a little, but if she was looking nice I needed a bit more time.  I glanced at my watch.  Plenty of time.  For a guy; for Maggie I would need to travel four or five hours in the past, or cheat.

Funny that I didn’t consider the sibs using their glamour as cheating. It was what they were, less who they were, which it was with Maggie.  I thought of magic as being special, and she thought it was a tool to be used for whatever nail she could hammer. I guess that’s being a little judgmental; she had other tools in her toolbox, of course.  I was just being the bitter ex- for a moment.

“It is up to you,” Rayya responded.

“I know what that means.  It means yes or you’ll be secretly disappointed and judge me all evening.”  That wasn’t quite fair, either; I knew them to be true to their word, and if she said it was up to me, it probably was. I was reacting to her as if she was a woman.

That was weird.  I didn’t think of Rayya as a, I mean, yeah, I was aware she was female.  She was just on the ‘no’ list so I didn’t really count on it.

I couldn’t read the expression, but she followed it up with a shrug.  “It is up to you,” she repeated.  She moved back to the kitchen, dismissing me and my neuroses.

I guess I could at least put on a shirt that buttoned up… I got up to look at my wardrobe.

(233) Generic Buys

The fiercesome beast of the grocery was a multi-segmented creature.  Its head and tail is a thing called ‘parking,’ and that was a nightmare of small children and multiple large machines with little patience.  While we were taking the bus, the fangs and breath of parking still meant we had to run the gauntlet of impatient monster trucks (okay, just the ubiquitous black SUVs) and aforementioned small children who seemed to have no survival instinct whatsoever, or at least not one evolved for asphalt roving engines.

Rayya and I made it long enough for me to flash my membership card (I always do it just like Old Ben in his ‘droids’ line, even if it’s totally legit) as we went into the big warehouse.  “Do we need a cart or a flat?” I asked. I realized I was making it kind of challenging in tone. I don’t know why I was so aggressive, but maybe I was still off-kilter from my home being rearranged.  I don’t know.  I liked it, but at the same time, there was a violation of the norm and my brain needed a little adjustment time.

On the other hand, Rayya took it in stride, as if either was entirely acceptable. “We do not have the facilities to sate the appetite of all invited guests,” she said. She also said it simply, which made me dream up otherwise unimaginable horrors, like pickled human toes (apparently a garnish in some small city in the Yukon, according to an article or two I read once while researching Wendigo) and the occasional nutria.  Hey, your unimaginable horrors are probably far less tame than mine. I have plenty of imaginable horrors that’ll pickle your toes.  Or something like that. “However, we should do well to provide options and alternatives.  Hospitality requires some effort,” she said as if chiding me.

I pulled out the flat, and did a quick check on my bank allowance. I don’t recommend shopping without a list and a budget, but this was the party mood and I had a number it couldn’t go over and no expectations.  This was a luxury, indeed, and I thanked the guilt of the sorcerers once more. After all, being nearly eaten by a Dragon had to be worth something besides bad press and other Dragon grudges. I was going to have to find a job eventually, but I was constantly surprised at the modest lifestyle I was living, despite being seemingly eaten out of house and home if by house and home you meant sugary breakfast cereals.

“Where first?” I asked.  Left to my own devices, I meandered. I was the worst of the frugal sorts; I bought on impulse if I could justify it with it being, “On sale,” or “useful to have around even in this bulk capacity,” but then, most of my meals were still of the frozen variety except when the sibs insisted on something with less salt.  It sounded healthier to me, and they were fairly good cooks, not that I’ve been to an actual doctor in years.  I mean, I did date Rohana, and that should have counted for at least an office visit, right?

The long neck of the grocery beast are the aisles of treats. According to Rayya, dried fruit was a different beast than fresh fruit, but still had much of the same properties, only with added concentration.  At the airport was a kiosk that included dried hibiscus, goji and golden berries, mulberries, green and yellow pomelo, and yes, every time I start listing fruit, there’s this urge to shout, “Come buy! Come buy!”  I can’t be the only one, right?

The belly of the grocery beast is in the frozen sections, beckoning quiescent confections and delicious things you never even knew you wanted.  Okay, as treyf as it gets, I really like scallops wrapped with prosciutto, and then barbecued with a sweet bourbon sauce.  I guess I could drink a jug of wine and eat it with a bacon cheeseburger and really fail many of the world’s major religions, but I’m not the kind of person who snubs their nose at such rules. It was odd, though, because when I went grocery shopping with Maggie, she’d talk money, and value per ounce, and Rayya, when she spoke or indicated an item mostly talked about its potency on a magical level.

“What happened to a kernel of corn making a feast?” I asked. After all, I thought they clothed themselves based on that premise.

“There’s a price to pay that you’d be better off withholding,” she replied. “Although,” she looked for the third or fourth time at the flowers.  I rarely went to the refrigerated plant areas, seeing as I thought dead things generally not a pleasant gift, but maybe if I had two dead teckla…

I moved the cart over there. “There’s something you keep looking at,” I said. “What do you want?”

I expected some kind of mystic bouquet, a combination of the simple wealth of daisies, maybe a rose or two for abundance, but she went to the baby’s breath.  At least, I thought that’s what it was, those funny little filler flowers of white.  “Pure heart,” she said. She laughed.  “I like the common name: baby’s breath.  Stolen by a cat, no doubt.”

“Did you want them?” I asked.

She was caught by her nature, I supposed.  I couldn’t read her expression.  I picked them from her hands and laid them in the cart.  “There. Solved.  Now, they don’t sell the ambrosia of the gods, but I do believe they have cola.”  I turned the flat towards the soda aisle.

“They sell Balm of Gilead-scented car sachets in bundles,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Or at least fir and cotton scents,” she demurred, but she had a smile on her face.  I liked that.

We came in well under budget, but I hoped people (and this time I used the term “people” broadly again) were hungry.  At least we never got anything one of us wasn’t willing to eat, so I’d call it a win.

 

 

 

 

(232) Are Sylphs Part Sulfur?

I had terrible dreams, of people stalking me, and I used “people” in the most generous terminology possible, because people generally didn’t turn into screaming pits of voids and follow you around threatening to devour all you hold dear.  I didn’t suspect any portents, just nightmares.  One gets them sometimes; they’re not always full of meaning and destiny.  Heck, it could just have been my stomach complaining about the sugar in the cake pops.

I brushed my teeth, thinking, but I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about at all.  I just knew that I was wondering how sylphs and sulphur connected, if they did at all.  Fart fairies? I suppressed a giggle. That wasn’t a question I was asking, if only to avoid (for once!) the disgusted look or, worse, finding out they were serious.

Sometimes you get what you ask for and you realize you asked for the wrong thing entirely.  Not just that whole monkey’s paw thing (and don’t monkeys have hands? I was unclear as to when the primate differences ended) but also in that there are things you can’t unsee. I lived in a world of magic; maybe you could find someone to manipulate your memory, but it’s always just a patch, never a change.  Or maybe it’s because I dealt with witches, not wizards. Nomenclature, you know?

Time heals all wounds, right? Even those you rip the bandaid off of… and even scars fade, unless, I suppose, you pick at them.  I pick at thoughts like I’m trying to dig in at my brain, sometimes.

Breath fresh, clean clothes, face washed, maybe not in that order, I opened my bedroom door with a big flourish and put myself in the frame like I was a superhero observing my conquests.  I immediately dropped the chest-pop pose as I stared at what I had thought was my apartment.

Have you ever come home and found a couch moved in such a design that you keep bumping into it not because it is in the way but because you are used to zigging left instead of zagging right?  That’s kind of what it was.  My computer desk and chair were in the same place.  My bookshelves by the door were in the same place, along with my ceramic octopus cup for my keys, the spare change slash dice rolling bin, and the laminated card stuck to the doorframe that reminded me to grab my keys, wallet, and phone that I got from a past job.   Everything else was moved around, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it.  There was still access to all of the various shelves (housing books, toys, movies, whatnot) and of course, the kitchen.

No, I kind of liked the difference, but I was still reeling from the impact of change. I wasn’t sure I’d leave everything here, but I’d think about it.  There were places for standing, places for sitting, places to be together, and places to be alone.  I hadn’t known the fey to be interior designers, but then, it’s not like you can tell from looking, right?  Besides, sidh were often considered to be very malleable, so maybe there was something to it.

Nen and Rayya watched me.  Nen was in sharp black that I couldn’t quite guess the origin of… could have been one of my washclothes, pants, shirts, or even the cover of a book. His hair was shock-white and spiky.  Rayya was in white, of course, but there was lace as well as linen.  They stood a little taller than the counter in the kitchen, and said nothing.

I sat down on the couch, and checked to make sure the television was still connected.  I still had the place to put my feet, but the lighting was different.  I noticed a faint color on the blinds I hadn’t noticed before, a more blue tint to the white, and it occurred to me it might just be that they were clean.  Everything was clean.  Seriously clean.  I put my nose to the cushions on the couch, ignoring their staring, and noticed it smelled slightly like fall.  I couldn’t tell you what particular part of the scent made it autumnesque, but something about it reminded me of the crunch of leaves and the spray of colour and the chill just touching the air.  Despite it being basically a desert, we had seasons in Colorado, if only in comparison to more western states.

It was different than how the sibs smelled. I didn’t go around sniffing people, but they had their own scents, for certain. They smelled a little like the sea, and not the dead fish smell of beaches or marinas, but the salt spray you got a few miles out, where the storms begin to build strength.  And other things; sugar, mostly.

“Interesting,” I said.  It was kind of a compromise between thanks and praise.  Words were important to them, and I knew they would see both of those things in there, unlike the usual use of ‘interesting’ which was more an enthusiasm-quasher.  The, “I want to say something about it, but I’m not really moved to say anything in particular,” ‘interesting’ was a pet peeve of mine.  In this case, I made sure I said it with warmth and a sense of awe.

The books were all on the shelves, but I couldn’t immediately determine the methodology, other than they refused to do anything alphabetically.  At least the series were basically in the same region, so I wouldn’t be frustrated trying to find the second book of anything.  Especially important when I got things from the library – at least the two of them understood ‘borrowing’ as much as it wasn’t like the information or entertainment you derived from a book left with the physical object.  It did feel a little bit more like stealing when they put it that way, but I also understand people have been known to return books to bookstores, and that was heinous to me.

“Who’s ready for a shopping trip?” I asked.  So far this party hadn’t hurt too much, so I might as well gird my loins (except I liked my jeans) and meet the fiercesome beast of the grocery.

(231) Questions I Had Later

“Well, you cannot lie to me, but you can shade the truth until water is purple, the sky is green, and the moon is indeed a tasty spanakopita,” I said, finally, trying to turn the mood.

“Have you eaten moon?” Nen asked.  “Held pieces of it? Visited?”

“No,” I admitted.  There was an exhibit once of moon rock nearby, but my mother forbade me because of the radioactivity.  At least, that’s the reason she gave me.  It wasn’t like I was generally absorbing radioactivity that I knew of, but can you really see yourself glow in the dark?

“Then you cannot with definite personal experience exclude the spanakopita qualities of the moon.  It is telling, however, that you can provide impersonal experience that allows you to determine that your moon, at least, is less likely to be made of spanakopita.  Spanakopita is a spinach pie, is it not?”

“According to the menus of the Greek places I’ve eaten at, yeah.”  I shrugged. I was only guessing on how to pronounce it, too.

“I shall include it,” Rayya said, as if answering a question Nen had asked.  If he had, it hadn’t been allowed.

“Oh no. We’re going shopping?” I asked, making it sound like a groan.

“Unless you prefer I pilfer and acquire things by other means,” Rayya left it hanging.

“What, you think I’m suddenly growing a conscience? Oh wait, I did tell you no murdering.” I sighed.  “Okay.  Unless there’s anything else, I’m going to bed.” I yawned, as if to punctuate it.

“There are other things,” Rayya said.

“But,” Nen glanced at her, “none which require your sleep-deprived presence.”

Rayya appeared to accede, with a hint of a grin disguised by a flash of the white fabric of her shoulder. She would use the excess fabric as a veil, I noticed. A tell, in a poker sense, maybe? I knew better than to play cards with the two of them. No doubt there’d be some magical fallout, and I’d lose my dignity.

I believe I have some of my dignity.  They may have gotten my goat enough that it recognized them as surrogate parents, but it was my goat, darnit.

I mean, in a metaphorical sense.  I didn’t even have a cat.

“Do you think we should get a cat?” I asked aloud.

“Most people say, ‘Goodnight,'” Nen said, half-chidingly.

“I am not sure it would be entirely irresponsible,” Rayya said.

“I’d have to pay a pet deposit,” I noted. “You two don’t eat cats?” I asked, quickly.

“They are relatively unobjectionable,” Rayya said.

“I have not yet,” Nen said. “They give you furballs.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” I said. “But Kermit used it to keep someone off of him, and I respect that.”

“Kermit is indeed wise, except for his interest in the pig,” Rayya said, seriously.

“I think it was suppose to represent that love is weird and confusing and not always predictable or logical.  Or kosher.”  I might have felt a little bad about adding that last.

Nen made a directly human response, rolling his eyes, but Rayya only tilted her head. “The dietary laws?”

“Forbid eating pork, yes,” I said. “Um, there’s a lot more to it, though. Compassion in the ways of killing a beast, I think.  No pain upon its death.  Not eating anything that slithers upon its belly.  No mixing of milk and meat, like mother and child.  I think chicken omelettes are okay, but I’m just kind of guessing at that.  There are some birds you can’t eat, though.  Owls.  Swans.”

“They are wise laws for a people in a desert, and also for those unsure of the world upon which they’ve put their feet,” Rayya said.  “Also, counsel against inebriation in heat, and requiring time for a tree to mature before its fruits can be harvested.”  She made one of those rolling shrugs.

“I have to admit, other than a lot of humour from Jewish comedians, I’m not up on the religion. Nothing against them, of course. I mean, from the little I do know, it does seem rather… reasonable?  There’s a few not wearing satin on Sundays kinds of things, which isn’t a thing, I know, but I don’t remember the actual one, but most of it seems like you said, good rules of thumb for where and when they were.”

“Don’t they all?” Nen asked.

“It’s a generous premise,” I allowed, “but I think there are methods and nuances for change that might put different rules in different light.  Like languages trying to remain pure, and still needing to talk about cyberware or something, something those people who had never seen a turtle could necessarily experience in their native tongue.”

“A patois for the tortoise challenged?” Nen teased.

“If it hides in a shell and has the propensity to be dropped on its back by an eagle, does it quack like a duck?” I asked.

He gave me the point with a wry smile and a nod.  I felt like I had won something grand, but kept it to myself: crowing about the points kind of diffused their impact.  That was a human thing, by the way; the fey liked to crow occasionally.  Which was a weird term for something more like a rooster, but crows could be quite the gossips.

Or so I’d surmised.

“I am not entirely sure how we got into a religious discussion after I suddenly decided I might want a cat, if you could call that a decision. I am guessing you are correct and going to sleep is probably a good choice at this point.”  I caught myself yawning again. “Will I be waking up to a house decorated in sheep guts and glitter?” I asked.

“Would you like to?” Nen asked, teasingly.

“Are those traditional decorations for you?” Rayya asked, looking suspicious.   “I was thinking…” she trailed off.  “Paper,” she decided.

“Well, that is the traditional first anniversary gift, were we married,” I said.  “I find myself more of a modern guy.  You know, clocks.  Because right now mine seems to be warning me that if I don’t go to bed, I’m likely to turn into a pumpkin.”

I paused.  “No,” I just said.  They’d understand.

 

(230) Unfamiliar Things

I considered the term for a while.  The problem is, the only familiars I was really, um, familiar with were generally cats. Oh, I knew a couple of dogs, but as a rule of thumb dogs were suspicious of magic. One turtle. A very odd turtle to be sure, I actually thought the turtle might have been a wizard who had done something, well, bad, with reality. I was sure there were others, but no one kept a human as one.  Maybe a cat girl from anime? Nah.  Plus, she’d have to have those cute pointed ears on the top of her head, and her ears appeared (app-EAR-ed?) to be normal.

I shook my head. What was a familiar, then?  I had a handful of definitions to choose from, magic being that lovely place of overlapping terminology based on a combination of sources in common.  The lowest denominator of magic, some of it being based on terms in science fiction or casual deterioration of religious vocabulary, I supposed.  I occasionally toyed with the idea of writing a book about a time in the future where magic was a standardized form of study and the terms were set, but if I was writing it while it wouldn’t have terrible Latin-based constructions I’d probably still be terrible and lose some culture’s contribution.

Which was an amusing side-note to being “woke,” as an opposition to the living dream of the maya.  I had struggled with the term ‘awake’ already, personally caught between Shirley Jackson’s, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream,” and Peter S. Beagle’s, ” Most people are wide awake only now and then—on special occasions, as you might say. But a magician is wide awake all the time, on call for everything, which is why most people call him a magician.”  I kind of put myself (in both cases) as someone too prone to hitting the snooze button.

But that’s far from knowing what Nen meant as ‘a familiar.’ Was Janet someone like the Sources of Fionavar, there to be tapped for power? A companion to offer occasional guidance, like Rosetta of Joan Carris’ Witch-Cat? Or what he seemed to be suggesting, a convenient host for demons to pop in and out of?  And where did the sigils fall into it, if anywhere?

“What do you mean by ‘familiar’?” I finally asked.

“Touched,” Rayya said, but there was the hint of her hiding her smile.  Nen turned to share some kind of expression with her, but I didn’t catch what it was.

“Touched,” I repeated. “And what does that mean?” I was afraid to keep speculating as it would drag me down rabbit holes I had no intention of touching with the hares of my chinny-chin-chin.

Nevermind. It didn’t sound good even to the weird depths of my head.

“Just as you are,” she said.

“Oh, I’m touched, all right. Touched by your compassion and easy-to-comprehend descriptions,” I said, making sure the sarcasm was laid out nice and evenly. “What do you mean?”

“Do you know what day it is?” Nen asked, and I don’t know why I detected a bit of anxiety to it.

“Um,” I glanced at my watch to tell him.

“Tomorrow will be a year and a day,” Nen said.

“Since… a year and a day ago?” I glanced at my calendar.

I hadn’t planned on any kind of celebration, any kind of anniversary marking my return to the world.  I still had many of the same problems, the same questions, but I had fit right back in, culture shock retreating like a wave on the shore of my personal beach-being… which meant it probably hadn’t been all that much of a tidal wave.  “Oh,” I said, feeling like I had to respond to him.

He and his sister had been unwanted guests at first. Not like the kind on Ed’s pens, but an evil I only found necessary the time I watched Nen fight a Beyonder I originally called a demon.  Since learning more about demons, I wasn’t sure I would keep the epithet.  Over the … year, I guess, they’d turned more like friends.  Even after our spat where Nen had said he wasn’t there to be one… we bought books together, and I remembered to get them cake pops, and I knew their favourite cereals, and even if we didn’t understand each other a lot of the time, we were… friends.  Right?

I felt very cold and alone in the dark for a moment.

“What does that mean?” I finally asked.  He hadn’t said anything, just stared at me with his strange eyes and his wild hair, and his weird clothes and everything I had actually learned to find kind of adorable, to be honest.  I put up with the weird organic and herbal soaps and their occasional silences and pointed looks.

He glanced at Rayya, and I believe my heart jumped a beat.

She inclined her head to him, and he turned back to me.  “Nothing.  Except perhaps we should have a…” he took a deep breath, and said, conversationally, “party.”

“A party?” I asked? My emotions were strained.

“A party,” he said, and I didn’t understand his look.

“Who would we invite?” I asked, ignoring everything we’d been talking about up to that point.

“I will write the guest list,” Rayya said.  She was leaning on the door, now.

“It’s kind of short notice,” I pointed out.

“The people who need to come will find time in their schedule,” she said, and I got a creepy vibe from it.

“Don’t go killing loved ones or anything,” I warned, as if I could stop her. “That’s never a great way to have a celebration.  And it is a celebration, right?” if my voice cracked a little on that last, I ignored it.

“Yes,” but there was a pause I was getting ready to over-analyze.  Nen shook his head.  “I cannot lie to you. We have made a decision.”

If I had learned nothing over the year, I might have asked more questions, but I could tell now.  It wasn’t body language, exactly, what they shared, but it was a sense I had grown.

I would ask more questions.  Later.

“So,” I said, realizing that was preamble enough, “what’s up?” I asked, as I put on my seat belt.

Nen climbed up next to me and frowned at the door.  He just gestured.  “Drive,” he said.

I arched an eyebrow at him.  “Yes, sir, okay sir, whatever you say, sir,” I muttered.  “Jeeves does as sir says, sir,” I continued the ridiculous monologue for about twenty more seconds, or as long as it took me to take a safe left turn from the parking lot on to the busy street.  (I always drive safely, previous car issues aside.)

The car was another rental, because I still hadn’t chosen a good replacement. I meant to get around to it, but I hated shopping for cars. Maybe it’s unmanly, but I just want something that gets me there.  I’d picked it up just before my trip to lunch with Eve, but it was due to be back at the end of the week.  I didn’t like the way my right knee kept hitting the console, so I wouldn’t be getting one of these, whatever it was.

A flash in the mirror showed Rayya sitting in the back seat.  I don’t know how they do it, but I know their little disappearances have to be related to the other’s presence.  And not just as my bodyguards, or whatever, but I think it was something to do with them, specifically.

“So?” I asked again into the silence.

“You are not being followed,” Rayya said.

“Good?” I mean, I was sure it was, but I gave the inflection the question that suggested maybe I was expecting something more than this particular answer.

“Is it possible that your job was actually related closer to the one regarding the demon?” Nen asked, in one of those casual ways attorneys ready to put the smack down on a court case on television had.

“If I say it sounds like outrageous coincidence, you’ll quote rule number 39, right?” It was an NCIS reference; we’d spent a little time binge-watching it because I had been making some point about magic being an accepted part of modern television.  Crime drama had a lot of it, and not just in getting DNA results.

“Perhaps,” he said.  Because like all of his kind, he liked a little wiggle room.  It meant ‘Yes,’ and I knew it.  I probably shouldn’t just relegate it to their ‘kind’ like they were some homogeneous group, but I did mean the “word abusers” of myth or something.  Not that calling them “word abusers” was any less a violation of the language.  Of course, English was a notorious criminal at that, anyway.

“What did I miss?” I asked. “This sounded like it was very recent, and our suspect, if you will, has been at large for a while.” I decided to treat it more like a role playing game.

“What do vampires want?” Rayya asked from the back seat.

“Food? No, that’s too easy.  Power.  That’s a classic.”  I tried to think it through.  Aurora has all these blinking left turn yellow arrows that I find a lot easier than their traffic circles.  I just don’t understand how you get out of them without going over some lines.  It doesn’t feel right.  “If I want to be basic, all life wants a chance to make more life, right? Which is a terrible biological constraint and we thinking beings should be above it.  Sometimes life just wants to have fun,” I muttered.

“How do vampires make baby vampires?” Nen asked.

“Ugh. Do they really? I thought vampires just make more of themselves by convincing others to take on the deal.  I mean, there’s the classic bite and suck, but that’s the disease metaphor.  Those are like vampire polyps, mystically connected to the original vampire, right? Unless they can prepare the host for another… you know this gets really gross the more I think of it, right?”

“`Skeevy,’ I believe, was the term you used previously.”  Nen made it a statement.

“So… Janet’s a demon?” I asked. “I don’t follow.  Wouldn’t I know?  Or was she becoming a host for the demon parasite or something?”

“What if we suggested that the real difference between vampires and demons were that demons were less likely to take root, and instead spread their taint between multiple souls?”  Rayya asked.

“I’d say that there were too many religious overtones in that sentence for it to make real sense to me,” I quipped. “But is that a real thing?”

“Too many religious overtones or our suggestion?” Nen asked.

“The latter, thanks.” I rolled my eyes. We pulled into the parking lot, and I could see Rayya slip out first, probably to give an ‘all clear’ to Nen.  Such was the life of a celebrity.

Okay, I’m totally not a celebrity, but it was easier to think that than to think I was in any kind of trouble.

“Janet is not a demon,” Nen said.  He walked with me to the door, and waited for me patiently to find my keys. (Why do I always tell myself right hand pocket and end up with them on the left? Human perversity, no doubt.)

“Good to know. She was cute. Maybe a little young for me,” I considered.  “I mean, not terribly so, but she had a feeling of youth, which is supposed to be invigorating, but I don’t want to be on the skeevy side of things.  You don’t even understand what I’m talking about, do you?”

“I know you talk a lot,” Rayya said, briskly, coming in through the door after us.

“The concept of consent is a magical one, yes,” Nen said, “but not as definite as you’d like to believe.  You would likely find many of our interpretations skeevy.”

“You like the word?” I grinned, turning on the lights from my chair.  Rayya locked the door behind us.

“There’s a satisfaction to it, given that it seems a little less puissant than ‘squicky,’ and it seems to fill a part of that particular spectrum with better finesse.” Nen said.

“The internet is a wonderful thing.  So what about Janet? If she’s not a demon, what is she?”

“She is a … familiar,” Nen decided.

(228) Not That Type Of Guy

“Oh, no, she said…” she shrugged. “You dated for a while, and it didn’t work out, but you were good at what you did.”

“Thanks.” I hadn’t actually expected a real answer, but I appreciated it. I hadn’t realized, nor would I have guessed, but it actually felt good to know. I guess I kind of had it in the back of my head to wonder what Rohana thought, but not so much that it impacted things.  “Um,” I continued, “You’re okay, right? No one’s making you have sex to recharge or something…? Wow. That sounds so skeevy out loud I even feel weird saying it.”

She chuckled uncomfortably. “Yeah, when you actually say it, it’s weird. But if you’re a charismatic older guy who is used to dealing with troubled, isolated teens, and you’re convinced it’s natural… it can make sense.” She shook her head. “Tell me there’s no truth to it.”

“I don’t know that I can. Maybe it’s a real thing.” I shook my head. “But sometimes I’m disgusted with my gender.  On the other hand, I’m sure there’s someone out there saying the same thing about women or, heck, fish.” I shrugged. “So painting with the big brush, no, that’s not something I’ve really heard a lot about… maybe some kind of tantric thing…?” I spread my hands out in an extended shrug.  “Skeevy,” I repeated.

She grinned. “She might have been trying to set me up a little.  The last guy, well,” she gave a significant look to the portfolio. “And I am kind of into guys, unlike most of her friends.” She shrugged a little.  “So I’m sorry for making it weird. It was just in my head.”

“If I could apologize for the weirdoes, I would, but I’m sure I’ve got a couple of weird things about myself, too.”  I tried to waggle my eyebrows, but broke off, laughing. She laughed, too.

“Okay, so I’m paying you some cash for helping me out,” she said, as we recovered. “And not exchanging it for weird sex magic.  And then I’ll wander out and we’ll be like strangers again in the cold, dark world.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

“Unless,” she paused.

“Unless?” I asked.  I mean, the way she said “cold, dark world” actually gave me shivers.

“I get you. I mean, you’re fast. You’re thinking six or seven things really quickly at a time, and you’re a big geek, I can tell. So maybe we talk some other time?”

“I like that,” I nodded. “As long as you understand I’m warning you in advance that I’m probably my own kind of pervert, which doesn’t excuse me from any lack of tact but, you know, like a caution label.”

“Warning, use at my own risk?” she kind of hid her smile and it was pretty cute.

“Um, ‘use’ is kind of strong, but sure. I’m in.” I didn’t bother to hide my smile.

She opened her portfolio and pulled out a business card, then wrapped up a couple of twenties next to it.  “That’s my personal number,” she said.  It was a nice looking card, just her name and a phone number.  “Contact cards were Victorian, right?” she asked.

“Uh, would have to check with Wikipedia or something.”

She let her hand linger slightly against mine, and then grinned.  “Okay.  Talk to you again later,” she said.

She walked out into the cold, dark night. It seemed less cold and dark for a moment.

“Witches,” Nen said, standing next to me.  I didn’t jump.  Really.  Good thing I’d already spilled my drink.

“Have a cake pop.  You sucrosevores will like it.”  I pushed them idly towards him.

“Sucrosevore?” he asked.

“Sugar addicts? Guess that makes me your pixie stick pusher or something.  Um, no pixies were ground up for this example.”

“Ah. I see.”  He looked at the door where I was still staring a little.  “What happened?” he asked.

I broke off and looked at him. “What do you mean?  I closed a door, we flirted, I got cake pops. You got cake pops. Everyone wins.  Oh, and gas money, maybe something cheap on Steam or a video or something.”

“We sensed the danger to you too late,” he said, and he was very serious, an expression that I was almost completely unfamiliar with on his face. “We were able to negate enough of it that I believe the King will not have our collective heads, but it was close.”

“I was in danger?” I am glad I was so relaxed, so that my voice didn’t go up at the end.  No one even turned towards me, even though I probably looked a little stressed.

“This is not the place to speak of it.”  He shrugged, and that was weird, too.

“But you are speaking to me?” I asked.

He looked at me with a face I clearly read as, “What are you even talking about?” which made me feel a little better.

“Hold on, let me get more of these, and a slice of lemon cake, and we can go.”

He nodded, solemn, and took up a stance that seemed more alert than just standing there.  I didn’t know much about them, but I’d seen more than a few bad kung fu movies.

I grabbed my bag of confectionery treasures and turned to go.  Nen was speaking in low tones to Rayya, and she turned towards me.  Her eyes looked haunted with something.  She made a sharp nod, and then a cake pop from the table disappeared into her robes.  Nen picked up the rest.

Some kind of magic was being done, as I found myself drawn to look at him, and away from Rayya.  I was pretty sure it was the Spriggan sibs doing it, so I tried not to show my annoyance as we would Talk as soon as we got away from the crowd.  I noticed someone in the shop look at us, and then narrow his eyes, but then we were out the door.

 

 

(227) The Other Guy

“I was with you on the dry pants and chocolate sundae, but where did your mother come into this? Am I supposed to be psychoanalyzing you?” Janet asked.

“You know, they talk about the donkey inside the term ‘assume’ but they never talk about the ‘anal’ in analyze,” I said. “But…” I let it stretch out until she rolled her eyes.

“Skipping the butt stuff for a moment, I see what you’re saying. Are we really that blasé about the breaking of divine rules?” She brought her leg up on the tall chair, leaning over her knee, considering.

“Depends on the divine, I suppose. Pretty much if you like it, someone says it isn’t allowed.  Then if you don’t like it, someone says it’s mandatory.  Oh, and don’t forget, if it feels good, you should definitely feel guilty.” I hoped she saw the wry portion of my smile.

“Sounds pretty Puritan to me.  Or is it Victorian?  Strait-laced, anti-crime, or work-until-you’re-dead, and then feel like a slacker?”

“I don’t remember the Puritans being necromancers,” I said, musing.  “Isn’t Steampunk all Victoriana?  Strait-laced corsets, umbrellas, goggles around top hats, and watches on chains?”

“You forgot the gears hot-glued to everything.”

“So basically it’s glitter for grown-ups?” I asked.

“I don’t think you find gears in wrinkles years later, but you might be right.”

“Wrinkles?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Don’t ask.”

“Too late,” I pointed out. “But I’ll drop it and just leave it to my imagination.”

“That sounds a lot worse than the truth.  Had a niece obsessed with unicorns, thought she could do a glitter tattoo with glue on her arm and a lot of mess,” she answered. “And by ‘her arm’ I meant, ‘her babysitting aunt,'” she sighed.

“What does glitter have to do with unicorns?” I asked.

“Congratulations, you passed the guy test.”  She rolled her eyes.  “I don’t actually mean unicorns, either. That’s a Victorian obsession with purity, right?”

“I thought unicorns were all about blood?”

“That’s a virginity test, I think.”

“That’s gross,” I said. “Why would little girls…?”

She shrugged, leaning back. “Society is messed up when you look at it. But not everyone is hopeless. There was someone,” she dropped her leg and looked around, “who made sure you weren’t seizing or anything.  Don’t know where she went, I was going to buy her a cake pop or something.  Not here anymore; you can’t miss a white headscarf in this day and age.”

Rayya? I guessed. Just playing invisible or something now. I resolved to get her a cake pop, whatever those were.  I guessed if I just ordered one confidently, the person behind the counter could guess at it.  It was at least more specific than “that book I heard about on NPR with a wizard kid?” which is how I found Harry Potter.

“Found Harry Potter,” sounded like finding some religion.  I guess Mr. Potter did go through a resurrection cycle, and a lot of people wore his particular lightning bolt stigmata, but…

“You went away again,” she said.

“Sorry, I was thinking about Harry Potter, our lord and savior.”

She pushed away the long hair from the side of her face. “Headscarves to Harry Potter?” she asked. “Interesting train ride, I bet.”

“It’s the journey, not the destination,” I grinned. “I’m sorry. I’ve been told a couple times that women like it when you pay attention to them, and maybe it’s obvious that I’m single.” I cringed. “Um, did I say that out loud?”

“Yep,” she grinned back at me. “And yep.  So, besides some helpful advice on how not to flirt, what do I owe you?”

“Are cake pops any good?” I asked.

“Caaaaaaaaaake,” she said, making it sound like a happy zombie.  “How can anything with ‘cake’ be bad?”

“Urinal cakes,” I said immediately.

“Oops. Okay.  I take it back.  Hold on a second.”  She hopped down off the chair, while I finished cleaning up the mess.  I took a look at the picture again, frowning.  It looked like something familiar.  I had a shiver and closed the portfolio, snapping it back into place.

Janet came back with some kind of frosted things on lollipop sticks.  Cake pops.  I got it.

“Chocolate?” she asked me, passing me over one.

“Not even a question,” I answered.  “Unless they had butter pecan.”

“I don’t think so.” She bit right in, so it didn’t look like it had some kind of teeth-destroying crust or anything.  I followed suit.  Yep, I was getting some to go for the Spriggan Scouts. Provided they were still talking to me.  If not, more cake pops for me.

“But seriously, will $40 cover it? I don’t know what the going rate is for preventing a demon apocalypse I accidentally started with some blood ink.”

“Blood ink?” I blurted out.

“Oh.  Yeah.  Empowering it.” She paused. “It’s not like, menstrual blood, if you were worried.  I know guys get turned to salt if they accidentally touch that.”

I managed not to drop my cake pop.  “No, I… I’m a guy, but I have had girlfriends,” I said. “I’ve bought tampons before, if that helps pull me out of that hole. It just made sense. I know a lot of sigil witches just use the symbology, so the additional power had to come from somewhere.  And sure, I will take your money if you insist, but really, isn’t saving the world reward enough?”

“I don’t know where it counts on the sexual favor scale… if you get a kiss for a small dragon, a demon’s got to be worth something, but I think the rates have actually decreased since medieval times.”  She had a little pink in her cheeks as she said it.

I turned back to the cake pop to prevent similar pink, I think.  “Um, that’s… weird?”

“Yeah, it is.” She seemed relieved. “I know some people need to recharge after a working, and if you didn’t want money…”

“Um.  This is really uncomfortable for both of us. I don’t think I’ve ever traded sex for magic, and I sure hope Rohana didn’t make you think I was… that kind of guy,” I ended lamely.

(226) Home is Where the Art Is?

I had really meant to say, “I’m fine,” but it’s hard to do that when your head decides to make a quick physical connection with the table below it. At least the sketchbook broke the fall, right? Not the pillow I would have chosen. I mean, honestly, I was rethinking my position on memory foam pillows, and well, I wanted to try a buckwheat type one sometime. I heard they were cooler in summer than the usual pillows. I couldn’t actually tell you what was in my pillows. I had a really old feather one at one point, but it started losing fluff.  I guess just that weird wispy “pillow stuff” they sold in big plastic bags at the craft stores.  (They really are witchcraft stores, religious nature aside.  Need seed beads for your who-do? You do? Then try a ‘craft’ store. Um.  I may not have been as coherent as I liked, if I was thinking like this.)

I opened my eyes. “How long?” I asked. Everything looks pretty normal when you’re perpendicular. I guess real change has to wait for when you’ve chosen a new horizon.   That sounded far more like a grand philosophy in my head.  Which hurt.  My eyes hurt.  I was experiencing pain.  And a wetness on my right thigh that turned out to be a cup that I had overturned.

“Those are the words of someone who has done this a lot,” Janet said.  I couldn’t tell if it was as disapproving as I thought it was. “You just went out.  I was about to call for medical assistance, or rather, the enthusiastic employee over there was, but then you started muttering something about fluff.”

“Did I?” I closed my eyes to move, and my neck added another source of pain to the score.  I held onto the table in order to settle myself. “Pillow fluff or some other kind of fluff?”

“Does it matter?” she asked, and maybe there was a little annoyance in it.

“Well, it changes the joke from whether or not I’m down for it to something about marshmallows. But really, ‘How long’ made the most sense of the questions I could ask. I know who I am, I know where I am, and I’m pretty sure I passed out so I know what happened.  ‘How’ is a medical question, so ‘when’ was the most obvious thing you could answer immediately.”

“Reasoned well,” she gave me a slight bit of approval.

“Thanks. Sure you don’t want a silly pillow reference?”

“Nah, I can’t afford the down payment.”

It took me a moment, but I grinned.  “Um, sorry,” I said, passing the portfolio over to her. “I don’t actually usually, like,” I shrugged.  She knew what had happened. “First time for everything.”

“I hope so,” she said, and that sounded like flirting.

I looked back up at her eyes.  They were pretty eyes.  I mean, sure, I like legs, but eyes are a good start.  Not that I’m prejudiced for eyes. If you were blind, and/or didn’t have eyes it wouldn’t mean I couldn’t like you. Just that I appreciate body parts.  Wait, that’s serial-killer weird.  I appreciate body parts attached to the proper places on a living being.  No, somehow that doesn’t make it any better.  I liked the colour. Her eyes were a lovely liquid brown.  Brown is a hard colour to dignify with a description, especially since you’ve got mud and tree bark and, well, the brown colour of eyes is something more soulful.  And just as there are so many shades of blue, her brown was dark, very dark, the threat of landslides and the loam of the earth.

Oops, there I went a-comparin’ again.

“You’re staring,” she said, after a moment.

“I may still be bewildered. Presuming one can be wildered in the first place.  One can be mused, assuming a muse attaches to a person. Can you be awildered?”

She tapped something on her phone, letting me consider the words. “William Morris, Earthly Paradise.  He got there before you.” She put a hand to my forehead, and then laughed. “I don’t know why I did that. You knocked your head, not had a fever.  Befevered, maybe?” She had a nice laugh, too.

“Hold on, you’re coming too close to my world. You might not want to step inside. Your feet can get dirty,” I said.  I started to get up for a stack of napkins, but Janet was already there, and gave me a handful.

“Oh, I’m wearing boots,” she said.  She sat back down.  “So it’s good? Not… weird anymore?”

At least what spilled wasn’t right in my lap. That would have looked and been very awkward.  I pat at it less reassuringly and more hoping it wouldn’t stain.  I wasn’t going to cry over spilt chocolate milk or anything, but I was going to hope it didn’t look too damp against my black pants.

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty weird.” I looked up and shot her a grin so she knew I wasn’t serious.  “What do you think was different this time?”

She pursed her lips in thought, frowning slightly.  “I was really mad.  That creep…” she shook her head. “I hope he felt it.”

“I’ve no doubt.” Dry, no, but I’d taste like chocolate for a little bit.  Maybe my mind was in the wrong gutter or something.  “Seriously,” I backed it up.  “If he even felt a part of that… You tapped into something pretty primal with rage.  Not a place I’d like to go, for certain!”

Her frown turned more into a wry smile. “I just conjured up imagery from old movies, I think.  Something about a place where demons could pull you to their world for your crimes.”

I had a shiver.  “Uh, demons, yeah.  Of course, we all hope that’s the other guy they pull in, because his crimes have got to be more than our petty commandment-breaking opportunities, right?”

“Petty commandment-breaking?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I covet a pair of dry pants and a chocolate sundae right now,” I said, wistfully. “Let’s not even talk about how I honour my mother.”

(225) Art is Where You Find It

I turned around to the cashier.  Yes, standing there in a worn denim vest and blue jeans that had holes in the knees was a woman with an art portfolio.  Her hair was shaved on half her scalp, and what was long was this mermaid-like blue-green colour.  She had an eyebrow piercing with a curved barbell and wore just a bit of make-up.  She looked around for a place to sit.

I had taken a big armchair with some kind of faux leather finish, and across from the tiny table was a tall wooden chair. I figured the size of the armchair gave equal psychological weight for the height difference. “Hey,” I said, weakly, waving my hand.  I made sure to raise up my creamy rose drink so she could see the stylized ‘E’ on the cup.

She came over quickly, looking relieved. “Hi.  Um.  I’m Janet.  I realised I might not have told you.  You’re E?  You look…”

I waited for it, gauging quickly the words that might follow in a quick bullet point list in my head:

 Most Unlikely:

  • suave
  • debonair
  • dashing

Strangest:

  • fizarneek
  • purple
  • edible

Most Likely:

  • as expected
  • human
  • less wizardly than made out to be

She smiled and completed the sentence, “Normal.”

I didn’t know whether or not to feel insulted.  “Were you expecting googly eyes?” I asked.  “Maybe a hunchback?”

She laughed, sitting down. “I guess I didn’t know what to expect.  Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.”

“None taken,” I said, magnanimously.  “`Normal’ doesn’t sound like I’m some kind of ambushing grotesque, so we’ll go with it as a positive.”  I grinned to take away any sting.

She gave a little grin in return. “You didn’t have a beard. Somehow I thought you would have a beard.”

“Give me a couple weeks, I can try to scrape up some fuzz,” I said. “Or we can beard the lion in its den right now.” I waggled my eyebrows to emphasize the pun.  “Want to show me your little problem?”

She scoffed. “Little.” There was more fear in her eyes again.  “Here.”  She pulled up her portfolio, popped the two snaps, and I heard the screaming in my head before I even had to look at the page.

I forced myself to look at it.  “You said,” I pulled up the memory under the assault with great difficulty, “that you were discouraging someone from stalking your sister?”

By itself one might say it was just an abstract ink drawing. I saw somewhat more, being of the magical persuasion (if reluctant to be magically persuaded, no matter how magically delicious.)  I saw pain, and familiarity, and a broken promise. I smelled a faint hint of gunpowder, a drop of blood, some coffee, and a whiff of sweat.  I heard the gate, whistled open, screaming its inability to close.

“Yeah,” she said.  She wasn’t looking at it, but at me, carefully.  I realized I had been gripping my own hands together, and the knuckles were turning white.  I was surprised that I hadn’t been trying to plug my ears but knowing it was a psychic scream, it was nothing my ears would handle on their own.  I relaxed them consciously, stretching them out.

“You knew him?” I asked. I tried not to make it sound accusatory, but all sound in the coffee shop, the clinks of mugs against the tables, the tapping of laptop keys, the low murmurs of conversation, the misophonically discordant sipping of the drinks, all were like grating pain in my ears against the knowledge that this page held a gate to something unpleasant.  Something that danced and blurred as I tried to hold it.

“Close the book, and it will stop,” something told me.  I don’t know whose voice it was, but that wouldn’t be enough.  It would still be there.  It needed closing.   I needed to know why the anguish remained.

“Yes,” Janet admitted.  Her voice was a clarion, a harmony of clarity against the riot mere inches away from my hand.  I thought for a moment of pouring my cup into that hole, or sticking in a finger into the maelstrom.  “We dated for, well, I guess you can’t call it dating.  We had a couple interludes and then I called it quits.”

It was truth. I could tell against the edges of the wrongness that there were words. They drifted together, a secret tide along the fjords of the storm.  Words said in anger, words accusatory, I saw them dance along the lines like they would dance across her lips.  I saw fire in her eyes.  She wanted him to hurt.  She wanted him to taste a little punishment.

Whatever hellish landscape she held within herself, she had tapped it slightly.  I could see that this was personal, that this was an artifact of her pain and protective feeling towards her sister.

“Can you close it?” she asked.

“Yes.” I didn’t even have to think about it.  “Do you have a pen?” I reached out for it.

I knew before looking that it would be a brush pen, a fine black tool.  She took the cap off before handing it to me.  I found myself humming as I placed the ink against the paper. I felt a reluctance, a strange pulling, and I realized Janet hadn’t actually let go, and she was humming with me.

Was it a song? I didn’t ask. I caught one or two glances, but it wasn’t weird enough to really stand out among the rest of what was so important to each person’s personal space. I just filled in the picture. Drew the resolution, drew the unfortunate apology, the remaining anger, the closure of the door, closing the feelings away.

I felt her begin to flag as what I thought of as my power began to rise. Strands of her own ability braided the ends, focusing my new design.  I heard the sounds of the shop begin to recede, to become normal. I felt the anger leave me, and it left me exhausted.

And then there it was, just some lines on a page, just a closed circuit.

“E?” Janet asked, as things began to go black at the edges of my vision.

“I’m…” then suddenly darkness.