Those of us who actually live here will tell you that many people are wrong. No one gets used to weather that embodies the idea of living in the middle of God’s bacon skillet. What we Dallasites and Ft. Worthians do grow accustomed to, however, is playing a sort of air conditioning Frogger in our mad scurry to wherever we need to go that day. Home AC to Car AC to Parking Garage AC to Office AC to Starbucks AC, etc etc.
This was the game I was attempting to play during a June afternoon as I stepped off the DART Green Line at Deep Ellum Station. Being that blindness made this activity extra challenging and I didn’t want to hex the lovely train that brought me hither or any nearby pacemakers, it took a full twenty minutes and a very nice elderly gentleman’s arm to make it across the street and around the block to the entrance of Live Oak Loft Apartments. By the time I found the buzzer by the gate my backpack and I were both soaked with sweat and I was generously lamenting my lack of sunscreen vulgarly in Japanese. Midori, as best friends often do, had taught me all the swear words first, ya know, “just in case”. I had just gotten to the part about the economic value of panda feces when a voice came over the intercom with more than a modicum of static and in a gruff baritone asking me my business. I kept swearing, placing extra emphasis on my “hot as monkey butts” narration, and in a few stunned moments the door buzzed open.
Once inside the building, my stream of monosyllabic heat hate was rewarded by a cool, less humid draft of air conditioning bliss. I stood in front of the vent for a solid minute just basking before making my way to the stairs. Once I made my way to the third floor, I marveled briefly that I wasn’t huffing and puffing as I had in previous months. Yoga and Pilates finally paying off, I guess.
One long right and the second door on the left led me to apartment 303, and I wrapped hard upon the steel door in a series of long and short knocks. Another voice, this time a high alto, asked for the password.
I sighed. “Nevermore.”
The same alto came back quickly and with a distinct edge of paranoia. “How do I know it’s really you?”
“Umm, because I gave you the password?” I replied, mildly baffled.
“You could have overheard the password from the last time Erica was here.”
I scoffed a bit to myself. “What about the knock?”
“That too.” Wow, something must have gotten her spooked. I went in for the clincher.
"Claret Josephine Williams, you invite me inside right now or so help me I will blow this door off it’s hinges. And you know I can do it, too!" I know what you’re thinking: that I just outted her True Name in the middle of a hallway. Don’t worry, it’s just the fake ID she uses for her lease. I may have been a touch angry at that moment but no way am I gonna blow my friend’s cover.
The high alto tried to shrill into soprano with her retort. “You’ll never get thru my wards!”
“B!&%# I put up your wards! And they’re not even really wards, just a few alarms and some landmines!”
The sounds of several deadbolts unlocking and what possibly could have been a metal crossbeam sliding out of place echoed throughout the hallway, and the large steel door opened inward. A cacophony of sensations wafted out thru the threshold, a bizarre combination of burnt carbon and morbidly scented candles laced with Menthol cigarettes, accented by Combichrist and not a small amount of boiling and percolating noises. “You said you put up wards last time you were here!” She sounded put out, but I could tell from her voice that she was also a little frightened.
“Yeah, and I told you that I was just a Sonomancer and that any anti-magic wards I could put up would only cover sound-based stuff. But you insisted, so I threw together some alarm bells and a couple of boom-booms and you said it was fine.” I shook my finger at her direction and placed extra emphasis whenever I said ‘you’ just in case the pissyness of my tone didn’t carry the point home. It must have worked cause she didn’t say anything for a minute.
I couldn’t hardly take it any longer. “May I come in now, please?” I was still pissy, heat and a lot of stairs with a large backpack will do that, but now Claret’s paranoia was starting to make me jumpy and I wanted to get inside a threshold as soon as I could, even if it was just a low-wattage loft apartment threshold.
“I dunno, can you?” Her words were clipped and coolly professionally now.
“I can, but if you want me to check your wards and do our ‘sessions’, then that might make things a bit rough, won’t it?” I replied evenly. I took out a small white hanky (I knew it was white because Auntie Em had told me when I bought it) along with a pen knife from backpack, made a small prick on the top of my left pinky, dabbed it with the hanky and tossed it towards the open door.
“There. Check it if you want. I’ll wait.” I tried to keep my voice as cool as Claret had, but I was fighting down some extra anxiety and I really wanted inside the threshold.
It may not have been my smartest move in the long term, but it worked. Claret invited me in after a relatively fast magical blood test and I plopped down on her leather couch, trying to not have it make that weird farting sound as I did. Claret’s apartment was, obviously, quite spacious and open as lofts tend to be, but she had done an amazing job using very creative gothic and Dark Ages interior design techniques to make it as close to a Witch’s Den as possible. I knew I couldn’t appreciate all the black and red and extra black colors that without a doubt turned this room into a veritable cave, but Claret more than made up for appropriately scented candles and a plethora of latex, leather, and stainless steel surfaces. Liberal use of dark wood bookcases and velour curtains created several smaller rooms within the larger loft, and we chatted in her “living room area”, or as Claret like to call it, “the Not-Dead-Yet Room”.
“So what’s got your knickers in a twist, Claret?” I asked casually, trying to calm myself down.
"Oh nothing, bunch of little things. Like how your good buddy the Wardsman may or may not be a violent drugged out psycho with the Power to rip people in half. Or that Raven, who threw me a surprise birthday party two years ago, may or may not be a child-stealing psycho with the Power to rip people in half. Maybe it’s because Werewolves might be stalking any of us in the night. Or because Miranda got ambushed by ghouls for no God da-"
“I got it, I got it,” I interrupted, “we’ve had some craziness lately, I got it.”
Claret sat down next to me on the couch, oblivious to the noises that threatened to break my composure like a 4 year old boy. What? Farts are funny.
“So,” she began, all serious and foreboding and bizarrely less scary than what I knew her nature lent towards, “Erica, seriously… did all those things really happen like you said they did? With Raven and the Hobagators and everything?”
I turned towards her and tried to orient so that we were face to face, which can be a tad disconcerting for you sighted people sometimes but I needed to make a point. “Claret, everything I have told you or any other Freakshow member about those events was true, as far as my knowledge of those events go.”
“Yeah, but-” Claret tried to continue, but I put my hand on hers (after a small pat-search). I felt her meager power, an insignificant trickle compared to the juice I knew Belle or Jamie or, hell, even I could gather in a moments notice, and I realized to my utter humility how very scared she had to be, stuck in the midst of all this. Claret didn’t have enough magical oomph to light a candle, much less defend herself from the spooky side of things. Sure, she could put potions together better than any wizard I had ever heard of, but that’s because of what she knew, not because of her magical wattage. She could pull some good tricks on the muggle side of trouble, gangbangers not wanting to pay or some new pimp on the street trying to recruit, but against a full-blown wizard or even a moderately powerful psycho-sorceress? No matter how many tricks you had up your sleeve, people like that got one more with which to kill you, or worse, and Claret knew it.
“Claret,” I interrupted, in a firm but gentle tone, “I swear it on my Power.” A noticeable shiver ran thru Claret’s hand at the Power behind a sworn Practioner’s Oath, and I decided to change the subject.
“Ya know, I have this ginormous backpack right here that may or may not have presents in it…”
Claret’s demeanor shifted subtley into her truer nature of ‘Mistress of Pain and Potions’, complete with husky voice and cruel yet languid attitude that had decreed to not a few people that if she decided to give you a bottle of something or hit you, no matter what, you were going to like it.
“What makes you think you got what I want?” she asked with a hard steel edge in her voice. This is how she normally spoke, so I wasn’t put off by it in the slightest. I just reached into my bag and pulled out a small wooden box large enough to hold a softball, covered in braille etchings and metallic laminates.
Claret practically purred when she asked, “Mmm…Is this what I think it is?”
“Yep,” I replied with no small amount of satifaction creeping into my voice as I handed it to her, “Bottled Thunder. Well, boxed thunder, anyway. It took me 4 months worth of Texas thunderstorms and almost falling off my roof a couple dozen times to glean enough to fill the box, but there it is.” Claret stood up and began pacing eagerly, muttering to herself, while I just smiled to myself. The pride that had the huge grin glued to my face wasn’t so much from the hard work that I had done or the completion of a major project but from the simple and elegant fact that I was helping someone. I’m aware of how chessy that sounds, but i’ll expain.
The most significant problem with being a ‘potions-only’ kind of magi is that, without spells, Claret can’t really collect some of the more esoteric ingredients she needs to make her potions. Sure, she could make a potion to catch an ingredient she needed, which she did on occasion using a kind of one-shot Poke-ball effect, but it just wasn’t economical. She’d have to blow thru seven other ingredients plus her valuable time just to make something that might net her one ingredient. Instead, Claret’s solution was to contract out for potion ingredients; using the Freakshow’s network of weird, including myself, to get her ingredients in exchange for significant discounts or barters on goods that she could provide. She even bartered occasionally with muggles for items that they thought were worthless in exchange for discounts or favors involving her more recreational concoctions. What I had collected for Claret had been something beyond her ability and time to aquire herself, but had been right up my alley. It had taken a while, but it had been worth it.
Claret’s tongue ring clicked against her teeth as she contemplated her next cauldron of possibilities, and even if she hadn’t said it, I knew that she liked it, and that made me happy. But it wasn’t the best part. “So what do you want for this?” she asked a few minutes later.
I stood up, and took a step towards her. Claret immediately recoiled, backing into her Bette Paige lamp. “No!” Claret shouted, “Erica, no! I am the Mistress of Pain and Potions! That means no!” I took another step closer, arms outstretched, not saying anything. I just stood there, trying to look as helpless and sad as I could. Being blind really helps with that, by the way.
“Please, Claret?” I whimpered in my best lost puppy voice, as I slowly closed the gap between us and wrapped my arms around her willowy form.
“Nobody hugs the Mistress of Pain, dammit!” Claret shouted, but I could tell the fight had left her. She just stood there as I hugged her, her body rigid in righteous indignation, the sterile cigarette smell as palpable as her layered makeup. I let go a minute later, and went back towards the door to check my alarm spells.
“You are a horrible evil human being, Erica Goodchilde,” Claret groaned, “but seriously, what do you want for this?”
“Something for my wolf problem, if you please.” I turned and smiled wickedly in her direction, and her tongue ring clicking resumed even louder than before, and I knew she was smiling.