By Victor D. Infante
Steph arrives at my place with a couple of plastic bags of Chinese food from Chang’s, because she knows I won’t eat the cheaper stuff that actually delivers.
“Y’know,” says Steph, as I open the door for her, you are perfectly capable of picking up takeout on your own.”
As she turns to put it on the coffee table, as is our custom, she spies the waiflike emo girl wearing my old sweats and a Nada Surf T-shirt that I had lying in the back of my closet, and who is now staring vacantly at “Grey’s Anatomy” reruns on my television.
“Who’s your friend?” Steph asks tentatively because, well, I don’t really have friends. Except her.
“Steph, Sara. Sara, Steph,” I say. “Is there moo shu pork? I love moo shu pork.”
“There’s moo shu pork,” says Steph, exasperated. “There’s moo shu pork, and lo mein, and those Chinese spare ribs you like so much. Also three things of won-ton soup, and a double order of spring rolls.”
“You’re going to forget to pay me back for this, aren’t you?”
“I don’t have any cash on me,” I admit, as I grab plates and chopsticks from the kitchen. “I’ll pay you back soon.”
“Whatever,” says Steph, long inured to my mooching. “Was there a fire? I smell something burnt.”
Sara clutches her knees to her chin, staring intently at McDreamy on the TV.
“Yeah,” I say. “Elsewhere. It was a thing. Clothes are a mess, though, and I don’t think the shower got it out of my hair.”
“Right,” says Steph. “This is a witch thing, isn’t it?”
Sara turns toward Steph in surprise. Me? I’m just a little ticked.
“You know,” I say, “it’s supposed to have a little mystery to it. You don’t just blurt it out in the living room.”
“You’re bringing home strays and setting things on fire,” says Steph, adding quickly to Sara, “no offense, hon. All of that, and a moo shu pork craving add up to you and bad juju. So am I right?”
“Bad juju it is,” I say, before biting into a spring roll. Which? Yummy. And I’m totally paying Steph back for it this time. Really.
“Thing is,” I say. “We got out OK, but I don’t think I’m gonna get that lucky the second time. I was totally improvising.”
“You were amazing,” interjects Sara. “Seriously, she was exorcising evil spirits and tossing fire around. It was like watching … watching a real witch. Like my grandma used …”
I’m getting kind of used to the waterworks, but this is a pretty restrained exhibition. Mostly, the color drains from her skin, and she scrunches her face, trying to at least appear a little bit tougher. She is, after all, a witch now. Mostly.
Steph sits next to her on the couch, and lays her hand on the girl’s shoulder. Sara sobs, and Steph pulls her close until it subsides. See, it’s that whole human thing. I just can’t get a grip on it. Steph makes it look easy. I kind of hate her for that. And I kind of love her.
A few awkward minutes pass, during which I occupy my hands with the application of chopstick to moo shu pork. Sara gets her groove back, and sits up. Katherine Heigl is on my TV saying nothing important, and that’s kind of a relief.
“I’m sorry,” says Sara, rubbing her eyes. “It’s been a long couple weeks. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” I say. “Let’s just get this finished so we can both get on with our lives, because whatever that was, it’s not going to go away. Not for long.”
“I don’t know,” says Sara. “It just wants my city. If I go away …”
“That’s not what a witch would do,” I say curtly. Steph makes a little “meow” cat paw gesture, which Sara thankfully doesn’t see.
“Yeah, well, I’m not a witch. Not really.”
“Your grandmother was a witch,” I say, all mater-of-fact. “And your mother was, briefly. You had chalk on hand, herbs that you weren’t planning to smoke?”
“Yeah,” she says. “They taught me some things, but really? It didn’t look like anything I’d need to know for a long time.”
“Well,” I say. “Sucks to be you, because this all got real fast.”
“What about you?” says Sara. “You’re … you’re not like any witch I’ve ever seen. Grandma lived in a big old house on the edge of town. Didn’t have a computer or cable or …”
“Bet she didn’t have a gingerbread house, either,” I say, a bit too curtly, adding, “Never mind. It’s kind of a thing. Look, it’s not the house or the accoutrements that make a witch, it’s the way you relate to the world. Esme was old-school, and did everything the way she was probably taught. She didn’t really walk in the world. She’d never even had crème brûlée until a few years ago.
“Me? I never got taught anything. I came into it early, because this place had been witchless for, like, decades, and had to learn it all on the fly. I don’t do things the way other witches do because I don’t know what other witches do. I also love movies and American Idol without irony, read comic books and poets that are actually alive, download music and have computers in, like, every room of this condo, all networked. This place is seriously Bluetooth-ed to the hilt.”
I clap, and the light turns on in the kitchen.
“Look out, honey, cause I’m using technology! I’m just saying there’s not a right way or a wrong way to do it. Everybody does it the way they were taught, but that just makes it a habit. That doesn’t make it the only way. Esme told me that the world speaks to everybody differently. This is how it speaks to me. You’ve got to find how it speaks to you.”
“And that’s the last inspirational speech she’ll probably give for a good decade,” says Steph, “so consider yourself lucky.”
Sara laughs, and it’s the first sign that she might be coming out of the oh-so-understandable funk and into something, oh, I don’t know, useful?
“So,” asks the young woman. “You’re not a witch?”
“Oh, no,” says Steph, chipper, “I have a job.”
“I have a job!,” I say, at wit’s end, pardon the pun.
“Combing through estate sales isn’t a job,” says Steph, “at least, it isn’t when you rarely bother to resell anything. No. I’m an IT manager. That and getting her to remember to eat, those are full-time jobs.”
“I have a job,” I say, perhaps a bit too defensively. “I’m a witch. It’s full-time work. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.”
“Obviously,” says Steph. We banter like this all the time, but it’s rare we get to do it for an audience. Steph’s a fairly social creature, but I’m not.
Philomena’s ahem-ing me, which is way less fun than it sounds. She reminds me that we have a problem to attend to, and quickly. As much as I’m getting used to Miss Raven, I’m going to need to get rid of her, and soon. And that means getting rid of the spirit.
I sigh visibly, because bits of a plan are starting to percolate, and I have to say, I’m really not fond of what’s emerging.
“Steph,” I ask, smiling as kindly as I can muster.
“What do you want?” she replies, arching an eyebrow at me.
“Can I ask you to wait here with Sara, and make sure she’s OK?”
Sara starts to protest, but I shoot it down with a glare. Which? Totally Esme. Score.
“Where are you going?” Steph asks, quite sensibly under the circumstances.
“I have to go talk to my mom.”
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