Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Paranormal Romance

Paranormal Romance by Christopher Barzak

Nebula Award NomineeThis is a story about a witch. Not the kind you’re thinking of either. She didn’t have a long nose with a wart on it. She didn’t have green skin or long black hair. She didn’t wear a pointed hat or a cape, and she didn’t have a cat, a spider, a rat, or any of those animals that are usually hanging around witches. She didn’t live in a ramshackle house, a gingerbread house, a Victorian house, or a cave. And she didn’t have any sisters. This witch wasn’t the kind you read about in fairytales and in plays by Shakespeare. This witch lived in a red brick bungalow that had been turned into an upstairs/downstairs apartment house on an old industrial street that had lost all of its industry in Cleveland, Ohio. The apartment house had two other people living in it: a young gay couple who were terribly in love with one another. The couple had a dog, an incredibly happy-faced Eskimo they’d named Snowman, but the witch never spoke to it, even though she could. She didn’t like dogs, but she did like the gay couple. She tried not to hold their pet against them.

The witch—her name was Sheila—specialized in love magic. She didn’t like curses. Curses were all about hate and—occasionally—vengeance, and Sheila had long ago decided that she’d spend her time productively, rather than wasting energy on dealing with perceived injustices located in her—or someone else’s—past. Years ago, when she was in college, she had dabbled in curses, but they were mainly favors the girls in her dorm asked of her, usually after a boyfriend dumped them, cheated on them, used them as a means for money and mobility, or some other power or shame thing. A curse always sounded nice to them. Fast and dirty justice. Sheila sometimes helped them, but soon she grew tired of the knocks on her door in the middle of the night, grew annoyed after opening the door to find a teary-eyed girl just back from a frat party with blood boiling so hard that the skin on her face seemed to roil. Eventually Sheila started closing the door on their tear-stained faces, and after a while the girls stopped bothering her for curses. Instead, they started coming to her for love charms.

The gay couple who lived in the downstairs rooms of the apartment house were named Trent and Gary. They’d been together for nearly two years, but had only lived together for the past ten months. Their love was still fresh. Sheila could smell it whenever she stopped in to visit them on weekends, when Trent and Gary could be found on the back deck, barbequing and drinking glasses of red wine. They could make ordinary things like cooking out feel magical because of the sheer completeness they exuded, like a fine sparking mist, when they were near each other. That was pure early love, in Sheila’s assessment, and she sipped at it from the edges.

Trent was the manager of a small software company and Gary worked at an environmental nonprofit. They’d met in college ten years ago, but had circled around each other at the time. They’d shared a Venn diagram of friends, but naturally some of them didn’t like each other. Their mutual friends spent a lot of time telling Trent about how much they hated Gary’s friends, or telling Gary about how much they hated Trent’s. Because of this, for years Trent and Gary had kept a safe distance from each other, assuming that they would also hate each other. Which was probably a good thing, they said now, nodding in accord on the back deck of the red brick bungalow, where Trent turned shish kabobs on the grill and Gary poured Sheila another glass of wine.

“Why was it probably a good thing you assumed you’d hate each other?” Sheila asked.

“Because,” Gary said as he spilled wine into Sheila’s glass, “we were so young and stupid back then.”

“Also kind of bitchy,” Trent added over his shoulder.

“We would have hurt each other,” said Gary, “before we knew what we had to lose.”

Sheila blushed at this open display of emotion and Gary laughed. “Look at you!” he said, pointing a finger and turning to look over his shoulder at Trent. “Trent,” he said, “Look. We’ve embarrassed Sheila.”

Trent laughed, too, and Sheila rolled her eyes. “I’m not embarrassed, you jerks,” she said. “I know what love is. People pay me to help them find it or make it. It’s just that, with you two—I don’t know—there’s something special about your love.”

Trent turned a kabob with his tongs and said, “Maybe it’s because we didn’t need you to make it happen.”

It was quite possible that Trent’s theory had some kind of truth to it, but whatever the reason, Sheila didn’t care. She just wanted to sit with them and drink wine and watch the lightning bugs blink in the backyard on a midsummer evening in Cleveland.

It was a good night. The shish kabobs were spiced with dill and lemon. The wine was a middlebrow Syrah. Trent and Gary always provided good thirty-somethings conversation. Listening to the two of them, Sheila felt like she understood much of what she would have gleaned from reading a newspaper or an intelligent magazine. For the past three months, she’d simply begun to rely on them to relay the goings-on of the world to her, and to supply her with these evenings where, for a small moment in time, she could feel normal.

In the center of the deck several scraps of wood burned in a fire pit, throwing shadows and orange light over their faces as smoke climbed into the darkening sky. Trent swirled his glass of wine before taking the last sip, then stood and slid the back door open so he could go inside to retrieve a fresh bottle.

“That sounds terrible,” Sheila was saying as Trent left. Gary had been complaining about natural gas companies coming into Ohio to frack for gas deposits beneath the shale, and how his nonprofit was about to hold a forum on the dangers of the process. But before Sheila could say another word, her cell phone rang. “One second,” she said, holding up a finger as she looked at the screen. “It’s my mom. I’ve got to take this.”

Sheila pressed the answer button. “Hey, Mom,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Where are you?” her mother asked, blunt as a bludgeoning weapon as usual.

“I’m having a glass of wine with the boys,” Sheila said. Right then, Trent returned, twisting the cork out of the new bottle as he attempted to slide the back door shut with his foot. Sheila furrowed her brows and shook her head at him. “Is there something you need, Mom?” she asked.

Before her mother could answer, though, and before Trent could slide the door shut, the dog Sheila disliked in the way that she disliked all dogs—without any particular hatred for the individual, just the species—darted out the open door and raced past Sheila’s legs, down the deck steps, into the bushes at the bottom of the backyard.

“Hey!” Gary said, rising from his chair, nearly spilling his wine. He looked out at the dog, a white furry thing with an impossibly red tongue hanging out of its permanently smiling face, and then placed his glass on the deck railing before heading down the stairs. “Snowman!” he called. “Get back here!”

“Oh, Christ,” Trent said, one foot still held against the sliding door he hadn’t shut in time. “That dog is going to be the death of me.”

“What’s going on over there?” Sheila’s mother asked. Her voice was loud and drawn out, as if she were speaking to someone hard of hearing.

“Dog escaped,” said Sheila. “Hold on a second, Mom.”

Sheila held the phone against her chest and said, “Guys, I’ve got to go. Gary, I hope your forum goes well. Snowman, stop being so bad!” Then she edged through the door Trent still held open, crossed through their kitchen and living room to the front foyer they shared, and took the steps up to her second floor apartment.

“Sorry about that,” she said when she sat down at her kitchen table.

“Why do you continue living there, Sheila?” her mother said. Sheila could hear steam hissing off her mother’s voice, flat as an iron. “Why,” her mother said, “do you continue to live with this illusion of having a full life, my daughter?”

“Ma,” Sheila said. “What are you talking about now?”

The boys,” said her mother. “You’re always with the boys. But those boys like each other, Sheila, not you. You should find other boys. Boys who like girls. When are you going to grow up, make your own life? Don’t you want children?”

“I have a life,” said Sheila, evenly, as she might speak to a demanding child. “And I don’t want children.” She could have also told her mother that she was open to girls who liked girls, and had even had a fling or two that had never developed into anything substantial; looking around the kitchen, however, Sheila realized she’d unfortunately forgotten to bring her wine with her, which she would have needed to have that conversation.

“Well, you should want something,” her mother said. “I’m worried about you. You don’t know how much I worry about you.”

Sheila knew how much her mother worried about her. Her mother had been telling her how much she worried about her for years now. Probably from before Sheila was even conceived, her mother was worrying about her. But it was when Sheila turned fifteen that she’d started to make sure Sheila knew just how much. Sheila was now thirty-seven, and the verbal reminders of worry that had started when she’d begun dating had never stopped, even after she took a break from it. So far, it had been a six-year break.

Sheila didn’t miss dating, really. Besides, being alone—being a single woman—was the one witchlike quality she possessed, and it was probably the best of the stereotypical witch features to have if she had to have one.

“Ma,” Sheila said.

But before she could tell her mother that she didn’t have time to play games, her mother said, “I’ve met someone.”

Sheila blinked. “You’ve met someone?” she said. Was her mother now, at the age of fifty-eight, going to surprise Sheila and find love with someone after being divorced for the past eighteen years?

“Yes,” her mother said. “A man. I’d like you to meet him.”

“Ma,” Sheila said. “I’m speechless. Of course I’ll meet him. If he’s someone important to you, I’d love to meet him.”

“Thank you, lovey,” her mother said, and Sheila knew that she’d made her mother happy. “I think you’ll like him.”

“I’m sure I’ll like him, Mom, but I’m just happy if you like him.” What Sheila didn’t say was how, at that moment, it felt like a huge weight was being lifted from her.

“Well, no,” her mother said. “You have to like him, too. As much as I’m glad you trust my judgment in men, it’s you who will be going on the date with him.”

Ma,” Sheila said, and the weight resumed its old position across her shoulders.

Her mother made a guttural noise, though, a sound that meant she was not going to listen to anything Sheila said after the guttural noise reached completion.

“He’ll pick you up at seven o’clock tomorrow. Be ready to go to dinner. Don’t bring up witch stuff. No talking shop on a date. His name is Lyle.”

“Lyle?” Sheila said, as if the name seemed completely made-up—a fantasy novel sort of name, one of those books with a cover that features castle spires and portentous red moons covered in strands of cloud. One of those novels where people are called things like Roland, Aristial, Leandor, Jandari, or . . . Lyle.

“Lyle,” said her mother. Then the phone went dead. Sheila looked down at it for a while as if it were a gun that had accidentally gone off, leaving a bullet lodged in her stomach.

***

The bullet sat in Sheila’s stomach and festered for the rest of that night, and the feeling was not unfamiliar. Sheila’s mother had a habit of mugging her with unwanted surprises. Furniture that didn’t go with Sheila’s décor. Clothes that didn’t fit her. Blind dates with men named Lyle.

Her mother was a mugger. Always had been. So why was she still surprised whenever it happened, as if this were a sudden, unexpected event? By the next morning, Sheila had come up with several jokes about her mother the mugger that she would tell to the two clients who had appointments with her that afternoon.

“Mugger fucker,” Sheila mumbled as she brushed her hair in the bathroom mirror. “Mugger Goose. Holy Mugger of God. Mugger may I?”

Her first client was a regular named Mary, who was forty-three, had three children, and was married to a husband she’d fallen out of love with four years ago. Mary came every other month for a reboot of the spell that helped her love her husband a little longer. She’d tried counseling, she’d tried herbal remedies, she’d even tried Zumba (both individually and with several girlfriends as a group), but nothing seemed to work, and in desperation she’d found Sheila through a friend of a friend of a former client who Sheila had helped rekindle a relationship gone sour years ago, back when Sheila had first started to make her living by witching instead of working at the drugstore that had hired her while she was in college.

The knock came at exactly ten in the morning. Mary was never late and never early. Her sessions always lasted for exactly thirty minutes. Sheila was willing to go beyond that, but Mary said she felt that Sheila’s power faded a little more with every second past the thirty-minute mark. She still paid Sheila three hundred dollars for each session, and walked away a happy—or at least a happier—woman. She’d go home and, for five to six weeks, she’d love her husband. Sheila couldn’t work a permanent fix for Mary, because Mary had fallen so out of love with her husband that no spell could sustain it forever. Their relationship was an old, used-up car in constant need of repairs. Sheila was the mechanic.

When Sheila opened the door, Mary pushed in, already complaining loudly about her husband, Ted. Sheila had never met him, though she did have a lock of his hair in an envelope that stayed in her living room curio cabinet. Except on appointment days with Mary; on those days, Sheila would bring the hair out for the renewal ritual.

“I don’t know if I want the spell again,” Mary said. She hadn’t even looked at Sheila yet. She just sat down heavily on the living room couch and sighed. “I don’t know if I want to fix things any longer.”

“What else would you do?” Sheila asked, closing the door before coming over to sit in the chair across from Mary. “Divorce? Start over? You know you could do that, right?”

Mary clutched a small black beaded purse in her lap. She was a beautiful woman, long limbed, peach-skinned, with dark hair that fell to the small of her back like a curtain. She exercised, ate healthy, and didn’t drink too much alcohol—even when alcohol sounded like a good idea. She wore upper middle class clothes that weren’t particularly major designer labels but weren’t from a mall store, either.

“I don’t know,” Mary said, pushing a piece of her layered black hair away from her face. Sheila noticed that Mary had gotten a nose piercing in the time between their last appointment and this one. A tiny diamond stud glinted in the sunlight coming through the living room windows. “The children . . .” said Mary. Sheila nodded, and stood, then went to her curio cabinet and took out the envelope with the hank of Ted’s hair in it.

Sheila opened the envelope and placed the lock of hair on the coffee table between them. It was a thick brown curl that Mary had cut from Ted’s mop one night while he was asleep. When Mary had come to Sheila for help four years ago, Sheila had said, “I’ll need you to bring me something of his. Something you love about him. Otherwise, I’ll have nothing to work with.” Mary had said she didn’t love him anymore, so how could she bring Sheila anything? “Surely you must love something about him,” Sheila said, and Mary had nodded, her mouth a firm line, and said that, yes, she did love Ted’s hair. It was beautiful. Thick and curly. She loved to run her fingers through it, even after she’d stopped loving Ted.

Now Mary looked down at the lock of curled hair as if it were a dead mouse Sheila had set out in front of her. “You know the drill,” Sheila said, and together the two pinched an end of the hair and lifted it into the air above the coffee table.

Sheila closed her eyes and tried to feel Mary’s love come through the coil of hair. Like an electrical current, a slight hum flowed through it, but it was weaker than ever and Sheila worried that she wouldn’t be able to help Mary once this slight affection for Ted’s hair eventually disappeared. She took the lingering love in through her fingers anyway, whipped it like cream, semi-consciously chanting an incantation—or more like noises that helped her focus on the energy in the feeling than anything of significance—and after she’d turned Mary’s weak affection into a fluffy meringue-like substance, Sheila pushed it back through the hair, slowly but surely, until Mary was filled with a large, aerated love.

When Sheila opened her eyes, she noticed Mary’s face had lifted a little. The firm line of her mouth had softened and curled up at the edges, as if she wanted to smile but was perhaps just a little shy. “Thank you, Sheila,” said Mary, blinking sweetly on the couch. This was when Sheila went soft, too. Whenever a client like Mary, hardened by a deficiency of love, took on a shade of her former self—a youthful self who loved and was loved, who trusted in love to see her through—Sheila had to fight to hold back tears. Not because seeing the return of love made her happy—no, the pressure behind her eyes was more a force of sadness, because the person in front of her was under an illusion, and no illusion, thought Sheila, was pleasant. They were more like the narcotics those with chronic pain took to ease their days. This returned love would only be brief and temporary.

At the door, Mary took out three hundred-dollar bills. “Worth every penny,” she said, folding them into Sheila’s palm, meeting Sheila’s eyes and holding her stare.

When Sheila closed the door behind her, she turned and looked at the face of her cell phone. Thirty minutes had passed. On the dot.

***

Her next client was new: a good-looking young man who was a bit too earnest for only being a twenty-three-year-old recent college graduate. His name was Ben, and he had just acquired a decent job with an advertising company. He’d gotten a mortgage, purchased a house, and was ready to fill it with someone else and him together, the kids, the dogs, the cats: the works. Sheila could see all of this as he sat in front of her and told her that he wanted to find love. That was simple, really. No need to drum up love where love already fizzed and popped. He just needed someone to really see him. Someone who wanted the same things. He wasn’t the completely bland sort of guy that no one would notice, but he wasn’t emitting a strong signal either. Sheila did a quick invocation that would enhance Ben’s desire so that it would beam like a lighthouse toward ships looking for harbor.

She charged him a hundred dollars and told him that if he didn’t get engaged within a year, she’d give him his money back. Ben thanked her, and after she saw him out of the house, it was time for Sheila to sit in her living room and stare at the television, where the vague outline of her body was reflected in the blank screen.

Lyle would be coming to pick her up in several hours. Lyle, Lyle. She said his name a few times, but it was no good. She still couldn’t believe a man named Lyle was coming for her.

***

Sheila had tried to make the thing that made her different the most normal aspect of her life. Hence her business: Paranormal Romance. She had business cards and left them on the bulletin boards of grocery store entryways, in the fishbowls full of cards that sat on the register counters of some restaurants, and on the bars of every lowdown drink-your-blues-away kind of joint in the city of Cleveland, where people sometimes, while crying into a beer, would notice the card propped against the napkin holder in front of them and think about Sheila possibly being the solution to their loneliness, as the cards declared.

She had made herself as non-paranormal as possible, while at the same time living completely out in the open about being a witch, probably because of what her father had once told her, years ago, when she was just a little girl and even Sheila hadn’t known she had magic in her fingertips. “If I had to be some creepy weirdo like the vampires and werewolves or whatever the hell else is out there these days,” her father had said while watching a news report about the increasing appearance of paranormal creatures, “then I suppose a witch would be the way to go.”

The way to go. That’s what he’d said. As though there was a choice about being cursed or born with magic flowing through you. Vampire, werewolf. Whatever the hell else. The memory stuck with Sheila because of the way her father had talked as if it were one of those “If you had to” games.

If you had to lose a sense, which one?

If you had to live on a deserted island with only one book, which one?

It was only later, after Sheila felt magic welling up in her as a teenager, that she realized how upset he was when she accidentally revealed her abilities—a tactless spell she’d cast to bring him and her mother closer. Unfortunately, her father had noticed Sheila’s fingers weaving through the air as she attempted to surreptitiously cast the spell while her parents were watching television one evening. Her mother stuck by Sheila, but he filed for divorce and disappeared from their lives altogether.

Thus her business, Paranormal Romance, was born. She would make it work for her, Sheila decided in her late twenties. She would use this magic in a way that someone with good legs, flexibility, and balance might become a dancer or a yoga instructor.

This desire for normality also explained why Sheila wanted to kill her mother after she opened the door that evening to find a man dressed in a black leather jacket, tight blue jeans, a black v-neck shirt, and work boots, sporting a scraggly goatee, whose first words were, “Wow, you don’t look like a witch. That’s interesting.”

“Probably the least interesting thing about me,” said Sheila. She tried to restrain herself, but couldn’t refrain from arching her eyebrows as a cat might raise its back.

“I’m Lyle. Nice to meet you,” the somewhat ruggedly good-looking Lyle said.

“Charmed,” Sheila said, trying to sound like she meant it.

“No,” said Lyle, “that’s what you’re supposed to do to me, right?” He winked. Sheila’s smile felt frail, as if it might begin to splinter.

“How do you know I’m a witch,” Sheila asked, “when my mother specifically told me not to bring it up?”

“Don’t know why she told you that,” said Lyle. “First thing she mentioned to me was that’s what you are.”

“Great,” said Sheila. “And I know nothing about you to make it even, and here we are, standing in my doorway like we’re new neighbors instead of going somewhere.”

Lyle nodded his head in the direction of the staircase and said, “I got us a reservation at a great steakhouse downtown.”

Sheila smiled. It was a lip-only smile—no teeth—but she followed Lyle down the steps of her apartment to the front porch, where she found Gary dragging Snowman up the steps by his collar. The dog had its ridiculous grin plastered on as usual, but started to yap in the direction of Lyle as soon as he noticed him. Gary himself was grimacing with frustration. “What’s the matter?” Sheila asked.

“This guy,” said Gary. “When he ran off last night, he really ran off. Someone on the neighborhood Facebook group messaged me to say she had him penned in her backyard. Three blocks from here. You’re a bad dog, Snowman. A bad dog, you hear?”

Snowman was barking like crazy now, twisting around Gary’s legs. He looked up at Lyle and for the first time in Sheila’s experience, the dog did not look like it was smiling, but was baring its teeth.

“Woof!” said Lyle, and Snowman began to whimper.

“Well, it’s a good thing she was able to corral him,” Sheila said, even as she attempted to telepathically communicate with Gary: Did this guy just woof? “I’ve never gotten along with dogs, so he’d have probably run away from me if I were the one to find him.”

“Oh, really?” Lyle raised his brows, as if Sheila had suddenly taken off a mask and revealed herself to be an alien with tentacles wriggling, Medusa-like, out of her head. “You don’t like dogs?”

“And dogs,” Sheila said, “don’t like me.”

“I can’t believe that,” said Lyle, shaking his head and wincing.

Sheila shrugged and said, “That’s just the way things are, I guess.”

“Who are you again?” Gary asked, looking at Lyle with narrowed eyes, as if he’d put Lyle under a microscope.

Sheila apologized for not introducing them. “This is my date,” she said, trying to signal to Gary that it was also the last date by rolling her eyes as she turned away from Lyle.

“A date?” Gary said, clapping one hand over his mouth as he said it. “Sheila is going on a date?”

“That’s right,” said Lyle. He nodded curtly. “And we should probably get started. Come on,” he said, pointing toward his car parked against the curb. Sheila inwardly groaned when she saw that it was one of those muscle cars macho guys collect, like they’re still little boys with Matchbox vehicles. “Let’s go get some grub,” Lyle said, patting his stomach.

Grub?” Gary whispered as Lyle and Sheila went past him, and Sheila could only look over her shoulder with a Help Me! look painfully stretched across her face.

***

The steakhouse Lyle took her to was one of those places where people crack peanuts open, dislodge the nut, and discard the shells on the floor. The lighting was dim, but the room was permeated with the glow from a variety of neon beer signs that hung on every wall like a collection in an art gallery. Lyle said it was his favorite place to dine.

He said it like that too, Sheila could already hear herself saying later as she recounted the evening to Trent and Gary. He said, “It’s my favorite place to dine.” Can you believe it? What was my mother thinking?

“Oh, really,” Sheila said. The server had just brought her a vodka martini with a slice of lemon dangling over the rim. Sheila looked up at her briefly to say thank you, and noticed immediately that the server—a young woman with long mahogany hair and caramel-colored skin—was a witch. The employee tag on the server’s shirt said her name was Corrine; she winked as Sheila grasped after her words. “Thank you,” Sheila managed to say without making the moment of recognition awkward. She took a sip, licked her lips, then turned back to Lyle as the server walked away, and said, “What were you saying?”

“‘This is my favorite place to dine,’ I said. I come here a couple of times a week,” said Lyle. “Best steaks in town.”

Sheila said, “I don’t eat meat.”

To which Lyle’s face dropped like a hot air balloon that had lost all of its hot air. “Your mother didn’t tell me that,” said Lyle.

“No,” said Sheila, “but for some reason she did tell you that I’m a witch, even after she forbade me from speaking of it. Clearly the woman can’t be trusted.”

“Clearly,” Lyle agreed, which actually scored him a tiny little point for the first time that evening. There it was in Sheila’s mind’s eye, a little scoreboard. Lyle: 1. Sheila: Anxious.

He apologized profusely, in a rough-around-the-edges way that seemed to be who he was down to his core. He wasn’t really Sheila’s type, not that Sheila had a specific type, but he wasn’t the sort of guy she’d ever gone out on a date with before, either. Her mother would have known that too. Sheila’s mother had always wanted to know what was going on, back when Sheila actually dated. When Myspace and Facebook came around, and her mother began commenting on photos Sheila had posted from some of her date nights with statements like, “He’s a hottie!” and “Now that’s a keeper!” Sheila had had to block her mother. And only weeks later she discovered that on her mother’s own social networking walls, her mother was publicly bemoaning the fact that her daughter had blocked her.

But really, her mother would have known that Lyle wasn’t her sort of guy. “So what gives?” she finally asked, after Lyle had finished a tall beer and she’d gotten close to the bottom of her martini. “How do you know my mother? Why would she think we’d make a good pair?”

“I’m her butcher.”

Sheila almost spat out the vodka swirling in her mouth, but managed to swallow before saying, “Her butcher? Really? I didn’t know my mother had a butcher.”

“She comes to the West Side Market every Saturday,” said Lyle. “I work at Doreen’s Meats. Your mother always buys her meat for the week there. As for why would she think we’d make a good pair? I don’t know.” Lyle shrugged and held his palms up in the air. “I guess maybe she thought we’d get along because of what we have in common.”

Sheila snorted, then raised her hand to signal Corrine back over. “I’d like another martini,” she said, and smiled in the way some people do when they need to smother an uncivil reaction: lips firmly held together. She turned back to Lyle, who was cracking another peanut shell between his thick, hairy fingers, and said, “So what do we have in common, besides my mother?”

“I’m a werewolf,” said Lyle. Then he flicked the peanut off his thumb and snatched it out of the air, midflight, in his mouth.

Sheila watched as Lyle crunched the peanut, and noticed only after he’d swallowed and smiled across the table at her that he had a particularly large set of canines. “You’re kidding,” said Sheila. “Ha ha, very funny. You might as well start telling witch jokes at this point.”

“Not kidding,” said Lyle. Corrine stopped at their table, halting the conversation as she placed another tall beer in front of Lyle, another martini in front of Sheila, and asked what they’d like to order.

“I think we’re just here to drink tonight,” said Lyle, not taking his eyes off Sheila.

Sheila nodded vigorously at Corrine, though, agreeing. And after she left, Sheila said, “Well, this is a new achievement for my mother. Set her daughter up with a werewolf.”

“What? You don’t like werewolves?” Lyle asked. One corner of his mouth lifted into a 1970s drug dealer grin.

Sheila blinked a lot for a while, took another sip of her martini, then shrugged. “It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, you know,” she said. “I mean, werewolves aren’t generally on my radar. I get a lot of people who come around with minor psychic powers, and they’re attracted to me because they can sense I’m something out of the ordinary but can’t quite place what exactly, and of course I know a decent amount of witches—we can spot each other on the street without knowing one another, really—but werewolves are generally outside of my experience. Especially my dating experience.”

“From what I understand, your dating experience has been pretty non-existent in general.”

Sheila decided it was time to take yet another drink. After swallowing a large gulp of vodka, she said, “My mother has a big mouth for someone who hasn’t gotten back in the saddle since my father left her nearly two decades ago. And you can tell her I said that next time she comes in to stock up on meat.”

Lyle laughed. It was a full, throaty laugh that made heads turn in the steakhouse. When he realized this, he reined himself in, but Sheila could see that the laugh—the sheer volume of it when he’d let himself go—was beyond ordinary. It bordered on the wild. She could imagine him as a wolf in that moment, howling at a blood red moon.

“So what is it? Once a month you get hairy and run around the city killing people?” Sheila asked.

Lyle leaned back on his side of the booth and said, “Are you serious?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Sheila. “I hear it’s quite difficult to control bloodlust in times like that.”

“I make arrangements for those times,” said Lyle.

“Arrangements, huh,” said Sheila. “What sort of arrangements?”

“I rent an underground garage, have it filled with plenty of raw steaks, and get locked in for the night.”

“That’s responsible of you,” said Sheila.

“What about you?” Lyle asked. “Any inclinations to doing evil? Casting hexes?”

“No bloodlust for witches,” said Sheila, “and I gave up the vicious cycle of curse drama in college. Not worth it. That shit comes back on you sevenfold.”

Lyle snickered. He ran his thumb and forefinger over his scraggly goatee, then took another drink of beer. “Looks like we’re a pair,” he said, “just like your mother imagined.”

“Why?” Sheila asked. “Because you put yourself in a werewolf kennel on full moon nights and I don’t dabble in wreaking havoc in other people’s lives?”

Lyle nodded, his lips rising into a grin that revealed his pointy, slightly yellowed canines.

“I hardly think that constitutes being a pair,” said Sheila. “We certainly have that in common, but it’s a bit like saying we should start dating because we’re both single and living in Cleveland.”

“Why are you so single?” Lyle asked. His nostrils flared several times.

Oh my God, he is totally sniffing me! “I need to use the ladies’ room,” she said.

***

In the restroom, Sheila leaned against the counter and stared at herself in the mirror. She was wearing a short black dress and had hung her favorite opal earrings on her earlobes. They glowed in the strange orange neon beer-sign light of the restroom. She shouldn’t have answered when he knocked. She should have kept things in order. Weekend BBQs with Trent and Gary, even with the obnoxious Snowman running between their legs and wanting to jump on her and lick her. Working a few hours a day with clients, helping them to love or be loved, to find love. Evening runs in the park. Grocery shopping on Wednesdays. That’s what she wanted, not a werewolf butcher/lover her mother had found in the West Side Market.

The last time Sheila dated someone had been slightly less than underwhelming. He’d been an utterly normal man named Paul who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland downtown, and he talked endlessly of bank capitalization and exchange-traded funds. Sheila had tried to love him, but it was as if all the bank talk was more powerful than any spell she might cast on herself, and so she’d had to add Paul to her long list of previous candidates for love.

There had been Jim, a guy who owned a car dealership in Lakewood, but he always came off as a salesman, and Sheila wasn’t the consumer type. There had been Alexis, a law student at Case Western, but despite her girlish good looks and intelligence, Alexis had worried about Sheila’s under-the-table Paranormal Romance business—concerned that she was possibly defrauding the government of taxable income. There had been Mark, the CPA (say no more). There had been Lola, the karaoke DJ (say no more). And there had been a string of potentials before that, too, once Sheila began sorting through the memories of her twenties, a long line of cute young men and women whose faces faded a little more each day. She had tried—she had tried so hard—hoping one of them would take the weight of her existence and toss it into the air like a beach ball. The love line went back and back and back, so far back, but none of those boys or girls had been able to do this. None of them.

Except Trent and Gary, of course. Not that they were romance for Sheila. But they did love her. They cared about her. They didn’t make her feel like she had to be anyone but who she wanted to be, even if who Sheila wanted to be wasn’t entirely who Sheila was.

Sheila washed her hands under the faucet and dried them with the air dryer, appreciating the whir of the fan drowning out the voice in her head. She would walk out on Lyle, she decided. She’d go home and call her mother and tell her, “Never again,” then hang up on her. She would sit in front of the blank television screen, watching her shadowy reflection held within it, and maybe she would let herself cry, just a little bit, for being a love witch who couldn’t make love happen for herself.

“Are you okay?” a voice said over the whir of the hand dryer. Sheila blinked and turned. Behind her, Corrine the server was coming out of a stall. She came to stand beside Sheila at the sinks and quickly washed her hands.

“You’re a witch,” Sheila said stupidly, and realized at that moment that two martinis were too many for her.

Corrine laughed, but nodded and said, “Yes. I am. So are you.” Corrine reached for the paper towel to dry her hands, since Sheila was spellbound in front of the electric dryer. “What kind?” she asked Sheila as she wiped her hands.

“Love,” said Sheila.

“Love?” said Corrine, raising her thin eyebrows. “That’s pretty fancy.”

“It’s okay,” said Sheila.

“Just okay?” said Corrine. “I don’t know. Sounds nice to be able to do something like that with it. Me? I can’t do much but weird things.”

“What do you mean?” Sheila asked.

“You know,” said Corrine. “Odds and ends. Nothing so defined as love. Bad end of the magic stick, maybe. I can smell fear on people, or danger. And I can open doors. But that’s about it.”

“Open doors?” said Sheila.

“Yeah,” said Corrine. “Doors. I guess it does make a kind of sense when I think about it long enough. I smell danger coming, I can get out of just about anywhere if I want to. Open a door. Any old door. It might look like it leads into a broom closet or an office, but I can make it open onto other places I’ve been, or have at least seen in a picture.”

“Wow,” said Sheila. “You should totally be a cat burglar.”

Corrine laughed. Sheila laughed with her. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I said that.”

“It’s okay,” Corrine said. “It was funny. I think you said it because it was funny.”

“I guess I better get back out there,” said Sheila.

“Date?” said Corrine.

“Blind date,” Sheila answered. “Bad date. Last date.”

Corrine frowned in sympathy. “I knew it wasn’t going well.”

“How?” Sheila asked.

“I could smell it on you. Not quite fear, but anxiety and frustration. I figured that’s why you asked for the second martini. That guy comes in a lot. He seems okay, but yeah, I couldn’t imagine why you were here with him.”

Sheila looked down at her hands, which were twitching a little, as if her fingers had minds of their own. They were twitching in Corrine’s direction, like they wanted to go to her. Sheila laughed. Her poor fingers. All of that love magic stored up inside them and nowhere to go.

“You need help?” Corrine asked suddenly. She had just taken off her name badge and was now fluffing her hair in the mirror.

“Help?” said Sheila.

Corrine looked over and said, “If you want out, we can just go. You don’t even have to say goodbye to him. My shift’s over. A friend of mine will be closing out your table. We can leave by the bathroom door.”

Sheila laughed. Her fingers twitched again. She took one hand and clamped it over the other.

“What are you afraid of?” Corrine asked. Her eyes had started to narrow. “I’m getting a sense that you’re afraid of me now.”

“You?” Sheila said. “No, no, not you.”

“Well, you’re giving off the vibe,” said Corrine. She dropped her name badge into her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, applied some to her lips so that they were a shade of dark ruby. When she was done, she slipped the tube into her purse and turned to Sheila. “What’s wrong with your hands?” she asked.

Sheila was still fidgeting. “I think,” she said. “I think they like you.”

Corrine threw her head back and laughed. “Like?” she said, grinning. “That’s sweet of them. You can tell your hands I like them too.”

Sheila said, “I’m so sorry. This is embarrassing. I’m usually not such a weirdo.” For a moment, Sheila heard her father’s voice come through—Creepy weirdoes. Whatever the hell else is out there—and she shivered.

“You’re not weird,” said Corrine. “Just flustered. It happens.”

It happens. Sheila blinked and blinked again. Actually, it didn’t happen. Not for her. Her fingers only twitched like this when she was working magic for other people. Anytime she had tried to work magic for herself, they were still and cold, as if she had bad circulation. “No,” Sheila said. “It doesn’t usually happen. Not for me. This is strange.”

“Listen,” said Corrine. “You seem interesting. I’m off shift and you have a bad blind date happening. I’m about to leave by that door and go somewhere I know that has good music and way better food than this place. And it’s friendly to people like you and me. What do you say?”

Sheila thought of her plans for the rest of the evening in a blinding flash.

Awkward moment before she ditched Lyle.

Awkward and angry moment on the phone while she told her mother off.

The vague reflection of her body held in the screen of the television as she allowed herself to cry a little.

Then she looked up at Corrine, who was pulling on a zippered hoody, and said, “I say yes.”

“Yes?” Corrine said, smiling.

“Yes,” said Sheila. “Yes, let’s go there, wherever it is you’re going.”

Corrine held her hand out, and Sheila looked down at her own hands again, clamped together as if in prayer, holding each other back from the world. “You can let one of them go,” Corrine said, grinning. “Otherwise, I can’t take you with me.”

Sheila laughed nervously and nodded. She released her hands from one another and cautiously put one into the palm of Corrine’s hand, where it settled in smoothly and turned warm in an instant. “This way,” Corrine said, and put her other hand on the bathroom doorknob, twisted, then opened it.

For a moment, Sheila could see nothing but a bright light fill the space of the doorway—no Lyle or the sounds of rock and roll music spilled in from the dining area—and she worried that she’d made a mistake, not being able to see where she was going with this woman who was a complete stranger. Then Corrine looked back at her and said, “Don’t be afraid,” and Sheila heard the sound of jazz music suddenly float toward her, a soft saxophone, a piano melody, though the doorway was still filled with white light she couldn’t see through.

“I’m not,” said Sheila suddenly, and was surprised to realize that she truly wasn’t.

Corrine winked at her the way she had done at the table, as if they shared a secret, which, of course, they did. Then she tugged on Sheila’s hand and they stepped through the white light into somewhere different.

© 2013 by Christopher Barzak.

Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel, One for Sorrow. His second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and Tiptree Awards. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, including Asimov’s Science FictionRealms of Fantasy, Strange HorizonsLady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletThe Year’s Best Fantasy and HorrorThe Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English in suburban and rural communities outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His most recent book is Wonders of the Invisible World. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.