I woke in the night to the strange chatter-language of crows in the trees outside my window. They are not a good omen, crows. I was raised knowing this, and as much as my logical mind objects to my grandmother's superstitions, I still feel them in my bones. I shudder, roll over, and tug a pillow on top of my head. This is the result of too many late shifts at the bar, followed by long hours studying criminal law, I reason.
A man who lives solely on Mexican food, cigarettes, coffee, and too much bourbon is likely to get some strange ideas in the middle of the night. I feel it again, a nasty little zing running down my spine. Even through the fabric pressed to my ears, the wind in the leaves sounds unpleasantly like voices. I hate creepy shit like that, more so because it takes so much energy to pretend it isn't happening. I will whatever has focused its energy in my direction to turn away.
Go away, go away, go away.
Something cool brushes my arm, soft and wispy like an insect; the paper wings of a moth or the creeping tendrils of a daddy long-legs. I sit up bleary eyed and "Ohmygodshit! Jesus Christ, Athena." I jerk back involuntarily, my heart thudding in my chest. "You scared the hell out of me, asshole," I snarl at my twin.
I call her by her full name because that's who she is now. There hasn't been a Jack and Tina in a long ass time. If we mirror each other in appearance, same black hair, olive skin and brown eyes, that is where the similarities end.
Raised by our Cretan grandmother, with her thick Greek accent and peculiar habits, I am the only one in our little family who wants to be normal. You see, old yaya was a witch, and while Athena has been all too happy to go into the family business, I saw enough strange stuff growing up to know that I don't really have a taste for strangeness.
"What are you doing here in the middle of the night?" I ask at last, shaking the sleep from my brain. There is an unfamiliar smell hanging in the air, thick and caustic like burning rubber. My twin gives no reply.
"Okay. What crazy thing have you done now?" I mumble, scrubbing my hands over my eyes. "And what are you doing in San Francisco anyway? Fuck. Do you have any idea what time it is?"
"Oh Jax." Her voice shimmers. I can't think of another word for its strange and ethereal quality but shimmery. "I'm dead. Please, Jax, don't let him find it."
Then she's gone like the first scene in Hamlet or something, leaving me sitting there wondering if it had all been a dream. By morning—and a few terrible phone calls later—I have a broken heart and a life that will never be normal again.
ONE YEAR LATER
It is the hottest day in San Francisco that I can remember and it's barely June. It is the kind of sticky, wet pit, smothering heat that boils blood and spikes crime rates. We're more of the "coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" types around here and the city is collectively miserable, irritable and losing its goddamn mind. "Hey, earth to Jack, are you listening to a word I'm saying?" Poppy asks me.
"Huh?" We are working the evening shift at the bar. It's slow for a Friday night, but that may have something to do with the fact that we've only got one working fan and an air quality to the joint that's usually associated with a turkish bath.
"Wow. I think your brain is boiling or something." I like working with this lady because she knows what she's doing behind the bar, never bitches about the job, and there is no filter between her brain and her mouth.
"Yeah maybe. It's been a long fucking week. What'd you say?"
Poppy gives an indelicate snort and brushes her dark Bettie Page bangs to the side. They stick to her skin in little clumps. She's a curvy girl with a fair amount of tattoos and an attitude to go with them. "I said they're screening all two hundred and thirty episodes of the Bachelor at the Castro on Wednesday. Rachel has work. You wanna be my plus one?"
"You…what?" I stare.
"No. Just kidding. I said you should take your fifteen and go smoke while we're slow."
I lean against the building, the side with Dirty Thieves hand-painted in block lettering across it. The night air smells of honeysuckle, fastfood and melting plastic—and I know by now that I'm the only one who can smell that last thing, that little olfactory warning that things are about to get extra annoying. Resigned to whatever fucked up encounter fate has in store for me today, I hit the pack of American Spirits against my palm. The fingers of my left hand instinctively go to the jumble of protective charms I keep on my keychain, rattling them nervously. I count backwards ten…nine…eight
"Can I bum a cigarette?"
Bingo. The burning smell erupts into a robust wave at the sudden closeness of a guy with a dirty mohawk standing next to me. He has a body like a young Henry Rollins: medium height, but broad as fuck. The hole-ridden Clash t-shirt he's wearing is strained tightly across his chest as he invades my personal space. He's also wearing smudgy eyeliner and a whole lot of attitude.
I blink at him as Iggy's I Wanna Be Your Dog is plays on the jukebox, rolling out into the street with a jangling, whining hunger. "Umm…" I hesitate, my brow furrowing. His tongue darts lazily over a full bottom lip, pausing at the ring piercing the left side. Gross.
"Are you going to give me one of those or just stare?" he asks. His voice is a whisper, paced out slowly like we are sharing a secret. And maybe that's how it is because it suddenly occurs to me that he must be a—well I don't really actually know what the hell he is—a guy who smells like magic and stuff.
"Okay," I say, "but look, then you have to go. I work here, and I don't need any more super-shit happening in front of the customers. It's been a really dumb week already." I'm pleased, and more than a little surprised, by the dismissive tone in my voice, fast and unfriendly.
"Uh supershit? Am I missing something?" The guy raises an eyebrow, letting a hand rest on the wall next to my head. He has dirty nails with chipped purple polish. I shift uncomfortably.
"Supernatural." I shrug, hoping the flush to my face can be reasonably blamed on the heat. "I can smell it rolling off of you. It's quite, um, pungent."
"That's a little rude, don't you think?" His grin is broad and horribly toothy. "For example, you smell downright fuckable, but I was going to keep that to myself because I'm a gentleman."
"Uh yeah, look knock-off Johnny Rotten," I snap, "if I give you a Goddamn cigarette—oh hell the whole pack, whatever—will you please just go away?"
"Hmmm…" The stranger leans in as I retract against the wall as far as humanly possible. I can hear him breathing in deeply, almost sniffing, hovering somewhere near my left ear. "You know you're awful mouthy for someone in your position. God, I want to make you squeak so badly. Yum."
"What? Christ!" I chant the only protection spell I can remember from my childhood, soft and pitiful, with my eyes squeezed shut. My tough guy routine is totally shot to shit. I'll admit it freely.
"Stop that. You're embarrassing yourself. What's your deal anyway? You practically send me an invitation with curly handwriting and hearts, you're outside smoking and waiting around, and now you want me to just fuck off? What's wrong? I'm not your type?"
"Are you insane or something?" I am privately mortified by the pitch of my voice.
"No, knock-off Harry Potter, but I am exceptionally impatient."
I meet his eyes. "I'm just on my smoke break," I explain reasonably. "No invitation for you or anybody else, I swear."
"Okay. Look here, HP." He sighs. "A word of advice? Rein in the psychic angstyness. You're like a whole high school poetry club put together. Pure catnip. You, I mean, not high school poetry."
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Okay, fine." He seems really annoyed now. "You want to play rough? This is for your own good. How much money do you have?" He scowls at my indignant expression. "On you, how much?"
"I don't know, thirty, thirty-five bucks."
"Give it to me." He considered for a moment. "And your cigarettes."
"What?" I look around wildly. How was no one seeing this? "You're mugging me? Seriously?"
"No, I'm super mugging you. I can. I am." He leans forward, teeth bared in a snarl and, yeah, it scares me a little. "Unless you want to work something out? God, you smell really fucking good."
"Okay! Jesus, just relax." I fumbled with my wallet, looking from side to side at the useless group of bar patrons actively ignoring the situation.
The man pockets the crumpled bills. "Next time, it will cost you more," he tells me.
"But that's all I've got."
"I'm leaving you with plenty. Now get yourself sorted or next time I won't be so sweet to you." He reaches out and ruffled my hair before turning and sauntering away, like a bulldog with questionable fashion sense.
I sigh and, with my hand shaking slightly, finish my cigarette. Fuck me, but it has been an exceptionally hellish year, both confusing and miserable. Something strange had settled over my life after my sister's death, a kind of unluckiness. That man had called it psychic angst. I stub out the butt of my cigarette and scrub hands over my face. Something is terribly, horribly wrong.
Milk curdles within a day of being bought, and light bulbs keep going out all over the apartment, blinking out sometimes only hours after I've changed them. My vinyl records obtain mysterious scratches, important papers go missing, and my credit card has become demagnetized so many times I've given up replacing it.
Sometimes, I wake to the sound of tapping on the windows and Athena's shape moving across the floor. I see her in mirrors, mouth moving frantically but silent. Strange shadows dart just out of my direct line of eyesight. I see the dead people sometimes, sullen ghosts moving through the world like smoke. Crows gather wherever I go, speaking in their weird bird language and watching me with black eyes.
Then one day something slimy and tentacled reached out of the bathroom sink as I was brushing my teeth. I dispatched it using the towel rack and a bottle of drano, my chest heaving so hard from the exertion I wondered for a moment if I might pass out. I knew that was pretty weird. But a guy, an actual physical dude threatening me, this was a whole new level, an alarming escalation that I was going to have to confront.
I might have tattoos, a job at a dive bar, and a family tree full of witches, but at my core I'm a great lover of systems, logic and well-reasoned arguments. It was this drive for order that had me getting my degree at UC Berkeley School of Law, in fact. That currently includes a 40-hour a week summer internship at the ACLU where I spend most of my waking hours doing legal research, drafting court papers and attending appellate arguments, trial proceedings and depositions. In my defense, I'd been ignoring some pretty alarming shit in my personal life, because I don't really have time for a personal life right now.
The world can be a really fucked up place, but I am the kind of person who rolls up his sleeves and does something about it. So it is with the stubborn determination normally reserved for civil liberties and constitutional law that I try to puzzle out what is happening to me.
After a brief survey of the main stacks of the Berkeley library, I end up trudging across campus to the small library the Folklore department shares with Anthropology. My family has kept a book of practical magic for generations. It was something my grandmother referenced almost daily and added to occasionally, like a favorite cookbook. I had liked it as a kid because it was mostly written in Greek, and the letters were enticingly foreign. Athena and I had passed many rainy afternoons trying to read it to each other in our clumsy American accents.
Christ, what had happened to that thing anyway? For obvious reasons Athena had inherited the manuscript after our Grandmother's death, but come to think of it I don't remember seeing the book when I cleared out her apartment. Without the personalized manual I would just have to muddle through some more general texts. I, however, opt to keep my files on my laptop.
I start with a translation of the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of Greco-Roman Egyptian texts from around the second century BC. Feeling unspeakably self-conscious, I type up a few archaic spells that seem worth trying before adding Alan Dunde's Evil eye: A Casebook and Edward Dodwell's A Classical and Topographical Tour of Greece to the stack.
Both seemed good for collecting modern "folk" practices, that may or may not be a little bit of real magic. The Anthropology library closes at five so I check out anything else I think might be helpful and carry my things to the coffee shop across the street. I order a large coffee and pour an obscene amount of sugar into it. It's going to be a very long night.
If you take a glass of holy water and drop olive oil into it, it should float. If, however, you are cursed by the evil eye it will sink. I watch the viscous greenish-gold liquid fall like the oil in a lava lamp and sigh. Yeah okay, disappointing, but not all that surprising really.
Following family tradition, I put small potted cacti and dishes of salt by the front door of the apartment—the equivalent of a negative energy air filter— and then fish out my sister's small silver cross to put around my neck. I sleep with a piece of bread under my pillow and start burning sage incense. I put garlic in the windows, wear a silver belt buckle and carry basil in my pocket, but that oil keeps dropping like the New Year's ball in Times Square. Whatever is going with me, it's going to take more than a few lucky charms to fix it.
After a day at the ACLU office, I run by Rainbow Grocery to pick up a few things. I have a bar shift later so I have to hurry if I want to take a shower and change before work. It is still hot, and I've already peeled down to a sleeveless undershirt. As a general rule, San Francisco doesn't believe in air conditioning, but that doesn't make it right. I'm scrutinizing the bulk bins of dried fruit and nuts when it happens, that feeling of being watched flutters sickeningly through my stomach. Yep. There it is, burnt plastic. I take a deep, world weary sigh.
"Hey Potter," a voice says conversationally. "You may not remember me, but we met out at a bar the other night."
I swing around, my eyes narrowing. The guy is wearing a skintight Che Guevara shirt, like he's beaten up a much smaller college student for it. So tight, in fact, I can see the outlines of nipple piercings through the thin, overstretched fabric.
I glare. "What are you doing here?" I demand.
"Same thing as you, I suspect."
"What? Spending my money? You're following me."
"Heh. Well, you do smell pretty yummy. It's kind of hard to miss." The guy holds my gaze as he turns the contents of his basket into my cart. He has unnervingly blue eyes. "I need to get a few more things so hang on a second before you check out."
I look down and make an expression of disgust at the boxes of vegetarian corn dogs and condoms now covering my groceries.
The bastard just smirks. "I can use those on you later if you want." He pauses, studying my face. "Don't look so freaked out. I didn't mean the corndogs. Hang on. I've got to get some beer. You didn't drive by any chance? That shit gets heavy fast."
"I took the bus."
"Figures. I'll go easy on the beer then, I guess."
"Why are you doing this?" I try to keep my voice even and calm. "What did I ever do to you?"
The man, who has turned on his heel—presumably to get beer—closes the gap between us, purposely intimidating me with his size. He smells like magic, mixed with something richer, a masculine scent of cloves and pine.
"What do you expect me to do?" His voice is a soft growl. "I've already warned you once. It's pretty clear you haven't taken my advice on the matter, HP."
"Stop calling me that. I have a name. It's Jack. And I'm not doing anything. These things are happening to me. If you can tell me how to make it stop…"
"Oh hell no. I'm not your damn babysitter." He turns and stalks towards the beer isle, but I follow.
"Hey!" I yell watching him put a case of PBR into the cart. He looks up, one eyebrow raised inquisitively.
"So what am I?" I ask, "like cursed or something? You told me to get my psychic angstyness under control, whatever the hell that means. Is that what all those things are attracted to?"
"I don't know. To what things are you referring?" He says "things" like the word is insulting, mumbling under his breath as he takes the cart and pushes it towards the front of the store, leaving me little choice but to trot behind him.
"I'm sorry I don't know the politically correct term. Look asshole, my condition…I know it's not good and it scares the shit out of me."
"It should," He says with a shrug then lights a cigarette in the grocery line. "San Francisco is going to hell in a handbasket, man. Welcome to the party."
"You can't smoke in here."
"Do you see anyone stopping me?" It's true. No one even looks in our direction. "You pay. It will be faster than me trying to get that dude's attention."
"I have rent you know. I'm not your fucking bottomless ATM."
He gives me a nasty smirk. "Heh. You're my some kind of bottom anyway. I think you'll do whatever the fuck I tell you to. Maybe I should heat up a few corndogs before we go though. You're getting kind of cranky."
"What are you doing? Trying to start a goddamn Planned Parenthood? Those things are expensive," I grumble in the parking lot as I begrudgingly take a corndog. I'd paid for it hadn't I?
He drops what is left of his smoke and stubs it out with his foot. "Why don't you see how much of this you can fit in your mouth at once? I'll watch."
"Totally a possibility. I'm not going to lie. I really like your tattoos. I was going to pick a favorite, but I've decided to wait until I've seen them all." He leers. I glare.
"Yeah, I work at a bar," I sayl. "You're not the first genus to come up with that line. What's your name anyway?"
"Eli." I watch him as he makes short work of his own corndog.
"Ok, great. Well Eli, I'm going home now. Hopefully I can make it without dying or something." I gather up my bags.
"I hope you're not asking for my protection because I don't do that sort of shit."
"Christ no. That would be a bit like asking the fox to guard the hen house, don't you think?"
Eli laughs. "Sorry." He lights two cigarettes in his mouth at once and hands one to me. I take it with a frown. "You're a weird one, man. Normally people who notice me want my hmm…attention. They come sniffing around looking for it. Shit this city has some major freaks. Oh man, and do I have the scars to prove it. Just the other day I met this chick at a strip club and…"
"That's okay, I believe you." I say quickly. "I'd argue you noticed me first though."
"Look, I gotta go. I have work and thanks to you I'm broke."
"At that bar? You'd better run along then little red riding hood." He shoots me another of his toothy grins. "Don't talk to any strangers on your way to grandmother's house. It's a scary world out there and you're small enough to eat in one bite. You're a goddamn fun size snickers."
"Yeah, uh, thanks Eli," I say and don't really mean, "I'll be seeing you I guess."