Saturday, April 13, 2013

Magic All Around: Chapter One

 


Thank you for stopping by my blog!  Here is the entire first chapter of my fantasy novel, Magic All Around.
Magic All Around, and the sequel Magic Within, are available in paperback and e-book versions through Amazon. My short memoir, Head Buckets & Hashtags, is available in ebook, and my collection of very short fiction, A Flash Of Genies, will be available later this month (May, 2015).




Some Things Shift

***

Juneau, Alaska.  It’s my home.  It’s the place I was born and raised, the place I choose to live; but that’s not what I’m telling you. 

Some things shift.  Even words can shift.  At first, you think they convey simple concepts; ideas that everyone can agree on.  Once you start to think about a shifty word, though, it begins to wiggle and change shape.  Pretty soon, you realize the word doesn’t mean what you thought it did.  Or, it means six additional things.

Home is a shifty word.  I used to think that it meant the house someone lives in, or where someone sleeps at night. 

Reverse it, however, and you’ll see things in a different way.  Try it.  Homeless.  See how slippery it gets?  How difficult to pin down?  Are you homeless if you don’t live in a house?  I know plenty of people, right here in Juneau, who live in trailers, campers, and boats.  Are they homeless?  What about people who sleep in tents, caves, or cardboard boxes?  Are they homeless? 

That first morning, as I shivered in the cold March drizzle, standing on a stranger’s porch, I was not homeless.  I was right here in Juneau.  Juneau is my home.  Nor was I without a place to sleep.  I’d been sleeping in my car for two weeks. 

What was I, then?  Kitchen-less.  Shower-less.  Hot and cold running water-less.  Bathtub-less.  Toilet-less.  These were the absences that troubled me.  That is why I stood in the rain, behind Penny, playing along with her half-cooked plan to get me into an apartment I couldn’t afford. 


Chapter One

***

Our universe is a giant stew of magic.

—Penny Sweeney



I stood on a stranger's porch and shivered in the cold March drizzle.  My winter coat hung over the back of a chair at Penny and Roanan’s house, less than a block away and I knew that my decision to leave it there for this short outing was a classic example of seasonal denial.  Seasonal denial is common among Alaskans, particularly during times when other states (like Washington and Oregon) are experiencing warmer temperatures and sunshine. 

I shivered again and wrapped my arms across my chest.  Seattle might be experiencing temperatures in the low to mid 50’s with partly sunny skies and blooming daffodils, but Juneau was not.  Today, the expected high was 37 degrees and I hadn’t seen blue sky since the cold snap last month when temperatures were in the teens.  I love Juneau, but sometimes I wish spring would come a few weeks earlier.

Penny rang the doorbell and I heard a raucous explosion of barking, then a man’s deep voice, from within the house.  I grimaced.  Having a neighboring landlord with a dog would not be ideal for me.  A dog bit me when I was four.  I still have nightmares about it; visions of gleaming white fangs snapping at my face.  The bite wasn’t serious, only a nip really.  One tooth broke the surface of my skin alongside my nose.  I didn’t need stitches and I don’t even have a scar to show for it.  Nonetheless, I’ve been cautious of dogs ever since.

The first thing I noticed when the door opened was that there wasn’t one, but three big dogs.  Luckily for me, they all seemed intent on the man in the doorway, or more accurately, on the small blue can of Vienna Sausages he held in one hand.  I focused on his face, trying to ignore the dogs.  It was a nice face and had a warm, lived-in look to it.  I liked the crinkling smile lines bracketing green eyes.  Did you know you can learn a lot about a person by how they wear their face?  It gets easier the older people grow; their most frequent expressions carve tracks across their skin the way generations of animals beat down a game path through the forest.

Penny snatched the canned sausages away from the guy in the doorway and I lowered my gaze.  Sometimes I stare at people and I didn’t want to do that today.  I needed to make a good first impression.

“This is the perfect example of what I’ve been talking about.  You are the worst bachelor I’ve ever seen and you’ll die of malnutrition if you keep up like this.  How can you eat this garbage for breakfast?  And cold from a can, no less.”  I didn’t have to look at the man to know that Penny’s outrage delighted him.  He laughed.  He had a deep voice, a resonant chuckle.

Penny is about a decade older than my mom, and she’s a classic Earth Mother with an emphasis on mother.  She and her husband, Roanan, never had kids of their own but about half the population of Juneau thinks of them as surrogate parents.  At twenty-seven I usually consider myself too grown-up to need parenting, even from my own mom.  But the past two weeks of living in my car had left me smelling mildewy and feeling more insecure than I had in a long time.  I’d been visiting the Sweeney’s this morning, hoping Penny would offer to let me take a shower and do a load of laundry.  Instead, she’d announced that she’d found me an apartment and hustled me out the door and down the street.

My last apartment went up in flames.  Literally.  If I’d had renters’ insurance or even something more than a handshake agreement with the landlord, I might have been in a new apartment or even a hotel room at that moment.  Instead, I was focusing on the baritone laugh of a potential landlord while trying to ignore the presence of his three large dogs and my self-consciousness about projecting the body odor of a hobo.

Penny pushed her way into the house, past the mass of wiggling, wagging dogs, and I steeled myself and followed.  The dogs seemed well enough behaved but I could hear my pulse thumping in my ears.  Okay, I admit that a little of my pulse-thumping response was to that wonderful rich laugh, but most of it was fear. 

The potential landlord’s name was Norm and when he shook my hand and met my eyes I felt a hot, prickling, blush spill across my cheeks.  I could almost feel my pupils dilating.  Guys with deep voices always give me butterflies, but Norm gave me butterflies, goose bumps and a tingly feeling in the pit of my stomach.  He was far above average on the attractiveness spectrum, with his long-lashed green eyes.  He was dressed like a real Alaskan too, in Carhartt pants and Southeast sneakers (the famous XtraTuf boots).  He wore his long brown hair in a ponytail held in place with a white twisty.  You know…the kind you use on garbage bags.  He was quirky and sexy, and so far out of my league (even when I wasn’t grubby from living in my car) that I knew he’d make the perfect secret crush.  I immediately felt less self-conscious.  The advantage of a secret crush is that the object of the crush is so unattainable that attempting to impress him is futile. 

Norm invited us to sit which I did, but Penny bustled into his kitchen while scolding him about his nutrition and rummaging through the fridge with as much ease as she would have in her own kitchen.  Two of the dogs followed Penny and stood, wagging expectantly, while the third dog began snorting and snuffling at my Southeast sneakers.  The dog’s short brown coat was variegated, like irregular lines of paprika and brown sugar spilled across a chocolate cake.

I’ll tell you something about Alaskan women.  We take pride in being independent and tough.  Many of us hike, camp, hunt, trap, fish, build houses and operate our own power tools.  It should come as no surprise to you, then, that I loathe this business about being afraid of dogs, and that I do my best to avoid being a wimp.  Over the years, I’ve found ways to mask the signs of my discomfort, and to minimize my direct interaction with dogs.  Even when I’m in a room with a dog, I can usually manage to keep my anxiety under control by breathing deeply and avoiding physical contact.  The latter is typically simple; don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge the dog, converse in a calm voice and use body language to claim my personal space. 

This dog, though, did not cooperate with my coping methods and continued the interrogatory sniffing of my foot gear, ears folded forward and bouncing with each enthusiastic inhalation.  I angled my torso forward, put my hands on my knees and cocked my elbows outwards.  It’s not ladylike.  It’s a stereotypically masculine pose meant to make me look bigger and more dominant.  I clenched my jaw and imagined filling the space around my body with confident energy. 

Oblivious to my signals, the dog worked its way up my calf, past my knees, and began sniffing the outside of my thigh so hard that I could see the denim of my pant leg move from the nose suction.  The tip of the dog's upward arching tail wagged in a steady metronomic beat.  I guess my unwashed hobo smell must have been more inviting than my body language was uninviting. 

I looked up from the dog, right into Norm’s emerald gaze and felt my heart begin a calisthenics routine in my chest.

“Her name’s Teak,” he said.  “She’s a Staffordshire terrier.  I inherited her about two months ago from a friend who had to go down below to take care of her sick sister’s kids.  She’s three years old and one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

“Hmmm” I replied.   Dog lovers always want to do this.  They talk dog the way some people talk shop.  Maybe if I stayed calm enough, I could bluff my way through. 

“Teak’s usually real reserved.  She never approaches strangers, so she must be taking a shine to you.”

Penny bustled out of the kitchen with two omelet-laden plates.  The woman’s like a short-order cook.  I swear she can prepare food faster than a drive-through restaurant.  The omelet wouldn’t help matters with the dog, but when I tried to decline the food, Penny gave me a sharp look.  Before we’d left her house, she’d made me promise I’d follow her lead and wouldn’t argue about anything.  I’d been miffed at the implication that I’m usually argumentative, but I’d made the promise.  Eating breakfast at Norm’s house, I concluded as I reluctantly accepted the plate, must be part of Penny’s grand plan for helping me procure an apartment that I couldn’t afford to pay the rent for.

I took a bite of the omelet and savored the thyme and melted pepper-jack cheese.  I’ve always loved the taste of thyme.  It’s my favorite seasoning.  My mom thinks this carries some special symbolism; says something about my personality.  She likes to say, ‘thyme is for the warrior: cleansing, protection and courage’.  So far, eating thyme hadn’t turned me into a courageous warrior.  It probably wouldn’t even help me deal with this nosy dog.  I swallowed another delicious bite of breakfast and Teak stopped Hoovering my leg and laid her blocky brown head in my lap.  I gasped.  It was a teeny tiny little gasp, but Norm heard it.

“Just push her away if she bothers you.  Teak, come here and lay down.”

I’ll give him credit; the dog seemed to understand him.  She raised her head from my lap, walked over to Norm, looked him right in the eye for about three seconds, then turned around and ambled back to me, where she collapsed dramatically to the floor, heaved a sigh like and dropped her head onto my booted feet.  I froze and tried not to blink or twitch.

“Teak!”  Norm sounded half amused, half outraged.  “I’m sorry Vivian, she’s usually more obedient.  I’ll put her outside.  These two beasts, as well,” he added as he glanced at the other two dogs who were watching Penny with long strands of saliva hanging from their jowls.  Norm had to grasp Teak by the collar to persuade her to leave me.  I shot him a grateful smile and nodded as he escorted the dogs to the door.

Penny sat down with a plate of her own and I took another bite of my eggs.  Hot food tasted fantastic.  I’d done a little cooking on my engine block the last couple of weeks but it was primitive, at best.

Norm returned to the living room, sat, picked up his plate and began shoveling food into his mouth.  I turned my head away, unnerved, but I couldn’t help sneaking a glance at him every few seconds.  He hardly chewed before swallowing and, while he kept his mouth closed between bites those bites were so enormous I was sure he’d choke to death if he tried to breathe.  I set my plate in my lap, appetite lost. 

Penny looked at my unfinished omelet and turned to Norm.  “Slow down dear.  It’s not a horse race.”

“Mmmmmm,” Norm said and loaded his fork with another enormous bite.  Penny’s hand swept in a graceful arc, her fork flashing as she moved, and then she held Norms’ fork pinned to his plate with her own fork.  Fork Kung Fu.  I was impressed by her restraint.  In her place, I’d have been tempted to stab his hand and call it an accident.  His table manners (not that we were sitting at a table), were atrocious.

Norm slumped and pulled his lips downward into an expression of woe.  “Was I doing it again?”  He was a ham, this one. 

“Yes, dear, and now I’m afraid Vivian thinks you were raised by wolves.”  

From my peripheral vision, I saw Norm sit up straight, look at me and I look at my cooling omelet.  “Helluva way to make a good first impression, huh?”  He tilted his head to the side and I got the sense he was trying to initiate eye contact with me.  I glanced at his face and saw his lips twitch.  “Please accept my apology, Vivian.” 

I thought he would say something else, make some excuse or joke, but he didn’t so I shrugged and mumbled, “Sure” before refocusing on my breakfast.  It was delicious and there was no sense letting an awkward moment upset me so much that I let good food go to waste.   

Norm was the first to finish eating but I noticed he had adequate manners once his attention had been brought to the matter.  He took reasonably sized bites, chewed thoroughly and even paused between bites.  I kept my eyes mostly on my plate and wondered if this discomfiting situation was part of Penny’s stratagem to get me the apartment at a discounted rental rate.  I hoped not, it didn’t seem worth it.

Norm cleared his throat.  “That was a treat, Penny.  Thank you for coming over and making breakfast.”  He crossed his left ankle over his right knee and leaned back in his chair.  “Now, what’s your ulterior motive?”

I swallowed wrong.  A bit of omelet tickled my windpipe and I coughed then cleared my throat several times before regaining my composure.

Norm uncrossed is leg and leaned towards me, looking ready to spring to my aid, as I sputtered.  

“Vivian needs an apartment and you need to rent the other side of this duplex.”  Penny seemed oblivious to my near choking and took Norm’s plate, then mine, raised her voice and kept talking as she delivered the dishes to the kitchen. 

“You’re asking way too much money and Vivian simply can’t afford that much.  She was living in a lovely little efficiency before and only paying $600 a month.  So, what I want you to do is charge her the same amount as she was paying for her last apartment and in exchange for the rest she’ll come over here for an hour or two, four days a week and teach you how to cook.  For four months.  At the end of four months, the lessons are over, but you can’t raise the rent for at least a year.  Oh, and I want you to give her all the furniture you have in that storage unit you’re paying too much for and that’ll save you some money.”

Penny returned from the kitchen with three mugs of peppermint tea balanced on a platter.  See?  How did she have time to even heat the water?  Norm accepted his mug of tea with a nod and scratched at the bristly stubble on his chin.

The mug I took sported the silhouette of a wolf in profile and read, ‘I © werewolves’.  I ran my finger along the lip of the cup while I waited for Norm to respond.  The quiet made me edgy and I shifted in my seat.  My throat still tickled and I coughed a few times.  Finally, Norm grunted and looked back at Penny.

“On two conditions.  First, the lessons are only three times a week.”  Norm tossed me a sly wink then turned back to Penny.  “Second, Teak moves in with Vivian.”

I jumped out of my chair, sloshing tea down the front of my shirt.  “What?  No!  I mean, that’s impossible.  I can’t do that.  Penny, I appreciate your help and all, but no.  I cannot live with a dog.  Thanks but no thanks.” 

Penny gave me a dark look and pointed her finger at me.  “Sit down, young lady.  You promised you wouldn’t argue and this conversation is not over.” 

"I know, but—” I began.  Penny shook her pointing finger and I snapped my mouth closed and sat down.  Under ordinary circumstances, I would have stormed out the door before I’d let anyone, even Penny, treat me like a child.  I wondered, again, if all of this folderol was worth it.  Then again, I really missed taking hot baths before bed.   

“Cooking three days a week and she goes with you to walk the dog once a week but the dog doesn’t move in with her.  Honestly, Norm.  Didn’t you notice she’s frightened of dogs?  Shame on you for trying to unload your responsibilities on Vivian.”

Norm said something in a near whisper.  It sounded like, “There’s a prophesy to consider”, which didn’t make any sense to me.

“Oh, drat!  My batteries are dying again,” Penny said and fussed with her hearing aid for a few seconds.  “All right, Norm.  Come again?  Louder this time.”

Norm lowered his brows.  “I said, do you remember what I told you about my Granny?”

“I don’t think this is a good time to discuss Amelia, do you dear?”

“Teak moves in with Vivian or we don’t have a deal.”  Norm’s expression had hardened and he met Penny’s puzzled gaze without blinking.  I saw a muscle in his jaw twitch.

“She needs a place to live, Norm.  She’s afraid of dogs.  Don’t make this impossible.”

“There’s a five day forecast, Penny.  Think about it.  It’s a matter of safety.”

“What do you mean, there’s a five day…Oh!”  Penny looked at me with an expression of surprise, then back to Norm.  “Really?  Are you sure?”

“Of course.”

“It’s so soon.  I wasn’t expecting…”  Penny trailed off and turned to me.

“Vivian, dear, maybe—” She stopped when Norm held up his hand.

He turned in his seat so that he faced me head on, leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees.  It crossed my mind then, that I should get up and leave.  Walk away.  Or run.  I didn’t understand what Penny and Norm were talking about, but I hate it when people act like they know things about you that you don’t.  Whatever they were discussing so obscurely, I wanted no part of it. 

Norm gazed steadily at me and there was something compelling in his stare.  My feet and legs felt heavy, like they were encased in cement.  My urge to run evaporated.  I relaxed into my chair. 

“Vivian.  I’ve just met you and we’re practically strangers.  I do know dogs though.  Teak is a good dog and she loved my friend.  They had a powerful bond.  She’s pining for that woman but there’s no way they can be together and that’s not going to change.  Teak isn’t happy living with me.  Some days she won’t eat.  She isn’t as playful as she used to be.  She’s not thriving.  I understand that you’re leery of dogs but there’s a difference, Vivian, between being afraid of dogs and disliking dogs.  I don’t think you dislike dogs.  In fact, I think that being loved by a dog like Teak might help you get over your fear and I think you might find then, that you like dogs quite a lot. 

Dogs are the best judges of character I’ve known and Teak is drawn to you.  If you took her in, you’d be giving her a chance at a happier life.  Dogs need to love and she doesn’t love me the way I can see she would love you.”

I stared back at Norm with a lump in my throat, struggling to breathe and swallow.  I’m not heartless and I felt sad for Teak; she’d lost the person she was devoted to, the person she loved most.  Norm was persuasive and I felt peculiarly charmed by his plea.  Maybe I would adopt Teak, rescue her from loneliness and become a dog person. 

I broke eye contact and rubbed my hands over my face.  I was having trouble thinking; having trouble responding to this situation.  I needed an apartment.  Not a dog.  If the dog needed a new owner, Norm could put an ad in the paper or enlist the help of the Humane Society.  After all, I’d heard we have a well run shelter in Juneau.

Norm leaned even closer to me, reached over and put his hand on my knee.  His hand felt warm and comforting and the touch, so intimate, sent an electric shiver from the pit of my stomach up to the crown of my head.

“I just can’t do it,” I whispered, longing to do what he asked and knowing I could not.  “I’m sorry.”

Norm let go of my knee and took both my hands in his.  “Look at me, Vivian,” he said.  I lifted my chin and looked into his eyes, feeling my breath hitch in my chest. 

“You are strong-willed.”  How would he know such a thing?  Was this his version of flattery?  A compliment?  It didn’t matter, my qualms faded.  I was enthralled by his voice, his touch, his eyes.

“A compromise.  A trial period.  Would you like that, Vivian?”  I nodded, hearing him speak my name but not really listening to what he said.  “Let’s say two or three days, huh?  If, after that, you don’t want to keep Teak, I’ll take her back.”

I nodded again and Norm released my hands. 

What?  What had I just agreed to?  How could I live with a great big dog that I was afraid of?  For two entire days?  What was wrong with me?

I stood up.  I needed some fresh air.  Norm rose and, before I could side step him, enveloped me in a hug too tight to wiggle free from and too blissful for me to want to.  He smelled musky and woody like fresh cut red cedar.  When he let me go and stepped back, I think I saw tears in his eyes. 

“Thank you, Vivian.  I know this doesn’t make much sense to you, but it’s all for the best.”  He seemed like such a nice guy. 

“C’mon, Vivian, let’s go check out your new apartment,” Penny said.  Once again, she hustled me out the door.    


Five hours later, I stood in front of the bay window in my new apartment.  It was a terrific place.  It had a kitchen.  It had a bathroom with a shower and it had a deep bathtub.  The bay window overlooked Gastineau Channel.  On the opposite side of the channel, Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts were hidden by thick fingers of heavy fog and drizzle, but I knew that when the clouds lifted, the view would be spectacular.  I’d buy binoculars before summer so that I could sit by this window and watch the mountain goats and occasional bear foraging on the steep slopes. 


The water of Gastineau Channel was glassy smooth and as grey as pewter in the flat, afternoon light.  There was still snow in the front lawn and the weatherman was predicting freezing rain tonight.  Brrr.  March in Juneau could be bitter cold.  I thought of the bed we’d hauled upstairs and felt lucky.  Tonight, I wouldn’t have to wake up every couple of hours and start the car to warm my cold-numbed fingers and toes. 


I looked around the comfortably furnished apartment.  It was enormous.  What was I going to do with a two-bedroom place all to myself?  Never mind, I’d adjust.  Every time my mind strayed to thoughts of how generous Norm was being with free furniture, (I couldn’t stop ogling the green velveteen couch) and low rent, I’d squirm in embarrassment.  Then I’d look at Teak and feel my embarrassment swoosh away and be replaced by a wave of anxiety.  Currently, she was sprawled, belly up, four paws in the air, on that sumptuous green couch.  I wanted to snuggle into those soft verdant cushions, but I wasn’t about to squeeze in next to her, nor was I prepared to make her move.  My heart palpitated at the mere thought.  The prolonged proximity to Teak was making me feel sick in the same way that caffeine does, with that jittery and sweaty-palmed nausea.


Penny bustled in the front door (my front door, yay!) with her husband, Roanan, carrying two large cardboard boxes.  I’d have to start locking my door.  Penny and Roanan are dear to me, but I didn’t want them walking in without knocking.  I like privacy.  Lots of privacy.


“Hi Vivian!  We’ve got a bunch of food for the party.  I made some of my smoked salmon spread and there’re chips and dip and Brie cheese and several kinds of pop and some other goodies here, too.”  Penny hurried toward the kitchen with Roanan trailing in her wake.


“Penny?  What party?”  It had been a hectic day; had I forgotten something important?  Were Penny and Roanan going to have dinner with me in my new apartment?


“Oh.  Didn’t I tell you?  Well, it’s a surprise party, then.” Penny swept through my kitchen and emerged with a bottle of root beer that she handed me as she steered me towards the dining room table and urged me to sit, which I did with a shocked plunk.


“Surprise party?”


“You’re having a house warming party tonight.  Let’s see, in about thirty minutes.  Oh, don’t look so alarmed.  You don’t have to do a thing.  I just figured you could use a lot of household items and it’s always nice to celebrate a big move like this.”


 “Just put everything but the chips and crackers in the refrigerator, would you Love?” She called to Roanan over her shoulder.


“Sure thing.”  Roanan stuck his head out of the kitchen and shook a finger at me.  “As for you, Lassie, don’t get yer britches in a twist.  You’ll have a rollickin’ good time, see if you don’t.” 


“Ha!” I said and stuck my tongue out at Roanan before he ducked back into the kitchen.  Although he’d been born in Ireland, he’d lived in Alaska since he was a boy and only brought out his accent for effect, usually when he was teasing someone.

“Have you eaten anything since breakfast?  You do look a little pale, Vivian.”  I shook my head at Penny and flapped my hand dismissively. 

“I’m always pale.  I’m a redhead, see?”  I pulled the purple bandana off my head and shook my blunt-cut bob forward.  “Doesn’t matter what I eat, or even how much sunshine I get.  I’m permanently pale.  So, tell me about this party.  Who’s been invited?  What’s the plan?”

Penny smoothed my tussled hair back.  “It’s a potluck and I’ve told everyone to bring gifts.  Opening presents should be the main entertainment.  Roanan and I will be here, and of course, Norm and Lawrence.”

Lawrence had helped move all the furniture from storage to my new home and I had gathered he was Norm’s nephew and lived with Norm.  There was something unusual about him that I couldn’t pin down and I opened my mouth to ask Penny about it, but she steamrolled over me.

“I invited a few of the folks from the neighborhood; you’ll like getting to know them.  You’ll fit in just fine into this neighborhood just fine.  I also invited your mother and her coven sisters, of course.” 

My mothers’ coven sisters meant her twelve roommates.  I guess my mom was going through her mid-life crisis or her spiritual phase, or something, because she was living in an immense house with a crowd of women and they considered themselves to be a coven of witches.  You know, thirteen?  A coven?  

When my apartment burned down, Mom had invited me to stay with them instead of in my car, but I’d declined.  No way was I staying in that house!  The whole arrangement gave me the heebie-jeebies.  Mom and her roommates talked about casting spells and worshipping Goddesses and all sorts of freaky stuff.  They had a giant pentagram painted on their living room floor.  They even had a black cat that lived with them.  Well, black with white paws. 

It wouldn’t be so bad, except that it was my mom.  Moms are supposed to be stable and unchanging.  Rational.  They’re not supposed to give up a lifetime of atheism to become neo-pagan hippy chicks who read auras and believe in magic.

“Don’t roll your eyes, dear, you’re not a teenager and your mother is happy.”  “Mom say she’d come?”

 “Your mom will be here.” Penny patted my arm.  "She’s been worried sick about you living in that car.  You’re so stubborn.  The day she phoned and said that you refused to stay with them, I told her that the mule must be your animal totem.  Ha!  She said you’re the only person she’s ever met who was born under the sign of the ass.  You lucky girl!  A whole new zodiac sign just for you.”

Penny tittered and I offered up the most exaggerated eye roll I could muster.  My mom had been joking about that since I was in high school but it must have been the first time Penny’d heard it. 

“I don’t know how many of her sisters will be here, but you have plenty of room for a big party.  Besides, the more people that come, the more gifts you’ll get,” Penny added as she playfully swatted at the arm she’d just been patting.  “Now go take a quick shower and clean up; you’re the guest of honor.  Or, the hostess.  Or something like that.”

It turned out that every person Penny had invited came to my house warming party.  All forty-seven of them.  My new apartment was crowded and noisy and all the commotion set me on edge.  My idea of a party is three or four close friends.  I guess that makes me an introvert.  Add to that my short stature and dread of being trampled and you have a woman who does not like going to craft fairs, parades or big cities.  You never know when a crowd might turn into a mob.  I did my best to be gracious and warm and to thank everyone for the housewarming gifts, but I kept catching myself hyperventilating.

The plethora of gifts was overwhelming and I muttered to Penny, as I opened another box, that I’d need to hold a garage sale next weekend at the rate things were going.  Penny either didn’t hear me, or chose to pretend that she didn’t.  I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to have hearing aids and could use that tactic.

My mom and her coven sisters had hit all the second-hand stores in town and scored every type of pot, pan, plate, bowl, glass, mug, silverware or kitchen doodad that I could possibly want.  They’d even managed to find a lovely old-fashioned glass blender, a crock-pot and a rice cooker. 

The coven also brought along enough dried sage, essential oils, crystals, prisms and assorted other new age paraphernalia to open up a head shop in my new living room.  Every nook and cranny in my apartment was getting cleansed, smudged and blessed.  I made a brief escape to the bathroom (hoping for a few moments of solitary time) and discovered three of the coven-sisters painting the bathroom walls an earthy brick red.  The youngest of the coven-sisters, Janice, was a self-proclaimed Feng Shui expert and she assured me that the flow of chi in my bathroom was going to be “abso-freaking-lutely perfect.” 

I retreated towards my bedroom with Teak glued to my left leg as she had been all evening, and contemplated locking myself in the walk-in closet.  It was not to be, however, as I discovered a larger group of coven-sisters in my bedroom chanting prayers and burning incense. 

I returned to the living room, jumpy from having Teak in such close proximity and feeling a frantic desire to escape.  I aimed for the front door, but only made it a few feet before my mom and the founding coven-sister, Cecillia, ambushed Teak and me and proceeded to back us into a corner with smudge sticks.  Teak sneezed and snapped at the acrid smoke, making Cecillia take a swift step backwards.

“Enough, you two, stop it!”  I said, fanning the air in front of my nose.

“Pshaw.  Don’t belly-ache Vivian, we’re almost done.”  My mom said, wearing an expression of serene concentration.  Mom was wearing her favorite beige pantsuit with a pair of huge gold hoop earrings, a gold pentagram necklace, gold bangles on both her wrists and at least five gold rings on each hand.  She was also wearing the stained glass monarch butterfly lapel pin I’d given her last Mother’s Day and a gaudy sunburst stud through her left nostril.  My mom.  With a nose piercing. 

Cecillia still held her smudge stick, but she didn’t look as serene as my mother; she looked confused.  Maybe because she wasn’t wearing her tri-focals tonight.  Mom had threatened to attach a GPS device to the wire frames of Cecillia’s frequently misplaced glasses.  Perpetually absent-minded, Cecillia always struck me as being rather dim, though my mother assured me this wasn’t so.  She wore her short, thinning hair in tight curls against her scalp and dressed primly in cardigans and skirts.  She’d spent her career teaching in the bush but I couldn’t imagine her coping with outhouses, much less cultural barriers.  She looked like an uptight, middle American grandmother.

Teak snapped, again, at the smudging smoke and Cecillia took another step back.

“This dog may be quite vicious,” she said in her soft voice.  I was surprised I could hear her over the din of the other partiers.

“Don’t think so, I think she just doesn’t like the smoke.  Sure looks terrifying though, doesn’t she?”  I knuckled my itching eyes and coughed into my elbow.

“She’s a muscular dog but attractive” my mother said, stroking Teak’s broad head with her empty hand and arching an eyebrow at me.  “How you came to have a dog will be a story you’ll have to tell me privately.  Perhaps tomorrow.  Congratulations on starting your journey, Vivian.” 

Yup, that’s my mother: cryptic.  Before I could be cross with her, though, the Feng Shui expert bounced down the stairs and whisked her away to go appreciate the amazing chi of my bathroom.  I watched her ascend the stares, her curly red hair beginning to work itself loose from the severe twist she pinned it up in on work days. 

Cecillia wandered towards the kitchen and I returned to Penny’s side to continue opening gifts.

Penny kept detailed notes of who brought what gift, which I was grateful for since I was inundated.  Folks brought me everything that I would need in my new home, from bath towels, to a radio.  From bed linens to books.  In addition to several second-hand novels, I received a paperback copy of The Joy of Dogs by Nigel Maas and a hard cover book entitled The Breed Temperament Encyclopedia.  There were even dog toys.  Yes, Teak got her share of presents and one neighbor even brought two gift-wrapped beef-basted rawhide bones that Teak delicately unwrapped with her teeth.  She must have thought the bones were from me because she licked my hand right after unwrapping them, as though thanking me, and my eyes started to leak.

I pulled a crumpled paper towel from my pocket to wipe away the damn water works.  I hate crying in front of people.  Before I could finish blowing my nose, Mom was there with a tall glass of water and her Grandpa’s fancy monogrammed hanky.  The former I accepted gratefully and the latter I waved away with a tremulous smile.  I just can’t blow my nose on that beautiful thing.  When had she come back downstairs?  How had she known I was thirsty?  My mom says she’s always had a sixth sense when it comes to me.  I can’t count the number of times she’s shown up right when I needed her most.  She calls it her ‘Momma Magic’.  It’s just one of the many things I love about her. 

Someone seized my shoulders and I went rigid.  I don’t usually cope well with being grabbed from behind, but Norm’s earthy, cedar musk registered before I had a proper chance to get worked up.  His hands felt warm and heavy and I couldn’t help relaxing. 

“Ms. Marshall, I’m Norm, Vivian’s new landlord.” 

Mom arched her eyebrow.  It’s her favorite expression.  “How, ah… interesting… to meet you, Norm.”  Norm didn’t offer his hand and kept massaging my shoulders.

“It’s my pleasure, entirely, Ms. Marshall.” 

“Please, call me Maeve.”

I felt like I should be fidgeting in embarrassment, but Norm kept kneading, easing away the knots in my neck and shoulders and I felt calmer than I had since the party began.  Teak pressed firmly against my thigh and I wondered if it were for her own comfort, or for mine.  I handed my empty glass back to my mom.  My eyelids felt swollen and my face was probably splotchy and flushed, but the need to cry had passed and I felt lighter somehow; floaty, like if I took a few steps, I’d bounce like an astronaut in low gravity.

Roanan was gathering the crowd around him; telling some tale, half joke, half story.  He pulled his fiddle out of its case and played a lively tune for a short interval before lowering it and continuing to weave his tale.

Norm gave my shoulders a final squeeze and leaned down to murmur in my ear.

“Enough gifts for now, folks can just pile them up on the table and you can get to them in the morning after you’ve rested.  It’s better now for you to sit, enjoy your party and eat some of Penny’s salmon spread before it’s gone.  She makes the best.”

Keeping his hands on my shoulders, Norm steered me to the couch where I sank gratefully into its’ mossy green embrace.  Teak climbed up beside me and settled her rear end on my left thigh.  I giggled into my hand.  Teak had to weigh at least a hundred pounds and she resembled a gargoyle with her bulging muscles, short sleek coat and long teeth, but she thought she was a lap dog.

“Teak, get your bony ass off Vivian.”  Norm gave her an affectionate slap on the thigh and Teak shifted so that instead of sitting on me, she was sitting next to me, albeit, close enough that I could count the individual whiskers on her muzzle.  Norm sat down on the other side of Teak and Mom handed me a plate she’d filled with crackers and salmon spread. 

As I ate (the salmon spread was as delicious as Norm had promised) and listened to Roanan’s rambling yarn, I tried to watch Norm from the corner of my eye.  I estimated he was in his mid-thirties but he carried himself with the same nonchalant confidence that I admired in Roanan, who was probably twice Norm’s age.  He didn’t posture and swagger the way I’d seen so many guys do.  He sure seemed awfully touchy-feely with me and there was something about that; maybe the fact that he didn’t seem that way with everyone, that puzzled me.  Not that I was complaining, precisely.  I enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t the sort of thing I was accustomed to.  Was it his way of flirting or was he just being friendly?  I have plain features and I’m a little on the plump side.  That, combined with how disheveled I’d been earlier today when we’d first met, made me think it was doubtful he was flirting.  I wouldn’t mind if he was flirting and that was the other thing that made me uneasy.  I liked him entirely too much for having just met him this morning.  Physical attraction can happen fast, but being the introvert I am, I’m slow to like people; slow to warm up to their personalities.  Norm already felt like a friend.  Someone I could rely on. 

I was so engrossed in thought that I forgot entirely about being afraid of the massive dog snuggled against me.  It wasn’t until Teak gingerly licked my earlobe and then slumped over to rest her muzzle on my shoulder that I came back to myself.   Her breath was warm and moist puffing against my cheek.  Maybe it was exhaustion or maybe I was simply getting used to her; I smiled instead of tensing up or jerking away.  Without moving my head, I glanced at Norm.  He was watching me with an intent green gaze.  He nodded, perhaps in approval, before turning to focus on Roanan.


Slowly, and with the utmost caution, I wrapped my arm around Teak’s body in a side-ways hug.  I rested my palm on her ribcage, feeling it expand and contract with each deep breath.  I fell asleep.  
 
 




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