Naomi Wallace wasn’t home. Aster called Maria on the payphone at the corner, and after a few super fun minutes where Mario would write something down and then Maria would read it over the phone only for Aster to come back with a brand new question, they eventually figured out that as long as Naomi’s schedule hadn’t changed drastically since the breakup she’d be home in an hour. Thankfully, Yellow SUBmarine was across the street.
They took a table out on the sidewalk. Aster sat down with their veggie sandwich wrapped in paper, glaring at the double Italian monstrosity sitting in front of Peggy.
“You know, up until now we haven’t really known each other well enough for me to ask,” Aster began, watching Peggy take a huge bite of the sandwich before picking up the meatball that had escaped and eating that, too. “But…I don’t know how to phrase this…are you planning on honking up your cookies later?”
Peggy swallowed. “There are cookies?”
She looked back through the door at the cash register, hoping to catch sight of double chocolate chip or maybe even peanut butter wrapped in plastic. Alas, the only things she saw were the packets of chips and she already had the family sized ketchup chips next to her sandwich. Slowly, staring at Aster, she began to understand what they were really asking.
“I don’t have an eating disorder.”
“Then how the fuck are you constantly eating like that? Do you know how many plates of nachos I’ve seen you pack away by yourself at Dinah’s? Because I don’t. I’ve lost count. And you’re still skinny as a rail.”
Peggy put her sandwich down and counted to five. Aster, perhaps realizing they had crossed a line, worked on opening the paper of their sandwich, folding it back just so. Finally, Peggy swallowed.
“Being a quarter-god isn’t all high jumps and parkour. My metabolism is fast. I mean, so fast I can barely keep up. One time, when I was a kid, I got the flu and lost my appetite. I lost thirty pounds in a week. I had to be hospitalized and the doctors thought my mom had been starving me, because ‘no one as healthy as me should lose weight that fast.’ I’m constantly sprinting just to stay in place.”
Aster fidgeted with their suspenders. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Lots of people think they can say rude stuff about my weight because ‘everyone wants to be as skinny as you!’ Pah. I’ve always wanted curves. I’ve got A cups and a pancake ass and you would not believe how many shady people have hit me up for heroin. Okay, so you asked me an intrusive question, I get to ask you one.”
Looking to balance the scales, Aster nodded with a mouth full of veggie sandwich. “Anything, ask away.”
“Why are you so eager to throw yourself into all this?”
They looked at her like she was crazy. “Why are you not?”
“Ah-ah, no. You already asked your question.”
Aster rolled their eyes. It was almost one o’clock, and every table on the sidewalk was full. Even the people closest to them were deep into their own conversations, or reading, or just staring out into the street fretting about their own bullshit. Still, Aster pulled their chair into the table a little bit and leaned over their food.
“There wasn’t a single moment or anything, I guess,” they said. “I grew up reading comics and watching movies. I really liked the X-Men, and I used to imagine I was one of them. Not just a mutant, you know, but an X-Man. A mutant to help other mutants. And everybody, I guess. I never did get any super powers, but I still wondered what I would do, if I ever found out something like this was real. And then I did find out it was real, or something like it. I was scared, at first. I thought maybe you were right and I should just ignore it. But I kept imagining thirteen year old me, and how pissed I would have been. So, I knew. I had to do something.”
Peggy sipped at her drink through her straw before answering. “You’re a nerd. I get it. You could have just said that.”
“Fuck you. And it’s your turn, why don’t-”
“What did Maria say Naomi looked like?”
Aster looked to where Peggy was pointing. Across the street, a woman with blonde, bouncy soft curls was parking her brand new light blue scooter in front of the apartment building.
“That looks like her,” Aster said. “How the fuck does her hair look like that after getting off a scooter?”
Peggy ate the last bit of her sandwich. “Maybe she’s born with it.”
“Maybe it’s redwave magic,” Aster finished.
Her apartment was a sixth floor walk-up in a converted canning factory, and as they walked up the stairs Peggy could swear she could still smell something brining.
“What’s the plan?” Aster asked, panting heavily.
Peggy looked at her, confused. “Plan? What plan? We knock, she answers, we ask her why she cursed her ex-boyfriend.”
Aster paused at the top of the stairs, shaking their head as they got their breath back. “Shit, I need to work out. You can’t just ask that. What if she shuts down? What if she closes the door in our faces? We need a little subterfuge. You know what, you’re no longer in charge of plans. Just follow my lead.”
Aster wiped sweat from the back of their neck before going down the hall. Peggy shrugged to herself. She’d never been the brains of any operation, so if someone else wanted to call the shots she was fine with that. And the more this was Aster’s project, the better her chances of being able to extricate herself from it entirely.
Standing in front of 6B, Aster adjusted their clothes, ran a hand through their hair to straighten it out, and then knocked on the door.
“Coming!” came brightly from the other side, and before either of them could react the door flung open.
The woman with the blonde hair was standing in front of them. Her hair was now up in a knot above her head, and she had changed into form-fitting workout clothes, including purple leopard print tights that were practically see-through at the hips. Her face was clean of makeup, but her eyelashes were so long they had to be fake. Speaking of that, her lips were a little too plump, her cheekbones a little too high. She looked like she’d been fixed up in a magazine, and yet somehow she was standing right in front of them.
Naomi frowned at Aster, but her eyes lit up when she saw Peggy.
“You must be Ginger! I’ve heard such great things. I wanted the best instructor, and I’m sure I got it. And this is…”
“Billie,” Aster said without missing a beat. “I’m here for safety. We don’t send our instructors to new apartments by themselves. Not to say anything against you, but you just can’t be too careful.”
Naomi nodded with a sympathetic frown. “Too true, you never know who you’re going to meet these days. Well, come in, come in!”
It was not a small apartment, only made to feel small by all the stuff crammed into it. Looking around, it was easy to find the things that had always been there – a ratty couch, a small black coffee table, a couple of old paintings on the wall clearly found at a thrift shop – among the sea of new things Bags of clothes from boutiques sitting on a brand new dining table. A white leather couch sitting next to the old one, along with a matching leather recliner by the window. From where they were in the living room they could see the kitchen, and the line-up of new appliances. Shiny fridge. Modern oven. And sitting on the counter, all in a line, was an espresso machine, a microwave, and a waffle iron, still in the box.
“My personal dojo is over here,” Naomi said, leading them down a hall.
“Mind if I use your bathroom?” Aster asked.
Naomi waved down to a room farther down the hall. After a brief thumbs up, Aster motioned for Peggy to go into the ‘dojo’ and hurried off. Wishing she hadn’t gotten onions on the sandwich, Peggy followed after Naomi.
Probably once a bedroom, it was now mostly empty. A mirror and a bar had been affixed to one wall. The wood floor was near-completely covered with some kind of mat. Weights and medicine balls were neatly placed near the wall.
“Do you usually do yoga in jeans and a t-shirt?” Naomi asked.
“Yoga? I thought you called this a dojo?”
“Right. Dojo. My personal gym.”
“That’s…” Peggy trailed off. There didn’t really seem a point getting into semantics at this point. Yoga. She didn’t know anything about yoga. She was bendy enough without having to work at it. When Naomi had said ‘dojo’ she had been hopeful it had been some kind of fighting. She knew enough basics to fake her way through a beginner’s lesson.
“Um…right…let’s start…tree pose?”
Naomi frowned. “Shouldn’t we start with some sitting meditation first? That’s what I usually start with.”
“Oh, yes! Meditation. Of course. I…I thought you had already done that part. In preparation for me coming. Yes, let’s sit.”
Naomi half sat/half fell gracefully onto the floor, trying to put her legs into a crossed shape in front of her and almost getting there. Peggy sat, mimicking Naomi with her legs and the way she put her hands on her knees, pinching the air above them.
After a few seconds, Naomi opened her eyes. “Don’t you do guided meditations?”
Where the fuck is Aster?
“Guided meditations. Yes. Of course. Who can meditate without someone telling them what to meditate on? Uh, okay…you’re in the middle of a forest. Forest, on top of a mountain. And it’s windy. But not, like, in your face windy. More like, soothing windy. Your hair is blowing gently, but not hard enough to whip around and get stuck in your lip gloss. Uhhh…there are birds? Yes, birds. And they are singing very gently. They’re singing your favorite song, actually. They’re very good. You are walking through this forest on a mountain, and you’re not wondering how you got here. You know how you got here. And you know where you’re going. Because there’s a path. And this path is covered in leaves. The soft kind, not the crunchy kind. The leaves are whispering. What are they whispering? Only the trees know, and they’re not telling. Secretive bastards. Um…there’s a squirrel?”
“Oh, thank God,” Peggy said, bouncing up. Naomi looked up at her, opening her eyes to total confusion. Holy shit, was that actually working?
Aster came bounding into the room, holding a book out in front of her.
“Hey, that’s mine!” Naomi said, working to stand up.
The book was what Peggy had been afraid of. In fact, it was almost too perfect. With its leather bound exterior and pentagram complete with goat head carved into the middle, it practically looked like a movie prop. Naomi tried to take it from Aster but Aster held it over her head. They were already taller than Naomi, and even as Naomi jumped she couldn’t reach the book.
“You’re not Ginger, are you!” Naomi said, crossing her arms. “You’re strangers…burglars…I’m calling the police!”
“And what?” Aster called after her. “Tell her you let two people into your apartment and then they found your book of magic spells.”
Naomi froze in the doorway. She turned slowly, her face carefully neutral. Finally, she crossed her arms.
“That’s not what that is.”
“Uh huh,” Aster said. They were flipping through the pages. “Yeah, looks like all cake and pie recipes to me. Tell me, which one of these did you use on Mario?”
Peggy gestured for the book. “How about, which one got you all the new appliances in the kitchen? Or fixed up your face and hair? Or, the million dollar question, who are you working with to make all this magic work?”
Now Naomi rolled her eyes, her indignation swelling into anger.
“What, you think I’m in, like, a coven or something? That we light fires and chant in Latin or something? I’m not working with anyone. I don’t need to. I can do all of this on my own.”
“I’m not talking about other witches, Naomi. I’m talking about the demon.”
Aster and Peggy exchanged looks. Naomi wasn’t feigning ignorance anymore. It was extremely real.
“Ah, shit,” Peggy said.
“What? What demon? What are you talking about?”
“You know what?” Aster asked, their voice gentle. They took Naomi by the arm and waist and led her out to the living room. “Let’s just sit down, okay? This is a nice couch, is it real leather? Okay, good, just sit there. Do you want something to drink? Water? Tequila?”
“Just tell me what’s going on.”
Aster sat on the coffee table in front of her. “So, I’ve only started reading up on this myself, but there’s one thing that’s been obvious from the beginning, and that’s that humans can’t do magic on their own. They need to borrow it.”
“Okay, so, I’m borrowing it. So what?”
“The problem is you’re borrowing redwave magic. The kind that comes from…well, hell. Demons. And the thing about getting redwave magic from demons is that their price is…well, it’s…”
“It’s your soul,” Peggy said, leaning against the wall. Aster shot her a look, and Peggy shot one back. “What? Might as well rip that band-aid off quick.”
“I was thinking we could ease her, more like walking into cold water.”
“Do you not just jump in? Weird.”
Naomi held up her hands. She wasn’t quite crying, but her eyes were shining. “My soul? I don’t understand.”
Peggy opened the book to the first page and handed it to Aster. Aster’s eyes skipped over the page, the corner of their lips turning down with understanding. They held the book up so Naomi could read the page.
“Did you do this spell?”
Naomi nodded. “Nothing worked until I did that one.”
Aster stared at Naomi. “So, you said the words, ‘my soul for the power?’ You said those words out loud, after you’d done all these other steps?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t mean anything! It’s just, like, metaphorical, or symbolic.” Naomi looked between Aster and Peggy, tears beginning to fall down her cheeks. “Right?”
Peggy stood up from the wall. Sighed. Tried to find something – anything – to say.
“I’m going to get you that tequila.”