The Celluloid Files: 4
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Outside the diner, I contemplated my options. If I was going to revitalize the town, I needed to know its streets and buildings and people. But the box of pizza in my hands was unwieldy and would go bad long before I got back to Nora’s if I set out to see the town now. If I went back to the house first, I might lose daylight. I had a year, but for some reason I felt like I needed to use every moment at my disposal. I blamed it on impatience with Aunt Nora’s silly, unmeasurable stipulation but deep down, I knew there was more to it.
I decided to make the most important stop first then drop the pizza off at the house. That way, no matter how much time I had left, I’d at least have gotten the big item off my list. The only problem was, I had no idea how to get there. I could go back inside the diner and ask Blondie, or approach the cluster of women down the street. Neither made me feel confident and energetic.
I sighed, tucked the box under my arm, and trotted down the sidewalk.
Three women stood outside a short building with big windows. The sign above the door read, “Goldilocks.” Of course it was the beauty parlor; this town didn’t have enough cliches already.
“Excuse me,” I said, doing my best to sound normal. “Could you tell me where—“
“Oh my gosh,” the tallest of the bunch exclaimed, her eyes going wide as she saw my pizza box. She was on the dark side of brunette and thin as a rail. Some spiteful part of me hated her on sight. She could probably eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted and not gain an ounce, whereas I expected to be several pounds heavier once my pizza was gone. Her makeup was perfect, her hair an exquisite, glossy fall of soft curls that looked effortless. “Are those boys still playing that stupid game?” she asked. “Why do they do that? The ball just goes up and down. It’s not like it can go anywhere but in the hole.”
“They seriously need girlfriends,” a shorter, thicker woman said. I thought she was a brunette, too, but the mass of curlers and foil in her hair made it hard to be sure.
“What happened to Pam?” the first woman asked.
“Took off at the end of the semester,” a third woman said, her blonde hair tucked under a shower cap. “They really need to try for older girls.”
“Women,” the shorter woman corrected.
“Don’t they have jobs?” I asked, satisfying my curiosity as well as making sure they didn’t forget I was standing there.
“Vinny and Joey do,” the first woman said, peering at the sky as she thought. “They work with dirt and electricity, or something like that. I don’t know about Tony. What does he do all day?” she asked the blonde.
The blonde shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“You dated him, Lori. You have to know something.”
“Correction, I went on dates with him. The only thing I know is that he drives a crappy old SUV and he has a pet ferret.”
“A ferret?” the shorter woman asked, her tone expressing disgust.
Bean Pole mistook the question. “It’s like a weasel. Right?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Yeah. I’ve never seen one, but my dad and brothers used to take me camping up north in the summer with a bunch of friends, so I’ve seen a lot of weasels. They’re funny looking, and they move like they have no bones.”
The other women exchanged glances and started giggling.
“What?” Bean Pole said, confusion on her delicate features. “They do! And they’re greedy. I think ferrets are just hairy weasels.”
“So Tony has a big, hairy weasel, huh?” the short one said, elbowing Lori.
The women burst out laughing. Bean Pole stamped her foot. “You guys! What’s so funny?”
I struggled to keep myself at the fringe of the group instead of walking away. There was no way I was going back in the diner now that my brain contained echoes of Tony’s hairy weasel, but if I didn’t get directions I could be walking all day. Then my poor pizza would be unfit to eat, and I couldn’t let such tragedy take place.
“Can you tell me where the new age shop is?” I asked Bean Pole.
“Sure,” she said, though she didn’t look at me. She was too busy frowning at her companions in consternation. “It’s a block over that way.” She pointed behind herself, away from Nora’s house. “Just go to the end of the street, go left, and it’ll be on the other side of the street. It kind of stands out.”
“Thanks,” I said, and started to back away.
“Be careful,” she said. “The girl who works there is…”
“Weird,” Lori the blonde said.
“Mean,” the shorter woman said.
“…loud,” Bean Pole finished.
I smiled and nodded, assured them I would be careful, and scurried away. Curiosity wanted me to ask why they were doing their gossiping outside of the beauty parlor when it was clear two of them were in the middle of a style. I clamped down on it with a vise of willpower and hurried down the street in search of my aunt’s shop.
S. O. Teric’s was Nora’s pride and joy. She opened it when she was barely out of high school, or so I had been told. Back when bell-bottoms and fringe were in and expanding the mind was a life pursuit instead of an excuse to experiment with drugs…okay, instead of just an excuse to experiment. How it had survived in a little town in the middle of nowhere was anybody’s guess. Considering what I had learned about her bank account, I guessed it probably floated on the income from some secret, unknown source I wasn’t yet privy to. Like blackmailing the leader of a small country, or a really big lottery win nobody in the family had ever bothered to mention.
Bean Pole hadn’t been exaggerating when she said it stood out. It was a small shop on the corner of Aspen and Grove with a vibrant blue front door smack on the corner of the building. The building’s trim was silver and gold, the sort that gleams in the sunlight and is liable to blind a person at the wrong time of day. When I got closer, I saw that the bricks, painted black, were covered in tiny scrolling designs, like a silver henna tattoo. Crystals of different hues hung inside the open windows, dancing in a light breeze. The lack of security surprised me more than the shop; the exterior shouted Aunt Nora did the decorating. My nose started tickling and I found myself swallowing repeatedly to chase away a sudden cough that got stuck in my throat. With a deep breath, bracing myself for what lay inside, I crossed the threshold into S. O. Teric’s.
It smelled like Nora.
That was all I could think before the tears welled in my eyes. Her house held a delightful smell, but it wasn’t what called her up in my memory. This was. This poorly lit, cramped, musty hidey-hole with too many knick-knacks on the shelves and not enough space to move around them; with its buckets of incense sticks and racks of candles and decorative puddles of crystals and rainbows; this was what smelled like Nora. Lavender, sandalwood, old books, dark corners…all the scents combined to paint her in my mind’s eye.
“Can I help you?” asked a sunny voice from behind a tiny counter.
The girl matched the counter. She barely came up to my shoulder. Her floaty clothes both showed off her figure and made her look sweet and innocent.
“Um,” I said, buying time to regain my composure after nearly breaking down from the smell of the place.
“If you’re the new pizza delivery girl, you’re late. You can tell that slacker in front of the oven that I’m not paying for his damn cigarette breaks.” She threw in a few other choice words I wouldn’t be repeating. Ever.
“No, not,” I said, intelligently, taken aback by the words so incongruous with her appearance.
“Oh. Come to have your palm read? Your chart drawn? I don’t do the Chinese stuff yet, but I’m learning. Our Reiki services are no longer available.” She abruptly shut up. Then, as if her speech hadn’t been strange enough, she petted a small golden frog on the counter like it was a beloved friend.
As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I noticed the black sashes tied around columns holding up the second story, the cloths draped over certain lumpy stands. A sign affixed to the front of the register read, “A light in the darkness, an angel beyond us.”
I cleared my throat, unable to tear myself away from that sign and the little golden frog. “My name is Annika,” I managed to say.
Her response was not what I expected.
“Shit,” she said.
My mouth hung open for a moment as I attempted to find a reply to that succinct reaction. “Uhh…” was all I could come up with.
“You’re here to close the store, aren’t you?” She swore up a storm, muttered something about her horoscope, and slammed her fist into the counter. Then she took a deep breath, shook out her hands and closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she smiled sweetly at me. “Sorry. I’m on a Zen cleanse. You ever fasted?”
I shook my head.
“It’s a bitch on the blood sugar. But seriously, you’re here to shut us down, right?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“I loved Nora,” she said, almost as if I hadn’t spoken. “We were a part of each other’s spirit group. She was kind of like my aunt, too. I’m Ivy, by the way.” She waved her small, many-ringed fingers at me.
That rankled a little. Nora was my aunt. My blood. Some remnant of my childhood self insisted she was mine and no one else’s. Except I hadn’t felt that way for a decade. I hadn’t cared enough to call her on major holidays, let alone enough to visit. I didn’t deserve to feel possessive.
I quelled the rancor and forced myself to smile. “She was a good person. I’m glad she had someone close who was like family.”
“She talked about you a lot. How she wished you would follow your light. When she told me she was leaving you the store, I forgot about Mars’ influence and refused to come to work for a week. Wish I hadn’t done that now.” She ran a finger over the golden frog. “I told her you have too much water in your chart to stick around, but she didn’t listen to me. You’re going to sell, whether you know it or not.”
Nora had always preached the importance of an open mind; she lived by the creed, “To each, her own.” She spent time with Wiccans and Neopagans, nudists and Christians, Democrats and Republicans. I couldn’t discount the possibility of my astrological influences suggesting my future, but I would go no further than that. The stars didn’t tell me what to do. I didn’t appreciate having my choices dictated to me, especially not by a stranger the size of a large, surly leprechaun.
“Look,” I said, battening down the hatches on my anger. “You don’t know me. My aunt asked me to come here and see the shop for myself. I’m here.”
So many possibilities flew through my head – choice, savory words that begged to pierce and bite and stab. I couldn’t say any of them. If this girl was as close to my aunt as she claimed, then she, too, was grieving. Maybe more than I was. As much as I wanted to wring her short little neck, she deserved the benefit of the doubt. Plus, she might be my only ally in my new-found, hare-brained quest to save Meadowhaven from extinction.
“Here it is,” she said, gesturing around herself with wide arms. “Look all you want, but you’re going to sell.”
Spite became a flaming snake in my belly, coiling around my stomach as if getting ready to hatch fireballs. I clenched my teeth to keep its exit route blocked and said around them, “I’ll make myself at home, then.”
I could tell a similar serpent possessed my small opponent. Her round cheeks flushed, bright enough to see in the dim light. “Enjoy yourself.” I caught the hiss in her words, but I refrained from striking out at her.
Instead, I smiled and set to the task at hand.
I’ve been told I’m exceedingly good at presenting a cold shoulder. I used it now and left the little clerk in my icy wake.