I’m sweeping a brush around the floors in food prep half-heartedly when Mike appears out of nowhere and pats me on the shoulder. I jump a mile.
“Sorry Fred, didn’t mean to scare you. Listen, if things don’t pick up soon, you can head off early today. There’s no sense in having more staff around the place than customers.”
Mike’s right; breakfast was hours ago and the early afternoon weather is too warm for hot bowls but too cool for iced capps. In the entire place, there’s a group of old guys on some kind of fishing excursion who’ve stretched their coffees out for over an hour, and a single anxious-looking woman with a narrow nose and dark glasses who appears to be feeding her panini to the scarf round her head.
Maybe I should find that weird, but then look at me: a spotty teenager with the ghost of an ancient wizard hiding inside his skull.
Right on cue, Haitius is there, inside my head. Leave this place! I don’t know why you even come here.
“Because I have bills to pay,” I growl, forgetting, as I often do, that I don’t need to reply out loud.
Mike looks up surprised from his health and safety checklist. “Sorry, you say something?”
“Oh, nothing, don’t worry about it,” I say quickly, doing my best to sound breezy.
Mike returns to his checklist just in time for Haitius to say, Why are you interested in his goodwill? You can smite him any time you choose.
“Mike,” I call, “I’m just gonna step outside for five. That okay?”
I don’t wait for the reply. Instead, I disappear back through the door, through the sweaty kitchen and out back where the extractor fans roar and take a seat behind the bins. I’m trembling a bit. My nerves have been on edge since the siren arrived. Out here, I can focus on the conversation in my head.
“Okay, Haitius. We’ve been through this more times than I’ve counted, but here it is. I have to be nice to my boss. It’s not like it was for you in the old days. I can’t just live for free in a cave.”
It wasn’t a cave, it was a whole cavern. People bought offerings of food and furs to me in return for favours.
Magical favours, you idiot. I made harvests grow, storms end and produced babies from infertile wombs. What miracles have you performed?
“I once served the Kingston chapter of the Women’s Institute single-handedly when they came through on a day trip. Ten French vanilla, sixteen hot chocolates, forty-eight assorted coffees, all piping hot and not a single order wrong. Don’t tell me I haven’t performed miracles.”
The serving of beverages is sacrilege for one such as us. You’d have the power of a god if you could just learn how to harness it, and gods do not serve.
“They don’t seem to do too much except complain all the damn time.”
What steps are you taking to understand the true nature of your existence?
“If it ever comes up in a quiz, I’ll Google it.”
There’s a long pause. Haitius may know the secrets of the universe, but he isn’t quite up-to-date on internet culture or contemporary brands. He finally settles on a stock response. It’s his go-to when he loses an argument.
You need to work harder or you’ll never be able to perform true magic.
“I never asked to perform true magic! You’re the one who took up residence inside my head!”
I would never have found myself here unless you were uniquely attuned. Like it or not, this is your destiny.
Fuck destiny, I think, before remembering that Haitius will be able to hear it, whether I say it out loud or not.
Yes, well. You don’t do much of that, either, do you?
Low blow. “You know, I should charge you rent.”
Focus on honing your skills, Frederick, not your ready wit.
If he was this talkative all the time, it would be a nightmare, but Haitius is quiet for the most part and he has taught me some pretty cool stuff. I know an invisibility spell that works as long as nobody looks at me, which is to say it works pretty well. I don’t know for sure how old he actually is, but Haitius talks sometimes about the wilds of the world and how they looked when there were just a handful of people living in them. He hasn’t quite adjusted to the modern world yet though. He doesn’t understand why I need my minimum wage job. Ask him about Apple and he’ll tell you that there are better fruits. There are other complications too, and I don’t just mean when he’s encouraging me to strike down customers with hellfire. I’m totally into girls, but Haitius seems more inclined towards young men, and it’s a nuisance when I’m trying to chat to a young hottie and my eyes keep drifting to a coworker’s buns while he’s restocking the store cabinets.
Haitius is silent again now, and that’s fine with me. I step back inside, hide myself behind the counter and keep a stealthy watch on the woman I’d seen earlier. It’s impossible to tell her age because she’s hiding her features and body shape beneath her baggy clothing. Her dark glasses are huge, covering more than half her face. As I watch, she tears the corner off her panini and stuffs it rapidly into the scarf on her brow. There’s a second or two pause before it falls back out again, and she sighs, “Errol, I already said I’m not catching any more mice for you. Just eat the damn sandwich.”
It’s been two days since I went to Ben for help, and all I’ve planned to do till he gets back to me is keep a low profile. Haitius should be more help, but he’s fixated on his own issues and there’s something reassuring about having someone physically in the same space as me. From what little Haitius has shared with me about sirens, I know that they can smell magic, and that it makes them wild and ferocious. This woman is freakish for sure, but she doesn’t really fit that description. If anything, she looks more nervous than I am. I figure that she’s just a common garden crazy with a cat under her hat.
“Fred, like I said, you can head off if you want to.” Mike appears in my vision courtesy of another of his ninja moves, and he also surprises the woman, who drops her sandwich and hurries to pull the scarf tight around her head. I stay long enough to watch her shuffle out, and then I go to change and collect my things.
I make it as far as the door when Mike calls my name, and we stop together just outside the doorway. Mike’s maybe ten years older than me, has a big moustache and looks a little like a cop from a ’70s movie, but he’s not a bad guy. I’m surprised that he wants to talk to me, but not worried. Did I mention I’m a coffee-making wizard?
“Fred, thanks for being understanding about this. Since you’ve been here, I’ve always been impressed with your commitment. I know this isn’t glamorous work, but you do what you can, and you don’t slack off, which is more than can be said for some.”
“That’s cool,” I say, shrugging.
“I just wanted to say…the last couple of shifts you’ve looked really distracted. Not your usual cheerful self, you know?” I nod, trying not to snort at the idea of me ever being cheerful. “Now you don’t have to say anything to me, it’s not an issue. I just wanted you to know that we’re a family here, and if you have a problem, you can always talk to me.” Mike’s eyes lift away from me, and then he looks past me, out into the distance.
“Do you hear that? It sounds like Nickelback… Can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s actually pretty good. It’s a lot catchier than I remember.”
In the distance I hear the swell of electric guitars and repetitive vocals. As I listen to them, every one of my muscles freezes solid.
If Mike notices, he’s kind enough not to say it. Instead, he pats my shoulder again and says, “Anyway, think about what I said.” All managerial and mentorly duties complete, he skips back inside the restaurant. As he bounces away, Haitius’ eyes, which is to say my eyes, follow his shapely rear.
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