We reached the gym on sixth street. A well-manicured man in a fitted jogging suit stood inside by the door, waiting for something.
“I think the doorman spotted us.” I looked down at the pavement and tried to ignore the new set of eyes on me.
“Ah, probably Gary, the owner.” Henry leaned into my ear. “He’s overly clean-smelling in a freaky way, but he’s a good self-defense instructor.”
I grabbed Henry’s arm and pulled my face to his neck. “looks fetish-y like he shaves his balls and dances around in drag with his junk tucked away.”
“Jesus, like it puts lotion on its skin, weird?” Concern tainted his voice.
“If I don’t hear from you tomorrow, I’m coming back to pull you out of his dungeon.” I finished my tea and tossed the container in the sidewalk trash can.
“Thanks for nothing. I end up in the hole before you rescue me.”
I laughed and kissed Henry’s cheek. “I promise to pull you out of his creepy hole. Shit, I left red lips on your face.” I did my best to rub the lipstick smear off Henry’s cheek.
“Bah, it’s fine. I could have a big, fat dick drawn on my forehead. I doubt anyone would tell me.”
“Oh my God, I would so tell you if anything was drawn on your face.”
“There, I sent you my address. The townhouse isn’t far from here. I’m out of the office by noon on Fridays. I’ll text when the wedding crap arrives.”
“Great, my lecture ends at two. I can be there by half-past.”
“Thanks again, Al. I appreciate your dark sense of adventure.”
“Might look like a circus freak and not even know, just saying.”
“Creepy Gary is watching for sure. I’m grilling him for details.” Henry seemed to be listening extra hard to the foot traffic on the sidewalk. I tugged at his arm and steered him through the sparse crowd of passers-by.
Gary nodded to me and smiled as we approached the door. I could see the appreciation spread across his face like I did something he found unexpectedly charitable.
“Have fun with mister silence of the lambs. See you tomorrow.”
“Good luck with your stalker girl.”
I rolled my eyes and realized Henry couldn’t see me. “Thanks!”
Walking away from Henry, I felt the high of an excellent first date. It was difficult to gauge his impression of our time together without seeing his eyes. Ninety percent of my dating attributes vanished in this situation.
I strolled toward the restaurant, mentally preparing myself for a few hours with Leo and his testosterone-filled teammates. Rugby players are a rowdy self-absorbed bunch, and it doesn’t help most of the guys on the team are Irish.
Old nursery rhymes from my bedtime stories as a child began to flood my brain like an earworm I couldn’t shake.
One witch at the door, one witch at the gate. One soldier at the ready, one soldier in the grave. One to armor flesh and one to watch the soul. Keep vigil always on the narrow road home.
The old words blurred my vision and soured my stomach. I pondered the freshness of the whipped cream on my chai. The thick perfume of gardenias floated in the air.
Empty tables sat chained to the walls outside a sandwich shop a block from the pizzeria. I sat down, pulled out my phone, and pretended to be making a call.
On my thirteenth birthday, my Clan traditions matched me with an Elder. They explained if I ever joined the fight against the demon hordes, I would need one. The idea of there being actual demons was ludicrous, but the same gardenia smell was heavy in the air then too.
My eyes filled with unnaturally bright light. A muscular but older looking man sat beside me at the outdoor table. The thin metal of the bistro chairs creaked under his weight. His trim reddish-brown beard accentuated his stern facial expression. A dark brown leather coat covered his upper body, and soot gray pants disappeared into the same color leather boots.
The man pulled out a pipe and a leather pouch and began to load the tobacco.
“The world was different when I walked it last.” He lit the pipe by striking a short knife against a jagged black stone and took a deep exaggerated breath. “Not all this.” He rolled his tobacco pouch, the sharp knife, and the stone back up in the leather pouch and took another hard drag.
I didn’t know what to say. At thirteen, I got a queasy feeling stomach and a headache from the smell of the flowers, but I didn’t see anyone.
I swallowed what moisture I could gather and took a breath.
“I’m not sure how this works, Elder?” I whispered loud enough so he could hear but not so loudly I looked like a lunatic talking to myself.
“Aye, you don’t remember, Lass. I am Gar. You are suspended in your time. I’m here unsuspended from mine.” Gar spoke as if he recently memorized the explanation.
“I remember a bit from one of my bedtime stories. Time was not as it is nor as it was, but still, time marched on unnoticed.” I recited the line as best as I could remember.
“Yes, good, the old stories remain unchanged.” Gar nodded in agreement and puffed his pipe again. “Who thought this was a good idea?” He asked openly.
Overwhelmed, I could only shake my head to agree.
“Those your age seems so unhappy. All you need is tossed at your feet. I think the ease of life dulls your thirst for excitement.”
“Our advancements give us everything we need,” I explained.
“Hmm.” Gar shook his head. “Blank-faced whiny, old children with their faces staring longingly into their idols.” Gar gestured at the passers-by, who thankfully didn’t notice us.
“What idols?” I asked, confused. “Religion is not uppermost in the minds of the old children I know.” I sat back in my chair, hiding in the shadow of the building.
“The squares with the lights you tap and caress and cling to all day. The gadget you cherish there in your hand.” Gar pointed at my phone.
“This is a phone—everyone owns one. They cost money. So, we keep them safe.” I turned my phone over and back so he could see the entire case.
“Everyone owns these things?” he asked, puffing on his pipe and running a shaky finger across the screen.
“Yes, it’s almost impossible to get along without one.”
“Like a second arse hole, you carry in your hand,” Gar laughed and coughed as he inhaled more of his pipe smoke.
“Ewe no, it holds music and access to money. See, it can show me how to get places and where my friends are.”
Gar laughed and opened his coat, revealing a beige woven shirt and a thick gold medallion on a heavy silver chain around his neck. His eyes were the same honey brown color as Leo’s.
“This is a good asshole to have. Can it find enemies too?” Gar picked up the phone carefully.
“I suppose, but why not leave the bad people alone?”
“To kill them, of course. Your friends will find you. Hunt down your enemies with this asshole and kill them before they find you,” Gar explained in a loud booming voice.
“Oh, good God. You are a Neanderthal.”
“No, I’m a MacTernan,” Gar corrected.
I rested my head in my hand. “I don’t have any enemies.”
“Lass, the blood in your veins, the very breath in your lungs, calls out to everything that hates us. We are abominations to some.” Gar explained with a hint of shame in his gruff voice.
“The Clan stories are myths and legends to people now—nothing more.”
“The humans, yes, but the witches, demons, and whatever else crawls out from the dark to challenge us hates you with a passion. You can create more of our kind, and you have the calling. This makes you a bright, flaming target. You need your armor to protect you from being found.”
“The calling? Sorry, no armor. The old rhymes talk about our armor like it’s symbolic.”
“Your shield is not a symbol. It’s a living, breathing person.” Gar finished his pipe. Tapped the ash on the ground and set the carved wooden pipe on the table.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”
“Hmm, I see why I’m here. Your human shield. You need one human and at least one witch and one physical wolf, or you won’t last a single battle.” Gar explained as if I would suddenly nod my head in agreement.
“Battle? This is a quiet college town full of everyday criminals. There’s nothing magical to fight and no witches.” I explained the reality calmly, but I could feel my chest begin to perspire.
“Without a witch, I couldn’t go anywhere. There are many things you choose not to see. Your head stuck in this asshole. I’m surprised you’re still alive.” Gar grabbed his pipe and pushed it into a narrow pocket inside his leather coat.
“Moyra is my oldest friend and my witch. She is loyal to our Clan. Her descendants will know about this shortage of witches you suffer from.” Gar stood up and held his medallion in his hands. “Won’t do any good to claim a wolf or a shield without a good witch to send you in and pull you back out. These many nights are important. Keep vigil on the narrow road and keep your eyes out front where they belong.”
Gar was gone. The space he occupied filled with darkness and fresh night air. My ears were ringing, and my vision was cloudy. Time progressed only a few seconds.
A text from Henry popped up on my phone, showing his address.
A beautiful, glittering life sits just beyond my reach. With my classes and my degree, there’s no time for mystical Clan bullshit. Besides, I was in no danger of triggering the ridiculous, folklore-based curse that terrified me as a child.
Blood of innocence flows from grave to soul. Awaken the Powers that sleep and conscripted ye shall be.
The words slipped out from some forgotten corner of my mind. A cold shiver ran from my shoulders down my spine into my thighs, pinning me to the chair before it passed. I hoped it was a simple celiac response to the mound of sugar I inhaled.
Maybe I was crazy. Many ailments present in the early twenties. Maybe twenty-three years of sanity was all I was going to get out of my life.
I grabbed my phone and sent a text to my mother.
“I think I’m crazy.”
“Why,” she replied.
“Conversation with my elder.”
“U been drinking?”
“2 busy for problems today. Call Nana,” she replied.
“I could be losing my mind.”
“Not this week, 2 weddings and 1 bridal shower. Call Nana.”
I shoved my phone in my bag and continued toward the pizzeria. I don’t know why I expected help from my mother. She wants Clan law followed without question, but she never talks about why we have a Clan in the first place.
I live my life apart from all the folklore and superstitions. I don’t identify with the old stories and stifling rules. I’m a part of the real human world, not some mindless monkey-brained follower of Clan lunacy.
“I am not crazy,” I mumbled under my breath. If I said it enough times, it might eventually sound true.