Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Open Enrollment"

This story takes place in the same world as two of my earlier short stories, "Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched" and "The Best Medicine", which focus around the character Jillian Nightingale, human nurse practitioner to the supernatural community. She actually doesn't appear in this story, but... well, you'll find out. 

The Salisbury steak wasn’t from Salisbury, and it sure as hell wasn’t steak. More like a mound of meat someone had smashed flat and poured over with cold, brown sauce that slightly resembled gravy. I didn’t want to be rude, but I looked up at the waitress and hoped my disapproval and confusion were plain. If she picked up on my cues, she gave no response before walking back behind the counter.

Disappointment was bringing on a pain between by eyebrows. I closed my eyes and kneaded the spot with two fingers and tried to control my temper. I was getting better at it, but my therapist said I still had a long way to go. And stuff got bad when I lost my temper.

“Is something wrong?” Came the voice of the guy on the other side of the white-and-red checkered table.

“What exactly is Salisbury steak?” I asked calmly without opening my eyes.

“It’s a sort of minced-meat patty, served with gravy,” said the other person. “It was invented by J.H. Salisbury in 1897, while he was trying to patent the first low-carb diet.”

“Not from Salisbury,” I spoke my realization. “And I think ‘steak’ is a bit of a misnomer.”

There came an uneasy clearing of a throat, and finally I opened my eyes and gazed at the skinny guy in the suit sitting across from me. He sipped from his glass of water, pushed his glasses further up his wide face, and shuffled the papers in his hands. “Mammon, if you don’t mind, I could read over the policies while you eat. That way, you can already be deciding which one might be best for you.”

I sighed and, just to make he and the waitress feel better, I unwrapped my fork from my napkin and cut a piece from the Salisbury ‘steak’ with its edge. I didn’t exactly relish the idea of eating a steak I didn’t need a knife to cut. “If I don’t eat, does that mean you won’t read?”

“Oh, come on. Don’t be that way,” Tim Greenbrier, head of human resources for the department, said. “You’re the only one who hasn’t signed up yet, and open enrollment ends today. Templesmith says that if I don’t get you signed up today, you’re going to be stuck doing deskwork until the next open enrollment.” He set down the paperwork and leaned forward a bit. “And so will I!”

“You already do deskwork all day,” I said, finally gaining the courage to stick a forkful of Salisbury steak into my mouth.

“But you don’t! You love fieldwork. And you can kiss it good-bye until November unless you sign up. So, why not just sign up and get it over with?”

I chewed slowly. Hmm. Maybe I had judged Salisbury steak too quickly. “Do I seriously have to?” I asked out of one side of my mouth. “What kind of medical coverage could I possibly need?”

“Well, for one, we have a plan that would cover your therapist sessions. Wouldn’t it be nice to simply pay a little every month and not have to worry about writing a check every time you saw Dr. LaRue? Or not having to pay out of pocket every time you catch a piece of furniture in her office on fire?”

My eyes snapped up from my meal, and Tim flinched a little under my gaze. My skin, which is already tomato-red during my best moods, started to glow.

It was days like this I wished I hadn’t had my horns filed down. Tim got to keep his, although he was mostly behind and desk and not on patrol (not to mention that a satyr’s horns don’t get much bigger than nubs). Apparently the department was trying to soften their image, and iffrits’ curved, black horns apparently made me seem less than approachable. As did my outbursts that tended to make things combust.

I forced myself to breathe more slowly, through my nose, like Dr. LaRue had shown me. In doing so, I chewed the bite a little more slowly. Tim’s only trying to help, I told myself. And he’s just doing his job. You can’t get mad at him for that.

Actually, now that I thought about it, Salisbury steak was pretty damn good. “That would be pretty nice,” I said. Though I hadn’t told anyone about the periodic fires at my therapist’s office, apparently word had gotten around the rest of the precinct.

“You bet your ass it would,” Tim said, practically cheering. He shuffled the papers in front of him and pulled a few from the stack. “I already picked out a few policies I think you’ll like. I’ll read through them, and you tell me which ones you like best.”

So I ate, and Tim read. He used a lot of big words like ‘copay’ and ‘deductible’ and ‘premium’ and ‘in-network’. For the most part, what he said made sense. There were a few plans that seemed identical, and when I asked Tim to clarify he only made me more confused. In the end, I picked a plan called the ‘Commonwealth Plan’, because I liked the name the best.

The more I ate the Salisbury steak, the more I realized I liked it, and the more I realized I had unnecessarily given the waitress the stink eye. I would have to make good with her before I left the restaurant. That’s something Dr. Larue told me I should do: as soon as I realize I’ve done wrong by sometime, make amends as quick as possible.

A thought occurred to me. “Hey, if the department says I have to go to counseling, I’m not sure I should have to pay for that. I mean, it’s for my job, right?”

“You still have to pay for it,” Tim replied without looking up from the stack of paperwork he was rapidly shorting. “But you can write it off on your taxes as a work-related expense. Your NP should be able to tell you more about it.”

While Tim had been talking, I had flagged down the waitress and apologized for my behavior over the Salisbury steak. Satisfied with my apology, she now poured coffee for Tim and I. “NP?” I asked, lifting my cup. “What does that stand for?”

“Nurse practitioner,” Tim said, ripping the tops off of three packs of Equal. He dumped them into his coffee, along with a drop from a small cup of half-and-half. “Our new heath plans are through the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. They have a bunch of NPs on staff that do housecalls and stuff. One will be by your place to check on you every month or so.”

“Aw, crap,” I breathed, after I had swallowed my firth mouthful of coffee. “I don’t want to have to clean up my apartment for company that I don’t even want.”

“You don’t have to clean up anything,” Tim added. “Their visits aren’t for more than a few minutes each. It’s supposed to be a new initiative to bring down insurance premiums for all cryptos.”

“Tired of paying extra premiums of offset the mummies’ rapidly rising cost of bandages?” 

He smirked. “More like, tired of paying for iffrits who catch their therapists’ couches on fire.”

I sipped my coffee. “See how I’m not killing you now? I think I’m making progress. I should send Dr. Larue a text.” I finished my Salisbury steak, vowing to return soon for another. Our waitress, a pretty faeling with curves in all the right places and shimmery dragonfly wings that emerged from the back of her uniform shirt, set our check on the table. She smiled at me, I smiled at her, and I considered that I might not be coming back just for the steak.

“Oh, and get this,” Tim suddenly added as he pulled out his wallet. He set down a few bills to cover his part of the tab. “They Agency just hired a human NP!”

I froze with my hand in my wallet. “Wait. What?”

“You heard me.”

Finally thinking again, I scooped Tim’s money from the table, put it into my wallet, and sent my credit card off with the check. “Why the hell would they do that? Only a tiny fraction of humans even know cryptos exist.”

Tim rose and pushed in his chair. When he wasn’t looking, I wrote my phone number on the check beneath my signature. “Way I heard it, she saved a gillgonder that got hit by a truck. Noticed his gills and, instead of losing her mind, got him to water before it was too late. They offered her the job to thank her.”

I made sure to smile at the waitress one more time before Tim and I headed out the door. In the sunlight, our covers, the enchantments that let us (mostly) blend in with human society, shimmered to life. “A human nurse,” I said, shaking my head and following Tim down the sidewalk, back toward the Cryptohumanoid Police Department precinct. “What’ll they think of next?”

Monday, April 14, 2014

"The Evils of Polka Dots"

“And polka dots. Be sure to watch out for polka dots.”

I lowered the notepad I was writing in to my lap and turned my face to my old aunt. “Evil? What are you talking about, Aunt Catherine?”

The woman across the table was more than sixty years older than me, but still she looked at me with child-like eyes. “It’s a little-known fact that polka dots are the most evil thing in the known universe, Maggie. Never forget that.”

“How could polka dots be evil?” I asked, closing the notepad. I was definitely not writing anything else until she answered. “And besides, you told me that no magic is good or evil on it’s own. You said that it’s the user of the magic that chooses good or evil.”

“What patterns have we already covered?” Aunt Catherine asked, pointing at my notepad.

I groaned. It would be like her not to answer my question until I answered hers first. So I flipped my notepad back a page to where I had started writing a few minutes before. “Lesson three: magic in patterns.”

“Beautiful rendition of the title,” she said with a smirk.

“Plaid and tartan: holds enchantments of heightened physical abilities,” I read from the paper. “That’s why Scottish and English warriors wore it as part of their military uniforms for hundreds of years. Until people stopped believing in magic.”

“And part of why socks are still patterned with argyle today,” Aunt Catherine put in. “Be sure to add that part.”

I wrote in the margin as she spoke, then read more from my notes. “Houndstooth: power of persuasion. Someone working magic through houndstooth becomes very easy to follow.”

“Only black-and-white houndstooth,” Aunt Catherine corrected. “That’s why you see it so frequently on business attire. Someone wearing blue houndstooth can make their words have the opposite effect of what they say. And red houndstooth… well, that just looks ridiculous.”

I scribbled more notes next to what I had already written.

“And under that,” Aunt Catherine added. “Be sure to put, ‘Polka dots: pure evil’!”

I wrote what she told me. “Aunt Catherine, why are polka dots evil?”

“Why is the sun hot? Why is rain wet? We’re not meant to understand everything, Maggie. Some things just are.”

I wanted to tell her that I had learned why the sun was hot and why rain was wet in 6th grade science class last month, but I held it inside. Instead, I asked, “If plaid holds physical enchantments, and houndstooth can make a person more convincing, what does magic worked through polka dots do?”

“Exactly what I told you. It does evil,” she replied, curling her hand like a claw when she said evil. “No matter what you try to do with your magic through polka dots, it comes out evil. Trying to make your friend lucky? They’ll get bad luck. Trying to get rid of an itchy rash? You’ll catch a worse rash. Trying to get school cancelled for the day? It’ll get smashed by an asteroid.”

I looked up from my notepad long enough to raise a skeptical eyebrow.

“It’s happened!” Aunt Catherine insisted. “Polka dots are no laughing matter! They’re seriously bad news! Why do you think they were so big in the 1950’s? We were in the middle of the Cold War! Everyone was having dark thoughts!”  

I knew nothing about the 1950’s, and I had no idea what a ‘cold war’ was, but if Aunt Catherine said so, then it made sense. I jotted it down on my notepad. “Hey Aunt Catherine,” I began. “Why does magic flow so easily through patterns?”

When she smiled, the lines beside her nose deepened. But instead of making her look older, they actually made her look more vibrant, more full of life. “Why, the same way everything flows through colors and patterns, Maggie,” she replied. “For example, describe what you’re wearing today.”

I looked down at my shirt. It was bright yellow, and on it there was a cartoon of a walrus with a huge handlebar mustache and a top hat. “Well, I’m wearing my fancy walrus shirt, a jean skirt, and gray leggings.”

“Why did you choose to wear those this morning?”

“Because it’s Monday, and fun clothes always cheer me up on Mondays, because otherwise it’s the worst day of the week.”

She lifted her eyebrows and gestured with her index finger. “See what I mean? Colors and patterns have a great effect on our emotions! Another example: when you think of people who are sad, like at a funeral, what color are they always wearing?”

“Black,” I responded instantly. 

“Good,” Aunt Catherine replied. “But black is not always a sad color. Black is reserved, inward-seeking. It doesn’t see to impose on others; it simply wishes to be itself, accepted. On that idea, what color is a bride’s wedding dress, usually? And what is it made from?”

“White,” I replied. “And usually something smooth, like silk or lace.”

“White is an extroverted color,” Aunt Catherine said. “White wants to be seen, to be heard. And magic worked through those slick fabrics repel other things – bad emotions, bad luck, bad magic – which only makes white that much more outgoing.”

I nodded, enthralled by her story-telling. “Tell me some more!” I prodded.

Aunt Catherine nodded sharply with her forehead. “Why? You haven’t written down what I just told you!”

I looked down. Though I hadn’t realized it, my notepad and pencil had fallen to the floor.

“Are you the next Weaver Apprentice, or ain’t ya?” Aunt Catherine said, but there was some laughter in her voice. “How am I going to teach you about the forces of creation and destruction, light and darkness, order and chaos, if you don’t write any of it down?”

I laughed a little and stuck my tongue out at her, but wrote down everything she had told me about weddings and funerals and black and white. “What about paisley? You know, the pattern on handkerchiefs? What kind of magic can you do with paisley?”

A sly smile crossed her face. “Oh, you’re not ready for paisley yet, sprout. That’s advanced level stuff. We’ll be lucky if we make it to gingham today.”

I playfully rolled my eyes at my great aunt, but continued to write as I hung on her every word. After all, I liked the Weaver Apprentice lessons. And, the longer she and I talked, the longer I got to put off doing my math homework. Win-win!