Parasitic Souls: what if there was a tech bubble, but for magic?
[Editor's note: Kater Cheek was one of my Clarion 2007 students, and has been vigorously writing and publishing ever since. She has graciously offered us the opportunity to publish the opening chapter of Parasitic Souls, her latest novel -Cory]
This novel was inspired indirectly by a book about chemists in the mid-20th century, when someone bold enough and lucky enough could discover a new element and win glory. I then thought about the tech boom of the late nineties and early 21st century. Remember when you could start a website which could become huge overnight and make you and your techie startup founder friends all millionaires?
What if there were a similar boom for magic? And what if, as with technology, new magical advances happened faster than laws could keep up? People could do really horrible things that weren’t technically illegal yet (such as put a soul into another’s body.)
In Parasitic Souls, magic touches everyone's lives in the same way that technology touched everyone's lives at the beginning of this century. It's a new world, and mages young and old are trying to find their place in it.
The characters are in that liminal almost-adult period after they have moved out of their parents’ house, but still haven’t quite achieved perfect independence. It's a very appropriate book for teens, who are probably quite curious about life after high school, but adults can empathize too. There's very little violence, very little swearing, and no sex, but a few tense scenes, some romance, and a tight plot. In short: this is a great book for anyone who likes magic or romance or adventure.
Fiona was twenty-four years old, a little taller than average, a little heavier than average, with a mane of hair which she’d dyed magenta. She wore black slacks and a black mesh top over a cami that had felt barely chic enough to pass back in LA but made her feel simultaneously underdressed and overdressed here in Clementine.
The familiar dusty desert smell hit her as soon as she got out of the car. Clementine tried to bill itself as the new Napa, and they did have one winery, but she’d lived here long enough to recognize it for what it was—a dry, sleepy town tucked up into the hills. She heard some mourning doves cry out, heard the flutter of wings, and then it was silent except for a slithering breeze carrying the scent of juniper down from the mountain. Carlotta said Clementine had changed a lot since Fiona left, but from the street outside Carlotta’s new condo it smelled and sounded exactly the same as when she was a teenager.
That morning, Fiona had been living in L.A., and she thought she had her life all planned out. She would work morning and afternoon shifts as a prep cook at the local steakhouse to pay for her rent, and then at a seafood restaurant at night to pay for everything else. It didn’t leave much time for sleeping, but she was young, she was ambitious, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep when she was a famous professional chef with her own restaurant.
But now that she was here, sleep-deprived and worried, on a leave of absence from work that she already suspected would be permanent, based on a phone call from a girl she’d never met. Carlotta needed her, the girl said. Please come. She’d told her bosses she had to go home to help her mother, the lie coming easily. To say that Carlotta was her dad’s ex-wife whom he’d divorced ten years earlier wouldn’t carry the same weight.
Fiona would do anything for Carlotta. Fiona wasn’t even sure she’d show up to her real mother’s funeral.
Once, Fiona asked her dad if she could spend summer vacation with her mom instead of trekking around from hotel to hotel with him while he did his sales presentations, which she’d done before, and which was a lot less glorious than it sounded. She was fourteen at the time, and since her dad had recently divorced Carlotta, Fiona had sunk into a deeply lonely funk that her father would likely have been unwilling to deal with, even if he had noticed.
She had begun to fantasize about living with her mother again. She hadn’t seen her mom since she was a child, but she imagined that surely her mother must be the warm and affectionate parent she had always needed and never found. Her dad acquiesced, as he usually did when her requests involved no effort on his part beyond paying a bill.
Her first clue that West Texas wasn’t the wonderland that her fertile imagination had conjured came when her plane arrived without a parent waiting at the other end. Fiona waited at the airport for three hours, while irritated airline workers repeatedly called a useless phone number hoping someone would answer. Fiona sat on her suitcase, filled with presents she made or bought with her allowance and wrapped, carefully labeled with the names of relatives she hadn’t met.
After the sun began to set and the tiny airport began to close for the day, a beery middle-aged man who said he was her uncle showed up. He belched and lurched, and if he’d shown up at Fiona’s school, the teachers would have called all the students inside to keep them safe, but here in the dusty airport, this frightening stranger was her Uncle Roy. Her ride.
He didn’t apologize for being late, or explain why he had come and not her mother. Later she learned that her mother didn’t drive any more. Not couldn’t, but didn’t, for reasons no one cared to elaborate.
The summer she spent in her grandparents’ house was like a descent into hell. Roy and Grandpa and her mom parked on the couch all day. The television was never, ever turned off, its cacophony barring even the slight escape that sleep might have offered. They had no room for her, no bed, nor any chair. They unwrapped the presents and tossed them aside without a word of thanks. Fiona’s mom treated her with the same lack of care. She never asked her a single question, made any effort to get to know her, or said anything at all to her except “down in front!” when Fiona stood in front of the television.
Fiona looked for a spark, some sign that this empty woman shared anything in common with her except the shape of her mouth. She couldn’t imagine a less-motherly woman. She couldn’t even imagine why her dad had sex with this woman and stuck around long enough to learn her name.
Grandma demanded Fiona sit in the spot between the coffee table and the china cabinet. She slept there, and sat all day watching the same television shows that they did. They watched talk shows, and the shopping channel, Antiques Roadshow, and of course any football game that came on.
She wasn’t allowed to leave.
“Where you think you’re going?” Grandma brayed, when Fiona crept towards the door.
“I’m just gonna step outside, you know, get some fresh air,” she said, only to be informed that she wasn’t allowed to go farther than the end of the drive.
Not that there was anywhere to go, or anything to do. She’d left her skateboard back in California, and she didn’t see anyone around who had one she might borrow. She met a couple of kids, and had gone up to introduce herself, but in lieu of asking her name, they asked, “What church do you go to?”
When she failed to produce the correct answer, they left instead of hanging out with her. She’d been crying when she came back. Instead of asking what happened, Grandpa just shouted “Shut the door!”
Fiona had taken her place between the coffee table and the china cabinet. She imagined them as robots, guarding a television for all eternity, punished by being chained to this dreary place. She imagined she herself had been imprisoned, sent to this smoky hell of television, of the incessant noise of the window air unit, of canned chili and baked macaroni day after day. She risked Grandma’s fury by calling her dad, long distance, intending to beg him to let her come home early, but of course her dad never answered.
She wondered if she would ever escape, or if she, too, would be stuck here like the rest of these horrible strangers who dared to be related to her, growing fat on the couch while the world never changed and the windows never opened.
But summer eventually ended, and Uncle Roy took her back to the tiny airport. She flew home, and her dad came to pick her up on time, wearing a suit and talking on his cell phone with barely a nod to acknowledge her.
“Did you have a nice trip?” he asked, between calls.
“No,” she said.
Her dad didn’t ask any more questions, because he was already on another call. To her surprise, instead of taking them home, he drove her to Carlotta’s house. Fiona didn’t bother to hide her surprise. Since Carlotta and her dad had divorced, she assumed that she wouldn’t see Carlotta more than on special occasions.
Inside Carlotta’s foyer was a mountain of cardboard boxes labeled with Fiona’s name.
“My company is transferring me to Hong Kong,” he said. “I’m leaving Monday. You’re going to stay with Carlotta until I find a school for you.”
“Fiona! Sweetheart! How was your trip?” Carlotta called out. She had been wearing old clothes that were splattered with paint. She’d hugged Fiona tightly, and Fiona had realized it was the first hug she’d gotten from anyone since the divorce. “I was hoping your room would be done before you got here, but your dad didn’t tell me about Hong Kong until last weekend. Go look at the color I picked.”
Fiona went to look at her new room while Carlotta and Fiona’s dad talked about money details. Carlotta had chosen Fiona’s favorite shade, a bright magenta. Fiona even had her own bathroom, and Carlotta had bought coordinating towels.
Fiona never went to Hong Kong. She lived with Carlotta for the rest of the school year, and when Carlotta decided to move to Clementine, Fiona went with her. Dad sent checks to cover Fiona’s expenses, but Carlotta was the one who came to parent-teacher conferences, and Carlotta was the one who hemmed her prom dress. Dad paid tuition so Fiona could go to massage therapy school and cooking school and all the other dreams that needed financing, but Carlotta was the one Fiona always returned to, when her dreams turned out less wonderful than she had imagined.
Fiona knocked on the door to Carlotta’s condo. The door opened, revealing a small, dark girl who looked quite young, no more than fourteen or fifteen at the most. The girl’s eyes were red, as if she’d been crying.
“Is Carlotta here?”
The girl shook her head.
“Good. Then you have some time to tell me what’s going on.” Fiona pushed her way in.
She’d been here several times before, but Carlotta loved to redecorate, and every time Fiona visited, the house looked different. This time, she’d taken the small, mid-century bungalow and knocked out walls to open it up. The pitched roof had clerestory windows and a brick façade along the back wall, with a ten foot by ten foot framed chalkboard, complete with a bucket of chalk and a ladder to access the upper half of it. A small loft served as a home office. A string of lights shaped like fireflies wound around the spiral staircase.
“Wow, looks better than the photos. Too bad she’s going to sell it.”
The girl looked baffled.
“She always sells her houses. Fixes them up, stages them, then sells them.” Fiona liked the look of that loft. Maybe she could sleep up there. She headed to the kitchen so she could help herself to breakfast. Difficult discussions always went better on a full stomach.
The kitchen had been completely gutted and redone. It took up easily three times as much floor space as the original floorplan, and had a restaurant-sized, six-burner gas stove and a stainless steel refrigerator big enough to hold an entire cow. The first three cabinets Fiona opened were empty except for a package of paper cups and a stack of paper plates.
“So, who are you?” Fiona asked the girl. “What’s your name? What’s your story?”
“Oh. You doing interning? I used to do that in summers. I filed, answered the phone. Boring as anything, but it was something to do, I guess. Kept me out of Texas. Wait though, it’s not summer anymore, it’s November. Aren’t you in high school?”
“I graduated in May.”
Fiona took a closer look at Sophie. Sophie had long hair pulled into a ponytail, a button-up blouse that emphasized her flat chest, and a pair of penny loafers.
“How old are you?”
“Really? Wow, you look a lot younger than, I mean, I’m sorry. It’s just.” Fiona opened the refrigerator. She took out a container of fake cream cheese and a gluten-free bagel. “Soy milk and low-carb, low-fat everything. Can you believe this? Okay, never mind. So you’re working for Carlotta, huh? Just the two of you?”
“Huh, well, it’s better than those dicks she used to work with at the other agency. God, can you believe this kitchen though? I love Carlotta, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen better food in dorm rooms.” Fiona sliced the bagel in half with a plastic fork as best she could. “I’ll have to convert her to real food. I didn’t even know they made stuff like this. Why eat it at all? Why not just eat sawdust? You cut out fat and gluten and sugar and flavor, what’s the point? I know, I know, food snob. That’s what I get for going to cooking school. What do you do for Carlotta? I mean, what’s your title? Personal assistant? Secretary?”
“I’m a warder.”
“What’s a warder? She said she was into property enhancements. I figured that was flipping houses, now I’m confused. I only pretended I knew what that was when Carlotta told me. You’re gonna have to explain it to me. ”
“I make magical wards on people’s houses.”
“You do what now?”
“I make wards.”
“Still not getting it.”
“It’s a very specialized branch of magic. I make wards, it’s like a protective sphere. I make it around people’s properties.”
“Get outta town. You’re a mage? I thought magic was all cutting edge Silicon Valley stuff. A mage, right here in Clementine. No way. Show me something.”
Sophie pulled her lips in and shook her head.
“Come on ...” Fiona used her best wheedling tone. Sophie shook her head again, so Fiona continued. “Come on, come on, come on. You gotta show me something.”
Sophie shrugged shyly and relented. “Grab that lemon.”
Fiona picked up the lemon. It had a sticker that said it was organic, and had been shipped from Chile, which was pretty sad considering they were in California and it was the start of citrus season.
Sophie had closed her eyes briefly. She opened them. “Throw it at me.”
“What, you mean like chuck it at your head?”
“Anywhere,” Sophie said.
Fiona tossed it underhand at Sophie’s chest. It missed. It more than missed, it bounced off something. Fiona picked the lemon back up and tried again. This time she threw harder, directly at Sophie’s chest. It bounced off something invisible as if off a wall.
Sophie exhaled, relaxing.
Fiona threw the lemon again, and this time it hit Sophie just above the ear.
“Ow!” Sophie rubbed her head. “I let the lemon ward go!”
“Sorry,” Fiona said. “You made a ward against lemons?”
“People pay you for this?”
“Not against lemons, but other things. I make a ward on a property, and then the setter makes it so it stays after I leave. Aunt Carlotta sets my wards for me. The setting part is easy.”
“Aunt Carlotta?” Fiona took a bite of the bagel. “God, this tastes like crap. Ack, anything to drink in here?” She opened the fridge and found half a container of acai-blueberry-pomegranate smoothie and drank it. It tasted nasty. “How is Carlotta your aunt? She’s an only child.”
“On my mother’s side. She’s my mother’s first cousin once removed.”
“I didn’t think she had any cousins. So that makes us, what, second step-cousins once removed? I never figured out how that whole once removed thing worked.”
“Aunt Carlotta gave me a job since I’m trying to break into the magic industry.”
“Wait, wait, wait, go back a step. How long you been working for her?”
“April? What the—April? For real? I feel so stupid. Has it been that long? I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. I mean, she said she was involved in a new business, but I thought it was just, you know, like moving back to commercial or something. She’s into magic now? I can’t believe she didn’t tell me more. I’m gonna rib her about that.” Fiona threw the plastic fork in the garbage and wiped her crumbs off the counter. “Speaking of which, do you know where she is?”
Sophie shook her head. “That’s why I called. I’m worried.”
“She’s not answering her phone.”
“How long has she been gone? When did you see her last?”
“She stayed with a client the night before last and hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Stayed with a client? Like, romantically?”
Sophie nodded. “We had appointments scheduled for today. She didn’t call any of them.”
“You think something weird happened to her? Like she turned into a mermaid or joined some goddess cult? You read about the mermaid thing? Crazy. Where was that, Florida?”
“I mean, I know the world changed and everything, but mostly everything seems the same. Blah blah, magic apocalypse, blah blah. You’re the first mage I’ve even met. What are the odds that she turned into an animal or suddenly got life-altering powers? She would have told me—ouch, okay, burn, I get it. Okay, so how about you and I just take over the business for the morning until she gets recovered from her hangover or whatever. Be good employees, proactive and all. Hold down the fort to buy some time. Sound good?”
Sophie shrugged. “I postponed the first appointment until later this afternoon, but we’re gonna miss our next appointment if we don’t get going. Can you set wards?”
“Sure,” Fiona said. “Just show me how and I’ll figure it out.”
“Well, you just need the fixative and—”
“Wait, wait, I gotta shower first, then you can explain it to me. It’s been a rough day already. I had to pack up everything from L.A. and there was a bit of drama, and, okay, you don’t wanna know about the rest of it. Let’s just say that I’m starting to stink. Hold that thought.”
Fiona took a shower in Carlotta’s bathroom, which had been redone in pink marble and glass brick. Carlotta always remodeled the bathrooms first.
Carlotta had taken to step-mothering the way she took to everything else—with determination and a will to succeed. They’d bonded despite a mutual love for Fiona’s father, and later they’d bonded even further because of a mutual aggravation with Fiona’s father.
On the sink in the bathroom, Carlotta still had the little bottle of perfume that Fiona had bought for her as a Mother’s Day present when she was in second grade. It was from Avon, and smelled like crap, but the little diamond shaped bottle still rested there on the mirrored tray along with the other toiletries. Carlotta’s favorite silk robe, the white one with the red and green cabbage roses, hung up on the back of the door. She’d had that robe as long as Fiona could remember, and even though it had been patched several times and the sash frayed, Carlotta still wore it all the time. Seeing that robe there made Fiona feel better about Carlotta’s unexplained absence. She would never leave that robe behind if she planned to be gone more than a couple of days.
Fiona dried herself off with a pink towel and rummaged through the WalMart bag for her second set of clothes (have to hit the mall after she got a paycheck). She picked up a shirt and pair of shorts, bit off the tags, and got dressed. She came out of the bedroom to find Sophie anxiously poring over a map and an appointment calendar.
“Okay, let’s go. You can tell me how to set wards on the way. But first, we need to hit the nearest Starbucks. I’m not gonna be able to figure out a new career in the car unless I’m caffeinated.”
Setting the wards Sophie made turned out to be pretty easy. Sophie did her trance thing, and Fiona just sprinkled the fixative and waited a few seconds until Sophie said the energy fields had settled, whatever that meant. She asked Sophie to tell her how to do the warding part, but Sophie just gave her a look and said that while setting was so easy a monkey could do it, warding wasn’t something you could pick up in fifteen minutes.
After six back-to-back appointments, Fiona’s exhaustion caught up with her. She drove back to Carlotta’s house.
“What are we doing here?” Sophie asked. “We have four more people to visit.”
“Reschedule. It’s late and I’m bushed.” The house had grown dark, and Fiona fumbled for the light switch, then kicked off her shoes as she made her way to the kitchen. “I’m gonna have to call it a day. Sorry to bail on you, but I only had like three hours of sleep last night.”
“Well, I guess I can reschedule,” Sophie said. She had a quiet voice, and a way of playing with her lower lip which made her seem ten years old. “So, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Fiona said, opening the freezer. “Let’s see, vodka, batteries and daiquiri mix. Nope. How about the pantry? Ew. Spaghetti-Os. Do people even eat that? Sell-by date four years ago. Yuck. I bet it was here when she moved in. Okay, guess I’m going out. You interested in tagging along?”
“I have food at home,” Sophie said. “But thanks anyway.”
After Sophie left, Fiona logged in on Carlotta’s computer and checked her email, then posted her status, and just because she felt like being friendly, she tracked Sophie down through Carlotta’s profile and sent a friend request. It didn’t hurt to know a few people in this town whom she hadn’t gone to high school with. Fiona heard her belly rumble, so she left Carlotta’s keys under a flowerpot and headed out to find some food.
Clementine still didn’t seem to have much in the way of nightlife, so she figured instead of fruitlessly searching strip malls, she’d just make do with Applebee’s. It was not her favorite chain, but she wasn’t in L.A. anymore so she’d have to suffer until she could buy some decent groceries.
After she parked the car, she pushed open the door to the restaurant and immediately felt better about her choice. Standing in front of her was Alex Porto, a guy she dated in high school. She broke out into a big grin.
Alex Porto had been a fullback on the football team, and a starring pitcher in baseball season. At Clementine High he had paraded around campus in his “fighting Javelinas” jersey as if he were the only rooster in a flock of hens. She’d been giddy with delight when he asked her out, less giddy when he took her virginity in the back seat of his car after getting her drunk on Boone’s Farm, and the opposite of giddy when he invited another girl to Homecoming after she’d already told all her friends he was her boyfriend.
She tearfully told him that he’d hurt her, and that she’d thought she’d meant something to him, and that she wasn’t going to sleep with him if he was going to treat her that way. Alex had explained that he did not consider her his girlfriend, that he’d only slept with her because she was convenient, and he was sorry she didn’t understand the difference. Alex felt that being the darling of the coach and the pride of the school meant that he was above monogamy and other pedestrian virtues.
If she had been a character in a movie, she would have learned the value of self-worth, and ended up dating a non-jock who was equally handsome, secretly in love with her, and a guitar player for an up-and-coming band.
In real life, getting dumped by such a popular guy had ruined her status. She was dateless for her junior year, lost most of her friends, and ended up as a groupie to the gay guys in the drama club.
So when she saw Alex Porto with a tag that said “assistant manager,” balding head, and a third-trimester beer gut, she headed right back to her car, primped as much as her cheap cosmetics afforded, and came up with a fabulous backstory of how successful she’d been since graduating so that she could chat him up and rub in how she was too good for him now.
In front of the hostess podium, Fiona waited for Alex to notice her. When he walked past for the third time, she called out his name. He looked right at her.
“Table for one, miss?”
“Don’t you recognize me Alex?”
“Yeah, sure. Great to see you again,” Alex said, with a blank stare. “Debbie will seat you.”
Fiona acted like she was following Debbie to the table, but she kept going past the bar, intending to hit the emergency exit on her way out. She would have done it, too, except that someone called out her name as she passed his table.
She turned. He was in his early twenties, and so lean that the muscles on his face stood out. He had thick, dark hair that looked a couple of months’ growth into a good haircut. He wore a white, button-up shirt with rolled up sleeves exposing wiry arms. The top button of his shirt was undone, and a tiny amulet dangled from a cord around his neck.
“You’re Fiona McClellan,” he said, tucking the amulet into his shirt. “You used to date my brother Alex.”
“If you could call it dating,” she turned to scowl at Alex, who was scolding a busboy. “Apparently I wasn’t very memorable.”
“Alex can be a douchebag sometimes,” the guy said. He looked familiar.
“I hear he’s running for the mayor of Doucheville,” she said.
“Are you expecting someone? You want to join us for dinner?” No one else sat at his table, which had been set for four.
“Best offer I’ve had all day. Try to ignore the fact that I’m wearing WalMart clothes. I had the week from hell and had to leave everything behind in L.A. I look a lot better when I have more than four hours of sleep and a few shots of espresso in me. At least the lighting is dim,” she said, looking at the stained glass lampshade.
“You look fine.”
When she sat across from him, he smiled like he’d won a contest, which made her smile in return, though she still couldn’t remember his name.
“Marcello Porto,” he said, with another smile.
“Mushroom! Er, uh, Marcello! Sorry, I guess that’s not a very nice nickname.”
“I haven’t heard it in a while.” Marcello had been a freshman when Alex was a senior, and she had been a sophomore clinging so desperately to her last shreds of social status that she didn’t have much time for freshmen.
“Wow, the last time I saw you, you were like this high!”
“Not so little anymore.”
“Nope.” She hoped he didn’t mind that she called him “mushroom.”
“You know, I had the biggest crush on you in high school,” he said. “How funny to just bump into you like this. What brings you back to Clementine?”
She gave him an abridged version of her life since high school: the starlet dreams, cooking academy, massage therapy school, that time she backpacked with her friend in Costa Rica, going to Alaska to work on a fishing boat for the summer, her brief stint as a hairdresser—basically, she told him about everything. He didn’t talk about himself much, and deflected the question of what he was doing for a living, but he seemed interested in her.
By the time Marcello’s friends arrived (a young couple who had just moved back home to be near their family, the woman visibly pregnant), Fiona had forgotten all about Alex. Maybe moving back to Clementine for a while until she figured out what was up with Carlotta wouldn’t be as horrible as she had feared. Marcello seemed really into her, his friends were nice, and she was virtually positive that she and Marcello would be dating before the week was out.
They were just about to leave when Fiona saw Sophie walk into the restaurant, scanning the tables. Fiona waved her over. Sophie had a very serious expression on her face.
She was about to ask Sophie what was up, but then Marcello turned and saw her. His eyes fixed on her as if she were the only woman in the room. Sophie froze, staring back with an equally consumed look. When Sophie came closer, Marcello looked away pointedly, but you could practically feel their connection.
“Sophie, what are you doing here?” Fiona asked.
“Looking for you,” Sophie said. Sophie glanced at the pregnant couple, giving a brief smile and nod. She looked at Marcello even longer, but she didn’t smile at him, or say anything.
“How’d you find me?”
“You checked in at Applebee’s on Central at 7:47.” Sophie held up her phone. It was one of the new iPhones, so new that she hadn’t even removed the protective film over the display.
“Oh, well, glad you found me,” Fiona said. “What’s up?”
“Carlotta’s back.” Sophie glanced at Marcello again.
“Oh, well that’s good.”
“No. Not good.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you should come and see for yourself.”
Read the rest in Kater Cheek's Parasitic Souls
I'm in the midst of couple of weeks' worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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