I first saw the terrarium sitting in the display window of World Imports. It was perched on a pedestal on one side of the window, sharing the space with wicker baskets, brass spittoons and other collectibles. I stood and stared at it for almost fifteen minutes. It ignored me and went on sitting there.
I passed it every day for a week as I walked from the parking lot, to the store next door to start my shift, and the more I looked at it, the more I felt the desire to own the thing. When Pay Day came around at the end of the week, I cashed my meager check, bought it and took it home.
Home... now that’s a word I don’t use often. Home is a place you want to live. I didn’t have one of those. What I had was an ugly, run-down apartment in the gutter section of the city. A real dump, with paint flaking off the walls, ceiling tiles which might have been white before years of frying in the kitchen turned them a permanent yellow and something that used to call itself carpet. I lived there, but it wasn’t home.
I set the terrarium on the only table I owned, and stood looking at it. It was an ordinary glass box with a glass lid shaped like a gabled roof. Wooden dowel rods at each corner of the box held it together and served as legs. It was well made, a cube of about eight inches on each side. The roof had little glass triangles at the ends and it rested on the top of the dowel rods, making an almost complete seal. A tiny space about an eighth of an inch wide at either end let in some air for plants... which I didn’t have. The glass was heavy too, almost as if the maker was worried they were somehow going to escape. The thought made me chuckle. Vegetation wasn’t known for dragging its roots out of the ground and running around at night.
I left it sitting on the table and went outside to look for some dirt.
At some time in the past, the city fathers had tried to beautify the slums where I currently lived, and old brick planters stood beside the entrance steps of the rundown brownstones. Not many of them held dirt any more and those that did were full of cigarette butts. I gave them the once over and headed to the store for a bag of potting soil and a bit of ivy.
I watched the ivy grow for a few weeks while I spent my evenings at the kitchen table studying for some upcoming exams. It seemed happy about the potting soil, or maybe it liked the kitchen light, because it put out several new leaves and a couple of tendrils. I like ivy; it just grows and never bothers you, as long as you give it a bit of water now and then.
The exams took place six weeks from the day I brought the terrarium home. It was a long, grueling and unpleasant five hours. If you’ve ever been locked in a sweltering room full of sweating freshmen, you’ve got a fair idea of the smell. Add to that the incessant droning of the test monitors and the scrape of pencils over paper.
I hate math, I detest science and I can do without the finer points of language. I didn’t want to repeat my first year of college however, so I forced myself to concentrate on the tests. I didn’t do too badly either. I passed all three with high B’s. I left the exam room with a grin on my face and a piece of paper in my hand that said I didn’t have to call myself a freshman any more. I hopped in my car, revved the motor and headed uptown to take a much more important test.
I dropped off the car in the parking garage of a boring, gray, four-storey building and jogged across the street. The cafe was open, as it usually was on a Friday night, packed with college kids and blaring music into the evening air through open doors. I walked in, glanced around and allowed a slow smile to creep up one corner of my mouth.
He was sitting in a booth in the back, staring at a menu and looking very out of place. Kathy grinned at me from behind the counter where she was busy taking orders and snickered, giving me the thumbs up. I grinned back, straightened my jacket and sauntered to the back of the cafe. It’s nice to have friends. I can always count on Kathy to round up a mark when I need one. This time she’d outdone herself, he didn’t look like a day over eighteen.
“This seat taken?”
I slid onto the empty bench and looked across the table at the kid. He stared at me, as if the world had just tilted sideways and left him hanging onto an edge by one finger. Too easy and too young. “Might wanna shut your mouth, sailor.” I grinned at him and drummed my fingers on the table. “First time?”
“Uh...” The kid’s eyes darted to the side and roamed the cafe, seeking an escape. I laughed and leaned my chin on my hand. “They didn’t tell you patrons have to share tables when it gets busy?” I extracted a second menu behind the napkin holder and flipped it open.
“Err... no.” His voice was husky, as if the surprise had gotten stuck part way down his throat and refused to let go. “No, no one told me that. S... so you, uh...”
I chuckled, lowered the menu far enough to peek over it and fluttered my lashes at him. He blushed, turning the color of ripe strawberries. I enjoyed his discomfort and grinned behind the menu. “I’m Lynda.” I lowered the menu farther and floated a smile across the table at him, accompanied by a slow lick of my lips with the tip of my tongue. “I haven’t seen you around here before, you just start school?”
“Err...” His blond hair contrasted nicely with the flush which deepened in his cheeks. His blue eyes widened and he ran his fingers through his hair. “Not yet. Next week. Summer semester.” He seemed to forget he had a name, or at least he didn’t provide it.
I let my smile turn sultry and batted my eyes. “You have a name, champ?”
“Uh...” he blinked at me and remembered he was supposed to have manners. “Jason. Jason Colters.” He managed a lopsided smiled. I gave him a slow one as an example of how it’s done and lifted the menu to hide my face from his gaze. “That’s good, we need more football players.”
“I’m not... I mean I don’t...”
“Don’t sweat it, sport.” I lowered the menu again. “The coach’ll try and get you on the team whether you play or not. So what’s your major?”
“I don’t have one.” He put his menu down and seemed to relax. Familiar ground I guess. I glanced at my watch and put the menu behind the napkin holder again.
“Too many people in here tonight.” I gave him a sensuous wink and slid toward the edge of the booth. “I’m tired of waiting. I’m gonna go get a burger, care to come along?”
His face ran through several expressions and he stared around the cafe then slid out of the booth. “Sure, I’m tired of waiting too.”
I rose to my feet and tried not to tower over him. It’s hard sometimes. Girls aren’t supposed to be more than six feet tall, and I dwarf most guys. He stared up at me with that slack jawed, deer in the headlights look they always get and I giggled. I always giggle. It made guys like me for some reason. Not that I cared too much if he liked me, just as long as he followed me. He grinned and did the expected, right out the door behind me like a puppy.
“Where’s the burger joint?”
“It’s up there.” I pointed up at the tall boring building by the parking garage. “A little hole in the wall dive that used to be a penthouse apartment. Best burgers in town. Kinda spendy, but worth it. Great view of the city too. They put the tables out on the roof and on clear nights, it looks like stars above and below.”
He squinted up at the building and wrinkled his nose like he didn’t quite believe me. I lowered my eyelids and handed him a come-hither look.
His face turned pink and his pants were suddenly too tight. “Okay, I’m game. Lead on.”
I giggled again, twirled a piece of hair around one finger and started for the alley. I could feel his eyebrows shoot up to his hairline without bothering to glance at his face and my stomach did one of those double flip things. I added a bit more swing to my hips. His footsteps sounded behind me a second later and I chuckled. Just like taking candy from a baby.
I strolled into the alley and knocked on a battered door. It opened after a few seconds and two eyes peeked out. “Gino’s. Me and a guest.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder.
The eyes blinked several times and the door swung open to reveal a long, empty dark hallway. “Come on, sport, the elevator’s this way. Wish the maintenance guy would change the bulb down here.”
The kid didn’t say much, just shuffled into the hall behind me and looked around. His eyes couldn’t find anything to land on. They darted from side to side, skittering up the walls and searching for something that didn’t exist. “Hey, slick, over here.” I stopped next to the elevator and punched a button. “Unless you wanna walk up four flights of stairs.”
“Uh...” He shot a glance over his shoulder at the door which was no longer open and hesitated. “I dunno. You sure the burgers are good?”
“Best burgers in town.” I grinned and punched the button again. I hate waiting for mechanical conveyances. He hesitated a little longer. The door opened and I stepped through then blocked it from closing with my hand. “You coming or not?”
The kid had brains and they were trying to warn him. I watched the sweat beading on his forehead and leaned against the wall, doing my best not to look like I cared. I did, though. I needed him far worse than I needed a burger. I really hate some of the restrictions, but that’s how it is. He had to come on his own or not at all. I gave a sigh of boredom and tried to look hungry. “Come on or don’t.”
He frowned, squared his shoulders and stepped in beside me. Big man, trying to impress the girl and not let on he was scared spitless. My faith in the lack of common sense of the average college kid was restored. I smiled and punched a button, letting the door slide shut.
The elevator was one of those ancient jobs that should have been replaced before the building was erected and it creaked as it crawled up the shaft. The lights flickered in the ceiling, it swayed and the kid began to turn green.
“Never been in an elevator before?”
He swallowed and his face got that haunted expression usually seen in bad Hollywood slasher flicks.
I chuckled. “It just sounds scary. It’s safe.” The door slid open not too many seconds later and I stepped out. He didn’t need coaxing this time; he almost beat me into the hall.
The lights were burning but someone had replaced them with dinky wattage jobs and it wasn’t much better than darkness. I scrunched my face and tisked. Loudly. For effect more than anything. “Gino’s is down here.” I shoved my hands into my jacket pockets and started down the hall.
The kid hesitated again. This time, I wasn’t worried. He was either going to follow me or get back in the elevator by himself. I counted to three and smiled. The sound of footsteps hurrying after me usually gets that reaction.
We walked together to the end of the hall and stopped outside a door with a large sign bearing the name Gino’s in fancy script. I knocked and waited. The door ignored me so I knocked again. This time, the door opened and the heavenly smell of frying hamburger drifted through the crack. The kid’s eyes lit up brighter than the hall bulbs and I chuckled. “Got room?”
“Yeah, hang on.” The door shut again for a few seconds, then opened wider. “Come on in.” I pushed the door open even wider and walked into what had once been a living room. He followed me and stopped just barely inside the door and stood staring at the mystic symbols etched into the walls, his jaw hanging almost to his knees.
I took my jacket off, tossed it to the side then cracked my knuckles and turned around. “Welcome to Gino’s.” I grinned at him again, only this time not so nicely.
His face turned the shade of French vanilla ice cream and he backed up. Right into the waiting arms of Gino himself.
I snickered. “You shoulda run when you had the chance.”
I’ll spare you the details. Gino’s a big man and the kid wasn’t. He never had a chance. I left the situation in Gino’s capable hands and went into his bedroom to change clothes. I’m not real fond of dark robes and black candles, but this was my final so I went all out. About half the grade is for showmanship after all.
It took me almost thirty minutes to get dressed and set everything up. I must admit, the room did look pretty spectacular when I was done. A cloth covered altar in the middle of the floor, candles burning at each end, with blue flames mind you. I was rather proud of that.
The kid was draped over the altar on his back, hands and feet tied to the base rings, and he played the part of the victim well. Struggling, screaming, begging... nice crowning touch. I noticed his shirt was bunched up on one side and his pants legs weren’t straight but decided to let it go. Too bad Gino hadn’t seen to the finer details. It wouldn’t matter to the spell anyway, but I’m a perfectionist.
I stood waiting while they entered — all six of them — high wizards. I hate tests, I hate being watched while taking tests and I really hate having a teacher look over my shoulder. No help for it though. After ten years of coming here for lessons every Saturday, this was the last test. Either I passed or I started all over. I had no intention of starting over.
I bowed to each of them in turn and stepped into the pentagram. The kid looked up at me, tears streaming down the sides of his face and shook his head.
I gazed into his eyes, savoring the panic which filled them, and chuckled. “Sorry. You shouldn’t be so trusting.” I lifted my hands and began the chant.
It was flawless. The candles flared like they were supposed to, the air crackled with just the right amount of power, the special effects I’d practiced went off without a hitch. I was pleased. So were my masters. In fact, when I finished, they rose and gave me a standing ovation. I was thrilled.
Then they handed me a diploma and the keys to my own place in the basement and took their leave. I read the diploma over several times, pocketed the keys and went to change clothes, leaving the robes in a heap on Gino’s bedroom floor. Gino was blowing out candles when I walked back into the main room. I helped him clean up the mess then walked to the altar and snapped my fingers. The kid opened his eyes, took one look at me and fainted.
I snorted at Gino and picked the kid up from the altar. “Of course he survived. You think I wanted to fail?” I grinned at him and shook his hand. “Thanks, you’ve been a big help.”
“Yer welcome.” He handed me a bag. “Here, in case yer hungry later.” The smell of burgers rose from the bag and I inhaled deeply.
“Thanks again, I’ll see you next week.” I stuffed everything in my backpack and headed out the door.
The streets were packed with college kids out wasting their gas and hunting a good time. I crawled through traffic, my nerves on edge. The last thing I needed right now was some idiot running a red light and slamming into my car. I made it back to my apartment without incident, though, for which I was exceptionally grateful. The second I could get a moving company on the phone, I’d be out of here and into the basement flat I’d just earned.
Once safely in my apartment, I dropped my backpack on what passed for a couch, carried the kid to the kitchen table and lifted the lid from my terrarium. Maybe I should get another ivy? I thought about it for a moment then shrugged and lowered him onto the potting soil. I replaced the lid, sat down on one of the chairs and snapped my fingers.
The kid groaned and opened his eyes, pushed himself up on one elbow then stared around with his mouth hanging open. I grinned through the glass at him, got up and started supper. He plastered himself against the glass on the inside of the terrarium and watched me.
I’ve never had a pet before. I think I’m going to like this.
Copyright © 2007 by Crystalwizard