I was six months into grief and one month into my new apartment at Villa Encantada and I still hadn’t unpacked any boxes. I lived out of a suitcase and slept on the mattress the previous tenant had left behind. At night I brought home a paper bag of food and in the morning I ate a container of unflavored yogurt while looking at Brandon’s empty chair, which I’d put near the window, and went back to work.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the apartment, or at least I don’t remember paying much attention. A brief tour with the rental agent, signing things, getting keys. Those days were just blurs. In the evenings, a bottle of wine slugged away, socking me into oblivion on my mattress while I played games on my laptop. I spent $5000 on imaginary pets the first month. Sanity kicked in before it went much further, goosed into action by the sight of the bill.
Getting over that meant putting the laptop down, so I did, even though it was my day off. I went out onto the front deck, so close to the parking lot you could reach out and touch my upstairs neighbor’s bumper. Three parking lots down, the lake glimmered.
The next door neighbor’s front window had the same relation to our mutual landing as my deck to the parking lot. The elderly Asian woman who lived there spent all her time at the table by her front window, sewing. She peered out at me more than once and we had exchanged looks that clearly said, “We’re forced into this interaction, so we’ll nod but we don’t need to do much more.”
She was at her window right now, visible through the blind’s slats, only expressionless scalp visible as she bent over the brand new white plastic machine, desk cluttered with fabric, scissors, pins, and a can of WD-40.
The complex was fairly deserted for a Saturday morning, so it wasn’t too unpleasant out on the deck even though it felt unaccustomed and new. It was doing something that I had never done with Brandon and the sensation both disconcerted and delighted me. For the first time in a long time, I felt as though I might recover from the blow his loss had dealt me.
I dragged the decaying Adirondack chair, another legacy of my predecessor, over the planks and my neighbor’s head went up at the screech.
There was an empty planter lining one side of the fence pretending to offer me privacy. I thought I’d fill it and add a couple of big pots, ones like my grandmother had had in her garden, hip high and made of floral-patterned Japanese ceramic. That would look pretty in the sunlight.
My neighbor came to her door. She waved at me and took a few steps forward, then waited. I rose and went over to her.
It was the first time we had been so close face-to-face. She wore a robe patterned with orange and fuchsia orchids on a sea green background. She was short and burly, a few decades older than my forty.
She introduced herself as Morty and said, accent thick, “Your spot, tonight, I park? Just one night.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
She peered at me. “You won’t tow?”
The rental agent had impressed on me that parking was an issue in the complex. She’d repeated several times that I would get towed if I parked in the wrong owner-controlled spot until I finally persuaded her that I had no car, just my bike. I’d seen tow trucks removing cars more than once over the past months while pedaling my way out in the morning.
“No car,” I said. “Use the spot whenever you like.”
She smiled broadly. “Just once,” she said, her voice sad despite the smile. “Just one time.”
We shrugged and bobbed and smiled at each other and I went back to my chair and let the sunlight settle over me like a blanket.
I thought about other things that I could do that wouldn’t summon up Brandon’s presence, but I just didn’t have the energy. I could feel my laptop waiting for me, sitting on the kitchen counter. I didn’t have to log-on to any games. I could look to see if there were any interesting movies.
That did tempt me out of my chair but before I could get to the door, someone else was waving at me for my attention. A young man, bushy haired and bearded, followed by a thin girl with a bandanna over her dark hair. They came out of an apartment a few doors down.
He approached, holding out a hand. “Yuri,” he said. He gestured at the woman. “Elena.”
“Tracy,” I said.
“We are new here. Just moved in.”
“Welcome to Villa Encantada. I’ve only been here a few months myself. It’s very nice.”
They both beamed smiles at me, smiles that seemed wider than the occasion merited. On the other hand, I’d been so out of it lately. Maybe I couldn’t even judge human interactions anymore.
“Could we use your parking spot tonight? We want to charge our car. It is an electric one and requires a cord. You are closest to our apartment.”
“Unfortunately I already told someone else they could park there.” I spread my hands helplessly. How odd to get the same request in such a short time.
His grin became a frown. “Tonight? Or all full moons?”
“I beg your pardon?” I wasn’t sure how the full moon played into this. “Just tonight. I think.” I considered, playing the interchange back in my head to make sure. “No, just tonight.”
“Maybe some other time then?” he asked.
“Like the next full moon?”
His eyes narrowed. “Yes.”
I shrugged. Today had apparently decided to be odd. That was all right. It was better than sitting around trying to resist opening the laptop.
They waved at me as they went back inside, Yuri unsmiling, his girlfriend still determined to be friendly.
My parking space was to the right as you exited the building. A zebra-striped path separated it from its right-hand neighbor while on the left, angled parking led into a pine-shadowed corner. The numbers painted in each spot had nothing to do with their corresponding apartments. My apartment was 59, for example, and yet the parking space read 261.
Or something like that. The sun had bleached the pavement till it looked more like 26:11. On either side were 142 and 144. I had a map somewhere that said what spot corresponded with which apartment.
I left the deck and went the only place I could, even though I wasn’t supposed to.
I went to work.
When you come near the server room, you can hear the fans roaring, sometimes switching on and off, rarely silent.
The first thing Jane said to me was, “It’s your day off.”
“It’s a gorgeous day out.”
“Then why are you here?” I pointed out.
“Because I work the weekend shift.”
“Good point.” I wandered in the direction of my desk. “I thought I could get a jump start on things.”
Jane interposed herself. “No. You’ve done that the last three weekends running. You need to go do something else.”
“Like shopping for new clothes.” She eyed my grubby khakis. The camping lifestyle, while convenient, was not conducive to ironing.
“Come with me.”
“I wish I could.” She sighed.
I waited, raising my eyebrows just a little.
“I suppose it’s a good thing you’re asking,” she said.
“It is,” I said quickly. “I’ll even buy something sparkly if you come.”
“Would you wear it and come out with me then tonight?”
I faltered. “That’s asking a lot, Jane. You know that.”
“It’s been six months. It has to start sometime.”
“Very well.” She called over her shoulder. “I’m going to lunch.”
It was no surprise, though, that we ended up at the little shopping mall near Jane that sells everything except clothes. She loves that place and even I, usually resistant to shopping’s lure, don’t mind strolling around in there looking at the oddities. It was how I’d found the notice for my apartment, stuck up on the bulletin board between Theo’s Books/Games and the Dew Drop Coffee Shop, while waiting for Jane to come out of the latter.
Four doors down from that, past the pair of children’s rides shaped like battling dinosaurs and an ancient cigarette vending machine, is an odd little secondhand store that I always meant to bring Brandon to.
I said that to Jane as we walked towards it. She made an impatient sound and rolled her eyes. “You need to move on,” she said.
“I’m out with you right now, aren’t I?” I said.
“Are you unpacked yet?”
“Not entirely. But I was out on the porch and I want to get some planters for it, to cheer it up.” Saying, as best I could, to cheer me up.
The secondhand store didn’t have planters of the kind I wanted, but the elderly shopkeeper said she’d keep an eye out for them for me. She shoved a notepad across the counter at me and I scribbled down my address.
Taking it, she glanced down. Her eyebrow rose. “Villa Encantada, eh?” She was that Seattle type: long graying hair in a braid, heavy-set, wearing handmade jewelry. “How do you like it there?”
I half expected her to ask about my parking space but she didn’t when I shrugged. Jane came up beside me with an armload of used paperbacks and laid them on the calendar. Instead of reaching for them, the woman lit the cone of incense cupped by a small brass elephant beside the ancient register. We all watched, fascinated, as the plume of the blue smoke eddied up six inches, then bent abruptly and headed straight for me, breaking over my form like a wave breaking over a rock.
“What are you?” The shopkeeper asked, staring at me. “A wizard in the making? A walking suicide? Curse-ridden? Or something else entirely?”
Jane gawped at her. I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Some people say there’s a Number there at Villa Encantada.”
“A number what?”
“Nothing odd has happened? No one’s asked you anything that seemed out of the ordinary?” Her eyebrow rose even farther.
“Two people asked me for my parking space,” I said.
She still didn’t pick up the paperbacks that Jane had put on the counter. Instead, she rose, went to the doorway, flipped the open sign to say closed, and locked the door. And she turned back to us.
“So let’s hear more about these people.”
Two and a half cups of strong tea and several stale cookies later, the shopkeeper, whose name turned out to be Sritha, gathered up her dog-eared cards and leaned back in her seat. Jane said, “Tell me again how the numbers work with the Book.”
A flurry of cards as she shuffled. “You got the part where it’s a book of spells, right? The first book ever, some people claim.”
Jane and I both nodded.
“But the spells are invoked by their numbers. So 2611 is the 26th chapter and its 11th verse, while 2612 would be the 12th verse.”
“And each number does something different.”
Sritha nodded. She fanned out the cards and studied them, then reshuffled them. “But each spell has only one number that can invoke it, one iInstance of all the possibilities. Your parking space has been bound to a particular spell and only it can be used to cast that spell.”
“But we don’t know what the spell does.”
According to your bizarre theory, was the unspoken part of that for me, but Jane seemed to have swallowed it all, hook, line, and sinker.
“But the people who want to use the parking space must know,” she supplied. “We just have to ask them.”
I turned back to Sritha. “So, why me?”
Her turn to shrug. “There could be a lot of different reasons. Villa Encantada is a very odd place, full of all sorts of unexplainable things.” Her tone was nonchalant but her eyes said, I’ll be watching to find out which it is.
I didn’t expect Morty to be forthcoming. I didn’t expect any of this to make sense. It was a whole new world if what Sritha was saying was true and it was one where, I suddenly realized, I hadn’t thought of Brandon for hours.
Morty said, “One time. You say verse, then you drive and dead come talk.”
“Only the dead?”
She shook her head emphatically. “Never living. You make them demon. They kill you, make you ghost. Ghosts only.”
“So what’s the verse?” Jane asked.
Morty’s lips firmed.
“Give us half of it,” Jane coaxed.
A slow, reluctant nod.
“You will wander, love, you will roam.” The words were unexpectedly light in her mouth but still wistful. “Tonight,” she said to me. “You will let me still?”
I shook my head. “Not tonight. I need to think about this. Next month.”
She nodded reluctantly.
I wanted to ask her how she knew, but when I tried, she stared at me blank-faced. “You know magic,” I ventured.
She opened her front door and showed us the ceiling to floor poster of a goddess in golden armor, walking over a field of lotuses, curved sword in hand. “She tells me.”
“What’s her name?” Jane asked, but Morty had already closed the door.
Jane’s plan was fairly obvious, to coax the second half out of the couple, but they seemed less than receptive to the notion. When she asked for it, Ilya said, “It could be several things. My master sent us. He has been hunting this spell for a century.”
“How many spells are there in the book altogether?” I asked.
He looked surprised. “As many as there are verses.”
“Are those the only spells that exist in the world?”
His laugh was incredulous. “No. By no means. But they are among the oldest.”
“So the more of them you track down, the more powerful you become?”
“That, and if you know everything the book has to offer, you know one of the Secrets of the Universe.”
“Really? One of the Secrets of the Universe?” My day had gone from bizarre to beyond weird and I hadn’t even batted an eye, really. “Tell me how the spell works.”
The recitation that he and Elena provided between the two of them matched, for the most part, what Morty had said. Like most magic, Ilya supplied, it had strong restrictions and harsh penalties for misuse, so it could only be used after the full moon. He corroborated Morty’s emphasis that it was only for use with the dead and had deadly implications if misused.
He seemed relieved to be talking about it. I got the impression he and Elena, fellow apprentices rather than lovers, had been looking for this place for a very long time.
It wasn’t hard to ease the rest of the words of the spell out. Elena could tell what I was doing. She caught me in the hallway.
“I will say the words,” she said, “but on next full moon, we get to use it. You will have had your chance by then. It will be our time.”
“For your boss,” I said.
She shrugged. Every shrug is different, conveys so much in the way the arms move in their sockets, the tilt of the wrists. Hers said she was not committed to getting the information to her employer in a timely manner and that he had been waiting quite a bit so far. Her shrug went on to add that a few more months wouldn’t hurt anyone.
She and Morty could battle it out, next month.
Tonight I would see Brandon.
I did everything the way they’d told me. I left Jane sleeping on the mattress even though I’d said I’d wake her. I climbed in her car at midnight, and started it.
I said the words that would call him to me, no matter where he was. “You will wander, love, you will roam, but always I will be your home, always you will return.” I paused before I said his name to the backseat. I felt the words go out from me into space, as though they were traveling for miles and miles under the starlight. I backed the car out, and turned it towards the entrance.
“Brandon,” I said to the void in the backseat. “Brandon.”
I was at the entrance. I could go left or I could go right. I could speak his name the third time or I could be still.
I turned the wheel and said his name.
When he first swam into sight in the back seat, he looked startled. He said, “Tracy!”
I said, “I had to see you again.”
“I told you not to call me any more,” he said. His voice was angry.
I said, “I kept thinking of you.”
“I told you that you were dead to me,” he said. “How did you do this? I was home, in my bed!”
I laughed, the first happy sound in months. “I used magic.”
“Magic? Don’t be ridiculous!” But even as he spat the words out, a red glow kindled at the back of his eyes. His hands cramped on the back of the seat and his nails tore into them.
Something said through him, something that wasn’t Brandon, “There are consequences to magic.”
I remembered Morty’s words. Never living. You make them demon.
“I know,” I said. “I would rather be dead than parted from you.”
You will wander, love, you will roam, but always I will be your home, always you will return.
Always you will be haunted by me.
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee and the current President of SFWA. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see http://www.kittywumpus.net