April story Neat Alyssum

 Telling Little Nicky’s fortune is easy for astrologer Claire Carmody. Draw a quick catsup circle on the table at the coffee shop, toss in the latest planet positions, know before looking that they will conflict with her new boyfriend’s horoscope, and voila, think up a way to soften the blow. No surprises. Nicky has been picking the wrong boyfriend since kindergarten. But this story is about Nicky’s sister, Alyssum, and Alyssum is a sensible woman who doesn’t make mistakes. Usually. Neat Alyssum first appeared in Crossed Genres magazine.

Neat Alyssum

Five or six times a year I do a horoscope reading for my friend, little Nicky. She phones me, frantic, and always says the same thing.
“I’ve met this perfect man, honestly, Claire, and you’ve got to check our horoscopes and tell me how to keep him.”
Which is a dumb question, and you’d know that if you saw Nicky. She is knockout gorgeous. Trouble is, she has terrible taste in men. Always picks bums. But that’s another story.

This morning I am sitting across the table at a Seattle coffee shop by invitation of Nicky’s sister, Aly. That’s short for Alyssum. Nicky is named after their aunt, Nicotiana, and Aly is named after their mother. It’s a family of avid gardeners.
When Aly phoned and asked to meet me, I was so stunned, I agreed. Haven’t had Aly phone me before. Aly is seven years older than I am. She’s thirty. I know her exact age because she’s just told me her birth date so that I can do her horoscope.
“I’ve never done one for you,” I say.
“I appreciate that, Claire. Good of you to take the time.”
I nod. Aly’s sister is a close friend. I tend to piss people off so I try to hang on to the friends I’ve got.
“What exactly is your problem?” That’s the line I often use to open up a conversation, because otherwise people can waste hours talking about everything except what it is they really want to know.
Aly sighs. “I have this man following me.”

She reaches across the table and gently pushes a strand of hair off my cheek and tucks it behind my ear. I have long dark hair, the fine kind that never stays combed. Aly never has a hair out of place.
“Are we talking stalker here?” I ask.
“Oh no.”

She clamps her mouth shut and I give her a minute to put her thoughts in order. Aly doesn’t look anything like Nicky. Aly is medium height and average looking, light brown hair and eyes, pleasant face. Quiet. Smart. She’s a CPA and they don’t come dumb. I mean, all that accounting and understanding tax law, well, that doesn’t guarantee wisdom about life in general but it does require brains.
“Do I know him?”
“You can see him from here,” she says.
“Look over my shoulder, don’t stare, see the barrista with red hair?”
I look and, yup, hard to miss. He’s got that carrot orange hair that flames under the ceiling lights.
“Cute,” I say, because he is. Plus, I do know him. “Stu Taylor, right?”
“What do you know about him?” she asks.

Ho hum. Here we go. I live in Mudflat, a neighborhood in Seattle, but only people who live here know the name. Everybody else thinks we’re part of the adjacent neighborhoods.
Mudflat is where old magic hangs out, passed down in families who have been here for generations. A bit of witch in one kid, a shade of wizard in another. The Taylor parents both have minor magic.
“I don’t know anything about Stu except that he’s coming this way.”

Aly tucks her lips in between her teeth, like she’s sealing her mouth to keep from talking.

Stu Taylor sets down two cappuccinos at our table, leans in and smiles at Aly. Great smile, the kind that lights his whole face, except for those worry lines around his eyes.
“On the house,” he says.
She stares at him.
He looks at me and gotta tell ya, I’d look away from Aly’s stare, too.
So I say, “Wow, really? Thanks so much. Very kind of the house.”
“You’re Claire, right?” he says.
I nod and mention that I was in the same class with his sister and how is she, stuff like that. We chat for maybe thirty seconds and Aly still hasn’t unclamped her mouth so he heads back to the counter.

Plunking my elbows on the table, I lean toward her. “What’s the deal?”
Aly unclamps her mouth. Waves her hand at the coffees. “That’s the deal. The house does not give away drinks. He paid for them himself.”
I don’t know a reason in the world why Stu Taylor should buy me coffee so I have to figure he’s trying to impress Aly. Okay, I also saw the way he looked at her.
“Is that what you’re calling stalking, Aly? Because I don’t call a couple of coffees stalking.”
“He’s everywhere I go. He stops by my office and drops off a coffee and pastry every day or two. I told him not to do that. So now he comes in and leaves them on my desk while I’m busy talking on the phone to a client and can’t tell him to take them back. Which means he must watch through the window until he sees I am busy.”

As I am a coffeeholic, this sounds to me like a stalker I’d encourage. But that’s me. “Are you afraid of him?”
“Yes. No. I mean, he isn’t threatening me or anything.”
“Bringing coffee? Uh, give him a smile and I bet he’ll be asking you out.”
She shakes her head. “I know that. I keep trying to discourage him.”
“Oh. Okay. You’re not attracted to him. I get that. Do you want me to do your horoscopes and see if you have anything in common?”

That makes her laugh. “I hear you’re very good at that. So good, my kid sis goes through a major breakup on a weekly basis.”
“Not on my advise. I tell her every time that she’s picked another bum, only I can’t say it that way. I tone it down.”
She reaches across the table and pats my hand. “I’m sure you do. We all tell her. And I know your predictions are accurate. Everyone says so. That’s why I need you to tell me how to get rid of him.”

This is so not the usual question I get. But, hey, it’s her life. She gives me both their birth dates.
I go ask the cashier for one of those little catsup packets they hand out with sandwiches. Then I go back to the table, tear the packet open, dip my finger in catsup and draw a circle on the Formica tabletop.
From the dates Aly gives me, I mark their Signs and pop in the placement of the sun. I’ve been memorizing planet positions since I was a little kid. Okay, I can’t tell you where Mercury, Venus, or Mars were thirty years ago, but I can come close with everything out past Jupiter.

With a catsup-stained finger, I jab at the horoscopes. “You two aren’t a bad match, Aly. Maybe there’s a Mars-Venus conflict. I’d have to look that up.”
“I don’t want to know about matches. I want to know how to turn him off.”
“None of my business,” I say, “but is there any special reason?”
She nods. “He’s Mudflat. He’s a Taylor.”

I look her in the eyes. “You think he has magic? Could be. What’s wrong with that?”
There are all kinds of magic. I’ve known a few and gotta admit, guys with a little magic are usually terrific kissers. But there’s the other extreme. One neighbor is a smash wizard who has trouble controlling his temper and no, I wouldn’t wish him on anyone except maybe a fairly strong witch.
“Don’t misunderstand. I am not putting down my family or friends. But I don’t like magic.”
Wow. Hit me with that one. I mean, there are always people who don’t like it but they move away. Some go to another part of the country. Some go clear overseas. And some just move to a different neighborhood. Doesn’t matter. Whether they settle half a world away or only ten blocks away, what they have in common is this. They don’t come back.

Aly stays. Lives near her folks. Has her office in the neighborhood. I don’t know what to think of that.
So I look at their catsup horoscopes again.
“Well,” I say, “he’s kind of a neat freak. You could spill coffee down your shirt and mess up your hair.”
She gives me a long hard stare. “Are you serious? Do you really see that about him?”
“Is that a problem?”
She nods.

I can see what she means. Aly is super neat, wears spotless white shirts and tailored beige slacks, has a haircut that stays in place. Her shoes and purse are scuff-free. Plus, I now realize that she has scooted her chair back so that she won’t hazard catsup stains on her cuffs. While I watch, she picks up a couple of paper napkins and carefully cleans off the tabletop.
Glancing down at my fingers, I say, “I could smear catsup on you.”
She laughs and if she only knew. Aly has this musical laugh that carries and at the counter I see Stu turn and look at her. It’s one of those puppy dog looks, all sad eyes and longing to be noticed.       
So I figure that’s that, nothing more I can tell her. If she asks how to attract him, yes, I have suggestions. But how to avoid him without doing something mean or rude or messy, all way out of character for Aly, no, I don’t have answers.

Next I hear about Aly is maybe a week later when I see her sister Nicky in the grocery and she right away tells me she’s met this super new man. Before she can ask my advice, I think fast about how to cut her off because I really do not want to go there.
“How’s you sister?” I ask.
“Oh, Claire.” Nicky rolls those big eyes. “I can’t figure what’s going on with her. I tell her she should go see Doc and she tells me to mind my own business.”
“She’s sick?”
“Must be,” Nicky says. “Looks terrible.”

She didn’t look terrible last week. “Stomach flu?” I ask. “There’s a lot of that going around.”
“Not that kind of terrible. The other kind. She’s slouching around in scuffed sandals and faded jeans and she hasn’t combed her hair in a week.”
“Weird,” I say and then I wake up. Ohmygosh. “Is she working?”
“Is she going to her office, do you mean? Yes, every day. Can you imagine? If she keeps this up, she’ll lose all her clients.”

Aly’s clients don’t care what she looks like. All anyone wants from a CPA is accuracy. So I don’t worry about that. And besides, I am kind of curious.
So I get myself over to her office and poke my head through the open doorway, ready to snoop. And man, do I get an eyeful!

Aly is sitting behind her desk, her arms stretched out in front of her, her head down, her forehead pressed against the desktop.
Standing across the desk from her, his back to me, is Stu Taylor. Hard to mistake him for anyone else, I mean, even if I didn’t recognize the carrot hair. His shirt is ironed with those neat double creases practically nobody does any more. I eyeball down. Shirt tucked in, neat belt through loops, spotless slacks, not jeans, slacks. Turn him around and I’d bet there are sharp creases and I’d feel safe betting a week’s wages because look at the back of his shoes. Leather. Polished to a gleam. Heels straight, no sign of wear, so what does he do, have them re-heeled weekly?
He is saying, “If you aren’t feeling well, I’d be happy to drive you home.”
Aly mumbles into the desk, “I am fine. Go away.”

“You are not fine, Alyssum. You are obviously ill. I could drive you to the doctor’s office, if you like.”

She raises her face to stare at him through a tangle of messy hair. Her eyes blaze. Her face is red. Sure, her sister is emotional and tends to dissolve into tears, but Aly has always been the calm type.

Now she shrieks, “Bug off, will you? What’s the matter with you? Leave me be! Get out of here!”
He steps back and I see a tray on the desk in front of her. It contains several of those little white cardboard food boxes used for takeout.
The little boxes look so orderly compared to Aly. Besides the mussed up hair, there’s something wrong with her shirt. It’s wrinkled, yes, but also, it seems to be pulled crooked around her neck.
“And take that stuff with you!”
“Yes, of course, all right,” he mumbles, grabs the tray, rushes for the door, and I do a quick jump back into the hall to avoid a collision.
“And close the door!” she screams.

He has visible shakes. I reach behind him and pull the door closed.
He stares at me, not seeing me, I can tell that by the blank expression. His body sags and he leans against the wall. Even sagging, he manages to keep the tray upright.

“Could be worse,” I say.
He blinks and finally focuses. He croaks, “How?”
“She could have thrown the tray at you.”

The man is reduced to one syllable words, a bad sign. So I start down the hall away from Aly’s office door. Walking kind of like a zombie, shuffle, shuffle, he follows. When we reach the parking lot, he goes to his recently waxed car, unlocks the trunk, carefully places the tray inside, transfers the little boxes to a paper sack, then slams the trunk lid.
That lid-slam is the first sign of emotion I’ve seen in the guy.
He faces me and again asks, “Why? Why is she so angry with me?”
“Why do you keep following her around?” I ask.
He looks startled, hesitates. “I -- I’m not following her. This past week I’ve seen her a few times. You saw her now. She’s not herself. She must be ill. I only want to help.”
“Do you follow everyone you see who looks ill?”
He shakes his head. “Is it wrong to want to help? You’re Alyssum’s friend, aren’t you? Do you know why she’s mad at me?”

Do I ever. I hold up a hand and say, “Now don’t take this wrong.” And then I start counting on my fingers. “First, you keep showing up wherever she is. Second, you stop by her office and bring her free coffee that she hasn’t ordered. Third, when she tells you to stop, you deliver coffee when she’s busy on the phone and can’t refuse it. Fourth, she thinks that means you spy on her to see when she’s phoning. Fifth, do you know what the word stalker means?”
His eyes go wider and wider as I talk. I stop because that about covers it.
In a very small voice, he says, “She thinks I’m a stalker?”
I’ve had a closer look at his horoscope. Took home the information Aly gave me and ran it all up and got the whole thing done and studied. Also, I made a phone call or two, even checked his credit record, which I can do because I have a parttime job at a bank which means access to their computers.
He checks out as squeaky clean as he looks, a guy everyone seems to like.

“Listen,” I say, “I know you aren’t asking for advice but I’m giving it, anyway. Back off. Stay away from her.”
“Stalker. She thinks I’m a stalker.”
That isn’t the real problem.
I’d tell him but honestly, it’s up to Aly to tell him that she doesn’t like magic and wants to steer clear of it. She can accept it in friends. That’s not at all the same as accepting it in a guy who obviously wants to date her.

“I don’t know what else to tell you.” And then I think about the compatibility of their charts. “Listen,” I say. “How are you doing on taxes? Filled out your forms for the IRS?”
“Of course,” he says.
He would. Months ago. Neatniks do that, get their forms mailed early.
“Any problems with credit cards? Car loan? House payments?” I go down the list of stuff that gives me headaches, but all he does in shake his head at each one.
“Huh. So you never have any financial problems?”
“No. Oh, maybe. I’m trying to put together a proposal for a loan. I’m thinking of opening my own business.”
“Really? What kind of business?”
“A specialty tea shop.”

He goes on to list distributors he’s contacted, and an empty store front he’s looked at, his reasons why his business would work in that location, his various sources of savings and collateral, yack, yack, I am getting cross-eyed.

“Sounds like you need a financial advisor,” I say.
“Do I? Where would I find one?”
It’s my turn to look stunned.
“Oh,” he says. “Is that what she does?”
“She’s a CPA. Yeah, that’s what she does. You’ve been stalk --, I mean, following her for a couple of months and you didn’t know that?”

He shrugs, looks embarrassed. He can’t find the courage to say that he’s smitten but it shows all over him.

“Now you know. Okay, can you hold off a few days on your loan application?”
He nods.
I go into full astrologer mode. “All right, do not contact Aly directly. If you see her before she sees you, go the other way. Wait until Monday and then fax her a copy of your business plan with a note asking if she will accept you as a client.”
“If she won’t?”
“Umm. Okay, if that happens, phone me.”
“And if she will?”
“Take in all your paperwork. Stick to business. Don’t offer her so much as a donut, understand? And, Stu, I need to ask you a personal question. Do you have any magic?”
He looks surprised because that’s a very personal question. A lot of folks with magic prefer to keep it secret.
He mumbles, “A little. I can straighten things up. Sweep carpets without a vacuum. Sew on buttons without using a needle. Also, I can make buttons pop off. That last one is kind of useless but I learned it when I was a kid, used it to tease other kids.”

You’d be welcome to hang around my house, I think, but what I say is, “Don’t ever mention your magic to Aly.”

After he drives away I go back to Aly’s office.
Knock on the closed door. No answer. So I open it slowly. Aly is cowered in her chair. She looks up through her fingers, which she has spread over her face like a catcher’s mask.
Dropping her hands, she says, “Oh, it’s you. Come on in, Claire.”
I do.
Aly sits up and straightens the collar of her shirt. Oh. The collar had been twisted crooked. Now it lies flat.
“I did as you suggested. It didn’t help. He’s still stalking me,” she moans.

Pulling the client chair up to the side of her desk, I sit down, give her my most controlled face, try not to laugh because, yes, I want to.
“Aly,” I say, “I think I gave you the wrong advice. He isn’t following you.”
“You’re trying to tell me that it’s an accident he keeps showing up and leaving coffee in my office? Today he even tried to bring me lunch.”

I know that but I don’t mention that I was there.
“I bumped into him out front so I talked to him.” I followed him down the hall from your office and collared him at his car, I don’t say. “Aly, we were both wrong. This is kind of funny, really.”
“Good. Make me laugh,” she mutters.
“Here’s what I found out. Stu Taylor wants to start his own business but he doesn’t know anything about how to handle the finances. He’s been hoping he could slide the idea by you, because he knows you’re an accountant, only he’s afraid you’ll laugh at his idea.”

She straightens up and stares at me. “He wants my professional services?”
“Pretty much. So I told him to write up his business plan and send it to you and ask for an appointment. That idea hadn’t occurred to him. He’s got a good idea for a business but he’s a baby, really, when it comes to figuring out money.”
“Good grief. And here I was thinking --”
“Not interested in you personally, although I think he does have a kind nature. Anyway, that’s what all the free coffee is about.”
“You’re sure?”
Okay, sometimes I fib a little. “He’s dating one of the barristas,” I say. “He really needs your help with his accounting.”

“In that case, of course I’ll look at his business plan.”
She pushes her chair back and stands up to smooth her slacks. Apparently there is a loose thread on the waistband that I would never notice, but that’s Aly. Reaching into her desk drawer, she pulls out a small sewing kit, removes the scissors and trims off the thread.
“You’re sure he’s dating someone?” she asks.
I nod. He could be dating someone else, couldn’t he? Or I could have the wrong information.
Which I can tell her when the time is right.
Which will be after she’s accepted a date with him.
Which will be after I call him and instruct him to pop off one of his own buttons while he’s in her office.
Which will be next month when Venus and the moon trine with Aly’s sun at very good placements in her horoscope for romance.
Am I turning into Cupid?
Nah, I’m just always handing out advice. It’s a bad habit with astrologers.
So I say, “Maybe you should comb your hair.”
She lets out a shriek, reaches into the open desk drawer and comes up with a comb.

Copyright (c) Phoebe Matthews

 Claire Carmody is a character in the Mudflat Magic series.
For more information about the novels in this series, click HomePage (above).