Seeing Ciaran’s parents was every bit as painful as Alejandro had been expecting, though they all tried to put on a brave face and act like they were only meeting for coffee to catch up. He wanted to tell them that he and Brandon were going to find Ciaran, wherever he had gone, but he didn’t want them to look at him like he was crazy, like he needed to be pitied and maybe locked away. Instead he tried his best to put on a brave face, telling them that they were still looking down in the Caribbean and that nothing was certain. The smile Christiane gave him in return was so doubtful that it hurt, and he was glad to get out of their house—with all its reminders of Ciaran—and go over to Brandon’s apartment up in North York.
He had to wait in the lobby for nearly five minutes, leaning on the buzzer for Brandon’s apartment, before the door finally swung open and let him into the front hall. Muttering under his breath, he slid into an empty elevator and hit the button for the 21st floor, hoping that nobody else would get on before he reached it. On the list of things he dreaded out in public, sharing an elevator with a stranger—especially a chatty one—was near the top. Fortunately the elevator remained empty and he got off on the 21st floor, walking down the quiet hallway to Brandon’s apartment door. Brandon finally opened the door after he’d knocked a few times, looking sleepy and dishevelled in boxers and a T-shirt, and Alejandro caught the distinct scent of weed when he stepped through the door.
“How high are you?” he asked, shrugging out of his coat and hanging it in the closet.
“Comfortably high. You hungry? I’ve got leftover pizza in the fridge.” Brandon gestured towards the little kitchen.
“You always have leftover pizza in your fridge. Sometimes I think it just grows there.” Alejandro went into the kitchen but only poured himself a glass of water, taking it into the living room and sitting on the couch. There was something comforting about Brandon’s apartment, in his mismatched furniture and the video games posters on the wall, and even in the faint smell of pot that lingered underneath air freshener. It wasn’t spotless, not like Alejandro kept his own apartment when he wasn’t rearranging everything to satisfy an urge for change, but somehow it worked.
“You went to see Ciaran’s parents?” Brandon asked, sprawling on the other end of the couch and dropping his socked feet on Alejandro’s lap.
“Yeah.” Alejandro took a deep, shaky breath. “They’re going through hell.”
“So are you. You look like you haven’t slept since we got back here.” Brandon poked him in the stomach with one foot. “You can crash here for a bit if you’re lonely.”
“I’ll think about it. I’d rather just go visit this friend of yours that you think can help us.” He studied Brandon’s face, lingering on the half-healed wound across his cheek. They’d scabbed over just enough to look even worse than the fresh slashes had, the skin tight around them.
“I know, I’m ugly right now.” Brandon touched the scabs. “I went out to get some booze last night and the girl at the counter acted like I was a leper or something. It’s a couple of scabby scratches, it’s not like I’m dropping bits of myself all over the LCBO.”
“That’s a hell of a disgusting mental image, Bran.” Alejandro drained his water. “Your friend?”
“One-track mind. Her name’s Shoshanna Rose, and she’s a witch, or at least she claimed to be the last time I, uh, made a delivery to her shop. I didn’t believe her at the time, but I dunno, there are weird things out there, Leandro. And I guess if your boyfriend can vanish in a flash of light, maybe some girl running a hippie shop in downtown Toronto can be a real witch.”
Alejandro opened his mouth to protest that witches didn’t exist outside of fiction, then hesitated, remembering the deepness of the red light and how Ciaran had simply disappeared into it. “All right,” he said finally. “A witch. How’s a witch going to help us?”
Brandon shrugged. “She can cast spells? She can do that scrying stuff in a bowl of water or whatever it is they do, tell us where Ciaran is. Or if nothing else, maybe she’ll actually have some idea of who else we can talk to, point us towards someone who’s an expert on disappearing boyfriends.”
“My aunt’s an expert on disappearing boyfriends,” Alejandro muttered. “Doesn’t mean she can actually help.”
“I thought you’d be jumping at any chance to find Ciaran, no matter how farfetched.” Brandon sat up and pulled his legs in, frowning. “Why the cold feet?”
Alejandro thought of the recurring dream he’d had the past three nights, since getting back to Toronto from the Caribbean; dreams where Ciaran had come to the apartment dead, waterlogged and rotting, to demand that Alejandro pay for leaving him. He’d woken up each time with a scream behind his gritted teeth, and spent the rest of the night with the bedside lamp on so he wouldn’t have to lie in the dark and picture Ciaran’s skeletal hand reaching out to touch his face.
“I’m afraid... I guess I’m afraid this is all insane. That he just drowned and he’s dead and they just haven’t found his body yet. That I imagined this red light and now I’m clinging to a hope that isn’t real. That we’ll go see this witch friend of yours and she’ll either laugh in our faces or just admit that she was lying, that she’s not really a witch and magic doesn’t exist, and this is it, this is just how shitty life is, better get used to it.” He pushed his glasses up and rubbed at his eyes. “Sorry. I’m tired. Haven’t been sleeping well.”
Brandon shifted over on the couch and gave him a hug. “I get it. But we have to try, Leandro. I’m here, man, you know I’ll look after you.”
“I know.” Alejandro managed a smile that was almost natural. “Thanks for putting up with my bullshit for so long. Let’s go see your witch.”
“Give me five minutes to shower and actually put some pants on, and we’ll go.” Brandon pushed himself up and headed down the short hall towards the bathroom.
Alejandro stretched out on the couch while he waited, closing his eyes and dozing a little to the soothing sound of the shower down the hall. He felt a little better when Brandon shook him awake again—twenty minutes later instead of five—and went to put his coat back on while Brandon hooked a plastic baggie of weed out of his hidden stash.
“Should always go bearing gifts.” Brandon grinned, holding the baggie up in the air and shaking it a bit, then shoved it into his pocket, grabbed his keys, and led the way back down to the street.
They took the subway downtown, while Alejandro tried not to imagine the cops suddenly grabbing them at one of the stations and either accusing them of murder or discovering the weed in Brandon’s pocket. By the time they got out at Union Station he was feeling twitchy enough that he got more than a few wary stares, and Brandon had to take his arm to pull him up the stairs and out onto the street.
“You should take up yoga or something.” Brandon gave his arm a squeeze. “We’ll be there in a minute. Think you can manage?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” Alejandro took a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing himself to relax.
The shop was a tiny storefront tucked in between much bigger buildings, with a window displaying an array of herbs, homeopathic remedies, and charms with a distinct stars-and-unicorns theme. The sight of them made Alejandro’s stomach drop and he reluctantly followed Brandon through the front door, where silver bells chimed their entrance. The woman behind the counter was flipping through a magazine and sucking on a lollipop, but she took it out and looked up with a professionally vague smile that turned to surprise as soon as she saw Brandon.
“I didn’t ask for a delivery,” she said, getting up from her chair and coming around the side of the counter. On her feet she was a good few inches shorter than both of them, built on curvaceous lines and showing them off amply in her snug jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Dark hair haloed around her head in corkscrew curls, held back off her face by a brightly coloured bandanna, and her eyes were a few shades darker brown than her skin.
“No, we came for something else.” Brandon fished the baggie out of his pocket and held it out to her. “Brought this anyway though. No charge.”
She eyed him, one eyebrow slightly raised, then took the baggie and slid it out of sight behind the counter. “Then what can I do for you gentlemen?” She looked Alejandro up and down. “You look like someone put you through the wringer recently. What are you looking for, magic herbs to make you better? A couple of charms?”
“His boyfriend, actually,” Brandon said. “This is Alejandro. Leandro, this is Shoshanna Rose. She’s not actually as grumpy as she appears, most of the time. We need help, and you said you were a witch.”
“If your boyfriend’s left you, dude, move on. There was obviously a reason for it.”
“It’s not that. He disappeared but not... runaway disappeared. We were in the Caribbean and our boat went down, and he just... vanished in this flash of light.” Alejandro stopped, feeling stupid and tongue-tied telling this to a stranger, especially one who continued to look unimpressed. “Look, I know how crazy it sounds, but we think, um... we think he somehow got sent somewhere else.”
He expected her to laugh, but she only tilted her head, looking thoughtful. “I think, actually, that you’d better come upstairs and talk to Nabila. Brandon, go turn the sign to Closed and lock the door. I’m taking an early lunch.”
She waited until Brandon had done as he was told, pulled the baggie back out from behind the counter, and led the way up a set of wooden stairs in the back room to the apartment above the shop. Another woman walked out from the kitchen at the sound of their footsteps and stopped, making a little ‘oh’ noise of surprise, her dark eyes widening.
“I didn’t recognize you,” she said to Brandon. “Though I do now, of course.”
“That’s... good?” Brandon glanced at Shoshanna.
“Nabila saw you in a dream the other night.” Shoshanna shrugged, like it was an everyday occurrence, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. “Tea or coffee? We only have herbal tea.”
“Yuck. Coffee for both of us.” Brandon glanced at Alejandro, who only nodded, feeling like he was in a dream himself. He followed Brandon into the kitchen and took a seat at the little kitchen table, glancing around. The apartment looked cozy, with none of the sparkles and glitter of most of the things down in the shop below.
“Are you a witch too?” he asked the other woman. “I’m Alejandro, by the way.”
“Nabila.” She offered him a slim hand to shake. “I’m not a witch, no. What have you lost? It’s important, I know that much.”
“She’s a psychic,” Shoshanna put in, handing Alejandro and Brandon hot mugs of coffee. “Sugar’s in the bowl, cream is in the fridge, don’t make a mess.”
Alejandro went through the entire story again after he’d put cream and sugar in his coffee, sipping absently at it as he spoke. He told them everything from the sudden appearance of the storm to the attack on Brandon in the swimming pool, and by the time he was done they were both watching him with near-identical expressions of fascination.
“Can we help?” Nabila asked when he was finished, looking at Shoshanna. “Has to be another world of some sort, and the storm provided enough energy to break the barriers. There must be a reason why it targeted this Ciaran, though I’m more interested in why Alejandro here was left behind. Something reaching through, maybe? There is that other force I saw in my vision.”
“I can talk to a few people,” Shoshanna said, like it was normal coffee conversation to talk about other worlds and strange forces. Alejandro felt like he had accidentally stepped onto the set of some big Hollywood fantasy movie, and the thought that both women believed him just like that, without needing to see proof of any kind, made him feel more than a little dizzy.
“Good,” Nabila said. “You talk to people.” She reached over and patted Alejandro’s hand. “Give me your number and one of us will call you when we’ve found out what we can do. Shouldn’t take longer than a few days.”
“Thanks,” Alejandro said numbly, putting his number into the cell phone she handed him. “You’re just... This is all okay?”
“No, not really.” Nabila gave him a solemn look then grinned, showing off a dimple in her right cheek. “But you’ve come to the right people. We’ll do what we can to help you.”
“I guess that’s our cue to leave.” Brandon got to his feet and Alejandro joined him, but before they could head for the door Nabila drew Brandon aside, speaking to him too quietly for Alejandro to hear. Brandon’s expression went flat and he shook his head a few times, then walked away from Nabila with an almost angry wave of his hand.
“What was that about?” Alejandro asked, when Shoshanna had shown them back down to the street and they were walking towards Union Station again.
“Nothing too important.” Brandon slung an arm around his shoulders. “I’m starving. I’ll let you treat me to lunch.”
“Gee, thanks,” Alejandro said. “Um, you know how you said I could crash at your place for a bit?”
“I’ll change the sheets as soon as we get back.”
“Thanks,” Alejandro said, and together they walked down into the subway station.