The wistful smile had returned to Wuju's face and he just sat there silently.
It was too much for me. "What happened?" I demanded, temporarily forgetting about the money.
"Everybody has some moment in their life that they play back in their minds over and over for the rest of their lives," said Wuju thoughtfully. "Even with everything that's happened since, that moment in my little run-down studio apartment is the one I come back to. Sometimes I replay it exactly the way it happened, that way I can see all the events and decisions that led up to it and how my response led to all the..." He searched for the word. "...craziness that followed."
He closed his eyes and went on. "But almost as often, I wonder what would have happened if I'd taken her in my arms and kissed her with all the passion I was feeling for her then. Perhaps I'd be with her right now and Phil would be somewhere telling a bartender a sad story. Then again, maybe I'd be right here, right now with you after all. Who knows?"
"So what happened?" I repeated.
Wuju's answer was infuriating. "I really don't remember exactly," he said.
"How can you not remember?!"
"I sort of remember my response," said Wuju. "I hemmed and hawed a little and then said something like I really don't think I should answer that or some dumb thing like that. After that, it's kind of a blur. I know we never watched the other movies. Somewhere in there, we decided it was a good idea for her to leave since neither of us was quite able to suggest she stay."
Wuju frowned and toyed with his drink, which he hadn't touched since the last time I'd refilled it. "I recall walking her to the door. I must have driven her home, because I remember being outside her apartment with her."
Even though it wasn't quite midnight, Teri was home. I guess her date hadn't worked out the way she'd hoped it would. Small world. In any event, it gave Janet a good excuse not to invite me in which was probably a good thing. See, I don't know whether I was resisting my feelings out of some twisted sense of honor or if it was just plain baby duck-yellow cowardice holding me back that night. To this day, I still don't know. I do know that one word from her would have been all it would have taken to change my mind for good.
I remember standing with her at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her apartment and somehow wishing things were different. I don't remember the actual words that were exchanged. We may not have said anything.
Wait, I take that back. I do remember one thing Janet said because it sort of came back to haunt us later. She said, "Sometimes I wish you were a horrible person, Wooj." Having thought about it since, I figure this could've been taken a couple of different ways: If I hadn't been so sweet and kind and compassionate and all that crap, she never would've been attracted to me in the first place. On the other hand, maybe if I had had just a little less conscience -- or a little more backbone, depending on which way you look at it -- maybe I would've made a pass at her back at my apartment. I never did get around to asking her exactly what she meant by that "horrible person" crack, but it's a pretty safe bet that what happened soon after probably wasn't what she'd had in mind.
Anyway, I remember watching her slowly walk up the stairs. Maybe she was waiting for me to call after her. Maybe I was waiting for her to turn around and come back to me. In any event, neither happened. She went inside and closed the door behind her and I felt about as cold and lonely as it's possible to feel without being sealed inside a coffin and buried.
I also remember the first thing I said as soon as she was gone: "I am in so much trouble." That was an understatement; I was so far up the creek that a paddle wouldn't have helped even if I'd had one.
darkest hour of the darkest night
Can't get no sleep,
don't know what to do
Gary Moore, "Midnight Blues"
I got in my Volkswagen Rabbit and just started driving. No particular place to go. Even my favorite radio station, KTLU -- All Old Ones, was conspiring against me: "Old-Fashioned Love Song" by Three Dog Night, followed by The Grassroots' "Midnight Confession," and topped off by the Eagles singing "Heartache Tonight." I guess it could have been worse; if they had played "Born To Lose" or "I Am A Rock," I probably would have swerved into oncoming traffic and that would have been that.
Instead, I wound up at Haster's Donuts. Three nerdy-looking high school guys in a Camero were pulling out just as I pulled in. Saul and Bernie had the Friday night graveyard, but I didn't go there to talk to them; they were sort of jerks. My intention was to load enough sugar and caffeine into my system to make me feel better. It was a tried and true method.
"Hey, Wuju," greeted Bernie.
"Give me a large extra-strong coffee and something covered with chocolate, okay?" I snapped.
Bernie seemed taken aback by my brusqueness and gave me my order without saying anything else to me. My estimation of the man went up considerably for that.
I was still sitting at the table lost in my coffee, chocolate donuts and deep blue funk when I suddenly realized I was no longer alone. At some point, Art had sat down across from me with his usual.
"Let me offer you a little sage advice from my late wife," he said archly. "'You can't read tea leaves if you're drinking coffee.'"
"I've been watching you for a good five minutes, and from the way you've been staring into that styrofoam cup, I'd gathered you were trying to divine your fortune," he explained.
"Ha. If it weren't for misfortune, I wouldn't have any fortune at all." Then I laughed a little self-consciously. "I must look like some kind of basketcase."
He gave me a reassuring smile. "I'm a professional wizard. Let me be the judge of who is and who isn't a basketcase," he said. "What's on your mind?"
I told him without hesitation. "Janet."
He nodded knowingly. "Go on."
I went ahead and told him the whole pathetic story.
"So what do you think you should do?" he finally asked me when I'd finished.
That surprised me. "You're the wizard, you tell me."
"That's not my job, nor is it my place," he said seriously. "I'm willing to offer you what moral or magical support I can, but it's up to you to decide what you want. What you need."
I thought about it. "What I need is to fall out of love with Janet as of about an hour ago," I said. "I don't suppose you've got an anti-love potion back at your shop."
Art smiled and shook his head.
"You don't have one?"
"There's no such thing."
"No such thing?"
"Yup. Love potions are a snap," he explained. "Any idiot can concoct an effective love potion. I know a hundred different recipes; my late wife knew over nine times that. You could walk into the kitchen over there and make one up out of ingredients from the refrigerator. Slip it into some lucky girl's food or drink, and there you go." He shrugged. "The only other thing you need is to believe it will work, and maybe a dozen roses."
"Roses?" I laughed.
"Well, it doesn't have to be roses," he said. "Most any kind of flowers will work. Like I said, they're a snap; if you want to get into the Magic business, you start with love potions."
"Then what about an antidote?" I pressed.
"Like I said, there is none," replied Art. "For centuries, alchemists have searched for a non-lethal antidote to true love. Lead into gold and eternal youth are relatively easy by comparison, but any love that can be negated by a mere potion wasn't really love to begin with."
That made sense.
"You and Janet are part of the reason I come here every night, you know -- that and my sweet tooth. Your auras -- if you'll excuse me for using a New Age Garbage term -- are in near-perfect harmony with one another. It's very relaxing."
"You bet," he said. "They say all the world loves a lover for a reason."
"So our auras are in perfect harmony?" I said hopefully.
"Near-perfect," corrected Art. "And before you ask, yes, it is possible for her aura to also be in sync with this Phil person's aura too. Especially if you and Phil have similar qualities."
"That's been suggested," I grumbled, my balloon deflated anew.
"I'm not surprised. Janet strikes me as a woman who takes her affections very seriously. She'd insist on those qualities."
The old wizard and I sat and finished our coffee and donuts in silence.
"I wish I knew what she was doing now," I finally said. "I wish I knew what she was feeling."
"That, I can help you with," said Art brightening.
"Crystal ball?" I smirked a little.
"Something like that." He scowled a little. "Give me a ride back to my shop and we can look in on your lady fair. Who knows, maybe you'll find she needs you as much as you need her."
Art's shop was even stranger after midnight than it had been at dusk. He had the place lit mostly by candles and lanterns ("Too much electricity interferes with Magic forces," he explained). The owl and the black cat were both gone, but this time I noticed a terrarium housing a bullfrog the size of a softball. He was hungrily eyeing the tarantula in the tank next to his.
Art led me back to the full-length mirror where Janet had tried on the white cloak earlier. Getting a closer look at the mirror, I saw that it was surrounded by an ornately carved silver and gold frame. At the top was a polished orb that looked like an ever-watchful green eye.
"This mirror is over eight hundred years old," said Art. "It was commissioned by a sultan who wanted to keep tabs on his wives and daughters. It can display the image of anyone who's ever stood in front of it and, luckily, your Janet falls into that category."
Art produced a coarse piece of parchment and a ballpoint pen. "Give me her full name and birthdate," he told me.
I supplied the requested information.
"Good," he said writing it down, and then frowned thoughtfully.
"We need something she's..." he began and then looked at me. "Even better," he said plucking a strand of her long blonde hair from my collar. "Excellent."
He put the parchment and the hair in a small iron dish, sprinkled some silver powder on it and lit a match. The contents of the dish all went up in a blue flash with a puff of white smoke.
"Watch closely," he said and then blew the smoke against the polished surface of the mirror.
The smoke didn't clear so much as it seemed to be sucked into the glass. When it was gone, I saw Janet in the mirror trying on the white cloak just as clearly as if she'd been standing there in front of it. This was followed by a rippling effect.
When the ripples cleared, we found ourselves looking into Janet's bedroom. She was lying on her bed and it was obvious she'd been crying. I got a cold guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach.
"Maybe you ought to be with her," suggested Art softly.
I was more than ready to rush out the door and tear across town to be by her side, except....
Except what she did next stopped me cold. She reached over for her phone, picked it up and punched up an eleven-digit number. I figure it rang once.
"Hi, it's me," she said.
There was a pause.
"Nothing," she assured someone, and then added, "I just needed to hear your voice. I miss you, kiddo."
I sat down in a nearby chair. Something hot and sharp twisted and turned inside my chest.
"I'm sorry," offered Art.
"That's okay," I told him. "You don't have anything to be sorry for. If anything, I should thank you. At least now I know I did the right thing."
The image in the mirror rippled again and I saw Janet trying on the cloak once more. She was beautiful.
"It only there were two of her," I sighed, remembering the joking conversation from the night before.
"I can do that," said Art smiling.
"The mirror has another property," he said. "Images in it can be summoned into this world." He gestured at Janet's reflection with his head. "I can bring her here."
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