Casper awoke early on the first morning of his new life. The first rays of morning sunlight filtering in through the windows hit his eyelids, and he mumbled something unintelligible, turning over slightly as he dozed to better shield his eyes from the light. There was something unbelievably comfortable about sleeping on Tasha’s couch, her dog curled up against him, head resting against his chest.
It had been a bit of a surprise when the animal had bounded through the trashed apartment to greet him the night before. He’d had his power locked down, closed in around himself, too focused on his own disjointed thoughts to be aware of much beyond his immediate surroundings anyway. Then he’d heard a thumping sound, felt an impact against his chest, and a force of sheer, pure excitement had crashed against his unhappy consciousness. The dog had bowled him over to the floor and started licking him, and he’d giggled without even thinking. It had been a reprieve, an excuse to just stop thinking for a while, leave his parents and Tasha and everything else behind. He had taken it, playing with his excitable four legged friend for who knew how long, before eventually falling asleep on Tasha’s couch.
Laying against him now, Casper felt something new coming from his friend. Relaxation. Simple and pure. Maxie liked the feeling of the warm sun against his fur. He liked the cushion of Casper’s belly as his makeshift pillow, and he liked dozing there without a care in the world. It was hard not to bask in it. Casper liked dogs, he decided; he liked them very much. He raised a hand to stroke the creature’s head, and smiled tiredly as the fresh wave of satisfaction washed over him.
Without thinking, Casper opened up his power, not so much pushing it further as relaxing his restraints on it, too comfortable to really care. His radius expanded outwards, and he felt the minds of those in the apartments around and below him brush against his mind. They were a far less pleasant feeling to be party to. Most grumpy, slightly tired, some probably preparing for a day’s work. One man two floors down was doing something uncomfortable to himself. Casper huffed in irritation. These other people were ruining his perfect morning. They did serve one purpose, though. They brought Casper back to himself enough to make him think. He opened his eyes, grimaced, and sat upright on the couch. He reached into his pocket for his phone, intent on checking the time, before remembering that it was gone. He’d smashed it on his way across town. He rolled his eyes. Better get a new one today. That thought brought a realization to mind. No money. Right. That was a thing. He shrugged. Tasha probably wouldn’t mind if he borrowed some of hers for the time being.
Casper cast his eyes around the apartment, and for the first time, it struck him just how much of a state the whole place was in, old food wrappers and junk littering every square inch of the floor around him. He’d been in too much of a state the night before to pay it any mind. He scrunched his nose up in disgust, some part of his mind suddenly connecting his surroundings with the stale, slightly moldy smell of the place. He thought for a moment of Tasha, and compared what he knew of her to the idea of living in this place, then shrugged. Yeah. He could see her living here.
His stomach grumbled, and he grunted, pushing himself up off the couch and making his way towards Tasha’s fridge. Step one: breakfast. Step two:… He’d get to that later.
The dog pushed itself upright and stretched languidly, before following Casper to the kitchen, his tail wagging gently behind him. Better feed the dog, too.
It took a few minutes to find something edible for them both. Stale cereal on long-life milk for him, the same for Maxie. As he ate, he reached once more into his pocket for his phone, more out of instinct than anything else. He remembered that it was gone with a sigh, then felt his fingertip brush against a slip of paper. He pulled it out and gazed down at it. A handwritten phone number on a slip of paper nervously toyed with so much that it was practically fraying.
The magic teacher.
In the events of the previous night, he’d completely forgotten about it. The revelation of his parents’ actions taking the forefront in his mind. He grinned. No plans for the day, why not learn some cool stuff?
It took Casper almost an hour and a half to find Tasha’s cache of money. He’d been expecting something underhanded, like stashing it in a crack behind a mirror or something, hidden in the walls. As it turned out, however, Tasha had apparently gone for something simpler and, in the end, a lot more effective. She’d stuffed the money into one of the hundred or so abandoned pizza boxes littering the floor. He took a moment to count it out, and whistled. Four thousand bucks, near enough. That would do him well enough for the moment. He stashed it in his school bag, and went into the bathroom to swish some toothpaste around on his teeth, before stepping back out into the world, giving Maxie an affectionate pat on the head before he took his leave.
Down at the street level, he bought himself an ice cream at a convenience store to make some change, before tracking down a telephone booth. He closed the door behind him, slipped a few coins into the slot, and tapped out the number from the slip. The phone rang out five times before it was answered, a gruff, elderly sounding woman picking up on the other end.
“Hello. You’ve reached The Rose Bouquet. Are you looking to place an order?”
“Uhh, hi,” Casper replied, not particularly surprised. “I’m… Cas. I wanted to get some lessons?”
There was a grunt on the other end of the line, before the woman responded.
“Flower arranging or Gardening?” She asked, her tone businesslike.
“I uhh…” Casper started, before shrugging. “I don’t really know what that means. Whichever one isn’t actually flower arranging or gardening, I guess.”
The line was silent for a moment, before the woman responded, her tone suspicious.
“You a cop?”
“Uhh… No… I’m thirteen.”
“You sound thirteen, sure,” the woman’s voice allowed. “But that doesn’t really mean much depending on who you are. Anyways, I don’t teach anything besides gardening and flowers, so if you’re looking for something else, you’ve got the wrong number.”
Casper rolled his eyes, frustrated.
“Look,” he whined. “I’m not a cop, okay?” He hesitated, then decided to just go for it. At the very worst, he had a bad number and the woman would just think he was a crazy person. “All I know is my dad hurt me real bad one time and now I can do things that should be impossible. I don’t know if I want flowers or gardening, but another kid gave me this number and told me you could help, so can you?”
There was another, longer silence, before the woman sighed.
“Sounds like you want gardening lessons,” she muttered, her tone exasperated. “Who was it that gave you my number?”
“Umm,” Casper replied awkwardly. “I… kinda don’t know his name-” He was cut off by a snort of laughter.
“Kid,” she chuckled. “You really suck at this.”
“It’s not my fault!” He said defensively. “Lewis said we weren’t allowed to swap names!”
“Ah,” the woman murmured, as if in sudden realization. “One of Lewis’ kids, eh? That explains a lot.” She stopped for a moment, apparently to think, before continuing. “Tell you what. Head over to the shop so we can talk in person. I’ll take a look at you, and we can go from there.”
Casper let out a relieved sigh.
“Yeah, will do. Thank you.”
The woman made no indication that she had heard him, reciting the address in a bored tone before hanging up with a click.
Casper let out a long breath, before placing the phone back in the holder. The shop was only a short way from Tasha’s apartment, as luck would have it. He pushed his nerves aside, before stepping out of the booth, and walking the short distance to the shop.
He spotted the place almost immediately upon rounding the corner onto its street. The Rose Bouquet was a fairly hokey looking place to Casper’s eye, the shop front covered by an apparently ancient fabric canopy in a faded mishmash of greens and yellows, throwing a swathe of shade over the stands of arranged flowers that spilled out into the street. The flowers themselves were overseen by a plump, middle aged looking woman with an almost disturbingly wholesome smile, busily flagging down any passerby who’s attention she could draw for more than a few seconds at a time. He wondered, briefly, how people doing jobs like that managed to smile so much without it looking fake, then made his way over to the shopfront, his power kept wrapped tight around him. He waited for her to be distracted, flagging down another prospective customer, before slipping past her into the store, brushing aside a thin bead curtain that hung from a doorway and setting a bell jangling lightly as he passed.
Almost immediately upon entering the place, his nostrils were assaulted by the aromas of incense and candle wax, utterly overpowering the lingering smells of car exhaust and morning moisture that clung to the street outside, drowning out even the fresher fragrances of the flower stall. He wrinkled his nose slightly in distaste, and glanced around. It looked like a souvenir shop, the interior of the place lined with row after row of cluttered shelves holding polished pebbles and salt infused soaps and a hundred other things besides, most of them labeled with price tags that almost made Casper laugh.
“Hello?” Asked a curt voice from somewhere to his left. “That you, Mel? We’re out of those weird candles that smell of grapes. Can you order some more before another tourist wants some?”
Casper recognized the voice immediately. The woman who’d answered the phone. He stepped around the shelf, bringing the chintzy sales counter into view, behind which stood an elderly woman with a scowl set implacably into a face more lined than any he had ever seen, a pair of cheap, bead encrusted spectacles perched on a hawk-like nose a good two or three times too large for her head. She squinted down at him, and made a face like she’d just bitten into a fresh lemon.
“Uh, hi,” Casper said, a little awkwardly. “I’m Cas. You, uh, told me to head ove-”
“So you ARE a kid, then.” She cut him off. “Come on. We’ll have more privacy in the back.” She raised a hand, pausing a moment to tug the edge of her sequin encrusted shawl back over her wrist, and gestured to a side door, stepping out from behind the counter towards it. Casper followed behind her, slightly deflated.
The two of them moved through the door and into a narrow hallway that branched off into an equally narrow staircase to the right side. As they walked, Casper extended his power out, allowing his little bubble to expand around his newfound companion. A part of him was disappointed when she didn’t react to it. Her mind was focused, her attention turned towards the business of the day, emotions muted. Nothing new to glean. The woman led him past the staircase, and through into a small, enclosed room that, to Casper, looked a lot like a classical dojo, the floor covered by a padded beige mat, the windowless walls lined with a number of short, wood carved drawers the contents of which he could only guess at.
After a moment or two, she stepped back to him, and placed a small, slightly oblong stone in his hand.
“Right,” she grunted, her tone businesslike. “Now then, tell me you’re a purple dinosaur.”
“… What?” Casper asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“You heard me,” She replied, utterly serious.
“… I’m a purple dinosaur?” The moment the last syllable left his mouth, the stone buzzed in his hand, vibrating a little against his skin and letting out a rattling noise not unlike a set of maracas. The surprise of it made him jump more than he would have liked to admit.
“It does that every time you tell a lie,” she murmured, looking him dead in the eye. “Now, are you with the cops?”
“Oh,” Casper nodded, understanding. “No. I’m not working with the police.”
“Good,” she reached out and plucked the stone from his hand, before returning it to its drawer and turning to face him. “Now then. My name is Freja, and it sounds like you need a magic teacher.”