A sound at the alley’s mouth alerted her. She looked back long enough to see the tourist’s head, the same distinctive ponytail she had noticed when peeling the wallet free of his pocket. “Shit,” she muttered. Then she yelled, “check the trash mister,” and made a show of running straight into the dead end wall, only to whip around and charge when he was nearly on top of her.
For a moment, she wished she did take more from her lifts, wished she kept enough to buy just a gram of lartë. With a gram, she could change into a cat and dart between the man’s legs right now. Instead, she ducked under his arm and sped on past him back out onto the street. She heard him follow.
He chased her several blocks, shouting all the while for the gendarmerie. “Son of a bitch,” she muttered. Sooner or later, one of the flics would pay attention to his racket, especially as they got closer to the better end of town. Damned if she was giving his cash back now.
Flori bolted down another alley, this one a twisting affair that ultimately separated into two narrow streets. By the time she reached the split, she could no longer see the man when she stole a glance behind her, though she could still hear him shouting. She darted into a restaurant and dropped into a seat facing the window.
The table’s former occupant had been drinking a coffee. Now, he was arguing loudly at the counter. Flori took a sip of his drink. Too hot by half. She spat it back into the cup and moved to another seat just as the customer turned from the counter and came back to his chair.
“Hey,” said the counterman, “What do you want?”
“Coffee,” Flori answered.
A cup grew out of the table in front of her, and she grimaced. Food delivered by magic was always too cold. She carried it to the counter and flicked her coin down beside it. The counterman sighed heavily, lifted the pot, and topped her off. She took a sip before she returned to her seat and smiled. Just right.
She stayed nearly twenty minutes, but when she left the shop and walked out of the alley-street, the damned tourist was sitting at a café, watching for her. The two streets didn’t diverge far before they came out on a main avenue. Not far enough, anyhow. He could watch both from his vantage, and she regretted going forward instead of turning back when she left the restaurant. Flori saw him a hairsbreadth before he saw her, and she ran again. “Why you got such a hard on about twenty bucks?” she yelled. “I threw the wallet away.”
“Nobody steals from me!”
One of those. At least he hadn’t picked up any flics while he waited. Flori ran back up the alley-street, looking for the family of three she had just seen walking out their front door. She hadn’t paid much attention to them. But now, it seemed very important that they hadn’t suddenly decided to go home. Because Flori didn’t remember seeing one of them reach back to lock the door. They were still haggling with the greengrocer. Perfect.
Although she was in plain sight of the man, she darted up the family’s front steps and tried the handle. Open! She let herself in and clattered through the narrow house, rapidly scooting furniture behind her to trip the tourist up and slow him down. Not all magic required drugs.
She heard him struggling, and the crack of wood suggested he was trying to clear the path with his own spell. Excellent. Flori regretted the property destruction, but no tourist was going to beat her over twenty dollars. (And would he stop at beating? Flori didn’t want to find out.)
Initially, Flori’s plan was to sneak in the front then right out the back again. But from the sounds, her tourist was well trapped. So she popped into the toilet to take care of the coffee, which suddenly pressed to escape her bladder. She sat on the commode while the man thrashed, cracking chairs as he tried to free himself.
She heard other voices now, another man’s bearlike roar carrying in from outside. She had to guess that was the individual she had seen holding a head of cabbage like a weapon. Man of the house. It was impossible to tell if he understood the trapped tourist’s explanations. Then, she saw three vials sitting in a neat row on the sink directly across from the toilet. “That’s not perfume,” she whispered. “Lartë.”
She flushed and rose. Everywhere outside the bathroom, the furniture creaked, her little spell holding out against not only the tourist, now, but also the returning family. Flori’s spell just caught up all their magic like it was more furniture and added it to the mess.
She closed her hand around all three tiny bottles. She tucked them in her pocket and sprinted out the back door, feeling a pang of guilt as she heard a child’s voice for a moment above the adults. “My chair!” it wailed. “My chair, my chair, my chair.”
Nothing for it right now. The back door opened into a courtyard that separated four houses. This house and its neighbor backed up to two others that opened into the opposite alley-street. A little fence between the courtyard and the alley was a small obstacle, easy to vault over, but she didn’t want to vault. She wanted to fly.
She quickly studied her bottles of lartë, each labeled for strength. The first one measured two grams. Too hard. She wasn’t a regular user, and she doubted she could either manage a trip that strong or moderate her intake to consume only half of it in a hurry. The second bottle was only half a gram. Too soft. But the third bottle was exactly one gram. Just right. Just exactly right.
She set the two wrong bottles under her toes, then broke the seal and turned the right bottle into her mouth. After the *pop* that told her the transformation was complete, she collected the vials awkwardly in her talons and lifted above the courtyard, above the houses, above the city, looking for a church where she could rest and cry sanctuary when the change wore off.
Late that night, rested, unpursued, Flori returned to the house in her own form. She realized at once that the largest part of the splintering racket had been the front door, which had twisted off its hinges and snapped in half. They would have to wait for her spell to ebb before they could clear the damage. She looked in the windows for a long time, until she was certain everything inside was still.
Then, she climbed noiselessly over the door. Even in human form, she made a good cat (a far better cat than a bird.) She picked around in the rubble with a flashlight until she found what she wanted, the finished headrest of a child’s chair. She carried it back into the narrow street with her and walked far enough away that she wouldn’t just be feeding her own spell.
She stroked the wood and called softly for the other pieces, the seat and legs, the back and rockers. (She would have missed the rockers if not for the pegs in the legs. ) While she petted the chair, it pulled back into its proper shape. Other wood came too, extra pieces caught in the tangle. The finished chair was at first too lumpy thanks to the embedded mess. Flori removed the extra bits, but that left the chair too smooth, too new. Well, she wasn’t much bigger than a child herself. Flori sat rocking in the night while she cast her spell, until the chair shaped itself to the contours of her body. Just right.
At dawn, she carried it back and left it on the stairs for its young owner, a small apology for a chaotic day. She wondered about the tourist, whether he’d been believed or arrested, whether he regretted chasing her down over such a little bit of cash. But not for long. Like the chair, the tourist was part of the past, part of yesterday.
Today, Flori had other things in mind. She would look for Urre and Kulta. See if they still had room for a third. See if they would teach her how to improve her use of lartë. Next time she had to be a bird, she didn’t want to hear the grackles laughing at her poor form.
I hope I didn’t bore the editors at Trifecta, who were foolish enough to give me more than 333 words for my story this weekend for Trifextra. The only stipulation was that it should be a recognizable retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Somehow, that never really happened. However, in my defense:
1) Flori means gold. In Albanian. Ulta and Kurre mean Gold in …. two other languages. Dear GOD I love Google Translate.
2) There WERE three people in the family, and I did give the father a bearlike roar.
3) The kid’s chair got broken.
4) I got in too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft, too lumpy, too smooth, and just right.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.