Gauntlet

The first time it happened, Gina was directly and consciously responsible.

She’d been asked to settle a matter of paranormal significance, and found the solution in her friend Susan, whom she convinced to allow a ghost to speak through her. This worked out satisfactorily for everyone, except for Susan, who was deeply unsettled.

The second time it happened, Gina didn’t notice because she was distracted.

Several weeks later, Gina opened the door of her dorm room to Susan, who was wearing a split lip garnished by a trickle of blood leaking from her nose.

“What…” Gina tried to ask.

“Post-racial America,” Susan told her as she pushed her way inside. “Can you take care of this for me?”

“Certainly,” Gina replied. “I’m educated in the art of fisticuffs, and my less-than-impressive stature contributes a certain element–“

Susan snorted. “‘The Art of Fisticuffs?'”

Fisticuffs means–”

“I know what it means,” she chuckled. “Don’t sweat that part; I took care of it. I meant my face. Magic it or something.”

“I can’t just wave my hand and eliminate your injuries.”

“Then what do I pay you for?”

Gina assumed this was a figure of speech, because Susan had never given her money, and so she chose to keep her mouth shut.

Susan slumped onto Gina’s bed. “I just don’t want to be walking around school looking like some kind of thug girl.”

Gina scrounged through her dresser and produced several spice jars and two bottles of oil, which she then proceeded to mix in something that looked like a cauldron. “What I can do is apply a poultice.”

“You mean chicken parts?”

Gina took a deep breath. “I can apply an herbal concoction that will heal you overnight. If you like, I can also infuse it with a glamour that will mask their appearance.” There will still be mild discomfort, but no visibility.”

She point eagerly. “That! I’ll take one of those!”

Gina gently wiped up the dried blood with a moist towel and applied the mixture to her friend’s nose with a careful finger. But when she dabbed it onto Susan’s lip, her entire hand began to tingle.

Susan winced.

Susan’s brother Gerard was a proud nerd. When he’d learned of the dearth of Gina’s experience with the violent action cinema of the 1980s and 90s, he forced her to sit through as many of them as she could tolerate. This turned out to be a lot more than either had expected, in that they were much like high-sodium snacks; they contributed nothing to her mental or physical well-being, and yet she could not partake in just one.

Why was she thinking of this just now?

She tried to swallow, but her throat had dried up.

A near-universal trope in those movies occurred in the second act, in which the hyper-masculine hero would endure a lost battle or a pyrrhic victory and retreat to the very feminine heroine–although the heroine rarely committed a heroic act of her own–who nursed him back to health from his superficial injuries, an act that invariably led to a chaste, highly obscured sex scene.

Ah, yes.

That trope.

Susan was, if anything, hyper-masculine. But she was also very heterosexual. Come to think of it, so was the feminine Gina.

So why was all of her blood rerouting itself to her ears and face?

Their eyes locked for a moment, but only for a moment.

Susan shook her head and asked, “Is that it?”

Gina scrambled away, without any of the grace she was known for. She tried to speak, but had to clear her throat. “No,” she coughed. After a deep breath, she whispered, “Véu o dano para ela visage até que seu rosto pode falar por si.”

“Now is that it?”

With cold, shaky fingers, Gina handed her a mirror.

Susan examined herself for a moment, blinked, and bounced up and down on the mattress, squealing, “Gee! This trick is swell! Holy cow!”

Gina returned her supplies in the appropriate order to the appropriate drawer until her vascular system resumed its appropriate function. “Indeed,” she replied, “but the swelling will subside as long as you don’t interfere with the poultice.”

“I feel better already.” Susan hopped to her feet and blew her a kiss. “Thanks for the love, baby.”

Considering the nature of the encounter, it was understandable that Gina didn’t register the momentary strangeness.

The third time it happened, Gina was also distracted, but for different reasons.

Over the previous weeks, a number of incidents occurred that revived her faith in herself–something she thought she would never need to revive. And so, shortly after the last of these, she found herself in a franchise coffee bar, wondering what to do next. Susan slid into the booth across from her and said, “Yo.”

“Yo,” Gina said back, her mind still unfocused.

“Where’s Rafaela?”

“She departed moments ago,” Gina told her. “Indefinitely.”

“I needed to talk to her about something.”

Gina picked up one of the cafe’s customer-reward cards and turned it over in her fingers.

Susan continued, “Gerard’s been acting… different… since they hung out the other day. What’s up with that?”

Unwilling to lie about to her best friend about how her cousin had revoked Susan’s brother’s status as a virgin, Gina shrugged and waved her hand over the slip of stiff paper in the other. “Lançar uma identidade da minha escolha sobre esta.

“Whatcha doin’, baby?” asked Susan.

“Reverse engineering a glamour Rafaela used on a playing card,” Gina replied, handing it over. “What does that look like to you?”

“Like you got three punches left for a free beverage of your choice.”

Gina sighed. “It’s supposed to be a convincing falsification of a driver’s license, identifying me as a woman of twenty-five years.” She took it back with a frown. “Rafaela told me she got the idea from a TV show.”

“Two actually. But one was a comic book first.”

“Is that right?”

“Geeky shit.” Susan smirked. “I tell everybody I like it because of my brother, but… you know.”

Gina kissed the card and said, “Por favor, me obedecer, você, uma vez que uma árvore; por favor fingir ser o que eu peço de você.

Susan snatched it away and blinked. She then straightened out her posture, raised her chin, and announced in a dead-on, upper-crust British accent, “Jolly good work, I say!”

Gina thought this was weird, but she let it slide.

The fourth time it happened, Gina finally caught on.

This was kind of surprising, given that she and Susan had, between the two of them, swallowed two-thirds of a bottle of vodka purchased with the aid of the magical fake ID. Neither of them had families they wished to return to, or any other place to go over Spring Break, so they sat in the bleachers in the empty football stadium and bathed in the company of the other, undistracted by homework or Susan’s boyfriend.

Susan, while handing over the bottle, blinked before swaying and slurring, “I could never dig this game–just a bunch of lunkheads in helmets throwing around a balloon and crashing into each other. Now, boxing? That is a gentleman’s sport.”

“Susan,” Gina laughed, “I wasn’t aware of your… unexpected opinions on the subject.”

“Who’s Susan?”

“You…?” Gina replied.

“Trust me, doll, I don’t know who the devil this Susan is.”

Gina’s eyes widened, and her head cocked excitedly. “To whom do I speak?”

Grabbing back the bottle, she said, “You’re speaking to Susan, baby. And I think you need to slow down on this shit.”

Gina grinned.

The fifth and sixth times were a delight for Gina, who took the opportunity to chat through Susan’s mouth with deceased figures from all eras of history.

The seventh time, however, was not a delight.

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