I pulled in to the convenience store late the next day and shook my head. Muriel had been in some crappy places, but this place was full of red flags.
Two guys in parachute pants (seriously? what decade is this?) and should-have-been-white-not-yellow undershirts eye-balled each other from opposite corners of the store. The parking lot was empty of cars, but three people were sitting on the curb in front of the store drinking from bottles hidden in paper bags. A woman in leggings that had seen better days and a tube-top (it's the 90s isn't it...) was thrusting out hips and shaking booty at cars driving by.
I unfocused my eyes to check out the energy. The two eye-ballers showed up as red imps - aggressive, but not as badass as they try to come across as. The drinkers had various parasites hanging on them - stress and depression were draining them of any fight. The woman in the tube-top showed a hot pink but emaciated side - she didn't hate her job, but there was a desperation to her, so it probably wasn't going well at the moment.
I glanced at Joseph who looked like he'd just eaten a bad lemon.
“What are you getting?” I asked him.
Joseph took a deep breath and checked out the scene again. “Sorrow, depression, posing. Nothing big, just nothing good.”
I nodded and opened the car door. “Let's see if they have an iced coffee machine.”
The bell rang out our arrival with false cheerfulness. We went straight to the counter. The entire check-out area was surrounded by Plexiglas.
A short brunette in her mid-twenties came out of the back office. Her clothes were clean but worn and some lines had begun showing around her eyes. She met my gaze and stopped.
“Nicola. Joseph. What the hell are you doing here?”
I put my hand up to the Plexiglas. “Muriel. We heard you were in trouble. So...”
“So you thought you'd come rescue me?” Muriel crossed her arms across her chest. “You and your holier-than-thou white fucking horse can turn around and go home! I don't need you to save me. I got a job and a place and I don't need you to come charging in and fix shit!”
I dropped my hand and glanced at Joseph.
He stuck his hands in his pants pockets and smirked. “Muriel. Did you just call me a horse?” He tossed his head and made a pretty realistic-sounding whinny.
Muriel cracked a smile. Joseph always knew how to diffuse a tense situation.
“So-o-o-o,” I turned back to Muriel. “We thought we'd come find out what's going on, and find out IF you needed any help.”
Muriel's shoulders slumped and her arms dropped to her sides, losing some of her defensiveness. “Oh. Well. What's there to know? I'm getting my life on track. I've got some people on my side and things are going really good.”
“People like Mercy?”
She scowled. “Jealous?”
I chewed my lip, letting her see me thinking. “I don't know. Is there something to be jealous of?”
“We aren't fucking, if that's what you want to know,” she moved around the counter area, straightening things that didn’t really need it. “He's helping people. Giving them a purpose.”
“Like you?” Joseph asked.
Muriel raised her chin. “Yeah, like me.”
“He gave me a purpose, a reason to work for a better life, and then he helped me find this job.”
Joseph leaned on his arms on the counter. His nose almost touched the Plexiglas cage. “This job gives you a purpose?”
“Yeah,” Muriel lifted her chin again. “I contribute to the cause.”
I met Joseph's eyes. “Tithing?”
Muriel continued as if she hadn't noticed our exchange. “We've been fighting through our lives for so long. Now we have something to fight for. We've been losing so much of ourselves. Now we have a reason to win. We've been barely surviving. Now we will live.”
I nudged Joseph. “Sounds pretty rote.”
He nodded and we turned back to Muriel. “Is that how he says it?”
Muriel crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah. So?”
I shrugged and filed away the information. “So... what else does he do? Any activities? Classes? Stuff like that?”
“We learn to defend ourselves, if that's what you mean,” she said. “He hosts a self-defense class and hand-to-hand combat. A few of us get to learn some energy work and how to do spells. And we learn about how the human world got screwed over by the Ay-seer.”
I blinked. “You mean, the Aesir? Like Norse gods?”
“Oh. But...” I hesitated, trying to figure out how to phrase things so Muriel wouldn't get defensive and shut down. “How did they screw over the human world?”
“Well, see, Odin, the king god, won't let Ragnarok happen ‘cause all the gods will die. And when they die, it will bring the cleansing waters over the earth. But Odin wants people to keep going the way we are so there is enough pain for him to feed on.”
I tried to follow what she was saying and match it to my own understanding of the Norse myths. “Odin? Feeds on pain?”
Muriel nodded. “Yeah. That's why he captures souls of the dead and brings the one guy's head back to life.”
“You mean, uh...” I wracked my brain for the name. “Mimir?”
“Yeah, him. He was beheaded and Odin brings his head back to life so he can torture him – Mimir – for information.”
“Well... Okay.” That was certainly a new interpretation of the myths. “So are the Aesir the enemy, then?”
Muriel nodded. “Yeah. And the only way to defeat the Aesir for good is to bring about Ragnarok.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to think. The basics of the myths were there, but they had been seriously warped against Odin and the other Aesir.
Joseph jumped in. “And how do you bring about Ragnarok? Is that what the endgame is?”
Muriel turned to him. “Well, yeah. That's how we bring the Peace of Ages to the earth. We have to be ready to fight in Ragnarok, but Keith has the hardest job. He's the one who has to start Ragnarok. I dunno how he's gonna do it though.”
The bell rang cheerfully as a few teenagers pushed in and headed for the candy aisle.
“Muriel, me and Joseph are going to have a smoke outside while you get these kids taken care of. What time do you get off work?”
Muriel glanced at the clock. “I'll be out of here in about 10 minutes, depending on when Johnny gets in.”
I nodded. “We could go out for a burger and talk some more...”
She nodded and turned away as the first customer approached. Joseph and I headed out and we each lit up a vanilla.
“Did you see anything?” I asked Joseph.
Joseph sucked air through his teeth to make a loud hissing noise as he inhaled. “Her energy is dulled unless she is talking about Keith and his cause. Then she is focused. Manic, even.”
I nodded. “That's what I got, too.”
I glanced around the lot, trying not to be obvious about keeping an eye on the loiterers. My eyes widened when I saw Mercy striding towards us. She looked a little miffed.
“Mercy,” Joseph said in greeting.
I nodded at the woman as she took up a position next to me.
“It took me all morning to catch up to you,” she accused.
I shrugged. “Never said you were coming with us today. That was your assumption.”
She frowned at my comment, then we fell into an uncomfortable silence.
I noticed she was watching us as we smoked. My hackles raised, always sensitive to other people’s judgment. “What?” I snapped.
She cleared her throat. “I thought that... well, doesn't smoking do something to block psychic... powers or whatever? If you have those kinds of… abilities, why do you guys smoke?”
I grinned. “I quit a while back but this is a special occasion.”
Joseph took a drag and blew it out. “And smoking does kind of stifle psychic 'powers'. That's why we do it.”
“You like music?” he asked.
“Favorite song or group?”
She nodded again.
“So what if you had to listen to that song or group or whatever over and over for days... How would you like that? It'd be great for the first few hours or so, right?”
“But then you’d start to get numb about it,” Joseph continued. “After a full day of hearing the same thing so many times, you'd start to hate it, right? Then it might even start to piss you off, drive you crazy, you know?”
I jumped in. “That's what psychic powers can be like, especially when you are actively using them, like we are now. We usually keep them turned off, but we need them right now. Smoking, drinking, even harder drugs, sex... all that can be used to dull the effects without shutting it off. It keeps us more or less not crazy.”
“People who don't learn to turn them off tend to go one of two ways,” Joseph said. “They use the suppressors, sometimes to an extreme. Or they stop living this life, and the other worlds, other lives – as in reincarnation, spiritual identities and such – they treat those like the priority.”
“Forget working a job just to pay rent, ‘cause ancient Sumerian princesses are better than that,” I ticked off examples. “You were a warrior in another life? Try to live like a samurai in this one, buying expensive weapons at every urge. Haven't gotten groceries yet this month, but dropping a hundred bucks on a necklace ‘cause it reminds you of the one you had when you were an elf lord.”
Joseph took another hissing drag. “People forget to successfully live this life because their abilities give them insight into a more romantic or dramatic life. They want that one, not this one, so they focus on that one in a game of Ultimate Escapism.”
“And they refer to those other lives, past lives and spirit selves as their 'true' self.” I shook my head. “’Cause living this life, rocking the here and now, isn't 'true' enough in comparison.”
Mercy chewed her lower lip. “So why didn't you guys do that?”
Joseph laughed. “Who says we didn't, at one point?” He gestured to me. “Nicola struggled for a few years before she figured out that being an herbalist in a past life doesn't mean she automatically knows how to be an herbalist in this life with the differences in plants, modern knowledge and FDA regulations.”
“Not to mention that past life memories aren’t photographic. You forget stuff.” I shrugged. “But I got over it. Just like he got over the asshole boyfriend who had been his true love in another incarnation. Three years and twenty-five thousand in debt later.”
Joseph sighed at the memory. “Hard lessons. Basic idea: turn it off so you can live your life.”
I nodded. “Most of us don't get to make a career out of our abilities. So...”
The bell chimed behind us as the kids took off and Muriel came out on their heels. “My relief came in on time, so I'm free to go.”
“You remember Mercy, right?” I indicated our third.
Muriel grinned and walked right into Mercy's arms for a hug. Joseph caught my eye over their heads and raised his eyebrow.
I shrugged and headed for the car. “Get in. I'm buying burgers all around.”
I shrugged and headed for the car. “Get in. I'm buying burgers all around.”