Rhiannon was named for a Fleetwood Mac song her parents loved. As far as names from songs go, she had always thought it was a good one. There were certainly worse options. When her brother Bobbie McGee had complained about his name not being Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, or even Slim Shady, their mother had started singing Flash by Queen. It had shut Bobbie up, and quick.
She wondered what her mom would sing if she were in the car right now. Rhiannon’s best guess was something from the song Horse with No Name by America, although it was just as likely to be the Eagle’s Hotel California. Or maybe it would be from some other hit song about traveling through a desert. The SUV’s stereo played the Green Day piece American Idiot. Rhiannon hoped that wasn’t an omen.
“Are you sure this is it?” Rhiannon asked as her husband stopped next a trailer that looked like it was even older than her namesake song. There were no roads anywhere near the thing and no tire treads to show how it had gotten to its current godforsaken spot in the absolute middle of nowhere.
Terrance pointed at the dash. “Those are the exact coordinates he gave us.” He shrugged and shut off the engine.
In the backseat, Kelsa stirred and removed the earbuds she was wearing. “We’re off to see the wizard?” she asked as she turned off her Nintendo Switch.
“Yeah, baby, we’re here.” Her dad gave the thirteen-year-old a smile over his shoulder before taking off his seat belt and opening the door. A blast of furnace-hot air sliced through the air conditioned interior of their late model Jeep Cherokee.
As her family got out of th SUV, Rhiannon stared at what was fundamentally a tin can on wheels. It really wasn’t much larger than the Cherokee and the exterior was covered more in rust than paint. She wasn’t entirely sold on this being the place they were looking for. “It looks more like a meth lab than a magic lab,” she said as they approached.
Terrance raised a jet black eyebrow high enough it nearly touched his afro. “Which one of those do you have experience with?”
“Well, neither, but I’ve watched both Breaking Bad and Harry Potter.”
“I’m pretty sure that The Grand High Sorceror doesn’t want to be compared to anyone in children’s fiction.” Terrance paused. “Or to drug manufacturers.”
“On the contrary,” came a voice from inside the trailer. “There is very little difference between a potion and a street drug. It all comes down to mixing unregulated ingredients for a desired effect that the government may not approve of.” The door opened to reveal a man in a long, tattered bathrobe that may once have been white but which was now as beige as the sands around them. He had a long beard that flowed in shades of aqua and teal, a bald head, and eyebrows that closely resembled inchworms in both color and texture. “As for Harry Potter… I’ve always seen myself as more of a Hermione, without the misfortune of having been written by a transphobe. If you need to be told that transwomen are women, then you need to get the hell off my property.”
The visitors didn’t argue. Even if they had been inclined to disagree, they would have had too much sense to give voice to that inclination. They were here to remove a curse, not to get a new one inflicted upon them.
“Hello,” said Terrance. “Are you Carlton May? We spoke on the phone. I’m Terrance Joiner.” He tried to take a step forward, but found himself held back by Kelsa. Her hand had whipped out to grab her dad’s arm the second he tried to move.
The teen stood staring around her in wonder. “Well, Cohaagen, I have to hand it to you. It's the best mind-fuck yet.”
The man with the colorful beard laughed. “I don’t know who Cohaagen is, and you seem a bit young to be cursing like that, but thank you.”
“It’s a movie quote,” said Rhiannon. “Although I don’t know what from.”
“Total Recall,” Terrance offered. “Which is sort of funny because she totally recalls lines from every film she’s ever seen. She was less than three months old when she saw that one.”
The bearded man grunted. “Is that so? Well, I’ll drop the illusion for you folks anyway.” He waved his hand and suddenly they were all standing in front of a Persian-style palace on an oasis. Still dressed in a house robe but now in a less ratty-looking one, he crossed the distance between himself and the Joiner family. Ignoring her parents, he held his hand out to Kelsa. “I am the The Grand High Sorceror Carlton. Not a very good name is it?”
The girl shrugged, but shook his hand. It was the first time she’d ever been offered someone’s hand to shake and she smiled to be treated thusly, like she was equal to the older people around her. She couldn’t think of a suitable quote though. A tingle traveled up her arm, making her laugh.
The Grand High Sorceror Carlton smiled. “You have magic. I thought as much.”
Rhiannon cleared her throat. “She has a curse, Grand High Sorceror. That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh, I’m sure she does.” He grinned and said, “Call me Carlton,” before waving the group to his front door. “Those with magic attract magic. Sometimes it’s a blessing. Sometimes it isn’t.”
“We’re hoping you can remove it. Can you?”
“The magic or the curse?” Carlton kept walking after they were all in the house, leading the way into a sitting room large enough for half a town to fit into. “The answer is different. Magic, no. Curse, absolutely.”
Kelsa’s parents exchanged a look and Terrance cleared he throat. “Um… You said she attracts magic. If we remove this curse, could she attract a new one?”
“Certainly. An argument could be made for keeping this one if it’s one she can live with.” Carlton sprawled into a chair, landing with his legs wide and his arms spread out. His visitors were relieved to see the plaid lounge pants under his robe. He looked at Kelsa, the mirth fading from his expression. “Do you truly want this curse gone?”
“The truth?” said Kelsa. “You can’t handle the truth.”
“A Few Good Men.”
Kelsa nodded. “The Dude abides.”
The Big Lebowski reference made Carlton laugh again. “The Dude has long been a role model of mine. I get the impression you can only speak in movie quotes?”
The girl nodded. “Yes.”
“Yes?” repeated Carlton. “So the quote doesn’t have to be recognizable, just have occurred in a film?”
“It’s an inherited curse,” Rhiannon said. “Skipped a generation and altered itself some. My mother can only speak in hit song lyrics. My daughter can only quote blockbuster movies.”
“Sit,” Carlton urged, indicating a long and ornate sofa that seemed like it would belong somewhere like Versaille under the rear ends of French aristocrats. “But your mother doesn’t want her curse lifted?” he asks as the family sat.
Rhiannon shrugged. “She’s kind of used to it. It happened before I was born. And she’s a painter, so people aren’t too surprised to find out she’s eccentric. But Kelsa… We have to homeschool her. We tried sign language and pretending she’s mute, but she can’t sign except in quotes either. She can write, but try explaining why her communication is so stunted when the general public refuses to admit magic exists. We’d like to send her to high school next year, but… Not like this.”
“I can see why that might be limiting.” Carlton drew a deep breath. “So… I have the items on hand to remove the curse today, if you’re willing to pay the price.”
Neither parent was dimwitted enough to say, “Anything!” but they both nodded and waited to be told what the price was.
“Or…” Carlton kept his gaze solely on Kelsa. “I can replace it with something else.”
Terrance nodded. “A blessing?”
“Yes. But blessings don’t come cheap.”
A blanket of tension fell on the gathering. No one wanted to ask for details.
“Gee, Otter, thanks. What do I have to do?” whispered Kelsa.
“Animal House.” Carlton grinned. “I think we would get along, Kelsa. And I find myself in need of an apprentice.”
“No,” said Rhiannon, not even pausing to think about it. “We’re not giving you our daughter.” She stood up and even took a step toward the door before realize no one else had risen. “Terrance? We are not giving him Kelsa. She can live with this. We’ll tell the school she has autism or something.”
Terrance didn’t look at his wife or his daughter, instead studying the sorcerer. “I’m not agreeing. But what, exactly, would Kelsa becoming your apprentice mean?”
“You say she’s already homeschooling. She’d just need to add a few extra subjects. She can even stay with you while she does the early work. And you can stop worrying about the cost of college or what she’ll say at her entrance interviews or how to convince experts that someone who is clearly not on the spectrum has autism. By the time she’s eighteen, she’ll be ready to study magic full-time with me. Thanks to a spell I really should have been too smart to cast, I know for a fact that I will die in exactly twenty three years, five months, and six days. At that point, she will inherit my position, my wealth, and my vast network of contacts.”
“You could have chosen anyone. Why me?” Kelsa asked.
Carlton’s eyebrows drew together. “From the sound of it, I think that one’s from a romance. You should avoid that. I am not your love interest. What I am is an old man who wants to pass his knowledge on to someone. And what you are is one of maybe a half dozen people on the planet with enough innate magical ability to do something with it.”
Rhiannon stiffened. “Why are we here?”
Everyone looked at her. Carlton smiled. “You want a curse lifted from your daughter.”
“Right.” The word snapped out, sharp and cutting. “And we just happened to find someone who could send us to you at a time when you are looking for an incredibly rare talent my child just happens to have?”
It was Carlton’s turn to try quoting something. “There’s a fine line between coincidence and fate. The Mummy Returns.”
Rhiannon wasn’t buying it. “Bullshit.”
“Alright, fine.” Carlton chuckled. “I may have had a few friends looking out for cursed children. Children not because I’m a creep or a pedophile, but because younger minds take better to magic than those that are already set in their views of reality. If it would make you feel better, both you and your husband are welcome to move in with Kelsa when she reaches the level where she needs to stay here.”
Kelsa’s mother was still shaking her head, but Kelsa spoke up. “You take the blue pill, the story ends.”
“Indeed,” said Carlton. “Take the red one, stay in Wonderland, and have a real story to tell. But if you go home and I find another apprentice… You could still pay me to remove the curse and maybe whatever replaces it will be fine. But she goes on living in the Matrix and loses the chance to change the world.”
“Please,” said Kelsa.
Some of the resistance flew out of Rhiannon, but this was her daughter’s life they were discussing. “We’re going to have to talk about it.”
“Naturally.” Carlton got out of the chair and started toward the door. “The offer stands until the full moon. That’s in six days. I’ll either see you then, or I assume I’ll never see you again at all.”
The family left, but everyone involved knew they’d be back.