Excerpt from Middle Age Before Beauty
“My rheumatism’s acting up something fierce today.” Margaret Balefire, better known as Mag, stood up as straight as she could manage after crouching to inspect the underside of a desk drawer, and pressed a hand to her lower back.
“Call it arthritis. Nobody uses the word rheumatism anymore.” Clara Balefire, Mag’s sister, ran a feather duster over a line of glass jars on a shelf in the shop they owned together. “It’s outdated.”
Temper flaring, Mag retorted, “Well, so am I. What’s your point?”
“Besides the one on your hat?” Clara shot up an eyebrow as she surveyed Mag’s current choice of attire, which included a pair of leopard-print leggings and a neon-pink tee-shirt with a unicorn cavorting across her chest. A straw hat with a distinct point at the top perched jauntily on hair the color and texture of a dandelion clock. “I wasn’t trying to make a point, just stating a fact.”
“You want to hear a fact? This desk is a knock-off and I paid too much for it, so now there’s more than one thing that’s a pain in my backside.”
Because she hated seeing anyone in pain, Clara went behind the counter and pulled out a container of handmade liniment in a colorful, glass jar. “This should help with the pain and I’ve added a little something special to make it last longer, too.”
Suspicious, Mag unscrewed the cap, and took a sniff. “What’s in it?”
“Oh, just several types of poison. I figured if I couldn’t get rid of your aches and pains, I could get rid of you instead,” Clara joked.
“You’re so funny I forgot to laugh.”
With no sense of modesty whatsoever, Mag dragged up the hem of her top, and reached around to apply the salve to the spot near her hip that pained her. “It’s minty,” she said. “Smells like that chewing gum you used to like.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” The dusting finished, Clara fisted hands on her hips and surveyed the shop to make sure everything was up to snuff. Outside of Mag not looking what anyone would consider professional, Clara decided the place passed muster, and flipped the closed sign to open.
“It’s just a thing. Brings back memories.”
From the look on Mag’s face, Clara couldn’t decide if the memories were making her sister happy or sad, but didn’t want to pry when Mag was already in a foul mood. “If you’d rather go up and have a lie-down, I can take care of things here,” she offered.
Prickly at the best of times, Mag took exception.
“The hell I will. Last time I took a nap, you sold a Koken barber chair for seventy-five bucks.”
Clara shrugged. “That thing was an eyesore. It took up way too much space, and we’re lucky anyone wanted it at all.”
“An antique eyesore worth fifteen-hundred dollars to the right buyer and you let it go for a fraction of what it was worth.”
When Clara shrugged again, Mag’s blood pressure hit numbers in the unsafe range. As a side effect, some of her magic leaked out and shook a mid-century dresser until the drawers slid open.
“Cut the crap, Mag,” Clara said, but with no real heat. “You’re cranky today.”
“I’m cranky every day,” Mag retorted. “You’d be cranky, too, if your body felt like it belonged to your grandmother.” She allowed a rare moment of introspection to creep through. “I hate my life sometimes.”
Sympathy etched itself all over Clara’s face. “If I could turn back time for you, I would because you’re my sister and I love you.”
Well-known among witch-kind for her skill at hunting rogue magical creatures, Mag’s reputation was probably what led the local coven to the Balefire sisters. Still, looking at the pair of them, no one would believe the eight-year difference in their true ages, which was why the non-magical residents of the sleepy hamlet of Harmony knew the Balefires as mother and daughter.
“I know, Clarie. Just as we both know there’s nothing anyone can do to change things so let’s not talk about it again, okay? The liniment’s working. You should sell this stuff.” It was Mag’s idea of a joke since Clara did sell lotions and creams as her contribution to the store they’d named Balms and Bygones.
“What a novel idea. I’ll have to consider it sometime.” Clara’s tone was as dry as the scented powder she sold as part of her line. But the conversation had put Mag in a better mood, so she had that going for her.
Probably wouldn’t last, Clara thought. With Mag, it never did.
“Why don’t you come to the country club with me. You’re still signed up for those water aerobics classes, right? I know you had fun while you were doing them, and now that they got the heater fixed, the pool’s nice and warm. I’ve been going for a couple of weeks now, and it’s great fun.”
Mag’s left eyebrow shot up. “I signed up for those classes to catch a killer. Not to play dippity doodle and dunk myself in warm water like some old wrinkled teabag.”
A snort-worthy mental image, Clara thought, but managed to keep a straight face. “Up to you. All I know is, killer or not, you moved easier after those sessions and I’m thinking about signing up.”
Mag flicked a hand to wave the notion away. “I’m not going.”
Shrugging, Clara let it go. “You do whatever you want. But just remember, being in the pool helped you with your aches and pains before, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t help you now, too. There’s more to life than catching killers, or chasing rogue hell beasts. You deserve a little fun now and then.”
“Your idea of fun and mine are worlds apart,” Mag said darkly.
It wasn’t until closing time when her hip felt and sounded like bone rubbing against bone that she remembered the hot tub attached to one end of the country club pool. Screw water aerobics, Mag thought. It would be way more fun to sit in the hot tub and watch the fools splashing around in unison.
At the end of the work day, Mag went out to the little shack she called home. Not that shack was exactly the right word for the cozy set of rooms she’d magicked out of a converted shed. She didn’t have nearly the same amount of space as Clara who lived above the shop, but at least there weren’t stairs to bedevil her hip.
Her rocking chair calling like the song of a siren, Mag dropped her cane into the umbrella stand by the door. An antique she’d nicked from the shop just because she liked it, the stand was shaped, funnily enough, like an upside-down umbrella.
Cane-less, Mag hobbled over to her rocker, sat down and with the flick of a finger, set a fire going in the fireplace. As the heat rolled over her, it conjured images of basking in warm water with soothing jets battering gently at her sore spots.
“Drat you, Clara Balefire.” Mag cursed her sister for putting the hot tub idea in her head because now that it was there, she had to admit it would be nice to just soak awhile. Ideally in a magical grotto conjured by her niece’s faerie godmothers, but since that wasn’t in the cards, she’d settle for the country club.
Rising, Mag left the chair rocking behind her as she headed for the bedroom to rifle through her dresser drawers until she found a swimsuit and a vintage rubber bathing cap studded with colored flowers. Still muttering and with sharp motions, Mag snatched up her favorite fanny pack hanging from her bedpost, and stuffed the suit inside. Next, Mag detoured into the bathroom, came out with a striped beach towel so long she could wrap it around herself twice, and shoved that into the pack as well. The rubber cap, she yanked on over wisps of white hair. She jammed her feet into a pair of fuzzy slides, and topped off the look with her favorite jacket—suede with a waterfall of fringe.
Clara would hate every little thing about her sister’s clothing choices, which, as far as Mag was concerned, was the entire point of them. Little else in life was more fun than watching Clara’s lips go tight. For that reason, Mag waited until her sister had driven off in the direction of the country club before fixing the image of where she wanted to go in her mind. A flicker of magic coupled with her intention carried Mag to the darkest corner of the storage closet at the back of the club’s changing rooms.
To keep the shock value high, Mag decided to slip into her suit and then spring the ensemble on her unsuspecting sister at the beginning of the dip and dunk class. Hidden among the brooms and mops probably wasn’t the best place to change, but Mag made it work.
Bright voices echoed from the pool area. Mag grinned and wrapped the towel tightly, tying the ends in a knot just above her chest, and made her way toward the fun.