The chilly air bit at my skin like an invisible entity with sharp teeth.
I pulled my scarf over my mouth and nose and released a harsh, open-mouthed breath to warm my nose and hands.
At the same time, my butt and thigh muscles burned from the effort of walking uphill on concrete. Soon enough, I'd be in a warm room with my ass in a chair and a drink in my hand.
At least that's what I kept telling myself.
"What's that Mark Twain quote?" I grumbled to Nona, who kept a steady pace next to me on our uphill trek. "The coldest winter I ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco or something like that."
Technically, it wasn't summer yet but even rare sunny days in my new hometown came with a chilly, Pacific breeze. And that was only if the fog hadn't rolled in and made it feel like winter again, as it did several times a day in my neighborhood.
Clearly, as a southern California native, I had no idea what real weather was like.
"He never actually said that," Nona piped cheerfully. "That quote is commonly misattributed to him."
She, a San Francisco native, did not seem nearly as distressed by the chilly air or the uphill climb.
"Little Miss Smarty Pants strikes again," I teased, cracking a smile.
Honestly, I was beyond grateful for Nona being not only a wealth of information, but a hard worker and the most genuine, kind-hearted person I ever met. As the only employee at my tiny, hole-in-the-wall tea shop, Witch's Brew, she was worth at least five mediocre employees.
I didn't really believe in blessings anymore, but whatever little faith I had left was due to her.
I came to San Francisco last year to get away from my strict, religious upbringing down south. When I stepped off that Greyhound bus with nothing but a duffel bag and the clothes on my back, someone tried to pickpocket me within seconds. Nona just happened to be riding by on her bicycle and yelled loud enough to get a cop's attention. She'd been a guardian angel to me ever since.
Until I opened my shop and started networking with other small business owners in my neighborhood, she had also been my only friend.
And in a large city filled with people, politics, and attitudes that gave me a hefty dose of culture shock, I couldn't ask for anyone better to huff and puff up a hill beside me.
We finally crested the hill and came to a row of businesses and commercial buildings, almost all of them closed. Not even in San Francisco would an accountant be open at nearly eleven at night. But on the next corner, we approached one shop with a warm glow from the inside and the muffled sound of punk rock playing from speakers. People in leather and denim jackets already pressed against the windows from the inside.
"Damn, she really decked the place out," Nona mused as we paused to look at the outside facade.
I nodded my agreement. The large window facing the street read Trailblazers, Inc. in flowing gold and black vinyl paint. Just underneath the shop name was an illustration of a laughing skeleton riding a motorcycle and kicking up a cloud of dust.
I stepped back slightly and smiled at the window, feeling a sense of pride swelling for my fellow local business owner.
"Shall we?" I cocked an eyebrow at Nona.
"After you, madame." She pulled the front door open with a flourish and swept her arm back as she lowered into a curtsy.
I chuckled as I stepped through the open door. Nona's quirks never ceased to amuse me.
Right away the noise of fast, upbeat punk music hit me like a slap to the chest. The heat of many bodies pressed into a small space soaked into my pores.
Yellow glassy eyes with odd, rectangular pupils were the first to meet my gaze from across the room.
"Holy shit," I breathed. "That thing is huge."
The goat's head mounted to the wall was gigantic, easily three feet tall by my estimate. It was entirely black and its horns curled back in perfect, majestic symmetry.
It looked like some kind of pagan deity overlooking a heathen gathering of drunkenness and debauchery. My parents would have gasped at the sight, clutch their cross jewelry, and run home immediately to say their prayers.
"Deja, you made it!"
An arm carrying a drink that looked dangerously close to spilling, wrapped around my neck while a pair of lips kissed my cheek at the same time. Myranda, the shop owner, pulled away and beamed at me.
"I'm so glad you came," she gushed. Her cheeks were flushed and her raven black hair was tossed carelessly into a messy bun, but her dark burgundy lipstick and winged eyeliner remained on point.
"Congrats on your grand opening!" I yelled into her ear. "The place looks great!"
She grinned with all the giddiness and excitement that could only come from working your ass off to open a business and finally being able to kick back and enjoy the labor of your blood, sweat, and tears.
"Thanks, babe! I can't believe there are so many people here!" she shrieked with joy and swirled the ice in her cup. "I used your peppermint tea to make mint juleps and they are the bomb! Come have a drink!"
"In a minute," I promised her. "I want to check out your shop first."
"For sure! Take anything that catches your eye, babe. Just keep bringing me that bomb-ass tea." She winked and went off to mingle before I could protest. Her wares were far more expensive than my meager dozen bags of tea.
"She's a generous drunk," Nona observed.
"She's really sweet," I said almost as if trying to convince myself.
Not that it wasn't true, but San Francisco definitely shook my deep-seated perceptions of people who did not look like me or my family growing up. Myranda was covered from her feet to her neck in tattoos and I never saw her wear any color other than black. Many of the people in here had similar looks. Until I left home, it never even occurred to me that nice, caring people could also smoke, drink, wear dark lipstick and have sex before marriage.
"Oooh, look at these!" Nona's coos pulled me out of my thoughts.
She pulled me over to a display shelf of crystals in every color imaginable. Some were polished to a high shine, others further cut into shapes like skulls and dragons, while others appeared to be in their rough, natural form.
"This is what you need." She wiggled her eyebrows as she picked up a smooth orange stone and placed it in my palm. "Orange calcite for awakening sexual energy."
"Sure. I'll get right on that," I scoffed.
Owning a business and growing up in California’s version of the Bible belt did not make a good combination for an active sex life. The last time I slept with a guy was in college, which felt like ages ago.
While Nona poured over the rocks and crystals, I slowly turned around in a circle to see more of the shop.
Like Myranda herself, her shop couldn't be placed neatly into one category. Trailblazers, Inc. carried everything from skulls and taxidermied animals to vintage clothing, jewelry, patches, and pins. It was part punk rock attire, part curiosity shop with a dash of woo-woo.
And somehow she made it all work.
"Oooh Deja, look!" Nona sounded like a child filled with wonder at Disneyland as she pointed excitedly.
Tucked off in a corner past the wall with the giant goat's head was a sign that read FREE TAROT READINGS (tips appreciated!).
"Let's get our cards read!" Nona exclaimed. "I've always wanted to!"
"Oh, you go ahead. I'm good," I told her.
Yes, tarot was just another check mark on the long list of things that made a recovering Christian uneasy. But that wasn't the reason for my hesitation.
Just underneath the massive goat head appeared to be a tattoo station. A sign on a table read FLASH TATTOOS $40. The artist was hard at work, sitting in a swivel chair while inking something onto a man's forearm. Two other men stood nearby, drinking and laughing with their friend getting tattooed.
All three of them looked absolutely gorgeous.
They were dressed from head to toe in black. Distressed black leather jackets on top, slim-fitted black denim and leather boots down below.
I would have to walk past them to get to the tarot reader and didn't dare come an inch closer.
Attractive men always made me nervous but never like this. Their presence seemed to fill up the whole shop. Aside from the tattoo artist, everyone else seemed to give them extremely wide berth. Even at a good ten feet away, I could feel them as if I was standing right next to them.
I went from being comfortably warm to overbearingly hot. My face felt like it was on fire. Every instinct in my body warned me not to get any closer to them. Only Nona seemed completely oblivious.
"Come on, Deja. It won't be any fun without you!"
With surprising strength, she took my arm and pulled me toward the tarot sign. Toward them.
All three of them stopped conversing and stared right at me.
The whole store seemed to slow down and go quiet as I locked in on three pairs of shining, hungry eyes. Icy blue, emerald green, and brown, almost black. They stared me down and I felt like I was walking through jello.
A hot, sensitive pulsing started between my legs and spread throughout my body. My face grew even hotter as I realized how my body responded to being physically closer to these three men.
The one with dark eyes, sitting and getting tattooed, lifted one corner of his mouth in a knowing smirk. The green-eyed one standing next to him echoed the same wicked smile. Only the blue-eyed one kept his face neutral, regarding me coolly as I seemed to walk by in slow motion.
We rounded the corner and it felt like a spell was broken.
I blinked, now looking at a woman sitting at a small table in a small, private corner of the store. She smiled at us warmly, surrounded by candles, crystals, and card decks on her table.
"Welcome, lovelies!" she greeted. "Come for a tarot reading?"
"Yes, for both of us," Nona said, shooting me a pointed look. I stared back at her blankly. Did she really not feel the same overwhelming power and lust that I just did?
"Have a seat," the tarot reader offered as she picked up a deck of cards and began to shuffle.
"You go first," I said to Nona robotically, my mind still haunted by those three pairs of eyes just on the other side of the wall.
Their effect on me was paralyzing and somehow also fiercely magnetic. It shook me. It was more than just noticing three hot guys, it was like something came over me physically. Something that wasn't normal attraction. It was completely overwhelming and even just a little scary.
Once we got this tarot reading over with, I could only hope they'd no longer be there.