Everyone, every animal, is watching me leave. Watching my failure—even before I began anything of earnest. I don’t understand any of this in any solid way. There are only pieces of the puzzle, and they are the easy, outer pieces, that are in place. The inner picture is starkly blank.
But I know I just did what I had to do. It’s their problem if they invested in a bum deal. Even Anna, giving a year and a half of her life in a nursing home toward it. It was what she choose—I did not ask her for it. I should not feel guilty.
But I do. Lead weights of guilt are in my shoes, my legs, my arms. I’m a walking Neanderthal of bent guilt.
I make it to the kitchen and find it empty. Of course. Even the wait staff has shapeshifted. They were in on it. Everyone had to be. The community, every one of them, in on it. A community I didn’t know existed. So many, many lies.
I stand at the stove, which hours ago had been my little world of magical cooking chaos, and only last week had been an educational haven. Now, it’s an empty mess.
I’m an empty mess.
“Rough time out there,” I hear Jake say from the door to the back yard. I don’t turn. I don’t want to look at him.
“Leave me alone,” I say, half darting arrow, half helpless plea.
“You had every right to say no to Helene,” he says, not leaving. In fact, I hear him coming closer. “We had just hoped you’d feel differently by now. It’s been sixteen years, after all.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say.
“And on another level you do, right?” he challenges gently, touching my arm, sending jolts of electricity between us.
I nod, turning to look at him. I’m afraid of the ice I saw in him out there, and even more of the fire he carries. What I see, what I feel from him, is something in between. Right. His job now is to be neutral. I don’t know how I know that. But I do.
“Tell me, Jake, how is it that I know things I don’t know?”
“There is more than one layer and level of reality going on at the same time. The part of you that knows is awake and aware of levels and layers that—in your ordinary consciousness—you can’t know the details of.”
“So it just bleeds through, then?” I ask, wondering if this is true. If any of what they’ve told me is true.
“Sort of. More like you use the Magic you’ve been taught to gain access to information on different levels. You’ve been taught well, so that even on this level of ordinary reality you’ll see things others cannot see.”
“But I’m not trying to,” I argue.
“Doesn’t matter. It is part of who you are now. Like it or not, you’ll never fully go back. Though you will likely dismiss what you know. Call it your intuition, or explain it in some other way that works for your ordinary consciousness. It is pretty easy to ignore what you know. Most of those who have abandoned their training do.”
“Are there many of us who have?” I ask.
“Countless,” he says. Every living soul is offered the training. Most play at it, a little. Some get serious, then forget. Or, like you, get to a point they refuse. As you know, it is not an easy path.”
“Not all good, as Anna would say,” I say with a bitter, remembering laugh.
“Exactly,” he says, almost as if he really cares. “And those who by nature have more good in them, like you, suffer more because of it.”
“Am I suffering from too much goodness? Is that what this is?” I ask with a laugh, thinking how absurd, how utterly absurd that would be.
“Oh yes,” he says. “More than I do, for sure. I accept it. There is good, and there is bad. Fire and ice. Having no preferences… Well, fewer preferences, I suffer less when bad wins the day. Like today.”
Again I look at him, closely. I’d seen him shift. He was no wounded animal. He was a fully whole, strong, rock solid leopard. I wonder, was the wounded animal part of the lies, or has he improved in his shapeshifting? But really, why ask? I would not believe him anyway.
“Now what?” I ask.
“You’re angry,” he says, as if confirming it.
“Ya think?” I spit back. Yes, even to Jake. My Jake from somewhere long ago and far away.
“You’ll use that to decide what is next. You’ll sit here and stew, and we will leave you to it. You’ll get hot, raging hot with anger, even as your heart freezes. That will create a kind of alchemy, and result in a combustion of sorts. And then you’ll choose.”
“Choose what?” I ask, feeling the burning even more. And the bitter cold.
“What is next for you,” he says.
I can see he is having to work hard to remain neutral. I can feel it, too, under the surface. But he’s pulling it off. Maybe he has no preferences about me. About what is next for me. I remember him telling me to remember his words of love just yesterday. But they are nothing next to all of this I have learned today. You can’t profess love, and then turn like that. That can’t be love. His words are now just tiny drops of water in a sea of frustration and betrayal. I don’t know why he thought they would mean something after all that.
“What are my options?” I ask, partly brave, party tired. So tired of it all.
“You’ve been taught magic through cooking, so we have designed the choice based on the gas burners on your stove. There are six, but only four options. Right front, and you forget we ever existed. Turn it on high, and you will find yourself with Mrs. Hamilton, your old cook. It will be today, but you will remember nothing of us. Sally and your father will divorce—that is an option that is already in the works, as you know.”
“Great, so deep down I’ll feel guilty over their divorce, and not know why, right?
“Yes,” he says honestly.
“How long will I live, I mean as Julie Mayden, if I choose that option?” I have an intuition to ask. “Will I be allowed to stay in this life, or will it end?”
“You’ll be in ordinary reality. Like everyone in ordinary reality, you’ll have no way of knowing how many days you have. But there is no punishment in the choice, if that is what you are asking.”
I nod my understanding. “What else?”
“Turn up the flame on the left front burner, and the game starts over. It’s three weeks ago. You haven’t met us yet, but you will. We will try harder, and do better.”
A part of me wants to jump at that. Live the last three weeks, the happiest weeks of my life, over again? Another part of me wonders how many times I’ve been here, in this kitchen. Is it the first time? Or the thirtieth? Or hundredth? How could I know? The very thought makes me tired.
“Why would I want to go through this again? So you all can think of better lies? Test me even more? See if there is a different answer when I walk that hill? No, thank you.”
He looks at me, the tiniest hint of sadness in his eyes. “I understand.”
“Option three?” I demand.
“Back right burner, you get a rest. Probably in the lifetime you saw us in by the stairs, since that is the one that has been showing itself.”
“So what happens? I’ll just turn the back right burner on high and magically I appear a hundred years ago?”
“Pretty much. We were happy there, despite the war. You, me and Michael. If that is what you choose, we will both drop what we are doing and go meet you there. And hopefully…”
“The next time I’m presented with the choice I’ll say yes to Magic?” I ask, thinking this is only more opportunity for guilt. Why should they drop their lives for me?
“Someday, Mayden, you’ll try again. We all know that.”
“Why? For what? I mean, I know I’m going to fail. I always fail. But what do I get if I win? I don’t even know that much.”
“You would have instantly remembered, if you had said yes to Helene.”
I nearly scream. “I’ve said yes countless times. Yes, I’ll try again. Yes, I’ll undertake whatever you throw at me, damn the fire and damn the ice. Why should this time have been any different?”
“It’s not like you to swear. It’s good. Your alchemy is working.”
“You’re avoiding my question!”
“I know you don’t understand this as fully as I do right now, but what you are trying to do, it’s not easy. It’s like getting a light bulb to work for the first time. Edison failed again and again, knowing ten thousand ways it didn’t work, before discovering the way it does. What you are trying to do… no one expects you to succeed right off. Or even after a thousand times of trying. We only hope you will keep trying.”
Again I feel defeated. Right back burner, and I get a lifetime to restore my soul with my two best friends? It sounds lovely. But to do it in order to come right back here? No, I can’t see that.
“What about the left back burner?” I ask as I look at it, imagine turning it up on high, hoping and praying for an option that makes sense.
He sighs. “Complete opt out. For good. That is always your option. You’ve never chosen it, obviously, or you would not be here. But we are aware you are closer than ever.”
“That’s why time is running out, isn’t it?” I ask, speaking again from what I know that I don’t really know. “Not because of Anna and Bea being old and about to die, but because I’m nearing the end of my rope.”
He nods. “We are aware that every time you fail, you come closer to choosing not to try again. Ever.”
I feel that. Feel it in my lead heart, my wrenching gut, my heavy lungs, my banging head.
“I’ll leave you now,” he says.
And so he does.
If it was hard to watch Michael leave, it is hell to watch Jake turn and go, closing the door behind him. Leaving me to my four equally disdainful choices.
I look at the stove. At the four burners, left and right, front and back. Four choices.
It’s the right back that pulls, of course. To be with Michael and Jake again, at peace. But to start it all over again, to come to the same conclusion? Why waste everyone’s time? If I’m not going to keep going, that back left burner is the only real choice.
Staring at them, at my terrible choices, the fire and ice seem to rise in me, just as he predicted. So it does appear I will have the power to complete my choice. But which one?
More and more, I feel sick. There is fire in my joints and muscles, aching hot. There is ice in my veins and heart and deep in the bones, painfully cold.
Why must it be so? Why can’t we have only the good? Why is this not a choice, if goodness is my true nature? Why is Magic so harsh?
Anger and fury grow as I think of Helene, out there on that hill, everyone bowing to her. And Bea, teaching me, knowing it was against my greater will to be here again. Yet, if it really was against my greater will, I would not be here. I would have chosen the final stop burner the last time. Obviously, I didn’t. Obviously, I still had some hope.
Desperate. Pitiful. Guilt-ridden. My body contorts with growing pain. It is hard to stand, hard to unclench my own fingers from my fists. My arms are curling inward, toward my chest, as distorted as Jake was when he shapeshifted that first time.
I look at the burners, immobilized. Why do they put me in this position? Why isn’t success a more viable option? And what, oh what, am I even going for?
The frustration of now knowing surges in me, like relentless ocean waves on a million years of winter days. At the same time, insanity begins to send flames into my brain, threatening me, as if I am lost in the high desert with only skeletons as companions.
My choices appear to leap and surge, threaten and cajole. I ask the stove again and again, what it is I am doing this for? What is it about? Why should I try to discover a light bulb, attempting to harness the very elements of nature? Why break myself over these rocks? For what? For whom? For…
And then, at last, an inner dawn arrives. As I have come to know so many things, remember so many things, again I know. Again I remember. What am I going for? To dethrone Helene. To become Magic in her place. And why me? Because I’m the only one capable. Not a soul out there, human or beast, has the capacity that I have. Probably even I don’t. But they think I’m their best shot. Helene has served, and it is time to pass her role on to another human. They keep coming back because I’m the only hope they see.
But I don’t want to be the only hope. Not theirs, and surely not Magic’s. It’s too much. Too much pressure, too much guilt when I fail. Too much…
The ice grows so that I might barely move. The fire leaps so that I can barely breathe. I am bent with impossible choices.
Screw them. Screw it all.
I look yet again at my four choices, four burners, each one waiting for me to say yes, and all I can say yes to is screw them, screw them all.
I hardly know what I am doing, even as I am doing it. It comes from one of those other layers and levels, so that I both do and don’t understand. Six burners, lit high, one after the other.
Six burners of leaping flames, leaping into the ice of no choice.
And now, floating, nothingness. Shifting. Alone. Who knows how long it lasts. Who cares? I am at peace.
Returning to the kitchen, things are different. Not two feet on the floor, but four. Not the petite frame of a young girl, but a mass of muscle….Something else.
Scottie wanders into the kitchen, and I see her from a whole new angle. Lower, closer to the ground. She is instantly terrified of me, screaming and running, her fur up in a way I’ve never seen.
I move, slowly at first, feeling the padding under each limb. The cool floor below. Behind me, six burners are aflame, threatening the house. But what could I do, in a body such as this?
I move toward the hallway, in this body that is not my own. Pleasure fills each and every fiber of me. Animalistic power. I walk in a gate that is smooth and wondrous.
In the hallway, I recall there is a mirror. Moving toward it, I realize it is up too high to see. I jump onto a couch, then a chest—how huge I am! I land easy, though a vase falls and breaks.
There, there I am!
Leopard. Spotted. Beautiful. Large, lithe, strong. Not a little fox, as I had imagined, or a bunny, or a hawk, or a snake. A beast like Jake.
Jake! Oh Jake, if you could see me now…
“I do,” he says, having appeared from the hallway. I turn quickly, ready to pounce at the human, then remember. I, too, am human. Sometimes.
He opens the front door for me. “Run, Mayden. Feel yourself and the joy of your freedom. Explore your body, and then find your way home.”
As I look at him, and he at me, I realize what he means. Home is not here, not this house. Home is the woods, with Anna and Bea and Jake… and maybe, someday, Michael.
I leap through the door, my body a mass of tremendous energy. I am powerful and strong, agile and free.
This, I now feel, is why I have never said no to my full initiation. Everyone on earth should be able to feel this way. Everyone. I want to help them feel like this. That is what my goodness is for. Setting out at a run, I move by instinct, knowing full well I’m still in the game.
Running free, I understand. By choosing all six burners, making every choice and then some, I have opened the one true door. Moving through it, I know it for what it is: the doorway to my destiny.
THE END (Book One of Three)