“That smells amazing,” I say to Bea, not ten minutes into her cooking. I sniff and sniff and sniff. The whole house is flooded with wonderful. “What is it?”
I hover over her, looking interested in what is in her pan, though cooking is not my thing. It’s a good distraction, because while I do want to tell her about my visit to see Anna a little while ago, I’m also not sure exactly how to go about it. She’s not going to like what I have to say. I don’t know her well enough yet to know what her good side is, or how to get on it, so easing in seems a fair tactic.
“Fried onions,” she says, looking at me like I’m crazy not to know what fried onions smell like.
“Fried?” I ask, trying not to sound shocked. “Did you talk to Sally about that? We don’t do fried anything here. Like, ever.”
Bea huffs. “What she doesn’t know won’t kill her—and what she does know may well. To start, that step-mother of yours is thin as a rail. And to finish, I’ve seen what is in that refrigerator. Low-fat this and reduced calorie that. Chemicals, fake foods, and pesticide-ridden vegetables. It’s a wonder you’re all alive!”
The step-mother comment makes me cringe. I stopped having step-mothers after the first one. Now they are just Dad’s playmates. But I’m not going to say anything, because I know it would make me sound like a brat, and that’s the last thing Bea needs to think of me right from the start.
“All due respect, Bea, but Sally will know first thing tomorrow morning when she steps on the scale. It’s this huge digital monster that measures to the ounce. She won’t even drink a glass of water before weighing in. And if she has gained, it’s the cook who hears about it first.”
Bea stops stirring the onions long enough to look at me like that is even more ridiculous than the fake food.
What can I say? It’s true.
“Well then,” she finally says, “we will have to enlist the help of the onions, the butter, the iron in the pan and absolutely, the flame.”
Okay, not exactly what I expected. Not that I am ever going to know what to expect from Bea. She showed up this afternoon looking utterly professional, and nearly twenty years younger. I’m not kidding. It’s like she’s a young and lively sixty years old. Hair all neatly braided, too.
“Like, um, how?” I ask with a smile, watching her dance between stirring at the fry pan and putting away the bag of groceries she arrived with. She seems to already know the place as well as Mrs. Hamilton ever did.
“Well now, that would be the work of magic, wouldn’t it?” she retorts.
“Are you going to teach me?” I ask, feeling all tingly, all over.
“Well I’m surely not here to take care of Sally’s waist line. Now that I think of it, we could skip the cooking magic and just give her a bad case of the runs. With what she eats, she’s got to be used to them anyway. Probably takes those die-you-retics anyway. But that wouldn’t be so nice of us, now would it?”
I laugh, because it’s hard to chose which form of magic I’d rather learn. “Not really,” I say.
Fortunately, Bea laughs with me. Giggles, really, like it’s a fun but naughty thought. You really can’t know what to expect out of this woman.
“So, we’ll ask for help. First things first. You’ve got to get the elements on your side. The earth, that’s the mother of the onion, and the essence of the onion itself. The animal kingdom, for the cow that produced the butter. I brought the good stuff—offered by cattle that have the free range of the farm and no hormones to make them uncomfortably productive. If you don’t have that kind of goodness to start, it’s a long road to getting the magic to see things your way. We have to do our part. Never forget that.”
I nod, amazed at the things she talks about that I’ve never even thought of. The earth as the mother of the onion? Magic wanting us to do our part? As for the cow, do hormones really make you uncomfortable? I guess they could, what with all the blame they get for causing every feminine bad mood in the house.
“The iron in the pan will be of enormous help,” Bea goes on, “because it’s such a basic element. Makes your blood strong. Just the iron alone could do the trick, but why leave anything out? You’re asking for trouble in the form of jealousy, and then you have to do even more magic to smooth that over.”
“Right,” I say, though I don’t really get it. An onion jealous of iron?
“Finally, we must enlist the support of the flame, for it is the flame within that burns the calories!” To emphasize her point, she cranks all six gas burners on the stove. “Up, up, up she goes in flames of skinny glory!”
I really and truly hope no one comes in and sees this, not only because it is really strange, but because it is amazingly beautiful and I don’t want it to stop. Bea’s got her hands over the flames like Michael put his over the spoon, and they are leaping to her touch—without adjusting the dials. It makes my stomach churn with both excitement and fear. She could burn down the house.
Bea seems to be nearly purring into the flames, tossing the onions like the gourmet chef she’s supposed to be over each and every one of the six burners. It’s almost like a dance. I don’t know where the magic comes from, but it’s here, for sure. You can feel it.
After just a few moments, Bea is done. She comes back down from her tippy toes onto sure footing, turns down the burners, and gets on with the cooking like nothing has ever happened.
“So now Sally won’t gain weight?” I ask.
“Not an once. Might even lose.”
“And will you have to do that every time? I mean, with every meal?”
Bea looks at me, once again, like I can’t possibly be that dense. “Do you think we have the time for that? Or the energy? No, that’ll cover my full stay. Anything I cook here will be under the magical caloric assistance program. Think of it as an umbrella policy—covers everything. Even ice cream.”
“Oh,” I say, disappointed. Not that you can eat ice cream without weight gain. It’s just that I don’t know how I am going to learn that kind of magic if we only do things once.
“Don’t be so let down,” she says, no doubt reading my expression. “There’s a thousand chances for magic a day, especially in the kitchen. That was just a one-size-fits-all need we had. Now we can get on to more important things. Have you ever spoken to an egg?”
“I don’t think so,” I admit, trying not to laugh.
“Well, that’s your first mistake then, Miss Mayden. Because the egg is the whole of it. You’ve heard folks say it’s a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And there’s no answer, now is there?” She turns to me with a wooden spoon, waving it in the air like it’s a do or die question.
“Indeed! Because the eggs the beginning of it, and the continuation of it, and the end of it. So you’ll be wanting the blessing of the egg, I promise you. You know, in the ancient times, having egg on your face was a good thing. Like most things—Friday The Thirteenth, Halloween–they twisted it all around.”
“You’re going to put egg on Sally’s face?” I relish the thought!
“It is a wonderful face cleanser,” Bea says with a totally straight face, “especially with oatmeal and a little lemon. But that’s for another day. Tonight, it’s a caramelized onion and shitake mushroom frittata with a Burgundy glaze. That’ll start things off right, now won’t it?”
“It sounds great,” I say, not at all sure what it will taste like but going with it because, what are we going to do, start over?
She looks at me square on, as if assessing just how far I have to go. “Alright,” she says, “out with it. What’s hammering at the back of your mind? Something about Anna.”
Oh, that. I guess my meeting with Anna still is hammering away at me.
“You are sort of in touch with her, right?” I ask, wanting to get my feet wet before taking the full plunge.
“You might say,” she acknowledges, turning to get on with her work. Maybe it’s something she doesn’t really want to know.
I move to get in front of her so she can read my lips.
“You don’t need to do that,” she says, turning away again.
“But I thought you couldn’t hear, only read lips?”
“I hear you, just not with my ears. Some people are hard to hear, but you’re one of us. You get in. So you get through.”
I can’t speak. Her words have utterly blown me away. It’s not the magic of her hearing. It’s being one of them. It’s getting in. I feel my whole body buzzing and the hair on my arms are standing straight on end.
Does she know what she just said? Could she possibly know what it means to me? To have a real heart family? To belong to a magical world? Could you ever hope for such a thing, let alone imagine it happening in the summer of your sixteenth year?
“What do you want to say about Anna?” Bea says gently, like she knows what her words just did to me.
“Um… Um…” I stammer. But I have to find my voice. Anna is no longer just a nice old lady in trouble. Now she’s my nice old lady. I take a deep breath and go for it. “She wasn’t well today. They didn’t have her out of bed and nothing I did worked to get her to even blink at me. I think they have her drugged up really bad.”
“I know,” Bea says sadly. “We agreed she had to be taken even further down, so as not to raise suspicion.”
“Suspicion of what?” I ask, shocked to hear Bea not only knows of Anna’s demise, she is in on it.
Bea speaks slowly, cautiously. “That we are now connected to Michael. Helene would know. We had to create a weakness to balance the strength of the connection he brought with him. Anna is in full agreement.”
“But how can you let her live like that?” I blurt out. “It’s not fair!”
“No, Mayden, it’s not. But it has to be this way. Helene could destroy any chance we have of the magic surviving to live another generation, let alone throughout time. She’s more than proven what she’s willing to do to be sure the family progresses her way, or no way at all. Michael’s awakening to his gifts, and contacting us, means that the magic is on the move. But you must keep in mind that magic has a mind of it’s own. We respect that, but we are wise to also protect ourselves.”
“From what?” I struggle to understand.
“The spirit of magic is a powerful force, and it does not see or understand the smaller needs of an individual family—even if it is the last family standing. It will blow over us and kill everything in it’s wake, if we are not smart.”
“How do we protect ourselves?” I ask.
“For now, so long as I am here in this house, Michael must stay at the distance provided—from me and especially from Anna—and you must be my connection to my great-grandson. Everyone will lay low so that I can teach you. Even Jake is on notice not to practice at all, and you can be sure he’s not pleased about that.”
“I bet not,” I muse.
She turns to look at me directly with about the kindest eyes I can imagine anyone ever having looked at me with. “Collectively, we are a danger. Separate, we can keep the overwhelming power of the magic, and just as importantly the opposing forces of Helene, at bay.”
“So you’ll teach me, and then it’s okay if I teach Michael?”
“I’ll teach you. And whatever you do with Michael will be your business and no one else’s. If you catch my meaning.”
I do. She can’t break her promise, but once-removed, there’s a loophole.
“But what if I do it wrong? What if…”
“Trust yourself, Julie Mayden,” Bea interrupts. “You were not placed on this strong a path because you are a novice. There is far more to you and your own magic than you know yet. We trust the wisdom you carry. We trust you.”
Again I am speechless. My body feels stunned, delightedly frozen in place. It’s a big thing, to be trusted. I don’t think I ever really have been. Ignored? Yes. Assumed doing okay? Sure. But really trusted?
No. Not until now.
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I can’t get her out of my head. Anna’s ash colored face is superimposed over the fire I’m making out there. It’s spooky, being so far from the house, out and down past the pool yard, over the hill where a fire can’t be seen so late at night. But I can’t leave because I told Michael before dinner I’d be here waiting for him. Then Dad grabbed him for a talk, and who knows how long that could go?
So there is Anna’s face between me and the fire, a memory looming.
I don’t care what Bea says, seeing Anna like that today shook me. I mean, that’s what she is probably going to look like right before she dies. And the thought of it is just unbearable.
I try to shake it off, but I can’t. Even if it’s not this week, or even this year, Anna is going to die. And these last days of hers will be spent in a near coma, unless I do something about it. And unless Michael helps me.
But he will help me, even if I have to use every power of persuasion I can think of. I all but got full permission to tell him everything and teach him anything. So why not get him to help me? He can’t want Anna in there on his behalf, anyway.
I’d talk to Anna about it, if I could. She’s my first allegiance and if she said no, for sure, I’d have to respect that. But I can’t talk to her, and she can’t tell me no. It’s a loophole, too. For sure Bea won’t go for it. So Michael is my only chance.
Anna’s only chance.
“Hey,” I hear a voice say from behind me, soft and low. My heart skips a beat, and not only because he scared me. I like being around him. A lot.
“Did Dad bore you to death?” I ask, trying not to let the heartbeat thing make my voice all wonky. It’s a good thing my face, now flushing full red, will be hidden by the fire light.
“No. It was okay. Guy stuff is all,” he says. “Nice fire.”
“Can’t take credit. I asked the handyman to set it up for us. Told him the family was going to roast marshmallows out here tonight. All I did was light the match.”
“Sometimes that more than enough,” he says, like it means something.
I don’t catch his drift, but I’m not going to admit to that. I want him to help me. So I need him to like me. Well, I’d also like him to like me. But that is beside the point right now.
“I saw Anna today,” I say.
“Awesome,” he says, truly excited. “When can I see her?”
“You can’t,” I say, pausing for dramatic effect.
“What? Why not?”
Another pause. A hesitation. “Bea said everyone has to stay separate,” I add. “Except me. I can see anyone. But none in the immediate family can see each other.”
I say “immediate family” because I’ve just gained some kind of family status according to Bea and I’m not about to deny it. I’m one of them, she said. Maybe not blood relation, but I’ll take what I can get.
“Why would they do that?” he says, clearly confused, and maybe a little outraged.
Perfect. He’ll be as upset as I am, when he hears what’s next.
“It wouldn’t matter anyway. They took Anna down. Bea says it isn’t safe for her to have any consciousness at all.”
“No,” he says. “No way.”
I look down and away, and I wait.
“You can’t be serious,” he asks, reaching out for my shoulder, as if turning me back toward him would allow him to see a different story in my face. Fortunately, it’s all true.
“I’m serious,” I say sadly. “She wasn’t even out of bed. She looked like she was in a coma. It was bad, Michael. Really bad.”
“They can’t do this!” he nearly yells.
“I know,” I say, “it’s so much to ask of her, for our sake. For your sake.” God, I’m a little too good at this. “There is good news, though. Bea said I can teach you what she teaches me. That it will be up to me, not her. It’s a loophole in her agreement not to teach you. I think that’s why I’m here, in fact.”
“That’s great,” he says, “but at what cost? Anna’s consciousness? I don’t think I can live with that.”
“Yeah,” I say, forcing myself to wait.
Okay, so now the guilt tripping is turning on me. I’m not normally a game player.
“So what do we do?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. That’s the whole truth, and it feels good to tell it.
“I don’t either,” he admits. “I did figure out about the spoon spinning. Why it didn’t work.”
“Why?” I ask, biding my time. We’ll get back to Anna. With her face still hovering over the fire, I’m not exactly going to forget.
“It’s the leather bag she gave me to wear when I’m around her. None of my magic works when I’m wearing it. But take it off and it’s all back to normal.”
“How did you figure it out?”
He shrugs. “The way I figure everything out. I just kind of leave my mind and go off looking for an answer. I don’t try to hard, just sort of put it out there. Playing sports is great for it—you get into the zone, let your body move without thinking, and then an idea comes, nearly out of nowhere. That’s where I got the idea to eat organic. I was wondering how to get better at the magic, and I started playing. The soccer ball came flying at me and in the spit second before it hit me, I saw it was the junk food that was getting in the way. The ball nearly knocked me out, but when I got up, I knew I’d never eat that crap again. It would hurt me and my magic too much.”
“So you just stopped, like that?”
“Yep. It wasn’t hard at all. In fact, I really couldn’t eat that stuff anymore. Even a soft drink was too much—like drinking cough syrup and motor oil.” He shudders, like for real, not effect.
“So you think you could use that method to figure out how to get Anna out? I mean, if I told you everything I can, and taught you everything they teach me, and you got into the zone, do you think something would come to you like that?”
“Can’t hurt to try,” he says. “But you should try, too. Anyone can do it.”
“I’ll try, because right now I don’t have any ideas at all. I do know my way around there, for sure. But you can’t get anyone out of the building for more than a few minutes. Unless she can shapeshift time again. But I think that might be pushing it, and anyway, she’d have to be conscious to get her to do it.”
“You could poke around, ask someone there what happened to her. Maybe you could learn something?”
“True. Someone had to give her something. Unless she’s going out of her own accord, which is possible, I guess.”
“I don’t think so,” he says, picking up a stick and poking the fire.
“I don’t either,” I say. “I don’t know how I would know that. I just feel like I do, actually, know that.”
“That’s how it works most times,” he says. “You don’t ever really know how you know something, you just do. It kind of lands on you, and you know it. And all the facts can seem like they point in a totally different direction, but you still feel like you just know what you know. I’ve test it out a lot.”
“And?” I have to ask.
“It’s trustworthy. But you can’t make it happen. It just comes if and when it wants to.”
“If it wants to? You sound like Bea and Anna, magic is nearly a person.”
“Do I? I’d sure like to think I sound like either one of them. You’re lucky. You already know a lot more than I do about what and how they think.”
“They don’t always agree, so it’s kind of hard to know for sure what is what.”
“Like what do they disagree on?” he asks, intrigued, like he doesn’t even know his own family members.
“Bea thinks Anna is crazy to say you are good and Jake is a mix of good and bad, and that I’ll have to chose between you and Jake someday, to see who will be head of the family.” I pause for effect, but Michael doesn’t seem phased. Or even surprised.
“She says it is way to complex to be teaching me that right away,” I quickly add. “But Anna thinks Bea’s methods of teaching me magic isn’t good, because I’m not protected and I’m learning too much, too fast.”
“What does Jake say?” Michael asks. His voice takes on a new tone, and for sure now I know it is competitive. You can just hear it in there, though he’s trying to hide it.
“He seems to get that nobody’s fully right or wrong. I’d say he’s pretty open minded. But I’m not always sure if what he thinks is right, either. So I’m left guessing a lot.”
“Do you like him?” Michael asks, looking worried.
“Jake? Well, not like him, like him. I mean I don’t know about that. Haven’t really thought about that. The choosing thing is just weird, don’t you think?”
“I could imagine us both wanting you,” he says. “You having the magic, too.”
My spine stiffens. “Oh, but not me just because I am me?” I say.
Michael sighs loudly. “I didn’t mean that. I just mean…. Okay, so I stuck my foot in my mouth. But that isn’t what I meant. I already like you, magic or not. I liked you when I first saw you with Anna. There are plenty of reasons to like you besides the magic. I’m sure Jake and I have both noticed them.”
Another full blown flush rushes over my face. I’m really glad for the fire. I don’t know what to say. I mean, what do you say to something like that? Having never had a boyfriend, I have no experience in guys saying nice things to me. At least beyond, “Hey, you got an A, good one.” Surely nothing like what he just said.
I look to the image of Anna over the fire for her take on it, not that she’d have one, but she’s gone. Guess I’m on my own. As ever.
“So, then, what…,” I stammer, “I mean… we should have a game plan,” I finally manage. “For Anna.”
“We should,” Michael admits, again poking the fire. Perhaps he is what made her go away. “First, I have to know what you know. Tell me about that—whatever it was—that Bea turned into this morning. I know you saw it.”
I nod. “They call it shapeshifting. I guess it is what your family does.”
“Turning into animals,” he says slowly, as if the gears are turning deep in his head.
I nod. “Bea turns into a black panther. She says Anna turns into a mountain lion. I saw Jake—or what I was told was Jake—as a spotted leopard. He was sort of deformed, though.”
“Deformed?” This peaks his interest.
“Yeah. Bea just said he wasn’t very good at it yet.”
“Interesting,” he says, but doesn’t go further.
“Why?” I probe.
“When I was a kid,” he explains, “we saw a lot of animals you normally would not see around here. I was told Bea had a small exotic zoo, but that it was off limits because I was so young. Jake and I searched and searched for it, but we could never find it. We’d just see an animal roaming around in the yard every so often and tell someone that one of the animals got out.”
“You think it was Bea’s cover?” I ask in a whisper.
Michael looks at me, then shakes his head. “You know how crazy this is, right? How all of this is not possible? I mean shapeshifting, into animals?”
“Sure,” I agree, glad it seems weird to him, too, “but you saw what I saw today.”
He sighs again. “Yes, I did. But what good would it be to be able to turn into an animal, anyway? What could the family get out of that? And what could ‘magic’ itself want? What is it all about, Mayden?”
“It’s about the planet,” a voice says, off in the distance but loud enough to hear, plain as day. I can’t see, but I know the voice.
“Jake?” I say.
Michael turns and starts to move toward the voice, but we hear a deep hiss.
“Don’t come near,” Jake warns, “They’ll find out.”
“Okay,” I say, already holding Michael back. He can’t get close. That much we know.
“What are you doing here?” I say to Jake, loud enough so he can hear, but no louder than I need to.
There is a pause. “I want Anna out, too,” he finally says.
I can hardly breathe for the excitement I feel rushing through me, hearing those words. Again my body gets those tingles from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.
Nothing is said, but there is what I can only call an “understanding” that circulates through the three of us. No words are spoken, but none need be. There is no sound save the crickets, but the understanding crashes over me, like a wave or a wind, again and again.
“So… We are a team?” Michael finally says out loud.
“We always were,” Jake returns. “What should be any different now?”
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“Hey,” I hear a voice say from behind me, soft and low. My heart skips a beat, like it did when Michael first showed up. But this time it is because I thought he was beside me, not behind me. And I have no idea where Jake is.
Suddenly I’m feeling dizzy, like there’s a tornado in my head and another in my stomach, but they are not turning in sync.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “Your dad got to talking. Guy stuff.”
“What?” I say, feeling a sense of de ja vu inside the tornado.
“Your dad,” Michael says. “He kept talking. Looks like I missed the fire.”
I look to the fire and see it has, indeed, gone down. Nearly out. When did that happen?
“Where’s Jake?” I ask, looking around, listening.
“Is he here?” Michael asks, anxious.
“Well, yeah. You were just talking to him.”
“Maybe not?” he says, like it’s a question. Like this swirling in my head and gut might mean I’m not totally on the same page as he is.
“Yes you were. He said we had to be a team. To get Anna out. Ring a bell from about two seconds ago?” Now I’m really getting worried. Because while I’m sure Michael has to know this, I’m also wondering if he does. And if he doesn’t, how could that be?
“Are you alright?” Michael asks, looking at me in the eyes, then one eye, then the other.
“I don’t know.” I say, turning away, and hearing myself sound even further off. “I mean, we were talking. And then Jake showed up. And then you weren’t beside me, you were behind me saying ‘Hey,’ but now you don’t know what just happened.”
“Oh,” he says, clearly unsure of what to say.
“But there was a fire,” I say, turning back to look at it. “A big one. And now clearly…”
“There’s not,” he fills in.
“No, there’s not. I don’t feel so good. Kind of dizzy. Not quite to puking, but edging up on it.”
If that doesn’t put a guy off, I don’t know what will. But it’s true, and I’m too confused to hedge it. He immediately moves to my side, taking me by the elbow and waist, which I have to admit feels pretty nice. He moves me to the wrought iron two-seater bench and sits me down. I feel for his hand, to be sure he’s really here, now. I feel that flash of electric connection, and that feels good, too. Yes, he is here.
“Tell me what happened,” he insists, sounding more than intrigued. “All of it.”
“I don’t know. You came down, said you were late because you were talking guy stuff to Dad. I mean, before, not just now. I told you about Anna, and I was trying to get you to help me get her out of the home. I was really plotting, and well, manipulative to be honest. Which really isn’t like me.”
“Doesn’t seem so,” he says in a kind of voice that makes me feel like I could tell him anything, and it would be okay.
“Then,” I continue, “you told me about how you figured out about why the spoons weren’t working with Bea around.”
“I did?” he asks, surprised. “How?”
“Don’t mess with me,” I insist, as harsh as I can.
“I’m not,” he insists right back. He even sounds innocent.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“Seriously. I’d like to know, because I have not figured it out, despite wracking my brain all day.”
“You said you realized why out on the soccer field. You told me all about how you tune into the zone and you just know things. You said the spoons didn’t work because of the leather bag Bea gave you and then you showed me how you could do the spinning with the bag off, but not on.”
He nods, so at least he doesn’t think I’m crazy. I mean, I might be, but I don’t need him thinking so. “It makes total sense that it would work like that. Only I didn’t figure it out. You did, somehow.”
“No, I didn’t. You told me. Right here in front of the fire. Which for a while there looked a lot like Anna. Which, by the way, was totally weird and a little spooky.”
“We should tell Gran Bea,” Michael insists.
“No need,” a voice says from a distance, up over the hill. It’s Bea. At least, I think it is. I don’t know much for sure right now.
“Gran Bea?” Michael asks.
I see her over the hill, moving quickly, seeming out of breath. I can just imagine her trotting over here as a wild animal then changing back to her old woman form just in time. I have no way to know that is what happened, I just get this image. Just having her here, though, makes me feel better, and at the moment I can’t imagine I was thinking of going against her about anything.
“Michael,” she says, coming closer, “put your medicine bag on and step to the other side of the fire. Mayden, stay where you are.”
“Okay,” I say, even as Michael moves from beside me.
“How did you know to come?” I ask her, already a little afraid she might know too much. After all, just moments ago I was plotting to go behind her back with Michael and Jake. It can’t be good for that to come out.
“Jake’s inner alarm went off. He was falling off to sleep when his image was called upon to project itself here. He’s well trained, and he knows when something is happening that concerns him, even at a distance. He immediately came to tell me, which is exactly what you must do any time there is such an odd occurrence. If you want me to keep you safe during your education, that is. You understand?”
“So you expect it to happen again?” I say, feeling a wave of deep-down fear roll through me.
“I expect everything,” she says flatly.
I don’t like the sound of that, but I’m more than glad I won’t have to be going behind her back. In fact, it seems I couldn’t even if I tried. I’m more than glad for it. This is so very over my head.
“I wasn’t myself, before,” I say, trying to explain my plotting without actually admitting anything, in case she doesn’t actually know the details.
“You were and you weren’t,” Bea says, not exactly accusing, but not letting me off the hook either.
“What happened Gran Bea?” Michael says from a safe distance, probably even farther away than he needs to be, especially with his medicine bag on.
She ignores him, but speaks loud enough for someone a good distance off to hear. “It’s my fault, really. I invoked the fire for you Mayden. But I never warned you to stay away from the element of fire for at least 72 hours. Basic magical rules, really. I never thought you’d have a fire pit in this back yard, but I should have warned you anyway. Even a cigarette match could have been trouble. Not that you smoke. You don’t smoke do you? No, I can see you don’t. I’m just not used to someone who doesn’t know a thing about magic. In any event, you can be sure that won’t happen again.”
“What’s wrong with going near fire?” I ask, wondering how safe I am if she’s forgetting what I do and don’t need to know.
“Nothing wrong with it, in and of itself,” she says. “But the kind of magic we did today lingers, like lighter fluid on your fingers. We taught you to breath in magic, and you know what a bellows will do to fire. My suspicion is that you were practicing the breathing before it happened, weren’t you?
“Actually, I was,” I say, feeling confused because I had thought practicing would have been a good thing. “Before Michael showed up, the first time I mean. I was outdoors so I thought it would be a good chance to build up my magical strength.”
“Yes,” Bea says, “you were right. But between the air and fire, you can conjure up quite a bit of trouble, without knowing much at all of what to do with it. Or what it opens you to. Perhaps Anna was right that the first thing to teach you is protection.”
“Why does she need protection?” Michael asks. “What happened to her?”
“Now, I’m glad to be talking to you, Mayden,” Bea says loudly, “and very glad to have found you alone.”
There seems to be a lot of meaning in her tone, like she’d like us to get her real drift. In two seconds, the meaning comes over me, sort of like a wind. What she is saying is that she’s not teaching him. She’s teaching me. Because that is the way it has to be.
I look to him, and see his heartbreak. He wants to learn directly. I can see that so clearly. It’s not fair, at all.
“What happened?” I ask for him, and also for me. I think I can handle it now, with my stomach a little less queasy and my head clearing.
“I suppose that depends,” she says, “on what happened.”
“Um…” I don’t want to seem dense here, but I am not catching this drift.
“What happened in your vision?” she asks, this time more pointedly.
“Oh. It was a vision?” I ask.
That sounds important. Me, have a vision?
“Don’t be overly impressed with yourself,” she says, again pointedly. “It wasn’t your doing, I’m sure of that.”
I feel the deflation, but hang on to the fact that at least it happened to me. To me! That would be a good thing, right?
“Well, let’s see,” I answer. “I was looking at the fire and breathing in the earth, like you said. It got a little weird, because I kept seeing Anna’s face over the fire. I just thought it was my imagination…”
“Just your imagination!” Bea exclaims. “That’s what they taught you in school, didn’t they? And at home? That your dreams are not real? That your creative thought is best left in kindergarten, along with your crayons? Well, I’ll be un-teaching you that before anything else. Gracious, the list is ever-growing. Alright, what else?”
“Michael came, and we talked about the reason he couldn’t spin the spoons, and he told me about how…”
“You’re missing something important,” Bea interupts.
I think. Oh, yeah. Duh. “So I was being a little sly about getting Michael to help me, well, with a plan I had. It was to, um, well, get Anna out of the home. I have to tell you, it was like I was growing wild about it. I knew I needed his help, and so I was playing him, you know, to get him to think it was his idea and all kinds of stuff. Which I swear to you both is not like me.”
“We’re alone, aren’t we?” Bea insists more than asks.
I catch that drift again. It speaks clearly that we are meant to pretend Michael isn’t even here. Okay, I can do that.
“Totally alone,” I say. “So I had to get him to agree to help me find a way to get Anna out of there. I do feel that we can’t leave her in there, if you want my opinion, but this was more than an opinion. It was like an obsession. And it’s really not like me to plot behind someone’s back. For sure not yours, Bea. I wish I could prove that is how I really feel, but I did also feel the other way, at the time, so I don’t know.”
“I appreciate your honestly,” she says, like she really does.
“Then Jake showed up, well, I heard—we heard—his voice from off over there in the bushes. He said he wanted Anna out too, and that we would team up, the three of us. He said that we had before. That’s pretty much it. And then Michael…” I guess I better leave that part off, because I can’t exactly say he showed up and then she did, if he’s not supposed to be here.
Bea nods again and again, obviously thinking.
I can practically see Michael biting his tongue not to ask a thousand questions. But only I can do that.
“So what happened to me, Bea?”
“Magic has spoken its wishes,” she replies with a huge sigh. “It wants Anna out of the home. And it wants You, Michael, and Jake to work together. Both of which are impossible. Magic doesn’t think much of the impossible, but neither does it help with the many details. That is for us to ponder, and we will. For now, though, I’m more concerned about you. Because most of all, Magic wants to communicate through you, Julie Mayden.”
“Is that a bad thing?” I ask, immediately steeped in fear again. I mean serious fear, like someone took a bat to my gut.
“There is that idea of good and bad, again,” she says. “I suppose it depends on how it all turns out, if you’ll call it a good thing or a bad thing, in the end. The only thing for certain is that it is a powerful thing. A great responsibility. And I must tell you now, the cost of resisting what magic wants is high.”
“Somehow I knew that,” I say, thinking that is what hit me in the stomach with a bat.
I look at Michael, who seems to both feel for me and maybe feel a little envious, too. I get the sense that no matter how far along he is, he’ll be trailing me soon enough. It can’t be easy to take, what with him the true family member.
“There is a lot you are going to know,” Bea says, sounding resolved. “You will likely learn in a variety of ways, not just the way you learned tonight. I can help you with anything you are faced with, but you are likely going to know a great deal before the rest of us. Magic has found you, and chosen you. There is nothing any of the rest of us can do about it.”
“Why me?” I have to ask. I want to learn. I really do. But this is deep and I’m already managing to screw up the little I’ve learned in only two lessons.
“That is the easiest question of all to answer,” Bea says, smiling wistfully. “Magic chose you because you are a beautiful young woman and all the other women in our family are now old. Even Helene has been beyond interest for many years.”
“Okay, that’s creepy,” I say.
“Not like you think,” she assures. “Magic is also female. It seeks to have a mirror to look into, so to speak. It seeks a beautiful, young, feminine face to imagine is it’s own.”
“Mine?” I ask, incredulous.
“Yours,” Bea says, again smiling, like she knows something of this personally, and it’s really not such a bad thing after all.
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“It’s my day off,” I say aloud to her, gently pushing her away as I groan and pull the sheet up over my head. Actually, it’s Monday, Bea’s official day off…finally.
What this means is that this is the first morning I’ve slept in since a week ago last Sunday— the day I met Michael. Bea doesn’t seem to be interested in sticking to the limited schedule she set with Sally, at least since the incident with the fire and Magic and all that. So now she’s pretty much been here from 7 in the morning to 8 at night every single solitary day. I thought she’d take the weekend off, at least, but no. “Too much magic to learn,” she said when I suggested she might be working too hard.
For that, I am grateful. You can learn a lot in one week, I’ve found. What you can’t do is slow Bea down. She’s got ten times my energy. And when I said that to her, she just smiled and said: “Soon enough, you’ll have it too. That’s just one thing Magic will do for you.”
Scottie finds a bit of bare flesh on my one exposed calf to knead her paws into. It’s not like I need to take her out or anything. She’s got her little in-out door to the closet with her litter box. It is just that the sun is up and she’s ready to play. I turn back over and reach down to draw her near, muzzling her soft belly with my whole face. She purrs, and again I’m reminded of the best thing to happen since I met the whole magical crew. Scottie is healthy. Perfectly. And for that I’d have worked every day for a year.
It’s not just that I want to goof off today, anyway. I’ve got to call Rod and see how he is doing. I heard Dad mention the divorce on the phone with Rod’s dad yesterday, and good friend I’ve been, I haven’t even checked on him.
I’ve also got to see Anna. I have not been this whole week. Not since I saw her completely comatose. Bea has assured me she is back to normal—which I assume means still out of it most of the time but able to be roused if needed. Even so, I want to see for myself.
Just thinking of her in that place at all makes me sad. It always feels like she should be here, too, teaching me her ways. I have a feeling it isn’t good to learn only Bea’s ways. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to make that happen. Michael’s involvement with us has to be kept hidden as long, and as well, as possible.
Which leads to another problem. It wasn’t so easy keeping him from Bea all weekend. He wants to learn so bad you can see it killing him to stand back and get it second hand from me. But today he’ll be off to soccer camp again, and will be exhausted after. So everything should be quieter, all around.
As if on cue, I hear a door slam down the hall, and another fight between Dad and Sally is immediately in full swing. Bea says it’s the heat from the magical fire, which is helping Sally lose weight even while she’s eating like a total pig. Losing weight makes her cranky, Bea said, the same way it would if she were on a strict diet. I asked if there wasn’t something we could do about that, too, but Bea just shrugged as if to say you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Actually, I think it’s just that Dad and Sally are just reaching that time in all his relationships when things fall to crap. So far, they have all gone on pretty much the same schedule. Except for my mom. She was different, he said, though he didn’t really explain. I like to think maybe it was her having me that was what was different, but I don’t really know, and Dad doesn’t say. As much as I don’t overly like Sally, I kind of hope they aren’t going to get a divorce. I don’t like the idea of getting a new one broken in, and moving, and then redecorating, and all the stuff that comes with Dad getting married again. Besides, it just can’t be good for Dad.
“Okay, Scottie, I really have to get going,” I say, lifting her off of me and putting my feet on the ground. I swear I am sore from head to toe. You wouldn’t think cooking would be any great strain, but it really is. You are constantly standing, reaching, lifting, pouring, and all kinds of things you never think about until you’ve done if for hours on end. Add magic and working with all the elements—including Bea insisting we actually create a makeshift brick oven on the back deck so she could bake her favorite garlic and onion flat bread—and then add how much you have to think and remember about what goes with what and what never goes with what… Well, in the end, it’s downright exhausting.
I think about all of this again from another ten thousand angles as I grab a shower, breakfast, and head over to Anna’s.
I try Rod on my cell on the way, but his is turned off. Not surprising. It’s a Monday morning in the summer, and like all wise teenagers, he’s asleep. He will be till one or two this afternoon. I leave a message, short, sweet, and a little less snarky than I might have normally, but not so much less that he thinks I feel sorry for him. I do, but it won’t help if it looks that way. It’s just like that between us and now is not a time to make any sudden changes. He’s got enough of that.
Standing at the buzzer, I think back just a week and a half ago, when I was coming to take Anna for her first walk. Everything is so different now. I’m so different now. It’s like I live in a whole new world. I smile, realizing I’m not even decked out in unusual funky clothes—just a t-shirt and jeans. I haven’t even bothered to make sure my hair looks like a multi-colored rats nest. The ladies at the desk won’t believe it’s me.
Strangely enough, they do realize it’s me. They buzz me in and have me sign in without a comment. Not even a strange look or a “where have you been?”
I guess that’s the thing about not standing out. You don’t stand out. It’s a little of a bummer, until I remember that learning magic has made me truly different, so maybe I don’t have to rely so much on just looking different. I think I’ll have to think on that more. But later. Now, it’s time for Anna.
Heading into her room with a quick nock, I find she is much as she always is: Head bobbing; a little drool. But she is sitting up in her wheelchair, not flat out in bed. I don’t even bother to talk to her beyond a loud, fake “Hello Mrs. Bayless” before getting her medicine bag and heading her out the door. We’ve plenty to say to each other, and if there is one thing I have learned, it’s best not to have it happen anywhere near the inside of these walls.
Lowering her onto the earth, she lets out a huge sigh. She’s already invoked her ancestors as we wheeled out. I sort of hummed along quietly, as if to say I agree, even if I don’t know the names and dates. I put on her drugstore glasses and get in her eyeshot.
“You have been learning,” she says, looking me over and smiling proudly.
“Trying,” I say, smiling too, though a little sheepishly. It feels good to hear she can see it. Bea’s not one to say much about how you are doing, and surely not how she’s proud of you, though I suppose I have gotten the sense that she thinks I’m up to the tasks she’s giving me, and that’s something, too. Anna’s more open about her approval, and as hard as it has been, I’m realizing a direct pat on the back goes a long way. I’m also realizing just how much I’ve missed this half of the twins.
“Tell me everything,” she says, already moving her attention to look around and marvel at the bugs and mulch and twigs.
“I hardly know where to start,” I say.
“I can imagine. Tell me about Magic. I can see Bea is teaching you. Your confidence level has risen greatly and that much, occurring that quickly, can only be attributed to Magic.”
It’s my turn to sigh. “But it seems like the more I know, the more I realize how much I need to learn. I would think that would make me lose confidence.”
“It is true that the more you know, the more you realize all that you don’t know,” she says, pursing her lips and pondering. “Perhaps it is better said like this: What you assume is learning, is actually becoming. You are becoming magical. In a world where there are so many limitations within the framework of time, space and energy, to become magical is to have more resources and therefore, more confidence.”
“Becoming magical,” I whisper. It feels like too much to say at full volume.
“You are right to be wary of the idea,” Anna says. “The more you think you understand, the less open for knowledge you become. Stay in awe of it and you will learn all you need to know.”
I nod, thinking that’s what I miss fromAnna. Bea is smart, and good at working with Magic. But Anna is wise in a completely different way. She makes me feel like I’ll be protected, and all Bea makes me feel is overwhelmed.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” Anna says, sounding surprised I have to ask. “Anything.”
“Magic came to me one night. It changed everything around me. I mean, like, the whole world I was seeing. I still don’t understand what it was. A vision or something. But Michael was there, and I saw your face in the fire. Jake came, at least his voice did, and then later, I realized none of it had happened. Bea said it was Magic, that Magic is feminine, and that she wants to speak through me. But I want to know what you think, and if you were there, or aware of it when it happened, or anything.”
Anna sucks in air, not quite a gasp, but it is clear she’s not taking what I have said lightly.
“It hasn’t happened since,” I continue, “but Bea says it could anytime. She’s been around me as much as possible, and keeping me really busy. I think it might be so that it doesn’t happen again, but I’m not sure.”
“Bea is right to stick close,” Anna says firmly. “Not that you must worry about Magic. If you have been selected as the vehicle of communication, you will be protected by Magic herself, in more ways than you can know. But you are so early into your education. This can threaten so much. Magic must feel a great urgency, to appear so soon.”
I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t. She seems to be mulling it over, and I can’t blame her. It’s pretty big news, I’m thinking. But the more she is silent, the more it worries me. I mean, if it’s big to Anna, it must be really big for someone like me.
“What IS Magic, anyway?” I finally say, if only to break the silence. “I don’t understand, it being female or even like a person at all. I thought it was a force or something more like that.”
“Oh, Magic is not a person,” Anna says. “You are right about that. A force would be closer to the truth, but that would not quite be correct, either. Let me think of an image to help you…”
With this, I see her eyes glaze off, almost as if she’s gone into one of her drug induced stupors again. But this time, I see it differently. I see she is not gone, or at least not gone against her own will. The realization shocks me—Anna “leaves” on purpose!
The idea sends chills up and down my spine. Perhaps she is not a victim of this place and all its madness, even when she is laid out flat. Just the possibility amazes me. I mean, if it were true, what would we have to be afraid of in our old age?
“I see it now,” Anna says, back as quick as she left. “A chandelier with many crystals. The great power of the Universe is the chandelier. From it hang so many forms of magic, but not only that. All religion, and all forms of goodness, and badness for that matter. All manner of things which conduct and carry the power of the Universe out into the world. Our Magic is one stunning crystal on that great plugged-in appliance that leads straight to the One source, and ours happens to be feminine. She carries the force of magic within her, but she is not the source. Not the ultimate source.”
“So she is like goddess, then?” I ask, feeling like I might be beginning to understand.
Anna smiles, her eyes dancing. “So, Magic is talking to you! You received an image too!”
This time I smile full on.
“Just don’t believe anything too much,” she warns, frowning. “Magic is more fluid than that. She doesn’t want to be understood. The minute you claim to understand, or even think you do, you will be out of your league and in for a few new lessons. Do you understand?”
“I think so. A goddess or a crystal from a great chandelier are just ways to think of Magic, but not really what she is? And when we forget how big she is, and think we understand, we are at risk of having to learn new lessons that take us back into the mystery.”
Actually, I have no idea where that came from. It just popped out of my mouth, like I actually know what I’m talking about, even though I don’t.
“Oh my,” my elder says in what sounds like actual awe. “Oh my dear Mayden. We have chosen well in choosing you, haven’t we? Or did we choose you at all, I must wonder. Perhaps Magic chose you, or even more possible, you chose yourself, and we could not deny the force you set in motion when you did so. From what I am seeing in you, anything could be possible.”
I don’t know who chose what, but I seem to feel what she is saying. That, more than anything, is what Bea has been teaching me. To feel things in order to know them. That’s what all the blindfolded cooking is for. And learning the spices by scent, well before learning a name. “Labels won’t help you,” Bea has said again and again this past week, and maybe I’m beginning to understand.
“Now,” Anna continues, nodding, “if you were given a vision, surely it was a vision of something important. What was it?”
Again I’m hesitant, because it makes it look like I’m not respectful of my teachers. But I have to tell the truth. That much I know. “Jake and Michael and I were plotting to get you out of here.”
At this, Anna actually gasps.
“We were going to work as a team,” I continue quickly, to get it over with. “Jake seemed to imply it was like some ‘old days’ when we were also together. Bea suggested it was probably a past life. Michael thought so, too.”
“And you? What did you think dear Mayden?”
Truthfully, I haven’t actually said what I think to Bea or Michael. I’m not even sure I know what I think—but I have this feeling…
Anna looks at me with raised eyebrows, waiting and probing at the same time, like she has heard my thoughts.
“I think… I think it isn’t from the past. I think it is from the future. I think we will work together in such a strong force, the feeling could reach back to us, to show us the way.”
Anna stares at me, eyes wide, but saying nothing.
“I don’t know,” I quickly add. “It’s a strange idea. I can’t really say, maybe it was in the past that we know each other, and…”
“Don’t do that,” my teacher says sharply. Her eyes bore into me, then soften. “Not ever. Don’t give away what you know, even if you only have an inkling, just because you don’t understand it, or think someone who supposedly knows more will agree.”
“But I could be wrong, and that could lead to mistakes.”
“Yes,” she agrees. “But it is more likely you will be a little right, and following that small piece of truth will lead you to a greater truth. Surely that is a better path than backtracking to someone else’s truth.”
“But you and Bea and Michael know so much more than me. And Jake, too. I know I have a lot to learn. If I go off in my own thinking, isn’t that disrespectful, if not downright dumb of me?”
“This knowing isn’t about learning,” she says, again fierce. “It is about what is true. All you have to learn is what you know. Truly know. And how to access what you know. What is true, at lest for you. I fully agree that the others have more education and experience than you, and that is worthy of respect. But each and every person has access to their own knowing, and that must not be compromised. Stay open to being taught, of course. But remember that teaching is to lead you to knowing. It would be wrong to give what you already know to someone else’s knowing, even in part, in order to learn more first.”
“It’s all so confusing,” I say, not wanting to complain, but also wanting to get it right.
“That you must give up,” Anna says.
“What?” I ask.
My eyes widen, because I didn’t say that out loud, but she knew. Or heard. Or something.
“Think of it this way, dear Mayden. Each person has her own world, and parts overlap with the worlds of others, but not all parts will. There is no ‘right’ with so many truths out there. There could not be. There is only what you know, and what is right for you. Sometimes it meshes well with others and sometimes it doesn’t. But insisting that you be right in every world that is out there, and with every person, is madness. Surely you can see that?”
Not only can I “see” it the ways she says it, I can literally see it. There are a few dozen dancing worlds before my very eyes, tiny little globes that seem to contain little drops of what she is saying. With my very next breath in, they slide into me. Crazy as it seems, I know what has happened. I’ve swallowed her lesson. Her meaning is inside me.
Okay, that was really freaky.
“Exactly,” Anna says, nodding her approval. “Exactly.”
“But what just…”
“Now, let us turn our attention to you getting me out of here. That’s what Magic wants, doesn’t it?”
I guess she isn’t going to tell me what just happened. I guess that’s up to me to know, or not. I sigh again, but this time inside.
“I think so,” I answer.
“Then we must see how much strength you have for the task. Here, finger wrestle me.” She puts up a pinky finger and leans on her side, as if to arm wrestle.
Okay, that is so out in left field. There is now way I’m finger-wrestling an 88-year-old mostly-invalid out in the woods. I cock an eyebrow at her.
“You must. I need to see how much Magic has taken hold.”
It seems there is nothing else I can do. The thing is, I have a feeling I won’t win. And that is just so lame to even imagine.
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I’m sure my face is beat red, in part from the exertion of our finger wrestling and in part from my not being able to move an 88-year-old lady’s little finger a millimeter. My whole hand shook like crazy. But did hers? Not a bit. Embarrassing to say the least.
“Good,” Anna says, nodding her approval when we finally call the truce.
“Good?” I nearly cry out, massaging my poor finger. “I didn’t move you a bit.”
“But you held your own,” she said, seeming to think this is really worthy, “and you were not writing in pain, either.”
“That was probably more due to you than me,” I argue with a pout.
Anna smiles wryly. “Probably.”
“So what did that tell you? Could you feel Magic in me yet?”
“Oh yes, yes indeed,” she says proudly. “You’re a natural. It won’t be long before…” She trails off, noticing a butterfly has landed on her medicine bag.
“Before?” I urge.
She watches it until it flies off, then turns her attention back to me. “Before you are ready to get me out of here without causing a stir. It will take Magic to do so without Helene sensing it. Your magic.”
Immediately, I panic. Cover an old lady’s break from a nursing home without a powerful magician woman knowing? It’s not like she’s asking me to turn five-day-old bread into fresh French toast. Even that is still a trick for me.
“I don’t know how I would, how I could,” I stammer.
“I don’t know either,” she admits. “But Magic knows. If Magic wants something, it will help and show you the way. You can be sure of that.”
“But I’ll work with Michael on it, and Jake, too right?” At least that would be some comfort.
“Indeed, you were shown just that. But were you shown that you would be required to do this behind my back, and Bea’s, or was that just an assumption you made? It makes a difference.”
“Well, I guess I just assumed, since Bea said there was no way, and you seemed to say so too, that if we… Yeah, I guess I did assume. All that was really clear was that Jake and Michael and I would work together. I mean, I got the feeling from Jake that we would do it even if you didn’t like it, but he –or, rather, Magic—didn’t say you couldn’t be in on it, if you were willing.”
“A good lesson in and of itself, isn’t it?” she points out. “We must always listen for exactly what is being said, and only that. Then, we must separate our own ideas and fears from it to know how to best proceed. Now, do you feel this feat of wonder would be better served with all of us behind it?”
“Totally,” I blurt out without a moments hesitation. Relief washes over me. Two old ladies and three young people against one bad woman? Already the odds are much, much better.
“It will still be yours to create,” Anna says, as if she has again been eavesdropping on my thoughts. “Your task will be to listen to Magic for guidance and then plan accordingly. In fact, I sense it to be a kind of test for you. Do you also sense that?”
Do I sense a test? Like what hasn’t been a frickin test since all this started? “Yes,” is all I say out loud.
Anna nods. “Then we must treat it a such. I suggest we make it a grand finale to your summer and Michael’s visit. That way, Magic will be appeased that the time will indeed come, and it will also allow you and Michael as much time as possible to learn. How does that sound?”
“Like a huge relief. And scary. That’s only three weeks from now.”
Again Anna smiles. “Both are appropriate responses.”
“But how does it sound to you?” I ask. “Like three weeks is forever, knowing you will finally get out of here? I mean, this place must be killing you. You are so alive and it is so… so not alive.”
“It is worth it,” she says, looking up through the trees and into the sky.
“For us to learn Magic?”
“Yes, for you three, and those who will come after you. Also for Magic, because this is what she wishes.”
I take a deep breath and dare continue with what I feel, somehow, I just have to know. “Do you ever feel it’s unfair, that you are out here once this week for a few minutes, when Bea gets to look up at the sky every day?”
“Bea is sturdier than I am,” she says, sounding a bit sad, but not jealous or angry.
“But you just finger wrestled me and you’re strong!” I argue.
“I’m not strong, I’m skilled. There is a difference. I can concentrate all of my strength into my finger, and for a time, I can do amazing things. Rather, Magic can do it through me. But my constitution is weaker than Bea’s.”
“But why? You’re the same age, and you both have magic?”
“You see how smart you are dear Mayden? You already know my weakness isn’t solely because of my aging humanity. Don’t you?”
“I guess,” I say, not really sure.
“You simply don’t have a reasonable context for why I might be so much more frail than my twin and so you can’t find the logic you need for your understanding. Hence, you think you don’t know. But you know, yes?”
Again I’m confused. “What do you mean?”
“Tell me, what do you know, not in your head, but in your very being, about my frailty?”
I try to think, but nothing comes. “I don’t know.”
“You do!” she insists sternly.
I think for another minute, really concentrating, then remember how Bea always says the gut knows. I tune in the way she taught me, by breathing my thinking into my belly and letting it spread to all the cells of my body. What do I know? What do I know? What do I…
“Your work is somewhere else,” I say in a quick jumble. “Isn’t it?”
Anna beams. “Ha! Indeed I do. Spot on dear girl!”
Chills run through me every which way. I just did it. I knew something I had no way of knowing. I just knew it. “That was so weird,” I say.
“Weird? Why? Isn’t this what Bea is teaching you?”
“Yes, but, before, I’d know things just out of the blue, not because I was trying to know. This time, I tried to know, and I knew. It’s different.”
“Yes, it is,” she agrees.
“So, what do you do, I mean, where do you work?”
“In other worlds,” she says, again looking up. “I do like it here, and earth has been good to me, all in all. Bea loves it here, though. She is an earth mama through and through. So I have always done the majority of the otherworld work, and it has taxed my body in a way she hasn’t had to endure.”
“So when you seem out of it,” I ponder even as I ask, “and sort of seem gone, you really are gone?”
“I really am.”
“What do you do, in the other worlds I mean?”
She sighs and looks me in the eyes, as if searching for how much to say. “You either wouldn’t believe me, or if you did believe me, you would be saddened. So perhaps it is not a good idea to speak of it.”
Anyone else, I’d just feel baited and want to know all the more. But I trust Anna, and I’ve already learned enough to know if she says it will make me sad, it will. Still, I think I want to know. Maybe even need to know.
“I’ll be okay,” I say. “It’s probably best to know, instead of worry about it and make up my own theories that are probably worse.”
“Wise and gifted,” she says, shaking her head at me.
I think that is probably the fifth compliment I’ve had from her since I arrived today. And that so not like my normal life. “So?” I ask.
“As you know, our Magic offers us the gift of shapeshifting. We draw unique strength and power from our animal counterparts and are deeply in touch with their spirits.”
“Yes,” I say, leaning in to hear her better. I’ve noticed several times she seems to speak of these things in lower tones, like someone might be listening, or maybe it’s just because of the awe she feels.
“The animals of this earth are dying out. More than half of all the species alive, on land and in sea, will migrate off this planet in the very near future. In tune with nature, they see what is coming here, and have no reason to return. Since I can vouch for them being such good inhabitants of earth, and I am able to translate between animals and other species, I am helping them find new homes.”
Again she gives me that wary look. “On other planets, as well as places that are not places at all.”
She looks at me to see if I’m with her. I am, but she’s right, it’s hard to believe. And sad beyond measure if it is true. It think of Scottie, and what it would be if she didn’t want to be here on planet earth, and had never come to be with me. What if my kids never had a kitten to play with? Or a puppy? I feel a great lump chest, and like my heart can’t really beat right.
“It’s because of us, isn’t it?” I ask. “We humans.”
“Collectively,” she clarifies, “not individually.”
“What do you mean?”
“Another concept that is hard to explain. Ah, I know! Do you know how a large school of fish turns direction all at once, thousands of them at the exact same moment?”
“Sure,” I say.
“That is also how cultures within humanity turn. We don’t see it that way, individually, because we have a fish-eye perspective most of the time. But we really are the same. We think we are outside of this collective thought process, but we are not. We have an animal nature, too, after all.”
I know I must look confused.
“For example,” she explains, “how many of you young people have those little music boxes and wires that stick in your ears?”
I shrug, “It’s just how we listen to music.”
“But how many. Ten? A thousand? No, there are millions of you now I hear. All of you, turning like the fish in the same direction at once.”
“And that is bad? Music is bad?”
“Of course not, music is wonderful. This is just an example of the turning. The turning is neither good or bad, and the individual would surely say he or she is good within the turning of what you might call a fad or a trend. But who leads the thought that suggests the turn?”
“I don’t know, lots of people put things out there. Some catch on, some don’t. So don’t we all sort of decide, together?”
“Yes, exactly, as do the fish. But it is not solely by a conscious choice. A part of you decides that you will buy this thing, or that, on a specific day, and you think you bought it because you decided to. In reality, another part of you—a less conscious part deep inside you—decided to purchase it without thinking before you knew it. Same for the majority of the other creatures of your culture who started to turn toward buying it at the same time you did.”
“We didn’t all just decide at once?”
“Yes, but at a level that is decided before your conscious decision. Yet anyone you ask about their purchase will say they made the choice on their own, because humanity, and especially this culture, finds individual choice a great value and what separates us from the animals. It is our own folly, to think we have left behind the strong impulses of collective behavior.”
“So it’s collective. Why is that a problem?”
“When we don’t take into account this collective turning, we are doomed to be led without knowing. Without knowing, we are turning to the messages of our most basic instincts, not the higher ones we tend to chose after a genuine search of on our own values.
“So you think there is this great conspiracy or something?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I only know what while each individual doctor intends to heal a patient, when you put a collective of doctors together, there will be decisions that make doctors look like criminals.”
“Like keeping old women drugged and locked up in places like this, and calling it nursing care. Collectively, this place does not nurse or heal us. It tolerates us. It doesn’t begin that way. There are lovely apartments and vital lives in attractive settings if you get here young and healthy. But if you get sick, or come in late, you know you’re going down a cattle chute towards death. Ask around my floor, if you can get a response, you’ll learn that no one expects to leave the highest level of “care” offered here. Not a single nurse in there would harm any one of us individually. But you’ve seen how they act when they are treating us like we are one of many people to feed and bathe. It’s not abuse, but it’s not nursing, and it is not care.”
Now my gut is in full churn. This is exactly why I’ve wanted to get her out of here. But she’s right, she is an individual to me. I’m not trying to get them all out. “I guess they have to,” I say, “it’s their job and there are a lot of people and a lot to do.”
The whole thing makes me feel sick. I don’t like to think about it. But maybe that’s why I don’t. It makes me wonder if Dad does. Well, yes, I know he does. He talks about it. How he does better than the other guys. And he does. But that doesn’t mean Anna isn’t right. It isn’t nursing, and it isn’t care. If Dad would look at each individual, and not rationalize it, he’d have to admit that.
“I see you are understanding my point,” Anna says. “Individually, most of us make good and wise and caring choices. Collectively, we don’t, in part because we can’t find a way to. Individually, we love and care for others and are willing to sacrifice. Collectively, we have a culture that values making money and success and power and prestige. They are our collective bottom line. Individually, we love our animals. Collectively, we treat them as beneath us, mere pets. We don’t see them for what they are, or could be to us.”
That’s right. This was about the animals, and her work off the planet, which suddenly sounds even more bizarre than before. “So you are saying it’s our fault they are leaving, collectively but not individually?”
“I’m saying we as a collective humanity are at a destructive phase of growth, and like an unruly teenager with beer and keys to the car. Not like you, of course, dear, but you know this kind of friend I am sure. Collectively, we are like that, too young to be wise, with too many opportunities to do exactly as we wish, including destroy ourselves. The animal kingdom is leaving because we humans have collectively made such a mess, they cannot live here anymore. And so I help them find homes where they can.”
I look at her through watery eyes. “That’s not sad, Anna. That’s devastating. You are saying we are doomed!”
“Not quite,” she says gently, knowingly. “If we were truly doomed, my dear Mayden, Magic would not have found you, and brought you to us.”
“What do I do?” I cry out.
“Learn to lead, and so turn your own species in a direction that is good for the collective, as the animals do. Wake up to turn not from base instinct, but from a greater wisdom.”
“But can one person have any kind of impact?”
“This will be the hardest thing of all for you to understand, my dear Mayden, but yes. Not only can one person wake up and lead, one person must. And in your world, at this moment, in this turning point, that person is you.”
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Chapter Twenty One
It isn’t Bea, even though she is banging around in the kitchen, upset about something she won’t talk about. It isn’t Dad, who is sitting here at the table, reading the newspaper and ignoring everyone else. Or Sally, who is eating her hot cheesy grits in stony silence. Or even Michael, who should have left for practice an hour ago, and hasn’t said a word as to why he’s joining us for breakfast.
It’s just… something.
“I have an idea, Julie,” Dad says, without laying down his newspaper.
“Okay,” I say.
“We will need your help, Michael,” he continues. Now, he puts down the paper to look at Michael, who is all ears.
“We?” Sally says. So I guess the idea is news to her, too.
“Your Aunt Helene will be coming back just before you return to school, won’t she?” he asks Michael.
Gulp. Immediately my gut churns, and by the look on Michael’s face, he’s none too pleased either.
“Uh, yes Sir,” he says.
“Did you know it will be her birthday two weeks from Sunday?”
“I did,” he says, cautious and noncommittal.
Okay, I really, really don’t like this. I don’t know why, I just don’t.
“I’d like to have a party for her, here,” Dad says, looking from Michael to me and back to Michael.
Okay, now I know why. I’m going to have to meet this woman. Face-to-face.
“Sir?” Michael asks, sounding shocked.
“A party. You know. An afternoon affair. Light Sandwiches, balloons, a party.”
“I love it!” Sally says, looking up from intently scraping the last tiny tidbits from her bowl. She would like the idea. Which is yet another reason why it has to be completely wrong.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I say in total deadpan, fully prepared to drop any bomb I need to, “do you think old people like birthday parties? Doesn’t it remind them of how soon they will be dying?”
“Well I sure hope you don’t say that to her,” Dad says, laughing. “I want her to like you.”
“Why?” I have to ask. Meeting her is already a stretch the size of the grand canyon. Getting her to like me would require a leap into another universe.
“Because we are partners,” Dad says, like it ought to be obvious. “And you like Michael, and Michael likes you, too.”
“What does that have to do with…?” I start to say.
“Honey,” Sally interrupts, “you sound like you’re trying to arrange a marriage or something.”
Michael’s face is instant red.
“Dad, I think I can…”
“What’s wrong with families getting to know each other, that’s all I’m suggesting,” Dad defends, without listening to me. As usual.
“Hello? Am I invisible here?” I ask.
“In fact,” Dad continues, “I’d like to surprise her. I was thinking you two could bring her mother, Mrs. Bayless. We’ve got a wonderful cook, and I’m sure with the right incentive we could get her to stay on.”
“Mrs. Bayless?” I ask, stealing a glance at Michael.
“Sure. I hear she enjoys you taking her out for walks. No reason she couldn’t come for an afternoon to celebrate her daughter’s birthday, is there? Get everyone together. I think it’s a great idea.”
Oh no. No, no, no. I look again to Michael, who in addition to being beat red, looks as freaked as I am. Then I see a smile come over his face. Like he’s thought of something. Which is good, because I surely haven’t thought of anything that could begin to make this anything but a magical global disaster.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Michael says.
What??? I thought he was smiling because he’d thought of a way out of this. Now he’s agreeing to it? I give him my best “what can you be you thinking?” look, but he just nods to me, still smiling.
I hear pots banging in the background, like Bea has been listening, and she’s no more pleased about this than I am. Good, at least there will be someone on my side.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Mrs. Bayless is pretty out of it most of the time. And I don’t think a surprise party….”
Suddenly, I notice what’s wrong.
It’s the clock.
The clock on the mantle, the one that chimes every fifteen minutes, and has a ticker so loud it could drive you insane. It’s ticking out the seconds, but at a really slow rate.
I glance back at Dad, and his eyes are… I don’t know… weird…. blank…empty.
So are Sally’s. And Michaels.
Again I hear Bea making a clattering in the kitchen, and I turn to look, but she’s not in the kitchen. I am. I’m right here in front of her. She’s loudly banging a stainless steel pot right next to my ear.
“Come on,” she says to me, clanging and clanging away.
“What? What?” I reach out to stop her, grabbing the wooden spoon she’s hammering into the pot.
“’What?’ is right,” Bea says to me, standing over me like a mother hen.
Suddenly, I feel sick. Really sick. I push past her and run to the trash can just in time to upchuck, right there in front of her. From behind me, I hear her sigh.
“It’ll be alright now,” she says kindly, more like Anna than her usual gruff self.
When I’m spent, I go rinse my mouth with water at the sink and then return to sit. I look at Bea, and she at me, without saying anything for quite a while. Finally, the dizziness in my head slows down. I listen for the clock in the dining room, and it seems to be ticking normally.
“Magic grab you?” she asks.
I nod. “I guess so.”
“I could see it coming over you even before you went fully out. Held on to your feet to make sure you didn’t go too far. When that didn’t work, I got the pot.”
How long was I out of it?” I ask. “I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember getting up this morning.”
“Not long. But it’s four in the afternoon. You’re saying you don’t remember all day, here, cooking with me?”
“Did I eat breakfast with my dad, and Sally, and Michael?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “They all left early today. You ate with me, here. A bowl of cheesy grits we made. Oh dear, that might have been it.”
“What?” I ask, feeling exhausted. Can I really be missing a whole day?
“Remember when I asked you to blend in a question while you stirred?”
“No,” I say. Didn’t I just say I didn’t remember anything? I think this, but don’t say it out loud. I’m feeling totally cranked all of a sudden, but you just don’t get cranked with Bea. Not if you are smart.
“Well, you asked about getting Anna out. How you could do it. You stirred it into the cheesy grits. You added hot peppers, and truth be told, I put in a little something extra to help you along.”
“Aw, nothing much, a little… well, it was poison, technically, strictly speaking, but just a bit.”
She poisoned me? Bea, my teacher, my mentor?
“How long ago was that?” I ask, not sure why it might be important, but thinking it might.
“Let’s see, seven this morning…. Oh my. Nine hours. Exactly.”
“Is that important?”
Bea nods very seriously. “Nine hours, and you put in nine peppers. Nine times nine is eighty-one, which is an eight and a one, which added equals nine. That’s three nine’s, which is nothing short of a spell. Goddess, we might as well have asked for you to be abducted.”
“Abducted? Aren’t you supposed to be being careful with me?” I demand.
No, I don’t want to piss her off. But I don’t want to be upchuking aliens, either.
She shrugs. “If you don’t want to learn, that is up to you.”
“I want to learn, I just want to be safe.”
Bea gives a harrumph. “Not possible. You can protect yourself from darkness, sure enough. I’ve taught you plenty about that. But safe from the Magic that is teaching you? No, not possible. You’ll lose ground as sure as gain it in the process. You bet you will. If you’re not up for that, I’d normally say get out now. But it’s too late. You signed up girlie. You’re in.”
My head is spinning again. I’m tempted to move toward the trash can, or the toilet, but I don’t want to leave the comforting stability of the chair.
“You signed up girlie,” rings and rings in my ears, though Bea is just staring at me, looking like at any moment she might grab her wooden spoon and pan again.
“Breathe,” she says. “Nine times.”
So I do.
“I think I’m okay,” I say after things settle down again.
“So, where did Magic take you?”
“To the dining room,” I say. It would be far more impressive to say it took me to other worlds, like where Anna goes. But it is what it is.
“What did you learn?” she asks.
“Nothing really, we were just having breakfast… oh, wait, Dad was saying we should have a birthday party for Helene. Before Michael goes back.”
“What?” she asks, as stunned as I was.
“I know. It’s crazy. And he wanted Anna here for it, as a surprise. Michael seemed to be in favor of it, too, but I didn’t get why. He knows we can’t get them together.”
Bea ponders, her head dipped low. She even begins to pace from the sink to the door and back, thinking.
“Magic must want us all together. But why and how? It makes no sense.”
I just nod, and she goes back to pacing.
“What other details do you have? Anything unusual?”
“Not really. I just noticed the clock was ticking about half as fast, and you seemed to be mad about something, banging the pots in the kitchen, especially after Dad talked about the party. But that might have been your real banging.”
“No, no, we must consider that all the clues are possible. I was thought to be angry about it. And Michael was in favor of it. And Sally?”
“She was… oh, I forgot, it was like Dad was wanting us all to do this so we could get the families all buddy-buddy, and Sally was saying it sounded like he was arranging a marriage.”
“Well, we do know magic would love that.”
“What, me marry Michael?” I ask, alarmed all over again.
“One of the boys, anyway” she says, shrugging.
“But when I told you Anna said I’d have to choose, you said that was nonsense,” I argue.
“Poppycock, is what I think I said.”
“Whatever,” I loudly complain.
“I just didn’t want Jake to overhear talk like that,” she mutters.
I hardly know what I want to know next. I mean, has she lied to me about more than this? Led me astray on purpose? And what does Jake have to do with it? Yes, that seems most important right now. “What is wrong with Jake hearing about that?”
“Are you kidding me? He would fight for you, tooth and nail, if he knew the competition was on already.”
“I don’t understand,” I say, “as usual.”
“You don’t need to. What is important right now is that you realize that Magic is invested in your future life, with either Michael or Jake. Your vision spoke to that.”
“What if I don’t want to have a future life until like, way, way into the future?”
“You put a lot of restrictions on Magic,” Bea argues.
“It’s my LIFE!” I say, standing, and realizing I’m still a little woozy.
“Not exactly. Not entirely. Or, not only yours, shall we say.”
“Uhh!” I grunt, then turn on my heels to find myself looking right smack dab at a sweaty, grass-stained Michael.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, making sure to keep his distance from Bea. His question sounds innocent enough, so I don’t think he heard the thing about marriage.
“Ask her,” I insist, throwing up my hands.
Bea looks at him blinking, innocent. “Magic wants you to help us figure out how to manage having all of us here, in this house, at once.”
“Who is all of us?” he asks.
“You, Mayden, Me, Anna, and Helene.”
“Holy…” he starts, then thinks better of offending his elder.
“Exactly,” I say, satisfied that at least someone understands how impossible this is.
“But you won’t even let me near you,” he says.
“Exactly,” I say again.
“One thing you will both learn about Magic is that, more often than not, she will turn things upside down to get what she wants. Our job is to take the message given, decipher the clues as best we can, feel into our guts to know what is true and possible, be cautious to our own prejudices and wishful thinking, and the move forward with a plan. The two of you can surely do that tonight, and come back with a solution tomorrow, can’t you?”
She looks at us fully satisfied, like she’s just pulled the winning card from a deck of cards and thrown it down for all to see.
I look at Michael, because I for sure am not going to commit to such a thing.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he says.
Well, he had an idea in the dreamshift. Maybe he’ll find it again.
“Hey, I was wondering, you want to go out to dinner tonight?” he asks me.
“Sure she does,” Bea says, putting a motherly arm around me. “She just threw up in the trash can, so she’ll be hungry.”
I step back to look at her like she could not possibly have said that. Now way, not on heaven or earth or any other planet. But she did. That old bat of a woman who is never the same one day to the next surely did.
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Chapter Twenty Two
Immediate, my gut takes a dive. I don’t have any idea what it is he is going to say next. I only know I’m not going to like it. In fact, I’m going to hate it. It’s good we are in the farthest corner table, out of earshot of anyone here unless a waiter comes over, which none have so far. Maybe Michael told them to leave us alone. But why? And why does it feels so dire all of a sudden? Already I feel tears starting to form behind my eyes, which is just so ridiculous.
“You’re leaving,” I blurt out, having no idea where it came from. Just one of those things I know before I really know it.
Michael nods. “Saturday night.”
“Why?” I say. Plead is more like it, more like how it sounds coming out of my choked up throat. I can’t help it, there are actually tears in my eyes. Me, who cries like…never before this bunch entered my life. At least I am facing the wall, and he the crowd. No one will see but him.
“They aren’t teaching me” he says, reaching out to hold my hand. “They are teaching you.” I notice there is no bitterness in his voice, not even anger. Just sadness. This has been killing him, and I knew that. I guess he’s not going to put up with it anymore.
I look at his hand, holding mine, and feel that strong pull and racing energy between us, but don’t take it away. It feels good, and it might be gone soon.
“I need to go where I will be taught, even if it is a different tradition,” he explains further.
Little teardrops keep falling from my bent head, one after another. Why? Why does it mean so much to me to have him here? To have him learning with me, even if second hand.
“Haven’t I passed on the teachings well enough?” I ask.
“Yes, sure you have. But it’s second hand. There’s hardly any real power in it that way. You know that. And Bea makes me wear that bag that kills all my power when I am anywhere near her. It’s all like reading a book, instead of doing it. I need to be doing it. And now there is someone who is willing to teach me. Up in Maine, for the last few weeks I have off before heading back to Europe for school.”
I wonder what his Aunt Helene will think of him leaving soccer camp early, and going off to Maine, but I imagine he doesn’t care much what she thinks. Either that, or he has found a way around her.
“Who is he?” I ask. I don’t know how I know it’s a he, but I’d put money on it.
“A shaman. Native American born, though he travels the world now. He’s here for a month. Someone told me about him, and I called, and he said he’d take me on. He said he knew about me and that I would be calling, but I don’t know how he could have known. So I guess he tunes in one way or another.”
I recall Anna telling me about the chandelier, and all the different forms of magic. But it doesn’t seem right he should leave the family and learn another way. I look up at him and have to grab hold of my heart which actually, physically hurts in my chest, in an attempt to get my tears to stop falling. It isn’t easy.
I keep looking around for some sign this isn’t real, but there is no slowly ticking clock, nothing to alert me to this being Magic’s doing. In fact, if I had to bet on it, I’d say Magic is not pleased about it at all.
“Say something,” he pleads.
“What will you say to Bea?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he replies, sounding worried about it. “If the shaman has real powers—and trust me, I’m not assuming he does until he proves it—and he really has seen me coming, then she probably already knows.”
“How can you?” I burst out. I feel the betrayal, the way I imagine Bea and Anna will, and Jake for that matter. “How can you just leave your tradition, your family, when they are doing their best to keep the line going?”
“They don’t need me to keep the line going. They have you. And Jake.” This time, bitterness does creep into his voice.
“What does Jake have to do with it?” I ask, though once again, I already know. How is it I keep knowing things, right before I’m going to see them, or hear about them? Crazy making, that’s what Magic is.
“He loves you. Fell in love the minute he saw you,” he says looking down at his place, then look up to send his eyes straight into mine, “just like I did.”
Now there is no protecting my heart. It feels like it’s being crushed, like it’s been thrown in a huge trash truck and someone turned on the smasher. Why does this feel like it’s happened to me so many times, not just now, but over and over again? I’ve never been in love, never had a boyfriend even. How can it hurt this bad when I didn’t even know I loved him already?
“Then how can you leave?” I beg to know. Screw the tears, I can’t help it. He can’t leave. He just can’t. Not to go to some stranger to teach him ways that are not our ways. And how can a man teach the feminine Magic anyway? Why is he doing this to all of us? To me?
“If I stay,” Michael says, “Jake will fight for you, and he will win.”
“This is crazy,” I say, finally removing my hand to catch the falling tears, until it is useless. “We don’t even know what is going on. We don’t know what love has to do with this. Or choosing you or Jake, or any of that.”
“Seems you know something about it.”
“Well, they told me, but… how do we know? Why can’t we all just learn together? And leave all that other love stuff for some other time? It’s all happening too fast, and there’s too many holes in it all, and….”
“Sometimes you just know things, right?” he asks.
“Yea but, how do you know that you know them? I mean, you could be wrong, and I could be wrong, and they change things on us all the time anyway, so…how can you know?”
Michael looks at his plate again, sighs, then looks up at me once more. He stands and comes around to me, taking my hands and getting me to stand with him. Just like that, as if we were alone and not in a pubic restaurant, he pulls me close to him and kisses me.
A part of me is thinking, this is it. This is the first time I’ve really been kissed, and my face is wet with tears, and people are probably looking, and… At the same time, another part of me is weak behind the knees, falling into him, feeling his arm strong against my back, and then feeling, something like… something like a no, like somehow, this is wrong…
He stops and pulls away, looking at me.
“You love me,” he says, not asks.
“But not like I love you. Like a brother, right?”
I look into his eyes, and I can tell this is killing him.
But what can I do? He’s hit it on the head: I do love him. Like a brother.
I nod, cringing as I look into his hurt eyes.
“So Jake’s the one for you,” he says, guiding me back to sit in my chair.
“But I don’t love Jake at all,” I say.
“You just don’t know him yet,” Michael says, not sitting. “Listen, I’m here till Saturday night. If you want to plan that party, Saturday afternoon would be the time. It just so happens—if you think anything just so happens—that Aunt Helene will be back in town for the weekend. I’ll play along with whatever you cook up, but then I’m going. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to go now. I see that someone is waiting to talk to you anyway.”
“Wait, someone, who? Why leave now? We have to…”
“I’ll send her in,” he says, making a getaway without ever having taken his seat.
I’m left in mine, stunned, unable to comprehend all I’ve just learned. Things are happening so fast. Too fast. I want to turn and look at who is coming, but my face is a wreck.
“Is this seat taken?” a voice asks from behind me. The voice is a woman’s–strange, smooth, and with a slight lisp. I get a chill up my spine, and am both afraid and strangely comforted.
She comes around the table to within my view even before I can turn. She moves lightning quick, but is elegant and agile. I look into her face as she sits. Her hair is black, her small eyes darker but with a tint of red in them. Strangest eyes I’ve ever seen.
I’m trying to speak, to say “have a seat,” but words just won’t come.
“You look like you just got a bomb dropped on you,” she says sympathetically.
I nod taking my napkin to dry my face. I try not to think about the fact that Michael just kissed me and then left me here, and will leave me for good soon. It’s not so easy to put it to the back of my mind, though.
“I’m sure you are wondering who I am,” she says, smiling through the thinnest lips I’ve ever seen.
Again I nod, and again I look around, listen for a clock ticking at half time, or a vision of Anna over the next table over. Everything feels weird, but different weird than when Magic comes and changes things.
It’s her, I realize, the woman across the table. She’s what feels weird.
“I should introduce myself, then,” she says, smiling warmly. “Though we have already met.”
“We have?” I finally choke out.
“At Bea’s house in the woods.”
So she is part of this magical gang. I thought so. “I don’t remember meeting anyone.”
“Okay,” she laughs, sounding a bit nervous, “so brace yourself, because this is the part that is going to be a little hard to take.”
Again my gut plummets. How much insanity do they expect me to live with?
“My name is Python. I was on the porch when we met. Bea nearly ran me over with her rocking chair, and you were kind enough to ask her to watch out.”
It takes a moment to let it compute, which, thankfully, this woman gives me.
This woman Python, who is… the snake on Bea’s porch?
“You’re a shapeshifter,” I ask, though I’m not sure how the words come out of me. There seems to be no air in my lungs to make it happen.
“And you shapeshift into a snake,” I add for confirmation.
“Well, not exactly. More like… Well, close enough.”
“No, not close enough,” I say, surprising myself with my sharp, insistent tone. “Let’s get exact, here, okay?”
“Okay,” she says, upbeat, trying to sound friendly, not like a snake. “You know how Bea shapeshifts into an animal every so often?”
“Yes,” I say, wary.
“Well, I go the other way,” she says, laughing, again a bit nervously. “I’m a snake, and I shapeshift into a person… occasionally.”
Her words give new meaning to the idea that someone can blow your mind. Because my mind, right now, seems to be in little bits all around the room, stuck on every corner, unable to comprehend anything in any cohesive manor.
“Very similar,” she attempts to assure me, “but different.”
“Ya think?” I say, half bewildered, half sarcastic.
She laughs, and smiles that warm smile again, and looking into those tiny snake eyes, I begin to feel the parts of me start to reel in, slowly as she waits, until finally I feel I am back in my seat.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“We snakes are great at change. At shedding our skins and starting over. We know what it is to feel raw, sort of like you are feeling these days, huh?”
“A little,” I say, sarcastic again.
“Well, things are going to heat up a bit, go a little faster than you thought. Michael leaving, all that.”
“You know about that? So Bea does, too?”
“Oh yes, we all know,” she assures me, though I don’t get the sense she’s too comfortable with the idea.
“I find it hard to imagine things going faster,” I say. “It’s all pretty fast already.”
“Right, yes, it is,” she says. “But it will go faster. You’ll need my help. So I’m here.”
“And I have no choice about this, going fast I mean?”
“Uh, no, not really,” she says.
“And what will you help me with?” I ask, though I hear my voice trailing off, like I’m not really here in the room anymore. At least not all of me. It’s not just my mind that’s blown, either. It’s like this time, I’m floating off in a thousand bits and pieces, my whole body coming apart.
“Shapeshifting,” she says.
I hear her, but it is as if I’m off in the distance. Like instead of Magic coming and changing everything, I’m going to Magic this time.
“We probably shouldn’t teach you here,” Python says.
I look around, thinking I agree and I should take note of how many people are watching and listening to us, but there is no one to see.
In fact, there is nothing to see.
“Think of this as the in-between place,” Python says as she reveals herself to me from out of darkness, half woman, half snake.
I begin to look around in the darkness, see my hands, or feet, or anything…
“Don’t try to look at yourself here,” she says, her snaky lisp even stronger.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because,” she says, kindly but firmly, “there’s nothing to see.”
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If you ever have the chance to be nowhere, I highly suggest it. Seriously. It’s like nothing you have ever known. Like being up with the stars on the darkest night, when they are just popping, only you don’t see them, you feel them. And you can dance like you had no weight at all. You don’t think about how heavy you are when you’re somewhere, but really, in comparison, it’s crazy how much we lug around.
Time is strange, too, like it doesn’t matter. Not like you forgot your watch, but like you can’t imagine why anyone would even think of such a concept as time in the first place. Like weight, dealing with time just makes everything harder. But when there is no time, you don’t worry about anything. I mean, like anything. Because what can hurt you if you’re never going to meet up with it? Everything that can hurt you is pretty much in the past or the future, and if you don’t have a past or a future, you’re golden.
Yes, that’s it. You’re golden. Like those tiny flakes they put on the outside of things to gild them… that kind of gold. And it feels wonderful, because you can float and float and float, until time immemorial, I swear.
Python warned me it might be hard to come back. She said some people got depressed, because you see how good things are when you’re not in your body. And believe me, they are better. So much better. But she also said that once I got a handle on this first stage of shapeshifting—apparently you have to go through this “nothing” phase to shapeshift into being something else—it won’t be hard to come back into form anymore, because I’ll know this heaviness isn’t really permanent. It’s just hard when you are learning, because you miss the nothing place something terrible.
I look out my bedroom window at the summer rain pelting the flowers, and wonder about this world. Why is it heavy, anyway? Why are we here? What are we doing here, if we could be nothing, and so much happier. Truthfully, it’s downright depressing to think about those things, being where I have been.
I have to say, when Python said it would be hard to return, I didn’t know she meant this hard. I keep grabbing hold of Scottie for dear life, the both of us curled in my bed under the covers.
“This world is scary, you know?” I ask Scottie. Of course she only purrs.
But it is. Heavy and scary and dark. Even though it seems like there is more light here than in the “dark,” there isn’t. You wonder what in the world was God—or whomever made up this whole human life thing—thinking when time and space and weight were invented? I mean really, it’s a cruel trick. And once you are beyond it, once you take the nothingness, you don’t just miss it. You feel a homesickness so great you’d practically rather die.
Python said it was a danger to want to off yourself when you get back, but that it only means you have further to go. And if you did off yourself, you’d miss the best stuff, so being the curious type I am, I guess that means I’m stuck here for a while.
“Julie?” I hear Dad yell from the other side of my bedroom door.
“Yeah,” I yell back, though it’s hard to find my voice. Not because I lost it, or anything. It’s just… well… I don’t know how to explain it. Like you hardly know what to say to anything here, after being nowhere.
“Can I come in?” he says. His voice is all happy, only not the real happy kind. The fake happy kind. Great, we are in for a talk.
I hold Scottie closer and don’t say go away. Dad knows this is a yes, so he lets himself in. He’s in his golfing clothes, which isn’t a good sign. He only goes golfing on workdays when there is something wrong. Add to it that it is raining, and things must be really bad.
“Can I talk to you?” he says, coming over to sit next to me. He reaches for my hair and pulls it out of my eyes, like he always did when I was little.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he says, clearly frowning. “Not really. I was just wondering how you are.”
“I’m fine,” I say. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to tell him I’ve been out exploring nothingness and returning to somethingness is just too much to handle.
“Good. That’s good,” he replies, looking at his fingernails a little too closely.
“Come on, out with it Dad.”
“Yeah, you’re right. There is something. It’s Sally. And me. We are thinking of a trial separation…”
“No,” I say, feeling an immediate panic reach for me, like a real demon, I swear. I pull Scottie even closer.
“I thought you didn’t like her,” he says, looking truly surprised.
“I don’t,” I say. “And I’m not going to like the next wife you bring into our house either. Or rather, make me move into a new house for. But that’s not the point.”
“What’s the point?” he asks, like he’s the kid, and I’m the adult. Like I know what the point should be. Which is just so unfair, so cruel a thing to do to your own kid. But, it is what it is. And if he needs to hear it from me, then so be it.
“You can’t collect wives, Dad. You’re getting too old for that. You have to think of more than…. I don’t know, whatever it is you think of when you make life decisions that are totally unstable.”
Man am I missing weightlessness.
“It’s more complicated than that,” he argues, though there is no conviction in his voice.
“Not really,” I say, but I don’t know what else to say.
For some reason, don’t ask me why, I start talking in my head, or maybe I’m praying or something. But I’m asking Magic to help me. I mean, isn’t Magic here for me? Haven’t I been storing up the energy for something like this? Like when I don’t know what to do or say?
Just like that, I think of what to say. Or rather, I start saying it, and hear myself talking.
“Remember how you wouldn’t let me quit tennis lessons last year?” I ask, with a little more conviction in my voice than usual. “You made me practice every day, even though I said I hated it? You said I wouldn’t know if I really liked it or not if I didn’t get past the hard parts. Do you remember that?”
“This isn’t a sport, Julie.”
“Exactly. It’s way, way more serious. It’s marriage. Relationship. Commitment. And you quit all the time. Right when you get to the hard parts. So maybe you don’t even know Sally. Maybe you haven’t gotten past the flashy shiny new part of love, and past the hard parts, to find what enduring love really is. But that is why people get married, Dad. For love. Not for sport.”
Dad just looks at me, like he knows I’m right, but also like he’s tired. No, not tired, weary. Well, welcome to the club Dad.
“I’ll think about it,” he says.
“Good,” is all I say.
“How are you doing?” he asks, which pretty much floors me. I guess it shouldn’t. When he’s up, he assumes everyone is, and goes his merry way. But when he’s down, he worries about everyone.
“I want a party,” I spit out. Okay, it was my voice, but I didn’t say it. I swear it wasn’t me. So maybe Magic heard my plea.
“For your birthday?” he asks, looking confused, because that is a few months away.
“No, for Michael,” I say. Whew, yes, once again my own voice and thoughts. “He’s going to take off early, and his great-aunt Helene is coming back early, and it’s her birthday, so he was thinking it would be nice to do something nice for her, and I was thinking of combining the two. We could surprise her and bring her mother. I think she would really like it. It would have to be this Saturday, though, in the afternoon, before Michael leaves. And a surprise, he says, because she’s not one to like a fuss.”
Dad ponders for a moment, then nods. “Okay. Can you get the new cook to handle the food details? I’ll ask the grounds staff to get a tent. How many do you think?”
“Everyone you can think of,” I say. I mean, the more diffuse, the better, right?
“I can think of a lot of people through work, and some of our other business associations” he says.
“More the merrier,” I say. “Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred?’
“I could get a hundred here pretty easily,” he says.
“Great. I’ll tell the cook. Thanks Dad.”
He gets up to leave, then turns back. “You’ve never even met her, have you?”
“No, but I’m in it for Michael,” I say, lying, but sort of not. I mean, it would be so great if something could change, so he could stay, and not go off to study with some stranger. It’s a long shot, but I can’t deny I’m hoping for it.
“You like him?” Dad asks, a kind of lilt in his voice, and one eyebrow raised. I know what that means.
“Not like that, but yeah, I do. More than most guys my age. He’s a good guy.”
“But not ‘like that?’” he tries to confirm.
“No, more like a brother,” I say, which for some crazy reason makes me think of Jake, and how I don’t really like him like a brother… well, maybe I don’t…
“It’s going to happen someday, though, isn’t it?” Dad asks. “You’re going to find a guy you do like, just like that, and then leave home, and all this parenting stuff will be over.” He sounds sad at the thought, which is sweet.
“More likely college will be your rival,” I say.
“Even so, you’ll be gone. And who will keep me from making the big mistakes I tend to make?”
“We can only hope that by then you will have grown up enough to keep yourself from them,” I say, smirking.
“You’re one cool kid, you know that? Something very magical about you.”
I smile full on now, because there is now way he knows he just gave me the biggest compliment he could have. Even so, it feels good.
“I love you too, Dad,” I say as he leaves, shutting the door behind him.
I’d probably have jumped clean out of my skin seeing a snake hang from the hook on the back of my door, if I didn’t know it was Python.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. “And how did you get in?”
Python doesn’t say anything, being a snake, but now I have to hold Scottie close because if I don’t, I will surely have one dead snake on my hands. Python slithers down to the door handle, then drops to the floor, then moves toward the bed. Poor Scottie is totally freaking, hissing and spitting, and pulling to get at her.
When Python, the woman, stands next to my bed, Scottie is no more comfortable. I guess you know a snake when you meet one, whatever the shape. I stand and put Scottie out the sliding door to my covered patio. She doesn’t leave, just keeps looking through the window, so I decide to shut the shades. There’s something wrong about it, I know, but I want to talk to Python. I need to talk to her.
“How come you are not naked?” I ask. Blunt question, but I’m thinking it would be good to know. After all, I may learn to do this, and it seems a wise move to consider the basics of the trick so that you don’t end up streaking across a room without realizing it.
“I don’t know,” she says with just the faintest of a hiss at the end. “It just seems to work that way.”
Great, big help.
“How are you?” she asks, and I know what she means. She means after coming back to earth.
“It is hard, like you said,” I admit, suddenly remembering the nothingness full force, like a hit to my lungs, so it’s hard to breathe.
“You did good,” she says.
How so?” And how come it never feels that way, I think, but don’t ask out loud.
Python laughs, moving to lean on the edge of my desk, or more like curl up at the edge of it. Strange body shapes this woman can get into.
“You got there and you got back,” she says. “First try, that’s great.”
I wonder about the alternative, but don’t ask that either. “I don’t know if I could do it again, though,” I say. “I mean, if I tried.”
“It’s not quite like that,” she explains. “It’s not really trying. It’s more like feeling it and then going with it. You don’t decide ‘I want to shapeshift now’ or anything like that. Think of it like a storm that is coming. You feel it coming, and then you just put yourself in the way of the wind, instead of taking cover. The more you do it, the more you can feel the wind coming before it gets here. I can feel it coming on for half a day sometimes.”
“Sounds uncomfortable,” I say. I don’t say it sounds scary, even though it does, because I don’t really want to admit how chicken I am about all of this.
“A little. But also exciting, don’t you think?”
“I guess,” I say.
Scottie starts meowing from the other side of the sliding glass door, and on a day like today, I can understand. Still, I can’t let her in with Python here.
“Do you want this, Mayden?” Python asks. It’s not mean, or a threat or a challenge, it’s just a question. But it makes me nervous.
“I guess,” I say. “I mean, I know I’m supposed to give a whole hearted yes, and all that, but it’s a lot, you know? A lot to get used to. A lot to learn. And honestly, I don’t even know why anyone would want to learn it. I mean the shapeshifting. What good is it, other than that you can hang from a door? Which is pretty awesome, so don’t get me wrong there.”
Python laughs. “You’re right, doing it for the trick wouldn’t be enough. It’s not about that.”
I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t. “So, what is it about?”
“You don’t do it because it’s interesting, or even fascinating. It’s too hard a path for that. You do it because it’s who you are. Because not doing it is painful. Because leaving such a path behind you feels like you’d have missed the whole point of your life. If you feel that way, it’s the right thing to do. But if you don’t, you’ll be miserable. It’s hard to explain.”
“Anna has said things like that, in different ways, and she always asks if I’m up for it, or if I’m really in. And I always say yes, but I hardly feel like I know what I’m saying yes to. It’s like it comes from a part of me I don’t know yet, but I want to know. Does that make any sense?”
“You’ve just explained it perfectly, Mayden. That part of you that will understand is making the choice. It doesn’t make sense yet, but if you feel that, it will.”
“And it will be good, in the end, you think?” I have to know. “Not just strange and crazy-making?”
“Oh yes, for sure. It will be good. If you are meant for it, it will be wonderful.”
“Nothingness was amazing,” I admit.
“Just wait till it shifts past nothingness, to something again,” she says, then she laughs, a kind of hiss-laugh that would be really, really creepy, if it wasn’t totally amazing.
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Chapter Twenty Four
She takes it, giving me a look I don’t understand, and opens it easily. “Use your belly next time,” she says.
“To open a jar?” I ask, sarcastic, rolling my eyes, like I sometimes do with Dad or Sally. That’s pushing it, I realize, but it’s a pushing it kind of day.
“To do anything,” she replies, not fed up just yet. Maybe she even understands. “That’s where your energy is stored. Call on it, and send it to your hands. Easy.”
Easy. Easy. Everything for them is easy.
“That’s not what’s bothering you,” she says, eyeing me again.
“You’re right,” I say, slopping the artichoke hearts into the hot sauce pan. They sizzle and spit, like I want to. “It’s the hundred people coming. Like I know how to throw a party for a hundred people. The last party I had anything to do with was at a laser tag adventure zone for a dozen kids and all I had to do was show up and let them sing me happy frigging tenth birthday.”
I turn up the heat.
“That’ll burn,” she warns me, but not too strongly, like if I want it to burn, why should she care? Same thing with the party. If we fail, no big deal. And if good old Aunt Helene absolutely hates the living guts out of me for throwing it in the first place? Why should they worry?
I turn the knob down about half way from where it was. I’m getting reasonably good at cooking after a few weeks of lessons. Still, as Bea if often saying, when you are in the realm of magic, your mood risks everything you are preparing.
“Did you call about the tables?” she badgers.
“Yes,” I say with a humph. “And the tent, and the silverware, and the punch bowl, and the food delivery—10 AM Friday—and the invitations, and…”
“All I asked about were the tables,” she says, her voice finally sounding like she’s starting to get annoyed. Which is good, because I’m obviously up for a fight. And bad, because if we got into one, I would lose so fast it would make my head spin. I’m sure of that. Just like I’m sure Aunt Helene is going to have my head on a platter if I do any little thing wrong. Even if I don’t, most likely.
“Sorry,” I mumble. Just like I did this morning at breakfast, with Dad and Sally. I wasn’t any more sorry then than I am now. And anyway, Sally pushed me with all that hyped up happiness guru crap.
First, she made us listen to the guy, who even on a CD you could tell was hopping all over some stage somewhere, totally full of himself, a little stick microphone going from his ear to his mouth. He was saying you could have whatever you wanted, all you had to do was get a picture in your mind and then make yourself all emotional over it. So of course, when he was done, Sally had to ask me what I wanted, so she could gush/visualize with me.
I could have answered what I would have a month ago, even three weeks ago: A boyfriend. Wasn’t that all I really wanted back then? Better yet, I could have flat lined her with the updated truth: I want Anna out of that hell hole Dad calls a nursing home. I want Michael to stay and be my best friend and brother forever. I want to know why everyone is so morbidly afraid of Helene Bayless—even me who has never met her—and what in heaven’s name I’m going to do when everyone who has been hiding out for years gets together under one little party tent at my house. I could have said that I want to shapeshift into something wild, even if it takes me five thousand years to learn how. But most of all, I could have told her that I want to be a member of Bea and Anna’s clan more than I wanted to breathe another fifty years, and that my life would reach the pinnacle of success only if Magic wants me as much I want Magic.
Of course, I didn’t say any of that. Not to Sally and Dad. No way.
Instead, I offered a thoroughly sarcastic “Breakfast in peace?” Hence, the “sorry,” which was forced upon me by Dad in about two seconds flat. Suffice to say they were not amused.
“Apology accepted,” Bea says in a way that makes me think she is amused. Maybe she knows how unlikely an apology from a teen is, or maybe she just appreciates the humble pie it takes to offer one. Or, maybe she knows why I’m so uptight.
I could just ask outright: What’s the deal with Helene? Why are we inviting her here, if you’ve made sure to stay off her radar for so long? Will she like me, and what if she doesn’t? But I don’t want to ask Bea all that. I want to ask Anna. And later today, if all goes well and these party details are even moderately under control, I plan to.
I add a few pinches of a wide range of spices—“it is worthy to experiment in the kitchen,” Bea says—and then begin to set the table. It’s just us two for lunch, but Bea never misses a chance to have me practice creating a whole meal, from placemat to the proper containment of leftovers.
I’m glad for it. Even with the weight of a hundred people on my shoulders, I’m aware these lessons could end with the party. There’s still so much to learn.
“She isn’t going to hate you,” Bea says.
“Who?” I ask, though I know already. Bea talks about what you are thinking about more often than not. Even so, I want to hear her say it. I want to hear how the word “Helene” comes out of her mouth.
“You know who.”
“Helene?” I ask, forcing the name into the room.
“It’s best not to speak of her directly,” Bea says, alarmed. “She has feelers out there.”
Feelers? I want to ask, but am not sure I want to know.
“How can you be so sure she won’t hate me?”
“Why would she? She’s not one to waste that much energy on someone with no power.”
Well, doesn’t that make me feel just wonderful? I go to the fridge to get some extra goodies for the sauce, grab the 2 quart pan and get some instant hot water, then swoop into the back room to get the handmade pasta we made earlier, which is now drying on a small rack.
“Don’t go so fast,” she scolds me from the other room. “You can’t do magic if you’re not paying attention.”
“I’m just making us lunch,” I argue, yet return a bit slower.
“Don’t assume anything,” she says in that mysterious I-know-something-but-you-don’t way of hers. Again.
“So,” Bea continues, “you can be afraid of her, or work on your power.”
I add a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes to the saucepan and stir gently. “So she can be impressed, but hate me more? I don’t think so. Besides, how much more power can I get in a few days?”
“A lot,” I hear a voice say from behind me. It’s a guy. Not Michael though, and surely not Dad.
Yes, Jake…here. The reality lands like a thud in my gut, and at the same time sets my heart leaping, like seriously, about ten profuse blood surges in a row. I’d assume it was a heart attack, if I was Dad’s age or something. I turn slowly, so as not to appear too eager.
“Hi Jake,” I say, like we’ve been expecting him. Now that I think about it, that’s probably what Bea knew. How like her. I wonder what else she has up her sleeve?
“Hi Mayden,” he says in a low voice that grumbles the way a guys does right after his voice changes.
“Took your time getting here,” Bea says to him. “I called hours ago.”
“The nature police were out,” he says. “I had to make sure the house stayed hidden.”
“So you do hide the house!” I say, though once again I’m reminded how crazy anything like hiding a house sounds. Will I ever get used to all this?
They both look at me like I’m a little slow. Or a lot. Like of course they hide the house, how do you think we live there without getting kicked off government land? But then Jake smiles, and I smile, and I hardly remember what we were talking about.
“Watch your fire,” Bea says to me. I jump, realizing I’ve started to burn the tomatoes.
“So why did you call?” Jake asks Bea, coming to take a look at my near disaster of a pasta sauce. My face goes red for no good reason. Actually, it feels like it’s my whole body, like my knees might well be as bright as these tomatoes. I’m suddenly burning all over.
“Can I taste?” he asks me, touching my fingers as he takes the wooden spoon. Fire hot, that current that runs between us. I’d forgotten about it. Also how he smells. Like he brought a wood burning stove with him, all smoky and nice, mixing perfectly with lunch. Okay, I hadn’t forgotten. It still jolts me to feel it again.
Bea and I both wait for his response. “That’s really good,” he says, sounding surprised. “It took me a lot longer to get this good.”
I’m surprised to hear he likes it, even a little burned, but even more surprised to hear he can cook. I guess they’d teach him like they are teaching me, though I never really thought about it. I like imagining him at the stove, the way I have been these past few weeks, and what we could make together.
He looks at me, beaming. Maybe thinking the exact same thing.
“Well, I’ll take those smiles between you to mean you’ll do fine without me. Jake, I called you to tell Mayden here about the next steps in shapeshifting. I learned so long ago, I forget what you need to know. I’ll scuttle off and leave you two to your lunch.”
With that, she was gone. I don’t mean she left, she was like, gone. Again I had to look around, to see if I am really here, if Magic is playing tricks or something.
“It’s real,” Jake says, like he knows what I am thinking. I can feel it when Magic uses me. She’s not, this time.”
“You think Bea really forgot how to teach shapeshifting?” I ask, beyond skeptical.
“No way,” he says, laughing easily. “She the one teaching me. I think she just wanted us to spend some time together.” He shrugs and adds, “For some reason.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I move to finish setting the table and dish out our meal. If I had known I was cooking for Jake, I’d have been less of a jerk. How many times has Bea said what you feel when you cook makes the meal? So what he’s going to eat is frustration, sarcasm, and grump. Great way to make an impression. My hands fumble and I try to think of a way to touch his fingers again, but can’t. Maybe if we had rolls, to pass butter…
“Maybe,” I finally say, “she really does want you to give me your perspective. On learning to shapeshift, I mean.”
Again he shrugs. “What can I say. It’s hard. Sometimes it hurts. But it’s awesome. Python told me she’s gotten you to nowhere. Pretty good. Actually, really good. You have no idea how fast you’re learning this stuff. It took me years.”
I beam, beyond excited to hear it. Even the part about it hurting doesn’t sound so bad. Maybe I can avoid that, or at least have it go really quickly.
“What do you think I’ll shapeshift into? I mean, I know everyone is different. Do you think I’ll be a jaguar, like you?”
“You’re too nice,” he says.
Okay, so that sappy thing about “Be still my heart?” I get it now.
“I’m not always nice,” I say, remembering what Anna said about being good, and how Jake isn’t always good. If he’s not always good, he probably doesn’t want a girlfriend that’s always good.
“No, you are,” he says, but doesn’t say more.
We eat, mostly in silence. But not because there isn’t anything to say. Because we somehow, miraculously, don’t need to speak.
His eyes seem to wonder aloud: Have you seen me in your dreams?
Mine reply: Yes.
Do you love Michael?
As a brother.
Only a brother?
Do you remember me now?
Don’t forget what you know about me.
What is that?
I’m on your side—even when it gets bad.
Will it get bad?
Yes. Worse than you know. You’ll feel betrayed. Remember I knew that here, today. Remember that.
But you are with me? On my side?
He finishes then stands to leave, touching my hand, sending those thousand volts surging through me yet again.
I want to say something, but can’t. What would I say, anyway? We said it all.
I keep thinking about him. Jake. My boyfriend. Maybe.
I hadn’t remembered about the dreams he has been appearing in until he said something. Or, rather, did a mind-meld about it. And since then I’ve been remembering more and more: He’s been visiting in my dreams ever since I met him. I just wasn’t fully aware of it. But now I am. And the most amazing thing, the very most amazing thing in the entire world of all of this, is that he’s said he loves me at the end of every single dream. Like, a lot of times. And I said it back, too.
Can you really do that though, go from nothing to love as fast as I’m gunning the car to get to Anna? I want to ask her that. I need to ask her that. But I think I know what she will say already. She’ll say I didn’t ever NOT love Jake. At least, I hope that is what she will say.
I also hope she’ll explain why, and how, it is going to get hard, like he said. Why I’ll have to remember that Jake is on my side when it is so clear, right now, that he is. I have a feeling I know about that, too. One word: Helene. But maybe not. You never know. I could be wrong. Only lately, that’s not happening so much.
Ducking out on the party planning to come meet Anna was no easy feat. There are a gazillion things to do. I didn’t make it out yesterday like I hoped, but today I just had to make it happen. Now, if I don’t make the lunch timing—and if I don’t hurry, I won’t—I won’t be able to get her out for an extended walk. Unless she shapeshifts time again… but who can know how hard that is, and if it can always be done at will? I’d rather be safe than sorry. It’s the last time I’ll see her until I bring her to the house.
The thought of bring her makes me crazy excited. Not for me, but for her. She’s going to get out of this place, if only for an afternoon. It could be the highlight of her last two years. Unless, of course, it all blows up. The idea of that hits me with a thud and a pounding heart. Please, please, please let that be a simple fear, and not my “knowing” acting up.
Racing in to the door, I see someone else ahead, and make my way through without the buzzer police having to know. Somehow, I think this is good. Oddly good. But why? I take the back stairs, check the hallway before entering, and then make my way to Anna’s closed door without anyone seeing.
Why closed? Again that thudding feeling.
I step inside the and close the door behind me. I know I’m not supposed to, but it was already closed, and to leave it open would likely be a bigger error. I know better than to rush on in to where I can see Anna, so I walk slowly, my heart thumping from the run and hide, yes, but also that knowing, that something else. It’s for sure now that it will be something I don’t like.
I peek around the hallway wall to see Anna in the last place I want to see her. Flat in bed. Her eyes are half open and glazed over. She looks totally knocked out, but not asleep. UGH, I hate being right.
“Anna,” I whisper, after checking the bathroom. All clear.
No answer. This can’t be happening. Not two days before the party. No, no, no and why, why, why?
“Anna, I have to talk to you. Can you come around?”
I hear the heavy room door open behind me. Dr. Garcia, I know before turning.
“She fell last night,” Dr. Garcia says, taking Anna’s pulse and sounding like it’s bad. But I’ve been around this place enough years of my life to know if Anna broke something in her fall, she’d be in the hospital right now. I’ve also been around Anna long enough to know she probably didn’t try to get up out of her bed or chair. So if she fell, it is most likely because someone dropped her getting her in and out. It happens more often than people think, but no one on staff is going to admit it.
Immediately, anger rises from my gut to my throat. Don’t they know who she is…WHAT she is? Aren’t they taking good care of her? Do they think they can just treat her like another body here that is waiting to die? I’m too furious to speak.
Dr. Garcia must see my rage, because she puts a hand on my shoulder, which really irks me. “It happens at this age,” she says, like I don’t know that. Like I don’t know anything.
I find my voice, suddenly desperate to speak what I must. “I have a surprise party for her daughter in two days. We have permission to take her out for the afternoon.”
“Not anymore you don’t,” she says firmly, like a doctor. Not like the woman I saw nursing here all those years, who said she went on to be a M.D. to bring more caring to this place. Sell out.
“I’m sorry,” she continues, clearly watching my stricken face, “but we will just have to see. She’s weak, and I don’t think it is only from the fall.” She hesitates, then adds: “You know we have both seen this before, being around here so many years.”
I look at Anna, then up at Dr. Garcia, like I just can’t comprehend what she is saying. Because I can’t. And I won’t. Sure, I’ve been around here. But this is Anna. My Anna!
“Why don’t you sit with her a while?” she says. “It might do her some good. And you, too.”
She pats me again and it’s all I can do to rip her arm off me and out of it’s socket. Instead, I just clench my jaw until she leaves. I don’t want her sympathy, anyway. I want her help. But what can she do? What can anyone do?
With that thought, like a strike of lightning, I remember who Anna is. Who Bea is. And most of all, who I am. A bold pride rises up in me, something strange and new, yet totally needed right now. I’m here at this exact moment for a reason.
Anna gave me her power, right? That red hot burning in my hands. And didn’t Bea teach me, and remind me just yesterday, to do anything that needs strength from the belly, because that is where my power is stored?
A feeling grows inside me, something like excitement, only more physical. Like my whole body is filled with energy, raring to go. Maybe I don’t have enough of what Anna needs. Maybe I’m fighting Helene herself, a woman willing to strike down her own mother to insure her grandson’s legacy. But who would I be if I didn’t at least try?
The decision to try is a done deal. But how, exactly? Give her back her heated power? Hold her hands and run it through her? They never taught me how to do something like this.
I have to be careful. I mean, if I could break a bowl with my anger, what will happen to Anna if I send all this through me?
“Magic,” I whisper. “Help me.”
Chills run through my body, but no ideas. No magical knowing. No visions. No words. I do not spontaneously leave for the nothingness, where I might find some great power to return with.
I get the sense I will have to get rid of the anger first. I remember Bea’s lessons about that, and take several deep breaths, connecting myself to the dirt below the flooring, and the center of the earth below that. I get an imagine of hot flowing lava at the core of the earth, and allow my anger to flow into that, melting on contact, flowing away, deep, deep below me. I see the energy that was anger as pure, clean power, and, as I’ve been instructed, bring it back into me.
Still, no words of wisdom come. No images. No voices speaking. Python does not slither across the room unexpectedly. No help at all.
My stomach grumbles.
Ridiculous, to be hungry now. How deeply unimportant is that? It rumbles again, this time louder. Despite myself, I think of tomato soul and Challah bread with Dijon mustard and cream cheese. Could I hate myself more for being so distractible at such a critical time?
Wait–that’s it. I get it! The power is in the food.
Now I know what to do. Ever so gently, I put my hands on Anna’s belly and think of anything and everything I have ever put on a plate. I call up the healing powers I’ve used in each and every ingredient over the last few weeks.
Flatbread with extra virgin olive oil and thyme and lemon. As I’ve been instructed, I use all my senses. I smell. I see. I taste. All in my “imagination” so that it can be conjured up in the spaces between the atoms.
Farm fresh bell peppers on corn tortillas with drunken goat cheese. Three cheese risotto with a dash of chipotle salt.
The images are so fresh, so alive in my memory, I’d swear I could smell the dishes in this very room. I feel them moving through me, and I know they are strengthening Anna.
Apple hummus dip with warm pita chips. Dripping dolthmas. Fresh honeycomb and fig marmalade on piping hot biscuits. Spring rolls with habanero sweet sauce. Hand cut fried potatoes with rosemary and roasted garlic. Grilled eggplant in spicy marinara. Au gratin potatoes made with sharp white cheddar—no, Piedmont—cheese and barely dusted with tea smoked sea salt. Tofu in tamari. Mushroom ravioli in cream sauce.
As each dish passes before my eyes and through my nose, the feelings grow stronger between my hands and Anna’s belly. She doesn’t come around, but she does seem to relax, and her breathing feels still and peaceful.
Amazingly, I’m actually starting to feel full. Physically full, before one ounce of real food is served. I return to my “cooking” as the dishes seem to flow from one to the next…
Milk and fresh-from-the oven oatmeal raisin cookies…Angel food cake with berries…Pineapple sorbet… Dark chocolate banana bread pudding with while caramel and pecans….
Dish after dish runs through my mind, delighting my nose, filling my belly, sending power through my hands. I watch as Anna’s eyes gently fall closed. Her breath deepens even more, into what appears to be a great sleep.
As surely as I knew what to do, I know to stop. We have done what we could. The magic of the good, wholesome, delicious foods will do their work now. I pull my hands back, and see her belly shake just a bit, as if she will miss me.
“Return to your preparations,” I hear a voice say, so loud and clear I look around to make sure we are still alone. We are. “That act of faith is critical,” it adds.
Again I have to look around, so clearly did I hear it. Yet the “voice” had no specific qualities that would help me identify whose it was. Anna’s? Magic’s? Bea’s? There is no way to know. The only thing I know for sure is that it is right. Bea has repeatedly taught me that to act as if something is so is the greatest insurance policy for it being so. Not a guarantee, she was quick to add, because we do not control Magic, let alone the life force of the entire world and everyone in it. But if we don’t have enough faith to proceed as if our wishes will be heard, why on earth should they be?
I smile, thinking Bea has taught me a lot. I lean down to kiss Anna’s forehead, and whisper to her: “Get well. We need you. And I love you.” In a way, I’m glad her eyes have closed, so she doesn’t see the tears in mine. It’s embarrassing to be such a crybaby, especially at my age.
I move out the door secretly, so as not to draw any more attention to Anna’s room. Dr. Garcia knows I was there, but no one else does. From what I’ve learned about Magic, the fewer people who know you have done magic, the more powerful it can be. More important in this case, the more easily the energy can remain hidden from someone like Helene.
Which right about now is undoubtedly a really, really, really good thing.
I’ve just done the math and I think I will surely vomit from nerves.
A hundred folding chairs waiting are for me outside on the lawn, each with a fabric cover here inside the laundry room with little Cinderella me. They are sealed in a heavy tough plastic that needs to be 1) carefully cut open—no ripping and tearing these buggers, 2) STEAMED for wrinkles—per detailed package instructions, 3) pulled tight over the seat frames, and 4) tied into a bow on the back. I’m thinking a bad job will take five minutes, a good job ten…each. One hundred times the minimum five minutes and I have five hundred minutes of work in chairs alone. I don’t want to think about how many hours that is, because when you add to that the other gazillion items yet to be done, each of which has it’s own five to fifteen to fifty minutes associated with it, it becomes crystal clear that I will not accomplish my tasks in the exactly three hours and seventeen minutes I have before people start arriving.
Had someone told me I needed to add labor to the delivery fee, we would be fine. But did anyone tell me? Did anyone say, when you order the fancy white linen covered folding chairs, keep in mind you will have to assemble them? Did anyone say anything at all about wrinkles? No. They did not. I guess they forgot.
“You look stressed,” Michael says, a huge canvas bag hanging over his shoulder, weighing him down. I can’t think about the fact that he’s leaving as soon as the party is over. I just can’t.
“Shut up and help me,” I say, then add a truly desperate and somewhat apologetic, “please.”
“Sure,” he says, heaving the bag off to one side of the laundry room and pulling out a pocket knife for the plastic packaging. I immediately weight the options of him accidentally cutting into a chair cover versus not getting the job done, and opt to trust him.
I figure out how to rev up the steamer, not knowing we even had one until this very hour.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, though his face doesn’t look right when he says it. It’s obvious, even out of the corner of my eye, that he is upset, so I stop for a moment to look at him dead on.
“What are you worried about?” I ask. Maybe he’s having second thoughts! My heart pounds at the idea. If he didn’t leave, things would be right. Or at least a thousand times better, and easier.
“Nothing,” he says, in that way people do when they are trying really hard to cover something up. My heart drops, realizing he’s not having second thoughts. At least not about leaving.
If I had time, I’d stop and beat the problem out of him. But I don’t.
“I have to leave early,” he says. “My ride is at 2. I’ll have just enough time to say hello to Aunt Helene and then…”
“What? No! You can’t leave an hour into the party. This is your party, for her. What am I going to do with her for three more hours? I don’t even know what Bea or Jake have planned… No, you can’t leave me alone with her. You can’t. I simply will not forgive you if you do. Ever.”
“That’s the least of what I’m hoping you’ll forgive us for,” he says, almost under his breath.
You can tell he wants to tell me whatever it is that’s getting to him. But if it’s not about his deciding to stay, I’m not up for it. Not with everything else. “Michael do not, under any circumstances, add to the hell I’m in right now. If something bad is going to happen, then let it happen when it does. I will totally, completely, utterly fall apart if I have anything else on my shoulders before this party starts. Do you understand?”
He nods. “Just one thing. Just remember this, okay.”
“What?” I snap, remembering Jake said something like this as well.
“I didn’t know,” he says, mysteriously saying everything and nothing at once. “Everyone else, they knew about today. But I didn’t. I only found out last night. I’ve been trying to decide what to do about it, but there isn’t any way for me…”
“Too much information!” I shout. “I got it. You didn’t know. I’ll remember that. Now, do me a favor and go call Dr. Garcia to find out if Anna has permission to be released for the afternoon. The number is by the phone in the kitchen, and she said she’d tell me this morning. If so, I need to…”
“She’s coming,” he says.
“How do you know?” I ask, immediately suspicious.
“I was around when Bea arranged for a special driver to pick her up,” he says.
“She’s alright, then?” I ask, wondering if my healing might have helped after all. The queasy feeling in my gut must be dedicated to her, at least in part, because hearing the news eases it a bit. That, plus the relief of knowing both the call and picking Anna up can be taken off my “to do” list. Thought he idea of a special driver seems out of the blue.
“More than alright,” he says with a mild sneer, again like he knows something.
“That is great news. I’m glad she’ll get out of there, if only for an afternoon. You must be too. This is what we wanted, right?”
He doesn’t answer. I’ll choose to ignore that, for now, as well. Later, I have a feeling I’ll try to remember every single clue I’m avoiding now. I glance at the clock, calculating the time gone by and the added time given I don’t have to drive. Still impossible.
“You don’t have to steam those,” Sally says as she rounds the corner of the laundry room, started at the mess of plastic and linen, then looking at me like I’m crazy to be playing Cinderella at this late hour.
“You want to?” I ask her as I hand over a stubborn plastic bag.
“First, there’s a little zip tab here to open the package,” she says, showing me something I really ought to have seen, which makes the opening job a thousand times easier. “And then we just throw them in the dryer with a clean wet towel for about five minutes a load. The rest of the wrinkles will work themselves out through gravity on the chair. With our super sized tumblers, it can be done in four loads, max. And yes, I’ll be glad to help you. Leave the chairs to me. You have other things to be doing, don’t you?”
Never, ever in my life did I want to kiss the feet of someone more. And Sally, of all people. I swear there are practically tears of gratitude in my eyes. I just nod, hand her the bags, the mess, everything. “Thank you.”
Michael follows me into the kitchen. I still don’t want to hear what he has to say. Even more, say what I must. Good-bye. I can’t say it in the middle of the party. I’ll get too upset in front of too many people. It’s better if he just goes when his ride comes. So if I’m going to say it, it’s now or never.
He seems to know it, too, because he’s looking around the room, like he doesn’t know what to do.
“You’ll be back,” I say, more of a statement than a question, but really it is a question.
“The day I turn eighteen,” he assures, “if they’ll have me. They might not. It depends, they said.”
“They said? Who? When?” This, I want to know. If it involves Michael coming back, I have to know.
“Last night. I saw Bea, Python…Jake too. He’s pretty happy about your choosing him. Pretty nervous, too, for today.”
I feel bad for choosing Jake, but only because of what it has done to Michael. I don’t want to talk about that either. “Your Aunt Helene scares everyone too much. I don’t know why you let her run you all around like this. I’ve never gotten why.”
“After today, you will understand a lot more,” he says flatly.
Again the pit of my stomach turns…“And what about you? Aren’t you afraid of her? Of what she will do if she finds out you are going to learn magic, even if it is from someone else?”
Michael just stares at me, looking really, really sad. “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about you. She’s going to see you today, Mayden. All I can say is, try to be ready for anything.”
“That’s the only thing I can be ready for,” I say. “I have no idea what is playing out. It’s meant to be that way, though, I have a feeling.”
Michael laughs, showing those beautiful, bountiful white teeth. “You are good, Mayden. Better than you know. You’ll do fine. Really. I know you will. You have to. For the family.”
With that, he pulls me near, starts to kiss me and then, as if remembering our last kiss, hugs me instead. “I’ll miss you,” he says.
I nod, unable to say anything, especially goodbye. Just come back, Michael. Just come back. He lets go and returns to the laundry room.
I take a deep breath and will myself to turn to my list of things to do, trying to think of anything but him leaving. Puff pastries, I suppose, are next. Puff pastries and falling apart, not because the party might flop, or Helene might hate me, but because the family—MY family—is being torn apart. And I don’t know what to do.
Bea bustles in as if on cue, quickly tying her apron and looking almost half her age. I rather doubt she’s interested in impressing anyone, especially the guest of honor, but you never know. Maybe there is some witchy showmanship in store for us.
“Alright then, where are we?” she asks.
Together we run down the long list of things yet to do, divvy them up, and assign some general guidelines as to when things should be starting to be served when. All business, but there’s something going on, under the surface. Something big, like Bigfoot at the edge of the woods, or the Lockness monster waiting to rear it’s ugly head from the waters.
“I suppose it is time we talk about our guest of honor,” she says, eyeing me warily, waiting for my response.
Why now? After all this time of not talking about her? Why can’t you even say her name?
“Okay,” I say.
“Well then,’ Bea says, sounding more like a businesswoman than a shapeshifting hag, “she will arrive a bit after the other guests. We’ll have a special seating for her, I thought on that small hill just behind the pool. There is some nice shade there and people can approach her, but won’t stay too long.”
What is she, the queen? I guess so. With her money and position, they probably will treat her like they treat Dad when he’s the top dog someplace. Like they are dying to be found important in her eyes, and wanting something she can give, but probably won’t. I doubt anyone on the list is a real friend she’ll be glad to see. Just a hunch, but she doesn’t seem the friend type.
“She’ll have Jack and Sam with her,” Bea says, “as well as Dorothy and Craig.”
“And they are…?” I ask, stunned that this is the first I’ve heard of any of these names. They are not even on the guest list.
“Jack and Sam are her greyhounds. Large and trained to be fierce, but only if commanded so. She doesn’t go anywhere without them. Dorothy and Craig are a different sort of hound. She calls them assistants. They protect her, all of them. She wouldn’t be willing to be exposed here without them.”
I don’t know why, but I’m thinking this is something they might have been kind enough to tell me about before right now—if only so that I could have arranged for doggie water bowls or something. And what about the fact that Scottie would have been roaming around? I guess she’ll stay tight in my room. I half wonder if the hounds are shapeshifters, too. But really, I don’t want to know. There is so, so much I don’t want to know just yet.
“You should stay back until everyone has been up the hill to see her,” Bea continues, cautious with her words. “Then, it will be your turn to approach her. You’ll do so alone.”
The image makes my heart stop. I swear, a full two or three beats worth of nothing but dreaded air. “You make her sound like royalty or something,” I finally say, hiding pure and utter terror behind a thin, thin veil of sarcasm.
“You’ll see,” is all Bea says in return.
“So at what point,” I dare ask, “do you think she’ll figure out you’re here? And Anna, and Jake, and Michael? All together?”
Bea gives me another look, up and down, like the day we first met. Assessing me, trying to see who I am and what I can take.
“She already knows,” Bea says.
“What? How do you know that?” I ask, or rather demand.
All along, I’ve been expecting some explosive moment, the moment when she realizes everyone who has been hiding from her is in one place. The utter climax of her surprise party… and she already knows?
Bea hesitates, looking like she’s about to deliver fateful news; news that could change everything. I sense I’m about to learn that thing—that one pivotal thing—I keep trying to avoid hearing.
She hesitates again, then looks out the window as she speaks. “Helene planned the party, Mayden.”
And…? “I don’t get it,” I respond when Bea goes no further.
This? This is the great lie everyone is worried about? Okay. Big deal. She wanted a party and got us to throw one. So what?
“No, you wouldn’t yet,” she agrees. “It takes time for things like this to sink in. But you will. Forgive us—forgive us all our sweet and beautiful Mayden—when at last you do.”
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“I think we’re ready,” I say to Michael and Jake, who are at the door, ready to welcome guests. In one way, it’s sort of weird having them here together. But in another way, it feels perfectly normal. Like of course there are two awesome, gorgeous, totally amazing guys I didn’t even know a month ago at my front door. MY front door, welcoming guests to MY party.
“You’re not ready,” Michael says flat out.
“Actually, I think I am,” I say, then notice him looking at my dirty apron and flour-flecked jeans. “Oh, right. I guess I should think about getting dressed.”
And about what to wear. What does a sixteen year old hostess wear to such a party? I mean, I should know, given that I’m throwing it. But I don’t. All out Goth? Mildly Goth? No Goth? Jeans, slacks, dress? It’s been the last thing that’s been on my mind, and now I’m stuck without a clue.
I look to Michael for clues. He’s wearing a white European shirt, kind of flowing but not girlie, and some really hot jeans. And those expensive loafers. Perfect against his dark curls. A girl could get swooped up pretty quick with a guy like him. I guess I almost did.
Looking at Jake is another matter entirely. You can’t help but see his stunning body beneath anything he wears. He’s an animal under there, shapeshifted or not. And that stunningly handsome face. I mean, who is going to care what he is wearing? Even so, I need to take notice to figure out what I’m going to wear. So, easy button down cotton shirt—navy polo style, but without any label. Kaki pants, belted against a perfectly perfect waistline. Loafers, too, only less trendy than Michaels.
I guess they are dressed how guys should dress for an afternoon birthday part of a nearly old lady. Sadly, it doesn’t really give me any ideas about what I might find in my own closet.
“Ma’am,” the voice says from behind me. At first, I don’t realize she means me. The guys have to help me with that, too.
I turn to find a woman in serving attire—black pants, white shirt, bow tie. The black pants give me an idea. I have some nice ones I wore to a funeral once.
“Are you Miss Mayden?” she asks politely.
“Yes, Julie Mayden,” I say.
“The wait staff has arrived. We are wondering if you would like to advise us of your rotation schedule before we begin serving?”
“Rotation?” I ask. Another thing I’m supposed to know, but don’t.
“For the food?” she says, then waits. When I don’t reply, she adds: “In what order would you like the menu items to be served? Do you wish to have a heavy serving in the second and third hour, or serve evenly throughout all four hours.”
“We have four hours of this?” I say, mostly to myself, like I didn’t know that. I did, I just hadn’t been thinking about it. Thankfully.
Jake leans over to me, puts a hand on my back, and while smiling says ever so softly: “Get a grip.”
Yes. Yes. Get a grip Julie Mayden.
“I’m wondering, Ms. Campbell,” I query, seeing her name on her badge, “how many years is it that you’ve been serving at parties like these?”
She stands stiff, as if challenged. That wasn’t my intent, but I’m seeing the kind of power I have here. I remember my last step-mother was excellent at this stuff. I can take her lead, and fake it.
“Thirty years,” she replies coolly.
“Good. Then you’ve served thousands of people over four hours,” I say.
“Yes,” she replies.
“So it seems to me you know thousands more about this than I do. I’m only sixteen years old and this is my first party… ever. I have no idea what should be served when, so if you wouldn’t mind deciding for me…”
Ms. Campbell relaxes her stance and smiles. “Of course. Leave it to me.”
She leaves, as does yet another weight that had been resting on my shoulder. I turn to my two friends, smiling in relief. “And that,” I say as if I’m all proper and posh, “is how we delegate responsibility, my dear men.”
We all laugh, which feels really, really good. I wasn’t sure I was going to laugh at all today. Even once.
“I’m off to get dressed. I guess you will stay here at the door. Together?”
Michael and Jake nod. I turn to go, get part way up the grand staircase, and turn back to see them in the marble foyer, looking like young gods… in MY house. They are talking, but stop as they notice me looking at them. They stare at me as I stare at them.
A feeling comes over me, like this is right. It’s right for the three of us to be here, together. And then I see something, sort of like double vision, and the guys are in a military uniform, both of them, and I’m in an old-fashioned dress, the kind they wore a hundred years ago. Or two hundred years. I can almost feel it rubbing against my skin.
I know something is shifted, but it’s not how it feels when Magic does the shifting, taking over completely. This seems different. Like I’m seeing how we were, before. Who we were, before. Not us… but yes, us.
The feeling spreads from my belly, down to my toes, and also through my chest and arms, and out my fingertips. This…they… we… are right for each other. We have been here before, and whatever comes, I know that I know that I know we will be here again. And because of this, the world… in fact, all levels of reality and beyond, have always been and will always be alright. Whatever happens.
No one can destroy this. Even when we forget.
I look into Michael’s eyes, and I can see he sees it, too. I move my gaze to Jake, whose eyes are beaming his own understanding. Like when we were at the table. Or in a dream together. We don’t have to say anything. Whatever we three are here, and whatever choices we make in this one small, insignificant lifetime, we are souls bound to each other outside of time.
I smile, and they smile, and then the second level of history fades. The only thing that is different, once this present reality comes back into focus, is that I’m not afraid anymore. There is no way Helene can destroy what I have felt. Just let her try.
The doorbell rings—our first guests. I turn to head back up the stairs and leap them two at a time so that no one sees me like this. It wouldn’t do for the hostess of the party to be anything less than gracious and lovely.
I enter the room, give Scottie a gleeful kiss, and throw open the wardrobe. I see what I’ll wear right in front of me. Those black pants, a short sleeved royal blue summer sweater, and pearls. Just right.
Closing the door, I’m startled by Python-the-snake behind me. She promptly shapeshifts into her human form.
“Nice choice,” she says, a hiss on the end of each word as she nods toward the clothes on my arm.
“Thanks,” I say, deciding I’ll have to get dressed right in front of her. I don’t have time for her if I don’t multi-task, and if she doesn’t like it, too bad. She is the one who keeps showing up unannounced.
“Are you nervous?” she asks, another lingering hiss at the end of her last word. She slithers to sit on my bed, not watching me too closely.
“I guess I should be,” I say, more nonchalant that I could have imagined at any other moment today. “Everyone keeps warning me of things. You, Jake, Michael. Even Bea. Must be there’s something cooking besides the puff pastries.”
“But you’re not worried?” she probes, looking at me carefully, as if signs of fear might be found under the surface. What can I say? That moment with Jake and Michael, and I just know everything will work out. I just know it.
“What is there to worry about? The big bad Helene is coming to town. If no one else is bent out of shape about it—and curiously, they are not—why should I be? So she hates me? What harm would that do? Sounds like she hates everyone, and everyone pretty much hates her. What can she do to me?”
Python sighs heavily. “Those are bigger questions than you think.”
“So tell me why,” I implore. “I mean it, tell me why. Because I don’t see it. I mean, I know my whole life is on the line here. With Jake saying he loves me, and Michael leaving. And I know Anna is old and so is Bea, and they might die before I learn enough to carry things on. And things get crazy with Magic changing things all over the place, and you shapeshifting, and that “nothing” place being so hard to come back from. But really, what can you throw at me after all that? I’m still standing, right? Still standing, and I’ve even managed to throw a hundred person party—having no idea how, mind you—for a person I’ve never met and no one likes. The way I see it, it’s working. It’s all working. So why do I care if the questions are bigger than I know? What if there are a few lies thrown in? What if Helene herself arranged for the party? So what? How can stand up to what we are to each other? You can’t tell me this isn’t my family. I’ve been waiting to feel this way my whole life. Knowing it is possible, I can handle whatever I have to. You all didn’t bring this me this far to drop me, did you?”
Python smiles a thin lipped, cold snake smile, but I know it is genuine. “You’re pretty smart. You’ve got a lot figured right, I’ll give you that. And you have surely shown courage and fortitude.”
“Thank you,” I say, putting a brush through the parts of my hair that can take it. The rat’s nest will have to stay as it is. Hopefully, the pearls will offset it.
“But you’ve never been taken to your knees,” Python continues. “And you’ve never faced the kind of energy you will face today, and have your family stand there, not lifting a finger to help you.”
“I don’t believe that would happen. Maybe Bea, maybe even Michael or you would stand back. Maybe, maybe even Jake. But not Anna. She’ll be here, and I can feel her care, no matter how out of it she is.”
“She is here,” Python says. “Only not as you think.”
“Would you stop talking in riddles? You all talk in hints and warnings and I’m sick of it. If you want to say something, just say it. How is Anna here in a way that is that is ‘not as I think?’”
Python moves to my sliding door and pulls back the curtain for me to see onto the back lawn. “Take a look for yourself.”
Suddenly, I’m scared. Suddenly, once again, I don’t want to know. She could be, I don’t know, I just don’t know. I don’t look. In fact, I look away. Coward.
“So you are afraid,” Python says, closing the curtain.
“I don’t know why,” I say, truly confused.
“Because you love Anna. You love us all. You’ve got something to lose, for real. And today, you might. You really might lose us all.”
How can she say that? All of them? That much must be impossible.
“I can’t imagine that,” I say, feeling dread like nothing I’ve ever felt. Like someone is taking a big truck and running over me, then backing up, and doing it again and again.
“I know you can’t,” she says. “The reason we are talking in riddles, as you say, is because none of us can say anything directly. We have been forbidden. But each one of us really wants you to pass this great challenge. We not only need you to, we want you, in specific you, to be who we need you to be. We’ve come to love you, Mayden, each in our own way.”
My head begins to pound, and I realize I’m probably exhausted. Add to that the way they run me around and around, never getting anywhere. Anyone would be beaten down by now.
“Why are you here, Python?” I ask wearily. “I don’t need help getting dressed.”
“I’m to walk you out, when it’s time.”
“I can walk out myself,” I say.
“They’d rather not.”
“What? Who? Why?” I nearly scream.
“Helene and her people.”
“And dogs, I hear.”
“Yes,” she says.
I take a deep breath. “Okay, whatever. We can go. Better than thinking about it in here.”
I half expect Python to say no, it’s not time. But she doesn’t. We go to my back door and I call out “Dead woman walking!” before opening it, just for comic relief. It echoes off the walls. Python doesn’t laugh.
Together, we step outside into the light. In the distance, I see the woman on the hill, perched in a chair, two enormous dogs at her sides. She’s too far off to see clearly, but already, I can feel it. She is some kind of queen, at least to the groveling people gathered.
But that’s not what stops me in my tracks. That’s not even important.
It’s Anna, as I never imagined. Standing, walking, without even a cane. She’s carrying a glass of wine, toasting the woman on the hill along with the others.
As if she knows I’ve seen her, she turns to me, and smiles. Standing tall. Alert. Strong. Fully, wholly, well. Chills overtake me. Joy overtakes me.
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“Anna!” I say, nearly running into her, out of breath.
“Mayden!” she replies, seemingly as delighted to see me as I am to see her. We hug right there in front of everyone, careful not to spill her glass.
“I can’t believe you’re here, like this,” I say. I want to ask…Was it the healing I did? Is the Magic I carry that powerful? But I don’t dare. I don’t know the people she’s talking to. She might not want them to know where she’s just been for the past year and a half.
“Margaret, Joanna, meet our dear Mayden,” she says, offering an elegant arm toward each in turn. I shake their hands and get a jolt of energy, like the one with Bea and Anna and Jake and Michael. Not as strong, but a definite current.
“We have heard so much about you,” Margaret says, her smile big and beaming, her eyes sparkling.
“Really?” I say before I can think about it.
“Oh yes,” Joanna answers, “you’re the talk of the town.”
I look at Anna, confused. Maybe they are closer friends than I thought.
Anna smiles a knowing smile, but says nothing. She takes another sip of wine, obviously delighting in it. Maybe it’s not wine. Maybe it’s just juice in a wine glass. But I don’t think so.
“Will you speak to us all today?” Margaret asks.
“Oh no, not today,” Anna says. “She’s yet to have a full shift.”
“Oh,” both women say, as if disappointed but understanding.
They know? I silently ask Anna, my intent eyes boring directly into hers.
To this, she only smiles again and takes another sip. It’s not right. She’s not right.
Yes, something is definitely wrong here. I look toward the hill where Helene is perched, but she is hidden by a small crowd. Michael is there, I see. For some strange reason, he is down on one knee. I feel a pang again, a strong one, as I remember his leaving. But it is more than that, too. There is worry from him. What will Helene say? What will she know, just by seeing him? Will his work with Magic be found out? What will she do? And what if she finds out he’s leaving the family for another kind of magic, studying with some unknown shaman? A male shaman, at that.
Anna slips her arm around my waist and leads me toward another couple.
“Mayden, meet Mr. and Mrs. Josephine Clark.”
Again the handshakes, and the jolts. Josephine? His name is Josephine?
A knowing kind of feeling hits me out of the blue: This is a matriarchy… they follow the women’s names. Could it be, is there any way… everyone here is…
“Now you’re catching on,” Anna whispers to me.
And then the rest of it hits me: We are in a space of Magic. This isn’t real life. Not my real life, anyway. I must have stepped into it when I left the house. That’s why Anna’s standing and drinking. She’s not really here. She’s still back in bed, at the home. My heart drops so hard in my chest I can feel it. It was too much to hope for.
“And now,” Anna whispers again, “you’re off track.”
“This can’t be real,” I say half under my breath.
“I assure you, we assure you, this is real,” Mrs. Josephine Clark says, giggling. “We’ve come to you Julie Mayden!”
I look to her, then to Anna, then to Mr. Josephine Clark. They all look at me expectantly, like someone just told a joke and they are waiting for me to laugh.
“I don’t get it,” I say at full volume, no longer trying to keep cover. Doesn’t seem there is a need to.
“Julie!” Sally says from behind me.
I turn to her, hoping no one blows my cover. That’s the last thing I need.
“Where’s Dad?” I say, trying to sound casual.
“He had to leave,” she says without further explanation.
“What? Where?” I ask, practically cry. Having him here, even if he didn’t lift a finger to help me get all this ready, was a kind of back up for me. These are his business associates, after all. He would have known what to do if things got crazy, which it appears they will.
“Not sure,” she says in a vague way, adding to the chorus of folks who seem to be hiding something from me. She turns to the couple and greets them warmly. “Hello Josephine, Ed.”
“You know them?” I ask. But they are of the Magical people here. How does she know them?
“I know everyone here,” she replies, smiling flatly, like that should be obvious. “Everyone knows everyone here, except you.”
Another knowing hits me, like a blow to my chest. Sally is one of these people. One of… us? And everyone here is…one of us? I thought it was just Anna and Bea and Jake and Michael? And Python, too. I thought the family was dying out? I thought… It’s all I can do to keep my jaw from dropping open and hanging mid-air.
“That’s why your dad isn’t here,” she says, like that should mean something to me.
“These aren’t his business associates?” I ask, just to confirm my crazy notions.
To which Anna, Sally, Ed and Josephine laugh. Not with me, but at me. At my confusion and lack of understanding and probably my utter stupidity. It’s hard to blink back the tears of humiliation that are threatening to come. I have to literally hold my breath, and I can feel my face going red.
“Breathe, Mayden,” Anna says. “It’s almost time.”
I look again to the woman on the hill, and see the crowd is leaving her. She’s still blocked by one very tall man and a shorter woman, but I see Michael is leaving. I follow him with my eyes as he makes his way down the hill to pick up his bag. I want to run to him, to ask him what is going on, but he seems in a hurry. Besides, it seems he’s really leaving, and however much I need him, I can’t risk that goodbye head on. Especially now. I watch him go, and my heart going with him. Don’t forget us, I think, willing the thought to reach him, and travel with him wherever he goes.
“We’ll miss him,” Anna says, her own eyes on Michael as well. But she doesn’t sound like I feel. It doesn’t seem to worry her that he’s going, the way he worried about her being stuck in the home. What was it he said, until last night he “didn’t know” whatever it is I’m finding out. What didn’t he know?
Fear grows in me, and anger, and a wariness toward everyone here. What do they know that I don’t? And where is Anna? I mean MY Anna, the one who has been so weak and fragile and loving and open with me? Not laughing at me. Not betraying me.
Yes, betraying me. Didn’t everyone say I would learn they lied to me? But was it one lie, or many? Was it something, or everything? And who lied… even Anna? I look at her, desperate to see it’s not true. To see something of the old Anna here. I can’t find her. This woman, this Anna, who clearly is Anna but not MY Anna, is too distant, too cold, too unfeeling.
A crushing weight pounds on my chest, making it hard to breathe.
“She’ll see you now, Mayden,” the short woman has appeared to say. Someone else who knows me, who knows everyone here, who I don’t know.
She’s speaking of Helene, I’m sure. What I’m not sure of is if I want to see her now. Or ever. I look at the stranger, hoping for some small glimpse of understanding as to what is going on. There is none. Another blank, cold, surface-friendly face. Among a hundred such faces, all guests—all lies.
Nonetheless, with my eyes turning as if toward a magnet, they land upon Helene. She is no longer blocked. She is alone on a hill. Waiting, I must presume, for me. Even from a distance, I feel a power that frightens me.
I look to Anna, and now Bea, who has arrived at my side, and Jake, too. Sally, and Python, all stand in one row, looking at me, waiting for me to go to Helene.
“What is this?” I say to any one of them who will answer. But none of them do. They just look at me, stone cold silent. A family, maybe. But a family without love.
Suddenly, I see Jake start to shake, and then shift into his animal form. Python goes right after, and then Bea, and then… yes, Anna, too. Even Sally. One minute she’s Sally, the next she’s a hawk, flapping her wings, looking at me curiously.
“Sally!” I cry out, shivers up and down my spine. But by now everyone, every last person here is shaking and shifting. One by one, people leave, and animals—mostly cats, big cats—appear. My back yard is no longer anything like an urban McMansion with a manicured lawn. It’s a zoo. Even more, a safari.
I look to the hill and see what I expect. The only two humans standing are me, and the great, the awesome, the ever-feared Helene. She beckons me with her eyes. I walk half-dazed through a crowd of parting lions, jaguars, cougars, and a handful of snakes and birds. I know I should be afraid, but I am not. I am, strangely, at home.
The hill is small, but it appears to keep moving away from me, with each step more difficult than the last. Time, too, seems to be slowed, so that the beat of my heart seems to happen only every several seconds. I am breathless.
At last, I reach her.
Looking into her yes, I see my final surprise: She is not hard and cold and ugly. She is beautiful. Utterly beautiful, even magically beautiful.
And then, as Bea predicted, I understand. It was Magic that wanted this party. It was Helene, Bea confessed, that arranged this party.
Helene is Magic.
Despite myself, I bend on one knee before her. Never, ever, in a million years, would I do this if it were not for her utter beauty. There is no way to stand before that. To not be humbled by it.
“Magic,” I whisper.
“Yes,” she says, smiling.
Smiling—at me! I can’t help it, tears begin to roll down my face. This smile, somehow, impossible as it is, means a hundred times what Anna’s did. This is the smile of Magic.
“We have waited so long for this day, Mayden,” she says, her voice like honey glimmering in sunlight. “So much has been done to prepare for it.”
“Thank you,” is all I can say. I would stand, but I can’t. Don’t want to. Let this feeling go on forever. Let me feel the love of this mother, this family, this Magic.
“I didn’t think you would find me,” I hear myself saying, not really knowing what I’m talking about.
“It wasn’t easy. We knew one of us would find you here, in ordinary reality. We didn’t know when, or who. We were beginning to wonder.”
“Sally discovered me,” I say, amazed and yet already knowing it’s true, even before Magic smiles her agreement.
“But Dad, he doesn’t know. He’s not one of us, is he?” Again I already know, even before she shakes her head in confirmation.
“A good man, though, don’t you think?” she asks, again with that smile.
“I love him, as a daughter. And I guess I like him as a human. Even with how ordinary he is.”
“You’ve done well, Mayden, so far. But of course, you know how little time there is now. How much there is ahead of us, and how few of us there are.”
I nod, but don’t like the sound of it. Nor the sound of her voice, as if the sunlight on the honey has left, and the smooth easiness of it is hardening.
“You also know that there is still much to come, in order to complete your initiation.”
I don’t know, not really, not in any concrete way. But somewhere, deep within, in memories stored far, far away, I have a sense that I do. The burst in my heart, the beaming love I feel, once again begins to fall.
No. Don’t do this. No, don’t.
My pleading is silent, intent, earnest. But she pays no heed, as somehow I knew she would not.
Instead, Magic turns hard and cold in a matter of seconds. Her ice is worse than Anna’s or any of the others, by the same magnitude that her love shone through so much greater.
“You’ve decided once, with Anna at witness,” she says in a voice that nearly freezes my tears, surely freezes my heart. It is as if she is spitting daggers at me, hating me. “Now decide again. Do you take Magic, whatever the form, whatever the feeling, whatever you do or do not understand?”
My throat is frozen shut, so that I could not answer even if I wanted to. Is it fear? Yes, but more than that. All beauty is gone, in her face and in my heart.
Only betrayal remains.
A hard, cold feeling rises in me now, too. Like a wind that moves through the bone, it permeates my soul. I rise to my feet. I don’t fully comprehend what Magic is up to, but this undercurrent…that I do understand. I’ve been here before. Been iced out before. I’ve played and lost, betrayed a thousand times in a thousand failed initiations.
Now, to face it again? No. A strong no. I am not game. I’m not playing. Not now, when my soul remembers failure after failure, abandonment after abandonment.
I do not answer her; do not look upon Magic’s face for another moment. My actions offer my reply: I turn and leave.
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If the hill to Helene was hard to climb, it feels impossible to descend. Each step is crushing my very soul.
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)
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