Magic or Die
J.P. Jackson © 2018
All Rights Reserved
One: Call Back
“YES, MIRIAM. YES, I know. I know it’s been over a year. I’m not sure I’m ready.”
The knuckles on my hand cramped from clasping my cell phone in a death grip. I glanced at my watch. This conversation had gone on too long. In the span of two minutes, Miriam had managed to exhume memories and history I wanted buried and forgotten. I sucked in a short breath as nausea surged like a tsunami of fear. Its behemoth wave washed bile against the back of my throat.
I slumped down the stained and weathered wall of the coffin-sized studio apartment I reluctantly called a home. It wasn’t a bad place to live, except for the cockroaches I found on a daily basis. I’m sure they considered it a veritable paradise. Absentmindedly, I toed an old pizza box near my foot while listening to Miriam. One of the insects scampered across the matted Berber carpet.
Cody. A pale ghostlike face flashed before me. His hair, the exact colour of fall fallowed fields, hung listlessly over one eye, as blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth. His chapped lips parted, asking me, “Why?”
I ignored the vision. Well, ignored wasn’t the right word, more like boxed it up with a heavy rock and pitched it into the abyss of my mind with all the other terrifying nightmares.
“I know. I owe you, yes. I’m just not sure—” I crawled over to the upended crate being used as a coffee table, grasping for my last pack of smokes. I lit one, enjoying the soothing crackle of the tobacco as it ignited, and then inhaled deeply.
Ah, yes. Hello, nicotine, my demon friend.
Miriam continued blithering while I half-heartedly listened to her soul-sucking voice. She was demanding my presence.
“What? You mean, tomorrow? Miriam, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I drew in another steady stream of the toxic smoke. It burned my lungs as the addictive chemicals flooded through my body. I really need to quit. Scraping together the smallest ounce of courage, I attempted to defy her. “No, I can’t.”
A wraithlike hand, desiccated and fragile, inched its way across my shoulder and gripped my tense neck muscle. Its sharp nails dug into my flesh. Its bite, a warning.
Cody’s lifeless lips brushed my ear, sending cold shivers skittering across my back. Eruptions of goose flesh covered my neck and shoulders. His voice was a memory and a sound I would never forget.
“Don’t do this. You’ll kill me again.” His icy breath whispered to me.
Another box, a bigger rock, another addition to the pit of despair in my head.
“No,” I replied to one of Miriam’s inane questions. “There’s an Arcane too? I’ve never been good with them. They creep me out. No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Shit.” Miriam had just described a scene for me. My flesh turned buggy, as if I had chiggers nesting and burrowing deep into my skin. “Oh god that’s gross. It’s also not a good sign.” I pointed uselessly at the wall, waving my finger, trying to make a point to the caller. “I never took the exam for the third class.” Miriam had asked if I’d kept up my licensing. I instantly felt guilty. I should have done it years ago. One thing was becoming evident from the conversation—she needed my help. Help only I could give.
“All right, maybe, I think I can. Consult only. Do you hear me, Miriam? Just a consult.” I had tried desperately to stay the hell out of this. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to go back there. “What time? Yes. I’m pretty sure. Miriam—” A thousand reservations ran through my mind, a wild stampede, unbridled, laced with dread and fear. “How many? How many in this class?”
The question sat like the world perched on my shoulders. The higher the number, the bigger the world, the more responsibility, an undeniable possibility of…
“Five! Are you kidding me? I can’t do five. No. No! It’s not possible.”
She was out of her mind.
“Yes, my sister is still on the streets. You know that’s close to blackmail, right?” I stubbed out the cigarette. The lacquer of smoke in my mouth tasted like I had just licked the bottom of an ashtray, and it was suddenly very hard to breathe. Why do I smoke again?
“Fine. Tomorrow. Yes. Ten a.m. Yes, I’ll be there. What do you mean dress appropriately?”
I looked at my cell phone, disgusted as the call ended.
I flipped the device onto the floor as if it had burst into flame and branded the conversation into my hand. I snorted. Like, I’d forget.
Stretching around to the other side of the crate, I grabbed blindly for a bottle I hoped was there. By all the gods’ great divine gifts, it was. And it still had liquid in it. In fact, it was surprisingly half-full.
I tipped the vodka bottle back, allowing its burn to strip away the cancer stick’s smoky film inside my mouth.
Swaying back and forth with my eyes closed, I tried to drown out the endless voices in my head. The words inundated my impending thoughts of doom and failure, and I could feel the chaos and panic mounting. Steadying myself and regaining my mental capacities, I gazed out the window. It was dark already and only six, early evening at best. Yay for daylight-savings time and late fall in Canada. Lights from the downtown cityscape lazily twinkled and danced before me. It should have been a pretty sight, but the darkness always seemed too oppressive, like a shroud. And I knew better. Things lived in the shadows.
I took another swig from the clear glass bottle. The burn hit my throat and disintegrated the bile that had crept up there.
Five very gifted students.
I rubbed the stubble covering my face and took yet another nip. Except it wasn’t a quick sip, it was a good one. A long one.
The window acted like a mirror, and my image reflected against the backdrop of the city skyline. I looked like shit. My short brown hair had cowlicks; thank god I kept it close. But the rest? No wonder Miriam instructed me to clean it up. The shirt I was sort of wearing was only half buttoned and stained in several spots. I had no pants on, but the pair of tighty-whities, which weren’t exactly white anymore, or tight, were ripped and showed more flesh than they were supposed to. Jesus.
How did my life get here?
Five young people had no control of their gifts.
And I had a sister who was lost out in the sparkle-light of downtown’s darkness, up to who knew what, and doing it with god only knew who, mired in her own addictions.
I glanced around my shit-hole apartment, wondering what the fuck I was going to do.
Two: The Interview
MORNING CAME WAY too early.
The cell phone’s alarm sounded off, penetrating my brain like a crystalline spike driving into my skull over and over and over.
Reaching across the bed, I grabbed my phone and tapped the button, ending the assault.
There were no less than a dozen texts from Miriam. All were variations of don’t be late.
Rolling out of bed hurt. My head was dead weight and the throbbing pulse of my heartbeat pounded a steady rhythm. All I could picture was a sadistic garden gnome smashing my brain with a little war hammer. As my foot hit the floor, I inadvertently kicked an empty vodka bottle, sending it spinning against the wall. The resulting racket was like the tap-dancing of a hundred steel-plated shoes with my forehead as their stage.
I stretched out my back and vertebrae popped in succession all the way down my spine. Instant relief. But the clothes that were still stuck to me from the previous night pulled me back to reality, along with sharp stabs of pain from my hangover headache. I ripped off the holey underwear, scrunched them into a ball, and as I was about to pitch them into the corner with the rest of the to-do laundry, I realized the pile was just a little too big. Betcha there wasn’t another clean pair. My balls were stuck to the inside of my thighs from the sweat of an alcohol-induced sleep.
I gave my bunched-up gotch a quick whiff. Whoa.
They sailed through the air and landed on top of the mountain of used clothes.
“Commando it is,” I mumbled and then added the shirt to the growing mound after giving my pits the sniff test.
The shirt unwadded as it flew and a trailing sleeve caught the neck of another empty glass bottle which was precariously perched on my creative crate of a coffee table. The resulting bang and clank of the bottle hitting the floor and rolling made me grab my head as that little monster inside smashed its weapon a little harder.
How much did you drink last night, you idiot?
I shuffled my way down the hall to the bathroom and flicked on the light, instantly regretting the decision. Fumbling through the darkness would have been easier on my eyes. I dug through the vanity’s only drawer, found the bottle of Tylenol, and fought with the lid, then eventually tapped out a couple of little promissory gems of pain relief. I swallowed them and a couple of ibuprofen without water. Water would only make me spew at this point.
Next step, get wet.
The shower wasn’t exactly hot or well pressurized, but it was better than showing up to Miriam’s party smelling like a day-old martini. I was not shaving. Screw her.
With a bit of luck and a little scrounging, I came up with a pair of gray slacks and a light-blue dress shirt. Both were tight. Dammit.
My middle had a jiggle.
When the fuck did that happen?
The pack of cigarettes was empty. I’d have to pick up another on the way. After snagging my wallet, a coat, the car keys, and my cell, I launched myself out into the world and headed across the street to where my rusted-out 90s Corolla sat. It was champagne beige. Champagne. That was fuckin’ humorous. Champagne would imply luxury or class. This poor machine hadn’t had either in a long time. My breath hung in front of me. The damp and cold autumn air hurt my face. But as much as it stung, it was oddly soothing against my dehydrated existence.
The car required a little coaxing and a few salty words in order to get going, but as soon as the engine revved to life, a belt somewhere under the hood started squealing. A nice old lady, dragging one of those two-wheeler shopping carts behind her, gave me a dirty look. I took back the nice part.
Embarrassed by my car’s lack of silence, I slammed it into drive and pulled away. Only then did I notice the parking ticket flapping itself violently against the windshield.
“For fuck’s sake.” I was in a mood. I turned the windshield wipers on and the ticket dislodged and flew away like a little bird.
The car’s heat didn’t work well, even though I cranked it to the hottest it would possibly go and hoped for tropical ferns to sprout from the dash. A glance to my phone told me it was already nine thirty. Despite Miriam’s numerous texts, I was going to be late.
THE FACILITY WAS out of town.
Which was smart. If something were ever to happen, at least it could be contained.
The car’s brakes squealed as I approached the guard’s booth. The vehicle’s interior hadn’t warmed, and my lips were tinged blue from the long drive without heat. I rolled down the window.
“James Martin here to see Miriam van Allen,” I said unemotionally and blew a lungful of smoke out the open window and stamped out the cig in the car’s overflowing ashtray. I’d driven up to this checkpoint a hundred times before, but oddly, the same person was never stationed there.
The guard, who didn’t look like puberty had come to visit yet, checked his logs. Then his eyebrows flew halfway up his scalp as he returned his glare to me, judging.
“Mr. Martin, you’re already twenty minutes late. Mrs. van Allen won’t be pleased. Proceed in, park in section C spot 42, and then report at the security desk.”
I rolled up the window without a word of acknowledgement. What a snot. They wanted me, not the other way around. They could bloody well wait.
The front doors to the facility reminded me of a school, which was funny, because by trade, I was a teacher. But no school district was going to hire one of us.
“James Martin here to see Miriam van Allen,” I said as I walked up to the second guard sitting behind an imposing security desk in front of the walk-through metal scanner. He got the same enthusiasm from me as the gatekeeper did.
He too checked his logs. The bureaucracy and red tape there ran deep. Streamers of red. Spools and spools of it. I tapped my foot impatiently, waiting for him to find my invitation. I flicked my wrist towards me and stole another glance at my watch—Jesus—I was almost thirty minutes late. Miriam was going to lose her shit if she hadn’t lost it already.
“He’s with me,” Miriam said. Speak of the devil. The devil was decked out in a starched black dress, which was rather form-fitting for a lady of her age, sporting six layers of pearls and a white updo with so much hairspray I could smell it from where I stood.
“Miriam, you look lovely.” I feigned an I’m-happy-to-see-you face.
“Shut up, James.” She smiled evilly at me and then nodded at the guard. Her voice had more rasp to it than I remembered. “You’re late. I told you not to be. And I also said dress appropriately. The least you could have done was wear underwear.”
She linked her arm into mine and gently guided me through the security gates. I chanced a peek down to my crotch. It wasn’t that noticeable.
“This isn’t a game, James. I need you, and what’s more, these kids need you.”
“Believe me, I know. That’s why I haven’t come back, Miriam. I’m not suitable or capable for this job.”
“Nonsense. You’re a stubborn idiot. One of the most talented Psyches I’ve ever met, as well. And today, I’m going to make you use it.” She turned us down a metal corridor. The odd door peppered the long hallway. Portals to hell, I was sure of it.
We made several turns on our walk, and it didn’t take long before I was completely screwed around. Here I was again, lost in the bowels of the CMRD.
An armed guard passed us and then cut sharply away down another intersecting hallway.
“That’s new,” I said, staring after the uniformed man with an assault weapon strapped over his shoulder. He disappeared as he made his way to another destination. This place was massive.
“We’ve had to make a few adjustments. They’re getting stronger.”
“Who? The five you mentioned?”
“No, James. All of them.”
“How many are here?” I asked, shocked.
“Enough. But that’s not for you to worry about. Here,” she said and then turned a doorknob and pushed the door open.
I followed in behind her, but then she stepped aside and I found myself front and center in a long room with a huge oval stone slab. There were at least twenty people sitting around the tabletop, mostly men, a few in uniforms unrecognizable to me. But I could tell from the smell in the room, every last one of them was some type of high-ranking powered official.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Miriam nodded her head towards the executive crowd and then turned towards me. “Meet Mr. James Martin.”
There was nothing but blank stares boring holes through me. I could feel a big round globe settling on top of my shoulders again, just like Atlas. Stress is a very heavy thing.
I gave them a wave, then looked at Miriam and shrugged, not sure what to expect next.
Miriam rolled her eyes. “Honestly, James.”
A uniformed toad stood up and glared at the two of us. He didn’t seem particularly pleased, and his jowls wobbled as he started to speak.
“We waited a half hour for this?” He pointed in my direction.
“I assure you, Major Harris, James is the best candidate for what we need.”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m not impressed.” His short sausage fingers rummaged through files and papers in front of him as he sat back down, dismissing me in the process.
“James, if you would, please?” Miriam nudged me.
“Really, Miriam? I said a consult. That was the only reason I was coming.”
“Just do it, James.” She smiled at me, but her teeth were firmly planted together. She was not happy. One thing I had learned from my last stint with the CMRD—when Miriam gets pissed, ragingly angry, she gets mean.
I took a deep breath. I hated doing this.
I closed my eyes and searched for the spot. It was up front in my head. Fishing, looking for it—sometimes, it was just right there other times, I had to go on an expedition but…ah…there it was. I could feel my brain tense—yeah, I know, that’s not possible, but that’s what it felt like. And then I pushed it forward.
It was like a bubble expanded and enveloped the entire room, and I loved to watch as people noticed a subtle change in themselves as soon as I’d touched them with that amorphous shimmer. The magic is an energy only other Magicals—people like me—can see. The regular folks, Norms can’t see it, but they can feel it. The sensation I get when I’m about to take them over is all-consuming, addictive even. It’s a tingling, a pull, a trigger that sets off the hunt within me, a primal stalker instinct as soon as I see that glint in their eyes. It’s their shock. A surprise, but an unpleasant one.
The entire room of high-powered La-Di-Das all started giggling and chuckling, a few even bellowed out a good hearty guffaw.
But even as they were laughing, there were looks of complete confusion on their faces. Questioning glances, gazes shot across the table to the others around the room that said, “I’m not doing this. What the hell is happening?”
The entire room immediately came to attention.
Grab the person’s hand next to you.
Everyone grabbed the person’s hand next them, forming a ring made from grasped hands. It appeared as if they were all first graders about to go on a school trip.
Grab the person to your right and…
“James, let go. I think that’s enough.” Miriam’s bony claw gripped my bicep.
There was a snap, a sharp sting, like a rubber band flicked back and smacked my flesh as I released the entire room, all twenty-plus of them. There were a few stunned faces, pallid in colour, knowing I could control them utterly. A couple of sighs as I released them, and one lady who started crying.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I reintroduce Mr. James Martin. James belongs to the Psyche class and is one of the most powerful Empaths we’ve ever had the privilege of hiring.”
There was a collective uncomfortableness as the uppity snots came to the realization of the extent of my abilities.
Suck on that, you assholes.