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Careful the Spell You Cast

by Wakahisa Rei (若久零)

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

I press middle C on my keyboard and try not to wince at the sudden sound. It’s stupid that I’m flinching at this, but I’d expected something else. An explosion, maybe. It’s not as if I played this keyboard a couple thousand times for over a decade.

Then again, it has been over a year since I touched it. My hands didn’t used to shake so much back then. They hadn’t been this boney or veiny either. The only thing about them that hasn’t changed is the black nail polish – I’m still a sucker for aesthetics.

Sighing, I sit down and open the score I’ve been given. Into the Woods. My pseudo-mom’s idea of giving me a job to help me get back on my feet. Also, her production lost its pianist to some freak pottery accident and I was available. The jobless layabout wallowing in self-pity because she destroyed her entire career, exposed the world to magic, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people and maybe deserved to be dead herself.

Right. Dramatics. The other thing I’m a sucker for. Never mind that. I play a few notes, and it sounds okay. I’m clumsier than I used to be, but whatever. I got nothing but time to practice. So, I keep going, fumbling through as muscle memory tries to assert itself. It even starts to sound pleasantly amateurish before my head begins to spin.

Dark spots speckle my vision and it feels like I should have eaten something other than candy today. I grip the stool to keep from falling over as the worst of the dizziness passes. That’s another new thing.

When my vision becomes semi-clear, I push myself up and stumble to the couch, falling face down on it. The cushion is covered in cat hair. Some gets in my mouth. I start to wheeze and force myself to flip onto my side before I can suffocate on cat hair and saliva. Now wouldn’t that be a death the papers would eat up: Mad Scientist Drowns in Her Own Spit. It would certainly vindicate the people who were pissed that I managed to avoid jail time based on a few technicalities.

But, if I’m going to go, I’d like to go in style. I’d contemplate my options, but Valeria, the pseudo-mom, has banned me from fantasizing about my own death. Apparently, that’s unhealthy or something.

So instead, I stare at the wall, trying to make out the cracks as my breathing stabilizes and the nausea mostly passes. I don’t try to get up afterwards – it’ll probably be another hour or so before that’s safe to do. Instead I slide my laptop off the coffee table, managing to avoid knocking over the numerous half empty tea mugs around it.

What I plan to do is open up a job search and look for a permanent position, or at least something that isn’t given to me out of pity. Instead, I end up trolling Cell Research. I always end up browsing some biological journal. It’s a little impulse – the quiet voice going I wonder what the latest breakthroughs are now that I will never again contribute to them. And I only ever mean to scroll through some article titles, maybe read a few abstracts. It never ends like that.

I know better – I no longer have the right to be Dr. Inga Louise Carroll. Besides, I’ve always preferred Iggy anyhow. So, this time, I almost make myself close the tab before I get too sucked in. Almost, because then I see an article titled: Applications of Extrahuman Abilities to the Treatment of Leukemia.

Is that what they’re calling it now? Extrahuman Abilities. Stupid. Was magic too unscientific? Sorcery too medieval? Everyone has a bit of magical potential in them, so there’s nothing extra human about it.

And really, was half of Chicago being quarantined because of a magical epidemic not enough of a warn off? Who the hell would fund this? Is it the military trying to weaponize it? Probably not. This is Leukemia research. It’s a little indirect for weaponization.

It can’t be the Hollands again, my former benefactors. Sure, they’d been America’s most powerful magical mafia, but now half of them are dead and their fortune went to legal fees and restitution. If the magical community doesn’t off the rest of them in retribution, they’ll be lucky.

Scrolling down, I find the research is NIH funded. The fucking National Institutes of Health. How dare– Who even–

I scroll back up. The first author is some Mary Rupert. I don’t recognize the name, but it’s been a while since I’ve attended a conference. Google tells me that Dr. Rupert is here. In Chicago. In Chicago where I’m wasting away on my couch while Dr. Rupert continues the research I’d pioneered.

Fuck her. Fuck everything she stands for.

And because this is mine, mine, I read the paper. Leukemia, brilliant. Magic is in the blood. And if it going awry makes it start attacking a person’s cells then yes, it makes complete sense to think it might be able to be told what cells to attack. I have a thousand questions and a thousand more warnings. Dr. Rupert shouldn’t even be attempting this. She’s not a sorcerer, at least not one of any respectable caliber. I would have heard of her if she was.

Not only is she unlikely to be able to control the magic she’s messing with should it somehow get away from her, but she’s unlikely to understand the depths of it. Because sorcerers don’t share their secrets, they form mafias to guard them.

I need to talk to her. Shooting off an email, I don’t expect a response as fast as I get one. But she knows who I am and she’s apparently willing to talk over coffee. We agree on a time and exchange numbers. If only getting a woman’s number was usually so easy.

Dr. Rupert’s gorgeous, in that big-tits, perfect-dark-hair, too-much-make-up kind of way. She looks more like a hooker squeezed into her fifth-grade church outfit than a research scientist. But, as if I’m one to talk. I still dress like a teenager rebelling against the vague notion of society. Together we look like a scene from the latest teen drama where the popular girl makes some sort of offer to the secretly cool girl. We’re even the right age to play teenagers in a movie – over a decade out of our teens.

It’d be almost funny, if I wasn’t here to stop her from meddling in forces she couldn’t possibly understand. Which also makes me sound like the protagonist from a totally different movie. Or maybe the villain that I actually am. Would that make her the plucky hero bound to prove me wrong?

I finally look up from my tea to her. She’s been sipping her coffee for the past few minutes, not trying to make small talk.

“So, uh, who the fuck came up with the term Extrahuman Abilities?” I blurt out. As far as ice breakers go, I’d give that a solid two out of ten.

Dr. Rupert actually laughs. “Some politician or another. You haven’t been keeping up with the news?” Her tone’s saccharine and she raises a brow as she sips her drink. I feel like she wants to stab me with a dull and rusty knife.

But I only scowl a little, shrugging it off. Not like Dr. Rupert needs to know that I’ve spent the past year between the hospital and the courtroom. Watching the news talk about the damage I’d caused would have been an exercise in masochism. Instead, I say, “No wonder it sounds stupid.”

“And what do you call it?” Dr. Rupert says in that same syrupy tone.

“Sorcery. Magic. Alchemy, if you’re feeling archaic.”

“I suppose alchemy makes sense. Most of the spell books, or grimoires, I don’t know, they all seem to have something that looks like chemistry if you squint.”

It’s a good observation. At its core, using sorcery is chemistry, just catalyzed by magic and blood. I lean back in my chair, torn between telling her more and telling her that she’s likely putting her life in jeopardy by snooping around in other people’s grimoires. “How’d you get ahold of those?”

She looks to the side and takes another sip of coffee. “I had some sources. Is that important?”

“Yes. Do you even know who you’re messing with? “

“Why don’t you tell me?” She smiles wide and tight, as if she’s the one in the right, as if she knows exactly what’s the answer and I’m some dumb little child who’s throwing a fit rather than an expert who knows what she’s talking about.

“What’s left of the Holland family, for one. Whatever powerful sorcerers come to take their place afterwards. Any half-baked sorcerer desperate for one more grimoire that might have just enough information to pull them out of obscurity, and… and do you realize the kind of danger you’re putting not only yourself, but–“

“Oh, don’t you start preaching,” Dr. Rupert interrupts, dropping the smile. “You, of all people, have no right to preach.”

“I, of all people, know exactly how stupid you’re being,” I say, standing up, bracing my hands against the table. The sudden movement starts a wave of nausea, but I ignore it. Maybe if I vomit on Dr. Rupert’s pretty pink dress, she’ll get the picture.

She snorts. “Right, just because you caused an epidemic, so will I. Despite the fact that I’m not running human trials before I’ve made sure it’s reasonably safe to do so.” 

It hadn’t been like that. I hadn’t had a- No. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. Obviously, I made a mistake coming here. If all Dr. Rupert wanted to do was berate me for my mistakes, she could have fucking joined the long line of people waiting to do so. “You know what, fuck this.” I turn around and stumble off, not even bothering to take my cup of tea.

Dr. Rupert doesn’t call after me, which is for the best. I would fight her, and she probably has half a foot and fifty pounds on me.

When I’m home, I sink down into the couch. My cats, Bartholomew and Claudine, rub past my legs. They want attention after ignoring me all day, the dumb cats. I reach my hand down but can’t bring myself to do much more. It’s not just the exhaustion from taking a trip downtown, it’s a heavy weight on the inside of my stomach and my eyes leaking saline. I want to throw my phone against the wall, if only to distract myself.

But, before I can do something I’ll regret, my phone vibrates. A text.

That wasn’t much of a chat.

No shit. If she wanted an actual chat maybe she shouldn’t have… Well… Antagonized me? Pointed out the obvious? Fuck it. Fine. I may have overreacted. Dramatics. Sue me. I got a great lawyer.

If you want more name a time and place

It’s not an apology, but I don’t feel like apologizing either. Maybe I was a brat, but it wasn’t like Dr. Rupert had been the pinnacle of genteel behavior. She had been antagonizing me, I can tell that much. I’d been in enough labs where people threw that shit at me because they couldn’t prove their superiority by being better than I was.

What I want is your notes.

I read that twice, just to be sure that’s what she’s asking for. My research notes from the epidemic, because there isn’t anything else that she could mean. Though I am tempted to say some shit like I threw out my freshmen bio notes years ago. But, since I can’t see her face as I say it, it’s not worth it.

I do still have the notes she’s asking for, locked in my desk. If I was less of an idiot, I would have burned them. If my lawyer hadn’t been amazing, they might have been government property or public record. Which, no.

What the Hollands had wanted was a way to increase a person’s magical potential. To turn someone who couldn’t use magic into someone that could and to turn someone that could use magic into a god. I want to say that it sounded stupid back then and so I refused, but they pushed me into it. But that’s a lie. It’d sounded exciting and like exactly the chance I needed to finally show people that I was worth taking seriously.

The thing is, I had found what the Hollands wanted. It was the side effects that were the problem. And if someone doesn’t care about the side effects, I could be Oppenheimer, and this could be the nuclear bomb.

I’m not giving them to you

I set my phone down, thinking that’s the end of that. But, just as I’m about to reach down and give Barty the attention he’s starting to demand, my phone rings. The screen reads, “Mary Rupert.”

I could just ignore the call, or maybe satisfy that urge to throw the phone at the wall. That would be smarter, maybe. Why should I bother getting involved? But of course, I don’t do the smart thing. I pick up the phone. “You aren’t getting my notes.”

There’s silence and then Dr. Rupert coughs. “Why did you contact me in the first place?” The saccharine tone is gone, replaced by something akin to casual. I don’t buy that. I also don’t want to answer her question. It’s not like I owe her an explanation. …And I don’t have an explanation I’m willing to give.

But Mary doesn’t give me a chance to explain either. “I can tell you’re still curious – you wouldn’t have reached out if you weren’t. And if you wanted this research to die, you wouldn’t have asked me a dozen questions on my paper. You want back in, don’t you?”

Oh, fuck her. She is not allowed to just read exactly what I want and use it against me. “Don’t try and manipulate me, Dr. Rupert.”

“I’m just pointing out–“

“You want my notes, I said no, and now you’re trying to… to…” take advantage of my curiosity, of my inability to back away. “To convince me otherwise.”

“…Alright. Fair.”

I wait for her to add something else, but there’s only silence. “Alright. We done?”

There’s more silence, and then Dr. Rupert says, “Tomorrow, my lab.”

“What?”

“You said name a time and a place. I’m saying, come by my lab tomorrow.”

“No.” I’m not going near a lab. It’s enough that I’m still fantasizing about it. But I’m not going to hanging around one to delude myself into thinking that it might actually be a good idea to try going back. Anyone who would take me on would have to have zero ethical backbone. Given that I lack one too, it would be a wonder if I don’t destroy the planet. “Not your lab.”

Dr. Rupert sighs. “Then where is okay?”

“First, tell me what you want from me, if it’s not my notes.”

“All I want is some insight. There’s clearly so much I don’t understand and currently you’re my best option for understanding it.”

“And maybe you shouldn’t understand it. Thought of that?”

“You’re the one who contacted me first. You’re the one who had questions on my work.”

“I’m a complete idiot if you didn’t figure that out already.”

I can almost picture Dr. Rupert narrowing her eyes. That isn’t a fair response, but what else can I do? She keeps calling my bluffs. And she is right, I am dying to talk to her about her research, to use the opportunity to leave one last little mark on the world before I fade into obscurity. And if it was just that, I might be able to resist.

But Dr. Rupert does deserve some insight, if only to keep her from falling into the same traps as I did, or worse, falling into the hands of some opportunistic sorcerer. “But if you want insight from an idiot, you can come to my place. I’ll text you the address. Usually, I’m home.”

There’s more silence over the line before Dr. Rupert says, “Okay. Tomorrow evening work for you?”

“Yeah. See you then, Dr. Rupert.”

“Mary. Just call me Mary.”

“All right, see you tomorrow, Mary.”

The next morning, I haven’t slept and feel like clawing off my skin. It’s not because of Mary. I’m fairly certain I know how that disaster’s going to go. It’s that theater job. The first day! I get to meet my new colleagues who’ll be so thrilled to be working with the person responsible for some of their friends and family being dead. Just imagine that first impression. Sorry your kid’s dead because of me. But hey, I can almost play the piano pretty okay, so we’ll get along!

Right.

Valeria’s told me they’re not going to give me shit, but even she sounded unconvinced. As if I want them being all polite because they don’t have any better choice. It’s worse when you can see disgust in a person’s eyes as they smile in your face. Especially when you deserve that disgust.

Or they might not even recognize me. Not like I look too memorable. I always been washed out and scrawny. Bright blue hair and spikey clothes may usually help me stand out, but most of my media appearances involved lab coats or suits. So, my new colleagues might just think I’m some random weirdo and be genuinely nice. And then woops, they find out half of Chicago was quarantined because of me.

At least I’ve been to this theater before. Valeria basically raised me here.

She’d met my parents when they’d moved to Chicago as nobody sorcerers. She was one too, but smart enough to know better than to exchange her freedom for the Holland’s promises of power. My parents, on the other hand, felt like being Holland grunts was the way to go. Valeria was nice enough to babysit for them.

I spent a lot of my childhood doing homework backstage. But the last time I was here was before I started grad school. The new paint job’s weird, cream and red instead of blue. At least the old theater seats have finally been replaced. But, not much else has changed, and I feel like I’m ten years old again.

I feel more like I’m ten again when Valeria walks in. She also hasn’t changed much over the years, except for her once salt and pepper hair having turned completely silver. Other than that, she still the same aging hippie – long curly hair down to her waist and brightly colored, flowing skirts.

The first thing she does is smile at me and then pull me into a hug that knocks the air out of me. “Valeria,” I hiss. She’s got to be the only person who thinks I’m still worthy of affection and I just can’t deal with that. Because she’d warned me, and I shouldn’t have needed a warning. My parents died working for the Hollands.

“Hello dear,” She says as she lets me go. “You’re a bit early. Have you even had breakfast?”

“Valeria,” I cut her off before she can continue fussing. “Not right now.”

She sighs and shakes her head. “It is good to see you.”

“Yeah, you too.” It has been a while since I’ve actually seen her in person. She’d been a character witness while I was in court, but we hadn’t been on speaking terms while I was working for the Hollands. I get the impression she blames herself for my fate, which is stupid. That’s on me. “I see the piano’s still in the same place. Anyone around? I want to warm up.”

“Only me, the staff and James so far. But James is a nice young lad. You might want to introduce yourself.”

“He uh… know about…”

She nods. “Yes. Everyone’s aware.”

I want to ask how the hell she managed to talk them into even being okay with me working her, but I’m feeling like a coward today. So instead, I say, “Think I’ll just get to practicing.”

Valeria frowns, but she doesn’t push me.

So, I get to playing, trying not to cringe at how clumsy I still am. It’s sounding better than yesterday, but I used to actually be good at this. And after the tenth major screw up, I’m about to raise my hands up and slam them into the keys. Except, just as I’m about to do that, I see a man out of the corner of my eyes, watching me with a skeptical expression.

He’s not much younger than I am, maybe in his early-twenties, with floppy dark hair and a button-down a few sizes too large.

“What’re you staring at?” I huff.

“You.”

“I know I’m sexy, but you’re not my type.”

He rolls his eyes and comes over to sit down on the corner of the stage next to the piano. “James,” he says, holding out his hand.

It takes me a moment to stop staring at it. And when I realize I might have been looking like a complete dunce, I too quickly reach out and shake it. “Iggy. What do you want?”

“To say hi,” he says, enunciating each word as if I’m an idiot.

Granted, I am behaving like one. But how else am I supposed to behave here? Maybe like a normal human being. But I don’t exactly know if I’m allowed to just be casual. Ugh. Okay. “Well, hi. Promise I’m not here to murder anyone.” There, that gets that out of the way.

“Good to know. Neither am I.” He’s maintaining eye contact and I’m just even more lost for what he wants. Does he really want to be friendly?

I keep staring at him, trying to resist the urge to just tell him to fuck off. He doesn’t deserve that, but it’d be easier than trying to have a real conversation.

Finally, when I don’t say anything more, he says, “Could you play ‘Giants in the Sky’?”

“Sure.” And I don’t tell him not to expect it to sound good, because he’s heard me playing earlier and can probably tell I sound like crap. But he just gets up on stage and starts singing. He doesn’t comment when I screw up and I return the favor.

When the rest of the cast and crew come in, most ignore me. I catch only a few dirty looks. At the end of the day, James and Valeria are the only ones I’ve actually spoken to, but that’s fine. It went better than I’d expected.

I flop onto my couch that evening, almost in an okay mood. At least, until I remember Mary’s supposed to come over. Then I pull a pillow to my face and groan. Dini takes the opportunity to jump on my chest and I nearly choke on the pillow for the second time in two days.

“We are no longer friends,” I say to the pillow before throwing it to the other side of the couch. Dini just gets comfortable as I shift around.

“Dini, you know I have to get up soon.”

She mews back, unimpressed. I take to petting her as I wait for the inevitable doomsday. At least I attempted to clean my house. The cups have been cleared off the coffee table and the laundry has been picked off the floor. I made a valiant effort to get rid of the cat hair, but when the pile’s size was starting to rival my cats, I gave up.

It’s not like I have to impress Mary. I just have to give her enough information to keep her from causing any life ending cataclysms and make sure I don’t start a fist fight. The second part’s the hard bit. But if I do get into a fight, I got Barty and Dini here as back-up.

As if reading my mind, Dini gives me a skeptical mewl. Oh right, cats have no sense of valor.

The doorbell rings. “Time to get up, you disloyal creature,” I tell Dini, who is none too happy being lifted off of her resting place. She scurries into the bedroom.

I open the door and there stands Mary. This time, her hair’s up in a neat bun and her pretty blouse is paired with sensible slacks and oxfords. I think I smell acetone on her. Did she come straight from the lab? 

“Hey,” she says.

I step aside. “Come in. Sit down wherever. Or don’t. “

She enters and glances around, gaze lingering on my keyboard. But she doesn’t ask, instead taking a seat on my couch before looking at me expectantly.

I sit down on the piano stool, crossing one leg over the other. “So….”

“So…” Mary echoes. Frowning, she continues, “I was thinking that maybe, despite being justifiably critical of you wanting to preach about ethics and smart choices, I may have overlooked the fact that you maybe have reason to be a tiny bit suspicious of me. Even if you have no ground to stand on there, I have to give you that.”

I blink. That’s not what I was expecting. That’s almost an apology and right in the neighborhood of giving me the benefit of the doubt. “Okay…”

She shrugs. “Look, you really don’t have any moral high ground. I was in the quarantine zone. People I knew got sick because of you. So, excuse me if I didn’t care to play the empathy game.”

Right. Okay. So that wasn’t an apology? Is she trying to make me feel guilty? Now that’s a good joke. I always feel guilty. “So. You hate me. Glad we got that out of the way.”

“That’s not the point I’m trying to make.”

“Then make your point.”

“Well, my point is that I get why you’re reluctant to tell me what you know. I do. Despite the inherent hypocrisy that’s honestly kind of annoying. And–“

I start to tap my foot.

Groaning, Mary finally spits out, “I think I should give you a reason to trust me and I hate that I think that. There.”

Now was that so hard? I want to roll my eyes at her, but I get it. She’s swallowing her pride because she needs something from me. For once, I’m the one with the power and I can shut her down if I don’t like her. And she doesn’t think I deserve to be kissed up to. I could milk this, take out years of institutional blue-balling on her. But, I’m a little better than certain assholes. “Alright, fine – why should I trust you?” I ask, because she’s also right – I do need a reason.

“I’ve been trying to think of a good answer to that myself. Which, I feel is an argument in my favor because I could give you some bullshit lie. But I’m trying to be honest instead. And I will remind you that you clearly think this research must be worth continuing. Which means someone has to continue it and right now, most of the people with enough guts to do it are working directly for the military. I don’t really think their research interests are for the good of us all.”

“So, because yours are–“

“Let me finish. It’s not that. It’s that I’m going to make everything I do publicly available. Everyone has access.”

Now that was a high-minded dream. The magical community had never been too keen on sharing its secrets. Better to consolidate power, keep the little guy under your toe, let the inferior masses fight over the scraps of knowledge the powerful are willing to give them. Yes, I’m bitter. But I can’t say I like the alternative much better. “To something that maybe no one should have access to.”

“No. Well, maybe. But people already do have access to it. Did for however long… sorcery was it, existed. Part of the reason you managed to create such a grand mess was because of all the hush-hush, secret stuff. No checks? No balances. And I get the whole privacy thing. It’s kind of the ethical question of the twenty-first century, but I think the privacy ship has long since sailed. Especially since I would think–“

Where her talks this wordy? I hold up my hand. “Okay. You made your point. Just give me a second.”  I hope she edited those down, because that was actually a number of points clustered into one giant bomb, an impressionist painting turned into speech. But I can critique her presentation at a later date.

She is right, to some extent. The general populace now knows sorcery exists. It probably won’t be long before some authority figure or other tries to regulate it. Given how the world found out about magic, that’s not going to go pretty. The only people who might be able to prevent the magical community from mass extinction are the big sorcery families. They’re the ones with money and connections.

Of course, they’ll turn it in their favor, screw anyone else.

But if magic wasn’t just something that sorcerers had use for. If Mary’s research went somewhere good. If…

I shouldn’t care. I don’t have a right to. I can’t even use magic anymore and I’m the reason this is even an issue. Me meddling in further is the last thing anyone needs. But, here I am.

“So, you’re saying that if it’s not you, it’ll be someone else.”

Mary shifts on the couch before nodding. “Yeah, sort of. And that anyone else would be a lot shadier about it.”

I sigh, feeling very tired all of a sudden. It makes me regret not having taken the other side of the couch, where at least I could have sunk down into the cushions. “Okay. Fine. Then, let’s talk sorcery.” There wasn’t a great way to go about this, but I had something of an idea of how to make it work. “You’re going to tell me about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Then I’ll tell you what I think you need to know about magic based on that.”

“What if I want to know more?”

“Then ask.”

Mary bites her lip, before running a hand over her hair and pulling off the hair tie. Shaking out her hair, she says, “Guess I might want to say I’ve been working on this, the whole understanding sorcery thing, not my current project, since the outbreak. Or close to it anyhow. My lab specializes in hematology, and when people figured out that it was people’s blood cells turning against them, it made sense for us to look into it. But it wasn’t until you came forward and went ‘magic exists and here’s how to detect it oh and here’s a cure’ that we had any luck.”

Ah yeah, that. I was pretty sure the Hollands would have me killed when I went behind their backs and explained to the world what was going on. But, then again, I was pretty sure I was going to die anyhow. The magical contamination had infected me too.  My cure, which was just the removal of all a person’s magic, didn’t tend to leave those with a lot of natural potential alive.

“You’re welcome,” I say, because it’s easier to think about this when I can be an ass.

Mary rolls her eyes, not taking the bait, “So, when the epidemic was contained, we kept looking into it. Developed a couple ways to extract small amounts of magic from blood samples without needing to extract all of it – though, if I had to guess, I’d guess you have a method for that.”

“My method involved using sorcery.” I shrug.

“Hm. Next time we talk, I’ll bring my notes. There might be a way to translate direct applications of sorcery to the methods we’ve developed.”

“…You want me to read your notes and see if I have any ideas?”

“Yeah. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I said I’d explain magic, I’m not… I don’t do research anymore. The reasons should be obvious.” I look away from Mary.

There’s a moment of silence, before she says, “I see. Well, okay, where was I… oh yeah. We developed methods. So, now we’re looking at applications, mostly at how magic effects blood cells. We noticed that they start killing each other when we artificially increased the amount of magic, but if we can control–“

“No!” I break in. “No, that is a fucking bad idea.”  I’m finding it hard to breathe. Sure, this was in her paper. I knew this is where this was headed, but I’m not prepared for how hearing it said out loud makes me want to vomit.

Mary inhales. “And why is that?”

“Because that’s what caused the epidemic. I was trying to increase a person’s magical potential – how much magic their body could contain and–“

“And I’m going to interrupt you. I – we don’t want to make it so a person can hold more magic. We want to use that a person’s body can seemingly only hold so much to kill cancer cells, use magic to paint a target. Now, if you think there’s a way that will lead to similar results as increasing a person’s magical potential, I’d genuinely like to hear. I’d also like to hear if magic has been used for detection or targeting.”

There isn’t an obvious way I can think of this leading to the exact same disaster. By necessity, her methods are nothing like mine were. I’d been able to use sorcery. But there’s no certainty. Only risk. “You’re willing to bet hundreds of lives on it not leading to similar results?” If I were her, would I be willing to? Back when this whole mess started, if someone had told me I might kill hundreds of people, would I have backed down? No. No, I would have said I’ll be careful.

“I’m willing to exercise caution.”

And then I just can’t anymore. “Get out.”

“Excuse me?”

“Get. Out.” I stand up, ready to shove her out of my door if I have to, but she’s already getting up. I don’t look at her face as she leaves. When she’s gone, I sink to the floor and try to remember how to breathe.

I come into the theater the next day feeling more like the world’s biggest shit than I usually do. Congratulations me, you’ve reached a new low. I knew that meeting Mary for a second time would be a disaster, but Mary’s current research trajectory is a direct consequence of my actions. And she’s going down the same road I did. I might not have a right to go near the magical community anymore, but I should be able to stop idiots from making my mistakes. That is the one thing I’m supposed to be good for. Except, nope. Apparently, I can’t even do that.

I barely greet Valeria when I enter, just a wave and a nod towards the piano. In my current mood, it feels like it’s mocking me. Another thing I should be able to do, but somehow can’t manage. When I open the cover, I feel my hands tremble. I’m afraid of a fucking piano now. Wow. Wow Iggs, you’re pathetic.

There’re two options right now – play the damn thing or start sobbing like a baby. Or both, but I’m not that much of an overachiever. Whatever tiny bit of dignity I have left forces me to start warming up. The piano doesn’t blow up, no keys fly off, and after steadying my hands, I somehow manage to sound better than I did yesterday. Solid even, but that’s not much of an achievement considering I’m just playing scales.

Someone taps the lid of the piano. I jump, hands slamming down on the keys. A discordant boom echoes through the theater as I look up to see James, his face screwed up in a wince.

“What the hell?” I demand.

He narrows his eyes, then shakes his head. “I wanted to see if you minded playing a song.”

Right. “Yeah, okay, which one?”

“‘Giants in the Sky’.”

He’s looking at me a little too intently, so I say, “What?”

“You seem off.”

“How would you know?”

Shrugging, James says, “Guess I wouldn’t.” Then he turns around. As he walks to the stage, he adds, “Though you might want to stop snapping at anyone willing to talk to you.”

“I didn’t say I needed advice.”

He climbs up on the stage and looks at me. “I know. Just figured I’d offer some before you pissed off someone with more of a temper. Losing another pianist would make us seem cursed.”

“Not like anyone would be sorry to lose me. Except for Valeria, but she’s nuts.”

James is quiet for a moment, so I think I’ve won, but then he decides to add, “You haven’t given them a reason to be sorry.”

“Like I can give them a good reason.”

He shakes his head. “Just play the song.”

And I do, while trying not to stew on the conversation. I’m right. There’s no reason I deserve to even have this job. I don’t even deserve to be alive. The idea that I might find some way to make people care about my worthless ass is stupid. Valeria only cares because she thinks of me as her mess to clean up. Except, there’s no doing that and… I don’t owe her? No, I do owe her. But it’s not like I can repay her. So, what’s the point in thinking about it.

No matter how hard I try letting the thought go, it sticks to me all day. To the point when Toshiko, this cast’s witch, is rehearsing “Last Midnight” that I start to feel like she’s singing at me.

Nothing we can do. Not exactly true,” she sings, and I wince. There’s another line and then she sings, “No, of course what really matters is the blame. Someone you can blame.”

I must really be losing it if song lyrics sound like they’re literally speaking to me. But the words feel like a slap in the face. I know there’s still shit I can do. I know I can keep trying and trying and trying to somehow do something right after I’ve done something unforgivable. I know kicking myself if just an exercise in narcissistic self-loathing.

But I’ve always been such a good little narcissist. The fact that I’ve belatedly developed a conscience doesn’t mean I know how to properly use it. It seems impossible to reach out to Mary again, like the only possible result is one more failure.

The song ends and Valeria gives Toshiko staging notes in her gentle, patient voice.

I owe Valeria. I owe it to her to try to be good at this job. And maybe I even owe it to her to try being something more than worthless. So okay, I’ll try talking to Mary one last time. If I fail, I can keep on wallowing.

I’ve been staring at my phone for the past ten minutes. It’s chicken-shit of me, but I’ve never been good at the whole apologizing thing. That’s why academia and I had had a rocky relationship. My actual research work was amazing, sure. I had a knack for looking at things in ways others didn’t think to. But sucking up to authority and pretending to be humble while showing off? I was shit at that. And, fine, yeah, I also wasn’t too great at being collegial to people who actually deserved it. It’s part of why I took the Holland’s up on their offer – they only cared if I got the job done.

In hindsight, I should have just learned some half-decent social skills and then I wouldn’t even have to swallow my pride right now. Funny, right? Sighing, I pick up the phone and send Mary a text.

We should talk

Then I set my phone back down on the table and stand up to get out the cat food. I’m not expecting a response soon. I’m not even sure I’ll get one. But, if I stay seated, I’ll just end up staring at my phone blankly for hours. And while Barty and Dini chow down, I avoid thinking about my phone by doing housework. That’s the one thing meeting Mary’s been good for – my apartment hasn’t looked this clean since I moved in.

After giving up on my second attempt to fix my cat hair problem, I check my phone. One new message.

Are you planning on blowing up again?

Despite that being a fair question, I glare at the phone.

No

Then after glaring at the phone for a bit longer, I add:

Sorry for being an ass

You deserve to know more about magic

The phone vibrates.

Thank you. Let’s talk over dinner.

I don’t argue, because I owe her that much. She names a time and some Vietnamese place in Uptown. It sounds as good as anything else and so, a day later, I meet her there.

She’s dressed more casually than I’ve seen her before, just a nice blouse and jeans and for once I can barely tell she’s wearing make-up. When we’re inside and she hugs the manager, calling her “Auntie,” I have a guess as to why.

“This your aunt’s place?” I ask, once we sit down. The manager doesn’t look that much like Mary. I think they’re both Vietnamese. Or maybe Mary’s only part Vietnamese? Her name doesn’t sound it. Though she might be married… But that’s not really my business. It’s not like I’m trying to be friends with Mary.

Mary shakes her head. “Nah, she’s a friend of my mom’s. But she did babysit me a lot when Mom was working late.”

“Oh,” I say, almost tempted to bring up Valeria. But that seems like a weird thing to say. Hey look, our parents’ friends used to babysit us. We have so much in common. You might want to worry about how much you have in common with me.  So, in an attempt not to blurt out one stupid thing, I blurt out a different stupid thing, “Why the restaurant?”

Mary twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “Well, how do I put this… You seem pretty sensitive. Don’t start glaring, you have exploded on me twice so far. So, yeah, sensitive. And so, I figured, food’s a good way to get people to relax and you might mind your manners a little better if it’s my territory.”

“And people say I’m tactless.”

“I can do tact.” Mary shrugs. “I deal with plenty of old, white guys who’re too busy forgetting where my eyes are to pay attention to my research. But I have to put up with them. You? You don’t even seem to care about tact. Also, I don’t need to put up with you.”

I actually laugh. Despite the fact that she’s just insulted me, I find myself liking Mary in this moment. “You do have nice tits.”

Mary groans, “Not in front of Auntie.”

“How about when she’s not around?” I give Mary the most comically exaggerated wink I can manage.

She rolls her eyes. “If you want to find out how my boots feel against your ankles, go ahead.”

“Fine, fine,” I say. Feeling a little more at ease about this whole thing, I glance over the menu. Since the epidemic, most food and I have had disagreements. But the Pho seems like it shouldn’t be too hard to keep down. “Can I talk about sorcery in front of your auntie?”

“I wouldn’t have brought you here if you couldn’t.”

“Good. Then I want to say that I still think what you’re doing sounds like a shit idea. It’s the sort of decision I would have made before the epidemic.”

Mary takes a sip of her water. “Do you really want to go down the road of making direct comparisons between us? Because I’m not working for some sort of secret underground magic organization or whatever it was that your employers were. I’m not running human trials until I’m certain that’s safe to do. And those are the polite ways in which we’re different.” She meets my eyes. “Look, I know there’s risk involved. But, that’s far from unmanageable. Part of why I’m even trying to talk to you is because I want to understand the risks.” 

I don’t have a good argument against that. “Fine, but then…” I hesitate, because I shouldn’t offer this. I shouldn’t get so involved. But all I see is potential doom if I don’t get involved. Maybe I should have more faith in Mary, but trust is another thing I’ve never been good at. “I’d like to see your notes. Not to offer suggestions, I’m still not doing that, just to see if what you’re doing can kill anyone.”

“I’d actually appreciate that.”

“Okay,” I sigh, “So, you wanted to know if magic could be used to detect things?”

After that, Mary and I start to meet up regularly. At first, it’s only at her auntie’s place, but after the fourth time, I insist on mine because this is starting to get expensive. By then, I should know better than to keep meeting her, because I start doing exactly what I didn’t want to do. I’m offering suggestions. But as we’ve established, I don’t make good decisions.

It’s not that I hate working for the theater. I’m trying to take James’ suggestion to heart, do the whole saying hi to people thing and not instantly go on the offense as soon as someone bothers to respond. People even stop glaring at me after a while. That bit’s almost nice. It’s nice to watch the show come together and it’s nice to sometimes have dinner with people who aren’t my cats. This is better than I have any right to expect. But I keep finding my thoughts drifting back to Mary’s research, wondering about how the tests she’s running are going, wondering if her lab has funding for another researcher…

And the more I think about it, the less satisfying playing the same songs on the piano is starting to feel. I’ve gotten decent again, but somehow being able to play without mistakes feels more frustrating than satisfying. It’s like I’m stuck.

While the cast is taking a break, James comes over and leans against the piano.

“Show some respect, this is a noble instrument,” I say, no venom in my voice. I think I even sound tired.

“Sorry,” he says, not sounding sorry and not moving. “You busy tonight?”

“If you’re asking me on a date, hate to break it to you but men don’t do it for me.”

James wrinkles his nose. “No. It’s a week until opening night. Some of us are going out for drinks to celebrate. You want to come? Plus-ones welcome, if you got one.”

Right, opening night’s soon. The show runs for two weeks after that, and then we’re done. And here I thought I was stuck in the theater. “Yeah, why not?” I say, feeling my stomach sink.

James raises his eyebrows, but I wave my hand. “What did I tell you about respecting the piano. Off.”

Rolling his eyes, James gets off the piano. “I’ll text you the address. We’re going right after rehearsal.”

When he’s gone, I pull out my phone. It’s the plus one thing. Last time I had a girlfriend, I was still in college. It’s almost been as long since I last got laid. Shocker, but somehow my charms just don’t work on most women.

I open up Mary’s last text, something about insisting we go to a restaurant because I don’t buy groceries. (I do remember to buy groceries. Most of the time. It’s just the last time Mary came over I had forgotten for a few-ish days.) Really, this is a stupid impulse. We’re not even friends. But, the only people in this theater that I don’t feel like I’m walking on eggshells around are James and Valeria. I’m not staying glued to their sides the entire night.

Maybe I shouldn’t have even accepted the invitation, but like I said, I am trying to get along with people. I just think I need one other person around that can tolerate me, even if she doesn’t like me.

Cast is going out for drinks tonight

Want to come?

An hour later, Mary texts me back.

Sure.

Despite the fact that Mary agreed to come, I wasn’t expecting her to show up. But she arrives at the small Irish pub and as usual she’s perfectly dolled up. It doesn’t seem to bother her that she looks out of place. She smiles when I introduce her and then proceeds to engage half the table in some debate about who today’s biggest popstar is. The only name I recognize is Katy Perry, because my ex really hated her girl kissing song.

Still, with Mary doing enough talking for both of us, I find it easy to just sip my pear cider. Anything stronger and I might be dancing on the table, attempting to sing that kissing girls song out of a need to spite an ex whose face I barely remember. Mary, on the other hand, drinks enough whiskey to make a cowboy jealous. Neither of us is sober by the end of it.

So, when Mary says I should come over to her place for once, I don’t argue. James gives us a knowing wink as we leave, and I give him the bird. I don’t bother to explain to him that I’m not fucking the gorgeous and charming scientist who probably only thinks I’m worth her time because I have forbidden magic knowledge. Not that she’s that gorgeous or charming anyhow.

Mary and I end up on her too cushy couch – Mary’s making commentary on my colleagues and I’m rolling my eyes. The apartment itself is monstrously pink. The rugs are fluffy, couch pillows floral and the walls are lit up by fairy lights. It’s not neat, but it’s clean. Comfortable, if you want to live in CandyLand or if you’re like me and have a cold and crumbling apartment and find the change weirdly refreshing.

“You know, I kind of didn’t believe you were doing the whole community theater thing until tonight,” Mary says. “But now that I think about it, it makes sense.”

“What’s that even supposed to mean?”

“Well, you look like a Green Day reject and get prissy about tea. In retrospect, it screams theater-nerd. Oh, and you have cats with long people-names. That’s also pretty theater-nerdy.”

“I do not look like Green Day.” I glare. “I haven’t even listened to their music since middle school and even then, I thought it was lame. And my taste in tea is perfectly normal for someone who hasn’t killed their taste buds with espresso and–“

Mary laughs. “I said a Green Day reject.”

I pick up one of her stupidly frilly pillows and toss It at her. She keeps laughing as she swats me with it. And then we’re fighting with pillows like we’re kids. It’d be nostalgic if I’d had friends to have pillow fights with when I was an actual kid. By the time we’re done, Mary’s giggling and I’ve got a stupid grin on my face.

Mary shakes her head and sinks back down into the couch. “Really, what I was trying to get at was that when I ignore the context of you, I almost like you.”

“The context of me.” My stomach twists, because then I remember who I am and who Mary is and why we even started talking in the first place.

Looking over at my face, Mary frowns. “Hey, uh, no that came out–“

“It came out fine.” I wave my hand. “I know who I am.”

“Wait no, hold up. That isn’t… Well, okay it was sort of what I was trying to say. I mean, you did cause the epidemic and…” She shakes her head. “But…”

“Me being a theater-nerd makes it okay?” I roll my eyes. “Or, that sometimes you want to pretend it does because it makes your conscience be quieter? Don’t worry, I get it.” I flash her a toothy grin.

“Will you stop for one second and let me finish?”

“I would if you had an actual point to make.”

“Good news, I do. Or now I do. I’m sorry, I was blurting out things before I thought them through. My bad. Genuinely, not flippantly, my bad. But hold up.  It’s just…” She sighs and pulls her legs to her.

I hold still, trying not to tap my fingers on my knee. We don’t need to have this conversation. Whatever this conversation even is, because I can’t understand what the hell Mary wants from poking around the obvious. But if only to stop myself from storming out on Mary for a third and at this point final time, I keep quiet. Eventually, she does speak.

“I guess, there’re a few things that bother me. First, you don’t seem fundamentally evil. That’s not to say what you did was okay or that I forgive you for it, not that forgiveness is a really applicable term here because when the scale is so grand– Uh, that’s a tangent. The point there is, it’s kind of obvious you feel regret here. Which is where the second point comes in – you seem to I don’t know… treat me like your redemption? Rather than trying to–“

“What? Are you trying to psychoanalyze me? Going to go Freudian and talk about how what I really want is daddy’s dick?”

She groans then opens her mouth as if to speak then closes it. After taking a breath, Mary says, “Wouldn’t it be mommy’s tits?”

“Don’t think Freud knew what a lesbian was.”

“Well, since I know what a lesbian is and I’m the one doing the psychoanalyzing,” She shrugs. “I’d say it’d be mommy’s tits.” There’s a faint flush to Mary’s cheeks.

“Think I’d prefer your tits,” I say, trying to cling to this subject change. It’s much easier than trying to talk to Mary about how I’m not dealing with my problems.

“Well, I suppose that makes sense. Mine are rather nice and do you even have–” She gestures towards my chest.

It’s always been mostly flat and it’s only gotten flatter in the past few months. Still, I waggle my brows and say, “Want to see for yourself, doctor?”

Mary looks me over, maybe trying to figure out if I’m serious or maybe trying to figure out how to escape this trajectory. Maybe she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings or some other dumb shit like that. It’s not like I expect her to say yes. So, I smirk, trying to signal that whatever her response is, it won’t bother me.

“Sure,” she finally says, “So long as you don’t call me doctor again.”

I freeze momentarily, waiting for the ‘just kidding.’ It doesn’t come. I guess there’s no backing out now. I shrug off my t-shirt and the sports bra I’m wearing.

Mary meets my eyes, and I feel my cheeks heating up like some blushing virgin. “Well?” I ask.

She leans over and brushes a thumb over one of my nipples. It’s grown hard in the chill and feels sensitive to the touch. “Not even going to kiss me before feeling me up?” My voice is breathier than I want it to be.

Mary chuckles, then catches my chin in her hands. “You want me to kiss you?”

“I do kind of wonder what your lipstick would look like on me.”

When she kisses me, her lips are soft, and I can taste the whiskey on her breath. She pushes me back against her couch and one of her hands runs over my side. I let myself get swept up.

“That’s definitely not your shade,” Mary says, when the kiss breaks.

Before long we’re out of our clothes. Then I can’t help but stare. It’s not just that she’s hot, though I won’t lie and say that’s not part of it. Her tits are round and soft, her curves feminine, her dark skin smooth except for the stripes of stretch marks along her sides and chest. She’s far from a skinny woman, but I like the fullness in her thighs and the curve of her stomach. Maybe even envy it, since I’m mostly hollows and bones, more of a skeleton than a woman.

And that’s the other reason I’m staring. Because she looks like a woman in ways I don’t think I could ever imitate. Not just the body, though I suppose that’s part of it. But the something else. The thing that’s always told me I’m pretty shit at being a woman, a thing that I can’t really name and never had time to examine. Still don’t, because I kind of want to be touching Mary rather than staring at her. So, I just say, “Anyone ever tell you that you’re fucking beautiful?”

“A few people, here and there,” She grins.

There’s a moment where I’m unsure as to what to do next. It has been a while. And I can keep staring until Mary takes the lead again, but it doesn’t seem fair to let her do all the work. So, I straddle her lap, then press a kiss to her jaw. She exhales.

I trail kisses down her neck to her breasts before lightly nipping at her nipple. Mary’s breath hitches. I stay there for a while, trying to find out how exactly to make Mary’s breathing do some interesting things.

Her hand slipping between my legs is unexpected, though it shouldn’t be. I’m already slick and grow wetter as her finger circles around my clit. The touch is barely there though, teasing. “That all you got?” I ask.

She chuckles, before sliding her hand lower. A finger slips inside me and then I’m the one gasping. I brace a hand against the couch to keep balance and she slips in another finger, pumping them slowly. Too slowly. “Tease.”

“Hmm? Too fast for you?” She slows down further.

“Mary,” I gasp, grinding into her hand. But it’s not enough.

Brushing her lips to my ear, she says, “Are you going to tell me what you want?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Faster.” And then I add, “Please.”

“You really are kind of cute,” she says before finally speeding up. I press my face into her neck, switching between curses and her name until I’m incoherent.

When I can think again, I’m still shuddering and she’s smoothing her hand against my back. “Fuck,” I say.

“Yeah, I think I did just fuck you,” Mary chuckles.

Later that night I return the favor, with my tongue instead of fingers. We doze off on the couch, sticky and sweaty, covered only by one of Mary’s couch blankets. It’s comfortable and warm and the best sleep I’ve had in ages. But I wake up before the sun’s up. Mary’s still asleep.

I could wake her or even stick around until morning. Maybe she’d try and make me eat breakfast. Maybe we’d have a nice chat, and everything would go well. Or maybe she’d try psychoanalyzing me again. Either way, I don’t want to find out. Because if Mary’s gotten some misguided attachment to me, I don’t think I can handle it. And if she thinks I’m trash that was fun for a night, I don’t think I can handle that either. So, I grab my clothes and call a Lyft.

Mary texts me the next morning, but I don’t read it. I don’t delete her number either, but I’m tempted to. It’s not like me being an ass is a surprise. And thankfully, no one asks me about Mary during rehearsal. We’re all too busy getting ready for opening night. It distracts me from the added, stupid sad feeling I get when I look at my phone.

The show itself does go well. Why wouldn’t it? Everyone’s done their job right. The audience cheers and I know the cast and crew are going out for drinks again. This time, however, I’m not planning on joining them. It’s probably for the best. In two weeks, I won’t be seeing any of them other than Valeria again, because of course their old pianist should be recovered enough for the next show. This was only temporary, too bad I don’t have anything else lined up.

At home, I find myself at my desk, staring at the locked drawer that keeps my notes. The ones from the epidemic. I really should fucking burn them. Tonight, especially, I want to burn something.

Unlocking the drawer, I pull the notes out. They’re in a simple, nondescript sort of notebook, a little dusty but otherwise unremarkable. Some of the pages are stained with tea and blood, but that’s not visible from the outside.

At my legs, Barty mews, giving me a skeptical look. “Oh hush, I’m destroying these, not selling them.” Though, if I sold them to the right sorcerer, I wouldn’t need to worry about not having a job. Who knows what would happen to the world afterwards, but given my health, I might not even live to see the consequences.  

Barty mews again. “I’m not being serious. Jeez, Bart.”

Because I can’t burn the thing inside, I make my way to the rooftop of the apartment complex and pick up a metal bucket and some matches along the way. Outside, it’s chilly. Fall’s coming soon, which feels somewhat poetic. I toss the book into the bucket and then toss a lit match in after. The book catches fire slowly, edges turning black and curled. Hugging myself, I shiver.

What the hell am I going to do now? I might be metaphorically burning my past, but metaphor or not, there’s no changing it. Yeah, Mary, I do regret it. I regret that I worked for the Hollands. I regret that I didn’t consider what the consequences might be. I regret that I cared more about power and knowledge than I did about human life.  

And maybe, yeah, I was hoping doing right by Mary would somehow make it better. But, no, obviously not. All that did is maybe make her like me, maybe make her see something worthwhile in me. Maybe. Or maybe not. I can’t fucking say which one would be worse.

The fire starts to really catch, and I sink down onto the ground next to the bucket. I just want to know if there’s anything I can do with myself other than jump off of a building to prevent more damage to the world.

As I sit staring at the flames, the phone in my pocket vibrates. It’s another text from Mary. Apparently, she hasn’t given up. Without even reading the text, I call her.

“Iggy?” She says, picking up the phone.

“No, I’m someone who stole her phone.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

I snort. “You know, all those texts make you seem desperate. Can’t you tell when you’re being ghosted.”

 “Yeah. And I can tell you that the ghosting thing is stupid. If you regret the sex, we can pretend it never happened like semi-mature adults.”

“And then what?”

“Uhm, what do you mean?”

I sigh. “I mean, you had what you wanted from me over a month ago. At this point, all the magical information I can give you is speculation. So, what do you need me for? And don’t tell me you care about me. That’d be stupid.”

There’s silence over the line.

“So, I’ll just be hanging up now,” I say.

“Give me a moment, will you! Jesus Christ, Iggy. You think I hung out with you the other night because I wanted information about magic?”

“Well, what else am I good for?”

“Are you having some sort of crisis?”

“And what if I am? You going to try fixing it?” I spit.

“No, that’s what therapists are for.” She inhales loudly enough for me to hear over the line. “But, if you want to talk about it–“

“You want to listen to me whine? Because, sure, I can whine. I’m a terrible human being with no future who doesn’t even deserve one and–“

“Okay. Okay! Stop.”

“I thought you wanted to listen,” I sneer, nudging the burning bucket with my boot.  

“Yeah, well, I just wanted to tell you that you sound like a complete idiot.”

“Yeah?”

“You know what I was trying to say the other night? I was trying to say that I think it’s really dumb that you keep doing the whole guilty thing without actually trying to do anything about it. Like right now.”

“It’s not like I can fix shit!”

“Did I say you could? You ever thought you could maybe use that brain of yours to do something useful? Channel that guilt into something productive. Don’t make me go ex-Catholic on you.”

“Like I deserve that.”

“It’s not about you, it’s about what you owe other people.”  

I glare at the phone. “Thanks for the great advice.”

“Just think on it, will you?”

“Fine.”

“Good. And, are you okay? Do you need me to–“

“I’m fine, Mary. I’ll text you later to tell you I haven’t jumped off the roof.”

“Okay, good. And if you try ghosting me again, we’re through, got it?”

“Got it.” I hang up and watch as the last embers die out.

That night, I lay in bed. I’ve already texted Mary that I’m not a pancake on the asphalt, but I keep staring at my phone. Because I am thinking on what Mary said. It’s not technically shit I don’t know. I know I still owe Valeria an attempt to be someone worth her kindness. I owe Mary for making something good out from the rubble of the mess I’d caused. And maybe I owe the magical community to show the world our power isn’t only capable of destruction, since I’m the one who made the world aware of it in the first place.

I just don’t like that the only way I can think of doing that puts me right where I want to be – in a lab. Self-flagellation aside, I still can’t see that ending well. And I suppose I could just keep helping Mary, that’s something. But it doesn’t feel like enough.

I flip through my phone contacts. Old colleagues who probably never want to talk to me again, a few Hollands, most of whom are dead, my ex, Mary, James and Valeria.

Valeria, the person I owe more than anyone else. The person who decided no magical secrets were worth her life. I wish I’d had that sense. I wish my parents had, though maybe that’s not fair. The deck was stacked against all of us from the start.  But as long as mafias control the magical community, I bet there’s going to be another me, desperate for power that’s hidden away.

Another me. The world doesn’t need another me.

Blinking, I sit up in bed. I check the time and it’s not too late. Valeria might still be awake. I call her.

“Inga, dear, are you alright?” Valeria asks.

“Yeah, fine. I uh, wanted to talk to you. I know, I know, I never call unless it’s an emergency. Just, I was thinking, well more like wondering, if you think there’s anything I can do for the community, the magical community that is. I mean, the Hollands are gone, the world knows about magic. Both are kind of my fault, so…” I trail off. It sounds stupid when I say it out loud. What can I even–

“Hm, that’s an interesting thought, dear. Why don’t you come over for tea tomorrow to discuss it? Maybe bring that nice young lady you’ve been working with? Mary, right?”

I take a breath and another, then exhale, relieved. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I can ask her. I’ll see you tomorrow.”  

Maybe this is a stupid idea, but I owe it to myself to try. 

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12 thoughts on “Careful the Spell You Cast

  1. I like the way we get a little steady stream of information about magic and exactly what happened and what the scope was. I’m curious about all of that!! I really enjoyed this. 🙂

    • Ah! Thank you so much!! Figuring out how to do the world building (and how much world building to do) was one of the trickier parts so I’m really glad that worked out! 😀

  2. Wow! This was great!
    I really appreciate the idea of writing about unlikeable non-male characters, because I love unlikeable characters. Iggy was a good example of why. I loved her snarky, bitter way to go about thing and I’m so glad she ends up trying to do something good with her life! I would have probably loved to read the whole story of how she followed her research ambition until she caused a catastrophe. Definitely one of my favourite character traits.
    I also loved Mary’s softness. I like me some soft ladies with a strong backbone.
    Great work with the bits of worldbuilding sprinkled here and there! Not too little and not too much, although it sounds so interesting I wish we’d got to see more.
    Thank you for the story. Kept me good company through part of a long travel. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more of your stuff!

    • Thank you so much!!! This filled me with all the warm fuzzies! I definitely had fun writing their personalities and they way the two played off each other so I’m glad that came through 😀 And I’m really glad you enjoyed the world building, since I’m not yet done with this world (though it’ll be a bit before I come back to it.) Thank you again for reading and I hope you enjoy your travel!

  3. Ooo, what an interesting world you’ve built! I like Iggy, but I do hope she starts to see a therapist. It’s good that she’s started to see beyond her self-hatred and started to think about what she might be able to do. This felt sort of like a meditation on guilt and responsibility and I really enjoyed it.

    • Ah, thank you! And you got that right on the money – the original thought for this story is ‘what does a person do when they’ve done something unforgivable.’ So, I’m really glad that come through 😀

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