by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by rebelliux
It was Nightshade who had the idea first. She’d been at this the longest, since back before we all could drive, because her parents were the only ones willing to shuttle her to the town’s single New Age store, where the shelves were stocked with crystals and books that spelled “magic” with a k. They were the kind of cool parents who thought parenting was less important than being your child’s best friend, which was why she called them Herb and Trudy, and why we spent a lot of our weekends drinking in their basement.
“Why should witches think small?” she asked, picking the little cubed pepperoni chunks off her rectangle of school-cafeteria pizza and eating them individually. “That’s why we get such a bad rap. All that you ever see us doing in the movies is selfish. Making ourselves prettier. Making boys fall in love with us. Making popular girls get zits.” Nightshade’s real name was Bertha, and I suppose if that had been my name, I would have re-christened myself after a poisonous plant too.
“I don’t think that’s the only reason witches get a bad rap,” said Valerie, who was that day dressed as her twin sister Penny. Made sense; there was a Calculus test today. They’d swap back after gym.
“Whatever. It’s part of the problem, okay?” Nightshade drummed her fingers on the cover of the book on the table. Despite how important that book becomes later in this story, I can’t for the life of me remember the actual title, so I’m just going to call it The Smart Girl’s Spellbook of Practical Wicca. Close enough. “Everything in here is small-scale.”
“I think that’s part of the ‘practical’ thing,” said Penny, who was in turn doing her best impression of Valerie.
“Look,” Nightshade said, flipping to a chapter she’d dog-eared, “this isn’t a spell to make you do well on a test, it’s a spell to give you the confidence that you’re going to do well on a test. I can get that from studying, and I don’t even need to spend two bucks on a purple candle.”
Valerie read the page upside-down, then shrugged. She already had the confidence she’d pass the test in question, largely by having no plans to take it in the first place. “What does this have to do with thinking small?” she asked.
Stephanie frowned and turned to the next dog-ear. “What’s a mermaid spell supposed to do?” she asked. She was a starter on the varsity basketball team and was by that token popular enough to be ninety percent of why the other students left us weird kids alone. I sometimes had erotic dreams where she pinned my arms behind my back and sat on me. I was far too terrified of her ever to breathe a word this to anyone.
“Nothing that matters!” Nightshade flipped the cover shut. “I mean, there’s power out there, real power. And we’re supposed to use it to, what, grow a fish tail?”
For most of this discussion, I said nothing. That was kind of my role as the token boy in this amateur coven: to represent the male energies that held together half of the universe, to eat the parts of their meals the girls declared off-limits because of one diet or another, and to otherwise keep my mouth shut. I agreed with Nightshade, mostly because I’d been agreeing with her ever since elementary school, when she’d still been Bertha and beat me up every day after school on the playground. We’d always gone back to her house after for Little Debbie zebra cakes, though. My parents were just happy I had a friend.
Penny frowned as she picked the crusts off her sandwich. When she was done, I’d get those too. “I think if witches could stop wars, they’d be doing it already,” she pointed out.
“I don’t know, V,” said Nightshade, who, like nearly everyone else, was not capable of telling the twins apart when they cross-dressed. “Maybe there would be a lot more wars if witches didn’t intervene.”
Everyone at the table had to agree she had a conveniently unprovable point there.
Nightshade sighed with what I could tell was free-floating frustration. “I’m just saying, it feels small, okay? Like … here’s all this shit on the news, in Bosnia and Somalia, and — and, I don’t know, AIDS and shit, and it’s like, we’re tapping into the great powers of the universe to have better hair?” She and I together had done a beauty chant for her hair the previous week. Hers was naturally black, unlike mine, which needed a fresh coat of Manic Panic Raven every couple weeks, but it was frizzy and prone to tangles, so we’d tried to fix that. She’d also switched conditioners. Jury was still out on whether black magic or Herbal Essences was more effective.
Stephanie put a hand on Nightshade’s shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze. “I get what you’re saying. I really do. But, like … that probably takes a lot of work. From a lot of witches together. And stopping a war is like … I mean, I don’t even think I could find Bosnia on a map, much less tell you what’s wrong with it.”
Confronted with the limits of our suburban American understandings of late-twentieth-century world politics, we all grew quiet. In retrospect, I can totally see where Nightshade was coming from. Senior year of high school is a weird place for anyone to be, a frustrating concurrence of being told you’re about to go change the world and realizing the limits of your efficacy. If anything, it was even weirder at the end of the century and the end of the millennium, when it seemed like it wasn’t just us, but the whole world at the edge of a precipice, teetering on the brink of the unknown. We were all in the process of realizing how small we really were.
“What if we did something we did know about?” asked someone, and I was more than a little surprised to find out that someone was me.
Herb and Trudy’s ancient VW minivan had a bumper sticker that said Think Globally, Act Locally. Nightshade frowned at me. “Like what?” she asked.
I shrugged. I had already said my quota of words for the lunch period and wasn’t keen on exceeding it. That was how I managed most of life, by having a brain-mouth filter that caught an estimated 99.5% of my thoughts before they made it out into the world.
I was at that moment saved by the bell, or at least by the horrid, grating buzzer that marked time in our high school’s hallowed halls. Penny and Valerie got up and set off to corners of the school as Valerie and Penny, respectively. Stephanie grimly followed Penny-as-Valerie, having no twin sister of her own to save her from the Calculus that awaited them both. I was therefore left to escort Nightshade to our shared period of AP Government, where the twitchy, bug-eyed Mr. Collinswood talked a little too much about impeachment and the excesses of liberalism. Mostly I read Dragonlance novels under my desk.
When Mr. Collinswood dimmed the lights and spun up yet another filmstrip about checks and balances in the three branches of government, a folded note hit my desk. This was Nightshade’s favorite method of in-class communication, but the fold looked weird, and it had Reid written on the front, like I wouldn’t have recognized something landing on my desk as being for me without my name on it.
Curious, I pulled the flaps open.
I overheard you in the cafeteria, the note said in cramped yet lyric script, like the work of a calligrapher writing on a desk the side of a postage stamp. I’m interested in changing the world too. If you want to talk about it, meet me outside the band hall after last period. No abbreviations or scratchouts, and not a single clue as to its author.
I craned my head around, trying to take stock of the people around me, when Mr. Collinswood cleared his throat and glared right at me. “Mr. Winston,” he said, “do you know so much about the rights and responsibilities constitutionally afforded to you as an American citizen that you can afford not to pay attention?”
Busted. I sat upright in my seat and locked my neck straight ahead, and I watched every painful second of that animated filmstrip, which seemed of the opinion that the callow Legislative branch of government did not do enough to hold the Executive branch in check for all its filthy, filthy excesses. I already knew I wasn’t going to AP test out of anything after this semester, unless they were offering exams in pre-militia paranoia.
The second the bell rang, the students around me took off as though shot from a gun, leaving me with no further idea of the note-writer’s identity. I spent the rest of the afternoon in a weird anxious haze, only partly due to the filmstrip’s in-depth look at the potential definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” as related to Articles of Impeachment.
I didn’t even tell Nightshade about the note. For one thing, there was a great deal of danger clearly involved here. It could be a trap, to be beaten up by bullies who overheard a bunch of nerds talking about magic, or by a bunch of religious bullies who overheard a bunch of ostensible Satanists talking about magic, or by a crack team of Catholic assassins from the Vatican who wanted to stop us before we proved their religion was an expensive sham. …Okay, so it probably wasn’t that last one, but I was keeping my options open on the danger front anyway. What kind of a person would I be to walk my best friend into an obvious trap like that?
And for another… well, it came to me. It was my mystery. The writer betrayed no clues as to his or her or their identity or identities in the process of communicating with me. That was powerful stuff.
So it was with some trepidation that I exited through the door leading to the parking lot by the band hall. I kept my eyes peeled for roving gangs of marauding papists, or assault rifle squirt guns filled with holy water. My parents had never been religious, but I assumed that was what church was like.
Instead, there was one guy waiting there, and to my shock, I recognized him. My high school was huge, and even though all the AP-taking kids tended to cluster together, I didn’t tend to know anyone Nightshade didn’t introduce me to first. But this guy was memorable beyond that, having transferred into our lily-white Midwestern public school at the start of the year. He had olive skin and an amazing mop of curly hair, and he wore sweater-vests in a way I’d never seen anybody under the age of forty do. When he saw me, he smiled and pushed his glasses up his aquiline nose. “Sorry I got you in trouble with my note,” he said. His English was perfect, but he had a weird accent I couldn’t place. I wondered if I’d ever heard him talk before.
“No, hey, it’s cool,” I stammered, sticking my hands in my pockets. I glanced around. “I, um, was wondering who wrote it.”
“I… I signed it at the bottom,” he said.
So of course, instead of taking his word for it, I pulled the note out from my pocket. I’d read in a hundred times that afternoon and somehow never managed to notice that there was one more fold, right down at the bottom. I used one black-painted fingernail to part the page, and there it was, a lovely Amir. Well, that was handy, as I’d never really be sure what his name was or how to spell it before.
There was no playing like I’d known that from the start, so I stuffed the note back in my pocket and decided to pretend the past thirty seconds hadn’t happened. “So, um, hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said, smiling back at me. “You know, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”
“It’s cool,” I said again. I kept my hands firmly in my pockets. They were safe in my pockets. My pockets were entirely free from social anxiety, and thus my hands were as well. I could not say that about any other part of me at the moment.
Amir continued, “And I thought I’d ask… um, Belladonna?”
“Nightshade,” I said. “Common error.”
“Damn,” Amir said, kicking at the ground. “I could only think of two poisonous plants, so I had a fifty percent chance of getting it right.”
“And a fifty percent chance of getting it wrong,” I pointed out. Take that, Calculus test! Mathemagician, right here.
Instead of taking that badly, though, Amir smiled at me. “Well, one hundred percent she scares me, so I thought I’d try approaching you instead.”
That startled me into a little laugh. Nightshade was scary. She worked very hard at it and would no doubt take Amir’s terror as a compliment when I told her about this later.
“So,” Amir continued after a moment of silence, “do you really do magic?”
I chewed on my lower lip. The school wouldn’t let boys wear makeup, and they wouldn’t let anyone wear the black lipstick I was fond of at the time, so I’d taken to a semi-obsessive daytime ChapStick habit. I tasted cherry-flavored wax. “That’s…” I switched to chewing on my upper lip for a moment. “I mean, we try.”
“That’s awesome,” Amir said. I studied his face right then, looking for some sign of mockery or ill intent, but all I learned was that he was really cute, and I’d known that already. “Are you more aligned with Crowley and Thelemic principles, or do you consider yourselves more into Hermetic philosophy? Do you consider John Dee’s Enochian alphabet a valid foundational tool? Or do you deal more with goddess-centric neopagan traditions? Are you a full coven? Maybe Dianic or Stregheria? Are you Italian? Or maybe even Kabbalah? I’d be surprised if you turned out to be into Kabbalah, though. You don’t seem Jewish, though, and I’d know because I’m half. My mom says it’s the right half, though. My dad’s Muslim, though, so he believes that since there’s only one God, you can’t do magic, but you can talk to djinns to make them do magic for you. Except he doesn’t actually believe in anything, which arguably doesn’t make him Muslim at all, but try telling that to Grandmother. So?”
By the time he stopped speaking, several years after he started, I was certain I’d been asked at least one question and equally certain I had no idea what it was.
“We, um,” I said, trying to recover, “we have a book.”
“A book!” Amir said, his eyes lighting up. “What book?”
There was no way I was about to tell the guy who’d just mentioned a dozen things I’d never heard of before that we were getting our magical information straight from The Smart Girl’s Spellbook of Practical Wicca. So I panicked. “I could, um, show it to you?” I offered. “We’re getting together Saturday. It’s the full moon, so … we’re gonna do stuff.”
The technical definition of ‘stuff’ there was ‘eat tortilla chips and watch episodes of Buffy Stephanie had taped off TV’, but he didn’t need to know that. “This is fantastic,” Amir said, grinning ear to ear. Ugh, he had a cute smile, too. Of course he did. Years later, I would learn the abbreviation FML and wish I’d had it at this very moment. “Because I have some ideas about improving the world. That’s what you were asking about, right?”
Improving the world. Right. “Of course,” I said, because I was not going to disagree with the cute, smart boy who had somehow mistakenly found me interesting.
“Great.” Amir clenched his hands into triumphant fists. “Let’s hex Jerry Falwell.”
It has come to my attention, in my retellings of this story, that the specter of Jerry Falwell is a rapidly diminishing one, and that the youth of today are as likely as not to be confused by Amir’s choice of target, given that they have no reference for this individual or why he would deserve a visit from the Dark Powers. While I am utterly pleased that he may yet be erased from common cultural memory sooner rather than later, much the nuance here is lost on those whose memory of that chunk of history is fuzzy, if not entirely pre-natal. Thus, allow me the indulgence of a sidebar, wherein I describe to any listeners without the appropriate context how best to understand the man behind the name “Jerry Falwell”:
Find a full-length mirror, one that goes nearly to the floor. Stand naked in front of it, then turn around so you are facing away from it. Spread your feet, bend from the waist, and look back between your legs so that you can see the reflection of your own asshole in the mirror. Now imagine your asshole wearing a cheap tie and saying hateful things about gays in the name of Jesus.
There you go.
Nightshade was not thrilled.
“You were the one who said you wanted to change the world,” I reminded her as we sat on the concrete half-wall around the parking lot by the 7-Eleven, drinking radioactive blue Slurpees the size of our heads. I would pick up a brief smoking habit in my twenties that I maintain to this day was less of a health risk.
“Yeah, but…” Nightshade grunted, then pumped her straw in and out of the plastic lid several times, making the squeaky sound she knew I hated. I let her do it. “I mean, what’s he expecting?”
I shrugged. I’d gone and looked up Thelema in the school library’s encyclopedia after talking to Amir. It had taken me a couple tries to spell it right. “He’s … hard to read,” I concluded, in the same way the encyclopedia could be hard to read: so much there and no real clues about where to start.
“You think he thinks he can do magic or something?” asked Nightshade.
I took a moment to parse through the levels of thinking in her sentence. “No, I think … I think he thinks he can’t. Isn’t cut out for it, or something.” I would’ve called him a Muggle if either of us had heard of Harry Potter at that point, which was out but hadn’t yet made it to our collective radar. “But he thinks there’s something to it.”
“And he’s not just bullshitting you for a prank or something?”
“He seemed real excited,” I said, and maybe I’ve always been real quiet, but when you don’t say much, you wind up doing a lot of listening. I liked to think I had a pretty good read on people, anyway. Besides, even a dedicated prankers didn’t just name-drop John Dee in conversation. (I’d found him in the encyclopedia too, after realizing that his last name wasn’t just an initial.) “Maybe he’ll be what we need to make it work.”
Nightshade quirked one eyebrow at me. “What do you mean?”
“Somebody who, you know, actually believes in this stuff.”
Nightshade sighed then, but I knew she knew I was right — at least about the implication that none of us were true believers. Stephanie was absolutely not on the mystic bandwagon, though she continued to hang with us for reasons I didn’t entirely understand until we all got to college and her lesbian tendencies switched from proto- to outright. Penny and Valerie felt a more-than-average draw to the celestial forces because of their twinhood, but I could tell that even they didn’t precisely believe in powers that existed beyond their shared bond. Nightshade … well, she wanted to believe, but I could tell it was an uphill battle for her most days.
And me? I’d gotten along my entire life by believing exactly as much as the people around me needed to believe, which meant that the more Nightshade’s faith in supernatural powers faded, the more mine went with it.
“FIne.” Nightshade sighed as though weighted by an incredible burden, except that she was still smiling. “God, you’re the worst.”
“You.” She play-kicked me with her combat boots. “You get stupid when there’s a hottie involved.”
“Shut up,” I grumbled, letting my hair fall in a curtain around my face to hide whatever incredibly telling expression I was sure I was making.
Nightshade elbowed me in my squishy middle. All of her affection toward me was colored with violence. “I’m going to do a love spell,” she threatened in a sing-song voice.
“Don’t you dare! That’s — there’s free will! You can’t just do it like that!” I sputtered at her. On the off chance that some random god or goddess was listening, I didn’t want the first guy who ever looked twice at me to have done it because he was brainwashed. I was a chubby awkward virgin, but dammit, I still had some pride.
“Not on him, numbnuts. On you.” She wiggled her fingers witchily in my face. “I’m going to make you irresistible.”
Intellectually, I know that isn’t any better on the coercion and brainwashing front, but at the time, it sounded like a perfect compromise. “Whatever,” I said, trying not to sound excited at the idea of getting my own Cinderella transformation. Visions were already beginning to swarm in my head of me coming down the stairs into Herb and Trudy’s basement, six feet tall and powerful, with the swagger of Gene Simmons and the eyeliner of Marilyn Manson. There were strobe lights and a fog machine in my vision, too, and someone shredding a powerful guitar as I emerged, graceful step by graceful step.
That’s right, that would be me, large as life and twice as goth, like a teenaged Raistlin Majere, Dragonlance wizard and patron saint of the inexplicably sexy. Nothing had ever made me believe in magic so much as the hope that it might turn the intense-yet-cute occult fanboy into my number one fan, even if only for a minute. With any luck, a minute would be all I’d need.
In reality, I tripped about halfway down and didn’t catch myself until I was nearly at the bottom and had sent an entire bowl of potato chips to their crunchy doom.
Stephanie, bless her reflexes, was on her feet and at my side before I had a chance to faceplant further and hurt myself any worse than I already had. The others were also sitting on the couch, but they weren’t half-court goddesses, so their butts were barely off the cushions by the time she had me arrested in her powerful arms. If I’d been less humiliated, I might have swooned.
“Is everything all right down there?” called Trudy from the kitchen door at the top step. Gravity plus wooden staircase plus chubby kid in heavy shoes equals the sound of a small elephant herd, equals instant Mom Concern.
“All clear!” called Stephanie back at her. “Reid just tripped!”
“You okay, Gumdrop?” asked Trudy.
“Fine!” I said as I righted myself. Ah, I’d wondered what could have made this whole thing more embarrassing. Leave it to Trudy. I looked around at the flaky mess surrounding my feet like greasy snow. “…Maybe need the Dustbuster, though.”
A few minutes later, the chip remnants were resting in the belly of the hand-vacuum, another bag had been procured, and I had almost stopped wishing for a meteor to hit the earth in the very spot where I now sat, trying to blend into the couch. “Okay,” said Penny, pouring more Mountain Dew into her cup, “what’s your big idea here, and how are we contributing to world peace through it?”
Amir leaned forward and braced his elbows on top of his knees. “Crowley says, ‘Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.'” The rest of the room nodded; I’d found a Geocities page on the occult the day before and emailed it to all of them, to avoid as many dumb questions as possible. Maybe my entrance had been a flop, but I could still make up for it if we proved to be real magicians here. “See, that’s what got me interested, because it’s a science and an art. Like the cheat codes to the universe. If you glitch a video game, it’s still a video game, and you can’t make it do anything a video game wouldn’t do. But you can make it do something that video game wouldn’t do.”
I was lost as hell and was grateful that Stephanie was willing to admit it so I didn’t have to. “So you want to use magic on video games?” she asked.
Amir shook his head, causing his curls to spring around. “I’m saying that life is like a video game,” he said. He had the patient, professorial demeanor that could make it sound like there was no such thing as a stupid question. “You can’t make a penguin poof and appear here in the middle of the coffee table. That’s a violation of the laws of physics, and probably some code about keeping wild animals in city limits. But maybe you could make someone want to bring you a penguin.”
Nightshade nodded as she sipped her black tea, which she drank at all hours. “And you want to make someone bring Jerry Falwell a penguin,” she said, the added, “metaphorically.”
“Metaphorically, I want to make Jerry Falwell want to bring someone a penguin,” Amir said. “I heard you say you’re only doing little things. I believe that if you do little things in the right places, they make big results. We wouldn’t need to do the impossible, or even the improbable. All we need to do, like Crowley said, is focus our wills together on making a particular change happen.”
It was spectacular logic, hamstrung only by the part where we had, to my knowledge, never successfully pulled off even the most rudimentary of unassisted spells. But if faith was what was holding us back, then ours had just gotten a shot in the arm. The more Amir talked, the more I could see the others perk up as they considered the possibilities out there. It was Chaos Theory, magic-style. If we couldn’t wizard up anything more spectacular than butterflies, then we could at least be butterflies in the right place.
Amir looked at me, peering with his dark eyes over the top rims of his glasses. “You said you had a book?” he asked, and I realized he was talking to me.
I had begged and pleaded with Nightshade until she’d agreed to let me swipe a paper textbook cover from school and use it to hide the book’s sparkly, grrl-power exterior. Now it was drab and had ads for local businesses along its spine instead, but it was still more serious-looking than the alternative. I reached into my backpack and set it on the table, then opened it to the table of contents. “Here you go,” I said, praying that his first question wasn’t going to be so which ones actually work?
But no, Amir was at least for the moment paralyzed by choice. He ran his fingers down the long list of subject headings, scanning the options with his eyes. Valerie peeked over his shoulder. “Diet spells,” she said, reading one of the chapter titles. “We could make him super-skinny.”
“We can’t hurt him,” Penny said. “Remember the Rule of Three. If you give someone an eating disorder, you’ll get back one three times worse.”
“Oh. Right.” Valerie thought for a minute, then looked at her own hips. “Then could we just make him lose … five pounds?”
Stephanie snorted. “I will bet you a million dollars any adult man could lose five pounds and not even notice. You’d have better luck attacking his money, except I don’t think any of us has enough to lose three times what he’s got.”
We all nodded sadly. We were none of us downright poor, but we definitely weren’t rich either, at least not on the level of taking out a celebrity. “What about beauty spells?” asked Penny, looking at the next category down. “I’ve done a couple of those and they’re pretty easy.”
“You want to make him beautiful?” asked Nightshade.
“I think everyone deserves to be beautiful,” Penny said. “And then maybe he’ll get so beautiful that he starts … I don’t know, modeling for Calvin Klein instead of being a douchebag.”
“I think you can model for Calvin Klein and be a douchebag at the same time,” Valerie pointed out.
“Maybe so,” Amir said, “but I like this idea. Don’t make him unhappy. Make him so happy that he’s got way better things to do than be a hatemonger. What else do we have?”
As he turned the page, Nightshade pointed to the chapter titled ‘Spiritual Spells’. “What if we cast a peace spell and just make him … really peaceful? Then he wouldn’t have the energy to be mad at people anymore.”
“But maybe he wouldn’t have the energy to stop the people who are already mad,” Stephanie added. Even she was starting to come around on this, I could tell, and I couldn’t blame her. We were all excited there, faced with the prospect of putting the magic powers we’d always wanted to use, in a collective unselfish bid to change the course of the world.
“What about a binding spell?”
“Same problem. Won’t un-do anything.”
“How about a luck spell?”
“He’d probably think that luck was coming because he’s being a hater.”
“There’s an attraction spell.”
“Ew, don’t make any more of him.”
“Still some mermaid spells.”
“Will you quit it with the mermaid spells already?”
“I think he’d be a fabulous mermaid.”
“And then we’d all be triple mermaids.”
“Guys, it does not work like that.”
“What if we made him lose forty pounds but, like, distributed it so it was only twenty for each of us?”
“Where are you going to lose twenty pounds from? Cut off your leg?”
“I’m starting to circle back to the underwear model idea.”
“What if we made him gay?”
It wasn’t until everyone stopped talking and looked right at me that I realized I’d not only had that particular thought, but said it aloud. But the truth was, I’d been thinking it from the start. From the moment Amir had put the words ‘hex’ and ‘Jerry Falwell’ together, some deep, central part of my brain had known that the only acceptable hexing for a man like that was a rainbow-tinted one.
Amir’s face brightened and he flipped through the table of contents eagerly, though he frowned as he hit the end only one page later. “I don’t see a gaying spell in there,” he said.
“It’s, um–” Oh, no, what had I gotten myself into? I felt my hands start to sweat. My pulse was pounding. This was not good.
“It’s something we’ve … been developing!” said Nightshade. “Of course it’s not in there. They wouldn’t make that kind of thing commercially available.”
But mermaids are over-the-counter stuff? was what I pointedly did not ask. Instead I shut my mouth and nodded to Nightshade to continue.
Goddess bless her, she did. “Well, we’re starting from some of the things in here,” Nightshade said, pointing to the love spells. “But they’re all kind of … well, heterosexual.”
“Oh, of course,” said Amir, nodding like this was a perfectly reasonable thing totally normal people would say in everyday conversations. “I suppose the core of good magic is improvisation taking circumstances into account.”
“Damn skippy,” said Nightshade, flipping the book closed. “But it won’t be ready for … well, probably another week, huh, Reid?”
I nodded. Sure. A week. That was like a decade in teen years. I could do anything in a week.
“So we’ll circle back to that next Saturday,” Nightshade said, giving Penny the stink-eye before she could say anything else. “Coven concluded for now, who wants to watch some Buffy?”
If Amir was disappointed that his initial work at hexing hadn’t gone anywhere, he didn’t show it. It turned out he’d never seen Buffy before, so Stephanie and Valerie dug through the tapes to find the first season while Nightshade got Trudy to order some pizzas. Penny got Amir into a conversation about something in their shared Physics II class, and I tried as hard as I could to cast the impromptu spell of fading into the wallpaper.
I didn’t know what to think about the evening, so I tried to do a tally. Nearly wiping out instead of making a grand entrance, minus two points. Not having a cast-ready spell on hand, minus at least five points. But making a gay suggestion and having it accepted positively, maybe four points? And maybe another four for having made a sort-of-group-date plan for doing this again next week? That was almost a net positive. I could live with almost.
When the pizza came, I ate approximately three hundred slices, until I was too full to concentrate on anything but how full I was and how manly David Boreanaz looked in his leather jacket. Somewhere between episodes two and three, though, the carbohydrates overwhelmed me, and the next thing I remembered was waking up around 4AM in a dark, otherwise deserted basement. Someone had thrown a blanket over me. I deducted another five points from my suaveness tally, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
I was again the only one in the basement the following Saturday night, which was fine for about fifteen minutes. Nightshade and the others had gone out shopping for something prom-related, or so they’d said, and even though prom was at that point still four months away, I had learned long ago never to challenge the preparatory calendars of girls.
But I’d arrived at 6:15 and they were supposed to be back by 6:30. That had not happened.
In fact, I was still alone in the basement when Herb opened the door at 7:00 and showed Amir in. “Hey, Reid,” he said as Amir descended to meet me. “Just got a call from Trudy and the girls. They figure they’ll be at least another hour still.”
An hour? What were they doing, hunting roving packs of wild formalwear with bows and arrows? But no, I mustered all my reserves of calm and kept a straight face. “All right,” I said, “thanks.”
“They said they’re bringing Chinese with them,” Herb continued in his eternally jolly tone. “But you boys get hungry before that, there’s meatloaf leftovers in the fridge. You just go help yourself. We don’t stand much on ceremony in this family, and besides, Gumdrop here’s like family!” He pointed to make absolutely, positively sure that Amir knew he was talking about me.
“Thanks, Herb,” I said, trying not to die of embarrassment in this basement for the second time in as many weeks.
When the door shut behind Herb, Amir looked at me. He opened his mouth and then shut it, so I sighed and motioned for him to go on and ask. “Gumdrop?”
“It’s because–” I sighed again. “I was, I don’t know, eight? And Herb and Trudy thought it would be great to have us kids make gingerbread houses. Except I ate all the gumdrops before we could put any on the houses. I didn’t mean to, I just kind of … they were in a bowl, right there, and … anyway, they said I ate so many I must’ve turned into one, and I was a fat kid anyway, and it stuck.” I exhaled and plopped back down onto the couch, covering my face with my hands.
“Mom calls me Bambi,” said Amir.
I peeked out between my fingers. “Bambi?”
“Yeah.” Amir sat down on the couch right next to me. “He was a boy deer, you know.”
“I know, I just–” I squinted at him. “Bambi?”
“I fell over when I was a kid. A lot.” Amir shrugged. “And apparently I looked like a newborn deer when I did. So I’m her little Bambi.”
I had no idea why the cutest guy I’d ever had a conversation with was telling me this about himself, but I wasn’t going to question it. “So, um–” I looked around the otherwise empty basement. “So they’re late.”
“That’s okay,” said Amir, giving me a smile that could have thawed the Arctic. “They’re … well, they’re your friends, so I don’t want to say anything bad, but they’re…”
“A little loud?” I finished for him.
Amir laughed. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” I echoed, nodding. I started picking at my nail polish. “They don’t really … I don’t get a lot of words in edgewise. Which is fine,” I added hastily, so he didn’t think I was badmouthing the only people in the world who would eat lunch with me, “totally fine, and stuff, but … yeah. They do most of the talking.”
“And yet you’re the one with the good ideas,” Amir said, still with that perfect smile. Was it getting warm in here? Was the sun getting closer to the earth? Was I about to spontaneously combust?
I cleared my throat and went for another Mountain Dew. I’d had three already. “So, um, do you want to maybe look at some stuff before they get here? When, you know, it’s quiet?”
“Sure,” said Amir. I pulled out the paper-covered spellbook and he scooted next to me on the couch, raising the room’s temperature another ten degrees. How did he do that? “What did you two work up?”
“Well, um.” I flipped through the pages, looking for the loose-leaf sheet she’d stuck in there. “We combined a few things, and then … I think she’s got some other books that she checked, and then she … well, she went to the … there’s this magic shop around the … you ever been there?” I was having trouble with the concept of complete sentences. “Anyway, she said she did some more, but I didn’t check until–” I turned the page and there it was, sandwiched between pages in the beauty chapter. Oh, a mermaid spell was supposed to make you irresistible, not give you a tail. That somehow seemed more in line with the book’s titular ‘practical’ mission than what I’d been led to believe.
Amir reached down and plucked it up. The handwriting was Nightshade’s jagged print, barely readable to the untrained. He glanced at the number of lines filled with instructions. “Maybe we should get started on some of this,” he said. “Just the prep work, so that we’re ready when they get back.”
That sounded far safer to me than just sitting around and trying to sound interesting for an hour, so I nodded and held my hand out for the page. “It’s probably easier if I read it,” I said. “I know her handwriting.”
“Good idea,” Amir said, handing it over. “So what do we need first?”
I looked at the list. “Okay, five pink candles to be set in a circle, like points on a pentagram.”
“Pentagram. Classic.” Amir looked around for a second, then stood and walked over to the bookshelf that had caught his eye. Sure enough, five pink taper candles were piled there by the Ken Burns Civil War VHS box set. “You think these will work?”
“Sure,” I said. “What else is up there with them?”
“Marjoram oil,” Amir said, reading the label off one of the bottles. “And … something called Horned One Oil.”
I tapped the page. “It’s on the list. What about honey?”
“Oh, I saw some–” With the bounty from the first shelf in one hand, Amir went over to the TV and snatched a honey bear off the top of the VCR. “Okay, honey.”
“A cup of salt?”
Amir picked up the salt canister next to the honey and gave it a musical shake.
“A necklace with a — oh, wait, that’s just mine.” I reached under the collar of my t-shirt and pulled out the pendant I always wore underneath my clothes. It was a simple silver chain with an amethyst crystal at the bottom, though I didn’t believe either the silver or the amethyst was what it claimed to be. That was okay, though, because Nightshade had given it to me for my sixteenth birthday and told me it would keep me safe from evil forces. I’d worn it every day since and I’d never been attacked by the Dark Realm, so I had to conclude it was working as intended.
I’d been wondering what that orange was doing on the coffee table. “Orange,” I said, squinting at the line. “Or any other citrus fruit, she says here.”
“Orange it is,” Amir agreed. He set down the rest of the bounty next to it.
“And then–” I read the word five times to make sure I’d understood it. My face turned what I’m sure was an exciting shade of purple.
I folded the top part of the paper over the ingredients. “We can skip that for later, okay, do we have everything else?” I said, trying to plow through further discussion before I either died of embarrassment or started plotting ways to murder Nightshade. That had definitely not been part of our discussions earlier.
But Amir was fast, and he was wily, and he was very, very attractive, and thus I did not struggle as he reached across the table and plucked the page from my hands. He squinted at it a moment, but even in Nightshade’s handwriting, five letters were clear: “Semen?”
What could I do? I couldn’t say she didn’t mean it, or risk casting doubt on the entire spellworking procedure going on here. I was convinced at that moment that literally the only thing making the cute, smart, sensitive boy pay any attention to me was the fact that I he thought I could remotely turn a right-wing Christian celebrity into a wild homo. All I could think of was my eighth-grade Theatre Arts class and how I’d always been a mess at improve because I got too self-conscious about what I was doing. We had to commit, Mrs. Barkley told us. Well, here I was, four years later, and it was finally time to commit.
“Well, yeah,” I said, trying to appear cool. “Since … I mean, we’re making him gay, right? And, like, a lot of spells involve bodily fluids.” By that I meant that a couple of them suggested licking or spitting on things, and maybe one of them talked about pricking your finger and getting a single drop of blood involved. Semen was obviously the next logical step.
“Right,” said Amir, who sounded like this made perfect sense. Bless him, if he’d faltered for even a second, I would have crumbled with him, declared the whole thing a hoax, packed my bags, and shipped myself to China, never to be seen in this town again. But as long as he believed, I could believe, and as long as I believed, I could stay. It was strange how much easier things seemed when I had his confidence to rely on instead of my own.
I scanned down the list of instructions. “You know, though, we don’t need that until a lot later, so–“
“Right,” Amir said again. He looked around at the patch of floor behind the stairs that Nightshade had cleared for moments just such as this. “Do you think we should have our shirts off?”
My brain refused to process that sentence for a very long moment. “Shirts?”
“Erotic enticement, it says here.” Amir pointed to a line on the page that, sure, might have said something like that. “Which makes sense. If we’re trying to change his desires toward one thing or another, it makes sense if we can better visualize the things we’re changing his desires into. It could help us focus our will.”
I wasn’t sure how seeing me, in particular, shirtless was going to add to anyone’s erotic enticement of anything, but if it was going to get Amir topless too, then by the Goddess, I was going to commit to that too. I peeled off my shirt, and by the time I was done, Amir had removed both his shirt and his sweater-vest. He looked so good it was unfair, while I was just hoping pasty and pudgy was enough of a gay fantasy to alter the fabric of the universe, or at least not to make Amir throw up.
I caught him looking at me, and he averted his eyes, staring at his shoes and jamming his hands in his pockets. “So, um, maybe we should set up?” he said, toeing at the concrete floor.
It was hard to read anything into that response, so I decided to pretend I hadn’t seen it. “You want the candles?” I asked.
He took them from the table. “Sure,” he said, going over to where Nightshade had helpfully mapped out a perfect pentagram on the dusty floor. It was right in front of the washing machine, and she had to re-do it every time Trudy came down to do the laundry. He placed the candles at their five perfect points, then looked at the sheet. “Now it says we need to be anointed with the oils. One for each of us.”
I frowned as I picked up the bottles. “Anointed … where?”
“It doesn’t say.” Amir pointed to the paper. “Where do you usually anoint someone?”
Where indeed. “Forehead,” I said quickly, because it seemed like the safest spot. “You, um, want marjoram or the other one?”
“Maybe the marjoram,” Amir said. When I tried to hand him the little vial, though, he shook his head. “No, I mean, I want that on me.”
Oh, of course, you couldn’t anoint yourself. I was really bleeding points in the Looking Like I Know What I’m Doing category there, and I was afraid it wouldn’t be long before the tally hit a big fat zero and Amir figured out how much I was winging it. “Right, sorry,” I said, as though this were a totally normal miscommunication.
“There’s a chant with it too,” Amir said, trading me the vial for the paper. “Why don’t you say it?”
With all the confidence I could muster, I unfolded the sheet and unscrewed the bottle. “Spirits of the cosmos, Goddess of the Moon,” I read as I poured out a little of the marjoram oil onto my thumb, making the room smell weirdly like sausages. “By this anointing, we declare our intent to change the heart of a man, be his name Jarry Falwell.” I did not call Amir’s attention to the misspelling. “Guide our wills and make them strong and hard like iron.” That said, I smeared the oil right on Amir’s forehead, just underneath his curtain of curls.
Amir sniffed a few times, probably adjusting to the scent. “Should I say that too?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You can just … you know.”
With a nod, he opened the bottle of the Horned One Oil, and our noses were assaulted with something very unlike food. I would later learn to recognize the scent as ambergris, but at the time it was like the school’s locker room and a cow had a stinky, stinky baby. “Whuf,” Amir sighed under his breath as he dabbed some onto his thumb and did the same forehead-smear to me. I regretted intensely that I was the one who now smelled vaguely of poop.
At this point, you, the listener, may be asking what the hell we were thinking, smearing ourselves with oil shirtlessly in someone else’s basement, when four teenaged girls might arrive back literally at any moment? Yet I propose that if you’re asking that, you’re putting too much emphasis on the word thinking. Most of my thinking was still back on the couch, sitting comfortably and not getting into anything weirder than mixing packets of soy sauce and duck sauce in a 2:1 ratio. The rest of me existed in a universe shrunk down to the space inscribed by a four-foot chalk pentagram, a place only two people inhabited: Amir and me.
“Now what?” he asked.
“Now…” I checked the page, feeling my heart thump. “Light the candles?”
“Got it.” There was a box of matches above the dryer, and Amir snatched them, then lit all five of the candles he’d set up. Over here in the shadowed part of the basement, away from the cheerful lamps and television, they cast a fairly powerful glow.
“Now the salt,” I said. “Hold out your hand.” Amir did, and I poured a tiny mountain of it there, noting as I did how much paler his palm and fingertips were than the rest of his skin. He had beautiful hands, too, slender enough that I could see some of why he was a ‘Bambi’ at home. “Powers of the cosmos, make our intentions as pure as the salt here, and banish evil from our desires as it banishes evil from this place.” I remembered the spell Nightshade had cribbed that from, one that was supposed to bring you money, but only if you promised to use it for good, which I felt was a fair condition.
Amir looked at the salt. “Do I just … hold it?” he asked.
“Sprinkle it on the floor, in a–” I checked the page. “Well, try to get it in sort of a pentagram shape, anyway.”
Amir did, though he ran out of his handful before he’d quite traced the full design. I gave him the nod of approval, though, and looked back at the list. Well, I’d known this was coming, and there wasn’t any avoiding it now. “And, um … this is where the semen comes in,” I said.
“Oh,” said Amir. Was he blushing? It was hard to tell in the candlelight. “Yours or mine?”
I looked again at the paper. “It doesn’t say.”
Amir cleared his throat. “Well, um … maybe we should do both just to be sure?”
I was glad for my brain stem’s efforts to keep my lungs and heart going, because the rest of my grey matter had apparently just self-destructed in a spectacular electrical explosion, and I was now learning what going toward the light felt like. I swallowed hard. “It says it needs to be spilled in this circle,” I pointed out, since that seemed important. No jerking off privately in the bathroom for this kind of magic! I swore right then that my ghost was going to haunt Nightshade forever.
“Well, okay.” Amir pressed his lips together and looked uncertain for a moment, and that was when I felt sure he was going to call quits on the whole thing. But instead he stepped closer, enough that I could feel the heat from his bare chest against mine. “Maybe we could, uh, help each other out?” He cleared his throat. “I mean, magic is a bond of brotherhood and all that.”
Yes. Brotherhood. That was precisely what I was feeling at that very moment. “Um,” I said eloquently. This was fine. Everything was cool. It was for brotherhood. “I mean, yeah, that’s … that’s probably smart.”
“Okay,” Amir said, stepping even closer. He put one hand against my waist and another against my cheek, and my hands sort of naturally gravitated toward his hips. It sounds painfully awkward describing it, but at the time it felt like a perfectly logical next step. In the candlelight, his thick curls cast flickering shadows across the planes of his face. My entire circulatory system was about to explode. I was fairly sure most brotherhood wasn’t like this.
I am proud to this day of how I did not come instantly the second he started to unbutton the fly of my faded black jeans, but it was close. I caught my lower lip between my teeth and exhaled hard, leaning forward as my knees grew wobbly. He was just enough taller than I was to make his shoulder a comfortable resting place for my forehead as I leaned against him. I paused there a moment to catch my breath before remembering that I had some obligations here too.
Despite how flushed I felt, my fingers were ice-cold, and as soon as they touched his belly, Amir gasped. “Sorry, sorry,” I murmured. I withdrew my hand and stuck it under my chin for a few seconds, hoping the heat there would do at least a little good. When I touched Amir again, he didn’t flinch this time, and I took that as a good sign. I unfastened the button on his khakis before reaching inside.
It is a deeply weird feeling, the first time you touch a penis that isn’t your own. All I can compare it to is when your entire arm goes to sleep, and you touch your hand but it’s like you’re touching someone else’s. At least, that’s all I could think of at the time, as I wrapped my fingers around a shaft familiar yet alien to me. How was I going to know if I was doing it right?
I didn’t need to worry. As my cool fingertips encircled Amir’s hard shaft, he made the most delicious whimpering sound and tightened his grip on my own cock. That was right, I had been so wrapped up in the mechanics of giving I’d almost forgotten that I was receiving too, inasmuch as it’s possible to forget when you’re getting your first handjob. He skimmed those lovely, graceful fingers up and down my shaft with a touch that was–
“Harder,” I gasped, feeling like a complete ass for what I understood as complaining. But the goal of the exercise was to spill semen, wasn’t it? And as good as his touch was, it was still too gentle for me to be certain of that goal.
“Harder?” asked Amir, his voice a heavy whisper.
I nodded against his shoulder. “You’re not … you’re not going to hurt me,” I promised him, even though I had no idea if it was true, what with this being my first handjob at all. But he didn’t need to know that. Confidence, just like the book said.
“Then–” Amir took a moment to stop stroking me and instead freed my cock from my jeans, letting it bob out into the air. With that much more room to maneuver, he could get a much tighter grip, and did exactly that. His fist squeezed at my uncut shaft, using more pressure than friction in a way that made me see stars.
And if he could do it, then so could I. As best I could one-handed, I nudged his khakis down his slender hips just enough to get at his cock, drawing it out with fingers that were still slick from the earlier anointing. I tried not to laugh as I thought about which parts of him exactly were going to smell like sausage when this was all through, and instead concentrated on stroking and squeezing the skin. He’d come at me with a lighter touch, so I theorized that a lighter touch might be what he wanted, too. As I skimmed my fingertips lightly up the underside of his cock, he gasped and tightened his grip on me in a way that was definitely positive. Hooray for deductive reasoning.
“Fuck,” Amir muttered, leaning against me. Right now the only thing keeping us on our feet was the pressure of bodies against each other. “Kiss me.”
“What?” I said, again certain that my brain wasn’t putting together language in the right way.
“Kiss me,” Amir said again. “For the spell.”
“The spell?” I echoed.
“To make it gay,” Amir said, and before I could babble stupidly at him again, he turned his mouth toward mine and pressed our lips together.
So I got my first kiss at the ripe old age of eighteen, from sexy shirtless boy, with my hand around his cock and his around mine, standing bare-chested in the middle of a basement pentagram, trying to convince unseen forces to better the universe by making a horrible, hateful man I’d never met have erotic desires for the very scenario we were creating. It was, in a word, magical.
It was maybe three seconds and maybe three years after that Amir whispered frantically against my lips, “I’m going to come.”
“Okay,” I said, my head swimming with the power of bringing him to orgasm.
But instead Amir cleared his throat. “So, like,” he gasped, “point it down?”
“Oh!” Luckily, I caught on just in time and aimed Amir’s erection toward the floor. It was a bit of a challenge, given how insistently upward-pointing he seemed naturally to be, but I made it there just in time. I heard him groan deep in his throat, and then I could feel his cock jerk as he came hard. He made little whimpering sounds as he spilled his load in my hand, nuzzling his mouth against mine as he did.
A few more hard strokes from him after that, and I was coming too, spilling the requisite semen all over the salty mess Amir had left on the floor. It would occur to me shortly afterward that I’d just jizzed on my friend’s parents’ basement floor, but at the time I was so caught up in the pleasure of release that I would have jizzed just about anywhere available.
At last, our strokes stopped and the tension began to ebb from our bodies as we leaned even more heavily against one another.
“So,” Amir managed after a long silence, “that was magic.”
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard. “That was magic.”
“Do you, um.” He exhaled in a bit of a wheeze. “Do you think it worked?”
I laughed a snorty little laugh. “If I say no, you think we can do it again sometime?”
That made Amir laugh too, and he turned his head down to kiss me. Just before he got to my lips, though, something stopped him, and he paused, frowning. “What were the orange and honey for?” he asked.
“Honestly? …I think that’s just what Nightshade puts in her tea.”
Amir chuckled. “So, was that … did any of that … do anything?”
“Are you saying you don’t believe in it?”
“I thought you believed in it.”
“I thought you believed in it!”
We stood there for a moment, standing with our cocks flopping out of our pants and our jizz drying on the ground, not wizards from the outer realms, but two high school boys who’d just gotten their first tastes of a much more earthly kind of power. And yet, just an hour before, something like this had seemed as impossible to me as making a person levitate or turning a pumpkin into a coach. What should have been the defining point of my unbelief had in fact made me believe even more.
Amir took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think,” he said, after a moment’s consideration, his voice growing a little serious despite our ridiculous, unkempt state, “I think I sort of think that there’s … no halfway. Like, if something like this is true, then everything has to be true. Or if something isn’t true, none of it can be. And the only happy people I’ve ever met are the ones who aren’t fighting over the lines between beliefs. They either believe in everything or in nothing. At the end of the day, it’s the only way not to have to fight. So … maybe it’s stupid, but I picked everything.”
“I like everything,” I said, staring at him with undisguised wonder.
He smiled back at me and leaned in to finish the interrupted kiss. “I do too.”
By the time Nightshade and the others arrived back, most of the spellworking had been cleaned up and Amir and I were flopped on opposite ends of the couch, continuing his Buffy education. Mercifully, the smell of several bags of Chinese takeout almost entirely covered the various earthy scents of magic-making. But may whatever gods or goddesses out there bless them, not a single one of the girls said a damn thing, except to systematically displace both of us boys until we were squeezed against one another. When no one was looking, he put his arm around me, and I leaned into it with a satisfied smile.
Jerry Falwell died in 2007, by all accounts as heterosexual as ever, but that didn’t matter. That basement spell had worked all the magic it needed to.