Looking Back

Time is one of the most dangerous schools of magic to study. It requires discipline and self-control. One wrong move could lead to erasing yourself from existence or some other disaster. For that reason, among others, those who practice time magic are very careful in selecting their apprentices. Aptitude was not sufficient. A student must be able to resist temptation and be judicious in the application of power. Few have the requisite temperament. 

All of this precaution was to prevent the very thing Thomas was about to try. Viewing the past wasn’t dangerous in itself, but it raised the possibility of changing the past. The potential problems that could arise were innumerable, so even looking into the past was generally discouraged. However, his questions remained unanswered and demanded investigation. He could think of no other alternative. He prepared the incantations and sent his consciousness back.

Almost immediately, Thomas knew something was amiss. Despite the numerous items connected to Jason that he had gathered, the timeline was black. There appeared to be no moments where he could locate his friend. Jason had warned him once against trying to view him from other times, and Thomas had respected his wishes until now. With Jason’s death, the promise no longer held, or so he told himself. After searching for longer than should have been necessary, he finally found Jason in his lab a couple of days before his demise. Thomas drew closer to the time to see what he could learn.

As soon as he entered the lab, Jason turned toward his approximate location. “Thomas. I assume it’s you, otherwise this is embarrassing. I thought I asked you not to look in on me.”

Thomas was taken aback. Jason should not be aware of him.

“The nice thing is, whenever I talk to you, if you aren’t here, most people will think it’s just me being my usual nutty self. Maybe I am. But I like to turn off my crystal now and then and pretend you’ve come to visit. If you never see these moments, then there really isn’t any harm.”

So he was talking just in case Thomas were to look in on him? Maybe Jason was crazier than he realized. On the other hand, this time at least, he happened to be right.

“If you are here right now, I’m assuming I died. That feels like the only reason you would do this. If I’m not dead, then you’re an idiot for going to the past for no good reason.”

Jason bent down over the table he was standing next to and picked up a blue crystal that was giving off a dim light. “Now for my normal introductory lecture. This crystal is why you can’t usually find me. I know I explain this every time, but I never know which time you might visit, so I feel I have to do it. Anyway, this crystal prevents me from being observed by any magical means, even yours. I periodically turn it off and talk to you, in case you want to check in. I think the faint light means you’re watching. That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ve never been able to check it.”

Putting down that crystal, he picked up another. This one shown with an intense white light. “If you ever do see one of these moments, could you please tell me so that I can’t quit explaining all of that?” Jason turned this new crystal over in hand a few times. “As I said, if you are here, I expect that I’m dead. And if you’ve come to this particular moment, it’s probably because of this.”

Thomas looked more closely at this crystal and recognized it.

“This is the crystal you asked me to make and give to David. I’m not going to. Just one of my feelings, but if I give it to him, I’m pretty sure something very bad will happen. I’d rather it didn’t. Maybe I die, but the alternative would be worse. Trust me on that.”

An urge to shake Jason rose up in him. The man could be so stubborn and foolish. He had intentionally kept the crystal? If he had just listened to Thomas, things would have worked out. In that moment, Thomas considered trying to change Jason’s mind.

“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but since you’re still here, you must be thinking about it. Do not try to change the past. I’ve already made up my mind, so you’ll just make things worse. You know this better than anyone, so leave it alone.”

Jason put his hand on the blue crystal once more. “One last thing. Please don’t tell Julia you did this. And do not teach her how to do it. She’ll torture herself with it. Okay? Please. Anyway, go live your life. Quit looking back.”

The blue glow from the crystal intensified briefly before the timeline went black again. Thomas reviewed everything Jason had told him. He had no idea what would have happened if his friend had given the crystal to David like he was supposed to. And he never would; not unless he risked even greater danger.

Unsatisfied, but out of ideas, Thomas returned to his present. Jason had made his decision. The only thing he could do now was respect it. If going to the past wasn’t going to resolve his doubts, he would have to look to the future.

Hotel Dying

“Please wake up.”

Erik’s voice sounded far away. A dull ache pounded against the back of her head as Rebecca slowly regained consciousness. She hadn’t opened her eyes yet, but she knew she was sitting. Her hands were bound behind her back. Attempting to open her eyes, she shut them quickly when the bright light intensified her headache.

“Erik? What happened?”

“Oh good. You’re awake.” His relief was obvious.

Squinting hard to keep out most of the painful light, she could just make out the desk clerk crouching in front of her. “What happened?” she repeated.

“Shh. Not so loud. You don’t want to draw attention.”

“Why am I tied up?”

“Be quiet.” He sounded . . . scared?

“Why? Are you going to kill me too?”

“What?” Confusion replaced fear.

Her eyes were starting to adjust and she could make out another blurry figure enter the room. An unfamiliar voice spoke. “You should have stayed in your room.” It was deep, masculine, and full of threat.

“Who are you?”

“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be alive long enough to bother explaining everything to you.”

“Don’t kill her!” That was Erik again. He was standing, facing the new person.

“What are you two doing?” 

“Two? I must have hit you harder than I thought.” The man seemed confused.

Erik turned to his head towards her. “I’m not doing anything. He attacked me, too!”

“There’s only me. Unless you’re counting the corpse you’ll be joining.”

Finally able to see clearly enough to get a good look at Erik, Rebecca understood.

“Erik, can you help me out?”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to do anything to the ropes.”

“Don’t worry about them. Just face him and start screaming and waving your arms.”

“What? How will that help?”

In spite of herself, she sighed. “I’ll explain later. For now, trust me.” It would take too long to help him come to terms with the transition. And the man was approaching her.

“I am going to enjoy this.”

“Now, Erik!”

Rebecca muttered a couple of short incantations as Erik began making noise and gesturing wildly. The murderer, who was standing right in front of him, yelped in surprise and stumbled backwards. He tripped over the body on the floor behind him and fell, smacking his head on the cement floor. He did not move again.

“That worked? How did that work?”

As Erik looked in disbelief at the man he had frightened, possibly to death, Rebecca felt the handle of a knife pressed into her hands. With it, she was able to make quick work of the rope that bound her. After she was free, she rubbed feeling back into her wrists and thought her thanks to the bear.

“Seriously, why did he seem startled to see me? I’d been here all along.”

Rebecca looked up at the translucent figure before her. “Erik, I’m sorry. You are dead.”

“What? No I’m not. We’re talking to one another right now.”

She nodded. “Yes, we are. I can see and talk to ghosts.”

“I don’t feel dead.”

“I know. Look at the other body on the floor. The one he tripped over.”

Erik bent down and looked at the face. Shock caused him to fall into a sitting position. He stared. “That’s me.”

“Yes, it is. I’m sorry.”

“I’m dead.”

She didn’t say anything. He needed to come to grips with this himself.

After a few minutes, he looked at her. “So what do I do now?”

“That’s something you have to figure out. You could stay here and haunt the hotel. Some spirits seem to enjoy that. Or you could move on.”

“To what?”

“I don’t know. The living aren’t allowed to know.”

“But you said you can talk to ghosts.”

“The ones I can talk to haven’t moved on.”

“Oh.”

Rebecca got to her feet slowly.

“Wait. What about him?”

She didn’t even glance at the second body. “He’s dead. That blow to the head was very hard.”

“Won’t he haunt this place?”

“No. After I made you visible to him, I made sure to trap his spirit. He’s stuck with his body.”

She waited until he said something.

“I don’t know what I should do.”

She really did feel for him. He didn’t deserve to die; few people do. He would get used to his new situation, but it would take time.”

“You will figure it out, I’m sure. And there are others like me you can talk to.”

He nodded, unconvinced. “Okay, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik, you can call me Rebecca.”

“Oh. Okay.”

*     *     *

The next night, she walked back into the lobby and was greeted by a new desk clerk whose name she had yet to learn.

Erik also stood behind the desk. “Hello, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik,” she thought at him, so as not to arouse suspicion from the other person.

“Sorry. Good evening, Rebecca.”

She smiled. “Better.”

Hotel Living

“Good evening, Ms. Jones.”

It took a moment for Rebecca to recognize that the night desk clerk was speaking to her.

“Hi, Erik. You’re on again tonight?” Somewhat scrawny, he looked like he could be a teenager.

“Every night.”

Rebecca had been at the hotel for a couple of nights already and had seen him every night so far. He was a bit odd, but friendly.

“Well, I hope you don’t get bored easily.”

“Not tonight. There is a Twilight Zone marathon on.”

“That sounds . . . rather creepy for a night shift.”

“Nah. It’s just fun. It’s too old-school to be really scary. You wanna watch some with me?” As soon as the question left his mouth, Erik’s face flushed, and he looked away. “I . . . I mean . . . You can see it on the TV in your room. It’s on channel 56.”

Rebecca smiled. “No, thanks,” she said gently. “That sort of show always gives me nightmares. But thank you. I hope you enjoy the marathon. I’m going to get some sleep.”

Upon hearing her answer, he seemed equal parts relieved and disappointed. “Okay. Goodnight, Ms. Jones.”

She gave him a wave goodnight and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Her room was halfway down the hall.  Back inside and away from the world, she threw herself face first onto the bed. The bear walked over to her and patted her head. She laid there for awhile, not moving and ignoring the food she had brought back with her.

The story Sarah had told her about Marie only served to reinforce the fact that she needed to leave. If her family hadn’t known where she was before, if Peter had acted on his own, they certainly knew now. She knew Sarah had been trying to help, but all she had done was make Rebecca’s departure more urgent. Now she was in a strange town, living in a hotel, unsure of where she should go next. All she knew was that she needed to get lost again before anyone else came after her.

Eventually, she sat up and ate the now cold fast food while watching an episode of the Twilight Zone. She actually loved the show, but the lie was an attempt to avoid, in a kind way, more conversation with Erik. She really wasn’t looking to make any friends right now. The television was still on when she drifted off. Her last thoughts before sleep were about Marie. At least she was okay.

*     *     *

After only a few hours, something woke her up. There was an entity in the room with her. When she had first arrived at the hotel, she had walked around looking for spirits. With all the people that came through them every day, and any number of accidents or more sinister encounters, haunted hotels were rather common, so she always checked. This one had been empty. Either this spirit was from somewhere else, which was unlikely, or she had missed it, which also seemed unlikely.

Whatever the case, the spirit did not show any interest in her. It simply exited the room by walking through the door. Even though it didn’t seem to harbor any aggressive intent, she followed it into the hallway. The entity walked towards the center stair case that led to the lobby. As it descended, Rebecca realized it was actually taking steps and trying to hold on to the handrail. Maybe it was a new spirit, which would explain why she hadn’t noticed it before. If that were the case, however, it meant someone had died recently, and there had been no news of any deaths in the hotel.

Down the stairs, it walked over to the front desk and disappeared into the office. It hadn’t been manifesting, so Erik would not see it, but she wanted to find out where it was going. She cast a simple spell to see if the clerk were around. There were no life signs in the immediate vicinity. He must be in the bathroom or something. The office door was unlocked, so she hurried inside.

The spirit had already moved on, but Rebecca noticed another door in the back of the room that was ajar. Looking through the crack, she could see a set of stairs leading down. It was foolish, she knew, but her curiosity was in charge so she went through the door.

At the bottom of the stairs, she saw large bright room to the left. Inside were laundry machines and folding tables. In the center of the floor was a person, laying face down in a pool of blood. Something hit her from behind, and the world went black before she finished falling to the ground.

On the Run Again

Her backpack was already full. Rebecca was surprised to discover she had accumulated so much stuff in her time here; proof that she had stayed in one place too long. Peter’s appearance had been a wake-up call. It was only a matter of time before he returned, and she intended to be gone long before he did.

Frustrated at herself for getting attached to so many things, she began grabbing things out of the bag. Discarding most of the clothes, she was able to make space for a few charms and other tools. This house, these rooms, had come to feel safe. No longer. Thomas couldn’t protect her. No one could protect her. 

The only thing now was to run. David was restored to his body. There was nothing more she could do here. It was time to leave. Running was all she knew how to do. Her magic couldn’t protect her; if anything, it is what got her into this situation. She just needed to find some place where Peter couldn’t get to her, wherever that might be.

Having reduced the contents to the bag to only the most essential items, she took one more look around the room before opening the door. The stuffed bear was staring at her from the entrance to the lab. Somehow its face, which never changed, looked sad.

“I’ve got to go. It isn’t safe here anymore. Not for me.”

The bear wasn’t like David in the rabbit; it only had rudimentary abilities to communicate. In this case, confusion.

“I can’t take you with me. I don’t know where I’m going, and it will be hard enough taking care of myself.”

Why was she explaining herself to this spirit? It was just a thing; it didn’t need her. It didn’t require nutrition or anything else. With or without her, its existence would remain the same. So why did she feel guilty for walking away?

“If you come, I can’t promise to look after you. Traveling will be hard, much harder than staying here.”

The bear gave the impression that it was shrugging.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

She opened the door just before Sarah could knock on it. Sarah looked at her bag and nodded to herself.

“I get it. Peter is after you. However, before you go, we have to talk. Then you can leave, if you want to. I won’t stop you. You need to hear me out first.”

Rebecca took a step back to let Sarah in. Whatever she had to say, Rebecca felt an obligation to listen.

All He Had

Unsurprisingly, the party was a rather depressing affair. John wasn’t sure why he continued to come to these things. They were always the same: loud music, lots of drinking, and too many drunk people shout to be heard over whatever song was playing. As he left, he swore to himself that this was the last one he would attend.

After starting his car to head home, he noticed a figure standing alone in the drive way. It looked familiar, so he rolled down the passenger window.

“Kathy?”

The figure turned towards him and he could just make out her face. It was Kathy. She was wearing a coat that went past her waist and was tied closed with a belt. Her arms were folded against the chill. The expression on her face was difficult to make out.

“Oh, hi, John.” Her voice sounded a little shaky.

“Are you okay?”

She hesitated for a moment before answering. “Yeah. Just waiting for someone. Looks like they’re not coming though. You leaving already?”

“Uh huh. Just not feeling it tonight.”

“Yeah.”

John wanted to say something to keep the conversation going, but he found himself tongue-tied. He had liked Kathy since he first met her last year, but while they had a number of friends in common, they never had really had a one-on-one conversation. She shifted her weight slightly, and he feared she would walk away, so he blurted out, “Do you want a ride home?”

Again, she didn’t immediately respond. Instead she looked back to the house and then down the road. He regretted asking since it seemed to have made her uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry. You said you were waiting . . .”

Before he could finish, she walked over to the car and opened the passenger door in order to climb in. “If you don’t mind, that would be great actually. Like I said, I don’t think he’s coming.”

Once she was fully in and the door was closed, John began driving away from the party. They rode in silence for a little while, with Kathy just staring out her window.

“Why are men such jerks?” she asked out of the blue. “Present company excepted.”

“Why?”

“Why do I think they’re jerks?”

“No. Why except me? You don’t know I’m not a jerk.”

“You’re nice enough to give me a ride home, so I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Fair enough. So who did what?”

Kathy paused for a moment. “It doesn’t matter. Just a jerk.”

“Oh. Well some people are just determined to be jerks. We look for reasons, and maybe there are some, but it’s usually not worth the effort to figure them out. Better to let them be jerks and move on.”

“Hmm. I suppose you’re right.”

Another lull in the conversation. John wanted to say something but couldn’t. He didn’t want to sound stupid or creepy, and she seemed lost in her own thoughts. So he tried to relax and just enjoy the drive. At least, he tried until he realized something.

“Silly question. Where do you live?”

Kathy looked at him and began to laugh. It was a friendly sound.

“Oh my god! I totally forgot you’ve never been to my place. And you offered to drive me home without even knowing how far I lived. That’s so sweet. See? You’re not a jerk. Don’t worry, you’re headed the right way. I live just off Alexandria Street, on Jasmine Drive.”

“Got it. I’m familiar with the area.” She lived only about ten minutes from him. It also meant  this shared time together was almost over. Kathy had gone back to looking out the window. “I know it’s not my place, but from my experience with you, you are a wonderful person. Whoever was a jerk to you doesn’t deserve you.”

The words just came crashing out. As declarations go, this one was pretty vague. And yet, he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t say anything, even if was just to try to be nice.

He could feel her looking at him as he focused all of his attention on the road. His face got hot from her gaze. Stealing a quick glance, she was smiling at him. A little sad, perhaps, but a genuine smile. Without saying anything, she shifted a little closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder.

Now his whole body felt warm. He wanted this moment to last forever, but he was already turning on to her street.

“Third house on the left. You can just pull into the driveway.”

Kathy hadn’t lifted her head to give instructions, so John tried to enjoy the last few moments. When he parked, he expected her to pull away. He didn’t, however, anticipate her kissing him on the lips.

*     *     *

The next week was another party. This time, John was looking forward to it. His work had kept him busy all week, so he hadn’t been able to see Kathy since driving her home. He hoped she would be here tonight.

It took him several minutes, but he finally found her talking with a guy in the kitchen.

Unable to contain a smile, he walked over to her. “Hi. It’s been awhile.”

Kathy gave him a look he couldn’t quite read. “Oh, John. Good to see you. Let me introduce you to my boyfriend, Chris. Chris, this is a friend of mine, John. I’m not sure if you two know each other.”

“I don’t think so. Nice to meet you, John.” Chris extended his hand.

“Likewise.” John shook his hand. Now he recognized the look on Kathy’s face. She was pleading with him not to say anything. And maybe there was a bit of an apology mixed in, but he might have imagined that.

He wanted to leave, so he gave the first excuse that occurred to him. “Well, I just wanted to say hi. I have a couple of other friends I’m supposed to meet up with.” He gave them both a half-smile and a brief wave before making his way back to the living room.

Once he was out of their sight, he headed for the front door. She had said she was waiting for someone. It had been one night; it didn’t mean anything more than that. There was no point in demanding an explanation or screwing up her relationship. Even knowing that, it still hurt. He got into his car and drove away. The memory of that night was all he had. It wasn’t all he wanted, but it was all he had.

Black Lives Matter

George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police was horrifying, but all too common. George Floyd’s murder isn’t even the most recent. David McAtee was killed in his business by either the National Guard or the police. Previously, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed. There are too many names. Not to list, but to contemplate. Too many black lives have ended at the hands of the police. You can find a partial list based on The Washington Post’s database at https://pittsburghfoundation.org/we-will-not-be-silent.

Over one thousand black people have been killed in police shootings in the last five and a half years. This is not a new phenomenon, but George Floyd’s murder has focused attention on an issue that has gone unanswered for far too long. If we, as a society, cannot find the will to change a system that has abused black people, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups for decades and longer, then we have given up the claim that we are, in fact, a civilized society. 

This blog has, since its inception, been reserved as a creative outlet. I have run other blogs in the past that took up social commentary and other topics. With everything happening, I cannot keep my creative outlet separate from the society that is so broken. There is a cancer in our society, and we must be willing to face it and deal with it. That requires listening to and believing people of color and others when they tell us how they are treated. It requires demanding solutions and working towards them.

If those of us who are white do not recognize the police in the stories that others tell, that is one indication of our privilege. If we think, what will do without the police to protect us?, that, too, is a sign of our privilege. We can think of the police as guardians. For too many Americans, that is not the role the police play. The system needs to change. We have the luxury to ignore racism and pretend it doesn’t exist, or at least isn’t as pervasive. That is a luxury we must give up. Lives depend upon it.

Protest. Talk to your government representatives. Donate. Talk to your friends and relatives. Use your voice. And don’t forget to use your ears, too. Listen. Learn. Let those suffering lead. Don’t speak for them, but support them.

Black Lives Matter. The problem is that, in America and elsewhere, they haven’t mattered. Black lives need to matter. They need to be treated as inherently valuable and with respect. Black Lives Matter. And we need to keep saying it at least until society actually treats black lives as though they do, in fact, matter.

I will resume posting fiction and creative works. But we cannot forget that our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings need us. They need us to listen. To stand with them. To fight with them. It is an ongoing fight, and we must be willing to support them, to amplify their voices, through the long haul.

Black Lives Matter (https://blacklivesmatter.com) has resources and accepts donations.

The Cut has a list of other nonprofits that you can donate to: https://www.thecut.com/article/george-floyd-protests-how-to-help-where-to-donate.html

You can find black owned businesses to support on Black Wall Street: https://officialblackwallstreet.com/directory/

Cut and Dry

Why am I always your scapegoat?

Wait, are we assuming you’re real, or not? My answer may change accordingly.

Curious. Just for fun, let us assume I am not real.

In that case, it is to satirize believers who claim that you are the source of good things but not the bad. A sort of dramatization of the problem of evil, if you will. Mixed with a healthy dose of pointing out the absurdity of the story.

Do you think you change any minds?

Probably not, if I’m being honest.

So why do it?

Blowing off steam, I guess. Against an institution that shaped me in so many ways, many of them negative. A way of working out some old issues.

Does it help? I mean, you have been doing it for all of these years. Have you gotten anywhere?

Perhaps not.

Maybe it is time for a new tack?

Maybe.

Okay, so what if we assume I’m real?

Then it is a direct attack on you.

 That doesn’t seem wise.

I have yet to be struck by lightning.

There is, however, the matter of your immortal soul.

A lot of bad things have happened; the pain and suffering have been immeasurable. If you’re willing to put up with all of that, I suspect you can handle a little criticism that no one pays any attention to. Furthermore, I don’t want to be on the good side of someone who allows all of the things that go on here.

But is it not possible that there are reasons for . . .

Stop. I’m not interested in that sort of speculation. There is no humanly recognizable reason to allow this much misery. If there is some reason, it has nothing to do with us.

That seems . . . uncertain? . . . at best. It certainly deserves more discussion.

Nevertheless.

So which is it? Do I exist, or not?

The jury is still out, though I suspect it’s a different option altogether. You do exist, but not like so many believe you do. Thus the real you isn’t my scapegoat at all. My target is those who mischaracterize you.

That seems like a dodge.

Does it? Maybe it does. Maybe I’m just avoiding taking a side. Still, the truth is almost never so cut and dry.

No Help Is Coming

Things are looking pretty bad. Don’t you want to step in?

No. Or, perhaps I should say that, while I want to step in, I have an even greater desire for them to solve these problems themselves.

But they aren’t solving things themselves. The have had years upon years, and they don’t seem to have made any progress.

I admit it has been slow, but . . .

‘Slow’ is an understatement. It’s been glacial, at best. And at times, they even appear to backslide.

It is important that they learn these lessons.

If a child touches a hot stove, they do learn. This feels more like leaving the stove on and letting the child touch it over and over again.

You are exaggerating.

Am I?

Besides, they have free will; they make the choices that lead to these situations.

Isn’t that victim-blaming?

Not at all. I don’t force these pains on them.

They don’t choose to be born. And certainly not into these circumstances.

It has been this way since the beginning. If I change things now, it will throw everything off.

A bad idea doesn’t become better just because you stick with it.

Why are you here?

You asked me to serve as your adversary. I’m simply presenting an alternative perspective.

Well, it has put me in a bad mood.

Think about how they must feel.

Talking to Oneself

Even just a few days in a stuffed animal left David feeling a little awkward to be back in his own body. His limbs felt too long, and it was odd not seeing the world from only a foot off of the floor. Still, he welcomed the strangeness of it as he walked back into his own rooms for the first time in days.

He set the stuffed rabbit down on a small table just inside the door from the hallway. Rebecca had told him to keep it, but it was unsettling, like smelling food that had made you sick to your stomach the last time you ate it. He considered throwing it away, or even burning it; for now, however, he just put it down and tried to ignore it.

The only other instruction Rebecca had given him was to rest. The whole process of being restored to his body had left him feeling exhausted, yet there were too many thoughts racing around in his head. With all that had happened, plus what Julia had said to him, he didn’t think sleep would come that easily.

Instead, he entered the small room he had set aside for his spiritual practice. It was little more than a walk-in closet, but it helped him to focus. He sat facing a single candle, a mere thought sufficient to ignite the wick. That simple spell left him feel ecstatic. As much as he had missed eating and even talking, magic had been the hardest loss to deal with. He wanted to just start casting every spell he could think of, but now wasn’t the time to indulge in excess. He needed to center himself and reflect on all that had happened. So he sat, staring at the flame, until that was all he could see.

After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, the light shrank once more to a candle flame. Now the candle sat on a desk in a small study. An older man sat, writing. He noticed David’s gaze and turned to face him. The man wore the face of Samuel, David’s old guide, but he knew it wasn’t really him.

“Well, come here, then. You must have some questions if you’ve decided to call upon me. No sense staying over there.” The old man waved him over.

David obeyed and drew closer. He knew this spirit personified some aspect of himself, yet that it appeared in the guise of his old teacher gave it an aura of expertise he had to stay wary of. Consulting oneself always carried the risk of conveying a sort of divine authority to one’s own ideas. When those ideas were echoed back by a respected figure, they could take on an air of infallibility, even if the seeker knew it was coming from an aspect of himself. 

Once David was closer, the man spoke again. “So ask. I’m not going to read your mind.”

“Do I belong here?”

The old man’s expression didn’t change. “What an odd question. Why are you always convinced that you belong some places and not others. Belonging is something that comes from you, not a function of location.”

“That’s not really helpful.”

“Isn’t it? It seems like something you need to learn.”

“I want to know if I should stay in this house. I almost died. And . . .” He could still hear Julia’s warning about Thomas.

“And you aren’t sure you can trust Thomas.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to read my mind.”

“You were taking too long. What does trusting Thomas have to do with you staying?”

“Samuel sent me here to learn. But if I can’t trust Thomas . . .”

“Do you really think you have to trust someone in order to learn from them? Don’t answer. I already know you don’t think that. And now you know you don’t, as well. You can learn from anyone, if you are willing to hear what they are teaching.”

“But should I stay?”

“You know, I could tell you what you want to hear. I know what you want to hear, even if you aren’t willing to admit it to yourself. But I’m feeling a little cranky, and you’re being incredibly dense, so I’m not going to answer you. Stay. Leave. What does it matter? That’s the real question. Why would you stay? Why would you leave? Maybe the real question is whether this is all about Thomas. You have to learn to trust yourself. Don’t look to me for the answers, not when I’m just a stand-in for your mentor. What do you want? Answer that question, and own that answer.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Hey, you want a better answer, next time look to a more helpful aspect of yourself.”

David opened his eyes, and he was back in the small room. Snuffing out the candle as easily as he lit it, he stood and walked back to the living room. Falling into a chair, he kept mulling over the conversation he’d just had with himself. 

What answer did he want to hear? Was it significant that he said “want” and not “need”? What answer did he need to hear? Was it the same? David needed to come up with those answers himself, and he knew that. It didn’t make it any easier.

He noticed the stuffed rabbit had fallen off the table, but he was too tired to get up and replace it, too tired even to go to bed. Instead, he closed his eyes to sleep in the chair. Everything else could wait until after he had gotten some rest.

A Conversation with Marie

Half an hour after leaving the bar and driving to the airport, Sarah found herself outside the gate of the group’s compound. She was certain she had taken the correct route, but here she was. A large man – the one from the bar, surely – approached her.

“Private property.”

Did he not recognize her? “Marie invited me.”

Without hesitation, he walked back to the gate and opened it. “Up the hill. First house on the right.”

A small part of her continued screaming that she needed to leave, but the scenery was beautiful as she drove up the wooded slope. The more she admired, the easier it was to ignore her concerns.

The trees ended to reveal a small cluster of houses grouped around a central gathering space. On her right was a somewhat larger house with a parking area next to it. Six or seven cars were already parked. Marie stood on the porch and waved to her as she pulled into an empty spot.

“I’m so glad you came,” Marie greeted her as she walked up to the house.

“I don’t think I had much of a choice.”

Marie’s face became a pout. “Don’t be like that. Come inside and let’s chat.”

Sarah followed the other woman into the house. It was spacious, yet adorned simply. Marie led them through a couple of rooms to a small library. Its large picture window looked on to the center of the small community. They sat facing one another.

“Now,” Marie began, “before we go any further, I want you to know that you wouldn’t have felt any compulsion if you didn’t have some interest. I just helped you over any reservations you might have had. We would never want anyone to be here against their will.”

Sarah was unsure whether she believed Marie. Consciously, she wanted to leave, but maybe there was something drawing her that she wasn’t aware of. Still, she didn’t like feeling like she’d been forced to come.

“I’m curious, Sarah. Why did you come here? I know you were asking around about us. Are you looking for a place to belong?”

Sarah wanted to lie, wanted to take the cover story Marie offered her, but whatever forced her to come here wouldn’t allow it. “I think someone from this group attacked my friends.”

Marie frowned. “Someone from here? Very unlikely. We are a small family here. Self-sufficient. No one has any reason to leave. And no one has any interest in making enemies. You must be mistaken.”

“No.” If she couldn’t resist answering, maybe she could at least keep the answers short and stop herself from revealing everything.

Marie stared out the window for a few moments, lost in thought. When she turned back to Sarah, her expression had changed subtly, but it was impossible to read.

“Do you know the name of the person who attacked you?”

“Yes. Peter. His name was Peter.”

Marie’s face went blank and revealed nothing. Sarah had assumed Peter had been sent by the cult to retrieve Rebecca, even that he might be their leader. Marie’s reaction didn’t fit those assumptions.

When she spoke again, Marie’s voice was shaky, almost fearful. “How did you know Peter was from this group? What did he want?”

“A friend of mine. He tried to take her. She told me about this place.” The closer the conversation got to Rebecca, the harder Sarah fought to deflect it.

“This friend,” every word sounded like it had to be forced, “what is her name?”

She couldn’t explain why she resisted so hard against revealing Rebecca’s name. Surely Marie could already guess who it was. Nonetheless, Sarah fought, but the name was pulled from her anyway. “Rebecca.”

Something inside of Marie seemed to snap. Her face changed, taking on a softer, kinder appearance, even while she became frantic.

“Leave! Now! As fast as you can. Don’t come back. Ever! Whatever you do, keep Rebecca away from here.”

As soon as the first word left Marie’s lips, Sarah felt the compulsion on her dissolve. She ran to the front door with the rest of Marie’s admonitions chasing her. Jumping into the car, she then sped down the hill as quickly as she dared. The scenery was still beautiful and inviting, but she was able to ignore it.

Remembering the man who had opened the gate, she cast a quick glamour. The car became an elephant running, its feet thudding on the ground loudly. As she cleared the trees, she saw the man dive out of her path. The car managed to survive crashing through the gate, and she sped down the road.

Now that her head was clear, she was able to make her way to the airport. Another spell hid the damage to the vehicle; it would last until she was safely away. On board the flight home, she tried to make sense of what had happened. Her body, however, demanded sleep, and she drifted off before the plane lifted into the sky.