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.

Visiting the Family of a Friend

If the bar had an air conditioner, it must have been broken. The air inside was hot and stagnant. Since it was also the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday, the place was practically deserted. Only the bartender and another patron, a man sitting at a table by himself, shared the room with Sarah.

She was sitting at the bar, nursing a glass of chardonnay. It wasn’t her preferred drink, but she thought it fit better with her disguise. She checked herself in the mirror behind the bar. She made herself look like a rich, middle-aged woman who had a plastic surgeon on call. The spell itself was simple enough, but it was the little details that really sold the look. The slightly smudged mascara, the bead of sweat on her forehead. She took pride in her work. The disguise was probably unnecessary, since she was unlikely to be known by anyone in the area. Still, it never hurt to be cautious, and it gave her an excuse to practice her craft. The last few days hadn’t left her time for her own studies, and it felt good to be using her skills again.

“Is it usually this hot around here?” Her attempt at starting a conversation with the older man behind the bar was met with a brief, empty smile before he turned back to whatever he had been doing before.

This trip had so far been a waste of time. It had taken some work to figure out where Rebecca’s cult was. Sarah’s other talent, gathering information, came in handy in that regard. Asking Rebecca directly might have upset her, or worse, so Sarah used less mundane methods. When she had left, Rebecca was trying to return David to his body, Julia was still holed up in Jason’s room, and she didn’t feel like talking to Thomas. After resolving to get away from the house for awhile, she decided to find out what she could about Rebecca’s “family.” The appearance of this Peter at the worst time made her suspicious of some link between this group and what had happened. At the moment, she had nothing more than that suspicion.

The group owned land a few miles outside of this town, so Sarah hoped to find out a little more about them but had had no luck. The bar was her last hope for information. The bartender’s reticence signaled the end of that hope.

The bell just above the door chimed as another customer came inside. She was a young woman, probably mid to late twenties, with short, sandy blonde hair. She was on the shorter side and probably got mistaken for a teenager, or younger, a lot. What really caught Sarah’s attention was how she carried herself. If her face said twenties, and her body suggested teens, her bearing was that of someone older. Confidence exuded from her. Sarah couldn’t help but wonder if this person might also be a mage in disguise. There was no obvious magic at work, but there wouldn’t be if the mage was any good.

The woman sat down at the bar, one seat between her and Sarah, and motioned to the bartender. He brought over a small glass already filled with a clear liquid and set it down in front of her.

“I haven’t seen you before,” the woman said looking at Sarah.

“My first time here. I’m just passing through.”

“You must be taking a strange route. The place isn’t on the way to anywhere.”

“I like to take back roads. See more interesting parts of the country that way.” She couldn’t get her bearings with this woman. Something was certainly off, but Sarah couldn’t identify what it was.

The woman nodded and took another sip from her drink. “Makes sense.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Sarah tried to think of a way to get into a conversation that might reveal some information, but her thoughts wouldn’t stay put long enough to organize them. Some sort of illusion spell made sense, but she had never been affected like this before.

Finally, the other woman spoke again. “Where are you headed?”

Sarah used the words to steady herself. “Nowhere in particular. Just going wherever the moment takes me.” A specific lie might be more believable, but it also carried the risk of being uncovered. Sometimes, simply being vague was easier.

“Do you have a home?”

It was an odd question. “Sometimes I wonder.” There was a little more truth in that than she liked. She also did not fail to notice the bartender’s reaction to the conversation; he seemed almost alarmed.

“You look a little lost.”

“Maybe I am.” Why was she saying all of this? She was giving away too much information.

“There are good people in this world. Friendly people. People who care. You just have to look for them.”

“Do you know me?” Sarah’s voice was more brusque than she intended.

The woman shook her head. “No. Just people like you. Lots of people lost these days. I’m sorry if I upset you.”

Sarah immediately felt guilty. “No, I’m sorry for snapping at you. Guess things are bothering me more than I want to admit.”

“That’s alright. If you ever want to talk about it, about anything, I have a place just outside of town. If anyone asks, just mention my name. Marie.” She held out her hand.

Marie? Rebecca’s old friend? Could she be the same person? She was nothing like Rebecca described her. She must have changed quite a bit in the intervening years. Sarah took her hand. “Sarah. Nice to meet you.” Why did she tell this woman her real name? 

If Marie noticed Sarah’s confusion, she hid it well. “It is nice to meet you, Sarah. Enjoy your stay.” Marie finished her glass and left the bar. Soon after, the other patron left as well.

“Be careful, miss.”

Sarah was taken aback by the bartender’s sudden willingness to talk.

“About what?”

“That woman. Marie. That group of hers is weird. Bunch of hippies or something. They are nice enough; don’t bother anyone. But there is something odd about her. I wouldn’t go visit if I were you.”

“Thanks for the advice.” The bartender shrugged and walked away.

What should she do? Continue on her own or go back and inform the others? She wanted to go alone, but the urgent desire made her suspicious. She had already revealed more to Marie than she meant to, and she would normally not be so reckless. Wanting to take a risk in going alone suggested some sort of outside influence. Better to go back to the house and regroup before going any further.

Esther

The apartment looked the same as it always had, as though Jason had never moved out. Maybe he hadn’t. The question was why? Julia looked around at all the clutter and tried to guess why he had kept this place. No answer immediately suggested itself.

She sat down and started going through the nearest pile of paper. It consisted mostly of notes in Jason’s indecipherable handwriting. Before she could begin a new stack, there was a knock at the door. She sat very still and waited for whoever it was to go away.

Instead, they began to fiddle with the lock. Her first instinct was to leave and return later, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want anyone tampering with Jason’s things. Standing and preparing to defend herself, she waited for the door to open.

When it did, she was surprised to see an older woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing on the other side. the woman pulled a set of keys away from the lock and stared at Julia over a pair of reading glasses.

“I heard you up here,” the woman said in response to a question Julia hadn’t asked. “Where’s Mr. Wizard?”

The situation had become something unexpected. “Mr. Wizard?”

“Your friend, Jason Wizard. He is your friend, isn’t he? Or should I be calling the cops on you?” The lines on the woman’s face suggested she was in her 80s, but there was nothing frail about her.

Wizard? That was the name Jason had used? As smart as he was, his lack of common sense still amazed her.

“Yes. He and I are friends. But he’s not here right now.”

“I thought so. You used to come around occasionally. Hadn’t seen you in awhile. Thought maybe you’d had a falling out. Anyway, rent’s due. Jason asked me to collect it from whoever was here.” The woman walked into the apartment and headed to the kitchenette area. She put some water into the kettle and set it on the stove. While it heated up, she took out two mugs and a couple of teabags from the cupboards.

Julia watched all of this in stunned silence. This woman, Jason’s landlady, seemed quite at home here. Had she visited often? Julia couldn’t recall meeting her before. The cat appeared from wherever it had gone off to and began rubbing up against the woman’s legs.

The kettle finally whistled, and the woman poured hot water into each of the mugs before dipping the teabags in. “Do you take any milk or sugar in your tea? I know he has sugar, but I can’t be sure there is any milk.”

“No.” Julia was still not sure what to make of all of this.

“I hope you don’t mind if I use some sugar. Helps bring out the taste. Come on, now. Have a seat.” The woman sat down at the small table across from the stove. From a covered bowl, she extracted two sugar cubes and dropped them into the mug in front of her. Julia walked over and sat down in the other chair.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Esther. I own the building.” The woman’s smile was genuine. “And what’s your name? Jason never told me.”

“Julia.”

“Julia. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you know Jason well?”

“He’s been living here for years. You get to know people a little after so much time.”

That didn’t really answer her question, but Julia decided not to push the issue. “Well, I’m afraid Jason isn’t here right now.”

“So you said, but rent is still due. He is a good tenant, but I have bills to pay.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him.”

The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but a tinge of sadness crept into it. “This must be hard on you, no doubt. If you’re here alone, I assume something happened to him. He told me it might, and that I should expect you if it did. I guess I hoped he was just pulling my leg again. I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Julia shook her head. “If I get you the rent, can I keep this place?”

Esther reached out and patted her hand. “Of course.”

The cat jumped onto the table between them and laid down. Esther waved her hand at the animal. “Rook, get down.” In spite of her expression, her voice didn’t convey any real threat.

“Rook?”

“Oh, he never did bother to figure out his name, did he? The cat’s name is ‘Rook.’ Jason would have known if he had ever bothered to ask.”

Julia stared at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I already told you. My name is Esther. I own the building. Rent is due on the first of the month, which was yesterday. I know you’re in mourning, so I can wait a few days. But not too long, okay? And be sure to keep the tea and sugar on hand.”

Julia nodded and took a sip from the mug in front of her. The tea was warm and comforting. She felt more peaceful than she had in a long time.

A Door to the Past

After David left, Julia turned back to talk to Jason’s apparition, but it, too, had gone. She dropped into a chair and stared at nothing in particular. She really had nothing to do, at least nothing she wanted to do.

Surprising her, Jason’s cat jumped into her lap. She hadn’t seen it since Jason’s death; in fact, she hadn’t even been certain that it was still around until just now. As far as she knew, Jason had never given it a name. It jumped back to the floor and crawled under the chair. Julia stood up to go find some food for it.

Before she even took a step, something hit her foot. The cat had knocked a green toy into her. She bent down to pick up, not a toy, but a green crystal. It radiated power, but it didn’t look like the power storage crystals Jason normally created. Indeed, she had never seen him make or use anything like this. Getting down on her hands and knees, she looked under the chair to see if there was anything else under it that might be a clue to what the crystal was for.

The only thing she saw was the cat, who meowed at her and walked away. Julia sat back onto her legs and examined the crystal more closely. There was power, but it was already bound up in some purpose; it wasn’t the freely available power that could be found in Jason’s usual crystals. Without more information, there was no way of knowing what it was for. The cat began meowing repeatedly, so she walked over to where it was sitting, next to a small cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a bag of cat food. She found a bowl and set it down on the floor.

While the cat ate, she continued to turn the crystal over in her hand. It stubbornly refused to give up its secrets. Casting her gaze around the room, she saw nothing remarkable, nothing incomplete or out of place. Her eyes finally settled on the door to Jason’s back rooms. She had avoided going back into the other parts of his personal space. Even though he was gone, it felt wrong, as if she would be prying. The door was now ajar. The cat must have opened it and gotten out. That was a good thing, else it might have starved. 

Now that the door was open, it felt like a sign for her to finally enter. After all, his belongings needed to be dealt with, especially if anything else was alive back there. Clutching the crystal tightly, Julia steeled herself and walked into the next room.

To someone who didn’t know Jason well, the room would have looked cluttered and disorganized, as thought someone had been in the middle of three projects and left suddenly. She knew better. He had probably been in the middle of at least six projects. Chaos was his order, and he understood it better than anyone else she knew. She couldn’t always follow how his mind worked, but there was no denying that he saw patterns no one else could.

Three more doors led away from this room. One would go to his personal chambers. Another went to a more traditional lab space. And the third . . . confused her. She had made these quarters according to his instructions. There should only be two doors besides the one she had come through. Had he added a room without telling her?

Opening this extra door revealed nothing but a blank wall. There was no doubt that Jason was odd, to say the least, but he always had a reason for everything he did. So what was the point of a false door? She closed it and examined the side facing the rest of the room.

It appeared to be just a normal door; there was nothing odd about it at all. The door handle was made of glass and cut to look like a large gem. A little fancy, perhaps, but nothing extraordinary. Otherwise, it was a simple wooden door that led nowhere.

A meow startled her. The cat was standing next to her looking at the door, obviously expecting to be let through. She obliged the cat, but the wall was still there. It sat pawing at the wall, apparently confused. She closed the door again and went over it carefully. This time she noticed a notch in the handle. It looked like it belonged, so she hadn’t noticed it the first time. There was no other indentation or marking anywhere. She pulled out the green crystal and fitted it to the notch. Effortlessly, it snapped into place. This time, when she opened the door, she saw the inside of a familiar apartment. It was where Jason had been living when they had first met.

The cat did not hesitate to enter its old home. Why did Jason have a door to this place? Was there something important here? She couldn’t begin to guess the answers to her questions, but she was determined to find out. Carefully, she followed the cat through the door.

A Bad Feeling

The sidewalk was full of people walking to their afternoon destinations. Some were staring down at their phones; others looked straight ahead while managing to avoid eye contact with anyone. The bustle was typical for the time of day, and even surrounded by so many others, everyone kept to their own private worlds.

A young boy, no more than ten, wove his way through the crowd and tried, with only modest success, to avoid being jostled. As he reached the corner of the block and waited for the light to change, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see a middle-aged man, with a wild look in his eyes, bending down to talk to him.

“Excuse me, young man, can you tell me where Maxwell’s Cafe is? I seem to be turned around.”

The boy knew he wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but the man did not seem dangerous despite his looks. Pointing back the way he had come, he said, “Two blocks . . .” A truck roaring past drowned out his voice for a moment. “Two blocks that way. It’s on your right. There is a big blue neon sign.”

“Thank you.” The man straightened and began walking in the direction the boy had shown him.

Seeing that the light had changed, the boy crossed the street and continued on his way. 

*     *     *

“Why did you do that?” Julia asked Jason. “You know where Maxwell’s is.”

Jason looked back over his shoulder at the boy and smiled. “Did you notice the truck that went by?”

“There are a lot of trucks going by.”

“One went past when the boy was giving me directions.”

“Okay. Maybe I remember that.”

“It ran a red light. If he hadn’t stopped to give me directions, he would have been in the street. That truck would have run him over.”

“You knew about the truck?”

Jason chuckled. “No. I just noticed it go by when he was talking.”

“Then why . . .”

“I knew he was in danger. I just didn’t know the details until I saw the truck.”

“So you stopped him . . .”

“. . . to keep him out of danger. Yes. I just get these flashes, something is good or bad. The boy must have brushed me, and I picked up on his immediate fortune.”

Dumbfounded, Julia just looked at him.

He chuckled again. “Just something I’ve always had. Never details, just a sense of success or failure, good or bad.”

“Seems handy.”

Jason gave her an enigmatic smile.

“Wait a second. Why did that building fall on you back when we first met? Shouldn’t you have been able to sense that whatever you were doing was a bad idea?”

“But it wasn’t.”

“A building. Fell. On. You.”

“And as a result, I met you.”

“That counts as a success?”

Jason shrugged. “Good ideas work in mysterious ways.”