27 January 2007
Jackie and I had spent a couple days working on magic, when she was in town, while Matteson was at work and before Jackie had to go in for her shift. I was learning a lot of magical theory, about how this hedge seemed to divide the realms and how the general concept of magic was little more than using one realm to make a change in the other. I wasn’t yet actually accomplishing anything—we had tried to get me to cast some minor spells, but it never worked—but I couldn’t deny that when Jackie did magic near me or I tried to do it myself, something stirred in me. It was like there was something deep in the fabric of my being that recognized the magic and wanted to connect with it, but just couldn’t. I didn’t understand what it meant, and try as we might, we couldn’t seem to push past it.
Today, however, Jackie asked me to meet her at the dam. I had to figure out what she was talking about, and then find my way there, but once I did it was easy enough to find her. She was meditating on the side of a foot trail, down by the water at the bottom of the dam. I made my way down to where she was waiting, and sat on the blanket next to her. The sound of the water coming out of the dam was loud and concussive, but not overwhelming, apparently because only one stream of water was being allowed through. As I waited for her, I took note of the little bits of wildlife I could see. I loved doing work in the basement, with its smell of books and comfortable chairs, but being outside was a nice break.
“Try to connect to the energy around you,” Jackie said, softly.
“Oh, right,” I said, snapping back into the present and adjusting my position. I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing, and tried to sense the world around me. This had never worked before, but she had said multiple times that the house was somewhat resistant to magic just by virtue of being Matteson’s, and that it was always easiest to connect to some specific element of the world than to just broadly try connecting to everything. For her, this was water; she wasn’t sure what mine was, and maybe now we were going to begin trying to find out.
As I cleared my head and tried to focus on this idea of some natural energy, I started to feel a bit distant. Like I was ever so slightly moving, not so much away from where I was, but relative to it. Like, I was in the same place, but the place itself was moving around me just a little bit; or, more accurately, like I was occupying more of it as it began to move. The sound of the water started to fade, and I could hear every non-migrating bird near us singing or scratching at the snow. I leaned into that, tried to connect with it more, and soon it felt something else. Movement. Slow, quiet, barely there, but definitely moving, just faintly. I turned my attention to it, tried to find it in my mind, and the other noises began to fade away as this one impulse loomed large in my mind. Then I heard a heartbeat, and I reached out, trying to touch it, to find that specific noise, and suddenly my head began to throb like I’d run straight into a wall.
I gasped and my eyes flew open. Everything was a blur, and it took me a few moments to focus and figure out where I even was. Jackie was kneeling in front of me, calling my name, but it felt distant and tinny until I blinked a few times and everything began to return to normal.
“Alice! Are you okay? What happened?” I was breathing heavy and my heart was thumping in my ears, and as I started to take in my surroundings I noticed something on my lip. I reached up to touch it, and when I pulled my hand away it had blood on it.
“Hey, hey, take a deep breath with me, okay?” She took in a long, loud inhale, and I copied her, exhaling as she did and taking in another breath on cue. Slowly, I found everything back to the way it was before I started meditating.
“Jackie, I…I heard something.”
“What was it?”
“At first it was just the birds, you know, but then it was something else. Something slow, and quiet, and when I focused on it I think I heard a faint heartbeat? But then it just…everything stopped, and my head felt like I’d been in a car wreck or something, and I’m bleeding?”
“You had a faint nosebleed, it looks to be drying up some, but maybe tilt your head up just in case.” I did and pinched my nose while she dug around in her bag for a napkin, which she gave me and I started dabbing at the blood. “This is amazing.”
“What is?” I asked, trying to ignore how odd my voice sounded while I was holding my nose closed.
“Okay, so, three things stand out to me about your story. One is that you got anywhere near that far. I mean, yeah, it’s easier out here than at the house, but to pick up that much on your first real shot at it? That’s impressive. There’s definitely some kind of spark in you.”
“Well that’s good, I think. Does that mean I have a demon great-aunt or something?” She chuckled.
“Maybe, but we can’t possibly guess at that based just on this.”
“What were the other two things?”
“Well, I get it now. Not all of the elements mages connect to are what might be classically considered elements. Earth, fire, water, air, sometimes wood. The elements, as far as magic is concerned, are all of the sources of energy in our world, all of the ways it is moved and changed and gathered. You, a biologist, started to connect to some kind of animal energy. I don’t know if it’s specific, like birds or mammals or something, or just generally animal, but you were drawn to that element. I think you have some fundamental connection to it, and I bet it’s part of what drew you to biology. And I would bet money you’re better with most people’s pets than they are.” I smiled.
“Okay, that does tend to be the case, yeah.”
“You seem to be done bleeding.” I looked at her again and finished wiping my face.
“The third thing is the one I understand the least, though,” she said, in a lower tone, as if we had to hide our conversation from the ears of the snow.
“What do you mean?”
“People sometimes have a physical reaction to strain, that’s normal enough. But you hit a hard limit.”
“And that’s less normal?”
“The only cases of it I’ve ever even heard of involve trying to deal with an Anchor. Happened to me when I tried to jump into Matteson’s dreams in Chicago.”
“Was there no ontological gap to jump into?” I asked with a smile. She smiled and nodded.
“Yeah. It sure lent credibility to that theory, let me tell you.” She leaned forward, wrapped her hands around mine, and locked eyes with me. “Alice, what you were doing was clearly something surprisingly natural for you to do, but something stopped you. There’s a story here, somewhere. To my knowledge, that doesn’t just happen.”
“What do we do about it?”
“I don’t know. We shouldn’t push it, though, until we understand it. If it pushes back too hard, it might be dangerous.” I nodded, and she briefly squeezed my hands before letting go and sitting up. “I’ll try to look into it, but we should take a rest from this until we know more about it.”
“Okay, yeah, that makes sense.” I took a deep breath, then got to my feet. “So what now?” She shrugged, then stood and picked up her backpack.
“Now,” she said as we started folding up the blanket, “I suppose we have some time to kill. You hungry?” I was, as it happened, so we debated on the way back to my car where we would grab a bite to eat.
10 January 2007
I arrived at Matteson's house a little earlier than expected and then learned he was going to have to stay a bit late at work. Jackie let me in, but once we were inside she explained that the door is basically always unlocked, anyway, if Matteson was the last to leave or enter. It never occurred to me that he would do that, especially with that library in his basement. When I expressed this surprise, Jackie shrugged and said she didn't fully understand it, either, but Rick and Charles and others seemed to have the same habit and they were all used to just walking into each other's homes. I can't imagine that ever flying in my parents' house.
Jackie and I had started to get to know each other recently. We both had some insight into the other's boyfriends that we found invaluable, but also, she was just an interesting person. She had apparently lived in Chicago for some time, and we commiserated about living in cities and how different Sharon seemed from our expectations. She had some fascinating stories from her life in the Midwest, raised by her grandmother, and she knew more about magic than I could have figured out on my own. Since we had some time to kill, I decided to try to explore that.
"So, you research magic?" I asked, while we were in the library with our coffees. She was browsing the shelves and I was sitting in one of the chairs.
"Yeah, I do."
"Sounds like a fascinating topic. Do these books have a lot of useful information?"
"Well, kind of," she said, pulling one out and sitting down. "Matteson's great-grandmother started this collection, and she didn't seem to know a whole lot about how to tell if something was accurate or not. So there's a lot in here that's pure speculation or just an attempt to harmonize various beliefs about the spiritual without much knowledge or concern about whether the result was better than its parts. But," and here she opened the book and flipped through to a page, which she showed me was heavily notated, "Henry was a fierce academic. I don't know how he got some of this information, most of it really, but his insight is amazing."
"But how do you know? Is there a way to verify this information?"
"Same way you do, really. Test it in the field. See, this book proposes an idea called the Ontological Gap, which is the conceptual space between the physical person and the spiritual person. The distance between our two main parts. And it presents the idea that this gap is how things like possession and mind control and stuff work; they function by placing something inside that gap, interfering with the messages from the soul to the body and hijacking the body."
"And you can test that?"
"Not directly. But, it does account for something that we can test, which is why liminal beings are immune to those things."
"Living things that exist as a bridge between the realms. Nephilim, which are half-human and half-spirit; and Anchors, like Matteson. The idea is that, as liminal beings, their Ontological Gaps are smaller or nonexistent, so there's nowhere for things like possession to happen."
"But Matteson's immune to all kinds of magic, not just possession. Does this Ontological Gap account for that?"
"Maybe. It's hard to say. Honestly, I haven't seen any of these books think to ask that question." I smiled.
"That's what happens when you get a scientist involved."
"A scientist who believes in magic. There can't be too many of you."
"I wasn't, until I saw the echoes."
"It's odd that you noticed them in the first place. The way Matteson described them, most of them shouldn't have been strong enough for someone to notice unless they were a mage or liminal being."
"Mandy and Rick noticed the screaming."
"Yes. But they didn't notice anything else. Did you?" I thought for a second.
"Well, yeah. I heard talking, and someone going down the stairs."
"That, right there? That's a bit unusual. Most people wouldn't pick up on that. Not unless it was a very powerful memory."
"What are you suggesting?"
“So we don’t talk about this much, but there is some speculation that there is a certain amount of sensitivity people can have to magic that makes it easier to learn it.”
“So, you think I can learn magic because I heard some ghosts?”
“Anyone can learn magic, it’s more of a discipline than anything. But some people require more effort than others, and the theory is that people who catch on faster do so because they have a certain level of magic already in their blood. A family line, for instance, that includes a spirit somewhere in its past.”
“Like Matteson’s great-grandfather.”
“Exactly. After a few generations, there might not be enough magic left in his line to produce something as powerful as an Anchor, but there may be enough that people are more aware of magic and find it easier to pick up, if only a little bit.”
“And you think my family is like that?”
“I think it’s worth exploring. Would you like to try learning magic, see how easily you take to it?” I thought about that for a moment. Even if I never learned any magic, maybe going through the work with Jackie would at least give me a lot more insight into it than I would get otherwise.
“Okay, yeah. How do we do that?”
“Well…we don’t do it when Matteson is around, for one.”
“Because he breaks magic?” She nodded. “That sounds reasonable. I think we can figure something out.” We heard footsteps on the floor above us, and Jackie patted my knee.
“Well, I should get to my studies. We’ll give it a shot soon,” she said, leaning back in the chair and opening her book as Matteson came down the stairs.
We were on the way back from the party when I mentioned that I was hungry. We had eaten dinner there, but it was kind of small and hours ago by this point, but I was only mentioning it in passing as something I was planning to amend when I got home. But Matteson took that as a request, and ended up pulling into an Eat’n Park that was still open. When we were asked about the smoking or non-smoking section, he looked at me, so I sighed and said smoking was fine.
“So,” he asked, while we were looking over the menu, “how about them flying squirrels?” I gave him a confused look over the top of my menu.
“What…about them?” He laid his menu down.
“Well, the thing, where they were proposed as having rebounded enough that they didn’t have to be endangered anymore?” I thought about that for a moment before remembering an email I’d received the day before.
“Oh! Yeah, I heard about that, but I hadn’t looked into it yet. I probably should. What did you want to say about it?”
“Oh, uh, well, that was basically all I know about it.” I started laughing, and he tried not to as he continued. “I just kinda hoped you would know more about it.”
“It’s a two-day-old news story, Matteson. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it much.” He kinda blushed and picked the menu back up, and I set mine down and reached over to touch his hand comfortingly. “But I appreciate the effort.” He smiled at me, and I picked my menu up and continued looking. The waitress came by and we each ordered, and after she was gone he leaned back in his seat a bit.
“Are they cute?”
“The squirrels?” He nodded. “Yeah, they are, though that’s hardly the point. It’s always so much easier to get people invested if the animal is cute, you know, but that isn’t a real ecological niche. Things need to be protected even if we don’t want to put them on Lisa Frank notebooks.” He laughed and told me he had forgotten about those notebooks, and I confessed that I had a few during my school years. We spent the next couple hours talking about our time in high school, and answering each other’s questions about them, since we apparently had very different experiences. I had been in private school, and generally tried to do the best I could with it, while his school sounded far more chaotic and violent than mine. He told me it wasn’t too bad—it didn’t have to involve most people if they didn’t want to be involved, and it’s fairly easy to let it become background noise—but I had to know if he’d been in any fights himself. He said that he had, though they rarely lasted long. His dad had taught him to fight at a young age, and he had always had a habit of working out, so he always had an upper hand. I told him that most of the drama at my school was academic or something to do with money, and while I’m sure there were some fights after school I never heard more than rumors about them.
I told him that his childhood sounded odd. Most people I know don’t have parents who teach them multiple languages, let alone dead ones, and intricate metaphysics, and how to fight. So what was going on in his house? He was quiet for a moment, then told me it was his grandpa. He didn’t say much about it, but he did tell me that his paternal grandfather, the son born to the couple we saw as echoes in my house, was apparently very powerful and very deranged. His dad had been involved in battling him longer than Matteson had been alive, and all the evidence Matteson had found so far suggested that he had been trained specifically to finally put an end to the old man. He warned me that this might be a thing if I keep hanging around with him, if this grandfather finally showed up. I took his hands in mine.
“John, this…this doesn’t sound healthy. Are you okay?”
“I mean, it’s been fine so far.”
“No, I mean. Have you ever talked to someone about this? Kids shouldn’t be raised as weapons.” He hesitated.
“I never really thought about it, I guess. But I mean, what do I say? Just tell some shrink I can see ghosts and my century-old grandfather controls water and I might have to kill him someday? There’s no way that ends in a way that will help me.”
“He’s a hundred years old?”
“Something like that. I don’t know exactly what year he was born, but I’m under the impression it was nineteen-oh-something.”
“Okay, well, you can talk to me. I’m not a professional, but I mean, I care.” He pulled his hands back and lit a cigarette.
“That kinda depends on you sticking around, though. And I gotta tell you, if he shows up and things go south, it’s gonna be a lot worse than a bit of ghost fire.”
“Do you want me to stick around?” He took a thoughtful drag, and watched my eyes for a moment.
“Look, Alice. I like you, I really do. And I like to think this is going somewhere. I just. There are only so many people in this world who can put up with this stuff very long. I can’t get away from it. It’s always going to be a part of my life, and I just—”
“You want to know if I’m easily scared off.” He paused, then nodded. “Look, I don’t know. This is all very new to me. I don’t know what I can and can’t handle when it comes to magic and ghosts and everything else you do. But, you know, I’m willing to find out. If you’ll let me.” He smiled, and reached down with his left hand to lightly rub my hands.
“And how do I let you?”
“You tell me a whole lot more about this stuff and what you do. Preferably, all of it.”
“That’s gonna take a pretty long time.”
“We’re young yet.”
“Okay. But it’s late, maybe I should start telling you stories tomorrow.”
“I’m on break from classes. Do you work in the morning?” He shook his head. “Then come on. I’ll make us some cocoa, we can bust out some thick blankets for the couch, and you can tell me some ghost stories.” He laughed, but he got up and tossed some cash on the table for a tip and jammed out his cigarette before we went to pay and head back to my place.
17 December 2006
The whole way up, I was torn about whether or not I should even be doing this. I mean, he didn’t exactly give me his address personally, and our only interaction was supposed to be professional but ended up…not being that. And he probably didn’t almost catch my house on fire, but it kinda still feels like he almost did. But he did tell me it might be dangerous, and I told him to do it anyway, so really, whose fault would that have been?
Mandy was surprisingly eager to give me Matteson’s address, on the condition that I told her what happened as soon as I left. Sometimes I worry that girl is too invested in knowing everything about everyone, but I couldn’t deny it was helpful at the moment. I parked across the street from his house, took a deep breath, grabbed the box, and headed for the door. A woman answered, and I faltered for a second.
“Oh, uh, hi, sorry, I was looking for John Matteson?” The woman glanced down to the box quickly, but smiled.
“I can go get him, who should I say is here?”
“My name’s Alice. If he’s busy, I—”
“Alice! Rick’s friend?” I nodded. “Oh it’s nice to meet you! I’m Jackie, Rick has said so much about you. Come in, come in!” She stepped aside and I walked into the living room. I forgot Rick had said his girlfriend lived in the same house as Matteson. Seems like the sort of thing I should have made sure to remember before coming here. Jackie closed the door and ran off toward the kitchen, vanishing around a wall, and I stood looking around. Based on what Rick had said about Matteson and Jackie, I expected to see some bookcases; but all I found in this room were seats, and a tv, and some kind of multi-part stereo system. I was looking that over when I heard Matteson’s voice behind me.
“That was my dad’s,” he said. I spun around. “Had it as long as I can remember, and now it’s mine. Should probably get some new records for it.”
“Right, yeah, that would be good,” I said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “I was just expecting something different, I guess.” He raised a brow.
“Oh, well, uh, books, mostly.” He smiled and motioned with his head before walking back to the kitchen, and I followed. The place where Jackie had vanished was apparently a stairway into the basement, and when I got down there I felt my breath catch in my throat. The very back was devoted to a washer and dryer, and some exercise equipment, but the rest of the room was a fully furnished library. Jackie was down there, looking through a book with alchemical symbols on the front, I recognized them from that year I spent reading everything I could find on The Philosopher’s Stone after Harry Potter came out. “Ah, yep, there they are, then.” He nodded, looking over the room.
“Yup. Still organizing a bit,” he said, pointing to a stack of book-filled milk crates near the stairs, “figuring out how to work my books into my dad’s collection.”
“There’s still a lot of him here, huh?”
“I imagine there always will be.” He took a sad breath and then turned to me. “So, what brings you by?”
“Oh! Right!” I set the box on the table in the middle of the room and opened it, and he stepped forward to peek inside. “Well, you know, now that I own that house, I had gone looking into the property history. And after our encounter with, uh, your family, I went back and looked over it again and found some records of their time there.”
“Oh, wow,” he said, pulling out a copy of a notarized form from when the property was given to Aaboukingon. “This is amazing!” We worked through the box, talking about the stuff we found and what Matteson knew about it, and Jackie told me about how she’d met Aaboukingon now that he was part of the river again, and it was really nice. After a while Jackie went to work, and the two of us kept talking. He showed me around the library a bit, how the books were arranged, which ones were in which languages (and which of those languages he could read), and I asked some questions about the books that were out and being researched. He told me he had been learning to use his abilities as an Anchor by reading some theories about how the metaphysical realm worked and what his part of it was. It was starting to get late in the afternoon, so we went back upstairs and he insisted I stay for dinner, at the very least to make up for overcharging me about the ghost that wasn’t even a ghost. So I went back down and grabbed a book on alchemy, and flipped through it in the kitchen while he cooked and we talked. He confessed pretty early on that he hadn’t done much work with alchemy, specifically, but he was sure the book would give me some helpful tips if I wanted to dabble at it. It was old, the pages felt like they were written on vellum and the cover was certainly leather. I couldn’t even start reading it until I’d smelled it a couple times.
“How do you keep old books like this safe?” I asked. He shrugged.
“Some books are just like that, I guess. Usually ones about magic or some other powerful and important topic. It isn’t magic directly that keeps them intact, otherwise they wouldn’t last around me, but something like magic just seems to have become part of what they are.” Over dinner, he asked about what I do, and I explained my biology degree and my hopes of getting work in the conservation field, and he seemed legitimately interested so I ended up telling him all about how I got into it and my little side projects of setting up trail cameras behind the house.
“You know, if we worked together, I bet we could find a proper cryptid,” I joked.
“So you can poke at them?”
“Mr. Matteson, I told you, I have a heart for conservation. I would, at worst, tag them.” We both laughed at that one, and I asked him if he really did know anything about cryptids. He told me that he had heard rumor that most of them were just spirits that got stuck on this side of reality, but he hadn’t asked one to verify that. I almost chickened out and left immediately after dinner, but I took a moment to compose myself and then went for it. “Hey, so, look. My program at school has this Christmas party in a few days, and I was wondering, you know, if you’d be free on Thursday.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I could be. Should I pick you up, or meet you there, or…?”
“Pick me up, I think that would be best.” He nodded. We paused for a moment, and then I quickly waved. “Okay, well, see you then!” He smiled and agreed, and stood on the porch to watch as I returned to my car and drove away.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.