25 June 2007
We had informed John that we didn’t see any way forward in our search for Rick. He’d asked a few questions, if Jackie had checked with Hecate, if we were certain we’d tried everything, if Jackie’s vision of the future could have been wrong, that kind of thing. By the time we finished our dinner, he had to concede that he knew of nothing more we could try, either, beyond just wandering the metaphysical realm indefinitely. This was, Jackie explained, beyond our capacity. Even if we could survive there long term, time got weird in the Deeper Realms, and the Realms were unfathomably large, and spending too much time there risked the chance of changing whoever went into something that could never really return. “It’s a romantic thought,” Jackie had said, “risking my soul and humanity for the slim chance that I could maybe find him, and have him be something recognizable when I did, but it just isn’t realistic without at least some idea on where to start.”
That hit me in a way I’m still trying to process. I’ve been turning it over in my mind, on and off, ever since, and I just can’t shake something about it. Maybe it is a romantic thought, I’m not sure if I’m convinced of that; but it certainly isn’t something I would want someone to do for me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be found than lost forever, but I can’t reasonably ask anyone to go that far. It’s too much. But that made me wonder what I did expect. What was my baseline? What were my reasonable expectations in a world where things like this can happen? I realized that this was what I’d been trying to sort out ever since Rick threw himself into that portal. John had warned me about the dangers of the things he dealt with, and Roderick had affirmed those concerns, but when I had the danger right there in front of me, I balked. And I had to decide if that was the best reaction. John had been honest with me all along, and even when he tried to apologize for not telling me about his first encounter with Jeremiah, I had to admit that he really hadn’t had time to tell me before he did. Was I holding him accountable for what happened to Rick? He’d tried to keep Rick and me safe, and in the end, it was Rick’s choice to do what he did. What was I holding against John in this?
When I was able to let go of holding John accountable for something he hadn’t even done, something I’d known he hadn’t done all along, I was able to really, honestly, examine my feelings for him. And the fact is, I love him. I want to be with him. I want to face the life he lives, together. So I went to his house today, and I told him everything. I confessed what I’d been holding against him, I told him about my fears, I told him about the warnings I’d received from Roderick. I asked him if he could forgive me for being unreasonably angry at him for something that wasn’t his fault. If he thought there was still a future for us. And he did! He had been waiting, hoping that I’d come back, and he immediately told me he wasn’t going anywhere. We sorted some things out, we made love, and now he’s making dinner for us and Jackie and I’m thinking about what comes next. And, for the first time in nearly two months, I’m not afraid of whatever that may be.
18 June 2007
I found John this morning passed out in his library among a pile of opened books and scattered notes. He’d definitely been drinking, there were a couple plates and cups and some empty snack packaging, and on the pile of snuffed Newport butts was the remains of a cigarette that had burned down to ash, which I recognized as signs he’d been up studying until he passed out, likely around dawn. I left him to sleep while I cleaned up the mess and started a pot of coffee, which I enjoyed in quiet while I walked around the house to take it all in. It occurred to me that I’d never really taken the time to just walk around, look at how John and Jackie kept their home, what it said about both of them. I’d usually been busy while here, or focused entirely on one person or another, and never just considering where I was.
There was a lot of evidence of John’s drinking and smoking, and a few signs there’d been weed smoked recently. Admittedly, he likely engaged in all of them more than usual while he was laying around recovering, but still. It was a concerning amount, and if we were ever getting back together—and I wasn’t yet sure if I was ready to entertain the idea—I would need some kind of assurance that he would cut back on all the substances.
I sat on the edge of his bed and looked around, picking out the things of Henry’s he still hadn’t touched since moving into the master bedroom. I looked through pictures of us that were still out on the dresser and nightstand, and picked up a scarf still hanging on one of the hooks outside the closet, buried under hats but still visible. He’d told me about it, once, when we were laying in the bed and I asked after noticing it. He’d confessed it belonged to Lori, she’d left it here the last time she’d been by before Alethea made herself known. He’d told me she’d left it hanging there by accident, and he meant to return it after everything happened, but she came when he wasn’t around and then vanished. I was pretty sure he’d hung it up himself after he couldn’t return it, or wouldn’t return it, or whatever happened. He was sentimental, in his way. Little pieces of everything left laying around, keeping trinkets as a quiet backdrop to whatever life he was living. There was a toy from a childhood friend, a little bauble his grandmother had carried when she was alive, the necklace of sand he never took off except to shower. I found it tolerable when it came to Lori, if only just, and it was cute otherwise. But it was a quiet backdrop; he didn’t talk about any of these people, not really, unless he was pressed. I felt a pang in my heart when I considered the possibility of being just another trinket, another set of stories, another name that would live on in his mind but rarely grace his lips.
I poured myself a second cup of coffee, prepared a tea for him, and went down to the basement to wake him. We each drank our mugs in silence while he picked up the books and papers, and when he finally sat down we discussed how today was going to go. I expected we were going to the hospital and doing what we could for Jackie, but he’d identified the spot she would have been when she was found. It turns out she’d been trying to reach through the Hedge to find Rick, and John was convinced something magical had happened to her there that caused her current condition. He was hoping to visit Jackie for a bit in the morning, and then go investigating the site to see if there was any sign of what happened to her. God, I almost forgot how much I loved watching him work through something like this, explaining and jumping from one piece of evidence to another, with no care for how crazy it all must sound to someone who didn’t know the spiritual reality like he did. He invited me to come along, if I wanted. I declined, told him to take me with him to the hospital and I would just stay there with her until he was done and came back. Thankfully, Mandy was there by the time he left, so I had her to talk to while we stood vigil over Jackie.
“So, how do you like being back in the states?” she asked, after we’d sat in silence for a while.
“It’s alright. It was a good idea to come back, thanks.”
“Of course. Have you figured anything out yet?”
I sighed. “No, not really.”
“Listen, I know some of her friends from work and the theater are coming by later, so I better ask this now before they get here.” She turned and took my hands in hers and looked me in the eye. “Is this thing happening to her magical? Is that why Matteson rushed out of here?”
“He…” I looked around, then leaned in and whispered, “he thinks so, yeah.”
“Then why didn’t he just break it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even think to ask!”
“Why does he think it’s magic?”
“She was looking for Rick.”
She squeezed my hands briefly and took a deep breath. “I see.” She let go and turned back in her chair to face Jackie. “I take it she didn’t find anything.”
“I don’t think we’ll know until she’s awake,” I answered, turning to face the bed as well. “But if there’s anything still at the site, I bet John will find it.”
Hey everyone, today is my anniversary! My wife has been my best friend and biggest supporter for the last 11 years, and not only would this story not exist without her encouragement, but I would be a far worse person without her than I am today. If you enjoy my work, whether it's this story or my twitch channel or really any of my projects, please take this opportunity to show her some love for the incredible impact she's had on making all of this happen. She's in the Discord server if you use that.
Carol, my love, my partner, my inspiration, and one of the most clever people I know, I just want to say thank you; I'm so excited to see where the road takes us in this second decade of our marriage.
2 May 2007
Jackie was going to research the library in their basement for ways to get Rick back, and I had arranged to fly to England so Michael and I could do the same in his library, and we each agreed to call the other if we found anything. I timed the plane’s arrival with Michael to give me time to check on Matteson, who was home from the hospital. He needed to rest, still, and Jackie had said she would keep an eye on him since she was going to be there anyway. She’d found the ring in Rick’s stuff and broke down while on the phone with her job, so they just told her to take whatever time she needed and quickly ended the call.
Matteson was laying on the couch with no shirt when I arrived, his left shoulder and right side heavily bandaged. He was happy to see me, but clearly still upset in general. We talked for a little bit, dancing around the subject that neither of us knew how to raise. Finally, I told him that I would be leaving for England soon to do some study at the Hudson estate, and he turned my face to look into my eyes.
“Will you be coming back?” he asked.
“I don’t mean coming back to the States.”
I hesitated. “John, I…I don’t know.”
“I saw the way you looked at me after things finally started to calm down. When I said there wasn’t any way I could help him. I’ve seen that look before.”
“And what did it mean when you saw it before?”
“That she’d seen too much and needed a way out.”
I got up and paced around the room in a circle. I ended up at his recliner, and sat back down to think for a moment. “It’s a lot, you know.”
“I need some space.”
“I’m not breaking up with you,” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek. “I just…I need some time. To process everything, to think about all of this, to…I dunno.”
“You need to decide if we are worth this,” he said. I nodded. “That’s better than I was expecting, anyway. Take what time you need.”
“Thank you.” I stood, wiped my face, and took a deep breath to center myself. “Could you do me a favor?”
“Don’t call while I’m in England?”
“Okay.” He gave me a weak smile, and I returned it, then left for the airport.
When I felt Jackie’s hand leave me, I glanced up. There, in front of the altar, was Rick, being held hostage by some guy. He looked important, his robes were different and his face was visible, but I had very little to go on beyond that. I stood and took a couple steps forward, but didn’t leave the forest like Jackie did. My attention kept bouncing between her, and Rick, and John. Why was no one doing anything? Why wasn’t any magic stopping this? Jackie fell to her knees and I knew something was wrong, but if it was affecting an experienced witch like her so bad, what was I going to do about it? I took another step forward and watched, waiting for something to happen.
Then something did happen. Rick threw himself and the other guy into the portal. I screamed. I didn’t know what else to do. I screamed and I felt tears on my cheeks and I saw Jackie reach out and John started to run forward to catch Rick, and suddenly I remembered that John breaks magic, and that portal is magic.
“No!” I yelled. I ran out of the woods toward John. “No, wait!” But it was too late. I don’t know if John heard me or not. I don’t know if he realized I was even talking to him. But he ran forward, and he reached out, and as soon as he got within a few yards of the altar the portal just exploded in a flash of light and collapsed in on itself. The flash was nearly blinding, and it took me a few moments of blinking and rubbing my eyes before I could see John, standing on the altar, holding his hand up as if feeling for the portal that was suddenly gone. I collapsed and everything just came out. All the fear, all the discomfort with the secrets I knew about magic, all the guilt of what I’d done or caused to happen today, and now Rick was gone into some other plane of existence with monsters and who knows what else, and as far as I knew, John’s attempt to catch him had severed any chance we had of helping. I just laid there, pulled my knees up to my chest, and wept.
I felt the magic stir in me. It was an awfully strange feeling, like I was suddenly aware of myself in a way I had never been before, and somehow that self included these roots that were dragging people below the surface of the earth. I knew it was me that did that, somehow, but I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I felt like I was going to throw up, and it was only Jackie calling me that broke my train of thought long enough to stop me from doing exactly that.
I asked Jackie if she was the one who cast that spell, because I had to hope that it was, but she was well aware it was me. I followed her as we found a safer place to watch, and leaned against a log there trying to still my gut. I killed people. There’s no way they weren’t dead. I couldn’t even imagine the weight of that before this moment, and now that I knew it, I didn’t think I could bear it. And I had watched John almost certainly kill someone! Trying to save me! I wanted to cry, but I just felt cold. Like something broke deep inside me and I couldn’t grasp quite what it was. I tried to tell Jackie about my concern, but before we could get very far into it she pointed me to the clearing and we both realized that the spell was being powered by all the blood being spilled. Whatever they were trying to do, they would accomplish, simply by letting us kill them in service to the ritual.
That’s when I couldn’t handle it any more and threw up over the other side of the log.
Everything felt dirty. What I had learned of magic so far was so broken, so twisted, so wrong. My cousin has a spirit sex slave to give him power. My boyfriend’s body is infused with enough spiritual energy to kill someone with a punch. There was someone on fire out there, and I had personally put two bodies into the ground. And who could I talk to about any of this? They all seemed so numb to it, and I didn’t think anyone else would really even believe me. I remembered what John has told me, after that Christmas party, about how he couldn’t exactly go to a therapist with this stuff. I offered to be the person who listened then. But what if no one I knew understood my position well enough for me to talk to them? What was I supposed to do then? I moaned as I lay across the log and felt more bile rising. Jackie pulled my hair away from my face and tried to offer some soothing words, I could tell from the tone, but I couldn’t focus enough to hear them.
I was starting to think I didn’t really want to be involved in this magic thing anymore.
“Oh HELL no,” Jackie exclaimed, stepping back away from the stone. I stared at the marking. Not here. Not this close to our cabin.
“The paint’s still tacky,” John said, poking the spiral. “This was just made. They’re active here now.” Shit.
“Maybe we should go,” I said. Everyone turned to me. “Look, it’s just, these folks are dangerous, and we’re trying to have a nice relaxing weekend, and I’m sorry if we can’t do that at the cabin but we could find some other place?”
“This cult, they kill people, Alice.”
“Yes! Yes, so we should call the police—”
“And they use magic and they bind elder gods to power their magic and they won’t stop, not until they’ve stripped the world of its magic.”
“Or someone stops them,” Rick said.
“Oh God, you want to stay, too?” I asked.
“I can’t just walk away this time.”
“You can and you should,” Jackie said, pointing at him. “You’re not equipped to deal with them and almost got yourself killed last time you came barging in!”
“And what, huh? Leave the rest of you here to deal with this!?”
“We have Alpha. If you and Alice go back to town—”
“I’m not doing that, Jackie! I’m not running away and leaving you to face these bastards without backup!”
“Not here,” John said. Everyone stopped. “We can talk about this somewhere else. We don’t know who or what is listening here.” We all begrudgingly agreed and headed back to the cabin. No one talked on the way back, I assume they were as lost in their thoughts as I was. The Brood was here. Now. I couldn’t wrap my head around what to do with this situation. On the flight to England, I’d heard so much about them, how John broke his leg fighting one of their bound gods, how they’d enslaved the minds of an entire town, how they’d been hunting people as far away as Pakistan. And now here they were, a brisk walk away from my family’s cabin, where we were expected to sleep at night, and the rest of them are just…trying to fight them. I didn’t want to be here, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave everyone else behind.
Back at the cabin, we gathered in the living room and sat uneasily for a few minutes. John finally broke the silence.
“What do we know so far?”
“You said they just made that spiral,” Rick said. “So they must have made it recently.”
“Because they intend to use it soon,” I said.
“Beltaine,” Jackie said. “They’re waiting for Beltaine.”
“And what’s that?” Rick asked.
“It’s May 1. The Celtic traditions believe it’s one of the four main liminal days of the year, when the veil between worlds is thin and magic is easier.”
“You haven’t mentioned Beltaine as important before.”
“I don’t practice the Celtic traditions. My holidays are different. But the fact remains that the veil only exists because people believe it exists. So if a large number of people believe the veil is thin on May 1, and they do—that calendar has been co-opted by a lot of European pagans whether they have ties to the Celts or not—then the veil is thin on May 1.”
“Happy birthday to me,” John muttered. I patted his knee.
“Do we know how to stop them?” I asked.
“It depends on what they’re doing. But I know a fair bit about countermagic and Matteson is what he is,” Jackie answered.
“And I have a gun,” Rick added. Jackie glared at him. “So overall we’re pretty much ready for whatever they have going on.”
“I thought you weren’t carrying that around anymore.”
“It isn’t that gun. I, uh…bought my own.” Rick scratched the back of his neck as Jackie threw her hands up and leaned back into her chair.
“I can’t believe you!”
“We run into dangerous shit, Jackie! And no one’s jumping to give me any other way to deal with it!”
“And I don’t know how to control my magic, but I have it on good authority that it’ll be available if I really need it,” I said.
“No, Alice,” John said, “you, at least, should go back. I don’t want you in any danger.”
“Oh it’s too late for that! You think I can be safe here, ever, if we let them take this place? This is practically my second home, I’m not just leaving it, I’m not.”
“You didn’t sound so certain in the clearing,” Rick said.
“I had some time to think about it.” There was another long pause.
“Okay. If we’re all in,” John said, “we need to sort out a plan.”
17 March 2007
John had been concerned about me ever since we returned from England, and I could hardly blame him. I was having trouble adjusting to the new connection I had with the flow of life around me and was still uncomfortable with what I’d learned about my family history. I tried to think of it in terms of the Hudsons, how it was this other group that was maintaining the Bride and using them like some kind of tool for personal power, but I couldn’t shake the knowledge that I was part of that heritage, that I had the Bride’s blood running through me sure as Michael did. And then the magic sitting there, just beneath the surface of my sense of self, crying out to connect with any living thing nearby, was making me tense and disrupting my sleep whenever John wasn’t there to quiet it. I needed help, I knew that, and didn’t want to rely on just constantly hanging on my boyfriend’s arm. The point of this, after all, was to help me handle the supernatural with or without him. So on St. Patrick’s Day, since we all had plans anyway, I arrived a bit early to talk to Jackie before we met up with everyone else. Sure enough, when I arrived, John was upstairs getting ready, and we had a little time.
I told her everything. I didn’t mean to, I was intending to just tell her about how I was sensing magic more now and needed help processing it, but I ended up telling her about the Bride and Roderick and my grandfather and what those spirits had done to me at my request, and she just listened. I realized near the end what I was doing, and made a point to ask her not to tell anyone, not even John, about some of this. She was reluctant, but she agreed. We heard the shower stop running, and Jackie took my hands and looked me in the eye.
“I’ll help you, as much as I can,” she said. “We’ll resume work on your meditation, and now that we know the nature of it we can really target the exercises we do with it, okay?” I nodded.
“Thank you,” I said.
“But look, I really feel like this is something that shouldn’t be a secret.”
“No, I know, I just. I’m not ready. Not yet.”
“Okay. Well, do you remember what we were working on before?”
“Yeah, I—” I started to answer, before there was a sound like a distant thunderclap, and a sudden crackle in the air that made both of us tense up. For a moment, it felt like the magic was gone again, and then it came boiling back up. Jackie’s eyes grew wide. “Did you feel that, too?”
“Yeah.” She let go of my hands and we both jumped to our feet as we heard John coming down the stairs. “Did you feel that?”
“No. But it was probably something I did,” he answered, rounding the banister at the bottom of the stairs. We both watched him, waiting for more explanation, as he made his way to the recliner and lit a cigarette. “Sit down, you’re freaking me out.”
“What did you do?” I demanded. He sighed, then took another drag before answering.
“It was nothing. Hecate came by, she stopped time so we could talk, I didn’t want to talk so I broke her spell, that’s it.”
“And we felt that all the way down here?”
“I’m surprised you felt it. But I mean, she is a goddess, breaking her spells probably sends some ripples.”
“Hecate was here? Now?” Jackie asked. John nodded, and she ran upstairs.
“That’s a Greek goddess, right? Of magic?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Was it really her?”
“Oh who knows?” he answered with a shrug.
“What does she want with you?”
“Nothing she’s getting.”
“John, this sounds serious!”
“Look, I can handle her, okay? You don’t need to worry about it.”
“You can’t handle her!” Jackie said, coming down the stairs. John groaned and threw his arms up like this was an old fight. I wondered why it wasn’t one I’d been involved in so far. “She is the very embodiment of magic! She is the liminal spaces!”
“Yeah, and I break magic and close liminal spaces! It’s not that big a deal!” He said, picking up his cigarette again. Jackie stormed across the room and nearly jammed her finger directly into his eye.
“You keep downplaying this and people are going to get hurt! She is far more dangerous than you realize! You know she was behind the whole Lori situation?”
“Wait, who’s Lori?” I asked. “What situation?”
“My ex,” John said. We heard footsteps on the porch. “I’ll tell you about it later, okay?” I nodded as Rick, Charles, Tony, and Bob opened the door and filed in. Jackie and I met eyes for a moment, and I knew we were both concerned, but we smiled and greeted the boys all the same. After all, tonight was supposed to be a time to relax and not think about magic, and dammit, that was just what I needed now.
31 January 2007
Jackie and I weren’t planning on meeting today, but I showed up a little bit earlier than I needed to, anyway. I didn’t bother knocking before I went inside, having started to get used to the idea that I could, and headed down to the basement when I didn’t see her on the first floor. She wasn’t down there, either, and I began to consider that I was wasting my time being here without actually verifying anyone else would be. I grabbed a book I had been curious about, something about auras, and went upstairs to sit on the couch and flip through it. After a minute of that I heard water in a drain and then footsteps, and I glanced up to see Jackie coming down the stairs wrapped in a towel with another one wrapped around her hair. We both paused when we saw each other, then she coughed a little and explained that her clothes for work were in the dryer and slipped through the room toward the basement. I sat for a second, wondering if I should apologize when she comes back or pretend I hadn’t even noticed, and ultimately decided that either way, it would be best if I wasn’t staring into space when she returned. So I returned to the book, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t quite alone.
She returned a couple minutes later, fully dressed but still with the hair towel, and sat down on the recliner. She lit a cigarette and took a couple drags from it before either of us spoke.
“You’re early,” she said. “Was traffic light?”
“It was a bit,” I answered, setting the book aside. “But I also wanted to talk to you for a minute.”
“Okay, cool. What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking, and I really appreciate your help, and I want to know more about magic and stuff, but. I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep trying to figure out how to unlock it myself.”
“No?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah, it’s just, I dunno. I didn’t even know any of this stuff was real two months ago, it’s not that pivotal to my life. And if moving forward is dangerous, and if I need to be distracted from my schooling to do it—”
“That’s all fair, Alice,” she said with a smile. “No one needs to learn magic, even if they have a knack for it.”
“I guess. I just thought, you know, Matteson talks about it like it’s unavoidable.”
“Well, for him, it probably is. And people in his life need to be prepared for that. But for you and me, this is something we get to choose. We can decide how much of it we want in our lives, and while being with him does mean you’re choosing a certain amount of it, you don’t have to choose any more than that.” I exhaled hard, as if I’d been holding that breath the whole time I’d been here.
“Okay. Thanks for understanding.” She laughed.
“Well. I don’t understand. Remember, I chose magic. But I respect it.” I nodded. “If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t found anything that would help you progress yet, anyway. Whatever is blocking you is alien to the magic I know, and it’s starting to look alien to the magic Henry knew about.”
“Are there kinds of magic?”
“Oh, yeah. I mean, most of them are at least intelligible to other types. It’s like, if you tie a rope into a knot. Different schools of thought may use different ropes or different knots, but the basic knowledge of how to untie it and put it into a new knot is pretty universal. But, there are some things that are really different. I’ve just never encountered many of them.” She looked to the empty space next to me on the couch. “Though I have started to notice one lately.”
“What?” I asked, looking to the space and then back at her.
“There’s a satyr here, named Kastor. Has Matteson mentioned him?”
“Yeah, he has. He’s here? You can see him?”
“Frequently, and I find it helpful to know where all the eyes are when I’m bathing.” She glared at the spot for a moment. “You need to give me a reason to believe that one.” Then she turned back to me and continued, “But anyway, he’s a pure spirit, and of a type that is well outside of my natural element. It could be argued that what he does isn’t even magic, really, since he only affects his own realm and doesn’t use ours to do it; but whatever it is, it doesn’t look like anything I know how to do.” I looked between her and the spot a couple more times.
“Can he see me?” I asked, softly.
“And hear you, yes. He can’t fully manifest in the physical realm, but he can get close, closer than most spirits. I think we look to him the way ghosts look to us.”
“That’s so weird to imagine. Uh, hi, Kastor. How long have you been there?” There was a pause.
“He says he sat down when I went downstairs to get dressed.”
“Oh. Okay. Huh.” The door opened and Matteson walked in.
“Ladies. Kastor,” he said as he started walking over. He leaned down and gave me a kiss before sitting down on the opposite side of me as the place Jackie had been looking.
“Well now it’s just weird that I’m the only one who can’t see him,” I said.
“Then let’s go somewhere else.” I agreed, and we headed out.
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.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.