Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rahasia and the Demon Bottle

I wrote this in college for a short story writing class that I took in the evenings. One of the other students opined that she didn't think men were very good at writing female characters, so I naturally set out to see if that were true with me. You can decide for yourself how good a job I did. I haven't changed anything since I wrote it, way back in 1992, and looking back now I see that this like a children's story. Oh well.

(Sadly, the instructor of that course, Denise Gess, passed away at the untimely age of 57, but I'll never forget how much I enjoyed the course she taught.)

Rahasia and the Demon Bottle

Rahasia was meant for greatness. Her mother, father, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and grandparents all thought so, and why shouldn’t they? They were all accomplished wizards, every one, and they naturally expected the youngest member of the clan to carry on the glorious tradition of the Goomdomberous family. The only problem was that she was not very good at magic; in fact, she was terrible. Her fireballs were decidedly green and only lukewarm; her illusions, tired and thin-looking; and the rabbits she produced from her hat, dead.
Her instructors (really her aunts, uncles, and older cousins) had all tried to improve her disappointing conjurations to no avail. They did not understand that she was bored with the wonders of teleportation, and that the arcane mysteries of turning lead into gold only put her to sleep. In fact, the only magic she excelled at was shapechanging. Rahasia could transform herself, with a speed and accuracy her family could only admire, into dogs, cats, birds, and even small insects. But there her magical proficiency ended, and her siblings shunned her as a pariah, except for her brother Sethan, who was all too attentive to her shortcomings. He made a point of upstaging her at every opportunity, as if the issue of who was the better spell-caster was really in doubt. Maddeningly enough, he was in a way a better shapeshifter than she, for he could become the very largest of animals, a trick that still eluded Rahasia. Once, when irritated by her quick transformation into a wolf (speed-changing was something Sethan had still to perfect), he had changed himself into an elephant and chased her all around the backyard. Rahasia could not believe such a large animal could move so quickly, and only her split-second shapechange into a sparrow had saved her from being squashed. The trumpeting laughter that had mocked her as she fluttered to safety seemed to haunt her through the frustrating days and weeks of fruitless lessons she endured.
The truth was that she did not want to be a wizard at all, but she reluctant to disappoint her relatives by abandoning the family vocation. Still, in her secret heart she dreamed of becoming a witch, a wild woman of the wilderness, who ran in animal form and practiced woodland magic, and who spoke with animals as if they were tea-companions (although she wasn’t sure if witches took tea at all). Unbeknownst to her family, Rahasia had already exchanged a word or two with the local fauna (the exchange was limited mainly to concerns of food or weather), and had begun the brewing of several herbal potions, but she kept her newfound abilities a closely-guarded secret. Wizards of all types scorned witches as untutored rubes, and Rahasia honestly did not know what her family would do if they discovered a budding witch right in their midst. She had heard stories of how her great-grandfather had turned one of his own sons into a bird just for speaking with a witch, and had left him in that form for six months. She wasn’t sure that this was true, but since she had little desire to join her mother’s prize parakeets in the arboretum, she kept her silence.
Her days passed slowly, and her frustrations rose to a fevered pitch, until she knew that she would have to do something to change her lot or else go mad. Perhaps if she could give her family a demonstration of just how hopeless a wizard she really was they would cast her out, leaving her alone but untransformed - and free to make her own way. With this in mind, she crept into her father’s study, where thick tomes sat stolidly upon shelves that groaned from their burden of knowledge. She took no particular care of the watch-imp that guarded the area, as the poor thing had lately become alcoholic and spent most of its time sprawled in a boneless, drunken heap on the window-sill (her father was aware of the imp’s disability, she knew, but since good watch-imps were costly to conjure, he tolerated its excesses). Rahasia was an intelligent girl, and after a few hours of study she had found what she needed, more in fact than she had hoped. Filching a quill and a piece of parchment from her father’s desk, she copied down the information she needed and crept out of the musty room, leaving the imp to its spirits-induced slumber. The next day, with a bag of stolen food slung over her arm, she set out at dawn from her family’s luxurious estate for the legendary ruins of El-Eventir.
A week later, after an arduous but uneventful journey (hastened by shapechanges into various fast-flying birds), she had set foot upon the hill on which stood the remnants of the ancient tower of El-Eventir, which brooded sternly over the surrounding countryside. Clambering carefully over a ridge, she wiped a hank of sweaty red hair from her brown and paused for a moment to collect herself. El-Eventir was a place of legend, a mighty tower of sorcery where great wizards of yore had once dwelt and made magics of incredible potency. Their time had passed centuries ago, yet it was said that the sorcerers’ spirits still dwelt in the empty shell of their stronghold, keeping watch upon their ancient home. According to the books in her father’s study, any wizard who dared tread upon the sacred ground would be put to a magical test by these spirits, to determine if his magical powers were worthy. Those who failed the test were marked with glyphs that proclaimed them as failures and frauds possessed of no true magical talents. Rahasia hoped that the book was correct, for the wizards of El-Eventir might be her only hope of finally convincing her family that magic was not her lot. She would surely fail any magical test to which she was put, and would wear the onus of defeat with pride.
With a glance down at her travel-stained garb (the dust-stained tunic and breeches hung loosely on her narrow, wispy frame), she resumed her climb, and in due course she came to the broken stone arch that served as gateway to the ruins. Silence lay over the hill-top like a shroud, and nothing moved or breathed in the shattered mess of stone that was once a home of magicians. She found herself wondering if anyone else in her family had ever been to this grim place. Taking a deep breath, she passed under the arch and made her way through the rubble, stepping carefully around pitfalls and crevices that scarred the area and clambering over piles of stones that lay across her path.
She came to what she guessed was the center of the ruins and stopped there, looking around and waiting for something mystical to occur. The wind had picked up a bit, and it now whistled emptily over broken rock and rustled through weeds that had grimly fought their way up between shattered flagstones. After a few silent minutes, she began to wonder what was taking the spirits so long. After a half-hour she was quite annoyed that the undead guardians of the place had not appeared to decry her as outcast (the thought that they might do far worse than that had not entered her mind). It was not as if they had anything better to do, she mused, irritably kicking at a loose stone. What else did any ghost have to do, other than to wreak havoc on helps mortals?
An hour passed, and she settled herself on a huge, flat stone, eating what was left of her stolen supplies and cursing her lot. It was just her luck that the spirits that guarded El-Eventir were foolish enough to find her acceptable, and without a test even! Perhaps new spirits were needed. After all, such an important place deserved to be haunted only by the most dedicated and qualified of undead, not any old ghost. She finished her makeshift meal and was just getting to her feet when she spied a flash of metal from under a nearby rock. Could this be an otherwordly sign? She hurried over to check, getting down on hands and knees to reach under the stone, but came out with only a old bottle. It was a fine piece of work to be sure, fashioned of some strange reddish metal and intricately engraved, but hardly remarkable in terms of supernatural phenomena. She decided then and there that she would endeavor to change to rules governing ghosts, if ever she became one. She sighed, and with nothing better to do, pulled out the stopper, unmindful of the danger that might be involved.
Glowing green mist issued from the bottle’s narrow opening, and Rahasia gasped and hastened to replace the cap. But the flow was too strong to allow her to position the stopper, and the smoke continued to stream forth. She dropped the bottle and scurried behind a nearby chunk of stone, berating her own foolishness. As a child of wizards, she knew better than to fool around with unknown artifacts found in magical areas, but she had been so bored and disappointed that she acted without thought. She briefly considered casting a protective spell, but wisely decided that her own magical ineptitude might endanger her more than whatever she had foolishly unleashed from the bottle.
The glowing mist coalesced into a hideous green face, complete with fangs, horns, small red eyes and a large, bulbous nose. It turned its fearsome gaze upon her and spoke with a voice like stones dragged through a gravel pit. “Look upon me, yon tasty morsel, for here is thy doom!” it boomed. She shivered in terror, wishing that she had never come here and tempted the spirits.
“Come forward, “ the huge face commanded. “Come forward where I can, er, canst get a better look at thou. Thee. Thou.” She shook her head, unwilling to move even if she could have unlocked her shaking knees to take a step. “Be not afraid, scrumptious. I will not devour thine pitiful bones until thou has...hast duly and rightfully...uh...losteth my challenge.”
Rahasia stopped shaking for a moment as its words sank home. “Challenge?” she squeaked, barely able to keep her voice steady.
“Indeed. I must,wait...I am duly dothly...oh, damn!” The face grimaced gigantically. “Look, sweets, let’s cut to the chase. I have to defeat you in a fair contest before I can eat your delightful flesh and steal your soul. Now come out where I can see you, dammit. My eyesight hasn’t gotten any better over the millennia, you know.”
She emerged from behind the rock, keeping what she hoped what a safe distance from the huge, disembodied head. It seemed large enough to swallow her with one gulp, although she saw no visible stomach in which she would be digested. “Fair contest?” she ventured. “But what if I win?” She jumped back as the creature howled laughter that shook the entire hilltop.
“Not a chance!” the creature chortled, its gross nose wrinkling with mirth. “But, in the occasion that you do, which is as likely as my seeing two hundred again, I must serve you until the end of your insect existence.”
She shook her head in confusion, scarcely able to believe what she was hearing. “Well,” she replied, clearing her throat nervously. “Why don’t we make it easy on both of us? I’ll just leave now, quietly, and you won’t have to risk becoming my life slave. Deal?”
“Not a chance, luscious,” the head replied, grinning wickedly. “If you try to leave without taking the challenge, I am authorized to eat you directly.”
She stomped her foot angrily. “That’s not fair! I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened that bottle.”
Again the demon smirked. “When is life fair, my juicy? Now, select a mode of combat, while my appetite builds to full force.”
“Mode of combat?”
“Oh, you know, weaponcraft, riddles, games of chance,” the creature remarked casually. “That sort of thing.”
Rahasia pondered, but her mind seemed to have to turned to clay; she had never been good at reacting under pressure. “Suggest something,” she said finally.
“I am not permitted to make suggestions,” it shot back, grinning once more.
“Why not?”
“Because that’s the way it works, sweets.”
“Says who?” she demanded, anger momentarily overcoming her fear. “What, does someone set the rules even for such a mighty demon-creature?”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” the demon thundered, but Rahasia could sense its seething frustration. She reflected that the sorcerers of El-Eventir had been powerful indeed, to have subjugated such a potent creature. The demon interrupted her musing, adding slyly, “You have thirty seconds to decide, or else forfeit the game.”
She started in fear. There was a time limit! This got worse by the minute. She started to protest, but held her tongue in the face of the demon’s smug grin. She racked her mind desperately, searching for some talent or interest she might possess that the demon would not. All of her skills and experience seemed so pedestrian when faced with a creature of such power!
“Time’s up, toots!” it exclaimed joyfully.
“Wizardry,” she cried at the same time. “We will fight with wizardry.”
The demon smiled. “Well now, there’s an idea,” it rasped, licking green lips thoughtfully. “I have not exercised my mind-boggling abilities in some decades; I am due for a little workout. Besides, I love the taste of wizards.” Rahasia’s heart sank. How could she ever hope to defeat a being of such extraordinary power, when she could not even prevail over her obnoxious brother?
“To the death?” she asked weakly, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation.
The demon sniffed disdainfully. “Hardly. I am of course immortal, so you cannot hope to harm me. You however, will die immediately upon my victory, which is as obvious and inevitable as my superiority.”
“And your modesty,” she muttered under her breath.
“Eh, what was that,” it demanded. Evidently the demon’s long stay in the bottle had done nothing to sharpen its hearing. “Uh, what I said was, you have a lot of honesty,” she replied.
“Umm. Well, let’s get on with this,” the demon rumbled, seeming put out. “As a sign of my-” it giggled evilly “-good faith, I will let you have first shot.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, suppressing an urge to stick out her tongue. It was bad enough that the demon was evil without also having to contend with a warped and decidedly unfunny sense of humor! Nevertheless, she set herself, breathing deeply, and searched in her mind for the most destructive spell she had ever been taught. She thought of searing flames, rending bolts, and crackling blasts of lightning and thunder, filled her mind with thoughts of power and its uses. With a final breath, she chanted arcane words and pointed at the demon, unleashing a wave of magical energy that enveloped the horrid creature before her...and turned it blue.
The demon looked down at itself, which required it to bend its entire face weirdly. It laughed long and loudly, a horrible sound of crunching glass and falling rocks that made her clap her hands over her ears. “Nice try,” it mocked her, at last getting the better of its mirth. “I only wish it had been red. It’s a much better color for demon sorts of things, you know. I mean, you turn the wrong color, say, pink, and soon you can’t strike fear into the hearts of mortals, other demons stop respecting you, your hideous visage no longer inspires terror-”
“Can we get on with this please?” Mercy, but the creature was smug!
“Of course, my dear,” the demon said patronizingly. “I was just getting to it.” It blinked bulging eyes, and in an instant, Rahasia found to her chagrin that she was entirely naked. The demon licked its lips again. “Hmmm, I have not seen a more buxom dainty in three hundred years.” She looked down at her modest endowment, deciding that if the demon truly thought her buxom it had definitely spent too long in that bottle. It was toying with her, she realized, rightfully unthreatened by her puny powers, and getting a good laugh at her expense. Fuming, she began another spell.
A puff of black smoke exploded around the demon, and when it cleared, she saw to her dismay that the face was unaffected, except for a profusion of bright red flowers that sprouted from the demon’s blue forehead. “Very interesting,” it mused, flexing its face once more to examine Rahasia’s latest blunder. The flowers waved gaily from the motion. “They should prove an acceptable seasoning to the main course.” It concentrated, wrinkling its flowered brow, and she felt the unmistakable tingle of magic. She closed her eyes, expecting the worst.
She realized what had happened as soon as the felt the cold air hit the top of her head, and when she opened her eyes she was able to verify that she was indeed entirely hairless. Her patting hands told her that even her head was now smooth and hair-free as a baby’s.
“I always de-hair my meals,” the demon explained smugly. “But don’t worry, sugarhips, you’ll get one more chance to win.” Again, the demon greedily licked its blue lips. “After that I really must get something to eat. The ravages of hunger, and so forth.” With that, Rahasia knew that the demon’s next spell would be for real, and that her next move would either seal her fate or save her life. In desperation, she thought back to all her years of training, tried to remember every incantation, conjuration, or evocation that might defeat this vile enemy. The problem was that all the enchantments she could hope to carry out could never harm such a powerful opponent, but the ones that might actually do the job were far beyond her limited capabilities. She needed something else, something not even the formidable demon could anticipate.
Suddenly, she remembered her great-great-grandfather Samanious, who had lived to the great age of nearly 150 years by brewing and drinking his own youth potions. In his last years, after the potions had stopped working, he had lost most of his magical capabilities, but his mind remained keen. Rahasia had spent many hours listening to him retell the stories of the many magical duels he had fought and won, sometimes against wizards of far greater power. “I won them all, my dear,” he would tell her, gesturing with a bony finger that trembled with palsy. “I won them because I knew my own strengths, and I fooled my enemies into fighting by my rules. It’s the mind that makes the wizard, not the magic.” These words rang clearly in her mind, and in that moment she grasped her only chance at survival.
She faced the demon, her face set, and before it could taunt her, shifted fluidly into the shape of a wolf, sleek and black-furred. The demon frowned. “Now I’ll have to devour you re-haired,” it pouted, mouth tight with annoyance. “But if it must be so-” It glared suddenly, and sent out its killing spell, a dart of pure energy, red as fire and pulsing with enormous power. But Rahasia was now quick and agile, and with wolfish cunning she dodged the bolt easily, growling a challenge.
The demon’s frown redoubled. “Hmmm, I don’t usually miss, but then it has been a while. Very well, I’ll play your game, and beat you at it.” The demon shimmered and became a huge black bear, which swiped at the wolf-Rahasia with a deadly claw.
But Rahasia had made her move, and was already shifting to cat-form. The claw whistled harmlessly over her head, as she was now considerably smaller than the wolf. The bear reoriented and struck again, but now she was simply to small for it to get a clear shot. The shapechanged demon rumbled angrily, already beginning another shapechange. Soon it was a dog, large and fierce-looking, but still small enough to effectively pursue the cat, which it did. But even as it moved to attack, Rahasia shimmered and became a tiny mouse, which darted in and out between the dog’s sturdy legs. It snapped at her, but once again she was too small for it to attack.
The demon now became a rat, although still considerably larger than the mouse, and it leapt at Rahasia with its sharp teeth bared for the kill. But Rahasia outmanuevered it again, changing into a mosquito and buzzing up and away from the rat’s limited reach. The demon-rat squeaked in pure frustration, fed up with this nonsense, and it flashed into the form of a wasp, with a long, wicked stinger. The wasp zoomed to engage Rahasia, certain at last that it would finally make the kill despite the many distractions.
Rahasia saw the wasp heading straight for her, and in at that moment she accomplished her last shapechange for the day. She snapped back into human form, and before the demon could react, slapped her palms around it, squashing it flat and grinding it with a wringing motion of her hands. “I win!” she exclaimed in elation. Of course she knew that demon had not actually been killed, but she hoped that she had indeed defeated it according to the strange rules of this game. She released the crushed remains of the insect, and even as it fell it resumed demon form. The huge face was still blue, although significantly paler than before, and she saw fear and wonder in its eyes. It gazed at her with new respect.
“Damn,” it said at last, with considerably less arrogance. “I never expected such cunning from a”
“From a creature of insect existence?” she finished sweetly. It glowered threateningly at her, but she feared it no longer. If the creature truly was bound by the rules of the game, as it seemed logical to assume (otherwise it would have eaten her without so much trouble), then it was indeed under her command, for the rest of her life. But how would she command it? Nearly anything was possible with the powerful entity at her side, and her mind whirled at thought of the power she now had at her fingertips. Now she could finally seek out the witches, and leave her life of botched wizardry behind her like an unpleasant dream. Her family would damned well respect her decision, too, or else she would have the whole lot of them transformed into turnips!
The thought of transformations turned her mind to more personal considerations. “Can you show me how to transform myself into a dragon?” she asked the demon, which was still eyeing her warily.
“No problem, assuming the necessary spells can be grasped by your laughably limited mind,” it replied. After a moment, it added, grudgingly, “Mistress.”

Rahasia ignored the small slight as her thoughts centered on her first and most thoroughly enjoyable command for the demon: she would have it show her how to transform herself into a dragon. First, because it was a feat no wizard in history had ever accomplished; second, because it was the only creature she knew of that was bigger - and faster - than an elephant.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sidney's Gift

(I published this in 2006 in a literary magazine called Rhapsoidia, which few people read but I was excited about anyway. It's outdated and kind of clumsy, but I think there's some quality there too. Judge for yourself. All rights reserved, yadda yadda.)

            Sidney was my best friend, and he was a witch. Technically he was a warlock, but gender distinctions are unfashionable in these politically correct days. Whatever you called him, he could cast spells, real spells, to predict rain, tell the future, or even cure small ailments like sore throats or stuffy noses. Not that Sidney was Wicca. No term so connected with naturalism and spirituality could ever be plausibly associated with Sidney, for whom spirituality began and ended at Wawa. Most of my friends could not imagine why the two of us had been close since high school, which can you believe ended ten years ago?
            “Sherman died Wednesday,” Sid said, licking cookie dough from the mangled tube clutched in his right hand. 
“I’m sorry to hear it.” I myself was snacking on celery sticks, although part of me would have preferred a hit of the cookie dough.
Sid took an enormous bite from the tube. “I tried recalling his soul last night,” he remarked, giving me a glimpse of chewed but unswallowed cookie dough.
“His soul?  I didn’t know mice had them.”
“Every living thing does. Humans aren’t the only creatures who have souls,” he said in his I-know-something-you-don’t way, “but they’re the only ones who think they do.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing,” he said glumly. “Except my apartment now smells like sulphur and my mouse is still dead.  I did everything right,” he whined, tossing the nearly empty tube on a side table. I winced as a tendril of cookie dough splatted down on my good table. “The herbs, the incantations…I even used his exercise wheel to help call him back. Nothing.”
“Maybe you should stick to good luck charms,” I said uneasily. “That death magic sounds pretty dangerous.”  Sid glared.
“I think you know me well enough to arrange protective spells,” he huffed, retrieving his cookie dough and taking a small bite. “Besides, I’m getting tired of glamours, and potions.  It’s small shit. Necromancy is where it’s at!”
He did not just say “where it’s at”.  I didn’t dare laugh; Sidney could be obnoxious, but his feelings were easily hurt. “Maybe you just need to study more,” I offered, to diffuse his frustration.
“Maybe,” he mused, suddenly pensive.  “Necromancy’s an exchange, one thing for something else of equal value. That’s what the texts say.” Books of magic were never just books to Sidney. They were texts.  “I think I needed a more personal item; something he was closer to.  Too bad I never made him a little mouse-sweater.”
Just then Michael came in, a bundle of files tucked neatly under one arm. “Hi Sid,” he greeted as he set down his briefcase and scouted for a place to rest the pile. I noticed him noticing the cookie dough on the table, as well as the flash of annoyance that flickered across his handsome face. I’d been with Michael for four years, and he still hadn’t quite grown to like Sidney. Sidney flicked a hand in greeting, and I set aside my celery and crossed the room to deliver a quick kiss.
“Hey there Lucky,” Michael said, his annoyance vanishing. He was the only person in the universe who could use that nickname and not sound sappy. Michael had started calling me that after finding out my name was the super-Irish Kelly O’Hara. The fact that it didn’t make me projectile-vomit told me right off we were perfectly matched. I kept the kiss short; Sid regarded displays of affection as unseemly, most likely because he’d never had a date in his life, and the way he was going probably never would. It was a real kicker, I guess, that despite all his spells and charms and potions, I got the life partner, and he got dead mice and a run-down apartment.
Conversation turned quickly to sports, the one and only topic Sidney and Michael had in common. I’d never told my lover about Sid’s witchy activities, but as it happened he found out for himself.

Michael’s firm was located on Broad just down the street from my office. I hated that old-lawyers place, with its psychic aroma of conservatism, so I waited in the lobby. The revolving doors chuffed around, spinning the lunchtime crowd into the streets, and my mind wandered back to Sidney and his forays into necromancy.
Sidney was smart, and could work like the devil when he was motivated, but his spells had always been fifty-fifty at best. Once, years ago when I was single and recently dumped, he had made a love potion that he guaranteed would get me attention. It sure did. Sometimes gay people forget just how many straight women frequent gay clubs, but I got a vivid reminder that night as I fended off the advances of a dozen women who just couldn’t believe I was gay. Eventually I escaped through a fire door, but I learned a lesson about the reliability of Sidney’s magic. Screwing up a love potion was one thing, but messing around with the dead…well, I’d seen “Poltergeist.”
Michael stepped out of an elevator and I lifted a hand to gain his attention. No kissing or hugging here; as far as his lawyer buddies knew, Michael was straight as a line and for today I was just a friend.  “Waiting long, Lucky?” he asked, grinning in that way that meant I’d like to take you right in this lobby.
“For a big-shot lawyer like you?” I replied, sending out my own reply: On my back or on my knees?  It’s amazing how telepathic you become after four years, and how randy you can be even though you just had sex a few hours ago.  I didn’t want to sit through lunch with a hard-on, so without further ado I pushed through the revolving door, sensing his eyes on me.
The day was unseasonably warm for November, so we went jacketless along Chestnut Street among hordes of business-suit types.  Fortunately, we graphic artists can get away with khakis and polo shirts, so I didn’t feel too much like a lemming on the way to the suicide drop.  Michael was as usual dressed to the nines, and I reflected that nobody, but nobody, filled out a suit the way he did.  That brought me again to the back vs. knees issue, but this time Michael wasn’t getting my telepathy.
  “Want to go see that weapons exhibit tonight?” Michael asked as we waited for a green light.  He loved anything medieval, and the art museum was currently displaying a whole slew of swords, axes, crossbows and other hurty stuff from the Dark Ages.  When we eventually bought a house, I knew that one room would become a mini-armory for the weapons he’d collected over the years, which currently resided in storage.
“I can’t.  I told Sid I’d go with him to that Bruce Willis movie.  You know, the one with the psychic kid.”  Actually, I was going to help him cast a spell to find out if either Willis or the kid was going to snag an Oscar nomination. The lie came easily, just as the next would come when I had to explain how Sidney and I had missed the movie because “we’d just gotten talking”. 
Michael was silent for a moment, and I guessed he was wondering for the umpteenth time why blond, gym-buffed me had ever become friends with lanky, acne-ravaged Sid.  Michael thought Sid childish and pedantic, but Michael had never met the Sidney who’d always had fun things to do on our dateless Friday nights, like making pencils write by themselves or turning my hair bright green. (How my mother screamed!) Michael didn’t know the Sidney who’d been my only friend in high school, back when coming out in tenth grade was not the fashion statement it is today.  How could I tell this to Michael? It was just Sidney, and you had to know him.
Luckily, Michael let it be. “Well, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go myself, then. The exhibit will be closed by the time I get done in New York, and I don’t know when it’ll be back.”
“That’s fine,” I told him.

“The kid is a shoe-in,” Sidney insisted, scooping up the black candle stubs that were all that remained of his spell.  “The Old Ones are never wrong.”
“Remember that time you dropped two hundred bucks on lottery tickets because the Old Ones said you’d win?”  I peered around his cluttered apartment, stroking my chin thoughtfully. “Let’s see…where’s that money now?”
Sidney flashed me a look of imperious disdain, but I could see the smile in his eyes.  He was less annoying than usual tonight, which I attributed to his acquisition of a new mouse. Custer lay motionless in the cage formerly occupied by Sherman, not deigning to use Sherm’s beloved exercise wheel. No pets were allowed in Sid’s building, but white mice were insignificant enough to pass the landlady’s radar. “As I always say, just because I occasionally misread the signs doesn’t mean–“
“That the Old Ones are ever wrong,” I finished for him. “Fine, fine, looks like psychic boy gets a nod this year.” I folded up the black cloth, revealing a pitted and scarred wooden table that had seen better days, then took a seat while Sidney put candles and cloth in the wooden chest where he kept all of his magical accoutrements. I didn’t know much about the Old Ones, except that Sid called their names during divinations, and that they gave unreliable advice. The lottery ticket was the least folly they’d prompted, so needless to say I wouldn’t be placing any bets on their Oscar picks.
“So where does Michael think you are tonight?” Sid asked, moving to the fridge. He kept spring water around for my use only, and he now filled a glass.
“Seeing the movie instead of casting spells about it,” I replied shortly, accepting the glass and sipping. I was uncomfortable lying to my partner, and even more so discussing it.
“And then you’ll say ‘we just got talking’ when he asks about it,” Sidney said, sitting down with a Pepsi. “I know you too well,” he said, “and I wonder why you lie to the guy you share a bed with.”
That cut a little too near the bone. “Maybe you should stick to witchcraft and leave relationships to me,” I shot back.
“Guess you’re right.” His eyes dropped and he fiddled with the plastic Pepsi bottle.
“Hey, look, I didn’t mean to say that…” I began, feeling six inches tall.
He shrugged. “You’re right, all the same.” He began peeling the label from the bottle with enviable dexterity, and it struck me that Sidney’s hands were his most attractive feature. “That’s a magic I have yet to master.”
“It’s not easy,” I told him uncomfortably. I was never comfortable discussing his love life, or the lack of it. What could I say? That he was single because he was obnoxious and unpleasant?  There are some levels of honesty no friendship should attain, and on this topic we had reached our limit. “And it’s not magic. Believe me, Michael and I get on each other’s nerves plenty, and there are times when I almost wish I was single again.”
“’Almost’ he says,” Sidney said to the room. “You can’t fool me. Michael’s the most important thing in your life, as important as my magic is to me, and more.  As important as you are to me,” he finished, flushing. I reached across and took his hand, and his cheeks went from pink to red, but he didn’t pull away. I think I loved Sidney best in those moments when he was just Sidney, not a witch or someone who always knew more than I did. I nearly said there’s a lucky woman out there, but I was lucky to have gotten away with the handholding; empty platitudes would definitely have been pushing it. 
Sidney broke the awkwardness. “But none of you are as important as Ho-Ho’s.”

Michael died twelve hours later, when a tire fell out of a truck on the New Jersey Turnpike and smashed through Michael’s windshield. It also smashed through Michael’s chest, I’m sure, although the emergency room doctor left that part out. She probably thought she was being kind, but nothing could have hurt me after hearing he was gone. The truck driver never even realized what had happened until the New York State police caught up with him an hour later.
Friends, family, and coworkers came in a parade, and they all brought food, as if it were a component in one of Sidney’s spells. Instead of belladonna and incense, they worked their magic through casseroles and fruit baskets and pies. Michael’s mother had aged twenty years, and his father broke down and wept in my arms. That was the worst part (except, of course, for the newsbreak from the kindly emergency room surgeon). Sidney had clumsily offered me condolences, and then confined himself to being pale and preoccupied. I suppose I should have been angry with him for not doing more, but Sidney was as awkward with emotions as he was in body. Besides, what could he do besides magically dye my hair or get the scoop on this year’s Oscars?
He did clean my apartment, however, which was unusual since he rarely took a broom to the rat-hole he called home. He didn’t do a very good job, mind you, but in my state I hardly cared. While I received visitors and acted like I was just fine, Sidney went through the place with dust-rag and Windex, his substitute for cakes and casseroles. A small blessing, since his culinary skills were even chancier than his witchcraft. Sidney cleaned, and I got used to things around the apartment being out of place. I never thought anything was wrong until I went looking for Michael’s college ring.
Michael’s sister had asked for the ring after the funeral, and I didn’t see any reason not to give it to her. A rather ugly thing, I recalled, rummaging through the bedroom, which was why Michael had stopped wearing it. I sat down on the edge of the bed and reflected that it was no longer our bedroom, just as the ring was no longer his. Everything plural in my life had been rendered singular in an instant, punctuated by Michael’s encounter with a highway cannonball. For a moment I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. I just sat on that singular bed in that singular bedroom, feeling an ache that was too deep even for tears. I looked around at the things that had been his which were now mine: the shoe polish kit tucked neatly under the nightstand; the hair gel I’d teased him about buying standing on the dresser; the four neckties looped casually over the back of the closet door. One tie for every day of the workweek, that was meticulous Michael’s way.  No picking through the closet in the morning for him…
I counted out the ties: one red, one blue-striped, one mix of dark green and pale yellow, another blue, but where was the fifth? He’d been wearing a tie the day he died, but not one of these five. He never wore any of his regular rotation when he was traveling, and now one was missing.  I poked around in the closet but came up empty.
Had Sidney moved it while he was cleaning? Maybe, but why had he moved one and left the others? I swung the closet door idly back and forth, watching the four ties flutter, bereft of their fifth comrade. Sidney had taken the tie, but why?

maybe if I'd made him a little mouse-sweater

I froze for a moment, letting the door swing free. The four ties flapped one last time then hung limply, like dead fish.


            Suddenly I knew exactly why Sidney had wanted the tie, and what he was going to do with it. I snatched my car keys from the dresser, scattering loose change and unopened mail, and bolted for the door.

            Sidney’s apartment was on Callowhill, in a triplex he shared with a young married couple above and three college girls below. I shoved open the paint-peeling front door and pounded up the stairs, my face hot and my heart slamming in my chest.  How could he, how could he? I never thought Sidney would be so low as to use Michael’s death as a little experiment. I hoped he’d studied up on his fist-protection spells, because I was going to pound his ugly face.
            Sidney’s door was locked and, unlike the rest of the building, solidly made. I pounded on the wood. “Sidney, open up! Goddammit, Sidney!” I heard chanting from within, and it was like oil on a fire. I attacked that door with fists, feet, shoulders – at one point I clawed at the wood like a cat, screaming in rage and grief. Doors opened and voices sounded behind me, but they were in another world. Sidney, like an acne-spotted Gypsy, was going to conjure Michael’s spirit, and I was going to kill him for it. Inside, the chanting reached a crescendo, and even in my red cloud of fury I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. The voices behind me fell silent, as if they too could sense the energy Sidney had invoked.
            Suddenly the chanting cut off abruptly, and something inside fell with a thud. I dropped back a step, trembling with fear and anger. From the apartment I heard hesitant footsteps, a bolt being drawn, the rattle of a chain disengaging. The door opened and Sidney stood there, smelling of herbs, eyes wide and unbelieving. I stepped forward and those eyes met mine, stopping me coldly in my tracks.
            “Lucky?” he said.

            The neighbors never called the police, although it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. All the police would have found was a funny circle of runes chalked on the floor, a few black candles, and a small brazier filled with ash.  Hardly evidence of a suicide.
            We got out of the lease without much trouble; apparently Sidney’s landlady was not sorry to lose him. I donated his things to Goodwill, except for his magic stuff, which I keep in a spare room of our house. There are two spare rooms. The first is filled with wall-hung weapons: swords, daggers, axes, and a crossbow that had been purchased in England. The second is empty except for an old chest filled with books, candles, and pouches of herbs. All that’s left of Sidney.

            Sometimes I hate Sidney for what he did, because he was right about necromancy: For everything you gain, you give up something equal. Sometimes I cry because I feel guilty, and sometimes I cry just because I miss him. His days of botched love potions and magic dye-jobs are over. But when I lie at night with Michael, his acne-pitted face in my hands, his lanky, awkward body pressed against mine, I can’t help but feel grateful for the gift.