“Knock knock,” I said, since Maggie’s door was open and the screen was too flimsy to take a couple of taps.
“Go away,” my mom replied.
“I need your help with something,” I said, pushing the door open. My spellbook and Maggie’s spellbook were both tucked under my arm, along with the peace offering I’d brought (a carton of Pall Malls).
“I told you to go away!” Maggie lay sprawled out on her bed, a tangle of purple sheets and dirty clothes and legs and arms and socks and pillows and messy hair. The tiny television perched up over her bed was on with the volume way too high, and the mid-range speakers had busted, so it sounded more like booms and squeaks than a game show.
“I figured out how to exorcise gnosti.”
Maggie glared, but she picked up the carton of Pall Malls and opened it, crinkling cellophane off one of the packs with the ease of long practice. She found a lighter in the bedclothes, lit her cigarette, and took a drag. “Exorcism is for ghosts. You banish the gnosti.”
“Yeah, banish, whatever.” I sat on the edge of her bed. “There’s this problem though, I’ve been practicing on the garden fey, and they keep coming back. Is that going to happen with Nightjack?”
“Don’t say his name. He can hear you.”
“Really? That would have been good to know a long time ago.”
“I would have told you if I had known, Miss Susan.” Miles was close to me, judging by how his voice sounded, but I couldn’t see him among all the clutter.
Maggie kept looking at the show, but I could tell by the way her eyes moved that she wasn’t watching it. She was paying attention to me, using her body language to tell me how angry she was that I’d ruined her cushy pad. She wouldn’t talk to me until I apologized. The childishness of it, the pure stubbornness made me want to roll my eyes and leave her in her own mess. She knew she was in deep shit and that I was the only one trying to help her, but she still played these stupid games instead of telling me how to fix things.
“Look, I’m sorry, okay?”
“It’s about time you apologized. The shabby way you’ve treated your mother is—“
“Shut up, Miles, this is between me and Maggie.”
Miles made a lizardy huff and scampered up to the window screen.
Maggie knew me better than I did. She timed her sullen silence just long enough to irritate me, not quite long enough to make me leave. “He’s not coming back. If you manage to banish him, he’s going to stay gone until someone summons him again. They can’t come here without a little help.”
“But what about the fey? They just pop back.”
She took another drag, spitting cigarette smoke out at the game show host. “The harder they are to summon, the harder they are to banish. Garden fey are small. That djinn is man-sized. You can send a bramblemae to the Elsewhere with a drop of blood, for a djinn, you have to slit a throat.”
“Shit, Sue, I’m the one who taught you.” She fished a bottle of Jack Daniels from under a quilt and took a pull.
“I get the feeling that no one really understands anything about the gnosti, or about magic. It seems like you all are just muddling around.”
“Oh, and you’re an expert?”
“No, I’m the most confused of all. I read your spell book, and Susie’s, and I’ve been talking to Darius, who, by the way, doesn’t know jack shit about magic except for a really cool invisibility and the minor vit-”
“I could have told you that.”
“Yeah, if you’d been speaking at all. I still don’t know the difference between different types of gnosti. I don’t even know what Ruby is.”
“Ruby is a who, not a what. She’s a ghost, sort of.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s kind of a collection of ghosts, in a way. She’s a good spirit, looks after our family.” Maggie had the tone of voice she used when she was trotting out a pat answer.
“You don’t even know what she is?”
“She helps us, we help her. What more is there?”
“Did she warn you about summoning Nigh-the djinn?” I yanked open the fridge door and took out a Diet Coke. It wasn’t very cold. “How did you three honestly think this could work out all right?”
“We didn’t know, okay? I didn’t ask Ruby because she doesn’t just come when you call. I haven’t seen her for months and months. Jason found the spell from some guy he knows and said we should play around with it until we found a way to make it work for us. Just, you know, tinker with it until we found something we could use. None of us expected it to work right off the bat. That doesn’t happen. You can’t use a stranger’s spell, you just can’t. I mean, it had an incantation, in Latin of all things. Nobody does incantations in Latin any more. I kind of thought the whole thing was a joke. But we tried anyway, for practice. We held hands, melded our energies, and then spoke the incantation.”
“And that was enough to summon him? Well that’s great! All we have to do is get Amber to come over, and we can do that mind-meld thing and—“
“It was a tugback,” Maggie drawled bitterly, around a cigarette butt.
“A trap. Someone stored a packet of energy in the aether so that it would be released when we spoke the incantation. It won’t work the second time, because the tugback is depleted.”
“So, like a slush fund of energy? Who would do that?”
“Probably some thaumaturge who did it as a bargain for his wish.”
“‘Cause it was a tugback, not a freebee energy packet. It doesn’t just give you energy, it sucks out some of yours too. They’re nasty illegal, and you can’t hardly get anyone to tell you how to do it anymore. I only figured it out later, at Celestine’s. She’d heard of them before and told me that’s what it was. ‘Course Amber probably thought she was just super talented, and I don’t know what Susie thought, but it didn’t matter. It was too late by that point to banish him, the three of us were practically passed out from the energy the tugback sucked out of us. Besides, what did we know? You find a djinn, you make a wish or three. That’s how it always works in the stories.” Maggie’s voice broke, and she sobbed a little. She quieted herself with another pull from the whisky bottle. “It was such a simple plan. How did it all go so wrong?”
“It’s okay, we can fix it. I’ll find a way.”
“I risked my life for a wish, and now I don’t even have it anymore.” She sobbed again, wiping her nose on a bandanna.
“Maggie, Mom, look, I’ll find a way to banish him, okay?”
“You can’t, you can’t. I don’t have that kind of energy right now.”
“Yeah, but I got Bo to do a reading. He said something about feeding the fey. The fey are gnosti too, right? So they should be able to eat the djinn or something?”
“It doesn’t work that way.” Maggie stubbed out her cigarette against the wall and tossed the butt across the trailer, nearly hitting the trash can. “Best we can hope for is that the MIB think Amber’s the only one who did it. They got those forty-person melds, they can banish the djinn. She might even get off easy, seeing as how there was a tugback. As long as she didn’t make a third wish, that djinn can’t do anything to her. Even Amber’s smart enough to know that.”
I sighed. There was no point in explaining that Amber had already made her third wish. Maggie would just get upset, and need consoling, but she still wouldn’t be able or willing to help. Jess would help me, if she were alive. Christopher too. “Where are Jess and Christopher’s spellbooks? I want to look through them.”
Maggie nodded at her box of records. I rooted through the albums for two fat notebooks stuffed with loose pages. Half of Christopher’s spellbook was empty, and he’d drawn a logo on the cover which looked suspiciously like the logo of Smiling Politely, their band in my reality. Jess’ spellbook had colored tabs dividing it into different types of spells. Her specialty seemed to be evocation, because she had twice as many spells under that tab as under the others.
Good news, they had lots of spells.
Bad news, Christopher’s handwriting was slanted and illegible, and Jess’ book had obscure acronyms and symbols, for which there was no coda. The books still looked better than Maggie’s, which is probably why Maggie had taken theirs and left hers in her computer.
Okay, one more full day of studying to see if either Jess or Christopher had figured out how to make garden fey devour a man-sized gnosti. Because Plan B really sucked.