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He’d bought an umbrella, a large black one that created an octagonal shadow just deep enough for him to walk down the street under, if he concentrated. He’d been back in society for a month.
He’d managed to find a job as a janitor. He’d never had a problem with hard work, having worked more or less continuously since he was sixteen. He’d seen school as a waste of time, and had only graduated high school because his mother forced him to.
His family had come to Phoenix when Paul was a child because they heard there was work there and the living was cheap. Before that they’d lived in Michigan, but he didn’t remember it at all. His mom was a nurse, and she openly resented being a working mother. She dressed him, she cut his hair, she made sure he got baths and good food and did his homework and had a present under the tree and a cake on his birthday. She took care of him like he was one of her patients, capably, effiiciently, with no hint of affection. Paul knew why. He had disappointed her. She saw in him all the faults of his father, with none of the charm.
His father was a handsome, charismatic man, and when he talked to you he convinced you he was capable of anything, even well past the point at which he failed to prove it. He broke promises to everyone but Mom, and even to her he broke one. Dad called himself a musician, but what that meant was that he played the guitar on street corners when he wasn’t taking odd jobs or hustling for cash.
Mom once said that she was blissfully grateful that Dad chose her from among all the girls who adored him. He hadn’t quite understood that, because it seemed his dad liked to choose a lot of girls when one of them happened into his life. But Mom explained that it didn’t matter, because it was her that Dad always came home to, no matter how long he’d been gone. He didn’t go home to those other girls.
“Going to Flag to play for a couple nights with the band,” he’d say, guitar slung over his shoulder. “I’ll come home to you.”
“See that you do,” Mom would always reply. She never told him not to go, even though Mom always got angry when he was “touring” as he put it. The gigs never paid much, and sometimes Mom would have to look for extra work to pay off the tab in some bar in Prescott or Tucson he’d run up while performing there, but she never complained about him once he was back. When he was home, everything was fine. She didn’t resent the bills so much as she resented him leaving.
One time he was gone for two weeks. Mom’s friends and Dad’s bar buddies whispered that they thought maybe he’d met some showgirl and gone to try his luck in Vegas. Mom just pressed her lips together and said nothing.
He thought she was angry then, but when the trooper showed her the crumpled license plate and asked her to identify the body, she got angrier than he’d ever seen her. She stayed angry for years. Dad wasn’t ever coming back, when he said he would. A man who didn’t keep his word wasn’t worth spit.
Paul didn’t get along with his mom very well after that. She’d taken out an insurance policy on Dad, which was generous enough that it meant she didn’t have to work for a few years. That had been a mistake, as the structure of getting up and putting on her public face was the only thing keeping grief and anger from hollowing her out. She stopped going out, just sat at home and watched soaps and game shows all day.
In just a year, it ruined what was left of her personality. She became bitter, gloomy, difficult to live with even if one were kind and sympathetic. Impossible to live with if you were a shallow and angry young man with better things to do than hang around with his old lady, getting into fight after fight that started with a sardonic word and ended with screaming and slammed doors.
Paul and Carlos were nearly inseparable in those days, and he stayed at Carlos’ house as often as he could. Paul took jobs whenever he could find them, and when he couldn’t, he hung out in the bar with friends, drinking slowly so that his pay would last a little longer. He didn’t touch his half of the insurance money. He’d already planned on using that money for something big, he wasn’t sure what yet. He’d been thinking something like a car and a trip around the world, until the war started to loom large in their television and he decided to buy a one-man college ticket out of the draft.
Mom said he used her home like a flophouse, crashing there just long enough to get back on his feet and go out again. That was true. She said other things too, equally true and more unkind, until Paul realized he was too old to live under a roof that wasn’t his. One night after a long and bitter spat, he packed his things and left, swearing that he was going to go away and never come back.
“See that you do,” she said.
It took him almost two decades to break that promise.
In 1984 the city had changed so much as to be unrecognizable, and so had Mom. She had altered the course of her life while he was in the light, gone down further and bounced back up on her own. When he came back into the darkness again and looked up her new address, she was living with another man, newly married, with a couple step-kids. He’d been wearing the exact same clothes, which is why he wasn’t surprised she thought he was a ghost.
Apologizing cost less than he thought it would.
She forgave him, and apologized for being less of a mother than he needed, and suddenly, they were like two strangers on a bus saying sorry for bumping into each other. The emotions that had bound them had been severed so completely that he didn’t even feel regret anymore. He said goodbye, for good this time. She went back to her new life, and he went back into the light.
Mom died a few years later. There were hundreds of people at her funeral, none of whom he knew.
He had left the earth, and the earth had healed itself of his passing. It was a frightening, exhilarating freedom to know that your loose ends have been tied and that you never had to leave the light ever again if you didn’t want to. The owls had a name for when that happens. They called it “the day when the shell and the nest that comforted you were crushed and scattered like the bones of a mouse.”
At least, that was how the translators said it in English. Maybe it sounded different in owl.
It was Saturday, and he spent it the way he had spent every other free day: wandering around downtown hoping against hope that he would run into Susan again. He’d even gotten a charm to help him, a little bundle of mouse fur and bones that one of his senpai had given him. It looked like something she coughed up, but it must have had some magic in it, because as he crossed Fifth Avenue he saw Susan crossing the street.
“Susan!” he shouted, almost dropping his umbrella in his excitement to see her again.
Susan turned and saw him. A quick flicker of joy played over her features, but almost immediately after that her face closed into disgruntled irritation. She’d been carrying a backpack slung over one shoulder, and she angled her body so it shielded her from him. Paul was surprised by how much that stung.
Susan was not the sort of woman he would have dated, had he been able to choose anyone. He liked lighthearted, fun girls, especially those who were hip to the concept of free love. Susan dressed like a schoolmarm, and she was one of the most cynical people he’d ever met. She had a great figure, with curves in all the right places, but she hardly smiled at all. Still, he knew that to win his way into her confidence, he’d have to pretend to like her. And in order to pretend to like her, he had to find the things he actually did like about her, and focus on those.
First of all, he liked that she was shy about being a mage. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who could practice magic, but he’d never met anyone who could do anything that looked like real mage-craft before he’d seen his senpai turn from a woman into an owl. He’d met people in high school who said that they could cast spells to make their grades higher, and when he and Carlos had the job baling alfalfa, there was a woman among the work crew whom everyone said was a brujera. She had smoldering eyes and the ability to make men stop working and stare at her. He’d never seen her curse anyone, or seen anyone get healed either, though a few men got into fights over her and one got fired.
The owls insisted that Susan wasn’t just a one-spell Annie, selling her anti-mosquito charms at a flea market table, she was a hereditary mage, a witch and thaumaturge from a long line. Why hadn’t she said anything about that at the bar? Instead of bragging about it, or threatening him with it, she hid this ability of hers, even going so far as to pretend she didn’t see a bramblemae when it turned invisible. Was she ashamed of this ability? Maybe mage-craft had become unpopular in the past few decades. People had changed in so many other ways.
“Susan, I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I accidentally washed your number off my arm.”
“Uh huh,” she said, as though she didn’t believe him.
“I’m so glad I ran into you again!” He grasped her arm. She started to pull away, then stopped. “Let’s go have a drink.”
“I’m going shopping,” she said, as if she expected that would end the conversation.
“Can I come with you?” Paul winced, imagining holding her purse while she tried on shoes. Well, the will of the parliament had to be obeyed. “Sounds like fun.”
Susan raised her eyebrows. After a moment, she gestured with her head. “My car’s over this way.”
She led the way down two blocks to her car, not speaking until they were there, and then only apologizing for the mess in her passenger seat. The car, like most modern cars, had a strangely sleek shape.
“What make of car is this?” Inside it smelled like artificial berry, as the pink tree hanging from the dash just about knocked him over with its scent. He rolled down the window and to keep his eyes from watering.
“A Daewoo. It’s a piece of crap,” she said. “I hate it.”
“Why not get a new one?”
“I can’t afford a new one,” she said. She pulled out into the street, which was congested with construction vehicles and traffic, even though it was a Saturday. He would have been nervous to drive on such a busy street, but she navigated it as though it were nothing, not even using her horn or middle finger.
“Aren’t you a mage?” he said. He put his arm out his window, feeling the breeze. It was warm for November, and the sunlight on his arm was making him fade, so he laid it in the shadow of the door so the sun didn’t touch him. “Can’t you cast a spell to get yourself a better car?”
“Someone has to pay for it,” she said.
She shrugged. “Someone. If I cast a spell to get myself a better car, someone will have to pay for it. Like maybe someone will rear end me and their insurance will give me a settlement. But it wouldn’t come free. Someone would pay for it, and even though it wouldn’t be me, my karma would be the one that bore the debt.”
“Karmic debt?” he laughed. He’d met a bead-and-patchouli wearing hairy hitchhiker who talked about karmic debt, but never someone as straitlaced as Susan. “You believe in karma?”
“I believe in paying for what you take.”
“So what do you cast spells for then?”
She shrugged, and leaned forward to turn the air conditioning on.
“You do cast spells, don’t you? Isn’t that what mages do?”
“So what do you cast spells for?”
She looked uncomfortable. “I um … I subcontract prayers for distant cousins.”
“People pray to you?” Paul asked.
“No,” she said, pulling onto a huge freeway that he had never seen before. “People pray to God. If they’re descendents of Ru–my ancestral goddess, she handles it. She tells me how to cast the spells to get them what they need, and I do it in exchange for learning how to do the spells.”
“So you’re an angel who grants wishes?”
“No,” she said, but she was blushing. “I’m not an angel. It’s like a magical internship. I do magic in order to learn how to do it better.”
“What kind of spells do you cast?” he asked. “I mean, what kinds of things do people pray for that you can answer?”
She shrugged. Some of the ice was melting off. “Kids are easiest, because they don’t mind asking God for anything, and the things they want are pretty easy. Like they want to pass their math test, or they want their puppy to come home. Sometimes they want hard things, like they want mom and dad to stop fighting so much, but even I can take care of that for a little while. Adults want medical things, mostly, like to stop being tired all the time, or to have their loved one pull through another round of chemo.”
“You cure cancer?”
“No!” She spluttered. “Not really. I just cast spells to give them a little strength to help them get through it on their own. I don’t cure cancer.”
“So you don’t cast spells to help yourself?” Paul looked out the window at the seemingly unending sequence of box stores and office complexes that sped past the freeway. It looked more like Los Angeles than Hayden’s Ferry. “Like have you ever cast a spell to win the lottery or something?”
“My mom did that. She’s won the lottery three times.” Susan got off the freeway.
“I’m surprised you don’t do it more often.”
“They made it illegal for mages to play the lottery. My mom was one of those people who ruined it for everyone else,” she said. She drove in silence for a few minutes before meekly confessing,“I did cast a spell to help me get my job.”
They were in Guadalupe proper now, and the streets were quieter, more residential, with a homey feel like he’d crossed the border into Mexico. Yards had cacti in pots and swathes of bougainvillea instead of slopes of newly seeded ryegrass and gleaming windows. The street signs were brown, unlit, and written in Spanish. Susan pulled off the side of the road, where concrete berms had converted a shoulder into a makeshift parking lot.
Paul was watching her face instead of paying attention to himself, and as a result he almost vanished into the sunlight when he stepped out of the car. He scrambled for his umbrella, but he had to press the catch three times before his thumb had enough substance to move the metal. With a soft whoomph the umbrella opened and he shaded himself, feeling solidity return. Susan was looking around at the things in the courtyard, so she didn’t see him turn transparent.
But the old woman peering out from under the canopy glared at him as though she wasn’t fooled for a minute.
Susan ambled through the Mercado, which sold garden art and patio bric-a-brac. A building stood at the back of the lot, but the yard itself was the showroom. Rusted fences, gazebos and trellises arched above a menagerie of iron and concrete animals. Howling coyotes sat next to turtles with river rocks as shells. A stone fountain burbled near four other empty ones. It was so cluttered, you had to walk slowly, one to keep yourself from tripping over a dancing cement frog or terracotta birdbath, and two because there were so many things to look at. It felt, for him, like he’d briefly stepped back into the Guadalupe he once knew.
“Look at that,” she said, pointing to an owl perched on the edge of the building roof. A shadow from a cluster of palm trees kept it out of direct sunlight. “I thought it was one of those plastic owls that people use to keep pigeons away, but it moved.”
“Oh, great.” Paul narrowed his eyes, trying to feel if the owl was one he recognized. It was a great horned owl, and she was almost certainly here checking up on his progress.
Oh, yeah, he knew that one. [That one] is how he thought of her. She was full of herself because she’d once been chosen by the lady as Raylight, an avatar to speak on behalf of all Sunwards. Once an owl glowed bright with the lady, she tended to become insufferably arrogant. She thought that since she had once been a vessel for the lady, she knew what the other Sunwards ought to be doing.
[That one] looked at him, her thought as clear as sunlight. She thought he ought to have found out the answer to their question already.
It wasn’t like he was deliberately stalling, even if Susan did smell nice and have a pretty smile. Didn’t they trust him? Didn’t they understand that these things took time?
Susan was still looking at the owl, shading her eyes from the sun. “I didn’t think owls could be out during the day.”
“They don’t like it, but they do it if there’s a good reason.” Paul touched the back of Susan’s shoulder and gently led her under the awning. He was glaring at [that one]. If [that one] thought he was doing a bad job, she might grab a translator and bring it over to Susan so that she could interview Susan herself. He could think of few things more humiliating. “Come over here where she can’t see us.”
“How do you know it’s a she?”
He shrugged. Even if he hadn’t known her, he would be certain she was female, because Sunwards were almost always female, and an owl out in the daylight staring at him was always a Sunward.
“Don’t you like owls?” she asked.
“Depends on the owl.” Two. There were two owls he liked. Okay, maybe three, if you counted Fallon, though she’d only been civil to him in order to study human behavior.
Susan let herself be led under the awning, where a rack of postcards and a line of hanging dried chilies decorated the check-out register. He folded the umbrella so he had a hand free to help her set her flowerpots on the counter. She smiled thanks. She looked twice as pretty when she smiled. Too bad she didn’t do it very often. She was so serious, sad, almost. People these days were sadder than they had been. Women had been more carefree in his day.
The old woman came out from a door in the back of the shack. She had long gray hair in a braid and a faded pink dress. She leaned on a cane as she walked, not as if she was using it to help her, but as if she was pressing the ground into submission with each step. She glared at Paul, and the wrinkles around her black eyes shifted from distrust to animosity.
“Senorita,” she said, beckoning Susan with the hand not holding the cane.
Paul took the flowerpots and nodded to say he’d wait for her. When Susan turned her back, he glared at the old woman, warning her not to meddle. He had an owl at his back, and even if he and the owls didn’t like each other, the owls were on his side.
Susan glanced over her shoulder at him and he quickly tried to look friendly.
When Susan came back, Paul opened the umbrella again so he could walk to the car without fading. He tried to read her expression, but he couldn’t hold the umbrella and the flowerpots and navigate the cluttered courtyard without looking where he was going. “What did she say to you?” he asked, casually he hoped.
“She said you’re not human, that you look like a human, but that you’re one of the owl people and that everyone knows owls are trouble. I was trying to pretend I didn’t know it, that for once I just got lucky and met someone attractive who liked me just for me, but now that she said that, I can’t pretend anymore.”
Paul laughed as though he thought it was a joke, though his laugh sounded forced even to himself. “What a bunch of—”
“Paul, stop.” She put her palm up. “Don’t lie. Please. I like you, but if you start lying it’s going to spoil everything. I already knew you weren’t a normal human.”
There went his cover. Somehow he’d blown it, and now he was going to go back to the light in disgrace. “What gave it away?”
“I Googled you and found nothing. That was my first clue. Then I looked around further: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, even MySpace, and found nothing.”
He had no idea what she was talking about.
“And then I figured, well, maybe he’s just not into that. But then I did a little more searching, and still found nothing, except for one guy with your name who disappeared when he got his draft notice.”
“That’s, um, that’s true.” How did she find that?
“You applied for a phone line and got an apartment, with no work experience and no records.”
“You found that too?”
“I work for a private investigator. Brian showed me how to find all kinds of stuff. He was kind of curious too, especially when you suddenly got a job at a company which usually requires a background check.”
Paul meant to deny, deny, deny, but she’d already freaked him out with how much information she’d found about him. “I, um, I kind of magicked my way into that.”
She nodded. “Your supervisor had a faint taint about him, so I knew he’d been ensorcelled.”
Paul’s jaw dropped.
“But Carlos didn’t,” she said. “He was totally clean. I figured any building owner who’s willing to take a renter with no credit, no security deposit and waiving the first month of rent had to be ensorcelled out of half his soul, but he just said you were old friends and that he owed you a lot. He talked you up. He’s a good wingman.”
“You know, a friend who tries to help you get laid. It’s not going to work though, because I know you were just flirting with me because you want something. That hurts. That hurts a lot. No one likes to be used.” She had a bead of sweat along her nose from standing in the sun. The light shone in her eyes, making them look very green. Very green, and very unhappy. “I’ve already figured out what you want has to do with me being a mage, from those clumsy questions you asked me. It’s been a great lesson on how not to be an investigator.” She unlocked her car door and got in. She’d left the window rolled halfway down, and as soon as she was sitting, she started to roll it up. “But now that I know what you are, there’s nothing to convince me you’re not going to hurt me one way or another.”
He had screwed things up, and he could have just gone to the parliament and admitted it. They expected him to fail at most of his tasks. They had low expectations from humans, especially human males.
But that wasn’t the only reason why he felt his heart lurch as she put the key in the ignition. It was at that moment, as she turned on the engine and prepared to drive away from him, that he had an epiphany: Somewhere along the way, pretending to like Susan had turned into the real thing.
“Wait, Susan …” Paul reached for the window, with the idea that if he had his fingers in the car she wouldn’t leave just yet, but he dropped the umbrella and as the sunlight hit him he lost substance. His fingers passed through the glass. “Come have dinner with me!”
She’d backed out of the parking spot and paused, like she was about to shift out of reverse, but instead of driving off she stopped. She rolled the window down a crack. “What did you say?”
He ran over to her window again. “Come have dinner with me.”
“It’s three pm.”
“We can drink till five. Please. I’ll tell you everything you want to know,” Paul said. “I still don’t have your phone number, and if you leave now I’m afraid I’ll never see you again. Please. Have dinner with me.” He was barely holding himself in the world, with the afternoon sun beating full on his back. He had maybe thirty seconds before he had to grab the umbrella or fade into the light.
She used half of that time deliberating.
Paul held a pleasant, what he hoped was unthreatening, expression. The light was pulling him away, molecule by molecule. She could probably see through him by now. He held his hands against the car like a mime, because if he leaned forward he’d fall through it completely. He was vanishing.
She shrugged assent, and reached over to unlock her car door.
Paul reached down for his umbrella, and in its shadow his hand solidified enough to grab the handle. That solidity was enough for him to swing it up over his head, which gave him enough substance to open the door and sit in Susan’s car.
“Tell me where you want me to drive, and then start talking.”
Paul named a steakhouse on the north side of downtown, famous because it was the oldest building in the city. It was the only one he was sure would still be there.
“I’m a Sunward,” he said. “I’m human.”
Susan sounded skeptical. “You’re not a gnosti?”
“I’m a normal guy, or at least I was. See, I was chosen by the lady of light. I’m a Sunward. All the Sunwards together form the parliament, and the parliament wanted me to investigate you.”
“Why are so many men convinced that women like it when you lie to us?” she said. “Why couldn’t you have said this all up front?”
“Because … I don’t know. I’m sorry. Can we start over?” Paul asked.
Susan drove, her mouth closed tight, frowning as though she were concentrating on figuring out where she was going, though they were going back downtown where they’d just come from. “Okay,” she said.