Stray Dog Rut

The beginning of the end kicked off in Belize City courtesy of a little cabana bar down by the ocean. The water there wasn’t the crystalline blue you might see in travel advertisements. It was brown and frothy, slapping at the thick plastic barriers that kept it from engulfing the sidewalk just beyond. Not much to look at, really, but I was lost and I was hot and the sign outside the little hut promising cheap beers just spoke to me.
The interior was nicer than I expected. Several low tables spread around a medium-sized room. A short bar off to the right with a handsome black man tending it. He smiled at me, shining teeth standing out. I smiled back. It wasn’t a bad start.
The windows — really just clear plastic stretched over and bolted into wooden frames — were all open, rippling softly in the afternoon breeze. Records hung up on the wall next to the bar, paired with portraits of the reggae artists who recorded them. That same music, easy and relaxing and very Caribbean, played through speakers I couldn’t spot.
At the bar I ordered a bottle of the local beer. There were signs every ten feet throughout the city advertising it, so I figured what the hell? When in Rome. I asked for a shot of one of the local rums as well, and the tender slid a plastic cup full of light gold liquor next to the beer. A small bowl with two salt and two slices of lime followed.
“What, am I supposed to drink this like tequila?” I asked.
“You drink it however you like, my man. It is your drink.” He leaned across the bar and extended his hand. “Rámon.”
I took his hand in my own and shook it. His palm was coarse, callused. He did more work than pour drinks. I liked it.
“Jack,” I said, which was close enough to the truth. “This your place, Rámon?”
“My father’s place. He and I take turns here and on the boat for fishing tours. Do you fish?”
“I do not.”
I held up a finger to pause the conversation and took the shot. It went down smoothly but tasted a little too sweet for me. I left the salt alone but bit into one of the lime slices.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think I’ll stick to the beer.”
Rámon laughed and grinned at me again. I couldn’t tell if it was because he thought I was genuinely funny or he liked me or he was just doing his job. I was a pretty decent. Picking up hints coming the other way? Whole different story. Two more hours and twice as many beers only made the issue fuzzier.
And then the storm hit.
Now, tropical storms aren’t unusual in Belize, and especially not at that time of the year. Blue skies turn to dark gray clouds at a second’s notice. Rain starts pummeling down. Perfectly normal, lasting anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. This storm, while not particularly ruinous, was one of the latter. I helped Rámon close and strap shut the windows; the plastic wraps fluttered violently in the wind but held tight.
“These going to be good?” I asked when we were finished.
“They will hold. Thank you for helping. Next round is on me.”
“Suits me, because I’m not planning on walking out in that shit.”
My idea wasn’t original. Even as I posted back up at the bar, a group of people rushed in looking to escape the rain. There were six of them: four women, two men, all tourists like me. They were too bright-eyed for a place like Belize City. Hadn’t had enough strangers yell at them yet.
It was impossible not to eavesdrop on them when they shuffled up next to me at the bar; if proximity hadn’t been an issue, the decibels would have sufficed. They were American — again like me — and young, though I suspected most of them were able to drink legally back home. They were a diverse group, vacationing down from some college I had never heard of. I raised my beer in a toast.
“Wait ’til we get ours!” one of the young men shouted excitedly. He had a pronounced nose and slicked-back hair. A real partier by the sound of him.
Rámon loaded up a mixture of cocktails and beers for the group. They each took turns tapping my bottle and then filed off to a table in the back corner. One of the girls — blonde curls and full lips — walked backward, her eyes on me.
“Why don’t you come join us?”
“I don’t want to be that creepy older guy crashing the party.”
“You can’t crash the party if you’re invited. You’re American, right?”
“More or less.”
“Well, it’s pouring rain outside and you look lonely, so why don’t you come over and tell us where you’re from?”
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe in a few.”
My beer was empty. What number was this one? One less than was necessary at the very least. I ordered two more.
“Looks like you’ve made new friends, Jack,” Rámon said. He placed the two beers down, one in front of the other.
“I don’t know about all that.”
“Maybe you should take another look.”
I turned around and gave the group another glance. The blonde was staring right back. She crooked a finger. She gave a wink. Rámon might have seemed a mystery, but even a clueless idiot like me could pick up what she was throwing down. I grabbed my beers and headed over.

*****

“Do you want to see a magic trick?”
The words came out of my mouth mumbled, more for myself than the groggy girl nestled in the crook of my arm. The words were habit. A welcoming call to strangers on the street approximately 120 seconds before I hustled them out of some cash.
The room around us moaned in response. I had stayed in worse places, but not many. The chipped turquoise walls sucked the light out of the single exposed bulb on the ceiling. The ceiling itself angled inexplicably downward, creating a hazard for even the average-heighted person. But the girl (Jennifer? Jessica? No, Jennifer.) hadn’t seemed to mind, so neither did I.
“What did you say?” she murmured into my chest.
“Magic trick. You want to see one?”
“Mm. Mmkay.”
She placed her palm equidistant between my nipples and used it to help herself up into a sitting position. I reached down to the floor — there was no room for any kind of nightstand — and snatched up my pack of cigarettes. I tapped one out for myself, then offered her one.
“I thought this was a No Smoking room.”
“It is.”
“Won’t you get fined or something?”
“I don’t care.”
And that was true: I didn’t. It wouldn’t take much for me to get rid of any lingering smoke or smell, but considering how much I had paid for this shithole, I thought just as much about setting the whole bed on fire.
Jennifer took a cig and placed it between her lips. I scooted my ass a bit so I could face her better and then touched the tips of my middle finger and thumb together in front of her cigarette. She looked at my hand, bemused, going a bit cross-eyed in the process. I checked a chuckle.
“You ready?”
She nodded.
“Alright. Presto fucking amazo!”
I snapped and a light purple flame danced at the tip of my thumb. I was disappointed. Outside, in the dark of night, it would have looked beautiful. With the shitty paint job of my hotel room as a backdrop, it came off washed out and muted instead. She gasped all the same, and I used it to light her smoke and my own.
“Blow it out,” I said. When she tried, I willed the flame away. She sat back, any trace of the lethargy she had shown vanished just the same.
“How’d you do that?”
“Trade secret.”
“Butane?”
“Sure.”
“It’s just like the movies!”
*That* made me laugh. “Yeah. Just like it.”
The next couple hours went like that: her asking what kind of things I could do and how. Me politely deflecting. She talked. I listened.
No, I didn’t. Who was I kidding? I was too busy asking myself why I showed her the flame trick in the first place. Was it just out of sheer boredom? Or, even worse, *nostalgia*? It was a blessed relief when she finally lay her head back down, this time on a pillow.
“Goodnight, Jennifer,” I said.
Several long beats of silence passed. She slowly rolled over so her back was facing me.
“Jessica.”
Dammit.
I kept still until I was sure she had fallen asleep, wary that jostling her might provoke a stronger rebuke. My mind wandered, away from the room, away from the country entirely. I found myself missing home. New Orleans. The Big Easy, though I never called it that. Found the nickname insulting, if we’re being honest, to everybody who had to scrape through the days.
I had been one of them once upon a time, back during the best years of my life. Hustling catty-corner to trumpet players crooning for bead-bearing tourists. Keeping track of just how much more money I had to earn for a cheap bowl of gumbo and to kick up the line for permission to keep using the gift. I missed the hot weather, the beautiful women.
I glanced down at Jessica. Belize checked off those last two boxes at least.
But what had happened back home? How did things go so wrong? Now it seemed like everyone I knew was either trying to kill me or were ratting me out to the people trying to kill me. What the hell happened to friendship? Pinky swears used to mean something. Blood pacts used to mean a whole lot more.
“What’s the matter, tiger? Can’t sleep?”
“Uh.”
Jessica’s voice startled me. I hadn’t registered her waking up, and she had spoken in a lower octave with some gravel in it, like she was trying to tell a campfire ghost story. I turned to look at her and she slowly rolled my way until she was laying on her back, only her head turned my direction. Her pupils had dilated so far that I couldn’t make out any other color in her eyes, just two black pits in little white seas.
“What’s the matter, Jacob? You look concerned.”
That voice again. I could feel goosebumps rising.
“It’s Jack,” I said dumbly. “Wait, is this because I called–”
“Your name is Jacob. Or tiger, if we’re feeling frisky.”
And then suddenly something clicked in the back of my mind with all the subtlety of a grenade going off. The words came out of Jessica’s mouth, but it wasn’t her saying them.
“Milo?”
“Ding ding ding!”
Jessica (or her body, anyway) tried to smile. Her lips slowly spread apart, exposing her teeth. Her cheeks retracted. Instead of the inviting expression that hooked me at the cabana bar, I got a rictus grin.
“What the fuck?”
I didn’t mean to, but I could feel myself drawing out each of those words as if I were speaking in slow motion. It had nothing to do with the hinky hoodoo going on in my room; I was just shocked because I had only heard of the spell I was witnessing the results of, and it didn’t work out well the last time someone tried it.
I rolled out of bed and began scrambling for clothes. Pants? Necessary, check. Shirt? Got it. Socks? I’d buy more later. I did a quick pat over my body to make sure I had my wallet and passport, then reached for the door.
“Jake,” Milo croaked through Jessica. “Meet me at the big studio. You know the one. One hour. One hour, tiger.”
I damn near ripped the door from its hinges.
#
There isn’t a cool story behind my discovering magic. No candle-lit basement sacrifices. I didn’t wander into the back room of a Santerían shop and meet a skull-faced death goddess. No blood moon on my birthday; it was a waxing crescent, the week before Thanksgiving. How boring is that?

No, what happened is I was lucky enough to be born with the gift — more people are than you might think — and I stumbled ass-backwards into it about the time I hit puberty. Most with an innate ability to use magic go their whole lives without tapping into it, or they don’t even notice when they do. See, some spells require ingredients to prepare, while others need a clear verbal invocation. Some spells just need intent and the right gesture, but you still have to do it correctly.
My experience was… well, you know how some kids would pretend to telekinetically bring something closer or throw something away? It was basically that, but after getting my ass kicked for wearing a purple windbreaker. Eighth graders are savages.

I remember getting up from the field, mud dropping off the front of me in chunks, mixing with the blood I had spit all over the ground from two split lips. I made a gesture with my arm, awkward because my whole body hurt, where my fingers curled and my wrist turned at an odd angle. The gang of hooligans saw none of it as they walked away, thank God; their laughter would have finished what their fists and feet started. They also didn’t notice the filthy puddle next to them until it rose up and drenched them head to toe.

I ran as fast as I could in the other direction, saving my laughter until I was home.

By the time I got there, though, I had almost talked myself out of being responsible for the splash. The thought persisted anyway, keeping me up late into the night: what if I *had* caused it? The day had been calm. The puddle had been deep but still. I couldn’t come up with any other explanation, so I caved to my ego. I decided I needed to recreate what happened.

That weekend I went back out to the field. The mud had dried but the puddle remained, and I stood still next to it until I was certain no one else would be wandering by. Two straight hours of failure followed as I flailed, gesticulated, and windmilled to no effect. I clenched my jaw and squinted at the water. I tried to project my mind at it.

Nothing. I trotted home, dejected.

I would learn later that I was off base in more ways than one and just had no idea. I was missing intent, for one. For another, my gestures were completely wrong. But my biggest misconception? I thought I had affected the water and tried to do so again. It was actually the *air* around it.

I spent the next month nearly mindless. My schoolwork suffered. I suffered, too, at the hands of the same bullies. In times of boredom or loneliness I would fling my arm out again, always in a different arrangement, but my heart wasn’t in it. By the time the semester ended, I was thinking about what I would need to do to drop out of school without anyone getting on my case. My dad was dead and my ma might as well have been, so it was just the school and the state I had to worry about. Plots and schemes to get aroune them were going through my mind when I heard my name from the front of the class.

My science teacher, Mister Artur Cormier, held my test paper up. Even from the back of the room I could see the fat red F he had drawn in the middle of it. He was saying something about how unbelievably poor I had done, that it must have been deliberate, and then he began to read off some of the answers I had written.

I didn’t hear anything after that. Rage consumed me. My temples pounded. My arms shook. I flung one of them out and muscle memory I didn’t knew I had contorted my limb into the proper gesture. A gust of wind rose up in front of Mister Cormier’s desk, scattering the tests of my classmates and ripping mine from my teacher’s hands.

As the papers floated down to settle on the floor, the classroom was stone silent. Most of the kids had turned to stare at me. A few had turned to look at the windows, which were closed. Sorry, guys. It was me.

I reached down to grab the backpack slumped against the front leg of my desk. I didn’t say anything as I walked out and nobody said anything to me. That was the last time I stepped foot in a classroom.

Instead, I devoted the bulk of my newfound free time to scouring the library and the internet for anything and everything I could find on telekinesis, element manipulation, and — eventually — full-blown motherfucking magic. I read for hours at a time, sifting through nine parts bullshit to find that one part goldmine. I memorized rules and legends from the worlds of magic and visited every hoodoo, voodoo, and black crafts store in the city. I discovered new spells and practiced the ways to move my body so I could cast them. All of this I did alone, mostly in secret. It was a lot like masturbation, sure, but more fun and informative.

I learned, for example, that air magic was the most accessible for beginners because air is all around us. I branched out from there into related magics and then sub-branches of *those*. That’s how I discovered illusory crafts. My first love, the one that pulled me fully away from the tatters of my old life and moved me into my new one.

If you head into any city with a lot of foot traffic, you’re bound to find a hustler or two working a crowd. ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ is an expression for a reason. It isn’t always stupid people that fall for it, either: there are a healthy amount of bright, brilliant people that believe they simply *can’t be tricked*. Their wit and observation is greater than your petty sleight of hand. Your base deception. Sometimes they’re even right! But most times, people can’t outfox a hungry thief with thousands of hours of practice.

So I bought a half a dozen decks of cards with money I pilfered from my ma while she was on one of her benders. I got a bag of marbles and some red plastic cups. I practiced. I got good, *really* fucking good. Then I tossed some magic in the mix.

First it was basic illusion work. You’re looking for a Queen of Hearts, but suddenly it looks like a Ten of Clubs. You think you saw the marble roll under the left cup, but did it really ever move at all? From there, I graduated to full on displacement magic and moved the card or the marble wherever the hell I wanted it.

Sleight of hand stacks the deck against you. Magic yanks the carpet out from under your feet. I left school when I was 13 years old. I left home three weeks before my 15th birthday. I celebrated Christmas that year by tricking nearly three grand out of drunk tourists with no sense and no better place to be.

Weeks passed, then months, then years. The money was good but seemed to disappear just as quickly as I made it. Fancy meals, designer clothes. Nice hotel rooms when I didn’t feel like camping outside somewhere, tucked away just off the street, in an alley that smelled like spoiled milk. It sounds bad, but even that had its charms. There was a three-circle Venn diagram I found myself a part of: the street people, the street hustlers, and the street practitioners. All of them had a magic about them in some way, and they became the family I had lost when my father passed.

I narrowed my studies to refine my craft. I was no wizard or warlock, no sorcerer. I wasn’t a magician with a pretty assistant and a collapsing rod or a hat with a bunny in it. I was a young man with a gift and a vagabond life. I was a grifter guru and, “You want to see a magic trick?” was my mantra.

“You want to see a magic trick?” And people did. And they put their money on the belief they could outwit me. And I twitched the right fingers, turned the right palm, put the right feeling into it and came away richer for it. Things were good.

Then, for better and worse, Milo came along.

I was still learning what it meant to be a man with the gift in Louisiana. I had learned a lot but knew next to nothing. So, eighteen months or so before Uncle Twist and Inchpatter dragged me through a bone tunnel, read me the Cold Word, and drew my blood, all I saw was a handsome mark making his way toward my table and me.

Milo had three days’ worth of stubble — the perfect amount — when I first met him. His dirty-blond hair was cut short and messy near the back. A cowlick he could never quite tame. I noticed his gray eyes and enjoyed them, but it was the devil in his smile that I picked up on most.

I should have known then that it was trouble and called it a day right there. I used to have good instincts for that, back when I was getting my ass kicked into my throat three times a week. But I was 20 and I had magic and I had yet to discover my talent for fucking up a good thing.
#
I moved through the Belizean night like a phantom, sticking to shadows where I could and pushing a little magic out for cover when I couldn’t. What scattered lights there were cast a pale orange shroud over the street. I was careful to watch each step, though the ground wasn’t uneven.
In fact, the sidewalks were actually pretty well built, thick concrete squares settled into the sides of the road. It was just that every so often, one of those blocks would be missing completely, leaving a two foot drop into filthy water for the unwary. All matter of gross stuff could be found in those holes: plastic bottles and chip bags, holey socks and dead animals. I saw a condom floating in one; that was enough to convince me to pay attention.
My hotel shrank behind me as I moved and disappeared from sight completely after the first corner I turned. I felt kind of bad about leaving Jessica there, but I didn’t know what Milo would have done to her if I had stuck around. I didn’t even know he could pull off what he did! It was best just to leave and hope she would wake up before checkout to do the same.
The buildings around me leaned in conspiratorially. Unlike the sidewalks, these were crooked and wore their years like a bad suit. Doors had slivers missing from them. Windows were just holes: the glass, the frames, everything was just gone. Where there was paint, it was chipped. Hell, the buildings themselves were chipped and crumbling.
In the daytime, there would at least be a little life in the area, people sitting on steps, blaring music from their yards, walking to and from work or school. It might not always be fun in Belize City, but it was certainly busy. The quiet and empty streets now were, dare I say it, spooky. I felt like I was about to be mugged.
As if sensing my fear, a small figure darted out from behind a car on my right, and I nearly shat myself. I reeled backwards into some kind of shoddy fence, not wanting to fight but ready if I needed to. Which confused the sad-looking mutt standing in the middle of the road.
“Oh,” I said. “Hey. What’s up, dude?”
He cocked his head at me and then trotted back in the direction I had come from. A half dozen vehicles back, he tucked himself under the bed of a truck and lay down. Stray dogs were rampant in this city, drinking out of gutters and picking through garbage. I would feel worse about it if I hadn’t felt so much like a stray myself lately.
“He scare you, white boy?” asked a voice from behind me.
“Jesus fuck!”
I whirled around. The fence I had been propped against was a horrendous alternating mix of chain link and slats of corrugated metal. A man with skin like charcoal stood on the other side in an empty lot, looking at me through the links. His hair was draped over his shoulders in two long gray dreads. He gave me a gap-toothed grin.
“So now what is scarier? The dog? Or me?”
“You, old man. What the fuck?”
“Someone who smells the way you do should be careful of the language they use.”
“I just had sex, that what you smell? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
The man laughed at me. It sounded like a wheeze and held no mirth as far as I could tell. He pointed a gnarled finger at me. “You people, you are halfway to an animal.”
I didn’t know if he meant white people or Americans, but it didn’t matter. “That’s rude,” I said. “But true. I never had to flip off a child for aggressively panhandling before I came down here, though.”
“And you were a good child?”
“I wasn’t bad!” I thought about that for a second. “Grew up to be a bit of a bastard adult, I suppose.”
The old man wheezed again. “That must be why you smell, then. Not sex, boy, but, like bad magic.”
“That ain’t me,” I said, trying to ignore the chill in my blood. “I don’t *do* bad magic.”
“You just the type that dance near it.”
“Not if I can fuckin’ help it.”
“But you can’t help it, can you?”
I bit the inside of my cheek while I tried to come up with a good answer. None came to me. “Apparently not.”
“Get on, then. And after you do what you are set to do, maybe you leave the city.”
“Maybe.” I started to turn away, but one last thing was bugging me. “Hey, you scary old dick. What’s this trashy fence even for? Of all the eyesores in this city, this monstrosity circling nothing might be the worst. What was here before?”
“This place?” He grinned at me again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Was a house. Not for everybody, only a few. It was a place for the in-between.”
“What, like ghosts?”
“Meaner.”
“Meaner than ghosts. Alright.”
“Twenty years ago, just about, two men come. White, like you. Stink of bad magic. Like you. They tear the house down. Then they leave, but you people? You are not very smart. The building? Gone. The power remains. This fence, it is a warning, not an obstacle: stay out or you might catch the Bad Wind.”
It was like every thing he said found a new way to creep me out. “You know, I don’t really like it here.”
“What a coincidence. We don’t really like you here, either.”
“Yeah, fair enough.”
That was enough of that. I left the man and his lot behind, feeling no better but suddenly clear on one thing: I wasn’t skipping town. Not yet. When I had left the hotel, it was to try and keep Jessica out of the line of fire, but actually going to meet Milo had been up in the air. If I really whiffed of bad magic the way the old man said, though, I needed to address the issue. I had already let it go three years since Milo put me in the shit the first time.
Belize City was never going to be home to me, but I had got to know it pretty well. It was my routine any time I wound up in a new place to walk around as much as possible, no matter how many people offered a taxi ride by yelling at me. You get a better feel of the culture by walking, and the people, and you get a passing familiarity for the layout of the streets which could really help out in a pinch. That’s how I knew which turns to make and roads to follow to get to the studio Milo mentioned. Yeah, I did know which studio he meant.
After all, it was my favorite building in the city.
The studio had seen better days. Not a single one of the windows — glass set in twenty-four gridded slots per frame — had all of their squares intact. A railed staircase running along the side of the building up all three stories was littered with buckets and bags full of trash. A second staircase wrapped around the side and back with no railing for support and wood that looked like it could go at any moment. A third staircase rose directly into the building to the second floor through a hallway painted red. The rest of the building was mostly purple-black, meant to signify outer space, with huge chunks of dirty white wood clawing through like old bones. The painted stars dotting it had faded almost completely away.
I loved it all. The dance studio must have really been something in its heyday.
Now Milo was up in there, waiting. It had been three years since I had last seen him. My friend. My lover. The son of a bitch who used bad magic on a poor girl who just wanted to sleep with a degenerate.
My heart sailed its way up under my Adam’s apple and set anchor.
#
Regulations on magic are kind of a shit show, but they’re something you need to know if you have the gift and plan on using it. Groups band together. Organizations… organize things? Territories create clearly defined boundaries, some with rules and restrictions to moderate magic use, some without. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear Texas is without and that things get more than a little hairy out there among the cacti and casual racism.
Louisiana has the Cold Word, an 150 year old creed scrawled, for some reason, across a preserved sheepskin. I mean, Jesus. But the rules are solid, even smart, and breaking them within Louisiana territory was grounds for consequence up to and including execution. Being cut off from your gift was on the table, too. Some spells could do that, known only to a few, and many considered that to be a punishment worse than death. Once you have access to weird powers, forced normalcy is like getting chemically sterilized.
The only problem with regional restrictions, of course, is that people with the gift are *people*. Outside of the higher-ups in a territory’s regulatory council, nobody gives a shit about catching anyone up on all the Dos and Don’ts. They see someone who can do the same things they can and either want to hang out or have a piss fight.
That’s pretty much why I wasn’t introduced to the concepts of acceptable magic and *bad* magic until I was 22. Milo, a couple years older, was equally oblivious. We had been friends for a year and a half at that point–since he correctly called me out when I tried to game him with the cups and marble–and been a couple for nearly a year. Milo was the first man I ever slept with. He had treated me with patience and respect, and I loved him for it.
As we got to know each other more, the gift became a frequent topic of conversation between us. He wanted to know how my illusory magic worked in detail; I refused him. I demanded he help me branch out in elemental crafts, but the most notable thing he did was arm me with my little purple lighter trick (which, admittedly, I would get a lot of use out of). Typical couple spats.
It was on one of those many evenings we were together–in every sense of the word–that we were rudely interrupted by a sharp rapping at the door. We took our time dressing as a passive-aggressive Fuck You to the knocker, one I would never think to try again with the man at the door knowing what I know now.
Besides his signature wide-brimmed hat, it’s impossible to describe Uncle Twist. Or you’re not supposed to. Or you really can’t, I’m not quite sure. His illusory magic is on an unfathomable level, mostly because it’s literally designed to leave you staggered. I had met a good number of people with the gift on the streets of New Orleans, but none of them began to touch the power of the man at my threshold.
“Uh, hi,” I said. The clothes I put on made me feel no less naked.
“May I come in?”
“I mean, sure.” As if there were any other answer.
“My name is Twist, called Uncle Twist by some of the youngers. Are you two…”
“Together?” Milo asked. “Yes.”
“That makes this easier. No secrets, and I can cut to the chase: you both have the gift and have been using it for some time without any oversight.” He held up a hand before either of us could say anything. “Don’t worry. I didn’t come here to be an earth-shaker or bear any bad news. Y’all are fine. That said, it has come to my attention that nobody ever ran y’all through the ropes, told you what would fly and what wouldn’t. It’s best for all of us if we fixed that. Does that make sense to you?”
“I… yeah?” I managed.
“There’s an oversight committee?” Milo asked.
Uncle Twist shifted his weight to one leg and put his hands on his hips. “Son, you could start a fucking forest fire with your hands. You don’t think oversight might be a good thing?”
“When you put it that way…”
“Right. You boys from around here?”
“I am,” I said.
“Oregon,” said Milo.
“Alright,” said Twist. “Very good. If you’re planning on using your gift, at least in Louisiana, there are some guidelines you need to follow. So’s I can get an idea of where y’all stand on magic in general, why don’t you tell me exactly what you know already?”
I offered Twist a seat while Milo and I spoke, but he declined and leaned against the wall instead. Still on edge about the intrusion, we did our best to come clean about everything, backtracking and correcting each other when necessary so no detail was left out. We covered our individual discoveries of the gift, our first times using it, my con jobs and Milo’s accidental arson as a teenager. We rattled off the books we read and were reading, the areas we were dabbling in, the areas we wanted to pursue next. Twist just listened, nodding to himself until we were finished. He took his hat off and held it in front of his belt buckle.
“Well, it seems like you boys have a pretty good handle on things. We’re pretty lax on most activity here in Louisiana. There are a couple big things I just want to cover: don’t use flagrant displays of magic in front of people without the gift. Your card and cup tricks seem fine, but setting a car on fire, something like that, that’s not good. Don’t use your gift to kill anyone, accidentally or otherwise. You want to commit murder? Use a gun and don’t tell me about it. Most importantly, absolutely no use of bad magic is tolerated.”
“What the hell is bad magic?” Milo asked.
Twist blinked in surprise. “You ain’t never heard of bad magic? Alright. It’s any type of spell, enchantment, or other kind of general mumbo jumbo that directly affects the control of a person’s body. So no mental intrusions, no possessions. Stay the hell away from any kind of necromancy or post-mortum divination.”
“You can do those things?” Milo asked, eyes wide.
“They’re possible, but you *can’t* do then. That’s my point.”
“Understood,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, alrighty then. Just one last thing.” Twist fished around in his back pocket and came up with a card, which he handed to me. It was the darkest black I had ever seen and completely blank, save for an address printed in maroon. “Meet me there in a couple days, say around five. We’re just going to have you sign a few papers basically covering what we did here. We file every agreement to the Cold Word. Think of it like visiting the customs office when you land in a new country. Easy as pie. Oh, and there is sort of, hm, let’s call it a membership fee for using the gift in Louisiana. We’ll go over that when I see you next.
“Uh, okay,” I said. “Two days.”
“So are you, like, basically the guy who runs Louisiana’s magic department?” Milo asked.
“Oh, I got my bosses, too,” Twist said. He put his hat back on and headed for the door. “People just seem to prefer meeting ol’ Uncle Twist.”
#
I can tell you one thing: signing an accord with the Cold Word was not like going to a fucking customs office. Customs employees don’t meet you in the basement of a butcher shop, for one, nor do they bag your head until you’ve fully entered a secret second basement, then lead you down a tunnel packed with bones for support structures. There aren’t rules written on a piece of dead animal, and they sure as shit don’t cut your arm open and make you sign your name in blood.
That’s how we met Inchpatter for the first time. Uncle Twist described him as one of Louisiana’s enforcers. Break the rules, you might find Inchpatter ringing your bell. It was funny to think about because he didn’t look like much: wiry figure, terrible haircut, and not much more than five feet of length to him. His eyes, though, that’s where he sold you. They were flat, hard. Once, Twist called him “the funniest sumbitch” he knew. I never saw that side of him.
After all the skull and dagger, secret society ritual shit was over, Inchpatter helped us up from our knees. Twist bandaged our arms and handed us a pair of pamphlets.
“That’s basically an FAQ right there. It should clear up any lingering questions you might have.”
Milo slapped his into an empty palm. “Couldn’t you have just handed us this and had us sign the papers, instead of…” He gestured around the room. “The spectacle.”
“Welcome to magic for adults,” Inchpatter deadpanned.
“Christ.”
And that was pretty much the end of it. What had been a terrifying, nearly traumatic hour for Milo and me had been routine for our two companions. They sent us on our way with what basically amounted to well wishes and a pat on the ass.
We took turns showering when we got back to the apartment, then changed each other’s dressings. The cuts were shallow and would heal quickly, but we didn’t want to risk getting any blood on the bedsheets. Then, clean and proper and tucked in, my boyfriend and I went through one of the pamphlets together.
To be fair, it was a lot more than an FAQ. It was actually a pretty handy resource for two young gifted like us. There were lists of magic shops and relevant bookstores. A glossary for magic terms and techniques we had never heard of. Even a two-page spread that went into further detail on what was prohibited under the definition of bad magic.
I hadn’t noticed Milo’s expression when Uncle Twist said those words to us for the the first time. If I had been more observant or less self-absorbed, maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. As it stood, warm in bed, I was oblivious to the fact that even though Milo and I were reading the same pages, we were seeing vastly different things.
#
I stood facing the door to the studio, annoyed. The steps leading to it had all groaned loudly as I walked up them, announcing my arrival as effectively as screaming from the street. I wasn’t sure how much of a point there would have been to sneaking up on Milo, but I had been hoping for at least some time to deal with my thoughts and feelings when I saw him.
Still, I had come this far.
The doorknob didn’t fight me when I twisted it, so I stepped inside and closed the door gently behind me. The first thing I noticed about the interior was that the air was *old* despite all the broken windows. It hung in the halls and doorways, full of dust, pressing down on my clothes. I waved a hand in front of my face before taking a breath and hoped there wasn’t asbestos or something similar in it. No magic in the world had figured out cancer yet.
I found a long hall that curved to the right and walked down it carefully, avoiding empty bottles and unidentifiable pieces of scrap metal. Posters advertising dance performances from years ago hung from the walls and littered the floor, faded and tattered. A room — some kind of office — sat on my left. The door was missing and the space was empty except for a desk that leaned heavily to one side.
Everything opened up once I rounded the corner, and I found myself in the massive hexagonal practice room you could make out from the ground. Papers and glass were strewn everywhere. Mats once meant for dancing and tumbling on were stacked in one corner, ripped, their color dulled. At the back of the room, peering out through a shattered window, stood Milo. He waited a few seconds of awkward silence before turning around, but when he saw me, he smiled.
His hair was lighter than I remembered, but his skin was more tan. Signs of good time spent in the sun. He had lost weight and his toned frame spoke to a primal, sexual part of me. The eyes, though, I had a hard time recognizing, and the bags beneath them; they were a little too dark.
“Hey, tiger.”
That’s all it took. Two goddamn words and I found myself traveling through time.
Our first kiss, on the boardwalk after a movie. We had been flirting for some time, but I never would have made the first move. It was dark, and I was looking over his shoulder, admiring the moon on the water. He leaned in and I froze until our lips touched, and then my legs nearly abandoned me completely.
Watching him sleep. The way his mop of dirty-blond hair fell over his eyes and the light snoring that accompanied his deep rest. The way he couldn’t fall asleep unless one foot stuck out from beneath the blankets.
That last vacation we took, just before everything went to shit. The concert in Portland and how everything was so vibrant, how we felt the music in the marrow of our bones, how the lights painted us with colors we didn’t have words for. Not because of magic, but because we bought some ecstasy off some kid that hadn’t showered for three days.
I went on that journey just on the inflection of Milo’s words. Like the concert, no magic was at play. Just the tricks of an aching heart and a whiff of the Good Ol’ Days. Like any good thing, it passed quickly enough.
“You’re a fucking asshole,” I said.
“Really, Jacob? Three years and the first thing you say, you call me an asshole?”
“I’d have told you sooner, but I was busy hoping I would never see you again.”
“That’s a bit harsh.”
My jaw dropped. “You framed me for *bad magic*! You put a girl in a goddamn coma the last time you tried the trick you pulled tonight. I can’t go home, Milo!”
“You wouldn’t have had to leave at all if you had just trusted me.” He stepped away from the window and held his arms out. I went nowhere near them. “Things were bad for you, sure, but they would have blown over. I was working on a solution. You leaving… complicated things. Considerably. Inchpatter is dead.”
I felt my throat go dry. “How?”
“Several gunshot wounds. A random act of violence as far as anyone’s concerned.”
“Right. And now you’re here to, what, bring me home? Clear my name?”
Milo look confused. “No, I’m here to kill you, Jake. I could have cleared your name years ago, but you didn’t trust me. Me! That torched my heart, tiger. Then you pissed in the ashes when you left me behind.”
“Fuck you! What you did–”
“Nobody has ever hurt me like that,” he interrupted. “But now, now if I bring you back, the council’s investigation ends. Their culprit is dead after being on the lam and any suspicion lingering on the guy that brought him in slowly fades away. Like magic.”
What I was hearing was so unfathomable it might as well have been a different language. I had loved this man, and here we were… here I was. On my own. Of all the things I had imagined for tonight, fearing for my life hadn’t even been on the list. But what else could I have expected once Milo reared his head? Some people find a limit when they break bad and retreat from it. Milo had always been too curious for that.
“Speaking of magic, you bring me back reeking of it to Twist and the gang, it’s not going to do you any favors.”
“Did you not hear what I said about Inchpatter?” Milo reached into his pocket and came out with a neat, shiny little revolver.
I’ve had my ass kicked more times than I can count. Had a few knives pulled on me, even got stabbed in the leg once. This was the first time I had ever had a gun pulled on me. A small voice in the back of my head was telling me that of course it was going to be someone I knew, someone I cared about. You spend your life cheating people, you’re going to wind up on the wrong end of a bad play.
The thing is, I had spent three years being persona non grata in the only home I had ever really known. I had been drinking my way through cheap bars and fucking my way through cheap hotels, but my head was always on a swivel. You don’t spend that kind of time being hunted by others and not learn a few things. Everyone thought I cast bad magic? Well, I didn’t, but I could still get a little dirty if I had to.
“If that’s how things are,” I said, “can you at least answer a question for me? It’s been eating me up.”
“Of course, Jake. As long as you know how this is still going to end.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve made that clear. I just want to know… you want to see a magic trick?”
I was almost too cheeky for my own good. I saw Milo’s eyes tighten, concerned, and I saw him raise the gun to fire. I had been working my spell while I was talking, though, and I came out just ahead.
My air magic had improved considerably since my middle school days. Though the effort took a lot out of me, notably in my shoulders and the square of my back, I was able to use the thick air in the studio to raise and hurtle the mats from the corner to the space before me. Milo’s gun roared. A sound somewhere between a rip and a thud came from the mats and I was quite relieved to not be dead.
My next move was even trickier as I cast two spells nearly simultaneously. I snapped my fingers and brought up the purple flame on my thumb. A swift gesture and a hard blow on the fire essentially turned it into a flamethrower, lighting the mats ablaze. Immediately after, I brought the tips of my fingers into my palms and thrust my arms out in front or me; a gust of wind pushed the thick, flaming mats and sent them flying in Milo’s direction. He fired again, again to no effect.
Those weren’t easy spells to cast. They required physical energy and a certain level of precision that had never been my forte. I had taught myself the basics but hadn’t had much opportunity to practice them. I was proud to have pulled them off.
That said, I am also kind of an idiot and had not considered the consequences of setting a fire in a condemned wooden building.
The studio *erupted* in flames. I darted back down the hall, around the corner so I wouldn’t be an open target if Milo was still set on shooting me. Smoke spread like ivy, tendrils twisting and wrapping through the room. Though my eyes stung and my tears made it difficult to see (whether I was crying from the smoke or Milo’s newest betrayal was a mystery to me), I peeked around the corner, looking for a glimpse of my former lover.
A glimpse, I got. Milo staggered toward the hall, his arm pressed over his eyes, the gun still in his hand. Then he disappeared as the floor collapsed beneath him.
I turned and ran for the door. Ripped it open. Bolted down the stairs, gulping for air, clean air that felt like barbed wire when it mixed with the smoke and dust in my lungs. I rounded the corner, angling for the ground level entrance, hoping I could still reach Milo. The door was already aflame. Fire belched out through the windows next to it. What little glass had remained in the studio was blowing out and raining down. There was no entry. There was no escape.
My mind was having trouble processing everything that had happened and was happening. The drinks from several hours ago were a distant memory. The sex, with the girl, in the hotel… that was all gone. My favorite building in the city was collapsing in on itself with my favorite person in the world inside. I tried to remind myself that he had framed me, hung me out to dry, and tracked me down just to kill me. I still felt terrible; love is a bitch.
I walked backward, eyes on the inferno, until I reached the sidewalk a safe distance away. It wasn’t long before a sizeable crowd joined me.
“You got a big way of dealing with bad magic, white boy.”
I turned to look over my shoulder. The old man from earlier was standing a few feet behind me, tugging at his dreads. He grinned at me. Some of the teeth that had been missing had miraculously returned. I was exhausted.
“You ain’t going to scare me like you did before, Grandpa.”
“You know the man you met in there?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“But you deal with him anyway. Maybe I misjudged you, boy.”
I turned away from Milo’s funeral pyre to face the old man. I just couldn’t get a handle on the guy. He was slippery, like Uncle Twist, but with airs of a magic I had never encountered before.
“Tell me something,” I said. “Does BelGuatamala territory have any rules against accidentally killing someone with magic?”
“No, boy. Nothing for that.”
“Then I don’t really give a shit what you think of me.”
The old man wheezed his laugh at me. I turned and started walking away, what energy I had left spent pulling the shadows of Belizean night closer to my body. Sirens sounded in the distance. Whatever the fire department managed to save, I knew a healthy chunk of me wouldn’t be included.
As I walked, a runt of a mutt fell in step beside me. Droopy ears, watery eyes, tail tucked down near its legs. I didn’t know what it wanted and I didn’t care. Right then, it was my only friend in the world.

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