24 Weeks of Bond: Goldfinger

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

THE MOVIE: Goldfinger! I love this movie. Terence Young, who directed the first two 007 movies, moved on to something else, so he was replaced by Guy Hamilton, who actually knew Bond’s creator Ian Fleming from intelligence work in the war.

Goldfinger, released in 1964, sees Bond put on an investigation of gold magnate and suspected smuggler Auric Goldfinger. Bond, unable to help himself, immediately gets more heavily involved and discovers that there is much more to Goldfinger than expected. Namely, that he seeks to infiltrate Fort Knox and destabilize the world’s economy.

This film is considered the first blockbuster Bond film, was adapted to target American audiences specifically, and also introduced a lot of Bond staples, including elaborate gadgets and the Aston Martin as his “official” car of choice.

It would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Effects/Sound Effects.

THE BOND: Sean Connery returns as Bond. This particular venture sees him at his most flirtatious, it feels, and at his corniest, with some baddie-death-related one-liners. It should also be noted, though, that Bond gets thoroughly trounced almost entirely throughout this film, showcasing a vulnerability that was lost at times in the preceding films.

THE GIRLS: Shirley Eaton doesn’t get a lot of screentime as Jill Masterson, and yet is one of the most iconic Bond roles in the entire legacy. Playing Goldfinger’s employee, she went from helping him cheat at cards to cheating herself…with Bond. That would be the factor leading to her untimely demise, but it’s HOW she dies–covered entirely in gold paint and left to suffocate that creates a simultaneously horrifying and fascinating visual impossible to forget.

Tania Mallett has an equally short role as Jill Masterson’s vengeance-seeking sister, Tilly Masterson. Though her luck with Goldfinger goes no better, she does have a memorable time not giving Bond any attention despite his best efforts.

Most famously, perhaps, is Honor Blackman’s performance as Pussy Galore, an expert pilot and the leader of an all-female flying squad called her Flying Circus. Blackman had previously starred as Cathy Gale on the British spy show, The Avengers, and was chosen for her charisma and her judo talents, both of which she utilizes to great effect in this film.

THE VILLAINS: Goldfinger features two of Bond’s most iconic bad guys. Auric Goldfinger, played by German actor Gert Fröbe, has become rich dealing in and smuggling precious stones and minerals. He is greedy, manipulative, destructive, and he will do anything to win, including cheating at every opportunity. He has one of the single greatest exchanges in the Bond series, when he has 007 strapped to a table, a cutting-edge laser slowly working its way toward bisecting him:

Bond: You expect me to talk?

Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Goldfinger’s henchman is Oddjob, a monosyllabic Korean killer played by Olympic silver medalist weightlifter Harold Sakata. Oddjob’s weapon of choice is a bowler hat with a metal brim capable of breaking necks as he flings it like a circlet. Even without it, he’s a formidable foe and spends most of the film absolutely dominating Bond and beating him mercilessly. Sakata was burned badly while filming his death scene, committing to the moment even after the cameras stopped rolling.

Character actor Martin Benson plays Mister Solo, a mobster who disagrees with Goldfinger’s audacious plan; and Burt Kwouk (Cato, in the excellent Pink Panther films) plays the Chinese scientist who supplies Auric with the bomb he needs.

THE LOCATIONS: The film opens with a brief action sequence largely unrelated to the rest of the film and sees Bond disrupting a drug operation. It’s supposed to be set somewhere exotic (Serbia?), but was shot in England. Likewise the scenes set inside Fort Knox, as filming crews weren’t allowed inside the United States’ most famous depository.

The film also takes Bond to Miami, Florida (where he first encounters Auric Goldfinger), London to get properly outfitted for his assignment, the Alps and resorts of Switzerland, and ultimately to Kentucky and Fort Knox itself. While the Switzerland sequences seemed the most exotic this go-around, the sunny poolside in Florida and the impressiveness of Fort Knox gave the United States a glowing look.

THE CARS: You can find a comprehensive list of the cars in the film here, but the two most notable are Goldfinger’s beautiful (and gold) Rolls Royce Phantom III Sedance de Ville, and James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin DB 5. Bond mentions that his beloved Bentley is nowhere to be found, and he is instead given a modified Aston Martin loaded with gadgets. The Aston Martin would go on to be heavily tied into promotional materials and would itself become a staple of the Bond franchise.

THE GADGETS: Goldfinger really turned up the gadget ratio, from the seemingly mundane (an underwater breathing apparatus designed to look like a seagull) to the Aston Martin. The car was fitted with revolving license plates, a GPS tracking device, bulletproof windows, an oil slick and a smoke screen to be released from the rear, machine guns that came from the front, tire slashers that extended from the wheels (Bond inexplicably and irresponsibly uses these to try and pick up a woman), and a passenger ejector seat!

Bond also utilizes a grappling gun, a tracking device that fits in the heel of his shoe, and a larger magnetic tracking device he stashes in Goldfinger’s car.

Oddjob has hit steel-rimmed hat weapon, while Goldfinger has his industrial lab, a private plane with spy holes looking into the different chambers, and even an atomic bomb.

Though Goldfinger doesn’t have a lair like, say, Doctor No, he does have a ranch house that he’s tricked out. In addition to dungeon-like prison cells in the basement, his rumpus room is designed to completely transform. The window panels fold down, a massive map drops from the ceiling, and the floor even slides apart to reveal a massive model of his Fort Knox target.

And while that’s impressive, he also proves that it’s deadly when he uses his controls to seal the room and release a deadly nerve gas.

THE MUSIC: John Barry returns to Bond once again to score this film, including the theme song, “Goldfinger”, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. While the films have had a stylized credit sequence since the beginning, with Dr. No’s technicolor and feminine introduction, and though From Russia With Love had a bit of the theme song sprinkled in, Goldfinger really kicks off the tradition of having an elaborate credit sequence with the theme song performed over it (in this case, by Shirley Bassey). The soundtrack album would go on to top the Billboard 200, while the Goldfinger single would reach 8th in the Billboard Hot 1000.

I love that song.

THE SUPPORT: Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell return as M and Moneypenny respectively, of course, and serve well their usual roles of giving Bond his orders and flirting with him.

New in the role of CIA agent Felix Leiter is Cec Linder. Jack Lord, who played Leiter in Dr. No, had worried some executives for looking “too cool” and potentially taking attention away from Bond. Lindner, by comparison, is older and stuffier, looking more like a bureaucrat than a slick spy peer.

Desmond Llewelyn returns as the Quartermaster, but instead of being called Major Boothroyd, this films seems a transition into referring to him as Q for short. His inventiveness and surly nature is always a delight.

FINAL THOUGHTS: There is a lot to love about this film. The villain is single-minded and dismissive of Bond, and for large parts of the film, he should be. Bond’s arrogance and recklessness sees him overcome at almost every turn, even rendering him inactive for large parts of the middle and the end, a prisoner biding his time and hoping his peers will put clues enough to rescue him in the nick of time. In that sense, it’s unusual to see Bond do so little, even with the advantage of his new gadgets.

The Aston Martin’s many functions are exciting to see, as something like that was still relatively new to cinema, as was the industrial laser death weapon Goldfinger uses, which didn’t really exist at the time. The music is superb, and the many gold motifs throughout the film give a visual theme to match the title and villain.

Pussy Galore is a compelling anti-hero, a Catwoman-esque character, though I wish we had seen more of her Flying Circus. And Oddjob is perfect all around. All in all, one of my favorites.

OTHER BOND BREAKDOWNS:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

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24 Weeks of Bond: From Russia With Love

Art by Dick Bobnick

I’m a big fan of James Bond, have been since I was a kid. Having recently repurchased the complete Criterion collection of all 24 films, I thought I would do a rewatch of them all and break them down a bit, one blog post at a time.

A couple caveats: I have only read a couple of Fleming’s original novels, and so I won’t be doing any direct comparisons of the films to their literary counterparts. I’ll also only be covering the Eon films, so that means no spoofs, spin-offs, and no Never Say Never Again.

Having said that, let’s get into it!

The Movie: From Russia With Love, directed by Terence Young (who also did Dr. No), adapted by Richard Maibaum, Berkley Mather, and Johanna Harwood, and with cinematography by Ted Moore (A Man For All Seasons, 1981’s Clash of the Titans, several Bond movies), the film was released in 1963. While reviews were initially mixed, retrospectives have proven this to be critically enjoyed and one of the more beloved films of the franchise.

The story centers around James Bond being sent to secure the defection of SMERSH (Bond’s fictional Soviet counterintelligence group) agent Tatiana Romanova and to secure a cryptographic device.

Romanova believes she is a double-agent for the Soviet Union, but does not realize that her handler belongs to the terrorist organization SPECTRE. Likewise, Bond does not realize that SPECTRE is seeking revenge for the death of their agent in the previous film, the titular Dr. No.

The Bond: Sean Connery revises his role as 007 and brings with his second adventure a newer sense of confidence. This film sees Bond move with surety, mingling with locals in foreign countries, engaging in spontaneous gunfights, even transitioning from his manipulations of Romanova to outright anger when he feels she’s betrayed him. This is a secret agent comfortable in his own skin and in working in enemy territory. It is also reportedly the performance that finally won Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, over on Sean Connery.

The Girls: Eunice Grayson briefly reprises her role from Dr. No as Sylvia Trench, intended to be a recurring love interest but ultimately left by the wayside. Instead, Bond spends most of the film with double-agent Tatiana Romanova, played by stunning Italian actress Daniela Bianchi. Due to her thick accent, she was dubbed over by Barbara Jefford. Tatiana, ostensibly a Russian spy, is neither particularly dangerous nor exactly a damsel in distress. Instead, she plays more a genuine love interest for the better part of the film, also assisting in the procuring of the cryptographic device. At the age of only 21, she is also the youngest “leading” Bond girl.

The Villains: This film has a few bad guys, playing up the mention of Spectre from the first film by giving us a look behind the scenes. This is the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played physically here by Anthony Dawson (who played the late Professor Dent in Dr. No). You don’t see Blofeld’s face here, but you see his hands, stroking his white cat, a move that would spawn imitation after imitation from Inspector Gadget’s villainous Dr. Claw to Michael Meyers’ buffoonish Dr. Evil. We also hear Blofeld’s voice (Eric Pohlmann), one that lets us know he is in command and that he does not tolerate failure.

We also see two of his commanders. There is Chief Planner Kronsteen, a master chess player portrayed by actor Vladek Sheybal. Vladek did not originally want to be in a Bond film, fearing that a spy/action film might hurt his career, but Sean Connery, a friend, convinced him to take the role. More interesting about Vladek Sheybal is that he lived through the occupation of Warsaw and actively fought in the Polish resistance, twice escaping concentration camps, and only deciding after the war to pursue a career in acting.

Lotte Lenya was a Tony-award winning (The Threepenny Opera) and Academy-Award nominated (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) actress who here plays Rosa Klebb, SMERSH commander-turned-SPECTRE operative.

And finally, the hitman Donald “Red” Grant, a highly trained spy and killer spent to tail and eventually eradicate Bond in order to retrieve the Lektor cryptographic device while also eliminating the threat from England that Bond poses. He’s played by Academy-Award nominated (A Man For All Seasons) actor Robert Shaw, who you may know better as the shark hunter Quint in Jaws.

The Locations: While there are a few scenes shot in England involving MI6’s involvement and Bond’s vacation, and a couple scenes (notably part of the boat chase scene near the end) are shot in Scotland to get the scenes they wanted, the bulk of the film takes place in Turkey and was shot on location in and around Istanbul.

While not necessarily as vibrant as the Jamaican scenery of Dr. No, Turkey is exotic in it’s own right, and we get to experience the culture through gypsy parties, markets, old and crumbling architecture, and sweeping hills and background scenery as Bond and Tatiana try to escape to Bulgaria.

By filming in Turkey and having Spectre as the guiding force behind the conflict, it was also a way to capitalize on the tensions of the Cold War without making the Russians the outright villains.

There is also a brief, beautiful moment set in Venice, Italy toward the end of the film.

The Cars: While there are several cars used in the film (you can find an entire list here), including a 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, this film is notable for, to my recollection, being the only Bond film where he drives a Bentley (his preferred car in the novels; a 1935 Drophead Coupe here) instead of the Aston Martins he would become famous for. Additionally, while not a car, a massive chunk of the back end of the film is set aboard a gorgeous train.

The Gadgets: From Russia With Love still stays pretty grounded with the gadgets, although they did notably have a pager-like device to contact agents in the field before the pager was actually developed.

Bond is given an attaché case that remains one of my favorite multi-purpose tools in the 007 series. Through its many secret compartments and latches, it contains two tubes of spare ammunition, a collapsible Armalite AR-7 rifle, a hidden knife, an exploding tear gas cartridge, and 50 gold sovereigns attached to the interior straps.

Bond also uses a tape recorder disguised as a camera, and a small bug detector to find that his room has been compromised.

SPECTRE has a remarkable mask-making technology that they’ve used to create Bond-lookalike masks for the sake of Red Grant practicing the kill (this predates Mission Impossible by decades and yet they never use it again, I don’t believe). Red Grant makes his kills with his own gadget: a wristwatch with a garrote wire.

Rosa Klebb has her own gadget of sorts, a shoe with a poisoned blade hidden in the toe, an assassination weapon based in reality.

And, of course, the Lektor decoding machine is the McGuffin that the whole plot centers around, as Russia, England, and Spectre all try to gain and keep possession of it.

The Music: This is actually the first Bond film to feature a theme song beside the James Bond theme. “From Russia With Love” was composed by “Oliver!” composer Lionel Bart and sung by Matt Monro during the film and over the end credits. John Barry took the reigns for the rest of the film’s soundtrack composition with music pieces matching many of the major moments throughout the film.

The Support: Bernard Lee returns as M., Bond’s superior. He’ll be a common name in this section. Likewise Lois Maxwell as M’s secretary and Bond’s target of doomed affection, Moneypenny. Desmond Llewelyn, meanwhile, makes his first appearance as Boothroyd/Q., replacing Peter Bothroyd as Bond’s quartermaster. Llewelyn would return to the role over the course of sever Bond actor transitions.

Bond’ major ally in From Russia With Love is the Turkish-born head of MI6’s Turkish intelligence branch Kerim Bey. He is a charismatic man with 15 children and a gypsy lifestyle and is brought to life here by the late Pedro Armendáriz. In a sad twist, Armendáriz took this role while he was terminally ill with cancer so that his family would be left financially secure. When his illness grew too severe, he shot and killed himself in the hospital. He was one of the most well-known Latin American stars in the 40s and 50s and, years later, his son Pedro Jr. would star in a Bond film of his own.

Final Thoughts: While I remembered the opening murder scene, Rosa Klebb, and much of the train sequence,I found that I had forgotten much of what made this film great. Connery really feels like he fits in the Bond role here where it felt a little stuffy in Dr. No. Bianci and Armendáriz are pure charisma as Romanova and Bey respectively, and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant cuts an intimidating figure, opening with an act of shocking violence before hovering around like a looming threat of death.

The film takes its time, enjoying its setting and earning its relationships, while brief moments of frantic action punch through periodically: a gunfight here, an explosion there, a sudden murder. And while the film ends with not just one, but two exciting action sequences (a helicopter chase AND a boat chase), it’s the extended, brutal close quarters fight on the train that really sticks in your mind. This movie has some romanticism flavored of its time, and plenty of thrills. This was a pleasant surprise to come back to, and I can see why so many people place it among their favorites.

Other Bond Breakdowns:

Dr. No

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

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.

Whatever’s After

I was given a prompt to write about my perception of any kind of afterlife. This is probably a meandering mess of a thing, but I came up with this:

A golden city with jasper walls. Agates and sapphires, onyx and chrysolite, and whatever jacinth is.

I remember my first taste of Heaven, from under a down comforter in the middle of winter, snowflakes falling through my window with a backdrop sky so black it rang blue. I was young, borderline manic with an active mind, and so I had trouble sleeping. I’d rest my back against a cabinet set up at the head of my bed, one side of a sliding set of doors moved aside where rested a cassette player.

Classical music. That’s what helped me drift off at night. Elegant birds swimming through my mind to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Two lonesome lovers dancing in a dark, empty ballroom to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A yearlong journey of whimsy and growth through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The music played at my back, behind my head, through my ears, so gracefully behind the lids of my eyes.

Because of that,because I was such an imaginative child that I pulled things into my dreams, I often found myself also being affected by the books I read. Creepy crawlers terrifying me after the latest Goosebumps novel saw me to bedtime. Magic spells lighting up the sky like fireworks after tearing through whatever fantasy novel I ordered from the school book drive.

So yes, I remember my first taste of Heaven.

Twelve gates of pearl, and streets of gold so clear they may as well be glass. Eternal day that lights the paths of the pure.

My grandmother was a woman of God and wanted to bring me up on a path of righteousness, or – at the very least – general goodness. I was no stranger to prayer, though I struggled at keeping still with closed eyes while someone used their words to speak for me. I worked as a deacon in the church, collecting, counting and cataloging the weekly tithe. Most importantly (to me), I read the Bible nightly. No particular passages, but rather cover to cover (though I would regularly reread the stories that meant the most to me, or that I found particularly compelling). So I remember the winter night I first found myself in the book of Revelations, reading about this New Jerusalem, this city for the chosen loved of God while elsewhere burned a pit of fire. For the unrighteous. For the generally bad.

But in the city, there was no death, no sorrow.  No crying, nor any pain. I dreamed of these things, and this mountain city that was itself a divine temple. I dreamed of the crisp and clear air, and the laughter from within bejeweled walls.

But my fitful sleeping mind would take it further. I dreamed of walking to the cliffside, a dirt path laid out before me, surrounded on either side by snow that gave off no cold. I dreamed of looking down into a deep, green valley, one hand on a singular, twisting tree the rich brown of polished mahogany, capped with leaves of all different colors.

I dreamed that somewhere back behind one of those pearl gates, my always-absent parents were finally always-present and always-patient, waiting for me to return so that we could share just one meal together that didn’t end in yelling.

But I am not dead. And so that taste of Heaven, be it a true and wholesome thing, has yet to reach past the tip of my tongue.

And, undead, I have traveled through these years dipping my fingers into the afterlife whipped cream and licking celestial inevitability from them. I have sampled Sheol and its dead earth, feared the heat of Gehinnom. I have longed for the pleasures awaiting me after my second life and my second death, in olam haba. Or perhaps it would be a seat in the presence of Our Lord and alternatively a great nothingness should I not find the greatness necessary to fill my place beside Him.

In times of pain and anger, I’ve wondered if my struggles would qualify me for a seat in Valhalla should my eternal battle with depression finally trigger an aneurysm. I wondered how lonely the realm of Hel might be if not. Or perhaps it would be the realm of Hades, neglected and unfairly judged brother of Poseidon and Zeus. And after I take that journey across Styx, likely infuriating Charon with questions and observations, would Hades at least allow me the company of Persephone during the long winter months? Not for anything untoward. Just to talk for a while. Just to compare tastes in music. Would Handel be held favorably up to Amphion? Would Chopin be as admired as Orpheus?

These tastes of Heaven and Hell, of Eden and oblivion, of spectral realms and mead-filled halls, these tastes are exotic, they are ancient, they are unclear.

But I am not dead. And so these tastes leave my throat dry and my stomach uncertain of a meal.

Because maybe there is nothing. Maybe my good deeds and my mistakes and my pleasures and my sins will not be held accountable against a feather at the end of my life. Perhaps my heart is in no danger of being consumed by Ammit, forever damning me and barring my escape into the sun-lit fields of Aaru. Maybe my heart is destined only to be consumed by worms and I’m left leaving only memories for those still living behind me.

That would be a shame. That would be a shame, because it means I would have no chance to connect again with you. To see the way your right cheek dimples when you smile, and the way your eyes dart that same direction when you laugh. It would mean I never get to say sorry. It would mean I never get to tell you I love you every day until the very last star shudders one last flicker of light and the very last molecule stops its steady movement, freezing us in a picture we never got to take. One last still-frame before turning the lights off on the universe.

Or maybe we’ll resurrect. Resurrection is an option, too. And I feel I’d be a dung beetle, but maybe I’d turn into a caterpillar and you would be one too, and we could make a cocoon somewhere nice and safe and warm, melt ourselves down into a gooey pile of memories and love, reinvent ourselves as two beautiful butterflies and find each other again. Somewhere without nets. Somewhere without birds.

Maybe that will be our heaven, our Heaven, our Nevaeh (because after reading that Bible cover to cover, I read it back again): a cyclical chance to love and be loved again.

Because I can tell you one thing for sure: I don’t need to have died to know that life here without you is already Hell.

Things I Remember

My earliest memory is set in a living room I don’t otherwise recognize outside of old photographs. I sat in a cardboard box, and my dad pulled it around on the carpet like a car or a spaceship or like the little brown box it was.

I remember my dad’s drunk friend showing up every Christmas as Santa Claus, complete with a giant bag full of stuff. He would always pose for photos and pull out a couple gifts before staggering outside. I believed in Santa far longer than I should have.

I remember being infuriated with my stepdad and storming off to my room. I remember shouting “Shut Up” at the door, accidentally teaching my baby brother those same words. I remember frantically trying to get him to forget them.

I remember my stepdad flinging a briefcase down a hallway and catching my mother in the square of her back.

I remember my stepdad hosting a charity drive for poor children for Christmas and how I became Santa Claus for those kids. I wonder if they believed in Santa longer than they should have, too.

I remember my dad taking me on a shopping spree at Toys R Us. I remember how he let me break the spending cap. I remember how he smelled of sweat when he came home from work and hugged me tight, and how much I loved it.

I remember how he swore at me as I begged him to get up from my best friend’s lawn where he had drunkenly passed out in the middle of the day, and how he still swore at me as the ambulance loaded him in.

I remember the drunk, angry voicemail he left me weeks ago.

I remember finding out he adopted me despite knowing I was the product of an affair, and how he did his best to push his demons aside to try to be a father to me while his relationships crumbled.

I remember finding out I was adopted, on Valentine’s Day, days after losing my virginity, days after being broken up with.

I remember the way my grandmother (adopted) paused while getting milk out of the fridge when I told her my mom said my dad wasn’t my dad. I remember her confirming it. I remember every second of the bike ride to the mall to the only friends I had.

I remember telling them, “Well, I’m a bastard,” and my friends saying, “Well, yeah,” before realizing what I was saying.

I remember wanting to kill myself for the first time. I was in elementary school.

I remember the first drink I ever had. I was twelve years old, staying at my stepdad’s place to visit my little brother and little sister. I snuck up to the kitchen, to the OFF LIMITS liquids. I picked the bottle I liked most, a beautiful blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. I remember filling a paper cup with it and trying to drink it like water and feeling like I was dying as it went down my throat. I remember gagging and coughing into the sink and drinking water straight from the faucet. I remember not being able to drink gin again for a decade.

I remember writing my biological father a letter when I was 16. I remember the letter he wrote back, though I lost it, and I should care, but I don’t, but I really do? I remember my mother coming up to my date and me at my brother’s birthday party. “He wants to meet you, but only after a paternity test. But he doesn’t want to pay for the test. I don’t know what to tell you, Jered, but if he’s not your father, I don’t know who the fuck is.” I remember my date taking my hand at that, and I remember falling in love for the first time.

I remember. I remember being bullied for liking comic books, and I remember how bitter I was when comic book movies became regular box office record breakers because now it was popular to like nerdy things. I remember 7th grade and breaking the arm of a kid who picked on me. I felt nothing.

I remember frantically running down the stairs as my (adopted, though I didn’t know it at the time and though it has never changed much in the grand scheme of things, I’m doubly irritated that he leaves angry drunk voicemails for me now) dad tried to escape my abusive stepmother. I remember how I didn’t see either of them for years, and how they put each other in prison, and how they moved to Belize, and how she died and I felt nothing because she was horrible to my grandparents, and because she once tried to gouge my dad’s eye out with a key. I remember how she broke his nose with a lamp while he slept. But she was his soulmate. I get it even while it makes no sense.

I remember moving to Los Angeles with no place to live, no job, no friends but the two men I left with, and hardly any money. I remember thinking I had the world in the palm of my hand. I remember my grandmother.

I remember my grandmother.

I remember how she always blamed an addiction or a circumstance and never a person. I remember when you knew she was frustrated to the point of tears, because she swore, and nothing hurt me more than hearing her swear. I remember her being the embodiment of Christianity, spoiling Christianity for me because I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone else who had an unshakeable, pure, unconditionally loving nature the way that she did. I remember saying at the church, at her memorial service, that she was the Christian Jesus wanted people to be and that no one else present could come close.

I remember the phone call when I found out she’d had a hard attack, and the last 30 seconds I ever got to speak to her, and how the last thing I told her was a lie: that my books were best-sellers, that I was flush with money, that I was going to be just fine, because I remember, too, that even on her death bed she was more concerned with the well-being of others.

God, I miss her so much.

I remember my grandfather and how he hated driving, and how he was a low-key road-rager. I remember how every time I was about to step out of the front door, he told me to be one of the good guys, and I’ve tried. I remember that my grandmother and I had it out a lot, but it was when my grandfather got mad at me and expressed his disappointment that I felt I had failed the most.

I remember when I was moving to Los Angeles and my grandmother was fretting because my plan was quarter-boiled that my grandfather told me he was proud of me because his children never took advantage of their natural talents and I was trying, at least.

I remember my sophomoric graduation speech. I remember winning Prom King, and I remember desperately clinging to that because I’ve never felt I deserved it, and because it felt for years like proof that people thought I was worth something after years of thinking I wasn’t worth anything.

I remember being broke in Los Angeles. A Canadian lighting tech groupie bought me two-for-one tacos from Jack in the Box so I could eat. I remember taking a British woman to the beach, and vomiting because I was hungover, and burying that vomit in the dirt because I was a 21 year old moron. I don’t think she saw me. She might read this, though.

I remember being broke in Los Angeles and how $25 was two weeks worth of food. Two-for-one cans of pork and beans. I remember my surrogate Colombian family who rented me a room occasionally knocking on the door for homemade food, because they were some of the best people I have ever met.

I remember falling in love in Los Angeles. I remember the first time she told me she loved me, when I was standing between her legs while she sat on a pool table in a bar, just before I left to pick up my friend and bring him out with us. I remember how embarrassed she was at letting it slip, and how she refused to take it back. I remember the weight of her head on my chest as she told me she saw us together for a long time. I remember our terrible break-up. I remember how she told me I wasn’t the guy she thought I was.

I haven’t been in a genuine relationship since, though I remember missing out on some genuinely amazing women.

I remember falling in love. One. Two. Three. Four. Five times, and having so much goddamn love besides.

I remember wanting to kill myself at 22. I remember writing my first book instead, and how I emailed my outline to my Advanced Placement Language and Composition teacher and how he said he thought it might make one solid book, and how it turned into a complex, sprawling half-a-million-words trilogy.

I remember having a fling with a woman in Denver that I thought could be it. I remember finding out it wasn’t. I remember writing my fourth book, one I had never planned on writing, one that I didn’t enjoy, and I remember publishing it, and I remember people seeming to love it while I hated it. I remember not feeling like I got closure at all.

I remember fucking up. A lot.

I remember crying. A lot.

I remember wanting to end it.

I haven’t.

I remember the first time someone asked me for an autograph. I remember the first time someone asked me for writing advice. I remember the first time someone asked me how to get through the day.

I remember the first time she told me she loved me. And the first time she did. And then when she did. And her. Her, also.

I remember realizing that none of them probably did, and that maybe I’ve never been loved.

But I’ve been read. And heard. And experienced, for better or for worse.

I remember every plane ride. To different states, to different countries. I remember every bed, air mattress, futon, couch, and floor I’ve slept on. I remember basically being homeless for two years.

I remember drinking a bottle of 99 Bananas and a bottle of Jack Daniels (right up until I don’t) and sobbing into my knees and passing out on a floor when I found out my grandfather had passed.

I can’t quite shake that one. I called a woman a bitch who didn’t deserve it. I’ve done a lot of terrible things.

I remember looking at myself in the mirror. Tired. Drunk. On drugs. Filled with hope. I remember writing poetry for people. I remember writing poetry for myself. I remember making love. I remember fucking.

I remember going to Red Lodge, Montana and going through thousands of photos in my deceased grandparents’ house and realizing with fullness that they adopted, essentially, a fourth child to raise to adulthood after having their own separate life raising three kids. I remember feeling like I was an outsider, then, undeserving of a family who never planned on but always accepted me. I’ve remembered damn near everything.

Damn near every awful, shameful, accomplished,hopeful, well-intentioned, mistaken, loving, intimate, selfish, charitable, cruel thing that I’ve done. I’ve remembered. I remember.

My mind and my memory never shut

The

Fuck

Up.

“Be one of the good guys.” Bompa, the world is a hard place. I’m just trying to be the best guy I can.

Read in Denver

There are crazy kinds of love. The lava-hot kind of love that steals breath and rubberizes knees. The kind that rushes in like a bullet train and turns common sense into metaphors (just like this). It’s the kind of love that can start at the sight of a sign in the middle of the sidewalk at nearly four in the morning.

You know, Auburn and Gabby’s kind of love.

Read in Denver is the story of small-town, increasingly introverted Auburn Parks, a moderately successful romance novelist who desperately wants to publish science-fiction. It’s the story of Gabriella Baker, an energetic but private artist strick through with wanderlust, searching for her place in the world by taking life day by day. This is the story of two hearts colliding, two minds exciting, that crazy kind of love.

And everything that goes with it.”

About a year ago, I got the idea for Read in Denver while writing an emotional farewell letter to someone I cared deeply about. Around ten months ago, unable to shake it, I set aside the science fiction novel I was working on and set about trying my hand at my first-ever long form love story. I wouldn’t call it a romance, though there are romantic details. It’s more simply just a story about art and love and messiness.

I’ve said to people before that this the most honest piece of fiction I’ve ever put to paper, and so it was difficult for me to push through and finish it. I invested a lot of real things that were said or done, overheard and felt, injecting a fictional narrative with what I hope comes across as authenticity.

I messed with narrative structure. I inserted a couple odd touches and made sure to play with callbacks and mirrors. I put together a soundtrack with and few suggestions but no real directions on how and when to listen to it.

In the end, I’m not sure what I got. Less a book, perhaps, and more an experience. Hopefully a good one.

You can find it for the Nook here: Read in Denver

You can find it for the Kindle here: Read in Denver
Or you can order paperback copies here: Read in Denver
If you decide to take a chance on the book, I genuinely hope you enjoy it. If you enjoy it, I hope you share it with your loved ones. Cheers.

Close Enough to Fall

Autumn is my favorite season.

For most people, autumn signifies the beginning of the end, the harbinger of winter, the last hurrah before the year ends and begins anew, the year itself being a phoenix that, at least where I’m from, rises not from ashes but from a fresh ivory powder, cold and wet and long. For most people, autumn is the bed news bear they women up to after a long night of drinking and having fun with summer.

For most people, their year ends on December 31st and begins on January 1st. Not for me, though. Those are just days.

My year begins and ends in Spring, May 10th, the day I was brought into this world covered in blood and greeted by a string of pained profanities. I calculate my years by a full 365 days on earth to accomplish  (or fail) in whatever tasks I’ve set ahead of myself. It doesn’t seem fair to me to give up 129 days just because I wasn’t around to see them (if you’re wondering, I didn’t accomplish a lot that first year I was around. Walking, maybe. A couple lazy words, perhaps. My second year was far more productive: I ruined an entire marriage).

So my year starts when the flowers begin to boom, under the handful of showers slinking away from April, somewhere behind the dirty caked patches of snow struggling to survive on the sides of the road. Spring is messy, as is birth, and beautiful, and full of life, but fledgling. Summer is full of sunshine and brightness and long days (good long, not hours of being screamed at by customers long). And then autumn.

For many, the fall season is full of melancholy. Resignation. Hell, there are even those who love winter and so want to skip through autumn as quickly as possible to get to the skiing and snowboarding and snowmachining.

Me, I like the colors. Alaska in fall is gorgeous, especially out in the wilderness and on the hiking trails. I don’t get out there much. I grew up watching films set in places like Seattle and New York and Paris: bigger cities with long stretches of neighborhood with trees that towered over the streets, awash in shades and hues once August hits, a song by sight through October.

I’ve never been to New York City. I’ve only driven through it in places like Kentucky and Tennessee and, yes, Seattle. But the first time I got to walk through a long stretch like that, like I had seen in the movies, I was 18 years old. It was a park somewhere in London. Steve Irwin had just been killed by one of the last animals anyone would have guessed, and though I was never much an avid watcher of his show, he was well known enough that it was jarring news to wake up to. So I was there, young, the furthest from home I had ever been, with only one person with me that I knew, contemplating mortality while the trees all died around me.

It was sad, and it was beautiful.

I go for long walks often, and when it isn’t autumn here, I pull that memory of London from the tail end of September and set it right behind my eyes. I walk a lot, I think a lot, and as the year begins to slip into a long, dark difficult period (but not the end! Not the end of my year), I reflect on what I’ve done since my birthday. Where I stand with the goals I had set for myself that year. What I plan to do or change to reach them once snow begins to fall and I have to dig my heels in.

This year, it’s a weird one. I hit my three year mark in a job I enjoy sometimes but don’t want to turn into a career. I’m still living in a place that doesn’t seem to satisfy me on an emotional or mental level, a place that doesn’t seem to offer me many opportunities to grow as a person and as an artist. I’m sitting on a novel that should have taken me three months to write and is now a nearly ten month endeavor, because… why? I don’t want to close the door on a chapter of my life that was always supposed to be fleeting? Because I wanted to believe a certain kind of love could work out and I’m using art to work through why it can’t?

These are things that often trouble me and, I suspect, will trouble me deeply this winter, as it troubles me every winter, but for some reason always seem to get compartmentalized in the fall.

Autumn is my favorite season. My season. When death is beautiful and everywhere, and presents itself as a farewell with a gentle promise to see you again soon. It’s an opening number to winter’s main event, a deep and broad beauty in its own way, stark and simple and clean. It’s the season I think. The season I am the closest I can be to peace. The season I reevaluate and walk down long paths, even if sometimes only in my mind, even if sometimes a decade ago on another continent.

I would very much like to die some day, far down the line, perhaps the end of August, perhaps the beginning of September, surrounded by reds and yellows, the odd greens, the warm browns, head tilted back against a shedding trunk, a good book open in my lap.

After all, autumn is a season of death, and beauty, a companion to walk you into darkness to new life beyond. That seems peaceful to me. That seems perfect to me.