“Hi, my name’s Dennis, and I’m magic—”
Dennis stopped before the last word. It didn’t apply to him, and he resented the suggestion that it did. Unfortunately, nobody had told the other people in the basement of that run-down Victorian. They looked up from a half-circle of folding chairs, eager for him to finish the line. And finish it he would: doing so was part of the meeting, which he had to attend, by Guild order, that night and nine more times that month, as punishment for his recent magic ‘abuse’. Dennis took a centering breath. The air was vaguely moldy.
“…and I’m magic-dependent.”
“Hi, Dennis,” the basement chorused, out of sync.
Over at the sign-in table, a woman made eye contact. Henrietta, she’d said her name was. Mid-forties, short purple hair, studded collar. Compared to her, Dennis felt decidedly unhip with his Muji khakis and backpack. She gave him a thumbs up; she knew it was his first meeting. Dennis’s eye twitched. If magic hadn’t been forbidden at MA meetings, he would’ve cracked open his emergency invisibility potion. Instead he sat back down on his creaky chair, and took a sip of the awful coffee he’d gotten from a dented urn at the snack table. Was it a little late for caffeine? Sure. But he’d need it. He’d been exhausted in the weeks since Phoebe had dumped him, and the meeting was bound to be boring. He planned to stay up late doing spell research anyway.
The man next to him—and it was mostly men, in that basement—stood up. He was dressed like a contractor and shedding the dust to prove it. “My name’s Sam, and I’m magic-dependent.”
“Hi, Sam,” Dennis muttered into his flimsy paper cup.
After everybody had said hello, the facilitator introduced a birdlike woman, “with a reading from the Codex,” MA’s self-help bible. He passed her a laminated page; she held it in unsteady hands. “How MA Works,” she recited. “We are the unlucky few who must not cast. For us, magic is little more than a way to cheat at life. Such a road leads only to destruction. Some end up in prison; some find their bodies wracked with cramps and seizures; some die. Some overindulge and empty themselves so completely, hungry spirits come to fill the void within. The stories we share attest to all of these; they also attest to how good things can become. If you like what you hear, we beg of you to abandon casting and follow our path. You stand at a turning point. You must be fearless in pursuit of abstinence…”
Dennis wanted to scoff. None of that had ever happened to him, but the Guild still thought he belonged with these freaks, just because he’d cast a little while drafting that commodities report. The rule forbidding actuaries from using magic at work was dumb. Who cared? His boss was never going to find out, and it wasn’t like he’d acted on some addictive compulsion. The spell had just been an expedient way out of a jam. That was hardly magic dependence.
The woman finished reading and handed the page back to the facilitator, who stepped into the center of the semicircle of chairs. He scratched his careful beard and said he was pleased to welcome that night’s speaker, who went by the name of Shisk. Dennis clapped politely as a hulking man came to shake the facilitator’s hand. Shisk looked around at his audience. He flashed a smile and tugged down on the hem of his hand-knit sweater.
“My name’s Shisk,” the big man said, “and I’m magic-dependent.” His voice was heavy, either slightly stoned or permanently so.
The room: “Hi, Shisk.”
Shisk cocked a wave. The hand he used, his left, moved oddly. Maybe it was a trick of the light. “Hey. So. Who am I, and how did I get here? I can tell you how I got here easily enough: by being a dumbass, then being responsible instead. A few of you probably know what that’s like.”
Polite chuckles. Dennis rolled his eyes.
“To make the story a little longer. I grew up in northwest BC. My family is Tlingit. I was seventeen when I got my first taste of x’aséikw, and I was hooked. X’aséikw, that’s Tlingit for—”
Aether, Dennis thought, using the Hermetic term. Shisk finished his sentence with the nondenominational version, mana. Not for the first time, Dennis marveled that it could be harnessed by such diverse traditions. The Guild’s chaos magicians theorized that human mystics were like blind men trying to describe an elephant: touching on some fundamental truth but failing to see its whole.
“It happened while we were getting ready for my grandpa’s memorial party, arranging his stuff for a display. Drums, tools, things from his early life as an ixt, a shaman. I’d never put much stock in it… until I picked up one of his old ceremonial masks. What a rush!” He smiled; it faded. “The Guild found out, like they do, and set me up with a master to study shamanism, or what’s left of it…”
While Shisk babbled about his training, Dennis’s thoughts drifted to his own awakening. It had been similar in spirit. He’d been a freshman in college, wearing too much black and recreationally reading Magick in Theory and Practice. Trying out one of Crowley’s rituals had sounded fun, so he had. A small water elemental had appeared in its summoning circle and begun to meander. Dennis had dropped the book in shock; eventually he’d thought to pick it back up and dismiss the creature. Not twelve hours later he’d been contacted by the Guild. They’d sworn him to secrecy and set him up with a master in the anthropology department.
The parallel with Shisk’s story was no coincidence. Scooping up the accidentally-awoken was one way the Guild kept magic sub rosa. Dennis was also familiar with another way: the Guild monitored its members closely and intervened whenever things threatened to get out of hand. By keeping the magic world self-governing, the theory went, the Guild could avoid telling anything to the actual government. The only problem was that the restrictions could be stupid; sometimes harmless actuaries had to attend boring meetings for people with no self-control.
Shisk went on about how casting had crept into his carpentry business, and eventually taken over his life. Dennis held in a yawn, half bored, half exhausted. How was listening to this guy supposed to help him with his ‘problem’? He sipped his lousy coffee, and regretted it.
“Alright,” Shisk said eventually. “So that’s where I was at in life. I was casting first thing when I woke up and last thing before bed. I’d jones hard for a spell whenever I was in polite company. And I was chronically low on x’aséikw. My hands would tremble so bad I couldn’t use a saw. My feet would cramp up and stay stuck that way; sometimes I couldn’t even get my shoes off. Never did get a full-on seizure, thankfully, but…”
Further evidence that Dennis was not like these people. He’d had some tremors before—who hadn’t?—but nothing like what had happened to Shisk. No, Dennis always stopped with a solid amount of aether in the tank. Using too much was unpleasant; being half-empty made him feel half-dead. More importantly, it was dangerous, and could make him all-the-way-dead. Aether wasn’t just fuel for casting; it was also natural protection against spirits. A mage with too little risked possession.
Aether was found in all things, though Dennis wouldn’t have been surprised if it were absent from his coffee. It flowed into a caster when they ate, drank, and breathed. Methods of recharging faster were complicated or unsavory. Dennis had never cast enough to need one. Shisk, it seemed, had never been meticulous or evil enough to use one.
“But I still wasn’t happy,” Shisk said. “Wasting my ancestors’ gift on making canoes for lawyers wasn’t cutting it. I ended up doing freelance hero stuff. You know: find something wrong in the spirit world, go fix it.”
Dennis sighed and rubbed his temple. A sob story from a caster with a hero complex—how novel. Heroism never ended well—hadn’t Shisk known?
Dennis knew, and his path to learning it had been short. Like most newcomers, he’d been ready to save the world after his awakening. The feeling had lasted about three months, until one evening when he and his master had summoned the wrong spirit. The monster had almost killed them; they had beaten it back, but spent days just cleaning the ichor off the walls, and they never had gotten it all out of the carpet. And for what? If you zoomed out, getting rid of one evil spirit was nothing more than a rounding error.
Shisk’s ominous story made Dennis glad that he’d had this revelation when he had. His life would have been very different without it. For starters, he might have actually belonged at this meeting. There but for the grace of The One…
“One day I read that a few camping groups had gone missing in the Kitlope Conservancy. This is primeval rainforest, sacred to some, and full of jeks—spirits. The sort of place where a missing person can be more than just lost. A quick divination showed me the spot where they’d vanished. I grabbed my toolbelt and headed out.
“Around twilight, I got to the clearing I’d identified. I recognized a threshold on one side, between two tall cedars. A bloodless prickling in my fingers and toes reminded me how little x’aséikw I had, but I went through anyway. I was a badass monster-hunter, right?”
Entering the spirit world with low aether was even stupider than everything else Shisk had described. On this side of the barriers, monsters generally had to be invited; on that side, all bets were off. Dennis leaned forward, grimly fascinated by the direction of Shisk’s story. It was like a good horror movie.
“A river burbled on the other side of the threshold. In front of the river… the jek had the shape of a man, except his mouth was too big for his skull, and his eyes moved independently. He was humming to himself, and bending a length of raw wood. Next to him was an unfinished canoe. Its naked ribs seemed like grasping fingers.” Shisk illustrated this by making a claw with his left hand. Dennis again noticed something odd about it.
“I rested my hand on the handle of my grandpa’s copper dagger, and asked the jek about the campers. The jek frowned, and then in a blur he was on me. I stumbled and cracked my head on a rock. Saw stars, heard ringing. He rushed to stand over me, one eye on me, one darting around the clearing. ‘You’ve made a powerful enemy, ixt,’ he hissed, with a voice like a blade scraping over bark.”
Shisk’s play-by-play of the fight was brutal. If this had actually been a horror movie, Dennis would have watched from between splayed fingers. Yes, he’d fought monsters before, but he hadn’t enjoyed it. At least the brutality wasn’t senseless—Shisk had been on a rescue mission. That counted for something.
“He wore me down until my hands were so bloody I couldn’t even hold the dagger. With all that blood, I’d lost nearly all my x’aséikw, too, so I didn’t dare cast. I’d never felt worse in my life. Heavy, like my heart was pumping sludge.”
Shisk frowned deeply and grunted.
“The jek had me pinned against a tree. He was choking me with both hands. But I had one trick left, an old piece of Tlingit lore. I snapped a chunk of sap from that tree trunk and jammed it into my gasping mouth. I mouthed an incantation and grew as sturdy as a cedar. The pressure on my neck… stopped mattering.
“I put my palms on the jek’s tattered shirt and willed roots and branches to grow. They tore through him. His whole body shuddered. His hands fell from my neck as he went limp. I heaved in breath after ragged breath, and my throat burned. For a while I sat on the damp leaves and panted. When I finally stood up, it was too dark to search for the campers. They were probably long dead anyway. I hung my head, and my face burned with anger. After all I’d been through, I hadn’t saved anybody. I decided to head home.”
Dennis felt his body deflate. Shisk had risked his life for nothing. That wasn’t how stories were supposed to go, and was far more upsetting than most horror movies. He felt faintly ill.
“When I got close to the threshold, something started probing me, trying to find a way in before I left. Probably the jek I’d just fought—killing the skin isn’t always enough. I moved as fast as I could, but not fast enough. He—the jek, what remained of it—had one last go at me. I don’t know how long I spent fighting him inside of myself. Too long. I managed to cram his presence down into my forearm, then my hand, then…”
Shisk held up his left hand and unsnapped what Dennis had assumed was a bracelet. He peeled it from his wrist and palm; his three least important fingers came off along with it. A prosthesis. He wiggled his remaining thumb and forefinger. Dennis’s nausea grew; he averted his eyes. “I’ll just say it was good I still had that dagger. I put the fingers in a warded Ziploc and hauled ass to the hospital.
“I spent the next few days getting stoned and pretending it had been a carpentry accident. Pretty soon there was a knock at my door. You guessed it: a representative from the Guild. I’d been sentenced to twenty MA meetings. They thought it would give me some perspective, make me less likely to release a dangerous spirit in the future. I was pissed, but in a weird way, I was relieved, too. I obviously didn’t have things under control—I’d almost become that jek’s next skin. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, so why was I living a life where it might happen to me?”
Shisk said that his path to enlightenment had come through working the steps at MA. Dennis happily sank back into annoyed boredom; Shisk’s rock-bottom had been hard to hear about, but the pseudo-religious trappings of ‘the program’ were easy to scorn.
At length, the shaman concluded. “So yeah, that’s my story: how things were, what happened, and how they are now. If I can make it, so can you. Yan tután, aagáa yéi kgwatee: have faith and it shall be so. Thank you.” Shisk gave the slightest bow and efficiently refastened his prosthesis. After shaking the facilitator’s hand, he sat down on a front-row chair. Everyone clapped. Dennis joined them, and not only to be polite: as sermons went, it had been a good one, with a triumphant ending, and a vivid low point that lingered in his mind.
The facilitator opened the room up. People spoke for a minute or two about their own lives. None held Dennis’s attention; addict-talk was boring, and all their mistakes were stereotypical. One had tried to cast his way out of gambling debt; another had developed crippling anxiety from too much divination. Instead of thinking about these people’s problems, which were not his, or Shisk’s story, from which he was still recovering, Dennis focused on nursing his coffee. How is it even possible for the coffee to be this bad? he wondered. It seems like it would take a lot of work. What did they use, fresh scrapings from the street?
Eventually the facilitator asked them all to stand and link hands. Sam held Dennis’s left hand in a callused grip. The man on his right had clammy skin. Dennis mumbled along with a prayer that he vaguely knew: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Then the attendees sat again while the leaders went over administrivia about the next meeting. They collected volunteers for set-up and teardown and refreshments, and Dennis’s very first MA meeting was over.
The lights rose. The room filled with the rustling of jackets and the metal noises of latches and zippers. Sitting still in the flurry of bright activity, Dennis felt nailed to his chair, not because anybody was paying attention to him, but because somebody might. He didn’t like talking to strangers in the best of circumstances; he definitely didn’t wish to right now.
Part of him wanted to spring to his feet and dash to Henrietta, to leave as soon as possible, to get away from this dusty and depressing basement. This urge went away when he saw somebody do just that—somebody who was a twitching wreck. Bad company to keep. With hunched shoulders, he remained seated and checked his email, waiting for Henrietta to finish signing out the other mandated attendees.
Soon it was only him and mingling stragglers. He retrieved his backpack and hoodie from under his chair, then slipped them on. On his way to Henrietta, he slunk between groups discussing happy hour plans and passages from the Codex. Once at her formica table, he produced a folded paper from his backpack and smoothed it out in front of her. She tapped the back of her pen on the gridded form, which was empty except for the first half of the first row.
“What’d you think, first-timer?” she said, looking up at him, pen poised over the page.
“Ah…” Dennis flashed a terrified smile. “Not as bad as I thought it would be?”
She gave a single ha. “You know, we get that a lot. Makes me wonder what people expect.”
“Er.” He swallowed. “Better coffee?”
“I know, right? Jenny—she’s on refreshments—she means well, but, yeah. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” She looked around the basement, then took a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes from her leather jacket. “Hey, you smoke?”
Dennis’s eyes flickered to her pen. She still hadn’t written anything. “No. I should get heading home, anyway. The cat’ll want dinner.”
“Oh, what’s her name?”
“His name is Oscar.”
“Why don’t you come show me pictures while I burn one.” She glanced at the form. “Dennis.”
Dennis gave a low, mirthless chuckle, even though this hostage situation wasn’t funny. “You’re trying to trick me.”
Henrietta smirked. “Is it working? I like to talk to all the newbies. Come on. Five minutes. You’ll thank me later.” She put her pen into a canvas zipper bag, which she used to weigh down the page, then walked upstairs, waving at Dennis to follow.
Blinking furiously, Dennis stared at the receding woman. What the hell? He entertained filling out the form himself, but he didn’t know how to fake her initials. Also, it wasn’t like him to cut corners; that he’d done so at work recently was the exception that proved the rule. What was he so afraid of, anyway, that he couldn’t bear a five-minute chat? He groaned at himself, then hurried over the scuffed hardwood to catch her.
Thanks to the cloud cover, the night was dark and warm, even though a half-rain spat from the sky. Henrietta stopped at a tree on the front lawn. She leaned against the trunk and plucked a cigarette from the pack. She lit it with a Zippo, and the air filled with the reek of naphtha and unfiltered tobacco. Dennis scrunched his nose.
Henrietta pointed the business end of her cigarette at him. “Let me guess. You don’t think you belong here.”
Dennis opened, closed, opened his mouth. Apparently she didn’t like to just talk to newbies, she also enjoyed haranguing them. “Is it that obvious?”
“There’s a reason the Guild gives you guys sign-in sheets. Admitting you have a problem is a tough step.” She blew out smoke. “Pun intended.”
“Yeah.” Not planning to take this first step himself, Dennis left it at that. Henrietta smoked; the silence grew heavy and awkward. He had to say something—but what? He supposed he might as well say what was on his mind. “You know, if I’m being honest… I’m not sure casting is my problem. I’ve never had the cramps or gotten possessed or anything.”
To his surprise, Henrietta shrugged. The snaps on her epaulets briefly reflected a nearby sodium street light. “Hey, maybe it isn’t. Not everybody here’s an addict. For some people, like, casting makes their real problems worse. The community here helps them maintain their abstinence.”
Dennis half-muttered, “Sort of seems like we didn’t hear from any of them.”
“Eh. They’re not that vocal. Some of them are as embarrassed as you seem to be.”
Dennis felt himself blush. Embarrassed, yes; one of them, no. “But I don’t even have… other problems. Nothing casting makes worse, I mean.”
“Hm.” Henrietta looked him over, then leaned in. The smoky smell intensified. “Shisk left something out of his story, you know. A year before his life went to hell, he did a first stint in MA. Got sent here for vigilantism; some jackass was robbing houses in his neighborhood, and the cops didn’t care, so he used a charm to get the guy to confess on tape.
“We all thought he had a hero complex, and a shitty attitude, too. Nothing was ever his fault. Thought he knew better than everybody else. Could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d stuck with the program long enough to get over himself.” She rested her back against the tree again and took a leisurely drag. “What I’m trying to say is, the real problems aren’t always obvious at first.”
“Why would he leave that out?”
“I dunno, vanity? Pretty screwed up, right? I mean, what’s the point of speaking if you aren’t going to be honest.”
Dennis knew she was trying to manipulate him, but that didn’t blunt his surprise. Shisk had had an early warning about this? He could have kept those fingers, if he’d only gotten over himself? A vision of the shaman’s self-mutilation came to mind. Dennis’s stomach ache returned.
Did he have more in common with Shisk than he’d thought? They’d both had hero complexes, however short-lived Dennis’s might have been. And they’d both landed in MA because of penny-ante rule violations. It wasn’t a perfect parallel, but it didn’t have to be to make him anxious. Could his situation escalate like the shaman’s had? What sort of violent horrors might be in his own future? Even the less tragic options weren’t great; he might become an emotional cripple like the divination addict they’d heard from.
But no, no, of course he wasn’t the same as these people. He and Shisk had both broken rules, but the rule Shisk had broken had made sense; Dennis had broken a stupid one. An actuary casting at work was like a driver pumping their own gas down in Oregon. Sure, it was a violation, but it didn’t mean they needed Gas Pumpers Anonymous meetings. Just like Dennis didn’t need this meeting. He should have been at home, having dinner with Oscar. Instead he’d probably have to clean up some passive-aggressive cat vomit. He checked Henrietta’s progress on her cigarette. Still half remaining. He grunted.
She held up a palm. “Alright, alright. You heard me out. Thanks. I’ll finish quick. How about you tell me how you ended up here, and we can get you on the road.”
Dennis sipped his coffee and grimaced. Other than his chat with the Guild rep, he hadn’t talked about this with anybody. But if it would help get him home—fine. “I got caught casting at work. A divination. I’m an actuary, so I’m monitored. And here I am.” He laughed bitterly. “It’s a stupid rule. So I know what next quarter’s PNW rainfall will be, so what?”
Henrietta’s eyebrows rose. “That’s actually kind of a big screw up. You might not want to hear this, but the Guild has those rules for a—”
“I know why we have those rules. I just think it’s dumb. It’s not like I was a cop setting up a pre-crime division. We’re talking about lumber futures here.”
She looked at him like he’d told her he had not one cat, but fifteen. “Christ, man. If every jerk-off who could read the I Ching felt the same way, the foundations of modern finance would crumble. Doesn’t sound too bad to me, but I get why others feel different. Even if—”
“Oh come on, nobody cares about—”
“Let me finish.” She paused to glare at him, then shook her head. “Even if this rule is totally bogus, you knew it was a rule, you knew you were monitored, you did it anyway. What gives? You don’t seem like the type to break rules just because you don’t like them.” She waved a hand vaguely, perhaps indicating his subdued head-to-toe Muji.
“Not every rule is the same!” He pointed at her leather coat, her torn jeans. “You look like you’ve probably bought drugs before. Does that mean anything? No!”
“Maybe you need to talk to Shisk.”
“Maybe I need to go home.” He folded his arms.
She rolled her eyes. “Easy there, cowboy. God, listen to yourself.”
The cigarette’s cherry glowed between them as she took a drag. Dennis watched her face brighten and fade. She looked scared. No: worried. For him. He couldn’t remember the last time somebody had looked at him that way. It gave him pause.
Listen to yourself. He took a deep breath and slowly released it while he replayed the conversation. His arms fell to his sides as he realized that Henrietta had been right to call him out. He’d been radiating anger and entitlement. He’d sounded like an excuse-making know-it-all, just like Shisk had been at his first meeting. He’d sounded, to borrow a phrase from that earlier recitation, like somebody who used magic to cheat at life. Even his body language had been juvenile and petty. But he wasn’t that person—or he never used to be. If he was now, well, that was unacceptable.
“I’m sorry. Let me try again. I hadn’t planned to cast that morning. I just… did. I was tired, on an unrealistic deadline… it was an easy out.” He sighed; more excuses. His hands fell to his sides. “I was so exhausted. Still am. I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
“What’s keeping you up?”
“I’ll stay up late casting some nights. I know how it sounds, but it’s not like that.” Henrietta raised a skeptical eyebrow. Dennis scrunched his nose again, but it was from self-consciousness, not the smoke. “I’ve just been sort of angry. I got—dumped isn’t even the right word…”
The rain moved from spitting to drizzling. After the first drops struck his forehead, he put his hood up. “I’d been seeing this woman, Phoebe. Pretty casually. She got serious with somebody else, and that was that. I’m sort of mad, but not at her or anything. It just sucks. What do other guys have that I don’t, you know? I work hard, I make jokes, I—” He laughed at himself, sunk his hands deep into his hoodie pockets. “I have a cute cat. I dunno. Casting is something I can do that other guys can’t. So lately, a lot of nights, I’ve stayed up late working on a spell. Not like I’ll ever be able to show it to a date. Which is silly, since it’s just a modified will-o’-wisp summoning, optimized to look nice in a city… I probably sound like a loser.”
He shook his head. He barely recognized himself right now. The real Dennis was neither pitiable nor an arrogant prick. Maybe he really did have some things to work out. The cost of not doing so could apparently be dire; he made a mental note to check if his insurance covered therapy. In the meantime, it was possible there were worse places to be than these meetings.
Henrietta smiled kindly. “Sounds pretty, actually.” A drop of rain struck the nub of her cigarette, and hissed. She frowned at it, then flicked the remnants into the street. “Let’s head back in and we’ll get that form signed.”
He followed her into the old house, into the dingy basement, to the formica table, where his form still rested under her bag of pens. Seeing the mostly-empty sheet of paper reminded him that he’d have to spend many more hours in this musty room, sitting on a folding chair that had long since lost its padding, listening to lectures.
Henrietta crouched at the table. Her knees popped; Dennis winced. She selected a pen from her bag. After scribbling something on his form, she handed it to him. “There ya go. See you Wednesday?”
“Is that the next one? Yeah, I guess.” He slipped his form into a document sleeve in his backpack. A few drops of coffee spilled from his carelessly-held cup. “Ah! Crap.”
“Careful now, you don’t want to waste your favorite drink.”
“Ha.” There really was no excuse for how bad it was. Nobody deserves coffee like this, he thought. The meetings would be so much easier if we had the right refreshments. Maybe we will next time. Er, not ‘we’, like I’m a member, but I’m, you know, in the room, and… who am I kidding.
“Hey,” he said, “before I go. Snacks and stuff are handled by volunteers, right? What if I offered to bring… you know… good coffee? Wouldn’t be much trouble.”
Henrietta straightened and looked him over with a curious smirk. “Didn’t expect that. You’ll have to run it by Jenny. I think she’s still here. Let’s check the kitchen. C’mon.”
A few minutes later, Dennis stepped out into the rain and hurried to his car. He opened the door to his Civic and sat on the gray cloth seat. All Things Considered came on when he turned the key; Audie Cornish began a story about a blight affecting California strawberries. Dennis pulled away from the curb, then mashed the volume button, killing the sound. He had a lot to think about. That word, we, was as good a place to start as any.