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Authors: Andrew Gordinier

Inherited Magic

BOOK: Inherited Magic
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Inherited Magic

By

Andrew T. Gordinier

 

Prologue

 

Her stark white hair stood out against the night as it trailed behind her, flirting and tangling with her ever-present purple scarf that cascaded from her shoulders with an elegant grace. That statuesque face of hers was coiffed and perfect, with just a hint of makeup to accent the radiance of her youth.

John hated the fucking perfect bitch with every fiber of his being. As she rushed him, her sharp, white, and perfectly straight teeth were locked in a joyful sneer; she was loving every moment of this. He, on the other hand, was not enjoying the feeling of blood dripping down his arm, nor the sudden familiar pang of doubt about his sanity. After all, was it normal to have some psychotic model-perfect bitch trying to kill you with what was either a small samurai sword or fucking humongous knife, after midnight, in a city park? True, this was Chicago, and he tried to make allowances for that, but this was still extreme. He tried to deal with it because his own pistol, and the audience watching the duel, only added to the surreal nature of the scene. The deal breaker, though, was the half-naked tribesman—which only John could see, of course. The man stood tall and unflinching, with an impressive mane of iron gray dreadlocks, while casually holding a spear and munching a “Chicago-style” hot dog . . . .

Well, when things get to that point in your life, you can either choke down a whopping handful of colorful pills that have names like Thorazine and Haldol with your favorite booze or all natural juice box and hope the nightmare goes away, or you grab hold of your gonads, take a deep breath, and fight like hell. As John struggled to do the latter, some small part of him stepped back and asked the obvious question. “How the fuck did I get here, what the fuck is going on, and where the fuck do you get a hot dog this late on a Sunday night?”

Well, let me tell you.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

A year earlier, give or take, John had stood in the chill of a spring morning on the Red Line stop at Bryn Mawr, staring at a faded ad for hot dogs. It depicted Navy Pier as a giant “Chicago-style” hot dog under construction, with a boat spraying a geyser of mustard along one side. John was in a poor mood. He was late to work, again, and, despite running full tilt up the stairs of the L stop, had missed the train. Now he had no hope of even pretending to be on time. He hated the Red Line, hated Chicago, and hated the damn ad for “Chicago-style” hot dogs he saw everywhere. He liked hot dogs, but something in the ad offended his ketchup and mustard sensibility and this sentiment held true to much of the city. The few rare moments he tried not to hate Chicago were often ruined by the fact that the city and her denizens seemed to hate him back.

The next train arrived; John got on it and weaseled his way into a back corner. He didn't want a seat. He didn't even actually want to stand. He just wanted to be in the corner where he could look out the window at the dreadful city going past and avoid the other people on the L. John didn't know, couldn't know, but everyone else on the L was grateful for this. He had an almost palatable scent of misery that hung about him. Those experienced city dwellers knew well enough to avoid eye contact with him and evade what could only be a dreadful and uncomfortable hell of small talk if he chose to speak. He ignored the small warm cluster of humanity in the train car with him; it ignored him just as happily. He was soon lost in the halt and go motion of the train and happy with his own misery.

He made his transfer to another train in short order and sat in an almost empty train car all the way to Evanston. At his stop, he vaulted down the stairs and jogged down the street to a building that must have once been a warehouse but was now a poorly conceived office building. He slipped into a side door and swiped his ID badge through a time clock without looking at the time. He was late, and that was enough for him. He dodged past coworkers, muttering greetings here and there, to his small undecorated cubicle. He sat down heavily, put his headset on, and was taking calls before he even took off his coat.

He worked through lunch, to make up for being late. He sat at his desk, munching junk food while doing paper work between calls. He suspected that those neon orange thumbprints with a fake cheese smell would come back to haunt him, but he was of the mind that everything eventually everything did, so why fight it?

At midafternoon, his boss, Sandra, stopped by and gave him a cup of fresh coffee. That could only mean she needed him to work overtime. He needed the money; he always needed the money, so he agreed. Watching her walk away out of the corner of his eye, John briefly wondered what Sandra looked like naked; then, more than briefly, he fantasized about what generally happens between two naked consenting adults. Nothing would ever happen though, office politics and sexual harassment aside. It wasn't that John was bad looking; he was handsome in a square sort of way. Dark hair and hazel eyes with a smile that, when he used it, was decidedly disarming. While depression added a few shadows under his eyes, he still looked younger than 24. It had nothing to do with that, though; it was that women can smell desperation and need a mile away—any who say otherwise are lying.

The nice thing about working the evening shift answering phones for a local cable company is that people always assume no one will answer. Then, when John does, they are surprised and pleased to talk to a real human. This makes the otherwise angry call about the football game going out during a key play a merely aggravated call. John often had exceptional ratings when it came to dealing with angry customers, proving particularly patient and steady no matter the insults flung at him. He let it all slide because he just kept reminding himself that this was decent pay for someone without a college degree and that if he hung out long enough he might get promoted. It was a dream, like winning the lottery, and was, in reality, about as likely.

After work, John rode the L home; it was always almost empty that late during the week. He sat looking out the window at all the buildings as they slipped past, feeling nothing. He was exhausted and spent. He got off the L at Bryn Mawr and walked the two blocks to his apartment building. It wasn't a bad neighborhood, and it had improved since he first moved in several years back, but he never felt safe till he was home and the door was locked. Standing there by the door in the dark studio apartment, he could see the red light blinking on his answering machine. It had a steady and almost eternal monotony to the one two, on and off blinking. After putting away his coat and boots, he sat on the edge of the bed because that's all there was, and pressed play.

“This is Earnest Brown. I work with your father. I'm sorry to say that your father died this morning from a heart attack. I was there and we did everything we could, but he was gone before the paramedics could even get there. I'm sorry I don't even know what to say really . . . . He was a decent guy, your father. Call me if you need anything.” The machine beeped, and the light switched itself off. John sat there for a long time, feeling nothing. Eventually, he lay down on the unmade bed and fell asleep in his clothes. He didn't dream, and he hardly moved in his sleep; he simply shut off because he didn't know what else to do. All things considered, who could blame him?

 

Chapter 2

 

John loved to fly. So despite the madness of modern airport security and the outrageous expense of tickets, he was happy to take his seat. The last time he had flown was when he had come to Chicago with Barb. She’d had a full scholarship to Loyola that paid for everything but her living expenses. So, John had said he would go along and support her while she went to school. They were young and in love, a combination that many of us know from experience is akin to children playing with loaded guns. John hated the city but as long as he had Barb, he was happy and could put up with it. He got his job at the call center and together they rented a studio apartment on the north side. They had to clip coupons and count pennies to make it work, but somehow they managed to do it for almost four years. During her last year, Barb had started to get distant; John chalked it up to all the stress of her classes. Then, a week before she was due to graduate, she told John.

“I'm leaving,” she said, with still certainty. “I'm moving.”

“Leaving? Moving?” John had been confused.

“I've sort of been seeing someone else. He's got a place downtown.”

“But . . .” John struggled. This was unexpected, and he had not seen the signs.

“Its better this way, it really is.” She paused. “We're not the same. You don't want anything; there's nothing you reach for.” As she stood there by the door, her bags packed and looking at him, John felt so very small. He found a shadow of self-doubt and fell into it, wondering if it was true that he wanted nothing and reached for nothing.

“I want you to be happy,” Said John meekly.

“Johnny,” she said, in that voice that he had never thought of as condescending before. “That's not what I mean.” She left her keys on the counter in the tiny kitchen and walked to the elevator, dragging John's self esteem on the bottom of her shoe the whole way.

John loved to fly, and even with the burden of his father’s death on his shoulders, a smoldering anger and sharp lust for Barb, and all his other worldly worries . . . He was happy when the engines roared. He didn't have a window seat; he didn't need one. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the world falling away, till details were hard to see and clouds rushed past, near and intimate. Even as a child, John had dreamed of flying. He had been fascinated by anything that could break earthly bonds and leap into the sky. When he learned the science behind it, part of the magic was stolen, and he grew up a little. Now, as an adult, he could sit in his chair and while others complained about the cramped conditions, he could close his eyes and touch that small bit of his childhood dream.

 

Chapter 3

 

The apartment of the late Charles Carter reminded his son of his own, back in Chicago, except that his father had lived in his small basement apartment for nearly as long as John could remember. There was no natural light in the place and turning on the lamps scattered about helped little. John perpetually felt surrounded by shadows and found himself squinting to see. His father’s affairs had been in surprising order; there had been instructions and plans for his funeral, with a small sum set aside to pay for it. His property, such as it was, fell to his only living relative: John. So, with a day to spare before the funeral home could fit them in (he had never known there was a waiting list), he turned to the task of his father’s apartment.

The landlord was willing to give John plenty of time to clear out the apartment, but he couldn't stay that long. He only had a couple of days, and there certainly wasn't that much to go through. So with what could be called a single minded purpose, he set about reducing the collected possessions of his father into three categories: stuff to keep, stuff to sell, and trash. As time wore on, the fastest growing pile was the last one. There were few family heirlooms, and John had known where they were when he walked in the door. The most notable of these was the picture of his mother in an antique gold frame that had always been by his father’s bedside. While he had never known his mother, he knew the impact she had on his father. Despite occasional dates, he had never remarried or stayed with any one woman very long. He also never held it against John that she had died giving birth to him. His father had always been consistent and steady, in a way that John strove to imitate.

By late afternoon, John was almost done and was excavating the back of the bedroom closet. There was a large wooden box that John never remembered seeing before. There was no lock, just a hasp shaped like a complex flower that turned and then folded to the side. Inside was an old looking package wrapped in twine. Written across the top, in extremely elegant handwriting, was written “John Carter” in time faded ink. He was surprised, to say the least, and hesitated for several minutes before gently untying the twine. As he did so, he recalled his father telling him he was named after a great uncle who had died in the First World War. Was this meant for him? Inside were a letter, a ring, an old skeleton key, and an oddly shaped gold box. It was thin and narrow, but long, and covered thoroughly in swirling intertwining engraving that fascinated John as he turned it over, examining it. There was keyhole to one side, on what he assumed to be the top edge. It looked more like a metal book than a box and was far too light to be gold. John opened the letter and read the near perfect handwriting.

 

To my great-grandson John,

 

My body grows weaker by the day and soon I will die, and I have no student. None of my children will take up the Art, nor any of my grandchildren. Our family has never been numerous and those who hear this calling are fewer still. You are now but a child and can hardly walk, but your mother, who has always been faithful in her word, has promised to give you this when you are old enough. She knows, and will explain better than this letter can ever hope to, the gravity of these items. She knows, because I offered them to her and she refused, just as you may refuse. There is nothing that says you must carry this burden or follow this way of life; it is my obligation, though, to give you the choice—just as it is your obligation to offer them to your children when they are old enough. Free will is God’s greatest gift to man, and we must respect it. The choice is yours, and I hope you give it the contemplation and prayer it deserves.

 

Your Great-grandfather and Benefactor;

 

Joseph Carter the third

April 5th 1893

 

John sat there for a moment, confused. He knew enough of his family history to know all of the players mentioned in the letter and saw clearly how it and the box had arrived in his hands. He was, after all, the last living family member. What he did not understand was what it was all about. He examined the letter closely, half hoping to find some hidden watermark or sign of invisible ink. He looked at the ring and was amazed at how heavy it was; there was no doubt this was gold. It was a complicated towering thing with numerous small stones set all over it that were linked by detailed etchings and curving lines very similar to the strange box. On the inside was an inscription that was in a language he couldn't read and didn't recognize. The key was an extremely ordinary looking skeleton key, but had scratches that spiraled up and down the length of its shaft. The oddity of the book-shaped box spoke for itself. A small urge of curiosity steadily grew in John, tainted by hesitation and fear of inevitable action.

It was not unlike the fear John had the time he went bungee jumping. He had stood at the top looking down and was shocked to immobility, not by the fear to jump, but by the overwhelming desire to jump despite the dangers. Since not all of us have bungee jumped or found a strange book shaped box in a dead family member’s closet, it might be easier to think of this as the drunken ex-lover. You're out with an ex, and you get to drinking (or using whatever drugs it is kids find fashionable these days), and you find yourself thinking it wouldn't be all that serious to have sex with your ex, just for old times’ sake (after all, they do that thing with their tongue that no one else seems to know). As the night moves along, and your clothing slowly vanishes, the reasons this was a poor idea vanish, as well. Till you suddenly are both naked, and the moment of truth is at hand and your last sober brain cell fires off the idea that this might be bad. You pause and reconsider, thinking about how much you are disrespecting your ex and yourself by ignoring all the reasons you broke up in the first place. However, that usually is after the deed is done and you are wearing nothing but a smile because they did that thing you like so much.

John wished for an ex, desperately needed an ex to screw, anything except to have that key in one hand and the box in the other. There was an almost magnetic draw between the two, and it was all he could do to hesitate—we should give credit for doing that much—before putting the key in the lock and turning it. There was a soft resistance to turning the key and John found himself hoping it was broken, then it meet solid resistance and knew it wasn't. He applied just the slightest pressure and the box made a loud clicking noise as the front cover opened slightly and the side panel fell open. A sense of relief washed over him, and he wondered what he had expected that could have been so terrifying and unavoidable.

With a smile to hide his previously foolish fear, he examined the box without opening it further, to find that it was a metal book, with metal pages that were revealed when the side popped open. There were twenty or so metal plates, each no thicker than a dime, each notched at the edge, with the first one at the top and the second one a bit lower. The last notch was only a short distance from the top; there was something about this that struck John as curious. With confidence, he opened the front cover, and was blinded by a sudden, bright, almost explosive flash of light.

Normally, this is the sort of circumstance where people will later report thinking something like “shit” or “I fucked up this time” and some even claim to pray. As an intriguing side note, a survey of black boxes that record the events just before a plane crash has found that the vast majority of last words uttered by the cockpit crew were “oh, shit.” John could make none of these claims and afterwards would never have dreamed of even pretending to, because he simply couldn't think that fast. No one can.

He sat there.

Thinking nothing.

Feeling nothing.

Just being and breathing.

Eyes locked on the complicated and unreadable symbols that filled every inch of the gold metallic page.

Without will or intent on John's part, his hand reached up and turned the page. There were more symbols front and back on these pages, but he couldn't even move his eyes to focus on them or develop the desire to look at them. He was locked into a near catatonic stare that saw only the book. When the page clicked over, and he moved his hand away, light played across the pages and lifted itself off of them, forming at first a point, then a line, parallel lines, a square, cube, and then increasingly more complicated shapes. The light faded, and again his hand automatically turned the page. The lights lifted off the page again, this time forming repetitive patterns based off the previous shapes, which, as they progressed and enlarged, contained complexity and variation that were unimaginable at the basic smaller scales. Each time his hand turned the page, a new display appeared, each more complicated than the last, each a mathematician’s wet dream. Still, John could not think, move, or even resist; he sat unblinking and helpless while this display played out in front of him. When the last page clicked into place, the glimmering lights lifted up off the page and went through gyrations and patterns inexplicable in words. Yet, in the language of math, they were elegantly complex and had a beauty that was at the very boundaries of human understanding.

“What the fuck was that!?!” escaped John's lips when he could speak again. There was a blinding pain in his eyes, and he felt groggy and slightly dizzy, but otherwise he felt fine. He stared dumbfounded at the small metal book for several minutes, daring the strange symbols on the pages/plates to do their trick again. He even flipped the book shut several times and reopened it, to see if the light show would repeat itself, but nothing happened. He did notice one thing though, and he wished he hadn't. The key hole was set into the top panel of the book, so when it sat open, it was on the top right side. When he put the key in, it went almost a full half inch before it stopped. Yet, the metal panel was only the thickness of a dime, like the pages, and the key never protruded through. It simply vanished into an impossibly tiny space within the panel. The sight of this, and the idea of it, brought something cold and liquid to John’s gut. He knew he was not only out of his league, but he questioned if he might be out of his mind. He was very clearly dealing with something he could never understand and should stay the hell away from. Yet, he put the colorful box and its contents in the small pile of family heirlooms, despite a deep desire to be rid of it.

That night, John slept on his father’s small couch; he couldn't bring himself to sleep in his father's bed and couldn't afford a hotel room. He fell asleep almost the instant he relaxed; normally it took him what felt like hours of staring at the ceiling before he drifted off. Normally this was not. His dreams were intense and vivid; they had a quality that was realer than reality about them. At first, they were a continuation of the lights and patterns from the metallic book, except that here and there in the dream they seemed to slip through time and break boundaries that John had no words to express. In his dream, he said to himself; “This is so much more than I can handle. It's so terrifying.” It was the truth: something about it sent a primal jolt of fear through him, and something more terrifying than the anger of Gods ever could be. He was so scared that the woman’s voice that answered his was a comfort, even though he did not know the speaker and could not see anyone or anything beyond the gyrating coalescing patterns . . . .

“These are moments you will never forget,” she said. “We have all experienced them, all trembled in terror at what they meant. Do not abandon hope. Have faith in your teacher; have faith in the skills you have learned. Never forget the first lesson.” He knew that what the woman said should make sense, that it should fit into some greater structure that he didn't have. John fought down his panic and tried to wake up, but couldn't. It was such a struggle that when he finally did wake up, he bolted upright and leaped across the small apartment. He was losing patience with this steady stream of 'what the fuck' moments and feared they would become his everyday life. I can tell you safely: his fears were about to be realized.

 

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