Below the fold, my second installment of National Novel Writing Month. If I fail this year, I’ll leave whatever I had done public this time. Have some fiction, my peoples. Hell knows we need it.
Ren found his phone on the trunk where he usually left it to charge, but not plugged in. The power was almost nil so he plugged in just to use it, on that tiny tether. Sprawled on the cold laminate of his apartment floor, he called.
A few rings later, “Hello?”
“Moira. It’s Ren,” he suddenly felt a wave of fatigue, “Oh, I’m so tired.”
“Lorenzo? Why are you calling me?”
“What? Are you..? Are you saying you don’t remember?”
“…No, I’m just messing with you. But we could both do with some sleep, don’t you think?”
“What was it? What is it? The door of time.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. You know that I will. Be careful what you do with that knowledge.”
He thought about it. He could see himself sleep, tossing and turning. He could see himself getting ready and walking out the door and diverging – phantoms of possibilities going every which way, but drowned out by a torrent of likelihood – him getting on the bus. His hand drifted to the floor and he fell into a dark sleep.
He dreamed he was dreaming, dreamed he was going through his morning routine in every possible way at the same time. He showered quickly and slowly, parted his hair on both sides, flossed before brushing and brushed before flossing, rushed to the bus and paced himself. By the time he was at work, the day was rushing around him, until he got to Moira’s room and slammed on the brakes.
“Mmm Ms. Moira, would you like me to put on a… Oh…” The room whirled and he hit the floor.
He heard her say, “No more of this,” then more words, indistinct – to someone else? Phone noises. Feet on the stairs, people in the room. Jerri helped him sit up, though he had to rest on the floor, back to the wall, for lack of furniture.
Barclay looked him in the eyes. “You’re a mess, Borrego. What did you do to yourself?”
Jerri told her, “Yesterday was really rough, maybe he didn’t get enough sleep.”
“Or got his sleep chemically. Ren, stay with us. Stay awake.”
He looked at them, then at Moira high on her bed, then back to Barclay. “Yeah, I didn’t get good sleep.”
Barclay sighed peevishly and stood to consider her options. She went into the hall to make a few calls of her own.
Jerri stayed back to keep Ren company. “You OK, buddy?”
He examined himself. He was sweaty, his fingernails felt dirty, and his shoelaces reminded him of a picture he’d seen of a cracked-out spider’s web. “I don’t think so. It’s like… I didn’t sleep at all.”
Moira clucked her tongue. “We won’t be having any more of that, will we?”
He nodded slowly, then nodded off. Jerri slapped him lightly in the face, her nails giving him a light scrape.
“Yes! No more.”
The next day, Ren wasn’t scheduled to work, but he came in. Ostensibly it was to make up for losing a day, but he really did it to have an opportunity to get some answers.
Moira had him put on “Tapestry” by Carole King, and he sat on a window sill near the head of her bed. He asked, “What happened to me yesterday?”
“You were in an altered state of awareness, tried to fly past the boring parts of your day, and crashed.”
“That makes sense… I guess.” He bounced a foot nervously. “It’s gone away, I think. Do I have to go back to the door? Will it be messed up every time?”
“No, no need to go back to the door. With the right meditation you can control your perception of time quite easily. But there’s more to this if you try, if you learn.”
“How do you learn magic? How can magic be real?”
She looked away, head rolling over the pillow. “Don’t make me tired. I’m old.”
“Oh, Ms. Moira, I’m sorry.”
She looked back. “It’s OK. Just pay attennntion to the sssounnnd of my voice.”
He stood up and looked at her closely, trying to glean some meaning.
His brows furrowed this way and that. “Um… I understand the words, but…”
“I’m sssspeeakingina naturaalll waaay ifyoufollow iiiit.”
He nodded and tried to adjust his perception of time to match her words. It was surprisingly easy. “I think I understand now.”
“Good boy. Perception is a beginning, altering your understanding with transformative experiences. But to make the really interesting things happen, you must practice the ritual of them.”
“What sort of interesting things?”
“Like this.” She showed him her cell phone. It was on a clock view and the second hand was moving too fast and too slow by turns.
He smiled, hesitated, then smiled again. “That isn’t one of the really interesting things, is it? That’s just because we… controlled our perception?”
“Clever. You’ve got it. Now. Get this one.”
The world became a foggy blur and pain stabbed him in the back of the eyeballs. He tried to shake off the fog, but it wouldn’t go. Then he noticed she was wearing glasses. His glasses? He reached out for her face. “Are those?”
Suddenly the world was in sharp focus, more pain of a rapid change, and she had nothing on her face. He reached up and felt his glasses were in place. “Oh.”
“Can you see how this power could corrupt you, if you were not a good boy?”
He nodded and smiled like a nervous baby nerd. He looked foolish and overly eager to please, but on the inside his wheels were turning. There was an ongoing effort to make sense of the lesson, such as it was, now joined by a self-reflective train of thought. Was he good? Could he keep his good natured conformity going when he had the ability to pick a pocket without a blink of the eye?
The old lady was unworldly. Just utterly normal on one hand, but able to joke and gently condescend from her pillows with god-like power. He sometimes looked at the lines of her face for some hint of where she really came from, some tell of her story.
“Lorenzo, you can remain like this – aware of the mystic but powerless to use it in a meaningful way – or you can become a magician. If you choose the latter, recall what I told you two days ago?”
“What’s a day anymore?” He shook his head. “Um, I have to pay a price?”
“That’s right. We gain the power to change the rules by imposing strict rules upon ourselves. It’s a taboo. You give up something that normal humans may possess. If you violate the taboo, you suffer some consequence – the severity of which is concomitant to the depth of the transgression.”
He pursed his lips. “I don’t think I understood all of that. Is this a deal with the devil?”
“Mephistophelian truck in souls? I never.” She smiled coyly. “I’ll refrain from post-graduate vocabulary and try again, but as I understand, you are fearing that magic is evil?”
“Mm, yes, I guess I am.”
“How can it be? I learned it from a priest.”
“Really?” He didn’t sense there was a twist or lie beneath that, as much as the possibility occurred to him that she could mean a high priest of Satan. He laughed a little.
“Now, the priest who taught me took a different sort of vow from what I’ve taken. I found the most effortless taboo to take on was a prohibition on my image. If a photograph, drawing, painting, sculpture of myself is created, it may cost me my powers or my health. It’s not too hard to avoid.”
“Hm. You know, I don’t like seeing pictures of myself anyway. Should I do it?”
“Just keep in mind, it can become very dangerous to fail. If someone sweeps a video camera your way at the wrong time…”
He covered his mouth with his hand and thought about it, then, “Yeah, some things in life are worth a risk. How can anyone say no to magic?”
“Very well. As a preparation, we must destroy all of your old photographs.”
“Oh, that is serious. I don’t know if my cousins might have any.”
“Not a problem. Just let me know. Do you accept this stricture? Will you take the oath, to blot your face from the annals of time? To forever be a stranger to the world?”
His face grew warm and something buzzed in his mind. The Lord of the Flies. “Yes, Ms. Moira, I will take this oath.”
“Then think back upon the photographs you’ve been trapped in like amber… The contents of family albums, things from your school and the DoL and more. Can you remember them, individually? Remember your young face, call them to mind one at a time, then…”
She peered through his thick black eyelashes. “Are you in there, Lorenzo? Do you see the pictures?”
“Heh, oh, yes I do.”
“Then turn away.”
A voice from behind him. “Now.”
He look back and saw her standing, hunched over. Then she was gone, and facing the bed again, she was there. “What was that?” He felt something weird inside, like a shuffling of cards or someone making a chain of paper dolls out of his intestines.
Moira held out a wallet to him. His wallet. He took it, and looked at his photo ID. His picture was looking away. It was totally bizarre.
“So every picture of me is..?”
She gave a slight nod.
“So if I went back in time and turned my head, why didn’t they stop me or reject the picture?”
“Making me tired again.”
“…Because they cannot go back in time. But if any time, uh, point in time is the same then the only reason that would be back in time is if… from the time we… I guess it isn’t important.”
“Now, if someone is holding up their cell phone where the camera could reach you, what do you do?”
“I know, I know…”
“Good boy. Are you well?”
“It feels weird, like… I really did lose something.”
“As well it should.”
“May I?” He moved to sit down on the edge of the bed. She assented and he sat there, again studying her face, not even bothering to disguise the fact.
“You don’t know if I’m real.”
He touched her skeleton hand. “Hm. You are real, Ms. Moira. Really weird.”
She stuck out her tongue at him.
There’s a bus stop where everyone that sits on the bench is obliged to have a deep conversation. Don’t let other people sit on that bench. You don’t want to hear what passes for deep in their minds.
Ren’s feet hurt. A poor skinny woman sat beside him. Said the woman, “Is crack really so bad? It’s not like I have anythin’ else.”
“I agree, not that I want you to be smoking crack. I would rather that you have a good life. But you know what’s right for you, the way things are.”
“Thank you, dude. That’s respect. I just wish it lasted longer.”
Ren tilted his head. “I wish I could help you see things the way I do. There are reasons… Anyhow, time is what you make of it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Easy for you to say, hippy. You sound like KRS. Mos’ people can’t choose what they believe, what they perceive. It’s what feels real. Too real.”
“It is real. Every door you go through is a mirror. Bounces you right back the way you came, what gets through to the other side is a false image.”
“Huh. I ain’ there yet, but I’m lissenin’.”
“We’re trapped in every place we go. Everything we experience there is part of one life lived from birth to death in that place. Going new places only makes new births, new lives, all trapped and ultimately ending in the same place.”
“So… It’s like, when you’re lissenin’ to a song at home an’ when you come back, you remember the song like you never lef’, like you expect to hear it pick up where it lef’ off.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“So when I’m on crack it’s like I’ve always been on crack an’ I’m gonna die there?”
“Good luck, ma’am.”
Inside the mirror of Moira’s room, Ren was playing a little guitar with unnatural skill. Moira smiled, slapping a palm on her upper chest – her way of clapping without arthritis pain.
She said, “That’s a clever use for it. It’s hard not to trip over the strings when you try to play fast, isn’t it? I never thought of that. Heck, I was playing piano, say, twenty years ago, making a total mess of it. Didn’t have to.”
“Thank you, um–” He mangled some notes and abruptly muted the strings by grabbing the neck. “Still can’t play and talk at the same time.”
“Shall I?” She turned over her palm and came up with his guitar. He was disappointed in himself for not seeing the move. She started playing something by The Carpenters, her gnarled hand a blur like moth wings. “Talking at the same time, what do you think?”
“I am moving my hand very slowly, hitting each string individually. Right?”
He sighed. “Will I get better eventually?”
“You’ll need a greater sacrifice, a breakthrough.”
“Something more? It’s already hard enough sinking in my seat whenever a girl uses a phone to do her makeup.”
“Heh. You’ll be ready someday.”
“Oh, this is enough. I already feel like the world’s biggest cheat, every day.”
She stopped playing and put down the guitar. “Really? How are you cheating?”
“I hardly have to wait for anything. I can slow down nice stuff, like tasting my food. I never miss an appointment, I impress people with magic tricks. I’m just… too blessed.”
“Aww, that’s darling. So you’re not stealing? Really?”
“Stealing? Oh, that would be easy to do. No.”
She laughed breathlessly and closed her eyes. “You really are too good, Lorenzo. Ahh…” She looked at him. “You’ve never even asked for more power until today, and even then you were so humble about it. I’ll tell you then.”
“There is more to magic. You’ve been through one door. I can show you four more.”
Ren fell off the windowsill and almost landed on his ass. “What?!”
“Hahaha, oh, yes. Get up here,” she patted the bed next to her. He sat there awkwardly, paying rapt attention. “There may be more than five doors, but those are the ones I know of. The Door of Time, the Door of Seals, the Doors of Life and Death, and the Door of Motion.”
“Um… How do I ask this? If I go through them all… Will I..?”
“Be in a bed?”
“No, that was something else. The sacrifice of your image should suffice to allow you access to those paths. You’ll only need to take on greater burdens if you want to become more powerful in any one of them. Like my first disciple through the Door of Time.”
“You had another disciple? How did you teach them without Eugene finding out?”
“Oh, Eugene learned from my mentor, he knew. Knows.”
“Your ex-husband is a wizard.”
She looked sour. “Not much of one.”
“Sorry, you had a disciple before me?”
“Michael Shanley, my student in more banal studies as well. He was very talented, but corrupted. We all were, in our ways… He returned to the Door of Time, took on another taboo – against intoxication as I recall – and became a true master of that path. You can do so as well, the corruption isn’t a sure thing. I’m a master of all those paths and I never…”
“What did he do?”
“He felt it wasn’t enough, did something dangerous to gain more power, hurt himself inside… It doesn’t matter. Just going through the other four doors shouldn’t be so dangerous for you. Do you want to?”
“Can a master of Time see the future?”
She smiled at him sideways. “Maybe.”
“Do I say yes or no?” He picked up his guitar.
“Tonight go to the southeast corner of the building and look to Puget Sound. There will be a building in the distance topped with a pyramid. Go there. Ask the guard what he had for lunch.”
“He’s in on it? Another disciple?”
“Not exactly and no. Just do it.”
“Yes, Ms. Moira.”