You can do a lot of things with raw magic.
In Edithville, there’s great glowing chunks of it lying beneath the reeds in the creek that runs behind our school. Alastair said it’s got something to do with the river water–it’s filled with rotting apple blossom petals, which are supposed to have intrinsic cleansing and purifying powers. When I asked him how he knew that, he said he found it off a homeopathic website, which is kind of strange for the star basketballer of our high school. I think he lies a lot, anyway.
He’s debating captain, besides, and debaters always have to lie and argue for things they don’t really believe in. And he told me he wants to be a lawyer, and Dad says they tell more fibs in a day than they do truths.
Despite all that, I like Alastair. It’s hard not to. I like the way he looks: tall and lean and sun-browned, glinting like a smooth, dark piece of varnished wood on the basketball court. I marvelled at the way he could leave people speechless–that is, until I learnt he did that by others means, also.
In the sweltering summer before school restarted, he waited on the sidewalk in front of my house a few mornings, and we walked aimlessly around Edithville, he in his bright t-shirt and board shorts, I in a sundress or a singlet and skirt. He seemed restless and a little bored, but he came back more than once, so I suppose he can’t have found me that much of a drag.
Once, on a cloudier afternoon, we bought ice creams and walked to the local park where some boys in our year were playing basketball, churning up a cloud of sweat and humidity and grime. They shouted for Alastair and he grinned and went to play for a bit, but then he came back and sat by me and we talked about where we wanted to go after our last year of school. We both couldn’t wait to get out of Edithville. We wanted more.
On the way back to the house, we ran into a skinny kid from our class named Caspian, coming out from the ruins of the science laboratories that were blown up last year by a failed experiment or a vandal’s homemade bomb, the police didn’t figure out which. He looked up at Alastair with recognition and said, “Hey.”
I was surprised that they seemed to know each other.
Alastair gave a sort of half-laugh. “Run along, buddy.” But he said it in a kind of affectionate way.
“He has such a strange name,” I said once Caspian was gone. “It’s cool. Like that sailing prince out of–”
“Out of Narnia,” grinned Alastair, although I could have sworn I had the name on the tip of my tongue. “I love C.S. Lewis.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“Never. I’m always serious.” He did this thing with his eyes–half a wink, half raised eyebrows, full of laughter. And then he said: “There’s your house. See you at school, Rachel.”
School started the following Monday. We didn’t even say hi for the first two days–he was too busy getting ready for the school captain elections–but then we had Chemistry together on Wednesday afternoon. We were at opposite ends of the room, working in separate groups of three to combine metals and acids together in beakers. Out of the blue, he gave a shout.
“Oh, shit, that burns!”
I grabbed a beaker of diluted sodium hydroxide, hurried over and pushed past the gathering students. Mrs. Harriet was already there, trying to put Alastair’s arm under the faucet. I elbowed her aside too–accidentally, of course–and splashed a little of the clear liquid from my beaker onto Alastair’s hand.
“Well, that works too,” conceded Mrs. Harriet, and looked at me approvingly.
“What did she do?” asked a boy I recognised as one of Caspian’s friends.
“Neutralised the acid,” said Alastair, hopping smoothly off the bench. His sneakers squeaked on the linoleum. “Mrs. Harriet, may I be excused to the bathrooms to wash up?”
The Chemistry teacher opened her mouth to say something, but the words seemed to stick. She moved her lips a few times, and then said finally, “All right, but when you get back, we need to fill out an accident report form together.”
“Sure,” said Alastair, heading for the door. He glanced at me. “Come on, Rachel.”
We escaped into the corridor before anyone could respond. Laughing, Alastair led the way out of the school building at a barely controlled run. His eyes were exuberant, like dark stars.
“You did that on purpose,” I accused as we raced across the sports field.
He did the half wink, half raised eyebrows thing again. “Rachel. We all know what happens when you put magnesium strips in hydrochloric acid. I wanted to show you something more interesting. Let’s go down to the river.”
At first, being the absolute fool that I was, I thought he wanted to take me there to have a romp in the reeds or something. I’d heard that’s what couples did down by the apple blossom creek, anyway. But we came to the muddier grass by the water and instead of taking my hand, Alastair plonked himself down on a dry rock and began to pull off his shoes and socks.
“Take yours off too.”
Curious, I obeyed, and rolled my pants up to my knees.
We navigated the steep, slippery banks by clinging to the slender tree trunks that bowed over the river like the hunched bodies of old men. He didn’t lend me a hand, and I didn’t want him to. I liked to be capable. The soles of my feet collided wetly with the hard stones of the river bed. Cool water tickled my ankles, rivulets weaving in and out amongst each other like miniature crystal dolphins.
Alastair had already waded to the far side of the river and was crouched in the thick reeds, turning over rocks and rummaging in the wet earth with his bare hands.
I splashed over to him. “What are you doing?”
He grinned as he plunged his arm into a crevice and scrabbled around in the wetness. “I’m looking for raw magic.”
“In Edithville?” I said incredulously. “Uh, Alastair. I hate to squander your hopes, but perhaps you should try somewhere a little more exotic–say, an Amazon rainforest, or an Egyptian tomb–”
I immediately shut up when he withdrew his arm, and in his hand was a solid, fluorescent, glowing chunk of whiteness. It was quite blinding, and full of lots of flat surfaces like a gem, except this was far bigger than a gem and it had not been refined in any way. It was raw.
“Can I hold it?” I breathed.
“Sure.” Alastair watched me carefully as I took the raw magic wondrously in both palms. Despite all its flat surfaces, it was mostly cylindrical as a whole, and very, very heavy, like a barbell. I had to squint at the light glaring off it into my eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was reflecting shafts of light from the sun, or if the light was from a source within.
“There’s a lot of it around here, actually,” continued Alastair quietly. “You have to be careful how you use it, because it is unrefined and unpredictable.”
My eyes widened. “Have you–you know–used it?”
A smile. “Of course.”
“What does it do?” I said in an awed whisper.
“Something different in every person. You can’t tell until you try it.” He fixed me in a stare, and waited, and then he answered my unspoken question. “You have to eat it.” And he produced a very sharp pocketknife and, taking the raw magic back from me, he steadied it against a rock and began to cut it into smaller chunks.
Mesmerised and bewildered, I knelt down in the water next to him, not caring that I was getting my pants soaked to the crotch. Once the raw magic was diced into bite-sized cubes, Alastair selected two pieces and gave one to me. “Pretend it’s cheese,” he suggested brightly, and winked.
I didn’t know what to do. Was this actually some sort of prank, and was he trying to make me look like an idiot? But then Alastair put the glowing cube inside his mouth–for a second, it lit up his teeth and tonsils and tongue and a filling in his molar–and he ate it.
Just like that.
I put the cube into my mouth. It tasted like nothing–like fizzy air. I tried to crunch it between my teeth, but it was very hard, and it hurt my jaw. It took me a full minute to grind it into pieces small enough to swallow.
The little cube sat stolidly in my belly, as heavy as it had felt in my palm, filling my entire stomach with its leaden weight.
Alastair was already on his third piece.
I took a second cube, and to my surprise it was slightly softer and easier to chew. And it tasted more like coca-cola than empty, sparkling air. The third cube I ate almost like cheese. Then I felt terribly bloated, as though I’d just finished Christmas dinner.
Alastair wolfed down the rest of it, like it was actually a block of Camembert. He looked at me, eyes shining. “How do you feel?”
“Normal. I think. A little queasy.” I tried to stand up. “Ooh, wait. My feet are tingling!”
He laughed. “I think that’s because the cold water numbed them.”
I cracked up, feeling giddy. “So what can you do?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to climb out of the river bed. I swayed backwards, ramming into Alastair. “Sorry!”
He caught me. “Rachel. Look at your hands.”
“My palms are glowing.” I gaped at the tiny white pinpricks of light needling their way through my skin, then pressed my hands to my face. Either my hands were very hot or my cheeks were icy cold.
Suddenly the afternoon sky seemed dark.
“I think I should go home,” I said faintly.
“Are you sure? I can–”
“Yeah. I’ll see you–” I wanted to say tomorrow, but suddenly no words were coming out of my mouth. They seemed to disappear right out of my throat. I jammed my hands firmly into my pockets and walked off briskly in the direction of my house, head spinning. I forced myself not to look back at Alastair. I left a trail of river water in my wake.
* * *
I don’t think I actually walked all the way home. Everything was normal until I got to the corner of my street, and my house was in sight in the distance. I still had my hands shoved deeply into my pockets, hoping that none of the neighbours looking out their front windows would happen to notice that I was a little more luminous than usual.
I felt like I was positively fizzing with the magic. Now and then I thought I could sense it lancing off my skin like solar flares off the Sun’s surface. I looked at my house in desperation. I had to get inside.
And then–I blinked for a second. And I swore I was five metres closer to my house than I had been a moment ago. It was like I had dragged myself bodily towards my house. No, wait–it was like I had reached outside myself, and bent space so that my house and everything else in the world was closer to me.
I blinked again, letting another stream of raw magic lance off my skin. When I opened my eyes, it was like the entire world had bent and shifted a little and rearranged itself around me, its axis of movement.
Also, the fizzing and the glowing palms had died down a little.
I lanced up the driveway to my house–what did it look like to people watching me?–and lanced up the stairs to my bedroom, letting off little spurts of magic as I went. It was so…so…
In my room, I collapsed face first onto my bed, damp and fully dressed, and plunged into an awkward sleep. My palms crackled quietly against the bedspread.
* * *
The next morning I woke up feeling dizzy and nauseous. The first thing I did was stumble into the bathroom and curl over the toilet bowl to vomit. Needless to say, I didn’t go to school. Mum shut me in my room with a flask of hot water and a pile of books and drove off for work.
But I couldn’t sleep.
I propped myself against the headboard and looked at my palms. They were ordinary and pink. There was no trace of fizziness or crackling in me. I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing. Then I saw two faint, brown handprints burnt into my bed sheets.
I climbed out of bed, went to my wardrobe and pulled on a pair of jeans, a singlet and a cardigan. Leaving the flask of hot water and the books on the bedside table, I ran downstairs and left the house by the back door.
His house was empty. I had expected as much. It was a Thursday, a school day. Never mind. I could wait. I clambered uninvited onto the wooden porch, kicked off my thongs and settled into a moth-eaten recliner. I felt very much the trespasser, but I didn’t really care.
The day faded into afternoon, and the soft orange light made me drowsy. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew, Alastair and Caspian were standing over me in their school uniforms.
“I knew we should have checked your house first,” said Caspian lightly.
“Huh,” said Alastair, and then to me: “Let’s go.”
Obediently, like a retriever, I pulled myself off the recliner and trotted after the two boys. We wended our way through the suburban streets of Edithville, towards the local park, but our destination was closer. The laboratory ruins.
“I thought we were going back to the river,” I finally dared to say as we were descending into the basement of one of the blackened shells that used to be a scientific research centre.
“You want more,” said Alastair. It wasn’t really a question.
I just looked at him, and he looked back. Half wink, half eyebrow-lift.
Broken fluorescent lights did little to illuminate the drab metal basement. Steel shelves of plastic and cardboard boxes with hundreds of labels ran the length of the room, but a small space had been cleared next to a metal filing cabinet. Two people were already waiting in the basement–a guy from the basketball team named Richard, and a girl named Maya. She had hair the colour of butter and maple syrup, but she looked bedraggled.
“I told you guys not to come down here without me,” said Alastair, his voice even.
“The door was unlocked,” said Richard. “We thought you were here already.”
Maya didn’t say anything to defend herself, only hugged her bare arms around her torso.
“Never mind,” said Alastair impatiently. He walked over to the filing cabinet and opened one of its drawers. For a second, a brilliant glow shone from within. Then he closed it. He had a bar of raw magic in his hand. “Edithville gold,” he smiled wolfishly. With his pocketknife he began to slice the bar into long, thin strips, and he gulped them down as though they were jelly snakes. He reached inside the filing cabinet again and tossed a bar each to Caspian, Richard and Maya. “This is what you came for, isn’t it, Rachel?”
Yes, I meant to say, but the word never left my lips. I felt it being snatched from my throat, and then Alastair was grinning at me like a satisfied cat.
He opened his mouth and said, “Yes,” in my voice.
I stepped backwards. What did you just do, I tried to say.
“What did you just do?” came my voice from Alastair’s throat. And then: “Holy shit, give me my voice back.”
At last, I spluttered, “That’s just scary.”
Alastair shrugged. “I steal people’s voices. Caspian here turns into a miniature Sun. Richard can make you wet your pants with fear. And Maya–Maya’s just a little ray of sunshine when she’s happy, aren’t you, Maya?” He laughed at what appeared to be a joke, and Caspian and Richard joined in. They looked like polar opposites: Caspian short and skinny, with a fringe that fell sideways over his dancing eyes; Richard, much brawnier, brutish, a human steamroller, with his shaved head.
“What can you do, Rachel?” asked Alastair.
I stared around at the others eating their raw magic. Maya was eating hers the slowest, picking at the hunk of glowing whiteness with her fingers. Richard, on the other hand, was done in half a minute.
I felt an unexpected tremor of fear. Richard’s doing?
“I…make things happen,” I said feebly, before realising that was a hopelessly pathetic explanation.
“Make things happen? Like lightning? Visions? Guilt? Do you make people feel ashamed?”
“No, not guilt. It’s more like…consequences. I want something, and then–that’s how it is. I don’t really know, Alastair. I didn’t really get to do much with it…”
Alastair slid the drawer open and tossed me a bar. “Try again tonight.”
I almost dropped it onto my toe. Fortunately, I’d brought a shoulder bag with me. I slipped it inside.
“See you all tomorrow, then,” said Alastair by way of closure. We all shuffled our feet and headed for the ladder out of the basement. “Maya, please stay behind for a bit.”
She hadn’t said a single word the whole time, and she didn’t make a sound now. Richard closed the hatch firmly behind us when we were above ground. He nodded to me as a sort of gesture of approval. “See you tomorrow.”
Caspian had already disappeared. Suddenly it was absolutely pouring with torrents of grey, grey rain. The thunder followed me all the way home.
* * *
I wrapped the raw magic in a tea towel and put it on my bedside table between the flask and the pile of books. Wrapped up like that in checkered blue and white, it could easily have passed for a bread roll or a bar of soap.
When I went to school on Friday I was crackling.
I had managed to stomach more this time–almost the entire bar. It was softer in my mouth, now, and didn’t sit so heavily in the pit of my belly. And if I kept calm, only the faintest pinpricks of magic glowed through my palms.
And at school I made consequences. I lanced up and down the corridors, bending the walls and the milling students around me, so that I could get from the doorway of Room 5 to Room 8 in a flash. I opened my locker by looking at it. In PE I knocked over a rack of basketballs from the other side of the gym.
But there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t will my English test to write itself. I didn’t have Peter Parker reflexes. I couldn’t rewind time and undo the blunder I made when a swinging door whacked me in the nose as I walked into the dining hall. And I couldn’t pluck words right out of other people’s throats.
I spotted Richard and Caspian between third and fourth periods. They walked right past each other without even making eye contact. I glimpsed Alastair once, too, but for some reason–without even intending to–I lanced myself behind a corner, out of sight.
It was an unbearably hot and humid afternoon. Alastair eventually caught up to me at the front gate of the school. “Damn Maya,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I exclaimed, surprised.
He led the way towards the science laboratories. “She controls the weather,” he explained. “Although ‘controls’ may not be quite the right word.” He reconsidered. “The weather follows her mood.”
I thought about the summer: a scorcher, but punctured by days of cloudiness and rain. I thought about yesterday’s torrential storm.
I didn’t say anything.
We turned up the path to the ruins, and walked between the charred, empty buildings. Alastair unlocked the hatch for me and let me in first. While he flicked on the lights and checked the filing cabinet, I wandered amongst the shelves. I noticed that they were dented and even melted in some places. Funny–I didn’t think the explosion had affected anything in the basement.
“Rachel?” called Alastair. “The others are here.”
I hurried back to the little space in front of the filing cabinet. Maya was just making her way slowly down the last few rungs. She looked even worse than yesterday. I wondered what the weather was like outside. Caspian and Richard were already standing, slightly off to one side, motionless as statues. Only Caspian’s inquisitive eyes darted back and forth, watching me.
“Supplies are a little lower than I’d liked,” said Alastair. “We’ll have to go back to the river sometime over the weekend.”
“I can take care of that,” volunteered Richard.
“Good. Also, I managed to get in touch with the assistant of a Russian wizard named Slozak. Very powerful but obscure fellow. We may have a potential buyer.”
“One should be more than enough, right?” said Caspian anxiously, looking at the filing cabinet with something akin to hunger.
“Don’t worry,” smiled Alastair. “I’ll make sure there’s plenty left for all of us.” He rubbed his hands together. “Well. What other business is there? School captain elections next week, make sure you all vote for me! Hm, I think that’s all. Daily rations.” He opened the drawer and distributed four bars. “See you tomorrow.”
Was that it? I felt disappointed. Wasn’t he even going to ask me about my magic? I watched as Caspian slipped his bar into his satchel and shimmied up the ladder.
“Rachel. Stay back for a bit, please.”
For the first time since I’d met her, I saw Maya react. She perked at these words and literally ran for the ladder, almost elbowing Richard out of her way. Alastair watched them go with an amused expression.
We strolled in the dark confines of the basement.
“How are you finding all of this?” Alastair’s eyes were bright as he regarded me, his hands gesticulating.
I tipped my head thoughtfully. “Overwhelming.”
His brow crinkled with concern. “It’s not too distressing, is it? Because, you know, you really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” He turned away, as though hiding his face self-consciously.
I opened my mouth to say no, no, I want to be a part of this, but the words didn’t come.
Are you doing this?
He turned back to me, and I felt like I’d been punched in the face. He hadn’t been hiding his self-consciousness at all. He’d turned away from me so I wouldn’t be able to see the black smirk plastered on his face.
“No one can hear you scream down here,” he said. “Especially when you can’t scream in the first place.”
I tried to scream anyway. Nothing.
He had a fit, laughing at me as I backed away between the shelves.
Who the hell are you?
Alastair rolled his eyes. “I can’t really be bothered explaining,” he said, and lunged towards me.
I lanced. Suddenly I was on the other side of the shelf, screaming and screaming inside my head.
“Shut up, you’re giving me a migraine.” He leaped, and I lanced away again. “Ah, so this is your power. Bending space. A limited and not very useful talent, I’m afraid.”
We lunged and lanced around the basement. Each attack came closer and closer, and I was growing more and more desperate. I was going to explode with fear. I could feel his large presence bearing down on me only a split second before I lanced away. And I was running out of magic. I didn’t have time to pull the new bar out of my bag.
And suddenly I was cornered. I grasped wildly around for some thread of power, but I was drained.
“Can’t you see that I’m not trying to hurt you?” smiled Alastair, leaning close and sliding one fizzing hand up my thigh.
I wanted to scream in disgust. But he had taken my voice from me, and I was furious.
Wham! Alastair soared through the air and hit the wall. I had a little magic left in me after all.
“Dirty bitch,” he spat, heaving off the cold ground and staggering at me.
I ran for the ladder, but I had barely climbed two rungs when he wrenched me violently down and flung me to the floor. My chin jarred–a moment of blinding pain–and I saw stars. Scrambling to my feet, I pivoted sharply to see him leering at me.
A slim figure leapt down from the hatch and jumped on Alastair, clinging to him like a baby monkey. For a split second, all I saw were Alastair’s eyes widened in horror.
And then Caspian’s skin burst into blinding hot light.
Alastair screamed blue murder, and I screamed–oh, glorious, I could scream!–and the basement was swamped with the sickening smell of burnt flesh.
When Caspian peeled himself off, I could see that the right side of Alastair’s face, his shoulders and the entire front of his chest and abdomen were a blistering, scarred crimson.
The light faded. Caspian thrust out a hand to me. But all I could see in my mind’s eye was his brilliant skin, glittering like diamonds in a furnace. I stared at him. “It’s fine,” he said with undisguised exasperation.
I took it. It was as cool as glass. He pulled me to the ladder after him. Just before I dragged myself through the hatch, I cast one last, horrified glance at Alastair. His burnt and disfigured form staggered around the shelves, keening in pain.
“Come on!” Caspian hauled me above ground and slammed the hatch door shut. “He can still get out. We should run.”
Richard and Maya were waiting in a Toyota at the side of the road. They said nothing when Caspian and I slid into the back seat; Richard merely pounded the accelerator.
“Do you think he’ll come after us?” I said as we wove through Edithville. Richard dodged parked cars and schoolkids with practised ease.
Caspian was the one who replied. “I don’t know. He’s pretty severely burned. We need to get away for the weekend.”
“The scrubland ten k’s out west,” said Maya shortly, the first words I’d ever heard her utter. She had an unexpectedly hoarse, grating voice, like someone on the edge of angry tears. As she spoke, she brushed her flyaway golden hair out of her eyes to scrutinise me shrewdly. If she approved of me, she gave no indication–she simply sniffed and looked out the window.
I remembered the way she’d scrambled to get out of the basement as soon as Alastair had asked me to stay behind. She had known what he would try to do to me–and she had still run.
“Alastair did a lot to her ever since she came on board.” Caspian looked at me across the car seat as though he read my mind. “Every night, after our meetings, he made her stay behind. Richard and I couldn’t do anything to help. He had us all twisted around his little finger–the magic, the threats.”
His eyes darkened. “He swore to go after our families if we ever tried anything funny. Richard’s terrified for his little brother–Brent’s disabled and wheelchair-bound. Alastair tried to hurt him once already. And those dents you saw all over the basement shelves? They weren’t caused by the explosion. You see, when someone beats me up, I get angry. And when I get angry, I get so white-hot I can melt metal. Alastair liked to use me as a punching bag.”
“He’s a freak,” spat Richard, banging the steering wheel. “A power-hungry freak.”
“He’s going to look like one now, too, after what Caspian did to him.” I swallowed.
The contemplative silence that followed was broken by a spiteful hiss from Maya. “He deserves every bit of it. He deserves to die for what he’s taken from us. What he’s still taking from us.”
I looked at Caspian questioningly, but his expression was pained. “You don’t want to know,” he said tersely.
He softened. “Perhaps after we come back. After everything’s okay again.”
* * *
I mailed a note to my parents telling them I’d gone on a weekend camping trip with a bunch of school friends. They’d be furious, but at least they wouldn’t call the police.
When we came back before dawn on Monday, the hatch was open and the basement empty. Alastair had left Edithville. We went to his house, banged on the porch, swung in the moth-eaten recliners, but there was no one there.
He won the school captain elections in a landslide victory, but he wasn’t around to accept the honour. He was long gone. In the end the position fell to the runner-up, a girl named Jill Meyers.
In the evening, when the shadows had chased everyone back to their homes and the comforts of a TV dinner, Caspian took me down to the river that ran behind the school and we waded into the water filled with rotting apple blossoms.
“Why are we still doing this?” I asked as we stacked the glowing white chunks on the river bank.
Caspian stopped, and ran a hand through his shaggy hair. “There’s something Alastair failed to tell you when you first tasted raw magic.”
His tone of voice frightened me. “What?” I shivered, feeling wet and cold.
“It’s fatally addictive, Rachel. If you try to stop eating it, you’ll be in a high fever within twenty four hours. After three days of abstinence, you’ll be sweating out more water than you can drink. Then you start losing your senses–touch, first, then the others one by one, until you’re trapped inside your own mind. After that, it’s a short road to the afterlife.”
My blood felt like ice. A violent shuddering despair ran from the base of my skull to the pit of my belly to my feet. Finally, I said hoarsely. “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
A dry laugh. “Partially.” Then he cocked an eyebrow. “That’s all the reaction you have? You’re not going to say anything else? No hysterical screaming?”
“Frankly, I don’t want to think about it right now.” I finished stacking the raw magic and started putting it into my backpack. Everything on the edges of my vision looked red, like blood.
“That’s a good way of dealing with it,” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not. I think he was genuine.
Caspian and I clambered out of the river, getting our knees all muddy and leaving tracks in the smooth, slippery banks. We set off down the road towards his house. Our backpacks were heavy with their secret burden. Overhead a brilliant scarlet sunset hugged the cloudless sky, and the evening was beautiful and temperate. And it didn’t rain in Edithville for the next six months; not once.