In the weeks we've travelled together I've never seen him go into a bar. Not because he made any kind of promise – magicians know better than to do that – but maybe because he knew about my mother. Or just didn't feel the need to; I don't know. He sent Jay off for hot dogs with a couple of hundred dollars bills a good twenty minutes ago from an envelope found on the ground, and at the rate the kid eats it should keep him busy for maybe another ten minutes. He gave me sixty from it for smokes and then walked into the bar without a word.
The bar is cheap, scuzzed-up to try to seem upscale. I could go in, underage or not. I'm no magician but I could make bouncers leave me alone with a smile nasty enough to leave them wetting the bed for weeks. Probably. Doesn't mean I should. I get cigarettes at the nearest corner ship and walk back across from the bar to wait: the guy at the counter didn't ask questions and took my money. Lucky him. I'm not old enough to buy a drink but I can but cigarettes. So it's a good life.
No one tries to bum a cigarette or a light off of me while I wait; that's the kind of mood I'm in. I'm lighting the fifth cigarette when I hear a voice speak behind me.
"Sometimes there is no fault, no one to blame and no lessons one has to learn."
"Get lost." I don't turn around. I can smell must and old clothing, the voice is old without being frail, closing in on me slowly. The god inside me stirs, a seismic rumble felt more than heard.
"Who isn't lost?" the woman's voice parries.
Great. I turn not-smiling to face an old woman who looks held together by wrinkles and layers of grimed-up clothing. "Do magicians send away for lessons on being pretentious?"
"That's a big word," she says without a pause, close enough that the smell of her blindsides me like walking into a gas station bathroom without holding my breath. Her eyes are mud-brown and cold, eyes like quicksand turned to rot.
I stumble back, eyes watering. "That's some magic," I croak out, cigarette hitting the ground and guttering out.
"Hardly that," she says, blinking rheumy eyes.
"That's you? Why?"
Her laugh is toenails scraping over tiled flooring. "You know, not a one of them has ever asked me that," she says, and there is a weight to the world, to the age of her, that hitches my breath for a moment. I'm no magician to see into her, but there is something terrible and ugly in her, something she cannot guard or hide.
"Not even him?" I parry back, gesturing behind me to the bar with a hand that barely shakes.
"Not yet. He might some day."
"That's why you're here?"
"No. He reminds me of me, in small ways and large."
"And that's not a good thing." I don't make it a question. "Let's see: he gets himself dead drunk, you smell like a diseased sewer. Your children will be the envy of no one."
"Have a care, Charlie," she says, though her smile never wavers, all gummy as if she had no bark to her bite. "A magician is more than your simply psychology can hold."
I don't see her move. One moment she's looking at me, the next a finger prods my chest to push me back a step. Her fingernails are clean. Somehow I notice that even as I know she's too big for me to eat, her magic a wall nothing can breach. He always says that a magician is magic; she is proof of where that logic can lead.
Mary-Lee is not eternal, but you can see it from her. The thought isn't mine, slipping into my head as easily as the god's voice can rise up from inside me. Magicians. I have no idea when he realized she was here, or if this is some kind of trap or test. Or even who it is for.
"I think you'd like to believe that," I offer, remaining between her and the bar.
She just smiles and steps forward, only to stop as a hand grabs her arm even as I draw the god up from inside me. Claws come slowly but they do come.
"Charlie?" Jay says, not looking up at me, his voice small and scared, not letting go of Mary-Lee's wrist.
The magician stares down at him. Jay looks back up, his face drained of any colour, eyes even paler.
The magician yanks her arm free faster than even Jay could move and steps back to study the both of us. No hints of magic from inside the bar, no aid, just Jay shaking like a leaf and my claws little more than echoes of themselves, the god inside me reluctant to come forth against this magician.
Mary-Lee smiles then and bows to us, folding in on herself to vanish from sight. My eyes throb for a moment, like a toothache scraping the bone inside my head, and then it clears. The dank street – even the bar – seems cleaner and brightened by her passing.
I say several rude words to broaden Jay's vocabulary of this world. He slinks over and presses his body into mine as he shudders all over, panting for air.
I want to say: 'But you're from outside the universe, kiddo: was she really that scary?' but I don't. He has a good nose for danger and the fact that he tried to help instead of shitting himself and running away says a lot.
"Cigarette?" I say, saying enough.
He takes one, sniffs it, shakes his head, and hands it back a moment later. I light it as he relaxes a little.
"What –" Jay waves a hand to where the magician was – "that?"
I pause. "You forgot a word." He says nothing; I don't press him. "What did you think it was?"
"A thing pretending to be human?"
"Probably that, then." I take a deep drag of the cigarette and eye the bar, waiting. Jay has sense enough to ask no more questions.
He doesn't come out for another half hour. half-weaving as he stumble-steps out the door.