3. Inconvenience Stores
Jay slips up beside me into the front seat after five hours, his stomach growling loudly. The magician is dead asleep in the back, head against the window and Jay puts on the seat belt carefully as his stomach gurgles again. There is no sign of the magician having marked him but he looks almost frail and moves stiffly as if his body wasn’t quite his own. The kid’s stomach seems to harbour no such issues.
He rolls his eyes. “Can we get food?”
“Can we get food?” I press.
He scowls. “Can we get food, pleathe. I’m thtarving,” he adds, not trying to avoid the ess at all.
I pull into the first fast food outlet I spot, a KFC nestling the edges of the highway. I wonder how many jokes are made about chicken’s crossing roads but Jay says nothing at all and just grabs the first of the three buckets I order and begins eating each piece of chicken ravenously: bones, skin, meat and all.
I have no idea what the girl serving it to us makes of that and drop a ten as a tip before pulling away. Jay starts into the second bucket as a normal rate, gaze flicking warily over to me.
He gulps back chicken. “Much. Lotth,” he adds, sticking out his tongue, and goes back to eating the chicken with a huge grin.
I eat a piece with one hand and resist the urge to give him a thwack on the head with the chicken, mostly because he’d steal it from my hand and eat it in a heartbeat. “You’re going to want more, aren’t you?”
I don’t press him on avoiding saying yes and finish one piece before starting on a second. I hand over
all the fries and a coke and he gulps and eats them quickly but at least at human speed, still looking warily at me from time to time.
“Yup?” I say, keeping half an eye on the road; we’re making a point of taking back roads and avoiding major highways. Jay has no ID yet, my family is probably looking for me and I’d bet good money on the magician in the backseat being on some kind of terrorist watch list. It does make it easier to chat and drive at least.
Jay finishes the last of the fries and drink before looking over. “Do you hate me?”
“For eating all the chicken?”
“No,” he says with a sharp shake of his head. “For taking him from you.”
No need to ask what him the kid means. “Taking him? He was never mind to begin with, Jay.”
“I mean –.” Jay falls silent, lips moving silently for a few seconds. “I forced a binding on him. I took him from you.”
“We weren’t bound.” Jay says nothing. “Friendship isn’t binding like you mean it. It’s not permanent for one thing and doesn’t have to mean more.”
“Oh.” He gnaws on his lower lip a little. “Then joining? Like thith,” pressing both his hands together, fingers interlocking. “Humanth do that.”
I don’t pull over. I don’t even slow down; he was young for an entity from Outside the universe, looks like a boy in ours, but I know enough to know that doesn’t have to mean anything. The magician would go on about surface not mirroring the depth, probably, because that’s how magicians talk. “No, definitely not that.”
His eyes narrow a little. “Have thex then.”
“We could. We haven’t and I doubt we ever will. Despite what the TV shows you’ve been watching on your phone claim. I think we’re friends but it’s hard to know. He doesn’t get close to people and I’m sure if he felt he had to he’d drop both of us and walk away. I think magicians learn to be like that in order to survive.” The god inside me stirs a little, or perhaps it’s only my own guesses. “I don’t think there’s a magician in the world who could survive getting their heart broken so they simply never let it happen.”
“That –.” He pauses. “Complicated.”
“Sentences.” Jay says nothing. “Well?”
He shakes his head, staring straight ahead. “I don’t want to. I am damaged,” he says, the word hissed, a brief flash of anger on his face and gone a moment later. “I don’t need – don’t want – to be reminded of it all the time?”
“Jay.” I bite back my own anger, feeling the god inside me rumble a little, eager to rise up even a little bit. “I’m not a magician, but I’m not stupid: you’re trying to hide among humans, and having a lisp is fine. The way you speak when trying to avoid them entirely isn’t: that will get noticed and remarked on. You don’t talk like a real ten year old most of the time, and not hiding the lisp will distract people from that.” He doesn’t look over, back straight, fingers curled up in his lap. “Listen, he and I travelling together doesn’t get noticedRT. I look a bit older than I am, we could be students or cousins or just friends. But throwing a ten year old boy into the mix will get noticed, no matter if your real nature is hidden or not.”
“I don’t want to,” he mumbles.
“Yeah, well I don’t want to hold back the god inside me every time I have a moment of road rage but I kind of have to do that or risk causing one hell of a scene when I drag the other driver from their vehicle.”
Jay looks over at that. “You’ve done that?”
“I’d like to thee that.”
He slumps back in the seat. “I thound thtupid,” he begins, trailing off.
“And that’s a bad thing?” I grin at the startled look on his face. “The magician didn’t ward me so I don’t seem at all important.”
“Oh,” he says slowly, then offers up a bright grin. “Tho that is why you thound dumb all the time?”
“Sounds like someone doesn’t want dessert.” His grin vanishes as his stomach lets out a growl. “Seriously?”
It takes a good ten minutes to find a town with a gas station. The town boasts that, two bars, an automotive shop and nothing else. Most of the homes are small and run down but it at least looks better than the last town which seemed like little more than a series of trailer parks shoved into each other. Reminded me of a joke mom used to say about how you can judge people by their furniture, mostly based on how much of it was on their front lawn.
I slip inside and use a washroom cleaner than I’d expected and shock the greasy kid behind the counter by buying every chocolate bar they have and most of the coca cola. I give him a tip for bagging it all, half-expecting this to be the highlight of his year, and head back outside. Jay has taken my request to guard the magician seriously and is standing outside the car and scanning the town warily.
He puts the food in the back, taking some into the front seat to begin eating at a slow, entirely human pace as I get in and start the car. “Something wrong?”
Jay gulps back half a can of coke to wash down a chocolate bar. “You were being watched from the vehicle place?”
I glance over casually as I pull onto the road but the automotive repair place – called Clancy’s Auto – has the sign devoid of neon, and doesn’t seem to be open despite it being mid-day. In a town this small they probably only bother when a local tells them someone needs a hand.
“The man ith there,” he says. “You need to look with thethe,” and mimes claws, “but they might detect you?”
I grunt, considering waking the magician but Jay doesn’t seem worried about it. I reach over him and find a pen and pad of paper in the glove compartment and hand them over. “Can you draw him?”
He finishes another chocolate bar. “I can try?”
I press on out of the town and pull over as we begin hitting old pot holes. Jay puts pen to paper with a scowl of concentration for a good ten minutes before handing the pad back and flexing his hand. The shop itself has been drawn with clear precision, the man in front of it a scribbled outline of a tall, stout figure in a suit and hat, the handwriting beside it neat and proper to read: ‘Black suit, tanned(?) skin’. And under tanned he’s written: ‘Dirty(?), Stained(?), ?’
“So a worker with oil stains and tanned skin?”
“I don’t – maybe?”
I flick my phone on, typed a query and hand it over. “Skin tones: pick one.” He does so slowly and hands it back. “Right. Someone who is half-Mexican would be tanned. Dirty, on the other hand, isn’t something you want to call anyone’s actual skin.”
“I didn’t mean it literal, but,” he says, starting on another candy bar, “like a magic? A ward? Like the colour can change depending on who watcheth him?”
“Him. Not an it?” He nods. “Okay: was the skin other tones as well?”
“I think –.” Jay was quiet a moment. “You don’t have any word for them.”
I rub the bridge of my nose. “You mean the words have too many esses?”
He shakes his head. “No, no: you don’t have wordth for them at all?”
I grab a chocolate bar and throw it back at the magician’s head; it takes three to wake him. “We have an issue; you explain it and I’ll drive,” I say to Jay, pulling back onto the road.
Jay nods quite seriously and scrambles into the back seat to begin talking quietly to the magician.