I am busy doing what I do best. Not the magic. Not being a magician. Getting drunk. The bank stopped its vendetta against me, I arranged matters to win a local lottery, drove across a half-dozen states, found a bar where they don’t much care about your story and just want your money. I haven’t done this in months. It feels like longer. Also like no time at all.
Other things I haven’t done: read a newspaper. Watched any news on the TV. Talked to anyone if I could avoid it. Everyone in the town of Raven’s Bluff is dead. I don’t want to see how the news covers it, how they drag up stories and guilt-trips and each paper tries to outdo the others with pictures and stories, feeding on grief and outrage. I don’t care for it at the best of times; I can’t deal with it when I was the cause of the town being decimated. Not directly, not by choice. But I had declared war on the Bank behind all banks, the one that gives magicians money so we don’t do things that could damage their nice, cozy world.
And then they go and banish the town and me Outside, beyond the universe, to make a statemet to me that I hadn’t won the spat with them. Over two thousand people died. I made it back, and even brought the town with me. It wasn’t easy. I was running on anger – not the pure kind – along with desperation and luck. But I made it back. I alone escaped, and everything like that. Because it is what I do. I survive, and get to tell the stories of what happened, and no one else does. I don’t intend it. I never do. But somehow the dust settles and I’m alive and other people aren’t.
Someone might call it survivor’s guilt. I have other words, ones I’m not using. My body is resting. Healing. The drink isn’t helping my body. It’s not helping my mind. I do it anyway, because it used to work. Because I have to do something. Two beer have become six, in the way of beer. It’s some microbrewery brand: I have no idea why I picked it. I used magic to win a small local lottery for funds, but it’s not as if I can just waste it all.
I get another beer as Jay slips into the bar. He looks to be about ten, all pale and human and trying not be be scared. He’s not ten, or human at all, and from far Outside the universe. He bound himself into my service a while ago; I tried to use the bindings between us to get Raven’s Bluff back to Earth quickly, but he was too terrified to come Outside again and I wasn’t able to do it. I’ve said that’s not his fault. Sometimes I believe it. I’m certain he doesn’t at all.
He sits across from me; no one bats an eye at a ten year old kid wandering into a bar, because Jay is very good at not being noticed. “I got a new thell phone,” he says, holding it up. He broke his last one, the one he played games on all the time, after I made it back with the town. As payment, as an apology. Or because he thought he should. I don’t know.
“Thith one doethn’t play gameth,” he adds firmly. The lisp is damage from entering the world, always with him. Sucking on a thumb in stress is cause of later damage I caused; he’s not doing that right now, though I’m sure he wants to.
“Good on it.” I push a beer over his way; he ignores it. I reclaim it, open it. Gulp some back. “You should go play games on your tablet; people will notice you soon.”
“I could break that.”
“You could. It wouldn’t matter.” Jay flinches at that. “You playing games on a phone has nothing to do with anything at all, Jay. We are bound together. I needed your help; you offered a direction back to the world. Nothing more. Because your fear was more important.” I’d like to say I didn’t get drunk so I could reach these words. I’d like to say that.
“It wathn’t important; I wath thcared,” he whispers, wrapping his arms tight about his body. “I wath tho thcared of being eaten I couldn’t help you and I don’t know why and I wanted to help but it wath too big and I couldn’t move at all they all died and you could have died and I would have jutht that there and I don’t know why at all and I’m thcared of that and you hating me and I might have thopped thome of it and I jutht thound thtupid and don’t have wordth for any of it tho I broke a phone and it didn’t help anything and you know that but you thoved it in my fathe anyway and it wathn’t important like you are but I couldn’t beat it and I tried!” He gulps in air after, tears streaming down his face. “I tried and I couldn’t, honcho. I couldn’t!”
I finish the beer. A little slower than the others. There are people staring, the bartender walking over; he’s assuming my kid, or a nephew, but the bar has rules. I catch his gaze and shake my head. He moves back, a little. People are drawn to as much as pushed away from grief, and his pain is so open they want to hide from it. I use that as a gentle ward to keep them away.
“I can’t thay anything to make it better,” Jay says thickly, wiping off his face with a napkin, hands trembling. “You needed me and I failed and I should break the bindingth between us and leave and I’m too thcared to even do that and all I am ith afraid except when I’m with you and I’m trying but it’th hard to – to thtop being me when it’th all I’ve ever been.”
“Do you think I can stop being a magician?” I ask.
He blinks owlishly a few times, then slowly shakes his head.
“And you can’t change being Jay.” I reach a finger over and poke him gently in the forehead. “But I can change the kind of magician I am, by what I do with the magic. You’re changing, too, Jay. You weren’t concerned about other people just because I was, were you?”
“Oh,” he says, shock running across his face to replace grief with shocked wonder. “Oh! I wathn’t,” he adds, soft and slow.
“You’re not a power, Jay, in this world or Outside it, not anything like a Lord of the Far Reaches –,” and he shudders at just mentioning the place – “and I am hardly a god either. We make mistakes. Something terrible ones. And the only thing we can do – the only thing that matters – is to learn from them, the lessons they reach us. So that we might, just maybe, not make them again later on.”
“You want me to go Outthide,” he says miserably, but at least doesn’t begin sucking on his thumb in stress. It’s small, but I take victories where I can get them in days like today.
“Eventually, with me, yes. Not today. Not anytime soon.” I lay money on the table. “Come on: I’m getting you a proper phone.”
Jay scrambles out of the booth. “But –!”
“Do you think the dead will care that you decided to punish yourself by getting a cheap phone?”
He follows me outside, thinking it over for almost a minute before he shakes his head. “Not if they don’t know me.”
“And they don’t. Doing that won’t matter, Jay. Getting the courage to move back Outside the universe – even for a few seconds – that matters. Helping to stop people from doing what the Bank did to Raven’s bluff from happening again, that matters. That’s what I want you to focus on, okay?”
“Okay.” He gulps. “What about you, honcho?”
“What about me?”
“Are you doing anything, for – for the dead or the living, by drinking in barth?”
“No. No, I’m not.” I let out a breath and ruffle his hair gently. “We’ll get the phone, you check it for messages and we’ll see where we go from there.”
He opens his mouth, no doubt to ask what we’ll do about the Bank, then just closes it and nods, reaching up to squeeze my hand with his.
Jay just nods, not asking a single question at all, and manages the ghost of a smile as we find a cell phone store. I watch him pester the staff relentlessly with mile-a-minute questions and force myself to relax as they struggle to make sense of half of what he says. Being Jay, though he’s not quite there yet, because he knows it makes me laugh a little.
I will deal with the Bank in my own time. Let them think they’ve won: it doesn’t matter to me at all. But Jay does, and making sure they can never do that again does as well. I consider magicians who will speak to me, plans we can make. It will not avenge the dead, but there is nothing that can do that since they will remain dead. We are alive, and all that we can do is try to make sure no one dies the way they did again.