I’m late for supper. Somehow that seems important, even if I’m not hungry. Even if I’m carrying home some small fire-creature that was used to heat city hall for years. The boiler under it is old; it broke, and rather than repair it someone trapped a red-skinned creature with horns and tail, chained it to walls and the boiler. And poured water on it every time it tried to get away. I have no idea how long they kept it in that basement, even if I do understand why no one let it out: you don’t torture something for year and expect it to be kind if you let it go.
But even then, the custodian let me leave with it. I wonder how Mr. Desrocher felt about that being part of his job, wonder how much else in his job wasn’t normal at all. I didn’t ask; I’m not sure I ever will. Like Ronald Donald in the corner’s office, there seem to be people who collide into weird things and manage to tread water. Then there’s people like me who become weird things. Luxenford hasn’t had a magician in decades. I don’t know if that’s because the town didn’t need one, or someone just didn’t become one.
But it has me now, even if I’m not like other magicians. I don’t have a voice that people have to obey, but I can stand in fire and not be hurt. Balances, bargains. Different ways of shaping the magic that I am. Thoughts like that sneak up to me, like they’re entirely normal. Like they’re wholly mine. I have no idea where I end and the magic begins, or if there is even a distinction. And I’m scared, of all sorts of things, so I go home.
Because home isn’t as scary as some of those things now. Because I’m no longer the same. Because when Dad opens the door and glares down at me, something in my face causes him to step back. “You’re late,” he says, the anger tight under the words as alcohol is thick on his breath.
“I know. We need to talk. Please.”
Dad blinks at the please, and goes inside, sitting on his chair by the TV. There are less beer bottles than there usually are around it. Mom leaving for a younger man hurt him in ways I still don’t understand; I think he was floundering at work, and that was the final straw. The golden handshake goodbye from management consulting meant he hasn’t had to work in 3 years. Just sit, eat food, drink. Sometimes at home, othertimes at bars. I can fix boilers just by touching them; I have no idea if I can fix my own father. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I’d like to think people can’t be fixed like boilers, but I don’t think the magic in me would make any distinction.
I sit down on the couch, and set the fire creature down beside me. The couch smokes a little. “It started three weeks ago, Dad. A jog home that turned into anther place, a stranger with a voice that was wonderful and terrible both. He saved my life, and I think marked me, or allowed me to delay –.” I shake my head. “Delay this, becoming not normal. Magicians are many things, normal isn’t part of that.”
“What?” Dad says.
I poke the fire-creature gently and it wakens, sits up. It’s barely two feet tall right now, having burned out a lot of its strength fixing the boiler under city hall. “Can you let my dad see you?”
The creature blinks yellow eyes at that, tail twitching nervously behind it before it turns and looks at my dad.
The scream he lets out is so operatic it’s almost epic and Dad is on his feet moments later. And making the sign of the cross. It occurs to me, too late, that the fire-creature is red, and smoking with heat, has ridges along its back and the small horns. I bury my face in my hands.
“This isn’t a demon, Dad,” I begin.
And my father shocks me then. Dad, who has spent three years developing a belly for beers, who has been falling into the bottle so far I was always terrified he’d drink and never stop if I wasn’t around – and that’s too much for most kids to know or bear, that truth – Dad ignores me and advances toward the couch. “Leave my daughter alone! I cast you out!”
The fire-creature on the couch cringes closer to me, but at least doesn’t set the couch on fire. “It’s okay,” I say softly as smoke rises from it. “He’s just confused.”
“The power of Christ compels you,” Dad bellows.
And the fire-creature quivers against me and whispers in its soft voice like ashes on the wind: “Is that Mr. Desrocher’s real name?”
“No, no it’s not,” I manage, keeping from shocked laughter with an effort. “Dad, this isn’t a demon. The only thing its scared of is the custodian of city hall, and – and you were quoting The Exorcist, weren’t you?”
Dad stops, lowering his hands. “Kate?”
“I’m still me, Dad. This isn’t a demon. I’m not possessed. I’m – I don’t really know all of what a magician is, but I am one. I had to become one to save some people. The party at Bethany’s place.”
“Six students died at that,” he says reflexively. Dad reads the paper every morning, cover to cover. I think it’s one reason why he drinks as much as he does.
“It would have been a lot worse than that.” I get up off the couch, thinking, move behind it to the wall. “Magic is about balances, about – about being the singer and the song, the dancer and the dance. Like that, a little bit. Only probably not at all. But I can talk to things, listen to them, ask things.” I reach out with my hands, and touch the old wallpaper, and it binds itself back into the wall, no longer peeling at all.
I turn back to Dad. He is staring at me without moving at all. “Kate?” he asks, as if not sure who I am.
“I’m still me mostly, I think. Just – more. I don’t know about what all this means, other than that I think I’m bound to the town to protect it. And that I figured it was way too big and important for me to try and hide from you.”
Dad walks over, giving the creature on the couch a wide berth, runs his fingers over the healed wallpaper, looks down at me. He is scared, not even trying to hide that at all, but under that, from somewhere, he pulls up a weak smile. “The siding on the house needs fixing.”
“Dad?” I say, unable to believe that.
“It does. Also the gutters need to be cleaned. Whatever this magic is, it can do that I think?”
“Probably not without people noticing, and definitely not without comments.”
Dad nods to that; there have to be questions, but he’s not up for asking them yet.
I move away from the wall and realize the fire-creature has left the couch. For a moment I almost panic, then I see the basement door is open and head down to find it studying the boiler in our basement. “Our boiler runs all right,” I offer. “It would probably have told me if it didn’t.”
The fire-creature looks back, and smiles shyly at that. It isn’t smoking at all right now.
“You’re used to being bigger; you could stay down here if you want to, rest and recover?” I offer. That wins a hesitant nod; no one human would want to spend time in a basement with boilers after being chained to one, but this creature isn’t human. We all find comforts where we can, often in familiar things, no matter how terrible those things might be to others.
I ask if it needs anyway, and it just shakes its head and sits on the ground near the boiler. Dad is nuking leftovers in the microwave as I head upstairs and eat supper. Dad and I talk about meaninglessly things during the meal, and afterwards he washes the dishes and I dry them before heading to my room for schoolwork and sleep. I am pretty sure I sense Dylan outside at one point, but the forest spirit doesn’t bother me so I spend the rest of my evening doing normal things and trying, as hard as I can, to take comfort in the rituals of familiar things for as long as I am able to.