A death marches out of the motel, a shadow of seething fury moving across the parking lot and onto the patio, eyes burning and fists clenched. “You are dead.”
“Good morning,” I say, drink my coffee, and gesturing to one sitting on the table. “Coffee?”
“Coffee,” Death repeats, in tones one would use to declare war.
“It’s quite good.” I pause a beat. “Also, you’re scaring the staff and customers in the coffee shop.”
Red fire burns, banks, flicks out, the shadows and god power being pulled deep within as Charlie sits carefully down. “I am still going to kill you, magician.”
“Knowing why would help. Not that I imagine you’d be short of reasons?”
Charlie smiles against her will at that. “You had to remind Jay that my birthday was tomorrow.”
“You thought he’d forget?”
“He was going to give me a ‘Jaysome hug’. You reminded him that he gives hugs a lot so now he’s looking for a gift,” she snaps.
“And insisting he’ll find me the best gift ever. Remember him finding those smurfs?”
“They were small.”
“But not often blue since they covered their skin in the blood of their enemies and consumed an entire bear like land piranha would. You are going to make sure he gets me a sane gift. Or else.”
Even Charlie realizes the ‘or else’ goes too far, but I just raise an eyebrow. “Or else what?”
“Or else I convince Jay that magicians have lots of birthdays and see how many gifts he can bring you. Don’t think I won’t do it.”
I finish my coffee and stand. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Good,” she says, and begins drinking her coffee. And doesn’t even think to ask why I set Jay out to find a gift, or even why I’d do that. I leave her anger to blind her and poke Jay gently through bindings to find out where he is. And I pause, and wonder if at least some of her anger might be justified as I explain to Jay that Charlie definitely does not want the Loch Ness Monster as a birthday present, not even if Nessie wants a vacation.
I’m even more firm that Charlie won’t want Nessie’s ten thousand young.
I don’t try and spend my birthday hiding, not really. But I sneak out of my RV, catch a bus across the city we’re in, lose myself in a dozen tourist things rating highly on Yelp, browse a museum for the first time since some school trip when I was twelve or thirteen. I can’t hide from Jay, even if I wanted to try. There are bindings connecting us together as friends and I’m not sure I could break all of that even if I wanted to. I know I couldn’t break them on his end.
Which is why my phone buzzes me in my left pocket shortly after noon despite the fact I made sure not to bring it with me. I sigh and remove it; Jay is from far, far Outside the universe and uses bindings in ways even the wandering magician barely understands. He’s also My Friend, which means more than I likt to think sometimes.
‘I TOTALLY HAVE YOUR PRESENT!!! :D’ is the text from Jay, who would definitely pout a lot if I tried to inform him I didn’t want it.
I remind myself that the wandering magician at least tried to vet the gift. And that Jay’s weird aggressive innocence means it can’t be that bad, and text back asking where it is. He responds with an address and enough exclamation marks to mak a teacher cringe in horror. I’d worry more at that except Jay is enthused by pretty much everything in the universe, and more than happy to share that with everyone he meets.
I debate calling the magician and demanding a heads up, but I doubt he’d give me one. I remind myself I’m a god-eater, that I have a god inside me, that I’m a trained exorcist and, most importantly, that I’m me. It helps, because I don’t give that a choice except to help, and I walk a good ten minutes to one of those modern restaurants. The kind where the food is more a decoration than something to be eaten, the staff all looking like they came out of a period piece.
There are just six tables inside a vast area, each cordoned off by plants, a couple of water features, various dividers all done up to seem as though they weren’t dividers at all. The cost must be ridiculous, but I doubt Jay even gave it a single thought.
The waiter has a perfect smile, ushers me to a small table, brings bread, along with water I’m told is GMO-free and smells of lemons. I half-hope that the magician convinced Jay that a meal was gift enough until he comes into the restaurant. Male. I’m sure of that much. Gorgeous, as if you melded together every Hollywood actor I loved and put them into one perfect body. The staff stare as well, shaken from their routines – possibly also their definitions of themselves – as he comes and sits across from me.
“Yes,” I say, relieved this doesn’t seem to be Jay in a disguise. “And you are?”
“And this is a date?”
“If – if you want?”
“Okay. And what are you?” He blinks, not moving. “You look like every actor I’ve never thought was remotely cute turned into one person. It is, at the least, distracting but I’ve seen Walkers of the Far Reaches who could destroy people with a smile. So. Talk.”
“I am a tulpa, a creature made of thought. We normally cannot change our forms, but Jay altered me so I could do so, in exchange for a date with a friend of his?”
“And you said yes, knowing nothing about me?”
“Jay is very – persuasive,” John says. “Like a puppy you do not want to hurt. And I have done worse things than go on dates with strangers.”
Food arrives, though we haven’t ordered. The plates are small, the staff don’t hover and the food is shockingly good, enough to be a date all in itself.
“The pears,” I manage. “Like an orgasm.”
John lets out a laugh that seems entirely human as I catch up with what I said, and we share a grin as we eat some more. He tells me that he mostly does human things, lives a simple human life, does small work. Tries no to be noticed, because tulpas can’t change as humans change. He has no idea how Jay even found him, or why, but wasn’t about to question it.
“No matter the cost?” I ask finally as we’re drinking the dessert wine.
“I desire to survive, the same as everyone else.” His smile is small and sad, but beautiful for all of that.
I thank him and we leave, each going our separate ways. I almost make it two blocks before Jay manages to run into me. At least not doing so literally, since people would definitely comment if some blind boy slammed right into someone and their response was resignation.
“Your date is over already? But I totally planned that, and helped John, and got the staff all ready to be Jaysome and has plans for a nice Hotel and everything,” he says.
I ruffle his hair gently. “I’m sure you did, Jay, but I didn’t need all that.”
“But –,” he protests, looking up at me.
“How about we just spend the rest of the day hanging out together,” I say.
“But we do that all the time! I wanted it to be all kinds of special and –.”
I press a finger to his lips. “The wanting makes it special, at least a little. We can hang out, talk, walk about without any adventures at all.”
Jay blinks a few times at that. “Without adventures?” he says finally.
I have to grin at his stricken look and hug him, letting go as I stand and taking his left hand in my right. “Just being with a friend can be adventure enough, okay?”
Jay considers that, then nods and grins, his cane folding up and going into a pocket. “And you can lead!”
“That will make sure we don’t run into adventures?”
“Probably,” he says, quite seriously.
I shake my head and we walk slowly down streets, Jay peppering me with questions about everything I can see, and my asking questions about bindings he’s sensing in turn as we make plans to meet the magician for supper and I do my best to convince him that just hanging out for a nice, quiet afternoon is all the birthday present I could want.
I suspect it won’t stop him from wanting to get me another ‘gift’ next year, but I can hope.
“We need to talk.”
I look up from gently using magic to massage old stones as Charlie glowers at me. “About?”
“My birthday. You. Jay. You sicced him on me with ideas about gifts he could get me. And you do nothing without having ulterior motives, magician.”
I smile. “You say that word in ways Jay never would.”
“And I’m wrong in this?”
“No.” I pull the magic back. “Jay is flexing his nature more. Testing the world, feeling the limits of it and pushing against them. I wanted some idea of how far he’s let himself grow.”
“Let?” She says warily.
I try on the shape of a smile. “You remember Oregon.”
“The attempted invasion into the universe from Outside?”
“I called forth a Power with the universe to aid us.”
Charlie shudders, the god within her withdrawing even from the memory. “It was – big. I try and forget what I saw but I can’t.”
“It was Time, or at least an approximation of It.” I shove my hands into my pockets. “Jay is kin to that kind of power, Charlie. Potentially even greater, for all anyone knows. You’ve seem something of what Else he is.”
“Yes. It was – large. Strange. He was terrified I would be scared of him.”
“He doesn’t know what he is. Not yet. I don’t think he’ll let himself know. Nothing with the potential he has should even be able to enter the universe, Charlie. But he is here, and our friend, and we must deal with that as best we can.”
“By testing him?”
“If we have to.” I walk back toward the RV. “As we need to.”
“That’s not safe at all,” she says softly.
“Few worthwhile things are wholly safe,” I say, and the answer is a glib magician’s one that she doesn’t question at all.