We sat behind a display of coffees and practiced quiet, silent magic that didn’t require flashy incantations or sudden displays of light. It was ninety-one degrees outside of Coffee Bean, and humidity had flowed into Los Angeles. I had been unemployed for four months. Parrish (real name Tyler) had been unemployed for six. He had rigged his coffee cup into a makeshift cauldron for brewing fire-breathing potions.
“It’s going to burn through,” I observed, watching the plastic coating bubble up on the rim.
“I’ve got three cups inside,” Parrish said, blinking under acrid fumes. “It’ll hold. I can feel it holding. It’s got plastic AND paper in it, it’s powerful shit.”
I looked around. There were plenty of other fellow unemployed members of the professional or educated classes. The traditional screenwriters, hunched and sweating, jockeying for plug space on the one overloaded socket. A few forlorn attorneys, reading paperbacks. The larger tables were taken over by the business school/real estate/financier troika, networking pointlessly and reassuring each other loudly.
“Fire-breathing potions are stupid, and pointless, and they’re going to leak -- they are now leaking -- Jesus, Parrish, do something!” The outermost hull was sizzling brown, and starting to warp. Parrish seized an unburnt edge, and poured the noxious, foul-green liquid into a nalgene bottle from at least a foot up. In mid-air the potion changed colors, to bright white, and ran itself neatly inside the bottle. He waved the bottle, which sent up a puff of red smoke, and capped it.
“You should relax,” he counseled. “It’s a coffee shop. They have mops.”
I didn’t want to get kicked out, and I was about a “three” on a 1-10 scale of “pissed off.”
“So what are you going to do with that?” I asked. “Shit is dangerous. You can’t even pour it in the toilet. That counts as a mouth. Activates the potion.”
“I wanted to see if I could do it,” Parrish said, surprised and a little hurt that I was shitting on his parade. Making a potion in a few coffee cups was a neat piece of magical work.
He returned fire. “What happened to you? Did some kid blow himself up spelling C-A-T?”
I was making ends meet by tutoring high school students in runes. This was fun in that I could very occasionally work in some of the fun spellcraft, stuff like illusions, hilarious charms on the family dog, dancing tea cups a la Beauty and the Beast. This was crappy in that it paid in either mom’s crisp $20 dollar bills, or mom’s neat checks with the memo portion made out to “tutoring.” The kids were mostly spoiled little arsonists interested in fireballs, or robots fixated mindlessly on those subjects tested on the SAT II Magic test, viz, runes and cursory magical history.
We did not typically bring up the things we did to survive. Parrish had briefly worked as a temp secretary, leaving behind a desk scarred with doodling burn marks and paperclip men that would dance and sing.
As usual when there was a burst of awkwardness, we dealt with it via inappropriate magic. I made a rainbow of latte, an unpleasant fountain of shimmering brown-white, topped with strands of chocolate. Parrish took a short swig from his bottle and daintily blew a smoke ring.
“We need to check on Rasp,” Parrish declared, burping smoke.
He was right. Rasp (born a Roger) hadn’t shown up at Coffee Bean for a week. He had not updated facebook. He had not twittered. He had not responded to a few text messages and even a phone call. That was strangest.
Both Parrish and I had spent a long time in Los Angeles, and knew a lot about drama as well as inevitable acts of self-destruction. Wizardry was of increasingly limited utility in the fields of construction, employment, and finance. But it was still of quick and simple use in the growing field of suicide.
“Your hat looks stupid,” Parrish noted, as we walked towards his car. He dumped the fire-breathing potion on the sidewalk as we went.
I usually wore a baseball cap, although Parrish wore the 1930s-style bowler popular among young and stupid professional wizards. The wizard hat had a torturous history. In the middle ages, it was a potent symbol of mystical power. Then it became a badge of professional status, similar to English barrister wigs. Then Freud came along, and everyone seemed to instantly realize that it covered up the baldness that was an inevitable result of constant and sustained magic use, owing to the stress placed on the endocrine system. Still, wizards tended to wear hats.
“I like the Dodgers.”
“You look like a cancer patient who likes the Dodgers. Either get a tan, or lose the hat,” Parrish instructed. Most wizards, me included, shaved their heads. Parrish still had a fringe of dark hair around his ears, like a fallen halo. With his hat perched on his head there was still a landing strip of tan skin between hair and bowler.
Parrish’s car was a brand-new BMW 335i he had bought right out of USC, when he had the job doing blood-binding contracts for a real estate firm at six-figures. The outside practically glowed with hexes, charms, snares, and other assorted nastiness. The interior was cloaked with dust removal, air filter, sound reduction, and other complicated, single-purpose spells.
Rasp only lived ten blocks away. We drove because Parrish loved his car and because it was hot as shit out.
Rasp’s car was in the driveway. His girlfriend’s was not there, which wasn’t surprising, as she still had her job at the VA doing memory-removal. Health care and support services had not gone under in the recession, which meant that traditional witch-work in remedies and thauma-psychology was doing just fine.
We knocked, and, after that didn’t work, stood around like idiots in the heat of the sun. I took the initiative.
“Rasp! If you don’t open the door we’re going to--“ threatening to blow it up would ring hollow -- “call the cops! Get out here!”
Parrish examined the lock. We both knew unlocker charms, which were typically useless, as everyone owned a lead deadbolt. But it would be something we could try. The quiet was way too ominous, and busting in seemed like an inevitable prelude to finding Rasp sprayed across the living room, either gooey or blackened.
“Sniff the door crack,” Parrish suggested.
“If he killed himself, it’ll reek like a bucket of dead dog in there. Just sniff at the door. See if you can pick up any, you know, corpse.”
I was sniffing cautiously at a thin line of door, nostrils flaring, when Rasp swung open the door.
He was alive, but it still stank. Not of the effluvia of difficult, time-consuming magic, which was a kind of gas-swamp with hints of expensive perfume. This was straightforward human stink with an undercurrent of ramen cup colonies and dead pizza boxes. Eye-watering odors floated out the door to make the world worse.
Rasp had dull red eyes and a half-growth of beard. His forehead was etched with line after line of worry, and sweat beaded in the folds of concern. He wore a bathrobe, and, perhaps, underwear. He didn’t even have a hat on, and the worry-folds extended way too far up the line of his scalp.
“Guys, you need to fuck off,” he said, urgently, but pleasantly enough. It was almost a polite request except for the F-bomb.
Parrish decided to shoulder his way in. He had a heads-worth of height on Rasp, and simply pushed his ex-classmate aside. The bathrobe shifted apart, revealing some sort of underwear, albeit crusty and stiff.
“Guys, you need to get out of here or I will fucking fireball you,” Rasp continued, but he let us in. It was an empty threat. Fireballs took a lot of windup unless you had one stored up in a staff with a cobalt knob. Besides, Rasp had none of the telltale signs of hormone drain that accompanied serious and constant magic use. His beard was still growing in, he didn’t have the humiliating squeaky voice, the faded, shrunken posture of exhaustion.
“What the hell happened to you?” Parrish said, examining the couch. Times past, we had all camped there, practicing telepathy on each other, making sure to imagine disgusting internet images of anal violation as we snuck peeks at each other’s consciousness. Now it was lego’d with half-empty bags of, puzzlingly, cat food. “Smells horrible in here. Smells like shit. You smell bad too. And why is there cat food here?”
Rasp kept the front door open, and stood by it. He geared up for an obvious lie. “I had a breakdown,” he told us. “It’s been three-quarters of a year on the street. I’ve given in, now I’m living on my parent’s allowance and masturbating onto the ceiling fan.”
Parrish and I kept from looking at the fan overhead, because that part rang true. Magic use left the male libido a remnant. That meant that we students worked extra hard to prove we could still get it up and get going, scared sexed by the trembling eunuchs that taught us.
I bit my lip and raised an eyebrow.
“Also, I’m drinking a lot,” Rasp added. He pointed significantly towards the table, where stood a single bottle of Coors Light.
“And your girlfriend left you,” Parrish said. He had cleaned out a patch of relatively clean couch, and put his feet up on the coffee table.
“Well, yeah, obviously,” Rasp said. He hadn’t moved from near the front door.
I risked a spell. A mind-reader spell only required two minor arm movements, a half-hidden double-helix movement by both index fingers, and a word of ancient mystical power spoken under the breath. My consciousness rose and expanded, flew over the room towards Rasp, and was greeted by a still image from a beloved internet hit starring two girls and a single cup.
“You like that?” Rasp said, switching over to carefully visualized horse porn. “I went to some Russian video sites awhile ago. I can keep this up all day.”
“We were worrying about you,” I explained, extricating my mind from Rasp’s disgusting thoughts. “We figured that if you had killed yourself, we should stop by and, I don’t know, put silver pennies on your eyes or something for public health reasons.” Wizards rarely came back as zombies, but it did happen.
Parrish hadn’t said anything. But he looked intent, interested, and his eyes fixed on the bathroom door. He turned to Rasp.
“Mind if I use your bathroom?” he asked, innocently.
That was when Rasp attacked.
A black-forked wave of lightning arched out of our former friend’s fingertips, blackening his nails and sucking nearby light inside. This was serious paralyzation magic, usually only used by police wizards, and only then after a showing of probable cause. We had practiced it on sheep, and careless use tended to stop bleating hearts.
Parrish, happily, was ready for it. He tossed countermagic in Rasp’s direction, manifesting butterflies, all zapped moments later by hungry forks of magic. That gave me time to reach out and touch Rasp on a dirty elbow. Major nerve groups froze with a whisper of incomprehensible foreign intonations. He pissed himself, which meant that the magic had worked.
This took a few moments. Then Rasp fell backwards, bonking his head on the doorknob, nearly cracking his neck, and dislodging a spray of dust from the carpet.
“Okay, lets go,” Parrish announced, springing up. “We should get the hell out of here.”
“What about the bathroom?”
“I don’t want to know what’s in the bathroom. I’m perfectly happy knowing that Rasp is not dead, which was our initial objective. If we know, then it’s our responsibility. I heard scratching. I’ll give your imagination some time to work on that. Go ahead.”
“Could be his girlfriend,” I ventured.
“Exactly!” Parrish said. “Lets get the fuck out!”
I had to know. The stink-scent grew stronger as I approached the bathroom door. Rasp’s eyes followed me. There were smears of cat food on the bottom of the door. I wasn’t a detective, but that seemed to indicate that he was shoving the stuff under the crack and keeping the door closed. Which meant, obviously, that he was pissing in the sink and crapping in some corner. This was getting squalid.
“I legally disassociate myself from your future actions,” Parrish told me. “Come on, man. Tentacles. Horrible beaked shit. You know what’s going to be in there. Demons and monsters. We saw a filmstrip about this.”
I opened the door anyway.
Instead, on the horrible tile floor, a small creature stared up at me with bulbous, popping eyes, capped with enormous pupils the size of a lollipop. It had yellow fur, and a terrier-shaped body, along with a curious smile like a very smug dachshund. Along the back it had two brown stripes, then a zig-zag tail.
“Oh, shit,” I said. “This is a cybermon.”
The little abomination looked up at us. Its bottom half was smeared with own feces. “Daddy?” it said.
I slammed the door back shut.
The fight had gone out of Rasp, now that his choices were limited to either exposure as a black market wizard or killing us.
“I made them for rich parents,” he explained, propped on the couch, rubbing at stiff muscles. Parrish stood away from both of us. His determination not to get involved was stiff and sterling. “Kids love them. You know. They’re set to… naturally expire… after like six months or so. Mostly they just toddle around and shout trademarked words.”
Creation of intelligent beings was really, really illegal, worse then raising the dead, worse then boring old lightning strikes on old middle school rivals. Intelligent stuff learned. Werewolves still bothered huge portions of Canada. The Sahara was one large dragon pen. Maybe, maybe, you could get away with a little warbling bird to impress your non-magic girlfriend with Backstreet Boys tunes, and you better ace that feathered fucker moments later.
“What was the money like?” Parrish asked, his curiosity finally piqued.
“Not even that good,” Rasp said. “They didn’t know it was illegal as shit, they thought they were getting like a robot thing. And I couldn’t tell them!”
“This one said ‘Daddy’,” I said. Living beings were bad. “So it’s intelligent…?”
“It ONLY says Daddy,” Rasp insisted. “I think it’s a fluke. I don’t think it’s smart.”
There was a polite rap on the bathroom door, and a questioning “Daddy?”
“Okay, but is it getting… smarter?” I asked.
Rasp didn’t respond, at first. Then he nodded. “It’s…. toilet-trained itself,” he admitted. “I can hear him flush.”
“Does it -- he -- wash his hands? Or shower? Or anything else?”
Rasp’s nails were an ugly pink where the nubbin had been ground to nothing. “I can hear water running sometimes,” he whispered.
“I’m leaving,” Parrish announced, again. “I wasn’t even here. Who are you people? What crazy language are you speaking? Some sort of dialect of fucking idiots.”
He followed through. Out of respect, or something, he pulled of his bowler, revealed a dark tan scalp, pale where the sun never hit. He stepped daintily through mounds of shit, and moved around a pale pool of urine from Rasp’s involuntary evacuation. At the doorway he paused.
“David, you should come,” he said. A major measure of how rattled he was -- we were back to given names.
“I’m not done here yet.”
“No, I think you are but are not aware of that fact. We walk out this door, and we never return, and all our problems are solved.”
It was a tempting offer.
“Parrish, go wait in the car, I’ll be right there.” I said.
Parrish nodded. He put his bowler hat back on and walked out. I waited. A moment later his car started, then trundled over a curb as he drove off down the street. Someone beeped at him for some traffic violation. I didn’t blame him. I wondered where he was going. According to my watch, I had exactly ten minutes to make my next tutoring appointment, and I was going to miss it, as my ride had gone away.
I went into the bathroom. The little monster was huddled along a wall, sensing threat. How smart was it? Dog-smart? Chimpanzee-smart? Baby-smart, the kind of smart that gets smarter?
I picked out little things. A pile of food in the corner. A half-used roll of toilet paper, neatly ripped at the perforations. There were smears of crap on the top of the hand soap bottle. The towel had seen recent use as a blanket, and was wrapped in a cozy twirl on the far end of the bathtub.
My legs trembled.
The monster walked towards me, on two legs, smiling, the bug-eyes pleading with me. Its lips pursed, and I could tell, with absolute certainty, that it was going to say something like “Mommy.”
I shot a fireball through its head, and flipped on the overhead air fan to deal with the smoke.