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STEVEN R. BOYETT sold his first novel at 21 and went on to publish novels, short stories, feature screenplays, and comic books. In 1999 he took some time off from writing, and during this period he learned to play the didgeridoo, a unique Australian wind instrument. This led him to learn about digital recording, which led to composing electronica, which led to DJing. He produces three of the world's most popular music podcasts: the groundbreaking Podrunner and Podrunner: Intervals (workout music mixes), and Groovelectric (dance music mixes of what he calls New Old Funk).
Steve has played clubs in Hollywood, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Reno, as well as Burning Man. He has been a martial arts instructor, professional paper marbler, advertising copywriter, legal proofreader, writing teacher, website editor, chapbook publisher, and composer. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two frighteningly intelligent parrots.
The last thing in this world I wanted to see was another damned unicorn. They were the big deal for schoolgirls in Del Mar this year. Gaggles of them came into Paypay's shop wanting their vewwy own unicorn that would wait for them outside Mrs. Cowardan's school with tail swishing to walk them home. Some women wanted one in the living room like some sort of knick knack. They could have one too, for a half a pound of coffee, a couple ounces of chocolate, a jar of decent homebrew, or whatever else Paypay was trading for this week.
It seemed pretty hollow to me. Maybe unicorns had been common as cockroaches back in the days just after the Change, but clearly they'd long since left for greener and more hospitable pastures. If we were what they had to rub elbows with, who could blame them.
Older ladies always moaned about this while I made the charm in Paypay's shop. Poor widdle unicorns, them all go byebye, how sad, could you make it shinier, please? I smiled and nodded. They were customers.
Today it was Mrs. Gloster who wanted her unicorn shinier. "I just like having them around the place," she said. "They make things feel so warm and friendly." She smiled at me. "Inviting."
Mrs. Gloster was a regular, went through about a unicorn a week—pretty good deal for Paypay, considering their trade value and the fact that they only last a couple of days. I smiled and nodded and uncapped the potion thermos. I'd taken to mixing up the unicorn potions in big batches first thing in the morning and pouring doses into thermoses. It saved a lot of time. Paypay was oldschool and hadn't thought of this. He did castings without wondering how they worked or why, or figuring out ways to make the whole messy process more efficient. I wish I'd thought of the thermos trick last year when everyone had wanted lawn gorgons. I wondered if Mrs. Gloster would be as happy to trade dear for her shiny unicorns if she knew I brewed them from readymix.
"My guests just love them," Mrs. Gloster was singing on. "Your work is so accomplished, Fred."
"Well, I'm glad you like them." I lit the campstove. Propane was one of the items we traded for. More Paypay logic: trade castings for items you use to make castings that you trade for. How do you get ahead that way?
I held up a finger for her to be quiet and turned to recite the charm. Paypay liked castings to be dramatic and in full view of the customer. "Customer think magic belong on stage, you know? In movie. Make exciting. Make big."
Whatever; I'd never seen a movie. And it was hard to act excited when I'd recited the unicorn charm so many times that I once woke myself up saying it in my sleep. But Paypay was my boss, so when he was around I did the whole bit, raised arms and flourishes and dramatic voice.
But he wasn't around now. I cracked my knuckles and made the passes over the cauldron—really just a saucepan on a rusty old campstove—and recited the charm. Just because I said it ten times a day didn't mean that I couldn't still mess up, and when castings go wrong they tend to go memorably wrong. My first unicorn charms had been these horrible lopsided skinless popeyed mutant horselike things that had gimped around the back of the shop braying and falling down a lot for two days before fading out. Well if casting were easy everybody'd do it.
The door jangled as another customer came in while I was reciting the charm. I'd asked Paypay could he please lose that damned bell—it could throw you off at a crucial moment, and it seemed to jangle only at crucial moments. Paypay'd just shrugged and said, "You get used. Concentrate is good."
The eidolon unicorn was taking shape in front of me. Mrs. Gloster liked her unicorns small and shiny, goldenhorned and glossy—more like ceramic ornaments. I'd learned to leave some things out so she could make helpful suggestions and feel she'd contributed a creative hand. Everyone's an artist if they only had the time. Well what was the harm.
This week's unicorn was "a cute little one for the upstairs." I made it doe-sized and made the head too big for the body and the eyes too big for the head and gave it thick black lashes. Mrs. Gloster asked could I make it shinier. I added faint blue to the coat to give it more glow indoors and made the tail fluffier and backed off on the eyes and lashes. You've got to have some standards.
The charm was finished and the unicorn likeness was starting to look solid. Its tail swished and it stared up at me reproachfully. I frowned at it and turned away. "There you go, Mrs.—"
Two girls were watching me. For ten seconds all I could do was stare. The fact that they were strangers was worth a few seconds by itself. You don't see a whole lot of new faces in this big old empty world. They were gutpunch gorgeous and seemed quite tall until I realized they were wearing blades. I'd been so involved in the charm I hadn't heard them come in.
"Right with you." I tried to sound professional but my voice broke.
"Freddie does such nice work," Mrs. Gloster told the girls. "I hope Mr. Papadopoulos appreciates him."
It makes you feel funny when someone with bad taste likes what you create. And calls you Freddie in the process. But she meant well. I shrugged and smiled lamely and opened the countertop for the unicorn. It could have walked right through it but it wasn't good business to spoil the illusion before the customer was even out the door.
Mrs. Gloster beckoned to it with a ring-barnacled hand and said, "Come here, baby. I can't wait to put you in the solarium."
The unicorn looked at me. I really should have backed off more on those eyes. I spread my hands and shrugged at it. It wasn't alive or even real but I still felt sorry for it.
I added the unicorn charm to Mrs. Gloster's tab. She had some arrangement with Paypay that I wasn't privy to. But she did tip me a hunk of foilwrapped chocolate. Where do people get this stuff.
"Thanks, Mrs. Gloster."
"Thank you, Fred." She hesitated at the door and eyed the two girls up and down, her customary obtuse expression replaced by one of pure appraisal. She looked like a swap meet trader considering a haggle. She seemed about to ask them something but then the look vanished and she smiled at them vacantly and held the door open for her new charm, which looked back at me again before leaving the shop and going on to meet its horrible domestic fate.
The bells jangled and the Gutpunch Girls looked at me like I'd pissed on their lunch.
"That," said the redhead, "is so sad."
"It's what she paid for," I said even though I'd been thinking the same thing.
"How could you let her leave with that creature," said the blonde.
"It's not real," I said—then realized the creature she meant was Mrs. Gloster. "It's just a charm. It'll only last a few days."
"Poor thing." The blonde shook her head at the door.
"Well maybe I can brew up something you won't find so—"
"Cheesy?" said the redhead.
"I was going to say obvious."
"Actually," said the blonde, "we wanted to know if we could put a flyer in your window." She gave me one. It had a crude line drawing of a man and a woman facing each other with hands joined and a radiating ball floating between them. Despite the bad art it was nicely printed.
safe circle presentz
del mar racetrack
dusk to dawn
I looked up from the flyer. "I don't think my boss will let this stay up till June. But leave one with me and I'll put it up on the community board at the racetrack. No one's seen a printed notice on that board in like thirty years; it'll get looked at. Where'd you get it done?"
"There's a woman living at this old bookstore in Carlsbad," the redhead said. "On Woodley."
"Bizarre," said the blonde. "Wacko strange-o."
"I think she's just a witch," the redhead said. "Anyway she has this oldtime press with a big—" She mimed turning a big screw. "She said it was in the store when she squatted it. Like a decoration. She taught herself how to use it."
"Wow. Good for her." I indicated the flyer. "It sounds like fun. Are you guys gonna be at the, um…; Shelter?"
"Vibe. It's a vibe." The redhead's smile was somewhere between appreciation and Nice Try. "And I will most definitely be there."
"I'll look for you. I haven't been to a vibe in a long time."
"It'll be epic."
"We should get going," the blonde said.
The redhead took a flyer from her and gave it to me and said "Thanks a lot."
"Glad to help. I'm Fred."
She smiled. "Freddie does such nice work."
I laughed. "Ouch."
This time the smile was real. "See you next summer."
I started to say Count on it but decided it would be just the other side of pathetic, a border I had probably breezed across as it was, so I just said See you. Which would turn out to be more true than I could have expected or wanted.
They went out into the warm October day and the bells were still jangling as I heard them start to laugh. "I haven't been to a vibe in a long time!" I heard the blonde say as the door shut slowly. "What, when you were twelve." Parts of Paypay's lunch still clung to his patchy gray beard. He put on his apron and wiped his hands on it. His nostrils widened and he sniffed and looked around. "You make unicorn?"
"Can we work on binding spells today. We were supposed to a couple weeks ago but—"
"Is late today. Learn tomorrow."
"It's just after lunch."
I took a deep breath and tried to let it go. I was turning into more of a store clerk than an apprentice. My education seemed to have slowed down a lot lately. I tried to be patient but there was more to casting than I could learn in ten lifetimes. How Paypay had done it, sloppy and slipshod as he was, without turning himself inside out, or embedding himself half in rock, or sending himself some horrible where, or leaving a big hole in the ground where he used to be, or any of ten thousand other things that can go mortally wrong when you start speaking dead languages inside a pentagram, was a total mystery to me.
My father told me that after the Change suddenly everyone and his brother was a caster. Talismans, charms, Summonings, you name it. Even he had tried it, though he wouldn't say much about it. People quickly figured out you could get killed playing with this stuff and I guess that took all the fun out of it. The guys who kept at it got really good. You know they were good because they were still around to do it. And let's face it, you've got to be pretty decent to be even a shitty caster.
Paypay was the only full-on caster in Del Mar unless you count the coven down at the old youth hostel. He was well regarded and a local fixture and he didn't seem to need much but he seemed to just get by. People used his services but I think they found it hard to take him seriously. Casters are supposed to be haughty otherworldly guys who inspire fear because they can kill you with a word, not shuffling overweight guys with tobacco-stained fingers and food in their beards.
But then he'd unpack his kit and get down to it and suddenly he was focused and economical and meticulous, even graceful. He knew his shit even though he wasn't always able to say what it was he knew. Before I could learn casting from Paypay I'd had to learn how to learn from Paypay. It was a separate education.
The bells jangled intermittently through the rest of the afternoon. Mrs. Abney wanted a vase uncracked, which epic casting was of course handed to yours truly. There was no shortage of dusty vases lying around for the taking but apparently this thing was some fabulous family heirloom, blahdee blah, could you just uncrack it and stop making helpful suggestions that will send business away from the shop, Fred. Mr. Akbash wanted his dog's leg fixed. I taped it and sent him off to Dr. Ramchandani down the highway.
Then school let out and we got one more unicorn charm (no thermos; Paypay watched me like a hawk); a request from Joey Binauer for something to keep him awake for three days to study for a test, which was a bad bargain for Joey because he couldn't pass so much as a meal if he worked on it for three months; a glamour from Lucinda Welter, who had a crush on Dylan Rondomaki (I warned her that glamours aren't target-specific and everyone would pay attention to her, which for Lucinda would be like putting a hex on herself, she was so painfully shy). You learned more about your town than was good for you in this job.
The day slogged on. I said no more to Paypay about binding spells.
Just before dark I hung my apron on a nail in the doorframe leading to the back room and stuck my head in Paypay's office to tell him I was heading home. He wore his reading glasses as he leafed through an old book by the light of a lone candle. He grunted in my direction and turned a page.
I watched him a moment and wondered if he'd put my education on the back burner because I wasn't measuring up, or if I had done something wrong.
I left without asking him. He'd tell me or he wouldn't. Nothing was going to rush him.
Halfway out the door I remembered the flyer and went back in and grabbed it from behind the counter. shelter. solstice. On the way to Yan's I realized that one thing the redhead hadn't left was her name.
Yanamandra Ramchandani's family lived on the third floor of an old apartment building on a hill above a cliff with an incredible ocean view. It had withstood any number of quakes before and after the Change, including the big one nine years ago that had sagged the building south of them and sent the one north of them halfway down the slope. The buildings downslope had burned down years ago. How their own place had avoided going up like a tiki torch is anybody's guess. Wind direction maybe. My father had joked that Dr. Ram had burned them down because they'd obstructed his view. Apparently other people had done this. There wasn't a law against it—there wasn't a law against anything really—but it was generally frowned upon. People who'd done it had been politely asked to move on and then impolitely asked if they refused.
The Ramchandanis' building was only a mile from Paypay's and I bladed there before full dark. The lobby was pitchblack but I knew my way by heart. The stairwell door had been removed long ago.
The Ramchandanis' block of apartments was about the only livable place in the building. Long ago the pipes had burst a few floors up and it was only a matter of time before the rot worked its way down to them. Until then they were quite at home. Dr. and Mrs. Ramchandani's apartment served as a sort of common area for the family. Yan had a small apartment across from theirs and his sister Nan's apartment was down the hall. Between Yan and Nan's was a nursery where Parmita grew shade spices and on the roof a small greenhouse where she grew even more. She used them for cooking and Dr. Ram used them for medicines or trading with the wiccans. What they didn't use they traded at the swap meet. Half of the spices in Mrs. Halobagian's breads came from Mrs. Ramchandani's apartment garden.
I was jealous of the Ramchandanis' setup. My father and I shared a small inland house with a tiny yard that always needed cutting with a huge scythe that I just knew was going to kill me someday. We did have nice fruit trees in back though. Orange and plum and peach. They'd gotten us through our share of lean months.
In the dim hall I knocked on Yan's door. The door across the hall opened and Yan's mom grinned at me. "Fred. We knew it was you. Come in." She opened the door wide.
"Hi, Parmita. How'd you know it was me."
"Because," a voice called out from inside, "no one else has your instinct for other people's dinnertimes."
Parmita led me into the dining room and slapped the back of Yan's head and then mussed his hair.
"Oh, are you eating. I'll come back later."
"When we're having dessert," Yan agreed.
"Which tonight is gulab jamun," said Nan, across from him at the table. "So sit down, Frederick."
Nandita was incredibly beautiful and unfairly intelligent and inhumanly graceful, and she had a voice like an underwater bell. Or what I think an underwater bell would sound like. Or should. Or—look, I didn't think too straight around her, which I guess is pretty clear. Her eyes in the diningroom candlelight didn't help. She always called me Frederick, pronouncing all three syllables, even though I was just plain Fred. Yan still sometimes called me Freddum long after everyone else realized I had outgrown it.
Dr. Ramchandani handed me a plate of garlic naan as I sat down beside Nandita. "I really don't come over to mooch," I told him as I took two pieces and passed the plate to Nan who set it down without taking anything.
"Of course not," said Dr. Ram. "You come over after Mr. Papadopoulos closes for the day. Which he does every day at dinnertime. Eat."
"How'd it go today, Fred," Yan asked. "Did you erect any floating castles, summon any demons, curse any evildoers."
"Two unicorns, one healed vase, one study charm, one glamour that I talked the customer out of, and a dog."
"You made a dog?" Parmita looked impressed.
"Not even a fake one. He had a hurt leg. We sent him to you, Dr. Ram."
"Oh yes, Mr. Akbash's dog. Infected cuts. They really should not let that dog out at night. Next time he may not be so fortunate." He wrote a note in a pad he always kept in his shirt pocket. He was the only man I ever saw who wore buttonup shirts, with a collar and everything. Any time of year however hot. The Ramchandanis kept their place open and nicely aired and they burned nag champa incense, a smell I would always associate with them and with Yan. There weren't a lot of windows but there was a sliding glass door opening onto a tiny balcony with a glorious ocean view. Still the room had a boxy stuffiness that made it feel small. In the old days people must have believed outside air was bad for you. Or maybe before the Change it had been.
Dr. Ram returned the notepad to his pocket. "I keep forgetting to bring up the raccoon foragings at the town meeting."
Yan raised his eyebrows. "There are raccoons foraging at the town meetings?"
"Yan," Parmita said.
But Dr. Ram replied as if Yan had spoken seriously. "The raccoons are becoming very bold. I am concerned about rabies."
"I'd think the hyenas and wildcats would take care of the raccoons," I said.
No one said anything, no one registered anything, but I swear even the candlelight changed. I stared at my garlic naan and felt like a fool.
Nan handed me a plate of peas in some kind of rich yellow curry sauce. "It's very good tonight," she said.
My face felt very hot. "It's good every night."
"Especially tonight." Her slight knowing smile meant just for me.
I gave my plate my full attention.
"Well I did not heal so much as a vase today," said Dr. Ram. "Though I gave two excellent haircuts." He shook his head and gave his own small private smile. "What was interesting at Mrs. Cowardan's today, Nan."
"We learned about the Internet. I think half the students didn't believe any of it."
"Which half are you in," Yan asked.
"I take her word for it but I don't quite understand it. So I want to say I'm in the believer half but I'm not comfortable believing in something I don't understand."
"She is your daughter all right," Parmita said.
Dr. Ram crossed his knife and fork over his plate. "Mrs. Cowardan is an excellent teacher but I do not understand why she dwells on these irrelevancies. Perhaps I should talk with her."
"It's history," Yan said with a confidence I envied. "You're all always going on about us having no history. Now you don't want us to learn it?"
"There is history and there is nostalgia. I see no use in teaching nostalgia."
Yan waved his knife at the apartment, somehow indicating as well the great decaying expanse beyond. "We live in what's left of a world that's only twenty seven years away and most of us have no idea what most of it was for. Do you, Fred."
"I see it so much that I don't really see it." This argument between Yan and his father was worn pretty thin and I didn't want to weigh in. Dr. Ram was one of the few older people who thought the Change had been a good thing for the human race in the long run. Yan was one of the few people my age who was obsessed by that lost world and its accomplishments. I fell somewhere between them: impressive accomplishments that had little to do with me or the world I lived in.
"We could learn a lot from then that would make our lives better," Yan said.
"Digging around in graveyards will not teach you how to live."
"It was Lucinda Welter who wanted the glamour," said Nan. "Wasn't it."
"It wouldn't be right for me to say."
"Lucinda Welter. She has a crush on Dylan Rondomaki."
"You can do that, Fred?" Parmita asked.
"Sure. Glamour charms are easy. But you can't aim them at a specific person. I put a glamour on Lu—on a customer, and everyone will want to hang out with her. Or, um, him." I colored and everyone laughed and I breathed a private sigh of relief.
"Yan, man, I am so sorry."
In the hallway outside his apartment he made the passes that unlocked his door and I nodded approval at his improvement. He'd spent a few nights on his parents' couch because he couldn't remember how to unlock his door. "Sorry about what?"
"About mentioning…; you know. How dangerous it can be at night. I wasn't thinking."
"Oh, the hyenas." He shrugged as the door opened. "No one thinks you meant anything, I'm sure."
"You don't have to mean it to step into a big pile."
He looked at me. "It's been three years."
"He was your brother."
He shrugged. "Sudama was mean to me. Come on, we have stuff to do."
The first thing you saw when you walked into Yan's apartment was a tacked-up poster of a sneaker print in gray dirt. Yan claimed it was a picture of a bootprint on the moon. And maybe it was, but pre-Changers were always whining so much about it—We went to the moon and now look at us!—that it was hard to be impressed.
Yan slept in the small living room. The bedroom was a workroom full of things I couldn't quite imagine working. Models of wasplike metal airplanes that made war on people and cities and other planes. Containers the size of gumsticks that had supposedly held libraries of books and weeks of music. Cellphones with tiny gray glass squares that had contained moving pictures. Shiny rainbow mobiles of compact discs. A picture of a treelike cloud above a desert that Yan claimed was an entire city or something blowing up. A structure the size of a building erupting in flame at the bottom. Square machines on steel wheels scraping at red dirt. Enormous ships that held more warplanes. Tiny cylinders that had shone light bright enough to see for miles that supposedly could cut through metal. And even more stuff whose purpose was unimaginable to me. Pre-Changers had liked things really big and really small.
Yan's workroom stank of potions gone wrong. The carpet had got so freckled with burn marks and spill stains that Yan and I tore it out and refinished the wood beneath, good oak that by now had acquired its own share of burnmarks, stains, and pentagram traces. The desk and bookcase were piled with catalogs from department stores and electronics sellers.
Yan lit a lamp off an incense stick he'd brought from his parents' and yellow light reflected from dozens of shapes scattered around the room like eyes in a storybook forest. Yan turned the lamp up and the room glittered with familiar shapes made strange by being mirrored. Baby dolls, Barbie dolls, buttons, boxes, frogs, all reflecting themselves and us in recursive distortions that made you feel funny if you stared at them long enough.
The frogs creeped me out the most. Goggle-eyed and veiny, perfect down to the smallest wart. Their eyes reflected everything and held nothing. And they would do so forever. Yan called them sacrifices in the name of the New Science. I was so uncomfortable with the idea that I had threatened to walk out on our research if we used any more live subjects, and Yan had finally relented.
Yan opened the windows and the ocean got louder and cool salt air blew in. We sat on swiveling office chairs near the window. Silvered frogs of several sizes glinted moonlight on the sill. I picked one up. It was the size of my fist. African toads, my father had said; they'd been dying out before the Change. Maybe so but they'd recovered to a fault. Nighttime was deafening because of the big ugly bastards. Them and everything else that hooted, howled, croaked, chirped, barked, roared, bugled, or screamed.
My head reflected flat across the big frog's wide mouth, tiny in its bulging eyes. "Poor Froggum," I told it. "All alone in the dark."
"Fred," Yan said, "it isn't in the dark."
"Light won't get in there. That means it's dark."
"Time won't get in there either. So even if frogs could have a clue, that one never will. If we figure out how to cancel the stasis tomorrow or when we're eighty seven, no time at all will have gone by for him."
"If it's tomorrow at least his friends will still be the same age."
"Fred. It's a frog."
"What about gravity. What if he's all weightless in there."
He shook his head and smiled indulgently. "Same thing. There's no time, so if he's weightless it'll never affect him. He won't experience anything because he's cut off from any kind of experience we can measure."
"How about ones we can't."
The smile became a smirk. "You don't know it Freddum but that question was quite a big deal in the old physics. They could only observe by interfering, which wasn't really observing at all. It made them nuts."
"From what your dad says they interfered with everything and they already were nuts. I don't know why you're so in love with them."
"They figured out a lot more about their world than we've bothered to learn about ours."
"They had a lot more time than we have."
"True. But that's why we're doing all this, isn't it. To figure out how it all works now. To be the New Scientists."
I nodded. Magic wasn't science yet. That was why it was so hard to learn, why spells were so hard to duplicate, why so many people made so many tragic and comical mistakes. Casting in the dark. No one was making any kind of organized investigation of it. How it worked. Why it worked. Most casters just learned by rote and taught the same way. They didn't question, didn't innovate, didn't like to share their secrets or the ways they'd learned them. The only reason Paypay'd taken me on at all was because Casey Yu, his first apprentice, had run off to Los Angeles with the Harpers' oldest girl, Aymee.
Yan had set us on the path to understanding the how and why of casting. He wanted to apply those newfound principles and sell tons of products and live like a king. Or like kings were supposed to have lived. If we did I was all for it, but if we didn't I was fine with just knowing.
Stasis spells were our first big project. Our goal was simple: figure out how to open one. Once we did we'd get all kinds of attention and make a name for ourselves and acquire fundamental knowledge no one else had. Our ingenious scheme had only one major obstacle: since the beginning of time no one had ever undone a stasis spell.
Things in stasis are mirrored because they reflect absolutely everything. Light, sound, heat, gravity, time, inertia, magic—nothing can get through. The object is cut off from the universe. So any casting meant to undo a stasis spell just comes whizzing back at you or goes into the neighbor's roses or heads for Jupiter or into the nearest coyote.
Yan was certain we would figure out a way around this. He believed the solution would prove as simple as the stasis spell itself. So far his certainty was all we had to go on. The whole point of putting a stasis spell on something was to make sure that nothing, no force in the universe, including your own magic, could get to it from then on. The casting itself was simple but rarely performed because it was unchangeable and irreversible and fundamentally useless except maybe as a very labor-intensive weapon. Casters weren't organized but they did have some consensual taboos. Don't mess with the power found in death and dying. Don't summon anything you can't banish. Don't screw around with stasis spells.
We thought undoing a stasis was a worthy project. Which was why Yan's workroom was littered with spotless mirrored Barbie dolls and toy soldiers and pencils and coffee cups and infinitely patient African frogs all reflecting each other in infinite reduction.
Yan had libbed a portable wipeboard from some real estate office and set it up opposite the big french windows in his workroom. He used it to work out castings, a trick he'd learned from the science books he devoured. For a couple of hours we wrote stasis-spell variations on the board and took them apart and put them back together. Like unicorn charms by now I could write stasis spells in my sleep.
We broke once for coffee and went at it a while longer, until moonset made me realize how late it had gotten and I told Yan I had to go. My father was going to be so pissed.
I picked up Froggum again and tapped his head. "I'm afraid you're gonna be a reflecty frog a while longer, bud."
"We'll break it," Yan said.
I held the frog away from him. "You wouldn't dare."
"The spell, Fred. We'll break the spell."
Yan walked me downstairs and through the nightblacked lobby. The marine layer had moved onshore and the night was chill. We listened to the great frog congregation around us. "You can stay," Yan said.
"I've gone home this late plenty of times. I'm more worried about my father than anything else."
He started to say something but seemed to change his mind. I didn't press. My father was something of an issue for just about everybody.
We kissed goodnight and I started away and then felt something in my hoodie pouch. "Forgot to give this to you," I called to Yan and underhanded it to him.
He caught it and frowned and turned the foil wrapper in his hand and suddenly grinned.
"Save a bite for Nan," I said and went my homeward way.
The frogs were holding a vibe of their own in the hills. I was cold but didn't put my hood up because I wanted to listen unobstructed. The marine layer now was thick and general and the cold night grayed and damp. Everything changes when the sun goes down and the air grows thick and moves like specters round you turning all the decomposing cars to crouching waiting shapes containing who knew what within the subtle eddies. It didn't help that some of them could be crouching shapes waiting. The tricks imagination plays are nothing compared to those the world performs.
The booming surf receded as I walked uphill from Yan's and crossed the old Pacific Coast Highway with rollerblades across one shoulder banging time with my walk. I knew that road like it had been tattooed on my eyes but there was no way I was blading home in this soup.
Farther on I decided to bypass the Interstate 5 onramp and get onto the freeway by walking up the embankment. My shins got soaked from trampling the waist-high grass. The nightsounds faded as the fog grew thicker until all I heard was the strange ringing night mist seems to bring with it, a distant tinkling not quite heard but somehow sensed.
I stepped over the concrete retainer wall and onto the freeway.
Home was only a mile inland but distances get longer in the dark. Large shapes thickened from the mist as I advanced. Cars and trucks and SUVs. I could always sleep in one if I really felt caught out. My father would be worried though. Or angry. They showed up about the same in him.
Not that he didn't have good reason to be either. Wayward Son had stayed out far later than was sensible and was moving between the ordered cars stopped inexplicably and forever in their crumbling treegrown lanes, hoping nothing would rob him or eat him or take his parts home to the family. Right now Wayward Son was cold and trying to breathe quietly and tell himself that what he heard behind him and to the right wasn't footsteps.
Wayward Son's unwayward father lived by his sword, ate by his sword, slept by his sword, and would probably die by it. It was a pre-Changer thing. Wayward Son himself felt there was a better way to go through the world than by wearing your fear in a scabbard for all the diminished world to see, so Wayward Son didn't carry weapons. He spent his days making unicorn charms and healing vases. Maybe if a hyena attacked him he could send it to Dr. Ramchandani.
At the foggy moment Wayward Son was coming up on a van with peeling vinyl decals. Like nearly every other car in the world it was covered in birdshit and its tires were dryrotted and its windows and lights were busted out. For all that Wayward Son knew he himself had busted them out years ago. Like nearly every other boy in the world. Wayward Son walked casually till he passed the van then stepped in front of it and squatted. His ears would have gone flat to his head if they'd been able to.
Crouched before the cockeyed van I listened for footsteps, breathing, growls, skate wheels, hooves, claws, whatever. After a few minutes I decided I'd been hearing things or that if I really had heard something it wasn't anything threatening. Cockroaches probably sound loud on foggy nights.
I stood and stepped away from the van and nearly ran into the dark shape of a man who stood there waiting for me. I said gaah and jumped back. He didn't move at all. Moonlight glimmered on curved metal in front of him. There came a small cough I knew quite well and my father resolved from the fog. "Thought it was you," he said, and sheathed his sword.