PodCastle 535: The Threadbare Magician — Part 1

Show Notes

Note that this is one part of a two-part episode. The second part will release on Tuesday, August 21, 2018.

Rated R, for cursing wizards and magical desires.

See below for links to Cat’s projects:

Cat’s Patreon.

The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers live and on-demand classes aimed at fantasy and science fiction writers. Fun fact: co-editors Khaalidah and Jen met at one of Cat’s workshops. They are highly recommended!

Some books and collections for sale: Hearts of TabatNeither Here Nor ThereMoving from Idea to Finished Draft.

The Threadbare Magician

by Cat Rambo

Old fabric holds smells better than the cloth of more recent decades. New stuff is all chemicals. It rubs the roof of your mouth like steel wool if you sniff too hard, bites like a spell’s sting.

Older silks, wools, cottons — the organics — hold household odors. Cedar and cinnamon, turmeric and garlic. Perfumes you can no longer find, like L’Origan or Quelques Fleurs. Camphorated moth balls or talcum powder. Rarely the whiff of a person, a smell lingering long after every other scrap of their DNA has vanished from this earth.

Most often just the lilac assault left by a hasty dry-clean. But the other times make it worth it.

I pulled the green XL circle aside with my thumb and kept going widdershins, into the Ls. So far the Value Village’s rack had yielded only two possibilities: an XXL black with a bamboo-patterned weave, cream-colored dragons curled and coiled amid sun-ridden clouds and an XL crimson rayon whose flame-pattern suited it to throw-away magic. A protective cloak perfect for next week’s trip to Portland.

I fingered through the fabrics, searching for silk among the rayon and cotton. Nope, nope, nope.

A pretty day outside. One of the last days before summer slanted to the other side of the clock and the days began shrinking into the gray days of Seattle fall. A day for turning up the radio and blasting “Dani California” until the sound came up through your bones. A day for wishing you were in love. Or some reasonable facsimile.

My own shirt was printed with umbrellas. Parasols really, pinwheeled against a gray sky and white cumulus clouds. Protection, and even though it was newer and untested, I trusted it to ward off anything. Like wearing magic protective gloves, more supple than lead-lined canvas but surely at least that solid.

Shouldn’t have trusted it.

The spell struck up from a black background, red serpents, scales lined with scallops as blue as the sky outside. Slashing bites along the outside of my left hand, locking on, tails sticking straight out as they attached themselves.

I lurched sideways.

The floor crashed up into my face, thunked against my forehead in painful collision.

Then I was gone.

When I awoke, I was in a car’s back seat alone, my cheek pressed to sticky vinyl upholstery. I could not raise my head, couldn’t move other than a slow blink. I found myself fighting for my breath, had to focus entirely on that activity, as though my life depended on it.

There was a good chance it did.

“Awake,” a voice said from the front seat.

Someone else grunted. They weren’t addressing me, just reporting my state.

Although my body was immobile, my mind raced.

Who could have done this? Who would have grabbed an aging man shopping at the Value Village?

They could only want one thing. What almost every magic attacker wanted: to strip away all the magic I’d accumulated and take it for their own. Lucky me, most of it was stored in my house. Unlucky me. If I’d had some of it with me, if I’d worn a more powerful shirt than this one, I might have been able to fight this off.

I tried to gather what clues I could. The beige vinyl smelled of itself and old tobacco. We were in traffic. Whoever was in front wasn’t talking. The radio was on, but tuned to static, a whisper so faint I had to strain to be sure I was really hearing it.

We were on a busy highway. Perhaps I-5? If so, I’d been unconscious a good quarter of an hour, probably longer.

“Just lie still and be,” the first voice said, presumably to me. “There in a hour. You’re full of poison, man. It’ll kill you soon if you don’t get the cure, so lie back, rest easy.”

“Why the fuck are you explaining anything to him?”

“Make him lie quiet, knowing he gotta.”

An annoyed grunt.

So perhaps I wouldn’t be devoured. But it couldn’t be anything good they were taking me to. Otherwise why bother preparing a trap?

I lay there, working on the parasols, understitching each rib, readying my spell. Whatever had paralyzed me was ebbing slowly. Too slowly.

The rumble underfoot changed quality, became higher-pitched. Time.

I gathered up my legs. Thumb and little finger of my left hand grinding together for leverage, I flipped up the door lock, fumbling with the handle’s release mechanism.

“What’s he . . . ” the first voice said from the front seat. The handle popped over and I flung myself out.

Neon ghosts of parasols surrounded me, slender ribs of flickering magic barely visible, contrails of light and shadow. I used them to bounce myself up from the road. Cars swerved around me, one glancing off the railing in a crescendo of sparks.

Startled faces gaped at me through windshields. One locked eyes for a split second that seemed an age long. A dark-featured, handsome face not staring like the rest but, bizarrely, smiling as his eyes met mine.

Then I sailed over the railing’s metal curve towards the water.

The Aurora Bridge has seen a lot of suicides. There are even placards along its rails, directing the desperate to suicide hotlines and support.

I wasn’t trying to kill myself, though. I was trying to live.

The parasols let me glide down to the water, let it carry me eastward towards the University. Now that I was away from whatever had deadened my abilities in the car, I could move freely. I worked at my bonds, rubbed them away on a concrete outcropping as I clung to it.

I crawled out of the channel under an overpass. A gnarled homeless man had set up camp there, had a tent and an oil drum for his campfire. Two crows waited patiently for leftovers from the pan boiling in a makeshift sling over the drum.

He watched me warily, smoking a handrolled cigarette, as I shook myself free of the water. The startled crows flapped away.

He didn’t speak, but he pointed me towards a trail up through the bank of English ivy to the Montlake station. I took the 545 back to Redmond, digging change out of my pocket and accepting a transfer. The bus driver eyed my dripping clothes unhappily but forbode from saying anything. Other people edged away.

Half the bus was reading their cell phones, and by the faces, it was unhappy news this late afternoon.

I didn’t pay much attention. I swayed my way past the middle of the bus and the swivel benches there, went a few seats back to a deserted seat and took it.

I’d have to catch the bus back in tomorrow to go get my car. As we started over the bridge, I stared out the window at water lilies and assessed my body.

Something was wrong, terribly wrong, I could tell that. A slow-acting magic: I could feel that by the way it had seeped into my bones.

Not painful. So far, at any rate. Poison, they’d said. Not ordinary poison but something magical. Something that acted slow.

Slow, very slow. I had days rather than hours, but how many? Who was the guy they’d meant to take me to?

They’d try for me again, I knew that. They’d known my patterns well enough to plant a spell on an item calculated to lure me.

They might be waiting for me at home.

A crowd jostled onto the bus at Evergreen Station. Someone sat down beside me despite the water dripping from my clothing.

Middle-aged, dark-haired, muscles rippling under a plain black t-shirt, three silver rings in his left ear, was selling something.

His white teeth flashed at me in a smile. Not a false, “I want something from you” smile but a genuine expression, the sort of smile you give someone you love, all the joy at seeing them again, showing in your eyes. It made my heart skip a beat.

He said, “Didn’t you just move into Friendly Village?”

“A few months ago,” I said.

I thought surely he was too young to be living in the same fifty-five-plus mobile home park, but he said, “I’m Al Lorca, from Coho Lane, Unit Forty-Two. How are you liking it so far?”

“Roy Macomber. It’s not what I expected of a trailer park,” I said. I wondered when he was going to acknowledge that I was sitting there dripping wet. The puddle I was sitting in was seeping into his jeans but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Mobile homes,” he said, and we both laughed, because that was one of the characteristics of the denizens of Friendly Village, that they eschewed the words “trailer park” at all costs.

“You’re in that white Merlotte across from the unit with all the gnomes and flamingos? Nice trailer.”

“The Cadillac of mobile homes,” I said.

“I’ve been in there, visiting Ed. He put some time in it.”

“Pergo, central air, and a tankless water heater. Lots of nice little amenities. I was lucky.”

He nodded. A little smile hovered off and on his lips.

It made me uneasy. Pretty lure. Pretty, pretty lure, but surely he’s part of this.

I pulled the cord for the next stop. Lorca looked surprised as I stood up. “Not headed home?”

“Got to visit a friend.”

I felt him watching me as I got off.

I went to Kirkland to see Jason, though it was against my better judgment.

Still, what better to heal you than a magical spring, like the one he was the hereditary guardian of?

I could surreptitiously test the water against this poison. Who was to say it’d work?

I felt defensive about seeing him. I always did. He had a way of seeing through me, of rolling his eyes, that made me impatient and balky as a mule about asking for help. I’d rather beat my head against a wall trying to solve it, and the bloodier it was, the harder it became to make the request.

Where I can be downright bitchy, Jason was one of those golden folk who are always in a good mood, for whom the half-full glass is near spilling over. Beautiful and holding an advanced degree in anthropology from Princeton, which he’d somehow parlayed into a job as a buyer for a very small, extremely select, and obscenely lucrative gallery.

How did we meet? I’d like to say it was something significant, but it was a missed-connection ad on Craigslist that he’d placed. I mistakenly answered, thinking he’d been talking to me. I found out three months into the relationship, or rather I guessed that, and his silence confirmed it.

I don’t know how long he would’ve let me go on believing he hadn’t been talking to some other lanky blond man he once made eye contact with on the light rail. Maybe all my life.

But still, that was the linchpin of our meeting, founded on confusion and silent, tactful kindness. There are worse things, I know, or do know now, at least. But back then I was young and stupid and wanted to be cherished for myself, to have been chosen for something I and I alone could provide. Now I’m no longer young.

So – Jason. Gray chinos and a faded blue shirt surely purchased at that stage rather than being allowed to weather into it. It made his eyes Pacific blue, a blue that would have made the ocean itself jealous.

I’d screwed things up, but Jason kept trying and trying to make it work. He’d coax me into showing up; for a couple of weeks or months, we’d be all right. And then at some point I’d lose my cool and the fight, as familiar as a next-door neighbor, would appear again. Finally I just gave up.

Still, every time I saw him, it made me smile.

For a moment it felt as though he was blocking the doorway, denying me access. Is he part of this too? Then he fell back and I felt ashamed of my suspicion.

“The bad penny,” he said. He stood aside as I entered, Mr. Fips bouncing on his shoulder and chirping greeting. “What do you need this time?”

I couldn’t help it. The derision in his voice forced the lie out of my mouth, horrifying me even as it passed my lips. “Nothing. I just wanted to see you.”

I glanced around the hallway. I loved Jason’s house, its immaculate candy-colored interior walls, Mr. Fips the parakeet, the photos on the walls, all Jason’s work, young men and women in black trenchcoats, ascending a large interior staircase, all black and white.

He said, eyes narrowing, “Why are you all wet?”

“Someone tried to kidnap me.”


“I’d like to know that myself. He used a spell to knock me out and two goons to collect me.”

“But you got away, clearly.” He looked me over. “And your escape apparently involved a great deal of water. Go take a shower; I’ll bring you in a change of clothes.”

Everything in his bathroom that could be white was, all immaculately clean except the bathroom mirror, which had the usual black marks in Sharpie drawn on it. You don’t want anything getting through, after all.

I changed into the t-shirt, jeans, and tightie whites he’d left out for me and went downstairs.

He was in the kitchen, chopping fennel. He looked up as I paused in the doorway.

“Why here?” he said.

“Wanted to regroup before I get home to an ambush.”

“Fair enough. Are you staying for dinner?”

I eyed the fennel. “What’s on the menu?”

In answer to his repeated question over dinner (braised fennel, crispy tofu with almonds, an excellent Oregon Pinot Gris, consumed while Mr. Fips serenaded his reflection in the birdcage mirror) I shook my head and underscored the lie. “Wanted to see you, that’s all.”

His eyebrow quirked up but he smiled in a way that made me feel as though warm hands were cradling my heart.

While we were watching TV at seven, I learned what everyone on the bus had been so engrossed by. A sniper and a playground, down in Arizona. Eight kids dead, three wounded.

“Life doesn’t make sense sometimes,” Jason said. He cuddled into me and I put my arm around him.

Around ten, he stretched and said, “I can make the couch up for you.”

He looked directly at me as he tucked a towel around the birdcage. “Or you can come to bed with me.”

I hesitated just a moment too long. He flushed.

I leaned over and put my hand on the back of his neck, pulling him to me. I kissed him hard.

It had been a long time.

By the time I snuck from his bed at two in the morning and went down the back stairs to the fountain, I felt pretty miserable. The words “I love you” had been hovering in the air tonight. It was why I’d stayed away, to tell the truth.

I am a wizard. That’s not an existence that facilitates family. We’re always dealing with deadly creatures, ancient evils. The sort of things whose tentacles roil endlessly in the eternal darkness. Those creatures have a way of going after those near and dear — it’s much worse than killing a wizard to cripple him or her with grief, just before killing them. Jason had more inkling of the Hidden World than most, it was true. But the world would be a lesser place without him.

And he was the last of the fountain’s guardians. It was well past time for him to find or father his successor.

The thoughts weighed down my footsteps as I went through the herb garden, past pots of lemon and rose-scented geraniums, a patch of basils, Italian to Thai, and chives silver-fuzzed with chilly moonlight.

The tiny fountain burbled and plashed near the path’s end. Once it had been a spring, but Jason’s ancestors had fetched flat white stones and built this round to contain it. Pickerel rush and blue flag throve in its basin, and two white-and-orange carp rose as my fingers broke the surface, goggly golden eyes watching the movement of my hand.

“No bread for you, fellows,” I said.

I cupped my hand underwater and drew it up through the reflection of the moon. As I raised it, the reflection stayed in my hand. When I dipped my lips to drink, the water’s coldness almost burned, and as I pulled my face away, my breath hung steaming over the few last drops pooled in my hand.

I swallowed, feeling the cold move down my throat, take up occupancy in my gut.

Any difference? I shook my head and vertigo assailed me. No. I was unhealed, the poison still there with me.

I would have to look elsewhere.

I turned. Jason stood on the kitchen steps, bare-chested, his skin smooth as silk in the moonlight. A frown smothered his face in disapproval.

“I should have known. What is it — curse, poison? Disease?”

“They gave me a magical poison.”

“The water doesn’t work for magical things,” he said. His lips were thin and arrogant and quivered with emotion. “I could have told you that. If you’d trusted me enough to ask.”

He took a step down till we stood on the same level. “You know, I thought for a long time we were destined. Hard enough to find someone who’s gay, but a magical adept, someone who’d understand why I can’t leave this place, that was rare enough that I figured the universe was stepping in.” He eyed me. “Or punishing me. I don’t know which, but either way it felt meaningful. Not random.”

“Do you know what the opposite of paranoia is?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“Pronoia. It’s the belief that the universe is secretly plotting to help you.”

“Like the Truman Show?”

“They weren’t out to help him, they were out to make television out of him. What I’m trying to say, is — the universe is random, Jason. Any meaning in it we see is something cobbled together out of our own blind spots and beliefs.”

“A strange thing for a magician to say.”

I shrugged. “I’ve seen demons and angels. I’m still not sure that means God exists.”

“God exists,” he said.

“Maybe. But if you think he — or she — is up there colluding with the fates to ensure you have a happy life, you are so far off the mark you’re not even hitting the board. Children believe that sort of thing.”

He cocked his head to one side. “So everything children believe in isn’t true, is that what you’re saying? But what I’m saying is that you’ve disappointed me for the last time. Don’t bother coming around again.”

He turned and went back inside.

Part of me was surprised it’d taken him so long. Another part was dumbstruck and hurt as a kicked puppy. I tried to keep either expression from showing in my eyes, kept my face impassive so I could pretend my heart was too.

Instead I just said, “All right” to the empty air and left.

That early in the morning the roads were deserted.

There’s a particular feel to the morning’s small hours, an insignificance in the midst of significance that I like. The taxi passed an empty double bus and the drivers, taxi and bus, nodded at each other as we did.

I could feel the poison eating at me.

Maybe it was my imagination. Either way, the sensation was unpleasant, clutching at my throat and drying my mouth out till I could hardly wet my lips, let alone spit. A hot feeling, as though my molars were being chewed on by electricity.

If I acted now, maybe my magic wouldn’t be too screwed up. Sure, the poison would flip things around some, but surely I was focused enough I could shrug off any effects of the poison. Cast a spell.

But I was tired, so tired I felt as though I were physically propping myself up. I had a tendency to catch myself staring and then not know how long my mind had been vacant, chewing over something meaningless. I felt immobilized, heavy. Lethargic. Was that the effect of the poison or was it simply my mind imposing its own flutter over the picture? I could barely keep my eyes open. Muscles twitched in my cheeks, around my eyes, twitches of the same weariness.

Still, I managed to shrug off the way my eyes kept sliding closed. I had no time to lose, no magical energy to spare. I had to act or else face sliding into oblivion.

I went home to Friendly Village.

Yes, the place is perhaps as twee as the name might suggest. I moved in three months ago, when I finally hit their age requirement: fifty-five. But it’s a nice place, backing onto Bear Creek.

Nice, in that I had no one interfering with me, no one watching my spells or trying to snare my secrets. Bad, in that it was isolated. I used to think I wanted it that way. After all, how had Danny died? Back in Villa Encantada, he’d befriended a neighbor being attacked by another magician, and he’d been torn to pieces by a spell as a result.

Safer not to deal with people at all. You never know what’s hiding behind someone’s smile.

I took my time approaching it, but as far as I could tell, no one had been around. I stepped in through the front door and breathed easier. I was home.

I went into my workroom and browsed through the rack there. Rows of shirts, each more brightly colored than the last.

Everyone’s magic is different. Sure, there are basic tenets, laws of contagion and similarity, the Rule of Three, karma, that sort of thing. But beyond that, it depends on your internal landscape, the metaphors that matter most to you, the ones that shape your dreams, your thoughts, your internal landscape.

For example, Danny, the guy who taught me, used thrift shops too. But he wasn’t looking for shirts, the way I do. He was looking for what I call the Sad Orphans. You know them. The handmade plaque reading, “For Grandma Lolo from Susie.” The personalized mug that says “Kitty C. needs her caffeine.” Peeling trophies and wooden boxes decoupaged with awkward puppies or pyrographed with western designs of bluebells and skulls in charred brown lines.

He could use those. He tapped into what might be unused, forgotten history — I don’t know what you call it, but he could harvest it. Personalize an object and you’re creating ties that a magician can use if he or she has the right handle on it.

Me, I use clothing. And a particular kind of clothing. The more fine-tuned you are, the more powerful. There are mages that can use anything, anything they pick up or are in proximity to — and I do mean anything — but they’re low voltage, not much juice at all.

I use Hawaiian shirts. I’d been a vintage clothing dealer until an incident that I’m not going to go into at this time brought me, gasping and soaked with salt water, to Danny’s feet. He took me as a student and I wouldn’t be alive today if he hadn’t.

But anyway. Hawaiian shirts.

You may not know anything about them other than they’re usually gaudy and fat men seem to be drawn to them. But the Musa-Shiya the Shirtmaker shirt I’d been reaching for back when this whole passage began was powerful for more than the design. Koichiro Miyamoto, Musa-Shiya himself, was one of the smart guys who put their heads together in the forties. They wanted to sell souvenirs to the servicemen clogging up their beaches. They noticed they bought postcards to send home. But a postcard — even a glossy color one — how much do you make off something like that?

So they came up with the wearable postcard, which they called the Aloha shirt. Nowadays, a Hawaiian shirt.

You can find anything on a Hawaiian shirt. Not just palm trees, angelfish, and lei’d hula girls. Dragons, tigers, scorpions. Robots, rockets, and Godzilla (not exactly, because of copyright issues, but close enough that you know what the designer was trying to get at.)

That’s what I use. The designs, and the older they are, the more potent they’ve become.

Unfortunately, few of them have anything to do with healing.

I flipped through my closet. The thing I needed was a dragon shirt, but all of mine were threadbare and worn. I’d used them unnecessarily, Danny would have told me, squandered the strength of their magic on frivolous things. If I’d faced up to things, I’d have some of their juju left.

Could I alter a shirt to save me? I did that sort of thing all the time. I sewed vintage bark cloth into linings, fashioned tiny pockets in hems that could hold a crystal or a gumball charm or lucky rabbit’s foot. Often I changed buttons, particularly on newer shirts that used plastic instead of coconut fiber to create the fastenings.

I took out one of my early efforts. Danny had helped me with it, had insisted on including some bits of his magic. Now that he was gone, would they be of any help? I ran my fingers along the hem. He’d sewn some beads in there.

Taking out a pair of bird-headed scissors, I snipped each tiny, precise stitch away. The caution made me think of Danny. Tears came to my eyes.

The poison must be affecting me. I never cry.

And yet tears fell on the fabric, deadening the scarlet and amber cloth as I tugged away bits of thread to coax the little pouch open.

A tiny bead, unglazed, made of clay. An oval as long as my smallest fingernail, its sides ridged, and tiny markings between the ridges, like traces of cuneiform.

I squinted at it, then gave up and went to get my reading glasses. Aging sucks.

But even with the glasses, I couldn’t read the bead.

Magic is semiotics, the art of reading the world, of knowing what each signifier has packed into it. Magicians love history and morphology and all the other soft sciences, even the most fragile, like the Kabbalah and Tarot and I Ching.

To use a bead whose meaning I couldn’t read went against the grain. But it must be beneficent, or Danny wouldn’t have used it.

I took the umbrella shirt I’d been wearing. It hadn’t protected me before. Could I make it into something that could?

I studied it. The fabric’s background was blue, studded with silver raindrops. I used pale gray thread, weaving a web between the umbrellas that was barely visible to the eye. I ran a line along the collar’s topstitching, and sewed disks of mirrors under the collar’s points. I picked out every bead that Danny had sewn into the other shirt. Each one got sewn into the underside of the shirt, centered beneath the umbrellas.

There were almost enough to do them all. I hummed under my breath as I did it, an old Disney tune. Drip drip drop, little April showers. It wasn’t April, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter.

Magic is about belief. It’s about tricking yourself into believing it works because if you do, you can make it work. You have to think about it, but you can’t think about it too hard, can’t think in ways that will bring doubt into the spell.

Remember the joke about the centipede who, when asked how she managed to walk, thought about it too hard and then couldn’t do it without falling over her own feet? That’s a real danger for magicians, and sometimes if things go awry, they go awry in a big way, bringing about natural disasters or other chaos, things that could core a magician like an apple and leave him only a husk.

You have to learn to trust your intuition with your life. Or else you die. Or come so close to it you wish you had.

I shrugged on the shirt, buttoning it hastily. It felt comforting, to have Danny’s beads around me. Like Danny’s arms. Some of the lethargy dropped away. Not all, not by a long shot, but this was better at least, let me blink away some effects of the poison.

Just in time. Someone was coming.

The thing about mobile homes is that they feel temporary. The skin that protects you from the outside world is thinner, more fragile. That’s not entirely a bad thing because it keeps you from being ambushed, lulled into a sense of security by thick brick or stone or wood. Which is why I felt my visitor and put the shirt I was working on down long before his knuckles brushed the door, through the vibration of his footsteps on the front porch.

When I opened the door, it was Lorca.

He didn’t feel like a magic worker, but something lurked under his surface. Not malignant, though, no hidden serpent or trap like the one that had caught me in Value Village. No, not like that at all, but a sense of some hidden wonder, like a lumpy gray geode hiding a cluster of amethysts at its core.

He said, that smile playing over his lips, “I thought you might offer me a cup of coffee. Nice shirt.”

I didn’t step aside and let him in, though I almost started to do so. There was something complicated, frighteningly so, about Lorca. Something in the glitter of those long-lashed, dark eyes.

“Afraid I’m out of coffee.”

“Here in Seattle? I believe that’s a fine-able offense.” He leaned in the doorway. “So what do you think of the place, now that you’ve been here a while?”

“It’s good so far,” I said diffidently. “Everyone lives up to the name. Very friendly.”

He laughed. “They are! The tenant before you here, Ed, grew dahlias. Everyone will be over telling you what to plant.”

I glanced toward the back. The three large flowerbeds edging my unit were a little daunting. I’ve never been good with herbal magic, other than the spells everyone knows. But I’d thought to grow some herbs out there, at least. Maybe a tomato plant or two. It was good, fluffy soil.

“There’s plenty of activities,” Lorca said. “Bingo in the winter.” His eyes danced with some secret joke. “Very practical prizes.”

“Practical?” I couldn’t help but ask. “Practical how? Like a set of screwdrivers?”

“Cases of toilet paper and light bulbs,” he said with a wry twist to his lips.

I laughed, we both did. I found myself charmed despite my suspicions.

“Plenty of women,” he said. “You’d be surprised at the action some of these guys see.”

Some of these guys, he’d said. Not himself. And there was an undercurrent there, enough to make me say, “I don’t happen to swing that way, myself.”

The sunlight caught his hair, which held a blue shine like the underplumage of a Stellar’s Jay, dark but unmistakable, as his smile swelled.

“Neither do I.”

He’s flirting with me. I wanted to flirt back. To banter, begin the dance that would lead us into bed.

This was not the time, with some unknown opponent laying traps for me. This was too probably part of that — at least my application of Occam’s Razor argued that it was.

“Perhaps I’ll come to a bingo game sometime,” I said, reluctant to shut the door between us.

“That’s in the winter only. Months away.”

“Well,” I said uncomfortably, “perhaps I’ll see you somewhere else.”

Disappointment flickered across his face. Again, the emotion seemed genuine. Perhaps I’d made the wrong decision.

I could feel the poison spell working in me. Solve that first. Otherwise I might be dead before we had any chance to go to bed.

“You’re not a spontaneous person,” he said. Not question, but statement. “You don’t jump into things.”

This was overly personal for someone I’d known less than five minutes, no matter how pretty he was.

“I have work to do,” I said bluntly, resting the heel of my hand on the door.

He was graceful enough, I’d give him that. Inclining his head, he flashed me a smile that made promises: that he was not offended, that he was still interested, that what would eventually happen in bed would surprise me.

I closed the door. I rested my forehead against its cool hard surface and cursed things: the universe’s odd sense of timing, my unseen and unknown opponent, the curse eating away at my blood.

And my own cowardice. No, I’m not a spontaneous person. I view the world with a caution and suspicion acquired through experience. Had I ever been spontaneous, had I ever had that easy grace of going with the flow, of being one of the people who skated easily through life?

Such things were foreign to my nature. My mother told me she hadn’t seen me smile until I was over three, said she’d even worried about my development, taken me to a child psychiatrist (an event of which I have no recollection) who had pronounced me sullen but normal.

I made myself coffee, brewing it strong and dark and bitter as my thoughts. I had a long day ahead and I wanted to see the end of it. Right now, that was in doubt.

No time for distractions, no matter how dark their hair, how bright their eyes. No matter how charming the slight, unplaceable accent, the lilt to his voice. No matter what he had seemed to promise. Such things are never free, and the ones that claim to be often have the highest price.

What was it time for?

An Oracle, that was what.

[Continued in Part 2]

About the Author

Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’sClarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. Her 2018 works include Hearts of Tabat (novel, WordFire Press), Moving From Idea to Finished Draft (nonfiction, Plunkett Press)  and the updated 3rd edition ofCreating an Online Presence for Writers (nonfiction, Plunkett Press). For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and her popular online school, The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, see her website kittywumpus.net

Find more by Cat Rambo


About the Narrator

Graeme Dunlop

Picture of Graeme Dunlop

Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists for many years, producing audio, hosting shows, narrating stories and keeping the websites going. He was born in Australia, although people have identified him as English, American and South African, amongst other nationalities. He loves the spoken word. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and beautiful boy dog, Jake.

Find more by Graeme Dunlop

Picture of Graeme Dunlop