Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Master Conjurer

Peter did a magic spell, and it worked fine. With no unintended consequences, and no weird side effects.

Two days later, he was on the front page of the local newspaper: “The Miracle Conjurer.” Some blogs picked it up, and soon enough he was getting visits from CNN and MSNBC, and his local NPR station kept wanting to put him on. News crews were standing and talking in front of his house.

By the third day, Peter saw reporters looking through the dumpster in the back of his L-shaped apartment building, which looked like a cheap motel but was actually kind of expensive. He couldn’t walk his Schnauzer-Pit Bull mix, Dobbs, without people—either reporters or just random strangers—coming up and asking him what his secret was. When he went to the office, where he oversaw pilot projects for water desalination, his coworkers kept snooping over the top of his cubicle wall and trying to see his computer screen as he was typing, like they were going to catch him logging in to some secret bulletin board for superwizards.

Peter had a hard time concentrating on work when the TV set in the break room was tuned to CNN, and they were showing his bedroom window, and a million people were staring at the pile of unfolded laundry on his bed and the curtains that Dobbs had recently half-destroyed. Could the Clean Spell revolutionize spellcasting? a voice asked. Was there a secret, and could everyone else learn it? CNN brought on an Enchantress named Monica, who wore a red power blazer. She frequently appeared on talk shows whenever there was a magical murder trial or something.

By day four, Peter’s building was surrounded, and his phone at work pretty much never stopped ringing. People followed him wherever he went. It was only then that it occurred to Peter: Maybe this was the unintended consequence of his spell.

 

***

Peter had never liked looking at pictures of himself, because photos always made him look like a deformed clone of Ben Affleck. His chin was just a little too jutting and bifurcated, his brow a little too much like the bumper of a late-model Toyota Camry. His mousy hair was unevenly receding, his nose a little too knifey. Seeing the least attractive pictures of himself on every newspaper, website, and TV show was starting to make Peter break out in hives.

“I’m not talking to you,” Peter said to his former best friend Derek, the tenth time Derek called him. “You are completely dead to me.”

“Hey, don’t say that, you’re scaring me,” Derek said. “If the Master Conjurer says I’m dead, then I’m worried I’m just not going to wake up tomorrow or something.”

“You were the only one I told about doing the spell,” Peter said. “And now, this.”

Peter was sitting in his car talking on his phone, parked two blocks away from his apartment building because he was scared to go home. Dobbs was probably starting to bounce off the walls. At least the dog seemed a lot happier lately.

“I only told like a couple of people,” Derek said. “And it turned out one of them was best friends with a newspaper reporter. It was an amusing anecdote. Anyway, you know it’ll blow over in a week or two. You’re just like this week’s meme or something.”

“I hope you’re right,” Peter said.

“And you should milk it, while you got it,” Derek said. “Like, you know, you’re famous for doing something perfectly. Something that requires immense concentration and sensory awareness and a lot of heart. Basically, they’re as good as announcing to the entire world that you’re an excellent lover. This is probably the closest you will ever come in your entire life to being a chick magnet.”

“Please stop talking now.” Peter was practically banging his head against the steering wheel of his Dodge Neon. “Just, please, stop.”

The interior of his car always smelled like dog; not like Dobbs—just, like: generic dog. Like a big rangy golden retriever smell. Even if Dobbs hadn’t been in his car for days.

“Okay, okay. Just an idea, man. So are we good?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

Peter hung up and steeled himself to go home and walk the dog, while people asked him his secret over and over. Nobody would ever believe Peter when he said there was no secret—he’d just lucked out, or something. Why couldn’t Peter have gotten an intimidating dog that he could sic on people, like a Doberman or a purebred Pit Bull? If he unleashed Dobbs, someone might end up with a tiny drool stain on one shoe.

 

***

But Peter couldn’t stop thinking about what Derek had said. He hadn’t been on a date, a proper date, for years. His last first date had been Marga, five years ago. Peter wasn’t just out of practice dating, or asking people out—he was out of practice at wanting to. He hadn’t even let himself have a crush on anybody in forever.

He started looking at the women around him as if he could actually be something to them. He didn’t perv anybody, or stare at anyone—after all, everybody was still staring at him, all the time, and his instinct in that situation was to look away, or just hide. But it was hard to go from never noticing women—except in a super-business-like way—to checking them out, and he might have overcompensated. Or maybe he overcompensated for his overcompensation. It was tricky.

Nobody at work was Peter’s type, and anyway they wouldn’t stop asking him over and over if he would do a spell for them. He had already made up his mind that he would never do a spell ever again.

He couldn’t be attracted to any of the women who kept coming up to him when he was trying to eat dinner at the Shabu Palace, either the reporters or the professional witches or the random looky-loos. They were all a little too sharky for him, the way they circled and then homed in, and they mostly looked as though they used insane amounts of product in their hair, so if they ever actually rested their heads on his shoulder, there would be a “crunch” sound.

 

***

The weirdest part wasn’t the stalkers or the peepers or the people asking him to do spells for them. The weirdest part was: After about a week, Peter started noticing that everybody had their own “this one time” story they wanted to tell him. Things had slacked off just enough that Peter wasn’t quite under siege any more, and strangers were having conversations with him on the street instead of just rushing up and blurting questions. And every conversation included a “this one time” story. They were usually really sad, like confessions that people had never told anyone, that—for some reason—they felt safe telling Peter.

Like, one woman with curly red hair and a round white face and a marigold sweater was telling Peter at the supermarket, by the breakfast cereals: “I never tried to do any magic myself. Too risky, you don’t really know. Right? Except this one time, I got wasted and tried to do a spell to make my dad give back the money he stole from my mom. It wasn’t even my problem, but I was worried about Mom, she had a lot of medical expenses with the emphysema. And Dad was just going to waste it on his new girlfriend (she had expensive tastes). So I just wanted him to give back the money he took from my mom’s secret hiding place.”

Peter knew this was the part where he was supposed to ask what terrible fallout the woman’s spell had had.

“Oh,” she said. “My dad went blind. He gave Mom her money back, and as soon as it changed hands, there went his eyesight. I’ve never told anybody this before.” She smiled, nervously, like Peter was going to tell on her. Even though he didn’t even know her name.

“You couldn’t know,” Peter said, like he always said to people after he heard their stories. “You had no way of knowing that would happen. You were trying to do the right thing.”

Peter had done a few spells before he cast the world-famous Clean Casting, which by now had been verified by every professional sorcerer who had a regular television gig. (There had been a lot of incense burning around Peter’s apartment building for a while there, which had helped banish the stench of his neighbor Dorothy’s homebrew experiments.) Peter had taken a spell-casting class at the local community college a few years before, with Marga, and they had done a few really tiny spells, lighting candles from a distance or turning a pinch of sugar into salt. They got used to weird smells or small dead creatures popping up an hour or a day later.

If the spell was small enough, the unintended downside was part of the fun—an amusing little surprise. Oh, look. A goldfish in the mailbox, still flapping about. Get a bowl of water, quick!

By now, the actual doing of the spell—the Clean Casting—felt like a weird dream that Peter had concocted after too many drinks. The more people made a fuss about it, the more he felt like he’d made the whole thing up. But he could still picture it. He’d gotten one of the stone spellcasting bowls they sold on late-night cable TV, and little baggies of all the ingredients, with rejected prog rock band names like Prudenceroot or Womanheart, and sprinkled pinches of them in, while chanting the nonsense syllables and thinking of his desired aim. The spellbook, with its overly broad categories of enchantments that you could slot your specifics into like Mad Libs, was propped open with a package of spaghetti. All of it, he’d done correctly more or less. Not perfect, but right. He’d done it in his oversized pantry, surrounded by mostly empty jars of stale oats and revolting cans of peaches, with Dobbs goggle-eyed and drooling, the only witness.

 

***

The time came when Peter could leave the house again without people shoving things in his face. He still had people coming up to him in the bookstore to ask him if he was that guy, and his coworkers would never stop making weird remarks about it. And he made a point of not googling himself. Or checking his personal email, or going on Facebook.

But just when Peter thought maybe his life was returning to semi-normal, some guy would see him and come running across the street—through traffic—to belt out something about his baby, his baby, Peter had to help, the man needed a spell and the consequences would probably be unbearable if anybody but Peter attempted it. Peter would have to shrug off the crying, red-faced man, and keep going to the pet food store or supermarket.

There was a girl working at the pet food store who apparently knew who Peter was, and didn’t seem to care. She had curly brown hair and really strong lines from the bridge of her nose down around her eyes, which made her look sort of intense and focused. She had a really pointy chin and a pretty nose, and seemed like the kind of person who laughed a lot. Even when she looked serious, which she mostly did. She always smiled at Peter when she rang up the special food that Dobbs needed for his pancreas, but not in a starey way.

Finally, one day, a few weeks after all this started, Peter asked her why she hadn’t ever said anything about his claim to fame. She rolled her eyes. “I dunno, I figured you were sick of hearing about it. Plus, who cares. It’s not like you won the lottery or anything, right?”

Peter immediately asked her if she wanted to grab some dinner sometime. She was like, “Sure. As long as it’s not medicinal dog food.” Her name turned out to be Rebecca.

Actually, they went to the shabu place that was Peter’s favorite restaurant in town. He always felt guilty for eating there alone, which he did often, because it was kind of an interactive experience, where you grilled your own meat and/or made your fancy stew, and you really needed someone else there to join in. The staff wore crisp white uniforms to underscore that they did no actual food preparation themselves. There were tables, but almost everybody sat around a big U-shaped bar in the center, which had little grills embedded in it. The sound system blasted a mixture of Foreigner, 38 Special, Yes, and some J-Pop from a CD-changer.

Peter was nervous about being seen out on a date, and having people act weird about it during or afterward. (Did you cast a “babe magnet” spell? Ha-ha-ha.) But the Shabu Palace was pretty empty, and a few people stared a little bit but it was no big deal. Peter found the meat vapors comforting, like carnal incense.

“I hate this town,” Rebecca said. “It’s just big enough to have restaurants like this, but no actual culture. We don’t even have a roller derby team any more. No offense, but that’s one reason why you’re such a big deal. We finally have a local celebrity again, to replace that sitcom actor who was from here who died.” Peter wasn’t offended by that at all; it explained a lot.

Rebecca was saving up money from her pet store gig to go to L.A., where she wanted to go to barista school. Peter didn’t know that was a thing you went to school for, but apparently it was a big deal, like knowing the science of grinding the beans just right and making just the right amount of ristretto and steaming the milk to the edge of burning. And of course latte art and stuff. Rebecca had tried to be a psychologist and a social worker and a vet, but none of those career paths had worked out. But she was excited about the barista thing because it was hip and artistic, and you could write your own ticket. Even start your own fancy café somewhere.

“It’s cool that you’re so ambitious,” Peter said. “I think L.A. would drive me insane.”

“I am guessing L.A. would be okay as long as you don’t want to be a movie star or whatever,” Rebecca said. “I mean, the barista school is probably hella cutthroat. But I can handle that.”

Peter hadn’t really thought of this as a small town—it seemed pretty big to him. There was a freeway, and the downtown with the opera house, and the art museum, and the world headquarters of a major insurance company. And there was a small zoo during the spring and summer, with animals that wintered in Florida somewhere.

“People hate you, you know,” Rebecca told Peter halfway through dinner. “You’re super threatening, because you’re the proof that there’s something wrong with them. If they’d only been good people, they would have gotten away clean, too. Plus, it offends our sense of order. Power should have terrible consequences, or life would be too easy. We want people to suffer for anything good they ever have. People are governed by envy, and a sense of karmic brutality.”

“That’s a very bleak view of human nature,” Peter said. But he found it kind of a turn-on. Misanthropy was just undeniably sexy, the way smoking used to be before you had to do it out in the cold.

It turned out Rebecca had never even tried to do magic herself. “I never wanted to risk it,” Rebecca said. “I’m the least lucky person, of anyone I know. I can only imagine how badly I would be screwed if I tried to bribe the universe to give me a shortcut.”

By now, Peter was really hoping that Rebecca would go home with him. He could almost imagine how cool it would be to have her naked and snarky in his big four-poster bed. Her body heaving to and fro. The way her hair would smell as he buried his face in it. He almost started getting hard under the counter of the Shabu Palace just thinking about it. Bryan Adams was singing about Heaven on the stereo. Everything was perfect.

“So,” Rebecca said, leaning forward in a way that could have been flirtatious or conspiratorial. “I gotta ask. What was the spell that you did? The famous one?”

“Oh man.” Peter almost dropped his meat piece. “You don’t want to know. It’s really dumb. Like really, really dumb.”

“No, come on,” Rebecca said. “I want to know. I’m curious. I won’t judge. I promise.”

“I . . . I’d rather not say.” Peter realized he’d been about to lift this piece of meat off the grill for a while, and now it was basically a big carcinogenic cinder. He put it in his mouth anyway. “It’s really kind of embarrassing. I don’t even know if it was ethical.”

“Now I really want to know,” Rebecca said.

Peter imagined telling Rebecca what he’d done, and tried to picture the look on her face. Would she laugh, or throw sake at him and tell him he was a bad person? Immature? He couldn’t even go there. Even Bryan Adams suddenly sounded kind of sad, and maybe a little disappointed in Peter.

“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “I think this was maybe a mistake.” He paid for both of them and got the hell out of there.

By the time Peter got home, Dobbs was freaking out because he really needed to go out and do his business. Dobbs ran around a tree three times before peeing on it, like he was worried the tree was going to move out of the way just as Dobbs was letting go. Dobbs looked up at Peter with big round eyes, permanently alarmed.

 

***

Of course, Derek called Peter the next morning and wanted to know how the date went. They ended up going for breakfast at the retro-1970s pancake place downtown, and Peter grudgingly told Derek the whole deal.

“So what you’re saying,” said Derek, “is that you plied her with meat and soft rock, and you had her basically all ready to shabu your shabu. And then she asked a perfectly reasonable question, and you got all weird and bailed on her. Is that a fair summary?”

“Um,” Peter said. “It’s not an unfair summary.”

“Okay,” Derek said. “I think there’s a way this can still work out. Now she thinks you’re complicated and damaged. And that’s perfect. Ladies love men with a few psychic dents and scrapes. It makes you mysterious, and a little intense.”

“You’re the only one I’ve told about that spell,” Peter said. “You didn’t tell anyone what the spell actually was, right?”

“That part, I haven’t told anyone,” Derek said. “I only mentioned the part about how you had no complications.”

“Okay, cool,” said Peter. “I don’t want people to go nuts on me. Even more than they already have.”

“Listen,” Derek said. “I’m kind of worried about you. I think this spell you did is just a symptom. I feel like you’ve been kind of messed up ever since Marga . . .” Derek trailed off, because Peter was scowling at him. “I just think you shouldn’t be alone so much. I feel like a new relationship, or a fling—either way—would be good for you.”

Derek and Peter had been friends since college, where they’d bonded over hating their History 101 professor, who had a cult following among almost all the other students. Literally a cult—there was a human sacrifice at one of the professor’s after-exam parties, and it’d turned ugly, as human sacrifice so often does. Peter and Derek weren’t so close lately, because Derek had gone into real estate and never had time for Peter; plus until pretty recently Peter had just been hanging out with Marga’s friends all the time. Like Marga herself, her friends were all erudite and artsy, with clever tattoos.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Peter said. “I’ve got Dobbs. And all I really wanted was to be left alone.”

“We’re not back to that again, are we?” Derek threw his arms up in a pose of martyrdom.

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “The media frenzy seems to have died down, and some other asshole is getting his fifteen minutes now.”

 

***

Peter almost called Rebecca a couple times. He imagined telling her the truth about his spell, and it made him cringe from the balls of his feet to the back of his neck. He always put the phone away, because he didn’t think he could work the “damaged and complicated” angle without telling the whole story. He went to sleep and dreamed of sitting naked with Rebecca in bed, explaining everything. He woke up with Dobbs sitting on his chest, legs tucked under his fat little body, saucer eyes staring at him. Dobbs licked Peter’s chin in slow flicks of his brash tongue. Lick. Lick. Lick.

When Peter went to work, his face was on the television in the break room again. Some expert had concocted a theory: Maybe Peter was the reincarnation of an ancient wizard, or maybe he was some kind of spiritually pure mystic or something. Obviously, if Peter really did know the secret of doing magic without any strings attached, he would be the world’s richest and most powerful man. So he either really didn’t have a secret method, or he was some kind of saint.

This day, in particular, Peter had a progress meeting with some of the other team leaders, and he was trying to explain why the desalination pilot projects he was funding were slow going. It’s easy to add salt to water, but taking it away again is a huge challenge—you have to strip the sodium and chloride ions out of the water somehow, which involves a huge unfeasible energy cost. Peter got halfway through his presentation, when Amanda, who was involved in microfinance in Africa, asked, “So why don’t you just use magic?”

“Um, sorry?” Peter said. He had clicked through to his next slide and had to click back, or risk losing his thread.

“Why not just use magic to remove the salt from the water?” Amanda said. “That gets around the high energy cost, and in fact there might be zero energy cost. Potable water for everybody. Water wars averted. Everybody happy.”

“I don’t really think that’s an option,” Peter said.

“Why not?” Amanda said. Everybody else was nodding. Peter remembered seeing Amanda on television, talking about him a few days earlier. She was the one who’d explained carefully that Peter had a twelve-year-old Dodge Neon and rented a one-bedroom apartment in a crumbling development near the freeway. If he was a master sorcerer, Amanda had told the ladies on The View, Peter was doing a pretty good job of hiding it.

Now Amanda was saying, in the same patient, no-nonsense tone: “Isn’t it irresponsible not to explore all of the options? I mean, let’s say that you really can do magic without some backlash, and you’re the one person on Earth who can. What’s the point spending millions to fund research into industrial desalination when you could just snap your fingers and turn a tanker of salt water into spring water?” This particular day, Amanda was wearing a blue paisley scarf and a gray jacket, along with really high-end blue jeans.

Peter stared at Amanda—whom he’d always admired for helping the poor women in Africa get microloans, and who he never thought would stab him in the back like this—and tried to think of a response. At last, he stammered: “Magic is not a scalable solution.”

Peter fled the meeting soon afterward. He decided to take the rest of the day off work, since he was either fatally irresponsible or secretly the reincarnation of Merlin. He passed Amanda in the hallway on his way to the elevator, and she tried to apologize for putting him on the spot like that, but he just mumbled something and kept walking.

Dobbs wagged his tail as the leash went on, and then tried to play with the leash with one of his front paws, like it was a dangling toy. At last, Dobbs understood that the leash meant going outside and relieving himself, and he trotted.

 

***

Peter went to bed early, with Dobbs curled up on top of his head like a really leaky hat. He dreamed about Rebecca again, and then his phone woke him up, and it was Rebecca calling him. “Whu,” he said.

“Did I wake you?” she said.

“Yes,” Peter scraped Dobbs off his forehead and got his wits together. His bed smelled foggy. “But it’s okay. I was just waking up anyway. And listen, I’ve been meaning to call you. Because I need to explain, and I’m sorry I was such an idiot when we . . .”

“No time,” Rebecca said. “I called to warn you. There’s been an incident, and they’re probably coming to your house again soon.” She promised to explain everything soon, but meanwhile Peter should get the heck out of there before the TV news crews came back. Because this time, they would be out for blood. Rebecca said she would meet Peter at the big old greasy spoon by the railroad tracks, the one that looked like just another railroad silo unless you noticed the neon sign in the window.

Peter put on jeans and a T-shirt, grabbed Dobbs and got in his Neon just as the first people were getting out of their TV vans. He backed down the driveway so fast he nearly hit one of them and then sped off before they could follow. Just to make sure, he got on and off the freeway three times at different exits.

Rebecca was sitting at the booth in the back of the Traxx Diner, eating silver dollar pancakes and chicken fried steak. The formica table had exactly the same amount of stickiness as Rebecca’s plate. Peter wound up ordering the chicken-fried steak too, because he was suddenly really hungry and it occurred to him he might have skipped dinner.

As soon as Peter had coffee, Rebecca shoved a tablet computer at him, with a newspaper article: “TWELVE DEAD, FIVE CHILDREN UNACCOUNTED FOR IN SCHOOL DISASTER.” One of the headlines further down the page was for a sidebar: “Peter Salmon: Made People Think They Could Get Off Scot Free?” And there was a picture of Peter, giving a thumbs up to a group of people—taken from his site visit to a water purification project in Tulsa two years earlier.

Peter spilled coffee on his pants. The waitress came and poured some more in his cup almost immediately.

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca said. “Ulsa won’t tell anybody you’re here. She’s a friend. Plus she’s really nearsighted so she probably hasn’t gotten a good look at your face.”

“Okay,” Peter said. He was still trying to make sense of this article. Basically, there was a middle school in New Jersey that was coming in at the bottom of the rankings in the standardized tests, and state law would have called for the school to be closed by the end of the year, which, in turn, would wreck property values. So the teachers and some of the parents got together to do a spell to try and raise the children’s test results by twenty percent, across the board. And it had gone very wrong. Like “everyone’s heads had turned to giant crayfish heads” wrong. There were some very gruesome pictures of adults lying around the playground, their beady eyes staring upward. Meanwhile, some of the children had gone missing.

“There’s no way anybody could say this is my fault,” Peter stammered, trying not to look at the corpses with stuff leaking out of their necks, just as Ulsa brought a plate of very crispy chicken-fried steak with some very runny eggs. “I told everybody that I didn’t have any secret. They just wouldn’t listen.”

“Yeah, I know,” Rebecca said. “Like I said, people hate you. This is why I quit my last five jobs, including that pet store gig, which I just bagged on the other day. Everybody feels entitled. I’ve never had a boss who didn’t feel like they ought to own me. People hate realizing that the world won’t just shower them with candy.”

Peter looked at the crayfish heads, then at his chicken-fried steak. In the car outside, through the one window, he could see Dobbs bouncing up and down. Like Dobbs already knew he was getting that steak. Then what Rebecca had said sunk in.

“You quit the pet store job?” Peter said, looking up at her.

“Yeah. They basically wanted me to do unpaid overtime, and they were trying to start a grooming business in the back, and wanted me to help with that as well. I do not groom.”

Peter couldn’t imagine just quitting a job, just like that. He felt his crush on Rebecca splintering a little bit. Like he’d put her on a pedestal too fast. “So what are you going to do now?” he said. “Are you going to go to L.A. and go to barista school?”

“Maybe. The next enrollment isn’t for a few months. I guess I’ll see how it goes.”

Peter made himself eat a little because he was starting to have a full-scale panic attack. He gestured at the tablet without looking at it. “This is going to keep happening. And they’re going to keep trying to make it about me.”

The radio in the diner quit playing some country song about a cheating man, and a news report about the New Jersey tragedy came on. Congress was talking about regulating magic, and there were questions about whether the makers of the spellbook the teachers had used could have some liability, even though it had five pages of disclaimers in tiny print. And there was a mention in passing of the notion that the teachers might have been influenced by the famous Clean Casting.

“What if there really was some secret and you had it?” Rebecca said. “If I were you, I’d be doing more spells and seeing if I could figure out what I did right. You could have anything you wanted. You could raise the dead and feed the hungry.”

“I would never get away with it. I was really selfish and stupid that one time, and I came away with a super-strong feeling that I’d better never try my luck again.”

And then Peter decided to go ahead and tell her about the spell:

“Here’s what happened. I was engaged to this girl named Marga. She was amazing and artistic and creative, and she was always doing things like repainting her apartment with murals, or throwing parties where everybody pretended to be a famous assassin. And she had this cat that was always sickly. Constant vet visits and late-night emergencies. She and I moved in together. And then a few months before the wedding, she met this guy named Breck who was a therapeutic flautist, and she fell in love with him. She wound up going with him to Guatemala to provide music therapy to the victims of the big mudslide there. Leaving me heartbroken, with a sick cat. The cat just got more and more miserable and ill, pining for Marga. We were both inconsolable.”

“I think maybe I can see where this is going,” Rebecca said, picking at her last pancake.

“Dobbs is way happier as a dog, he gets to go out and run around,” Peter said. “His pancreas seems way better, too.”

“So you turned your ex-girlfriend’s cat into a dog. As, like, revenge?”

“It wasn’t revenge, I swear. She doesn’t even know, anyway. I just . . . Dobbs was really unhappy, and so was I. And this seemed like it was a fresh start for both of us. But part of me felt like maybe I was doing it to get back at Marga, or like I was transforming Dobbs without his consent. And I welcomed the idea of being punished for it. So when the punishment didn’t come, it just made me feel more guilty. I started to hate myself. And maybe that’s why. The more I didn’t get punished, the worse I felt.”

“Huh.” She seemed to be chewing it over for a moment. “I guess that’s not the weirdest thing I’ve heard of people doing to their pets. I mean, at the store, there were people who shaved their pets’ asses. Who does that? And your ex is the one who left her cat behind when she bailed, right? You could have taken him to the ASPCA, and they’d have put him to sleep.”

And just like that, Peter had a crush on her again. Maybe even something stronger than a crush, like his kidneys were pinwheeling and the blood was leaving his head and extremities. He wanted to jump up and hug her and make a loud train-whistle sound. He hadn’t realized how guilty he’d been feeling about Dobbs, until he told someone and they didn’t instantly hate him.

“Do you want to go to L.A.?” Peter said.

“What, now?”

“Yeah. Now. I mean, as soon as we finish breakfast. You can try and go to that barista school, and I can get a job there. I know a guy who works in solar power financing. I’d barely even be famous by L.A. standards.”

For a second, Peter felt like he was totally free. He could leave town, with the girl and the dog and whatever else he had in his car, and never look back. He could be like Marga, except that he wouldn’t abandon Dobbs.

But Rebecca shook her head. Curls splashing. “Sorry. I don’t think I could ever be with someone who thinks it’s a good idea to run away from his problems.”

“What?” And then Peter said the exact wrong thing, before he could stop himself: “But you just told me that you quit your last five jobs.”

“Yes, and that’s called having a spine. Quitting a job isn’t the same thing as running away.”

She got up, and Peter got up too. He was getting a doggie bag for the steak, and he felt as though she was cutting him loose with a pack of wolves on his tail. And then she reached out and unsmudged the corner of his mouth with her thumb, and said: “Listen. I’m going to tell you the secret to getting what you want out of life. Are you ready? Never take any shit from anyone.”

“That’s the secret? Of happiness?”

“I don’t know about happiness. I told you, I’m unlucky.”

She walked back toward her car, then stopped to look at Dobbs, who was bouncing up and down inside Peter’s car, especially now that he could tell Peter was coming back. Dobbs’ eyes were almost perfect spheres, like a Pekingese, and his tongue was sticking out of the side of his mouth, spraying bits of drool. Rebecca leaned over and stuck her hand through the window Peter had left rolled down a bit, and Dobbs licked her. She nodded at Peter, like confirming that yes, the dog was really okay, then went and got in her own car, which was even older and junkier than his.

He watched her drive away. Her radio was playing classic rock. He wasn’t sure how you gave chicken-fried steak to a dog, but he figured he should fork it over while it was hot. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he tipped it out of the bag onto the passenger seat and Dobbs started chewing on it, the steak suddenly smelled incredibly good and Peter felt a fierce hunger deep in his core. For a second, part of Peter wanted to snatch the food out of his dog’s mouth.

He thought about what Rebecca had said: Don’t take any shit from anyone. He’d heard people say stuff like that before, but it still felt like a major life philosophy. Like words to live by. He found his phone, which had like twenty messages on it, which he ignored and called Derek.

“Hey, can you do me a favor? Yeah, this is a chance to make up for telling your friend about me in the first place,” he said. “Whatever, I’m over it. But can you go by my house and tell all the people camped out there that I’ll do a press conference or something? At noon. I’ll tell them the whole story about the spell, and answer their questions, and then they will leave me the fuck alone forever after that. Okay? Great.”

After Peter hung up, he watched Dobbs eat the last bits of food. He got back in his car and drove around, trying to think of how to explain himself to everybody so they would leave him alone afterwards.

“Hey guy.” Peter stroked Dobbs behind the ears when they were at a stoplight. “Are you ready for your moment in the spotlight?” In response, Dobbs extended his head, blinked, and sprayed vomit all over the inside of Peter’s car. Then Dobbs sprawled in the seat, as if he’d just accomplished something awesome, and started to purr loudly. Like a jackhammer.

© 2013 by Charlie Jane Anders.

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane AndersCharlie Jane Anders’ story “Six Months Three Days” won a Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Tor.com, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor of io9.com and runs the long-running Writers With Drinks reading series in San Francisco. More info at charliejane.net.

2 Responses »

  1. I found this story super charming. I especially enjoyed the y-insertion functional shifts from noun to adjective Anders scatters throughout the narrative–the “nose a little too knifey,” the “sharky” women at the restaurant, the look that was not at all “starey” at the pet store. I thought this really increased the strong colloquial texture of the piece.

  2. I read the first couple lines and skimmed the first section, thought it sounded interesting, and figured I’d come back to it later, but then I couldn’t stop reading. Very clever and fun; I enjoyed the narrative voice.

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