Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Magician’s Apprentice

When she was thirteen, Mr. Hollis told her: “There’s never more than two, Cherry. The magician and the magician’s apprentice.”

That was the first year, and she spent her time sloo-o-owly magicking water from one glass to another as he read the newspaper and drank the coffee. Magician’s apprentice had to get the Starbucks. Caramel macchiato, no foam, extra hot, which was a yuppie drink if you asked her (but nobody did). “Quarter in,” he’d say, and she’d concentrate on the liquid shivering from cup to cup. “Now half. Slower.”

For Cherry Murphy, the water always staggered along. She’d seen him make it dance with a twitch of his fingers. “When do I get to stop bullets? My hypothesis is that stopping bullets would be friggin’ sweet.”

“Maybe when you do your homework,” said Mr. Hollis, and so she’d take out her homework. It wasn’t even magic homework. It was stuff like The Catcher in the Rye. Mr. Hollis was big on literature, so after they cleared the table of glasses he’d trick her into arguing about Holden Caulfield. Could’ve been worse—to make her feel better, he’d given her Catch-22, and Cherry had read it approximately a million times. He said she easily read at college level, though he also said that didn’t amount to much these days.

“All right,” said her master magician, when her chin had started to droop. “Now you eat.”

Magic wore terrible holes in you. Just shunting water around would give her a headache and throbbing nosebleeds, so he’d fry up a steak or fresh brown eggs and watch her gobble them down while saying, “Elbows off the table.” The steak was always bloody. The eggs were always soft-boiled. Food would take the edge off, but not enough. Second lesson: Magic feeds off your soul, said Mr. Hollis. There’s only two ways to not be hungry, Cherry. I’m sorry.

“Two ways? How?”

“One, quit magic, Harriet Potter,” he said, but then he pushed the plate of eggs at her. Her master magician never seemed hungry like she was. “Second’s simple: eat more.”

After dinner, they usually had a little time. She’d told him over and over that Mark wouldn’t notice if she came home at midnight covered in blood, but he always said: “Don’t disrespect your dad,” which was why she thought he was kind of a stiff. Then he’d follow it up with, “He does that enough on his own,” which was why she loved him. So until six-thirty hit, they’d watch the last fifteen minutes of a Golden Girls rerun—or listen to some Led Zeppelin, his iPod strung earbud to earbud between them both. Only then was she really content.

Mr. Hollis was a bachelor with a girlfriend downtown, so his apartment always kind of smelled like Old Spice and dead body, only she would have knocked back neat bleach before saying so.

When six-thirty came, he’d say, “Put on your jacket,” even if outside it was the average surface temperature of the Sun and she’d die of heatstroke. Then he’d say, “See you later, alligator,” and she’d say, “In a while, crocodile,” or, if the day had been crappy, she’d just make a series of grunts. Then she’d skip home through the dusk to her empty house or her passed-out, empty father, and read Catch-22 until she fell asleep.

• • • •

There were spells on which everything hinged, he said; to move, stop and make. The spell that year was “move.” Cool, fine; she was always on the move. Cherry had long spindly limbs like a juvenile spider, and before she’d been an apprentice, she’d taken track and baseball. Her fingers did drum solos if she wasn’t given things to do with them. All of that nervous energy went into her spells, and she worried her lips skinless as her water dripped, her winds scattered, and any attempt to lift stuff embedded it in the far-off wall. Mr. Hollis primly mopped tables dry and set her to roll a marble around on the slick linoleum.

But he made it look so easy. There was not a flicker in those paper-grey eyes as a curl of his hand coaxed a hairbrush out of his drywall, beckoning it to remove itself and have the plaster rework to pre-Cherry wholeness. Objects put themselves back in his hands, ashamed. His marble rolled in perfect madman’s circles.

Once—wild with frustration and knees scored with tile lines—she ignored him when he said: “Leave it. Stop.” Her marble wobbled in a wide spiral. “Cherry.” She feigned deafness. Her head suddenly spun towards him, yanked by invisible iron fingers, and worst of all her marble rolled away lost under the fridge forever.

“Cherry,” he said evenly, “I don’t ask twice.”

“I can do this! Screw you!”

That got her grounded for a week before she realised he technically didn’t have the authority to do so. Cherry sulked to bed each night at nine o’clock anyway.

June. In the summer evenings, Mr. Hollis went off with his girlfriend, so they’d spend three brilliant breakfast hours down at the beach rolling grains of sand from palm to palm. Her skinny arms and legs grew browner if not less skinny, and he made her wear a one-piece instead of a bikini (“Nice try, but no cigar”) but each of those days was more perfect than the last. Homework was John Knowles’s A Separate Peace (“You could give me something with a good movie, Mr. H”) and he sat shirtless under the beach umbrella as she read aloud.

Mr. Hollis had rangy bones and a nerdy fishbelly farmer’s tan, lots of crisp dark hairs on his arms and his chest. It was possible that somebody found him hot, but only theoretically so; the fact that he had a girlfriend was mystifying. Possibly being a magician and the ensuing squillions of dollars, or at least the squillions as was her understanding, sweetened the deal. That summer she also rolled marbles until her nostrils squirted blood and she found herself eating raw hot dogs from the freezer. It was pretty gross. Cherry was hungry until her mouth hurt.

After August, she struggled at his kitchen table, pushing ball bearings. Her head hurt. Sometimes he would ignore her and it was a kindness, as she had her pride even if she was in seventh grade, and sometimes he would briefly ruffle his hand through her short dark hair and say: “Be zen.”

“I’m never going to get this.”

“You’re going to get it, emo kid.”

“If I die, I leave you all my stuff.”

“Try ‘bequeath.’ You bequeath me all your stuff.”

When she did start to get the magic, in between Knowles and A Separate Peace, Mr. Hollis gave her a single brief smile that made the rest of it a cinch. The marble rolled its circle. The water halved into its glass. As a test, he set his Honda Civic in first gear and she pushed it inch by burning inch nine feet forward: she puked bloodied bile afterwards like a champ, him holding her hair, but once her stomach settled he took her out for lobster. It was the kind where you picked your sacrifice out of its tank and were eating ten minutes later. It tasted incredible.

“Congratulations, cadet,” said Mr. Hollis, gesturing with the fork. “Here’s my toast: I’m proud of you. First we take Manhattan, Cherry, then we take Berlin.”

Her joy was wild, and her Coke sweet like imagined champagne.

• • • •

When she was fourteen, Mr. Hollis told her: “The apprenticeship only ends when you know everything the magician knows, and understand everything the magician understands.”

Cherry took this to mean that she’d be an apprentice until she was like thirty. He switched from caramel macchiatos to skinny vanilla lattes, which this year she pointed out was “totally gay,” and earned her a long, indifferent look. Mr. Hollis was an award winner at indifferent looks. He could scratch you with a word, or by flicking his pale aluminum eyes away at any place but you. The hunger still boiled low in her belly as she jumped water from cup to cup to cup, but crushingly all he’d say now was, “Cute one trick, pony.”

Instead he got her to empty the glass out over the sink and try to divert it upwards. Cherry spent most of her time on her feet and mopping at her t-shirt when this proved to be a son of a bitch, and all he did was sit at the kitchen table reading his newspaper. That had started to drive her a little crazy, too. Mr. Hollis was a slob who left the Sports section lying around and never dusted, but when she started scrubbing his stove and looking for his Dustbuster, he said: “Don’t go there. Jen doesn’t even go there.”

He’d been dating Jennifer Blumfield over a year now. Cherry had been introduced as his niece. Jen did accounting and was sweet without being patronizing, but she hated her a little anyway and bullshitted her best smile to hide it. Only complete dumbasses weren’t nice to the girlfriend. Mr. Hollis wasn’t prehistoric, and even though his five driver’s licences showed four different ages, he was allowed to date.

“Are you going to tell her about the magic thing?”

Cherry hadn’t expected the cold shoulder. “You never tell anyone about what we do, Charlene. I didn’t think you capable of being this big an imbecile.”

Her eyes had smarted, and his were turned away.

They went from Knowles to Dickens, David Copperfield. She’d argued it was abuse. That was the year of many long arguments: She liked Marlowe, he liked Shakespeare, he liked Austen and she liked American Lit. Mr. Hollis set her to tossing M&Ms up in the air and slowing their descent, staring down his narrow nose in impatience at any cracks in their hard candy carapaces. It sucked.

And she might have been prodigious for fourteen, but not in science. That was the year she also had to stay half an hour after school for remedial physics, which was stupid, but Mr. Hollis was calmly unsympathetic: “Suck it down. You can’t pass high school with just one subject.” He was equally unsympathetic to the notion that, as a magician’s apprentice, physics was beneath her: “I still have a day job, Cherry.”

“You do not have a day job. Every so often a car comes around and you get in and then you come back with a suitcase full of cash. I’m not judging, I’m just saying that I bet you my whole life you are not making money off a David Copperfield Quiz Olympics.”

Whatever he was doing, he wouldn’t tell her. A big black car would pull up outside and he’d be waiting in a suit, and the driver would even open the door for him and he’d nod coolly like the guy was toilet paper attached to his heel. Cherry would hang around outside for hours and hours until he came back, and even then he’d only let her get a whiff of that new-money smell before the case shut and disappeared. She hoped all the time this meant Disneyland instead of college.

“I don’t care. I’m not countenancing your future ignorance if I have to live with it.” She asked furtively about higher education. “Ivy League, champ.” Oh, Jesus.

On the brighter side, that was also the year Callum asked her to the dance. He was older and wore seriously skinny jeans. Tenth graders usually weren’t all that interested in eighth graders, but they liked the same bands and she’d graduated to a real bra with an underwire and wore short shorts starting May. The first and last time she’d worn them to Mr. Hollis’s, his eyebrows shot up to his hairline.

“You seem to be sans pants.”

“They’re daisy dukes, old man. I am trying to maximise my coolness, okay?”

A newspaper page got flipped. “They looked better on Daisy Duke. Put on my gym pants before you go home.”

“That suggestion is completely horrifying.”

“Yes, Cherry?” Definitely not amused. His professor voice always turned into sharp, hard-edged vowels when he was pissed, like a movie villain. “Are you suffering hearing trouble? You’re a little slow with my lesson of not always getting your way.”

“But—”

“Cherry,” he said. “There are rapists out there. Serial killers. Look at the news for once: Girls get kidnapped constantly, and there are dead joggers in every alleyway. And for the bottom line, I made a request of my apprentice and I don’t ask twice.”

She wore his gym pants home. Wearing short shorts at school didn’t seem a blast any more either, and after the dance, in the back seat, Callum put his hand on her knee and she felt weird about it. The hunger gnawed at her stomach, and she made his car lurch forward in the parking lot each time his hand moved up her leg. “Wow!” she said. “Ghost car!” Callum dumped her the next day. Mr. Hollis handed her Kleenex when she cried.

• • • •

The spell that year was “stop.” She knew enough now to dread it. Mr. Hollis sat with her in meditative yoga poses on the floor of her living room as the scent of rot and old washing tickled her nose: She sneezed, she fidgeted, she popped her knuckles one by one until he came to show her how to hold her hands and then it was easy.

It was stupid easy, really. The trick was understanding gravity (thanks, remedial physics) and that she was working magic to oppose a force, not flow with one as she did rolling ball bearings. Cherry could make marble after marble hang in midair like tiny spaceships. Water shivered to a halt as Mr. Hollis upended a glass over the rug. Her master magician watched her progress over his newspaper or with an eye on a TiVo’d episode of Seinfeld while she tossed up handful after handful of flour to stop dead as fine white mist: The downside was that she got even hungrier than before.

That was the year of the accident. Some douchebag in a Ford came screaming out of the intersection as Mr. Hollis made a June-morning car ride to the beach. Cherry rode shotgun with the umbrella. Brakes squealed as the guy saw his mistake too late, about to plough right into the driver door, and she Stopped his car so hard that her fingernails twisted. Most of the tiny veins in her eyeballs popped. Blood leaked from her mouth and ears and nose as she gave everything, fed everything into the furnace of her magic as a starving body fed on tissue when out of options. The last thing she thought she saw were his hands, raised above the steering wheel, and then she blacked out.

When she woke up it was on his couch, to the smell of food. Every breath made her lungs scream. Mr. Hollis knelt next to her with a bowl and a forkful of gamey meat liberally covered in teriyaki sauce, and that meat smelled like fried chicken, like fudge sundaes and candyfloss, like everything that used to make her mouth water. The first bite she choked on in her eagerness. “For the love of God, slower,” he said, and, “Chew. Please. I’ve long forgotten how to Heimlich, Cherry.”

Each morsel of that meal warmed her from the tips of her toes to the crown of her skull. It was almost enough that she didn’t look at the expression on his face, the grim and painful tenderness, sweat sweeping back his dark hair. There were little sprays of grey at the temples. He wasn’t even forty, and the grey made her terribly sad somehow. But she was less sad than she was starving. “Whash ish thish.”

“Chew, swallow, rinse, wash, repeat,” he said, but the taut line of his mouth was softening. Cherry opened her mouth like a little baby bird for the next forkful. Her master magician hesitated uncharacteristically: “An hour ago this was real live goat.”

“That is literally disgusting,” she said. “Goats are adorable.” Mr. Hollis loaded up the fork again and she licked all the tines. The bloodied crust at her nose and eyes didn’t matter anymore. She could have run a marathon. “Is goat always this good? Because this is awesome.”

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, as your mentor.” The texture of the pale teriyaki fry-up was a little weird, a little dry, but he was mashing his fork against the side of the bowl to get her every last delicious bit. “When something dies, Cherry, it leaves a little bit of itself behind. That part, and I’ll call it life force, starts to dissipate out the body immediately. But if we get it and we get it fresh—well, we’re not hungry after that.”

“So we should just be fruitarians,” she said, wiping her tongue around the corners of her mouth. The hunger had eased, and the pain had driven a couple blocks away. “Pick apples off the trees, eat them right there.”

“If it was that easy, I’d be dismembering broccoli plants.”

“What do you do?”

“Terrible things to God’s own creatures, for you,” her master magician said, which struck her as a little evasive. The bowl went away. Cherry looked at the fine bones of his face as he cleaned up hers, his dignified jaw, his slash of a nose. His eyes: the unbelievably pale grey of snow three days old, with faint crow’s feet. Mr. Hollis was old before his time. Now he was dabbing her forehead, her ears, and he said, “You should have trusted me to take care of that car. Don’t you ever do that to me again, Charlene Murphy, or so help me I don’t know what I’ll do.”

She felt drunk, or at least what drunk probably felt like. “‘Cherry.’”

“You’re a brat.” He was touching her hair. “‘Charlene’ never did suit.”

“I like how you always called me Cherry.” She really was drunk. “Like: ma chérie, am I right?”

Mr. Hollis’s expression smoothed into something careful and polite, and he took his hand away from her hair. “Get some rest,” he said, and he laid his jacket over her legs as he stood up and took the bowl. There was neutral kindness in his voice, the type which made her burn with teen humiliation; or would’ve, if she hadn’t been high off feeling full and sleepy for the first time since forever. “No more magic for a while.”

Before she dozed off, she thought she heard him eating in the kitchen, cramming something into his mouth and chewing before frantic wet swallows.

• • • •

When she was fifteen, Mr. Hollis told her, “We’ve come this far, you and I. You can call me John.”

Cherry slipped up on it all the time, and called him “Mr. Hollis” more than she called him “John.” She practiced in the mirror with it: John, John, Johnny, Jack, John. John Hollis. John Hollis, the magician. Cherry Murphy, the apprentice. John and Cherry, Charlene and John.

She was too old and experienced to be in love with him, seriously, only stupid kids did that with their teachers—and as he said, she wasn’t stupid. He damned with faint praise. Cherry had come a long way: He was a God-King, but she was his lieutenant, his right hand and left, his Holy Ghost. She read Vonnegut and Faulkner without needing his recommendation. Cherry could also drive between the hours of twelve-thirty a.m. and five p.m., which was cool.

This was the year of the cappuccino, and they sat around his kitchen table sipping them as they swapped sections of the newspaper. It was also the year of the world’s most disappointing growth spurt. She’d made five foot one and stopped, resigned to Smurfitude until the next spurt hit, doomed to skinny legs and arms and brown hair that had never gone blonde. It was depressing. Even her eyes were heading more beigewards than chocolate. To cheer herself up, Cherry wore hipster scarves and bobby socks, and she gave all her daisy dukes to the Salvation Army.

“When are you going to move in with Jen?” she said. “This apartment smells like leprosy. I can’t believe how much you pay for it.”

“One day I may want to pick up and leave.”

“So you abide in this creepy shack instead? Are you this afraid of commitment?”

John was a champ with non-responses. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Yes, I would. No rhetorical.”

“Leave my love life alone, Cherry,” he said. “I won’t ask twice.”

He still set her bedtimes: twelve o’clock on weeknights, two o’clock on Saturday and Friday. Her dad was having a mid-life fatherhood AA crisis and kept having family dinners with her, telling her awkwardly she was looking more like Mom each day. To get through those meals, Mr. Hollis sometimes even set her menu. Like: Eat all your green vegetables, but nothing else. They both knew that table food was a joke.

The hunger was an old sickness. Eating the goat ruined her for everything else. Sometimes she and John went down to the sea where he shore fished, gutting his catch in record time, and they sat there gorging themselves on fresh raw perch squirted with hot sauce—but it was never really the same.

When they read together, she found herself leaning in so that their faces were nearly touching. Cherry let her bare shoulder touch the thin polyester of his shirt, imagining the hot blood going through his veins that made his skin warm through the fabric. She sat on the kitchen table and swung her legs from side to side as he worked at his laptop, completely ignored in a way that was nearly acknowledgement.

“Well, fifteen is a gulf away from fourteen,” said John one day, shoulders slumped back in his chair. “I think you’re old enough to have this.”

It was Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. Cherry turned the book over and over, feeling the weight of it in her hands like it was lead. “His novel about pedophilia,” she said, and regretted how dumb that sounded.

“That’s the obvious reading.” The chair tipped back and forth, his gaze on the ceiling in contemplation. “The other one is about devouring somebody’s life.”

It took her a while to get up the courage to read it. When she cracked open the cover, she broke his rule to spend three sleepless nights finishing the thing, reading it at lunchtimes, reading it in study hall in another dustcover, skipping gym and reading it in the park. When she tried to talk about it, he was so removed on the subject that she stopped, angry somehow, like he’d breached the terms of their contract—and he shook away her hand when she rested her fingers over his own.

“For someone so clever, you can be an unbelievably stupid kid,” he said abruptly.

That shot told. “I haven’t been a kid in a while, John.”

“You’re a child, Charlene. Don’t fool yourself. You don’t know anything.”

So she stopped touching him. That was the year she felt very tired.

• • • •

The spell that year was “make.” If she’d still been riding high on last year’s successes, it would have killed her; as it was, she spent her time mechanically breathing life back into dead matches, watching the blackened wood burst into flame that spluttered out as quickly as it flared. Cherry spent long nights trying to coax water to ice and ice to water again with red raw hands. “Make” was a double-edged sword. Creating things was easy enough, but sustaining them was like eating soup with a fork, and after the most half-assed attempt, she’d be so hungry that she’d chew her hair and her nails trying to make the feeling go away. Sometimes she thought about eating Styrofoam peanuts just to fill up the space in her gut.

Mr. Hollis withdrew from her into an armoured shell, emerging only sporadically, like he was guilty for the absence. Cherry was good at absences, the best, and it hardly hurt unless you thought about it suddenly. He sat across the kitchen table with a crossword, a great wall of silence spanning between master and apprentice as she tried to make a bud unfurl on his spider plant. Sometimes he’d stand by the window and make tiny incisions in the air with his fingers, and then Jen would suddenly show up and she’d be kicked out and flipping the bird at his closed door. She was pretty surprised when that summer came and she got dragged off to the beach as per usual; she almost thought he’d cancel summer due to lack of goddamned interest.

There was no comment on her bikini that long, hot July. She kicked around in the tidal pools trying to make starfishes grow back their legs, slathered with sunscreen and visceral disappointment. John spent his time under the umbrella with the newspaper, and she spent her time talking to dusty blond surfer boys with loud-patterned board shorts.

Seagulls cawed. He was fiddling with his sunglasses, saying nothing. The crow’s feet were tracking deeper indents at his eyes and mouth than they had when she’d first met him; back then she’d never noticed his age, only that he was old. Now he just looked young with premature crow’s feet. “You need some Botox,” she added, and unnecessarily reached out her hand to touch his cheek.

John flinched, then pretended he hadn’t. “God only knows, Cherry,” he said, with a little bit of the old humour. “Sometimes I feel there’s nothing left to teach you. Maybe it’s time to move on.”

That made her a little bit crazy, and with hunger it made her frantic. Matches, spider plants, and ice cubes lost all appeal, June lost its sunshine. She threw herself down on her bed and cradled her head like her thoughts would pop off the top of her skull. Fuelled by his retreat and his distance, the specter of that idea haunted her like Casper the Friendly Ghost on meth.

When she turned up on his doorstep at 2 a.m., he didn’t look surprised, just tired. “You can’t send me away any more,” she said. “You see, I’ve got nowhere else to go.”

His apartment at night was full of unfamiliar shapes, the fan wafting stale air around the room and the carpet sticky beneath her feet. Without saying a word, he led her to his hall closet, putting her hand on the doorknob before sitting down at the kitchen table in his sweatpants and t-shirt. John didn’t look at her, just rubbed his hands together like restless birds.

“I was waiting for you to grow up,” he said.

After she flicked the light bulb on, the closet was full of jackets and beach umbrellas, stacks of books and an old vacuum cleaner. Half-hidden beneath a parka was a freshly dead stranger in jogging shoes whose thighs had been carefully sectioned and long strips of meat taken away. There was blood underfoot. At the familiar smell of old putrefaction overlaying new putrefaction, she gagged until tears came into her eyes; it filled her nostrils. It filled her mouth.

“Magicians eat,” he said, looking at her with eyes the colour of ghosts. “We eat more and more and more, Cherry Murphy, of anything we can get our hands on.” A careless shrug. “Just look at me. I ate your childhood.”

The doorframe scored her back as she dropped to her haunches, hugging her knees tightly to her chest. Every so often, she’d involuntarily gag again, rocking back and forth until John came and carried her away. She gagged into his chest and struggled when he put her in his lap, fisting her hands in his t-shirt, wadding it up into her lips so that she wouldn’t scream. His hand threaded hard through her hair. Saliva filled up her mouth and overflowed in trickles down his front.

She was crying so hard she couldn’t say a word. His fingers finally tugged his shirtfront away from her teeth as she drew more and more down her gullet. On her shoulders, his thumbs dug deep into her collarbones, and now that he was looking at her, his eyes were sunken and gleaming like the hearts of white stars. Every line in his face was deep and hard and old.

“It was never goat, was it?”

“Sweetheart, I couldn’t kill a goat,” said Mr. Hollis. “They’re adorable.”

This close up, he smelled of acrid sweat and Listerine and her spittle, and her master magician had his arm around her to tether her down. He’d killed someone. He’d stashed them in his closet. He’d done it before. With an awful, dreadful surety, he slowly pressed her head into the table.

“Ball’s in your court,” said John.

Her stomach growled.

“I want some teriyaki sauce and a fork,” said Cherry.

Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir

Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose works have appeared in Nightmare Magazine, F&SF, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld. Her fiction has received nominations for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. She is from Howick, New Zealand.