The Foolish Apprentice

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“I told you how to do this already.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.

Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered back.

“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”

Jess looked back at him blankly.

“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”

He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft, golden glow.

“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”

“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”

“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”

Jess balled his hands into fists.

This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.

“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed and drilled himself in the essentials.”

“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”

“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”

“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.

“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”

Jess looked like he was going to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.

“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”

A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forte), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.

“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was in his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”

“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened.

“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.

Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”

Amos reached into empty space once again, and this time Jess paid attention.

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Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

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Choices

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Janelle stood before a network of interconnected roads, celestial paths across space and time that fanned out into the horizon and beyond, forking and dividing in an increasingly complex and unforeseeable set of possible futures. So many choices. It was dizzying, thinking of all the places she might go, all the things she might see. Some were good. Others were not.

She hesitated.

She’d spent her whole life preparing for this moment, taught by her tribe from birth that someday she would have to stand before the Great Road and walk toward her destiny.

They’d promised her a guide, someone who would travel beside her unseen and pick her up when she couldn’t go on by herself. But now, at the outset of her journey, she felt alone, and that made her afraid.

Faced with an infinite array of choices, how was she supposed to pick the right one? She could see one, perhaps two steps ahead, could calculate the probabilities and possible outcomes as she saw them, but beyond? Her journey might have promising beginnings, yet end in disaster only a few steps ahead. Every step forward, every fork in the road was another risk, and one way or the other, whether her travels were long or short, fortunate or unfortunate, no path continued forever. One day, at the end of her road, there would be a door, ready to take her to the other side. Not knowing where that door might be or where it would lead terrified her.

But she couldn’t stand here forever. Some had tried, had spent their entire lives paralyzed by indecision, too afraid to move. But they had eventually been escorted away in shame, forced through their own door before their journey had even begun. Janelle had no desire to pass over her journey.

The end, she realized, would come for her whether she was ready or not, so what was the point in stalling? She would have to go, hope she was headed in the right direction and trust that her unseen guide would catch her if she fell. Her tribe had said the first step would be the hardest, that once she got moving she wouldn’t want to stop. It was time to see if that was true.

She took a deep breath, her heart thumping in her chest like an overworked piston. She glanced down at her feet, swallowed a lump that had formed in the back of her throat. She lifted one foot, then the other.

There was a shift, an instant of double vision as the world changed, and then her surroundings resolved. She looked around, overcome by cosmic beauty such as she had never seen before. She was overcome with joy. Now she was hooked. The fear remained, but was superseded by a deeper desire, an inborn need to discover what else was out there. There was a whole road just for her. There would be joys and sorrows, conveniences and hardships, but in the end, it would all add up to one hell of an adventure.

Janelle found the next fork. Stepped. The world shifted.

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Journey’s End

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It was big. World-sized big. It towered over her, blocking her path. So, this was what her journey had come to. Centuries of trudging through deserts and mountains, seas and jungles, space and time, only so that minutes from her journey’s end, a stone wall could block her path. It shot up into the sky and out of sight, extended to the left and right as far as the eye could see.

She fell to the dusty ground, bowed her head and cried.

She could remember when she’d first set out, how young and beautiful she’d been, so full of ambition and drive. She cleaved to her mission with an almost childlike devotion. Then she aged. Her features weathered, until she was like many of the deserts she’d passed through on the way. Youthful optimism yielded first to caution, then to exhaustion. In the end, only gritty persistence and determination saw her come so close to the other side.

She’d faced many obstacles, pushed through quite a few toils, trials and dangers. There were times when she was convinced she couldn’t go on, when she thought in long bouts of despair that she might as well lay down to die, letting her bleached bones adorn her incomplete path, serving as a warning to others who might dare follow in her footsteps. Then she reconsidered, thinking that perhaps she should encourage rather than frighten her fellow explorers. After all, more were setting out every day for the same reason she had, to be a part of something bigger, something transcendent and everlasting. So instead she let her struggle bear witness to the fact that anything was possible, that if you wanted something badly enough you could seize it by sheer will-power alone.

And that’s all this was, she realized, another obstacle, one more test before she could finally indulge in the fruit of her labor. She only had to be strong, to pick herself up from the ground one last time.

She rose. Beat the dust out of her shirt, pants and boots. Wiped away her tears. She stared at the rock face before her, until a grim smile pushed past her ancient features.

“Okay,” she said to the wall. “Let’s do this.”

She launched herself at it, pried, picked and climbed for as long as she could. But the hard granite surface was unyielding. It dug into her skin, scratching, tearing, bleeding.

Then, just when she’d offered all her strength, when she felt she had no blood left to shed, a harsh baritone rumble swallowed the world. The wall moved down, sucked into the Earth. She watched, mesmerized, until first the sky, then the mountains beyond became visible. An entire vista opened before her eyes, a glittering otherworldly refuge of gold, silver and crystal. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

When the last of the wall had disappeared beneath the ground, she stepped forward. She’d done it. She was on the other side.

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