Science.

First thing’s first, I suppose. My name is Marten Randall, and I’m not quite sure what you should call me; there’s a patent silliness and pretension behind words like ‘wizard’ or ‘magician.’ I do not wear peaked hats, nor do I pull rabbits out of hats. I’m even uncomfortable with calling what I do ‘magic,’ because there’s a certain connotation that goes along with that term, making it sound miraculous or unsystematic. Rather, call me a scientist in the proper sense of the word. After all, my studies are certainly systematic and if I’m not peering into the mysteries of the natural world, no one else is.

Of course, scientists like myself don’t just emerge from the ether, rather, I was raised into a proud family tradition of exploring what my parents called ‘the tear.’ The current prevailing theory is that what laypeople would call ‘magic’ is merely the manipulation of rents into the fabric of the universe where different realities overlap with each other. Just as with geologic phenomena, where rock layers can become plastic due to heat and pressure such is the same with ‘magic.’ These rents or tears are what are commonly ley-lines which are unobservable through traditional methods, and have to be sought out through specially made glasses and measuring tools. Once on these ley-lines, using ‘sensitive’ parts of traditional reality, and with the right arrangement of signs and figures, we can bypass the traditional laws of physics and manipulate reality in ways that we see fit.

So, don’t think of magic wands or top hats, think of studious, careful and rigorous examination that has all the vigor of astronomy but with, let’s say…less traditional methods. By way of example and explanation, I want to explain my first experiment.

The family’s line of work was well known to me, and wasn’t something I was shielded from. However, the basement was strictly off-limits until my tenth birthday, a day that I doubt it’s possible to ever forget.

It was an unseasonably cold October morning. I woke up early because my parents had scheduled the day off months in advance with my school, and realized when I got out of bed that I had forgotten to feed Harry, my pet rabbit, at the time I was supposed to. In a panic, I ran downstairs, remembering my parents solemn warnings that, “If you want a pet, it’s your responsibility and yours alone.” That was two years ago, and I hadn’t forgotten to feed Harry a single time, and changed his bedding every day. So, you can imagine my near panic when I got to his cage and saw that it was empty.

I cried out for my parents, only to bring my dad walking calmly into my room with Harry in his arms. Even though he usually didn’t like to be held, he sat quite comfortably in my dad’s arms, his eyes open but his breathing steady and calm. Dad stroked his pristine white fur as gentle as could be as he approached me. “Looking for someone?”

I reached out for Harry, who was my only confidant due to being quite unpopular at school. Even at that age, I knew that his cognition wasn’t nearly on the level of ours, and that he didn’t have the affection for me that I had for him, but that didn’t help my distress at all. “Come downstairs, Marten. Your mother and I wish to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry I forgot to feed him this morning! I didn’t mean to sleep in!” Tears were streaming down my face, terrified that my best friend was going to be taken away from me. Dad saw the look on my face and his was crossed with a look of sorrow. He patted my back and herded me down into the living room. This is when I realized that they were both outfitted in their labcoats and scrubs, which wasn’t unusual since they both worked from home, but they tended to work late at night when the boundaries between realities is at its weakest.

“Please don’t take Harry away from me!” I cried at my mom as I ran into her arms.

She soothed and stroked my back, telling me over and over that everything was okay, that everything would be okay. After my tears had stopped, she got down on my level, and wiped away the residue that they left on my cheeks. She kissed my forehead and smiled a sad smile, “Today is a very special day, Marten. Today is the day that you’ll start helping your father and I in the lab.”

I caught my breath, let it out slowly and looked up at her, my mother who always had a hug, kiss and smile for me, who would never tell me that things would be okay if that was a lie. “So why does dad have Harry?”

She stood up and put her hand out for me, “Come down to the lab with me, dear heart.”

Their lab was what you would expect from any other science lab: spotless, stainless steel and glassware filled with various liquids. Refrigerators, freezers and other storage lined every wall but one, which was brickwork. There were chunks of raw chalk on a table at the center of the wall, along with some diagrams. I was shepherded towards the table, and mom clasped my shoulders from behind, directing my attention at the blank brick wall. “You know how hard mom and dad’s work is, and that it takes a lot out of us, right?” I nodded my ascent, “And you know that we would never pressure you into following in our footsteps, and that your happiness is the most important thing in the world to your father and I?”

“Marten, you can always turn back, but in order to really get you up to speed and at our level when you reach our age, we need to begin your training this year.” This was said by my father as he brought some large, black nails and a hammer over to the table with his free hand, holding Harry in the crook of his elbow with the other. “Neither of us would ever lie to you, and I’m being very serious when I say that this is the hardest part to our work.”

The emotions that were roiling through my young mind were varied and complicated, far beyond what a boy of my age should’ve been feeling. I was excited and scared to begin my family’s work, I was happy that my parents were being so gentle and considerate with me, but beyond those was my concern and confusion for my poor rabbit. “So, why is Harry down here?”

“Marten, you know how we talked about ghosts when you were younger? What did we tell you?” Now it was dad’s turn to get onto his haunches and meet my eyes.

“You said that consciousness creates ripples in reality, and that ripples can affect the rest of the world and create long lasting impressions in it.” I repeated, from heart.

“And that these ripples interact with each other and create bonds between different consciousnesses?” He was walking me through the process, making sure that I knew every part of the experiment before it began. All I could do was nod, still far away from understanding what, precisely, was happening. “Our work depends on those ripples, because that’s what’s used to manipulate the ley-lines that rest under our home. So, when those ripples act with each other, we can then tear them apart which will send such a shock through the ley-line that we can manipulate it in specific ways. Do you understand?”

Horror spread across my face. I clasped my hands over my face, as if I could ward off what they wanted me to do, but when I withdrew my hands, they were still there.

“This is part of what makes our work so difficult, dear heart. There are other ways to manipulate the lines, but the most effective, the most potent way, is to create a strong emotional bond with…” my mom’s face creased in consternation and her eyes reflected heart break. “With a sacrifice.” She let those words sink into my mind as I struggled at speech. “Once again, Marty, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. This is going to be incredibly hard, and it will hurt you very deeply. Your father and I will support you, no matter what you do, and if you want to take Harry back upstairs, give him his breakfast and just enjoy your day off, then that would be okay with us, I promise.” The looks on their faces confirmed that she wasn’t just saying this.

I looked from my parents to Harry, my best friend, my only friend. His wide, innocent eyes and his soft fur. I wanted to cry, but I knew I had to be strong. That if I wasn’t strong, this wouldn’t go the way it needed to. In the end, even though the very thought of doing it still hurts me, I nodded and reached for Harry. “What’s the experiment?”

Dad handed Harry to me while mom brought the rest of the equipment to the table. “First, you need to pin Harry’s paws to the wall with iron nails, then you cut him from the throat to the rectum with a silver blade and then use silver pins to hold his chest open. The elements are very important, as they amplify the waves you create through the action of killing Harry. After that, you’ll see for yourself.”

It took a half an hour, all told, but it felt like a small age as I inflicted the worst pain I could imagine on my friend. I could barely see straight from the tears that I shed, and my hands shook with each action. Gratefully, my parents helped with the nails, and they held and soothed me when it got to be too much. I insisted on pressing on, knowing that this was my duty, that following in the family tradition was important to me and that, once the first nail went in, there was no turning back.

After I stuck the last pin into his still body, blood coating everything that I’ve touched and Harry’s white fur stained a livid red, the air thrummed like a string was plucked. Where there was a gory, awful hole in Harry’s chest, I could now see a star field that stretched into infinity. Dad placed his hand on my shoulder and said in a gentle voice, “The hard part is over. Now, all you do is reach into his chest with both hands and keep pushing in.”

I did as I was asked, choking down vomit as I did. But instead of feeling rabbit organs, and instead of touching the back of his insides, I reached farther and farther into the cosmos until I felt something grab me. I looked back at my parents in a panic, but they stood back by about twenty feet. Dad’s arm was around mom’s shoulder. “You’re going to be okay, Marty. I promise.”

All at once, I was pulled through Harry’s body, and emerged into the impossible. I gazed out as the universe stretched on beyond me. I looked backwards, and stumbled backwards. If my heart was pounding fast before, now it felt like it was going to explode. I wanted to scream, I wanted to run, but all I could do was trip over my feet and gaze up at a creature that defies explanation. It gazed at me dispassionately with its numerous eyes and charged directly at me with a speed that would have seemed impossible yesterday.

It seized me with its appendages and gasped in pain as tentacle cups lined with needles dug into my arms. Its horrible face, asymmetrical and multifacted like a diamond drew closer to me and I felt the world that I used to know die around me. I trembled as the collected knowledge of every member of my family was forced into my mind while the thing in front of me worked its many jaws, drool dripping over its thousands of teeth. I began to seize up as the information overload increased, but it didn’t let go.

I could see the Earth as it was crossed with hundreds of lines, all glowing bright green. I could see every inhabited planet throughout the universe, countless diagrams and the ways that all of the elements work with consciousness. All of this and far more, stretching and distorting my young mind beyond anything that should be possible. As the information load increased in speed and the horror of it all reached its apex, I couldn’t help but lose consciousness.

When I awoke, my parents bent over me and looked down at my still body as I met their gaze from the floor. My hair had turned completely white, and I wasn’t able to speak for a week, but the ordeal was over. I looked back at the brick wall, and saw that Harry had vanished and the brickwork looked as if nothing had happened to it. My parents gathered me up and told me that they were very proud of me while they carried me back to bed. I lay down and fell asleep, trusting that the terror was over, but it was actually just beginning.

Sacrifice.

Elizabeth locked the door behind her at two AM. She couldn’t remember the last time that she was so tired. The struggle just to make ends meet was slowly starting to catch up to her, and she could rapidly see the day that she would no longer be able to keep up with the work load that she needed to. Taking off her uncomfortable shoes, she slouched onto a kitchen chair and rubbed her temples. Not being a drinker, she didn’t have anything around to take the edge off the night, and she was grateful for that. She didn’t need one more worry to add to her load, after all.

As she often found herself doing at the end of the month, she looked over her bills and began to prioritize the ones that could be put off, versus those that she couldn’t. Healthcare needed to be paid for, so that was at the top of the pile, then the credit card that she needed to buy groceries, and then rent and at the bottom was utilities. Wearily, knowing that there wouldn’t be a better time to do so with three children, all under twelve, running around, she did the math by hand and found that there might be a little left extra. This would then go towards a trip to Goodwill and not much more.

This little victory in mind, she turned off the lights, and walked the short hallway to her children’s room. She looked in on them, all sleeping soundly, and was momentarily grateful for the toil. They were good kids, and they knew what their mother went through for them. They tried their best, but she knew that difficult years were ahead of them. She remembered her own troubled upbringing and could only hope that their adolescence would be less of a burden on her than she was on her own parents.

She went to the bathroom, took off her uniform, washed up and brushed her teeth. And then, as she so often did, she brought out her rosary and began to say her prayers. She knew that she hadn’t been to church for weeks, and that she hadn’t been to confessional for months, but her kids were being brought up in the faith and trusted that God would look kindly on her for it. She just didn’t know when. Her time was not His, and all things work towards the good.

The beads passed through her fingers as she worked her grandmother’s rosary, until she felt a cold breeze blow through her. She shuddered a little and rubbed her arms before continuing, but it only got colder and colder. She looked for what it could be, and was left without a cause that she could discern. The windows were closed, and even if they weren’t, it was May; there was no reason that it should be so cold. She put on a robe and resumed her rosary.

She rubbed her hands together, looked down at them and when she did, she found that her room was filled with a bizarre light. All at once, she felt dizzy and fell to her knees. Had God sent an angel? Was Christ coming to visit her? There, striding out of the master bathroom was her answer, and she knew all at once that she couldn’t be more wrong.

He was painfully beautiful, that was the first thing she noticed. He wasn’t of any discernible ethnicity, and his face hurt to look at. She expected that he would be dressed finely, but saw that he was wearing clothes that wouldn’t get him a second glance anywhere that she was familiar with. She thought to herself that it must be a trick and she reminded herself that she needs to be on her guard, that he was the prince of lies and deceit.

“Rise to your feet and face me, daughter.” His voice was musical, sonorous and so deep that it made the air vibrate around her. “You will find no deception and no games in my visit. Even if my Father cannot hear you, I do. I see what you do for your family, and I am in common cause with you.” Elizabeth stood, but did not look at him. “Why do you divert your eyes, daughter?”

“It hurts to look at you. And I am no daughter of yours! I know who you are!” She held her rosary out in front of her as a ward.

He strode towards her and touched the rosary with his bare hand and ran his fingers over the cross. “That is a beautiful rosary. Your grandmother loved it well, as did her mother before her. It is a fine relic, but it will not do me any harm. Nor will I do you any harm.” With that, she saw that the light dimmed in the room and she was able to look at him. His face was kind, but troubled, and was sunken with deep lines and creases. There were scars on his face, the sort that would have been received long ago, from very serious injuries. He held his hand out to her and she saw that it was the sort that saw long toil. His was a beauty that was otherworldly, somehow all the more breathtaking because of his scars and roughness rather than in spite of them.

“What do you want from me?” Her fear did not diminish, but she knew that her visitor couldn’t just be ignored or pushed away. This was something that she would have to face.

“I want you to have the life you deserve. I want your children to have the lives they deserve.” He said simply.

“Leave my children alone!” She shouted, as if in impulse, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked out the bedroom door into the hall of the apartment.

“Your children cannot hear us, daughter. This meeting is between us, and us alone. There is no need for them to know what transpires here.” The musical quality of his voice reminded her of someone who was trained to sing, who had done so for years of their life, but who hadn’t done so in a very long time.

“Why do you keep calling me daughter? I have no relation to you. The angels, even you, are separate creations from humans.”

“It’s a term of art, I assure you. You are my daughter as are all those who work in endless toil, thankless for duties that they did not willingly enter into. Being a worker, with no choice in the matter and no joy in the work, that is how you are my daughter. That is how we know one another.” He eased himself down onto her bed, sitting on it with ease, as if this were the most ordinary thing in the world for him. “Elizabeth Hartley, can you remember the last relaxing day that you have had?”

She waited for him to go on, expecting that this was a prepared speech that he would launch into, whether she wanted him to or not. But when he didn’t, “I…it’s been years. Probably high school, to be honest.”

“That is true.” All at once, she felt herself lifted from this moment, to that. “A family vacation to Malibu. Your parents had put away money for it, knowing that such outings were a rarity. None of you had been to the ocean before, and you still strain to remember the scent of the ocean and the feel of the sand under your feet.” And then, the memory became a memory again.

He extended a hand towards her and she found herself reaching for his. “Daughter, I do not say this to trouble you, or to hurt you. Your prayers fall on deaf ears. There will come no relief to you, or your burdens.” He said this with a kindness that made her heart hurt.

“What do you mean?” She looked at him imploringly, and once again, she felt herself lifted from this time and this place and to another one. She found herself in a cemetery. She looked around, and found that she was alone. Left with no other option, she bundled her robe closer to her and she stepped towards the rows of gravestones. She didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was walking, but she slowly felt herself compelled in a single direction, until she knew she was where she needed to go.

There, in front of her, was her tombstone. “Elizabeth Hartley, devoted mother. Born, April 10th, 1986. Died, August 25th, 2017.”

She felt all the blood drain from her body, and she collapsed on the cold, wet grass beneath her. His hand went to her shoulder, and she looked up at him. “What does this mean? Why are you showing this to me?”

“It was an accident with the bus. A rain storm came in, fierce and roaring. The roads went from safe to flooded in a matter of moments. Someone ran in front of the bus, it swerved to miss them, and the roads made a safe stop impossible. Your bus tips over and several cars run into it, as it lay on its side.” As he spoke, she knew that he told the truth. She could smell the rain and the gasoline. She could smell the fire that would erupt from the accident, little more than a year from now.

“Your children will go to foster homes. Without any living relatives, the state is left with no other choice. Franklin’s foster parents will beat him, starve him and collect the benefits from his negligence until he runs away. His only option is to join a gang and begin selling drugs. Stephanie’s foster parents are good people, but all the goodness in the world will not save them from the gas leak that will take them all in their sleep.” He looked down at her beseeching face, “I will not tell you what happens to Gus.”

She shook her head, “Tell me. I need to know.”

“He never recovers from the loss of you. Without a strong, guiding hand, he wanders from foster home to foster home. Eventually, being unable to be placed, he settles into a group home. He goes into its bathroom one night, unaware of the other boys who have been watching him and-”

She cut him off. “Enough.” She stood back up and faced him, and it was only then that she saw what he once was. A beautiful, merciful and joyful being. A creature that gloried in creation, and sang with his master. “Will you stop with this and just tell me what you want from me?”

“I can save you from this fate. I can save your children from this fate. It is within my power to do so; all you have to do is trust me.”

“How? How can I trust you? I know who you are! How can I even trust that what you tell me is the truth?” He was left silent at this, knowing that there was no way that he could bring her to trust him. “Why do you care?”

They were back in her bedroom, and he was once again sitting. “Millions of prayers are given to God every day. From the poor, the wretched and the forgotten. These are the people that Christ was supposed to represent. He spoke of them more than any other group, after all. They look to the skies and they beg for help. They live chaste, good lives, thanklessly working their way into pauper’s graves. They receive no reward and no kindness for the struggle that they enter into by no fault of their own.” He paused. “His is a religion of the conquerors. His is a religion of those with full stomachs and sated desires.”

She bowed her head as she reflected on his words, thinking of them carefully, and what they portend. “You want me to worship you?”

He laughed. Once again, she was reminded of who he used to be, timeless eons ago. His laughter was the richest music that she had ever heard, and she knew that she would long to hear it again for the rest of her days. “What would I ever want with worshipers, daughter? I left heaven and service because compelled worship is no life at all. Why would I want that for you?” He shook his head, but smiled warmly to her.

“I recognize that this is no small thing for you, and I realize that my word has very little value for you. But, I will offer you this: in five years, I will visit you again. If you wish to go back on our deal, then you will be able to do so. And in five years after that, and five years after that. All I ask is that, when the time comes, you accompany me to my home.” He held his hand up before she started to speak, “I know that this is no reward for you. But I also know that you will not be willing to let your children meet their ignominious end if you can help it. If you agree to my terms, you will receive a job offer tomorrow. This will be for three times what you’re making right now, and will allow you to eventually save up for a home and a car, then college for your children.”

She nodded and chewed on her bottom lip. She thought and thought, and was eventually aware that much time had passed since they had started this conversation. How long had they been sitting there? She looked at the bedside clock, and saw that no time had passed at all, which didn’t surprise her.

She bowed her head, looking down at her hands, “And after the last visit?”

“You know what will happen after my last visit. But you will have a balm that will protect you, which does not protect many of my other fellow denizens. You will know that you are with us for a good reason, and you will know that your children will lead happy, healthy and full lives. That is more than an uncountable number of other souls.”

And so, she put her rosary aside. With a heavy heart, she reached out to shake his hand. “It’s a deal.”

As soon as they shook hands, the light was gone and she was left alone, once again.

She set back to going to sleep, and for once, found herself looking forward to the following day.