I like to write something different in between finishing a novel and starting either the next one or the edits. Thus, below: the first episode of a weird little story about an alternate 1980s, Boston, and magic plants. Because what the hell?
* * *
I knew the girl was trouble from the start.
Isn’t that always how it goes? Except usually the girl’s some platinum-blonde with legs up to Milwaukee and a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, not a stray-cat-skinny kid about twelve. Also, I didn’t know she was in trouble when she walked into my office, because I don’t have an office and I didn’t see her walk in. Hell, I didn’t even hear the bell.
See, it was 5:45 on a Wednesday, which meant fifteen minutes until the end of my shift and the beginning of my day off, and I was shutting down by myself that night. Normally I have help, but Ellen came down with a case of bad oysters–or a case of new boyfriend–and left me to play Tetris with twenty plastic tubs of flowers, each one half as tall as I am. Most of them go in the show coolers, the ones with the glass doors where we keep the fragile stuff during the day, the stuff that costs ten bucks a stem; the flowers that only have a day or two left go in the back, in the big cooler that we call the “dead zone” like that creepy fucking novel I read a few years back. No glass doors on that baby, just a big iron number with a bar as thick as my forearm.
I’m not supposed to take flowers back to the dead zone until we’re completely closed, not if I’m alone. But like I said:it was fifteen minutes before I was out for the day, I wasn’t supposed to be alone, and it’s not like any of the crap we keep out front would make much of a dent in our profits if it did sprout legs. Besides, Joe would never fire me. I’m the only one who can make the credit card machine work–it’s like I’m the lone person in this store who gets that it’s 1987 and time won’t start running backwards anytime soon.
So I get back from the dead zone, shivering despite my sweater–a yeti would feel right at home in that place–and there was this kid coming out of our greenhouse holding a plant.
She was tall for her age, which still put her about a foot shorter than me. She was wearing enough layers to look plump, but her face and her wrists said skinny, maybe scrawny if you want to talk like my mom. Skin was a light brown, a couple shades paler than mine; hair was short, badly cut, and even more badly dyed. Jet black might have worked okay on this girl, if she’d sprung for a good salon job, but whatever she used ended up looking almost green.
“Help you?” I said, clearly impatient, though I didn’t have the barely concealed the-hell-do-you-want in my voice that I would have had with an adult.
All the same, she kind of cringed, and it took a second for her to get her voice. “This–is it good for protection?” She held up the plant.
It was holly, miniature but still about as big as her torso. I was surprised she could carry it, and I reached out to help, but she pulled it back against her chest. I couldn’t tell if that was independence or attachment, so I moved right on.
“Yeah. Yeah, but it’s just a regular plant. Not activated.”
I got basic magical theory in fifth grade–from Mrs. Wagner, who was even less comfortable with it than she was with sex ed–and so did most other people I know, but maybe the kid’s younger than she looks, or maybe education is going to hell these days like my dad keeps saying. I went into the quick version, though I tried to sound extra-helpful: I felt bad about making her flinch before.
“Enchanted,” I said. “Normal plants talk to the universe. Activated ones yell. And the universe nearly always listens to them.”
“Oh,” she said, and looked down at the holly bush.
“We don’t actually have any activated live plants in here,” I added Those are special order, mostly because activation is a first-class pain in the ass. You have to plant and tend whatever-it-is in a specific phase of the moon, at least; the more powerful a plant is, the more specific bullshit it takes to activate it. I cross-index my mental list: protection plus activation. “We’ve got some cut white roses, though.”
She shook her head right away. “I need something alive.”
“Okay.” Good, in fact. She didn’t look like she had a lot of money, and activated white roses are crazy expensive, even as cut flowers. They’ll get worse for us, too, once Joe’s youngest turns eleven and we have to pay some unrelated kid to work with the rosebushes. “Come over to the register and I’ll ring you up.”
She came over slowly. Close up, I noticed that her eyes were brilliant green, almost the same color as the holly leaves. I also noticed a couple other things, things that made me think she wants a protective plant for something more serious than a kid sister who won’t stop borrowing her stuff.
Like, her jeans were ripped, which could have been stylish, but they were also stained in a bunch of places–black smears that look like motor oil, a big blotch of what I hope is ketchup–which definitely wasn’t. She was wearing a teal Members Only jacket, about seven sizes too big for her, and that was ripped and stained too. Her sneakers had holes in the toes.
And there was a big old bruise on one side of her face. It was fading a little, and her skin was dark enough to hide it some, but it was there.
When she put down the plant, keeping one hand on it like it might run off or I might yank it away, I saw that two of her fingernails had been ripped off.
“Jesus and Freya,” I said. “Kid, what happened to you?”
“Nothing,” Loud and sharp, that answer, and she hitched her shoulders up like she could hide behind them. “I’m fine. How much?”
“Nothing,” I said. Joe could take it out of my salary if he needed to.
She shook her head. “I can’t take a gift. How much?”
I didn’t know if she was talking out of pride or what, and it didn’t really matter. “Okay, ten cents. But–look, if you’re having trouble, maybe I can help, or maybe I know someone who can?”
She shook her head again, that stiff dyed hair falling over one eye. Seriously, it looked like she cut it with pinking shears.
I didn’t want to push too hard. If I do that, she might bolt, without even the plant for protection. I just shrugged. “Well, I’m around four days a week if you ever do need a hand. Saturday through Wednesday, all day. Ten cents, please.”
She dug around in her pocket and finally handed over a grimy nickel. Then she grabbed the plant and took off, bolting through the door like a demon was breathing up her ass. The door slammed behind her, and all that was left was a set of muddy footprints and a couple stray leaves from the holly plant.
I didn’t chase her. I didn’t think I could catch her, especially not running through the streets of Cambridge. Kids have an advantage there, being smaller and finding it easier to maneuver between tourists. Instead, I finished counting out the cash and locking up. Then I picked up one of the leaves and thought.
On the one hand, the kid’s situation wasn’t my business, and she probably wouldn’t want me prying, and maybe the cops or the Venkmen couldn’t help her. The law’s got some holes you could drive a truck through, especially where kids are concerned. My mom’s an attorney, and boy can she ever tell stories.
But shit, someone should make it their business at least to check, and it looked like that someone was going to be me.
I put the leaf into my pocket. I wasn’t much of a wizard, but I’d been working at Joe’s for four years, ever since I got out of college, and I’d paid attention in at least a couple of my classes. The supplies for a tracking spell were pretty basic: if I didn’t have them in my apartment, I bet I could pick them up at a 7-11.
* * *
Tracking spells come easy to me. They always have, probably for the same reason I’m good at figuring out shortcuts, but I’ve still never done many of them. Most people don’t. They’re great for finding your lost dog or meeting up with your friend in a strange city, but they’ve got two problems. The first is that you need a bit of whatever you’re looking for—a hair will usually do the job, and you can sometimes get away with clothes for people—and the second is that most of them are illegal.
Technically, even the meeting-your-friend variety is against the law, it’s just that nobody presses charges. Tracking anything you don’t own, or any person–though there are exceptions for parents, teachers, cops, and so on–without consent can get you five years in jail, and that consent has to be explicit and witnessed. Most people figure there’s easier ways of finding what they’re after.
Not being this kid’s parent or teacher, I was kind of risking my ass.
I thought of that about halfway through the spell, once I’d already lit the candle and stirred the water, and just before I dropped the leaf into it. And yeah, I hesitated. I didn’t know the kid. She wasn’t one of my nieces.
But she could’ve been.
Plus, I told myself, I wasn’t going in with gun and mystic dagger like some kind of girl Rambo. I was going to follow the spell and take a look around. If the kid looked okay, I’d leave. If it looked like she was homeless or like her folks were beating on her, I’d leave and talk to the cops, or social services, or whoever. That was all.
I dropped the leaf. It settled in the water and started to glow. While I watched it, a green streamer came out: it looked like steam from a pie in old cartoons, the kind that can lift hoboes and cats off their feet. I’d have no such luck. I’d have to walk.
Before I left, though, I grabbed my silver knife–the one I use for cutting the plants I can activate–and stuck it in my purse. I wasn’t looking to get into a fight, but you never knew.
I followed the trail out of my apartment and into the streets. At five-forty-five, the April evening was doing its best New England bit, all wind that cut right through your clothes and rain just this side of snow, even though it had been in the seventies and clear that afternoon. Goddamn, if this turned out to be nothing, the universe was seriously going to owe me one.
The streets were pretty crowded. Not the kind of mob scene you get near the start and end of the school year, not even the kind you get on weekends, but I still had to step lively around a bunch of people as I tried to follow the trail. Most of them were students, spiky-haired kids just a little younger than me but with way more free time, plus there were a couple of actual working people trying to get to restaurants and an efreakingnormous party of tourists from the Great Tokyo Empire, eyes glowing faintly green-violet in the twilight.
What with dodging, weaving, and almost getting stepped on a couple times, I barely noticed what streets the trail was leading me down. Like I said, I’m pretty good at finding my way places, so I didn’t much worry about how to get back–I figured I’d work that out when the time came. One street, or alley, was a lot like another, except eventually they started getting less crowded. Then they got a lot less crowded.
Then I looked around and I was on the border of University Waste.
Harvard itself isn’t a really dangerous place to be these days. You couldn’t get me into most of the MIT buildings if you paid me–not until they figure out what places the Infinite Corridor takes you and when, for one thing–but the old boys at Harvard are, well, older, and tamer. You get a lot of business and law there, some philosophy and literature, and enough political science wonks to bore me stiff on a date or two back when I was younger, but their magic department is pretty much history, theory, and really practiced practice.
The problem is the Nazis.
Isn’t it always?
Technically, the problem was the Nazis. Before ‘48, the Waste was just another couple of streets: nice ones, too, full of big houses and flower gardens. Professors lived there, mostly, and there was a university building or three. I’ve seen pictures: in winter, the place looked like a scene from an old-fashioned Christmas card.
We’re still not really sure what exactly the Germans did to make the Waste. Half the people involved got their brains melted in the process, and some of the survivors got their brains melted on one project or another afterwards, because…well, you’re a sorcerer, back when just about everyone is still just figuring this shit out, and you’re working for Hitler? You don’t really want to start making long-term plans there.
Whatever they did sort of worked and sort of didn’t. About three thousand people died across the country. It was better some places and worse others: MIT’s wards bounced the attack right off, just about, but Princeton…they showed us a movie about it in eighth grade. Two kids threw up, and I had nightmares for a week.
Harvard got a mixed bag. Everything behind the chapel on Quincy Street was all right. After that–not so much.
I stood and looked down Irving Street, hands in my pockets and the green trail stretching out in front of me, on its way to where the sunset light faded and the architecture got all weird and melty. My knife weighed my purse down, which was a comforting feeling, but not that comforting. For really comforting, I’d have wanted a rowan wand or a grenade launcher.
People did go into the Waste and come out okay, I reminded myself, even after dark. Kids did it on dares sometimes, although you’d have to be dumb or suicidal to go too far in. If the girl I was following hadn’t gone too far, I’d be fine.
If she had–well, she was in deep shit. I had a knife. She had a tree, a goddamn unactivated tree, and not even a big one.
I started walking. It took some effort.
While the sun set and my stomach worked out a whole jazz dance routine, I went down Irving, past Kirkland, past a crumbling house and a faded fence where a row of red eyes blinked steadily at me. The green trail led me past a gas station where abandoned pumps squatted like short deformed people, and down a street where purple light oozed from under the cracked asphalt.
Once in a while the buildings I passed had lit windows. Like I said, you can live in the Waste. You don’t go out at night and you don’t invite strangers in. Thresholds help sometimes.
A couple people hurried past me, clutching their purses or their bags of groceries, looking around but never focusing on anything for too long. As the sun set, bloody-looking above the snarled mass of leafless trees, I stopped seeing those people.
I did see other figures move in the darkness, though. Once I heard yelling, the kind you get from drunk teenage boys–or from things that sound like them. I didn’t want to find out which; I kept walking.
Then the trail went past a low rock wall, half of the rocks crumbling, and into an overgrown garden in front of a big house–or the first story of a big house. Four walls shot up in the middle of all the grass and brambles. A little bit of roof hung over them, but not much, and all the windows had been broken long ago. I don’t know what happened to the door, but it wasn’t there either.
When I’d started going into the Waste, I’d figured the girl’s problem was on the nasty end. Seeing the remains of the house put her trouble even further along than I’d thought. It wasn’t the kind of place where people live. What people do in a place like that is crash, or squat, or maybe hide. I took my knife out of my purse.
The trail went right up through the empty doorway, but I didn’t follow. Given the circumstances, I probably wouldn’t need to explain myself to Holly Girl’s parents or whoever; all the same, I wanted to have some idea what I was getting into,. Stepping off the remains of the concrete walkway, I waded through the waist-high grass and around the side of the house, moving as quietly as I could given that I’m not in the Special Forces or anything.
Window number one showed nothing but a dark room. Furniture–a desk and a bed–was falling apart in there, and a mirror on one wall had cracked from top to bottom. I couldn’t see a human figure, but a few things moved along the floor: rats or cockroaches, probably.
Window number two opened on a bathroom. The word “ew” doesn’t begin to cover it. I moved on fast.
Window number three was paydirt, literally: the room, which looked like it had been the kitchen, was as gross as the first one. (Not as gross as the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine anything as gross as the bathroom.) There was a little bit of light inside, though, which let me see Holly Girl.
She’d found a trashcan lid and built a fire, probably out of old newspapers and twigs. It was dying down as I watched, and she was sitting in front of the embers, scooping Spaghetti-Os out of a can with one hand and eating them. A can opener lay at her side, the metal bits glinting in the firelight, and she’d put the holly tree a little ways back. She looked tired and young and really satisfied in a way that made me want to hit someone: no twelve-year-old kid should have the kind of life where a can of Spaghetti-Os and a ten buck shrub make for a good evening.
Then I forgot about being angry, because I saw the eyes. They were beady and kind of whitish-green, like yogurt gone bad, and they glowed a little in the darkness off where the kitchen joined the rest of the house. I was pretty sure Holly Girl hadn’t seen them, because she just kept staring into the fire. I also thought those eyes would come up to my knee.
That’s all I remember thinking. Everything happened a little too fast after that.
* * *
First of all, the thing behind the eyes decided that the fire was low enough not to be dangerous any more, and ran forward toward Holly Girl. In general outline, it looked kind of like a rat: it had a rat’s protruding teeth, too, and the long wormy tail. Rats had fur, though. This didn’t. It did have dents in its sides where the skin looked like it was moving and long claws with twisty little spurs coming off of them. Also, and this was a big also, it was as large as a medium-sized dog.
It lept. She screamed and cringed.
And the holly tree flared up, so bright that I–pulling myself through the window as quickly as I could–had to close my eyes. That didn’t keep me from seeing the tree’s outline. It hung in front of me in red, green, and gold, like Christmas in April and totally out of place in that pit. Just for a second, I thought I saw a person behind it. Not the girl: someone much taller.
The rat-thing squealed. It sounded hurt; it also sounded pissed. I opened my eyes.
Across the room, from one wall to another between the girl and the rat-thing, there was this giant hedge of holly. Excuse me: giant hedge of fucking glowing holly. It was maybe shoulder-height on me, so in theory the rat-thing might have been able to climb it, but it was backing away instead. Either the holly did more than glow close up, or the rat-thing was smart enough to know it didn’t want to deal with suddenly-appearing glowy crap.
Okay, so that was new.
I went right ahead and wiggled through the window, though. For one thing, whether she was safe from creepy mutant rats or not, Holly Girl was still in an unheated–hell, unroofed–hellhole, without much in the way of food or clothes. For another, the hedge only ran across one side, both Holly Girl and her tree were looking a little droopy and gray now, and rats worked in packs. Even as I dropped to the floor, two more ran forward from Holly Girl’s other side.
Just then would’ve been a great time to have a gun, a wand, a blessed ring, or a small pet dragon. I had a knife, a pair of waterproof boots, and the advantage of surprise for about five seconds.
I bolted forward and sunk the knife into the back of one rat-thing’s head, got it stuck, screamed a couple of words that weren’t even coherent swearing, and kicked the other one as hard as I could when it swung its creepy dead-eyed head around toward me. Panic rules: the rat-thing made a really icky crunchy squelch and went flying toward the opposite wall. I yanked my knife out of it’s buddy’s head.
Ew ew ew ew.
A lot of activation, and a lot of basic magic, involves blood, plus half the mundane things in the shop try and eat me on a regular basis–don’t even talk to me about the cellophane cutter, because I swear that son of a bitch is possessed–so blood itself doesn’t bug me at all. Rat-thing blood? That stuff reeks, like the rat-thing itself had been dead for a month or two. Maybe it had. In the Waste, you really don’t want to ask that kind of question.
Holly Girl was staring at me. She’d grabbed her tree and gotten to her feet, but she wasn’t running, so I had a little time, at least. “You–”
“Yeah, me. Yeah, I tracked you. You can press charges later. Let’s get out of here before more of those things show up. Or something bigger.”
“Bigger?” Her eyes were huge.
“This is the Waste, kid. Nice tree and all, I’m totally impressed, but there are things here who’ll think it’s a tasty snack. And you too,” I added, and somewhere my ninth-grade English teacher winced, but whatever.
She swallowed and hugged the holly plant to her chest. “I–where would I go? With you?”
“Yeah, with me.” Clearly the riding-to-the-rescue bit hadn’t made her trust me completely. Theoretically, that was smart. Standing in a house in the Waste, trying to get a rat-thing’s blood off my knife without puking, it pissed me off. “Look. My name is Cynthia Marie Jensen. I swear on my name that I won’t hurt you, and I won’t tell anyone about you unless you say I can. Just for the love of God can we go?”
Names are a medium-sized deal. That’s why the serious government-magic guys, the crew at 51 and the heads of the Secret Service, don’t have them. It keeps the Universe–not to mention the Reds–from latching on to them as much as it could otherwise, and it makes what they do purer. The rest of us don’t have to worry that much, but swearing on your name, especially your full name, means you better not go back on your promise.
I don’t know if Holly Girl knew that or not. For a second or two, she didn’t say anything, just gave me a weird searching look from those green eyes. Then she nodded.
“Great,” I said, and made for the window as fast as I could.
“There’s a door,” she said.
“This is faster. Also, I don’t know what’s in the rest of this place.”
I checked outside the window, saw nothing, and squirmed out. Holly Girl passed me the plant reluctantly and followed, while I held onto the pot with one hand and my knife with the other and watched the shadows.
Off in the distance, colored lights bobbed and swooped. Sounds came from that direction too: more yelling, a few crashes, and a minute of high laughter that didn’t sound any kind of stable. Just another night in the Waste, boys and girls: they make their own fun down here.
First thing, as soon as she’d gotten both feet on the ground, the girl held out her hands for the holly plant. Then she looked behind us, at the lights, and that’s when we heard a scream. It wavered and buzzed from somewhere off to the west, sounding either really steamed or really hurt. Holly Girl stepped closer to me.
“Don’t know,” I said, and started walking.
She kept up well. I watched her anyhow: if she started falling behind, I could manage a piggy-back. She wasn’t too big for that.
Off in the distance, the yelling continued. A few shapes passed closer by us. The darkness didn’t let us see much of them, and they didn’t seem to care much about us: both good things.
After that batch had gone, Holly Girl looked up at me. “Should we be running?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. Might set them off.”
“Who are they?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does.”
“Oh,” she said.
After a few more steps, without breaking her stride, she shifted her plant to one arm. With the hand she’d freed up, she took hold of my free hand, not clinging or squeezing, but clearly making sure we didn’t get split up.
I wrapped my fingers around hers. We walked on, toward the border and safety.