Salem – 1692
Ashley was breathing heavy as they brought the torch forward.
A tall and thin blonde stood at the back of the crowd, a frown on her face. She had faith in the magic, but it wasn’t the first nor the last time her sisters would burn.
The pyre below her feet started to crackle, snow sodden wood started to give way to dull flames. It was a very brief reprieve from the winter cold on her bare and bound feet.
And then the reprieve was over.
Her first screams blasted over the crowd and the excited and hateful murmur turned quiet. A man from the crowd came forward and tossed a bucket of lamp oil on the fire, hoping to get the job done faster.
The morning after the fire, the blond woman came upon the pyre, smoldering under the freshly fallen snow. The body was badly charred, unrecognizable. The witch reached in and pulled at the bones, ripping them from the corpse. The tendons didn’t want to let go easily.
Once the witch had them in a sack, she went home and started a mighty fire in her hearth. She charred what burnt bones and flesh she had recovered and let the inferno churn until they were brittle and ashen. She then took a hammer and crushed the bones to dust.
She whispered into the bones, asking if Ashley was there. At first there was nothing but jittering movements. The dust started to dance and became a circle.
The witch shouted, then looked to the covered windows of her home. Not a soul in sight. Satisfied, she said to herself, “We should have thought about some of the consequences of immortality.”
Present Day – Los Angeles
On the stage, Desmond the Great sat alone in a chair, backwards. The crowd had laughed and cheered as he did cold readings on audience members, seeming to have psychic powers. They sat, mouths agape, as he and his beautiful assistants made cars vanish from the stage. It was all so elaborate. Now they sat perplexed, wondering how such an amazing show would be coming to a conclusion with no fanfare, only bright lights and a man on a stage.
“Ladies and gentleman. I cannot lie to you. All that you have seen before this moment is a forgery of your imagination. Parlor tricks, smoke and mirrors. Deception and optics. I am no psychic. You choose to be transparent because you like the thought of the great beyond, that there is more than just this world of solid ground and tedious existence.”
The audience murmured.
More spotlights turned on Desmond. From all angles he was bathed in light. He stood on his chair and said. “Parlor tricks aren’t truth, men like Houdini knew that. Crowley, and countless other mystics who hide in the shadows know that there is more to the world than physics and matter.” His voice quickened as he stripped off his clothes. “I shan’t be hiding anything from you tonight! I’ll show you what it means to be a true magician.”
He almost fell from the chair when taking his shoes off. He laughed it off and offered, “There is a reason why this is an 18 and up show, friends.” He caught his steam and shouted again, “Behold!”
Standing naked on the chair with his arms outstretched, he didn’t say a word. Chairs creaked as the audience leaned forward in their seats.
Desmond’s face started to burn red. His arms slapped back to his body and he kicked the chair out from under him, but did not fall.
The audience gasped.
He started to rise slowly. From each side of the stage a woman walked out with a large steel hoop. To demonstrate the hoop’s strength, they slammed the hard rings on the solid stage, making echoes through the theater. They were solid steel, thick as rebar.
Desmond’s whole body was turning red from the effort. Slowly he receded inward into a fetal position. The women stepped forward and brought the rings around the man one after the other. They handed each other the rings to show there were no strings or open points. They picked up speed, swooping around Desmond as he hovered, slamming them on the ground with hollow thuds with each pass.
With a gasp, Desmond dropped to the floor, taking one of the rings with him. His chest heaved as he lay prostrate. He then threw a fist into the air, and the curtains closed. For a few hanging moments, there was silence, then cheers flooded the old theater.
Desmond stepped out from behind the curtain, holding one of the women’s extravagant hats over his nudity and took a bow.
Sitting in the front row a man named Bill Marks sat with his head cocked to the side, confused and alarmed.
From the green room, Desmond watched Bill perform his late night TV magic. Bill had been doing it for years on premium networks. Intellectual guests chomped at the bit to get onto his show. Magicians claiming real powers had never done well under Bill’s skeptical scrutiny.
“Good evening folks and welcome to the Bill Marks show. Tonight we’ll have a panel of physicists and a known scam artist, I mean magician, on the show. We’ll explain everything behind the magic.” Bill said on the screen.
Desmond scoffed. They wanted a freakshow followed by a skewering. Desmond didn’t intend to just hand his livelihood over to them.
In the green room after the show, Bill talked through a mouthful of food. “I can’t sell that. We wanted to see your real trick. None of this,” he gulped hard, “is worth the drive or screen time.”
Desmond grabbed his coat and pulled the rolling case behind him. “I’m not going to give you my material. I need people at my show just like you do. I can’t show them everything.”
“I don’t think you understand, we bought you a panel of scientists. I don’t give a shit about card tricks or pulling birds out of your ass. They wanted to see your finale. That’s what we paid you for.”
“Good luck, Mister Marks,” Desmond said.
Bill grabbed Desmond by the arm, and in a desperate voice said, “I need to know. You don’t understand. I’ve made my life on here as a skeptic. I can’t figure it out. It’s all I think about.”
“So this wasn’t a shaming ruse?” Desmond said.
“Of course it was! I had to know how it worked. I was 20 feet away and I saw no strings. There weren’t any mirror tricks. How did you do it?”
“Magic and faith,” Desmond said.
“Bullshit. Was it magnetic somehow? How did you not show any resistance on your skin? Is it a body suit?” Bill said with a frantic fervor.
“I told you in the show, there is more to this world than your math and science. They make amazing toys, but they pale in comparison to the mind and the supernatural world.”
Bill sighed. “Just to play Devil’s advocate, let’s say it is true. That you aren’t a charlatan. How did you learn about it?”
“I asked the ashes,” Desmond said.
“What is that, like tea leaves?” Bill asked.
“It’s a bit more straight forward than that. Tea divining is just cold reading and telling people what they want to hear. Except for one man out in San Francisco who creeps me out.”
“Do you have it with you?” Bill asked.
“Of course. I never leave home without Auntie Ashley,” Desmond replied.
“I’m just going to ignore that. Can you show me?” Bill said.
“Do you have a private office, no cameras?” Desmond asked.
“Man, this is HBO not TNT. Of course I have an office. Follow me.”
The room was glowing with the light reflecting off of awards. Emmys took over one shelf and dozens of other trophies that Desmond didn’t recognize littered the other shelves. In the center of the room was a giant glass desk.
Desmond opened his prop case and slid out another case with a digital code on it. He didn’t like taking it out, but spooking Bill was too tempting. No one would believe Bill anyway. He entered the code and produced a clear rectangular pad, not unlike an iPad. In the center, grey dust floated and swirled. Both sides were transparent. He set it down on the desk.
“Desmond, why did you bring me a fancy etch-a-sketch?” Bill said, not removing his eyes from the tablet. “Where are the nobs?”
The dust on the inside of the tablet swirled into the perfect image of a middle finger. Bill shook his head and looked at Desmond. “That’s a neat trick. Is it like e-ink and a powerpoint slide? What else did you load into this?”
“You should be careful with that which you don’t understand. She doesn’t take well to being mocked.”
“Oh, this dust is a she? You’re Auntie Ashley. Sounds like a charmer,” Bill said and picked the glass tablet up. He tapped at the glass. The dust followed his finger, but reflected back a skeletal hand. “Where can I buy one of these?”
“They find you. It’s like mushrooms when you are in college,” Desmond said. “Ashley, can you show him the key to hovering?”
The tablet flashed over into a sigil with moving symbols of incredible complexity. They shifted and danced around a center symbol.
“It’s a sigil. You have to become obsessed, almost unto your death, to understand it. You must know the movements; place it in your mind’s eye and your heart. Then you can use it for this sort of magic. It took me many years of looking at this for hours per day to levitate just a few inches.”
“Well aren’t you just Peter Freakin’ Pan,” Bill said. He tapped the glass again and a paragraph of words he could hardly pronounce appeared. There were too many consonants. It was a garbled mess.
Desmond put a hand to his face. In a worried tone he said, “Are you sure Ashley?” On the glass, the words shook up and down.
“What?” Bill asked.
“Ashley wants you to read it. It’s an incantation. She wants to prove to you it’s legit. This one is far easier.”
Bill stared at Desmond.
“What? You’re the skeptic, Bill. How about you give it a shot. If I’m a fraud what’s the worst that could happen?”
Bill said the first words, or attempted to.
“Be sure to pronounce it right. You can’t mess up a single syllable if you want it to work. You ever hear of ‘Klaatu barada nikto?’ No? That’s probably for the best,” Desmond said.
For the first time since Bill was a young man, he experienced a wave of doubt. His throat felt dry. He looked at each word, pronouncing it in his mind before trying it.
“What does it do?”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t always speak clearly to me.”
Bill took a deep breath and uttered the words. They were so harsh that spittle covered the glass. When he got to the last word, Bill saw a vortex of blue and purple. The tablet fell from his hands and Desmond caught it.
In the office, Bill was gone.
“Oh Ashley, that’s dirty,” Desmond said and cackled. “All he wanted was attention so you made him invisible. Are you still in here Bill? You’ve been phased out.”
In his world of swirling colors and light, Bill could just make out the edges of the office. The world seemed like highly polished glass. The walls, the floor, his trophies, all were swelled up in the raging colors and patterns.
The only clear image was that of a young woman, no more than twenty who dressed in old garbs that reminded him of time long passed.
“You’ve done more damage than good in your life. This is why you don’t want to believe in anything but your own consciousness. You want to be judged by your success, not your acts,” Ashley said.
“I… I… don’t. Can’t. What?” Bill said.
“It’s okay to give into awe William. Just know that time isn’t the same here. The seconds are minutes. The minutes, hours. If I kept you here for an hour you might shrivel and starve to death.” A wry grin crossed her face and she looked much older than her young form suggested. “It is within my right to claim you here. Especially after how you’ve treated my friend. You are a sour and bitter soul. Let people have their trinkets and idols if it makes them comfortable. Let the forces of magic others feel not affect your life.”
“What drugs did Desmond give me? This isn’t real,” Bill said.
“You’re wasting precious minutes, Bill. Let me show you,” Ashley said, and reached into his chest and grabbed Bill’s heart.
An overwhelming fire consumed every part of Bill’s brain. He saw the beginning, the end, the middle, the entirety of time and space spread before him. Infinite infinites of possibilities based on all actions, waves of time and currents.
She pulled her hand away. “Now apologize for tapping the glass, or I’ll keep you here until you’re nothing but dust.”
“I’m… I’m so sorry,” Bill spat, falling to knees.
“You aren’t yet, but you will be,” Ashley said, her features fading some, pieces breaking off like ash in the wind. “I’m sending you away with my mark.”
“What does it do?” Bill said, trembling.
“Since all you seek is attention, all who see your face will forget what they know of you. Like dust in the wind, not a single moment of your life will be remembered. They will all forsake you, not out of spite, but out of the apathy and disregard you show to others.”
A trail of ash went out from her hand like a tentacle and wrapped around Bill’s wrist. With a searing pain it burned unfamiliar marks into Bill.
He screamed. Only oblivion heard.
“I am more eternal than the dust in your bones and the putrid flesh that clings to them! You’ll feel my magic in my mark until I’ve deemed your deeds worthy of being remembered. Do not falter, or I’ll make that wound fester worse than any plague you can imagine. I’ll make Ebola look like a flea bite.”
Bill sobbed, holding his wrist, fighting passing out in the swirling world. Spit trailed from his mouth as he uttered, “What do I have to do?”
“All you have to do is give-” she said.
“I’ll give you anything! Anything! I’ll release you! I’ll make you famous! Just let me-” Bill said, then ended in another scream.
“Not me, you sad little mongrel. Give to all. Give until it hurts. Your wealth, your property, but most of all, your time. People will see your face again when their hearts yearn to see it. Not a moment before. Now is when your life starts. Screw this up and rot. Endure, and you might be worth a damn,” Ashley said, and then kicked Bill to his side. The world ripped back open and he found himself under the fluorescent lights of his office.
When the world phased back in, Bill sat on the floor, smoke coming off of him and terror in his eyes.
“I need water. And food. Oh god I need food,” Bill said, tears streaming down his face.
“That’s trippy, isn’t it?” Desmond said, laughing. “Ashley sends her regards.” Desmond held up the tablet and in ashen letters it simply said. “Give or die, the choice is yours.”
Bill charged out of the building. There was a crowd of people, the usual late night gathering hoping for an autograph or picture. He ran through them and not a single head was turned. Bill stopped. He leaned on the steel divider between a fan and the exit. The young woman didn’t react. He leaned in. “Do you want a picture?” Bill asked.
The girl looked annoyed. “Sure, you can take it when he comes out.”
Bill sighed and walked to his car. The black escalade with his driver was sitting in the front seat looking terribly bored. Bill knocked on the window, and the driver made a shooing notion. Bill’s heart sank. He couldn’t process this.
The scent of hot dogs hit him. He looked down the road and felt the onslaught of hunger and thirst hit him all over again. The man behind the metal cart asked him what he wanted. Bill started pointing. He wanted everything. Wanted to eat and drink the entire cart. When it came time for payment, Bill looked at the man. His hands and arms were burned. He looked old and ragged, a look that only a long life of hardship can give.
Bill took handed him the cash in his wallet, and while the man wasn’t looking, he unlatched his Rolex and dropped it in the tip cup and wandered away into the night.
Liberia – 2019
Bill stood with his friends, shovel in hand, digging deep into the ground. Wells in this part of the world were needed more than any care package, more than any promises from far off governments. He was bearded, tanned, and always smiling. There was only a hint of a scar on his wrist.
He walked to his tent, which was admittedly more lavish than some of the locals had, but his tent flap was always open.
When he saw a young woman with a video camera sitting on his bed, he let out a small shout.
“Hello Bill,” she said. “I’ve come a long way to find you. I’m a reporter with the BBC.” She extended a hand. Bill took it tentatively.
“Are you sure you know me?” He asked.
“Absolutely. You’re Bill Marks, the man who fell off the face of the earth. Last I checked you were still legally dead in the states.”
Bill felt tears start to well up in his eyes, first of joy, then of great sorrow. His life had become that of ghost of good deeds. He didn’t want that to end.
The woman with the camera stared at him. “We just want to know why you left. What happened to you?”
“Oh, I’m not sure I matter here,” he said. The thought of his voice, his influence, and his face coming back struck him. Limos, expensive meals, easy women, and all of the other indulgences made him queasy. It was too much for Bill.
“Well, what are you doing out here? Do you realize how hard we had to track you for this?”
The smile returned back to his face. They wanted to know what he’d been doing, and he would show them. His voice was no longer forgotten. Instead of quips and rants, his voice was filled with purpose. With action. With love.
“I want you to meet my friends. I want you to see who they are and why we dig, and what these people stand for. What they stand against. My curse doesn’t hold up in the face of their struggle, and I need you to tell the world about it.”
He grabbed the reporter by the hand and pulled her from the tent, laughing. A video crew waiting behind the tent followed. The last hints of the scar on his wrist faded, and along with it, any trepidation about the man he had become.
Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.