Submission for a weekly writing prompt by Writer's Crossing
My eyes kept drifting to the clock.
It had been a long day. My last break was already over. All that was left was to wait for quitting time.
My eyes kept drifting to the clock.
So many people passing by, coming in hungry and leaving full. Most of them were fine; they just wanted food. The most I got from them was "hello," "thanks," "no receipt," and "you too" when I told them to have a nice day. I was fine with that. I could pretend I was normal when people like that came in.
My eyes kept drifting to the clock.
Some people were a bit more determined to let me know I was a freak. I know they didn't mean anything by it, but watching someone offhandedly levitate something out of their pocket or light their cigarette with a snap of their fingers makes it so hard to put on that front counter smile.
My eyes kept drifting to the clock.
It was this or being a dishwasher, and being a dishwasher would be even worse. The pizza oven had to be kept at a very specific temperature, so of course the cooks kept heating and cooling the oven, with only their own magic, as usual. Each time, I get another reminder that I can't do any of that.
My eyes kept drifting to the clock.
0.5% of the population. One in two hundred. How fucking lucky that I wound up being the one and only person I knew who couldn't work any magic at all. Period. None. Zilch. Not even a basic cantrip. The great mundano, in the flesh. I wanted to forget about it. I want to just clock out and go home, where I can pretend magic doesn't exist and I'm a normal guy in a mundane world.
I clock out in three minutes, and then I can go home and enjoy my solitude.
I pray with all my heart that someone won't walk in that door and force me to man the front desk for a few extra minutes today.
The entrance bell rings. I want to scream, but I'd rather keep my dead-end job for the time being. I take a deep breath. I come to the front of the store. "Hi, welcome to Bigslice, can I take your-"
It's Buford. Mother fucking Buford. Out of everyone, it had to be Buford.
"...Order?" He strides up to the counter with that smug look on his face. Always that smug face of his. I thought when I graduated middle school I'd never have to see that face again, then he followed me to high school. Now even though I moved to a new city, so did he. To the same fucking place. I want to believe he did it just to spite me, but I know he came here for the same reason I did. More work for unqualified young men. It was this city or one other, and as usual, fate picked the outcome that made me more miserable. He starts to open his mouth, and already I can feel my entire being begging him to just shut up and make an order like a normal human being.
"He-hey, if it isn't the great Mundano, in the flesh! Looks like I got here just in time, huh? How's it hangin', buddy?"
He planned this. He fucking planned this, I just know it. He's been by here enough to know when I clock off for the night. "It's... same as usual, you know how it is. Can I take your or-"
He cuts me off. As usual. "Yeah, that's great, hey you remember back when we had that class with Mr. Rosenburg? He said I was the best illusionist in the whole class! Ain't those honors?" He made a gesture with his hand. A little diploma appeared in the air next to him, complete with fancy borders and lines, but all it read was #1 illusionist. It takes all my self-control to swallow the sheer envy and hatred I feel for this man.
"Fantastic. Can I take your order?" "Yeah," he says, "I'll just take two slices. Hawaiian." Before I can even say how much it is, he holds out his hand, thumb and index finger pinched together. In a puff of smoke, a five dollar bill appears between them. Of course, the motherfucker's too cool to take his wallet out; no, he has to conjure the money straight from his pocket to his hand. I just give him a nod, holding my tongue, and run the transaction. I don't ask if he wants the receipt; I already know the answer is no.
I go over to the case and grab a couple slices. Before I can even hand them to him, I can feel them tugging on my grip. Sighing internally, I let go; they float lazily through the air, hovering by his head. As he takes his first bite, I know he's just doing this to be an asshole. He's not good at levitating things. Just holding two different objects is taking up a ton of his concentration. It would be way easier for him to just eat the pizza by hand, but no, he has to do it in a way that reminds me how worthless I am.
"Mmm, it's a bit cold, don't you think? No no, don't get up, I got it." He holds his hand over the floating slice of pizza, two fingers held together. Sparks shoot from his fingertips, then a tiny blowtorch blast, sweeping gently over the surface. The cheese starts to melt, and he brings his hand away, finished heating up his pizza. He takes another bite, savoring it for an agonizing fifteen seconds. "There we go, that's much better. Thanks for the 'za, Mundano!"
Finally he leaves, chuckling. Both slices of pizza are still hovering in the air as he vanishes into the night. Finally, I can groan. I massage my forehead deeply as I retreat into the back, muttering under my breath. "It's Jack, you raging fuckbag." I clock out for the night, trying not to think about what magical back-end connections the time clock is working on. Taking off my uniform and returning to my day clothes is a small relief in my life, but i've learned to appreciate the little things. They're all I've got in this shitty life of mine, after all.
Finally, I'm home. A place where I can just shut the blinds, lock myself in, and pretend the outside world doesn't exist. All I've got is a crappy one-bedroom studio apartment, but that suits me fine. I don't need a big space, or a view. I just need a hidey hole.
Not wasting any time, I set down my bag and start on dinner. It's not much, just some throw-it-in-a-pan fried rice, but it's damn good. I like to think I've mastered the art of low-budget dinners. And it's something that works on an electric range, which is a big plus for someone like me. Already, I can feel the stress from my day starting to wear off. I'm getting a chance to pretend magic doesn't exist, and I'm just a normal guy with a normal life.
Once the rice is done, it's the same as usual. Sit down in front of my TV and enjoy a plate while I watch cartoons. They don't need magic in cartoons, just cartoon physics. I wish I could just sit here forever, enjoying my little mundane reality with silly cartoons and homemade budget meals. With any luck, this weekend will feel like forever. That's the closest thing to heaven I can imagine, just being alone in a place that doesn't constantly remind me how pathetic I-
There's a knocking at my door. That's odd, I didn't invite anyone over, I don't think. I hadn't ordered anything lately, either, and I don't get salesmen in this apartment building. The most likely explanation is that it's the owner or a custodian, but there aren't any special dates coming up and there've been no complaints from me or any of my neighbors so neither of them should be showing up here. There's no real reason anyone should be at my door right now. Maybe it was just my imagination. I should just ignore it, go back to enjoying my evening...
Knocking again. Then a muffled voice. "I know you're in there, Jackson! Come on out, this is important." It's not a voice I recognize. Have I made some enemies somewhere along the line? I hope I'm not being paranoid... Seriously though, why the hell is this person knocking at my door right now? Slowly, I set my plate down. I'm tempted to just wait them out, but at this point I'm too curious to do so. Slowly, I get up, making my way to the door, but... No, I need a backup plan. I make a detour to the bedroom, and grab the old hammer I used to fix my bookcase, just in case.
Finally, I get a chance to peer out the peephole in my door. Definitely not someone I recognize. Some old man, with a braided white beard and a goofy business suit covered in stars and multi-colored scribbles, like he's trying to be some kind of hot-shot wizard CEO. Then I notice the name tag pinned to the suit's chest. Amber Geraldo. The Amber Geraldo. Grand wizard at the Merlin's Peak institute of magical research, making him basically the world's top wizard.
There's no way. I've got to be dreaming or something. That, or I'm being scammed. There's no way Amber Geraldo would, in the flesh, trek down to some nowhere apartment just to speak with some nobody. Suddenly he starts talking again, and my train of thought is off the rails. "Look, I know it seems crazy and you probably think it's fake or something, so... I can give you proof. May I come in?"
I quietly lock the door. "Sure, if you can let yourself in." I watch through the peephole as he just quietly waves his hand to the side. No special light show, no sparkle, nothing. Probably just some loon-
Something's nudging my arm.
I look down. It's just the doorknob. I go back to looking through the peephole, then pause. The doorknob wasn't that far left on the door just a moment ago. I look back at the doorknob. It's defintely a lot farther from the wall than it used to be. I step back, and before my eyes, it travels all the way to the other side of the door. Suddenly, it turns, and my door creaks open, going the wrong way. The hinges are even still attached on the wrong side as he steps in, politely shutting it behind him and letting the knob zip back to where it's supposed to be. I can't even wrap my head around the reality-bending nonsense that just took place.
He starts talking again. Suddenly, I realize I'd been standing there staring at my door for the past minute. "If you're finished marveling at my performance, I've got important matters to attend to. You're Jackson Richards, yes? Son of Kimberly Richards?"
I trip over my tongue for a good five seconds before I can find my voice. "I-uheh, that- I mean, I'm... Yeah, that's me." Before I can continue, he's back to talking. "Great! Then I came to the right place. Now, you're probably wondering, "what the hell could Grand Wizard Amber Geraldo want with some random guy living in a cheap..."" He surveyed the apartment. ""...Studio apartment like this," right?"
I was thinking almost those exact words like five minutes ago. Can he read my freaking mind??? "Umm... Yeah, I was... wondering that." Not bothering to acknowledge my hesitance, he keeps going. "Well, my boy, as you probably know well, I'm not going to be around forever. I'm getting on in years - had my hundred and seventeenth birthday just two weeks ago - and I've got to a point in my career where I need to start thinking of an heir. So naturally, the obvious choice would be the one person in the world with the greatest magical affinity of all! Aside from myself, of course."
Buford. He's talking about fucking Buford. That shit-head was always getting honors and awards for his talent, and now he's getting picked to be the next Grand Wizard. I'm never going to hear the end of this. "Well, you missed him. He bought two slices of pizza from me like two hours ago."
Immediately, Amber Geraldo looks at me like I just told him the sky is green. "What? No! I'm not talking about some... nobody who buys pizza from you. I'm talking about you, Jake! Who else would I be talking about?" Finally, I'm used to this situation enough that I can apply some snark. "Um, anybody, really. I don't know if you've heard, but I'm one of the zero point five percent of the population who suffers from mundane syndrome."
He gets this look in his eye. Confused, and interested at the same time. I hate that look; I see it all the time whenever someone's trying to figure out magic stuff. Just another reminder that I don't fit. "Well, no, it's definitely you I'm here for. I employed the greatest new developments in divinations. Even used my predecessor's silver cauldron, and it gave me your exact name and location. That old thing has never once steered me astray. Surely, you must have had SOME magical accomplishments in your life?"
By now, I'm too tired of this to give him anything but the stink eye. "Yeah, no. What part of mundane syndrome don't you understand? I can't even make a spark." He gives me that odd look again, then starts staring off into space, rubbing his old chin. For a while, I'm tempted to nudge him to see if he'll react; he seems lost in his own head. Then, he reaches into the pocket of his suit and pulls out a little steel rod, with some stars etched on it, just about short enough to fit in my hand. "Here, try this out. It's pre-charged; If you have any magical capabilities at all, it should work."
Still giving him the stink eye, I take the rod an inspect it. A wand. How old fashioned. I think this officially makes old man Amber the only person I've ever met who's old enough to still be using wands. But, if this can get Mr Magic himself out of my house so I can resume my weekend, I might as well. Holding the wand in one hand, I give it a flick. I can't help but imagine a little spark popping off the end of it as I do so.
My vision goes white. My eyes sting like hell. It's like I'm staring right at the sun, but twice as bad. I shut my eyes; no luck, now my vision's gone bright red and still almost as painfully bright. I cover my eyes with my arm. That's better. Finally, some darkness. The wand starts heating up in my hand. I drop it to the floor. Multicolored after-images flash in my vision as my eyes struggle to recover. Slowly, I pull my arm away from my head. It's dark. I open my eyes up. The light is gone. I look down at the wand. It's the same as it was before, but now I can't help but scowl at it. The damn thing flashed so bright it nearly blinded me. Still scowling, I turn my attention to Amber. "What the hell was that about?!? Is a magic flash-bang your idea of a sick prank!?"
He's laughing. Fucking laughing at me. My eyes are still recovering from the flash; being so mad I can hardly see straight isn't helping me see anything. "Haha, hardly! Eh, hee hee, sorry, it's just... Ah, my love of slapstick is getting the better of me, heh. Sorry about the surprise, but I must confess, I lied about that "wand" being pre-charged. In truth, that's no wand, but a catalyst. All it does is hold onto a pattern of magic; you have to supply the energy yourself. It's very inefficient; really only good for learning a spell. The average magician can barely make it glow in the dark."
I look down at the steel rod on the floor, then back at Amber. "Well alright then, genius, if it's just some worthless "catalyst," then how did it just fucking blind me?" He takes a moment to pause. I spend that moment collecting my thoughts, to help steady myself after what just happened. "Simple," he says, "the greater one's magical affinity, the greater the response from the catalyst. The average magic user has a poor magical affinity, but enough to make most standard spells work. Those who make a career of using higher-level magic often are able to make it shine like a flashlight, or a lantern. But someone like you... Well, I'm pretty sure your apartment was just beaming like a lighthouse, even with the blinds down."
That's crazy. None of this makes sense. If I'm so powerful, then... "Well then how come I've never been able to even cast a cantrip, if I'm that attuned?" He gets this confident smirk as he gets ready to talk, and I just know more lecturing is coming. "This is actually something I've been researching, in my later stages of my career. It's known that a select few individuals are completely magically incapable, but evidence indicates that a fair portion of those people are, in fact, artificers. Their magical capabilites do not extend to standard magic, but rather flow more powerfully when applied to a physical medium. Instead of channeling their magic capabilities through the aetherial world, they channel through the pysical world! Because of this, they are able to interact much more strongly with magical devices, like the catalyst you just used."
I still can't believe it. "Well then how do I know all this is true and you're not just some rando impersonating Amber Geraldo?" To that, he just reaches back into his suit pocket, and pulls out a bunch more rods, each made from a different metal and etched with a different design. "I've got plenty more for you, try them all out on your own time. Get a friend to try them out too, see how much more powerful your responses are. Really test it out! Here, this one makes sparks, this one heats up metal objects, this one causes winds, this one can freeze water into ice... Obviously, use care and think carefully when applying any of these. We don't want any unintended damage, do we?" He hands me the bundle of catalysts. I can hardly believe this, but... At least he's giving me a chance to test this out myself.
As I'm thinking of what to do with the bunch of metal rods, I notice he's holding something else out for me. A business card. I take it, and give it a look over. It's got his contact information on it alright. "I know you're a little bit overwhlemed right now, so I'll leave it up to you to decide on your own time if you'd like to take me up on the offer. I can take you under my wing and get you started on figuring out how to finally turn that untapped magic talent of yours into something tangible. There will be benefits, of course, mainly your living situation paid for, and anything else I decide to get for you. Take all the time you need to decide, and to prove to yourself I'm not some random scammer person. When you've made up your mind, call the number on that card and let me know."
I'm still reading over the card. So many things just happened, it's hard to keep track of them all. Mostly just to say something, I decide to thank him. "Thanks, uh... Amber." No response. I look up, and he's already on his way out. He'd opened my door again, and was letting himself back out. As he pulls the door shut, he says one last thing back to me. "Have a good evening, Jake! I look forward to hearing your decision." With that, he's gone. My door shuts, and that's the last I hear of him tonight.
This is so much. So much to think about all at once. Too much, in fact. I need to clear my head. Sleep on all this, just to make sure it's not some crazy dream.
He said this one makes sparks. Maybe I can have a bit of fun with it before I go to bed. Taking the spark catalyst, I head over to my window and withdraw the blinds. I slide the window open and poke my head out. Night in the city, not much going on. I take the spark wand, point it up, and think. Just a little flick of my wrist, and the night sky lights up with one of the biggest firework displays I've ever seen. A whole rainbow of sparks streaming through the air, like hundreds of comets. As the sparks finally die down, I can't help but smile to myself. I have a feeling things are about to get a lot better for me.