by Jason Baltazar
Was this comic store clerk even trying for stealth mode following Maddox around the place? Because the only actual crime here involved a second-degree burn on his ass from the dude’s body heat. The surveillance treatment was nothing new; Maddox had been half Salvi in this ten-mile boondock his entire life. He rolled numbers back on an imagined interstate road sign: Welcome to Locust Grove, 0 Days Since Incident.
Thing was, frequency didn’t keep it from pissing him off every time.
Like, at all.
That feeling, a burning spotlight swallowing him whole, it stuck to his skin no matter how hard he shook. The exact opposite of an out-of-body experience, feeling trapped inside what people thought they saw.
Maddox started messing with the guy. He walked slow down the aisle, a cartoonish up-to-something prowl, then he changed gears and sped up around the corner. Sure enough here comes the clerk, powerwalking a couple seconds behind. Pure coincidence, right? Just extremely important all the titles within a constant five-foot radius of Maddox be tidied. Well, typecasting worked both ways. With this guy, smart money was on a name like Brent or Bennett or Brayden. Maddox picked up a comic, turned on his heel and hurried back around the corner. He waited out of sight, two, three, four, then right back into the same aisle. When they collided, Maddox made sure to plant his feet and lead with his shoulder.
The clerk made a pretty satisfying oof.
“Whoa! Careful, hermano, it’s tight in here,” Maddox said.
The clerk shot eyes down to Maddox’s hand. Crystal clear disappointment in finding the comic still carefully pinched between fingertips.
“You alright?” Maddox asked. He gave Brent’s shoulder a gentle, compassionate squeeze. With the other hand he slid the comic back into its labeled slot with all its equally accounted for friends.
Brent massaged his stomach where Maddox’s bony shoulder landed. “Yeah, sorry.”
Now, those words? Mm, they rang magic, Maddox thought. You are so, so sorry.
Poor Brent left the aisle to save face, to maintain the ruse that he’d been hustling on up to the register. Gotta commit to your cover, that’s just basic spycraft. Maddox savored how much it must be killing him to break eyeline: Glory Eagle to HQ, I no longer have eyes on target. I repeat, no eyes on Target.
Right in the middle of Maddox congratulating himself, the thing happened.
It. The unwanted “talent.”
The prickle, pop rocks under his skin. His stomach going hollow. The one-second vertigo where everything shifted out of joint and back again, hundreds of red stars swirling in his vision.
Something in the shop had just disappeared, blinked right out of existence.
FML, Maddox thought.
Maybe he could find … nope, not a chance. Not with all those rows of new releases, back issue boxes too full to finger-crawl, too many shirts and packs of foil-wrapped cards to count, entire armies of action figures pegged to the walls; impossible to spot the one absent item with so much merchandise packed into this strip mall shop. And that meant Contingency Plan A, simple advice he heard in his grandfather’s voice: beat thy feet, little homie. Get out before someone noticed and threw blame his way. Which, goddammit, would be true now.
His family rolled with it. Might as well be asthma attacks he was having for the way they responded: you’re fine, you’re okay, it’s done come and gone, nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about. They actually said it to his face. His mom and Pappy Jim and his foster sister Lottie, they just treated it as something he did now and then. You just got a talent, little homie, Pappy Jim told him. You lucky.
“Hey!” the clerk yelled from the register.
Right, real lucky. Maddox headed for the door.
“You, stop right there!”
Cue the confetti, here it came, Bennett’s time to shine. Suspicions proven correct! Now the chance to make an accusation, get loud about it!
Maddox faced a choice: Stay or go, Joe Strummer riff.
Against blaring instinct, he stayed.
Worse if he ran, if flashing lights followed him home. Pappy Jim did not like po-po. Memories there, things would get ugly. For not even close to the first time, Maddox protected the entire family by standing still and facing whatever came next.
“Back here, now.”
Guh, the tone of this dude’s voice. Righteous, every dream of being In Charge leaning on his emphasized “now.” He had what, five years on Maddox, tops?
The whispers of the other two customers in the store sliced right through Maddox. Thin, quick blades, swipswipswipswip, bringing blood to his ears and his cheeks, a tingling warmth that didn’t belong inside of him. Not rightfully.
“Where is it?” The clerk pointed to a conspicuous bare space amid a crouching and leaping and otherwise straining crowd of multi-colored figures inside the display counter by the register. That empty spot seemed so obvious now, the only thing Maddox saw in the entire room.
“Where is what, bro?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Maddox made a gameshow buzzer sound. Far enough into this to get his own hackles up, vent some of what boiled inside.
“The Nightcrawler statue, smart aleck.”
So that’s what it was. Had been.
Brayden already had the phone out. Primed and ready, this guy. Probably rehearsed it in the off hours, quick-drawing the phone to his jaw. He punched three numbers.
“What Nightcrawler statue?”
“Uh huh, keep it up. You’re not getting away wi— Yes, I’d like to report a shoplifter …”
Maddox dialed to DEFCON 3 inside. Another person eager for him to be guilty of something, anything. Another pleasant interaction with Locust Grove’s finest looming on the horizon. Mostly though, he freaked out because yet another object vanished from this world just because he’d been standing nearby.
It happened like a hiccup or a sneeze. He never knew when or where and it always left him wondering what next.
“… no, he’s still on the premises … Like five four, mixed kid, big hair …”
All his life, he’d get the telltale feeling and then something’s gone. Toys for sure growing up. Bad enough when they were his, wasting Mom’s money, but even worse when they belonged to Lottie. Food sometimes, like right off the plate. A bird once, a chirpy, yellow-headed songbird hopping on the porch railing and then … not. That one really messed him up for a while and he still got nervous around anyone’s pets. Ninth grade, Laurie Boggs’ lime-green underwear the time they fooled around behind the mall, and she still called him creeper no matter how many times he swore he hadn’t kept them as a trophy. Nothing from Kenny Gimmler the following year when they fooled around in Kenny’s dad’s office at Gimmler Auto, but a lug wrench from the pegboard wall when they’d just been hanging out a couple weeks later. So many random objects strewn across nineteen years, no obvious connection between them except he’d never found a trace of any ever again.
Maddox the Loser. Maddox the Disappearer. That’s what his talent amounted to, accidentally reinforcing the worst expectations of townies like Braxton. He wasn’t sure whether to call it a curse or not; Pappy Jim knew better about hexing. Sure as shit felt like one, though.
“… right, thank you.” Bryce hung up. “The police will be here any minute.”
“Oh, word? I was just gonna call an Uber, but I appreciate you.”
God, he wanted to run. Every cell of his body screamed to get gone, ASAP. Instead, he plucked a Hellboy comic from the nearest rack and sat cross-legged on the floor.
“Not a library,” Brock said, a real stick-to-the-script kind of guy.
Maddox dug into his pocket and pulled a five. Washing dishes barely paid, but everything left after helping with bills he’d earned with sweat. He held it up clear for the black-domed security camera to see, crumpled it in his fist, and threw it at the clerk’s smug face.
• • •
When Ferrin cowboyed through the door, Maddox settled on for sure being cursed. As a Maryland state trooper, Ferrin had a wider run of the area than town police, which meant Maddox saw entirely too much of him. Also, it meant he wore a silly fucking hat.
“Maddox Wells. How come I figured it’s you I’d find on the other end of this call?”
“The heart wants what the heart wants?” Maddox said, flipping a page. Hellboy was in Hell.
How many “professional” encounters between them now? Dozens, must be. Never over anything real, hard as Ferrin tried. A handful of skateboarding citations, underage smoking, real menace to society stuff. Ferrin showed up out of nowhere, lights whipping everything too-bright blue, just to harass Maddox and whoever he was with. He’d allude to vague suspicious person reports as cause, then creep off. Lottie called it a crush.
Today made the third time Ferrin responded to a suspected shoplifting call with Maddox waiting at the scene, and only the first due to the talent. The other two had been nothing but good old-fashioned false accusations followed by zero apologies.
“This the one?” Ferrin asked the clerk.
“Yes, Officer. That’s him, Officer.”
Wow. The way Bradley said that word, Maddox substituted “Daddy” every time he heard it. Yes, Daddy. That’s him, Daddy. I did good, Daddy?
“What’d he steal from you?”
“I didn’t steal anything.”
“Not talking to you, boy.” He motioned for Brad to proceed.
“It’s a limited-edition hand painted polystone statue, eleven inches, individually numbered-”
“So, it’s a figurine or something.”
Ferrin gave a meaningful squint and adjusted the hat, evidence of way too many Eastwood marathons. Probably with Kleenex and baby oil on standby for when the shooting started. To Maddox’s complete and utter disgust, Mom said she’d dated this walking thumb “back in the day.” Hearing it made Maddox a) gag, and b) totally grateful he’d dodged a genetic catastrophe. The thought of being half Ferrin … just, no.
“Dude, I didn’t—”
“I said: STAND. UP.”
This right here. Always the hardest part, doing what they told him even though they were wrong. Even though he wasn’t guilty. Choking back the realest things he wanted to say, the angriest things. He stood up.
“Go on, where you hiding it at?” Ferrin waved offhand to Maddox’s torso.
“Bro. Seriously? I’m wearing a tank top and shorts. The fuck do you think I stashed an entire statue? Your boy’s wrong.”
“Lift the shirt,” Ferrin said.
“Buy me dinner first,” Maddox said.
Mom would have smacked his mouth for pushing his luck so hard, but he had this compulsion, this part refusing to let them see him scared. That they couldn’t have. He knew he got away with more than Lottie or Pappy Jim would in his shoes because of Mom’s contribution to his complexion. But staying quiet, not pushing back, felt like admitting to the hunters you were prey. The admitting part was hardest.
Ferrin stepped to, wagged a puffy finger. “Lift the shirt, boy.”
Maddox lifted the hem. Then he started churning his hips, gave Ferrin a flirtatious pout, moved slow and sinuous as he pulled the tank top over his head and let the shirt fall in a puddle at his feet with a hand resting on his cocked hip.
He remembered Ferrin’s talent for turning ten shades of beet, but man, memory did not compare to the real, right-in-front-of-you thing.
“Turn around,” Ferrin said.
Maddox swung his ass, bounced it a couple times. He caught a real unfriendly tic by Ferrin’s eye.
“Officer, he might have moved it to another location in the store to pick up later. It’s called ‘staging.’ We covered it in loss prevention training.” Daddy, do you love me?
“That what you did, Wells?”
“Hey,” Maddox said. “Here’s a thing: Bentley McBootlicker has closed circuit. See for yourself.”
Ferrin looked for the camera. Found it.
“Your mouth’s not helping you none,” Ferrin said. Then to the clerk, “Can you pull it up?”
Buckley nodded, started messing with the keyboard. Anything for you, Daddy.
The two of them leaned to the monitor, squinting at the washed-out feed.
“Little son of a …,” Bronco said. Maddox assumed at the part where he’d sprung his how-to-catch-a-profiler trap.
“You don’t know half of it,” Ferrin said.
The clerk grew a wee self-satisfied smile. Mm, institutional approval. Maddox wished he could roll his eyes so hard they spun like a slot machine that landed on two middle fingers. He heard a long sigh. Must have got to the end of the recording.
Maddox smirked his smirkiest smirk.
“Problem?” he asked.
Ferrin ordered a replay. After the second playthrough and second sigh, Maddox waved.
“Told you: still not a liar, still not a thief. So, I’m free to go now, right? Because you’re super wrong and wasting my time, again?”
“Like hell,” Ferrin said. He stomped around and grabbed Maddox’s arm.
He pushed Maddox against the counter. Limited edition hand painted polystone statues wobbled, threatened to topple expensively. “Hands on the glass. Legs apart.”
“I didn’t do shit, you just saw.”
Ferrin’s fingers closed around a fistful of Maddox’s curls, yanked back until he felt the cop’s breath on his scalp. That’s when Maddox smelled the alcohol. What lousy-ass timing. Cursed for sure.
Ferrin forced Maddox’s head to the cool countertop, pressed hard enough he expected to hear glass crack.
“I seen something alright. Assault. Isn’t that what you’d call it, sir?”
“I … uh, I guess so. Yes, Officer.” Daddy knows best.
“Assault? How much did you drink?”
Ferrin tightened his grip. “Are you resisting arrest?”
Maddox bit down on his temper then because those were magic words too. Resisting arrest: bad, bad magic Maddox had been warned of since he was old enough to leave the house on his own.
“Hands behind your back. Keep those legs apart.”
Unreal. But no, just real.
Maddox did as told. The obedience ground against his nature like a bad shift when he tried to drive the family pickup. Ferrin kicked his ankles wider. Maddox stared down through the countertop, to that empty space where the statue should be. There five minutes ago. There, then gone.
Ferrin, right in Maddox’s ear, damp and excited, “Come on, gonna resist?”
Maddox kept his lips tight, his body loose. His heart pumped more shame through him than blood, but he stayed quiet and loose and alive. Ferrin let go of his hair. He heard the cuffs pulled from the belt, then felt the sharp, cold bite of them against his wrist bones, ratcheting tight. He stared down at the empty space.
As much as Ferrin got him seething, really what he was was tired. So tired he could probably sleep for more years than he’d been alive. Of always watching his back, always anticipating how folks saw him, needing to, always on full alert, ready to run or to fight for himself or for Lottie. Tired of panicking any time a person offhand mentioned they couldn’t find something. Anticipating blame. The fatigue ached in his joints, down to his marrow. And the older he got, the more he couldn’t help suspecting that ache was the symptom of something purposeful, strategic. Get all these dadgum Differents too tired to fight back. Get them so worn out they’ll just exhaust themselves, lay down and die of their own accord and not bother good people in these here parts no more. Spittoon sound.
“Hustle now, Wells. Let’s get you put where you belong.”
As Ferrin pushed him through the store and out into the parking lot he thought about costs. Bail money, court fees, what those meant in terms of things the family would go without and for how long. Probably he’d get fired from the steakhouse for no-call no-showing. This bullshit trip to the barracks translated to a thinner pantry, less gas in the tank, and therefore, a lot of walking wherever they needed to go. They wouldn’t blame him for any of it, he knew that. Pappy Jim would say it’s the cost of living in Locust Grove, but that didn’t soothe the guilt twisting up Maddox’s guts.
• • •
Ferrin took the extra scenic route, tilting back a Ravens flask every other minute. Tacky. The local barracks sat a five-minute drive from the comic shop at most, but he drove them miles in the opposite direction, climbing Irons Mountain Road on the eastern outskirts until the only thing visible through the cruiser window was summer forest. As much as Maddox preferred air conditioning and a padded seat to a holding cell, he didn’t like the way their road trip felt.
“Just you an’ me now, boy,” Ferrin said.
So soft Maddox wasn’t sure if it was meant to be heard.
“So what’d you do with that toy? Come on and fess up.”
“Magicians don’t reveal their secrets, Hoss.”
“Shee-yit, nothing magic about you. You or that raggedy family you got. Bunch of losers and nutjobs. Women who don’t know a good thing while they’re getting it.” Another loud gulp and metallic slosh.
Maddox ignored the taunting. Tried to.
Ferrin’s breathing hitched in the quiet, then he slammed his fist against the dash. Maddox doubled down on his bad feeling.
“Some women …,” Ferrin started, his voice slipping. He blew out a long exhale. “They’ll run all over looking for something sits right in front of them. Right there the whole time, waiting. Years of waiting.”
“Word? I’ve heard some men, and I’m not naming names here, but some men see things that aren’t really there at all. There’s like a clinical word for it and everything.”
Ferrin’s entire upper body tensed, arms locked on the wheel. “When she shacked up with that illegal, I figured she’s just sowing oats, she’ll get it out of her system and run on back to the best she ever had. Then you come along. I knew then, that’s it. You come along and ruined it.”
Oh, but certain things made sense now. All of those encounters, all of that attention.
“Wow. So, does cop insurance cover therapy, or …?”
Ferrin took two pulls from the flask.
“You ever been real sick, boy? I have. Been sick for a while, pancreas of all the … I still couldn’t tell you what one does other than hurt and get you thinking. And here’s what I think: sick as I am, I’m even sicker of seeing you around my streets.”
Mutual, Maddox thought.
Of all the times their paths crossed, the morning Ferrin showed up at the house asking for a photo because Frankie Gagliardi’s mom reported a “halfie” stealing her purse, probably Maddox’s favorite. Sure, he said, he’d go find a picture, and then handed across a polaroid Lottie took of him doing a glamor pose in one of her clingy dresses. This is my good side, he’d said. That’s when he discovered Ferrin’s talent for embarrassment. But Maddox figured Ferrin for a scumbag way back in fifth grade, when he came to Maddox’s class with his D.A.R.E. briefcase full of faux narcotics for the show and tell routine. When he got to the vial of crack rock, he said people who look like Maddox’s granddaddy really liked the stuff. The class laughed and laughed.
“I’m sick of watching you get away with being a piece of shit,” Ferrin said.
“Guess you’d know one, delusional drunk asshole.”
“And most of all, I’m sick of hearing your mouth, sassy little —”
Maddox didn’t hear the word so much as feel it, a prickle all over his body. His stomach hollowing out. Red stars swirling in his eyes. People like Ferrin didn’t even bother getting the slurs right, they just flung the sharpest thing at hand. Because “Salvadoran” was two syllables too many, and everything it meant didn’t matter, and his super white mom didn’t matter, either: the point was making it clear to Maddox he didn’t belong. He’d lost count of how many times he’d been reminded this particular way.
Hearing the word again shredded the last of his restraint. He grabbed the cage separating the front and rear seats.
“Fuck you, Cornpone. Big talk from a grown-ass neckroll to a teenager in hand … cuffs?”
Only then that Maddox realized the grip he had on the cage in front of him. He looked at his freed, bare wrists. At the same time, Ferrin turned his head, saw Maddox’s fingers clutching the bars.
“Oh shit,” Maddox said.
Ferrin stood on the brake. Maddox slammed into the cage, felt the bars split the bridge of his nose and his cheek.
“Not sure how you sprung that lock, but you just made this easier.” Ferrin thumbed his radio and yelled into the receiver, “Dispatch, Ferrin requesting backup! 10-78, suspect armed and on the move!”
“W-what? No! No, I’m not,” Maddox yelled. His voice cracked like eighth grade English class.
Ferrin placed the radio and then his hat on the passenger seat. Too calm. Then he looked Maddox in the eye, a smile cutting across his face. The smell of burnt tire filled the car.
Ferrin, this is dispatch. What’s your location? Over.
Ferrin unclicked his seatbelt.
“You really are a piece of shit, Wells. Nothing else. A half-breed criminal piece of shit. It’s in your blood, it’s what you’re made of. Been feeling clever, haven’t you? Running your mouth, laughing your ugly brown ass off, just like your mama. You think I’m funny, huh? I can do funny things. Sure. Let me show you how funny I get sometimes.”
The car lurched on its suspension when Ferrin heaved out.
“Wait! Wait … stop!”
Repeat, what is your location? Over.
Ferrin yanked the rear driver’s side door open, bent down, reached in. Maddox scooted against the passenger door. Prickling. Hollowing out. Dizzy.
Falling backward out of the cruiser onto blacktop.
Three things happened at once. Maddox felt the afternoon asphalt burning the bare skin of his back. Maddox heard Ferrin shouting a one-word question. Maddox saw the cop’s confusion through the gaping hole in the side of the cruiser where the rear door should be.
Then, Ferrin’s hand pressed in on the grip of his sidearm to draw it from the holster, and instinct took over. Maddox rolled sideways, scrambling for his feet. Barely upright when a gunshot broke the air. He sprinted for the tree line, juking, hoping it made him a difficult target like they said.
“Stop,” Ferrin screamed.
Not a chance. No more obedience. Everything in Maddox pushed him to the woods — run, stay alive. Two more shots. Bark splintered to his right. There, finally through the tree line now, some cover. Three more shots, quick succession, panicked. Keep running. Maddox thought if he just kept gaining distance … and then his toe caught an oak root, the earth swung up, slammed the sense right out of him.
Ferrin’s laughter brought him back. A bloom of minor pains all over from the fall, then emptied lungs trying to pull breath. He crawled to the nearest tree, waiting for air, then, finally, inhaled with a massive groan. Back against the trunk, trying to ignore all the pains so he could keep quiet, be small as possible, unseen.
“Ready or not,” Ferrin teased. Maddox heard the crunch of the woods breaking under boots.
This can’t be it, he thought. Not now, not here.
The bootbreaks got closer, louder. Maddox’s stomach clenched at every snapped twig.
Not now. Not him. NOT HIM.
“Oh, I’m really gonna enjoy this,” Ferrin said.
Too close now. Too loud.
Maddox saw the polished black toe fall next to him. He looked up at Ferrin’s bulb of a head, smiling teeth, and he screamed. Screamed because this was not the last thing he wanted to see. Screamed until everything rattled.
This time nothing resettled.
This time everything shook apart right before his eyes.
The world burst in dancing red light.
• • •
Silence. Dense quiet, hugging on all sides. Maddox questioned his body. There. Definitely still there. Breathing? He pulled timber into his chest. Behind it another, sharper scent clung inside his nose, chlorine mixed with burning. He opened his eyes.
Still the forest, still … where’s Ferrin, is he close —
Wait, no. Not the same woods at all. These trees stood strange, too straight, incredibly tall. No branches, no leaves. When he looked up he found a tangled black canopy silhouetted against a crimson sky pierced by points of a brighter, brilliant red light. The same unwanted stars he’d seen all his life settled into place above him.
Wait wait wait, was he dead?
Did Ferrin squeeze his stupid trigger one more time before Maddox even knew?
He clawed his chest, desperate to believe in his own warm, living skin. He fell back against the tree and its rough surface for sure scraped, the pain of splinters biting into his back as real as all the cuts and bruises he’d collected. As real as anything ever seemed. When he turned to inspect the tree, its wood was bleached and pitted, riddled with scores of half-embedded staples. Recognition dawned — a utility pole. A gigantic redwood of a utility pole, a forest of them, the dark canopy overhead a snaking mess of insulated wires.
Flyers were stapled at all angles around the trunk of the pole. The markered lettering and the image in the center were distorted, too fuzzy to make out, lost cat posters from the Twilight Zone. When he squinted, trying to decipher anything he could, the letters moved under his eye. The longer he stared the more they resolved, and the picture too, a something’s-about-to-happen excitement tingling on the back of his neck, until right at the moment of recognition the sky crackled with flashes of red lightning.
Now the utility pole shifted, slid straight up into the air, churning earth as yards of its buried length emerged. Eventually its shaped surface bent and swayed, split into dozens of winding root branches. Living roots. Eventually it broke free of the ground entirely, hovering, showering clumps of loose soil. Below its skirt of branches hung a tight knot of fibers, like dozens of damp brown fingers clasped around some treasure. Maddox stepped closer. As though sensing his nearness the fibers peeled apart, offering. Inside he saw glossy paint, black and a distinctive puke green. Then light reflecting on the glass of a rolled-up window. Then the brash heraldry of the Maryland state flag. Ferrin’s rear door, completely intact.
Finally, everything clicked. This was the place? The Place, where he’d been sending things all his life?
He thought everything just got erased, that he only ever left holes in the world around him. Maddox the Loser. Maddox the Disappearer. Net negative. An absence. A danger. But that wasn’t true anymore. Better than that, it never was true, and he knew it now.
He really knew it.
Plus, he probably wasn’t dead, right? Rad.
He wanted to touch the only familiar thing he’d found. When he wrapped his fingers around the door’s interior handle the cracked vinyl was sticky and he didn’t even want to guess why. He tugged and the slab of steel answered with all the weight of a sheet of paper, like gravity was a joke. He tossed the door into the air and caught it again with one hand, laughing.
So, did everything have its own little spot here, all bundled up underground? Could he actually go and find everything he’d ever lost? He tried to pick one specific moment, one thing above any others he wished he could get back now. He knew the one, no question. He remembered every detail. Now what? He only saw electric forest fading in every direction. Then instinct told him to look up.
One of the wires seared a glowing path through the canopy, winding off into the distance to his left. Okay then, follow the instinct. First this, then find a way home. He slid his arm through the door’s vinyl handle and headed off.
When he found the pole and the poster waiting at the end of the luminous trail, he peered into its scrambled image knowing exactly what he wanted to see. The rules in this place were consistent, at least: vermillion lightning streaked above him, the pole lifted free of the ground, uncurled its protective hold, and Maddox smiled.
The warbler’s chirps were the only sound in this world. It fluttered on the tip of an outstretched root stem, a perfect poof of color, white and gray and giddy bright yellow. It tilted its head at Maddox with cautious curiosity. Did it recognize him? He reached slowly, willing his peaceful intentions in the bird’s direction. The warbler inspected the hand, shook its feathers, considered. Maddox waited, as still as he could manage.
“I’m gonna try and get you home. I owe you,” he said, legit hoping the bird didn’t ask questions. You never knew, apparently.
The warbler looked from Maddox’s hand to his face, face to hand, then hopped onto his palm. Looking up, it chirped a few thoroughly birdish notes.
He cupped it close against his chest. Still alive, still singing after all this time, like nothing ever changed.
Then Maddox heard the gunshot.
And in the frozen, reverberating seconds that followed, the screaming.
“Where are you!?”
Ferrin’s voice. Here. Distant, but here.
Maddox heard the other gunshots again in his memory. Five of them. Heard the word dripping from Ferrin’s tongue, summing him up. Saw him coming around that tree trunk again, eyes so eager.
He spun, searching the clearings. No sight of him. Yet. The screaming surrounded him though, thicker, that question repeated, along with other wordless rage. Maddox ran to the nearest pole, crouched at its base. No real place to hide, no real cover. And any movement risked drawing attention.
He remembered Ferrin’s eyes. Ferrin’s smiling mouth. So eager. The gunshots again. Five decisions, the first to kill, the others to try it again and again and again and again. And that finger and trigger here with him now. Here of all places.
Movement. A hunched-over shape crossing between poles fifty yards away. Tense movement. Hunting.
Maddox shivered like a January wind bore through his skin. He slid, slow and quiet, around the pole, hoping Ferrin didn’t catch sight.
All he wanted was to get home. Just hug his mom and Lottie and Pappy Jim again. One more time, at least. Home was all he cared about.
As these thoughts consumed Maddox, the forest flickered. The sensation of falling filled his stomach even though he sat scrunched on solid ground.
Ferrin getting louder. The forest of found things disappearing around him, crimson sky, stars, all of it. Then, back again, like someone playing with a light switch, faster and faster. Every time he felt heavier.
Home. Home. Home.
And then the falling feeling became a rush around his body. Ferrin’s voice faded to nothing, thank you thank you thank you. Maddox thought only of going home and let it carry him wherever, however it may.
“What the hell is that?”
Lottie’s voice. He latched onto it. She sounded so close. Like if Maddox just reached out …
Red flash, full weight.
“Maddox? Oh my god, are you bleeding? You hurt, Maddie?”
A sudden floor underneath, arms around him. Real, honest hands brushing his cheek, checking his skin.
He did it, for the first time ever. Control.
The cruiser door fell nearby, shaking the floor, knocking things over. He felt Lottie jump at the sound. Felt it with his own living, breathing body. When he opened his eyes she looked exactly the same as he remembered. Same shaved head, same nose ring, same mile high eyebrow in her confusion. Never so happy for things to be exactly the same.
“Is … is that from a patrol car?”
“Hope you like it,” he said, giggling. Giddy to see the same ratty couch, the same watermarks on the ceiling. The beauty of their tired old house pulled the laughter right out of him.
He made it home.
A sweet little chirp drew both their eyes to the top of the bookshelf beside them. The warbler preened under its wing.
“Maddie, what the hell is going on?”
So much to tell, but for right now he just decided to feel his sister hugging him, welcoming him home.
He knew himself. Not a problem, or a curse, or a chasm things fell into.
Maddox the Finder. Maddox the Reappearer.
Talented. One hundred percent living, breathing magic.
Copyright © 2020 by Jason Baltazar