Author’s note: I only wish this was a work of fiction. However, names have been changed, places obscured, and memories blurred over nearly two decades of recovery.
I’m know I’m screwed.
I’ve lost my keys – again – and several fruitless and furtive attempts to locate them while acting as casually as possible have failed; now I can feel Sequoia’s quick brown eyes locked upon the small of my back. Somehow, from across the room, he can smell my anxiety – it radiates from me, with a prickle of sudden sweat across my brow.
“You know what to do, Sophia,” he snarls. “Don’t look for your keys. Manifest them.”
Dreading the inevitable, I close my eyes and assume a posture I hope might look capable, strong, self-reliant – absolutely not doubtful or unsure: fear is failure. Inside the tremulous haven of my eyelids, every nerve burns in tight panic. Please, Great Mother, I beg fervently. Please. Please let me be able to do it this time.
Slowly, with all the caution of a movie hero faced with a tangle of almost identical wires plugged into a clock face rapidly ticking toward zero, I turn through one-eighty degrees and cautiously, calmly, open my eyes. Remember, I remind myself. The hardest part of magick is realizing you can do it.
With sudden decision, I zoom in on my trenchcoat, hanging on the hook behind the door, and my steps are as firm as the tread of an emperor in his own throne room. Still, confident hands lift fabric, and unshaking fingers slip into the nearest pocket.
They grasp nothing but fuzz and, by the feel of it, a dime.
A freezing slash of fear slices through me, from the tip of my tonsils to the base of my spine. Carefully keeping my face an expressionless mask, I turn to face Sequoia. His ever-moving eyes search mine with the intensity of a panther tracking prey. I match his gaze and desperately try not to think, but nothing can keep the questions from echoing round my sleep-deprived brain. I can’t do it. Why can’t I do it? What’s wrong with me?
His eyes narrow, his expression growing rancid with disgust. “I said Manifest them,” he tells me in clipped, over-enunciated tones, “and yet, you chose to let your Ego keep you from working even the simplest of magick.”
“She’s been malfunctioning all day,” my husband volunteers, hardly bothering to look up from his drawing. I feel my expression flicker dangerously before I can prevent it; Sequoia surveying my face critically, spots the shift of my facial muscles before I can still them.
“You’re right,” he murmurs. “She’s having an Ego-fit again.”
Oh no, please no, not again. I’ve failed again.
“Yes, Sequoia,” I hear myself agree in a dead voice. “The Ego is back again.”
“Damn it, I thought we got rid of that thing for sure,” Hermes chimes in from his perch on the end table (his habitual seat, as ordered by Sequoia, ever since I had asked Hermes not to lean upon it). “You know, Sequoia, I almost think that Ego’s the only thing in that body.”
“Brothers,” I plead, “you know that this body is not a construct. We all knew there would be difficulty with the re-wiring.” Keep calm. I do not move my eyes from Sequoia’s gaze. I can talk this out.
“Yes,” Sequoia agrees eventually. “And we know that you are worth it for us to redeem, Sophia. But it’s almost as if you wish to resist our efforts.”
“And if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” Nightmare adds with relish, and his gleeful zeal at my expense is enough to tip me over the edge. This time, I don’t even pretend to hide my anger at my husband.
Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. “Perhaps,” I begin, careful to keep my voice still, “there would be less trouble with malfunctions if you didn’t break our wedding vows.”
“That has nothing to do with anything, Sophia.” It’s a struggle to ignore the smug swell of satisfaction I feel at hearing his voice filled with anger that he – as an adept above the Abyss – supposedly doesn’t have.
“You broke the vows again?” Sequoia asks Nightmare sharply, keeping his eyes locked firmly on mine.
“I pushed her again,” Nightmare admits, “but it was her Ego, jumping into my body.” Oh you absolute rat. I do not let my eyes waver from Sequoia’s.
“Yes,” Sequoia sighs softly, turning to face Nightmare, and with relief I allow my gaze to drop to the floor; whatever will happen now, I no longer have to pretend that nothing is wrong. Condemned as defective, I can quietly wait for correction, no longer subject to questioning, but rather the subject of discussion.
“Yes, this Ego has been causing a lot of trouble lately,” Sequoia pronounces loftily. “We will have to deal with it. However,” he continues, “I am concerned that you might have a slight breach in your defenses, Brother Nightmare.”
“Her Ego has been attacking them night and day,”
You swine, I howl internally. Why can’t you leave off for just one day?
“Still, we will have to check you out as well, Nightmare.”
“Thank you, Sequoia.” Still, Nightmare sounds triumphant, as if he’s won.
“Perhaps we might scan for outside interference again,” Hermes suggests, “maybe someone’s possessed her.”
“That is possible, and would explain her attitude problems,” Sequoia concedes thoughtfully. “In any case, I can see now why the keys didn’t Manifest themselves. She’s clearly broken. We’ll have to keep her home from work. We have to do surgery, this afternoon, as soon as we can summon the correct entities.”
The spell breaks: it’s all very well and good to pretend this is real, but a vision of my employer’s scowling face rears up in my mind. “But I’ll get fired if I keep skipping work,” I protest feebly.
Sequoia snaps: in an instant, the cool, collected guru vanishes and, in his stead, a snake in human skin hovers over me, hissing menacingly, his spitting mouth two inches under my nose. “YOUR EMPLOYERS DO NOT EXIST!!!” He bellows, “They are constructs! Only the family of this temple and those like us are real! Do not be intimidated by those monkeys! If you continue to Manifest your job, you will not lose it! Stop thinking like a Mundane!”
“Sequoia?” a soft voice interrupts – the only person in the Temple who would dare interrupt.
“Yes, Hoshi?” Sequoia slips back into placidity, turning to face our consultant from Buddha’s team, the neutral observer in our battle to reconcile the forces of Good and Evil.
“Perhaps,” Hoshi suggests gently, “if Sister Sophia is having trouble Manifesting, it would not be to the temple’s advantage to rely on that. I suggest that we adjourn for now, and conduct the surgery this evening, upon her return home. After all, we must obey the laws of the universe we find ourselves in.”
Sequoia allows a cool smile to crook his thin lips. “Your insight is unparalleled, Hoshi.” A shiver of relief spreads across my back and shoulders, but this time I am able to keep my expression neutral, completely still.
“And in any case,” Hoshi continues blandly, “I see Sister Sophia’s keys. They’re right over there, hidden behind Brother Nightmare’s notebook.”
I shrug into my trenchcoat and nod curtly to my husband as I pluck my keys from their hiding place. Nightmare flashes me a “this isn’t over” look, but I know better than to meet his gaze, even for an instant: the last time our eyes locked during a disagreement, my Ego jumped across the beam of visual contact, forcing his arm to leap up and slap me across the face.
“We will be waiting for you upon your return, Sophia,” Sequoia warns sternly, “I recommend shutting down your emotion protocols in the meantime.”
“Yes, Sequoia.” I bow slightly. “Brothers.” As I descend the apartment stairs, my hand slips automatically into the right front pocket, feeling once again the fuzz and the dime. Some Mage you are. Can’t even manifest a stupid bunch of car keys.
Did you really just think that? I rail silently. People can’t just make pieces of metal appear in their pockets. And if Sequoia and Nightmare are such great Mages, why can’t Nightmare Manifest a job of his own? Have you ever seen Sequoia Manifest so much as his own pack of cigarettes?
He Manifested Nightmare’s glasses, another part of my mind argues. And he called up the rainstorm that night.
It had been thundering all afternoon! And you only have his word on it about the glasses, remember. You weren’t there.
Those glasses are how he found your husband’s incarnation; without them, you would be without a mate and worthless.
But, who is he to tell me my worth?
He is the Magnus of the Aeon. You are but his Bard.
Baloney! Would someone with so much cosmic love be such a bully?
If he’s a bully, then what am I, for following him for so long?
Once out in the half-hearted daylight of a cloudy November afternoon, I remove the coin from my pocket and stare at it, turning it over and over, focusing on the glint of the metal, the heft of it in my hand, anything to quiet the ongoing battle raging in my head. My lips move as I read the legend:
United States. Ten Cents.
At least you could tell it was a dime.
“Shut up,” I reply, and swing myself into the driver’s seat.
Some two decades separate the girl I was then from the woman I am today. Between those years came a long, painful, torturous path to recovery, a path that sometimes doubled back into the worlds of pain and confusion when life’s turbulence knocked me into some fresh crisis. But although those dark years were filled with agony and doubt, I would not trade a single second of the experience, nor would I erase even one moment of the abuse and humiliations heaped upon me. It seems much too smug a cliché, and yet it is absolutely true: I wouldn’t be the person I am today, without having lived through it all.
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