Magic on Burnt House Lane
Any minute now,” Rachel said, “something terrible is going to happen to us.”
The area around Burnt House Lane was deserted at this time of night. The cracks in the pavement that Mae hardly noticed by day had turned into shadowy scars along the cement, tracing jagged paths that led into the dark of yet another dead-end alley. They peered down into the alley and made the silent mutual decision to walk on extremely fast. Mae was in the lead.
“Come on, this is an adventure.”
Rachel muttered behind her, “I’m pretty sure that’s what I just said.”
Mae had to concede that this might not have been one of her better ideas. She’d just wanted something different now that she was finally able to leave the house, something a little exciting, and a party in an empty warehouse near Burnt House Lane had seemed the perfect plan.
A streetlamp above slowly winked its single evil orange eye, and night swallowed them at a gulp. The light sputtered back on with a grudging crackle and night spat them up, but by then Rachel and Erica had both walked into Mae’s back and were huddling together.
Rachel was shivering. “I think this may be the worst situation I have ever been in.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Mae. “I’ve been in much worse situations than this.”
She shivered and thought of the knife sliding in her sweaty grasp, the terrible resistance as she had sunk it into skin. She remembered the blood on her hands.
Rachel and Erica didn’t know anything about what had happened last month. They still thought she’d run off to London with her poor misguided brother on some crazy impulse.
Her mother thought that too, which was why Mae had been grounded for two weeks, picked up outside school in Annabel’s car like one of the younger kids who ran from school to car, frantic to exchange one cage for another.
Mae closed her eyes, more desperate to escape than any of them, and the dying streetlamps and broken lane faded away. She remembered bright lanterns flooding the forest with gold, dancing with an edge of danger so she wasn’t sure if she was sweating from exhilaration or fear, and black eyes on hers.
She’d seen magic. And now she’d lost it.
She wasn’t thinking about that, though. She was finally out for the night and she was going to have a good time. She was going to see Seb, and she wasn’t going to think about anyone else.
There was a clatter and movement in the shadows. Mae jumped and Erica grabbed her arm, five sharp fingernails biting like a small scared animal.
“It’s fine,” Mae said loudly, more to herself than her friends. She’d walked around Burnt House Lane after dark hundreds of times. She’d never been scared before. She wasn’t going to start being scared now just because she knew exactly what could be watching.
Mae walked on, keeping her stride measured and sure, and nothing followed them that she could hear.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she told Erica. “Nothing.”
They reached the next alley and saw the warehouse where the party was being held, its windows streaming steady yellow light. Erica took a deep breath, and Mae grinned.
“See,” she said. “What did I tell you?”
“Sorry I got freaked out,” said Erica, who had not said a word all this time, who was always the angel on Mae’s shoulder saying, “Sounds great!” while Rachel on the other said, “We’re all doomed.” “I know the Lane’s safe enough, really. After all, Jamie hangs around here. Can’t really see Jamie strolling through a crime den.”
She laughed, and Rachel on Mae’s other side did too, both of them towering over Mae in their heels, fear melting away in the light.
The warehouse suddenly looked a lot less inviting.
“Jamie’s been hanging around the Lane?” Mae asked. “Since when?”
Jamie hadn’t been grounded. Annabel had assumed Mae was responsible for the whole thing, and Mae had let her. It wasn’t as if they could tell anyone the truth.
Mae had taken the blame and waved Jamie out of the house every night for weeks. He’d said he was going to the library to study; after all, it was his GCSE year, and the tests were coming up soon.
She didn’t know why she’d believed him. He’d lied to her before.
Erica looked uncertain about how Mae would take this, but she said, “Tim’s seen him around there almost every night for weeks.”
Erica’s boyfriend Tim was in Seb’s gang of guys, who weren’t Laners but liked to hang around Burnt House Lane anyway. The Lane was mostly just kids messing around, but far too many of those kids thought hassling Jamie was a good time.
Wandering Burnt House Lane after dark . . . Jamie did not take chances like that. She always told him he needed to take more risks, have a little fun, and Jamie always smiled his lopsided smile and said that he felt he got all the danger he needed in his life eating school lunches.
Mae thought about the very real danger Jamie had been in, less than a month ago. She thought about seeing a black mark on Jamie’s skin and hearing two strangers tell her that her baby brother was going to die.
She could hear the music coming out of the warehouse by now, not calling to her and promising her magic, but steady and reassuring as a heartbeat. She wanted to have fun with her friends again, to find Seb and see where that was going. She wanted to return to her normal life.
And she would, as soon as she knew her brother was safe.
“You guys go ahead, I just need to check something out.”
Mae had already sprinted a few steps away, so when she looked back her friends were superimposed against the light and music, staring at her with identically wide eyes.
“You just need to check something out in the pitch dark, in a dodgy part of town?” Rachel asked.
Mae didn’t need to be told it was dangerous. If it was dangerous for her, it would be twice as dangerous for Jamie, and every minute she spent talking was another minute he could be getting deeper into trouble.
“You’re barely even wearing a shirt! What are you going to do if a mugger jumps out at you, flash them?”
“That’s the basic plan,” Mae told her, and ran.
Mae had walked around Burnt House Lane at night plenty of times before, stumbling out of clubs with a guy who always turned out to be less interesting in the light of day. It was different now, alone with the night air running cool sharp fingers along her bare shoulders, her whole body tense. The moonlight was casting spiderweb graffiti on already scrawled-on walls and the night was full of potential danger.
People who thought it was funny to write “Gaz was here” on the walls might think it was funny to hurt Jamie. Mae was almost stumbling in her hurry through the night, so intent on her search that she put her foot into a slimy puddle. The plastic bag half-sunk in the dirty water clung to her laces as if it was a drowning swimmer. She shook her foot until it slipped off and into its watery, oily grave.
As she shook, she heard a boy’s voice say, “Crawford?” and she turned, wet shoe squishing as she ran toward an alley.
Lurking in alleys around the Lane, Mae thought in outrage. What did Jamie think he was doing?
She was mad about his stupidity right up until she turned the corner and actually saw him: skinny, small, his blond hair standing up in spikes that didn’t make him look any taller. Jamie always seemed a little fragile, and he seemed a whole lot more fragile when he was backed against an alley wall, staring up at three taller boys. The alley looked forlorn, the walls dirty and the dented, lopsided bins leaning against one another like drunks. It looked like the perfect setting for some petty crime.
Then she recognized the other boys.
Apparently Seb McFarlane wasn’t waiting to dance with Mae in the warehouse. Instead he’d decided it would be better fun to corner her brother in an alley.
The other boys were two guys she knew vaguely, part of a crowd who liked to smoke behind the bike shed and grab at clubs without asking.
Seb was tall, dark, and a little dangerous, but he never grabbed. Mae had really thought he was a possibility.
Now he was stalking toward Jamie, and Jamie was shrinking away, and the only possibility in Seb’s future was the possibility of being bitch-slapped by a girl.
He wasn’t that close to Jamie yet, so that meant Jamie had backed into a wall all by himself. Which was just like Jamie.
“Out here all alone?” Seb asked. “You sure that’s good thinking, Crawford? What if you get into trouble?”
Jamie blinked. “That is a concern. I’m glad I have you big strong men here to protect me!”
Seb shoved Jamie hard. “Your helpless act isn’t convincing me.”
“I don’t know,” another boy said lazily. “I think it’s pretty convincing, myself.”
The two boys Mae didn’t really know just seemed bored and ready to mess around, which wouldn’t have been a problem; Mae could have strolled in and made it all seem like a joke until she could whisk Jamie out of there. It was different with Seb, his big shoulders set and his voice intense. He seemed angry.
“It’s an act,” he insisted. “And you should drop it. Or maybe …” He leaned in, very focused, his eyes sharp and his voice soft. “Maybe I’ll make you drop it.”
Jamie swallowed and spoke, his voice equally soft. “I think I’m beginning to understand. Are you, um,” he said, and grinned suddenly, “are you hitting on me? Because I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re not really my type.”
Seb stepped away from Jamie as if he’d just been informed Jamie was radioactive. “You’re not funny,” he snapped. “You’re just pathetic.”
Jamie kept grinning. “I like to think I’m maybe a little of both.”
Seb’s face twisted and his hand moved, clenched in a fist. Mae moved too, but her wet shoe slid and she almost fell. Her heart was beating hard with surprise and rage, absolute rage, because to keep Jamie safe she had killed someone—she kept remembering the knife and all the blood and that magician’s surprised face—and now this stupid boy dared touch him. Why didn’t Jamie do something?
That was when she felt the warm hand at the back of her neck. It was a light clasp, as if a friend or a boyfriend were passing by and wished to alert her to their presence, fingers trailing over the delicate skin. The talisman she wore tucked in her corset flared into life, pain bursting like a small star against her skin. She found she could not move, not even to shiver. She was held frozen in place, like a butterfly gently caught between two fingers and then abruptly transfixed by the cruel steel point of a pin.
Her heart was beating harder than ever, loud in her ears and in her enforced stillness. She thought and almost thrilled to the thought: magic. Magic here, magic in Burnt House Lane, when she had thought it would never enter her life again.
She felt a presence brush by her and heard a voice ring out in the night close to her ear, almost echoing her own thoughts.
“Jamie,” said Gerald, “why don’t you do something?”
The last time Mae had heard that voice, he’d been promising to come back for their lives.
Seb and the other boys turned their heads and stared, the tension in their bodies easing as they took in the sight of Gerald. He was hardly an awe-inspiring sight, Mae remembered, though all she could see of him was a blue shirt and sandy hair going in every direction.
She recalled the mild, freckled face under the sandy hair; the shy voice, the sweet smile, and those clever, watching eyes.
Gerald lifted a hand, and the lid of a bin rose and spun in midair like a ninja’s star, missing one of the boys by an inch and striking sparks off the wall.
“Funny how these freak winds happen,” he observed in his friendly way.
The boy who the bin lid had almost hit took several steps back. Gerald gestured easily and the lid rose again, quivering in the air.
A slow, small creak came from the darkest corner of the alley. Even the boy being menaced by the airborne bin lid turned his head to see the rusty old drainpipe peeling itself from the wall.
The bin lid was pinwheeling in the air now, a blur of silver. The drainpipe was bowing toward them, tall and thin, looming out of the night like a spindly, starving giant who had finally spotted food.
Gerald laughed indulgently, as if he was showing them all a trick, as if he’d just produced doves from his sleeve rather than killer drainpipes.
“Run,” he suggested.
Two of the boys exchanged frantic looks, their eyes swiveling from Gerald standing in the alley entrance to the drainpipe, and then back again.
“Don’t bother Jamie anymore,” Gerald advised. He stepped back, politely motioning for them to go through.
The two boys ran. They didn’t even notice Mae standing frozen and furious to one side.
Seb did not move. For a moment Mae thought he was frozen by magic as she was, his hand still lifted to deliver Jamie a blow that would never land. Then he let his hand fall.
“Did I fail to make myself clear?” Gerald said, with an edge to his voice now. “When I said run, I meant you, too.”
“I’m—” Seb began, and shook his head. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I—right.”
He bowed his head to Gerald. Mae saw him shoot a dark look under his lashes at Jamie.
Jamie gave him a little wave. “Don’t let the alley hit you in the ass on your way out.”
Seb looked like he wanted to answer, possibly with a blow, but then he cut a swift look back at Gerald and stepped slowly away. He passed Gerald, making for the alley entrance.
He did see Mae. For a moment they looked at each other, his scowling face smoothing out. He looked as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do, and in the end he did nothing, just backed uncertainly away.
She’d deal with him later.
In the alley Jamie raised a hand and the spinning of the bin lid slowed. It was held still and suspended for a second, and then it flew with extreme force at Gerald.
Gerald caught it easily and nodded thanks, as if Jamie were a squire who had just tossed his knight a shield.
“Yes, like that. Why do you allow them to hassle you when you can just do something like that?”
“Because I don’t have to,” Jamie said shortly. “They’re idiots, but that doesn’t mean I want them hurt or scared. And I don’t need you to scare them either. There was no need for all that! I have to live here, you know.”
“No, you don’t.”
Jamie batted his eyelashes and laughed. “Oh yes, take me away from all this. You don’t listen.”
“It’s you who doesn’t listen!” said Gerald. “You’re a magician.”
“No, I’m not.”
“It’s not a choice,” Gerald said. “You were born a magician. It’s in your blood, and you think you can just stay here in this dull little life, being persecuted by dull little people, when you could be so much more. I could teach you.”
Jamie smiled, so much more at ease with a murderous magician than with school bullies. He spread his hands wide and stepped away from the wall. Gerald was taller than he was, but he didn’t look at all threatening.
He looked protective. They looked comfortable together.
“What could you teach me?” Jamie asked, a dimple flashing in his right cheek next to his earring. “Do I need to learn a secret magician handshake? Do I need to learn to do finger wands?”
Gerald burst out laughing. “I—” he said, and seemed somewhat at a loss. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Like a finger gun, but only magicians get to do it,” Jamie explained, grinning and shifting his schoolbag on one shoulder. He swished one finger in a dramatic circle, making a swooshing sound to accompany the gesture.
“We don’t use wands,” said Gerald.
“Don’t think that wasn’t a crushing blow for me.”
Gerald laughed again and ducked his head, shoving his hands in his pockets. “C’mon,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
“Well, that sounds ominously nonspecific,” Jamie remarked. “How could I refuse?”
They fell into step casually, as if out of long habit. Gerald grabbed the bag that was always sliding off Jamie’s shoulder and adjusted it. Jamie murmured something that made Gerald grin.
When they were leaving the alley, Mae thought that Jamie would see her, but Gerald said, “Look,” and pointed.
As Jamie looked up, the night over Burnt House Lane was torn like a veil. The air shimmered, and the broken road was paved with gold, and the whole world was magic.
“That’s just an illusion,” Jamie said while wonder still held the breath caught in Mae’s throat. He hesitated and added, “How did you do it?”
“I’ll show you,” said Gerald. “I’m going to show you everything.”
The light faded slowly, like honey dripping off a knife. Jamie still had his face upturned to the sky, mouth open, as Gerald led him away with one hand at the small of his back.
The magician brushed by Mae and suddenly she could move, as if she was made of ice and his touch was hot enough to change her to water.
She fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings abruptly cut, gasping and trying to think, trying to make a plan for a situation she would never have believed possible.
She’d always believed there was more to the world than school and clubs and the life Annabel wanted her to live. And she’d found out that there were people in the world who could do magic, people who sold magical toys in Goblin Markets and magicians who called up demons that could do almost anything. For a price.
The last time she and Jamie had seen Gerald, he’d just become the leader of the magicians’ Circle that had given Jamie a demon’s mark. The Obsidian Circle had almost got Jamie possessed by a demon, an evil spirit that would use his body until it crumbled from the inside out. The Circle had almost killed Jamie. Gerald had certainly killed countless others.
Now here he was in Mae’s city, acting like her brother’s best friend. And Jamie had told her nothing about it.
She was in over her head. They needed help.
She struggled up onto her hands and knees, and then sat up. She was leaning against a filthy brick wall in the wrong part of town with no trace of magic left.
She dug out her phone and called Alan.
When he answered she jumped, because he was screaming above high wind and the sound of a storm.
“Alan?” she said, staring up at the calm, empty sky above her head. “Where are you?”
On the other end of the line there was an echoing snarl of thunder.
“Mae?” Alan yelled, and there was silence.
The sound of the storm had just stopped abruptly, not as if it was dying away but as if someone had thrown a switch and turned off the sky.
Mae realized she was trembling. “Alan, what’s going on?”
She could hear Alan properly now, his low, sweet voice more remarkable over the phone than it was in person, when it was hard to notice much about it other than that it made you want to do whatever he asked and believe whatever he said. There was a warm undercurrent to it, as if Alan was happy to be talking to her.
Of course, that was the way he talked to everyone.
“Nothing’s going on. Is something wrong?”
Mae swallowed and tried to sound calm and assured, as if she wasn’t running to him begging for help. Again.
“Jamie’s mixed up with a magician.”
There was a pause.
Then Alan said, “We’re on our way.”
It was long past midnight by the time Jamie got back. Annabel was still at the office, because she liked being there more than being at home, and Mae had been sitting for hours in the music room with her head in her hands.
She’d thought this was over.
As soon as Jamie looked at her he came rushing to her, sinking to his knees between hers and taking her hands in his.
“I thought you were going out tonight. Did something happen at school? Are the teachers not understanding your unique and rebellious spirit? Did you kick some guy in the biology textbook again?”
Mae smiled at him with an effort. “Things are fine at school. Though now you mention it, no teacher does understand my unique and rebellious spirit at all. Where have you been?”
“Out,” Jamie said. Mae saw the unease plain on his face. She supposed she should be thankful her brother wasn’t an accomplished liar, wasn’t like Alan, but seeing him dodge her question made Mae feel sick. “C’mon, get up.”
Jamie sprang to his feet and turned on their sound system. He ran through their CDs and put on a waltz. She laughed and shook her head at him, and he beckoned to her.
“Nope,” said Mae. When Jamie grabbed her hands and tugged her gently to her feet, she laughed again and let him.
He stepped back and spun her so the lights of the chandelier and the white walls formed a dazzling blur before her eyes, as if the walls had turned to light and were turning with her. These days Mae kept imagining magic.
For a moment it was as it had always been between them, him and her against the world. This big stupid house felt just like the house they’d had before Annabel and Roger split up: oriel windows, parquet floors, and Jamie and Mae being loud and silly enough to drown out the echoing expensive silence.
“So where did you learn to dance?” Jamie asked, starting the game.
“I learned to dance in a cowboy bar in the Old West,” Mae told him. “The boys could shoot the neck off a bottle at a hundred paces, but my moves were too dangerous for them. Eventually the sheriff ran me out of town.”
Jamie dipped her so her hair touched the floor. This smooth move was slightly spoiled when he almost overbalanced and dumped her on her ass. He staggered and she grabbed hold of his shirt, using it as leverage until she was standing on her own two feet again.
Mae caught her breath and waggled her eyebrows. “Where did you learn to dance, sailor?”
“Oh, I learned to dance wearing a lace frock at Madame Mimsy’s exclusive seminary for young ladies. They thought I was a good girl,” Jamie said cheerfully. “Wrong on both counts.”
He had a hand under her elbow, careful, as if he was afraid she was going to fall again. After a few moments of silent dancing, he said, “Is anything wrong? I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Mae took a deep breath and heard the door creak open.
She and Jamie separated and turned to face their mother.
Annabel Crawford was as small as Mae and Jamie, and thin because she never ate anything but salads; her hair was lemon blond and her eyes very pale green, not like emeralds but like old-fashioned soap. She would have seemed washed-out and easy to overlook except for how polished she was, always perfectly put together with her hair so glossy it looked lacquered. Somehow that lent her an icy luster that was more noticeable than color, and she was actually almost impossible to overlook.
“James,” she said, her hands folded in front of her. “Mavis. Did you have fun tonight?”
Her cool gaze traveled over Mae, making Mae acutely aware that her jeans were slimy from falling in that alley. Annabel probably didn’t like the corset top with the black lace and the pink ribbons that spelled out ALL WRAPPED UP IN ME either.
Mae lifted her chin. “Yeah, it had everything I ask for in a party. Hard drugs. Casual sex. Ritual animal sacrifice.”
“Dancing,” said Jamie, and advanced on Annabel with intent. “Would you like to dance, Mum?”
Annabel looked as if she would prefer to eat dirt, but she put her perfectly manicured hands in Jamie’s anyway. When they started to dance, she caught him a nasty blow with one of her high heels.
Mae was pretty sure it wasn’t the actual dancing that was tripping her up. Annabel loved sports as much as Roger did, so much that they’d forced Jamie and Mae to take a million classes, though only the dance lessons had stuck. It was spending time with her kids that Annabel was having trouble with.
Ever since Mae and Jamie had returned from what Annabel thought was a cry-for-help mission of mad truancy to London, Annabel had been trying to spend quality time with them. She wasn’t very good at bonding, but that didn’t matter to Jamie. He was eating it up with a spoon.
Mae appreciated the thought, especially since Roger’s response to the whole affair was to decide that Mae and Jamie needed a more settled environment, and cancel all visits to his place. But Mae got along just fine without parental supervision. Annabel didn’t need to strain herself.
“Where did you learn to dance?” Jamie asked playfully.
“Er, I took ballet lessons for several years,” Annabel responded, and got Jamie again with her heel.
Mae went and sat on the window seat of the bay window, hands clasped around one slimy knee.
When the magicians had put a demon’s mark on her brother, she’d killed one of them to get it off. Almost every night since then she had woken remembering the shocking heat of blood spilling over her fingers. She’d lain awake feeling the ghost of that warmth, looking at her clean hands painted gray by the dim light, remembering.
She wasn’t sorry. She would have done it again without a second’s thought, but tonight she had been helpless and had seen Jamie laughing with the magicians’ leader.
Jamie came to stand beside her when the song was done, a warm presence at her side. Mae pressed her cheek against the night-cold pane of glass.
“So is there?” he asked quietly. “Something you’re not telling me?”
“Maybe,” Mae told him. “We all have our secrets.”
© 2010 Sarah Rees Brennan