Image remix by C. Cox — Photos by Tim Mossholder, Artem Podrez, and Karolina Grabowska (Pexels)
The Way Bricks Talk
by Ella J. Lombard
I met her in the awkward pause after the coffin was lowered into the ground. It had been weeks since I had found a silence with so many flavors. I drank in its power and the world seemed to sharpen, the well of energy within me finally refilling. Funeral silence has an odd quality; it hovers somewhere between a prayer and a bad first date. This would hold me over for another few weeks at least, fueling works of magic more complex than I could manage from sips of everyday silence alone.
Dirt thudded into the grave, and when I turned to edge my way out of the crowd, there was a woman in front of me. She flashed a curious smile, as if we’d met somewhere before and she could almost remember my name. She wore a crisp gray suit and had a face that looked too young for funerals.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” she said. “How did you know Daniel?”
“He was a friend from college.” I could tell she didn’t believe me, but she wouldn’t believe the truth, either – terrenes don’t wander graveyards to drink silence. “How about you?”
“I’m Sarah.” She nodded at the fresh grave behind us and reached out to shake my hand. “I don’t actually know who that is, and apparently neither do you. What I do know is that we have something in common.” She spread out her hands. “Go ahead; see for yourself.”
I took a cautious taste of the silence she offered and recoiled, startled by how rich it was. She tasted of magic—not a terrene after all. I couldn’t tell any more than that, but it was revelation enough: I had only ever met six of my kind. Empyreans, my grandmother had called us. Of the heavens. Too elitist a term for my comfort, not to mention that I’d never seen a connection between our magic and anything heavenly or celestial, but since I hadn’t come across any viable alternatives, an abbreviated version had stuck in my mind since childhood: emps.
“We have some shared history I’d like to discuss,” Sarah said. “If you’re open to it.”
Shared history? I had never seen this woman before. A feather of cold brushed my neck. It sounded like she’d been following me, and these days I spent most of the energy I drew from silence making sure I was difficult to find.
“Want to elaborate on that?”
“I will,” Sarah said. “But not here. Meet me at Café Pluie tomorrow at four.” She passed me a folded slip of paper, turned, and walked away. I considered following her, but I glanced down and unfolded the note instead. Sarah’s handwriting was angular and neat. She’d written, Mark is in town.
At home, I checked all the closets in my apartment, double-bolted my front and back doors, and made sure each window was locked. Despite the protective wards I’d set to render myself difficult to trace by magic, it was still possible that he was watching or listening, so I didn’t dig into the bedroom closet to check on the jade statue tucked into a winter boot at the back of the top shelf. My fingers itched to make sure it was still hidden, but I satisfied myself by mentally wrapping it in a silence as strong as possible to conceal it from attempts at detection. I sat on my kitchen floor with a mug of coffee, my back braced against the exposed brick wall across from the sink, and I stared at the fire escape to my right. In my dreams, he had always come in that way, climbing the rusted stairs.
Cheshire meowed and wound his plump body around my legs, either to comfort me or because his food bowl was empty. I filled it and sank down onto the tiles again under the glaring white of the ceiling lights I had always disliked. I drank my coffee and settled into rebuilding the protections on the apartment layer by layer. The silence of a thirty-two-year-old woman and her cat amid the background bass thrum from the upstairs neighbors and the buzzing fluorescents wasn’t ideal for any serious kind of magic, but it was what I had. I was newly grateful that I’d replenished my stores at the funeral; without reserves to draw on, my wards would have been weak and painstaking to set. I drank the watery silence until the light faded and returned, until the air around me was heavy, myself and the apartment both cloaked in silence so thick that attention would slide away from us and attempts to locate me would fizzle. I refused to let myself fall asleep.
By the time I arrived at the café the next day, Sarah was already seated, wearing a dark red sweater and lace-up ankle boots that made her look like she’d tumbled out of an advertisement for a ski lodge.
“So,” I said, sliding into the seat across from her and setting down my Americano and a scone. “Why don’t you tell me what the hell this is about?”
She looked up at me over the rim of her mug. “I’m sorry if I worried you, Juliet. I’m here to help, I promise.”
“Why should I trust you?”
A pause. “Because Mark’s father gave us the statue on our wedding day.”
My stomach rolled. The statue. I braced myself against an onslaught of memory. Mark’s flushed face, his fingers wrapped around the jade dove. Strongest together, he’d said. Bonded like this, we can do things beyond our wildest dreams. This means you trust me, that you believe in us.
“So I wasn’t the first one he used to amplify his power.” He’d always refused to talk about his exes, telling me I was the only one who mattered.
“No,” Sarah said, toneless. “No, that was me. He didn’t tell me what he was doing, so it took me months to figure out why my magic was vanishing, why I felt so… drained.”
Her words ignited memories I usually did my best not to dwell on. I think I’m sick, I’d told him. Something isn’t right. I’m tired all the time. It had been getting worse for days, a gradual weakness. His forehead had creased with concern. He’d brought ibuprofen and water, suggested I get some rest.
Later, on the edge of sleep, a memory had resurfaced, hazy: the night he kept refilling my glass and I had the impulse to say You like me better drunk, but he was being kind and I didn’t want to start a fight. He asked my permission to try something involving magic. I couldn’t remember the details. Just his hand stroking over my collarbone and the desire rising in me to keep him like this, witty and calm and touching me gently. By morning I’d nearly forgotten how I slurred an Okay and his eyes lit with triumph.
Remembering left me nauseated and uncertain, staring at the Café Pluie ceiling and wondering how much of what I had recalled was real. But after that I started feeling the slow siphoning of my magic. It leaked away from me at his command, leaving me empty and weak. Eventually, he stopped trying to hide it; we both knew I was too drained to resist.
I didn’t ask Sarah how she’d been tricked into consenting to the initial bond. One yes, even without full awareness or knowledge of what that yes meant, was all Mark needed. As long as he had the statue.
“You took the statue with you when you left,” Sarah said.
“What makes you think that?”
“Mark wouldn’t spend three years preparing to come after you if he had another option. The fact he’s even waited so long proves that he’s scared of you.”
I almost snorted. Scared wasn’t a word I would have ever chosen to describe Mark.
“He is, Juliet.” Sarah’s gaze was steady. “I’ve been trying to keep tabs on him since I got away, before he found you. I track him down for a bit, he realizes what I’m doing and disappears, and I go looking for him again. At one point, he found and groomed another one of our kind and tried to find a way to use her without the statue, just by sheer force of will. It didn’t work. Only the jade statue will let him take someone else’s power with total control.”
Of the handful of emps I’d met, all of us were sensitive to the energy emitted by objects or creatures in our surroundings, though each of us used that energy in different ways. For me it was silence. Mark drew energy from fear and sometimes desire, transforming them into persuasion and illusion. I’d never learned what his parents could do. My college friend’s source was bright colors, while my grandmother could draw power from an afternoon in the garden tending plants and redirect it into healing.
I tried to imagine Mark’s daily life without using someone else’s power and almost couldn’t conjure the image. What came to mind instead was the familiar memory of Mark at a house party, circled by a throng of admirers. The glitter of the champagne he raised in my direction, smile edged with mocking. The giggles of the office girls who fawned over him as he cracked mediocre jokes, and how my own anger waxed and waned, oscillating between who do they think they are and the more rational realization that they hadn’t consciously chosen to dote on him any more than I had chosen to be his energy source. The beat of the background music and the pit in my stomach. I’d been hungry those days no matter what I ate, my body rebelling at the emptiness where my power should have been.
It’s like I’m their king, he said to me once after charming his way into a significant pay raise. His voice was edged with wonder.
Sarah said, “Once he realized he didn’t have any other options, he worked on refining his technique and figuring out how to find you, to get the statue back.”
“So after years of trying to follow him, including watching him coerce me into giving him control over my power, you’ve decided to reach out now. Charming.”
Sarah’s face was unreadable. “I’ve been waiting for a shot to take him on and actually win, and I can’t do it alone. He’s here in the city; I’ve sensed it. How long do you think we have before he makes a move, a month? Maybe two?”
“He could’ve sent you here in his place,” I said. “Sounds like his style. Let me guess: you’ll help me stop him, but to do that, we’ll need to use this statue you think I have? Why, come right this way, I’ll lead you to it!”
She flinched. “I would never ask you to use it. I’d happily watch you take a sledgehammer to it, but I’m sure you’ve already tried that. If there’s a way to destroy that thing, I never found it. I know you have no reason to believe me. But I’ve waited seven years for the chance to stop him, and this is the best I’ve had. We know he’s coming. We know what he wants. We just have to set a trap and wait for him to walk into it.”
I let the pause after her words hang long enough to sip at the silence between us. It was loud in the café, but I could still taste old pain burned into a hatred that sparked with purpose, almost desperation. I pushed back my chair and stood up. “Listen, I appreciate the information. But I’ve handled Mark fine by myself until now. Trust me, your best bet is to stay safe and out of his way.”
Sarah looked like she was considering saying something else but thought better of it. I gave her an apologetic shrug and left.
Out of the café, with the air cool on my face and free from the pressure of a dozen overlapping voices, I felt steadier. I walked to a low bridge that spanned the river and watched the glitter of the current below. One thought blurred everything else.
I’ve sensed him in the city, Sarah had said. The ability to recognize magic in someone else seemed to be universal among emps, transcending our unique specializations, but some of us were better at it than others. Clearly, Sarah was more talented in this area than me; I hadn’t caught so much as a whiff of Mark in the years since I’d escaped him. All my careful wards of protective silence and I’d missed the one thing that mattered. Now that she’d said it, every shred of silence tasted like danger. I drew in as much as I dared and held it inside me, trying to slow my accelerating heart rate.
A boy, nine or ten, looked up at me from the park bench on the riverbank. He was bouncing a tennis ball on the concrete. Something about his eyes caught my attention, a singularity of focus that didn’t match the rest of him. It was only because I was filled to the brim with silence that I noticed it. He tilted his head and waved at me with the hand that held the ball.
I lifted my hand automatically, waved back.
The boy smiled like he’d woken up to find that the tooth fairy had left him a hundred-dollar bill instead of a single.
“You look sad,” he called up at me.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I watched the ball bounce up, down, up, down.
“Are you lonely? Want to come play?”
Where are this boy’s parents and why are they letting him talk to strangers? The thought felt far away. The soft thunk of the ball against the concrete reverberated up the bridge. I took a few steps toward the stairs that led down to the river. Then I paused.
“Why?” My voice sounded distant to my own ears, almost distorted.
The boy blinked up at me and his ball slowed. “I’m lonely too.”
In the split second of relative quiet following his words, before the ball hit the concrete again, I tasted magic and recognized it instantly. Only one person had that greasy aura of illusion and manipulation.
Old instincts took over. Mark’s persuasion spells could only work if they were perceived: he had to connect to a target with sight, sound, or touch. I dropped my body to the ground to disrupt the line of sight between us, pressed against the stone wall of the bridge, and deafened myself with silence. I crawled along the concrete in the opposite direction.
A cacophony of pure, agonizing sound burst through my protective silence. The shriek neared the upper limit of audible pitch, and it tore into my ears like an ambulance siren at close range. I faltered, kneeling back and cupping my head between my hands in a futile effort to block out the ringing. This was no illusion, and it didn’t feel like Mark. I reached for silence and couldn’t find it; the pressure inside my skull was overwhelming.
Then it eased away, and the world went soft and quiet again. I stumbled upright without catching my breath, scanning for threats and finally grasping the silence that had eluded me a moment ago, ready to defend myself.
A dirty tennis ball rolled slowly away from the empty bench.
“Juliet.” The voice behind me was hesitant. I spun around and shot pure silence straight at its source.
Sarah’s eyes went wild with panic. I’d stripped her hearing, locking her in a bubble of crushing soundlessness. She opened her mouth and an incoherent noise of terror came out. “Juliet—” she tried again, her voice higher than ever before, “please—”
I released her, if only so she could hear me, but stayed ready. “What are you doing? Did you follow me? Did you see Mark? Where did he go?”
Sarah took ragged breaths as if I’d been choking the life out of her instead of temporarily muffling her hearing. When she’d recovered, she looked up at me.
“That was amazing.”
I stared at her. “Pardon?”
“Your silence—you don’t just use it to escape notice. You can use the silence itself as a weapon.”
Whatever I’d been expecting, this wasn’t it. “Yes.”
“It’s perfect. I can do the same with noise.” She winced. “Hopefully it was startling and brief enough that he didn’t catch a clear sense that I was the source. It’s not good that he’s seen you, but it’ll be worse if he’s realized we’re together. We need the element of surprise.”
“We—” I felt like my brain was moving at quarter-speed. My ears were still faintly ringing. “Mark—”
Sarah’s gaze softened. “Let me buy you another coffee or tea or something. You don’t have to go along with any plan you don’t want to, but we should finish talking. Especially now that he’s seen you.”
“Do you think he’s gone?”
“For now. I can’t sense him here anymore. Can you?”
I took a deep breath and sent my awareness out into the threads of silence in all directions. Yes—that faint oily sensation down by the river was his magical fingerprint, already fading. He was moving away, probably spooked by my sudden disappearance from view and the breaking of his spell. Sarah’s silence felt clean and bright in comparison. She gave me a hesitant smile.
“He seemed…” I struggled to find the right word. “Elated. Almost surprised.”
“Maybe he was. Last time I successfully tracked him was only a few days ago, and he was searching aimlessly through the city; I don’t think he’d found your trail yet. Maybe he hit the lottery running into you by accident.”
My mind was already running through the calculations necessary to respond to what had happened today: never come back to this part of the city, avoid being in certain locations at consistent times each day, run more frequent checks to see if I could sense anything resembling his presence, stronger protective spells cloaking me at all times. I was already halfway down the list by the time I realized what I was thinking about. I felt ill at the idea of doing this month after month, year after year, penned in by restrictions and flinching at strangers.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s go across town, in case he doubles back. I don’t want to head home yet anyway. And forget tea; I want something stronger.”
“Here’s to that,” Sarah murmured. She took my arm and steered me away from the bridge, already raising a hand to hail a cab.
“Ready?” I asked. It was a foggy Saturday, and we’d driven a couple hours north of the city to practice in a forest. The plan was for me to create a bubble of silence within which Sarah would launch a noise attack. It had been my idea: I thought the bubble might trap and amplify the attack, strengthening it without requiring additional effort from Sarah. We both wondered if the silence and noise would just cancel each other out, but it seemed worth a try. We stood facing each other in a clearing ringed with trees, the weeds beneath our feet spongy with rain.
Sarah nodded. “Let’s go.”
An experimental nudge at our surroundings told me I wouldn’t need to dip into my stores for this one. Forests are far from soundless—there was wind in the trees, wildlife skittering through the underbrush, birdsong—but compared to the city, the layers of silence were deep and lasting, built over years of freedom from the hum of electricity and the roar of traffic.
I drank it in gulps and snapped a bubble of silence into place around us.
Sarah’s eyes went wild with panic, and she grabbed at her ears as though to clear them. The silence that poured off her was hot and urgent. I moved toward her and reached out, intending to squeeze her shoulder in comfort, but as my hand brushed her fleece jacket, she grabbed my wrist and stepped to the side, twisting my arm and tripping me. The deft move was practiced to the point of instinct. My hold on the bubble of silence slipped as I landed on the wet ground. I blinked up at her.
Sarah took a deep breath, then offered a hand. “Sorry. Habit.” She pulled me from the mud.
“Not being able to hear the outside world makes you nervous?” I guessed.
She looked like she was considering changing the subject, but her gaze wandered to my mud-stained jeans, and she winced. “You—you once told me you could sense things in silence, right? Emotions, intentions?”
“Right,” Sarah said. “Mine is similar. Two parts, receptive and active. It starts with taking something in, but my source is different.”
All I knew so far about Sarah’s magic was that she could use noise as a weapon. But it made sense. “So your source is… sound?”
“Sort of.” She ran a hand through her hair, looking almost self-conscious. “I can hear things other people can’t. The hidden voices of things. Objects, creatures. I think that’s part of why I’m good at sensing our kind. I heard magic sing in you right away, even though you said you use silence wards to make yourself difficult to notice.”
The thought of having my head filled with sounds beyond those that were normally audible was chilling, but for her it was a source of strength. The bubble had muffled her ability to hear and left her vulnerable, like how I felt when trapped in a crowd packed with noise.
“Do it again.” Sarah’s jaw tightened. “If I panic every time you make the bubble, this will never work.”
She was bracing herself as though riding a train hurtling toward a collision. I shook my head. “Shut your eyes.”
Her gaze flicked to me. “Why?”
“You’re too tense. Let me walk you through it?”
She considered for a long moment. Then she shrugged and closed her eyes.
I kept my voice low. “It scares you because it’s so empty, right? It’s the absence of everything you usually hear. Feels like being cut off from the world.”
A tiny, tense nod.
“It’s not empty,” I said. “I promise. I can feel everything in that bubble and outside of it. For this moment, all you have to do is be still and let me listen for both of us. Can you try that for me?”
Her lips parted. “Sure,” she said, her voice a little hoarse.
“Good.” I began to build it around us slowly, carefully, strengthening the silence little by little. “Slow breaths. I’ve got you.” I hadn’t been sure if she would listen to me, but she did, evening out her breathing. The bubble locked into place, the air almost entirely still, and I felt her heartbeat rise, but I didn’t taste panic in her silence. I synced my breath to hers.
After a moment, a light whistle built inside the bubble, gaining intensity as Sarah’s confidence grew. I felt a flare of excitement at our success, but before I had time to process it, the high-pitched ringing grew too loud to bear, worming into my head, inescapable. I made a belated attempt to shape a smaller shield of silence around my ears, but I couldn’t focus through the pain. Both works of magic slipped away from me and disintegrated.
“It worked just like you said it would,” Sarah said. “I could feel it bouncing around and amplifying itself! I only had to use a fraction of the effort.”
I couldn’t match her enthusiasm. My ears were ringing, and I felt faintly nauseated. “Sure, but now I can’t hold the bubble.”
“I think you’re more sensitive to it than most people,” Sarah said. “That level of noise is typically bearable even without magical protection.”
I sat down in the slick weeds and mud of my own volition this time, too tired to care. My tailbone and hip ached where I’d struck the ground earlier. “The silence specialist doesn’t do well with sonic weapons. Go figure.”
Her eyes glinted. “Is it my turn to try something?”
The sun was setting; we’d have to end our practice session soon regardless of the outcome. “Be my guest.”
She looked down at me. “You can make a bubble of silence. I wonder if I can make a protective bubble of sound.” That was all the warning I got before I was enveloped in a soft rumble. Within it, I could feel my body vibrate slightly, as if a cat was curled up and purring on my chest. I’d come to associate sound with tension, but this low frequency was soothing. Sarah’s lips moved, but I couldn’t make out the words. Distantly, I heard her conjure the whistle, but it sounded as if it came from another room. My limbs were warm and heavy.
In a few moments, the whistle and the rumble both faded, and I smiled up at Sarah from where I was still slumped on the ground. “Mm, felt nice,” I said, my voice coming out slightly slurred.
She looked amused. “So, you’re sensitive to sound manipulations in a positive way, too. Good to know.”
I cleared my throat and got to my feet, embarrassment setting in as the effects rapidly faded. “Yeah. Um. So now we just need to put the pieces together.”
“Right. I wrap you in sound to protect you, you make the silence bubble, then I make the whistle, and you maintain the bubble to amplify it.”
“Simple,” I joked, but Sarah didn’t laugh.
It was like trying to sing a round, if the round were to a song nobody had ever heard before and both singers were on mind-altering drugs. Sarah had to struggle to keep her silence-induced paranoia at bay enough to produce two separate works of magic simultaneously, neither of which was easy. I had to maintain the bubble while getting progressively drunker on Sarah’s vibrating hum, and if her control slipped for a heartbeat, I was blasted with the whistle attack and the whole thing fell apart instantly. By the time the sky was fully dark, we stumbled back to the car through a misting rain that seeped through our clothes. Neither of us mentioned aloud that this was a nearly ideal context for the magic we were trying to perform; plenty of silence for me and ambient voices from the forest for Sarah to draw from, no distractions, and nobody resisting our efforts. There was no way the circumstances would be so favorable whenever we actually needed to defend ourselves against Mark.
We were both sullen and weary on the car ride home. Sarah’s fingers tapped the steering wheel. Rows of dark pines whipped past outside the window, hulking purple shadows lining up like soldiers waiting for the order to charge.
Two weeks and three equally discouraging training sessions later, I came home from work on a Monday afternoon to a faint disturbance in the warding threads I had strung across the apartment. It was subtle enough to be ambiguous. Were they weakening naturally? My internal well of silence was far from running dry, and I’d recast them recently; it didn’t make sense for them to be wearing off so soon.
My skin prickled as I ran my gaze across the kitchen, the couch, the coffee table with its stack of sea-smooth stones. Not a single object was out of place. Cheshire crouched at the top of his scratching post tower, tense.
Twice recently I’d seen a profile or the back of a stranger’s head in the street and frozen, thinking it’s him. It has to be. It should have been simple enough to test my own suspicions, but instant panic blocked my ability to sense anything. Each time I’d had to find somewhere out of sight to wait until the fear faded and I remembered that he would never walk around in his own face.
Now, for the third time, I couldn’t quite grasp the silence necessary to sense whether he’d been here. I walked to the closet, unable to resist checking on the statue. Hatred roiled in my throat as my knuckle brushed the cool jade. The dove was a familiar shape beneath my touch, wings folded, head angled up and sideways as if posing a secret inquiry. At least he hadn’t found it. My breathing started to come easier and I felt my thundering pulse recede.
With calm, silence came pouring back into my awareness like cool water. There—the faint taste of him pooling at the end of the kitchen by the door to the fire escape. I rose and moved toward it.
The chain slid, the lock clicked open, and soft air touched my face. I looked around, then down. The small body of a sparrow rested on the latticed metal in front of me, just inside the invisible line that marked my warding. Wings broken.
Time sped up then, a dizzying blur of coat and purse and keys and leaving without knowing where I was going, just the urgency of needing to be elsewhere as fast as possible. I almost called Sarah, but I felt the ghostly grip of resistance. I don’t need to be rescued. It’s a stupid bird. It could be a coincidence.
I walked until my legs ached and chose a café at random. It looked like it was one of those trendy café-brewery combos, the kind that trots out beer in the evenings alongside their standard coffee-and-pastries fare. I would order tea and a bagel for dinner, work up the nerve to go home, and figure out what to do next.
As if on cue, as I stepped into the café, I tasted something oily and familiar in the sparks of silence that underlain chattering customers and calls of orders behind the counter. I almost laughed at the ridiculousness of it all—had I really run from the phantom of Mark’s presence only to accidentally head straight toward him? Was I that desperately unlucky?—but it curdled in my throat. I went to the restroom and locked the door. I stared at myself in the mirror, box breathing in, two, three, four, hold, two, three, four, out—until my head stopped spinning.
One certainty eclipsed everything else: I was done questioning my instincts. If I felt him, it was for a reason. He’d been in my home. And here. I was far from unafraid, but I could draw silence and cloak myself in it until I thought I could escape notice and slip through the crowd, which was what mattered. I snuck out the door and down the hallway and took in the crowded café with new eyes.
Was he the child begging her mother for a bear claw? One of the university students at the corner table? The young man waiting in line with his coworkers to pick up happy hour IPAs? Or maybe the taste of him was residual, left from an earlier visit like the slime trail of a slug. I headed for the exit, weaving between customers who took little notice.
A man picked up his order from the counter and turned, and we collided before he registered that I was there. Early thirties, attractive. Friendly smile. I was instantly wary. He blinked, reached for my shoulder to steady me. I turned away before he could get a good look at my face.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you—”
If he hadn’t touched me, I don’t think I would have been certain, not without him overtly using magic like he had at the bridge. But I knew that grip.
I felt an unexpected flare of validation—it is him—and an equally startling rage. I saw the recognition in his face, mirroring my own; the physical contact had been enough for us to recognize each other. I brimmed with the desire to attack him right there, deafen him and knock him to the floor in front of all these people. I trembled with it. He took it for fear, and his grip tightened.
“There you are, little bird,” he breathed. He may have worn an unfamiliar face, but the greedy wonder in his eyes transformed him into the man I knew. The old nickname twisted my lungs to useless fury. I shook him loose, knowing it was unlikely that he’d take the risk of physically attacking me in public.
“Go home,” I said in a low voice. “Never approach me again. I won’t warn you twice.”
The handsome face that didn’t belong to Mark crumpled into laughter. I took a step back, refusing to be baited by his scorn. It took all my willpower to draw back further into my silence and melt into the crowd. I could feel the weight of his gaze on my neck, but he didn’t follow, and no trace of his magic reached after me.
Cold with shock, I called Sarah and hailed a cab simultaneously. I had no idea what we should do, but I knew I was done cowering at traces of Mark like a boneless creature while counseling caution and patience to Sarah.
“Hi. Meet me by the river near Haskel Park—yeah, up north. As soon as you can. I’ll be there in ten.”
We walked past joggers and mothers pushing strollers and people on roller skates, and I felt stretched thin by sound.
“What if we bring the fight to him?” Sarah said.
“We don’t know where he is, except apparently snooping around my apartment and ordering lattes.”
“I think I can find out. Listen, Juliet, you’re right—if he’s tried your place once, he’ll come back. We can’t risk that happening at an odd time when I happen to not be available or miss your call.”
“How did you get away from him?”
Sarah stopped. “Excuse me?”
“It took me forever to even convince myself I could leave him, let alone follow through. How did you do it?”
“Honestly? I almost didn’t. Want to know something ridiculous?” Her lips curved in half a smile. “It was the bricks. In the wall. I couldn’t stop hearing them, even when he’d leached me near to empty and I couldn’t do any real magic on my own. There was one time he had me up against—” Sarah paused. Just when I thought she wasn’t going to continue, she said, “The voices of bricks aren’t like other things. They were made to be hard and lasting. They tell the kind of truth that scrapes you. And I just knew I had to leave, whatever it took.”
I thought I understood. With Mark, my own fear had choked me. My magic had withered—it had been hard to tell how much was due to the statue and how much was simply my growing terror. Now, it felt as though that timid, drained Juliet had been a dream.
Sarah looked small standing at the edge of the path, the planes of her face shadowed. We were close together, now, just inches apart. I had the urge to touch her cheek, to tell her that I had never met someone who knew the sustenance of hidden voices and quiet things. I couldn’t find the right words, so I just said, “I’m glad you left. I’m glad you’re… here.” With me.
She looked up at me, and her silence shifted into something spiced and sharp. I could feel the warm ghost of her breath. My thoughts flashed to the jade statue in the closet. To what it would be like to press it into her hand, to say Go ahead. To feel my own magic flow through her, shaped by her touch. The tang of stale fear that always accompanied my memories of the statue was overpowered by a guilt-laced thrill that flooded through my veins.
It was impossible to tell what Sarah saw in my eyes or heard in voices inaudible to me. She regarded me for a moment, cool and composed, then moved forward and kissed me. She tasted like a mélange of vanilla lip balm and night air. I leaned into her touch. Distantly, I wondered why I had thought of the statue, of all things, in this moment.
The memory of Mark feeling me weaken in his embrace soured the gentle pressure of Sarah’s lips, and I tensed.
Sarah pulled back. “I’m sorry, was that too far? I guess I just—”
My head spun, and her voice blurred in and out of focus. First, she’d won my trust with her promises that we wouldn’t use the statue. Then she’d lowered my guard, kissed me, and I’d started thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to use it together. To let her take my magic. It was all too convenient, too perfect of a progression, one that ended with her in control just like he had been.
“Juliet? What’s wrong?” Concern and confusion creased her face.
“I knew it. I knew you were playing me.”
“So which is it? You working with him, or just trying to get the statue for yourself? Which one of you came up with the idea to seduce me? I bet you just laughed yourselves sick over that one.” I was shaking. I wrapped my arms around my torso to steady myself. “Sorry to disappoint, but you’ll have to come and try to take it, because I will never give it to you. Ever. No matter how many little persuasive thoughts you weasel into my head.”
“You thought of giving it to me?” she whispered. Her eyes widened. “Of letting me use it with you? Juliet, I never—”
I willed bricks into my voice. “Get away from me. I’ll finish this myself.”
I spun around and ran until I reached my apartment. I dug through the top shelf of the bedroom closet, scattering the shoes across the floor.
Sitting there in the dark, I clutched the cool jade dove in both hands and trembled in lip balm-flavored silence. My fingers brushed its folded wings as if to reassure myself that it couldn’t take flight.
The next night at 9 pm, Sarah knocked at my door. I refused to let her inside.
In the distorted view through the peephole, she looked confused for a moment. Then she said, her voice muffled through the heavy door, “I came to apologize.”
“I don’t need your apologies. I need you to leave me alone.”
“Juliet, I haven’t been completely honest with you. I want to fix that.”
“Well, it’s too late,” I said. “And this could have been a text.”
“I need to tell you something about Mark. It’s important.”
I hesitated. Curiosity nudged at me.
“Please let me explain?”
I hadn’t given her a chance to speak the other night; maybe that had been a mistake. I unfastened the deadbolts and opened the door, but I stood in it.
“Thank you, Juliet. I’m sorry. I knew I needed to set things straight before…” she trailed off. “Do you have anything to drink?”
“You can explain yourself right here,” I said, my voice flat.
She took a deep breath. “I didn’t know how to tell you the truth.”
“So you are working with him.”
Surprise and hurt flashed across her face. “Of course not.” A pause. “Is that really what you think of me?”
“I think you want the statue.”
She smiled. “And why would I need to be working with him to want the statue?”
Alarm bells clamored in my head. I’d been an idiot, opening the door.
“It’s not here,” I said.
“Oh, really?” She took a step forward, her face inches from mine. Cheshire darted past my ankles and crouched in the shadows, hissing. “It’s sweet how eager you were to be friends, Juliet. Listen, you’re not using the statue. You don’t even really want it. Here’s the deal: if you give it to me, I’ll flaunt it in Mark’s face before I run. He’ll come after me and you’ll be off the hook. If you fight me…” she smiled. “I’ll use it to wrap your magic up like a nice little present and take you with me, and you can be my new energy source.”
I should have been panicking, but my thoughts felt oddly clear. Something was bothering me, something I couldn’t put a name to. Why? I’d been right; she was confirming all my fears. She’d been using me from the beginning. But I couldn’t shake a sense of blurry uncertainty. Curious, I sent my awareness into the silence between us.
It didn’t taste like her.
“You’re much better at illusion these days,” I said. “I used to be able to tell, if you used a face I knew.”
She smiled, and it was not Sarah’s smile. She shoved me backwards through the foyer and into kitchen. My lower back rammed into the kitchen counter, and the pain flashed through me, leaving me dizzy for a second. When it cleared, the person standing before me had changed form.
“Trying so hard to be clever,” Mark said, “but still a stupid bitch. All those protection spells don’t do much if you let me in through your front door, do they?” He loomed over me, too close, his breath in my face: cigarette smoke, cologne, peppermint.
Memories clattered in on me, crowding out thought. Flashes of the nights he’d stood over me and tasted my fear, my magic draining away, his breath moist against my skin. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t strategize, I could barely breathe.
Mark moved his mouth toward my ear, and his voice crawled across the tiny hairs on the back of my neck. “Where is it, Juliet?”
I gathered every shred of silence I could find in the small kitchen and hurled it at him. The soundlessness billowed; I could feel the pressure in the air. Mark’s lips were moving, but neither of us could hear him speak. He frowned, and I pushed harder, thinking of Sarah’s concussion of noise that first day at the river. Mark clawed at his ears.
And then it thinned and dissipated into the air and was gone. I should have been able to gather it again, but it slipped away from my grasp as Mark stepped forward and gripped my shoulder to draw me closer. In a moment of panic, my eyes went to his hands and pockets—had he found the statue, somehow? Was he using it against me? – but my failure was mental, not magical. Something inside my head was screaming, leaving no silence for me to spin into a defense.
There was a shrill whistle. Absurdly, my first thought was, did I leave the kettle on? I craned my head around to find its source. It was high-pitched and growing higher, suffusing every drop of the air with sound. A web of cracks splintered across the window in the back door behind us. Mark’s grip slipped, and I dropped to the floor and crawled away, covering my ears and curling up against the brick wall on the opposite side of the kitchen. The window broke, and an arm snaked through to unlock the door and push it open. Sarah was standing on the fire escape, dressed in the suit she’d worn to the funeral.
“Juliet, sorry for the delay, but better late than never. If you’d look at me, please?”
Her eyes overflowed with sound. I winced, but I held her gaze long enough for her to wrap me in voices that purred. The sound of the attack dulled, and familiar warmth came over me, suffusing my body like the slow roll of honey over glass. I managed to take a shallow sip of silence, praying it would be enough. Sarah still had him on the floor, but I could feel his power like a dozen clammy fingers stroking the air. He was pushing back against her, protecting himself.
I reached out to thicken the air and lock us all in together, trying to shape my sip of silence into something strong and lasting, but the bubble slid from my grasp like water. Mark braced himself on the kitchen counter and started across the room towards me. Despair scraped me dry. I’d failed; I couldn’t do it. Whatever capacity I’d had in training faded to nothing in his presence. The simple reality was that I struggled to do magic when overwhelmed by uncertainty, while he was at his strongest when I was terrified.
I locked eyes with Sarah. “I can’t—it won’t work. I’m sorry.”
Sarah turned without a word and dashed further into the apartment. The warm hum and shrill whistle vanished.
There was no time to indulge my confusion; Mark’s hands were around my throat. Illusory tendrils of shadow snaked in front of my eyes, trapping me in an artificial darkness.
“Tell me where you’ve hidden it,” he said, “or I’ll kill you, and then I’ll find it myself.” His grip tightened, cutting off my air.
The most off-putting thing about not being able to breathe or see wasn’t the panic or the fear of death. It was the intensity of the silence between heartbeats. It had a strange flavor, precarious and overwhelming. As that silence swallowed me, I could taste the rare appearance of Mark’s honesty. He wasn’t bluffing. That surprised me. Somewhere in my mind there had been a boundary all this time—a sense that while he might knock me around, drain my power, stalk me, he wouldn’t actually sink to murder.
I thrashed, gasping. His grip loosened and I gulped air.
“Why do you always have to fight so hard, little bird?” he murmured, and I felt a ghostly brush of warmth that began in my forehead and spread to envelop my scalp and face. The darkness blocking my vision retreated and his face loomed over me. His smirk seemed to soften. I found I couldn’t tear my gaze away from him. Unbidden, I thought, he’s more handsome than I remember. He reached out to stroke my face and the feeling intensified.
I had stolen something from him. Why? The reason seemed fuzzy, difficult to grasp. It wasn’t very nice to take something that belonged to someone else, was it? Shouldn’t I give it back?
I opened my mouth, hesitated, confused.
“It’s all right,” Mark murmured. “Don’t worry. You can tell me. Where did you put it?”
A whistling blast. Mark recoiled, took two steps back, and his magical grip faltered. Clarity crashed in on me alongside a vivid nausea. The violation of my own mind was achingly familiar. Something skidded across the kitchen floor, headed straight to my outstretched hand.
I caught it before I knew what it was. As my fingers closed on the jade dove, I locked eyes with Sarah. Her shrug was almost apologetic.
“Go ahead,” she said.
I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. I swallowed, tried again. “I can’t,” I rasped.
“It’s okay, Juliet,” Sarah said. “Do it.”
I gripped it and inhaled, and her magic flowed into me. It was surprisingly easy to drink in both silence and sound – two sides of the same coin. I repeated our prior attack, this time singlehandedly – I built my bubble of silence around Mark, intensified the sound inside that bubble, felt the echo building, the whistle reverberating off the edges. It was so quick, so effortless. I smiled, and then the room swayed, and the purring voices vanished, and everything was too loud.
Later, I would tell myself it was because it was all so new, the amplified power, the ease of it—I didn’t have the control to know the difference between what would hurt him enough to make him stop and what would actually kill him.
But in that moment, rendering him powerless and watching him crash to the floor felt good. It satisfied something in me that had been restless for years.
I didn’t move for a long time. Sarah was still on her feet, speaking to me, but I couldn’t process the words. The silence bubble leaked away into little pools of quiet. From the floor, I stared at him. Pink skin and thinning hair. Lines of fear shot through the weathered face, a hint of blood pooling in his ears. The deep-set squint I remembered so well had faded from his eyes, leaving him empty.
My fingers uncurled from the statue. Sarah’s magic slipped away from me back to her, and I tried not to feel it as a loss, a hollowness where I had been invincible for an instant. I found her gaze.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I asked you to use the statue. You did brilliantly.”
“Not for that. For earlier, for thinking you—”
“Look,” Sarah said, “you thought I was manipulating you. I get it. We’ve both been on the other end of that; you were right to be careful.”
My brain was still catching up to the rest of me. “You knew where it was.”
“The statue? Oh. Yeah, I have for a while.” Sarah looked embarrassed. “I can hear the hidden voices of creatures and objects, remember? Including the statue, if I’m close enough to it.”
“But you didn’t tell me.”
“Imagine how much faster you would’ve run from me if you knew I could locate it as soon as I set foot in your apartment.”
I winced. “Fair point.”
“And it wasn’t relevant. We weren’t planning to rely on it, originally.”
I shifted to sit back against the kitchen wall, the exposed brick surface rough against my shoulder blades. “How did you know to come? Why did you—why did you come?”
“I was listening to anything in the building that might notice him. I couldn’t just leave you.”
My hands itched to lock the doors and check the closets, and I had to remind myself that there was no need for that now. “You said you heard the statue’s voice. What—what does it sound like?”
Sarah knelt down beside me and reached out, hesitated. When I didn’t move away, she threaded her fingers through my hair, pushing it back from my eyes. I felt wrung out and boneless, her face hanging before me in the fluorescent glare. I avoided her gaze.
“It sounds like power, Juliet. A little like being out in the middle of a thunderstorm or the ocean. Scary, and a bit thrilling.” She gave me a small smile. “I didn’t mind it, by the way. With you.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m not saying we should use it again. I just thought you should know that it wasn’t the same.”
She was right. I had felt the difference too. Still, my use of the statue had immediately killed someone, so I wasn’t confident about claiming the moral high ground. I felt shaky, floating somewhere between the death taking up space on my kitchen floor and the heat of her fingertips still woven through my hair. The touch of her hand was light, almost illusory. I moved into it, tipping my head back to finally meet her eyes.
“Kiss me,” I said.
Surprise gilded her face and the hand in my hair tightened. We tilted forward like mirror images. Our kiss at the river had been gradual, gentle; this time an untamed energy surged between us. I slid my hands up her back and pressed my fingertips into her skin, and she leaned into me, warm and demanding. Her hands were urgent, one still entangled in my hair, the other settling at the back of my neck as if it were the only thing keeping her grounded. Her mouth eased open like we had all the time in the world, a vivid contrast to the pressure of her touch.
We broke away and stared at each other, inches apart. I sipped at the silence as if it might scald me, nervous to taste this new energy. It flooded me with citrus and silver. She pushed me against the bricks and kissed me again. I willed her to hear whatever hidden voices spoke in the curve of my mouth, my shoulders scraping the wall, the tilt of my head into her hand.
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