bencrowder.net /writing

1

Before you can understand why I almost burned down my friend’s house, you need to know what happened a few months before.

It was a Thursday night. I’d been out with friends who were trying to cheer me up after Charlie’s calloused dump-via-public-post, and who thought bowling would be a good idea.

I managed to slip out during some overbearing levels of cheering and camaraderie. It was dark and wet out, so instead of walking I took the 22 back home. The ride was uneventful. Only one other person on the train the whole way back, a midlife crisis waiting to happen who was frantically flipping through a box full of paperwork as if he’d lost his wedding ring. I stretched my legs and thought about Charlie.

And then I stopped thinking about Charlie, because I didn’t want to be sad all night.

Good intentions aside, I got home and watched a horror movie by myself—my roommates were out at some company function that lasted way too long for a work party. Ate a large chicken alfredo pizza, also by myself. Regretted it even before I finished. Almost accidentally messaged Charlie more than once during the movie, and I’ll tactfully neglect to go into detail on the silent sobbing breaks scattered throughout the evening.

By the end of the movie, though, I was sure I’d finished grieving, and while I had no immediate interest in finding a new man, I was ready to get back to normal life. Little did I know.

2

Next morning I went to work earlier than usual, closed my office door, and set my headphones to a volume my mother would have tsked me for. Writing code quickly put me into flow, which turned out to be a good way to forget the past and move on.

Fast forward to my first walking break, around ten o’clock. I was munching on an apple in a halfhearted attempt to be healthy when I turned the corner of the building into the park area and my subconscious waved a flag, telling me something was weird. My heart rate jumped. I tried to prep myself to run into Charlie—of course he would come to my work the very next day, not to apologize or even to rub it in, but because he would have gotten lost in thought and mindlessly followed his no-longer-daily routine. And then things would be awkward and I’d have to scurry away with some hollow excuse. I began to break out in a sweat.

It took a few surreptitious glances around the park before I realized with relief that no, Charlie wasn’t there. But the box man from the train was. He was sitting on one of the new benches that had been installed around the water feature, and he was still going through the papers in that box. I raised an eyebrow, secretly took a photo of him with my phone while pretending to check my email, and went back inside.

“Does he work here?” I asked Brenda when I got back to my desk.

She gave the photo a glance and handed my phone back. “Not as far as I know. Maybe he’s new. You on the rebound?”

“What? No, absolutely not. He was on the 22 last night. Kind of weird seeing him here, don’t you think?”

“Sammie, it’s okay to rebound.” Brenda put on her concerned-coworker look and patted my hand. “You’ll find the right one. For now, though, how about we find that bug instead?”

We spent the next hour sifting through stack traces and poorly documented code, trying to reproduce the bug. All the functions in the module were returning the right values as far as we could tell. This was the point at which the bug always began to seem supernatural, somehow defying the laws of causality, but I knew that pressing on would inevitably reveal something we’d missed—the root cause that explained it all.

I tried not to make the comparison. I really did. But there was at least one thread running in the back of my brain all the time on a Charlie analysis process, and it now started spitting results out. Charlie had grown distant over the last year. He hadn’t laughed as much at my jokes, which I’d taken to mean I’d lost my touch, but perhaps there was something else going on. He hadn’t texted as often. Occasionally at first, but almost constantly in the last month, things would come up. Last minute, “can’t make it after all, so sorry, call you when I’m done” kind of things.

We weren’t married or even engaged, so the rational part of my brain told me I couldn’t fault him too much for weaseling his way out of our not-quite-commitment, but still, in that moment I began to accept the inevitable conclusion. He’d met someone else.

Looking back now, I don’t know how I didn’t pick up on any of the evidence. I’d convinced myself things were going well, no maintenance needed, that—this is just embarrassing now—that he was in fact about to propose. Bad compass, I guess. What I really didn’t understand, though, was why the breakup left me grieving. Because in that imagined imminent proposal, I’d been planning to say no.

“Earth to Sammie.”

My eyes refocused and made contact with Brenda, who was waving her hand in front of my face and making a goofy face which disappeared as soon as I saw it.

“Good time for a break, don’t you think?” She pushed the extra chair back into the corner of my office. “I’ll be back at two, if that works for you.”

Alone again, I leaned back in my chair and pulled out my phone, ostensibly to check the weather over the next weekend, when Penelope and Mia and Jocko and I were planning to go camping. Much better than bowling.

When I opened my phone it was still on the photos app, though, and the first thing I noticed was the photo of Box Man. Or rather, the photo which now showed a bench but no Box Man.

Goosebumps shot across my arms. I knew that he’d been in the photo, that I wasn’t just misremembering. Brenda had seen him, too. Which either meant Brenda had done some impossible photoshopping on my phone in the space of two seconds—again, impossible—or someone had remotely hacked my photos, which seemed almost as unlikely.

What I should have done, according to the rules of responsible adulthood, was forget about it and go back to work. We had to get this bug squashed by the end of the week since one of the support guys had promised the fix would be in the next release, and I still had a few small features to get in as well. Strictly speaking, I didn’t have time to look into this. Funny how time can be squishy, though.

I plugged my phone into my laptop and opened a remote shell. I’d taken the photo close to ten o’clock, and I’d shown it to Brenda maybe ten minutes later. If the image had been tampered with, the file modified date should show it. I found the right directory and checked the timestamp. 10:02. So much for that theory.

I snacked on some cashews and stared out the window. Wasn’t there some news recently about compression artifacts being able to show which areas of a photo had been edited? I copied the image file onto my laptop, did some searching, and found a free tool that ostensibly showed modifications. It didn’t show any. Granted, the tool could have been garbage, so I looked up the algorithm for detecting the artifacts, realized it wouldn’t be that hard to implement, and threw something together over the next couple hours. It successfully detected edit areas on my test images, but when I ran it on the Box Man file, it came back clean. Curiouser and curiouser.

“Hey, Sammie, you coming to the meeting?” Jocko stood in the doorway cradling a chinchilla. Better than his snake phase the year before.

The meeting. I mentally went through my calendar and tried to remember what meeting I had—why hadn’t the fifteen-minute alert gone off on my computer?—and came up blank. Which didn’t mean much, given my post-Charlie mental state. I stood. “Yes, sorry.”

3

I walked with Jocko up to the fourth floor, pretending to listen to an unsorted dump of chinchilla facts every step of the way. When we got to the doors of the conference room—the executive conference room, I realized, which made my heart leap a little—Jocko stuffed the chinchilla up his shirt.

“It’s kind of obvious,” I whispered. He shrugged.

The meeting had already started. I had no idea why I was there, why I hadn’t even seen the invite. Hopefully I wasn’t on the agenda. We slipped in along the side and made for the back of the room.

“Hold. Who is that? What is she doing here?” Alexis Huston was the latest in a lengthy line of revolving VPs—I couldn’t remember which department specifically, but she was Very Important, if interchangeable—and now she was staring at me and pointing a long, dangerous finger in my direction. “She wasn’t invited.”

My face felt tomato red.

“I, uh, thought she was on the list,” Jocko squeaked out, clearing his throat and stumbling to a half-standing position while trying to keep the chinchilla out of view. His cheeks had gone full rosy. “I must have, uh, misread it. My apologies.” As he sunk back into his seat, he turned to me and mouthed, “I am so sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

On my walk of shame out the room, I took a quick glance across the table to see who all had been witness to my interruption. Mr. CEO wasn’t there, thankfully. I didn’t know whether he’d even care—he’d probably find it amusing—but it was better that he wasn’t there. Most of the other VPs watched me go, though.

I did a double take. At the far end of the table, I could see Box Man, sitting there with his papers and his box. He was still going through the papers, albeit less frantically. I could have sworn, too, that he paused for the slimmest of moments, looked up, winked at me, and then went back to his whatever it was. But it all happened so fast and my feet were automatically carrying me out the door, and as soon as the door closed behind me, my embarrassment blossomed in full and my memory began to leak. Had it really been him? It could have easily been someone else, couldn’t it? No, it was him. It had to be. And this would explain his presence in the courtyard and on the train, handily lending the whole thing a rational explanation.

I made a quick bathroom stop before returning to my desk. Box Man may have been here for work—perhaps he was a contractor—but that still didn’t explain how he vanished out of the photo. No, that fact was still very much unaccounted for.

Since we still had some time before the next episode of the bug hunt at two o’clock, I poked my head into Brenda’s office and told her about my conference room adventure. Male Sammy (who actually went by Sam, but Jocko’s joke had stuck) stopped by partway through, and Giuseppe caught the tail end on his way back from some other meeting.

“I mean this in the nicest possible way,” Male Sammy said, “but Alexis gives me the creeps. I wouldn’t be surprised if she eats babies on the weekends.”

“She’s doing better than the last two, though,” Giuseppe said, and Brenda nodded vigorously. “Fewer layoffs, better projects. Can’t complain.”

“Point granted,” Male Sammy said, tapping his nose. “Isn’t it unfortunate that being a creep and having good management skills aren’t mutually exclusive?”

Chinchilla in hand, Jocko flung open the door into our office area. He hit his knee on the door jamb on the way in and blurted out some words I didn’t think he was capable of, then hissed, “Alexis is coming. I am a dead man.” He limped into his office across from us, opened all the blinds, stuffed the chinchilla in a drawer, and sat down with a look of terror upon his face. He made eye contact with each of us as if saying a final goodbye. Jocko tended to the melodramatic much of the time.

Male Sammy and Giuseppe and I all skittered back to our offices, under the probably correct assumption that Alexis wouldn’t take kindly to dallying on the job. Brenda came around behind my desk—where she also had a conveniently better view of Jocko’s office—and said, “Better look busy. Where were we?”

“Do you think she’d fire him?” I whispered. “I heard she nuked someone downstairs on a whim.”

“Whimsical managers are the worst,” Brenda said, adjusting her clothes and her hair. “Start debugging.”

Like a bell tolling the end of the world, the door to our office area opened again. I felt a cool breeze on my cheeks, though it may have just been my imagination. The door shut. I said a silent prayer for Jocko.

Brenda cleared her throat. “And if that test is passing, then we know the function isn’t dependent on the system clock, so it has to—”

My breath caught. Alexis stood in my doorway. I don’t know why I hadn’t expected that. If she was going to fire anyone, of course it would be me—I was the interruption, the point of irritation. I said a silent prayer for myself.

Alexis pointed at Brenda. “You. Out.” Brenda scurried out past her. Alexis came behind my desk and towered over me while drumming her fingers on the desk. Power dynamics clearly at work, and oh so effective. “What is your name?”

I was in the middle of trying not to panic while also trying to remember when I last updated my resume, but thankfully some small part of my brain was paying attention. “Sammie. Sammie Bhamra.”

“Thank you, Sammie. Tell me: do you make a habit of attending meetings you’re not invited to?”

I could see the end of my time at Whetten, barreling straight toward me down the train tracks. “No, ma’am,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Is it going to be a problem going forward?”

A glimmer of hope. “No, ma’am.” If Alexis wasn’t going to fire me, why had she bothered to come down here? Part of me half expected a twist in which she would say she was going to pull me onto her elite team and then I would rise to the top faster than I thought possible. But her team wasn’t elite, and I didn’t want to rise into management—or even leave my department at all, for that matter. Since clearly none of that was going to happen, though, why was Alexis here?

“Exactly,” she said, folding her arms and looking around my office. She gave Jocko an imperious “come here” wave and he made his way over. “You can help each other pack.”

“What?” we both said. A horde of butterflies erupted in my stomach.

“Pack. Gather your things, go home and cry, update your resumes—whatever it is you do.”

My jaw dropped and I noticed Jocko had turned completely red. Knowing it was futile, I piped up. “Is there anything we can—”

“Out by five, please,” Alexis said coldly. “I don’t think I need to remind you that no code goes with you. We’ll check.” And she left.

4

Brenda and Giuseppe and Male Sammy and the others gathered outside my office.

“Crazy watching the guillotine come down in slo-mo,” Male Sammy said. “Cruel.” He stuck his hand out to me. “It’s been good.”

“Premature,” Brenda said, batting his hand away and putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. “You can appeal. Talk to Mr. CEO. He can overrule her.”

Giuseppe shook his head. “Unlikely. Even with Sammie being star employee and all. Penelope heard him talking with someone about how hard it’s been to keep that VP role filled. It’s not a hill he’s going to die on, I promise you that.”

“Still, they should try,” Brenda said. “Can’t hurt.”

The conversation went off in that direction for a while but went nowhere. Jocko stood in shock, his face gone pale and sweaty. I squeezed his hand and slipped into my office to start packing.

Here it was: the null terminator at the end of five years at Whetten, Inc. I’d thought I would stay at least another ten. And that I’d be the one opening the door on my way out. But life is funny that way, isn’t it. While I wasn’t too worried about finding a new job, the prospect of having to endure several rounds of interviews again wasn’t appealing at all. Oh well. I killed that worry process and focused on getting my stuff ready to put in boxes.

“We’re not happy with this,” Giuseppe said in the doorway as I pulled my action hero figurines off the shelf. He handed me several boxes he must have kept in his office. “You’re a good engineer.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled, stuffing the figurines into a box. Impostor syndrome had clung to me most of my time at Whetten, which made his words all the more touching. Pity that such an arbitrary mistake—and not really my mistake, either—could end all that. My younger self would have complained about the unfairness of it all. But there’s no use in that.

“Where do you think you’ll apply?” Male Sammy said. He’d been trying to pep talk Jocko out of his stupor but had given up and come over to join Giuseppe.

I shook my head and started emptying drawers. “No idea. Hadn’t really thought about it. Somewhere sane?”

“If I’m honest,” Giuseppe said, “the work environment here really has gotten toxic. People fired willy-nilly, long extra hours to hit meaningless deadlines, weird communication malfunctions—we’re on a train about to slam into a mountain.”

“It’s not really that bad,” Brenda said, poking her head in. “Except when you’re one of the people who gets axed. Sammie, you can’t leave or I’ll be the only woman on the team.”

“You’ll survive,” I said, though I did feel bad about leaving her. I noticed that I was starting to breathe faster, and the room felt far too hot. Bad time for an anxiety attack. I tried to breathe deeply and stave it off. First Charlie, now this. Good reason to have an attack, but this really wasn’t the time. I’d just have to push it off till I could get home. (As if it would pay any heed to what I wanted.)

At just after four o’clock, Jocko and I walked out the side door with our boxes. The rest of the team helped carry things. I said goodbye and certainly didn’t shed any tears, no, none at all. We all promised to get together outside of work someday down the road. I drove off. That chapter of my life closed and I hoped the new one would somehow be better.

5

A few months went by. Interviewing for a new job was just about as bad as I expected. I’m not comfortable talking about myself in front of other people, especially large groups of men, and even more especially when the stakes are so high. As a result—okay, maybe it was for other reasons too—I hadn’t had a single offer. Jocko texted me incessantly saying he wasn’t having much luck either. The chinchilla pics were kind of cute, though.

Charlie had started messaging me again. I hadn’t responded.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I had reluctantly agreed to go with Brenda and Male Sammy to check out the Christmas lights in Tabernathy Square and around the old Willpower offices. The wind was picking up, blowing tendrils of snow everywhere, and I’d been cold for long enough that all I cared about was getting back someplace warm.

“Are they okay?” Brenda pointed at one of the steel benches ringing the fountain, where somebody was splayed out in the snow in front of the bench.

Concluding no, they were most likely not okay, we ran over to see if we could help. As we got close, I noticed a closed cardboard box on the bench and got a funny feeling.

“He looks dead,” Male Sammy said, fumbling with his phone. “I feel sick.”

Brenda and I knelt down and turned him onto his back. My breath caught, and that funny feeling went full carnival on me. It was Box Man. Of course it was. With everything else going on I’d completely forgotten about him, convincing myself subconsciously that it was just a really weird fluke and that his presence in the executive meeting explained everything. But here he was, back in my life. At least in a manner of speaking.

“No pulse,” Brenda said. She put her hands back in her pockets and shivered. “You calling the—”

“Yes,” Male Sammy said, putting the phone to his ear and turning away. “Hi, I need to report a dead body.”

While he gave details on our location, I willed myself to examine the man more closely, without touching him. He wore a ratty old twill suit with green argyle socks and a completely mismatched white tie. I’d remembered him with a bit more hair than he had now. Overall, he looked like an accountant who belonged at a desk and not here on the snow and cement. Not that anybody really belongs on the ground like that.

My gaze went up to the box, which I’ll admit had held some curiosity for me. It was probably just old receipts or something, though. Brenda walked around the bench looking at it. She made a little gasping sound. She turned the box around, revealing the back side, on which someone had written in clear, black marker: “For Sammie Bhamra.”

I felt dizzy. I didn’t want to be part of this man’s world. I just wanted to find a decent job and get a decent man and have a flock of decent children and lead a boring, ordinary, safe life. I closed my eyes and opened them, and it was still there, and I was still cold—not as cold as Box Man, though—and goosebumps rippled up my spine.

“Did you know him?” Brenda said. “You should probably take it.”

“Brenda, why would I take it? It’s not mine. I don’t want it.” I was almost starting to hyperventilate as I paced to the side of the bench.

“But it has your name on it,” she said. “I think he wanted you to have it.” She picked it up. “Not very heavy. Here, take it.”

I pushed it back. “He had no right to put my name on it,” I said, quiet-shouting, as a full panic started to latch onto my insides. “Put it back.” But even as I said that, I realized that putting it back would only lead to questions from the police that I couldn’t answer. “Okay, never mind, I’ll take it.”

That was when we all heard the sound of sirens getting close. We stood back a bit from the body and waited for the sirens amid the snowflakes starting to float down from the clouds above. My feet were getting wet now and I was shivering and scared and mad at Brenda and Male Sammy for getting me into this and mad at Box Man for writing my name on his box and for dying here and not in some warm place at least. And then a cowl of guilt fell upon me. This man was probably someone’s husband. Some children had probably lost their father tonight. That warranted respect, no matter what he’d done to me.

The police showed up before the ambulance did, from the other direction. We turned, trembling, and got ready to spend the next hour explaining things we couldn’t really explain.

When the first pair of officers reached us, though, we stepped aside and pointed at the ground, realizing then that Box Man wasn’t there anymore. I tried not to shriek. Brenda didn’t even try. Male Sammy choked.

Lying on the ground next to the bench, a light dusting of snow seemingly smothering its grinning face, was a ventriloquist’s doll.

6

The police hadn’t found it amusing. Waste of taxpayer money and all. They’d taken down our names, grumbling about some crime scene on the other side of town they’d rather be at, and then they left without more than a cursory examination of the scene. I’d thought they would take the ventriloquist doll for evidence, but they didn’t, and we hadn’t wanted to touch it either, so as far as I knew, it was still there.

We had gone to Meg’s and were sitting on stools around one of her high tables near the fireplace.

“Weirdest day of my life,” Male Sammy said, blowing on his hot cocoa.

The box was on the floor next to my stool. I’d tried to chuck it into the nearest dumpster on our way over, but Brenda forbade it. She and Male Sammy had tried to get me to open it once we were seated, but I wasn’t ready yet.

I set my mug down. “So…group hallucination?”

“Doubtful,” Brenda said. “We were all acting normally, no odd behavior, nothing indicative of cognitive malfunction. I think we can rule hallucination out.”

“It was definitely a man,” Male Sammy said. “I mean, a real man. Not that creepy doll. Occam’s razor says he wasn’t dead and that while we were looking the other direction, he put the doll there and quietly slipped away.”

“Occam’s razor is wrong,” Brenda said. “At least here. Wait. No, that’s not quite true. The man could have been a magician.”

Male Sammy coughed. “Occam isn’t happy, Bren.”

“Not like that,” she said. “I’m talking Penn and Teller, or David Blaine. Smoke and mirrors. In fact, my bet now is that the guy was a YouTuber and we’re going to be blasted all over the internet tomorrow.” She checked her phone. “The only part I don’t get is why he had Sammie’s name written on that box. It doesn’t fit.”

I cleared my throat and twirled my straw around the dregs of my hot cocoa. “Guys, there’s a part I haven’t told you yet.” I told Male Sammy about Box Man. “I thought it was just a coincidence. But now, seeing him dead—I’m scared.”

“We’re in this together,” Brenda said. “We’ll figure it out.”

My phone buzzed. Charlie again. I turned my phone off and adjusted my scarf. “What do I do? I have some ideas but I want to get more input first.”

“Run,” Male Sammy said. “Get out of town. Do you have family somewhere else?”

Brenda shook her head and grabbed my hands. “Don’t listen to him. If it gets dangerous, yes, run. But it’s not dangerous yet.”

“Are you hearing yourself talk?” Male Sammy said. “I don’t care if that was sleight of hand—there was a dead man on the ground and now Christmas lights will never be the same for me again. There’s no way this isn’t dangerous for her.”

“I don’t have family,” I said. “Extended family, sure, but I don’t think I could ask them. We’re not close. And I’m not ready to run yet.”

“Then you need to open the box and see what it is,” Brenda said.

Male Sammy looked around the restaurant. “I know I’m being inconsistent here, but maybe this isn’t the best place to open it?” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Just in case it’s, like, a bomb.”

I reached down, grabbed the box, and set it on the table. We all listened for a ticking sound, even knowing that it almost certainly wouldn’t have a ticker if it really were a bomb. The lid wasn’t sealed as far as I could tell. Nothing was written on any of the other sides. The corners and edges were slightly worn, probably from all that use Box Man had been putting in every time I saw him.

Goosebumps trickled down my arms. The wise thing to do, I thought, was to discreetly get rid of the box and forget any of this ever happened. But if Box Man wasn’t dead, I felt sure he’d show up again, and maybe he wouldn’t be happy that I’d thrown away his box. Since I didn’t know how much of a danger he was, it seemed best to hedge my bets and err on the side of caution.

“If this is a bomb,” I said, praying hard that it wasn’t, “I am so sorry.”

I opened the box.

It was full, not of receipts but of letters. I pulled the top sheet out. “Dear Sammie,” it began in familiar handwriting, and my heart felt like it had fallen off a cliff.

“What is it?” Male Sammy asked.

“A letter from Charlie,” Brenda said before I had a chance to respond. “I never liked him, by the way.”

I pulled out a thick stack and flipped through it. All letters, all from Charlie to me.

“I…” I cleared my throat. The room began a slow spin around me. This didn’t make sense. Why would Box Man have Charlie’s letters?

“Just to clarify,” Brenda said, “are these letters Charlie already sent to you? Or are they new letters? What are the dates?”

“Undated. I don’t think I’ve seen them before.” Putting the stack back in the box, I swallowed and began to read the top letter to myself. It was typical Charlie, rambling about some problem he was thinking through at work, asking how I’ve been, making plans for the weekend. I found myself missing him, in spite of my determination to block any such fondness.

“So perhaps these are letters he never sent?” Brenda tapped her chin. “How did the magician get hold of them, then? Maybe he burgled Charlie’s house. Or he’s Charlie’s roommate or relative. Or Charlie hired him, for some obscure reason. In any case, it’s clear that Charlie’s making a play for your affections.”

“Charlie didn’t have any roommates,” I said, still thinking through things, “though maybe he’s gotten one since.”

Male Sammy put his mug down. “Since there’s no motive if he’s not connected to Charlie somehow, let’s assume he is. What’s Charlie’s motive, then? Resurrecting the relationship? Vengeance or punishment?”

“Not his personality at all,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t see him trying to start things up again, not the way he closed things off, but maybe.”

“I still recommend running. Bren, any ideas?”

Brenda shook her head. “I don’t like to say this, but I’m stymied. There’s a pattern somewhere in there, some kind of connection, but I’m not seeing it. I don’t know what to tell you.”

I closed the box and pulled it close to me. “I think I’m going to go home now.”

7

Back at home, I cooked and ate an omelet on rice with leftover Brussels sprouts. My main focus very much needed to be getting a job—my savings was just about below the halfway mark from where it was when I’d been fired, to say nothing of my emotional and mental health not having a place where I could work hard—but this Box Man thing kept crawling back into my thoughts.

After washing the dishes to procrastinate the inevitable, I turned on some light classical to keep me company, curled up on the couch, and read through every letter in that box.

I don’t know what I’d expected to find in them—answers, I suppose—but they only raised more questions. The letters on top differed slightly in details but the gist remained the same as the one I’d read. Typical Charlie.

As I dug deeper into the box, though, the letters began to get disjointed and increasingly bizarre, both in form—ink smears, wobbly lines turned chaotic—and in content—meaningless, incoherent sentences sliding into made-up words and complete gobbledygook by the time I got to the bottom. A descent into madness.

The natural conclusion would be that Charlie had gone insane, but it seemed unlikely, especially given the short timeframe—Box Man had showed up the very same day of the breakup. While I couldn’t assume that all of the letters were already in the box the day of that first sighting, a month surely wasn’t long enough for Charlie to lose it. Unless maybe it was. I flattered myself that I had been the only thing keeping Charlie together, then tutted myself—Charlie was one of the most sane people I knew, with nary a mental seam in sight.

Or maybe the top letter alone was from Charlie and the rest were copies Box Man had made. Perhaps that’s where the insanity lay. It would explain a lot, and where there’s madness, motive becomes almost optional. Charlie might not have anything to do with it at all.

A message from Brenda popped up on my phone: How are you doing? Don’t do anything stupid.

I ignored it for the moment, still lost in thought. The two threads I still couldn’t account for were Box Man disappearing out of the image file and the ventriloquist doll showing up on the snow. Neither seemed rational in the least. I tried thinking through alternate explanations but all of them required elaborate, unlikely setups—someone hacking the OS on my phone, a big box under the snow with the doll waiting within, that sort of thing.

The beginning of a headache started to squeeze my skull. I needed to clear my thoughts and get back to brushing up on basic algorithms. I stood up, stretched, and stepped out the front door onto the porch.

Winter still had the area fully in its grasp, with the light snow continuing and the temperature even colder than before. There were deer prints on the porch. I caught an invigorating smell of barbecue wafting in from somewhere and began to consider going out to a steakhouse, even though I wasn’t actually hungry. My phone buzzed again.

I wrapped my arms around myself and looked up at the clear sky. Stars scattered like dust across unfathomable vastness. I felt small. A satellite emerged from behind the mountains and slowly made its way across the sky. Small notwithstanding, we humans had put that satellite in space, and we’d built roads and skyscrapers, and we’d coaxed knowledge out of the sky, sea, and earth. Small could do incredible things, I thought to myself. Getting a job? Doable, as long as I didn’t give up. It was a solvable problem.

Only able to stand so much cold in a single day, I was about to go back inside when I saw it.

A slight movement. Off to the right, among the low branches of the oak at the corner of the house. I paused and stepped out onto the porch to get a better view.

I nearly swallowed my tongue. Sitting on one of the branches was the ventriloquist doll.

Goodness above, I did not need that right now. I ran in the house and shut and locked the door, breathing heavily, my heart about to burst.

Brenda, can you come over? That doll is in my tree.

After messaging her, I read what she’d sent to me earlier. I’ll be at a movie for the next couple hours but I can stop by afterwards if you want. Great.

I turned off the lights in the front room and tried looking out the window to see if the doll was visible, but the house was in the way.

Sinking down to the ground to try to calm my breathing, I made myself think things through. I had seen—or had thought I had seen—a ventriloquist doll in my tree. It may have been a hallucination. If it was real, it may or may not have been the same doll; considering, though, that Box Man’s box had my name on it, it had to be the same doll. Since ventriloquist dolls aren’t sentient or mobile, someone had to have put it up in the tree. Which meant undead Box Man could very well be in my yard somewhere. Or in my house.

I tried not to think about that.

I could call the police, but at this point it was all supposition. I didn’t know if Box Man was actually around, and after what had happened earlier, I didn’t want to get on a blacklist for pranking the cops. I texted Male Sammy and Giuseppe to see if they could come over.

Leaving the house was a possibility—I could run to the street and drive away. I didn’t know if I could get my car started quickly enough, however, and there was a small though admittedly unlikely chance that Box Man was waiting for me in my car. I left it as a last resort.

The more I considered it, though, the more holing up in defense didn’t sit right with me. Waiting around for who knows how long for something to happen—that’s not me.

Wishing my life hadn’t turned into a horror movie, I went to the kitchen, bracing myself for Box Man to jump out at me at any moment. I pulled a couple of steak knives out of the wooden block on the counter, along with a flashlight from one of the drawers. I swallowed a few times. I could do this. I was a grown woman, and this was my house and my yard. I would not be afraid.

It didn’t work. I was terrified.

On my walk back to the front room I wrote the first couple lines of my obituary in my head. I set my phone to record audio and stuck it down my shirt, so if something happened there would be some kind of evidence left behind. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I said to the phone. “Time to reclaim my territory.”

Knives and flashlight in hand, I opened the door and stepped onto the porch, shivering massively even before the cold hit me. I aimed the light at the tree. The doll was still there. Its mouth was moving up and down.

Box Man could be around the corner of the house or higher up in the tree, so I didn’t want to get too close, but I needed more information. Trying desperately not to lose my nerve, I tiptoed closer to the tree, looking over my shoulder every few seconds to make sure someone wasn’t sneaking up on me. I should have put on a coat first.

By the time I got within ten feet of the tree, I felt confident that nobody else was around, at least on this side of the house. It was just me and the doll. It swiveled its head toward me, saw the knives, and said, “Oh, crap.”

I threw a knife at it.

I didn’t mean to. It had seemed wisest to try to delay things until someone else could come help me—I was still hoping Male Sammy or Giuseppe would show up any minute now. But that wasn’t an option anymore.

The knife landed squarely in the doll’s chest with a loud thunk, unseating it from the branch. It fell from the tree and landed in the snow.

“Ouch,” it said, “That hurt. Sammie, can we de-escalate this a bit?”

Shivering while trying to look threatening, I evaluated my options. The voice had to be coming from a ventriloquist who I couldn’t see, and presumably that was Box Man. I didn’t know the range but assumed he had to be close. The doll itself was almost certainly harmless, but I had to treat it as if there were something dangerous hidden inside it. The ventriloquist wanted to calm things down, which was potentially good, though he might also just be trying to get me to drop my guard. I began to wish I’d stayed inside.

“Come out so I can see you,” I said, my voice quaking. “Slowly.”

“I’m…right here,” the doll said. Its hair was light brown, its eyes brown to match, and it was wearing a cardigan over a collared shirt.

“Not funny.”

The doll moved its head in a semblance of a shake. “No, you don’t get it. I know this is weird. There’s no ventriloquist. It’s just me. Charlie.”

8

I frowned. “Maybe your name is Charlie, but no, you’re not Charlie.”

The doll was quiet for a moment. I figured this was some ploy to get me to do something stupid—it seemed like just the kind of thing an insane Box Man would do.

“Sammie,” it began, “listen. You can ask me anything you’d like and I’ll prove it’s me. But can we go inside first? You look like you’re freezing. Wait, no, prove it’s me first. That would be the smart thing to do.”

“Wait here,” I said. “I’m going to go get a coat.”

Once I was back in the warmth of my house again, I decided to stay put. It was deliciously warm, and it was farther away from the doll, with walls between us. I could wait it out.

Hold on, I thought. The doll now had a knife. It was in its chest, but Box Man could easily pull it out. On the other hand, maybe he had come with weapons already in hand, in which case the knife wouldn’t make much of a difference.

More relevantly, the doll was claiming to be Charlie, and as I ran its words through my head, I realized it did sound like a wooden approximation of Charlie’s voice. Which meant Charlie was probably the ventriloquist.

Maybe Charlie was Box Man.

It didn’t make sense—they didn’t look anything alike—but it was certainly possible he had been in disguise. He wasn’t a practical joker, though. All of this was so out of character I had trouble not rejecting it out of hand. If it was in fact Charlie, though, we needed to talk. He needed to leave me alone.

I opened the door to go back outside, getting a tirade ready to launch.

The doll was sitting on the porch. I shrieked and slammed the door.

“Charlie, I hate you,” I yelled through the wood. “Stop it. It’s creepy.”

“I’m sorry! I can explain. Please let me in.”

Not until I knew it was actually Charlie. It would have to be something only the two of us knew, that nobody else would have been able to extract from him. I ran through a few possibilities and settled on one.

“What purse did I bring with me on our first date?”

There was a brief pause. “I don’t think you brought one. You said something about how it had gotten stolen that week, maybe? Or was that another time? Sammie, my memory’s not good. You know that. I do remember the huge white purse when we went skiing, though, if that helps.”

It was Charlie. Had to be. I began to relax a little. “Good gravy, Charlie. I am so confused. The doll, the box—I need answers.”

“Let me in and I can explain,” he said. “Eye contact helps. And maybe you could even de-knife me.”

It was hard to open that door—lingering doubts still laced my thoughts—but I opened it.

“Hey there,” the Charlie doll said. “I can’t cross the threshold without your spoken permission. Pretty please?”

I took a deep breath. Was I really going to let that thing in? What if it was something else masquerading as Charlie? I had no idea why something else would do that, but it was still a possibility. Or maybe Charlie had been possessed. Somehow. None of this made sense. But it did seem to be Charlie.

“How about this instead,” I said. “I close the door and you leave me alone. I swallowed and tried to stare down the doll. I was fairly certain Charlie wasn’t on the rebound, but just in case. “And I’m not interested in getting back together.”

“What? I don’t even—we’re not a good match, Sammie. I thought I made that clear.”

I blinked and wished I hadn’t said it. “Then why is all of this happening? I just want you out of my life. All the way. None of your weird, creepy magic hobbies, or whatever they are.”

“Look, can you just let me in?” he said. “Once I’m inside, I’ll explain everything. I’ll answer all your questions.” He looked over his shoulder. “Can we hurry it up a little, though? Things are getting kind of pressing over here.”

I wanted so badly to slam the door on him and call the police. Get a restraining order. But I really needed closure, and the possibility of getting answers to all the inexplicable weirdness was tantalizing.

I glared at him. “All my questions. No evasion. Yes, you can come in.”

The Charlie doll jittered and then disappeared.

“I’m here now. Sorry.” He had re-appeared in the living room, perched on the front edge of my old purple sofa. “This is how I move. It’s disconcerting, I know. I didn’t want to freak you out.” He accidentally slipped off the sofa and landed head-first on the carpet, then teleported back onto the sofa and shook his head. “Ouch. This body.”

“You are so weird,” I said, slowly closing the door. The horror had faded away, my heart rate was going down, and now I was left with a profound and uncanny sensation as I became more aware of my situation. I was talking with a teleporting ventriloquist doll who was—or had been?—my ex. I gingerly entered the room and stood in front of Charlie. “You’re not going to hurt me if I take that knife out, right? If this is a setup, you’re so—”

“I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. And thank you.”

I put one hand on his shoulder—the wood was cold and was rougher than I expected—and carefully eased the knife out. “Any internal bleeding?”

“I’m made out of—”

“I know. It was a joke.” Both knives in hand, I sat down on the edge of the recliner across from the sofa and tried to look menacing. “Answers, please.”

The doll worked its mouth up and down a little without saying anything. “Thanks for taking that out. Okay, here’s the deal, but we have to go pretty quickly, and this is all going to be strange and unbelievable.”

“Try me,” I said with a glare.

Charlie cleared his throat. “First off, this is me, but it isn’t me. I’m projecting. My mortal body is somewhere else. I can’t tell you where because it’s classified at the moment. And it’s irrelevant. Don’t ask.”

Not fair, but I gave it a pass. “Who’s the guy with the box?”

“That was me, too. It was supposed to look more like me, but I’m not very good at projection yet. That’s why I switched to the dummy. Less energy, easier to maintain.”

I scratched my head. “Why did you pretend to be dead?”

“I didn’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The guy with the box was lying on the ground,” I said. “He was dead. We called the cops.”

“Oh man,” Charlie said. “That’s what it looked like? That must have been when I was switching over to the dummy. It took a few minutes to figure out how to do it”

“You’re unbelievable, Charlie. I’ve been freaking out over here because creepy Box Man is following me everywhere and then suddenly he’s dead and—”

“Yeah, I get it. I’m sorry. Any more questions?”

There was something else I’d been meaning to ask him. It had to do with work. Something with—ah, that was it. “I took a photo of the guy—of you—back in the courtyard outside work. It was on my phone, and then it disappeared. Any idea what was up with that? I’m guessing your projections have some glitchy weirdness with photography?”

“Oh, the projections are real, but yeah, they sometimes do weird things to photos and videos.”

Good to know. I mentally filed it away. Time to get to the core of things. “Why have you been projecting yourself at me? And why didn’t you just, you know, talk to me?”

Charlie was silent for a long moment. “I wanted to say something, but I honestly didn’t know how to talk through a projection until recently. But I did text you. Not sure what happened there, maybe they didn’t go through.” He paused. “The reason I’ve been trying to talk to you is—well, I know you’re probably not going to want to go along with it, but hear me out. I need your help.”

I wasn’t inclined to do anything for him, especially given what he’d put me through, but my curiosity and a little bit of my better nature kept me going. “What kind of help?”

He leaned forward. I could smell old paint on him along with a hint of turpentine. One of the bulbs in the corner lamp was guttering. “I need you to burn down my house.”

9

“That’s arson,” I said, confused and a little irritated. “I’m not going to jail for you.”

The Charlie doll fidgeted with its hands. “Jail might actually be safer for you when it all goes down. But you’d get away, obviously. If you don’t get caught, you don’t go to jail. So don’t get caught.”

The hint in his words made my head start spinning a little. He was involved in something dangerous, and now by extension presumably so was I. Wonderful, just wonderful. “When what goes down?”

“I can’t really tell you,” he said. “But it’s going to be—”

My doorbell buzzed. “I’d better get that,” I said. “Hold on.”

Male Sammy and Giuseppe and Brenda stood on the porch, looking out of breath. They tried to come in, and I dearly wanted the company, but I shushed them away saying it was no big deal. I didn’t need them involved too, in case they became collateral damage—the very category I appeared to be in myself. After I finally got them to leave, Charlie came back out from wherever he’d been hiding.

“I’m not going to burn down your house,” I said. “Non-negotiable. And you need to get out of my life, okay? Before your problems become my problems. I don’t want to be a part of this. Whatever this is.” I tried to give him my “I’m serious and don’t you give me any lip about it” glare.

“This is the most careful path left,” Charlie said. “Believe me, I tried everything else. Listen. They’re going to realize I left the—um, let’s just call it the McGuffin—at my house. I need you to get it out of there and burn down the house so it looks like someone else got there before them.”

“The McGuffin? Seriously?”

“The object. The thing. Whatever you want to call it. The less you know about it, the better.”

I shook my head. Vehemently. “No. I’m not committing arson for you. Look, you said your projections are real—just do it yourself.”

“Sammie, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried it. Dozens. No matter what I do, the McGuffin fizzles out any projection I use to try to pick it up. I can’t do it. I need your help. If they get hold of it—”

“Who’s they? I still have no idea what on earth is going on here. If your pronouns don’t find some antecedents quickly—”

Charlie heaved a sigh. “You’re an adult. Do you accept responsibility for any danger that comes to you from what I’m about to tell you?”

I stifled a crazed laugh. Charlie could be so…formal sometimes. I was already in danger; anyone who could track Charlie would know he’d been around me. At this point, as far as I could tell, the more knowledge I had, the better chance I had at staying safe. “Yes, yes, just tell me already.”

“I work for a research lab. Ancient magical artifacts, mainly.”

I coughed.

“Yes, magic. Casting projections across space and time isn’t possible without it. Anyway, I’ve been at the lab for a couple years now, and last year—”

“Sorry,” I said, raising my hand. “Space and time? First question: when are you? Second question: if you can project across time, why exactly are we in a hurry?”

Charlie bit his lip, which I hadn’t expected the doll to be able to do. “That was an exaggeration. I’m now, and no, I can’t project across time. I hadn’t really thought about that, though. I wonder—”

“You were saying something about last year.” I leaned back into the recliner. Accepting the reality of magic had come more easily to me than I’d thought. Perhaps Charlie’s involvement anchored it for me; if someone I knew was doing magic, it couldn’t be too terribly foreign, right? Either way, Charlie was involved in magic. The weirdness before had hinted in that direction, but I’d still been subconsciously assuming a rational, mundane explanation for it all. It wasn’t till I actually saw Charlie’s doll teleport that all my explanations unraveled and fell apart.

“One of our adventurers—yes, we call them adventurers. One of them came back last year from a dune-diving expedition near Chinguetti, in Mauritania—”

“I know where Chinguetti is.”

“Sorry,” Charlie said. “Most people don’t. Anyway, she’d gone with some others but they didn’t make it, so she came back alone. She said she’d found an object with, um, interesting properties. She brought it back to the lab, news spread, and ever since then we’ve been fighting off people trying to steal it. There seems to be a coordinated group, or maybe smaller groups now working together, though we’re still not really sure who they are.”

“Beg pardon,” I said, “and don’t take this the wrong way, but why is the McGuffin at your house instead of locked up somewhere safe?”

“I might have, you know, how do I explain this…” He trailed off into silence.

A guess came into my mind. “You stole it.” Charlie’s startled reaction confirmed it. “So not only would I be at risk of jail time, I’d also have to worry about magical thieves hunting me down for the McGuffin. Did you think this through at all?”

Charlie nodded. “To a degree, anyway. It’s been a crazy few months. That’s one of the reasons I had to break up with you publicly, by the way. So if they were tracking me, they’d know that—”

“I get it,” I said. “Thank you, I guess.”

It was getting late, and I was getting tired. The allure of magical artifacts and adventures notwithstanding, I needed sleep. I also needed a normal life, and hitching my star to Charlie’s wagon here wasn’t going to help with that. To ground myself, I looked around the room, at all of the ordinary, solid things I’d gathered. The real wood floor and the oval chenille rug in the center of the room, the cabinetry in the corner my grandfather had made inexpertly but with love, the family photos on the walls, the bits of wallpaper up near the ceiling I hadn’t been able to get off, the books on the worn, nigh-collapsing bookcase under the photos, the thick curtains flanking the window, and on the sill my sorry attempt at sustaining a philodendron. I thought about my friends here, my family back home. If I went along with Charlie, I would almost certainly be giving it all up for a life in jail or for my final chapter come early, so to speak. But I also wouldn’t have to find a job or a man. It was an easy decision, really.

I stood and pointed at the door. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. Nice catching up, though. Good luck with everything.”

Charlie looked surprised, as if he’d actually expected me to go along with his crazy plan. “Sammie, if they get the McGuffin, they’ll be able to bring things over. From beyond.”

“That’s nice,” I said, ignoring the curiosity his words had sparked. “Bye.”

“I need your help,” he said. A hint of a whine had laced his tone.

“And I hope you can find the right person for you,” I said. “But that person is not me, Charlie. Goodbye.”

Charlie teleported onto the rug in the center of the room. “I’d hoped to avoid this, Sammie. I really did. You need to know that I don’t want to do this, okay? But I have to. Please understand.”

Oh.

When we’d been dating, I hadn’t seen even a single bruise of evidence indicating that beneath Charlie’s absent-minded but kind exterior might lie a rotten core. If I understood what was coming next, though, either he was a master of deception—he had managed to hide the whole magic thing from me all this time—or he was really stressed and that was pushing him into making bad decisions. I dearly hoped it was the latter.

I evaluated my options. My hands were clutching two of them. Body overtook thought and I hurled both knives at the doll. One lodged in its belly. The other glanced off and landed between us. I could see Charlie’s face reflected blurrily on the blade.

“You know,” he said, as if nothing had happened, “I hadn’t pegged you for the violent type.”

“Leave me alone, Charlie. This isn’t you. Go away. Get some help. Find someone else.”

“I’ve tried. You’re not the first person I’ve talked to. But I’m running out of time.” He paused, as if waiting for something. “Ah, here it is. This will sting a little, but I’m pretty sure it fades away.”

The doll did nothing that I could see, but I began to feel something tugging on my arms and legs, like strings had been sewn into the skin. I tried to sit back down in the recliner. The strings held me up. Panic gripped me, my heart hammered, and I could barely breathe through a sudden claustrophobia.

“I’m sorry, Sammie. After this is over I’ll make it up to you.”

My puppeteer—for that’s what he had become, I realized clearly—pulled on the invisible strings, walking me over to the door against my will. I watched my hand turn the knob. I tried to scream but my voice was empty, unsounding. My arm pulled the door open. A gust of cold canyon wind blew into the room, carrying a sprinkle of snow with it. One of the flakes landed on my nose and itched but I couldn’t scratch it.

As my legs walked me out onto the porch, I heard my mouth say words I hadn’t chosen, my voice betraying me. “I love you, Charlie.”

“I love you too, Sammie. Good luck.”

10

When my eyes adjusted to the dark outside, I could have cried with relief—Brenda, Male Sammy, and Giuseppe were still there, huddled on the driveway behind my Chevy. Thank heavens for good friends.

They turned and watched as Charlie frankenstein-walked me toward the car. He wasn’t very good at this puppetry thing, which had me worried he’d inadvertently break my leg or arm, but it also gave me hope that he’d lose control long enough for me to do something.

“Easy there,” Giuseppe said as he eyed my lurching. “You okay?”

Brenda walked up and put her hands out to stop me. “Sammie, we can’t let you drive. I don’t know if you’re drunk or high or what, but you need to take it easy right now. Go back inside, lie down, sleep it off. You’ll be grateful later.”

I heard myself say, “Go away, Pelletier.” Charlie had always called Brenda by her last name, but until now I’d thought it was some kind of French joke. I realized now that he’d been aware the whole time that Brenda didn’t like him, and that the joke almost certainly wasn’t a joke but was a petty sort of revenge. Oh, Brenda, please don’t go away. Don’t listen to him.

“That’s not going to happen,” Brenda said. She turned to Male Sammy and Giuseppe. “Gentlemen, help me walk her back.” She put her arm around me and started to veer us back toward the house. My hand clenched into a fist. I felt my arm slug her right in the nose. She swore and let go, covering her face, and I wanted desperately to shake my hand out to ease the pain but my body started walking to the car again.

“Sammie, you’re not yourself,” Male Sammy said. He scooted back and waved Giuseppe off. “Don’t get in her way. Don’t want anyone else to get hurt. Let her go.” A small sinking feeling lodged in my gut. My one chance…

Then—I think Male Sammy and Giuseppe had perhaps coordinated this beforehand, to lull me into false security—both men rushed me. They tackled me and pushed me to the ground on the snow-covered cement. It hurt, but it was the best hurt I’d felt in a long time.

I felt my limbs flail at them. Male Sammy and Giuseppe had good grips on me, though, and they kept me down. I could hear Brenda whimpering over near the car. She was on the phone with someone.

My head swung up and slammed into Giuseppe’s cheek. I saw stars. He inhaled sharply but didn’t release his hold.

And in that moment, I felt the strings release. Delicious freedom. “Guys,” I gasped out as fast as I could, “it’s Charlie, he took over my body and I…”

The strings hooked back in, harder this time. After a brief pause, I heard myself continue. “I think Charlie is the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. I’m going to be late for my date with him.”

A bleak, cool fear gripped me with the return of the puppeteer. I held on to a small hope that my friends would have noticed. I feared, though, that they’d lump it in with the other behavior and ignore it.

As I tried to think through the headache that was setting in, an idea came to mind: Maybe a concussion would sever the strings. In fact, any kind of incapacitation should work—even if it didn’t cut Charlie’s connection, at least he would be unable to use me, and if time was as much of the essence as he’d said, he’d have to let go and find someone else. As long as my friends kept me here, I would be okay. Wait. If Charlie could control me like this, what would stop him from making me hurt myself? Permanently, even. The Charlie I had known wasn’t a sore loser, but with this one I had my doubts.

“Calm down and try to relax,” Male Sammy said to me, straining to hold me down. “Brenda, my arms are killing me, could you—”

Brenda, who had moved into my field of view a few moments before, shook her head. She was still on the phone, her free hand clamped on her nose.

“Can you get her other leg?” Male Sammy moved so his knees were pushing down on my arm, and he shook his arms out. I felt myself gnashing at him, trying to wriggle out from underneath both of them. Giuseppe’s hold on my other leg wasn’t tight, though, and it slipped free and came up and kneed Male Sammy in the back. He gasped. My body sat up, but before it could get to its feet, both men lunged at me and slammed me back down into the cement.

When my head hit, again the strings strained and then disappeared for a brief moment. Before I could do anything, though, they returned with a deeper prickling sensation. As my muscles strained against Male Sammy and Giuseppe, struggling to get free, I began to form a plan. My mouth spit in their faces. I wished I could apologize for what my body was doing.

Giuseppe grimaced. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold her. She’s stronger than I expected.”

“Brenda,” Male Sammy said, “how soon till they get here?”

“Three minutes. Maybe four. Hang in there.”

I prepared myself. The next time I got an opening, I had to be ready to use it.

“This is not,” Giuseppe said, “how I expected tonight to go.”

He was getting tired, too. I feared that I’d somehow slip out of their grasp and make it to my car. If I got that far, Charlie was probably getting his arson for the evening.

“Two minutes,” Brenda said.

My body writhed and screamed. I heard the Simmons’ baby start crying next door. Charlie made me lean over and bite Giuseppe’s arm. Giuseppe swore and let go. Male Sammy’s hold was slipping, too. My body squirmed free, stood up, and started an awkward mannequin run to my car door, a mere fifteen feet away.

I was six feet from the car with my hope starting to fade when Giuseppe grabbed me around the waist and pulled me back. My leg kicked him hard in the shin and we both went down. Thankfully, I’d managed to wriggle free enough that I landed on the cement and not on Giuseppe.

The strings disappeared. I lifted my head up off the ground as high as I could. This was going to hurt. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t have time to come up with another plan. With everything I could muster, I smashed my head back down into the cement, hard enough that I felt sure my skull would crack open. The world went black.

11

Stirring from the darkness that had swallowed me up, I opened my eyes. I was strapped to a bed in a hospital room. Sunlight streamed in from the window and I caught a whiff of blueberry muffin from down the hall. Male Sammy and Brenda stood next to me, arms folded, clearly concerned.

“It’s me,” I said. My voice came out gravelly. But there were no strings attached, I realized. The memories from before my blackout came rushing in. “Thank you. Both of you.”

Brenda leaned over a bit. “How are you—”

“You’re too close,” Male Sammy said, pulling her back. “She could get free.”

“That seems unlikely,” she said. But she stayed back.

“Can you close the blinds?” I said. “Light’s giving me a headache. What happened?”

Brenda twisted the blinds closed. “You went mental and tried to lobotomize yourself on the sidewalk.”

“Oh,” I said. I’d been on the verge of saying something about Charlie, but if I did that, they’d think I still needed help. Which I supposed I did. My head felt remarkably good, though. “Thanks for stopping me.”

“No problem,” Male Sammy said. “You’d have done the same for us.”

“Anyway,” Brenda said, “you passed out and stopped trying to kill us and then the ambulance came and here we are. It’s Friday, by the way.”

A surge of relief flooded in, followed by a few tears that I tried to hide on the pretense of inspecting my face. I’d made it. I was still alive, and Charlie wasn’t controlling me. At least for now—I had to assume he could regain control at any time. That thought wrapped me in a shroud of anxiety. I had to do something to protect myself, as soon as possible. But I had no idea where to start. I looked at my friends. “Don’t you need to be at work?”

“We’re good,” Male Sammy said. “Don’t worry about us. The important thing is for you to get enough rest so you can recover.”

I nodded and, while still intent on figuring out what to do, let my eyes close. When I opened them, Brenda wasn’t there, and Male Sammy was slumped down in a chair against the wall. For a moment I was afraid Charlie had come in somehow and killed him, but then he started to snore. I closed my eyes again.

I drifted in and out of sleep for what had to have been another day or two. Brenda and Male Sammy and Giuseppe were always there, one or two of them, every time I came to.

Finally, I woke up and felt alert for the first time. A scraping, pounding ache had made its home in my head, though. And I felt an odd kind of dizzy, like I was seeing someone I recognized but then it wasn’t them after all.

“Hey,” Male Sammy said. He was perched on the chair, eating a bagel and reading something on his phone. “You say the weirdest things in your sleep.”

“You guys are the best,” I said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“No need. How’s your head?”

“Headache, but I’m awake.”

He summoned a nurse and had her give me another dose of pain meds. “Good. I thought for sure you’d cracked the skull.”

“Thick and all,” I said amid a brief coughing fit. The dizziness felt like it was starting to slide from my head down into my chest cavity.

Male Sammy put his phone away. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Hold on. I’m really hungry.”

“Let’s get you some food, then,” he said. He pulled out the room service menu, set it in front of me, and helped me place my order.

“What day is it?” I said.

“Wednesday.” He dug around in a bag on the ground. “Here’s your phone. Mr. CEO has been trying to get hold of you, by the way.”

Wednesday. Goodness. It took a moment for me to remember who Mr. CEO was and how I knew him. “Why? It’s been months.”

“Because Alexis the Witch is gone, baby, gone,” Brenda said, coming into the room with a bunch of orange and teal balloons, which she tied to my bed. “On Monday she left for Ingleside Air.”

Male Sammy nodded. “Mr. CEO wants you and Jocko back. He talked to us—we didn’t read your messages, just to be clear—and apologized profusely for how Alexis treated you. Apparently there were strategic reasons he couldn’t do anything at the time. He hopes you can forgive him. Water, bridge, all that.”

I’d forgotten—before all of the Charlie craziness of the last however many days, I’d been looking for a job. It felt like such a distant, foreign memory, something that had surely happened to someone else and not me.

Given how I felt, I expected to make a full recovery, which meant I still needed a job—especially with the hospital bills. I tried not to think about that. Going back to Whetten made sense, of course. It’s where Male Sammy and Brenda and Giuseppe were, and maybe Jocko too. It was comfortable, familiar work. And I wouldn’t have to endure another excruciating interview.

At the same time, though, I felt as if my life had been set on a new course. Charlie was still out there somewhere. The McGuffin, too, and with it the promise of a portal to somewhere else. Magic was real, whatever that meant. There was no way I could forget about all of that and return to my old life—the curiosity would eat away at me till there was nothing left.

The room service girl arrived with two trays of food. She set them on my bed and left. I slowly propped myself up into a sitting position and began to eat.

“You guys want anything?” I said, digging into a mound of buttery mashed potatoes.

“We’ll eat at the cafeteria,” Brenda said. “Give you some alone time. But we’ll be back, don’t you worry.” They left.

As I started in on the strawberry milkshake, something odd happened. The dizziness in my chest coalesced into a fire. I thought I was having a heart attack at first and jammed the button for the nurse. She came and checked me and said everything was fine, but that I should try to get more rest. My first panicked thought after she left was that it was Charlie, taking over my body again in some more primal, more reliable way. But I still had full control, so it probably wasn’t him—besides, he would have been far less subtle about it.

The fire burning in my bones—the lightning in my marrow—snaked through my arms out to my hands, crackling within. I felt like a bomb about to go off. But it didn’t hurt, which surprised me.

I steepled my fingers to see if I could make the fire go away. To my surprise, the milkshake and the room service menu and the call button all began to float up toward the ceiling. I let go and they fell back down. If I’d known that was going to happen, I would have waited till I’d eaten more of my milkshake first.

After the nurse came and cleaned it up, I tried it again, this time making sure that everything nearby was empty or safe. Sure enough, my blanket and water bottle began floating. The harder I pushed my fingers together, the faster they went, and I was able to hold them up against the ceiling for a full two minutes. Letting my fingers come apart gradually didn’t float the blanket and bottle gracefully back down to the ground as I’d hoped, however; they fell. I pulled the blanket back over me and set the water bottle on the stand and leaned back against my pillow.

I could do magic.

How it happened was a mystery; maybe it was something weird with Charlie’s strings. I still didn’t know what it entailed or how it worked, but if I wasn’t hallucinating the whole thing, I now had telekinetic abilities.

More things in heaven and earth indeed, Horatio. For a moment I felt smaller again, the world around me billowing out with possibility and enchantment. I hadn’t felt anything like that since I was a child. I loved it.

I realized then that, to my surprise, I had decided to take Mr. CEO’s offer. It would be mundane, but I had friends at Whetten and I needed money. Besides, a stable, sane day job would give me the freedom I needed to explore my abilities in my free time.

“You okay?” Brenda came back into the room.

I nodded. “I’ve decided to take the job.”

She squealed. Male Sammy returned as well and high-fived her at the news. “We’re delighted,” he said with a smile. “Brenda’s not half as good at debugging when you’re not there with her.”

Brenda nodded vigorously and sat down on the bed. An odd expression came over her face. “You sure you’re okay? You look…different.”

“I feel fine,” I said. And it was true—I felt far better than I’d felt in a long time. The temptation struck me to start flinging things around the room, to show off. But I resisted. That time would come, but before then I needed to practice it, to learn what my limitations were. Baby steps.

As Brenda and Male Sammy began chatting about the surprising quality of the cafeteria food, a growing determination took root in my soul. Not only would I learn what I could do now, but I would expand my abilities if I could, and I would learn everything there was to know about magic. History, current practices, all the techniques, everything. I would do whatever it took to become one of the best.

And then, when I was ready, I would hunt down Charlie—if he was still alive—and make sure he couldn’t ever hurt anyone again.