It’s been a long day, and now Sage’s teddy bear is missing.
“Coco,” she says, dragging her blue blanket behind her with chubby little fists. “Coco bye-bye.” It’s maybe the twentieth time she’s said it. I’ve looked and looked around her room, but all I’ve really accomplished is a bit of tidying. The bear isn’t here. “Mommy find.”
“Mommy can’t find,” I say. “Hikari might find.” Hikari, my girlfriend, volunteered several minutes ago to hunt through the rest of the house. With all of Sage’s other toys and crayons strewn about, it could be a big job. “If you could remember where you last saw him…”
Sage shakes her head, and her lip quivers. “Bye-bye.” And it’s not her fault she can’t say more, even if my neck is cramping up with frustration. She’s not old enough to understand the work I do, and how tired I get. How I’ve spent the day funneling my energy into healing charms and calming talismans for Hikari to sell in our shop. How I’ve washed the dishes, paid the bills, taken out the trash, checked all the house’s wards. And how, every evening, I take what’s left and pour it into the pentacle I keep at my throat, a thick sturdy shape with a crystal in the center, the kind that can store things. I replace the power that’s trickled out during the day and shape it into a powerful defensive burst, locked up tight, just in case. On nights like these I put Sage to bed exhausted, with nothing left in me.
But looking at her, even at her worst, gives me this sharp assurance, stronger than any magic I’ve ever done. Whatever good I can give her, I will.
Patience, for one thing.
“It’ll be a while till we find him,” I say. “Probably he’ll turn up someplace when you don’t expect it. I want you to stop asking now.”
“‘Kay,” she says, though her fists are still tugging on the blanket. She toddles up to me and nearly falls as she stops, catching herself on my leg. “Story?”
“Story, then bedtime. Want to cuddle?”
“Yeah,” she says, holding up her little arms, and I scoop her up and balance her on my knee. I pick up a storybook off the dresser.
Once upon a time, in a magical queendom,
a little dark girl from a little green den
set off to seek her fortune.
It’s Sage’s favorite, because it has pigs and a pirate ship. She claps her hands and snorts when it gets to the part with the pigs, and for a minute or so we just oink and giggle together.
Hikari saunters in near the end, just when the girl in the story is coming home laden with pirate treasure and wisdom. She sits on the floor by my side and listens with a smile, as though she hasn’t heard this dozens of times before. Hikari is an elegant beauty, her black hair brushing the small of her back as her head moves. She’s loved me since long before Sage, and she still makes my heart flutter just by walking in.
And there she lived with all her friends,
happily ever after. The end.
I’m proud of Sage. She’s patient enough to do the concluding cheer–”Eee-end!”–before she turns her bright eyes to Hikari.
Hikari shakes her head. “I looked everywhere. Can’t find him.”
“Coco,” says Sage, starting to whine. She’s never slept without him.
Hikari gives me a meaningful look, and I sigh and take her hand in mine. I’m low on energy, but hers is as warm and reassuring as ever, and though she doesn’t sense these things, she knows how to offer it up to me. I squeeze my eyes shut, thinking hard about Coco and his little brown feet.
I now invoke the rule of three.
What once was lost returns to me.
I can work magic without the silly rhymes, but they’re what I learned first, and they help me focus. Into my mind’s eye springs a picture of our little house, extending down from Sage’s dormer room to the basement. All the cluttered floors and crayon drawings. All the protective wards and charms I’ve put up over the years. There’s no Coco anywhere. I try to push my consciousness further, and I get as far as the porch, but outside, past the wards, is fuzzier. Slower going.
I don’t like it outside the wards at all, actually. I must be too tired for this. I drop the spell and open my eyes to slits. “He’s not in the house.”
Hikari gives me a little kiss, then plucks Sage up off my lap, setting her down in her crib. “I know you were playing with him today. I took you out to the yard to play, remember? I know you had him then.”
“You think she dropped him out there?”
“I don’t remember if she had him coming back in. But I looked around to make sure she hadn’t dropped anything. I would have seen him, unless she hid him real good.” She smiles and turns back to Sage. “Is that what you did? Did you hide him real good?”
Sage doesn’t answer. She’s pawing through her other stuffed animals for a suitable replacement. She holds up a plush kitty and considers it critically.
Hikari turns to me. “I bet she stuck him in a bush in the back yard when I was looking the other way. I went through a phase like that, at her age. Picking things up and moving them everywhere…”
She’s still talking, but I don’t hear a word. Something thumps loudly against the wards, drowning her out. I freeze.
The sound’s not in my ears. I wish it was, but I can tell the difference. It’s a mind-sound. Magic.
But I don’t have to answer. She sees the expression on my face now. My skin prickles, and she goes as pale as I feel.
The thumping happens again. Like someone rapping on the biggest door.
“It could be nothing,” she says, uncertainly.
I shake my head. “Hikari. Nothing else is this loud.”
She knows me well enough to know what I mean. Maybe there are lots of super-powerful beings in the world who’d want to get my attention by smashing into the wards. But I’ve only ever known one.
And I was hoping he was gone for good.
I look at Sage sulking in her crib. “Stay with her. Don’t let her out of your sight. Yell for me if she does anything strange.”
Hikari’s hand goes up to grasp mine, her eyes wide. “Be safe, won’t you?”
She moves in, but pauses before the kiss this time, waiting for my nod. Then she presses her lips hard against mine and squeezes her arms around my waist. I linger in the doorway when she’s done, trying to calm my heart. Hikari’s already gone back to Sage, and she smiles like nothing’s wrong, cool as honeydew. “I’ll be staying in here a little while. Want a goodnight kiss?”
“Kiss!” says Sage, throwing out her arms eagerly. Hikari picks her up and kisses her cheek. I feel a little burst of pride, under the panic. Some people just can’t get that rule in their heads, but I think Hikari always knew it. Ask first. Teach her that her body is hers.
Before Sage has time to return the kiss, I’m gone.
My stomach is doing flips already, and I’m only in the kitchen. My head spins. Why did it have to be now? Why at night, when there’s hardly anything left of me?
Maybe it’s part of his plan. Maybe he’s watched me long enough to see how I overextend myself. And how he can use that against me.
I pick up the green glass jar I keep in the window, shaking it gently. I can smell the protective herbs. The house swims into my mind’s eye again, covered in shimmering blankets of magic. No disturbances. That means he’s outside. Good. Well, better than inside, at least.
I take a moment to breathe deeply. To try to recharge. I run a fingertip down my blue crystal pentacle. I’ve spent countless afternoons charging the spell inside, but I’ve never actually used it. I hope I don’t have to find out if it works.
I look across at the fridge, at the swirly crayon drawings, the alphabet magnets, the grocery list, and my MUST DO list.
Take boxes to recycling.
I add Find Coco with a black pen. Not because I need the reminder, but so I can pretend this is still mundane, like taking out the trash. There’s another crashing sound as I finish, making me jump. The last o comes out as a leaping scribble.
“Give me a minute,” I say to the air, though I know he won’t. I do a quick check of my personal wards. My shield is weak, but I’ve got nothing much to build it back up with. I’ll have to make do. I unlock the back door and step out onto the porch.
He’s waiting for me out in the yard, beyond the house’s wards, floating ten feet above the ground, so when I stand on the elevated porch we’re face to face. He’s a formless thing today, a man-sized column of smoke and mist, broad hazy wings wafting out on either side. But he can’t disguise his eyes. Big bright circles, orange, like flames. His familiar deep voice makes my fists clench. “How nice to see you, dear.”
I think of him as Goetia. It’s not his name, but it’s a word that stuck, back when I was still reeling from that first summoning. Secret spirit, come to me. Unseen knowledge let me see… Back then I was just coming into my power, and I didn’t know a single other witch. I was insatiable for knowledge, any knowledge, even his.
But when I finally saw him back then, when I asked for his wisdom from the other worlds, he laughed at me. “Not until I’m done with you, dear.”
Remembering used to make me sick. Little things used to remind me, and Hikari would come home from work and find me crying. But nowadays, since Sage, it only makes me angry.
Anger is what stops me, now, from collapsing in a nervous pile. “Stay away from me. And stay the hell away from Sage.”
Goetia chuckles. I’ve heard his voice do all kinds of things, but today he’s made it cultured and authoritative, like a voice-over. “But I have. The shields on that girl! You’ve done vexingly impressive work. I wanted very much to speak with her. I’ll simply have to settle for making her miserable, hmm?”
One corner of the mist coalesces, taking the shape of a hazy hand, and it tosses Coco up in the air. Coco’s all too solid and all too real, and way too high above the ground.
My stomach does another couple of flips. I feel so stupid. I can’t believe I went to all this trouble protecting Sage’s body but never gave a thought to her favorite bear. “Give him back.”
“I think I’m well within my rights. I didn’t touch a single one of your silly spells. She dropped him at one end of the yard and went off to look at birds at the other end. I didn’t have to come near her.”
“Give him back.”
“No.” He pulls Coco around behind him, still visible through the mist. “I think it’s cute, by the way. How you lie to her. One day she’ll find out that there aren’t any magical queendoms, and that not everyone asks permission. One day she’ll be a big girl, and she’ll want to go to summer camp, or college, without you, and the shields will start to fade. What will she do then?” The mist grows into a sharp shape for a moment, a burlesque of a handsome face and a crown. “She’ll want to meet a prince.”
“I’m not here to speculate.” I keep my voice steady, but my heart pounds inside me.
“I’m not speculating.” Coco starts to spin in precarious little circles. “And if they don’t fade, what then? They keep you away from me as much as they keep me away from you. Ultimately it means you and your cute little make-believe family will spend your lives cowering inside them.” He manifests claws and tears a methodical line down the tip of Coco’s paw, baring stuffing. “While I wait just outside, destroying everything you–”
Before I can tell myself to think it over for a minute, to just use the goddamn stairs, I swing myself up to crouch on the porch railing and push off, launching myself into the air. I drop my shields, so they won’t keep me away from him. I scrabble at empty mist for a second. Then my hand connects with Coco. I grab him away, heedless of the claws that are already there, slicing through my fist.
After that there’s only half a second of Ohshit- before I hit the ground.
Pain blasts up my leg from my ankle and I land in a heap. I spit out grass. Goetia laughs and whirls towards me, all mist again. “I was hoping you’d–”
I’m outside the wards now, unshielded. I’ve never done this before, rushing out to fight him instead of waiting it out. I have no plan. I push myself up to run back to the house, but my ankle goes sideways and gives out underneath me and I fall again, pain shooting through me like sparks.
Goetia chuckles a fatherly chuckle, the kind you’d trust if you didn’t know better. “Do you remember, dear? How it feels to stop fighting? Or is fighting all that’s left in your little mind?”
I can’t believe I let him goad me into dropping my shields. I don’t have power left to rebuild them at full strength. Even if I did, I don’t have the time.
But I do have a plan for this, sort of.
My hand finds the pentacle at my throat. Power pulses there, barely contained. I’ve never tried to let it out before. It might not work.
Goetia reaches for me, and a fingerlike tendril strokes my cheek, burning like acid.
Then the pentacle springs to life, and blue, crystalline light blazes out in a bright beam, straight through him, dispersing the mist and dissolving him. It’s all I can do, with the anger and fear left inside me, to keep the beam focused. I visualize it tearing him apart.
“Do you think I only have one trick?” I shout. “Do you think I haven’t learned anything all this time? Do you think, by the time she’s old enough, I won’t know more?”
“Yes, dear,” he says in a fading, withering voice, though there’s hardly any of him left now. “Yes, I–” And then he’s gone.
I sit there panting on the grass for a moment, watching the air where he used to be, half-expecting it’s a trick and he’ll show up behind me. I don’t see him–not with my eyes, not with my mind’s eye. He could be under a glamor, invisible. I could do a spell to scan for him, if I had the power, but all I have now is eyes. I count to ten before I let myself think of anything else. Watching. He doesn’t return.
Then the adrenaline wears off and the exhaustion hits and I just want to curl up and die. I crumple to the ground, pulling my knees to my chest. It’s over now. He’s gone. It’s okay.
I don’t think he’s dead. I don’t know a witch in this world who could kill him. But I’ve bought another few months, at least.
At last, I hobble to my feet and test my ankle. Not broken. Just a bad twist. The skin on my hand isn’t broken where I felt the claws slicing through, but my fingers on that side won’t move, and my face is cold and numb where he touched it. Coco’s got a bad gash down his woolen leg, but he’s salvageable. The pentacle hangs drained around my neck, the crystal cracked and useless now. It’s okay. I can make another. Now that I’ve seen how the blast works, I think I can do it better next time.
When I make it through the door, I sit Coco on the kitchen counter and limp up the cluttered stairs to make sure Sage and Hikari are okay. When Sage, restless and wakeful, asks after Coco, I put a finger to my lips. “He had to go to the doctor. He’ll come back soon. Be patient, sweetie.”
Working with Hikari, it’s only five minutes’ stitching. The suture is visible on his leg, rough against grasping fingertips, but he still looks like a bear, and his stuffing is safe inside him where it belongs. It’s my idea to work simple shielding knots into the fabric. In a few days, when I have enough power to finish them, they’ll stop him from getting lost again. It’s Hikari’s idea to wrap a miniature Tensor bandage around the site like it’s a sports sprain. Sage has seen those in books. I get the real thing for my ankle.
She’s only half asleep when I sneak back in, carrying Coco clumsily with still-frozen fingers. Even on the muffly carpet, my steps wake her up. I planned to nestle him next to her as a surprise for the morning, but instead she pulls herself upright and holds out her arms through the bars of the crib, smiling bigger than her little face should let her. “Coco!”
“Coco fell and got hurt,” I tell her, handing over the bear. “But he’s all fixed up now. Mommy won’t let him get hurt again.”
Sage grabs him and hugs him tight to her chest, swinging from side to side with joy. “Coco, Coco!”
My breath catches in my throat as I look at her, at that big smile and those chubby fists, and at her eyes, the ones I fell in love with in the delivery room, back then, against all odds. Those big, trusting, orange eyes.
“Coco owie,” says Sage, looking down at him and inspecting the bandage. “Coco fix.” She looks down at my bandaged ankle, but then her eyes stray to my useless hand, and up to my face. It’s my cold, numb face she reaches out for, with a bewildered look. “Mommy owie?”
I don’t know quite why, but that pushes me over the edge into tears.
“Yes. It’s okay,” I say, wiping my eyes. “I can fix it in a couple days. Do you want a hug?”
“Hug,” Sage agrees, holding out one arm for me and clutching Coco with the other. I pick them both up and I hold her as long as I can, while I cry, like she’s only so much stuffing. Like she’ll come all apart in my hands when I let go.
When she starts yawning, I tuck her in, and then I shuffle into the kitchen, being careful of my ankle. Under MUST DO, I cross out Find Coco. I add:
Extend wards across back yard.
I’ll protect her. I’ll teach her everything I know. And I know it won’t be enough. But one day, with those eyes, she’ll be stronger than me. She’ll have other witches around, as she grows, to help answer her questions. If I do it right, if I’m the mother I try to be, then when she’s grown and slips out of my hands, she won’t need me.
For now, she’s my Sage, with Mommy and Hikari to help her, and she sleeps warded, safe and sound.
Ada Hoffmann is a graduate student from Canada. Her stories have appeared various places, including Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Fiction. You can find her on Twitter as @xasymptote.