Penance

Mar. 15th, 2016 04:00 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

It was 3:03 PM on a Tuesday in 1999 when Maggie Trall discovered magic for the first time.


A car passed her on her lonely walk home. It was nearly winter, and the top of the car glistened with frost when the window rolled down, and the car slowed down. She didn’t know them. She clenched her pink backpack straps as if she was squeezing the sun out of an orange.


“Hey!”


Walking, focused on the ground, stepping over the cracks that break backs, Maggie’s steps and stoop made her bangs dangle in front of her eyes.


“Where are you going?”


The voice was at least a junior, maybe a senior. She wasn’t new, but she was a freshman, and she was warned, and she was remembering old kindergarten lessons.


“You should smile for me when I’m talking to you.”


The cracks were like a tattoo on cement sheet music, and if someone played them wrong by stepping on them, it made a terrible sound. The musician, the girl walking home alone from school, had to set a rhythmic pattern of two steps per cement square just to avoid taking one on the crack.


“Baby, I know you want it.”


She cracked. “I want to go home. Leave me alone.”


“Bitch, I was just being friendly.”


The bottoms of her shoes were smooth and tread-bare after making the walk for a few years. She could feel every grain of the concrete pressed against the pads of her feet. She could feel the worms deep within the concrete, cemented against their will when the sidewalk was made. The shovels and levels hollowed out the roots of their homes, leaving them to wonder why the sky was closer just in time to check and be crushed in a flood of grey, burning sludge.


“It’s alright. Everyone knows you’re a slut.” Laughing echoed inside the car. The rest of the words that followed were a blur, but the taunts continued around the corner and down the block, and when Maggie stepped into a cul-de-sac and walked up to a door, the car hovered and harassed. When it wasn’t her door, when she lived someplace else and had forgotten it because she was trying not to cry, she snapped again.


In her mind, when frustration turned into anger, she envisioned their immolation.


When she opened her eyes at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, she heard a yelp and turned to find the car enrobed in a sphere that matched the color of her backpack. The still world reverberated as if stricken with turbulence on a plane flight, and a dull howl was punctuated by the cracking and snapping of steel. The sphere shrank, taking the car and a chunk of asphalt with it. A single dot remained, falling into the crater left behind.


At home, it was a flight of fancy, and she thought nothing more of it. The next day, when multiple absences were reported, she couldn’t have known. The day after, when absences were reported again, after concerns were shared by family members, and after school started to buzz with the sound of a serious problem that no one could put their finger on, she couldn’t quite recall the event. When the news flashed their faces and showed a picture of the wrong cul-de-sac with a crater inside, a trivial little hole, she knew.


Maggie stared at her hands all night. In the darkness of her bedroom, she held her hands in front of her face so long that her muscles started to shake. She knew someone would come after her for this--the murder of her high school peers.


No one did. No one accused, and no one drew a connection. Her parents didn’t acknowledge the missing children anymore now that the news had gone back to reporting on celebrities. As far as Maggie could tell, there was nothing extraordinary about her parents beyond how much they loved her.


“Mom,” she asked a month later.


“What is it?”


“If someone was really bothering you and making terrible comments, what would you do?”


“I would very directly ask them to stop. People don’t tend to keep bothering you if you deal with it immediately and directly. It’s easier said than done.”


“What if you can’t stop them?”


“Ask for help,” her mother replied before adding, “Is something going on at school?”


Maggie’s mother didn’t know. As hard as she tried, Maggie couldn’t imagine someone as guileless and sensible as her mother being responsible for the destruction of another person, through wild magic or any other device.


Because her walk home made her become as tense as piano wire, Maggie vowed to never wish destruction upon someone again. Because driving when she finally got her permit reminded her of the crunching sound of metal, the terror of being trapped inside a vehicle getting smashed into a singularity, she also took a job in the city after high school to avoid driving. Because nightmares stole her sleep every night, Maggie didn’t sleep.


Maggie never stopped being unaware of the potential of her mind, but it was a red devil, lurking in the background, waiting to annihilate something she cared about as penance for her aggression.


*****


A tired woman worked at a ticketing booth. It was her second job of the day. It was her favorite job. The glass case around her, backed by the wall of the subway station, droned out by the roar of the gears on the subway cars past the turnstiles, was a safe place. It didn’t pay much, but it asked for little personal investment from Maggie.


Maggie could die peacefully behind the counter, or so she thought. There were new machines in the lobby for printing up tickets automatically, and few people even used her services anymore.


Few except for Paul, anyway. Every day, Paul made a point of buying a ticket from a human. He could have bought the automatically renewing pass but opted instead to spend two minutes at the counter each day.


“How are you doing today, Maggie?” Paul would say, sliding cash or a card under the slot. It was courtesy by rote for him, but Maggie found it endearing. Day after day, her face started to warm more in seeing the same person. Paul wore a baggy suit coat and had old-fashioned thick framed glasses, and Maggie noted that he probably didn’t know how to dress himself to impress and didn’t care. It was refreshing. Everyone else was so immaculate in style that they all looked the same; black suits adorned with white faces were like balloons at a funeral.


She thought she was always lonely because she didn’t deserve and had not entertained the idea of having a friend for fifteen years, but this person started to matter. She started to dream about the possibility of another--the dreams were imperfect but glorious. Her pulse picked up in her neck when he started to talk to her.


“Paul, why do you always stop to buy tickets from a person when it’s cheaper and easier to use the machines?” she asked one morning.


“I like your face,” he said.


Inside the booth, under the desk, in a dark corner only faintly touched by a splash of phosphorescent light, a tiny sprig of grass grew between the tiles.


*****


Four years later, she gave birth. Paul waited, tapping his foot against the floor so quickly it started to make Maggie nauseous. She clasped his fingers in her hand feebly and the motion of his leg slowed to a stop. His eyes, which were previously fixed on one nugget of corn tucked right behind the front-right leg of the hospital bed, drifted up to her eyes. He smiled, and his eyes shined like quartz crystals in an aquarium.


Paul radiated love. Maggie loved through her teeth; every soft word spoken was done with a deep understanding that it could cause its own demolition. She had never tested her power further and refused to try--she did not correlate the lack of dust in the house or the lack of mold on food or the freshness of wine’s flavor to what she considered her curse. She did not consider the ease with which her garden grew to be her doing. She often ignored the fact that people were happier and healthier when she was near, even though she now had friends that knew it.


Then the nurse brought out the baby.


On the fifth floor of the hospital, two levels beneath her, a woman who was dying of kidney failure suddenly found strength to stand and breathe and laugh. In the parking lot, a man who had pulled out too far and too fast found that the damage was non-existent, and the person he hit, who was sitting in her car, just smiled and waved him on. In the healing garden for cancer patients, plants and flowers danced into growth, leaping from their pots as roots spread across the promenade.


The earth reverberated with the laughter that comes from deep within a chest. On a street near Maggie’s high school, a speck expanded, creating a mound of asphalt where an old pothole had once been, plopping a blue, 1999, Pontiac Grand Am filled with screaming teenagers on top of the mound. The teenagers would not understand how they wound up travelling nineteen years into the future to be younger than some of their parents’ grandchildren, but they would realize their cruelty and know that Maggie’s presence was a second chance.


Maggie felt all of these events happening as she looked into the eyes of her new child, Laura, and back to Paul again. Outside the hospital, beneath the cement sidewalk, earthworms that were trapped when the concrete was poured became alive again, wriggling out and up to the surface.

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