Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Promises of Spring

2009

It was a freezing day in January, so Cody was surprised when Tay answered the door to his apartment without a shirt. His wet hair was still slicked down from the shower. “Um, hey,” said Cody. “It’s good to see you.”

“Huh,” said Tay. “Come in, I guess.”

Cody expected the scar in the middle of Tay’s chest. It was raised and shining, a ragged knoll that Tay crossed his arms over as soon as he noticed Cody looking. What Cody hadn’t expected was the other one, lower on his torso, two parallel tildes that might have been waves or a curvaceous equal sign. They were deep but clean, as clearly intentional as the puncture scar was arbitrary.

“Where’d those come from?” Cody asked.

Tay turned away from him and reached for a shirt. “Got it all done at the same time, man.”

He remembered the night they’d carried Tay back through the woods. Early March, damp but unseasonably warm, the air rich with the smells of rot and onion grass and daffodils. He’d been giddy before the screaming started, adrenaline and the promise of spring making it seem like a game at first.

Tay had been delirious when they found him, the big chest wound already packed with medical foam and wrapped with tape. His bare skin was grimy to the touch, flecked everywhere with dirt, bearing designs painted on him in his own blood. It hadn’t even occurred to Cody that any of those designs might have been carved there.

He’d been the second person on the scene; not the person to cut Tay down, but the person to bear his weight as he fell.

It was impossible to look at Tay, even five years later, without invoking visceral memories. It didn’t take much effort to override Tay’s long face, freshly-shaved and straight from the shower, with the way he’d looked that night: dirty and bright-eyed and distant, mumbling his half of a hallucinatory argument.

“I, uh, didn’t know she did that to you,” Cody said finally.

Tay shrugged. Fully-clothed, he was visibly calmer. “I didn’t either, ’til later. I remember the beginning a little bit, but then it’s all just a bad trip. I mean, worse than that, obviously. Shrooms never gave me PTSD.”

Cody didn’t realize this was an attempt at humor until Tay smiled, the wide stoner grin that he remembered from before.

You’re okay, he realized with some surprise. Probably not his old self—the Tay he remembered had never seemed to feel any particular shame about his scrawny body, as eager to shed layers as the gym rats who’d had significantly more to show off—but not some husk, either.

That was why he’d put off this trip. On some level, he’d already decided Tay was broken, that when he’d left Zanesville, he’d left the world. But here he was, still essentially himself. He’d cut his hair short, and he hesitated now where before he might have been blithe. But he was the same guy.

“It’s good to see you,” Cody said, the same thing he’d said earlier, but meaning it now.

“Right? I never got the chance to thank you, really. They said you carried me back.”

This was embarrassing to hear. “We all carried you back. For a skinny guy, you managed to weigh kind of a lot.”

Tay laughed and patted his stomach. “All the munchies, man. As soon as this metabolism slows down, I’mma get so fat no one will even recognize me.”

Cody thought of Tay all the ways he’d known him: in elementary school, a shy boy in a windbreaker whose playground reputation was for running fast; in middle school, a quiet kid with a smart-aleck streak and an attitude that had gotten him kicked off the track team; in high school, smoking weed in the parking lot during lunch and failing classes with a spaced-out smile.

He had parallel memories of his own life in the same fashion, the first set lived as a girl, the second as a boy, ’til the night they’d performed the ritual and everything had aligned, the girl swallowed up and replaced with the man he’d always meant to be. As a girl, he and Tay had kissed during Pocky-fueled sessions of spin the bottle, held hands during sweaty summer nights when Tay was stoned and Cody was high only on the exquisite awareness of their bodies under the starry sky. As a boy, he’d smoked pot for the first time in Tay’s messy bedroom, and in that dizzy euphoria they’d touched each other with awkward hands, throats and thighs and bellies, achingly hard and pretending not to be hard, neither of them brave enough to touch each other’s dicks. Then he’d gone home and they’d never talked about it, and Cody had quietly decided not to smoke pot again.

“Anyway,” Cody said, his voice too loud, too carefree. “I just came here to let you know there’s some kids back in Zanesville who’ve been digging around about the ritual, want to pull the same shit we did. I thought maybe we should shut that whole thing down.”

To his surprise, Tay started laughing. He laughed too long, the sound too crooked, and Cody had to revise his original opinion: Tay was still himself, yeah. But he definitely wasn’t okay.

2004

“Obviously no one believes in magic,” Manuela was saying. “What we believe in is doing cool shit, and I dare you to come up with a cooler way to spend a rando night in March than getting drunk in the woods and trying to summon a witch.”

Codi bit her bottom lip, afraid to say anything, because every thought in her head was desperately uncool: Underage drinking makes me nervous. I don’t really like camping. If life was a horror movie, this would be a great set-up for us all to die. She’d recently kidnapped a pair of her older brother’s jeans, and she wished Manuela would notice that she was dressing more like a boy, that they could have a conversation about that instead of about witches.

“Because here’s the best part,” Manuela continued. “If we actually get the witch to show up, she has to grant us one wish. One wish each, even. So think about the one thing you want more than anything else in the world. Now think how cool it would be if a witch gave it to you.” She grinned at both of them. Manuela was one of those girls who made cool seem effortless: she’d been born wearing combat boots, could talk Grand Theft Auto or Dawson’s Creek with equal aptitude, and shaved her head and wore silver eyeliner so thick it turned her into a raccoon, but a raccoon that basically every dude in school wanted to bang.

Cooler yet, apparently she wasn’t even interested in banging dudes.

On Manuela’s other side, Jason sighed. “I have so many wishes, though. Like, what if I pick the wrong one?”

Codi couldn’t help herself. “Yeah, okay, I guess if we summon a magic witch who grants wishes, there’s the chance you could fuck it up.”

“Like I fuck up everything,” Jason said, straight-faced.

“Don’t go full Eeyore,” said Manuela, punching him lightly in the shoulder. He smiled at that, and it cost Codi physical effort not to roll her eyes. If she’d punched him, Jason just would’ve whined that hitting didn’t solve anything.

“Okay, so what do we do to summon the witch?” Codi asked, hoping for something prohibitive in the answer.

“We call her by finding a symbol on a specific tree, and then we bleed on it to consecrate it, and then she grants our wishes.”

Jason nodded. “Where are you getting this from?” he asked. “Like, the design and everything.”

“LaTonya Henderson’s LiveJournal. Apparently she and some other kids tried it a couple years ago, and she wrote about it, but they fucked it up and the witch never showed.”

That was deeply reassuring. LaTonya Henderson had barely graduated before disappearing to Atlanta in pursuit of a music career. Nothing about her had ever hinted at secret occult mastery.

“Yeah, okay,” Codi said. “If you wanna spend a Saturday night trying to summon a witch, I guess I’m in. Mind if I text Tay?”

Manuela wrinkled her nose. Tay and Jason didn’t get along, but worse than that, Tay was prone to gently mocking Manuela rather than acquiescing to her whims.

“Never mind,” said Codi quickly.

“I’m in, then,” said Jason. “I don’t wanna be left out if something awesome happens.”

“It’ll be awesome.” Manuela grinned, all teeth. “I promise.”

On the bus ride home, Codi texted Tay anyway: doing something dumb with Manuela and Jason, but meet me after?

2009

“I dunno that we’re gonna be able to talk teenagers out of getting into trouble,” said Tay. “That’s, like, the whole purpose of a teenager’s existence.”

He sat in the passenger seat, a duffel bag at his feet holding crumpled clothes and whatever else Tay considered indispensable for a weekend trip.

Cody checked how far they’d gotten out of town before he answered. “I might have misrepresented this trip just a little bit.”

Tay reached into his duffel bag and pulled out an Altoid tin that contained not mints, but a few joints. He rolled down his window and lit one of them, then inhaled richly and spoke in a goofy, breathy voice as he tried to hold in the smoke.

“I could tell you were lying about something. You haven’t changed at all since high school, man.”

“It was more like a lie of omission,” said Cody, keeping his eyes on the road. “I thought if I mentioned actually summoning the witch, you might be out. Even if we could stop it from ever happening again.”

Tay laughed, a calmer, more bitter sound than it had been at his apartment. “I guess you could talk me into a little revenge, yeah.”

“It might be dangerous,” said Cody.

Tay kept a straight face. “You don’t say.”

“It’s just,” Cody continued. “Witches shouldn’t be that hard to kill, as long as they don’t kill you first.”

“And what stops them from killing you first?” Tay exhaled more smoke out the window. “Because if your answer is ‘the element of surprise,’ you can turn this goddamn car around.”

“Jason has a plan.”

“Jason was always the mopiest motherfucker. Didn’t he flunk geometry? I bet this is a great plan.”

Cody tried to keep his voice even. “I’d think you’d be more excited about this than us. You’re the only one who got hurt by the witch. The three of us made out like crazy.”

“Don’t act like this is some selfless bullshit. You had years of fun, and now the guilt is getting you down. And it fucking should, by the way. I didn’t agree to your goddamn ritual. I shouldn’t have paid the blood price. At the hospital, they said having my heart ripped out was a hallucination. They said it was still beating in my chest, or else I’d be dead. If Jason or Manuela had showed up at my door like you did, I’d have kicked them right out again.”

He plucked another joint from the Altoids tin.

“Maybe you should give it a rest,” said Cody. “So when we show up at Jason’s you’re not too high to function.”

“Maybe you should go fuck yourself,” said Tay, but the words lacked heat. “At my very worst, I thought maybe you’d called me into the woods on purpose, because you needed a sacrificial goat.”

“I’d never—” Cody started, but Tay waved a hand.

“I said ‘at my very worst.’ I know you didn’t, and I forgave you a long time ago. I still wonder about the witch, though. Whether I was supposed to die that night, or whether I was supposed to live, or if maybe that part didn’t matter.”

Cody spoke cautiously. “I think she wanted you to live, for what it’s worth. As far as we know, for the blood price, she just takes the closest uninvolved person. It wasn’t personal.” He thought of the scar. “And otherwise, you know, why treat your wound? Why leave you out like that for us to see?”

“So you’d know the cost of what you’d done,” said Tay, voice utterly flat.

2004

“I can’t believe we had a snow day last week,” said Jason, his perpetual gloominess replaced by a rare sense of wonder. Manuela wasn’t even wearing a proper jacket, just a denim blazer.

The moon overhead was full—something Manuela had insisted on, despite Codi’s difficulty convincing her parents she needed to be out past curfew on a Sunday night. Jason carried a backpack that contained nothing but Natty Lite tallboys, and the muffled clatter of the cans as they walked through the woods was almost as loud as the leaves crunching underfoot. The woods themselves were none too impressive; just a scattering of trees that offered the closest neighborhood a buffer between their yards and the high school. If it had been Friday or Saturday night instead of Sunday, they would have run into packs of classmates conducting their own criminal antics.

“I think this is it,” Manuela announced, stopping in a little clearing with nothing in particular to distinguish it. “If it doesn’t work here, we can just chug a few beers and try again at the next one.”

“Do we have to be drunk for the ritual?” Codi asked.

Manuela rolled her eyes. “No, we just have to be drunk for the fun.”

But sitting there drinking a mandatory ration of what tasted like seltzer water gone weirdly sour wasn’t Codi’s idea of “fun.” She kept trying to like beer, because all the alternatives—wine, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, vodkas in dessert flavors—seemed embarrassingly girly.

The sound of the wind through the trees was a little creepy, despite the bright light of the moon. They heard the distant crunch of other footsteps in the leaves, then a single loud whoop of laughter, quickly silenced. Codi found this reassuring rather than menacing—it was good to know there were other kids in the woods, not just them and Manuela’s hypothetical witch.

Manuela crushed two tallboys while Codi and Jason were still nursing their firsts, then sprang up to her feet in front of them.

“Okay!” She was only slightly unsteady. “For the next step, I need your blood!” With a dramatic flourish, she produced a pocket knife and then cut her left palm open, maybe more deeply than she’d meant to.

Jason frowned at her. “Does it have to be the palm, though? Couldn’t I just cut my arm and bleed from there?”

“Oh.” Manuela blinked at him. “Uh, yeah, I guess that’s fine.”

Jason took the knife and cut the back of his forearm, then passed the knife to Codi and tried to catch his own blood in the cupped palm of his other hand.

“Are we doing something with the blood?” Codi asked. “Does it need to go in some kind of container?”

Manuela shook her head. “We just need to drip it on the summoning circle to get the witch’s attention.”

Codi put down her beer and closed the pocket knife. “Did you draw the summoning circle yet?”

“No.” Manuela looked around the clearing. “It should already be here, actually.”

They inspected the bark of the surrounding trees. In a multitude of half-assed teenage carvings, the closest they got to witchcraft was a “666” next to the phrase “Mike sux dix.”

Manuela sighed. “Well,” she said, “LaTonya’s LiveJournal said it would be here.” She leaned back against one of the trees, supporting her weight with her hands, and then shot back to her feet as if burned.

The tree was glowing softly.

There,” she said, shooting Jason a distinctly supercilious smile. “That’s why you cut your palm.”

2009

Jason looked remarkably like his high school self. His expression as he let Cody and Tay into his apartment was one of morose surprise.

“Goddamn,” he said, disappearing into his kitchen and coming back with three bottles of beer. “Taylor Creagh. I didn’t think Cody could convince you to come. I probably wouldn’t have, if I were you.”

Cody watched Tay out of the corner of his eye. Jason had been the one who cut Tay down. They’d discussed it only once, when Tay was still in the hospital, more to get their story straight than out of any attempt to process what had happened.

His wrist was so cold, Jason had said. I could smell his breath because he kept muttering to himself. Like smoke and salami.

Probably that particular detail had not made it into the police report.

“I didn’t have anything better going on this weekend,” said Tay. His eyes were red, his voice warm and a little bit high-pitched. “But in my defense, that’s unusual. You guys should get the fuck out of Zanesville; Columbus is a way better city.”

“Can’t argue that,” said Cody, forcing cheer into his voice. “Did you have any luck with Manuela?”

Jason shook his head. “Nah. Apparently she’s living in Baku, but she doesn’t do social media, and I don’t really have the resources to verify that shit.”

“Baku?” Cody repeated.

“It’s a city in Azerbaijan.”

“Jesus,” said Cody. “Azerbaijan. I don’t even know if that’s in Europe or Asia.”

“Europe,” said Tay, still in his vaguely sing-songy, too-high-to-handle-this tone of voice. “Kind of Middle East-y. They were in the Soviet Union.”

But Cody was still stuck on what Tay had said in the car: I forgave you a long time ago. A sentence offered so casually, but with such softness and weight that Cody felt unsteady carrying it.

2004

“So according to LaTonya,” said Manuela, sounding less blurry around the edges. “We just bleed into this circle here, and all say together: ‘I summon thee.’ And then the witch shows up!”

Codi curled her lip. “A witch wouldn’t be immortal, right? This person was probably born, like, 1920 at the latest. Why ‘thee’ instead of ‘you’?”

This time both Manuela and Jason ignored her. Codi took the knife and finally cut herself, beating Manuela to bleeding on the symbol out of sheer consternation. The cut on Jason’s arm had already started to clot, and he dug into it with a few fingers until it started bleeding again.

“Okay,” said Manuela. “On the count of three: 1, 2, 3! I summon thee.”

They managed to get the sentence out in unison, except for Codi, who replaced “thee” with “you.”

In the silence that followed, the other two glared at her.

“Well, shit,” said Manuela finally. “I was kind of hoping for a puff of smoke. Let’s try it again, but this time we all say ‘thee.’“

The sigils in the bark had acquired a certain liquidity in the moonlight. They moved in a slow, shimmering fashion, and once Codi had looked at them she found it hard to look away.

Is half a tallboy enough to get you drunk? She wondered.

But by the time she finished the thought, she became aware that a curious amount of time had passed. The moon was farther along the horizon; the air was colder. She felt completely sober.

A woman stepped out of the woods, and with her the smell of calla lilies.

“Oh,” said Manuela, her voice low and close.

The woman was maybe in her 50s, with a scatter of grays in her close-cropped brown hair. Her eyebrows were thick and wild, and she wore a fuzzy cable sweater that drowned her airy frame.

“Hello,” she murmured. Her voice was richly feminine. “Are you prepared to pay the blood price for my services?”

“Oh,” said Manuela again, taking a step forward. “We are.”

The witch turned her gaze to Jason and Codi. “Does she speak for you?”

“She does,” said Jason. Codi could only bring herself to nod. She felt that if she had not answered the witch’s question they would have stayed in that tableau indefinitely, not even the moon daring to move.

“Then one by one you may each take my hand,” said the witch, “and whisper to me your desires.”

Manuela stepped forward first, a swagger in her step that didn’t fool any of them, though Codi admired the effort. When she was finished whispering, the witch kissed her cheek, and Manuela stepped back to them seeming quite unchanged.

Jason and Codi looked at each other. When Codi didn’t move, Jason stepped forward, and the witch kissed his cheek also.

Codi finally forced herself forward, almost stumbling. Her wish was a fierce beast inside her chest, something she’d never said to anyone. Even to herself, she’d decided mostly on denials: “Transgender” isn’t the right word, because I don’t feel trapped in the wrong body. “Transgender” isn’t the right word, because I never hated dresses enough. “Transgender” isn’t the right word, because I don’t fall in love with girls. I’m not really transgender; it’s just that I’ve spent my whole life a little bit wrong.

“I wish that I’d been born a boy,” she whispered. Next to the witch the scent of lilies was stronger, along with drug store moisturizer and the cold spring air.

“Oh my sweet,” said the witch, kissing his cheek. “You already were.”

And then Cody walked back to stand next to his friends, carrying the history of Codi-with-an-i like a fairy tale inside himself.

The witch smiled at all of them, seraphic, and Cody realized that LaTonya Henderson would probably emerge from Atlanta a superstar, that when her songs played on the radio he would say, “You know I went to high school with that girl.”

“I have extracted the blood price,” the witch said. “If you want him to live, you will have to cut him down soon from the alder tree.”

That was when they first heard the screams.

2009

“So what’s the plan?” Tay asked. It was a full moon night, and Cody thought Tay looked marginally more sober.

“Summon the witch,” said Jason. “Then shoot her with a gun.”

Tay laughed. Cody did, too.

“I’m serious,” said Jason. “You can kill a witch just like you can kill anybody else.”

“The element of surprise,” Tay cackled. “I fuckin’ knew it.”

“We don’t have to kill her,” said Cody. “I mean, she’s not evil.”

“Did you ever look into LaTonya Henderson?” Tay asked. “Who her blood price was? Because you can say the witch isn’t ‘evil’ if you want, but I remember pretty different.”

“Still,” said Cody. “Murder? I thought there was going to be a little more to it than that.”

Jason shrugged. “You got a better idea, that’s cool with me.”

But Cody didn’t. None of this, from the beginning, had ever been his idea. He’d just followed along, first Manuela and then Jason, and his only personal innovation was to drag Tay into it.

“You still cool?” he asked Tay.

Tay shrugged, but he wore a crooked grin that Cody recognized from years ago, a night spent on the playground shoving each other on the swings, trying to swing over the top of the bar, whooping at 2 a.m. until a cop car pulled into the parking lot. They’d run not because they were doing anything wrong, but because no cop would believe the almost embarrassing innocence of their shenanigans.

Jason drove them out to the high school. The woods felt different in January. A thin layer of snow limned the naked trees, and the sky was perfectly clear.

“Remember how secluded this used to feel?” Jason asked. “Like we could get away with anything back here.”

It was impossible to feel that way now. The woods weren’t even deep enough to hide the light from the houses behind the school.

“You guys did get away with ‘anything,’” said Tay, sounding more spaced-out than bitter. “I used to think I was a criminal just for smoking back here. I had to keep a second shirt in my backpack, because when I got home my mom would smell me for weed.”

The image of Tay’s mother sniffing out a reluctant Tay brought a smile to Cody’s face. It was hard for a place haunted only by their teenage selves to feel ominous.

“This is it?” Tay asked, when Cody and Jason stopped short. “I expected to be more impressed.”

“Welcome to magic,” said Cody. “Super unimpressive, right up until the moment it fucks up everything.”

“We just need to bleed on the symbol,” said Jason. “And we can do this.”

“As if I haven’t bled enough for this shit,” said Tay. Jason produced a little butterfly knife and cut the palm of his hand, as if in defiance of his high school self. “Are you two in or out?” he asked, holding out the knife.

Cody took it and cut his arm, imagining it was just below the scar left by the last time he’d done this, but in truth there was no scar. The injury had been too small, and too quickly healed. He held the knife out to Tay, but Tay just looked at it.

“We have to cut ourselves,” Cody explained. “That’s how we summon the witch. When she said ‘blood-price,’ we thought that was what she meant. We thought we’d already paid it.” The words burbled out of him. “We would never have—if we’d known—the idea that she’d just take anyone . . .”

Tay waved him quiet with one hand and took the knife with the other.

“You’ll forgive a little drama,” he said, taking off his shirt.

“It’s not that warm,” said Jason, and then quieted when he saw the scars. Tay ran a few thoughtful fingers over the bigger, knotted one in the middle of his chest, then traced the knife along one of the wavy lines just higher than his hip bone. There was just enough ritual to his movements that Cody wondered if Tay was imitating what the witch had done, if Tay remembered more than he was willing to admit.

“Now,” said Jason, “we just bleed onto the symbol, and we say, uh, ‘I summon thee.’ And the witch shows up.”

“Huh,” said Tay. Jason and Cody dripped just a little blood onto the symbol. Tay smeared his fingers across his torso, leaving three bloody tracks up his chest, and then wiped his fingers on the bark.

Jason cocked the gun.

“On the count of three,” he said. “One, two, three:

“I summon thee.”

The woods were still around them. Cody’s heart seemed to still with them, and the time between one exhalation and the next was slippery.

He smelled calla lilies.

Jason fired the gun. Once. Twice.

The witch looked no older than she had last time, and her eyebrows were just as unkempt. She wore a coat now, instead of merely a sweater.

Jason dropped the gun and sank to his knees. For one terrible second, Cody thought he was dead, but he stayed upright, eyes open, breaths shallow.

“Hey,” said Tay softly. “Remember me?”

A smile unfurled over the witch’s face, sumptuous and slow. “I do,” she murmured. “Your friends came for you after all. You survived.”

“I guess,” said Tay. “I never felt the same, after.”

“You weren’t. I took something from you, and spent it on the spell.”

“The blood price.” Tay licked his lips. There was nothing whimsical or spacey or high in his tone now. “What I remember—” here he tapped the scar in the center of his chest “—is you ripping my heart out.”

“‘Extracting’ would be a better word.” There was a tenderness in her voice that made her seem almost human. “And your physical heart is still in your body.”

Tay waved his hand. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what the doctor said.” He turned to Cody. “Did you know I loved you?” he asked.

Cody held perfectly still.

“I loved you the first time around,” Tay continued. “When you were Codi-with-an-i. And then I loved you again, when you were Cody-with-a-y. But girl Codi disappeared, and you avoided me so hard after that one night you could only be straight. And then after the witch . . . I never loved anyone again. I couldn’t. So you’re as close as I ever got.”

Cody swallowed. “How do you know about Codi-with-an-i?”

“I remember the world before you three made your wishes, and the world after. I remember when Jason’s dad broke his arm in third grade. And I remember when you cut off your own pigtails and your mom grounded you for a month. And I remember Manuela, when she was a weird loser who got milk poured into her backpack at lunch, before she wished that she would be cool and people would like her.”

“That’s it?” Cody asked, narrowing in on the detail that was easiest to process. “Manuela just wanted to be popular?”

Tay shrugged. “Imagine that your whole life, people liked you. Imagine that everywhere you went, people were willing to go out of their way, at least a little bit, to help you. Imagine that anytime you wanted to sleep with somebody, they wanted to sleep with you, too. Manuela made the smartest wish a person could make. “

Cody closed his eyes. “I’m not,” he said slowly. “Cody-with-a-y isn’t necessarily straight. I just . . . panicked, I guess”

“Oh.” Tay’s smile was rueful. “Well. I just wanted you to know. So maybe, someday, you can forgive me for this, like I forgave you.” He turned to the witch. “I’d like to make a wish.”

“Your friend just tried to shoot me,” said the witch. “I’m still debating whether or not to snap his neck; I’m not exactly in the wish-granting mood.” Her voice now sounded very human, with none of the breathy night air of that past spring to help her transcend their surroundings. Cody was very aware of the school and the homes nearby; if he tilted his head, he was even sure he could hear the high-pitched yap of a lap dog.

“That’s okay,” said Tay. “He’s not my friend, and you’ll like this, because it fucks him over.”

The witch tilted her head.

“I wish this was the only wish you ever granted,” said Tay. “That no one else who tried to summon you ever succeeded, and eventually the whole urban legend just died out.”

The witch threw back her head and laughed. Jason struggled to his feet and aimed the gun as her concentration flickered.

“No!” yelled Cody, to the wish or Jason or even the witch herself.

Jason fired.

The witch was suddenly very close to Tay, and she kissed his cheek.

“Oh my sweet,” she whispered. And as she did, a whole swath of lifetimes was erased: Cody crawled back inside Codi, a shameful secret she was unable to articulate. The best side of Jason’s father was replaced by a man who drank and raged. Somewhere in Baku, Manuela’s friends and admirers dissipated. In Atlanta, LaTonya Henderson’s music career fizzled into mid-tier YouTubing. Ripples shot outwards: the people who had told LaTonya about the ritual, and the people who had told them.

But in that clearing, under Codi’s panicked gaze, the scars on Tay’s chest smoothed out and pulled in and finally disappeared.

2004

“Dammit,” murmured Manuela. She looked suddenly vulnerable in the moonlight, her rings of silver eyeliner less exotic and more exhausted. “Guys, I know this is dumb—but for a minute, I really thought this was going to work.”

Jason huffed out a sad little laugh. “I did, too.”

But the words of Codi’s wish were hard and sharp in her chest. “I, um,” she said. “The thing I was going to wish for. I think I can still get it.”

“Yeah?” Jason’s laugh changed tone, still humorless. “You’ve got a wish that can come true?”

“Yeah,” said Codi, forcing confidence into her voice. “I think I want to talk to my doctor. And if he won’t do it, some other doctor. I think I want to take testosterone. I think I want to be a boy.”

Manuela and Jason just looked at her, their gazes not so much hostile as sincerely baffled. From elsewhere in the woods, the smell of weed drifted over.

“I told Tay I’d meet up with him tonight,” she said, eager to escape. “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

Eventually she would worry about Manuela and Jason telling people at school what she’d said. She would go to war about pronouns, first in her—his—own head, then with the rest of the world. He’d come out, over and over again, then finally attain the point where he could go stealth, then start coming out again as “trans visibility” became a term that even straight people threw around.

But in that moment, on a warm, dark March night, Cody’s mind was blank and free as he came up on Tay in the dark, and when he saw him he smiled brilliantly.

“I’m glad you texted me, dude,” Tay said. “I missed hanging out with you. Great fucking night, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Cody, sitting down next to him. “It really is.”

Then, from somewhere in the woods, they heard screaming.

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Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a small dachshund.