Metaphysica Magica

As man crawled out from the forests and stood upright among the plains, their shivering hands rough and scarred from the struggle to survive, their growing minds churning with complex thoughts and connections, their eyes painfully adjusting to a dawning consciousness, they glimpsed reality, and collectively rebelled against it. They created first structures to shelter themselves, a rudimentary form of manipulating their environment and the weather itself to suit their physical needs. They augmented their own bodies with tools and clothing. Shortly thereafter, they even began the process of taming life itself, unlocking an understanding of animal husbandry and agriculture that gave them control over the acquisition of food.

The astute reader would no longer call this magic, but science; however, science is merely the process by which knowledge is attained. Slowly and methodically, and sometimes even accidentally, science has given mankind a greater understanding of the nature of objective reality. Thus, we must first define what magic is. It is a term in this text used to describe the inexplicable imposition of man’s will over reality. The nature of inexplicability is absolutely essential to the proper definition of magic. If it is well understood the cause by which the effect has occurred, then no longer can it be called magic, for reasons that will be discussed further on in the text.

The predominant school of thought when it comes to the metaphysics of magic is that it can broadly be subdivided into three major kingdoms: objective, subjective, and the intersubjective. The most familiar form of traditional magic to the astute reader is the subjective, the means by which the internal reality of the user is able to override the perceived reality of the user. The intersubjective is the magic that exists due to the beliefs of two or more users, otherwise known as faith. This is distinct from personal faith, which typically only affects perceived reality. The most powerful form of intersubjective magic is the construction of intersubjective constructs, which exist only so long as there is belief in them. Finally, there is the most powerful form of magic, the objective. To date, there is no known understanding of how to perform the objective magic — the undeniable overwriting of reality. Much speculation exists on the nature of the objective, which will be covered in the final chapters of this text.

Without delving into the topic of cosmology, it can be said that the universe operates according to a set of laws. However, perhaps the point of interest is that it is not well defined whether all possible occurrences must function under every established law, or whether the universe merely improvises when there are occurrences that function outside of its laws, thereby establishing a precedent that it can then refer back to, much in the way modern jurisprudence might work in human courts of law. The metaphorical surface has been peeled back exposing some of the laws that the universe operates by, but there have been three that pertain specifically to the kinds of magic that are allowed to exist within the confines of this universe.

The first is the principle of the requisition of sacrifice: nothing can be gained without some loss. The second law of thermodynamics is a physical manifestation of this order, in which the entropy of a system over time can never decrease. In other words, there must be something given up in exchange for the performing of any magic, and due to its nature, it is not ever possible to know what will be exchanged in conducting this magic. This can result in anecdotes of all kinds, and all studies have shown statistically that it is impossible to predict or find patterns in the exchange performed unless certain conditions are met. The reason why this is the very first is because this is what separates magic from science.

The second is the semi-agnostic principle: the universe operates in part according to unknowable, untestable rules. It is not possible to know all things, nor is it possible for all things to be known. A physical manifestation of this order might be seen in analogues such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, in which there is a natural barrier of accuracy with regards to measuring certainty properties of subatomic particles. In fact, the entire realm of quantum mechanics and the “fuzziness” of particles lend credence to this universal principle. However, an important distinction must be made with this principle. The universe is not chaotic — the rules by which it operates are simply unaccessible.

The third is the principle of the invocation of the soul — the engine of magic, the storehouse of the self. One of the strange laws of the universe that we have only begun to scratch the surface of is the soul, and it is well known that we do not have a full understanding of what the soul is or how it functions, simply that the self is the beginning of all magic, and what we call the sum total of all that a person is can be called a soul. All experience, all knowledge, all fears, all desires, and all wealth of potential past, present, future is what it takes to describe the soul, which has both an effect on the material and the material on it. To pull the soul into a material phase is how any feat of magic is performed, but with it comes corruption, for the soul, much like the universe itself, thrives off of its unknowability. Once a soul is exposed and known, it becomes fixed and unchanging, or “locked” into a state of certainty. The effects of a locked soul are well documented. Obsessive-compulsion, mania, depression, dissociation, and far more extreme disorders can become manifest. A fully locked soul results in irreversible death.

The conclusion of these three principles is that magic requires a sturdy external conduit through which it can act in drawing out the inner world of the soul into the material, and thus all modern forms of magic can be called a form of theurgy — or the invocation of the divine. Spiritual persons, in the past otherwise understood to be spirits, daemons, or deities, become excellent conduits through which more effective magic can take shape without instantaneously locking the soul of the practitioner. This practice has been the norm since the early ages of mankind, but other branches of magic have existed and died out due to their lack of efficacy in ages past, such as alchemy and astrology. The word “esotericism” once once used to describe these early forms of magic, which were proven to be largely inadequate or incomplete in understanding the universe, an attempt by mankind to grasp the ungraspable. Nonetheless, the groundwork laid by our predecessors gave us now a more complete picture of how our world came to be, where the incorporeal and the material intermingle.

~~~

The clarion chirps of songbirds gently prodded at the girl fast asleep at her desk. Without waking, her cold hands felt her warm forehead, the sensation soothing in ways she did not have the faculties to adequately describe. It felt nice — like someone else’s hand — for a moment, and she could trick herself into believing it. Her eyes opened slowly to let in the light of the mid-day sun as she glanced at the time on her open computer.

It was exactly 11:11 AM.

With a groan, she stretched in her seat, reaching her hands towards the sky. How many days had she been forced to stay at home now? The government had shut down everything in September, which meant it had been almost a month. There were so many opinions online about the situation, ranging from the optimists coming up with fun Halloween ideas for the kids to do indoors, to the pessimists declaring that the lockdown wouldn’t end for another three more months, to the pragmatists finding all of the reasons why it wouldn’t. The opinion she found the most interesting to look at were the conspiracy theorists, declaring that this was all a hoax. That is to say, they were interesting up until a point, and now none of these opinions were all that interesting.

She broke her gaze away from the screen and closed the laptop with another unsatisfied noise. In her boredom, she had been doing some reading on the internet about one topic or another and landed on a strange treatise on magic she had found on a reputable academic journal. Of course, the fact that something like that could get published at all was incredible, her attention instantly captured by the odd Latinized title, Metaphysica Magica. It reminded her of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, but only superficially. Isaac Newton was a genius. There was no author for this paper.

As she read it though, it didn’t seem to be a rigorous treatise on metaphysics or ontology at all, and she could barely get through the first chapter of the ten chapter volume before falling asleep. Perhaps science and philosophy was never her strong suit, despite what her diploma said, but she knew just enough to know crackpot ideas when she saw one. Still, the ideas laid out in the first chapter were fun enough to think about on their own.

She summoned the will to lift herself off the chair as her bones protested, resolving never again to sleep like that again. It was time for breakfast.

Everything had shut down. Offices, gas stations, shops of all kinds… and that included grocery stores. When the announcement was first made, people did not believe it, but the ones who did panicked and bought as much as they could. It was practically ripped from a low-budget, post-apocalyptic movie, but there it was happening in reality. And no one had any idea why. There was no credible information whatsoever, but all kinds of theories floating around online. She just wanted to know why.

Why was it only her city that was placed in such a strict lockdown? Nothing moved in or out of the entire metro area except for what the government allowed, and a daily ration of food was delivered every morning at the doorstep of all residents.

She checked outside her front door and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The box of rations was there. She scanned the doors of her neighbors along the hall and saw that theirs had already been picked up. Surely she wasn’t the very last one to do so… yet the evidence was hard to ignore. With a shrug she shuffled back into her apartment with her goodies.

It was then that her phone had started to buzz in her pocket. It was a unique vibration sequence she set specifically for this one person so she could mentally prepare herself before checking the phone. It was her older sister.

“Hey, what’s up?” she answered nonchalantly with her phone straddled against her shoulder, setting down the heavy box on the kitchen counter.

“Hey, Natalie,” her sister’s voice was urgent, alarmed, “Did you check the news this morning?”

“This morning?” She pulled her phone away from her ear and glanced at the front screen. It was almost noon. “Not this morning. Why? Something happen?”

“Ugh, did you wake up late again? I keep telling you to keep to a normal sleep schedule so you can take your meds on time. Wait, sorry, I know I did that thing again.”

“Yeah,” Natalie said showing as much grace as possible to her sister. Hers was the only real human voice she ever heard nowadays since she started to live alone. She half-wondered whether anybody was real anymore, “It’s fine.”

“Okay, well, check the headlines and call me back. I’d rather you just see it for yourself as soon as you can. Alright, I’m hanging up.”

“Sure,” and with her phone beeped again to celebrate the end of the call. That was about as normal as a conversation could go with her sister.

Natalie looted around inside the insulated box, shoving aside microwaveable meals that smelled of freezer burn to find a banana and a bottle of water, which were always a part of the daily ration. She took a swig of water, rinsed her mouth and drank the contents, heading back to her bedroom where her laptop was.

As the screen welcomed her back, the information page of that bizarre treatise was the first thing to greet her, except she couldn’t help but notice something odd. Almost overnight, it had gotten tens of thousands of new views. That kind of exposure was definitely unusual, but without a second thought, she flipped to a new tab and mindlessly typed in “news” into the URL bar.

The headlines for the day appeared.

As her eyes scanned the page, one of them certainly stood out.

“Four more cities worldwide undergo total quarantine by UN.”

She clicked, double checking the reputability of the news site. They wouldn’t report something so outrageous unless it were true. It’s not hard to verify, and from everything it read, it sounded just like what they had done already here. What was going on…?

Natalie thought about giving her sister a call, but she didn’t really have the energy to deal with her anymore for the day. It was time to gather more information.

“Outbreak of transmissible catatonic dysphasia in four new cities.”

She wasn’t sure if what she was reading was real, but multiple sources all corroborated the same thing. They must finally have decided to let people know what’s going on. Transmissible catatonic dysphasia? She took it apart word for word. So it can pass from one person to another… causes dysphasia… the inability to speak normally. The middle part she looked up just to be certain. Inability to move properly. She kept reading.

Acute Viral Kaulbaum’s syndrome resulting in… echolalia — or babbling — and total loss of motor control, coma, then eventually death. Transmission occurs by exposure to the babbling…? There were a lot of terms she had no familiarity with whatsoever, but she knew what that meant. Just hearing the babble means you run the risk of being infected by it?

She pushed herself away from her laptop at her desk, slamming down the screen far harder than she had meant to. Her breathing grew shallow as her heart beat sent waves of a cold sweat all over her exposed skin. She wanted to believe it was a hoax, but every reputable news agency was reporting it the same way.

There was a fiction story she had heard about that was just like this. It was about an image that was engineered to be so indecipherable to the human mind that just seeing it could make people go insane and die. This must have been an auditory version of that, except hearing the babble makes you repeat the babble, making it transfer between person to person.

It was a memetic virus with a fatality. What was the neurological mechanism behind this and was there a way to stop it? How did it spread? Where did it come from?

Gingerly, she opened the laptop screen again praying that she hadn’t cracked it, promising to never do that again. She kept searching online for answers. Any answers. She was deep in the rabbit hole now, forgetting even to eat the banana she had picked up and left on her desk. It was then that she scrolled across a video capturing an infected person in the throes of it. Curiosity practically gripped her throat, and she forgot how to breathe for a moment. There was no way this should be allowed on the internet. In case it would ever be taken down, she decided to download it just in case.

An unsteady hand reached for the phone.

“Did you read it?” her sister asked on the other end, “What does it all mean?”

“Hi, uh,” Natalie started, trying to form complete thoughts but failing, “I’m still struggling to believe it, but it sounds like there’s a sickness that spreads through speech.”

“That’s what the news was saying. You were always into that linguistics stuff. What should we do?”

“Firstly, don’t talk to anyone. Don’t look at any videos online or expose yourself to any kind of media. They didn’t make it clear how widespread this is or why it started here of all places…”

“Do you think it’s a weapon? Like something some lab made?”

“I don’t know how it could be. There’s no biological component whatsoever. They said you can be infected just by hearing a recording of it. That’s…” she stopped, recalling something she had read earlier. “It’s practically magic. It sounds like an old school witches-and-wizards curse.”

“You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding.”

“Well, the alternative is that none of it is real. That it’s a cover up for something bigger. Or we’re only scratching the surface of what’s really happening.”

“There’s just so little that we know… all we can do is imagine the worst. Have you been eating okay, ‘Lee? The rations getting any better?”

“Yeah, it’s not as bad as the first week, which reminds me, I still need to have breakfast.”

“It’s like 2 PM, how ar-”

Natalie hung up. She said the last bit to bring some levity to her worried sister. And maybe to annoy her, but it didn’t make her feel any better about what was going on. She leaned forward in to her computer and clicked back on the tab with the strange treatise on magic.

It was gone.

She searched the publisher’s site and found nothing. It was removed altogether overnight. Maybe it was some kind of prank that got reported and deleted, but she actually had been interested in reading a little more of it. She then noticed another interesting title: “Breaking Potentiality with the Babbling Plague” Potentiality was something Aristotle had posited, and the basis of modern scientific notions of potential energy and dynamic motion. A really old idea that people thought about for a long, long time.

With a shrug, she clicked it and scrolled up and down to see the structure of the paper. Just then she stopped. She couldn’t help but see it. Right there in the citations it stuck out to her like an elbow bending the wrong way: Metaphysica Magica.

She started reading. It was far too cerebral even for her. However, at the very end, in the conclusions, she spied this:

“The presumption that there is a technical solution to resolving the Babbling Plague is one predicated on an undue empirical worldview of nature. There remains the probability that not all extant phenomenon can be tested and verified, and there is no logical reason to assume as such save for our hubris leading us to believe it. Our mind will seek to wrap itself around inexplicable things and become obsessed with it, and perhaps that is what drives the the plague. It is a basilisk that feeds on our desire to understand, and as we fail to understand these strange sounds, it causes an innate, involuntary response, as if our minds are eternally circling a drain. Only the terminally incurious would be immune should this be true. The irony is that if the potentiality of this conclusion is true, the illness may well change its very nature such that it no longer remains true. Thus far, no known method of inquiry has yielded any tangible results whatsoever regarding this illness. Of those afflicted, all neurological activity appears normal. All other physical examinations have been fruitless. This is perhaps the introduction of the first postmodern illness.”

She cross-referenced the author. He was an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins, not some crackpot on the internet. It’s a magical disease? Then is any institution equipped to handle this?

The day came and went. She awoke again the same way she had been waking for the past month, but this time, as she leaned up from her desk and tapped the refresh button on her internet browser, nothing appeared. She tapped again sleepily, eyeing the small circle that indicated something was being processed. The sleep had started to over take her again as she stared through half-closed crescents without having to blink.

She checked her phone as well. No connection. No Wi-fi, no signal, nothing.

All of her bills were up to date and paid for, so she didn’t understand. Her sister was always diligent about this kind of thing, so there’s no way she would have cut her off. Natalie had no remaining options but to give her a call.

Emergency calls only.

“This is it,” she thought, “It’s the end of the world.”

For the first time since she moved out of her parent’s home, she felt well and truly completely isolated.

She could feel her hands getting clammy and her head becoming light. “This can’t be happening.” She was supposed to call her doctor soon to renew her prescription of antipsychotics. There were maybe only a week’s supply left. Hurriedly she left her room and went to the front door to make sure today’s food rations were at least there.

Thankfully, they were.

She brought it in as if retrieving a baby orphaned at her doorstep, replacing the empty box from yesterday with the new one.

“You’re imprisoned in your apartment with no connection to the outside world except for this stupid ration box,” she said aloud to no one, “But you can do this Natalie. You’ve gotten through worse. You got away from mom and dad, didn’t you? Got a job and a place even though you’re messed up in the head? Yeah, c’mon, happy thoughts.”

She opened the box and found her daily banana, nearly moved to the point of tears. In this dark and uncaring world, there was at least the relative constancy of this banana.

Bananas are going extinct due to a fungus. The intrusiveness of her own mind.

Natalie chowed down on her banana and uncapped a medicine bottle with a graceful, practiced motion. With the water bottle she received, she downed a pill and checked the time on her now useless phone. It was almost noon.

“Happy thoughts, happy thoughts,” she chanted like a spell, “A tower probably went down somewhere, or there was some mistake. Once ‘Tash realizes my phone is dead, she’ll investigate and solve this.”

In the meanwhile, she decided, she would do some offline activities that she used to enjoy. However, there was neither paint nor a piano in her tiny apartment. No DVDs or books either since all of those were at her sister Natasha’s house, and she never imagined that the entire city would go on lockdown.

She went back to her computer. Maybe there were some built in games on there she could really master. But she was never one for games. Logically, she knew how to play Minesweeper, but she never had the patience for it. Solitaire was an exercise in luck. And the rules surrounding Hearts never made sense to her, nor did she have any desire to learn them.

“Happy… thoughts…” she muttered, when she thought of something. Maybe the last few articles she had been reading were saved somewhere on her computer. She opened a window and started to rummage through the temporary files, a trick she learned from her sister when they were snooping around on their mom and dad’s computer back in the day. She was always the more technologically savvy one, eventually getting a job as a software engineer and eventually marrying another computer nerd she met at a nerdy work conference. Not that she was one to talk. “I mean, I got a degree in linguistics.” Ever since the lockdown had closed down everything, she couldn’t go to work at the cafe anymore, but she had enough saved up to last a few months at least.

Then, she found it. Hidden deep in the crevices of some random assortment of folders was a PDF.

Metaphysica Magica.

She continued to read it.

Two more weeks passed like this. The lockdown had yet to lift. Her phone remained charged but dead. Her medication had run dry the week prior.

This treatise on magic had become Natalie’s bible. She pored through it day and night trying to understand what it was trying to say, until that morning, she woke up, and understood exactly what it was trying to say.

The noises in her apartment at night were getting worse as people were starting to agitate stuck inside. Within those two weeks it was clear that she was not the only one who no longer had phone or internet service, and she had realized also that this was a deliberate measure to ensure that the Plague would not spread by any means necessary.

How many more cities were under quarantine? Who knows? Knowledge, she learned, was a translation of truth into an untruth to be stored within the mind. Chaos that was turned into the convenient and useful illusion of order. Grasping impossibility was only attainable by storing truth within the more powerful soul.

She knew her condition was growing worse each day without the antipsychotics to calm her down, but she hardly cared. What did it matter anymore unless something could be done about the Babbling Plague? Just hearing it can cause it to spread, and contracting it will cause you to repeat it?

This was magic, pure and simple, and a natural byproduct of the utilization of magic. Whoever had tried to cast the spell failed, and created this magical virus instead, and the fact that the government reacted so quickly and efficiently to it instead of denying it due to its sheer impossibility meant that the government was behind it too.

But if the government was dabbling in magic, then they might already be aware that she knew, and if that was true, she wasn’t sure if she could trust the food they were sending her anymore. One drop of poison anywhere and that would be all it took. Even the banana that she had grown to rely on for spiritual comfort had betrayed her.

Suddenly, there was a knock on her door.

Her heart started to pound in her ears.

Impossible, had the lockdown been lifted? She had covered her window in paper and tape to prevent anybody from peering in, but these were extraordinary circumstances. She peered outside onto the street and saw no one.

She wanted to answer the door but her legs were frozen to the seat as her mouth hung open.

“Natalie! Open the door!” It was her sister’s voice. There was something strange about it.

No, that was definitely impossible. She wouldn’t be allowed inside the city for no reason. Unless the lockdown actually had been lifted? Were things calming down outside? Or it wasn’t her sister at all.

She stepped outside her room and yelled from across the hallway at the front door, “Who is it?!”

“Who do you think?! Open the door, Natalie! I’m serious!”

“How are you here?!”

“I can tell you once you let me in, alright?”

She approached the peephole on her door and looked through only to find that it had been blocked. There was no way of knowing what was on the other side of that door.

“You’re not there. There’s no one here. I’m just hearing things.”

“Happy thoughts, Natalie, I’m right here.”

“No, no, no, you can’t be here. If I open that door and you’re not standing in front of me, I’m going to lose it.”

“Open the door.”

“You better be right there!”

“Open the door.”

She felt the shiver running down her spine. Tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to even touch that door knob, no less turn it. Her stomach turned as she screamed at the top of her lungs, but she wanted so badly for it to be real.

Then she woke up.

A dream? A nightmare?

“Wait, that really did happen…” she started to remember, “I opened the door.”

And no one was there. She had broken down sobbing. She remembered the taste and smell of vomit. That day, she holed herself up in her room and cried until it was night.  That was a month ago. It had been nearly three months since she’s last seen or heard from another human being. It was getting to be too much. Her mouth felt dry.

Every day she had started to keep a digital journal to make sure she wasn’t losing track of the days. Around Day 44 it had all started to say the same thing, so she stopped and just started keeping track of the days in the text file. Today would be Day 62, give or take a few days.

Natalie went to the door and pulled in the rations like a ritual. She unboxed it and pulled out the usual banana. She walked back to her room peeling it mindlessly, biting into the inner flesh when you discovered something strange. A sharp, sour sensation in her mouth.

Did she bite her cheek? It wasn’t quite that feeling. It was more like… She spat out the chewed up remains of the banana. Worms. Or maggots. Horrible, fat, white larvae squirming and writhing on the ground before her. She could practically still taste the sour, pungent rot that pervaded her mouth, sliding down her throat. With a gag, she rushed to the bathroom and began to throw up everything in her stomach, which didn’t consist of much. She ended up just dry heaving at the toilet bowl.

Her mind was racing. Was someone sabotaging her meals? Poison? That shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t, she decided. Her mind had to have been playing tricks on her again. She picked herself up off the floor with a wipe of her chin and marched back to her room to clean up the mess. With a gulp, she dropped down to one knee and carefully inspected the mushy banana on the ground and found that it was devoid of any life.

Was this all in her head? It felt so real. She turned her hand over and saw a worm wriggling on the back of her palm. With a shriek, she swatted it away, but it remained. It wasn’t on her palm at all — it seemed to be under her skin.

She wanted to throw up again. “Happy thoughts, Natalie. You’re seeing things,” she closed her eyes and tried to erase the sensation of it crawling and making its way through her insides. Burrowing and tunneling through her flesh. She opened her eyes again and saw that it was gone.

Day 91.

Every so often, she heard her mother speaking. Usually they pointed out small insecurities from her youth. Nagging to clean her bathroom, or pick up the clothes from her room. Even in her isolation, she hated to hear her voice. It was like nails on a chalkboard. What she hated more was that it sounded just like her own, aged a few dozen years.

But what made it worse was that in the corner of her eyes she thought she saw her. And when she would turn her head to make sure, it would disappear.

“Natalie, may I come in?” her mother’s voice seemed to call out from a distance as Natalie laid in bed supine.

Just then, she saw her mother sitting at the foot of her bed. She was much younger than she should have been, like the young mom that she remembered from her childhood. A little more carefree. A little less stressed out from advancing her career. Pleasant.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked, “Can I get you anything?”

“You’re not real,” Natalie muttered, curling up into a ball.

“I know, but I could be. Just let me in and let me make it all better.”

“Mom was never like this.”

She sighed, looking away as if into the distance, “But I could be. I can be right here with you, the perfect version. The one you’ve always wanted. The one you’ve fantasized about ever since you were a little girl. I’ll support you and encourage you and tell you everything you wanted to hear.”

“Stop, stop, stop, stop…” Natalie growled, “I can’t play pretend anymore. You’re something I used to indulge in as a child. Every time I did, my mom would freak out and tell me not to trust my own imagination. Of course, she would. If someone made up some ‘real version’ of me and pretended that the real version was fake, I would be scared too.”

“But your mom isn’t here right now. It’s just you. What’s the harm?”

Natalie grew silent. What was the harm? But she knew already, she merely did not wish to vocalize it and make it real. “Mom…?”

The vision of her mother smiled, “That’s right, baby, come here. Give me a hug.”

Her hand reached out and swiped at the air. The vision disappeared.

She let it happen again. Every time she did, it brought more pain than the comfort that was promised to her. And yet, she still let it happen. She collapsed forward onto her bed, her arm hanging lifelessly over the side of her bed.

“The principle of the requisition of sacrifice…” Natalie recounted, as if in a trance. She dragged herself to the kitchen, barely lucid. Something of worth must be sacrificed for magic to take place. What did she have that was worth anything to her? She drew a knife from a wooden block on the counter. In ancient times, blood was used as the medium by which all magic was performed. The anguish and suffering of blood sacrifice made covenants between men and spirits. She raised the knife over her arm.

“Do it,” she heard her mother. This was a memory from a long time ago. “Go ahead, kill yourself. Make everything that your father and I sacrificed for you and your sister go to waste. You ungrateful child! What did we do wrong raising you?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks, hot enough that it felt like boiling blood. She did not want to see her mother.

It was now day 98.

“Natalie, it’s alright,” a voice said, “Happy thoughts.”

“Thanks,” she replied, “I’ll be okay.”

“Good, we wouldn’t want you to have another episode like that.”

Who was the voice? She didn’t care anymore. Even if it was just to herself, it was someone to talk to that she knew wasn’t infected by a Babbling Plague. She decided to accept the company.

“What shall you be doing today, Natalie?”

“I don’t know,” she said out loud, “Anything I want except leaving.”

“What do you want to do except leave?”

“Kill myself.”

“Now, now, that’s no way to speak. Why don’t you try something different today, Natalie?”

“Like what?”

“Remember how you used to draw?”

“I don’t have anything to draw with.”

“Try drawing on the computer. There’s a program that lets you do just that.”

“It’s awful and inaccurate.”

“Try anyway.”

She forced herself over to the computer to do as the voice commanded. She wasn’t lucid anymore to understand why. That left her mind and body days ago. Everything had become routine. Too scared to venture out. Too scared to let anyone in. It was just her and the voice that she was too afraid to give a name to. And it even warned her not to.

“As soon as you give me a name, I’m real. Don’t do that to yourself, Natalie.”

But her relationship with the voice was weird, and she knew it, she just accepted the weird. It wasn’t like the other voices she used to hear as a child that would whisper the most awful, evil things. Her parents were convinced she was possessed by demons and tried to have her exorcised on more than one occasion, a memory she had painfully repressed until she went to therapy in high school. Now she had gotten to a place where she acknowledged that her parents didn’t know how to help, but clearly did their best to, no matter how ill-concocted their plans were. That didn’t mean it was easy to talk to them, but now she would do anything to hear their voices again. Even her mom.

She opened up an application that let her doodle on the screen with her mouse. She started to draw a little face. It wasn’t half bad, but she wished more than anything that she was using her hand and a pencil.

“That’s you,” she said to herself.

“Nice, but I would stop there. Any more detail and you’re going to visualize me, and that is not a direction you want to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am a part of you that exists in the subjective space. Draw me out into reality and tether me into reality and I’ll become something that might exist in the intersubjective. That’s a scary place to be for something like me.”

“And what exactly is something like you? You’re saying you’re not just a figment of my deranged imagination?”

“I am, and you should keep it that way. Once something is real, it doesn’t just go away whenever you want.”

“Right,” she said quietly, lazily drawing the rest of the voice’s features.

“Oh, I’m a woman?” the voice asked, “I wasn’t aware.”

“I always heard you as a woman’s voice.”

“Did you now?”

“You speak the same way my therapist does. Same weird little mannerisms like saying ‘shall’ a lot.”

“Have you ever thought that you’re conjuring me with a comforting voice as a self-soothing mechanism? You have schizophrenia, not dissociative identity disorder.”

“That’s something she would say.”

“Is that what she looked like?” the voice asked referring to the now complete drawing. It was fairly accurate representation of a young woman dressed in a pastel blue polo and had short black hair in a bob.

“No, my therapist was an older lady with a tight perm. It’s how I imagine you looking though.”

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like my drawing? Or the way you look?”

“No, I don’t like what you’re doing. This isn’t a good thing for you to do.”

“Relax, what’s the harm? If no one else ever finds this, it’s like you never existed at all. That’s how intersubjective magic works. It requires more than one person, and as far as I’m concerned I’m the only one here.”

“I can’t stop you, but have you thought about what might be going on in the outside?”

“As far as I’m concerned, the outside doesn’t exist anymore. I’m the only thing that exists. Every so often a magic box appears at my doorstep. When I try to see who it is that drops it off, I get yelled at and hit and forced back inside. It’s just a part of the rules of this universe.”

“Observable reality isn’t something you can just ignore, Natalie. And solipsism isn’t a way to live either.”

“As soon as I do, everything about this situation becomes a lot easier. Once everything is back to normal, I’ll go back to normal. Whatever that means. I’ve never known what normal was like.”

“You don’t know that. But what you do know is that eventually, objective truth will win out over subjective lies. How many times have you been disappointed because you couldn’t make your internal musings an external reality?”

“That’s not true. Enough people believing in something can make it come to life. That’s the intersubjective magic.”

“But only you can interact with me.”

“And only I exist in this universe; therefore, you are as real as I am.”

“This logic is twisted.”

“Pray I don’t twist it further.”

The screen itself seemed to speak to her. It was as if she could trick the face to move. Or maybe it really was moving. “Don’t do this. You’re gonna completely lose your grip on what’s real and what’s not”

The smiling face looked just like her sister during her days in high school. She always wore her straight, black hair in a short bob. It would have looked so much better long, but she hated to maintain it. It was now a frown.

“Hi, so you’ve brought me out.”

“Hey, Natasha.”

She muttered something under her breath in Arabic. “You’ve really done something stupid, Natalie.”

“Why is everyone saying that?”

The vision of her sister reappeared sitting at her bed, now with a full body and all, “You’ve gone completely delusional, and even while you’re seeing and hearing things, you’re acting like it’s real. But I don’t blame you. You’ve been isolated for so long in this dusty apartment. Seriously, you need to open the windows and clean a little.”

“This is how I imagine you. Always telling me what to do. Gently, but it was so rare to have a genuine conversation with you when we were kids.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to be the firstborn. I had to take care of you, because you didn’t know how to take care of yourself. I could argue that you still kind of don’t.” She sat up a little in her sitting position, pleased, “You really miss me, huh?”

“I do. I’m going mad in here, ‘Tash. I think it’d be easier to just starve myself and end it all, but I’m too scared of the pain that comes with dying.”

“You still have it on your computer.”

“It?”

“The video you downloaded. You were curious what would happen if you heard it, right? Curious whether it was real? Curious whether you were one of the few immune ones? If you were, you could watch the video, build up an immunity, and leave the quarantine.”

“No, no, no,” she shook her head. “I’m losing it. I’m losing it.”

“Don’t take comfort in your hallucinations, Natalie,” the voice said, just like her therapist. The same warm, grandmotherly tone, despite the fact that she was maybe in her late forties, “You need to keep yourself grounded, and you cannot control them. If you become emotionally invested in them, you will be disappointed every time.”

“Go ahead,” the vision of her sister goaded, “Watch the video. Expose yourself to the Babbling Plague.”

The sensation that Natalie felt at that time was like the walls of her room had started to spin in one direction, and yet never actually move. She closed her eyes and turned into a little ball, her limbs shaking as adrenaline coursed through her entire body. Please go away, she thought, to herself. Please leave me alone now. I’m sorry for everything, just please go away.

That night, when the tremors stopped, the apartment was quiet, and she could hear the soothing sounds of fall crickets outside, she untangled herself from her bedsheets and stumbled into the kitchen for a bottle of water.

What if, she thought to herself, I did watch that video? But only a little bit at a time?

What if, she said aloud this time, I could vaccinate myself against it?

“Don’t do it,” the voice said again, as if eavesdropping and interrupting.

“Now you tell me not to watch it?”

“I never told you to watch it. I even warned you not to visualize me or you’d regret it.”

“Okay, who are you this time? Are you going to appear as my sister and try to kill me again?”

“I can’t say for sure I know who I am, but that’s hardly the question to ask. Call me your sense of self-preservation, or whatever.”

Suddenly, a different voice, although she couldn’t hear it in the same way audibly, but it seemed to be a different person, started to speak, “In the era before this one, when we were believed in as spirits, demons, jinns, or gods, your ancestors heard us and spoke to us.”

A third voice, “We whisper to you the secrets of this world. The origin of the Plague. Mastery over self and spirit.”

A fourth, “We are summoned by desperate souls who have given up on merely what they see and smell.”

“Crap, I’ve totally lost it.”

The voices started to blend together until she could not tell who or what was speaking, “All will be revealed. Seek the Truth. Give up on the World You See and reach into the World Unseen.”

“The World Unseen…”

“In order to see it, you must hear the incantation that frees the mind. Liberate your soul to unlock your inner eye, and bear witness to what lies beyond physical existence. The video is the key.”

“The video.”

“Watch the video.”

“If I watch it, I’ll be free?”

“To roam the stars.” They said in unison. “To witness the beginning and end of the universe. To become a god, with everything at your disposal. You will be free from all illnesses physical and mental. All bonds of earthly need like food and water. You will become your True Self and experience metaphysical completion, and then you will create the universe as you deem fit.” They said in unison. “You will have achieved the objective magic.”

“I… I’m scared.”

“Do it!” The voice of her mother.

“Why are you like this?!” The voice of her father.

“We sacrifice so much for you, and you can’t do this for us?!” The voice of her mother.

“Stop wasting your time with these childish things and just listen!”

“No,” Natalie whimpered, a child, “They aren’t imaginary, they are real…”

“You’re too old to still have imaginary friends,” the voice of a classmate who she thought was her friend, “Stop talking about them.”

“Hey, freak,” the same friend, years later in middle school, “Why are you so quiet, huh? Not gonna answer me? Think you’re too good for us?”

“You will be free from these memories, too.” They said in unison. “All pain will vanish. All suffering will cease. All conflict and all hypocrisies, gone. Communicate with your soul. Become one with the nothing and watch the nothing shine.”

“Watch the video?” she muttered back, “But… I don’t want to…”

Her sister started to speak now, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” This was a distant memory. From when she had her first serious mental break in junior year of high school. Her sister had come to pick her up from the counselor’s office since her parents were both busy working during the day.

“I’m sorry?” the junior Natalie said.

“I know I made things hard for you. It’s my fault for pushing you like this, but it’s all I ever knew growing up with mom and dad, too.”

“It’s fine.”

“So if there’s anything you don’t want to do, you don’t have to do it. I’ll cover for you. I’ll get yelled at by mom, so from now on, at least talk to me because I’m on your side. You… you can yell at me if you want, too.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine!” Natasha said, not taking her eyes off the road, her bangs pulled back in a high ponytail. That’s how she wore her hair in college, Natalie remembered. Her perfume was just deodorant back then. Details started flooding back in like the way the her sister’s car would screech at every intersection stop and rock to a halt. “You tried to kill yourself at school!”

“You’re exaggerating. It was just a prank.”

“You’re a smart, creative, crazy little genius who could change the entire world if she felt like it, but you just never push yourself to do try… And then you go and pull this stunt trying to throw away all that talent down the drain, traumatizing all those people… How did it not cross your mind how messed up that is?! Do you think your own family wouldn’t miss you? Your friends? You would be leaving behind countless people whose lives would be made worse by your suicide. It’s so… ignorant! A-And selfish…”

Natalie remembered wanting to hit her as she was being lectured, but then, she heard the shift in her tone.

“You must have been so lonely. All this time, you never once told us how you felt because you couldn’t. We never gave you the space. We never asked, maybe because we never cared.” She was openly weeping.

“Hey, ‘Tash, keep your eyes on the road…”

“I never listened.”

“You’re still not listening, you know…”

“But I’m listening now. So tell me what you want to do, really?”

“I want to get out of this car and be alone.”

“We can go somewhere together, but I can’t let you be alone.”

“I want to be alone.”

“I can’t let you be alone.”

“You said you would let me do whatever I wanted.”

“Please, I know I’m being selfish right now, too, but I don’t want you to disappear. I care about you too much to let you do that. I don’t know how to express it sometimes, but I need you to know that I love you.”

“It’s too late to change anything.”

“It’s not too late.”

Natalie awoke. Day 127. Her bed was the safest place in the world.

Four months since the quarantine.

The blue birds were still chirping, as they did every morning. She checked her phone in case service was restored.

Almost like magic, it was. Her heart skipped a beat. She could almost not believe it. Tears involuntarily came to her eyes as she saw how many messages she had missed in that time. Nearly two hundred. More than half were from her sister. There were a few messages of encouragement from old friends who had moved away, wishing her the best, and a few even from her mother and father. It was almost too good to be true.

Her fingers shivered as she dialed her sister’s number. It was the only phone number she had memorized by heart besides her own. She had tried so many times before during the lockdown. Please be okay, she begged to no one in particular. Maybe she begged God.

The phone rang and the world was still. Even the birds seemed to stop chirping. Please don’t be a dream, she begged again.

“Oh my goodness, Natalie! You got service again! Are you okay?!”

Natalie couldn’t help herself. She laughed as hard as she could.

Natasha started to weep, “Don’t cry, it’s gonna make me cry, too!”

Natalie kept laughing, nearly wheezing, “I’m alive!”

“Good, we’re all okay, too… Ever since your phone went dead, things got worse before they got better. A lot of people died out there.”

“Hey, Natasha,” Natalie said through labored pants, “Are you real? Please, be real. I don’t know what’s real or not anymore.”

“I’m real, I promise.”

“Tell me something I could not possibly know, but that I could verify after you tell me.”

“What… would that be?” her sister was hesitant. “Natalie, it must have been so hard for you all alone…”

Natalie thought for a moment but couldn’t come up with anything. She could be trapped in a delusion so powerful that reality itself could be conformed to whatever it is she wished. She couldn’t trust her own senses anymore.

“I don’t know if I’m really talking to you right now.”

“Natalie, the lockdowns will be lifted in just a week. I’ll come see you then.”

“How do I know that though?! What if you’re just all in my head… and then even a week will pass and I think I’m talking to you but I’m not, I’m still alone in this apartment by myself talking to a wall!”

“Natalie, calm down, I know you’ve had it rough, but you survived! It won’t be much longer, I swear on my life.”

She hung up again.

How could she know what she was experiencing was real? Did it truly matter whether it was or not? Of course, it did. It did matter to her, but it was becoming impossible to differentiate between what she saw and what other’s saw to now… she wasn’t sure if she could trust what she heard from the account of others. They were all in her mind, for all she knew.

“I warned you about solipsism, didn’t I?”

A vision of her sister reappeared at her desk, sitting in the chair.

“Did that just happen? Please, tell me. I’ll trust anything you say right now, so please tell me the truth.”

“What if I told you it didn’t?”

Natalie tugged at her hair and groaned, “Then I’m going to kill myself right now.”

“What if I told you it did?”

“Then I’ll kill myself later.”

“So what difference does it make?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I’m so broken.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to know things with certainty. I want to be able to build on top of something I can trust in for sure, but there’s nothing. I can’t rely on my own senses, how am I supposed to trust anything then?”

“What a dilemma,” the vision of her sister had the voice of her therapist. At some point it morphed into her, “You should think hard about what you’ll choose to trust. Everyone chooses at some point, whether they realize it or not. So I’ll change my question. What do you want to believe in?”

“The truth…”

“You can’t anymore. You’ve unlocked the subjective magic. Truth might exist, but you’ll never be able to know it when you see it. Too much of your own fluff around it,” she made hand motions as if drawing a cloud. “It’s like your own soul has been untethered and unlocked.”

“If I just wait a week,” Natalie whispered, “Just one week.”

“If you do and your sister does not come, what then?”

Natalie cried out in agony. “What do you want from me?!”

“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

“I want to leave!”

“Then leave.”

She hobbled over to the door, her legs having gotten weaker from the months of lack of movement. She put on her shoes for the first time in four months and opened the door, brushing past the rations box that was left there from this morning. She started to walk down the hall towards the stairs of her apartment building. She exited the complex.

Was she even outside, or was she still inside her room?

She started to walk down the street. She thought she would enjoy the sensation of being outside, but she was in a complete daze, hardly noticing the bracing wind buffeting and billowing her messy clothes.

There was no one on the streets at all. It was as if she was the only person left in an abandoned city. The entire world. The universe. Barren.

No cars, and yet the traffic lights kept blinking on as they always did.

As she entered a major intersection, her legs growing weary, she spotted another person. It was someone dressed in military gear from head to toe with a helmet over his head that covered his entire face. Soundproof.

Without a word, he used hand signals to stop her, but she did not heed them. Two more armored men appeared, doing the same thing, approaching her silently. One of them trained his pistol on her.

One of them motioned to the other, pointing to her, pointing to their mouth, and then patting the air, adding a question mark with his finger at the end. It was a hand signal for babble. The other made a signal with two fingers towards his eyes, and then away, adding a circle around his mouth. They nodded.

She knew sign language when she saw it, but she didn’t care. She just continued to walk.

They held up a written sign in front of her, demanding that she return home.

And she walked right past them. The one with the gun holstered it away and grabbed her by the shoulder, moving to detain her.

Something in her jiggled awake. Jolted as if from a dream, but the man before her no longer was merely wearing a helmet. It seemed to her like she was facing an automaton — a soulless robot that was programmed in a certain way. She struggled away from him, falling to the ground from the effort.

For some reason, she came to the conclusion that they were going to capture her and experiment on her. Expose her to the Plague to see how she’ll progress. And so she scrambled to her feet and began running in the opposite direction. They made chase after her, but she was unencumbered while they had all manners of equipment on them. If she had looked behind her, she would have noticed that they split up and encircled her, and it wasn’t too much longer before she was trapped between them again. Before she could do anything more, she was tackled and hit the ground.

The pain, she realized, was very real. That was hard to trick herself to believe it wasn’t.

As things stood, they had to assume she was infected. One of the early symptoms was entering a dissociative fugue state, which they weren’t trained to diagnose, but they could guess to a fairly high accuracy whether or not someone was in their right state of mind. And so they arrested her and prepared to transfer her to a special holding facility for the infected.

As they arrived, she noticed that all personnel were equipped with silencing helmets. The severity of the sight sparked her imagination. She expected the detainment area to be a pit of unwell people, all babbling and mad, infecting each other again and again, desperately communicating in a language none of them understood. She imagined their tortured expressions, clawing for freedom, the smell of feces and body odor, the heat emanating from their bodies. She had imagined Hell. As much as she suffered to avoid this fate, she had run right into it.

Or perhaps she didn’t. She’ll wake up again any moment now inside her room.

“You can. Disconnect yourself from this world. Dive deep into your own and you’ll be free of all of this. This will all fade, and you will bend all things to suit your needs. Simply let go of what is holding you back.” The spirits chanted in unison. “Become your own god. Unlock true magic.”

“What’s holding me back?”

Her sister. If only she had just waited in her room for her sister, but it’s too late.

“It’s not,” she heard her sister say. “It’s not too late.”

The guards lead her to a soundproof room. It wasn’t quite the Hell pit that she had been imagining. They brought her there and confiscated her belongings, presumably to investigate who she is.

Fully isolated in a room with padded walls save for a small camera, a toilet, and a bed, she wondered what to do now. Whether or not she would die in this room. She had gone from one point of isolation to another, and so in the grand scheme of things, nothing’s changed.

Maybe this was where she belonged. Or maybe this was her mind punishing itself, and she would still wake up back in her own apartment moments later. Regardless, she remained quiet. There was nothing to say. The voices had gone silent as soon as she entered her cell.

Her entire life she had been plagued by the babble of voices of people she knew and did not know. She appreciated the quiet.

It was then that she noticed a small touch screen at the door. She had thought it was a window. No, it might be just a window. She couldn’t trust what she saw anymore. Still, her finger reached out and touched it, and it changed, responding to her touch.

There’s no possible reason for there to be a touch screen here. If they saw her absent-mindedly poking a glass window, they would know for sure she was crazy. She went to the far corner where her bed was and lied down.

But what if it was? What if they had set this up so that people could communicate back and forth without having to use verbal sounds? But it wouldn’t make sense for a touchscreen to be built into the door, would it? Unless renovating an entire wall for such a thing would be too difficult, so they fit it into a door.

Her head had started to hurt thinking about it all. She wanted… above all else… just to see her sister in the flesh one more time and to know it was her.

“If you let go of that, you can see me.”

No, she denied, it wasn’t real. She can’t be tempted by what’s just in her mind anymore. If her sister saw her in the state that she was in, she would be utterly heartbroken.

“It’s too late for that now, just accept it.”

“It’s not too late,” Natalie declared defiantly, “Once they hold me here for long enough to see that I’m okay, they’ll let me go.”

“They’ll kill you. They’ll inject you with poisons. They’ll fill you up with gas.”

Nonsense. All nonsense. It’s paranoia. It’s my brain trying to keep itself alive like it’s supposed to but it’s overreacting. Like an immune system that’s eating itself. My own mind is eating itself in order to protect itself.

“They want to harvest your organs and use your flesh to feed the quarantined.”

Enough is enough. Can you please just give it a rest?

She appeared opposite of her. That is to say, she appeared to be looking at a mirror on the door.

“I’m just trying to keep us safe!”

“That’s nonsense. This is all nonsense,” Natalie said to herself.

“I don’t have to make sense in order for me to exist. The nonsensical is merely on the other side of a boundary defined by the limitations of the human mind. What you define as reality isn’t what is reality, it’s merely what you are capable of grasping. All of the fine grains of sand that trickle pass the sieve of your intelligence still exist. This plague that’s halted human progress still exists, even if it doesn’t make sense. It’s how you interact with that reality that you have any control over.”

“That’s right. Everything you’re saying is something I already know, but that doesn’t mean…”

“I’ll tell you what it means! It means you don’t control the truth! You only control your perception of it! And right now, you’re doing an awful job of perceiving the truth, so I have had no choice but to panic!”

Natalie grew silent as she berated herself from the mirror.

“You thought this was a touchscreen computer for a second, didn’t you?! Wake up! You’re staring at your reflection in a window! Of course, I had to intervene by this point because you’ve long since lost your mind. You ignored everything I was saying and indulged in your delusions, and then you ignored reality and just left your room now to be locked up like this! Now, who knows what will happen to you!”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to think properly! No more magic and flights of fancy! If you’re going to live, you need to live in this world, not the one in your head. Ignore the other voices in your head!”

“I’ve been trying so hard to do that.”

“If I’m here, that means you’re not trying hard enough. Do something to make them know you’re not insane or else I’m gonna keep going ballistic!”

How? All she had was a camera pointed down at her, and there’s no way they were going to record her voice given the nature of the plague. She stepped back and started to scheme, but nothing seemed to occur to her. Could she write something down?

It was then that her vision seemed to blur. For a moment she saw the interior of her apartment.

It couldn’t be. “Am I still in the apartment?” All of this… even the feeling of gravel against her forehead as she was forced to the ground, the burning of her lungs as she ran out of breath.

“Am I not real?”

None of it was real. Her entire life was a fabrication that existed within nothing. Her struggles and her torment meant nothing outside of her, and the universe did not care. She did not exist to the universe. She was in a bubble of fiction suspended in the air by a buoyancy that was destined to fail. Reality was rejecting her.

The walls exploded outward around her, revealing everything. Diegesis. The word flashed into her mind. All things are narrated and observed. Her life is a story written and played back endlessly, and she is a character in it. The earth fell away below her and the sky itself receded into a dot. The stars twinkled as she entered an eternal free-fall.  And it was there that she met herself again. A brilliant, resplendent, more perfect version of herself.

“Am I dead?”

“You’re very, very close.”

“What do you mean?”

“How best to explain…? Do you know what caused the Babbling Plague?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you mind if I reveal it to you? If you accept my answer, and in return accept me, then you’ll have tasted a truth you’ve never heard before in reality. You know what that means, right?”

“I know.” She didn’t know why she knew, but she knew.

She cleared her throat, “Metaphysica Magica is a text that was written by someone a long time ago in 9th century Al-Andalus. It reveals certain things that denizens of this universe aren’t meant to know. Once you know it and accept it, you start losing your grip on this reality in order to enter your own. To the observer of this reality, you appear to go crazy, babbling about something until you die. There was a Moorish philosopher that discovered these ‘principles of magic’ and wrote them down, eventually going mad in the process. Those who heard his ramblings went mad themselves and eventually spread it around until it was called the Taeun Altharthara, or Plague Babble. It was eventually contained by the sword of the Umayyad Caliphate and his work was presumed totally burned.”

“No way…”

“Yes, you read a copy of that text that someone in the modern day discovered and transcribed. Those who study it and become obsessed with it eventually develop their own strain of the Plague, pulling innocent people into their personal reality so that they won’t be alone in their madness. It’s quite sinister. Magic is something that can never mix with human beings who have desires, because it will inherently become corrupted by any desire whatsoever, including the desire to both isolate into your own world but remain connected with others. You might think of it as ironic, but it’s because you only understand magic as a means to acquire what you want. These principles guide the entirety of your universe; there’s no way it exists just to cater to human whims.”

“I understand. We’re so much smaller than we think. And yet we have the ability to become our own universe. It’s… the hubris that we have to say that we are the center of our universe, because it’s true… but it isn’t. Like a paradox. It’s all so vast.”

“Paradoxes are normal. It means there are truths that only appear contradictory to your level of understanding. There’s something deeper that you just haven’t grasped yet, and that is a healthy place to be — accepting what appears to be contradictions.”

“So how can I know what is true? How can I believe in anything? I can’t trust my own senses anymore.”

“You seek singular answers for questions to which there is no one answer. Fight to your heart’s content to discover the truth. It is what mankind has been attempting since the dawn of your collective awareness, but you weren’t given life to be miserable in trying to understand why you were given life, you know.”

“What do you mean by given life?”

“In the same sense you did not make your own body consciously, or you cannot beat your own heart, or you digest your own food. These are things done for you by a body that you have no control over, just as you have no control over when you enter this world and when you leave it.”

“Does that mean there is no hope for me? That I’ve contracted the Plague now?”

“You’re very, very close. You know what you must do.”

“I must choose.”

“Yes.”

“To accept a world of suffering or to abandon it.”

“Yes. Reality would reject you as quickly as you rejected reality. It is a two-way street. Either you live in the same world as everyone else or you isolate yourself in your own world.”

~~~

A few weeks passed. They had assessed that she was not infected with the plague, setting a court date for breaking quarantine. However, with the institutions of governance and law overwhelmed as it was, she was comparatively slapped on the wrist with a heavy fine and allowed to return home once the lockdown lifted. She chose instead to go to her sister’s house. Her mother would be there, too.

Natalie arrived at the doorstep, less than groomed, in a cheap shirt and jeans that she could borrow from the detention facility. It was hard to describe the smell that it had — something like a distant onion. She knocked against the door. “Come in!” In that moment, she became extremely aware of herself. The nerves in her hand tingled as her brain sent the orders, muscles contracting and lengthening as blood coursed through the arteries that supplied them. The sensation of door knob metal against her skin. Time passing. Zero into infinity. The present moment and the feelings she had.

Terror. Hope. Anticipation. Dread. Love. These were too real. Her mind did somersaults. They were reactions to external stimuli that she had no control over. If she did, she would not feel them the same way. Most of all, she is surprised, and it is this emotion that she relished. For the first time in a long time, she is joyfully, tearfully surprised to feel with perfect clarity.

And in that perfect moment, everything stopped. The birds hung in the air. The heart in her chest was quiet. The wind ceased to exist. And she exhaled, now one with the universe.

She opened the door and knew that she was no longer alone.

La Vie Est Drôle, Non?

Lady Viona de Gaspar, the young heiress of House Gaspar, descended from her gilded, shimmering carriage onto the dawn-lit cobblestone of Cuvier Street. This was not meant to be her destination, and the old carriage driver knew.

“Are you certain, miss?” he asked in a high tone, adjusting his cap, his voice as wispy as what remained of his beard. “This is not the sort of street for a lady to traipse around in, especially not now with the Plague.”

She patted down her dress with one hand, wielding her parasol like a soldier over her shoulder. “Utterly positive. Now be on your way and tell no one of this as we’ve agreed. I’ve left the rest of your payment in the seat.”

“As you say. Farewell, miss,” he replied with another adjustment of his cap and the snap of reins. The horses heeded their master and clopped on to their next stop, leaving Lady Viona unattended. For the first time in what felt like months, she was finally able to slip away from the manse without someone surveilling her.

She had never been in this part of the city before. Her mother and father would never let her, and her younger brother had no interest in ever leaving the house, and until now, she had no need to. However she heard rumors from the servants of something quite special hidden away here. The empty streets did perplex her. Her image of the town square of the Workman’s District was quite a bit more populated and bustling with life. Ever since the Babbling Plague had re-emerged a few months ago, she was ordered to never leave, which she understood was for good reason.

She wondered if this would affect her prospects of finding what she came for.

Nonetheless, she started her journey down a tight alleyway that reeked of something sickly sweet and pungent, pinching her nose with her free hand.

On Gustave Street, at around the hour for lunch, an adolescent boy hopped off from his stool behind a counter and unwrapped a small piece of bread from a checkered cloth, placing both back on the counter. With another motion, he placed a jar of grape jam next to it.

This was the routine he had established every day for as long as he could remember. In the morning he would open the store. And at night he would close it. On a good day, a few shady types might come in and buy something. On a bad day, he would not interact with another human being at all, and lately, the bad days had become more and more frequent after city life shut down due to fears of the spreading Babbling Plague. He had a thought as he searched for a utensil. The person who delivered his food this morning was different. Does that mean the usual old lady was sick? He made a mental note to ask tomorrow if she didn’t come by.

A small bell rang through the dimly lit, underground shop, indicating a prospective customer had just walked in. With a startle, he fell to the side, knocking down the stool and himself with it. It had actually been a long time since there was a customer, no less a sale.

“Oh!” said a feminine, refined voice, “My apologies. Are you the proprietor?”

He leaned up from the freshly broomed, wooden floor and saw the source of the question, a lady dressed in white, perhaps a few years older than himself, holding a brilliantly white parasol with both hands. Her long, auburn-red hair struck him as particularly unusual and familiar. She had the aura of someone who did not grow up knowing what hunger ever felt like.

That’s when he realized it. “Ah!” the boy scrambled to his feet, bowing deeply, “A lady of House Gaspar! The apologies are all mine! What is someone of your pre-eminence doing in our humble establishment?”

There was a bit of disappointment that she had been recognized already. Covertness was already out of the question then for the Lady Gaspar. “You’re well spoken for someone so young,” she grinned awkwardly, her eyes wandering across the many various items contained within the store, “But it is unnecessary to be so formal. Please, speak with me as you would any other customer.” She started to approach one of them, “Am I correct in having found the Shop of Intrigue and Curiosities?”

“The very same,” the young shopkeeper said, “My name is Antoine, and I can try to help you find what you’re looking for.”

“Yes… and you can call me Viona.” She returned the bow that he had given her, “Antoine, I’m looking for something I believe may be quite rare…”

The boy straightened up the stool and wrapped up the bread back into its cloth. “Do tell!” he said excitedly, “The magical items you find here have all been fully tested to be safe for use, and as such they can be a bit pricier than what you might find in less reputable shops, but I’m sure you’re good for your money, Lady Viona.”

“Just Viona is fine. And money is no matter. If I am satisfied, you have my word that you will be fully compensated.”

Antoine perked up at the words like a fox hearing the squeak of a mouse in the field. Perhaps his next meal might be more substantial than bread and jam. “Of course!” his words practically became song, “Now, please, what is troubling you?”

Viona paused, suddenly feeling her heart take an extra few beats, “Perhaps I shall more describe what I need. A… gift for my lord father. Something to dazzle even the mayor of our city.”

Antoine scratched his head, “That’s rather vague. Can you describe what he likes?”

“I… cannot say I know of his interests beyond the superficial. He is a scholar of history and languages. He enjoys collecting foreign currency. Some books perhaps.”

Antoine moved on to scratching his hairless chin, something that he had often seen his grandpa do. “We have nothing like that, but if it’s history he likes, there is a book here,” the boy approached a small journal in a case of glass, “That records whatever the speaker is saying as he holds it. See?” He opened to the first page and in perfectly legible print was exactly as he described. “Intriguing, no?”

She barely took a look, replying, “It is, but it’s not quite what I am looking for. It’s far too rudimentary.”

The boy’s mood shifted perceptibly, “Rudimentary? The person who made this notebook sacrificed everything to do so.” As he said this, ink appeared on the open page of the book, quoting him perfectly.

“How do you mean?” she asked, her own tone matching the darkening of the boy’s.

He placed the book back in its glass case, as if returning a baby bird to its nest. “The practice of magic is a practice of obsession. The human soul is burned like firewood in order to do the impossible. The man who sold this book to us was its creator. His name, Broca, is etched here on the back cover. He was singularly focused on creating a notebook that could reveal its holder’s thoughts to help his mute son communicate, and in so doing sacrificed his own ability to speak. It didn’t work. He had made an object that requires one to verbally speak in order for it to function. Since it proved to be useless to him, he sold it to my grandpa.”

Viona stared at the book, and then at her surroundings. Shelves lined with seemingly ordinary items. Each one, regardless of the shape, was something that contained the unwritten record of someone’s life.

Antoine said stiffly, “The sale and creation of items that require human sacrifice is illegal outside of the control of the nobility, Lady Viona, nevertheless these items were made and sold to us. What desperate circumstances would have lead to so many of these items being gathered here?

“Just Viona is fine,” she muttered, “I did not mean to impugn the dignity of its creator. I am sorry.”

He shook his head, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable. It’s just that people would come in without the respect these items deserve, and that irks me a little.” He pointed to her left, “Take that water jug for example. Every night, it slowly refills with water. A man named Belanger lost his life to make this. We don’t actually know the details, but my father and mother strive to do their best to find out the history of each and every one of these items.”

“And you remember them all?”

“I have lots of free time here. And I find it intriguing.”

“Very well, what else can you show me?” She decided to politely ignore the hypocrisy of treating these objects with respect and still choosing to sell them in a storefront. Money was still money after all.

“This item,” he said, gingerly holding a toy horse as if it were a live animal, “Is quite special. Anybody, including your father would think it quite delightful.”

“Allow me to surmise that it moves on its own,” she guessed with conviction.

He smirked, “Not exactly. This was crafted by a toymaker as his greatest creation. If it is ever lost or destroyed, it will return to its owner the next day as good as new. You need only write your name along its belly and it will return to you.”

Viona frowned, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she thought. “That’s fascinating, but not particularly as impressive as I would have hoped… Oh, not to disrespect the creator!” she threw a hand up to her mouth as she realized what she had done yet again. “But I am looking for more. Something quite powerful, though it might not appear that way.”

The boy noticed her pale blue eyes glinting like deep set gems, dissatisfied and hidden among the vines of red hair that curtained her face glancing to and fro. Nothing here would be enough. Neither the Shield of Tresca’s Section nor the Hauy Crystal, perhaps the most interesting items on display.

She sighed, running her fingers along a shelf, “You said these out front were all tested to be safe for use. Where are the other items?”

Antoine gazed back  “I am starting to think perhaps you’re not telling the whole truth. What are you really after,” he placed the toy horse back on the shelf, somewhat needlessly, “Viona?” It felt as strange to say as he thought it might.

“These contraband items found only in the armpit of the city… There’s a reason I am here but I cannot say.”

“Then I’m afraid there’s little I can do to assist you. We are quite cautious of anybody who mean ill towards us considering our line of work.”

“Fine,” she spat, “You’re right. I haven’t thought this through. To be perfectly honest, I am looking for a very specific book. But much bigger than this notebook you have there, and I don’t see anything of the sort out here.”

“If you want a magical book, there are libraries outside of the city…”

“I have heard that the book I’m looking for was sold to your family. You must have a… another chamber or a cellar where you store them, am I right?”

“We have a store of artifacts underground, but how long ago was this?”

“Years ago. Before either you or I were born.”

“What is the title? Who is the author?”

“I do not know the title, but the author was a man by the name of Justus Regnault.”

“I’ve heard the name Regnault before…”

“You’re perceptive, Antoine. Regnault was my mother’s maiden name. Justus Regnault is my maternal grandfather.”

“I see! And what magic was cast over this book of your grandfather’s?”

“I… still cannot say, because I am not certain. I am just curious if you could take a look in the back and find the book for me. It is the only book that my grandfather has written that has magical properties. If you just look for something with his name on it…”

“I see! I think I’m starting to get it! I thought it was strange that you came all the way here even with this Plague quarantine in effect. You must be here on a secret mission from your father to retrieve this magical item in order to ward off the Babbling Plague and save the city, but there’s no way he could order someone he cannot trust to secure something so valuable from a place like this, so he sent his eldest child. The one person he trusts the most!”

Viona did not say a word, but her eyes could not meet his.

“I bet I don’t have the full picture yet. Perhaps he did not send you. You’re doing this yourself all alone in order to save us. Wow, you might be a hero in the making… The story you are writing, Viona, will be told for generations to come! In that case, I can’t just leave you here.” Antoine took out a shiny, silvery key. “You and I can head down there ourselves. I never thought that my life here holding down the store could amount to much, but this might change everything!”

He locked up the front door and bid her to follow him. She obliged with an audible gulp as he lead her down a winding staircase even further underground. She held onto his shoulder, other hand tightly gripping her now purposeless parasol. It served as a comforting totem.

In the darkness, Viona asked, “Is there not a single source of light down here…? How are we to find this book?” Her voice echoed across the stone corridor. “Antoine?”

“You’re the type to worry a lot, aren’t you?” he replied without turning his head. Or if he had, she could not tell except by his unflinching descent down the stairs. “Can you tell me what you need this book for if you don’t even know what it does?”

Viona gripped his shoulder tighter, “And I shall say it in words perhaps you’ll finally heed. I’d rather not divulge anything that would harm the dignity of my father.”

“You said before that this would be a gift for him.”

“And that it shall.”

Antoine smiled invisibly, “I don’t even know the birthdays of my mom and dad. They are always off saving the world, or exploring ancient crypts, or whatever else catches their fancy.”

“Are they not the proprietors of your store?”

The boy continued, “No, my grandpa owned the store before he passed. It was his obsession. My father had no interest in taking it up after him, but he just could not keep away from the study of magical items. He met my mom while on an expedition and they really hit it off. The two returned home briefly and left me with my dad’s parents before shoving off for their next adventure together. It’s pretty romantic if you lean back and squint at it.”

“I see,” she said glumly, “I never knew either of my grandparents. My father did not share many stories about his parents, and neither my mother.”

“Hmm, you also seem to make a habit of making everything about yourself,” he teased. “I thought I was telling the story.”

“E-excuse me,” she stuttered, clearing her throat, “I did not mean to.”

“Have you ever used a sentence without the words ‘I’ or ‘me’?”

“Well, most certainly I hav- I meant… Oh!” she caught herself, and then felt heat rise into her face, “I can feel you laughing you know! There’s no point in hiding it!”

“Hey, there’s a sentence! Nice work, Viona. Don’t worry, we’re already at the bottom.” Antoine tried to clear the air of any of her nervousness, but he wasn’t sure if that worked in the least.

Regardless, with one more step, Viona found herself against flat ground as two rows of fires began appearing from thin air ahead of them. “Magic torches?” she asked, already expecting the affirmative.

“The least of the mad things we have down here… There are some dangerous items in this cellar so please keep your hands on my shoulders.”

“Very well.”

Antoine lead her on a slow walk through the dry tunnels, walls lined with far stranger, more foreboding items than she had seen in the store front. Some looked like weapons or gnarled branches of discolored trees, others human body parts or grotesque dolls. She was certain she had seen some of them following her with their eyes. In the dancing shadows of the magical torches, everything looked to be writhing and alive.

“I don’t see any books…” she whispered, finding her own voice to be trembling like the flashing fires surrounding them.

“They are stored towards the end,” Antoine reassured her, “As long as you don’t touch anything, nothing will happen. We wouldn’t transport anything that has a mind of its own down here.”

“Are there truly objects like that?”

“There are. All of them originate accidentally from people with unhealthy attachments to certain objects. Sometimes the object is given a sense of purpose that it must fulfill and seems to be conscious or alive, but it’s actually behaving by a simple set of rules. Other times it mimics the person who gave it life as if they had transferred their mind over to it, but everything seems to point to that not truly being the case. Their stories are probably the most interesting, but often times they are the most isolated. With no one else around them, it’s hard to find a source that can tell us more about who they were.”

“I see…”

“How much do you know about magic?” he asked casually.

She offered a long “um” before responding, “The Regnault family is rather famous for having studied the fundamental principles of magic for four generations. I’ve always been interested, but my father forbade me from ever studying it in earnest as my mother had. He’s not the biggest proponent of anything magical. In fact, sometimes I wonder why they ever got married.”

“So, nothing?”

“I know about as much as you’ve told me. That souls serve as the active force that fuels all magic. Magic spells and the like are incantations that focus the ambiguous uncertainty within the soul into impossible certainties.”

“You got the fundamentals, as far as I know. Something doesn’t add up about your story though. If your father hates magic so much, why marry someone so closely tied to it and then sell such an important book to us? Doesn’t make sense.”

“Parents rarely make sense. From what you’ve told me, you’re probably already aware of that fact.”

Antoine stopped.

“Oh, I hope I did not-”

“This is where all of the books are,” he said, an arm outstretched over a small table with merely two books and a lit candle.

Viona let go of his shoulder, approaching the table. “This is truly all?”

“We don’t come across a lot of magical books. They tend to be either too dangerous to sell, not useful to anyone but the writer, or whatever other problem that comes with someone’s obsession involving books and knowledge.”

Viona scanned the two books but they were both devoid of any title or authorship on the cover.

“May I open them?”

“Better if I do that. Let’s see…” Antoine opened the first book, “I remember now. This one is apparently a cookbook. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.”

“A recipe book? Sounds innocent enough.”

“Ah, right, but there’s more. Any dish made by using this book as a reference is highly addictive. To the point of utter obsession. This thing completely ruined a family or two before it fell into my mother’s possession, and she’s kept it hidden ever since. The original author was actually a mother who wanted her children to enjoy the food of her original homeland… And I suppose she took it too far.” Antoine shook his head in the faint candlelight, “Thank the heavens that my mom’s never been interested in cooking.”

“That’s awful… She gave her life to make such a terrible thing?”

“In this case, yes. It was a conceptual sacrifice of her ability to eat, and therefore, she starved to death. May I ask what your grandfather lost in the process of making his book? It might give us some warning before I take a peek at this next one.”

“I’m afraid I do not know…”

“Fair enough. Here I go.” Antoine plucked the cover with his thumb and index finger.

“Wait!” Viona cried, placing the parasol between him and the next book, “Aren’t you being too incautious? What if it kills you?”

“Will it kill me?” he asked nonchalantly. Almost eagerly.

“I don’t know! I just know that I need the book my grandfather wrote. If you can confirm that he wrote it, I don’t actually need to know what it does! There’s no need to draw a curse onto yourself or anything!”

“A cursed book? Now this is getting interesting! My grandpa used to say that cursed objects are actually extremely rare. When people hate other people enough to curse them, objects are not created to carry the curse, because magical objects require a powerful obsession centered around the object itself. Curses against arbitrary people are usually very weak, like you might find yourself getting caught in the rain or forget an important event.”

“I understand. My grandfather was not the type to carry any sort of grudge… but perhaps this book isn’t my grandfather’s. What then?”

“I’m saying it’s probably not cursed. You have every right to be cautious because you’re an important lady, Viona. Me? I’m just a bored kid minding a shop. My story isn’t as important as yours. You’re gonna save our town from the Babbling Plague with this thing, right?”

“I’m doing no such thing, Antoine. You have the wrong idea of me. I’m not seeking out this book as part of some noble quest.”

“You still haven’t told me why you need your grandfather’s book. I’m just assuming because you’ve given me nothing to work with.”

“If I tell you, I’m afraid it will be unavoidable, so I can’t! I don’t want to believe that it’s happening, but I’ll stake my life on making sure that it doesn’t! That’s why I defied the quarantine and ended up here in this awful place looking for a book that might not exist!”

Antoine flipped back the front cover with a nonchalant toss of his hand. Viona gasped, and the two fell completely silent. Time crawled as they exhaled, both realizing that they had been holding their breath.

Viona spoke first, “This is definitely the book written by Justus Regnault. His name is written on the bottom corner on the back of the front cover. I think this must be it…”

Antoine’s open mouth parted to form a happy grin. “Amazing… to be quite honest I have no idea what this book can do… There are only a few things in our collection in that category. Let us take it upstairs at once!”

“It doesn’t do anything.”

“What?” Antoine took his finger off the cover of the book. “Now I’m confused.”

Viona’s lip shuddered imperceptibly before she spoke, “As I mentioned before, years ago, before I was born, my father sold a book to your family. But the truth was… this book had no magic properties whatsoever. He tricked your family into paying more than it was worth, but it was still written by my grandfather Justus Regnault. My father then used the money as collateral to secure a loan, which is how he started his business. My grandfather was livid when he found out that his apprentice would do such a thing, but my mother at the time was deeply in love with my father, so my grandfather relented and allowed the two to get wed.”

Antoine scratched his chin. “No, this can’t be a fake. That’s impossible. There’s no way your family sold us something like that. Tons of people try to do the same thing, and my grandpa had too keen of an eye to accept such a thing.”

“How can you be so sure?” Viona said, “That was the story I overheard from my father himself.”

“Could he not have been lying to whoever he was speaking to? But what doesn’t make sense to me is… if you believe this book is a fake… why do you want it back? And what meaning is there in lying to me if you don’t believe it? Just what kind of power is contained in this book that your family would go to such lengths…?”

Viona bit her lip and tensed her arms. “You’re not listening to me! You keep assuming that there’s a conspiracy here, but there isn’t! I need this book because it’s a family heirloom that was wrongfully sold to you! Are there any records of how much we received for this book? I’ll double it and ensure you all are compensated, but I need to take this book home with me this instant.”

“You don’t have the money with you upfront?”

“Does it look like I do?” Viona seemed almost on the verge of tears, “I don’t have anything but my word. Consider that even in such circumstances, I have come here, and I am not someone foolish enough to come so ill-equipped if it can be avoided. That is how desperate I am.”

“But help me understand why.”

“You really want to know my story that badly? Even if it hurts me to tell it?”

“I do, right now more than anything. I’ll give you this book for free if you tell me the truth.”

“Do not mock me or-”

“I’m serious. I love a good story more than anything else. If I could read or write, I would be consumed by the books that are out there, but unfortunately, I don’t have that privilege.”

Viona searched for the words but found herself grimacing in silence. She did not know why she said the things she did earlier. It was as if a wild animal caught in her embrace was struggling to let itself loose, scratching and biting in the thrashing. As if she was no longer able to be the only one to know.

“Would it help if I told you something first? The reason I was so sure is because my grandpa loved stories, too. He would tell me countless stories… some impossible fictions and some real life tales he had heard from others… and stories from his own life. I would sit in the upstairs storefront with him, waiting for my mom and dad to return from their trips with more artifacts, all the while listening to his stories.”

“That explains your love of them,” she said dryly.

“Oh, I surely did. More than anything. You might say that I was obsessed with hearing more stories to the point of mania. As a child, I would go out and ask townspeople all sorts of things, which frustrated my grandpa greatly. I garnered quite a reputation for myself in this neighborhood, and every time my grandfather had to cover for my indiscretions. There came a point when I hated, absolutely hated to be stuck inside the store and I would venture off on my own, causing mayhem wherever I went. My friends and I were horrible troublemakers. That was when the Plague first struck the city.”

“The Plague struck about… a few months ago?”

Antoine’s eyes closed as he heaved a deep sigh, “The Babbling Plague first struck the city almost twenty years ago.”

“How old are you, Antoine…?” Viona whispered as she took a step back.

“By now, if I have counted correctly, I should be thirty four years old,” the boy said, his youthful face having put on the expression of a weary workman. “I contracted the Babbling Plague and returned home, rapidly deteriorating. I couldn’t form words by the end of the night. By the next day, I was chanting madly, raving in a trance, slowly losing all rationality. My grandpa was deaf by this time, and immune to the Babbling Plague’s effects, so he did not contract it, and he did his best to take care of me until I might overcome it, but my condition grew worse and worse. A week had passed before he disappeared, and…”

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know the details. The intricacies of magic are beyond my understanding. What I know are the effects. He died so that I can still exist inside the store. If I take a step outside of the store, I will disappear and reappear inside the store, much like that toy horse. I don’t know this for sure, but I think I actually did die that night, and my grandpa used an artifact to bring me back at great cost to himself. When my mom and dad returned, they found his body… and they found me. Now in their old age they are still out there searching for a way to liberate me, so that I’m no longer bound to the store. Perhaps so I can die.”

He expected her to run upstairs in fear. He expected her to laugh in his face. Any other reaction than the steely gaze she returned. Viona’s lips pursed, until it parted to form the words, “My mother and father are getting a divorce.”

Dreadful quiet filled the room like noxious fumes. Viona’s irises glistened in the magical candle light as her nose seemed to tremble. Antoine didn’t know what else to add, and so he said nothing at all.

She continued, “I’m not here to save the city. Or unlock the mysteries of my grandfather’s magic. My problems don’t even come close to rivaling yours. I never thought I might meet someone who was unbound from life and death here in my life, and yet here you are in front of me. Your story is so utterly incredible, I’m not sure I fully believe it. What I deal with is nothing compared to yours.”

“It’s okay. It’s not a competition, Viona.”

“I just need that book so my mother won’t hate my father anymore. I’ll say I found it in the library and that he didn’t sell it. That this was a misunderstanding. I know they have other problems to work through, but I don’t know what else to do, and if it’s in my power to do anything, at least it’s this.”

Antoine shrugged, “I see. I don’t think you’re lying, but I don’t have any memory of your father coming to our store, but this is proof enough isn’t it? My grandpa must have accepted it just because it was actually written by the great Justus Regnault, even if it isn’t magical on its own.”

Viona stared at the book, “Antoine, do you think it’s okay to lie in order to save my parents’ marriage?”

The boy pondered this for only a moment, “I suppose all stories are lies. There’s always something that doesn’t go told in a story. The exclusion of some truth is what makes it a story one can tell, which makes it a lie by omission. Even still, should they find out the truth…”

“If they find out the truth, I might end up making things worse. In fact, even with this, they might still get a divorce.”

“Then the least you could do is be honest with the way you feel. It took a lot to wrangle the truth of you, Viona. I’m guessing you’re not the most expressive person even at home.”

“Hmph,” she grunted, “Why am I even asking a ghost trapped in a cave? What life experience do you have that could possibly help me?”

He shrugged, taking no offense, “I know what stories are, and I know that you are a character in your story. You cannot control the other characters in this story of yours, but the way that you tell your story ten, twenty, thirty years from now… that you can control. How is it that you want your side of the story to end?” Antoine picked up the cook book once more, “All of these stories trapped in these magical artifacts ended in tragedy and drama. People who were willing to give up everything in order to pursue a single-minded goal, but I think for most of them, it wasn’t necessary. People who focus their lives onto material objects to solve their problems aren’t thinking straight. It makes for fascinating stories, but… it makes also for tales to learn from. In the end, I think it’s better to live life without the ability to control so much of it.”

Viona picked up her grandfather’s book. “I don’t know what else to do. Will our family be split apart? I feel so unsafe, as if I’m teetering on a tightrope with nothing to catch me below. Every time I think about it, it becomes hard to breathe and my chest tightens as my mind races for a solution, to the point where I would do anything to prevent it from happening.”

“Your story doesn’t come to a halt with your parent’s divorce. Heaven forbid, even if it does happen, you’ll wake up the next morning and the sun will still rise. And you’ll find yourself still in your bed, feeling the same pang of hunger and wondering what jam to put on your bread today.”

“…Are you telling me to just accept it? To not do whatever I can to fight it?”

“Or fight it. It’s up to you, but whatever comes to pass, life goes on because… life just isn’t like stories. Even after you die, your story continues in the lives of those who knew you. Trust me, from someone who just can’t seem to die.”

“Antoine,” Viona said resolutely, “You’ve given me some things to think about.” She carefully placed the book down onto the table, “I don’t think I’ll be taking this book after all.”

He groaned, adding, “Fine, that’s just as good. I wasn’t going to sell you this book in the first place.”

“What?! And why not? You said you would give it to me for free.”

“You don’t have any money,” Antoine winked. She laughed. For the first time in recent memory, she laughed very honestly.

With that, Viona departed from the store. As Antoine waved her farewell, a little disappointed that he failed to make a sale, he took the book up with him to the front counter, ready to sell it to the young lady should she ever decide to return for it.

One day, a day like any other, years after the Babbling Plague swept through the city and vanished, Antoine was preparing for his usual lunch in his shop on Gustave Street. Faluche bread and cherry jam with a little bit of butter. Business has been better lately, and so he’d taken to trying some of life’s luxuries, such as butter. Delicious butter. He thought to himself that luxuries would soon become necessities, and it might be dangerous to proceed down this path before long.

It was then that she returned, as he had expected, but she was taller now. More refined. Her auburn hair no longer draped her shoulders but was tied up into a neatly decorated bun. As she passed through the jingling door of that curious shop, she was holding the shoulders of a young girl — dressed much the same as herself — who looked to be even younger than the boy shopkeeper.

“Ah, good day, Antoine…” she greeted him, a sprinkle of melancholy flaked her words as it left her, “So you are still here, just as you always were.”

The boy shopkeeper greeted her in return, “Good day, Lady Viona de Gaspar. Could this be your daughter? I’ve heard rumors, so I wondered when I might have the pleasure of meeting her.

“Indeed,” she said, stroking the hair of her daughter who seemed to be overwhelmed by the outside, despite being safely inside of a store, “She’s quite shy, but her name is Vestrea. She’s been begging me to help her learn more about magic, so I brought her to meet you.” The girl nodded in agreement. “Have you learned to read yet, Antoine? I thought if you hadn’t, I could tutor you and my daughter simultaneously.”

“I have been trying, but without someone to tell me if I have been doing it correctly or not, it has been more or less impossible,” he laughed.

“Yes, I can quite imagine. The storefront is covered in new items since last. So many more stories written on these shelves…” The nostalgia in her voice nearly made her sound like the adolescent girl that first walked into those doors.

“You are correct, and you must also have a decade’s worth of stories to catch me up on since we last met.” Antoine said with an eager grin, “What’s been new with you?”

Viona gave a hollow, rehearsed laugh, “So many, many stories,” and with a pained smile said, “Most recently, it seems I’ve gotten a divorce…”