Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Under The Milky Way Tonight

The Nick Of Time
(and other Abrasions)
Under the Milky Way Tonight

Al Bruno III
The following story was originally published by Eden Studios
They made camp in a dried out riverbed, the ground was hard and cracked. Either side was fringed with sand dunes and sun-baked rock. The night sky loomed over like a bloated, moth-eaten canopy. Darkness crowded in, the only sound was the scuffing of their footsteps, the only light came from the stars above. It was easy to imagine that they might be the only living souls for miles...


The man had been collecting scraps of wood since sundown, inspecting them carefully and tossing aside those that were too thin or too green. With what was left he fashioned a small campfire. It sputtered and crackled, casting his face in wavering shadows. Ignoring the curses of the young woman as she struggled with the tent, he stared into the flames, a frown tugged at the corners of his already somber features. His clothes were simple. Faded jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a leather jacket that had seen better days. His hair was curly and ragged and he was in need of a shave.

“Jason? Jason Magwier”

“Yes?” he answered without looking at her.

“A little help here?”

“I’m busy.”

“Just help me with the tent.”

He shot her an annoyed glance, “You mean to tell me you haven’t got the hang of it yet?”

A tent spike whizzed past his head. “Lorelei!” bounding to his feet he could only dodge as more of their gear flew his way. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Arrogant, sanctimonious son of a bitch!” she rooted through the backpack for fresh ammunition, hoping to find something breakable. “You bring me out here in the middle of nowhere and then you won’t even talk to me!”

The pause in the assault was all he needed, he rushed around the campfire and grabbed her by the arms. He had half a mind to try and shake some sense into her but when their eyes met, his dark and chilling, hers candy-green with flecks of gold he could only gape drinking her in. It was always in moments like this that he found her at her most bewitching. Her full lips were twisted into a snarl of anger but all Magwier could do was feel his mouth tingle with the memory of her kisses. The indignation he’d felt melted away; he loosened his grip and moved closer, his arms circling her back. The smile forming on his lips was tentative, “I’m sorry, but I did warn you that this wasn’t going be a nature hike.”

With a single well timed shove she sent him sprawling. “You promised explanations.”

“Ow!” he glanced towards the campfire, another inch or so and it would have been Magwier ‘flambĂ©. “That temper’s going to get you into trouble someday.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, it was cut boyishly short and, on a whim, dyed burgundy, “Stop trying to change the subject on me. Why do you come here?”

Lorelei" I come here because this is one of those places where the borders of reality itself have been eroded away. The cold, lucid rules of science break down here and anything is possible."

"You mean magic."

Shaking his head he frowned, "You know how I feel about terms like that. To define something that is by its very nature indefinable.... That's the problem with formalized training it stunts your imagination. What happens here is so much more than the ritualized, sterilized pabulum you call magic."

She crossed her arms and glared down at him, "Your arm.”

With a cry of dismay he saw that the sleeve of his jacket was burning, tendrils of he swatted at the flames, "My precious coat..."

"That's what you get for lying to close too a campfire, a spark must have settled on your jacket." Lorelei offered him her hand.

"Or maybe you put a whammy on me..." he lurched to his feet, "Is that what they teach you back in the academy?"

"You give me too much credit."

"And you're lucky I'm in love with you."

That brought a smile to her lips, "You mean that?"

"Of course, I've loved you since before the moment I met you." his arms were around her again, but this time she was pressing up against him eagerly, cradling her head beneath his chin.
Magwier rocked gently in place, not quite trying to lull her into sleep, not quite slow dancing. Tousling her hair he explained, “I came here to speak to phantoms.”

“What can you learn from talking with the dead?”

“I came here to talk to phantoms, not the dead.” he gave her a kiss on the forehead and withdrew from her embrace “And I’d best get started, places to go, people to see... well sort of. Anyway, be a dear and set up the tent for me, I’ll be tired when I get back.”

“Jason?” the subtle whisper of cloth sliding over flesh halted him in mid-step, “Can’t you stay a little while longer?”

There was something about the way the light from the fire tinted her ordinarily fair skin that set his mouth watering. With a speed that made her squeal he took her in his arms and swept her off her feet.


Upper body strength had never been his strong suit. They collapsed onto the warm desert floor. Lorelei’s squeal became a giggle, Magwier chided himself, “Rhett Butler I’m not.”

She gently kissed each blushing cheek, “You do fine by me.”

The dunes rose and fell like ocean waves frozen in time and beyond them, the campfire shone like a solitary lighthouse marking they way home. A pair of rheumy eyes watched two shadows, one slender, the other husky, nestle close. The wind blew, setting eddies of sand twirling this way and that. A stooped figure settled in at the pace where the dunes met the riverbed and waited. It wouldn’t be long before the girl was alone, snoring lightly and clutching a pillow in the absence of warmer companionship.


Lazily opening her eyes, Lorelei found that the fire had dwindled to low embers. With a shiver she snuggled down deeper in the bag and wondered how long Magwier had been gone and when he would be back. The light from the stars drew her attention and she rolled onto her back and made a game of finding the constellations. The sight of them held her rapt. Out here in the desert, free from civilization’s electronic haze their cold light was almost bright enough to read by.

That light, she mused to herself, was the real phantom here. The light from these stars was thousands, perhaps millions of years old. For all she knew she was staring into an echo of an alien sun that had consumed itself long ago. It made her feel barren and alone; it made her question so much of what she believed. Five days a week her lecturers spoon-fed her cold dogma and encouraged her to question nothing. On the weekends, and whenever else she could escape the campus, Magwier showed her a world of mystery and wonder. Could it be that they were both wrong? That they were just specks on a speck in a cosmos that was oblivious to their very existence?

“You don’t love him do you? Not really. This is all just some silly girlish infatuation.”

Lorelei sat bolt upright, her heart hammering in her throat. There was a figure sitting across from her, dressed in dark gray fatigues and a tattered ivory-colored cloak. A pallid leather cowl with a snout-like mouthpiece covered the intruder’s face. The eyepieces in the mask were clear and she could see the hard, onyx eyes surveying her. “Who are you? What do you think you’re doing?” Clutching the folds of the sleeping bag up to cover her nudity she scanned the area for some trace of her hastily discarded clothes.

“I was just passing through,” the voice was masculine, cultured. “I thought I might warm myself by your fire.”

Lorelei clumsily slipped into one of Magwier’s T-shirts, “My lover is going to be plenty pissed if he sees you bothering me.”

“Lover?” the intruder cackled as he shuffled a deck of oversized cards, his hands moved deftly. “You’re just a girl. You’re not old enough to know what love is, much less have a lover.”

Under ordinary circumstances a statement like that would have warranted an impromptu disemboweling. But these were not ordinary circumstances; she was alone, unprepared and miles from help. Besides there was something odd about him, the way he stared at her, his eyes filled with the kind of contempt that can only come from familiarity. She watched his hands fan and shuffle the cards. It was a tarot deck of all things. A Crowley original, just like the one her mother had. He stood slowly and began flicking cards into the fire.

The Fool.

“No surprises there.” he laughed.


The Hanged Man.

He laughed again, “How sweet.”


The sight of that card, of Magwier’s card, made her skin break into goose pimples. “You’d better get out of here.” Lorelei stood, unpleasant experience had taught her that the best way to deal with lunatics, and men in general, was to show no fear. “I’m warning you.”

The Magician.


“You’ll what? Sick your ‘lover’ on me? Show me another glimpse of your snatch? I know, maybe you’ll use your magic powers on me.”

The High Priestess


The Sun


“Damnit.” she whispered to herself as she tugged the edges of the garment; Magwier always liked the sight of her in nothing but a T-shirt, hopefully this creep wouldn’t find the sight of her equally invigorating. “You believe in magic?”

The Moon


“Do you believe in phantoms?”

The Star


Lorelei looked up from searching the campsight for something she could use as a weapon, “No.”

“You’re ‘lover’ does.”

“How do you know that?”

“You’d be surprised what I know... Lorelei Miller.”

The Chariot


The intruder began circling the campground, shadowing her every step. There was something about the ashen fatigues and the strange mask that made him seem almost wolf-like. She couldn’t see his face but she knew he was grinning. He knew her name, that was worrying. Could this be one of Magwier’s enemies? Or one of her mother’s? Then again, there could be just about anybody inside that suit and she’d certainly peed in a few pools this last semester. “If you know who my mother is than you know this is a big mistake."

The Empress


“But she doesn’t know where you are does she? She thinks that you’re back at the dormitories, snuggled down safe in your little bed.” he was closing in on her, “And as for who you’re here with, if she knew that she might disown you on the spot.”

“My mother would never-”

“Not that it matters now. Magwier won’t be coming back anytime soon.” he held up a card that a great spire being struck by lightning. The Tower, he slowly crumpled the card and tossed it into the fire, “Not that you care.”

“Who are you? What have you done to him?”

“What have I done to him? What have you done to him?”

“I’m warning you-”

“No.” he lunged at her, grabbing hold of her wrist with his free hand, “I’m warning you. The feeling in your heart is nothing more than a displaced abdominal twitch. Do you really think that it amounts to anything at all? Leave him to the fate he so richly deserves. Just gather your things and make your way back to the dormitories. Forget this doomed little affair and go back to trying to make your mother proud. You’ll be less unhappy that way.”

There was something unsettling about his touch; she almost felt an electrical tingle. The offending hand was blunt and weathered, there was an old, cruel looking circular scar on the back. He followed her gaze, “You like it? I call it a temporal stigmata.”

Reaching up with her free hand she took hold of his mask and pulled hard. The intruder squealed with alarm, his arms flailing wildly. The remaining tarot cards went flying. Her other arm freed she grabbed hold of the other half of the mask and wrenched, downwards. She heard his neck pop in protest but the mask stayed on, the damn thing must have been glued on.
Fine then... She thought, Plan B.

Tarot cards were raining down around them like dying insects. After a few final tugs to make sure the eyepieces of his mask were centered somewhere on his cheekbones, Lorelei let go. Her tormentor staggered back towards the campfire. With practiced ease she kicked out, the ball of her foot catching him in the sternum. Shouting with surprise, he fell back into the fire. Flames rose up and engulfed him.
Hot damn! The ballet lessons finally paid off!

Knowing that she may have done nothing more than make him mad, Lorelei ran into the desert night, only pausing momentarily to retrieve one of the tent spikes that she had thrown at Magwier and managed to embed in a nearby cactus.


The stars were swirling above Jason Magwier, streaking the sky with arcs of intense light. The sight made his eyes ache but he was powerless to look away. His stomach twisted, his ears rung, it was as though he was on a carnival ride that was spinning out of control.

That had been one hell of a fall.

Gingerly sitting up he stared reproachfully at the mouth of the sinkhole he had blundered into. That hadn’t been there before. Cautiously he ran his fingers across the back of his head. There was a huge lump back there, it hurt just to touch it. He had been out cold, but for how long? A few minutes? A few hours?

Lorelei. He hadn’t meant to leave her alone for long. Not in this desert, not on this night. It took a few tries for Jason to get back on his feet, the ground was like the deck of a ship on an unruly sea. Lord, did his head hurt. This was almost as bad as the time he’d been thrown through the wall of an arboretum. A few minutes of pained climbing brought him to the lip of the sinkhole. Now all he had to do was navigate by the light of the campfire. He scanned the horizon for its reassuring glow.

“Well, bless my buttons.” Jason said after turning in place a few times. No sign of the campfire, it must have gone out. Nothing to worry about yet, he still had everything under control. Reaching into the pocket of his leather jacket he pulled out the compass he had picked up at Pexley’s Emporium. Thankfully he had had the foresight to buy one that glowed in the dark.

Except of course that it wasn’t glowing. Jason gave it a gentle shake and shards of glass tinkled out onto the ground. Not good but all wasn’t lost yet, he still had his unerring sense of direction. Pocketing the ruined compass he set off walking, certain that he would be back to the campsight in no time.

He walked cautiously, just in case there were any more sinkholes.

It was odd though, he didn’t think that there could be sinkholes in he desert. He’d have to read up on that when they got back to the apartment. This had certainly been a disappointing evening, the phantoms were playing hard to get tonight. It looked like that instead of going home with a prophecy or two he was going to be going home with a minor concussion. Although perhaps it was a kind of karmic payback for getting involved with Lorelei. It couldn’t work out in the end, his mind knew that, but his heart had other ideas.

And he had vowed long ago to listen to his heart more often.

Besides she was the one that had pursued him. It wasn’t as though-

Jason froze in mid-step. There shouldn’t be any buildings out here...

The structure was square and blunt, about thirty or so stories in height, with windows that had long ago been bricked and boarded over. The walls of the uppermost floor were falling away, revealing girders and wires. The constellations shone through the gaps. Jason could see figures moving up there, writhing and undulating in the starlight.

A feeling of almost child-like vulnerability washed over him. It felt almost as if the crumbling edifice was staring down at him. Sounds filled the air. The din of a legion of unearthly voices assaulted him. They were everywhere like the sand beneath his feet and the stars above.

This wasn’t the right direction at all. Jason turned and started to walk away. Something was wrong; it was supposed to be safe here- not populated with malicious sinkholes and nightmare buildings. What had he lead poor Lorelei into this time?

A heartbeat later he decided that it might be more prudent to run.

Something struck Jason Magwier head on knocking him to the ground. He tried to struggle but the wind had been knocked from him. He grabbed at his attacker as the tumbled end over end. A sharp pain erupted from his hand as he finally found the breath to scream.

They made it back to Magwier’s apartment in record time.

Now with Bowie wafting from the stereo and cocoa brewing on the hot plate. Lorelei finally found the courage to speak, “I’m sorry I stabbed you Jason.”

“It’s nothing.” he flashed her a grin, but his face was ashen. He was bent over the bathroom sink, running his wounded hand under the tap. “I was wrong to take you out there without properly explaining everything. I was trying to play at being a teacher. And not doing a very good job of it.” 

The room was illuminated by a wash of red light from the neon sign of the Chinese restaurant next door. The only furniture was a mattress lying on the hardwood floor; Lorelei sat on the edge of Magwier’s makeshift bed. “Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“Don’t your feet still hurt?”

She looked down at them, they were cut and scratched in a dozen places from her run through the desert but it wasn’t that bad. Not as bad as what she’d done to him.

Goddess how could she have been such a stupid girl?

She’d struck in blind panic without even looking! She could have killed him, killed the man she-

She loved?

Did she?

Resting her chin on her knees she looked long and hard at him. He was arrogant, full of mysteries, nothing but trouble and one of the few people her mother truly hated. On the other hand he was brave, funny, intelligent and one of the few people her mother truly hated. What wasn’t there to love?
Then why haven’t you ever told him? A voice in the back of her mind quipped.

Why indeed?

Carefully shuffling into the bathroom she circled his arms around his waste and rested her cheek against the reassuring warmth of his back. “Hey there.” he said, “You wanna get the gauze and scissors out for me?”

“Sure.” she rustled around in the bathroom closet as he switched off the water and sat on the side of the tub. He had a towel wrapped around his injured hand, it was stained almost completely red. Lorelei made a mental note to swipe more from the dormitory tomorrow. “What happened out there? You said it wasn’t phantoms of dead people you were talking to. What was it we were seeing?”

“Well Charles Dickens had it right when he theorized that there were three kinds of spirits. Spirits of the past, spirits of the present and spirits of the future.”

Lorelei found the scissors, “So, what kind of spirits were they?”

Magwier had that faraway look in his eyes again, “Spirits of the future of course. The only kind that are useful really.”

The intruder’s taunting words returned to her like the details of a bad dream, “Are these real futures?”

“Or possible ones? I don’t know Lorelei, I really don’t.”


“But I like to think they’re just possibilities, all shadow and no substance.” There was a long uncomfortable silence between them, neither one had said much about what they’d experienced that night. “Lorelei? The gauze behind the fish and tackle box.”

“Sorry.” she found it easily and sat on the tub beside him, “I didn’t know you fished.”

“I don’t.” he gave her a wink, “I keep my poetry journals in there.”

Gently she took his hand and unwrapped it from the towel, “The secrets out. Jason there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you-”

He didn’t hear her, he was too distracted by the sight of his hand. The tent spike had gone right through the front of his hand and torn out the back, she had really done a number on him. It was going to leave quite a scar, almost like the one...

The sound of scissors slipping from Lorelei’s grip and clattering to the floor distracted Magwier from staring at the wound. Her eyes were as wide as saucers and she was shaking like a leaf. “What’s the matter?” he asked before she pitched forward in a faint, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

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