In the end, it was Ammon who brought me out of my momentary shock. The boy bumped up against me, pushing past a little bit to look out the door as well. “Who is it?” His voice was cranky.
For a couple of seconds, both he and the man in the emerald suit looked at one another. Then Seller raised his hand, extending it to the boy with an easy smile. “Ah, I didn’t know Flick had a brother.”
“He’s not my brother,” I replied automatically. Ammon sent me a clearly annoyed look at that. Was he offended or something? Eh, who knew what went on in the mind of a little boy. Dad had said that he kept asking about me, so maybe he thought my denying any kind of relation so fast meant that I didn’t like him or something. Which… No, Flick, be fair. You don’t even know the kid. I kept telling myself not to judge so quickly. The kid came off as creepy, but he was probably just raised that way.
Shaking that feeling off, I continued. “Ammon lives next door. We–” I hesitated, then stepped around the boy. “Give me a minute, Ammon, I’ll be right back. The gentleman here and I need to talk.”
“But my nam–” The boy got that far before I firmly closed the door behind me, leaving him inside.
“All right,” I started while motioning for the man to join me on the sidewalk in front of the house. After giving a quick glance toward the home next door where my father was, I continued. “Look, there’s some things we need to talk about. It’s more than just this year book. Maybe a lot more.”
I saw his eyebrows raise behind the dark shades that he had returned to his face. “Is that right?” His voice was neutral. “You wouldn’t be angling for an invitation to the Garden, would you? Because I’d normally be all for that, but Hannah—ahh, Avalon doesn’t seem to hate you nearly as much as she hates most people. So that ain’t–”
“It’s not about that,” I interrupted firmly. “It’s about you, and my vision. The one the Edge gave me.”
The man’s head turned a little, clearly absorbing that. His voice was quiet. “What exactly did you see?”
I started to answer, but then glanced toward the neighbor’s house and changed my mind. “Not here. Not right now. Look, uhh, meet me at the…” I tried to think of a decent place to talk to Seller in the middle of town. “The bowling alley about four blocks that way.” Pointing, I added, “I’ll be there in an hour.”
“I dunno,” the man sounded doubtful. “Deal with Avalon was to pick up the book, fix it, return it. That’s all. I’m not usually in the business of charity, so if you’ve got some kind of extra problem…”
“Just meet me there!” I insisted, lowering my voice to a hiss to avoid attracting attention. This was a quiet neighborhood. “Please, Seller. You care about Avalon, I know you do. Trust me, she’d want you to do this. It’s important. I just don’t want to get into it right here in the middle of the street.”
He hesitated, but in the end the man in the emerald suit bowed his head. “Bowling alley, one hour. Fine.” Raising a hand, he pointed at me. “But don’t be late, Miss Chambers. I may care about Avalon, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give you more than one chance with this. If you’re not there, I will leave.”
“I’ll be there,” I promised, then turned to head back into the house. “And I’ll bring the book.”
Fifty-seven minutes later, I stepped into the bowling alley. Lunch had passed quickly, particularly after I insisted that we take the pizza over to my dad and Ammon’s aunt. Knowing that I was about to duck out on my father left me less willing to wait for him to come back, so I had brought the food over there with Ammon insisting the whole way that we didn’t have to do that because his aunt hated pizza.
Which was weird, considering how quickly she had gone after it when the food was presented. She had eaten like a starving woman, putting away half a pizza all on her own. Clearly the boy was wrong.
With another sharp pain at the act of lying, I’d told my father that I was going to go take a walk around the town, that I missed it and wanted to see things again. He’d been fine with it, though he made me promise to be back in a couple hours so we could go shopping to prepare for my birthday the next day.
Ammon was a different story. It took work to extricate myself from the boy. I had to promise that we’d watch a movie and play a game or something when I got back. That poor kid, I couldn’t imagine how lonely he had to be to become so obsessed with spending time with a girl almost twice his age.
Finally, however, I’d made my way out of the house and to the meeting point pretty much just in time. As I came into the bowling alley, it took only a handful of seconds to spot Seller sitting at one of the tables on the other end of the room. His suit stood out in stark contrast compared to what the rest of the relatively few people in the place were wearing, though he didn’t really seem to mind. Most of his attention, from what I could tell, was centered on the enormous plate of nachos in front of him.
“These,” he announced when I drew nearer to pull out a chair, “are fucking amazing. Why didn’t anyone tell me bystanders made such good food? They’re rubbish at a lot of things, but this…” Making a noise of approval, the man lifted a large chip that was thoroughly smothered in cheese and took a bite.
“So glad you approve,” I replied dryly before setting my bag next to me on the floor. Unzipping it, I took out the yearbook. “Here,” Passing the book to him, I added, “Try not to get cheese all over it.”
Wiping his hand with a napkin, Seller took the book, snapping it open to the first page. While he was examining it, making little thoughtful noises under his breath, I couldn’t help but stare.
It was him. I’d only seen the man once in that vision, but his face was burned into my memory. This was my ancestor, the one my Heretical vision had been centered on. He looked different now, of course. More confident, more capable, not to mention more fashionable. But it was definitely him.
“Are you gonna say something, or just keep staring?” He asked without looking up from the book. “If you’re looking for a conversation piece, why don’t you start with what role I played in this vision of yours?” He finally glanced up to meet my gaze, but I couldn’t read his expression past the sunglasses.
There were ways I could take this. I could be evasive. I could wait until I had more information. I could do any number of things. Hell, I’d seen so many movies and read so many books that went to great lengths to avoid being completely straight forward with something like this. It was like there was some kind of universal rule against just telling someone what you knew or suspected right off the bat. No, there had to be a huge lack of communication that led to horrible misunderstandings first.
Well fuck that, I don’t intend to live my life by narrative convention. Instead, I met the man’s gaze as much as I could and spoke plainly. “You’re my ancestor.” Watching his reaction, I added, “You’re the one my vision focused on. You and the headmistress, back with the trolls or orcs or whatever they were. The monsters that had you in the cage. You abandoned them. You ran away. You were a coward.”
At first, he said nothing in response to that. The man simply sat there, forehead creased ever so slightly with thought. A single strand of otherwise immaculate black hair stood out from the rest, catching my attention as the silence continued on for several long seconds before he finally spoke. “Yes. I was.”
Before I could say anything else in response to that, Seller continued. “Luckily, people aren’t locked into one choice for their entire lifetime. It’d be a pretty bad fucking tragedy if they were, especially people like us. Our lifetimes are a hell of a lot longer than Bystanders, unless you get horribly murdered. Point is, you get a lot more chances to choose. Choose right, choose wrong, whatever. Things change. I made some bad choices, did some bad things. Still do. But I ain’t the man now that I was in that vision. I’m not gonna say I’m good, cuz there’s some shady shit in my past. Hell, probably got just as shady shit coming up in my future. But I’m not that guy. Just like you won’t be this same girl you are now in fifty years, a hundred years, two hundred years. We change. That’s life. Change or die.”
“I know you’re not the same,” I replied. “Or the headmistress would’ve killed you like she promised.”
He chuckled low. “Yeah, we had a few run-ins before things settled down a bit. Still not exactly friends, but we can talk to each other, even exchange favors. Especially when it comes to Avalon. I guess it’s sort of like being her divorced parents, except that Gaia and I never actually did anything that close.”
The next question hung in the air between us. He knew I was going to ask it, but he waited patiently. Finally, I spoke the words we both knew were coming. “What do you know about my Mom?”
“I can’t say much,” he started. My mouth opened to object, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Just stop for a second, okay? Let me explain. You know about magic, the whole enchantment thing?” When I nodded slowly, the man continued. “Let’s just say it’s possible, very difficult, but possible, for a sufficiently powerful spell to actually enchant an idea, an explanation, a story, that sort of thing.”
My head shook in confusion. “I don’t get it. What do you mean, enchant an idea?”
“Not really an idea,” he amended. “More like the words. Specific words, specific conversations. Like, let’s say I really wanted to stop everyone in the world from singing any more fucking Bieber songs. I get a bunch of other powerful people who think the same way I do, and I put an enchantment on those songs. From that point on, no one who wasn’t a part of the spell or excluded from it would remember the lyrics. And anyone who was excluded or a part of it who did remember them would be incapable of telling them to anyone who wasn’t. I don’t mean it would be hard, I mean it would be physically impossible. Even if the other person knew that little Canadian fuck was a singer and that I knew all the songs, I wouldn’t be able to tell him anything. As long as the spell was active, it would be impossible for me to actually tell anyone who wasn’t excluded from it what the lyrics were.”
I stared at the man. “So you know my mother, you know what happened. But there’s some spell that stops you from explaining any of it to me directly because I wasn’t excluded from it?” When he gave a single nod, I let out a long, low sigh. “Okay, fine. What if you and someone else who already knew everything were to talk about it and someone like me just happened to be close enough to overhear?”
“Good try,” he replied with a shake of his head. “But it’s not that easy. If you were close by while two of us were talking about it, you wouldn’t actually hear anything. The magic wouldn’t let you.”
Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I muttered, “Of course, because clearly that would’ve been too damn easy.” Then I took a moment to think. “Someone else got around that, I think. He said he couldn’t talk about it directly. He didn’t explain it like you did, but he did get around it by giving me an idea of where to look. That’s how I found the picture in the first place, the one with my mother in it. Is there anything like that you can say? Anything that might lead me to answers without violating the spell?”
Seller considered that for a few seconds. His head turned away, a slight frown creasing his forehead as he thought. “Anything I can tell you that would help…” He murmured the words before nodding. “All right, let’s see. Generally speaking, if a student at that school of yours were to get into trouble, especially if they had a habit of it, there’d be records of it in the Security office. Records that, for obvious reasons, are secured against tampering. You know, just in case Johnny B. Rebel learns enough magic to try changing his record while he’s in school. If someone was looking for unaltered records about disciplinary actions against some troublemaker, that’d be a good place to check.”
“The security office?” I blanched a little. “I doubt they have an open door policy for students.”
Seller shrugged. “I didn’t say it was gonna be easy, kid. You asked for possibilities. That’s one.”
“Thanks, I… I’ll figure it out.” I managed to reply without sighing too much. “What about the book?”
He waved it at me. “Now this I can help with. I can’t explain anything you see in it, but this is extra magic, some spell that was done later to alter the records. It’s not part of the big one. Give me about twenty-four hours and I’ll get it undone for you. Like I said, I can’t explain what you’ll see, but I can undo the alterations and give you the book back.”
“Twenty-four hours?” I echoed before resisting the urge to sigh yet again. That was longer than Avalon had thought it would be. “All right, I’ll meet you back here tomorrow at this time. I’ll probably have more questions. Especially about you, and this Garden, and… everything.” I had plenty of those questions now, but I wanted to take the time to plan out what I was going to ask. Plus, I felt kind of weird about leaving my father alone with Ammon. Which was just ridiculous. He was a little boy, and he’d been alone with Dad for weeks now. My brain was doing weird things to me.
“Right,” Seller tucked the book under his suit jacket, where it disappeared from sight without leaving a bulge. “Right here tomorrow at this time. I’ll bring the book, and see what I can do about answering those questions.”
Stealing one of his nachos, I munched on it briefly while staring at the man. It really was weird seeing him like this, when my first impression had been so… different. Had he been close to my mother? How distantly related were we? Did he know Professor Pericles, the man who had supposedly delivered my mother at birth? How much did he actually know about any of this? All of it? Pieces? Hardly any? It was impossible to tell, since he was apparently prevented from talking about it.
Magic clearly had as much potential to be annoying as it did to be amazing.
I was still thinking about that whole magic thing as I strolled up the street a short time later toward my house. The hamster on the wheel of my brain was running himself ragged trying to think of ways that I could safely get into that security office and see what was in there without anyone finding out. So far, I was coming up blank.
As I approached the house, Dad emerged at a quick walk. He had Ammon’s aunt with him, the two of them heading for our car. I raised a hand. “Hey, what’s the rush? Where’re you guys going?”
“Sorry,” Dad’s voice sounded weird. “We have to go. Rose’s father is in the hospital.”
“Oh, oh, the hospital. I’m sorry,” I stared at the older woman, whose face looked fairly blank for someone whose father was in the hospital. Maybe she was in shock. “Is he gonna be okay?”
“We have to go,” Dad repeated. “Her father is really sick. We’ll probably be gone most of the night.”
“Oh…” Disappointment reared up in me, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself. The woman’s father was obviously in bad shape. “I get it. Go ahead, I’ll uhh, I’ll watch the kid.”
“You watch Ammon,” Rose agreed. “You’re a good babysitter. We’ll check in.”
The two of them got in the car, Dad barely taking the time to hug me rather distractedly before they set off.
Well, that was… weird. Not that I blamed my father for being distracted. If the poor woman’s dad was in such bad shape, obviously she needed help to get there. And maybe there was no one else who could possibly stay with her through it.
Still, it had been awfully abrupt. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit upset that my father was going to be gone through one of the two nights that I was home. But every time I let myself think that way, the guilt rose up and I pushed the thought away.
Finally, I turned, only to find Ammon himself standing on the porch, staring at me again. “Oh, hey there, kid. Guess it’s just you and me tonight, huh?”
He smiled faintly. “Yes, Flick.” His voice was chipper. “Just you and me.
“I’m gonna have fun.”