Gunpowder in the tray. A flash of light. Face obscured.
Suddenly I’m awake. Same dream again. The bedclothes twisted around me, drenched in sweat. Glance at my father’s watch loose on my wrist: Late for school again. Fuck it.
Aunt Maude’s solution to my problems. The Gravesend prep school.
I pack my bag. Reach out to touch the book on my nightstand. The World in the Walls. I should just leave it here, but I can’t put it down. Some addictive flood of strength from riffling the pages.
I step from the platform onto the Gravesend train, thirty minutes late. So I’ll miss assembly. I’ll miss them shouting and clapping in unison, miss the stupid shuffling mascot, felt feet building up static on the polished gym floor. It’s supposed to be a goshawk. Looks like one of the filthy city pigeons.
I’ll miss—Maeve. Assembly is the only time I see her. She’d smile at me, full of warmth and childhood affection. Long hair the color of honey spilling over her shoulders, gold against her dark blue uniform jacket. Her slender arm twined around Julian’s.
I’m in love with Maeve, my childhood friend, the only one I could ever really talk to. But she’s with Julian. My best friend. And yes, he notices. He sees the longing in my eyes when she passes me a cigarette. He jokes about it, says he loves us both. “You can have her as soon as I leave for Dartmouth, old man.” He’s two years ahead of Maeve and I, has a future at the naval academy.
She’s following in his footsteps. Achieving perfect test scores, ready to fly from the polluted, noisy city. She wants to go to Oxford.
“Where are you applying?” She brushes my hair away from my face. Her touch a subtle electricity. Julian’s at track. We’re stealing time before third period, smoking in the grove of dogwood trees behind the school. Fifteen minutes. Constellations of gnats swirling above the damp lawn.
“I can’t.” Can’t look her in the eyes. Can’t tell her the truth. Can’t tell her that I love her. Follow a piece of paper blown along the street. A flash of elegant blue penmanship on parchment. That’s funny—there’s no wind. “I-I’m not applying.”
She’s angry now, or faux angry. Her brows creased with concern, lips twisted in a frown that unfolds into a smirk.
“How can you say that?” She’s incredulous. “You’re the best in our class, especially at math!”
“You don’t understand, Maeve.” My voice is breaking, eyes moist with tears. What would she do if she knew? I feel as if I am about to tell her. Not quite. “I’m—I’m trapped. There’s no way out. The only thing I can do—the only thing I can do, is go further in.”
“Further in? Where?” She’s shaking me. She’s upset. “We’re just normal kids, can’t you see that? Don’t you want to live?” She’s crying too, pushes me harder than she meant to. The bag falls off my shoulder. The World in the Walls tumbles out. She snatches it up, shakes it in my face.
“Is this what you mean? Go further in?” She’s shouting now. “Fillory and further?”
Collect myself. Close my eyes for a moment. I see the rectangle of the photograph, a cage, a snare. My soul is caught there, far from me. Bound, stolen. Gunpowder igniting in the tray. Face hidden beneath the black hood. Fear crashing over me. Look at her again.
It’s beginning to rain. Maeve standing silhouetted against the mist, droplets sparkling in her honey-gold hair, a crown of diamonds. She is a queen. A goddess. Cigarette ember engraves a luminous arc in the murky air as she pulls it to her lips. Brighter as she inhales, then dim. A tiny dying star.
I can feel the distance between us growing. She’s falling away. Good. She can’t be close. Can’t know what’s going to happen. What I’m going to do. Take the book from her hand. Flick the cigarette into the flowerbed and walk to third.
Philosophy is fucking moronic. Infinitely branching chains of if / then leading back to nothing.
Today Applebaum is teaching us the metaphor of Plato’s cave. We sit in the dark, staring at the cave wall, our backs to the fire. Behind us, strange and wondrous creatures dance around the flames, but we can’t see their true forms, just their shadows.
“This is real,” we say to one another, “This is what is.”
What we think is reality is only a false projection. We will never experience what is truly real.
Unless. You could just. Turn around. And look.
Fillory is real. I know it. The colors. The sound. The smell. One breath of that air will heal me. It is this fucking place that is the shadow.
Another book I keep in my bag: Magic and Prestidigitation. Applebaum’s leading the class in a tepid discussion while I practice blind palming a shilling. The goal is to let it rill over my knuckles then drop it suddenly into my other hand without breaking the motion so that it seems to vanish. It’s not real magic, but seems at least like an echo of it.
The only members of the math club: Maeve, Julian, and I. Maeve’s latest passion is relativity theory, she has it in hardback. The full version with complete mathematical indexes, not the summary. She’s fastidiously copying out an elaborate proof on the board when the door of the clubroom creaks open. A man shoulders into the room carrying a huge wooden tripod.
“Picture day,” he girns. “Photographs of all the clubs.”
Mounts a black wooden cube on the tripod. Brass hook unlatched, a door swings down. Slides the bellows out on their rails. Conceals the camera in a black bag for a moment to slot the silvered glass plate.
No. It isn’t him. It isn’t. Just a photographer hired by the school.
He’s a kindly old man, glasses halfway down his nose. Smiles paternally at me. Proxy for my dead father. Maude was happy that he welcomed us every afternoon for tea. He keeps all of the photographs in a locked drawer in his study. I can turn them over, watch myself growing up, as though in a sped-up kinetograph. If I ever reveal his secret, he’ll make sure everyone I care about sees them.
“You didn’t have a choice when you were nine years old, Martin,” his insipid, benevolent smile. “But you’re sixteen now. Why do you keep coming back?”
Wrench myself back to the present. Julian with his arm around her waist. Maeve is beckoning to me. Join them for the photo. Her white chalk equation spreading out behind them in fantastic array. The fear is a spike of ice in my veins. The photographer disappears beneath the black cloth. Holds the flash high above his head. Maeve reaches for me.
No. No. No. I won’t let this happen. I sacrificed myself to protect them. My hands twitch compulsively, a strange language streaming uncontrollably from my mouth. What is this? The flash explodes. A lance of blue flame scorches the ceiling. The camera begins to unstructure itself. Screws unwinding and dropping, panels falling. The photographer’s hand burned by the flame. He scrambles backwards into the hall, screaming. I’m laughing. I saved them. I saved them. I love you Maeve.
The consequences are severe. I won’t move forward with the rest of my class. The photographer knows what he saw. I attacked him, smashed his camera.
“It’s a shame.” the headmaster mutters, downcast eyes. “He’s not at all like his brother and sisters.”
They’ve left me alone in the detention room while they decide my fate. I sit on the rough bench, head down, elbows on my knees, trying to perfect my blind palm.
The air gets cold. The lights flicker and dim. Smell of burning ozone. Second hand of the wall clock is caught. Ticking the same second over and over.
He steps from the mirror. An older boy, with long hair. Tall and thin. Dressed in a doublet and hose, a jeweled circle on his brow. He’s holding a translucent white knife and his eyes glow with an unearthly blue fire.
“Are-are you from Fillory?”
“Have you come for me?”
“Yes.” His hand is rigid, shaking. The point of the blade bouncing in the air. Fear in his voice, in his movements.
I’m repeating the blind palm compulsively. Not even aware I’m doing it. Now that I notice it I realize I’ve never done it so well. The creature from the mirror glances down at the shilling. He’s hesitating, thinking something over. Then he sheathes the knife. The blue light in his eyes dims. He sits down across from me. Holds out his hand for the shilling. I give it to him.
“Once you know the blind palm there are countless elaborations.” He gestures and the coin seems to jump from one hand to the other. Just like magic.