The rain hadn’t let up for days. People stood waiting at the bus stop, crowding Jules out of the shelter so he was getting soaked. He had a brief image of his umbrella still on the back seat of his car. Not a good day for the engine to fail him.
Just as the bus showed up at last, Jules saw the sign over a shop across the street. He looked again when he’d found a seat, using his hand to clear the fogged window. The red letters were faded against a gray banner: “What You’ve Been Looking For.” He’d have sworn he’d never seen it there before, but then, he never took the bus and seldom went this way to work. It didn’t matter, yet all through the rest of the day, every so often, the same faded letters would come into his mind.
“Got that report for me, Jules?”
The familiar voice pulled him out of his reflections. Noah Preston was not the worst boss in the world, but he came close.
“Not yet, sir. Should have it ready for you by mid afternoon.”
“See that you do. A lot is riding on this project. You don’t want to be the reason we lose the client, now, do you?”
Jules watched the man as he walked away down the aisle of cubicles toward the elevators. Preston’s office was upstairs with the other execs, an office overlooking the city, green ferns scattered about, a thick-piled rug, and of course, a plasma television on one wall. Not like the common folk, who were each crammed into a space eight-foot square, all of them set down like pebbles at the bottom of the sea in a massive windowless room with beige walls, with company rules barring personal photographs, seasonal decorations, and any hint of self-expression.
He glanced over at the back of the room where a wide floor-to-ceiling translucent panel separated the engineers from his own marketing group. Now that was a dark place. Yet the people in it, hunched over their machines, coding and coding and coding, never seemed concerned about aesthetics or environment. Maybe because they made so much money. Or more than he did, anyway. After all, without their programming, there’d be no Preston Wildcard, the software that promised full security against hackers and so far had lived up to its reputation.
“Problem with our leader?”
Sam Parkins stood in the open space that served as the doorway to the cubicle.
“No complaints, Sam.” Anything said to him became office gossip within minutes. Damned if Jules was going to help that happen.
He leaned over and watched Sam go toward the engineering lab with the mail cart, and sighed. Deciding what he ought to do had been on his mind for a long time. Life had more to offer than the way his was going. Didn’t it? What had happened to his enthusiasm for the job just two years ago when he was hired on?
“Not so hard to figure out,” he muttered aloud, but not so anyone could hear.
“Give it a rest. Make a decision. You want to know what’s boring, Jules? Listening to you go on and on about what you don’t like about your life. It’s like a mantra, like some kind of water torture you give yourself—it never stops!”
Jules stood up. He looked into the cubicles next to him on three sides. The occupants were staring at their computer screens, all of them moving pie charts and spread sheets this way and that. Just watching them work worried him. Do they really like doing that tedious stuff? But he sat down again, puzzled. He had definitely heard someone talking.
“I have a suggestion for you.”
He spun around and stood up again. No one. It had to be a trick of some kind. With him as the punch line. Great. Now he was hearing voices.
He sat down and tapped aimlessly on his keyboard. He should look up symptoms of stress. He jumped when the voice came again.
“Remember the bus stop this morning? Your suit jacket’s still damp from the rain. That’s when we met. Or I should say, I saw you, but you didn’t see me.” A chuckle. “What about that sign you looked at? It’s the trigger, actually. Not everyone sees it, but you did. That’s why I’m here. To introduce you to the universe of magical things. You’re ready for it, some of it, anyway. On the way home, when you get off the bus, just be sure to check out the shop under the sign. It’ll be there, waiting for you.”
He heard nothing more, just the soft whirring of his computer and the clicking sounds of people at their computers.
“The universe of magical things. Great.” Jules rested his head on his arms on the desk. He didn’t care who saw him.
What was wrong? Maybe he was losing it. He lifted his head up and saw the company logo hovering on his computer screen. A strange compulsion swept through him to throw something at it so it shattered into a thousand pieces.
Not a good idea. He couldn’t afford to lose his job, much less replace the device. He sighed and pulled up the report Noah wanted. The client needed assurance his investment fund was absolutely safe from hackers. Same thing everyone dealing with money wanted. It wasn’t possible, not in absolute terms. His job was to make it sound as if it were.
“Telling a few lies keeps the client happy, and it keeps me happy. Our software works 95% of the time,” Noah liked to say.
“The thing is, this is like surgery—not that I equate finance with saving a life,” Jules had dared to say once, only once, at a general meeting. “I mean, a surgeon has to be 100% sure or the patient could die. Our software has to protect the client 100% of the time because even a small margin of error could destroy their assets.”
The room full of people had laughed. That’s how he remembered it. People had done the laughing, of course, but he had always had the feeling the room did, too. But what did he even mean by that? Just nonsense. Fatigue. Boredom.
After he’d handed in the report—Noah liked his printouts—Jules went to the small cafeteria and ordered a cheese sandwich with pickles. An uncle visiting him from London had introduced him to the combination and it had become comfort food for some reason. He sat in a dimly lighted corner and hoped he’d manage to have time alone. Assuming no voices showed up.
None did, and no one bothered him. Once upon a time he’d been obsessed with the idea of going out on unknown adventures, making a difference somehow. A boy’s dream, he thought. Look what he got instead.
“Need a ride home?”
“Jules, you’re off in one of those daydreams of yours. I said do you need a ride home—I saw you get off the bus this morning and it’s still raining.” The woman was short and heavyset, with the most beautiful hazel eyes he’d ever seen. Her smile would light up ten rooms, he’d always thought. She was his best friend—at work, anyway.
“Yeah, Jeanine, that’d be great—” an image of the sign flashed into his mind—“Wait. No, I have to check something out first.”
“That’s vague enough to be mysterious. What is it?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I know, but it’s—it’s a place. A sign. It was an odd thing, what it said. Over a shop. The words on it were the name of the shop and said something about what I was looking for—I mean, what anyone is looking for.”
“You’re tired. Fourteen-hour days, weekends, too. The job eats us alive if we let it.”
The deep hazel eyes studied him. “Okay. Well, how about this. You do your checking out, whatever it is. I mean, I take you there, wherever. Then I drive you home. Consider me your driver, for today, at least. We can take off now. It’s Friday night, and our beloved CEO has already left, dressed in that tux he keeps handy up in his office. No doubt heading to some society ball or whatever.”
It would be easier, Jules thought, if he took her offer. After all, the sign might not be there. It could have been a distortion of the rain through the fogged window. Maybe what it really said was ‘We Do the Bookings for You’ or something banal like that. One thing he wasn’t going to tell even Jeanine was that he’d heard voices.
“So where exactly am I supposed to be going?” Jeanine asked as they got into her brand new sports model. The sound of the rain was muffled by the canvas top.
“I live on Anderson, just past Oldens Road and Fourth. That’s where the bus stop is.”
“I don’t have a GMS. Hearing voices in my car when I’m all alone is not my idea of a peaceful ride. Just direct me to Oldens Road. This isn’t my part of town.”
As they drove along the streets, Jules watched the blurred red and green and yellow of the traffic lights move in and out of his vision. He almost felt relaxed.
When they reached the bus stop Jeanine parked the car nearby and they got out. They both looked over to the row of shops opposite. The sign was there, the same words he’d seen through the window—“What You’ve Been Looking For.”
She followed his eyes. “Now that’s an interesting sign.”
“You can see it?”
“Why shouldn’t I? I think I’ll go in with you.”
“Out of my own free will and insatiable curiosity.” Jeanine pulled the hood of her transparent rain gear over her head. She looked as if she were in a bubble, Jules thought with a smile.
The display windows were empty.
“Apparently whatever someone’s looking for is inside and we have to go in to find out,” she said, opening the door.
Another door faced them with a message written in block print. The letters were shaky and uneven, as if done by someone who was ill or very old. The words made no sense to Jules.
Jeanine read it aloud. “ ‘So what is it you want?’ Is it telling us to say something like ‘Open Sesame’ maybe?”
“I don’t want anything. Let’s go. This was a ridiculous idea.”
“Scared?” Jeanine tilted her head as she looked at him.
“Of course not. It’s just silly, being here.”
In answer Jeanine spoke in a loud voice. “I want to be an artist.”
“You do?” Jules stared at her. “You’ve never mentioned that. I’ve never seen you draw anything.”
“I didn’t say what kind of artist, now, did I? I’m leaving that to whoever—or whatever’s—behind that door.”
“It’s still shut.”
Jeanine sighed. “No doubt because you haven’t made your own contribution. Maybe we’re standing on sensors so they know there’re two of us. Say something, anything. I want to see what happens. Come on, Jules!”
He wanted to turn around and leave, but her enthusiasm was contagious. And he was aware, too, of something swirling in his mind, like it was scratching at the surface of his brain to get out. He felt as if he was holding it in by a great force of will, when suddenly the words came out of his mouth in almost a bellow. “I want freedom.”
The door swung open and he was instantly enveloped in a gray fog.
Jeanine had gone. Where? How?
“Nice trick,” he said into the thick air. Jules started to turn around to leave, but found he couldn’t move.
“No trick, at least, not exactly.”
It was the same voice he’d heard at his desk. This whole thing was in his head, a hallucination. A brief moment of insanity. Not real.
“Very real, my friend,” the voice said softly.
“She has her own journey to take. It’s different from yours, naturally. After all, you’re not the same person. Tell us about this freedom you want, why don’t you?”
The fog dissolved and a shop counter appeared before him, covered with a sapphire blue velvet cloth. Behind and above it was a shelf of old books with leather covers, all titled for some form of magic. Mirrors covered the wall to his right, their gilded frames absorbing the amber glow of lanterns that stood on tables around the room. Under the long counter were trays of curious objects, but one especially drew his attention, its surface throwing off scintillations of light–“The Hierophant’s Silver Box”—with an oscillating crystal on the cover and a small card promising the user would be carried into alternate worlds. What on earth did that mean? he wondered. Yet as he stared at it he caught fleeting glimpses of a strange terrain.
He glanced at the other objects, the magic cards and invisible paint and hats that promised any number of surprises. A poster to his right advertised a 1927 course in magic based on the genius of Harlan Tarbell and another filled half the back wall showing a portrait of the master magician Houdini about to swim up from a watery prison in the East River of New York, leaving his shackles behind. “It took him two minutes!” the poster declared in giant block letters.
“Do you want to be a magician?” the voice continued. “Be adept at sleight of hand and the secrets of illusions? Anything is possible. Or perhaps you would prefer to be a sorcerer? I saw you studying the box. It’s not out of the question.”
“None of the above. I don’t believe in magic.”
“Tut-tut. No prevarication, please. Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be here. It is, after all, a magic shop.”
“I didn’t know it would be. I came out of curiosity.”
“That is the essence of magic.”
The tap of rain sounded on the front windows. Jules gave a start. He saw Jeanine outside, looking in all directions. Looking for him! He walked toward the door, but it wouldn’t open. He tried knocking on the glass to get her attention, but his effort made no sound.
“She’s not trying to find you. She has her own journey. She’s not out there. You just want her to be.”
It was a new voice, something husky and musical at once. Jules spun around. A woman stood behind the counter, her silver hair glittering. She wore a long dress of dark green embroidered velvet and he couldn’t help noticing her eyes, a darker green than her dress. Her face was lined and yet her skin seemed to glow as if lighted from within.
“You can call me Kairon. Look around. See what catches your interest, why don’t you? Look carefully.”
“I don’t want—I mean—” Against his will yet strangely compelled, Jules did as she said and moved through the shop. A row of Tibetan brass bowls were making a series of bell-like sounds on their own, very softly. Against the right wall, ropes were twisting themselves into knots and unraveling the same knots over and over, faster and faster. In the farthest corner under a cobalt lamp he saw crystals and geodes, a mist weaving through them like a river.
The sound of shattering glass startled him and stepped back in reflex, banging his elbow on the long counter and wincing from the sudden pain of it. He looked up. Hanging from the ceiling was a chandelier. It had to have been hidden in some way, for he hadn’t seen it there. It was glittering now, a dazzling array of light. As he looked at it the prisms flew off into the air and shattered into dust, the same sound reaching him. Jules moved to avoid the fallout only to see the dust collide and collect and return to chandelier fully formed as prisms that hung motionless. The next moment, the whole fixture vanished.
“Amazing illusions, I have to admit.”
“Only some of them are illusions. A sorcerer would know the difference. It’s possible you would make a good one.”
“Thanks, I already have a job.”
“Ah, yes. We are aware. Do you love it?”
“Coming here was a bad idea.” He went over and pulled at the door handle again.
“You can leave anytime—if you really want to, that door will open. But I strongly suggest you consider checking out what else we have, first. Nothing we have is useless. All of it brings awareness. Awareness, you see, is freedom—just what you’re looking for, isn’t it?” Kairon held out a silver bowl to him.
The metal flashed like diamond light on waves on a sunlit day, Jules thought, when he took it from her. The next instant he heard the sound of the wind and saw a sail, canvas rising high above him. Clouds were forming in the distance but where he was sunlight touched the water in dazzling reflection. To his right he could see an island and white sand. He wanted to go toward it but the sailboat veered instead toward the clouds, dark now, gathering in the west. The mast holding the canvas shuddered and he saw the boom twist free. There’s a storm coming, he thought, knowing if the boat continued toward the darkness it would be swallowed whole, and he with it.
“Well done! You have imagination, an essential tool for your real work. Find it interesting?” He was back in the shop and the woman was taking the silver bowl out of his hands as she spoke.
“No. Not keen on the outcome that was showing up.”
“That takes practice. Your mind is a bit cluttered, so you don’t know yet how to control what happens.”
“What do you mean, my real work? How do you know what I saw, anyway?”
Kairon laughed softly. “Let’s just say I’ve been at this awhile.” She lifted a black feather from the counter. “Here. This is much more than it seems. Go ahead. Take it, and see!”
The room dissolved as he touched the feather. That was the only way he could think of it, as if it had melted into its center and winked out. He stood in a field of orange poppies, with an impossibly blue sky. Boulders were scattered here and there. A warm breeze touched his face. Somewhere in the distance he heard the faint sound of chimes. The air filled with the beating of wings as an immense bird flew past him and settled on a wide, flat rock a few feet away, its eyes focused on him. A raven. The creature let out a raucous sound. The next moment twenty others of its kind had joined it. They all went silent and stared at him. A conspiracy of ravens, he thought. That’s what a gathering of those birds is called. How did he know that? A rumbling came through the earth, and the ground trembled and began to shake violently. The ravens flew off and disappeared, and the boulder cracked in two. Out of it poured a river of precious and semi-precious stones in blinding array, all vanishing a moment later.
In the instant he was in the shop again. He grabbed Kairon’s arm. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing at all. This is all you. See how clever you are? Your creation. You are adapting well for a first lesson, as I said. Still rough on those endings, but that’s to be expected. With more practice, you’ll realize you do have the freedom to do it any way you want. Always your choice. Choose a vibration and you can manifest from there. That’s all there is, you know—vibration. It holds the freedom you want, if you choose it.”
“This is crazy.” Jules went quickly to the door a third time but still the handle didn’t work. He swung around. “You said I could go anytime,” he said accusingly.
“True enough. I also said if that door doesn’t open, it’s because you don’t want it to. It’s very simple. You still don’t want to leave. What you really want always comes to you, whether you choose well or not. You’re listening on the surface. Go deeper. I recommend you see what is stored in that room over there.”
“What room?” Jules felt off-balance and slightly dizzy.
Kairon pointed to the opposite wall and he watched as its edges blurred and a space emerged within it, widening in a spiraling motion. There was only blackness beyond.
“I’m not going in there!”
“Yet you will.”
“Am I a prisoner?”
His words were met with her laughter, a high-pitched, musical sound that reminded him of the chimes he had heard.
“Not at all. You’re the customer, and the customer is always right. I am only offering possibilities.”
“I don’t know what freedom is,” he said. Was that true? Or was he fooling himself? Did he know, after all?
“Too much thinking, Jules.”
“There’s no one else here. No one since I came in.”
“Not true. Many have entered. Simply on a different frequency. As I said, it is all about vibration.”
“All right, for heaven’s sake!” Jules walked to the opening in the wall and stepped through.
He could see nothing, yet he heard a roaring, like some deep bellowing rush of wind through a hollow tunnel. Suddenly the space was illuminated by a blinding orange light. A massive whooshing sound reached him and he realized in that second that whatever the sound was, it carried great heat, and if he stayed where he was, he could be burned alive. He wanted to run but his body was pushed forward toward the tunnel where the heat came in waves against him, as if pulled by a magnet.
“This isn’t what I want!” he cried out.
The pull on him ended, and the light and heat were gone.
All was a blackness again, but it felt deeper than any he had ever known or imagined, as if he were immersed in it. Out of it a sudden spark of light showed, and a moment later winked out. He felt himself pulled forward again and the motion accelerated. He was moving at an impossible speed. When it all suddenly stopped, his body swayed from the force of it. Light spilled out of a small corner of the darkness diagonally to his left, cascading down like a waterfall into the space before him, which was now a pool of water, pale gray and silver, its surface glittering like Kairon’s hair.
“Go in. Are you afraid?” Now her voice seemed to come from right beside him, soft and musical.
“Where are you?
“I could make it hard for you and tell you the truth, but it is still the first lesson, after all.”
“I don’t know what that means!” He felt the frustration well up in him and to his dismay his eyes filled with tears. He forced them down.
“Do step into the water. Please.”
“We can’t help you find what you’re looking for unless you do.”
He had to be going mad, or else he was in a dream unable to wake up. Reluctantly, he stepped into the pool.
“Hey, this is one wacky place, Jules.”
“Where are you?” he shouted. No. Not shouting. It was all inside him. He felt aware of that suddenly.
“Not a clue. It’s a room. Filled with my paintings. I’m a freaking artist, Jules! Everything in here is painted by me. Or will be. Or has been. Not too sure of the timeline.”
The blackness faded. There she was, in a chair with dark blue velvet cushions, and surrounded by walls covered with images, watercolors and oils and acrylic art, each one like a jewel, centered on one color, abstract and real, both, each one holding some inner fire, and with a surface that glittered in places like the sparkle on an old-fashioned Christmas card. The whole scene was awash in the colors, with some he didn’t even know existed. It was breathtaking.
“It’s all mine,” she offered, lifting her hands open before her and smiling. “I did it. I created these paintings. Somewhere. Sometime. Another life, maybe. Me, Jeanine. Isn’t it wonderful, Jules? Isn’t it glorious?”
The blackness returned and Jeanine and the room disappeared. He felt a loss. Of what? He understood. Jeanine had found what she’d been looking for. Who she was.
Something not his to know.
“You really have to try harder.” Kairon’s voice echoed near him.
“Then help me! Show me what to do!”
“Not our job, dear Jules. All your own choice, remember?”
Jules took a breath and exhaled. What did he want? What was his freedom?
Around him the air seemed to thicken, as if he were underwater. He heard children’s laughter and somewhere to his left came the sound of a merry-go-round. Suddenly ahead of him he saw a promenade, a wooden walkway above a white-sand beach. The sound of raucous gulls diving for food and the distant clang of a buoy reached him. As he watched, in the periphery he saw a boy walking with his family on the promenade, the boy waving his cotton candy on its stick and talking non-stop to his parents, who listened with amused attention. The merry-go-round was ahead of them and the boy began to run toward it. In that moment Jules felt suffused with an absolute joy.
Abruptly the dizziness returned. He felt himself pushed again and saw the wide hole in the wall and the shop and counter and Kairon through it. A second later he stood before her.
“Why did you take me away?” he asked. “I didn’t want to leave!”
“This is your first time. Come again, and we’ll see—you can see—what’s what for you. If you decide to continue your training, that is.”
Above and around and through her words he heard a calliope playing, and felt the sunlight on his face.
“You’re letting me go?”
Kairon sighed. “You really are going to have to get a little sharper on the pickup. I am not doing anything. You’re letting you go.”
Jules went over to the door and turned the handle. The door opened easily. It was full dark and the rain was still falling. He turned back. No one was there. The shop stood silent and empty.
“How about that!” Jeanine was nearby on the sidewalk in her bubble raincoat smiling at him. “To think, if it hadn’t been raining and your car had been fine I’d never have gotten to go in there. Nice time. Weird, but super nice. Like a kaleidoscope, or something. Magical. A trick, sure, but a really good one, don’t you think? I feel great. Hey, you’re getting soaked. Why don’t men wear hats anymore? Come on, I’ll drive you home.”
In the car Jeanine hummed softly to herself.
He didn’t want to know, yet he did, and the wanting won out.
“So what just happened?”
She glanced over at him a second and focused again on the road. They reached a stoplight.
“You’re kidding right? I mean, like, you were there, too.”
“You saw the woman at the counter. Kairon.”
“What? Not a clue who you mean. I got the best advice from that old guy who joined us when we were checking out the blue bottles of what he called magic silver dust. You’d disappeared somewhere for a while. Where were you, anyhow? He told me not to give up on my art. How’d he even know about that? He was really intense, but also kind of peaceful. Like I said. Weird. Only I felt maybe I should start doing this art thing and not put it off.” She was silent a few beats. “Yeah. Not put it off anymore,” she said, but it was more to herself than to him.
“So now give—where’d you go, Jules? Must have been ten minutes till you came back. Anything happen about your freedom thing? Whatever that means?”
Jules stared out at the rain. “I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
“You are always so unwilling to give information. True to form.” Jeanine laughed. “Okay, when you’re ready, add some details. For now, I think I’m just going to drop you off and head for an arts supply store—there’s bound to be one still open in this city.” She laughed again, and he could hear the happiness underneath her words.
“I will. I’m not putting you off, Jeanine. I need time to think.”
“Take it, my friend. No worries. Here you are.”
He looked out the car window. They’d reached his house. He said goodbye and went up the steps through the rain and unlocked the door.
Once inside, Jules turned on lights and looked around and everything he saw looked unfamiliar for a moment. Leftover effect from the illusions crafted by a magician named Kairon in an old, strange shop, he decided. Universe of magical things? No way. Self-help for Jeanine, a bust for him, right?
He made himself a cup of tea and started to take off his still-damp jacket, checking the right pocket for his wallet and pulling it out. As he did, white sand fell into his hand and onto the floor.
You have the freedom to do it any way you want. Always your choice. It always has been.
A vision of the Hierophant’s silver box came into his mind. He knew with a sudden certainty that both frightened and excited him that he wasn’t done with the shop.
Come again, Kairon had said. “You were born to work with magic, and much more, don’t you know?”
Maybe, Jules thought.