Month: February 2024


“Hey,” comes the Discord message popping into the corner of my screen.

My eyes flick towards it, shifting away from the bright colors of my game client. The username is unfamiliar to me, complete gibberish in white text.

I’m sure I never added this guy. But he must have heard a glimmer of my voice in an innocuous group call on a mutual server. That’s always how it begins.

“Hello,” I reluctantly reply, allowing myself to take the first step in the familiar dance.

“So, what rank are you?” he asks.

I’m taken aback. Who starts a conversation like that? Rank is an agonizingly sensitive subject to anyone who has ever stared at a screen until sunrise, chasing a win, attempting to muster that latest guide they watched to climb to a place where they could at least close their eyes satisfied. Most people have the couth to at least warm up with small talk.

“Gold four,” I answer anyway. If I wanted to, I could let myself get insecure of the recent loss streak that had dragged me down two tiers and ruined my weekend. But acknowledging insecurity is the first step towards doing something stupid.

“I could coach you, babe. We could reach platinum together at least,” he says.

“That’s nice of you,” I reply, “But I’m not looking for a coach.”

Predictably, he is not deterred. I could have responded with any possible combination of letters, and it wouldn’t have mattered. “This is my main account,” he says, posting a link.

I don’t bother clicking on it. It could be anyone’s account. Honesty is never a high priority on the internet.

“But I’ll need something in return,” he continues.

A grimace slides onto my face like tar. “Like what?” I type.

I click back to my game, hoping that I can make this guy stop existing if I ignore him. But his response is immediate.

“Do you have an insta?” he asks.

I sigh. “No,” I reply.

“That’s too bad,” he types, “Your voice is so cute.”

“Thanks?” I respond.

“Send me some pics?” he asks, “I bet you’re so pretty.”

“…” is all I reply. Anyone with tact would know that these weird compliments are far from flattering. I wonder if he thinks I’m blushing in my chair.

Predictably, my obvious discomfort is ignored. “Send me something sexy?” he asks.

A familiar disgust floods my stomach. “Not a chance,” I type as quickly as my fingers will move.

There is a microscopic chance of him actually accepting no for an answer. They never do.

Boxcar Witchcraft

On the morning after Prohibition went the way of the dodo, the Hobo Witch-king came to call. I stood in the narrow alley behind the brothel where I was raised, pissing away the sour mash demons that hadn’t quite let go. Only long johns and the carryover warmth from my bedroll protected me from the freezing Chicago air. I knew it must be something serious. King never called on anyone. He rode the rails from jungle to jungle, held court, and the hobos and road kids with the traveling craft called on him. I still had my pecker out when I heard his familiar voice behind me.

“Something wrong with the toilets in that fancy house o’ yours?” he asked.

I couldn’t stop a grin from spreading ear-to-ear as I tucked myself away and turned to face him. Before me stood a gaunt man who looked more like a downtown banker than a hobo. Three times my own twenty years, at least, he wore a fancy gentleman’s suit years out-of-date but showing little wear; his shoes had no holes and the fresh shine gleamed. Beneath his full head of bone white hair, coal black eyes twinkled with mischief. I grabbed the old man and pulled him in for a hug. When I caught a whiff of his cologne, I became all too aware of my own sweat and whiskey stench, but it didn’t matter. King was dear to me, and I wanted to hug him for as long as I could.

“I’ve missed you; it’s been too long,” I said.

“I’ve had to get my affairs in order,” he said with a bit less twinkle in his eye.

My heart cracked. “King, no!” Before I knew it, tears streaked my cheeks.

“Don’t weep for me, St. Valentine. I’ve outlived far too many younger hobos. It’s my time.”

“How can you be sure? Not a doctor, right?”

“It’s true, can’t trust no doctor’s opinion of my health, but I gave myself a reading and the cards of the Hobo ‘Ro don’t lie.”

As I stood there like an idiot, teeth chattering and knees knocking in between sniffs and sobs, the back door opened and Tildy, one of my witch mothers, leaned out.

“Robby Ray Johnson, why are you running around outside in your skivvies? You’ll freeze,” she said.

“The pots inside were full up with witches and sales ladies. Unless you wanted me in there with ‘em, it was head outside in my drawers. And you’re supposed to call me St. Valentine now.”

“Ain’t no way I’m calling you St. Anything,” she scoffed and pointed at my crotch. “That thing of yours finds warm and welcoming beds the way a dowsing rod finds water.”

She wasn’t judging me, just having some fun at my expense. No one who lived in the house cared a lick how someone got their kicks, but my ears burned anyway. Even as a grown man, the witches who raised me had a way of making me feel twelve again, and I got real embarrassed with her talking about my ding-dong like that. She gave me a sly wink that only made matters worse. King’s melodious chuckle followed.

“So true, Miss Tildy,” he said. “More than once, I’ve hoisted Valentine into a moving boxcar to escape the pursuit of angry fathers and brothers.”

“It’s not my fault,” I said with exaggerated indignation, my sadness and embarrassment giving way to the casual comfort of friends and family. “It’s usually their idea, and I’m always sure to do the right charms and cantrips to make sure I’m shooting blanks.” If I only learned one thing from my witch mothers and a house full of working women, I learned men could often be assholes, and I had vowed long ago not to be an asshole.

“Come on inside, you two,” Tildy scolded. “I can’t feed you, King Robby’s eaten everything in sight, and no one’s been to the market yet, but there’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed.”

“Thank you kindly” King said. Before he crossed the threshold behind me, I heard him pray to the Goddess, “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust.

Tildy grabbed the coffee and a couple of mugs. She indicated King and I should sit at the kitchen table, set the mugs on the table with a clank, and filled them. I rolled up the blankets still laid out on the kitchen floor. To give a boxcar witch like me a more permanent place in the house would spoil the energy of the hearth-and-home rituals. The home of my youth could now only serve as an occasional flop house.

“I need you to catch-out with me,” King said, “and bring some of your boys too. I gotta take the NP to Seattle.”

“Jesus, that’s a long way to ride the rails up north in winter. Especially if you’re sick.”

“I was born by Puget Sound, and I want to die by it, but I don’t have much time.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes again and batted them away harshly, angry that I couldn’t be stronger for King. More followed. “Booker T and Cool Papa are working the World’s Fair with me. I think Brother Mulligan is in town too.”

“I need a couple o’ weeks,” King said, “but I want to catch-out soon after that. Can you and the other boys be ready then?”

Tildy looked both sad and relieved. My witch mothers love me, but it drains them to keep me under their roof. When a couple of Capone’s men had hid with us after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the women turned me out claiming if the cops came, they’d assume I was in on it too. In truth, the growing strength and untamed nature of my traveling craft had begun putting the whole house at risk, even then.

“Of course,” I said. “On the rails, to do what I must, with perfect love and perfect trust,” I whispered to the Goddess and then got to work making plans.

Warehoming Supply Services Inc.

Cousin Marc gave me his best performance of a solemn nod. An exaggerated pout pulled at his jowls to sell the bit. “So sorry, again. So sorry, Twon” he said. He looked to Liro whom gripped the hem of my pants, but even he couldn’t make up something comforting to say to someone so young. He turned and made his way out into the searing late afternoon sun, with a go bag from the buffet tucked under his arm.

That meant only Uncle Terry remained. His family had already retreated to their car.

The stout man shuffled over and took a moment to pinch his lips at me to make sure I recognized the heavy weight of his gaze. “Twon,” he said. “I can’t imagine how you feel right now.”

I nodded. Uncle Terry had seemed pleasant the few times we’d met, but I’d run out of courtesy to give hours ago.

He cleared his throat and started again. “But you’re not alone, okay? Liro looks up to you, but he needs a lot of care and acting as his parent is a whole new ball game.”

Liro’s hand snaked into my own, and I looked down. Red rings circled the skin around his eyes and he wavered even as he held on to my leg. His flare up had started the day after the accident.

I snapped my tongue. “I’m not replacing our parents.”

Terry grunted and ran a hand over his hair. “Yeah, of course. I know that. All I’m saying is that we want to help if it gets hard. If you need anything. Really, even if you need a place to stay.”

My breath caught in my throat. What? Ma and Pa’s collection of vis panes flickered out back and caught my gaze. I’d powered it up before the reception. The cloudy panes stood in an uneven line, rigged in an approximation of a wall. The kaleidoscope of shifting colors danced across the face of each one, never quite matching with the image on the neighbor. Ma and Pa were part of the first wave of street artists who changed the game by hacking digital-marketing vis panes that covered buildings. My heart knew that if I watched that display a little longer, I’d see dad trudge out from the shed with a digipen. He’d pull at the hem of whichever light brown or leafy green tank top he wore and use it to mop the sweat from his brow.

My heart lied. No one would ever finish the tag out back. It was mine now. I looked down to Liro, his hand in mine. Ours.

“We’re not leaving,” I told Uncle Terry.

I tried to tally up the damage, but I lost my breath before I could finish. Water still dripped from the open window. It sloshed around my ankles as I maneuvered around shelves and stacks of boxes that hadn’t fallen. At least half of the boxes had darkened from the summer-sky blue of Warehoming Inc.’s brand colors to a deep navy blue at being sodden. I turned away from Ma and Pa’s vis pane display out back and chewed at my lip. A bead of sweat slid down my cheek. Our clothes were damp and sticky from more than just a little flooding. It was hot as a state officer’s glare, and air conditioning was as much a myth to Liro and me as the pursuit of happiness.

Liro scratched at his short-cropped hair. “How bad is it?” His voice cracked when he asked.

I found myself blinking stinging sweat from my eyes. “The window.” It was all I could say.

“The latch must have come loose,” he said. “I closed the damn thing. I swear I did.”

My untended bush of curly hair snagged my fingers as I pulled them through. I didn’t have the energy to admonish Liro for cussing again. Many of these boxes contained books or random consumer goods like dog food or hygiene products. We’d just received computer components from PC Parts Supply though, and some of those were big ticket items. I’d have to check the logs. The shipment contained sticks of RAM and keyboards, but we’d also received at least a handful of GPUs, processors and motherboards. The Warehoming loss department would notice.

“It’s okay.” I said it through gritted teeth to keep my voice from breaking. “We’ll need to clean up everything we can. We have enough spare cardboard to re-box everything that’s salvageable. We’ll need to save what we can, and then we’ll file a claim on the rest.”

His voice was as small as the day Ma and Pa died. “What will happen?”

I gulped down the tremor that threatened my voice. “An inspector will come. We’ll need to clean up everything.

Liro smacked a hand to his face dramatically. “Oh, Bondye.”

“It’s okay. We just need to get to work.”

“Will we lose the house?”

I knew his real question. Will we lose the memories?

I’d dropped out of University and got a job waiting tables the day after the funeral almost three years ago. Academic scholarships couldn’t pay for Liro’s medications after all. I got a second job working carts two months later. Then I lost the waiting job. I took Liro to urgent care twice in a week during a flare up, and that made me unreliable. I lost the cart job not long after when Liro’s appointments made my employment too cumbersome to continue. The laundry machine broke maybe six week later. With every storm, the stain on the ceiling of the sitting room grew just as the stain on my mood.

At one point, I’d skipped so many meals that my stomach twisted to heave dry coughs into an unimpressed toilet. I looked into Warehoming Supply Services Inc. as soon as Liro went to sleep that night. I refused to sell the house, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t leverage its value for a return. The house wasn’t in a condition to use as a BNB rental, but we could rent the space out for eCommerce logistics. I’d signed us up before he woke that day. As my own boss, I might be able to make enough money to support Liro. Companies like Warehoming promised next-hour delivery for ninety percent of their eCommerce partners’ deliveries. It was good for the consumer. It was good for the reputation of the company that sold the products, and it was good for Warehoming to take a cut. They also accepted new freelance storage vendors with markedly few hoops, so it was good for people desperate enough to leverage their home as an asset. Like Liro and me.

Inventory from countless eCommerce businesses using Warehoming as their distributor filled up the house by the end of the month. It took up the living room and the sitting room. Boxes filled the hallways, and all three bedrooms. Liro and I tucked ourselves into a tiny corner of the master bedroom on a mattress of pillows stacked atop each other. We gave the whole house to Warehoming except for that one corner and our parents’ vis tag out back. We weren’t losing that.

My lip curled when I answered him. “No way in hell.”


Crossing the barbed wire had been fun. Without a wand Dad could manage just a hint of cantrips, the barest spark of magic. But he had decades of experience in coaxing sorcery from his fingertips, and coated Kade’s hands with a gauzy glow. The rusty wires felt gentle under his palms.

“Presto,” Dad said, on the other side. And not with the half-twist of his lip, like usual. He was sweating and paused with his hands on his knees, but he had done real magic.

“Yeah,” Kade said, to show he was deeply impressed. “Alright.”

“Heyyyyy presto,” Dad said, wriggling his fingers. “With a wand—” he stopped himself. Kade had heard hundreds of “with a wand” stories, until even Dad had called a halt. With a wand Dad would’ve tossed the entire fencing into the upper atmosphere. With a wand they would’ve turned into water and sluiced through the metal. With a wand Kade would’ve been a wizard.

The bombed-out ruins of Snall Academy were not far.

“Oof,” Dad said. He stopped short again.

Just in the past year the government had stopped blocking the display on Google Earth. From overhead it was rubble with a hint of craters. Dad had spent long hours printing available aerials at the library – not the local library, a distant drive. Just in case the government was still looking. Kade had been put in charge of watching the printer, snatching the prints and keeping them close.

“The entire air force couldn’t do anything,” Dad said, walking again. “Turned their engines into rocks. Or put a small but tasteful bureau right in the path of the turbine. All sorts of options.”

“Yeah, Dad,” Kade had heard this, from the backseat, on many drives. But this was actually it, the husk, formerly an edifice in towering pewter stone. Famous for its pennants, flags, banners, each alive with residents.

“Artillery, though. Artillery… Yeah. Those damn howitzers.”

Although from the pictures the area seemed flattened and empty there were still plenty of stones. There was the remnant footprint of a building, including some blackened rocks. And a pillar in chalky marble by a wide open space. It was a surprise to Dad, who went right over to it.

“A memorial!” he said, surprised. “To all their dead! They actually put something up!”

It had no acknowledgement of conflict and was simply inscribed with names. Many, many names, in a small font.

“Dang, Dad,” Kade said, uncertain. “Lot of carving.”

“Oh, we didn’t go down easy,” Dad said. He seemed uncertain, himself, about how to feel. “Even after the shells broke through we zipped over there on brooms and lit a brigade on— anyway. Join me in a piss?”

“Uh,” Kade went to the other side of the pillar. “Yeah.” He could just see Dad’s knees, peeking out, from the sides of the monument. Kade decided not to unzip. He didn’t need to go. Dad had insisted he went before they left, and it was not a far drive. He just listened to the tinkle.

“Alright?” Dad said, when he went back around.

“Didn’t have much,” Kade said. “But I tried.” Dad ruffled his hair. He hadn’t washed his hands or anything.

“I wonder if…” Dad put his hands on the stone, puffed out his cheeks. Another brief glow from underneath his fingertips. With a wand – even Kade did it, to himself, in his head – with a wand the monument could be driven deepwards down into the earth itself. Atomized into sand. Dad mouthed the words. A flash, and then the scent of burnt hairs. “There.”

A trickle of black lines networked from name to name, adding lines and curlicues and accents to the alphabetical rows. Francisco became Eramcisco. “Do you want to try?” Dad said.

Kade shook his head. In the old days he was guaranteed the words, wand, the candle, the rook. The books of lineage were gone but counted Merlin as just another entry, although a lengthy one. He’d been taught the words. The candle and the rook were symbolic. There were no more wands.