You might call this a bad day, Adam thought, as he ran down the tracks of the L subway line in nothing but a white silk blanket. Above, the steady beat of cars racing home towards the Brooklyn Bridge thrummed, sending a tinny echo through the tunnels surrounding him.
Adam Smith had never seen himself as a risk taker or a rule breaker. Or, for example, the type of guy who would run down subway tracks, let alone be on them in the first place. He followed the script of life. He woke up at 7 AM every morning and went to bed promptly at 11 PM. He was always ten minutes early. He actually separated his whites from his colors, and his socks from his underwear, and his weekday clothes from his weekend clothes. He was rigorous in his cleanliness, sweeping after the smallest dust bunny, and wiping at a spot on the counter until it was rendered lifeless and non-existent.
This was all well and good until she showed up.
Adam screamed at the top of his lungs, hoping that someone might hear his fear and come to his rescue. Who? He had no idea. Who did you call in a moment like this? Did the Ghostbusters handle psychotic, blood-hungry witches on their weekend shifts?
Adam was an average 26 year old. He was thin with fair, peach-colored skin, dotted only by a few freckles. He had brown hair that, luckily, fell in a good spot on his head and wore a pair of black rimmed glasses. He had an air about him that said ‘I tried, but not too hard.’ He had a good smile but nothing that would make you look if you saw him on the street. In fact chances are, you have seen him and you didn’t give him a second thought. That was just how run-of-the-mill he was.
He through the blanket off himself, choosing the ease of running over propriety, leaving him running in only his tight white underwear. Of all the days to not wear the Calvin Kleins. Maybe a bad week, he contemplated. A bad month? If Adam really thought about it, he might conclude that it had been one bad night, followed by a string of bad choices, culminating in this one truly sucktastic day.
On the ground behind him, purple tendrils slithered towards him, like snakes. They darted along the ground, silently hunting their prey. They were jagged and fierce bands of color, with little arrows at their tips pointing towards him. They slithered with a mind of their own. Somewhere in the tunnels behind him, the low note of a guitar string echoed in 4/4 time. She was like a bat waiting to read the sound waves before making her next move.
And then there were lights.
In front of him, Adam could just make out headlights. Two beady little spots, signaling that the L train was, for once, of all days, on time to its stop at Bedford Avenue.
Adam whispered a curse under his breath, directed harshly at the L train. The train approached even more certainly, as if offended. Adam stopped in his tracks, looking in front of and then behind himself, contemplating which death was the lesser of two evils.
There was always the moment he could have walked, and she could have just been the girl who got away. Always the moment he could have avoided all of this. As the train barreled towards him and the jagged serpents of color raced up from behind him, he remembered every moment of it, every bad choice that had led him here.
She said witches didn’t get love stories and now, he realized, she was right.
One Month Earlier
In the darkest Lower East Side alley of Manhattan, on the darkest night of April, Zelerot stood, taking in the landscape of the world around him. Though since he was a small pug dog, all this amounted to was him panting heavily and scooting his irritated bottom along the ground neurotically. He had a pinched up nose and rough tan hair and around his neck was a large metallic chain, which culminated in an ornate padlock, which dangled in front of his chest. The lock had no keyhole and seemed to be heavier than any pug or canine for that matter would be willing to tolerate. He sneezed and scratched behind his ear with his back foot, which of course made his rear end even more uncomfortable, resulting in yet another butt scoot.
Fog rolled through the alleyway, as if coming from no where and a cat ran along the roof above, hissing at Zot, and then continuing on its way. The sounds of sirens and car alarms came and went, and an older woman could be heard yelling at her children in Portugese. Every so often, the loud clang of a dumptruck or cellar door closing would cut through the air, like the percussion in the symphony of night music.
From down the alleyway, a distinct thud caused Zot to perk up his ears. As a faithful watchdog, he was trained to listen for thuds, clunks, slurps, murmured incantations, whispered curses and cats. A backlog of instincts shot into effect.
“Yip!” His bark was loud enough that his tiny legs hopped off the ground. “Yip Yip Yip!” A small pair of wings suddenly sprouted from his head and on his last hop, he took off into the air, floating away half on purpose and half because he wasn’t quite sure how to land once he’d gotten excited. “Yipyipyipyipyip!” He floated up into the sky like a balloon that has just been set loose by a small child on the street.
In the shadows behind him, she stood like a statue looming in the mist. Eva Grey was 25 but carried herself like one who had lived through too many lives to count. Eva’s skin was a light brown, a trait of her parents: one Dominican, the other Mexican. Black hair hung in a ponytail behind her. A full necklace of little skulls and beads hung from her neck, standing out against her cream-colored hoodie. Her black skirt had maroon lines down its sides, giving it extra flair. To her side, she held a long birchwood staff. It twisted and curled in on itself all the way to one end where the wood grasped a large purple orb. Mist swirled slowly in the orb, so slowly in fact that you would have to watch it for some time to even realize it was moving; an exercise in patience. Her whole appearance summed up to one of a beautiful young woman who seemed capable of kicking your ass if given the chance. And that was exactly what she was going for.
At the other end of the alley, another girl appeared, shorter and less patient. Miyako had all the attitude and urgency of a nineteen year old. She didn’t like to wait. She didn’t like to lose. She didn’t like anyone telling her what to do. She was Japanese, with a flat nose and round face. She had several ear piercings and a streak of purple in the tips of her black hair, which hung to the side of her face. She wore an oversized red sweater and a black pair of shorts. She walked down the alley, sure footed in her black sneakers. She carried a can of spray paint, the white nozzel removed to reveal the small metal tube that allowed the paint to be sprayed straight up from the tip. The word “BREW” was written on the can, slanted up along its curves. She shook it slowly, glaring down the alley at Eva.
Eva took her first step forward, the orb end of her staff dragging along the ground behind her. As she walked, sparks shot up from the ground, sending a harsh crackling sound reverberating along the alley walls. It played along with the sounds of the city’s sirens, horns and garbage truck thumps.
Miyako aimed the can at the brick wall beside her, never taking her eyes off of Eva. It spewed paint forth onto the wall. The red of the paint resembled blood in its harsh clarity. As she pushed forward, the spray created a long red line on the wall, strands of paint dripping down the bricks.
Eva’s staff shot up from the ground, circling her as a white rune appeared beneath her, shooting light into the alleyway. Around her, the ground began to rumble. Little bits of cement broke as three skeletal creatures pushed up from the ground. They were short in stature, coming up just to Eva’s knees. They wore large sombreros and had intricate inked designs covering their faces like the most fanciful Day of the Dead decorations. Each of them wielded its own pair of silver revolvers. Their teeth chattered threateningly. The first of them lunged forward, pistol slinging as the guns shot off their rounds.
Miyako’s hand pulled away from the wall with a jolt, and with it came the red paint. It erupted from the wall, curling through the air like a stream of liquid electricity. It cracked like a whip repelling the oncoming bullets.
Eva and Miyako had come into contact only a year ago when Miyako had first shown up in the city. Eva knew every witch in town and had fought with all of them at some point or another. Every witch had their life at stake at all times, but Miyako was different. She fought like she had something more to lose. Where other witches searched for new territory or went out exploring for spellbooks or potion ingredients, Miyako stayed hidden and only played the defensive. She was careful, cautious even, yet if you found yourself in her neighborhood, she was ruthless. Her attacks were random and backed by pure instinct, like a mother bird protecting her nest. It was rumored that Miyako had killed her own mother in order to become stronger. Eva, who many witches considered the top dog in the city, barely came out with her head after their first encounter. Miyako didn’t care for survivors, and so the rivalry had begun.
Eva’s staff cut through the air, sending two skulls, engulfed in white flame, hurtling towards Miyako. Shwoom! Miyako flicked her wrist, sending the red stream of paint to wrap around the skulls and flung them into the nearby wall. Miyako’s body twisted and with the force of a hellish wind, the streamer snapped across Eva’s face, leaving a thin line of blood behind.
Eva turned back to Miyako, rage now in her eyes as she began to swing her staff around her. A white light burst from it, streaking through the air. Miyako lunged towards Eva, the red line circling her like a vortex. As the two converged on each other, the sounds of their battle echoed through the streets of Manhattan, blending in with the hum of the city. Even if you were standing right outside that very alleyway, you would never imainge that a magical battle of the ages was taking place.
Beers poured, glasses clinked and men and women laughed, guffawed and shouted as they went on about their week, or their job, or the new man in their life. The girl they couldn’t get out of their head or the exam that was taxing on their nerves. It was Friday night in the Village, a happening neighborhood with a Bohemian flair on the Lower West Side, and the bar was alive with people glad for a much needed break and a well deserved drink.
“CHEERS!” Shot glasses slammed together at a long table. The suited band of brothers took the whiskey in stride, swallowing it like a sugar-coated pill. At the center of them, sat Adam, looking giddy in his drunken state. He seemed much less together than normal, his hair messy, his shirt untucked and wrinkled. He leaned on the table, his body absorbing the alcohol of his third drink. Or was it his fourth? It was starting to get hazy. Seated next to him was his best friend, Diego. Diego had perfectly placed black hair and a well maintained goatee. He was fit and had a natural athleticism that other men envied and women adored. He slapped Adam on the back as they laughed loudly.
Adam and Diego had met in school. Diego had been a year ahead of Adam and had taken the younger man under his wing early on. At first, Diego had been attracted to Adam, and had sought a relationship with the boy fresh off the plane from a little town in Colorado. One drunken night, when it had become painfully clear that Adam was not gay, the two men had moved forward as friends, caring for each other in a way that neither of them had ever known before. They applauded victories together and cried when things went horribly wrong, usually over a bottle of wine. In truth, they had become like brothers over the years, barely ever seen apart from one another. Tonight was no different.
The shot glasses slammed down on the table, and anything that remained in the glasses spilled out haphazardly. Diego stood, flashing a grin that was sly and playful at the same time.
“To my best friend, Adam!” He raised a nearly-full beer glass to the sky proudly. “And his fancy new Masters of Fine Arts.”
Adam had graduated from Pratt only hours earlier. He’d toiled away at school for years through his Bachelors in Colorado, and more recently, his Masters in New York. It had been painful and stressful, and at times he didn’t think he would make it. But now that it was all over, he was surprised that he did not feel relief. Instead, he felt a permanent knot under his lungs where he assumed that he might be getting an ulcer. An ulcer wouldn’t be so bad. If he died he wouldn’t have to find a job. Adam often thought of things in terms of his death and how that was the only way out of the impending stress that followed him day in and day out. If I fell down these stairs, I wouldn’t have to take that exam. If that taxi hit me, I wouldn’t have to meet my advisor. If I jumped down onto the tracks at just the right moment, that train would hit me, and I wouldn’t need to answer this phone call from my mother. A therapist might comment that this behavior was neither productive nor healthy. Adam didn’t care for therapy.
“Adam, give us your scholarly words of advice.” Diego swirled his stein in Adam’s direction.
Adam stood, teetering a bit as he worked to catch his balance. He moved his beer cautiously into the air. He became all too aware of the fact that he might spill it on someone in the immediate area. Knowing his luck, it would be the waitress, whom he found to be hot. She would come over at just the right moment, and end up with his beer squarely spilled down her front. “To graduation,” he exclaimed, less than sure that was a good thing. “Yesterday a Senior Honors thesis winner. Tomorrow: jobless!”
“HERE HERE!” The men at the table cheered, all drinking again.
Adam promptly lost his balance. He fell just as the waitress approached to ask who needed another round. She left with a full beer down her front and Diego laughing hysterically on the ground. Adam contemplated what horrible accident could have prevented this shameful moment.
One hour and a generous tip to the waitress later, Adam had sunk himself into a large couch in the lounge of the bar. Most of the men had either gone home, or had found themselves someone at the bar to distract themselves with. Diego sat down next to Adam, handing him another beer.
“You really think that’s the best idea?” Adam said, not refusing the drink.
“It’s your night,” replied Diego. “Get shit-faced or go home.”
“My mother’s right. You’re a bad influence.” Adam took a sip from the beer as Diego poured half a rum and coke down his throat with one swallow.
“So what’s next?” Asked Diego, gingerly wiping a bit of liquid from the corner of his lip, with a cocktail napkin. “You got the degree and the rent control apartment. Time to get a fancy design job and meet a nice girl?” Diego chuckled at the thought. “I’m thinking a second home in the Hamptons? Two, maybe three kids? Possibly a dog? Don’t get a cat though. Cats are crap. And not one of those small dogs either. My people can get away with it. You’d just look queer.”
“Can we say that?” Adam’s finger rotated anxiously around the lip of the bottle.
“I can, you can’t.”
“World we live in.”
They clinked their drinks together in a mock cheer.
Adam ran a hand through his hair. “Is it wrong that I’m less worried about the job part?”
“You’ll meet someone.” Diego gave Adam’s shoulder a tight squeeze.
It was true that Adam had not had much luck with the ladies. He was bad at first impressions, and really didn’t have a firm grasp on the second or third either. “I haven’t been in a relationship since high school.” He grimaced at the thought. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
His high school girlfriend had been controlling and overbearing. She was exactly the kind of girl Adam needed then, and maybe still needed. The kind of girl who could make a decision for him. The kind of girl who could get him to let go a little bit. The kind of girl who set a fire in his locker when she thought he was seeing someone else. So what if she was a little unstable? She loved him and put up with all his teenage emotional bullshit.
Now here he was, eight years later, with just as much bullshit and even less of an excuse. If he couldn’t make it work back home with a wreck like her, what shot did he have with classy, world-traveled women like those he met here in the city? If a meteor hits Earth tomorrow and we all die, I won’t have to deal with this.
Diego grinned again. Ever the rock. Ever the pillar of strength. Adam was one of those straight guys who was under the impression that it was easier for gay men, and that that was why Diego was so much luckier with love than he. Or at the very least, he got around. Even a little making out would have softened the coldness that Adam felt towards women, yet even that seemed out of his grasp.
“I even joined one of those online dating sites,” said Adam, waving his cell phone through the air, as if it was the phone’s fault that he was alone.
“You did not!” Diego was giddy at the thought.
“Heart Heart Hug,” said Adam, “Dot com.”
“I can’t even deal with how pitiful that sounds.”
“I want the classic love story.” Adam pondered what this meant for a moment. “Take my parents. My dad was out squirrel hunting.”
“Of course he was.”
“Went to check his gun after a kill, boom, shot off his ear.” Adam clapped to give the ‘Boom’ an added effect.
“And why wouldn’t he?”
“Went to the hospital. My mom was his nurse. Poof, happily ever after.” Adam looked off as if he was counting the stars.
“That’s so magical, I might puke. Please, tell me more about squirrel hunting.” Diego laughed to himself. “Can you do that upstate?”
“Probably have it on one of those ‘More to New York than NY’ ads.” Adam took another drink from the bottle. The state of New York had recently started advertising the scenic views and adventures one could within the sates as a means of boosting tourist activity to the lesser known parts of the state. Sadly, most of them seemed like mock versions of things people actually cared to do on a vacation.
“Still, online dating is a far cry from squirrel hunting with the safety off,” chuckled Diego. “Any takers?”
Adam eyed his phone, biting his bottom lip. “Well…”
Diego’s eyes brightened, slapping Adam across the shoulder. “Tell me EVERYTHING! What’s her name? What’s she look like? She have a hot brother?”
“I don’t really know.” Adam’s trepidation was clear on his face.
“But you’ve met in person, right?”
Adam winced at the questions, taken aback. “Not yet.”
“Adam’s playing it safe, shocker of the century.” Diego leaned forward, finishing his drink in a single swallow. “My advice? Stop waiting for perfect. Make a bad decision for once in your miserable little life.”
The waitress appeared, another rum and coke in her hand. Adam sank into the couch, as if this would hide him from her. Rolling her eyes at him, she handed the drink to Diego, replacing his empty one. Diego made a weak attempt to refuse. “I didn’t order another.”
“It’s from him.” She motioned to a man across the lounge. He had blond hair and a tight shirt, Diego’s type. The man raised his glass and smiled at Diego. Diego’s face filled with excitement at the prospect.
“Or you could always give my team a shot,” said Diego, turning back to Adam slightly. “We’re always looking for new members.”
Adam shook his head. “I’m not gay.”
“Your loss.” Diego stood up, taking a sip from his newly acquired drink and preparing to head into his newly acquired night. “Later.” He took off towards the man, leaving Adam to contemplate it all. How easily Diego jumped headfirst into something without thinking about the consequences or weighing the costs and benefits. Only minutes had passed, and already Diego and the man were touching. Sure, Diego was a bit of a man whore. But even so, if he could do that, why couldn’t Adam? Adam glared at his phone, willing it to make a decision. He gripped it so firmly that his knuckles turned white. With alcohol still coursing through his system, he requested another drink and swiped his finger across his phone screen, unlocking all the possibilities that came with drinking too much with a cell phone in hand.
The battle had ended abruptly. One second, Eva and Miyako were attacking each other in full force, throwing curse after hex and paint after skeleton warrior. The next, a cop car pulled up to the alley, and the two women ran in opposite directions. As Eva limped through another alleyway across town, nursing her wounds and feeling the sore spots where the bruises would surely be the next morning, she could only hope that Miyako had taken a worse beating. Zelerot, or Zot as she affectionately called him, floated listlessly behind her, panting and snorting as pugs do, the little lock around his neck, jangling like a small wind chime.
From her pocket, a low buzzing sound rumbled. Zzt zzt. She stopped, reaching for the cell, cringing from the pain in her arm. The screen of the phone lit up.
NEW MESSAGE FROM ADAM ON “HEARTHEARTHUG.COM“
Eva selected the message and read to herself.
ADAM: Hey. How r u?
Eva began typing, disregarding the alley around her. Adam had messaged her months ago, mentioning her love of horror movies in his message. It was always nice when a guy had something to say other than “Hi” or “Cute.” The message that could be sent to any girl got old fast. They had hit it off quickly, discussing books, movies and the like. Eva was always careful to avoid anything that might lead to her family or any of her witch-related secrets. She took comfort in the fact that the men she chatted with on Heart Heart Hug could never get too close, allowing her to be herself without the dreaded part of possibly falling in love. She usually would talk with a guy online for a while to pass the time, and, inevitably find something out that would give her a reason to stop talking to them and move on to the next. It was mostly a way for her to escape the overbearing loneliness of being a witch. She never intended to actually meet one of these losers.
Adam was different. He’d lasted longer than most and had been unintentionally charming, without trying. She hated when a guy tried too hard. She had yet to uncover a secret fetish, or weird hobby of his that raised an eyebrow. In fact, she was beginning to think that Adam was a genuinely good guy amongst the sea of hyper-sexualized basement dwellers. It was because of this that Adam’s contact info had stayed in her phone for far longer than any other. She had shared more with him than anyone else she could remember, and at times had strayed dangerously close to the rocky beaches of truth. He was like a lighthouse in her life, always tempting her to the deadly shore with his kind words and self-inflicted jokes. What was worse was that texting with him made her smile, even happy at times. She knew it had to stop, but she just hadn’t found the willpower to do it yet. Maybe tomorrow she thought as she sent a response.
EVA: Fine. U?
ADAM: Got my MFA today. Yay!
MFA? Of course he did. Adam was the whole package. He was smart and creative and…but she stopped herself. Stop imagining things, she scolded herself. Don’t create something out of nothing.
ADAM: What r u doing right now?
EVA: Nothing. U?
ADAM: Let’s meet.
Zot looked up from a long butt scoot as Eva gasped, stifling her voice with her hand.
It was fortunate, Adam thought, that he had found his way to a stool with the long bar counter set out in front of him. If not, what would he have slammed his head repeatedly onto as the “Message sent” alert sounded on his phone?
“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” Again and again he pounded his forehead on the laquered bar top. Other customers eyed him uneasily, the way you look at someone when it’s obviouse that they’ve had too much to drink.
DING! The bell on his phone rang. He looked up in shock at the message displayed on the screen.