It doesn't need magic to make a man disappear.
Ethan's disappearing, little by little, over days he can't track since there's no way to mark them on the walls. The walls are white, smooth, cold, and neither blood nor shit will stick to them. The plastic spoon from his meals won't leave a scratch.
It must be months, by now, but he doesn't know.
The walls are white, and Ethan is turning white too, white as something that evolved for a cavern or the sea-bottom, for lightless places. He always liked a bit of sun, and he was glad when tanning beds came into fashion. Now, pale under old tans and age, his skin is yellow.
Fluorescent lights, he knows, emit an unnatural spectrum. Sunlight is different, trailing ultraviolet and infrared, invisible to the eye but tickling the melanin and the heat receptors. The light from the inset ceiling strips high over his head is attenuated, hollow, like light in a film.
It never switches off, which sometimes makes him doubt it's real. Can anything exist without contrast? Without change? Or will it all just fade to white?
Ethan can feel his outlines blurring, his bones going transparent, here in this changeless white cube.
There's an old, bad joke from Ethan's youth: If you can't help being raped, lie back and enjoy it. So, disappearing already, Ethan helps himself disappear.
He's learned to sleep most of the time. He's learned varieties of sleeping: deep, blank sleep in which he can remember darkness; skimming, flying-fish sleep, plunging and surfacing and plunging; liminal sleep, thoughts roaming wide and wild, like intoxication or vision; dreaming sleep.
Mostly he dreams his own dreams, meager and primitive, inhabited by dull daylight wishes--sex, freedom, revenge.
But sometimes he dreams elsewhere and otherwise, into a waking mind.
Death. Not a bad card, even though the rubes always freak when Mom turns it over. Change, it means. Old stuff dying, new stuff coming up like green grass after a fire. It's pretty, too. Marenka likes the white rose on Death's black flag.
The Hierophant. That's one she can never remember. She has to look it up every time in the little booklet that came with the cards. (She insisted on a brand new pack, even though Mom said it was a waste of money.)
Learning. That's it. The Hierophant means a bunch of things, they all do, but mostly it means learning.
The Magician. Magic (duh) but also-
"Charlene! Girl, you've had the whole morning and all them dishes are still in the sink."
Crap. "I was studying. And I'm Marenka, you know that. I'm only Charlene to the gaje."
Like a long sigh, Mom says, "Charlene." She takes a can of Coke from the little fridge and sits down, pushing her black hair back off her face. You can see the light brown roots again. Mom's always saying she's going to cut it short and just wear a wig, but she never does. "We aren't gypsies, except to the marks."
Marenka shuffles clumsily a couple of times--with regular cards she can do a fancy shuffle, like a blackjack dealer, but Tarot cards are too big--and takes a drink from her own Coke. It's warm. "Dad said we were."
Mom rolls the sweaty-cold can over her forehead before opening it. "Your dad said a lot of things, baby. Come on, now, wash the dishes and I'll make us some lunch."
"Can't I just go get a corn dog?"
Her hands in suds and bacon grease, scrubbing, Marenka thinks: The Fool. Starting an adventure, taking a risk. Going away..
The first few times, Ethan thought it might be just another dream. It's the sort of trick a mind might play, turning the blank white cell into flat, dusty-pale countryside, the ceaseless light into a southern sun (Arizona? Texas? where is she?), the fluorescent hum and the swoosh of a ventilation system into music for carousels and Ferris wheels.
But he doesn't think he'd dream Marenka's boredom, as vast and waste as his own.
He starts to look for her as he dreams.
"This crosses you," Marenka says, turning over the four of pentacles. "Mom, is that reversed or not? I forget which way is which with the crossing card."
"Don't look at the cards, Charlene, look at the mark." Mom smiles at Big Joe, who's giving up his lunch break to play the rube for Marenka. "Say something vague and watch his eyes. His eyes'll tell you what he wants to hear."
Finally remembering what the card means, Marenka says, "Um, greed. You got a greedy boss who doesn't pay you enough?" That makes them both laugh, Joe's voice a fireworks boom, Mom smiling too wide the way she always does whenever Joe's around. They laugh because everybody knows that Mr. Aloysius Callaran's just a grifter in a tie, and nobody gets their fair percentage. "Stingiest Show on Earth" people say about Callaran Amusements.
"That's the way, kid." Big Joe claps her on the shoulder, and Marenka laughs with them to cover up what she all of a sudden knows. Big Joe's wife, Beth, doesn't like the way he looks at Marenka's mom, not any more than Marenka does. And the next time Beth goes into town to cash his paycheck, she's just gonna keep on going, her and the kids.
Marenka would like to tell him, 'cause then he wouldn't come around all the time. But he wouldn't believe her.
So much was slipping away. At first, doing the simple magics that need no ritual, Ethan feels like a stroke patient re-learning how to move a paralyzed limb. In magic as in movement, there's a gap, a chasm, between the wish and the act. You don't hope a leg into motion; you just move it. But after a while some clogged channel in his brain opens, and Ethan leaps from his wheelchair and dances.
Well, he floats the plastic spoon, anyway. Bends it into circles and figure-eights, illusions it into a hummingbird, a snow globe with the Eiffel Tower, a tiny, perfect plastic man. Once he sculpts a second man from the plastic cup and makes them fuck. Another time, testing, he reshapes the dinner tray (also plastic) into a pistol. But nothing happens--they're not watching him anymore. Ethan's a pet they've grown bored with but feed and water out of duty.
He'd like to shoot the guard who brings his food, who says "Here you go, faggot freak," every time. But the pistol's only illusion, of course.
Ethan turns his cell into a garden, a Tokyo street, a nightclub, a beach crowded with naked Greek boys of seventeen. Tranced, he works his memory, calling up moments and screening them on the walls like films. He stretches his cupful of water into a glassy veil or braids it like wheatsheaves, all without wetting his fingers.
And all the time, he calls her.
The spoon clatters onto the tabletop. Again. Marenka knows she could do it if she could just get the trick. All kinds of things look impossible--wire-walking, fire-eating, even riding a bike.
Maybe it's too heavy. Marenka switches to a plastic one, which seems better somehow, but after twenty tries, and twenty more, she still can't make it stay up.
When she asked Ernie, who (as the Amazing Antonio) pulls eggs out of the marks' ears and turns handkerchiefs into bunches of fake roses, he told her he didn't know fancy stage tricks. "If you can't do it on the midway in the sun, it ain't no good to me" he said, and patted her on the arm. "Shouldn't you be helping your mama? It's harder work than it looks, running the mitt camp."
Last week, when she went to a Wal-Mart with Mom, Marenka got a book: Moonsinger's Complete Guide to Spells and Rituals. First time she ever stole anything, and she felt so sick-scared that she had to tell Mom she had cramps. She hid the book under her mattress and read it all the next day while Mom was working. And it's interesting, all the stuff about nature and women and cosmic cycles (except her cramps really did come on while she was reading it, which made cycles sound way less cool).
It's interesting, but she doesn't think it's magic. Real magic, powerful magic, must be like any other kind of power. Like being rich or being president. You can't just get a book that tells you how. If there are books, they're hidden in secret vaults under mountains, and you're not allowed to read them until you already know stuff.
People don't write books about secrets. People whisper them in your ear.
Marenka puts the spoon back in the drawer and goes to take a nap. She's been having really wild dreams lately.
Marenka, Ethan knows now, wants magic. Marenka wants a teacher.
And on the day she wants it badly enough, with all her unformed power, Ethan's cell door slides open. He walks out past guards who don't see him. He crosses forty miles of desert to the highway in a single night, without food or water, and he doesn't even blister his bare feet.
Five minutes after he hits blacktop, a lorry driver stops for him. "Where you headed?" he asks as Ethan climbs in. Of course he doesn't notice the orange prison jumpsuit.
Ethan thinks for a moment about Sunnydale, about Ripper and what's owed the sanctimonious prick. But there's another debt owing, newer and more interesting. He finds the answer in the back of his mind, which is still (maybe always, now) the back of Marenka's. "Texas," he says, and leans back in his seat, smiling.