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The Abbreviated History of The Flashlight

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1. Oxford reminds him of his father. He hates it: all the decaying books that he's supposed to read, the dead languages he's supposed to learn, the sedate magic he's supposed to practice. He does the same thing he always does when his father tells him what to do: he runs away. Not enough for his father to notice; he comes back for curfew enough nights to keep from being sent down.

He drinks with Ethan on an old mattress in Ethan's friend's flat in town, uses his new languages to teach them how to raise demons, and rushes back over the wall every night.

He borrows a torch from Thomas once, grabs it quickly on his way out the door; it's overcast and he might miss the footholds cut into the old wall.

He jumps down the wall into the garden and freezes: one of the old proctors is looking right at him.

"Listen," he says, "it's -- not what you think."

The proctor just walks towards the wall.

"Um." He takes off his glasses, polishes them: it always makes him look harmless and appropriately academic. "I really must get back."

The proctor turns at the gatehouse, walks away from him along the wall.

"Right," he says, and makes a break for his room.

He does a standard diagnostic spell on his clothes, but there's nothing there. Then he turns and sees it out of the corner of his eye: the torch is glowing golden on the table.

Well. It's not dangerous, and it's basically a gift; he might as well make use of it.

He carries the torch with him every time he climbs over the wall. He breaks the window on the corner shop and steals some cigarettes. He learns to hot-wire cars. He makes silly faces at the proctors.

Nothing bad ever happens. Nobody ever sees him. So he works up to something perfect, something big; he breaks into the antique shop that has six books of demon lore.

"Hey!" someone shouts behind him, "what's all this?"

"What?" He checks his pockets, but the torch isn't there. "Bloody hell," he says, and starts to run.


2. He finds it sitting on the table of a safe house in East Germany. It's a perfectly good flashlight; he wonders why anyone would leave it behind. The light still works. It's nicely balanced, heavy enough that it could do some real damage. The flashlight he used to carry died the last time he dropped his duffle; this one'll work just fine.

He figures he ought to tell the Colonel he's taking it, just in case it's got spy messages hidden in the battery or something. He can't, though; he stands at attention for ten minutes waiting for Colonel Bradley to acknowledge his salute before he gives up and walks away.

He tries some of the men, too, but no dice; none of them answer, none of them look up. He might as well be invisible.

"Hey, Thompson," he says, when he runs into him in the kitchen the next morning. "Nice work getting everyone to ignore me yesterday."

"Huh?" Thompson squints in a baffled pre-coffee kind of way. "I didn't arrange any pranks, sir. I didn't see you yesterday."

"I was standing right -- huh." He grabs the flashlight from the table again.

"Sir?" says Thompson. "Where's the fire?" He stops, shakes his head. "Man, the bugfuck crazy captain for you."

"Thanks, Thompson," he says. "Remind me to thank you for this later."

Mostly he uses it for pranks, and to steal pie from the mess after hours. He practices juggling with it, imagines himself flashing in and out of the world. He's just waiting for his next assignment, his next chance to jump -- it'll be useful then. For now, he sneaks into the army barracks and short-sheets beds.

He slides it into the pocket of his jumpsuit, snaps it firmly closed, and throws himself from the plane.

Something goes wrong; he's in freefall for twenty thousand feet.

The flashlight falls out of his pocket at the jerk when the parachute finally opens three hundred feet above the desert.

Figures. Just when he needed it.


3. Dad puts a silver flashlight in the trunk. "Listen up," he says. "You never use this just for the light. You just use it when you need to get out without anyone seeing you."

"How's it work?"

"It doesn't matter. All that matters is that it makes you invisible."

"Can ghosts see through it?"

Dad looks at him, blinks, and then grins. "Well now, that's a fine question. I've never tried."

They try it out on the next wandering spirit, a guy who's decided to stay on earth to find his fucking cufflinks or something. He holds the flashlight with his right hand and Dad's shoulder with his left; Dad digs up the grave as easy as pie.

They build a routine around the flashlight; he holds the flashlight and part of Dad's jacket, and Dad fires the weapons, digs the graves, does the exorcisms. They get good at it, good enough that they can do several exorcisms a day, good enough that they stop paying attention.

They're hunting a werewolf when something weird happens: the wolf sniffs the air, snarls, lunges at them. There's nothing they can do but run.

He drops the flashlight when he trips over a branch.


4. He buys the flashlight in a vintage store in Los Angeles; he's setting up an office for a sweet little short con, heavy on the hacking with a bit of social engineering just for some flavor, and he's trying to set the right mood. A couple things in shadow boxes labeled props from his last couple films, yeah, that should do it.

The marks are early. He's still holding the flashlight when he opens the door. "Gentlemen!" he says, gesturing them in with a broad dramatic gesture. "Welcome to where movies get made!"

He's proud of the setup; it's a good office for this, with a view of the ocean. His suit is impeccable, his accent is practiced, his gestures are big and completely Hollywood.

But Jake and Rob ignore him. They glance back at the door, stand in front of the desk waiting, fidgeting.

"How can I help you today?" he tries, leaning back in his big brown leather chair. They just stand there.

"Helllooo? The man who wants to take all your money, right over here?" he drops the flashlight on the desk and waves his hands in front of their eyes.

"Oh!" Rob says. "How'd you get here? We've been waiting ten minutes!"

They haven't, but Rob's always trying to push like that. "I just nipped round the back," he says, walking around the desk and throwing an arm over each of their shoulders. "Now listen, how are you guys doing? Did you like the proposal from MGM? Listen, the work ILM's going to do for you is magic, baby, just pure magic."

He leads them away from the desk to finish up their business.

When he's done, he stares at the flashlight for a while. Picks it up. Takes a picture of himself with his phone, and then stares at the picture. Nothing but the chair.

He sets up the webcam and poses with both hands on the flashlight like a lightsaber. "Obi-Wan never told you who your father was."

He plays back the footage. It's still just the chair; there's no sound, no sign that he ever stood in the room.

Huh. He thinks about it for a while: he could walk right into a bank vault. He could follow someone into Fort Knox. He could walk right up to the CIA mainframe. He could stay in the best hotels. He could get anywhere, do anything, and not even have to borrow the right uniform.

Damn, he thinks, where's the fun in that?

He sells the flashlight to the highest bidder.


5. Jennifer tells him about the flashlight in a motel room in Topeka, when he says he wants them all to just disappear.

"It sometimes vanishes, just like all the other objects," she says. "People get used to being invisible, and then it falls out of a pocket, or they leave the bag behind, or someone steals it, and then there they are. We know of at least four arrests as the result of its disappearance."

"But it doesn't vanish right away," he says.

"You can't trust an object." She's giving him the same look she gave him when they first met: like he's a complete idiot, stumbling in over generations of researchers.

"I could hold it the whole time," he says. "Or wear it on a chain."

"You think that now," she says wearily. "I mean, you know where it is, we can get it. But I think this is going to end badly."

He closes his eyes and concentrates until he feels a bright silvery light tugging at his spine, drawing him north and west.

"Okay," he says. "Let's go."

Jennifer drives; he's curled around himself in the backseat, objects pushing at him from every direction. It's hard work to focus on just one object, and he sometimes feels it slip away, feels something else call to him instead. Anna keeps patting his hair, asking if he's okay, offering her fish. He grates out "fine," and "yes," and "thanks, sweetie."

He's relieved when Jennifer pulls up to an old house in Portland; he can relax, let go of the flashlight now. "It's inside," he says. "We can come back tomorrow."

"No, I'll get it."

She comes back in ten minutes with the flashlight. "It cost me twenty bucks. The guy was a flashlight collector, would you believe it?"

"Takes all kinds."

He buys a mesh bag on the way to the hotel and spends the night carefully stitching the flashlight inside it, and then the bag inside his jacket. "I'll want to go to the police station in Pittsburgh."

"It's your neck," she sighs.

They drive for three days. They pretend it's a road trip for Anna's sake; he teaches her the alphabet game in Idaho, the cow counting game in Nebraska, the license plate game in Iowa.

Jennifer pulls up outside his old station. He takes her hand, smiles grimly. "Listen. If something goes wrong..."

"I'll look after Anna."

He walks through his old hallway into the old computer room; it's late enough at night that there's nobody on the databases. He sits, stretches his hands, and types.

He finds Jennifer and Anna in an old diner six blocks away, hands Jennifer the mesh bag and the flashlight. "That's it. You can destroy it now."

She takes it and put it in her purse. "What did you do?"

He slumps down in the booth; he can't wait to get away from the city, from all the objects. "I made us all invisible."