When I stepped through the portal with Jo, this is what I saw of the other side in the first instant.
A persian-carpeted living room with book cases on two walls, and a brass light fixture hanging from the ceiling. Overstuffed couches upholstered in deep burgundy cloth. A massive multi-paned window, showing a wide garden surrounded by a tall brick wall.
And in that room sat Nonna, and Marina, and Martin, and my mother and father -- and on the other couch, Grandma and Aunt Esther.
And standing in front of me were three police officers.
Let me back up a bit. See, my family wasn't exactly sitting. They were just about to rise -- in fact, they were frozen in the act of rising, and they all looked like they were yelling. Meanwhile, the police officer on the left (I'll call him Moe) had his head turned right. The one in the center (let's call him Larry) was moving as if to tackle the guy on the right (Curly), who had his gun pointed straight at me.
And a bullet hung in the air, inches before my heart.
"I haven't exactly saved you," said a man's voice, "which is why I'm getting away with this. I imagine I'd get a lot more flak if I tried to bring you back from the dead."
A tall man with pale face and red hair stepped into the scene.
"Hello," he said, "you may remember me. Oh, that's right, you can't speak, can you? Well, come on, little shaman. Step out of your body for a moment and meet me. Here, I'll provide the music, how's that?" He whipped out a kazoo and buzzed "jingle bells."
Well, anything to make him stop.
Everything took on a shade of blue as I walked away from my earthly form. "Enough," I said. "What are you doing here, red-haired man, and why exactly have you made the world stop?"
"Oh, I'm not THAT powerful," said the red-haired man. "I'm just speeding up your perceptions a bit, that's all. Our conversation is currently on the scale of yoctoseconds. Now, really, who do you think I am?"
"You...look vaguely Scandinavian. Are you Loki? I thought he was bound for eternity because he ruined everything, or something."
He laughed. "As if that was the most important thing about him! As if he wasn't clever enough to escape such a simple imprisonment! What a shame everyone only remembers the worst things he did. Here, how about this?" His form rippled and shifted and shrunk, a bit, and he looked now like a very tall, raggedy dog standing on its hind legs, before he dropped to all fours. A dog-like creature with grey-tipped fur.
"You...oh, fuck you! You're the reason I'm in this mess!"
"Please, lass. I admit to playing a trick on you in order to get your shofar. I liked your shofar. But what rabbi would ever give me one? But YOU decided to escalate the whole situation by breaking open the police station, like the torso of an unlucky colonial marine! You're the reason you're in this mess. Well, not this immediate mess. Some people just can't be trusted with firearms, tsk tsk. But look, here's something else I can be."
His form rippled and shifted again, and now he was an especially large rabbit, stanting on its hind legs. "Had you been attacked and threatened unjustly, I might have appeared to you in this form. It's associated with a certain type of trickster. The little guy who never starts a fight, but wins against the big odds. You know him as Bugs Bunny, or Brer Rabbit, if you want to go back farther, or Hare, if you want to go back to the folktales of your ancestors. But you kind of started the current mess, really, so this form isn't for you. And then there's -- "
His form rippled and shifted once more, and he shrunk to the size of a rat. "This particular creature is also a trickster, though driven by hnger rather than justified by fear. Unlike the rabbit, the Rat can make the first move, and usually does, without you ever seeing him do so. Although I wouldn't call what I did in your case a "trick" so much as "lead you into a bad situation for my own amusement." Bit of the coyote there, eh? And yet, there are times when my favorite form is necessary."
The rat grew, and became a tall Black man.
"Because," said the man, "I do care about people. Especially when it comes to this city. And sometimes I need to actually set a good example and show that there's more to life than tricking someone out of the last bit of pigeon so you can avoid going hungry that night. So many fall into genuine cruelty and venality because they're desperate to survive. They become rats, slaves to their hunger. They are not free. They survive, but they are bound to this cycle of vicious survival The things that help them survive will not set them free. The things that will set them free, they may not survive. No wonder the choose short-term solutions. I choose this form when it's time for the jokes to end."
"I don't understand, " I said, "I thought you were trying to destroy this city, or subvert it, or something. Master Mazigh certainly thought so."
"And I assume your friend Jo told you that? Well, you heard I was on the borders, and your interpretation was self-serving. Why else have you never left this city?"
"No money for it."
"Ah." He frowned."Well, anyway, I like this city. There's so much trickery going on...so much cleverness and flim-flamming and bamboozling. Of course -- " He became a rat again. "Most of it from one poor slob to another. Petty stuff, like card sharps and gambling parlors and payday loans and telephone scams. Meanwhile the fat cats in the towers get away with the big tricks like ruining an entire economy by pushing bad loans. Still, the city amuses me." He became a ragged coyote. "Coyote has always been a sort-of friend to humans, because we have a few things in common. A certain element of...randomness, you might say. Every once in a while, you think you've got everything just right, and some idiot (like me) comes along and manages to topple the whole thing. One person who points out that this bolt is out of place. One person who's stupid or brave enough to ask the questions nobody wanted to ask, like "how do we bell the cat" or "how are we going to pay for this" or "what happens if we test the system by shutting down the fail-safes." And it all comes tumbling down, and I love it!"
He became the tall black man again. "And after that, you pick yourselves up out of the dust and keep on moving, as if nothing can stop you. Maybe that's the case."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I'm trying to say that I'm on your side, girl. I wasn't entirely certain about it, because I thought you might try to spoil the fun, but when you went back to the police station and turned yourself in -- well, that was completely crazy the way you went about it, but it was also the right thing to do. And you were willing to come back here, knowing even worse punishment was coming your way." He nodded to the bullet. "Not quite what I had in mind, of course. This fellow here -- " he tapped the right-most police officer on the head -- "this fellow made the easy choice, and defeated himself. he listened to the little voice inside him that told him what he wanted to hear, which was that his grief and pain and fear justified his decision to take revenge. What a difficult idea to ignore when you've lost a friend or five! And now he's going to lose me my best bet for saving this city, if I can't help you escape this situation."
"Saving -- wait, what from?"
The trickster became a little rabbit, and crouched and shivered. "I'm a manifestation of humanity, Pat. My power is limited to the roles I take within human stories. I'm mostly a trickster. And there's things coming that I can't handle. I can't argue with them, because they have no ears. I can't appeal to love and patience, because they have no hearts. I can't trick them, because their brains are beyond my understanding. And honestly, I don't have any idea if you can handle them either. But maybe a whole city can. Humans are very good at screaming defiance to the sky. You're really good at ignoring the question of what nameless horrors lurk on the far side of Heaven, and really good at carrying on even when you do consider the question. I need you, Pat, to gather the people of the five cities and unite them against the oncoming storm. This metropolis, united, has more power than I do."
"And how are they to resist these things that are coming? With clubs and axes? Is this an alien invasion?"
"Utterly alien. Not the sort of thing you can beat with clubs, I'm afraid. You'll have to think of something else. Something more in keeping with the style of a Shaman. I did tell the water towers to pass along that message. Did you ever meet one?"
"Oh, is that why I found one up on my roof? Not just a coincidence? Well, he said something about...'the greatest enemy is within.' Something like that. I forget what that meant."
"Well, if you had REMEMBERED, maybe you wouldn't have been so hasty in the past few weeks. Now, we're not running out of yoctoseconds by a long shot, but I'm getting bored. I've told you all I want to." He gestured to the bullet, which had inched closer. "You're going to return to your body and bullet will meet your sternum, unless you can stop it pretty damn quick. Can you all the spirits with 1 millionth of a second to spare?"
"I can call them now, if you like." I cupped my hands around my mouth, and imagined I was blowing a Shofar. Which is pretty effective when you're halfway to the spirit world. The resulting din reverberated. translucent glowing heads appeared out of the carpet, the walls, the book cases, the furniture, the door, the window, and one table lamp.
"Right, everyone," I said, "I need a favor. Jo told me you're all set up to make sure no magical harm comes to anyone inside this house, correct?"
"I wonder if you might lend me your aid to make sure no physical harm comes to my body either, considering my present circumstances. I daresay the action of the police officer here is not entirely justified. Which it needs to be if you're going to shoot someone. What say you?"
No guarantee that it will work unless fueled by a pretty big sacrifice
Say, the life of someone else
A friend, an enemy, some random dog, something like that.
"I'm not going to have anyone die on my account."
Exile, then. A kind of death.
"After a set amount of time, perhaps? I've got a few things to take care of around here."
3 days. Exile after three days. Not a sacrifice powerful enough to make you Superman, so the bullet might sting a bit, and your heart might stop, but, close enough for government work.
"Fine. Now, if you wall be so kind as to make your way into my head when I do, we'll get things moving again. Trickster --" I turned to the Coyote. "I may have need of you in the coming days."
"Fair enough," said the Coyote, "though I wouldn't...RELY upon me. You know who I am."
"I know that if your threat is credible, you're in as much danger as me. I trust that fear will overcome your bad habits. Now, let's get moving. Everyone ready to follow me?"
Pale, glowing, translucent blobs floated towards my body as I moved back into position.
I stepped back into myself.
I felt a heavy poke right in the sternum, and the bullet bounced off. Pale green light shone over the police officer as his companion wrestled the gun away.
My father had been about to reach the man with his hand, but everyone stopped when they saw me. Boy, what I wouldn't give for a mirror.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I truly am sorry. I was hasty and stupid and impatient, and I wound up killing a lot of people. How many are gone? Ten? Twelve? I don't know. One is too much. But killing me will only make you feel better. It won't bring them back. I'm sorry. Is there any price besides my life that I can pay to make restitution?"
Nobody said a word, for a while. Then Grandma spoke. "Used to be," she said, "used to be you'd kick someone out into the wilderness, if they'd done wrong. That's what they did to Erik the Red. But there ain't no more wilderness, except the realms of death."
"You know, you have broken federal law," said the officer Larry. "That's not something that anyone in this city can pardon. You'd have to get a pardon from the President himself for that."
"Suppose I were to save your city from an alien invasion. Would that do it?"
Officer Moe scoffed. "Aliens? Please. We have the missiles to handle funny little green men."
"Not alien to earth. Alien to this universe. The kind of aliens whose physical reality ignores missiles and bombs."
"If I do succeed and the president pardons me, is exile a sufficient price to pay?"
"Perfectly fine by me," said officer Curly.
"You shut up," said my father. "You've already made your point already."
"Hey, don't go around insulting an officer," said officer Moe.
"He shot at my daughter -- "
"Fine. Fine. Exile it is. I'll go wherever the wind takes me and trouble you no more. Jo, what say you? If you follow me, you're leaving everything behind. This mess isn't your fault."
"Well..." She glanced at Mr. Mazigh. "I think I'm about done with my current master anyway. And maybe there's a better Wizard College than the one at NYU, who knows? Mom and Dad wanted me to find a job somewhere beyond NYC anyway. But it's a year before we're even legally adults...what exactly would we do for survival? I can't magic bread out of the air yet. I've got a cousin in Saint Louis we could stay with, but we can't impose on them forever."
"Hold on a second," said my mother. "Who said you were going alone?"
"You can't expect your family to just leave two seventeen-year old girls out in the wilderness," said Nonna. "That would be irresponsible. Why, who knows what you could get up to? Both of you are pretty dangerous as it is." She winked.
"I can't...please! I don't want more people to have their lives disrupted because of me! What about your jobs? Your connections? Everything you've built?"
"We're barely scraping by as it is," said my Father. "That's the part of the story where the family pitches things into the covered wagon and heads West. Very American, you know. Happens all the time."
"Your ancestors did the same thing to come north," said Aunt Esther. "Sold everything and moved to Harlem, the Promised Land. The lives they left behind weren't going to do them no good."
"And how did that go?"
"Not very well," said Grandma, "Not very well at all. But still better than sharecropping! A little bit, at any rate. It was new. That was the important thing. Different people to hold our debts, was the result. Well, maybe we'll find better luck this time around."
"You're coming too? Oh, good God. Who ISN'T coming along?"
"I've got to stay here for Matthias and Michael," said Esther. "They're not even close to getting out of school yet. And Martin here doesn't want to abandon his plumbing business."
"I wouldn't say that," said Martin. "But you're going to a random location. I can't pick up stakes without knowing the destination. Call me when you get wherever you're going, and I'll try to see if there's any work available there for me."
"Marina, what about you? What about your schooling?"
"Pat, how many times have I been suspended in the past three months?"
"Five. I see your point. Fine. Everybody's going to follow a dangerously irresponsible girl into exile, is that it?"
"Hells yeah," said Marina, "what did you expect? That your family would abandon you? Come on, Pat. We watched Lilo and Stitch together. Ohana means family..."
"Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten."
"Getting back to pressing issues," said officer Moe, "there's an alien invasion we can't shoot at and you think you'll be able to help. How long do you have?"
"I don't know. I have no idea when they're coming or how. But I know how I can find out. Just let me go and say that I escaped back to Down New York. I've got some work to do that requires sitting on the sidewalk. Come on, Jo, I may need you for this."
Jo took my hand, and she followed in my wake as I Speed Walked out of the mansion.
This was going to be very cold, in the next 24 hours.