Trying to do something a little different this year: NaNoWriMo and Iron Noder at once. While I doubt I will succeed, what with my now having a life, I will try my darnedest to finish this thing.
I wasn't there when the man in black first came to 3/4ths Market Street.
I was at school, hanging around the back of class, listening to--and being ignored by-- the teacher. It didn't matter that she couldn't see me; I still liked Mrs. Hathaway and still liked listening to her teach. Well, most of the time. It had been a few years since I was officially in her class, and every year the other students changed, but Mrs. Hathaway always seemed to stay the same. It was comforting.
I stayed for her talk on geography and history and then through a few stories about her kids when they were little (because she was one of those teachers whose mind always wandered part way through a lesson) until she got to math. At math I decided to call it quits. I hadn't cared much for math back then, and it didn't much play into my life now.
I got up and walked silently through the door. Nobody saw me-- nobody could see me. Then, seeing as how that was all I really wanted to do that day, I went back to 3/4ths Market Street.
3/4ths Market Street is home, and the only place where I can stay solid without having to think too hard on it and go wispy on command, rather than the other way around. It’s also kind of a strange place if you aren’t used to it, but I know everybody and everybody knows me and, yeah, maybe they’re not all nice, but they know we got to stick together, so they only try stuff on tourists.
Most of them are nice, though. Just so you know.
When I got back that day, I knew right off that something was different. It was like coming home and smelling a new smell in your house. Not a bad smell, just a different one. Only it wasn't smell really (and if it had been a smell I never would have noticed it because Market Street is so full of old smells and new smells and smelly smells that one more smell would have just gotten swallowed by the whole smelly mess). It was like a feeling in my head and in the air that something here was new, and if there was something new then it was my job to find out what it was. Because-- well, I like new things.
So I followed the not-smell until it lead me to the taco stand where my father's doppelganger works.
The source of the smell was a man. He was tall and waspy-thin and had a long black jacket that almost touched the ground. He had little silver buttons on the cuffs of his sleeves and one of those longish faces that looked like somebody had taken a regular happy sort of face and had gotten to it with a knife so that all the edges were sharp and turned it into a face inclined to be on the sadder side.
In his hand, tucked inside a flimsy-thin napkin, was a taco. He was eying it with suspicion. I crept up beside him and said,
"It's okay. They don't look like much, but they're the best tasting thing in the world."
If he was surprised at all that I was there, he didn't show it. Didn't even jump, for all that I'd done the trick where I start off invisible and then creep up and then turn visible again. Even people who've known me for ages still hop when I do that.
"So I've been told," he said without looking at me. He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. After a bit, he nodded. "You're right."
"Told ya. Hi. What's your name? Are you new? You look new and sort of smell new-- only it's not a real smell like with the nose, it's like a smell for the head but anyways yeah my name's Drea and have you ever been to market street before? I don't remember seeing you before and also you got some taco on your face right there by your lip and anyways hi!"
I grinned and waved at him.
He wiped off his face with his sleeve and smiled back. It was a nice smile and looked kind of weird on his sharpish-sad face. "I only caught perhaps half of that."
"Sorry I talk sorta fast sometimes. My name's Andrea. Who're you? Are you new? Are you moving in? How come your jacket's so long? Are you going to finish that taco?"
"Maybe later." The taco and wrapper disappeared into a large pocket on his coat. "Are you the welcoming committee?"
"I guess so yeah. I like meeting new people. I already know everything about this place so seeing something new is always nice, or interesting rather since maybe you're not nice at all, but never mind I bet you are because you've got that smile and why is your jacket so long, isn't it hot? Are you like Tansy, then? She never gets hot either and always wears long sleeves, even in the summer. You should meet her, she's nice too. Oh!"
I smacked my forehead because of the total obviousness of the idea that just hit me. "I know! Come on, follow me. You can meet everyone while we're at it. I'll show you around."
I grabbed his sleeve and pulled him down the street. At first he wouldn't budge, but after a second he started walking along side and let me lead him away.
"That's Mrs. Pendanski," I said, pointing out where Mrs. Pendanski was watching us from her rocker on her stoop across the street. Her boarding house was tall and narrow like all the other buildings on the street but also made out of brick, which made it stick out. "She owns the whole building and rents it out, but still takes in laundry to bring in extra money. My mom told me she used to be a cancan dancer."
I waved and elbowed the man in black so he waved too. Mrs. Pendanski didn't wave back because she wasn't a wave-y person, but she closed her eyes and nodded at us like a queen acknowledging her people, and I knew that was as good as we were going to get. I pulled him past.
A few feet down was an enormously fat hobo looking man with a battered top hat and a jacket that didn't fit around his big belly. He was faced against a windowless patch of building, arguing with his shadow.
"That's Chauncey," I said.
The shadow, apparently not liking what it was hearing through Chauncey's thick Romanian accent punched Chauncey in the face, with its arm actually coming out of the wall and looking for a split second like it was three-dee. Chauncey grabbed his nose and started cursing.
I giggled and pulled the man in black along. Chauncey didn't notice me because he was still bent over and holding his nose, but his shadow gave a little bow and tipped its hat to us.
I was still leading and I didn't look back, so I couldn't see what he looked like, but the man in black's hand started to go clammy, so I suppose he was a bit shaken up. His voice, however, was steady.
"That man's shadow--"
"Yup," I said, still not looking back. "Don't worry, if he hit Chauncey, it was only 'cause he deserved it. Chauncey's shadow is the sensible one out of the two."
"But his shadow--"
"Aww, don't be scared," I said, "People here are mostly nice."
"Andrea." He stopped walking, so I stopped walking too. "You're a ghost."
"Yep." I let go of him and waved to Mrs. Morten, who was across the street at her fruit stand.
She waved back and shouted and pointed to a pineapple. I didn't hear what she said, but I knew my mom had been wondering about the next time Mrs. Morten would get in pineapples (because she doesn't always have them) and so I shouted back, "I'll tell her!"
The man in black watched with a funny look on his face.
"Does she know you're dead?" he said. "Her and Mrs. Pendanski and Chauncey?"
"Yup. Everybody does."
The black eyed kids playing marbles didn't look up when we passed. I took a glass marble I'd gotten earlier in the week out of my pocket and flicked it into their circle, knocking several of their marbles out.
They all glared at me and I waved at them because it's always fun to annoy boys. The man in black gasped when he saw their shark-looking teeth.
"Don't worry," I said. "They're not nice at all, but they only bite if you get too close."
We walked off, leaving them to their game.
"So yeah," I said, "I've been dead for about five years now and everybody knows. Mr. Jackson hit me with his car, but it's okay 'cause we're friends now. It was all over Mr. Gregor's flyer for a whole week."
The man in black was starting to look the way someone does when they're being buckled into a roller coaster: like they're too far in to go back, but at the same time are starting to feel a little sick just from looking at the loopdeloops. "Oh?"
It occurred to me that he, being new, wouldn't know about the flier.
"Mr. Gregor does a flyer every day with everything that happens in Market Street. Everything. Actually, he probably already knows you're here."
I grabbed a flyer that was on the ground, by the man in black's feet. He stepped back, startled.
"Was that there before?"
I opened up the flyer read a bit. "Nope. Usually they show up on people's doorsteps, but if someone wants one, one will usually show up. Ah! Here we go, look."
I held the flyer out to him. There were two full pages dedicated to the man in black. There were pictures.
One showed the man in black stepping on to Market Street, smiling absently and looking generally hopeful. Another was of him at the taco stand, looking at something in his hand that was too small for the picture to really show, but didn't really look like a taco from what I could tell. The third was of him and me, standing on the street, talking.
His eyes widened and he looked around.
"Mr. Gregor talks to the street," I said. "He talks to the side walk and the road and the buildings and the street lamps, and I think he can talk to the pigeons but I'd have to ask Pigeon Man to make sure. He knows everything about everyone and a lot of it goes in to his flyer unless it's indecent or a secret. He's good at keeping secrets. What does it say about you?"
His eyes flicked back to the paper.
"'A mysterious man in black bearing the signature aura of an Exorcist-' now how does he know--? Nevermind. 'Of an Exorcist comes to Market Street and partakes of the local color, escorted by our own local angel--'"
"That's me! That's me!"
"'-Andrea Michanovich, may her soul never rest-'" and it just goes on saying everything we've done so far." He turned the paper and paled. "Including us reading this flyer." He showed me a picture of the both of us looking at the flyer.
"It's cool, huh?"
He folded the flyer and put it in his pocket. "Not the word I would have chosen. Andrea," he said seriously. "Do you know what an Exorcist is?"
"Yup!" I said. "Like in a gym, right? Only I think you might have trouble if you want to work here because there isn't a gym-- or are you gonna start one? Or maybe you can help just one person because-- and please don't tell anyone I said this- but Mr. Gregor is kind of on the big side and so maybe he might use a little help--"
"That's not what an Exorcist does, Andrea."
"Oh. What do you do, then?"
He looked sort of embarrassed. "An Exorcist is somebody who, among other things, gets rid of ghosts."
I frowned. "Why?"
"Ah. Well." He shuffled a bit, like he was embarrassed, though I couldn't tell what he would be embarrassed about. "Sometimes a ghost will pick a place or a person and bother them. They'll pick the spot and just never leave. So sometimes somebody has to step in and make them leave."
"Oh." I thought about it for a second. "That's kind of a stupid job."
"Well, yeah. I mean, if I was annoying somebody, you can bet they'd be right quick to tell me. And if I didn't leave, even after they asked, then you can bet I would get into ten kinds of trouble when my mom found out."
"Sometimes it's not-- Your mother?"
"Yup. Dad would probably give me an earful too, but he's never as bad as Mom can be when she's riled."
"Ah," he said. "Right. Well, not all spirits have parents around to keep them in check. Sometimes it's not that easy," His breath was starting to fog, like it was winter instead of summer. "Sometimes they can't accept that their time is over and that they need to move on. And sometimes when we try to tell them, they get so mad that they hurt the people. A lot of times their just being there hurts people--"
"But that's stupid!" I said again. "Why should they have to move on at all if they don't want to? Move on to where?"
"Because they're dead. Because it's what they're supposed to do--"
"So you're saying I should go away too?"
"Well--" His breath was really coming out in fog, now. His lips were starting to tinge blue. I didn't care.
"Well fine. I won't bug you anymore."
And I vanished right there. Turned totally invisible. He whirled around, looking for me. "Andrea?" he said. "Andrea?"
But I didn't answer. I was mad, alright. I give him a tour and try to show him around and then he goes telling me I should go away. Not just from him (which I might've understood since Mom told me once that sometimes people needed space to themselves and, more specifically, a little space from me), but from my street-- it was just rudeness, plain and simple. This was my street-- who was he telling me I should go? He was some-- some-- some. . . new guy.
I hadn't been that mad in ages. Even after Mr. Jackson hit me with his car, I hadn't been mad. I waited until I thought he looked really sorry, and then turned for home.
He stood on the sidewalk and waited until the chill in the air had gone away completely, leaving the only the warm summer air, and he felt a twinge of guilt in the core of his belly. He should've released her when he had the chance. That's why he was here, wasn't it? To-- among other things-- release all the spirits and wayward souls trapped here. It was why the Order had sent him.
But. . .
The ghosts he'd met before were sad things, filled with anger and remorse and unfinished business. He thought of the girl chattering away, waving to her neighbors and interacting with the world like the happy child she'd probably been in life.
That wasn't right.
He took the flier out of his pocket and found another picture of himself, this time alone. The caption beneath it read,
'Exorcist rid of ghost, not through religion, but bad manners!'
Callahan crumpled up the flyer and tossed it into the street. There was no time for this. He had work to do.
He moved down the street and tried to look purposeful. In truth, he didn't know where to begin. The whole damned place was so crowded. The buildings were tall and narrow and utterly mismatched, not just with each other, But sometimes with themselves. Buildings that had a certain style of window would suddenly have a different kind on the latter half, or would go from having wooden paneling to brick or a completely different wood style-- things like that. The effect was like someone had swapped out parts of buildings with others.
Despite the bright colors, the looming buildings and heavy air gave the street a ridiculously claustrophobic feel. There were few pedestrians out- in fact he seemed to be the only person walking down the street at all. The place was certainly crowded, but everyone seemed to stick within a door or two of their own homes. They clustered on stoops and porches, talking, laughing, arguing. Up ahead and across the street, a man in a lime green suit was playing the violin for a group of children.
Callahan frowned. The music coming from the violin was a mixture of regular-- if beautifully played-- violin music and. . .
To his left was a rare unattended stoop. Wind had blown in trash and leaves onto the steps, and nobody had seen fit to clean it in what looked like some time. When he backed up to see the windows, he found them all either broken and boarded up or lined with newspaper and scrawled over with spray paint.
He cleared away some debris and sat down, directly in view of the violinist and the crowd. Without taking his eyes off the violinist, he stuck his hand into the pocket of his duster- the same pocket he'd tucked the taco in earlier.
The pocket was deep and loose. It was also unquestionably empty.
Still keeping his eyes on the violinist, he thought clearly, spectacle case.
Spectacle case, he thought again, this time a little more firmly.
He rolled his eyes and said aloud, "Spectacle case."
There was a brief feeling of movement. Suddenly the hand in his pocket wasn't empty anymore. He drew out his hand. Now he was holding a brown, faux-leather glasses case. When he opened it, he found it empty.
Scowling, he thrust it back into his pocket and said, "Spectacle case with the spectacles inside them. Please."
Another brief rustle of movement. He brought the case back out, and this time his glasses were inside.
The glasses themselves looked like normal glasses, albeit ones that were at least a hundred years out of style. They, like the duster, were an initiation gift from the Order. Tools of the trade.
He put them on, and Market street blazed.
Already brilliant colors amplified tenfold, burning with internal light. Magic was everywhere. Security spells woven intentionally into the doors and windows of homes glowed brightly from regular reinforcement. Weak and half-forgotten good luck charms with faded light were hung on doorknobs or were stuck onto walls, more for decoration than anything else. What he had taken to be random graffiti on a nearby wall suddenly became a crystal sigil that glowed with blue light and rang like bells in his head when he looked too closely at it. Over the years magic had been slowly absorbed into the paint on the walls and the pavement on the street and even the air itself had barely perceptible tinges of colors in places. And everywhere he looked, he saw creatures that he'd only ever seen before in textbooks from the Order's library.
And across the street, the violinist in the green suit, still playing his song to the delight of the growing crowd, became a man-sized grasshopper. He still had his violin, but he accompanied the music with chirps he made by rubbing and kicking his legs. Men with spiraled silver horns and hooved feet in place of shoes grinned while women with extra eyes and pointed ears clapped along to the tune.
While Callahan sat staring, a group of children ran past him to catch an oncoming man with an ice cream cart. He could make out one or two humans in the group, but the majority of them seemed to be made out of miscellaneous bits. One boy had spider legs coming out of his back and arachnid fangs protruding from his mouth. He was being picked on by a girl with a fox's tail and ears while another girl with green skin and dragonfly wings goaded her on. The ice cream vendor himself would have passed for normal, if not for the fact that he had an extra two arms handing out cones.
Callahan suddenly felt lightheaded.
He sank back against the steps and let himself look up. Even the sky was not safe: above him a winged cat and a few kittens flew by, chasing a sparrow. A tiny winged human being the size of Callahan's index finger carried even tinier bags of groceries up to the roof of the house to which the stoop belonged. There was a hole in the wall where apparently the little man lived. A moment later, an equally tiny woman came out and took one of the bags from him. Together, they entered the hole.
He couldn't take it anymore. He took the glasses off.
The magic went immediately invisible again, as did most people's extraordinary personal characteristics. The spider boy no longer had arachnid legs or fangs, just an overbite. The vendor didn't have four arms, he was just moving very quickly.
Callahan looked up. The winged cats stubbornly remained winged cats, and they perched on the roof next door, kittens one-by-one being groomed by their mother.
So many. There are so many of them, he thought. The place was crawling with them.
This wasn't the first time he'd come across supernatural entities before- the Fringe Folk, as they were sometimes called in the department. It was a requirement in his line of work. Plenty of times he'd gone with his mentor or fellow initiates to deal with magically inclined lawbreakers or to track down troublesome spirits. But never so many at once. Never with more of them around than humans. And never had he seen them acting so. . . Normal.
The girls were still picking on the spider boy. Another little girl, one he remembered being human, chased the other girls off with a horseshoe. They ran, and together she and the spider boy went to get an ice cream from the vendor.
This didn't feel like a swarm of monsters hiding in the midst of a human city. This felt like a very close, very busy immigrant neighborhood.
I have to tell Harrington, he thought. He'll want to know.
The violinist finished his song with a bow. The crowd applauded and started dropping money into his hat before dispersing. Callahan got to his feet. There was work to be done, and he couldn't afford to waste time gawking. He put the spectacles back on and looked at the road.
Beneath the layer of casually absorbed magic and the ethereal graffiti, there was a Line. It nearly invisible; he had trouble picking it out at first. But eventually he got the hang of it. The trick was, Callahan learned, wasn't so much to look for the Line itself, but to where its borders met everything else.
There, right along the edges of the Line, was a slight blur. If he stared at it long enough then he'd see the line jump into focus while the regular road around it dimmed slightly. The Line was about four feet wide, and it ran straight down the road, semi-transparent over the concrete. Every crack and groove and mote of dust within the Line became super clear, making the rest of the road seemed unfocused by comparison.
Callahan watched the line burst into sudden clarity and smiled. He got to his feet and, while still remaining on the sidewalk, followed the line down the road.