What Was and What Can Be by Imogen Cassidy

In September of 1945, the sky opened up, and the magic came pouring back into the world. That’s what they said, any way, that it was magic.

Jill Foster wasn’t so sure. Jill Foster had faith in the ridiculousness of the human imagination. She was also familiar with the tendency of humans to classify things in a way that they understood. If something came through the Rift that looked like a demon, well — you called it a demon. If the new things certain people could do after the Rift seemed like magic? You called it magic. Names gave power to things.

That was one of the first things you learned when you started out.

***

“Ten bucks says he’s just paranoid,” Wilson was always ready to put money on things, something Jill found highly suspicious considering she was the one who signed his pay checks.

“You’re playing percentages,” she said, indicating and attempting to look at her phone at the same time. Wilson was supposed to be navigating, but he was crap at it.

He also didn’t have a driver’s license, something she was trying to rectify with lessons, but there was only so much stress she could take on a daily basis and he’d already ripped off one of the hubcaps today.

So she did both. “Mostly these jobs are people who are paranoid. But we’re obliged…”

“…To take them any way, I know. I just, you know, I’d like a haunting to be legitimate for once. It’s been months since we’ve had to face down a demon.”

She gave him a look.

He put up his hands. “I’m not gonna summon one!”

The look got sterner.

“Jesus, Jill, you’ve gotta lighten up sometimes.”

She pulled into the driveway of the block of flats. “I’m light.”

“No, you’re heavier than a bag of bricks. I don’t know how Gloria puts up with you.”

“It’s my tits.” His jaw dropped. She smirked and opened her door, getting out and eyeing the building in front of them. “Light enough for you?”

“I refuse to answer that on the grounds I might incriminate myself.”

It was a red-brick square block, facing the park. Nice area, but the building was in some disrepair – built  sometime in the seventies, she guessed, from the shape of the windows and the general blockiness of architecture that hadn’t quite worked out how to be functional and pretty.

Or, and she suspected this, even though she herself was a child of the seventies, their idea of pretty was different to what it was now.

The block of land it was on would be worth a lot. She suspected whoever owned it was waiting for it to fall apart, at which point they’d evict the tenants and bulldoze the place, sell the land to someone with a grand design idea, and in a decade there’d be a glass and concrete fortress here instead, all clean lines and light catching windows and expensive enough to make your wallet break down and cry.

“Bit of a shithole,” Wilson said.

Jill nodded.

“Not really the type to get a legitimate haunting though.”

“You’d be surprised,” she said, looking up and down the street. “Got a case in a building just like this once. Turned out some guy had murdered his mother and she was haunting him. Or at least, she thought she was haunting him.”

“She thought…?”

“He died right after he’d killed her. Accident with a spade, trying to bury the body. The only one who didn’t know was her. Once I explained it, she was fine to leave.”

“Ghosts are weird sometimes.”

“They’re people. You get all sorts.”

She checked the address and walked up to the buzzer.

“This job would be more glamorous in Europe,” Wilson said, as they waited for the client to answer. “Old castles, you know, churches. Graveyards.”

“I’m going to pretend you’re not a racist arsehole right now, Wilson,” she said, “so that we can concentrate on the job we have to do.”

“I’m not racist!”

“You just devalued an entire culture’s spiritual problems because you think western supernaturalism is superior.”

Wilson, to give him some credit, looked sheepish. “They never call us in to fix their problems,” he muttered.

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, and what does that tell you?”

***

People thought the world would change. Magic was back, they said, the world will explode, we’ll all be flying on the backs of dragons and questing with swords and fighting evil. It will be fantastic. Or it will be chaos.

Truth was, magic didn’t change much. Technology was easier than magic, because everyone could use it. If you had magic you could do spells and you could summon beings from beyond the Rift and you could… do other things that were really not that useful when it boiled down to it.

All it really did was cause problems. Which meant somebody had to fix the problems, and that was Jill’s living.

***

“Yes?” the voice answering the buzzer wavered. Age she’d guessed over the phone earlier, but now she wasn’t so sure.

“Mr Edgers? It’s Jill Foster, from Foster’s Agency?”

“The wizards?”

“Yes, Mr Edgers. Can we come up?”

“Of course.”

The buzzer went off and they pushed into the stairwell. No lifts, just worn, green carpet and a broken handrail on the stairs. Edgers was on the third floor.

“Smells like cat’s piss.”

“You’re being more than usually annoying today, Wilson.”

“Your face is annoying.”

“You’re fired.”

Edgers opened the door and Jill was not surprised to see that she’d been both wrong and right. He wasn’t old. He wouldn’t have been much more than her own thirty-six, but there were lines of care around his eyes that she knew she didn’t have, and his hair was thinning in patches all over his skull.

Stress, she guessed. Or just misfortune.

The flat was large, uncluttered and depressing. The curtains were drawn, even though it was a perfectly acceptable autumn day outside, the couch shabby, the rug thick with crumbs. A faint smell of rotting rubbish assaulted her nostrils and she did her best not to wrinkle her nose.

She’d seen worse.

Her own place had been worse, on occasion.

“Ms Foster thank you for coming so quickly.”

“It’s no problem Mr Edgers. Can you tell us which rooms are the most affected? We can get started on narrowing down whether a simple exorcism or some more esoteric methods will suit you…”

Edgers frowned and looked down at his hands. “Uh. I don’t think you understood my problem, exactly, Ms Foster.”

Wilson had moved to the mantlepiece and was looking at a collection of photographs.

“You said you were having problems with a haunting.”

“I… ah… I am. But I don’t want it to go away exactly.”

Jill bit her lip and glanced at Wilson, who had one eyebrow raised. She gave him small warning gesture. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to her, but it almost certainly was his. He was a young apprentice, after all.

“Why don’t you sit down and tell me what it is you’re looking for, Mr Edgers.”

Edgers sat on one of the kitchen chairs, and Jill perched, gingerly, on the edge of the musty couch.

“My wife died two years ago, Ms Foster. In this room.” Wilson made a face. Jill seriously considered shooting him.

“She’s been haunting you?”

“Yes. On and off, for the first year. She’d come every day. We’d talk. She seemed very calm. It was,” his voice shook. “It was as though she’d never left.”

Wilson was standing next to the window, now, looking bored. “Mark, why don’t you go out to the car for a bit,” she said. He gave her a look and she narrowed her eyes. “Get my kit. And call Dempsey, we still need more treated wolfsbane.”

“But I…”

“Just go, or so help me I will fire you.”

Wilson slouched out the door and she sighed. “I’m sorry Mr Edgers. Wilson’s new. He… doesn’t understand that this is delicate.”

“That’s all right, Ms Foster. I didn’t really expect you to believe me.”

“So she’s been haunting you for the past two years?”

He nodded. “At first it was every day. Then it was every week. Lately, lately she’s only been coming once a month and…”

Her heart clenched in sympathy. “You want to find a way to get her to stay?”

He nodded mutely.

Jill sighed and sat forward. “How did she die, Mr Edgers?”

“She had breast cancer. They caught it too late. They tried chemotherapy – healing stones – everything. In the end she just said she wanted to be at home.”

Jill frowned. It wasn’t an unexpected death, then. “Has she,” she stopped, frowning. “Does she know? That’s she’s dead?”

Edgers gave a short bark of a laugh. “I’ve never asked. I just… I didn’t want to frighten her. It was just so amazing to see her again I just…”

“It’s all right, Mr Edgers. I understand.”

He looked up. “Can you do anything?”

She could do a lot of things. She could tell him she suspected it was all in his head, that the haunting wasn’t real, that most people who experienced hauntings were just sensitives projecting their wants onto a world too torn by the Rift to know any better.

Jill could tell him that if it was a haunting the woman he loved had finally come to terms with her death, that she wanted to leave and was too frightened of hurting his feelings to tell him that. The dead are just like us, really, they get bored, they get tired, they fade because that’s what we’re designed to do.

There was a complicated and expensive ritual that would trap her spirit so he could talk to her whenever he wished. Jill knew how. She’d been taught, back in the day, before people realised precisely how awful a thing it was, to stop a sentient being from going where it was supposed to go.

There were agencies that would do it. That would skirt legality in order to make money. She wasn’t one of them.

“Mr Edgers, when a haunting fades it means the time is done,” she said softly. “I can’t force her to stay if she wants to go. Trying to keep her… would be cruel.”

“But I can’t…”

“Can’t what, Mr Edgers?”

He looked up at her, and she saw a well of pain in his eyes so deep that she rocked back on the couch.

“I can’t do this without her.”

She breathed in through her nose, the faint smell of garbage reaching her again, of life being lived without the person you love. She thought of Gloria, asleep, probably, hair stretched out on the pillow, snoring the way she always claimed she didn’t, leaving the cupboards open and forgetting to tell her what time her shift ended and being there, alive and warm and close.

“Okay.”

For the first time since she’d arrived, Edgers looked hopeful. “Okay?”

“I can help. But…”

“I can pay. I know it doesn’t look like I have much, but…”

She nodded. “I’ll send you an account, Mr Edgers.”

***

At the car, Wilson was smoking a cigarette, looking grumpy. He stubbed it out on the ground when Jill approached and she made a disgusted face. He rolled his eyes.

“What did you tell the poor bastard? Did we at least get a call out fee?”

Her hands still tingled from letting loose her power and her heart was heavy.

“We got our fee, Wilson.”

“You didn’t… you didn’t even need your kit. You didn’t…”

She snarled at him. “You don’t know this business at all, do you Wilson? What did you think, when they found you had the talent, that you could fleece people like that poor man for money and ignore the pain he was in? I’m not going to trap a spirit to help a man who is obviously broken.”

“So what did you do?”

She looked up at the window, to see Edgers standing there, smiling at someone only he could see. The blinds had been pushed open, letting sunlight into a flat that probably hadn’t seen it for two years.

“I just made it easier for him to see what he wants to. He was a sensitive,” she said softly. “The ghost was never there.”

At the window, Edgers threw back his head and laughed. Jill felt warmth spread from her belly up to her heart and she smiled as she got back into the car.

She let Wilson drive back to the office. He was angry with her, about something, about everything probably. She figured he’d probably quit soon. That was the thing they didn’t get, the Wilsons of this world. Magic wasn’t glamorous or interesting. It didn’t give you power that other people couldn’t duplicate in their own ways and it didn’t make you special. It was a tool people used, same as technology. It threw up as many problems as it solved. If Wilson couldn’t see what she’d done was merciful well…

…she didn’t want him as an apprentice any way.

Sure enough, the next morning when she got into the office, his desk was packed up and he didn’t show for work. Jill shook her head and started working on an ad to put in the paper — Apprentice Wanted, Independent Wizard. Odd hours, low pay and no tangible rewards.

She also sent Wilson a bill for the hubcap on her car.

He never paid it.

____________________________________________________________________________

Imogen Cassidy is a thirty-six year old mother of two from Sydney, Australia, currently juggling full-time study and full-time parenting with part-time writing. Imogen has worked in a number of jobs over the years, including a two year stint as a personal assistant to a private investigator — a job a lot less glamorous than it sounds. Most recently, she spent four years teaching English and History in Sydney Secondary Schools, before taking maternity leave on the birth of her first child. Imogen hopes one day the magic comes back.

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