Kyle flipped through the paper as he half-heartedly ate his lunch. The break room at the convenience store where he worked was dirty and unkempt, but he ignored it and turned back to browsing the ads.
I’ve got to find a place to live, he thought. I can’t stay at home any more. Not after last night. Not after Dad hit me and called me a fag. He rubbed his hand back through his medium-length brown hair and sighed. All these places want security deposits, though. I can’t afford that kind of money. Not on minimum wage.
He allowed himself a moment of bitterness as he thought of all his college dreams that had been washed away the moment his dad had found the gay porn magazines under his bed. I thought I was safe. I didn’t know they suspected and would go looking through my things. This has easily been the worst year of my life.
He looked at a small nondescript ad and felt his heart rise a little. FREE ROOM AND BOARD WHILE YOU LEARN. MUST BE OPEN-MINDED AND WILLING TO STUDY THE ANCIENT ART OF MAGIC. SERIOUS APPLICANTS APPLY IN PERSON ONLY.
Magic? Kyle thought. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? Still, free room and board, for what, pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Could even lead to a job. I mean, I’m not really the showbiz type, but come on, I’m desperate here. It has to be worth a look, right?
Another voice inside his head shot him a warning. It could be a trap. Lure in broke young people with the promise of a free room and sell them into sex slavery, something like that.
“Yo, Kyle!” The voice of Kyle’s supervisor boomed from the floor. “Twenty minutes is up, I need you out here now!”
“I’m coming,” Kyle said. He moved to get up and then paused for a second. On impulse, he tore the ad out of the paper and pocketed it before opening the break room door and returning to work.
* * *
Kyle grabbed his bag and punched out without a word. He was exhausted, but reluctant to go home to another round of arguing with his parents. It’s been a year since they found the magazines. They’re never coming around. It just gets worse the more Dad realizes I’m not changing.
Kyle walked through town and past the graveyard, the light rain making his clothes soggy and uncomfortable. He pulled the ad out of his pocket and looked at the address. Mayberry Hill. That’s near here. Maybe I should just give it a look. I can always leave if I don’t like what I see. Right?
He turned into the graveyard and cut through, taking the path up to Mayberry Hill. An old house stood there. It might have been grand in its day, but it was starting to deteriorate, the old bricks crumbling and exposed to the elements where the siding had been stripped away.
Does anyone even live here? Kyle wondered. He shrugged to himself and continued up the path. The house looked nicer on closer inspection, with a small herb garden growing out front and several greenhouses off to one side. A magician with green fingers. Just what kind of person am I going to meet?
Kyle stepped up to the door and took a deep breath, suddenly feeling nervous. He raised the knocker on the old wooden door and knocked three times. He chewed his lip while he waited and was about to give up when the door opened with a creak of resistance.
A man stood in the doorway, and whatever Kyle had been expecting, the man was not it. He was somewhere in his forties, with raven black long hair that showed signs of grey and even white, with a weathered face that told of a life of experience and wonder. He had blue eyes that seemed to crackle with electricity and Kyle found himself almost entranced by them. He wore jeans and a red turtleneck sweater and smiled slightly.
“I’m… I’m here about the…” Kyle started.
“The job, yes? Come on in.” The man ushered him in and soon Kyle was standing in a cavernous hallway, the floor covered with elaborate tiles and the walls decorated with various paintings. He let himself soak in the atmosphere of the place. I’ve never been in a house like this before. I’ve always lived in little boxes. This place is old, maybe as old as this country.
“You have a very nice house,” Kyle said.
The man simply laughed. “These walls could tell you a million stories, I’m sure,” he said. “Not all of them nice, I’m certain.” He led Kyle to a back office and pulled up a chair for him to sit in. Kyle sat down nervously, the expensive soft leather chair not comforting his nerves.
“Relax,” the man said. “I’m not going to eat you.” He held out his hand. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. I’m Robert Siegfried.” Kyle took his hand and shook it. He felt softness and sincerity in the firm grip, a warmth that seemed to tingle long after Robert had let go.
“I’m Kyle Anderson,” Kyle said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You’re a polite young man. How old are you?” Robert asked.
“Twenty,” Kyle said.
“Don’t lie to me,” Robert said. “Eighteen, nineteen? Not a day older, that’s for sure.”
“Nineteen,” Kyle confessed.
“There’s nothing wrong with being young,” Robert said. “A young mind is better suited to learn.”
“About that… The ad mentioned learning the ancient art of magic. So, you’re an entertainer?” Kyle asked.
Robert chuckled, a laugh as soft as velvet. “You think you came here to learn how to pull a rabbit out of a hat or saw a woman in half?”
“I… I guess,” Kyle said. “I mean, I don’t mind. I’d be willing to learn.”
“I don’t do parlor tricks,” Robert said. “I’m not the kind of magician you think.” He stood up. “Kyle, I’m one of the last witches in America.” He walked around the desk, allowing Kyle to soak it up. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order.”
He snapped his fingers and blue sparks collected in his hand. Kyle stared, his mouth open, amazed.
“How did you…?”
“Magic,” Robert smiled. “An art as ancient as human civilization. The power to bend and shape the elements of the world to our will. That’s what I want you to learn. I want you to stay here and become my apprentice.” Robert leaned on his heavy wooden desk. “Magic can change your world, if you let it in. This could be the defining moment of your life, but you have to make the choice. This isn’t some part-time job. Becoming a witch is a lifestyle of the weird and wonderful that will expand your mind and change your worldview. Are you open enough to accept that?”
Kyle sat in his chair, speechless. No way, this can’t be real. This is too good, too incredible. There has to be a snag.
“What’s the catch?” Kyle asked.
“The catch?” Robert asked.
“Good things don’t happen to me,” Kyle said. “I was bullied all through high school. My parents have rejected me based sorely on my sexuality. I’ve lost my chance to go to college and have a better life. Why would you give a loser like me the chance to do… something like this?”
“You have potential,” Robert said. “Do you think you’re the only one who answered the ad? I’ve been inundated with Wiccan soccer moms, down-on-their-luck entertainers, brothel-seekers and would-be cult followers. You’re the first one who’s held an open mind and heart. The first one who took my handshake and radiated natural power. I can feel the fire inside of you, Kyle. Those others never could have been witches, but you truly could be, given time and dedication.”
“What would I do with magic?” Kyle asked.
“That’s up to you,” Robert said. “I hope I can instill good values in you, but if you choose to use your inner fire to burn down the city, that’s part of the natural balance. Of course, if it came to that, I would stop you. My hope is that you’ll use your power to do good and eventually pass it on to the next generation. Being a witch will never make you wealthy, but it’s an amazing life, filled with things I cannot even describe to you.”
“This is so much to take in,” Kyle said.
“If you need time to think it over, feel free,” Robert said. “This isn’t a decision to take lightly. This will change the entire course of your life.”
“I’ll do it,” Kyle said. “I want to do it. It’s as if I’ve been waiting for this call my whole life.”
“Don’t get above yourself,” Robert smiled. “Come on, I’ll show you your room.”
Kyle was led through another maze of hallways and up two flights of stairs. Robert opened a door into a cavernous bedroom. “This will be your room. Mine’s right next door, so if you need anything, I’m right there.”
“I should go and get my things,” Kyle said. “What should I tell my parents?”
“Tell them what you want to tell them,” Robert said. “You might to leave out the part about the magic, though. They probably won’t believe you.”
“I’m not sure I believe it,” Kyle said. “I wonder if I’ll step outside and wake up.”
Robert smiled. “I’m not going anywhere. So go get your things, explain to your parents that you’re going away, and I’ll see you later.”
“Okay,” Kyle said. He let himself be led through the house to the front door, almost in a daze. This has to be a dream. There’s no way I step out of my life into this fantasy world and learn magic from a man who’s the most attractive guy I’ve ever seen. It just doesn’t happen.
Kyle pinched himself on the way out.
* * *
“Kyle, you can’t leave without telling us where you’re going!” Kyle’s mom stood up from her reclining chair, a concerned look on her face.
“I’m going to live with friends, Mom,” Kyle said. “Look, here’s the address. Call me on my cellphone if you need me. It’s better this way.”
“Let him go,” Kyle’s dad said. “He’s made his choices.”
That I have, Kyle thought, carrying his bags outside and closing the door for the final time. He rushed across town as fast as he could with his heavy load and was relieved to see Robert standing in the yard. He smiled a little as Kyle dragged his things into the yard. Robert summoned a raven to him and it sat on his shoulder as he walked over and took some of Kyle’s baggage.
“You keep birds, too?” Kyle asked. “Or is this another magic thing?”
“Every witch has a familiar, an animal that is close to them,” Robert said. “You will find yours, in time, and learn to see through its eyes, hear through its ears and use it to witness another state of being.”
“That raven… Were you watching me?” Kyle asked, suddenly disquieted.
“I did not know if you intended to return. I’m sorry.” Robert held out his arm and the bird hopped onto it, then flew off with a great flap of wings. “I needed to know I was not wasting my time. You seemed eager, but…”
“I’m not the first,” Kyle realized.
“Minds are quite fickle. Some disbelieve what they have seen. Others are terrified by it. Many do not return.” Robert opened the door and headed upstairs, carrying Kyle’s bags with ease.
“I want to learn,” Kyle said. “Everything you’ve shown me today… It’s amazing.”
“I’m grateful to see a curious mind,” Robert said. He put the bags down in Kyle’s room. “Come with me a second. There’s something I want to show you.”
Kyle followed as if in a trance, exhaustion washing over him. Is this where the hammer hits? The price of all this? Nothing in this world is ever free.
Robert unlocked a door and Kyle followed him into a grand library, where books lined the walls and sat in piles. A large, ancient book sat upon a table in the center, open and well-read.
“This is the Penumbra,” Robert said. “All of the collective knowledge of witches since the dawn of our kind is written here. This is the book you will study as you learn to unlock and master your hidden potential.”
Kyle stepped forward and looked at the open page, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Birds are among the hardest of all familiars to master. Their flighty nature can be difficult for humans to understand, yet they can be a powerful ally to any witch, becoming eyes and ears that can reach places no human can.
Pictures of birds were scrawled underneath. Kyle reached forward and turned a few pages, drinking in the illustrations of fire and ice, elemental diagrams and pentagrams. A whole new world. A whole new life. It’s incredible. He turned the page again to see a drawing of two men engaged in coitus. “Sex Magic” was written at the top of the page.
“Well, uh, we don’t keep all the traditions of the old days,” Robert said. “It’s up to each individual witch to decide on the traditions he or she will pass on. Though sex magic is very powerful. The power of two witches combined as one is fearsome and spiritual.”
“You’ve done it?” Kyle was reddening deeply.
“A long time ago.” Robert reached in and closed the Penumbra. “In another time, another life, almost. My master was very important to me, back then.” He looked down at the floor.
“Your master? Is this… Is that what this is?” Kyle struggled to find the words but Robert could feel him tensing, getting ready to flee. Robert grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Listen, Kyle. You are here of your own free will. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to do. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. You’re my student, that’s all. I didn’t lure you here to sleep with you or anything like that. Gods, I’ve given him all the wrong ideas. He must think I’m a pervert. “Magic is what you want it to be. It’s as wild or as tame as you need it to be. You control it.” Kyle relaxed in his grip and Robert let go. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t,” Kyle said. “I was just surprised, that’s all. I have a lot to learn, I know.”
“Starting tomorrow, you will learn,” Robert said. “For now, however, I suggest you sleep. Your room has a lock on the inside. In case you want it.”
“Okay,” Kyle said. He realized he was still wearing his convenience store uniform. He went to his room and stripped down to his underwear. He eyed the lock and decided against it. He’s not out to hurt me. I trust him. I don’t know why, but I do.