Have you ever discovered a debut author whom you just know is “one to watch”? We have! Lamar Giles is an exciting new voice in YA crime fiction. He’s the author of the soon-to-release YA thriller FAKE ID (HarperCollins, coming 1/21/14), about a high school boy in a witness protection program who unravels a murder mystery. Lamar is also a versatile writer, able to leap fearlessly across genre boundaries, even into the realm of magic, as he demonstrates in this YARN exclusive short story.
YARN is thrilled to introduce you to Lamar Giles and to present his long short story, “Long’s Division.” Studying for the SAT? Feeling pressured about college from parents? This story presents a most unusual solution.
An Arcanum Act Story
By Lamar Giles
Furlong Lee—“Long” to family and the few friends who passed his mother’s muster—woke up with a rotten taste in his mouth and bad breath blowing hot across his face. He was sixteen, had no siblings, and shared quarters with no one.
So who the heck was breathing on him?
He opened his eyes a sliver. Someone’s wide, unblinking eyes stared back.
Freaking, Long whipped his tangled sheets into a maelstrom, freeing one hand. He lurched for the little ball-chain dangling from his bedside lamp . . . only to graze a stranger’s clammy hand reaching for the lamp, too.
“Mom, help!” he screamed. “Burglars!”
The lamp flared, triggered by one of the supposed burglars. Long now sensed around him. Despite the retina-frying pain of going from low light (because Mom read dark window covers promoted better rest, thus increasing academic performance) to a sizzling 100 watts (bright, fluorescent bulbs were ideal for night reading) he did not blink. Tears blurred what couldn’t be real. His room wasn’t filled with burglars.
It was filled with him.
Five hims, to be exact.
All of them sweeping gazes across the other Furlong Lee carbon copies.
“Who are you?” Long asked, knowing but not believing. “This is a joke, right?”
They all responded at once, creating a sort of mixed murmur that was more noise than answers. They were dressed like Long—Justice League pajama pants and a tank top. Confused like Long. Seemingly afraid like Long. Almost.
One of the copies, the one who’d been bathing Long in morning breath, remained silent. While Long and the others stood tense and vigilant, Mr. Needs-A-Mint remained seated on the bed with the air of a king awaking to a roomful of servants.
Footsteps thumped along the carpet outside before Mom shouldered the door open, nearly stabbing a Long imposter with her knitting needles, which trailed yarn from her latest project, a scarf or hat. When she saw the strange sight before her—an only child last night, sextuplets this morning—her chin thunked to her chest like a dropped hammer. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed.
“I know,” Long said, flinging his arms around her, cutting off one of the Fake Longs who was trying to hug her first. “Body Snatchers!”
Mom seemed surprised, but nowhere near as frightened as she should be. She lifted her chin, smiled big and wide, “This worked even better than I expected.”
<Stream Animation: MtM293.Sept>
Arcanum Act PSA Spot #293
Marvin the Mage: Hey, Kids. It’s your buddy Marvin the Mage. Playing with spells can be fun, but the wrong charm can do you harm. Ha-hah! Ask mom and dad before dabbling in the occult, and have them check the label on any spells you buy from licensed and certified Arcanum retailers to make sure your magic is age appropriate. Good sorcery is safe sorcery.
Announcer: This has been a public service announcement, sponsored by PrestoDigo, Inc.
“Mom, what’s going on?” one Long imposter said.
“Yeah, Mom,” another Long said.
“This is rather perplexing, Mom,” yet another Long said.
Mom stroked her chin. “Now that just won’t do. Which one of you is the original?”
“You can’t tell?” The two Longs on the far side of the room said at once.
“I’m the original!” insisted the original Long.
Mom cocked her head, considering. “I suppose you are. You did hug me first, and I’d know my little Snuggle Bunny’s huggy wuggies anywhere. You’ll be Long Prime.”
“Long what?” He cringed at her old childhood name for him. But at least she wasn’t calling him Snuggle Bunny Prime.
Mom looked the next Long over. “You. What’s your specialty?”
The Long copy she addressed said, “My specialty is music.”
“Show me,” said Mom.
That Long grabbed the alto saxophone from the stand in the corner and played “Mirror in the Bathroom” by The English Beat. Perfectly. Long Prime felt a twinge of envy. He always fouled up the bridge on that piece.
“Very nice, Music Long,” Mom said. Her eyes bounced to the next, unidentified Long. “And you?”
“Math.” He sounded confident in a way Long Prime never was when it came to the subject. A dry erase board took up most of the wall. He selected a marker from the aluminum shelf running along the bottom and quickly found the derivative in a problem that Long Prime had stalled out on a week ago and had forgotten to erase. Math Long worked it as easily as a 3rd grader’s multiplication tables.
The next Long—Language Long—answered Mom’s question with a quote from Dickens in a flawless British accent.
Athletics Long simply flipped backwards into a handstand.
The final Long, he of suspicious eyes and an uneasy sneer, only stared when Mom questioned him. “What is it that you do?”
He blinked slowly. Kept them all in suspense. Mom’s lips twitched, a precursor to the don’t make me ask twice look Long Prime knew too well. Before things went that far, the silent one said his first words. “I do it all.”
That response stirred a new sense of unease in Long Prime. Mom frowned like she felt it, too. “Tell me what’s happening,” Said Long Prime.
She put a hand on his shoulder, an uncertain look on her face. “You’re Prime, right?”
“Really?” Through gritted teeth, he added, “Yes, I’m Prime.”
With gentle pressure she nudged him into the hall and closed Long’s bedroom door, leaving the other Longs inside.
“Mom, please. I don’t under—”
Long Prime groaned, stomped into the tiny nook and sat in his usual spot, where his usual breakfast waited. One whole grain waffle, a half-cup of fresh blueberries, and a single soft scrambled egg. Brain food. Mom flapped a folded cloth napkin, which billowed like a cape before falling across his lap. She took her seat on the opposite end of the table, and said, “I got you some help.”
“Some help? Help for—?” But he already knew. He shoved the plate away, bunching the table cloth beneath it.
“It was one test!”
“The Pre-SAT is the most important test you’ll take. Before the SAT, I mean. And your MCATs. Then your medical boards,” Mom stopped, pressed a finger into the dent above her top lip like it was a power button that controlled the endless flow of life plans she’d concocted for Long. She leaned across the table and nudged his plate back to him, “You got a low score because you’re stretched too thin.”
Low score?! I was in the 95th Percentile, he thought, immediately countered by the Mom voice in his head, Harvard is a 99th percentile school.
Long Prime could’ve argued, but to what end? You can’t win when your opponent is also the referee.
Besides, she was right about him being stretched too thin. Which, ironically, was her doing. He could’ve done without the AP Calculus, and the Gymnastics Team, Spanish 5, the band (though the band did have one perk). None of that concerned him much this morning. “What did you do, Mom?”
“When you eat your breakfast.”
He crammed a handful of blueberries into his mouth, “Talk.”
“Well, you know Miss Jao who owns the nail shop. I was there about a week ago and was going on about what a star pupil you are, like I always do. I mentioned you were struggling a bit lately—keep eating, sweetie—and how there just didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day for you to handle all of your responsibilities. Mrs. Jao said ‘we can’t add hours, but we can add Longs’.”
Mom took his unfinished plate like he was done, and retreated to the sink like this was over. It wasn’t.
“Mom, you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.”
Magic produced the clones in his room. What else could it be?
A bunch of clones, though . . . he’d never seen anything like it before.
He’d been used to the run of the mill magic since he was a kid. Occasionally, someone got their hands on something more potent, like a working wand, and ended up losing a toe or an eye. Every other day there was a news story about some dark magic getting loose in another state or across the country. Ever since the Arcanum Act passed things had been that way. He could hardly remember a time when magic wasn’t real and legal. It was as common as Apple products. Heck, there was even a Spell App.
And he knew whatever spell Mom worked last night, you couldn’t get down at the Apple Store with a gift card.
“Did you go to an Arcanum shop?” He asked, already knowing the answer. Arcanum stores sold lame magic. “Like” potions, Voodoo Dolls that only produced mild rashes on the targets, things of that sort. Nothing powerful enough for what had happened here.
“Miss Jao has a, um, supply in the back of her shop.”
She spun on him, flinging dish suds, “No. Chinese magic. On the Black Market. There’s a difference.”
Mom pressed her finger into the indentation above his lip, cutting off his objections. “I just want the best for you, sweetie. This will help.”
He became acutely aware of how cramped the kitchen was. Mostly because there were now seven people in it. His clones had joined them.
When she removed her finger, Long Prime did his best to pretend they weren’t there. “How, Mom? Don’t you think the school’s going to notice five extra ‘Me’ roaming the halls?”
“That’s the beauty of it. Miss Jao assures me that the magic only allows others to perceive one of you at all times. They pursue the classes and activities in their particular specialty while you focus on your SAT study guide.”
“If I’m not in my classes, isn’t that like cheating?”
“No. They are still you, Prime—”
“I don’t think I like that name too much.”
“They’re just more focused. If Ms. Jao’s right, it’ll be a very good investment.”
Words like ‘investment’ never sounded good coming out of his mother’s mouth. Today was no exception. “How much did it cost?”
“Six thousand dollars.”
Long Prime’s knees nearly buckled. Not because of the high dollar amount—and it was very high—but how conveniently close it was to the birthday and summer job money he’d been stashing for the last 4 years. In a joint account. “You didn’t.”
“Don’t worry, sweetie. When you’re a doctor, you’ll be able to buy any car you want.”
A BILLBOARD ALONG I-95:
If You See Something, Say Something – The Department of Dark Magic, Curses, and Mystical Artillery
(Spray painted beneath it – “Unless You’ve Been Blinded by a Hex”)
Flagg-Talent High School was a new building made to look old. Sandstone instead of brick. Towering spires like old churches. And for an extra gothic touch, three stone gargoyles (Barry, G-Dub, and Big Willy—nicknamed after former Presidents), each perched high above one of the three entrances with their batwings curled around their shoulders like cloaks.
Long Prime wished one or all of them would come to life and fly him away, swifting him from the mortification of this morning. He climbed onto the school bus—the eternal school bus—alone, creepily aware of his five doppelgängers peering from his bedroom window like phantoms in a Victorian ghost story. When he arrived at Flagg-Talent High, he made for the nearest bathroom to splash a little cold water on his face and regain his bearings. His eyes were on the porcelain basin, watching the faucet stream swirl away, wishing he could go with it. When he glanced up and saw the reflection of five Longs lurking behind him like the slasher in a horror film, he yelped.
“What the hell?” he said, looser with the curse words now that Mom was elsewhere.
The other Longs were all dressed like him in pleated pants, a plum-colored V-neck sweater, and a collared shirt beneath.
The warning bell rang. Five minutes until homeroom, followed by AP Calc.
“Go to the Homeroom,” Math Long said, not unkindly, a scientific calculator in hand. “Then hit the library. We’ll take care of today’s schedule and see you back at home.”
“Wait,” Prime said, remembering that only four specialties had been identified in his room that morning, “I’ve got seven classes.”
“I’ll take the rest,” said a different Long, very unkindly. Prime knew this Long was the arrogant, brooding jerk who’d nearly burned his eyebrows off with Dumpster Breath earlier. Mom never got around to naming him because he’d been too much of a dick to show off his specialty. Maybe being a dick was his specialty.
Dick Long, then?
Just Dick, Long Prime thought, mortified by the dark place he’d just gone.
Prime ignored the newly named Dick and examined the group. “Which of you is Music?”
A Long in the back raised his hand, grinning and perky.
“Take something else,” Prime said, gripping the handle of his saxophone case extra tight, “I want to do band practice myself.”
Music Long’s lip poked out. “But, I’m Music.”
“No, I’m music,” Prime said, having the final word for once.
But he was wrong.
Studying. All day. Surely that’s what Mom intended when she deployed the Long League to handle classes for him.
He’d been conditioned as such: use every second, minute, and hour to further his (her) goals. Idle minds were never attached to a healer’s hands, Mom always said.
Her divide (Long) and conquer (academics) plan was meant to give him an edge on his SAT prep. Now that he had time to focus on a single unpleasant task, there was no desire to adhere to Mom’s intentions. Long spent half the day at the movies, and another quarter-day at the mall, using the dwindling remains of his car fund for bus fare. He thought he was being rebellious.
When he returned to the school in time for band practice, stopping to grab his saxophone from his locker, the sick truth began presenting like some exotic illness his mother foresaw him diagnosing one day.
Long Prime approached the band room cheerily enough, and spotted Music Long sulking at the entrance. For a tense second, Prime expected his band mates to freak over him and his new twin, but they only spoke to Prime, unaware of the other.
Only one of him could be perceived by others at any given time, Mom had said. No matter what you felt about magic—and public opinion was sharply divided according to Mr. Lash, his government teacher—almost everyone could admit making the impossible possible was often amazing.
Music Long eyed Prime’s sax with something close to unrequited love—a look Prime knew well thanks to all the shiny, reflective brass he often glimpsed himself in during these practices.
Sympathy bubbled up in Long Prime; maybe he could reassign the music clone, give him something to—
Unrequited love trumped sympathy as Prime detected her approach. Delicate fingers curled around the handle of her clarinet case. An easy smile, and autumn eyes drew him away from her instrument. Like always.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi, Siobahn,” Long said, twice.
Prime and Music spoke simultaneously, making Prime all sweaty palmed, though Siobahn didn’t seem to notice the echo. She stepped between him and him and took her seat with the woodwinds. Prime hurried to his usual seat behind her, his out-of-work double forgotten.
Mr. Riley, the band director, waited patient and silent at his podium while everyone settled. All knew the cue and chatter tapered off. Riley announced the practice piece, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” inciting the flap-hiss of turning pages.
Long Prime arranged his music book on his stand, though his thoughts centered on the candy scent drifting from Siobahn. Her body spray was some mix of sugar and fruit. Mom generally frowned upon sweets, but Long failed to see the issue here. Sometimes a cavity was worth it.
She twisted in her chair, said, “Could we please play something from this century?”
Say something cool, say something cool. “I know. This century.”
Noooooooo! You doofus!
Mr. Riley tapped his podium with his cork-handled conductor’s baton, “On my count. One, two . . .”
Siobahn faced front, her incredibly lucky instrument a half-second from touching her lips. Long let his reed hover, gathered his breath, and . . .
He didn’t know what to do.
This sax, this seat, and this song were part of a familiar routine. What came next should be effortless. Yet, when his band mates turned quiet to art all around him, Long did not join in. He couldn’t.
He no longer knew how to play.
Mr. Riley moved his wrist in rhythmic swirls and flicks that used to mean something. Now the gestures seemed like hand spasms.
Long Prime had a comforting delusion, that he might make it through the song silently, unnoticed. There was only one other sax in their tiny ensemble, though. Mr. Riley felt his absence and sought to correct it.
“Sax,” the teacher said, an attempt not to embarrass, though in this small group calling his instrument was the same as calling his name.
Long took an extended breath. This is just a brain burp, I can do this.
He sealed his lips around his reed. Blew. What resulted was like the howl of a Weregoose.
Mr. Riley winced, and several band mates, including Siobahn, who took the brunt of the blast, gave sideways glances.
Reluctantly, Long tried again, knowing he’d be no more successful. The instrument emitted another Death Quack due to his newly ignorant fingers getting lost in the keys along the neck.
Mr. Riley stopped the whole performance. “Mr. Lee?”
“I’m sorry,” Long said, gathering his things, more panicked than embarrassed even though Siobahn and everyone else stared. “I need some air.”
Prime left the room in a hurry and found Music Long pacing in the hall, his fists clenched at his sides.
Long Prime called to him, “Hey!”
Music Long whipped around, “Don’t ‘hey’ me. I heard you. You were terrible.”
Prime was not concerned with his critique, “Why can’t I play?”
“I told you,” he said, “I’m music!”
And there it was. He didn’t share talents with these specialist clones. They were his talents.
What they had, he did not.
As if to stress the point, the band’s performance resumed. Perfect, now that Long Prime was absent.
Prime said, “Listen, I need you to—”
“Go play?” Music Long crossed his arms, tapped one foot, “Make us look good?”
No. Long Prime was going to tell him to find the others so they can fix this. But Music Long was in a full diva tantrum.
“I will not play second fiddle to a hack like you,” he made for the exit, sniping over his shoulder the entire way, “maybe next time you’ll appreciate what I’m offering.” He stepped through the doors into the sun. “Maybe next time you’ll—”
A half-ton, gray faced gargoyle—Big Willy—fell on Music Long, crushing him before shattering into a hundred chunks with a sound like rolling thunder.
There would be no next time.
The music ceased. Mr. Riley and the others spilled from the room to investigate the commotion. They gathered around Long, eyeing the shattered visage of Big Willy. Everything from a whole severed wing to pebbles. No gore, though.
When Music Long was crushed, he didn’t produce the nastiness an actual crushed person would. He simply popped out of existence, like a soap bubble. Whoever got tasked with cleaning up this mess would need a broom–maybe a wheelbarrow for the larger chunks of BigWilly—but no hose.
This did not make Long feel better.
Mr. Riley placed a hand on his shoulder, “Thank goodness you weren’t walking out when that thing fell. You look shaken, son. Are you okay?”
Long didn’t answer because he honestly didn’t know.
No one had been hurt (as far as the school administration knew), making everyone thankful the gargoyle had fallen when it did. They were so thankful, no one put any thought into how it had fallen. Not even Long Prime.
Walking, needing time to think, he was occupied with his saxophone. Now that Music Long was gone, would he be able to play again? Wishful logic suggested so. He’d try when he got home. With that decision came a hot shot of anxiety.
What if his talent was what really got crushed under Big Willy’s bulk, only to be swept into a dustpan and discarded by the janitor?
At home, he found himself alone with a note from his mother. Gone for groceries, back soon. He had no illusions his solitude would last, for the other Longs never seemed too far behind.
He removed his sax, focused, and blew into the reed.
A blaring honk resulted.
He tried a couple more times, visualizing the simplest notes, and recalling times when he’d played them successfully. Each attempt was more horrible than the first.
Abandoning the sax, he made fists, and pounded them on his desk, going for a simple percussion sequence. Shave and a haircut . . . two bits! What he got was a rhythmless mess, like an infant pounding the bars of his crib.
Long Prime stopped the futile attempt. Partly out of frustration. Mostly because he sensed he was no longer alone.
Math Long arrived first, followed by Language Long, then Dick in quick succession. Long Prime watched the door, expecting Athletics Long. He didn’t come.
Language Long broke the news, a single tear trailing his cheek. “Our agile counterpart will not be joining us, due to an abhorrent mishap on an admittedly dangerous apparatus.”
Long Prime felt a sneer sprout. He didn’t understand half of the words Language Long said, though he used to. “English, please.”
“I am speaking the King’s.”
Math Long clarified, “He was practicing a vault when the springboard malfunctioned. He didn’t land on his feet.”
Long Prime said, “So he . . . ?”
Math Long flicked the fingers of one hand wide, mimicking an explosion.
Athletics Long had done the same soap bubble pop as Music Long. Prime, who’d maybe taken his status as a mediocre gymnast for granted before, had a feeling that a simple cartwheel was going to be much tougher from now on.
When he awoke this morning, he would’ve wanted nothing more than to see his mother’s manifestations disappear. Now, he knew better. For each time one left, they took a piece of him with them.
Or so he thought.
When Mom arrived with more food than they needed (particularly since there were two less mouths to feed), Long Prime said, “We need to talk.”
He told of all that happened, of his lost talents, tamping down his panic because she insisted he always speak in even, measured tones. A soothing voice would only help his bedside manner one day.
Yet, when she responded with her own soothing—and condescending—tone, he didn’t find it helpful at all. “I’m sure this is nothing. I’ll speak to Ms. Jao when I go for my Thursday manicure.”
“Sweetie, patience. Now go get dressed for dinner.”
Long Prime gathered his slacks, shirt, and dinner jacket. Mom required evening attire. Which always seemed weird because no one else in their condominium complex changed their clothes at dinner time. One neighbor routinely refused to wear a shirt at all, preferring to eat his meals—mostly burritos—while walking his Shih Tzu.
Anyhow, Long Prime changed in the bathroom, uncomfortable being exposed in front of strangers. Even if the strangers were him.
When he returned to his room, all of the Longs were dressed in attire identical to his. He’d never get used to that.
Math Long and Language Long sat on the bed, demonstrating the very patience that Mom reminded Long Prime about. Dick was less composed. Having taken a seat a Prime’s desk and . .
Long Prime observed what Dick was doing, horror dawning.
Dick tapped out a drum solo on the desk top with his fist, the very thing Prime tried and failed before the others arrived. It was a slow melody, Long Prime recognized it immediately. The Wind Beneath My Wings.
It sounded just fine.
From: CU Honor Council/Campus Security
To: All Students and Faculty
RE: Magic and the Honor Code/Campus Safety
It has come to the attention of the administration that some students have been using Black Magic to acquire copies of examinations from demons and other dark entities. Please be advised, such activities are a violation of the Honor Code. If you are caught, you will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion and possible criminal prosecution. Additionally, poking holes in the spiritual veil for test answers can result in students/faculty being dragged to Perdition for all eternity, or in some cases (see previous memorandum entitled: Beta Kappa Omega Massacre/Housing Policy) allow demons to cross into our realm. Please be safe and responsible, and only use sanctioned magic purchased from a certified…
Despite Dick’s insisting he take over any classes that Language Long and Math Long weren’t attending, Long Prime remained present in school on Tuesday. No movies. No mall.
Retaining aptitude in subjects like Science and Government was encouraging, since he’d be quitting gymnastics and foregoing band practice. Long Prime needed comfort today, because he couldn’t shake certain dark feelings.
He didn’t have his math skills anymore, but had to imagine the odds of the two freak accidents that took out his doubles happening on the same day were slim. What did that mean?
Dick’s rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” came to mind.
The last period of the day was gym, and Long’s stomach curdled as he rehearsed his “quit-speech” in his head. He didn’t like the sport that much, and wasn’t sad he couldn’t do it anymore. He’d just never quit anything in his life.
Low applause sounded as he approached the gym. He entered, his sneakers squeaky on the hardwood, and found himself staring at a lot of backs. Something had the attention of the crowd.
Long tried circling around for a better view and crossed paths with a couple of kids from his homeroom. “Hey,” he said, “What’s going on?”
They didn’t respond.
The rudeness seemed unbelievable—they’d always been nice before—until he found a gap in the crowd and saw who had everyone’s attention.
Dick was on the pommel horse, spinning like a propeller. He put on an Olympic caliber performance that was better than anything Long Prime could’ve pulled off on his best day.
Prime’s homeroom classmates hadn’t been rude to him. They hadn’t seen him.
Only a single Long could be perceived at any given time.
Right now, Dick was front and center. As he intended.
The newly athletic Long spun himself into a handstand and dismounted the horse, landing perfectly, holding the “Y” pose to a round of extended cheers. Long Prime locked eyes with Dick. Dick winked, grinned, and returned his attention to his adoring fans, treating Long Prime like everyone else.
Like he wasn’t there.
Music Long gets crushed, Dick becomes musical.
Athletics Long catches a faulty springboard to NeckBreak Land, Dick becomes a world-class gymnast.
And freak accidents maybe aren’t so freaky or accidental.
It was good to see that Mom hadn’t farmed out any of his deductive reasoning to a clone, because Long had a feeling Dick was taking out the other clones to get their talents. Why?
He hung after school, sitting by himself in the cafeteria while he mulled it over. The sun sank, casting the room in shadows, and Long might’ve remained in the school if a janitor hadn’t come along and ejected him.
As he exited, brooding, his mood took a turn when he bumped into a familiar face waiting for a ride home.
Siobahn stood alone, focused on her cell in one hand, while her clarinet case hung in the other. Long considered returning to the building rather than face the awkwardness of silence in the presence of a goddess, but stumbled on a loose piece of gravel—a leftover from yesterday’s gargoyle smashing–and drew her attention in his barely successful attempt to stay upright.
“Long!” She said, turning his name into a jubilant high-note. It perked his mood instantly. But, also his confusion. She’d never been this enthusiastic to see him.
“Hey!” he squeaked.
“I was thinking about it, and I figured I’d just ask. What should I wear?”
The hell? “You mean tomorrow?”
“No, you goof! When we go to the movies Saturday. Are we going to be all aloof like, ‘this is only a sorta-date, in fact, we might just hate each other‘?” She made her voice gruff in a way that reminded him of some cartoon bear. Then she went back to her normal voice, but with extra active hands that had her waving her phone and clarinet around like Mr. Riley’s conductor baton, “Or, should we do the old-timey get-dressed-up-for-really-mundane-occasions thing? I could wear a gown.”
She said other stuff, and her braces caught the light in away that made Long squint. He sidestepped the glare while processing a few key words.
Also, a word she didn’t say, but found its way to the forefront of his consciousness. Geeky.
All the time he’d pined for her, afraid to complete full sentences because he found her so beautiful, he never noticed that she was as awkward and nerdy as him. Band. Braces. A persistently nervous jitter.
What had he been so afraid of?
He cut her off mid-ramble, “You’ll look good in anything.”
She froze, jaw slack. For a second, Long thought he’d said something wrong, but his internal voice immediately countered. No, that was smooth. And he knew that voice was right, the same way it used to be right when it told him what note to play, or when to piston his feet down so he could stick a somersault.
She reeled in that slack jaw, and converted it into a wide, metal-mouthed grin. “Well aren’t you Mister Hubba-hubba. Who knew?”
Her Mom’s car pulled up, and she said, “See you tomorrow. By the way, awesome jazz riffs in practice today. Maybe you can teach me Saturday. If we’re not too busy making out, I mean.” She paused, apparently rethinking the statement.”Probably should’ve let that be a surprise, huh?”
Long didn’t mind the spoiler.
“Bye.” She hopped in the car and rode away, while Long pictured their braces interlocking with equal parts horror and enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm that waned when his hormones allowed him to process the full conversation.
Awesome jazz riffs in practice today.
He hadn’t been in practice. Though he knew who had.
It was time he and Dick had a little chat.
When Long Prime arrived home, he found Language Long waiting. Alone. In tears.
“What’s wrong with you?” Prime asked.
“This day has seen the fall of yet another fine comrade, dear Prime.”
“Our mathematically gifted progeny met his untimely demise while preparing for a calculus examination.”
Prime took a moment to translate, “Math Long died taking a math test?”
“No.” Language Long dabbed the corners of his eyes with a tissue, “The mean one completed the exam. Math Long expired prior to, when several compasses were somehow hurled in his direction.”
The compass, math’s most dangerous instrument. With its sharp little points and pencil holder. Prime always felt his compass would make a nice shiv in prison. Smart prison.
“How do you know this?” Prime asked.
“When you’re like us,” Language Long said, “you can feel when another departs this realm.”
Prime noted how utterly broken the other Long seemed “And you’re sad?”
He seemed taken back. “They’re my brethren.”
“Even ‘the mean one’?”
Language Long, for the first time, seemed at a loss for words.
“These aren’t accidents,” Prime said. “Why’s he doing it? What’s he hope to accomplish?”
“I believe you know the answer to at least one of your queries.”
True. For each copy Dick takes out, he gains their talent. Long’s talent.
What was Dick’s end game? What happened when he ran out of Long Copies?
“We should do something,” Prime said.
“Affirmative!” Language Long took a seat at the desk, began scripting something in a spiral notebook.
“What are you writing?” Prime asked.
Somewhere, crickets chirped. “Why?”
“You said we should do something. This is what I do.”
“Aren’t you worried you’re going to be the next Long to go pop?”
“Evidence would suggest I’m most definitely the next stop on my brother’s path of destruction,” he shrugged. “So be it. I am but a singularity, a part. And, as Aristotle once said, ‘a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’”
It sounded like a word jumble in Prime’s head. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I’ll never want to be a whole,” he said, scribbling more sonnets, “but he does.”
Prime said, “Well, that can’t happen. Not while I’m . . . around.”
Language Long said, “Perhaps you’d like to compose a sonnet?”
Long Prime didn’t write a sonnet. He dug his old ten-speed from the back of the garage meaning to ride his way to some answers. Only, he couldn’t do it.
He couldn’t balance himself, each attempt rewarding him with a skinned knee or scraped palm. No doubt, Dick could probably hold a wheelie for a mile.
Walking. Hard angry strides for three miles, until he reached the strip mall housing Mrs. Jao’s nail shop.
The shop was the centerpiece in a seven-store grouping, mostly owned by other members of the Jao family. The exceptions being an upscale Soul Food takeout spot called Darvin’s and a barber and beauty supply store catering to African-Americans. Long once overheard some of his racially dense classmates call the shopping complex the Hornet’s Nest. Because of all the yellow and black.
For all his smarts, Long could never figure how not to feel small in the presence of such ignorance.
Two elderly women in jogging suits exited the shop on a cloud of sharp chemicals. Their nails had the hard sheen of wax dummies, with tiny sparkling adornments. A look he’d seen on his own mother many times. Mrs. Jao was an artist and a perfectionist. Both traits that might serve a secret sorceress well.
He slipped inside, expecting to be the only guy. A stand out. He was right about the former. No other males were present. But, the latter . . . no one even looked his way. Except the proprietor.
Mrs. Jao was a tall lady, with limbs as slim and stiff as bundled tree branches. When she worked her mani/pedi magican act Long witnessed many times before he was old enough to avoid his mother’s weekly appointment—it was like watching a machine fulfill its purpose. Long always imagined Mrs. Jao would fit right in at the automotive plants where robots welded chassis and bolted on doors with programmed precision.
She placed both hands on a counter at the back of the store, leaned forward, squinted in his direction. Long waved. She’d always seemed like a nice lady.
With quick purposeful steps, she came towards him, her Cat’s Eye glasses swinging from the gold chain around her neck like a pendulum. She moved so swiftly and with such weight that he thought she might walk through him, and the wall behind him, and any other obstacle that impeded her progress. With only inches to spare, she stopped short, squinting still.
“Mrs. Jao?” said Long.
Her eyes tracked his voice. “What’s wrong with you, boy? If you’re even that.”
Long shook his head, unsure what to make of the statement.
Mrs. Jao said, “You’re dim. I can barely—wait, are you Tai Lee’s boy? Furlong?”
“Yes, that’s me. What do you mean I’m . . . ‘dim‘?”
She cursed in another language. Maybe Chinese, though the way the hairs on Long’s neck stood up, it might’ve been an older–darker–language. In a more conventional tongue, she demanded, “What have you done young man?”
“I—I haven’t done anything.” Long said.
“We will see,” said Mrs. Jao, “Come with me, boy.” She reached like she might grab his hand, then yanked back as if she’d been reaching for a hot baking dish with no potholder. “Just follow.”
He did as told, followed her into a stock room with cartons of nail polish and polish remover stacked floor to ceiling. Mrs. Jao gave Long a conspiratorial scowl before reaching between two cartons and triggering some hidden button or lever.
There was a Ca-Chunk, like the sound of car looks disengaging. A huge stack of nail supply boxes swung inward on a hinge, revealing a secret passage.
The interior was darker than the rest of the shop, the only lighting a mixture of blue and purple swirls. If house music had been thumping, it might’ve been the entrance to an underground club. No music though, only humid air that smelled oh-so-slightly of incense.
“What’s down there?” Long said when Mrs. Jao stepped inside.
“Only place we discuss whatever you bring to my doorstep. Up here nail business. Down there everything else. Are you coming?”
Long didn’t see where he had a choice. He stepped into the dungeon, and the fake boxes swung shut, sealing them in. They took a short staircase into a cavernous domain that might’ve stretched the length of the block. The room was so big he couldn’t see any perimeter walls. It simply stretched and faded where the light could not reach.
Nearby were some chairs, a worktable featuring a bubbling chemistry apparatus that looked both familiar and insane. Jars of liquids and powders crowded shelves at either side of the work area. On the shelves to the left of the work, Long noticed a jar filled with what he mistook as dried prunes. The label read “pheasant hearts.” He stopped eyeing those containers after that.
On the shelf to the right were more mundane substances, ones he’d seen before in chemistry class. Since his science knowledge hadn’t been farmed out to a clone, he still remembered the lessons (and warnings) from that subject.
“You really shouldn’t store your acids by your bases. If they ever mixed, it would be bad.”
Mrs. Jao gave him a curious look. “How you know this?”
“Because I did it before, a couple of summers back. Almost started a forest fire at Science Camp.” He crouched for a better view of a lower shelf and noticed a poorly capped bottle of aqua fortis next to a full jug of methanoic acid. His pulsed jumped. He grabbed a safety glove off the worktable, tugged it onto one hand, and made quick work of separating the two substances. “These shouldn’t be together either,” he said.
“You say don’t store acid with base. Those both acids.”
Long nodded, remembering when he’d come to the same mistaken conclusion during his second year of Science Camp, when he actually did start a (small) forest fire. “Yes, but one is formic acid, the other is nitric. They don’t get along.”
“Have seat,” Mrs. Jao said, her look still curious, but with a spark of resolve in her eyes now. Time to get down to business.
Long peeled off the glove, and took a chair while she grabbed a small, worn notebook from a worktable drawer. She perched her glasses on the bridge of her nose and flipped to a dog-eared page. “Let me guess, you use too much potion, have too many Shadow Selfs.”
The Shadow Selfs part sounded right, but he knew nothing of any potions. He told her so.
She peered over her glasses, the “I’ve heard it a thousand times” glare all adults have, “The potion I gave your mother. Two drops in tea before bed. That all.”
Long recalled the stinky tea Mom made him down the night before the other Longs appeared. She said it would help prevent flu.
Mrs. Jao said, “I tell her if boy cannot follow direction, should not use. Very bad results.”
“Wait, wait. I wasn’t given any directions,” said Long. Or choice, for that matter. “Mom must’ve put the potion in my tea.”
“Fine, fine. Blame mother. You kids now always blame parents.”
She hushed him with a hand wave. “How many extra Shadow Selfs you make? One, two. Tell me and we fix. Will be pricey, though.”
Long avoided talk of money he didn’t have and answered her questions, “Well, if the intent was for one extra me . . . ” He counted on his fingers, since his quick calculation skills had been lost with Math Long. “I guess Mom made four too many.”
Mrs. Jao rose so quickly her chair tipped backwards, crashing on the cobblestone floor. “You split your essence more than three times?!”
“Not me,” Long said, “Mom, she—”
“Stop. Take responsibility. Mother bring you in this world. No scapegoat.”
“Fine. Sorry. But what’s got you so—”
Long never finished the thought. A searing line of pain sliced so swift and sudden through his neck, he expected his head to separate from body and roll towards Mrs. Jao’s feet like a soccer ball.
The pain passed as quickly as it had come, though he touched his neck with both hands ensuring it was still whole.
Mrs. Jao said, “What the matter with you, boy?”
Long knew, but couldn’t form the words. Language Long was gone. Attacked, then popped like a bubble. He’d felt the whole thing.
When you’re like us you can feel when another departs this realm.
Had he become like them?
“Talk!” Mrs. Jao commanded, and with the order came a darkening of the room. The blue and purple lights shifted to red, before flickering back to the original hues. He couldn’t describe the feeling in the room precisely, but it was like power pulsed from the woman in invisible waves.
Long told all he knew, from waking up with five twins, to the moment where he felt Language Long cease to exist. At the end of the story, Mrs. Jao only stared sorrowfully.
“Your essence was never meant to be divided in such a manner. It like thinning soup with water. Each bowl weak, weak, weak…but one always stronger than others. Combine bowls, and some strength return. Strain out water, and soup strong again.”
Long wasn’t handling metaphors well. “I don’t get it.”
“You water. The Shadow Self—Dick—you say take down other Shadows, wants to be you. And, he succeeding.”
“You barely here. That why I have trouble seeing you before. Now, you more dim.”
With so much talent gone, Long felt less substantial. Tired. Dim.
Even this conversation strained the limited reasoning abilities he had left.
“Can you help me? There’s got to be some magic that will make Dick go away.”
Her face tightened. “There is. Pricey, though.”
“I don’t have any money.” Long said, now thinking it a bad idea to mislead this woman.
Mrs. Jao seemed to consider his situation, and he imagined her next words would be an order to get out. She surprised him, though.
“Other ways to pay,” she said.
“Really? You’ll give me a spell to get rid of him?”
Her head was shaking before he finished, “No. He too strong now. Reverse magic would erase you, not him.”
“Different magic, and some wits may help. Give me twenty minutes.”
She got to work stirring, and crushing, and boiling things from the “pheasant hearts” shelf, never going near the chemicals Long knew so well. She explained what Long had to do, and what she would require of him if he succeeded. By the time she finished, handing Long a potion and small, but sharp, blade, the anxiety of it all had him doubling over with stomach cramps.
He said, “Is this the only way?”
“If I lose, you won’t get what you want.”
“I want satisfied customers. Go, fix what your mother did.”
“So you do believe this isn’t my fault?”
She sighed, “Yes, but don’t let word get out. Us grown ups have to stick together.”
Long arrived home and found Dick waiting in his bedroom, an axe resting across his lap, and a surprisingly kind and sympathetic look on his face.
“I understand what you’re feeling,” Dick said, “I was where you are just a few days ago.”
“And where was that?” Long said, running his finger along the blade in his pocket.
Dick said, “I knew my time was limited. That I’d only been summoned here to complete tasks for your benefit. It’s a horrible life, Long. So I changed it.”
“You killed the others.”
He shook his head. “No. They weren’t anymore alive than your Facebook profile. They were avatars. Clutter to be cleared away. Which I did. Mom wanted the best for you. I’m the best you.”
“I don’t see it that way,” Long lied. Dick was clearly better at being him than he was.
“Of course you don’t,” Dick stood, propping the axe on his shoulder, “In a moment, you won’t be seeing anything at all.”
Long pulled the tiny blade out for Dick to see. The evil double laughed. “Knife to an axe fight, Prime? Really? That’s supposed to scare me?”
“It’s not for you,” Long said. He dragged the blade across his left thumb fast, and bit his lip against the searing pain.
“Ow!” Dick yelled, bring his own left thumb to lips and dribbling blood on his chin.
Long told Dick what Mrs. Jao had told him, “Mirror Spell. I get hurt, you get hurt. So, go ahead and use that axe if you want to cut your own head off.”
Dick glared. “You’re lying!”
He grabbed a sharp pencil from Long’s desk, and jabbed the point into his thigh. Not hard enough to pierce flesh, but hard enough for discomfort, which they both felt. Long winced and rubbed at the invisible point that threatened to break skin.
“See?” Long said.
Dick’s chest heaved. “A Mirror Spell. I know of this magic. We’re linked, so we can’t hurt each other,” he dropped his axe, “you didn’t say anything about someone else hurting us. MOM!”
Long’s mother appeared in the doorway, “Dinner will be ready in a minute, sweetie. No need to yell.”
“It’s not that,” Dick said, “It’s him. Something’s wrong with him, Mom.”
“What?” Long said.
Mom looked Long over, a distasteful vibe wafting off her. “What’s happened to the other Longs? You were trying to tell me something earlier this week.”
Long said, “Mom, he—”
Dick cut him off, “They disappeared after they’d fulfilled their usefulness. All but this one.”
“That’s not true,” Long said, struggling for the words. “He . . . I Mean, I—I’m Long Prime. Remember?”
Mom grinned, shook her head, “My Long does not stutter, dear.”
“Tell me about it,” Dick said.
“I’m stuttering because——because—” Because my language skills are depleted; he took them. He’s trying to turn you against me. Long could not manage the words to convince his mother that of the two Longs at the table, he was not the monster.
Mom and Dick waited for an explanation that did not come.
Dick spoke next, “What’s two plus two?”
“Huh?” Long said, unable to do the simple calculation quickly.
Dick answered his own question, “Four. Now hum a few bars of ‘My Heart Will Go On.‘”
“Oh,” Mom said, “that’s my favorite.”
“I know,” Dick said.
Long knew, too, but could not string together any sort of mouth music. It all sounded like sputter.
“Okay,” Dick said, pointing towards an empty spot in the center of the room. “This should be easy. A handstand, right there.”
Long had trouble imagining it, let alone doing it. “I can’t.”
Dick smirked. “And you’re the real Long? Hardly.”
“Mom!” Long said, at his whiniest. “I’m me.”
“No,” Dick said, “I am.”
Mom placed her hands on her hips, spoke to Dick. “I know I’m rarely wrong, but I certainly see how having these things around all week may have annoyed you and been more of a distraction than they’re worth. I’ll call Mrs. Jao and see about getting rid of him.”
Long said, “Yes, call Mrs. Jao.”
Dick said, “No need. He’s like a balloon. Something sharp will work. Like, your knitting needles. They’re right in the other room, aren’t they? I’ll get them.”
“Will it make a mess?” Mom said.
“No. There’s absolutely nothing in him. You’re doing him a favor.”
Dick went to retrieve the needles. Long contemplated running, but where? He’d probably trip on the carpet and make it even easier to be wiped from existence. Besides, being ‘dim’ was tiring.
Dick returned with a sharp, aluminum knitting needle. “Here Mom, you should do it. Since you’re the one who brought him into this world in the first place. It’s only fitting.”
Dick was a sadistic, well, dick. Yet, Long had very little fight in him. He felt weak, like he might fade from existence on his own if they didn’t do the act for him. There was no defense, no hiding. There was one thing he wanted, in spite of all his Mom had wrought on him.
“Can I have one last hug, Mom?”
Dick rolled his eyes, but Mom conceded. “Sure. You’ve worked really hard this week. It’s the least I could do.”
A depleted Long stumbled to her, his legs barely able to hold him. He threw his arms around her shoulders, squeezed, and she squeezed back. The moment passed, Long stepped away. Dick placed a needle in her hand, “Do it!”
Mom said, “Yes, sweetie.”
She gripped the needle like the stabbing tool it had become, pivoted at the hip, and . . .
She slammed the needle into Dick’s chest as deep as it would go.
He looked at the hole in his sternum, his mouth forming a surprised “O” that stretched farther than any human mouth could. At the same time Long clutched his own chest, skeptical about the Mirror Spell being limited to harm dealt by either him or Dick. But Mrs. Jao had been right. His mother dealt the blow, so there was no pain. Not for him, anyway.
Dick’s eyes flashed a blood red, fangs sprouted in his sneering mouth, and Long caught sight of a tail whipping about in the split second before the evil double swelled then popped from existence. Only a faint whiff of sulfur remained.
Long barely had time to consider what had just transpired before an invisible wall slammed into him, flinging him across the room. When he landed, there was a brief second of consciousness to contemplate the monster force that flattened him.
His talents were back, each returning with the force of a freight train. He knew because he passed out humming.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with magic is a good guy with magic.” Solomon Hensley, President of the National Magic Association
Long woke up with a rotten taste in his mouth, and warm breath blowing over his brow. His eyes popped wide, expecting to see the Demon Dick—fangs, red eyes, tail—staring at him. It was only his Mom, which was only slightly less creepy. All things considered.
He had a monster headache, but found comfort in recognizing the math equations on his white board as well as a returned sense of balance, and musical talent, and the need to write a sonnet.
Mom patted his forehead. “He tried to trick me, but you knew . . . ”
“That you’d know my huggie-wuggies anywhere.” Hearing her mortifying, overly affectionate phrase felt like chewing broken glass, normally. But, he’d been counting on her to recognize his touch over Dick’s scholarly con game. Despite his mother being an overbearing nutcase, she’d never let him down before. Not really.
“Now,” she said, “You slept for two whole days and we’ve got some catching up to do.”
“Two days? You didn’t take me to the hospital?”
“Mrs. Jao came over and said you just needed time.”
We’re going to have a little talk about your judgment, Long thought but did not say. Two days. Today was Saturday.
“You’ve got some catching up to do,” Mom said. “That little nap of yours cost you a lot of SAT prep, and you’ve got makeup schoolwork on top of that. I’m thinking if we sit down and hammer out a schedule-”
Mom’s head cocked, “No what?”
“No schedule. No studying. You almost got me wiped from existence. I need a break.”
“You’ve been asleep for 48 hours. How much more break time do you want?”
“A lot. I’ll study, and I’ll do well. But when I feel like it. Definitely not today.”
“Because I’ve got a date.”
“A what?” Mom stared.
He smiled. It was the one of the good things that came out of this craziness. Long got out of bed, in desperate need of a shower—maybe two—before his date with Siobahn. “I’m taking the car.”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
“You do know, Mom. And you’re letting it happen. Otherwise—” he was hesitant to say it, “—I’m going to tell my boss that you’re misusing power. Again.”
Mom looked taken aback. “What boss?”
“Mrs. Jao. In exchange for the Mirror Spell, she wants me to come work for her. She’s pretty good with her sorcery, but kind of weak in natural chemistry. I’m going to help her out.”
Long put a hand on his mother’s back, guided her out of his room with gentle pressure. “The cool thing is she’s paying me, too. Gotta re-build that car fund somehow.”
“I don’t know if—”
“You’re going to wait up for me? You shouldn’t. I’ll be late.”
“Love you too, Mom.” He closed the door, a big smile on his face. Dick hadn’t gone completely. He left behind some boldness (and a little mean streak). Traits Long could put to good use going forward.
Provided, of course, he didn’t blow himself up in Mrs. Jao’s sorcery dungeon.
But that was a concern for another time.
Now, he had to get ready for Siobahn. He owed her a kiss from Furlong Lee, the one and only.
Lamar Giles writes books for teens and adults. FAKE ID, his debut Young Adult thriller, will be published by HarperCollins on January 21, 2014. He is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and resides in Chesapeake, VA with his wife. Visit Lamar online at http://www.lrgiles.com/.