Always stand. Never fall.
Broken Mirrors, Book 2
If I could offer one piece of advice now, as I fall past the eighty-fourth floor of Victory Tower, with the sky above me the swirling eye of a crimson hurricane, the blade of a goddess stuck in my thigh, and a man I used to love preparing to end the world, it would be this: Magic is not the answer to your problems.
Sorcerers have always been feared in the City, their origins as unknown as the nature and extent of their power. When James Black, a young man fleeing an abusive lover, becomes a sorcerer, his old life is erased from existence, and his new life is indebted to powerful entities.
Escaping the man who abused him was supposed to be the end, but the very magic that freed him has put him on a collision course with the gods and the Sorcerer King himself.
And only one of them can survive.
Warning: This is a work of urban fantasy featuring a gay male protagonist, with a romantic subplot and focus on magic, dragons, tricksters, sorcerers, and survival of domestic abuse. Please adjust expectations accordingly.
Advance Review from World Fantasy Award* Winner, Rachel Pollack:
Vaughn R. Demont’s Lightning Rod is an amazing book–inventive in its magic, gritty in its urban setting, winning and funny in its very likable hero. The book recalls the great television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer in all the best ways, a mixture of adventure, comedy, and deep emotion. And something more. Like Buffy’s Joss Whedon, Demont has created that rarest of literary creatures, a perfect metaphor. For Whedon it was high school as Hell, for Demont it’s the best evocation of the effects of abuse I’ve ever read. I can’t reveal how the book does this without giving away some jaw-dropping spoilers, but it’s something that stays with you long after you’ve read it.
Please whet your appetite with this, the first chapter of Lightning Rod:
Copyright © 2012 Vaughn R. Demont
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
I have two modes reserved for post-sex. Conversational and scared rabbit.
When Heath finished with a grunt and an almost laugh of relief mixed with bliss, I let him fall asleep and focused my eyes on the bedroom door until his breathing grew rhythmic and I could hear the rough snerk of a snore.
He was quiet this time, every other time he’s vocal. I’m not exhausted, another change. Usually I’m out, drained by the time he’s finished, but tonight I can’t sleep. I’m wide awake, aware, and I don’t want to spend the next couple hours in his arms while I wait to fade out.
There’s a definite art to slipping out of bed. I have to move slowly, keep my muscles flexed, use the nightstand to support myself and prevent any excess noise. You would think that the most efficient method would be feet first, but it’s not. Eventually you have to literally move your arse (sorry, ass) and that causes a lot of creaking unless it’s a really nice mattress, and we don’t have one of those. So it’s face-first for me.
I use my hands to ease myself down and forward, trying not to squirm at the dusty, dingy feel of the floor, until I’m able to swing my right leg over and touch the cold hardwood. After that it’s a simple matter of getting my other leg over, standing up, stepping lightly, and retrieving my clothes from the pile near the door.
As I stop in the doorway, the frame littered with red markings Heath painted when we first moved in, I look back at the bed, seeing him sleeping there, a few inches taller than I, brown hair shorn close to his skull. He took most of the blankets in his sleep, but I can handle it, since the mid-May weather is keeping the flat warm.
Apartment. Not flat. Apartment. He’s talked to you about this.
The apartment is a shoebox, to put it lightly. The main room consists of a small table with two chairs next to a window that could only be opened with a brick. There’s also a combination sink/stove with a few Tupperware containers in a stack next to it, all of them holding dry goods. Heath says if I gave him more we’d be living in a condo in Allora by now, but I don’t know what else I can do. I’m living on ramen, I quit smoking, I even started hopping turnstiles to save on subway tokens. I don’t know what else I can shave back.
I exit the apartment as softly and carefully as I can, leave the door unlocked behind me because I can hardly redo the chain from the other side. Once out the door, I trot down the dimly lit hallway to the communal bathroom at the end of it, still naked, my T-shirt, hoodie, jeans and underwear bundled under one arm and my beat-up Chuck Taylors, the socks stuffed deep in my shoes and probably stiff from sweat, under the other. My St. Jude medallion is around my neck. I don’t take that off. He lost his St. Anthony medal. I’m not allowed to think that’s ironic or funny. I haven’t been to Mass since we met. Heath’s been playing around with atheism, but I think he’s more comfortable with just hating God. Sometimes I envy him for that.
I just wish things could be like they were in the beginning.
Once in the bathroom, I close the door behind me, pull the chain attached to the dangling light bulb overhead, and set to getting dressed. The floor is dirty, cream-colored tile, the toilet’s seat is barely attached, there’s a sink with a cracked mirror over it and a shower stall with plenty of mold inside.
After getting dressed, I look in the mirror, smooth out my hair and brush back some stringy red locks. Irish red, that’s the shade he calls it, it’s one of his little jokes, the other being that I see dead people due to the white streak in my bangs. I don’t. I also don’t have an accent. Well, I do occasionally, but it’s more Oxford than Dublin. I only slip into it by accident and he’s never really liked when I—
What’s wrong with my face?
That can’t be me.
But the guy in the mirror, his right eye is nearly closed, puffy, the skin mottled with dark colors, his lips are fat, cracked, teeth stained with dried blood.
I mean, he’s… But he’s never…
Not that hard…
It was just a stupid fight, and it was my fault anyway. I mean, I snuck one of his smokes (one of the ones he rolls himself) but I was having a rough day but I knew they were his and I should’ve bought my own but my legs were sore and…
And I just shouldn’t have pissed him off. I know he has a temper and he can get a little…
I stare into the mirror, meet my dirty green eyes, see the bruises on my cheek visible under the dusting of stubble. I look at my forearms, weak and lanky, at the dark finger-shaped marks there.
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
If I run, though, he’ll…
But if I don’t come back, he can’t. He’ll be mad, but he’s always angry about money, and if I’m gone he won’t be spending as much.
I slip back into the room, stepping slow and easy. He’s still asleep, but I’m trembling. I’d wake him up if I slid back into bed, and he might be mad, he might…
My eyes adjust quickly to the dark room, the only light indirect from streetlamps. I need something to protect myself, if he…
Keep it together. Just get something sharp.
The silverware would be too noisy, that would wake him up. He has a small blade though, for opening the post, I mean the mail. It’s on the counter, half of a broken set of scissors, something he picked up before we met. It’s junk, so he won’t miss it. I slip it into the large front pocket of my hoodie.
If I’m going to do this, I have to go.
I pull up my hood and leave the flat, walking as slow as I can down the hallway toward the stairs, prefacing every step with a silent prayer, my thumb and index finger gently rubbing my medallion. No creaks. First part’s over. The walls are yellowed, chipped paint, trash on the steps. It’s a slum just barely inside the Benedict on 82nd and M. We’re on the fourth floor, I mean fifth. Walk-up. Cheaper than the dorms.
Dad will understand, right? I’m going to have to tell him. I doubt he’ll start quoting Leviticus, he’s not as Catholic as Mom is. Still, should I call?
No, no, get out of the building first, that’s the priority. Heath could wake up at any moment and notice I’m gone. Get some distance.
I descend the stairs, picking up speed with every flight until I leap the last six steps, the landing echoing in the ground-floor lobby, but I’m out the door before I have time to wince. I’m sore, hot, aching, but not tired. It’s a cool May night, but my hoodie is stained with sweat. I reach the 80th and R station, my palms slapping the top of the turnstile as I vault over. There’s a train pulling in, the Blue Line, heading for all points west.
Oh God, what am I doing? I can get back before he’s noticed I’m gone, right?
What if someone saw me jump over? I’ll get picked up and they’ll call the flat and he’ll know and I’ll have to explain and there’ll be a fine and we can’t afford a fine—he’ll get so pissed…
I get on the train, take a seat in the corner, away from the few scattered people here and there. I probably stink. I haven’t washed these clothes in a while. I thrust my hands into the hoodie’s pocket, mostly so people won’t see me wringing them together over the broken scissor.
As the train pulls away from the station, I swear I see him there on the platform—a chill runs through my hands—but when I check again, it’s empty. It’s a sign, that’s what it is. I’ll just ride to the next station, get off, go home, and if he’s awake, I’ll say I went for a little walk because it was a nice night, or something like that. That’s okay, right? Yeah, he shouldn’t be too mad.
The train jostles slightly on the tracks, enough to make me brace against the wall, and see the sleeve of my hoodie and a metal glint in the frayed threads of the cuff. Something’s tangled in there. I pull it free slowly, delicately. It’s a chain, silver, a small medallion attached to…
“No, no, no.”
St. Anthony of Padua. Patron saint of missing things. His medallion, he was so pissed when he lost it, even though he never goes to Mass and…
And it was stuck on my clothes and…
I can’t go home now.
No one pays me much mind, but I keep my hood pulled forward, my gaze cast toward the floor. Every time the train makes a stop I tense, knowing I should check the doors to see if he’s there, but if he does get on, he’ll see me if I look up, so hell with that. What am I going to do?
What am I going to do?
This is how it goes for several more stops, until I feel a hand nudge my shoulder, a male voice telling me we’ve reached the end of the line. It’s not him, but when I look up the man has already moved down the aisle toward the door. I only see the back of his head, but his hair looks dyed, badly, in brown, black, blond and gray. I want to ask him where we are, but a glance out the window answers the question.
It’s a hub for the United Transit Authority, or UTA, as well as the bus station, built under Victory Tower, tallest building in the state. If I’m going to carry this all the way, this is the place to do it. I can buy a bus ticket going, well, anywhere but here.
It takes an hour of wandering around to work up the nerve to get in queue for the ticket booth. I keep my eyes on my feet, shuffling forward when I see the feet in front of me move. Before long I’m in front of the window, the woman behind the glass taking a look at me and immediately casting her eyes downward. I start to speak, patting my jeans for my wallet as I see the small sticker on the window reading Identification Required for All Ticket Purchases. Would they take my student ID? Would they…
I took the wrong jeans. My wallet’s back at the apartment.
Wordlessly, I exit the queue and head toward the array of chairs in the waiting area. I can feel my throat tightening, panic creeping across my skin.
Just give it up. Time to go home and take my licks and hope it won’t be too bad. Maybe things will be different if he knows I’m willing to leave. Maybe he’ll treat me better. I walk to the bank of pay phones and realize that I’m still without money, and I doubt he’d take a collect call from me.
I do see a familiar face, or at least hairstyle. The man from the train is seated on the floor under the pay phones, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. I take a deep breath and walk over to him.
“Hey, you got any quarters?” On closer examination I can see that his face is bruised, some dried blood in his eyebrow, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned about it.
“Just used my last one, honestly. Nine-one-one’s a free call, though. What, you get mugged?” I look away, closing my eyes, my throat feeling tight again. Damn it, don’t start the waterworks, he’ll hate you if you do. No one likes a crybaby. I hear him speak up. “You okay?”
After a few seconds, I shake my head, sniffling again.
He pats the floor next to him, trying to put me at ease with a smile. “Getting mugged happens, man. It sucks, I know. Been rolled a few times myself.” He actually laughs. What’s with this guy? “Bit of advice? Never count the day’s take before you skim off the local gang’s cut. You’ll end up with your ass kicked and out two hundred bucks.”
Great, he’s a criminal. I don’t see many options, though. I’ve been wandering around the station for an hour, Heath must’ve noticed that I’m gone by now. I sit on Bad Dyejob’s right and pull my hood forward more. “That what happened to you?”
“Nah, this was my dad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this is a regular thing. My brother, every time I see him he hits me, seems like.” He shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe he’s got a pituitary problem or something, whatever kind of hormone imbalance screws people up in the head.”
Am I overreacting? Am I making a mistake? I mean, this guy is… I turn toward him. “So this happens a lot.”
“Mugging, or getting smacked around? I don’t know, in this city…” He reaches toward me. Please don’t let me get mugged. All I can do is wince before he touches me.
“Oh damn.” He pauses a second, taking his hand away. “Listen, I didn’t mean to make light of anything. I mean, if your dad is hitting you, then you need to—”
“My father doesn’t hit me.” Dad is a good man, and other than chasing women, God wouldn’t have any problems with him. “My brothers don’t either. My family isn’t like yours.”
And he laughs, what the hell is so funny about that?
“I hope not. I wouldn’t wish my family on anyone. My mom’s snapped, or she’s about to, my grandfather’s got a crazy ex with serious boundary issues. One half-brother belongs in jail and the other will someday be devoured by pubic lice, and hell, I’ll probably end up a third-rate con artist.” He smiles at me again, but this one’s more sincere.
“You’ll say all that to someone you don’t know?”
“Stranger’s confessional. We’ll tell anyone anything if we think we’ll never see them again.”
I whisper under my breath. “There’s only one person I never want to see again.”
“What was that?” He leans toward me with a wink. “It was a crack about my hair, wasn’t it? It’s okay, think of it as a life lesson to never get drunk with a chick who thinks you’ll look hot with highlights and streaks.”
I don’t answer, and he looks under my hood. He takes stock of the bruises and marks on my face. His voice softens. “Listen, uh, I’m sorry if I’m cracking jokes. Just what I do, you know? Be straight with me, you okay?”
What did he call it? Stranger’s confessional. I wish it could be one of those things where it wouldn’t be real until I admitted it, but I still feel the heat in my skin, the blurs in my vision from my swollen eye. It happened, whether I admit it or not. I look down at the floor, and I shake my head to answer him.
“You don’t have to tell me any details, it’s all right. Besides, uh…” I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting this when he dropped into Victory Station to probably pick pockets or smuggle cocaine. “So you’re leaving…her? Him?”
I can feel the tears coming. Damn it. “Him.” I take a few breaths, try to keep it together. “I just… I looked in the mirror and saw…” I touch my face briefly. What am I doing? “God, I was so stupid. He’s gonna be so pissed, he’s—”
“Hey.” He places his hand awkwardly on my forearm. “You’re doing the right thing here. It’s the brave thing.”
“I can’t go anywhere. I don’t have any money, I just came here because…” My face feels wet. “I just ran out, I grabbed some clothes and ran. Everything is back there, I don’t have ID, I can’t get a ticket and…”
Dyejob doesn’t laugh though. A few people do look but keep walking. He reaches into his pocket and takes something out.
He fans out five cards at me. “Your bus ticket, or well, it will be once I find a couple fish.” He looks at the passing crowd, and I notice that his eyes are golden brown, closer to golden. “I work this right I can get you bus fare to Idaho if you want in fifteen minutes.”
“But what if you lose?”
He stifles a laugh as he pats my forearm gently. “You’re adorable.” He shows me three cards, a queen and two aces, before he starts shuffling. “I don’t lose, okay? It’s not pride, I know how to work the cards. More than that, I know how to work the mark. It’s all about distraction, that’s why we all talk and rhyme and chat up the crowd. If I can get you to take your eyes off the cards for a second, I’ve won.” He flips the cards over, showing the same queen, but two different aces.
“Magic.” He grins big, and I’ll admit it’s slightly infectious. He prattles on for a bit more, but I’m having trouble buying it.
“They don’t know it’s obvious that you’re cheating?”
He laughs, good-naturedly. “Man, everyone knows I’m cheating, doesn’t stop them from thinking they can beat the game anyway.” He sighs, looking over at the crowd. “God, pride is a lucrative sin. Greed too. Even if they’re on to you, there’re ways around it. You play it straight to throw them off or you do a turnover or pull a drop…”
He stares off into space for a moment.
“Um…” I wave a hand in front of his face.
“Sorry, I uh…I just realized that I have to get out of here.” He holds up his hand. “Do you know anyone in the Capital?”
“My father, well, kind of close to there, he’s in the Mews.” A nice suburb for the upper middle class.
“All right.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out a bus ticket, putting it in my hand. “This is what you’re going to do, okay? You get on the bus, ride it to the Capital, and when you get off, look for a black guy with bleach-blond hair wearing a motorcycle jacket. His name is Bank, tell him the cracker had to give you his exit.” His fingers push my chin up, my eyes lock with his. “What are you telling him?”
“The cracker had to give me his exit?” Oh God, am I agreeing to be a drug mule? “I can’t take your ticket, though—”
“Yeah, you can. Think you need a getaway more than I do.”
“No, they check identification, and I don’t have mine, and—”
“Relax.” He takes his ID out of his wallet. “Just show the driver this when he checks the new passengers. I bought the ticket with that one, and I can always get another.”
He gives it to me, and it looks a little fake, and the photo, well… “I don’t really look like this.”
He exhales hard, biting his lip. “I’d hate to say this, man, but right now? You don’t really look like anybody.” He pats my arm again, that’s as far as he’s willing to go. Am I the intimidating one in this exchange? “Listen, it’s awful that this happened to you, but right now, as bad as this sounds, it actually works in your favor.”
“No one’s going to pry, or ask twice. Yeah, you don’t look like the picture, but given your condition, they’re going to give that minefield a wide berth and let you slide. And if anyone asks from now until you get home to your dad, your name is the one on the ID, okay? Hey.” He makes me look at him, and his eyes are sincere. He probably practices that, but it’s working. “Hard part’s over. You’re going to be all right.”
For better or worse, I believe him. I nod once. “Thank you. You’re saving my life, you’re my hero.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
He chuckles. “Well, seeing as I’m kinda smuggling you north, just call me a coyote. Only, y’know, without the extortion and stuff.” He stands, and helps me up. “Your bus is over that way, might as well get in line.”
Oh my God, I’m getting out of here. I’m going to get away, all thanks to the kindness of strangers. Everything can be okay. This can really be over. I want to cry, but I’m not ashamed to this time. I hug Dyejob, my coyote, as hard as I can. He returns it, patting my back gently. After a few seconds I start across the lobby to the departure gates.
I glance back at him, and he waves, still smiling, his voice echoing across the distance. “Hey, you never told me your name either.”
“It’s…” I look down at the ID before smiling back at him. “James Black.”