I’m at the gate that surrounds the Holofernes Geyser, staring through the chain link at the winding, iridescent pools in the dawn light, trying to remind myself that magic isn’t real.
Magic isn’t real—the jewel-colored fountain that bursts from the earth every sixteen hours is caused by geological forces. It has no healing powers; it cannot save you when you pray to it. There’s no reason for me to wrap my hands around this chain link while I breathe deep and psych myself up to climb over the edge and drop.
That’s what I’m still telling myself as my hands tighten and I hoist myself over, over, up.
My father died in the Science Wars. Skin burned beyond recognition by a Faithful flamethrower. He wasn’t a soldier; he was working quietly in his lab, making medicine. The Faithful stormed in and torched the place. Chanted about “Big Pharma,” about “playing God.” Guarded the exits while he screamed and his skin bubbled.
I was a toddler. I couldn’t understand, no matter how my mother explained it, why he didn’t come back that day.
I’m not saying this so you’ll feel sorry for me. We all have our stories. I’m saying this so you’ll know I don’t take any of this lightly.
The Faithful would have burned civilization to the ground, but we didn’t let them. We sent the best missiles, tanks, and drones that our enlightened money could buy. We drove them out. We killed them, mostly. It was that or be killed, and they’d started it.
When the Wars were over, we came together by the half-burned town hall while the Holofernes Geyser glinted in the distance. We were tired, relieved, but there wasn’t much cheering. All of us had lost someone: a father, a sister, a son.
We gated off the geyser almost as an afterthought. Most Faithful were monotheists. The days of local tribesmen worshipping the spring were over thousands of years ago, but remnants of the Faithful were out there; something always survives. No sense leaving anything sacred for them to rally around. And some of us could feel that the geyser was sacred. Something in there nudged us to awe in ways we couldn’t explain.
All of us knew you couldn’t trust a feeling like that. We had all lost people. A feeling like that brought flamethrowers.
The pools around the Holofernes Geyser stretch out for miles: endless sulfurous streams colored in surreal pastels. Pea-green, salmon-pink, indigo, gold—a maze of water, steaming, shining, stinking in the rocky ground.
The geyser, when dormant, looks like any other pool. It’s dormant now, round and blue like a berry. Weeds and shrubs grow haphazardly on its shores. It’s surely my imagination that tells me that something waits below the surface, watching me, biding its time.
Magic isn’t real. But I tiptoe up to the geyser, anyway. I drop to my knees.
“My brother,” I whisper. I want to say something more: Save him. Find him. But in the moment, kneeling foolishly while feeling the steam on my face, I cannot do it.
“My brother,” I repeat instead. “Alex. Alex. Alex.”
It’s not that he’s ill. We have actual medicine for that.
No, what happened to Alex was hard to define. Furtive glares from the cracked door of his room. Shouting matches about nothing, about trivialities, like the wording in a textbook. Then, suddenly, nothing. The note that said only, Don’t look for me.
Of course we looked. All of us tromping through the woods for nights on end calling his name. There was nothing out there but the variably-radioactive wilds and bands of Faithful, the disorganized stragglers that would rob a person of Reason as easy as looking at them.
The city council called off the search, eventually. Mother protested. They said it was no use; there was no rational way to find him. And who could argue with that?
Me, apparently. Me and this geyser that calls to me, that feels—against all Reason—like it knows something.
A shape looms close in the steaming air.
I freeze. The shape is human. For an instant, I think it’s the local police—I’ve been caught; I’ll be punished.
But It’s not the clean shape of a person of Reason. It’s ragged, hung with sacred beads, streaked with tattoos. A bandit. A Faithful, and no one is here to protect me.
I shrink back, and the rose-colored pool to my right hisses and steams. The figure advances. I can see its face now.
I know that face.
It’s Alex. It’s my brother.
“I had to leave,” he says. We’re sitting on the ground, he staring into the bruise-blue water, I dumbfounded. “I had questions no one back home would answer. We’re as bad as any of the old monotheisms, you know, if you ask the wrong questions.”
I know better than to argue. Any question is answerable, with investigation, I could say. I don’t think it would be a lie. But I know my brother.
“Why did you come back here?”
“I had a feeling.” He grins, teeth white in his filthy face. Spirals and circles have been scrawled on the skin of both cheeks, his forehead, his jaw. “A calling. You feel it, too, don’t you? That’s why I came back. You can feel what I feel. You could join us. It’s not as bad a life as they say.”
“They killed our father.”
“Sure. Both sides killed each other. In war. But the Faithful lost that war. All we want to do now is survive.”
“And how long will that last? Until you have flamethrowers again?”
Alex huffs, but doesn’t answer. A bead of sweat drips down his face in the muggy air.
“I should take you in,” I say, breaking the silence. “I should—make a citizen’s arrest. Take you to the police, take you to therapy, for goodness’ sake-”
“But you won’t.”
When he says it, I know it’s true.
I pick up a twig from the ground, snap it in half, throw it into the water. It sinks in the blue and is gone. A chill runs up my spine, despite the heat. That feeling of being looked at again, while Alex stares off into the distance.
I focus on the water, and something sinks and is gone inside me. Not all of my anger, not all of my grief. Just a heavy hurting part without a name.
My shoulders unknot, and I breathe out.
“Alex?” I say.
He looks over at me, away from the rose-colored pool. “Yeah?”
“I’m glad you’re alive.”
When Alex left, we found illegal books in his room. Of course.
Magic doesn’t work as people think it does, said one of them. You don’t wave your wand, summon it, get what you want. Magic was already there. All you do is open your eyes.
Magic doesn’t come down and fix everything. Magic doesn’t give you your brother back.
Magic isn’t real. But Alex is alive and smiling, and I’m sitting with him, one last time.
—Ada Hoffmann is a Canadian graduate student trying to teach computers to write poetry. Her critically acclaimed speculative short stories and poems have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, Uncanny, and two year’s best anthologies. Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. She is a former semi-professional soprano, a tabletop gamer and an active LARPer, she lives in southern Ontario with a very polite black cat.