by John C. Conway
Carving knife in hand, Frankie Turnbull flinched. The blade sliced into the flesh of his finger.
He dropped the knife and flapped his hand once. “Nothing! Okay?”
Like the blade, his response was too sharp. He knew better. But he spoke without thinking. He needed time to fix a very serious problem, and nobody was giving it to him.
Anthony Turnbull cleared his throat, telegraphing to Frankie the shallow depth of the ice upon which he’d just placed himself.
“Sorry,” he said, turning.
His father’s bulky frame filled the doorway, silhouetted by the late-afternoon sun. He crossed his arms.
Frankie’s hair tingled. “I’m almost done,” he pleaded. But it was pointless to argue with the man. He was stubborn, he could throw Frankie a country mile, and he was an imbecile.
Imbecility was the biggest problem. That was Frankie’s fault. It was the problem he wanted to fix.
Frankie glanced at the unfinished runes adorning the length of Manzanita in his hand. He looked up at his father, a lock of hair falling into his eyes. Frankie jerked his head to clear his vision.
His father reacted to the twitch with a concise pronouncement. “Haircut. Tomorrow.”
Frankie nodded. The matter was closed. He suppressed his desire to examine the unfinished wand. That knife slip might have screwed up the meticulous markings he’d been agonizing over for two weeks now. But if his father suspected Frankie valued the little stick over compliance, he would react, and Frankie could imagine no reaction that did not jeopardize his secret work or his collection.
Frankie tossed the stick into the corner of the shed with a casual gesture. Five of his wands-in-progress lay near the same spot amid the clutter of backyard tools, old Harley parts and leftover paint cans. Among them was the completed, but now unused, Imbecility Wand—his first. It was two years ago, when he was only twelve, that the Oak recognized his talent and taught him how. He should have been careful with it. But he didn’t figure that out until he’d used it on everyone, starting with his parents and his sister, then his teachers, his coaches, his classmates—his father had actually been borderline brilliant before that. He could solve any problem. He seemed to know everything.
Frankie followed his father, tromping over flat brownish grass to the backdoor.
“…and after you take out the trash, I want to see some homework. There is no reason for you to …”
Frankie nodded, pretending the rant made sense. “Homework” was now a recurring battleground. Both parents blindly insisted he waste time performing the meaningless ritual.
His father opened the sliding-glass door—even though the kitchen door would have been closer and easier. Frankie had explained that to his father many times. But the man was too dumb to understand.
My fault, he reminded himself.
His mother crossed her arms. “I emailed Mrs. Dibbel. Is there a project you were supposed to turn in on Monday?”
Frankie rolled his eyes. “She said we could turn it in either this week or next week.” He knew Mrs. Dibbel had probably forgotten that—the wand had worked exceptionally well on her, and she was now the rock-bottom dumbest of all the teachers. This particular “project” was for students to regurgitate facts about dead-and-forgotten leaders from poorly-written books that no one wanted to read. It had imbecility written all over it, like the assignments Frankie received from all of his teachers these days.
He had tried to resist at first. He explained the pointlessness of curriculum. But it was too late; the wand had done its work. His teachers, counselors and parents all concluded incorrectly that he had become obstinate and rebellious.
He missed the days when his teachers were intelligent and school assignments were fun and engaging.
“… so I asked if she would give you more time, and she said you could turn it in on Monday.”
“So you’ll do it tonight. No TV until your father and I see that project. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” he said with a big, chest-heaving sigh as he shuffled to the kitchen trash, pulled the bag, and waddled out the side door.
How much more of this could he take? It was tough enough to be the only person of even moderate intelligence in the community—but the guilt of having caused the situation was unbearable.
He flung the plastic bag into the large gray can. Messy pieces of garbage escaped through his loose knot. Oops. He glanced around, saw no one, closed the lid and looked at the sky. The sun would try to set in a few moments. He checked his back pocket—the two wands he needed were there. He planted a foot near the wheel-axle of the trash can, tilted it, and rolled the bulky container down the driveway toward the street.
At the curb, he drew the Sunset Wand. He’d carved it from a smooth, light birch twig; just five inches long—his shortest. But its power was immense. He peered west. Red clouds decorated the sky. He smelled the breeze and listened. They were coming: elemental spirits, rushing east, toward him, from the direction of the setting sun. No one would see them. But the havoc they could cause was extraordinary. He grasped the wand with two hands, pointed it toward the sunset, and sounded the chant the birch had taught him. It was a long phrase with many unconventional sounds. It took a week to commit it to memory. During that week, the elemental spirits swept through the community unchecked, taking or destroying what they pleased. He had been terrified. But now, he was master.
The sky glowed from the wand’s magic. A gust of wind signaled the collision of the elemental spirits and his magical barrier. The roar of their screams pierced the air. Nobody else could hear it. But no matter. He maintained the shield, filling the sky with its energy. After a few moments the wind died. The glow subsided. The spirits had again been repelled.
He drew a deep breath and slipped the wand into his pocket. He glanced back at his house. The family-room window flickered with illumination from the flat-screen.
“…I said what are you doing, dork?” he heard behind him. The voice was Lester Bonnet.
He spun. “Nothing.”
Lester stood smirking in the street, his pants too low, and his hands in his pockets.
“Yeah, right,” said Lester, shaking his head.
Frankie frowned. It was too late to escape. He would have to endure. Lester was four inches taller and he was tough. In third grade, during a round of name calling, they all called Lester “Easter Bonnet,” which they considered hilarious—everyone but Lester, who seemed to find it intolerable. To stop the teasing, Lester selected a target—Steve Wu—and bloodied his nose and his lip. Frankie was untouched and Lester got in trouble. But Steve’s beating by Lester made a lasting impression, and Frankie learned something about the meaning of respect that day.
Lester’s eyes narrowed. “I need some smokes. You got any?”
Frankie shook his head.
“How about your parents? They smoke, don’t they?”
Frankie shook his head again. “They hate smoke. My Mom makes people stand outside if they want to smoke.”
Lester cussed. “Then give me five bucks. I’ll get them myself.”
Frankie had a twenty in his pocket, but not a five. “I don’t have a five,” he said. He wished he had a five; it was worth five dollars to have Lester move on.
Lester stepped closer. “What have you got, Wizard Boy?”
Frankie tried to swallow. He had a stealth wand in his back packet. But Lester was too close—it wouldn’t work. As a rule, he did not carry weapon wands with him. Sometimes, like now, he regretted that personal rule.
“All I’ve got is a twenty—but that’s for lunch all week.” He shrugged helplessly.
“I’ll pay you back in the morning, Spankie. Hand it over.”
“Don’t you trust me?” said Lester. The tone was threatening.
Frankie tried to laugh. “Yeah, yeah, sure,” he said. “I’m just—I mean, I’m not sure if I’ll see you in the morning—”
“You see me every day at snack,” he snapped, “by the machines.”
Frankie nodded. True enough. Lester and a group of other delinquents loitered near the vending machines at the benches. There was no way Frankie would ever approach Lester for money while he was horsing around with that crowd. But, come to think of it, there was no way Frankie would ever approach Lester for money anywhere. Did he really care about the money? He thought about it. Could Lester just have the money?
You don’t need lunch, he heard—a whispering voice on the breeze. It came from the lone elm across the street in the parkway.
“Well?” said Lester.
“Sure, sure, no problem,” said Frankie, reaching into his front pocket. “And . . . just bring me the money whenever you like. It’s fine.” He held out a folded bill.
“Okay,” said Lester with an approving smile. “And a word of advice, Frankie: drop the magic act. It’s for kids. People think you’re a dork.” His voice almost sounded friendly. But Frankie knew it meant nothing.
Lester put the twenty in his shirt pocket and walked away. Frankie’s gaze shifted to the elm across the street. It had never spoken to him before. He approached. A unique twig jutted from its trunk, just above head height. It had the appearance of two twigs that had sprouted and grown together—except in the center, where they parted, and then came together again. It was 10 inches long. He put his hand on the trunk, and entered the world of the tree.
It told him everything. The twig he was free to take. With the appropriate carvings, and a simple incantation, it would function as a Fasting Wand—he could use it on himself, or anyone else. It bestowed the ability to suppress hunger.
“People eat too much anyway,” Frankie muttered. The Elm agreed. Frankie snapped the twig gently at its base. He thanked the elm, and thanked it for the pleasure of its acquaintance. Trees growing within the human community rarely offered magic—too much contact with people. He usually had to hike out of town. But the Elm was moved by Frankie’s plight.
Frankie hurried back while it was still dusk. The stealth wand worked only during dusk; and he needed to retrieve his unfinished wand from the shed. He would complete it tonight, if possible—and this new one. It might take all night. But he could manage. He had a wand under his bed made specifically for that purpose.
He crept in the shadows around the house, magically concealed, and into the shed. He hesitated. At night, he could encounter spiders and rodents in the shed. He was not protected from them. Sometimes his dependence on the narrow specialization each wand provided was frustrating. He knew magic could be tapped other ways. But he did not have a knack for anything but wands. To be fully prepared for any circumstance, he would have to carry a backpack full of sticks. And some of them were not compatible—so they would have to be wrapped and isolated from each other.
He shook his head. The process was unmanageable. This was not a gift; it was a curse.
He tip-toed into the dark of the shed toward the back and crouched. They should be about here. He reached, hoping not to find a critter. He felt something hard and light. He probed its handle, its carvings. His heart stopped and he quickly dropped it—the Imbecile Wand. He would not risk accidentally activating that wand. It had done enough.
He fumbled deeper and found a stubby handle with coarse carvings—there were rough edges, and a barely-attached little wood chip.
“Ah.” It was the unfinished Silence Wand. He grabbed it and hurried out.
He used his Sleepless Wand to stay up all night. He finished the Silence Wand, but not the Fasting Wand. No matter. The finishing touches would be a simple matter—he could complete the runes before lunch at school, in his lap, without problem.
“What’s that, Schmankie?” said Horace in a voice that sounded like cracking glass.
“Nothing,” said Frankie, holding the wand still in his lap, covering it with the skinny fingers from both his hands.
Horace guffawed, and glanced back at Sam, who smirked. Frankie sat still, waiting for Horace’s focus to wane. But Horace returned his attention and Frankie detected in his glare a glint of pure, sadistic evil. Horace’s right hand shot toward Frankie’s face in a loose, meaty fist. Frankie flinched. The soft, filthy knuckles pressed against Frankie’s nose and cheek. But it was not a blow. Rather it was a feint, and while Frankie cringed, confused, Horace’s hand dropped to Frankie’s lap and snatched the wand.
“Hey!” shouted Frankie.
Mrs. Dibbel turned. Horace held the wand between both hands in front of him and snickered with cruel delight.
“Give it back!”
Sam laughed. Lester hooted. Girls tittered and whispered.
Horace turned toward Frankie, displaying the wand.
Frankie stared at it, suspended between them, held in place by Horace’s careless fingertips.
“What,” said Horace, teasing Frankie. “You want this stupid thing?”
“Mr. Wheating!” shouted Mrs. Dibbel. But Horace ignored her.
“Just give it to him,” said Lester from the back in an it’s-not-worth-it tone.
Horace chuckled. He leaned forward, goading Frankie. “You can have it . . . Go on, take it.”
Frankie hesitated. He was not as fast or agile as Horace. He had never bested him in any physical contest—ever. But he tried.
Horace pulled the wand back, laughing.
“Mr. Wheating and Mr. Turnbull! That is enough.”
Everything had collapsed to mayhem. Mrs. Dibbel was powerless. The rest of the imbeciles either encouraged, or were at least amused by, Horace’s teasing. Frankie could not stop him. He had no magic available. He felt stripped naked and humiliated before his jeering, hateful peers.
Mrs. Dibbel stepped toward the spectacle. Horace sneered at Frankie then smiled moronically at Mrs. Dibbel. “Aw, Mrs. Dibbel, I was only kidding. He can have his toy back.”
Horace threaded the wand through the fingers of his right hand, and stretched it out toward Frankie. “Here,” he said.
With tears welling in his eyes, Frankie paused, reached up slowly, and grasped the holding end. As he pulled gently away, Horace scissored his fingers, snapping the wand in two. “Oops.” The targeting end of the wand fell to the floor, and the ringing of a terrible, magical sorrow filled the room—a thrumming, mournful sound. Slow sparks leaked from the tip, broken on the floor. Frankie ignored the imbeciles. The auras and emanations were superior to the brute-physical world. He assumed they could not see or hear them. Frankie’s tears flowed unchecked. The wail of the murdered wand followed him through the halls. He left the grounds and ran home. His mother was present there, somewhere. But he walked to his room without interference. He snatched the Silence Wand from his study desk drawer. On his way out, his mother intercepted him.
“Frankie, what are you doing home from sch—”
Frankie pointed the wand and silenced her.
Across the street, he consulted with the Elm. He told it what happened, but the Elm already knew. They spoke at length. It was delightful. The Elm was witty and charming. It explained to Frankie how magical he really was, and started teaching him how the magic really worked, and where it came from.
Frankie nodded, laughed, cried, and listened. Eventually, he told the Elm what he must do. The Elm agreed.
“You need a special wand,” said the Elm.
“I can silence them. I don’t need more.”
“The imbeciles will pursue you. They will not let you alone. They don’t know and they won’t understand that you are shielded from their noise. You need a wand of special power that only someone with your talent can tap.”
Frankie hesitated. He was angry. He didn’t care for the Elm’s suggestion. He could silence them all and that’s all he wanted to do.
“Take this piece of bark,” said the Elm. “It will require no runes and no incantation—just a force of will.”
It was the strangest shape and protocol for a wand he’d ever been taught. Surely it could not be exceptionally powerful if it required no real preparation. “Fine,” he said. “But I don’t need it.”
“You will. Trust me. Now listen …”
Frankie owed a great deal to the Elm and did not want to disrespect it. So he took the bark and he continued to listen. But it would not matter. He already knew his intentions, and when the Elm was finished, Frankie proceeded back to the school.
“Mr. Turnbull, you are la—” Frankie silenced his teachers, one by one, and their classrooms—laughing, gawking students—people that would have been friends except that they were doomed to blind idiocy. Classroom after classroom, Frankie silenced the school. The Vice Principal, the counselor, the school nurse and the district psychologist all succumbed to the power, their cacophony muted to nothingness. And filling the silence was a chorus—charming and beautiful voices all around; none of them human, all of them sublime.
In the counselor’s office, detained by the soundless imbeciles, Frankie felt a calm comfort wash over him. He was alone now. They could not grate against him any more. Now he considered his options and reflected on the Elm’s advice.
“The bark will create a protective shell—a persona,” it had said.
“What good is that?”
“It appears to the imbeciles like grumbles and shrugs, simple responses like ‘uh huh,’ and ‘nuh uh’—with occasional complaints or irrational musings.”
Frankie thought the trick sounded pointless. It was an illusion that meant nothing. But he could see now that it might have a place. They hovered around him. They attempted to address him. He imagined if he didn’t do something they would be in his face pestering him incessantly.
He could remain himself, the Elm had told him, while the imbeciles would perceive a young, grumpy teenager with a bad attitude. A pacifier.
Maybe so, thought Frankie.
Slouching in the straight-backed chair in front of the desk, he shoved his hand into his pocket and felt the rough, palm-sized piece of the Elm—a protective shell, no incantation, no runes; just a pure force of will.
The Elm had always been right. It was probably right now. He activated the shell.
That evening after stopping the elementals he visited the Elm and told it the shell worked. It knew.
And all day, since they fell into silence, he swam in the clarity of the world of the trees. It was exciting and empowering. But it did not solve the problem.
“Is there no cure to the imbecility?”
“You are not ready to know.”
“When will I be ready to know?”
“Come back when you hear someone.”
“Anyone. When the silence is broken by anyone, waste no time. Talk to me then.”
It took months, not years, and the moment surprised him.
Amy Klutz, sitting three rows over from him in Mrs. Dibbel’s room, black hair, black makeup, black socks and boots and a dark green skirt, muttered, “This is so stupid.”
His heart nearly stopped.
He craned his neck. She twiddled a pencil on a piece of paper and rolled her eyes.
Then he heard another familiar voice—Lester. “Tell me about it.”
He watched her glance at him. Lester returned the look.
Silence fell again. But the pounding of his pulse drowned out the bliss that had comforted him during his wait.
How did that happen? And why did it stop?
He waited for class to end. He left the room, left the campus and marched straight to the Elm. He should feel it now, but his agitation caused interference. Frustration welled. He opened his palms and pressed them against its trunk.
“I heard someone today,” he said.
The Elm told him that was good.
“Does that mean it’s wearing off?”
It wanted to know who he heard.
“Don’t you already know?”
“It was probably a girl.”
“Yes. But not just her. Lester, too. Just a few words from each of them, and then it was over. But I heard them, and they heard each other.”
“Then it is clear. The imbecility will wear off,” it concluded.
“You mean it might not have?”
“Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Frankie did not understand. He pressed for details. How long would it take, how would he know and what should he do?
“In most cases, ten years, maybe twenty.”
Frankie scanned the street trying to imagine how long ten years could be. He knew the Elm considered such timeframes like the blink of an eye. But not Frankie. It was a lot more like forever.
Cars passed. Everything moved in its rhythm of lunacy.
Frankie sighed. “Can’t we make it faster?”
The Elm did not respond immediately. Frankie looked at its trunk and its branches. He liked the shape of its leaves and treasured its welcoming aroma.
“There is a way…” it finally said. “But I don’t recommend it.”
Frankie frowned. He was willing to do almost anything. “What?”
“It requires too much change, too fast.”
“Just tell me.”
“We’ve seen it before,” said the Elm. “To break the spell quickly, when the caster has a child—becomes a parent—the spell shatters within a year.”
“What!?” Become a parent? “But I’m only—”
“As I said, I do not recommend it in this case. Not any time soon.”
“Then what do you recommend?”
“They will need you,” it told him. “You guard them from the elementals already. Stay vigilant. Watch for weakness. When you see threats, act. Do not ask for anything in return. Protect them as you protect yourself from them.”
So that was it, thought Frankie. He didn’t know exactly how long it would take—certainly a long time. But eventually, his purgatory would end; imbecility would wear off. The truth would dawn on them, their capacities would return, and he would see it in their eyes. They would no longer be his responsibility. His burden would be lifted.
It pleased him to know that he would hear them from time to time. Amy Klutz and Lester. Why them? The Elm would not tell him. That was for him to learn in the course of human affairs.
Someday he would allow them to penetrate his protective barriers.
In the meantime—until everyone around him rose from the depths of idiocy—he would stay in his silent world, hidden by a persona that wasn’t him, and endure.
“Silence of the Imbeciles” © 2012 John C. Conway
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
(Image credit: jiné verze, Wikimedia Commons)