A strange yellow orb hung in the sky, beaming deadly radiation down across the land. Or at least Tam found it strange. Having been cooped up in her sanctum for more nights than she could remember, fresh air and bright sunlight seemed as alien to her as any facehugger or creature from beyond the stars could be.
“Come on, it’s just a little sunshine,” Sarah said. “You’re not a vampire, it can’t actually hurt you.”
She pulled on Tam’s arm to lead them down the stairs from the Club’s current offices. Tam squinted and groaned. She could argue that sunlight was capable of doing all sorts of bad things to a person but she knew that wouldn’t change Sarah’s resolve to her away from her cauldrons and iPads.
“There’s still stuff to do though,” she groaned, the protest pressed out of her by the sheer number of tasks that were pending in her queue. “We don’t know what formed that sinkhole in Mumbai. Or why Anchorage is reporting purple stars appearing at midnight?”
“James is working on that,” Sarah said, dragging Tam further down the street. Tam wasn’t making a particular effort to resist. On some level she seemed to know she needed the intervention.
“James is working on a lot of things,” Tam said, not quite willing, or able, to give up without more of a struggle.
Not that she had a lot of energy left. She was tired. Even with the extra help from both Connie and Sarah, it still felt like the world was resting on her shoulders.
“And if he wasn’t agoraphobic, I would be dragging him out here too,” Sarah said.
“But what if there’s some monster that’s inhaling whole villages or something?” Tam said.
“Then those villages have a big problem to deal with,” Sarah said.
“They’re not going to be able to though!” Tam said.
“And neither are you,” Sarah said. “Did we stop the first sinkhole from forming?”
“Can we stop all of the bad things in the world before they happen to someone good?”
“Can we help anyone at all if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open?”
“Maybe,” Tam grumbled. “No.”
“You like to help people,” Sarah said, stopping and turning to face Tam. “I get it. It can be kind of addictive. But you’ve got a responsibility to help yourself too.”
“You sound like my girlfriend,” Tam said.
“Good. I’ve met Cynthia. She’s a lovely woman. Very sensible,” Sarah said.
“Did she put you up to this?” Tam asked.
“No, though she has been calling for you pretty regularly,” Sarah said.
A police car passed on the street, it lights twirling. Another problem. Another thing to worry about.
“Why haven’t I gotten those calls?” Tam asked.
“Because she’s trying to respect your time,” Sarah said and mimicked Cynthia’s voice, “I’m just calling to check in, how’s Tam doing? No, no, don’t interrupt her if she’s busy, I know she needs to concentrate. No, it’s ok, you don’t have to let her know I called, everything’s ok here. I don’t want to worry her.”
Tam massaged the bridge of her nose.
“Oh, that’s not good at all, is it?”
“No,” Sarah said. “Or yes. I mean on the positive side, you’ve got someone in your life who truly cares you. That’s uncommon to rare in my experience. On the other hand, they’re stressed out and aren’t sure what to do to make things better for you, which is depressingly common.”
“Ugh, I have got to carve some time off for her,” Tam said. “We were supposed to go out together two nights ago, and I had to bail to deal with the bog lights in Kemeri.”
“No,” Sarah said, shaking her head.
“No, what?” Tam asked. “That really was why I had to cancel. I didn’t want to bail!”
“I know that,” Sarah said. “What I’m saying no to is ‘carving some time’ for your girlfriend. That’s not healthy or sustainable. You can’t make spending time with her just another chore on a ToDo list.”
“That’s not…” Tam started to object but then slumped in defeat. It was a painfully accurate characterization of how she’d been picturing making time for the woman she loved.
“Yes, that’s not what you’re going to do,” Sara said. “Instead you’re going to come with me and we’re going to solve a problem the old fashioned way.”
“Without magic?” Tam asked.
“I try to do as little without magic as possible,” Sarah said. “And in this case I think we need to use one of the most ancient magics there is.”
Tam sagged further. Ancient magics tended to deal with primal energies, which were either incredibly difficult to summon, or incredibly difficult to control. Or both. Most times it was both.
“I don’t know if that’s wise,” Tam said. “If I cast a big spell now, I can promise it’s going to go sideways starting with the first syllable.”
“That’s the beauty of this magic,” Sarah said. “It’s not big at all.”
Tam didn’t trust that. Maybe it wasn’t big by Sarah’s reckoning. Sara had more experience casting high tier spells than Tam did though, and that could have easily distorted her view of what a less experienced caster could manage, especially when said caster was already exhausted. On the other hand, if and when things did go wrong, having Sarah there gave the best chance to someone being able to get the spell back on track, and it would serve Sarah right to be stuck with the legwork to make that happen.
“Ok, where do we go for the casting then?” Tam asked.
“You’ll see!” Sarah said. “We’ve just got a few stops to make first.”
The first stop in question turned out to be a basketball court. Not a venue Tam had been expecting, but Sarah moved with purpose as she strode along the sidelines.
Her target was a high school aged girl who was tying on a new pair of shoes.
“Just won those, I’m guessing?” Sarah said.
“Yeah, what of it?” the girl said, looking up at the two women. Her hair was woven into cornrows and hung halfway down her back. It showed wonderful braiding work, better than Tam had ever managed for her friend Ayisha when they were teenagers, but where Ayisha had always had a smile when she saw Tam, the basketball playing girl’s dark brown eyes held only suspicion.
“I’m off my game,” Sarah said. “I could use a practice round against somebody with some skill.”
“Two on one?” the girl said. “Sounds like a hustle.”
“Nah, just me,” Sarah said. “My friend’s a nerd, I don’t think she even knows how to play.”
Tam wanted to take offense. She knew the rules of basketball. She’d even played before. A while ago. Ok, over a decade ago. But she could sort of dribble still. Probably. If she had an hour or so to practice first.
“What do you want to play for?” the girl asked.
“Those shoes are around a $100, right?” Sarah said. “Let’s play for that.” She flashed a small handful of bills to show she could cover her end of the bet.
“Now I know you’re a hustler,” the girl said.
“Afraid to take my money?” Sarah asked.
“You afraid to lose it?” the girl asked.
“Depends if I get a good match in or not,” Sarah said. “My name’s Sarah.”
“McKenzie,” the girl said.
“First to eleven?” Sarah suggested.
“Sure, I’ll even let you start out,” McKenzie said, tossing Sarah the ball.
Tam may not have been able to play basketball all that well, but she was able to follow the flow of the game easily enough.
Sarah put in a valiant effort, but it clear from the start that McKenzie was in a different league entirely. What was the most interesting to Tam though were the half dozen moments when Sarah could have easily cheated with a quick spell or a whispered incantation but chose to play it fair instead.
With the match concluded, the two players came over to where Tam was sitting.
“I’m more out of shape than I thought,” Sarah said, passing the folded bills over to McKenzie.
“You’ve got a decent fake out,” McKenzie said. “Can’t use it on someone who’s reading you though.”
“It was my go to move for a while,” Sarah said. “Seemed like all the balls I sunk this time were just straight shots though.”
“Yeah, well, I had to give you some space for those or you’d have gotten more of the fakes through,” McKenzie said.
“You ever do any coaching?” Sarah asked.
“What? Me? Nah. I’m not a coach. I’m still in school,” McKenzie said.
“I don’t know, one of my friend’s daughter’s plays in a youth league and they could definitely use someone with your eye,” Sarah said.
“Well if they’ve got any openings, you let me know, ok?” McKenzie said.
“Sure, you around much?” Sarah asked.
“I’m here every day,” McKenzie said. “Or at least every day there’s someone looking to lose some coin.”
“I’ll let you know then,” Sarah said. “Thanks for the match.”
As they continued on the journey, Tam couldn’t help but notice the smug expression on Sarah’s face.
“You look awful happy for someone who just got beat and lost a hundred dollar,” Tam said. “I’m hoping the spell’s going to turn out a little better than that.”
“Believe it or not, I think the magic turned out just fine,” Sarah said.
“What magic?” Tam asked. “You didn’t cast anything during that game. I mean you had some golden opportunities, but I didn’t see one spell go off.”
“They’re going to take away your magician card,” Sarah said. “I never said I was going to cast a spell. I said we were going to work some magic. And we did.”
“The basketball game was magic?” Tam asked. Her brain felt like a lake of sludge on top of her shoulders. She knew she should be looking at the situation from a different angle. Sarah had played the most basic of magic tricks on her – set her up to expect one thing and then did something totally different while Tam was distracted. Even knowing that though, the wheels in Tam’s head were still stuck in the sludge and she couldn’t work out what had really happened.
“Yes. The most ancient kind of magic,” Sarah said. “It was communication. I talked to McKenzie and now the world is changed.”
“I am about five paces behind still,” Tam said. “Break it down for me in more detail ok?”
“Sure,” Sarah said with a gentle laugh. “Ok, McKenzie’s out there everyday hustling to make ends meet. She’s good at basketball, but playing games for money is only going to take her so far. It’s hit-or-miss when people will be willing to play, and dangerous if she plays the wrong people. She’s smart though, so she knows that and tries to only take the safe bets. Meaning the people who aren’t going to break her legs when she wins.”
“That sounds good?” Tam said.
“It’s not,” Sarah said. “She’s playing the odds and the odds always turn on you eventually. What she needs, what she knows she needs, is something more stable. And she needs people in her life too. Did you notice that we played one-on-one?”
“Yeah. That’s not usual is it? I thought basketball was usually five-on-five?”
“That or three-on-three is more common. McKenzie can’t do that though because she’s not exactly flush with friends. Especially not ones that can play like she can.”
“Yeah. It’s something she’s naturally gifted at. More than that though, the youth team I talked about? They really do need help, and McKenzie is the perfect person to provide it. She can be there as a coach, and as a friend in a way that none of the adults who are working with the kids can be.”
“I feel like there’s a lesson here for me?” Tam said.
“There is,” Sarah said. “What you’re doing isn’t wrong, you’re just going about it wrong. You can’t fix all the world’s problems. And that’s good. If you could the world wouldn’t need the rest of us.”
“But the problems still need to be fixed, don’t they?”
“Some of them, but you’ll get a lot more done by giving people the little bits of help or information they need to fix both their own problems and other peoples’,” Sarah said. “We don’t need special teams swooping in to save us all the time. In a lot of cases, we can make our own second chances.”