When friendship is betrayed, there are always consequences. Riley knows this just as well as her former friend Torey did. Yet he wrote a book betraying everything Riley had shared, betraying magic and life itself. In a world where the magic that flows through your soul determines your gender, Riley uneasily exists between the witches and warlocks. Will vengeance open a path to a better life for Riley or destroy every future?
Center is a thought-provoking story of gender, magic and destiny that is sure to entice.
By Meyari McFarland
Riley stared. Her eyes had slid out of focus a long while ago but she didn’t bother focusing again. The world seemed better when she couldn’t see it clearly, when the shimmer and fairy dust that filled life shifted until it was a blurry smear instead of distinct bits clashing and sparking against each other.
No one else in the café noticed the way their magic clashed and fought like roosters battling for dominance.
It helped that rain fell outside, washing the dust of August’s heat away for the moment, not that it would last. Rain always washed the distinctions away, muted the edges and made the world feel pleasantly in-definite, less set in stone. The little café tucked into the corner of the bookstore echoed with people’s voices, the sound of forks against plates, and wet shoes slipping on puddled tile. Here the magic was quiet, restrained, as suited a public place where witches and wizards mingled relatively freely.
Gray and brick red wall, hints of brown sifted past her eyes, seen and unseen at the same time. Her fingers shifted on the cover of the book she’d bought, writing callus on her middle finger catching on the embossed print spelling out ‘Dare!’
As if a mere dare could justify this betrayal.
Tea surged up Riley’s throat, acid hot as it burned its way back to her mouth. She flipped the book over, blinking her eyes repeatedly because tears weren’t going to happen. Not now. Not in public. Her raw, incoherent magic surged inside her chest, struggling against the constraints of ‘female’ and ‘male’. Lifelong training warned ‘consequences’ with answering ‘vengeance’, and ‘retribution’.
None of which Riley could let out right now.
Later, after she got home, then she’d cry. She’d fling the stupid book at the wall and stomp on it. Better still she should burn the thing to ash and dedicate her fury to rebounding consequences onto Torey. It wasn’t as though her magic was ever stable enough to send those consequences, that vengeance and retribution against him directly.
Still, what had she expected? Torey had never been a real friend, one who could listen and accept whatever Riley said or did. He’d smiled, sure, patted her back and reassured her but the judgment was always there. The judgment was always there. No one accepted Riley as she was, no matter how she presented herself.
All of Riley’s life since her magic began to develop in small childhood had been a long series of questions, doubts and judgment, starting with her parents and continuing onwards from there. There had never been a time where she’d found someone who actually understood how the world looked to Riley’s eyes. No one had ever accepted that ‘male’ and ‘female’ were concepts that made no sense at all, whether Riley was talking about the magic that underpinned everyone’s souls or simple practical genitalia.
No one ever understood.
“Oh, you got it already.”
Riley started at the soft words behind her, whirling to stare up at Lee. “You knew? That he was writing this?”
“No, my mother told me,” Lee admitted. Her long, heavy hands twisted and wrung, never stopping as her face slowly fell into the sort of depression that Torey had called ‘weak’ in private and ‘sad’ in public. “This morning. Her coworker read it and told Mother about it. Why would he say those things?”
“Shock value,” Riley grumbled with a wave for Lee to sit down. “Revenge. Sadism. I trusted him!”
“So did I,” Lee sighed.
She sat in a disconsolate little heap on the other chair, Adam’s apple bobbing on a painful swallow, curled so far inwards that she seemed to like a broken sculpture of a woman where the scattered pieces had been pushed into a pile until they could be swept up. Huddled that way Lee’s shoulders almost looked narrow, her legs almost short given the way she tucked her ankles under her chair. It was a painful look for Lee though not unfamiliar given how late Lee had discovered that her magic didn’t match her genitalia.
Riley waved for one of the waiters, ordered Lee coffee, one of the blueberry scones. They’d known each other for years, ever since college. Riley had been there when Lee’s magic erupted, had helped Lee work through suddenly being female, including all the legal paperwork that had been needed to change her identity. Lee had never asked how Riley knew so much about legal process for changing your sex.
They sat in silence until the waiter came back with polite words that they should say something if they needed anything at war with his harried expression and the dozen other patrons calling for his attention. He scurried off, magic sweeping up trash and heating people’s coffee as he went.
“How bad is it, really?” Lee whispered as she tore tiny shreds off the scone without eating them.
“I only made it through the first few pages so far,” Riley admitted. “That was… bad enough. He claims that he only befriended us all because his brother dared him to. That we were stupid and boring and that he spent all his time laughing up his sleeve at us. He outright said on page one that he was male, had always been male, but that he figured out how to fake being female so that he could do this.”
“He’s not even one of us,” Lee complained, the words more pained than angry. “How can he write a book about us when he isn’t one of us? His magic never did work right. I wondered. Everything worked right for me once I figured it out.”
“They want to understand,” Riley said, glaring at Torey’s portrait with its perfect hair, exactingly straight teeth and carefully sculpted nose on the back cover of his book. “This sort of thing is their way to make sense of women. It’s stupid and wrong and you should sue him for slander.”
Lee stared at Riley, mouth open, no sound coming out. Riley couldn’t blame her. Witches didn’t do things like sue. It wasn’t right, wasn’t proper. Dragging things into court made the lines of power twist and flex, fray at the conflict between their world and the world Torey had so triumphantly returned to.
Even if they were actually the same world. Sort of. Maybe. Depending on how you looked at it.
“I want to hurt him,” Riley growled. “Really, really hurt him.”
“You know you can’t,” Lee murmured. She stirred her coffee with a finger held precisely an inch above the hot surface, carefully swirling creamer into it drop by drop in the casual alchemy of taste and function that Lee had always excelled at. “The rebound would be horrific. He’s not one of us. The rules aren’t the same.”
“I know,” Riley said, glaring at Torey’s book. “But I really do want to. He shouldn’t get away with this. There should be repercussions.”
Lee nodded, her eyes locked on the coffee as if she was desperately uncomfortable with all this talk of vengeance. She probably was. “There will be repercussions, Riley. There always are. You’ve seen that as much as I have.”
Riley winced. She looked out the window at the rain that seemed to echo Lee’s hurt feelings, Riley’s anger. Truth was, Riley hadn’t seen the same things that Lee had. Just like Torey, Riley didn’t really fit into Lee’s gently magical world. Yes, at times Riley was as much of a witch as Lee, as any of them, but other times, not so much.
The magic that surge in Riley’s heart wasn’t the gentle swell of power that marked witchcraft. It was raw and hot, as angry as Riley. Just sitting this close to Lee and her witchcraft made the power sparkle and singe inside Riley. She shuddered, one hand over her throat as she tried to push it all down.
So much time and effort, so much therapy to accept her gender, and now it was all unraveling under Riley’s fingers.
“Riley?” Lee asked. “Are you okay?”
“I should go,” Riley said. “I don’t belong here.”
“Of course you do,” Lee said. The sheer hurt in her voice made Riley look at her again. There was pain and confusion and so much misunderstanding in her eyes. “You’re one of us, Riley. We should get together to deal with this. The community will need to discuss it, decide what actions to take.”
The thought of attending one of the covens made Riley’s stomach turn. She always felt ill when they gathered together, heart beating too fast and stomach in knots. No one ever seemed to notice just how ill at ease she felt. Probably they just didn’t mention it in hopes that Riley would get over her ‘shyness’ eventually.
No matter what the working was, Riley never added her magic to the mix. It was too dangerous. She’d expose herself entirely if she did that and Riley had dedicated far too much time and effort to being what everyone wanted her to be. Riley was a witch. She had to be a witch. Being anything else wasn’t acceptable.
Riley shook her head ‘no’, stuffing the traitorous book back into her bag. “I can’t do that right now, Lee. I’m sorry, but I just can’t. I’m too much a muddle at the moment.”
“That’s why you should come,” Lee said. She, daringly for Lee, reached out and caught Riley’s wrist before Riley could rise. “It would do you good. You haven’t been to one of the covens in ages. More than a month.”
The jerk to free her wrist came without conscious thought. Lee’s startled expression made Riley wince and curl her shoulders inwards but she didn’t apologize. There was no way to apologize, no way to explain. A couple of weeks after they’d met Riley had tried to explain to Lee what she was, how different she was, but Lee had never understood. All Lee had said was that Riley had to be confused. No one could be both male and female, both warlock and witch.
“I can’t,” Riley said. “I really, really can’t right now, Lee. I’ll see you later, okay? I’m not mad at you, truly. I just can’t handle one of the covens right now, not when I’m this upset. I’d disrupt the energies and make a mess of everything. No one needs that when all of this is going on.”
Lee sighed and nodded sadly, her hands wringing and twisting again. “All right, if you’re certain you don’t want to attend.”
“I’m sure,” Riley said. “Say hi to your mom for me, okay?”
She hurried away from the little table before Lee could answer, could suggest that Riley should say it herself. The rain shifted to hail as she stepped outside and straightened her shoulders. Riley pulled her hood up, tucked her bag close to her side and then ran for the parking lot where she’d left her car.
Right now, she wasn’t fit company for anyone, especially sensitive gentle Lee and the other witches in town.