The line out the Downtown Central Station doors was a mile long. It snaked back and forth over the subway platform, crowding commuters neatly under the concrete vaults like pilgrims at a holiday mass, then slithered up the stairs and stopped escalators, into the too-white, too-bright station lobby. From there, the line branched and twisted into chaos as people rearranged themselves to head for their desired exit.
Matt had been standing in line for twenty minutes already. He was late. William and Lilliana and HR would be furious with him, and his poor intern would be left high and dry, alone on their first day of work. People cut in lines like hot knives through butter, easily and without second thought, and Matt could no more predict when he’d get out of this dang station than he could the winner of the next national hockey championships.
He didn’t watch hockey.
Worse, Matt had gotten stuck on the subway with Serena.
She stood in line behind him, her white bag under her arm and a billowy sapphire shirt hanging off her shoulders. Delicate, well-proportioned hoop earrings dangled from her earlobes, and she had her hair tied up in a perfect clump of braids.
She was a robot. She had to be. No one was that put-together all the time.
Languid and slow, Serena glanced up at Matt. “How was your pity boba with William?” she asked.
Oh, of course William had told her about that. What didn’t William tell her? “It was fine,” Matt grunted. In the ventricles of his heart, he felt his magic shudder and sigh, like someone adjusting themselves in their sleep.
“Was the boba any good?” Serena pushed. She stepped forward, into Matt’s space, and he stepped sideways to keep up with the line as it inched along.
“It was fine,” Matt repeated. Did she want a review of the place? Matt hadn’t cared all that much. All he’d wanted was something sweet and stupid, and William’s distracting company, to keep his mind off Penelope. Now Serena was ruining it.
Serena twisted her mouth to one side, and her perfectly mascara-ed eyelashes fluttered when she blinked in contemplation. “I’ll ask William then,” she declared.
Now, William couldn’t give a review to save his life. Matt knew this. Presumably, Serena knew this. They were attached at the hip, after all. If asked, William would just grin and say it was fantastic, copying the uppity way that Lilliana drew out the second syllable, only without her contempt. He’d praise fresh taro, or especially chewy tapioca, or interesting menu items, until there was nothing left to praise. Once, he’d gushed over the quirky flooring of a particularly awful boba place.
“It was decent,” Matt heard himself say. “They have fruit-flavored milk tea for the same price as the regular kind.”
Serena tilted her head in interest, and though her expression stayed cold and relaxed, her eyes brightened. Or maybe it was just a shift in the fluorescents overhead.
They scooted forward again, and Matt felt hope rise in his chest. He could actually see the Ground Patrol officer at the subway exit now, furiously signing off on delay forms while white-collar workers harassed her to sign faster. In her dark brown coveralls, she blended into the shadowed concrete behind her, and under the white interior lights, her tan skin looked a tired, pasty grey.
Serena peered over Matt’s shoulder at the officer. “Huh. We might get out of here faster than I predicted.”
Their snail-slow conga line kept moving, plodding towards the exit on feet that hardly left the ground when they stepped forward. The bright lights of the station lobby loomed above them, too close overhead for the shear length of the lobby, whose white plaster walls stretched past the ends of the city block.
“For what it’s worth,” Serena said eventually, when they were only a few people away from the Ground Patrol officer, “I’m sorry about Penelope.”
Well, she just had to go and say it. Matt’s magic unfolded its wings and woke inside his chest, stretching out and shaking itself with long, fiery lashes of power, which Matt tried to force down by tightening his jaw. His magic was smug and curious, a possessive little dragon that slept curled around his heart and sank its claws into every moment of uncertainty it could find. The dragon breathed fire, lighting up the gasoline fuel of his most recent breakup, and Matt felt himself go blank.
Matt was not William. His magic was not benign or friendly. It was not a gift given by the earth, cultivated by communing with corn and growing chloroplasts in his cells, and it did not live and breathe with the cycles of his body. Matt’s magic washed over him like an explosion, freezing the muscles in his body, devoting every bit of his energy to his mind, to the terrible curiosity that festered in him whenever something went wrong. If he stayed in the trance for too long, his heart could stop beating.
His knees locked, and his throat caught. Matt’s eyes froze, open, and the world around him slowed. It stopped, pausing neatly at the precise moment when Serena reached out to catch him, and then flew backward like a rewinding VCR.
He was in the wrong place for this. As Matt’s magic scrambled towards lunchtime the day before, when he’d gotten the breakup text from Penelope, the sensible parts of his brain panicked. People rushed around him, gliding backwards and stepping through his incorporeal form. The fluorescent lights overhead kept steady, but the shadows in the stairwells shifted, revealing peeks at the light outside, from the grey of early morning, to the yellow of streetlamps at night, to the deep orange of sunset the evening before. When the dark, imperceptible shadows of noon fell across the concrete, Matt’s magic stopped.
It floundered in confusion. Where was past-Matt? Where was the idiot about to cry over a saved text conversation in his phone? Frustrated, the magic pushed further back in time. It wanted the sporadic moments in the days before the breakup, when Matt had texted Penelope good morning and good night and asked about her day, only to receive stilted replies. It wanted to hyper analyze their last date, when he’d taken her to the adorable seafood place by the piers, and they’d strolled hand-in-hand on the boardwalk.
But all Matt saw, stuck scrolling through time in this subway station, was the ebb and flow of people and the constant glare of the interior lighting. The little dragon of Matt’s magic tightened its grip on his heart and sank its claws into the cardiac muscle, shivering in confusion. It needed something to obsess over, not this boring river of people doing boring, everyday things in this boring, underground tunnel.
Something stung Matt’s cheek, suddenly. His nervous system recoiled, diverting Matt’s energy from the magic in his mind. He felt the rumble of a groan in his throat.
“Good grief, Matthew,” said Serena’s disembodied voice. She was robotic as ever.
“Is he alright?” said another voice. Matt didn’t recognize this one. He tried to focus on it, to push his body past involuntary movement, but now his magic wanted to look at his relationship prior to Penelope, to see where that one had gone wrong.
Serena hummed a note of disapproval. “So help me god, Matthew, if you do not get up, I’m calling William. You know he won’t keep his mouth shut if I ask him for help.” Somehow, she said this without inflection, which made Matt’s head hurt. Anyone saying ‘so help me god’ ought to sound a lot angrier.
“Shouldn’t you be nicer?” asked the other voice. It was low and feminine, like the hum of the ground and the rustle of branches. “He fainted.”
“It’s hardly my fault that a grown man doesn’t have control over his own faculties,” Serena replied. She jabbed at Matt’s face with a cold finger. “Come on, Matthew, or I’ll ask William. I know you two talk shop about inherent magic all the time.”
A rough, callused hand brushed over Matt’s wrist, and the slightest air current swept past his nose. “Wait you think this is a result of his magic? Do we even need this anymore?” A plastic sloshing noise echoed in Matt’s ears.
“Oh, we’ll take the water. Wake up, Matthew.”
“Maybe we should call-
“We need you Matthew,” Serena hissed. “Your intern needs you to wake up.”
The words worked magic. Matt’s magic loosened its grip on his heart. It lifted its ugly, jealous head in hope, letting time slide forward in his brain, and Matt managed to blink.
The station of the past blipped into the station right now. There were still those annoying white lights and people flooding around him, but his angle had changed. Now he lay on the ground, staring up into Serena’s too-calm face. The Ground Patrol officer wore a watery-eyed, worried expression, complete with tight brows and full, drawn lips. She was very pretty.
Matt’s magic fell asleep immediately after that thought. It was rather fickle.
He pushed himself up onto his elbows, took the hand that Serena offered him, and stood with minimal stumbling. The Ground Patrol officer smiled at him, her eyes still a little watery, and handed him the aforementioned water bottle. Her hands were dry and callused from use, and Matt wondered what kind of work the Ground Patrol did that would result in such worn hands.
He liked the ruggedness of her. Her brown coveralls fit over a heavily muscled frame, and unlike robotic Ms. Tian, the officer had a bit of meat on her. She was different from Penelope. A good different.
Serena squinted at him. “Oh dear,” she muttered, taking hold of his arm and slinging it over her shoulders, like he needed her help to walk. “We really must get you to the office.”
“What?” Matt squawked.
The officer blinked, stepping back, and then forward again in a nervous dance. “Um, do you still want the delay forms?”
Serena stopped and turned, swinging Matt around with the motion. “I nearly forgot. We would like those forms, please.”
The officer snorted a giggle. Her eyes squeezed into happy crescents, and her white teeth peeked from between her lips. With one hand, she pulled a pad of delay forms from her pocket dimension, and with the other, she unhooked a cheap blue pen from the front pocket of her coveralls. She uncapped it with her teeth and hovered the pen over the paper.
“Names?” she asked around the pen cap.
“Serena Tian and Matthew Douché.”
The officer looked up from the form. “Uhh, spell that last one?”
Serena opened her mouth to speak, but Matt cut her off. He felt his face heat up and knew it must look red as a raspberry. “Like touché with a D!” he squeaked. Serena would, undoubtedly, offer the less fortunate variation of spelling advice, and Matt couldn’t have a pretty girl hearing that about him. No way.
Nodding, the officer started to scratch out a name. She put down a stroke, frowned, and wrote again, harder. Then she shook the pen and tried again.
A hard scribble later, she shoved the pen into her pocket dimension and looked apologetically at Serena. The officer’s eyes looked even more watery and beautiful than before.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Do you have a pen?”
Matt, alas, had no pens. He ought to carry some. Maybe it would help him pick up girls.
Wordlessly, and with her usual, perfect smile, Serena pulled a single blue pen from her white bag. Matt noticed with some amusement, that the ink matched her shirt, but realized that if he mentioned it, he’d look stupid, so he kept his mouth shut as the officer accepted the pen with her lovely, callused hand. He admired the strong, hard press of her hand on the page, and sighed when she slipped the pen into her front pocket, right where the old one had been.
He did not notice the tightening of Serena’s jaw as she lost yet another pen. In fact, he hardly noticed anything at all, even Serena tugging him across the floor of the subway station lobby. He was too busy admiring the Ground Patrol officer, wishing he’d gotten her name.
Hopefully his magic didn’t berate him for that one later.