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Misplaced (a M:tA story)

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((This is a story I wrote some time ago, to illustrate an important turning point in the life of Ewan, my current VA character in Mage: the Ascension. His name isn't the same in this story—it's his real name, actually. Oh yes, and 'the Book' is the Hornbook.))

I can’t do this anymore.

Clarence kept on staring at his reflection in the window of the car that was bringing him back home, not paying attention the least bit to the backdrop of London streets after sunset, nor to the droning voice that had been lecturing him for the past twenty minutes or so. He didn’t want nor couldn’t stand listening to those empty words. In a few minutes, the driver would park in front of the old manor house, and it would all be over.

“...because it’s not the first time we catch you on the street, young man. Haven’t you learnt your lesson by now? You shouldn’t make your parents worry like that!”

Shut up, he thought. Just shut up. It’s not true. It’s not about me they care, but about their reputation. Enough with the fucking lies.

“I think he’s not even listening, Roy,” the driver butted in, barely turning his head towards his partner sitting on the front seat.

“Kids nowadays. Not an ounce of gratitude. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, really. Hey, boy! Do you get that?”

With a sigh, Clarence finally managed to look away from the window and the flashing lights of the lampposts they were passing by. The balding police officer had shifted on his seat to glare at him from above his shoulder, and the young man almost immediately lowered his eyes, unwilling to sustain that gaze. He kept his hands on his knees, fists clenched around the strap of his dirty bag, the one in which he had stuffed whatever food and clothing he could before running away. He could not care anymore about his own filthy jeans, his matted blond hair, his muddy shoes, the dirt on his palms. In a few minutes, he’d be back home, and it would be the same old hell again.

The patrol car was already pulling in Greymald Place, nearing its destination, number 13, a portent of unhappiness and misplaced existence. Clarence closed his eyes, backing up burning tears, in an attempt to brace himself against what was to come. Thirty seconds. Twenty-five. Twenty. Thoughts whirled in his mind in a maddening dance, almost making him dizzy. Ten seconds. Please. Make it so that we don’t stop here. Please. Please.

And then the car pulled along the curb, coming to a halt. The left front door opened, the officer named Roy got out, walked to the iron gate, rang the bell. The young man remained still and silent, joints almost white now, so strong was his grasp on his bag. Please. Please. Don’t bring me back. I’ll do anything. Don’t bring me back. Please please pleasepleaseplease. For a second, he toyed with the idea of unbuckling his seat belt and taking a wild dash to run away again, but a quick glance from the other policeman, shot by way of the rear-view mirror, convinced him that it would be a very unwise move indeed. What was he expecting, anyway? It was a patrol car, albeit an unmarked one; its door was locked from the driver’s side.

“Good evening, Sir. Constable Roy Sawyer, from the Metropolitan Police. I believe my partner talked to you earlier on the phone about your son. Yes, he’s in the car. We brought him, as agreed on. If you’d be so kind as to sign that form to discharge him from our care...”

Clarence couldn’t hear the answer to that, if there ever was any. Barely a minute later, Constable Sawyer opened the door and motioned him to step out, which he did without a sound, eyes desperately glued to the pavement under his feet. It was all he could do not to break into that dash he had envisioned—it would only make matters worse. Silently he followed the policeman to the front door, where he could already feel the presence of his father, the weight of his steely gaze boring holes through him as if he was only made of thin paper. A few brief words were exchanged, and soon Roy Sawyer went away with a last reproachful glance. The car’s engine started again, its low hum filling the empty street, then turning into a roar as it left. Clarence was alone with his father now.

For a few seconds that seemed to drag for hours, parent and child remained standing where they were—the one a hieratic figure with neatly cropped greying hair and Jermyn Street clothes, the other a ragged teenager that hadn’t seen a bathtub for several days at least. Then Arthur Riddle stepped aside to let him walk in, and Clarence followed suit, not daring to protest. As his father was closing and bolting the door, he braced himself again for the slap that was to come—and when it came, he just kept his eyes averted, trying to ignore the pain spreading like fire in his left cheek.

“I can’t believe you did it again. You’re such a disappointment.”

Although Arthur had not shouted, his voice as level and cold as usual, his words felt like a knife thrust in an open wound.


“I don’t want to hear your voice. Go wash yourself. You’re filthy.”

And that was all. His father turned his back on him, leaving him alone in the dark corridor, to enter the drawing-room where the rest of the family was waiting anxiously.

“Is Clarence back?” Christina piped in her slightly nasal voice.

“Yes, he is. But you two are not to talk to him for now. Is that clear, Chandler?”

“Ah, y-yes, Sir, it is.”

Slowly rubbing at his burning cheek, the young man proceeded to the wooden stairs that led to the upper stories, careful not to look towards the lit room where, he was sure, his younger brother and sister were nevertheless trying to steal a glance through the door their father hadn’t totally closed. Soon he was in his bedroom, which looked just as he had left it, with his copy of the Book still opened on his desk. As in a haze, not even bothering to turn on the light, he let his bag drop to the floor, took off his light jacket, which he threw on the bed in an angry gesture, and then remained standing there in the darkness, letting the clock tick away the seconds one after the other. If he closed his eyes, he would start thinking again, and so he made himself stare at the same old poster on the wall, right above his bed, at all its tiny details, albeit obscured by the shadows dancing in the room, until his tired eyes started to itch and water. Circles in a Circle. Kandinsky. Don’t think. Don’t think about anything. Don’t think. Don’t think. Circles. Circles circles circles.

After a while, all too conscious of the state he was in, he grabbed a change of clothes and headed for the bathroom, to let hot water run over his head and body in the shower for as long as possible. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think. Yet it was hard, not thinking—his mind wasn’t used to be kept at rest, to be restrained by simple boundaries. Arthur and Alicia Riddle had made sure of that; and then his own dispositions had only enforced that trait.

“Look, Father! I can do it! I can do it at last! I can do magick, just like you!”

Such a clear and vivid memory of that day, many months ago. Grabbing his pocket calculator, starting programming, function after function, without even realizing at the time what he was doing. It just seemed to flow—just seemed natural and appropriate—a solution, at last, to what had been plaguing him for so long. Just following the natural stream of his thoughts, of his deepest instincts. No rules. No books. Only ciphers, only vectors. Only himself, and cold logics he could however bend to his will to alter Reality, even if so slightly.

Don’t think about it! Don’t!

Summoning chants and circles chalked on the floor wouldn’t work for him, no matter how much effort he put into them, no matter how many hours and nights and days he spent on those accursed books, all full of a knowledge that had already been written in the exact same words hundreds of years ago. Not that knowledge was wrong: only that one didn’t mean much to him, devoid of all those deep significations he was supposed to have found in it by now. He was able to understand it; yet it didn’t speak to him the way it spoke to his father, to his mother, to his brother, even.

Don’t! Stop! Don’t think about it anymore!

It was already too late for that.

“What does this mean, Clarence? This is nothing like what we’ve taught you! Why won’t you understand you have to perform it the proper way!”

“But didn’t you say you so hoped I’d finally get it? Well, I got it! Who cares about summoning circles and old books? Isn’t magick the only thing that matters in the end?”

“There’s no way a child of mine will ever be caught using the same tools as one of those filthy Technomagi. Take that thing away. I don’t want to see it again. If you have time to waste on those stupid tricks, then you’re clearly not studying hard enough.”

Eyes shut tight, the young man groped for the tap, in his eagerness to drown away the flow of thoughts under more and more water. If he went on thinking about that, he would go mad.

“Chandler? What are you doing with your brother’s calculator? Don’t tell me he’s been showing you that rubbish.”

“I—I just wanted to try it, too. It seemed fun when he did it...”

“Clarence? Clarence! Come here immediately. What is that? Didn’t I tell you to throw it away?”

“I can’t do that! I need it for math at school!”

“And don’t you dare talking back. I want it out of my sight.”

“Father—Sir, wait, please, it’s not Clare’s fault, it was I who asked him to—”

“Chandler, get out of here. This is none of your concern. Really, look at what you’re doing, teaching such stupid things to your brother. Haven’t you got any shame?”

How easy it had been, when he had run away ten days ago, to let himself be engulfed in that other kind of existence. He hadn’t had time to think—no time to dwell on those memories, when feeding himself, going unnoticed and finding a safe enough place to sleep at night had been much more important challenges. Clarence knew it even before stepping out of the patrol car; he knew that as soon as he would be back home, the old ghosts would come back to haunt him again. Wasn’t it why he had wanted out in the first place? Wasn’t it why he had done everything he could to prevent his parents from locating him, using what little he knew of his own magick to shroud himself from scrutiny?

Well, it hadn’t worked too well, had it, unless he considered the fact that this time, they had needed more than one week to find him, and himself had by now enough knowledge of the street to elude the police, all the more in such a large city as London. In the end, though, the result was just the same. He was back home. Back to his memories. Back to a long summer that threatened to never end, now that he was done with his exams and that the only perspective left open to him was the study of old rituals for weeks on end.

“This is just rubbish.”

“But it’s the only way I’m able to—”

“That’s because you’re not trying hard enough! If you were, you’d succeed in doing proper magick.”

“Because you think I haven’t tried? I’ve never stopped trying! I’ve never—”

“Be quiet. You’re supposed to stand in front of the Order’s main representatives next September. You’d better improve by then, and not embarrass me any further. You’ve been enough of a letdown as it is.”

“I—I wasn’t trying to make you look bad, I swear! It’s just that—”

“Be quiet, I said! Go back to your studies. And I don’t want to hear anything again about staying at school in the afternoons to work on the computers. Those trifles have been clouding your mind for too long already.”

Maybe it wasn’t only hot water streaming down his cheeks anymore now.

So what if it’s just rubbish... It’s my magick all the same! And does this mean you’re calling me rubbish as well?

Say, Father... Am I just that to you? A piece of shit that will just make you look bad? Am I just—


Clarence Riddle remembered just in time to shut down the faucets before bolting out of the shower to reach for the nearest towel and bury his face in it, rubbing at his eyes, then at his dripping hair. At least that felt good, and now that he was rid of the persistent smell of tar that had stuck to him every time he had hit the street, now that he could put on clean clothes again, somehow things seemed a little better. If he could just calm down, assume a quiet countenance, let them believe that he was able to go back to his ordinary life, maybe he would be allowed a few hours to himself. Maybe nobody would bother scolding him before the next morning. Maybe he’d be spared making up for the lost time in his studies until after a good night’s sleep.

He raised his hand to wipe the steam off the mirror of the bathroom cupboard, and peer at his reflection. His hazel-brown eyes were still a little red at the corners, and his hair just as unruly as usual, but this would have to do for the moment. His mother would probably berate him about that later on, about how he always seemed somewhat sloppy and careless about his looks, no matter what he wore nor how much time he spent combing at that tangle on his head. Well, at least he had taken after her and her golden locks, and not his father’s brown hair and steel gaze. This would have been impossible for him to bear.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to put a smile on his pale face. The first attempt was just pitiful; the second one a little less so. At last he managed one that would make him seem normal enough, even though the bags under his eyes—rather dark circles, at this point—were kind of ruining the effect.

Yeah, that’s right. Smile.

As long as I can smile, then it means I’m alright.

For a few seconds, he paused in front of the door, straining his ears to make sure that nobody was waiting for him in the corridor, that he would be able to slip out unnoticed. When he was certain none of the other Riddles were there, the young man quickly let himself out of the bathroom and back into the half-darkness of his own bedroom. As he walked in, he caught sight of the Book again, under the crude light from the street lamp in front of the house. That monstrosity and its thousands of pages would never stop nagging at him, would it? With little effort, he could remember many of its passages, so much had he been forced to learn them by heart; yet the words didn’t mean anything to him anymore, devoid of everything that had made them precious to his parents and to countless other mages of the Order before them.

If I were to burn it, right here, right now, what would you say? What would you do to me?

He let himself sink onto his bed, only clad in his T-shirt and knee-length shorts, and folded his hands under the back of his neck, keeping his eyes fixed on the old greying ceiling. Almost immediately, his thoughts started to wander again. To those long evenings spent slaving on magick theory. To those afternoons at school, the only moments when he could steal some time to sit in the computer room and enjoy being in front of a screen at last. He couldn’t explain it, that fascination, that drive to place his hands on a keyboard and type, that burning desire to delve into computations. From the moment he had used one in class for the first time, in Year 7, that desire had never left him. Working with functions on his calculator had only been a compromise, after all. He didn’t even know how to write code, but deep inside, he knew that this was his true call, what he really wanted to do in life. Not pore over pages of old writings. Not summon spirits and forces in a complex pentacle traced on the ground. Just encode Reality’s space into something his mind was more fit to understand and work with.

Why won’t you let me do it? What’s so wrong with it?

So what if it’s Technomancy? You so wanted me to do magick. Well, here it is. My magick. Take or leave.

...But I can’t tell him that, can I... He’ll never accept it.

A light knock on the door startled him, breaking his train of thought. Light from the corridor poured inside when his mother came in, not even waiting for an answer. Alicia Riddle was as elegant as usual, sporting a light blouse and cream-coloured summer pants, although it was now past midnight and there was absolutely no chance of any friend nor colleague dropping in unannounced.


How odd. In those ten days on the street, nobody had called him by his name, and he hadn’t missed it the slightest bit. It was a boring, old-fashioned silly name anyway.

“I see you’re looking presentable again.”

Couldn’t stand the smell of the street on your elder son, eh, Mother?

She was fidgeting with what seemed to be a couple of folded sheets of paper—letters, maybe. A few seconds elapsed before she held them out and spoke again:

“This came in the mail while you were out.”

“What is it?”

“The forms to fill in for your enrolling at Ashbourne College.”

The young man raised his eyebrows. He had completely forgotten about it—forgotten, even, that he had finished taking his GCSEs not so long ago, before leaving home in what he hoped would be a successful attempt, at last—so terrified had he been at the time by the prospect of not having to go to school anymore, where he could escape for a few hours on week days.

“I still don’t understand why Father and you wanted me to change schools.”

“Well, didn’t your father make himself clear enough? Teaching is on another level there. We both hope you won’t be as tempted to err as you were at Westminster School.”

“Because you’re so convinced they’ll take me in, aren’t you?”

“Of course they will. Your results should be at least good enough for that, even though you’ll probably disappoint us in that regard. But it can’t be helped, given how little serious you’ve been these past months.”

Clarence clenched his teeth. If his father’s gaze could crucify him on the spot, his mother’s words could wrench a burning blade into him just as well when she put her heart into it.

As if. You’ll never be happy unless I score A-stars only. Oh, well. It’s true that I can pretty much go anywhere with my usual grades...

“I expect you’ll start studying for your Advanced Levels this summer already.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

“Really, is this all you’re feeling about it? This is not just any school, you know. You’ll want to do your best there.”

“Fine, fine. I’m going to slave at Ashbourne. Probably. I’m so happy. There. Satisfied?”

Alicia Riddle only pursed her lips, and took two more steps in the room to leave the papers on his desk. As his gaze followed the movement of her lithe silhouette, Clarence realized that she had not looked at him even once since she had walked in. In fact, it had been a long time she hadn’t met his eyes—long before he started running away repeatedly.

“Say, Mother. Do you know how tall I am?”

“I’m leaving it here. Take a look at their requirements first thing tomorrow.”

“You don’t know anymore, do you?”

“What I know is that you’ve been lacking a little in the Humanities area. Be careful to make up for your deficiencies by the time the school year starts.”

“Please tell me you’re not making me take Critical Thinking.”

“Your father only wants what’s best for you, Clarence.”

“Does it involve guilt-tripping me and making me feel like shit every day?”

“You’re being silly now. And stop being so rude.”

This was going nowhere, as usual, on his part as well as on hers, and he couldn’t help but let out an irritated sigh, propping himself up on his elbows to glare at her:

“Why won’t you say it?”

“Say what?”

“What you’re really thinking!What you very well know! That I don’t give a fig about lit studies. That I wasn’t just ‘out’—come on, I ran away from this bloody house! I’m a shame to that bloody family! Why won’t you say it?”

“No swearing, I told you. I think you’ve had a rough day. You’re tired.”

“Oh, shove it. And stop with the poker face! Why won’t you just yell at me?”

“I’m sure you’ll feel better after a few hours’ sleep. Have a good night, Clarence.”

This time, too, she did not wait for an answer before she closed the door, leaving him in the dark again.

“For your information, last time the doctor checked, I was five foot eight, and I was probably not done growing,” he muttered. “But you wouldn’t know that, would you, since you never look at me.”

At least she was right on one point. He was tired, all things considered, and not having eaten anything all day long didn’t improve matters in that regard. The young man thought about sneaking into the kitchen to grab a couple of snacks, but decided against it quickly enough; Arthur was probably still up, and there was no way he’d run the risk of a chance meeting. Chance would likely not even be involved at all, come to think of it, not with the way his father used to handle things, and how conveniently events always seemed to run in the right direction for him. It was no wonder such an oddball as his elder son came to grate on his nerves so often.

Two years. I’ve got two more years to go.

I’m really not sure I can take it.

However, were he to fall asleep now, tomorrow would only come faster. And so he forced himself to keep his eyes open, trying to ignore the nagging pangs of hunger in his stomach, in a desperate attempt to keep sleep at bay for a little longer.


There were dozens, hundreds of photographs on the wall in front of him, all framed in silver and gold, and photographs on the nearby oak wood desk, too. Wherever he turned, thousands of faces greeted him, most of which he didn’t recognize, most of which were of total strangers—and yet, he had the feeling that he should know them, that they were important, one way or another.

It did not matter how he had come to sit in that comfortable armchair behind the desk, nor why he was wearing such finely cut clothes. What mattered were the other items in the room, items that looked just like the ones in his father’s office, items the uses of which were not to be revealed to mere Sleepers. Crystal balls, leather-bound tomes of forgotten lore, wands, silk screens adorned with the crests of all the Houses of the Order, and more specifically with the one Arthur was a member of. He wasn’t his father, however—this he was sure of. He was himself, although the hands he now understood as being his were wrinkled and marred with tiny liver spots.

Unsure of what to make of this scene, Clarence Riddle grabbed the nearest picture frame. He recognized one of the people in it: that face, albeit older and serious—those light-brown eyes and blond hair, albeit cut very short—were undoubtedly his. It felt weird, seeing himself in such a place, surrounded by such a crowd of men and women all wearing the traditional crimson and gold outfit of the Order, which was the norm during the four great celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes. They all look so haughty. And I look just the same.

The next frame he reached for was actually a small mirror. Although the reflection whose gaze he met in it was indeed that of an old man, and he needed a few minutes to properly analyze its features, there was no mistake that it was his.

Great. Welcome to some stupid dream of seeing yourself as an old geezer having a trip down Memory Lane. What a crappy joke. Time to wake up.

No sooner had this thought come to mind than he discarded it. Something else bothered him in that room, and as long as he wouldn’t put his finger on it, as long as his curiosity wouldn’t be satisfied, he wouldn’t be ready to leave. As a frown spread on his brow, Clarence got up slowly from his chair, and proceeded to take a closer look at the photographs. After a couple of minutes, he realized that all of them had a common point: himself, standing among his peers, or sitting at a desk, or surrounded by various artifacts.

Then... Does this mean I managed to become a member of the Order? That I was finally able to get its rituals to work?...

Come on, you moron. Of course it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a dream!

And I’m talking to myself in a dream. Right, I definitely need to wake up before I go nuts.

Still, he was missing something, and this impression at the back of his mind kept on nagging at him. Was it about those unknown fellow Order mages? About the places they were all in, himself included? All of a sudden, the room had started to feel smaller, forcing him to see those countless pictures. He was alone, alone with himself, with those thousand faces, alone in a crowd—the worst feeling of all. Again, he reached for a frame on the nearest wall, traced its unknown figures with the tip of his forefinger, trying to piece out everything, to find a meaning to that odd dream. His own presence in all the photographs disturbed him more than he wanted to admit it. What was the point? Why did he have to stare at that pale, serious man, sometimes young, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes old, who just seemed like he could do with a good laugh?

In the stifling atmosphere of the room, Clarence blinked, and let the frame he held in his hand fall to the floor where it shattered, also shattering the deep silence that pervaded the whole place. There. That was the problem. That was the common denominator—not the Order, not even himself, but his smile, or rather, his lack thereof.

I’m not smiling.

Am I not... supposed to smile, in a picture?

Why. Why am I not smiling?


I must smile. Smiling is what makes the world go round!


The young man who was old in his dream seized another picture, then another, then another again, searching frantically for one that would quash his observation, ripping them from the walls, discarding them one after the others, sending them crash to the ground or onto the desk. Panic was rising in him, a wave of growing despair that kept on swelling, invading his chest, his throat. No smile. No smile at all! Where? Where is it? Where’s my smile? Why? Why? There must be—no way—I can’t—I don’t want—I don’t want—

I don’t want a life in which I can’t smile!

The last frame he had laid his hands on ended up on the carpet with the countless others he had already gathered without intending to. Clarence lowered his eyes on that pile of glassy remains, on the same picture they kept on sending back to him: his own face, so serious, so tired, so devoid of life. And he remembered, that one theory from the Book, about equivalent trade, about how the laws of Reality always wanted things to balance themselves out. “We cannot destroy and expect the world to remain just the same. We can’t create without leaving a void somewhere else. This is one of the most fundamental theories of magic, according to House Master Aloysius. What goes away must come back somewhere, no matter in which shape. And for our actions, we must accept to pay the price Reality sets upon us. The price of contradiction for some. The price of blood for others. This price is different for each of us. The Apprentice seeking knowledge, wisdom and understanding has to accept that fact before being able to move on to higher spheres of learning.”

Understanding was his. That dream might be a road. Some time in the future, he would be able to perform the rituals his father was so painstakingly teaching him, yet there would be a price to pay for that feat. His smile was the price.


No, no, no, no, no.

I can’t.

I don’t want that.

I can’t do it.

I don’t want to end up like that! I want to smile!

There’s no point if I can’t smile!

Come on. Smile. Smile, now. Smile!

There was the mirror, on the desk. He bent over it to look at his reflection, at this face that might or might not be his in the last years of his life. He tried to force a smile on it, but the feelings of terror and despair that had seized him earlier on did not let him.

Smile! Smile, please! Show that you can still do it—that you—

If I can smile, then it means I’m alright. Everything’s alright. Things will always go better someday. Things will—

Smile. Please. Just a smile. Just one. Just—

He knew it before the thought even invaded his mind.

I can’t.

I can’t smile anymore!


I can’t smile anymore!

The overwhelming, vivid feeling of sadness and helplessness was so strong that it jerked him awake, eyes wide open on the eerie darkness. For a moment, his gaze kept darting right and left, searching for the old photographs, until he realized at last that he was in his room in his parents’ home, curled up on himself on his bed, with tears in his eyes and a cry stuck in his throat. He didn’t remember falling asleep, nor even undressing, which probably accounted for the fact that he was lying in his clothes on the tangled sheets.

A dream. Yes. That was just a dream. A bloody fucked-up dream. It’s not true. It can’t be true. It can’t happen. I don’t want it to happen. I don’t want that. I can’t take it. I couldn’t smile. I can’t smile. I want to smile. I have to smile!

Then it hit him full force:

I hate it.

I hate that house. I hate that room. I hate that name they gave me. I hate the Book. I hate their stares. I hate their magick and their rituals and their spells and all that shit they want me to learn. I hate the Order. I hate their mages. I hate their theories and their tools. I hate everything about them.

Hate. Hate hate hate hate hate. HATE!

The cry was still here, a cry he was unable to let out, for it would have woken his parents up, would have cast light on him. With a stifled moan, his hand clasped to his mouth, Clarence did not think any longer, hurled himself away from his bed, out in the corridor, then into the bathroom. No sooner had he closed the door than he fell on his knees in front of the toilet bowl and proceeded to throw up—he did not know what, he hadn’t eaten anything in so many hours now, but the spasms were raking his stomach all the same, so strong, so painful. A faint thought came to him—I hope they won’t hear me—then vanished as sobs started to shake his body as well, leaving him weak and panting, half collapsed against the cold white enamel. That wasn’t just a dream. It was his worst fears come true, the annihilation of who he was, of his mind, of his own fragile hopes.

Being accepted—means disappearing.

Being myself—is to be rejected.

Being accepted—means losing my smile.

But... but... I don’t want that.

I want to smile. I want to look back on my life and think “that was a nice ride”!

I want to smile!

He didn’t know how long he stayed there, his head between his hands, sitting on the hard tiled floor and rocking back and forth like a young child. Silent tears kept running down his cheeks, unable as he was to stop them, to prevent terror from swallowing him up. There was no way out. That place, that family, that future his father wanted for him, were going to destroy him, to turn him into that sad old man who would one day look at the many pictures of his life and wonder what had been the point, or if there had ever been any to start with.

A grey dawn was already colouring the outline of London’s roofs when Clarence managed to get back on his feet at last, flush out the toilet, and walk back to his room, as silent as a ghost. That’s enough. I can’t do it. I knew it already. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m tired. I—I have to get away from here. I don’t care if it means sleeping in the street again. I don’t care. I can’t stay here. I can’t live like that.


His thoughts had been whirling in a loop for quite some time when he snapped out of them at last at the sound of Chandler’s whispering voice. The young man noticed that he was kneeling on the floor in his room, a jacket already on his back, cramming clean clothes in his dirty backpack much like he had done less than two weeks ago. That gesture was starting to become quite familiar, wasn’t it?

“What are you doing?”

With a sigh, he slowly turned to his brother, who was staring at him from the doorstep with sleepy eyes; maybe he hadn’t closed the door completely, maybe his earlier trip to the bathroom had woken the boy, maybe—it didn’t matter. For a second, he considered waving him out, telling him to go back to his own room, or to hell, or to wherever else, but that would do him no good. Chandler might just run to their parents’ room in turn. Besides, now that he thought about it, he didn’t really know himself what he was doing.

“Come in. And close that door.” He kept his own voice to a low whisper, hoping his brother would pick up the hint, which he did. Only nodding once as an answer, Chandler obeyed, then came to sit next to him on the rug.

“You’re going away again, Clare.”

“Yeah. Seems so.”

“But you’ve only been back one night!”

“I know.”

“Don’t. Please. Don’t go away.”

Their gazes met, and Clarence saw the tears in his brother’s dark eyes, behind the thick glasses without which the boy couldn’t even see his own feet. They didn’t look like each other at all, really. Glasses and eye colour put aside, Chan was a younger picture of their father, with the same slick brown hair, square jaw line and thin nose; unlike Arthur Riddle, though, he had no ambition of one day holding an important position in the Order—but maybe that had to do with the fact that he was only twelve and a half, too.

“Don’t go, Clare. Please,” Chandler repeated, getting closer to put his arms around his brother’s neck.

“Aw, come on, you big baby.”

“Please. Stay with us.”

The boy was crying for real now, his sobs only muffled because he had buried his face against Clarence’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry.”


“I’m really sorry. I just—can’t do that.”

“But Father was so angry!”

“I know. And I’m probably going to take piss in a couple of hours if I don’t go now.”

“But I don’t want you to go away! I missed you!”

The young man felt a sad little smile spread on his lips—well, that was a smile, at least, even if not the one he had wished for. Chandler would be the only one he’d truly miss as well, the only one who had expressed awe at what he could do with his calculator, the only one who had ever believed in him and in his abilities, not caring the least bit about whether they were techno-magic or proper spells.

“Want to know a secret, Chan?” he asked, reciprocating his brother’s warm embrace.


“I missed you too. And I’m going to miss you again, for sure.”

“Then don’t go!”

“Chan. Look at me.”

“Don’t go!”

“Look at me, please.”

The boy obeyed at last. Watch me. Look at me. Look at who I am. Can you see me? The real me? Can you see the person, and not only the image our parents have formed of me?

“Tell me. Tell me what you see.”


“Tell me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. Just tell me.”

“I—I see you?”


“What do you mean?”

“Who am I, Chandler? Please. Tell me what you see. Tell me who I am. Because I don’t know anymore.”

Clarence watched him furrow his brow, trying to make sense of those strange words. His own smile had already vanished, replaced by what he feared was the same expression of anguish he had worn in the police car, the previous evening, as the dreadful prospect of facing Arthur once again had loomed nearer and nearer.

“You’re my brother, of course,” Chandler answered at last, still in a whisper, perplexity all over his features.

“Yeah. That’s a start, I suppose.”

“Clare, are you really going away?”

The young man cast a quick glance at his bag already packed, and sighed again:

“I... I don’t know. I feel I have to. I can’t... Oh, no, please, don’t start crying again, you’re gonna wake them up and—”

“And then you won’t go!”

“No, Chan... Please. Stop, now!”

“Promise you won’t go!”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then I’m going to tell Father.”

“No! You can’t!”

“Yes, I can! And I will! Because it’s awful when you’re not here! It’s even worse than usual!”

Clarence froze, his hand on his brother’s wrist to prevent him from getting up and running to their parents. What the hell? Did he really say that? Did he? Did he did he did he?

“So that’s why you want me to stay, huh? So that you and Christina can be left alone while I take all the piss!”

“No! I want you to stay because you’re my brother and you belong here! That’s why!”

“Oh come on, you don’t care, do you? You don’t care about me. You don’t care that he treats me like shit.”

“That’s not true!”

“The hell with you! I can’t take it anymore, can’t you see that? Can’t you see how he scares the shit out of me? I’m fucking tired of being treated like this! Come on! Can’t you see that I’m fucking dying in here? I don’t belong here at all!”

As soon as he had let these words out, he knew he had raised his voice, committed that terrible mistake. Immediately, he fell silent, motioned to his brother to stop talking too, and perhaps there was something peculiar on his face at that moment, for Chandler remained where he was, his mouth agape, unable to voice out what he had wanted to retort. Clarence closed his eyes for a few seconds, aware of the noise in their parents’ room. He had to run away, right now, or it would be too late. He had to grab his bag, push his brother away, get out of the house, step out using the window-sill, whatever—but to get away, once and for all, because when Arthur would find out, then it would be the worst, it would be a hell he had never known yet, and the fear would swallow him whole, prevent him from standing up.

Shit. Shit shit shitshitshit.

Get up. Get up! Now!

His legs wouldn’t obey, though. He remained where he was, unable to move, looking at his trembling hands, all too conscious of a door opening, of the light being switched on in the corridor, of footsteps, and then of his own door creaking, letting in that flow of light as well as Arthur’s shadow.

“What on Earth is that din? And at five in the morning at that?”

Chandler, please. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

“Clarence says he wants to go away again! Tell him he has to stay here—please,” the little boy hastily added. “Tell him, Father—Sir!”



He knew that cold edge in his father’s voice. That was anger, anger of the worst kind, anger that would paralyze him for days, turn him into an obedient boy who wouldn’t dare speak up anymore, withering under a single stare. He kept staring at his hands, at his knees, at the rug of his bedroom, at the long shadow invading it. He couldn’t look at his father. He couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t resist.

“I see you haven’t been reflecting on your behaviour, Clarence.”

Arthur Riddle stepped into the room at last. No matter that he was in his pyjamas, he was just as hieratic and imposing as ever, his wiry silhouette a pillar of inner strength and determination. The young man closed his eyes again, biting his lower lip to the blood, not realizing that he had clenched his fists and was waiting for a slap or, worse, for reproaches and belittling words.

“Your mother had persuaded me to wait until this morning to have a good talk with you. Well, it seems we need to have it now. So. Is it true? Do you really want to go away?”

He remained silent, his mouth filled with the iron taste of his own blood. His voice wouldn’t get out.

I can’t. I knew it. I can’t do anything when he’s here. When he’s speaking to me. I’m scared. I’m scared. He’s going to put me down again. He’s going to say in such precise words what a failure I am, and how ashamed of me he is. I don’t want to hear this. He’s going to tear me apart. I’m shit. I don’t deserve to be called a Riddle. I shouldn’t even be born in this family. I don’t deserve it. I’m shit. I’m not worth his praise. I’ve never been. I’ll never be. He’ll never acknowledge me. I’ve always known it. What was I expecting? I’m shit.

“I’m waiting for your answer. Is it true?”

Clarence gave a start. His throat felt parched, so constricted by fear that it hurt, that just swallowing was pain in itself. I have to speak up. Speak up, you idiot! Speak up. Tell him. Tell him!

“Well, since you’re not saying anything, it must mean you weren’t serious about that, were you? And so you woke up the whole household on a mere whim, didn’t you?”

Speak up. Speak up. I must. I must tell him. I must. I never said anything. I never raised my voice. I was always nice and obedient. I always tried hard. I always did my best. I only wanted him to be proud of me. I wanted him to—

Don’t. Don’t think it! Don’t—

I only wanted my father to love me for who I was. But this won’t happen. This will never happen. Because I’m shit. I’m not the son he wanted to have. I’m a failure.

Something deep inside him broke and shattered, just like the glass of the pictures in his nightmare. For a second, Clarence thought he was going to burst into tears, but then nothing happened. There were no tears to be shed. He had known that for a long time already; this was just the logical conclusion.

“I... I...”

“Ah, so you do have a voice. Well. I’m still waiting.”

I have to tell him. I have to!

“I... I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Do what? Explain yourself.”

“Everything. All of this. The Book. The apprenticeship. I don’t want it anymore.”

His words sounded weird to his ears, uttered in a quivering voice that wasn’t like his usual one. Without even noticing, he had grabbed one of his bag’s straps in his hand, squeezing hard, in an attempt to find in himself enough courage to talk. On his desk, the dark shape of the Book seemed to taunt him, make fun of him, point at all his deficiencies, at everything his father wanted him to do, and that he would never be able to achieve no matter his efforts.

“Well. Does this mean you want to give up?”

“I’m—I’m not giving up on anything. I’m just saying I—I want to do it my way. N-not yours.”

“There is only one way, Clarence, and it’s the Order’s. It’s the way the Riddles have been following for generations. Are you saying you’re rejecting this?”

“It’s not my way. I tried. I couldn’t do it. But—but I can do magick differently!”

“Are you rejecting our way?”

“I’m just saying it’s not mine, that’s al—”

“Because if you’re rejecting it, then you’re clearly not one of us.”

For the whole conversation, Clarence hadn’t looked up once, hadn’t dared meet his father’s eyes, knowing full well that were he to do so, the little courage he had mustered would desert him. Something in Arthur’s voice decided him to raise his head nonetheless. The gaze he faced was utterly cold, putting him at such a distance that he suddenly felt that he was not standing in his room, but far, far away from the Riddles’ house, estranged from it not only in feeling, but also in space.

“I’m not saying it’s bad! Just that it’s not—”

“What you’re saying, Clarence, is that you don’t want to be part of us.”

“...Why does it always have to be about that!”

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m growing really tired of your ill will and of your rebellious attitude. This must stop, and it’s going to stop right now.”

“Ill will? I’ve busted my ass off on this fucking Book for three years, and you’re calling that ill will?”

“The mere fact that you ran away once again shows how little our family matters to you.”

“I ran away because—because—”

“Because you’re weak. Because you’re still too young to understand. I’ve been patient with you, Clarence, very patient. I’ve been willing to give you time. But you’re clearly not even trying.”

“I am trying! I tried! I still am! Why don’t you see it’s just not working for me?”

“Just try harder, then. Or go away for good.”

The young man was about to retort, when this last sentence cut him short, filling him with apprehension, sending a cold shiver down his spine.


“You heard me right. If you can’t accept our guidance, then go away.”

Now that’s something new...

“I thought you were angry because I ran away...”

“Indeed, I was. But you’ve been nothing but trouble for the past three years. So I’m going to present you with a choice.”

“A choice?”

“Beware, though, that I’ll only offer it once. After that, it’s over.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“Apologize. Right now. Apologize for your misconduct and for your poor work, and start studying seriously, so that I can introduce you formerly to the Order when you turn sixteen.”


Why should I apologize? I haven’t done anything wrong!

Why should I apologize, when I’m the one who’re so unhappy!

“You... You want me to...”

“Have you grown deaf on top of behaving like an idiot? If you apologize sincerely, I may consider chalking all of this up to your fears and weaknesses, and let you start over.”

“If... If I apologize...” He had to pause for a second to swallow, before being able to go on: “If... Well... Does it mean you’ll go on teaching me?”

“Of course I will. I won’t let you turn into anything else than a respectable member of the Order. Although it will probably take more than just a few years, in your case. You clearly have to put much more effort in it than you’ve done so far.”

“And... if I don’t?”

“Then I don’t want to see your face ever again.”

There was a heavy silence pregnant with tension and hostility.

I can’t believe it.

Is my father supposed to tell me something like this?

“...You’ll let me go, then?”

“Let you go? No, Clarence. This means I will personally throw you out of this house, and make sure that you never set foot in it, nor see any member of this family again. Actually, I’ll make sure your name won’t sully our Family Tree any longer. If you want to go away so badly, then you’re on your own for good. I will do what it takes to remove you from my custody.”


“You’ve got one hour to decide. I’ll be waiting in my study. Don’t be late.”

As if the whole scene was just but a continuation of his nightmare, he watched helplessly as his father turned his back on him to walk out of the room, ordering away Chandler, who was still looking at them from the doorstep. A muffled voice rose a few seconds later—probably his mother’s, from his parents’ bedroom, asking what had just happened. He didn’t hear Arthur’s answer; maybe there hadn’t been any.

Clarence remained on his knees for a long moment, a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Now he had done it. Now he had really angered Arthur Riddle, to the point of being given an ultimatum. If he thought he had known fear before, it was nothing compared to what was growing in him now.

He won’t do that. He won’t.


He can’t just erase me from the Family Tree.

That’s not fair. I haven’t done anything wrong!

No. He’s Arthur Riddle. He can do anything he likes in this family. Nobody will dare stand up to him.

The Family Tree. The one that had been in the house for ages, property of Arthur’s father, and of his own father before that, and of their whole line of ancestors. The old tapestry hung in Arthur’s office, carefully shielded from the eyes of those who weren’t privy to the secrets of magic, yet there to display to their less mundane friends, colleagues and acquaintances. That thing should have fallen prey to mould a long time ago, were it not for the heavy layers of spells that maintained it in its never changing state. At a simple Word from the current family’s head, it mirrored every wedding and every birth, adding people to the Tree, and it didn’t seem that space would ever be constrained on that piece of cloth, even though the main branch of the Riddles went back to the Norman conquest. Yet with a simple Word, too, Arthur could remove someone from it, severing his or her bond with the family on the level of enchanted ties. That powerful symbol of authority had prevented more than one member from voicing out criticism and concerns, for being deleted from the Tree also meant not getting any support from any of the other Riddles. It was like being branded a traitor, cast off as the proverbial black sheep, utterly and forever rejected.

He won’t! He won’t dare! He can’t do that! I’m his son, dammit! He can’t do that!

...No. He may very well do it. He’s really furious now. He will do it.

Mother won’t let him. Will she?

He won’t do it. It’s a bluff! He wants to scare me.

But what if he’s serious about it?

Do I really have a choice here?

This was indeed a nightmare, and now he couldn’t stop his thoughts from dancing a mad ballet in his mind put to agony.

I want to go away, but... but... can I pay such a price?

But if I stay, I won’t be able to smile. I’ll lose my smile. I can already feel it disappearing. How long since I haven’t really laughed? You can’t laugh in here. It’s not proper. You can’t.

Will he do it?

He won’t. It’s all a bluff.

Oh, no, it’s not. I know him. He’s really able to do that to me.

So this means I have to stay...

Shit, why does it hurt so much? Why is it so hard?

Clarence took a deep breath, buried his face in his hands, then breathed out, slowly, in an attempt to calm down. Images from his dream were coming back to haunt him—the many frames; his own old, wrinkled, tired face; the fact that nobody on those pictures was smiling—and they just made it harder to focus.

If I go, then I’ll be—nothing. Nothing at all.

Another deep breath. Arthur Riddle was probably on his way to his study, now, having got dressed in the meantime. On his way, or maybe already waiting for him.

If I stay, I’ll just rot and die inside. I’ll turn into... into...

...into my father, who never smiles either...

Soon, Clarence would have to face him, and there was no way he could escape that. So he had to keep a clear mind. He couldn’t let fear only dictate his moves nor his decision.

He thought of Arthur’s study and of the huge tapestry hanging from its eastern wall, so large now that it covered the latter’s surface almost completely these days. When he was younger, he had always wondered what were those black spots at the ends of some of the Tree’s branches; his father wouldn’t answer, and his mother had made it clear that those were names that mustn’t be spoken of. At the time, there were only two boys at the end of their own side of the Tree—that was where he had learnt to read his own name as well as Chandler’s. Then Christina was born, and all of a sudden, her name had appeared on the fabric as well. Only much later did he understand what the black burns meant. Only now did he realize that soon, his own branch might be crossed out as well.

Will he forbid Chandler to see me?

Actually, will Chandler forget about me, if my Name vanishes from the cloth?

And if I leave, I... I’ll never have anywhere to go back to...

It was a little over six o’clock when Clarence managed to get back on his feet at last, so weak at the knees, though, that he had to lean on the corner of his desk to steady himself before taking a step towards the door. Worry and conflicting thoughts had only made his queasiness worse; he hadn’t let go of his bag, clutching at it to give himself enough resolve to face what was about to happen. The lump in his throat kept on growing as he hobbled down the stairs on his way to his father’s study. Now he knew that whatever he chose, he would come to regret it soon.

The young man knocked on the door, then pushed it open. Arthur was waiting for him, as expected, sitting at his dark, heavy desk, his back to the large tapestry. The suit he had donned was of light grey cotton and linen, its colour adding to the overall aloof attitude of its wearer. His eyes were cold and harsh; his narrow face expressed nothing but the uttermost contempt. Immediately, Clarence felt as if he was six years old again, and about to be scolded for some mischief.

I can’t. It’s just as usual. I can’t. I can’t speak to him. I’m scared.

“Close that door.”

He obeyed without a word. All his determination, all the strength he had managed to garner, were already crumbling down. Arthur didn’t offer him a seat, didn’t allow him to do anything but stand in front of the desk, waiting for judgment to be passed on him.

“I gather you’ve thought about it.”

“Y-yes, Fa—I mean, Sir. I have.”

“I gather you’ve realized by now where your interests lie.”

He only lowered his head, unable to answer anything for now. If this goes on, I’m going to throw up.

“Fine. You’ve come to your senses at last. The Masters of the Art will want to see you in September, to assess your progress. Unfortunately, it won’t be much, but I can’t delay that more. It’s three years already you’ve started training. So I’ll have you study as much as possible in the upcoming weeks.”


“Don’t you dare interrupt me. Starting from today, I want you to revise the contents of the whole Book, and work on first level Naming rituals until you manage to perform three of them. You’ll spend the whole night on it if needed. I won’t let you idle about.”

Oh God. I can’t. This is too hard.

He closed his eyes, not listening anymore. He already knew this by heart anyway. How much of a failure he was. How he ought to be ashamed of his poor results, whereas Chandler, who was barely awakened to the Power, could already complete part of the very first Naming Chants. How insignificant his efforts, how little he worked, his mind busy with technological trifles that had no place in the family, and by the way, getting a computer was absolutely out of the question, he would have to perform his school work the traditional way, too.

“... And so, I expect you’re ready to apologize now.”


That last sentence caused something to flare up in him, all of a sudden, and brought him back to reality.

“Don’t tell me that you weren’t listening? This is wrong, Clarence. Clearly, you can’t have been thinking enough, if you’re already getting off to such a bad start.”


What was it? What was the name of that feeling? It wasn’t fear. It was something else altogether.

“How many times do I have to tell you to stop. Interrupting. Me!”

“The hell I will! Don’t you think you’re the one who’s wrong?”

Hey! What am I doing?

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t you think you’re the one who should apologize?”

The young man saw Arthur’s eyes narrow slightly—he saw it quite well, for he was staring at him now, his hands clenched again in trembling fists. He remembered. That wasn’t fear anymore. That was anger, anger he hadn’t felt in a long time, if ever—anger so strong that it was sweeping away all reason, all sense of caution. Yes. He too was capable of anger.

“That’s enough. You—”

“Because I don’t think I deserve to be talked to like this, you see! I don’t think I deserve being called a disappointment and a failure by a man who can’t even treat his own children properly!”

Oh shit. What am I saying? What am I doing?

He’s going to—

No. No, it’s fine. I’ve wanted to say that to him for ages. I might as well finish now.

“Clarence Ewan Riddle! Don’t you dare speaking—”

“Oh yes, I dare!”

And before he knew it, he had already slammed his fist onto the desk, really sustaining his father’s gaze for the first time in his life. It was too late anyway. Now wasn’t even the point of turning back; that point had been reached long ago, at a moment when he hadn’t even noticed it, but that had kept poisoning him since then.

“You don’t even know how much I’ve wanted to speak. You don’t know how much I hate you, and that fucking house, and everything about you and the fucking Order! What kind of shitty father tells his kid that he’s useless anyway? Only a fucking moron would stand that, right? Would you stand it? Would you?”

With each sentence, we each question, he kept on pounding the wooden desk, not caring anymore about the consequences, not even paying attention the the pain that flared in his hand and wrist each time. It’s too late. It has always been too late. Why should I care about not being able to come back? It’s not like I’m really wanted here anyway. It’s not like he wants me. He only wants some perfect son he can flaunt proudly to his colleagues. And I’m clearly not the one!

Arthur got up at last from his armchair, in a slow, dignified move. Oh yes, that’s true. He won’t stoop down to actually showing any feeling. Especially not to me. Look, Father! I’m almost as tall as you now. You’re not so big and mighty, after all. It’s just that I’ve always kept my eyes down.

“This is absolutely unacceptable. I won’t let you spout such obscenities any longer. Not as long as you’re under my roof.”

“Then you’re going to be relieved, because I’ve made my decision, and I’m out of here!”

Yes. That’s it. I’m not a child anymore. I’ll be sixteen in September. I guess I can find work. I’ve seen quite some places when I was on the street. Maybe in Camden Town? I’m sure I can find something. It’s okay. I’ll be alright. If he really throws me out, I can do it. I’ve already picked a few tricks. I can do it. Everything will be fine. Since I’ll be able to smile again.

“Did I hear you right?”

“Sure you did! Wasn’t it part of that fucking choice of yours? Come on, face it. You don’t want me here. Even right now, I can see I’m an eyesore to you.”

“I remember telling you it was a one-time choice only.”

“Yeah. I’m not so stupid that I didn’t get that part, you know.”

They kept staring at each other. How odd. He was still afraid, but fear wouldn’t paralyze him anymore now. For the first time in his life, he had dared speak up, and the world hadn’t crumbled around him to bury him immediately. Arthur would get rid of him—that was fine. He would be alone, without any place to go to—that was fine as well: wasn’t he the one who had wanted out anyway?

For the first time, too—perhaps because this specific situation had never arisen before—Clarence realised that he wasn’t the only one to be afraid of this confrontation’s outcome.

Actually, he had never considered that choice.

He thought I’d cower and meekly apologize.

He thought I’d abide to all his demands without protesting.

And now he can’t back out of it anymore!

However, neither could he.

If I give in... if I show him how frightened I really am... then it’s over. I’ll never be free. I’ll never be able to—to live a life of my own.

Hey, Father, is that what you truly expected? So that you could throw me out without feeling guilty? Or did you hope that I’d just be my usual coward self?

So I really can’t step back now.

None of us can.

His decision made and settled, Clarence spoke again:

“Do it. Burn my name on the tapestry. I don’t care anymore. I was never a true Riddle to start with.”


“Don’t call me by this name. You can take it back. I don’t want it anymore. It sucks balls. You should’ve thought twice before naming me. Same goes for Chandler, by the way. So. Why aren’t you doing it? Why is my name still there?”

“Get out of here. Pack your bag and get out, or I’ll make you.”

“Oh, don’t bother throwing me out. I’ll go by myself. It’s my choice, right?”

“You shall not get anything from us any more. Do you understand that?”

“Sure. Didn’t I tell you I’m not such an idiot?”

“No money. No support. No food. Nothing! And as soon as you’re out, I’m phoning Trelawney and Fogg to have you formerly emancipated in court. I don’t care what it takes, but I shall have nothing to do with you anymore, officially as well as officiously. Is that clear?”

“Cristal clear. Goodbye, Sir.”

I’m not backing off. I’m not giving you that pleasure. Take your fucking family pride and shove it where the sun never shines, and go to fucking hell, while you’re at it.

The young man swung his bag over his shoulder, turned on his heels, and walked out of his father’s study with his head held high, although his hands were shaking in both fear and excitement. No sooner had he crossed the threshold that his mind went into wild circles again, thoughts spiralling and crashing one into the other. Oh shit. Oh shitohshit. I did it. I’m crazy. Bloody crazy. I shouldn’t have done it. No, that was the right decision. It’s best. I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. I want out. I need out. I don’t want to go on rotting in here. I want out!

He didn’t even remember what he had already packed, but it didn’t matter now, because he was not climbing back the stairs to his room to check. What mattered was already in it, anyway—his calculator, of most things, the one tool he knew he could use well to perform magick. As he was passing by the kitchen’s door, he realized that he hadn’t any money left in his wallet, that he wouldn’t be able to afford food, and that he still hadn’t eaten anything in the past twenty-four hours—yet even that didn’t matter for now. What fueled him and his resolve was anger. The rest wasn’t important anymore.

He only paused for a minute to grab a pair of shoes and tie them. Arthur hadn’t followed him; probably he would only brief the rest of the family after his elder son had gone out for good. Fuck. I should’ve said goodbye to Chandler, at least. That sucks. I’m sorry, Chan. I just hope they won’t tell you any lies about me.

He unlocked the entrance door, turned the knob to open it on the front garden. It would be one of those mild-weathered July days, warm and nice overall, yet sometimes cloudy with a chance of rain. Would any of the neighbours see him walk down the street? Would they whisper in his parents’ back in turn, shake their heads in contempt, typical, typical, you’d think that family was perfect, yet look at what delinquent they were harbouring under their roof...

Well, why do I care? I’m not one of them anymore! I’ve never been!

The young man walked down the few stone steps leading to the pathway, and from there to the wrought-iron gate. There still wasn’t any noise behind him. His father wouldn’t even bother seeing him off, indeed. Nor would his mother. Christina might still be asleep, and Chandler too frightened of their parents to dare do anything. Fine. It was a new start of sorts. Now he was on his own. Now he was free.

“Clare! Wait!”

He froze for a second, then half turned towards the door again. There came Chandler, his cheeks wet with tears, running barefoot down the stairs too, to catch up to him.

“Y-you’re really going away, then?” the boy whispered between two sobs, when at last they were face to face.

“As you can see.”

“I-I heard you. From the corridor. When you were w-with F-father.”

“Don’t let him find you here, or—”

“Clare, y-you’ll never come back, right? I-I’ll never see you again...”

He could only shake his head. Being able to talk to Chandler one last time made him feel better, yet at the same time, it also hurt. It would only erode his resolve, while comforting him in the certainty that there was no way back, no more time to be spent with him. They had had their disagreements, like all brothers, and he had played his share of tricks on the boy—that time he had put snow inside Chandler’s shirt in winter in the schoolyard, or the day they had sneaked together in the basement to find out if there really were secret passageways, and he had let him locked in a closet for half an hour while making him believe it was magick... But all in all, it had been nice. Chandler had been the only one in their family who made him smile, during those past few months.

Shit. If I keep staring at him, I’ll just bawl my eyes out, too.

So Clarence leant towards him and hugged him strongly, briefly, just once—also to give himself the few seconds he needed to swallow back his own tears.

“I’m sorry, little bro. I’m so sorry.”

“I promise, Clare! When I’m grown up. When I can do what I want. I’ll come looking for you!”

“Yeah, yeah. Sure.”

“I promise! I won’t forget about you.”

He couldn’t help but smile, if only for a second. Their father would never allow it, but letting his brother dream about that couldn’t do any harm, could it?

“Fine, fine. You find me. I’m sure I’ll be around... somehow.”


“Go, now. Go back home, before he comes looking for you.”

“T-then take this.”

He felt Chandler slide something in his hand. A crumpled bank note—probably from his brother’s pocket money.

“Chan, I can’t—”

“Take it. Y-you don’t have anything, right? Take it. I-It’s not much, but you d-don’t have anything at all now...”

Before he could do or say anything, the boy had torn himself away from their embrace, to run back towards the door, towards the house, towards their father who might be approaching in order to make sure that black sheep of a discarded son had indeed gone away for good.

For a minute or so, Clarence stood where he was, unable to move—neither to go back nor go forward. That hurt. That really, bloody hurt. The note felt like fire in his palm, but he could not push himself to throw it away. Chandler was right. He didn’t have anything at all, and he had eaten so little in the past days that if he wasn’t careful, he’d start feeling dizzy pretty soon, maybe even collapse. He couldn’t afford that, not now, not when he had to go on no matter what.

“Fine. Fine,” he muttered, for himself mostly, since no one else was there to hear him. “The day we’re both adults. I’ll make sure I’m still around. That’s a promise.”

With a sigh, Clarence Riddle turned on his heels, resuming his walk, and pushed the heavy gate to leave forever that place he had grown to hate in spite of all his efforts to belong.

The manor houses in the street when he set foot in it turned their dark windows to him, their usually blind eyes that all of a sudden could see him all to well. Go away, go away, they said, go away and never come back here, you’re queer, you’re a stranger, you don’t belong, you have got no right to be here anymore. Go away, go away. All of a sudden, he felt small, tiny, powerless, about to be crushed by those stone and marble giants. That was when he heard it, the call, the whisper of the city, the one carried over the roofs, under the tar. Come to me, come feel my pulse instead. I am the maze. I am infinite. My streets will welcome you, my sky will shelter you. I am London, and surely you’ll find a place for yourself, if you keep on searching.

“Yeah... I’ll find it. Someday. I don’t know when, but there must be a place for me somewhere. Isn’t there, you shitty old bloody family house?”

No answer reached him, from behind the windows that had gone blind again. He didn’t care, though. It didn’t matter. He expected nothing from that house any longer. And so Clarence kept walking down the street, not knowing where his steps were leading him, only certain of one single thing: he was free, and whatever lay ahead was his own to seize now, a new beginning in what was to be his life from now on.

I guess I need a new name, too.

Clarence really sucks.

Maybe I should go by my middle name instead? That’s the only part of it I’ve ever liked, after all.

In spite of the crushing fear that kept twisting his innards, in spite of his stomach slowly starting to remind him of its presence, or rather, of its emptiness, the young man looked up at the clear sky above his head, and a genuine smile spread on his lips, fueled now, not by anger, but by a heady feeling of being able at last to walk his own path. It would be hard. It would be painful. It would be lonely, and it might take years for him to find the place that was to be his at last. Yet, for once, it would also be his own choice.

Ewan Riddle.

That sounds a little weird, too.

But it’s a start...

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