The Equation

Note: Not suitable for younger children.

The Equation

“Oh. My. God!”

I’m standing in the Fire House Café, ordering a pot of tea–Sencha, one teaspoon, steep for three minutes–when the voice speaks right behind me.

I turn and she’s standing there. Rachel Clay.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say my heart stopped for just a second.

I haven’t seen Rachel for eleven years. When we were sixteen, we were in Miss Haversham’s science class at school. Rachel was bright, top of the class, small, cute, with blonde hair that was never really under control. We shared a kiss one night on the way home and danced together in the moonlight. What can I say? It was 1999. It was the best kiss of my life.

I left school soon after, and we never met again.

Now here she is, right behind me. I didn’t think it would be such a shock, so visceral. If she was cute when she was sixteen, she’s as hot as fire right now. She’s wearing geek glasses, but she still hasn’t got that hair under control.

I’m too dumbstruck to say anything, so it’s a good thing she just keeps on going.

“Cameron Everett. Oh my god. I was standing there in line and I saw you and I thought it can’t be but… Hi.”

She’s blushing now. God, I used to get so turned on when she blushed.

Looks like she hasn’t lost that magic.

I hurriedly turn away and scoop up my tea.

“Hi,” I say. Original. “Look, can I get you a drink?”

#

We find a table upstairs, away from anyone else, almost enveloped by an overgrown pot plant. I like to be close to living things. I sink back into the soft chair and look up at Rachel.

“So, do you keep in touch with anyone else?” I ask, more for something to say than because I’m interested. I never wanted to keep in touch with anyone from school, myself. Except Rachel, that is, and I didn’t have the nerve for that back then.

Her answer knocks me back for the second time today. “Everyone,” she says.

“Everyone?” I say. “Everyone in our class?”

She looks at the table, as though there’s something interesting written there. “Yeah. Everyone except you.” She fires a little, nervous glance.

I don’t know what to say. “Okay,” fills the gap.

“You disappeared,” she says. “I wanted to, but…”

“It’s okay,” I say. “I had…things to do. Like in the song.”

“The song?”

Free Bird.”

She looks puzzled.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. I played that song to her on the night we kissed, when we were sixteen and the moonlight was shining down and I’d just discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd. Guess it didn’t make the same impact on her. Maybe I should have played her some Thin Lizzy instead.

“So,” I say. “What are you doing these days? Are you married? Kids?”

She blushes again. “Me?”

I can’t help but feel a slight flush of warmth, but whether it’s from her blush or the fact that she’s not married, I’m not sure.

“How about work? You must have gone to Uni, right?”

She nods. Then she glances around. No one is close enough to hear, but she leans forward and drops her voice anyway.

“I’m working for Miss Haversham now.”

I act surprised. “Miss Haversham? Our science teacher? Doing what?”

“Oh, computers,” she says vaguely.

I grin. “Well, that figures. Science was always your favourite subject. Computers are the new science, right?”

She laughs. Her fingers brush back her loose hair. It’s the same nervous gesture I remember from that night we kissed. I experience the overwhelming urge to lean forward and kiss her again. Somehow, I control myself.

But she’s not finished with the shocks for the night.

“We all work for Miss Haversham.”

That one does hit me with genuine surprise. “Excuse me?” I say.

“All our class. Well, except you.” She glances around again. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

“Except me again, huh?” I grin, but it feels lopsided. I feel obscurely offended that I’m the only one not to be offered a job. Not that I’d work for Miss Haversham in a million years, but it’s the principle of the thing. “What on earth does she want everyone for? John Peters too? He could hardly tie his shoelaces.”

I should have known this. I thought I knew enough. For the first time today, I feel nervous.

“There’s stuff he can do,” Rachel says.

“So, what, is Miss Haversham running the school now?”

“Something like that.”

Something like that. It’s one way to put it.

“Huh. She never really liked me, I guess,” I say.

“It was the leather jacket,” Rachel says.

“This?” I still have the jacket. I’m still wearing it. It fits better now than it did when I found it in the market twelve years ago. “What, is she some kind of vegetarian or something?”

“No. It’s just…” Rachel shakes her head. “She likes smart. You never did smart. Look, can we talk about something else?”

“Sure, sure,” I say, then, “What, even Harriet Martin?”

“Cam…”

“Sorry. So you’re all working for Miss Haversham. A bit weird, but…”

“And how about you? What have you been up to?” She cups her hands around her latte, and leans forward, eyes fixed on me.

“I travelled around a bit,” I say. “Peru. Georgia. Zimbabwe. Tibet. Kashmir. The Balkans. You know.”

“Wow,” she says, and she sounds impressed. “Doing what?”

“This and that,” I say. Not a lot of details, admittedly, but details are exactly what she’s not getting. Not one of Miss Haversham’s brood. She’ll figure out what she needs to know soon enough. I’m hardly going to help her along.

“Sounds fun.”

I shrug. “It’s been interesting.”

“I’ve thought about you,” Rachel says. “From time to time. We had…a good time.”

I grin, and it’s genuine. “Yeah. We did.”

She pulls out a pen and starts doodling on a napkin, not really watching what she’s doing. I can’t see what she’s drawing. Her hand is in the way.

“So, do you still live here?” I say. “In Bristol?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a little flat in Clifton. It’s not much, but it’s cosy. Maybe sometime…” She doesn’t finish the sentence.

“Miss Haversham must pay well,” I say, not answering the unspoken question. “I should have got into computers.”

There are other people in the café, at other tables, talking and laughing, but I scarcely notice them. Normally I notice everything.

“It’s never too late to learn,” Rachel says. “I could give you some pointers. You’d be good at it.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, smiling to show it’s not a rejection. “I’ve got wandering feet.” I whistle a couple of notes from Free Bird.

She frowns, but she still doesn’t get it.

“And you wandered back this way,” she says. “Any reason?”

I shrug. “Curious, I guess. I haven’t been back here for years.”

“Been past the old school yet?” I’d forgotten how intense her eyes could be, even behind her glasses.

“Not yet,” I say.

“I could show you.”

“Is that where you work?” As though I don’t know.

“No,” she says. “Miss Haversham’s got her own place now.”

“Sounds interesting,” I say.

She sighs, and her pen stills on the napkin for a moment.

“We know who you are, Cam,” she says.

Ah.

I guess we’re done dancing.

She must know almost all she needs to. She wouldn’t let on otherwise. She’s quick. I shouldn’t be surprised.

For a moment, I’m hit by a feeling of inexpressible sadness. This has been good. It was like these last eleven years never happened, like we were back in the moonlight, just before we kissed, standing only a centimetre away from each other, the air between us electric and frightening and raging with teenage desire.

“Why?” Rachel says, leaning forwards, her face genuinely anguished. “Why would you do it, Cam? They call you ‘Dark Angel’, you know. You were never cut out to be a villain.”

“Is that what you think I am?” I say, hurt, even though she could hardly think anything else if she’s with Miss Haversham. “A villain?”

“What are you then?”

“I’m a fucking hero.”

She winces. I’d forgotten she hated swearing.

When she speaks again, her expression is more distant, more…professional. I don’t like it. If I’ve made the wrong move, this could all be over. “The world’s all grown up now, Cam,” she says. “You’re not sixteen with Che posters all over your wall. Everything’s changed.”

“Has it?”

“Yes. I’ve heard about you. I’ve heard what you’ve been doing. They say you were there during a dozen bloodbaths.” Her hand clenches into a white fist. “I know you wanted to save the world, but all you’re doing is getting people killed. Maybe you don’t mean to, but it’s what happens. Those places you go, those trouble spots, you make them worse.” She’s earnest, flushed, leaning towards me. Her eyes are oak-brown behind her glasses. “There are other ways of saving the world, Cam. Our ways. Ways that work. It’s time to come in from the cold.”

I laugh. “Do people actually say that?”

“I’m serious!”

“I know.” I wish she wasn’t. She didn’t used to be. Back then, back when we were sixteen and in the moonlight, I loved Rachel Clay.

“Your coffee’s getting cold,” I say. I lean forwards and touch her cup. A spark jumps from my fingertip to the cup, and the next moment, her coffee is steaming again.

It’s not much, but she yelps and jumps back. “Don’t do that!”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“It’s wrong.”

“It’s just coffee,” I say. “I promise.”

Slowly, she picks it up and takes a sip. “It’s good,” she says, reluctantly.

“Nothing to do with me,” I say. “They make good coffee here.”

“Cam,” Rachel says, unwilling to let go, “We’re doing important work. You could be part of that. Miss Haversham won’t hold grudges. She can give you a clean slate. That’s what she always used to say in class, remember? We start with a clean slate?”

I’m shaking my head before she finishes.

“You said those places I go to are trouble spots, and I know that’s how Miss Haversham sees them, but they’re not. They’re places where people haven’t forgotten their culture and traditions.” I hold her gaze. I can’t afford to lose her now. “There’s still magic in those places. Real magic. People like Miss Haversham can’t stand it. They want to crush it and make it as though it’s never been. Are you surprised there’s conflict? It’s the Miss Havershams of this world who are to blame, not me.”

This time, Rachel is the one shaking her head.

“You’re wrong. We just want peace. Those superstitions, those legends, those myths, they’re what make people hate each other.” She’s forgotten her coffee again. “They’re not worth it. All Miss Haversham wants to do–all any of us want to do–is make people see the world in a rational light. Can’t you see that if people give up on those myths, they won’t have any reason to fight anymore? They’ll have better lives. Happier lives.” She draws a breath. “You could help us.”

She’s intent, determined, passionate, focused on me, but the whole time, her pen is still rushing across the napkin.

“The world used to be different, you know,” I say.

I ease back, feeling the leaves of the pot plant brush against the nape of my neck. I can taste the energy in them, still wild, but hidden, almost crushed.

“Magic used to be everywhere,” I say. “In the streams and the woods and the villages. Everyone was full of it. Everything was full of it. Gods cracked the sky with thunder. Wild spirits hid in the bark of trees. When someone spoke, magic flowed. Every myth and fairy tale was alive. Glance around, and it was glittering, wild and untamed. Until the Miss Havershams killed it, made it just stories for children, to be laughed at and forgotten.”

“Sometimes…” Rachel starts, her voice quiet. “Sometimes there’s a price for peace.”

Right on cue, Free Bird starts playing over the café’s speakers. I hum along to the first few bars. This time, now that it’s playing, Rachel recognises it. Her eyes widen.

I chose this café for a reason. Alex Cornwell, the owner, is a friend of mine. I don’t have many of those. He knows the truth.

“That time,” I say, “in the moonlight, when we danced and kissed. That was the first time I felt magic. You felt it too. I felt you feel it.”

“They’ll never let you walk out of here alive,” Rachel whispers, and there are genuine tears in her eyes. “Not if you don’t come in with me. Not even you can escape this one, Cam.”

“I can if you let me,” I say.

“What?”

“Don’t do it,” I say. I lay a finger on the hand holding her pen. It’s not enough to stop her if she doesn’t want me to, just enough to make her pause.

I know what she’s been doing here. She’s been watching. She’s been learning me, understanding my magic, working it out, seeing how it all fits together. And she’s been writing it down. The cold equation. Magic can’t survive logic. It can’t survive explanations. Once it’s understood, it’s not magic anymore. It’s dead. That’s how people like Miss Haversham have killed magic, by writing it down and turning it into something that makes sense and can be understood. They’ve turned it all into numbers and logic. Into cold, hard equations. One piece of magic at a time, they’ve written it down, until almost all of it has gone.

Rachel has been creating my own cold equation, the one that will rob me of magic and make me ordinary, turn me into another Miss Haversham.

“Miss Haversham chose you because you knew me,” I say.

Rachel shakes her head. “I volunteered.”

I smile. Over the speakers, that blistering guitar solo kicks in.

“Miss Haversham never knew, did she?” I say. “You didn’t tell her that you tasted magic that one night.”

“No,” Rachel whispers.

“She never found out that magic was within you.”

“No.”

“She never wrote down your cold equation. She never knew she had to.”

“No.” I can scarcely hear her now.

“From the moment you showed me magic that first time,” I say, “I’ve travelled the world, gathering every shard I could find, all those last fragments hidden out of sight of the rational world.” There’s magic in hate and love and passion, in awe and fear, in a baby crying, in an old man’s last breath. It hides in the rawness of the world. Little, lost fragments, holding on. Without it, there’s nothing. No beauty, no music, nothing to truly live for. “I can bring magic back to the world,” I say. “I’m ready. But I can’t do it alone. I need you, Rachel.” She was my source, the core on which all the rest has grown. With a twist of my fingers and a couple of words muttered under my breath, I cast a cantrip. Something I learned in a small Siberian village that the rest of the world had forgotten, an unveiling charm. It spreads out, unnoticed, passing like a sigh through the walls of the café.

The charm shows them to me. Two hunched in the doorway of the Starbucks opposite, trying to keep out of the cold wind. Another couple in an empty office above the Starbucks, peering down their rifle sights. Three of them out the back, in the shelter of the bins. Others mingling with the shopping crowds, trying to look inconspicuous. Even a few in the café downstairs, pretending to read papers. The whole of Miss Haversham’s science class is there.

For a time, when I was sixteen, I could have been one of them.

The cantrip shows me Miss Haversham too, cold, featureless, white ice against the wintry day, not trying to hide. They are all waiting for that one last stroke of Rachel’s pen that will finish the cold equation.

That cantrip may be the last magic I ever do.

“I can bring back the moonlight,” I say. “With you.”

For a moment, the world waits, not breathing.

Then, slowly, without looking at me, Rachel’s hand closes over the napkin, scrunching it up. She lifts it and drops the cold equation into the still warm coffee.

She takes my hand, tears in her eyes.

I open a door in the air. There’s moonlight behind it.

We step through, leaving the music behind us, playing to our empty table.

– End –