The wizard was digging through the Coopers’ trash again late Tuesday night. Jean watched from his second floor bedroom window as empty soup cans and bits of paper flew over the hunched shoulders of the cloaked, stooping figure.
This was the third time Jean had caught the wizard in the refuse in as many weeks. The first night was unusually stormy and hot for a late March night, and the boy couldn’t sleep. When he heard the rustling and clanging from his neighbor’s yard he tried to ignore it, but as the sound persisted in a regular, inorganic rhythm he began to suspect the wind wasn’t its cause. He crept to his windowsill, pulled up his face, and saw the wizard out in the storm. Runnels of rain sluiced over and off its dark cloak as stray wings of white hair escaped from its hood to whirl in the wind.
“What does he need? Where does he come from?” These questions had consumed Jean’s free moments for those three weeks until he promised himself that he would confront the strange figure at its next appearance. So now, in spite of the thudding in his chest and the burgeoning film of sweat on his forehead, Jean grabbed his pinewood longsword, pulled on his bike helmet, and rushed out his bedroom door and down the stairs past his mother in the kitchen.
“Jean? Where are—”
“Tim’s gonna borrow my bike helmet!” the boy called as he unlatched the back door.
“Well, it’s a little late to—”
Jean halved his speed when he entered the yard and halved it again as he crept along the back wall of the garage towards the Cooper’s place. The wizard was still there, still digging, and now the mangy tabby that Jean had seen only once before was winding figure eights between the magician’s feet. “His familiar,” the boy thought. He had learned the term from his fumbling attempts at Internet research.
Silently praying that it was even possible to catch a wizard unawares, Jean hopped out from behind the garage wall and brandished his fake blade. “Hold!”
The wizard was so deep in the enormous green bin that the surprise of the shout almost made him fall fully into it. A muffled chain of curses flew from inside as the wizard tried to regain his footing. The tabby unceremoniously bolted into a bordering hedge.
The sword-bearer tensed as the wizard turned towards him. “He’s cursed,” Jean thought. “Oh man, he’s cursed.”
The man’s face was a ruined apricot, yellow-orange and shot through with wrinkles. The few wings of hair that poked out of his tarpaulin hood were whiter and frailer when seen up close, and the ash grey beard that framed the wizard’s lantern jaw bristled with pests. His eyes were so sunken Jean could barely discern their blue pupils and red blood vessels while his cheekbones were so pronounced they could probably cut glass.
“What do you here, necromancer?” Jean demanded, quoting a warrior from one of his Age of Darkness video games.
The wizard gaped at the boy, exposing rotten blue teeth and expelling a sickly sweet smell. “What?”
“What are you doing in the Coopers’ trash?”
The slack-jawed wizard only maintained his startled stare.
“Are you cursed?” Jean asked. “You… you look sick.”
This simple question broke the spell; the wizard laughed. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I guess I am cursed and sick and whatever the hell else. Why do you care? What do you think you’re doing?”
Jean’s nobility, authentic and well forged unlike his counterfeit sword, swelled, and in that moment he realized what he was doing. “I want to help you. What are you looking for?”
“Food, which is something this family, these Coopers, have a pretty persistent habit of throwing away, apparently. And a cure for this week-long hangover wouldn’t go amiss.”
Jean hadn’t come across the ‘hangover curse’ in his research. “What sort of magic do you need for the cure?” he asked.
The wizard’s laugh was weaker this time. “The, heh, magic I need is some acetaminophen. Know that word, boy?” He looked at the boy seriously for the first time during their encounter. “Your parents probably have some in their bathroom.”
The boy balked. Magic? In his house?
“Are you sure?” Jean asked, tilting his head and scratching the elbow of his sword arm, which had lowered its angle of attack several degrees.
“You know what, I am. Tell ya what, kid. You go on this little, uh, quest, get some for this friendly necromancer or whatever here, and I’ll coax that little orange bastard out of the bushes so he can stay with you. It’s been nice having some company, but if I am sick and cursed then he’s doing worse, and I just can’t take care of him anymore.”
Though he had always wanted a cat, Jean pictured pestering his parents for a fresh kitten, not some old, dirty, potentially cursed tabby. Still, a quest was a quest, especially one doled out by a desperate sorcerer. And if people needed help, you helped. That was really the heart of the thing.
“Okay. Wait here. I’ll be back.”
The wizard nodded and sat himself on the broken tarmac of the back alley where he rubbed his fingers together and clicked his tongue in the general direction of the cowardly cat’s escape.
Jean walked up to a house larger than the one he emerged from minutes before. It was now both a two-story colonial with stained carpets and a wonky furnace as well as a repository of White Magic. And, though he couldn’t see it himself, Jean was larger as well; the child was now a childe, and the world had grown to accommodate his modest greatness.
Aaron Knuckey lives and writes in Springfield, IL, the storied home of Abraham Lincoln, Vachel Lindsay, and an impressive rogues gallery of former governors.