SPACE TO BREATHE • by Zoe Palmer

“So how’d you do it?” he asks. He has to shout above the pounding noise, feeding the tumult. The bar is packed. Even the lousiest places overflow.

“Not magic,” I say. There is no space to breathe. The crowd — one immense crowd, covering the Earth like a pillow pressed over a sleeper’s face — chokes the senses.

He snorts. “Well, I know that,” and nods at the metallic, cosmetic-rust magic-sniffer robot in the corner. “So how did you do it?”

People, people, everywhere, and not a soul to see.

“Love of a good woman,” I say, straight-faced, and he laughs at me.

“Yeah, right. Who is this bird of yours, anyway? Jla?” Averin tilts his head at the feathered woman playing solitaire with a bloodstained pack of cards, brassy sunbursts on the back of each one. There are five other people at her sized-for-two table, pointing at the cards and contributing to the clamor, and she’s finding it difficult to ignore them. “You better not. I’ve been walking with her.”

I look down at my fingers, at the black and tan gloves plated with silvered metal, at the holes worn through them. It’s not true. I did use magic. I bribed the ‘tender to fix the magic-detecting robot with a glitch. My girlfriend — Tace — helped me out there. The ‘tender seemed a lot more willing to take cash from someone as humanly good-looking as she is. Feathers may be the latest craze, but they don’t do it for everyone.

I’m going back on stage after this set, and the entire bar, Tace excepted, expects me to bring back the couple with the staring black lapdog I vanished away. Isn’t going to happen. It’s a one-way trip.

That’s my particular talent, vanishing people—makes it easy to see why magic is illegal, really. I’ve been able to make people disappear since I hit puberty. I’ve never been able to bring anyone back, no matter how hard I try. Which I don’t, not anymore.

The band finishes sawing away at their mandoluitars and the trio of musicians, all with the same painfully short haircut, exposing bone, retreat back into the mass of people. I stand, stretch, head back up, vaulting the steps because it’s expected of a stage magician. Averin grins at me; I hadn’t decided whether to include him, but that makes up my mind. He’s going, too.

On stage, there is a temporary respite. The heat and the smell — the palpable, ever-present expression of you can never be alone — recede a fraction.

I manage to disappear five more people before the crowd begins to feel a collective uneasiness at the stream of people crowding up onto the tiny stage and not coming off. I nod out our signal to Tace, and she kills the lights with a well-placed crossbow bolt to the feeder on the ceiling.

It’s easier when I can touch people. I pull my cape off and it dissolves and unfolds into a silver net of mirrors. I cast it out over the dark audience, over the yells and crashing chairs and the sounds of panic gestating on top of full-grown confusion. That many people, you can feel the hysteria like insects crawling on your skin.

Then I close my eyes, spread my arms. I give a heave of mental effort, setting me trembling and making stars go nova behind my eyelids, and send everyone away. Banish them. I don’t know where, but it’s a big universe, and this planet is very very small.

The noise cuts off and a hush rises swift and comforting around us. Speed of silence may be slower than light but it’s plenty fast.

Tace has a lantern on one table and twists it on, flooding the place with warm illumination, preserving us in amber light, like fossils. I jump off the stage and go to her, smiling in the peaceful quiet, extending a hand.

If we were another couple, we’d probably dance, but we simply hold hands and glory in our homemade space to breathe.

Zoe Palmer is a slave to the educational system, and comes from a long line of teachers, librarians, English majors, and artists (check out this blog for info on the latter: She lives in the green city of Portland, Oregon.

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