Mary Petrie put her writing dreams on hold to raise her family — then her son surprised her by self-publishing her novel as a gift to her. The first chapter of "At the End of Magic" introduces Delphi, a college student who's alarmed when she begins to see uncanny visions.
Read the full story of how "At the End of Magic" got published here.
The little girl has curly, red-blonde hair. I’m guessing she’s four or five. Can’t be three, not with that vocabulary—unless she’s a genius. See, there I go. Reasoning like a sane person, except the thing I’m trying to analyze doesn’t exist. When Professor Gaines spits out platitudes, the rest of my classmates sit up and listen, obviously unaware of Molly or Heidi or Heather, or whatever her name is. She stares out the window and sets the beakers that line the shelves spinning. The kid keeps a sly, indirect eye on me. She explores an empty desk before walking up the aisles to study my more tangible companions. Gaines drones on about the Tao of science. Give me a break. This is Physics for Poets, not a trip to East. However, far as I can tell, he has my so-called peers in the palm of his hand.
I can’t quite hear the girl. Instead, I spend the precious minutes that might actually let me pass this class trying to field the odd ideas that pop into my head. I seem to be thinking somebody else’s thoughts. Random, baby fragments about blue Popsicles, plastic hats at Bennie’s birthday party, and painting patio chairs. Whoever heard of painting chairs, just for fun? Yet I look at this girl in a yellow flowered dress—always the same—and am immediately reminded of hauling a white plastic patio chair onto the driveway. I sweep streaks of purple across the back, pink along the legs, and neon green on the seat. The art chair, I call it. This is a memory. I’ve never painted a chair in my life.
I’m seriously considering a psychiatrist. Soliciting help, and fast, would be the logical action to take, and I sure could use some proof of my level-headedness. However, implicating myself as imbalanced would immediately occupy all my time—shrinks and pills and meetings with my father. Graduation is in ten short weeks: I’m too busy to become a patient.
Honestly, her presence feels natural, not nutty. When she first appeared, I was barely surprised, mostly curious. I might even enjoy her hanging around if I didn’t get weepy by the end of class. She’s sad! Not normal kid-sad, as if she’d lost a doll or missed the circus. Her mood is fundamental. Even though there’s a particular problem—something she lost that she’s worried about—this child wasn’t happy long before. Can a person be born yearning?
She pirouettes in the corner, staring solemnly at the swoops her arms make.
I watch her dance. Is feeling comfortable with your delusion a symptom of schizophrenia? There must be a book on the topic.
“Delphi?” Professor Gaines taps on his table and bellows. “Sorry to interrupt. I’m requesting input on paper topics.” He chuckles as if he knows my type—one more woman lost within the subtleties of science. “You wouldn’t happen to have an idea. Would you?”
If only this lout understood that he poses the sole threat to my 4.0, a grade point average earned, in part, by avoiding all subjects remotely scientific. Unfortunately, this otherwise cushy liberal arts system demands a moderate dose of atoms, numbers and similar muck that flies against the grain of my otherwise well-functioning brain.
My solution to the requirement is Physics for Poets, a course with a cruelly deceptive title. Turns out, overly stimulated science freaks can’t get their fixes the regular way; they sign up for sections reserved for the ill-equipped. Even worse, half the guys take this class to meet women. I’m stuck, ogled by the very people I was trying to avoid. How are all the artsy students fulfilling their science requirements? You’d think at least one of those clay-streaked slackers who smoke behind the art building would’ve ended up here.
I wish I’d been paying attention, if only to whip out a response worthy of wiping the bored look off Gaines’ face. Being assigned to this class must have been some departmental punishment.
Alas, I have no pithy reply. I’m contrite. “No, sorry. I don’t have a topic to contribute.”
“Fine, then.” Expectations met, he moves to the man behind me without pausing. The interaction gives me an instant headache. Nothing major, a small painful slice behind my left eye.
The girl has hoisted herself onto the ledge by the window. She folds her legs into the yellow dress, sets her pointed chin on her knees, and smiles at me.
Not a single other person turns in her direction. The football player type right across the aisle gazes out over the parking lot without indicating anything unusual is afoot. I blink and stare again. She’s still there. God, I wish somebody would stand up and point: who is that kid!
Mr. Football annoys Gaines as much as women. He pounces on him for a topic.
“I like the consciousness thing,” offers Football.
Gaines raises his eyebrows. “You and half the class.” He sighs heavily and leans against the table. “Shall we make this official? How many here would like the physics of consciousness as a term paper topic?”
Nearly every hand shoots up. Wow. I missed that whole debate. I might be the only person in the room who has no idea what the topic even means.
Professor Gaines beams at us condescendingly. “Well, well. Once again, I’ll be reading thirty essays on brain waves—or lack thereof.”
As if he wasn’t the one who mandated a group topic—a requirement obviously reserved for the slow-witted, since I’ve never stumbled onto the concept before. I do see the advantages, even without Gaines’ commentary on the historical significance of scientific communities. Great—sharing information has served humanity well. Let’s hope the practice serves me well, too. I hope to glean enough info off others’ ideas to come up with a few thoughts of my own.
I check on the kid—still sitting and staring. I wince into the sunlight, headache intensifying. Great.
Gaines shuffles us into pairs. “Brainstorm,” he says dryly, as if there aren’t enough cells in the room to pose a real danger of that happening.
I land the guy behind me, Ian somebody or other. He’s tall and skinny, all glasses and pale face that scream: I’ve been locked up in a lab all summer!
“The physics of consciousness—that has great potential, don’t you think?” He beams, so gung ho I feel sorry for him. This is probably the closest he’ll get to a humanities topic all quarter.
Me, I lack enthusiasm for anything except relief from the suddenly escalating pain behind my eye, now spiraling through my forehead. “Yeah, great idea. What are you going to write about?” The more he talks, the less I have to. I press two fingers to my skull and smile encouragingly through the haze, not registering a word.
The pain is unbearable. I must find a bathroom or get a drink of water. The throbbing destroys my ability to think. The room starts to blur and white flashes ripple the corner of my vision. This is exactly how Dad describes the auras that herald his migraines. I swear, genetics have never treated me well—now this!
The little girl stops dancing to wave at me. She hops up and down, excited.
Oh God, the room is white! I can’t make out Ian’s face. People and desks around me dissolve into rows of waves, weaving in rhythm with my headache. I’m gripped with panic: must get out!
“Excuse me.” I lurch up, unsteady. “I think I’m getting a migraine.”
Ian stares a split second before leaping to his feet, hand outstretched. Suddenly, I’m steady. I stand still, listening into the light. I can’t see her anymore, although I know she’s here. The waves settle into a still clear pool. No longer boxed in and afraid, finding her is all I care about.
“Will you, will you?” Such a tiny voice, sweet and clear! A person could love this voice.
The room stops shimmering. She’s gone, and my headache is, too—that quickly.
My physical equilibrium is restored. My psyche is another matter. I now appear to be fond of my hallucinations, which have begun to speak as well.
“Delphi?” says Ian. “Are you okay?”
I turn to assure him—and myself— that everything is fine. The second I look at him, everything is worse, a million times worse.
A flood of impressions and emotions and judgments rush through me, hitting me hard on so many levels that I have to sit back down. In a single sudden moment, I look at Ian and know him. He’s the most generous person I’ll ever meet. He gleams—literally. There’s pink around him. Now his face won’t come into focus. Is he old, as in ancient? A wrinkled old man sits before me, someone who seen his share of sorrow and has carried other people’s pain. Here’s Ian again. I put my head in my hands, which are shaking. I may throw up.
I turn my head to escape from Ian and catch the eye of a woman a few feet over. She’s pretty, in a carefully planned sort of way. But lonely! The space around her is gray, the air ice. Her need claws a path toward anyone who can distract her—from what? When her face starts to change, I turn away. This is a future I don’t want to see.
I hold my stomach and shut my lips. Bile rises. I am crazy after all, have never been this disoriented. I should run to the nearest psych ward before somebody else carts me off.
“I’m sorry—this headache is making me sick. I think I should go home.” Strained and unreal, my words break across Ian’s stunned face.
Ian touches my arm. “Did you drive?”
Looking at him feels like a violation.
I practically push the poor guy over to get out that door. Ian doesn’t follow. Bet he can’t wait to see me leave. Some partner I turned out to be. I race to the restroom and lock myself in a stall. Sweat rings my hair. I hold onto the walls and wait for complete psychosis to take over.
Instead, relief slowly sinks in: I am thinking my own thoughts. No visions dance nearby. Faces are not morphing out of the metal walls. Nobody drops from the ceiling. No strange sensations, nothing. Still, my hands don’t stop shaking. All I want is to go home. I let shock propel me to my car and blanket my brain, afraid to do as much as look over a shoulder, lest I trigger another mental collapse.
Ordinarily, the drama of firing up my 1986 Century Buick is a moment to fear. Today, the routine is soothing. Four times, I turn the key and pump the gas steadily. I vow into the steering wheel: “You’ll never be scrap metal, okay? Strictly museum material.” Pound the dashboard to placate the temperamental.
Please, please let the damn thing start.
She does. All rust and rumble, we roar away. Let’s ignore the fact that I’ve been talking to a car for the past three years. Another strike against sanity—perhaps I shouldn’t keep track.
Oh, let us not focus on the unpleasant. Let us crank the windows for cold air and blast the radio. Meaningless noise overwhelms the synapses. Crazy, crazy, crazy, croons the music.
Distance between the Macalester campus and my car centers me. I’m calm enough to think through my situation: I must be suffering some kind of psychosis. What else could be happening? Here I’ve been proud of my mental agility all these years. Aren’t the smart ones those that crash and burn?
The image of insanity solidifies. Old movies strike the most fear. Jessica Lange deteriorating in Frances. Some girl groping and muttering mumbo jumbo in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Could things get worse? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My future takes on a terrifying new shape. Is this how those school shootings begin, the collapse of a quiet mind? Just as panic descends, one possible—no, let’s say highly probable—alternative pops into my mind. I leap and grab, weak with relief. I am having an allergic reaction!
My breakdown could be environmentally induced. Perhaps a chemical in the room—there are dozens—triggers hallucinations! I’m environmentally sensitive? Possible. You read about that sort of problem these days. Could be that my vulnerability isn’t a single solvent, but a malignant combination: think of the explosive possibilities in all those beakers, ready to combust with the perfume and antiperspirant and hair care products that circulate each class session.
The more I mull over how astoundingly toxic the earth has become, the better I feel. This must be the answer! By the time I’m downtown, my hands have even stopped shaking. Benzine, ether, hydrochloric acid: that chemical-laden room is the culprit. Who knows what Gaines stores on those shelves? Imagine the mix—ammonia, alcohol, ethanol. I’m nearly giddy—this close to the brink of institutionalization, pulled away so neatly! I’ll withdraw from the class, transfer, or do whatever it takes to get away from the poisons.
I’m breathing normally again now. At least, as normally as anyone can in this industrial wasteland. Isn’t St. Paul sixty miles from a nuclear power plant? God only knows what is leaching into the soil. Don’t forget those air quality alerts we had last summer. I’m not crazy. I’m polluted!
Downtown traffic is a breeze if you know the less used routes. In a matter of minutes, I’m sliding the rustmobile into a conveniently long parking space a mere block from home. Before opening the car door, I gulp air and hold my breath until safely inside the hulking warehouse. More winded than one would expect, I trudge to the third floor (elevators here are hopeless), round four corners, and turn the key to the huge wooden door of our loft.