Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Birthdays Suck--A Free Read from Angela Benedetti

Angela Benedetti has a story about birthday misadventures to share, even if it's not exactly a faceplant into the cake.

Birthdays Suck

by Angela Benedetti

Every year since he hit eleven, Paul MacAllister had waited for the magic to show up. For the magic to literally show up, because he knew it was out there; he just couldn't see it yet.

Any time, it was due, it had to show up. When he was twelve and thirteen, it was disappointing, but plenty of people got their magic when they were older than that. Eleven had been wishful thinking -- not impossible, but not very likely. Twelve and thirteen were sort of early, kinda.

He'd been focusing his attention on other boys all along too, because if he had magic then he had to be gay. Well, not had to be, but it was like ninety-nine percent, right? Or even more. So he'd ignored the girls in his classes (easy to do when he was a kid) and told himself he was into boys. When he was twelve, he got solid -- as it were -- evidence that he really was into boys, so that got checked off the list. See? He came from a magegifted family, he was gay, he was going to be a mage.

Except fourteen went by, and fifteen, and sixteen....

It was January 7th and Paul was seventeen years old and he still hadn't seen anything magic-blind normals couldn't see. Paul’s life was pretty much over, he knew that. Or, no, it wasn’t over, he just wished it was ‘cause he was doomed to live the rest of it in boring mundanity, with all the cool parts passing him by without his even being aware. No, that wasn’t right either -- he’d be better off if he didn't know the magic was out there. What good was it knowing this excellent world was right there within reach when he couldn't have it or touch it or even see it, ever?

His parents wanted to go out to a movie for his birthday, and his cousin Tom -- who was a year younger than Paul and who'd gotten his magic when he was fourteen, the bastard -- said they should go see Scent of a Woman, since Paul'd probably be into it, right?

Paul had controlled himself, but he had fantasies of pounding Tom into hamburger. Instead he'd just said, "Sure, Chris O'Donnell's hot."

His dad just snorted and they went to see Only the Strong instead, a martial arts movie Paul had only vaguely heard of. Mark Dacascos, the star, was also hot -- even if in a different way than O'Donnell, all lean and martial-arts bad-ass instead of cute blond -- and the movie was pretty good. Or it would've been if he hadn't been sure his life was over. Who could enjoy a movie, even one full of hot guys, when all your plans for your life, all your assumptions about who you were, had just come crashing down?

All right, that was a cliché. But that didn't mean it wasn't true.

Aunt Dora and Uncle Jose said goodnight and went home from the theater after the movie. They took Tom with them, which made Paul even happier than the WordPerfect software they'd given him earlier, and that'd almost made him forget his depressing mundanity for a few minutes. His big sister Holly -- who'd cheerfully steered the birthday dinner at Friday's so everyone else had a good time, while ignoring Paul's mopes -- said goodnight next. Paul's little niece Megan gave him a hug around the thighs and said happy birthday one more time. His other niece, Amanda, was asleep in a sling across Holly's chest, and hadn't learned to say "happy birthday," or even "nighty" yet. At least there was hope for the rugrats.

Holly headed off across the parking lot with her kids, and then it was just Paul and his parents.

They walked to their car, huddled in their jackets against the cold. Even in California, January got pretty chilly at night. While the car warmed up, Paul's mom said, "Aunt Wilma couldn't come to dinner, but she wanted to talk to you. We'll drop you off and you can stay the night at her place." That wasn't unusual -- Paul was close to his great-aunt, and he had clothes and stuff at her place. He really didn't want to see her that night, though.

Aunt Wilma had always come for his birthday and done some magic -- written some words in the air using her magic, while he watched -- and every year he'd hoped that that year he'd be able to see it, be able to read what she wrote for him. That year, though, she hadn't come. There hadn't been any explanation, no one had even mentioned her absence until just then. Paul had figured she'd given up on him, which wasn't a surprise because at seventeen there was no way he was just a late bloomer and he'd given up too, so why shouldn't she?

"I'm kinda tired..." he started to say, but his mother interrupted him. "She's expecting you, Paul. You're not tired, you're just moping. You can put all the feeling sorry for yourself crap on hold for a few hours and visit with your aunt."

Words that would've gotten him grounded till he was thirty hovered at the back of Paul's throat, but he managed to swallow them down. He just looked out the window and fumed.

Of course she didn't understand. She was magic-blind too -- both his parents were -- so they thought it was normal. They probably didn't see anything wrong with him having to just sleepwalk through the world, missing half of what was out there, oblivious to what was going on around him. They did it every day, so they'd figure he could too, and just shut up about being blind and crippled. Just because you could get along and do stuff and have a "normal" life anyway didn't make it suck any less.

So when they dropped him off in front of Aunt Wilma's house, a battered single-story on a half acre just outside of town, next to a garlic field (everything outside of town was next to a garlic field -- Gilroy wouldn't exist without garlic) he just climbed out and walked up to the front door without saying goodnight or anything. He knew it was a dumb, little-kid thing to do, but he was pissed off and didn't care.

He stalked up the cracked concrete path and around to the kitchen door. His fist banged twice out of habit on the frame between the six glass panes, before he opened the door and went in.

Aunt Wilma was sitting at the square wooden table filling the center of the large kitchen. She had a mug of coffee in front of her and a book in one hand. In the center of the table was a plastic case the size of a shoebox, ivory colored with cartoony looking fairies painted on the cover.

"Paul," she said, setting down her book. "Happy birthday, dear."

"No it's not," he muttered. He headed over to the corner of the kitchen where the coffee pot sat, got himself a mug and poured.

"No, I don't imagine it is," she said. "But it's still the polite thing to say."

Paul scowled at the wall, but said, "Sorry. Thanks. Whatever. Sorry."

"I know you're disappointed, and probably angry. I think I can help a little."

"Can you cast a spell that'll give me magic?" Paul managed to flop down into one of the kitchen chairs without spilling his coffee. He'd been practicing and was pretty proud of having perfected the skill.

Aunt Wilma ignored his incredibly cool maneuver and said, "No one can 'give' you magic, not in the way you're thinking. But I have something for you that I think you'll like." She opened the plastic box, which was full of junky jewelry. She pulled out a short, heavy-looking gold chain, one of the kinds with links that were sort of twisted so they'd lay flat. "This has been in the family for a long time," she said, holding it up. "My great-great-great-grandmother was given it by her father, a master mage. She turned seventeen with no magic."

"Like me. Great," said Paul. "What, does it project a magical field around whoever wears it, signaling to anyone with magesight that you're unclean? Or just pathetic?"

"At your age an occasional episode of bratness is still to be expected. And I have some idea of the depth of your disappointment, so I'll ignore the fact that you're behaving like an egocentric little asshole who's determined to let the whole world know it should feel sorry for him. Here, try this on." She tossed the chain in his direction; it crashed to the wooden tabletop and slid. Paul caught it with one hand just before it hit his lap.

It was heavy, with an old-fashioned clasp that took him a minute and both hands to figure out how to open. He glanced up at Aunt Wilma, but she just sipped her coffee and watched him.

The chain was cold against his throat when he wrapped it around, and not quite too tight, almost like a choker; it took him another ten seconds to figure out how to close the clasp and click it shut.

Glaring yellow light suddenly appeared all across the room. Paul yelped, startled, and jerked backward hard enough to knock his chair over. He hit the floor with an impact that stunned him for a moment, but even when he could move again, he didn't. Not right away.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY PAUL! was scrawled across the... well, across the air in the room in what had to be slashes of magic light four feet tall. The message Aunt Wilma must've written for him on his birthday every year since he was eleven, the message he'd never been able to see before -- there it was.

"Holy shit."

Paul stared at it for however long, then scrambled to his feet and wrapped himself around his aunt, who'd put her coffee down and was sitting there with her arms open for a hug.

"Thank you," he murmured into her hair.

"You're welcome, dear. I'm sorry you need it, but I'm glad I have it to give you."

He nodded. That was it exactly -- it completely sucked that he needed it, he was still pissed off about that, but at least he wasn't completely cut off from the magic things in the world the way he'd expected to be. It was something, and right then that tiny sliver of something seemed pretty damn huge.

Soon enough he disentangled himself from his aunt, since the joyful shock was wearing off and it was suddenly kind of embarrassing to be all hugging and stuff for more than a second or two. He sat back down and took a long slug of coffee, staring around at the glowing letters that still hovered in the air. He knew they'd fade eventually, or at least he was pretty sure they would, but he felt like he could just look at them for however long they lasted, without ever getting tired of it.

Aunt Wilma got up to refill her coffee. "So," she said while replacing the pot, "how's the rest of life going?"

"Huh?" Paul had to change gears for that. "Umm, the usual stuff. Dad's nagging me to start looking at colleges and all, but I'm not even done with junior year yet. I don't know, I always thought I'd, you know, be a Sentinel." He didn't say "like you" but it was there anyway, hanging in the air between them, just not quite as glowingly obvious as the happy birthday message.

"You know being a Sentinel doesn't pay the bills, right?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, sure. But that's all you need, just something to pay the bills, right? It's not like a major career or anything. You couldn't really deal with a regular job, having to run out to fight elves and stuff at any time, right?"

"That's true enough," she said. "But still, you need to do something, and there aren't many casual jobs that let you take time off whenever you want, but pay enough to live on."

"I know, I thought about that." Paul sat up and leaned forward a little, as if he could will her to take him seriously, because he knew his parents wouldn't and he needed somebody on his side. "I've been kind of writing for a while. You know, stories? I haven't sold any yet, but that just means I need to practice more. If I can get good enough to sell things then I could make a living that way, and that's something you can do any time, so whenever I had to drop everything and run off to save the world or something, I could...."

And right there he ran down, because it hit him that it was all pointless, that he could never be a Sentinel, for real. Seeing magic was great and all, but he couldn't actually defend himself from some elf casting magic at him unless he had magic of his own. And he didn't. So... there, it was all trashed.

He sat back and stared down at the floor. Life was back to sucking.

"Do you still want to be a writer?" asked Aunt Wilma.

"Huh? I mean, it doesn't matter anymore."

"Plenty of people who aren't mages are writers," she pointed out, slowly, like he might need the extra time to understand the words. "If that's what you want to do, there's no reason you shouldn't do it."

Did he? He liked writing -- not all of it, sometimes it kind of sucked when he got stuck on something, but finishing a story was great, and coming up with ideas and characters and all. He even liked sending stuff out, and not getting a rejection slip would be excellent, the first time it happened.

"Or let's put it this way," she said, when he went a few moments without answering. "If we assume you can have a regular day job now, with office hours, is there anything else you'd rather do?"

Paul thought, but nothing came to mind. "No."

"Well, then, there you go. You have a life goal. What should you major in at college to be a writer? What kind of stories do you write?"

"Mostly science fiction, some fantasy. There are magazines that publish only eff-and-ess-eff, and some others that take it occasionally. The library has copies of this annual writer's market guide, and you can find places to send stories. I wish-- I mean, I'm kind of into horror, not really scary stuff, but like...." He trailed off, trying to figure out how to explain it.

"You mean like sexy vampires?"

"Umm. Kinda?" Paul could feel himself blushing and stared down at his coffee mug. "There's really no place to sell that stuff, though."

"They sell pretty well on the romance side," she pointed out. "Romances are a big market, and fantasy and science fiction and vampire-type romances are getting pretty popular."

Of course, he knew Aunt Wilma read romances, but he hadn't thought about writing actual romances. "But there aren't many paying markets that take short stories like that, and I haven't been able to finish a novel yet; I keep getting stuck. And I'm not really writing romances anyway, but kind of like a fantasy, with mages and elves? But not like Tolkien, sort of historical but not just making up something sort of medieval--"

"Have you ever read anything by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro?" she asked, interrupting his rambling. "She's got a historical vampire series that's sort of like what you're talking about."

"Yes! The Saint Germain books? Like that, kinda, but with mages and all instead of vampires."

Paul was sitting up again and bouncing in his chair a little. If Aunt Wilma was a Yarbro fan then she knew exactly what he meant, and it sounded like she wasn't going to laugh at him or tell him it was a stupid idea or anything. Before he could start explaining the ideas he'd had for historical-mage stories, though, the kitchen door suddenly glowed bright green and exploded into a storm of splinters and shattered glass.

A guy Paul had never seen before was standing there in the wrecked doorway. He looked like he was in his twenties, tall and lean, with blond hair and a nasty grimace. Paul thought he might be kind of hot if he didn't look like he was about to punch somebody. That and the wrecked door.

He looked all around the room in about half a second, then wound up with the wand in his hand and cast something bright and flashing at Aunt Wilma. She squawked in pain and flew backwards out of her chair.

Ignoring Paul, the guy took a long stride into the room, still holding his wand on Paul's aunt. "The artifacts. Give 'em here and I won't kill the kid." His wand swooped over to point at Paul, but he was still watching Aunt Wilma, probably figuring she was the dangerous one.

It was true, she was, but the thought -- true or not -- pissed Paul off royally. Who the hell was this asshole, busting in and hurting old ladies and trying to steal stuff?

Aunt Wilma threw something magical back at the guy, without even a wand. He swore and cast back at her, and she yelped again, still down on the floor with one hand clamped to her side.

Paul dove under the table, then stood up, heaving it at the guy, hard. Mugs and spoons and Aunt Wilma's plastic box crashed to the floor and he felt the table top impact the guy, who swore again and thudded against something, probably the wall.

The table was jerked out of Paul's hands and he dodged back toward the counter. A snarled, "You're gonna get it, you little shit!" made him move faster. Hah, the coffee pot! The base was still turned on, so it'd be plenty hot. Paul grabbed the pot and flung the coffee at the guy, who was winding up with his wand again. The coffee splashed against him; he barely turned away in time to take most of it against the back of his black leather jacket, shouting in surprise and what Paul hoped was at least a little fear.

The miss sucked; Paul'd been hoping to get his face, or at least his T-shirt.

The knife rack was right next to the coffee pot base; he grabbed the first knife his hand hit and jumped back across the room, intending to jab it into the asshole's kidney. But half way there, he suddenly froze, like he'd been caught in liquid glass.

The guy hadn't even cast a spell! Or not that Paul had seen, and he was pretty sure it would've been obvious. Or should've been -- maybe he was just that good? Shit! Paul tried to struggle but nothing would move. He'd made some stupid mistake and now he was caught, and the asshole was going to use him to threaten Aunt Wilma into giving him the stuff he wanted, like Paul was some stupid, helpless hostage, and the guy might end up killing them anyway because Paul hadn't been able to think of something that'd take him out right away--

"Good job, Paul," said Aunt Wilma, and Paul's brain shorted out.

Not really, but that was what it felt like. Then he could move again and he stumbled back into the counter because he'd been sort of off balance when the freeze-whatever hit him. He leaned against the formica edge and glared at the guy in the leather jacket, then at Aunt Wilma -- who was standing there on the far side of the overturned table like she'd just gotten up to answer the phone or something -- then back at the guy.

"Not bad, kid," said the guy. Nice move with the coffee -- you almost got me there." He scowled at Aunt Wilma and said, "You didn't mention having any scalding liquids around."

"I didn't think about it," said Aunt Wilma with a breezy wave of one hand. "It was an excellent move, though. I liked the table maneuver, too, although I'm glad Grandma Penny bought sturdy. One of those cheap modern kitchen tables would be in pieces on the floor. And speaking of in pieces, you owe me a door!" She waved her hand again, this time at the wreckage, and glared at him.

Paul slammed the knife down on the counter and glared at both of them. "So, what, you were just playing around? Give the magic-blind kid one fake chance to think he's a hero, Happy Birthday? Wow, thanks."

The guy snorted and shook his head. "I don't know you, and don't really care if it's your birthday or not. Trust me, I wouldn't volunteer for these bruises, or the chance of first degree burns all over my face even for a friend, much less some stranger."

"It was a test, though," said Aunt Wilma. "And you passed nicely. I thought you probably would, but I had to check. That's the point of tests."

"What was the point of tests? Of this test?" Paul actually had an idea of what the point might've been, but it sounded stupid even in his head and he didn't let himself think of it in words. He turned away so neither of the adults would see ridiculous hope in his face. He spotted a dish towel hanging from the handle of the fridge; he pulled it off and back-handed it at the guy. Up to him to catch it and mop up his leather if he wanted. He stared at the window over the sink, at his own reflection, trying to keep his face straight. Hope was just too pathetic at that point.

"The point was to see whether you have the temperament to be a Sentinel."

She just said it, right out, all short and matter-of-fact. Something like that, it seemed to Paul, should be announced, maybe with some kind of brass fanfare in the background.

"This is Derry, by the way. He just moved into the area and is joining the team, taking Doug's place. Derry, my nephew Paul."


Paul turned back around in time to see Derry gave him a smirk and a wave. He was mopping his jacket off with the towel. He shrugged out of it so he could reach the back. Mmm, nice tight T-shirt, which Paul felt free to notice, since he wasn't trying to burn, stab or otherwise maim the guy anymore.

"Unless you despise one another," Aunt Wilma went on, "Derry will be mentoring you for a while. I thought you'd rather have someone who's not a relative doing it, aside from the fact that I'm not really up to teaching brawling to a seventeen-year-old anymore."

Paul blinked a couple of times, like the world would shift into some more believable configuration if he could just get rid of whatever was obviously messing up his vision. Except it was his ears too, and blinking would help that. Blinking didn't help anyway, because he was still standing in Aunt Wilma's semi-trashed kitchen.

"So, wait, you want me to be a Sentinel? For real? That won't work -- I don't have any magic!"

"That makes it awkward, but not impossible," she said. "And since Christopher has informed me that he's definitely not interested and if I keep nagging him he's going to move across country, change his name and not give me his phone number, it's up to you to carry the flag for the family."

Aunt Wilma's son Christopher had been telling his mother for about as long as Paul'd been alive that he didn't want to be a Sentinel, so Paul wasn't really shocked. Paul thought he was crazy, but it still wasn't surprising.


"What about Tom?" Paul didn't really want to remind her, but felt like he had to. "At least he's got magic."

Derry huffed out a laugh and shook his head. "We pulled this on him when I first got into town. He called me some names and tried to break a dish over my head. I'll give the kid credit for standing his ground and giving it a shot, but he doesn't have that killer instinct. If you're going to fight bad guys, you have to mean it, for real. You can train that into somebody, but I'm not going to do it."

"I told him that if he wanted another chance, he could join the military and serve a hitch," said Aunt Wilma. "Something like the Marines where they emphasize combat and train the right reflexes into you. If he gets through boot camp and a tour somewhere, he'll have all the killer instinct a Sentinel needs."

Paul said, "But that's--" and then stopped, because he'd been about to say something truly stupid.

"Dangerous?" Aunt Wilma gave him a sharp glare. "Of course it's dangerous. So is fighting trolls and elves and power-crazed mages. If you're afraid of getting hurt, say so now and that'll be the end of it."

"No! No, I'm not. I know being a Sentinel is dangerous, I'm not stupid. I was just about to say something dumb. It was just, like a reflex. I want to! I always have." He took a step toward Derry and held out a hand. "Umm, sorry for throwing coffee at you. No hard feelings, right?"

Derry laughed and gripped his hand, then clapped him on the shoulder. "'Course not. You did real well, we already said so."

"That's settled, then," said Aunt Wilma. "Paul, you figure out how much free time you have -- school, homework and sleep are your own, otherwise Derry owns you through at least the end of summer. I'll talk to your parents and we'll make sure everything's organized."

Derry poked Paul in the arm and said, "I suggest you work hard between now and the end of school, put on as much strength and endurance as you can, 'cause once summer vacation starts and you're mine all day, you're going to wish you'd joined the Marines instead."

Paul scowled at him, but he couldn't hold it. A huge smile broke through and he said, "Excellent. Thanks!" There was still one thing, though. He looked back and forth between them and said, "But I still don't have magic. I mean, it's great to be able to see what's coming, but a pot of coffee won't protect me from a crazy mage or an elf who's out of coffee-tossing range."

Derry raised an eyebrow at Aunt Wilma, who sort of smirked at him, then said to Paul, "Let's clean up this mess you made. Make sure you find every bit of jewelry that was in the box, then I'll show you what we've got for you."

Paul got it in about half a second. The gold chain had been in the box with... with a bunch of junk that wasn't actually junk.

Holy shit, he thought. There was loads of stuff in that box!

He dropped to his knees and started scrambling around on the floor picking up pendants and bracelets and rings and pins, while Derry set the table back on its legs and Aunt Wilma mopped coffee off the floor. Chains and charms and earrings and stick pins and buttons and necklaces -- there were dozens, maybe hundreds of them. If they were all magic, then....

...Then he'd be loaded for magical bear.

It was starting, and it was real. Paul was going to be a Sentinel.

Paul is a main character in two of Angela's Sentinel universe novels: A Hidden Magic and Emerging Magic. If you want some excellent urban fantasy, these two books are for you! (My review for Emerging Magic will be up this weekend! Loved it!)

 Rory's mother took him to psychiatrists, let them circumscribe his life, let them give him drugs, while knowing all along there was nothing wrong with him. When Rory finds out, he's angry and confused and just wants to get away for a while. His mother's betrayal plus another kidnap attempt make a visit to the father he hasn't seen in ten years seem like a great idea.

When Rory, Paul and Aubrey get to Seattle, though, it's obviously not going to be just a normal family Christmas. Someone north of San Jose tried to kidnap Rory twice before they left, and to Paul, it's too much of a coincidence that Nathan, Rory's dad, has magic talented friends. While Rory tries to reconnect with his only other family, Paul is trying to figure out whether anyone in Nathan's group is after Rory. They definitely have secrets, and at least one of them has been playing around with things he doesn't understand; the local fey are after him, and elves aren't known for caring too much about collateral damage.

And there's a master wizard in the area who's up to something big and would really like to have Rory's help....

Available at Torquere, Amazon, and All Romance eBooks.


  1. Great companion story to the novels--thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice glimpse of a pivotal moment for Paul. And a timely reminder that he wasn't always quite so kick-ass even if he wanted to be.

    I love Hidden Magic and Emerging Magic - so many layers and details beneath the surface that I didn't realise I'd missed on the first read.


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