Grandfather looked me straight in the eyes and sighed. “Evelyn has been a thorn in my side for fifty-two years. I didn’t even know she existed until I married her best friend. Do you know why people didn’t like the Gerstle family practising Death Magic? Because it was forbidden magic until the ’80s. Even the magical community was superstitious and heavily religious until recently.” He tapped the desk with a finger. “It’s not illegal for those outside of the Mage community to learn magic, but they are not supposed to live in our communities. Your Gran broke that rule when she moved to Dunn with that boy toy of hers.”
I forced myself to meet his eyes and pooled my fear into anger. “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you telling me Gran has magic t-.” The words died in my mouth when I saw the look on his face. His features hardened. He pointed his finger at me. “I’m not fucking stupid, Dexter. No one is falling for this fucking crap anymore. I turned a blind eye for too long to avoid getting you and her in trouble, and it almost got you killed. No fucking more, I’m putting a leash on your neck and separating you from her influence. I should have done it the first moment I suspected… I just wanted one of my grandkids to live a normal, safe life, without the danger of magic constantly bearing down on them.”
“Forced to be normal. How is that fair?”
“Fair? You really are a stupid child. Life isn’t fair! Look at what happened to the kids in that house.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You will start exorcist training this afternoon, I’ve enrolled you in a Diploma of Death Magic. Someone will drive you to the Beckham University campus until I can trust you can do it yourself.”
“Exorcist training? I’m a librarian.”
“Not any longer.”
“Are you saying I have no choice in this?”
“Not unless you want to be arrested for illegal practice of controlled magic.”
“Why Exorcist training?”
“What do you think people who focus on the Mediumship branch of Death magic do? Fluff around and play nice with ghosts. Someone needs to teach you how to control your magic. Death Magic is dangerous and controlled magic. Practitioners are only trained to demand.”
“I have no choice?”
“How daft are you? They still have enough evidence to get you as an accomplice for summoning that demon and murdering those kids. You have no choice unless you want to be arrested for murder.”
“They were high school kids. Even between the six of them, they couldn’t have summoned that demon. Someone will need to take the fall for what happened to them.”
“I don’t have the skill to do something like that. I thought we were close. I thought you loved me. Do you honestly believe I’d be capable of something like that?”
“I’m thinking about how it looks from the outside. Someone with a key to that house did have the ability to summon that creature, and you were in that house contaminating the crime scene. The owner swears up and down that you were the only person with a key, an illegal Death magic-user. There was no magic used to get in. It had to be someone with a key. The forensics team have the main suspect pegged as a man, older than thirty, and the prosecution will be looking to connect the two of you.”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking about crime scene contamination when I was running for my life.”
“I’m sorry. This is less a punishment and more me realising that I can’t keep you safe by distancing you from magic. I have five years at the most before they force retirement on me, the world belongs to the next generation. Entrenching you in this organisation is the best way to keep you safe. No matter what the future holds, you are my grandson, and I love you.”
I blinked away the tears that formed in my eyes before I looked up at him.
“I feel like I’ve dropped some of the strings I was holding, and you’ve paid the price.”
“I’ll do whatever you want me to, just lead the way.”
“You will start the same as any other Apprentice by learning how your department works.”
“It will be a good transition from your chosen career.”
“It’s going to be hard to let that go.”
“I know they socialise you to think that one job will be the end-all, but life often doesn’t work out like that. You’re only twenty-three, a great age to train in a new field.”
“Do I have to start today?”
“After we have that nice lunch with your brother. It might keep you out of trouble. Eli was worried about an impromptu trip you took to Sydney without telling anyone.”
That conniving little rat was dobbing on me like we were still small children. So much for the sanctity of marriage. Just how many little birdies did Grandfather have?
“I can’t trust you to live with Evelyn or have unsupervised contact with her.”
“What?” I saw red, and before I knew what I was doing, I punched the desk. “Sometimes I think you’re just jealous of the relationship Gran and I have.”
“You need to stay away from her, or she’ll have to be arrested for the crimes she committed in training you. It was part of the deal I made with the other board members. Do you really think I’d do all this on my own volition? I’d be arrested too if I didn’t have permission. If you cut unsupervised contact with Evelyn and are found innocent, you have a long career ahead of you working for this agency.”
“I have to look after her, there’s no one else.”
“Mason and Ariella are to look after her.”
“But Ariella’s pregnant again.”
“Her children can share a room.”
“Have you asked them?”
“The move is happening as we speak. You can only talk to her from now on if Mason or his wife are there. Understand?”
I felt sick and closed my eyes to block the wave of dizziness that rushed over me. I’d been set up. “I understand.”
“You can’t tell anyone, especially Evelyn about the deal we’ve made here. You need to be cleared of any wrongdoing regarding that case before an official announcement can be made.”
“Can I tell Eli? We’ve made a promise not to keep any secrets from each other anymore.”
“And I can see that you’re doing incredibly well at that. How is he going to respond when he finds out that you can do magic and never told him?”
I was done. I forced myself to stand. “I need the toilet.”
I managed to hold back the tears until I closed the door. I walked down the hall looking at the ground, blocking out everyone I passed until I found a bathroom.
When I walked into the bathroom and stood at the sink, I looked into the mirror, my eyes were red and wet. It was obvious I’d been crying. Fuck I was such a whingey little coward. I knew it was okay for men to cry… but fuck. I cried at every little thing that went wrong in my life.
This wasn’t a small thing. I brought my fist down on top of the sink as hard as I could. I hissed as it throbbed with pain. When Eli found out about this, it would be the end of our marriage. There was no way he’d forgive this after all the promises of no secrets and how hurt I’d been over the things he’d kept from me. Why had I done it in the first place? I clearly wasn’t emotionally mature enough for marriage. Ready to bare all to Eli and live with his family for the rest of my life. I said yes when he asked me after only eight months of dating because I didn’t want to lose him. I was still trying to pull myself together. How could I healthily enter a permanent relationship commitment if I didn’t even know who I was? It all went back to her, my ex. Two years into our relationship, she’d cheated on me for months with someone else. On a single casual bartenders income, I couldn’t afford to stay in the city. I’d never told anyone the truth about why I moved back from Perth. Eli hadn’t been in love with me for thirteen years, he’d been in love with an idealised version of me that didn’t exist. I’d become the villain in this relationship because I’d been scorned by another.
The things she’d said when I walked in on her cheating on me rattled around my brain. I was an ugly push over who’d never been truly loved or desired by anyone. I stopped short of actually punching the mirror with my hand. I let my hand rest against the cold glass as I watched the tears trail down my cheeks. She’d reassured me of all the things I’d been told by peers my entire life. The woman I’d loved repeated the same words as schoolyard bullies. I still had no idea why she didn’t break up with me if she wasn’t happy. It had been hard to let myself fall in love with Eli. I said yes when he asked me to marry him despite the small, insidious voice in the back of my head telling me he was only going to break my heart. That whole relationship was just one big nasty joke, because why would a guy like Elijah Lacy be interested in someone like me? The fat, homely, soft nerd boy. Even after years of weight management had turned me into a slightly chubby, average, looking guy. I cried on my wedding day because it had hit me that maybe this was real. This guy I’d let myself love against my better judgement actually cared about me. That the things he and his friends had said when we were kids were childish follies and behind us.
This wasn’t a small secret; my marriage was over when Eli found out about my magic. No one would ever love me like that again, Eli had been my last chance. I’d spend the rest of my life a lonely unwanted prisoner of this town.
Gran was going to hate me when she found out what had happened. There was no going back and repairing our relationship, no matter what I said, she’d think I betrayed her trust.
I splashed a double cuffed handful of cold water over my face, not caring about the water that soaked the front of my shirt. When it didn’t stop the tears, I locked myself in the back stall and curled up on the closed seat. Soaking into the embrace of imagined privacy, I turned into a hyperventilating weeping mess, the worst things I’d heard or thought about myself invading my head for another attempt at a hostile takeover.
There was a light knocking on the stall door. “Dex? Is that you? Your brother sent me here to find you after your Grandfather came to the car alone.”
The profound realisation that it was Eli made it worse, and my breath quickened to the point where I was loudly gasping for air between sobs. Any semblance of rational thought left my brain with the oxygen it needed to function. Before I knew what was happening, the lock of the door had flicked open, and Eli was taking me in his arms. I let him, just to have him hold me one last time as my body was racked with a new wave of sobs that almost spread my breakfast all over the both of us.
Eli held me close and ran a hand through my hair. “What did he do to you?”
“I love you.” It started with those three words and became a mantra. I couldn’t stop repeating them more intently as the sobs subsided.
Eli put a finger against my lips, “what did he say to you?” He turned my head so he could look into my eyes. “You need to tell me what he did so I can fix it.”
I took a couple of ragged breaths. “This isn’t something you can fix.”
“No, it isn’t.”
My heart sunk, and I started crying again.
Eli pulled me against him and kissed my forehead. “I’m not angry at you.”
I had no idea how long we sat there. Eli had relocked the door when he heard someone come in just after I’d managed to stop the panic attack. Christ knows what anyone else using the bathroom thought we were doing in the stall together.
Eli put his phone back in his pocket after sending someone a quick text. “You know you can tell me anything?”
“Gran trained me in Death Magic, and now they’re forcing me to work for them as an Exorcist.”
“He called it The Board.”
Eli stiffened, his body almost uncomfortable under me, “My Grandpa was pardon to this?”
“I guess. I don’t know. Is he on this board?”
“We should go out to the car. Ned and Grandfather will be wondering where we are.”
“Honestly, I’m not in much of a mood to celebrate that man’s birthday.”
“Eli. He didn’t me-”
“Don’t tell me he didn’t mean it. You were an inconsolable mess when I first came in here. How am I supposed to play happy families with that man after he upset you like that? You still haven’t told me what he said.”
“He said that you definitely wouldn’t want to stay married to me after you found out about me knowing magic.”
Eli let out a long, shaky breath. “I’m only letting this go out of respect for your relationship with him. I know you’re close to him and even though I can’t bring myself to go to lunch with him, I respect your decision to go if you make that choice.”
I looked at him, truly looked at him. Where was this man three shitty relationships ago? Everyone else I’d dated jumped from the relationship at the first hurdle. If I’d known that he was interested at eighteen I could have saved myself so much pain. It was easy to be raw and open with someone I’d known my entire life, easy to love him. I didn’t even know he was gay until I came back from Perth and he asked me out.
“He wanted me to start working today. I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
“I’ve got plenty of sick leave. Let’s just go home and rest.”
I nodded and let him hold my hand all the way to the car.