In The Wake Of The Storm
By Alex Shvartsman
I watch fragments of someone else’s life float in several feet of cold water.
The sun shines through the basement window, illuminating the water. Much of it has receded on its own, leaving a high-water line at nearly six feet. What remains is a muddy, wet mess with debris floating on the surface.
There is a black-and-white photo within arm’s reach. I set the hose down on the staircase steps, reach down, and scoop it up from the bottom. The paper is too soggy after spending nearly two days in the water. Smiling strangers stare out of the picture for the last time and the photograph comes apart in my hand.
If I could access my magic, I’d drain the water with a wave of my hand, dry out the walls and floors, and kill the mold spores with a mere thought. Instead, I’m forced to do things the hard way.
I lower the hose into the water until it reaches the carpet and begin to pump. The Shop-Vac is hooked to a portable generator outside, and it surely beats filling a bucket by hand, but it’s a home model capable of holding only a few gallons at a time. I empty the container onto the sodden grass in the backyard over and over again.
An old man sits on the plastic chair outside, wrapped in several layers of sweaters as well as a long coat with a mud-soaked hem. He watches the volunteers as they scramble to save the lower level of his home. Someone asks him if he has a place to stay. It’ll get very cold tonight and most of Far Rockaway, Queens is still without heat and power. The old man doesn’t respond at first. He stares past us, lost in his thoughts. When the question is repeated, he says he’ll be fine, that he’s been through worse when he was deployed in Korea.
I return downstairs and continue to work. I plow through exhaustion and back pain. Each bucket of water emptied onto the lawn is an offering, a penance, a punishment. Locked away somewhere deep within me there is power enough to avert a hurricane. I should have found a way to reach it, to tame it. But I failed to summon my magic and could do nothing more than watch as the water surge battered the city. Everything that happened—the devastation around me, the old man—and thousands more like him—haunted by a lifetime of memories lost in the storm –all of that is my fault.
I see her for the first time when the new volunteers arrive. I’m dragging garbage bags to the curb when a group of volunteers walks down the beach block, their clothes still clean. I catch a glimpse of her blond curly hair and slight build and, for a brief moment, I think she’s Anne. I am jolted with the shock of it and look closer, study her face, and realize my mistake. She doesn’t even look all that much like Anne, but I can’t stop stealing glances at her.
Information is easy to come by among the volunteers. We talk during smoke breaks and other brief moments of rest, eager for human contact, anxious to push the tragedy around us from the forefront of our minds. Although her group is working further down the block, within a few hours I learn that her name is Tara and she isn’t local. She’s with a nonprofit out of Florida; they travel around the country to assist people after natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy is the first event her group has been dispatched to in the Northeast.
We call it a day around four in the afternoon. The sun is already setting and it will be dark within the hour. Our group is packing up for the day when I hear a commotion down the block. Two men, one a resident and the other a volunteer from the looks of it, are in each other’s faces. I can’t hear the words, but their anger and frustration are clear enough. I don’t know what caused their argument. Tensions are running high and everyone is on edge. From the body language and facial expressions, it’s likely that things are about to come to blows.
For what must be the hundredth time today, I concentrate as hard as I can and try to summon my spark. Even the tiniest bit of power would be enough to calm their minds, to prevent this small ugliness from piling on to the misery caused by the storm. I search for the spark, but there’s nothing. I walk toward them, hoping to get there quickly enough, hoping that I can figure out some way to diffuse the situation without magic.
Tara gets there first. She inserts her five-foot frame between the two much larger men without hesitation. She speaks to them, too softly for me to hear, with a half-smile on her face. Her words must be even better than my magic because in the time it takes me to get near, the two men are visibly calmer, almost subdued. I stop a few steps away and watch, fearful of breaking whatever truce Tara had managed to conjure up.
The one I took for a resident looks almost embarrassed. He offers his hand to the other man and they shake. Then he nods to Tara and walks off to his house. The other man heads toward his group of friends. Then there’s just Tara, standing in the middle of the street. She winces and massages her left temple, and just as I’m about to turn back, I feel the tiniest shift in my mind. For the first time in weeks, I feel the spark.
The spark flickers within me like an electrical short, barely there. Not enough to do major magic. Not enough to help with the devastation that surrounds me. But maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to alleviate this one woman’s headache. I exhale, a small puff of breath visible in the rapidly cooling air, concentrate, and reach into her head.
Her mind is closed off, hidden behind mental barriers I’ve never encountered before. She looks up sharply and stares at me. This isn’t supposed to happen. Magic is subtle, unnoticeable to regular people. All they can ever experience directly is the outcome. And yet she notices. Her eyes stare into mine and widen with recognition. As I come to the realization, I’m certain she does as well: She and I are the same.
We sit in my car, the engine idling to keep the heat on, and we talk. Neither of us has ever met another practitioner before. I’ve always known that others were out there. I’ve felt traces of their magic, outcomes of spells good and bad, immense tragedies and uplifting miracles. But never a direct encounter. Never like this.
She tells me about her life in Orlando. An ordinary life, devoid of magic and strangeness. Twenty-two years of normalcy, until the brain tumor.
She tells me about the time spent in hospitals, the difficult and ultimately successful surgery to remove the tumor, and the slow, painful recovery through a haze of sterile rooms and white lab coats. It was then that she first discovered her abilities, her power to do wondrous things, likely gained through some improbable side-effect of the surgery. Plentiful magic, always at her command, letting her work all kinds of miracles, do almost anything, except make her headaches go away.
She tells me about long hours spent in hospital beds, reevaluating her life. How she wanted to use her newfound gift to give something back, to help reduce the suffering of others. About her last visit to New York, after 9/11; her time in New Orleans post-Katrina; her stint abroad in Yuriage, Japan after the 2008 tsunami.
My life isn’t nearly as interesting, but I tell her about it anyway. I tell her about growing up with this power, confused and frightened by it, and never quite in control. One moment feeling like a demigod, strong enough to move mountains, to topple governments, to do almost anything at all, but the next minute realizing the power is completely gone. My magic was absent when a hurricane bore down on the city that has become my home, on my friends and neighbors. What good is power if it isn’t there when you really need it?
I tell her also about Anne–the only person to whom I’ve ever been close enough, trusted enough, to tell about my power. Anne understood. She never asked me to use magic on her behalf, never blamed me when I couldn’t find the spark. We were happy together. And then her mother grew ill. We watched helplessly as cancer ate at her mother’s body, as she wasted away in a matter of months.
I wanted desperately to help her, to save her, to take away even a little of her pain. But the spark had abandoned me. I hadn’t felt its presence in months, and no amount of wishing would bring it back.
Anne was strong. She knew I was trying. She knew I wanted to help. But everyone has their limit, and Anne reached hers in her mother’s final days. She lashed out at me, screaming, accusing me of murder by inaction, demanding that I find a way to summon my power and purge the metastasized cancer cells from her mother’s body.
Then I tell Tara the difficult part. I want to keep it hidden, but I find myself unable to lie to her, even by omission. So I allow her to see me for the coward I really am. I confess to running away. . . to leaving Anne behind, because I couldn’t help her mother and because I couldn’t stand to see her in pain. Anne might have eventually forgiven me my failure, in time, but I would always imagine the accusation, even when it was no longer there.
So I ran. I left Anne, and I left San Antonio. I moved to New York City and lived an unglamorous life, waiting for those brief moments when the spark would flare up within me and I would become more than a fraction of myself.
We talk for hours, and it feels like catching up with an old, dear friend rather than a stranger I met this afternoon. Neither of us wants to stop, but a day of physical labor has taken its toll. We’re exhausted and hungry.
I drive across the bridge and take Belt Parkway into Brooklyn. Less than twenty minutes later we’re in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood that was largely unaffected by the storm. It feels like another world. There are lights, bars and restaurants are open, and groups of young people (not covered in mud and sand) laugh as they stroll down the sidewalks.
We wolf down some sandwiches and then drive to my studio apartment in Bensonhurst. There, we undress each other and allow our bodies and our minds to intertwine. Our lovemaking feels like the most natural thing in the world–there is none of the pressure, none of the urgency of a typical first encounter. In this, too, we feel like long-lost soul mates, reconnected at last.
We don’t bother showing up on our designated block the following morning. Not because we shirk from helping people—far from it. We discover that, together, we can do so much more. Tara’s presence acts as some sort of amplifier, fanning the flames of my magic beyond anything I’ve been capable of before.
The next few days are a blur. We walk the streets of Far Rockaway and Breezy Point, Canarsie and Seagate, and we bestow anonymous blessings like a pair of traveling angels. We lift spirits and cool tempers. We mend foundations of homes that would be condemned otherwise, and prevent sinkholes from forming under the streets. And we cure people, purging ailments they don’t even know they have—shrinking cancers, clearing arteries, lifting depressions. We can’t be everywhere at once, aren’t powerful enough to help everyone–but we make things incrementally better wherever we go, and that is enough.
Tara’s headaches are epic and my magic is there to help soothe them, a mending she couldn’t work on herself. When I’m with her, my power is reliably there, and while I can’t shake the fear of losing it at a crucial moment after so many years of uncertainty, I’m finding it very easy to get used to its constant presence. Together, we’re happy.
Even with the two of us enhancing each other’s powers, there are limits to what we can accomplish. By the end of the day we’re exhausted, wrung out like a wet towel. We share a comfortable silence as we wait in a protracted gas line. It stretches on for several blocks, and it takes my car over two hours to inch up to within sight of the station.
There is a somewhat shorter line for people with gas cans. Forty minutes of freezing outdoors gets you up to five gallons of gasoline. We watch a woman carry a full red canister away from the station like some prized possession, when a man jumps out from the shadows, snatches her canister, and runs.
I search for the spark, trying to summon my magic in time to help. The spark is there but almost dormant, my power spent throughout the day. Then I feel Tara’s anger. It feeds my spark in a wholly different way and fans it into a brilliant burning flame. Her rage is like lighter fluid poured generously onto the fire of my ability. Despite the urgency, I take a moment to revel in so much power, and then I act.
The thief stumbles and goes down, rough concrete scraping his hands and face. He recoils from the horrors I insert into his mind’s eye. I conjure fears from the deepest corners of his self, his worst nightmares given shape. Then he howls and runs, pursued by phantoms.
I struggle not to do a lot worse. But using magic to cause fear and pain isn’t the path I want to travel. Instead, I enjoy the euphoria of extra power even as it drains away from me. There’s just enough left to assuage Tara’s headache.
We don’t pay attention to the news, since we’re busy helping people, doing stuff that’s actually important. Because of this, I don’t learn about the next storm until it’s almost upon us. This one is called a nor’easter instead of a hurricane, but it’s malevolent and powerful, and I can feel traces of dark magic in every gust of its icy wind.
I let Tara know that something bad is coming on the heels of the previous storm. Something that’s potentially as bad as Sandy. And then I tell her that she and I should stop it. She balks at the challenge. She believes that, even together, our powers aren’t enough to tackle something on this scale. But I won’t be dissuaded. I won’t hold back, not this time, not when I’m able to access my power.
I believe that storms like this are no accident of nature. There must be evil people out there using their power to strengthen the storms. To aim them at major cities, to hurl them towards where they can do the most damage, to cause misery and pain and death. I can sense their subtle machinations whenever my own spark cooperates.
If there are people out there evil enough and powerful enough to control the storms, then their magic can also be undone by humans. We may or may not be powerful enough to do it, but I argue that we owe it to the millions of people in our city to try. Reluctantly, Tara agrees to help me.
We make several attempts, none successful. With Tara’s help I can reach into the heart of the storm. I can see its inner workings and feel the medley of raw energy and dark magic that powers it. But I’m not strong enough to alter its path, to dampen its fury. It feels like trying to move a very large piece of furniture on my own—I might be able to handle the weight if only there was a good way to grab proper hold of it.
Tara wants to give up. Her headache flares up, so much so that I can’t soothe it with my magic. My heart breaks at her suffering, but I know that the two of us must work through it, pay any price, in order to succeed. I know what I have to do.
I say unkind, hurtful things in order to urge her on. I hate myself and vow to apologize later, to make amends, because Tara’s anger is the key—it is the only way to achieve the extra power boost I need. So I force myself to remember the things Anne threw in my face as her mother lay dying in the cancer ward, and I repeat them to Tara. I accuse her of not wanting to help, of being selfish and cruel, of not loving me enough to give it her all.
Her hurt and anger feed my spark until there is an inferno raging within me. I have more power than I’ve ever imagined myself wielding. So much power that, for a moment, I fear it will incinerate me from the inside if I don’t find an outlet for it soon.
I unleash my power on the heart of the storm. My mind untangles the Gordian knot of dark magic, brushes aside the web of incantations binding and directing the storm, and soothes the worst of the natural patterns that drive it. I am like some ancient weather god, laughing as I ride the wind.
It is only as the power begins to drain from me that I turn my attention to Tara. She lies on the floor, unconscious, blood trickling from a nostril. The sight of her suffering jolts me back to reality, brings me crashing down from the supernatural high. I want so badly to make her better. Perhaps I can use what’s left of the power boost to cure her of her migraines, once and for all.
I look inside of her mind and withdraw in shock and shame. Tara’s headaches are not the side-effect of the brain surgery. They’re the price she pays for her magic.
Unlike Tara, I grew up with my power. It has been unreliable and frustrating, not always there when I wanted it, but it has never exacted a physical cost. In my incredible arrogance, I assumed that’s how it worked for everyone.
Tara has much greater control over her spark, but she pays a price. The more magic she uses, the worse her headaches become. My desire to be a hero didn’t merely drain her—It almost killed her.
I tend to Tara, check her vital signs, clean up the blood and drag her over to the bed. I do what I can to heal her, to make her comfortable, until the last shreds of magic drain away. I feel small . . . insignificant. . . human. I plow through the nausea and fight the urge to black out.
Tara’s breathing is a little labored, but steady. Careful not to wake her, I grab my jacket and go outside.
Gentle snow is falling on New York City. The nor’easter, robbed of its supernatural boost, has become just another day of bad weather, a calamity no one will recall. Tara and I have succeeded.
I walk the streets, ignoring the cold and the snow. My thoughts keep racing back to the moment I looked inside of Tara’s mind. I didn’t just mimic Anne when I lashed out at Tara with hurtful words. I became Anne. I demanded more magic of Tara than she could stand to conjure but, unlike me, Tara was strong enough to make the sacrifice. To give more of herself than I had any right to ask.
I never quite forgave Anne for her outburst. How could I hope that Tara would forgive me? I left Anne. Surely Tara will leave me too, once she recovers and has time to reflect. Surely she will not be able to look at me the same way ever again.
Last time, I ran because Anne’s words hurt me almost as much as my inability to act hurt her. This time, running would be a kindness. I can spare Tara any guilt of leaving me if I leave her first.
I wander the snow-covered sidewalks without a purpose. Tears mix with melted snowflakes on my cheeks.
My entire life, magic has been my gift and my curse. I’ve been careful to use it only to do good, to try to make the world around me a better place. But I’ve also been a coward. I’ve allowed my power to keep me from trusting people. I’ve used it as an excuse to erect barriers and end relationships. I had told myself that it was a part of me no one could understand—until I met Tara, and she changed everything.
This time, I dare not run away. I don’t want to hurt Tara. I would rather cut off my arm; I’d rather never use magic again than to cause her any more pain. I cling to the hope that she might be able to forgive me, because she is a better person than I am.
Tara might leave me anyway. She might walk out cursing my name, and I would understand, but I must let the choice be hers. I will be there for her, if she’ll have me. I come up the stairs to my apartment, my body shivering from cold and anticipation, and I open the door.