"To light a candle is to cast a shadow." – Old Wiccan Proverb

TO LIGHT A CANDLE

My father caught me using black magic once. He said if he ever caught me dabbling in the black again, he would turn me into a rat and feed me to the neighbor's cat. But never had he said anything about gray magic. Five years had passed since I moved to the town of Excelsior. Five years of getting shoved into lockers, bulls-eyed with spitwads and accosted with every form of headlock, wedgie and rear admiral known to man. Excelsior Middle School could have given a Turkish prison a run for its money.

And just the thought of her made it all go away, Regina Queen, a human happy place for when my psyche had nowhere else to hide. Regina Queen, for those who know Latin, had one of those names that raised her above the ordinary, made her larger-than-life. Not that she needed any help with that. She had every romantic cliché a sweaty ninety-pound nothing like me could think of. She had a smile that lit up the room, the face of an angel and the voice of a siren.

I guess by now you figured out what I intend to do, but before you start judging me, I just want to ask you something. If you could, wouldn't you? I mean if I had a dime for every time I didn't use my magic to make my life easier, I would have enough money for a very early retirement. I want only this. Then my parents could snap my wand in half for all I care. I really do not want anything else. No fortune. No fame. No land of milk and honey. No promise of eternal life.

I remember the morning it happened quite well. John Merlin, my brother, gave me a funny look that morning. Whether through divination or intuition, John always knew things that he shouldn't have known. He knew how often Mom and Dad had sex. He knew about the voodoo doll construction kit I keep stashed away under my bed. He knew the exact results of every sporting event from now to the end of the decade. He knew things that made it hard to tell what he didn't know.

Sometimes, he even knew what people would say before the words had left their mouths. So as you can imagine, he had the most annoying habit of finishing people's sentences for them. He had sat down at the breakfast table less than ten minutes and already he had finished two of Mom's and one of Dad's. But I had no time to think about aggravating older brothers. My bus would arrive in minutes and the day had only begun.

Gina would soon walk by me in what she saw as an empty hallway. Some fathers teach their children how to fasten bait on a hook. Mine taught me how to turn invisible. As everyone settled into group work, I took the bathroom pass and walked right out of Mr. Dee's English class.

I keep my wand in my locker. I probably shouldn't bring a loaded weapon to school, but, like my mother always said, a good wizard never leaves his wand behind. Old Blue had seen me through some rough years. I hated the thought of having to replace it someday, but even the best wands wear out.

After I cast the spell, I waited.

At 1:15 on the dot every school day, Regina would excuse herself from class and make her way to the girl's restroom in the East Wing. I don't even remember when I realized this, but I had made a note of it in my journal about a year ago. I never really figured out why she does it but the fact that I recorded such a trifling bit of minutiae about her kind of gives me the creeps.

I held in my hands a pair of scissors with only one purpose, to extract a single locket of Gina's hair. Gina came around the corner. For once, I didn't feel ashamed of that fact that she didn't even notice me. I got close; so close I finally got a good look at it. That familiar fat brass bracelet dangled from Gina's thin wrist, like a carrot on a string. "Carpe diem," it read. So I made my move. The sound of scissor blades brushing past each other must have gave me away. Gina stopped for a moment and looked around. Goddess only knew how she missed a locket of her own hair floating in mid-air. She shrugged it off and walked away completely unaware of what happened.

I retreated into the girls' bathroom. I checked every stall before entering the last one on the right. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the final and most dangerous ingredient, a box of matches. I wanted to go home and perform this delicate spell in the safety of my own bedroom. But I can't. I needed to destroy the locket of hair in a place frequented by its owner. And I needed to do it without the use of magic. Great. What does it want me to do now? Hop up and down on one leg and bark like a dog?

I struck the match and breathed in the thick aroma of the fire. I dropped Gina's hair onto the cement floor and set the match upon it. With the raven black hair engulfed in an orange-red wreath of flames, I placed my wand a mere inch above the burning mass. "Amúrieme al khardin." The fire died in a gush of eldritch wind. Losing the equivalent of a night's worth of sleep in a single moment, I staggered back into the hallway, drowsy and dreaming of soft pillows and warm beds.

News spread fast in small towns. By 3 o'clock everyone knew all the gory details. Gina had fallen sleep in French class and didn't wake up. The doctors thought she might have had a seizure, but she had no history of epilepsy. When asked by the police, a few students vaguely recalled a momentary flash of light emanating from one of her wrists.

I felt like a complete idiot. I had come within two inches of a mincula and didn't even recognize it. That stupid bracelet! My mother warned me about those things. She even had a rule: Never buy unlicensed protection wards. Whether on purpose or by accident, a poorly-crafted protection ward can cause more harm than good. Like bad wiring, a mincula can fry its user. Even a ten-year-old wizard knows how to check for a mincula, but a lot of good that'll do you if you don't know any magic.

Don't get me wrong. The protection ward had done its job by bouncing my love spell back into oblivion, but not without discharging enough magical energy to drop an elephant. It didn't kill her though, thank the Goddess for that. It had put her into habernastis, magic sleep, just like regular sleep except you never wake up.

I had run out of options. Whether I like it or not, I would have to ask for his help. I rounded the corner of Arthur and Ambrose, fetched the key from under the mat and burst through the front door. I had returned home to a near-empty house with the sounds of the Lotus Sutra filling the air. Though John worshipped the Goddess like any self-respecting pagan, he liked to dabble in Eastern philosophy. Since this chanting and meditating drove Mom and Dad up the wall, I can assume that neither of them had come home yet.

So I took a moment to swallow my pride before walking into John's room. During meditation, John liked to keep the door unlocked. He said it cleared up his chi or balanced his karma or some nonsense like that. I creaked open the door to his bedroom. John's room had more crosses, pentagrams, chakra wheels and talismans than a New Age bookstore. And there in the center of the room sat John in a full lotus blossom, complete with baggy pants and sleeveless shirt.

The chanting stopped.

"How may I help you, little brother?" John asked without even opening his eyes. I hate it when he called me little brother. He used to do it to annoy me, now he actually thought I liked it.

"Call me Peter, you know, my name." John shrugged his neck, making the tsk-tsk noise the whole time. Then the truth came at me all at once. The funny look this morning finally made sense. "Wait, you knew this would happen, didn't you?" He nodded solemnly, again, without opening his eyes. "You son of . . . I oughta . . ." As I stood their stammering in search of the proper threat or curse word to express my outrage, I took a moment to regain my composure. "Okay, John, just tell me this one thing." I really didn't know a polite way to ask this, so I didn't bother. "If you knew what I planned to do, if you knew what would happen, why in the name of Goddess did you just sit there and do nothing?"

John's eyes opened and guided a pointed gaze into my eye. This had got John's full attention. "Well, would you have listened?" Like a game show contestant stumped by a hard question, I just stood there until the buzzer rang. "When I told you not to make that voodoo doll of that bully that stole your lunch money, did you listen then?"

No, but that happened under different circumstances. Dennis "The Dick" Decker had stolen my lunch money for the last three months. How would I have known that I would accidentally break his leg in three places? "Bottom line: You never listen. You never care about the consequences and never want to hear what I have to say." John uncrossed his lotus position and walked right up to me. "You made this mess; I think you should clean it up."

That drove me over the edge. I grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him down to eye level. "I don't know how." He seemed surprised that I did that. I don't know why. John always had an aphorism, a proverb, a parable, a homily, a pithy saying to accommodate any situation, but when it came time to apply them, he'd run off and leave you to fill in all the blanks.

"I messed up. You don't think I know that. I know. And I need an answer now. Because in less than an hour, her habernastis will reach Stage 2 and then no amount of science or magic will ever save her. She'll never wake up. You understand?"

Practically shouting that last part, John backed away from me, staring at me like he no longer recognized the person standing before. Nodding sympathetically, he backed into the corner and began thumbing through his endless volumes on counter-magic. Thirty minutes later a single passage in one of his books caught his eye.

"I have your answer, but it'll cost you." I braced myself for the diagnosis. "This spell has a fifty-fifty chance of reversing accidental magic. But, the donor must give the target something important, something you might want to keep, little brother."

I continued to brace myself. Whatever I had to sacrifice, it sounded awful. "For the target to recover from the effects of accidental magic, he must voluntarily donate his memories, all of them." What? You mean . . . Oh, no. John closed the book and returned it to the shelf. "She'll know everything about you. All your secrets. All your lies. She'll know your life as well as her own. She'll never forget. She'll always remember what you know now. She'll also know about your feelings for her. Can you live with that?"

I fell to my knees, almost at the verge of tears. One look at my memories and what little hope of Gina ever loving me would vanish into nothingness. But I could not let her life end just because I can't have her. I know she will make someone very happy someday. I know because she already had. I nodded in acceptance.

John smiled puckishly. "That your final answer?" I nodded again and braced myself for the sad truth that after all this Gina might still never wake up and would have to spend the rest of her natural life consorting with dreams and nightmares.

"Good answer, bro." He placed his green-gray wand on the center of my forehead. "Now . . . solemie!" Like that, I fall head first into the deep slumber of a sleeping spell.

I woke up the next morning groggy but rested. Actually, I felt like I had overslept by a hundred years. My bones cracked as I balanced myself on my two legs. At that moment, the phone on my nightstand rang. Though I didn't recognize the first name, I recognized the last name: Queen. John's spell had worked.

I answered the phone. "Hello."

A panicked Regina Queen sounded through the receiver. "Peter." She paused to collect her thoughts. "We need to talk." She didn't even specify a time and place; she knew exactly where to find me. Sometime between 5 o'clock in the afternoon and 8 o'clock in the morning, John had moved me into my bedroom, the parents had returned home and John did the decent thing of not telling them that I had unwittingly plunged a girl into a mystical coma. That left only one obstacle to deal with.

The knots in my stomachs had knots in their stomachs. I could feel myself physical ill at the thought of meeting Gina today. I couldn't even think straight. I left home without my wand for the first time in five years.

And there she stood in front of my first hour, no longer wearing that cursed death trap around her wrist. I tried to stand at a length. I wish she would ignore me like she always did. But she wouldn't. She couldn't. And then she did something I did not expect. She hugged me. Not one of those friendly half-hugs I see all the time, but one of those passionate lover's embrace that came hazardously close to snapping my spine. She brushed away the hair in my eyes and took a moment to look at me. I heard my own heart throbbing in my throat, like I had swallowed it. I looked at her. I could've sworn the love spell bounced right off her. "It did," she said, as if reading my thoughts. "Unless you cast it five years ago."

I thought back to that moment five years ago when our eyes met. I had looked away in shame and went home and spent the rest of the night crying. I had hated myself for what I felt and I knew that someday those feelings would get me hurt in the worst possible way. All this time, I thought I had imagined all that.

"I really liked you a lot. But, now," she struggled to find the words. "I don't know what to think of you anymore. I really don't." I could already see the waterworks beginning to start in on Regina Queen. She turned and walked away, clutching her books for dear life, not sure if I would ever see her again, or if I'd want to.

Someday, if I ever have children and I catch them using gray magic, I wouldn't only threaten to turn them into rats and feed them to the neighbor's cat, I'd snap their wands in half and ground them for a year. My father never said anything about gray magic, but he should have.