High school junior Ted Brock was about to cross the street in front of school when he slammed into an invisible wall. He staggered back as his freshman sister stepped off the curb. Blood dripped from his nose to his palm.
"You okay?" Justine hopped back onto the sidewalk. "Is that blood?"
"Bleh, yeah." Ted could taste it on his lips. He reached forward, and felt his hand press against the surface of the wall. "The hell?"
Justine took a Kleenex from her handbag and handed it to Ted. Ted held it to his face. He could never remember whether to lean his head forward or back, but right now, the wall was more important. "Can you feel this?"
She stuck her hand out. "Feel what?"
"This wall." Ted tapped his knuckles on it. "There, you see?" He flattened his palm on it.
She stepped down in front of him, behind the purple Kia parked on the road. "Whoa, your hand's totally flat." Her hand passed under his arm. "How are you doing that?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you." Ted snorted, and walked a few paces to the side, then pushed again. The wall kept on going. All the while, kids were crossing the street freely. The crosswalks leading away from the school, on the other hand, were still open.
Justin started forward. "We better go. We're gonna be late."
Ted stood with both hands against the wall. "You gotta get help, Justine. I don't know what to do."
"Who should I get?"
"I don't know, anybody. I'm gonna be in a lot of trouble. Can you at least find Mr. Kaplan, tell him I'm stuck?"
"You're the only one right now who can help me."
Justine nodded, turned away, and crossed the road along with a couple of seventh graders who passed unaffected through the wall. On the other side, Justine waved and yelled, "Bye! I'll see what I can do!"
Ted waved, and dabbed the tissue on his nose.
He kept knocking on the wall, trying to find an opening. When he reached the end of the block, he found that the wall continued beyond even that. He crossed the road and discovered a corner to the wall. The wall seemed to surround the entire school. And the whole time, he had seen dozens of kids walk and ride in without trouble. For some reason, he was the only person affected.
Soon his friends, Jeremy and Eli, came walking down the block. Ted met them at the crosswalk. "Hey, guys."
"Hey, man," Jeremy said. "What's up?"
"Mainly this." Ted pushed on the wall and rocked against it. Then he picked up a stick and whacked it against the wall. The stick snapped in half. Good thing I don't ride the bus."
"Whoa, how are you doing that?" Jeremy said. Eli held his hand over his mouth.
"I have no clue," Ted said. "You know if there are any burial grounds under the school?"
"Don't think so," Jeremy said. "Oh, here comes your girlfriend."
"My what?" Ted saw Justine come out from the entrance, along with someone he had been hoping to avoid that day, after what happened over the weekend. Catherine Crahn followed Justine across the street.
"What are you--" Ted sputtered. "What's she--?"
"Is your nose better?" Justine said.
"Yeah, but the point's over here, you just missed it. Cathy, I'm sorry, this is a big misunderstanding."
"Well, what seems to be the trouble?" Cathy said.
Ted pushed his hand against the wall.
Cathy leaned forward for a closer look. Her mouth dropped wide open. "Whoa."
Ted pushed his shoulder against it. Then, seeing Cathy marvel at it, pressed his face against it, and puffed out his cheeks. Cathy and Justine chuckled, but Cathy's laughter quickly switched back to amazement. "How are you doing that?"
"It's not me," Ted said. "If I were gonna put some magic force field around the school, I'd use it to keep the teachers out, not me."
"This is incredible. It's got to be magic. Real live magic!" She waved her hands out. "I can't feel a thing. Is there anything I can do?"
"Can you just tell Mr. Kaplan I'm stuck out here? And see if you can find out who hates me enough to say 'suck it' to the laws of physics." He turned to Justine. "A teacher's what I wanted to begin with."
"Well, I thought this would be even better," Justine said. "True love can get you through this."
"True love?" Ted said.
Jeremy snorted. Eli turned away.
"True love?" Cathy said. She looked at Ted, then his sister. "What are you talking about?"
"But..." Justine's brow wrinkled with worry. "You went to the dance, and had that date on Saturday..."
"Yeah," Ted said, "and we broke it off."
"Didn't he tell you?" Cathy said.
Jeremy grabbed Ted by the shoulder. "Ted, seriously? You broke up with her? Already?"
Justine's face turned bright red. "But... I thought..."
"Not that I won't help any way I can." Cathy rubbed her arm. "Good luck, I suppose. I hope you can figure this out."
"Thanks." Ted leaned his shoulder on the wall. As she walked back to the school, he remembered all the days he had spent wishing he could talk to her, hoping she would like him back. He supposed now at least he didn't have to wonder anymore.
Justine stared back awkwardly. "Sorry. I didn't realize..."
"Yeah, Dude," Jeremy said. "Last week you wouldn't shut up about going to the dance with her. Things go south that quick?"
"Just not enough in common, that's all," Ted said. "Just go inside already. I'll think of something."
And Justine ran back into the school, with Jeremy right behind her.
Eli, however, lingered at the curb in front of Jeremy. His face looked a little flushed. "You really broke up with her?"
Ted shrugged. "What can I say? We just didn't click."
"But... at the dance..."
"It was nice, but we went out again on Sunday, and we couldn't seem to keep a conversation going for more than a minute. I'm still kind of in bad shape about it. You better go, you're gonna be late."
"A girl like that... and you..."
"Something wrong?" Ted said. "Wait a minute... Don't tell me... You've got a thing for her, too?"
Eli blushed, and started scratching his neck. He had spent the entire dance helping Jeremy run the sound system. He'd never mentioned one thing about girls until now.
Ted continued, "Oh, man, why didn't you say so?"
"Ugh... I just couldn't. And when I saw you two..."
"Maybe when I figure out a way out of this, I'll help you out."
Eli drooped his head and sighed. He spread his fingers over his face. "I'm such an idiot. Ted, I'm so sorry."
"I have a confession to make." Eli slipped off his backpack. "I need to show you something." He drew the zipper and pulled out a faded, red hardcover book. "I found this in my grandmother's attic a few weeks ago. Seems her grandmother was part of this secret society in London." He flipped through the pages. Sweat gathered on his face. "It's a spellbook. See?" He held the book up to show Ted a page of circular and square and pentagonal diagrams. "This here can make it rain." He turned to the front. "This makes it so your pee doesn't smell."
"I can't imagine anything more useful," Ted said. "Is this real? Does it work?"
The bell rang inside the school, loud enough that they could still hear it. Eli opened the book to a two-page diagram with a series of concentric shapes. "This one... you set a star here... and a moon here..."
"Wait a sec..."
"It makes a force field. Ted, I am so sorry."
"You did this?" Ted stormed toward Eli, who slipped back behind the wall. Ted clawed at the surface. "Get back here, you little snot."
"I'm sorry. I was angry and stupid and I don't know what came over me. You and Cathy... I thought if I..."
Ted pounded on the wall. "Turn the spell off, or else you're never gonna wanna leave that building again."
"I can't," Eli said. "The way I set things up..." Eli pointed at the corner, where four quarters lay on the ground. "I used those to put it up."
"So if I just take them--"
"They're glued to the ground."
Ted growled and bashed his fists into the wall. Eli dashed across the road, into the school. Whatever punishment Mr. Kaplan would give him for being late, Ted wanted to do even worse.
He had to get in. He crouched at the corner, over the quarters. They were arranged in a crescent. He tried to grip his fingers around one of them, but Eli was telling the truth. There was a layer of glue underneath it. It seemed like strong stuff, not just ordinary school glue. Even picking at it with his house keys couldn't dislodge the coin.
Ted decided to try the next corner. On the way he sent a text to Jeremy, to tell him about Eli's spellbook. The message wouldn't send; the progress bar stalled before it was full. Ted knew Jeremy's phone was on. Jeremy treated his phone like a lung. He'd already gotten two detentions this year for texting in class. The barrier must have been affecting the signal.
At the next corner, he found a set of nickels arranged into a star. His keys did no better than on the quarters. But if this was the way to get rid of that stupid wall, then Ted knew he had to keep going. He picked at the nickel, sawed at the glue, tried to pry it loose. What other spells were in that book? If Eli could do this, he could do just about anything. He could create a powerful storm, subjugate the student body, or even bring Cathy under his control.
Finally, he managed to work one of the key's teeth under the nickel. If he had a hammer, he could pound the key like a chisel, but as it was now, he would just have to keep picking. He kept picking, pushed the key in, and pushed it into the ground.
The nickel popped out and flipped into the air. Ted caught it, and froze. Did it work? He stood up, legs and hands shaking. He took a step forward. He lifted his hand over the curb, stretched it out.
His arm passed right through. He waved it side-to-side, and it passed over the edge with no resistance.
Ted crossed the road. Now he could settle the score with Eli. After all these years, after being friends all through middle school, how could Eli turn on him like this? If Eli actually had the guts, they could have talked things out. He could have shared the spellbook and they could have figured out some cool things to do with it.
Now as he walked into the school, Ted didn't know what he would do when he saw Eli. He was mad enough to beat the crap out of him, but he hurt enough almost to cry. Up to now, he really thought Eli was his friend.
Ted signed in and headed for his first class.
He stepped in during Mr. Kaplan's lecture. "Go ahead and take a seat," Mr. Kaplan said. "Your friends said you got held up outside."
"Thanks." Ted took his seat. It was a few rows away from Eli. Eli had his head sunk down.
After class, Eli crept up, wringing his hands. "I'm sorry, Ted, really. I swear, first thing this afternoon I'm taking the book back to my grandmother's. I shouldn't have ever let this happen."
"I'll say you shouldn't," Ted snapped. "Do you have any idea how insulting today has been?"
"Ted, if there's any way I can make this up to you, I'll do it, I promise."
As they were talking, Ted and Eli went to the door. Jeremy had gone ahead. Cathy was waiting to talk. "Ted, how'd you get through?"
"It took a while," Ted said, glancing at Eli, "but I managed to break what was holding up the wall."
"Good, maybe now we can figure out who could have done this. It's more amazing the more I think about it. We've basically just seen proof that magic is real. This could change the entire world."
Eli began shaking violently. His skin turned pale. Ted wanted to see him squirm. "I know," he said. "Why, just think of the damage he could cause if one of his spells got out of hand."
"And why just you?" Cathy said. "Who could possibly hate you that much?"
"It was me!" Eli dropped his backpack on the ground. "I did it. I'm so sorry. It was all just a big mistake!"
Eli took out the book and showed her the spell. "Here it is. This is how I did it. I shouldn't have even touched this book."
"Eli!" Cathy touched his shoulder. "Where did you get this? It's real magic--it's incredible!"
"I... uh... uh..."
Ted watched Eli's face turn red again, and felt his own anger begin to cool down. He had never seen Eli so anxious before. Just a moment ago, Ted was prepared to cut Eli off altogether. But now, with Eli sweating and trembling under Cathy's grip, Ted felt sorry for the poor dope. He was lonely and scared and confused. Now his entire social world was falling apart.
"Except... why would you do this to your own friend?"
Ted didn't want to see that. That would only drop Eli further down a pit of anger and dejection. This whole situation was totally unlike him. Ted wanted to keep it that way.
Besides, in actual fact, part of him wanted to see Eli win her over.
He clapped his hand on Eli's shoulder, giving him a start. "He actually confessed outside earlier. It's just a prank that got out of hand."
"Really?" Cathy said.
"Really?" Eli said. He shook his head. "Uh, yeah, really. I mean, you know, he got to have fun at the dance while me and Jeremy were stuck running music."
"He found the book at his grandma's house," Ted said. "Apparently thought an invisible wall would be hilarious."
"Well, at least nobody got hurt," Cathy said. "I'd love to know more about that book."
"Um, maybe over lunch." Eli looked at his watch. "I gotta get to Algebra."
Cathy checked the clock on her phone. "Oh, geez, I need to run, too. Talk to you later."
She ran off ahead of Ted and Eli. They walked together for a moment on the way to second period.
"Thank you," Eli said, still drunk off of such close contact with Cathy. "Can you ever forgive me?"
"I guess so," Ted said. "But until you get rid of that book, you're on probation."
"Consider it gone. See ya later." Eli ran off, and Ted strolled through the hall.
On his way to his Science class, he passed by Justine, who stopped in her tracks when she saw him. "Ted! You got in! How?"
"I'll explain later," Ted said. "I'm gonna be late for class." He dug into his pocket. "Here's a nickel."
Originally published in Smoke and Flame, 2014
Like this story? You can buy it and other stories in my collection, Unheard Of.
I wrote this for Andy Keener's second Talking Time anthology, "Smoke and Flame"—the very first one I ever started and finished for a specific publication. A few months earlier, I had done some brainstorming for future stories, and this was one of those ideas I'd jotted down. I wish I could say there was a much deeper inspiration, but there you go.
What I can say is where some of the details come from. The brother and sister, Ted and Justine, are named after the Byzantine emperor and empress Justinian and Theodora. Eli is named after Eliphas Levi, a 19th-century occultist who wrote books on magic. I haven't read any of them, but I figured it made for a good name. The spell for creating the invisible wall isn't based on anything in particular. I don't know that I've ever seen currency-based magic. As of this writing, I'm in the middle of reading Mistborn, with magic based on ingesting various metals, but that's not exactly the same thing.
To be honest, I almost gave up on this story repeatedly. I kept running up against the deadline for the anthology, and wondered if this story was even worth it. But fortunately (?), everybody else was running up against the deadline, too, and it kept getting extended. So I was able to finish it, untangle some threads in the second draft, and better appreciate it.