The Signal: EP126 – 45 minutes of rainy day music, counter-programmed against the sun outside. Okay, except for the upbeat Latin jazz, that’s pretty seasonally appropriate. And the electro funk is pretty fun as well. Okay, I take it back. We’ve got all-weather jams.
You’ll hear electronic beats, grime from the UK, astro-pop from California, Peruvian- and Indian-infused dubstep, Latin jazz, music from West Africa, and Brazil.
Click on the image to go download this music mix for the home, or office, or home office, or escape shuttle. The file will only be available for a limited time based on the restrictions put in place by the file hosting site. The tracklist is visible in the file’s id3 tags.
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The police met with all the parents, in small groups, and at the end of the week it was decided that the juvenile delinquency problem could only be solved in one way. All the teens were told to pack their bags because they were going to spend three weeks this summer at camp.
The teens, of course, argued and wept. Clothes were thrown. Doors were slammed. Meals cooled on kitchen table tops and were later fished out of refrigerators by sulking teens under cover of darkness, muttering darkly to themselves in the kitchen as cold chicken is finally, resentfully, eaten.
The trees were green and the cabins were drafty. All was in readiness for the town’s teens and here they came, bangs covering their eyes, feet dragging, hands gripping crime paperbacks or romances, cellular phones playing music or pinging with the sounds of video game success, one teen in the back already on the ground, stabbed with a switchblade for showing too much enthusiasm for the wonders the camp had on offer.
The camp counselors have one job: to so encourage delinquency during the weeks at camp so as to brand any such activities permanently un-hip.
Sign-up stations collect names. Every morning, we’re going to get up and pick a free-standing building to burn down as part of Arson Club. Merit badges are available for those who prove their facility with gasoline. Lunch is either fast food or cigarettes and then we’re off to carve our names in things (for those who sign up for Graffiti Team) or sleep the afternoon away with the Recreational Drug Squad. Merit badges are available for those who can forget the most of their personal troubles. Finally, don’t forget to gather at nightfall at the camp’s bonfire, where we’ll be distributing flick knives to those unfortunates who didn’t bring their own, or have already had them stolen. We’ll give a few craft lessons for how to customize one’s knife hilt, how to select a lighter that reflects one’s “true self,” how to roll cigarette boxes into one’s shirt sleeve, and then we’ll break so that teens can disappear into the woods and thin the ranks. Each morning’s decreasing headcount will let us know what sort of progress we’re making.
Every Saturday is a dance party in the rec center. The nurse’s poison cabinet will be unlocked all night for those couples whose parents would never agree to their union. We’ve got Romeo and Juliet costumes in limited supply for those interested, purchased secondhand from the town’s theater troupe, but still in great shape for dancing or for burial.
All teens will be provided with flyers outlining the virtues of unprotected sex. The sooner they get knocked up, the sooner they can move on to the next phase in their life, taking over vacant job roles in town. We still need two new gas station attendants to replace those two boys who got beaten up by a gang in a dispute over the pricing of dried meat sticks. The postal service is hoping to get some new hires from our pool of dangerous teens as well. Since there’s nothing like the need to keep a new baby in diapers to motivate a teen to go straight, we hope that no one at the dance will show any interest in the uncool prophylactics that we keep locked in the Head Administrator’s office.
And as a final note, Camp Counselor Ken would like to remind you teens that the merit badge offered in previous years for “sick burns” has been discontinued, so remarks about Ken’s weird pear-shaped body, his book-centric hobbies, or his fictional girlfriend who lives far away are no longer welcome or rewarded.
Too bad there’s no merit badge for Crying in Public, huh, Ken?
Maybe next year.
We had to shut down the super collider. Up to that point, it had been a good week. We had bounced atoms off each other with spectacular success. Busted ’em up real good. We were internationally recognized for our work in atom collision. At the end of the shift, you could get bits of atoms off the floor, take ’em home for the kids. Supervisor didn’t care. You were saving the janitorial team on the night shift some trouble, actually, because otherwise they’re spending all their time sweeping up atoms.
But now the whole facility was at half power. People were leaning on machines that were usually too hot to touch, just killing time, checking their phones.
What’s the problem, I asked.
Computer’s got a virus, Wulf said. He pointed. Sure enough, there’s a virus sitting right on top of the computer they keep hooked up to the big red COLLIDE THE ATOMS button. Virus just looked over at us like: What. Daring us to do something. It would have lunged at us to make us jump if it could, so it could laugh if we flinched. You could see it in the eyes wobbling in its protein coat. Good thing it couldn’t lunge. Viruses don’t have the right kind of structure.
Gross, I said.
Hey, said some guy behind us. He had a clipboard. I got a whole truck load of atoms out back, someone going to sign for these? I gotta get ’em offloaded. Got to take a shipment of rain back to Colorado right after. And there’s trucks all backed up behind mine. Line’s going down the block. We gotta move. Who’s gonna sign for this?
Later, in the cafeteria, Wulf and I ate cold egg and bacon sandwiches. The virus sat at the next table sipping tea. The delivery guy ate at the table after that, but he wasn’t eating food. He was pointedly looking at print-outs of delivery schedules, then ripping them up and putting them in his mouth while trying to stare us down. Everything is our fault, sure buddy.
What are you going to do for the super collider talent show, I asked Wulf.
Magic show, he said.
You know magic?
You know hypnotism?
I made you forget that I know magic.
What, I exclaimed, and my top hat fell off, didn’t even know I was wearing one, bunnies spraying out of the hat in arcs as the hat bounced along the ground, a solid spray of rabbits, bouncing off the walls, colliding with each other, pellets shaking out of them like tiny atomic bits.
Oh yeah, now I remember, I told Wulf.
What are you going to do, Wulf asked me.
Probably some carpentry. Get my cousin’s tae kwon do class to come in, kick some boards in half, make a chair out of it.
Sounds like a great act, said Wulf.
Everybody likes chairs, I said.
The next morning, the super collider was up and running again. Noting the hints of aggression coming from the virus, someone on the night shift put up flyers around the compound advertising a ‘fight club’ in the basement, with tear-away coupon strips on the bottom for a free first punch, redeemable upon one’s first visit.
The virus was caught in a net trap as soon as it entered the basement rec room, torn off coupon still gripped in its tail fibers.
The night shift woke up the atom delivery guy, who had been sleeping in his truck, and all night long upright hand trucks were rolling their tiny wheels down the compound’s corridors, bundles of atoms offloaded and stacked in storage rooms or dropped down delivery chutes.
By the time we came in, everything was ready, so we strapped on our goggles and thought about how much better atoms are when they’re hurtling around. Looks like break time is over, Wulf, I said.
Atom-smashing time, he said.
And he hit the big red button.
Holy cats! This is our 26th installment! And if math is not a convenient fiction, that means that we’re halfway through our first year as a newsletter!
If you had told me when we set out on this newsletter project that we would reach the half year mark, I’d probably have said: “Hey, that’s great! Now I know for sure that I’m not going to meet an untimely end in the next six months! My constant, low-level death anxiety will be at perhaps its lowest ebb since before, as a child, I realized what death really means.”
And speaking of children and death, this week we’ll be revisiting our poorly managed school for wizards! Light a candle, grab your magic wand (after making sure it has fresh batteries), and let’s get ready for adventure!
the beulah candlewick school for young magicks
At the front of the classroom, Professor Pank glared out at the students from the other side of an ornate mirror, 7 feet high, ringed in gold and mounted on wheels. An experiment years back in using mirrors to travel had been interrupted, leaving Pank trapped in the reflected world behind mirrors. In order to allow him to continue his tutelage, the school had invested in a set of mirrors, easily moved, that would be placed throughout the campus for his use.
A young student, her robes on fire, crawled painfully towards the mirror.
“Well, now we’re learning,” said Pank. He twirled a magic wand and extinguished the reflected student at his feet with a jet of cool vapor. At the same time, the student in the real world was similarly affected, suddenly sodden, but safe. “Who can tell me what Elleve here did wrong?”
“She enrolled in this school,” muttered Jaymes under his breath. He sat in the back row, slouched in his seat, his asymmetrical hair dyed blue. On his shoulder, a pixie he had crafted from cafeteria carrots he didn’t want to eat muttered agreement.
“Yes yes yes yes,” it said. This was its standard response to most anything Jaymes had to say, as per Jaymes’s design.
“Shut up,” said Jaymes.
Doctor Willowblight applied a cooling salve to Elleve’s neck and back.
“My parents are going to… going to sue…” hissed Elleve. The salve did its work, guided by magic to match the tone and consistency of the surrounding skin, forming a replacement as good as the original skin. Well, except for its texture or sensitivity. It would always feel a bit damp to the touch. And would slowly soak through shirts. Also, to Elleve, it would feel like a dull area, thanks to damaged nerves. But other than that, pretty good stuff.
Willowblight arched an eyebrow at the threat of legal action. If she’d heard it once, she’d heard it a thousand times. But the school’s grounds had been buttressed by enough magical rituals in overlapping layers that any attempt by the law to penetrate it would be sure to end in disaster.
The bottom of the dark fountain near the entrance gates was lined with the bones of lawyers, mixed with briefcases, fancy pens, and the sodden remains of embossed business cards.
That said, it was still poor form to tell a student that on school grounds, they were well beyond the reach of any outsider who might want to help them.
“These scars,” said Willowblight, falling into character. “Most peculiar.”
In the handbook provided to faculty and staff at The Beulah Candlewick School for Young Magicks, an entire chapter is devoted to student injuries. In the sub-section related to scarring, disfigurement or transfiguration, the standard operating procedure was to mitigate hard feelings by inventing and sharing a “prophecy” wherein a young user of magic, thus marked, was destined for greatness.
“What’s that?” asked Elleve.
“They remind me of something,” said Willowblight. “A prophecy. But prophecies probably don’t interest you,” continued Willowblight.
“No, let’s hear it. What’s this prophecy?”
“It’s just that when they laid the keystone for this very building, the Professor of Scrying at the time had a vision of a young student who would one day surpass all of us. They would be known by a particular wound on their back. He sketched the wound from his vision, but I only sorta remember the shape. I mean, that was years ago, and I read about it in the faculty newsletter, which we used to have to print by hand with a drumroll and ink, so…”
Elleve sat up eagerly. “But you think my burn scars might match the pattern?”
“I’m fairly certain… it’s an almost perfect match. But the only way we can know for sure would be for you to continue with your studies through graduation… and if your parents are going to sue, as you say, well… they’re not going to keep paying tuition, so… you’ll probably have to drop out. Get a job somewhere. A water park maybe? That would be safe for you. No more burns.”
“Surpass everyone, it said?”
It was so easy.
“You dropped your SCROLL, nerd!” The giant, yellow-skinned creature smirked, then continued strolling down the hallway, an enormous letter jacket on its back.
Jaymes picked up the scroll that the creature, Nnghbert, had just slapped out of his hands. “I really, really hate that guy. He’s not even human! If he wasn’t so good at sports, there’s no way they’d let him keep studying here.”
The carrot pixie on his shoulder nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, yes, yes, yeah,” it murmured.
Jaymes’s classmate Akaya cast a glance at the pixie. “That’s really gross, dude. You really ought to eat your veggies.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said the pixie.
“Whatever,” said Jaymes.
Akaya patted Jaymes’s back. “I know you don’t like Nnghbert. Nobody does. But you have to understand that Nnghbert’s bad attitude isn’t his fault.”
“How do you figure?”
“Well, you know the nnghs, right? Gross little yellow creatures? Pretty much infest the whole school?”
“Sure,” said Jaymes. “Guys in my dorms hunt them and pin them to the common room wall.”
Akaya looked disgusted. “No… please tell me that’s not true.”
“Do you guys not know what nnghs are? Where they come from? Do none of you pay attention in Applied Magic and Sexuality? Those health courses are for your benefit, you know.” Akaya ducked briefly as a laughing pack of young witches came flying down the hallway, dressed for athletics. “They’re formed from…. hmm. Well, when young boys going through puberty have some ‘alone time’… and their ’emissions’ and magic and tissues all mix in the plumbing, then…”
“No,” said Jaymes. On his face: the expression of someone who was torn between wanting to clean every inch of his body and brain, or go back in time 5 minutes and choose any other corridor to walk down instead of this one, which lead to this conversation.
“That’s where the name came from,” said Akaya. “From the sound boys make.”
“Like you don’t know. Nnnnnngh,” said Akaya, fluttering her eyes back and letting her mouth fall open.
“Gross,” said Jaymes.
Akaya laughed, then continued. “So the thing with Nnghbert is that he was originally just one of the biggest of the nnghs ever made. He was so much trouble, the faculty had to get him under control. From what I heard, they used the Cauldron of Itches, some puppydog tails, a magic book from Professor Whistler’s library, and a set of brass knuckles to transform him into what he is today: an enormous jock. All of his natural mischief-causing instincts are sublimated into socially acceptable sports-related violence. He’s completely under our control now.”
Jaymes frowned. “So they used magic to make Nnghbert into.. an enormous dude? A fellow student? To control him?”
“Masculinity is a prison, Jaymes,” said Akaya. “And he’s got a sentence to serve out.”
The hardest part of pirate life is not procuring treasure, or burying it… it’s marking the X. The pirates will be so happy to avoid the most strenuous part of the process that this plan is sure to work.
ending theme song
When I started this newsletter, my goals were pretty simple. I wanted to get back in the habit of writing, first and foremost. The days, weeks, and months just keep passing and if I can look back and see some creative pursuits in there instead of just consuming media, it’s better for my mental health.
Secondly, I was also hoping to stumble across an idea I could expand on for a new e-book project.
So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is to come up with ideas about the awful world of the Candlewick School and its struggling students. They’re super easy to write about and as a lazy person, I’m going to keep mining any seam of ideas that seems easy. Could this be the writing project I was looking for?
I hope you stick around and find out with me if we’re on to something!
And thanks to my wife Amanda for contributing an original illustration of Nnghbert in his varsity jacket.
See you in a week,
–Michael Van Vleet
lost time incident 25
Here in the United States, we just had our 4th of July holiday. In theory, it’s intended for demonstrations of patriotism, but we’ve so quickly followed it with horrifying acts of violence that we’re left with a nationalist hangover.
So instead of thinking about that, let’s spend a little bit of time thinking about ghosts and spies, eh? Won’t that be nice? For a little while?
shaking my head
Ever thought about what it might be like to be a ghost yourself? Unfinished business? Can’t pick stuff up? Just kinda hoping someone comes along that you can communicate with? And when it does happen, it’s just some reality TV pricks measuring cold spots and pretending to see stuff in corners? All the while, you’re doing your best to appear to them, screaming noiselessly in their stupid meat ears?
Maybe there’s no such thing as ghosts. Maybe no one ever comes back with a message because when you die, that’s when you figure out that this place kinda sucks compared to the alternative. No matter how nice a life you’ve got going here, how many people you’re fond of, there’s just no contest. The next phase is a delight, time isn’t real, so everyone you love is going to be along behind you before you know it.
Or maybe what we think are ghosts aren’t former people. Maybe they’re advertisements. Sent from the next phase of existence with a message: “Look at me, a spooky thing that looks like you, but with out-of-date clothes. I look miserable, right? That’s you. I’m what you look like. This is the life you’re leading. Stuck in this building like I am. Wanting things. So hurry up and get life over with!”
We don’t see ghosts because they’re banner ads for suicide and the beyond and we’ve learned to tune them out, as with any advertising.
super double top secret
Agent Lucero reloaded his wrist-mounted crossbow as his pursuer’s body slipped off the roof of the train car. The enemy agent’s body bounced along the tracks briefly before careening into the pine forest that blurred alongside the passenger train. “I suppose that puts all my ducks in… arrow. No, that’s awful. Glad that’s over, as I was starting to get cross— bow. Ugh, even worse.”
He patted the courier bag slung over his shoulder and crept up towards the lead cars. Inside one of them, he knew he’d find his new identity, a roll of the local currency, and an experimental personal bubble-shaped crash-negating device. With the latter, he’d be able to throw himself off the train as soon as the train reached the border crossing. It would inflate around him, and protect him as he bounced his way to a safe stop.
Under the ocean, Lucero listened with the submarine crew to the groaning of the metal around them all. Their ears strained to hear any warning of coming depth charges. Lucero patted his courier bag and leaned to whisper into the oil-blackened ear of a sailor.
“Anyway, so even with the wind on top the the train, I managed to get this guy in the neck with a crossbow bolt from about half a train’s length away—”
“Shh!” hissed the sailor.
“No, yeah, I get it,” said Lucero. “But this is the best part. As he grabbed the bolt and it really sunk in that I got him, I said: ‘Well, Bathsworth, since you were determined to be a pain in my neck, it’s only fair I return the favor!'”
The sailor’s eyes darted along the rivets above. In his hands, a fire extinguisher at the ready.
“Did I mention his name was Bathsworth? Doesn’t matter.”
The soft pinging of radar.
“I guess I could have made a bath-based pun, now that I think of it.”
“Agent Lucero, you’ve made it back.” The chief, a heavy-set man with a flat-top and rumpled suit, rose as Lucero entered the room.
“I have indeed, Chief Apelbaum. It took some doing, but I got away from Bathsworth cleanly.” Lucero unslung his courier bag and sat down with the chief.
“Who’s Bathsworth?” asked Apelbaum.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Lucero.
“I never worry,” said Apelbaum. He leaned forward. “So. What have you learned?”
Lucero smiled. “So, so much.” From out of his pocket, he produced a roll of microfilm.
“You really got it,” said Apelbaum.
“I did,” said Lucero. “Photos of ladies’ underpants. A whole drawer full of them. ”
“You’re the best agent we’ve got, Lucero. Dismissed.”
Other things Agent Lucero has learned on previous missions:
- The Prime Minister of Belarus has a crooked dick. Three people have confirmed on three separate occasions.
- The Queen Regent’s new wallpaper features ducks. Rows of ducks.
- Senator Quiggs got stood up on a blind date. A bartender says the woman came in, saw him, turned right back around.
- Doktor Nacht, inventor of the Hand-Held Face-Melt-o, can’t fall asleep unless there’s a Pixar movie playing.
- Wellesley had a member of her secret service kidnap a kid’s rare dwarf lop rabbit during the kid’s birthday party. She’s renamed it Ruffles.
- Agent Faszchlo wears tour t-shirts for the band Chicago under his tuxes at state functions. Including from the Peter Cetera era.
looking & listening
watching – A Very Secret Service – A French television series, a comedy set in the 60s, that follows a young agent entering a Kafka-esque new job surrounded by Mad Men-era fashions as special agents try to keep France’s colonies intact, hunt former Nazis, and be sure to wrap things up in time to turn the office into a dance party with drinks and dangling cigarettes by mid-afternoon. (Netflix)
listening – Hello From the Magic Tavern – An American podcast that follows Arnie, an average citizen of Chicago who fell through a dimension rift into the magical land of Foon. Having little else to do, he’s set up camp at The Vermilion Minotaur tavern to interview inhabitants and send his weekly podcast back to us via the wifi signal from a Burger King.
reading – Mostly the news. Not recommended.
playing – The Big Book of Madness – Up to 5 players join forces in this cooperative card game. You all play young student wizards who have opened a spellbook you shouldn’t have. Players pool their spells and resources to defeat the monsters unleashed by the book while fending of the accumulation of madness. Great fun, even with only 2 players.
ending theme song
We’re finished early! It’s not yet noon! Great, well, uh… I quit!
See you next week at the half year mark of this project.
–Michael Van Vleet
The hands were raised and counted and before you know it, we had all voted to exit the space station. Sure, oxygen rationing sucked, and our elected representatives always seemed to end up in the fanciest space suits with the shiniest, radiation-reflecting face plates, and the most responsive booster jets, but I didn’t think that meant it was a good idea to just leave.
But that’s how the vote went, so we climbed into our patchwork suits and filed to the nearest airlocks.
From outside the station, we had a terrific view of the purple planetary expanse we orbited around. No way to get down there anymore, though.
Did you know that when otters sleep, they hold hands so they don’t drift away from each other? We had to do the same thing, lashing limbs together and tying ourselves to the station to make sure none of us drifted off into the void.
Sure. Everything we ate going forward was going to come out of an external-facing pipe from the station and was going to come in liquid form. Sure, we had no way to clean ourselves.
But we had freedom. We had the stars for company. We could do whatever we wanted.
At the beginning of the semester, the dining hall was full. It was the only time during the school year when that was true. The wizards and witches who stuck it out, year after year, attempting to educate the next generation of magic users, would do their best.
They’d bring out the Book of All Flesh, each page an animated and living face of a former student, transfigured into a tome-shaped warning of the dangers of wandering off the well-lit paths of the library wing. Before the semester was over, the book would have about a dozen new pages, no matter where the staff hid the thing. From that point on, each former student would live mostly in darkness, their face flat as a page, having their cheeks tickled by the eyelashes of their cursed neighbor on the facing page. Conversation impossible in such compressed circumstances, reduced to merely feeling the vibration of speech and the wiggling of smashed lips somewhere on one’s face.
After the book, the faculty wheel out Corbyn Crowsbatten, his body a giant jagged ball of exposed bone. “Corbyn was an athlete, but he broke a bone,” a feather bedecked crone might say, gently patting what looks like an elephant’s tibia jutting out of Corbyn’s central mass. “He thought he knew enough to magically regrow the bone. How hard could it be? A hangman’s deck of cards, burned and applied with a wolf’s paw. The moonlight at the right angle in the window. A mouth full of corn. And yet. Something went wrong. Now Corbyn looks like this. Forever.”
The giant mass of living bones is then rolled back into the ward the faculty set up for Corbyn. His parents don’t know yet, because then the tuition checks would stop coming.
As the weeks go by, the student population begins to drop. Potion mishaps. Eaten by monsters, both encountered and created. Usually two or three students a year will become monsters and need to be hunted down in turn. Every student dance seems to have at least one jealousy-fueled fight that ends with someone being burned into a silhouette on a gymnasium wall.
It’s quite possible that the school is a mistake. That young minds, in a stew of hormones, struggling to figure out who they are, or who they can be, are not capable of gauging the dangers involved in applying your will to the powers drawn from the Glowing Realms.
Last year, as the final semester wound down, they thought they’d actually have a graduate this year. Charlotte Lumnack. Good marks in Boons & Hexes. Good attendance. Unfortunately, under interrogation it was determined that actually, Charlotte had fled the grounds, and left in her place a very detailed illusory version of herself to make the rounds through her classes. Regulations are quite strict about graduation requirements, and illusory copies of students don’t qualify as actual students.
Once again, a semester draws to a close. The wizards and witches sigh and walk empty corridors. Dress in formal robes to stand in an empty graduation hall. The sound of wind outside. The rustling of acceptance letters folding themselves, addressing themselves, and fluttering out into the world to find new students.
originally appeared in the newsletter “lost time incident”
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