The voice on the other end of the phone had an American accent. I couldn’t tell you exactly which part of America since it was one of those educated accents you get in all parts of the world where people are desperate to not sound local. Any region, any accent, there’ll be people who have money and education and won’t talk like anyone they grew up around.
It’s a very middle-class thing in Britain, where middle-class means not working in manual labour but not being able to afford not working at all like the landed gentry. They should really do a wipe every hundred years and let people fight over land and resources.
Okay, the beta’s over, you go back to level one and create a new character.
But no, forever in early access.
At least when you speak in a neutral, can’t-tell-where-I’m-from tone, none of the other middle-class people can make fun of you. Equality, it turns out, isn’t about treating people the same, it’s about not giving anyone the ammunition to treat you differently.
The American posh way of speaking is another level above that. You can hear it in the voices of the very well-off and East Coast university types. When you see interviews with people like Gore Vidal or John Updike, the great recordists of the American experience, you can’t help wonder who the fuck taught them to speak like no other American ever.
“Can you hear me?” said the man on the phone, his clipped 1930s’ radio announcer accent sounding irritated. I must have drifted off and ignored what he’d just said.
“Sorry, bad reception,” I said. “And my hand’s on fire, which is a bit distracting. What did you say?”
There was a pause, probably for him to wonder if I was mental. “Where do you want to meet?”
“Hmm? Meet?” I actually was quite distracted by my flaming hand. “Why do you want to meet?” I was also feeling a bit warm. Not my hand, more my face and neck.
“You said you wanted to meet.” He sounded like he was getting quite worked up. Posh Americans get all whiny when they don’t get the proper respect they feel they deserve. Then they cheat on their wives and write a six-hundred-page novel about how enlightening it was.
“Okay, see you then.” I turned off the phone and passed out.
When I woke up, my hand was no longer on fire, which was good. I could have burned down the whole place if I’d been left smouldering on the floor. I had also been moved to the living room and was lying on the sofa.
“Finally awake then?” said Mandy as she walked in carrying a wooden tray.
“You fainted. Like a girl.”
I sat up and nearly passed out again. “That’s sexist,” I pointed out, “you malingering bint.”
“I know,” said Mandy, placing the tray on the coffee table, “that’s why it’s the perfect thing to say to you.”
“I fail to follow your lack of logic,” I said. “What’s this?”
“Yes. But what is it?” The tray contained a bowl of something brown bubbling very slowly — a translucent dome getting bigger and bigger, and then pop; followed by the emergence of the next hesitant dome. There was also a plate of crackers.
“It’s soup. Homemade.”
“What kind of soup?”
“I don’t know,” said Mandy.
“You didn’t make it?”
“Cheng likes to dabble in the kitchen. He isn’t very good but he enjoys it, and you can’t get better if you don’t keep trying.”
“You have to keep up your strength,” said Cheng, appearing with two more trays. “Your magic works differently here. It uses up your energy and when that runs out… out you go.” He handed Mandy a tray with a salad on it. I got the feeling that salad wasn’t because she was watching her figure (she was married with a kid, time to let herself go) but more to avoid Cheng’s cooking.
The idea that using magic would drain my energy and leave me unconscious was a little disconcerting. I ran a hand over my hair. “Do you have a mirror?”
“Probably better idea to wait until you’ve eaten,” said Mandy, giving me a sarcastic smile over a leaf of something.
“Just give me a mirror. You probably have a full-length one stored in your cleavage.”
Mandy gave me a narrow-eyed stare but didn’t say anything. Probably because she took it as a compliment.
“Here.” She pulled a compact out of a small table on the other side of the sofa and handed it to me.
I opened the mirror and looked at myself. Rough isn’t the word. “Holy fuck.”
“Can you keep your voice down?” said Mandy. “I just put Charlie down for a nap. If he wakes up cranky he tends to spew all over the nursery. I’ve had to change the wallpaper five times already.”
“Sorry.” I examined myself more closely and more quietly. Mandy was right, I wasn’t exactly a pretty picture, but I hadn’t aged and my hair was the same length as before.
Usually, after using magic, my hair grew longer to mark the passing of time. Even though I’d skipped three years, I was probably the right physical age considering how much magic I’d used. But this time there was no ageing. I had used my stored energy the normal way when exerting myself, and had passed out when I didn’t stop. I snapped the compact shut.
“I couldn’t figure out how to turn my power off,” I said. “I don’t know how I turned it on, either.”
“That’s fine,” said Cheng, “you just need practice. Eat up for now and make sure you have a snack on you at all times, a bar of chocolate or something. As long as you keep yourself fuelled, you should be okay.” He took a mouthful of soup and grimaced. “Spicy.”
I tried some myself. It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t good, either. I still wasn’t sure what it was made of and quite frankly I was afraid to ask, but eating dodgy food to survive was something I was used to.
“I was on the phone with the people watching us when I collapsed from pushing my body too hard.”
“Fainted,” said Mandy.
“I can’t really remember what we spoke about, though.”
“They called back,” said Cheng. “Mandy spoke to them.”
I turned to Mandy dreading where this would lead.
“They think you hung up on them,” said Mandy. “Playing hard to get, so I went with it and told them you think they’re all pricks and you don’t want to waste your time on a bunch of amateurs. They’re very angry with you.”
“Sorry,” said Cheng. “I told her not to get involved.”
“No problem,” I said. “Good call.”
Mandy stopped nibbling on a cucumber and stared at me.
“What?” I said. “If there’s one area where I trust your judgement, it’s stringing men along. If they think I don’t give a shit about their threats, it’ll push them into making mistakes, or at least giving a more realistic idea of what they’re prepared to do. This soup isn’t so bad. Tangy.”
“That’s the sulphuric acid,” said Cheng.
I stopped eating and looked at my spoon. It hadn’t dissolved and neither had my throat.
“He means balsamic vinegar,” said Mandy.
“Oh, yes,” said Cheng. “So many new ingredients to work with, it’s very confusing.”
“You should try a keto diet,” said Mandy. “I’ve done an online course on health and nutrition. If you need to preserve energy over a long time, that would probably work best.”
“Alright, Dr Atkins, don’t get carried away. Just because I think you know your stuff when it comes to giving people the runaround, doesn’t mean I’m going to be asking for your advice on other matters.”
Mandy rolled her eyes. “I know what I’m talking about. I took the course so I could make sure Charlie was getting a proper diet. It’s very interesting.”
“So you’re going to be one of those mums. Failed all your GCSEs but now you’re an internet researcher and you know all the answers.”
“I passed all my GCSEs.”
“I suppose you think vaccinations are a conspiracy by the Illuminati. Has Charlie had his shots?”
“No, of course not,” said Mandy.
“Honestly, how much of a retard do you have to be to risk his and everyone else’s kid’s health because of something you read on mums.net?”
“He isn’t vaccinated because he’s half demon,” said Mandy.
“A quarter,” said Cheng.
“Don’t take his side,” said Mandy. “Human diseases don’t affect him, he affects them. If I take him into a room where someone has a cold or the flu, they get cured in about ten minutes because the viruses shit themselves and leave the room immediately. My baby’s going to heal the world and win a Nobel Prize.” Her chest swelled up with pride.
“Oh,” I said, making sure not to stare since she obviously expected me to.
Mandy’s phone rang. It was sitting on the coffee table, taking up most of it. Mandy picked it up.
Phones seemed to have become even bigger than when I’d last been home. There was a time when they were getting smaller and smaller, and then they started getting bigger and bigger. If you’d said to someone in 1999, “In the future, mobile phones will be so huge they won’t even fit in your pocket,” they’d have thought you were crazy.
“It’s for you,” said Mandy, handing it to me.
“Can you put it on speaker?” I said. She placed the phone back on the table.
“Hello? This is Colin.”
“Yes. Hello again.” He sounded upset. “This is Mr Orion.”
“We spoke earlier.”
“And your name’s Orion? Did you make it up to sound cool?”
“No. That’s my name.”
“Do you have a big belt?”
“No, why would… Oh, Orion’s belt. Very droll. Look, call me Peter if you find it less distracting.”
“Actually, I already know a Peter. I’ll call you Orion.” I sniggered without meaning to. I’m not sure why I found the name so amusing but I was a twenty year old in a twenty-three-year-old’s body.
“I’d like to continue our conversation from before,” he said.
“I’m in the middle of lunch,” I said. “Can you call back?”
“It’s very important. Many lives are hanging in the balance.”
“Okay. Speak to you in a bit.” I hung up.
“Won’t that make him more angry?” said Cheng.
“Yep,” I said finishing off the soup. “This could use a little more vinegar.”
“I just hope you don’t let your guilt complex blind you to how much damage you could end up doing if you aren’t careful,” said Mandy.
“Online psychology course?” I asked.
“Yes, actually,” said Mandy. “And also a physiotherapy course.”
“Because you didn’t know how to spell psychology so you let spellcheck guess for you?”
“Because mind and body work best together,” said Mandy. “You should try going to the gym, might make you less depressed about leaving Jenny behind.”
“I didn’t leave anyone behind,” I said. “They pushed me forward and jumped backwards.”
The phone rang again. Bootylicious by Destiny’s Child (I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly), in case you were wondering.
Mandy tapped the answer button. “Yes?”
“We were cut off,” said Orion, tersely.
“I’ve finished eating, what would you like to discuss?” I said.
“Very well. I have an offer for you.”
“How much?” I said.
“How much what?”
“Money,” I said. “How much are you prepared to pay for my help.”
“I haven’t even told you what we want from you.”
“Doesn’t matter if it isn’t worth my time. How much?”
There was a pause. “One million dollars.”
Mandy gave me a thumbs up, one gold digger to another.
“Nah, seems low,” I said. “A million bucks doesn’t really go very far these days. A medium sized place, a moderately pricey car, you’re back where you started.”
A longer pause. “I don’t think you appreciate what you can really do with that amount of money.”
“You could be right,” I said. “As a millennial, I have no real concept of what it’s like to earn money. What I do know is that the last couple of generations have fucked the economy so bad the only way to buy a house is to suck a rich guy’s dick. And both those generations are obsessed with not paying taxes and becoming rich guys, which I feel isn’t a coincidence. What about you, Orion? You a rich guy? You on the millennial blowjob plan?”
”Two million,” he said.
“Okay. Call me back when it’s been transferred into my account.” I hung up again.
“Do you really think he’s going to pay you before you’ve agreed to anything?” asked Mandy, mildly impressed by my ability to get a rich guy to consider paying me before putting his dick in my mouth. I was the baller every bimbo wished she could be.
“You’re really good at pissing people off,” said Mandy.
“Thank you,” I said. “It means a lot coming from a person like you.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” said Mandy, sounding less impressed even though I had just proved her assessment of me totally correct.
“Please control yourself, woman,” I said. “You’ll wake the baby.”
“Are you going to let him talk to me like that?” Mandy said to Cheng, who looked very much like he’d prefer to be left alone with his soup, extra sulphuric acid. “You’re supposed to be the demon lord of all monsters, tell him to stop being mean to me.”
“I think you two made a good team,” said Cheng.
It was a low blow. “You take that back,” I said.
“Do you want to die?” said Mandy.
“I owe him too much to take issue with his way of speaking to you,” said Cheng. “Without his presence of mind, I would not have you in my life, my love.”
Mandy looked like she was about to melt. He’d got her number alright.
“It’s a gift I have,” I said. “The ability to spot the kind of man who would be happy with a massive slut for a wife.”
“He’s doing it again,” said Mandy, like she was reporting me to teacher.
“I’m not insulting you,” I said. “People think true love means not being a slut anymore, but in reality it means focusing all your sluttiness on one man. The bigger a slut you are, the more the guy will be overwhelmed by it and never even look at another woman.”
“Well, okay,” said Mandy. “I still object to your use of the word slut. You don’t call men that, do you?”
“Because it’s harder for us to get laid. It takes actual work, more of everything. More effort, more money, more lies. For women, it’s less of everything. Fewer clothes, smaller underwear, lower morals.”
The phone rang again before Mandy could think of a quiet way to hit me.
“I wonder what they want you to do,” said Cheng.
“Probably use my power to help them become more powerful and richer. Usual shit. I’ll just keep raising my price.”
I answered the phone.
“The money has been transferred to your account.”
“Really. I didn’t even give you my account details.”
“We have them already. Now, shall we proceed?”
It seemed they were serious and I was quite curious what they wanted, too. “Okay. What do you want from me?”
“We want you to lead us back to Flatland.”
“Oh. I don’t know how to do that. I came back by accident.”
“That isn’t important,” said Orion. “We have a way back and we have a trained team ready to go. We need you to guide them.”
Now here was an offer I hadn’t expected.