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Jane Believes in Magic

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Jane placed a dog treat on her windowsill and sat back as a raven emerged, grabbing the treat with its talons and flying out of sight. She closed the bag of Bakon, the homonym meat product for pets, and felt a pang of hunger when a puff of chemically enhanced bacon filled her nostrils. She looked at the boxes of graham, club, and cheese-flavored crackers she had from the last food drop, choosing none before going back to her couch. She considered putting out another piece of Bakon but saw that she was running low. Food rationing isn't just for humans, she thought, as she looked out at the Los Angeles sky and saw a plume of smoke in the distance.

Her form of birding was inspired by her suburban birder father. His interests were of the more traditional Audubon variety, mainly in the elegant egrets and herons that spent hours posing for him like trained models in the ponds near their home. Before cell service went down, he would send pictures to her of lithe birds standing like calligraphic S's against a manicured verdant backdrop. Birding in downtown Los Angeles was a different enterprise, where diesel-colored ravens known for having lice haunted the air and pudgy pigeons ate pizza off the street. After learning on some online forums that ravens were carnivorous, Jane had experimented with creative, if unsanitary, ways of luring them to her window.

"What do you mean you put out dog treats for them?" her father had asked with a concerned tone.

"They don't eat birdseed, Dad," she said, "and sandwich meat started getting gross." Before the lockdown had been mandated, Jane ventured out for supplies, only to find soulless aisles and empty shelves at the grocery store down the street. She had managed to get out with a case of peanut butter and bag of Bakon, which served as lasting sustenance for her and the birds, even if she couldn't send pictures anymore.

Though the lockdown had been in place for several months, it felt like a natural extension in what had been a breathtaking yet somewhat predictable course of terrible events over the last few years. It reminded Jane of an elaborate prix fixe meal, where a lengthy progression of pretentious courses left you understanding that the world was likely going to end, and you were partly responsible. Everyone's palates had been prepared with an orange pastry puff that was supposed to be one of those gastronomical foods that dissipate into air, but actually ended up being impossible to chew. The Great Storms put on quite a show before the first course of small batch scourge, which was sourced quasi-locally from the Korean peninsula and accompanied by candlelight, a romantic touch, even if inspired by electrical outage. The main course, accompanied by explosions in the sky, were entrails like sweetbreads—or 'probably not anyone you know personally'—served on a crusty sidewalk. The whole affair was so stunning that you almost forgot that your bank had been brought to its knees by hackers, which made the 100-pound bag of Nabisco products dropped on your condo building's roof even more of a grand finale. "Make it last for a week," the helicopter pilot said from a loudspeaker, as he churned away to applause and people voraciously fighting over Oreos.

"You know, Jane, birds are often believed to be spirits of the dead," her father had said one day before the lockdown began, calling Jane after she had sent him a picture of a hawk atop a nearby roof that looked like a sentry from another century. Jane had been raised Catholic, but her family deviated from the Church's doctrine when puffs of white smoke from the Vatican continued to conjure figures from another time. Jane branched out in adulthood, finding silent meditation retreats, exercise classes with motivational leaders, and several introductory sessions at a center down the street that ended up being a kind of culty, if not comforting, place for free snacks and occasional crying.

And so, when George, the doorman that had the misfortune of being on duty the day the lockdown began, came to her door with a book about reincarnation, she let him in. George was one of those proud types muscling a lemonade life out of something that, by any objective standard, was sour. He had moved into the building's exercise room in the basement, making a bed out of a treadmill and a chair out of a weight machine, and decided that the lockdown was a divined opportunity to follow his dreams of being a Buddhist evangelist. "I've always wanted to be a religious leader," George said, sitting at Jane's table.

George handed her a book that reminded her of the Bible she had growing up, with a waxen hardcover and gilded font. "Reincarnation, the Complete Guide," Jane said, reading the cover out loud, and George gravely nodded. Their first lesson began with a kind of pictograph that made reincarnation seem like a centuries-long pyramid scheme. "First, you are born a bug," he said as he ran his finger across the diagram that showed a logical path to enlightenment: bug→cat→bird→dog→person→enlightened person. Jane nodded at what seemed a reasonable hierarchy, and George seemed pleased.

George came again the next day, and they sat at her kitchen table and again looked through the book. They both seemed relieved when, before beginning an exercise of writing down the things from their life that they thought they would be punished for in their next incarnation, the fire alarm went off. It was quickly silenced, and Tara, the building manager, announced over the loudspeakers in each of their units that it was a false alarm. "But I would like to talk to you about some things," she said. "I'm scared," she began, before starting to cry and muting the intercom.

George closed the book, saying maybe they wouldn't do the lesson today, and looked around Jane's loft. "What is that picture?" he asked, pointing to a grainy black and white photograph that sat on her bookshelf.

"It's my dad doing a magic trick. Levitating," she said, and George went to observe it.

Her father became obsessed with magic when he was younger, in the days when the bloat of information hadn't wrested magic from magic. His favorite trick was called the Levitation of Princess Karnac as performed by Harry Kellar, where the body of a fathomed Hindu Princess floated on command. Diagnosed as a teenager with something like polio, though the doctors weren't sure, her father had lain paralyzed in a hospital bed for months, his anxious mother frantically saying the rosary over him while he closed his eyes and imagined that with just the right amount of focus and intention, he could summon the spirit of Harry Kellar and float off of the bed. Which, in his telling of the story to Jane and her siblings, he had. His mother attributed his recovery to prayer, a "miracle of God," but to him it had always been magic. After he was released from the hospital, he had learned to perform the trick and the photograph was taken.

"I don't think it was a trick. I think he was really levitating," George said, examining the picture closely. Jane smiled.

When George came the next day, he announced that they wouldn't be reading from the Reincarnation book but would instead try to levitate. "I've always wanted to be a magician," he said. They lay on the cold floor with their eyes closed and the picture of her father in between them. "Now we concentrate deeply."

Since the lockdown, Jane's building had become something like an adult summer camp, with some people crying because they missed their families, some manically playing games all day, and some hiding in their rooms, like Jane. Her building was an old bank, one of the curios that made up the stout skyscape of downtown Los Angeles, and the residents were most similar in their attempts at being different, each aspiring to be an artist, or at least to look like one. Downtown Los Angeles had been the first place hit, which Jane interpreted as overdue penance for good weather and having a Whole Foods within walking distance. After the first blast, the roads were shut down, and, though some industrious neighbors tried to leave on foot, they quickly returned after military guards informed them that other parts of Los Angeles had also been hit, bringing the entire city to a halt. Once a lockdown was announced, the guards multiplied, roaming in ambiguous tan uniforms. Jail was first threatened as the punishment for being on the streets, but after the guards realized that leaving home for jail was a motivation for some, they began responding with violence.

Internet and cell service had been down since the beginning of the lockdown, a duration that seemed either oppressive or apocalyptic by nature, leaving running water and electricity as tea leaves that meant life might go on. Jane turned her couch toward her window, and began to spend her time finding a kinship with the buildings that were part of her vista. The Eastern building stood proudly to the north, cloaked in tiles the color of a swimming pool on a hot summer day, and seeming like someone fun to hang out with. And to the south sat the Orpheum theater with a sign in a cursive font held up like a spritely cheerleader by wrought iron spotters. She would wonder how many other people were staring at the buildings as they disappeared each night into a pink smog sunset.

Jane's imagination ran wild during the endless first days of the lockdown, pondering the ways she might die in solace, her preferred state. When Steve, who lived down the hall, came to invite her to a floor meeting, she only agreed after he talked to her under her door for an hour.

The dozen residents of her floor met and inventoried their food and alcohol and other things that seemed of import. They discussed the limited survival skills of the group. "I have mace, and very sharp cutlery," Jane said, adding, "and I'm not afraid of violence."

"That's wonderful, Jane," Steve said. The woman next to Jane said she could deliver babies if needed after watching several seasons of a show about midwives.

"Well, I think we're going to be just fine," Steve said at the end of the meeting, looking down at the list of skills. They had taken a vote and agreed to combine their spices and DVDs and anything else that may be of enjoyment for the group. Steve would manage a checkout system for these, in addition to being the lead for divvying up food for their floor from the weekly food drops.

The whole building had developed its own ragtag organization. There were AA meetings in the basement for those with longstanding problems, or for those that had consumed their liquor supply within the first weeks of the lockdown. There were three residents who had been to Burning Man and quickly made their utopian skill sets known, leading seminars on bartering and living in a moneyless world in exchange for things like biscuits and dance lessons. "We're not really interested in learning about Kant. Sorry," they had told Jane when she tried to gain entrance into one of their group bartering sessions with her philosophy degree. And there was Tara over the intercom, who regularly made announcements, said prayers, or told stories about her family before breaking down in tears.

After the floor meeting, Jane took her shared commodities to Steve's unit, knocking on the door with a box of several tins of pumpkin spice that she annually forgot she owned, and a boxset of the Home Alone DVDs. He invited her in, and she sat at his table while he checked in her offerings.

Steve looked at the DVDs wrapped in saran wrap, a touch from her grandmother meant to emulate cellophane in order to make them seem unused. "My grandmother gave them to me," she said.

He handed her a note that slid out when he undid the packaging.

"For my single granddaughter when she is Home Alone. I hope you find your special someone," it said. Jane rolled her eyes and quickly slid it in her pocket.

Steve thanked her for bringing her contributions over, and she checked out a bottle of vanilla extract. "It's calming to smell, or adds flavor to graham crackers," Steve said, reading a note from the person that dropped it off.

Jane ate a vanilla graham cracker for dinner that night, wondering if it was possible to become drunk from extracts as she placed a drop on her tongue. She read the note from her grandmother again before laying it by her bed.

When George came up the next day, he said that he felt he had new insights into levitation after making some trades with the Burning Man group, and he held his hand out with two pills. "They are to open our minds," he said, and they both took one then lay down on the floor. Jane thought she had fallen asleep for a bit when she heard a voice and looked over to see George still next to her. When it came again, she gasped and sat up.

"Did you hear that?" she asked, nudging George, who shook his head and encouraged her to be calm so that the levitation would work.

"I'm starting to feel lighter," he said, yawning.

"George, I think my dead Grandma is talking to me," Jane said.

"What is she saying?"

"I need to find my special someone."

George sat up, squinting his eyes, and recommended they stay quiet to see if she had anything else to say. They sat in silence for a moment, and when Jane said she couldn't hear her anymore, George recommended they have a séance to summon her. "I've always wanted to try witchcraft," he said. Jane gathered the things from her loft that reminded her of her grandmother. She assembled the note that had fallen from the Home Alone DVDs, a vial of perfume she received after her grandmother's funeral, and a rosary her grandmother had given her for her confirmation. They sat and stared at the items. They tried chanting, saying the rosary, and spraying her grandmother's perfume.

"I probably just need to get some sleep," Jane said after a while, and George nodded.

After George left, Jane, realizing she hadn't fed the ravens in several days, put a Bakon on her windowsill. She felt a chill run down her spine when a seagull came and picked up the dog treat before flying off. Seagulls aren't supposed to be this far from the ocean, she thought, as a flock of fighter planes flew overhead.


Steve knocked at Jane's door that evening holding the Home Alone box set in his hand. "I watched them today. All three," he said when she opened the door.

She was surprised, but happy to see him, and asked him to come in. "Thoughts?"

"It's a miracle Marv is alive. And I'm going to have an existential crisis if we are all still shut in here for Christmas."

They laughed, and Jane offered him a glass of vanilla water, a recipe she said she was experimenting with. Steve took a sip and coughed, eyeing a pyramid of peanut butter jars stacked on the table.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell the group about them," she said. He smiled and said it was okay. She handed him a spoon and opened a jar.

"To peanut butter, and not being shut in here at Christmas," he said, holding up his glass and grimacing as he took a sip.

They sat down on her couch, facing the sky.

"This is kind of wonderful," Steve said, his syllables viscous with peanut butter. He looked at the rosary and perfume sitting on the coffee table, picking up the perfume and spraying it into the air. "Smells like baby powder."

"It's my grandmother's," she said, as they watched it sift to the ground.

A light breeze blew in through the open windows, carrying the levity and weight of the world and they just sat and talked, about nothing and everything. About things like John Hughes and whether Home Alone made a statement about homelessness and how they didn't want to die in their building.

Other than an occasional helicopter or plane, the quietude felt complete. Steve reached out to hold Jane's hand, a gesture that surprised her, and as she pulled her hand away, they heard a scream from the streets below, jutting out like a knife through skin.

They both looked at each other, then peered out the window to the dark street below. The scream came again, more desperate and agonizing. "They're going to get themselves killed," Steve whispered as they heard the chopping whir of a helicopter overhead.

The scream came again. Jane didn't know if it was the vanilla extract, the pill she had taken earlier, or a desperate attempt to avoid Steve, but she suddenly got up and began gathering a bag with Band-Aids and her set of artisanal cutlery. "I think we need to go save him."

"Jane, it would be insane to go down there," Steve said, placing his hand firmly against the door.

She tried to push him out of the way, and when he wouldn't budge, she got her grandmother's perfume and sprayed it in his face. He reached up to his eyes in agony, thinking it was the mace she had discussed at their meeting, and Jane dashed past him. She was peering out the front door of the building when he caught up to her.

"I'm not letting you do this alone," he said, following her onto the street. They could hear the helicopter overhead and saw its spotlight searching the street, and they began inching along the wall of the building in some rote form of movement they had absorbed from movies. They arrived at the wailing man who was sitting against the wall. "Where is everyone?" he cried. Jane glanced up and saw faces staring out from the surrounding windows. "A car is coming," someone yelled. Jane and Steve grabbed the man and dragged him inside, escaping the approaching glow from a set of headlights.

They took him downstairs to the exercise room where George was laying on a yoga mat and studiously watching an exercise DVD. The man sat down on the weight bench, said his name was Marvin, and started yelling at the wall behind him, which triggered Jane's recollection of him.

"I know him. He used to be on the corner down the street. I always passed him," she said. He maniacally talked to himself, shadow boxing, and asked for money.

"Is he going to stay here?" George asked, and Jane shrugged.

"I think we can say this wasn't well thought through," Steve said, looking at Jane.

George offered to watch him while they went and got some blankets and food.

Steve and Jane went to the stairwell, climbing the first few flights in silence until Steve stopped suddenly and turned to Jane. "You could have gotten us killed," he said.

"I know," Jane said, and she brought her hand to her eyes, "I know. I know. I know." She began to cry, and Steve softened, offering her his shoulder. She collapsed onto it, and they held each other in the soft time in the stairwell.

They arrived downstairs with blankets and club crackers, and organized a pallet on the floor, which Marvin curled himself onto.

"Do you remember me?" Jane asked Marvin, and he looked up and unflinchingly met her gaze.

"Oh, I remember you," he said. "You were the girl that was always alone."

"You were always alone," Jane snapped back, and then quickly apologized. "That was rude."

"I'm never alone, right buddy?" he said, nodding to the blank space next to him. He told them he had been hiding in a nearby abandoned building for some time.

"Why did you leave?" Jane asked.

"Someone told me to," he said.

"The guards?"

"No."

"Someone else that was staying there?"

"Your grandma told me to, okay lady?" Marvin snapped, and George and Jane gasped.

"What do you know about my grandmother?" she said, and Steve looked at her, confused.

"Jane, I don't think he meant it literally," Steve said, patting Jane on the shoulder.

"Tell me what you know about my grandmother!" Jane yelled, and Steve pulled her back, as Marvin cowered against the wall.

"Let's get you some sleep," Steve said, taking Jane by the shoulder.

Steve walked Jane to her room and said he would come back later to check in on her. Several minutes later, George knocked on her door, holding the reincarnation book in his hand.

"Do you think it's her?" he asked.

They decided to go downstairs with her grandmother's items to see if Marvin responded to any of them. Marvin was sleeping when they entered, and Jane took out her grandmother's perfume and sprayed it around the room. She went and sat down by him with the rosary, and when he woke up to an abrasive scent of baby powder, she asked him if he remembered writing the card that had been in the Home Alone DVDs.

"I didn't write that," Marvin said, looking at her and leaning away.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"I can't write, okay?" he said, and she apologized, quickly putting the card away.

She took out the rosary, holding one of the beads in her hand. "Do you want to say a prayer together?"

"No," Marvin said.

"Maybe we'll just say one Our Father," she said, beginning the prayer.

Marvin started crying.

"I think this was all a mistake," she said, getting up. "We should all get some sleep." Steve was outside her door when she got upstairs and they embraced before going inside.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Jane asked Steve. "I think that I thought that opening Home Alone brought my grandmother back to life."

"It is a very magical movie," he said, and they both burst into laughter.

"Oh my God. I'm really going crazy," she said, and Steve brushed her hair from her face, gently kissing her forehead.

"Do you know something I really miss? Like deeply miss?" he said after some silence. "Talking to people about weather in elevators. Like I wish I could get on the elevator and have the pure joy of saying mundanities about what temperature it is outside."

"God, me too," she said. "How did we never know how wonderful that was?"

They woke up the next morning to the sound of the intercom system crackling, and the R.E.M. song The End of the World as We Know It bursting through the speakers. When the song ended, Tara said she had gone into the units of several people that weren't home when the lockdown started. "I hope they're okay, and that what I did will be understood as an exception to the landlord's code of conduct. But one of them had a disco ball in his unit, and I decided we're going to have a dance tonight. Please wear what you would if it was the last day on earth. Not that it is or anything. At least, I guess we can hope not." She paused, sniffled, then turned off the intercom.

The building teemed with energy throughout the day. Tara continued to play songs over the intercom, Marvin showed George some erratic dance moves in the exercise room, and the Burners erected art installations in the basement. Steve arrived to pick up Jane that night wearing a tuxedo and holding origami flowers he had made from holiday gift wrap. Jane wore a bulbous lavender bridesmaid's dress. It had been ridiculous at the time, with unnecessary layers of chiffon and an asymmetrical neckline that felt like an accident, but when she took it out of the closet it felt like a lush miracle on a hanger. "You look beautiful," Steve said, offering her his hand.

They arrived to find a party that wore its heart loudly on its sleeve. Everyone was wearing their subjective best, from old Halloween costumes, bondage attire taken out of its hiding place, wedding dresses, and old college sports uniforms. George stood at a record player, playing a Bob Dylan album. "I've always wanted to be a DJ," he said, smiling.

Marvin asked Jane if she wanted to dance, and Jane nodded to Steve that it was okay, as she let Marvin lead her out to the dance floor. She noticed he was wearing the rosary around his neck. "Thank you for taking care of my things," he said, as he placed his hands on her waist. She looked at him, confused, and reached her hands out to his shoulders, getting a whiff of her grandmother's perfume in the air between them.

They swayed on the floor for a few moments. Marvin leaned forward and whispered into her ear, "I've been thinking a lot about Marv."

"From Home Alone?" Jane asked.

"Yes," he said, pulling her in closer. "Do you think Harry was his special someone? Everyone needs one, you know."

They stopped moving, and Jane cleared her throat. "Grandma?"

"It looks like you've found yourself a very nice boy," Marvin said, nodding to Steve who was watching them from the corner.

"What's the other side like?" she asked.

"Well, I can tell you it's a garbage dump if you don't say the rosary enough," he said.

"Are you going to go back there?"

"Tonight, probably," he said.

"Thank you for coming, I guess." She gave him a hug.

Tara announced that the next song would be the last song of the night, and Jane and Steve rested their weight on each other as they gently rocked back and forth. He bent his head down, "Can you believe how beautiful the weather was today?"

She smiled back at him, a tear welling in her eye. "It was so beautiful. I can't even believe it."

The next day, Jane opened her windows. Steve had snuck a pack of beef jerky out of the last food drop and given it to her. She placed a piece on her windowsill and then lay down on the floor with a vantage of the enormity of the sky. A raven swept across the window, held up confidently by the air beneath it. She looked at the picture of her father levitating and smiled, closing her eyes and spreading her arms out wide. She breathed in deeply, letting the warm air fill her lungs until she felt lighter, like she was floating.

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