Four o’clock in the morning probably isn’t the witching hour. It is, however, the earliest time of night that the beach is free of drunk and hormonal teenagers, so in this case it will have to do.
At this particular four o’clock on this particular beach, a lone figure carves arcane symbols into the sand, meticulously checking the shapes against hand-drawn diagrams in a tattered, leather-bound volume with yellowed pages. The book itself has clearly seen better days; hastily-applied sellotape along the spine barely holds the volume together against the ravages of time and neglect.
The figure is a teenager (not drunk) by the name of Daniel Reed. The book, as Daniel is quite aware, is almost certainly a work of either fiction or madness, or potentially both. But that word “almost” can serve as a home for any number of possibilities — including the possibility that the writer of the book genuinely understood the secrets of the universe — and that’s more than room enough for Daniel to house their most desperate hope.
Daniel’s fairly adept at believing things despite all evidence to the contrary. This is probably why they are a) doing very well in Drama lessons, and b) not quite mad themself. Daniel has chosen to believe, for example, that they are not being bullied: they just don’t understand most people’s ideas of friendship, right? They’ve also decided to believe that Michelle, their best and possibly only real friend, might be interested in them as something more; this is despite the fact that Michelle is also the one gay person that they know. But their most sincere belief-despite-evidence is the belief that boys can, somehow, become girls. And not just as reality TV sideshow attractions.
Daniel finishes their work in the sand and adds the finishing touch: a small copper coin in the centre. It’s a special one pence piece with two tail sides and no head. Presumably the result of some error in the minting process, Daniel feels a sort of bizarre kinship with it given their own “manufacturing error”. According to the book, this ritual requires a “fetish”: an object carrying spiritual and emotional power. Daniel’s “unlucky penny” fits perfectly, right?
Daniel stands back from their work, attempting to feel the strings of psychic energy emanating from the sand-drawings. This part is more of an art than a science, not that this is particularly scientific; they have to carefully tug on the strings that “feel right”, guided by intuition, faith and chance.
This ritual’s not going to achieve anything. That’s what the rational part of Daniel says, at least. Even the part of them that’s governed more by hope than cynicism only expects the most minor of effects. But that would be enough, at least for now.
Neither part of Daniel is expecting an explosion, but that’s exactly what happens.
Staggering back, Daniel blinks away the spots in their eyes, unholy white noise ringing in their ears. Reflexively, they put a hand to the right side of their head, where the pain seems most intense. After a moment that feels like an age, the spots start to fade and they notice what must have been the origin of the blast. In the middle of the remains of their magic circle lies a small firework, the kind of novelty firecracker you used to be able to get from the local amusement arcade, before enough parents complained.
“Sorry,” calls a voice from behind. The tone it carries isn’t entirely apologetic, though. “I didn’t mean for it to be so close. Bad throw.”
Daniel’s more than a little deafened at the moment, so that voice could be ten feet away, or fifty. They turn to look, still blinking away the remnants of the flash.
The speaker is a man, late twenties, with shoulder-length blond hair framing a hard-featured face. He’s wearing casual clothes — blue jeans and a baggy, navy-coloured hoodie — and he looks slightly too old for the style, like he’s trying a little too had. There’s a piece of red wool yarn curled around the fingers of his right hand; he’s playing with it in a manner that seems somehow both absent-minded and deliberate.
“What the f—?” Daniel starts to say, but the man suddenly pulls the yarn tight between his thumb and little finger and Daniel find themself somehow cut silent.
“Good evening!” he says brightly, smile not quite reaching his eyes. “I’m sorry I had to interrupt your little ritual, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t have gone very well for you if I hadn’t. Believe me, you don’t want to mess with this stuff without experience.”
Daniel stares in shock. This guy is sketchy as fuck, but he clearly has access to some kind of supernatural power or else they’d not be quite this speechless. That string… They have so many questions, but they can’t get the words out.
“I’ve no idea what it is you were trying to achieve,” the man continues, “but I’m guessing you want it pretty badly. Am I right?”
He smiles once again, and it chills Daniel to the bone. They still can’t manage to speak, but they find themself nodding in response anyway.
“In that case,” he continues, “I have a proposal.” He raises his left hand — the one that was empty before — and somehow, he’s got Daniel’s coin in it. He turns it slowly, so as to show both tails. “Work for me… and I’ll see if I can help improve that luck of yours.”
The hair on Daniel’s arms is standing on end, but they can’t help but nod once more. Maybe this guy is as dangerous as he seems, but clearly he knows things, things that Daniel needs to know too if they’re ever going to be able to live the way they want. And they’ve already been driven this far by desperation. A deal with the metaphorical devil isn’t so bad when your alternative is a deal with the literal devil, right? This stranger might be able to help Daniel fulfil their deepest, most fervent desire, and there’s no way they’re passing up that chance.
Because if magic is real, then maybe Daniel can become a girl.