At first it was A who wanted to be the hero, rescue the damsel in distress, squash the evildoers, all that bullshit that would just get them killed. But even as Simon tried to talk him out of it, he found his own arguments getting harder to believe. It was like a voice in his head telling him, This is your chance. It's the one you always wanted, to be the special one, not just the weird kid who never figured magic out. You could do something great here. But by that time, A was starting to nod along and he knew he had to ignore it.
They left Berlin the next day so she wouldn't get another chance to track them down, moved on to the rest of Germany like they planned. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic. At the end of the summer, when they flew back into JFK, his whole family was waiting there, eager to see the photos and hear the stories. Berlin was the only story they never told, and there were never any photos to remind him of what he hadn't done.
One of his dad's cousins owns a travel agency in the Bronx and they need a new employee. He starts there in the fall. It's boring, but it pays tuition for community college in the winter, two-year sales and marketing program. Living in his old bedroom, eating meals with the whole family, he can pretend that he's come back to a normal life. But that nagging little voice still won't let him forget that in this house, "normal" means that a coven meeting is an acceptable reason for coming home late, pepper coexists with eye of newt in the spice rack, and dinnertime conversations sometimes take place in Enochian. In this house, he's the strange one who never had a vision, was never any good at magic, never learned to levitate. Over and over it reminds him: This didn't have to be your life. You could have had so much more, if you'd chosen it.
He's been at the agency for almost two years, is about to finish up his degree, when his boss insists on introducing him to Linda, who is his boss's neighbor or goddaughter or some other vaguely understood relation. Linda has long red hair and a tribal tattoo on her lower back, and when she laughs at Simon's stupid jokes it's like the world opens up and shows him that there's something other than a ringing travel agency phone and a narrow bed in his parents' house and a voice in his head that won't shut up. They have their first date at a Chinese restaurant. He's so nervous that he knocks an entire bottle of soy sauce off the table while he's pulling out her chair for her, and before it hits the carpet she catches it without lifting a finger. She floats the bottle back to the center of the table like it's the most normal thing in the world to whip out your magic in public and he can't believe that he's actually surprised by this. Of course everybody his family knows is special one way or another. He's the exception, not the rule.
But she never once calls him on it. Never once, on that date or on any of the many others that follow it, does she ask him the questions he's so accustomed to hearing. Like, "Hey, Simon, if your grandma's really the most powerful seer in all five boroughs and the rest of your family are all following in his footsteps, how come I didn't see you at our last sacrificial goat roast?" Linda is the first witch he's ever met who didn't act as though there was something wrong with him because his family was his family but he still couldn't do magic, and he loves her for it. And there must be something she sees in him too, even if he can't figure out what it is, because even without magic, she stays.
It doesn't take them long to decide they should get married. They have the wedding at that Greek Orthodox church that Grandma likes so much. Anthony gets drunk and gives this great best man speech that's funny and moving and never once mentions Berlin, and only one person gets transmogrified as the result of some macho dick-waving contest or another, so he'll call that a success. They rent their own place a few blocks away from his family's house - it's easy to pay for with the promotion he just got. It means longer hours, some weekends even, much less time at home, but it's worth it if it means he can take care of her. He tells himself it's worth anything if he can just see her smile - even if it still weirds him out a little bit when she takes the garbage out without moving from the armchair so she won't miss a moment of Law & Order.
When Linda tells him she's pregnant, not long after the wedding, his first feeling is of relief. Now he'll finally be able to stop wondering how his life would be if things were different - he's got more important things to think about. The funny thing is, he doesn't. He lies awake in the middle of the night, with the streetlight filtering in through the window and his hands curved over Linda's swelling belly so he won't scratch the birthmark on his chest, and remembers a crying girl and a ring of robed men and a woman in blue and a chance he didn't take. Remembers a poem from high school English class, in that way you remember useless things when you're so tired you can't sleep: What happens to a dream deferred? He doesn't know if he even would have wanted that life, or if it's just that voice finally getting to him after all these years, telling him he could at least have it different if not better. Would it make him more or less normal to admit that sometimes he wants to give in, to leave it all behind? He rolls over and pulls the blanket over his head to shut out the dingy yellow light, knowing that sleep won't follow. Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?