“Magic 8” by Eric Maroney

1. After all the storms, the kids’ games had turned to pulp, and all that remained was a plastic bag of hard game pieces. Tre played with a triangular die that had broken free of its black ball. He asked questions and it answered yes or no.

“Why do you do that?” his older sister Bets nagged. “You think that thing can tell you what to do?”

“Better than anything else we got,” he answered. “Should we go down the coast to the east?” he asked and tossed the multisided die on the deck. Reply hazy, try again. Bets looked down at the answer.

“Might as well guess ourselves,” Bets said, picking up the piece, examining all twenty sides, each with its words of admonition.

“We need to know what to do,” Tre stomped. The water was rocking the boat, and Bets grasped the gunwale, white knuckled. “There’s a storm coming up from the south.” He pointed to the darkening, lathering horizon.

“Should we head into the channels?” Bets asked, then cast the die. Outlook good.

“There you go,” Bets smiled. “We head into the reeds.” She waved to Bro, her older brother in the flying bridge, and he turned the boat toward the silted delta.  This was a bad choice, as the surge rushed up the channels like a Noah’s torrent, generating tides at cross currents, tearing boats to planks and splinters. But this time their boat sat in a placid channel as a storm raged around them. When it was over, Tre asked Bets to hold open her hand, and he dropped the die into her palm.

2. Two months ago Dad went north for work and never returned. A month later, Mom ventured east with a boyfriend, and sent notes about making enough money to fetch the kids. But the notes stopped. The kids were not fetched. The rent was unpaid. The landlord came and threatened to impound Dad’s charter fishing boat—their only possession of value. But he never had a chance. A gale howled from the south, and in hours the house was under water to the second floor. Bro steered Dad’s boat to the second story windows, and they cast toys, food, bedding, clothes, and all the rundown, ragged items of their family life on the deck. That was when the black ball split in two.

Bro pulled the boat parallel to the coast, and the children saw the multitudes of sandbars spitting pylons of riven wood where there was once shoreline. “Holy shit,” Bro spat, and the two concurred. Bets stretched a line to dry old quilts, while Bro checked the engine with its array of belts and wires. Tre sat on the sun-soaked deck, taking measure of his games. He spied the little die, free from its black ball, and considered if it was therefore drained of the authority of its magic.

3. There were other boats and people with coughing engines and shouting voices out in the haze—but the kids steered clear. They caught distant glimpses of wild heads peering hungrily through the haze. They were children and knew broad things to be as true as particulars. There moments were fraught.

“There’s a lot of people fishing the sand bars,” Bro drawled. “Should we go too?  We need fish…but all those people is waiting trouble.”

“Should we go to the sandbars to fish with all them folks with guns and gaffing hooks because we need the fresh food?” Bets intoned, and cast the die. My source say no. Bets squinted and called out, “Sources say no.”

“What about the reef,” Bro continued, pointing in the opposite direction. “We haven’t caught shit there for two weeks, but maybe our luck is changing. Not a goddamn boat out there either.”

“Should we fish at the reef?” Bets asked, casting. It is certain. They hauled in the silvery catch in bulging, squirming nets. 

4. The rains failed. Their bottles were nearly empty. Drastic action was required.

“What do we do?” Tre asked. “My tongue is all swollen.”

“There is that spring near the bay,” Bro answered, gesturing east. “Up on the hill near the old town hall. Remember everyone whose water was foul would line up with jugs so they could drink and cook?”

“Could be trashed, or worse,” Bets answered. Her tongue was swollen too and sealed by cracked lips. She held up the die, glistening in the sunlight. “Should we go to that old town hall spring?” She cast. Concentrate and ask again. She did, and cast. Cannot predict now. She cursed, picked up the die, closed her eyes, and repeated the question in an angry whisper. She flung: My reply is no.

That night, it rained buckets. They filled everything that could hold a drop of water. Three days later they reached the outer reef, spying the town and its well from a safe distance. The docks were smoldering. Bodies were bloated and strewn on land and sea, tossed back and forth on the tide like flotsam.

5. One day was scorching sun, the next, drenching, cold rain. The food ran low.  One night, men in boat tried to board them, but the kids slipped away in rough water. Tre was drawn into himself, not talking. He only spoke to Bets to tap her powers of prognostication.

“Is the weather gonna keep on like this?” he asked.

“Will the weather keep on like this?” she asked and tossed the die. Most likely.  She repeated his questions:

“Will we get back to the land?” My sources say no

“Will we have enough to eat and drink?” Very doubtful

“Will people hurt us?” Without a doubt

“Will we die on this boat?” Yes, definitely

“No, ask it again!” Tre cried.  “Are we gonna die on this boat?” Bets repeated the words and cast the die: Yes.

“It’s just bullshit,” Bets yelled. “Don’t listen to what it says. It’s a piece of plastic shit with words on it—that’s all.”

“Try it again, damn it. Ask it, are we gonna die on this damn boat!” Tre begged.

“There’s no point,” Bets answered. “We’ve been doing this bullshit nonsense far too long. All this is dumb luck. Everything is luck. Nothing controls nothing.”

“You ask it,” Tre spat. “You got special pull. Maybe we’re not gonna die if you don’t ask it right.”          

“Are we gonna die on this damn boat?” Bets shouted, and cast the die. They peered down: Yes.

6. A dark swell was pushing them toward a cove. Behind, in the dense orange fog, were four fast-moving boats in a line moving to intercept the kids, and to the right, lay jagged streak of shoals.  They were being pushed into the cove, and the only possibility of escape was a wall of water on the starboard side that could just as easily swamp as save them. Bro was on the flying bridge, crying to Bets above the wind, “Which way? Which way?”

Bets watched the obstacles before her, and then down at the die in her hand. She looked over at Tre. He tried to say something, but his voice was slight against the clamor of engines, the stiff wind and plunging water. Bets leaned close to his ear to hear him: “It’s just fucking blind luck. Don’t do it. Don’t throw that shitting piece of plastic. Don’t ask it if we should steer toward that wave.”

She cast.

Reply hazy, try again

She tossed again

Reply hazy, try again 

Reply hazy, try again 

The world grew dark, and the sky fell with a rumble. In the distance, a giant wheel turned. In the depths of the sea, great shadows guarded the deep, and turned and turned. 

7. She cast:

Reply hazy, try again.

Reply hazy, try again.

Reply hazy, try again.

Eric Maroney is the author of two books of nonfiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His mixed genre book, The Torah Sutras, was published in 2019. His short fiction has appeared in over twenty literary journals and publications. He is a regular fiction and nonfiction reviewer for Colorado Review. He works at Cornell University, and lives in the hills outside of Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children.