In this universe, the last time we talk is when I return the basketball I borrowed from you. We are seventeen. We’ve known each other for seven years. We’ve vivisected each other all through high school, intent on playing games of cruelties and making up, because it’s how wild animals play and we are nothing if not savages in denim and sneakers. We are always friends and always enemies, though on this day probably more friends than anything. You’d think we’d kiss this once, to seal a parting.
The worst day of Wells the Magician’s life begins pleasantly enough, with a shot of whiskey at the Lost Kingdom bar. It’s a birthday party day, and as all low-rent magic men know, birthday party days begin with booze and move laterally through coffee, cake, and whichever divorcee can be convinced to unhook her bra, whether offsite or in a back bedroom. Onward from there into (dire case) helium, (better case) weed, or (best case) coke.
In an empire at the wide sea’s boundaries, where the clouds were the color of alabaster and mother-of-pearl, and the winds bore the smells of salt and faraway fruits, the young and old of every caste gathered for their empress’s funeral. In life she had gone by the name Beryl-Beneath-the-Storm. Now that she was dead, the court historians were already calling her Weave-the-Storm, for she had been a fearsome naval commander.
Mike and Jessie were walking in the park. The trees high above their heads stretched to touch each other, their leaves letting only the tiniest slivers of light through. Mike watched the freckles of light spot Jessie’s brown face, her shirt, her arms. He tried to snub them out with his fingers. It was a long day for them. They’d spent a few hours walking around the park, just talking. About old dreams and new ones, black riots and urban decay, the secrets of their hearts and the mysteries of the universe.
Some kids do that—they imprint on empty objects, they give them stories and opinions and a will, until they feel half-inhabited even to grownups, who have to pretend that they care how Chrissy’s blanket feels about things for so long that one day when Chrissy’s at school they step on the blanket and apologize. I did it with anything, when I was young; my toys were always in the middle of some intense plot that nobody outside could understand.
By the time he returned home after all his years of wandering, Magnus Diarisso had come to prefer a fire burning on cold days rather than the elaborate hypocaust system that heated the mage house. The sound of wood settling, sparks popping, and ashes sighing helped him relax. He told his nephew the mansa, the powerful cold mage who was head of Four Moons House, that he did not want to live in the main house with its comings and goings and the children’s chatter.
Here’s what I know: When Mom discovered she was pregnant with me, my parents had been separated for some time. Dad had left her for another woman in another town, and Mom had filed for divorce. I was conceived during a short-lived Christmas reunion. Dad wanted her to get an abortion. She refused. On the eve of the date when the divorce would’ve become final, Dad caught a train back to New York.
The creatures come out at night, while we’re asleep. My husband says they are harmless. “Probably mice,” he says. “They’re not harmless,” I tell him. “They are very much not harmless,” I say. “They’re gathering information on us. They’re looking through our things, examining our lives, deciding if we are good or if we are not.” “That’s ridiculous,” my husband says. “They’re singling us out. Deciding which ones to take away.”
If you have a worry your heart can’t seem to hold, take your troubles to the trees, my grandmama would say. That was in the Old Time, when I was a small girl with scraped knees and ashy legs, a neck full of sun. Her words would comfort me as I grew older, my baby fat yielding to strong woman curves and hips. Then I would fling my arms around my secret tree and whisper my sorrows into her knotty breast.
Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams rode into town for a drink, but he stayed for the pretty boys. He was as mean as they said but not so tall: a lean, hard man with a rocky face and a broad mustache, slicked at both sides from a tin of fat he kept in a satchel round his waist. That first night he broke a man’s jaw for cheating him at poker. I didn’t just hear the story, I saw it—how Wild Bill clocked the fucker upside the face, emptied the last of his drink, and knocked out half the man’s teeth with his mug.