I’m fourteen the first time I bargain with the indigo snake. I find it basking on the rocks that are piled against the south side of our house, a lazily drawn line of black, like a cursive letter that has gotten away from itself. It lifts its head as I walk up. “Can you hurt Sam Mueller?” I ask. I’ve taken health class by this point, so I know that I’m not supposed to speak to snakes. There are videos about what happens to the kids who do. But they’re so poorly made, the actresses too peppy and the snakes no more than plastic-eyed puppets. Hardly sinister.
It is the business of the Dream Curator to choose, and at the moment he is doing so. On his left, an uninspiring rococo fantasia on a childhood humiliation; on his right, a fractured symbolist nightmare of mollusks and walls of televisions. Neither is permanent-gallery material, but both tempt him to reshuffle the rotating exhibit space near the front of the museum. He samples them again, and makes the correct decision. Too much beauty in a museum, he thinks to himself, is not necessarily a good thing. And the mollusks will look good in the newspapers.
Even though your creative fiction professor fawns over Joyce, you don’t understand the copy of Ulysses you checked out from the library, so you hide behind it while you stare at your classmate whose skin flickers. His blue and green skin is speckled in spirals of twinkling lights. When you stare long enough, you realize the spirals spin like galaxies. Part of your brain should tell you he is abnormal, but it does not. He stands up and reads his assignment. He reads poetry. This is not a poetry class.
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.