In his later years, when he spoke, a faint whirring came from his lower jaw. His mouth opened and closed rhythmically, accurately, displaying a full set of human teeth gleaned from fallen comrades and the stitched tube of plush leather that was his tongue. The metal mustache and eyebrows were ridiculously fake, but the eyes were the most beautiful glass facsimiles, creamy white with irises like dark blue flowers. Instead of hair, his scalp was sandpaper.
Travel to Scandinavia if you can, the older cats told me, the queens in their raftered kingdoms. The coffee there, they said, is bitter as an old lie. The Norsemen are beautiful, their women even more sublime, but most importantly, they are quiet. Preoccupied only with Nordic things, disinterested in the outside world. This is crucial. This is what makes them safe. But this is not the only reason I am here.
The boy who will become court magician this time is not a cruel child. Not like the last one, or the one before her. He never stole money from Blind Carel’s cup, or thrashed a smaller child for sweets, or kicked a dog. This boy is a market rat, which sets him apart from the last several, all from highborn or merchant families. This isn’t about lineage, or even talent. He watches the street magicians every day, with a hunger in his eyes that says he knows he could do what they do.
He blew smoke through the cigarette and it grew longer. He glanced at the clock and realized that its hands were moving backwards. The clock told him it was 10:33, going on 10:32 in the p.m. Then came the thing like despair, for he knew there was not a thing he could do about it. He was trapped, moving in reverse through the sequence of actions past. Somehow, he had missed the warning. Usually, there was a prism-effect, a flash of pink static, a drowsiness, then a moment of heightened perception . . .
I seem to make an outcast of myself every time I’m a teenager. Which is fine, I guess. I’ll take one good dog and one good friend over being a phony and fitting in. Alicia points. “There he is, Jamie!” A couple hundred feet away, our trailer park’s newest resident grabs a box from the van parked in front of his single-wide. He’s gray-haired and buff, like if The Rock were an old man. Alicia and I are sprawled on top of a wooden picnic table in the park’s rusted old playground.
The unhappily married Lady Abergavenny sat alone at the banquet table waiting for her husband. Her husband, of course, was Lord Abergavenny. The big, brave, handsome Lord Abergavenny. The night was dark. Supper had gotten a bad chill on the banquet table. The goose had goose bumps (this was unsurprising), but so did the potatoes and the turnips and the hunks of dark, sour bread, the region’s specialty. “Ghastly,” said Lady Abergavenny.
One of the doors in the closet, behind the boxes, leads to a harsh desert world. The first time you stepped through, you didn’t bring water, and nearly died as you crouched beneath the sun, waiting for the door to open again. You were saved only by the unexpected appearance of someone draped in gray, who gave you water before showing you a mottled face of lizard skin. You screamed. By the time you returned, you could barely stand. Your head pounded; your skin was badly burnt.
The dead man was a nail-biter, tucked up in the back seat with old theater magazines and a water-stained Baedeker of Malta, his free hand still nearly white-knuckled around the haft of his oar. All the way from the North Shore, he had complained about her music until Delia popped the tape with a sigh and a protesting click of plastic and stopped the radio on the same alternative station she had spent her first few years out of college waking up to, and they passed the last few miles on I-95 peaceably enough on the White Stripes and the Black Keys and the Decemberists.
Your name is Alex and you live in a small town at the edge of the sea. You have a sister and two parents and no pets. In your town, everyone follows their destiny: They cross the street, cook endless meals, stand in the same room, deliver the same mail every day. You can’t remember most of their names. It’s the way it’s always been. You’re different. You wake up one morning and know something’s wrong. It’s an unsettled ache in your chest. Bad things will happen soon. Unfortunately, you can’t articulate these feelings. No one but you knows anything is different about today.
They gave me directions, not an address, and once I arrived, I could see why. There was no church here, no hall, no theater. I parked at the end of the dirt road by the lightning-blasted oak and peered toward the line of fir trees, fuzzed orange by the sinking sun beyond. I wondered, briefly, if this was a trick—lure the lady bartender out to the woods for nefarious purposes—but they’d paid half up front and the check had cleared, so I checked my professional demeanor in the rearview mirror, grabbed my bag, and got out of the car.