In the Magic Place

Joe was staring, his mouth hanging open, his heart beating a rhythm of staccato awe. The woman in front of him was juggling colors. She flung one hand up, the fingers outstretched toward the sky, and a spinning clump of blue whirled in a neat round arc. The red sank into her other hand, which clasped it comfortably, and the yellow and purple flew in between. That all happened in the space of a second, and then she did it again. Her hands, moving up and down, framed a spinning circle of color that smeared pink and green and turquoise between the pieces of color she was throwing and catching.

Arielle tugged on Joe’s hand, and he started. “Come on,” she said, “We don’t have that much time left here, and before I bring you home I want to show you some other stuff.” She was pulling him toward the corner of the block. There was a living statue there. A man was standing next to it, motionless until Arielle plucked a coin from Joe’s shirt pocket and tossed it to him. Then his hand snapped up to catch the coin and he twirled, bowing to them and touching a gentle hand to the lump of silver towering over him. It was softly rounded and droopy, like a piece of metal that was interrupted halfway through melting.

When he touched it, though, it began to come to life. The shapes gathered themselves and their edges shrank into being, lines carving themselves on its surface. Suddenly the lump of silver had lengthened and was a gleaming tiger, tail flicking and head swinging from side to side to watch them with cold metal eyes. The man clicked a finger against it again, and it began to shift once more. It drew itself up and then folded, and then it was a rather old man, shining wrinkles wobbling on his chin and a dapper cap drawn low over his head. He was sitting and reading a silver newspaper on a bench that wasn’t there. One more tap, and the man melted to re-form as a statue, a lovely young woman with blank eyes and perfect proportions, her mouth a round O and her hands clutching a silver sheet around her. Joe and Arielle looked at the statue in its lovely still splendor for a moment, and then the statue smoothed and dropped into nothingness again. They thanked the man, who gave an almost imperceptible nod from his resumed position next to his magic treasure.

There was a candy stall on the next block, just across the street. Joe began to walk toward it, but Arielle caught him by the shoulder. He protested, “No, wait, I just want – ” She shook her head at him, and pulled the other way. He craned his neck to look as he stepped toward her. The second person had just bought a candy and popped it into his mouth. After a moment, he began to float – at first, just a few inches about the sidewalk, but he circled higher and higher until he was several heights above everyone in the street, at the same level as the first floater-eater. The table was piled high with jars and boxes  – Joe read “Fireballs – very hot!” and “Jawbreakers CAUTION” on one corner, while “Rescue Candy” and “Bubbly gum” were stacked on the other. He said, “Listen, Arielle, can’t we just – ”

“No,” she interrupted him. “We can’t. I’m sorry, but I have another tour coming up, and you know you can’t do magics here, not even borrowed or bought-for-a-quarter.”

Joe slumped and followed her, forlorn. The tours were expensive, and he couldn’t afford another for a while. “Chin up,” said Arielle, smiling at him. “We had to get you back to the real world eventually, after all.”

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The Sleepless Widow

Jen sometimes took walks in the dark. It was oddly peaceful to slip out after the streetlights winked on and the shadows engulfed the streets, to walk through the glow of a light and then swim blind through the shadows only toward the next bright spot. When everything was quiet she would leave, her dishes tumbled in the sink and the bedroom light left on. When the door clicked closed she was suddenly back in the world, not in the house that wrapped her tight and kept her closed off.

When she walked down the street, there was nobody there. She only had to navigate past the odd trash bag spilled out over the sidewalk, belated leftover from the garbage truck. Her thoughts rose up around her and spiraled out, and she followed their threads as she walked. She was so caught up in her mind that she nearly bumped into an elderly woman, stepping with slow solemn care along the sidewalk.

Jen said, “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“That’s all right, dear,” said the lady. “I understand. After all, I’m taking a walk at night too, right?”

Jen fixed a polite smile on her face and nodded. “Yes, certainly. Do you walk often?” She cursed herself silently for starting a conversation, realizing too late.

“Sometimes,” the woman confided, leaning toward Jen. “Sometimes I just can’t sleep, and my house is empty now. Then there’s really nothing for it but this dark sorcery of the night, don’t you know?”

Jen looked up at her, startled. The old lady was grinning, but her face was sweetly set in wrinkles and her eyes gleamed with the yellow shine of the streetlights.

Jen nodded cautiously, and said, “I suppose so.”

The lady let out a chuckle at that, and said, “It’s quite all right, sweetie. What brings you out at this odd hour?”

“I just like to walk at night,” she said. “That’s all.”

The old woman laughed again. “Yes, of course. And at night you never know whom you might meet.”

Jen’s eyebrows drew together, but the old woman was still smiling. “I met you.”

“Just so, then.” The woman, a smile still stretched over her creased face, nodded at her and turned her face forward again, taking a small step on the concrete.

She walked slowly after that, looking behind her every now and then. There was nothing remarkable there, though, just the shape of the old lady disappearing slowly in the night.

When Jen got back home, she stretched across the cool sheets of the bed and curled her hands in the blankets. She was tired after a long walk, and she fell asleep into restless dreams of moonlight and magic.

The Psychic Detective

When this guy walks into the room, I can tell he’s important. He’s short, a little round, dark-haired. I don’t even think it’s something about him, as himself. It’s a connection, maybe. But when he steps up to my desk the feeling is so strong that it hits me right in the chest, and a gasp sucks air into me without my even realizing it. I’m choking on the breath when he sticks out a hand and says, “Hello, I’m Henry. I have – ”

“Yeah,” I say. “I already know.” This is usually how it goes, but I’m usually speaking easily, not thinking about the words. It’s a script by now, and they always say the right words even though they don’t have a copy.

“What?” he says, right on cue.

“Didn’t you read the sign? I already know most of it.”

His eyebrows shoot up. Sometimes I think I should take a picture with each client and line up a hundred surprised faces, tucked into the crown molding of the walls in the waiting room. “So what do you know? What do you mean?”

I look at Henry for a moment. He’s not an especially thick cloud of a person, more scattered memories and drifting objects, so he’s a little easier to read. His parents’ divorce, his absent girlfriend, the lottery ticket that he lost when he was seventeen that he’s still sure won – they’re all within easy reach, so I grab them. Of course, the reason he’s here is the closest to me, so that’s the easiest one to pick out and present.

I aim my gaze at his face, somewhere in there among the memory, and say, “Your dad, right? You want to know what he did with the money.” Luckily, this is the sort of thing I can say without thinking about too much. I’m distracted by the other things, and I set them aside so I can look at them later. I’m still not entirely sure which one is so massively important. I’ll figure it out later. He needs more, though, and something’s calling me, so I tell him to take a seat in the waiting room. He’s still nodding his head, eyes wide, as he walks out.

The next person in is an old man. The missing ring is so bright on him that it flares at me, and while he talks I shut my eyes and trace it back. It’s in the living room sofa. The missing thing seems to be in a living room sofa a disproportionate amount of the time, and I tell him so as soon as he pauses for a breath. He hobbles out of the room and an anxious young man totters in. I can tell he’s only half-conscious out of exhaustion and worry, but it’s too easy to see. I bend over my desk again, sifting through papers. I can feel the problem even now.

“She’s cheating on you,” I say, without looking up. “With her secretary.”

The sudden shock of sadness pulls at me, and I look up to see his face crumpling, his eyes welling and dripping at once. I feel a pang of sympathy for him, for half a heartbeat. “Next!”

My day passes like that – as it always does. Adultery, loss, money. There’s an odd murder or two to make it interesting, but mostly it all passes in a blur. People come into my office, dragging their pain and grief and jealousy, and I send them back out with answers. Maybe more pain, more grief, more jealousy, but sometimes peace of mind. That is why I took the job in the first place, so long ago.

When the day’s nearly done and I don’t see anyone else heading into the office, I call to the guy – Henry. He walks in, a little stiff from sitting in the waiting room for hours. He’s still clutching the tabloid he was reading, and his hands are pressing damp valleys into the paper. I wave a hand and he sits in front of me. The leather of the chair creaks as he shifts.

“Hey, Henry,” I say. “I want to know why you’re so important.”

There is a moment of quiet. Then Henry leans forward, and he smiles.

The Tambourine Men

You can tell that they’re coming by the music seeping into the air, the notes lingering like a scent that you can almost recognize. You’ll follow it just to know, because otherwise it nudges at a corner of your brain, reminding you to notice it. When they arrive, you can just follow the stream of people headed toward them, the crowd clustering around the sounds.

You can try to push up to the front if you like, but people are so tightly packed that you’re risking an elbow to some of your softer parts. Everyone stands still, locked in place, reaching for the music that chimes and jangles through the mob of people. You can feel it rising through your bones and spreading through your blood until the melody runs through your veins and makes your heart beat faster.

You can hear them play for a while, and then they go. It seems like forever when you’re in the middle of it, the music stretching like some vast landscape where the grass rustles and the streams murmur, the leaves swish against each other and the birds offer an occasional cascade of notes. The sweetness of it fills your chest with a warm pressing joy.

You can listen to it rapt, your lips moving without your realizing it, your eyes closed. When your eyelids blink open you see the men on stage as they play. They are wearing buttoned shirts and jeans, and their eyes are open. They stare at the people, eyes searching, lips parted. They look entirely ordinary. Your eyes slip shut again and the sound builds again to a glorious height. It stretches again forever. The music surrounds you, overwhelms you, drowns you in beauty. When it ends the silence is emptier than anything you have ever heard.

You can tell when they’ve gone by the sudden absence of people who are usually there. The old lady isn’t at the grocery check-out line anymore, the librarian is missing, the banker who eats a sleepy lunch at the corner diner has left the plastic stool empty and you can see the dimple on the cushion where he’s sat every day for twelve years. You can watch them go, but that’s boring. Men with suitcases trundling behind them walk in a little clump. It’s more interesting to watch the trail of people following them.

You can count them, but you’ll get tired before you reach the end. They link their arms together and walk on, some with bright sure steps and some dragging their feet, undecided, still thinking of the leftover burgers they abandoned in their refrigerators.

You can watch them all and wonder, and ask yourself if you should go too. They’re all listening, all straining for the music, and humming along with the sound. Together the caravan of people builds into a great round well of song, so many voices twining together. They walk endlessly, singing, dreaming.

The Danger of Angels

Have you ever seen an angel? They aren’t impossible to see, but they are difficult to spot if you aren’t looking carefully. This is mostly because they are so light blue in color, nearly transparent against a sunny sky, floaty and phosphorescent as they hover. They tend to flutter near you when you don’t notice, and they are reluctant to talk to you. If you can get one to speak, the first thing it will tell you is that it is an angel.

These beings made of air call themselves angels. Once they speak, their tones ring out clear and loud. It is not bell-like, as you would expect, but rather a bit like a gong, rich and reverberating, issuing from a mouth you can barely see. This big noise blooms from what seems nearly to be air.

Once the angels begin to talk, they hurry and their words fall and fill the space around them. They speak to you of truth and beauty, and right and wrong. They tell wonderful stories, these angels. They will tell you about the loveliness of the clouds as the sun sets and floods them with color, and the grace of the wheeling birds celebrating each morning. They will tell you about the scent of pine rising off a forest, and the rushing crash of a waterfall farther away than you’ve ever been. They will tell you of the things they have heard and smelled and seen – not of the things they have felt, though, for entities of air cannot feel as we do. But you will forget the sensation of warmth on your skin when you hear them speak of the reflections of sunlight on a glittering ocean.

As they tell these stories, their high light voices will rise and swell. They will gesture with their near-invisible arms in the air, as if a mirage were swooning before you. Their beautiful tones with weave and spin through the stories, and you will sit transfixed. You will cross your legs and hug your knees, right there on the sidewalk where you first saw them. You will sit there as the pavement grows cold beneath you, and the light dims around you, and a few faint drops begin to chill your shoulders. All of this escapes your notice, as you are too absorbed in the stories, listening intently to the rise and fall of the angel’s voice. Everything else ceases to exist.

This is why you have never seen an angel. They aren’t impossible to see, but if you do ever spot one – and it’s not difficult enough, unfortunately – you must know not to trust it. Ignore the swoop of shifting color in the air beside you, and if that lovely light voice speaks into your ear, keep walking. Shut your eyes to the sight of it, and do not listen to its stories. Instead. concentrate on the embrace of the cool evening air on your back, of the ache in your muscles as you walk down the sidewalk, on the softness of the breath you draw in. Listen to yourself breathe, and for God’s sake ignore the angels.

Jump

Colors faded and cooled as the light dimmed and the shadows grew and vanished, an early winter night setting in. Elena was walking with brisk steps, thinking about nothing in particular, in that space between stress and the rest of the day where she didn’t really register the world except to avoid walking into people. There was a diner on 3rd Street, where she was headed. She was supposed to meet Daniel there for dinner and a talk, and she was late. He had said that he needed to talk to her soon. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. At this point she didn’t even know which things were good and which were bad, so whatever happened she probably still wouldn’t be sure.

Thinking of what it could be was distracting. Her mind flitted between possibilities – Daniel saying “I think we should take a break” in a deep flat voice, Daniel lowering himself to one knee and looking up at her with round hopeful eyes, Daniel knocking over a glass and storming away forever. There was a mess of emotions weltering in her chest at each scenario, but she wasn’t clear-headed enough to figure out what they were.

When she got to the block with the diner, she paused. The people walking behind her nearly bumped into her, and as they stepped around her one of them made a slit-eyed nasty face at her. The other paused. He was a middle-aged man with a beard clinging to his jaw and hair beginning to let go on his scalp. Elena took an involuntary step back as he moved closer to her, and he held up a hand in reassurance.

He said, “You don’t know what will happen, but you could.”

“Um.” She gave him her best I-don’t-talk-to-crazy-people look. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know who you are – ”

“No, of course not.” He shook his head, as if impatient. “You would’ve. But no, that’s not the point. Listen, you’re at one of those crossroads right now, one of the things that decides everything. You ever think about the fact that in twenty years, this will be a memory you can barely hold onto? I mean, the pattern of events in the future is unknown now, but everything that’s going to happen is already going to happen.”

“That’s very interesting,” Elena said, backing away as slowly as she could, hoping he wouldn’t see her feet moving. “But I – ”

He interrupted her again. “No, no, you’re still not getting it. I mean, I can see that and it looks like you don’t know what will happen but you could. I could, you know, like with a remote control – what’s it called? Where you speed up a movie? Fast forwarding. You can do that if you want, be ten years later or twenty or something, and already know all of what’s so awful and scary now.”

That sounded crazier than the last bit, but Elena was intrigued. After all, the worst that could happen was nothing. She looked down for a moment, and shrugged. “I suppose. I mean, I guess. Why not?”

The man had a smile on his face that wavered between triumph and something that looked like sorrow. “Okay, listen then. You just need to shut your eyes for a minute, and then I’ll, you know, press the remote control button.”

Elena nodded and took a breath, closing her eyes. She didn’t feel anything except, abruptly, the sun on her skin. There was a shriek of joy, and her eyes snapped open. Ricky was chasing around that little girl – what was her name? Natalie? She really should remember it by now. It was nearly 5:00 already, and she stood to call the kids inside. They started at the sound of her voice, and slumped into the kitchen.

For a moment she felt dizzy. There was a memory tickling at her mind, a younger version of herself. She remembered not being sure if it had worked – what had worked? In the past few years her memory had gotten so spotty. She liked to joke that having kids was using all her brain, and she didn’t have a whole lot left. Jack laughed every time she said it, and then she would joke that he only thought she was funny because he loved her. He laughed at that too, every time. The kids would usually laugh along with their dad, too. But what was it she could almost remember –

She had been walking to that diner somewhere downtown, going to meet – who was it? Daniel, right? He was a sweetheart. She was going to meet him for dinner, and they were going to talk, and in the end she didn’t go. She turned around right on that same block and went home, and she deleted all the messages he left. The memory felt distinctly confused – she had been so bewildered, she just hadn’t known what to do.

That was after the time-traveling crazy man, though. She couldn’t remember why she had listened to him, but after him she’d just gone home, and never even talked to Daniel again. She could almost remember making that decision, an impulse that pushed her away. It seemed very odd – she could remember everything after meeting the crazy man and closing her eyes tight, but it felt so recent. It felt like she had just opened her eyes to sway unsteadily in the summer breeze, dropping there from that city street so long ago. Despite everything that happened after, everything that lay in scrambled memories. Leaving Daniel – she remembered doing that, but somehow she felt as though she hadn’t yet made the decision.

“I wish I hadn’t done that,” she murmured.

“Mom, what did you say? I’m thirsty.”

The kids were getting restless. Elena blinked and the remains of the memory slunk into the shadows. She smiled and got up, to go make them chocolate milk.

A Ring Under the Bed

Faye was turning to reach for the light when her elbow slipped, knocking into the book still lying open and then, painfully, into the wall. She cursed and sat up, rubbing her arm. The book had slid over and then flipped up to drop neatly between the mattress and the wall, and she could see the pages splayed on the floor through the crack. Her arm didn’t quite fit. The bed was heavy, too, and the mattress was scratching her skin.

With a sigh, she pulled herself out of bed and knelt on the floor, craning her neck to look under the bed. There were a couple wrappers and some tissues scattered there. The book was leaning against the wall, the farthest from her it could be. She could feel the irritation heat her face, and with a grunt she dropped on her side to the floor. Her head on the carpet, her shoulder stretched out and the book was only a few inches away. She could almost reach it.

Her fingers brushed against something small and cold, and her hand grasped it like a reflex. She curled a couple fingers to hold it to her palm and reached just a bit farther until she felt the pages tickle her skin. The book in hand, she withdrew her arm from under the bed and sat up, back against the edge of the mattress. Carefully unfolding the bent pages and closing the book, she hauled herself up to the bed. The floor under there would need to be cleaned out, and she pressed a reminder into her mind. Maybe she would remember tomorrow.

With the book retrieved and put away, she could look at whatever she’d grabbed. It was still folded in her hand, and when she spread her fingers flat she saw a golden ring. It gleamed at her, and she blinked. It was beautiful, if a bit silly-looking, she thought. All gold filigree, intricate and curling, with a diamond nestled in the center. She turned it over, studying the shape and rubbing a thumb over the dips and whorls of the metal.

It looked like it might fit her. She wondered how it could have ended up under her bed – a hiding place for jewelry, maybe, or a proposal gone terribly wrong. The smoothness of its inside rasped against her skin as she toyed with it. She held her hand out before her, feeling a bit silly, and then she slid it onto her finger. She admired the shine of the metal and the glint of the stone against her hand for a moment, and then everything disappeared –