Ceese knew he couldn't say anything to anybody, yet it troubled him to keep such a thing secret.
This wasn't gossip to excite or scandalize people in the neighborhood. This wasn't entertainment.
From what Mack let slip today, some terrible things had happened in the neighborhood—the worst being Tamika Brown's near-drowning, but there were others, and the danger of more bad things happening. Wishes always being turned against the wisher.
Who was doing it? Or was it simply the way of the world, that all desires exacted their price?
Ceese wanted to talk to somebody about it. But who? Not his mama, that was certain. She'd blab to his brothers, at the very least, and then they'd taunt him for the rest of his life about how he believed in magic and wishes. Dad? He wouldn't even understand what Ceese was talking about.
Ura Lee Smitcher? Maybe. She was a hardheaded woman and not prone to believe in strange things, but she knew how to keep her mouth shut. The only reason not to talk to her was that it would worry her that Mack was tied up in all this. And maybe that was her right, to know what her adopted son was involved in so she could worry.
But wasn't it Mack's place to tell his mama what he was going through? Those... what did he call them?... cold dreams. Skinny House. That big Rastafarian fairy. Man, who could possibly believe that if they hadn't held his tiny body in their hands out in Fairyland? If they hadn't seen his wings?
So Ceese kept it to himself. But he still thought about it.
He read Midsummer Night's Dream over and over, at least the fairy parts, and came to the conclusion that he didn't like any of the magical creatures. They were vicious and petty and used their power for stupid and selfish things.
Then again, to be fair, ordinary humans did the same thing. Nobody knew how to use power for good.
Not even me. Why do I think I should be given a gun and a nightstick and a badge and sent out onto the streets as a cop? Because I'm so good that I'll never use my power for evil? Isn't that how all the evil people in the world get started?
No. They know they're doing something bad, or they wouldn't hide what they did and lie all the time. And when I'm a cop, I'll be protecting the weak people from the powerful ones.
Only how do I protect a kid like Tamika from her own wishes? From the malevolent force that will twist those wishes into something dark and terrible?
Over the next few weeks, Ceese started paying attention in church. Then he gave up on the sermons—they were all about working people up to feel the Spirit, but Ceese had seen real magic and he wasn't interested in feelings, he was hungry for understanding. So he spent his time in church reading the Bible, trying to make sense of how Jesus fit into the world that Ceese now understood he lived in.
Mack didn't know he could heal people, but it was obvious in the hospital that day. He held on to Mr. Christmas or Bag Man or whatever his name was, and the man got better. His bones knitted up, his skin smoothed over without a scar, even his clothes changed. So there was healing in Mack's touch even if he couldn't control it himself. Heck, at the age of thirteen maybe Jesus didn't know what he could do, either. Wasn't that the age when Jesus went and talked with those wise men in the temple? Wasn't thirteen when Jews believed a boy became a man?
So what would that mean, if Jesus and Mack were the same kind of creature? That God the Father was a malevolent fairy king? Ceese thought back to the scary woman on the motorcycle—what was she, Satan? Tempting him to kill the boy? But then was it God who played these cruel tricks on people in the neighborhood? What kind of universe would that be?
No, these fairies were the opposite of God. Instead of tricks, he healed people. Instead of bringing them grief, he forgave their sins. And if I'm to serve Jesus in this world, thought Ceese, then I have to find a way to fight these fairies.
Except... if Mack was the creation of something evil, why was he so good? Why was his heart so full of love and hope and joy? Nothing made sense. Maybe things couldn't be sorted out into good and evil.
So Ceese did nothing, because he couldn't even figure out which side he ought to be on, let alone how he could possibly take on magical beings and defeat them.
And he had this memory: I was a giant in that place.
It had felt so good to be unassailably large. What could hurt him there?
The fairy tales were full of giant-killers.
And if he were a giant here, in this world, the real world (though that other one certainly felt real, while he was in it!), he wouldn't be able to help other people using his great size and strength. They'd be terrified of him. They'd shoot him down, like in King Kong and The Iron Giant.
So Ceese trained to be a cop so he could do some good in the world, and read the Bible to figure out what "good" actually was, and did his best to watch over Mack and make sure nothing bad happened to him.
And now and then he walked past that place on Cloverdale Street, carefully looking straight ahead, but without Mack at his side, he never saw a glimmer of Skinny House, and he never saw either Mr. Christmas or that black-clad motorcycle woman on the street.
Word got religion, too. He had seen real power twice in his life now—when Bag Man came out of his parents' bedroom with an impossible baby in a bag, and now in that hospital room when Bag Man was healed just by holding on to Mack Street.
It began to haunt his dreams.
Mack went back to Skinny House the first chance he got. He wanted to find Puck and ask him all the questions that were burning him up inside. But the house was empty, no furniture, no food, no sign that anyone but Mack was ever there. Mack found that if he brought stuff there, it stayed. Real things that he carried into this passage between reality and Fairyland stayed put and didn't pull disappearing acts. So he kept a notebook there, and wrote down all his thoughts. He also brought food—stuff that wouldn't rot without a fridge. Cans of beans and mandarin oranges and little plastic containers of applesauce. He used his allowance to buy a cheap metal can opener and some plastic spoons.
That way he could take expeditions into Fairyland and carry some food with him. Mack didn't know what was edible and it wouldn't matter anyway—in Fairyland, anything might be poisonous. He didn't want to end up like that donkey-headed man.
Though if something did go wrong, what would happen? If there were six ways he could die, and one way he could live, would the one version of himself that lived come back to Skinny House and find six pairs of pants hanging from the hook again? Or was that splitting of time just a one-shot deal? Did it happen because that's just how things worked, or was it something Puck did, toying with him?
Fairyland was a huge place, Mack discovered, but it followed the terrain of the real world.
Mack could sort it out, if he made a rough kind of map and kept his eye on the sun to keep track of east and west, north and south. The mountain of Baldwin Hills and Hahn Park was more forbidding and dangerous than in the real world, but that's because no one had tamed it. There was more water everywhere, too—streams wherever the ground was low, and it rained often when he was there.
Right in the middle of summer, he'd come out soaking wet and from the windows of Skinny House he'd see bright sunlight and bone-dry ground.
He ranged far and wide. There were ancient ruins atop the hills of Century City, a huge stone structure with pillars surrounding a central table that was open to the sky. The handiwork looked Greek or Roman, but the arrangement made him think of Stonehenge. It sat right on the crest of the hill that had been cut in two to put Olympic Boulevard through. Only there was no Olympic Boulevard, and so no cut in the mountain, though where the road would have been a spring burbled up from the earth and started a stream that tumbled over clean rounded stones.
Time worked differently in Fairyland. The first time he went in, he slept the night and when he came out it was also morning in the real world. But ever since then, it was different. If he went to Fairyland for a few hours and came out, in the real world only an hour or so would have passed. So for a while he thought that time went half as fast in Fairyland.
The trouble with swamps is they're easy to get lost in, and Mack found that out the hard way.
He didn't know whether the snakes he met were poisonous or not, but they left him alone, and one time when a gator suddenly appeared out of nowhere, its jaw open and ready to snap at his leg, Mack heard a growl and turned around and there was a panther—maybe the panther—threatening the gator. It backed away and fled. But since when was a panther any threat to an alligator? Mack couldn't begin to guess where reality left off and magic began. And as for the panther—was it his friend? Or someone else's friend, ready to help him if it suited that person's purpose, or hurt him, even kill him, if he got out of line?
It took him all day to make his way back up out of the swamp and then he was lost, not sure how far south he had gone. He got confused and thought that Cheviot Hills was Baldwin Hills and that's where he spent his second night, worried to death about how Miz Smitcher was bound to be worried to death. Compared to that, it was hardly even a problem that he had run out of food.
The next morning he found Century City pretty easily, and then struck out southeastward, traversing familiar ground, so it was only noon when he found the path leading to the back yard of Skinny House.
At Skinny House, it was late afternoon.
Mack raced home, desperately trying to think of some plausible lie to tell Miz Smitcher about where he'd been for two whole days.
She was sitting in the living room, having coffee with Mrs. Tucker. "Well, Mack," she said, "did you forget something? Or did you just miss my cooking?"
Mrs. Tucker laughed. "Now, Ura Lee, you are a wonderful woman but you're no kind of cook."
"Mack likes my food just fine, don't you, Mack?"
That's when Mack realized that no matter how long he spent in Fairyland, it was never more than an hour and a half in the real world, though he found through experimentation that it could be much less. The only exception was that first night in Fairyland. And he couldn't think why that time should have been different.
He could bring food and tools into Fairyland—he couldn't resist writing his name with a felt-tip pen on the inside of one of the columns at the Century City Stonehenge—but he couldn't plant anything and have it grow, and when he tried to take things out of Fairyland, they were transformed.
He had thought of trying to get his science teacher to identify some of the berries and flowers he found, but when he came out, they had dried up and crumbled in his pocket so that it was impossible to tell what they had ever been.
He immediately turned around to try to restore it to life by returning it to Fairyland, but it didn't work. It was still dead. Mack never again tried to carry any living thing back with him from Fairyland.
Yet fairies themselves could make the passage. And anything at all from our world could go the other way.
Or could it?
Mack had never had a problem with any of his tools—a spade, scissors, the Magic Marker, his notebook, his pencils. But he found that he couldn't strike a match in Fairyland. He couldn't set a fire of any kind. He never saw a fire there—not even lightning.
So things that depended on fire wouldn't work there. Not guns, not cars. If he wanted a cooked meal, he'd have to bring it with him. If he somehow managed to kill an animal there, he couldn't roast the meat, he'd have to eat it raw.
What did fairies eat? Were they vegetarians? Or could they magically cook their food instead of using fire?
Those were trivial questions, he knew, compared to the big ones: Why did such a place as Fairyland exist in the first place? Were there other lands besides Fairyland and reality? Why was there a connection between the worlds right here on Mack's street? When he hiked through the place, why didn't he ever see an actual fairy? He hadn't seen one since he found Puck, injured.
Who were Puck's enemies? Were they Mack's enemies, too—or was Puck his enemy?
Who was screwing with Mack's neighborhood, and why were they doing it?
Mack struggled through Midsummer Night's Dream one time, and couldn't keep track of the lovers and who was supposed to be with whom. Maybe it was easier if you could see actors play the roles so you could tell them apart by their faces. But it didn't matter. The second time through, Mack read only about the fairies. Titania and Oberon. What a pair. And Puck—he seemed to be Oberon's servant but also he enjoyed causing trouble for its own sake.
Again, though, the real question was much more fundamental: This was a play, not history. How could he possibly learn anything from a made-up story?
He went online and learned that Midsummer Night's Dream was the only one of Shakespeare's plays that didn't come from somebody else's story. One site said that he probably got his fairies, his
"forest spirits," from oral folk traditions.
Fairies cropped up elsewhere in Shakespeare. Changelings and baby-swapping came up in Henry IV, Part I. Mercutio talked about Queen Mab—which made Mack wonder if she was the same person as Titania or if there were two queens, or many, and lots of fairy kingdoms, or maybe just one.
Only Mack couldn't figure out why they thought Shakespeare's fairies were cute. They weren't evil, either, not exactly. They just didn't care. They had no compassion for humans. People merely amused them. "Oh what fools these mortals be," Puck said—which to Mack sounded like Shakespeare already knew that Puck was a black man, saying "be" instead of "are."
So if the stories Shakespeare heard as a kid were all about full-grown fairies as big as humans who were filled with hatred for the human race, why did he change them to creatures so small that Queen Mab could ride in a chariot made from an empty hazelnut and pulled by a gnat?
But he didn't always make them small. When Puck made Titania fall in love with Bottom while he had a donkey's head, she seemed to be the same size as him.
They all thought Shakespeare was taming the fairies, making stuff up that would make them seem cute instead of dangerous.
Mack knew that when a fairy was in our world, like Mr. Christmas, he was the size of a man.
But in Fairyland, he was small. Not so small that he could fit into a hazelnut shell, though. Unless he really was that small when he got even deeper into Fairyland. He had already made his way to a point on the path within sight of Skinny House. If he hadn't, if he had still been as tiny as Queen Mab, then Mack would never have found him.
Shakespeare got it right. Shakespeare knew something about how Fairyland worked. Changing sizes. The way fairies mess with humans for fun, but don't actually hate us because they don't care about us.
And if Shakespeare got that part right, then why shouldn't he know about an ongoing rivalry between the king and queen of the fairies? In his day, it was a matter of pranks, arguments over a changeling, love potions. Silly things. But what if it got uglier and uglier as the years passed? What if Oberon somehow managed to imprison Titania in a globe-shaped lantern hovering in a clearing on the far side of a ravine, guarded by a panther?
There were two lanterns there with a fairylight inside. Was the other one Oberon himself? Or maybe some boyfriend fairy that Titania was cheating on Oberon with.
If only Shakespeare had written more.
He was known as the greatest writer in the world. Even people who didn't speak English thought so, just from reading translations of his plays. There was a guy who actually wrote a book that claimed that Shakespeare somehow invented human beings, or something wacko like that.
Was it possible that Shakespeare's brilliant writing had been his wish? That he hungered to be the greatest writer in the world the way Tamika had hungered for water to swim in forever. What was it Shakespeare might have asked for? Undying fame. A name that would live forever.
"Shakespeare" indeed. Some prankster fairy—was it Puck himself?—had decided to let Shakespeare's life act out his name. If the pen was his weapon, his spear, then at the end of his career his spear shook so badly that he was unable to keep writing. He hadn't wished for a long career, had he? Nor for happiness in love. He ended up marrying a woman who was years older than he was because he got her pregnant—or somebody did. And then his career was cut off short by his shaking hands—but then, his wish had already been granted, hadn't it? He was already going to be famous forever, so why should he be allowed to keep writing or even keep living long enough to enjoy his fame?
Ha ha, Puck. Very funny.
What fools these mortals be my ass. I heard your teeny weeny little voice, Puck, and dragged you out of Fairyland and took you to the hospital and then you somehow sucked healing out of me then what? Any thanks? Any favors? No, you just disappeared.
Though now that Mack thought about it, maybe not getting a favor from Puck was the best favor he could think of. Because fairy favors always took away more than they gave.
"Mack, this thing you've got with Shakespeare," said Miz Smitcher one morning, "I'm delighted, I'm happy for you, you're smart as I always thought you were. But you got to sleep at night, baby.
Look at you, hardly keeping your eyes open. It's a miracle you don't put your Rice Krispies in some other hole."
And because he was tired, Mack answered almost honestly. "I got to find out about him," he said. "He's like me. In a lot of ways."
Miz Smitcher touched his forehead. "Oh, I know, baby. He was white, you black. He had long hair like a white girl, you got hair so nappy your head could rub the paint off a Cadillac. He was English, you American. He was a brilliant writer, you can't spell. He made up plays, you wander around the neighborhood like a stray dog eating at anybody's back door who'll feed you. Who could miss the resemblance?"
Mack sat up straighter and finished his Krispies and didn't talk about being like Shakespeare again.
"I can spell okay," he mumbled.
"I know. But you don't spell like Shakespeare."
"Nobody spells like Shakespeare anymore, Miz Smitcher. He couldn't spell worth... spit."
That was an old game between them, and Mack took it up. "Tastes so bad I got to lick up the puke just so I can have something to puke out again."
"Now you going to make me puke," said Miz Smitcher. She got up from the table and started rinsing off her dish to put it in the dishwasher.
So the game was over before it began. Or maybe it never was a game. Maybe she really was mad at him. But why? He didn't actually say "shit." So she was probably really mad about something else.
About Shakespeare. About Mack reading all the time and staying up late looking stuff up on the web.
Don't you see, Miz Smitcher? This stuff is about me. I'm a changeling myself, and Shakespeare wrote about fairies and changelings because he met them, he must have, he knew the answers. Only he's dead and I can't ask him. So I got to find the truth in his plays.
Ariel, for instance, in The Tempest. He was a fullsize fairy or spirit because he had been rescued by Prospero and so he was bound to serve him for a certain period of time and...
And I rescued Puck. There in the woods, I rescued him, and he's bound to serve me.
That's why he's never there at Skinny House. That's why I never see him on the street. He's hiding from me, so I won't realize that he's my slave.
Not that I want a slave.
But if I'm his master, then I can ask him questions and he's got to answer.
But as long as he can't hear me giving him any kind of command, he doesn't have to obey.
That afternoon Mack slipped into Skinny House and out the back door and went to the ruins on the hill above Olympic Boulevard and with spray paint wrote in big letters, one letter per column, PUCK YOU CHEATING FAIRY GET BACK HOME!
Two days later there was a story in the paper that he heard Mrs. Tucker read aloud to Miz Smitcher. "Can you imagine such bigotry in this day and age? Right there in huge letters across the face of the Olympic overpass."
"At least it said 'fairy' instead of 'nigger,' " said Miz Smitcher. "Maybe that's progress, maybe it ain't. The way it used to be for us in this country, I don't wish that on anybody."
Mack heard this and he called Ceese and pretty soon the two of them were parked at Ralph's just down from the overpass, looking at the big letters that said PUCK YOU CHEATING FAIRY
GET BACK HOME!
"I wrote it but not here. I wrote it in Fairyland. I was sending a message to that lying cheater Puck."
"Puck?" asked Ceese.
"Mr. Christmas. Bag Man."
"You're saying he is Puck?"
"I asked the house what his real name was, and It made a hockey puck appear."
"It doesn't look like it says Puck, actually."
"That's what it says."
"That P looks more like an F. See how it's not really a loop there?"
"It says Puck, dammit!" said Mack.
"Don't get excited. But you can see how it got folks talking. They aren't going to think somebody's writing a message to a real fairy named Puck. They're just going to think it's a message from a bigot so dumb he can't make an F right."
"Don't you get it, though, Ceese? I wrote that at a ruined circle of stone columns in Fairyland, and it appeared on the overpass here."
"On both sides, too," said Ceese. "You only wrote it once?"
"So what you do in that place changes things here," said Ceese.
"I've peed and pooped all over Fairyland," said Mack. "You think that stuff pops up in our world, too?"
"Now that's a pretty thought. Right in the middle of somebody's kitchen table."
"Right in the office of some studio bigshot."
"A pool of piss."
"A steaming pile of—"
"You're going to make me puke."
"I puked once there, too."
"You a regular shitstorm, boy. Somebody got to get you under control. I got to find out if there's a serial burglar who breaks into people's houses, takes a dump, and leaves without stealing nothing."
"I'd like to see you prove it."
"We could do DNA testing."
"Shit don't have no DNA," said Mack.
"Did somebody here ask Mr. Science?"
"I wrote that sign in Fairyland," Mack said, returning to the subject. "And come to think of it, stuff that happens here changes the world there, too. I mean, the terrain is pretty much the same. So when we have an earthquake, maybe they have an earthquake, too. Maybe they get mountains because we get mountains."
"That's God's business," said Ceese. "Not mine. I'm a cop, not a geologist."
"You not a cop yet."
"Am too. Been a cop for two weeks now."
"And you didn't tell me?"
"I'm still a trainee. Probationary, kind of. I don't want to make some big announcement yet because I still might wash out. But I got a badge and I'm going out on calls."
"You a cop. I can't believe that."
"Now you can't mess with me anymore," said Ceese.
"I never messed with you before," said Mack. "Now I got to start."
"I'll arrest your black ass and give you such a Rodney."
"It takes six cops to give somebody a Rodney."
"It takes six white cops," said Ceese. "Takes only one black cop."
"Who the bigot now?"
"Just stating the obvious," said Ceese. "I been practicing Eddie Murphy's speech from Beverly Hills Cop. His 'nigger with a badge' speech."
"Only cop I ever saw was Baldwin Hills."
"That's one long movie."
"The name of the movie is... stop messing with me, Mack. I come clear over here cause you want to check out the graffiti they wrote about in the paper, and now you telling me you wrote it in Mr. Christmas's back yard."
"It's a big back yard, Ceese."
"Well, I got to give you credit. It's the first graffiti I seen in years that I could actually read. But you can't make a P worth shit."
On the way home Ceese took him to the Carl's Jr. on La Cienega so it turned into a feast, but the whole time, they both knew that something strange and important and maybe terrible was bound to happen one of these days, and they wished they had some idea of what.