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Chapter 24

CHANGELING Titania flew with Mack Street in her arms, soaring over the buildings and streets of Los Angeles.

The Santa Monica Freeway like a river flowing with cars. Hills that in her own country were thick with forest, but here were thick with houses.

Still, the glory of Fairyland peeked through here and there. In the lush gardens tended by the hands of Mexican laborers. In the jacaranda that was just coming into fragrant bloom. In the moist wind off the Pacific, carrying cooler air inland, though not very far. Just to Baldwin Hills, where Titania landed on the sidewalk between two houses, with a cop car and a motorcycle at the curb.

She carried his light, almost empty body into the gap between the houses and, as far as any observer on the street could have seen, disappeared.

Inside the house, Ceese heard the door open and called out, "Who's there!"

"Bill Clinton, the first black President, what do you think?"

It was Yolanda. Ceese picked up the golden cage wrapped in a copy of his leather jacket and walked into the living room.

She was laying Mack Street down on the floor. His shirt was open and a terrible wound was seeping blood.

Ceese cried out, a terrible groan, and flung aside the cage. He ran to Mack's body and embraced it, covering himself with blood. "Mack," he cried.

"He's not dead," said Titania.

"Do you think I don't know death?" said Ceese. "He's cold, and he has no heartbeat."

"He's not dead," she said. "He's just empty."

"What do you mean?"

"In our battle, Oberon used him up. Emptied all the wishes out of him. So in the end, the old monster had nothing left to draw on. A couple of bullets from your gun took my dear husband right in the mouth and he had no strength to turn them into anything but what they were. Bullets."

"Oberon's dead?"

"He's bound. While he was lying there gasping with pain like he had never felt before, I bound him. I stripped him of that hideous shape. I sent him back down, and this time he didn't have the power to bind me in return." She walked over to the corner behind the front door, where the golden cage had rolled after it fell out of the jacket. Puck was glaring at her.

"It's over, Puck," she said.

"I could have helped. I could have saved the boy." and you would have done it."

"Let me out."

"No revenge," she said. "I'll set you free—of this cage, of Oberon—but only if I have your solemn vow. No revenge on me or any of the people who helped bring Oberon down today."

"So now I'm your slave," said Puck.

"I'm offering you parole," said Titania. "As long as you don't try to hurt me or any of these mortals, you're free. So say it. Give me your oath."

After a moment's hesitation, Puck launched into a stream of some language Ceese had never heard before.

"What's he saying?"

"What I told him to. Only he's saying it in Sumerian, so you can't witness his humiliation."

"Sumerian?"

"It's where we first met. I found him in the wild and loved him until he awoke from his animal stupor and realized he was a man. It took a while longer to persuade him that he was really one of us, and immortal. Isn't that right, Enkidu?"

Puck answered with another stream of incomprehensible words. Titania chuckled. "That'll do."

She passed her hand around the globe. As she did, the wires unwove themselves and skeined themselves around the third finger of her left hand. So fine were the wires that they became a simple gold band.

Released from his prison, Puck squatted down and strained like a dog trying to lay a turd in the grass. As he did, he grew larger and larger until he was his full height. But not the same man. No, not the old homeless guy. He was young and beautiful and seriously pissed off.

"You owe your freedom to me," said Titania.

"Only because you didn't let me help," said Puck.

"Help now. Help me waken the boy. Let him remember who he is."

Puck sighed. "Well, turnabout is fair play. He healed me once." He knelt on the other side of Mack from Ceese and laid a hand on the boy's head. Then he sighed, smiling. "Oh, Mack, it's good to know you."

Mack's eyes fluttered and opened. He took a huge breath. His heart started. Ceese's tears didn't stop, but they changed meaning.

"No," said Ceese.

"I have to," she said. "I have to finish this. He's the last bit of business."

"He's not a bit of business," said Ceese.

"He's the most beautiful of souls," she said, "but he's been too long away from the rest of himself, and he needs to be made whole again."

"You're giving him back to Oberon?" asked Ceese. "To that damned dragon?"

"Dragon no more," said Titania. "I tamed him. He's just an ordinary fairy now, except that he's in chains, and can't find the best parts of himself, and has no idea of why."

Mack sat up under his own power, stood up, looked around. "Did we win?"

"We did, Mack, thanks to you. And to Ceese. And Ura Lee Smitcher, who shot the bastard in the mouth when he wasn't looking. And even Word Williams, who recognized the demon that possessed him and helped keep him from swallowing you up. And all those good people who made my fairy circle and freely gave me their good wishes." She turned to Puck. "Speaking of which, I'd be grateful, my dearest darling Puckaboo, if you'd go find the two people that Oberon smacked out of the circle. A girl named Ebony DeVries and a woman named Sondra Brown. They're the ones who paid the highest price for your freedom. Don't let them die. And no tricks. I want them restored to perfect health and strength with their minds intact. And while you're at it, let's see about undoing some of the other tricks you pulled with Mack's cold dreams. A little girl named Tamika. A man named Tyler. You know the list."

"Oberon made me."

"Well, I'm not making you undo it, so this isn't a punishment. It's a favor I'm asking you to do.

For me. I'll owe you."

"What will you owe me?"

"A single sweet and precious kiss," she said softly.

Puck bowed, then spread his wings.

He shrank rapidly again, until he was the size of a moth, and not a large one. He took off flying, out a slightly opened window, and into the gathering light of morning.

"Time to go, baby," said Titania.

"So you're giving me back to him after all," said Mack.

"He's ready for you now. And you're ready for him. I promise."

"Mack, that's not in my hands."

Mack turned to Ceese, who was also standing now, and threw his arms around him. "You're in all my happiest memories, Ceese," he said.

"And you're in mine," Ceese answered him.

Mack clung to him a moment more, then parted. "You know what, Ceese? Miz Smitcher called herself my mother. She called herself 'Mom.' "

"Took her long enough," said Ceese.

"Ceese, there's something I got to tell you. When I had her cold dream, the thing she wished for—it was not to be alone. To have her son holding her hand in her bed when she dies. I can't now.

But you can still fulfil her wish, can't you? For me?"

"We raised a bratty little kid together. We're practically married."

"That's what I thought." Mack kissed Ceese on one cheek and then turned to Titania. "Let's go."

"Let me go with you," said Ceese.

"You've already said goodbye," said Titania. "As Ura Lee did. Leave it at that."

Mack and Titania held hands as they walked up Cloverdale. Mack was keenly aware that this was his last time walking this street, and it made him sad. It seemed to him as though he were five years old again, and ten, and fifteen, all at once, his feet knew the sidewalk so well at every age.

"I didn't see enough," said Mack. "I tried, but I didn't see anything as clearly as I should have."

"You saw it all, baby," said Titania. "Better than anybody."

Mack shook his head. "I know all these people so well, and now I'll never see them again."

"You know what we have to do, don't you, Mack?" said Titania.

"What I don't know is why."

"Ah. Back to causality. But Mack, you do know why. As long as you're out here, then his virtues are gone from him. All he's got is his malice and his chains. And with you out here, he has a tool to use. It'll all start over again—if not this year then ten years or twenty or thirty. You're immortal, Mack. You'll always be here for him to use for some despicable purpose."

"I guess," he said.

"I don't see how it could be anything else. I won't be Mack anymore. I'll be Oberon. Which means I won't be anything, and he'll be everything."

Mack and Titania reached the hairpin turn, crested the ridge, and walked down into the basin surrounding the drainpipe. The grassy area around it had been blasted and burned and then even the ashes had blown away. There was nothing but grey California dirt.

Titania led him to the drainpipe and helped him climb up on top of it.

"What do I do, just fall down into it? It's got a grating in the way. Looks like crisscrossed rebar."

"Mack," said Titania, "your body isn't real. Not the way other bodies are. It has a whole different set of causes. So you have to trust me when I tell you that all I'm going to do is send you back down the pipe with this."

Mack looked at the gun in her hand. "That Ceese's gun?"

"Yes. And it's the gun that your mother used to stop Oberon in his tracks."

"And you're going to use it to kill me."

"Not kill. Disrupt the structure of your body and let your immortal parts back down the pipe."

"Oh, cool. Now it's fine."

"Mack," she said. "I have no choice, and neither do you. For the sake of all these people."

"I know that," he said. "That's why you didn't want to marry me, isn't it? Because you knew your victory wouldn't be complete until I was dead."

"Everything has a reason," said Titania. "But until you know all the reasons, you don't really understand any of them."

"Go ahead and shoot."

Titania aimed at him. "Bye, baby." She fired.

Mack felt nothing at all. "You missed."

"I didn't miss," she said. "It went right through your head."

"Didn't feel it."

"Jump down from there."

He did.

It hurt like crazy. Not as bad as the rip in his chest from the dragon's talon, but bad enough.

"Why did you shoot me in the hand! Now you've got to do it again!"

"This is great," said Titania. "I can shoot you just fine down here, but it wouldn't do a damn bit of good. And when you're standing up there, it halfway dematerializes you so bullets pass right through."

"Oh," said Mack. "Standing over the drainpipe does that to me?"

"It's where you came from," she said. "You popped out of there and floated around till Puck sent you up the road to Nadine Williams's womb. It was his job. As it was his job to go fetch Byron Williams and get him home before you were born."

"What about Ceese? Puck fetch him, too?"

"No, baby," said Titania. "Your own goodness called out to him. As it called out to Ura Lee Smitcher. Love and honor and courage know their own kind. Even Word Williams. It was that connection between you that kept Puck from fully erasing his memory. And it was that connection that let Oberon find him and use him as his pony."

"It all comes back to me," said Mack.

"How's your hand?"

"Bloody and painful. How's your conscience?"

"Troubled," said Titania.

"You won't even miss me," said Mack.

"I will," she said, "but only for a little while."

Her words staggered him, but he nodded gravely and said, "Thank you for being honest with me."

"I'll never be anything else."

"As long as we both shall live," he said bitterly.

"How are we going to do this?"

"We aren't going to do anything. I'm going to do it."

"How?"

"If bullets go right through me when I'm over the drainpipe," said Mack, "then why would four sections of rebar stop me from dropping back down to hell?"

Then she backed away and hovered, watching.

"I'll do it," he said impatiently. "You don't have to watch."

"Yes I do," she said.

"Just have to make sure I don't cheat and run away," he said bitterly.

"Every voyager needs someone who loves him to say goodbye."

"Do you love me? Not Oberon, me?"

"I can't answer that," said Titania.

Mack turned away from her.

His feet balanced on the rim of the drainpipe, Mack made one slow turn, drinking in the hills that surrounded the little basin on three sides, and the view to the north, out over the city of Los Angeles.

I wish I'd known yesterday morning that I'd never see any of this again after today. I would have... I would have...

Only then did he realize that he wouldn't have done anything differently. Not yesterday. Not any other day of his life. There wasn't a single choice that he regretted.

Well, that's okay then, he decided. How many people get to leave this world without a single thing in their lives that they'd like to undo? Oh, there's people I wish I could have helped, but no harm that I did myself but what I set it right as quick as I could.

"Titania!" he called out.

She flew into view, a few yards away. Only now she was very small. About the size of a butterfly.

"Titania, I didn't get to tell Ebby goodbye. Will you tell her for me?"

"I will, after Puck fixes her up."

"I think maybe I might have fallen in love with her, if I'd had more time."

"In and out of love. That's what mortals do," said Titania. "Always in love yet never satisfied."

"You and Oberon are so much better?"

She smiled. "Touche, baby."


Chapter 23 | Magic Street | Chapter 25







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