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Chapter 8

SKINNY HOUSE

The summer he turned thirteen, Mack was getting tallerfast enough that Miz Smitcher grumbled about his wearing jeans one day and then she had to give them to Goodwill and buy him a bigger pair the next. And his voice was changing, so when he talked he kept popping and squeaking.

He didn't find so many kids when he walked the neighborhood these days. Or rather, not the familiar ones, not the ones his age. They were all indoors, online, playing games or chatrooming, or hanging somewhere that other kids could look at them and size them up and decide they were cool.

A lot of the boys had decided they were ghetto now, talking like they came from the mean streets of Compton or South Central, putting on the walk and the clothes and the jive they saw in the movies instead of talking like the upper-middle-class California boys they really were.

Mack didn't mind and still talked to them like normal, but he didn't put on attitude like that himself, not the talk or the clothes or even the walk, so it left him as an outsider, looking somehow younger than his friends. Or older, if you looked at it another way, since he showed no sign of caring whether he was part of any group or not.

Even his grades at school stayed pretty good, since the teachers asked him to study hard and learn, and so he did. But nobody gave him any crap about "acting white" or thinking he was better than them when he got good scores on the test and always had his homework to turn in. He was just being the same old Mack. No threat to anybody. Always a good companion, if he happened to be there. But not somebody you thought to call up if he wasn't. So it never seemed he was in competition with them, not about grades, not about girls, not about anything.

Baldwin Hills was getting old. Eventually, as people died or went to nursing homes, new families would move in. But right now, as Mack wandered the streets of his neighborhood, it was just a little...

emptier.

And when Mack got the notion to drop in on somebody at mealtime, they didn't turn him away.

They just weren't home. Too busy.

He wasn't close to anybodynot at school, not at home. He hadn't realized that no one confided in him. He never asked questions because, by and large, he already knew. And he never confided in anyone else about anything deeply important to him because he couldn't. The things most important to him had to be kept secret for the sake of the people who would feel betrayed if he broke that rule.

So his walks and runs through the neighborhood were more and more likely to be solitary, or with younger kids trailing after him. And that, too, was all right with Mack. He liked being alone. He liked the younger kids.

What he didn't like was walking past one particular spot on Cloverdale, just a few houses up from Coliseum. And he didn't know why he didn't like it. He'd just be walking along, thinking his thoughts or looking at whatever he looked at, and then, just as he passed between Missy Snipe's house and the Chandresses', he'd suddenly feel distracted and look around him and wonder what he had just seen. Only he hadn't seen anything. Everything looked normal. He'd stand there on the sidewalk, looking around him. Nobody doing anything, except perhaps some neighbor in another yard looking up at him, probably wondering why Miz Ura Lee Smitcher's strange boy was standing there dazed like somebody smacked him in the head.

He always shrugged it off, because he had someplace to go. And yet he remembered it, too, and walked on the east side of the street as often as not, sometimes even crossing over, going out of his way to avoid it, only to cross back again afterward.

What am I afraid of? he asked himself.

Which is why, on one day in that hot summer of the year he turned thirteen, instead of avoiding that spot on the west sidewalk of the lower part of Cloverdale, he made straight for it, made it his destination, and found himself standing there wondering what it was that had bothered him so many times before.

He still couldn't see anything. This was stupid.

He decided to go home.

And there it was again. That moment of startlement. He'd seen it. Out of the corner of his eye.

But when he turned to look, there was nothing. He sidestepped, looking between the houses, going up and down the sidewalk, and there was nothing.

Again he decided to go home.

Again, as he passed the same spot, out of the corner of his eye he saw...

It was out of the corner of his eye.

Instead of sidestepping, he now turned his face resolutely southward, looking up Cloverdale toward the place where it jogged to the west at Sanchez Drive. Without turning his eyes to left or right, he took a few steps backward, then forward, and both times he saw it, just a little flash of something to the right, directly between the houses, right at the property line.

Finally he got it exactly right and stopped, right there, with whatever it was holding steady at the corner of his eye.

He knew better now than to try to look right at itit would surely disappear. Instead, keeping his gaze southward, he took a step onto the lawn between the houses. And another.

The shimmer became a vertical line, and then it became thicker, like a lamppost or a telephone polehow much could he see, really, out of the corner of his eye? With each step it widened out, shoving the other houses aside.

Another step and it was as wide as any house in the neighborhood. A whole house, directly between Snipes' and Chandresses', and nobody but him knew it was there, mainly because there was no way in hell it could possibly be there. A whole house that was skinny enough to fit between two houses taking up no space at all.

He reached out a hand and touched a bush growing in the nonexistent front yard. He sidled closer to the house and in a few moments he had his hand resting on the door handle and it was as real and solid as any door handle in the neighborhood.

So he slowly turned his head and this time it didn't disappear. It stayed right where it was.

A whole secret house.

Somebody else might have doubted his sanity. But Mack Street knew he lived in a neighborhood where young swimmers could wish themselves inside a waterbed.

He rang the doorbell.

In a little while he heard someone moving inside. He rang again.

"Don't keep pestering the doorbell," a man called out.

a couple of years.

"Can I use your toilet?" asked Mack.

"No," said the man. "Go away."

But Mack ignored him because he knew that the man didn't really mean it. He walked past him and found the bathroom behind the first door he tried.

"Can't you take no for an answer, boy?" asked the man.

"You want me peeing on your floor?" asked Mack.

"I don't even want you walking on my floor. Who do you think you are?"

"I think I'm the only person in Baldwin Hills who knows this place even exists." Mack finished peeing and flushed and then, being a nurse's son, he washed his hands.

"Doesn't do any good to wash your hands," the man said from outside the bathroom. "The towel's filthy."

"I don't know how it could be," said Mack. "It ain't like you ever use it."

"Not all the company I get is as tidy as you."

"How do you ever get company at all, being how your house is only visible out of the corner of your eye."

"Depends on where you're coming from. The Good Folk find it whenever they care to come and visit."

"I don't know that I'm such bad folk. I think the folk of Baldwin Hills are maybe a little better than average."

"Well, nobody would know that better than you, Mack Street," said the man. "But the Good Folk I was referring to aren't from Baldwin Hills."

"You got any peanut butter?" asked Mack.

"I'm not here to feed you," said the man.

"How did you know my name?" asked Mack, now that he realized that's what the man had just done.

"Everybody knows your name, Mack Street. Just like everybody knows my house."

"They know my house because I'm right on the shore of the strongest river of power the world has seen in five hundred years. And they know your name because that river started flowing the day that you were born. It's like your birth sort of popped the cork and let it rip. Like lava from a volcano.

Power flowing down Magic Street and on through the whole neighborhood."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, Bag Baby," said the man.

"What do you know about the day I was born?"

"Everything," said the man. "And everything about your life since that happy day. The woman who tried to get you killed that very first day of your life. The boy who almost did it and then spent years of his life in penance for having even entertained the thought."

"You talking about Ceese?" asked Mack. "You expect me to believe Ceese almost killed me?"

"In fairness, no. He didn't almost do anything. He fought off the desire. Do you have any idea how strong he must be, to resist her?"

"I might if I knew who her was."

The man smiled benignly and passed a hand over Mack's nappy head, which Mack always hated but never complained about. "So you're thirteen now. Your lucky year."

"Doesn't feel all that lucky so far."

"Well, it wouldn't to you, being a child, and therefore incapable of taking the long view of anything."

"How do you keep your house invisible?"

"It's perfectly visible," said the man. "It just takes a little work. There's a lot of things in the world like that. Most people just don't take the time to look for them."

"What's your name?" asked Mack.

"Why, do you plan on opening a bank account for me? Send me a Christmas card?"

Mack didn't like evasiveness. He liked it when people answered plain, even if it was to say, None of your business. "I'll call you Mr. Christmas."

"You don't get to pick names for strangers, not in this place, boy. I'm master of my own house!"

"Then give me something to call you."

"I don't want you to call me," said Mr. Christmas. "I've been called enough in my life, thank you kindly."

"I can't help what ignorant people think. The house is mine and it don't take no deed to prove it."

"I'm hungry," said Mack. He was tired of talking to somebody who wouldn't say anything useful.

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Mr. Christmas.

So he wouldn't even share food with a visitor. "What you got here that's so important you got to hide from the world."

"Me," said Mr. Christmas.

"Why you hiding? You kill somebody?"

"Only now and then, and it was a long time ago."

"You planning to kill me?"

"This isn't Hansel and Gretel, Mack. I don't eat children."

"Didn't ask if you planning to eat me."

"Believe me, Mack, I don't want you dead." He laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"Humans."

"As if you wasn't one yourself." Mack walked out of the living room and into the kitchen. It was right where it was supposed to be. He went to the fridge and opened it. There was plenty of food inside. Everything he liked to snack on. Milk. Juice. Grapes. Lunchables. Salami. Bologna. Even a leftover mess of beans that looked just like Mrs. Tucker's recipe for burn-your-head-off chili.

Mack took the chili out of the fridge and opened a drawer and took out a spoon.

"Where's the microwave?" he asked.

"Do I have one?" Mr. Christmas asked in return.

Mack looked around. The microwave was on the counter right beside the fridge, exactly where it was in Mrs. Tucker's kitchen. He put in the chili, set it for two minutes, and started it going.

"Well, who knew," said Mr. Christmas.

"Who knew what?"

"That I had a microwave."

"You telling me this is a rental and you just moved in?"

"I guess my house just bound to give you whatever you want."

"I want answers."

"Ask the house," said Mr. Christmas.

Mack was sick of this. He rocked his head back and shouted at the ceiling, "Who this brother! I want his name!"

There was a clattering only a couple of feet away. Mack whirled and looked. In the middle of the kitchen floor there was a thick disk of plastic, bright orange. "What's that supposed to be?"

"A pile of flop from a plastic cow?" said Mr. Christmas. "A traffic cone had a baby?"

Mack leaned his head back again and shouted, "What's this thing supposed to be?"

Another clatter. Now, lying beside the plastic thing on the floor was a crooked stick.

"What is this," said Mack. "ESPN in Middle-earth? I don't want to play hockey."

"This is getting funny," said Mr. Christmas.

The microwave dinged. Mack opened it, took out the chili. It wasn't burning hot, but it was warm enough to eat. He dug in with the spoon.

It didn't just look like Mrs. Tucker's chili, it was her chili. Mack jumped up and whooped just like he did when he ate at Tuckers' house. The first bite of chili always made him dance, it was so spicy.

"You eat that on purpose?" asked Mr. Christmas. "Even though it burns?"

"It doesn't really burn," said Mack. "It stimulates the nerves in your mouth."

"I guess I accidently asked Mr. Science."

"It also stimulates the nerves in your butt on the way out. I mean, that's chili."

"You telling me more than I want to know, boy."

"You telling me nothing, so I guess on average we having a conversation."

"Eat your chili," said Mr. Christmas.

"Did you buy this house? Or build it? Or just steal it and then hide it from everybody?"

Skinny House on the Cheap End of Cloverdale."

"The Skinny House Out of the Corner of Your Eye."

"The Skinny House Where Strange Boys Come and Ransack the Fridge."

"The Skinny House of Lies and Secrets," said Mack.

"The Skinny House of the Fairy," said Mr. Christmas.

"Now who's telling more than the other person wants to know?"

"I finally tell you the truth, and you won't believe me," said Mr. Christmas.

"You think I believe a single thing that's happened here this afternoon?"

"You eating that chili."

"I'm pretending you polite enough to offer me food."

"You sure take magic in stride, boy."

"I already seen too much magic in my life," said Mack. "And it's all ugly."

"I'm not the architect, Mack. This house just like the others in this neighborhood. I don't know why people so thrilled to live in Baldwin Hills. I don't think this house is so much."

"The houses up the hill are just fine," said Mack. "But even houses down here in the flat better than what everybody used to have, in Watts."

"Your mama tell you that?"

"Miz Smitcher did," said Mack. "I don't know my mama."

"I do," said Mr. Christmas.

Mack took the last bite of chili. "She living or dead?"

"Living," said Mr. Christmas.

"She live around here?"

"Right up Cloverdale."

"That's such a lie," said Mack. "You think a girl could get pregnant and have a baby around here and the whole neighborhood don't know it?"

Mack ignored him. He got up and washed the dish and the spoon and put them to dry. Mr.

Christmas said nothing till Mack was done. "You downright tidy," he said. "Convenient to have around the house."

"I just felt like washing it," said Mack.

"And you do whatever you feel like," said Mr. Christmas.

"Mostly."

"But ain't it convenient that what you feel like doing is just exactly what other people want you to do."

"I try not to be a bother."

"You do your homework, get good grades, you don't steal anything but you don't tell on your friends that do, you go everywhere and see everything but you don't gossip and you don't take anything or damage anything and you don't even drop a candy wrapper on the ground, you take it home and put it in the garbage."

"You been spying on me?"

"I guess you just a civilized boy, that's all," said Mr. Christmas.

Mack wasn't interested in this man's opinion of him. "So what's your back yard like? Does it just disappear again, like in front?"

"Look and see," said Mr. Christmas. "I don't go back there much."

Mack went to the back door and opened it and looked out onto the patio. There was a rusted barbecue off to one side, and an old-fashioned umbrella-style clothesline with a few clothespins hanging on it like birds perched along a wire. Behind the patio a couple of scraggly-looking orange trees were covered in fruit that had been pecked at by birds or gnawed by squirrels. And the scruffy, patchy, weedy lawn was dotted with rotting fruit.

"All the cheap Mexican labor in LA," said Mack, "and you can't even hire a gardener?"

"You call this a garden?" asked Mr. Christmas.

"Don't you even want to eat these oranges before they rot or the birds and squirrels get them?"

"I've had oranges before. They ain't so much."

"What do you eat?"

"Got a taste for See's Candies," said Mr. Christmas.

"I'm surprised you don't have them growing on trees, the way this house goes."

"I got me a box a few years back. It hasn't run out yet."

"Either that was a big box, or you don't eat much."

"Thirteen years," said Mr. Christmas. "As a matter of fact, I got that box as a birthday present."

"When's your birthday?"

"It wasn't for my birthday," said Mr. Christmas. "You jump to a lot of conclusions."

Mack was tired of riddles. He walked out onto the patio.

Did the trees grow taller?

He stepped back. The orange trees were definitely smaller again.

"I see," he said. "Your front yard gets smaller and smaller till your house just disappears. But the back yard gets bigger and bigger."

"It does what it does," said Mr. Christmas.

Mack walked back toward the trees. Right to the edge of the patio. Curiously, the patio had shrunk down now to a brick path, and when he turned around, the house was farther away than it should have been, and was half hidden among trees and vines that hadn't been there when he crossed the patio. Mr. Christmas stood in the doorway, but he was no longer dressed the way he had been.

Nor was he quite the same man. He was thinner, and his clothes fit snugly, and he looked younger, and his hair was a halo around his head, not filthy dreads at all.

"Who are you?" called Mack.

Mr. Christmas just waved cheerfully. "Don't let anything eat you back there!" he called.

Mack turned back toward the forestfor that's what it was now, not a lawn with trees, but a track through a dense forest and not an orange in sight, though berries grew in profusion beside the path, and butterflies and bees and dragonflies fluttered and hovered and darted over the blossoms of a dozen different kinds of wildflower.

It didn't occur to Mack to be afraid, despite Mr. Christmas's warning. If anything, this forest felt like home to him. Like all his wandering through the neighborhood and Hahn Park his whole life had actually been a search for this place. California was a desert compared to this. Even when the jacaranda bloomed it didn't have this sweet flowery scent in the air, and instead of the dismal brown dirt of Los Angeles there was moss underfoot, and thick loamy black soil in the patches where the path hadn't quite been overgrown.

And water. Los Angeles had a river, but it was penned in like the elephants at the zoo, surrounded by concrete and left dry most of the year. Here, though, the path led alongside a brook that tumbled over mossy stones and had fish darting in the waters, which meant that it never went dry.

Frogs and toads hopped out of the way, and birds flitted across the path in front of him, and beads of water glistened on many a leaf, as if it had rained only a few hours agosomething that never happened in LA in the summeror perhaps as if the dew had been so heavy that it hadn't all evaporated yet.

Off in the distance, mostly hidden by bushes or vines or trunks of trees, but flashing occasionally as he walked along, there was a tiny light.

Mack left the path and headed toward it. It didn't occur to him at first that he might get lost, once he left the path. He had never been lost in his life. But he had never been in a real forest, eitherthe open woods of Hahn Park were nothing like this. And when he turned around after only a few steps, he couldn't tell where the path was.

But he could still see the light, flickering among the distant trees.

Now the bushes and branches snagged at his clothes, and sometimes there were brambles, so he had to back out and go around. He found himself on the brink of a little canyon once, and had to turn around and climb down into it, and then search for a place where he could leap over the torrent of water that plunged down the ravine. This place was getting wilder all the time, and yet he still wasn't afraid. He noted the danger, how easily he might get lost, how a person could fall into the current and be swept away to God knows where, just like in his dream, and yet he knew that this wasn't the place or time for his dream to come true, and he would not be harmed here, not today.

Unless, of course, this sense of confidence was part of the magic of the place, luring him on to destruction. Magic was tricky that way, as he knew better than any other soul. What seemed most sweet could be most deadly, what promised happiness could bring you deep and endless grief.

But he went on, clambering up the other side, which was, if anything, steeper than the side that he had climbed down.

When he got to the top again, he could see that there were two lights, not just one, and they were much nearer now. Only a few dozen yards through the bushes and treeseasy passages, mostlyand he was on the edge of a clearing.

The two lights were like old-fashioned lanterns. Glass-sided, with ornate metal lining the panes.

Unlike a lantern, though, there was neither base nor roof to the lights, just glass all the way around.

Nor were there stands holding them up, or wires holding them suspended from above. They simply hung in the air, flickering.

There was no bulb inside, giving light. Nor a wick of any kind, nor a source of fuel. Just a dazzling point of light drifting around inside each lantern, bumping against the glass and changing direction again.

Mack was going to step out into the clearing and look more closely at the lights, but that was when he heard a growl, and saw that a panther, black as night, slunk from shadow to shadow around the forest verge. Its eyes were bright yellow in the lantern light, and at moments Mack thought he could see a red glow even deeper inside the eyes.

The panther growled and bounded suddenly to the middle, directly between the two lights.

Mack took just one more step, not because he was so brave that he did not fear the panther, but because it would have been unbearable not to get a closer look at what the panther's front paws rested on.

It was a corpse, flyblown and rotted. The man had been wearing trousers and a longish shirt, though the shirt had been torn by claws. And instead of a man's head, on his shoulders was the head of a donkey, its eyesockets empty, its fur patchy. Mack had seen squirrels in this condition before; he knew that under the collapsing rib cage there would be nothing, the worms and bacteria having done their work.

This panther must have been here a long time, if it was what killed the donkey-headed man, and the clawing the man's clothes had received suggested that it was.

Whatever the two lanterns were, it was clear enough that the panther did not intend to let anyone near them.

And that was fine with Mack. He was curious, but never so curious that he'd die for an answer.

Let the globes of light keep their secret, and let the panther go hungry for another while.

Having seen the sources of the light he saw from the path, there was no reason for him to remain here. He started back.

The moment he left the clearing, though, he was plunged into darkness. If it had been twilight before, now it was night, and without the bobbing lantern light ahead of him to guide him, he had to feel his way through the dark like a blind man.

Somewhere ahead of him was a ravine, its sides so steep that he had clung to vines and roots in order to climb. And at the bottom, a torrent that could sweep him away if he misjudged in the darkness and failed to jump all the way across.

"I'm not getting home tonight," Mack said out loud.

Behind him, he heard the deep rumble of a big cat, purring.

He stopped, held still.

A warm sleek-furred body pressed close against him as it slid past, then turned and rubbed itself again on his legs.

A tongue lapped at his hand.

He didn't think this was the way that cats treated their prey.

Mack took another step toward the ravine. Suddenly the cat was in front of him, blocking his way. And instead of a purr, there was a fierce, short growl.

I'm in Narnia, thought Mack. Only it's a black boy's Narnia, so instead of a golden lion there's a black panther. And instead of entering through the back of a wardrobe in England, I got here through the back door and patio of an invisible house on a street in Baldwin Hills.

So what was the deal here? Guys like C. S. Lewis and what's-his-name who wrote Alice in Wonderland, were they reporting things they really experienced? Or things they dreamed? Or were they imagining it, but it happened that in the real world the things they imagined really did come true?

Or is all this happening because I read their books and so my own mind is finding ways to make their fantasy stories turn real? Or am I crazy and cold dreams are nothing but the ugly nightmares of a wacked out bastard boy whose mind was broken as he lay covered with ants in a grocery bag by a drainpipe at the bottom of Hahn Park?

Either this panther was a black Aslan or a black White Rabbit or... or something. Whatever. The main thing was, it only growled when Mack walked in this direction. Or when Mack tried to walk toward the lanterns. And it was dark. Night. Mack had eaten supper, such as it was. The leftover chili. So it's not like he had a compelling reason to go home, except that Miz Smitcher would worry about him, and there was nothing he could do about that, she'd worry a lot worse and a lot longer and to less effect if he pissed off this panther and ended up lying in the woods with claw marks on his clothing and maggots eating his dead flesh.

So he lay down where he was standing. The ground was soft and yielding. He could hear the breathing of the panther near him. He could see nothing at all. Not even the lights in the clearing, now that he was down below the level of the underbrush. If there were snakes or other fearsome beasts near him, he'd never know it; the rustlings and stirrings he heard were bound to be small creatures of the night, but they were none of his business and he hoped they'd feel the same about him.

Lying there, in the minutes before sleep overtook him, Mack thought about Mr. Christmas and all he'd said. He knew Mack's mother. Could that be true? A woman somewhere nearby. In the neighborhood. Was it possible? She gave birth, and everybody forgot she had even been pregnant? If that was so, then Mack really was home here. Or rather, there in Baldwin Hills, since right now "here" was a dark magical wood with a panther lurking nearby.

And what was that business with the hockey stick and the puck that appeared in midair and fell to the floor in the kitchen of Mr. Christmas's Skinny House?

It was the house, answering his question about Mr. Christmas's identity, just as he had asked.

Puck. There was a character named Puck. Mack had heard the name, or read it somewhere.

Vaguely the memory came to him: It was a character in Shakespeare. Mack had never read Shakespeare, but somewhere in his schooling, somebody had told or read him the story of someone named Puck. A fairy named Puck. Mr. Christmas was a fairy, like he said, only not what guys meant when they called an effeminate kid a fairy. More like an elf. A tall black old elf with a rasta do. Only when Mack had walked into the woods and looked back at him, he had turned back into something more like himself, and what Mack had seen was the fairy, tall and lithe, his hair a halo around his head, his clothes clingy and... green. They had been green.

It was a play, now he remembered. A group of college students came to their elementary school and put on a play that started with the queen of the fairies falling in love with a guy with a donkey head, and then a bunch of stupid guys acting out a play about a boy and girl who fall in love and then kill themselves because one of them was torn by a lion or... or something.

That's all this is. I'm asleep somewhere and dreaming that play they put on for us when I was in fifth grade.

Only he knew that he wasn't dreaming, that he was very much awake.

Until, a moment later, he wasn't.


Chapter 7 | Magic Street | Chapter 9







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