Authors: Orson Scott Card
Tags: #sf, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Science fiction; American, #Fantasy fiction; American, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Abandoned children, #Baldwin Hills (Los Angeles; Calif.)
But then why would his mother have thrown him away?
Maybe it wasn't his mother's idea. Maybe she was drugged and the baby was taken out of her and carried off and hidden and she doesn't even know he was ever alive, but Mack knew he would find her someday, because the dream was so real it had to be true.
And that was fine with him. Because the cold dreams he couldn't get away from, he didn't like the way they came true. It was like somebody always turned the granting of a wish into a dirty trick.
So the last thing he wanted was to have his dream of escape turn into a wish, too. He didn't want any such trick played on him.
Though he did wish he knew who it was in the vehicle beside him.
Such was the landscape of his dreams—the same road every time, the same canyon, the same lake. And he only got there when he was fleeing from someone else's deepest wish.
Was that the water that chased him down the canyon? A flood of other people's desires?
Their desires were part of his map of Baldwin Hills. He knew the streets, he knew the houses, but it wasn't by the addresses or the names. It was by a memory of the dreams that came from there.
There was Ophelia McCallister, a widow who longed only to be reunited with her husband, who had died of a heart attack right after he completed a merger that left her wealthy. Mack hated that hunger of hers, because he dreaded every way he could think of for her wish to be granted.
Same with Sabrina Chum, who hated her huge nose and longed to be rid of it. And his own friend Nathaniel Brady, whose conscious dream of slam-dunking baskets was born, at the deepest level, of a wish to fly.
Professor Williams's deep hunger to have his poetry read far and wide seemed harmless enough.
But Mack knew better than to think that any longing in a cold dream could be fulfilled without some evil twist.
Like Sherita Banks, who simply wanted men to desire her. Didn't she know how easily such a wish could be granted without magic? It didn't have to be longed for, inviting the perverse joke of whatever malevolent force ransacked Mack's dreams and destroyed his neighbors' lives.
It was like that fairy tale Ceese read to him once, about the fisherman who caught a fish that granted him three wishes. Without thinking, he wished for a big pudding. And when his wife scolded him for wasting a wish, in fury he wished it would stick to her nose. It took the third wish to make it all go away.
When Mack saw Sondra Brown pushing Tamika in her wheelchair, with all the pads and straps and braces that held the girl's spastic body upright, he thought: Where's the third wish, the one I can use to undo it all?
After Ceese and he watched the DVD of Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Mack walked around for weeks, whispering to himself whenever he wasn't paying attention, "Fourth wish and all is gone."
Would "all is gone" make him healthy again, back to work but so busy he was never home to see his lonely little girl? Or would it simply let him die, granting his heartfelt wish, so deep that he never saw it himself, certain as he was that he believed that Jesus saved his life in that accident for a reason.
It's not Jesus, Mr. Tyler. It's the sick dreams of the son of a grocery bag, who ate at your table and didn't mean to let this happen to you.
Mack saw Romaine at school all the time, and he kept thinking, Why did you have to come into my dreams so often? I tried to get away from your longing, but I can't resist a dream like that forever.
It's not my fault.
And, underneath, the truer belief: It's all my fault.
Yet when he left his neighborhood, haunted as it was by all the wishes Mack had dreamed, he felt vaguely lost. Going north on La Cienega or La Brea toward the freeway, or eastward to the failing mall and the increasing poverty, or south into the land of oil wells, the buildings seemed emptier and emptier to him. Still plenty of people, but they were strangers who had never hungered in his dreams.
Much as he dreaded the cold dreams, at least he knew the dreamers.
And so the years passed. To an adult, his childhood would have seemed idyllic. Like something out of Dandelion Wine. Freedom all summer, friends to gripe with about school. Adventures in Hahn Park and in the rough woods above the runoff pipe or scrambling up the wild brush of the hillsides.
The older he got, the more freedom he had—even though he always seemed to have all the freedom he wanted. Ceese graduated from high school and then college and by then Miz Smitcher knew there'd be no point in replacing him. The whole neighborhood looked out for Mack now.
Mrs. Tucker, Ceese's mom, kept talking about how it was time to move into someplace small, since the last of her kids was gone, but she was still there day after day, year after year, whenever Mack stopped in. Sometimes Ceese was there, but not often; he was busy all the time now, working for the water department doing some computer thing while he went to graduate school to learn engineering. Mack was more likely to run into one of Ceese's older brothers, who always seemed to be recently divorced or freshly out of work or coming over full of advice about why whatever Mrs.
Tucker was doing, she was doing it all wrong.
And Miz Smitcher was older, too. It was a thing that Mack only noticed from time to time, but he'd look up at her and see that there was steel grey in her hair now, and the skin of her face sagged, and she groaned more when she got her shoes off; and she had enough seniority that there was no more nonsense about late shifts, unless she was filling in for somebody.
Mack never tried to put a word to what he felt for her. He knew she had taken him in when he might have been put into foster care. And even though it was mostly Ceese who raised him when he was little, he knew he was attached to her in such a way that he would never leave her, would never want to leave; no matter how old he got, no matter how widely he roamed the neighborhood, he'd come home to her.
There were times he even wondered if she had conjured him up in her own cold dream. If he just magically appeared at that drainpipe at the hairpin turn of Cloverdale, swept out of his real mother's arms and into the place where he would be found and brought to Miz Smitcher, exactly the way Tamika Brown had been pulled from her sheets and plunged into the waterbed beneath her sleeping parents. In answer to a wish so deep that it could not be denied.
He knew her cold dream, too. It was of herself, lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by the very same equipment that she monitored for strangers. Nurses and doctors moving around her, murmuring, none of their words meaning anything, because the only thing that mattered was: When she opened her eyes, there was Mack Street, a grown man now, holding her hand, looking into her eyes, and saying, "I'm here, Miz Smitcher. Don't you worry, ma'am, I'm here."
The summer he turned thirteen, Mack was getting taller—fast 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...
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 anybody—not 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 it—it 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 pole—how 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?"
"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?"