Published

Magic Nation

Here’s a speculative piece that’s a departure from my other stories. It’s told in the voice of an eight-year-old child. From his perspective, he may have otherworldly powers or it just might be his imagination. First published in February 2020 by Bewildering Stories.

Magic Nation

by DL Shirey

          My legs don’t work right. Mommy says my muscles are little-boy size and will catch up to me some day. I am eight and a half. Daddy thinks I should go out and play more, but it’s hard to keep up. I can run without my crutches on flat ground pretty good, but I still fall too much. Daddy takes me to the park a lot and says I don’t need to use crutches when I play on grass. He says Mommy’s right about sidewalks and streets, to always use my crutches or I can fall down and skin my knees.

          I have a wheelchair but Daddy hates it. He said that it will make my body lazy and to use the crutches and keep strong. When he takes me out on Daddy Weekends, he leaves the wheelchair in Mommy’s garage. He tells Mommy I get around good enough without it, but Mommy thinks I need it sometimes. Grown-ups are funny.

          I like the wheelchair when it’s in the garage. I sit in it and play race-car driver. One of the best parts about coming home after Daddy Weekends is to go in the garage and play. If I play hard enough and do it right before bed, I will dream about race cars. I like race cars.

          Mommy thinks I’m weird because I brush my teeth and put on PJs way before bedtime. When she asked why, I told her I don’t want to dream about toothbrushes all night, that race cars are better. She doesn’t get it. Whatever I do just before bedtime, I dream about. So I have to be careful what I do right before. Like with Mommy’s TV shows; she always wants to snuggle with me on the couch before I go to bed. If I don’t think real hard about something else, TV-show guys will pop into my dreams. Unless I’m careful, stuff gets in when I sleep.

          I’ve got Dream Makers just in case.

My three Dream Makers are in a scrapbook Mommy gave me. Mommy likes crafts, has boxes of beads and ribbons and paints, and all kinds of books about making stuff. She has stacks of old magazines that she cuts up, then she glues all the different pictures together. Calls it a cladge. I asked her to show me how to make a cladge. That’s when Dream Makers started. But like I said, they’ve got to be used just before bedtime and there are rules to make them work.

          All three Dream Makers have special bookmarks. I can tell which one’s which, even in the dark. It’s important to open the book straight to the one I want because if I see any of the other pictures, it won’t work. A Dream Maker is two-pages wide so when I hold the scrapbook close to my face, all I see is the cladge. I fill myself with the pictures and think only about them. That way no bad things can get into my dreams. How could they? The cladge makes me feel good, keeps me safe. But, if my eyes catch anything around the edges of the page, it won’t work. Daddy got me a miner’s lamp when we went camping once, a no-hands flashlight for my head. I use that, lying flat on my back on the bottom bunk. I pull the cladge up to my face, like a tent, until my eyes hurt from seeing it so close. Then I count back from thirty, real slow, trying not to blink. If I blink before zero, I have to start over again. At zero, I close my eyes and set the scrapbook down. I can take off my miner’s lamp because the cladge will stay lit on the dark of my eyes. And then dreams will come, all good dreams.

          I don’t do Dream Makers all the time. Like when I play race-car driver. I can make-believe hard, like I’m really in a race, and hold it in my head when I count back from thirty. But these kinds of dreams can get goofed up sometimes. I’ll be in a race car, like I want, but the man at the finish line with the flag might be a guy from Mommy’s TV shows, or Daddy, or it might be Lilla.

          Lilla is Daddy’s new wife. Mommy calls her Mrs. Granola, but I like her real name. Lilla’s nice.

          When I wake up from dreams, it helps to think about them for a while. Dream Maker dreams are always good and the only morning thing I do is say ‘Thank you, God’ ten times slow. Mommy says God gave us life and keeps us good, so I thank Him for my Dream Maker dreams. For the other dreams I’ll think about the goofs and fix them. I can put the right face on finish-line man instead of the guy from TV or Daddy or Lilla. Then I say ‘Thank you, God’ once, because I’m not really thanking Him, but asking to take the goofs out when I dream next time.

#

          When I woke up this morning, I didn’t thank God for my dreams. The first thing I saw was my new Chinese puzzle box on the dresser. It’s new to me, but the man said it was old. I don’t know how it works. I mean I know how it works, I just haven’t figured how to open this one yet. Yesterday, Daddy and Lilla and me went for a ride and stopped at a place with a bunch of old stores. When Daddy was with Mommy we went to yard sales together. With Lilla, Daddy tries to find someone called auntie king. She can only be found in old stores, I guess, where people collect and sell old stuff. They never find auntie king, but Daddy and Lilla drive everywhere looking for her.

          The man at this one store had lots of Chinese boxes. Chinese means it’s from China, an old country across the ocean with a big wall around it. And all these wooden boxes came from there. Some had metal locks, others had fancy carving on the wood. But plain old puzzle boxes were the man’s favorite and he showed me how they worked. One two three four five six, he counted the sides of the box. Then he slid number three down like a hidden door Shaggy found on Scoobie Doo. There was more wood underneath, but the man pushed someplace and it was like a Jenga piece popped out on the other side. This let him push a secret panel on side six, and when it did, the box popped open. There was nothing in it, but that didn’t matter, the puzzle was figuring out how to get inside.

          I looked at Daddy, then the box, and made a face like I really wanted it. I really did, but it’s easy to get stuff from Daddy now that he’s not with Mommy. Anyway, he said yes, but the man behind the counter wouldn’t give me the one we just opened. He pulled down another box from the shelf. As he reached up I noticed his fingernails. They were long like Lilla’s but on him they looked creepy. I got this weird feeling when he touched the box on the shelf. It made my tummy feel bad when he brought it down. The man said he wouldn’t show me how to open this box; that it was up to me to solve the puzzle. Then he said there was a surprise inside just for me.

          I wanted to jiggle it, but the man said not too hard, the surprise was fragile. Daddy said fragile means it can break easy. So I tipped the Chinese puzzle box a little and heard the surprise thump inside. Hearing the thump made my tummy feel bad again; not throw-up bad, just a little icky.

          Looking at the box now reminds me of my tummy. It doesn’t feel bad when I don’t hold the box. I really want to see what’s inside the box but I don’t want to feel icky again. Mommy would say just don’t touch it. Daddy would tell me to be brave. Lilla would say to listen to the voice inside me and use my magic nation. Lilla calls it magic nation, Miss Bechler calls it daydreams. It’s where I go when I need to think hard. It’s like being asleep when I’m wide awake. Miss Bechler, my teacher, says I daydream a lot, but it’s harder at school to use my magic nation.

          Here in bed is a good place. It’s quiet and there’s a spot to stare at. That’s the trick, not letting my eyes move from one spot. There’s a sticker from a banana I stuck to the bottom of the bunk bed above me. It’s got the word DOLE on it and the O looks like a yellow sun. That’s what I look at when I daydream in bed. If I stare at it long enough, hard enough, the yellow in the sun covers everything around me, like it was colored with crayons. All the stuff I see to the very edges of my sight, the whole room around me, turns yellow.

          Daydreams are totally different than Dream Maker dreams. When yellow is boss, whatever it wants me to think about pops into my magic nation. I don’t know what the daydream will be about, but I can feel it coming. I know exactly when it will start. In the back of my mind I hear jack-in-the-box music, that Weasel Song. And when the music gets to the part where it’s going to pop, the thing I’m supposed to daydream about jumps into my head.

          Like today, the more I lay in bed and stare at the spot, the yellower the room becomes. Then pop goes the Chinese puzzle box. It’s like the box floated over from my dresser and is hanging right in front of me. I know it’s not really real, just my magic nation. But I can reach out with my daydream hands and touch it, feel the sharp corners and how smooth the sides are. One two three four five six. My daydream hands make sides one and five move, but I don’t know which one first or where to find the Jenga piece. I push everywhere, trying to find the things that move. That’s when the jack-in-the-box music starts up again; this time the Weasel Song is slow and out of tune, almost like the pop will never get there. Then I get the icky feeling again, like I don’t want to see the pop. I know the popping thing will scare me. So I try to pull my eyes from the banana sticker and stop the yellow, but my eyes don’t want to look away. Yellow is the boss, not me. I cannot move or close my eyes and the Weasel Song is getting ready to pop. I don’t want to see it, so the only thing left to do is scream.

          The monster’s face was there for just a second, long enough to scare me, but gone before I could tell what it really looked like. It came out of the wood of the Chinese puzzle box, like the face was on the inside, pressing against the wood, trying to get out. My scream made all the yellow go away and the box is on my dresser, where it’s supposed to be. Mommy opens the door and when I tell her I saw something scary, Mommy said I was dreaming. She said dreams won’t hurt me and to get up and get ready for school.

          Mommy doesn’t know anything about dreams.

#

          Recess is fun when teachers let me play. The school playground is all fences and blacktop, but no grass. The school tries to make the playground fun by painting white lines for playing games, like four square, hopscotch and big circles around the tetherballs. No grass means I can’t play without my crutches, and teachers wouldn’t let me anyway because they don’t want me to hurt myself.

          There’s sawdust around the swing set, so teachers leave me alone there. Daddy taught me how to swing at the park. That was after his new house with Lilla. Before that, Mommy would push me back and forth a little, not high like I like to go. Whenever Daddy tried to teach me, Mommy would make him stop. One of the first Daddy Weekends, he taught me about lever edge. He said it wasn’t the legs that made you swing higher, it was the arms. And my arms are strong. Daddy said lever edge is when you give a big pull on the chains, just when you feel the swing go forward. It works. The more I pull the higher I go, and my feet shoot up to the sky. Then I ride the swing back down and lever edge even more going back up.

          I’m good at swings.

          The best part about swinging is the blur. It kind of makes my head feel buzzy. It’s a good daydream place, too, because swinging makes the sky and blacktop and school and trees across the street smoosh together. Even sounds run together, so if there’s a Weasel Song, I can’t hear it. The blur keeps me from staring at only one spot. There’s no banana sticker, no yellow. Blur is boss, and it lets me use my magic nation the way I want.

          I like to swing with Kimmy Shiller. She’s nice. Kimmy taught me how to start swinging without anyone to push me. She showed me how to kick hard off the ground, but my legs don’t work good that way. So Kimmy made me sit and walk backwards with my butt in the swing until I couldn’t go back no more. I had to stand on my tiptoes. Then all I had to do was lever edge and pull my feet up. It worked. Kimmy called it a standing-start. She also showed me how she can spit between her teeth while she’s smiling.

          Sometimes Kimmy and I race to see who can swing highest fastest from a standing-start. You know you’re at the top when your butt comes out of the swing a little bit. Not enough to fall, but you feel your butt lift out just for a second, then it slaps back down in the seat again. It’s scary, but fun-scary and the first one to the top wins.

          Today I start to swing alone, waiting for Kimmy. With the blur and no yellow I feel safe enough to think about the Chinese puzzle box. So I hold it in my daydream hands, looking for the Jenga piece. That’s when I see it again, the monster. He presses his face from the inside of the box and the wood gets all stretchy. When it does I can see sharp teeth and horns, but the wood is strong enough to hold him in. The face on the box looks so weird and scary that I lever edge harder, hoping more blur will make it safer. Even though the box is in my magic nation, I see it clear as anything. I see the teeth smile from behind the wood, then the monster stops pushing the wood and makes the box sides flat again. One two three four five six. Side four slides out and I know the monster knows which panels to push and where the Jenga piece hides. He wants out of the Chinese puzzle box and needs me to help him do it. So I use more lever edge, more blur. I’ve got to be safer if I’m going to open the box.

          Then I hear Kimmy scream. Her voice cuts through the blur, past my daydreams. It feels like I’m flying. Then my butt smacks hard into the swing seat, harder than ever before. And I’m scared, not of the monster this time, because I’ve never swung this high. Kimmy’s there, standing next to Miss Bechler, hugging her waist. All the kids are standing there looking at me. Miss Bechler shouts at me, says I’m going too high, to slow down, to get off the swing right now.

          It takes me longer than other kids to stop. You have to use your legs to stop swinging and it always hurts when my feet smack the ground. Kimmy tells Miss Bechler why it takes me longer, but Miss Bechler is still mad. She tells the other kids to go back to class, the bell’s about to ring anyway. Miss Bechler grabs the chains and makes me stop. She says she isn’t mad mad, but more afraid for me. She thinks I might hurt myself when I swing so high. She says if stopping hurts my legs, maybe I shouldn’t swing at all.

          How can I explain to Miss Bechler that I don’t want to stop swinging? It’s fun. And so is my magic nation. I wish there was some way to get the blur without using the swings.

#

Mommy is watching TV when I come back from brushing my teeth in my PJs. It’s not even cold and she has her Granny Blanket, the one with all the squares and colors and patches. It means Mommy wants to snuggle. I tell Mommy it’s too hot under the blanket, but sit next to her on the couch to keep her company. I’ve been hot all day, ever since the swings.

          Mommy leans over and puts her head on my shoulder. I ask her why she needs a blanket when it isn’t cold. Mommy says it helps her remember Granny. Granny was my great grandma who died before I was born. Mommy doesn’t use the word die, she says God called Granny and needed her in heaven. Mommy doesn’t talk about her real mother, says Granny was the only mother Mommy ever needed.

          When I was a baby, I had an older brother. Mommy doesn’t talk about him either.

          Mommy tells me to quit being wormy, but I can’t help it. Squirm worms, Mommy calls it, and I got them bad tonight along with being hot. I ask Mommy if it’s okay if I color instead of watch TV. Mommy smiles yes and takes her glass to the kitchen for more wine.

          Most times I color on my bedroom floor. Mommy says it’s because I like to spread out, but on the floor it’s easier for the colors to choose me. I keep my coloring stuff in a big green basket in my room. I take the coloring books from the basket and put them on the floor, making a circle with me in the middle. Then I point to each one like eeny-meeny-miny-moe, except moe is the one that becomes bright when I point at it. There’s no Weasel Song when the colors choose me. The book I’m supposed to color becomes the brightest in the circle—almost alive—like the book wants to spring open to the page it wants colored. And it does that too, sort of. When I pick it up, my thumb turns right to the page I’m supposed to color. Then the crayons tell me which colors to choose and which order to choose them. But not tonight.

          Tonight is backwards. I hear the color first.

          I’m just about to go down the long hallway when I hear Brown. Brown says I only need one crayon and one coloring book, and to go get them now. Trouble is, they’re in the green basket in my bedroom and I don’t want to go in there with the monster on my dresser. He wants out of that box. I try not to start my magic nation, but it’s hard not to think it. I don’t want to see the Chinese puzzle box or the monster’s teeth and horns pushing on the inside of the wood. That’s when I hear it, the jack-in-the-box music. I try to make my ears go someplace else, listening hard for Mommy’s TV, but the Weasel Song starts up anyway. It’s all out-of-tune and playing slow like its never going to pop. I’m scared because I know the pop is coming anyway, and I’m not on the swings and I don’t have a blur.

          Then I hear Brown again, telling me to color and be safe. Brown makes me feel cooler and I trust the brown voice because it makes the Weasel Song stop. Brown says to keep the lights off, go into my room, grab the top coloring book and one crayon. One is all I need. Don’t even look at the puzzle box, Brown says, the basket is right beside the bed, easy to find in the dark.

          So I walk slow down the long hall, my metal crutches sounding all echo-y. The door to my room is open and it’s even darker in there. Then the Weasel Song starts up again, but this time it’s not all slow and out of tune; it’s a million times faster, like in a crazy cartoon. So unless I hurry, I know it’s going to pop before I can get my coloring stuff. But Brown says no, just walk in the room and over to the basket, keep my back to the dresser and everything will be all right. Brown is right and I know because the voice makes the music stop again. I’ll be brave and strong, like Daddy says; listen to the voice inside me, like Lilla says. And I do listen, because the voice inside is safe and brown.

          I close my eyes and walk into the room. The room is in my head, so I don’t need my eyes. I use my crutches like a blind-man’s stick, tap-tap-tap until I get to my bed. Then tap-tap-tap past my desk and chair to the green basket.

          When I reach down the Weasel Song starts to play again, cartoon-crazy fast. I keep my eyes closed and feel around for the plastic bag of crayons. I grab the first one I touch. Then the music plays a million million times faster as I reach for the coloring book on top of the stack. I’m scared of the pop, but brave like Daddy says. It’s a race, Brown says, like me and Kimmy to the top of the swings; a race to beat the pop. The pop’s almost there, but I get to the coloring book first.

          I win. I beat it.

          My room is dark when I open my eyes, but the coloring book is bright as anything. Holding it makes me feel cool. I sit on the bed and look at the cover: World of Wonders, Kids at Play. I’ve colored in this one before. Kids having fun in the countries where they live. There are kids riding camels in front of big, pointy buildings and kids with kangaroos throwing boom rangs. My thumb slips between pages to where I’m supposed to color. I open the book and see it.

          The monster is there. His big eyes pop off the page, giant teeth waiting to eat me, horns all over his ugly head. The more I look, the white of the paper gets even brighter, like when I put on my miner’s lamp. Except I’m not wearing it at all. The page glows like anything, so I can see the outlines where I’m supposed to color. Then Brown tells me to color.

          But I don’t. What if it’s a trick? What if the voice isn’t Brown at all? The page is all glowy, but everything else is dark. I can feel the crayon but I can’t quite see it. What if it’s yellow? Maybe the brown voice is really the monster playing a trick on me. What if I color and the yellow makes it the same as staring at the banana sticker? With yellow, the monster will be boss and he’ll make me open the box to let him out.

          I’ve got to be brave like Daddy says. Then Brown speaks up again and says, “if it’s real, then I’m the boss of it.” That’s when I know, the brown voice is really my voice. The voice in my head is me and what I’m saying is the truth: I can tell what’s real and what’s magic nation. I know the difference. The crayon in my hand is real and I’m the boss of my hand. If it’s not the right color, I can choose the color I want.

          I look down at the coloring book and this time I can see other things on the bright white page. Sure, the monster’s still there, all big eyes and scary teeth, but there are kids at play behind the monster. It’s like a parade and the kids are holding sticks, propping up the monster’s tail. They’re playing dragon, holding up a giant dragon mask, swishing the tail as they play. It’s kids on parade in China in front of a great big wall.

          I still want to color, but the glow from the page is fading. The book is real now and I set it in my lap. The book is dark as my room, so I really, truly put on my miner’s lamp to see better. The crayon is brown when I click on the light.

          When the brown tip touches the page, the first thing I do is draw a big square around the dragon’s face, careful not to get near his horns or teeth or big, angry eyes. I trace over the box again and again until the brown lines trap him on the page. Then I color every thing outside the box—the wall, the children, the sky—until all that’s left that isn’t brown is the dragon’s face. He’s still a little scary, but not as much as before.

          The Chinese puzzle box is still on the dresser where it’s supposed to be. I can see it in the glow of the miner’s lamp. It scares me a little because I don’t know exactly what the dragon looks like, but I know enough. I know the Chinese puzzle box is real and the rest is my magic nation. If I don’t want the dragon to push his ugly face against the wood, he won’t. Because I’m the boss of my magic nation. Like the swings and the blur, what’s important is the lever edge. Because I’m the one pulling the chains, I’m the one shooting my legs up high in the sky. It’s me in control.

          So tomorrow I’ll open the box. Be brave like Daddy says. I’ll find the Jenga piece with my own hands and solve the puzzle that way. Once I see the dragon, he will become real. But just in case, there’s one more thing to do tonight.

          I walk over to the dresser and put the coloring book on top of the Chinese puzzle box. Now there’s a box around the dragon and a box around his picture, to protect me, just in case. That’s when the Weasel Song starts up again, but I know it isn’t real. What’s real is the sound of the TV down the hall and Mommy in the kitchen clinking the wine bottle to her glass.

          That’s a real sound, one I can hold in my head if I want to. And I want to. It’s a happy sound from when Mommy and Daddy were happy. Back when they would clink wine together. I hold on to that sound and the Weasel Song goes away.

          The scrapbook is by the green basket, where it’s supposed to be. I bring it to bed and crawl beneath the blankets, my miner’s lamp already on. Without looking, I find the right bookmark with my thumb where the cladge is, the sound of the wine clink still in my head.

Just before I open the cladge I see the sticker on the bottom of the bunk above me. The O in the DOLE tries to get yellow, but I don’t want to play. Not now. The scrapbook is real, the cladge is real and it’s the only thing I want to dream about. Flat on my back, I open the cladge without seeing any other pictures. I put the scrapbook over my face like a tent and let all the old photos fill my head. I start to count backwards and try not to blink.

          Thirty. Pictures of Mommy and Daddy before there was me: towels side-by-side at a beach, Daddy rubbing lotion on Mommy’s back. He’s smiling at the camera.

          Twenty. Pictures of Mommy and Daddy and me: Mommy holding me at the hospital. Daddy in a chair smiling at us both.

          Ten. Mommy and Daddy at that fancy dinner place where they go for their versaries. Holding up glasses, clinking wine together. I took that picture.

          Zero.

END

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