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Two in the morning and he’s stumbling around in the attic, lost in horizontal archaeology: the further he goes, the older the artifacts become. The stuttering flashlight guides him past boxes of Christmas decorations and half-dead appliances, past garbage bags of old blankets and outgrown clothing stacked and bulging like black snowmen, over and around the twenty-year-old rubble of his son’s treasures: Tonka trucks and science fair projects, soccer trophies and summer camp pottery.

His shoulder brushes against the upright rail of a disassembled crib, sends it sliding, and somewhere in the dark a mirror or storm window smashes. The noise doesn’t matter. There’s no one in the house below him to disturb.

Twenty feet from the far wall his way is blocked by a heap of wicker lawn furniture. He pulls apart the barricade piece by piece to make a narrow passage and scrapes through, straws tugging at his shirt. On the other side he crawls up and onto the back of a tilting oak desk immovable as a ship run aground.

The territory ahead is littered with the remains of his youth, the evidence of his life before he brought his wife and son to this house. Stacks of hardcover books, boxes of dusty-framed elementary school pictures—and toys. So many toys. Once upon a time he was the boy who didn’t like to go outside, the boy who never wanted to leave his room. The Boy Who Always Said No.

Against the far wall, beside a rickety shelf of dried-out paint cans and rusting hardware, a drop cloth covers a suggestive shape. He picks his way through the crowded space. When he pulls aside the cloth, he grunts as if he’s been elbowed in the stomach—relief and dread and wrenching sadness competing for the same throat.

Dust coats the Wonder Bike’s red fenders, rust freckles its handlebars. The white-walled tires are flat, and stuffing sprouts from cracks in the leather saddle. But it’s still here, still safe. And the two accessories he most needs, the things he’d almost convinced himself he’d imagined, are fastened to their places on the swooping crossbar: the five-pronged gearshift like a metal hand; and the glass-covered compass, its face scuffed white but uncracked.

The bike’s heavier than he remembers, all old-fashioned steel, more solid than anything they’d bother to make today. He heaves it onto his shoulder and makes his way toward the attic door, handlebars snagging on unseen junk, errant wheels triggering miniature avalanches. Sweat pours down his back. He thinks about heart attacks. He’s 56 now, a middle-aged man if he lives to a hundred and twelve. People younger than he die all the time. All the time.

The weight of the bike drags him down the attic stairs. He wheels it whinging down the hall, then out the front door and across the frost-crackled lawn, aiming for the realtor sign. The sweat on his neck turns cold. Along the street his neighbors’ houses are all dark. The moon stays tucked into its bed of clouds. He’s grateful for the privacy. He lifts the front wheel and runs over the FOR SALE sign, flattens it.

In the garage he sets to work removing the accessories. The screws are rusted into place, so he puts aside the screwdriver and plugs in the power drill. The shifter comes free, but the screws holding the compass are stripped, spinning uselessly. He can’t risk hammering it off, so he works a hacksaw blade between the handlebars and the bottom of the device and cuts it free. Gently he sets the Wonder Bike against the garage wall and gets into the car.

It takes much less time to attach the accessories to the dash. He screws them directly into the plastic, side by side above the radio.

He starts the engine and stares out the dirt-streaked windshield, trying to remember what to do next. It used to be automatic: pedal hard, thumb the gears, follow the compass. But something happened when he turned thirteen. He lost the knack and the bike stopped working for him. Or maybe, he’s been thinking lately, he stopped working for the bike.

He sets the DeShifter to not recommended. He taps the glass of the UnCompass and the needle quivers, stuck between unfamiliar and unknown.

Sounds about right, he thinks.

Even with the compass it takes determination to get lost. He drives south out of town, past the tangle of interstate exchanges, toward the green empty parts of the map. He turns down the first road he doesn’t recognize. He pays no attention to street names; he looks away when signs appear in his headlights.

Soon there are no signs. Forest swallows the highway. Switchbacks and the skulking moon conspire with him to disguise his direction.

Don’t look in the rearview mirror, he tells himself. No trail of bread crumbs. As soon as he thinks of the road behind him, he realizes he left the front door of the house wide open. Maybe by morning robbers will have emptied the place. That would make it easier on the real estate agents. Too much clutter, they’d told him. They couldn’t see that the home had been gutted a year ago.

He rolls down the window and lets the cold wind buffet him. When did he fall out of love with speed? He’d had adventures once. He’d rescued the Pumpkinhead Boys, raced the moto-crows, reunited the shards of the Glass Kingdom. His quick thinking had outwitted the Hundred Mayors of Stilt Town.

He nudges the DeShifter past inadvisable to absolutely not and accelerates. The road ahead doesn’t exist until it appears under his headlights; he’s driving a plow of light through the dark, unrolling the road before him like a carpet.

A tiny yellow sign flashes past his right fender, too fast for him to read. He glances sideways—nothing but the dark—and turns back to the road just as the little purple house appears in his lights like a phantom.

The structure strikes the grille and explodes into a thousand pieces. The windshield pocks with white stars. He stomps on the brake and the car bucks, slides sideways. He jerks the wheel back to the right and suddenly the car’s off the road, jouncing across ground. He bounces against the roof, ragdolling, unable to hold onto the wheel. The car bangs sideways against something invisible and immovable and then everything stops.

He stares out the cratered windshield. The engine coughs politely, shudders, and dies.

The DeShifter shows completely out of the question. The UnCompass needle points straight at unpossible.

Later—he’s as unsure of time as he is of location—he forces the car door open, pushing against tree limbs and thick brush, and climbs out and down. The driver-side wheels are two feet in the air. Trees surround the car as if they’d grown up around it.

He walks up a slight incline to the road, his pulse driving a headache deeper into his temples. The muscles of his neck burn; his chest aches where the seatbelt cut into him.

The surface of the road is littered with shattered plywood—and bits of silver. He stoops, drumming fresh pain into his head, and picks up a dime. There are coins all over the roadway.

The only thing remaining of the tollbooth is another of the child-sized yellow signs, miraculously erect: please have your destination in mind.

He drops the dime into his pocket and starts walking.

A farmhouse squats in the middle of the highway like a great toad, filling both lanes. He walks toward it in the inconstant moonlight, horrified. If he hadn’t struck the tollbooth, he’d have slammed into the house at eighty miles per hour.

On closer inspection the house looks like it’s been dropped there from a great height. Walls are askew, their wooden siding bowed, splintered, or blown out completely. Roofs cant at contrary angles.

He steps onto the porch and floorboards creak and shift under his weight like unstable ice. High-pitched barking erupts from inside. He knocks on the door and waits, hunched and shivering. A minute passes. The dog—a small, hyperactive thing by the sound of it—barks and barks.

He crouches next to the closest window but gauzy curtains obscure the view. He makes out a lamp, the suggestion of a couch, a dark rectangle that could be a bookshelf or a wardrobe. His teeth are on the edge of chattering.

He knocks again and sends the dog into fresh vocal frenzy. He considers trying the doorknob. It’s warm in there. There could be a phone. How big can the dog be?

He backs off the porch and walks around the side of the house. It’s nearly pitch black back there; the roof blocks the moon, and the windows at the back of the house, if there are windows at all, are unlit. He can’t even tell if the road continues on the other side. He moves in what he thinks is an arc, feeling for the scrape of pavement under his shoes, when suddenly he bangs his toes against something low and hard and stumbles forward. He catches his balance—and freezes, realizing where he’s standing. He’s in the middle of train tracks.

He doesn’t hear anything, doesn’t see anything but the eye-swallowing dark. Slowly he steps back over the rails, a chill in his stomach even though he’d see a train coming for miles.

The dog resumes barking, and the sound is different somehow. He circles around to the front of the house and sees that the front door is open now, light spilling around some dark shape filling the doorway.

“Hello?” he says. He holds out his hands as he steps toward the door. “I—I had a slight accident. A couple miles down the road.”

“You came by car?” A woman’s voice, low and rasping.

“I had an accident,” he says again. “If you’ve got a phone, I could call someone . . .”

“The road’s closed to your type.” He’s not sure if she’s warning him or merely stating fact. Her shadow recedes. After a moment he approaches the door.

The dog, a tiny black terrier with an age-whitened snout, lies in a towel-lined wicker basket a few feet from the door. It bares its teeth at him and growls, but makes no move to leave its bed. He steps inside the room.

The woman’s already sitting, leaning back in an old leather armchair the color of dried mud. The light is behind her so again her face is in shadow. She crosses her legs, sharp white shins over blood-red slippers. She pulls a foil pack from the pocket of her blue-checked house dress and taps out a cigarette.

He folds his arms across his chest and tries to stop shivering. At least the house is warm. He looks around for a phone but knows he won’t find one—it’s not that kind of house. It’s been a long time, but the old instincts are coming back. He smiles thinly. “And what type would that be, ma’am?”

“Storm-chaser,” she says. “Wardrobe-jumper.” She flicks a cheap plastic lighter and holds the flame to the cigarette. “Mirror shards sticking to your coat, twigs in your hair. Little hard to squeeze that big ol’ man-body through the hedgerow, eh?”

“You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am.”

“Oh my goodness, you must be the special one,” she says in mock recognition. “You must be the only traveler to see lands beyond.” She taps cigarette ash onto the braided rug. “Let me guess—enchanted sailboat? Magic choo-choo train? Oh, that’s right, you’re a driver—electric kiddie car, then. The tollbooth boy.”

“I had a bicycle,” he says. “The most wonderful—”

She groans. “Spare me.” She inhales on her cigarette, shakes her head. “At least you got rid of it. Most of you can’t find your way back without the props.” She sees his frown and laughs. Smoke spills from her mouth and hazes the lights.

“You think you’re the first one to try to sneak back in?” she says. “You’re not even the first one tonight.” She laughs again. “Boo-hoo-hoo, my wife left me, whaaa, my daughters hate me. Life is meaningless, I’m gonna kill myself.”

“I don’t have a daughter,” he says. “And my wife didn’t leave me.” But of course she did. She left him in the most absolute way, leaving behind a note like a set of driving directions, like a travel brochure to an exotic country. Two years later to the day, their son followed her. Tonight, come to think of it, is the anniversary of their deaths.

He takes a breath. “I’m just looking for a way back.”

“Please. You couldn’t find your shadow if it was stapled on. You think you can just waltz right back in there nursing your disappointments and diseases, your head stuffed full of middle-age sex fantasies and mortgage payments? You’d ruin everything. You’d stink the place up.”

“You don’t understand,” he says. “I only need—”

“Stink. It. Up.” She makes a tired shooing gesture. “Go home, you greedy little boy. No second helpings. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

This is a test, he thinks. She’s trying to throw him off, weigh him down with doubt and discouragement. He’s met such trials before, and persevered. Once upon a time he was The Boy Who Always Said No.

As if in confirmation he hears a distant bell, a cheery ding ding! He recognizes that sound. He strides out of the room, into the dark kitchen, and flips open the hook to the back door.

“You’ll never get on!” the woman calls. The dog begins to bark.

The dark, to his light-adjusted eyes, seems almost solid. He stops a few feet from the house and listens. The trolley must be close by. The little bell sounds again, but he can’t tell if it’s growing closer or more distant.

He moves forward slowly, arms out, feet sliding forward. The track is only a few yards from the house, he’s sure of it. His feet drag through the unseen grass. After a few minutes he glances back, but now the house is gone as well. He turns in place, eyes wide. There’s no sound, not even barking. A dank, dead-fish scent twists in the air.

When he completes his circle he notices a dark, fuzzed shape in the distance, barely distinguishable against a black sky edging toward indigo. It’s the first hint since he left the attic that the night is not endless. He doesn’t know what it is in the distance, but he recognizes the shape for what it is: unfamiliar, unknown.

The little boat lies at the bottom of the empty seabed, abandoned midway between the shore and the island. Sandy mud sucks at his shoes. He walks toward the boat, past stacks of smooth-headed boulders and stinking saltwater puddles in the shape of great clawed feet. He walks under a sky the color of pencil lead.

The island is shaped like a bowler hat. If not for the trees—a handful of curve-backed palms with outrageously broad leaves—and for the hunched figure silhouetted at the very crown of the hill, he’d have thought the island was huge but miles away. Instead he can see that it’s ridiculously small, like a cartoon desert island.

He reaches the boat and rests a hand on the gunwales. The inside of the boat is an unmade bed, a white pillow and blue blankets and white sheets. Foot-shaped holes, human-size, stamp away from the boat toward the island. He follows them across the drained sea to the rim of the island, where his predecessor’s mud-laden feet begin to print the grass. The trail leads up the slope, between bushes tinged yellow and brown. Only a few of the palm trees are standing; dozens of others are uprooted and lying on the ground, or else split and bent, as if savaged by a hurricane.

He climbs, breath ragged in his throat. The man at the top of the hill is facing away, toward the lightening sky. On his back is some kind of white fur shawl—no, a suit like a child’s footie pajamas, arms tied around his neck. The yawning hood is a wolf’s head that’s too small for his grown-man’s head.

He’s huffing, making a lot of noise as he approaches, but the man with the wolf suit doesn’t turn around.

When he’s caught his breath he says, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Above them the sky is fitful gray, but across the vast, empty sea in the land beyond, sunlight sparkles on the crystal minarets of the Glassine Palace. A great-winged roc dangling a gondola from its claws flaps toward its next fare. The rolling hills beyond the city are golden and ripe for harvest. It’s all as he remembers.

“Look at those wild things go,” the man in the wolf suit says. Who knows what he’s seeing?

The sun crawls higher, but the clouds above the hill refuse to disperse. He glances at the man in the wolf suit, looks away. Tears have cut tracks down his muddy and unshaven face. The wolf man’s older than him, but not by much.

What did the woman in the house say? Not even the first one tonight.

He nods at the man’s wedding ring and says, “Can’t take it off either?”

The man frowns at it. “Left me six months ago. I had it coming for years.” He smiles faintly. “Couldn’t quite stop making mischief. You?”

“She died a few years ago.” But the damage hadn’t stopped there, had it? He tilts his head, a half shrug. “Depression runs in her family.”

“Sorry to hear that.” He slowly shakes his head, and the upside-down wolf’s head wags with him. “It’s a disaster out there. Every day like an eraser. Days into months, months into years—gone, gone, gone.” The man in the wolf suit stares at him without blinking. “Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you were having a happy ending.”

“No.” He almost grins. “Not even close.” But was that true? He’d had a dozen happy endings. A score of them.

Together they stare across the ocean of mud and squint into the brightness beyond.

“We can’t get back in there,” he says to the man with the suit. He’s surprised by his certainty. But he can’t imagine tracking that muck across the crystal streets. “And we can’t stay here.” He rubs a hand across his mouth. “Come with me.”

The man doesn’t answer.

“I could make you leave.”

The man in the wolf suit laughs. “Don’t you know who I am?” he says. “I’m their king!”

“No,” he says. “Not anymore.” He grips the edges of the white fur and yanks it over the man’s head and off, quick as a magic trick. “I’m the king now.”

He runs down the hill holding the suit above his head like a flag. The man roars a terrible roar. It’s a chase down to the sea’s edge and then they’re tumbling in the muck, wrapped up and rolling like bear cubs, choking and half-blinded in mud. Hands claw for the suit. They tug it back and forth, the cloth rasping as threads stretch and tear. Then the zipper snaps and they fall away from each other, splash down on their asses.

They look at each other, too winded to get up.

The man clutches the scrap of fur he’s regained. It’s not white anymore. “Why’d you do that?” he says.

He’s not sure. He flicks mud from his hands, wipes a hand clean on the inside of his shirt, runs a knuckle across his mouth. “It was the only thing I could think of.”

The man looks at him. A smile works at the corners of his mud-spattered mouth. He makes a sound like a cough, and then he’s laughing, they’re both laughing. They sit in the mud, roaring.

Eventually they help each other out of the muck. “We screwed it up,” the man says. “How did we screw it up?”

He’s been wondering that himself for a long time. “I don’t think we were supposed to keep them safe,” he answers. He hands him the remnant of the suit. “This, the bed, the Wonder Bike—all that stuff. We weren’t supposed to hoard them.”

The man looks stricken. “Oh my God,” the man says quietly. “Oh my God.”

They begin to trudge across the drained sea. They trade stories about their adventures. The man with the wolf suit takes out his wallet and shows him pictures. He has a granddaughter he’s never met, six years old, a real hellion by all accounts. “She lives three states away,” he says.

A dozen yards from the shore they see the trolley. The little car glides smoothly around the perimeter of the lake and stops in their path. It rolls a few feet forward, a few feet back. Ding ding!

They approach it carefully and without speaking, as they would a deer at a watering hole. It trembles as they step up onto the gleaming sideboards. They sit on the polished wooden benches. It’s a shame their clothes are so filthy.

The trolley doesn’t move.

“Wait,” he says, and the man in the wolf suit watches him dig into his pocket. The dime he found on the roadway is still there. The coin clinks into the tin fare box and the car jerks into motion. Soon they’re zipping across the plain toward the forest and the black ribbon of highway.

“And yourself?” the man with the suit asks.

“No grandchildren,” he says. “No children. Not anymore.”

The man frowns and nods. “We’ll find someone for the bike,” he says. “The world is full of children.”

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