My eyes were crusty and my head faintly throbbed. I ran a hand down my face and up through my hair as hazy memories began to surface from the night before. Most of it was a dark blur, which probably meant I hadn’t impressed anyone enough to snag a high-profile job.
There was a pain in my left wrist. I looked down and saw that I had fallen asleep wearing the bracelet. I shook my wrist to move it further down my arm and rubbed the area where the metal had made deep impressions in the skin. My unfocused eyes scanned the room and noticed a mug sitting on my desk. I vaguely remembered seeing it there the night before and thinking Sara had brought it. I leaned closer. It was full to the brim with coffee. The smell of it washed away my train of thought. I wrapped my hand around the mug and took a swig. The beloved taste bathed my tongue followed by a familiar feeling of well being spreading through my body.
“Mmm,” I said to myself. “I just wish it was hot.”
A searing pain shot through my hand. I yelled and dropped the mug.
Footsteps approached, and Sara flung the door open. “What? What happened?”
I stared in dismay as brown liquid spread evenly across the floor. “The coffee was cold!” I said in disbelief.
She narrowed her eyes. “And you’re yelling about it? What are you, Naomi Campbell?”
“No, I mean, it was cold and then it… was hot.”
Sara cocked her head. “Huh?”
“I don’t know,” I said irritably. “I was holding this mug, and then…” I looked at my red, throbbing palm. “I don’t even know where it came from. Did you bring it?”
“No, sweetie.” She picked up the mug by the handle with one finger. “It looks like you filched it from a diner.”
“But it was full. How did I get it all the way…?” My headache was getting worse. Why did nothing at all make sense these days? “I think I drank too much last night.”
She pursed her lips sympathetically. “I heard you puking your guts out. I’ve got the matinee shift or I’d make you breakfast.” Suddenly her eyes sparkled. “But guess what? I found out this morning that I got a callback for a play that’s not about terrorism!”
Her enthusiasm temporarily pulled me out of my own fog. “Hey, congrats. Really.”
She smiled huge, and I thought again how Hollywood was missing out. “Thanks. Anyway, you should eat something, yeah? I think you’ll feel better. I’m heading to work. Text if you need anything. And wish me luck!”
I looked at the door for a minute after she was gone, then took my towel off its hanger and began mopping up the coffee. She was right—I needed to eat. There was a café five blocks away that made French toast just the way I liked it: piping hot, not too sweet, and soft on the inside. My mouth watered; I could almost smell it. “I just wish they delivered,” I muttered and stood to stretch my back.
A plate of French toast was sitting on my desk next to my laptop.
I staggered backwards and landed ass-first in a puddle of coffee. I closed my eyes and shook my aching head. Something was going wrong with my brain or with the world or something.
“I wish at least my butt wasn’t wet,” I said miserably, and in the next moment it wasn’t. I looked down. All the spilled coffee was gone. I closed my eyes again. “Fuck.”
Suddenly I jumped up. I needed to get out of there. Pulling on my favorite cargo shorts and a purple t-shirt, I sprinted down the stairs and into the noonday sunlight. Maybe out in public the delirium tremens or temporary insanity or what-the-hell-ever would start to burn off.
I headed west past the Ukrainian bakery and a restaurant I called Bad Thai (because it had the greasiest curry puffs in the city) and turned into my favorite bodega to buy a cup of normal, predictably hot, definitely-not-hallucinated coffee and a standard, average poppy seed bagel with cream cheese of unquestionable provenance. The owner was an older Yemeni gentleman, warm and friendly and generously willing to let me practice my Arabic with him.
His son had taken over for the afternoon. He always seemed intense and distracted, as if he took the success of the business very seriously indeed. He was easy on the eyes, though, with careless black hair and soulful eyes.
I gave my order and he nodded curtly. I filled my coffee while he toasted and schmeared. When I reached into my pocket to pay, I realized I had forgotten my wallet. I checked my other pockets for an errant fiver, but they were empty.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the owner’s son. “I forgot my wallet. I wish I’d stashed a twenty in one of these pockets.”
He paused for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s OK. I know you. You pay next time.”
My face lit up in a smile, grateful not to have to trudge up and down the stairs again in my fragile state. “Thank you.”
Walking toward the door, I stuck my hand in my pocket and nearly spat out my first sip of coffee. There was something in my pocket that had not been there before. My scalp prickled as I pulled out a twenty dollar bill and stared at it in dismay. A bad feeling roiled my stomach. I looked at the cashier. He was observing me with solemn curiosity, probably wondering what I found so distressing about finding money. He looked away quickly and busied himself sorting boxes of tea. Slowly I walked back toward him.
“I found this.” He nodded, took it, and gave me change. “Thanks.”
In a daze I continued west. There was a spot where I liked to sit and think, where I could see trees, water, the sky, and soaring civil architecture. A hard-to-find, narrow pedestrian underpass smelling of stale urine opened onto an unmarked path. The path led through a broken chain-link fence to a packed-earth ledge directly below the George Washington Bridge. Beneath the ledge ran the ceaseless traffic of the Hudson Parkway. On the other side of the Hudson River rose the green bluffs of the New Jersey Palisades. Cars whirred by above and below on perpendicular paths like a frenetic white noise machine.
I wrapped my arms around my knees and took a fortifying swig of coffee. My body felt hollow, the way it feels after a long cry. Everything was such a mess anyway, and now this?
After I finished the bagel and most of the coffee, my head began to clear. Which didn’t help much, as things continued to make no sense whatsoever. I tried to think logically. When did it start? As far as I could remember, it started the day I got back from the islands. The tiramisu. And then… the wine? I had been completely sure I’d picked up a bottle of zinfandel. Then… the vomit disappearing. The coffee. The french toast. The money… What did they have in common?
“I wanted all of those things,” I said to myself. “And they seemed to appear out of thin air.” I narrowed my eyes. “And now I want… um…” I looked around. I couldn’t think of anything I actually wanted at the moment. I shrugged. “A notebook and pen?”
I flinched as a notebook and ballpoint pen appeared on the ground in front of me. “Shit.”
Either I was truly going nuts here, or…
A sudden idea struck me. My mother had bought me a birthstone ring when I was very young, a fine gold and garnet piece with an elegant split shank design. It must have been a stretch on her limited budget, and to me it was sensual, elegant, almost mystical. An heirloom in the making. I’d stare at it for hours imagining how my daughter would look, who she would be, who I would be, when I passed it on. It felt, strangely enough, like a piece of my future.
It disappeared one day when I was babysitting a toddler. I called her parents when I discovered the loss and was inconsolable when they said they hadn’t seen it. The little girl was barely verbal, and my best attempt at an interrogation went nowhere. Whether she ate it or buried it or threw it out of a car window, I’d never know.
“I want that ring back,” I said, and it appeared on my right ring finger. The stone was as lovely as I remembered, as clear as aged wine. It was such a piercing thrill to see it again after all those years. I gazed at it for several seconds. For the first some joy began to permeate the sense of dread that had been hanging over me for days.
I rested my chin on my knees, my mind racing. Why was this happening to me? Why now? I went to the islands for no good reason, I survived a minor hurricane, I found that bracelet on the beach, I…
I drew in a sharp breath and stared at my wrist, wide-eyed. I thought back again… yes… each time strange things had happened, I had been wearing it. The idea was, of course, absurd, but it was easy enough to test. I unclasped the bracelet and curled it onto the notebook that had appeared in front of me. “I want, ah… another coffee.” Nothing happened. “I want another pen.” I looked around. Still nothing.
I draped the bracelet over my wrist and it snapped itself shut.
“I’d like another coffee,” I repeated, and winced when a steaming cup appeared next to the notebook.
“Holy shit,” I breathed. I looked around again, wondering if anyone else was seeing this. But I was completely alone.
I looked out at the Hudson River, that great brown vein that flows backwards twice a day with the tides. Could I reverse the course of the river with a wish? Could this thing give me more power than the moon’s gravity? Could I collapse the bridge with a thought?
I shuddered and sat with my hands on my thighs, trying not to hyperventilate. This was too much. Too much for one person to handle. And how could I know for sure whether it was really happening or if I was in the middle of some kind of psychotic break after all? If I could ask the question, did that mean I wasn’t crazy? Or was that the kind of question crazy people asked themselves?
I shook my head, trying to stop from spinning out completely. Then I remembered: Conal would be in town in a few days. If anyone could be trusted to keep this secret, it was him. I felt a bit guilty to think about springing it on him. But if there was one thing I knew at that moment, it was that I could not do this—whatever this was—alone.
Too wired to sit still, I left my trafficky refuge, caught the subway to Central Park, and spent the afternoon walking on trails through wooded hills. I made my way down to the manicured Conservatory Garden with its charming fountains and secret alcoves in lush summer green, dined at a Lebanese place on the Upper East Side, and walked all the way home where I added my garnet ring to my wooden box of treasures and fell into bed, utterly spent.
I awoke on a hard, small bed in a dark, bare room. There were bars on the window. I heard a deafening clang. Looking back, I saw a figure retreating from a door made of bars. I looked at my wrist, ready to wish the bars away.
The bracelet was gone.
I bolted upright. They’d taken it. But who were they? What were they going to do with it? What were they going to do with me?
I gasped and turned over and was back in my little room in Washington Heights, my body covered in a thin sheen of clammy sweat.
* * *
Conal blinked a few times. His eyes, the pale, luminous green of sea glass, narrowed as if searching for the angle. We had lived in the same apartment building in Palestine for a summer and been fast friends ever since. Since then he had turned down a prestigious job with the BBC to work for a second-tier paper so he could write what he called ‘unprofitable truths,’ and he’d won several awards for investigative pieces. Poor guy was far too level-headed for the nonsense I was about to bring into his life.
We were sitting in a black high-backed booth at a sushi place north of Little Italy where my publisher had taken me once, long ago, when I was important enough to be taken out to lunch. The dark-paneled walls absorbed sound and light and gave the space a humming intimacy and a rare degree of privacy. A white tea candle in a hurricane glass glowed steadily between us, flanked by two glazed ceramic flasks of chilled sake.
I sighed. “Let me show you. Name an object. A small object that I can hold in my hand.”
“A lemon,” he said in his Irish-flavored British accent, playing along. He’d grown up in southern Ireland, studied at Oxford, and spent his professional life based in London.
“I want a lemon,” I whispered and brought my hand out from under the table. It contained a lemon.
He looked mildly impressed. “OK. That’s a good trick.”
“It’s not a trick. Name another object.”
“A tiny bust of Vladimir Lenin.”
“Good one. I’d like a tiny bust of Lenin, please.” I smiled and set one on the table.
His expression wavered. He glanced under the table, and I flipped my hands over to show they were empty. “Interesting. OK, er… A cup of Earl Grey tea.” He arched his eyebrows mockingly. “In a golden wine glass.”
“Damn,” I muttered and he looked irritatingly satisfied. “Don’t look too smug. I can do it. I’d like one of what he just said.”
I lifted a gilded goblet onto the table and set it down quickly. It sloshed a bit, spilling a few drops on the table. The smell of bergamot was unmistakable. “It’s just really hot.”
All trace of amusement vanished from his face. He looked under the table again, looked back at me, turned pale. “What the…? How did you…? How in the…?”
“Keep your voice down. Listen, I know it sounds crazy.”
“But what the… I mean… How?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered, guiltily enjoying his extreme consternation. It felt amazing, finally, not to be completely alone with this.
He stared at the bracelet with dazed eyes. “Good God.” I let him sit with his thoughts for a while. Finally he asked, “Where did it come from?”
“I told you. I found it on the beach after the hurricane.”
“No, I mean… where did it come from?”
“I have no idea.”
“And does it… Can it do anything?”
“As far as material objects, it seems so.”
“Wow,” he breathed, and a hand went up to his chin. Then his face changed. “You haven’t told anyone else, have you?”
“No. Just you.”
“Good. My God, people would kill you for that thing. And if the government gets its hands on it… Any government…”
“I know. I don’t plan on telling anyone else.”
“But if someone does try to take it from you, can you… make them stop?”
“No. I’ve done some experimenting with it. It doesn’t work on people. On any living thing.”
“That’s a relief, actually. I’m not sure I could be your friend if it did.” He smiled wryly. “But damn. I guess you can’t wish for peace in the Middle East, then.”
I laughed. “My God-like powers do have limits.”
“But it leaves you vulnerable…”
“Yeah… I can’t help but wonder what happened to the last owner. It’s hard to imagine losing something like this.”
“Maybe there was a struggle.”
“Or maybe they wanted to get ride of it.”
“Maybe you should do the same.”
“Chuck it into the East River and get on with my life?”
“That may be your most sensible option.”
I smiled. Conal could be counted on to find the most sensible option.
“So what have you…” He lowered his voice further. “What have you done with it so far?”
“Not much. If there’s one thing I know about people who find a magic monkey’s paw, it’s not to go nuts with it too fast.”
Conal suppressed a laugh.
“I’ve just been wandering around New York City pretending to be a traveler. Visiting random neighborhoods, catching every sunset, reading novels in cafés. It’s amazing how different the world looks when I’m back in that mindset where all I have to do is explore and enjoy.”
He smiled. “Doesn’t sound half bad.”
I nodded and remembered the prison dream. I wanted to tell him about it, but something stopped me, as if saying it out loud would make it more real.
“So if I manage not to get killed any time soon, and assuming I don’t give this thing a mob burial… What do you think I should do with it?”
Conal looked into the candle thoughtfully, his eyes reflecting the flame. “I’m a bit jetlagged, to be honest. I just wanted to say a quick hello and hit the sack. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of…” He shook his head. “How about we talk more tomorrow? I’ll be done with conference duties around seven.”
“Sounds good. Dinner’s on me.”
* * *
Walking home, I wondered if I should have just ignored that glimmer in the sand and walked on by. Conal was right—getting rid of it was the most sensible option. There was no telling what kind of damage I might do, to myself and others, with so much power and so little guidance. But something in me rejected the idea out of hand. It could have been the pure temptation of it, but there was something else, too. A feeling that I had found it for a reason. That I had a mission to complete. If only I had the first clue what that was.
I unlocked my heavy apartment door and walked in.
“Hi there.” Sara emerged from the kitchen, and I jumped. She must have noticed my odd behavior lately, staying out all day and not looking for jobs. She hadn’t pressed me for an explanation, but I’d have to say something sooner or later.
“Oh, hey. Your audition was today, right? Did you get the part?”
Her face fell. “Naw. A white girl got it. The usual.” She made a face. “I wish just once I could play ‘human woman,’ full stop.”
“I’m really sorry, Sara. You deserve so much better. Anyway, I have some news, too.”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. My uncle died.”
“Oh.” She froze. “Oh, honey. I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t know him well. But he made some oil money in the eighties, and he never had children, so he left the money to my sister and me. So… I guess I don’t need to worry about getting a job for a while.”
“Wow.” Sara slowly spun around on one foot. She was a nervous dancer. “Well… condolences and congratulations both, I guess.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’m still in shock, to be honest.”
“No wonder you’ve been acting weird. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was just something I needed to process. I haven’t told anyone except Conal.”
“The hot journalist?” I rolled my eyes, and she grinned. “So what do you think you’re going to do?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted to be a writer. Now… who knows?”
She sighed. “God, you’re so lucky.”
I nodded slowly. I hoped she was right.
* * *
The fact that the bracelet sported a row of rather large diamonds made it a tempting enough target on its own, and I was growing weary of flashing it around all day. I found a specialty jeweler on the Upper West who accepted without comment my story that the bracelet had sentimental value, and I wanted to wear it without having to worry about theft. He examined it for a few moments and suggested I tightly braid slim leather bands around it and tie them off opposite the clasp so that the bracelet could not be removed without cutting through the leather. I agreed, and he did the weaving himself as I stood there, my left arm outstretched. When he finished it looked tasteful but valueless, and the leather was supple and comfortable.
I met up with Conal at a noisy diner near Columbus Circle with enormous plate glass windows that let the sky in. It was one of those long, blue, New York summer twilights.
“So?” I asked him. “Have you figured out what I should do? Go to an ashram and wait for a sign? Write more books no one will ever read?”
“I’ll always read your books,” Conal interjected. I ignored him.
“I mean, when you can literally do anything, how are you supposed to choose?”
“Right,” he said. “I feel so bad for you.” I backhanded him lightly on the shoulder. “What? You think you’ve got problems? I couldn’t focus on any of the seminars today. I’ve got the story of the century here and I can’t even write about it.”
Conal shrugged. “I suppose most people never have the luxury of an infinite crossroads. Evolution didn’t exactly prepare us for this.”
“No wonder so many movie stars become Scientologists,” I muttered.
“Nothing. Anyway, if this happened to you, what would you do?”
“I mean, I’d… Hmm…”
“Not as easy as it sounds, is it?”
“Well, I’d pay off my mum’s house, I’d help a friend in Ecuador start a business, I’d—”
“Right, of course I’ll think of nice things to do for other people. But what would you do?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I guess I’d need to think about it.”
I sighed. “Even before I found this thing, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I’ve been making decisions for years, and nothing has worked out. How do I know it’ll work out any better if I try again? How do I know I won’t just waste another ten years?”
Conal met my anxious eyes. His transparent irises did something funny to my stomach, but it was lost in my agitation. “I understand why you might feel this way,” he said in a placating voice that told me he knew I was being ridiculous, and he knew I knew it as well. My lips curled into a small smile. “And I don’t think I can talk you out of it right now. But I think a change of scene will do you good. I’m heading to Croatia on Monday to write about the beaches on a couple of Adriatic islands. You have infinite resources. Want to come?”
I raised an eyebrow. “A puff piece? That’s rare for you.”
“Everyone needs a vacation.”
My frame relaxed slightly. “That does sound nice. But you never answered the question: What would you do if you were in my place?”
He blew air slowly through his lips. “I suppose I’d spend a couple of months in Southeast Asia doing nothing in particular. After that, maybe I’d think about starting my own paper. I don’t know much about running a paper, though… ads and publicity and all that. I could hire some good people. But is another paper what the world really needs?” He took a sip of coffee. “It’s easy to keep on with my job because I like the people I work with, the pay is enough, the work is interesting, and it’s all I’m good at. I don’t even know what I’d do if I got fired, much less if my choices were infinite.”
“So you see where I’m at.”
Conal’s eyes smiled. “Come with me to Croatia. It seems like a better place from which to ponder infinite crossroads.”
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