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 had fallen asleep wearing the bracelet. I shook my wrist to shift it and rubbed the area where the metal had made deep grooves in my skin. I looked up 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 happened?”
I stared in dismay as brown liquid spread evenly across the floor. “The coffee was cold!” I said in disbelief.
She snorted. “OK, Naomi Campbell.”
“No, I mean, it was cold and then it was… hot.”
She 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 know where it came from. Did you bring it?”
“No, sweetie.” She picked it up 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… And why would I…?” 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 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 the desk next to my laptop.
I staggered backwards and landed ass-first in a puddle of coffee. I closed my eyes and held my aching head. Something was seriously 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.”
I don’t know how long I sat there with my mind so blank with confusion, neither movement nor thought was possible. Eventually hunger rose up enough to push the rest over and get me moving, though I studiously ignored the congealing apparition on my desk. I pulled on my favorite cargo shorts and a purple t-shirt and shuffled down the stairs and into the noonday sunlight. Maybe out here the delirium tremens or temporary insanity or what-the-fuck-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 tri-state area) and turned into my favorite bodega to buy a cup of normal, predictably hot, definitely-not-hallucinated coffee and a standard poppy seed bagel with cream cheese of unquestionable provenance. The owner was an older Yemeni gentleman, warm and friendly, always generously willing to let me practice my Arabic with him.
His son had taken over for the afternoon. He 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 back up the stairs in my fragile state. “Thank you.”
As I walked 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. 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 discovering money. He looked away quickly and busied himself sorting boxes of tea. Slowly I walked back to him.
“I found this.” He nodded, took it, and gave me change. “Thanks.”
In a daze I continued west, my mind once again numbingly blank. Instinctively I headed to a spot where I liked to sit and think. 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.
My head finally began to clear a bit after I finished the bagel and most of the coffee. I tried to think logically. When did all the weirdness 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…
“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 shrugged. “A notebook and pen?”
I flinched as a notebook and ballpoint pen appeared on the ground in front of me.
I buried my face in my hands. Was this what it felt like to lose your mind? Slowly one thing and then another made no sense until all grip on reality was lost?
I looked at the notebook and pen again. I picked up the pen and wrote “Is this real?” in the notebook. I scribbled below it. Everything seemed solid.
I shook my wrist to shift the bracelet, and my breath caught. The bracelet. Everything had started after I found it, hadn’t it?
I shook my head again. I really was losing it. But it wouldn’t hurt anything to test the idea. So far it was the only idea I had.
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.” Still nothing.
I draped the bracelet over my wrist. It snapped itself shut.
“I’d like another coffee,” I repeated, and I jumped when a steaming cup appeared next to the notebook.
“Holy shit.” I looked around, wondering if anyone else was seeing this. But I was completely alone.
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. To me it was sensual, elegant, almost mystical, an heirloom in the making. I used to 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, and I didn’t discover the loss for a couple of days. 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 a car window, I would 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 rich and clear as port wine. I gazed at it for several seconds. The tiniest tinge of joy began to permeate the sense of dread that had been hanging over me for so long.
I looked out at the Hudson River, that great brown vein that flows backwards twice a day with the tides, still half-convinced I was dreaming. But if it wasn’t a dream, it begged a thousand questions. Where had this come from? Who created it? Had it been an accident that I found it, or was I meant to find it? 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 far too much for one person to handle. And how could I be sure I wasn’t in the middle of a psychotic break after all?
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 with something like this, it was him.
I felt a bit guilty to think of springing this on him. If I was going mad, it would be a sad thing for him to see. If I was suddenly, randomly, effectively omnipotent, maybe the poor guy would check himself into the loony bin.
But 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 fancy 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 color of green sea glass, narrowed as if searching for the angle.
We had lived in the same building in Palestine for a summer and spent many afternoons talking over endless bottles of red wine from the Cremisan Monastery near Bethlehem and beer from a Palestinian village called Taybeh. 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.’ 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 uttered a wish and set a Lenin statuette 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. In a golden wine glass.”
“Damn,” I muttered and he looked irritatingly satisfied. “Don’t look too smug. I can do it.” 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 brought a hand to his chin. Then his face changed. “You haven’t told anyone else, have you?”
“No. Just you.”
“Good. There are people who 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 I guess you can’t wish for peace in the Middle East then.”
“No, I’m afraid they’re on their own.”
“Right. As ever. But it does leave you vulnerable.”
“Yeah… I can’t help but wonder what happened to the previous owner. It’s hard to imagine losing something like this.”
“Maybe there was a struggle.”
“Maybe they wanted to get ride of it.”
“Maybe you should do the same.”
“Believe me, I’ve thought about it. 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 cleared his throat and 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 paw, it’s not to wish for too much too fast.”
Conal suppressed a laugh.
“I’ve mostly been wandering around New York City pretending to be a traveler. Visiting random neighborhoods, catching sunsets, reading novels in cafés. It’s amazing how different the city looks when I’m back in that mindset where all I have to do is explore and enjoy.”
“Doesn’t sound half bad.”
I shrugged. I thought about the prison dream and wanted to tell him about it, but something stopped me, as if saying it out loud would make it more real. I felt warmed, in any case, that of all the things he could have said after I dropped a bombshell like this, his first thought was for my safety.
“So, assuming I don’t get mugged for this thing or give it a mob burial… What do you think I should do with it? Where do I even start?”
Conal looked into the candle thoughtfully, his eyes reflecting the flame. “I’m a bit jetlagged, to be honest. I was thinking I’d just 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 knew 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. Yes, there was the pure temptation of it, but there was something else, too. A feeling that I’d found it for a reason. That I had a mission to complete. If only I had any way to find out what that was.
Of course, the ostentatious beauty of the bracelet made it a tempting target apart from any powers it might have, and I was growing weary of flashing it around all day. The next morning I found a specialty jeweler on the Upper West who accepted 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 picture 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 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 talks today. I could barely schmooze. I’ve got the story of the century here and I can’t write about it.”
He 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—”
I cut him off. “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. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing even before I found this thing. 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, or my whole life?”
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. I smiled a small smile. “And I don’t think I can talk you out of it right now. But I’m heading to Croatia on Monday to write about the beauty of 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. Then 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. We can ponder infinite crossroads together.”
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